The Write Man Was Convicted: a book review

Shaka Sengor was guilty. He killed a man in cold blood during a dispute over a drugs. He was convicted of murder in the second degree and went to prison for fifteen to fourty years. For much of his sentence he was not a model inmate. He had a botched escape attempt under his belt. He spent time in solitary (the hole) for assaulting prison guards. But during his nineteen years in prison he was transformed through reading, spiritual practice, and ultimately by writing his wrongs:  practicing the cathartic self reflection of journaling, writing fiction and letters.

27297084Despite Sengor’s guilt, don’t think for a moment that he wasn’t a  victim. Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison tells the story of his childhood, his experience of abuse, and his broken home, and how he was seduced into the drug trade. It also tells the story of the anger and fear he felt when he was shot as a seventeen year old and the lack of compassion he experienced from physicians and law enforcement. The experience made him afraid and angry enough to carry a gun. At nineteen, he killed a man aduring a drug transaction (Senghor was a crack dealer).

The injustice Senghor faced inside Michigan’s prisons is harrowing. He was the victim of systemic injustice and racism from prison guards. He witnessed the horrows of prison rape. He participated in violence. He experienced the psychological wounding of four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement after he assaulted a guard (his confrontation with the guard was a n0-win-situation).

Ultimately this book is a story of hope. Senghor comes to own his past, and the things he did wrong. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, but sets out to make amends through writing, community activism and mentoring youth. He finds love with an ctivist he begins a correspondence with. His transformation began mid-way through his prison sentence when the godmother of his victim wrote to him asking the why question. Senghor wrote back his regret and she forgave him. That began a correspondence (described in the prologue and afterword of this book). That set the stage for Senghor to grow and change.

I like memoirs and this is a good one. It is a compelling story. I recommend the book, but issues caution to readers which would be disturbed by violence (and language). Some of the events described are ugly: rape, feces fights, violence, abject racism. This may be difficult for some readers to take. Other books, such as Michelle Alexander,s The New Jim Crow or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy tell the tale of of our broken legal system. This is an insider’s experience. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Holy Shift! a book review

In 2006, Kathy Escobar underwent a ‘faith shift.’ No longer able to conform to the beliefs and practices of her conservative evangelical church, she went through a time of shifting and unraveling before rebuilding her faith, albeit in a new way. Currently she is a popular blogger,  the co-founder of Refuge, a mission center and Christian community in the North Denver area and a spiritual director. As a spiritual director and pastor she has journeyed alongside many spiritual-shifters.

Faith Shift is not just Escobar’s story;  it is the fruit of her story and is birthed by her work with fellow-faith-shifters. Escobar has cataloged the process that she and others have gone through as they moved from  a faith which was ‘certain’ but narrow toward a reconstructed, generous faith (or a movement beyond faith).  By naming the process, Escobar comforts those experiencing the disorientation and disequilibrium of a ‘faith shift.’ The stages she describes are:

  1. Fusing– characterized by believing, learning and doing underscore this stage. People in this stage place a strong value on  affiliation, certainty, conformity.
  2. Shifting–discomfort with formulaic answers and beginning to disengage with aspects of belonging with the in-group.
  3. Returning–This stage is a ‘re-engagement’ and a ‘return’ to the faith community we were in, in the ‘fusing stage.’
  4. Unraveling–A letting go of the faith we had in our ‘fusing stage.’ If the fusing stage valued affiliation, certainty and confromity, in the unraveling stage we value autonomy, authenticity, uncertainty (65).
  5. Severing–cutting ties with your past belief system (Escobar observes that most shifters do not give up their belief in God, or their faith totally, but she allows for the possibility.
  6. Rebuilding–In the final stage, new faith (or a new spirituality, even an atheistic one) emerges. In this stage, our values are freedom, mystery, diversity (129).

Along the way, Escobar has a number of wise and compassionate things to say. Escobar validates whatever stage we may be at on our spiritual journey because each stage has peculiar gifts for us. Those who return to their original faith are validated because all our journeys are different, people return or a variety of reasons and the simple certainty we knew at that stage is comforting (see chapter 5).  Escobar has a gift for honoring the spiritual lives of others. She knows that even as we change and grow, something is lost from the ‘faith’ we had and it is worth grieving and appreciating. The reflection questions at the end of each chapter allowed me to explore how the theme of the book and make sense of  some of my own story.

