Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cover imageSummary: I read it (a sixth time?) through my kids’ eyes, who were reading/listening for the first time.

I love reading books to my kids, a lot more than my kids love being read to. I didn’t write about it here, but I started Wrinkle in Time a couple months ago and my kids did not love it. They tolerated it until we got to IT being introduced, and that was just too much so we put it down. I might have tried to pick it up again, but my son’s teacher gave him a copy of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire because she thought he might like it. He loved the idea of reading such a big book. He may have read it independently, but he does not tend to have that much reading stamina. I had read them the series’ first three books, and we had already given up on Wrinkle in Time because it was too scary. But I had not previously read Goblet of Fire because I suspected it might be too scary for them. So I was not really sure if we would make it through.

I talked about it with them, and they were willing to try. I like to keep the book moving and listen to the audiobook in the car. We started with the Stephen Fry audiobook version, but I have that on a bootleg MP3 file that is impossible to find your place on. So we gave up on that one about 1/3 of the way through and moved to the Jim Dale version when my wife drove the kids on a trip without me. I continued to read out loud here and there, but by the time we were about 2/3 of the way through, it had become mostly an audiobook.

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Practicing Christian Doctrine by Beth Felker Jones

Practicing Christian Doctrine by Beth Felker Jones cover imageSummary: Well-written intro to theology text.

I picked up Practicing Christian Doctrine because I had an audiobook credit that had to be used before it expired, and I remembered a good podcast interview with Beth Felker Jones and decided to see what else she had written. All of that is to say I was not looking for a theology textbook; I was looking for a book by Jones, and the one I found happened to be an Intro to Theology textbook.

My last seminary theology class was more than 25 years ago. I read Erickson for my undergrad systematic theology class. My seminary systematic theology class was with Dwight Hopkins, and we read Reinhold Neibhur, Delores S. Williams, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and I think James Cone (or I read James Cone on my own at the time, I can’t remember), among some others. Hopkins’ class was focused on reading theologians not summary textbooks. I wish I could take that class again because I would get a lot more out of it now than I did. I remember at the time learning about a lot of perspectives in theology that I had not been exposed to. But I also remember thinking that I was glad I had had an undergrad course in systematic theology because I needed that grounding to understand what the authors we were reading were responding to.

Practicing Christian Doctrine is exactly the type of systematic theology book I would recommend to someone who does not have a seminary background but is interested. I listened to it as an audiobook, which is probably not ideal for this type of book, but it was ideal for me. There are several things that I really liked about it. First, Jones cited widely throughout history and around the world. She also included a note about when and where the author being cited was from. That is a very small feature, but it really helped to note that background matters in how a person approaches theology.

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Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy

Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life cover imageSummary: A series of lectures about spiritual direction from the perspective of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, who emphasized the moral life and prayer and was particularly interested in expanding spiritual direction to the laity and the urban poor in 18th century Naples.

I like to keep one book in my current reading (or listening) stack directly on spiritual direction. This keeps me thinking about my practice of spiritual direction and exploring new dimensions or deepening my practice as a spiritual director. Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy was a complete unknown. I did not know anything about St Alphonsus, and there were no reviews on the lectures. But because I have almost entirely read about spiritual direction out of the Ignatian or Benedictine tradition, I picked it up. These are 22 roughly fifteen-minute lectures. Mostly I listened to them while walking my dog over a period of about two months.

The main weakness of the lectures is that they do not have a clear target audience. The early lectures are very basic introductions to spiritual direction, which is helpful for people who are new. But those with a background will be bored for the book’s first quarter (I nearly gave up at this point.) Then, the last three-quarters of the lectures will be interesting for those with a spiritual direction background, but those new to spiritual direction, especially those not Catholic, will be lost.

