Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

Interview with David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit

I posted a (p)review and giveaway of Wounded In Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations early this week, and congratulations to the three winners:

  1. L. Jackson
  2. Melanie Turner
  3. Diane Roth

I hope you find reading this book meaningful and receive a measure of comfort in the coming season!

David Bannon was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his new book via email. Here are his responses:

The season of Advent is both a season of hope and joy and one which touches our pains and longings. How do you think Advent makes space for those of us who are hurting and grieving?

We live in a society that has a tragic “get on with it, get over it” attitude toward grief.  Yet Advent teaches us a different lesson: the importance of accepting our sorrow exactly as it is each moment; the validity of our yearning and pain; the communion of placing our grief in a God who mourns with us; the unexpected consolation of light coming into darkness despite all reason. For those who know loss, our joy is tinged with sorrow. I think of Anna in the Gospel of Luke. A widow of many years, Anna surely felt the weight of loneliness and heartbreak: her gratitude at the sight of Jesus in the temple was hard-earned. In the same book, Simeon concluded his celebratory hymn with a realistic word for Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  In our grief during Advent, we seek rare moments of peace, an assurance that our hope is not ill-founded, and to know that we are not alone.

Bartolome Estaban Murillo, Holy Family with a Bird, c. 1650
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

You lost your only child. In what ways do you find this season hard? What brings you joy in the midst of sorrow?

We all find ways to make peace with our loss.  I  pray for one happy memory each day. Another bereaved parent wrote that she made it a daily goal to find one thing for which to be thankful.  This is not a glib “positive attitude” antidote. Rather, it may well be a prescription for survival.  I am reminded of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  He lost his wife and four of his five children yet the majority of his work is deeply joyful.  We sense in his paintings an assurance of peace.  His religious pieces, however, are steeped in profound sorrow.  Modern research tells us that Bouguereau’s persistent grief was normal; that the continuing bond he felt with his loved ones is healthy and to be expected.  He did not deny his mourning, he expressed it, just as he expressed the moments of joy he found in each day.  This is typical of bereaved parents.  We experience life as we live it, rejoicing in each happy memory, pausing over the simplest pleasures with gratitude.  Sorrow will return unbidden, it is inevitable. We are changed. Our souls have taken harm. It is in this harm that I experience the silence of God; it is in His silence that I find true peace.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

The art chosen for your book is beautiful and I love hearing snippets of the artist’s stories. You speak of these artists as providing for you a ‘communion of grief.’ Are there pieces that particularly resonate with you?

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jeanne, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

William-Adolphe Bouguereau waited some twenty years after his daughter’s death to paint her portrait, Jeanne.  In it, we sense his longing, tears, joy, memory, and hope. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Karl Thylmann have vastly different stories: Murillo was orphaned and found peace in creating a family of his own; Thylmann was color blind yet found a way to give us stark, incisive religious imagery that lives on today. The self-portraits of one of the great masters, Jean-Siméon Chardin, reflect brutal honesty.  Before his son took his own life, Chardin’sportraits were robust, energetic, intriguing. After his son’s death, Chardin described his inconsolable grief and regret in Self-portrait Wearing Glasses. Today the work holds pride of place in the Louvre.  We who have experienced loss recognize that look in Chardin’s eyes: ineffable yet wholly and completely known to those who mourn. 

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Self Portrait Wearing Glasses, 1775
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The artists you chose name the darkness, but some also experienced peace and light. Others were haunted by hard circumstance and accepted no easy answers. There is a quite a variety. How did you decide which artists to include in this devotional?

In their religious work, great artists expressed the truth of their wounds. I am reminded of French historian Marc Bloch’s injunction: “When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. . . . ‘Understanding,’in all honesty, is a word pregnant with difficulties, but also with hope. Moreover, it is a friendly word.” I selected artists whose lives speak to me, that gives me pause, that resonates with recognition and communion. In the end, I chose those artists for whom I felt a surprising friendliness.  

How has writing this book affected you? How have you experienced God’s healing in the midst of this project?

Bereaved parents who have contracted cancer, or lost a limb, report that losing a child was far more difficult. The loss defies comparison. We rarely tell an amputee that he lacks faith: that if he only believes his leg will grow back.  To say such a thing would be thoughtless and unrealistic.  The death of a child is permanent. Our wounds will be healed the moment we hold our children in our arms again.  In the here and now, our healing is to make peace with that.  I believe that God hears us in our grief.  In communion, we may find meaning and reasons to go on.

