"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

31 January 2011

A Long Walk to Water

Park, Linda Sue. A Long Walk to Water. Boston: Clarion Books, 2010.

This book follows the stories of two young people in Sudan. Nya lives in Southern Sudan in 2008, and every day she makes two trips to the pond to get water and bring it home.  She takes two trips a day, every day, from the time she was old enough to go on her own until she will be old enough to marry. 

In 1985 Salva escaped a brutal skirmish in his village and traveled with a group to a refugee camp.  He lost his family and everything he had.  He spent twelve years in various refugee camps until he was sponsored by a family in the United States.  Salva determines that he will help those who have been left behind in his war-torn home country.

I don't want to give any more details and end up spoiling what is an excellent story.  This book would be great for a middle school teacher to read to his/her class or for a middle schooler to read on his/her own time, but even if you aren't in middle school anymore (and aren't you glad that you're done with that phase?), this book is definitely worth your time.  At 115 pages, it's a very quick read.  Stop by your local library and pick up a copy.

30 January 2011

Generous Justice

Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice. New York: Dutton, 2010.

Typically we think of justice as doling out punishments to criminals who have committed various crimes.  In his book Keller shows a different side of justice: caring for those around us who need help.  Keller demonstrates God's emphasis on helping the poor and needy, both through Old Testament commands and New Testament teachings of Jesus.  God is an advocate for the poor and the helpless and we are to be His hands and heart in this world.

I appreciated Keller's reminder that we as Christians need to live a life that proclaims the salvation Christ has given to us.  It was good to remember how much grace God has shown us and to see that we should show that grace to others around us as well.  Absolutely it is important for us to share the Gospel with everyone.  Yes, this is the most important message we can share.  But no one will listen to that message if our walk doesn't match our talk, if we describe God's grace and generosity to others but will not be generous or gracious ourselves.

29 January 2011

The Memory Collector

Gardiner, Meg. The Memory Collector. New York: Signet, 2009.

What would you do if every five minutes your brain "reset" and you couldn't remember anything new?  Kanan, a security agent for a company producing high-tech products, has a mysterious disease that is eating away at his brain.  He can't form new memories, so he has resorted to writing everything down to remind himself of where he is and what he's trying to do.  And on his left arm in permanent ink are the words, "Saturday they die."

This book was very entertaining.  It was suspenseful, there were interesting plot twists that genuinely surprised me, and it was fairly free of the profusion of profanity that usually litters such stories. And it takes place in San Francisco.  One of the chase scenes was set in the streets around my church, which made this story seem even more vivid and real to me.

This is an excellent book with a very satisfying ending.  I was sad when I turned the last page and the book ended.  Grab this one from the local library, folks, or shoot me an email and I'll let you borrow my copy.

19 January 2011

Generous Orthodoxy

McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. 

I was browsing the 200s at my library (yes, I do browse through non-fiction on occasion), and I found this book.  I was intrigued by the subtitle: "Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian."  Feel free to go back to the top of that sentence and re-read it.  I wasn't sure how McLaren could keep all those different ideas in his head without exploding, so I had to check this book out.

I wasn't disappointed.  McLaren has a writing style that I enjoy, and I liked reading and thinking through his perspectives on these viewpoints within Christianity.  If I can be so bold, I'd like summarize McLaren's point this way: every Christian denomination has some very good points and some points where they are very mistaken.  Rather than judging others for their mistakes (realizing we have our own mistakes as well), we should celebrate the things people are getting right and rejoice in an enlarged community of believers, even if we don't all attend the same church on Sunday.

This is an interesting book.  I agree with much of what I read.  McLaren has a point about Christians being too willing to separate over disagreements and then declare that their new denomination has "all the answers," therefore closing the door to any sort of intellectual discourse.  He's right when he says that discussing different viewpoints will lead more quickly to an open door for the Gospel than simply saying, "I'm right; you're wrong; let me tell you how Jesus loves you."  I can understand, though, why his book has faced a bit of controversy. I can imagine the people who read only the title and couldn't comprehend agreeing with anything that McLaren has to say, and so condemned the book without reading it. 

