Finished reading: Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald

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I’ll be honest here: I’ve never been a big Bob Dylan fan. I like a few of his songs, but have somehow never managed to get into him as an artist. (I’ll keep trying.) Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties by Elijah Wald is a short history of the American folk music scene in the early 1960s, leading up to that night in 1964 when Dylan brought an electric guitar on stage at the Newport Folk Festival and shook up the folk music scene for good.

Dylan Goes Electric is very readable, and does a nice job of filling in the musical history of the era for people like me who have heard the names Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the like, but know very little about most of them.

Nothing too deep or too profound, but a nice snapshot of a particular short era in American folk and popular music.

Finished reading: Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

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This one was kinda hidden in those photos I posted yesterday. But after wading through Heim I was ready for a shorter, easy read, and Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber was just the ticket.

It’s more of Nadia at her best, telling stories about her little parish in Denver and how she has experienced God at work in her life.

Nadia is a polarizing figure. Sure, you may have concerns about her attitude, language, and bits of her theology. Regardless, every time I hear or read her, I come away wishing that my faith, embrace of the Gospel, and walk with Jesus looked a little more like hers. That’s enough for me.

Finished reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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I didn’t get as much read on this business trip as I’d thought I might – French schedules have you eating dinner late with little time left for recreational reading before bed – but I did manage to finish All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This novel, set in WWII, tells the parallel stories of a blind French girl and a German boy with a precocious engineering streak.

It’s a beautifully told story, capturing a smaller slice of life than you often get from a World War II novel. The intersections between the two main characters become clear by about half-way through the book, and I spent the rest of the time hoping against hope that the ending would be satisfactory. It was.

All the Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and while I haven’t read that much 2014/2015 fiction yet, I can understand why this one took the prize. Highly recommended.

Finished reading: Hackers by Steven Levy

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I hadn’t heard of this one prior to listening to an Incomparable podcast episode last year – for the life of me I can’t figure out which one – but it stocked my Amazon wish list with several tech history books, which my mother-in-law then generously gave me for Christmas.

In Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Levy tells the story of software hackers who for the most part aren’t household names. Sure, there are quick mentions of Jobs, Wozniak, and Gates, but there are a dozen others you’ve never heard of who are similarly fascinating.

Levy talks quite a bit about the hacker ethos and principles that were pervasive from the early 1960s until, well, business and money got significantly involved in the late 1970s. It was a fun read for me since I recognize my own potential to become one of these heads-down, computer-obsessed hackers who barely notices when the sun rises or sets. (A course I have thankfully avoided thus far… for which my wife is both thankful and probably largely responsible.)

Yes, I’m shamelessly picking up John Halton’s habit of blogging reading progress this year, if for no other reason than it gives me 60+ additional posts a year… and maybe give a reader a good recommendation for a book to read. (Or to stay away from!)

My 2012 reading

Time for my annual roundup of what I read over the past year. While I’m often lousy at cataloging things, this list is easy enough thanks to Goodreads and their nice little iPhone app.

(If you just want to look at the list, go check it out over on Goodreads.)

I read 59 books this year. 36 were fiction, 23 were non-fiction. Most of that non-fiction was theology, with just a couple of biographies / histories thrown in. (I need to read some more history. I don’t read enough of it anymore.)

I rated far more things with five stars this year than I have in previous years. (15 books got 5 stars! That’s more than a quarter of everything I read!) I don’t know whether that means my rating standards are slipping or that my book selection standards are improving, but at least it means I have some good books to recommend.

There are five novels I gave five stars this year:

  • The Fiddler’s Gun by A. S. Peterson – a fun Revolutionary War novel focused on the adventures of a teenage girl. (I’ve got the sequel, The Fiddler’s Green, sitting in my to-read pile… should get it read in 2013 sometime.)
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – a short Young Adult novel focused on two teenagers who are dying of cancer. It’s not as painful as it sounds, but it’s challenging and insightful.
  • Redshirts, by John Scalzi – an odd sort of meta sci-fi romp that otherwise defies comparison
  • The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. – a fascinating fantasy story which I’m indebted to the Rabbit Room folks for recommending.
  • Gathering String, by Mimi Johnson – a top-notch suspense/mystery novel whose author is a lovely lade I met once at a tweetup in Cedar Rapids.

On the non-fiction side, there were more 5-star books, but a few among those that particularly stood out:

I’m back at the reading for 2013, trying to finish up some Thomas Merton that I started back in December. If you’re so inclined, add me as a friend on Goodreads so we can interact about our reading throughout the year!

Rachel Held Evans’ “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”

Lifeway won’t carry it. The Gospel Coalition hosted a severely critical review written by the wife of one of Reformed Evangelicalism’s big-name pastors. Since its release, reviews have been popping up across the internet ranging from gushing to highly critical. It seems that author Rachel Held Evans has become a polarizing figure amongst the evangelical crowd. So, rather than just picking my way through all the online reviews of her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, trying to figure out what to think, I decided to read it and form my own opinions. And I’m glad I did.

