Archive for September, 2014
Publisher: Bethany House (Baker)
[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was given no compensation and I am not required to provide a positive review.]
I'm just gonna go ahead and state at the outset that this book was a disappointment for me. I think the problems started with the the authors' a priori commitment to the standard conservative reading of the Bible. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the 'standard conservative reading' (I most likely subscribe to it myself, although a a little more nuanced), but at times it forces the authors to make statements for which there is considerable debate (e.g., "The original author and his audience probably knew the answers to such questions, but modern readers struggle to find the answers in the text", 14). And this commitment to such a reading colors the authors' understanding of the books and thus troubles their application of the books at the end of each chapter.
That being said, if I can sum up my thoughts in one sentence, it would be something like this: either the authors or the publishers don't think very highly of their readers. I mean, seriously, this book is written by authors who hold Ph.Ds in their respective fields and this book reads like something written for a someone in a very early high school class. This book might have been in mind when the author of Hebrews wrote, "Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…." (6:1).
Both the Old Testament section and the New Testament section follow the same basic format. First, we learn a little about the 'Setting.' In this section we may learn a little about the place where it was written, the events that occasioned the writing, and the person who wrote the book. The authors also speculate about the timing of the writing. Also in this section the authors, almost without fail, tell us how we can 'divide up the book.' I found this dividing up to be a bit forced and unnecessary. I realize full well that this is what we do, but the problem is that it really didn't help us understand the books any better.
Second, there is a 'Summary' section. In my opinion, the summary section is the worst part of the book because it simply provides us with no significant information. It is, to be sure, merely a page and a half paraphrase of the content of the book being explored. Maybe paraphrase is too generous. Maybe it's more like an outline in paragraph form. The truth is, one can probably get more information by just sitting down and reading the Bible.
Third, in typical preacher fashion, the author complete the alliterated trifecta by giving us a 'Significance' section. In some instances, this section a page or so long (on my Nook). In other instances, it is merely a sentence or two. Although the authors try to vary the themes they broach in the significance section, I found that entirely too much of the time they state that the significance of the book is either God's Sovereignty (which is a good thing, except that their subtle or not so subtle commitment to Calvin's version of God's Sovereignty is troubling) or that we are going to suffer and we have to be faithful. I guess for me that's just not enough.
I always go back to Luke 24:27, 44 where Jesus gives us the ultimate in exegetical mastery: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." And, "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms." I'm thinking this is fairly significant and ought to be explored a little more deeply. Yet even the times when these connections are brought up, they are not brought up to the end that the reader is left thinking about Jesus as the fulfillment of God's righteous action in this world. In short, there is no real commitment to the meta-narrative that stretches from Genesis to Revelation.
I'm not one who happens to think the Bible can be piece-mealed into a mere 66 books easily divided after the first 39. There is a grand story being told and I'm not convinced the authors are as committed to it as they should be or as they claim to be. Even for a terribly elementary book such as this there should be a string stretched from one end to another connecting everything together. The subtitle of the book is, "Understanding the Big Picture Book by Book" and it is exactly at that point the book fails. To understand the big picture, there has to be commitment to the meta-narrative. And I didn't see it even if the author of the Old Testament section did a better job of trying than the author of the New Testament section.
I think that thread is Jesus. Don't get me wrong, He is present in this book but Jesus is not necessarily the focus of the book so much as each book is the focus of the book. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but what I came away from this book thinking is that it is hurried, it is sloppy, and it is terribly shallow and safe.
I'm not sure why this book was written or to whom it was written. There are hundreds of bible survey books available on the market that are infinitely better than this book. I'm sorry to say it, but this book falls short.
Title: How We Learn
Author: Benedict Carey
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 200 (e-Book (Nook), ARC; hardcover book 272)
[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was given no compensation and I am not required to write a positive review. I only tell you this because someone in the government thinks you need to know. To be sure, I don't even get to keep the book.]
The problem with reviewing this book is that I don't know enough about Mr Carey to know if he has an agenda for writing this book or if he is just really excited about the sort of research he reports in the book. That is, maybe he's so interested in this stuff that he just needed to have an outlet and wanted to share it with an audience who would appreciate it. Then again, "The more I discovered about it, the stronger the urge to do something bigger than a news story" (185). I actually get this. I actually understand something so powerfully welling up inside that it has to have a vent. This book exudes Carey's enthusiasm for this subject.
But he goes on to spell out his objective a little more clearly, "It dawned on me that all these scientists, toiling in obscurity, were producing a body of work that was more than interesting or illuminating or groundbreaking. It was practical…" (185) I get this too.
