Book review: The Abbey

by James Martin, SJ

★★★

Author James Martin aims for a story of spiritual awakening and falls short. A divorced mother grieves the loss of her son, when circumstances contrive to bring her to an old Abbey, housing monks. There she finds solace and inspiration in an image of Mary, mother of Jesus.

Martin writes with humor and believability, but lost me when the plotline turned flat. He teases us with the potential for romance, and again with the mysterious image of Mary, but both tangents lead nowhere. Instead, about halfway through the book, it turns into a teaching opportunity for Martin to introduce us to Jesus.

I believe this book could be comforting to the right reader, but it just simply didn’t resonate with me.

HarperOne, © 2015, 212 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-240186-1

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Book review: Gifts of the Dark Wood

by Eric Elnes

★★★★★

The soul, says Pastor Eric Elnes, has a native buoyancy. Like a rubber ball under water, it yearns to rise. This book is about “finding your place in this world at the very point where you feel furthest from it” … in the Dark Wood.

No one enters the Dark Wood of their own volition. You awaken there, by the nudge of the Holy Spirit. This, by the way, is as close as Elnes will ever get to preaching Christianity in this book. In fact, you’ll find his concept of the Holy Spirit to be respectful of multiple spiritualities (look up Convergence Christianity). There is a realm of Spirit–what Jesus called the Kingdom of God–that intersects our world, or as some say, infuses it. Any religion with no contact with this Holy Spirit is a sham, insists Elnes.

In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, Jesus offers examples of people who find deep blessing in this world. The list is surprising: those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted and slandered and discredited.

The Spirit awakens us in our personal Dark Wood, where we may find unexpected gifts awaiting us. Elnes steers us toward seven gifts that are found only where we feel unsettled. These are the gifts of uncertainty, of emptiness, of being thunderstruck, of getting lost, of temptation, of disappearing, and of misfits.

Inspiring and encouraging, witty and intelligent, this is an easy book to recommend. You can also find Elnes online at Darkwood Brew.

Abingdon Press, © 2015, 189 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4267-9413-1

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Book review: Wearing God

by Lauren F. Winner

★★★★

How we talk about God matters.

When we call God our “friend,” it invites a new perspective. Or take a cue from several Biblical passages and try thinking of God in female terms. Calling God “She” can feel uncomfortable, especially if we have old-fashioned ideas about God, but breaking old molds may help us grow.

Winner’s book is not post-modern. It’s respectful, creative, a bit fanciful (though I’m not sure it means to be). The title, Wearing God, stems from thinking about God as clothing. Huh? Yes, it’s Biblical–this image comes from Galatians 3: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” With further chapters about God as smell, as bread and vine, as a laboring woman, laughter, and as flame, Winner opens our mind to an all-pervading God, one who is in and around us in all things.

Wait, did I say “smell?” Yes … God smells, in both senses of the word. God smells our offerings, and He is himself a fragrance. He gave himself on the cross as a “sweet-smelling savour” (KJV).

I think this is a comforting and appropriate book for Christians of all persuasions.

HarperCollins, © 2015, 286 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-176812-5

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Book review: Charity Detox

by Robert D. Lupton

★★★★★

The author of Toxic Charity is at it again. Lupton insists that most of the work we do in the name of charity does more harm than good. Proclaiming that the only effective charity is the kind that asks more from those being served, rather than less, he lifts capitalism onto a pedestal and incriminates socialism and philanthropy as building dependency rather than affirming that the recipient also has something of value to offer.

Lupton’s arguments are convincing. His focus is primarily on poor communities, and his conclusion is that the best thing you can do for a person is give him or her a good job. Why capitalism? Only for-profit businesses produce enough wealth to create enough jobs to lift a community out of poverty.

Perhaps the worst thing you can do is give a person a handout. Lupton is presumably a Christian, but he’s not a fan of mission trips. They don’t contribute to local economies: mission trippers come to serve, not consume. They spend their money on airfare and projects rather than on merchandise and excursions. They flood local consumers with free goods, naively undercutting local businesses, the very system locals depend on for their livelihood. The research of a friend of Lupton showed that between 1992 and 2006, a half million workers in Nigeria lost their jobs due to the inflow of donated clothing. But perhaps even worse is the effects of repeated “charity”:

Feed a person once, it elicits appreciation.

Feed him twice, it creates anticipation.

Feed him three times, it creates expectation.

