Book Reviews: by J. Michael Smith, 2021-22

Books Read in April-May, 2022

Bishop, Bill, The Big Sort:  Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (politics, sociology, religion)

Brammer, Billy Lee, The Gay Place (political novel)

Fagan, Kate, All the Colors Came Out:  A Father, A Daughter, and a Lifetime of Lessons (memoir, basketball, ALS)

Keller, Timothy J. and Inazu, John D., editors, Uncommon Ground:  Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Christian living, political conflict, theological conflict)

Owens, Virginia Stem, Wind River Winter

Bishop, Bill, The Big Sort:  Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (politics, sociology, religion)

Bishop is a journalist who partnered with sociologist Robert Cushing to understand the grassroots contributions to America’s political polarization.  The gist of his discovery is that Americans are using their mobility to cluster in communities and neighborhoods of like-minded voters.  Red areas are getting redder because people are moving out of blue areas to be more comfortable with their neighbors.  People move into blue areas for the same reason.

This same phenomenon is visible in religion, where people increasingly feel more comfortable in churches where people think and vote like themselves.  Mainline denominations, with a big tent mindset, are fast losing ground to homogenous denominations and non-denominational congregations.  Bishop bemoans the growing narrowmindedness this causes, and the paralysis of national politics, but offers no solutions.

While the book left me feeling bleak, I found the information very helpful and it has given me much to ponder as I think about my own decades as a pastor in a mainline denomination, one that is currently experiencing a walk-out over an intolerance of diversity, particularly around LGBTQ+ issues.

Brammer, Billy Lee, The Gay Place (political novel)

The novel is centered around three politicians (a state representative, a U.S. senator, and a governor’s speech writer) who are getting bored with politics, friends, and marriage.  Their search for “the gay place” has a grim and frantic character to it.  At times the novel is dark and depressing.  What kept me hooked, however, was the character that linked all these other politicians:  Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, a mesmerizing master politician, full of ambition, biblical quotes, and political savvy.  Fenstemaker, modeled on Lyndon Johnson (for whom the author once worked) is simultaneously charming, deceptive, all knowing, and entirely mortal.  I wish the author would have given us more of him. Fenstemaker’s wife is known as “Sweet Mama,” and bears a remarkable resemblance to Lady Bird Johnson.

Published in 1961, the novel has been called one of America’s greatest political novels, so far not a terribly high bar to reach.  Its author modeled several of the politicians on his own life, a frustrated quest for love and power.  It was Brammer’s only novel.  After its publication, he drifted in his professional and private life and eventually died of a drug overdose in 1978.  

Originally 3 novels, the publisher insisted it be published as one book.  It was appreciated by critics more than readers.  I agree with the early critics that the book will stick around and likely be a classic, perhaps 100 years after its publication. It includes descriptions of actions, words, and feelings of various politicians that add up and give us remarkable psychological and political insight. I wish we could have heard more from Brammer, and his hero, Arthur Fenstemaker. 

Fagan, Kate, All the Colors Came Out:  A Father, A Daughter, and a Lifetime of Lessons (memoir, basketball, ALS)

The central character of this memoir is Chris Fagan:  his love of basketball, his relationship with his daughter Kate, and his long and losing struggle with ALS.  Fagan played college basketball, then professional basketball in Europe, passed his love of the sport on to his daughter Kate, who played high school and college basketball herself, and then went on to become a writer and on on-air personality on ESPN.  

Three themes mingle powerfully throughout this memoir:  the father-daughter’s shared love of basketball and many hours playing one on one together, the father’s battle with ALS and how Kate, her mother, and her sister all got drawn in to help as he grew increasingly dependent on others, and reflections on the ups and down of the father-daughter relationship and what this particular father and daughter each meant to the other.

Chris died in late 2019, just months before COVID shut everything down.  His daughter’s description of his struggle with ALS is graphic and powerful.  She is brutally honest about the effects of the disease on the body and the ways it upends the life of everyone in the family.  It is hard to read, but very important for those of us out of that loop to understand.

The memoir hones in on the times father/daughter spent playing basketball together, and his influence on her, both to give her athletic skills and life skills in that process.  It is touching.  Kate Fagen shows us her own growth process through the story she tells, and she honors her father in the process.

Keller, Timothy J. and Inazu, John D., editors, Uncommon Ground:  Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Christian living, political conflict, theological conflict)

Ten different authors contributed essays to this book, each one reflecting on the conflicts they encountered with more secular associates and religious people who held ideas they considered “unjust” or “unbiblical.”  

I most appreciated the tone of the writing:  gracious and thoughtful.  Each contributor wrote from a particular standpoint, one a songwriter, one an artist, one a lawyer, one a pastor, one a teacher, etc.  Each was interested in how to maintain creativity and relationship in the midst of conflicts that normally destroy relationships.  The conflicts were almost entirely over issues of race and human sexuality.  The authors tended to be appalled at racism but judgmental about what they considered sexual lifestyle choices.  

And for me, this was the primary problem of the book:  the sense of religious certainty each author assumed for their own position on the ethics of race and sexuality.  While remaining gracious in tone, the authors each assumed a single “Biblical truth” on racial and sexual issues.  Regarding their certainty, I graciously demur. Biblical teachings and pronunciations regarding racial and sexual issues are incredibly complex.  Those ancient teachings are rooted in cultural understandings and applications not at all equivalent to our own times, thus leaving their thoughtless wholesaling of those “truths” into our own lives a grievous violation of the fundamental teachings of Jesus.  

Religious “certainty” is an insidious virus that is at the root of war, racism, sexism, and nearly every inhumane thing one person can do to another.  If the book wanted to address our growing polarization in both the church and in the wider society, it needed to recognize and address the issues certainty, condescension, and pride that is an occupational hazard for we religious persons. This said, however, the book was a helpful reminder to me, and a teacher, showing me how to treat others out of God’s love for all rather than my impatience with some.

