In His Steps

In His Steps, Kindle Edition, by Charles M. Sheldon. Originally published in 1896. 156 print pages.

In His Steps is the classic Christian novel by Charles M. Sheldon. It is, I think the first fictional work I’ve read in quite some time that ran counter to my usual experience of reading fiction much more quickly than nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent a couple of extra weeks both reading this book and contemplating my review of it.

I know what I think of the book, and I know what I am supposed to think of this beloved and renowned work and its author, and my challenge is reconciling my two warring perspectives of the book. Last night, as I was falling asleep, it hit me. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness strikes at the heart of my wrestling with this book. In reality, this inner conflict is hardly isolated to the realm of race in America. I am increasingly able to see how, given our history of merging the political and the religious, the American Christian, sans vigilance, can be afflicted by this same phenomena of double consciousness. We’ll get back to that in bit.

Since I both liked and struggled with In His Steps, depending on the scene it which it was set, we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot of the story.

The Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, experiences a crisis of faith after a homeless man enters his church and challenges him and his congregation concerning the veracity of their faith in action. A few days later Jack, the homeless man, dies. Maxwell grapples with everything the man said to his congregation that day, and begins to earnestly pray and reconsider his and his congregation’s comfortable, self-satisfied faith. Not only is it void of personal sacrifice, but it is more of a merit badge signaling class and decency than evidence true, Christian discipleship.

The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell enters the pulpit a changed man, with a renewed passion for Christ and the gospel message. After shocking his congregation with a sermon and prayer lacking the rehearsed polish and poise they have become accustomed t, he ended the morning’s worship by challenging his congregants to embark with him on a new journey. Specifically, he has resolved to filter every life decision through prayer and the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

So WWJD wasn’t just a 90s slogan that looks good on t-shirts and rubber bracelets!

Initially, about 50 of his congregants join him in prayer and resolve to do nothing without prayerfully and earnestly considering whether Jesus would do the thing in question. The results are remarkable, and many of the players involved encounter situations where their commitment to living as they believe Jesus would come at great personal sacrifice. Some lose jobs, some lose money, and others find that relationships are tested. However, having pledged wholeheartedly to embrace the Christian promise that every one that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred times, and shall inherit everlasting life, they forge on in faith.

There were a few who fell away when difficulties arose, but overall, the town itself was reinvigorated with all that was taking place. I especially appreciated the way that the congregation of First Church of Raymond left their cushy, prosperous lives and donated time and energy to minister to the people in the roughest, most obviously sin-scarred parts of their town. It was a picture of revival that any Christian can’t help but be moved by.

In addition to the self-sacrifice and commitment to being the hands and feet of Jesus outside the four walls of their brick and mortar edifices, there were others who were committed to transforming their entire city for the glory of Christ. Commitments to be more active in promoting Christians in politics and shutting down saloons to curb liquor consumption was a theme that ran strong throughout the book. It’s also where my wrestling began until I recognized that this is not a new problem and that W.E.B. DuBois had expressed it well describing the freed slaves in America trying to reconcile their American citizenship with an oppressive culture constantly reminding them of their foreignness. Before I explain further, here’s a portion of DuBois’ original quote:

“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Now I’ll rework it to show how it directly relates to the conundrum of the American Christian, particularly in light of our traditional intertwining of our faith and our governing principles:

One ever feels his twoness, — an American citizen, and a citizen of heaven; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one fleshly body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

As I read the portions of In His Steps from my current spiritual (and political) vantage point, I couldn’t help but fell a sense of wariness at the notion that Christians can somehow “Christianize” the dominant culture as many of the well-meaning actors attempt to do in Sheldon’s city of Raymond, and later as the book’s setting moved to Chicago. The whitewashing of external unpleasantness can make it easy to become complacent about our need for repentance. The temptation is strong to believe teetotalling, calf-length dresses, and sin locked away in the dark is evidence of our spiritual fitness. Michael Horton expands on this way of thinking in his piece on American captivity of the church.

Because of my tendency to inwardly squirm with discomfort at the idea, I had to remember that books are written relevant to the time and place in which they were written. Once I was able to remember that, I was able to relax and enjoy In His Steps a lot more and understand why it has remained a beloved book, touching the hearts of generations of Christians new and old for over 100 years. We would all do well to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in our day to day living, and then act and love others accordingly. Against such things there is no law.

4 out of 5 stars

Organizing the Reading Queue- Again

As part of my September reset, I decided developing a reading plan is as important for an aspiring book blogger to solidify and set a firm agenda for the books I want to read and review for the final quarter of 2019.

