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Book Review: “Restoring Dignity, Nourishing Hope: Developing Mutuality in Mission”

This book is deceptively short but balances theory and practice in an expert way.  Published in 2016 by Pilgrim Press and edited by Jonathan Barnes and Peter E. Makari, “Restoring Dignity, Nourishing Hope”  is a primer for those who want to know what Global Mission looks like in 2016.  Gone are the colonial stereotypes, paternalism, and  bringing civilization “from the West to the rest.”  Replacing outmoded models of mission with models that recognize 21st Century realities is the main theme of the book.

Written by members of and partners in mission with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, this book understands mission as partnership.  In its concise ten chapters the book invites U.S. mainline Protestants to be attuned to the idea of mission as an essential part of the Christian ministry.  In other words, engagement with people outside the doors of the church (be it 5 feet away or thousands of miles away) is not some optional form of ministry or extra credit but essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The book is a good mixture of the Biblical interpretation/theology and practical applications.  In one more theoretical chapter, Beverly Eileen Mitchell grounds the idea of mission in the doctrine of the Trinity–meaning that mission takes its shape from the Triune God.  Therefore, mission is communal, relational, and dynamic.  Using the Trinity as the basis for mission also means that congregations respond to God’s action in mission wherever they are and wherever they act.  It is part of God’s plan for the world to work together for the Divine glory.

Practical stories of folks in mission make up the central portion of the book–including stories of mission in Guatemala, Kenya, Hong Kong, Hungary, South Korea, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A standout chapter is written by Mohammad Sammak, founding member of the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian dialogue.  For the Christian neophyte who wants RDNH.covermech_largeto understand more about Islam, Sammak provides a great amount of information about inter-religious dialogue in the Mid-East.

Tom Morse, Executive for Mission Education and Interpretation of the Disciples Office of Mission/Global Ministries has written a very enlightening chapter.  He defines the financial challenge of mission and resources and provides a practical lense through which to view Western mission offerings.  Mr. Morse provides us with a very short checklist for us to determine whether a donation of money is appropriate or not in this global, postmodern culture.   This chapter would be especially helpful to church governing bodies, treasurers, or stewardship committees because Mr. Morse asks surprising questions about our motivation in giving–in the hopes of providing just as surprising answers!

The material in this book is essential for anyone who wants to understand mission in our post-modern world but it would be especially useful for Missions Teams of Churches, Bible Study Groups, Association and Conference Mission Agencies, clergy study groups, and pastors.  Every chapter concludes with probing discussion questions.  In addition, there is an extensive bibliography for further research and discussion.




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Book Review: “A Small Town in Germany” by John Le Carre

I’ve found my mind returning again and again to spies this December.  It seemed like a spy-full year–from the raid on the bin Laden compound over the summer, to the Arab spring, to CIA drones and the list goes on and on.  So, I picked up a lesser known Le Carre called “A Small Town in Germany.”

It’s hard to imagine that this book would be the favorite of any Le Carre fan; and that’s not because it’s bad but rather that Le Carre wrestles with these same themes  in other, more familiar books.  In this regard, “A Small Town in Germany” is the dress rehearsal for his George Smiley series.  But where the Smiley novels are epic, globe-trotting and sweeping, this book, as the title suggests, is more parochial and insular.

“A Small Town in Germany” takes place in and around the British Embassy in early 1960’s Bonn.  Bonn is the captial of West Germany and the British Embassy serves as an island of colonialism and diplomacy, surrounded by political unrest.  A shadowy, populist politician, whose allegiance to the West is unclear, called Karfeld, is holding political rallies, courting the Soviet Bloc.  The embassy sits uneasily in the diplomatic section of the city–like a seafaring vessel surrounded by the storms of change.

A German, named Leo Harting, has gone missing from the embassy staff.  Is he a defector?  Has he stolen anything?  What’s his motive?  Le Carre uses an interesting device here–Harting never really appears on the scene.  The reader only gets others’ impressions of the man, his flaws, his character, his emotions.  In this regard, the book reminded me of a classic English cottage mystery, where the victim dies on the first page and the rest of the novel is the detective trying to piece together what kind of enemies the dead man had.  Harting functions as the victim in this schema; though he’s very much alive.  Enter, then, the detective.  Alan Turner is the spy catcher, called in from London to investigate Harting’s disappearance.

