Category Archives: Christian Life

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 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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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 Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

Somewhere in my study of the Sermon on the Mount last year, which lasted for months and kept on evolving, I came to the conclusion that I had to read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. If one does a lot of reading in a specific field, eventually the same names will pop up over and over, and you begin to get the uncomfortable feeling that everyone else is in on something you’ve missed.

In the first chapter, Willard launches into research studies demonstrating the decline of the church and religion in general, and although the book was written in 1997, we would only see an increase of “nones” and “dones” if the study were conducted today. After setting up his reasons for the book, however, Willard’s writing becomes much more winsome, and he moves into the main points of his thinking.

First, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he spoke in the present tense. “The kingdom is among you,” “the kingdom is within you,” and so on. Willard believes that the church will not make disciples if the kingdom is a pie-in-the-sky heaven that is in the future but does not affect our daily life. We must learn to live in the kingdom now.

Secondly, Willard delves more deeply into kingdom living in several chapters on the Sermon on the Mount. There are so many wise insights here, only one of which is that the Beatitudes are not a list of aspirations. Nor do they espouse Salvation by Situation. “Blessed are those who mourn” does not mean that we should seek to be mourners, and Willard deplores centuries of Christian sanctimony that caused people to avoid happiness and laughter by misunderstanding this verse. His teaching on anger and malice—and the chilling difference between the two– is worth the price of the book by itself.

Thirdly, Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but the church seems merely to want to make converts. Willard spends some time exploring discipleship, and in the last chapter, he lays out a practical curriculum on how to become a disciple of Jesus.

This hefty volume of fine print took me almost three months to read, not least because it is so chock-full of startling insights that one can only read a small amount without pausing to consider this latest bit of wisdom. Although it is complex and theologically rich, the entire book is so hopeful and positive that the reader comes away not only knowing God better, but, more importantly, loving God more.

For those who wish to deepen their spiritual journey, this classic book is 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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Be the Bridge, by Latasha Morrison

Latasha Morrison, a North Carolina native, moved to Austin, Texas, to serve on the staff of a huge church. She was the only person of color—not on the staff, in the whole church. No worries, she was up on White culture. She watched Gilmore Girls and Friends and sang Hillsong tunes. However, at one point, while talking to her father on the phone, she realized that she had not seen or talked to a Black person in over a week. After a few well-meaning but cringe-inducing conversations with people in her church, she realized that White people did not understand Black culture at all, and when she decided to gently educate them, she realized that she didn’t, either.

Neil Gaiman once said, “Like all oppressed people, [they] know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.”* He was speaking of children, but it applies universally. For their own safety, the oppressed study their oppressors carefully, but since the powerless seem unimportant, the powerful do not care enough to learn about them. Latasha realized that her ancestors’ history had been erased from all of the textbooks that she had used in school. She was told that her forebears were sharecroppers, but there had to be more to it than that. She set out to learn her own rich and tragic history, and the reader of Be the Bridge will learn with her.

This book is designed to be used by the more than a thousand groups of “Bridge Builders” that Morrison’s ministry has created, so a list of discussion questions closes each chapter. In addition, there are prayers for the various topics, as well as a few liturgies that the groups can follow. The book does not have an instructional tone, though. Morrison is an enthralling storyteller, relating episodes from her own life and from history. She also brings in the perspective of various people from Bridge Builder groups that may mirror the experiences or feelings of her readers.

David and I read this book aloud and discussed our own encounters with racism and race relations from our childhoods in the segregated South to the present. Although we did not agree with all of Morrison’s conclusions and prescriptions, we learned an enormous amount about Black history. Just one example is the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, a horrifying event that marks the first time the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens. Neither David nor I had ever heard of it. There were many other such revelations in these pages, as well as encouraging stories of people who are taking steps to overcome the damage of our past.

I picked up this book shortly after the George Floyd tragedy, at a brief moment in time when the nation seemed ready to openly examine our past and to listen to the voices of those who were peacefully protesting injustice. That hopeful moment has since been burned in the flames of rioters and stolen by the crimes of looters. However, the church must always be about the work of reconciliation and justice, eschewing partisan politics and rising above the headlines of the day. Morrison’s book was written in 2019, before Floyd’s death and before the Coronavirus lockdown changed our perspective on normal life. Churches everywhere are engaging in Bridge Builder groups. Morrison reports that 92.5% of America’s churches are completely segregated. It is way past time for us to admit that this is not normal and cannot possibly be God’s will for His people.