Feed him four times, it becomes an entitlement.

Feed him five times, it produces dependency.

So what can we do for the poor? For one, don’t denigrate big business or the drive for wealth. The hope for such communities is investors, business people with the means and knowledge to build jobs, putting the poor on a path to self-fulfillment. Our church missions should be replaced with fact-finding business excursions.

I can’t say I agree with everything in Lupton’s ideology, but he does make me think differently about some things … and he certainly has the lifelong get-your-hands-dirty experience to back up his findings.

Publisher, © 2015, 196 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-230726-2

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Book review: The Tweetable Pope

by Michael J. O’Loughlin

★★★★★

Everybody but the ultra conservative seems taken with today’s Pope. A friend jokingly said that she believes in the second coming now, and this time Jesus is wearing a beanie.

Perhaps the most famous line uttered by Francis is in reply to a reporter who asked him about gay priests. The Pope replied, “who am I to judge?” Wait. The Pope doesn’t judge? No wonder Ted Cruz called for the Vatican to fire him.

It’s not that Pope Francis is thoroughly modern in his thinking. Read, for example, about his view on the Devil. That’s about as old-fashioned as you can get.

It’s that his focus is different. He focuses less on creeds than compassion. And the pattern he upholds for us to follow is Jesus, with the Lord’s care about the marginalized. Society’s margins, says Francis, is the only place where “reality is understood.”

Author O’Loughlin finds the Pope to be a breath of fresh air. He writes that as a young Catholic who’s watched most of his friends and relatives drive away from their faith, he sees hope for the future in Francis.

The Tweetable Pope grants us a peek inside the head of Pope Francis by examining the way he uses the Twitter platform. From gossip to sports to immigration to war, all under the influence of Jesus, you’re invited to dig into these mini-sermons to learn, 140 characters at a time, what makes this man so beloved.

Harper One, © 2015, 248 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-243499-9

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Book review: Life After Death, Powerful Evidence You Will Never Die

by Stephen Hawley Martin

★★★★

Martin presents evidence in this book for consciousness outliving our bodies, and finds the case for reincarnation strong. He points to a cosmic mind as something we all share. He discusses Near Death Experiences, communication with spirits, the unlikelihood of evolution alone accounting for our guided development, and more to back up his arguments.

Most of the evidence presented is case studies. There’s little repeatable experimental research described, but one section of the book was fascinating to me: Martin describes double-blind experiments that show statistically significant results regarding the success of mediums.

Not to sound pedantic, but I don’t think you’ll read much evidence herein that you’ll never die. Martin does provide evidence that your consciousness will live on–at least temporarily–after death, but not that we are eternal beings. At one point a person describes their out-of-body experience as “in a place that is noplace” or “not bound by time and space,” but that that may be the best “evidence” of eternal existence.

I confess that when Martin starting writing about birthmarks, I began to feel like I had entered the twilight zone. He argues that the mind is powerful enough to shape matter, and since our mind lives on after we die, it causes imperfections–birthmarks and even missing limbs–during birth that mimic trauma in a past life. Did you die in your last life by being shot in the head? You may have a birthmark from the bullet wound.

On the other hand, there were a couple passages in the book that were very enlightening. I’ll try, with the author’s permission, to provide excerpts in coming posts.

My opinion about all this? Don’t believe it. But don’t disbelieve, either. Embrace the mystery that exists until further research provides more evidence.

The Oaklea Press, © 2015, 168 pages

ISBN: 9781633186293

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Book review: He Who Wept

by Thom Lemmons

★★★★★

This isn’t a new book–it was given to me by a friend–but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s historical fiction, based on the prophet Jeremiah.

The loneliness of the life of God’s prophets rings loud and clear. Seldom were they popular in their own time; certainly Jeremiah wasn’t. These are the men who spoke fearlessly in the name of God, often against kings and crowds.

He Who Wept accurately captures the politics of the day, centering on the little kingdom of Judah, precariously sandwiched between the dynasties of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. They were a people trying hard to trust in their God … all the while Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” was proclaiming doom, that God was going to let Jerusalem be destroyed.

Jeremiah was right, though he often wished he wasn’t. Don’t expect this to be an uplifting story! If you know your Bible, you know that much of it was written in exile after Jerusalem was sacked. That means the flavor of our Bible largely derives from the horrible events predicted by Jeremiah. I very much recommend this book, not only for the entertainment of a good novel but as a reminder of the atmosphere in which Judaism spawned.