The title “A Small Town in Germany” might make you think this is a book focused on Bonn; a kind of travelogue.  It’s not.  Le Carre has little interest in portraying the sights and sounds of Bonn.  The relatively few occasions where he does so, though, sparkle.  Rather than focus on Bonn, what Le Carre has done is to successfully portray the British Embassy as a lonely island in midst of the Cold War.   The sense of isolation and tension is portrayed masterfully.  The prose often describes  closets, basements, cramped offices–re-enforcing the feeling of tightness and suspense.

In short, if you like Le Carre and your spy fiction, this is a good one.  And this is realistic spy fiction.  Unlike some other espionage authors whose stories veer off into the fantastic, Le Carre’s feet are on the ground.  The reader can well imagine that this story may have happened–and that this story is an essential part of understanding the Cold War.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Since it takes place in the early 60’s and is very Anglo-centric, I’ve got to suggest listening to Live at the BBC by the Beatles. 

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Book Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

In 1841, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach published a book entitled “The Essence of Christianity.”  This work, more often cited than read, critiqued the idea of Christianity from many sides.  Perhaps his most persistent criticism is this:  our doctrines of God are projections of our own human beliefs, virtues, impulses and characteristics onto a screen, which we call the divine.

Ninety-nine years later, Carson McCullers published a beautiful, epic debut novel, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”  The main protagonist, the deaf and mute John Singer, functions in the book as McCullers’ screen.  A young girl, a restaurateur, a black doctor and others all interact with Singer but see him as who they want him to be; not as he really is.  Crushingly, to me, Singer seems unaware and incapable of realizing this projection.

This main theme of the book seemed to me its strength but also got me to thinking very deeply about human relationships.  Do we mis-read people as badly as everyone misunderstands Singer?  I think we would all agree that we project virtues, vices and characteristics onto others that do not really represent who they are.  But McCullers’ tale is unrelenting.  There is no redemption of the main characters–in the sense that they learn from this folly.  Are we really that blind?

This book is pretty heavy, as the title gives its theme away.  No one in the novel gets what they want from life–they all struggle against loneliness and loss.  Even heroic moments and virtuous heroes don’t remain unscathed.  Mick Kelly, the character one most empathizes with, can be beautifully sensitive or ruthlessly petty.

In all this is an impressive novel, full of quiet, heart-breaking beauty.  It won’t make you smile or laugh.  But it is a book which will set the wheels to turning in your brain.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Definitely some blues.  Maybe Robert Johnson.

P.S.–The version that I got out of the library was one of those Perma-bound books we all remember from high school so well.  On the copyright page there was a recommendation for reading level of 14 and older.  Now, technically, that may be correct–I bet a 14 year old could read this book straight through without a lot of trouble.  However, what 14 year old wants to read in school a heavy novel of ideas about sexual frustration, career failure, and the like?  I’m sure there are some 14 year olds who would like it–but I’m glad I waited until I was almost 40.


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Book Review: Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

I read (and finished) Yellow Dog before I looked up any reviews of it online.  A few days ago, when I surfed the web, I found out how much I should have hated this book.  Well, I didn’t.

It seems that Yellow Dog, published in 2003, met with very negative reviews; chief among them Tibor Fischer’s excoriation of the novel in the Telegraph (entitled “Someone should have a word with Amis.”  The review goes downhill from there.)

Sure, this book has some flaws but none of them are fatal.  The book is overlong and could use a little bit of tightening up–particularly the passages on the pornography industry.  Amis’s  fondness for slang and jargon often forces the reader to parse sentences like a biblical scholar.  Some folk may find the subject matter distasteful.

The book is a series of inter-twined plots; some which have more to do with one another than others.  The first plot which unfolds, and the strongest one, deals with a London author and celebrity Xan  Meo.  Xan is hit on the head by assailants one night at the pub and Xan’s recovery from the brain injury has some interesting and realistic side effects.

A secondary plot deals with tabloid reporter Clint Smoker, who has no trouble trashing other people’s lives in print, while his own life is quite a mess.  The hypocrisy of someone who has the power to destroy you in the newspaper, while suffering similar human foibles raises the question of public verses private lives. Smoker’s section of the novel is perhaps the funniest–lots of puns, especially Clint’s texting with a mysterious ‘k8′ –Kate.