What is your hope for those who readWounded in Spirit?

Our wounds are our own. No one can understand our individual grief yet surely many of us travel the same dark paths, stumbling and crawling through the same shadowed valley.  Somewhere in this book, there may be a hurt, an artist, a painting or a bit of grief research that resonates with us, that makes us think: “Oh yeah, I know how that feels.”  These artists were broken and wounded, as many of us are, yet they found ways to speak to us across the centuries, to assure us that we are not alone. 

__________

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester University Press, 1954): 118.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 9781640601451.jpg

You can order Wounded in Spirit from:

Wounded In Spirit: an Advent Devotional (p)review and GIVEAWAY!!!

The secular and liturgical calendars nearly converge this year, so whether you mark the start of Advent with those calendars of chalky, cheap chocolate from your local supermarket, or through participation in Sunday worship, the season begins this weekend. During Advent I always look for a devotional to read through, as I attempt to wait well. Friends at Paraclete Press were nice enough to share with me Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a new devotional by David Bannon. Bannon combines reflections on grief, hope, wounds and waiting with beautiful works of art. It is an exquisite book!

9781640601451But Advent is the season of waiting. To wait is to note that things are not yet as they should be. And so, this is a difficult season for a lot of us. For all the promise of holiday cheer, these are long dark nights, often touched by heartache, loneliness, estrangement, deep wounds, and mourning. Bannon is no stranger to grief and heartache. In 2006 he was convicted for criminal impersonation. In 2015 his daughter died of a heroin overdose (introduction, XVI).  He know what it means to be broken and bereaved, to long for wholeness, healing and the coming of God’s shalom. He doesn’t speak explicitly about his own story in these meditations. He focuses instead on the stories of the artists—their stories, wounds and the works they produced.

The art in this book is varied in style, though exclusively Western European,ranging from the Renaissance era to about mid 20th Century. There are works by celebrated artists like Gauguin, Tissot, Caravaggio, Tanner, Delacroix, Van Gogh and Dürer, as well as notable pieces from artists with less household name recognition. Bannon describes the artist’s life, and the ways their wounds bleed onto the canvas. He invites us to stop and pay attention, to really see the artist and their work, to experience healing and perchance commune. Each daily meditation includes quotations for reflection from notable artists, writers, philosophers or theologians.

Art is something that has been healing for me on my own spiritual journey so I am looking forward to sitting with these artists and their work. I have not read the whole book yet, just introduction and several entries, though Bannon appears to be a good guide.

Waiting is painful. Things are not yet as they should be. But waiting doesn’t have to be dull and dreary, it can be a sensory experience, a time of entering more fully into Life. A time to grieve, yes, but joy comes in the morning.

Paraclete Press, has graciously allowed me to run a giveaway on my blog of 3 copies of the book? Yeah, James, but how can I win? 

There are 2 ways to enter:

  1. Comment below and tell me what do you find most difficult about this time of year.
  2. Share this giveaway on Social Media by hitting the share button below, Be sure to comment and share the link in the comment section, so I see your entry!

Winners will be chosen Thursday, 11/29 at 9pm Pacific Time.

Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Give Yourself the Gift(s) of Self-Care: a book review

 

“In an emergency situation, putting on your own oxygen mask first allows you to breathe and think clearly enough to help someone else” (April Yamasaki, Four GiftsHerald Press, 2018, 30).

Far from being ‘selfish,’ appropriate self-care is necessary if we are to become people who flourish and can ably care for those around us. Still, with the demands of life, work, family, ministry, etc., we don’t always take care of ourselves. Furthermore, we wonder what self-care looks like for followers of Jesus called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. April Yamasaki describes a holistic approach to self-care in Four GiftsUtilizing the terms, “heart,” “soul,” “mind” and “strength”—words we most often associate with the love of God in Jesus’s version of the Shema (Mark 12:30). She describes what it means for us to care for total well-being, our spiritual well-being, our mental well-being, and our physical well-being.

9781513803340-330x495April Yamasaki is an Asian-Canadian Mennonite Pastor, speaker, and author. She is a fellow alumnus of Regent College, in Vancouver, Canada, though our time there did not overlap. I first became aware of her through her blog (www.aprilyamasaki.com) and occasional interactions on my blog and on social media. She is also a member and contributor of the Redbud Writers Guild (a collective of women faith writers online), whose previous book, Everbloom(Paraclete Press, 2017).  I reviewed, which Yamasaki contributed to. I’ve known her to be a wise and gracious presence online, and she has encouraged me on my own faith journey.

Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength are the organizational motif and so the book divides naturally into these four sections. In the “Heart” section, Yamasaki describes our care for our total well-being. She instructs us to review our core commitments, establish appropriate boundaries, cultivate a community which will sustain us, and invest in relationships. In the “Soul” section she explores what it means to care for our spirits, through devotional practices, Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline. In the “Mind” section she details how to mind our focus, our digital worlds, our mental health, and what it means to renew our mind. In the “Strength” section she surveys ways to care for our physical well-being (e.g. exercise, healthy sleep habits, and good food choices).

This is the sort of book that straddles the line between being a book about spiritual disciplines and being a “self-help” book. My standing critique of both genres is how individualistic their advice often is. However, Yamasaki tempers her personal advice by highlighting the context of community, as part of appropriate self-care.  In chapter 3, she uses the story of Jethro’s counsel to Moses and the Early Church’s appointment of deacons to properly care for widows(Exodus 18, Acts 6) to illustrate both our need  for other people’s support if we are to thrive, and to illustrate how appropriate self-care means we sometimes need to challenge systems and structures that are destructive of our personhood:

As in the time of Moses and in the early church, we need social and structural change. We may not have the power of Moses to singlehandedly change the system, or the collective power of the twelve apostles to restructure a community. But we need the practical wisdom of Jethro and the openness of Moses to listen. We need the nondefensive posture and the willingness to act that was shown by the early leaders of the church. We need good questions, sustained engagement, ongoing action, and vigorous prayer (54-55).

By including the notion of systemic change in her notion of community, Yamasaki makes self-care as being so much more than self-indulgence but instead sees it as a step toward the work of social change.

Dismantling racism and sexism, ending poverty, and addressing other social ills requires ongoing work, determination, prayer, and yes, self-care. We need self-care that genuinely cares for ourselves and our deepest needs without isolating us from the needs of others. We need self-care that refreshes and validates us for our work in the world without it becoming our permanent destination. We need self-care that can both comfort us when the way is hard and empower us to live with compassion and perseverance (55).

Also, her including space for lament in self-care lends itself to the work of justice in the world beyond ourselves. By attending to the areas of hurt, grief, and brokenness in u,s we can move forward and channel our lament into seeking change.  We are motivated to “cry out for justice. Challenge the status quo. Find allies, and consult with professional advisers as needed” (102). This is a refreshing movement in a book about self-care!

But one of the things that I really liked about Yamasaki’s book was the overall graciousness of her tone. A ‘self-help’ book would tell you what you are supposed to do. A self-care book like this one doesn’t prescribe so much as cultivate our awareness of what we need to attend to, to best care for our well-being. Yamasaki offers no hard-and-fast rules. She describes self-care in her introduction:

For me, self-care has been a deep breath and sacred pause, a meandering walk along the waterfront, the New York Times crossword on a Sunday afternoon, a dish of stir-fried rice with greens and almonds after too many days of dairy products have made me feel tired and weighed down.

Self-care means taking all my vacation days even through 43 percent of my fellow working Canadians don’t take all of theirs. It means keeping an off-and-on journal, with page after page of random thoughts, poems, and prayers when the mood strikes—and page after page of blanks when it doesn’t. Self-care as journaling and not-journaling means I’m free to write or doodle or ignore the empty pages at any time. (16).

Yamasaki’s understanding of self-care as being gracious with herself is what hooked me from the start. And she allows space for each of us to appropriate whatever we may need in her discussion of self-care. For example, her chapter on relationships ends with this encouragement, “If working at relationships sounds too busy to be self-care, give yourself permission to take a sacred pause. Rest in the knowledge that God is with you” (67). She also notes that little indulgences (e.g. a Netflix binge, within limits, a night of fast food, comfort food, etc) may be exactly what constitutes self-care. This is not The Seven Habits of the Anal Retentive Soul. This is a book designed to help us care for ourselves in the midst of the demands of life.

And Yamasaki’s life is in these pages. She describes medical and vocational worries in her family life and how she learned to care for herself. I heartedly recommend this book -★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher as part of the book launch team, in exchange for my honest review.

Give it a Rest: a book review

We all need adequate rest if we are to be the sort of people who attack life with verve and energy. Yet we are a culture on the verge of burnout—vacillating between overwork and overplay, and blurry-eyed from the latest Netflix binge watch.
Sacred RestSandra Dalton-Smith, MD explores the purpose, the gifts and promise of rest which will enable us to live our ‘best life.’ Dalton-Smith is an internal medicine physician and a person of faith. In Sacred Rest, she weaves her understanding of what the research tells us about rest, with her experience as a believer.

