Blogger Review Books

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Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David Gushee

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David GusheeSummary: A brief memoir about how Gushee’s attempt to follow his calling moved him out of Evangelicalism.

David Gushee is one of those authors that I know about but until I read his book Changing Our Mind, I do not think I had read more than a couple articles by him (mostly at Christianity Today.)

The transcript of a speech at the end of the 2nd edition of Changing Our Mind (the 3rd edition is now out) is what made me what to pick up this book. Gushee’s dissertation was about German Christian response to the Holocaust. Gushee in his speech drew parallels to how ethical thinking was impacted by the understanding of actual people harmed.

Last week I saw that this memoir was coming out. I picked up a review copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have been craving memoirs of my elders lately. After finishing the four volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs I was intending to pick up Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. Gushee’s memoir jumped in line.

Seeing how people work out their faith over time, in good and bad times, is very encouraging. And watching how people of deep faith come to different conclusions in their theological and ethical positions while retaining a robust devotional and theological life also is a good reminder of the greatness of God, and of our own limited perspectives.

David Gushee grew up a nominal Catholic. As a teen, Gushee came to faith through a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia. Quickly feeling the call to ministry, he went to undergrad at William and Mary and then seminary at Southern Seminary. Gushee had not been prepared for the internal politics of the SBC that was in the throes of a significant theological battle.

He moved from Southern to Union Seminary in New York City, from a school that was fighting about how conservative to be, to one that was the center of Liberation Theology. For three years on campus and then three years off campus, he started to gain an understanding what it means to be too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives.

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel Hill

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel HillSummary: The nature of what it means to be White in American, especially as a Christian, is not looked at nearly enough.

When I was thinking about graduate school I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be challenged in my faith and culture and that I did not want to go to an Evangelical seminary. That was helped by the fact that there were very few options for the type of program that I was looking for. The University of Chicago was one of about six schools in the country that had a  program for a dual masters with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work (officially it is a Masters in Social Service Administration, but it is an MSW equivalent).

That decision was made in large part because I had an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. I grew up in a solidly Evangelical wing of the Baptist world and I was comfortable in my theology. I didn’t need more Evangelical theology and experience, I needed to experience the church beyond the Evangelical world.

Going to University of Chicago was a very good decision. I know I could get more out of my education if I were more mature with more life experience. But at the time, being exposed to other sincere Christians that were Catholic, mainline, and even one classmate that was a non-theistic Unitarian expanded my view of the church.

I still clearly remember a class while I was in the School of Social Work on race and ethnicity. The professor talked about how we often do not understand our culture until we are separated from it. If you are from the South and move to the Northeast, you will understand parts of what it means to be Southern that you did not understand before. This similar to getting married. What you assumed was true of every family, becomes clear that it was unique about your family.

I did not at the time think of the lesson primarily through the lens of Whiteness, but through the lens of my Evangelical-ness. While at Wheaton I was not completely comfortable describing myself as Evangelical because of some of the nuances of what that meant in that location. But at University of Chicago I claimed Evangelical much more clearly because it was a unique category. I wanted to be Evangelical there because of the many misunderstandings of what Evangelical meant to my non-Evangelical classmates. All groups have nuance and often those outside the group only see the stereotype, not the nuance.

White Away: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White is a very helpful look at the category of whiteness as a Christian. Part of the reality of the United States is that most White people are mostly around White people. We may have one friend that is a person of color. But most of us do not have a wide network of non-white friends and business associates. Most White people live in communities that are predominately White and go to churches that are predominately White and work at jobs with predominately White co-workers.

Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms by Tim Tebow and AJ Gregory

This review was written by Bookwi.se Contributor Vikki Huisman

Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms by Tim Tebow book reviewI’m not a football fan by any stretch of the imagination but I do know who Tim Tebow is.

Or at least I thought I did.

If asked, I would have said, “Isn’t he the guy who keeps getting cut from NFL teams and does that bow after he scores a touchdown?” The answer to that question is both yes and no.

I decided to read Tebow’s soon-to-be released book, Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms in an effort to bond with the only football fan in my home, my 16-year-old son. Although my son wasn’t impressed with my reading material, I did find myself impressed with the former NLF quarterback who is now playing baseball for the New York Mets.

