The Chosen by Chaim Potok

The Chosen cover imageSummary: A classic coming-of-age novel about two Jewish teens (one Orthodox, one Hasidic) who meet while playing against one another in baseball and become friends.

There are so many classic novels that I have not read. So many times I read one and wonder why I have not read it previously. No one can read everything, so I have to keep slowly working through the many classic novels I have picked up over time.

There is a reason this is such a beloved novel. It is well-written, and like I mentioned with Esau McCaulley’s memoir, its particularity makes it universal. Most readers are not either Hasidic or Orthodox Jews. And readers today did not grow up in WWII, or the immediate postwar era where the Holocaust was discussed and the potential nation of Israel was debated.

But while the details are different, the potential to follow our own path or follow the expectations of those around us is common. The cultural differences between two different types of Jewish experiences can help illustrate how different experiences between seemingly similar groups work. The closer you are to the inside, the more those differences seem to matter.

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In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monks Memoir by Paul Quenon

In praise of a useless life cover imageSummary: A meandering memoir about the life of a monk, with lots of time devoted to his novice master, Thomas Merton.

I remember In Praise of the Useless Life coming out a few years ago and having largely positive reviews. I put it on my “to-read” list and picked it up recently because it was free to borrow from Audible if you are a premium member.

Generally, it is one of those books that I am not disappointed I read, but I also do not recommend it. The story meanders without really having much focus. Much of the short memoir is about the author’s relationship with Thomas Merton. Quenon was only 17 when he came to the monastery. Merton (known in the monastery as Father Lewis) was Quenon’s novice master. The stories are fine, but nothing in it drew me in.

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I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People by Terence Lester

I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People by Terence Lester cover imageSummary: All people are made in God’s image, which can help us see and help the marginalized.

I See You was a book that my book club read. I have some history of working with the homeless. I volunteered for four years during college with Olive Branch Mission in Chicago (at their traditional emergency shelter and food program). Later, I did a summer internship in their drug and alcohol rehab program and then worked part-time in exchange for room and board for a couple of years of grad school. And my MSW internship was with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. I have worked directly with homeless people and on homeless policy, although my professional and volunteer work has not been with the homeless for a couple of decades now.

There is always a tension in advocacy books like I See You between helping people see the systems that contribute to the problem and helping readers see individuals impacted by the problem. If you concentrate too much on the system, then it can be dehumanizing and abstract. If you concentrate too much on the individuals, you can humanize some people impacted by the problem but not see the larger structure of society that contributes to the problem. I think I See You focuses too much on the individual, which is the tendency for books oriented toward evangelicals.

I See You led to a lot of good discussions with my book group, but it is more oriented toward introducing the problem of homelessness and felt a little too simplistic in its approach to me. The main idea is summarized in this quote:

“The theory for a long time—coming not only from the right but also from some Democrats—is that poverty means that there’s something wrong with your character, that you’ve got bad habits, you’ve got a bad lifestyle, you’ve made the wrong choices.” In this book I want to help deconstruct some of the misconceptions we have about the poor and tell you the stories of those who are experiencing poverty.

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How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key

Summary: A husband’s memoir about his wife’s affair and how he worked to try to save the marriage. 

This is a book that I both appreciated and recommend and one that I have some concerns about. Mostly, I appreciate the honesty. I kept thinking about CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed. In both books, the pain is told in real-time without the restraint that would come later. That is an enormous strength because honest pain is so uncomfortable and unusual. But it is also hard to hear. And honest pain is often a bit irrational, so you do want to shake Harrison Scott Key quite often. Do not read this book if you do not want an honest account of pain. There is a lot of grace here as well, but the content warning is for the pain.

I am also concerned with the Gary Thomas connection. I listened to How to Stay Married on audiobook (which I think is probably the best format for this book), so there may have been a citation to Gary Thomas. But if not, Key’s explicit idea at the end, which was implicit often in the book, is Thomas’ line, “Maybe marriage was to make us holy, not happy.” I know why people gravitate to that line. There were times when I was more attracted to that idea. Marriage over time will often (not always, but often) have periods of pain and difficulty. The problem is that God can use anything to help mature us. However, in the way Thomas presents the idea, marriage was created to be particularly painful so that we can mature. It feels to me that if we were lucky enough to be married before the fall when sin did not enter the picture, his idea would not really make sense. People can mature in many different ways. Marriage is one of those. But people who are not married can still mature, and we do not need to be married to become mature.