Owens, Virginia Stem, Wind River Winter

This is a 35 year old memoir by a prolific writer, known for her powers of observation and turn of phrase.  Without betraying too many personal factoids, Owens tells us that she (a teacher) and her husband (a pastor) have taken a six month sabbatical to Wyoming to learn how to die.  Both are about 40 and have reached the end of the line, both for their careers, as well as for other aspects of their activity and identity.  Their cabin is a little east of the Tetons.  

Starting in September and going through March, we see the approach of winter, its deepening, and its yielding to the renewal of the earth in springtime.  The winter and what it does to nature all around them becomes a metaphor and a teacher of death.  As they attend a local church through this winter, we get an interesting juxtaposition of religion with real issues of life and death.  Letters and messages from home, their changing relationships with their independent, young adult children, and their physical reactions to the winter all come into play in this memoir.

Owens is a marvelous writer, with uncanny observations and original twists of phrase, unafraid to plunge into mystery and confusion and hold up gems of wisdom.  It is not an easy read, but a valuable and life-giving one.

Books Read in February-March, 2022

Arias, Mortimer, Announcing the Reign of God:  Evangelism and the Subversive Memory of Jesus (theology, Kingdom of God, evangelism, Christology)

Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Evangelism (religious conquest of the world)

Cullen, Art, Storm Lake:  A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.  (memoir, environment, small town rural America, agriculture)

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (novel)

Hunter, George C. III, Radical Outreach:  The Recovery of Apostolic Ministry and Evangelism  (church growth, religious conversion, complaints about Christians and institutional church, culture and religion)

Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Indian Road  (memoir, Christian mission, Christology, India)

Larson, Kate Clifford, Walk With Me:  A Biography of Fanny Lou Hamer  (biography)

Messud, Claire, The Woman Upstairs (novel)

Moriarty, Liane, Apples Never Fall (novel)

Pinder-Amaker, Stephanie, and Wadsworth, Lauren, Did That Just Happen?!: Beyond “Diversity”–Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations (cultural diversity, bigotry, rising identities)

Probulos, I.M., Jesus Returns July 13: Times Square New York (satire)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island (classic novel)

Strout, Elizabeth, My Name Is Lucy Barton (novel)

Arias, Mortimer, Announcing the Reign of God:  Evangelism and the Subversive Memory of Jesus (theology, Kingdom of God, evangelism, Christology)

Mortimer Arias, born in 1924, was the bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Bolivia from 1969-1976.  Afterward he taught missions and evangelism at Perkins, Iliff, and Claremont.  He also taught at the Latin America seminary in Costa Rica.  His book, Announcing the Reign of God:  Evangelism and the Subversive Memory of Jesus was written in 1984, during a period of extreme violence in Latin America.  That part of the world was home of the proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Ronald Reagan was pouring arms and mercenaries into Latin America to fight both communist and democratic movements.  Repressive governments in El Salvador and Guatemala were systematically killing their own citizens, including Christian leaders who advocated for the poor.  Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated by government agents as he stood at the altar leading worship.  Liberation theology focused on the power of Jesus for bringing justice and jubilee to the masses.  Both the Roman Catholic Church and American Evangelical movements used the repressive regimes in Latin America to get an edge on in their own ecclesiastical political wars.  The Reagan administration used the religious right to support its political aims in overthrowing the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.  

 Arias draws on the spiritual and intellectual giants of Latin America to compile his book.  We see the influence of Jon Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez all through Arias’s writing.  We also see the influence of Jim Wallis, Jurgen Moltmann, Leslie Newbigin, and E. Stanley Jones. 

In his introduction, Arias identifies the trouble for “modern evangelism.”  It faces a crisis of credibility, motivation, definition, and method.  His aim is to identify an evangelistic endeavor that is biblical, evangelical, holistic, humanizing, conscientizing, liberating, contextual, engaged, incarnational, and conflictive.  His book succeeds with the ambition goal.

…but not without taking the reader through the thick weeds of German and American theological tomes.  His efforts to engage the breadth of European and North American religious scholars makes Announcing the Reign almost unreadable for the average Christian.  It would be a more powerful book if 60% of it were in footnotes.  Having noted that, I’ll pick out the things Arias wrote that were (and remain) most powerful for Christians who want to share Christ with others.

The key premise of the book is that THE key focus of Jesus was in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ good news was that the Kingdom was here, near, and distant… simultaneously.  It brought and was bringing justice, liberation, abundant life, healing, joy, goodness, forgiveness, and rebirth.  Both individuals and systems were being upended and reformed by it.  

Of course it was advancing into our lives and world with great difficulty and conflict because too many people were enjoying the privileges of the current order of things.  Systems were firmly in place to protect the privileged. 

The modern church, as a steward of Jesus’ message, was failing.  The message of the biblical kingdom has been reduced in modern times to institutional religion, the afterlife, the individualistic saving of souls by prescription, or mere political causes and reforms.  Arias calls upon the reader to recover the core message of Jesus:  the joy and goodness of the Kingdom of God. “Evangelism,” rooted in the Greek word for “announcement of something good and joyful” should have the kingdom pronouncements of Jesus as its essence. 

Arias points out that the Kingdom in the gospels involved teaching, challenge, signs of new life, social upheaval, and demonstrations of power over entrenched diseases and injustices.  With Jesus, the good news is holistic, the “Kingdom” is all encompassing. The “Kingdom” is mentioned 122 times in the synoptic gospels, 99 times on the lips of Jesus. (pg. 8)

Arias points out that the Kingdom of God has numerous qualities and characteristics, often lacking in evangelistic work in churches today.  It is marked by grace, not condescension or condemnation.  The proclamation of the Kingdom (as Jesus presented it) has the power to stop people in their tracks and put them on a different course of living.  It initiates change in a person’s story by starting with the liberating act of forgiveness, addressing what is often hidden guilt and shame in each person, thus freeing the individual to discover new powers and gifts hidden by God in their lives.  Biblical evangelism, centered on proclaiming the “kingdom” triggers new life in individuals and communities and opens communities to people previously excluded.  

