Archive for April, 2014
Took some time late this afternoon to go birding with my wife. It was a great afternoon driving around slowly on the back roads, often on the wrong side of the road, without seat belts just hoping to catch a glimpse of some bird we may have never seen before.
We saw a lot of birds today. We saw a Red Tail Hawk. We saw a Great Blue Heron (with a damaged wing). We saw Red-Winged Blackbirds. Canada Geese. Ducks. Cardinals. And a few others whose names I simply do not know at this moment. I so enjoy just driving around and watching for birds and other animals to appear.
Sometimes we see birds. Sometimes we see deer. Sometimes we see whatever that is to the left (beaver? groundhog?) Sometimes we see turtles.
We see them in the grass and in the sky and in the water. We see them in trees or walking across the road like they own the place. Birds sit in branches or on wires or fences. There is life all around and it is so much fun to look for it and find it.
So we were driving along a back road and we happened to see some ducks swimming around in some water that was running along the road but about 15-20 feet below us. My wife saw the ducks with their young and said I should stop. Well her camera's batteries had died so I decided to get out with my phone and snap a couple pictures. When I got out, however, I inadvertently closed my car door too hard and it startled the ducks; they flew off quickly.
What was amazing about this episode was something else though. As I stood watching our prizes fly off to safety something caught my eye and I turned thinking maybe it was other birds flying off too. No. Not so much. Turns out it was about 15 deer that had also been right beside the water having a drink or grazing or sleeping–I don't know because I didn't see them until they started bounding off through the tall grass and out of sight.
I suppose there are two lessons that can be learned from this. First, when birding, it is best to walk. It is best practice not to talk. It is best practice not to slam car doors. This was a rookie mistake even though we've been birding many times. The second, perhaps more important, lesson is that there is so much that we simply do not see. If I hadn't slammed my car door I never would have seen the deer. I would have only focused on the ducks.
Well my point is that maybe sometimes when we make mistakes it serves a greater purpose of opening our eyes to see something that we otherwise would not have seen. Perhaps we get so focused on seeing what we want that we overlook or ignore our surroundings. Then the door slams, and there are the deer.
Title: Autism Breakthrough
Author: Raun K Kaufman
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Pages: 341 (e-book)
Autism Breakthrough: Additional Content
Autism Treatment Center of America: Facebook
The Son-Rise Program: Blog
[I am required by FCC law to inform you that I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I hope you feel better now.]
- Autism now affects 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys
- Autism prevalence figures are growing
- Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.
- Autism costs a family $60,000 a year on average
- Boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism
- There is no medical detection or cure for autism
These are startling statistics and should awaken anyone who reads them to the fact that Autism is a serious medical condition that desperately needs to be addressed from the highest levels of authority to the lowest, in churches, synagogues and mosques, and in nuclear and extended families. To put a fine point on this: as someone who works with students who have an autism spectrum disorder, I welcome research, interventions, and ideas from any place I can get them.
These statistics are even more startling when the field is narrowed to the 1 in 42 boys and boys are 5 times more likely than girls to have autism. It seems as though every day there is a new statistic appearing in the news about autism. So I'm not sure, honestly, what to do with some of the information that I, as a trained professional, read on a daily basis. In the statistics above, Autism Speaks states fairly confidently that 'there is no medical detection or cure for autism.' Yet on page two of Autism Breakthrough Kaufman states unequivocally: "Children on the autism spectrum are capable of great change including recovery" (2).
So what is one to do with such disparate points of view? Is it a matter of merely splitting the hair of difference between the words 'recovery' and 'cure'? Is it merely a matter of having super-human parents who love their children into some sort of neurotypical wholeness? Is it merely a matter of having enough faith to distrust what medical science has told us, what scholars (in the sense of peer-reviewed writing) have written to us, and what most advocacy groups teach us about autism spectrum disorders and going off in direct and absolute contravention of these specialists to do our own thing–a sort of 'damn the torpedoes' kind of approach?
These are some of the thoughts that were swirling around in my head by the time I finished reading Autism Breakthrough. Another significant collection of thoughts I had was this: Suppose I am a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with an ASD. Suppose I have no idea what to do, where to go, or what steps to take? Suppose I have two sets of information in my hands. One set of information says that my child can recover, the other states it is a lifelong condition. One set of information is from the collected works of established medical science, the other set is from an outlier. One set gives me hope and so does the other. What on earth am I supposed to do?
Here, I think, is the crux of the issue with Autism Breakthrough: I think there is a huge difference between selling a set of interventions and selling a cure (or recovery). At the end of the day, I have no problem accepting that what is written in this book might very well be a set of outstanding interventions for children (or adults) on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. As I noted above: I work with students on the ASD every single day and I happily welcome any and all interventions that might help my students and/or their families. Nevertheless, I think it is somewhat irresponsible to suggest that what is contained within the book could lead to a 'recovery' or a 'cure.' I think it's even worse when said 'recovery' is set over and against accepted, evidence based practices such as applied behavior analysis. There are many, many interventions that may prove helpful to families facing an autism diagnosis and I think each family will have to explore these options and decide, along with their doctor, which interventions are appropriate for their situation.
Now, on to a couple of finer points of criticism and praise.
First, there is undoubtedly a level of enthusiasm in this book that stands in stark contrast with what one normally reads concerning autism. If points could be awarded based on enthusiasm alone, I would rate this book very highly. The last chapter of the book deals with attitude and I happen to agree that attitude is extremely important when dealing with any disability. The author of the book works very hard to make certain that people are given hope and encouragement in the face of what might otherwise be devastating news from a doctor. I tell my parents this all the time: have hope! We will work through this difficulty together.
Second, at the end of every chapter there are links to additional online resources. There are additional papers, charts, and resources that will provide extremely helpful to the family needing to track behaviors or 'stims' or other issues their child may be experiencing. Collecting data is a significant factor when determining interventions for children and I found the extra resources helpful and appropriate.
Third, there is an extensive resource list at the end of the book that I also found helpful–especially if, like me, one wants to do additional research or quantify the author's points. Additionally, there is a rather long 'academic' paper at the end if parents or professionals wish to verify the validity of the author's assertions by examining peer-reviewed research. I appreciated the resource list and the paper, but I found it disappointing that there were no footnotes or end notes contained within the book itself. Anecdotes are fine, but it seems to me that having one's work verified, having anecdotes verified, is extremely important when dealing with people's lives. (I get that it is a popular work and that bulking it up with footnotes or end notes might not be the easiest thing to do, but this is offered to us as a serious work, about a serious condition, and is purporting that certain interventions might possibly lead to a recovery. In my opinion, references to validate such assertions, even the anecdotal assertions, should be provided.)
Now for a couple of minor criticisms–aside from what I have already mentioned in the above sections.
First, as noted above, autism spectrum disorders affect boys nearly five times more than girls, yet throughout this book the author persisted in using feminine pronouns (she, her) when talking about children. It's a small thing, but it was extremely annoying for precisely that point: autism affects more boys than girls. Yes, we live in a world where we need to be sensitive to everyone's concerns, but I just wonder who the author was writing to? In this respect, it's not a small thing. If the majority of children on the AS are males, then stick with using pronouns that are appropriate to the population being addressed.
