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| 12.10.10
Marked, by Steve Ross

The first time I read Steve Ross' whirlwind tour through the gospel of Mark, I was non-plussed. The narrative seemed disjointed, much seemed to be left out, and the ending seemed a bit bewildering. After re-reading the actual gospel, my bewilderment turned to amazement and I realized that Steve Ross had shown me the gospel afresh in his graphic novel rendition, faithfully keeping the episodic disjointedness, unanswered questions, and just plain weirdness of the original while simultaneously translating it into the modern day context. That's no small achievement for a book you can probably finish in an hour, but will want to linger over far longer.

While the subject matter and some of the depictions are probably not best suited for children under the age of 13, a couple of teenagers who read this graphic novel with me appreciated the action sequences and presentation. They generally enjoyed the book. I enjoyed it upon re-reading, especially after I had also re-read the gospel of Mark. I came into this novel thinking that it might have potential as a way to introduce Mark's gospel to someone who had never read it. Now I think that the best audience is someone who already has familiarity --church people if you will. People like myself who can benefit from having our conventional view of the story and its characters shaken up a bit. Of course Mark's gospel is also quite short, so it is entirely reasonable to read it in parallel with Steve Ross' version.

Surprisingly, I found myself moved by some of the most arresting images. John the baptizer answering his call to ministry on the telephone; the rich man wishing to follow Jesus literally drowning in his massive pile of possessions; the Transfiguration done with butterflies; Mary walking dirty city streets to the empty tomb Easter morning --all of these and more kept me lingering over the panels and thinking about them long after I'd set the book down.

Paperback: 180 pages
Publisher: Seabury Books (November 1, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1596270020
ISBN-13: 978-1596270022

Compromising Positions

| 27.9.10
Compromising Positions, by Jenna Bayley-Burke

I don't normally read romances. This was another Kindle freebie. As of today, this breezy, easy, steamy read ranks as the most popular free Kindle book on Amazon.com.

I don't have much to say about the story itself, just that it made me think about the differences between men and women when it comes to romance and sexual fantasy. While it's difficult to generalize about the sexes, and still worse to generalize about a genre based on reading single book, I came away from reading this realizing that while men might fantasize about passionate sex with a beautiful woman, women fantasize about passionate sex with a handsome man who is tall, rich, emotionally available, nearly perfect yet flawed in a way that she can fix, with prospects of marriage and children down the road.

Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: Samhain Publishing (January 5, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1605043125
ISBN-13: 978-1605043128

Edge of Apocalypse

| 20.9.10
Edge of Apocalypse, by Tim LaHaye and Craig Parshall

After reading Marcus Borg's Putting Away Childish Things it seemed appropriate to immediately read an evangelical didactic novel and see where the contrasts were the most stark. In this regard Edge of Apocalypse, the latest by Tim LaHaye, did not disappoint.

As an aside I must admit that I didn't go out looking to read this book, but it dropped into my lap serendipitously. I recently purchased a Kindle, and Amazon has been giving away free ebook versions of many popular romance and Christian novels. Edge of Apocalypse was a freebie.

Borg and LaHaye paint startlingly different pictures of the world in which we live, flowing from their different theological and philosophical convictions. Borg's novel is set primarily in a small Midwestern university town, with a religious studies professor as the main character. LaHaye's novel is country and world-spanning, with a military hero turned defense contractor and entrepreneur in the starring role.

Borg's world is tranquil and self-reflective. The most valued traits his characters possess are the ability to reason through a problem, using a combination of intellect, study, prayer, relationships, community, and spiritual practices to slowly yet comprehensively work through a problem, discerning the best solution. God doesn't intervene in a supernatural or miraculous way, but is instead seen as working through the discernment process and through the hearts, minds, hands, and feet of people within the community.

LaHaye's world is apocalyptic. Time is running out. The most valued traits his characters possess are the ability to quickly make judgments in a crisis, determine right from wrong, then act decisively on the side of what is right. There is no such thing as random chance or coincidence in LaHaye's world. Instead the characters interpret such things as evidence of answered prayer and God's supernatural intervention on this side of God's people and what is right. While technical and logistical complexity exists in LaHaye's universe, his characters never struggle with complex moral issues. Moral choices are always crystal clear.

