Rachel Held Evans

Rachel was the best little Christian girl. She won prizes in AWANA for her knowledge of the Bible. She looked for things to do for others so that she could be a servant. She pitied everyone else because they were all going to burn in hell. By her own admission, she was pretty insufferable. When she reached a certain age, though, she started to notice that some things just didn’t make sense in the worldview she’d been given by her parents and her church, so she started to ask questions. This did not go over well with her Sunday School teachers, but her very religious parents supported her curiosity and allowed her to pursue answers to her quandaries. It took a long time to shed the Good Evangelical Girl persona, but in time, Rachel Held Evans was able to write about her faith journey, and she became famous on one side of the church and infamous on the other.

Rachel Held Evans was the author of Searching for Sunday and The Year of Biblical Womanhood, among other works. She started the Evolving Faith conference with her friend, Sarah Bessey, and spoke and worked tirelessly for groups that the church had marginalized, especially the LGBTQ community. She was the mother of two little children when she suddenly contracted an infection, then had an allergic reaction to the medication. She died at age 37. Her death stunned the Christian world. She had just started on what looked like a brilliant career, and then she was gone. I recently listened to her speaking on a podcast from just a few months before her death, and she and the host were talking about her upcoming projects. None of us are promised tomorrow.

Two new books by Rachel are being published posthumously this fall, one for adults and one for children.

Wholehearted Faith

As you might imagine, a prolific writer has a lot of manuscripts and fragments in computer folders, desk drawers, and sundry other places. After her death, Rachel’s husband, Dan, gathered up some of them and asked Rachel’s friend, Jeff Chu, to help get them to publication. Jeff edited and organized the manuscripts, plus he filled in those she had left unfinished. This volume is a collection of essays on a variety of topics, written in Rachel’s friendly, thoughtful voice. Some of them recount her childhood and faith journey, while others muse on the complexities of life and the corruption of the church.

Her chapter called “From Death to Life” is especially compelling. It is a long chapter that starts with self-deprecating humor. She admits that her Enneagram type 3 personality can turn a fun game into a fight to the death, and how that drive for success affected her life and her faith. She grows more serious toward the end as she shows how the drive to be successful in our country has influenced the church, and she reminds us that those afraid of death do not believe in the resurrection. If the death of the American church is inevitable, she recounts the many ways that it could be resurrected more gloriously, and she concludes by stating that death is not the end of the story. I would love to quote these beautiful passages, but I read an advance reader copy, so that is not allowed. In November, though, you can read them yourself.

For those who loved Rachel Held Evans or for those troublemakers who ask questions, this is a deep and moving collection from a writer whose canon closed too soon.

What Is God Like?

I did not know that Rachel Held Evans was friends with one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Matthew Paul Turner. Since she had little children, Rachel had started to write her ideas about God for a very young audience just two months before she died. At that time, she and her husband, Dan, had a three-year-old son and a new baby girl. Dan asked Turner to bring this unfinished work to completion. Using images and emotions from nature and children’s daily lives, she describes God in open, nonspecific ways that convey love and safety to little ones. Her language is inclusive and trinitarian, showing a mother on one page and a father on the next, three dancers of various genders and ethnicities, happy children playing outdoors or creating artwork, all using “he” and “she” pronouns equally. The illustrator, Ying Hui Tan, stays close to Turner’s usual style, with floaty, swooping figures and diverse skin tones.

This beautiful book will be helpful to parents who wish to convey reassuring ideas about God to young children. There is no reference to sin and punishment or even to any particular religious tradition. Evans prefers to introduce children to the mystery and lifelong pursuit of the divine, which may be a tall order for children at an age when their thinking is fairly concrete. Parents who are more sectarian might take note that this volume will not reinforce the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Whether parents find this book charming or not will be according to the style of their own pursuit of the divine.

