Pray for Revisal: a book review

I am a writer. Most days I believe it. I have that badge that all real writers have: rejection letters from magazine submissions failed attempts and false starts, a loud inner critic and writer’s block. But also, I have moments where I write something (often on my blog, but also for sermons) and I know my words hit home. I share myself and others find themselves in what I’ve written. I haven’t written anything long form, because I don’t know how —I’m afraid of it—I’ve never done it, and feel too scattered to engage a topic in a sustained way.  One day, I will find my literary muse and produce something beautiful to offer the world. Until then, all I have are my eclectic musings on faith and spirituality and vocational frustration (my most popular blog posts have been about making fun of Christian music and bad job interviews).

But enough 511kqidf2b2bl-_sx260_about me. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review? You are right. The book is called Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. She teaches memoir, essay, and journal writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, is the recipient of the Minneapolis State Arts Board artists’ fellowship and has been a Minneapolis Book Award finalist. She is the author of Writing the Sacred Journey, On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood and Holiness and the novel Hannah, Delivered. 

Andrew has a heap of helpful advice for would-be-authors on writing,—clarifying and communicating the story, and the whole revision process. By this, she doesn’t mean revision in the sense of copy editing, getting your grammar in order, all your “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed and your modifier’s grounded.  Instead, Andrew speaks of revision as the complicated but profound journey of creativity, where a writer engages their work and dares to see it anew.  This involves both holding our work lightly and engaging it wholeheartedly. It means doing the inner work required to know what we are trying to say, what we are afraid to say, and what we dare not say. In the end, revision helps us clarify our message and transcribe our truth to the page in a way that is both self-aware and inviting.

Andrew has thirteen chapters which guide her readers through the writing process—from the rough first draft, through rewrites and enduring discomfort, reframing, strengthening, restructuring, and attention to language. She has us ask hard questions of our writing, like what is the inner story and subtext? And what is our story asking of us?

So, I took uncharacteristically too long reading this book—in part because I didn’t have a piece of writing I was currently working on. However, I did write some shorter things (e.g. sermons, blog posts, book reviews) and did use some of her suggestions. One of the insights from Andrew that I found particularly helpful is her idea that writer begins their drafts and the work of reworking of projects under a cloud of privacy and unknowing (63), but as we engage the work of revisioning, we increasingly open ourselves to our audience. So the act of writing is a pregnant solitude which allows us to press in to our creative flow, but the re-writes and revision bring about a context for communion with our readers. She writes:

Here’s the trick to sustaining a joyful, healthy relationship with writing through revision and beyond publication. Never abandon your space of curiosity, freedom, and love. Our work may travel outward to meet an audience. We may meet the audience as well, which is a tremendous privilege. But the source of a writer’s well-being is that safe place where we can be intimate, honest, and adventurous. We neglect it at our peril (66).

This was a profound insight for sermon writing (did I mention that Barbara Brown Taylor writes the forward?).

Throughout the book, are toolboxes designed to help authors engage their work, and exercises to do in your writer’s notebook to engage the process of writing—e.g. wrestling with your inner critic and discovering what your story is asking of you. Because I didn’t have a sustained project I was working on, some of these exercises weren’t helpful for me, though I underlined a butt ton and there are things I’ll come back to when I have something to work through.  The ‘spirituality’ piece is the inner-work necessary for good writing to emerge. One day I’ll get there.   I give this four star. – ★ ☆ ★ ☆

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

The Missional Grace of Together: a book review

Missional is one of those plastic terms and it can mean anything depending on who’s saying it (the way Emergent used to mean that people had couches and candles in their megachurch-GenX-service). So when I picked up Larry Duggins’s Together: Community As a Means of GraceI wasn’t sure what I would get. I mean, I knew it was part of the “Missional Wisdom Library,” and that Duggins was the Executive Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation. I also knew that Duggins was an elder in the United Methodist Church. But I felt like these facts didn’t tell me all that much. I hadn’t heard of the Missional Wisdom Foundation and Methodists are all over the map.

