Paul: A Biography by NT Wright

Paul: A biography by NT WrightSummary: Known primarily for his theological and biblical writing, NT Wright’s biographical work on Paul may be more helpful to understanding Wright’s perspective on Paul than anything else I have read.

I have read a lot of NT Wright; none of the really big Paul books, but much of his books that are targeted outside of the academy. Because of how Wright thinks and writes, the same themes come up over and over again in slight variations. I find most of Wright’s books really helpful, but I was surprised how much I found this biography, in part because it was a biography and not straight theology, really helpful to understanding Wright’s project with Paul.

Our ability to know ancient figures is limited. But we probably know about as much about Paul as we do about almost any other ancient figure. First we have relatively large amount of his own writing. But we also have the book of Acts, which was written either toward the end of Paul’s life or soon after he died.

There is a clear limit to what we can and cannot know about who Paul was. Wright has to speculate about a number of things in ways that would not have to be done in a biography of a modern figure. But Wright is clear in the text when he is speculating and with what data he is speculating. And he is clear about what is fairly firm historical ground.

North or Be Eaten and Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson

Summary: Books 2 and 3 develop characters and move the story along well.

I am quite late to the Wingfeather series. The books were published between 2008 and 2014 and while I have owned them from 2011 for the first three and 2014 for the last, I didn’t start reading them, until a couple weeks ago.

I am not surprised that I like them as much as I do, too many people that I know and respect have praised them enough that I knew they would be good. But I have been interested in how they develop the story.

The first was introductory and mostly action based. I was engaged fairly quickly. The second was really focused around character development, and much of that was showing weaknesses and motivations. Not everything thought or action is based in purely noble motives, even if we find out that the main characters are actually nobility. That nobility is not genetic, but developed. It is part of why the theme of humble origins of great kings and leaders is so common.

Personal growth and development often comes through struggle. The second books has lots of struggle. Some of it works out well. Some shows that not all struggle comes out well.

Monster in the Hollows by Andrew PetersonThe third book, Monster in the Hollows, is about development in a different way. I can’t talk about it without revealing that at the end of the second book the family is back together after being separated. They are living in a relatively normal community that has been impacted by the problems of the world around them, but is still relatively safe and without being ruled by the Fangs. The children are able to go to school, although are clearly outsiders. They are able to learn not only normal school subjects, but because of the culture of the community they are in, they learn to fight and develop that way as well.

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John Perkins

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John PerkinsSummary: At 87 years old, the message John Perkins will be focusing on the rest of his life is the importance of racial reconciliation within the church.

One Blood is John Perkins’ last book. So I read it conscious of several of several others books that I have read that were consciously the last books written. John Stott’s last book was about discipleship. Johnny Cash’s last album was about death and regret. This book is about racial issues within the church.

I wish that everyone was familiar with John Perkins. (If you are familiar with him you can skip to the second half where I actually get to the book.) He grew up the son of a sharecropper. His mother died when he was two years old of Pellagra, which is a disease that is most often caused by such a poor diet that the person is essentially starving to death. When he was 16 his older brother, after returning from serving in the military during World War II was killed by a local police officer. Perkins was sent to California because his family feared that he would be killed as well.

When John Perkins was 27, his son Spencer invited him to church and he first became a Christian. Three years later (in 1960) he and his family moved back to Mendenhall, Mississippi to start Voice of Calvary. That ministry expanded to include an early Head Start program, social services and bible training program. In 1965, John Perkins started registering African Americans to vote and helped form a food cooperative to care for people that were blocked out of their jobs as a result of registering to vote. In 1967, his children were the first to desegregate the local high school. In 1969, he lead an economic boycott of White owned businesses, which directly lead to his false arrest and torture at the hands of local police officers. That torture required the removal of part of his stomach and life long health problems.

Later John Perkins and his wife Vera Mae started similar ministries in Jackson, Mississippi and then in Pasadena California. In 1989, he co-founded the Christian Community Development Association which gathered together similar organizations around the country that were mostly evangelical leaning theologically and agreed on the basic principles of the 3 Rs (relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution). Most recently the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation was created as a training center for Christian community development and leadership.

Although Perkins only formally completed third grade, One Blood is his 11th book that he wrote or co-wrote. I recommend his Let Justice Roll Down, a 2006 memoir as the best place to start with his books.

John Perkins is an elder statesman of both Christian Community Development and the Civil Rights era. We should listen to what he has to say because he has earned the right to say it through his life’s work. This is not an abstract theorizing about racial issues. We do not have many civil rights icons left.

The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der KolkSummary: Trauma is varied, but that variation in how trauma occurs or its treatment, does not mean that it is not important.