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So, be open with your questions and share your gathered wisdom, because God already knows, but the rest of us might need to hear it.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Wholehearted Faith and a library copy of What Is God Like? Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle Greener’s father was a professor who became a civil rights activist in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the enactment of Jim Crow laws. For a short space of time, the future looked hopeful for freed Blacks, but during their years at the university, Belle’s parents saw the mood of the country turning against them. At that point, Belle’s mother decided that the only way her light-skinned children could be safe was to pass as white. The Greeners separated over this issue, and their daughter lived the rest of her life as Belle da Costa Greene, inventing a Portuguese ancestor to explain her olive skin.

After attending Princeton University and working for a short time, Belle was hired by the famous financier, J.P. Morgan, to be the librarian in charge of his incredible collection of ancient manuscripts and artworks in New York City. Her salary allowed her sisters and brothers to complete their education and secure good jobs of their own. Over the years, Belle’s career grew beyond her wildest dreams, and Morgan trusted her completely to journey to Europe to negotiate for rare volumes and works of art. These trips also allowed her to meet secretly with the much-older art dealer, Bernard Berenson, with whom she maintained a romantic relationship that lasted for decades, although they endured some rocky years.

On my last trip to Manhattan, in pre-pandemic times, my brother and I visited the Morgan Library. What a treasure! I had not heard of it before, but I read an article about its medieval illuminated manuscripts and its Gutenberg Bibles, so I thought it would be worth a trip. The soaring architecture, particularly the three-story main room, is awe-inspiring. The manuscripts were as beautiful as described, but there were many other fascinations, including sculpture and paintings, ancient cylinder seals from the near East that I looked for in vain as earrings in the gift shop, and the only intact copy of Lady Susan in Jane Austen’s own handwriting. There were other handwritten manuscripts and musical compositions, as well, and so much more. At that time, there were very few people in the museum with us, but the success of The Personal Librarian may have changed that.

The fact that a woman, and a black woman at that, was in control of the selection and acquisition of this important man’s collection is gratifying for this librarian! Morgan included Belle in many of his family functions, although not all of his children appreciated her prominent role in their lives. Marie Benedict turned to Victoria Christopher Murray to portray a more authentic understanding of a black woman’s feelings and experiences. Between the two of them, this novel hews very closely to the historical record, while sweeping readers along for all of the fear, thrill, excitement, sorrow, and triumph that was Belle da Costa Greene’s life.

I listened to this book on an excellent audio version, although I own an advance reader copy that I will treasure, as well. This is an absorbing novel for anyone who loves history, biography, art, and literature. Read the book, see the library. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Zeno is headed to the library in February, 2020, to work with a group of kids he’s come to love. They’re putting on a play that Zeno translated from the ancient Greek. Seymour is headed to the library, too, to set off a homemade bomb.

Anna lives in Constantinople in 1452 with her seamstress sister who is going blind. Anna is learning to read by deciphering a set of parchments she found while stealing and selling old manuscripts in order to pay for her sister’s treatment. Omeir is outside of Constantinople with the Sultan’s troops. He was conscripted into service with his beloved oxen, helping to build the siegeworks to bring down the city walls.

Konstance is in a spaceship in Mission Year 55 with her family, part of a generational effort to save humanity from an earth that has been destroyed by pollution and to start anew on the planet Beta Oph2. By stepping onto her Perambulator, Konstance can join her friends and their teacher in the huge library in virtual reality. She loves the atlas of Earth and spends whole days inside, walking around whatever country she chooses that day.

Weaving back and forth in time, Doerr divides the sections by inserting passages from the folio of Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Antonius Diogenes, the ancient manuscript that connects all of these stories.

A 622-page novel may seem daunting, but Anthony Doerr, the bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See (reviewed here), makes the pages fly by. Each of the characters is compelling individually, but the growing realization of how these stories set in different times and places weave together is stunning. It is through the tiny details and ordinary days of small, seemingly inconsequential lives that we perceive the greater story of the fall of rich kingdoms, powerful cultures, and even entire planets. Whether the power is held by soulless developers, greedy sultans, or vast corporations, most people are at the mercy of a stranger’s voracious quest for wealth and dominance. Yet, Doerr counterbalances this sad story of mankind’s endless appetite for conquest with a deep love of nature and a gratitude for its endurance and continual rebirth. It is in the sight of an owl, the sprouting of a seed, or the first lungful of fresh air that our souls are touched.

