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Finished reading: several more

It’s been a while since I’ve put a post together, but I haven’t stopped reading… recent books:

Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings by Josh Larsen

Larsen is the co-host of the essential Filmspotting podcast, as well as being an editor at Think Christian. Larsen explores the overlap of his two interests with an insightful look at how movies can be expressions of prayer. Larsen goes deeper into the theology of prayer than I expected, with insightful results. As also happens when I listen to Filmspotting, I came away from Movies are Prayers with a bunch of movies to add to my to-watch list.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

Bauckham explores the Gospels and makes the case that their content was primarily from eyewitness testimony. He spends quite a bit of time exploring how oral histories were passed down through various cultures, and how the gospels bear many of the hallmarks of such oral tradition based on eyewitness information. He also suggests that part of the reason some characters (including some very minor characters) are explicitly named in the Gospels is because they were known living people who could be referenced as eyewitnesses. (What a fascinating thought!) This definitely gives me a new perspective when reading the Gospels.

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

A winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Alexievich interviewed hundreds of Soviet women who fought (often as teenage girls) in the Soviet army during WWII. The details are made even more horrific by the narrative telling. War is hell. Terrible, real, and heartbreaking.

A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

A short volume documenting the discrepancy in policing and justice between blacks and whites in America. Not exceptionally surprising after all that I’ve read the past couple years, but tragic and infuriating none the less.

Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, & Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama by Kenneth L. Woodward

Woodward was the religion editor of Newsweek for decades, in which role he had opportunity to interview many of the major religious figures of the 20th century. A devout Catholic, Woodward provides a measured view of Billy Graham and other early evangelists, the rise of Evangelicalism and its political efforts, the changes in the Catholic church after Vatican II, and the evolution of the Protestant mainline. Woodward’s easy prose felt familiar in some way; finally I realized it must be the deft touch of a newsman similar to that of the late Steve Buttry who I read regularly for nearly a decade until his untimely death last year. All told, a good history of religion in America.

Book Blame, Volume 1

I write regularly about the books that I have finished reading. What I don’t often do is assign blame credit to those who (often unknowingly) prompted me to buy or borrow the books in the first place.

So with this post I will start assigning, with much appreciation, Book Blame. (Because hey, “Book Credit” doesn’t have the same appealing alliterative ring to it.)

The most recent book to travel from Amazon’s warehouse to my to-read pile is A History of Modern Palestine by Ilan Pappe. For this one I have Chuck Pearson (@ShorterPearson) to thank, via this tweet:

My most recent purchase (still on its way from Amazon to me) is thanks to Kenneth L. Woodward, who in his book Getting Religion recommends Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness, a biography of the 20th century rabbi by Edward Kaplan. Heschel sounded like such a fascinating figure that I couldn’t really pass up a used copy of his biography.

If you, dear reader, have books you think I would be interested in, by all means let me know! One day you, too, could be gratefully mentioned in an edition of Book Blame.

A little random follow-up

Nearly a year ago I wrote a post dismayed about a church looking for a part-time Director of Music with almost unbelievable qualifications. Just to recap, they were looking for:

Significant musical experience in performing and directing a contemporary band along with experience in songwriting and production.

Must be able to incorporate strings, percussion, and other instruments into contemporary-band driven arrangements

Ability to work with and train vocalists in singing of parts

Ability to incorporate backing tracks and loops into regular Sunday and special services

Minimum of bachelor’s degree in music and/or 5 years’ related church or industry experience. Possessing an MDiv or MA in theology is ideal.

All that in a part-time, pay commensurate with experience position.

I ran across my old post at random this morning and decided to revisit that church’s website to see if they had ever found such a Director of Music.

So far as I can tell, the position remains empty; the job posting is still there, with only one small edit from last year: the “Possessing an MDiv or MA in theology”, while ideal, was perhaps a lot to ask, so it has been removed.

I wonder how long they’ll have to keep looking?

David Bentley Hart, from The Doors of the Sea

A lovely passage from the conclusion of The Doors of the Sea, wherein David Bentley Hart addresses the how can a good God allow suffering? question:

[W]e Christians are not obliged (and perhaps not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day – to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children – and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. And we are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological ages and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends; and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness…

When, however, we learn in Christ the nature of our first estate, and the divine destiny to which we are called, we begin to see – more clearly the more we are able to look upon the world with the eye of charity – that there is in all the things of earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the most generous imagination or most ardent desire can now conceive. Or, rather, it is a glory not entirely hidden: veiled, rather, but shining in and through and upon all things… At [disastrous] times, to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.

Finished reading: some history, some sci-fi, some theology

The history:

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

An interesting read about Paris – astonishingly vibrant in the mid-1800s – and the notable Americans who visited or migrated there. McCullough paints a portrait of art, science, and culture flourishing in ways that inspired the visiting Americans. It’s not the most engaging book I’ve read from McCullough – it particularly seems to drift off in the last third – but it was still an interesting look into a time I was unfamiliar with.

The sci-fi:

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The follow-up to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I reviewed earlier. A Closed and Common Orbit follows a sentient Artificial Intelligence program, designed to inhabit and run a spaceship, as it adapts to being in a body and interacting with the world around it in a more limited way. This is a great little book that I had a very hard time putting down.

The theology:

The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart

This little volume is an expansion of a couple essays that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart wrote as a response to the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. How could a good and loving God – if such exists – allow such suffering?