The Body Keeps Score is one of those books that I don’t know how to write a post about. Trauma is a difficult subject. Everyone knows someone that has lived through trauma, if you have not yourself lived through trauma. And trauma impacts different people differently and may impact the same person differently over time.

Dr van der Kolk started his medical career working for the Veteran’s Administration with Vietnam vets. There was virtually nothing really known about trauma at the time. The concept of shell shock or similar ideas was present, but not really understood. Although as the book points out, early psychologists have understood some of the impacts of trauma for over a century. Over the past 30 or 40 years, the medical and psychological research into trauma, its cause, and treatment has significantly expanded the understanding.

The Body Keeps Score tracks the growth of that knowledge, partially through van der Kolk’s own career and research, but also through the story of many trauma survivors. This is frequently a difficult book to read because in order to discuss trauma it is necessary to discuss traumatic events. And even in the first 200 pages that established the concept and history of the understanding of trauma, the stories of war, rape, molestation, neglect, abuse, and accidents can be difficult to process as and outsider, let alone for the person that they actually happened to.

Trauma is common. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies (fact sheet) I think are the easiest place for many people to think about the importance of studying and dealing with trauma. The initial big ACE study showed that a number of different traumatic events as children, when combined, are correlated with not just physical or psychological effects into adulthood, but also diverse effects in a range of areas such as life time income, potential for abusing or neglecting their own children, early death, having premature births, autoimmune diseases, drug or alcohol dependencies, and being a victim or perpetrator of violence, and more. 60 Minutes had a good 11 minute story on what treatment of ACE looks like and its importance.

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary MoonSummary: Spiritual maturity requires growth and formation.

I have been intentionally reading a number of Christian biographies over the past year or two. Christian biographies for me are about spiritual formation. I do want to know about the people I am reading about. The story is important. But I read good Christian biography/memoir to learn about spiritual formation.

Becoming Dallas Willard is exactly that type of biography. Dallas Willard helped to spark the modern Christian formation movement so it is not surprising that Gary Moon wrote a biography that was oriented toward tracing his spiritual formation. We are never finished with spiritual formation. Spiritual formation in some ways becomes more important as we age and mature spiritually because ending well and passing on the faith requires a level of humility and graciousness that invites those that are younger to the path of spiritual formation.

I have previously read three books by Dallas Willard. So I was roughly familiar with Willard’s writing but I did not know anything about his life other than his relationship to Richard Foster early in Foster’s pastoral career. Investing in others was a theme of Becoming Dallas Willard. I know Willard more through his intentional investment Richard Foster, John Ortberg, Jan Johnson, James Bryan Smith and others than I knew of him. Having read Becoming Dallas Willard I can see the influence that he had in the writings of these others that I have been more directly influenced by.

Willard had a fascinating life. The lives of earlier generations are often fascinating because they are so different from our own. Willard was a child of the late depression and early World War II days, roughly the age of my younger set of grandparents. He went to Tennessee Temple for his undergrad degree, where my grandmother’s brother was a long time professor. And I know many that went to either  Baylor (his masters) or University of Wisconsin (his PhD in Philosophy), but no one that went to both. Despite the differences in generations and life experience, Willard’s life was not so different that I can’t relate to him.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew PetersonSummary: A children’s fantasy from musician Andrew Peterson.

Entirely too often I find myself with kindle books and no time to read them. So I picked up the audio book edition to actually get to the book. In this case I bought the kindle edition 7 years ago. And then I picked up the audiobook on sale just over a year ago. But I didn’t actually start the book until last week. I started with the audiobook and it didn’t click with me. (Nothing wrong with the audiobook quality.) But I picked up the kindle edition and read it in a couple days and a couple days later I am nearly finished with the second book.

About a year or so ago I supported a Kickstarter effort to get this series made into an animated series. That effort is still underway, but the initial trailer and first part of the series does give a good sense of the series. You can find more at the website. 

This is a middle grade oriented fantasy series. The main character is 12 and his brother and sister are both younger. His father died and he is being raised by his mother and grandfather (her father). Another family member is revealed in the book, but the loss of a parent that is common in middle grade fantasy is still here.

Song Yet Sung by James McBride

Song Yet Sung by James McBrideSummary: An escaped slave dreams of the future while trying to survive.

Song Yet Sung is my third book by James McBride and the first book of fiction. McBride is an interesting author. He is a journalist and jazz musician by background, but has written several novels including a National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird.

Song Yet Sung follows a young Black slave not long before the Civil War as she escapes her owner (who wants her as his in-house sex slave) and attempts to leave Maryland for the North.

