My favorite books about justice...and a giveaway!

I’ve been focusing on justice this month, both in preparation for my trip to Bolivia and as part of the biblical womanhood project. Last week Dan and I attempted a “week of eating justly,” in which I vowed to know exactly where all the food we purchased came from in order to ensure that no people or animals were exploited in the process.  In some ways it was harder than I thought ($3 for a can of chicken broth!) and in some ways it was easier than I thought (which fair trade chocolate should I taste test today?).  In addition, I’ve been focusing my prayers and reading on subjects related to justice. So today I thought I’d share my favorite books on the topic:

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1. The Hole in Our Gospel by president of World Vision Richard Stearns is a fantastic introduction to the centrality of justice to the gospel message. Packed with biblical references and personal testimonies, it’s the kind of book you can safely introduce as a book study option at your church if your group includes participants with a variety of political and theological viewpoints. Stearns issues a moving call to action that challenges Christians to look beyond the walls of their churches and work together to demonstrate God’s love for the world by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. 

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2. In Half the Sky, Pulitzer Prize-winning duo Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explain how investing in the health and autonomy of women worldwide will lift millions out of poverty. According to the authors, more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.  Focusing on sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality, the authors masterfully incorporate colorful stories of real women who have both suffered from oppression and triumphed over it in order to make the case that “women aren’t the problem but the solution. ” This is by far the most well-written book about poverty and injustice that I’ve read. What I love about it is that it really gives the reader a sense of being “on the ground,” where there are no easy answers and no simple categories of victim and rescuer. (In light of recent conversations here on the blog, I found it interesting that the authors are very much in favor of Westerners taking short-term trips to impoverished areas of the world.) 

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3. If you are looking for a super-practical guide to living more justly, I highly recommend Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson. I used this book to plan most of my activities this month, and it is has proven to be an invaluable resource for making better decisions as a consumer. With seven easy-to-read chapters on coffee, chocolate, cars, food, clothes, waste, and debt, Julie shows how our everyday decisions can affect people around the world. Best of all,  each chapter concludes with lists of additional resources that provide readers with the books, documentaries, and Web sites they need to learn more and to put their resolutions into action. You don’t have to take all of Julie’s suggestions of course, but incorporating just a few can make a big difference. 

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4. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider was the first book to really inspire me to rethink the way that I live in relation to my global neighbors. First published back in 1977, the book has been thoroughly revised and updated. (I read the 2005 version.) Like The Hole in Our Gospel, it provides a comprehensive biblical case for caring about justice, but with an emphasis on the contrast between Western materialism and worldwide poverty. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was named one of the Top 100 Religious Books of the Century by Christianity Today, and it is well-deserving of that honor. 

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5. Last night after dinner, I finally picked up Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James and, believe it or not, I’d finished it by 1:00 a.m.!  I loved this book!  In it, James argues that the Church’s emphasis on marriage and motherhood is not far-reaching enough to encompass every woman’s whole life within a multicultural, rapidly changing world. In order to take on the sort of injustices we encounter in Half the Sky, Christian women must be freed to lead and to capitalize on God’s positive, life-affirming vision for them.  I was absolutely thrilled to see James, an evangelical, interpret passages like Genesis 2 and Proverbs 31 in ways that I believe are much more faithful to the original meaning of the text than are typically presented at Christian women's conferences. James issues a stirring call for the Church to move beyond stifling arguments over gender roles and embrace a holistic understanding of God’s calling for both men and women. I wrote “amen” in the margins more times than I care to admit. 

So Zondervan has graciously provided me with an extra copy of Half the Church to give away to one of you!  (You certainly don’t want mine, cause I’ve written all over it.)

All you have to do to win is: 

1. Leave a comment in the comment section (about anything). 
2. Make sure to register with an email address in DISQS so I can contact you if you’ve won. 

The contest will run through Saturday at midnight at which time I’ll use random.org to select a winner. Check Sunday Superlatives to see who won. 

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So what’s your favorite book about justice?