In chapter 3, “The Imminence of the Kingdom,” Arias explores many of the parables and sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  His reliance on academic scholars for their conventional understandings of these parables is the weakest part of the book.  The power of scripture, especially the parables, is watered down and set beyond the reach of the average Christian.  I wish Arias would have done exegesis himself on the parables of Jesus (the core of his teachings about the “kingdom” and given us some fire rather than so much scholastic dust.   

Arias introduces us to a distinction between the prophetic scriptures and apocalyptic scriptures. While disturbed by his simplistic and restricted understanding of apocalyptic literature, I fully agree with the main point he was making:  prophetic literature presents us with a relational God who calls upon us to make a choice.  This is in contrast to a God who has already decided the fate of the world and leaves the preacher with nothing to do but announce catastrophe.  (chapter 3)

In chapter 4, Arias addresses some of the problems with “kingdom language.”  He acknowledges the patriarchic, triumphalist leanings of the word “kingdom.”  In this rather eclectic chapter, he then goes on to show how the Kingdom of God will be opposed by the entrenched systems of this world, whose caretakers will attack the Kingdom of God and its proponents with violence.  There is abundant evidence for this, both in the Bible and in Latin America of the 1980s.  The violent attacks of the 1980s are recounted in detail in chapter 7.  Chapter four also introduces us to the choice put before people:  go with the Kingdom of God or go with its opponents, there can be no neutrality.

The crux of the whole book comes in chapter 5, “The Eclipse of the Kingdom.”  Again, in a rather dry, academic approach, Arias describes how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom gets eclipsed in the writings of Paul, who emphasizes instead the proclamation of Jesus himself.  In modern times, this has sometimes led to a Jesus cult, where people adore Jesus but ignore his message.  We have substituted swooning over Jesus for obeying his teachings.  Christians have reduced Christianity to words and labels rather than actions and sacrifice.  

In chapters 6-8, Arias confronts the reader with the need to give one’s life over totally in obedience to Jesus’ teachings and definitions of the Kingdom.  He calls upon the modern church to position itself so that the teachings of Jesus himself about the “kingdom” are no longer eclipsed. 

Two other very strong ideas that Arias presents are 1) the need to convert people inside the church, because insiders have lost a sense of Jesus’ definition of the “Kingdom” and 2) the need to have a community of joyful people who work together to proclaim and live out Jesus’ teachings. The message and the community are both essential to the work and design of Jesus.

In summary, the role of the evangelist is to center the entire evangelistic endeavor on “the Kingdom,” as taught and exhibited by Jesus. Such an approach offers this world and its peoples the only true hope there is.  Such an approach calls upon all of us to make a choice and see the life-giving, hopeful future of a life of full and total commitment. 

Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Evangelism (religious conquest of the world)

I only read this book because our denomination is making pastors read it for part of their training and I wanted to see what we are requiring these days. Written in 1963 and highly touted by Billy Graham, the book purports to give a strategy for evangelism.  But its strategic concepts are vague and filled with condescension for neighbors who are not “Christian” in the sense that the author vaguely defines “Christian.” Coleman assumes a Christianity that is far more a cultural phenomenon than a matter of living by the spirit and love of Jesus.  Women are dismissed as not part of those Jesus worked with or trusted to bring the message of love to others.  The goal of evangelism for Coleman is “conquest.”  

I have trouble with books that are filled with arrogance and religious condescension.  I kept plowing through this one hoping that I still might learn something.  But the main thing I learned is that this book needs to be retired from the course readings United Methodist pastors are required to study.  

Cullen, Art, Storm Lake:  A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.  (memoir, environment, small town rural America, agriculture)

Art Cullen and his brother started a newspaper in Storm Lake, a town of 12 thousand located in northwest Iowa.  His memoir traces the demographic and political changes occurring in that part of the state and in the town of Storm Lake itself.  He writes of growing up there, meeting his wife, coming back there after living elsewhere, and the difficulties of basing one’s livelihood on a small town newspaper these days.  He also traces the loss of the family farm, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the effect of big agri-business.  Distinguishing between horizontal agriculture and vertical agriculture, he says that the trend these days is vertical: one corporation controls everything from planting to raising livestock to processing to sales.  The result, according to Cullen, is destroying the land itself.

Most communities in northwest Iowa have reacted to the change by losing population, growing angry, in that anger supporting politicians who are demagogues, rejecting long-range environmental solutions, and scapegoating immigrants. Storm Lake, on the other hand, is an island in northwest Iowa, not only welcoming but integrating immigrants, exploring conservation, and making room for farms and businesses that don’t give in to the monopoly of big agri-business.

Cullen won a Pulitzer for his weekly columns, often focused on community and the environment.  His book was a good primer for me, a reminder of my own roots in rural northwestern Illinois, a sign of hope in what is often a sea of insanity. 

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (novel)

David Copperfield, published in 1849 and 1850 (first as a series and then as a book) is a novel, written in the first person, tracing the life of the narrator from birth into middle age. 

At his birth, Copperfield’s father has already died. His aunt stormed out of the house that night upon finding that her desired “niece” turned out to be a nephew. His childhood is marred by his mother’s remarriage to a wicked step-father, who eventually sends the boy off to boarding school, then to a factory to work (before there were child labor laws.) 

The novel is filled with memorable villains and benefactors, all creating great suspense as one reads along. The gentle, naive, and observant personality of the narrator is both amusing and enchanting. While there is sadness throughout the novel, it is the sadness expected in any person’s life. The story includes more than a fair share of humor and good fortune. 

Dickens slips in a considerable amount of social commentary about 19th century England, without being preachy. His progressive views about prisons, child, labor, the working class, poverty, education, women, religion, education, and government appear deftly throughout, often using gentle satire as his characters are presented.

The language can get verbose at times, and some of the references, coming from 19th century England, can be obscure. But as I kept reading, I found my footing in the story again through the fascinating characters and suspenseful situations they had to work through.

The novel is a reminder that one of the best ways for me to keep my sanity in the midst of the world going crazy these days is to find company in authors of other times who knew exactly what was happening in their own world, and found a way to guide us through with wisdom and wit.