One of the things I found most telling about the two authors were the way they handled characters meant to represent their ideological opposition. For Borg this was the evangelical youth group leader and some of the members of his flock. For LaHaye this was represented by the Vice President in a U.S. administration dedicated to an internationalist foreign policy opposed by the main character. Inevitably in a didactic novel the author's side wins the argument. However I felt that Borg's opposing characters were faithful if simplified representations of the other viewpoint. They were still good people that meant well even if they were "wrong." LaHaye, on the other hand, felt the need to paint all opposing characters as evil and nefarious, above and beyond just opposing his ideology. Maybe this is part and parcel of the apocalyptic world view --is it possible to have sympathetic "bad guys" in an apocalyptic story?

In the end, I'd much rather live in Marcus Borg's literary, theological, and philosophical universe. For me his vision is far more sustaining --"good for you," if you will. Yet the appeal of Tim LaHaye's literary world is not lost on me. Edge of Apocalypse was an exciting page-turner and much more interesting to read than Borg's novel, but more like a spiritual bag of potato chips than good nourishing food.

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (April 20, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310326281

Putting Away Childish Things

| 22.7.10
Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, by Marcus Borg

I've long been a fan of Marcus Borg's scholarship. His non-fiction not only speaks to issues I find important, but is clearly written and easily accessible to a broad audience. If there was a single book I'd recommend to give people insight into what I think are the most important issues in Christianity and what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century, it would be Borg's The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.

Nonetheless, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Putting Away Childish Things, Marcus Borg's first novel, and a didactic novel at that. Growing up fundamentalist, I had read evangelical didactic works such as The Sugar Creek Gang, (boys having fun while converting their friends and families) The Third Millennium , (end times novel where rapture happens in 1994), This Present Darkness (demons, angels, and spiritual warfare), and of course the Left Behind juggernaut. Big questions I had going in: what does a progressive Christian didactic novel look like? Can there be a didactic novel that is actually worth reading, with characters you actually care about and doesn't get bogged down in preachiness?

I think Borg largely succeeds here. His story of an Episcopalian religious studies professor at a Midwestern liberal arts college was the perfect backdrop for interjecting theological and scholarly content in a way that didn't seem too jarring or unnatural to the story. The story was well plotted. While the characters seemed more cerebral than average people, they were reasonably well drawn and plausible. I especially appreciated that the evangelical characters in the story did not seem to be mere straw men, and in the end I truly cared about the characters and what happened to them. On the other hand, some may find the book to have a lecture-like quality at certain points. This may be unavoidable since the book aims to teach a large amount of information in relatively few pages, while trying to entertain at the same time.

This book is not the best novel I've ever read by far, but it is the best didactic novel I've ever read. Not just because I happen to agree with the message, but also because it presents its message strongly without demonizing other points of view (a flaw in just about ever other didactic work I've read.) I think Borg has made a great contribution by putting progressive theology and historical critical biblical scholarship into a format that might make it more accessible to people who would never read a non-fiction book. Putting Away Childish Things made me realize what a dearth of instructional fiction there is for progressive Christianity, and how bringing these ideas down to the mass-market level might allow progressive Christians to go head-to-head with their evangelical and fundamentalist brethren.

Beyond story, and beyond theological content, however, where the book truly shines is when it shows us how a modern faith actually works in practice. How does prayer, devotion, dealing with life's troubles and anxiety actually work for liberal and progressive Christians whose view of the supernatural and scripture is not fundamentalist? In every evangelical didactic novel I've read there has been a point or points in the story where God dramatically intervenes in a stunning and miraculous way --a type of modern day deus ex machina to solve the conflict and reinforce the literalistic worldview of the story. Putting Away Childish Things, in keeping with its message, doesn't do this. Yet one can still say that God is at work in what happens in the lives of the characters in this story; showing that God can be real and active for Christians that aren't fundamentalist may be the most necessary contribution this story makes.

