An Exploration of Christian Books

Today's post takes a deep dive into the Christian books I've been poring over recently. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In an attempt to better understand where I am in my faith and to reconcile the things I believe about Christ with the things I see many Christians doing and saying, I’ve been drowning myself in books about the Bible, modern Christianity, and Christianity in the US in particular. This post is meant to give you a taste of some of the most interesting and influential books I’ve read on this topic, so if you’re not into reading about Christian books, today’s post is not for you. But if you are also interested in exploring diverse views on faith, read on! I have some amazing books to share with you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Biblical scholars Brandon O’Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O’Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways. Getting beyond our own cultural assumptions is increasingly important for being Christians in our interconnected and globalized world. Learn to read Scripture as a member of the global body of Christ.

If you’re only looking for the highlights, this is one of my two “must reads” on this list. (I’ll let you know when we get to the other!) Misreading Scripture illustrates the “things that go without saying” in our own Western culture, in non-Western cultures around the world, and in biblical cultures, and explains how that affects our reading of the Bible. This book has made a powerful difference in the way I read the Bible, especially the stories and parables that are so familiar to those of us who grew up in the church. The book is not meant to explain every part of the Bible (although I sometimes wished it would!) but rather to give modern, Western readers a framework for understanding Scripture in the way it would have been understood by its original readers.

In college I did some cross-cultural studies in preparation for time spent overseas, so you would think I would be able to make the leap concerning the shame/guilt dichotomy or the individualist/collectivist societal differences on my own, but no, I was not. Understanding how these very different, deeply ingrained ways of being and thinking change the way Western readers understand verses written for a collectivist society is one of the most powerful things I took away from this book. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; the authors do a great job of explaining these concepts. Because the authors have both spent time living, working, and ministering in cultures very different from the US, they have first-hand accounts and stories to illustrate their points.

If you’re serious about studying and understanding the Bible and are concerned that you’re missing something because of our very different culture, you must read this book. This book is compulsively readable (at least it was for me) and steers clear of technical jargon that theological books often fall into, so whether you have a ministerial degree or are simply trying to learn how to read the Bible better, you will get something out of Misreading Scripture. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Everything Must Change

How do the life and teachings of Jesus address the most critical global problems in our world today?

In “Everything Must Change, “you will accompany Brian around the world on a search for answers. Along the way you’ll experience intrigue, alarm, challenge, insight, and hope. You’ll get a fresh and provocative vision of Jesus and his teachings. And you’ll see how his core message can infuse us with purpose and passion to address the economic, environmental, military, political, and social dysfunctions that have overtaken our world.

This book offers an interesting look at Jesus as a political figure. The author talks about the “peace insurgency” and how Jesus thinks about social justice, global warming, violence, and other hot button issues that we normally think of as political. I certainly didn’t agree with all of his theology (in fact, I found this book the most theologically questionable of the group), but I wish more of the church would read his conclusions.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Searching for Sunday

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

Reading this book was a bit surreal for me. I’ve never met Rachel Held Evans, but her father was a professor of mine in college, and I know almost every school and church in the tiny town that Rachel grew up in. I felt like Rachel’s journey–her frustration with the church over social and political issues–was very close to mine. As with most of these books, I don’t agree with all of Rachel’s viewpoints, but I resonated deeply with her experiences. This book is more of a memoir than most of the other books on this list, but I think it could be very helpful if you are also feeling the disconnect between your faith and your social beliefs. It certainly made me feel less alone.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reconciliation Blues

What is the state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches today? Are we truly united? In Reconciliation Blues journalist Edward Gilbreath gives an insightful, honest picture of both the history and the present state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches. He looks at a wide range of figures, such as Howard O. Jones, Tom Skinner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and John Perkins. Charting progress as well as setbacks, his words offer encouragement for black evangelicals feeling alone, clarity for white evangelicals who want to understand more deeply, and fresh vision for all who want to move forward toward Christ’s prayer “that all of them may be one.”

This book, written by an African-American writer in the evangelical Christian world, talks about the many ways Christians have messed up in regards to creating a multicultural, multiracial church. To me, as someone who has thought and read a fair amount about this, the author’s tone sometimes seems too gentle. I wanted Gilbreath to leave less room for white Christians to say, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me.” Still, I think this gentle tone is a good way of talking to people who need to hear this message and maybe haven’t been exposed to it before. Definitely an important read for white Christians, though I’m sure Christians of all races and backgrounds will get something out of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Ragamuffin Gospel

Many believers feel stunted in their Christian growth. We beat ourselves up over our failures and, in the process, pull away from God because we subconsciously believe He tallies our defects and hangs His head in disappointment. In this newly repackaged edition–now with full appendix, study questions, and the author’s own epilogue, “”Ragamuffin” Ten Years Later,” Brennan Manning reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. The Father beckons us to Himself with a “furious love” that burns brightly and constantly. Only when we truly embrace God’s grace can we bask in the joy of a gospel that enfolds the most needy of His flock–the “ragamuffins.”

