Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Emily's Most Meaningful Reads of 2014

I took some time to consider which books I read this past year have most impacted my way of thinking about God, myself and the world in which I interact with him and others. Not all of these were published in 2014, but this is the year I got a hold of them. These are my top picks, with links to my blog posts about them:

Two books that most impacted my personal journal entries:
Bernadette Noll's Slow Family Living has a great list of 6 questions to help guide journal entries that I've used dozens of days in my times of reflection.Teresa A. Blythe's Fifty Ways to Pray is a treasure chest of prayer techniques from a variety of Christian traditions that has really made my quiet time feel like an adventure. Despite having this book for most of 2014, I've only mined a little of its richness and plan to keep on digging into it in 2015.

Book that fed my inner-foodie:
Hands-down, Barbara Kingsolver's memoir of her year living off local, homemade foods was enjoyable, eye-opening and motivating without being preachy. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is both intimate and journalistic, humorous and thought-provoking.

Best library find:
Kingsolver's mention of her friend and mentor Wendell Berry piqued my interest in this Kentucky author and activist. I found several volumes of his poetry in my local library, and really enjoyed the collection of poems in Given, which focus the heart God-ward through observations of God's creation.

Two books that made me a feminist:
Christians often bristle at the term feminist because it conjures up images of angry, bra-burning women who shirk domestic responsibilities and belittle those who find meaning in them. But that feminist is really a straw-woman. This year, I've come to realize that feminism is an important, even godly cause. Half the Sky by Pulitzer-winning husband and wife team Nicolas Kristof and Michelle and Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey are the two books that sealed the deal for me.

A book that gave me space to doubt without fear
I like Greg Boyd's methodical, brainy writing style, which is on full display in The Benefit of the Doubt. This book argues that doubts about the peripherals of faith don't need to undermine our core faith in Jesus. The freedom that comes with this outlook has been a balm to my heart, mind and soul. 

Best book-club read
Seeing as my friend and I only read two books this year, it might seem that my choice holds less weight. But Kisses From Katie, the memoir of an upper-middle class Nashville teen who traded her shiny future for life as an adoptive mother and relentless activist in Uganda would make my list for best reads against any odds. This is a moving book that made me reevaluate my priorities and reconsider my needs and redirect my prayer life. Best of all, Davis's love for Jesus is infectious.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What's Ahead for 2015

I've been giving my mail carrier and UPS worker a workout the last couple of days! Here's a list of books I plan to review in the next month or so:

1. What Your Body Knows About God: How We are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive, written by my friend Rob Moll

2. Mothering From Scratch: Finding the Best Parenting Style for You and Your Family by Melinda Means and Kathy Helgemo

3. Make it Happen: Surrender Your Fear, Take the Leap, Live on Purpose by Lara Casey

4. From Tablet to Table by Leonard Sweet

5. Disquiet Time edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani

How about you? What books are you planning to read this coming year?

Review of "Jotham's Journey"

I know it's not very helpful when a blogger posts a review of a book for Advent after Christmas, but I'm going to do it anyway. I had been eyeing Jotham's Journey: A Storybook for Advent, by Arnold Ytreeide, for a couple of years now, but knew my children were too young to sit through a serial story without pictures. A family tradition of reading together, an idea promoted on the back of Ytreeide's book, is something I hope to incorporate into every holiday season. Because things get really busy with all the trappings of Christmas in our consumer culture, it wasn't easy to carve out time each night to read to the boys, and only my 6-year-old stuck through to the end of the story. But he did enjoy the story of a little 10-year-old shepherd boy who gets separated from his family after an impulsive act of defiance. Throughout the nightly chapters, Jotham gets stalked by wild jackals, sold into slavery, rescued by an Essene scribe from Qumron (the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered), and chased all over Israel by a menacing villan named Decha of Megido. He also crosses paths with Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna before finding his parents in Bethlehem, where his family has returned to register for the census. I think you can guess who Jotham meets in the final chapter.

