Code Name Verity Reviewed

It’s the worst time of the year. The time when I have to review a fiction book. I don’t even know how to review a fiction book. I read the Code Name Verity at the request of my daughter who says it is her favorite all time book.As I write this, I am even tempted to keep this introductory paragraph so long that I never have to write the actual review. I wonder whether that will work. I doubt too many people will find it compelling. I am running out of things to say. I give up.

I thought it was a good book. I don’t think I”d re-read it as my daughter has, but it was well written and the story line was pretty interesting. The setting is the end of WW2 and you don’t get too far into the book before you appreciate the amount of research the author did about the various aspects of history, culture, and war fighting of the time. I’m always heartened to learn non-fiction while reading fiction. In a wonderful twist, something I learned in the book showed up in an episode of Foyle’s War I watched the next day which had the effect of increasing my opinion of the book.

In terms of style and flow, the author takes an interesting approach by organizing the book into journals written by the two main characters. It’s a clever way to write – having your characters do the writing for you, and I imagine it’s harder to do this than it is to just sit down and write the book like I’m writing this review. Despite the format, the book is still filled with the kind of surprises you would expect to see in a thriller style book and there are plenty of plot lines you don’t actually grasp until the end of the book.

Even though the bulk of the content in the book is about two people’s involvement in the Allied war effort, the book is really about a friendship between Julie and Maddie. Their love for each other transcends their significant differences and I suppose that in and of itself is a heartwarming aspect of the book that would improve our world if modern readers would just believe it.

Since I have made it clear that I have no idea how to review a fiction book, I admit I cheated a little and read the NY Times review of the book. They admitted that saying anything about the plot could ruin the book for the reader. This is something my daughter understood well as she told told me nothing about the book when at the same time enthusiastically explaining why I should read it. The good news for me is that I now have an out to say much more about it. Wonderful how it works out that way.

I would recommend the book for anyone who enjoys spy fiction, especially of the WW2 period. It’s a “girl power” book without being one of those “shove it down your throat” girl power books bathed in pretension that are well hated and ignored by the very people who probably ought to read a few more girl power books.

President Obama’s Best and Worst

At this point it is probably too early to give President Obama a final grade as a US president. To make the list the issue had to be good or bad for a large segment (say 60-70%) of the population, not just his own party or the other party. For example, Democrats nationally have less power and influence after President Obama than they have in my lifetime. Since half of America would put that in the best column and half would put it in the worst, it’s the kind of thing I want to avoid.

Best of Obama

  • He actually did something on healthcare. With the run up to Obamacare, I did a lot of homework on the healthcare system in America. I wrote about it back in August/September 2009 if you are interested. It has lots of pretty sizable holes. While the actual bill that was created and its implementation has been almost universally seen as a disaster (even by Bill Clinton), I have to give him a lot of credit for actually doing something instead of just talking about it. There were a lot of injustices in the old healthcare system and Republicans did nothing about most of them when they had a chance. Had President Obama taken the approach I suggested and isolated specific issues he could have gotten most of what is broken fixed without all the horrible side effects Obamacare brought.
  • Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan. This may be a surprise to some people and maybe it will prove to be a non-issue, but there really are a lot of areas in America that do not have reliable high speed internet access. This is a really big deal to the economic, health, and social futures of these people. Of course you can say if they want internet they should just move to the city, but if everyone did that we’d have no food,fewer vacation spots, and more unemployment. When you think about how those of us with high speed internet use it, and how often we use it, it’s pretty clear what an advantage it is. It’s good that he made spreading high speed internet a priority.
  • Being who he is.  I read many left wing authors like to say that the greatest accomplishment of President Obama was his wonderful personality and being the first black president. I think they are overstating it, but I do think it is important. The fact that something is irrelevant to me (which his skin color is) doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. It could be that I am simply wrong or insensitive or undervaluing something.  important.  I loved reading the story of the time he let a little black boy feel his hair after the boy asked, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” To many Americans, representation matters and it is significant that a man of a very humble background and broken home rose to he highest office in the land.