My list consists of 7 books I hope to read and review by year’s end. That might not sound particularly ambitious, but my schedule has become quite packed this school year so for me, it’s pretty ambitious. The only reason I even hope to finish is that three of the books on this list are in the process of being read. Two of them are near the halfway point.

Here’s the fourth quarter reading queue (not to be at all tinkered with by distraction or whimsy!):

Fiction

 

Christian

 

Nonfiction or Historical

  • Setting the Record Straight: African-American History in Black and White, by David Barton. I’m more than halfway done with this one as well, so expect a review soon.
  • The White Horse King: The Life of King Alfred the Great, by Benjamin R. Merkle. This one is probably going to take the most time and be the last book review of 2019.
  • The Offline Dating Method by Camille Virgina is a soon-to-be-released manual to help women break away from the online dating nightmare and learn how to attract and connect with men in the real world. The early reviews seem to indicate that this author’s approach is helpful when it comes to real world socialization in general, and not just romantic connections. Being blissfully married with a robust social life myself, I’m interested in this book for reasons of curiosity and to examine its viability.

What are you reading or looking forward to reading?

 

 

 

How to Be Unlucky, part 2

how to be unlucky

How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, by Joshua Gibbs. Originally published in 2018. 246 pages.

Part 1 of this review touched a lot on the spiritual characteristics highlighted in the book’s reflections on the pursuit of virtue. Another aspect of it is that it is also highly concerned with the role the teacher has -in this case the Christian classical educator- in helping his student to pursue virtue.

To that end, interspersed between all the deep burning questions and conundrums Boethius poses to Lady Philosophy in The Consolation, the author treats us to a sampling of the discussions he has with his students. Discussions in which he reminds them of many things, one of which is that adults are no more virtuous than they are, and with it the importance of understanding that now is the time to cultivate goodness.

In the chapter titled On Pedagogy, Gibbs keeps me pretty well riveted (and convicted) from beginning to end. In the chapter he makes the distinction between the three parts of our being which must be rightly ordered for us to be truly virtuous, drawing from C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man. Regular readers here are not unfamiliar with the brain as the icon for what we know, the heart for what we love, and the stomach for what we want, our appetite for pleasant things. He argues that stomach holds more power than the brain, and that the heart and the brain must work together to subdue the stomach. This is the reason I so relate and appreciate Mr. Gibbs’ commentary. He isn’t afraid to get real:

Early in my marriage I came to realize that Scripture is no talisman for warding off sin…

On the other hand, when I was tempted to the degradations of lust, I typically found that imagining my wife’s face distorted by tears was such a talisman. Any man battling the temptation to lust will do far better changing his computer desktop to an image of his wife than some artist’s representation of the Ten Commandments. This is not because a man loves his wife more than God (though most men do, in my experience), but because a wife is the living embodiment of the seventh commandment; a spouse is the incarnation of an abstract moral precept. p. 148

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always stood a little in awe of my husband and have also always battled to keep my love of God and my love for my husband in the proper order, but this speaks to me. Deeply, and I cannot remember a time in the last two decades when I’ve read an author or heard a preacher get real this way about well… almost anything. The connection between the physical, living embodiment of a spiritual principle itself is almost unheard of in modern Christian thought. It’s as if admitting that we struggle to do what is right and that it isn’t oh-so-easy simply because we’re head over heels in love with God whom we cannot see makes us bad Christians.

So we pretend. Gibbs doesn’t, and I liked that.

In the chapter titled On Pleasure, Gibbs gets into the confusion and cognitive dissonance that has gripped American Christians as we have designated just about every solitary act as either sinful or not sinful. In doing so, we’ve equalized things that are not equal even though they are not sinful. We’ve also freed ourselves to be perpetually amused and superficially sated, yet without guilt.

Earthly pleasure can lead to sanctification and epiphany, and we should “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), as the Psalmist says; however seeing that “the Lord is good” is not a result of every taste, and an over-abundance of tasting distracts from our ability to see that the Lord is good. p. 193

In the chapter On Metaphysics and Freedom, Gibbs hits some topics that I am still turning over in my mind. The first is that Adam and Eve didn’t have a sin nature when they sinned, yet the first things we utter when confronted with our sin or someone else’s is that it is our sin nature. Now that alone is enough to stir debate all the livelong day, isn’t it?

