Category Archives: Reviews

A Few Reasons to Read A Reason for God

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antobodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.” –Timothy Keller

Presumably a real grad school doesn’t assign books based on what’s available… at this exact moment… for free… in audio format.  But that’s exactly my scientific approach and I’m going with it.  First up in my DIY Seminary plan, then, was Timothy Keller’s Reason for God, because yeah, it came out like a decade ago and I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Don’t judge, yo.

Keller’s book is clear, calm, and rational but also eloquent. I’m sure hearing it read aloud by the man himself influenced my view, but his famously deadpan delivery has a way of making his most impassioned viewpoints seem inevitable.  He’s able to take a heated issue and let the air out slowly before it blows, as when he discusses the Christian view of hell.  You can imagine the blustery critic slowly lowering his rock just before the stoning commenced.

I’d say Reason for God is sure to be a classic apologetic if it weren’t so rooted in our times. But then again, the ideas Keller counters have had a way of popping up repeatedly over the centuries, so maybe it will still speak to the culture in 100 years.  Jesus merely a good person but not really divine?  That idea goes back at least as far as Arius (AD 250-336).  Science has displaced religion as the ultimate truth?  Back to the Enlightenment (which, ironically, was strongly influenced by a good many Christians, for example, Francis Bacon.)  So maybe in our nothing-new-under-the-sun world, each succeeding apologist just puts new wrapping paper on what’s essentially the same set of ideas.

Reason for God isn’t so much a new argument as a very carefully constructed presentation of familiar arguments, one small layer added atop the last until it was quite a pile of convincing thoughts. I’d love to be a fly on the wall if a book club full of agnostics read it together.  And that’s kind of what reading it allows you to do.  Keller frequently quotes and discusses many of the Manhattan intellectuals he runs into, delving into their misgivings about faith and speaking to the issues on their lips.

Reading sharp apologetic books has a way of forcing us to think through our faith critically and address our own lurking doubts honestly.  Over a lifetime, each book adds a new layer of understanding, equipping us to share with confidence not only what we believe, but why.

One quibble.  I hate abridged books.  When I borrowed the audio version from the library, I didn’t see any indication that I was getting a shortened version.  Oh, it’s there, buried in the fine print.  Grrr.  Flipping through a paper copy of my husband’s, I started to see things that looked unfamiliar.  Had I fallen asleep?  Not been paying attention?  Nope.  Thank you, Reader’s Digest version.  Sheesh.

Photo via VisualHunt

In which we establish that rock ‘n’ roll is from the devil… sorta.

So you’re driving down the road, scanning the radio for a decent song and you come across “holy, holy, holy.”  Must be a worship song, eh?  Not the way you might expect.  Let’s see what happens if we put together a little mashup of three tunes you could have heard on the radio this week.

“Somehow baby, you broke through and saved meimage
You’re an angel, tell me you’re never leaving
‘Cause you’re the first thing I know I can believe in
You’re holy, holy, holy, holy
I’m high on loving you…
You made the brightest days from the darkest nights
You’re the river bank where I was baptized
Cleanse all the demons
That were killing my freedom
Let me lay you down, give me to ya
Get you singing babe, hallelujah
We’ll be touching, we’ll be touching heaven” (“H.O.L.Y.” by Florida Georgia Line)

image“I should’ve worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She is the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
‘We were born sick, ‘ you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes
She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life…
No masters or kings when the ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human
Only then I am clean
Amen. Amen. Amen” (“Take Me to Church” by Hozier)

“Roll the windows down and turn up the dialimage
Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church” (“My Church” by Maren Morris)

Now there’s a lot we could say about these songs.  Right off the bat, they are all three catchy, the kind of songs that get stuck in your head for hours.  They are clever, using the unexpected metaphor of the sacred to make ordinary earthly loves and freedoms seem transcendent.  And that’s nothing new — since Herbert and Donne were writing in Shakespeare’s day, English writers have done the same; pop singers, too (Madonna, Bon Jovi) have been doing this for years.  We could make a good Public Service Announcement that if you play these songs backwards… wait, you could just play them forwards.  But humor me for a minute.  Let’s dig a little deeper and ask why.

Why is it that church — church, with its pews and organs and tiny wafers — is a go-to analogy for passion and ecstasy?  Why do songwriters want to subvert traditional worship and replace it with something else?  Why is it that human beings are so prone to worship in the first place?

