Pope Offers Fresh Look at Evangelism

joy of the gospelFirst off, you should know that I'm not Catholic. I'm rather decidedly a Protestant. But like lots of folks, religious and not, I'm intrigued by Pope Francis. I wanted to read The Joy of the Gospel for no other reason than to hear his take on evangelism and the world.

Overview:

The book is an apostolic exhortation from the leader of the Catholic Church to clergy and laity. In it, he tackles the position of the church in the world, the crises it faces, and the hope it offers.

Why you might like The Joy of the Gospel:

While the pope is addressing Catholics primarily, he quickly casts a wide net. On the first page of text, he implores "all Christians, everywhere, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ ..."

For any mainline Protestants, Francis' take on the problems facing the church will sound tragically familiar.

But Francis is hopeful and articulate. He displays his knowledge of the world as well as the church, and he offers a vision of what the church could bring to the world.

The book is pastoral in tone and obviously comes from the heart of a man who knows the struggles of the parish priest as well as the politics of the Vatican.

He is the strongest of advocates for the poor, not just as recipients of charity, but as being included in decision-making and in receiving the benefits of redistribution of wealth.

For the most part, he offers solutions to the problems of declining church attendance and the perception that religious people are out of touch. He takes on tasks from the creation of a homily (sermon, for us Protestants) to the creating of a just and peaceful society.

Francis also spends a great deal of time encouraging the faithful to respond to materialism and individualism. Consider this passage:

Many of us try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realms of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tell us constantly to run the risk of face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. ... The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.

The pope doesn't avoid the hard questions — from the role of women in the church and its pro-life stance to relationships with other religions.

This is a meaty book.

Why you might not like The Joy of the Gospel:

The book is decidedly Catholic. It quotes extensively from the Catholic tradition as well as from Scripture. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but it should be noted.

The arguments about the role of women are the least compelling section of the book. While Francis argues that women should be involved in decision-making in the church, he says "the reservation of the priesthood to males ... is not a question open to discussion ..."

The book is full of church jargon. Francis usually defines his terms, but without a theological education behind you, certain sections of the book may be a challenge. There is a subsection titled "Kerygmatic and mystagogical catechesis," for example. Most of the book is accessible, but there are exceptions.

This is a book for the faithful, which should be obvious from the title. While a reader interested in the positions of the Catholic church may find it interesting, other sources would likely be more appealing to the non-religious.

My conclusions:

I found The Joy of the Gospel refreshing and relevant. It is a beautiful picture of what the church could be in the world — a voice for the poor, an authority in the face of violence, a transforming influence in the darkness of addictions, isolation, and fear.

It is both practical and theoretical, encouraging and a swift kick where it's most needed.

If you find yourself frustrated or discouraged with the state of the church — Protestant or Catholic — you will find hope and solutions in this short but weighty book.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of The Joy of the Gospel from Blogging for Books. I wasn't required to give a positive review. These are my honest opinions.

Max & Denalyn Lucado Offer Kids' Prayers

_240_360_Book.1494.coverProlific Christian author Max Lucado and his wife, Denalyn, have undertaken no small task in compiling the Lucado Treasury of Bedtime Prayers. The hardcover book, illustrated by Lisa Alderson and published by Thomas Nelson, retails for $19.99.

Overview:

In addition to prayers by the Lucados, the book is a compilation of prayers, hymn lyrics, and Scriptures.

Despite the title, there are chapters devoted to morning prayers, prayers for family and friends, prayers of praise and thankfulness, mealtime prayers, holiday prayers, and more.

Why you might buy the Lucado Treasury of Bedtime Prayers:

Most of the prayers included are classics, from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to "Away in a Manger." You are unlikely to find such a comprehensive collection, and one very nicely compiled, elsewhere.

The illustrations of woodland animals are charming and engaging.

The Lucados have included an introduction for parents that is particularly good, written in Max Lucado's approachable style.

The prayers by Max and Denalyn Lucado feel fresh and relevant to young readers.

Because most of the prayers rhyme, they're great for memorization.

Why you might not buy the Lucado Treasury of Bedtime Prayers:

Most of the prayers rhyme. You'll notice I mentioned this above. Rhyming may or may not be to your liking. I find that my very young children often get lost in the rhythm and don't pay attention to what is being said.

