Friday, June 29, 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends, by Aimee Byrd

Aimee Byrd gets perturbed when men say they won't ride alone in a car or go out to dinner with a woman who is not his wife.  In Why Can't We Be Friends: Avoidance is Not Purity, she expounds on Christian friendship and the sibling nature of the body of Christ, but I'm not sure she gets any closer to bringing down the "Billy Graham rule."  Graham said he would not "travel, meet, or eat along with a woman other than [his] wife."

Byrd's problem is that the Billy Graham rule, followed by many others, pastors and laypeople alike (including Vice President Pence), sexualizes relationships according to the Billy Crystal rule.  In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Crystal's character says that "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way."  Byrd argues that this idea that "all women are reduced to a means of sexual gratification for men, that a man cannot control himself from thinking about conquering every woman he is 'friends' with" has taken over culture and should be rejected.

The strength of Byrd's argument is that we are brothers and sisters with our fellow Christians, and should relate to each other as such.  Certainly the love and support of our siblings, as well as the permanent nature of our relationship, speak to the importance of intimacy and companionship that do not include sexual relationships or conquests.  But I'm still not comfortable with where she wants this to end up.  If I'm hundreds of miles from home on a business trip, a quiet dinner alone with my biological sister is perfectly appropriate.  We might even share a hotel room if we're on a trip together.  But with my sister in Christ--no way.  (I checked with my wife.  She does not want me to share a hotel room with any women from church.)

Similarly, Byrd talks about the importance of table fellowship, and the centrality of meal time to Christian fellowship, to friendship and to community.  She rightly points out that meal time has been used as a time to exclude others, and that Jesus used meal time to welcome others, for which he was criticized.  But I don't agree that choosing not to have a private meal with a person of the other sex reflects the same kind of prejudice or ignorance that other exclusions do.  We can eat meals at a church fellowship or with a group, sitting with and enjoying the company of people of the other sex, but one-on-one dining is a different thing.

Byrd doesn't completely ignore the reality of temptation that may arise when spending time along with a friend of the other sex.  She writes that "some adults are not in a good place to interact well within friendships. . . . Even people in your church may have become so caught up in sin and lust that they need pastoral care and accountability in their lives--maybe for a long period of time."  So if you're going to be friends with someone of the other sex, before you spend time alone with them, be sure to vet them, making sure they are not "caught up in sin and lust."  (Let me know how that works out for you.)  Again, I'm going with Billy Graham.  Byrd is right to say, as she does in the book's subtitle, that simply avoiding the other sex does not equate to purity.  But that doesn't mean that avoidance is sometimes appropriate.

Look, I have good female friends, at church and at work.  I enjoy conversation and interaction with them as my sisters in Christ.  But I'm not going to call one of those women up and ask her to meet me for dinner, or go camping for the weekend, or meet for drinks after work, just the two of us.  Byrd has some good material here on friendship and Christian community.  I agree with her that the Billy Crystal rule is absurd and should not guide our relationships.  But I (with my wife's support and insistence) will abide by the Billy Graham rule.  I think my Christian sisters, as well as their husbands, would agree and appreciate the boundaries and respect that engenders.

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Management Style of Supreme Beings, by Tom Holt

What if God decided to cash in and retire?  In The Management Style of Supreme Beings, God, after consulting with his son Jay, decides to sell out to the Venturi brothers, a sort of galactic holding company.  If this sounds like a silly set-up for a novel,  you're right.  If you think it sounds extremely blasphemous, well, it's all in good fun.  This is not a Christian novel, by any means, but I like to think even God might get a chuckle out of it.

Holt's characters include many we know, like God, Jay, the guy in the red suit at the North Pole (turns out he's a god of thunder), Uncle Gabe (the angel Gabriel), and, of course, the devil himself.  But the star of the show is Jay's little brother, Kevin, who lives in his famous brother's shadow and can't seem to do anything right.