Second, throughout the book the author continually referred to autism as a 'social-relational disorder' (33: "What is incredible is not that we would use this model, but that it is still controversial to use it with children whose main challenge is creating relationships!" 108, etc). Defining autism as merely an inability to socialize or relate seems to me a disservice to those who are actually on the autism spectrum. I could not find autism defined as a social-relational disorder anywhere except this book. I am no way denying that social-relational issues are part of the peculiarity of autism, but I am saying that it is not the defining characteristic of autism. Defining an autism spectrum disorder as merely a social-relational disorder seems to deny the other salient points that medical research has brought to our attention concerning ASD (I would gladly stand corrected if someone directs me to such a definition in a recognized medical, behavioral, psychological peer-reviewed journal.) If autism is merely a problem creating relationships then I am certain the interventions will be helpful in solving some of those difficulties, but I am skeptical that it will help with all the other issues that science, and experience, has told us are neurological and/or biological. (The Autism Speaks website notes: "ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art." Clearly we are dealing with more that mere social-relational issues.)
As far as an intervention is concerned, I am sure the Son-Rise Program (the catalyst behind the writing of this book) is effective for some children and/or adults. There are a lot of positive and encouraging words and anecdotes contained in the book which makes the book not only an easy read, but also an uplifting book. Personally, I think some of the interventions are wonderfully conceived–I especially like the idea of 'joining' and plan to implement it, to the extent that I can, in my classroom. I absolutely agree with the idea that we have to persist in our efforts, believe in our children, love our children deeply, a 'nonjudgmental and welcoming attitude' (249), provide them with everything they need (including, if a doctor deems it healthy and necessary, dietary restrictions), and a generally positive and safe environment where they can grow, be themselves without fear, and develop. I also agree that how we do things matters to: "We remain married to the idea that, in the therapeutic and educational setting, the only thing that matters is what we do, rather than how we do it" (254). Amen. Attitude matters–at home and in the classroom; bank on it.
I'm sure there is more to say–positively and negatively–about the book itself. I am also sure that someone is going to say it, somewhere, and at some point. My overall impression of the book is very simply this: If you have met one person on the autism spectrum, you have done just that: you have met one person. I suppose we could say that for as many people that there are on the Spectrum there might be developed an intervention. My point is that these interventions might work very well for some, they might not work for all. As with all interventions–and I think it is unfair to disregard ABA interventions out of hand as if they have never worked–Son-Rise Program needs to be investigated by each family that wishes to consider it for use. In coordination and consultation with a licensed physician, it is important that all due diligence is done in advance before any intervention is put in place. I hope the author of Autism Breakthrough would say as much himself.
As another tool in the tool belt of interventions, I think this is a worthy volume.
Title: Primal Fire
Author: Neil Cole
Free Study Guide: BookClubHub
Neil Cole on Twitter: @Neil_Cole
Neil Cole Blogs at: Cole-Slaw
Interview with Neil Cole & Frank Viola concerning the Organic Church movement
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
[I include this link only because Cole frequently refers to Hirsch. Those who want more information can follow the link. I make no judgments one way or the other.]
[I am required to inform you that the FCC wants you to know I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review here at my blog. I have also uploaded copies of this review to http://www.amazon.com & www.goodreads.com & www.shelfari.com.]
I spent the better part of 20 years of my life in the church as a 'professional' preacher. It was my life. I have lived and moved among congregations, read books & commentaries by the best scholars, and spent considerable time listening to other preachers and teachers who expounded upon the Scriptures. In short, I love the church and I love listening to those whose calling is to make sense of the church, the Scripture, and how the two relate to one another and, consequently, how the church relates and ministers to the lost and one another.
Today, April 27, 2014, I skipped church and instead stayed home and listened to a sermon by Tim Keller called Everyone with a Gift, based on Romans 12:1-8. It was unintentional. That is, it happened to be next on the list of sermons from Keller I hadn't listened to yet on my iTunes. So I listened to Keller who also announced, at some point during the sermon, that he had been at Redeemer for 22 years and had never preached on Romans 12. What intrigued me was how he began the sermon because the Lord seemed to orchestrate the hearing of this sermon with what I had just finished reading in Neil Cole's Primal Fire. Keller said:
[We are] talking about the kind of church we want to become. We are the kind of church that when you come here you get Gospel ministry. There are pastors, preachers–there are leaders that bering the Gospel to bear on your life and you change and you grow. But we want to become a church in which you don't just come to receive that from a limited number of people, but a church in which everyone is equipped and knows how to give it to one another. Every member Gospel ministry. Every member not just receiving it, but knows how to give it, and how to serve others with it. (My emphasis)
So here is a man, highly respected by all who hear and read and listen to him, who has been preaching at the same place for 22 years, who seemingly all of a sudden realized that the church needed to become something different. Frankly, it makes me respect Keller even more than I did before because within this admission that the church needed to change is an admission that perhaps they had been doing something wrong or at least that they could do things better.
Primal Fire is a strange book for me because I grew up in the church. I mean, there has hardly been a moment in my life when I have not, at some level, been involved in church: altar boy in the Methodist church, preacher in the Christian Churches, Bible College student, member in an Anglican church–and all I have ever seen is a top-down style of church organization: preacher at the top and everyone else at the bottom; scarcely even a pyramid by pyramid standards. When I think about my own time in ministry in the local church, I have no problem at all understanding why I burned out, why I am no longer in ministry. Frankly, I don't know how any man or woman stays in ministry in that sort of environment–you know, the kind where the preacher is the visionary, the preacher, the shepherd, the teacher, the custodian; an elder, a deacon, a prayer warrior, a secretary, and so on and so forth. It is brutal. It is wrong. It is unbiblical.
Yet I also think about those times in my ministries when I tried to change things– things such as, instead of writing on the Sunday bulletin: Minister: Jerry L. Hillyer we changed it and wrote: Ministers: All the People and then actually to have the nerve to begin the process of helping all the people learn how to serve. Or like the time when a member of my own family was dying and someone in the church had the audacity to ask me why I wasn't visiting a member of the church who was in the hospital and was going to live when no one was even attempting to minister to us. Or like the time when I thought a change to the order of worship was necessary in order to change the focus of the worship and…well, just use your imagination.
So, Primal Fire. There are points in the book when I find Cole's exegesis a little awkward and there are times when I find his exegesis absolutely brilliant. There are times when I shook my head in disbelief and other times when I shook my fist in glad triumph. There are times when I thought he was splitting a hair and other times when I thought he wasn't going deep enough. Yet, at the end of the book (which, to be sure, I thought was about 25-30 pages too long) I found myself mostly in agreement with the overall point he was attempting to make: "We have allowed [a] worldly and ungodly command-and-control system to infiltrate and dominate the church" (37). He goes on:
The devil himself wants us to remain stuck in the current quagmire of the cosmos. Imagine a Kingdom ruled by Jesus, where each person has direct contact with the King and moves at His impulse. Imagine what our loving and all-knowing Creator could do with a body so responsive to His voice. (37)
I believe Cole is correct: "Jesus didn't die and rise from the dead so that a small portion of the church could possess the authority that comes from a godly life…Jesus didn't bleed and die so that some of us can have a career" (38, 54). I agree and it is sad that in America, at least, we find this to be very much the case. And from my point of view, I'll tell you exactly what it has done: it has created a class of elitist ministers. We have not replicated servants, we have, by and large, sent some folks to the grave early: Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. In the church we talk a lot about this; we scarcely live it out on a day to day basis which is a major reason why many of us leave or are forced out of ministry in the church. On the other hand, perhaps that is entirely the point: now that we are no longer 'professionals' of the church, we can truly be servants. Imagine if that were a part of God's plan all along. So rather than lament the loss of a professional class, perhaps we ought to rejoice in the raising up of true servants who serve the church for no other reason than to equip the saints and bring glory to God–and who do not happen to collect a paycheck for their services.