I work in Special Education and much of the work that I do involves the day in, day out, routine building type of consistency that drives me nuts. I need the mix up. I need the frenzied action that comes with chaos. Oh, sure, I have lesson plans and I try very hard to follow them. But maybe there is something to the idea that going through a day without distractions, a day full of routine, a day without ever taking a break is not the best way to learn.
Or maybe it's like writing a book review: so that when I get stuck with what to say next, I should just stop, re-read what I've written or take a video game break, and start again later. I used to do this when I was preaching full-time: maybe I had writer's block, maybe I couldn't get the transition to work smoothly to the next point, or maybe there appeared to be no coherence between the introduction and conclusion. I would just stop. I hadn't read a study that suggested doing so was a healthy idea, I just did it. I'd put it away and forget about it…sometimes not even bothering to finish until Sunday mornings…sometimes not finishing until I actually stepped into the pulpit to preach the sermon.
I remember learning to read Koine Greek this way. I would practice my vocabulary words until I learned them and then use them in class and in translating, but when it came to test time, I would break out the cards again. It was helpful, to me at least, to create space between study sessions. There's also the idea of 'spacing' which I found to be an especially helpful idea–particularly as it relates to how I teach in my classroom. Regrettably, we spend a lot of time with word lists in education–especially sight (or high-frequency words) words which are the words we use most in our conversations and reading. Maybe what I hadn't considered is how environment does affect student learning. We always say that behavior is environmental, but suppose learning is too. This would explain (in part, at least) why students–especially special education students–find it so terribly difficult to generalize skills learned in one environment to another–whether related to behavior or academics.
What I like about this book is that it confirmed that I am not an oddball because certain things worked for me. A quiet setting never worked for me when it came to studying (cf. p 11). I prefer to study in a place where there is activity and action; chaos and confusion. I like the distractions. I like to sit in the middle of the living room with a television or radio playing in the background. I like to study in different places–and at different times. I like to mess with the schedule–and I like to do that for my students as well. I love scrapping the lesson plans, no matter how beautifully written, and challenge the students with a game or hands-on task (cf. p 52). I was especially happy to learn that 'forgetting' is as important to learning as 'remembering' is. I was also happy to learn that taking naps is not a sign of being a slouch.
Maybe this book isn't so much about the way we learn as it is about the way we teach. Interestingly, much of what I read in the book seems to correlate wonderfully what I have been learning over the last two years about formative instructional practices. (Teachers who read this will understand what I mean without my having to give a dissertation here as space precludes such a lesson.) Knowing ahead of time that 'testing' is important for learning as mere studying is was enlightening. One of the hardest things I have found in my own classroom is getting students to buy into the idea that we don't have to get everything correct. I did this just today when I was giving my students a pre-test on simple subtraction facts and one of my students complained, "I don't know what to do." I kept telling him that it didn't matter; just guess. Write down some numbers. Practice. Try. "…guessing wrongly increases a person's likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one, on a later test" (89). But we are born and bred on the notion that we must get it right. (I think chapter 5, The Hidden Value of Ignorance: The Many Dimensions of Testing was my favorite chapter because it was the most practical.)
I enjoyed this book. It was readable. It was fun (the author includes a lot of samples in the book so the reader can practice the theories being written about.) There were helpful charts and illustrations scattered throughout the book. It was an interesting tour through some of the history of learning that I hadn't read about in graduate school. Some of the names were familiar, but as he notes, these scientists who have pioneered these studies in how memory works worked in relative obscurity. So unless you are on the cutting edge of this research it is likely you haven't heard of many of these men and women. I applaud the author for bringing them to the popular reader. Carey makes their stories readable and enjoyable.
This book will be helpful, in my opinion, for teachers who want to do a little experimentation to see if some of these theories are true in practice. But for the armchair psychologist (as well as the expert), this is a good place to begin a study of how we learn. It's a fun read, but it's not light. It is challenging at times; nevertheless, I think Carey did a great job of parsing out much of the nomenclature for his readers and making this work accessible to a larger audience.
I'll let him close my review: "Learning is hard. Thinking is hard. It's as exhausting, though in a different way, as physical labor and wears most of us down at a similar rate" (p 176). Maybe something we should do is simply let our students take a nap every now and then.
5/5–an excellent volume and contribution to our understanding of how we learn and, conversely, how we teach.
PS-even though I received an ARC (which I don't get to keep), I will be purchasing this book so that I can do a little more research and enjoy the book at a deeper level.
We have been discussing a particular passage from Matthew's Gospel on Sunday mornings in Bible School. It's from chapter 18 and if the subheading in my TNIV is correct this passage deals (exclusively?) with 'Dealing with sin in the church.'
