Book Reviews

How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns

How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News by Peter EnnsSubtitle: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News

I first read Peter Enns in 2011 as part of a discussion of his Inspiration and Incarnation. I was very frustrated with the book. But after processing and in context of spending about a year reading about and thinking about hermeneutics, I basically agree with his main points. The three follow up books to that, all more focused on the lay reader than the academic reader, have been helpful.

I think How The Bible Actually Works is where I would suggest most people start with Enns and his project. In an overly simplistic summary, Enns is suggesting that the best way to read the bible is to pay attention to how it works internally and historically and how early readers read it. And that means we acknowledge that the bible speaks with diverse voices. That it is often ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. And that the point is not to give us clear rules of life, but to help teach us wisdom.

“Reading the situation—not simply the Bible—is what wisdom is all about. It’s also, as we’ll see, what the life of faith is about. Sometimes it’s best to answer a fool, sometimes not. Which option is best at this unscripted moment depends on all sorts of factors that are impossible to anticipate, and so each time I read a nasty comment, I have to decide in the moment what the best way forward is in this situation.”

Like Enns’ other books, I think How the Bible Actually Works  is going to be misread by many. First, the title is tongue in cheek. There is a lot of humor in the book. Enns’ podcast is called, “The Bible for Normal People” with the tagline, “The only God ordained podcast”.

Second, while Enns is trying to help the reader think about the bible differently, he is not reducing the bible to only wisdom literature or as in the quote below, reducing Jesus to just a sage. He is introducing those ideas, not reducing them to only those ideas.

The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Patrick Parr

The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Patrick ParrSummary: Exploration of King’s years at Crozer Seminary, from the time he was 19 to 21.

The Seminarian is the first book to deal particularly with Martin Luther King’s seminary experience. MLK was young, only 19 when he graduated from Morehouse College and started his seminary program. Crozier was also his first extended time away from home and a predominately White institution, although by the time of his graduation, about half of the small class was Black. But the institution, the professors, the administration the curriculum was White.

The Seminarian is well written and organized. It is well documented and in areas where there is necessarily speculation, that speculation is well explained and clearly understood as speculation. In addition to talking about King’s coming to maturity and grappling with his call to ministry and covering the curriculum and education at Crozier, there are two main contributions that I think The Seminarian provides to King scholarship (at least at the lay level).

First, there is lots of discussion and documentation of King’s romance with Betty Moitz, a White woman and the daughter of seminary cook. (King worked in the cafeteria so also knew Betty’s mother well.) That romance, which was very guarded, proceeded very slowly, but ended before it went too deeply. It appears that King reluctantly broke the romance off because he was encouraged to by his friends who were concerned that King would both not be able to be a preacher in the Black church with a White wife and that King would not be able to move south at all with White wife. It appears that King’s family never knew about the romance. Parr did speak to Betty Moitz and other friends of King’s at the time that did know about the romance and the discussion is something new to King scholarship.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin Kruse and Julian ZelizerSummary: A recent history from 1974 focusing on the increasing polarization as a result of four ‘Fault Lines’, income inequality, racial division, changing gender roles and change sexual norms.

History and the tools of the historian are important to understanding both history and how we got to the place where we are. Kruse and Zelizer are writing a recent history with their tools as historians. I was born in 1973, the year before this really starts and so it was a helpful, especially for the first 20-25 years old where I have some memory but not as much context as I do about the more recent history.

Fault Lines is a brief overview of the past 45 years focusing on the polarization that is a result of increasing diversity and increasing cultural and political power of women, racial minorities and LGBT people and the backlash against those changes. That framing I think is helpful, but incomplete. But I am also not sure how to be more complete without the book ballooning to a thousand pages.

I think there can be disagreement with where the authors start. There fault lines cited certainly didn’t start in 1974. Racial and gender issues were definitely earlier. Sexual mores have long been changing. Income inequality did start spiking around that time, but did fuel previous political issues. But 1974 was a reasonable starting place.

There is lots of information that I had either forgotten or did not know. But this is a fairly introductory overview.  From what I understand, it is based on an undergrad class that the authors teach at Princeton. In areas where I have a bit more knowledge the gloss I think is a bit superficial in places. For instance the blame for the 2007 financial crisis was placed on subprime loans, which were a contributing factor, but there was actually more money lost from middle class borrowers that over extended their credit than from low income subprime borrowers that defaulted. The complexity of the discussion gets better as the further it goes, but that initial explanation I think was actually wrong, not just incomplete.

What I appreciate is both the readability and the role that pop culture and tech play in the history. The pop culture and tech are not fluff, they really do play an important role in politics and history of the late 20th and early 21st century and Fault Lines both cites them for their political and historical influence and I think to give human interest to the story.

Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for all the Followers of Jesus by John Armstrong

Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for all the Followers of Jesus by John ArmstrongSummary: The emphasis on love is not just doctrinal, or practical, or pragmatic, it is central to the way of Christ.

I sometimes have problems trying to figure out how to write about books where I know the author, and I deeply appreciate the message. It would be easy to just write gushing appreciation, and I do appreciate the book and its content as well as the author. But this book deserves more than that.

Love is often thought of by Christians as something trite or simply niceness or softness in theology (a movement toward liberalism). But Christ’s words about love are not advocating niceness. And Jesus saying we should be known for our love is not advocating some doctrine-less ‘anything goes’ understanding of faith. Love, the type that puts others first and includes enemies among those that must be loved, is anything but trite.

There are a number of writers that have written movingly about God’s love and our response to that love. In general, they are not writing abstractly, but in response to a deep relationship to God. They are writing because they have both felt God’s love in them and they have understood God’s call to community and others as a direct response to God’s love of us. In the end, while Christianity does value doctrine, and church structures, and service to others, etc., Love is about relationship and when we move to describing Christianity in any non-relational terms we start moving away from the central role that Love is designed to play in our faith.

Like many others good books on aspects of Christianity, Costly Love is a book about discipleship. Discipleship is about transformation long term, not data processing. Information and theology can help us understand God and others and love more deeply, but theology without praxis is never really full Christianity. Love is not something that can only be thought about, it has to be practiced with actual people.

John Armstrong is not advocating human-only discussion in Costly Love. When he is finished diagnosing the problem of a lack of love, he suggests that the solution is that, “We need a fresh encounter with God-Love so that we can be transformed by the spirit of God so that we can love others with that God-Love.” Later he says, “But we don’t need to seek, love, we have already been given that love by God. Instead we need to seek to remove the barriers to love. We learn to love by loving.” (My attempts as quoting quickly since I listened to this on audiobook.)

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James BaldwinTakeaway: I need to read this again.

Go Tell It On the Mountain is my second Baldwin fiction book and my fourth book by Baldwin. Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction styles feel very different. That may be more about what books I have read, but so far, I like his essays, more than his fiction.

I started Go Tell It On the Mountain as an audiobook. But the audiobook was difficult to follow. The structure of the book changes perspective and narrative frequently and there was just not enough cues in the audio to note that there was a change, let alone what the change was. So I gave up on the audio and read the print the rest of the way. The print was less confusing, although there were still places where jumps in action occurred and I feared that I had missed something and would re-read to realize that I had not missed anything.

Like several other authors, I can feel Baldwin’s talent. He writes beautifully and with power. But I do not love the stories. I know I am not supposed to love the stories because they are not about beautiful things or people. But still it is difficult to read about people in pain constantly. Now that I understand the structure more clearly I think I can read it better and pay more attention to the language and the narrative. Especially the last section feel’s similar to Flannery O’Connor’s dictum about needing to shout to the hard of hearing.

The is a book soaked in biblical allusions and direct references. I really do not know how someone would read this and make sense of it without a very good working knowledge of the bible.

This line, “If God’s power was so great, why were their lives so troubled?” does seem to be the central theme. God is real here. But the father figure (Gabriel), while attempting to follow God and being clearly used by God, is also abusive. In many ways, it seems that the real question is, if God is real why is Gabriel not changed.

Almost at the end, the Gabriel (John’s step father) is confronted by his sister over his past and current sin. The father responds, ‘“God’s way,” he said, and his speech was thick, his face was slick with sweat, “ain’t man’s way. I been doing the will of the Lord, and can’t nobody sit in judgment on me but the Lord.’ It is this type of father/church figure that I think that Baldwin in real life is reacting against.

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Solo by Kwame AlexanderSummary: Blade, the son of a famous, but notoriously addicted rock star, tries to find his way to adulthood. 

My first narrative verse book was Brown Girl Dreaming. I have been looking forward to reading Kwame Alexander since because I knew that he wrote novels that are written in verse. There are others as well, that I will make my way to eventually.

I have never really liked poetry. But I know that part of it is because I do not like reading slow. I want to read fast and keep moving. Solo and Brown Girl Dreaming were well worth reading. With both I have started with the audiobooks so that I can hear them read properly. I will go back eventually and read them in print, but the right reading of poetry I think is part of my problem with poetry.

Solo is also a musical book. So in addition to the narrative verse, it is about a musician and it includes original music written for the book. The audiobook includes that, which is yet another reason to listen to the audiobook.

Blade is 17, the school salutatorian. A natural with a guitar, and the son of a famous but addicted rock star father. His mother died when he was 9 and he has not gotten over that, nor has his father or older sister. Blade resents his family even as he loves them. His father has given him wealth and many things, including a love of music and access to it. But he also has messed up his life, including the fact that his girlfriend’s father will not let them see one another because of the screw up that is his Dad.

