Monday, January 21, 2019

Love Where You Live, by Shauna Pilgreen

When Shauna Pilgreen and her pastor husband were praying about where to plant a church, they ended up in a not-so-obvious place, a place that was foreign to both of them in many ways: San Francisco.  In Love Where You Live: How to Live Sent in the Place You Call Home, she writes about many of their experiences, life as urban church planters, and attitudes and actions we can all live out wherever we live.

I love Pilgreen's commitment to getting to know her neighbors, investing in and participating in community events and institutions, and contributing to the overall health of the neighborhood.  Whereas for many who look to move out of an area when school quality, public services, or living conditions decline, Pilgreen writes "Now's not the time to bail on your city but to be the people, the families who make it better, more stable, and more grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ."

She tells story after story of people whose lives have been changed by their joining in with their church's fellowship and an encounter with Jesus.  A good bit of her narrative dwells on the nature of living in San Francisco specifically, and more generally on living in a densely populated urban center.  Her tone seems to assume that most of her readers are from little six stoplight towns, like the one in which she grew up, or a midwestern suburb.  She reminded me of some of my friends who moved to inner-city neighborhoods and, with thinly disguised glee, talk about the "exotic" things they experience.  Pilgreeen does this as she talks about the characters and behaviors she sees on the streets.

Beyond the reports of inner-city tourism, Pilgreen lays out lifestyle and relationship choices that support the call to "live sent."  This theme is the strength of the book.  We are missionaries where we are, we have natural connections in which we can spread our influence, and should cultivate other connections through which we invite people into relationship with Jesus.  We can live as connector, storyteller, grace giver, intercessor, and caretaker.  Whether you are rooted in a place for decades, or if God has called you to a new and difference place, Pilgreen's book and her example will inspire you to live sent.


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

Friday, January 18, 2019

Saturate, Jeff Vanderstelt

Jeff Vanderstelt was working at one of the most influential churches in America, Willow Creek Church in Illinois, when he felt God calling him to something different.  So he moved across the country to Washington to plant a church.  In Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life, Vanderstelt describes his shift from the "church on Sunday" mentality to a lifestyle of full-life discipleship.

For Vanderstelt, life is a mission.  Jesus "lives for us and, by his Spirit, he lives in us and works through us."  Our lives should be saturated with Jesus so that we can saturate our communities with Jesus's love.  Throughout the book, Vanderstelt tells stories of people whose lives reflect this perspective, believers who "engage in the everyday stuff of life with the goal of seeing Jesus saturation for everyone in every place."

To Vanderstelt, "all of life is mission and everyone is a missionary.  Life is the mission trip."  I love his vision.  I love this model for the church.  In rare moments in my Christian life, I have been in communities like this.  This attitude and these communities are all too rare.  Vanderstelt gives fabulous examples and provides a model for living on mission, but, as inspiring as he is, he doesn't sufficiently address some of the mundane "everyday stuff of life." 

Sometimes with long commutes, long work days, and several evenings a week with family commitments, even the most missional believer is worn out at the end of the day with little reserve for missional living.  Maybe this is the topic of the next book, making life changes that free up your mind, spirit, and calendar for missional living.  Or maybe my focus is off.  I was just left with a sense of "Wow, I wish my life were like that, but it just isn't and I don't see it happening for me."  With this in mind, please don't hear me saying I disagree with Vanderstelt or don't value his teaching.  I'm just saying some people like me might need more than this book, we need a life coach to help us figure out how to carve out time and rearrange priorities. 


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

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Sourpuss, by Merricat Mulray

Sourpuss, a new novel by Merricat Mulray (which is actually two sisters), is a bleak look at the underbelly of college life.  It's billed as dark comedy, but it's not very funny.  The story centers on track star Mallory, who is expected to run in the Olympics.  After an injury, she is assigned a student trainer, Graham, a fraternity president whom she abhors, but who will help her rehab.  Of course they fall in love.  But both of them are such miserable jerks that the reader is never convinced that they aren't just manipulating each other.

Both Graham and Mallory are self-centered, unlikable jerks.  Actually, every character in this story is completely unlikable.  The other frat members, Mallory's teammates, her coach, her gay roommate, and on and on.  It's like they're living in the world of the despicable.  Every character is a caricature.  In fact, the whole book is a caricature of college life.  I don't know if the Mulray sisters went to college.  Either they didn't, and they take every college life stereotype and blow it up larger than life, or they did go to college and created this story to lampoon every person they hated. 

Just as I thought the story would redeem itself a little, that maybe some of the characters had grown through the tough lessons they learned, and just as I thought the story might have something positive to say about reforming the misogynistic, debauched frat culture, the story abruptly ended in a most unsatisfying way.  I know they're going for satire, they're going for dark comedy, but the overall result is overwrought, disturbing, and unenjoyable.