Shaken gives the reader an inside look on what it was like as Tebow worked hard at staying grounded in his faith and working on his NFL dreams in the midst of disappointment, intense criticism and non-stop media scrutiny.

Although I’ve read spiritual memoirs that have resonated with me on a more personal level, I’m hard pressed to find someone in the public realm who publicly professes their faith and has dealt with the amount of publicity and disappointment that Tim Tebow has. Most of us have dealt with unfulfilled homes, unrealized dreams, rejection and heartbreak. Tebow shares the life lessons he’s learned privately while living under a public microscope; building his identity in Christ, not the world.

From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer

I am reposting this 2011 review (one of the best books I read in 2011) because the Kindle Edition is free today.
From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of TechnologyTakeaway: Technology is shaped by its human creators, but also in turn shapes its human users. (This is the book I have been searching for on Technology and Christianity.)

I am a geek wannabe.  I fix a lot of friends computers and my less techie friends often ask for advice.  But my skills pale in comparison to John Dyer, John Saddington, and a bunch of other twitter friends.  In spite of the fact that I am a nanny and not a full time tech worker, I have been thinking a lot about technology and how we as Christians should be reacting.  Over the past couple months I have read two decent books on Technology and Christianity, Tim Challies’ The Next Story and Adam Thomas’ Digital Disciple.  Both have real value, but the book I have been looking for is John Dyer’s From The Garden to the City.

The main theme of the book is that while we as humans create technology (and that is part of our God given role), the resulting technology shapes us in ways that we often ignore.  A personal example happened yesterday.  My wife and I are heavy users of our phones for social media and texting, but we do not actually use them to make a lot of phone calls.  Our smart phones are not neutral devices as many Christians want to say, neither good nor evil.  Yes, we can choose to do good things or evil things with the phones, but the very fact we have the phones affects the way we interact in the world.  Technology is not deterministic; we can overcome natural tendencies.  But without reflection and insight we, often are just unaware of how the technology affects us.

Table in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost and Found Again by Preston Yancey

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $0.99.
Summary: An early memoir of finding God through the church.

I am not sure when I started following Preston Yancey on twitter. I think it has been in the last year and I think it was because he is part of a group of people that I have been following as they are embracing the Anglican church.

So starting at the end, in fact, only a couple weeks ago, Preston publicly said he is pursuing ordination in the Anglican church. That is the end of the story. The beginning of the story is of a pastor’s kid going to college and ready to save the world. As a freshman, he and his roommate decided to start a church. As much because of their youth and distraction and poor relationship skills as anything else, the church fails within the year.

That failure, which seems to be at least partly hubris, was the start of the lost phase of the book. Life is not simple. What is easy is not always what is right. Growing up is about standing on our own and finding our own way, but often just as much, about realizing that we don’t have to find a new way, the ability to choose what others have also chosen is a way of showing maturity as well.

It is hard for me not to compare this to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  Preston Yancey is young, he is writing a memoir at 25. So there is some of the dumb stuff that every young adult does and regrets. Like Miller, Yancey is breaking away and challenging the ideas and church of his formative years. Yancey is not trying to make his way to God outside of the church, but through the church. This is far healthier and I think increasingly common from my vantage point.

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer with Anna Haggard

Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99.

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer with Anna HaggardTakeaway: Serving God and others can be its own reward, and that is the root of the spiritual danger.

I have spent my whole adult working career in the Christian non-profit world.  I have witnessed a number of situations where there has been burnout, mistreatment of staff (in the name of doing good), failure of leadership, leaders ending badly and more.

Peter Greer is the CEO of Hope International, a micro-credit non-profit working in 16 countries in Africa, Asia, South American and Eastern Europe. In a very readable, and story laden book, Greer (and his co-author Anna Haggard) walk through 14 different spiritual dangers that particularly affect those that are trying to do good, especially doing good in Christ’s name.

I remember reading an article while in grad school that people in service professions, especially those that view themselves as doing good, can actually be more likely to lie and mislead those around them because they feel they deserve it or because their good works off-set any ‘small mistakes’ that they make.  That article had a lot of influence on the ways I thought about doing good work.  This is only one of the areas that Greer mentions, but he does give a lot of examples of how we can miss what we are actually striving for in the process of doing good.