While the illustrations are lovely, they have nothing to do with the prayers on the page. My kids were asking questions about the pictures, trying to understand how they related to what I was reading. They became a distraction rather than an aid to comprehension.

Despite many of the prayers being adapted for young readers, they often feel stilted. Take this adapted prayer by Alice E. Allen, for example:

Give us this day our daily bread; Our table is so beautifully spread, Show us how best to save with care, Until our every loaf we share With hungry children everywhere. Father, that all be fed, Give us our daily bread.

The sentiment is lovely, but the inverted language may make it lost on little ones. A little more adapting might have made it more accessible.

My conclusions:

I'm a fan, though  not an avid one, of Max Lucado, so I was excited to see this book of prayers. It's a tiny bit disappointing, though.

I need to wait a couple of years to see if this book will engage my little ones. At almost 3 and almost 4, they have no interest in the text of this book. And they love books, even wordy ones.

My fear is that by the time they can understand what the older prayers are saying, they will have outgrown the illustrations.

That would be unfortunate because the collection is quite good, and the presentation makes it keepsake worthy. I would suggest picking up a copy and showing it to the child it's intended for before you buy.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers. I wasn't required to write a positive review. These are my honest opinions.

'Bonhoeffer' leaves me wanting more

_240_360_Book.1383.coverI admit I had a hard time reading Bonhoeffer Abridged because I knew where the story was going. If you don't, be warned, there are spoilers here. (If you don't, I'm not sure why you're reading this, honestly.)

The writing was good, and I don't mean good for a Christian book. I mean really good.

You'll see that it didn't go as deep or as far as I had hoped it would, but the style could be put next to any modern biography, and it would stand.

Here's my full review, as it appeared originally on News for Shoppers. The rest of the links are from affiliates, and if you buy, I get a commission. No pressure.

Seventy years ago today, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed at Flossenbürg concentration camp by the Nazi regime for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, author Eric Metaxas looked at the life of Bonhoeffer over a whopping 624 pages.

Enter Bonhoeffer Abridged, a 256-page version of Metaxas' controversial work from Thomas Nelson.

Overview:

Metaxas takes his readers from Bonhoeffer's early, privileged upbringing through his years as a pastor, a professor, and a double agent.

Bonhoeffer was one of the leaders in the Confessing Church movement, which rejected the takeover of the German church by the Nazis. He was outspoken, but largely protected by the prominence of his family. His father was a leading professor of psychology in Berlin.

Even abridged, Metaxas' work is sprawling. From early piano lessons to his last moments, you feel by the end of the book as if you are losing a man you would very much have liked to know.

Why you might buy Bonhoeffer Abridged:

Metaxas is, quite simply, a great writer. He has an eye and ear for telling detail, and he knows when — and when not to — include primary sources to support his work.

The subject is difficult, but Metaxas never lets us get too depressed as he builds the tension to the story's tragic end, despite the fact that we know it's coming.

Metaxas loves his subject, and it shows. Bonhoeffer comes to us as a complex but always likable man, a portrait that seems to be echoed in the people who knew him best.

The book will likely make you want to learn more about Bonhoeffer and read his writings for yourself.

Why you might not want to buy Bonhoeffer Abridged:

It's an abridgment. There are occasions where the book feels like it's dabbling in its subject rather than getting to the meat of it. Without having read the full book, it's hard to know if Metaxas delved deeper or just more broadly.

Metaxas sometimes seems to like Bonhoeffer too much. This is a common problem with biographers, of course. They get so close that they can't maintain an objective voice. Bonhoeffer surely had critics during his day. It would have been interesting to know what they were saying about him.

The unabridged version of this book has been widely criticized for turning Bonhoeffer into an American evangelical and for ignoring parts of Bonhoeffer's theology that Metaxas finds inconvenient or opposed to his own.

It's also been criticized for some fairly serious historical inaccuracies.

In the abridged version of the book, Metaxas doesn't delve deeply enough into Bonhoeffer's theology for this to seem like such a large problem. But that is a problem itself. You won't come away from Bonhoeffer Abridged feeling like you know exactly what Bonhoeffer believed or how his theology changed over the course of his life.

My conclusions:

I'm glad I read Bonhoeffer Abridged, primarily because it made me want to revisit Bonhoeffer's writings for myself and feel able to put them in their context.