This is a classic in the Christian world, and I can’t believe I had never read it before now. I loved Manning’s emphasis on God’s love and grace, even during his darkest times. This book is powerful, and I definitely suggest reading it if you’re feeling far from God or stuck in your faith.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The 7 Experiment

Do you feel trapped in the machine of excess? Jen Hatmaker was. Her friends were. And some might say that our culture is. Jen once considered herself unmotivated by the lure of prosperity, but upon being called rich by a child who was living in poverty, evidence to the contrary mounted, and a social experiment turned spiritual journey was born. This study will lead you through this same experiment, at whatever level you choose, in seven key areas: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.

What s the payoff for living such a deeply reduced life? It s the discovery of a greatly increased God a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends a social experiment to become a radically better existence.

This book is Jen Hatmaker’s Bible study follow up to 7. If you want to enact some of the things Jen did in her original book, you should check this one out. It provides a clear and sometimes painful look at how our levels of consumption are causing people around the world to suffer, but it also gives concrete ideas on how to change the way you think about your time, money, possessions, food, technology, waste, and more. Jen backs everything up with biblical passages and discussion questions for your Bible study group.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Irresistible Revolution

Many of us find ourselves caught somewhere between unbelieving activists and inactive believers. We can write a check to feed starving children or hold signs in the streets and feel like we’ve made a difference without ever encountering the faces of the suffering masses. In this book, Shane Claiborne describes an authentic faith rooted in belief, action, and love, inviting us into a movement of the Spirit that begins inside each of us and extends into a broken world.

Shane’s faith led him to dress the wounds of lepers with Mother Teresa, visit families in Iraq amidst bombings, and dump $10,000 in coins and bills on Wall Street to redistribute wealth. Shane lives out this revolution each day in his local neighborhood, an impoverished community in North Philadelphia, by living among the homeless, helping local kids with homework, and “practicing resurrection” in the forgotten places of our world. Shane’s message will comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable . . . but will also invite us into an irresistible revolution. His is a vision for ordinary radicals ready to change the world with little acts of love.

If you’ve been waiting for the other book on this list that I consider a “must read,” this is it. This book is a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels stifled by traditional Christianity, for those who are tired of only hearing about orthodoxy and want to talk about orthopraxy. Shane’s views may rub some people the wrong way, but his idea of being an “ordinary radical” and showing great love to everyone is powerful. He spends time with Mother Teresa and the lepers in India; he travels to Iraq only a short while after 9/11; he opens his home to the homeless. And while this might sound extreme to some readers, Shane argues that this is the Christian life that Jesus wanted us to live.

To be completely honest, I’ve been struggling more and more with how much American Christianity has become intertwined with American politics, patriotism, and war. I’ve thought and talked and prayed about how we can return to the simple, painful path of radical generosity and love that I believe Jesus modeled for us. Even though I disagree with a few of Shane’s ideas, I was captivated by his vision of that radical love, and it has influenced my thinking on how to spend my time and money and skills. If you are at all disillusioned with the modern American church, you need to pick up this book.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Nonfiction Roundup, Spring 2017

There are a ton of wonderful books of all kinds in this quarter's nonfiction roundup! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Get ready for an enormous nonfiction roundup post! I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately–everything from history to parenting to religion to memoirs–and I haven’t had time to review them. Until today! Take a look at these short reviews if you’re looking to add to your nonfiction list. I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Interrupted

What happens when Jesus interrupts the average life? Interrupted encourages believers to ask if their lives bring integrity to the gospel. Follow the faith journey of author and fellow disciplemaker Jen Hatmaker and rediscover Jesus among the least of us.

This was my first Jen Hatmaker book, and I immediately fell in love. Interrupted is an amazingly powerful look at what Christianity can and should be like–giving to and serving the people in our communities and around the world. It will break your heart as you look at how privileged we are in the U.S., but it will also give you hope. Jen’s journey pairs statistics with stories in a way that made me feel slightly optimistic for the future of American Christianity.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

7

7 is the true story of how Jen (along with her husband and her children to varying degrees) took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.

Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. They would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.” So, what’s the payoff from living a deeply reduced life? It’s the discovery of a greatly increased God—a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends social experiment to become a radically better existence.

I quickly followed up Interrupted with 7, an earlier Jen Hatmaker book. This one is a little less sweeping, as it focuses mainly on Jen and her family as they attempt to simplify and streamline their lives. The idea of living sustainably and simply as a way of following God is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and this book offers a lot of great ideas on how to simplify different categories of life.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Gift of Failure

This groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.