The chapters take about 10 to 15 minutes to read aloud. Both my husband and I, who took turns reading the nightly installments, modified the language of the book, which I found to be a tad too graphic for little kids in some places and too flowery in most places. The writing is geared toward children 10 and up, but the action-packed plot and closing cliff-hangers kept my son's attention. As historical fiction, the story brings the culture of the time of Christ's birth to life. As a devotional, the book includes brief passages for reflection at the end of each chapter. I didn't always read these segments, but I'm glad they were there and I can see myself including them in future years as my boys' attention spans and comprehension grow. Additionally, Jotham's Journey is the first of three books Ytreeide has written for Advent. The other two focus on other children Jotham met on his journey. We enjoyed Jotham enough that I plan to purchase the other two and rotate through these three books each Christmas season.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of "Faith Shift" by Kathy Escobar

I was attracted to the title Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart by Kathy Escobar because my own Christian beliefs have evolved significantly since I first fell in love with Jesus in high school, and I suspect I'm not quite done shifting yet. Because of my past, I related to Escobar's own unnerving journey away from a belief system that once sustained her and framed her entire life. Through her new church plant, The Refuge, and her website, Escobar has learned the stories of hundreds of Christians who, though psychologically married to a church culture that requires adherence to an extensive set of beliefs and practices, are desperate for a a change. With these stories in mind, Escobar invites readers to "consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk," as they shed those once deeply-held convictions.

Perhaps because my own shift has been gradual, I found the first half of the book difficult to really embrace. Escobar reaches out to those who began as Christians and have shifted to spiritual-but-not-Christian, agnostic or even atheist. She offers multiple examples of ex-pastors becoming atheists as they heal from an abusive church setting. I expected this book to be about a shift in faith, rather than a complete severing of one's faith; however, "Severing" is actually one of the points on Escobar's diagram depicting the process of shifting.

For example, Fiona is a former pastor's wife who has dabbled with atheism, agnosticism and Christian agnosticism since a crisis of faith. To this, Escobar asserts, "Regardless of which label she wears on a particular day, the crucial truth she has needed to embrace for her healing is that she really is okay. No matter what she believes, she is going to be all right" (113). Since Escobar doesn't qualify or explain this sentiment, I felt pretty uncomfortable and wondered where where she would finally land. I'm guessing many readers who turn to the book in an attempt to salvage their Christian faith would also be troubled by this.

Because it contains so many anecdotes of those who completely left Christianity, the first half of the book seemed to present a contradictory message: Believe what you want to believe in order to heal from abuse or legalism or burn-out. Do what you need to do to recover emotionally, physically and spiritually. Question your long-held beliefs without fear because it will lead you to a deeper faith. Except when it doesn't. Which is also OK.

I just couldn't get OK with this message. But, fortunately, I didn't have to for long. If things were completely foggy a few pages before, Escobar makes it clear, "I am not promoting walking away from God" (115). And beginning in chapter 10, which discusses "The Stage of Rebuilding," I found the much needed glimpses of hope Escobar promises in her introduction. Here, Escobar beautifully articulates many things I've longed for in my own faith journey, such as a "desire for freedom, mystery and diversity -- instead of certainty, conformity or affiliation" (127). She proposes a Christian life that sees the world through a filter of "hopeful realism," honoring to those we meet from the "fused faith" of our past, accepting of our own doubts and expectantly open to new possibilities.

Escobar also encourages shifters to consider what remains of our previous faith, because each remaining essential belief is like a "treasured gem" that can illuminate a simple path forward (143). She offers the following sentence stem as a template for hashing out the diamonds: "Despite my doubt, I still believe ____________________" (146). In chapter 12, "Finding What Works," she provides plenty of examples of ways to connect with God that might be outside readers' previous church tradition. Trying a new prayer practice or reading books or bible versions considered taboo in one's former circle can be particularly freeing, Escobar writes, because it's less likely to trigger old memories, habits and shame.

