Book Reviews

Water To Wine: Some of My Story by Brian Zahnd

I am reposting this 2016 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99 until the end of day Friday.
Water To Wine: Some of My Story by Brian ZahndSummary: Christian maturity needs to be a real goal. But writing about that maturity can be difficult.

Brian Zahnd is a pastor of a large church that helped to start more than 20 years ago. I first read his book Beauty will Save the World (about the beauty and mystery of Christianity) about four years ago. Then two years ago I read A Farewell to Mars (about his movement toward peace, he does not like the term pacifism because of its political connotations).

Earlier this year Zahnd published Water to Wine, a very autobiographical look at how he found a fuller understanding of Christianity when he embraced the historic and sacramental nature of the Christian church. Zahnd is about 10 years older than I am and a pastor. But he is putting to words what I, and I think many others, are feeling. The evangelical or charismatic church that has lost its connection to the historic church and the church’s historic practices of the sacraments is a church that has lost its grounding.

Zahnd is careful in his book. He is not minimizing his history or how the church has helped many come to faith. But he is saying that for him, his faith needed something else in order to move to a more mature faith. Part of the difficulty here is talking about Christian maturity in a way that does not minimize people’s faith that are on their way to maturity but not there yet.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol ZaleskiSummary: A joint biography of a group of writers that impacted the 20th century, perhaps more than any other group of writers.

Several years ago I read a ton of books by and about CS Lewis. I am still fascinated by Lewis, and there is still more to read by or about Lewis, but at this point much that I read about Lewis is repetition. So I was a bit reluctant to read The Fellowship because one of the complaints about it, is that it is too much about Lewis and not enough about the others. That complaint is valid. Although the Zaleskis managed to include new information about Lewis and the others, once I got past the initial introduction of the characters.

The Fellowship is not a short book. I listened to it on audiobook and it was over 26 hours (nearly 700 pages). While I did set it down a couple times, it was interesting and well written. Primarily I was interested in the biography of Charles Williams. He was one of the earliest Inklings to pass away (1945), but he was an important, but odd, member. Williams was the only member that was not highly educated (never competing a college degree). Gut as an editor at Oxford University Press, Williams came up through an alternative system of learning about writing. Williams was certainly odd. He was fascinated with the occult and magic and seemed to have a certain sexual appeal that he took advantage of, potentially to the level sexually abusing some women. At the very least he was a serial adulterer.

William is just one example of a mix of people that surrounded JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Both Lewis and Tolkien, were clearly orthodox Christians, and at least after Lewis’ conversion, they were both very conventional in their morality. But many of the others around them were not. It was not just Williams. Barfield was fascinated by, and a proponent of, Anthroposophy, a pseudo-scientific, semi-religious rationalistic philosophy. Most manifestations of it were clearly not compatible with orthodox Christianity.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael Wear

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael WearSummary: Thoughts on issues and politics from a young staffer in the Obama White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Michael Wear seems like someone I would really like in person. We share a fairly similar politics. People that I know, that know him, like him. And while he is more than a decade younger than I am, he seems like he has learned much in those years about the way the world works and has managed to not become cynical, but instead has maintained the capacity for hope, while understanding the fallenness of humanity.

Reclaiming Hope is part memoir, part political theology, part history of the Obama presidency. Michael Wear was a young college student when he was attracted to the new young politician on the political landscape. Obama had roared onto the scene in 2004 and by 2007 Michael Wear and worked his way into the campaign. (Obama was my State Rep and then State Senator and then US Senator, so I was aware of him long before many on the national scene. I remember having him as a guest lecturer at one of my grad classes in spring 1998 and talking to him afterward about a problem I was having with my non-profit work. I came home to my wife and announced that Obama was going to be president someday.)

Wear worked on Obama’s presidential campaign in faith outreach and then was hired as one of the youngest West Wing staffers in modern history, to work in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Wear left the West Wing to head up the outreach to faith groups in the 2012 campaign. Finally, he worked for the inauguration committee for Obama’s second inauguration before stepping away, burned out, disillusioned, but hopeful for a better way.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: Home by Nnedi OkoraforSummary: After spending a year at college, Binti goes home to face her family.

Science Fiction is the perfect genre to explore so many different ideas. Binti and this follow up book Binti: Home are both mostly about what it means to grow up, leave home and be changed by the process so that you are not sure that you can go home again.

I read the award winning novella Binti a few weeks ago and enjoyed the followup novel just as much. Binti has been at Oomza University for about a year (she left to go to college on another world in the middle of the night without telling her family.) Her family is part of an African tribe that trades with the world, but does not leave their village.

(Spoilers for the previous book ahead.)

People to Be Loved by Preston Sprinkle

People to be Loved by Preston Sprinkle book reviewTakeaway: Regardless of whether you theologically agree with Sprinkle’s position, the title and tone of the book is right. This isn’t just about an issue, it is about people.

I have been working through books on the church’s approach to issues around sexual orientation (slowly) over the past several months. I have reviewed several books that have taken a position that is more inclusive and now I am reviewing what I think is the best book I am aware of that takes a more traditional position.

Preston Sprinkle has a PhD in New Testament and has been a professor, but is now a full time writer. Although this is the first book of his that I have read, he has a reputation for writing theologically sophisticated books on difficult issues that are readable by a wide audience.

People To Be Loved walks a pretty clear line of asserting a traditional understanding of sexual ethics (sex is reserved for marriage and marriage is only for heterosexual couples), but also prodding those that agree with that message to be much more open and loving toward those that outside of that understanding.