Worst of Obama

  • Immoral foreign policy. It’s hard to imagine a foreign policy that hurt more people than his did. I’m not saying that he did it on purpose, I just think he came in being successful giving speeches and somehow he thought if you just talked to people nicely they would respond. He seemed unable to see that his action or inaction could have serious unintended consequences and refused to see that some people are just evil. He led Iranian freedom seekers to believe the US would support them and then did nothing, leading the government to imprison many of them. He told Syria that there would be consequences if they used chemical weapons and then did nothing. He attacked Lybia, destabilizing North Africa for no apparent reason. He is the only 8-year president who was at war from the first day to the last. His short sightedness in Iraq was almost as bad as George Bush’s point person there, and his policy there is what gave ISIS a chance to thrive. His misreading of the situations in the Middle East and North Africa greatly contributed to the refugee crisis, which handed the immigration issue to hard core right wingers and brought the world  Brexit and Donald Trump.
  • Hyper partisanship. More than any president before him, President Obama treated those who thought like him as friends and those who disagreed with him as enemies. He treated those with different views as “nothings,” as if they didn’t even exist. I believe that he more than any other one person has brought us to a season of contempt that was addressed in a well written New York Times article. When he did listen to someone with an alternate view, he seemed to do it as a photo op and then immediately ignored anythingo they had to say. Even his token Republican in his administration was fired when he disagreed with the party line. Anyone can argue that others were equally partisan, but the President has the opportunity to change the tone in ways nobody else can, and he simply didn’t do it. He spent eight years wagging his finger in the face of his political opponents saying things like “we won, get over it.” A good article addressing this in more ways can be read here. The unhealthy political climate we have now is due to President Obama more than any other single person.
  • Absence of accountability after scandals.  I have had to laugh at so many of my friends posting things about how President Obama served for eight years without a single scandal.  John Fund covers those well in his Jan 17 article so I will not retype everything we know about Solyndra, Fast and Furious, the Cambridge Police debacle, the Benghazi cover up, IRS targeting, the Black Panther voter intimidation, etc. I will say that President Obama is responsible for allowing each of the perpetrators to face no consequences. When bad behavior is not held accountable it creates more bad behavior because nobody is afraid of getting caught. The fact that Eric Holder could keep his job after Fast and Furious ended up killing U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry is beyond reprehensible.

Receiving the Kingdom like a Child

I was mentioning to someone yesterday that my blog has become a book review site. This is extremely embarrassing for a self-proclaimed non reader so I felt compelled to write a bit about the passage we will be looking at during the Living Stones gathering today, Luke 18:15-17.

In the passage, people are bringing their kids – even infants – to Jesus. The disciples around him seem to think the kiddos are a distraction from important work or something and try to keep them away but Jesus tells them to knock it off. But He doesn’t stop there. He uses the presence of the kids as an object lesson for a couple of really important points about following Him.

First, he says the Kingdom belongs to “such as these.”  The NLT captures the idea when it translates the phrase “For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.” Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom belongs to these actual kids, but to people who resemble them in some way.

He explains it further in his second statement, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Jesus is saying that the only chance to receive a place in His Kingdom is to do it like a child. How does a child receive stuff? I don’t think any of my kids ever was skeptical about a gift. I don’t think any of them ever suspected that when I offered to take them for ice cream that I was secretly going to take them to a trash dump. On Christmas morning not one of them ever pulled out the FBI’s bomb threat checklist to inspect the presents we had prepared for them. They received the gifts with joyful expectation and trust.

This passage is more than that though. When we look at where it is – placed right between the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector and the account of the rich young ruler. Luke wants us to see that part of receiving the Kingdom as a child is that we receive it consciously knowing that there is nothing we did to contribute to it. Unlike the pharisee in Luke 18:11-12 and the rich young ruler in Luke 18:20-21, these little children wanted Jesus knowing they added nothing to the process. Luke paints the picture vividly by telling us even infants were being brought. What did the 9-month old contribute to his encounter with Jesus? Nothing. And that’s one of the big takeaways from Luke’s presentation here. There is nothing the pharisee, the rich young ruler, or anyone else can do to make themselves good enough to deserve the Kingdom of God.

This is great news. It means that no matter how bad someone is, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is greater. Since we contribute nothing to the Kingdom equation, nothing we do can eliminate us. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Apostle Paul who called himself a violent persecutor of the church that hated God. God not only saved him from his sin, but raised him up to write half the New Testament. Why did God do it? Was it to show everyone how good you could be if you just put your mind to it? No, according to Paul. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1:15-16)

The God of the Bible is patient with those who refuse His rule and opens His Kingdom to all those who will put on the humility and empty hands of a little child. If it sounds too good to be true, you need to know that it is really that good.

2017 Reading List

While I did not finish my whole list in 2017, I did read a lot. In addition to all the reading necessary to finish my Master’s degree, I also read several books that were timely based on what was going on at work, home or in the little church I pastor.