The Venturis introduce a new cash-based moral code.  When you sin, a representative instantly appears and hands you a bill.  If you can't afford to pay the penalty, you wind up in their debtor's prison.  Needless to say, sinning (and crime) plummet, but people are miserable.  Kevin sets out to change things up, but not like his brother did.  Meanwhile, the red-suited guy isn't too happy with the current arrangement, either, and God and Jay question whether they should have retired in the first place.

Holt writes this as silly as you might expect, and has plenty of good lines that you might not expect.  Reflecting on the origin and current state of the world, Holt notes that "the eighth day, so legend has it, Dad, Jay, and Uncle Ghost spend hiding from the product liability lawyers."  Later, when Uncle Gabe is offering counsel to Kevin, he is offering parting words: "I was about to say, God be with you, but he's on Sinteraan [another planet where God is on a fishing trip with Jay], so you can forget that.  You're on your own now."  The book abounds with this sort of joke.

It's a romp, where the plot takes a back seat to the characters, and it's fun to read, even if it's rather shallow.  As a Christian, I felt a little bit like I should have been offended, but it is still pretty funny.

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

Monday, June 25, 2018

How Not to Get Shot, by D.L. Hughley

Comedian D.L. Hughley has written a mostly unfunny book about race in America.  How Not to Get Shot and Other Advice from White People is a stinging rebuke to white people who have anything to say after a black person is shot by a police officer.  If his goal were to improve race relations, he would have failed miserably.  But his goal really was to commiserate with race activists in the Black Lives Matter mold.

As jarring and sometimes offensive as this book was to me, as a white man, it made me sad.  It's sad that, whether in reality or perception, black people in America don't agree with Michelle Obama, who Hughley quotes as saying "this right now is the greatest country on earth."  Unfortunately, the media is happy to focus on negative examples of race relations, and entertainers like Hughley perpetuate the idea in popular culture.

Hughley complains about popular stereotypes of black people, but he's happy to speak about white people as a group, making assumptions and accusations based on the behavior of a small number.  Citing statistics about unarmed black people being killed by the police, he writes, "when it comes to black people, [white people] believe this is the way the system was designed to work.  It's supposed to be this way."  He really thinks white people are glad when unarmed black people are killed by police.  And should a killing go to trial, forget about finding an objective jury, especially in the South: "It's gotta be hard to find twelve white people in South Carolina who don't hate black people."  Seriously?  He generously grants that not every Trump voter is a racist, but he says "I think that they all were comfortable with racism."  Oh, and don't even think about marrying or adopting a black person if you're white: "If you're white, there ain't no niggas in your family and never will be."

While Trump's big mouth (or big twitter feed) provides plenty of ammo for people who want to accuse him of racism, I wish Hughley and other critics would pay attention to his actions and policies.  Blacks are doing better under Trump than they have done in decades.  Hughley points out that early in his administration, Trump met with "a rapper, two football players, and a comedian. . . because those are the positions he's used to seeing us black folk in."  Hughley conveniently failed to mention that in the first month of his presidency, Trump met with the presidents of HBCUs and signed an executive order supporting HBCUs.  (Hughley never went to college so maybe, as an entertainer, he feels insecure about being in a position Trump is "used to seeing us black folk in.")

I was reminded of Hughley when I read a quote from Booker T. Washington in a recent column by Walter E. Williams.  (Maybe these two black writers, one from the 19th century and one from the 21st, are "black people [white people] like [who] aren't black people that black people like"?)  Washington wrote, "There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs."  As long as the liberal media and their political enablers keep stoking the fires of racism, Hughley can keep making money selling books about race.

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

Friday, June 22, 2018

Believe Me, by John Fea

John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College, is disgusted with his evangelical brothers and sisters.  Well, at least with the 81% of them who voted for Trump.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, Fea explores the historical and theological reasons that evangelicals backed Trump.

He accuses American evangelicals of operating out of fear: xenophobia and racism were, to Fea, key factors.  He disparages the evangelical leaders who support Trump, particularly "The Court Evangelicals," pastors who are close to his administration.  And he impugns the thinking of anyone who thinks Trump was the best choice for America in 2016.