I think the old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover" applies here.  I also think the lesson I pounded into my students' brains, "Don't judge a book or a person who is reading a book unless you've read it yourself" applies here.  And I strongly recommend that you read this book.  It is interesting.  It is thought-provoking. Even if you're sure you won't agree with him, perhaps you should read this book to see what it is you disagree with.

You may not agree with everything McLaren says (I don't, although I am not scheduling a book-burning anytime soon), but you won't know that until you read it.  I am glad to have read this book, even though I have not decided to label myself as a super-hyphenated Christian in the way McLaren has self-identified.

18 January 2011

Keep Sweet

Greene, Michele. Keep Sweet. New York: Simon Pulse, 2010.

For some reason, it seems that fringe societies are the popular topic this year.  From memoirs retelling stories of life in a strict religious group or escape from such a group to young adult fiction depicting the same, everyone is interested in these groups.  This book was just one of about half a dozen such books on the "new young adult fiction" shelf at the library.  I chose this book because it discusses the FLDS, a group about which I have read recently.

Alva is a daughter of her father's favorite wife, and things are going pretty well for her.  She watches her mother jockey for her father's attention and is certain, even when her father adds a seventh wife, that her mother will still be the favorite. Alva plans to do this same thing once she is married, although she hopes to be someone's first wife.

All of this changes when outsiders enter the community.  A man and his wife choose to join the FLDS, and Alva finds herself becoming friends with Brenda, the short-haired, pants-wearing wife who works at a bank in town and can't sew or cook to save her life.  Alva begins to realize that perhaps the world outside isn't nearly as evil as everyone suggested, and that there might be some things wrong with the FLDS beliefs.

Alva's decision to flee the community comes after she is caught almost kissing John Joseph, a boy she is hoping to marry.  Her father's swift reaction - having the boy expelled from the community, beating Alva with a belt, locking her in the cellar for the night, and marrying her off to a very violent 50-year old man - convinces Alva that she must leave. 

This book was a very quick read for me. I enjoyed learning about life inside an FLDS community from the perspective of a child, and I was on the edge of my seat as Alva attempted to escape the community.   I was cheering for Alva in her second escape attempt, this time in the trunk of Brenda's car.  I found myself comparing Alva's escape to Jonas's in Lois Lowry's The Giver, and I cheered with Alva when she discovered that John Joseph, now one of the lost boys, had been looking for her. Overall, this story was very well-written and kept me interested.

However, I have to offer one rather large caveat: when Alva attempts to escape the first time, she is caught and returned to the community.  Upon her return, she is forced into a marriage with a 50-year old man, who then takes her to the basement of the building and consummates the marriage.  Alva is not yet 15 at this time, and the rape scene, although brief, is graphic and scary.  There is also a scene earlier in the book where Alva witnesses this same man beating one of his wives who attempted to escape.  That scene is particularly violent and distressing that so many people could watch in silence while a man broke his wife's jaw and ribs and beat her into unconsciousness. 

Because of these two scenes, I do not recommend this book to anyone who is a teenager or has a history of abuse, and I recommend extreme caution for all others.  I understand why the author would choose to include these scenes, and I appreciate their brevity and the way they help to move the plot along, but when I finished this book I had to "clean out my brain" with another book before I could go to bed that night. Greene's depiction of life within the FLDS community seems fairly accurate from the little I know and have read, and she walks a fine line between condemning their unusual beliefs and showcasing the reasoning behind some of their actions.

17 January 2011

The Reason for God

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, often faces difficult or awkward questions from the visitors and members of his church.  This book is his opportunity to answer many of those questions for those who honestly want to know. Drawing on his knowledge and study of literature and philosophy as well as sound reasoning, Keller posits that belief in God is not only rational, but the only solution to all of the conundrums presented by those who doubt.  In fact, Keller goes a step further to show that we all already believe in God, whether or not we want to admit it.