From battlefields to hearths, Doerr’s stories are so fascinating that the reader becomes attached to every character. In each plot thread, someone is absorbed in the satisfying work of scholarly research and storytelling, and the novel is filled with a love for libraries and librarians. This is a book that will appeal to every type of reader, since the author brilliantly combined historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, and science fiction, all in one volume. Set aside some time for this one. It will be THE literary event of the year. The publication date is September 28th.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance copy of this book, with thanks to @simonandschuster and @scribnerbooks. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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New Grandma’s Review Roundup

In June, I was thrilled to become a new grandma, although it was almost three months early and my knitting projects were still in progress! After all, I have double the projects with newborn twins, sister and brother. What with trips to the hospital for cuddles, library work, and keeping the yarn flowing, I am listening to more audiobooks and writing fewer reviews. Here are some quick picks from a wide range of titles.

My Contrary Mary

Such fun! This alternate history of Mary, Queen of Scots and her young marriage to Francis, heir to the French throne, is somewhat complicated by the fact that, in this version of the world, some people can turn into animals and some cannot. Naturally, the ones who can’t hate the ones who can and vice versa. Don’t bother looking up the dates on Wikipedia, this story is about what the writers want to have happen in the unfortunate monarch’s life. The team of Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows bring us another rollicking tale, supposedly written for teens but with many adult fans, certainly among my own acquaintance. I listened to this one on audio, because the reader, Fiona Hardingham, is fabulous and adds another dimension to the experience. My favorite by this group is still My Plain Jane (reviewed here) perhaps just because of the petulant voice of the ghost.

The Eternal Current, by Aaron Niequist

Many Christians are leaving traditional churches these days, not because they don’t believe, but because they cannot find life in the dry, rote services they find there. Jesus gave us traditions that are earthy and real, and they were embraced by the early church, but somehow lost over the centuries. Pastor Aaron Niequist and a group of like-minded believers formed a group called The Practice which began meeting each week to recapture historic and new traditions of Christianity. This book, subtitled How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning, is also a podcast to help readers flesh out the concepts and even the methods for the various practices. For example, the members of Niequist’s group all expressed a desire to participate in communion more often and in more meaningful ways. Jesus obviously taught this meal to his disciples, but most Protestant churches today only have communion once a month or even less, using little plastic cups of grape juice. Niequist isn’t condemning these churches; rather, he is asking: “How can we do this better? What did Jesus intend?” If the name Niequist rings a bell, his wife, Shauna, is also a writer and appears with him on the podcast occasionally. Her book, Present Over Perfect, is reviewed here. One of our pastors mentioned this book as being instrumental in the direction of our church, so if you are also longing for meaning, reach out to me and I’ll give you more details.

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light, by Helen Ellis

The author of Southern Lady Code brings us another collection of humorous essays, this one centering on the lives and relationships of women past a certain age. Think hot flashes. Helen Ellis can be hilariously funny, but she can also be quite coarse. The author reads the short audiobook herself, which is always a treat. I listened to this one while prepping dinner for just a few days. Entertainment for the fiercely feminist, but proceed with caution.

Love People, Use Things, by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

I was expecting the Marie Kondo element, but the 7 Habits vibe, the heavy dose of Dave Ramsey, and especially the memoir took me by surprise. Also the kick in the pants. The guys from The Minimalist podcast start off by helping you to deal with your extra stuff, and then Joshua launches into a life history with lessons that he learned along the way. Ryan ends each chapter with a summary and some questions to get you thinking. They take a deep dive into relationships and values, delivering far more than a cleaning manual. Good stuff if you want to give your life a thorough airing, plus I gave away six boxes of donations just from my dresser drawers and closets.