Those who are Protestant without much background in Catholicism can learn here, but terminology and theological orientation may be hard to overcome. Two minor examples: earlier in the book, the lecturer talks about taking on a Christological focus on spiritual direction, which means something slightly different in a protestant world. In his perspective, this is about becoming like Christ to others, which many Protestants may resist as a viable perspective. Another example is the medieval understanding of spiritual formation, which has three stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. This language is very common in Catholic presentations of spiritual formation but almost completely absent from Protestant understandings of spiritual formation.

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Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son

Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son cover imageSummary: Thirty-seven letters of varying lengths from Eugene Peterson to his son Eric about being a pastor.

Eugene Peterson has strongly influenced me, and I definitely have a tendency to idealize Peterson. Peterson’s memoir and Winn Collier’s biography helped humanize Peterson. Eugene Peterson was not perfect.

Letters to a Young Pastors is equally good at humanizing Peterson in a different way. There is tension here because these were private letters (I assume Eugene approved of being turned into a book before he passed away), and the very nature of private letters has personal details. Regularly throughout this book, there are comments about looking forward to getting together or talking about personal details, similar to how Paul talks about bringing his books and cloak in 2 Timothy 4. The humanization of Peterson in Letters to a Young Pastor is partly the details of personal life discussed here. The reader knows from this book that the Petersons had their grandkids over regularly and that they went to a local church where Eugene liked the pastor but didn’t really like his preaching.

But the most important part of humanizing Peterson here is the open struggle expressed in the letters. Some of the struggle is trying to work through ideas that made it into his books, and if you have read a number of his books, it is easy to pick out those details even when they aren’t explicit. Even in later years, Peterson was grappling with his vocation and faith, not in the sense of doubting God, but in the sense of trying to figure out how to live his faith in public best. He grappled with the difficulties of aging, and if you listen to the audiobook, the last half of the last letters is read by Peterson himself, and he sounds very old at that point.

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What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman by Lerita Coleman Brown

What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman cover imageSummary: Spiritual reflections on the life of Howard Thurman.

I have been reading books by or about Howard Thurman for about six years. I started with Jesus and the Disinherited, which I have read twice. I have also read three collections of sermons as well as an audiobook collection of recordings of Thurman, his memoir, and two biographies. I have much more to read because we are in a renaissance of interest in Thurman, like James Baldwin, Thurman is more relevant today than ever. I went to a book launch event with Lerita Coleman Brown hosted by Chanequa Walker-Barnes when What Makes You Come Alive first came out. But other things came up, and I never started the book until about a year later, when I saw that the Ignatius House (a local Catholic retreat center) was hosting a weekly book club discussing What Makes You Come Alive, and I joined.

This was the first in-person book club that I have ever joined. About 20 different people were involved, with about 15 on any given week. Because the book club met on Tuesday mornings at 10:15 AM, I was unsurprised that the group was mostly retirement-age women (one other man). I was the only new member of the group. Most had been meeting together for years, but I was very much welcomed to the group. I coincidentally knew two members because they used to work as teachers for my mother-in-law. Only a handful of people in the group had previously read anything by Howard Thurman. Most who did know of Thurman, were introduced to him by Richard Rohr’s writing. Because most were cradle Catholics, I was not surprised that there was not a deep familiarity with the Black Church.

The book opens with an anecdote about the author going to speak at the Wild Goose Festival (a progressive Christian conference) about Howard Thurman. Lerita Coleman Brown is a spiritual director and a retired psychology professor. Her grappling with Thurman as a Black woman, often in predominately white spaces (such as the Wild Goose Festival), matters clearly to the book’s thrust. As an all-white book group (most of whom grew up in still legally segregated South), I was somewhat skeptical of the group’s ability to discuss the book well. There were times when the background of the group left it a bit ignorant of areas that I would have liked it to discuss. On the other hand, first-hand knowledge of segregation made it more aware of other issues the book brought up.

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Cultural Christians in the Early Church by Nadya Williams

Cultural Christians in the Early Church: A Historical and Practical Introduction to Christians in the Greco-Roman World cover imageSummary: A look at the ways that early Christians were “cultural Christians.” 