There are times Cole makes some rather sweeping generalizations that are a bit unfair and might reflect his bias for his own understanding of the church rather than represent actual evidence (maybe). For example, he writes that 'as it stands now, our people are ill-equipped and our churches do not adequately reflect Christ in the world (98).' Frankly, I think this is a bit unfair. If, as Cole himself notes, we do not need to have agreement on what church model or style is appropriate (page 71), then it seems to me that we probably should not sit in judgment of those churches whose model reflects something different than ours. What is important, however, is that each church examine themselves and see if they need to change to a more biblical model. (He also wrote: "The package we call 'church' today is an artificial construct that confines, imbalances, and even ignores gifts" (246). I think this is a bit harsh and a bit too sweeping; although, in many ways it is probably true. The corporate model of church 'leadership' really does hinder the church in many ways, among the ways it does so, is that the church needs more and more and more money to exist.)
There were also times when Cole simply caught me off guard and challenged my preconceived ideas and unmasked some of my theological 'prejudice.' For example, I am rather faithful to my cessationist preconceptions. I have struggled with this aspect of Scripture more than any other (except perhaps women's roles, another aspect of the book where Cole challenged me greatly) in part because of my denominational upbringing and in other parts because I simply have not been privy to such actions on God's part (television preachers have done nothing to lessen my skepticism). It was at this crossroads of skepticism and belief that Cole caught me off guard: "Perhaps if more of us took steps of faith into dangerous places, we too would see God work miraculously" (154). I had to regroup after reading this because I think he nailed it. Maybe the sort of miracles we are looking for are simply not the kind of miracles that God thinks are necessary. Maybe we Christians need to be a lot less concerned about what we can do comfortably without miracles and more willing to do something uncomfortable that requires the God of the Cross who does miracles.
Finally, I like Cole's attention to the short letter to the Ephesians (and other Scripture too, but the book is mostly about Ephesians). I mean to say that he really plowed that letter deep and if there is anything I appreciate in a book, it's a deep plowing of Scripture. If you like such things, you will not be disappointed. I'm not saying that I always agreed with his conclusions, but I am saying that I enjoyed the fact that he kept going back to the text over and over and over again, reworking his thoughts, squeezing more life from the text, looking at it from different angles, developing different 'outlines' of the text, and helping his readers to view it more carefully and thoughtfully each time. It's impossible to come away from the book thinking about Ephesians the same way after reading Primal Fire.
Future editions of the book ought to give serious consideration to including an index and an extensive reference or resource list. I get that the book is meant for a popular audience, but even some popular audiences want to dig deeper and do more research. Also, I seriously think that several of the chapters found at the end of the book (section 3, chapters 16-18) should be their own book and eliminated from this volume (or maybe linked to at an online source) They needed to be deeper, but by the time I got to them, I had read a lot of it already and it became very repetitive.
In Tim Keller's sermon I referenced above, he tells the story about a girl who wanted to be a missionary. She prayed and said to God that she was letting go of her life, giving it to God, and 'taking her hands off her own life.' To make a long story short, she never quite got her way because she realized at some point after all her training that she had never really 'taken her hands off her life' completely. This is a difficult story to swallow because if it means anything it might mean that the church hasn't either–far from merely a personal problem, this might be a larger problem some churches are facing. Maybe Primal Fire is one way of saying to such churches: It's time to take your hands off yourself and truly, passionately, lay down your life for Jesus.
At the end of the day, our lives, are about love. I think this book is pointing us in that direction: "That love is the relational authority that opens doors in conversation and provides the relational connections necessary to the [church's] work" (186). If the church ever truly grasps the significance of the APEST gifts, and every church will have to examine itself to see if the APEST needs more application among them, we must remember to do all things in and with love.
Yeah, that. Love.
Title: Schools in Crisis
Author: Nicole Baker Fulgham
FRAMES on Twitter: @barnaframes
[WE BELIEVE building strong community means making sure kids and schools thrive. Be|Undivided is churches investing time and effort year-round in students and schools. Whatever the need. And without agenda or strings attached. It’s that simple, and that powerful.–From the Be: Undivided website]
[I am required to inform my readers that I have been provided with a free copy of this book. All I am required to do is write and post an unbiased review of this book. You can also find this review at http://www.goodreads.com and http://www.amazon.com, both helpful places to find books; although, I'd prefer you just read them here at my blog.]
I should let you know at the outset of this review that I am a Christian, a former church pastor, and a (current) public school teacher. I am licensed to teach moderate/intensive special education (k-12) and I do so in a rural, public, elementary school. This is, primarily, the reason I chose this book for review.
I was a little surprised at the dimensions of the book. It is rather small and will be difficult to place properly on my bookshelf and manages to live up to the FRAMES motto: read less and know more. This doesn't really inspire me, but they at least live up to their ideal. The book is heavy on graphics and colorful charts. The writing is sparse and the paragraphs have large spaces between them. It took me about an hour to read this book, but I'm not really sure that I know more after having read it.
Of course, after reading, I know all sorts of Barna statistics and and the book is nice and colorful, but what the author told us really isn't a surprise, isn't really shocking, isn't front page news, and isn't altogether that crisis laden. Are there bad schools in America where children are getting the short end of educational outcomes? Yes. Should we be doing more to help 'fix' these problems? Yes. Are there concrete, real world solutions to these problems? Yes. Should the church be involved in these solutions, a part of the solution, the solution? Depends on who you ask. Here's why I say it this way.
On page 23, the author quotes a rather startling statistic: 'Barna polling shows that nearly half of the nation's public educators are practicing Christians, meaning people who attend church at least monthly and who say their faith is very important to them.' This bothers me a lot–and I'm one of them. She goes on: "More than seven out of ten of the nation's primary and secondary public school students affiliate with Christianity, and millions of those are actively involved in church, confirmation classes, and youth groups." (23-24) This should give anyone reading this book pause. It seems to me that if this number of people in the schools are already Jesus followers, then something should be changing about our schools from the inside. And yet we are constantly told that schools are in crisis, standards are on the decline, and that children are the ones suffering the outcomes of white privilege (see p.70; 'white privilege' always seems to be a part of the problem, but given that this book was published during the 2nd term of a black president, I find it terribly difficult to sympathize with this sort of racially charged, irresponsible, statement especially when there is no evidence or footnotes pointing to evidence to support the charge.)
So why aren't they? I have drawn my own conclusions, but they are tangential to the point I'm making about this phenomenon which is, simply, that if so many Christians are already a working part of the public school system, then why are things going as poorly as they are and as they have? This is a problem that is not significantly, if at all, answered in the book. But I think the underlying current is this: Christians have, historically, been as much a part of the problem as the rest of the population and not a significant part of the solution. Perhaps this FRAME book can help bring about some changes, but I suspect that the wrong people will read it. Teachers who are Christians need to read it and I suspect that not enough will, and until Christian teachers realize that they have become part of the problem (for various reasons which I will not catalog here) I don't see church volunteerism being a significant part of the solution.
