Category Archives: Christianity

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey

About Time I Read It: Seminary Boy by John Cornwell

A million years ago (OK, maybe not THAT long ago although it kinda feels like it) I read a memoir entitled Seminary: A Search in which the author Paul Hendrickson recalled the years his spent as a seminarian, following with a short stint as a Catholic priest and eventually his departure from the priesthood. Perhaps because I was an impressionable young man when I read Seminary: A Search it remains one of my favorite memoirs to this day. With that in mind, I found it hard to resist John Cornwell’s 2006 memoir Seminary Boy when I spotted a copy at my public library. As I took it to the check-out desk I wondered if I’d enjoy  Cornwell’s memoir as much as I did Hendrickson’s.

Growing up in England in the 1950s John Cornwell had a pretty rough childhood. Raised Catholic, his family was poor, his mom was abusive and ne’er-do-well father was never around. After being sexually abused by a random stranger, young John retreated inwardly to the religion of his upbringing. At the tender age of 13 he entered Cotton College, a junior seminary for teen boys desiring to enter the priesthood. Overwhelmed and struggling to keep up academically Cornwell chafed under the College’s strict monastic regimen. Making all of this worse, he and his fellow young seminarians had to navigate the potential relationship risks and pitfalls that frequently materialize when groups of young males and their elders are sequestered together while being told to avoid any “special friendships” with each other. Fortunately, one of the more avuncular and intellectual of the priests took Cornwell under his wing, exposing him to a wider world of high culture and sophisticated ideas. Unfortunately though in the end, as Norah Vincent wrote in her 2006 New York Times review of Seminary Boy “[t]here is nothing surprising or enlightening here — just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery.”

Looking back, I thought Seminary Boy was OK, but nothing exceptional. Because so much time has elapsed it seems unfair to measure it against Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search so I won’t. And it certainly won’t stop me from reading other seminary memoirs in the future.

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Filed under Christianity, History, Memoir

About Time I Read It: How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan

For years I’ve a had soft spot for Reza Aslan, ever since I read his 2005 book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Five years ago I read another of his books Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and while I didn’t enjoy it much as No God but God nevertheless I found it satisfying and thought-provoking. Not counting his recently published God: A Human History there was one more of his books out there I’d yet to read.  His 2009 book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror had eluded me for close to a decade. That is until I spotted a copy on the shelf at the library and decided to give it a try.

Aslan’s argues in How to Win a Cosmic War (when released in paperback the next year it was retitled Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization) that Jihadist groups, when attacking Western targets and other perceived enemies are not fighting a holy war but instead a cosmic war, one that’s like “a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” With no distinctions between sacred and profane or secular and spiritual the goals aren’t material like the conquest of territory or control of scarce resources. One could think of it as an earthy reflection of a greater metaphysical struggle, and with no middle ground or neutral parties making it Manichean in nature. (Which also makes negotiation impossible.) Like a verse lifted from the Lord’s Prayer, these holy warriors are killing and dying for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

How then should Western nations like America successfully respond to groups like these? According to Aslan, it’s not by using terms like “crusade” or religiously charged rhetoric since this just validates their cosmic world view. The best solution Aslan recommends is to encourage democratic reforms in Islamic world. “Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished.”

Understandably, since How to Win a Cosmic War was published almost a decade ago it doesn’t feel fresh. But that’s OK. Aslan writes well and makes many a compelling point. If nothing else, his book, no matter when it was published provides greater depth and commentary to the ongoing conflict between armed Islamic groups and the West.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Banished by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

I’m sure all of you know by now I have a huge fondness for memoirs from authors who’ve left their religious communities, whether they be Catholic, Protestant evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jewish. (A good friend of mine pointed out just this morning it’s interesting with few exceptions they’re all by women. Why this is the case might make for a fascination future discussion.) I just can’t get enough of these kind of books and whenever I come across one at the public library it’s hard for me to pass them up. One such memoir I would see on the shelves was Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer. A few years back I borrowed a copy only to return it before I’d had a chance to begin reading it. However, it was always on my list to read someday, I just couldn’t exactly decide when that’d be. For whatever reason, last week I decided to download an e-book version through my public library. I’m pleased to say I burned through Banished in no time. And whenever that happens it’s never a bad thing.

I guess like anyone who’s been following the news for a while I already knew a few things about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) prior to reading Drain’s 2013 memoir. They’re rabidly homophobic, infamously known for picketing funerals, especially those for fallen servicemen, loudly proclaiming God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. WBC isn’t affiliated with any particular Baptist denomination, or for that matter any other church. Instead it’s a cult almost entirely populated by the Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas.

I learned from Banished even though the WBC acts like a bunch of hateful crazies, they ain’t stupid. For years the Phelps family has driven its children to perform academically. Instead of being homeschooled like in many ultra-religious households, the Phelps children attend public school where academically they outpace their non-coreligionists in all subjects. Drilled by their parents and mentors in the importance of closely following current events, as well as speaking confidently and with authority, the Phelps teens not only earn the grudging respect of teacher and student alike, their ability to answer tough questions and deftly handle counter-protesters make them an army of capable public relations officials. 11 out the 13 children of the late WBC founder Fred Phelps are attorneys, providing the cult with its own law firm, a handy thing if you’re partaking in unpopular civil disobedience on a grand scale. One of the Phelps is even a published author of several college textbooks. Lastly, far from being clan of backwoods technological Luddites the WBC boasts a content-rich website and actively engages in email correspondence, even with its strongest detractors.

