Below is the book review I offered for ViralBloggers.
If you’re looking to engage a delightful story of discovering faith, then Alicia Britt Chole’s Finding An Unseen God: Reflections Of A Former Atheist is just right for you. As one who frequently digests academic theology, Chole’s memoir of faith was a wonderful change of pace. Sprinkled with the occasional clever turn of phrase and Chole’s magnificent way of drawing the reader into her story, Finding invites reader’s to simply sit back and hear a beautiful story of emerging faith.
The Best Part
The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up Finding is the captivating manner in which it is told. The cover itself is an actual word-find. And for folks like me, who loved word finds as a kid, I was super-excited to be able to work the word-find before diving into the first chapter. Each of these words, turns-out, becomes important to Chole’s story. What’s more, as Chole tells her story, the chapters are intermixed. The first chapter you’ll read is Chapter 52 and the second chapter is Chapter 1. Half of the book (every other chapter) tells Chole’s story from the perspective of her rearing, while the next chapter recounts where she is now and how she is interpreting the present and past events of her life. The reader is moving through Chole’s story in two directions.
Second, Chole’s story itself is told with a clear voice and delighting manner. You’ll feel as if you’re sitting with Alicia and hearing her talk about growing up as an atheist only later to encounter Jesus. As you engage Chole, you’ll sense that life has been dark and bleak and black for your friend, yet it’s that blackness that somehow lead her to the foot of the cross, as darkness often does. Chole becomes a conversation partner, someone you sit and have coffee with as she reveals just enough of herself that you are interested and feel as though you’re getting to know her, and not so much that it seems as if she is neurotic and hogging the conversation.
What’s more, if like me, you’re concerned deeply with gender-justice in churches, you’ll be refreshed by a genuine encounter with God that reminds you why female voices, prayers and pens are important to the church.
Third, you’ll hear from a committed Atheist. While her arguments for her own atheism may not be the strongest you’ve ever heard, they vibrate with rings of authenticity that allows the reader to know that for whatever reasons she choose to be an Atheist, so did choose for herself.
The Second to Best Part
It wouldn’t be right to leave you simply with the brilliance of this little book, there is one thing – that while not bad – you might want to be aware of before you plunk down your stimulus rebate on this book.
What is it? you ask. Simply this: At times, Chole gets a little preachy. I’m usually OK with preachy, after all, if someone has a message, we’re bound to advocate it strongly. However, when Chole’s preachy-ness reared its head in this artfully designed conversation, it put the brakes on the discourse. It was the only time I felt that Chole was losing her voice and needing to insert some paranesis at the request of a publisher. Can’t you hear that conversation now, “No one wants to just read your story, you have to advocate some kind of behavior.” This, however, is it. That’s the only editorial comment I will offer.
Should You Buy It?
Finding An Unseen God is worth the time, and it won’t take much of it. If you’re looking for advocacy or heavy-duty theology then this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want to reconnect with the simple story of a loving God who pursues His people even when they’d rather be left alone, then get your copy today.
This my review of Will Samson’s newest book, Enough: Contentment in An Age of Excess which I also posted over on Viral Bloggers.
I’ve been speaking to my friends and anyone else who would listen lately about the lack of exegetical living in the contemporary American church. By it I mean that my lifestyle, and the lifestyles of most of the people I know in the American church does not resemble that which we see in the New Testament. We are rich, white (though I am not), and overly concerned – some might say, “obsessed” – with politics, power and control (at least in my humble opinion). All that to say, Will Samson’s newest book, Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess is part of a necessary corrective the church needs.
Following in the vein of Justice in the Burbs, Samson, offers forth an argument for people of faith to ask difficult questions regarding excess, the Other and how much “stuff” is “enough stuff.”
It should be said at the outset, as a reader of Justice in the Burbs and as one who is and has friends connected to Christian involvement in social justice and emerging churches, I strongly agreed with Samson’s assessment of American Christianity. I found his diagnosis predominately correct and his suggestions useful. Unfortunately, I suspected I would before the book arrived in the mail for review. Therefore, I attempted to read the text as someone who would be either neutral or suspicious of Samson’s views.