Hunter, George C. III, Radical Outreach:  The Recovery of Apostolic Ministry and Evangelism  (church growth, religious conversion, complaints about Christians and institutional church, culture and religion)

A 2003 book, Hunter is frustrated at the institutional incompetence and the spiritual aridity of most congregations in America.  He looks back to the more effective days of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s success in Corinth, a multi-cultural city in which he sees many similarities to the American scene. Hunter also celebrates the examples of First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Florida, as a place that has overcome the anemia of most other congregations.  His favorite historical character is St. Patrick, who evangelized Ireland.  (Hunter has written another book on Celtic evangelism.)  Another hero of his is John Wesley, who eschewed the religious forms of his day and plunged directly into relating to the masses of 18th century England.  

As an outside “expert” and seminary professor, Hunter took his freedom from the trenches of pastoral ministry to position himself in a place of condescension and judgment. He is not always wrong in his observations, but his spirit is irksome.  He blames the laity for focusing on their own needs and the clergy for protecting their jobs and unnamed multitudes for fretting over political agendas and correctness.  He also has a demeaning and presumptuous way of classifying anyone who is not a Christian:  pre-Christian.  

Having gotten all that off my chest, there are some helpful observations Hunter makes.  He writes about how people change their religious perspectives and loyalties and notes that there are about 30 elements in the “chain.”  These include acts of God, texts and ideas that stick in people’s minds, compassion and stories from others, and a person’s own determination and agency.  

Hunter chides Christian for being afraid of people outside their churches, anxious about their ideas, behaviors, social status, character, or mental condition. He also chides church people and pastors for not being more creative in finding ways to relate beyond the conventional churchy activities.  

One helpful concept is that of “indigenous” religion.  While presenting the spirit of Christ, a concept that transcends most cultures, Hunter advocates that Christians engage people with more indigenous words, rituals, and activities.  European Christianity, imported to American shores hundreds of years ago, has bequeathed forms not currently indigenous to most people in the U.S.  The high point of the American church, the 1050s, has also left us with form and practices that are alien to current Americans.  The spirit of Christ should be conveyed in practices, music, words, and rituals that are easily meaningful to people.  Churches need to be more strategic about how they use space, time, materials, and play to relate to their own mission fields. While there is a foreignness to the Christian message, it must be expressed indigenously.  On the other hand, he warns against having indigenous messages (adding a layer of religious reinforcement to the worst tendencies of our society).  He brings the reader to the question of what is Christ and what is culture?

Hunter also attacks the prevalence of clericalism, letting clergy do Christianity and evangelism for everyone else.  His book calls for laity to be let loose and take up the bulk of the work of ministry, including evangelism.  

A whole chapter is devoted to recovery ministries, and Hunter urges congregations to look at organizations like AA and find ways to model them.  He also encourages churches to examine the status of their hospitality and devotes several pages to the importance of quality conversations as a means of relating to people and persuading them.

It is a helpful book for a congregation that wants to get its laity more involved in ministry and be less dependent on the pastor.  

Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Indian Road  (memoir, Christian mission, Christology, India)

Written almost 100 years ago (1925), we get acquainted with E. Stanley Jones, a gentle spirit, a sharp thinker, and a man who embodies much about the focus of his life: Jesus of Nazareth.  Jones had already been in India for 17 years when he wrote this memoir.  His time there coincided with the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, and the two were acquaintances and had several interactions.  

Jones’s critique of traditional Christian missionary work and institutional Christianity is devastating.  Sadly, his observations still apply.  India’s 19th and 20th century experiences of Christianity were tied in with English colonialism, racism, and entitlement.  Jones believed that Christianity had been portrayed exactly the opposite of who Jesus really was. Initially, he believed that his job was to present “cultural” Christianity to the Indian people, complete with justifications for the Old Testament, 20 centuries of Church history, and the entire Western civilization, “the whole line.”  Very quickly he realized he had to “shorten his line” and focus on the person and work of Jesus alone.  

The book is full of insightful phrases and telling illustrations. He tells how the Mayflower, after depositing the Pilgrims, left port to steal slaves from Africa, how a tribe of Saxons became baptized while holding their right hands out of the water… so they could continue to use their weapons contrary to the nonviolent Jesus. 

Jones very quickly settled on six rules for doing missionary work in India.  1) Do not attack other religions.  2) Show how Christianity is helps fulfill the yearnings of other ancient religions.  3) Start with topics that are familiar to all and bring Christian perspectives to the table.  4) Be absolutely frank, no hidden agendas.  5) Allow people to ask all the questions they want, express opinions, and engage in friendly argument.  6) Share Christ as an experience, not an argument or theory.

Jones believed that all people need three things:  1) an adequate goal for character development, 2) a full and free life, and 3) a connection with God.  If people had no connection with God, they would be vulnerable to devoting their lives to institutions and causes that would take life from them without giving back. Jones believed that a growing experience of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, was the surest path to each of those needs.  He shared with people out of love for them and identification with their needs, not out of his own sense of triumph.  

Jones firmly believed that Christianity and the institutional church could not hold Jesus.  He also believed that people need not give up their native religions entirely in order to put Christ first in their lives.  As with Judaism, Christ came to fulfill the Torah, not abolish it. The perfection and fulfillment of every great spiritual tradition can be found in the person of Jesus.  If only institutional Christianity could rediscover Jesus…  Jones devotes an entire chapter in this book to Gandhi and the similarities and differences between him and Jesus.  

A theory he promotes in his book is “Evangelize the inevitable.”  See where people are developing new powers and influence and spend time with those people, sharing the grace and love of Christ with them.  Jones was not afraid to relate to anyone, however rich, poor, powerful, powerless, or frightening.  

He is especially harsh on the American church for its racism and sexism, showing how practices in churches here have discredited the gospel message elsewhere.  Over and over he recalls individuals in India chiding Christians for being so unlike Jesus.  

His concept of “Christ of the Indian Road” invites people in India to picture Christ not as a westerner, but as one of their own who walks the roads of India.  As he encouraged people to envision Jesus as one relevant to their own culture, he noticed how much people were becoming attracted to the Jesus of the New Testament.

For all who whose Christianity needs a tune-up, this book will surely do the job.

