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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Zeitoun

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian-born painter and contractor from New Orleans who chose to stay in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit. A few months ago, I read Dave Eggers’ excellent book Zeitoun, which tells the story Abdul’s and his family’s experiences after the storm. Abdul’s wife Kathy and their children fled the city, leaving to visit family until the storm was over and they could return to the city. Eggers recounts Abdul’s days there following the storm, his family’s travels, the help Zeitoun provided in rescuing various neighbors and strangers from their homes after the floods came, and the grave injustice of his inexplicable arrest and three-week imprisonment by the post-Katrina police and military, despite never being charged with a crime. (Hint: he is a middle-eastern born Muslim.) While non-fiction, it reads like a novel, and is an outstanding book. I highly recommend it.

In July, just a couple of weeks after I finished the book, I received an email from the Clinton School of Public Service here in Little Rock that the Abdul and Kathy Zeitoun would be in town as a part of their speaker series. I called and made my reservation and, the following day, went to hear them tell their story in person.

Since they usually post the video of these presentations on the Clinton school website, I expected to find it there. I checked back a couple of times during the week following the presentation, planning to post it then, but it was not yet available. I guess I forgot about it after that, but just remembered today to check back again.

So, here it is. It’s not much new material if you’ve read the book, but it was pretty neat to go hear them in person and to meet them afterward.

 
http://www.viddler.com/player/c1e89c8c/

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My year in books 2009

As has been the case for the last several years, I’ve read far less than I wanted to read. In fact, this year got off to the worst start ever when I didn’t even finish my first book until late March. I went through several periods of not reading – lacking either time, desire or both. In the end, I averaged only about one book per month, while I would have liked to have read a minimum of two. I did begin several books and abandon them at different times, but as for finished books, the list is short.books

Here are my favorites of the year.

The Unlikely Disciple : A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University – Kevin Roose

After meeting some students from ultra-conservative Liberty University, Roose – an agnostic student at notoriously liberal Brown University – decides to “study abroad” for a semester at the Virginia school founded by preacher/activist Jerry Falwell. He chronicles his semester in this book and it’s a great story, and probably not what you might expect. I posted about it last month, so you can read my full thoughts on it here. This was my favorite book of the year.

When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball – Seth Davis

This was a fun read about the 1979 NCAA championship game, the events leading up to it, the people involved (most notably Larry Bird and Magic Johnson) and how it impacted the game of basketball both at the college and NBA levels. The game itself was one of the catalysts in creating the “March Madness” we all know and love today, and certainly the professional success of Bird & Magic and their role in reviving the faltering NBA is well-documented. It all started here, in a pre-ESPN time when most of the nation was first introduced to Bird & Magic either in the tournament or this very game. Great read, especially if you love college basketball (and if you don’t, you should.)

Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution – Karl Giberson

Giberson, a Christian scientist who subscribes to evolution as the story of our origins, attempts to explain why, and how he reconciles that with his faith. The historical nature of the book is what I found most interesting – Giberson’s own story, Darwin’s story, the advances of science since Darwin’s time, and the history of the debate between creationists and evolutionists (as well as the more recent “intelligent design” crowd.) He didn’t seem to spend much time directly addressing what you would expect from the subtitle (“How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution”), but he did, in my opinion, lay out a foundation one can use to consider that question on their own. A fascinating read.

The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World – A. J. Jacobs

This was as enjoyable as Jacobs’ more recent book The Year of Living Biblically, which I read last year. Jacobs sets out to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica from A to Z, and this is the story of his adventure. Like Biblically, it probably was a little longer than it had to be, but still a lot of fun. Jacobs makes me laugh out loud regularly, and there are a lot of interesting EB facts in there as well. His attempts to interject his new-found knowledge into everyday conversations and his frustration with a know-it-all relative were always hilarious.

 

And here’s the rest of what I read.