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

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Jihadi Next Door, by Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco has written extensively about human trafficking. As she looked into recruiting by terrorists and compared human trafficking, she found many similarities. In The Jihadi Next Door: How ISIS is Forcing, Defrauding, and Coercing Your Neighbor Into Terrorism, she draws parallels between the techniques of human traffickers and terrorist organizations.

Both criminal groups target vulnerable, lonely populations.  They promise belonging, fulfillment, and escape.  And in both cases, the promise does not measure up.  Human traffickers promise glamour, job opportunities, or escape from poverty.  Terrorist organizations promise much the same, but with a veneer of religion.

This last point ends up being the focus and, in my mind, the downfall of Mehlman-Orozco’s book. She wants to make the point that Islamic terrorists are all about power, and not about religion.  A sampling:
“Religion is the veneer used by war profiteers to recruit disposable people into terrorism.”
“A terrorist uses religion or social movements to give them the facade of legitimacy.”
“These terrorist organizations have no genuine affinity or interest in the causes or religions they latch on to, they are simply used as a tool to rationalize and legitimize their criminality and self-interest.”
“This isn’t about Islam. These terrorists are not practicing Muslims, despite what they profess.” “
“Ultimately, when we think of ISIS there should be absolutely no association with religion because that is nothing more than the facade they want everyone to believe in.”
ISIS’s “ criminal organization has nothing to do with Muslims or Islam.”
I completely buy her premise that, like human traffickers, terrorists target the most socially and psychologically vulnerable.  But she hammers the “Islamic terrorists are not Muslim” point so long and hard that it sounds like she's trying to convince herself of it.  Seriously, how can anyone who reads the news or sees ISIS or Al-Qaeda coverage seriously believe there is no association with religion, that they have nothing to do with Muslims or Islam?  A minority sect, maybe.  Violent dissenters from the mainstream of their faith, sure.  But not driven by religion?  It just sounds ridiculous.  I don't buy it.  I think this emphasis really weakened her argument.  Even many of her personal examples, in which she tries to distinguish between the social reasons for Westerners joining up with Muslim terrorists, as opposed to religious motivations, ring hollow.

Are there good, peaceful Muslims in the world?  Of course.  Most Muslims are peaceful, decent people.  Do some Muslims believe their faith compels them to make war on non-Muslims?  Obviously.  To believe otherwise is total denial of reality.


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

Monday, January 14, 2019

Battle of the Brazos, by T.G. Webb

Lots of colleges have bitter rivalries.  Thankfully, few rivalries result in fatalities.  But in 1926, at halftime of the football game between Baylor and Texas A&M, an Aggie was hit on the head.  The next morning, he died as a result of the injury.  Many Baylor and A&M alumni don't know this story.  Waco writer T.G. Webb has gathered a variety of sources from around the state and has collected his findings into a comprehensive account of that fateful day.  Battle of the Brazos: A Texas Football Rivalry, a Riot, and a Murder tells the story.

Baylor and Texas A&M fans and alumni will find much to love in Webb's history of the two schools and their football rivalry.  Some of the names of the coaches, players, and school administrators are familiar parts of the schools' legends.  Others are more obscure.  Texans of all stripes will enjoy the accounts of life in central Texas during the first decades of the 20th century.  College football fans will enjoy this portrayal of the early years of college football.

The heart of the book is the riot itself.  The football rivalry had been heating up.  Texas A&M dominated the series for many years, but in the 1920s Baylor was on the way up.  Emotions ran high at the games.  In 1922 the Bears won a tough game and clinched their first conference title.  The Aggies present were none too pleased with the 13-7 outcome, but were dispersed with fire hoses.  The A&M year book rather humorously said, "After the game, all went smoothly except that the Waco Fire Department undertook to lay the dust on the football field by sprinkling.  A thousand or more Aggies and several policemen prevented this being done effectively."

Despite the dismissiveness about the riot's avoidance, fans were on edge at subsequent games.  Baylor students taunted and provoked the A&M cadets with their antics in 1925, but Baylor lost the game and everyone went home without incident.  At halftime of the 1926 game, things got really wild.  A carload of Baylor women rode around the stadium, the women holding signs displaying the scores of past victories over A&M and other schools.  What happened next sounds like a cartoon.

When the car was in front of the A&M student section, an Aggie rushed from the stands and "leapt from three to four feet away from the vehicle headfirst into the driver's compartment and quickly grabbed for the steering wheel."  Another Aggie "grabbed hold of one of the rear wheels and held on until the vehicle came to a stop."  One of the ladies tumbled head over heels off the truck.  Students from both schools rushed the field.  The freshman players, who were sitting on the sideline, "broke up the wooden chairs they had been sitting on . . . to use as clubs."  One cadet "was struck over the head with a wooden club . . . as he tried to disable the vehicle by letting air out of one of the back tires."  The melee finally subsided when the Aggie band played Taps and then The Star-Spangled Banner.  Remarkably, the game resumed.  Baylor got the win.

