Thursday, December 29, 2016

Recommended Reading for 2017

It has been a few years since I've posted on this blog site! Thought I'd dust off the keyboard and pass on some recommendations.

Before I do, here are some considerations and disclaimers(?).

First: I am a voracious reader. I was raised by readers--so it comes easily for me. For most of our married life Terri and I have not owned a television. We do not subscribe to cable (although my kids did buy me a Fire Stick last year) nor do we get local channels. So, all of this to say that my ability to read a lot is not particularly amazing--it's just what I like doing. 

Second: I am ashamed that this year I did not read any poetry anthologies! I love poetry and this disappoints me. While it doesn't quite count, my oldest daughter did give me two books of essays written by the poet Wendell Berry which I cannot wait to devour for 2017! 

Third: My list of books read list is not to be mistaken with my list of recommendations. You never really know until you get into the book if it is going to be worth your while! However, just because I don't overtly recommend books doesn't mean the books in my "read" list are not worth reading either! Zahnd, Rohr, McKnight, and Frost are wonderful writers in their own rights!

So here goes.

For novels I recommend the three I actually read in 2016: Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz which turned out to be a rather quirky departure from his previous writings--still highly enjoyable. Also for historic fiction Russka by Edward Rutherfurd was enjoyable. However, being one who has a particular affinity for Ukraine, I found his approach a little off-putting (common idea that Ukraine is the offspring of Russia rather than vice-versa). The third novel is a rather campy love story (think Harlequin Romance) along the lines of The Perils of Pauline. The title is Ephesiacus or The Ephesians by Xenophen. Why would I recommend such a book? Well, it was written in the first century (CE/AD) by Xenophen of Ephesus and gives some fantastic background information into the worship of Artemis and first century culture--a huge aide in New Testament studies.*

In relation to Ephesiacus I recommend a monograph written by Dr. Gary Hoag: The teachings on Riches in 1 Timothy in light of Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus. It is a very accessible read--not as difficult as one would think. It originally was Hoag's PhD dissertation. For those of you who are church leaders, Bible teachers, and theological geeks--I think this read is very well worth your time.

For aggressive theological geeks I highly recommend Paul and the Faithfulness of God (both volumes) by N. T. Wright. In fact, I just recommend anything by N. T. Wright. Period. Enough said. 

Two of my favorite theological reads this year were The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels by Richard B. Hays. Kreider's book gives some amazing insights into the rise of the church in Roman culture. The insights are not just amazing--but you may find them very surprising. Among some of them were the observations that the number one virtue written about and lauded during this period was patience. Furthermore, evangelism did not figure in any of the writings of the first three centuries (other than the New Testament writings themselves).

Hays' book examines how the four gospels relied heavily upon Old Testament Scriptures--not as proof texts or predictive prophecy but as part of the story that is continued through the life of Jesus. What is most fascinating is how Hays demonstrates quite ably that all four gospels had a "high Christology" (Jesus is the embodiment of the God of Israel) which goes against the grain of some popular NT scholars (i.e., Bart Ehrman).

Other books I highly recommend are Quiet by Susan Cain which will give you a sensitive insight into introverts and their world, The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan which will explain the power of geography in politics and world affairs (known as geopolitics), and for those who are professional presenters: How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides by Akash Karia. This last book is filled with practical tips and useful ideas in creating slide presentations.** 

I hope these will get you started for 2017. If nothing else, pick up at least one book and read it! Oh, and pick up some poetry and read it. Prose is not enough! Broaden your mind with some good poetry. 

Wendell Berry, Wilmer Mills, Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver, and Robert Frost are some of my favorite poets. But there are many others worth reading--and while you're at it look up Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay (not related or married--but they do work together). They are great spoken word poets. On youtube or TED look up An Orign Story by these two (together), If I Should Have A Daughter by Sarah, and Repetition by Phil. 

Good reading!


Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz
Russka by Edward Rutherfurd
Ephesiacus by Xenophen of Ephesus

Culture, Religion, & Psychology:
Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd
Surprise the World! by Michael Frost

Discipleship & Christian Living:
 After You Believe by N. T. Wright
Be Not Afraid: Overcoming the Fear of Death by Johann Christoph Arnold

Theology & Biblical Studies:
A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight
Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol 2 by N. T. Wright
The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton
The teachings on Riches in 1 Timothy in light of Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus by Gary Hoag (Doctoral Dissertation)
The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your Transformation by Richard Rohr
The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider
Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels by Richard B. Hays

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan

Professional development:
How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides by Akash Karia

Social Sciences & Humanities

Quiet by Susan Cain

*Note the novel, Ephesiacus (or The Ephesians) was considered a late second century document since the 1700s. But in the 1990s the opinion of scholarship changed dramatically and now this novel is believed to be the product of the 50s (during the time Paul would have been operating in Ephesus and Asia Minor).