The book closes with more resources, such as tips for those who find themselves shifting while their spouse is not, those concerned about their children's nascent faith during a parent's shift and non-shifters looking for ways to connect with friends or family members who are shifting. Additionally, a nice fat reading list of memoirs, theology and spirituality had me on Amazon looking up future reads.

I would tentatively recommend Faith Shift to someone who is really at a crossroads in their faith, but feels alone in the process. Despite Escobar's emphasis on the full process of Fusing, Shifting, Unraveling, Severing and Rebuilding, I would probably recommend that readers who are disenchanted with religion but still in love with Jesus, skim the first nine chapters and jump right to the good stuff of Rebuilding.

*Thanks to Blogging For Books for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review of "Fierce Convictions"

When I saw the gorgeous cover of Fierce Convictions, with its elegantly dressed young woman storming through an English garden I couldn't help but imagine the spurned heroine of a Jane Austen novel. The biography's subtitle, The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, was even more enticing, promising a heroine whose life pursuits centered on scholarly achievement and humanitarian activism rather than securing a wealthy husband.

Though a prominent and prolific writer in her day, Hannah More has been largely forgotten by the 18th century history narratives of today. Karen Swallow Prior resurrects this key figure through extensive research of her letters, literary works and the words of her contemporaries, such as fellow abolitionist and famed orator William Wilberforce. Prior also emphasizes the source of More's extraordinary zeal as her Christian faith, which, surprisingly, grew deeper even as her worldly fame and success mounted. 

 Prior describes More as a "woman of contradictions and convictions" (87), and supports this with ample examples. The book begins by shining light on More's humble origins, her early aptitude for literature (including a witty poem she wrote at four) and her at times awkward and starry eyed rise to fashionable London society. The author also avails herself of the requisite romantic tragedy, devoting an early chapter to Hannah's on-again off-again engagement to a rich but waffling suitor.

From here, the book is largely arranged by topic rather than chronological order. This was probably the biggest detractor of the biography for me. I found myself having to calculate More's age with every mention of the date. This broke up the fluidity of her story and her evolving convictions for me. Often it felt like I was traveling back and forth through time rather than riding smoothly along through the protagonist's life.  Despite my difficulties with date crunching, I was still drawn into the book and inspired by this amazing woman.

Highlights for me included Prior's descriptions of More's abolitionist efforts, like her penchant for whipping out engravings of slave ships during high society dinner parties. Prior also included the full text of More's moving poem "Slavery." My favorite chapter describes More and her sister Patty tromping through the countryside to woo rich and poor alike for support in setting up a school for the rural poor. This project eventually produced dozens of schools and fueled the rise of public education. As a member and often host of the Clapham Sect meetings, More and some of the brightest male reformers worked late into the night hashing out strategies to turn the tide of public opinion away from slavery, cruelty to animals and oppression of the poor. 

Because she confessed and acted upon a spectrum of timeless moral convictions for improving the lives of "the least of these" and for reining in the excesses of the greatest, More certainly makes my cut for a modern day role model. Yet, though More was ahead of her time, Prior was careful to show that her convictions were tempered by the prevailing culture of her day. More assented to many conservative beliefs that seem backward in today's culture. Despite owing her own rags to riches story to the power and income of her pen, she didn't believe in teaching the poor to write, for fear that they would distribute their own revolutionary tracts. And though More was considered a shining example of female wit and strength, she hypocritically belittled the leadership qualities of women in general, writing in a letter to a friend that "there is perhaps no animal so much indebted to subordination for its good behavior as woman" (213). Ouch.

But I don't want to end on that note. Overall, Hannah More's story is one that needs to be read, and her extraordinary life emulated. She struck a delicate balance between living in the world but not of it, and Prior brings to life More's world and convictions in this comprehensive and interesting biography.