  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life – Donald Miller
    When a couple of directors contacted Miller about making a movie featuring his life, he was concerned he didn’t have much of a life that would interest anyone else. In this book he recounts his search for the story of his life. Didn’t grab me the way his previous books have, but still quite good.
  • The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team – Mike Krzyzewski
    This book about the 2008 Olympic basketball team was not quite what I’d hoped. A lot more about team-building than I expected. Would have preferred if it had been entirely focused on the basketball part of the story, but still a good read.
  • The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution – Gregory A. Boyd
    Good stuff, but nothing really new. Mostly stuff I’ve read/heard from Boyd or others already.
  • Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith – Marcus Borg
    I honestly have little recollection of this book. I must not have been paying attention. I’ll have to try it again.
  • The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As an Experiment – A. J. Jacobs
    Jacobs’ newest, which I did not find to be as good as Biblically or Know-it-all, but it still has plenty of good (and humorous) moments.
  • Genesis – Bernard Beckett
    A nice little sci-fi novel (or novelette) set in a post-apocalyptic world with a not-too-surprising twist at the end.
  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why – Bart D. Ehrman
    Very interesting book about how the Bible came to be and questioning if we actually have what the original authors wrote or copies manipulated by scribes and church officials over time.
  • Crazy Love : Overwhelmed by a Relentless God – Francis Chan
    Just labored to finish this one. Maybe I missed something or I’ve just heard it all before, but really didn’t care for it at all.

That’s it. That’s the list.

I picked up six books from the library this week, and I’m halfway through my first. Hopefully, 2010 will get off to a good start and I’ll find time to read more this year. We’ll see…

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The unlikely disciple

Every now and then I start reading a book and simply don’t want to stop until I’m done. Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University was one of those books. I’ve complained recently that I’ve had trouble finding time to read, but I managed to make time after the first few pages of this book and finished it in about a week, which is a fast read for me.

discipleIn 2006, Roose was a student at Brown University in Rhode Island. He was also working as an assistant for Esquire editor and author A.J. Jacobs. Upon a visit to Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia with Jacobs, who was doing research for his book The Year Of Living Biblically, Roose met some students from Falwell’s Liberty University. They engaged in conversation for several minutes, but it was a bit awkward once they realized he was not a Christian. On his way home, he didn’t understand why it was so difficult for them to talk to one another. Sure, he speculates, maybe a liberal agnostic from Brown and a conservative Christian from Liberty aren’t supposed to have much to talk about. But, he asks, why not? Aren’t they all college students, Americans, humans? Was the “God-divide” really that difficult to span?

He decided that he would like to get to know more about this Christian culture with which he was so unfamiliar. While other students at Brown would take a semester to study abroad, he decided to study in a different culture right here at home. He decided to transfer to Liberty for the spring semester of his sophomore year in January of 2007. He basically went undercover as an evangelical Christian – even being coached by a friend who had grown up in an evangelical church in order to get himself up to speed on the language and customs he’d encounter – and spent the next few months at Liberty.

Roose grew up in a liberal Quaker home and didn’t spend any significant time in church. He knew very little about the Bible. His family was technically Christian, but it’s unlikely anyone at Liberty would see it that way. His family was alarmed and concerned when he told them of his intentions. Particularly worried were his lesbian aunt and her partner, well aware of Falwell’s anti-gay and homophobic statements over the years. He tried to assure them that he would remain unchanged during his time at Liberty, though that didn’t seem to diminish their concern for his well-being. And most of his friends just thought he was crazy.

Roose planned to write this book before he set foot on campus at Liberty, but he did not enroll to ridicule or condemn the school or it’s students. He went to Liberty to get to know what it was like to be a conservative evangelical Christian in 21st century America. He did all of the things a normal Liberty student would do – took various classes on religion, went to Bible studies and prayer meetings, went to church, including singing in the Thomas Road choir on Sundays, and even gave up his spring break to go on a mission trip to Daytona Beach.

One of the most interesting stories was his decision to suggest to the school newspaper that an article be written about the head man himself, Jerry Falwell. They thought it was a great idea, and commissioned Roose himself to write the article. It would end up being Falwell’s last print interview, as he died a short time later, during the final week of the semester.

I’ve never thought much of Falwell, having primarily seen his public persona on cable and network news shows, where he often showed an ugly side, usually condemning someone or some group, and he seemed far too political for a supposed man of God. From his time at Liberty and his time interviewing Falwell personally, Roose manages to show another side of Falwell. He was, evidently, a notorious prankster, and Roose even found him likable when he met with him. There was still the ugly side that he and others of us would still object to, but he did manage to reveal some of why so many people loved him as much as they did.

Despite being 300+ pages, the book was too short for me. Not only did I not want to put down this book, I also didn’t want it to end. The stories Roose tells and the characters he introduces us to (including himself) are compelling and I hated to say goodbye to them. You want the story to continue, to know more about where everyone is now more than two years later.