Enough establishes two dominant goals for itself. First, Samson wants to reveal to us how deeply consumed we are with “stuff.” Indeed, “consumed” is the operative word throughout Enough. Secondly, Samson offers to call us to an alternative consumption: A vision of God and God’s work in the world.
The Major Problem:
Enough is divided into two sections. The first six chapters lend themselves to theological concerns, while chapters 7-10 present issues and suggested actions and attitudes to alleviate or relieve the before mentioned issues. As Samson clearly states, if you have a strong theological background or formal theological education you can skip the first section of the book, and I suggest you do.
The major deficit within Enough is that it is simply not convincing – at least in terms of convincing those who need convincing. Reading as a neutral, someone in need of convincing, I continually thought that I didn’t understand what the problem was/is. Samson’s work simply does not lay out the argument in ways wherein someone who did not care would be caused to care. It was not until chapter 7 that Samson states, “…we are consuming ourselves to death.”
As a pastor, I know many good people who are casualties of commerce, one-sided political listening, and American exceptionalism gone mad, that they simply see nothing wrong with our culture of excess. What’s more, when presented with an argument like Samson’s, they respond to it as “radical liberalism” or “radical social justice.” This issue of contentment and consumption is important enough that I wish the theological rationale was as weighty as the issue itself. Oftentimes, I felt Samson voiced a strong conclusion that his argument either could not or did not support.
Part of the unconvincing nature of the work is the overt, left-leaning political messages. Throughout Enough, Samson takes us on his own political journey from a political, social, and cultural conservative to someone who has rejected much of what he once held dear. I fear that many who would benefit from reading Enough, will be off-put by a tome that too often reads as a quasi-treatise on “How Christians Can Be Democrats.” This, ultimately, blunts Samson’s message. It becomes too easy to dismiss. Again, this is not necessarily a repudiation of Samson’s ideas, rather I offer a perspective on how more people may embrace contentment over consumption.
The Major Benefit:
However, there is far more positive than negative to say about Enough. It’s greatest strength is that Enough does not leave the reader in the abyss of ideas. Samson furnishes some real, reasonable, and workable solutions to finding contentment.
First, Samson highlights the importance of the Eucharist as a lens in which we view the Other and what it means to live at table with others. This image alone should reshape much of what happens in the American church. Using the Eucharist as way of life has endless implications. Samson could have massaged and developed that metaphor alone and Enough would be well worth the sticker price.
Second, throughout Enough, Samson drops thought-bombs that prompt the reader to set the book aside and think about the repercussions. Such lines include the following: “There is a big difference between being pro-life and pro-birth,” and “…without government spending, companies such as Amazon or Google would not exist.” Here Samson puts many of our assumptions under the microscope and reveals our forked-tongued lifestyles and rhetoric.
Third, Enough places lifestyle over think-style as the major conversion from carnality to Christianity. It have an inclination that many of the young people in my faith-community and the larger community where I live would be easily won to the vision of Christianity outlined by Samson. It is both compelling and, at times, inspiring in terms of the what the world would be like if more Christians were drawn into Samson’s portrait of the Kingdom of God.
Fourth, the concluding chapters of Enough are choc-full of realistic, helpful suggestions for moving away from consumption. This is truly what people need. In fact, if someone does not need convincing, the last six chapters will serve as a valuable “how-to” that should be kept near your day-planner in order to check in monthly and ensure you are moving toward goals of repair and sustainability.
Book reviews should answer one question: Should I buy this book? In the case of Enough, the answer is an adament “maybe.” It’s just hard for me to suggest making a purchase when we’re discussing consumption. I am one of those people who have read and own enough books for any two or three people, and often I purchase books I can’t possible read in a timely fashion. Currently, I have 5 books on my “to-read” list. For me, reading and books are a problem of consumption. I consume ideas and the articles, books and blogs that contain them.
At the same time, I know that books are the best way to disseminate information, and the information Samson sketches needs to get out. So the decision is ultimately yours. I will say this though; the ideas argued in Enough are good and worthy of integration. Shop wisely….
