Archive for May, 2015

51HWnwX+QoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: Permission Granted

Author: Jennifer Grace Bird

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 176

"To the Church, then, has been given the charge of proclaiming the Word of God. This revelatory Word is not a concatenation of human opinions and ideas but rather is God's own proclamation, the very means by which he speaks, even into postmodern society."–David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 176

If  I had been paying attention, I would have seen the endorsement by Rachel Held Evans on the front cover and I would not have selected this book for review. I should have known better. Here's the bottom line to this book: Jennifer Grace Bird did 'take the Bible into her own hands' and she made an absolute wreck of it and embarrassed herself along the way. There is nothing new whatsoever about what she wrote: she is regurgitating the arguments of folks like, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan (and others) all over again–time worn arguments that question whether the Bible is God's Word and whether or not we should pay attention to it, and whether or not we can believe in the God who is there. I've heard that argument before, "Did God really say…?" And although she says: "My intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged," she writes. "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible, or on the God the Bible points to?" (187) this is not what one comes away with after reading this book. (And, to be sure, this is a false dichotomy which I have not the space in this review to address.) (Interview)

There is nothing original about Bird's intellectual pursuit to 'read what the Bible really says.' There is nothing interesting about it. There is nothing compelling about it. It has a niche audience: those who are already on board with her absurd ideas about Scripture and her silly angry-feminist hermeneutic (I invite you to read carefully and slowly her work and notice how many times she makes pejorative remarks about men). What's amazing is that there are hundreds and thousands of women scholars and preachers who read the same Bible Bird reads and come away with a radically different understanding and application of the words written.

I think a large part of the problem is that Ms Bird seems to think that just because it is written in the Bible that this automatically translates into God's approval of it. Take for example polygamy in the Bible. Just because the Bible records many instances of polygamy is not an indication that God approves of polygamy. Remember in the garden, there was one man and one woman, which later Jesus affirmed. This was the ideal. After sin enters the world, then we see a break from the garden ideal and marriage corrupted. Bird seems to think that we should read the Bible at face value without our bifocals: one lens reminding us that we are sinful and live in a sinful world and the other lens reminding us that Jesus has redeemed us. To be sure, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible–stuff like rape, murder, slavery, and war–that God is not in favor of and certainly doesn't approve of, but is God at fault because the authors of the Bible truthfully report these events? Or is God evil because these things happen? Bird spends a lot of time in this book saying things about God that made me shudder.  For all her talk about those who 'read the Bible literally' Bird seems to suffer from a profound sense of inability to distinguish one type of literature from another (she does acknowledge on page 7-8, and 11 that readers of the Bible should be aware 'of genre', but I do not recall that she employs this warning herself and her favorite term to use is actually 'myth'). In other words, she is, frequently, a worse literalist than those she accuses!

Pause for a moment and consider what that means.

I do not know too many preachers or scholars or theologians in general who would argue that there are not 'issues' when it comes to parts of the Bible. That is to say, I do not know of anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 and 2, for example, are telling us the exact same story of creation. On the other hand, I do not know anyone who believes this means they are also contradictory either. So too with the Gospels. Just because we are given four 'versions' of the Jesus story, where each author makes a particular point about Jesus (which I thought Bird handled and explained fairly well), does not mean that we are given contradictory stories about 'how to be saved' or that we have to decide 'which Jesus is the real Jesus.' Bird is rather difficult because she believes that variety means disunity and that differences mean contradiction. She actually had some good thoughts in chapter 9 ("Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"), but she takes her conclusions from these thoughts in strange and rather unorthodox directions. Hmmm.

And to be sure, one really only needs to read her introduction to the book (xi-xvi) to understand what she is going to do with every single chapter in the book–whether writing about sex or violence or the virgin birth or John 3:16 (she made a big fuss out of John 3:16 only to tell us that we ought to read all of John 3; duh.), it is all too much for her. In her mind, we cannot trust many, many parts of the Bible because it contains things that do not pass her 'litmus test' of 'who God is and is not' (188). So she has created a god, held this god before her face while she read the Bible, and anything that does not comport with this god of her creation is suspect and therefore worthy of being tossed out into the rubbish heap. Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like the sort of author who is not trying to 'leave us in the lurch' or 'poke holes in' our faith? Hmmm.