For 2017, my goal is similar. I want to read books that I would not have normally picked up. After last year, I am better as seeing some of my blind spots and have chosen some books on my own, but I am grateful to those who recommended books as well. I have not matched up the criteria my friend Buffy gave me with this list, but I’ll post how well I do. Here’s the list…

Dairy Queen Days by Robert Inman – One of the book list resources provided by my friend Buffy suggested you read something based in your city or region. Robert Inman is an author that wrote several books based in Georgia. I’ve never heard of him, but it gets me out of reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. 

Jihad vs. McWorld by Benjamin Barber – Recommended by a freind from our old church. The book tries to explain how the battle between consumerist capitalism and religious and tribal fundamentalism will play out. Given it was written in 1995, we’ll already be able to see whether he was right.

Prepared for a Purpose  by Antoinette Tuff – I saw this book at a discount store and thought that since it was something that happened in my area that I had never heard of it could be useful to read. It also meets the criteria of being written by a woman, someone of a different race, a book by someone who isn’t a writer (sort of an oxymoron, but she’s apparently a school clerk for her day job), and a journal/memoir.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing – I’d read a business book that tried to squeeze principles of Shackleton’s expedition into how I should run a department and it was entertaining enough. This one was recommended by a friend and I given a colleague of mine just went on an Antarctica expedition a it should give me something to talk with her about also.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – The same friend who posted the criteria for choosing a book list recommended this one, so if I fail it will be pretty much her fault. (evil grin) Based on the way she talked about it I can’t wait.

One Second After by William R. Forstchen – The forward for this book was written by Newt Gingrich which might be the first time Newt has been forward thinking since the Contract With America in 1995. A buddy from grade school that reconnected with me on Facebook a few years ago recommended it so it should give us something to talk about besides whether Mrs. Colosimo’s nose was real or not.

God & Churchill: How the Great Leader’s Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours by by Jonathan Sandys – Not sure I will get to this book this year given the backlog from last year. Churchill has always been an incredibly important historical figure to me but I have never read anything on him longer than article length.


Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Redesign) by John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, Justin Taylor
 – This book is a compilation of three of Owen’s works. I love Owen in small bites, but picking up one large book of his work is not something I would have ever done without some prodding. At 464 pages, it doesn’t quite get to the need for a 500 page book but it will certainly tax me and meets the need for a 100 year old book. I’m thinking I may even give myself credit for a book translated from another language given the need for Kapic and Taylor to basically translate the old English to modern language.The One Year Chronological Bible NLT  by Tyndale – A friend of mine who pastors a large church uses the NLT with his congregation. It is not a great translation in terms of accuracy but it is super easy to read and it meets my purpose for reading the Bible chronologically from time to time. I like to see the flow of God’s movement so an easy to read version will help me focus on that rather than what the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek idioms mean.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – This is Lydia’s favorite book or something like that and she said she’d disown me if I didn’t read it.

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith – One of the things I say most often in pastoral counseling is “100% of the people, 100% of the time, chase what they love most.” This book came highly recommended by people who are highly recommended so I thought it would help me articulate my frequent saying better.

The Count Of Monte Cristo (Unabridged) by Alexandre Dumas – I needed a book that has been made into a movie, and Kristen gave the the choice of this or Pride and Prejudice. It was not a hard decision.

I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters by Bayard Rustin and Michael G. Long – One of my goals in recent years has been to read more from people who are really different than me. Sometimes this helps me see things differently, sometimes it helps me refine my own view, and always it helps me be more compassionate toward those with very different views. Rustin was a black, one time communist, gay civil rights leader who died in 1987. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino – This book involves a case of mistaken identity where someone incarcerated and then freed on DNA evidence from the Innocence Project reconciles with his accuser and then they both work to right this kind of injustice. Hoping it gives me some additional insight into what it looks like to be on the short end of a justice system that can fail us at times.

Books from last year that I am carrying over to 2017…

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – suggested by two very different people so I am eagerly anticipating it although I know nothing about it.

Side by Side by Ed Welch – Author was a seminary prof but his class was on the totally opposite end of the counseling spectrum and he always struck me more as a deep thinker than church body life master so I’m interested to see what he has to say.

Trinity by Leon Uris – Another big thick book of unknown content and style highly recommended by someone I respect a lot who is coming off a major life adventure himself. I figure if someone who’s just had their horizons broadened recommends it, I ought to take that recommendation seriously.

Fools Talk by Os Guinness – I’ve never read anything by Guinness before but I am consistently reminding myself how much I need to focus on being more winsome in presenting Jesus Christ as the supremely beautiful savior and I’m hoping this helps me.

The Reformers and their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin – A good friend told me years ago to read the book and he’s never gotten one wrong yet. I’m interested to see how much of the Reformation is really being embraced today.

