Book Reviews

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held EvansSummary: A broad overview of Rachel Held Evan’s hermeneutics of reading the bible, written for people who don’t really use the word hermeneutics.

I very much value Rachel Held Evans. I do not have all of the same questions and issues that Evans has had. I grew up in a different context, I am male and therefore was not restricted in similar ways as she was. I grew up in an evangelical wing of a mainline denomination, so I did not have the fundamentalist tendencies that her church background did. The problem of evil, which I treat seriously, has never been threatening to my faith in the same way that it was to her faith. But I valued her voice as one that helps me with perspective.

Evans is getting older. The original memoir-y looks at young adult faith and coming of age cannot go on forever. And while I don’t think her books were always primarily deconstructing, Inspired is consciously an attempt at constructing. I do not want to presume motive or changes, but she is 35 now. She has a young son and a newborn daughter. She has chosen a church home. So I think that it is likely that the settled nature of young middle age has her thinking about how to construct faith of those around her not just ask questions and pose problems (not that there is anything wrong with asking questions and posing problems.)

Inspired is focused on how to read the bible, or at least how she has learned to read the bible, in a new way. She is primarily approaching the bible as story. Looking at what is there, but in a new way. Evans is primarily known as a memoirist. She is not a scholar, but a writer and writing with a writer’s sense of how stories are supposed to be read and understood.

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'ConnorSummary: A 14 year old boy tries to escape his destiny. 

One of my reading goals this year is to read all of Flannery O’Connor fiction, which is completely possible because there are only two novels and two short story collections. The Violent Bear It Away is the second novel. On the whole I liked it more than Wise Blood, but I am not completely sure why. My most clear impression of the book is that I have missed a lot of it because I am sure I have not understood some of the references and subtler meanings. It will be going on the ‘to read again’ pile.

Tarwater, a 14 year old boy, who has been raised by his great uncle after his mother died in a car accident, is suddenly alone in the world. After his great uncle dies, he leaves his cabin in the woods and goes to town with his secular Uncle Rayber and his son Bishop.

One of the Goodreads reviews I read commented that none of the characters are likable, but I disagree with that assessment. It is hard to like the characters, but I did not dislike any of them. Instead, it was easy to see the hurt in all of the characters. I could not think of the surly 14 year old, or Rayber, who had been abandoned by his wife with a disabled (probably Downs Syndrome) boy, without having sympathy for their hurt. They make bad decisions and harm one another, but the harm is harm borne by trauma and from generational sin.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieSummary: A classic Agatha Christie mystery with a small group of people, a murder and a detective. 

According to the book’s cover information, Murder on the Orient Express is the most widely read mystery of all time. I have read one or two Agatha Christie novels over the past decade or so, but probably 8 or 10 when I was a teen. Murder on the Orient Express was not one of those that I have previously read and I did not know the actual story when I picked it up.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and released in conjunction with Branagh’s movie in late 2017. I have not seen the movie, but I can see how it would work well as a movie. 

As I have said before, I am a relatively recent convert to the mystery genre. Older Sherlock Holmes and similar novels that are about obscure clues and puzzles are not particularly interesting to me. I assume that an author can trick me as a reader into going off on the wrong track. Instead I am more interested in the people, the setting, the motivations and psychology. 

Murder on the Orient Express is one of the Christie books that is more focused on the parts of the mystery that I like and is less focused on the parts of the mystery that I do not. Christie writes in a fairly simple style but Branagh is an excellent narrator and gave real voice to the characters. 

I will not give away any of the details but this was worth reading. I am not sure I will pick up another Christie novel quickly. But this was a good change of pace that I was glad to have listened to.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Micheal Eric Dyson

What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Micheal Eric Dyson

Summary: Roughly based on an actual meeting between Robert F Kennedy and a number of African Americans including James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Jerome Smith, Harry Belafonte and others, Dyson explores what it means to bring truth about race in America.

This is the fourth book I have read by Michael Eric Dyson in just over a year. Dyson is a cultural critic, essayist, theologian, and professor. What Truth Sounds Like is a follow up from his earlier Tears We Cannot Stop. That earlier book was a direct theological argument toward White Christians about the importance of racial justice.

What Truth Sounds Like is a different approach roughly based on an actual meeting with Robert Kennedy in 1963 that was arranged by James Baldwin. James Baldwin was asked to pull together a group of African Americans, not political leaders, but others that would truthfully talk to Kennedy about the Black experience. Kennedy wanted to share his urban political program, but Kennedy was unprepared for the truth telling that went on in that room. He initially left frustrated but later understood, at least in part, that the frustration shared that day was honest and necessary for Kennedy to hear.

Dyson uses the meeting as a jumping off point to express how politicians, artists, intellectuals, celebrities, and activists have historically, and today, shared the truths of the world. Dyson is not making an explicitly Christian claim here as he does in some of his other books. But the claim is no less honest or important.