Larson, Kate Clifford, Walk With Me:  A Biography of Fanny Lou Hamer  (biography)

Fannie Lou was her mother’s 20th and last child, one of them who lived into adulthood.  Born in rural Mississippi in 1917, far below any concept we have of poverty, and black.  Hamer begin picking cotton as a child, suffered malnourishment, gave away everything she had to her poor neighbors, and died in near poverty.  She was involuntarily sterilized, beaten, and raped by white men, and evicted by a white landlord for trying to vote. White men driving trucks slowly cruised by her house, occasionally shooting into it, bombing it once.  She was treated dismissively by Martin Luther King Jr. and other men in the civil rights movement for being a woman and only having a sixth grade education.  She was ignored by most black pastors in Mississippi for being a rabble rouser.  She was treated contemptuously by black power advocates for her resolute loyalty to non-violence and Christianity.  When appearing at the 1964 Democratic convention in 1964, after risking her life to integrate the all-white segregationist state party, she had to borrow a dress for the occasion.  Speaking eloquently, she electrified the nation.  Yet a queasy national party establishment still denied her a seat.  As time went on, she started a farm to feed the poor of her own country.  It failed.  She spoke up for the rights of women, but because she was anti-abortion, an issue deeply emotional for her due to being sterilized and seeing abortion used first hand as a way of genocide.  Leaders of the women’s movement dismissed her for her lack of “purity” on that issue.  She spoke openly against the Viet Nam War.  When she died, her grave went untended for years.

She wasn’t perfect.  But if our nation only has one national holiday to honor a singular individual, in my mind, it should not be January 15 for Martin Luther King, Jr., nor February 22 for George Washington, nor October 12 for Columbus.  It should be October 6 for Fanny Lou Hamer.  

Larson’s biography was my choice to observe “Black History Month.” It doesn’t hide Hamer’s faults.  It does make her real, inspiring, and empathetic. It gives us access to Hamer’s power for our own generation.

Messud, Claire, The Woman Upstairs (novel)

Messud’s novel centers around the private thoughts of a 42 year old single woman, Nora, a grade school teacher, who narrates a story about an intense relationship she had with an international family happening to spend a year in her community (Cambridge, Massachusetts.) The boy, Reza, was in her third grade class. The mother, Sirena, Italian, is a fairly well known artist, and the father, Skandar, Lebanese, is a scholar of history and ethics.

Nora’s “singleness” is foremost in her mind all the way through the telling of the story. The “woman upstairs” becomes her metaphor for how people see single women: nearby, but at the periphery of their lives, mostly invisible to others. People have weird emotional responses to adults who are “still” single past their late 30s. She is very conscious of being marginalized by those heavily occupied with families, and part of this story delves into her consequent needs and her ways of coping, sometimes with illusions.

She falls in love with each member of this family, separately, for different reasons. There is a strong sexual component to her love and fascination with both Sirena and Skandar. The eight year old boy is in her class and she develops a special fondness for him, one that pushes her past boundaries she sets up with all her other students. Her eventual infatuation with this family causes her to withdraw her intense focus on her teaching. Because Sirena is an artist, Nora’s own lifetime love of art is awakened. Nora has been building tiny model bedrooms of famous single women, such as Emily Dickenson.

As the novel proceeds, an intense relationship is developed with each family member. And then the family suddenly moves back to Europe, to Paris where they reside. Nora is left with her grief, her anger, her confusion, and her own self-disorientation. Something eventually happens near the end of the novel to make her feel betrayed, an event foreshadowed earlier in the story.

At that point she is left with her anger. Many people reviewing the book dislike Nora and are troubled by her anger. I didn’t share those feelings. While flawed, Nora tells a story that is both honest and wise. She is willing to take risks. While not always understanding her feelings, she expresses them well and gives the reader a chance to understand them. Her relationships with the family are complex and ring true, psychologically. They each become an illusion of the life she thinks she wants for herself. While many would say she has an infatuation, I prefer the term “illusion,” as it becomes a short-cut bypassing her own growth and integrity.

I am not at all uncomfortable with her anger, which grows throughout the novel. And at the end, it is her intense anger that gives me hope for her and causes me to respect her.

This is a hard book to read, as it is deeply reflective and the plot rather thin. Nora’s feelings may make many people uncomfortable. But it is a book full of perception in many areas of life, especially what it means to be single or to feel marginalized in other ways. It is worthy of a book club discussion.

Moriarty, Liane, Apples Never Fall (novel)

This is a mystery novel: a missing older wife, a husband who seems to be the primary suspect, four unmarried adult children who feel torn in their loyalty to their parents; and a mysterious 20-something woman who shows up at the older couple’s house, several months before the older woman goes missing.

The family is nuts about tennis. The parents ran a school to teach tennis, and one of their former pupils was even a winner at Wimbledon. The four adult children have all abandoned the sport, even though it was their entire life growing up.

I listened to the novel on Audible, where it is read by Caroline Lee, an actress whose Australian voice is mesmerizing for this midwesterner.

The characters become well known in the course of the novel, along with things that surprise us along the way. The young “mystery woman” is both entertaining and threatening. In addition to the suspense found in the story, it also provide good insights into human relationships and maturity.

Pinder-Amaker, Stephanie, and Wadsworth, Lauren, Did That Just Happen?!: Beyond “Diversity”–Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations (cultural diversity, bigotry, rising identities)

I didn’t expect to give this book 5 stars when I picked it off my local library shelf. As a pastor of a church, as a white, cisgender, heterosexual male who cares about others experiences and wants to make our institutions more just and my own behavior more thoughtful, I picked it up out of duty.

The first part of the book consists of several stories of individuals who have experienced “Identity Related Aggression.” In other words, individuals they encountered made assumptions, based on “identity,” that resulted in insult or interference.

Written by two clinical psychologists, the book is tough, practical, smart, fair, and forward looking. I especially liked the “language” they offered to help me understand and identify how people are mistreated because of age, disability, mental health diagnosis, religion, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship status, gender identity, language, and gender expression. All these realities are referred to by the authors as “Rising Identities.”