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren – Certainly not something I’d normally pick. One of the ironic things to me about watching Bernie Sanders is that he’s actually right about many of the problems but has some kind of disconnect in the solution (IMHO). I’m hoping this will both open my eyes to areas where maybe I am blind and also help me understand people on the left side of the political spectrum a little better.

Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren – Basically the same as the Max Lucado book. I feel like I might be the only person in the western Christian church who hasn’t already read this book. From the snippets that I have read and what I already know about Warren, I’m assuming I’m not going to like it but I think it’s important to see what Christians (broadly defined) are reading.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo – This was the #1 adult book sold on Amazon.com in 2015  and so it may make some sense to see what it says and to see what it says about our culture that so many copies were sold on this topic.

Outlive Your Life – Max Lucado

I have been delaying this review longer than I should because in all candor I did not want to write it. The book was disappointing in so many ways and while it was not totally without merit, I can think of a dozen or more books that would accomplish the goal of this one better, with more insight, and at a higher level of truth content.

I will say that Lucado has a very easy to read writing style. I added this book to my list in 2016 because I wanted to see what made his work so popular in Christian circles. Undoubtedly, his writing style is one reason. I also have to commend a clever use of word pictures and illustrations to get his point across. The book has more horse sense (“If we wait until everything is perfect, we’ll never issue and invitation.”) than it does actual biblical admonitions.

That’s pretty much all I can say that is positive. Perhaps the worst thing I can say, and I don’t mean it in any way other than a comparison of the books I reviewed this year, is that it reminded me a lot of  Joel Osteen. Of course the book is not as theologically bankrupt as Osteen’s was, but it is very similar in the way it relied on illustrations and stories to make points that may or may not be in the Bible. It seemed like Lucado’s chief goal was readability rather than fidelity to the truth. On one hand, readability is really important when communicating truth because if people put the book down after 10 pages the truth never gets out. On the other hand, if the way you keep people reading is by being clever, they’re never going to see Jesus.

One of the most troubling aspects of the book is the way Lucado just starts making stuff up about Bible stories without ever differentiating what is his imagination and what is in the actual text. He makes up facts that potentially change the meaning of the Scripture about Annas, Peter, Philip, Ananias/Sapphria, and others. It’s actually scary to think he’s so comfortable representing his musings about what happened as authoritative. I’m not saying we should never use our imagination – we’ve dedicated our Friday evening evangelistic study to that very thing – but we’re just so much more careful about stating what is God’s Word and what is us filling in the blanks.

Another disappointment from the book was how many different translations Lucado used throughout (eight in total). It seemed like he already knew what he wanted to say and just went looking for verses to back it up in whatever version made that easiest for him. Certainly sometimes there are nuances that our preferred version do not catch well, but it just strikes me as more honest to say that outright and take a sentence or two to explain it. Bouncing around between versions is at least lazy and potentially intellectually dishonest.

The book was not without any merit. The chapter on hospitality was pretty good. Some of the stories were helpful to illustrate rather than usurp a biblical point. In the end I simply cannot recommend it. If you are interested in a book that will help you think about what it would look like to invest your life in such a way that your impact lives on after you I would recommend John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (free PDF available), Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, or Dave Harvey’s Rescuing Ambition. Another idea would be to read a biography of someone who left a legacy after he or she died such as John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken or Fox’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe.

Gaining by Losing by J.D. Greear reviewed

I mentioned at the beginning of the year that this book made my 2016 list because I knew I would disagree with the author on all sorts of issues around body life in a church but admired what I saw as a commitment toward church planting. The book confirmed both of those notions.

I think the book’s basic strength is that it’s written by someone who believes enormous churches where you cannot possibly know the people around you are a good thing. That’s because those churches, if they saw the issue of sending properly, have the most immediate opportunity to impact the landscape of Christianity in America. In one chapter, Greear explains that it’s wonderful to both be attractional (meaning to try to draw people into church gatherings for evangelism) and missional (meaning we need to go to non-Christians and proclaim the gospel to them in ways that are adapted to their language, background, and culture. The way he explains it is useful and a helpful bridge to people who still think inviting people to church is an effective evangelistic technique (which it almost never is now and will be even less so in the future).

One of the first things that hits you in the book is J.D.’s humility in admitting that he did not start off with the mentality and philosophy of ministry he promotes in the book. In several places in the book he comes back to where he had to make substantial course corrections and repent of sinful or bad motivations in order to get to where they are now.