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

The best book I’ve read in a long time…

I get a lot of free books in the mail. It’s one of those blogging perks that seems too good to be true until I get behind on reading and my office starts to look like a library threw up in it. Remember our discussion about how too many choices can lead to paralysis? 

Fortunately, a book came along this month that pulled me in so completely and joyfully I remembered why I love reading in the first place. Jesus, My Father, The CIA, And Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron is everything a spiritual memoir should be—funny, profound, vulnerable, and full of grace. The writing is superb.  Every metaphor carries a punch; every character comes to life on the page.

A sampling:  

"My boyhood is autumn. The sky is snap cool and azurite blue. My boyhood is elm-lined streets. Every house was white with green shutters, American flags affixed to wooden poles waving from their porches. It is riding my ten-speed Raleigh down Ridge Street so fast that it left small tornadoes of dried leaves twisting in the wake of my rear tire. My boyhood is Saturday mornings, standing across the street from the barbershop, spying fathers playfully mussing their sons' hair to get the last remnants of stubble off their heads. Most of all, my childhood is Irish Catholic.” (p. 28)

"I like to think that if you put Lucille Ball, Grace Kelly, and Margaret Thatcher into a supercollider, my mother would pop out the other end.” (p. 16)

"I loved Nanny’s hands. Sometimes sitting at the kitchen table, drinking afternoon tea, she would let me turn her hand over to examine her palm, tracing the lines that crisscrossed it with my index finger, as if I were a boy swami pulled from the pages of a Rudyard Kipling poem. The fleshy part just below the thumb was ruby red, smooth, and warm. Nanny’s hands were sanctuaries, and I was loath to let them go when we arrived at school.” (p. 29)

"Sitting through an elementary school music program in which volume trumps intonation is a profound act of human love. It’s like falling on a hand grenade to save a group of friends, except that you have to do it three times a year.” (p. 88)

Cron tells the story of growing up in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut beneath the shadow of a mysterious and volatile alcoholic father. To make sense of his future, Cron must confront his past, and his journey is packed with the kind of heartbreaking and beautiful stories that stay with you for a very long time.  I was thrilled to hear that Jesus, My Father, The CIAand Me was selected as a featured title in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, where he joins the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver, Frank McCourt, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kathryn Stockett, and Khaled Hosseini. 

In some of the more asinine Amazon reviews, you will see that people have complained that the book, published by Thomas Nelson, employs “too many big words” and that “literary fluff” clouds any clear, straightforward presentation of Christian theology. 

Really? 

Because I thought it was rather obvious that this is precisely what makes this a great book! 

The authors who have most enriched my faith—Donald Miller, Anne Lamott, Sara Miles, Kathleen Norris, Madeline L’Engle, and now Ian Cron—have never come out and told me what to think; they have simply told stories, and told them well. Good writers know that images of sin, grace, and redemption permeate this world and that their job is not to tell, but to show. This way the reader can rediscover the gospel for herself rather than getting hit over the head with it.  

In an industry that is veering more and more toward mediocre but “theologically straightforward” literature, books such as this one must be celebrated and demanded. They are the flashes of color in a black and white world, little gifts of truth that inspire doubters like me not to give up.

I suspect we owe more to them than we realize. 

(Purchase Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me on Amazon.)

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So what was the last great spiritual memoir you read? What are some of your favorite of all time?

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After You Read “Love Wins”…

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This week I finished reading Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins.  

Having spent the last ten years wrestling through some tough questions related to faith, heaven, hell, and salvation, I really appreciate the personal way in which Bell frames the conversation, asking the very questions I was so afraid to ask all those years and proclaiming the same hope I only dared believe—that God doesn’t give up on people, that he is ever-loving, ever-redeeming, ever pursuing. 

