Category Archives: book reviews

Bricks without Straw: A Reflection on Teaching.

Fundiementals returns on Monday. Continuing now with my Bible notes – Exodus Chapter 5 reminds me so much of teaching it’s scary. Deserves its own post.

Pharaoh Myers

“And Pharoah/Principal/Superintendent/Chancellor Myers said, “Your funds have been cut, and you shall have more children in each class, and each of you will have less help because there is no money for teacher’s aides. Yet you will be punished if your children do not succeed at the same rate as before.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can we teach as effectively as before when we have more children and less help?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. And there will be no more free breakfast, for the city has decided that these freeloaders cannot take the well-earned money of the producers of society. And there will furthermore be no more Head Start program, for the same reason.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can our students learn if they are fasting every day? And how can we make up the difference in our students’ knowledge base without the help of additional programming, when we are already teaching with more children and less help?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. You will lose funding, and there shall be no art class or music program or sports teams because we must concentrate on testing skills. And there shall be no recess because we must not waste time on play. Yet you must maintain the same level of order in your classrooms and increase your student’s test scores.”

Your students have only improved by 50%! You have brought shame on all of us! More paperwork for you!

And the teachers cried out, “But how can five year olds, who are developmentally, biologically programmed to learn through play, learn in this way that forces them to sit as adults for six hours at a time with no break? And how are they to learn how to manage social skills if they never get to interact with one another freely? Don’t we already have an epidemic of violence and bullying in our schools?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, there is no time for anything except reading and math and test scores. They will improve, you will improve them, or you will be punished.”

And the teachers replied, “But how can the children understand anything that they are reading about if they have had no exposure to anything in the books? How can we teach children to understand books that are about art and music and games and places and experiences that they have never, ever experienced? How can we accomplish this without enrichment programs and field trips?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will raise your student’s test scores and not make measly excuses. You will be punished when you fail.”

And the teachers replied, “May we at least use the lessons that we have practiced and perfected over our careers to help us raise our students’ scores?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “No, you must use this new mandated curriculum, and your students’ scores will increase.”

And the teachers replied, “But we do not know this new curriculum. Wouldn’t our time be better spent individualizing our own methods to each of the many children in our classes, especially now that we have more children with less help and no enrichment?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “No, you will use the mandated curriculum and learn it, and implement it without mistake, because it is teacher-proof, and the program will raise your students’ test scores. And if your students’ test scores are not raised by the program, you will be punished. The fault will be yours, not the program’s. And you will do this while I increase your paperwork load by 500% as you input ongoing test scores for data-driven instruction and monthly reports and flawless bulletin boards for when my inspectors come around to make sure that you are following all our instructions and increasing students’ test scores. ”

And the teachers replied, “But why must we spend valuable classroom time administering weekly tests to kindergarteners, who can barely hold their pencils yet, and whose learning at this stage in brain development is not linear as with an older child?”

Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will do this, and if you fail to bring up your students’ test scores, you will be punished.”

Yes, it was really that monotonous. And, at times, insane. And heartbreaking. And hopeless-feeling. For me, anyway. I actually didn’t realize how strongly I still felt about this, how overwhelmed and angry and embittered toward the ed system, until I read this passage on the same day that I had a meeting with a friend about some social justice work. And I broke down crying at the memory of the time when I used to care so much about helping children who needed a boost, who weren’t born with a head start, and how painful it was to go back into battle every single day against all these forces that were in place to make your job nigh-on impossible.

I’m not sure I ever really let myself feel the defeat before. It feels so dark and hopeless to know that any little light that you can give a child on any given day has only a slim chance of surviving the onslaught of crap that the child will face for the rest of the day, and you’re going to be starting from scratch again tomorrow, and nothing is ever going to get better, and you’ll always, at best, only be half a step ahead of the darkness threatening to bring you down. That’s how I felt anyway. A suburban teacher in a well-funded school with aides and a regularly renewed library and parents with ample time to volunteer might have a very different experience. Or not. At any rate, our public schools are not all created equal.

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THIS. Naughty Thoughts. (On Church). A Book Review.