We Are the Brennans, by Tracey Lange

Sunny Brennan left her large, Irish-American family five years ago to live in California. When she drank too much and crashed her car, she reluctantly agreed to come back home to her three grown brothers, her ailing dad, and her former fiancé, who is now married with a little son. She had only planned to stay while she healed, but her family soon had her helping at the pub, where she began to suspect that her oldest brother was hiding something. He’s not the only one. Sunny has been keeping a painful secret that has changed all of their lives forever. So much family drama! An engrossing read with love triangles, squabbling siblings, and crimes new and old. Sunny’s mother is firmly planted on my Most Despicable Characters list.

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The usual disclaimer: I read or listened to advance copies of all of these except The Eternal Current, which I own. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford

The Book

Fanny was an only child, but she spent a great deal of her early years at Alconleigh, the estate of her raucous and numerous Radlett cousins. Fanny was being brought up by her single Aunt Emily, since her own mother had abandoned her to live what the cousins considered a thrillingly scandalous life. They were so jealous, since their parents were stuffy and strict. Aunt Sadie dithered through life, surrounded by tumbling, energetic children, while Uncle Matthew spent most of his time hunting and shooting. Matthew scorned Emily’s attention to Fanny’s academic pursuits, as he was completely opposed to education for “females” and was proud that his daughters were ignorant and decorative. Fanny and Linda were the same age, and they could not wait to grow up and fall in love, with Linda pining for the Prince of Wales. They were the children of The Great War, and no one ever thought there would be another such terrible conflict, but as adolescence gave way to weddings and babies in the late 1930s, rumblings of war began again, and all their wealth and sparkling parties could not keep them safe.

The Pursuit of Love is an autobiographical novel by Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the real-life Mitford sisters, who were rather like more mannered Kardashians of their day: beautiful, famous, and always scandalous. It is told in the third person from Fanny’s point of view, but she is not actually the author’s true identity. That falls to her Radlett cousin, Linda, who led a much wilder life than Fanny.

Mitford’s style can only be called charming. Her writing is so light and amusing that it reminds one of Jane Austen; however, Miss Austen would blush at Linda’s tempestuous existence. After an indulgent childhood, Linda gravitates toward people on the outer fringes of society, and even when she tries to make good choices, they turn sour before her very eyes. Mitford takes on the serious issues of her day, including the failing aristocracy, misogyny and women’s education, communism, class distinctions, and war’s far-reaching power. Perhaps the most shocking element of the story is Linda’s complete disregard for her daughter, whom she finds repugnant from the moment of birth. Still, the heaviness of these issues does not weigh down the fascination of the plot and the humor carrying the reader through the pages.

Nancy Mitford also wrote a sequel to this novel, Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several well-received biographies.

The Miniseries

Amazon Prime has recently adapted The Pursuit of Love into a 3-episode miniseries, starring Lily James as Linda and Emily Beecham as Fanny. While the book would probably be rated PG-13, the miniseries brings it up to an R rating, and some of the sensationalist elements that were hinted at in the book were splashed out on the screen. Others were made up from whole cloth. There is one improbable scene that looks as if it were borrowed from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The miniseries does manage to hold on to the humor, though, and even seems campy at times. The introduction of new characters and places reminds one of Love & Friendship, the Kate Beckinsale adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Everything freezes, and the name of the person or place is scrawled across the screen in antique script.

The film follows the plotline of the book very well— aside from its startling first scene— and images of English estates and Parisian streets are always fun. The period costumes are fabulous, and Lily James is lovely, as usual. It’s a great popcorn experience, but this is one time that I would say to please, please read the book first. Nancy Mitford doesn’t deserve the judgment that I, for one, would heap on her if I had only seen the miniseries.

Rating: The book is better, probably 4 ½ stars. The miniseries is 3 ½ stars.

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*Miniseries photo from The Hollywood Reporter.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Anthropocene Reviewed, by John Green

John Green is an observer. He and his brother, Hank, have had a vlog discussing random topics for years now, while John has won multiple awards as a young adult author. The Anthropocene Reviewed is his first adult and his first nonfiction book, a large collection of essays about our human-centered– or Anthropocene– era, each ending with a rating on a five-star scale.