A third plot portrays a fictitious Royal Family who has encountered scandal. King Henry the Ninth is on the throne.  A voyeuristic video of his daughter, the underage Princess Victoria,  in the bath is being shuffled round various media outlets.  The person who filmed the video is unknown as is the reason for its potential release.

Other plots and sub-plots include:  a corpse riding in the baggage compartment of a commercial jet, a pornographic actress with family issues, an expatriate British gangster, and a comet that is about to hit earth.

Perhaps the critics didn’t like the multiplicity of plots but to me that seemed very much the point.  In our postmodern culture, where everything is at the speed of broadband– fast, dynamic, visual, Amis explodes the idea that we’re any less connected than we were 20 or 30 years ago.  The same issues of family dysfunction are with us as they were with our parents’ generation.  The Internet and ipods haven’t changed that.  Amis is reiterating the idea that we are of one human family, like it or not.  And we can’t excuse ourselves from our moral and cultural obligations.

Additionally, Amis writes with flair.  The sentences pop and sparkle.  Combine this with a realistically felt portrayal of the dynamics of the human condition–family betrayal, lust, aging, disappointment and you have Yellow Dog.

Music to listen to while reading Yellow Dog:  Suede, Coming Up.  (Recently re-issued, too!)


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Book Review: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s prose has an astringent, vinegary quality.  He’s not a florid stylist like Truman Capote, William Faulkner or Vladimir Nabokov.  Instead, his writing is pretty tight–few wasted words and peppery dialogue.  It is almost as if Brighton Rock is constructed only of the scaffolding–no window treatments, no finished flooring.  Yet, at the end of this book, I marvelled at how much Greene had achieved with his minimalist style– a generously formed description of 1930’s Brighton and the depths/distortions of the human spirit.

Brighton Rock tells the story of Pinkie Brown–a small town gangster, who by birth, if not by profession, is a Roman Catholic.  Pinkie is none too sure of heaven but he’s convinced of the reality of hell and damnation.  He’s particularly fixated on his own damnation.  Pinkie is involved in all sorts of gangster activity beginning with an atmospheric act of murderous violence in which Pinkie is the ringleader.

Not all went according to plan and Pinkie realizes that he has to cover his tracks if he wants to avoid the police and imprisonment.  He’s surrounded by gangster confederates, whom he only half-trusts, and a very damaging potential witness to the crime by the name of Rose.  It is Pinkie’s relationship with Rose and his craven attempts to woo, impress, wed, protect (?) and care for her that takes up the majority of the narrative. Along the way, the reader is exposed to the seaside culture of early 20th Century Brighton, vivid descriptions of poverty and lawlessness.

The book begins and ends very well.  Greene is a master at suspense.  And what made this book shine so much is that the suspense comes amidst the banal, the ordinary, the everyday, the psychological.  This is no James Bond adventure with flying jet packs and high-powered gunfights.  However, the last 60 or so pages read well and are so extraordinarily crafted, they rival Ian Fleming or even Stephen King for their impact. Greene takes the reader into Rose and Pinkie’s confidence–we’re witnesses to a marriage just begun and falling apart, human cruelty, and deep, profound questions of the Christian faith.  Highly recommended.

What to listen to when reading this:  What else but Queen’s Brighton Rock?

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First Post–Or the Rationale behind this blog

Back in May, my hard drive just stopped.  Gave up the ghost.   She gave no warning of sickness and since I’m cheap (better: thrifty), I waited a long time until I could get my brother-in-law to fix it.

One of the last pages I viewed before the hard drive’s demise had a great quote on it, now lost to me:  paraphrasing, “In a few years the most important things you will have done today are meet new people and read good books.”

So, without a hard drive or internet connection for a few weeks, and believing that the quote couldn’t do me harm (yes, Pascal’s wager lives!), I began a marathon reading session.  Always a voracious reader, I chose to read odd books, books outside of my favorite genres, books assigned in high school but never read, books recommended as classics but never read, and so on.

So, the purpose of this blog is at least two-fold: 1.  Reviews of books I’ve liked or found thought provoking.  and 2.  Emergent Church ideas, as we begin to launch a new service at our church in Murrysville, Pa.


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