There is a hint of magical realism to this book like the more recent Underground Railroad. Liz, the protagonist, has dreams that are a result of being shot in the head, which compounded an earlier head injury. The dreams of the future give her a reputation, but the dreams are not of a wonderful future, but of a scary-to-her future. The book opens with these lines:

On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.

She dreamed of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lighted boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards-every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.

The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan Smith

The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan SmithSummary: Story can help us envision God as beautiful, good and true in ways that proposition cannot fully show.

I have read five previous books by James Bryan Smith so I was initially not going to pick this up assuming that there was not much here that I had not absorbed previously. But I found it on sale for audiobook when I was out of audiobooks and I realized that one of my reading goals for the year is to read more about beauty and three months into the year I have not read anything about beauty.

James Bryan Smith is a professor focusing on spiritual formation and is in the line of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Immediately after finishing this I picked up a review copy of a new biography of Dallas Willard (Becoming Dallas Willard which I am loving.)

Smith’s focus in his earlier Good and Beautiful trilogy was to help refocus our attention on God, the God who loves us, wants good for us, and forgives us. He does that in part by identifying ‘false narratives’ about God that we absorb, God as magician or angry God or judgmental God.

The slightly different focus of The Magnificent Story is to think about story as more important than analysis. Much, but not all, of the book is focused on scripture as story about God. This isn’t a book on hermeneutics, but a book on how to understand the power of story to impact the way we understand God.

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne RobinsonSummary: More essays to explore history, science and politics from a serious Christian.

I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson. I have read all but one of her novels, and to be honest the reason I haven’t read the last is that I don’t want to have read all of her novels. But I have read Gilead twice and the most recent, and my favorite, Lila, three times. I have also read two of her previous collections of essays. I am more mixed on her essays. I had decided not to read Robinson’s most recent until I read James KA Smith’s review in Comment. His review is such a good example of what a review is supposed to be, and such an interesting comparison between Ta’Nehisi Coates and Robinson that I picked up the audiobook the same day.

But regardless of the praise from Smith, the problems I have with Robinson’s What We Are Doing Here is still the same basic problems I have with Robinson’s other essays. She is an incredible writer. Although the essays here, which were mostly talks given over the past two years edited together into a book, have an odd sort of repetition. She literally quotes the same quotes and cites the same ideas multiple times. Individually, I think most of them are great. But put together, they are somehow less than the individual parts.

Robinson is known as a writer. But her interests mean that she is writing about things that are outside of her academic background. She is fascinated by Puritans and Jonathan Edwards and how we talk and think about science and politics. She is clearly much smarter than I am and so I love being able to listen to her musings about things that I would not have ever considered apart from her. I really do love how wide ranging of a thinker she is. At one point she is talking about another author writing outside of their main field and quips that she isn’t going to complain about that since she frequently does the same thing.

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-HartgroveSummary: “There is no way to preach the gospel without proclaiming that the unjust systems of this world must give way to the reign of a new King.”

Over the past 15-20 years there has been increasing discussion about the meaning of the word ‘gospel’. At the top level most everyone can agree that the ‘Gospels’ are the four books that open the New Testament and the ‘Gospel’ is the message of Christianity. Gospel is derived from the Greek euangelion which means good news. Understanding what is, and is not, ‘the gospel’ matters, it isn’t just semantics.

I pushed back pretty hard against Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel because he didn’t have an ending to what needed to be included in the gospel and while I affirm that we have to actually use words, the gospel does not require a belief in 7 day creation or male only understanding of the role of pastor to be the gospel.

Scot McKnight I think had a helpful corrective to the ‘gospel movement’ with King Jesus Gospel which refocuses the meaning of the gospel on Jesus Christ’s Lordship. NT Wright’s Simply Good News takes a similar approach focusing on Jesus as King and restorer.

But each of these authors batting around the term gospel seem to focus primarily on gospel as intellectual content. Allen Yeh in his chapter in Still Evangelical focuses the problem not on the meaning of the actual word gospel (or evangelical) but the bias toward orthodoxy without paying enough attention to orthodpraxy. This isn’t a new charge. Lesslie Newbigin in his 1986 Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture focuses on how the gospel has been rooted in the West in a particular view of culture and practice.

I could easily keep going on. I have 163 reviews at Bookwi.se that include the word gospel. The meaning of gospel or the focus of the gospel or the practice of the gospel matter because we believe that our Christianity matters. This is not a discussion that is going away and this is not a discussion that is solved by Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.

Reconstructing the Gospel is playing on the title of the book The Third Reconstruction which Wilson-Hartgrove co-wrote with William Barber. Both of these books reference the historical period of Reconstruction which in popular historical understanding is a period of failed political intervention after the Civil War. Recent historians, like Eric Foner have been re-writing that popular understanding of Reconstruction for the past 20-30 years.