C-C-Catch the wave: a book review

Why call your movement Blue Ocean Faith? Maybe it’s because the name Blue Oyster Cult was already taken and it sounded too exclusive (plus oysters are so shellfish). Whatever the reason, Dave Schmelzer, founding pastor of Reservoir Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts founded and leads Blue Ocean Faitha network of churches which strives to be post-bad-news, alive in Christ, diverse, inclusive, politically nuanced and attractive and comprehensible to outsiders.¹ He wrote a book about it, which he creatively called Blue Ocean Faith. As a religious insider, I don’t really get the name, but the book is pretty great.

51zrlk3ejel-_sx329_bo1204203200_Schmelzer is trying to ignite a new Jesus movement. He offers six distinctives, each of which is an invitation to follow Jesus. He advocates a post-fundamentalist, post-culture-war way of being faithful to Jesus.  But before Schmelzer really gets into it, Brian McLaren writes a preface. And Peter Wallace writes a forward. Adney Wassink writes an introduction. Then Schmelzer gets in the act and writes the second preface.  A lot of prolegomena, but front matter matters.

The book has eight chapters. In chapter one, Schmelzer talks about what it would mean for us as people of faith, to leave the bad news behind and be sold out on the idea that all people were created to experience the good news which Jesus brings.  Writing of the network he helped found, he says, “‘Blue Ocean’ has become a descriptor of these churches—both because these churches tend to ‘fish where other churches don’t fish’ and because it’s the blue oceans that connect all people (10). (Okay so I do kinda get the name). The next six chapters describe and expand on the six distinctives of what it means to have this connected, Blue Ocean style faith:

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILD-LIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to secular culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

A closing chapter issues a summons to kick off this new Jesus movement.

I appreciate so much of what Schmelzer has to say. He is thoughtful in how he presents and unfolds the implications of each distinctive and stokes our excitement for a more compelling, engaging and inclusive faith. I especially like his comments on navigating religious squabbles (i.e controversial issues). Schmelzer draws on insights from M. Scott Pecks four stages of emotional and Spiritual development and  Paul’s words from Romans 14 (see chapter 5).  Schmelzer defines disputable matters as those which are not dogma or doctrine, an issue which brings two biblical truths into dynamic tension, and an issue where otherwise faithful believers disagree (89-90).  Following Paul’s advice, Schmelzer urges us to hold to our personal convictions, shun contempt and judgment of others, have the humility to allow different views from our own, and never exclude those you disagree with from full participation in the community (90-92). This approach has allowed LGBT+ Christians and more conservative believers, continue to be the church together as part of the Blue Ocean Faith communities.

We are at a cultural moment where many feel ambivalent about the evangelical church and what the label signifies. Schmelzer offers a vision of Christianity which is still Christ-centered, active and engaged in mission. I recommend this for anyone who is frustrated with the church and is looking for something more refreshing. 4 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this from SpeakEasy for my honest review.

Treasure in ‘Dark’ Places: a book review

I grew up in the Christian Missionary Alliance and I love a good missionary biography. They tell the story of those on the field, giving all, and living sacrificially to share the good news about Jesus. They speak of trusting God and seeing the miraculous, alleviating suffering and seeing real transformation in people’s lives and in whole communities. So I picked up Leanna Cinquanta’s book, Treasures in Dark Places, with interest, looking to see the way God worked through her ministry to set people free, including some of the over 25, 000 girls abducted annually in the region of Northern India where she serves as a missionary.  Cinquanta founded TellAsia Ministries and through her influence, more than 10,000 churches have been planted in areas which are only 5% Christian. I was excited to here about her work there and the ways she trains up indigenous leaders to do the work of the gospel.

9780800798161And she does tell about some of that in her book. Treasure in Dark Places speaks of her call to missions, and her experience of the supernatural at home and abroad. She shares some stories from the mission field nd she tells of growing up and feeling the call towards missions, some of her experiences of God along the way (prophecy, miracles, etc).

However, I felt like this book was more about her than about the mission itself. I heard her story of her call, but the mission was vague on the details and I am fuzzy as to what she actually does to combat sex trafficking in Northern India. There are few disconnected stories.

