The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Underground RailroadHer mother ran away when Cora was still a little girl, leaving her to fend for herself on the Randall plantation. After a few years had toughened her, Caesar asked her to escape with him on the Underground Railroad. At first, Cora said no, but when she shielded a little boy from a beating, and was beaten and whipped as a punishment, they waited for an opportunity to flee. It was not that simple, though. Even slaves who escaped their masters could not walk freely in the United States, and each destination brought new horrors and unimagined dangers.

Whitehead portrays the Underground Railroad as an actual railway with stations in cellars and caverns, and rails that run under our feet for thousands of miles. His narrative spans Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Indiana, and each state highlights a different facet of the huge, tentacled evil of slavery. The scene in Georgia is the one that most of us picture: a large plantation with slave cabins and cotton fields. However, as she travels, Cora sees medical experimentation, forced sterilization, lynchings, and relentless pursuit by slave catchers. White people who shelter runaways or even speak about abolition are in mortal danger, as well. As escaped slaves and free blacks move north, those towns grumble about the incoming wave of blacks, and begin to segregate their businesses and cooperate with the slave hunters. Cora finds herself in a never-ending struggle to break free.

The Underground Railroad has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I have always considered the Pulitzer and the National Book Award to be the most dependable prizes for real readers. Except for Hilary Mantel’s novels, the Booker Prize seems to go to the “Most Esoteric” works of literature, and the Nobel Prize winners can be equally obscure. Others are narrow in focus, such as the Edgar and the Hugo. However, starting with Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (General Nonfiction, 1975), I have read through many Pulitzer Prize winners with great appreciation, and Whitehead’s latest is no exception. It is by turns tragic, hopeful, breathless, horrifying, and beautiful, and reading it should disabuse anyone of the belief that legality and morality are synonymous. Any law that makes it legal for one human being to hold the power of life and death over another human being warps our society so that even those who do not participate, but only make the laws or vote for them, perhaps those who approve of the laws or help to enforce them, or even perhaps those who do or say nothing to fight for those who are weak and perishing are complicit in the same evil.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a 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 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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Ghost, by Jason Reynolds

GhostCastle Cranshaw runs so fast that his nickname is Ghost—now you see him, now you don’t. Castle found out just how fast he could run the night his drunken father tried to shoot him and his mother. His dad’s in jail for ten years now, but Castle isn’t sure that’s long enough. His mom works long hours at the hospital, bringing home cafeteria food for their dinner, and the bully at school taunts him about all of these things every day, which causes Ghost to rack up quite a few “infractions” with the principal.

Other than serving out suspensions and chewing sunflower seeds, Castle’s life is pretty aimless. He’s always set his sights on basketball fame, and had never heard of running track before, but one day he stumbles upon the try-outs for a community team, and he’s in.

Reynolds paints a picture of a good kid whose life squeezes him into agonizing choices, some terribly wrong. Most of the adults in this slender, middle-grade novel are big-hearted people who work hard and do their best for the kids in their lives. Running doesn’t magically change Castle’s life, but it gives him goals and a new circle of friends who are all learning discipline, focus, and teamwork.

Jason Reynolds says on his website that his goal is to “not write boring books.” Success! He writes lots of great books! I’ve reviewed his more nostalgic novel, As Brave As You, earlier. This contemporary, urban story offers an appealing protagonist, a diverse cast of characters, real-world consequences, and hope. Recommended.

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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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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Out of Wonder, by Kwame Alexander

Out of WonderKwame Alexander is a poet, and I am not. Not that I don’t love poetry, but I am just distressingly left-brained. A mystical friend of mine once visited us when we lived in Kentucky. She walked out my back door, took in the spectacular view, flung out her arms, and made up a poem on the spot. I was awestruck—first, because she could put words together so beautifully, and second, because she had the chutzpah to say them right out loud.

Mr. Alexander and his co-authors, Chris Colderley and Marjorie Wentworth, can put some words together, as well. In this volume, they have chosen some of their favorite poets, and, as an homage, created new poems in each poet’s style. Some are poets you know from school: Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson. Others may be new to you:  Okot p’Bitek or Chief Dan George. Although it is a delightful treat to see how these writers have replicated their heroes’ styles, the new poems are luminous in themselves. One of my favorites is Marjorie Wentworth’s offering in the style of Mary Oliver. Here is the first verse:

Each day I walk out
onto the damp grass
before the sun has spoken,
because I love the world
and the miracle of morning.  (p. 24)

Can’t you just feel the dew on your feet?

Ekua Holmes has filled the volume with bold, earth-toned paintings. At the end of the book, there is a short bio for each of the featured poets– home educators and teachers, take note! There are such riches here for mining. Your students could read the original poets, then the Out of Wonder verses. What did the new poet see that made him write his poem as he did? Of course, the next part is having your kids write their own poetry. Some are ancient poets—history! Some are from far-flung parts of the globe—geography!

This is one of the many new titles out from Kwame Alexander. He is a Renaissance man! Be sure that your children make his acquaintance soon.

Very highly recommended.

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 Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

Barnhill_GirlWhoDrankMoon_FINAL_PRNT.inddThe first baby born each year must be taken into the woods and sacrificed to the witch. So say the town elders, just as they have said for hundreds of years. Otherwise, the crops will fail, the volcano will explode, and sickness and sorrow will fall upon all of the townspeople. However, the town is always sorrowful in any case, and even the sky is forever gray.

In the forest, a very busy and bustling witch named Xan hurries to the spot where, she has learned from long experience, she will find a newborn baby on this day each year. Why in the world the townspeople insist on abandoning a child every year she does not know, but she is always there to rescue the baby, feed it with starlight, and find it a new home with loving, happy parents in one of the towns on the other side of the wood. On this particular year, however, the baby girl is especially lovely and sweet, with black hair, black eyes, and skin the color of amber. Xan takes her time walking through the forest, and in a moment when she is distracted by the sweetness of the baby’s coos, she reaches behind herself to fetch starlight, but gathers moonlight instead. Well, everyone knows that feeding on moonlight is enmagicking, so now Xan is in a pickle. She can’t possibly deliver an enmagicked baby to a mortal family, so she decides to raise Luna herself, along with Glerk, the bog monster, and a very tiny dragon named Fyrian.

As Luna tumbles joyfully through her days in Xan’s cottage, her magical abilities grow so rapidly that she becomes a danger to all around her, so Xan casts a spell that will hold in Luna’s magic until she is thirteen, giving Xan time to teach her. However, the spell has consequences that Xan did not anticipate, and as evil darkens all around them, Xan’s magic begins to fade, but Luna is still under the spell and completely unaware of how to save her family from total destruction.

This bewitching novel won the Newbery Medal for 2017. Barnhill has created memorable characters, from Xan’s lovable family—the wise bog monster, childlike dragon, and grandmotherly witch—to the ordinary young man who finds his inner hero, the power-hungry politicians, the pitiable madwoman, and the hideously evil villain. One of my favorite characters was Ethyne, an ordinary, non-magical young woman who was smart, confident, loving, and brave, and who radiated the undervalued power of the traditional woman’s gifts. She chose a husband, loved him so well that she made him better than he could have been without her, wore her baby in a sling with a “come at me” attitude, sweetly offered tea like throwing a gauntlet, held unflinching eye contact with those in power, and generally took charge of the world. She was completely positive, kind, and terrifying. I loved her.

All those who long to see good triumph over evil will enjoy this magical story— part fairy tale, part thrilling adventure. Highly recommended for ages ten to adult.

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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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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