Book Reviews

The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power by DL Mayfield

The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and PowerSummary: Is the American Dream and Christianity compatible?

A couple of years ago, I learned that the word ambivalent means “having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.”  I realized that I have been using the word wrong before that. Since then, it keeps coming to mind. I have contradictory ideas about The Myth of the American Dream. It is a great book. I exported my notes and comments on it, and I have 66 pages, 1/3 of the book that has a comment or underlined section.

The narrative structure spoke to me because while I have never met DL Mayfield, she puts voice to many things I have felt. I have been following her writing for years, her cover story at Christianity Today on Lynching, her Washington Post piece on the revolutionary nature of Mary’s Magnificant and too many more articles to list. The Myth of the American Dream, like following her on twitter or reading her work, is about putting out her pain and desire for the world to be different, more like the kingdom of God, on display to stir up something, anything in the reader.

The Myth of the American Dream I can’t think of apart from the coincidental trilogy of books I read along with it. Along with this book, and Good, White Racist is Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. It is a couple of years old, but it has a similar structure of telling the story of how ministry, as traditionally done, doesn’t work. Both books point out the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism, and individualistic consumerism contradicts with care for the other. They have different settings, Possessing Everything is about urban Indianapolis with mostly Black and Hispanic poor communities. Mayfield’s lives in suburban Portland, with refugee communities struggling to find a place in the midst of gentrifying liberalism. Both bring up education and the problems of white saviors and real introspection about how we can harm as we attempt to serve.

With both the writing was excellent and the focus on how traditional White Protestant ministry often seeks to do for or reconstruct communities to look like we think they should instead of how God sees them. I do not know how to write about this book because I have far too much to talk about. How do I summarize nearly 70 pages of notes and highlights?  At the beginning of the book, she says, ‘this is a book about paying attention.’ And that is probably the best summary. The American Dream is about not paying attention to those who are not doing well—ignoring protests or poverty, or the systems that allow some of us to have much and many others to have almost nothing. It is not about who is working hardest. I can assure you that my work is not hard, but the ‘essential worker’ making minimum wage is working hard.

Care of Mind/Care of Spirit by Gerald May

Care of Mind/Care of Spirit by Gerald MaySummary: A psychiatrist explores spiritual direction. 

This is another assigned book from my spiritual direction class. The focus of this semester’s class was spiritual direction and psychology. So assigning Care of Mind/Care of Spirit makes a lot of sense. Gerald May was a psychiatrist who became disillusioned with psychology and became a spiritual director.

My reading of Care of Mind/Care of Spirit was tainted by having his Addiction and Grace book assigned the same semester. I really did not like Addiction and Grace. My problem was mostly with his messy definition of addiction. But my frustration with May in the Addiction and Grace book did not give me a lot of charity in reading Care of Mind/Care of Spirit.

There is value here. Because he was a psychiatrist he understands that spiritual direction and psychology are not the same thing. There is a temptation for spiritual directors without much training in psychology to over psychologize the spiritual direction.

…all of life’s experiences can appear legitimately in spiritual direction, but they need to be seen in the light of spiritual concern, and at all costs they should not be allowed to eclipse that light.

He also cautions the spiritual directors to understand their role. They are a facilitator of the work of the spirit, they are not the ones doing the work.

In spiritual direction however, the true healer, nurturer, sustainer, and liberator is the Lord, and the director and directee are seen as hopeful channels, beneficiaries, or expressions of grace for each other. This is a radical difference, and one that cannot be overemphasized.

One of the points that is most helpful is his distinguishing between psychology that diagnoses a patient and spiritual direction that assists a person in discernment.

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places by Michael Mather

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places Summary: Story filled book on the reimagining of what it means to serve a community. 

I have read many books on ‘urban ministry’ or community development.  I have a master’s degree in social service administration, and my job is non-profit consulting. Having Nothing, Possessing Everything is not a unique take, but it is well told. In an overly simplified form, this is a church that has taken the Asset Based Community Development model (look to develop the strengths of the community more than bringing in resources to address the weaknesses.) I broadly support the ABCD model, but it is not simple to implement well (or easily replicable), and some use the model as an excuse not to address systemic issues or immediate needs.

I think the story focus of Having Nothing, Possessing Everything does an excellent job of exploring what is and is not meant here. Mather takes on traditional social ministry, unconstrained capitalism, consumerism, and the lack of resources in a helpful way. I wish he dealt more directly with race, although it is in the background throughout the book.

At the end of the book, there is an exploration of a set of six principles that I think are helpful. They are the principle that guides both how partnerships work and the ideals of the church

  1. Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it
  2. Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors.
  3. Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this.
  4. We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek.
  5. Money must flow into the neighborhood.
  6. Practice neighbor love.

Paul: A Very Brief History by John MG Barclay

Paul: A Very Brief HistorySummary: A very brief intro to Paul.

These short guides are both really helpful and difficult to write and write about. They assume some, but not too much familiarity with a subject. If you have no understanding, they probably are too advanced. And if you have a lot of understanding, these types of books probably will not be all that interesting.

Mostly I picked this up because it was on sale and because I wanted to read Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, which yet again I heard some bible/theologian people on twitter talking about as one of the best books of theology of the past decade or so. (It is also on sale for Kindle and even a better deal at less than a penny a page.) I have a pretty good understanding of Paul, I read NT Wright’s biography of Paul fairly recently and I have read a number of other books as well. I thought this would help introduce me to how Barclay thought about Paul, and I think it did a bit.

Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse by Georges Simeon

Summary: A good man is shot in his home and there does not seem to be any suspects.

