Book Reviews

Move Toward the Mess: The Ultimate Fix for a Boring Christian Life by John Hambrick

Move Toward the Mess: The Ultimate Fix for a Boring Christian Life by John HambrickSummary: Consumer Christianity is boring.

John Hambrick is one of the pastors at my church. I have heard some of this book in stories from sermons that either John preached or were taught or referenced by other pastors.

I picked up Move Toward the Mess when it first came out but never got around to reading it. A couple weeks ago I was scheduled to meet with John and figured I should find out about him a bit before I met with him.

The broad story here is that our Christianity has become boring and staid because we have misunderstood what Christianity is. Christianity is not for us as individuals, especially not to give us something safe.

Christianity is much more corporate than what we tend to understand. We are Christians as a body and not purely as individuals. As such, we cannot really be a Christian apart from a community.

Move Toward the Mess is exactly the message of the book. Christians, if we want to be about the work of the church are supposed to be moving toward the messy and difficult parts of life. If we are focused on our safety as a priority then we will be missing out on the real work of the church and the real areas of growth for us as individuals.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Captalism by Edward Baptist

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Captalism by Edward BaptistSummary: Slavery was intimately tied to the early economy of the United States regardless of where you were located.

Slavery, history and racial issues are again in the news and there has been lots of evidence of a poor understanding of history. The way to cure bad history is good history, because frankly many of us either had no real education about slavery, reconstruction or the Jim Crow era, or what we had was bad history.

There are two primary focuses of The Half Has Never Been Told, first Baptist is trying to give a good account of what slavery was really like and how it changed over time. Baptist has prioritized slave narratives or interviews with actual slaves as the basis for his descriptions of what slavery was really like.

The second focus of The Half Has Never Been Told is to look at how slavery was tied to the development of the early US economy. What is important about the book is that the early economy was not separated North and South or in some other regional method, but was interdependent. Repeatedly, Northern politicians, some of which opposed slavery on moral or ethical grounds, and Southern politicians, many of whom owned slaves directly, voted to expand slavery or at least voted against restrictions because of economic interests. When economics and moral concerns collided, usually the economic concerns won.

In summary, Baptist shows that slaves were the most liquid form of capital in the early economy and the liquidity of slaves as capital grew over time as the internal slave markets matured and older slave economies of the Southeast sold slaves as a commodity to the Southwest for the development of the cotton economy. The development of early banks and commodity markets were highly dependent on slavery either as a direct market, reason for lending, the collateral for loans, or dependent on the crops that were produced by slaves.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund MorrisSummary: First of a trilogy of biographies on Theodore Roosevelt; this one takes us up until the point where he is told of the death of President McKinley.

I picked up The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt a while ago when it was on sale. I knew it had one a Pulitzer Prize and that it was listed as one of the top 100 non-fiction books ever written by Modern Library.

Starting with his early life and continuing until McKinley’s death, which is what moved Roosevelt from Vice President to President, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is indeed a very good biography. It wasn’t until I was nearly finished that I went back and realized that this was originally published in 1979.

The treatment of the first couple years of Teddy’s life felt a bit too light and almost hagiography. But that fell away as he became an adult. I saw in one of the reviews on Goodreads that someone said, ‘It would be hard to make Theodore Roosevelt into an uninteresting character.’ And that is very true. His life was fascinating.

He was a real reformer, albeit one that was still highly influenced by his culture. He supported women’s right to vote very early. He worked to see African Americans included in the Republican Party convention and supported other instances of what we could anachronistically call civil rights in the late 19th century. He worked strongly for government reform and against machine politics and patronage.

But he also was extremely jingoistic and casually racist against Native Americans and many others as was common of the day. But even at the time, many did not want him to be the Assistant Secretary of War because he was too fascinated by war and Manifest Destiny even at the time.

Part of what is fascinating to me is the role his insistence of proper behavior played in his life. He was very moral and proper and expected other to be as well. Not just about not cheating on his wife (or sleeping around before he was married) or drinking too much or selling votes or similar, but also about the proper ways to address your class or cultural betters. He hated to be referred to as Teddy and even just Roosevelt was not allowed by someone that worked for him or under him.