THIS is the book I’ve been waiting to read. I just didn’t know it. “Naughty Thoughts: On Church, and Why I Think We Need to Change,” by South African author Johan van der Merwe, addresses every doubt and internal conflict I’ve had about church attendance for the past two years. In fact, his central question is “Do I have to belong to a local church?” There are some for whom this question is satisfactorily settled, on either side, and you may not be interested in the question, and that’s fine. Neither van der Merwe nor I is interested in digging people out of a way of practicing Christianity that is working for them. Van der Merwe makes clear on several occasions that if you are finding life in a traditional church of any denomination, he has no quarrel with you continuing to love and serve God in that context. I do not fall into this camp. I have been struggling with questions of church for quite some time because, while I understand the nature of the gospel to be communal, and I don’t know how to experience that communal relationship outside of church, at the same time, I don’t feel that church is really enabling that experience, either.  For people who share this longing and dissonance, this book might be very compelling for you. I personally experienced such a huge paradigm shift while reading this book that it’s hard for me to write this review because I don’t have enough distance yet from the shift to be able to articulate it.  All I can say it that it was foundationally liberating to hear someone acknowledge, articulate, and honor all my subconscious questions and conflicts.

“Thinking Naughty Thoughts” is van der Merwe’s somewhat lengthy reflection on why the church as the institution we have come to know, is, per se, a fundamentally flawed and perhaps even toxic vehicle for trying to communicate the gospel of Christ. Not because the church is corrupt, although it is sometimes, and not because it needs some reforms, although it often does, but because the very principles that help institutions to exist conflict in some central ways to the gospel. Van der Merwe points out repeatedly that the primary metaphors used to describe the church in the first century all revolved around families, meals, bodies, and households – very natural, organic, fellowship-oriented concepts. And while we pay lip service to those metaphors today, our weekly church experience doesn’t actually practice them, whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Or if your church makes a special effort to foster familial relating among its members, it does that over and above and separately from its standard Sunday event – Sunday service and fellowship and community service, when van der Merwe points out that in the first century church, church basically was fellowship and service.

Van der Merwe takes a critical look at several basic elements endemic to institutional church, including tithing, liturgy, the role of the pastor, the Sunday sermon, church buildings, the Eucharist (yes, the Eucharist), and Sunday worship.

I’ll take one example to illustrate the dynamics that “Naughty Thoughts” is taking a look at – the role of the pastor. Van der Merwe spends several pages at the beginning of the chapter explaining that he does not mean to speak against any particular pastors, and neither do I. He (and I) are acquainted with many wonderful, hard-working, Christ-loving, long-serving pastors who do wonderful work, and his critique is not meant as personal slander – he is critiquing the institutional office of pastor, and what it has become, rather than any individual people who serve in that office. Despite this disclaimer, it is still a difficult critique to make precisely because van der Merwe is arguing that the existence of a professional pastor (or priest) per se is not only unnecessary but sort of contrary to some of the primary values of the gospel.

Van der Merwe makes a detailed case that Christ came to found, not a great religion, but a family of equals. I won’t go into that case in detail, but considering that Christ disrupted first century Jews’ understanding of their own religion, radically moved the boundary line that decided who was included, and left precious few instructions on how to proceed, and that first-century Christians shared everything in common, etc., you can probably see where he is going with that without me giving you the full exposition. Anyway, he goes on to point out that if Christianity is to be a family of equals, and yet every Sunday our way of coming to God is to sit and listen to the same person monologue at length about what we are to take from the Bible and the tradition, rather than engaging with our neighbors, dialoguing, and taking turns offering illumination of varying kinds, then the message (Christianity is a family of equals) is in tension with the delivery of that message (one man delivering all your wisdom from a place of authority). Even when churches go out of their way to foster community outside of Sunday services (small groups, home groups, fellowship groups, service projects), the primary, standard event that unifies the church community still falls back on this model, and the message the model sends is still in conflict with the message it is trying to deliver. This is an oversimplification of both van der Merwe’s point and the fully expressed dynamics of the situation, but hopefully you can see the point.

The entire book is laid out in that basic format – examine the central principle of the gospel, examine the institutional adaptation we have adopted (he goes into church history quite a bit), and ask the question – in what ways are our practices in conflict with our message? I LOVED, loved, loved, loved, loved this book. The only thing I could possibly say in critique is that the style feels a little to informal at times, and I wished for a little more structure in the editing. There were times when the book felt very much like a long string of blog posts, and I felt that the informality distracted from the brilliance of the ideas contained therein.

So, in sum – if you are quite happy with your church situation, then you don’t need this book, and I (and I think van der Merwe) are very happy for you. If you, like me, are finding church to be a bit thin, and your experience of the gospel more rich in other contexts, this book might help lay bare some of the values and principles involved.

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Coffee Shop Conversations. Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Jesus Without Being a Jerk. A Book Review.