9781532613050What did Missional mean when Duggins said it? Was it just a strategy or a formula for outreach? Was it a “whole new way of ministry?” Did it just mean pub church and community gardens? Or was Duggins pointing to a more robust theological understanding of what it means to be missional?

Duggins does like community gardens but there is, indeed, rich theological reflection here. Duggins sets to work casting a vision in which to root mission. He does this through the concept of community.

In chapter 1, Duggins discusses the  perichoretic community of the Triune God—and the relational dance of God. Chapter 2 explores the nature of humanity. Duggins posits that humans were created with a need for community. Genesis 1:27 describes the mutual Divine image bearing of female and male persons(9), whereas Genesis 2 underscores how it was “not good” for man to be alone:

It is noteworthy that the first thing that God points out as “not good” is the lack of community, not original sin! God sees that humans need other humans to be “good” as God intended (10).

So, Duggins argues, community with other people is an integral part of what it means for us to be human.

In Chapter 3, tells the story of Grace— human fallenness (beginning in Genesis 3) and God’s loving action and presence in effecting our deliverance (culminating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection). However, using a Wesleyan understanding of ‘means of grace,’ Duggins describes the ways Jesus lived in concert with God’s grace in daily life, commending Christ’s example to us (18-22).

At the close of chapter 3, Duggins describes  John Wesley’s understanding of prudential “means of grace” as activities, that is activities that bring us deeper into communion with God’s grace but “are not drawn directly from the life of Christ” (22). For Wesley, these were class and band meetings, love feasts, and covenant renewal movements. In chapter 4, Duggins digs deeper into Wesleyan’s communal examples of prudential grace and suggests implications for mission today:

Imagine Christians joined with others in communities that are important to people of this day and age, living as followers of Christ ready to be the hands and feet of Christ in the lives of those who do not yet know how to express their “spiritual but not religious feelings. Christians sharing their stories and experiences with people who are truly their friends, not to push them into conversion or membership, but because, as a friend, they want to share what is important to them. Christian people who model love & inclusion in community. Christians who are willing to help others see the presence of Christ in their midst.” (30-31)

In the remainder of the book, Duggins connects these theological understandings of community (community rooted in Trinity, the Imago-Dei, and Wesleyan Spirituality) and describes the variety of ways communities form today. Duggins doesn’t indicate a particular strategy or format(so no push for pub-church in particular) but he gives examples of theological-rooted communities in: traditional church contexts, in workplace communities, in communities that are centered around food, children’s schools or various affinity groups, and  he commends creative re-imagining discipleship and evangelism.

While I appreciated this latter part of the book, and Duggins’s refusal to prescribe just one form of community but instead describe the variety and experience of communities he’s known, for me, it is the theological visioning stuff at the front that I really liked. I found as I read on, I underlined less and less; yet, it is the latter half where we hear contemporary stories of missional community today and the practical outworking of theology.

This is a short book, less than 90 pages, without a lot of footnotes and extraneous references. It is accessible enough for lay leaders. This is the kind of book that a church leadership team or elder board could read together without feeling bogged down in anything too heady. While it starts with a Trinitarian, biblical, and theological reflections on community and means of grace, this is, in reality, for only 30 odd pages. The rest of the book gives practical examples of what this may look like in different contexts. This could be good fodder for discussion. I give this book four stars. – ★★★★

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

Are American Christians Persecuted? It’s Complicated. (a book review)

I was a pastor in Florida at the time the Supreme Court passed the Marriage Equality Act. At a nearby megachurch, the pastor there launched into a series on how the Christian faith was under assault. The recent Supreme Court decision was only the most recent example. Political Correctness sought to silence good Christians, atheists like Richard Dawkins were trying to make them appear evil,  the Muslims were seeking to bring Sharia law to our country, there was no prayer in schools, and abortion on demand was the law of the land. I know some of my own parishioners wanted me to describe, in similar terms, the persecution we as a church were facing. Only I didn’t actually believe it. We were free to worship God, voice our convictions and talk to our neighbors about Jesus. Congress had made no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Us evangelicals had lost some of our cultural influence and clout, but we were in no way persecuted.