If this passage does in fact lay out conditions for how to deal with sin in the church then it seems to me it has very little to do with how I relate to some random person who isn't in the church and who happens to sin against me–either deliberately or otherwise. If this is true, then it appears that Jesus might be suggesting there are conditions on the nature of forgiveness offered by Christians to one another within the church. (Although, to be sure, I don't think that is true.)
So I've been thinking about this forgiveness and it's rather tricky nature. I don't really think forgiveness is tricky. I also do not think forgiveness requires any steps on the part of the person needing forgiven. I think forgiveness is a choice that we make proactively. In other words, I forgive and refuse to hold on to my rights. I know it's a peculiar idea here in America that I refuse to cling to my rights for vengeance, my rights for recompense, my rights for justice.
I know that here in America if I don't require repentance before I forgive someone then I am giving them license to do whatever they want. I know that it appears that without requiring a change in behavior I am simply inviting that person who sinned against me to continue living in a state where they might (likely, will) continue sinning against me over and over again. Here in America that's how we roll. We have built an entire industry on the basis of the eye for an eye.
But Jesus has undid this, hasn't he? Think about it for a moment. All the way back in that book that some tell us is irrelevant, we read the story about a fella named Lamech who killed a young fella one day. Seems that the young fella looked at him cross-eyed one day and Lamech went all Mayweather on him and killed him. Then he uttered these words to his wives, "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times" (Genesis 4:24). Well this is interesting isn't it?
Lamech was born and bred for the home of the brave and the land of the free; the land of Judge Judy and The People's Court; the place where we all hope someone scratches our car so we can sue. We are rights happy in America; furthermore, we are especially fond of following the way of Lamech: I demand my rights. Sadly, church folk have fallen into this as well. We demand our rights–rights that Christians in other parts of the world do no enjoy and, therefore, cannot have enforced.
Then here comes Peter and he's all down with Lamech: Lord, I want to be generous so how often should I forgive someone who tramples my rights? Like, what, seven times? (I guess keeping track is a good way to count that you don't break the law. So that on sin number 8 Peter would have been fully justified to not forgive.)
Then here comes Jesus in response and listen for echoes in his words, "No, Peter. Not seven times. Seventy-Seven times." (Or maybe 490, but clearly without limit.) Now if we are to forgive someone this many times we have clearly not placed demands upon them. But note the echo: Lamech said I demand my rights without limitation and that was the culture that reigned. Then Jesus said, let go of your rights to ridiculous lengths. Don't demand justice. Don't demand the eye. Let it go. Forgive. Be generous with forgiveness. Jesus is saying, and we should be listening: "With my arrival here on earth I am bringing a new ethic to your relationships, I am giving you a new way to live. Gone is the culture of rights and demands for personal justice. Gone is the way of Lamech. Arrived is the new way. My way. It is about forgiveness."
Of what benefit is it to anyone for me to demand my rights?
So, something like five years ago the church I was serving, and had served for nearly 10 years, decided they could live without me but not without their building. They believed I could live without the house I had just bought with my wife, but they could not live without the building where they met for worship on Sundays. So they did the only logical thing: they fired me. Without warning. With only six week's severance. And with the tag line, "It's nothing personal."
Now here I am, five years removed from that. We have lost our house. I lost my career. I nearly lost my family because I had to live apart from them for a while to work. And we have lost much more besides. Two things have never happened: I have never been told why I was fired (it wasn't doctrinal at all or because of some discovery of an outrageous sin) and the neither the church nor any single individual member have/has repented and asked for my forgiveness to this very minute on September 12, 2014, 9:40 PM.
By the logic of conditional forgiveness, that church and every single member of that church who sinned against me and my family should remain in a state of unforgiveness. By the logic of conditional forgiveness, I never should have forgiven them for absolutely wrecking my family. But I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind. Stanley Hauerwas wrote, "Accordingly, the forgiveness that marks the church is a politics that offers an alternative to the politics based on envy, hatred, and revenge." In other words, those who claim Christ have no claim to rights.
The only thing we have a right to do is forgive. Much like Stephen who asked Jesus not to hold against his murderers their sin–even as they were stoning him to death. Much like Jesus who said, "Father forgive them they know not what they do." Much like Jesus who said, "If someone punches you on the right cheek, turn the other also." In other words, the Christian has no claim on individual rights.
And who knows, maybe our proactive efforts to forgive people who sin against us will actually lead someone, or some church, to repentance.
But even then we shouldn't hold our breath. I'm not.
