Tag Archives: book reviews

Strange Glory (a book review, of sorts)

My latest read.Strange Glory
Charles Marsh’s A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It was Eric Metaxas’ tome that served as my first real introduction to the story of Bonhoeffer, so I hadn’t imagined needing to read another biography, Metaxas covered the ground so well, his book almost reading like a devotional for me at times.

But then I saw this title and Speakeasy sent me a copy to read and review.

Yes. There is room for another biography.

I still love Metaxas’ work, but Marsh in his lively and meticulously researched book showed me refracted views of Bonhoeffer’s story and character that I hadn’t seen. In many ways I felt as if I was meeting Bonhoeffer anew, and he’s always worth meeting, so the book richly repaid each moment spent. And as a bonus, Marsh sent me frequently to the dictionary to dig into words that are either new acquaintances or ones that I’ve met and quite forgotten. I know this may not be a selling point for all too many of us. But it should be. We need a rekindled love affair with words!

Musing on the refracted views I mentioned – I was reminded of this comment by Joshua Shenk about histories and biographies and how when we tell the truth of them we invariably “tell it slant” to use Dickinson’s phrase:

Historians must choose interpretative frameworks. And in this they are inexorably subject to the fancies and suppositions of the times they live in. As times change, so do popular dogmas and curiosities. Therefore our approach to history changes as well. This is not to say that history is merely subjective, but that objective and subjective realities interact to create a foundation of accepted truth. “What happens over and over,” J. G. Randall wrote in 1945, introducing the first volume of his biography Lincoln the President, “is that a certain idea gets started in association with an event or figure. It is repeated by speakers and editors. It soon becomes a part of that superficial aggregation of concepts that goes under the heading ‘what everybody knows.’ It may take decades before a stock picture is even questioned as to its validity.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy

I suppose what I feel Marsh has done with Bonhoeffer is taking what for me was a bit of a stock picture and giving it some helpful dimensions that have helped me to better “behold the man.”

And with such a man and story as Bonhoeffer, that is a true gift.

Take and read.


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Posted by on August 8, 2015 in Books


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a book review (of sorts)…David: The Divided Heart

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 4.24.24 PMMy friend Gina shot me a link to Rabbi David Wolpe’s latest book David: The Divided Heart. I’ve read snippets from Rabbi Wolpe, but never followed his thought through a book.

Glad I listened to Gina.

There’s something to be said for reading outside the lines of our faith and fellowship, outside of our cultural, social and political orbits. One way of doing that is reading old books. Another is reading books by someone coming from a truly different perspective. Perhaps the best of both worlds is occasionally reading something that is both! (Which is perhaps why I spend so much time in Jewish Scripture, ha!)

In this case, considering a Jewish Rabbi writing about a pivotal Jewish ancestor, one might think his perspective might indeed shed some light on that of relative newbie Christian observers looking over their Jewish neighbor’s fence. And so it does.

At any rate, I read half the book in one afternoon’s brief sitting.
It floweth…

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yes! within me. within others. yes.

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you know any book using the word “tendentiousness” is going to be awesome.

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this one left my mouth agape. what an observation!

There will be things that you’ve seen and heard before, sure, but there were enough fresh insights from the biblical text to make me giddy – and to keep going. Perhaps one of the best compliments that can be extended to any book is that you’re sorry when it’s over.

And so I was.

Take and read.


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Posted by on June 13, 2015 in Books


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solviture ambulando: the solving is in the walking

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It’s my latest ancient treasure.

My new allons-y.Unknown

Augustine of Hippo, thank you.

Barbara Brown Taylor, thank you for spurring me with a fresh challenge to embrace the spiritual practice of walking in that wondrous read of yours called
An Altar in the World.

Thank you for the reminder that the greatest miracle is not walking on water but walking on the earth. Especially when we take the tanks off our feet we call shoes and walk on our bare feet.

The spiritual practice of walking barefoot. My oldest daughter Brenna was so on to something.

Some books are so good you can’t put them down, even if it means getting sunburned.

Others are so good you have to.

Altar in the WorldI had to keep putting down An Altar in the World to get up and go do it.

I had to wake up.
I had to get lost.
To wear skin.
To feel pain.
To say no.

And now I know what our church needs on our sprawling 22 acres.

