Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

Take a country who rejoices in the birth of a boy and buries one’s face like at a funeral at the birth of a baby girl and you have Afghanistan.  Journalist Jenny Nordberg treads the path of the streets of Afghanistan in search of a common activity in the country, namely bacha posh.  This action taken by many families amounts to treating a young girl like she was a boy all the way until puberty.  She dresses like a boy, eats like a boy, and even carries herself and all her mannerisms like a boy.  What seems like a terrible and frightful thing is in fact, in some circumstances, a way of shielding one’s children from harm.

In the begging we meet Azita, whose fourth daughter Mehran, is turned into a boy.  Azita is very well to do parliamentarian in Afghanistan with a solid education behind her.  Early on, Azita says, “They gossip about my family.  When you have no sons; it is a big missing, and everyone feels sad for you” (13).  We also meet Dr. Fareiba, who helps women with their pregnancy from far and wide in Afghanistan.  Nordberg writes as she witnesses the work of Dr. Fareiba, “A total of four or five children is perfectly acceptable to most parents in Afghanistan – but only if that number includes mostly boys.  The life expectancy of a woman here is forty-four years, and she spends much of it being pregnant.  Most couples know how to limit pregnancies if they want to, but the pressure to have another son often overrides any concern for a woman’s survival” (42).  Then we meet Zahra, for “She knows her power is in the exterior, and her walk successfully signals that she is a typical teenage boy with some attitude” (98).  Yet, Nordberg mentions that the Taliban explicitly forbade women wearing men’s clothing but this didn’t stop them from treating women poorly. 

It is hard to imagine a culture in which God’s good creation, women, are spitefully spit on and seen as none other than refuse.  Yet, the reporting of Nordberg helps us unenlightened Westerners a glimpse into the world of Afghanistan.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Crown Publishers for the copy of this book in exchange for an hones review.

Post-Christian: What’s Left, Can We Fix It, Do We Care? By Christian Piatt

Challenging traditional orthodoxy and the viability of the church, Christian Piatt brings a message of hope to his readers in his new book, Post-Christian.  I had a quite visceral and painful reaction to the book after I first read through its contents, but after going back through its pages, I appreciate much Christian has to say in the book.  The main thrust of Christian’s argument will certainly ‘piss you off’ but it also is supposed to bring ‘hope, love, and inspiration,’ not forcing our hand to go to church but causing us to lead lives of importance in following after Jesus.

Christian raises some very provocative and telling questions in the first chapter entitled The Gospel According to Kerouac.  After spending some time critiquing how our society is ever so hungry for meaning and tries to avoid loneliness through technology, he writes, “For decades, evangelists in our culture have sold Jesus as the solution to this hunger, and that by accepting him into our hearts, we will no longer experience such longing.  But this is a false message.  Truly, fully embracing the teaching and values of Jesus at the core of our lives causes us to be perpetually restless; discontent with things as they are” (23).  Hungering for meaning, for a life worth living is not the problem, it is the way we deal with our restlessness that is the issue at hand.  Maintaining our churches for the sake of promoting the way we’ve always done things eliminates the radical call of kingdom living.  Gospel living is risky because we know that ‘God’s spirit is wild, chaotic, and even a little bit dangerous’ (25).

In the chapters 3 and 4, Christian goes after the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, election and propositional truth.  In speaking about God’s sovereignty, Christian writes, “Any number of natural disasters are attributed to the wrath of God, and in most cases, the ones suffering the brunt of that divine judgment happen to be the same ones particular Christians who maintain this image of God condemn as falling short of God’s expectations” (34).  Now, there were a few Christian media personalities who blame these disasters on God’s wrath and sin of humanity, but this is not the normal reasoning people in the pews give for these awful events.  Furthermore, fully believing and living out trust in God’s sovereignty should be the impetus for humility, because many events in our world are beyond our control or interpretation.  Lastly, Christian has a big tendency to point out the worst examples of people in conservative Christian circles and stretch those examples to include others (Jerry Falwell example on pg. 35).

By far the best chapter in the book was the one entitled Carrying Each Other.  Christian, in his study of Brene Brown’s work points out that, “And if Brene Brown is right, the greatest act of courage that Christians can model – both as individuals and as larger institutions – is to be profoundly vulnerable, despite the risks” (159).  The challenge to not just share what you believe but how you live is hugely important.  More than this, being open to share doubts, hopes, frustrations, and dreams goes a long way in producing healthy communities of faith.  My only pushback on this point is that there must be room in these conversations for people to acknowledge people’s experiences without agreeing that these feelings, beliefs, and experiences are always good and true. 