Green is interested in everything, and he reviews things as diverse as Diet Dr. Pepper, the world’s biggest ball of paint, and the smallpox vaccine. He openly discusses his struggle with depression and OCD, and he reads the audiobook himself in his gentle, slightly stressed voice. Green is warm and witty, and while some of his stories are funny, he also talks about the burned child who ended his career as a hospital chaplain and about his love for Amy Kraus Rosenthal and their last conversation before her death from cancer. He loves the earth, his wife and kids, and soccer.

During my time as a young adult book selector, I read everything that John Green has ever written. He writes the best bantering dialogue out there. These essays, however, are sometimes written in soaring prose, other times filled with fascinating information, and often seasoned with brilliant, searing rants. The short chapters are excellent for those of us who feel more distracted than ever these days.

Thoughtful and entertaining, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed 5 stars.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audio version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Everything Sad Is Untrue (a true story), by Daniel Nayeri

Styling himself after Scheherazade, Khosrou begins his tale with his earliest memory, in which his grandfather in Iran, Baba Haji, kills a bull in his honor and wipes the blood on his little cheeks. At least, he thinks that is how it went, but maybe someone told him that story, or maybe it’s not even true at all. Whatever the case, it makes a great composition for English class in his American school, where everyone calls him Daniel.

Author Nayeri relates the story of his life as a wealthy child in Iran before his family was forced to flee the Muslim “Committee” because of his mother’s conversion to Christianity. They gave up everything, and now his mother works odd jobs to keep them housed and fed, even though she was a physician in Iran. Daniel remembers his father as a superhero of a man, confident and ebullient, but he did not come to America with them, and now he is married to someone else. In one school assignment after another, Daniel works to save his memories in stories, although his classmates only half believe him.

Nayeri uses evocative language to spin this mostly-true tale of his beloved Persian heritage, all the while honoring his mother’s courage in leaving it behind. He revels in the food of his homeland and tells of his evenings making fresh dishes with his mother. He is pudgy and shy, sorry that the girl he admires does not return his affections. His young life has far more years folded into it than his classmates’ simple lives could ever hold. He remembers the suffering of leaving loved ones, living for years as a refugee in Italy, and then starting all over again in Oklahoma.

This autobiographical novel has won just about every prize imaginable for teen books, and it is one of the finest examples of literary achievement for young people that I have read. The writing is beautiful, the style creative. Although the subject matter is sometimes heartbreaking, Daniel has a great sense of humor, so the reader is often laughing through tears. It is a story of immigration in which both the origin and the destination are honored. It is a story of religious persecution that does not hate the other faith. It is the tale of a boy who treasures family and heritage as he reconciles himself to a new home.

I listened to the audiobook version of this story, which is read by the author. I recommend this format, at least as a backup, since Nayeri has a friendly voice, and I would not have pronounced the Farsi words properly otherwise. This book would make a great family read-aloud (listen aloud?), since there is so much to discuss that is part of our ongoing national conversation. The comments about Christianity are refreshingly bold and positive, not the usual careful, neutral words of American writers. After all, his mother was willing to die for Jesus, like most members of the great conversion happening in Iran today. The grown-up Daniel Nayeri’s love and admiration for his mother will warm your heart.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library digital audio copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr

Most people throughout history have been lulled into thinking that the way things are today is the way they have always been, but when speaking of a woman’s place in the church, historian Beth Allison Barr shows us that this is not the case. Barr’s particular field of study is the middle ages, and she takes the reader on a tour of history since Jesus’s time to see how women were perceived in each era.

Beginning with an alternate reading of Paul’s instructions about women in the church, Barr points out the many passages in Paul’s epistles that show women as apostles, deaconesses, and other leaders in the early church. Continuing into later centuries, we have many records of abbesses and other respected women leaders. One of the most interesting transitions Barr explores is that the women before the Reformation became honored saints by renouncing marriage and women’s traditional roles, whereas after the Reformation, the church honored women who were good wives and mothers, and as such, could not devote themselves to full-time ministry.