I realize that FRAME Books are written for a niche audience and that they are unlikely to branch too far outside of those confines. This is unfortunate because there is a real sense (at least to me) that if the 'right' people were reading this book (i.e., teachers in public education arena) that maybe we could accomplish something or bring about the changes that are necessary. I'm not one who happens to think, however, that these changes need to start from the outside and work their way inside as seems to be the point the author is making. It's a great thing to donate time to making school buildings in urban areas look pretty, it's a great thing to donate school supplies to needy children, and it's a super thing to volunteer time as after-school tutors. But the fundamental problem, as the authors point out, is that children are coming out of schools ill-prepared in various areas of literacy and mathematics. A pretty building is not going to fix that problem when the students still go home at the end of the day to homes that are full of violence, drugs, little food, or no parents.
Indeed, as the Barna research notes in answer to the question, "What do Americans think will improve lower-performing schools?" 76% said greater family and parental involvement. (Running a close second was 'more high quality teachers' at 70%. Frankly, I'm not sure most Americans know what 'high quality' really means. I know teachers, and the rigors we are put through in order to become teachers and stay teachers are excruciating at times. There really are not many 'low quality' teachers in schools.) But back to the point, more parental involvement is key because I firmly believe that that education starts at home–which is why I could not disagree more with the author's contention that we need to 'educate early and often' (41ff). Academically, there is point and counterpoint as to whether or not early education benefits students. I necessarily lean towards it being mostly unhelpful because young children are simply not developmentally prepared for the rigors of education.
In this scenario, the school becomes little more than a babysitting service. We are given some nice anecdotes about sending 'babies on to the local public elementary school' and seeing them fail. We are told about how the these remarkable children made great progress in pre-school only to see it 'erased in their elementary years' (42; see also page 68). My thought is, 'of course they failed. The local school is not the same as a small church run preschool.' The problem is that we are not given compelling evidence-based reasons for why, aside from such heart-wrenching anecdotes, early education is necessary or that it prepares students for anything (aside from their own surveys and 'research' there is no research to speak of supporting this work–at least none that is reported in a resource list or peer-reviewed evidence, etc.). In fact, a quick google search shows there is actually a mounting body of evidence to the contrary–that is, we probably send kids to school too early in life when they are not developmentally ready for the day in-day out rigors of a school day. (A related point, is the idea that we need to extend the school day or school year so that 'children will have more time to learn' (73). I disagree. Children need more time at home, with their parents and siblings, to play and live and make memories about their childhood–memories that do not involve drill and practice in the alphabet and counting.)
I do agree with the author on another point though. She writes, "Literacy affects every aspect of a person's life. And, as Christians, we should care deeply about the kind of life people are equipped to lead. But, as Christians, literacy resonates with us at an even deeper level as well. We are a community that centers itself on a book of truth, so literacy is essential for spiritual education." (50) And she is correct. This is compelling enough reason for people, Christian people, to be concerned about the schools that educate children on a daily basis. There are, as the author well points out, a lot of reasons why we should be concerned that children, people, know how to read. To this end, I think that Christians should do a great deal more to help our public schools, but again I must point out that that I believe this is should be centrifugal in nature and not centripetal. That is, it should start with that nearly 50% of teachers who self-identify with the Christian faith and work its way outward.
If this book finds itself in the right hands, I think it will be dangerous (in a good sort of way) and might prompt a small revolution in the way things are done in schools. If, however, it remains among the niche audience, it will merely be, proverbially speaking, preaching to the choir.
Author: Alfie Kohn
Publisher: Da Capo Lifelong Books
Pages: (preview copy e-book) via netgalley: 282
Author Page: Alfie Kohn
[You need to read this before you take another glance at this page: the FCC wants you to know that it is imperative information that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. I'm glad that's off my chest and I hope you feel better knowing it.]
I was warned about Alfie Kohn when I was in graduate school. I was warned that his ideas are somewhat 'naive', that they sort of controvert the 'mainstream,' and that they are not compatible with 'reality.' So I began the reading with not a little nervousness and apprehension. Yet, as I went deeper into the book I found myself nodding in agreement, highlighting in agreement, and sort of shaking my head in disbelief at the depth of common sense I was discovering with each turn of an electronic page. I was warned that Kohn is a little out of the mainstream; I was not told that I might actually find what he is saying useful, helpful, and sensible.
I was trained at a university in the finer points of Applied Behavior Analysis and I am a strict student of the tools, techniques, and trials that accompany such a method of educating students who have special needs. I am a special education teacher, an Intervention Specialist, and when I think about a typical day with my students, I think about the words I have used throughout the day: "Don't ask me why;" "The goal of this exercise is so that the student will learn to comply;" "These students will not always have us around to guide them on every step of their lives, they need to learn how to do on their own without all the hand holding, mothering, and coddling;" "Good job!;" "Because I said so;" "Prize box at the end of the day if…." And so it goes, on an on. These are the words that accompany other interventions (such as time-outs, various rewards, Class-Dojo points, deprivation of recess for misbehavior, and so on and so forth). All of this is designed for one purpose, and that is to elicit compliance–a word, as I have reflected on my teaching practices, I use entirely too much. Kohn writes:
In reviewing popular books and articles for parents, I'm struck again and again by how their focus is on how to elicit compliance. There's considerable variation in the strategies they propose, from bullying to bargaining, from techniques frankly modeled on animal training to subtler forms of manipulation. But the animating question in such texts is rarely 'What do kids need, and how can we meet those needs?' Rather, it's 'How can you get your kid to do whatever you want?' (37)
Kohn's book caused me to pause and gasp quite a lot–not because it is necessarily deep, but because it makes sense, more sense, in any number of ways, than Applied Behavior Analysis. It also caused a great deal of reflection, deeper reflection, about the way I work in my classroom. It made me think long and hard about what my ultimate goal is with my students who have various disabilities and it made me think of the various ways that I attempt to motivate them to those ends. Frankly, the book made me question a lot of things about a lot of things: what was the purpose of my own education from elementary school to graduate school? What is the overarching purpose of today's public education system? It seems to me that perhaps more people ought to be asking some of these questions too–people who are in positions to ask them and bring about necessary changes. The more I think about what Kohn wrote the more I am convinced that a larger portion of the things we teach kids each day in school would be better off consigned to the rubbish heap.
One of the more important points that Kohn makes in his book is that we give way too much emphasis and enthusiasm to competitive pursuits as parents and schools. I have written about this as plank in my own ideas about education reform, but suffice it to say that I didn't take it to the ends that Kohn did–but armed with his analysis I am ready to do that very thing. I won't spoil all of the fun of reading through Kohn's analysis, but suffice it to say that I believe he is correct: there is far too much emphasis on competition in families, in schools, in life and when competition is introduced at an early age, well, what can we expect when our children view life through that lens?