I was first turned on to Georges Simeon’s Inspector Maigret by John Wilson during a not that long-lived Books and Culture Podcast episode. Simeon is a French mystery novelist that wrote around 500 books, short stories, or novellas. Nearly 150 of them involve Inspector Maigret. Penguin has commissioned new English translations of the whole set and they have been coming out at a very nice clip. I have read several, mostly in order from the start. I have been picking them up as they come on sale for kindle. I decided last week when I picked one up (it is still on sale as I write this) that I would go ahead and read it even if it is theoretically 58th in the series.

There is nothing about the book that really requires you to know the Inspector. And I do not think I missed too much by jumping to the middle of the series. It is brief, I read it in three not too long sittings. This is more of a psychological mystery (think Inspector Gamache rather than a whodunit like Agatha Christy or Sherlock Holmes.)

Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables

Summary: Collection of sermons on the parables, mostly from the 1950s.

This year I have been trying (with mixed success) to read a sermon a day. I have been alternating between Eugene Peterson, Fleming Rutledge, Howard Thurman, and in the past few days, Karl Barth.

Thurman’s Sermons on the Parables are faithful transcriptions of the full sermon with introductory material by the two editors. The commentary helpfully points out features and places the sermons in context. I have heard enough of Thruman’s voice in recordings that it was easy to hear Thurman’s voice as I was reading them. Thurman had a slow, deliberate style of speaking, and I think it would be helpful if you are not familiar with his speaking style to listen to the audio collection of his sermons on Audible or watch a few of the youtube video link this one.

The parables are very familiar territory for most Christians; there is little that can be said that is new. But I was surprised at how often Thurman was able to bring a fresh perspective to the parables while at the same time taking the text seriously; he was not just creating new.

I am not going to comment anymore but quote from an introduction to one of the sermons and then the sermon itself to give a sense of the book.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeSummary: After almost two weeks of reading, my children watched the 2005 movie last night. 

I have looked forward to my children being old enough that I started liking the books I was reading to them. Many of the books I read are still very young (my son just turned five, and my daughter is 16 months older.) In many ways, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is still too old for them. But I do think that this is one of the books that you do not need to understand every little bit to enjoy the book. We discussed it as we went on. I occasionally used different words when I was reading to if I knew they wouldn’t understand it. And they were still introduced to a lot of new vocabulary.

I do not know anything to say about the book other than when I read as an adult it is hard to believe that leaving the Beaver’s house is not until the 10th of 17 chapters (50% of the way through the book) and the children don’t meet Aslan until the 12th chapter (65% of the way through the book).

Breeder Cycle by KB Hoyle (all four books)

Breeder Cycle by KB HoyleSummary: A dystopian trilogy (with a prequel) that is both an enjoyable read and prescient. 

I have not been reading much fiction lately. But with my brain distracted by real life and less time since my kids are not in school right now, it felt like a perfect time to pick up KB Hoyle’s Dystopian series. About 18 months ago I read Hoyle’s fantasy series that started with The Six. I read the series quickly and loved the books. They were certainly in my list of favorite fiction books that I read in 2018.

Once I have a feel for fiction authors, I tend to try to read them completely blind. I had not read any of the descriptions of the series before picking it up. And as I finished each one, I just picked up the next without writing a post. At this point, I do not think it makes sense to write individual responses because this is a single story, told over four books.

The setting is roughly 200 years after two different mass devastation events. There is a single world government that is trying to repopulate the earth after the majority of the population died in a massive famine, a wide-scale pandemic or a third event that I will not reveal. The main character at the start of the first book is one of the breeders, Seventeen (later Pria). Other characters are quickly introduced and many of them continue through the series.

I am not going to give away plot details but a couple of notes. KB Hoyle has great plots. Hints are given, but I did not know where the story was going to end up as I was going along. I can also guess that a few people will be disappointed in how some of the first two books end, but remember, this is a single large story arc, keep reading.

Domestic Monastery by Ronald Rolheiser

Domestic Monastery by Ronald Rolheiser, OMISummary: Short book thinking about how we can arrange our lives to think about them as service to God.

This is a short book, about 90 pages and just under an hour as audio. It is cheap on both kindle and audiobook right now ($0.99 on kindle, $2.77 on audio). Sunday morning I could not sleep and after putzing around on social media for a while I put this on audio to listen to as I sat back and closed my eyes hoping to fall back asleep.

I don’t think I feel back asleep but I also need to read this again and it is quick enough I probably will later this week. Thematically, this is simple, some meditations from the head of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio about how people outside of the monastery can incorporate some of the practices and ideas of the monastery in a non-monastic setting.

There are good looks at being a parent and how parenting (or other relationships) primes us to sacrifice for others.  Also how there are seasons of life and looking at those seasons (or times of day) can be used to be thought of like the liturgical year or the prayers of the hours.

Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God Together by Lacy Finn Borgo

Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God TogetherSummary: A practical, story filled guide on how to have spiritual conversations with children.

I am approaching this with a definite perspective. I am in training to become a spiritual director (for adults), but I also have spent much of my life doing administrative and evaluative work for ministries for children. I am also am the stay-at-home/work-at-home parent, and my wife is an elementary teacher. I spend a lot of time thinking about children and how to serve them well.

I am reading this directly because I want to be a spiritual director. Still, parents, teachers, pastor, and many others that are interested in the spiritual life of children would also benefit. There are good theoretical discussions about children and spiritual matters that are approachable for almost everyone. And lots of practical examples.

Lacy Finn Borgo in Spiritual Conversations With Children is not adapting adult spiritual direction for children, but starting with children’s needs and their own developmentally appropriate modes of communication and building a practice of spiritual direction that is oriented around them. It is very much focused on a listening mode of spiritual direction. (She says at one point, children already have parents and other authority figures, the adult spiritual listener is there to listen to the children not correct them, or teach them.)