51v9d3s6ncl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Jason Wiedel lives in Surry, Virgina where he directs Habitat For Humanity and works to extend the influence of Christ beyond the walls of the church. In Persecution Complex (2014), Weidel takes aim at the ways this persecution narrative and the accompanying culture wars have poisoned our public witness.  The current situation may be slightly different today from when Wiedel first published this book in the late Obama years. President Trump has sought to curry favor with evangelicals, and the ways in which conservative (white) Christians have felt unheard. There is a way in which the evangelicals who feel persecuted may now feel less under fire, though suspicion against liberal elites remain, and inevitably the pendulum will swing.

Part 1 of Persecution Complex describes the Christian persecution narrative. Wiedel describes the persecution narrative as a reaction to the wider cultural drift away from certain biblical commands, and a reaction to the alleged ‘anti-Christian forces’ who seek to minimize Christian faith in the public sphere (e.g. taking prayer out of schools, and assaulting cherished Christian beliefs through legalizing abortion and marriage equality)(5-6). These ‘anti-Christian forces’ “seek to distract us from important spiritual and moral issues by focusing society’s attention on climate change, scientific research, civil rights, income inequality, prison reform, drug legalization, education, gender equality, and universal healthcare” and seek to marginalize Christian voices as much as possible (7). Wiedel questions the fundamental basis of this narrative, asserting that the loss of some cultural influence of the church in American culture, is not persecution. As counter evidence, he reproduces Sam Killermann’s 30+ Examples of  Christian Privilege (57-59)

In Part 2, Wiedel describes the appeal of the persecution narrative (e.g. how it creates community and rallies people to action, ‘legitimizes our cause’ (we’re the victim!), and gives us someone else to blame. In part 3, Wiedel outlines six dangers inherent to the persecution narrative:

  1. We feel and act superior to others (111-113).
  2. We justify antagonism (113-114).
  3. We dehumanize others (115-116).
  4. We eliminate conversation and debate (117-118).
  5. We become immune to criticism (118-121).
  6. We ignore the suffering of others (121-123).

Part 4 offers some strategies for breaking away from our persecution narrative through showing interest in others, speaking prophetically against systems of violence and advocating on behalf of the poor, fighting injustice (instead of ‘persecution’), loving our enemies, and following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice.

Wiedel does offer a good analysis of the culture war mentality and our alleged persecution. But while Wiedel is right, he may overstate his case slightly. Christian’s in America are not the victims of persecution, but there is something to there being an anti-Christian bias, in some settings. I think of Carolyn Webber’s excellent memoirs Holy is the Day (IVP, 2013) and Surprised By Oxford (Thomas Nelson, 2011) which describe the challenges of trying to be a faithful Christian in the world of academia (in her case, as a grad student, and then as  professor of literature), or sociologist George Yancey’s Hostility (IVP 2015) which describes, through qualitative research, the phenomenon of anti-Christian bias (again, especially in academia).  Neither of these authors is involved in the sort of culture war that Wiedel is critiquing, and neither would cry persecution (Yancey would also acknowledge that Christians are somewhat to blame for the bias they experience), but anti-Christian bias does affect some Christians in America, in some spheres, some of the time.