Once Trump began looking like the Republican choice, there was one thing and one thing only that got him elected: he was not Hillary.  Fea makes passing reference to this fact.  He writes, "It is impossible to understand why 81 percent of white American evangelicals turned to Donald Trump in November 2016 without grasping their strong antipathy toward Hilary Clinton."  After decades of seeing her in public life, many Americans could not stomach the thought of her in the Oval Office (again).

Fea takes great pains to take easy shots at Trump and his many moral failings, which are obvious and indisputable.  But he would have the reader think that the other choice in 2016 was a moral giant.  Besides her policy positions and actions, which many conservatives and Republicans find reprehensible, what about her enabling her husband's rape and harassment of multiple women?  What about her thinking herself above the law regarding a private server and her destruction of devices and data during that investigation?  What about her using her family foundation to curry political favor?

We Americans were faced with a binary choice between two candidates with a wide array of moral and ethical failures.  For anyone who supported a conservative Republican agenda, Trump was the obvious choice.  A year and a half into his presidency, that has been affirmed over and over.  On one issue Fea himself acknowledges that "it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the future of Liberty University . . . may have been in jeopardy had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2016.  With the Trump victory, Christian colleges are breathing a bit easier these days."  On many issues, conservatives and many Christians can breathe easier with Trump in the White House.

I'm sure Fea is a great guy and a wonderful teacher, but as a white evangelical who voted for Trump, I tired of his telling me that I am racist, xenophobic, irrationally fearful, unjustly nostalgic, hypocritical and unchristian to have voted for Trump.

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Judge Hunter, by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley made a name for himself writing political satire.  For his last couple of books, he's take a turn toward comedic historical fiction.  The Judge Hunter is set in 17th century England and the American colonies.  Samuel Pepys is trying to get his good-for-nothing brother-in-law out of his hair, so sends him on a wild goose chase in the American colonies.  Ostensibly, he is there to hunt the judges who executed Charles I.  But he gets caught up in political maneuverings that will impact the direction of history in the New World.

Buckley pairs the hapless Englishman with a seasoned colonist in a classic buddy set up: the rugged, world-wise tough guy who assists the young, naive, hapless main character.  They have adventures, they run into trouble, they nearly get killed, they get lucky.  Buckley has fun playing with the colonial-era history and setting.  But the story didn't click for me.  It was entertaining, but I just kept wondering what happened to the brilliant satirist who lampooned modern American politics.  I liked that Buckley better.

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

We Own This Game, by Robert Andrew Powell

In the black neighborhoods of Miami, there's one game in town.  Miami journalist Robert Andrew Powell opens the curtain on the huge subculture of youth football in We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football.  If you, like me, have not been exposed to this scene, you're in for an eye-opener.

These kids, post-toddler to teen, play football in a league that's as competitive and elaborate as many high school teams.  Some of their games have higher attendance than college games I've seen.  They tailgate, have DJs and snack bars, travel to games in charter buses, have corporate sponsors.  It sounds like a spectacle.

Powell follows on team through a season, introducing us to the coaches, players, parents, and sponsors who make it all happen.  As the subtitle suggests, the league gets so adult that I had to constantly remind myself that the players are little children.  It frequently seemed to me that the coaches could have used a reminder as well.  The way they push the kids, the language they use, the weight they place on the games all seem too intense.  I know I wouldn't want my kid in this environment.

Rapper and producer Luther Campbell, whose cash has bankrolled the league, talks about the importance of youth football to the black community: "We own this game.  I mean, you can take whatever you want to take—our land, our housing, our jobs, whatever.  But we got our dignity and our pride.  We might not have ever had any leader to lead us to the promised land, but at least we got our football. We own football."

The larger story in Campbell's quote, and in the book as a whole, is the story of blacks in Miami.  Despite being the oldest minority group in Miami, through discrimination and unjust treatment, poverty and segregation persist.  In spite of the success of Campbell and a few others, Miami has a very small black middle class.  In between the football games, Powell tells the story of segregation and injustice.