We need a labyrinth. (And, no, the office complex doesn’t count)

Not everyone is able to walk, but most people can, which makes walking one of the most easily available spiritual practices of all. All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however counterintuitive that may seem. To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time. Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are. When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives, the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say, “Here, I guess, since this is where I am.”

This truth is borne out by the labyrinth – an ancient spiritual practice that is enjoying a renaissance in the present century. For those who have never seen one, a labyrinth is a kind of maze. Laid out in a perfect circle with a curling path inside, it rarely comes with walls. Instead, it trusts those who enter it to stay on the path voluntarily. This path may be outlined with hand-placed stones out-of-doors or painted right on the floor indoors. Either way, it includes switchbacks and detours, just like life. It has one entrance, and it leads to one center.

The important thing to note is that the path goes nowhere. You can spend an hour on it and end up twelve feet from where you began.

The journey is the point.

The walking is the point.

Salviture ambulando.

Take and read.

And walk.



Posted by on June 5, 2014 in Books


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storytelling good enough to get you burned

“Everyone loves storytelling. We never outgrow the love for hearing a good story.”Liver-Eating Johnson Reburial Saga

And when reading a really good story, you may even find you got sunburned.

That’s what just happened to me reading my friend Tri Robinson’s new book The Committee for the Reburial of Liver-Eating Johnson: Memoirs of a Dyslexic Teacher.

Tri left me a galley copy to read right before my vacation.

I totally spaced packing it. I didn’t think about it again.

Until yesterday when I saw it there, that thin little spine beckoning me. “Take and read. Take and read.”

Okay, that email reminder helped, too.

It’s a brief yarn of only 125 pages, so, seeing it beckoning and hearing Tri’s voice, quite literally saying “Take and read,” and having a spot of time, I dipped in. Maybe a chapter. Maybe two. So I thought. I read the first three and was hooked, though that was as far as I got before being summoned to our Friday night dance.signature page

Even Tri’s book will wait for the dance.

But the first three chapters had me ready to launch with the rest today, effectively setting the stage for this story of twenty-four junior high students who under Tri’s leadership in 1974 campaigned and brought about the re-internment of the remains of John “Liver-eating” Johnston.

Listening to Tri’s teaching for a decade and a half in Boise, I had heard this story and several others he relates in the book, but I had never seen them in their entirety woven together as they are in this rawhide tapestry of a book.

It had me.

Picking up the book a second time, I joined my loverly wife on the lawn under a balmy May sun, and I couldn’t stop. Being my first serious exposure to sun this season, the thought occurred to me as I started in, “Lotion. Lotion.” But I couldn’t stop. I did step out of the sun eventually, standing in the shade of one of our apple trees as I continued reading, but I have no idea how much time had passed.

As it turns out, it was just enough time to burn.

You know it’s a good book when it makes you burn.

This one did.

Yes, I know Tri. Yes, I count him a friend. Yes, he was my boss – but he’s not now, so I can say whatever I want and could even write a scathing review if I wanted to (oh yeah, I write those all the time) or just flat ignore the book.

But I fell in love with this class.
I fell in love with him as it’s teacher.
I fell in love with the story.

This is the movie poster I remember...

This is the movie poster I remember…

I knew how it ended, but I didn’t know all that happened in the process of getting there, of getting those disinterred remains there. And it had me.

And dang it, now I want to watch Jeremiah Johnson again (and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for that matter!). I saw it on the big screen in 1974. I was old enough at the time to have been a student in Tri’s class when I watched it.

I remember few of my teachers from those years.

Those twenty-four students will never forget theirs.

Every teacher – that is, every one with the vocation and calling of education in any way shape or form – should read this book.

And so should anyone who wants to get lost in a good story, a true story, through which you will rediscover eyes to see possibilities where others only see closed doors.

Could the book have been longer?

Sure. He could have stretched it.

But the best stories are often the short ones (don’t tell Tolkien or Peter Jackson).

Good storytelling, my friend.

Good read, everyone.

It’s even worth the burn.

if I was using the rating system from my old book cellar site, this would be what I would have posted...

if I was using the rating system from my old book cellar site, this would be what I would have posted…no padding required




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Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Books


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prepare to be slapped, the Pastrix is here

I saw the title in a trade publication.pastrix

Hadn’t heard a thing about it from anyone.