Every now and again the book has text boxes where Bird engages in a brief excursus on some topic she finds particularly in need of reinterpretation (e.g., heaven and hell, the name 'christians', fun facts, depiction of Jews in the Newer Testament, etc.). There are also a few charts that are somewhat useful and also some charts for the reader to fill in to help better understand a concept she discusses (e.g., creation accounts, dualism in John's Gospel). Unfortunately, there is no index for subjects discussed or for Scripture referenced or discussed (although, to be fair, looking at the table of contents should give the reader a fairly good idea of what scripture can be found and where.) Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions which may or may not be helpful after reading the chapter they are attached to. Finally, I was frustratingly disappointed that there is not a single page of references. She quotes several scholars in the book and I would have been pleased if there were references where I could check her work or dig deeper for myself.

I'm not going to bother addressing her conjectures about the sexuality of people such as Paul (whom she conjectures, based on the letter to Philemon, might be a homosexual) or David and his relationship with Jonathan. I'm not going to bother addressing her quite apparent disdain for men and the way 'they' have handled Scripture throughout the generations and kept women like her from being 'ordained' (a wholly unbiblical concept in it's own right if she would take time to investigate it). Nor will I address her rather lazy attitude towards sexuality (all of it). And I'm not going to bother dignifying her stupid idea that it was 'actually God who has misled the humans, not the serpent' in Genesis 2-3. Hmmm.

All of this, and much more besides, gives me reason to pause and question what exactly her agenda is in writing this book. Bird assures us that her task is 'not to poke holes in anyone's faith' (19) but rather to go 'for the 'mark of an educated mind,'" (121; she assures us of these things frequently). But I don't think she accomplished either point. Her questions will cause weak minded people to stumble in their faith and intellectual people to question how she got this book published in the first place. What follows, on page after page, is simply lazy exegesis with a lack of enthusiasm towards understanding.

Her 'questions' and controversies have been written by others, have been answered by others, and these questions and controversies have always been full of holes, based on faulty logic, and, frankly, in no way intellectually astute. I tend to mine books when I read them so, yes, there are times when I think she has a rather brilliant insight (e.g., much of her discussion on Job was helpful and, in my opinion, on the mark; and in one of her excursions, the one on 'heaven and hell' (p 182-183), she makes some good points too; and other places). And, yes, she is decidedly correct that we should read all of the Bible and not just the parts that make us all warm and fuzzy. Furthermore, she is also correct that there are difficult things in the Bible for us to accept about God, about ourselves, and about the Christian faith in general; nevertheless, her questions have been answered a thousand times over by scholars, preachers, theologians (men and women alike). The nuggets I was able to mine in this book are too few and too far between to make this worth the time of serious readers in search of an intellectual pursuit or faith strengthening exercise.

There's just nothing new here (literally, she retreads time worn arguments with hip language for a new generation of skeptics and they will eat it up!) and it literally brings me to tears that she is in this place (and that she teachers students in a university). I think this book comes up way, way short on both supporting faith or providing stimulation for the intellect. I would like to meet the people she claims 'confront these issues in the Bible and come out the other side…often even stronger in their faith than when they began!' (187). Seriously.

So again I will note that I think this book has a niche audience and it is those people who already believe like she does. This book will in no way strengthen the faith of anyone and it will not provide intellectual stimulation for anyone either. In fact, you will probably left with the same 'sinking feeling in' your gut when reading it as Bird often expressed she had when writing it. The church right now needs a high view of Scripture and Bird's isn't even off the ground.

Too bad.

1/2*/5

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Walk_on_the_wild_sideTitle: Walk on the Wild Side

Author: Nicholas Oldland

Publisher: Kids Can Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 36

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I am not required to publish a positive review, just an honest one. So…here you go.]

Walk on the Wild Side is a whimsical tale about a beaver, a bear, and a moose who decide one day to go on an adventure. We are introduced very early to what would eventually be the main 'conflict' in the book: the three animals loved adventure, but they are competitive–and this competitive streak sometimes gets in the way of their having a good, fun time.