Contrary to what you think, Dalton-Smith doesn’t simply mean getting more sleep (though if don’t sleep, you die). Nor does she mean taking a day off. When I picked up a Christian book on rest, I half-expected it to be another call to practicing Sabbath rest. However, Dalton-Smith doesn’t actually talk about Sabbath. Instead the book is about entering into the seven types of rest (physical, mental, emotional, social, sensory, creative, and spiritual). Her hope is that as you enter in and practice each type of rest, we will restore our work-rest balance and live a deeper, more satisfying life.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Why Rest?” introduces the topic and the seven forms of rest. For each dimension of rest (physical, mental, emotional, social, sensory, creative, and spiritual), Dalton-Smith uses a R-E-S-T method to delve into the topic:

  • Recognize your risk
  • Evaluate your current position
  • Science and research
  • Today’s application (31)

So, for example, in discussing physical rest, she discusses our human need for rest, evaluating our current need for rest (e.g. lack of energy for our to-do lists, tiredness and insomnia, weakened immunity, soreness, etc), evidence from scientific studies, and daily application (e.g. practice body fluidity, stillness, and preparing yourself for good night’s sleep). She follows this format in describing each of the 7 areas, illustrating her material with personal stories, and stories from her medical practice.

In part 2, she describes the gifts of rest naming 12: boundaries, reflection, freedom, acceptance, exchange, permission, cessation, art, communication, productivity, choice, and faith. While part 1, is kind of the substance of the book, this section is designed to encourage readers to enter fully into rest, and experience it’s benefits. This is also where Dalton-Smith weaves in more of her spiritual reflections on the nature of rest. One ‘gift’ I really appreciated was her discussion of the gift of art:

Art and creativity flourish from your time spent in creative rest. Seek out beauty and spend time in its presence. Not analyzing it but simply enjoying it. As you become refreshed and energized, move from experiencing art to creating it. Your artistic expression can take many forms, including painting, drawing, crafting, sculpting, cooking, baking, photographing, writing, doing spoken word, and acting. These activities are not rest, but they arise from a place of rest. They are the gift of art birthed from your rest. When your soul is allowed room to expand and grow, the resulting creativity can be surprising, leading you to express God in a way uniquely specific to your life’s journey. This world need the gift of your art, full of truth and beauty. (177).

Part 3, “the Promises of Rest” form a conclusion and is an exhortation to enter into rest so that you can live your best life. The book also includes a Personal Rest Deficit Assessment Tool.

The idea behind this book reminds me a little bit of Richard Swenson’s Margin (which argues that we need to create margin in our life, in order to thrive at life). Dalton-Smith has some great things to say, and her experience as a doctor does give her an empirical, evidence based understanding of rest, which I appreciate. This book is not theological deep (e.g., a book on rest that doesn’t explore Sabbath), and the ‘best life’ which Dalton-Smith images, is more about personal success and self-actualization than anything else. I think that’s good, but it is limited.

All and all, I think this is a helpful book for assessing our harried and frenetic life. I give it 3.5 stars.

Notice of material connection: This review is sponsored by #FaithWords. I received a copy of this book for the purpose of this review. Opinions are my own.

Get Naked . . . and Unashamed: a book review

My wife and I have been married for 16 years. Over that time, and in my role as an erstwhile and intermittent pastor, I have read my share of marriage books. There are some good ones, but a lot of them are pretty terrible. I am always on the hunt for a good marriage book which will help couples, especially those who are engaged, think about how to be married, and do it well, particularly from a Christian faith perspective. So I was pretty excited to read Naked and Unashamed by Jerry & Claudia Root with Jeremy Rios. Naked and unashamed are literally my two favorite ways to be married! I’m kidding (no I’m not).

Naked-and-UnashamedJerry Root was Jeremy Rios’s mentor and professor when he attended Wheaton College.  The material in this book parallels the material which Jerry and Claudia had used for Jeremy and his wife Liesel’s premarital counseling. Later when Jeremy became a pastor, they used this same material for premarital counseling with other engaged couples, corresponding with Jerry to fill in the gaps in what he was missing in their notes. Jerry had a manuscript for a book he and Claudia wrote which he sent Jeremy to use in counseling. Jeremy used it in counseling, refined it and helped prepare the material for publication. As Rios says, “Jerry and Claudia’s wisdom is the beating heart of the book, and it is the wisdom I have sought to inhabit and live in my own marriage” (201).  The Roots bring wisdom won by 42 years of marriage. Jeremy and Liesel Rios have been married for 14 years.