Something I don't particularly care for is his heavy lean to the left of things–to the extent that even though he claims the current president extended and intensified the education policies of the former president one still gets the sense that it is still the former president's fault for initiating them to begin with. Now I don't particularly care one way or another if Kohn is liberal or conservative or Martian.What bothered me is that at the beginning of the book that 'an awful lot of people who are politically liberal begin to sound like right-wing talk-show hosts as soon as the conversation turns to children and parenting' (2). He goes on:
Have a look at the unsigned editorials in left-of-center newspapers, or essays by columnists whose politics are mostly progressive. Listen to speeches by liberal public officials. On any of the controversial issues of our day, from tax policy to civil rights, you'll find approximately what you'd expect. But when it comes to education, almost all of them take a hard-line position very much like what we hear from conservatives They endorse a top-down, corporate-style version of school reform that includes prescriptive, one-size-fits-all teaching standards and curriculum mandates; weakened job protection for teachers; frequent standardized testing; and a reliance on rewards and punishments to raise scores on those tests and compel compliance on the part of teachers and students. (2)
He goes on to note that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans all sound the same when it comes to education (and parenting). My point is that even though he says the two sound alike, it is the conservative side of this conversation that receives the majority of Kohn's verbal aggression. All of our problems with parenting and education date back to an appalling sense of devotion to Puritanism and the so-called Protestant work ethic and their perpetuation in our current day. He says that it was left-leaners who sounded like conservatives that prompted the book (2) and yet there is nary a word of criticism for those left-leaning folks who cannot make up their minds one way or another. In other words he uses words like 'right-wing', 'Puritan', 'religious', and 'conservative' all in a pejorative sense and, frankly, it just gets tired after the first 100 repetitions.
In my opinion, Kohn made a lot of good points–points that I fully agree with and intend to implement in my own work as an educator. Kohn has a way of stripping us of our blinders and forcing us to look at our own prejudice:
We Americans stubbornly resist the possibility that what we do is profoundly shaped by policies, norms, systems, and other structural realities. We prefer to believe that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that that have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that overweight people simply lack the willpower to stop eating, and so on. If only those folks would just exercise a little personal responsibility, a bit more self-control! (170)
He also has a biting sense of humor–as a fan of sarcasm, I appreciate his efforts.
Finally I will say this. I really do not know what to make of his analysis and critiques of newspaper editorials, blog posts, and peer-reviewed papers. He could be correct, it could just be his opinion of those things. For every point he brings up, the skilled researcher can probably find a counterpoint, for every yin he slings, someone will sling a yang. Kohn writes from his contrary, against the mainstream, point of view and most folks in research are aware of that so I'm sure there will be plenty of peer-reviewed critiques of the book. Nevertheless, the book is meticulously referenced and footnoted (37 pages of end notes) and referenced (26 pages of references) and even if one happens to disagree with his points and his ultimate conclusion (of which I am a bit skeptical to be sure) it cannot be denied that he has stirred the pot–frankly, for the better.*
It is time to strip the pretenses we have as parents and educators of children and dial back some (all?) of our antiquated ideas about how children should be raised and how they best learn. I may not be on the bandwagon for every jot and tittle of this book, but by and large I have been challenged to reexamine my own value system, my own educational practices, and my own care and concern for children–my own and others'.
The bottom line is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. If we want kids to take responsibility for making the world a better place, then we need to give them responsibilities. That means dialing back our control, whether of the flagrant or subtle variety. (189-190**)
Well said. It requires courage, but I think it can be done. I think folks who are willing to have their presuppositions challenged, who are tired of the status-quo, and who are tired of people in the media telling them how (and what and when and why) to raise their children will appreciate Kohn's frankness, the depth of his research, and his skillful analysis of the myths perpetuated by those who have more of an agenda than an actual valid point.
*The book will also, in its finished form, contain an index.
**I previewed a pre-publication copy of the book. Page numbers may have changed in the actual published book.
It's pretty sad when I read more about unconditional love from an author who makes no faith claims whatsoever than I do in books by authors whose sole purpose is to tell their readers about God's unconditional love. Or maybe it's not. Maybe I needed to read it some place else in order for it to really cut me deep.
So I was laying bed last night–rather, this morning between the hours of 2:30 AM and 4:30 AM–utterly unable to sleep. I kept tossing and turning, flipping and flopping, changing positions, sighing and groaning, praying and gasping–I just could not figure out what was going on and why mind would not just shut down for a few minutes so I could catch the sleep so fleetingly eluding me. It was that book the Myth of the Spoiled Child and the word 'unconditional' that kept stretching my eyes, pounding my heart, and infuriating my mind. It wouldn't leave me alone.
I do not lay claim to having many, if any, of those particularly queer moments when God speaks directly to us with words, dreams, or pictures, but I think last night that's exactly what happened. Here are a few of the sentences that kept dragging me down:
Children don't just need to be loved; they need to know that nothing they do will change the fact that they're loved. They require reassurance that their 'lovability' isn't in question, which is another way of talking about self-esteem. By contrast, on conservative critic of self-esteem not only complains about 'unearned praise' for children but expresses distaste for how 'today's parents' are like to express 'enthusiasm for their children's very existence.' (Kohn, 136)
Unconditional love corresponds to one of the deepest longings, not only of the child, but of every human being; on the other hand, to be loved because of one's merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt; maybe I did not please the person I want to love me, maybe this, or that–there is always a fear that love could disappear. Furthermore, 'deserved' love easily leaves a bitter feeling that one is not loved for oneself, that one is loved only because one pleases, that one is, in the last analysis, not love at all but used. (Erich Fromm, as quoted by Kohn, p 136-137.)
This is why I was awake all night, but not just this. This of itself merely tickles me. It doesn't leave me so speechless as when I read this and remember what the Bible says about the way God loves us.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
…nothing…in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)
Here's what kept me awake: I suddenly realized that God does, in fact, love me unconditionally. I had an epiphany of His love: I did nothing to earn it and can do nothing to lose it.
I've been reading this book called The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn. I'll be reviewing it on this blog soon so I won't spoil much with this post, except to say that if what Kohn is saying is true, and at this juncture of my reading I'm leaning towards that particular assessment, then I may well have to reinvent myself as a teacher of students with disabilities. If what he has written is true, maybe more parents, teachers, and administrative specialists in schools ought also to read it; slowly.
The thing about life is that we are always at a juncture of knowing and learning. There are many folks among us who stand at said junctures and say something ridiculous like, "Well, I know; therefore, I need not learn." They are making a commitment to stasis, to static. Everything is fixed, nothing will change. Everything is stable and there is no upsetting that balance.
Others stand at the same juncture and say something lucid like, "Well, here I am. I'm not sure. I'm uncertain. I do not know. Teach me." These folks are making a commitment to a certain level of functional chaos; to imbalance. Everything is fair game, there is no balance. These folks have made a lifelong commitment to learning which necessarily means they are willing to change–at any given moment, on any given subject.
It used to be said, it might still be said, that it is a woman's prerogative to change her mind. I think it is a human beings' obligation to change our minds, our hearts, our lives, our views, our entire being. What would the world be like if we were born with a set of beliefs or values or ideas and those were the only beliefs, values or ideas we ever had? What if we lived in a world where learning was nothing more than the compulsory memorization of meaningless points of historical trivia? What if criminals were sentenced to summary execution which was summarily carried out and were never, ever given the chance to change?
This leads me to question the very nature of education. Is education merely about learning facts and dates and numbers? Or is education about learning to think in such a way that our minds might actually be changed and our lives irrevocably altered? What is change? Who is to say what change is and what it means? Who is to say how much change is required or how much effort should be invested in making changes? Who is to say what standard should be applied to measure whether change has occurred or not? It's all very confusing and rather unpleasant to think about this late.
Yet, I am rethinking everything I have learned about what it means to educate and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to be a teacher; what it means to be a human; what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Maybe I have those in the wrong order.
Author: John Goldingay
Publisher:Westminster John Knox Press
[I am required by the FCC to inform you that Westminster John Knox Press provided me with a free e-book preview copy of this book for review purposes. Truth is, I'm afraid not to tell you because, well, one never really knows about the long arm of the FCC. Anyhow, there you go; it was free and so are my opinions of the book.]
