For The Someday Book

Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, Viking: New York, 2007, 238 pp.

Speaking of FaithI don’t listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being nearly as often as I wish I could, so I was grateful for a chance to connect with her and her show in print form. Speaking of Faith is part personal and professional memoir for Tippett, tracing her own family and religious history alongside remembrances and insights from her radio interviews across the years. More than that, though, it is an ambitious prescription for how to speak about faith in a way that opens and connects, rather than closes and divides. It was this perspective that I found especially helpful at this particular moment in life and ministry, as I serve in a congregation with a wide variety of Christian backgrounds and search for language to engage a secular city.

Tippett begins with the premise that religion and religious life matters, because there remain questions that only religion can address, “how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another.” (4) Engaging with Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, she writes:

We’ve consigned God to the gaps in our scientific understanding, to the wings of our action. We’ve reserved prayer for when our best efforts fail. Bonhoeffer said we would have to rethink the very forms and vocabulary of faith if we were to keep it alive in the center of life, in the middle of the village. (41)

Drawing on her own experience in communist East Germany, she observes that regimes that exert excessive control over people’s outer lives can cultivate rich inner lives within those same people, yet it seems that people in power often have inner lives that are the most impoverished. (45) I found this reminder of religion and spirituality as cultivating a rich inner life a particularly important insight for the work within my own congregation.

Tippett later develops this concept as having “eyes to see and ears to hear.” While that borrows Christian language, she finds the concept in every religious tradition she has engaged.

Something mysterious happens when you train your eyes to see differently, your ears to hear differently, to attend to what you have been ignoring. The experienced world actually changes shape. (115)

This is as good an understanding of prayer and spiritual practice as any I have heard–engaging in spiritual disciplines changes our experience of the world.

Tippett structures the conversations in her broadcast around first-person narrative theology, inviting people to speak the truth they know without condemnation of others. Always navigating fundamentalist or domineering perspectives, she quotes Martin Marty, who does not divide the world into conservative and liberal but “mean and non-mean.” (161) Fundamentalism does not accurately represent any faith tradition. Both conservatives and liberals can practice and articulate their faith in ways that are mean or non-mean. This seems a constant good measure of our faith.

Tippett’s book was interesting and insightful, though not life-changing. I enjoyed it, and recommend it as a good perspective, especially for those who might be outside of faith and looking for a way to engage and understand what is happening in the lives of religious people of all stripes.

 

 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, New York: Bantam Books, 1964, 209 pp.

Moveable FeastWe’re going to Paris! For the first time! So, I wanted to read a book about Paris. A classic. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is just that. Besides, we already had a old copy (same as the one pictured) in our home library, probably acquired for 50¢ at some used book sale over the years.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir about the community of artists and writers, especially American writers, who lived in the Left Bank in the 1920s, named by Gertrude Stein as the Lost Generation. Hemingway tells tales of kindness, scandal, self-doubt, support, enmity and friendship among Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other notable writers, most of whom were just beginning their careers and struggling at the time. The revelations would have been scandalous when they were published, but they are not especially so today.

The stories take place in the cafes and clubs around Paris, and feature Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop as the central point of connection for all the young artists. Beach tended to the writers like a protective mother, served as their post office and lender of books, food and emergency cash.

This book is about a Paris that no longer exists, a Paris of the past in which suffering and struggle have been romanticized by memory. Even by the time Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast in the 1950s, the war had forever destroyed the Paris he knew. It was published after his death, with yet another layer of remembrance. Reading it now, Paris is in yet another incarnation.  These layers of wistful memory seem to be part of Parisian identity itself. It is a city most often viewed through the lens of memory, as most people visit or even live there only for a short season of their lives. Only a few are permanent residents, and they likely see the city differently than all who freeze it with a particular age and stage of their own life.

Hemingway captures this sensibility in the title line:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

One of my favorite aspects of A Moveable Feast were Hemingway’s regular reflections on writing and his own creative process. He wrote in a hotel room office most days, separate from his home, and discusses the feeling of pride he had in leaving a day’s work knowing he had produced something good. He also made it his practice to always end the day knowing where he was going the next day, rather than somewhere stuck. However, when he did find himself at a loss,

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. (12)

When he would get stuck, he would often move to writing in a cafe. I share this affinity for writing in cafes. However, there is always the danger that someone will try to visit with you, not respecting the fact that, even if you appear to be staring into space, you are actually in the process of writing. He captured this “true sentence” of my experience.

Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. (92)

From now on, I will think of these surprise visitors as an infestation. (Even though sometimes God works in these interruptions, I’ll admit.)

In the final chapter, he writes a brutal critique about the arrival of “the rich” ruining a small Alpine town that he and his wife have frequented. They also ruin him and his writing. Not by their criticism, but by the appeal of their lives of ease and their ready praise.

That every day should be a fiesta seemed to me a marvelous discovery. I even read aloud the part of the novel that I had rewritten, which is about as low as a writer can get. … When they said, “It’s great, Ernest. Truly it’s great. You cannot know the thing it has,” I wagged my tail in pleasure and plunged into the fiesta concept of life to see if I could not bring some fine attractive stick back, instead of thinking, “If these bastards like it, what is wrong with it?” That was what I would think if I had been functioning as a professional although, if I had been functioning as a professional, I would never have read it to them. (207)

This captured sometime especially true for me about ministry and preaching. Sometimes, we can be lulled into a “fiesta concept of life,” where we take it easy and enjoy ourselves, relishing praise and accolades for our words. But this rarely produces our best work as preachers, and usually obscures our faults from our own view. In fact, at our professional best, we question those sermons that are the most popular, wondering if we have indeed done justice to the challenge of the Gospel.