One of the ongoing discussions within the guild of historians (which I have observed from the outside since I have no academic training in history) is the role and method of writing history for contemporary use. Some believe that historians have an obligation to educate and draw connections between history and current events. Some historians go beyond that and become activists in their writing and historical work. Some historians believe that a historian’s work should only involve history rather than connect that history to modern events or culture. (There is way more nuance and range of positions than this brief sketch can accurately represent.)

Cultural Christians in the Early Church is an unusual book by a historian. First, Nadya Williams is actively trying to draw spiritual connections from her historical work that can be used today. This is not activism, but it is more than what many historians are willing to do. As a non-historian who reads history explicitly because it is an integral part of understanding our current events and because I am a spiritual director interested in Christian formation, this book is right up my alley. Second, Williams is not only a good writer who keeps the reader engaged, she is also funny. Many academic writers attempt to be funny but are limited to bad Dad jokes. Cultural Christians in the Early Church has a lot of subtle but engaged humor.

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Into the Heart of Romans: A Deep Dive into Paul’s Greatest Letter by N.T. Wright

Into the Heart of Romans: A Deep Dive into Paul's Greatest Letter by N.T. Wright cover imageSummary: A deep dive into Romans 8, making the case that it is centered on vocation and not soteriology.

This will not be a particularly helpful review, but my general tendency these days with NT Wright is to listen to the book to get the argument as a whole and then wait a bit and go back and reread it in print later. I listened to this quickly in the background and did not take any notes.  If you want a broad overview of the book in podcast form, Seminary Dropout and The Holy Post have good interviews. (Holy Post Interview starts at 57 minutes).

The broad summary of this deep dive into a single chapter of Romans is that Romans 8 talks about the vocation of the Christian, not salvation and heaven. That main point is important, and it is a good corrective. But maybe more important than that particular message of the book is how Wright uses this book on Romans 8 to teach how to slowly read and interpret the Bible, especially for those that do not have enough Greek to read the Bible on their own in the original language.

Into the Heart of Romans is a book about interpretation and showing the importance of original language and scholarship in the original languages, not just the “plain reading of scripture.” Wright uses a simple set of questions to examine how each part of the chapter relates to the part before it and how that fits into the argument of the chapter and the book.

I know many people are fans of verse-by-verse preaching. I am not particularly a fan of that style because it often distorts how we view scripture as a whole. There is value in close reading of scripture in study, but not from the pulpit over a long period of time. If you are interested in a close reading of scripture, especially because Romans tend to be such a beloved book by people who like theology, this book is particularly helpful.

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The Carver and the Queen Emma C. Fox

The Carver and the Queen cover image Summary: A retelling of a Siberian folktale. 

I have come to The Carver and the Queen because I have begun to follow the work of Owl’s Nest Publishers. It is a relatively new small publisher (about 2-3 years old). One of the founders is the author, KB Hoyle, and I am a big fan of her work. I have read her published novel-length works at least once. I have most enjoyed her fantasy Gateway Chronicles books, but I have also enjoyed her dystopian series (Breeder Cycle), the start of a science fiction series (Orion and the Starborn) and fairytale series (Son of the Deep) and her stand-alone book (Queen of Ebenezer). This has also led me to trust her judgment as an editor and publisher. I have started working through the other books that Owl’s Nest has published.

The Carver and the Queen is a retelling of a Siberian folktale I did not know. I have enjoyed the modern reimagining of folk tales that I did know, Orson Scott Card’s Enchanted, Neil Gaiman’s work, and Son of the Deep. But I am unaware of another book that was consciously retelling a folk story I did not know. I have not read Russian literature widely. But I have read some, both modern and older. This retains a Russian feel to my sensibility but does not feel too distant.

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How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen by David Brooks

Summary: If we want to address the crisis of loneliness and the lack of community in American society, we need to learn how to listen and know others.

