While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry with Denise George

Summary: It is important to remember that it was normal every day people, not just civil rights heroes that participated in the Civil Rights movement.

A few weeks ago, my pastor, while talking about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus, mentioned that in seminary in the 1980s one of his professors suggested that within 20 to 30 years, once the survivors of the Holocaust started to die off, people would increasingly question whether the Holocaust actually happened.  And now about 30 years after that professor’s aside we can see that Holocaust deniers are increasing around the world.  My fear is that we will start having a similar denial of Civil Rights horrors.

It is one reason that I think that While the World Watched is an important book.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was a good friend to and the same age as the four girls that died in the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.  She had left the bathroom where the girls died only a minute or so before the bomb went off.

Over the first several chapters, McKinstry slowly tells the story of that morning in short snippits while giving background to her life and community before that day.  I think the method isn’t a bad one, because the reader is picking up the book because of that day.  But in order to really understand the day, we need to have context to understand what was really happening.  So the first four chapters are a little slow in unfolding the overall story.

But once that central story of the book is told, if anything the book becomes even more important.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was just an average 14 year old.  She was born into an educated family (both of her parents and both of her mother’s parents had college degrees). Both of her parents worked with good jobs. But this is a story of an average girl. She did not have a special seat at the Civil Rights movement’s table.

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir by Carolyn Weber (Read Again Review)

I am reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99. I really love this book.
Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

Takeaway: The love story, whether between man and woman or God and human is one that brings joy to those that have experienced it.

I have said it before.  But one of the things I most love about blogging is that I have grown to ‘know’ so many authors. It is a distant knowing.  I have yet to meet any of them in person. But Matt Anderson, John Dyer, Rhett Smith, Tyler Braun, Karen Swallow Prior and Carolyn Weber (and others) I have interacted with beyond their books. It is not merely using one another for page views and book sales. With social media and some longer conversations I feel like I can actually enter into their lives, at least in a small part.

Carolyn had a baby boy this past year and we exchange the occasionally pleasantries. Carolyn has on several occasions thanked me for a blog post or review, and there are very few things that make my day more than an author I love (especially Carolyn) making appreciative comments on my writing.  The internet is such an odd world.

So on this second reading of Surprised by Oxford I am not coming at the book fresh.  The first time I picked it up because of good reviews and a free review copy. The second time I had more invested  I had purchased a couple copies for friends. Some had liked it and some had not. I now knew what was going to happen. These were people that I had some understanding about, both the characters from the memoir and the real people that inhabit the current world because these are people that I potentially could meet.

My last reading, I was most struck by the beauty of the words. Carolyn Weber writes beautiful, evocative prose. That is no less true this time. But most of what stuck me was the story. It was not new, but for some reason I wanted to savor the poems that the characters were sharing. (And I am not a poetry guy, the fact that I found myself re-reading poems should speak very highly of this book.) I was more invested in Caro and TDH (Tall, Dark and Handsome)’s occasional romance.

The God I Don’t Understand by Christopher Wright

Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $3.99.
The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith

Takeaway: It is fine (and biblical) to admit we do not understand God.

I have recently discovered the blog Black, White and Gray.  Bradley Wright (links to reviews of his books below) and a couple of other Christian Sociologists talk about statistics and sociology of Christianity.  When I started The God I Don’t Understand I had just read the third of a four part series about research into Deconversion.  Each of the posts were interesting and I would really recommend reading them to get past a lot of myths about why people leave Christianity.

The third post was about Christians responding badly to doubt.  Of the 50 deconverts that wrote testimonies of their deconversion that were analysed, 42 mentioned frustrations with Christians they knew.  The problem was not primarily misbehavior or hypocritical attitudes as I would have assumed, but frustration with how Christians respond to doubt.

Having finished The God I Don’t Understand, I would highly recommend it as a book that properly responds to doubt.  Christopher Wright is an Anglican Priest and professor and the head of the foundation that John Stott started to encourage pastoral education in the developing world.  This is the second book I have read by him recently and I will be reading more.  Christopher Wright (no relation to NT Wright) is wonderfully pastoral in his approach, but even more important he is incredibly biblical.  Christopher Wright specializes in teaching Old Testament theology and more naturally than any other scholar I have read, talks about the bible as a single grand narrative of which the Old Testament cannot be removed.