None of this detracts from Wiedel’s larger point, critiquing the use of a narrative of persecution to justify our bad behavior and our culture war offensives. Unfortunately, me reading this book, makes Wiedel ‘preach to the choir.’ I am soooo done with American Christian’s persecution complex (and the ways that claiming persecution here diminishes the actual suffering of the world church). My question is, would the people who actually need this book, read this book? I’m not sure they would with how entrenched our current political discourse is. Important points, but how to get Wiedel’s message into the right hands? I give this four stars. ★★★★

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

A Muscular Faith?: a book review

Bren Hughes was a minister and an evangelist wiho had a firm religious program. He had a clear format for instructing and introducing others to the faith. The only problem was that when he graduated from seminary, he graduated from religious belief. The idol he made of religious forms and the Bible could no longer comfort  or sustain him. After facing the challenges of academia, he sought solace in Atheism. Later, he is brought back to the faith by an act of Grace: his college crush shows interest in him and this drove him back to the reality that is God. Yet his return to faith wasn’t a return to his former, naive faith with its-worksheet-style-gospel-presentations. His mature faith is marked by an intimate relationship with God, the Spirit’s presence with power and freedom.

Heaven’s Muscle is  not your typical guy-loses-faith-finds-girl-and-therefore-God sort of book. I expected this book to be more of a memoir than it actually is. It does tell Hughes story, but this book is much more about his message: what freedom in Christ means.  Hughes bases his conclusions on his journey but what he wants his readers to move towards is a whole dependence on God:

Heaven’s muscle is what I challenge you to become. A muscle doesn’t act to satisfy its own needs; it only serves the brain. It moves when it’s told to, it rests when rest is appropriate. But muscles create action, and action generates change. My prayer for you is that you will align your will with the signals from God and allow him to be the intellect that controls your every action. (132).

Heaven’s muscle, is the image that provides the title for Bren’s book and it is an apt image. In these pages you will find a critique on a ‘religion as usual’ which relies on priests, and institutions, and sacrifices. You will also hear a winsome description of the power and freedom that God brings to those who are in Him. Hughes wants us to find our part in that. His description of the ‘muscle’ acknowledges both the need for our effort and our total dependence.

I appreciate Hughes journey and loved that his book affirms the Spirit’s reality (he shares experiences of prophetic prayers and God’s miraculous work). He is also demonstrates a thoughtful approach to faith. The back cover says, ” My Journey from EVANGELIST to ATHEIST . . .and Back,” but I don’t think this particular book has much apologetic value. Hughes describes his doubt, without much detail, and his journey back to faith came without much intellectual wrestling. Hughes’s early faith, atheism and later faith can be mapped onto the Contemplative journey of the Christian Mystics: Illumination, purgation, and union. While Hughes has a part of the truth in his younger faith (illumination), the relational reality is deepened after a period of purgation–a journey through atheism where he lets go of his own illusions before reconnecting with the Divine (union). So I think his journey is instructive, but more so for those on the way, then those outside of the faith.

This is a self-published book (let the reader beware!). My typical prejudice against the self-published is that for want of an editor books can be sloppy, ill-formatted, repetitive and bloated. I was pleasantly surprised by how well written this book was. I did find it a little too preachy for my tastes, but I think Hughes has good stuff to say. I give this book 3.5 stars.

Notice of material connection, I received this book free from the author via SpeakEasy for the purposes of this review. I was asked to write an honest review.

Question the Living: a book review

I remember sitting, once, in the audience at a Christian conference where  author, Philip Yancey, described how at time he feels like the most liberal person in the room and at other times, the most conservative. This captures in part my feeling while reading Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. In this book, authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy take us through some of the distinctives of the ‘progressive-Christian’ perspective. As a avid (okay, occasional) reader of progressive Christian bloggers, I figured I would resonate with this book. Unfortunately for me, I felt out of step with much of what this book argues for (or against).

There are three parts to this book. They are: Journey, Reconciliation, and Transformation.  These are three really great words which describe the Christian spirituality.   However I have serious qualms with where Felten and Procter-Murphy go with the first and frustration with parts of their use of the second (I more-or-less like their use of word number three).