His overarching point, made on page 19 and then throughout the book, is that since the God of the Bible is a sending, or missionary God, His followers should be as committed to it as He is. That has to include more than just writing a check to someone living 3000 miles away, it has to be a lifestyle. He effectively draws the comparison of the church as an aircraft carrier that equips the war planes then sends them out for battle as opposed to a cruise liner built for the comfort of its passengers or a battleship that does it’s fighting in limited amounts of big bangs (p 27-29). The idea culminates a few chapters later when he writes:

When the church begins to operate with the assumption that everyone is called, our approach to mobilization will shift dramatically. We won’t limit our mission engagement to a bulletin board in the lobby with images of people serving in New Guinea that church members should pray for, as important as that is. We will see every  member of our church as a potential missionary to be equipped and mobilized. Our goal is not to send some, or even our best, but to send all into the mission – to our city, across the country, or to the other side of the world.

Even though he is a “big church” guy whose Facebook page looks like a rock concert, in the book he does warn big churches trying to be attractional that many times they can “substitute the gathering power of entertainment for the transforming power of the cross.” It’s a helpful warning to those trying to walk the line J.D. is walking and while I bet he and I would see the line at very different places, I’m glad to see that someone who claims to pastor 6,000 people believes there is a line at all.

The chapter on racial reconciliation was useful mostly because it didn’t just repeat the same drivel that is spouted from many church leaders today. He actually talked a little about what it would take for the church to truly be reconciled across racial lines. I think he overplayed the hand that God expects us to primarily reach unbelievers who are a lot like us, but overall it was well done. One quote in particular was worth sharing.

“Multicultural engagement within your city, like international missions, is something that all believers are expected to participate in, but that God moves certain believers to pursue with focused intentionality. The apostle Paul was in that category. Some of us (under the leadership of the Spirit) need to make this cause our cause. After all, it makes no sense to send people 10,000 miles across the globe to reach people of other cultures when we won’t send people ten miles across our own city to reach people in different neighborhoods. Why would we cross the seas but not the tracks?” (p172)

The flow of the book seemed a little choppy to me, mostly because he “chapterized” the core principles that they emphasize at his church. I’m sure it fits their mostly white, suburban, middle class, enormous church but a lot of it didn’t really fit my world at all and a lot of his talking points wouldn’t make much sense to the mission field God has given us. That’s okay because we have our own core principles but in some ways it interfered with the value of the book for me. Still, as I reviewed my kindle version I noticed at least one highlight in each chapter although there seemed to me more highlighting early on.

By the end of the book I was convinced J.D. was someone who really loved Jesus and wanted to see the knowledge of His glory cover Raleigh Durham like the waters cover the sea. I was also convinced I wouldn’t last more than a month at his church. The book is a worthwhile read for anyone looking for examples of the kind of culture necessary to be a church that is really focused on the Great Commission. It’s a fairly easy read for a 250 page book and most readers could complete it without any problems.

2016 Reading Results

Well, I didn’t get as much of my reading list completed as I had hoped for. A few unexpected books had to be read and my Master’s thesis took a little more out of me at the first part of the year than I expected. There is only so much reading my non reader brain can handle. My original list with the rationale is here 2016 Reading List, which focused on things I would not normally pick up and the recommendations of friends. I posted reviews of many of the books I read on this site. I will repeat this approach in 2017. Here are the top five books and why:

Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley – Wonderfully written book that challenges both right wing and left wing assumptions about what makes for a good education system. Turns out something like common core is important and per pupil spending is not. Very easy to read and I really appreciate how the author, who admits to being left of center, challenged so many of the bedrock principles of the NEA.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – I suppose it’s not surprising that I liked this book as much as I did given millions of other people did too. I finished it faster than any book its length in my life and still cannot get over how much this book displays the outrageous goodness of God to Louie in so many different circumstances. The movie was good and captured many things brilliantly, but missed the core point Louie would want made, namely the lovingkindness of Jesus to love him so patiently so long.

Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose – I would not have supposed that a book on the people who built the transcontinental railroad would have been as compelling as it was. Ambrose did a masterful job of presenting these real life characters and introducing me to Theodore Judah. My next pet, even if it is a rock, will be named Judah.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – I don’t really read fiction that much because normally I think the truth is funnier, but this was a good recommendation and after the first 200 pages or so it really picked up. The book is massive, so finishing it at all was almost as much of an accomplishment as learning to enjoy fiction for what it is.

Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send by J.D. Greear – This book gets an honorable mention simply because I wish more leaders in evangelical churches would read it. I have too many friends in too many churches that live as if the only way to “win” is to grow the number of people attending each weekend when J.D. makes a case that winning only happens when disciples are made and the New Testament pattern seems to be a distributed model where Christians spread out rather than cluster together in little like-minded bubbles.