• Archive of "Book Reviews" Category

    Recommendation: “The Bible Tells Me So”

    March 20, 2015 // No Comments »

    peter ennsScores of Christian authors have written long works through the centuries attempting to smooth over or explain away apparent inconsistencies in the Bible–moments where the four Gospels don’t agree, two consecutive proverbs that give contradictory advice, perceived variances in the creation account(s), and just the over all sense that God’s personality changes as the timeline of Scripture progresses. Christians often get defensive when a skeptic challenges them on these very problems of Scripture.

    In The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, author Peter Enns invites us to consider that the problems of Scripture are not problems at all. Not that they don’t exist, but that God isn’t worried about them and so neither should you be. God doesn’t need off the hook for errors in the Bible because he’s fine with them in there. Our attempts at defending the Bible, Enns argues, as this perfect (inerrant) work of God beamed down to us in perfect form from heaven are actually keeping us from reading the Bible as God gave it to us: God-approved imperfection that is constantly being reinterpreted by pilgrims on a journey to better understand their Creator.

    If this sounds like a bunch of liberal, wishy-washy hog dung, you may be just the person Peter Enns wants to talk to. He presents his case with the Bible writers themselves as evidence, showing how even Jesus and Paul (especially Paul) reinterpreted and even jettisoned parts of Scripture in light of their growing understanding of what God was up to. His main point: the Bible is not now, nor ever was, the final word from God; Jesus is, and every other word must be continually reevaluated in light of that ultimate Word.

    It’s not a new concept, but I did find his approach somewhat novel and worth reading, especially if you’re skeptical or outright disbelieving of the whole idea Peter Enns is presenting. Read it before you dismiss it. Even if you don’t totally agree with Enns, he raises questions worth every Christian’s asking. My only quibble with the book is over style, not substance. Enns, presumably wanting to appeal to the masses and not sound stuffy and overly academic, continually interrupts himself with “humor” that often falls flat and sometimes even irritates. But again, it’s only a quibble, and one forgivable in light of the book’s other qualities.

    Posted in Book Reviews

    Review: A First-Rate Madness

    January 19, 2015 // No Comments »

    first rateI’m not finished yet, but I’m so enthusiastic about what I’ve read so far, that I wanted to go ahead and recommend A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

    According to the publisher’s description, the book argues that,

    “… The very qualities that mark those with mood disorders—creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis.”

    To make his case, Nassir brings to bear biographies of some of history’s most important and effectual leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. His chapter on Lincoln is fascinating. I knew ol’ Abe had struggled; I had no idea how much. Nassir quotes Lincoln:

    “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

    Nassir beautifully illustrates how Lincoln’s pain may have been the very thing that provided him with the necessary realism and empathy to successfully lead a fractured country through a brutal Civil War.

    It almost doesn’t matter whether Nassir’s main thesis is correct, that a little crazy in our leaders may be better than none. Readers who know the pain of a severe mood disorder will find plenty of solace and, I think, profound hope in the life stories told here: what if our suffering will in some way make us better, and better for the world, than if we’d been well?

    Readers without mental illness may walk away wishing they had a touch! And they’ll certainly walk away better understanding and appreciating the many among us who have struggled this way. A First-Rate Madness offers one of the best symptomatic descriptions of depression and mania I’ve ever read and explains why these maladies are so much more than simply elevated sadness or happiness. I remember writing my own book on depression, Losing God, and thinking, “How in the world do I describe this for people who’ve never felt it?” Nassir finds a way over and over again. Quoting a patient of his, Nassir says,

    “Depression is a terrifying experience … knowing that somebody is going to kill you, and that person is you.”

    I highly recommend this book, both for those who just want to understand mental illness better, and for those who understand it all too well.