His point isn’t to dismiss that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, but that Christians are so quick to *go there* that we often miss opportunities to address real issues and concerns rather than spout off pat religious answers that we think are super spiritual. Sometimes the answer is simply, we don’t know everything, nor can we.

The title of the final chapter is Why Do Anything? In it, Gibbs closes by making the point that what we do in our mundane daily lives in less important than how ( I’d also add why) we do it.

If a man is willing to become common and to live a common life with times and seasons which God makes common to all, he will submit himself to a mysterious, transcendent reality. p.230

I completely agree, and that is one of the beautiful takeaways of this book in a world and church which is yelling at each of us that we are not common, are not subject to the law of averages, and in so doing makes us perpetually discontent with normal, anonymous daily living.

If I’d offer any negative criticism of the book, it’s that on occasion the flow left a little to be desired. It felt disjointed at a few points, but the overwhelming amount of wisdom and opportunity to for this reader to examine herself and her motivations far outweighed that minutiae.

5 out of 5 stars

You can read a sample of the first chapter of How to Be Unlucky at this link.

How to Be Unlucky, part 1

how to be unlucky

How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, by Joshua Gibbs. Originally published in 2018. 246 pages.

You can read a sample of chapter 1 of How to Be Unlucky here.

The year is young, from a reader’s perscpective, and I still have two Christian books in my queue for the fall (Sacred Pathways and Meet Generation Z), so this may be a premature pronouncement. Nevertheless, I’m going to make it: How to Be Unlucky is by far my favorite nonfiction read of 2018. More than that, and this is saying a lot, it has syrocketed to my top 10 list of Christian books worth reading.

Before I get too far into this, I should issue fair warning. As I have been breathlessly sharing my thoughts on this book with different people, and especially as I share posts penned by Gibbs at the Circe Institute’s Cedar Room Blog, I’ve come to appreciate that Mr. Gibbs is an acquired taste. His tone, idealism, and pull no punches rhetoric isn’t for everyone.

If like me, you like your Truth straight up, you’re tired of pussyfooting around hard things and weary of making excuses for your own shortcomings, then you’ll like this book. If you need caveats and heaping loads of grace poured onto your principled exceptions and extraordinary situations, then skip it. If you don’t like hearing that we do rotten things because of the rot that is in us, and because we take great comfort in indulging our pet sins, again,  I advise you to skip it.

The really cool thing about this book, if I may use such an irreverent term, is that it isn’t at all the Calvinist-sounding manifesto you might be anticipating based on my introductory description. Gibbs is big “o” Orthodox and a classical educator who teaches Great Books to high schoolers, and that, rather than Calvinist theology is what frames the philosophical arguments he makes in this book.

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy is the source and backdrop which Gibbs uses to take his readers on a journey to prayerfully peel back the layers and examine what really makes us tick. There are several Biblical references, but like a true classisist and adherent of a very old traditional church of the Christian faith, Gibbs draws on the beauty and truth that has been passed down through ages; not as a replacement for Scripture, but as evidence that all expressions of truth are God’s Truth, and I had no trouble drawing clear lines of connection between what Gibbs offered from Boethius and the Truth as revealed in the Bible.

I’m almost done with my second reading of the book, and I’m already getting knee deep into reading The Scarlet Pimpernel along with my kids for literature class, so I figured I should stop mulling over how to review this book and just get to it.

On the first page of the book, Gibbs sets the stage for what to come when he confesses:

I was embarrassingly old by the time I first heard a robust answer to the question, “Why be good?”

Given that, if I am not mistaken, this author is not yet 40 years old, he’s certainly not embarrassingly old, but I do understand this sentiment. American Christianity (and yes, I know how that characterization sounds) is embarrassingly inconsistent is so many ways that it’s easy to see why one might be confused by things that shouldn’t be particularly confusing. At least if we believe, and I do, that our faith is not void of reason or logic.

The struggle to encapsulate what I gleaned from this book is the reason for my delay in reviewing it, so I’ll put a bow on this by offering my favorite quotes from each chapter, beginning with the chapter entitled, Death as a Practical Problem:

Every pursuit of maturity-made during any stage of life, whether made by a high school sophomore or a man in his retirement- is ultimately a preparation for death, there is no sense in preparing for anything else. p.71

This is from the same chapter but I liked it, so:

The oldest woman in the club is an embarrassment, but she is also the woman who was the second-oldest in the club last month, the third-oldest last winter, the fourth-oldest last year…and the three-hundred-twenty-ninth oldest on the eve of her 21st birthday, when she went out dancing for the first time. She had the cultural right to go out on her twenty-first birthday, but with every passing day, the ultimate unreliability of this right should be increasingly clear to her. The best way to not become the oldest woman in the club is to quit going to the club the moment you realize such a future is distasteful. p.70.