When I began this book, I felt like I wasn’t exactly her intended audience. Most of the faith shifts she describes were movements from conservative Evangelical to something more progressive (or beyond). Like Escobar and her tribe, I too began my spiritual journey as part of a conservative evangelical church. Currently, I pastor one. I have made some denominational and doctrinal shifts along the way but still hold to the central doctrines I was raised with. I hold some issues far looser but I also feel more certain about the aspects of faith I regard as essential.  Still my own faith journey parallels Escobar’s stages.  I moved from a narrow  version of evangelicalism to one that is more generous and values freedom, diversity and mystery.  I think a lot of of what Escobar says will be instructive for anyone moving from a rudimentary faith toward spiritual maturity (not that I necessarily have arrived there yet!)  Faith Shift is first and foremost about spiritual and personal growth.

Escobar places no judgment on the outcome of a faith shift. You can move from fundamentalist to agnostic and in so doing, experience more freedom and authenticity. That is growth, and in many respects, growth in the right direction. However, I’m not sure that I want to relativize all aspects of ‘faith.’ I think it is possible to move towards a belief system that is healthier but falser (or as false). The stages that Escobar describes are individualized and allow each shifter to decide what they still believe:

Each person’s journey is unique. While I know some people who are no longer certain of the divinity of Christ, others hold strongly to this belief. While some believe the Bible might be inaccurate and therefore loses parts of his authority, others still believe it is inerrant and take it extremely seriously. While some may have five or more things they still firmly believe, others may have only one. (143)

I am enough of a Pietist to believe we each have to own our own faith, but I am not a relativist and and put a higher premium on (capital T) Truth in our spiritual quest. I certainly agree with her that many, whose faith has unraveled, need to pursue growth outside of the communities they are no longer a part of.  Honest, vulnerable doubt is preferable to quiet pretense.  But personally I hold out hope for God’s self revelation in Christ as a shining star in the midst of our wilderness wanderings.

If you forgive me my Evangelical quibbles, I think this is a very good book and I am grateful for Escobar’s insights. In the spiritual life we need more openness to mystery and wonder and less slavish obedience to some imposed standard. If it takes a faith shift to open us up into a new way of exploring God and fatih, I am in favor. I give this four stars. ★★★★☆

Notice of material connection, I received a review copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

God Where Are You? a book review

In the face of mass tragedy and terror in a post 9/11 world, we wonder where God is. But this is not a new question. Significant figures throughout history have struggled to see where God’s hand was at work and what it means to trust him. These include the prophets and patriarchs.

Bianchi is the founder and prior of the ecumenical monastic, Bose Community in Italy (founded in 1965, just after Vatican II).  He is a perceptive spiritual writer ( I have previously read and highly recommend his Echoes of the Word). In God Where Are You? Practical Answers to Spiritual QuestionsEncho explores several Old Testament saints. His treatment of each of these patriarchs and prophets yield fruitful insights into the spiritual life:

  • Abraham was called to go to the land that God would show him. Abraham’s faith in God in going is a model for us. Especially because Abraham is given a promise that will not be fulfilled in his lifetime (i.e. possession of the land, become a great nation, etc.). Even in his reception of a promised offspring, Isaac, he models for us a spirit of relinquishment of all he holds dear. So the father of our faith (and the Jewish faith) faces circumstances and ordeals that make faith in God difficult.
  • Jacob was the deceiver who cheated his brother out of his brother out of his birthright and inheritance. Despite his scoundrel nature, he was a child of promise.  Two events changed Jacobs life forever. The first was his dream of a ladder from heaven to earth while he was on lam. The second happened when he returns home many years later and wrestles with God at the ford of Jabbok. The second event was the culmination of a lifetime of struggling with God, but it is through the struggling that Jacob (and we) discover that a new life is possible.
  • Moses is a man who saw God’s glory and is physically transformed by the time he spends with God on the mountain. He is privileged  to hear God–YHWH, I AM Who I AM–and he is commissioned to lead God’s people out of slavery to the promised land. He is commssioned by God, but also struggles with God, interceding for the people when they stand under His judgment. IT is through Moses’ struggle with God, he learns to think of others as better than himself. He leads the Israelites to the cusp of the promised land, though he himself would not enter.
  • Elijah fearful and depressed longing to die, meets God in the silence on Mount Horeb.
  • Isaiah‘s call underscores how our encounters with God call us to be obedient servants of His word.

Ultimately these ancient encounters reveal that life with God has never been easy but that God has revealed himself to us in the midst of his people (129) and in the person of Jesus Christ and in those who live in him (133). In Jesus we find we are not just on our search for God, but God is searching for us.