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journal #3)

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journal #3)Summary: More wisdom, riffing off of the liturgical year or the Irrational Season.

The Crosswick Journals are hard to describe. Each of the three that I have read has been very different. But the central reason for reading them is the same, wisdom.

The first was mostly about writing and family and calling and art. But there was lots more to it than those ideas. The second was mostly about family history, especially Madeleine L’Engle’s Mother, who was dying during the period being written about. The third, Irrational Season is even more hodgepodge than the first two. But there is a theme of the liturgical year, while not strictly focused on, does bring some organization.

One feature that is new in The Irrational Season is a lot of L’Engle’s original poetry. I am not a particular fan of poetry. I understand the appeal. But I also do not want to put in the time. Poetry doesn’t work if you skim it. Poetry requires slow and repeated work. I don’t like giving books slow and repeated work. I like reading quickly and absorbing what I can and then maybe reading again a while later and absorbing some more.

Christianity and Race in America: A Brief History by Bobby Griffith

Christianity and Race in America: A Brief History by Bobby GriffithSummary: A short survey of the problems and history of race within the Christian church in America.

Christianity and Race in America is a modified lecture intended to be a brief introduction to why Race is an important issue to the Christian Church in the United States.

At this point, I find it a bit hard to think that anyone can think that race and discrimination and the history of slavery, segregation and separation in the United States isn’t a big issue. But just a few minutes of pursuing current polling shows that there is still wide ignorance of the history of race in the US, especially within the world of White Evangelicals.

Christianity and Race in America is a good brief pamphlet. Although I think if you are not really convinced, then reading either Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History and/or Ken Wytsma’s recent The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege are probably better options. All three are calls from White Evangelical Christians to the White Evangelical church to pay attention the indictment against the church that continued racism makes to the message of the gospel.

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys BowenSummary: Georgie is again sent to check up on her cousin (who happens to be the Crown Prince.)

The series premise is that Georgie, now 35th in line to the throne, is too poor to really survive on her own without working. But it too royal to take a real job. So she pieces together things here and there, often staying with friends or family.

The ‘Royal Spyness’ from the series name has mostly been an accidental detective. Georgie is somewhere and someone is murdered and she figures out who it is. And while there has been several books with explicit directions from the Queen, it has not been spy or detective work as much as problem solving.

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service is one of the clearest attempts to actually carry through with the premise. The Queen sends out Georgie to check up on the Crown Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson. The Queen is afraid that they are going to quietly get married.

Because this is a historical fiction cozy mystery, there really is some history that these are loosely based on. Prince Edward was having an affair with Mrs Simpson. There was concern about his getting married to her (she was twice divorced and could not legally get married to him if he was going to be King.)

At the end of the last book, it appeared that Georgie and Darcy are going to get married, if the marriage can be approved by the King and Parliament (because Darcy is Catholic, Georgie has to officially remove herself from the line of succession to marry Darcy.)

One of my common complaints about series fiction is that the broader story of the series often does not move much during each individual book. This is the 11th book and Georgie and Darcy have had a romance going on since the beginning. It has been slow, but I do think the series is making progress, not just in the relationship, but historically.

The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation by Luke Timothy Johnson

The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation by Luke Timothy JohnsonSummary: Catholic theologian/historian recounts the history of the early church.

Luke Timothy Johnson is a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He is a former Benedictine monk and priest before going back for his PhD. Since 1976 he has taught at several Catholic institutions as well as Indiana University, Yale and now Emory.

I have been interested in several of his books for a while, but I haven’t gotten around to reading them. So as is standard when I am interesting in an author I picked up books that go on sale, which often are books that are targeted toward a general audience.

The first book of Johnson’s I read was A Very Short Introduction to the New Testament. I thought it was a helpful introduction, primarily focusing on the content of the New Testament and not the scholarship around the New Testament as is common for the Oxford Press series.