A Moveable Feast definitely made me even more eager to see Paris. As a lover of literature, I enjoyed reading Hemingway’s tales of the personalities and backstories of literary lights before they were so known. I was delighted to find gems about writing (and preaching) to carry forward with me.

The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998, 220 pp.

Godbearing LifeKenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian was one of the best books I read about ministry in the last decade, which drew me to look back at her earlier work. Although she specifically writes about youth ministry, her insights about the way cultural forces and church practices compete to shape our souls rings true in ministry with people of all ages. This book did not disappoint. Even though it’s 20 years old, many of the illustrations obsolete, and a whole generation of youth now parents of adolescents themselves, the book holds up because it is about greater themes of how we as pastors and churches care for the soul.

Dean and Foster operate within the powerful metaphor of Godbearing, which is drawn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a teenager herself who was chosen to carry Jesus into the world. As Christian leaders, we are invited to say “yes” to God’s request to live within us and let our lives be shaped by God’s purposes. Then we form relationships and bear witness to God’s work in the lives of others, helping them to see where God is calling and to respond by saying “yes” themselves.

They write:

I began spending the bulk of my “relational ministry” helping youth, even unchurched ones, develop a vocabulary of faith. I learned that pastors have permission, and even an obligation, to ask questions others do not ask. So I quit beating around the bush and asked up front: “What’s going on between you and God? How goes your spiritual life?” (13)

This is exactly what I am discovering, especially in this particular season of my ministry. I spend a lot of time with people who may or may not be part of my congregation, may or may not be Christian, may or may not see me as pastor or just as a friend. But my role gives me both permission and obligation to have these conversations. For many people, no one else in their lives engages these questions, and people are yearning to be asked, even though it feels scary for both of us sometimes.

They also write about evangelism not as convincing people to believe in God, but to believe that God matters.

The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness but awelessness. Inundated with options and the stress that comes from having to choose between them, contemporary adolescents have lost their compass to the stars, have forgotten the way that points to transcendence. (15)

This is not just adolescents. Every day, thousands of people pass by in front of our church on the street, and most of them–whether or not they believe in God in any way–are convinced that what we do inside that building has no relevance or meaning to their lives. Dean and Foster offer incarnational and relational ministry as a response. We don’t just build relationships in order to talk about the Gospel. We live the Gospel in our lives (Godbearing) so that others will experience the incarnation of God.

This approach is grounded in faith practices:

Practices are the constitutive acts of a community that both identify us as, and form us into, people who belong to that community. Christian practices mark us as and make us into Jesus’ followers. (107)

Dean and Foster offer a helpful rubric of organizing the variety of Christian faith practices into six major categories (communion, worship, compassion, teaching and nurture, witness, and dehabituation), highlighting particular faith practices that one uses in youth ministry, but again applicable to all ages. They devote full chapters to each category, but lift out spiritual friendship, “hand-holding and finger-pointing” (presence and direction), service, speaking in familiar language, and sabbath as particularly important.

One of the key challenges for youth ministry and all ministry is avoiding burnout. The authors introduced a helpful biblical metaphor in the burning bush.

God is most evident in our ministries not when we are “on fire for Jesus” but when we burn without being consumed. … God is not calling us to identify with Moses. God is calling us to identify with the bush. (72)

Faith practices are those things that keep our fires burning, and engaging more deeply in growing our faith so we can nourish the faith of others is a model for sustainable Christian ministry for everyone. It’s not about growing programs, it’s about growing faith and relationships.

This is an insightful read that has already helped me shape some of the work I am doing to lead a conference for youth pastors and to engage my congregation in a Lenten series on faith practices. It has also given me new language to understand my own work in ministry. I recommend it not only for youth ministers, but for clergy and lay leaders looking to understand our work in the world in a deeper way, especially around inviting others into relationship with Christ.

 

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, London: Vintage, 2001, 822 pp.

London-the-biographyThis book topped my list of things to read to acquaint myself with my new city before I moved, but cancer treatment and all the overwhelm of moving delayed it until I’d already lived here for 18 months. In the end, I’m glad of that timing. I can’t imagine how I would have understood or absorbed much of the book’s content if I didn’t already have some sense of the geography and architecture of the city. This book is as much an interpretation of London as it is a history of it, and I would not have understood its meaning without first having known London itself.

Peter Ackroyd was unknown to me in the U.S., but he is everywhere here, a prolific writer of fiction, history, biography and TV documentaries. He is captivated by the way London’s history and personality live on, even though the city changes constantly. He has a particular interpretation of the city as a place driven first and foremost by commerce, wealth and glamor, with a constant underside of poverty, sordidness and anonymity that allow flourishing subcultures. This masterwork on London captures those themes throughout.

Bolstered by sources but unburdened by the need to prove a historical case, deeply researched but unmoored from the demands of scholarly thoroughness, Ackroyd’s biography unwinds a compelling narrative of London as though it was a living being, a creature carving out its identity across time, with some traits endemic and immutable, and others changed by its story. In spite of its length, the book’s short chapters, organized by topic or neighborhood or niche rather than simple chronology, made it seem like a very quick read. Ackroyd’s prose turns a tome into a page-turner.

As a lover of social history, I enjoyed his attention to London theatre, labor, protests, poverty, literature, crime and other topics, rather than just a litany of major events, leaders and decisions that shaped its history. I especially appreciated the way Ackroyd honed in on microcosms of people and neighborhoods. There are whole chapters dedicated to eccentric personalities that once inhabited a particular street. Each dwelled for 30 or 40 years in a tiny corner of the massive city of millions, but somehow, to Ackroyd, they capture something of London’s essence, so he tells us their stories. By the same turn, there are chapters that look at a particular small square or neighborhood across time, and the way certain traits seem to dwell there. For example, he talks about poverty and seediness in St. Giles, and revolutionary plotting or protest in Clerkenwell Green. Ackroyd sees a persistent, recurring pattern of social behavior that he links to various places in the city, as though the places themselves are inhabited by a particular spirit that shapes the people who dwell there. A more sober historian might scoff, but I found his case compelling and delightful.