I can understand why Key wanted to write this book. I often need to write to process my thoughts. It is a type of therapy, but therapy writing does not necessarily need to be published. I kept thinking about kids reading this when they got older, or his kids’ friends, or his wife’s future friends. This is always the difficulty for memoirs. There has to be a balance between honesty and the way that honesty can be harmful to others. In the book he talks about how in exploring his own responsibility for the problems in his marriage that he came to understand that his humor was often cruel. He was not attempting to be cruel, but he was also not attempting to empathize with the person he was being cruel to. He was just trying to be funny to make other people like him. Everyone wants people to like them, but part of maturity is learning how to put the needs of others before your own. And I wonder if he will think the words are worth it in 10 or 20 years.

In a more positive sense, How to Stay Married is yet another book by a layperson that was not intended to be a “Christian” book. It is a book that tries to explain their life, and because they are Christians, it is impacted by Christian theology and practices. I think Bono’s book Surrender is another good example. How to Stay Married has no issues with swearing, discussing sex openly, discussing wanting to harm people in very real ways. But also being a beautiful illustration of forgiveness and the need for a community (church). No Christian publisher would publish this book, and that is, in some ways, too bad. I also don’t think many Christian publishers would publish many wonderful devote Christian writers who do not fit a certain mold. This is not a book that was written to be an instruction manual for pastors, but I think pastors would benefit from the discussion about the role of the church and the church community that is detailed here.

I also worry that people may take this too literally, taking it as instructions instead of a biographical illustration of how this one particular couple moved forward. That is more to do with bad reading than the book itself. Many people want overly clear instructions instead of grappling with how life isn’t simple.

I also have a lot of concerns about stories being written too soon. I had this concern about David Brook’s Second Mountain and a number of memoirs by people who are under 50. I am not going to say no memoir should be written by someone under 50, but I would be wary. I just don’t think marriage and parenting books should be written by people who are too close to the advice they are giving. Stories we hear are told by the authors in the way they want to tell them. So we don’t know what changes would happen if this book were told later. Will they still be married in five years, ten? I want them to be still married. Key notes that no marriage is perfect. But it would be a different book if he had written this five or ten years from now.

This is a spoiler, so stop reading if you do not want to spoil the ending.

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Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Summary: A historical novel of the life of Hildegard. 

I do not read enough fiction. Generally, I want to read more fiction, but I always get caught up in learning more things. Historical fiction is a mixed bag because as much as I enjoy learning things as I read fiction, I am always wary of distorting historical figures by making them modern people in an earlier setting. Inevitably, fiction necessarily distorts history in favor of making the story better.

Now that I have read Illuminations, which I enjoyed, I want to read a good biography of Hildegard. The notes said the novel tried to stay historically accurate in the timeline. However, there were some changes, and there will always be speculation because no medieval figure has a well-defined biography.

Hildegard was a mystic, an anchorite, an abbess, a writer, a composer, and a preacher. She lived from 1098 to 1179 in what is now Germany. Pope Benedict, on October 7, 2012 declared her a Doctor of the Church, a designation only given to 37 people, four of whom are women.

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Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal by Esau McCaulley

Lent cover imageSummary: A brief exploration of the seasons of Lent and its purpose and practice. 

Esau McCaulley’s book on Lent came out a year ago, but I did not have time to read it during Lent last year, so I held onto it to read during Lent this year. In the meantime, I have started attending an Episcopal church. I have been theologically moving from my Baptist roots to an Anglican/Episcopal theology for the past ten years or so.

I will not lay out my whole reasoning here, but there are three main reasons for moving toward an Anglican understanding. Practically, I know that no ecclesiastical system is perfect. Abuse and corruption can (and do) happen in every system. However, I have been increasingly convinced that our ecclesiology needs structure within it to handle sin within the church. Within the US Episcopal church and the ANCA, there have been very public breakdowns of that system, and they have not worked as they should have. I lament the breakdown, and I think reforms need to be made and enforced, but within the SBC, the discussion has to start at a different place: whether or not the denomination should have structures to hold churches accountable for sin. I would theologically and practically rather start with the assumption that the church broadly should hold local churches and local pastors/Christians accountable for sin than throw up our hands and say we have no tools to deal with the problems plaguing many churches.