Yes, it's a book about youth football.  But on a greater level, Powell writes about the history and culture of blacks living in Miami.  It's an enjoyable, enlightening book.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Messy Grace, by Caleb Kalenbach

Caleb Kalenbach certainly has a unique story to tell.  His parents divorced when he was very young, and both his parents turned out to be gay.  In Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction, Kalenbach tells his story.  Through his insights and experiences, Christians can gain a more compassionate, informed, and grace-ful perspective on their gay friends and neighbors.

From the start, when Kalenbach became a Christian as a teen, he had no doubt that homosexuality was not in God's plan.  This became a huge source of tension between him and his mother and her live-in female partner.  But even as a young Christian, and even more now as a pastor, he has maintained an attitude and openness, not to homosexuality but to homosexual individuals.

Kalenbach writes: "Christians need to stop trying to convert people's sexuality.  It isn't our job to change someone's sexual orientation. . . . It is our job to lead anyone and everyone to Christ.  I believe God is big enough to deal with a person's sexuality."  The problem is that many Christians see the sexuality before they see the person.  "We focus on people's morality instead of their spirituality--their sex life instead of their faith life."

This people-centered, gospel-centered approach sets Kalenbach apart from so many Christians who end up placing condemnation higher than love.  If we would look at people with the question "Does he know Jesus?" in mind rather than "I wonder who he is attracted to," we will come a lot closer to the character and compassion of Jesus.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Gaslighting America, by Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter has put in plenty of time to be a bona fide conservative Republican activist, writing and working on campaigns to advance conservatism in the U.S.  During the 2016 presidential election, she became a bona fide Never Trumper.  In Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, she writes about Trump's lies, narcissism, and tactics.  She does not approve.

Gaslighting America was published May 1 of this year.  Assuming her text went to the publisher a few months before publication date, she had to have been wrapping this up in late 2017.  So the book deals with the campaign and the first months of his presidency.  Anyone will acknowledge that his administration got off to a rough start in some ways.  But, at the time of this writing, it seems like the Never Trumpers have been proven wrong--so far. 

Economic success, foreign policy success, good approval ratings, judge appointments, and more point to promises kept and the right direction for the administration and the country.  Where are the Never Trumpers now?  Do they really think the U.S. would be better off right now with she who shall not be named back in the White House?  Perish the thought.  In fact, I never understood the Never Trumpers.  Sure, Trump is, they said, crude, sexist, a bully, unethical, offensive, etc., etc.  But he had one thing going for him that we could all agree on: he was, after the primaries, the only hope from preventing that Democrat from taking the presidency!  No way.  For all his faults, Trump was the only choice for anyone with a drop of Republican, conservative blood in her body. 

Yet Carpenter focuses on Trump's faults and prevarications.  She talks about his lies, but I think most of his "lies" can be explained by his swagger and style.  Sure, this may not be the greatest [insert anything here] in the history of mankind, but for Trump, that's just his was of saying he likes it.  As Carpenter points out, Trump's Art of the Deal ghost writer coined the phrase "truthful hyperbole" to describe this Trump trait.  That sums it up.

Do I wish Trump would keep his mouth shut from time to time and not play fast and loose with the truth?  Yes, of course.  But I also wish people like Amanda Carpenter would take a moment to acknowledge that America is better off with Trump at the helm than with that other unethical, foul-mouthed, offensive, sexist candidate that he ran against.

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass

Like most of us, I would guess, I need to be more grateful.  Diana Butler Bass feels the same way, and has written a thoughtful book about the practice of gratefulness.  Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks is much better in principle than in execution.  Just read the title and you can discern the powerful message that living a more thankful life can be transformative.  Bass backs that principle up with a dash of scripture, a sprinkle of science, and a portion of good reflection.

She had a couple of ideas that stood out to me.  One is that centrality of thankfulness in one's devotional life.  One of her mentors helped her to understand that "the ancient practice [of daily devotions] did not begin with an hour-long Bible study involving a highlighter [as her evangelical friends would have her believe]--nor did it focus on getting something from God.  Almost every rite of prayer at every hour of the day in each of those books begins in a similar way, with a form of thanks."  This is something I will focus on in my own prayer life: putting thanksgiving before everything else.