JI Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken

I am reposting this 2015 review because the kindle edition is on sale for $2.99
Takeaway: JI Packer has focused on the church more than his own career and that is surprisingly rare for church leaders. Even when I disagree, there is much to commend about the way he has engaged the issues.

I have read several of JI Packer’s books but I really did not know anything about him. I knew he taught at Regent College University and was an Anglican. But beside those facts everything else that I had assumed about him was wrong.

JI Packer grew up in a working class home before showing his strong academic skills and winning a scholarship to Oxford. There he quickly became a Christian and soon was pursuing training to become a pastor. But after spending a year teaching between his undergrad and graduate degrees, teaching has always been a part of his focus.

As was traditional in earlier generations, Packer served as a pastor early in his career before becoming a full time seminary professor. Packer has always primarily focused on the training of pastors and that has meant that he has not taken teaching positions that were as high profile as he could have.

After several years teaching and writing, Packer became the director of Latimer House. Latimer House was designed to give Packer and others space to write and think and speak without giving them teaching responsibilities. It seems similar to a Christian version of the idea of Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton that was initially directed by J Robert Oppenheimer and included luminaries such as Albert Einstein.

At Latimer, Packer was a prominent figure in British Christianity. But the pace of speaking and writing about current events and the huge number of committees and study groups that Packer was asked to serve on left him exhausted. After nearly 10 years he left Latimer and went back to teaching (after a brief stint as a college president). Packer taught at Trinity College and then at Regent University in Canada.

In addition to his teaching, Packer has been known for his work around the bible. He was the general editor for the ESV bible, a huge undertaking. Packer has been known as a key figure in the inerrancy debates and a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Packer has also been known for his ecumenical work. Packer worked hard early in his career to keep the Evangelical wing of the Anglican church inside the Anglican church and has been active in ecumenical work outside of the Anglican church world. Later Packer played an important part in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements. More recently Packer was dismissed from the Canadian Anglican church and helped to form what is now the Anglican Church in North America.

Ryken knows Packer well, has worked with him often, and respects him greatly. That admiration shows through clearly in the book and helps to make Packer a likeable figure throughout. Ryken resists a lot of analysis, which I think is a disservice to the book. He explicitly says he has made the choice to simply tell the story and illustrate Packer’s ideas, but it seems to me that part of the role of a biographer is to do the analysis.

Ryken was unable to avoid analysis on Packer’s writing style and methods. This was an unusual section for a biography. But given Ryken’s own background as a writer and literature professor, and Packer’s wide ranging writing, a long look at the themes and style of Packer’s writing was probably helpful. Ryken also is willing to say that although Packer is against topical sermons and for a strict exegetical preaching style, Packer’s beloved Puritans and other preaching heroes, as well as Packer are often topical in reality. (As an aside, I think it is interesting that Packer and Ryken’s book on the ESV advocate for a strict word for word translation style, but as One Bible Many Translations illustrates, the goal and the reality are wildly different.)

As much as this biography has helped me understand more about JI Packer, the the actual writing seems to be more clunky than I would expect from Ryken. The same phrases were repeated over and over again. Maybe this was more noticeable because I listened to it as an audiobook, but it was distracting. He also kept saying, ‘a random sample from his writing’ and then listing examples to prove a particular point. It was clearly not a random sample. I know this is a small point, but Ryken knows better than this and I can’t understand why he said this (at least a dozen times). The same with ‘it is not my purpose in this book to discuss X, but,…’. The result sounds like Ryken just did not spend enough time editing the book.

Ryken also heavily borrowed from Alister McGrath’s previous biography of Packer during the first section of the biography. Certainly McGrath and Ryken had different goals in their books, and Ryken was right to be citing McGrath when he was borrowing from him, but it seemed to me that it was a sign of inadequate preparation more than anything else. And in many ways it made me wish I had picked up McGrath’s biography instead, although it is almost 20 years old (and out of print) at this point.

Ryken divided this biography into three sections. The first section was the traditional narrative of Packer’s life. The second section was an attempt to illustrate who Packer was as a thinker and man. I think this was the weakest section of the book. The third section looked the main themes Packer’s work, his work around the bible, his academic study of Puritans, his work in the Anglican church, his theology, his thoughts and teaching on Preaching and the role of the Pastor among other topics.