**Too often slide presentations are filled with too much text, too much animations, and too much...too much! I've never heard anyone say: "Hey great presentation! You know though it would have been much better if you included five more slides filled with more statistics and quotes..."

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing it All Gets Nothing Done

I have long believed the "multitasking" craze was indeed, crazy. I based it on my personal experiences and observations of others, especially my kids.

You've experienced it before: talking to someone who was busy texting or working on the computer. They do not seem to hear what you say. There may be an "mm-hmm" or a "yeah" but nothing that indicates true comprehension. And then there is the moment of truth, when something is said, they look up a little bewildered and say, "I'm sorry, what was that?" Or, most often with my kids, "I don't remember you telling me to do that!" or "When did you say that?"

Evidently the insurance companies aren't convinced either. They lead the way in advocating the ban of texting and cell phone use while driving, and with good reason: higher accidents. This alone should disabuse us of our ideas about multitasking.

The cost in efficiency and personal relationships is high (who likes being ignored?). And yet we cling to the myth of multitasking tenaciously. (My wife recently applied for a job that listed "must be able to multitask" on their description. This is a common occurrence.) Yet when I observe what some people consider the greatest multitaskers (police and firefighters) I see men and women who follow specific protocols and do one thing at a time.

Now along comes a book that tells me what I've always suspected: The Myth of Multitasking (How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done) by Dave Crenshaw (Jossey-Bass). This little book follows the style made popular by The One-Minute Manager and imitated ever since: a fictional narrative that drives home a point.

The narrative itself is only 106 pages long and can be read in a couple of hours. There are approximately 23 pages of worksheets that follow.

Crenshaw correctly labels "multitasking" as "switchtasking" because people (and even computers) actually do not give full attention to two tasks at the exact same time. You switch from one to another, at the cost of efficiency.

Crenshaw makes the iconoclastic claim that not only is "multitasking" a lie, it is worse than a lie. "Because nearly everyone in our fast-paced world has accepted it as something that's true. We've all adopted it as a way of life. People are proud of their skills at multitasking, but the truth is that multitasking is neither a reality nor is it efficient."

This book is well worth your read. Whether you agree with the premise right at this moment or not, read this book! Crenshaw makes a convincing argument.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Exclusion and Embrace

A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation
by Miroslav Volf

This is one of the most challenging books I have ever read. Years ago I read Martin Buber's I and Thou and walked away feeling like an idiot. I don't think I understood one word of what I read (of course that was nearly 30 years ago, I'd like to think I've progressed some since then!).

While Volf did not leave me feeling uneducated as did Buber, I still found myself having to go back and re-read passages to make certain I was grasping his arguments. Even so, I know I will have to return to this book time and again.

Do not let my difficulty dissuade you from reading Exclusion and Embrace! This is certainly well worth the read.

Dr. Volf is a Croat national who experienced the horrors of the Serbian/Croatian conflict in the 90s. In fact, this was the impetus for his book. He begins with a tale of three cities from the 90s which illustrate the challenge we face: Los Angeles (Rodney King riots/Reginal Denny), Berlin (neo-nazi skinheads marching through the streets chanting "Auslander raus!"--"Foreigners out!"), and Sarajevo (the image of the Serbian/Croatian conflict).

Volf focuses upon the theme of divine self-giving. "As God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement, so also should we--whoever our enemies and whoever we may be."

In his wide ranging study, Volf critiques not only modernity but also post-modernity and find both mindsets incapable of solving the problem of violence and forgiveness. Post-modernity, for all of its deconstruction of the modern power structures comes out in the end sounding very much like the problem it attacks. Rather than offering a solution, post-modernity only offers the other side of the same coin.

Part of what makes this volume so difficult is Volf's desire to spell out not only his position, but the challenges and difficulties which beset his position. He is not afraid to spell out exactly the strengths and weaknesses of modern and post-modern arguments against his thesis of divine self-giving.

Toward the end, Volf gives this piece of wisdom:

Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and end of human history. The biblical vision of peace invites, however to a task more difficult thatn Sisyphus's. Granted, pushing the stone of peace up the steep hill of violence--doing those small neighborly acts of help even though one knows that the killer might return the next day, the next week, or year--is hard. It is easier, however, than carrying one's own cross in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. This is what Jesus Christ asks Christians to do. Assured of God's justice and undergirded by God's presence, they are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge. It cannot be denied that the prospects are good that by trying to love their enemies they may end up hanging on a cross. Yet often enough, the costly acts of nonretaliation become a seed from which the fragile fruit of Pentecostal peace grows--a peace between people from different cultural spaces gathered in one place who understand each other's languages and share in each others' goods. It may be that consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation...But if one decides to put on soldier's gear instead of carrying one's cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the cruicified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Eleanor Rigby

by Douglas Coupland

Eleanor Rigby is a delightful novel about Liz Dunn: a very lonely, overweight, highly intelligent, and plain woman whose life is changed through a chain of events beginning on the summer night of 1997. Liz observes the Hale-Bopp comet streaking across the sky and takes it for a sign of hope and change. She had just loaded her self up with videos and pain medication and taken enough sick days to nurse herself through a painful dentist visit. Soon after, a strange young visionary named Jeremy enters her life and her entire world is turned inside out.