One note that is important to the reading of What Truth Sounds Like. Dyson, as is common among many minorities that write and speak about race, uses the word Whiteness or White in two broad ways. Occasionally Dyson is merely being descriptive about the skin color of a person. But more often Dyson is using the words White or Whiteness as a descriptor of the cultural understanding of Whites as superior to people of other racial groups, not completely unlike the concept of White Supremacy. White readers often hear minority writers and speakers complaining about Whiteness and understand them to be complaining about White people as individuals or a group. But what people that use White or Whiteness in this way are actually decrying, is a cultural understanding that physically or psychologically or socially harms non-White people because they are valued as either less than or ‘other’.

Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life by Alan Jacobs

Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life by Alan JacobsSummary: Based on a series of lecture about how our understanding of our personal testimonies impacts the way we understand Christian Faith.

If I had any advice for a young Christian reader, it would be find people that are smarter than you, with different perspectives than you have, and listen to them. The great value in the written word is that the words of people of different perspective, ages ,and backgrounds are available without needing to actually sit at the physical feet of others.

Throughout history we have looked toward the wise to teach us. And today we have the accumulated wisdom, not just of the wise people today but much of the wisdom of history. We are frankly drowning in words, but there is a tendency to not think of words as the means of transmission of wisdom but as a transmission of an argument.

Alan Jacobs is participating in a discussion about the role of the individual within narrative theology. But that discussion is subtle, too subtle I think for most readers that do not have a pretty good history in narrative theology. Narrative theology is trying to push modern Christianity to pay more attention to the communal and broad historical sweep of Christianity and less attention to the individual and the personal issues of Christianity. Jacobs is trying to remind narrative theologians that while the communal and historical issues of Christianity are real, that you still need to pay attention to the individual.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Summary: The first two women on the Supreme Court changed it dramatically, but also had different perspectives.

I have been long fascinated with the Supreme Court. I have read several books on the court, including O’Connor’s reflection on the court, The Majesty of the Law, and a light biography of Ginsberg, The Notorious RBG and a more technical book on the role of court by Stephen Breyer, The Court and the World.

Sisters In Law is a dual biography of the two first women as Supreme Court Justices. They were fairly close in age, but widely different in background, political perspective, and legal background.

Sandra O’Connor grew up in rural Arizona and went to college and law school in California. After following her husband in the military for three years, she was unable to find a law firm that would hire her as a lawyer. So she started her own. She then took five years off full time work to raise her children (but spent significant time working with the Republican party and volunteer organizations during that time.) And when she went back to work she initially volunteered to work for a local prosecutor to prove herself capable. She eventually worked her way up to became Assistant Attorney General of Arizona. Eventually, in part because of her work with the local Republican party in Arizona, she was appointed to a vacant state legislature seat and eventually rose to become first woman to be a State Senate Majority leader. After eight years as a legislator she ran for judge. She served as a county judge for four years and then nearly two years as a judge of the Arizona State Court of Appeals before being appointed to the Supreme Court.

O’Connor has a fascinating history, two different tracks of elections, and time as Assistant Attorney General, not to mention the work in political and other volunteer associations. Ginsberg has a much different history. She had a more traditional path to the Supreme Court. Ginsberg went to the traditional Ivy League law schools and became a professor and the the head of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, where she guided policy and argued six cases before the Supreme Court before being appointed to the US Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter.

Both women are fascinating, but because Ginsberg’s history prior to the court includes so much work on women’s issues, it feels like O’Connor was short changed in Sisters in Law. Being the first woman to be a party leader of a state Senate, in her early 40s and then restarting her career again as an elected judge and being appointed to the Supreme Court at 51 should have had more time than it got.

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Sparrow #2)

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Sparrow #2)NewImageSummary: Part two of the story of a Jesuit mission to the planet of Rakhat. 

There is no way to fully discussion Children of God without spoilers. So this review is not really going to discuss the plot. The first book in the series, The Sparrow, was a devastating book. The Sparrow started at the end, knowing that Emilio Sandoz was the only survivor of the first mission to Rakhat. But it takes that whole book to really understand Sandoz’s role in the trip and why he is so devastated.

Children of God starts soon after the end and the two books really need to be thought of as a whole. I spent nearly two years between the two books because I was so impacted by the first that I was not sure I was ready to read the second. I should have read them closer together because, apart from length, they probably should have been published together. (And there are a ton of characters and reading them together would have helped in keeping the characters in order in my head.)

It was not until the end of the book that I realized that in many ways this is a meditation on the book of Job. Mary Doria Russell is Jewish. Although most of the characters of the books are Jesuit priests, there is one Jewish woman in the original mission to Rakhat, but regardless, both faiths include the book of Job and theologically grapple with the problems of evil.

Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice Fryling

Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice FrylingSummary: Enneagram as a method of spiritual growth.

More than anything, reading about the Enneagram makes me realize that I probably discount other people entirely too much. Or at the very least do not take into account the different ways that people process the world around them.

I am still a bit skeptical about the Enneagram. This is my second book and I think I both understood more about the basic ideas of the Enneagram and that I understood more about how it works as a system. I am not sure I will every become a devotee. But I do see some value in the descriptions. And like any personality system, the help is in the revelation, not in the proscription. In other words, to the extent that the ideas of the Enneagram are helpful to helping you understand yourself or others and give voice to your own understanding of yourself, it is helpful. But the Enneagram is not helpful if it is used to proscribe how others (or yourself) will act.