It does get a little old, I’d imagine, to come up with a fresh metaphor for a love song.  Love is a rose, a dance, fireworks, a waterfall.  Love is super awesome.  How do you say that in a new way?  So writers, reaching for the highest, the ultimate idea to represent this mind-blowing human experience, turn to God.  Hallelujah.  But is that the end of the story?  Anthropologists argue about why exactly the belief in the supernatural is so pervasive around the earth, but clearly there is a human impulse towards worship.

Back in 2001, Thomas T. Clegg and Warren Bird put out an insightful little book called Lost in America.  They postulate that all people have three basic desires: for transcendence, significance, and community, and prove their assertion with a lot of fascinating statistics about what makes us tick.  They say, “Everyone, at some point in life, wants to know God — to know the mystical and the divine, to solve the dilemma of life’s God-shaped vacuum, and to know the great beyond.”  They point out some of the top-grossing movies of all time:  Star Wars, E.T., The Sixth Sense, Independence Day.  We might add all of those Batman movies, Harry Potter, even Indiana Jones.

It’s like the old preacher postulates in Ecclesiastes, “God has set eternity in our hearts.”  We have a built-in longing for something… more.  To borrow a lyric from Switchfoot, “There’s got to be something more / Than what I’m living for / I’m crying out to You.”

So you’re a lyricist and you’re reaching for words that get to that longing, that transcendence — what are your options?  Life is a highway, a party, a song… or life is sacred, holy, a beautiful mystery.  There is no more epic story than the imagination and creation of the world, the sacrifice of a King for all of humanity, and the ultimate vanquishing of evil.

December in particular offers up a smorgasbord of soundtracks for life:  you might be rocking around the Christmas tree, letting it snow, or roasting chestnuts.  Or you can lean into the wonder:  the holy night, the miracle in the manger, the creaky old shepherds privy to a celestial flash mob.  Trade in the mundane for the mystery this year.

Take me to church.

Book Medicine, or The Two-Sentence Book Review Challenge

So I was wandering through Costco one day and I accidentally walked down the book aisle.  Well.  Accidental is relative.  I picked up a paperback called The Little Paris Bookshop and decided to give it a new home, because this was on the back cover:  “Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself…”  It was a weak moment, OK?  I am also a sucker for cheesecake samples.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I love the idea of prescribing just the right book for just the right person in just the right season.  I do it all the time, sending books for gifts, thinking long and hard about what book will speak to whom.  Now all I need is a floating bookstore in Paris, and my life will be complete.

So now I find myself in a bit of a reading funk.  I am too busy to read during the day, so all of my reading time is chunked into two big compartments:  devotional reading as I kick off my morning, and light reading as I fall asleep.  The trouble is, I keep falling asleep mid-page.  (Les Mis isn’t keeping me awake what with all of the Napoleonic history.)

So for my own amusement, here is my want-to-read page from Goodreads.  screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-45-46-pmSomewhere on this list is my next favorite book (I hope!)  Here’s the big fat favor I’m asking —  help me pick a new book!

I’m taking a poll.  A poll, people.  That means you have to vote.  If you have read any of the books on my list, give me a two-sentence book review in the comment section below and help me choose my next guilty purchase.

If you have a better idea, add a title (and a two-sentence review) below.  And if you should happen to have a free cheesecake sample, you can be my new best friend.

On a related note, I am realizing how awfully hard it is to get reviews for one’s book on Amazon, so if you go to all the trouble to write out a couple sentences here, you may as well copy and paste it on the book’s actual Amazon or Goodreads page, and make that author’s day.  We can be the Make-An-Author’s-Day team, and save despairing authors everywhere from eating their weight in Costco’s free samples department.

Contagious Books

I’m fascinated by the way books have the power to shape us.  I say “have the power to” because clearly not all books succeed in this mission (or even want to.  Don’t think Danielle Steele ever wanted to change the world!)  But certain remarkable books sweep across a culture with tsunami force.  Some leave a wake of destruction that persists over the decades (Lolita?), some permeate a culture subtly and ever-so-slightly change the dominant worldview (Vonnegut, maybe?), and a few give a startling smack-down to the group conscience (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, say).