I am a crypto-charismatic and I like hearing stories about the miraculous. However, I didn’t feel like I was offered much in the way of a compelling narrative here. The details are too sparse, and we hear dramatic encounters but not much on the hard work of ongoing relationships. On the plus side, Cinquata does refer to the people she encounters in India as God’s treasures whom she is working to liberate. This mitigates some of my discomfort with calling a region of dark-skinned people a spiritually dark place (though it still bugs me).

In the end, I just didn’t connect with this book but I am glad for the mission and the ways Cinquata has extended the welcome of God’s Kingdom in northern India. The book itself I give two stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Chosen Books in exchange for my honest review

Rules are Revolting: a book review

Becky Bond and Zack Exley worked together on Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. While Bernie’s bid for the Democratic nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, they did mobilize an impressive amount of grass roots support. Rules for Revolutionaries gives a glimpse of the power of ‘big organizing’ and what it takes to ignite a movement. While the anecdotes in this book are drawn also exclusively from the Bernie campaign, Bond and Exley argue that the ‘rules’ reveal what leaders do in movements to mobilize millions of people.

19650The title, Rules for Revolutionaries alludes to the earlier work of Saul Alinsky, the influential Rules for Radicals. Alinksy was a Chicago-based labor organizer (whose work was influential for Obama). His work became a standard for organizers and activists. However Bond and Exley observe that Alinsky’s model was ‘premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites” (8-9). Alinsky believed in building power so to compel negotiation (rather than revolutionize the entire power structure). Bond and Exley also criticize Alinsky for creating incrementalist Black and Latino groups designed to mitigate anger instead of effecting real change. In contrast, Bond and Exley believe their model provides a more revolutionary way forward:

The big organizing model that can fuel revolutions believes that communities are filled with talented and intelligent people who understand what was broken and, when given material and strategic resources, can wrest power from elites and make lasting change. A political revolution is different from community organizing as we know it today. (9)

The rules aren’t so much ‘rules’ as pithy chapter titles which describe aspects of their strategic vision. Some of these are practical: “Get on the Phone!” The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Centralized,” “Learn the Basics of Good Management,””The Revolution is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer,” “Put Consumer Software at the Center,” “Get Ready for the Counterrevolution.” Other rules are about the right orientation toward the work of organizing: “You Won’t Get a Revolution if You Don’t Ask for One,” “The Revolution Will not be Handed toYou on a Silver Platter.” A couple of rules describe the issues worth organizing for: “Fighting Racism Must Be the Core Message to Everyone,” “There is No Such Thing as a Single Issue Revolution.”

If organizing is your thing, Bond and Exley have practical advice and hard-earned wisdom to share.  As I said, these really aren’t rules, they are practical description the approach that Exley and Bond took as part of the campaign. Whether or not the new rules overturn the old playbook remains to be seen. This is mostly just an insider’s look atBernie’s historic campaign.

I am not really sure that there is much revolutionary here. There is some good leadership advice such standing for something, giving people a big way to get involved, how to mobilize and empower leaders, and what it means to lead in a more cooperative less elitist way.  All of this is helpful. Revolutionary? Not so much. Will these rules ignite a revolution? That remains to be seen.  The rules begin to feel tedious by the end.  I give this book 3.5 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

The Twisted Sisters of Christ the Redeemer: a book review.

When we meet Rebecca Holden, she is hiding out in the back cubicle of Secure Star Insurance, near the flushing toilets. She keeps the walls up between herself and her two coworkers (Sally and Gladys). Andrew, the new HR manager arrives and discovers that there is more to Rebecca than the quiet efficient assistant in the rear cubicle[Spoiler alert, next two paragraphs ].

Book+CoverFour years earlier, Rebecca Holden used to be Sr. Rebecca Marise, a member of the strict, traditional Sisters of Christ the Redeemer (SCR), a teaching order. The order clung to the strictures of pre-Vatican II Catholicism—the nuns wore habits and never styled their hair, they kept a strict community rule, regulated by the head of their order, Mother Mary Thomas. The order is growing in size and prestige with many new recruits and the support of conservative Bishops.

