Category Archives: Books

Book Review: “Jesus: a Pilgrimage,” by James Martin

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Today, I FINALLY finished one of the best Christian books I’ve ever read: “Jesus: a Pilgrimage,” by Jesuit priest James Martin. At it’s most basic, it’s a travel guide: Martin and a fellow priest visit Holy Land sites from Jesus’ life, and Martin writes about them. Most chapters have three parts: he tells the biblical story that happened there, he relates his own visit, and he shares insights about the story. He also includes the actual Scriptural text at the end of each chapter. Seems simple. But he delivers such wonderfully rich stuff. The trip isn’t about tourism and taking selfies. It’s a true spiritual pilgrimage.
 
Maybe it’s especially interesting to me because he’s a Jesuit priest. He’s sharing things from angles outside of my own religious tradition. If an evangelical minister did the same thing, I’d probably hear the same stuff I’ve heard in a zillion sermons since childhood. But it was made more interesting (to me) because I learned so much about the Jesuit lifestyle and the many intentional spiritual practices built into being a Jesuit. I learned to greatly admire that lifestyle and how they pursue God.
 
Martin is quite traditional in his view of Scripture, no different from me. Many chapters dealt with miracles performed by Jesus. He often mentioned ways scholars, even evangelical ones, have dismissed the miracle with a natural explanation. But Martin will have none of it. It’s a miracle, and he’s not budging.
 
Martin says in the intro, “Humanity and divinity are both part of Jesus’ story. Omit one or the other, scissor out the uncomfortable parts, and it’s not Jesus we’re talking about any longer. It’s our own creation.” His trip was to better understand the real Jesus by visiting what he calls “The Fifth Gospel,” the Holy Land itself where Jesus lived and walked.
 
He writes, “I would like to invite you to meet the Jesus you already may know, but in a new way. Of, if you don’t know much about Jesus, I would like to introduce him to you. Overall, I would like to introduce you to the Jesus I know, and love, the person at the center of my life. Getting to know Jesus, like getting to know anyone, has been a pilgrimmage. Part of that pilgrimage was a trip to Israel, one that changed my life.”
 
It’s a long book, 500 pages with 25 chapters. I read it slowly, savoring it over a period of two years. I’m glad I did.
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200 Black Lizards

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I finished my 200th book in the “Black Lizard” imprint from Vintage Books. It was Dashiell Hammett’s “Nightmare Town,” a collection of short stories. It’s fitting, since the first Black Lizard book I read was Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” starring the semi-anonymous Continental Operative.

The Black Lizard imprint has gobs of great authors–mystery masters–going back to the early 1900s. I’ve now read all of Hammett’s books, all 9 Raymond Chandler books (starring the great Philip Marlowe), 9 Gregory McDonald books (the Fletch and Flynn series), 12 Ross MacDonald books (with Lew Archer), 15 Henning Mankell books (including the entire Kurt Wallander series), plus a number of books by old-time writers David Goodis, Jim Thompson, James Cain, Harry Whittington, Charles Willeford, Dan Marlowe, Patricia Highsmith, and Eric Ambler.

But Black Lizard also has many superb writers–like Don Winslow, Joe R. Lansdale (the Hap & Leonard series), Jeff Lindsey (Dexter), Joe Nesbo (Harry Hole), Steig Larsen (the Dragon Tattoo trilogy), Hakan Nesser, Andrew Vachss (Burke), and more.

I’ve got a shelf filled with Black Lizard books I haven’t read yet. Seldom am I disappointed, especially with the older masters.

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The Parker Series by Richard Stark

flashfireBetween 1963 and 1974, Donald Westlake wrote 16 “Parker” books under the pen name “Richard Stark.” If you saw the movie “Payback,” with Mel Gibson–well, that was basically the first book in the series. It’s really an incredibly fun series about a tough-guy thief. Each book involves a big heist of some kind.

After 23 years, Westlake resumed the series in 1997. He wrote 8 more Parker books before he died in 2008. Westlake had a little extra fun with these books. The titles of the first five were compound words, and each title used one word from the previous book: Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, Firebreak, Breakout. I guess he tired of that after five books, and went back to titles with no particular pattern.

Something else he did in those latter 8 books: the opening lines all begin with “When.” I just finished “Flashfire,” which had the best opening:

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” (Flashfire)

Here are a couple other opening lines:

“When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.” (Backflash)

“When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, ‘Deal me out a hand,’ and got to his feet.” (Nobody Runs Forever)

“When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.” (Ask the Parrot)

There are 24 books in the Parker series; I’ve now read 20 of them. I love these books, and can see myself reading them again.

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Does God Guarantee Our Safety?

insanity-of-godNik Ripken spent six years ministering in Somalia, including during the Black Hawk Down episode. When he went, there was not a single church in all of Somalia, and not enough Christians in the country to fill a small church. When he left, there were only enough to fill a pew. His organization would feed a village, and the next day, Muslim rebels would attack and slaughter villagers BECAUSE they accepted help from a Western organization. Any Western organization was assumed to be Christian, and anyone working for them was suspected of being a Christian (which is why Ripken almost entirely employed Somalis with solid Muslim credentials).

