What I Read June - August [from the book pile, 2016]


18  The Sacredness of Questioning Everything ** by David Dark (Zondervan, 2009. 272 pages)

Reading challenge category*:  a book recommended by someone you just met (the author himself!)

In this book, author David Dark persuades and inspires us to take up the practice of Sacred Questioning.  Browse through the table of contents for a glimpse of how far and wide and deep our questions can go: Questioning God, Religion, Our Offendedness, Our Passions, Media, Our Language, Interpretations, History, Governments, the Future.  

Back in April, I had the privilege of hearing Dark speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing.  I'm not sure why or how I haven't yet read any of his work.  Maybe I mistrusted him because his last name conjured up a Severus Snape sort of image?  In reality, Dark is anything but. He is sunny, enthusiastic, loving, and funny.  He deftly mixes references of pop culture with teachings from the Church fathers (my favorite sort of convergences) while increasing our imagination for daily actions of compassion and imagination.  

Also: he creates wickedly complex, but pithy titles for his books.  Next on my list?  Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious.  Watch for my review here soon.

Here's a random assortment of favorite excerpts:

[...] The little everyday neglect of imagining other people well can add up to a lifetime of flawed, perverted vision, an expenditure of soul in a waste of emotionalism.
— David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
Show me a transcript of the words you’ve spoken, typed, or texted in the course of a day, an account of your doings, and a record of your transactions, and I’ll show you your religion.
— David Dark
To make sense of plastic on the mind and to develop a resistance to the perverse patterns that will otherwise run our world for us, I believe an activity of this sort - by way of a blog, an especially redemptive conversation with a coworker, a water coloring or a playlist - is absolutely crucial. It can be done. And when we do it, we begin to see things we didn’t know. We have to try to make sense. We have to make time for artful analysis, which is the way we clear a space for the possibility of sanity. It is an outlet for honesty.
— David Dark

19  The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Book 1) ** by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus, 2003. 235 pages)

Reading challenge categories*:  a book from the library / a book set in Africa

Once I arrived in Ireland, I realized I'd seriously underestimated the number of novels I'd brought for fun reading.  Fortunately, we visited the Paradise of all book lovers in Hay-on-Wye, and I spotted these books on sale.  I picked up the first two, and can't wait to add to my collection. (psst - gift ideas for my family, if they happen to be reading!)

Mma Ramotswe has quickly joined my top tier of female mystery-solvers, joining the esteemed ranks of Miss Marple, Nancy Drew and Jessica Fletcher.  She is bold, compassionate, quirky and wise.  I love the way she is able to see through b.s. (especially from men), but still keep a delightful sense of humor and neighborliness.  Her love for her native Africa is infectious, as is her love for her own quirky self.  Any book that gives me an interesting plot, a winsome setting and a role model is one I'll read again and again.  Sweet!

A couple excerpts to introduce you to Mma Ramotswe and her beloved Africa:

I am just a tiny person in Africa, but there is a place for me, and for everybody, to sit down on this earth and touch it and call it their own.
— Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
There was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe — the only lady private detective in Botswana — brewed tea. And three mugs — one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need?
— Alexander McCall Smith
Women are the ones who knows what’s going on,’ she said quietly . ‘They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?
— Alexander McCall Smith

20  Tears of the Giraffe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Book 2) ** by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus, 2003. 240 pages)

Reading challenge categories*:  a book from the library / a book set in Africa

He looked at her in the darkness, at this woman who was everything to him-mother, Africa, wisdom, understanding, good things to eat, pumpkins, chicken, the white sky across the endless, endless bush, and the giraffe that cried, giving its tears for women to daub on their baskets; O Botswana, my country, my place.
— Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Book #2)
Then there was Mr Mandela. Everybody knew about Mr Mandela and how he had forgiven those who had imprisoned him. They had taken away years and years of his life simply because he wanted justice. They had set him to work in a quarry and his eyes had been permanently damaged by the rock dust. But at last, when he had walked out of the prison on that breathless, luminous day, he had said nothing about revenge or even retribution. He had said that there were more important things to do than to complain about the past, and in time he had shown that he meant this by hundreds of acts of kindness towards those who had treated him so badly. That was the real African way, the tradition that was closest to the heart of Africa. We are all children of Africa, and none of us is better or more important than the other. This is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind it what it is to be human.
— Alexander McCall Smith

21  The Prophetic Imagination ** by Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pages)

Reading challenge categories*:  a book under 150 pages 

Oh my goodness, why haven't I read this book yet?  I've owned it for ages because I saw it quoted often by many of my favorite writers. For some reason, I never cracked the binding until this summer.  In the midst of packing our house and preparing for our trip to Ireland I scanned my bookshelves for a few titles to take with us.  I'd been asking friends to pray for God to enlarge my imagination for what it means to be a Rector's wife and to be a mom to adult children.  Naturally, the title Prophetic Imagination caught my attention, then.