In the end, Roose did, unexpectedly, come away from Liberty a changed man. No, he did not convert to Christianity and remains agnostic. However, as I suggested earlier, Roose went to Liberty with an open mind. He found merit in meeting with a pastor on a weekly basis as a spiritual mentor of sorts, and enjoyed being prayed for by others. He even confesses that he continues to pray today, despite the unlikelihood that anyone is listening.

And then there are the friendships. Over a year after leaving Liberty, he returned to tell his friends the truth about his semester undercover, that he was not an evangelical Christian and that he’d come to Liberty with the intention of writing his book. He wasn’t sure what to expect by way of their reaction, but he had no reason to worry. They had no problem forgiving him. He was even surprised at how quickly and easily they did so, and he remains friends with many of them today. Despite all of their glaring differences, they have much more in common. The “God-divide” is not nearly as large as people on both sides sometimes make it out to be.

The Unlikely Disciple is a fascinating read, the best book I’ve read in several years, and I highly recommend it.

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A better story

Sunday I bought Don Miller’s new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, and began reading it immediately. I’ve enjoyed most of his previous work and was anxious to check out his newest.
life
I’m only about a third of the way through the book so far, but Miller was approached by a pair of filmmakers interested in making a movie based on his previous work, Blue Like Jazz. In other words, it will be a movie based on his life, at least to a degree. This book chronicles some of that process, along with the concept of “story” and the role it plays in our lives. Miller wonders if the story his life is telling – the story the film will tell – is too boring, and part of their work on the film involves making his story more interesting. One of the topics he discusses early on is characters: “a character is what he does.”

On rare occasions I am able to sit still long enough, avoiding distractions, and ponder my life. And I wonder if my story is worth telling. Is there a good story there, or, were it a movie, would it drive people to the exits or put them to sleep? I wonder if I’m succeeding as a husband, father, disciple, etc. The truth is, I don’t often feel that I am. I don’t know if there’s a good story there or not. I know that some of it is just lack of confidence, and I’m too pessimistic from the start. But I also know there should be more there. I sometimes read about people who have died, about their life, and I think to myself, “I wish that were my story.”

Last night, before bed, I sat with my daughter and we talked for a good 30 or 40 minutes. She began asking me all sorts of questions, many about my childhood and other family members.

I told her about where I grew up, a place not too far away from here but a place she’s never visited. I guess I’ve never really told her much about where I was raised for most of my early life. We moved to McCrory when I was two years old, and my parents stayed there for nearly 30 years, until they moved to nearby Searcy the month before my daughter was born. I’ve not been back in the 10+ years since they moved. Someday I’ll take her and my son there, and show them where I grew up, the places that were part of my life.

She asked about my grandparents, all of which had died before she was born. In fact, when I was her age, only one of my grandparents was still alive. My grandmother on my mom’s side died when I was in my late 20’s, a few months before I was married and a few years before my daughter was born. I told her some of what I remembered about my grandparents. She told me she felt sad that I didn’t have my grandparents around anymore.

We discussed a few other things before it was time for her to get to bed. Nothing too deep, just random topics that came to her mind. She asked questions and I answered them. Before she went to bed, however, she told me she wanted to do it again tonight. She wanted to ask me more questions.

In the “busyness” of our lives, we haven’t done that enough for quite a while. I realize more every year that time is getting away, and opportunities for moments like these are diminishing. I’m not completely certain what last night’s conversation, or similar conversations to come, have to do with my story or hers. But I have a feeling they’re pretty important. The fact that she’s suddenly interested in the part of my story that occurred before she became a part of it made me feel pretty good. She wants to know my story, even if I lack the confidence that it will be interesting. She’s pretty interested in it, and even wants to hear more. So, maybe it’s not that bad after all.

I’m the primary character in my story. A character is what he does. I hope my story is better, in the end, than I usually feel like it is in the present, and that my character will be one that I will be proud of some day when I look back on it, and one that my children will be better for having heard about and witnessed. My daughter is anxious to hear more. I intend to keep working on it, and determine to make the rest of it better than it has been thus far.

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My year in books 2008

It seems over the last several years I have read less each year. Not by choice, but simply due to lack of time. If I hadn’t knocked out a few in the last month, I probably would have read fewer books this year than I had in probably 10 years. But it was still far fewer than I would have liked. So, when I looked at what I’ve read in 2008 I realized the pool from which to choose my favorites was not particularly large.

After taking so long to rank my favorite albums this year, I chose not to even bother with my book list. Besides, if I’d had more time for reading, some of these wouldn’t even be on the list anyway, or certainly not in the top ten. I hope to carve out more time in 2009 and have a much longer list from which to choose next year. Until then, here’s my very short list of books I read this year that I enjoyed the most and would recommend.
 


Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt & David L. Weaver-Zercher

The Amish community at Nickel Mines, PA, was devastated in late 2006 when a gunman entered a small schoolhouse and killed 5 girls before taking his own life. What does forgiveness look like? This community has shown us in their reaction to this senseless tragedy. Their display of love and forgiveness to the killer’s family was especially baffling to many who saw this story play out on a national stage. Outstanding story of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation.


The Evangelical Universalist
Gregory MacDonald

One evangelical’s case for Christian Universalism. Certainly this is not the interpretation of scripture I grew up with, but it is nonetheless a very intriguing book. The discussions on the traditional view of hell were of particular interest to me. However, I hope to read it again, in part because I read it in pieces over a long period of time and therefore don’t know that fully grasped the entirety of MacDonald’s views this first time.


God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer
Bart D. Ehrman

I wrote about this back when I read it, but I chose to read this book because I have many of the same questions Ehrman raises here regarding suffering and injustice. His is obviously not an attempt to answer them but rather declare why he believes the Bible doesn’t. Nevertheless, I found his take on them thought-provoking at times.


Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals
Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw

A timely book for 2008 (considering the now-historic election) about our relationship as Christians with governments and politics. You may not agree with everything herein, but considering some of the things seen from Christians this past year or two in the arena of politics (on both sides of the aisle), I think all would benefit from reading this book.


The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics
Theodore Hamm

This is a very interesting and entertaining look at the popular “blue” media, their growing popularity, and how they have come to power over the last decade or so. As one who enjoys such media sources as The Daily Show and The Onion, and appreciates (to some degree) the work of people like Michael Moore, I really enjoyed this book.


Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together
Ron Hall & Denver Moore

This is the true story of Denver Moore, who grew up a sharecropper in Louisiana, and Ron Hall, who made his fortune buying and selling art all over the world. This book tells the story of how they met, via Ron’s wife Debbie and her work in a homeless shelter, and how they changed each others lives. A great story.


True Blue: A Tribute to Mike Krzyzewski’s Career at Duke
Dick Weiss

Of course, this is not for everyone, and I considered leaving this book out of the list simply because it’s one of the worst editing jobs I’ve ever seen. I suspect it was thrown together rather quickly. But as a Duke basketball fan, it was entertaining and informative to hear from former players, coaches and others associated with Duke or Coach K about the best coach in the game right now and their experiences and relationships with him.


unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters
David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons

This book is the result of several years of research into how a lot of young non-Christians (from teens to early 30-somethings) see those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus. The news is not good. It is a somewhat alarming look at ourselves and should provide much food for thought regarding how we wear the name of Christ.


Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case
Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson

Last year’s list contained Don Yeager’s book on the Duke Lax case, and I thought this one by Taylor & Johnson was even better. They provide even more information about the case, the aftermath and the gross injustice experienced by those involved, despite their eventual exhonneration. An excellent read.


The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs – an agnostic of Jewish heritage – chronicles his year of attempting to follow scripture literally in every facet of his life. His writing is often humorous, and some of his accounts will make you laugh out loud. But it is also thought-provoking, and will force you to ask yourself how seriously you take the Bible. It could have been trimmed down and been a bit shorter without losing anything, but a very good read nonetheless.


 
I would also mention that I read (for the second time) Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World as a part of a book club I was in early in the year. I wrote a little about it then and would highly recommend picking this one up if you’ve never read it.

That’s it. That’s the list.

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Church: why bother?

Since it was published about ten years ago, I’ve managed to read Philip Yancey’s book Church: Why Bother? several times, about every two or three years. I pulled it off the shelf last week and started it again. I suppose the reason I keep coming back to it is because I still ask myself that question every now and then, more often than I read this book, and I also enjoy Yancey’s writing more than any current writer out there.

We’ve actually had trouble finding a church where we really feel at home since we’ve moved back to Little Rock. We’re at our second church now, and over the last 6-8 months, we’ve almost left several times. And, that’s still a possibility today. There are a number of reasons for that, which I don’t wish to discuss here (at least not now.) I will say that we very much loved our church in Huntsville, Alabama, and have been particularly disappointed that we have been unable to find a Little Rock equivalent to that church. Our kids, after nearly a year and a half where we are now, still would like to go back to our previous church here in Little Rock that we left last year. So, it continues to be a struggle, and frankly, sometimes I feel like I just don’t want to bother, if only for a while.

