Another Book Review Roundup

Some more short takes on four books I’ve read recently:

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, Lisa Damour. I really appreciate Dr. Damour’s books about teenage girls. In Untangled, she does a great job of helping the reader to understand the critical steps an adolescent girl needs to take as she heads toward adulthood, as well as give parents tools to both understand what is happening and how to help guide that process. She gives great advice, challenges readers to help guide young women to confidence and assertiveness, and helps navigate healthy approaches to processing emotions. One thing that jumped out at me as a parent of four adolescent boys was the concept of externalization; “a technical term describing how teenagers sometimes manage their feelings by getting their parents to have their feelings instead.” (p.85) In other words, it’s too overwhelming to feel the frustration, fear, or anger in a situation so they let their parents feel it instead – something I recognize in hindsight happening all the time with my teens and other teens! Definitely a good book for anyone parenting adolescent girls or working with adolescent girls. Strongly recommend!

How (NOT) to Read the Bible: Making Sense of the Anti-Women, Anti-Science, Pro-Violence, Pro-Slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture, Dan Kimball. Spoiler alert: I will be recommending this book this summer to those who attend our Summer Series class on the Bible called “The Book.” Kimball did a great job creating a solid resource for Christians on understanding the Bible, how we got it, the different cultural and contextual impacts in understanding it, and how to read it in our modern culture. I don’t land in the same place as he does in every question he tackles, but the areas where I would take a different approach are ones where we can still be in unity in our pursuit of God despite our different interpretations. It’s a great introduction to many of the topics that confuse or frustrate readers of the Bible. His writing style makes it readable for adults and teens. Definitely worth checking out!

The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr. Dr. Barr, an associate professor of history at University of North Carolina, and the associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, put together a compelling work with this book. She writes, “Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.” (p.36) Barr does a thorough job of addressing questions around the role of women and the Bible’s stance, the roots of patriarchy, and what place is has today. She used her expertise in ancient cultures to shed new light on controversial passages in scripture that was fascinating. Regardless of where you stand on the topic of women’s roles in church and ministry, this is an important book to read and process.

Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Linda Kay Klein. This is one of those books that I highlighted my way through. So. Many. Highlights. Granted, what Klein calls out is exactly what I grew up in – and drove me away from the faith for a season of my life. On page 14, while introducing the book, Klein writes, “The purity message is not about sex. Rather, it is about us: who we are, who we are expected to be, and who it is said we will become if we fail to meet those expectations. This is the language of shame.” Through interviews, her own story, and extensive research, Klein does an incredible job of mapping out both the issues around the topic of purity culture and the damage brought by it. It was the first time I read the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS),” which mimics PTSD, and a host of other similar disorders, but I recognized it immediately in what I and many of my peers experienced. I think what she has written is important and well worth reading.

Book Review Roundup

Some short takes on four books I’ve read over the last couple months:

God and the Pandemic, N.T. Wright. I really wish I had read this when it first came out! Wright does such an effective job of both navigating scripture and addressing the real pain of the pandemic. He challenges the reader to respond like Christ, while cautioning that sadly, for too many “the coronavirus is providing people with a megaphone with which to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway.” (p.7) He challenges readers to be humble, to have perspective, and live out God’s calling to love our neighbors even if it means sacrificing our preferences. He askes the questions, “Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? and who shall we send?” (p.32) I really appreciated the heart in this short book; definitely worth checking out!