In the midst of the riot, an A&M student named Charlie Sessums was struck on the head.  He was taken to the hospital, where he died the next morning.  After the detailed account of the riot, Webb spends the rest of the book with the historical whodunnit.  Drawing on previously unexamined documents, newspaper accounts, and investigative material, Webb tries to put the puzzle pieces together.  At the time, the killer was never identified and brought to justice.  I won't be a spoiler as to Webb's conclusion, but I will say that the point of the book is the journey, not the end.  And a fun and entertaining historical journey it is.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Donald Drains the Swamp, by Eric Metaxas and Tim Raglin

Eric Metaxas has built a reputation as a thoughtful public Christian thinker.  His "Socrates in the City" events, his best-selling books on Bonhoeffer and Luther, and, of course, his work on "Veggie Tales" show his prolific and diverse talents and insights.  Against the grain of many evangelicals, Metaxas has been an outspoken supporter of President Trump.  In Donald Drains the Swamp!, Metaxas, along with illustrator Tim Raglin, tell a little tale of a caveman named Donald.

Donald is a well-respected builder of caves.  When the king of the cavemen, who lives in a white castle in a swamp, became unresponsive to the people, they asked Donald to journey to the swamp to confront the king.  Donald found the swamp infested with creatures who care little about the people in the kingdom: "They're uneducated! They're uncultured! They're DEPLORABLE!"  Donald sees what he needs to do--drain the swamp!  So he declares that he will dig the "BEST, BIGGEST trench you've ever seen!"  Once the swamp was drained, the people asked Donald to be president, so he went to live in the white castle.  "And the people lived happily ever after.  Bigly."

Donald Drains the Swamp is silly and decidedly partisan, but a lot of fun, whatever you think of the real Donald.  Metaxas doesn't try to get deep into symbolism or specific policies, and only the most imaginative reader will see the swamp creatures as caricatures of actual politicians.  The result is a relatively inoffensive story of a populist uprising with a happy ending.  Take off your cynical, partisan hat and enjoy a good laugh!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Church in Hard Places, by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley

Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley are pastors in different countries and have different stories about their journey to faith in Christ.  In Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy the write about their shared vision for reaching the poor through the local church. 

There is a lot to like in this book.  First of all, they speak from experience.  McConnell lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His ministry plants churches among the "schemes" of Scotland (essentially what we in the U.S. call housing projects).  (Check out 20schemes.com.)  His story is unique in that he was a poor resident of a scheme when, as a teen, he met some people who shared the gospel with him.  20schemes's goal is to support indigenous Christians like Mez who can share the gospel in the schemes.  McKinley's story is a more typical American college--seminary--church planter--pastor route, but his church has active ministries among the poor in the D.C. area, especially among immigrants.

Second, the gospel is central to them.  An understanding of the saving work of Christ, including a solid theological grounding, doesn't take second place.  Further, they resist any inclination toward dumbing down theological understanding.  If someone is poor, living in a housing project or in a new country, we should not assume that he or she is incapable of understanding theological concepts, much less the gospel message.

Third, McConnell and McKinley advocate for the centrality of the local church.  While they acknowledge the role of parachurch ministries, the local church, they argue, should be the primary base for ministry.  The local church provides structure, authority, and accountability in ways that parachurch ministries typically do not. 

McConnell and McKinley offer a challenge to Christians: we and our churches need to step out of our comfort zones and bring the witness of the Church to the underserved poor neighborhoods in our communities.  While clothes closets and food banks have their place, the concern of Church in Hard Places is, as the title suggests, the church itself.  This work (as, again, the title suggests) is not easy, but it is needed and necessary. 



Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Worst President in History, by Matt Margolis and Mark Noonan

Was Barack Obama the worst president in history?  Obviously, that's quite a subjective stance, and opinions on Obama range from best to worst president.  Whichever end of the spectrum you're on, spend a few minutes with Matt Margolis and Mark Noonan's The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama.  They will give you 200 reasons why they think he's the worst.  Even if you quibble with some of them, even if you object to their reasoning on a majority of them, you'll have to agree that if Obama's presidency isn't the worst, it was certainly problematic.

I see Obama interviewed or giving speeches and get so sick of his self-righteousness.  He repeats ad nauseum that there were no scandals in his administration, that they were clean and pure and unbleminsed by any ulterior motives and, of course no one was indicted in his administration.  Open up The Worst President in History to any spot, read a few pages, and that position falls apart.  Scandals and corruption fill every page.