Nevertheless, I always find it interesting to read stories about other churches, and sometimes find myself thinking, “I’d like to be a part of a church like that” (and other times thankful my church is not like that.) The following story is from Yancey’s book, about his former church when he lived in Chicago. First of all, it sounds like an interesting place where no Sunday would ever be considered dull. But the thing I liked about the story was the message of grace that seems to be so central to their lives and mission. If this account is any indication, this church is a group that embodies the grace God has extended to themselves.

Sorry this is so long, but I wanted to share it anyway:

Perhaps in reaction against the legalism of his childhood, Bill Leslie, the pastor at LaSalle Street Church, never tired of the theme of Grace: he recognized his own endless need for grace, preached it almost every Sunday, and offered it to everyone around him in starkly practical ways. As I sat under his ministry Sunday after Sunday I gradually absorbed grace, as if by osmosis. I came to believe, truly believe, that God loves me not because I deserve it but because he is a God of grace. God’s love comes free of charge, with no strings attached. There is nothing I can do to make God love me more-or less.

Grace, I concluded, was the factor most glaringly absent from my childhood church. If only our churches could communicate grace to a world of competition, judgment, and ranking – a world of ungrace – then church would become a place where people gather eagerly, without coercion, like desert nomads around an oasis. Now, when I attend church, I look inward and ask God to purge from me the poisons of rivalry and criticism and to fill me with grace. And I seek out churches characterized by a state of grace.

I learned an enduring lesson about what grace looks like in action from my church’s response to Adolphus, a young black man with a wild, angry look in his eye. Every inner-city church has at least one Adolphus. He had spent some time in Vietnam, and most likely his troubles started there. He could never hold a job for long. His fits of rage and craziness sometimes landed him in an asylum.

If Adolphus took his medication on Sunday, he was manageable. Otherwise, well, church could be even more exciting than usual. He might start at the back and high hurdle his way over the pews down to the altar. He might raise his hands in the air during a hymn and make obscene gestures. Or he might wear headphones and tune in rap music instead of the sermon.

As part of worship, LaSalle had a time called “Prayers of the People.” We would all stand, and spontaneously various people would call out a prayer-for peace in the world, for healing of the sick, for justice in the community around us. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we would respond in unison after each spoken request. Adolphus soon figured out that Prayers of the People provided an ideal platform for him to air his concerns.

“Lord, thank you for creating Whitney Houston and her magnificent body!” he prayed one morning. After a puzzled pause, a few chimed in weakly, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

“Lord, thank you for the big recording contract I signed last week, and for all the good things happening to my band!” prayed Adolphus. Those of us who knew Adolphus realized he was fantasizing, but others joined in with a heartfelt “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Regular attenders came to expect the unexpected from Adolphus’s prayers. Visitors had no idea what to think: their eyes would snap open and their necks would crane to get a look at the source of these unusual prayers.

Adolphus called down judgment on all the white people in the church who had caused Mayor Harold Washington such stress that he had a heart attack. He railed against President George Bush who sent troops against Iraq while people were being killed in the streets of Chicago. He gave regular reports on the progress of his music group. Some of these prayers were met with an awkward silence. Once Adolphus prayed “that the white honkey pastors of this church would see their houses burn down this week.” No one seconded that prayer.

Adolphus had already been kicked out of three other churches. He preferred attending an integrated church because he enjoyed making white people squirm. Once he stood up in a Sunday school class I was teaching and said, “If I had an M-16 rifle I would kill all you people in this room.” We white people squirmed.

A group of people in the church, including a doctor and a psychiatrist, took on Adolphus as a special project. Every time he had an outburst, they pulled him aside and talked it through, using the word “inappropriate” a lot. “Adolphus, your anger may be justified. But there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express it. Praying for the pastor’s house to burn down is inappropriate.”

We learned that Adolphus sometimes walked the five miles to church on Sunday because he could not afford the bus fare. Members of the congregation began to offer him rides. Some invited him over for meals. Most Christmases, he spent with our assistant pastor’s family.

Boasting about his musical talent, Adolphus asked to join the music group that sang during communion services. It turned out that he had absolutely no musical ability. After hearing him audition, the leader settled on a compromise: Adolphus could stand with the others and sing, but only if his electric guitar remained unplugged. Each time the group performed thereafter, Adolphus stood with them and sang and played his guitar, which, thankfully, produced no sound. Generally this compromise worked well, except for the Sundays when Adolphus skipped his medication and felt led to do a gyrating Joe Cocker imitation across the platform as the rest of us lined up to receive the body and blood of Christ.