But how can you resist a cover like that with a title like Pastrix and a subtitle like “The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint”? It arrived in a shipment with three other new titles of interest, the four of them making it on my “to read sometime this millennium” shelf. But Pastrix beckoned from the crowd for my attention.

I just didn’t realize at the time that it was Nadia Bolz-Weber beckoning me with four-letter words. And if you don’t want to read any such four-letter words, please stop reading this post now, and by all means don’t pick up Pastrix. You’ve been warned.

How can you not fall in love with a book that has as its opening sentence, “Shit,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to be late to New Testament class.”

i like your colors, Nadia...and yes, you scare me

i like your colors, Nadia…and yes, you scare me

Okay, Nadia most certainly isn’t for everyone – which is no doubt why Pastrix was such a wondrously refreshing read for me: she doesn’t try to be. And what would you expect from a Lutheran pastor whose church has the acronym HFASS (House for All Sinners and Saints)? Perhaps that’s why she’s so refreshing to me: I fear, dread, suspect that I’m trying to be. Nadia seems totally at home in her tattooed skin – or at least well on her way to being there. Her model is Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, Luke tells us. Nadia would, I imagine, be the first to confess that she no doubt still has a few of those Christ is working on. Which makes me like her for the simple reason that so do I. We also share a Church of Christ heritage which was another point of instant identification for me. I may have scandalized my Church of Christ family – I left it and ended up in the Vineyard – but I feel oh so tame by comparison. Nadia’s passion for Jesus, for Life, is utterly contagious. Infectious. Yes, she will infect you. Like a good disease.

I frequently recommend this or that book as a read that will “stretch” you. This one will assault you. And stir

did i mention that you scare me?

did i mention that you scare me?

you. And disturb you. And comfort you. And it just may inspire you to believe again after you recover from the bitch slap she just ministered to you through Pastrix.

I’ve been at this ministry gig for thirty-two years, and I’m trying to remember when I have read a more honest description of ministry by someone in ministry. What is ministry? Pastoring your people.

Yes, those people. The ones you find yourself with.

And you will love them.

And hate them.


And the chapter in which she relates her experiences as a chaplain essentially undergoing on-the-job-training is simply one of the most eloquent, edgy, emotive treatments of suffering I’ve read in some time. I’ve been around the block a few times in this suffering business. Well said, Nadia.

The chapters are relatively brief, and so, for me, served well as part of my morning devotional read alongside the gospels (now imagining the daily devotional Nadia would write…)

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

yes, pastrix is too a real word

yes, pastrix is too a real word

And Nadia.

I was so enjoying the combination that I really wanted this to stretch out further. But alas, there are only nineteen chapters.

And so, I conclude with just a peek from Nadia’s pen. I know we’re heading into Christmas season and this is from an Easter liturgy she delivered in April of 2008. But it applies to Christmas season too.

It applies to every season.

To each of us.


“Jesus didn’t look very impressive at Easter,” I said, “not in the churchy sense, and certainly not if Mary Magdalene mistook him for a gardener.”

As I looked out over the shivering crowd, I suggested that perhaps Mary Magdalene thought the resurrected Christ was a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails. Of course, the depictions in churches of the risen Christ never show dirt under his nails; they make him look more like a wingless angel than a gardener. It’s as if he needed to be cleaned up for Easter visitors so he looked more impressive and so no one would be offended by the truth. But then what we all end up with is a perverted idea of what resurrection looks like. My experience, however, is that the God of Easter is a God with dirt under his nails.

Resurrection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious like in those Easter pictures. I would have never agreed to work for God if I had believed God was interested in trying to make me nice or even good. Instead, what I subconsciously knew, even back then, was that God was never about making me spiffy;
God was about making me new.



Take and read.

If you fraking dare.


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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Books


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fierce conversations

There are fierce conversations.fierce conversations

And there are mean ones. Of course, mean conversations tend to be one way destructive diatribes more about pulling down for the joy of seeing things (and people) collapse than the exhilaration of watching them grow.

And then there are non-existent ones leaving us with relationships, marriages, businesses, and churches that are nicely captured in dilapidated old barns long without care or attention.

I read most of the way through Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations right before severe anemia laid me flat and the right and left hook of cancer knocked me out for a year. Still getting back up. Was reminded of it yesterday and literally blew the dust off it. Time to reread and then finish.