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: HarperOne (April 20, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061888141
ISBN-13: 978-0061888144

The First Paul

| 25.5.10
The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon
by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

I've been a fan of Marcus Borg for a long time. What he did for Jesus in Jesus: A New Vision and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time Borg and Crossan apply to their study and analysis of Paul. By separating Paul's letters into three categories: genuine (radical), contested (conservative), and authored by others (reactionary) they are able to highlight the radically egalitarian, non-violent, and mystical vision of the body of Christ and the kingdom of God which Paul preached as a sharp contrast to then prevailing notions of the Roman Empire and its emperor.

Two things stood out for me in this book. First, I have always been a bit perplexed about how the same man who wrote "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28) could also write such passages as "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22) or "Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed." (1 Timothy 6:1) Attempts to harmonize these kinds of passages with each other inevitably water down Paul's more radical statements of egalitarianism, transporting them off to some spiritual realm where they cannot impact real life. Another approach, to claim Paul as the first wily pragmatist who said one thing to one church and the opposite to another is also ultimately unsatisfying. Crossan and Borg's historical approach, which defines the earliest genuine strand of Paul writings as the most radical, with subsequent strands reflecting later accomodation to culture as Christianity became more widely accepted through the Roman Empire makes sense to me as a logical progression and evolution of a religious tradition even as it disturbs me at the same time.

My favorite part of the book, however, was Borg and Crossan's treatment of Jesus versus Ceasar and the Kingdom of God versus the Roman Empire. Drawing upon Roman historical writings from shortly before the birth of Jesus, they are convincingly able to show that many of the most important ways in which Paul and Christianity talk about Jesus (i.e., Jesus is Lord, Jesus' divine birth, Jesus as the Son of God, and Jesus as the one who brings peace to the earth) would have immediately resonated with first century listeners as familiar language about the emperor! While not discounting the spiritual significance of these terms at all as they apply to Jesus, knowing their context viz. the god-king Caesar really awakened me to the political implications of Paul's writings, and also easily explains why the early apostles and followers of the Jesus movement were martyred by the Empire. Paul's writings were treason, threatening the legitimacy of the emperor. When Paul says "Jesus is Lord," that means Caesar is not.

One thing that I always appreciate about Marcus Borg is the clarity with which he explains difficult concepts. This book did not seem as clearly written as some of his others. I'm not sure if this can be blamed on John Dominic Crossan or is just part and parcel of a book that is written by more than one author. On the whole, however, I found it an enjoyable and illuminating read, even if the writing bogged down a bit in some sections. By placing Paul and his message in their first century contexts, Borg and Crossan are able to illuminate his radical message in a way that still speaks to us today.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: HarperOne (March 3, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061430722
ISBN-13: 978-0061430725

Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian

| 12.5.10
Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian
by Paul Knitter

Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian was a fascinating read with the interesting premise that exploring another religious tradition can help better inform ones own religion. Knitter goes one step further in this part theological survey, part Buddhist apologetic, and part personal testimony by taking us with him on his spiritual journey from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism and back again.

True to the book's title, Knitter does not come back to Christianity unchanged by his Buddhist experience, but instead holds the two spiritual identities simultaneously in conversation and tension with each other. For Knitter, Buddhism gives a different lens through which to view Christian doctrines and practices that he found otherwise problematic or incomplete.

I think Knitter's book is most compelling as a personal account of one man's faith journey. As one who has also questioned and rejected much of the faith in which I was raised before being exposed to other ideas and experiences that eventually allowed me to return to it with a different understanding, I could relate to Knitter's descriptions of "passing over" into Buddhism and then "passing back" into Christianity. While I'm not interested in becoming Buddhist myself, I could appreciate Knitter's exploration of Buddhist ideas and was amazed at how well they sometimes enhanced and sometimes questioned traditional Christian ideas.