But ask any random person if any particular book has rocked their world, and you’ll usually get “Yes, absolutely.  Let me think.  Ummmmm…….”  They may have read all of Jane Austen twice, and adore her, but did she change them?  Hard to say.  They may have read a list of great philosophers in college, but can they remember what any of them said?  A few.

It’s tricky, because it’s terribly hard to quantify how a book has shaped your thinking, even if you know it has.  It’s tough to remember after you’ve read it what you ever thought before you picked it up.  Truth seems awfully obvious after you accept it.

And when a book is read often enough to affect an entire culture, it’s almost impossible to track its impact.  Say 100 high school history teachers all read the same book, causing them to lean a little off the pacifist side of the fence.  That year, they make numerous asides about the stupidity of wars through the ages, and all 1,000 of their students, by year’s end, are questioning when a war ever did anybody any good.  None of those hormonally-charged teenagers ever read the book in question, but all of them were indirectly impacted by it.

Of all the writers who’ve ever influenced me, two rise to the top of the heap.  I’ve always been a little shy to say it, because they’re trotted out so often.  But they good and truly have changed my thinking, layer upon layer, year after year.  They have the curious distinction of speaking to young and old alike, so if you meet them in 4th grade they are able to follow you up to the Depends years.  And though they made a splash about 70 years ago, they still have a surprising message in the 2000s.    

 

I made my first pass through C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series almost 30 years ago, finding the complete set on the family bookshelf.  (A little like finding a stack of $100 bills just waiting for you in a dresser drawer.)  Narnia was delicious, can’t-stop-eating-it Turkish Delight to my 10 year old soul.  One Sunday, sitting bored in church, swinging my legs, I had an astonishing thought.  “Jesus is like Aslan,” I scribbled in amazement across the top of the first page of Acts, an exclamation that I saw every time I flipped through that old Bible for the next few years.  Well, duh.  But it was something no one had pointed out to me, a mind-blowing moment.  You see, I loved Aslan.  I mean really loved him.  And suddenly that love was transferable.  Thankfully, Lewis was prolific, and I am still plowing through his legacy, which just seems to be more beautiful as you go “further up and further in.”

The other author who continues to teach me is Lewis’s good buddy J.R.R. Tolkien.  Full disclosure:  I have read but three of his books.  The Hobbit was a fun read back in elementary school, and although my father attributes his faith in part to his incredulous discovery that such a writer could possibly be a Christian, at the time, hobbit-lore seemed a happy fairy tale.  (Dad maintains that he always expected every Christian to be a weakling, an idiot, or a hypocrite, and Tolkien was the first to challenge this assumption.)  While I always thought Tolkien  was a great story-teller and an innovator, that’s about it.  In my twenties I decided I really ought to tackle Lord of the Rings.  I read the first two before full-time motherhood hit, and I’ve yet to go back and finish the third.  (Lame, I know.)  But Peter Jackson’s film version plays at our house many times a year, and can I just say that every time I see it, it moves me again, elves and goblins notwithstanding.  In weary trenches of vocational ministry, in the “dark night of the soul,” in all the uphill battles of life, I hear Samwise Gamgee cheering us on against the odds, I foresee a day when evil will be vanquished and goodness win.

  Lewis and Tolkien are extraordinary not only because of their talent and intellect, but because they wrote in a time of great darkness, and they chose light.  Lots of people have mined their work over the decades, and you wouldn’t expect there to be much left to say.  So I am super-excited about a new book exploring their influence as it worked against the backdrop of the World Wars.

In a time of ISIS, Ugandan and Somalian horrors, sex trafficking rampant around the world, it’s easy to think those in the Leave it to Beaver era couldn’t possibly speak to our times.  To think so is to miss it:  Lewis and Tolkein are perfectly poised to speak to us.  I hope they aren’t forgotten any time soon.

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-hobbit-wardrobe-and-a-great-war

Critics, and other miserable ones.

imageJust got to see my favorite Broadway show of all time, now repackaged as my new favorite movie. May I just say: Wow.

I read a snatch of review: “there will always be people who like overblown emotion,” smug critic said. I kept replaying his words in my mind as I watched (and yes, I cried like a baby. Don’t judge me.) Listen, I understand that sentimental drivel appears on the scene way too frequently, but that is altogether different than gut-level emotion — passion, grief, joy. Why are we so afraid to feel?

