Category Archives: Christian Life

Tell It Slant, by Eugene H. Peterson

Tell It Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible paraphrase, discusses Jesus’ parables found in the book of Luke, as well as the seven prayers that Jesus prayed in the gospels. This is ostensibly a book about language, about why Jesus spoke as he did when he walked with his disciples in Samaria. “Samaria is the country between Galilee and Jerusalem in which we spend most of our time between Sundays.” (p. 18) Peterson brings out the very earthy examples that Jesus used as he established the kingdom of heaven, and he reveals deeply spiritual insights that are as startling to us today as they were to the residents of first-century Palestine.

This is The Book that I loved this year. I was one-third of the way through it when I went on vacation in April, and I am just now finishing it in July. I only read until I felt that I was not absorbing it anymore, and then I would move on to a novel or a different nonfiction book, only to come back later, ready for more. All those familiar stories that we nod over after years of sermons, or the ones our eyes slide back and forth over as we read Luke yet again, come to life in new colors in Peterson’s meditations. Who are you in the story of the Prodigal Son? How did the story of the Good Samaritan play to its original mixed audience of Jews and Samaritans? What in the world is the meaning of that carefully-avoided story of the Shrewd Manager?

Jesus often told us truths in stories, not lists of do’s and don’ts. Stories are the way that we communicate with one another across generations, and Jesus’ stories used familiar images that light up our imaginations, eschewing cold analysis and pulling us into the action, engaging the heart and the mind.

Eugene Peterson and BonoI am not a big fan of The Message Bible, although I use it sometimes to get fresh perspective on a too-familiar or confusing passage. Peterson is known in some circles as a controversial theologian, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, someone who does not mind stirring the pot. I fell in love with this gentle soul, however, when I saw him on YouTube with Bono. They have an enthralling discussion on the Psalms, and we see Peterson and his wife as a soft-spoken and kind older couple, serving homemade cookies to an Irish rock star in their rural Montana home, where Bono came on pilgrimage. Here in Tell It Slant, Peterson’s language reveals an intimate relationship with Jesus, a deep life of prayer, and decades of thoughtful meditation on the scriptures. No controversy here; just drink in his wisdom.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Be sure to buy your own copy– it’s an inexpensive paperback. You’ll want to spend some time in these pages.

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 Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning

Ragamuffin GospelFormer Catholic priest, husband, father, alcoholic, divorcé, and writer, Brennan Manning led a full life. Despite the suffering he endured, most of his books focus on the overwhelming love of God and his grace toward us sinners. Those of us who, like Manning, were raised Catholic need regular reminders of God’s love, since this is not the message we were fed as children. Guilt for our sins and a strong sense of unworthiness are much more likely to keep the kids in line. I cannot count the number of times that something happened to me and my mother said, “God is punishing you.” And she truly believed it.

The Ragamuffin Gospel is considered to be Manning’s magnum opus, although I loved Abba’s Child more. I reviewed it here. However, many famous people identified strongly as ragamuffins. Rich Mullins, in particular, named his musical group The Ragamuffin Band. The front cover of the latest edition of the book is one of Mullins’ album covers. Michael W. Smith wrote the foreword. So, in the almost thirty years since its publication, this small volume has worked itself into the music and conversation of the Christian community, even in ways we do not see.

A few years ago, David and I were talking about current issues and whether or not we considered them sinful. We were in the car on a long trip, so we had hours of uninterrupted time, and at the end of it, we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that we were quite willing to consider our own sins as no big deal, maybe not even sins, whereas those activities toward which we were not even tempted were obviously heinous sins. Since then, I have come to believe that most of us—believers and unbelievers alike— think that way. Or, to go even further, once we’ve forgiven ourselves for all of our own sins, we hasten to erase guilt for everything everywhere, just in case someone turns the spotlight on us.

Manning does not take that approach. Rather, he identifies with other sinners because he is aware of his own sin. For example, “You steal cupcakes? Yes, that is a sin. Me, I stole cookies. But take heart! Jesus forgives both cupcake and cookie thieves.” We are ragamuffins, with nothing to offer God, and yet he loves us as we are. His favorite verse in the Bible is Luke 15:20, in which the prodigal son’s father runs down the road to meet him, arms outstretched, before the son has bathed or even had time to apologize. Beautiful.