The Grace Outpouring: Blessing Others Through Prayer by Roy Godwin with Dave Roberts

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99 until July 31st. The Audiobook is $2.99 with the purchase of the kindle edition.
Summary: A wandering, but very encouraging story of how obedience can be used by God.

I know that some dismiss books that are written ‘with…’.  These are books where a person has a story to tell but does not have the time (and usually skill) to tell it well in book form.  Whenever I have hear automatic dismissal I think of the work that John and Elizabeth Sherrill did in bring the stories of Brother Andrew, Corrie Ten Boom, David Wilkerson and many others where their names did not clearly appear in the ‘with…’ section.

I do want to say clearly, that while I am supportive of people like the Sherrills and Dave Roberts in this book, I think these cowriters need to always be acknowledged and Christian publishers in particular need to stop the practice of hidden ghost writers.

In the Grace Outpouring, Roy Godwin tells the story of how God has used him and the Ffald-y-Brenin retreat center in Wales to bless others and bring God’s power to the people that visit the retreat center, the community around the retreat center, and even people that have never been there.

Testimony stories like this are an important part of Christian literature.  Sometimes I can forget how important a part they are.  These types of books are usually not great literary works, but instead are simple narratives of Gods work in normal people’s lives.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

I am reposting this 2015 review (one of the best books I read last year) because Just Mercy is one of 20 current for former NYT best sellers on sale today. Takeaway: Justice requires working systems. Part of working systems is adequate defense and reasonable sentencing.

No one that I know that has read this has rated it less than 5 stars.

Bryan Stevenson is the head of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama. Somewhat similar to the International Justice Mission that focuses on bringing justice and legal assistance to people around the world, EJI works to bring legal assistance to death row and other prisoners.

Stevenson deftly weaves the broader story of his life and work around one main story of an innocent death row inmate that was knowingly condemned to death and EJI’s work to prove his innocence and win him clemency.

Primarily this is a story of how our justice system is not equal. Poverty and race (and small town justice) often come together to produce not justice, but scapegoats.

This book came out before the Black Lives Matter movement started, but it is a good primer for the broader justice issues in the US.

Stevenson also does not spend much time on his own faith, but it is clear that his own Christian faith is a driving factor in giving him motivation and hope for his work. And I think that it is an interesting book to compare with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of ChristSummary: An extended reflection on what it means to truly change through Christ’s power.

Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement.  Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.

Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind and actions).  As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.

Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change.  This is a fairly dense book.  I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.

On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here.  On the negative side, there is a lot of rabbit trails and it could have been organized better.  I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself.  He is not the best reader and I think even if he had been a good reader, this is content that should be read in print, not listened to on audio.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Reposting this 2012 review because the Kindle version is on sale for $1.99 as part of a kids’ daily deal. Full list of the daily deal books is here.

CoralineSummary: Coraline finds the perfect parents and life in a creepy children’s book.

Neil Gaiman is a force within the fantasy book world. Gaiman original was a comic book artist and writer.  He is best known for Sandman.  In the early 2000s Gaiman primarily became a novelist.  American Gods (and its semi-sequel Anansi Boys), Stardust, and the British Mini-Series/Novel Neverwhere all sold well and are well known.

But prior to Coraline, I have only read the adult books (but I have read all of his adult books.)  Coraline is a children’s book in a similar vein and style as Gaiman’s adult books.  Gaiman write dark novels that are heavily influenced by fairy tales and full of literary references.

Coraline is a 9 year old girl, who in defiance of her mother goes into a empty apartment in their building and finds another apartment that is an exact duplicate of hers, except better.  Her parents are there, sort of, and her room and toys and everything else.

But as with any creepy story, things are not as they seem.  Her ‘other parents’ have buttons sewed on there eyes.  The cat in her neighborhood can move back and forth between the worlds.  And in the ‘other world’ it can talk.  And it warns her to leave.