    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    Recommendation: Bible, Gender, Sexuality

    November 19, 2014 // No Comments »

    9780802868633I had the privilege a couple weeks ago of hearing Dr. James Brownson, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, speak in Washington, DC, on the topic of the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality in particular, how the Bible might inform our thoughts on the relatively new phenomenon of gay covenanted (married) relationships. I was so impressed with Brownson’s careful, thorough approach, combined with a calm demeanor that eschewed the often pitched emotionalism surrounding this issue, that I decided to read his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality.

    I have to say it’s one of a very few books I’ve read in the last couple of years that I thought added anything new and meaningful to the discussion, and it rightly earned its starred review from Booklist. Brownson spends roughly 300 pages asking not just what the Bible says regarding gender and sexuality, but why. What is the moral logic behind what the biblical authors say, because only in rightly understanding that will we know how to apply scriptural teaching to our own cultural context today.

    Along the way, Dr. Brownson offers gentle but strong critiques of previous works on the topic from both sides of the debate. Herein lies one of the strengths of the book: Brownson seems to have read everything out there on the topic prior to his own book. I can’t think of a single argument on either side that he leaves unaddressed. True to his non-combative style, Brownson classifies the various positions of previous authors, not as “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” terms that incite more than they describe but as “traditionalist” and “revisionist.” And he is balanced in calling into question some approaches from both camps. (Particularly devastating is his analysis of traditionalist Robert Gagnon’s focus on the gender noncomplementarity of gay relationships. I mean, there is just nothing left of Gagnon’s argument when Brownson is finished, and it all unfolds in the most scholarly, respectful manner.)

    What I think I appreciated most about the book is what Brownson doesn’t say. He doesn’t conclude by telling churches what they must believe. He ends by explaining why churches must wrestle. Yes, Brownson is now affirming of covenanted (married) gay relationships (a change from his previous position), but you never get the sense that he’s insisting that you must be. And so the book wraps with an exhortation to think about these things in new ways, always asking not just what the Bible says, but why. This is a book for anyone who wants to delve into the thick of the church’s most urgent moral discussion. And it’s a book that every church leader, regardless of his or her position on the matter, should rush to read.

    Posted in Book Reviews, Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

    Recommendation: “Changing Our Mind” by David Gushee

    November 11, 2014 // No Comments »

    David-P-Gushee-Changing-Our-Mind-front-coverDr. David Gushee has been for many years the leading conservative Christian ethicist, a friend to Evangelicals, with some twenty books to his name and another releasing next year. But now he’s gone and done it, announcing recently that he has switched his view of gay covenantal (marriage) relationships. Gushee now says the church should embrace gay marriages as fully as heterosexual marriages, and LGBT Christians as full members of the church.

    Not surprisingly, that has earned Gushee more than a few friends-turned-enemies. In his latest book, Changing Our Mind, Gushee gives a brief explanation of himself, how his mind changed and why he thinks the church universal needs to do some serious rethinking (and repenting) vis-a-vis the gay issue. I won’t retell his story here; I’ll leave it to you to read the book. But here are a few things I think commend this book to a broad audience.

    1) It’s short, only about 125 pages, so anybody can get through it.

    2) The style is accessible, not academic as with many of his other works. It reads more like a journal than a scholarly tome, so you won’t be wondering what in the heck he’s talking about.

    3) Gushee is a sage among straight, conservative Christians, so he can’t be easily dismissed. Some Evangelicals have objected to similar works by gay Christian authors such as Justin Lee and Matthew Vines because, well, the authors are gay and, therefore, naturally prone to having a gay-affirming position, but also because they’re young and not credentialed. This has always seemed unfair and snobbish to me, but it has been a problem. Gushee is straight, seasoned, and credentialed. He’s tough to ignore.

    4) Changing Our Mind offers exhortation to folks on both sides of the debate. Gushee cautions gay-affirming Christians not to charge all those opposed with hate or fear. Many traditionalists are motivated simply by a desire to be faithful to the biblical texts, which they read as critical of gay relationships. Disdain and homophobia are far from their minds. But Gushee also admonishes his critics for, at times, behaving more like Pharisees than the Savior, seeking to enforce rules without any concern for how those rules affect real people.