It's the sort of book I'd like to memorize.  Brueggemann connects dots for me in an increasing tension I feel to communicate both lament and hope into the world -- and to my own soul.  Where we have become polarized, Brueggemann offers prophetic clarity.  It is possible to believe things strongly enough to counter culture's accepted wisdom, and to have imagination enough to offer an alternative, hope-filled reality.  

As I read, I opened another gift in a corrected understanding of the meaning of prophet.  Through his learning of Scripture and its contemporary interpretation, Brueggemann reclaimed for me an understanding of prophet as one whose task is to "nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us."  I'd come to believe the script I heard so often from ministry leaders of my past that to speak prophetically is to speak indignant, abrasive proclamations into the congregation and the street corners.  Page by page, Brueggemann helped me understand that a true prophet wields words that simultaneously criticize and energize with hope.

This is the language I long to learn.  I want to speak it and I want to hear it.  

May it be so.

The liberal tendency has been to care about the politics of justice and compassion but to be largely uninterested in the freedom of God. Indeed, it has been hard for liberals to imagine that theology mattered, for all of that seemed irrelevant. And it was thought the question of God could be safely left to others who still worried about such matters. As a result social radicalism has been like a cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions. Conversely, it has been the tendency in other quarters to care intensely about God, but uncritically, so that the God of well-being and good order is not understood to be precisely the source of social oppression. Indeed, a case can be made that unprophetic conservatives did not take God seriously enough to see that our discernment of God has remarkable sociological implications. And between liberals who imagine God to irrelevant to sociology and conservatives who unwittingly use a notion of God for social reasons because they do not see how the two belong together, there is little to choose. “
— Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (2nd edition, p. 8)
Numb people do not discern or fear death. Conversely, despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness. ... The language of amazement is against the despair just as the language of grief is against the numbness.
— Walter Brueggemann

22  Dakota: A Spiritual Geography ** by Kathleen Norris (Mariner Books, 2001. 256 pages)

Reading challenge categories*:  a book that's guaranteed to bring you joy 

Another book sitting on my shelf far too long, and providentially snatched up for our Ireland trip. I chose it for the following reasons:

* I vaguely remembered that Norris (a protestant) shares her experience meeting and worshipping with a Benedictine community, and we were on our way to do the same in Ireland.

* The last time we had coffee, my friend Terri reminded me of the notion of the "geography of the soul", and this book is titled "A Spiritual Geography". I wanted to explore that notion further in between moving from Austin to Fairfield, CT via Ireland.

* I heart Kathleen Norris. Big time.

The book met all my expectations and more.  In the wisdom of a humourous God, I happened to be reading the chapter about quirky monks even as I was dealing with one in real life.  A monk who had actually made me cry on our first day at the monastery. I'm working on an entire essay about that experience, so I'll keep you posted.

An added benefit was reading the author's astute, yet compassionate, indictment of the difficulties living in small towns.  I grew up in a small town, and am still trying to figure out all the ways that geography has shaped my soul.  Ms. Norris' insights turned on a lot of light bulbs for me.

Two thumbs up, five stars, read it with a book club, share it with a friend, and all that.  This is a keeper.

An example of a small-town insight from Kathleen Norris of Lemmon, South Dakota:

Change is still resented on the Plains, so much so much so that many small-town people cling to the dangerous notion that while the world outside may change drastically, their town does not...

... when myth dictates that the town has not really changed, ways of adapting to new social and economic conditions are rejected: not vigorously, but with a strangely resolute inertia...

Combatting inertia in a town such as Lemmon can seem like raising the dead. It is painful to watch intelligent business people who are dedicated to the welfare of the town spend most of their energy combatting those more set in their ways.
Community spirit can still work wonders here - people raised over $500,000 in the hard times of the late 1980s to keep the Lemmon nursing home open...

By the time a town is 75 or 100 years old, it may be filled with those who have come to idealize their isolation. Often these are people who never left at all, or fled back to the safety of the town after a try at college a few hundred miles from home, or returned after college regarding the values of the broader, more pluralistic world they had encountered as something to protect themselves and their families from...

It is the community that suffers when it refuses to validate any outside standards, and won’t allow even the legitimate exercise of authority by the professionals it has hired.