Let me put my cards on the table to start: I’m rooting for Rachel, whether it’s on her blog, with her new book, or in whatever else she decides to do. We are of a similar age and come from similar conservative fundamentalist backgrounds. We seem to have gone through similar journeys over the past decade as we have each realized that there is more space within Christianity than was in the strict boxes of our youth. She’s also an engaging writer who, when she is on form, is one of the most readable bloggers I follow. (And I follow 514 feeds at the moment.) So, I jumped into the book expecting an enjoyable read. And it was enjoyable.

Rachel’s book details her year of living out principles and instructions that the Bible directs to women. She didn’t make any attempt to interpret or contextualize them – rather, she intentionally took them as literally as possible, which meant she was holding a sign praising her husband at the town welcome sign (“praising her husband at the city gate”), keeping her head covered, and sleeping in a tent outside the house during her monthly period.

Richard Beck has described Rachel’s book as “hermenutical performance art”, and I think he has a point. And this is one of the difficulties I have with the book. While her year is fun to read about, and while it does help illustrate her point that everyone, including the typical evangelicals, make significant interpretive decisions about which texts to take literally and which to contextualize or dismiss as obsolete cultural artifacts, I’m still just uncomfortable with the fact that we’re encouraging this sort of performance art in order to get an engaging book. While within the book Rachel seems to take the Scriptures seriously, the performance art part of it treads dangerously near the line of being flippant and disrespectful to them. (I’m not saying she crossed that line… but the line is definitely in sight.)

But aside from all the fish-out-of-water stories of Rachel learning to cook, visiting a monastery, hosting sewing parties, and learning from the Amish, are Rachel’s hermenutical arguments compelling? In other words, is there a decent point to all of these shenanigans? In some ways, yes, there is.

Rachel is doing well when she follows in Scot McKnight’s footsteps with her arguments for an egalitarian position on women’s roles in the church. (While I wasn’t personally completely convinced by McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet and Junia Is Not Alone, he does have a coherent, defensible position.) She doesn’t plow any new ground, but she at least outlines the basic hermenutic position that gets you to egalitarianism.

I developed more significant concerns, though, when Rachel attempted to define an alternative hermenutic in her final chapter. Let me quote a bit:

… there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. So what was I looking for when I started this project? I think, at the surface, I was looking for a good story. And I certainly found one. But further down, in the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission—permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman. What a surprise to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it. It had already been given.

Now, that doesn’t sound much like respecting and following the text within your hermenutic framework. What it instead sounds like is a claim that the Bible will back you up in whatever you’re “looking for” – thus exalting yourself over the text. That’s a problem. While we can have a productive discussion about which hermenutical principles are appropriate to apply to Scripture, saying that we need to just ask what we’re looking for, and that then we’ll find it, is post-modern mushiness of a high order.

I’m saddened that that final hermenutic point had to spoil what was otherwise an entertaining and thoughtful book. I would like to be able to point people to Rachel’s book, even if I didn’t agree with all of its conclusions, as a fair and well-reasoned book. But that last chapter gives me pause.

I’m rooting for Rachel. I hope she continues to explore and wrestle with her faith. I hope she keeps writing about it. Rachel says early in her book that the phrase “It has to get messy before it gets clean” is a philosophy “that pretty much sums up every meaningful experience of my life”. I hope that her post-modern messiness eventually cleans up with the understanding that Scripture might not always be saying what we want it to, and that then we have to decide whether we’ll submit to it or not.

In the end, there’s peace in not being the final authority on things. I’m not entirely sure that my sister Rachel has found that peace yet, but I’m praying that she does.

My daughter does awesome book recommendations

Forget my book recommendations, folks: my seven-year-old daughter Laura has me beat. This summer’s Barnes and Noble kids’ reading program asks the kids to list the books that they read and then who they would recommend that book for.

Here’s Laura’s response (click for a larger version):

Laura’s book recommendations

Her recommendations, as she spelled and capitalized them: (For reference, Addie (age 6) and Katie (age 3) are her younger sisters.)