Both of David Brooks’ last two books I had decided not to read, and then I changed my mind once I read reviews of them. But both of them had significant weaknesses, and Brooks was not yet ready to write either book. He wrote the books because he was an author and because writing and research are part of how he processes his own issues. He published because he was on deadline, not because he was really finished processing them. Because of this history, I again did not intend to pick up How to Know a Person. But again, I was drawn to them because of two podcasts. Curt Thompson interviewed him on Faith Angle. And then, more personally, he was interviewed by his real-life friend Kate Bowler on her podcast Everything Happens. These are very different podcasts. Curt Thompson is a Psychiatrist who has written about spiritual formation, the soul, shame, and neuroscience. That conversation is more about the technical issues of friendship, what relationships do for us, and why we need them. But it is easy to tell that Kate and David are not just acquaintances but actual friends who really do get together regularly. They talked about calling one another and going over to each other’s homes to talk when needed. And that very personal conversation showed the aspect of how David has put into practice what he has been writing about for the past decade. That “putting into practice what he has been learning” which made me want to pick up How to Know a Person.

How to Know a Person has a mix of scientific research about how to listen, seek out friends, and why that is important. But the emotional center of the book is the three chapters telling the story of the suicide of David’s oldest friend a few years ago. The main chapter is a revision of an essay he wrote not too long after the suicide. He grappled with that suicide and told the story of his friend’s depression and how he tried to help. The two additional chapters are about what he learned afterward about depression and suicide and what advice he would have now for those who are either grappling with depression and suicide or those who have loved ones who are. All of these chapters are well-written, careful, and helpful. There is no silver bullet, but some things may be helpful.

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The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover by Lerone A. Martin

Summary: J. Edgar Hoover’s understanding of Christianity significantly influenced his management of the FBI, and in turn, the FBI impacted the broader development of what has become the Christian Nationalist movement in a modern sense.

If Kristen Kobez DuMez had not (multiple times) recommended the Gospel of J Edgar Hoover and had not been briefly on sale as a Kindle book, I would not have picked it up. I have a limited interest in the FBI or Hoover. But her strong recommendation of the book’s writing made me pick it up. In the opening pages, two stories frame the book nicely. First, the introduction talks about the legal maneuvers required to get the FBI to honor their FIOA requirements and how they initially did not honor their legal requirements and suffered no real consequences for violating FIOA requirements. The second early story in the book that I think matters is how a church stained glass window was dedicated to Hoover. I read that description as meaning that it was a stained glass window of Hoover, but instead, it was a window dedicated to Hoover. I did not realize my mistake until I read a review of this book on Goodreads. That review linked to an image of the windows, which is helpful for context. (J Edgar Hoover window) I think I was primed to understand the window as images of Hoover because of Southwestern Baptist Seminary’s stained glass windows (artist site), which were of many of SBC figures, including the seminary president who originally commissioned the windows and who was forced to resign several years ago.

Lenore Martin’s perspective is evident throughout the book. The following is as good of a thesis statement as any:

“As FBI director from 1924 until his death in 1972, Hoover was a political constant, paying lip service to the Constitution, but establishing white Christian nationalism as the actual foundation of his FBI. It mattered little who was in office or which party was in control of Congress. Faith helped him determine the nation’s enemies and how they should be attacked and defeated. He saw national security in cosmic terms. Nothing was more existential than national security, the very salvation of the nation’s soul.” (p7)


“The FBI made it very clear: a secure and safe America was a Christian America, one in which white evangelicals and conservative white Catholics worked together to maintain the levers of cultural and political power.”

My knowledge of the FBI in the early years is primarily about their roles (sometimes positive, but often negative) regarding the Civil Rights Era. (I was interested to learn that the FBI opened 11,328 civil rights investigations but only had 14 convictions.) And the early FBI’s role in investigating sex trafficking concerning the Mann Act. The Mann Act was officially titled The White Slave Traffic Act, but neither that full title nor the colloquial term was mentioned in The Gospel of J Edgar Hoover.

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