Whereas David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here) is meant more for pastors and church leaders, Be the Bridge is for all Christians who want to understand the suffering of Black people in America and to see the church in the forefront of reconciliation.

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.

*Neil Gaiman’s Zena Sutherland lecture, May 4, 2012.

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What If Jesus Was Serious?, by Skye Jethani

If Jesus was serious, then God is both tender and terrifying.

If Jesus was serious, then we will not contribute to our outrage culture.

These are just two of Skye Jethani’s chapter headings in this unusual little study of the Sermon on the Mount. Recently, I was reading through the book of Matthew, and as I read the beautiful and familiar words of the Sermon on the Mount twice, I thought, “There is so much here, and I know that I’m just scratching the surface.” I researched commentaries on this important passage in Jesus’ teachings, and the best one was about 400 pages long. I knew that if I bought it, it would sit on the To Be Read pile.  Then, when I was looking at something entirely different, I glanced through Amazon’s “Recommended for You” list, and here was this 190-ish page, cartoon-adorned paperback about this very passage, boasting glowing reviews from people I knew. Add to cart.

Jethani arranges his 72 devotional conversations on two-page spreads, headed by a drawing of some kind—cartoons, graphs, flowcharts, Venn diagrams. Then comes the chapter heading and a short discussion, followed by references to two additional scripture passages. The daily readings are punctuated by orange two-page spreads containing the Biblical text from Matthew that sets up the theme of the next group of studies.

David and I read two selections aloud each evening on the porch, taking turns with the additional scripture readings. We really looked forward to devotional time! Somehow, Jethani manages to pack an incredible punch into very few words. Some of his lessons are timeless theology, some relate to ordinary life, and others, such as those about social media, are thoroughly up to date. We were able to have rich discussions based on these revelatory essays.

Although he uses drawings, this guide is meant for adults, not children. However, it would be fantastic for teens or for families with teens to use as a family devotional. So far— with no economic advantage to myself— I have successfully gushed to two other families enough for them to buy it, and they are both enthusiastic in their praise. Skye Jethani also contributes to the Holy Post podcast with Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales fame.

One of the most fun and effective Bible studies I have used. 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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Stories of the Saints, by Carey Wallace

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us….” Hebrews 12:1

Rarely do we see religious books for children being published through secular publishing houses these days, and rarer still are inspirational books of such high caliber. Not only are the size and materials of this book beautiful, but the storytelling, the artwork, and the layout are top notch.

The subtitle, Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace, and Courage, assures the reader that the author is presenting positive stories meant to build children’s character. There is no careful disclaimer “as the legend goes…” or the winking “some people believe…” before each miraculous event. Rather, Wallace writes of Thomas Aquinas with the full-throated, “Another monk saw him in the chapel, floating in the air before an image of Jesus on the cross, with tears running down his face. He was having a vision.” (p. 140) He was floating, Joan of Arc did hear God’s voice, and Bridget’s cloaked stretched far enough to cover two Irish monasteries. Wallace is not here to argue; she’s here to tell the story according to the saints and the believers after them.

Each of the 70 stories begins with a gold-edged box with the saint’s name, birth and death dates, location and emblem, “patron of,” and feast day. This brief summary is followed by a two- or three-page story embellished by striking artwork. Nick Thornborrow’s illustrations use bold lines and deep colors to create images that are sometimes symbolic, sometimes fantastical, and often resemble woodcuts. The saints march through history in chronological order from Polycarp, who was born in 69 A.D., up to Theresa of Calcutta, who just died in 1997.

This handsome volume would fit well into a social studies curriculum, as world history details are woven throughout the tales, particularly names of rulers, wars, and religious persecution. There is a brief introduction, an afterward, a map of the Mediterranean area, and a list for further reading. Richly inspirational reading for every Christian child.

Very 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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Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson

“…One of the significant challenges of discipling white Christians away from segregation is that we do not consciously identify ourselves as a racial group. We don’t consciously think of ourselves as white.” (p. 159)

Rediscipling the White ChurchAfter the death of George Floyd, there was a very short time in which we began, as a nation, to unite around the tragedy of racial injustice. Within days, however, protests turned into riots, which took over broadcast and social media and split the national conversation into political parties so that we could slide back into our camps and not have to go through that uncomfortable, squirmy examination of our consciences.

Before that slide, though, I ordered a whole pile of anti-racist reads, just to make sure that I got really uncomfortable and stayed there. The one I picked up first is pointed at the white church, since I pitch my tent in the community of those who call Jesus Lord.