I also want to learn a lot more about Bonhoeffer's role in the Valkyrie conspiracy against Hitler and the conflict he undoubtedly felt in participating in it, a topic I wish Metaxas had explored further.

Given the criticisms of the longer work, I'm glad I read the abridged version instead, though I'm not usually a fan of abridgments. It gave me just enough information to want to delve deeper, and with other authors.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Bonhoeffer Abridged from BookLook Bloggers. I was not required to write a positive review. These are my honest opinions.

If you're interested in more about Bonhoeffer and his own writings, check out these. Once again, if you buy, you help me keep bringing you stuff like this.

 

'The Imaginary' takes me back

Wimaginaryhile I was reading The Imaginary, I started thinking about what it is I love about British literature. Why do I love Jane Austen — or even Jon Butterworth — so much, but the acclaimed Alice Munro leaves me a little cold? (Sorry. I just read Dear Life for my book group, so she's on the brain. I could have mentioned a host of North American authors.)

The Imaginary put me back in my 7-year-old body on my father's lap in his ugly green recliner. It dawns on me now that I have no idea why he would have chosen a green recliner. He still hates green. Reminds him of the Army. But that is another story.

We read all kinds of books on Saturday nights — right before we watched Happy Days and The Dukes of Hazard. Mine was a well-rounded childhood.

And while I kept my eye on Dad's watch, determined not to miss my shows, I also looked forward to those sessions.

We read the entire Chronicles of Narnia, plus The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land, a Christian analysis of the books. (This probably started me on a path to the armchair theologian I am today. Hmmm.)

In an O. Henry moment, we also read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. My dad only recently told me that Alice wasn't his favorite. He read it for me. It wasn't my favorite, either. You know where this is going.

Anyway, Lewis and Carroll and probably others I don't recall gave me a love of the cadences of British English, the turns of phrase, even the spellings.

The Imaginary is more Roald Dahl — who I don't remember reading as a child — than Lewis, but it evokes the same feeling in me. And I think it's A.F. Harrold's use of language.

The Imaginary is darker, creepier. Or is it?

I worry that this book might be too much for young readers, but is Mr. Bunting (spoiler, sorry) really worse than the White Witch? Is the final showdown scarier than Aslan dying (again, sorry) or the entire book The Last Battle?

I'm not sure. What's the same is this: The Imaginary is a book parents and kids should read together. Like so many books.

Here's my review, most of which was originally published on News for Shoppers.

In The Imaginary, English author and poet A.F. Harrold and award-winning illustrator Emily Gravett take the tradition of dark, impertinent British children's literature to the intersection between the real and the imagined.

The Imaginary, which is published by Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, is 224 pages. The hardcover edition retails for $16.99 but is currently available for preorder for $12.56 at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. The book releases Tuesday, March 3.

For some reason, Amazon has the book listed for 3- to 6-year-olds. The book is inappropriate for that age group. The publisher is gearing the book for ages 8 to 12.

Overview:

Amanda Shuffleup is a young girl who dreams up her new friend, Rudger. Her father is dead, and her mother is the sort of person who is caring but just a little neglectful.

Amanda and Rudger get into trouble, get separated, and Rudger has to find his way back to Amanda before he Fades (with a capital F). He also has to save Amanda from the villain of the story.

Why you might want to buy The Imaginary:

Harrold has written a charming book, and Gravett has rendered it beautifully.

The characters in the book are surprisingly complex. Amanda, the little girl gifted with an enormous imagination, is no angel. Her mother has her own troubles, and even the villain has his reasons.

The writing is both fun and funny.

What makes this is a standout is the depiction of the imaginary world — both how it exists on its own and how it cannot sustain itself.

Harrold is continually shifting perspective in the book. We see the world mostly from Rudger's perspective, but we also get inside the head of Amanda, and those around her who can't see Rudger.

It seldom dips into the sentimental, which is a feat considering the subject.

It's impossible — or at least it was for me — to read the book without imagining that it will be made into a movie. So you might want to get ahead of the crowd.

Why you might not want to buy The Imaginary:

This is a dark book. There is death, danger, and violence. While it's not extremely graphic, Harrold doesn't hold back, and neither does Gravett. Some children may not be able handle it. And you may not want them to.

Amanda isn't always nice, just like every real kid. Rudger loves her dearly, but their relationship could be perceived as abusive. That wouldn't keep me from buying this book, but it would mean talking to my kids about it.