*Thanks to BookLook Bloggers for providing my copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review of "Cassie & Caleb Discover God’s Wonderful Design"

I’m going to partially blame myself for misunderstanding what this book was. When I saw the siblings frolicking across stones in a frog pond on the cover of Cassie & Caleb Discover God’s Wonderful Design, I assumed it was going to be a devotional exploring how the wonders of nature reveal our Creator’s wisdom. When I read the back cover, which states that from reading these twenty devotions, “your children will learn: The creational principle that ‘God created man in his own image…male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27) is extraordinary!” I still did not realize this devotional, written by Susan Hunt and Richie Hunt and published by Moody, focuses specifically on gender roles and the differences between boys and girls. I don’t dispute the biological, hormonal and cultural differences between the sexes, but I’m sensitive about how I approach these differences with my boys, because I don’t want to cultivate potentially harmful stereotypes in their impressionable minds.

What this book is:
Similar to the Hunts’ book My ABC Bible Verses, which my oldest son enjoyed when he was in preschool, Cassie & Caleb teaches biblical principles by following siblings through their quintessential childhood experiences. At 96 pages, Cassie & Caleb is geared toward 5- to 8-year-olds. Unlike My ABC Bible Verses, it is illustrated with dreamy-eyed children in an array of nationalities. Each chapter also contains a two-page story, discussion questions, Catechism questions to memorize and a prayer prompt.

My Two Cents:
The inescapable theme of this book is that God created males to be the adventurous, leaders and breadwinners and females to be the tender, weaker nurturer in a supporting role to men. For example, as the family discusses Genesis 2 around the dinner table in one story, Caleb comments, “It seems to me… that Adam was not acting like a man. He didn’t lead the woman by reminding her of God’s Word” (62). Boys are also portrayed as more naturally rough and tumble than their delicate counterparts.  In another story, Caleb and his buddy sneak up behind Cassie and her friend and pummel them with mud until they scream. Instead of chiding them, the older, wiser adults chuckle at the mud-slingers with a “boys will be boys” attitude until the girls eventually laugh at their mud-soaked situation too. The story is innocent enough, and I agree that none of us should take ourselves too seriously, but something about it didn’t sit right with me. My three boys get muddy and barefoot in the back yard all summer long, but I would not condone them if they ambushed unsuspecting children, be they girls or boys. 

As with any stereotype, I don’t believe the one presented here fits every man or woman, nor do I believe God even intends that it should. However, I appreciated that the Hunts were careful to avoid being heavy-handed in their presentation of a complementarian viewpoint. For example, Dad is seen washing dishes, and Cassie’s friends are presented as having a variety of interests from softball and fishing to frilly clothes and the color pink. The book emphasizes equality between men and women despite their differing roles and promotes godly character for both men and women, touching on topics such as pride, forgiveness, and gratefulness. I liked that the main characters often make decisions against the grain of peer pressure. For example, in one episode, Caleb talks his friend out of sneaking into a scary movie after they’ve purchased tickets for an age-appropriate one. I think the book also emphasizes grace and provides models for healthy conflict resolution. For example, all of the characters, including Mom and Dad, have moments of weakness and sin, and all are able to own up to their mistakes or forgive each other their failings at the end of each story. For these reasons, I thought Cassie & Caleb was a step up from My ABC Bible Verses, in which the parents were perfect, the younger sister was always the little angel and the older brother the family’s Goofus.

Because I’d like to present a more nuanced take on what makes men and women different and how every individual can uniquely serve and express their maker, I probably won’t be reading this book to my "everything is black or white" 6-year-old just yet. However, I would recommend the book to families comfortable with a complementarian view and looking for a devotional that will likely capture young children’s attention with gospel-oriented stories.

A Give-Away... Might make a good Christmas gift!
I've been very blessed to find several sources of free Christian books and am excited to keep giving them away after I've reviewed them. Moody Publishers generously sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, so I'd like to also give this book away to one lucky blog reader who answers one of following questions in the comment section below: (If you have trouble using Disqus, as some did during the last drawing, let me know on Facebook, and I'll post your comment for you.)

What kind of devotionals have you done or are you doing with your children?
What conversations have you had with your children about being a boy or girl?
What questions have your children asked you, and how have you answered?

UPDATE: The winner of this drawing is....