This reflects the attitude of ancient Israel.  Their neighbors "gathered to give their gods gifts in order that the gods might respond in gratitude to the people's praise and send them rain, an abundant harvest, or a military victory."  By contrast, "In Israel, gratitude worked differently: God sends the gifts to the people, and the people respond in gratitude and with promises to live more deeply into love and the law."  I had never thought of this before, but it's an important distinction.

Among her good ideas and inspirational thoughts, Bass had a couple of consistent themes that bothered me.  First, even though she was, to an extent, shaped in an evangelical church, she ends up belittling that tradition, as if she had moved beyond such immature faith.  I understand that different people experience God in different ways, but I don't enjoy even subtle mocking of other traditions.

On a similar note, she let her political attitudes murk up the theme as well.  She wrote during the 2016 presidential election and in the early months of Trump's administration.  She embodies persistent Trump Derangement Syndrome.  She talks about not being able to function, how she and her friends despaired for the future of the country and humanity, and how hard it was to find something to be thankful for in light of Trump's election.  I find these attitudes ridiculous.  I can only hope that she and her ilk have come to grips with the election results and have realized that a Trump presidency is not the end of democracy, peace, and freedom.  This wasn't a major theme, but it popped up enough to be really annoying.

So take what you will, but I still attest that the best part of the book is the title.  If I'd stopped there, I would have saved some time and annoyance.

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Scapegoat, by Lane Alpert

For many college football fans in recent years, Baylor has come to mean "scandal" and Coach Art Briles is a rape enabler.  Unfortunately, this narrative has been promoted and promulgated not only by Baylor's rivals but by the national press, especially ESPN.  Even more unfortunately, the narrative is based on exaggerations and falsehoods.  Baylor alumnus Lane Alpert had enough of the smearing of his alma mater.  In a novelized account of the Baylor scandal, The Scapegoat: How a Network, a Conference Rival and a Commissioner Crucified a Coach to Accomplish Their Own Selfish Agendas, he attempts to set the record straight.

Alpert is an Art Briles defender, no doubt about it.  That colors his presentation.  But if you look at the whole picture, as Alpert does, it becomes clear that the truth about what Briles did or didn't do or knew or didn't know is not at issue.  Brile's downfall was the result of a ESPN's attempt to make UT relevant again (and the Longhorn Network profitable), a writer's animosity toward religious institutions, and a Big 12 commissioner who wanted the big schools in the conference to dominate.  Briles became a convenient target. 

None of the parties are named in this "novel."  Alpert writes about "Baptist University," "State University," "the Network," "the Reporter," etc.  Through these thinly veiled identities he tells the real story of the motivations and schemes that killed Briles's career.  The only truly fictional part of the story is the end, where Briles is hired by a small school in the south.  The athletic director convinces the president to ignore the press and the social media mob and make the hire.

In his announcement of the hiring of "the Coach" the AD states: "We have been unable to find any situation where the Coach ever had direct contact with a victim, where he ever discouraged someone from reporting the information or going to the police.  In fact, we have discovered just the opposite.  The Coach is on record for encouraging victims to press charges with the authorities.  We have also found no situation where the Coach ever played an athlete once the player was found responsible for committing a sexual assault."  This is taken from a letter from Baylor to Briles, which has been made widely public.

This is the frustration of many Baylor fans: if Briles is as bad as he has been presented by the press, if he covered up and condoned rape, if he truly created an environment in which Baylor women were in danger from predators, shouldn't he have been summarily fired?  If his offenses are so bad, why let him go with a multi-million dollar parting gift?  And if there was no cause, why let him go at all? 

The toothpaste can't go back in the tube.  Scapegoat is a good effort to set the story straight, but no one will listen.  Briles has been declared to be the devil by the court of social media.  He brought Baylor to a higher lever of greatness, and Baylor turned their institutional back on him.  No college will touch him now.  Meanwhile, Stoops retires with accolades, in spite of very public problems at OU.  After years at the helm at Florida State, where rape was epidemic in the football program, Fisher is getting paid millions to coach at A&M.  Where was ESPN when he was hired?  This whole thing is frustrating.