One issue in American culture is the anger over “political correctness.” The authors’ careful use of language does not scold, but rather helps us speak more truthfully about realities that exist. A glossary at the end of the book is worth reading, even if one does not read the whole book.

But do read the whole book. The first section is “testimonial” as we say in the church. The second is analysis. And the third is prescriptive. The prescriptive section applies to those who are part of a people who have rising identities, those who lead organizations, and those who know they have offended from time to time.

The middle part of the book was most helpful. The authors call on us all to be better listeners. (a no brainer) But they help us out by pointing out the difference between Empowering Listening and Oppressive Listening. An oppressive listener refuses to be curious and broach the topic, tries to remain in the “expert” seat while listening to another person’s story, blames an unchangeable system for the problem, blames the victim, dominates the conversation with surprise and emotional outbursts, diminishes the other’s experience by making analogies, tries to fix the problem, justifies bigoted comments and actions by trying to explain the heart or “intent” of the offender, and jumps in to the be savior of the problem.

The authors are sympathetic to those who listen. We can hear so much sadness in another’s story that we feel compelled to cut off the listening and get started with the “solutions.”

The authors remind us that IRAs (Identity Related Aggressions) are often subconsciously engrained in individuals, organizations, and society itself. Work in any one area does have an impact in the other two, albeit slowly.

There is a good section on how people of rising identities have to make compromises to make it in systems that are oriented to exclude or inhibit them. People often have to hide who they truly are with others, an act that takes its toll through fatigue, discomfort, loss of joy, loss of self-actualization, loss of creativity, and burnout. Persons of color cannot hide that aspect of their identity, and so take to cross-switching when they are working in an organization or around people who are not persons of color.

The authors call on readers to proactively practice “cultural humility.” This is the realization that our own culture limits us from seeing and understanding experiences and phenomena from other cultures. Cultural humility recognizes how our own cultures limit our knowledge and wisdom and call on us to constantly be willing to learn what we don’t know: a lifelong task.

There is an intriguing section on the difference between an oppressive apology and an empowering one. An oppressive apology takes too long, makes excuses, focuses on the behavior and intent of the aggressor (rather than the effect on the person injured), makes the feelings of the apologizer paramount, prematurely asks for forgiveness and understanding. An oppressive apology forces the wronged person to take care of the one who did the wrong.

I’m fairly open minded and “up to date,” (even though my daughters often roll their eyes at me) and I found this book to be helpful and a growing experience. I’ll incorporate it into my work with churches and my writing.

Probulos, I.M., Jesus Returns July 13: Times Square New York (satire)

I picked this book because my birthday happens to be July 13. A satire, the story begins with Jesus entering earth’s atmosphere in a golden chariot being pulled by four white horses. All the major news networks cover the event, at first thinking a meteor is headed to earth, then discovering it is Jesus, landing in Times Square in New York City, ready to get on with the Judgement Day.

By the time Jesus finishes sending all offenders to hell (even Mike Pence is sent to hell for wearing mixed fabrics in his suits) the only people left are members of the Westboro Baptist Church, two Seventh Day Adventists, three Pentecostals, and Jack and Colleen from Davis, West Virginia. These righteous few then get in the chariot with Jesus and ride off to a better place.

Probulos sprinkles biblical quotes liberally throughout his short satire (less than 100 pages), having Jesus quote texts out of context to justify his judgments, just like many Christians take texts out of context.

While the book left a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste, I sensed two values in it. First, it might be a good book for a Sunday School class or Bible study group to read, to get them talking about HOW scripture should be interpreted. While the language and political opinions expressed in the satire are sure to offend many church folks, it does have the potential to stimulate some interesting conversations.

More importantly, for me however, is the vivid picture of what happens when there is a “break.” (After all, what could be more of a “break” than to send someone permanently to hell?) I am a United Methodist pastor, in a denomination that is rife with talk about breaking apart. There are many people in my denomination who are talking about “breaking away” from the rest of us because we have thoughts and behaviors they judge unbiblical or sinful. They want to leave us behind and ride off with Jesus in their new, pure denomination.

Many of my friends want to go with them. But I am worried about my friends. When you go with a group that kicks people out for not being correct or pure, or not effective enough, or not conforming, then how long will it be before YOU get the boot? Such an organization is birthed in a power struggle, and in the power struggles that are part of its DNA, who is to say whether you will be able to meet the standards of those who will ascend to authority?

This satire is an unpleasant reminder that when grace is evicted from our relationships, everything turns to hell. There is no safe place anymore, not even in a golden chariot with Jesus.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island (classic novel)

Embarrassed to say that this was the first time I’ve read this classic tale. A pirate comes to lodge at a boarding house run by Jim’s father. At his death, Jim discovers a map in the old pirate’s chest giving details on an island where pirates hid stolen treasure. When the map makes it into the hands of Jim’s older and better financed friends, an expedition is chartered to sail and recover the treasure. Along the way, not everyone turns out to be who Jim thought they were at first. The novel is filled with suspense, creativity, and interesting characters. Written in 1880 or so, the language takes one back 140 years and requires one to guess at a few idioms and picturesque phrases that are no longer in use. It was an enjoyable read and the narrative thrills were worth the time spent in the story.

Books Read in December 2021 and January 2022

Bird, Matt, The Secrets of Story:  Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers (Advice on writing stories for books, movies, and television) 

Elias, George Skaff, Characteristics of Games  (guidebook for game designers and creators)

McCollum, Vashti, One Woman’s Fight (history, legal, church vs. state, local history, memoir)

Newlyn, Lucy, The Craft of Poetry:  A Primer in Verse  (poetry, examples of types of poems and the craft of poetry)

Ryan, John Fuller, The Man Who Flew the Amerika Bomber    (novel)

Smith, Molly Dale, Transitional Ministry:  A Time of Opportunity

Towles, Amor, The Lincoln Highway  (novel)

Woods, Stuart, Grass Roots (political, crime novel)

Bird, Matt, The Secrets of Story:  Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers (Advice on writing stories for books, movies, and television) 

I listened to the book on audio (while I was driving) and plan to get a hardcopy from the library so I can take some notes.  I’m working on a novel, and Bird’s book is primarily about writing screenplays for movies and television.  About 40% seems to not apply to novel writing.  But the part that does includes the importance of irony (with one of the best explanations of it I’ve heard) and the craft of building suspense.  