The plot isn't particularly original. This is a good versus bad story. There are few surprises, but Harrold manages to build anticipation, and for the most part, he keeps it going.

My conclusions:

I really enjoyed The Imaginary. Its quirky dark side appealed to me, as did its rejection of perfect children.

I loved the world Harrold created, as well as the frequent shifts of point of view.

I don't think it's for every child, and the dark parts of this book are especially creepy.

I would not buy this as an ebook, however. The illustrations often span two pages, and reading it on a device just isn't the same. On mine, it took several seconds to load the illustrations, which meant getting stuck just as tension was building. Shell out the few extra bucks for the print version.

Full disclosure: I read this book via Netgalley, where the publisher provided a free, temporary copy. I was not required to write a positive review. This is my honest opinion.

'From Tablet to Table' Disappoints ... and I'm Sad

tabletI wanted to like From Tablet to Table. It's the kind of book I felt guaranteed to like, just from the title. I've been obsessing about how to create Christian community in a church setting where most people go  because that's what you do to be a good citizen in small town America.

There are a few of us in my church who believe that the Christian is lived only in community, and I hoped for some solid ideas from Leonard Sweet.

That's where I was coming from as I waded through From Tablet to Table.

I haven't read any of Sweet's other work, so I can't compare, but here is my review. It was originally published at News for Shoppers.

In From Tablet to Table: Where Community Is Found and Identity is Formed, prolific writer Leonard Sweet encourages Christians to make the table — at home, at church, and in the world — central.

The book, published by NavPress, is 196 pages and retails for $14.99 in hardcover.

Overview:

The book is divided into two parts. In the beginning, Sweet builds the case for the importance of eating together, from both a sociological and theological perspective.

In the second section, he explores how to "set the table" at home, in the church, and in the world.

Why you might want to buy From Tablet to Table:

Sweet's analysis is interesting and worth talking about.

He proposes that most of people's disconnectedness, whether with family or church, could be solved by eating together.

One of the book's strongest sections is the one dealing with the importance of family meals.

The other, which is even better, is his explanation of the way that Jesus uses food and shares meals throughout the first four books of the New Testament. Consider this section:

Jesus broke all the dining rules of his day, introducing a whole new set of table manners. He ate on fast days. He ate with dirty hands. He ate with tax collectors. He called a sinner out of a tree and invited himself to his home for dinner. He sipped water at a well of the bucket of a woman of highly questionable reputation.

He also gives some practical advice for reinstituting family meals in the midst of a busy life.

Why you might not want to buy From Tablet to Table:

If you're looking for practical ways for your church to make the move from tablet to table, — that is, from emphasis on individual scriptures to a real community of faith — Sweet doesn't offer much help.

Instead of giving steps to make the transition, he tells stories that are sometimes relevant but are occasionally tangential.

Sometimes the writing gets in the way of the message, either due to repetition or the stretching of metaphor too far.

Sweet sometimes uses common terms, such as "table it," to mean "bring it to the table," or, more simply, "eat together." Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.

Judge this example, in which Sweet is talking with a pastor with differing theology, for yourself. It is, admittedly, one of the more extreme cases of Sweet's unconventional use of language, but not as uncommon in the book as you might suspect.

What she [the pastor] does like is the moral teaching, the "biblical values" and "Christian worldviews" that make up a tabletized religion. "So why call yourself a 'Christian,'" I asked, "if all you do is use Christianity as a rallying cry to be good?"

She responded, "You know, that's a good question."

So I tabled it. I ate with her, and as we ate I fed her the hot-cross sticky-bun called Jesu Christos.

My conclusions:

Sweet offers some great ideas, and even if you don't agree with him about everything, he gives plenty to think about.

Sweet is considered one of the most influential Christians today, however, and I don't think this book lives up to that reputation.

I'm not as critical of writing style in nonfiction as I am in fiction, but the writing often got in the way of the ideas here.

And there wasn't quite enough. I hoped this would be a useful book for my church, and it is, but only in the most conceptual way. I wanted a handbook and found a grouping of ideas. The ideas were good, but I thought he could have taken them further.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of From Tablet to Table from Tyndale Blog Network. I was not required to write a positive review. This is my honest opinion.

Other folks certainly liked the book better than I did. It has high ratings at most consumer websites.