The third section was helpful but uneven. I respect Packer and his work even though I have many areas of disagreement. And it is in this third section that the areas of disagreement comes up frequently.

Ryken is helpful in cataloguing his research, but that lack of analysis, and too much reliance on lists of data points really keeps this biography from being great. This will probably be the last full biography of Packer while he is still alive. Ryken interviewed him for the biography and those interviews featured prominently and were very helpful. But I think it will probably be only after Packer passes away that a full biography that can look at his life and legacy. There is certainly a place for biographies like this one. Biographers that know the subject well have great insight into their subjects. But more distant biographers also have greater objectivity.

JI Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Christianaudio.com Audiobook

A copy of the audiobook was provided by Christianaudio.com for purposes of review.

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Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashid book reviewReviewed by Bookwi.se Contributor Vikki Huisman.

A young Egyptian woman recounts her personal and political coming of age in this debut novel by Yasmine El Rashidi.

The reader meets the unnamed main character across three decades in Egypt: as a very young school girl, a college film student and then as a writer in modern day Egypt following Mubarak’s overthrow. Her father’s physical absence and her mother’s emotional absence dominate the writer’s life. As friends as relatives disappear through death, imprisonment, fleeing to America or just vanishing without a trace, she contemplates how absence and silence have defined her life.

Chronicle of a Last Summer is a gentle but heavy book. El Rashidi doesn’t heavily detail the violence, oppression or suffering the main character experiences throughout her life but the reader can feel it. The character’s cousin frequently chastises the young lady and his fellow citizens for not getting angry. Her uncle begs her to use her resources at the university and make a film that will make some noise, to serve as a rally cry for the Egyptian people but instead, she embraces the silence she’s always known and buries herself in her writing instead.

Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much by Faith Salie

Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too MuchThis review is by regular contributor Vikki Huisman.

I enjoy Faith Salie’s segments on CBS Sunday Morning and I’ve wanted to catch her on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. I found her to be humorous and original; in that vein I was looking forward to reading her book “Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much”.

Salie shares VERY intimate stories from her past and how her need for approval dominated every area of her life.  I found her to be a combination of insightful and…just too much. She’s funny, introspective and very harsh on herself, almost brutal. I hate to use the word “appropriate” or “inappropriate” when it comes to a memoir but for me personally, I wish Salie would have left some stories out. The pain over losing her mother to illness is heartbreaking while the story of…shall we say a skill her brother taught her…were too much for me. Her personal antidotes swing wildly back and forth between serving the book and just flat out vulgar. I can overlook or not be bothered by coarse language or situations if it serves the overall purpose of the book (or film) but in the case of Approval Junkie, these chapters served no purpose.

What It Means to Be a Man by Rhett Smith

Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is free.
What it Means to be a Man: God's Design for Us in a World Full of ExtremesSummary: Short, highly readable book that would make a great discussion in a teen or 20/30 something mens group.

The subject of what it means to be a man in the modern world fraught with difficulty.  We mix up ideas of gender, personality, aggression, control, authority, biblical understanding and more.

Rhett Smith, author of the highly recommended book, The Anxious Christian, and a family counselor tackles the concept of manhood in a very readable (and short) book that is perfect for discussion.

I (sort of) participated in an online discussion group about this book that Rhett hosted. (I am horrible with book clubs that reads a book slowly, I want to read it straight through and discuss it).

Rhett said that he intentionally kept the book short so that there would be little reason not to read it.  The shortness makes it great for discussion groups, but has less detail than I would like.

As a man that hates sports, has worked as a nanny, has a degree in social work (a decidedly female leaning profession) I bring some issues into the manliness discussion.  Manliness in a lot of the Evangelical world is more equated with Mixed Martial Arts fighting and uncontrollable lust.

Rhett focuses on what makes a man, fathering, introspection about real issues (depression, anxiety, loneliness, vulnerability, etc.) and the movement into becoming a better man.  I think the method and writing style lends itself to teen and young adult readers, but as someone in the decade of his 40s, I think most men will find value in it.

In many ways, I think older men will get more out of it, if they read it intentionally with one or more people of a younger generation.  Becoming a man is more about mentoring and development, then knowledge or skill.  So no one has achieved a perfect on their ‘man card’.  And part of becoming a man means helping others become a man.