In spite of its size, this is not a reference book. If you want to learn about the history of the Temple Bar or when a particular borough was founded, you won’t find that here. Instead, this is a book to read like a biography–cover to cover–in order to meet London and get to know its personality. Like any biography, you might not like the author’s angle, and you will have to rely on your own observations or the alternative perceptions of others to argue for another, truer personality. I found Ackroyd’s insights fascinating, and true to my own reading of the city in many ways. After reading the book, I look at the city differently as I venture out in it. I see layers I did not notice before, I find historical treasures not readily visible, and I am able to place myself within the city’s narrative in a new way.

I recommend Ackroyd’s book to all Londoners and London lovers, though I suggest it will be best appreciated by those who know the city, rather than as an introduction or prelude to a visit.

 

Here are the rest of the books I read in 2016-2017. There is more non-fiction, plus fiction and an explanation.

JUSTICE ISSUES

20180114_165642Racing Across Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendship by Deborah L. Plummer, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 127 pp.

This is another UCC General Synod bargain that sat on my shelf for years, until it was just the right thing at the right time. The congregation I currently serve is interracial and international, bringing together people of many languages, countries and colors. I think our greatest opportunity is to build friendships across these lines. Plummer’s book explores both the promise and challenge of cross-racial socializing, boldly naming the ways that we feel most at home around those of our own race, the discomfort we feel when we are in a minority, and the ways that socializing with those of other races can help us realize our own narrow views. This is not a book about ending racism via friendship, although Plummer certainly addresses racial prejudice and white privilege in context. It is a book about friendship, and about how difficult—but worthwhile—it is to intentionally pursue friendships across racial lines.

The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary A. Haugen, Oxford University Press, 2014, 346 pp.

My congregation has a partnership with International Justice Mission, founded by Gary Haugen and engaged in justice work around the world. This book helped me understand the organization’s difficult work, the problems it addresses and the strategies it deploys. Haugen argues that criminal violence and the lack of effective law enforcement are the single biggest issues impacting impoverished people around the world. This does not mean that poor people are criminals—quite the opposite. Poverty means that you will, almost inevitably, be the victim of a crime, and the perpetrator will go unpunished. All of the aid programs for food, education, shelter and water will remain ineffective if people are not safe from violence. Haugen addresses not just oppression and state injustice, but the everyday criminal violence, police corruption and lawlessness that afflicts poor communities. IJM is doing the slow, painstaking work of building systems of justice and local law enforcement around the world, and this book describes it. What most impacted me in reading this book, however, was the realization that these same forces of corruption and the unavailability of justice to those who cannot afford to pay for it hold sway in the streets and neighborhoods of the United States, as we have especially seen in the murder of black men and women by police, with impunity.

THEOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY

20180114_165723The Spirituals and the Blues by James H. Cone, Seabury Press, 1972, 152 pp.

Another classic I finally took time to read, prompted by plans to develop a Good Friday service called “The Passion in Spirituals,” weaving together the story of the crucifixion in conversation with African-American poets and spirituals. Cone’s work gave me the appropriate theological context for understanding the spirituals, and helped me to curate the service and write the notes to accompany it. The book argues that, since many African Americans were denied access to publishing and writing, their theology and faith expression was instead passed on through the singing of spirituals. Cone then mines the spirituals and the blues for the theological insight of the black community, with special attention to the ways the lyrics claim liberation from oppression. He writes, “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence. … Religion is wrought out of the experience of the people who encounter the divine in the midst of historical realities.” (29) Cone’s theology, then, emerges from evidence of that religious resistance from the spirituals and the blues.

The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 383 pp.

I am still questing for just the right book, one that introduces people to the Bible with an affection and a critical eye. I bought this one on that quest more than 10 years ago, and recently thought one of the chapters might adeptly address a church member’s concern. I started reading for that reason, and quickly discovered in The Good Book a 20-year-old time capsule of theological hot topics. The mid-1990s were key to my seminary and formation, and I saw all the old debates here. I was able to marvel at how far we have come, how stuck we still are, and how much farther we have moved away from Christendom and toward both cynicism and hope. Gomes’ wisdom remains solid on the topics he addresses. The chapters on “The Bible and …” (race, women, anti-semitism, homosexuality) remain of their time. It’s not that we aren’t still arguing about those topics, but the way we are talking about them has changed in the last 20 years. The remaining chapters, on more timeless topics like the good life, suffering, joy, mystery and evil, remain solid. I especially appreciated his chapter on wealth, though the income inequality and flagrant worship of opulence in our time sometimes made it seem quaint.

What’s So Amazing about Grace? and Where is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey, Zondervan, 1997 and 1977, respectively, published in one volume 2008, 584 pp.