Questar Publishers Inc, © 1990, 318 pages

ISBN: 0-945564-33-3

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Book review: Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story

by Brian Griffith

★★★★★

Jesus blew it. He expected too much. A number of his teachings were simply unworkable, and the church found it necessary to rework them over time.

Jesus thought we should treat women as equals, but we corrected that howler in a hurry. He thought maybe God would forgive all those who forgave others, but we quickly realized God isn’t that forgiving. There are many stipulations to His mercy. Jesus suggested we turn the other cheek, but we Americans fixed that one, too. We amassed the biggest military in history, to make sure we never have to play the pacifist like Jesus.

Jesus’s early followers practiced equality, but everybody in our capitalistic country knows what nonsense that is. That man in the gutter, hoping for a handout? He’s there because he’s too lazy to work.

Most of all, we laughed at the way Jesus practiced compassion. Better to throw divorcees, gays, blacks, Muslims, and especially those bleeding heart Liberals under the evangelistic steamroller. We have a conservative agenda to live up to.

This book is a little–no, maybe a lot–more serious than I’m letting on, but it manages to be as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Exterminating Angel Press, © 2009, 326 pages

ISBN: 978-1-935259-02-2

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Book review: The Allure of Gentleness

by Dallas Willard

★★★★★

This is one of those books that I can only half-agree with, yet earns five stars for its approach and message. More conservative readers will appreciate the book most. Willard considers the work of apologetics as extremely important. “Being mistaken about life, the things of God, and the human soul is a deadly serious matter.” About such things he and I will disagree, yet I still enjoyed the book immensely.

It is, like other effective apologetics books, a “feel-good defense” rather than a rigorous argument. For example, Willard begins many discussions with the assumption of God’s omnipotence. He states that a creator creates for good, therefore the world is good. See the underlying assumption of omnipotence within the argument? But this deduction then lays the foundation for the question of all questions: Why is there evil? Willard spends ample time trying to explain that the suffering we experience is necessary, but the whole thing would become a pointless exercise if we could only divorce ourselves from the assumption of God’s omnipotence.

Willard discusses the role of reason, but recognizes the ineffectiveness of logical proofs. Christian apologetics, he insists, is not an attempt to prove we’re right. Defending the faith is about how you live. Amen, brother Willard! However, I think he errs in asserting that Christianity is the only religion based on love.

Nevertheless, Willard does provide a reasonable argument for the existence of an intelligent creator when he argues that order comes from minds. From there, he suggests that Christian faith makes sense. An important part of the book is devoted to the matter of communication between God and humanity, both on a large scale and as a quiet voice to the individual. Willard realizes its hard to believe in God if you don’t recognize his voice. “God speaks constantly to people, but most of them don’t know what’s happening.” To this end, I found his explanation of how God speaks both simple and eloquent: “The fundamental way God speaks to us is by causing thoughts in our mind that we come to learn have a characteristic quality, content, and spirit about them.”

For the believer trying to solidify their faith, or the unbeliever wondering what the heck is going on in the heads of believers, this is a great book. Gentle apologetics at its best!

Harper One, © 2015, 191 pages

ISBN:978-0-06-211408-2

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Book review: Flipped

by Doug Pagitt

★★★★★

Don’t miss this one. Pagitt has the interesting writing style, fresh Bible interpretations, and anecdotal stories to keep you turning pages while he presents his Progressive Christian outlook. He even throws in a little Einstein as he explains what it means to be the light of the world.

Flipped is about turning everything over and seeing it fresh. Your concept of God will be turned on its head. Here’s a clue: Pagitt’s favorite phrase may come from the book of Acts: “In God we live, move, and exist.”

Pagitt wants to free us from what he calls an If/Then service, or a Transaction System, in which we bargain with God. If we do this, then God will do that. If we believe this, God will provide that. If we can discard the idea of conditional existence in God, then we become free to just be. To live in the moment, to become part of the whole, to see every human being as existing “in God.”

I really enjoyed this book.

Convergent Books, © 2015, 212 pages

ISBN: 978-1-60142-637-6

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Book review: Resurrection City

by Peter Goodwin Heltzel

★★★★

In the book of Revelation, a heavenly city descends to earth, and God takes up residence there to govern the earth in godly justice. This city is a metaphor for the place of God’s presence, a place where God’s resurrection power is fully manifest.

Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of a beloved city was driven by an idealism that another world was genuinely possible. King dreamed of its citizens working together in love to end poverty and war.

Heltzel posits that this dream is indeed possible, in what he calls a Theory of Improvisation. He compares this radical Christian movement to jazz music, with its cooperative improvisation. Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday … can you hear the call? Improvising like a jazz musician, Jesus took the prophetic call to love God and neighbor to a new level. Jesus, too, had a dream: he explained that his mission on earth was the ultimate Jubilee.

Heltzel calls this “Jubilee justice.” He dares us to love like Jesus loves. He walks us through the visions of Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. People who shared the vision of Jesus and strove toward the same goal.

This is an intelligently-written book with a unique niche and a much needed message for today’s Christianity.

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., © 2012, 203 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6759-9

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Book review: The Good Shepherd

by Kenneth E. Bailey

★★★★★

Bailey is a careful researcher whose passion and experience shines through. He spent 40 years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. I have another of his books on my shelf, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, that I’ve skimmed and am dying to find time to read. So, given that the Good Shepherd is a topic of great interest to me, this book was a gold mine. I wish had been able to read this book before writing my own about the Gospel of John, since the Good Shepherd (as well as the bad shepherd) is an integral part of John’s theology.

Bailey starts his analysis back in the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. This Psalm sets the theme for later Old Testament writers, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah, who expound on the shepherd tradition in different ways. I’ll run a comparison of these Old Testament variants on the 23rd Psalm in a later post. The tone is then set for Jesus’s arrival, and all four Gospel writers embrace the image of a shepherd to describe Jesus, particularly in matters of salvation.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was Bailey’s own experience, and the experience of those he met, in tending sheep. How confidence is gained in the sheep, how they must be cared for, how they learn the voice of the shepherd, and more.

This is not light reading–it’s one of those books that you actually have to study to get the full benefit–but I highly recommend making the effort.

InterVarsity Press, © 2014, 288 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8308-4063-2

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Book review: Blood Doctrine

by Christian Piatt

★★★★

Piatt spins two parallel tales: the major story in the twenty-first century, the minor one in the first century. They dovetail by the end of the book. The first story is a page-turner; the second, not so much. As a scholar of first-century Palestinian history, you’d think that would be the portion of the book that would most interest me, but I found it to be rather unnecessary.

That minor complaint aside, the primary tale is captivating! A teenage boy who grew up as an orphan recognizes that he is different, that he seems to possess strange healing powers, but is hesitant to discuss it with others. When a journalist on the trail of an archaeological mystery comes into his life, he learns that his powers are no accident … they stem from the time of Jesus … and that powerful people are watching him closely, anxiously trying to hurry the Second Coming of Christ.

With likeable characters and multiple plot twists, this would seem to appeal best to young adults. But with the pointed subject matter and the first-century side story, perhaps it will find its niche instead among free-thinking adult readers.

Samizdat Creative, © 2014, 183 pages

ISBN: 978-938633-55-3

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Book review: The Pursuit of God

by A. W. Tozer

★★★★

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

This book was given to me by a friend, and I was immediately drawn to the title. I feel like much of my life is a pursuit of God. But the theme wasn’t quite what I expected.

The author assumes that, in our pursuit of God, we have already found him, and discovered him to be a person–a person who thinks, wills, enjoys, feels, loves, desires and suffers like all of us. But having found God, we are in danger of falling into the trap of thinking we need no longer seek him.

Tozer points out that for millions of Christians, God is no more real than he is to the non-Christian. They do not know him personally, but go through life trying to love an ideal. The book reads like a sermon trying to bring us back to Jesus.

So while there were many parts that I could no longer connect with, having outgrown a conservative belief system, it nevertheless appealed to me. It appealed because it put me effortlessly back in a comfort zone. I felt like I was back in church. Tozer’s “sermon” is mesmerizing, hypnotizing, intoxicating, just as good religion should be. Or, if you’re not so fond of church, it will lull you to sleep.

Create Space, © 2013, 76 pages

ISBN: 978-1484076439

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Book review: God Needs Salvation

by Hugh Rock

★★★★★

Hugh Rock wants to save God. It’s time for a new vision of God, but Rock seeks a 21st-century God without throwing out the old one. It is imperative, he insists, that we retain a sympathetic connection with the God of previous generations.