Title: Bad Magic
Author: Pseudonymous Bosch
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was in no way compensated for my review and was not required to provide a positive review.]
This book is part of a series of books written by Pseudonymous Bosch. Now I don't know Mr. or Mrs. Bosch, but I do happen to appreciate the play on words in the name. It's kind of like Lemony Snicket. It's fun. It catches the reader's attention. It makes me think, right off the bat, that I am in for something fun along the way.
But this was a very, very long story. It was very slow developing. It was very slow getting to the point. And when we finally did get to the point it wasn't like there was an 'aha!' kind of moment; it just kind of happened. "Yep, it was a ruse all along. Now we'll let you in on the real secret." And the secret was rather disappointing.
So here is where I am with this story: I'm uncertain. I finished it a week ago and I sat on the review because I'm just not certain. There were elements of the story that were fun and wonderful. I especially enjoyed seeing all the connections to The Tempest—this was probably my favorite aspect of the book. I enjoyed that there were subtle hints of blossoming teenage romance, but that it wasn't overdone. I enjoyed that as far as a nemesis is concerned, it was mild.
I'm not sure there was anything to dislike about the story, but I'm not really sure there was anything that really drew me in and compelled me to want to read another in the series. There was some humor. There was a pseudo-ghost story. There was a little bit of action. There were clues and a sort of mystery. But it all seemed like so much 'let's hurry and include all the elements of a good story without any real reason for including them.'
It had a lot of elements. It had several characters. It had some 'suspend your disbelief' moments and elements. I didn't even find the characters to be overwhelmingly likeable.
But I'm just not certain that by the end of the story I was sufficiently drawn in to give this story an overwhelming seal of approval. It might just be me; maybe others will feel differently. But here I am standing on the ridge of 'did I get' and teetering largely to the side where there is a resounding echo from the 'no' chasm.
By and large, this book was a disappointment to me. I do not say that easily because I like to like books, but at this juncture I can say little else.
Title: Surprised by Scripture
Author: NT Wright
Anyone who has read any of my book reviews knows that NT Wright typically gets rave reviews from me–both as a lover of literature and as a Christian who loves Wright's theological perspective. Fact is, I can scarcely ever find anything in his books with which I disagree.
With this book, that changed just a little because I found much of what he wrote to be provocative and challenging to some long held theological ideas I have held. Letting go of long-held ideas isn't easy; being challenged at an intellectual level is sometimes discouraging. If we are not careful, we can label those who challenge us as abrasive or mean. He doesn't hold back, challenging all those sacred-cows current Christians have championed as 'thou shalt not violate orthodoxy in these matters' kind of doctrines. Sad truth is that entire ministries have been built around some of these sacred-cows in recent years–trumpeting theological perspectives that are important, yes, but often exist to the exclusion of a more comprehensive narrative, or to the exclusion of the Person to whom they point. It's kind of like the way a lot of books are put together in today's Evangelical publishing houses: authors find a single verse that supports an idea and then scratch around other tangential passages to find more support and then, voila!, a book is born. And all the while these authors pay very little, if any, attention to the meta-narrative of Scripture.
Yet this is precisely what NT Wright refuses to do in his writing. Taking a sort of 'damn the torpedoes' approach to the sacred-cows and theological pillars of current incarnation of the church, he plows through each subject by constantly reminding of us what Scripture says, and not just what a verse says. What I mean to say is that the meta-narrative is always in his view when he writes. It matters not the subject matter: Wright always has 66 books in his vision when he is writing about even the smallest word, sentence, paragraph, or book of the Bible. And so it is with Surprised by Scripture. There's not a subject he touches that isn't somehow connected to the larger context of the Bible, of the story of God coming down to rescue broken and sinful humanity in Jesus and the project begun at Jesus' resurrection to rebuild this earth and it's people.
This is what I simultaneously love and hate about NT Wright's books. On the one hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so I know that he is not trying to hoodwink me or convince me of some specious theology that is born out of a reaction to some perceived threat or otherwise. Many authors/preachers are good at this and it is reflected in the lack of depth in their work. On the other hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so he is constantly challenging my presuppositions about Scripture and God and what God is doing, or has done, in Jesus. That is terrifically threatening and makes me constantly uncomfortable. It ought to be so with all authors who dare speak on matters of faith. It ought to be so with all preachers: comforting the afflicted; afflicting the comfortable.