This story moves quickly from the decision to go on an adventure to the adventure to the conflict to the resolution. I like that the parts of the story are easily discernible and that the characters always seem to be smiling. I also enjoyed the easy text and that the amount of words on each page were limited to a few. This helped keep the story moving. I read the story to my students and they were engaged the whole way through the story. When we talked about it at the end, they were able to clearly define what happened in the story, recall elements of the story, and recall the characters in the story. It was also fun to have the students make predictions during the reading.

When we were finished with the story, I asked if the students liked it and to a student they said, "Yes!"

I am a sucker for the artwork in a kids book. The artwork in this book is strange and quirky, but it works and I love it. The color palate is limited to greens, greys, browns, blacks, and blues. The only other color was a small smattering of red that colored a bird that appeared on nearly every page–as if 'he' was watching the story unfold. I think the artwork is creative, fun, and in a positive sense, silly.

In my classroom, this book was used to talk to the kids about being competitive. Some of my students always have to be first or 'boss' or make everything a matter of winning or being first. We talked about how it is important to work together, play together, and to simply have fun being with one another. This book was a great help. In other applications, this will be a good story for helping students make predictions and, perhaps, sequencing or ordering events in a story.

A book has to be pretty bad for me to rate it lower than a five, and this book was not even close. It's a five star book that students will enjoy very much. This is a fun story that children will enjoy from front to back. I love this book because it was a fun and enjoyable read. I will be adding this to my personal library in my classroom. Highly recommended.

5/5 Stars

51swoznfYCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers

Author: Michael G. Long

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 176

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood on Wikipedia

From what I can gather, Mr Rogers only broadcast his television program during Republican Presidential administrations because according to Long these were the only presidents Mr. Rogers was critical of. Try as I did to find a Democrat who was the object of Mr Rogers' ire (or Long's for that matter), I could not find it. Somehow Long manages even to make the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal sound like something out of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe–peace, calm, and somehow righteous. This is sad. I'm one who grew up watching Mr Rogers and enjoying the work he did–especially the Neighborhood of Make Believe and I think this would have been a fantastic book if the author's bias had not shown through so abundantly.

I am all about criticizing the government and those who are in positions of authority, but I think if it is going to be done, it should be done in an evenhanded sort of way. That is, all politicians–regardless of party stripe–should be criticized. Michael Long simply did a poor job of being evenhanded in this book. It makes for a long, frustrating book–regardless of whether or not the reader happens to be a fan of Mr Rogers. Somehow Long manages to skip over the entire Carter administration–as if Mr. Rogers had nothing to say about Jimmy Carter or his policies–and plow a straight line from Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Bush. (Clinton is mentioned only a couple of times an both times, ironically, rather favorably.)

The problem with this book is that it only has one point of view (and it wasn't that of Fred Rogers) and I'm inclined to believe that Mr. Rogers was far more complex than Long would have us to believe. Instead I think this book is an interpretive history pushing Long's agenda. It's not that Mr. Rogers didn't do or believe the things written about, but Long writes them in a vacuum of sorts–not really giving us a full picture of Fred Rogers.

From what I can find, there were close to 900 episodes of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood film at various points between 1968-2000, which might also cause us to wonder how George W. Bush made his way into this book (although there was some interaction between President Bush and Mr. Rogers in later days of Rogers' life), and yet we are supposed to believe that what Long has given us is representative of the whole of Mr. Rogers. His bias in the book is a very real problem for the book and for those who who wish to remember Mr. Rogers fondly. As an example of Long's bias, consider this quote concerning George W. Bush–who was never president while Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was broadcasting new episodes:

Not everyone followed Rogers's [sic.] counsel. President George W. Bush favored fighting violence with violence and quickly authorized the War on Terror, promising to hunt down and kill terrorists who threatened the United States. Of course, rather than doing the dirty work himself, he relied partly on the soldier-parents of young children. Given Rogers's [sic.] convictions about child abuse and war, he must have seen the president as yet another child abuser in a long line of presidents and politicians. (77, my emphasis).