Bianchi’s prose is simple and unadorned, but he speaks deep things. He is well read in Jewish and Christian spirituality and synthesizes their wisdom. I didn’t agree with his interpretation at ever turn. But I was challenged and think his reputation as a Christian writer is justified (Rowan Williams writes the forward and calls Bianchi one of the most significant Christian voices in Europe). Currently, I would give this book four stars, but I already want to read it again, so it may grow on me. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of this review.

Jesus Comes to Somewhere America: a book review

This isn’t the first time I have read a book by Matt Mikalatos. A few years ago, I read The Night of the Living Dead Christian, Mikalatos’s take on the monster novel genre. He humorously used werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, androids and zombies to talk about human sinfulness and our need for spiritual transformation (and its possibility). His first novel, (My) Imaginary Jesus, explored some of the false images of Jesus we Christians present. Mikalatos cast himself as a character in both novels. 

The First Time We Saw Him is not really fiction, but a series of fictionalized retellings of the gospel story with commentary from Mikalatos. Jesus’ life and parables are retold in modern idiom and set in a contemporary American setting. The ‘prodigal son’ goes to Hollywood. The ‘Good Samaritan’ finds a beat up, left for dread truck driver somewhere along the I-5 corridor. Many of the stories about Jesus are not tethered to a particular geographical locale in these narratives. Sometimes I wondered if Jesus lived somewhere near Portland (where Mikalatos lives). Though his death-by-lynching (the closest modern equivalent) may suggest somewhere south east of there. 

Mikalatos is not a character in these stories, though he does share some of his own story of discovering Jesus as he tells his tales. Beginning with Mary’s annunciation (Miryam) and ending with Jesus’ (Joshua’s) post resurrection appearances and ascension, Mikalatos highlights some favorite stories from Jesus life and teaching.  The beauty of this book is it helps us hear Jesus through passages we’ve stopped listening to because we are pretty sure we already know what they mean. Mikalatos helps pull the scales back from our eyes so we see how remarkable Jesus is. 

Certainly Mikalatos is not the first author to revamp the Jesus story. Beyond Jesus Christ Superstar, there are also some thoughtful books which retell the Jesus story. Notably, Clarence Jordon’s Cotton Patch New Testament  casts Jesus as a poor white boy from Valdosta, GA.  Joseph Grizone’s series of novels revolve around Joshua (a modern day Jesus).  Mikalatos’s own efforts do not attain to the level of ‘great literature’ but it is well written and will give you a new window of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion/lynching scene is gruesome and heart-rending. The post resurrection account retains the magic.

There is still a sense of Jesus being lost in translation.  The gospel accounts make allusions to God’s larger story. Placing Jesus in somewhere-in-America removes his particular character and life. This is where Mikalatos  own comments and encouragement to explore the Jesus story yourself remain important. I give this book four stars. 

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

 

Hometown Prophet: a book review

While I have had opportunity to review Christian fiction in the past, I haven’t until now. I have my reasons.  I don’t think that all Christian fiction is bad, I sort of put it in the category of ‘church coffee.’ You might get a decent cup of coffee after a church service, but you can’t expect it and the odds are your next couple will be god-awful (that is the technical term).  I also am just not that into Amish Romance or whatever the kids are reading these days.

Why I am I so biased against religious fiction? Well I think the problem is that the genre category means that it is usually written with either didactic or apologetic intent (to teach you something or to stylistically vomit the gospel on you). This sometimes means that there is a compromise in  the artistic integrity of Christian novels (but yes there are also good ones).

But despite my biases and suspicions I liked Hometown Prophet a lot. The premise behind the story is this: Thirty-something Peter Quill moves back home to Nashville to live with his mom. He begins receiving prophetic dreams where he correctly predicts the future. Soon the visions he has put him at enmity with the Christian community in Nashville, especially when he calls into question people’s economic and  ecological commitments and challenges them to regard Muslims as their neighbors.

Author Jeff Fulmer describes how he grew up in a conservative, charismatic household but became increasingly ill-at-ease with how Christianity was misrepresented ‘for personal and political gain.’ He wrote Hometown Prophet out of that frustration. But while this book is a book with a message, it doesn’t strike me as overly preachy. The main character, Peter Quill becomes increasingly confrontational in his prophecies and says a lot of things really strongly. Fulmer balances this by describing Peter’s inadequacies and shortcomings.  He is a complex character, and the story is well crafted.

In this book Fulmer challenges us to pay attention to those around us, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to look for creative ways for God to use us (even if we never hear a prophetic word).  People on the far right may be challenged and offended by elements of this story, but I think challenge is good. This is a fun read which I recommend. Now if I could just get some decent church coffee.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.