Intelligent and pointed, you’re going to feel suckerpunched somewhere in the first half of the book, as Rock quietly dismantles the House of Christians with their community god, the House of Platonists with their nature god, the Christian Mystics who try to speak Platonism using the language of Christ, and even the Jesusologists who turn the historical Jesus into a Humanist religion. Not even liberal theology, with its call for religious convergence by leaning heavily on panentheism, provides the answer. Rock knows he risks the ire of many by being critical of genuine interfaith motivations, but my own liberal community gets the boot too in this purge.

So what’s left? Rock insists that we are still inherently religious, but does God still exist in today’s secular culture? The answer may lie buried in our own humanity. Those theologians who have moved already in this direction see God not as a metaphysical reality but in the conditions of human relationships. They have discovered that this shift to sociology is possible without abandoning theology, keeping a proper reverence for our religious heritage.

This is a well-researched, thought-provoking book that’s very worthy of the time you’ll invest. While Rock sometimes seems out of touch with the fundamentalistic mindset that still pervades much of America (Rock resides in the UK), he does provide a healthy vision for the future that we can embrace.

Christian Alternative Books, © 2014, 458 pages

ISBN: 978-1-78279-399-1

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Book review: The Divine Magician

by Peter Rollins

★★★★★

Are you courageous enough to subject your belief in God to psychoanalysis? I dare you to open the cover on this one.

In The Divine Magician, Rollins compares the Gospel to a magic trick in which the magician presents an item, makes it disappear, and then makes it reappear. These three steps are called the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige.

100 years or so before Christ, Roman general Pompeius Magnus stepped behind the temple curtain in Jerusalem and was surprised to find “the sanctuary empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.” Religion offers us a sacred object, the fulfillment of every desire, but Rollins invites us to look behind the curtain, exposing its traumatic absence. There is nothing there!

But this is not the end of the journey. We don’t need to be saved by the sacred object but from it. Being freed from religious structure, we are prepared to rebuild in a more positive way, and God reappears.

This book will make you look inward, and that’s not easy. Thankfully, it’s also a fun read.

Howard Books, © 2015, 208 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4516-0904-2

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Book review: Short Stories By Jesus

by Amy-Jill Levine

★★★★★

If this isn’t Levine’s best, it’s close. She writes from a practical, scholarly Jewish perspective, highlighting the world Jesus lived in. In this book she tackles the more controversial parables Jesus spoke, making an effort to put these stories back in their first-century Jewish setting.

Levine appreciates the depth of Jesus’s parables, and she digs deep in her analysis, but still seems content with an ambiguous meaning. She seldom insists on a single interpretation, yet often discards traditional Christian interpretations when they conflict with what she knows about first-century Palestine. In other words, she often finds the strongest meaning in the most straight-forward rendition, and that’s usually the most edgy interpretation, which fits well with what we know of Jesus-the-storyteller.

The lost sheep is a repentant sinner? Naw, Luke got that wrong. The lost sheep is just a lost sheep, a financial setback like the parable of the lost coin. We should try to identify with the obsessive shepherd, not the wandering sheep. Jesus’s meaning may not be crystal clear, but if you’re not looking at the parable from a down-to-earth perspective instead of the Christian meaning that developed later, you’ll surely miss his point.

I really loved this book. Here are the nine parables Levine illuminates:

 

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son

The Good Samaritan

The Kingdom of Heaven Is like Yeast

The Pearl of Great Price

The Mustard Seed

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Laborers in the Vineyard

The Widow and the Judge

The Rich Man and Lazarus

 

Harper One, © 2014, 313 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-156101-6

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Book review: Napkin Notes

by Garth Callaghan

★★★★

It’s the napkin notes guy! Maybe you’ve seen traces of him on the internet, from www.napkinnotesdad.com. Garth has been fighting cancer for years and has been writing encouraging lunch notes on napkins to his daughter for even longer. Well, now he has a book.

I screwed up, waiting until now and then posting a review on Christmas Eve, because this would make a wonderful gift. It’s sentimental, not focusing so much on the notes themselves as the story of a father’s love. It’s a wake-up call to share your feelings with those you care about.

The focus of Garth’s notes is always on his beloved daughter Emma, which at first made me feel a little uncomfortable. Where does Mr. Napkin Notes’ wife fit in? And does the daughter really want all this public attention? But as I read on, I started to relax, since the women in his life seemed okay with the focus. In fact, as Emma grew older she began to write the occasional note back to her father as he fought against cancer. Here’s an example:

An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. So, when life is dragging you back, it means it’s going to launch you into something awesome.