The day came when Adolphus asked to join the church. Elders quizzed him on his beliefs, found little by way of encouragement, and decided to put him on a kind of probation. He could join when he demonstrated that he understood what it meant to be a Christian, they decided, and when he learned to act appropriately around others in church.

Against all odds, Adolphus’s story has a happy ending. He calmed down. He started calling people in the church when he felt the craziness coming on. He even got married. And on the third try Adolphus was finally accepted for church membership.

Grace comes to people who do not deserve it, and for me Adolphus came to represent grace. In his entire life, no one had ever invested that kind of energy and concern in him. He had no family, he had no job, he had no stability. Church became for him the one stable place. It accepted him despite all he had done to earn rejection.

The church did not give up on Adolphus. It gave him a second chance, and a third, and a fourth. Christians who had experienced God’s grace transferred it to Adolphus, and that stubborn, unquenchable grace gave me an indelible picture of what God puts up with by choosing to love the likes of me. I now look for churches that exude this kind of grace.

pp 33-37

Considering that my experiences with church growing up were in some ways similar to that of Yancey’s and his pastor – where legalism was more likely to be found than grace – it’s always refreshing to read about a church truly being Jesus to someone who, elsewhere, might quickly be shown the door. And it is stories like this which continue to give me hope that maybe church is worth the bother after all.

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Suffering sucks

Our preacher was preaching on suffering a few months ago, and actually made the comment “suffering sucks” during his sermon. It was immediately followed by something like “Is it okay if I say it like that?” I don’t know if anyone was offended or not. I liked it, personally, because I thought it was right on. Suffering does suck.

god's problemI just finished reading Bart Ehrman’s newest book, God’s Problem : How The Bible Fails To Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer.

In the book, the former pastor and current religion professor looks at the reasons the Bible appears to give for suffering. In the final chapter of the book, he provides somewhat of a summary of what he’s covered earlier in the book, and the following is my summary of his summary.

He states that he is not satisfied with the explanations of suffering found in scripture, and then bumps down the list and rehashes some of his questions and/or comments about the various reasons.

Punishment for sin – most notably in the prophets. But how does that explain “birth defects, massive starvation, flu epidemics, and genocides”?

Free will – people have the free will to sin and therefore cause the suffering of others. The question here is why does He “allow human caused evil in some instances but not others?” If he could intervene in the Bible, why not in Rwanda, or when a child is killed in a car accident, or many other instances of pain and suffering?

Redemptive suffering – eventually good will come from a period of suffering. What good comes from the thousands of people dying daily of malaria or other preventable diseases?

Test of faith – God will occasionally allow suffering to see how we react (see Job.) Did God really allow the murder of Job’s ten children to see if Job would remain faithful?

Forces of evil – the enemy of God will cause pain and suffering because we try to obey Him. A view rooted in blind faith that everything will eventually be made right and can too easily lead to apathy (problems won’t be solved, so don’t bother trying now.)

Suffering is a mystery – we cannot know why suffering occurs, and we have no right to ask (again, Job.) But if God created us, then our sense of right and wrong comes from Him. Therefore, He is wrong for murdering babies and allowing/causing genocide, and should be held accountable.

In the end, Ehrman believes that the author of Ecclesiastes advocates a different view – that this life is all that there is, and not everything makes sense, so we should make the best of it. We should do everything that we can to help diminish suffering in this world and make life better wherever we can.

I enjoyed this book, and one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book is that suffering in this life has increasingly been an issue for me, in that seeing the suffering in this world – many of the examples Ehrman discusses in this book and more – causes me to ask my own questions, seeking an explanation and, on occasion, wondering if God even cares. Many of my questions are the same that Ehrman raises in this book.

(One question I’ve had over the last couple of days is where was God when Duke couldn’t get the ball in the basket during the final five minutes Saturday night. Ehrman, who teaches religion at UNC, probably isn’t asking that question. Anyway…)

Ehrman – no longer a believer and now an agnostic – doesn’t really provide any new answers to those questions and I certainly didn’t expect him to do so. And I doubt he covered any new ground that’s not been covered before on the problem of suffering. The book simply looks at scripture for the reasons it provides for suffering, and explains why he rejects them. However, I still found it thought provoking, even if I am not willing to accept his conclusions as the final answer.

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