Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A Review

This memoir has been added to many must read lists as we are now in a country where a Donald Trump presidency is possible. It is suppose to explain to some extent why the outcome of the election happened the way it did. It is suppose to connect with the core of the American blue collar worker that was not happy.

Vance does a good job of explaining his background and even that of many that moved from Appalachia searching for better jobs and pay. He grew up in circumstances that those growing up in the middle class would find hard to understand. He also is eager to get away from that culture to an extent where he wants to better his life and break the cycle of anger and violence that he associates with being a “hillbilly.”

Whether it gets to the core of our current political situation, I cannot quite say. It touches upon it and does reiterate the displeasure of not being able to move up within society. Therefore, the people to blame would be the current administration that is running the government. I will admit that being a white male from a middle class family, I have a hard time connecting the two.

Overall, Vance is a great writer and shares his story beautifully. To be born into a family in the hill country of Kentucky and to raise himself up to attend Yale and become an attorney is a great success story. One, as he says, helps deliver the American Dream.

Perhaps though, we need to rethink the American Dream.

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The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr: A Review

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The Trinity is quite often an overlooked aspect of the spiritual life. We tend to think of God and Jesus Christ, yet tend to leave the notion of the Holy Spirit out of the equation. When we include all three into the equation, we are able to truly dig deeper into our own spiritual well-being.

Richard Rohr, along with Mike Morrell explore the Trinity in The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Bringing in the image of Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity painting, allows the reader to get an image in their mind, as well as the possibility of us being the fourth person sitting at the table with the Trinity.

God wants us to be in relationship with all three and it is here that Rohr is hoping to lead us into that great encounter.  Beginning with the vast view of the Trinity throughout time leads us to the present and the need to engage with the Trinity here and now. Until we come to the realization that everything in creation works together and is required to bring us into the kingdom of God, there will be brokenness and sin. I believe his theory on growth of Western atheism is right-on:

Do you ever wonder why Western atheism is on the rise? Why does the Christian West, by far, produce the highest number of atheists? What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience. As long as “received teaching” doesn’t become experiential knowledge, we’re going to continue creating a high quality of disillusioned ex-believers. Or on the flip-side, we’ll manufacture very rigid believers who simply hold on to doctrines in very dry, dead ways with nothing going on inside.

And so we have two big groups on the landscape today: those who throw out the baby with the bathwater (many liberals and academics) – and those who seem to have drowned in the bathwater (many conservatives and fundamentalists).

How about allowing the bath water to keep flowing over you and through you?

It is anyway, but we can considerably help the process by gradually opening up the water faucets–both the cold and the hot.

Rohr’s writing, as usual, is easy to read and very engaging. He brings a truth to his writing that I wish more people would pick up on. Until we start to experience the Holy Spirit within us and listen to where it is calling, then we will not fully live into the life that God is calling us to. Our interaction with the Trinity is truly a dance that is beautiful and as robust as we make it.

Old Scratch: a Review

A Review of Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubter and the Disenchanted by Richard Beck.

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Before I picked up this book, I had never heard of the term Old Scratch when referring to the Devil. Richard Beck, a psychology professor, introduces the term after being reminded of it while leading a Bible study in a prison. The appearance of Satan, or the Devil, or Old Scratch, is alive and well in the prison system. It comes in the realization of the crimes that one has committed. It also comes with the fear of turning your back to some of the fellow inmates. It is also found within yourself.

The thought of a physical devil has always seemed to turn me off. While there is sin and brokenness that persists in our world, I believe that the “devil” is present in that and at times we fall to it. Beck appears to back up this understanding to some point, while not disregarding the fact that some people do truly succumb to demons within their lives and perhaps even need to be exorcised. Becks says, “a satan is more of a relationship than a person. Anything that is facing you in an antagonistic or adversarial way–working against you as an opponent or enemy–is standing before you as ha satan, as an adversary, as a satan” (pg. 8).

His whole thesis is that we need to get to a point where we are at spiritual warfare with those forces within our lives that are satan. While we are surrounded with the negative, God’s presence is also constantly around us, giving us comfort and support. It is true that the world is suffering, and has been from the time of creation, “and in the face of that suffering Jesus went about doing good and healing all those under the power of the devil” (pg 83).

It really comes down to the point that our world in counter-cultural to the one that Jesus brought into view with the Kingdom of God. At this time in our country, this really speaks to our current political state and the division within. “All of this is simply to say that the confession that Jesus is Lord of all turns the world upside down. But much closer to home, that confession turns my world upside down. Idolatry isn’t just about the nation-state. the kingdom of God uproots all the idols of my life, petty and great” (pg. 170).

The spiritual warfare he speaks of must be more than just saying we are going to pray for something. We must be called into action, to live and be with those that are struggling, and realize our own inward struggles. We must be up to “angelic troublemaking,” and provide a resistance to whatever gets in the way of the kingdom of God. Spiritual warfare is living the kingdom of God.

Beck takes the reader on a great history of thoughts on the devil and comes to a conclusion that speaks to the wholeness that God calls us to as God’s children. While his call to action may not be entirely new, it speaks to the greater need for humanity to be in touch with the greater spiritualness that surrounds us in our lives. It is a call to resistance to speaks to us in a bold prophetic way in our current time.

 

The Goblin Crown by Robert H. Wolfe: A Review

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It is nice to switch up my usual reading with some books for pure enjoyment. I received an advanced copy of The Goblin Crown from the publisher so that I could review it.