I have read a number of History of Christianity surveys. Part of what is interesting in reading a number of survey’s of Christian history is the decisions that get made on what to include and what not to include. The big subjects will pretty much always get included (in this case, the councils, Constantine, the fall of Rome, the split between the East and West, etc.)

The Community of God: A Theology of the Church from a Reluctant Pastor by Douglas Bursch

The Community of God: A Theology of the Church from a Reluctant Pastor by Douglas BurschSummary: The church is essential, even if it is messy.

I am writing this way too long after I read it. When I finished it, I immediately purchased a copy for a friend that is a young pastor. I have been thinking about this book for several weeks now. For too many of us, myself included, the church as a local body or a universal body seems a bit unnecessary.

After all, what is important is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not anything that I do, like attend church. I have heard frequently (and I believe) that you are not a Christian because you attend church. It is not hard to get the understanding that the local church is a nice add-on, but not essential, especially if you don’t particularly enjoy the local body or don’t feel particularly close to anyone in the local body.

I attend a mega-church. Many things about the idea of a megachurch make me uncomfortable. Particularly when I read books like this about the importance of the local church. I have a real bias, in no small part because I feel like I have been called to this particular megachurch (or at least do not feel like I should leave it right now.)

But Doug Bursch and many others (particularly Eugene Peterson) have reminded me that the individualism of our world that emphasizes me and God against the world is foreign to the worldview of the New Testament. The church is far from perfect, and every local church is far from perfect. But there is something about the local church that is essential to our spiritual growth. We do not grow spiritually in the abstract. We grow because we are encouraged by (and struggle with) actual people.

Doug Bursch is a pastor who does not always like people in the church. (If I were ever to become a pastor, I am sure that I would be even more extreme version of that.) But he is a pastor that believes in the church; just one that have been convinced about his own inadequacy to lead (or change) the local body apart from Christ.

American Religious History by Patrick Alitt (Great Courses)

American Religious History by Patrick Alitt (Great Courses)Summary: Primarily focusing on post Civil War eras, the religious history of the United States is fascinating.

I am a fan of Christian history. Even though I have read a number of books and taken multiple classes on Christian history, there is so much to learn. The Great Course’s lecture on American Religious History is from professor Patrick Alitt. He is a British (Anglican) immigrant to the US. So he brings a unique perspective as an outsider to American Religious history.

I certainly would not have organized the class in the way that he did, but I did learn a number of things. Most of the focus was on post-Civil War history, which is good with me. I have read more about early American Religious history anyway.

Some Christians may be surprised by the inclusion of non-Christian religious history here, but the lecture on Native American religious history, the inclusion of information on Mormons, Muslims, Jewish and other religious history is necessary to the whole story of religious history in the US. In many ways I think some of these minor subjects should have been covered in more depth. But there is so much that can be theoretically covered, that it is hard to complain too much about the balance of choices.

While I did enjoy it, I did not think it was as good as The History of Christian Theology, but it was worth listening to.

America’s Religious History by Patrick Alitt (Great Courses) Purchase Links: Audible.com Audiobook

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le CarréTakeaway: Being a spy, influencing the other side is difficult to do and prone to morally questionable decisions.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the book that first made John le Carré’s name (or made John le Carré, a pseudonym famous.) John le Carré was a spy, who became a writer. He came to prominence at about the same time Ian Fleming was becoming famous with James Bond. In many ways he was the anti-Bond.

Bond is known for action and individualism. George Smiley is over weight and a bit dumpy. He is an intellectual and an analyst. Carré’s books are slow and have complex plots. Fleming’s books are much shorter, are much more action based and idealize the work of a spy.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the first of le Carré’s books that I have re-read. And it reminds much how soul deadening that le Carré makes intelligence work. There is some action and some understanding of the west being on the right side of the cold war. But that doesn’t mean that the west is always right in their actions. John le Carré is an author that if he had not read Niebuhr, he at least understood the basic concepts that Niebuhr wrote about in the Irony of American History.