Friday, August 31, 2012

Books for late Summer 2012 (late July thru August)

This list starts with the books I read during our vacation in late-July, and finishes out the summer.

Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open RoadThrough Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road by Donald Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What hasn’t heard of Donald Miller in the last 6 or 8 years? After hitting the scene with the still-popular Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, he continues to be a known and respected writer in the Christian sub-culture.

I own Blue Like Jazz, but I’ve never read it. Through Painted Deserts was my first Donald Miller memoir; perhaps that’s fitting, since it is essentially a re-edited edition of HIS first Donald Miller memoir, Prayer And The Art Of Volkswagen Maintenance. It’s clear to me now why he’s so popular: Miller is a skilled, engaging writer who uses words descriptively and economically. Thus, at the end of the book you don’t feel like your time has been wasted; rather, you feel that you’ve been treated to some time with a gifted story-teller.

Through Painted Deserts is Miller’s tale of a road-trip, a season of introspection, a consideration of love, and the testing and probing of faith. There’s something a bit cliché about some of these memes, yet there's enough that is fresh and/or well-told that would lead to giving up on it. A few moments suggest hyperbole, but most of what he offers is plausible through the gritty and honest portrayal.

I liked Through Painted Deserts fine, and the fact that I got a copy for free (during an Amazon Kindle promotion) helped me like it a bit more — at least, I never had to wonder, why did I spend my money on this one? I don’t think I would have thought that anyway; the book was good enough, though not great enough to live up to the Donald Miller hype.

I’ll likely read another Miller memoir, as I enjoyed his writing enough to give one of his better-known titles a try.

Prophet Of The SunProphet Of The Sun by Russell Blanchard Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Russell Smith presents, in Prophet of the Sun a fun, engaging tale of a man searching for purpose, and finding it among the tangled knots of intrigue and adventure. Pulling together honest struggles of faith, tensions of betrayal and true friendship, and a knowledge of history and archaeology, Smith offers a story that any reader will find enjoyable and satisfying.

As a pastor, I can relate to the protagonist Calvin Poteat, himself a Presbyterian minister. Cal spends an evening with a life-long friend, and suddenly finds himself in a fast-paced and challenging puzzle. Russell Smith makes able use of his expertise in ancient eastern cultures, yet, it is done in a manner that isn’t ostentatious or showy. Anyone with the least interest in history will find the many real-life truths both intriguing and useful to advance the story. Smith also folds in many clever references to popular culture — enough, in fact, that a fan could create a reader’s game, of sorts, in which one spots for pop culture references.

I liked Prophet of the Sun a lot, and it was a perfect book to read during vacation: playful and entertaining without leaving me feeling as though I had wasted time.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on FaithTraveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life years ago, I was familiar with Anne Lamott’s delightful writing style, and thought Traveling Mercies would be a good one to take on vacation. I was right.

Lamott tells of her coming to faith, and of her ongoing struggles with faith, in this memoir. It is fresh with honesty and frankness, almost to a fault; her sometimes-coarse language may make many fellow believers squeamish. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging read for believers who may struggle to know whether they are the only ones who doubt, fear, yell at their kids, find subtle hints of God’s presence uplifting, wrestle to know how to pray, or feel sadness when others may think the grief should have passed; they are not. Anne Lamott reveals herself to us as a kindred spirit in these.

A friend asked me recently about Lamott, particularly because some of her views and beliefs are on the, shall we say, far-left side of the path of orthodoxy. Was she missing something, my friend asked? Well, set aside the more obvious hints of syncretism, the liberal politics, the feminist streak, and the open adoration of her female pastor — all of which might make many evangelicals squirm — and you have a sister in Christ who’s not that different from you. Truth is, most American Christians have their own hints of syncretism, embrace of theologically-liberal ideas that suit our preferences, and social/political opinions that she hold more closely than perhaps we ought; it’s only that most of us do a good job of keeping these secret and hidden.

Anne Lamott sees no need for such pretense. As a result, Traveling Mercies will show us someone who we recognize as both familiar and, at times, a bit more unvarnished than we think is polite. But I think most of us could use a little more of that.

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read very many biographies; to be perfectly frank, I’m not much of a history buff, and most biographies are either about celebrities (no interest there) or people from history (not much more interest there). Thus, I confess it is a genre of books I’m relatively new to, and if Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is any measure, I like it a lot.

Perhaps at the other end of the interest-spectrum from history is, for me, Apple Co. and Steve Jobs. I grew up in a world where we learned to program Basic on Apple IIe computers in elementary school, and learned to type on them in middle school. I’ve been a Mac user since the very early 90s, and our house is full of Apple devices; I’ve also done some professional consulting for Apple users, and followed the company with interest for years. I always appreciated Jobs’ flair for creative products and creative announcements of them, and admired him (though not uncritically) as a business leader.

Because of all of this, I knew much of the most skeletal outlines of this book, but having the gaps filled in with details was rich and fascinating. Isaacson is a masterful biographer, and organized the material wonderfully; his writing style is also skilled and engaging. Jobs was such an iconic leader in so many ways that, naturally, his story is interesting to read.