I have a fondness for books that venture into fantasy, from Harry Potter to The Chronicles of Narnia. Wolfe’s entry into this realm is a great addition to genre and would make C.S. Lewis proud. Reading the book, I was escorted to a land that seems foreign to us with goblins and many other creatures. Billy Smith enters this other world through his own thoughts and takes others with him. It reminds me of the wardrobe from Lewis’s books, but there is just a little bit more magic in The Goblin Crown.

In the magic you can see connects to the Harry Potter series and the wonderment that occurs in that world. The chapters move at a pace that you want to keep reading and this is truly the sign of a great book. It will keep young adults turning the pages and by the time they finish it, they will be waiting to see what Billy and his friends are up to next. It is not just for young adults though. I truly enjoyed it and even caught religious glimpses within the pages. For example, “All our songs have a final refrain, but only Father Day and Mother Night know the count. So until the last note fades, might as well enjoy the dance.”

Reading this book was definitely a fun dance.

Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith: A Review

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Chris Smith does a wonderful job of showing the connection between books and our everyday lives. The way that they shape our communities and churches and the impact that they can have on the growth of individuals. The encouragement he gives to promote books and discussion makes one want to go out and start a book club to start seeing the impacts in their own communities. It is a wealth of information that is easily a return to book to see what you can glean from it in additional readings.

The notes I took and highlighted were numerous. Here are some of my favorites that I thought I would share:

“Reading plunges us into the interconnected reality of creation, showing us our connectedness to people in other places and other times, reminding us how words on paper have the capacity to give shape to our everyday lives. Through language we are continually creating and refining reality. In our churches, we have the privilege of doing so together in ways that are attentive to the compassion, the justice, the healing and all the fullness of Christ. Our calling as God’s people is to be community shaped by the incarnational sort of learning. This is the very heart of discipleship, the way God has chosen to bear witness to the healing and reconciling of all creation.”

“So in addition to interrogating Scripture, we must allow  ourselves to be interrogate by it. And in allowing it to ask questions of us, we allow it to shine the light of Christ on our lives and to guide us toward deeper faithfulness to the way of Christ.”

“Thomas Merton has written that a person “knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live.””

“In prayer and contemplation we begin to understand that our identity is not to be found in our differences from others– in our superiorities and in inferiorities– but in our common humanity.” Parker J. Palmer

“Neil Gaiman emphasizes that literacy — and especially reading fiction — is essential because it builds our capacity for empathy. “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. [In reading fiction] you’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changes. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more that self-obsesses individuals.””

“We need to be attentive to the bonds that link us to people in other places and to the work of deepening these bonds. Reading is a vital tool in this process of linking ourselves to other places.”

“Love itself is knowledge: the more one loves, the more one knows.” attributed to St. Gregory the Great

Vacation Reading: A Review

A few weeks ago, before going on vacation, I ventured over to the library to see what I could find that was not so much theological and give my mind a rest. It seems that my mind seems to track that way anyway and was able to make theological connections with the three books that I read.

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My first selection was from Neil Gaiman, whom I have come to admire after reading some of his other works. His imagination and ability to dive into the depths of the human soul are wonderful. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was no exception and he weaved the same mystical magic into it as he does in American Gods. It was a quick read that keeps you turning the pages. Many things are at work in the book as some hot topics are approached, from adultery to the deep down desire to help one another. I would definitely recommend this to anyone that is looking to get away for a short period of time and immerse yourself in another timeless tale.

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My other two selections were a little older than Gaiman’s offering. In Kelby’s Whale Season, the book revolves around this mysterious man that shows up in Whale Harbor on Christmas Eve claiming to be Jesus. The story unfolds from there and the reader slowly gets to know about this mysterious man and the many other people that get wrapped up into the story. It went in directions that I was not expecting and was both laugh out load funny  and sobering at times. While this is the first book from Kelby that I picked up, I would not hesitate to pick up another one of her books.

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The cover and inside flap drew me into this book. As I said, while trying to steer clear of the typical pastor reading, I was still drawn to books that had some aspect of God in them. It did take me a while to get into Kyle’s book, The God of Animals, and even at that point I had to strain to keep my attention towards it. As a father and her daughter deal with the day-to-day operations of their horse farm many other aspects come into play. A sister that gets married and leaves and a mother that never leaves the house. While I did want to keep reading to see what happens in the end, for it was still laborious at times. I would not steer people away from it, however, it was not quite in the style of writing that pulls me in.

Feed by M.T. Anderson: A Review

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I have to admit right from the start that this is not a book that I probably would have picked up on my own without a little persuasion. That persuasion for me was listening to M.T. Anderson speak at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. He shared his vision for writing stories and I decided that I would pick up something to get an introduction to his style.

I am assuming that Feed is a little unique in the fact that the vocabulary he chooses to use is slang for the future time when he is writing. The feed is a endless loop of information that is sent to you by an object that is implanted within your body and guides and directs you to whatever it is you want to buy, do, watch, etc. I am reminded of the current social media feeds that we have today in various forms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. His one line in the book that resonated with me was, “Because of the feed, we’re raising a nation of idiots. Ignorant, self-centered idiots.” The more we immerse ourselves in the technology and step away from real life relationship and community the truer this becomes.

Before you ask, yes I do utilize many of the social media platforms and yes I do sense the time that is drained from my life as I continue to use them instead of doing something productive. They also have some positive aspects that can affect our everyday lives as well. Anderson’s book reminds me somewhat of Dave Egger’s, The Circle. Both dwelling on the way that technology can take over and invade various aspects of our lives, while Anderson takes it to the farther extreme.

It was an enjoyable read, yet it was also very true to life. It is my hope and prayer that we do not fulfill much of his visions.