On the other hand, I sometimes found myself a bit skeptical reading this book, thinking to myself that perhaps there is not so much overlap between the two faiths after all, and maybe what I'm reading is more about liberal western notions of Buddhism having a lot in common with liberal western notions of Christianity. I found myself reacting to many of Knitter's "aha" moments thinking that there are already resources within the Christian tradition that come to similar conclusions, obviating the need to find the answer in Buddhism.

Without _________ I Could Not Be A Christian. Anyone who has left their childhood faith and later returned to a more mature understanding can fill in this blank. For me, I might fill the blank with "awareness of the full theological, historical, ethical, and cultural breadth of the diversity within the tradition," or "modern historical-critical biblical scholarship," or "mystical experience." I respect Knitter's answer even while I'm amazed that he can find it in dual religious citizenship. I recommend Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian for anyone interested in seeing how different religions can inform each other and the fascinating turns a spiritual journey can take.

Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Oneworld Publications (July 16, 2009)
ISBN-10: 1851686738
ISBN-13: 978-1851686735

Love That Dog

| 30.3.10
Love That Dog
by Sharon Creech

After thoroughly enjoying my daughter's previous recommendation of Things Not Seen, I told her that I would read any book that she enjoyed more than that one. It didn't take her long to put Love That Dog into my hands. Even though I'm not especially fond of dogs, this touching story about a pre-teen boy who learns to express his feelings through poetry moved me.

Part epistolary novel and part free verse, Love That Dog is a gem of a story that serves as a great introduction for young children to poets, poetry, and writing their own verse. Featuring such notable poets as Robert Frost, Valerie Worth, and William Blake, we are given a glimpse into young Jack's writing notebook as he reads these works and responds to them as part of Miss Stretchberry's composition class. Along the way Jack grows more confident in his writing abilities and finds his own voice as a writer and a human being.

Even though the novel is over 100 pages, I was able to read it in less than an hour because of all the white space on each page. In the back are excerpts from all the poems Jack reads in the course of the story. The narrative is laid out as a poem, and moves quickly.

Sharon Creech transcends the "children's fiction" genre and creates something that will speak to anyone who has wondered what poetry is for, and how writing can give voice to our deepest feelings.

Hardcover: 112 pages
Publisher: Joanna Cotler (July 24, 2001)
ISBN-10: 0060292873

Things Not Seen

| 21.3.10
Things Not Seen
by Andrew Clements

I've read to my daughter for years, and as she's gotten older I've also recommended childhood favorites I thought she'd enjoy. So it marked a major milestone and delightful turnaround recently when my 10 year old excitedly pressed Things Not Seen into my hands, urging me to read it so we could discuss it.

A fast, easy read weighing in at around 250 pages, Things Not Seen was a page-turner, offering enough action and suspense to keep both children and adult readers engaged in the story. The story of a teenager named Bobby who wakes up invisible one morning, the book combines elements of science fiction, teen novels, and romance successfully in order to appeal to a wide audience.

While not a great work of literature by any means, Things Not Seen also manages to ask important questions about people that might be "invisible" to the typical teenager. Special needs children, the unpopular, the un-beautiful --Bobby's invisibility serves as the metaphor through which some of these other issues can be brought to light.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and discussing it with my daughter.

Publisher: Penguin Group USA (March 1, 2002)
250 pages


| 3.2.10
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman

Written by neuroscientist David Eagleman, Sum is an interesting collection of forty short vignettes, each with a different take on the afterlife. Imaginative, clever, and sometimes funny, each story serves as a modern day parable on existence.

While I found it an enjoyable read, Sum doesn't really address weighty philosophical topics such as human suffering, poverty, violence, or justice. It reminded me more of an episode of "The Twilight Zone" or "The Outer Limits" than a serious attempt to come to terms with the human condition.

Sum's central insight is perhaps this: imagining the afterlife is like a Rorschach inkblot test. How we envision the afterlife can tell us something about ourselves, and can serve as a jumping off point to deeper reflection.

Hardcover: 107 pages
Publisher: Pantheon (February 10, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307377342
ISBN-13: 978-0307377340

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