My copy :)

My copy 🙂

Today’s book review is for “Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk.” I had the pleasure of interacting extensively with the authors, Dale and Jonalyn Fincher, over at their blog Soulation. (See here for an explanation of that interaction). So when their new book popped up as a Speakeasy offering, I jumped on  the chance to review it.

I had another reason for ordering this particular book, too: I was genuinely hoping for some inspiration and guidance. As I’ve been soul-searching through my Christian walk and practices this year, I’ve been remembering how enthusiastic I used to be about talking to people about Jesus. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable sharing my own faith, exactly. I’m still unapologetic about being Christian, but as it’s been evolving pretty drastically over the past few years or so, I’ve gotten a little more guarded about discussing it. Part of that is just a reluctance to put myself in situations where I might be asked clarifying questions that I am in the process of re-thinking myself. Something as basic as “what denomination do you belong to?” for instance, opens up whole vistas of awkward explanation. I am less sure of everything, and so less inclined to make statements.

And partly it’s just fatigue at having to constantly defend it, because there are so many poor examples of Christians out there, who inevitably draw media, like tweens to a Beiber concert. And so I’m wary of the assumptions people make when I use the word “Christian” or even “Jesus.” This dynamic was always in play, but it’s gotten more acute after some negative experiences with Christians in my own community. I feel that in defending Jesus, somehow, to some small extent, I am inevitably defending these people, and I have no interest in defending these people.

So, in ordering this book, which I knew to be written by two unapologetic evangelicals whom I genuinely respect, and who also write a lot about spiritual abuse, though that’s not a central topic of this book, I was hoping somehow to renew some lost spark, rekindle the old enthusiasm. I was wondering if it were possible to re-discover some aspect of evangelicalism that I could still believe in.

That’s a long intro to a book review, but I thought it might be important to understand my motivations for reading the book in order to put my opinions about it in context.

So, the short version is – if you are an evangelical Christian (or any Christian) who feels deeply uncomfortable and anxious about sharing your faith, and also vaguely guilty about how little you actually do share your faith, if you are fearful that the fact that you have not prayed all (or any) of your friends to Christ reflects badly on your relationship with Jesus, you should definitely, definitely read this book. You should absolutely read this book if you can relate to any of the following statements:

“Chipmunks remind us of the way we used to approach evangelism, treating people as mission projects, scurrying out to them only to hurry back to the safety of our den.” – pg. 13

“Layered on top of my concern that my friends were headed to hell, I was motivated by guilt. If I didn’t share immediately and directly, I would disappoint God and miss my sole purpose as a young Christian.” – pg. 19

“We’ve come to wonder how many of our friends, when “conversions” did happen, prayed the sinner’s prayer to soothe our evangelical fervor.” – pg. 19

“Perhaps you can relate to the fevered feeling to share Christ and discharge your duty.” – pg. 21

“One honest friend admits that talking about his faith is like intellectual arm wrestling. “If I don’t crush them, I’ve lost. If I budge toward them, they’ve  won.”” – pg. 21

If you can relate to any or all of those statements, then the Finchers understand your predicament. They were both raised in conservative Christian denominations and homes, struggled with the tensions common in that culture, and they are speaking to other Christians within that culture who feel the same tensions. So if you fall into that category, then this book was written for you, and the Finchers have done a smashing job. They are honest, insightful, compassionate, vulnerable, and tough in a smart, loving way.

I found it very engaging, even when I was arguing with it.

I found it very engaging, even when I was arguing with it.

The Finchers succeed in laying out an approach to evangelism that satisfies the evangelical need for sharing the faith, and also minimizes the risk of injuring your conversation partner. This is a vital topic in a time when most efforts by evangelicals to share their faith are leaving a well-documented bad taste in people’s mouths. Yet even as the Finchers lay out all the ways in which you might be coming on too strong, they are passionate about keeping you engaged in a more authentic way. They offer quite a few practical suggestions for staying engaged in a spiritual conversation at just those moments when it would feel easier to abandon ship. They offer multiple example conversations from their own experience so that readers can see how principles play out in real life. They go over:

Basic Manners (respect, empathy, authenticity, and allowing people space to remain unconvinced, among others);

Christianese That You Don’t Realize Is Turning People Off;

Understanding Your Own Religion (including what is, and is not, essential);

Things You Think Are Important But Aren’t, Really;

How Not to be a Bible Bully, and more.

(I made all these designations up, by the way – the Finchers’ language is much more sincere. The snark is all mine). The Finchers are self-described evangelicals who are “learning to be more appropriately human,” (an excellent mission statement for anyone), and helping other evangelicals to also be more appropriately human.