This is, in my opinion, simply ridiculous and irresponsible. He must? Really? Fred Rogers has been dead since 2003 and now it is safe to extrapolate his thoughts to accuse a former president of being a child abuser because he fulfilled his sworn duty to protect the constitution by sending volunteer citizen-soldiers to war so that people like Long would continue to enjoy the very freedom he enjoys? And let's be honest, George W. Bush acted with the full support and authority of both houses of congress, a group of people that includes men, women, black, white, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, Republican and Democratic. A principled disagreement is one thing; attacking character is something else entirely. Long is rather unprincipled when it comes to his criticism of those with whom he disagrees–quite unlike the person he writes about in this book.

But the point is this: before George W. Bush became president of the United States of America, there were eight solid years of Democratic President William Jefferson Clinton who also engage in various un-peacelike activities during his reign. And yet Long manages to conveniently skip all mention of Clinton's war activities altogether. It is mind-boggling, frankly, that such bias even manages to find its way into print without an editor pointing it out to the author and saying something like, "Hey, you might want to soften the blow a little." And as noted above, when Clinton is mentioned, it is hardly for the sake of calling him a womanizer or a cheat or a liar much less a child abuser when he, too, launched missiles at foreign nation or when he took advantage of a young intern. I'm sure Mr. Rogers must have had some opinions about those activities. Yet Long neither quotes nor speculates about Mr. Rogers' thoughts. 

At the end of the book, I am less concerned about Mr. Rogers and his vegetarianism (who cares?), his championing of minority rights (yay!), his opposition to war (again, yay!), his pacifism (yay!), or his overall ethic of 'can't-we-all-just-get-alongism'. Really. War is not nice. Hate is bad. Bigotry is evil. Peace and love are good. And Christian people, like Mr. Rogers, should be at the front, leading the charge against such evils in this world by demonstrating in their own lives and churches that these things have been overcome. With that said, I am concerned that Long has not given us a complete picture of Mr. Rogers and I think this will ultimately frustrate some readers who will grow weary of his obvious bias. I know I did.

So in the end, here's my take. As far as Mr. Rogers is concerned, I have no opinion. He is an icon of American History, a pacifist, a gentle giant, a man who loved children, worked hard, was very wealthy, and demonstrated his love and compassion towards all people. He used his platform to preach his gospel as was his American right to do. Great. I applaud him for that.

On the other hand, Long's presentation of Mr. Rogers is exceptionally frustrating. The book's chapters are a bit unbalanced, they are slanted towards what some might call a 'liberal bias', and, as noted above, they are unfair in their presentation of presidential administrations. If Mr. Rogers loved all people as they are then I find it hard to believe that he would have been as hateful (that's not really the word I'm looking for, but it will have to do) towards Republican presidents–to the utter exclusion of Democratic ones–as Long makes him out to be. Sometimes I was left with the impression that Fred Rogers had such a singular focus and that he was somewhat tone-deaf to the people around him–as if the only way he could really communicate with others was through television camera. Maybe the word is 'hard-headed.'

Mr. Rogers was subtly subversive.  

The book is complete with end notes and a stout index. I appreciate the few graphics (photos) that were interspersed throughout the book. And, to be sure, I did very much enjoy the trips to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Rekindling my memories King Friday, Trolley, and Daniel Striped Tiger was pure joy. This made the book somewhat worth the effort. Fred Rogers was truly, somewhat ahead of his time in some regards and I am glad for a man of such courage and conviction.

I just wish Long had not messed with my recollections of Mr. Rogers with his biased reflections on a few episodes of the Neighborhood. 

2/5 Stars

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book.]

Facing the BlitzTitle: Facing the Blitz

Author: Jeff Kemp

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

Date: 2015

Pages: 240

Facing the Blitz

[Disclaimer: I was provided a readers copy of Facing the Blitz via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.]

So, since I'm required to be honest in my review, let me start the honesty in this way: I didn't finish this book. Frankly, the book was boring and it is just not my kind of read. I wanted to like the book and I wanted to enjoy the book, but it just never took off for me the way I had hoped it would. And Tony Dungy's praise notwithstanding, this is not a book for everyone.

I think the thing that bothered me the most about the book was the metaphor. I think the word 'blitz' must appear on every page about 50 times. OK, that's a wee bit of an exaggeration, but seriously, I think the readers will get the metaphor without being reminded of it on every page. By the time I got through the first few chapters, I was worn out–kind of like a quarterback who has faced too many blitzes in a game by a crazed linebacker. A metaphor is good as long as it is not overused or overworked. He wore me out with his constant reference to my struggles as a blitz.

