Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reflections on John Walton's "Lost World of Genesis One"

I had a lull in my review schedule, so I decided to read a book that's been on my shelf for a while, John H. Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

A little bit about me. I'm a Christian, I love the inspired word of God, I majored in Geology and I don't find these things incompatible. Like Walton, I see no credible evidence for Young Earth Creationism, but I'm still not exactly sure what I believe regarding the when and how God created the universe. (And part of me thinks that's no big deal either!) The lovely thing about this book is that it minimizes the importance of the material creation of the world and refocuses our attention on the key point that God is the source and continues to be the One in control.

In a nutshell, Walton proposes that reading the Genesis creation account literally means we take account of cultural context for the first audience of the book. And as an Old Testament scholar at Wheaton College, Walton shows that in the Ancient Near Eastern worldview, the concept of existence is tied to functionality rather than material presence. To establish this idea, Walton analyzes how the Hebrew word for create (bara) is used throughout the OT. While Walton thinks that yom in Genesis is best interpreted as a 24-hour period of time and not an age or millions of years as some theistic evolutionists propose, he also believes that the material creation of the universe happened long before the Genesis narrative. In this way, his view is similar to the "Gap Theory" I grew up with in the church of my youth, which also sees the Adam and Eve taking place long after the dinosaurs and Lucy.

I think this quote, from page 130, sums up Walton's view (and my own):

The view of Genesis offered in this book is also teleological but accepts that all of creation is the result of God's handiwork, whether naturalistic mechanisms are identifiable or not, and whether evolutionary processes took place or not. God has designed all that there is and may have brought some of his designs into existence instantaneously, whereas others he may have chosen to bring into existence through long, complicated processes. Neither procedure would be any less an act of God.
The book also contains a thoughtful proposal for the way origins should be taught in public schools (a proposal in which neither the prevailing system nor Creationists or Intelligent Design proponents win completely). Additionally, a Q&A section in the prologue of the book is written in very accessible language, offering a good cool-down to the mental workout the rest of the book provided. If you're interested in how the scientific consensus of our day and the Biblical explanation of origins mesh, and if you don't mind whipping out your dictionary from time to time, I recommend this book.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review of Peter Chin's "Blind-Sided By God"

What drew me to Peter Chin's memoir of his early days as a struggling church-planter in Washington D.C. was the story: within months of moving to their crime-ridden neighborhood, his family of four experienced miscarriage, burglaries, news of an aggressive form of breast cancer and a letter informing them their health insurance would not cover his wife's treatment. Just as Chin's wife, Carol, was about to go under the knife to remove her tumor, doctors discovered one more twist in the already impossible situation: She was 6-weeks pregnant.

If anyone would have the right to doubt and complain to God in an all-out Job-like fashion, it would be the Chins. Why would God seem to make them choose between the well-being of their unborn baby and Carol's chances for beating an especially deadly cancer? Would the baby survive the toxic cocktail of chemotherapy required to treat Carol's cancer, which had also spread to her lymph nodes? And how on earth were they going to launch a new church amid chemo treatments and prenatal appointments? This is a book about Chins' doubts, suffering and growing up in his faith. Happily, it's a story with an incredible miracle conclusion that had me up late to read the entire book in one sitting. It's also a story with many small miracles-- the cross-cultural relationships the Chins built with their neighbors and congregants.

The story and the hope it brings makes Blind-Sided By God worth reading. On the one hand, Chin is not afraid to honestly share his thoughts, motives and shortcomings, even at the risk of being painfully unflattering.  On the other hand, Chin puts his seminary degree to good use by pairing each installment of the story with an exposition of scriptures that emphasize the suffering Christ and his followers experience. I especially liked his honest reflection on Christ's crying out "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?" with his final breath on the cross. While acknowledging the traditional interpretation that Jesus had to be briefly separated from the Father in the moment he took on all of humanity's sin, Chin poses the possibility that Jesus experienced a genuine feeling of righteous lament and deep sadness and even confusion. And if Jesus can question the Father this way, God can handle our questions too.