Ripken would share his work with other Christian organizations. They would acknowledge the need, but would decline to get involved because of safety and security concerns. He understood, but….

One of the most profound spiritual experiences of Ripken’s life was when he and two other Westerners shared a clandestine Lord’s Supper with four Somali Christians. A few weeks later, all four Somalis were ambushed and killed in separate, simultaneous attacks. Death threats followed, and nearly all Western relief workers pulled out; within two months, their number plummeted from 70 to 4.

Ripken writes, “We stayed because we were convinced that Jesus was still there. Long ago, Jesus had explained that whatever we, as His followers, did for ‘the least of these’–the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the naked, and the persecuted–we did to Him. We believed that we were ministering to Jesus in the least of these throughout Somaliland.”

But eventually, he, too, left–in despair.

Ripken’s experience in Somalia led him to ask, as he states in the introduction, “Does God, in fact, promise his children safety?” He says he grew up with “the idea that obedience to God’s call would result in a life of safety and security.” He was told, as I remember hearing myself, “The safest place to be is right in the center of God’s will.”

To answer that question, Ripken decided to interview Christians who had lived under persecution–Russians during the communist years, and present-day Christians in China, Muslim nations, and elsewhere. Over a period of years, he visited many countries and interviewed nearly 1000 Christians who had lived under persecution. He tells many incredible stories in “The Insanity of God,” the best Christian book I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it. The book blew me away.

In China, Ripken encountered Christians who asked him if people in other countries knew about Jesus. That’s how isolated they were. Few house-church leaders had their own Bible. House-church leaders would meet clandestinely, and before leaving, they would rip up a Bible and give each house-church leader one complete book to take home. Ripken saw this happen.

Going to prison for three years was extremely common for Chinese leaders, almost an expected right of passage–the seemingly inevitable result of obedience to God. They viewed prison as their seminary. One large house-church movement, when Ripken visited, had over 400 members in prison at that time. Christians lost jobs, families were separated, and they faced incredible suffering and hardship.

Does obedience to God guarantee our safety? Absolutely not. But among these terribly “unsafe” persecuted Christians, Ripken discovered a dimension to their faith that was lacking in the West. They were partaking in the sufferings of the Lord–not the little things we in America inflate into a War on Christianity, but hardcore suffering and persecution. Although they knew obedience to Christ was unsafe, they obeyed anyway.

Ripken writes, “Ironically, avoiding suffering could be the very thing that prevents us from partnering deeply with the Risen Jesus.”

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The Jews, the Nazis, and Business as Usual

jews-streetI’ve been somewhat haunted for several years by the book “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account.” Not so much by the book itself (which is incredible), but by the words of Bruno Bettehheim in the Forward, which by itself was well worth the price of admission. He raised ideas I had never considered.

Bettehheim, a Jew, survived Dachau and Buchenwald. He brutally criticized the “business as usual” attitude of Jews who offered little or no resistance, and skewered such sainted figures as the Ann Frank family. It was 70 years ago today that Ann Frank was arrested.

In Buchenwald, Bettelheim said he asked hundreds of German Jews why they didn’t leave Germany when they had the chance.

“Their answer was: How could we leave? It would have meant giving up our homes, our places of business. Their earthly possessions had so taken possession of them that they could not move; instead of using them, they were run by them….For a long time the intention of the Nazis was to force undesirable minorities, such as the Jews, into emigration. Only when this did not work was the extermination policy instituted.”

In Poland, he said, many Jews left everything and fled to Russia…and survived. In Holland, where the Franks lived, thousands fled the country or took up arms in the underground. Those who didn’t want to give up the lives they had built ended up dead—“suicidal behavior” in Bettelheim’s opinion.

The Ann Frank story, he said, is a perfect example of “business as usual.”

“All the Franks wanted was to go on with life as much as possible in the usual fashion. Little Anne, too, wanted only to go on with life as usual, and nobody can blame her. But hers was certainly not a necessary fate, much less a heroic one; it was a senseless fate. The Franks could have faced the facts and survived, as did many Jews living in Holland…But for that she would have had to be separated from her parents and gone to live with a Dutch family as their own child. Everybody who recognized the obvious knew that the hardest way to go underground was to do it as a family; that to hide as a family made detection by the SS most likely.”

But instead of recognizing the need for extreme action, the Franks tried to preserve the family togetherness to which they were accustomed. At the least, Bettelheim said, they could have armed themselves and shot one or two SS before being hauled away. “There was no surplus of SS men. The loss of an SS with every Jew arrested would have noticeably hindered the functioning of the police state….They could have sold their lives dearly instead of walking to their death.”

The play ends with Anne stating her belief in the good in all men. But this, Bettelheim argues, is what got them killed. They needed to accept the reality of the gas chambers, of the existence of pure evil around them, and take drastic action accordingly. Instead, they clung to life as they had known it.

He says that when Jews, like the Franks, waited passively for the SS to knock on their doors, it was the first step in a voluntary walk into the crematoria.

I can make a leap to the Christian life. Jesus told the disciples that following him would be far, far from “business as usual.” Am I so enamored with the life I lead that I’m unwilling to give it up so I can flee to something better, if God directs me so?