    5) The whole book just feels balanced. Gushee writes, “If what we are talking about is blessing an anything-goes ethic in a morally libertine culture, I stand utterly opposed, as I have throughout my career. But if what we are talking about is carving out space for serious committed Christians who happen to be gay or lesbian, to participate in society as equals, in church as kin, and in the blessings and demands of covenant on the same terms as everyone else, I now think that has nothing to do with cultural, ecclesial and moral decline, and everything to do with treating people the way Christ did” (p. 117).

    6) Gushee is humble. He repents, and when he does, you sense his grief. He makes a point of “apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here. I look forward to continuing the journey together in your company, if you will have me” (p. 126).

    The book is too short to satisfy all of the objections of its author’s critics, but I suspect Gushee is not trying to convince anyone. I think, as his apology suggests, he’s simply clearing his conscious. And maybe he’s asking his adversaries to consider, just to consider, “What if I’m wrong? What then?”

    Click here to read a transcript of a recent speech Gushee delivered at a conference of The Reformation Project in Washington, DC.

    Posted in Book Reviews, Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

    A call for sanity

    November 13, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    Today I’m participating in a synchroblog calling for sanity among Christians in the discussion of faith and homosexuality. This called-for sanity would cover all aspects of the topic: Is homosexuality sin? If so, why? If not, why? Should gay marriage be legal? Should churches ordain gay ministers?

    And any other question you can think of. Click here to read some of the other entries in the synchroblog.

    There must be a way for Christians of varying viewpoints to discuss this stuff without getting all cray-cray. Let me suggest one simple but often painful thing we could all do.

    Begin with the humble acknowledgement, “I could be wrong.”

    It’s hard to be too defensive, angry, nasty, and generally unloving when you’ve already said to yourself and others, “Hey, obviously I think my view is sound or I wouldn’t hold it, but I’m human, and therefore flawed, and therefore potentially wrong.” Several days ago, I got into a back-and-forth on Facebook (not a good place to discuss anything) with a guy who felt the redefinition of marriage was undermining the family. When it was clear neither of us were buying the other’s points on the matter, I suggested we agree to disagree and move on. The other fella agreed, but not before adding this little postscript:

    “Last statement…to state my case. Homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says it is … Please don’t use the Bible as a reference allowing homosexuality…it doesn’t.”

    Instantly, I wanted to throw rocks at the guy, and every other Christian who says stuff like that. (I know, I know: not a sane approach.) Statements like the one above are the death of any meaningful discussion. When you say something like that, all the other person hears is what I heard: “I’m right. You’re wrong. Period. Regardless of the fact that I’ve done little or no research on the historical context of the passages in question, and regardless of the fact that many Bible scholars who have done such research have come to a conclusion different than mine, I’m right, and you’re wrong. And all of those scholars are too. Just because. The Bible doesn’t say what you say it says. If you try to suggest that it does, you’re ‘using’ the Bible.”

    What arrogance. There’s no way I’m wrong. There’s no way you’re right. So just stop talking. If we go at this issue that way, people will rightly tune us out. That’s not a sane approach to discussing one of the most contentious moral issues of our day. Sanity says, “Hey, I could be wrong, so let’s talk.” Cray-cray says, “I’m right, and you’re not, just because, so what is there to discuss?”

    Speaking of sane approaches, I’d like to plead with you that you buy a copy of “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate” by Justin Lee. It’s the most reasonable approach to the whole issue that I’ve ever read, and it’s in stores and available online today in hardcover and ebook formats. It won’t take you long to read it, and I think you’ll get something good from it, regardless where you fall on the issue of faith and homosexuality. Please, please, please: read it.