Scapegoat will only make frustrated Baylor fans more frustrated and will make Baylor haters hate Baylor more.  But it's a story that needed to be told.  Too bad Briles himself can't tell all. 

(By the way, while I did enjoy the story, keep in mind it's self-published by an amateur author.  It's riddled with typos and grammatical goofs.  He could have used a good editor, but please look past that to the story and the message.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Choice, by Robert Whitlow

It's 1974 and, due to the recent Roe v. Wade decision, a pregnant woman can legally obtain an abortion.  When Sandy, a junior in high school, becomes pregnant, she's faced with a stark choice.  Her boyfriend's family wants her to get an abortion.  Her parents lean that way, but they support her choice to move in with her aunt in Atlanta until she delivers.  While she's pregnant she has an encounter with a mysterious stranger who prophesies (correctly, to everyone's surprise) that she will have twins.

Thirty-three years later, Sandy is a high school teacher and one of her students becomes pregnant.  The student is under pressure from her father and the school counselor to get an abortion.  Sandy, of course, remembers being in a similar position and counsels the student not to get the abortion.  This leads to a legal battle challenging Sandy's right to influence her students with her own religious convictions.

Along the way, against all odds, Sandy and her twin boys are reunited.  She had placed them separately in a closed adoptions to families on opposite coasts, so the reunion is rather unlikely--but providential. 

The Choice has a strong pro-life message, presenting the choices of the pregnant women with sensitivity and compassion.  As an adoptive parent myself, I was brought to tears by Sandy's turning over custody of her babies.  Whitlow, as his readers know, is a lawyer himself, so it's no surprise that the twins both become lawyers.  His treatment of the legal questions of abortion and of the limits of a teacher's speech is worth reading.  Not incidentally, he also deals with the plight of immigrants, parental responsibility, and rape.  He writes a terrific story about some tough topics.  Check it out.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Letters to an American Christian, by Bruce Riley Ashford

Seminary professor Bruce Riley Ashford longs for Christians to approach political questions with grace, love, and adherence to scriptural principles.  In Letters to an American Christian, he pens a series of letters to a Christian college student who is studying political science and journalism at a major secular university. 

After a discussion of Christianity and culture and the intersection of religion and politics, Ashford coves a bunch of "hot-button issues."  One of his basic assertions is that taking religion out of politics is impossible because everyone is informed by and driven by religious beliefs of one kind or another and the very nature of religion means it will influence our political perspectives.  As Christians, "our words and actions should be characterized by truth and grace."  Throughout the book, he reminds his young correspondent that "one thing American Christians must remember is that we do not have to agree on the minutiae of every single issue or policy matter." 

On the individual issues, Ashford's positions are decidedly conservative (as you might expect for a Southern Baptist seminary professor and minister).  But rather than merely give political talking points, he explains from scripture and Christian tradition the basis for his beliefs.  In most cases, he presents a variety of positions and leaves the question of which is the "Christian" position open to the reader while describing his own. 

Wherever your political and policy inclinations lie on the left-right scale, as Christians we have a commitment to be salt and light in the world.  Raucous debate has its place in certain contexts, but in the life of a Christian love and grace need to provide the context for speaking the truth.  Ashford provides both.  Readers of a conservative or Republican bent will find much to agree with in Letters to an American Christian, but Ashford isn't just giving us an echo chamber.  Even if you agree with him on every point, he gives logical arguments, scriptural references, and solid sources and footnotes for further reflection. 

Readers to Ashford's left might disagree with him, but Ashford's approach and tone are not condemning of other people but respectful of other positions.  Liberal Christians should probably pick this up, if only to be reminded that there are Christians in the world whose conservative principles are based on actual Christian, biblical principles, not on Fox News segments. 