More than ever, I’ve come to see conspiracy theories as the refuge of those who have lost their natural curiosity to cope with change.
— Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

23  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis ** by J. D. Vance (Harper, 2016. 272 pages)

Reading challenge categories*:  a book about a culture you're unfamiliar with 

I heard Terry Gross interview this author and immediately ordered the book.  I proceeded to read it one long sitting.  While J.D. Vance admits 31-year-old is a dubious age to write a memoir (and, occasionally, it shows in his assessment of himself and his experiences) his is a story we all need to know well.  Especially now.  

For a fair review of the book, I couldn't do better than this one: Culture, Circumstance, and Agency by Aaron M. Renn via City Journal.

I'm working on an essay in response to this reading. I'll keep you posted.  

In the meantime, here's an excerpt from the Introduction:

I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.

There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin - “black people,” “Asians,” “white privilege.” Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, bt I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition - their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.
— J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

24  An Irish Country Village ** by Patrick Taylor (Forge  Books, 2012. 576 pages)

Reading challenge categories*:  a book you find in a used bookstore

I sped through the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency novels so quickly, I had to restock my supply when we reached Londonderry.  A stumbled on this fun find in a used bookstore/coffeeshop situated atop the 17th-century, city wall surrounding the city.  

This book is the pleasant sequel to An Irish Country Doctor which I read back in 2014.  Set in Antrim County, Northern Ireland, it was the perfect read for our last week in the country

Taylor's Irish Country novels are described as carrying on in the tradition of James Herriot and Jan Karon. I totally agree.  Just plain charming, comfy and fun reading.

25  Reading For The Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish ** by C. Christopher Smith (IVP Books, 2016. 179 pages) 

Reading category: reading for book review.

Oh my goodness.  Could Christopher Smith include any more of my favorite words in this title?  I thoroughly enjoyed this read (much the same as I enjoyed Slow Church by the same author). I'll put up a review soon.  In the meantime, download 101 Transformative Books for Churches to Read and Discuss - a free companion ebook for those who subscribe to the ERB email. (You can click here for a sample of the free ebook.)

Perfection, if you ask me.

A brief vision for a church who reads together from the closing chapter of the book:

These conversations - with brothers and sisters in Christ and with those who do similar work - are the nutrient-rich soil in which we take root and grow. In conversation we are sustained by the wisdom of those who have gone before us. We are also empowered to discern how we will face the challenges of both the present and the future. Reading is essential to this conversational way of life, as we often cannot literally converse with our forebears or with those who are following similar vocations in other places. We read as a way of listening to the wisdom of others. The conversation continues as we reply to this wisdom in our own context. Externally, we reply to our reading as we discuss it with our church or work community.
[...] Reading, reflecting, conversing, learning, working, binding together: these are the ways in which our communities - church, neighborhood, and world - begin to mature and flourish. This interconnected life is the joyous and meaning-rich end for which we were created. This is humanity fully alive!
— C. Christopher Smith, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish

26  Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People **, edited by Charles E. Moore  (Plough Publishing, 2016. 378 pages) 

Reading category: reading for a book review

I am loving this collection of 52 essays on the topic of following Christ together in community.  I can't wait to share some of my reflections with you in an upcoming post.  I've been reading big chunks of it to Brian out on our deck these past summer evenings.  And, really, with an anthology of authors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joan Chittister, Dorothy Day, Richard Foster, Jean Vanier, Mother Teresa, John Perkins, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, why am I surprised?

I've been enjoying books from Plough Publishing for a while, but didn't really know it.  Between an email conversation with one of the editors and snatching up some print copies of their journal at the Festival of Faith and Writing back in April, I've become a diehard fan.  The publishers kindly gave me a small stack of books to read and review as I'm able.  Expect to hear more soon.

In the meantime, may I recommend you subscribe to Plough Quarterly, their print journal (the first issue is free)?  You can read digital selections at their website, and here's a catalog of some of their excellent titles. 

A tiny, mind-blowing paragraph from Søren Kierkegaard that Brian and I read by torchlight on our back deck at the end of summer:

Love is not what you try to do to transform the other person or what you do to compel love to come forth in him; it is rather how you compel yourself. Only the person who lacks love imagines himself able to build up love by compelling the other. The one who truly loves always believes that love is present; precisely in this way he builds up. In this way he only entices forth the good; he ‘loves up’ love; he builds up what is already there. For love can and will be treated in only one way - by being loved forth.
— Søren Kierkegaard

* This year, I'm part of two different reading groups made up of friends and sisters. You can find the lists here: Take Our Ultimate Reading Challenge / A Year of Reading the World, & Liturgy of Lifereading group. *

**The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. After blogging about books for ten years, I thought it might be OK to get a little help financing my reading habit. Thank you! **

Go to my Book Pile page to see my reading lists from 2015 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!