A few months ago I sketched out a blog post about the death of blogging. In the post itself (which never met the net), I described how boring blogging had become and how I felt that there wasn’t much being said on most blogs — including this one. I posited that the reaosn for this was that most blogs and bloggers I read were ministers/pastors and or professors which meant, like our preaching itself oftentimes, their writings had to be safe in order not to “offend” anyone. Therefore there was never space for authentic questions and genuine dialogue about the sticky issues of life and faith — fundamentalism, politics, sexuality, race, war, pacifism, and the like. Not only that, but some of my favored bloggers, like Scot McKnight, had gone “corporate” moving their blogs from independent site host like WordPress and began blogging with For-Profit companies like BeliefNet. Something seemed lost. I was done! In the post I intended, in my best Nietzsche-esque voice, to proclaim: “Blogging Is Dead” and announce that I was shutting down my little corner of the web. There would continue to be Palmer, but no more Perspective.
Then two things happened: (1) People started talking to me about my blog and about the things (read: ideas, thoughts, opinions) that they liked and disliked. Since I believe that writing best serves the world as discussion-starter, even the fact that some folks disagreed with me fulfilled the intent of the blog, and (2) Mark Love started blogging. Mark is not only a great speaker/preacher and the best missional mind in my ecclesiological tribe, he is my “pastoral coach,” a name I came up with for lack of anything better. Mark, for me at least, has the freedom to actually say some things, and as you would suspect, says it well. So I decided to file away my eulogy on blogging and committed to posting a blog entry from time to time.
But now something else has happened that renews my faith in the power and usefulness of blogging. I have been invited into 2 new blogging adventures, and I’m excited about the possibilities for both.
The first is a project shepherded by Dr. Love himself. The object is to discuss missional ecclesiology. When the site goes live you will hear from learned professors, pastors and ministers working in church contexts, spiritual directors, and laity. The group is broad, and I expect will continue to broaden. We are men, women, African-Americans, Caucasians, scholars, young and old, as well as some international voices. But I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll get more information as the launch dates approaches.
The second is a partnership with The Ooze called Viral Bloggers. The folks at The Ooze identified some blogs/bloggers they liked and asked us to partner with them in the great American pastime of generating commerce. Every so often, I will review a forthcoming or recently released book aimed at the Christian literary market. I’ll post the review here, and copy/paste the same review over at Viral Bloggers.
What will this do for you? It will help folks like you — in these economically testy times — identify which books are worth your dollars. At the same time, Viral Bloggers is a great place to find out what others are saying and what is happening in the Christian community (especially those of us with a slightly missional, emergent, social-justice bent). Some of these books will find there way to your bedside table and/or serve as starting points for small groups.
What will it do for me? Well, none of your business No. While you’re saving money by only purchasing the books you’re really interested in, I’ll be…well, none of your business! But there are some perks for me, too.
All this to say that I have entered the world of “Poly-blogging” or “Multi-blogging,” contributing to multiple blogs. Whether poly-blogging is for people who have large blog followings or for folks whose blogs don’t have the muscle to stand alone, I’m not sure. I don’t know how many readers other bloggers have. All I can say is that I hope this reading (and largely non-commenting) blog community will join in the fun at these two other blog-stops on the road to Christian dialogue and conversation.
Recently, I sat down with Edward Fudge (him in front of his computer in Katy, TX, and me in front of mine in Redwood City, CA) to discuss his forthcoming book, “Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement For Believers Today” (Leafwood Publishers, 2009, softcover, 262 pages, $19.95). This is what Fudge had to say.
A neglected book
SP: Hebrews is not a book we hear discussed very often. Why do you suppose that is the case?
EWF: You are right about that. This neglect is very unfortunate, in my view, because Hebrews is one of the most Jesus-focused, gospel-packed books in the New Testament. You will see the evidence for that on almost every page of Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today.
SP: Why do most people miss this focus?
EWF: It comes from a lack of real study of Hebrews. Folks go away from it without ever seeing and appreciating the book’s real message. They assume it is just an old book about even older Jewish rituals, sacrifices and priests, with no meaning or value for them.
Who wrote Hebrews?