This movie is crazy awesome on so many levels — incredible characters, at least 4 intermeshed plots, beautiful music, hilarious sideshows, unvarnished horror alongside of shining grace — and in the midst of all that the cast and crew were trying to do, they make us feel. Jean Valjean has to be a criminal, must be a criminal, can’t possibly escape his past — and yet, here he is, heroic, transformed by grace. (Of course, that couldn’t be possible, Smug Critic would say. No one changes. There is no grace.) Fantine is any young girl we know, backed into a corner, slammed to the mucky floor by unforgiving, cruel fate. She is the face of 10,000 girls enslaved right now at this very moment, and as we feel her agony, we understand, and we are made to care. Poor Eponine, loving and forever unloved, willing to give her life for another — we see, and the sacrificial love blows us away. And the boys, the countless boys who rise up for freedom, for justice, whose blood runs in the streets, for what? How many mothers spent Christmas bereft because of sons and daughters killed in war?

Poor Smug Critic, never to feel.

Les Mis is at bottom, a love story: the love of God for a lost soul and the pay-it-forward chain of events that fly imageinto motion as a result. It is grand, epic, because Love is epic. If it doesn’t rip your heart out to realize you are a beggar and a thief impossibly, lavishly, ridiculously loved, then like Javert you have chosen a cold, hard, tit-for-tat ethic in its place. And consider how things turned out for him.

A beggar at Christmas.

English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, pai...
English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, painted just outside his clothing store in Bordeaux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I have calculated correctly, Christmas is 8 days away. (I was an English major; you do the math!) So maybe, like me, you are watching old movies and pulling out favorite Christmas stories for an annual read-through. Last year, we discovered a story new to our family, a beautiful little old-fashioned tale called “The Family Under The Bridge” by Natalie Savage Carlson. It is the story of a recently homeless family in Paris and the ragged old hobo who pledges to find for them a new home. It’s great.

Armand is the old beggar who reluctantly finds himself helping the three shell-shocked children, the little “starlings,” he calls them. And despite their mother’s disdain and revulsion for the old man, the family is soon inextricably linked with him (isn’t it always the case when we let the walls down — gah! Inconvenient love!) Armand promises Suzy a real, honest-to-goodness house for Christmas, a promise he can’t possibly keep, of course. Christmas Eve rolls around…

“Then the crowd of hoboes and their ladies and friends sang Christmas carols to the accordion music. Most of their voices were cracked and off key, but they sounded beautiful to themselves.

“Armand was ready to go by midnight. He clung to the big carton that had been given him at the tent as a gift. He knew it was full of jam, fruit and cigarettes. It would be his Christmas present to the gypsies.

“But Madame Calcet wouldn’t think of going straight back. ‘We must go to the midnight mass on the quay,’ she said. ‘The girl told me about it.’

“An altar had been set up on the Tournelle quay right out in the open. The priest in his bright vestments, followed by his altar boys, had just approached the altar by the time Armand and the Calcets arrived. Many of the hoboes stayed for the mass.

“Evelyne fell asleep in her mother’s arms. Jojo was quiet and respectful although it was the first time he had ever been to church.

“Armand swayed from one foot to the other uneasily. It had been so long since he had gone to mass. Lucky this one was out here on the quay. They never would have pulled him into one of those great fancy churches.

“The hobo had other things to make him uneasy. The plight of this family. Just how had he got himself so tied up with them? How had he blundered into such a trap? It was the way those starlings had begged hi to stay with them. That is how they had stolen his heart. No one had ever made him feel needed before. And now he’d lied to them. There wasn’t any house growing out of the ground — not for them.

“In his misery he raised his eyes high over the altar — up to the stars in the Paris sky. ‘Please, God,’ he said, moving his lips soundlessly, ‘I’ve forgotten how to pray. All I know now is how to beg. So I’m begging you to find a roof for this homeless family.’

“Then he was ashamed to notice that he was holding his beret up in his usual begging way. He quickly pulled it over his head.”

What do you pray for, so earnestly that you would beg, hat in hand under the starry December sky? Aren’t we all beggars, no better off than poor old Armand? It’s only when we forget what ragamuffins we are that our prayers get stale and ugly. May we all remember the state of our beggar souls, cry out in earnest to the only one who can do the impossible. Then watch and see if the miracles don’t begin to unfold.

In the meantime, sip that eggnog latte and remember, there are those in our midst who will spend Christmas on the concrete. A little compassion goes a long way.