The encounter with Jeremy is no chance happening. It is an event Liz had been anticipating for some time. Now he has entered her life, Liz will spend the next several months on a journey of self-discovery and unselfish care. Be prepared for smiles and tears.

Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X and Life After God, in his latest novel, continues to explore the landscapes of loneliness, change, and second chances. It’s a heart-warming novel filled with bizarre and strange twists. It is a quick read, but one you will want to revisit again. Below is an excerpt.
Halfway into the news, right after a Burger King commercial, a story appeared about meat production. I’m a carnivore, but, like many people these days, thinking about it too much can give me the willies.

…The thing about meat with me, though, is how it speaks to me about the human body. All of us are stuck inside our meaty bodies. I’ve always imagined that regular people are happy to be inside their bodies, whereas lonely people yearn to ditch their carcasses. I suspect lonely people wish they could forget the whole meat-and-bone issue altogether. We’re the people most likely to believe in reincarnation simply because we can’t believe we were shackled into our meat in the first place. Lonely people want to be dead, yet we’re still not quite ready to go—we don’t want to miss the action, we want to see who wins next year’s Academy Awards. More to the point, the lonely, like all humans, yearn to meet that somebody who’ll make us feel better about being trapped inside our species’ meat-and-bone soul containment system. Oh God, I sound like a prison warden.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Surprised by Hope

by N. T. Wright
When I was a student at White's Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies (1979-1981) I was introduced to an ancient teaching I had never before considered: the literal, bodily resurrection of the believer.
For some of you this may sound strange--after all, the resurrection is one of the most unique elements of Christianity and Judaism. However, I (as many Christians in America) was raised in a culture heavily influenced by Greek dualism. We were taught that when you die your spirit goes to heaven and while there was this thing called the "second coming" it focused more on people being judged and sentenced to heaven or hell.
I cannot tell you how many funerals I attended where the preacher would say: "This is just the shell, the real person is in heaven." Evangelism was all about "soul winning" which seemed to indicate the body wasn't all that important.
N. T. Wright takes us a step further into biblical study as he challenges us to rethink our view of "Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church." He introduces us to critical passages as Romans 8 and Revelation 21 which speak of a renewed Creation, a new heaven and new earth, and the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to the earth where God's dwelling will be with his people.
He argues with convincing detail how God's purpose is to renew the whole of creation--which was begun in the resurrection of Jesus--and how that purpose effects how we live our lives in this present world. If the Creation is important to God, if our bodies are going to be raised and transformed then there are important implications regarding how we conduct ourselves in this world at this time.
Wright says, "As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God's promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality...then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence...For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God's new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people...was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present. We are saved not as souls but as wholes."
Evangelism then is a matter of the church living out the kingdom of God by advancing justice, beauty, and reconciliation in the world and while this is happening, "the word of God will spread powerfully and do its own work."
Wright is not advocating the old "liberal theological stance" of the social gospel. Rather he challenges Christians to take seriously God's love for all of creation. The Christian faith is not about fleeing life. Faith in the resurrection is a reaffirmation of the present world.
In one interview N. T. made this observation: "Let me put this as simply as I can. Most Western Christians have grown up with the idea that the name of the game is simply to go to heaven when you die. What I routinely say to people is that heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world. Wherever we are when we die, the really important thing is where we are after that. There's a phase two in Christian teachings. Any 1st-Century Christian would have been surprised that you didn't understand that resurrection isn't life after death. Resurrection is actually what I'm describing as life after life after death."
In the 70s, while I understood most ancient people believed in life after death, it did not occur to me how the Christian hope was radically different or why the pagans would make fun of Paul in Athens when he talked about Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe in the resurrection of the body. The survival of the soul or spirit is not resurrection. One cannot say with Paul that death is defeated (1 Corinthians 15) if all we have is the soul going to heaven when we die. Why? Because we still died. The definition of death is the separation of body and spirit.
The final enemy to be crushed is death. Paul is speaking of literal, physical death. Jesus' body came up out of the grave and ours will too. As John Donne said, "Death, you too shall die!"
For some this will seem very radical. It is actually very biblical. If you still wonder, I recommend you reserve judgment until you read the book. This review doesn't come close to giving Wright justice.
Surprised by Hope is highly readable without being simplistic.
Get this book and read it!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta"

I cannot adequately describe my emotions and reactions upon finishing Come Be My Light. I was deeply moved by the story of Mother Teresa's interior struggle for over forty years with what John of the Cross calls "the dark night" of the soul.