After a good introduction by Wesley Hill, another New Testament professor who holds similar convictions, but is a celibate gay man, Sprinkle sets up the tone of the book. Homosexuality is not a theoretical issue and there is not a monolithic ‘gay culture’. There are many people that identify as gay or have same sex attractions and this is an important issue because we as Christians love them as individuals.

The next section is a slow careful exploration of scripture. One of the problems for non-theologian, non-bible scholars evaluating the arguments around this and other similar issues is that some of the arguments are pretty technical. Sprinkle does not shy away from being technical when necessary. But it does make it hard to evaluate the evidence. It is why we need to read several books from each side to get a better understanding of the weight of evidence.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son by James BaldwinSummary: A collection of literary and personal essays written in the mid 1950s by James Baldwin.

I recently went to see the documentary I am Not Your Negro. After watching that very good documentary I finally picked up Notes of a Native Son, which I purchased a while ago but I have not read.

The first section are literally and film criticism essays (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Native Son and Carmen Jones.) I have not read or watched any of these, although I knew the basic outline of the story of the first two. This section would likely have been much better if I was familiar with the works being talked about.

Section two and three were some of the best essays I have ever read and I want to go back and read them again.

The three essays in section two are about growing up and living in Harlem, his brother’s musical group’s ill fated trip to the South as entertainment for a political campaign and a eulogy for his father. The eulogy essay is the best essay of the book I think. Eulogies often gloss over the negatives of a person and highlight what will be missed. Baldwin’s father was not going to be missed much, although once he was gone, Baldwin was able to deal with his love for him. Baldwin’s father died on Baldwin’s 19th birthday and Baldwin left soon after to move to Paris.

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

Takeaway: Class matters. The idealism of a classless society and the myth that everyone can move up the social ladder with a little hard work has never been true for the majority in the United States.

Class matters. That shouldn’t be a controversial idea, but it is. It is controversial because it flies in the face of the American myth. It is possible to point to many that have risen up from their poor roots to achieve more than those that grew up around them. But the very pointing out that you know someone that grew up poor and is now rich only serves as a reminder that it is not the story of the majority.

White Trash is a provocative book. I do not think it is a particularly untold story as the subtitle suggests, but I think it is an under-represented story. Early US immigration was primarily fueled by lower classes. Early history of government is a master class in how the powerful can manipulate government to remain in power and use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

From the early days of America, there was an understanding of poverty as something that was ‘congenital’. Prior to Darwin, Isenberg widely quotes founding fathers and essayists using language of animal husbandry. Whether the image was of dog breeding or horse breeding, the point was that if you have a cur, it is probably because the animal was of bad stock.

Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura (#1)

Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura (#1)Summary: A Japanese Manga story about Viking history.

A Facebook friend runs a comicbook/graphic novel review blog. He has been doing a series of daily recommendations and I have been trying to pick up about one a month.

The Vinland Sage was very highly recommended, not only by him but by virtually everyone that I know that has read it. But it is also long, 9 collected volumes so far, each of over 400 pages. I picked this up through interlibrary loan because it is not particularly cheap or easy to find.

This is my first magna. It took a little while to switch to reading right to left (this was originally published in Japan and uses the original art with English translation.)

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles March

I am reposting this 2015 review because the Kindle Edition of the book has dropped to $5.99. This is the first time it has been below $10.99 as a kindle edition since it was released. However, if you are looking for the absolute cheapest, there are some used hardcover copies that are just over $3 (including shipping) from Amazon.
Strange Glory by Charles MarshSummary: A nuanced and in depth look at one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century. The best of the Bonhoeffer biographies I have read.

Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory is the third full biography of Bonhoeffer I have read in the last five years, not include three additional books on particular aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life or theology and also not including the books I have read by Bonhoeffer.

Without question, this is the best of the three full biographies I have read. Charles Marsh is an academic historian and writer. As much as I appreciated Eric Metaxas’ biography that opened up Bonhoeffer to many people unaware of his legacy, Metaxas did not have the academic skills to pull off a serious biography. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s biography had the academic heft, but was written originally in German, and while worth reading, the translation made it a bit clunky at times and it still a pretty obscure (and expensive) biography.

So there is space for a third new biography of Bonhoeffer. If you have read one or both of the previous biographies, Marsh brings a new look at Bonhoeffer. First, he spends more time on his childhood and particularly the strengths and weaknesses that came about because of Bonhoeffer’s privileged (and spoiled) upbringing. Second, Marsh spends a lot more time on the impact of Bonhoeffer’s time in the US and particularly the impact of the African American church to Bonhoeffer’s later theology. Third, Marsh does a better job than Schlingensiepen or Metaxas at explaining Bonhoeffer’s actual theology and the progression of that theology over time (and how it stayed the same.)

Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle version is on sale for $1.99. If you like to start at the beginning of a series, this is the first of the George Smiley novels.

Call for the Dead by John Le CarreSummary: John Le Carré’s first novel and the introduction to George Smiley.

I really hate reading books out of order.  When I decided to read a Le Carré novel, Call for the Dead was not available as an audiobook or kindle book.  But with the publicity from the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie, many of Le Carré’s novels are coming back into print or moving to digital formats.

Over Christmas I picked up the first two novels in the series from an sale.  I knew going in that the reputation of these books is that while they are interesting back story to George Smiley, they are not Le Carré’s best work.  He originally wrote them while working as a real spy and it was only after his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, took off that Le Carré became a full time author.

This is the third of Le Carré’s novels that I have read.  In the series I started with the third book, which only has George Smiley as a marginal character.  Then I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which brings Smiley back to the center stage (and re-sets the timeline from the first two books making Smiley about 10 years younger).