    Posted in Book Reviews, General, More Gay Stuff

    “TORN”: The best book you’ll read this year

    May 12, 2012 // No Comments »

    You need to read TORN: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. (For my fellow nerds, that’s TORN, not TRON.) Gay or straight, for or against gay relationships, you need to read it. If you feel like this issue matters to the church, you need to read it. While TORN doesn’t release until November, as I write this it’s available for pre-order at almost half-off the retail price at Amazon.com.

    How do I know you need to read it? How do I know it’s the best book you’ll read this year? I’ve read the manuscript. Shhh. Don’t tell. It is hands down the best book I’ve read on homosexuality as it affects the Christian faith. You’d have to read thousands and thousands of pages in dozens of other books to get get what author Justin Lee has managed to condense into one 272-page book.

    From the publisher …

    TORN provides insightful, practical guidance for all committed Christians who wonder how to relate to gay friends or family members–or who struggle with their own sexuality. Convinced that “in a culture that sees gays and Christians as enemies, gay Christians are in a unique position to bring peace,” Lee demonstrates that people of faith on both sides of the debate can respect, learn from, and love one another.

    And while I’m copying and pasting, here’s the “About the Author” section from Amazon.

    Justin Lee is the founder and executive director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN), a nonprofit, interdenominational organization working to increase dialogue between gays and Christians and support people on both sides wrestling with related issues.

    A passionate Christian from a conservative evangelical background, Justin thought he knew everything there was to know about the Christian approach to homosexuality-until unexpected events turned his world upside down and forced him to reconsider everything he believed. Today, his organization works with individuals, families, and churches to stop the debate from tearing people apart.

    Justin’s work has garnered national attention and praise from gays and Christians from across the theological spectrum. He has been featured in numerous print, radio, and television venues including Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper 360, the Associated Press, and a front page article in The New York Times. He is the director of the 2009 documentary Through My Eyes about the debate’s impact on young Christians, and the co-host of popular long-running podcast GCN Radio. Justin lives in Raleigh, NC.

    Hopefully, as we approach November, I’ll have an interview with Justin here on my blog.

    Did I mention you need to read TORN?

    Posted in Book Reviews, More Gay Stuff

    My NY Times best-selling friend

    May 4, 2012 // No Comments »

    A few years ago, my friend Kiera Cass wrote a book for young adult girls called The Siren, featuring a mostly lavender cover with fanciful script font and a pic of a woman in soft focus wearing a flowing white dress standing by some gentle water. It was the very image of masculinity, so I bought a copy. No. I bought a copy because Kiera is my friend, and I wanted to support her. I even promised to read the book on an upcoming trip I was taking. Obviously, I could not be seen in public toting such a thing, so I manned it up with some camo duct tape. 

    And are those condescending thoughts I remember having?

    Oh look, Kiera SELF-published a book. Not quite like getting a publisher (or two) to publish your book(s), but good for her!

    That was 2009. Today, one of my books is already out of print, and Kiera Cass just became a New York Times Best-selling author. So there ya go. Her teen fiction novel, The Selection, published by Harper (yes, the one and only), debuted (!) in the top 10. Do you realize how few people ever accomplish that? It is an extraordinary achievement.

    I wanted to know how Kiera did it and how she is dealing with it, so I exchanged messages with her the other night. She gave me permission to share her thoughts here.

    MATT: First, how are you handling the madness around you?

    KIERA: I guess I’m handling everything … ok? I don’t know! The funny thing is that even though it’s this huge deal and I’m super proud, nothing has changed. Tonight, I still had to run to my church small group, and my son Guyden is demanding milk and bananas, and there was laundry to fold. You know, same old same old. So it’s kind of funny.

    MATT: Ok, so HOW did this madness happen? I mean, obviously, the book is good or people wouldn’t be buying it, but how did it get so big so fast? How did you get an agent, when almost no one does? How did you get a big publisher, when almost no one does? How did your book break through to the top of thousands, when almost no one’s does. I mean, this is incredible, and you did it without any major connections, right?