My favorite chapter in this book was “The Second Call.” He says that every spiritual person, somewhere between the ages of thirty and sixty, will go through a crisis of faith that will crash them back almost to nothing, only to begin “the second journey,” learning about Jesus all over again. For me, I was right smack in the middle of that age range, and I found this chapter to be a startling revelation that this was a common experience. Manning writes that we move through years of suffering and searching this second time and emerge wiser, though more wrinkled. We finally accept that no one will ever truly understand us, and we are far less likely to care about what other people think.

That’s a useful result for Brennan, since he was constantly barraged with accusations of universalism and cheap grace. Not that his critics are completely wrong, since his theology can be a bit loose at times, but dry tracts of systematic theology never made the wounded whole. For those of us who need reminding that God loved us before we ever did anything good or bad, The Ragamuffin Gospel can help to heal the sin-sick soul.

You may find some comfort here.

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 World Jesus Knew, by Marc Olson

World Jesus KnewHow could they light lamps in the Bible if there was no electricity? Why were there Roman soldiers when they were in Israel? Did Jesus read the Bible, too?

Christian parents want to read scripture to their children, but we live in such different times that the New Testament is often hard to understand. If we want to reap the greatest benefits from our reading, a broad understanding of Middle Eastern culture in the first century is a big boost. This large-format volume, subtitled A Curious Kid’s Guide to Life in the First Century, is thoroughly illustrated and directed to upper elementary and middle school kids, although adults may find new nuggets of information here, too. Each chapter is a two-page spread explaining one topic, such as first-century clothing, the Jewish calendar, the Temple, crucifixion, the role of women, occupations, and much more. An introduction with a timeline and map sets the stage, and the small font throughout packs in a lot of text. Despite the serious subject matter, Marc Olson writes in everyday language with even a hint of humor at times. This book has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library 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 Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

Almost SistersThat little flutter in Leia’s belly makes her face the reality that Batman will be with her forever. Single and in her late thirties, she has decided to embrace her last chance at motherhood. Perhaps she had a bit too much fun at the Con where her famous graphic novel, Violence in Violet, was lauded before adoring fans, since she was several tequilas in when the Dark Knight ended up in her room. Now she can’t remember his name, and time is running out for her to find a way to tell her family before they can see the evidence for themselves.

Leia didn’t see the text that her step-sister sent, canceling the family’s weekly brunch, so she witnessed the messy break-up for herself. Standing in the collapse of Rachel’s marriage, Leia’s phone exploded with texts and calls from Birchville, Alabama, where her grandmother, the last reigning Birch, had just given scandalous evidence of her advanced dementia by revealing every dirty secret of her beloved First Baptist Church, and even her dear friend Wattie had been helpless to stop her. With her crushed thirteen-year-old niece in tow, Leia is rushing down to the small-town South to save the day, and as she drives, she realizes that one thing about Batman may suddenly become important. She does remember that he was black.

What is a graphic novel artist doing in a Southern chick-lit novel? How did this light read that I chose for fun end up so full of important issues? This is the first novel that I have read by Joshilyn Jackson, although a friend who is an expert reader’s advisor recommended her Gods in Alabama to me a couple of years ago. Always trust librarians, especially when they know you well.

In this novel, Jackson explores the phenomenon of two realities, two truths, existing at the same time and in the same place. This theme is woven throughout the story, and always through the lens of personal experience. She writes from the inside. When she describes the warm and loving Southern small town, where everyone knows and cares for everyone else, we feel the truth in our hearts. When she describes the cold and vicious Southern small town, where race and class divide everyone into rigid groups and hatred simmers just below the surface, we also feel the truth in our hearts. It is not a choice between two options; both are real, and it is just as appropriate to rejoice in one as it is to mourn the other. Similarly, her wide-ranging criticisms of the church are obviously made by a believer. Invective from an outside observer was never so insightful. Institutions that have forgotten the love of the gospel message can never be mended by emergency casseroles.

Beloved characters and a many-layered plot come together with Jackson’s friendly style to create a story that is more than meets the eye. Not just a glass of sweet tea—maybe with a bit of bourbon. I have a trip to the beach coming up, and Gods in Alabama is definitely coming with me.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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Martin Luther, by Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther MetaxasMany decades ago, in my twenties, this quiet Catholic school girl found a hero in the brash and courageous monk named Martin Luther. When I could not find myself in the world in which I lived, he showed me a way out to a place where honest inquiry and Biblical truth combined to proclaim freedom to the captives, like me.