David W. Swanson is a white pastor in the Bronzeville section of Chicago who regularly speaks on issues of race, particularly addressing the white church. Because churches, particularly Protestant churches, are usually segregated to at least some degree, it is difficult for us to empathize with believers of color, since we never see them. Swanson points out three ways of thinking that are largely invisible to us but are influencing all of our conversations about race within the church.

First of all, white Christians are very proud of the American ideal of rugged individualism. We are quite sure that if each person worked harder and took personal responsibility, they would be fine. It worked for us, it will work for everyone. Often, we refuse to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow— although they are in the past and perhaps none of our personal ancestors were involved in them— have caused lasting damage to our society and our national psyche so that it is far more difficult for people of color to advance in the world.

Secondly, white evangelism and preaching appeal to the intellect. While we are rational creatures, we are also physical beings with emotions. Salvation is not an assent to a logical proposition, but a life that has been radically changed by the grace of God. As a result, we take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Discipleship engages the whole person.

Finally, white Christians tend to be anti-structural. That is, they are so afraid to shift blame away from the individual that any mention of “social justice” smacks of politics, and so they turn away. Eschewing the beautiful example of Christian abolitionists of the past, we forget that the Bible tells us that God requires us “to act justly and to love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)

Building upon this foundation, Swanson explores several ways that the church can reorient its discipleship toward solidarity in the kingdom of God using the Lord’s Supper, preaching, children’s ministry, liturgy, evangelism, and the many other ways in which we relate to one another. He also asks church leaders to examine their bookshelves to see whether there is diversity in the voices they are hearing. Perhaps no one will be able to use all of these suggestions, but they may be a springboard to the imagination for churches that desire to move into a true picture of the kingdom of God.

Although Pastor Swanson has years of experience living out his own ideals, his thesis will offend some readers, which is one good reason to hear him out. In this polarized time, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have drawn into two camps on nearly every question. In this instance, some churches have become all about social justice, as if that is the purpose for the existence of the church itself. Other churches are so opposed to that view that they refuse to confront the issue of racism at all and never approach the issue humbly, examining their own hearts. In my reading of scripture, though, it seems that the church exists, first and foremost, to worship God. After that, Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” teaching people to follow Jesus. Flowing from our love for God, we repent of our sins, and as we are Christians who happen to be Americans, it is completely Biblical to lament for our nation’s sins. This is not false guilt, and it does not involve kneeling before anyone but God, but it is acknowledging that the sin of racism is real. We must consider how we, as priests of God (1 Peter 2:9) can further the kingdom and “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

There are two points that Swanson and others make that hit home with me and encourage me to continue reading and meditating on this issue. One is that white people may have suffered in their lives, and we all do, but we have never suffered because of the color of our skin. Millions of people have to go through the same trials that we endure in addition to overcoming our society’s hurdles caused by racial oppression.

Secondly, white people, often unconsciously, consider our lifestyles, our preferences, our speech, and our modes of worship to be the neutral standard by which everyone else is measured. Even in a multicultural church, the church leadership is most often white. Swanson talks about an exercise that he and his wife went through to adopt trans-racially in which the participants examine how many people of color are authority figures in our lives: your boss, your pastor, your doctor, and so on. The stratification of power in our world may seem invisible to us, but what are we silently communicating to our children?

In other words, although we may not consciously hurt other people, it is important to understand the other person’s perspective and to see if there is some way that we can change to bring about a more equitable society. As David pleaded with the Lord in Psalm 139:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

Scripture tells us over and over to examine our hearts. “As the eagle stirs up its nest” (Deut. 32:11), our churches should encourage us to get uncomfortable, to grow up, to act justly, and to raise up the next generation to love others who may not look like them.

We can start here.

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

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A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges

Craftsman's LegacyMy husband actually read this one, but he read so much of it aloud to me and we discussed it so thoroughly that I feel as though I read it myself. Based on the PBS television show of the same name, the book’s subtitle, Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning, was the catalyst for me to bring it home from the library for David.

Gorges worked in the corporate world before opening his motorcycle shop, Voodoo Choppers, and becoming a master metal shaper. After considering the changes in his life because of his creative work, he decided to visit craftsmen in other disciplines to examine the influence their handwork wrought on their minds and souls. Deep stuff for a biker.