Just how Lauren Drain got mixed up with the strange group is almost an unbelievable story in itself. It all began when her father, a secular-minded, rock and roll playing atheist and aspiring film-maker flew to Topeka to make a documentary about the WBC. After doing extensive interviews and filming their protests, he found himself admiring the cult. Before long he was acting like a misogynistic religious zealot, eventually forcing Lauren, her mom and young sister to move cross-country to take up residence in one of the WBC’s rental homes. (With few exceptions the WBC members live on the same street near the church building, in essence a kind of religious compound.) Despite this all of this, Lauren embraced the WBC, its theology and odd sense of mission. But no matter how deep she believed or how strongly she protested at venues across the nation, after the better part of a decade she was cast out of both the WBC and her own family.

Once again, this is yet another book that exceeded my modest expectations. The writing duo of Drain and Pulitzer has produced an excellent memoir that easily holds its own when compared to other fine memoirs by those who’ve left their long-time faith.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir

About Time I Read It: Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross

For years whenever I’d haunt the shelfs at my local public library I’d seen Carlene Cross’ 2006 memoir Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith sitting on the shelf, but never borrowed it despite how promising it looked. Finally, one day at the library my curiosity got the better of me. While grabbing books right and left I added hers to the growing stack of books clutched in my arms and headed to the check-out desk. It was a wise move because Fleeing Fundamentalism is an outstanding memoir.

In her 2006 memoir, she recalls her life beginning with her childhood in rural Montana, college days at an unaccredited Bible college, an evangelical minister’s wife, implosion of her troubled marriage, successful attempts to obtain a degree from a bona fide university while raising a household of young children, and finally her departure from the evangelical fold.

As a former evangelical myself, much of what she wrote resonated with me. Just like me, she wasn’t raised in a fundamentalist Christian household but embraced the faith as a young child one summer in a Vacation Bible School (VBS). (On one hand one wonders if it’s ethical for religious groups to proselytize among children. On the other hand, as a civil liberation I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the state prohibiting groups from doing so.) Later, as a young adult just like Cross I also experienced the religious zeal exhibited by many youthful converts. (Besides attending Bible college in Montana, she also spent a summer in Europe ministering to her co-religionists behind the then Iron Curtain.) Finally, perhaps more than anything it was our college experiences, academic and otherwise that were instrumental in guiding us away from evangelical Christianity.

Like so many other lives, one wonders to what degree a fateful decision here or there would have profoundly changed her life, For example, had she not attended VBS one summer, would she still have embraced fundamentalist Christianity? If she did not date and later marry her boyfriend from Bible college, would she have married a stable, loving yet Christian man instead of the troubled, self-destructive one who years later she needed to divorce and prompting her to obtain a quality education in order to support her family?

Fleeing Fundamentalism is more than one of those “I left the faith” books I’m so fond of reading. She’s a superb writer and once I started her memoir I couldn’t put it down. Just like the subject of my previous post Devil’s Game, Fleeing Fundamentalism is a surprisingly good book, so good it could end up making my year-end Best Nonfiction list. Therefore, I can recommend this fine memoir without hesitation.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Memoir

Books About Books: God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson

For well over a decade the paperback edition of Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible sat ignored in my personal library. Don’t get me wrong, I’d always intended to read it but with so many other books available to me through libraries both public and personal it just never happened. Then one day I realized I could read God’s Secretaries for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge because Nicolson’s 2003 book deals with England, specifically that nation’s attempt to produce what we Americans commonly refer to the King James Bible. So, after all those years I finally cracked it open and began reading it. And I’m glad I did, for God’s Secretaries is an impressive book that’s both intelligently written and well-researched.

With unbridgeable chasms between rich and poor, aristocracy and peasantry, Jacobean England was a dived realm. Religiously, the kingdom was far from unified as Calvinist reformers battled their high church brethren for control of the Anglican Church. English Catholics were seen by those in power as theologically and morally corrupt as well as agents of England’s enemies. Anglican clergy shuddered as dissenting Protestant sects offered viable alternatives to the dominant Church of England. Faced with these challenges, men of faith and power believed it was time for a new English translation of the Bible, one that was perfect and majestic enough for all of England to call its own and thus heal the country’s deep religious wounds.

God’s Secretaries is one of those rare books that wasn’t exactly what I thought it was but nevertheless still enjoyed. That’s because it’s much more than I expected. Yes, as advertised it shows the process of how the King James Bible was created. But it’s more about that moment in human history from which such a treasure of the English language heroically emerged, from the larger than life personalities of the assembled translators (darn near each one an intellectual giant) to the Gunpowder Plot to plague outbreaks and royal intrigue.

God’s Secretaries is an outstanding book and easily one of the best I’ve read this year. As you can probably guess I have no problem recommending it.

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, History