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Through a Wormhole Darkly

I subscribe to Bookbub, which sends me a daily list of free and inexpensive epub books to download. Today’s email includes a Christian fiction book with a plot which just made me want to laugh out loud (but I didn’t).

A mad scientist builds a time machine and, gun in hand, goes back to 57 AD to kill the Apostle Paul. A woman archaeologist gets sucked back in time, too. Can she save the Apostle Paul? Sure, the guy had been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and everything else. But can he survive a 21st century mad scientist with a six-shooter?

The book is “City of God” by R. S. Ingermanson. I’m sure it contains some deep theological truths which would revolutionize my spiritual life. But I think I’ll skip it.

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Book: A Climate for Change

climate-for-changeI’m encouraged by the number of evangelicals who have become engaged with climate change (though mostly off the media radar). A growing number of Christian books focus on the issues surrounding climate change. I just finished one of them.

“A Climate for Change” is a superb book by scientist Katharine Hayhoe and pastor/author/professor Andrew Farley. This short book gives a non-alarmist, non-partisan explanation of what is happening climate-wise, responds to the common objections, and provides ways Christians can respond. It’s a quick and easy read. For Christians sincerely interested in learning about this subject, I highly recommend “A Climate for Change.” (Buy on Amazon)

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A Book You MUST Have

A study identifies Lee Child has having the strongest reader loyalty of any bestselling author. For instance, 41% of John Grisham fans say they plan to buy his next novel, but 70% of Child fans want the next Jack Reacher novel.

I’m one of those Lee Child fans. However, were Robert Parker still alive, I’m guessing he would top the list, at least with the Spenser books. A Jack Reacher book is a Must Have. A Spenser book was a Must Have NOW.

There are two important elements: the author, and the subject. You need to like the author’s writing style. But also, you need to like the subject. For that reason, a continuing series helps. If you like the character, you want to keep reading about him/her. Lee Child writes ONLY about Jack Reacher. A Cross novel from James Patterson may be a Must Have (it is with me), but not necessarily the novels from his many other series.

Who are your Must Have Next Book authors? Or is there a particular character you follow (like Spenser, but not Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall)?

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The World of Readers

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This list shows the countries with the most avid readers. Sadly, the US ranks #22. I thought we would be higher, since books are everywhere. If you take my wife, Pam, out of it, we wouldn’t even be in the top 25.

A few of these surprised me, at least in terms of ranking higher than the US: the Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey.

I had read elsewhere that the Chinese are very avid readers. US book publishers have become more aggressive in translating American book into Chinese to reach that huge audience.

It would be interesting to know the dynamics within these countries which contribute to high readership. Offhand, I don’t see any patterns, except that none of these are Third world countries (and thus have higher literacy rates).

1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
2. Thailand — 9:24
3. China — 8:00
4. Philippines — 7:36
5. Egypt — 7:30
6. Czech Republic — 7:24
7. Russia — 7:06
8. Sweden — 6:54
8. France — 6:54
10. Hungary — 6:48
10. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
12. Hong Kong — 6:42
13. Poland — 6:30
14. Venezuela — 6:24
15. South Africa — 6:18
15. Australia — 6:18
17. Indonesia — 6:00
18. Argentina — 5:54
18. Turkey — 5:54
20. Spain — 5:48
20. Canada — 5:48
22. Germany — 5:42
22. USA — 5:42
24. Italy — 5:36
25. Mexico — 5:30
26. U.K. — 5:18
27. Brazil — 5:12
28. Taiwan — 5:00
29. Japan — 4:06
30. Korea — 3:06

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Ann Kiemel Anderson Wins Her Race

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Ann Kiemel Anderson succumbed to cancer on Saturday, March 1, 2014.

In the early 1980s, just after college, I devoured a number of Ann Kiemel’s books. They were basically just free-verse tales of interactions with people. Ann greatly inspired me. She didn’t give readers admonitions to go change our world, but glimpses of a person actually doing it.

I’m an ordinary girl in a big world,
but I’m going to change it–
God and I
and love.

Back in 2006, I wrote a blog post titled “Ann Kiemel, Wherefore Hast Thou Been?” It became by far the most-commented blog post I’ve ever written–85 comments. Turns out many lives, like mine, were impacted by her simple stories. People shared their testimonies of Ann’s influence on their lives.

Ann found the post through a niece, and she twice added her own comments. She mentioned her desire to return to writing, and she soon started a blog in which she continued sharing her free verse stories. A couple years later, two of Ann’s early books that meant so much to me were republished: “I Love the Word Impossible” and “I’m Out to Change My World.” They now inhabit my Nook. Both are timeless.

Ann experienced some real difficulties later in life, with lots of discouragement. I hope that my blog post, and the overwhelming outpouring of support in the comments, perhaps spurred her on.

In one of her comments on my blog, Ann wrote, “today, i still believe utterly in sharing Jesus with my neighborhood. i speak the name of Jesus every day to someone.”

Another of Ann’s early books was titled, “I’m Running to Win.” You did, Ann, you did.

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