Felten  and Procter-Murphy invite us on a journey. This journey involves asking good questions, taking the Bible seriously (just not too-literally!), thinking theologically, and realizing that a couple of creation accounts in Genesis (Genesis 1 and 2) and how little we know about the historical Jesus makes room for us to believe whatever we want (i.e. alternative pictures of cosmology and Jesus’ role). In part two, they focus on how Christ brings reconciliation between God and humanity, between all peoples and creation. Here I found myself challenged by Felten and Procter-Murphy’s call to take relationships and creation-care seriously as a significant part of Christian spirituality.  Alas, their commitment to debunking biblical literalism lost me when they focused on the silliness of objective aspects of the atonement and the bodily reality of the resurrection. For me, part three was the most fruitful. In discussing transformation, they talk about the importance of social justice, incarnational spirituality, prayer, compassion and creativity in the spiritual life.

I found myself at loggerheads with much of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s material. First I was alienated by their source material. I have read some John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. I respect some of the scholarship (more Borg and Crossan than Spong) but find many of these conclusions overdrawn. Felten and Procter-Murphy quote these three (and others) as justification for liberal, progressive views but offer no argument as to why as a reader I need to take their words seriously.  A lot of what this book does is appeal to so-called experts, make dogmatic (or anti-dogmatic?) claims and then expect you to simply buy in and feel freed up by it.I don’t. There are so many assertions in this book that are made and assumed without any argument at all. Why should I question the reality of the bodily resurrection? Why should I simply see it as a metaphor? I am puzzled by this and why they felt the need to debunk every historical Christian claim as a relic of an unhealthy literalism. Christianity is a historically rooted faith and God is God. I can see questioning some narrow fundamentalist interpretations but I think this book goes too far in the other direction.

However the call to justice and incarnating the kingdom now seems appropriate. I have my evangelical roots and find many of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s ‘answers’ too liberal and loosey-goosey for my tastes. Yet I agree that questions are appropriate and necessary for anyone seeking to deepen their faith. I do not fault the questions, I just don’t think this book does the work to provide secure answers. There is too much conjecture and assertion and not enough real exploration. I give this book three stars: ★★★.

Notice of material connection: I received this book through the Speakeasy blog review program in exchange for my honest review.

Cinematic States of America: a book review

Born in Belfast, Gareth Higgins lived in a nation torn apart by politics and religion. His escape was the local cinema. Film opened up an alternative reality for him:

Because of the violence that engulfed my community, the limits of home–where people were killed because of their voting preference or religious beliefs or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where religion was politics, and politics was violence–were too restrictive for me to accept as the boundaries of being human. Places like northern Ireland struggle to emerge from the lie that being a person is to be merely a receptacle for ideology or a machine for someone else’s use. In those moments when our hearts provoke our minds, we all know this lie equates life with death. The movies sparked this for me. I wanted a cinematic life because dreaming was easier than waking reality. (20)

As an adult, Higgins emigrated to the States. In an effort to understand his adopted homeland, he sought out and watched film set in each of the 50 States (and Washington D.C. because evidently, it’s kinda a big deal).  The result is Cinematic States, a collection of essays which explores America, its dream and landscape.  By writing about American film state by state, Higgins explores how these movies  reflect their context (or at least shows the contradictions).  Each of the movies chosen (and there are good ones and bad ones) had an impact on Higgins and contributed to a deeper understanding of America and himself.  The themes of the movies and the topography of place, allowed Higgins to explore virtues and features of American identity and through that, he illuminates our deep longings.