And they are very evangelical. Depending on your perspective, this will either be a strength or turn-off. If you identify comfortably as an evangelical, then the Finchers will make you feel safe as you explore the topics under discussion, and they will reaffirm your confidence in your faith and in the Bible even as they attempt to stretch your paradigms a little. I see this genuinely as a positive – the Finchers are bridge-builders between evangelicals and the world, a very important vocation in this season when both the right and the left are feeling marginalized and under siege from the other side. The Finchers offer a way through for people who are deeply steeped in evangelical culture, who find it very life-giving, and who want to genuinely engage their neighbors in a way that is also life-giving for all parties.

Too many encounters between evangelicals and non-evangelicals can feel like guerilla ad-bombing for Jesus, and both sides retreat afterwards to lick their wounds, the evangelists suffering painful performance anxiety, and the evangelized feeling violated and assaulted. The Finchers are offering a path towards a better pattern of relating. They are saying things to evangelicals that many people are trying to say to evangelicals, but because the Finchers are, themselves, evangelicals, and can root their message in scripture and evangelical theology, the message can be received in a non-threatening way. In fact, I expect their message will be downright liberating for all the people who have been shouldering guilt for years, always looking over their shoulders and wondering if they’ve done enough, and if they’re bad Christians for secretly hating evangelism, because evangelism as they’ve been doing it always feels so uncomfortably icky. If every person in the target audience read the book and implemented even half of what the Finchers teach, the world would be a much, much more safe, more thoughtful, and more respectful place. Here is a book on how to engage respectfully with people who disagree with you while staying faithful to your evangelical roots and values. The book goes a long way toward outlining and trying to foster a culture that makes space for theological plurality from an evangelical point of view. In today’s sectarian and polarized culture, that’s no small feat.

On the other hand, if you identify outside the evangelical mold, and especially if you are ex-evangelical, then you may find the book uncomfortable and constraining. The scriptural interpretations and illustrations feel like standard Sunday fare, there is the deeply embedded Western dualism (“we can see with proper study that Jesus meant this and NOT that”), there is the deep evangelical emphasis on finding answers in the Bible and letting questions exist only on the periphery, a general discomfort with mysticism, and of course, despite the Finchers’ emphasis on respect and theological space-giving, there is still the utter evangelical inability to Just. Let. You. Be. At the end of the day, this is still a book about bringing people to Jesus, and if you find that the very notion of that agenda leaves an unpleasant smell in your nostrils, then steer clear.

So, at the end of the day, I did glean some great practical reminders for engaging in spiritual conversations (avoiding red herrings, for example), and some further reassurance that there are sincere evangelicals that I can still like and respect. (Outside of Grove City, I mean). I did not find that it stirred my old fervor for evangelism, but that wasn’t really the book’s point, so I can’t hold that against it. This is for those who already possess evangelical fervor but who either don’t know what to do with it (“What if I say the wrong thing!”) or who are tired of evangelism feeling like a battle, and who want to know that it’s Biblically okay just to get to know people without having to convert them first. And in that mission, I think it succeeds admirably.

By the way, you can click to tweet this.

Oh, and before I forget, the legal stuff: I got this book for free through the Speakeasy network in exchange for writing this (late, sorry) review. I was not required to write a positive review, and so the thoughts are still my own. Cheers!

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God Revised. Or, We All Need Religion, Just Nothing Supernatural. A Book Review.

I was reading God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age, by Galen Guengerich for my book club this month. (Correction: one of my book clubs.). This is not one of those books I got for free for the purpose of reviewing, I just had such a love-hate relationship with it I wanted to write about it anyway.

When I say love-hate, I mean 85% love, 10% genuine critique, 5% persistent personal annoyance. Guengerich’s main thesis is that the problem of modern spirituality is that human beings need religion, and yet can no longer believe in silly supernatural things because of scientific progress. Guengerich’s solution to this is to re-define God, religion, and ethics so that we can all have religion (not mere spirituality, this is important to him) without needing to believe in anything that can’t be explained (ultimately) by science.

