Monthly Archives: May 2021

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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The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

Nora Seed can’t take it anymore. Her parents are dead, her brother doesn’t talk to her, and she’s just lost her job. When a rejected suitor knocks on her door to tell her that her beloved cat is dead in the street, she decides that she is beyond depressed, and so she takes all of her anti-depressants at once.

The afterlife is not what she had anticipated. It’s a library, and her former school librarian is there to help her find just the right book among the infinite number of books of alternate lives. First, she has to read The Book of Regrets, which gets heavier and heavier as she reads, and then she can choose which regret she would like to reverse in order to live a better life. There are infinite choices, but if she gives up altogether, the library will be destroyed, and she will be truly dead.

Combining wishful thinking with quantum mechanics, Haig whips Nora and the reader along a painful path to wisdom. Nora’s changes do not just affect her own life, but also the people who are part of her existence, whether she knows them intimately or they are mere acquaintances. Haig explores the interconnectedness of communities and families and questions the limits of individuals’ responsibility for those around them. As Nora tries on different lives, the same character who was charming in one iteration may be loathsome in another, raising the nature/nurture debate about how much we are victims of our circumstances. Will Nora ever be happy?

I listened to this book on audio, read by Carey Mulligan, and found it to be delightful. Some reviewers complained that it was predictable, and to an extent, that is true. The theory of quantum physics has spawned a thousand works of fiction exploring alternate lives, but Nora is a believable, very ordinary character, and the reader will find herself cheering for some of her choices and backpedaling from others. Truthfully, I did not predict the ending, and I was really hoping for another. However, Haig’s conclusion was much more satisfying than mine would have been.

Fun stories with a side of thoughtfulness. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library 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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