Once she escapes, she comes back to find that her real parents are no longer there.  Eventually she realizes that they have been kidnapped and she has to go save them. Unsurprisingly, with the help of the cat she does.

This is a creepy story probably appropriate for most 10-12 year olds. Its reading level is listed as 3rd grade and Gaiman says he read it to his six year old. As a read aloud it is probably appropriate down to 6 or 7 if the child likes creepy stories. It is roughly based on the idea of Hanzel and Gretel. Coraline finds the spirits of other children that have been captured before. And those spirits are dead. So be aware of the content warning.

Like many children’s books is revolves around the idea that the adults in their world are not able to save them. Coraline has to save not only herself, but her parents as well. I have heard adults complain that this common theme in children’s literature is anti-family. However, I think it is part of the growing up process. Children read about being independent before they are fully independent themselves.

Coraline is initially excited about her new family because she feels like her real family does not pay enough attention to her. But she soon comes to realize that her real family loves her for her, not for what she can do for them. In the end, Coraline returns to her family and is able to be a child again.  There is a sense of security that even if she does not feel all the time throughout the book, it is understood that she should have this security.

Coraline Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

Other Reviews of Neil Gaiman books

Prayer by Richard Foster (Read Again)

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.

Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home

Takeaway: If you are serious about learning about prayer and have not read this book yet, you need to.

I have read this book at least once previously (and I think twice.) It would not be the first book I recommend to someone that want to start out learning about prayer.  But it is one of the more important modern books on prayer.

Prayer is one of those topics in Christianity that is hard to write about. It is something learned best by doing and by being mentored by others. Surrounding yourself with people that pray is much better than surrounding yourself with books on prayer.

That being said, when you have spent time learning to pray with others, it is good to spend some time reading about the why and how of prayer. No book will fully explain that, of course. But Richard Foster does a very good job showing the different ways that prayer occurs within the Christian faith.  Few modern authors are as widely read and as fluent in different streams of Christianity as Richard Foster. That is both helpful, and the primary reason I would not suggest this to someone that is new to prayer. There is just too much here for someone that does not have a good grounding and idea about what type of pray-er they are.

Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables by Phil Vischer

I am reposting this 2015 review (one of the best books I read last year) because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $4.99.
Takeaway: Honesty is refreshing, although a bit surprising in a memoir.

Like pretty much every Evangelical, I have been a big fan of Veggie Tales. I bought them for myself, for others, for my church nursery. I also used to live in Chicago when where Big Idea was based and Lisa Vischer was a Wheaton College alum only a few years before me. (And I briefly met her in the fall of 94, excited to meet the voice of Junior Asparagus.) As Visher rightly discerns, it was not moms of young families, but College students that really helped spread Veggie Tales to the masses.

Vischer’s story starts with his childhood, his early creations, his parent’s divorce and his desire to become the next Walt Disney before diving into the creation of what became Veggie Tales and Big Idea.

The story of Veggie Tales is interesting (although occasionally it is a bit technical and overly detailed.) But what makes this book worth reading and an early contender for one of the best books I read in 2015 is that this is an honest story of failure.

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
Summary: An exploration of why joy and humor should be a more important part of the spiritual life.

Donald Kim’s A Down and Dirty Guide to Theology, is the only book on systematic theology that I have read that includes a section on theological jokes. Kim makes the point that too often when we talk about God and Theology, only the dry stuff gets passed on. Instead Kim thought a section on theological jokes was important (in a very short introduction to theology) because it would help the reader remember that theology is not only dry academics, but rooted in a relationship with God and any relationship needs laughter. Not long after that I read David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. One of his chapters was on the importance of being able to laugh at yourself (and your religion).

James Martin picks up both of these ideas and expands them, looking not only at why it is important to be able to laugh at yourself and your religion but why so many of the spiritual saints have been fans of laughter and jokes.

This book caught my eye a couple years ago when it first came out. But it wasn’t until I saw Glenn Packiham recommend it on twitter a couple weeks ago that I decided to pick it up. This is my second book by James Martin, the first, a short book on Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jesus, and a few others is on the short list of best books I have read this year.