    KIERA: I’m not 100% sure myself how it happened. My editor specifically warned me that the chances of this happening were SUPER slim. Not because the book is bad, but because there are a lot of other great young adult books out there that probably wouldn’t budge. And I know my sales were good for an unknown debut, but when I called my agent to tell her the news, her first reaction was, “I didn’t even think we had enough books printed to make the list!” So, you know, my reaction was, “Are you punking me?”

    I got my agent the old fashioned way, sending out queries. For The Siren, I sent out 80+ queries, had 10 agents read it, and no one wanted it. For The Selection, I sent out 13 queries, 2 agents wanted it, and I got to pick. Until I got her, though, I didn’t know my editor already had a few bestsellers on her hands. And she’s been promoted twice since I’ve been with her. 

    Some of this has to do with timing, I think. The Selection has been compared to The Hunger Games a lot, which is huge right now. But when I queried, The Hunger Games wasn’t The Hunger Games, ya know? My book just happened to come out at a time when people want something that gives them that same buzz, I guess? My book isn’t that much like The Hunger Games to me, but I know that the comparision has interested a few people, so that might be part of it, too.

    So, honestly, it just kind of happened. I don’t think I could have made it happen this way if I tried. Crazy, yes?

    And I can’t even dance around because I have edits due Monday on the next book that I am WAY behind on. And I’m off to work on that now! 

    So, there ya have it folks, from Kiera herself. Oh, and did I mention CW is making a TV show out of her book? Yeah.

    Congratulations, Kiera! You rock. Very, very excited for you. And when I write my teen girls fiction novel, I know who to go to for connections.

    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    REVIEW: “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”

    January 12, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    Anyone who enjoys writing should read Bird by Bird. It’s one of the most intriguing books on the craft I’ve read. It’s a quirky mix of practical advice and motivational speech that almost always works, and while Lamott’s humor becomes predictable in places–you get pretty good at guessing when she’s going to throw in a zinger–the fact is, her one liners and random asides are really funny.

    While describing a vineyard in Autumn, Lamott says,

    “The grapes are so incredibly beautiful that you can’t help but be thrilled. If you aren’t–if you only see someone’s profit or that in another month there will be rotten fruit all over the ground–somone has gotten inside your brain and really fucked you up. And you need to get well so you can see again, see that the grapes almost seem to glow, with a light dusting of some sort of powdery residue, like an incredibly light snowfall, almost as if they’re covered with their own confectioner’s sugar.”

    Fun, funny, poignant, practical, motivational.

    I appreciated her attitude toward the slow, hard work of writing:

    You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.

    Definitely worth the time and money to get and read this book.

    Posted in Book Reviews

    Books for 2012

    December 22, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    You suggested them. I have picked them. Here are the books I hope to read in 2012. Actually, I hope to read many more than these, but here are the ones at the top of the list. My goal is to read broadly, to move beyond my typically narrow range of subjects. Thank you for all the wonderful recommendations you made.

    Sabriel, Garth Nix

    I love fantasy films (some of them, anyway), but I’ve never read much fantasy. I chose Sabriel because, though it is part of a series, the story of book one stands on its own. No cliffhanger demanding I read more if I choose not to. Publishers Weekly says, “Rich, complex, involving, hard to put down, this first novel, an Australian import, is excellent high fantasy. The suitably climactic ending leaves no loose ends, but readers will hope for a sequel.” Amazon.com’s reviewer says, “Just try to put this book down.”

    Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

    From Amazon: “Think you’ve got a book inside of you? Anne Lamott isn’t afraid to help you let it out. She’ll help you find your passion and your voice, beginning from the first really crummy draft to the peculiar letdown of publication. Readers will be reminded of the energizing books of writer Natalie Goldberg and will be seduced by Lamott’s witty take on the reality of a writer’s life, which has little to do with literary parties and a lot to do with jealousy, writer’s block and going for broke with each paragraph. Marvelously wise and best of all, great reading.”

    Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt

    Seems an obvious pick for March, what with St. Patrick’s Day and all. A Pulitzer-prize winning memoir from a first time Irish author. Four and a half stars with nearly 2,000 reviews on Amazon. From the publisher: “Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors—yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance, and remarkable forgiveness.” School Library Journal says, “Readers will enjoy the humor and the music in the language. A vivid, wonderfully readable memoir.”

    Why We Love, Helen Fisher

    This Valentine’s Day, tell that special someone, “I neurotransmit you.” I don’t think neurotransmit is a word, but neurotransmitter is, and I bet this book uses that word a lot. Having studied (amateurishly) the goings-on of the brain suffering a mood disorder, I’m curious to know just what is happening “up there” that we call falling in love. Publishers Weekly says, “Fisher also reports on the behaviors that lead to successful lifelong partnerships and offers, based on what she’s observed, numerous tips on staying in love.”

    The Holy Bible with the Apocrypha (NRSV)

    In college, my friends and I made up nicknames for all the many versions of the Bible. The NIV was the Non-Inspired Version. The NASB was the Non-Authoritative Scripture Bible. The NKJV, the Never Knew Jesus Version. CEV, Completely Erroneous Version. My favorite was the KJV: The Killer Jargon Version. The list went on and on. Well, the past couple years I’ve read the Bible through in various versions. This year, I want to take my next 365-day jaunt through Holy Scripture by reading the NRSV, the Not Really Scripture Version. (Weren’t we clever?)

    How to Cook Everything, Mark Bittman

    Okay, so probably I’m not reading this one cover to cover, but I do want to cook better in 2012, so I’m picking up a copy of this. Some of you suggested the vegetarian version, but the original contains vegetarian recipes, and really I want to know how to cook everything better. Chef Bobby Flay says, “Mark Bittman has done the impossible, improving upon his now-classic How to Cook Everything. If you need know-how, here’s where to find it.” Good enough for Bobby Flay, good enough for me!

    Thanks again for all the great book recommendations. If your book didn’t make the cut, don’t despair. A year is a long time for someone who enjoys reading as much as I do. I may yet read your favorite.

    Happy reading in 2012!

    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    Review: “Wired for Intimacy”

    March 2, 2010 // 1 Comment »

    Struthers bookI like any book that provides a new twist on an old idea. Christian books for men on the issue of pornography certainly are not novel. But William M. Struthers, associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, offers something I don’t believe I’ve seen on the subject from a Christian author: a book that describes the neurological implications of pornography on the brain. Published by InterVarsity Press, Struthers work is titled Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain.

    From the publisher:

    “Countless Christian men struggle with the addictive power of porn. But common spiritual approaches of more prayer and accountability groups are often of limited help.

    In this book neuroscientist and researcher William Struthers explains how pornography affects the male brain and what we can do about it. Because we are embodied beings, viewing pornography changes how the brain works, how we form memories and make attachments. By better understanding the biological realities of our sexual development, we can cultivate healthier sexual perspectives and interpersonal relationships. Struthers exposes false assumptions and casts a vision for a redeemed masculinity, showing how our sexual longings can actually propel us toward sanctification and holiness in our bodies.”

    I recommend this book to men battling pornography, and to men who’ve yet to realize they should battle it. Struthers’ strongest point is his most simple, but it can shake men from complacency over their online habits: pornography physically changes the brain in frightening ways, forming neural pathways that enslave men to sin, pushing them further down a depraved road.

    Sound grim? Perhaps, but then so it would seem are the consequences of the habit. Struthers does offer hope in Wired for Intimacy. In fact, that’s the point of the book, to, yes, present the serious reality of viewing pornography, but then to show a way out. Struthers writes, “Imagine that you could be neurologically ‘enslaved’ to purity rather than porn. Enslaved to seeing the dignity of each individual rather than their utility to you. This is the distinction between the journey toward sanctification and the journey toward depravity.”

    Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain is available from all major outlets, including Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

    Posted in Book Reviews