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow PriorSummary: An exploration of reading as a means of learning virtue.

It is hard to review books of people you know and like. I have been Facebook/Twitter friends with Karen Swallow Prior since 2012 when her first book came out. I am in a private Facebook group where both of us are active. We have never met in person, but I would gladly meet her and do anything I could to help her. Karen is the kind of person that I want many more of in the world. She was profiled in a recent New Yorker piece.

I both love the actual book On Reading Well and I love the intent of the book. On Reading Well is trying to teach the reader how to read books with an eye on classic virtue. Swallow Prior is an English professor, focusing on 17-18th Century British literature.

Karen Swallow Prior is trying to restore the historic ideal of seeing literature as a means to understanding virtue. She is part of the movement toward great books. And there have been a number of books that have started to write on traditional virtues lately.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali PerkinsSummary: A family moves to the US and the three generations change, adapt and remain Bengali.

As I said yesterday, I find good books quite often by listening to people that love to read. One of my regular habits is listening to several interview podcasts that often interview authors. The Conversing podcast by Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Seminary, is one of my favorite. It has a diverse guest lists, but also quite often these are actual friends, or long term acquaintances.

Mitali Perkins studied public policy and political science. As someone that came to the US from India as a child she said there were three options for children, to be an engineer, a doctor, or an engineer, a joke that is in the book as well. After first breaking the mold to study politics and political science out of a calling toward justice, she took the plunge to change hearts through stories.

You Bring the Distant Near is her most recent book and it was nominated for a National Book Award. Her earlier book, Rickshaw Girl, was named as one of the top 100 Children’s books of the past 100 years by the New York Public Library and is currently being made into a movie. Several of her other 10 books have also won numerous awards as well.

You Bring the Distant Near is a novel, but from what I know of her Mitali Perkins’ story it is also semi-autobiographical. It is the story of five women, from three generations of an immigrant family. Starting in the 1970s focusing first on one daughter, Sonia, and then the other daughter Tara, the story progresses in time as the daughters marry, have daughters of their own, and then also the story of the matriarch, Ranee.

Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution by Youssef Daoudi

Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution by Youssef DaoudiSummary: Great presentation of improvisation in art form.

One of the important steps to reading great books, is surrounding yourself with people that like to read and recommend great books. Even more, find people who like to read books that you would not normally pick up on your own.

A facebook friend of mine is an expert in graphic novels. He is an artist himself and has written several books, but he also runs a very good graphic novel review site, goodokbad. I do not read a ton of graphic novels. But when I do, I pay attention to Seth’s recommendations. If you like recommendations, follow the website or follow one of his social media accounts where he has a daily recommendation.

Yousef Daoudi’s graphic novel biography of Thelonious Monk is excellent. Going in, I liked Monk’s music but knew not a thing about his life. I now want to read more, which I always consider a good way to see whether a book is any good.

The most striking thing about the biography of Monk as a musician is the way that Daoudi draws the concept of improvisation.

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I do not have enough skill and experience to really review a graphic novel, especially about a subject that I do not know all that much about. But I did enjoy reading this and I would love to see additional biographical graphic novels of other jazz greats.

Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George Yancy

Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George YancySummary: A linguistic, philosophical and cultural commentary on the backlash to minorities talking about racism. 

Backlash that was written in response to the writing a 2015 editorial on racism at the NYT. The book opens, after a forward by Cornell West and an introduction by Yancy with that original editorial. Backlash is the type of book I needed to read. And while I think it is a book that many here would benefit from, the editorial is much shorter and worth reading on its own. So even if you are not particularly interested in reading book about racism, I encourage reading the editorial.

George Yancy (a philosopher at Emory and not George Yancey, a Sociologist at University of North Texas, notice the difference in spelling of the last name) draws a parallel between his own participation and benefit in sexism because he is a man and the participation and benefit that all Whites receive because of racism in the US. He is making an explicit argument that racism (and sexism) are systemic and cultural. That the very best we can do is become anti-racist racists or anti-sexist sexists. We never stop being racist (or sexist) because at root racism and sexism are not individual positions, but cultural and systemic positions of the world around us. As much as we can work to decenter whiteness and try to be personally anti-racist, we will still do and think racist things (or sexist things) because that is the culture we swim in.

That basic point of the editorial I think is important here. We have not and will not ever ‘make it’ to be a perfectly safe or good white person. We will always have more to correct and work on. But also we will always be at least partially dangerous to the people of color around us. The danger to minorities around us is developed more fully in his fourth chapter of Backlash. I did not fully grasp this point prior to this book. I was able to grasp the historical damage of racism. I was able to grasp the theoretical cultural damage that systems place on minorities in the US. I was not able to see how that damage of racism also was current and personal to my own body. (The development of this needs to be read, I am not going to recreate the argument here.)