Bird takes on a number of assumptions we make about audiences and readers, such as the expectations they have for surprise, good endings, and character flaws.  

His book includes a checklist of over 100 things for an author to ask about the book (screenplay.)

Bird also gives good, practical information about rewrites and revisions.

Many of his examples are from movies and TV shows, and his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of those are fascinating, even for someone who doesn’t plan to write something.

Elias, George Skaff, Characteristics of Games  (guidebook for game designers and creators)

I read this book for two reasons: I’ve had a lifelong interest in inventing games, ever since I grew up in the country with three brothers and had to be creative for our own entertainment.  Second, I am a pastor who wanted to introduce ideas of church strategy to my leadership in a way that would be entertaining and pedagogically effective, and so I was working on a board game to that end.

This book helped me think systematically about the process.  It gave me terminology (much of it made up by the authors, I think) to understand what I was trying to do and name things I needed to do to make the game more entertaining.  

It included much more than I needed, and because I don’t play computer games, it left me disoriented at places from its constant references to them.  But on the whole, it was a fascinating and evocative book into games, why we enjoy some of them so much, and why we may tire or reject others.

McCollum, Vashti, One Woman’s Fight (history, legal, church vs. state, local history, memoir)

Vashti Cromwell McCollum was at the center of “separation of church and state” debate in my own community, eight years before I was born.  I had never heard of her until a friend loaned me Vashti’s memoir. The specific conflict was over whether the Champaign IL school district could use “release time” during the regular school day and invite local church approved instructors to take over the classrooms for it.  Students were not required to participate, but if they opted out, they had to leave the classroom and all their classmates and either wait in the hall or wait in another room and do their homework while the other students were evangelized.

Vashti did not agree with the theological tenets and proselitizing that was occurring, and so she refused to sign a permission slip for her son to participate.  The good Christian classmates who were receiving the indoctrination preceded to bully her son and the teacher blamed all of it on the boy and his mother for their refusal to conform. Vashti took the school to court on the grounds that the United States Constitution and the Illinois Constitution both forbade such mingling of church and state.

She describes the attacks on her and her family, both verbal and physical, from the Christians of the community and from Christians from around the country.  She also describes the court case in Urbana, county seat of Champaign County, and how she lost the case there.  She describes how she lost the case at the Illinois Supreme Court.  She describes how the case quickly was distorted from being a constitutional issue to an issue over her own religious ideas and practices.  (She was a secular humanist.)  The local newspaper, still in existence, attacked her personally in its headlines and reporting rather than fairly present the issue at hand.  

The case eventually went to the Supreme Court and she won, 8-1, in the first modern case that firmly established how separation of church and state should be applied to public schools.

The local religious leaders who led the effort to teach religion in the schools were in First Methodist Church in Champaign.  I am also a United Methodist pastor, and while I didn’t know the pastor who was at the center of this storm, I find myself embarrassed.  As a denomination, our leaders today would likely be standing alongside Vashti McCollum in her struggle for religious freedom.  But that was not the case in the 1940s.  

Church leaders in those days argued that they needed to teach religion in the schools to virtually captive audiences because they couldn’t get those kids and their families to come to church and receive such evangelism.  They argued that religious teaching in schools cut down on juvenile delinquency.  They argued that what they were teaching was “standard” and accepted by the majority of the people of the community.  They finally argued that it couldn’t do any harm.  But non-biased research into those assertions contraindicated the claims.  

It is an historical irony that the Methodists and other mainline denominations who tried so hard to use the schools to propagate their “majority” beliefs now find themselves attacked by a new majority in many communities:  the religious right.  If the religious right had its way, it would be indoctrinating students not only with theology that is often unethical, but also with political preferences that have nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth.  I am grateful for the work that Vashti McCollum did, and for her courage.  But it is not a certainty that the rights she fought hard to win can continue to be taken for granted.

Newlyn, Lucy, The Craft of Poetry: A Primer in Verse (poetry, examples of types of poems and the craft of poetry)

Lucy Newlyn is a retired professor of English Literature from Oxford.  In this delightful and creative book of poetry, she teaches the craft of writing poetry, exclusively through her own poems.  

The poems are set in a rural English countryside and village of her childhood.  The “beck” (stream) that runs through the countryside is continually featured in her poems.  Having grown up in rural Northern Illinois, the poems stirred memories and imagination from my own childhood, as well as many resurrecting many places and events I have experienced since.  I borrowed the book from my library, but have ordered my own copy (even though I’m not buying all that many books in my retirement.)  I want to read in it, again and again, when my spirit needs to be comforted or uplifted.

In addition to the beck, she also vividly portrays sheep, farmers, the local pub, young lovers, newlyweds, death, memories of the past when trains went through the countryside, cheesemaking, meadows, long hours of wandering through hills, and the many times she crossed the beck to get to something she was seeking.

Each poem is titled by the concept she is illustrating:  rhyme, rhythm, symbol, metaphor, simile, echo, analogy, Iambic pentameter, Iambic tetrameter, half-rhyme, personification, oxymoron, hyperbole, anaphora, lyric, epic, epistle, Haiku, ballad, free verse…  There are 137 poetic concepts, each illustrated by one of her poems about this enchanted place.  There are no explanations of any of these concepts beyond the example given in the poem called by its name.  You will need another handbook to get definitions… or look them up on the internet.

It is a delightful and informative book, the poems are remarkable in their own right, and it is an overflowing guide to anyone who wants to write anything, not just poetry.

Ryan, John Fuller, The Man Who Flew the Amerika Bomber    (novel)

John Ryan brings his academic study of history and his many 1960s conversations with German war veterans into this novel, which in turn engages the reader in one of the lesser-known plots (never carried out) of the Nazi regime.  