That note was written just this year, and what Emma meant I can’t know for sure, but I have to think this publication is part of the story. It’s not the typical book I review on The Dubious Disciple; Garth is a long-time Catholic who writes a little about how powerful it felt going into surgery knowing that people were praying for him, but that’s about the extent of his religious side. Rather, it’s all about love and connecting with those you love.

And isn’t that life’s purpose?

HarperOne, © 2014, 247 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-236334-2

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Book review: Questioning Your Doubts

by Christina M. H. Powell

★★★★★

Question your doubts, says Powell. An interesting twist, isn’t it? Research on metacognition, the process of thinking about one’s own mental processes, shows that doubting your doubts can lead to more confidence, while second-guessing yourself can lead to immobilization.

Powell, a biomedical research scientist with a PhD in virology from Harvard, hardly sounds like a person who should question anything that passes through her brain. Yet, even with all her learning, she struggles with doubts about God.

Truth is, I struggled a little with her struggle … in the beginning of the book. No, the book isn’t poorly written or unintelligent. That’s far from true. In fact, I’m pretty sure Powell could think circles around me. It’s just that often I couldn’t relate to her examples, and other times I felt like no example was necessary. In discussing our doubts about God, Powell often referenced practical situations from her post-graduate work. She discussed the influence of others, the decision-making process, the role of doubting in producing quality work, and so on. The instruction she gave for the most part seems intuitively obvious, and so the topic remained flat.

But the time came in the book when Powell’s story grew personal. She wrote of her mother’s faith, which Powell concluded was flawed. Her mother felt that denying logic was a measure of the strength of her faith. When faced with cancer, Powell’s mother put her faith in God’s healing power to the exclusion of medical treatment. Her death was inevitable, which then shook Powell’s father’s faith. His faith never recovered and he remained resentful of the teachings which cut his wife’s life short until his own death.

Powell’s story came alive for me in those pages. The research she conducted at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute suddenly carried more meaning; her position of ordained minister with the Assemblies of God carried more clout; and her journey into doubt and how she learned to question her doubts kept me riveted for the second half of the book.

Says Powell, “a world of faith that mocks the advances of science breeds spiritual arrogance and plants the seeds of destruction in the lives of vulnerable people.” Today, her faith remains strong, and she encourages us to build a bridge between faith and reason.

Definitely a book worth reading.

Intervarsity Press, © 2014, 208 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8308-3678-9

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Book review: Glimpsing Heaven

by Judy Bachrach

★★★★★

This is the most comforting book about death I’ve ever read. Oddly, it wasn’t written by a Christian. Bachrach remains an atheist. It’s about near-death experiences, but it has nothing to do with belief. Rather, it’s a study of what “death travelers” report as having experienced.

The thing is, we are better able to study these experiences than ever before, because medicine has advanced so rapidly. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a frequent way of reviving the dead, has become commonplace. More and more people are brought back from the dead, their brains stuffed with memories of what they experienced. We now have tens of thousands of reported cases.

Some common claims include a lucidity of experience even among people with brain damage like Alzheimers, a feeling of deep bliss, and feeling of going home. Speechless communication with other beings is often reported. Traditional Christian teachings are usually contradicted; warnings of eternal damnation or promises of a blessed eternity to the faithful hold no water with those who have been there and back, and most return with no fear of death. A very common word on the lips of survivors when recounting what they experienced is “love,” but this experience has no correlation with religious attendance. It just doesn’t much matter what you believe. It happens to Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. It happens whether you believe in an afterlife or not; whether you believe in God or not. Only two of the people Bachrach researched encountered Jesus in the afterlife, and none met up with the devil.

However, some death travelers do still report a deepening of faith. One person recounted that she discovered she was “perfect, endowed with love,” and later realized that so is everyone else. She had never before understood the passage in the Bible about being created in God’s image, and it finally made sense.

The one thing that I found not comforting about Bachrach’s research is how commonly death experiences cause divorce. People who have experienced death often undergo a radical change in priorities. Selfish desires make way for universal concerns–they feel united and at one with rest of the world–and this new focus is hard for spouses to understand.

But are these experiences “real”? We still don’t know, but the experiencers usually insist they are. Bachrach fairly examines the pros and cons and doesn’t pretend to be an expert, but her bias shows. She believes.

National Geographic Society, © 2014, 249 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4246-1514-8

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