“Cory and the Seventh Story” Review!

If you’re seeking a story friendly enough for children that’s also packed full of meaning for kids and adults alike, take a peek inside Cory & the Seventh Story. Authors Brian McLaren (of progressive Christian renown) and Gareth Higgins (writer and co-founder of the Wild Goose festival) teamed up to challenge us to consider the “seventh story” that provides a more compassionate, life-enriching path than the six stories our society has handed down to us.

Cory the raccoon and the other critters wrestle with how to navigate life in the village where the following six stories entrap: domination, revolution, isolation, purification, victimization, and accumulation. Each of those “stories” (ways of finding security in the world) is told in narrative form so that even kids can grasp the concepts. Things are looking pretty dreary due to this life-draining stories when a messiah-like figure in the form of a horse shows up. She offers a seventh story of reconciliation and of believing that we are better together than we are divided. Of course, as it goes with messiahs, some animals really don’t like this, and we start to get nervous about what will happen to her…

This is a timely book for our era (or any era, as we see how each of these stories have been around for a long time). It’s a beautiful and sensitive way to introduce kids to challenging topics they might hear about on the news or that happen globally, while giving them hope for something better. Illustrator Heather Harris creates charming and imaginative scenes that are a treat for the eyes. I highly recommend this book, whether you have kids or not. It would make a great resource for home, school, and churches / houses of worship alike.

Check out these sites:

About the book: https://www.theseventhstory.com/kids
Brian McLaren’s website
Gareth Higgins’ website

Review: The Disfiguration of Nature: Why Caring for the Environment is Inherently Conservative

In his provocative, controversial-at-times book, James Krueger makes his case why environmentalism is inherently a conservative cause. He prefers the term “conservation” to make clear the word’s ties to conserving and conservatism. This book is of supreme relevance in a time when political divisions are becoming starker, nuance feels like a relic, and we seem to have forgotten how to submit to one another for the good of the whole. At times his rhetoric is abrasive and grating, especially when he adds in inflammatory topics of LGBTQ and abortion rights. But don’t give up and throw the book aside. We already do too much of that in our inabilities to truly dialogue anymore. Krueger has much of value to say and it is important to at least be open to his challenges, lest we only wall ourselves into echo chambers of those who think and believe just like we do.

Krueger’s main premise is that our political identities have strayed far from their origins, and both sides now believe in the goodness of progress (however that is defined) regardless of cost (e.g., neoliberalism), and very often to the detriment of the very earth we live on. He re-defines (or rather hearkens back to) definitions of conservative and liberal. “Conservatives” were once defined as those who use tradition as a guide for the future, who strongly value family life and other social organizing systems that keep us beholden to one another, and who prioritize morality and personal integrity (p. 6). “Liberalism,” as he defines it, prioritizes progress for the sake of progress, supports technological advances, and a market- and profit-driven system that is given free reign by a limited government (p. 7). Clearly, our conservative and liberal political parties have moved a tad from such origins. Today’s Republican party has much more of a libertarian instead of a conservative ideology, and both parties swim somewhere in the soup of classical liberalism. Because of this, classical conservatism has been lost.

A conservative by his new / old definition, Krueger is not against a government with authority to set limits on businesses and provide social safety nets for the vulnerable in society. He acknowledges that big business is very poor at self-regulation and believes it is the role of government to set the needed limits that then benefit all instead of the few. What is important to him is respecting the laws and limits of nature and being humble about our own place in the world.

Krueger brings in LGBTQ and abortion issues because these are often, for Republican voters, issues that keep them away from a pro-environment vote (which is now solely the realm of Democrats). He does not support governmental promotion of LGBTQ or abortion rights, because he believes that both of these issues go against laws of nature and traditional moral principles. In some ways, especially with LGBTQ rights, I feel he is setting up a straw man argument (though it may appeal to today’s conservatives) about what the LGBTQ population wants: the destruction of the marriage institution, sex and sexuality becoming un-sacred and used solely for one’s personal pleasure, without concern to how we are responsible to one another in relationship. Perhaps it is my own personal experience of knowing so many married or monogamously committed, and very often Christian, LGBTQ couples that this argument barely makes sense to me. He also assumes there is no biological basis to homosexuality, whereas I do not think you can make such an argument based on what we witness even in the rest of the animal kingdom. On the issue of abortion, I give him credit that he supports much more social, governmental support for single mothers who keep the babies they are not ready for. I too wish for this and wish the Republicans could take this up as a pro-life issue.