Ken Blanchard in the foreword writes “If you don’t have time to read the whole book, it’s a mistake. But since God didn’t make junk and you are unconditionally loved, I will hold back on a One Minute Reprimand. And as humanist, I will go one step further and give you the essence of this powerful book. Here’s what it says:

Our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.
While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, a marriage, or a life, any single conversation can. The conversation is the relationship.

not helpful, but what we do. mostly.

not helpful, but what we do. mostly.

I agree. It is a mistake not to read this whole book. Remedying that now.

Susan Scott navigates seven principles of fierce conversations in a highly readable style filled with anecdotes. Nothing dry here. The dryness is in our conversations. She injects some wondrous life and vitality into them if we will read the whole book and take to heart. And then have a few of them. And then make a practice out of them in every relationship we care about.

I will share the first principle and it’s summation. You’ll have to get and read the whole book for the rest. It’s worth it. It could serve as the ice-axe that can break up the frozen sea of a stagnant relationship.

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality.

No plan survives its collision with reality, and reality has a habit of shifting, at work and at home. Markets and economies change, requiring shifts in strategy. People change and forget to tell each other — colleagues, customers, spouses, friends. We are all changing all the time. Not only do we neglect to share this with others, we are skilled at masking it even to ourselves.

Oh yes. Take and read.

And practice.

now we're talking

now we’re talking

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Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Books


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Poor Tom Paine! there he lies;Thomas Paine_Nelson
Nobody laughs and nobody cries;
Where he has gone or how he fares
Nobody knows and nobody cares.

Such attitudes would foreshadow the next two centuries of public thinking about the man who was once considered the most important political writer of his century. Though “Poor Tom” was a founder of both the United States and the French Republic, the creator the phrase “United States of America,” and the author of the three biggest bestsellers of the eighteenth century, he is known today by the educated public primarily through biographies for children. At the same time, since he wholeheartedly followed a motto that life should be “a daring adventure, or nothing,” his personal drama and historic achievements have inspired a never-ending chain of advocates, apostles, and cultists.

So Craig Nelson begins his biography of Thomas Paine, who was originally named “Pain.”

Each time I teach American government, I take the class on a bit of a stroll through Paine’s Common Sense – or at least through the first 5,000 words or so of the 20,000 word eighteenth century pamphlet – to watch him ruminate and reason his way through the errors of monarchy and hereditary succession and boldly say the word in print what no one else would: independence.

common-sense-1776I love watching senior high students’ eyes open a bit as we read through the pamphlet out loud – Common Sense, like our New Testament Epistles – is meant to be heard as one reads and the rest listen. Craig’s book has done the same for me with Paine’s life, and now as I listen I hear the voice of Paine.

That alone is worth the price of admission.

I probably wouldn’t have liked Paine, nor he me, had we met in person. Definitely different speeds. But how we need different speeds – and how, evidently, his speed was needed in his times. Reading the circumstances of his life – and what a reminder of the relative ease in which we live – at least here in the States Paine was instrumental in founding! Life expectancy of 36.6 years; a fifth of women perishing through childbirth – Nelson cites an example he calls “terrible but not atypical” of one family, the artist Goya and his wife Josefa, who “became pregnant twenty times, gave birth to seven children, and saw only one of them survive to adulthood.” It’s what I experienced each time we returned to PICU at the local hospital for the latest round of chemo with our daughter: there’s always another story whose depth of pain and pathos puts yours into perspective.

Anyway, reading the circumstances of Paine’s life, it’s hard not to see that Providential Hand working, weaving through its movements and timing, that he should end up on these shores, with the connections through Franklin and such in Philadelphia society as he ended up having, and then within but a year or two of first arriving here to be positioned to write and publish a pamphlet so seminal in thought and explosive in effect in uttering the word “that must not be named” (independence) leaves me basking in reaffirmed confidence that in the midst of so much seeming randomness and tragedy in our world, there is a thread of meaning and relevance shot through it all.

If we wait long enough, we may see it – but it may take the perspective of a century or two, or even of eternity – even if we are “eulogized” after our death (or while still alive!) as “Poor Tom” and remembered, if it all, in the biographies of children.

Thomas Paine is a gift, if we will take the moments to journey through it.

Take and read.


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Posted by on September 22, 2013 in Books


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