When I heard a few years ago that Eric Metaxas, of Bonhoeffer fame, was going to write a biography of Martin Luther in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I mentally set aside the fall of 2017 to read it. Metaxas has that felicitous combination of intellectual rigor and irrepressible humor that is unfortunately rare in serious Christians. Bringing those qualities to bear on a study of a figure like Luther, who was brilliant and articulate, but also shockingly vulgar and outspoken, has produced a work of profound insight that is sometimes pure fun.

Metaxas begins by debunking the many myths surrounding Luther, such as that he was from a poor family, or that he nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle door, thunderously announcing a new church. Rather, he quietly attached them to the door, which was like the neighborhood bulletin board, asking for a debate. As Metaxas has said on talk shows, picture him putting them up next to a poster of a lost cat. We imagine the hefty, confident man of his later years, but at that point, Luther was a skinny, sickly, and terrified monk who was just beginning to understand that all his fasting and confessing could not save him from hell. Rather, his faith in a loving God would. He had to let everyone else know about the grace that he had found.

The subtitle of this book is The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, which seems at first presumptuous. How could God be rediscovered? Had He been lost in the back of a closet? By painting a picture of the state of the church in Luther’s time, and of the entanglements between the ecclesiastical powers and the civil authorities, Metaxas proposes that yes, to a large extent, the knowledge of God had been hidden away from the vast majority of the common people, who had never seen a Bible in their lives and were completely dependent for their understanding of God on whatever they were told by the priests. As a matter of fact, Luther, a student of theology, had never owned a Bible until he was given one in order to teach scripture at the university. It is no wonder that so many reformers in past years had tried to translate the Bible into the language of the common people, only to die for their efforts. Luther’s success is due in no small part to the invention of the printing press not long before his birth, since it seems that everything he said and did was printed and distributed broadly, creating a groundswell of support for him that was already uncontrollable before the authorities knew of its existence.

Because of his own faith, Metaxas is able to understand and dissect the important details of doctrine that seem so obvious to us today, but were seen as heresy and therefore punishable by death in the 16th century. His story of the moment when Luther truly understood the message of faith in the book of Romans is the most riotous and R-rated presentation of the Gospel that I have ever seen or heard. It is certainly memorable. As the man of faith was freed from his fear of God, his troubles with earthly authorities began, and he endured years of challenges, maturing in his understanding of faith and slowly becoming the larger-than-life figure who has marched his way through our history books. In his early forties, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and became an unexpectedly tender and loving husband and father. Surprisingly, he extended far more rights and respect to women than was usual in his very male-dominated world.

Metaxas does not spare his criticism for Luther’s failures, and he did have very public failures, indeed. Luther did not foresee some of the consequences of allowing freedom of thought, and when other reformers went too far, or when the people began to rise up against their rulers, he always referred to Romans 13, which admonishes believers to submit to the governing authorities. Luther even went so far as to write to the rulers, advising them to quell the uprising with violence. His harsh statements against the Jews that he made late in his life are similarly shocking, especially since they contradict his positive writings about the Jewish people that he had made when he was younger. In a humorous passage that shows how powerful men who are quite sure of their opinions can often drive even their supporters to wish that they would just stop talking, Metaxas writes of Luther’s friend:

Melanchthon was upset at what he perceived as the harshness of Luther’s tone toward Karlstadt, but, alas, very much of what Luther would write in the years hence would read like a modern-day late-night tweet storm. (p. 325)

No one in Europe had succeeded in speaking truth to power before Martin Luther. His teaching and his writings had spread to Switzerland, England, and other parts of the continent before his death, and would continue to spread across the Atlantic to the New World in the years to come. We enjoy freedom of religion in this country because of his influence, and yet the church itself is splintered into innumerable squabbling groups for the same reason. Metaxas has written an account of this remarkable man that is scholarly yet readable, absorbing, and even, at times, rollicking. For good and for ill, Martin Luther changed the world forever, and whether you are a Christian or not, you may be surprised at the impact he has had on your life.

Very highly recommended.

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 Turquoise Table, by Kristin Schell

Turquoise TableWhen the delivery men asked Kristin Schell where she wanted them to put her new picnic table, she suddenly decided to let them leave it in the front yard. She and her husband painted it a cheerful turquoise color, and Kristin started hanging out at her very noticeable table every day, greeting walkers and slowly creating a sense of community in her neighborhood. People in other parts of her subdivision put out tables of their own, someone shared it on social media, and the Front Yard People movement was born.