This book is a heavy one, I will admit.  I had to read it in small pieces throughout my lunch breaks at work, as my brain was too tired at night to appreciate Keller's explanation and logic.  However, this book was well worth my time.  Keller's arguments and discussions are excellent, and I am glad that he is willing to take the time to answer the tough questions presented by those in his congregation.  This book is worth reading and worth having on the shelf.  It's time to head to the bookstore, folks.

14 January 2011

The Jesus Inquest

Foster, Charles.  The Jesus Inquest. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

This book is Foster's attempt to present the case both for and against Christ's bodily resurrection.  Each chapter is divided into two sections, with X arguing the case against the resurrection and Y arguing for it.

This book is very detailed; the notes and bibliography at the back are forty pages long.  Each chapter covers a specific aspect of Christ's crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, drawing on a variety of scholarly sources.

I will have to admit that I did not find this book particularly interesting.  It was almost too detailed for me.  I got lost in the numbers and the references to obscure sources and the nitpicky details.  For someone who is interested in these details or the culture at that time, this book would be a fascinating read.  It would also be an excellent resource for a person attempting to write a research paper on this topic.  However, it is not a good "fun read" for those of you who are looking for something to curl up with in front of a fire.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.

12 January 2011

The Hole in Our Gospel

Stearns, Richard.  The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision U.S., believes that many Western Christians, specifically those living in the U.S., have left out a part of the gospel.  He is bothered by the idea that we should go door-to-door making sure everyone has prayed the sinner's prayer and has spiritual "fire insurance," but that we do nothing to help with people's real needs.  The hole that Stearns sees in the gospel is that we are not helping those around us.

It is absolutely true that even the poorest person reading these words right now is much richer than much of the world's population.  I once heard that an American's garbage can eats better than a child in a third-world country.  I will readily and easily agree that there is a lot of hurt in the world right now, and that much of that hurt could be alleviated if those of us with the means to do so would either go and help or send money with those who do go and help, etc. 

I also agree with Stearns's point that the gospel is so much clearer and grace so much more obvious to people who have first been helped with their material needs.  A person who is starving needs a good, hot meal, not a tract with the bridge illustration.  When Christians hand out tracts to homeless people or travel to desperately poor places only to preach the gospel, lives are not changed and the name of Christ is soiled.  People do need to see Jesus in us before they will want to hear about Him.

This book details Stearns's spiritual journey as he learned about God's love for him and chose to leave a successful career in order to become the president of World Vision.  The Hole in Our Gospel details Stearns's travels about the globe as well as numerous sobering statistics about the reality of poverty.

I can absolutely agree with Stearns's point that we need to care for the poor.  Having already donated children's books to Project Night Night, school supplies to Sleep Train's program, and books to my local library, I am considering visiting World Vision's website to see how I can get involved.  I know that my involvement will not end world poverty, but I can make a difference.

One caveat: as we attempt to restore balance between our message and actions, let us not swing to the other extreme: only helping people with their material needs and forgetting to tell them about the One who loves them more than they can imagine.

11 January 2011

Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions

Driscoll, Mark. Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.

Driscoll uses this book as a sort of catch-all: he addresses nine common questions about Christianity, ranging from the topic of birth control to the emerging church.  Each question has a chapter devoted to it, and Driscoll patiently wades through all the picky details of the topic, addressing multiple viewpoints and the accompanying Scripture passages.

For those of you who have taken a Bible doctrines course at a Christian college or university, this book could be a quick read. Many of the questions, like the one concerning predestination, have been addressed in other venues, so the information wasn't new to me.  Other sections take a bit more time to read through, as I was curious to see what both sides thought about the issue and what Driscoll himself was thinking.

This book was easily digestible and kept me interested, although I didn't necessarily learn a lot of new information.  It's probably worth a trip to your local library to see if a copy of this book is available.