There’s nothing radical or unorthodox in this book, which is profoundly Christ-centered and packed with biblical references.  (It’s basically a remix of C.S. Lewis, NT Wright, and Richard Rohr.) Bell does exactly what a good pastor should do. He takes complex theological concepts and makes them simple, personal, and practical. He gives faces and names to the people we often dismiss as “unsaved.”He provides tangible examples of how we can choose to engage in heaven or hell right now, this very minute.  He reintroduces us to Bible stories we thought we knew. 

And although Bell’s writings style

drives

me 

absolutely 

crazy

sometimes, 

I applaud him for saying some old things in a new way, and for introducing these ideas to a larger audience. 

My biggest objection to Love Wins is that, in addition to abandoning the use of the paragraph, Bell seems unconcerned with citing his source material and has therefore left us with some homework to do. 

Call me a nerd, but I like footnotes.  An author can’t just say that “in Jesus’s day, one of the ways people got around actually saying the name of God was to substitute the word ‘heaven’”  without telling me how he knows that to be true! By leaving out this important information and by failing to seriously explore those biblical passages that, at least at first glance, don’t seem to support his thesis, Bell has left his readers ill-equipped to deal with challenges from those who don’t agree with these ideas. 

In other words, Love Wins serves as a good starting point for engaging in better conversations about heaven and hell, but a poor ending point. I would heartily recommend this book, but not without these seven suggestions: 

1. If you loved the book, read through some negative reviews. If you hated the book, read through some positive reviews. It’s always good to get a second opinion from a reader who might have noticed some things that you didn’t.  Exposing yourself to a variety of opinions will help you develop your own with more clarity, integrity, and charity. 

2. Follow up on your questions. As I read, I like to mark up my books with underlines, notes, and question marks and then return to them later. For example, I scribbled a question mark next to this sentence on page 177 of Love Wins: “God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone.”  As much as I long for this to be true, it seems incompatible with the God who instructed Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in Jericho. Rather than ignoring this or using it to dismiss the rest of Bell’s points, I plan to explore it further, maybe finally get around to reading Is God a Moral Monster?

3. Read more.  Check out Bell’s “Further Reading” (page 201) as well as our list of resources on heaven and hell.  

4. Talk things through with friends. Consider starting a book club or hosting a dinner party in which you can discuss the ideas in Love Wins with a variety of people coming from a variety of different perspectives. 

5. Avoid slapping a “Love Wins” bumper sticker on your car or wearing a “Team John” T-shirt to church…(says the girl with an unrelated  “love wins” bumper sticker on her car—more on that later!) When we reduce this complex and important conversation to two “sides,” as though it were some kind of college football rivalry, we do such an injustice to the Bible, to Christian history, and to the millions upon millions of real people whose lives and whose futures we are discussing.  This is not about taking sides. It’s not about shouting each other down. It’s not about black vs. white, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad. There’s too much at stake to try and force Christianity’s cacophony of voices into two competing tones. We must embrace the complexity—within the Bible, within Christianity, and within one another—and avoid the temptation of turning this conversation into “my team” vs. “your team.” 

6. Let love win in you. I can’t imagine that anyone could read Love Wins and take issue with Bell’s conclusion that as Christians we should busy ourselves with providing clean water, championing human rights, participating in microfinance, pursuing peace, practicing forgiveness, and celebrating beauty and art.  There is common ground to be found here, and the best “apologetic” for a God of unconditional love is a person of unconditional love.  

7. Leave a brief review/response here! Sometimes it helps just to write out your thoughts. Feel free to share them in the comments or link to your own review.  Also, if there’s a quote or a topic that you would like to discuss further, let me know. 

So, what did you think of Love Wins?

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Sex, Science, and Shamrocks: Four Little Book Reviews

The great thing about blogging is that publishers send you lots of free books. The problem is that sometimes they send you so many, your office ends up looking like a scene from “Hoarders.” 

Well I finally got around to assembling reviews of some of my favorites. And since it's St. Patrick's Day, I figured that instead of stars, I'd give out shamrocks. Feel free to add your own mini-reviews in the comment section. I'd love to hear what YOU have been reading too.