This is Chin's first book, and with phrases like "in no small way" and "suffice it to say" sprinkled throughout, his sometimes archaic style seems to be influenced by 19th century Christian classics. I also have to confess I scurried through a few of the more pastoral parts of the book to get back to the page-turning plot. Overall, I recommend this book for anyone who feels caught in a whirlwind but afraid to question God's hand in the tragedy, struggle and beautiful mess that often characterizes the Christian life.

*Bethany House publishers sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Review of Donald Miller's "Scary Close"

As much as I like reading self-help and how-to, the most impactful life lessons seem to come from watching those I admire in their everyday moments or hearing their stories over a cup of tea. I think this is why I felt like I could learn so much from Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller's newest book, Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy, which reads like a friend recounting poignant memories--some painful, some sweet. This might sound strange, but as I read, I got the feeling that if Miller could befriend my husband and I, he would. 

On the surface, this is a book about Miller's road to emotional health after years of failed relationships before he met his fiance (now wife). But it's really so much more than a book on how to marry the right person or to be the kind of person that snags a spouse or how to have a good marriage, though the principles could be applied to any of those pursuits. And, refreshingly, despite "intimacy" being in the subtitle, this is a Christian book on marriage, written by a man, that does not once mention sex (my husband was quick to point this out to me.) The intimacy Miller explores is the best kind of connection, honesty and closeness we can experience with our spouses, children, friends and even coworkers. He also writes a chapter on the "Five Kinds of Manipulators" to show the unhealthy behaviors we should avoid in ourselves and in potential relationships. Throughout the book, Miller's willingness to learn from others and to see himself as helpful to others has encouraged me to reframe my perception of my own relationships.

I finished the book feeling inspired by the many stories of healthy relationships and the insights gleaned from these examples. Between parents and children: Paul Young's story of rebuilding his family's trust after an affair had me in tears. Miller's picture of the relationship the Youngs have with their grown children now says it all: "In the past, when I've had dinner with them, I was surprised at how freely and openly they talked through whatever problem they were dealing with. It's as though their family was a refuge, a place where everybody could be themselves with no fear of being judged" (159).   Between husbands and wives: My favorite insight was Miller's musings on how his wife Betsy would not "complete him" a la Jerry Maguire. Instead, he writes that every human being has an eternal longing and thirst in their heart that will only be filled when Jesus returns. We can't expect even our closest relationship to fill that void, but we can enjoy experiencing that longing together with our spouse. There's also a bit where Miller writes up a business plan for his marriage that is way more awesome than it sounds. But I'm going to leave that as bait for you to get this book and read it with someone you love :)

It's not my habit to write glowing reviews without spending at least a paragraph or two on what I perceive as flaws in the book. So consider this my Valentine's Day present to the blogosphere. I truly enjoyed this book as a whole and am still musing, savoring and praying over its many facets.

*I would spend my own money on this book, but for the purposes of this review I received a free copy from the generous folks at BookLook in exchange for my honest opinion.*

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

And the winner is....

Congratulations to Matt, you've won a copy of Rob Moll's What Your Body Knows About God! Thank you to all who commented on my previous post. Even if you didn't win, I highly recommend Rob's book. :)

Monday, February 9, 2015

"What Your Body Knows About God" author Q&A + GIVEAWAY!

I’m very excited to present a Q&A with Rob Moll about his new book, What Your Body Knows About God, in which he explores how current brain research uncovers our God-given need to connect deeply with each other and with God. The book weaves together both the intricacies of human physiology and personal experiences in an honest, approachable style. Rob is an editor-at-large with Christianity Today and serves World Vision as communications officer to the president. Rob, his wife Clarissa, and their four children live in the Seattle area. He also happens to be my childhood friend, and I have many fond memories of Wednesday night youth group hosted by his parents at their home. He’s generously and thoughtfully answered my many questions, so enjoy reading Rob’s responses below.