I have read other books by John Goldingay (in particular, his WBC commentary on Daniel) and have enjoyed his keen sense of seeing the finer details of the biblical text and his understanding of and attention to the grand narrative that stretches from one end of the canon to the other (context). Some writers get too caught up in one; some too much so in the other. Goldingay balances both nicely in his writing.
I have also listened to lectures Goldingay has delivered at Fuller Theological (they are accessible through iTunes) and I have appreciated his sense of humor and the depths he is willing to probe in order to understand what Scripture is and what Scripture is not. The Bible would be better understood if people took time to unhook themselves from whatever preconceptions they have and listen to the text from front to back and, for that matter, if they would stop viewing it merely as a collection of sayings and start view it as a library, full of books, each with its own literary purpose. An example is his understanding that even the Penteteuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is best and properly understood as one book with some rather artificial divisions imposed on the text.
This is all so much backdrop to my review of The Psalms for Everyone, pt 2 which I think is necessary because if a person just jumps into this book without ever having read or listened to Goldingay they might get frustrated early on and simply walk away from the book. This is not a book that is necessarily easy to read or easily understood. It is definitely not a book to sit and read cover to cover (as one must do when writing book reviews). This is a book that is meant to be read slowly, deliberately, and with brain fully engaged and in concert with the Holy Spirit of God.
I say this as a sincere compliment to the author because one thing I have grown weary of is the rather shallow writings on Scripture that get published by publishers in today's world–worse the amount of people who buy and read them and then wonder why life makes no sense. They (publishers) seem to think that the average everyday Christian cannot handle digging deeply into the Scripture or understanding the Scripture as a complete, unified body of work designed to teach us something less about ourselves and something more about God. For example, "the division of the Psalter into five books thus draws our attention to the reason that the book of Psalms exists. It's to teach us how to praise God and how to pray to God" (3). It also, thus, neatly parallels with the Penteteuch too. But I suspect that Christians are not so much interested in depth, nor the prophets who sound those depths, in this strange apocalyptic driven wasteland of shallow Christianity we live in today. We are not so many Bereans. People want the big, the noise, the amazing and glittery Christianity. Goldingay's thoughts on the Psalms invite us to plod along each day, slowly, whatever may come, and live God's thoughts to us and offer our thoughts to Him.
A perfect example of this plodding is found in Goldingay's translations of the Psalms. I belong to a generation of Christians who have been raised on the New International Version of the Bible. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that except that the NIV translations of the books of the Bible are thin and, almost, too easy to read. The first thing the reader will notice about Goldingay's translations is that they are thick, heavy, and deep. They are complex and startling–I'm still debating how I feel about 'God Almighty' being translated 'YHWH Armies'–and sometimes downright frustrating, but, like Shakespeare, as a professor used to tell me, they are worth the effort.
I have a practice of reading through the Psalms monthly (5 Psalms per day) and I can usually get my reading done in about 15 minutes or so. This would not be the case with Goldingay's Psalms. They force the reader to slow down, to think, to sort of chew their way through the molasses like language he uses. This is a good thing. It means that I have to make space each day to read the Psalms (or any Scripture for that matter) and not merely do it as a matter of habit or add-on to each day. One must have strong chops to read these Psalms; one must have strong will to press on when the language gets thick, hits too close to home, or confounds us. Sometimes I simply read the Psalms (Goldingay's translations) aloud in order to better appreciate the language and the content and, frankly, in order to understand them. I'm not ashamed to admit that I often had to re-read his translations in order to understand them. Again, this is a good thing because it is good to be challenged and startled out of complaceny–which I suspect is a large problem when it comes to a people where there are so many thin translations available.
Another important aspect of this book is the personal anecdotes and the connections he made between life or movies or news and the Psalms–the way he made them as relevant to a today Christian as they were to a yesterday Israelite. I do not know how long it took Goldingay to write this book, but I can imagine him sitting down to morning breakfast each day, reading a Psalm, reading the daily paper, then heading off to the study to see how the two relate to one another. Or maybe he sits down at the end of each day and thinks about all that his life experienced throughout the day, read a Psalm or two, and then reflected on his life again to see how God has instructed him through this or that occasion.
This is exactly the way it has worked for me. Again, reading through the Psalms each day makes me think carefully about what I have experienced in that day and provides a better clarity to the life I have experienced. On the other hand, if I read them in the morning, it gives me opportunity for a perspective on the day that I may not otherwise have. Either way, we are invited to look on life with a God point of view: "The psalm makes that assertion by faith against the evidence of present experience" (48) he writes commenting on Psalm 85. I love that Goldingay keeps the focus squarely on the way YHWH speaks to us in and through the Psalms and invites us to new reflection on life or better perspective on living. Continually he draws us back into the text, the ancient song-book of Israel, and invites us to repent and return to YHWH: "We are in perpetual need of such reframing, one way or another, so that we stop thinking in a way that leaves out God's involvement with us and resume thinking in a way that puts God's involvement with us at the center" (11). It is, to be sure, a beautiful way of thinking about God. It makes God personal and our response is worship.
I judge a book based on whether I will read it again and this is a book I will reread (but this time much more slowly and deliberately). I will return to it precisely because of its depth and precisely because it forces me to slow down and savor the Psalms, to have courage to speak to God with a certain chutzpah (his word, p 14), and to love the community of believers from whence these Psalms sprung and were read (see Psalm 78 comments). Goldingay has given me an entirely new language to use when I pray (because his translations are deep, wordy, and thick). I appreciate this book and I believe that if someone wants depth and wants to savor and enjoy the Psalms as desperate cries of a broken people to a faithful God, then this book is a good place to start or to return.
I have a daily reading plan that I have been following for three months now. It is a fairly simply plan that enables me to read through the Psalms & Proverbs in their entirety every month. It goes like this: 5 Psalms per day and 1 chapter of Proverbs per day. This month I also added in the book of the Revelation. It is fun to keep up with this plan and even more fun to discover each day what particular word the Lord has for me. Some days it is a stinging rebuke of my childish ways; other days it is a word of profound comfort and grace. Some days it is seemingly irrelevant, other days it's as if the ancient writer looked into the future and could tell you how many hairs are on my scalp.
Words are important. Talking is important. The two are somehow related, but they can be mutually exclusive. I don't need to talk to make use of words and I don't need to use words to talk.
The Proverbs…the Proverbs. It amazes me that the writer, whoever that was, had such insight into the power of words and the effects that words have on people. The past couple of days I have been reading chapters 10-15 and here's what I found: 33 proverbs, even by a conservative count, speak directly to the idea of talking, the tongue, speaking, or otherwise. For example:
The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit. (15:4)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (15:1)
The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the speech of the upright rescues them (12:6)
With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors, but through knowledge the righteous escape (11:9)
And so it goes. The author had other things to say too and it is probably helpful and constructive to read through these a lot and perhaps even commit them to memory.
I like words. I always have liked words. I like learning new words. I enjoy when I am able to incorporate a new word into my vocabulary. Nevertheless, these Proverbs about speaking teach me something quite different about words and talking. They teach me, frankly, that most of the time it is prudent and much to be preferred to be quiet and listen. To make short use of words. To give careful thought to the words we use: The prudent keep their knowledge to themselves, but a fool's heart blurts out folly (12:23).