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Unprotected Texts:  The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire
by Jennifer Wright Knust
HarperOne
3 shamrocks 
I love the title and premise of this book, but was a little disappointed by the content. While Knust does a great job deconstructing our idealized notions that the Bible unilaterally supports the nuclear family, abstinence before marriage, and women’s equality, I think she takes some of her own conclusions a bit too far at times—for example, suggesting that David and Jonathan were definitely lovers. She also seems to go out of her way to pick on evangelical leaders, which is too bad because I really think evangelicals need to hear what she has to say, especially on page 10: “I’m tired of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and its teachings to slogans. The only way that the Bible can be regarded as straightforward and simple is if no one bothers to read it.” I fear that some of Knust’s better research (particularly on slavery and angels) will be dismissed, simply because she tends to overstate her case.  

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One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow
by Scot McKnight
Zondervan (review copy)
4 shamrocks
Scot McKnight is above all things a great teacher, and his teaching skills shine in his latest book, One.Life. Positioned as Scot’s “manifesto” of the Christian faith, One.Life touches on everything from the gospel, to justice, to sex, to vocation, to heaven & hell—all held together by the centrality of Christ’s kingdom message. You can tell that Scot wrote this with college students in mind, so some readers may feel they’ve encountered this information before, perhaps in NT Wright or C.S. Lewis.  But I really liked the concrete, yet imaginative way in which Scot organized his thoughts in this book. (For example, his definition of kingdom on page 28 is “God’s dream for this world come true.”)  There’s a simplicity to it that makes it both challenging and accessible. Once again, Scot has become a trusted guide as I struggle through the messy process of reconstructing my faith. I am so very thankful for him

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The Language of Science and Faith
by Karl Giberson & Francis Collins
IVP Books (advance review copy)
4 shamrocks
I think my endorsement on the inside flap of this fantastic book speaks for itself: “For too long, followers of Jesus have been told they have to make a choice—between science and Christianity, reason and believe, their intellectual integrity and their faith. The Language of Science and Faith is a readable and comprehensive resource for the thoughtful Christian who refuses to choose. Giberson and Collins tackle difficult topics with charity, accessibility, and integrity, moving the origins conversation forward in a way that honors  God and builds up the church. This is a must-read for those who want to love the Lord with their heart, soul, mind, and strength.”  I have a feeling I'll be recommending this book often. 

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After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken
by Kent Annan
IVP Books (advance review copy)
5 shamrocks!!!!
This is by far the best book I’ve read all year…maybe the best book I’ve read in two years. And in light of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it is more relevant and needed than ever. What I loved most about this book was the author dared to integrate humility, art, and even humor into the very tough questions he was asking in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. My endorsement really doesn’t do this book justice: "Annan has put into words the questions many of us wrestle with in silence, and done so with such humanity and humility, it's impossible to walk away unchanged. This is a raw, beautiful and courageous book, brimming with truth on every page." (I wrote a more personal response to the book for the Patheos Book Club here.)  In a world in which pastors try to explain the unexplainable, we desperately need more people like Annan asking the right questions. 

Next Up: Half the Church by Carolyn Curtis James, Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren, No Argument for God by John Wilkinson, and of course Love Wins by Rob Bell…that is, if I can find them in my office. 

So, what have you been reading lately? Feel free to post a mini-review…complete with a shamrock rating! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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When disaster rocks your faith

Today marks the first anniversary 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the country of Haiti. To commemorate the event and to help get the word out about Kent Annan’s terrific book After Shock, I’ve shared some reflections with the Patheos Book Club about how disasters like these raise troubling questions about faith: 

"I wasn’t anywhere near the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 when the Boxing Day Tsunami killed over 230,00 people in costal communities across India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and ten other countries. I wasn’t anywhere near the epicenter, but the events of that day rocked my faith forever…[continue reading at Patheos]" 

Note: All proceeds from sales of After Shock benefit Haiti Partners, so please consider pre-ordering as a way of offering a helping hand to the people of Haiti today. 

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.