08 January 2011


Jessop, Carolyn and Laura Palmer.  Escape. New York: Broadway Books, 2007.

The trial of Warren Jeffs has been in the news once again.  I was interested in learning more about this trial because I had read Carolyn Jessop's second book, detailing her life outside the FLDS church.  I had wanted to read her first book, detailing her life as a sister wife and her escape with her eight children. 

I cannot imagine enduring what Jessop endured.  I am amazed at her bravery and so glad that she and her children have been able to find freedom outside of the bondage of the cult they were in.  This book was a good read and filled in some gaps I had from reading the second book first.

07 January 2011

Grace Awakening

Swindoll, Charles. Grace Awakening. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990.

In his classic Grace Awakening, Swindoll identifies the number one killer of grace in the church, and it isn't what you might be guessing.  For anyone who has spent any number of years worshiping in a church, this book is an excellent resource to reaffirm the grace that God has given to each of us.  Fear of disapproval causes us to distance ourselves from the One who loves us more than we can understand. God's grace is what has saved us, what is making us more like Him, and what allows us to love all of those around us.  It's time to reawaken the grace in our lives. 

This book is an excellent addition to my growing list of "books of grace and freedom" that I have found as I have been reexamining my beliefs and my walk with Christ.  If it isn't on your 2011 reading list yet, it should be.

02 January 2011

Blue Like Jazz

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003.

Similar to Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God (which I also highly recommend), Blue Like Jazz reads as a spiritual memoir.  Miller is very honest in his approach to life and religion, and I appreciate his candidness as he describes his spiritual journey. 

I have two "take-away" points from this book.  The first has to do with an incident where Miller encounters a woman who is purchasing groceries using food stamps.  He recognizes the awkwardness and shame in the situation, and wonders how he would react if he were to need to live on food stamps: "I love to give to charity, but I don't want to be charity. This is why I have so much trouble with grace. . . . It isn't that I want to earn my own way to give something to God, it's that I want to earn my own way so I won't be charity.  As I drove over the mountain that afternoon, realizing I was too proud to receive God's grace, I was humbled.  Who am I to think myself above God's charity? And why would I forsake the riches of God's righteousness for the dung of my own ego?" (74-85).

The second point involves the author's discussion of what he would be willing to die for, and his ponderings that living for something is harder than dying for something: "If I live what I believe, then I don't believe very many noble things.  My life testifies that the first thing I believe is that I am the most important person in the world.  My life testifies to this because I care more about my food and shelter and happiness than about anybody else" (111-112).

This is an excellent book, well worth the time spent reading it.  I may actually go back and re-read it before I have to return it to the library.

01 January 2011

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

Johnson, David and Jeff Van Vonderen. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991.

If you have ever felt controlled or shamed or manipulated by what happens at your church, if you have ever dreaded Sunday mornings, if you ever wondered whether you have unknowingly stepped into a cult, then this is an excellent resource for you.  Johnson and Van Vonderen do an excellent job of describing the traps of spiritual abuse and the signs to look for.  The statement "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely" sums up the point of this book.  Some people can fall, Macbeth-esque, into the power trap, and they end up hurting those around them.  This is especially evident within churches, places where people should feel loved and welcomed and cared for.

I appreciated the authors' descriptions of the signs of spiritual abuse and their discussion on recovery from such abuse.  I also very much appreciated that the authors chose to recognize something that would be hard to acknowledge when leaving an abusive situation: the abusive person, in this case likely a pastor, may not be abusive intentionally.  Some people were brought up in spiritually abusive churches and educational systems and may be carrying on the tradition from good intentions; perhaps these people actually think they are glorifying God and helping others as they wreak their havoc.  I am firmly convinced that there are many churches in this type of situation, and this viewpoint helped me to feel sorry for such pastors and churches rather than being angry at them.

Overall, this is an excellent book and definitely worth your time.