Gay Girl, Good God, Jackie Hill Perry. Perry’s book was not what I expected; it was much more than a discussion about her transition from being a lesbian to marriage to her husband. It is the story of her life, the abuse she endured, how she navigated sexuality, the story of her coming to know Christ, and eventually the story of the relationship with her husband. She writes that “being born human meant that I had the capacity for affection and logic. Being born sinful meant both were inherently broken.” (p.21) I thought how she told the story of addressing her brokenness was beautiful. My one frustration was that for much of the book it came across as though becoming a Christian meant a natural transition from gay to straight. It wasn’t until the end of the book that Perry acknowledged that while that was her experience, it certainly isn’t true of everyone. Rather than being a book about sexuality, Gay Girl, Good God, is the story of Perry’s faith journey, and as such it is moving to read. I highly recommend.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, Preston Sprinkle. I’ve enjoyed Sprinkle’s writing over the years (Erasing Hell is one that stands out), but I was frustrated with this one. Sprinkle’s strength is in humanizing the stories of transgender people, but by his own admission, his weakness is that he is neither a doctor or a psychologist. Too often I felt he was either picking the research he agreed with and ignoring the ones he doesn’t, or attempting to interpret complex medical research that is above his pay grade. Having said that, I was surprised on his stance on pronouns and names (given the preceding chapters and his conclusions in general about transgender issues). I appreciate the argument he makes from scripture on why using someone’s chosen pronouns is both respectful to the person and in line with scripture. Overall, though, if someone is going to read just one book on this topic, then I would recommend Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria. As a theologian and a practicing psychologist, Yarhouse does an incredible job of balancing both scripture, science, and his decades of direct experience working with people.

Engaging Generation Z: Raising the Bar for Youth Ministry, Tim McKnight. I found myself highlighting a lot of passages in McKnight’s book. It’s a great resource for learning more about Gen Z, how they think, and ways to reach them. I appreciated his comments on page 83 that teens want to be challenged with spiritual meat; that we don’t need to be dumbing down the material for them. He addresses an issue that I think is particularly relevant for churches to confront; he points out that Gen Z is the most “racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history.” (p.36) As such, they are that much more aware of how the church responds to race issues – and it has become a major stumbling block for them. I know I’ve seen this directly with the teens in our church and their frustration on how they’ve seen many adults in our congregation interact around this topic and other topics over the last year on social media. McKnight gives a lot of great insight on healthy approaches to student ministry, practical tips, and more. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are in student ministry.

Under Pressure [book review]

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Dr. Lisa DaMour is an important book. Just from my own anecdotal experience of being a youth pastor for what will be twenty years in a couple months, I have noticed anxiety skyrocketing in adolescent girls in the last five years.

Drawing on her training, research, and years of experience working with girls, DaMour effectively lays out the challenges for adolescent girls, the rise in stress and anxiety, and a lot of insight on how girls handle it and its impacts on them. I think she also does a great job on giving insights on how to help girls navigate their stress and anxiety.

The most surprising thought she put forward? “Here’s the first thing we can do to help our daughters take control of anxiety: we can teach them that anxiety is often their friend.” (p.13) Surprised? So was I, but as she goes on to explain, anxiety is our natural alert system – when we learn to trust it rather than fear it, it can be a great tool for giving us insight on what’s going on around us or issues that we need to deal with. At the same time, it can also be a concerning issue. DaMour does a great job contrasting the two and giving tools for recognizing when it’s healthy and when it’s concerning.

Overall, I thought it was an important book and definitely worth reading for parents and those who work with girls. My one frustration was that at times it almost seemed like DaMour painted boys with a broad brush that suggested they don’t have struggles or that adolescence is far easier for them. As with girls, over the last five years I have seen surprising rises in stress, eating disorders, self harm and suicidal tendencies with boys as well – it just manifests differently. All that being said, it’s definitely an important read.

Mark Stuart’s “Losing My Voice to Find It”

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Mark Stuart’s Losing My Voice to Find It is such a great book! I picked it up a couple weeks ago at Youth Specialties NYWC conference; I actually got to meet Mark at the Interlinc booth and get my copy signed.

I should probably preface this review with the fact that Audio Adrenaline has long been my favorite Christian rock band. I’ve always enjoyed their music; when I was a student at Gordon College in the late 90’s their tour came to my school. I was dirt broke so I volunteered to be one of the security people so I could get in the show. I did my job while All Star United opened, however, there is a slight chance that I forgot about it when Audio Adrenaline hit the stage. I also may have abused my position to sneak backstage and meet the band. If you’re ever in my office, I have a shelf that is dedicated to things that make me love student ministry – 99% of it is gifts from students. The other 1% is a beat up copy of Audio Adrenaline’s “Bloom” cd with all their autographs – I got their signatures that night at Gordon. I’ve seen them other times since, but that night was amazing; they brought it big time. One of my all time favorite concert experiences!