Krueger’s book is a thin volume but very densely and academically written. It is not for the faint of heart if you fear being challenged, inspired, and even angered all in the same chapter. I do not agree with all of what he has written, yet I still want to shout the underlying message from the rooftops: Conservation is not an inherently liberal issue! Conservatives need to take up the issue of conservation! We have no time (or land, or water, or air) to waste!

Those of us who live in small towns, who naturally have more connection to the land and may either farm or know farmers nearby, easily understand this. My own town of Bellefontaine, Ohio has a free recycling program, has reduced their trash waste by 24% just this last year, and many people compost in their own backyards. They also tend to vote Republican. Conserving and being a conservative are not mutually exclusive.

So what is it we must do? In my opinion, people on both sides of the aisle must stop monolithic thinking and bring some humility to the table. Democrats, especially big-city Democrats, must gain respect for the giant red swath of America in the heartland, the people who are often much more intimately connected with the land and submission to the cycles of earth. Republicans need to recall their roots and end the unhealthy marriage to big-business interests and false individual autonomy (e.g. through lowering taxes no matter the cost) that has somehow come to define them.

Additionally, I appreciate Krueger’s bold yet hard-to-swallow stance that we cannot continue our technological race forward that serves to consume more and more resources, even when we try and commit to using renewable resources in our gluttonous consumption. A lesson that seems most difficult for Americans to learn is that we cannot have it all, we should not have it all, and we must stop thinking we can have it all instantly. I’m only a fish swimming in this same water yet I know this greedy desire is one of our great moral downfalls. Are we willing to give up our pride, our greed, and be willing to submit to each other and to the earth in time to rescue our planet from destruction?

Intra- and inter-faith conversation in an age of division

Our world is undeniably diversifying. Our “tribes” of people who used to be separate and not in contact with one another are now rubbing shoulders more often, working at the same workplaces, living down the street from each other. There is still resistance to this encounter with the other, of course, but it seems inevitable that this pattern will only continue this way in the long run. One question this can raise for people is: what do we do about encounters with people of other faith? Do we pretend they don’t exist? Do we convert them? Will they convert us? Or is there a way to engage in productive conversation and respectful learning from one another?

Susan Strouse, author of INTRAfaith Conversations: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?, has created a guide for church members and leaders who are interested in doing the work of inter- and intrafaith learning. Strouse was (at time of writing her book) a Lutheran minister in California who is passionate about facilitating interfaith conversations. She has her DMin (doctor of ministry degree), and it appears much of her research for her doctoral thesis made it into the book. The pages are replete with all kinds of references and there are helpful appendices at the end. That being said, her writing is scholarly but not stuffy, and the book is very approachable. (My regret is I wish I had the hard copy version instead of the electronic version, because there’s so much information packed in!)

Having an interfaith conversation, or learning about interfaith matters, is altogether distinct from having an ulterior goal of wanting to convert the other faith-holders. Thus, for Christians (for whom evangelizing is often a big concern), there are many resistances that might be had about doing interfaith conversations. Strouse adeptly addresses questions that arise, such as “How do I stay true to my faith if I’m not trying to convert the other person?” or “But what about how the Bible says, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” She encourages the questions to be vocalized in congregations, because that is the whole point of an intrafaith dialogue. There are no single answers to the questions; no one “right” perspective to hold.

Strouse lays out some different frameworks for thinking about religious diversity. One such framework is pluralism spectrum: one end being exclusivist (e.g., faith in Jesus as described by Christianity is the only way for salvation); a middle ground of inclusivism (e.g., other faiths can hold their own beliefs, but it is the saving grace and way of Jesus that ultimately saves them, for that grace is for all regardless of if they choose it), or pluralistic (other religions are authentic paths on their own terms, regardless of if they include Jesus or not). Simply to have a framework to form one’s thoughts within can help people identify more clearly where they are at and be able to communicate to others their stances on issues. No position is declared right or wrong in the interfaith dialogue, but the intrafaith conversation allows for deeper self-understanding.

Strouse goes much further into other issues on the interfaith and intrafaith landscape, including the rise of the spiritually independent, how to do theology in an interfaith context, mysticism and the contemplative heart, and more practical aspects of how to actually host the dialogues.

I strongly believe one of the best antidotes to fear and hatred of the other is having actual person-to-person contact with the other, or at least taking the opportunity to be directly educated by the other (letting them teach you about their experiences. We can do this through reading if need be.). Strouse points out that we must not compare our best with their worst, but our best with their best. In an era seeming beset by division and skepticism about the “other side,” I wish that we could all be as humble and gracious to learn from others different us, yet as grounded in our own tradition to teach others the best of our best.