  1. Book Title / Author: Grandma, Grandpa, and me by Mercer Mayer. Recommended for: Katie. She likes Grandma, Grandpa, and pie.
  2. Book Title / Author: Curious George: Stories to share by Margret & H. A. Rey. Recommended for: Marcus & Drew. They like train’s, firefighter’s, Aquariums and Dinosaur’s.
  3. Book Title / Author: Down by the cool of the pool. by Tony Mitton & Guy Parker-Rees. Recommended for: Addie, its good rhymeing practice for her.
  4. Book Title / Author: Pharaoh. Life and afterlife of a god. by David Kennett. Recommended for: Grandpa, He likes history stuff.
  5. Book Title / Author: No carrots for Harry! by Jean Langerman & Frank Remkiewicz. Recommended for: Katie. She do’s not like carrot’s ether!.
  6. Book Title / Author: Garfield rolls on by Jim Davis. Recommended for: Grandma. She like’s cat’s.
  7. Book Title / Author: Wild wild wolves by Joyce Miton & Larry Schwinger. Recommended for: Someone who needs infarmashin aBout wolves.
  8. Book Title / Author: llama llama mad at mama by Anna Dewdney. Recommended for: Addie. She is always mad at mama

Priceless.

William Stringfellow: “An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens In A Strange Land

Among the many Christmas gifts I received this year, I was quite pleased to get a book which had been sitting on my Amazon wishlist for several months: William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land. I will confess to having been completely ignorant of Stringfellow prior to someone online (I forget who) recommending this book, but he seems to have been a fascinating fellow; an Anglican layman who graduated Harvard Law only to move to Harlem and doing pro bono legal work for racial minorities and sex offenders.

To quote Ben Myers excellent summary of Stringfellow’s emphasis:

The most striking feature of Stringfellow’s work is his powerful analysis and critique of the “principalities.” For him, the principalities are institutionalised forms of death. Institutions exist for the sake of their own expansion and self-perpetuation; they are not subject to human control, but are autonomous entities vis-à-vis all human agency. Human beings often believe “that they control the institution; whereas, in truth, the principality claims them as slaves” (Free in Obedience, p. 99).

I’m only 35 pages into this slim 150-page volume – having read only the introduction and Chapter 1 – but I’m immediately struck by how timely his critique of American government and corporate institutions is. Consider this:

The Fall is where the nation is… Americans have become so beleaguered by anxiety and fatigue, so bemused and intimidated, so beset by a sense of impotence and by intuitions of calamity, that they have, for the most part, become consigned to despair. The people have been existing under a state of such interminable warfare that it seems normative. There is little resistance to the official Orwellian designation of war as peace, nor does that rhetorical deception come near exhausting the ways in which the people have found the government to be unworthy of credence or trust. Racial conflict has been suppressed by an elaborate apartheid; products which supposedly mean abundance or convenience turn out to contaminate or jeopardize life; the environment itself is rendered hostile; there is pervasive babel; privacy is a memory because surveillance is ubiquitous; institutional coercion of human beings has proliferated relentlessly. Whatever must be said of earlier times, in the past quarter century America has become a technological totalitarianism in which hope, in its ordinary human connotations, is being annihilated.

Americans have been learning, harshly, redundantly, that they inherit or otherwise possess no virtue or no vanity which dispels the condition of death manifest everywhere in the nation. (p. 19-20)

If Stringfellow felt this strongly in 1973, what would he be thinking today in 2012?

An Ethic is not quick reading but to this point every page has been worthwhile.

Introverts in the Church

I’ve been doing a slow-and-steady re-read of Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church, and words don’t well express how much I resonate with what he is saying. Just as I read Dilbert and think that Scott Adams must’ve worked where I work to get it that right, I read McHugh and think he must’ve served in the same churches I’ve served in. Amazing.

Last night I got to chapter 5, “Introverted Community and Relationships”, and found a few paragraphs that were so apt that I couldn’t resist sharing them.

As introverts seek to enter into and participate in particular communities, their trajectory of commitment may take a different shape than that of their extroverted counterparts. extroverts, who want to increase their level of involvement, may proceed roughly in a straight line as they move from the periphery into the nucleus of the community.

The journey of introverts into a community, however, is better conceptualized as a spiral. They take steps into a community, but then spiral out of it in order to regain energy, to reflect on their experiences and to determine if they are comfortable in that community. They move between entry, retreat and reentry, gradually moving deeper into the community on each loop.

The introverted path into community, much to the confusion of many extroverts, never reaches a point in which the spiraling form is shed.

You know how it feels when someone puts words to something that you’ve always felt and experienced but haven’t been able to describe? That’s how I feel when reading that passage. That’s what my pattern has been, or has needed to be, for the past 10 years.

Some more:

An introverted college student I worked with…encountered several reactions when he chose to step outside of his community after two years of consistent participation. Extroverted leaders chided him for his lack of commitment and were convinced that his pulling back was indicative of a larger spiritual problem infecting his heart. The pastor of the community arranged meetings with him to understand what was happening and what was the source of his dissatisfaction with the group. These efforts, as well intentioned as they were, only pushed him further away instead of drawing him back into his previous level of commitment.

And yes, I’ve been there. And I’m thankful to be in a place now where that isn’t happening.