The book isn't just a compilation of Teresa's private writings. It is more accurately a biography by Brian Kolodiejchuk* utilizing her correspondence (especially to her spiritual directors and superiors) as the primary source material.

Kolodiejchuk makes it clear the purpose of the book is a response to the requests of those who loved and admired Mother Teresa and who wanted to know the source of her motivation, strength, and joy. He says,
These pages unveil her interior life, with all its depth and drama, and add unsuspected riches to the spiritual heritage Mother Teresa offered to the world. (p. xii)
This book is not the expose some were let to believe by early newspaper reports. Quite the contrary, it demonstrates a life totally devoted to "satiate the thirst of Jesus" by loving the poor and bringing souls to him.

Whether or not you agree with her theology, you have to be impressed with her love. I remember saying something like this to a missionary acquaintance in Central America. This was a few years ago and he responded with, "Seems to me her theology is people. How do you argue with that?"

However, Come Be My Light demonstrates her theology was not just "people" but an unquenchable love for Jesus. As the author says:
It was not the suffering she endured that made her a saint, but the love with which she lived her life through all her suffering (p. 337)
She was a woman "madly in love with God," and even more she was a woman who understood that "God was madly in love with her." Having experienced God's love for her, she desired ardently to love him in return...(p. 335)
It is obvious from her letters that hers was no legalistic approach to following Jesus. She adored him.

Mother Teresa also viewed love of neighbor as the next great command of God. She lived out that love with her whole being. She wrote,
The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one's neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.
I highly recommend Come Be My Light as a must reading for anyone who wants to see someone completely sold out to following Jesus. But be careful! If you are a Jesus follower, it may lead you challenged way beyond your comfort zone!

*Director of the Mother Teresa Center and a member of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers

Monday, March 10, 2008

Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding

by Dr. John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine

As a graduate of Lipscomb University (MA in Bible, 1996) and the grandson of a graduate of James Harding's Potter Bible College, I was eager to get a copy of this book to read it. I anticipated a lot of surprises from the book and I was not disappointed!

We in churches of Christ tend to be oblivious to our 19th and early 20th century heritage. In the mid-twentieth century we had emerged from a richly diverse and tolerant network of congregations to become a rigid and fairly uniform organization. Variations existed, but the variations were very small.

Hicks and Valentine reintroduce us to David Lipscomb and James A. Harding: men of faith, influential editors, and College founders. They present a very readable discussion of what they call the Nashville Bible School Tradition (Lipscomb and Harding and the Gospel Advocate) in contrast with the Texas tradition (Austin McGary, R.L. Whiteside, Foy E. Wallace and the Firm Foundation). Since these men were editors of their own repsective publications there is no shortage of primary texts for Hicks and Valentine to research!

The Lipscomb and Harding of history are presented as men who believed God was active and busy in bringing his Kingdom agenda to bear in the world. The Holy Spirit was active in the transformation of men and women into the image of Christ. He worked through scripture, service (especially to the poor), assembly and supper, and constant prayer. These "four means of grace" were the environment where the Holy Spirit accomplished his purposes of establishing kingdom values in the lives of individuals, congregations, and the world.

Loyalty to the Kingdom of God subsumed all other loyalties. Peace was priority. It shouldn't be too surprising then to discover that Lipscomb was opposed to any participation in government. In fact, the Nashville Bible School Tradition was predominantly pacifist.

The most surprising insight is to discover the similarities between the views of Lipscomb and Harding and what is being called the emerging church movement. There are differences, to be certain. Lipscomb and Harding were products of their culture--they were products of the enlightenment and were thoroughly "modern" in the true sense of the word. Even so,

Their vision was antagonistic toward modernity in significant ways--especially the in-breaking kingdom of God. Their spirituality has something to offer our postmodern situation. Just as N.T. Wright resonates with many in the Emerging Church Movement and with many postmoderns, much of Lipscomb and Harding will resonate with them as well. Reclaiming the spirituality of Lipscomb and Harding may be a way forward for Churches of Christ in the contemporary world.

This is not to say Hicks and Valentine are blind followers of these two men. Harding and Lipscomb have their faults and there is no attempt to gloss over them in this book. But I think you will learn to appreciate their strengths and especially their Kingdom vision.

A highly recommended, reader-friendly book!