You know I love books about learning well and parenting well, and whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or both, this book has some wonderful advice. The Gift of Failure looks at how failure and hard work is the best way for kids to learn how to succeed (in education jargon, it focuses on autonomy-supportive parenting and fostering a growth mindset). As someone who has seen the huge difference a fixed mindset or a growth mindset can make in my students, I loved this book. It made me even more confident in my decision to always praise hard work instead of talent, and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it when I have kids of my own.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.

Apparently I’m not a huge Brene Brown fan. Like the last book of hers I read, I found Daring Greatly well written but not super revelatory. (To be totally honest, I got bored about halfway through and remember very little about the book.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Choose Your Own Autobiography

Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened? Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed.

Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song.

Apparently I’m not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan either… The idea is awesome: You can live NPH’s life as if it were a choose your own adventure book, but I just didn’t care enough about his life to be completely sucked in. Of course, NPH is a funny guy, and his reflections on life in Hollywood and the paths his life could have taken are fun to read, but I was expecting something more than just a few laughs.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stones into Schools

In this dramatic first-person narrative, Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women-all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.

Stones into Schools is filled with fascinating stories of how the author and his team face danger (and bureaucracy) in order to build schools so girls in Afghanistan can learn. This book is packed with adventure, danger, humor, and tears. It offers a bit of history about the region in which Greg works, but this history is tied closely to the modern-day stories of the people who live there, so it never gets boring. If you’re interested in girls’ education in the Middle East, this book is for you (and no, you don’t have to have read Three Cups of Tea first).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hidden Figures

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives – and their country’s future.

You’ve probably heard of this book, as it’s the basis for the recent blockbuster film of the same name. Hidden Figures offers a view on an interesting, little-known part of history–the African-American women who put Americans on the moon. Some of the book was a bit dry for me, unfortunately.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Anne Frank Remembered

The reminiscences of Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Frank family in Amsterdam during the Second World War, presents a vivid story of life under Nazi occupation.

This is a powerful look at Anne Frank by the woman who hid her family. I learned a lot about the events of WWII in the Netherlands; I hadn’t realized how much they suffered during the war. Miep describes her relationship with the Frank family and her struggles to stay alive and resist the Nazis even after Anne and her family were taken. It’s a tragic story, of course, but also fascinating. I love that we get to hear a piece of history from someone who witnessed it all first hand.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Year of Living Prayerfully

Jared Brock sensed that something was missing in his prayer life, so he embarked on a yearlong journey to rediscover the power of prayer (and eat some delicious falafel).

FOLLOW JARED ON A 37,000-MILE TRIP AROUND THE WORLD AS HE…
* Dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
* Discovers the 330-year-old home of Brother Lawrence
* Burns his clothes at the end of the world
* Attends the world’s largest church
* Attempts fire walking (with only minor burns)

When I first picked up this book, I thought it might be gimmicky, but I was surprised at the depth the author sometimes reached. It gives an interesting look at prayer traditions from everyone from the Hasidic Jews to the Holy Land to Greek Orthodox to the Quakers to “outer fringe” people. As Jared meets Christians from around the world and from different faith traditions, he tries each of their prayer traditions in order to grow closer to God. Just be aware that this book is more of a memoir than a “how-to” book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything is a wonderfully wry account of how Karen Le Billon was able to alter her children’s deep-rooted, decidedly unhealthy North American eating habits while they were all living in France.

At once a memoir, a cookbook, a how-to handbook, and a delightful exploration of how the French manage to feed children without endless battles and struggles with pickiness, French Kids Eat Everything features recipes, practical tips, and ten easy-to-follow rules for raising happy and healthy young eaters.

The information this book offers on how French children are taught to enjoy foods of all kinds (and never snack or eat without an adult’s permission) was very interesting. I have a fascination with French parenting and plan on trying out some of their ideas with my own kids someday. However, I found the author whiny and inflexible and her kids spoiled. Despite her insistence on moving to France to be near her husband’s family, she refuses to help her kids assimilate to French food culture, and she herself is a very picky eater. I wish this book had been more how-to and less memoir, because I couldn’t stand the author.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Symphony for the City of the Dead

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.

This book is about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work during Stalin’s rise to power and the Stalingrad siege. As a music major, I already knew a fair bit about Shostakovich’s music, so I found it fascinating to learn more about his life in Soviet Russia. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I loved that it interjects bits of Shostakovich’s music as they discuss it. Some parts are gruesome and horrifying, so although Symphony for the City of the Dead is geared toward a YA audience, be forewarned in case you (or your child) is not prepared to read about cannibalism.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

This book talks about the women soldiers and spies who were active during the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. Their stories are interesting, especially considering that during this time, women were not expected (or allowed) to do many of the things these women did. If you’re interested in the Civil War, this book will give you a new perspective.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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