Overall, the book had some good insights about how to include people of all walks of life into a vision for living out faith in Jesus.  I didn’t agree with much of the book by way of its lack of orthodoxy but I appreciated the way Christian was able to push people out of complacency toward a life of mercy.

Thanks to Jericho Books and Evangelicals for Social Action for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Our Great Big American God

Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner

Loading our ice cream cones with such flavors as politics, race, hope, hell, and revival , the way people speak about God varies depending on their perspective.  Matthew Paul Turner, in his new book Our Great Big American God, develops this theme as he traces the way ‘God’s American people,’ including the big players of the faith, portray God in light of their own aims.  Turner writes in the prologue, “Because most of us believe, regardless of what we’ve piled atop our two scoops of God, that he – our American God – is good… This is not only a book about God, it is also about God’s people, more specifically, God’s American people” (9).  With witty portrayals of such people as Phoebe Palmer and George Whitefield, sarcasm, and leaning on some excellent scholarship by such people as George Marsden, Turner makes his case that God doesn’t stagnate with the old dusty pages of the past but is ever moving, ever affecting America’s people.

Bringing God into the New World in 1630 wasn’t an easy task, even for elected governor of Massachusetts Bay Company, John Winthrop.  Yet, as Turner indicates, “God wanted him to play the role of white European Moses and lead God’s people out of the Old World” (14).  The Puritan enterprise was solidly Calvinistic in their theology but wholly bent on claiming the new land for theirselves.  Weaving Israel’s story into theirs, Reverend John Cotton ‘stood with his Puritan brothers and sisters at the edge of the Jordan River and they had witnessed together their first sight of the Promised Americaland” (19).  Turner goes onto make a very telling comment concerning Cotton’s leading of the Puritans into New England, he writes, “The truth of Cotton’s words didn’t matter.  People believed they were true.  Belief, under the right conditions, almost always trumps truth.  And sometimes belief can manifest its own truth” (21).  The divine destiny of fleeing the gross misinterpretation of God by English churches was enough to set the people sailing to the New World. 

Turner captures the uneasy and unsettling nature of some of evangelicalism’s first preachers.  Revivalist, preacher, salesman, preacher of the gospel, and bringer of God’s Word to the masses outside of church, George Whitefield imbibed both the experiential aspects of faith (mystic aspects) but also a strong strand of Calvinist theology.  Yet, Whitefield was not so easily received among those who rejected his New Birth teaching, turning to tossing dead animals carcasses and tomatoes at him (74).  Adding to this uneasiness about preaching, faith and national freedom, ‘a growing number of  those same Christians had become vocal opponents of the state’s enforcing one particular Christian orthodoxy over another’ (79).  Outlining the avowed efforts of Jefferson and Patrick Henry for the freedom of religious expression, Turner makes the remark that there has always been a razor thin line between nationalistic tendencies and what is considered divine (88).  Yet, the colonies bolstered by the work of Jefferson managed to make religious liberty a freedom sought by the individual. 

In the rest of the book, Turner captures the American spirit by bringing out the ministries of Phoebe Palmer, the early Methodist preachers such as Peter Cartwright, and the ministry of D.L.  Moody, and the dispensationalism of Scofield and Darby.  Turner is perceptive in bringing out the fact that Moody was as much concerned with the organization and financial state of the revivals he held as he was the spiritual lessons he taught.  He also brings out the popular character of Methodist converters because of the individual nature of their spirituality and the interest in bringing faith to the masses. 

Yet, I think also that Turner is prone to mischaracterizations throughout the book.  He posits correctly that John Wesley was in adamant opposition to the predestination of such preachers such as Whitefield, but fails to mention that Wesley’s theology of justification and redemption was just a hair’s breadth away from Calvin’s.  They agreed in much of what taught, differed in a  few major lines of theological inquiry.  Secondly, Turner says this about Calvin, “Calvin developed a new spin on God, a spiritual thinking about faith, sin, and Christianity that emphasized the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, predestination, and limited atonement, and the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures” (16).  All these points are true but they are lacking in elaboration because a major significant part of Calvin’s work, especially all over the pages of the Institutes is his view on the power of the Holy Spirit.  Further, although Calvin did make arguments in favor of limited atonement, this was not one of his central and significant tenets in his writings.

With wit and history at his side, Matthew Turner puts out a work in describing God and the American people that is both amusing and illuminating.  I know you will find some things to agree with, disagree with, and ultimately to learn how God has shown up in the mess of countless people who followed him throughout the ages.

Thanks to Jericho Books and PRISM( Evangelicals for Social Action) for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.