I’ve been steeped in Calvinist teaching on this sort of question for a couple decades now and always really struggled with it. Hart, certainly no Calvinist, here provides an alternate view: a God so expansive and powerful that He is willing to give His creation autonomy and yet still work through and around their mess to work out His ultimate purpose. This gives us the freedom to truly rage at the brokenness of the world while at the same time hoping for its restoration.

And with apologies to my Reformed brethren who are reading this and itching to provide me with corrections to Hart, in about 50 small pages Hart has drawn for me an answer to the “How can a good God allow suffering?” question than I’ve heard in 20 years of Calvinist teaching. I’ll post separately with a couple excerpts.

Happiness as Human Flourishing: Matthieu Ricard on On Being

I’ve read Christian authors from time to time who seem to be flirting with Buddhism – I guess I’m thinking primarily of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr – and I’ve never really understood the appeal.

Then yesterday while mowing the lawn I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and was captivated. In an hour discussion (I listen to On Being’s unedited versions, always) Ricard shared thought after thought about human flourishing and connectedness and joy and contentment that, with just the tweaking of a few phrases, could’ve been directly from Christian teaching.

Now, nobody freak out, I’m not off to shave my head buy a robe and become a monk. But if you have a spare hour, this interview was well worth listening to.

Yep, still reading…

A few more books I’ve completed lately:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson tells the stories of many death row inmates he has represented over the years. He makes a compelling case that the justice system is broken for many of these people, documenting gross negligence of counsel, biased law enforcement and judicial systems, and abhorrent treatment inside of prisons. While the inmate whose story forms the through line of the book has a positive outcome, many, many do not. Sobering.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

A workmanlike path through the immense de facto segregation endorsed by the US government in the early part of the 20th century. It is stunning to understand how zoning laws and public financing were used as weapons to ensure that African Americans were kept out of white neighborhoods. America still has a lot of history to own up to.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Completing my bleak trilogy is this account of the rise of OxyContin and heroin addiction over the past decade. The parallels of aggressive heroin marketing by drug producers from one small location in Mexico and the aggressive OxyContin marketing to doctors and patients even after serious concerns were raised about addiction are remarkable. Quite a horror.

OK, so my reading hasn’t all been bleak reading on social issues…

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

A near-future sci-fi in which Doctorow explores the benefits of a communal maker culture. Interesting ideas, but reminds me a little too much of Heinlein – characters having long conversations about the ins and outs of the philosophical position, too much unnecessary sex.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Now this is a fun little fantasy novel. Space adventure in a ship with a diverse, multi-species crew. Easy and fun to read. I have the second book in the series on reserve at the library… any time now, folks.

Bullet points for a Friday morning

Hey, it’s Friday.

  • The weather is really too nice to be sitting in the office all day today. I might have to do something about that.
  • My oldest daughter is in the College for Kids program at Coe College this week and next. One of the classes she’s taking is Web Design, and I had a proud nerd dad moment when she told me she was ahead of the rest of the class because she already knew some HTML.
  • It’s amazing how a shower, shave, some weights at the gym, and it being FRIDAY helps a guy’s general outlook.
  • Reading through Matthew in my reading plan the past couple weeks and I have started highlighting every place that Jesus heals someone. I have green highlights now on almost every page. Setting things right, indeed.
  • The back-and-forth the past few days over Eugene Peterson’s comments regarding homosexuality and gay marriage have been enlightening and saddening. I feel mostly like the big evangelical machine took advantage of an old saint who deserves better treatment. Ugh.
  • How is it mid-July already?
  • My friend Lyz wrote this piece a couple years ago about her sisters and a major car accident. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
  • It’s been a fairly quiet summer event-wise, but in September Becky and I have tickets for concerts two weekends in a row: U2 in St. Louis, and Andrew Peterson’s Rich Mullins tribute concert in Nashville. Now to figure out what we’re doing with the kids.
  • I’m leading worship this weekend, but apparently I haven’t thought much about it yet because the worship leader disaster dreams haven’t started yet. Probably tonight.
  • There’s a lot of pain in this world. Be kind.

Finished reading: a few more…

Summertime seems to make it hard to get through too many, but here are a few more books that I’ve finished over the past few weeks…

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Ohler’s book is partly a technical explanation of the development of opiates and methamphetamines by German pharmaceutical companies and partly a chronicle of Hitler’s descent into the hell of addiction. A stunning picture of horror and madness.

The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together by Jared C. Wilson

A beautiful little volume that calls readers back to the spiritual disciplines in a way that is gracious and encouraging.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve posted several quotes from this book already, and should really queue up several more. Robinson’s essays are so thoughtful and engaging. Finding someone who unashamedly professes a belief in orthodox Christianity while at the same time discussing that faith in terms and from angles that are far outside traditional theological writing is a huge treat. Destined to be one of my favorite books of the year.


Nineteen years ago today Becky and I were married. If I search back through the archives on this blog I’m sure I’d find that I have used the same phrases almost every year. Yes, it was a hot day. Yes, we were young. No, we really didn’t know what we were getting into.

But nineteen years later I can say I have been immeasurably blessed by having Becky as my wife and best friend. Three kids, four homes, a dozen or so cats, and hundreds of softball games later we are stronger, closer, and more content than I think we have ever been.

Here’s to many, many more. Years, that is. And softball games. (Maybe not too many more cats?)