After having finished Mirror for the Soul and thought more about the Enneagram, mostly positively, I do think that part of my issue with the it as a concept is wondering how much the the individualism, which is part of our current world and culture, is being encouraged here. We are individuals. We experience the world individually. But at different points in time, cultural emphasized the responsibility to the whole more than it does now. And I wonder how much of our current fascination with personality is unhealthy. It isn’t that I reject that individual personality is real. Or that I don’t think that trauma, abuse, or flourishing as an individual impacts us as an individual to impact the world around us. But I wonder about how much, at least for some of us, self awareness becomes an idol itself. To Alice Fryling’s credit, there is a discussion about the Enneagram as idolatry (by which she means self absorption as idolatry).

When Godly People Do Ungodly Things: Arming Yourself in the Age of Seduction by Beth Moore

When Godly People Do Ungodly Things: Arming Yourself in the Age of Seduction by Beth MooreSummary: A discussion of spiritual attacks, sin, prevention of sin, forgiveness, repentance and restoration.

I have been aware of Beth Moore for a long time but other than one book that I started as an audiobook, and stopped because the content was inappropriate for audio, I have not read any of her books or done any of her bible studies. But over the past year or so, I have been increasingly impressed with her on Twitter. She is kind, but forceful. She interacts with a lot of people that I know or know of on twitter. And she has been increasingly important to conversations around race, gender, sexism, and sexual assault within the Evangelical world.

I decided I needed to actually read one of her books. A few years ago she temporarily made most of her books available for free on kindle. As I scanned through titles and descriptions to pick one, When Godly People Do Ungodly Things stood out because of my interest in the topic. I have written a bit on this and one of the few pieces I have been asked to repost on another blog was a piece I wrote about how we should approach John Yoder and others that have significantly tainted reputations because of their sin. Recent discussions about Karl Barth and his long term affair with Charlotte von Kirshbaum, his secretary and co-author of some of his work, brought this back up to me again.

As I got into When Godly People Do Ungodly Things, I think it is valuable, but not quite what I thought it would be. Beth Moore is talking about spiritual attack and what we can do to guard ourselves against it. In some ways I think this is similar to Richard Beck’s book Reviving Old Scratch. Both are trying to bring renewed attention to Satan as an actual figure of importance to Christian theology, but from very different theological perspectives. Beck is trying to remind a more progressive/mainline group of Christians that are fine thinking about Satan as an abstract idea or someone that is behind systemic evil that Satan is important theologically and actually to understanding both individual and systemic sin.

Beth Moore is trying to remind conservative Evangelicals that Satan does not just tempt non-Christians, but is Christians as well. She describes how what starts as a spiritual dryness or a lack of spiritual disciplines or a seemingly innocent exploration can become a full blown crisis of sin. I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory right before I started this book and Greene’s main character there is an alcoholic priest. The Priest does not blame the alcohol for his sin, but his pride. His pride led him to stop focusing on his spiritual disciplines and care for others and to think about himself. Eventually he became lazy in other areas as well. As things snowballed, he became a alcoholic, he also fathered a child. Greene’s description of the unnamed priest’s decent seems very similar to Moore’s concerns.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

'm Still Hear: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing BrownSummary: What it means to be a Black Woman in middle-class White America, even within the church.

A little over a week ago I sat down with a list of the books I had read since the start of 2017 and analyzed the authors. I looked at how many were White, how many were women, how many were fiction versus non-fiction. What I discovered when I completed this quick exercise was that I read just over 60% non-fiction. Although the authors of the fiction I read was was roughly evenly split between men and women authors, my non-fiction was five times more likely to be male authors as female. And my non-fiction was three times more likely to be White than non-White authors. Because of my bias toward non-fiction, I read mostly White males.

This exercise was not about meeting a quota, but about exploring what as a reader I am consuming. How much do I, when not paying attention, default to reading the voices of White males (a lot). What do I need to do to make sure I am not internalizing the bias of my reading choices? With that information, I know that I need to make sure I am intentionally picking up more books written by minorities, especially women.

I picked up I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness yesterday, when it came out, in part because of my exercise not hearing minority, especially female minority authors. I’m Still Here is brief, just over 3 hours in audiobook. It is mostly memoir. Austin Channing Brown opens with a story about how her name (one that is associated mostly with White Males) was chosen intentionally to get her in the door for interviews. She grew up in mostly White neighborhoods and going to mostly White schools. It wasn’t until college that she had her first Black teacher. But the saturation in White culture did not change her skin color or how she was perceived by those that were going to judge her because of her gender or skin.

It appears to me that I’m Still Here is written primarily for Black women, but with the intention to be overheard by others. She celebrates her blackness because that is how God created her. And she celebrates the comfort of the Black church in the reality of the difficulties of the world. It tells about the emotional baggage that has been heaped upon her as a professional woman working mostly in Christian non-profits to do the work of making Whites feel good about how much progress has been made in racial issues or to spoon feed them history about racism in the US.