Writing all these reviews in a row is proving to me how many books I have read after they have rested in waiting for many years—this two-in-one combo is another one in that category. I picked this up in surgery recovery. I think I needed some theological reflection on these questions in my own life after the tumult of the year, but I wasn’t able to handle anything too challenging. Unlike most theologians I prefer, Yancey was actually trying to answer those questions in a way that offered comfort to earnest seekers. I think I sought that solace. While Yancey’s answers did not always convince, they did offer reassurance and hope. His conversation about finding God in suffering gave practical, everyday examples of the co-existence of joy and struggle, reminding us that they often come together. More importantly, he flips the question back on Christians: “where is the church when it hurts?” (249) The book about grace, though written 20 years ago, parallels some of the conversations happening in recent books on the purpose of the church (including Glorify, Weird Church, and Standing Naked Before God, which I read this year and review in this same post). Yancey argues that grace is the thing that the church has to offer that nothing else in the world can provide. He focuses not the overwhelming nature of human sin, but on our existential need to forgive and be forgiven. He contrasts God’s desire with a world and a spirit of “ungrace,” and chastises those who act without grace toward those it deems sinners or unchristian. Both of these books were better than I expected. While there was an occasional evangelical twist I couldn’t abide, mostly they offered simple expressions of comfort to me in a difficult season. Proof that it may take me awhile, but eventually I do read these books I buy. When the moment is right, they are just what my soul needs.

ANTHROPOLOGY

20180114_165513Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox, Hodder, 2004, 583 pp.

This was the single most helpful (and embarrassing) resource as I was getting acclimated to life in London. I am grateful to the church member who gave me her copy when I arrived. Kate Fox is an Englishwoman and an anthropologist who turned her sights on her home country, observing the behaviors, traits, cultural understandings and quirks of English people. She studies food rules, dress codes, speech patterns, rites of passage, money, taboos and every other area of culture. I read this book like a missionary studying up on a foreign culture, and realized in every single chapter something that I was doing wrong or completely misunderstanding. It was my own personal way of discovering my cultural faux pas. Fox’s writing is full of humor and self-deprecation for her home country, which is important, because she identifies self-deprecating humor as one of the most important traits of Englishness, alongside things like social awkwardness, class consciousness, and “eeyorishness.” I’m not sure I would have truly understood this book until I lived here. I’m also sure it would have taken me a lot longer to understand living here if I hadn’t had this book for help.

SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY

20180114_165811Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath by Jennifer Garrison Brownell, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 146 pp.

This author is a friend whose book I was delighted to read, but again it sat awhile, because it was all about timing. I read this in the thick of chemotherapy, the hardest season for me. Something about the title captured my attention—the pacing and physicality of the verbs felt like my life in the moment: “just keep going.” I didn’t have capacity to reflect, but the author did, in beautiful and powerful ways that touched my soul. The short, poignant chapters were often all I could handle. I needed to know God in the simple act of keeping moving and breathing, and this book showed the holy to me. I don’t do well with physicality, with pushing my body’s limits. This book invited me to think about the power of incarnation, and seeing the strength and courage of a fellow Jennifer encouraged me to face the hard things I was going through at the time. This is a beautiful reflection, inspirational and truth-telling, and I loved it.

Sea Changed: Coming Home, Healing and Being at Peace with God by Kate Nicholas, Authentic Media, 2016, 294 pp.

A member of my congregation introduced Kate Nicholas and I, saying “you two share cancer, preaching and a joyous spirit. I think you should connect.” That connection has been a great blessing so far, not the least of which was the introduction to this marvelous story. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, the author started to write the story of her life to share with her two young daughters. She had had a lifetime of adventures, but the story that emerged was one of God’s presence throughout, chasing her and changing her, shaping her and transforming her life—eventually even healing her from cancer. Kate’s life story is fascinating, but especially so because she tells it with rich detail and makes the people come alive. More, though, she makes God come to life, revealing all the ways the Spirit has been quietly at work around her, calling her to faith. It is a powerful testimony and a joy to read.

Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2015, 211 pp.

This book might fit more aptly in the “church leadership” category, because the first half is a rationale and strategy for integrating public confession into the weekly worship of a congregation. As always, Molly Phinney Baskette’s writing is compelling and revealing, speaking deeply about how God is present and at work in the church’s life. But for me, again reading in the thick of treatment, it was the second half, a collection of personal confessions and testimonies, that spoke to me most deeply. They are examples of the kind of practiced, prepared confession described in the first half of the book, but they are also glimpses of individual walks with God, struggles and successes and colossal failures, all of which the Spirit redeems and transforms into messages of grace for all who listen. Each was a tiny gift of hope to me.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel by John Donne (with The Life of Dr. John Donne by Izaak Walton), Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1999, 234 pp.

This book spoke to me and for me in the early months of 2017. I was recovering from chemo and surgery, and turned to John Donne in similar circumstances. The “emergent occasions” which he references are the days of his deathly illness and long recovery. He prays earnestly, with faith but without consolation, for God to preserve his life through his illness, and vacillates between hope and despair as he endures treatment. When he writes about his relationship with his bed, seeing fear in the eyes of his physicians, and the pull of ministry even as he recovers, I felt such a resonance and understanding about the reality of facing a deathly illness. It was the poetry my soul needed, like the Psalmist who gives voice to our sighs. My reading was interrupted by the death of my father, and I returned to complete Death’s Duel, his final sermon as (many years after the other illness) he was preparing for his own death. Again, it offered me words and reflections that unlocked and explained my own feelings. This was an agonizing read, for the beauty and poignance were piercing for me this year.

Here is a summary of all the non-fiction books I read in 2017, sorted by category. Because there are so many, I’ll divide it into two posts. There is more non-fiction, plus fiction and an explanation.

CHURCH HISTORY

Four books about George Whitefield. One about the Reformation. Why? Studying up. The church I came to London to serve is on the site of the Whitefield Memorial Chapel, and I wanted to learn more about this great preacher who linked London and the United States in the 18th Century. Also, 2017 was the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, and I wanted to understand more about this tumultuous period of Christian history.

20180114_165201The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America by Randy Petersen, Nelson Books, 2015, 281 pp.