The gilt-spangled cover of this lovely book was featured in a publisher email that I received, and since, let’s face it, turquoise is very close to teal, I was drawn in. When I found out that Ms. Schell was a Christian, and that she was deliberately trying to build community, I bought it for myself. Before I even received the book, I heard her speak on Eric Metaxas’ radio show, MetaxasTalk.com. They had a fun and friendly conversation about our efforts to create human interaction in this day when homeowners drive home from work, pull directly into their garages, hit the button, and close themselves into their houses.

Ms. Schell believes that the current state of isolation began with air conditioning. When I grew up, we did not have air conditioning, and people went outside in the evenings to cool off. Schell recalls the social utility of the front porch, where residents sat outside and greeted walkers in the evening, exchanging the news of the day and keeping the neighborhood network alive. Now that interiors are cooler, television and social media are our ways of making so-called connections with people who are nowhere near us, and when we do go outside, it’s to our back yards to barbecue. Schell wants to bring us back to our front yards to connect face to face.

The Turquoise Table tells her story, but it is also full of great tips: how to get started, what to do about smart phones, how to include kids and pets, activities for table time, and even what to do when no one shows up. There are several recipes for snacks to share. Schell is not naïve about the safety concerns of inviting strangers to your yard, and she suggests ways of dealing with problems. She also shares photos and stories of many Front Yard People across the nation who are meeting their neighbors and forging real relationships.

If you and your family are willing to venture outside, Kristin Schell is ready to turn you into Front Yard People. At the very least, I have a picnic table that would look great in teal.

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 Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Benedict OptionThe title of this book has been so confusing for so many that I’ll start with what the book is not. It is not about Benedict Arnold. It is about Saint Benedict, the monk who founded the Benedictine order in the sixth century. It is not a political book. There is a chapter about politics, and recent political events may have motivated Mr. Dreher to write the book, but it is not about how conservatives can win elections. Finally, it is not advocating that Christians leave public life altogether, drawing into communities behind walls, reading the Bible and singing Gregorian chants.

Benedict was a man living shortly after the fall of Rome who took a good look around and realized that there were barbarians all over the place, and if the church was going to survive, she would have to take some drastic protective measures. He drew a group of men together and started a community founded on work and prayer, keeping all of their lives centered around God. Eventually, he wrote up a summary of what they needed to do and why, calling the document the Benedictine Rule. Following the rule ordered all of their days and marked out appropriate times of work and prayer, living in asceticism, chastity, and silence. The monks sometimes received visitors, often those in need of healing, whether physical or spiritual, but the visitors had to live under the rule while they sojourned with the monks. As we learned in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the monasteries for rescuing many manuscripts of antiquity from destruction, and when the Dark Ages were over, the church emerged strong and resilient because of the disciplined labors of the religious orders that were, by that time, scattered across Europe.

Dreher considers that the Christian church in the west is facing another perilous time, a modern Dark Age. The Christian faith is effectively dead in Western Europe, and religious freedom is rapidly being eroded in the United States. As a matter of fact, if there is one political issue for which we must fight tirelessly, it is religious freedom. Most of this volume, though, is taken up with the ways that twenty-first century Christians—who may be women, men, married, single, parents, working for secular employers, and addicted to their smartphones—might adopt the best points of the Benedictine Rule in their own lives. He offers advice and examples of people who have founded Christian communities ranging from loose groups of church members in a neighborhood to actual modern-day monasteries. Among many, wide-ranging topics, there is a chapter devoted to education, another on sexual beliefs and practices, one on the liturgy of the church, and the last one encouraging us to fast from our technology.

About a decade ago, I read Rod Dreher’s earlier, generously-subtitled book, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party). Not that I cared to save the Republican Party, but otherwise I thought the title was a hoot, and it was good to know that someone out there had identified the tribe among which I lived. This current work is more serious, but it is also calling upon those who are willing to pull away from mainstream America to strengthen a church that is confused, fragmented, and in danger of disappearing into the dominant secular society. I cannot say that I agree with everything Dreher proposes in this book, but many of his ideas are so fascinating, and the necessity of some kind of drastic plan is so obvious, that I’ve gathered a group of readers together to discuss each aspect of The Benedict Option over a series of weeks. We will start in two weeks, and I may write a column or two on TheReaderWrites to give you a taste of our conversations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for many readers across the country to start some discussion groups on this and similar titles. Let’s find ways to get our ideas together.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, church, or anyone else. The beautiful abbey on the cover is not Benedict’s abbey in Norcia, Italy, but is actually Mont Saint Michel in France, which used to be a Benedictine monastery. The abbey in Norcia was completely destroyed by earthquakes just a few months ago. All of the monks survived.

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