He actually does a really solid job. Guengerich argues consistently that religion is necessary, not “so we can find salvation for the next life, but rather so we can find meaning and purpose in this one.” He is very clear that mere personal spirituality is not so ultimately satisfying, for in pasting together a hodge-podge of different spiritual practices, we end up being alone in our spirituality rather than connected, because we cannot share the whole experience with another, and because there is no central, unifying principle(s) to hold it all together. As he makes the point, just because you walk around Carnegie Hall, buy a violin bow, hum some Beethoven to yourself, and visit the shop where the conductor bought his baton doesn’t mean your experience adds up to the Ninth Symphony. As you cannot have a symphony alone, neither can you have religion alone. You can have bits and pieces and aspects, but you can’t have the full experience. And for Guengerich, connection – to one another, to our pasts, to our possibilities, and to the wider world around us – is a prime value. He makes the point several times that we are all, ultimately, utterly dependent on the universe, connected intimately with everything and everyone else, past and future. Religion, he presses, is about helping us realize that reality, because it is in these connections that we find our purpose and our hope. This is where most of my  85% love is centered – I loved everything he said about religion and the ethic of gratitude that he outlines, and I think his points about dependence are a welcome and important counterpoint to the excesses of American individualism so prevalent today. I also thought his definition of a non-supernatural God was kinda brilliant. I was skeptical at first (“What is he talking about? Isn’t God, by definition, supernatural?”), but pleasantly surprised that he pulled it off.

About that last point – Guengerich is clear that it’s not necessary to believe in the supernatural, or swear allegiance to any fairy tale rule book, in order to have this transcendent experience. In fact, he’s quite persistent in claiming that any reliance on or belief in the supernatural is behind us as a species and that we would all be better off if we moved on. This is where he gets personally annoying for me, as someone who feels very strongly in a supernatural God, Who has an incredible amount in common with Guengerich’s conception of God, except for the supernatural part. I mean really, if we agree on 90% of everything else, can’t you just let me have God supernaturally? Must you insist that I am delusional or childish or backwards for finding the Bible to be rich reading, or for being able to see it as a book that is both divinely inspired and culturally bound in important ways? He makes a lot of passing comments about how belief in both science and the supernatural necessarily leads to a schizophrenic, divided world view, which may be true for many people, but all the scripture interpretations and doctrines he used to demonstrate this were ones I don’t subscribe to. I was fine with his problems with fundamentalism, because they’re also my problems with fundamentalism, I was just wishing for a little more charity towards other traditions in Christianity (and progressive Islam, Reform Judaism, etc.). He spent a lot of time pointing out the worst in historical and modern American Christianity (and there’s a lot of it, I’ll freely admit), and then swiping all the rest of it away as if reformers of the tradition don’t exist or don’t matter, even though we’re fighting for most of the same things he’s fighting for. [And I always find the secular claim that religion is the cause of all evil in the world to be tiresome – claiming that the crusades and the inquisition are the result of Christianity is like claiming that Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes were the result of atheism. Humans are persistently messed up, routinely seek power out of fear, and will hijack whatever institution and rhetoric wields the most influence at the time. But I digress.]

Anyway. I was clearly just not the target audience. Staunch religious in various traditions will be annoyed by Guengerich’s dismissal of all things supernatural, as I suspect staunch atheists will be annoyed that he’s trying to defend religion at all (one of my super-smart book club friends pointed out that a heavier reliance on neuroscience than philosophy would have added more empirical weight to his claim that humans need religion). It seems to me Guengerich is addressing mostly “nones,” the spiritual-but-not-religious, and what a good friend once termed “non-practicing atheists.” Being inclusive towards someone like me might have been too much of a stretch for his audience. He’s creating a path to religion for people who can’t reconcile the supernatural with the scientific, and/or have been burned by traditional religion, but who still crave a deep, richly textured, transcendent experience. I think this is a really valuable service and even an important book for that reason.

At book club, one of my really intelligent and well-read, religious-studies major friends said that she didn’t find anything in it that hadn’t in some way been said before, and I’m sure that’s largely true (gratitude is pretty universal, after all, although I thought a central “ethic of gratitude” was kind of novel), but in the swirling vortex of modern spirituality, I think his is an important voice, and I think this is an important iteration of these ideas. It reminds me of the poem The Second Coming by Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This is what spirituality feels like to a lot of people today – things are falling apart, and there’s no center to hold onto – you have to cling to the edges of oppressive fundamentalism or harsh secularism. Guengerich is trying to find and articulate a center that will hold. And for those who are seeking just that, I hope they find the hope and satisfaction that Guengerich is trying to give them.

PS – I’d be really interested in hearing the opinions of any of my atheist friends, if you’ve read the book. I’m curious to know how it reads from the other side.