Emily: Who do you feel will benefit most from reading this book?

Rob: My main audience is Christians who want a deeper prayer life or those who are interested in the connection between science and faith. That's not really a demographic that you can identify with a pollster and target a book to, but I think a lot of Christians want a deeper connection to God through prayer. This book, I hope, is a fun and encouraging way to understand how we are designed for that kind of connection.

Emily: You did a boatload of research on brain chemistry and behavior, much of which you've featured in the first section of the book. Which studies' conclusions surprised you the most?

Rob: Reading Andrew Newberg's research on the brain and spirituality was key. One thing he found was that an area of the brain that is stimulated by prayer is also involved in social interaction. So people who pray can increase their sense of care for other people, their compassion. For me it was astounding to read this research that said loving God helps you to love your neighbor, which as Jesus said, are the two greatest commandments.

Emily: One of the most powerful chapters in your book for me was when you described Clarissa's crisis of health, which almost tipped you toward a crisis of faith in your thesis that God perfectly designed us to connect with him and other believers. What has helped most to restore your confidence?

Rob Moll, author of What Your Body Knows About God 
Photo by Alissa Clark
Rob: Learning how God has also designed us to respond to suffering. Yes, our bodies are often broken. As healthy as prayer and spirituality are, it isn't a magic formula for everything going perfectly. Things go wrong, and we are designed to respond to people's suffering. My favorite study was one that sought to determine which of two different treatments would best help MS suffers. It turned out that the MS suffers who provided the treatments were helped the most! Helping others, we help ourselves.

Emily: To rewire our brains for the better, you argue for regular, focused times of prayer. You've also shared your own habit of praying quietly as your children drift off to sleep. Do you have encouragement for other harried parents of young children who long to spend time with God, but struggle to do it regularly?

Rob: I was complaining once to a friend about all the demands of being a parent, and she told me, "Well, it makes you holy." I try to embrace that. Spirituality isn't only in the quiet moments and special times with God. Spirituality is also the work of parenting. Our goal isn't to feel peaceful with God, our purpose is to be like Christ. Find the time you can to talk with God; quiet yourself when you have the opportunity. But remember that God gave you those children too, and he is with you as you parent.  

Emily: In the second part of the book, you focus on the importance of spiritual disciplines such as multi-sensory worship and acts of service. Can you describe some other disciplines you and Clarissa practice on a regular basis? 

Rob: Sometimes, I need to change my perspective and see what I'm already doing as a discipline and sometimes I try to add a small ritual to my life. We read children's devotional books to the kids every night. We have a weekly prayer group at our house. We try to say the evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on a regular basis. I try to fast in some form during Lent.  I have been wanting to memorize Scripture, but that's been difficult for me.

Emily: You dedicated this book to several youth leaders from your past who helped you learn to pray. Having grown up in the same church movement as you, I know the Anglican tradition is in many ways very different, yet you seem to treasure aspects of both. Can you describe your former church's approach to the spiritual disciplines vs. your current church's approach? How do they differ and what have your learned/gained from each?

Rob: Yes, the church movement I grew up in was very "low church" compared to even a low church Anglican congregation. However, my church growing up did teach me to pray in a deep and intentional way, something that isn't really taught in many churches today. I learned to focus my mind in a way that I could be present with God. The Anglican tradition creates this kind of space in its services, too. While it isn't spontaneous in the same way as what I grew up with, it still allows for the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts through a structured service that becomes very meaningful.

Emily: What do you hope pastors and church leaders take away from your points about genuine community and spiritual disciplines? How should the studies you've presented inform the way church leaders minister to or guide their flocks?

Rob: Our connection to other people is an absolutely essential part of our spiritual life. We need churches that connect us to others, not ones that put on a show. Too often our churches are more geared toward attracting attendees than creating disciples. Smaller churches with better connections produce more active, engaged, committed Christians. They grow faster and have more converts. People who are more connected socially give more and volunteer more.