Surprised by Scripture made me clench my teeth more than any other of Wright's books precisely at this point. Yet I think this is exactly what happens when you take the bulk of Wright's heavy theologies and filter them down to the every day church. And if we do, and if we are honest, we simply must admit that we have gotten a lot of it just plain wrong. We might also go along with admitting that many of the ministries that are build around some of these wrongs are also, sadly, beside the point. Taking the example of the creation stories, for example, we might say something like: It's important that God made the universe; it's not so much important how he did it. But we might go further and say: It's important that God made the universe, and it's tremendously important that all throughout the Scripture the authors affirm that God is going to remake & recreate the universe. We can go even further: It's important that God made the universe, sustains the universe; that the authors reaffirm this frequently; that the authors reaffirm frequently that God will renew, recreate, remake the universe; that God has already begun to do this in Jesus and will bring it to fruition at some point. One way of saying this ignores the big picture; one way affirms it.
Well, we cannot prove creation in any ex nihilo sense of creation. We can surmise. We can guess. We might ask: Is it a mountain upon which I am willing to die? But what we can do is point to the Resurrection of Jesus (chapter 3) as a point in history where God's breaking in and stirring up the pot of recreative materials that can actually be demonstrated. The point, of course, is that we Christians get all frustrated because we have tied ourselves to the posts of things that are not quite as important as some other things–or because we feel compelled to prove something about Jesus that doesn't need proving because we think that if we don't the whole world of faithism will die. But we are to be found in Jesus, loving Jesus, loving people. Seems to me that everything else is so much frosting.
If we are more willing to die for a doctrine than we are for a person then we have utterly missed the point. I suspect at times this is Wright's point.
The only real gripe I have with this book is Wright's points about politics–especially American politics. He seems very sensitive to the way American politicians do things–especially as it relates to events surrounding September 11, 2001 and the ongoing drama of how 'we' deal with terrorist organizations. He says he's no pacifist; I believe him. But he seems to forget that the 'war on terror' although led mainly by the USA was, in fact, a coalition of nations who decided enough was enough. I disagree with his subtle criticisms of then president Bush (although he never mentions him by name) and the manner of response to the actions of evil people. I think this is even more pertinent now as we see our current president simply doing nothing against terrorist threats, beheadings of women and children, and the systematic destruction of churches and christians in the Middle East.
The problem with Wright's critique of American political processes is that he gives us no viable alternatives. He thinks American democracy is worse than his British Socialism. He thinks that we should be voices in the wilderness hammering out our prophecies against politicians and governments, and perhaps we should, but he doesn't tell us with what or with whom we are to replace them. Should we go back to Medieval Feudalism? Should we revert to the monarchy we escaped from? Should we adopt Sharia? Perhaps we should let Anarchy rule and go back to the time of Judges when 'everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes'? My point is, it's fine to criticize the way we do things in America if in fact you have a superior alternative. I simply do not see in any of Wright's books a superior alternative to the representative republic in which I happen to live. And if I may add one last point, for as much as I love Wright, for as much as I think he is dead on in keeping the narrative vision alive and in front, I think he is dead wrong when it comes to his critique of the United States. Dr Wright has indeed benefited greatly from the freedoms we enjoy here in America–not least of which is freedom to say what he wants, write what he wants, and criticize who he wants and then return back to the safety of Great Britain. I think it is disingenuous to say on page 112 that 'Western politicians knew perfectly well that al Qaeda was a danger…' and then criticize the reaction to September 11, 2001 as a 'knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out.'
This is a case where the president at the time was damned for doing and would have been damned for not doing (when in fact nearly everyone in government at the time supported the idea of taking action). Frankly, I think Wright's critique beginning on page 112 and ending somewhere on page 114 is wrong (as I think much of his criticism of the American political system is wrong). Perhaps if the British government, who had suffered worse before the USA on September 11, had done something we wouldn't have had to act in the way we did or at all. Fact is, however, no one was doing anything about rampant terrorism until our president took action–and if that's true, then who is to say his actions were merely 'knee-jerk, unthinking, and immature'? It's easy to shift blame which is what Wright does here. His government did nothing about it so when ours did it was, somehow, wrong. And this is all beside the point that our president was acting as the president of a sovereign nation–humanists, atheists, christians, Jews, Gentiles, etc. All of us. He was not acting on behalf of a church or a synagogue or a mosque or professor's chair; he was acting on behalf of the people he swore to protect.
All that being said, I enjoyed the challenge the book afforded. I especially found the last chapter to be one of the best chapters I have read in a long time on the subject of hope. It also goes without saying that Wright is his typical exegetical genius. He brings fresh insights to the Scripture and challenges our presuppositions in a host of ways. I think he would be the first to tell you he doesn't have all the answers to all the problems we face, but in my opinion, he has laser vision on where we should start looking.