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Thoughts on Genesis

So at the Grove City conference this year (see the last two posts), I was challenged to try reading all the way through the Bible again, and the invitation resonated with me. The recipe for finishing in a year is three chapters a day, and five on Sunday (apparently). I finished Genesis this week, and here are some random thoughts on this first, most familiar book. These are mostly for my benefit, but feel free to follow along:

1. Reading Genesis 1 while driving through the Pennsylvania wilds added a whole new dimension to the poetry of that chapter for me. I could visibly see the water “above” (the clouds) and the water below, and the sky in between. And so, so, so much green. Birds flying through that middle space seemed to be carving a dance in blue, and the whole experience put me in so mindful and zen-like a mood that I stopped reading for a while just so I could appreciate the moment.

Reminds me of France, actually.

Reminds me of France, actually.

2. That part where God makes the covenant with Abraham, and Abraham (I think he’s still Abram at that point) has to slaughter several animals and cut them in half and lay them out, and then a great darkness falls upon him – that part is still creepy. And I even heard a brilliant sermon on it once – how the ritual Abram goes through was a standard ancient ritual for the making of treaties between kings, and the kings would each walk through the passage created by the lined-up animal parts and make promises to each other, and the idea was “If I ever betray this treaty, may what has been done to these animals be done to me,” and this is how God sets up the covenant with Abram, except God is the only one who walks through the animals and makes promises – he puts Abram to sleep for the whole thing. It’s a covenant of total grace because Abram hasn’t had to promise a single thing in return. But it’s still a very dark, grand, intimidating, creepy kind of passage. No wonder it never made it into my children’s book of Bible stories.

3. Hagar – I absolutely love re-reading Hagar’s story. I loved her before, but I love her even more after hearing this.

4. Abraham begs his servant not to let Isaac marry a Canaanite, but to find someone from his own family to come and marry Isaac. My Bible notation claims that marrying within the family was due to religious prejudice, but my recent research into tribal societal structures claims that it’s financial – you marry your cousins to keep the land and money in the custody of people who have a blood interest in protecting it. I wonder….

5. I have to say I feel really bad for Esau. I always felt bad for him before, but this time he seems a little extra pathetic, weeping at his father’s deathbed because there isn’t enough blessing left for him. I mean, he’s a little clueless and a little bit of a schmuck, too, (it’s only after Isaac tells Jacob not to marry a Hittite woman that Esau figures out that his parents can’t stand his wives – and then his solution is to take a third wife), but it still gets me.

This is almost stroke for stroke the pic of Esau that was in my My Book of Bible Stories.

6. Speaking of Esau’s wives, I have to say that as a married woman, Rebecca’s complaints to Isaac about her daughters in law, the Hittite women, takes on a whole new dimension. In-law politics can be brutal. (Not that I have any experience with that whatsoever, but I can suddenly imagine the dynamic much more clearly).

7. The imagery in the scene with Jacob’s ladder really does sound like an alien encounter. I’m not saying that’s what I think happened, but I see how people see that.

8. The whole section about Leah and Rachel reminds me of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Shout-out to book club.

9. In the section about Dina, I am struck again by how Dina herself doesn’t get to say anything about her situation. We don’t know if she was in love with Shechem, or if she really was raped; it says that Shechem was delighted with her, but makes no mention of whether she was delighted back. Nor do her brothers seem particularly concerned to discover her feelings on the matter. It seems that they don’t talk to her at all until they “take her back” from the Shechemites, after they’ve already killed everyone.

10. Genesis contains two quiet accounts of brotherly reunion. It states that at the burial of Abraham, both Isaac and Ishmael were present, and at the burial of Isaac, both Jacob and Esau were present. While the book gives the account of the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, it says nothing about Isaac and Ishmael and their relationship. The account of Ishmael stops after Abraham sends him and his mother away. I idly wonder aloud what that family reunion was like….

11. Here is another recorded instance of friendship between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael – when Esau discovers that his father does not approve of his Hittite wives, he takes to wife Basemath, the daughter of Ishmael, specifically to pacify his parents by taking “one of ours.”

12 I am struck anew by how important family ties were in the ancient world – when people introduce themselves, they invariably include their family info. People needed to know who you were related to in order to know something about who you were. The way that we ask someone what they do; they say they are an engineer, we know something about them that distinguishes them from, say, an artist. Back then, family relations created the same kind of shorthand. It really was just like one big, spread-out small town. You knew that such and such clan was noisy, and another didn’t know how to manage money, and another made their food extra spicy, etc. It hits home for me again how very divorced we are from a sense of continuity in the modern age. We define people by their natural inclinations, gifts, and choices rather than their hertiage. Positives and negatives to either approach I guess. Both systems define you by something narrower than what you really are.