David and I have been diving into the spiritual aspects of handwork lately, as well, and this book really helped to drive some of our conversations. David has been continuing his generations-long family tradition of woodworking with small and large projects, and perhaps a future of entrepreneurship. A year and a half ago, I checked off a box on my bucket list by learning to knit. Since then, I have become an avid fan of this needlecraft, my favorite in a long list of needlework throughout my life. Each project has taught me a new skill, along with knowledge of the fibers and the history of the stitches. The tactile pleasures of working with wool, silk, and cashmere while crafting warm garments with Celtic-knot cables or open lacework are soothing and satisfying. I liked it so much that I committed myself to knitting five Christmas presents this year, which I will never do again.

Working with one’s hands does absorb the same time that could be used for reading and writing, and I am only so fond of audiobooks, so I will have to take that into consideration in the future. However, David and I both found that handcrafts moved us away from technology and slowed our thinking in ways that were healthy for us. We both believe that God created people in his own image, and part of that image is our innate desire to be sub-creators, as Tolkien expressed it. The growing joy that one feels as a project begins to take shape under our hands, gradually assuming the image that we had in our minds, is a delight that makes us return to our craft again and again. Each time, we also have grown and learned new skills and are able to bring more complex and beautiful works into being. A bit of ourselves is woven into each product, and inanimate objects take on meaning that survives beyond our human lives.

As Gorges visits each artisan, he tries his hand at their craft. Pottery turns out to be much more difficult to throw than he expected, and he marvels at the bulging muscle on the engraver’s carving hand. Glassblowers, woodworkers, and sculptors all have skills developed over years of labor. I was especially interested in the chapter on calligraphy, since that is next on my list of artistic endeavors. I made a stab at it years ago, but my Christmas list this year included split-nib pens, ink, alphabet books, and a light table. We are fixing up a craft room right now, and I hope to have ink-stained fingers in no time. But first, I owe David a scarf.

If you have an itch to create, Eric Gorges will show you how your soul will be enriched by the work of your fingers. Oh, and download an audiobook from your local library while you work.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and my husband’s and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. This column is reprinted at www.TheReaderWrites.com, with additional photographs.

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A Pilgrimage to Eternity, by Timothy Egan

Pilgrimage to EternityThrough persecution and famine, the Roman Catholic church has spread her children all over the globe. Timothy Egan is an American of Irish heritage, and like so many of his brethren, his faith has faded, knocked back even further by the recent scandals in the church. At age 62, however, he is restless. His wife’s beloved sister is struggling with cancer, and Timothy yearns to do anything to stop its progress. Perhaps praying in consecrated places along the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, will cause God to work a miracle, or at least cause him to reveal himself to Timothy.

As Chaucer told us so many centuries ago, spring brings crowds of pilgrims to Canterbury. Egan shares some observations on the current inhabitant of the seat of the Anglican church, then goes through the history of this place that once played an important role in the Roman church. Here he picks up his official pilgrim documents and sets sail from the white cliffs of Dover for the ancient port of Calais. All along his route through France, Switzerland, and Italy, Egan works this layer cake of a narrative: part history, part travelogue, and part spiritual journey. The reader visits tombs with a smorgasbord of saintly body parts, eats dinner at both monastery refectories and gourmet restaurants, ruminates on deep meanings and great wines, meets Egan’s family members one at a time, and empathizes when his feet are mangled hiking down from the mountain heights. Egan travels with a copy of the atheist Christopher Hitchen’s book and engages in conversations with fellow pilgrims who cover the spectrum from faith to nihilism. Some are unquestioning believers in every church teaching, and others are merely accompanying a loved one for the fitness opportunity. Most are in between, on the road to inner discoveries, like Egan himself.

Being of a similar age to Egan, many of his thoughts resonated with me. While he railed against the abuses of the church, both past and present, he recognized the places and events to be foundational to western civilization. Although there were institutional failures, there were also stories of inspiring individual sacrifice, and working through these struggles nourished his understanding of the meaning of suffering. When he met with his grown son and daughter at different points along the way, he worried that bringing them up with faith in reason alone had robbed them of an awareness of deeper, spiritual truths. They showed no interest in the holy sites that fascinated him, but it was handy in the evenings that they knew all the best watering holes.

Without revealing his conclusions at the end, the journey itself was a revelation. Peeling back the centuries at a walker’s pace gives us time to consider human history and whether our suffering holds spiritual significance, whether corrupt institutions expose the emptiness of faith or cover up the beauty of true faith. So, step on the road, pilgrim. This is a journey well worth taking.

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. Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales ran through my head many times while reading this book. 😉

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