This book turned out to be terrible, but the only one of its kind. That makes it somehow still valuable, even though I don’t recommend it at all. Petersen is no scholar, and it shows on every page. His work is derivative of accredited scholars, and full of leaps and assumptions that are utterly unsupported by evidence and drawn from his own pet passions rather than helpful insight. Nevertheless, the relationship between George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin is fascinating, and this is the only work dedicated to distilling it into a narrative. The two shared an approach to self-promotion, a concern for the well-being of the working class, and a passion for the new identity of America. I learned anecdotes and connections, even if I rolled my eyes and sifted out Petersen’s embellished interpretations.

George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century, Crossway, 1990, 219 pp.

This book is a much-abbreviated summary of Dallimore’s multi-volume biography of Whitefield, as a way to make his work accessible and readable for non-scholars. Like most Whitefield biographers, Dallimore is an American evangelical whose theological perspective colors his interpretations, adds elements of moralizing and adulation I might prefer to omit, and omits more complicated or unorthodox information. However, his scholarship and storytelling are solid, and this was a helpful introductory biography for me to learn about Whitefield.

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd, Yale University Press, 2014, 325 pp.

Kidd attempts to offer the first comprehensive biography of Whitefield by a professional historian. He shares an American evangelical perspective, and this biography argues that “George Whitefield was the key figure in the first generation of Anglo-American evangelical Christianity.” (3) Kidd’s admiration of his subject, his desire to sanctify Whitefield against the Wesleys and other critics, and his whole-hearted acceptance of evangelicalism gave me pause, though the argument that Whitefield created American evangelicalism is compelling. Kidd is more comfortable than I am making peace with the hard Calvinism and racial prejudice of that movement, both then and now. This was still a helpful, comprehensive outline of Whitefield’s life, full of insights that I can draw upon and carry forward as examples for our church that carries on in his name—though with a stronger critique of those things that belong in the dust bin of history and theology.

Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism and the Making of a Religious Icon by Jessica M. Parr, University Press of Mississippi, 2015, 235 pp.

One of the most problematic aspects of Whitefield’s biography is his advocacy for the institution of slavery and its expansion into the state of Georgia. Yet his prejudices on race are not so simple, as he was also more open-minded than many in preaching the gospel to enslaved people and befriending people of African and Native American descent, believing them fully capable and worthy of Christian life. He was famously memorialized by Phillis Wheatley and praised by Olaudah Equiano. As I think about how (or whether) to reclaim Whitefield’s legacy in our ministry on his site, this is one of the most critical issues for me to understand and address. I was eager for Parr’s book to help. It did not deliver what I hoped, which was an analysis and some conclusions about his words, their repercussions and impact (positive or negative). It did at least catalog most of his interactions around race, slavery and theology, which was helpful. Instead, Parr’s book is an argument about how Whitefield and those who have since studied and written about him have tried to craft his image as a religious icon. This was itself interesting and valuable. Scholars, preachers and theologians have been able to make Whitefield over in the service to a variety of causes—and Whitefield himself not only allowed such a mutable image, but cultivated his image to be flexible and appealing to all.

20180114_165303The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Penguin Books, 2003, 832 pp.

I started this book in early 2016, but couldn’t keep up in the midst of moving. It was densely packed with information, but fascinating and readable. What I appreciated most about this book was that MacCullough did not focus only on the theologians and their differences, but on the way these theological disputes were lived out in political and social realities. From the beginning, he paid attention to the everyday spiritual lives of Christians, and how the waves of Reformation impacted their relationships with God and one another. In chronicling the relationships between churches, princes and Rome, he captures the upheaval not just of war and conflict, but of spiritual homelessness found in the Reformation. A great read.

CHURCH LEADERSHIP AND PREACHING

20180114_165609Good News Preaching: Offering the Gospel in Every Sermon by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, Pilgrim Press, 2009, 158 pp.

This book had been in my shelves for a long time, acquired on sale at some UCC General Synod, but I needed it urgently in this last year. With the Trump administration, the rise of right-wing ideologies of hate, and the impact of terrorism here in London and everywhere, it was hard not to spend every week in the pulpit condemning some new heresy and prejudice in the name of Christ. While that proclamation is also important, I recognized the need to also offer good news, hope and courage rooted in the Gospel. Brooks’ book was right on time, not only making the case for why preaching must always include good news in a bad news world, but offering techniques and examples for including this message of grace and salvation even as we sustain our prophetic critiques.

Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, Pilgrim Press, 2016, 176 pp.

Estock and Nixon are church consultants helping congregations grow, thrive and change. This book begins with an analysis of our social and ideological reality, which contains multiple worldviews at work all at once. I am not sure I agree with the evolutionary understanding Nixon and Estock offer, as though humanity is becoming more enlightened, but the worldviews they describe are readily in evidence, and in conflict, within our congregations and communities. The first half of the book identifies trends and challenges of church life today. While it was a helpful summary, there were not a wealth of ideas and insights I had not already read elsewhere. The second half of the book catalogs new incarnations of church that respond especially well to the newest worldview (not integrating the various worldviews, as we are doing in traditional settings). From dinner church to coffee house enterprises to mission outposts, they look at creative “weird” endeavors that speak to changing realities.

Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation by Charles R. Lane, Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 128 pp.

This is a popular read among clergy trying to improve their congregational giving, and it is a solid, helpful and rich resource. Lane’s main emphasis is on discipleship, and the need to develop people not as givers or members, but as disciples. Cultivating generosity is about learning to trust God with our money. I also appreciated the simple outline he offers, from the title on: ask, thank, tell. There is no life-changing program here, but too often churches try to work on better “asks” without following up on the other portions of the cycle of inspiration—thanking people for their gifts and telling them how the church’s ministry is making a difference. This is a softer, gentler approach than J. Clif Christopher’s Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, but with similar ideas and themes.

Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity by Emily C. Heath, Pilgrim Press, 2016, 136 pp.

This was one of my favorite books this year, and not just because Heath is a friend. This book makes the case that discipleship is the missing ingredient in progressive churches, and that we ought to be paying far more attention to the development of the faith lives of our congregations as our most critical task. Heath expresses concern that progressive Christians often define our faith by what we are against, or how we are not like “those” Christians who are anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-sex and all the rest. Instead, we should be asking how we can live lives and build communities that glorify God, with joy and compassion. That means cultivating transformed lives, letting God change us and work through us in prayer, study, generosity and—yes!—acts of justice. Heath speaks concerns and passions I have shared since seminary, and I am grateful for this clear case for the importance of discipleship in our progressive churches.

20180114_165359Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald A. Heifetz, Belknap Press, 1994, 348 pp.

This book isn’t specifically about church leadership, but leadership in general. I’ve read about this book and its ideas in many sources, but it took me a long time to get around to reading the original source. In many ways, this made it feel like a refresher to concepts I already knew (and have used many times). Reading Heifetz’ arguments and defense of his ideas revealed to me how innovative he was by moving away from understanding leadership as a trait or character type and instead as an activity and skill set. Leadership doesn’t reside in personality, but in one’s ability to build trust and move people to follow. Beyond the helpful distinction between technical and adaptive change, Heifetz’ articulation of “leadership without authority” is a perfect way to capture the essence of congregational leadership, both clergy and lay. He addresses the pain and personal challenge of sustaining this kind of leadership in long-term struggles, and offers reassurance and insight. I’m glad I finally read it—now on to the next volume, Leadership on the Line, which is still on the shelf.

Here’s a summary of all the fiction I’ve read in the last 18 months, grouped by some categories and with a short review of each. Non-fiction is here and here, plus an explanation.

BEAUTIFUL AND BEST

These books are what fiction is all about—words and characters that come together to tell a powerful, moving, captivating story about being human. These brought me joy, tears and healing this year.

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My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman, Washington Square Press, 2015, 372 pp.

I bought this at the airport on my way either to or from my father’s funeral. The narrator offers a child’s perspective on death and grief, on truth and fiction, on love and normality, but woven by a brilliant storyteller. Elsa’s grandmother creates for her a magical world of stories, and when she dies, Elsa journeys to discover the meaning behind them. This book spoke to my heart’s need to tell my story to make sense of my own life and its heartbreaks.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Faber & Faber, 2015, 114 pp.

This book defies explanation. This short piece explores the topology of grief and loss, with all its attendant feelings, through prose-poetry in multiple voices, including the husband grieving his wife, the two sons grieving their mother, and the giant crow who comes to stay with them, who is sometimes nonsensical and sometimes the only one who makes any sense. Epic, complicated, deep and true. I want to read it again, a year later, living with new grief.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Candlewick Press, 2011, 225 pp.

Intrigued by the movie previews, I gave the book to my son for Christmas. I didn’t realize it was about a boy coming to grips with his mother’s death from cancer! And I didn’t learn it until a month later when I finally read it and talked to him about it! Not my finest parenting moment. The monster is his grief and his fear of it, and it abides with him until he opens his heart to accept the reality of loss. Another book that is deep and true, but this time for a younger audience. Even though I should have prepared my son for its content—and perhaps not given it to him right in the middle of my treatment!—it was a gift to open up conversation between us.

GOOD AND GOOD FOR YOU

These books made me feel better informed about the world and about literature, but the content was sometimes difficult and sometimes reading took work. They demand appreciation, but sometimes withhold joy.

20180102_195322Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 258 pp.

This is a book about survival in the midst of poverty and hardship. As a hurricane approaches, Esch and her brothers in the Mississippi bayou work with their unreliable father to find food and shelter to survive the storm. The lives and circumstances are harsh and unrelenting, but Ward creates characters with depth and nuance. They lack much, they make choices we might disdain (dog-fighting plays a prominent role), but they have a fierce tenderness for one another that brought me to care for them. A tough but worthwhile read.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg, Quercus, 2011, 372 pp.

Set in 1830 on St. Kilda’s Island, the most remote corner of Britain, where a young couple goes as missionaries to the pagan Gaelic inhabitants. In addition to teaching me about the geography, zoology and history of these Britons, the book reflects on what it means to be a missionary—to inhabit a particular place, to love and mingle with others, to find God already there even in the most remote places.

England’s Lane by Joseph Connolly, Quercus, 2012, 532 pp.

I picked up this book because it’s set in our neighborhood in London. England’s Lane is just at the end of our street, and we venture there almost daily for coffee or groceries. This novel tells about life in the 1950’s, with three couples living and working there—the ironmonger, the confectioner and the butcher. The story taught me a lot about our neighborhood and about post-war London, and the writing was excellent. However, it was a novel driven by character development rather than plot, and I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable. That made it feel like a bit of a slog at times, but that may also have been the timing. I started it in January, and slowly finished after my father’s death in February.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward, Virago, 2012, 352 pp. (Not Pictured)

This novel was almost like a series of short stories, moving through time. In each, a girl or woman’s story unfolds around the time an artist captures her image, and in each of those images, she is (or appears to be) reading a book. The book was exquisitely crafted, and each of the stories made me want an entire novel about those characters. I enjoyed moving through the ages (stories move chronologically from the 14th century to the future 21st), even as I wanted to linger with each set of characters just a bit longer. Definitely recommended!

JUST FOR FUN

These last books were just for entertainment. They were good and well-written, but not outstanding or especially memorable. (I am struggling to recall the details of some enough to even write these small reviews.) We all need that kind of fiction in our lives as much as the profound and life-changing kind.