Or, "Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues" (10:19). Thus it is always important to carefully choose our words, to speak softly, to listen closely, to use words carefully, to nod often, and to respond prudently.
There are probably times in life when I have not been so wise about words, but I'm learning. It goes well with something I heard a long time ago that for this reason we have two ears and one mouth.
Title: How God Makes Men
Author: Patrick Morley
Publisher: Multnomah Books
[The FCC is convinced that you may somehow be led astray if I do not inform you that I received a free copy of this book from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for this thoroughly unbiased and fair review of this book. I hope this helps you sleep better.]
There is a passage of Scripture found in 1 Corinthians 10 that says this: "Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did…these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of all the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 TNIV). I preface my review with this passage because it is important to remember, or to be made aware of, the reasons why the Bible was written and preserved and passed along. We are the beneficiaries of the wisdom of the saints.
A curious thing about books like this and my love/hate relationship with them is that sometimes I simply do not know what to make of them. I often wonder about those authors who take Scripture and reduce it to mere principals for living (or, as in Morley's case, 10 principles for living or making of better men.) Yet there is also this curious notion in Morley's book that 'nothing that happens to us by human decision can ever happen apart from the will of God' (24). That is, Morley seems to believe that, human free-will notwithstanding, everything that happens in this life happens in someway in concert with the will of God. He may not directly cause it, but neither will he necessarily always prevent it.
In Morley's words: "God wants us to know He is in control. He doesn't do 'random.'" (25)
If that is true, then even the fact that I chose this book from the selection list, read it, and am writing this review is not mere coincidence to God, but is something that he planned, or at bare minimum, he knew I would do. So what should I do? Paul says these stories were written down to teach us which seems to validate Morley's (and many, many others') use of Scripture to write about principles for living. Yet, I having this gnawing sense of angst that Scripture points to a much larger idea than can be reduced to mere principle (see Luke 24:27, 44).
But the truth is this: for all the talk about manliness, how God makes men, and the examples we should follow, Morley didn't talk about the one man who gives us the best example of what it means to be a man: Jesus. Oh, don't get me wrong: Morley talks about Jesus, but there's not a single chapter devoted to the example Jesus sets for us men. Maybe this is a good thing because maybe it means that Morley refuses to look at Jesus as mere example we should strive to imitate even though the apostle Paul seems rather convinced that Jesus is the one person we should imitate: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). This seems to be appropriate given what Morley states as his thesis:
Here's the promise of How God Makes Men. And it's a huge one. If you will absorb and embrace the timeless principles offered by these ten men, you can get past the shallow cultural Christianity that wants to gut your manhood and get to–or get back to–a more biblical Christianity.
If you will let these ten men mentor you, then, like them, you will become the man God created you to be. You will release the power of God in every direction and detail of your life. You will know how to sustain the passion of your faith. And you will be well on the way to writing your own epic story. Why? Because God is too good to let our lives merely turn out like we planned. (xiii)
To be sure, the man God wants me to be, according to Patrick Morley, is quite a stout individual. Of that, there can be little or no doubt. If I follow these principles, I will be virtually unconquerable and undefeated; nothing will dominate me. Perhaps this is a good thing, but maybe I will never know in this lifetime.
If I set aside my qualms about how authors us the Bible, I can safely say that I really enjoyed this book. As I noted above, I don't think I was reading it by accident and thus, it truly spoke to me in many places. It helped me understand, frankly, that it is quite alright to be ordinary, quite alright to struggle, quite alright to have bad days, and quite alright to thoroughly miss God's point time and time again. Morley said it this way: "…God is more interested in the success of our character than the success of our circumstances" (42). Funny thing is that the preacher I listened to this morning made a startlingly similar comment about the Christian and character.
Another significant aspect of this book is that even though I have my reservations, the book is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. Morley spends a lot of time in the Scripture in this book and I did and do appreciate that very much. It was refreshing to re-read the stories of Abraham, Gideon, Moses, Nehemiah and others. It was refreshing to have a fresh set of eyes surveying their stories and pointing out aspects that might otherwise be overlooked or disregarded.
Finally, it is also important to note that Morley spends a lot of time calling men out of themselves an into ministry. Now, I don't think he necessarily means that every man who reads this book is going to enter into full-time, paid, 'professional' ministry. But I do think he means that every man is called to be used uniquely by God in some small or large part of the world. This seems to correspond to something David wrote in Psalm 51: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you." Morley's point is that when we go through the sort of trials he describes, we will find that often God is burdening our heart for a certain segment of the population.
I remember when I was a fresh-faced, enthusiastic 25 year-old just out of Bible college. I was eager to preach. That was my burden. Frankly, it is still my burden. So off I went, a day or two after I graduated to the first church that took an interest: far down in the hills of Appalachia to a small town so far from humanity that they bragged about not having a single traffic light in the entire county. I lasted all of a year and a half. About a year later, I was called back to preaching ministry. I lasted another 2 years and some before making a rather difficult transition to a new congregation where I stayed for nearly 10 years.
I am now a public school teacher and scarcely a member of any church let alone the preaching minister. I attribute this, in large part, to the fact that I have had no male leadership in my life. I remember the man who led me to Jesus, who baptized me, and who subsequently vanished afterwards. I gave my life to Jesus in 1983 and from there launched out on a one-man journey. I got lost along the way because I did not have the sort of adult male leadership in my life that was necessary for me to avoid all the pitfalls that have caused me struggle after struggle in my life and have caused failure after failure in my career. I often wonder what my life would be like, what my preaching ministries would have been like, if just one older man had taken me under his wing and treated me like a young christian man who needed guidance and love instead of as an employee that he needed to govern and control.
Fact is, those men have been non-existent in my life and the results have been painful.
It's not easy to become a man. Many young men today have grown up as practical orphans. They've been left to guess at what normal male behavior looks like. The faith of young men is under severe attack. That's where the battle is raging. And frankly, mature Christian men are just not getting the discipleship job done. (153)
So if it is true that nothing happens apart from God's will, then this book came to me according to God's plan and will for my life. And if that is true, and I am leaning in that direction, then it came at the right time because at my age, I still have no adult male leadership in my life. I'm still trying to make sense of it all–on my own. It is still difficult. I'm still waiting. I have a strong suspicion that there are more men my age who have the same sorrows and the same needs and who failed at local church ministry precisely for these reasons.
But I have the books the Lord keeps sending me. This book, How God Makes Men, is a helpful, necessary, and powerful tool. It is an important voice that I needed to hear right here, right now. And with that in mind, maybe there is hope yet that I will become the man God intends for me to be.
Author: NT Wright
Publisher:Westminister John Knox Press
Pages: (e-book) 162
[I want to make life easier for you, and I don't want the federal government knocking on your door in the middle of the evening asking why you are reading a book review that didn't inform you that the author of said review received a free copy of the book being reviewed in exchange for a review on his blog, so there you go; you have been told. Now you are safe.]
The thing I appreciate the most about NT Wright's work is that he knows full well how to keep the focus on a text as a whole. In other words, even though this devotional focuses on specific passages of the Gospel of Matthew, what we call pericopes, Wright has an amazing ability to keep all of these stories of Jesus focused in on the one particular and important point he believes Matthew is making: "From start to finish, Matthew's story is about the strange way in which Jesus became king" (64). And Wright does this over and over and over again in this book–which makes the book easy to read, easy to understand, and makes Matthew's Gospel come to life because we are thus able to avoid all sorts of hermeneutical chicanes that other writers place before us when they write devotionals or commentaries.