The author demonstrates how western cultures influenced the expectations of female roles by the evolution of sermons and biblical translations. She also compares passages in the ESV and the NIV today, and then traces those same passages back to see how they were translated in earlier bible translations, such as the Vulgate and the Geneva bibles.

I read this title almost immediately after Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed  here), and, although both authors are arguing against the oppression of women in today’s Protestant churches, Du Mez is describing the evangelical movement through the past century of American history with a political lens. Barr, on the other hand, examines women’s roles in the entire Christian church since New Testament times through a historical lens. While this may not have the same “ripped from the headlines” quality, it is deeply engrossing and sometimes surprising.

Beth Allison Barr received her Ph.D. right here in the neighborhood at UNC Chapel Hill and is now assistant dean at the graduate school of Baylor University. Woven delicately through her historical research is her personal story of how her husband lost his job as youth pastor at their church because he suggested that they could hire a woman pastor. Previously, he had offered the name of a male friend for the open position of church secretary, and the church leaders’ reaction let him know that they considered the job to be beneath a man’s dignity. If only this were a rare attitude, Dr. Barr wouldn’t have written this book.

Interesting reading from a perspective rarely seen in popular nonfiction. Love the nod to Warhol on the cover.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

Justyce was trying to help when he got arrested. His girlfriend was drunk and struggling to get into the driver’s seat of her car, while he was trying to get hold of her keys and move her into the back seat. Right after she threw up all over him, the police arrived and put him in handcuffs. Melo’s father was black, but she got her looks from her Norwegian mother, so the policeman saw him as a black boy molesting a white girl. Justyce had always been a good kid with a positive attitude towards the police, but after going to jail, he had a hard time continuing his Martin Luther King project, reading MLK’s writings and composing letters back to him in his journal.

Justyce and his friend Manny were two of only eight black kids in their exclusive prep school, so of course their circle of friends was composed mainly of wealthy white teens, including the serious and brilliant S.J.—short for Sarah Jane—who seemed to be more concerned than they were about racism. Justyce knew that S.J. had a crush on him, but he kept his distance, since his mama had warned him against getting involved with a white girl. She wasn’t even happy about Melo.

When tragedy strikes, Justyce has to make tough decisions in the midst of his grief. Where can he find the strength to continue his previous college-bound path, and how can he fit in? Or should he just give it all up, since he knows that the local gang leader would be glad to have him? “Dear Martin….”

Dear Martin has recently been challenged in schools, although it had garnered starred journal reviews when it came out in 2017. The celebrated author, Nic Stone, has gone on to write a sequel, as well as many other critically-acclaimed books. Justyce is a lovable character; he makes good grades, loves his mother, and is kind to girls. His own negative emotions trouble him, and he struggles to make moral choices. The language in the novel is filled with words I wouldn’t say, but Dear Martin is not unusual in its vocabulary for young adult books.

One of the objections to the book is that white people and the police were portrayed negatively. The police were portrayed negatively, it is true, but Stone’s depiction is not without provocation. This was written three years before George Floyd, and the situation would be even more stark today. Some of the white boys who were Justyce’s friends were written as idiots and racists, yes, but they were pretty realistically shown as privileged teenage boys who were sometimes unaware of the hurt that they caused, perhaps because Manny and Justyce didn’t know what to say without losing their relationship. The final scene, though, redeems a great deal of the pain in Justyce’s heart. S.J., however, and her white family are wonderful people, and since she is an important character, we cannot say that the author never sees good in white people.

No one should ever have to suffer for their skin color or other Immutable characteristics, whether in a classroom or anywhere else. It is obvious that this book could be a catalyst for excellent discussions, and a good teacher should be able to facilitate these conversations in such a way that all of the students will learn and no one will suffer humiliation.