From the chapter Fortune, Luck, and Salvation:

The   modern man wants every proverb qualified, asterisked, and stated so tentatively that it has nothing to do with himself. Only a common man cares about what commonly happens, but ours is a generation of proud weirdos. For a proverb to be of value to a man, he must see himself as normal, ordinary, common. He must not see himself as special, atypical, excused from the law of averages. A proverb is not a law, but a description of the world right down the middle. Thus, the more unique a man thinks himself, the less open he is to the wisdom of the ages, for Solomon is not interested in describing the unusual cases, but the conventional ones. p.91

From the chapter Temptation and Besetting Sins:

That the wicked are “happier if they suffer punishment than if they are unrestrained” (p.97) [of The Consolation] is obvious to anyone who has tired of the anxiety which attends continually getting away with sin. Few men want to confess their sin, but they dream of how good life might be today of they had confessed their sin a year ago. A man wants to be done with his sin, but he doesn’t want to suffer the embarrassment of cutting himself off from it, for truly breaking entrenched sinful habits requires the help of others who then become aware of his struggle. Hence, a man tries to deal with his sin on his own. p.135

It wasn’t my original intent to analyze this post in parts, and it still isn’t, but I thinkit will take two posts to say everything I wish to about the book, so I’ll finish doing that in part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Attractions: Meet Generation Z

I ran across a book title which has piqued my curiosity. It’s called Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World. The Goodreads blurb alone stopped me short:

Move over Boomers, Xers, and Millennials; there’s a new generation–making up more than 25 percent of the US population–that represents a seismic cultural shift. Born approximately between 1993 and 2012, Generation Z is the first truly post-Christian generation, and they are poised to challenge every church to rethink its role in light of a rapidly changing culture.

From the award-winning author of The Rise of the Nones comes this enlightening introduction to the youngest generation. James Emery White explains who this generation is, how it came to be, and the impact it is likely to have on the nation and the faith. Then he reintroduces us to the ancient countercultural model of the early church, arguing that this is the model Christian leaders must adopt and adapt if we are to reach members of Generation Z with the gospel. He helps readers rethink evangelistic and apologetic methods, cultivate a culture of invitation, and communicate with this connected generation where they are.

Pastors, ministry leaders, youth workers, and parents will find this an essential and hopeful resource.

And all this time, I thought my kids born in the mid-90s were officially millennials! Seems I was wrong.

More than this however, is the fact that the differences and overlapping of generations has begun to fascinate me much more in recent years. We tend to assume that generations in families are distinct and easily identifiable, and that may be true now, but it wasn’t always the case.

I was 7 years old when I first became an aunt, so have nieces who are my comrades in 40-somethingness. Many of my nephews and nieces are fellow Gex Xers. That’s basically unheard of today with our delayed family formation and small family sizes, but I can remember being in elementary school with two girls who were the same age, but also niece and auntie.

Because of my unique experience which is only unique in the context of our current reality, I am always intrigued by the different generational labels, and this book by James Emery White is, I hope, an interesting peek at the differences between the current generation of young Christians and the approach to Christian outreach when I was a kid. We’ll see if there is a new, more effective way to share our faith.

When I finish it, I’ll offer my take on whether it’s as helpful a resource as the publisher asserts.

 

Beauty Destroys the Beast

beauty destroys the beast

Beauty Destroys the Beast, by Amy Fleming. Published June 7, 2019; 208 pages.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll start this review by acknowledging that the author of Beauty Destroys the Beast is a personal friend, and I read this book in its earliest iteration, from the first draft. This review is offered after a second reading of the completed, fully edited version, which you can purchase at the link above. Nevertheless, this is an honest review as I know the authoress would expect nothing less.

Beauty Destroys the Beast is Amy’s earnest contribution to recapture what women in general, and Christian women in particular, have lost since we’ve ceded the ground related to feminine beauty and physical adornment. Her argument is that we’ve relegated beauty to the purveyors of glamour, with the result that our appreciation for true Beauty has been lost.