13. 38:11 has Judah sending Tamar back to her father because his youngest son might die. When I read this before, I always thought it was sort of a shrugging of the shoulders and letting Tamar go free – “Well, there’s no use making her wait here since my sons don’t seem to live long,” but after doing some extensive research on widows for my play, I’m more inclined to think that Judah’s action was superstitious and cruel. If widows in the day were treated as the widows I was researching, then his action was born of superstition – blaming Tamar for his sons’ deaths – and it was cruel because she would have had no economic resources outside of her marriage, and no other families would be willing to accept her for the same reason. She would have been seen as a disgrace to her family, having been returned, and her only hope would be Judah’s making good on his responsibility to marry her to his next son. He sentenced her to a life of disgrace and poverty by not granting her children through her husband’s brother. He took away her only means of support and safety. So when, later, she is accused of prostitution, and he says, “she was more righteous than I,” he is saying that her sexual sin, forced on her by her circumstances, was less than his economic sin, by putting her in those circumstances to begin with. Or that’s my new theory anyway.

Judah gettin the goods from Tamar

14. Chap. 40: Interesting that in the chief baker’s dream, the symbol for his body is bread. Echoes of the Eucharist, or merely a baker’s preoccupation?

15 Chap’s 35, 37, 42 (Reuben) – You know, what I always remember about Reuben is that he slept with his father’s concubine (Bilhah, Ch. 35), and eventually lost his paternal blessing because of it. But in Ch’s 37 and 42, the ones dealing with Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, Reuben is clearly the conscience of the group. He’s the only one who thinks it’s a terrible idea to jump Joseph, he’s the only one of the brothers who is recorded mourning for the loss of his brother, he’s the one who tells his brothers in Egypt that their suffering is karmic justice for what they did to Joseph, he’s the first one to pledge Benjamin’s safety to their frightened father, and he does so by offering his own two sons in exchange if Benjamin is harmed. He is a consummate oldest brother, looking out for everyone, and acting as liaison and stand-in between the other brothers and their father.

16. Ch 44 – Judah also distinguishes himself during the second half of the whole Joseph saga. While there’s no mention that he objected to selling Joseph into slavery in the beginning, he is the second, after Reuben, to guarantee Benjamin’s safety to his father, and then when Benjamin is found to possess the supposedly purloined cup, it’s Judah who steps forward and offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He seems to have matured somewhat. Perhaps all that business with Tamar gave him something like a conscience? Pity the same humility isn’t recorded for Simeon and Levi after their slaughter of the Shechemites – were they propped up in self-righteous indignation for the rest of their lives, or did they eventually repent, but it didn’t get recorded?

Joseph and his bros.

17. Ch.45 – Joseph’s total and unconditional forgiveness of his brothers really is remarkable. I mean, he did put them to the test quite a bit, but to be able to ever get to the point where you say “No, it’s not that you sold me into slavery – God sent me down ahead of you to save lives, so you see it all worked out in the end” is really amazing.

18. Regarding the accounting of Jacob’s offspring in Ch 46: First, it’s notable that Judah’s only descendents came from Perez, who was one of the twin sons born to him by Tamar, so in ancient world terms, I guess that situation was pointedly redeemed. Second, the only girl named is Serah, sister to Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, daughter of Asher. She is named, but not counted as one of the “children born to Jacob by Zilpah,” only her brothers. Furthermore, according to my footnotes, there is a discrepancy in the text regarding Joseph’s children, in v. 27, it says in my translation that Joseph had “two sons,” but the footnote says that in two early versions, Joseph is listed as having “nine children.” So did Joseph have seven, unnamed daughters? How many other daughters might have been left out of the accounting? I sort of understand why they might not have been counted, in the strictly clerical sense, since daughters left home to get married, whereas sons stayed with the clan (contrary to what it says in Genesis 2 about a man leaving his father and mother to be united to his wife, perhaps hinting at an earlier, matrilinear society?). While I’m sure their lives counted for something, when taking a census it’s too hard to count the expats, even today, much less in ancient times. Why was Serah named with her brothers? Was she a spinster, or in some way unfit for marriage in the ancient world (Down’s syndrome, physical deformity, other ?)? Was there some extra-biblical story that she starred in which was never recorded, but which the original readers would have been familiar with? What gets a woman counted?

19. Ch 47:13-26 – Joseph is kinda harsh on the Egyptians during the famine – just because you *can* enslave an entire country that would otherwise starve to death, doesn’t mean you *should*. Although if his professional purpose was to make Pharaoh as powerful as possible, he did his job damn well.