I wonder what you, my reader, think of the inter- and intra-faith dialogue. I wonder if these are issues you have thought about, or if you have wrestled with the theology behind it (I’m aware not everyone gets as excited about theology as I do…). What symbol might you choose to represent where you are? Would it be a picture with multiple religious symbols? A symbol of only your particular religion? Maybe a cross-shaped umbrella, sheltering all other religions (the “inclusivist” position)? Wherever you find yourself, this is a conversation worth having!

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Links:
Find INTRAfaith Conversation on Amazon
Check out the website
#TheINTRAfaithConversation

A monk, a monastery, and a picture book?!

The day is rare when I give an unqualified “that was so good!” review for the Speakeasy books I read and review. Well, Brother John most certainly deserves such an accolade.

Just a taste of the gorgeous illustrations.

I selected this book to review because my heart loves the Abbey of Gethsemani, monks in general, and Thomas Merton in particular (for prior posts I’ve written about this magical place, click here, or here, among others). I was under the impression that since it was an illustrated picture book, it would be more geared for children, and I imagined reading to my future kids one day about Brother John. In case you’re wondering, it’s not written for children. It’s about the meaning and purpose of life and being the best human we can be.

The book is authored by August Turak, a man in crisis, in deep despair and depression. He is sorting things out at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. There he has a heartfelt encounter with Brother John, who is one of those people whose purity, goodness, servant nature, and love for God just emanate from their very being. This encounter transforms his life.

It’s a beautiful book, short (which means I can regularly reread it) and moving. I can’t do enough justice describing it, so I will quote some pieces and just encourage you to check it out yourself, soaking in the oil paint illustrations and the rich yet simple message.

On our fear of failure (p. 26): “I imagined dedicating my life to others, to self-transcendence, without ever finding that inner spark of eternity that so obviously made Brother John’s life the easiest and most natural life I had ever known. Perhaps his peace and effortless love were not available to all, but only to some. Perhaps I just didn’t have what it takes.”

On taking the first step (p. 30): “Acknowledging that fact [that something’s twisted], refusing to run away from it, and deciding to deal with it is the beginning of the only authentic life there is… We lie to ourselves because we’re afraid to take ourselves on.”

On trusting (39): “We must resolve to act decisively, while trusting in the aid of something we don’t understand and can never predict. We must open ourselves up to the miraculous, to grace.”

I promise I didn’t give away the whole book. If you’re still looking for something for that spiritually inclined yet hard to shop for person on your Christmas list, or maybe you want to get something spiritually moving that you’ll actually read, instead of getting something to collect dust on your shelf – this is your book. I’m going to revisit it repeatedly!

Links: Brother John on Amazon
Author’s website for Brother John

This shows the inner page of the book. Title of the book: "Brother John: A monk, a pilgrim, and the purpose of life." Beneath is a picture of the Abbey of Mepkin, a tall spire of the church with the warm glow of buildings underneath it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

“Confessions of a Funeral Director” whaaat?

This sounds like a morbid post, but hang in with me here. This book is a memoir of sorts of 6th generation funeral director Caleb Wilde. He shares his thoughts about death, life, love, and heaven – but perhaps not in the way you might think.

If you think about it, the descent into fall is a good time to write about death. Here in Ohio, the leaves are pretty much entirely off the trees. It is cloudy and gray most days. We have to gear up for a long winter ahead of us. Luckily, we still have the excitement of the holidays ahead of us, but most of us carry the awareness that winter will keep stretching out long after that. Moreover, for many, the holidays are a painful reminder of losses and people who are not with us anymore.

This is not a book about grief exactly, though it does go there at times. It is more a book about the theology of life and death. It is for people who have ever questioned the common American Christian narrative of being saved so God won’t send you to hell, and then when you die, getting to join God up in heaven. If the thought of questioning the simplicity of that narrative makes you uncomfortable, this book is probably not for you.

Caleb himself transitioned from that narrative, which he posits is a “death-negative” narrative, to finding a more open and death-positive narrative. A narrative where our own mortality is not something to be ashamed of, associated with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, but as much a natural and necessary part of life as birth is. As with birth, through death, it is possible to find genuine love and community.

I really enjoyed many of the points he makes in his book. Through watching many grieving families and communities, Caleb has witnessed how a heart broken open by death is able to love those who are different from them. Death is a great equalizer of sorts. Caleb theologizes how the pain, openness, and vulnerability a person experiences in death and grieving is really a form of worship. He asks what kind of a God we really believe in. Is it a God immune to our sufferings, who feels no grief about loss? Is it an immovable, invulnerable God? Are we too, to be stoic and strong in the face of death? Or is God perhaps deeply connected to our sufferings, grieving with us when we are in pain, vulnerable to sorrow? We can choose to believe in either God, but one might find that believing in one of those Gods leads to a more humane existence than the other.

