Category Archives: Christian Life

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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Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright

Surprised by HopeN.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, was called by Newsweek “the world’s leading New Testament scholar.” I recently listened to a podcast in which he talked to Eric Metaxas about his latest book, but during their conversation he mentioned this earlier work, subtitled Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. These are topics that have been on my mind lately, so I decided to dive in.

Wright is a historian, so his books usually start off with a section that will orient the reader to the mindset of Jesus’ audience, the Jewish people of the first century A.D. His attention to historical detail can seem overwhelming, but it is important to prove his main thesis, which is that the church has lost its way in its teachings on the afterlife. He traces this confusion through the centuries, paying particular attention to the medieval church’s wholehearted embrace of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism, which taught that earthly things are merely a shadow of heavenly realities. Gnosticism had been around for centuries by that point, as well, which is the belief that matter is temporary and evil, and that the spirit is the higher realm. These two philosophies still intrude into much of Christian theology, and after the many wars of the twentieth century, people just wanted to escape the earth, so much so that what I call the “winged kitten” vision of heaven—disembodied spirits floating around on clouds with harps and such— has become entrenched in the popular imagination, and even, unfortunately, in Christian hymns and sermons.

Jesus’ Jewish audiences had no such understanding of the afterlife. Rather, they had believed in a bodily resurrection at the end of time for centuries before Jesus was born on the earth. Wright shows that humans were created for earth and vice versa, and that before the fall, God called all of his creation “good.” The whole story of scripture is about restoring all things, including our loving relationship with God, and when Jesus tells us to pray, “your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven,” he means here, now. We know from Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross that there is an interim time, which he calls “paradise,” where our souls go to be with God until the resurrection, but that is temporary. The concluding chapters of Revelation, to mention just one example, affirm that our final destination will be on the new earth.

I won’t reveal all the details of Wright’s ideas about the location of heaven or what our resurrected bodies will look like, but it is fascinating. Furthermore, he explores the major implications that a firm belief in this sort of future would have on environmentalism and the mission of the church today. I can’t say that I agree with him on all of the particulars, especially his beliefs about hell and judgment, but our eschatology is in dire need of this sort of scholarly examination. Perhaps because we live in first world countries, where we enjoy good health and long, peaceful lives, we rarely have serious discussions about the afterlife, and our popular theology has taken us far off course.

Toward the end of the book, Wright focuses on the importance of Easter, asserting that this holiday celebrates the crux of our faith, even though our culture makes the most of Christmas. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, our faith is futile. But he has been raised, and that very act is the point upon which all of Christianity rises or falls. As we approach that celebration, Wright offers up suggestions of ways that we can enjoy that day more fully, coming from a delightfully British and Anglican perspective. He starts with champagne before breakfast. I like the way he thinks.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and may not reflect those of my pastor, church, or any particular denomination.

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Present Over Perfect, by Shauna Niequist

present-over-perfectA few years ago, if Shauna Niequist had been a Roger Hargreaves character, she would have been Little Miss Dependable. Her Midwestern upbringing had taught her to value hard work and reliability as the greatest virtues. Of course she can be class mom! Of course she can bring another meal to a family in need! Of course she can speed up the deadline on her book! Of course she can head up another committee! Of course she can speak at your event! The word “no” could not form in her mouth. She had chosen to be a writer so that she could stay home with her kids, and then discovered that she had been traveling for 40 weeks of the previous year. Never mind that she was throwing up in the airport bathrooms from stress. It all came to a head when she was snorkeling with her little son at a beautiful coral reef, but all she felt was that she was suffocating from a deep sense of self-loathing. Thus began a total meltdown. She called a mentor to ask for advice, and the woman very wisely said, “Stop. Just stop.”

Ms. Niequist has spent the last three years learning how to stop. At first, the silence frightened her, and she discovered that she hated to be alone with herself. Through counseling, prayer, retreats, writing, worship, and other practices, she has struggled to let go of her controlling grip on her life. Written in a series of essays, she shares her journey with the reader, awakening our work-addicted, competitive, exhausted culture to the understanding that life is found in the quiet moments, when we are present to even notice nature, art, and the people we love the most. Her counselor guided her to find what Brennan Manning would call “the present risenness of Christ.” In one telling passage, she admits that her prayers used to sound like a board meeting, listing all of the things she was “working on,” and apologizing for her shortcomings, assuring God that she would do better. Really, she would. Slowly, she is coming to believe that God loves her as she is, unconditionally.

I picked up this new book because of the subtitle: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. When I first heard about it, all I could remember was that it was that book about not being frantic. Who doesn’t need that these days? Turn on the news: everyone is frantic everywhere. Social media is full of panic and unrest—even violence. In my heart, I knew that Christians should not live in fear or constant turmoil. Although Ms. Niequist and I are at different stages of life and have very different personalities, there was much treasure to be gleaned from these pages. If we can make deliberate choices to turn away from all of the busy-ness of the world and focus on living and loving deeply and authentically, eventually we will be able to rejoice in the love of God and the richness of our relationships.

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

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The Plot to Kill Hitler, by Patrica McCormick

plot-to-kill-hitlerDietrich Bonhoeffer was an unlikely assassin. This educated, well-to-do young pastor was everything genteel and intellectual until the rise of Adolph Hitler and the takeover of the German church drove him to join a group of conspirators who were actively plotting Hitler’s death until the Nazis captured them just before the end of World War II.

Patricia McCormick has taken on some difficult topics in the past, including self-harm in Cut and human trafficking in Sold. Here, she takes the very complex life of a German theologian and somehow makes it understandable for young readers. She includes two of the turning points in Bonhoeffer’s life: when he travels to Rome and realizes that Christianity is for all nations, not just Germany, and when he goes to the United States, visits an African-American church, and comes to understand that faith in Christ is not just memorizing theology, but involves the whole individual, including the emotions. McCormick conveys Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and motivations in a way that is accessible to young people, while remaining profound and authentic. She shows how the course of events around us can change our personal lives, and how one, single life can change the course of history.

Teenagers today are growing up in an increasingly polarized and secularized world. They are being forced to adhere to a narrow set of beliefs in the name of tolerance, and they will never escape these strident voices if they receive their cues from social media. Rather, let them read books with great heroes and heroines, so that they will grow strong in character and free in thought. Until they are old enough to read Eric Metaxas’ masterful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Patricia McCormick provides a compelling story of a young man who is a great role model for all of us.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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