So I’m biased.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I loved discovering how the band came together, the struggles, the process behind the music I’ve listened to for decades. An unexpected bonus was an inside look at the Christian music scene in general; of course their story crossed with the major bands of the 90’s and early 2000’s, and it was fun to see those stories play out.

Reading about Mark’s personal story; the challenges of being a pastor’s kid and missionary kid (something I personally related to), his struggle with confidence, his first marriage’s struggles – and the pressure to hide his imperfections from the Christian community, all of this was both fascinating, gut wrenching, and beautiful to see the thread of God’s hand in his life and calling. To see his frustration with losing his voice and the breakup of the band as a result, to his joy in finding a bigger mission through the Hands and Feet project in Haiti, was beautiful.

The book is so good. I thought it would be a fun exploration of my favorite band’s story, but it’s much more than that. There is a deeper message about our desire for control and the power that comes from letting go and letting God take the lead. You don’t need to a fan of the band to be moved by Stuart’s story. The writing is strong, the book flows well – I couldn’t put it down. It’s definitely worth grabbing, especially if you’ve ever enjoyed Christian rock.

Spiritual Grit & Suicide

spiritual gritSome thought provoking words on suicide from Rick Lawrence in his book, Spiritual Grit:

We live in the most affluent society in the history of the world, and one deadly (and counterintuitive) side effect of affluence is suicide. A 2012 study by the U.S. government found that the richer the neighborhood, the higher the risk of suicide. Arizona State psychology professor Suniya Luthar studies resilience in teenagers, and her work reveals that affluent kids are among the most emotionally distressed in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”

If we have the means to make life easier for our kids, we will extract hardship from their path as often as it seems reasonable. It’s just the way things work. And when we systematically make things easier for our kids, they don’t develop the perseverance they need to keep moving through their inevitable seasons of disappointment, conflict, and depression. Spiritual grit is not merely a catalyst fueling our determined response to challenges, setbacks, and opportunities in our lives—it’s a core strength that can mean the difference between life and death. (Kindle location 3261, chapter 7)

We prioritize so many things; tutoring for school, camps for sports, special classes for SAT prep. But what do we do to prioritize faith development? To help young people develop a long lasting faith that will serve them in all areas of life? How are we developing spiritual grit in our own lives, modeling to the young people around us the importance of this?

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

still hereI’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown, is a powerful book. From her opening sentence to the close of the book, Brown writes a provocative, challenging call to not just awareness, but action. She shines the light not just on the blatant ways in which American culture reveals its racism; she also highlights the more subtle, insidious racism that often times goes unnoticed by those exhibiting it.

“White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” (p.22)

For me, this book is a call to action for the church. If we’re really honest with ourselves, “white churches” largely ignore this topic, or periodically give it token acknowledgement, but for the most part ignore it because it’s easy. And it’s uncomfortable to actually acknowledge.

I loved her story of a fellow classmate beginning to get it;

“‘I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned,’ she said. ‘I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.’ And then she said nine words that I’ve never forgotten: ‘Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.'” (p.58)

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to capture the book in a short blog post. It’s powerful. It’s important. Christians need to read it, but not just pat themselves on the back for reading it – it needs to provoke change, not just awareness. The challenge of doing nothing no longer being an option rings loud and clear through every page.

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority

lost worldThe third book in John Walton’s “Lost World” series, this is the first to feature a co-author, and the biggest of the five. The Lost World of Scripture is heavy reading, but fascinating. Walton and Sandy follow the format of previous books with building propositions, but this time with regard to ancient views on communication, authority, and literature. Essentially, Walton writes the first half of the book with a focus on Old Testament literature, while Sandy does the same with the New Testament. The book then concludes with a few more propositions written by them together.

Walton’s contribution was riveting; I was fascinated with his exploration of ancient authority, oral based cultures, and the minor role the written word played – which makes sense, given how few were actually literate. In some ways, it became abundantly clear that as a text-dominant culture and world, it is almost impossible to fully understand ancient culture’s oral based system of authority and passing on of information. Walton does an effective job of identifying those cultural differences and how it has both shaped the scriptures, as well as ways in which we should reconsider our approaches to scripture today.