Marcie asked me whether she would like it; I told her that, if she ever wanted to get inside my longstanding fascination with Apple and Jobs, this book would help her connect the dots. With that said, I don’t think she would read it— nor would she necessarily enjoy it if she did. This book isn’t for everyone, by any stretch. It is sort of like taking a road trip across the country in a coupe: only those with a certain amount of affection and interest for one another will be able to handle the whole trip. Likewise, if you are indifferent toward Jobs or Apple, you probably won’t make it across the Mississippi.

For fans, connoisseurs, and admirers of Apple products or Steve Jobs, however: you will find this book quite satisfactory.

We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of IdolatryWe Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by G.K. Beale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one is both thorough and rich; as a biblical theology should be, Beale looks long and hard at what the Bible says about idolatry and idol-worship, and especially how it is formative to our souls, how it shapes our lives and our understanding of the world around us.

Beale’s grasp of biblical theology doesn’t need my endorsement — clearly he is accomplished and skilled at both understanding and teaching the Scriptures to us. No less so in We Become What We Worship: Beale is attentive to be exhaustive, or as close as one can get, to examining every passage that contains a whiff of teaching on idolatry. Meanwhile, he is so personable and readable as he does so; the book is written in first-person, which is a departure from standard academic style in nonfiction texts, but it serves well to allow his pastoral voice to really shine through.

Someone looking only at the title, or who failed to consider the nature of a book self-described as a “biblical theology,” might believe that they would be picking up a book full of guidance on both how we are idolaters (which would be correct) AND how we might worship rightly and with God as the object of our worship (which would be, well, less correct). Beale IS instructive at points, and more directly toward the end, in a more positive construction of right worship. Nevertheless, this IS a biblical theology, and its focus is on idolatry.

I found much to take away from Beale’s book, and several good “reflection quotes” that I’ll use in my preaching. Anyone with a serious interest in studying Scripture would find this book both profitable and easy to read.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of SortsJesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, I enjoyed this memoir-ish book (the author himself disclaims that it’s not exactly a memoir, in that it contains accounts that may be inaccurate due to the fact that he was four when the events happened!) and found it a worthwhile read.

As a fellow reader has remarked, he deals with troubles in his own past including an alcoholic parent, difficulties with alcoholism and drug abuse in his own life, and other troubles — but he handles these fairly indirectly, rather than giving a play-by-play or a rehashing of every time his drunk father abused him, etc. Thus, those looking for a detailed account of alcoholism in a family will be disappointed.

Likewise, despite the title, the book is not about the CIA, not really. His father’s involvement with the CIA plays into the account peripherally, but had it been omitted entirely then the thrust of this book would not have missed it.

What you DO get in this book is a good look at a troubled kid wrestling with truths — family truths, personal truths, spiritual truths — as he grows and deals with his own humanity and that of those around him. This author is an engaging writer and develops his own story well, with honesty and even frankness at times. He has the tendency to occasionally digress (in order to tell back-story, for example) for longer than is helpful to maintain the original stream of thought. Nevertheless, he has an enjoyable voice and writing style, and I would read more by him given the opportunity. I look forward to checking out his book Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale.

Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You MarrySaving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry by Leslie Parrott III

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Marcie and I got married, this was the book (along with the corresponding workbooks) that our pastor used for pre-marital counseling. Ever since I started doing pre-marital counseling, it’s the book that I’ve used, as well. I am finishing up another round of pre-marital counseling this week, and thus I’ve re-read to book again.

The Parrotts (husband and wife writing team) work through several vital questions that, I can say with some experience, are indeed important questions for setting a marriage on a healthy course. The chapters addressing each question are full of very practical illustrations and examples, and also are chock-full of advice and direction on how to handle the particular matters at hand in a healthy way. The book itself has a useful set of discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and then there are also breaks throughout the chapters pointing the reader to complete a correlated exercise in the workbook. In all, the material is very practical and straightforward to use.

On top of that, there is a leader’s guide and a DVD available, so it could easily be adapted for small group use, and obviously I’ve found it works well in the context of pre-marital counseling also. All in all, I commend Les and Leslie Parrott for writing and assembling a strong battery of materials for helping marriages get off to the best start possible.

Most of the examples and illustrations in the book are personal ones from the writers’ own experiences, which is fine and even brings a sense of vulnerability to the book. Frequently, though, the way these are presented — or at times other parts of the material — is a little corny, and were it not for the disarming nature of their writing style might feel even condescending. Also, while it seems clear from a handful of markers that the writers are Christians, it also seems clear that their editors wanted to produce a set of materials that would sell on a broader market; consequently, there are a lot of missed opportunities when it comes to presenting solid, biblical truths that correspond to the points they are making.

Indeed, the books’ persistent erring on the side of the practical and universal keeps me from simply loving it/them as my pre-marital counseling curriculum. It seems like every other time I do pre-marital counseling, I look around for something better, but I haven’t found it yet. I would love to assign TWO books, including this one and one of several others (each of which tackles the more deeply spiritual and theological side of this topic well, but miss the more practical aspects that the Parrotts do so well); alas, it usually feels like asking too much to request that an engaged couple do even one.

I do like these books for what they are; my rating is, in part, a reflection of my frustration about pre-marital counseling materials in general.

View all my reviews

1 comment:

  1. Have you run across Gottman's "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work"? I liked it just for the weight and depth of research behind it. It might take some work to adapt it for counseling - not my area of expertise, so I don't know - but it's fascinating and informative.