Sr. Rebecca is evidently happy in her vocation, living at the mother house among other young recruits. Then an older nun has a hard attack and Sr. Rebecca finds herself transferred to remote Appalachia, to a small school and convent, far away from the structure and strictures of SCR central command.  The difference between these sisters and those at the Mother house is immediately evident to her (e.g. a looseness with the hours of prayer, personal address, divine readings, educational strategies, and the dress code). Eventually these sisters are brought into conflict with the Mother house, precipitating the circumstances in which Sr. Rebecca leaves the order.

Linda Anne Smith, author of Terrifying Freedom, hails from somewhere near Calgary has woven a tale of terrifying freedom—what it means to pick up the pieces of life after the myth of certainty and control collapses. Her protagonist, Rebecca, leaves the order and the whole way of life she’s ever known only to feel isolated and suffer rejection from her mother. This is a story of what it means to pick up the pieces when the life of faith breaks open.

Generally, I am suspicious of fiction that is: (a) religious or (b) self published. Religious fiction tends to be too didactic, telling not showing, self-published works often suffer for lack of editorial review (there are some pretty great exceptions in both cases). Terrifying Freedom is well written. Smith’s use of religious themes serves the story. There is a message but Smith’s prose doesn’t preach. Smith did have an editor review her manuscript and the writing and production quality is excellent.

However, at 490 pages, I couldn’t help feel like the story was a little overlong (at that length, I feel like I expect a multigenerational family epic or the fires or Mordor). The first 157 pages tell the story of Rebecca and her coworkers at the insurance agency before we are transported back to Rebecca’s life as a nun (the meat of the novel).  I felt like this first part could have been significantly shorter. I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it (I restarted this novel several times) and I didn’t find it a compelling read until I had gotten some way in. The second part of the novel is much better and part 3 weaves the strands of Rebecca Holden’s life together as she confronts her past. If the first section was shorter, I think the whole novel would have been paced much better.

Still, a first novel, this is a pretty impressive achievement and I ended up enjoying the book a lot. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection:  I received this book for free from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

From Bud to Blossom: a book review

I am a faith blogger, meaning I blog about the Bible, theology, and the intersection of faith and life. I also review books (which you know if you’re reading this). I discovered the Redbud Writers Guild several years ago and immediately wanted to join. Then I discovered I couldn’t, all because it is a group of women writers and I am ill-equipped to join such a group.¹ That didn’t stop me from reading their blogs and following their authors everbloomon social media.  

I am not that broken up about not being able to join. I don’t actually need to break the faith blogger gender barrier, and the blogosphere is replete with other writers groups that my voice fits well in; however, I was impressed by the quality of writing I repeatedly encountered from members of the guild, bloggers and authors I’ve appreciated, women like: April Yamasaki, Margot Starbuck, Leslie Layland Fields, Jen Pollock Michael, Emily Gibson and others. This is a diverse bunch of women (not all of whom would feel at home in a Woman of Faith tour with geraniums in their hats). These are pastors, theology students, homemakers, activists, poets, novelists, theologians—women of color and anglos, Boomers, Xers and Millennials.

A new book project, Everbloom (Paraclete Press, April 2017), compiles stories, poetry and reflections from the women of Redbud (quite a few who were new voices for me). These stories speak of grief, anxiety, pain, loss and redemption.  These women share personal stories of difficult and grace-filled moments and the freedom found in Christ. The book is at turns vulnerable and full of good humor. Each author shares their story, closes with a brief prayer and a writing prompt for personal reflection.

This book is written by women, rooted in their experience, and the intended especially for a woman audience. Some of the writing prompts make this explicit: “What has been painful and necessary for you to grow as a woman and in relationship with God?”(16); “Reflect on your own ideas of motherhood using this statement: mother knows best.” (140); “Describe a strong influential woman in your life.” (202), etc.. But honestly, this is just a solid collection of writing, full of varied and poignant stories and guys would be encouraged by it too. I always feel sad when I visit a Christian bookstore and thoughtful women authors are quarantined in the ‘woman’s interest’ section (lest they have authority over a man or something). Sometimes us male readers will have to adjust these reflections to our experience, but women readers are accustomed to making adjustments for male authors everyday (or anytime their pastor throws Braveheart into their sermon). So guys: this is well written, man up and don’t be scared!