The Germans developed several plans to bomb American cities during the war.  The distances, however, challenged the technology at that time.  Detroit was one of their target cities, due to the Detroit Arsenal Facility, which produced tanks, guns, canons, and trucks for the war.  The heart of Ryan’s story is a failed attempt to destroy Detroit.  

The hero is Max, a hereditary baron from Austria, drafted by the Nazis to fly planes in the war.  He soon becomes disillusioned by Hitler, then horrified as the war proceeds.  But he cannot escape, until he is put on a mission to destroy Detroit.  The plan had two parts:  first to fly reconnaissance over Detroit, publish photos, and scare Americans into bringing home their troops in Europe to defend American cities.  The second part of the plan was to actually bomb Detroit, as soon as the right bomb was developed.  Both plans involved flying to Detroit, turning back toward Maine, landing in the Atlantic, and getting rescued by German submarines cruising the American coastline.  Max subverts the reconnaissance plan and ends up living the rest of his life as a recluse in rural Maine.  

A reporter raised in the area (Peggy) is contacted by Max and begins to learn and write his story.  Her life is dramatically changed by what she learns.  If Max is the hero, Peggy is the protagonist of the novel.  

Ryan’s story moves along at a pleasing pace, is full of suspense, historical insight, pathos, surprising twists, engaging characters, and gently revealed romances.  In short, it is a very good read.

As a matter of full disclosure, John and I are both involved in a writer’s group and I had the opportunity to hear him read parts of his novel as he was writing and editing it.  The process our group followed only permitted him to read a few pages at a time, and all of us eagerly awaited the next week when we could hear more.  I had missed several of our meetings when John read, and was very satisfied to get to read his entire story from beginning to end.

Smith, Molly Dale, Transitional Ministry:  A Time of Opportunity

This is a nuts and bolts anthology describing how interim ministry works in several denominations, particularly Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, and Lutheran.  The writers are all part of a national network of interim pastors, pastors who serve congregations that are in between “settled” pastorates.  In addition to the nuts and bolts covered, in fine detail, the book also has several essays that provoke thought, particularly the one on appreciative inquiry.  As a pastor who has served in one interim appointment (in the United Methodist Church) and is heading into another, I found the book somewhat useful.  

The drawback for me came in that United Methodist pastors are assigned to congregations by a bishop.  The congregation has limited input on the skills they think they need, but virtually no input on “who” will be sent them.  As a consequence, a United Methodist interim pastor needs to work with a congregation that is quite powerless and deal with those real issues.  

On the whole, the book contained nuggets of insight and wisdom.  It’s main drawback was that is was entirely too prescriptive.

Towles, Amor, The Lincoln Highway  (novel)

This was my first Amor Towles novel.  It will not be my last.  The story starts in Nebraska with 18 year old Emmett returning home after a stint in juvenile detention.  His father has just died, the bankrupt family farm is about to be sold at auction, his mother has been missing for ten years, and his eight year old brother, Billy, needs Emmett’s care.  It is Emmett’s plan to leave town, head to a part of the country that is growing, and start life over as a carpenter.  The year is 1954.

But within hours of Emmett’s return, he discovers that two of his friends from the detention center have escaped and attached themselves to him.  One is slow-witted, gentle, generous, and comes from a wealthy family.  The other is a charming scamp who has had to survive abusive parents and a life on the run.  From that moment throughout the novel, these two friends drive Emmett and Billy’s lives.

There is a “girl next door” Sally, whom Emmett decides to leave out of his story.  But she is determined to work her way into it.  And then there is eight year old Billy, who is a bit of a mystic visionary.  He is well read, neurotic, and uncannily observant, and he stabilizes his brother and the other characters in the story.

The Lincoln Highway is Billy’s thing.  As he reads about the adventures and journeys of mythic and real heroes, he wants to find his own place in life by going on such a journey.  And he wants others to have heroic journeys as well.  The Lincoln Highway goes through Nebraska (it was the first continental highway built in the U.S. and is roughly what we know as Interstate 80 today, going from New York to San Francisco.)  Billy soon identify’s the Lincoln Highway as the venue for rebirth for himself and everyone else he knows in the story.  

It takes the brothers a long time to finally get on the Lincoln Highway.  Their ten day ordeal trying to get started on it is the setting of the novel.  The story includes compelling characters who draw you in, humor, a high degree of craziness that will necessitate suspension of disbelief now and then, suspense, twists and turns, sorrow, and relief.

Woods, Stuart, Grass Roots (political, crime novel)

Once in a while I like to put my mind in neutral and just go escape for the ride.  In this case, I let Stuart Woods help me disappear into his political thriller.  Grass Roots was written 32 years ago about a Georgia lawyer running for a senate seat in that state.  The novel itself has become an historical time piece:  it is assumed that a Democrat will win election in Georgia, it is pre-9/11, it is at the very beginning of DNA testing in criminal cases, and it comes from a time when those who lost close elections bowed out afterward, even if they were sleaze-bags.  

The story strains credibility, but I gave all that a pass because I just wanted to live in its narrative, full of political suspense, courtroom drama, assassination of candidates, hot sex scenes, fragile romances, and gunfights.  

It’s the first Will Lee novel I read, and when I’m ready for an escape from reality, I’ll likely listen to another.

Strout, Elizabeth, My Name Is Lucy Barton (novel)

I read this novel because it is the first of a trilogy, and my eye caught the other two books, so I decided to read this first. I probably won’t go on to read the other two, unless I get more incentive.

This novel has no plot, but rather focuses on the muted feelings of Lucy Barton, who spends most of the novel with her mother sitting at her feet. The two of them have little dialogue. They occasionally remember back to people and places they shared, but there is little sense of love between them, even though they both profess it. Their professions lack credibility.

As Lucy Barton tells bits and pieces of her story, I felt sad for her, but not empathetic. This was strange because I am usually very quick with empathy. Perhaps it was a technique of the author, to put me into the same relationship with Lucy as her mother seems to have. I spent the whole book listening to her story, not really hearing enough of it to understand her, and not really motivated to find out more.