Second, I have been increasingly convinced that Baptist theology, or at least the streams that I have moved in, undervalued sacraments. Baptism was held up as necessary, but only one form of baptism. My church in Chicago, where I was a deacon, refused to admit Christians to membership if they had not been baptized as an adult. Several people opposed being baptized again as an adult because they had been baptized as an infant and did not believe that they should reject their previous baptism. I understand this is common in many Baptist churches, but I reject this as a methodological requirement that refuses to recognize the church’s universality.

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The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1)

Lightning thief cover imageSummary: A young teen discovers that he is a demigod and that he (and a few others) have to go on a quest to stop a war between the gods.

I think this is my first re-read of a Rick Riordan book. Because of the new Disney+ series, I read this book with my son and then watched the series. My daughter opted out of the book after the first chapter or so because she was not a fan of the monsters.

This series has a lot of monsters, it is part of the greek mythology genre. My son was not bothered by the monsters, but if you have a child sensitive to fantasy violence, you will want to avoid both the book and the Disney+ show.

The book is a little formulaic. The “chosen one” has a hard life until they discover that they are this other person and have been hiding. There is a reveal of their real identity, often due to either an attack or a revealed power. And then there is a quest or task that they need to do (and that no one else can do) to save the world.

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Faith Like a Child: Embracing Our Lives as Children of God by Lacy Finn Borgo

Faith Like a Child cover imageSummary: An exploration of what it means to “become like little children.”

Faith Like a Child was the most recent of the Renovaré book club selections. I have followed along with the book club for the past few years. I appreciate the ability to have small groups that meet in person or online or to participate in an online message board. Or just just listen to the podcasts and read the articles. Generally, I just listen to the podcasts and read the articles because I already participate in an in-person and an online book group, and I allow the Renovare books to fill in as I have time. I previously read the excellent book by Borgo on spiritual direction to children.

I am probably exactly the type of person who needs to read Faith Like a Child. I am overly serious, very interested in acquiring knowledge, not particularly interested in play, and was routinely told I was mature for my age as a child. It is not that I think that play is bad, but it tends to be something I have to work on.

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I Won’t Shut Up: Finding Your Voice When the World Tries to Silence You by Ally Henny

I Won't Shut Up: Finding Your Voice When the World Tries to Silence You by Ally Henny cover imageSummary: Part memoir, part encouragement for emotionally healthy activism, part grace for the journey.

I have been blogging through my reading for about fifteen years now. One of the things I still am uncomfortable doing is writing about books where I have more than a passing acquaintance with the author. I do not want to oversell my relationship with Ally Henny, but I volunteered on a project she led for years. I am part of a group chat that, while it was well established before Covid, became part of my covid lifeline. I read some early portions of I Won’t Shut Up, and I am mentioned in the acknowledgments. But we have never met in person (like many social media acquaintances), and I don’t want to pretend we are best buds. It is this type of relationship that makes it hard to write, not because I don’t like the book (I really do like and recommend the book), but because I am trying to figure out how to write about a book I like while acknowledging the reality of my bias is just a tricky balance to do well.

The best I can do is describe why I Won’t Shut Up adds to and differs from the many memoir-ish books about racial issues in the US. First, I think that her writing as a Black woman who grew up and has primarily lived in the rural Midwest is something that no other books I have read has centered. Setting and context matter, and different backgrounds lead to different insights.

Second, there is a thread of grace throughout the book that is helpful for books like this. She has grace for herself and the ways she has grown over time. She has grace for those who have harmed her and those around her. And she has grace for the readers she is trying to encourage to grow. That doesn’t mean that she ignores the harm, but that she has grace for the potential for change. She stayed with a church for a long time, which was harmful. She gave the benefit of the doubt and kept trying to help that church, and particularly the pastor of that church, see areas of weakness. But as she concludes, leaving sometimes is necessary. And when she eventually leaves that church, she has grace for the grief that she and her family feels.

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