The state-by-state format constrains Higgins somewhat in his movie choice.  He chooses Bull Durham in honor of his adopted home town, Durham, North Carolina.  The Wizard of Oz is chosen for Kansas,  Fargo for North Dakota,  Rocky for Pennsylvania,  and My Private Idaho for Idaho, Robert Altman’s Nashville for Tennessee, etc.  Other states are less obvious and Higgins choices are more surprising.  He is also constrained by personal taste . There are only four sports movies profiled in the list (five if you count Nebraska’s Teen Wolf). In each instance, Higgins takes care to show that while it is a ‘sports movie’ it is about more than just sports as if there was ever a sports movie that wasn’t really about something else (i.e. Bull Durham is about opportunities and ordinary folk, Field of Dreams is about dreams imagined and realized, Riding Giants is about chasing thrills and Rocky is about heroism and self respect).  I think there should be more sports movies profiled, especially for States where the  best entertainment in  every town is the high school game.  There is absolutely no excuse for choosing Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Indiana without even once mentioning Hoosiers.  

But getting hung up on Higgins cinematic choices would be to miss the point. If I wrote this book I would have a different list of movies (though I love his choices more than not).  What makes this book great is what Higgins tells us about the American dream, our relationship to it and how movies reveal the truth about ourselves: our hopes and desires,  our longing for transcendence, our imperfections and failings. He does this through the films of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, etc. We have all seen at least some of these movies and Higgins guides us into their meaning and the truth about ourselves.

I think any lover of film, Americana or pop culture will appreciate Higgins portrait of America.  I give it four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book for free from the publisher or author, via Speakeasy, in exchange for my honest review.


The Trinity in LARGE LETTERS BECAUSE IT IS REALLY IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!!!!!: a book review

I have reviewed  books from Westbow publishing before–Thomas Nelson’s Self Publishing Imprint. Like my previous reviews, I find I am forced to write a rather critical review. The problem with self published books is that there is no publisher, editor, or literary referee to vet the book for publication. It doesn’t mean there can’t be a good self published book, because clearly there are. Yet without a good copy editor errors in spelling, grammar and formatting inevitably find their way to the page.

Trinitarian Letters: Your Adoption and Inclusion in the Life of God by Paul Kurts is fraught with errors. There are embarrassing spelling and grammar errors (‘Calvinism and Armenianism, anyone?). There are errors  in the book’s formatting (i.e. the chapter entitled, ‘Do Scriptures Contradict the Gospel? Pt.2,’ appears in the book just before what is presumably part one).  There are formatting inconsistencies (i.e. some chapters have ‘Paul Kurts,’ posted under the title or ‘by Paul Kurts,’ while others have nothing) revealing that little has been done to prepare this collection for publication. There is also no hint of internal organization of the chapters. But the biggest errors in this book are errors in literary style. Kurts makes his theological points by peppering his texts with ALL CAPS WORDS AND PHRASES and an an overuse of exclamation points!!!!  His TABLE OF CONTENTS IS FOUR SOLID PAGES OF ALL CAPS TEXT. The most charitable way I know to read this book is to allow that Kurts is a career preacher and many of these ‘letters’ would actually communicate effectively as spoken word.  As a book though, this is difficult at best.

None of these criticisms touch on the substance of this book, but unfortunately presentation matters if you are going to get your point across. I found this book a difficult slog and it slowed my normal voracious reading pace to a snail’s crawl.  But does Kurts have something worth saying? I think so. Kurts seeks to say some good things about our Perichoretic union and full inclusion in the life of God.   He says numerous times throughout his book that he is representing the ideas of ‘men like Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, J. B. Torrance, C. Baxter Kruger, Colin Gunton, Michael Jinkins, Robert Capon’ and others. But while  their books tend to be tomes of academic theology. Kurts is writing in layperson’s language (ix).

I have deep respect for Kurts reading list and am sympathetic to many of his theological points. I also found some of his readings of individual passages of scripture insightful if not compelling. However there is zero footnotes and the biblical references are somewhat cherry-picked. This makes the book feel more like proof-texting  and one that has a sustained engagement with the Bible or theological literature.

So I give this book a single star review, while acknowledging that with a good publisher and editor, Kurts may have actually written a book worth reading. ★

I was given this book for purposes of review by SpeakEasy and have given you my honest review.