The mainstream media laps up anything Obama says uncritically.  Margolis and Noonan give names and dates and numbers to dispel the myth of a pristine Obama presidency.  Fortunately for Obama, most of the writers of history are only interested in Obama hagiography.  Fortunately for reality, Margolis and Noonan have an interest in the truth.

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Stuff Christians Like, by Jonathan Acuff

Before The Babylon Bee, before John Crist's hilarious videos went viral, there was Jonathan Acuff's satirical blog stuffchristianslike.net.  What started as a parody of the popular "Stuff White People Like" blog turned into a laugh-out-loud perspective on the quirky life of the American evangelical.  After building a following and lots and lots of page views, Acuff collected the blog entries into book form, in Stuff Christians Like.

Acuff wants to provide a cure to Somber Christian Syndrome (SCS), "a disease that tells you that to be considered a good Christian, you have to be serious all the time."  Unfortunately, many, inside and outside the church, believe that all Christians have SCS.  You have to have a good sense of humor to read Stuff Christians Like.  If you are a Christian or have attended an evangelical church in the United States, chances are you'll see yourself, your friends, and your fellow churchgoers in these pages.


How about "when someone asks us to help out at church and instead of saying, 'No,' we say, 'Let me pray about it.'"  Can you relate?  How about VBS as free child care?  "When our kids are out of school for the summer . . . we Christians put aside our denominational differences and bounce our kids like Ping-Pong balls around the county to different Vacation Bible School programs." 

Acuff writes tons of too-close-to-home humor, but he also has a knack for bringing some serious conviction in a light-hearted way.  Maybe you've made some of the same excuses for not having a quiet time.  Maybe you have been a bit of chicken when it comes to witnessing.  Maybe there's just a smidge of hypocrisy in your Christian walk.  If you like to laugh at other people, but don't mind laughing at yourself, you will enjoy Stuff Christians Like.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Accessible America, by Bess WIlliamson

If you were born in the 1970s or later, you probably have little memory of a world without curb cuts, parking spots designated for disabled people, and other accommodations the world makes for people with disabilities.  In Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, Bess Williamson writes about the huge changes in architecture, design, and consumer goods that have made life easier for people with disabilities--and the rest of us.

Williamson attributes the earliest public accommodations in public spaces to the return of veterans with disabilities after WW2.  During this era, development of prosthetic limbs, adaptive automobiles, and other innovations took off, by both large companies and the consumers themselves.  Polio victims also took an active role in growing mobility. 

Institutionally, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was an early leader in rehabilitation, installing ramps around campus and assisting veterans and others to learn skills toward independence.  On the other side of the country, activists at the University of California at Berkeley, embracing the activism rampant on campus, developed a community of disabled students, taking strides toward full integration into campus life.

One theme that runs throughout the book and discussions of design for disability is that when we design things to be more accessible to people with disabilities, they become more accessible to all.  One designer, who dressed as a older woman, making observations around her community, talked about designing with disabled or marginalized people in mind.  She said "by designing with the needs of older consumers in mind, we will find that the inevitable result is better products for all of us."  Examples provided include lever-style door knobs and kitchen appliances and tools with easy-to-grip handles or large buttons.  I would add, in the same vein, that curb cuts are certainly a benefit to kids on bikes and parents pushing baby strollers.

Willliamson presents an interesting perspective on the history of disability.  Disabled and "temporarily able-bodied" alike can appreciate the great strides architecture and design have taken over the last century. 


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

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

One Season of Hope, by Jim Stovall

Sometimes a story can just be cheesy, and that's OK.  Jim Stovall's One Season of Hope: An Inspiring Tale of Triumph and Tragedy may be emotionally manipulative, but it's the good kind of emotionally manipulative, the kind that is enjoyable and satisfying to read.

Glen Fullerton is the long-time football coach at Truman High.  At his retirement dinner, as he reflects on all the ups and downs he experienced as a coach, on season stood out. 

Bradley Hope barely made the team, and only got a spot because the three boys before him had to be cut for unexpected, last minute reasons.  But Bradley had terminal cancer.  He knew it, Coach knew it, but no one else on the team knew it.  He didn't play during the season leading up to the playoffs, but had a deep and lasting impact on the team.

Coach Fullerton had a habit of talking to the statue of Harry S. Truman in the school's courtyard.  Stovall sprinkles the book with quotes and anecdotes from Truman, wisdom that carries Coach Fullerton through some big decisions and troubled times.

One Season of Hope is chock full of cliches, things you have seen in other sports movies or movies about a kid who is dying.  But, at the same time, Stovall's story telling is strong enough that you don't care if you've heard this story or stories like it before, you still will get wrapped up in the characters and, if you're like me, shed a tear or two.  This is a short novel that doesn't pretend to be great literature, but it does deliver on a promise of a feel-good, tear-jerker read.  Enjoy.


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