Highly recommended for those who can bear the language.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library e-audiobook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

If that title doesn’t grab you, the subtitle, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, surely will.  Dr. Du Mez is a historian at Calvin University, so writing a book with this theme took a great deal of courage. Although she does not hesitate to take on the recent political scene, particularly at the very beginning and end of the book, most of the volume develops the history of evangelicalism in the United States, starting in the early twentieth century.

kristin-kobes-du-mez-4Those of us who were late to the evangelical scene may not be aware that the evangelical movement has changed over the past century. During the second world war, fundamentalists and evangelicals came together to found the National Association of Evangelicals, which now encompasses 45,000 local churches in 40 denominations. Du Mez points out that denominational distinctives, which were important in the beginning, began to blur in favor of a more united and powerful coalition. Fundamentalism grew stronger, and then the reformed churches came to the fore in the past 30 years or so. She shows how the movement has consistently moved in a more misogynistic and politically right-wing direction, often forsaking doctrine for an increase in power, until, at this point in American history, the evangelical church is inextricably tangled with the Republican party, leaving it open to manipulation by right-wing politicians who presume that evangelicals will support their candidacy and policies.

One aspect of this history that surprised me was the rise of evangelical consumerism. It didn’t surprise me because I didn’t know it existed; rather, it surprised me to find that I was in the midst of it without noticing, like a fish in water. Everywhere we look, we can find t-shirts, mugs, wall signs, bumper stickers, and truckloads of trinkets with Bible verses or cute Christian sayings on them. This is not even including the books of varying quality, vacation packages, and media that call themselves “Christian.” Winning the white, middle-class, Christian market is a coup for any business, and the hedonism of our spending is purely American.

Du Mez also tracks the rise of parachurch organizations later in the twentieth century, particularly those concerning families and men. Almost all of the family ministries demanded male headship in the home, and many of the men’s ministries were based on military activities and physical training. Du Mez questions the relationship between Jesus’s teachings and guns. She points out that evangelicals, as a group, are reliably pro-war, and during George W. Bush’s presidency, 41% of evangelicals were in favor of torture, more than any other group in America. Furthermore, two-thirds of evangelicals do not believe that the United States should accept refugees, also more than any other group in the country. Both of these statistics are shocking for people who claim to read and believe the Bible, where Jesus preached love and nonviolence. There are also countless verses about caring for refugees. As she notes on page 321, “Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology.”*

john-wayne-2Somewhere along the way, evangelicals replaced Jesus with a John Wayne-like image of the perfect Christian man: rugged, arrogant, and domineering. While this could have been a reaction to the meek and mild Jesus with silky blond hair portrayed in popular paintings, there is a lot of daylight between those two images, and neither one is true. Du Mez shows that as the patriarchy grew stronger and stronger, the churches and parachurch organizations that adopted complementarianism most heartily began to leak reports of sexual abuse. Furthermore, the leaders across the entire movement were so close that they covered up for one another. Here, as in her entire history, the author is careful to present evidence. Throughout the book, from the 1980s onward, I knew all of the players, and she is not hesitant to name them. It was a shock. For decades, no one was forced to take responsibility, and in extreme cases, the victims were made to apologize. Finally, the #MeToo movement reached the church, and pastors and “Christian” leaders were called to account.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the evangelical movement today is how it has become unmoored from Jesus’s teaching and has taken on a separate identity that blends religious rules with politics and power. As the author notes on page 325, “For conservative white evangelicals steeped in the ideology, it can be difficult to extricate their faith, and their identity, from this larger cultural movement. As one man who grew up awash in evangelical masculinity and 1990s purity culture later reflected, ‘I lived and breathed these teachings, and they still shape me in ways I don’t understand even 20 years after rejecting them intellectually.’”*

There is so much more in these pages than I can relate here, and this is just one account of the cultural movement that has so many people running away from evangelicalism. Let us hope that they are not running away from Jesus.

Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

*Since pagination is flexible in ebooks, the quotes may be found on different pages in print editions.

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