If you enjoyed Rob's insights here, be sure to check out What Your Body Knows About God, as well as Rob’s first book, The Art of Dying. For a chance to win your very own copy, comment below to be entered in my drawing! Unlike most of my ways to lure traffic to the blog, this give-away is open to anyone in the continental U.S. :)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review of Carlos Whittaker's "Moment Maker"

My bookish friend and I recently finished reading worship leader and blogger Carlos Whittaker's Moment Maker: You Can Live Your Life or It Will Live You. It's a quick read fully of interesting stories, at turns heart-wrenching and humorous. But at first, I was a little frustrated by this book. I was waiting for it to methodically instruct me in the art of living in the moment and making the most of life's moments. That sounds a little absurd now that I've typed it. But my misconception was fueled in part by phrases on the back cover like "Carlos guides..." and "Carlos shares... his methodolgy for living on purpose." The book's many emotionally charged stories are also loosely organized into three sections, "Created Moments," "Received Moments," and "Rescued Moments" and the book's Afterword outlines the "Moment-Making Method." However, when I tried to imagine what I needed to do in order to be more moment-oriented, I found that the actual steps Whittaker shares are somewhat vague and at times conflicting. Should I be capturing moments with my pen and camera, or should I put down my lens so I can really live these moments? Whittaker seems to argue both in his chapter on the birth of his second daughter. Should I heed the call to "Go! Blaze!" or should I pause? Whittaker argues both.

So I stopped trying to read it like a guidebook or a How-To, and that made all the difference. I let this book be what I think it really is: a memoir of moments from the life of one of my brothers in Christ. From this perspective, I could receive some lessons that instructed my heart.

Here's what I gleaned:
  • When my kids are having a moment, I don't need to push them or try to fix them. Sometimes drawing out the awkward pause, listening rather than trying to offer solutions, allowing the tears to drop and holding them in a full-attention hug is the best I can give. See Whittaker's stories about of the tragic end of his daughters' butterfly farm, his daughter's accepting Jesus and their family trip to help recover tornado victims' prized belongings.
  • Explore every day. Whittaker sets his alarm to remind him to take in his surroundings and get inspired for future moment-making possibilities. And then he writes them down in his folder of more than 34,000 ideas!
  • Allow God to speak through others. Even the bearded barista or the music-loving homeless guy.
  • Value others through my actions. Even strangers and people with completely different life experiences. In Whittaker's case, this involved a rowdy group of soldiers newly returned from Afghanistan and a group of transgendered divas ready to beat up some rednecks in a Nashville honky tonk. I'm guessing I'll probably insert myself into different situations :)
  • If you can't measure up to your competitors, use creativity to showcase your unique skills. It might work, as it did for an out-of-shape college student auditioning to be a roaming character at Disneyland.
So, in conclusion, I like the intention of this book, and even though his personality is probably the polar opposite of my own, I like Carlos Whittaker's spontaneity, creativity and interest in others. He doesn't really have a method to his moment-making maddness, but he does exemplify the greatest commandment to love God and love others as himself.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Book Bargain: Roald Dahl's "More About Boy"

I don't normally buy reading material at Dollar Tree, honestly. But over the weekend, I saw Quentin Blake's familiar illustration style peeking up behind a stack of generic inspirational books and stepped in for a closer look. More About Boytales from the interesting life of Roald Dahl (1916-1990), author of James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book's list price is $15.99, but it's selling for a buck at the dollar store! Much more interesting than an autobiography, this 220 page paperback is like Dahl's scrapbook of his childhood and budding aspirations as a writer, filled with black and white photographs, maps, snippets of letters and stories in the author's handwriting and Blake's silly scratchy sketches. I read the first chapter while eating breakfast and look forward to sharing it with my oldest son as a way to inspire him to work hard and pursue his interests.