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

Before I Saw You, by Amy Sorrells

It seems like Jaycee Givens never had a chance.  Her dad died in an auto accident before she was born, and her mom, after becoming addicted to painkillers and then heroine, gets tossed in jail due to her fatal neglect of Jaycee's little brother.  Jaycee blames herself for her brother's death.  Now that she's pregnant, she feels trapped and despairs for her child's future.

This is the bleak world of Amy Sorrells's novel Before I Saw You.  As bleak as it is, Sorrells offers a lot of hope in Jaycee's story.  Jaycee herself shows a strength of character and a depth of faith that demonstrates her ability to overcome hardship.  Her neighbor Sudie has been a mentor and maternal support for her all her life.  Her coworkers at the local diner give support and friendship.  Her newest coworker Gabe is especially supportive as they inevitably fall in love.

The central conflict is Jaycee's pregnancy.  Her mean, abusive boyfriend (How'd she end up with that jerk, anyway?) wants her to have the baby and he wants custody.  Well, his mother wants him to want custody.  Jaycee knows she doesn't want to raise the baby in the trailer park where she lives.  Adoption is an option she might consider. 

Amidst the pressures of life, with mom in prison, drug addiction and closed factories ravaging her town, her best friend and mentor getting sick, conflict with her ex-boyfriend and the decision about the baby, Jaycee finds love and beauty in her life.  Before I Saw You is an enjoyable story with emotional moments, social themes, and hope in spite of pain.  I admit, I shed a tear from time to time.

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Genius Jokes, by Frank Flannery

Some of the best humor is inside humor.  Genius Jokes is full of inside jokes, jokes that you won't get if you don't have some specific knowledge or understanding that other people don't have.  Frank Flannery has gathered jokes from math, science, history, literature, religion and other fields.  Many of them make no sense unless you possess a bit of knowledge in the particular field.

Flannery doesn't leave us hanging, though.  Each joke is followed by "What's So Funny?" which explains why, exactly, this is a joke.  For example: "How did Jackson Pollock do in art school?  He passed with flying colors."  Flannery explains that Pollock is known for his abstract paintings, where "he would literally let the paint fly all over the canvas, dripping it, pouring it, and flinging it every which way."  Now, if you know Pollock's paintings, you get the joke.  If you don't, well, the explanation is easy to understand, but the humor is lost by a labored explanation.

Another quick example: "What do you call it when an elephant goes to a rock concert?  Horton hears The Who."  Of course this is a reference to Dr. Seuss's Horton the elephant and the classic rock band The Who.  Not exactly a genius joke, but you have to know these cultural references to get the chuckle.

Many of these are more obscure, especially the science ones.  But Flannery's explanations are helpful and informative.  This is a fun book.  Some of these jokes are worth remembering and repeating; others will be well outside your wheelhouse.  It's an enjoyable collection.

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Making of an Ordinary Saint, by Nathan Foster

When Nathan Foster was a boy, his father Richard Foster, author of the best-selling Celebration of Discipline, was at the forefront of an important movement in American Christianity.  The book was widely read and cited, and continues to be influential in Christian circles.  As a young man, Nathan decided to spend some time trying to figure out what his father was talking about.  We can read about the results of his inquiry in The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines. 

With honesty and humility, Nathan writes about his experiences putting into practice the disciplines about which his father became famous for writing.  As he tells his story, he leaves no question that the disciplines are for everyone, and that ordinary people can be ordinary saints.

The surprising element for me was Nathan's descriptions of his years as a drug addict and prodigal.  This isn't a central theme of the book, but adds a level of richness and authenticity to his story.  He left home at 16, dropped out of high school, and, at some point after he was married, his wife gave him an ultimatum to get into rehab.  As a parent, it's somehow humbling and reassuring to see that Richard Foster, super Christian of super Christian, has children who wander and struggle.

Thankfully for the Foster family, for Nathan, and for all the people who have been touched and discipled through Nathan's ministry (he works with Renovare, the organization his father started), he has become a leader, teacher, and writer to whom we can look for inspiration and encouragement.  The Making of an Ordinary Saint is an accessible, enjoyable introduction to the spiritual disciplines.

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