Unlike her first book, Wardrobe Communication, which focuses more on how to maximize the colors, fabrics, and styles which most accentuate us individually, Beauty Destroys the Beast is a letter specifically to the Christian woman. As such, it necessarily begins with reminding us of the importance of cultivating beauty from the inside. If we don’t, all of our outward efforts are tantamount to following the world’s pattern of chasing glamour. But glamour isn’t beauty, Amy asserts, and there is nothing at all wrong with displaying beauty in our person as we represent our Savior to the world:

Right now, Beauty is wearing chains. She’s sitting behind enemy lines, watching Glamour take her place, and weeping. But every story begins with the heroine in distress, doesn’t it?

After a wonderfully presented analysis about the battle between Glamour and Beauty which we can see in our favorite fairy tales, the challenge is issued:

As Christian women, we’ve been so frightened of becoming like the evil queen that we’re afraid to poke our noses out of the basement. But that fear is just another way the enemy keeps us off the battle lines. He doesn’t want us out there, being lights for Christ- we’re dangerous. Delight? Joy? Love? Glamour doesn’t use any of those things, only Beauty does. When we use the gifts of the Spirit we’re safe from the temptations of the flesh. Look outside- the world is dark. We need every bit of light that can shine, shining. No more bushel baskets, please.

This is not the first time a woman of God has been asked to use beauty as a weapon. Do you remember Esther? What did she have that was different from all the other girls who were taken for the king’s harem? She had the touch of God.

Laying out her argument with Scriptural truth, practical admonitions, and homework at the end of each chapter to encourage the reader to think -and pray!- deeply, Amy makes a powerful argument in favor of each of us presenting ourselves with as much beauty -and dignity- as we can, remembering that our ultimate aim is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to draw others to us so that we might have the opportunity to introduce them to our Heavenly Father.

Because Amy and I have been bantering about this particular topic off and on for the better part of a decade, I didn’t expect to find any new information or challenging admonitions. I was wrong. This book challenged me in new ways to remember that the compliments I receive should not be about me, but rather, should be seen as opportunities to shine for God in every area of my life, including the way I care for myself.

There is a some practical information in the book as well, so for those looking for concrete information about clothes, color, self-care and other health and fashion tips, there is both advice offered and direction to more comprehensive resources. But make no mistake: that’s not at the heart of what this book is about. It’s a challenge, and one that is sorely needed in a church where women are torn between two opinions; frump masquerading as modesty or beauty reproved as immodesty. This leaves many women feeling the best option is to ignore the physical and focus on being super spiritual, which defaults to something near slovenliness.  Beauty Destroys the Beast asks us to take a stand for Beauty because it is good.

Although I enjoyed the book, there were sections where the writing felt abrupt, places where I felt like a little more expounding would have smoothed an edge here or there, but the message connects nonetheless. Amy’s natural voice is very matter of fact, so I was able to decipher those parts, but a new reader will find that the best portions are those where her passion and excitement shined through. This is most evident in two areas. The first is when she’s explaining how we find our best colors. The second and most potent is when she implores us to be as beautiful as we can without feeling the pressure to be, have or do the things which may be assigned to our sister, but not necessarily to us:

No one woman can be all things beautiful. What we can be is ourselves, trusting God to use us for his purposes. Stop seeing your individuality as a flaw. You might be a rose, you might be a peony. One way or the other you’re offering beauty to the world. It’s the rose pretending to be a peony that looks ridiculous. Be who God made you to be.

Excellent advice, but you need to read the book to appreciate the full weight of this exhortation.

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

Coming Attractions: Beauty Destroys the Beast

I encourage everyone who reads this blog to click over to Hearthrose’s Ramblings to find out how to get your copy of Beauty Destroys the Beast, by Amy Fleming.  I haven’t read it yet, but I will be reading it soon, and can hardly wait to give it a proper review!

Hearthie is a dear friend of mine with a deep passion for helping women be all that we can be, not just for ourselves or our families, but ultimately so that we can fulfill our eternal purpose:

Are you like me? Like most women? Do you have an aching hole where the pain and confusion about physical beauty and its place in your spiritual life have eaten into your heart? Does that pain stop you from grabbing your sword and getting into battle – does it keep you from doing the things that you know you’re called to do in this life?

Do you want to address the hard questions about how to deal with this body you wear? Do you need some encouragement to be who God made you to be? I wrote this book for you, Christian sister. I wrote this book for those of us who are walking wounded, but ready to take back all that belongs to our King. For those of us who are tired of listen to fear and lies. It’s meant to change your life, and by changing your life, enabling you to change the lives of others around you.

Beauty can destroy the beast of lies – it’s time to set her free.

Seriously, click here to find out how you can get this book in your hands. It would be so great to be able to have a robust discussion of it with those of you who read here.

Hope you’re having a great weekend.