He manages to keep our eyes focused on this central theme of Matthew's Gospel from start to finish. It guides all of his exegetical and devotional purposes. It strengthens his application of the passages he addresses–because the application is always around the same theme. It gives laser-sharp clarity and accuracy to sections of Scripture that might otherwise be unclear to the reader. It unclutters the cluttered up theology that other authors have given to us when they try to read Matthew (or Mark, or Luke, or John) as if he were making a point about a theological system developed hundreds or thousands of years after his writing of the Gospel (Matthew was writing about Jesus!) To be sure, Matthew probably had some theological purpose in writing; however, I seriously doubt it is anything other than what NT Wright has told us in this (and many others beside) book.
From start to finish, Matthew's story is about the strange way in which Jesus became king. The first two chapters make it clear that he is the king from the line of David, at whose birth Gentile sages come to worship. The closing scene of the gospel makes it clear that with his resurrection and ascension Jesus has now 'come in his kingdom': 'all authority in heaven and on earth', he says, 'has been given to me.' Our problem in the modern world has been that we have taken it for granted that Jesus is not, in any sense, currently 'king of the world.' (It certainly doesn't look like it, we tell ourselves.) So we have assumed that he must have been talking about something else. Something that didn't happen. (64)
This is exactly why I love reading the work of NT Wright. The passages that cause other bible scholars to turn hermeneutical somersaults in order to interpret them, fit cohesively and coherently in Wright's framework of 'this is how Jesus became king.' Furthermore, this is demonstrably so throughout the course of all his writing, not just in this small offering.
Moreover, he's not content to merely leave us wondering, staring up at the sky like Jesus' dazed and confused disciples as it were, what to do with this information. If Jesus is king, and Wright's contention is that he is king, king indeed, then this has profound implications for the church and should more than superficially alter the way we live, and move, and have our being in this world: "What should the church be doing today that would make people realize that 'heaven' is actually in charge here and now?" (8) He continues:
The whole gospel, once more, is written in order to give the answer to that. Again, it's an answer many people today have not begun to think about. Ask yourself this question: how did Jesus come to this point of being king? The answer is obvious. He didn't do it in the way the disciples expected, in the way the crowds wanted, in the way which the chief priests and Pilate assumed he would behave. He didn't follow the normal human path to power, pushing and shoving his way forward, fighting and killing until his position was established. He came as the Servant, the one who took people's infirmities and diseases on to himself, the one who suffered insults and mocking and torture and death. He was obedient, throughout his life, to a different vision of power, a different sort of kingdom-dream. And his resurrection not only show that he was right. It established his kingdom, his type of kingdom, once and for all. (148)
So if heaven is in charge now (Wright continually brings us back to the so-called 'Lord's Prayer' where Jesus teaches us to pray, 'your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven'), what are we doing? Believing? Teaching? Waiting for? Praying? "And what we most want–the strange phenomenon of which prayer itself is a supreme example!–is that his kingdom should come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. When we pray, we pray for that goal but we also pray within that promise" (18). These devotionals, knit together around the central square of Jesus is King here and now, continually redirect our attention back to that central square–one cannot go far in this book without encountering this theme. It's like when Jesus' family comes looking for him and he is seated in the center with people all around himself: he is the center (Mark 3:31-35). And it is to this center (see also Revelation 4) that Wright continually redirects our vision, our focus.
Another important feature of this short book is the manner in which Wright integrated Psalms into the weekly readings. Wright's book A Case for the Psalms (see my review here) was a great book too, but the sort of devotional writing we get in Lent for Everyone is, in my opinion, superior and for precisely the reason I mention above: he continually brings us back to the idea of Jesus being the King and heaven being in charge here and now. (Wright specifically addresses all or parts of Psalms 32, 121, 95, 23, 130 and 31.) Frankly, I cannot speak or write more enthusiastically about the work of NT Wright. The depths he is able to sound in such a short space is, in my opinion, simply profound. Every page leaves me wanting.
A final note about style is that at the end of each day's reading, there is a short prayer, 1-3 lines, and directly linked to the reading just accomplished. These are short prayers, but helpful in that they, again, give a laser sharp focus to the main objective of Matthew's Gospel.
I will close on this note. I have read many commentaries, devotionals, and theologies in my short time on earth. Most of their authors are content to break apart the literary unit of the book being examined and comment, verse by verse, on the text, and tell the reader what each word means in each verse as if the author (be it Matthew or Mark or Paul or whoever) sat down and merely collected a bunch of tales and pasted them together on a papyrus without any sense of what makes good literature. Rarely, and I mean this sincerely, rarely do the commentaries approach the text as a whole, as a complete unit of literature that serves its own purpose and stands alone, if at the same time as part of a larger story, in that purpose. That's what makes Wright's work different and better. He never forgets that we are reading literature, a different type of literature, but literature nonetheless. And he continually reminds us that good authors write with, usually, a singular purpose. Matthew is no different.
Matthew is Matthew. Mark and Luke and John are important, occasionally reference is made to them, and they are necessary as a part of the Gospel story. But Matthew is Matthew and that is enough. Matthew has his own story to tell and he tells it well enough without having to rely on other Gospels to 'fill in missing parts.' There are no missing parts in Matthew. NT Wright's ability to bear all that in mind, from front to back, makes me come back to his work over and over again. I think you will too.
The sun was living out loud today. I woke up to its massive heat and light illuminating the morning sky. It was red. As the wore on the heat only increased; although, I scarcely felt any of it until it was time for a rather random monthly fire-drill. It went well and I think the students enjoyed their ten minutes of fresh air.
Then it was back to work inside the cool, hardened classroom.
This evening I went for a walk with my wife. The wind was rather fierce which made the walk just a little bit uncomfortable–especially when it was blowing directly into our faces. We made it back safely at which time I happened to look out the back window to see the setting sun was as yet unwilling to surrender it's reign for the day. The skyline was all alive with the blood-red light glowing and clutching like the sun was a man drowning in the ocean, gasping for it's last breath, reaching for someone to lift it back to life or for something cling to.
I take comfort in the fact that somewhere, right now, while I am here encased in artificial light inside and crushing darkness outside, the sun is still shining somewhere on the earth. I take comfort in the fact that while some of us are in the dark, someone is in the light. Shadows may live in a whisper in the light, but monsters live out loud in the dark.
The sun was so warm today. Living the past several months in the dreariness of the cold, it's hard to remember that the sun didn't change it's temperature and that we were just tilted differently for several months which only made the sun feel colder. The sun was living out loud today and I don't think there was a person on the face of the earth complaining about it either. After living indoors for the past several months, after scarcely feeling the soft warmth of the suns rays for so many months, it was comforting to know that it was still there and still loving us.
Winter was so melancholy this year. It was just so suffocating. I felt helpless all winter, trapped in a never-ending oppression of cold and bitterness. The clouds were stifling. The chill in the air went straight to the bones. We lived quietly all winter–trapped with one another, trapped within ourselves–and seeing so much of one another that were like manna in the desert when we were longing for quail. And perhaps we took one another for granted as the time passed this winter.
Winter was cold and dirty. The snow was not the fun kind of snow. It was the annoying kind of snow that only lays down long enough to suppress movement and activity–enough to slow us down to the pace of snails, to curtail our hummingbird like tendencies.
Today the sun was living out loud again, out from under its shroud. And we too.