SP: Do you know who wrote Hebrews?
EWF: I know as much about it as anyone else, which is finally nothing for sure! ☺ Origen told the truth about two centuries after Christ when he said that the author “is known to God alone.” It almost certainly was not Paul, for a variety of reasons. My personal vote among the candidates goes either to Barnabas or to Apollos.
SP: Why do you favor Barnabas?
EWF: The author of Hebrews calls his own work a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22). The same Greek expression is found at Acts 13:15, where it is translated as “word of encouragement.” There, Paul and Barnabas are invited to address a Sabbath synagogue audience, which they do for the next 31 verses. Their remarks are called a “word of encouragement.” Not only is Barnabas involved in that, his name means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) – a comment on one of his chief characteristics. He is also a Levite, who would be very interested in the subjects of priesthoods, sacrifices, and their results. These themes permeate Hebrews and can also encourage us today, as I show in Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today.
SP: What can you say in favor of Apollos?
EWF: Well, for starters he is called “mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). This fits Hebrews very well since its author clearly was exceedingly familiar with his ‘Bible,’ which was the “Old Testament” as we call it. (Hebrews actually tells the Story of the Son of God — from heaven to earth and back to heaven again — based on four different Psalms.) Apollos was also “an eloquent man,” as was the author of Hebrews). And he was from Alexandria, Egypt – a city of learning noted for a particular type of Scripture interpretation. The author of Hebrews reads his Bible in a similar manner.
Why was Hebrews written?
Q: Do we know why Hebrews was written?
EWF: Yes we do, although we don’t know exactly to whom, when, where, or precisely what was going on. But we do know that, for a variety of reasons, the original recipients of Hebrews were worn out, disheartened, tempted, and seemingly about ready to walk away from their faith. The book hints at some possible causes, including persecution, passing of time, being misfits in their culture, the appeal of sin, and so forth.
Q: That situation sounds very up-to-date! How does the author of Hebrews respond to it?
EWF: I love it! To revive his readers’ spirits and to renew their commitment, the unknown author re-tells the Story – the story of the Son of God who became a man, to live and die as our representative, and who is now in heaven representing us as our High Priest. Hebrews is thoroughly focused on Jesus! Its message is always contemporary. We can never go wrong by focusing on the Savior himself. I am very pleased that several reviewers have described Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today in those same terms.
A ‘bridge’ commentary
Q: You call Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today a “bridge” commentary. What does that mean?
EWF: When it comes to Bible studies, there are two worlds out there which often never come together. One is the ivory-tower world of academic specialists with all their scholarly issues and technical jargon. The other world is where most believers live and work and worship. Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today attempts to bridge this gap. For example, I worked from the Greek text of Hebrews but Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today doesn’t have a single Greek word in it. Although the bibliography covers eight pages and includes 80+ scholarly articles from theological journals, this book uses everyday language. By linking scholarship with simplicity, I hope to give the reader the best of both worlds.
A narrative-style book
Q: You also describe Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today as a “narrative-style” commentary. Tell us about that.
EWF: That refers to the fact that Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today is written as flowing narrative, although it discusses each verse of Hebrews in detail. It does this in 48 chapters, each covering a portion of the Scripture text. Each chapter begins with a very short section called “Why & Wherefore,” which relates that section to the big picture. That is followed by “Unpacking the Text,” which goes into detail, but in narrative style, with subheads to make it read more like a typical book.
Q: I see that Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today is already endorsed by a considerable variety of notable scholars and church leaders, even before its release. Isn’t that a bit unusual?
EWF: What is somewhat uncommon in the case of Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today is the theological and international diversity of the endorsements. Hebrews contains a number of quite controversial passages, about which Christian “tribes” traditionally disagree. I am very pleased, therefore, that this book is recommended by knowledgeable reviewers across the spectrum.
For example, the quotes on the back cover of Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today come from Methodist, Calvinist, Church of Christ, Baptist, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal and Emergent church scholars. The full text of these seven endorsements, plus 29 others, fills the first six pages of the book. You can read the endorsements online already, with photos, biographical comments and (where applicable) website links of the reviewers, by clicking here.