The challenge we must confront is how to allow death to help us live more open-hearted and full lives. No one will escape it, so how will it shape how we live? The grief and mourning we encounter through others’ death can serve to break us open to our own selves and have compassion toward others. We do not have to “get over” grief: there is no timeline for healing. Caleb suggests doing “active remembering” as a way of acknowledging that the ones who have left us physically never really leave the ones they loved.

This book is heavy at times but also surprisingly manageable, considering the subject matter. It feeds the theological mind and the griever alike. I hope it helps all of us mortals approach the lives we have with freedom, love, and compassion.

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Other links:

Confessions on Amazon
Youtube trailer (it’s actually worth watching, I promise!)
Caleb featured on NPR’s WNYC Studios

“Road to Edmond” review

I recently started listening to the Homebrewed Christianity podcast with Tripp Fuller. I have a lot of time on my hands when painting all the rooms in our house, and I like to engage my brain as well as my arm. For an INSFTPJ (that’s Myers-Briggs for being uncertain about many aspects of my personality but definitely being an introvert, and one who likes to think about matters that matter) like myself, it’s a really interesting podcast. He (like me, maybe you) is a post-evangelical/fundamentalist and does a lot of neat interviews with progressive Christians. And he really likes beer. So with those things in common, I find it’s a podcast worth listening to.

I just watched the movie he produced and acted in called “The Road to Edmond,” which I eagerly jumped on when I had the chance through Speakeasy (the group where I get to receive and read books for free as long as I write reviews about them).

Plot summary: Cleo the committed evangelical youth pastor supports a girl in his youth group who comes out to him, instead of telling her she’s a sinner and has to change her ways. He gets in trouble by the church he works at and has to take a 2-week leave. Cleo immediately packs a very small backpack that somehow contains enough clothes and supplies to last him through the two weeks portrayed in the movie and hits the road on his bike. Larry (acted by Tripp) runs over his bike early on in Cleo’s journey, and ends up taking him on a wild cross country trip where Cleo’s beliefs are challenged and deconstructed, and Larry processes things after the death of his dad.

It’s funny and goofy, unbelievable at times (Tripp is actually a pretty good actor, but Cleo’s character could use some work), and also touching. You will laugh, you will roll your eyes, and you might even well up with tears. My husband (never an evangelical but a mainline Christian pastor) and I really enjoyed it. There’s even some excellent plot twists and surprises that make it worth it to get to the end.

If you can find the movie playing anywhere near you, it’s worth seeing. If you can’t find the movie, just listen to some episodes of Homebrewed Christianity. It’s like The Liturgists but a little bit less angsty, and a little more heady (in some episodes). Podcasts have definitely been my friend lately.

If anyone else has seen this movie, leave me a comment. Or just tell me: what are some of your favorite podcasts?

“Credulous” is worth the read

Andrea Lingle – mother, writer, lay theologian – has written the book I hoped to write. (Also that I still hope to write). It is a memoir of faith, filled  with personal stories as well as her own theological ponderings that meander through quantum physics as easily as they do the Bible. She believes in expansive, abundant grace. She has managed to hang on to Christianity in a deep way even through her grief, challenges with the church, and faith deconstruction. My favorite parts of the book were her honest and raw descriptions of being human and a mom, particularly around the tensions between our dreams and ambitions versus how our lives end up looking — but how grace and peace are found even in that. I also enjoyed her creative renditions of gospel stories with Jesus interacting with his disciples. Those well-known stories suddenly leapt off the page for me as she imaginatively described the very human interactions among Jesus, Peter, the people begging him for healing. I was so inspired, actually, that I wrote a separate post about it here.
The book is organized along the lines of a church bulletin, as she dives into a different life or theology area with each section of a church bulletin (anthem, children’s moment, sermon, etc). Even though I sometimes found myself annoyed at the theological meanderings and the occasional far-fetched attempts to tie her thoughts in to the chapter she was supposed to be writing about (perhaps that tendency hits too close to home!), I also couldn’t stop reading the book. It was relatable because it was not perfect. Because of that, I also secretly want to be friends with her and “do life” together. I recommend checking it out yourself – you won’t be disappointed you did!

Find it on Amazon here
Learn about Andrea on her website

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.