But with Mother’s Day just around the corner, this is a great gift idea for a mom or special woman in your life, It is a rich storehouse of stories, prayers and opportunities for reflection. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

From Purity Culture to Sex Positive: a book review

Sex is a gift from God and yet many of my conservative Christian friends suffer from profound shame in the area of sexuality.  The effects of purity culture, abstinence covenants, kissing dating goodbye and centuries of bad theology have caused many in conservative Christian culture (my tribe) afraid of sex and unable to integrate sexuality and faith. Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schemer Sellers is aimed at helping sexologists and psychotherapists treat clients from conservative churches. Her goal is to help people move forward into healthier expressions of sexuality with a sex-positive religious ethic.

SellersSellers is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a certified sex therapist and the professor of sexuality and medical family therapy at Seattle Pacific University. While her own personal background was mostly sex positive, her academic interest in the effects of purity culture was catalyzed by hearing student’s stories, especially after the year 2000 (257).  She respected for the faith of her students and clients, and their belief in a loving God, but the reality of religious sexual shame in conservative (evangelical) contexts broke her heart.

She wrote Sex, God and the Conservative Church with two groups of readers in mind. First, therapists who work with those from a conservative evangelical context, and secondly conservative Christians who wish to integrate their sexuality and faith commitments (24).  Often Conservative Christians who experience sexual shame find it difficult to discuss in their context but also have a hard time finding a therapist that respects their religious faith. Sellers wants to help Christians and therapists work through the issues in ways that is mutual respectful of individuals and their religious tradition.

The first three chapters diagnosis how religious sexual shame manifests in her client’s lives. Chapter one examines the reality of sexual shame and the religious purity movement that developed in conservative Churches in the 1990s. Chapter two describes  the sexual baggage of two millennia (e.g. NeoPlatonic church fathers who demeaned women, sex and physical embodiment in preference for the spiritual, Augustine and the sexism of the Reformers). Chapter three describes the commodification of sex in an American consumer context and its effects on sexual vitality and body image (with a little help from Wendell Berry).

Chapter four begins to offer a Sex-positive ethic by recovering the sex positive Judeo-Christian tradition (drawing heavily on stories from Jewish tradition). Chapter five explores the sex-positive Gospel by examining the life and ministry of Jesus, positing the centrality of the abundant life connects pleasure with justice, grace and love (25).

Chapters six through eight are more geared toward therapist readers, discussing clinical applications, therapeutic interventions and practices/exercises for individual clients and couples. Non-therapists (like myself) will find this section of the book less accessible, though there are few practical takeaways.  The epilogue is worth a read, because Sellers  shares some of her personal journey with sex and God and her research into the effects of purity culture in conservative churches (especially since 2000). There are anecdotes of clients and students throughout the book

Sellers is writing about and for people from a conservative religious context, so while she does point people to a less ‘black and white’ sex positive ethic and questions some of the underpinnings of patriarchy and purity culture, she does not tackle Christian approaches to LGBTQ issues in this volume.

I am not a sex therapist or a counselor. I am a pastor who has worked exclusively within a conservative Christian context. Pastoring requires a different set of skills than that of a therapist but it also requires being cognizant of the issues.  I also grew up in this tradition. I never signed an abstinence covenant or read Josh Harris’s first book, but I grew up being taught that sex is a wonderful and natural gift that you should never think about until you are married. I didn’t experience brokenness in sexuality to the extent of some of Sellers clients and students, but I was bequeathed a lot of sex-negative ideology. I think this is a good resource for anyone who is from a conservative tradition and would like  a more sex-positive and less shame inducing approach to sexuality, and anyone in the ‘helping professions’ (especially therapists, but also pastors) who work in this context. I give this four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book via SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.