20. Ch 50 – The burial scene for Jacob is kinda surreal. He gets embalmed in Egypt, and the whole country mourns for him, and then all these Egyptian dignitaries travel with Joseph (with chariots and everything) to bury him and mourn with Joseph in Canaan. An unlikely procession.

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Review – The Enoch Factor

I had the great pleasure of reading Steve McSwain’s new book The Enoch Factor over the past month. It took me the entire month to read it because it is the kind of book I like to digest slowly. In The Enoch Factor, McSwain, a lifetime Christian and professional minister, chronicles his personal spiritual awakening out of fundamentalism and into the arms of Christ. He tells a story of growing up in a believing family that will sound familiar to many American Christians, in its spirit if not in its exact details. He also describes the flatness and emptyness he experienced in his “faith,” and offers some candid appraisals of some of the false beliefs he carried with him for decades. McSwain then details the transformational experience that brought him a spiritual awakening. He spends some time explaining his new spiritual perspective, inviting readers to glean what they can from his personal experience and understanding.

At his best, McSwain reminds me of Richard Rohr – clear, insightful, and creative in his use of material from non-Christian traditions. Though McSwain anchors himself solidly in the Christian tradition, he draws from a variety of sources, Christian, non-Christian, and non-theological, to give voice to his experience of the divine. I was with him when he stuck to theological ideas from Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and even atheism (he quotes Andre Comte-Sponville a lot). To a lesser extent, I was also with him when he was discussing the concept of ego, although the language he was using there was less familiar to me. He lost me when he started talking about the Law of Attraction, but like all conversions, McSwain’s was highly personal, and we all have some eccentricities in the way we try to explain those experiences. The genuine-ness of McSwain’s encounter shines through the book, and I recognized a lot of my own journey in his. He asked a lot of the questions I’ve asked, and he reminded me how easy it is to be with God, something I was having trouble remembering in my current process of wrestling with church. Even with the moments of (for me) theological weirdness, we could use more spiritual memoirs like this one.

Also, I got a free book in exchange for writing this review, which was not required to be a positive review. Here’s the legal way of saying it:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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White Flour! (David LaMotte’s new book)

So I’ve got about 10 blog drafts backed up in the queue, including Stedman Part 2, but this one will be quick and easy. I review books now! Not on a really regular basis, but I joined this blog network called Speakeasy, and they send me books that I’m interested in exchange for nothing more than an honest review. How awesome is that?!

With the program, I’m not required to give a positive review, only an honest one, but, honestly, I LOVED “White Flour” by David LaMotte. It’s a picture-book retelling of a real incident that happened in Knoxville, TN, in 2007. The book tells the story, in rhyme, with whimsical illustrations, of how a hate rally was met by an organized group of clowns who just refused to take the haters seriously. The title of the book is a reference to one of the (many) misunderstandings between the KKK marchers and the clowns. The marchers yell “White Power!” and the clowns respond with a celebration of “White flour!” – filling the air with the powdery stuff. As the hate marchers insist on their chant, the clowns persist in their confusion – “White flowers!” “Tight showers!” “Wife power!” After a while the haters give up and go home and everyone has a party.
The author admits in the back to taking one or two creative liberties with the actual events from Knoxville, but the point of the book isn’t the historical accuracy so much as the spirit of the clowns’ resistance. This would work as a parable even if it hadn’t been inspired by true events. The magic of the story is in the creative response to hostility, and the refusal to fight hate with hate. I collect picture books because I teach small children, but there are a few that I would own even if I didn’t. “The Giving Tree” is one. “White Flour” is another. Its illustration of a “third way” in places of conflict is full of mischief and joy and hope. While neither I nor David LaMotte believe that all conflicts can be solved with clowns, we share a hope for creative combat in places of darkness.

Although the story is told in a picture book (fitting for a real-life parable about clowns), it is aimed at a youth/young adult audience, not young children. You could totally read it to young children, but you’d have to explain a lot of background information about the KKK, and some of the nuances might be lost on them even then. I’ve been teaching kindergartners for 10 years, and I guarantee that the vast majority of them would enjoy the book, but remember nothing except the “Tight showers!” page. If you want to talk to your young child about racism, you might want to start with something more accessible.  But if you work with youth in any way, or are involved in addressing racism or educating others about racism in adult contexts, I could totally see adapting it into adult as well as youth workshops.

I’m very please to add this book to my shelf 🙂 For more info, visit whiteflourbook.com

 

 

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