20180102_195428The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, The Borough Press, 2016, 454 pp.

This is the story of a British neighborhood in the 1970s. Mrs. Creasy has gone missing, and two ten-year-old girls decide to take on the job of finding out what happened. It opens them to adult realities and to the complicated relationships within households and between neighbors. As someone who was just a little younger than the characters in the 1970s and is the mother of a ten-year-old, I connected with the story in several ways. I also enjoyed understanding all the Britishisms in the book, which I never would have gotten before!

The Muse by Jessie Burton, Picador 2016, 445 pp.

I enjoyed this book because it introduced me to worlds I would never otherwise see—London art galleries in the late 1960s and Spain in the Spanish Civil War. The story was about a painting created in 1936 Spain, discovered by a young gallery worker in the 1960s. The characters were likeable, and the plot was interesting, as we come to discover the painting’s origins alongside them. A fun and fast read.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal, Vintage Books, 2012, 436 pp.

This book is also set in North London where we live, but much wider ranging than one little street. It’s a story of love and family, set in the tight-knit Jewish community here. Adam and Rachel are childhood sweethearts, but Adam has feelings for her wild cousin Ellie. The book follows Adam as he feels torn between Rachel and Ellie. I loved the way the story lifted up the tangled relationships between family, community, faith community and more as he considered the possible consequences of his choices. Another entertaining and enjoyable read.

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall, Penguin Books, 2013, 279 pp.

This story struck me as one about upper class fears of decline. William Adair is a wealthy man with three daughters, for whom he had enormous dreams—and who have each stumbled along into disappointment. When he has a stroke, they return to care for him and fight to preserve the beloved Carriage House behind their home. In so doing, they are able to shake off the shadow of his expectations find themselves and even discover a bit of joy. Good to pass an afternoon or two, but not especially memorable.

 

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I have posted reviews of all the books I read, which I haven’t done since May 2016. If you are a regular reader, you can also guess why that happened: in June 2016, I moved to London and got diagnosed with cancer. My normal reading pace (about a book a week) slowed dramatically, as a fog from the move and the treatments kept me from reading. But I have read a little bit, and I have been collecting all my books to somehow catalog and review.

I began writing book reviews in a notebook for myself in 2002, because I was reading so much so fast that I was forgetting most of it. I wanted to slow down and capture each book in my memory. I started sharing my reviews here in 2009. It has become an important part of my spiritual discipline and reading habit, a way of spending time with my literary companions.

I didn’t have the time or energy for reviews in the last 18 months. Yet each time I completed a book, I couldn’t bring myself to put it away. The ritual of shelving a completed book is one of my life’s great (though simple) pleasures, but nothing felt complete without offering a few words of reflection. I like talking about the books I read as much as I enjoy reading them.

That’s what caused this to happen on top of the bookcase in my bedroom.

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The first stack, on the left, contains all the books I read in the remainder of 2016, from the time we moved to London until year’s end. It’s a mighty thin stack, because these were my months of chemotherapy. I could barely hold a book, and I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few pages at a time. Since birth, I can’t recall a season with so few books in my life.

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However, these books were loving companions to me. Three of the five were written by clergy friends, people who were praying for me and encouraging me during my illness. One of them is even a fellow cancer survivor. In reading, I felt their prayers and love with me. Two were full of spiritual testimonies of courage and hope, one was a twisted prose poem about death and grief, the other two were practical and inspirational guides for church leadership. These were the books I chose for this hard season—the witness of other faithful folks who had overcome hardship and suffering; a lament to give voice to my own; and two professional reads to keep me grounded in my vocation, a source of great hope for me.

Starting in January, the chemotherapy was leaving my body, and I had surgery. The surgery left me home for three weeks, and I planned to catch up on my book reviews at that time. However, my incisions left me unable to type or sit at the computer comfortably. My days alternated between reading books, watching television and checking Facebook on my phone. The middle stack represents my reading for those first few weeks of 2017. As you can see, there was a lot of it. The upright tome, The Reformation, was one I started reading in January 2016, abandoned when the move to London got hectic, and returned to complete in my surgery recovery. I alternated between various novels and The Reformation for most of that three weeks of recovery.

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My dad died on February 5, and I stopped reading again. The mountain of grief over all the year, combined with the lingering impact of chemo and radiation, again made it difficult to concentrate. Only since mid-summer have I slowly begun reading in a way that is more “normal” for me. The third stack, only slightly taller than the January one, represents the remaining eleven months of 2017. It is perhaps not as many books as previous years, but the balance of sacred and secular, the diverse categories and the tilt away from fiction much more closely resemble my normal patterns.

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With the new year turned to 2018, it’s time to clear the shelf and start anew. Now that my health is restored and life in London has settled into a routine, I plan to return to my regular reading and reviews. Lest you be concerned, this last picture is my “to-be-read” shelf shelves, sitting right under these three completed piles. I’m hoping to read more and buy less in order to get them all fitting on one shelf by the time 2019 arrives. We’ll see.

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Much like the year itself, with all its life-changing moments—much like my dad’s old snow hat in the picture, with all its attendant memories—I couldn’t let these books dissolve into the shelves without handling them one more time, marking their presence as companions through this year, and, yes, writing at least a little something about each one.

So, what will follow in the next couple of days will be two long posts, one fiction and one non-fiction, with mini-reviews of each book. (If you want to know more about any of the books pictured above, look there.)

After that, I hope I can happily place them in their appropriate places in my library. In the same way, after these book posts, I hope to start writing more regularly. I need to revisit so many episodes from this last year and write a little something about each one. It’s how I read and capture things in my memory —not just books, but my life.

Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher, Vintage Books, 2003, 216 pp.

Practicing ResurrectionI don’t remember where I first heard about Nora Gallagher, but I immediately resonated with what I heard and wanted to read more. I bought this book thinking it would be an inspiration for an Easter sermon on a similar theme, but I didn’t get around to starting it until nearly Pentecost. When I did, I discovered it was not only just the right book at the right time, it is a book on one of my favorite topics: vocation, discernment and call. I read everything I find on that topic, and I found this one without even knowing that was the subject.

Practicing Resurrection is a memoir about Nora Gallagher’s journey of discernment about her call to ministry. She is an active leader in an Episcopal church, and feels a tug to something more. The story begins with the death of her brother, walks through meetings of a discernment committee, processes her experiences as a student minister, and concludes with a clear call to ministry–though whether that involves ordination into the priesthood remains a mystery.

Gallagher’s prose is gorgeous, and it spoke straight to my soul. Her way of framing the stories of her journey in the language of Spirit and discernment alternatively gave voice and substance to my own thoughts and took me to new places. My copy of the book is full of highlights and passages to which I hope to returned (or have returned and quoted already).

Here is just a sampling of the many passages I want to go over again and again:

The life of faith was amorphous, ephemeral, a glimpse, a moment. Trusting it was like my early swimming lessons in learning how to float. (3)

“Often we are afraid to ask for what we want or desire,” said Carr Holland, “But the way of discernment is to lay out our desire and then come back to it with openness, seeking the wisdom of examination. Is this a need? Is there a deeper need? Is your reign foreshadowed here?” (4)

On discerning call, quoting her priest Mark: “It’s not usually something that is immediately known, as if you would have a vision or something and that would be the end of it. We are all becoming what we are called to be. … One thing: a priest must love herself.” (16)

The priest in liturgy should help point the community in the direction of God, and keep the liturgy alive rather than make it a museum piece. What gives it legitimacy is the trust relationship that is built with the community and what the community invests in it. Then, in some objective way, God, who is always present, becomes more and more transparent.” (20)

Part of this process, I assure you, will be the dismantling of that carefully constructed person. … The Holy Spirit, I began to see, was relentless, but she was not mean. … Discernment, I came to see, was about looking everywhere for traces of God. (96-97)

Gallagher has a gift for telling a good story, one that is unique and personal and specific, and then asking the question or naming the issue in such a way you realize that the story is in fact universal. I will be seeking out more of her writing, and I look forward to reading this one over again in the future.

 

Preaching from Memory to Hope by Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Knox, 2009, 152 pp.

Preaching from Memory to HopeThis book made me want to read more books about preaching. It’s something I do every week, and I read lots of books that give me ideas about what to say when I preach. This book, however, is more about what happens when we preach, not what we say in any given week.

Long begins with a critique of narrative preaching, the style of story-based preaching that has become dominant in the last 30 years. Narrative preaching arose in response to a culture that knew its way around Christian doctrine and dogma, but felt bored and stilted in its heart. Grasping on to the stories at the heart of the Gospel was a way to get to the heart of listeners and move them. Now, however, Long points out that our context has changed.

We no longer live in a sleeping Christendom waiting only to be aroused and delighted by evocative stories. The culture has shifted, and we need to take up with purpose Augustine’s two other terms: teaching and ethical speech. (18)

Quickly, Long goes on to point out that narrative is not irrelevant, but its purpose is targeted and specific:

Narrative is not a rhetorical device to titillate bored listeners What we are doing, first of all, is dress rehearsing in the pulpit a competence expected of every Christian, the capacity to make theological sense out of the events and experiences of our lives. (18)

He goes so far as to label overly simplistic, canned “preacher stories” as unethical in their response to the depth and complexity of faith in real life. (20)

In the second chapter, Long claims that preaching ought to model the complex conversation that happens between serious disciples and the world around them. Preaching becomes testimony, speaking to the places where God is alive and at work in the world around us. Too often, preachers today do not speak as though God really is alive and at work among them. Long tells the story of Martin Luther’s fear and trembling at the obligation to represent the gospel, and quotes Karl Barth:

What are you doing, you [human being], with the Word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earthy? Who has authorized you to take your place there and to generate religious feeling? (35)

Preaching is not an explanation, it is an event. Something happens when we preach, and the Word is broken open and God is made present in the act of sharing it. “Preaching involves looking through the lenses of biblical texts to discover and then to announce present-tense manifestations of God in the experience of hearers.” (44)

The third chapter levels a striking, searing critique against a new form of Gnosticism arising today. Long identifies four traits of Gnosticism as 1) believing that knowledge saves; 2) antipathy toward incarnation and embodiment; 3) focus on inner divine spark; and 4) emphasis on present spiritual reality rather than God’s promised fulfillment. He sees this gnosticism holding a special appeal to intelligent people, and taking shape through both those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and among those who ascribe to conspiracy theories about Christian history, such as those found in the books of Bart Ehrmann and Elaine Pagels. The fourth chapter turns this critique of gnosticism against one of the most beloved of the populist, critical scholars: Marcus Borg. His contention that Borg’s ideas are full of gnostic thought is thorough and convincing.

Long points the way forward, calling for “preaching in the future-perfect tense,” preaching that is centered in eschatalogical hope. He writes:

Like the risen Christ himself, preaching is a word from God’s future embarrassingly and disturbingly thrust into the present, announcing the freedom in a time of captivity, the gift of peace to a world of conflict, and joy even as the lamenting continues. (124)

I think Long is on the right track. He gave clarity and voice to many of the things I strive for in my own preaching, and questions that have lingered, unexpressed, in the back of my mind. I encourage all my fellow preachers to hear his concerns, even if you do not accept them.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th

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