The premise of the book is that marriage asks each of us to reveal ourselves wholly to our spouses. Rios and Roots encourage couples to open up about our histories, our understandings, our spiritual lives, our understanding and experience of gender, our expectations for family and parenting, expectations of finances, and of course, sex.  The hope is that women and men would enter into marriage fully, holding nothing back from their spouse, and entering into the sort of relational covenant which God intended for marriage.

Rios and the Roots describe this opening up and revealing’ in four sections of their book. In part 1,  they describe undressing the areas that allow for greater relational intimacy for couples: sharing our stories (personal histories), our hearts (how we give and receive love), our minds (our goals and dreams), and our souls (our relationship with God). In part 2, they unpack gender, dynamics of communication and woundedness, Part 3 is about exploring expectations shaped by our family and cultural identities (race, nationality, etc), our expectations about parenthood and child raising, and finances.  Part 4, intentionally left to the end, describes undressing our sexual selves for the life of sex, and expectations for the wedding night.

The Roots and Rios operate from a conservative, evangelical perspective on marriage and they say a lot that is really helpful. In fact every area they address, or. . . ahem . . . undress, is necessary for the type of life sharing which enables the sort of covenantal life-sharing where the two become one. There is not a single area they discuss, which is unimportant. Part 1 of their book  “Unmasking for Intimacy” is really good and they say some wonderful things about exploring each others’ histories, how we express intimacy, our life goals, and our spiritual life. They also explore communication well, drawing on the research of John Gottman. Throughout the book, the chapters each end with an assignment for couples to explore together their thoughts on the topic. A couple who reads this book on their own or in the context of premarital counseling would share with one another their hopes and hang-ups, expectations and understanding. This is all really good stuff.

This is a book I could use as a pastor in leading others through premarital counseling, but not without some caveats. I didn’t agree with everything Rios and the Roots had to say. For example, I am a Biblical egalitarian, and what I read in the chapter on gender advocated a sort of soft complementarianism, advocating for gender roles, where my tendency is to see mutuality. They quote Ephesians 5:22-33 to show that wives are called to “submit” and husbands are called to “sacrifice” (73-74), without referencing Ephesians 5:21 which describes mutual submission and supplies the whole ‘submit’ verb for the phrase, “wives submit to your husband” in Ephesians 5:22—the more literal rendering being simply, ‘wives, to your husband’. They describe male headship as the husband getting to cast the final vote if the couple is at loggerheads and can’t agree on a big decision(76). However, the Roots and Rios do present their views on gender humbly and acknowledge you could be complementarian, egalitarian, or not identify with either camp and have a successful marriage “so long as you acknowledge the complexities of gender, discuss them together and are striving to love one another sacrificially according to the command of Scripture” (74).

One of my pet peeves about marriage books is that I don’t always find myself in their description of the characteristics of ‘the genders.’ Now, I am a cis-gender heterosexual man, and not a particularly feminine one, but whenever someone says ‘men are more like this’ and ‘women generally are more like this,’ I discover I am the exception to their rule. Rios and the Roots do this a little bit, sometimes gendering things which were perplexing for me, such as making Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 4:26 a  description of how the  genders get angry (103-105): “Be angry, but do not sin (men lash out), and do not let the sun go down on your anger (women hold grudges). I didn’t find this description of the male and female halves of anger a helpful distinction at all.  I can hold a grudge with the best of them.

Another area some will find disagreeable is their discussion of the discipline of children, they make the case for physical punishment of kids, ” One of the principles of the world, it seems evident that where you will not be taught by reason or reward you will be taught by pain. This is simply a principle of how the world operates and in parenting we are instructing our children in these rules” (144-45).  How they frame it, they are careful to underscore the purpose of discipline (training a child) and they bracket out an abusive lashing out, but readers who are suspicious of the value of corporal punishment will disagree on this point.

But agreeing with the Roots and Rios on every point is not the point. The point is getting naked . . . and unashamed. There is a lot of wisdom in what the Roots and Rios discuss here, and even when you disagree with the authors, they have framed the discussion so couples can explore together what their convictions are and understand each other in each of these areas. I give this four stars. ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review. I also know Jeremy Rios, having attended Regent College with him.