Another problem I had with the book is that there is nothing unique or distinct at all about the advice in the book. I have read a lot of books, sadly books like this one, and all they ever amount to is exactly what the subtitle says: Turning trials into triumphs. But let's be honest: trials do not always turn into triumphs and no amount of strategizing (that may not be a word) is going to change that. I'm always skeptical of people who write books and have quick, easy answers–especially athletes whose struggles tend to be things us mere mortals cannot understand.

This book was too quick; too easy. I think there are better ways to deal with trials and better books to guide us to those ways. And I don't know if this book was intended to be a particularly christian strategy or not. So if you are looking for a particularly christian point of view, you might find this book to be a bit shallow.

In my opinion, this book tried too hard. The truth is that life is not a game, and if it is a game, it is certainly not a game of football. I understand Kemp went through some rough times as a football player–the son of a former football player, politician, etc. But I would venture to say that this is all relative: getting traded from one football team to another might be traumatic for him, losing a game might suck, but it is not the same–no matter how much we want it to be–as losing your career, losing your house, losing your family, and not having the benefit of millions of dollars from contracts to get you through. So in this regard, nothing he says is relevant to everyone even if it is relevant to a few–like some of his athlete friends. I think this is a fine example of a book that is simply out of touch with 'real' people. Like I said, he tries too hard because he comes across as that super pumped up and positive athlete who views everything in life as strong safety he must avoid or a defensive end he must out think.

So as much as I wanted to like this book and as much as I wanted to recommend it, I just can't go too far in my recommending and liking. I'm not going to deny that this is a book some will find helpful and encouraging. I'm just not one of those people because I don't see the struggle. When you have walked a day in my shoes, then you can tell me how to turn my trials into triumphs.

2/5 Stars

Mr BigTitle: A Police Mr. Big Sting Goes Wrong

Author: Richard Brignall

Publisher: James Lorimer Company

Year: 2015

Pages: 94

I read this book in a little over an hour. It's a quick read and rather enjoyable. One of the things I appreciate about Lorimer Publishing is that they publish this sort of book where I learn about aspects of life that I might not otherwise know about. And given the situation we are living in in today's world where police and prosecutors are under increasingly intense scrutiny from the public, I found this book to be a rather important addition to the world's library. Among the important lessons it teaches us is this: the system is not infallible.

It is probably wise, in my opinion, to help young readers understand this early. I'm not suggesting that adults should inculcate a spirit of rebellion and distrust; no. What I am suggesting is that we should encourage young readers to think critically about how the justice system operates in our world-both in Canada, the locus of this book–and in the United States–where I'm writing my review. Perhaps the only way to see the sort of injustices we are currently seeing end is by educating people earlier about what is supposed to happen when a person is charged with a crime. As Brignall notes several times in the book, the assumption of innocence was not granted to Kyle Unger from the outset and this affected his trial greatly.

So, to that end, I found this book helpful given that many of the technical terms about the justice system in Canada are compatible with those in the United States. I think students will appreciate that the author takes time to explain complex ideas and terminology that might not otherwise be understood. Context is definitely helpful, but the author has also provided a helpful glossary in the back for readers.

There is also a helpful timeline, an important epilogue, a section for further reading, and an index. This is all very helpful and will make this book very useful in the classroom. I also did a little googling about this case in question and found that there is still plenty of information available on the internet concerning the case of Kyle Unger. I also appreciated that the author ''tried to use as many primary sources as possible." This made the book come alive for me and added significant credibility to the re-telling of the story.

This is a very straightforward book. Some readers might be a little sensitive to the 'real life' language but it is important to establish a context and it is not gratuitous by any means. In my opinion, this will a helpful book in a civics or government class. It's another of those books that will lend itself to a good debate or conversation amongst students who are working or thinking through ways that the justice system can be held accountable to the people it represents. This book is a fine example of power run a muck, the failure of the justice system, and the importance of the truth.

I recommend it to my readers and also to teachers who may want to stir up a good conversation or debate in their social studies classroom.

5/5 Stars

[Disclaimer: I was provided a reader's copy via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book.]