Sandy’s New Testament portion was also interesting, however somewhat redundant. Literacy was becoming more wide spread during the writing of the New Testament books, but it was still a primarily oral based culture so there was a lot of overlap in what he wrote with what Walton had already established in the Old Testament portion of the book.

In the conclusion, the authors tackle issues of inerrancy, modern standards versus ancient standards, and a present a compelling argument for the authority of scripture. Overall, I’m really glad I read the book. I feel like I have a much stronger sense of scripture and authority. At the same time, it was not an easy read. It took me a while to work my way through the whole book; I’m not sure that it’s ideal for the casual reader. You really need to want to understand ancient languages and literature, as well as ancient views on authority and values in writing to enjoy this book. Having said that, it’s definitely an important work for anyone who teaches/preaches from scripture to read.

Nonverbal Communication with Adolescents

teenagernotcrazyDid you know that 93% of communication is nonverbal?* A large percentage of that nonverbal communication comes through facial and tone of voice cues. What is surprising, however, is just how different the level of ability is in interpreting these nonverbal cues are when comparing adults and adolescents. Further, it probably explains a significant amount of the misunderstanding that can and does happen between adolescents and their parents.

At this point, it’s probably clear that I am a fan of Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent”. I blogged a review about it here, and then a follow up post on some of the neurobiology research they were exploring here. In their chapter entitled, “Why are you looking at me like that?,” they explore this topic of nonverbal cues and what the latest research is showing us about it.

Citing research from Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, they pointed out that while adults have a 90-100% success rate in interpreting the emotions and tone behind facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, adolescents only decipher them correctly about 50% of the time (Kindle location 1389).  Essentially, what the research shows is that adults interpret these cues by using the part of their brain where decision making and executive functions happen (the prefrontal cortex), while adolescents use the region of the brain where emotions are the dominating factor (the limbic system).

Where this is helpful for parents is in thinking through how we communicate with our adolescents. We cannot just assume they recognize the emotions or intent behind our words; 93% of communication is nonverbal, and teens misinterpret those cues half the time, which means they genuinely misunderstand us potentially almost half the time. We can’t change that; it’s biology. Their brains do not finish developing until around age 25. Instead, the Clarks recommend naming our emotions calmly. Let them know when you’re confused, worried, upset, etc., don’t just assume they know what you’re feeling when other adults would understand.

All that to say, if you’re a parent of kids of any age, or someone that works with young people. Get the book. It’s fascinating!

*All percentages and information in this post are drawn from the Clark’s book.

Take Ninety Seconds

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I recently wrote a review of Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent”; you can read it here. One of the things they wrote about in the book I found particularly fascinating and find myself continuing to think about.

Essentially, they explored research by neurobiologists regarding brain chemistry, relationships, and a predictable ninety second pattern to emotions. Basically, any emotion that we feel generally will rise and fall in the space of a minute and a half “if proverbial fuel isn’t added to the fire” (Kindle location 1412). What this means is that if we have a surge of joy, it will generally settle within ninety seconds, and if we have a surge of anger, it will generally calm in ninety seconds. However, what often times happens is that we have a surge of anger, fire off a retort of some sort, triggering the same surge of anger in the recipient, who reacts in kind and the cycle continues to escalate with neither side taking the time to let their emotions settle so they can approach the disagreement in a calmer fashion.

As authors of a book for parents, their advice was simple; when parents face a situation where they are angry with their adolescent … step away for two minutes, gather their thoughts, and return to the conversation when their emotions have settled. They further suggested that over time, modeling this approach to conflict would translate to parent’s children learning to adopt it as well.

I’ve always heard advice to “count to ten,” or “take a deep breath.” It’s always made sense, but something about the neurobiology of this really intrigues me. I like that they’ve actually mapped it out, it’s a measurable, predictable cycle. The way I’m wired finds that very appealing; it’s certainly something I want to get better at doing – not just with my children, but in all relationships.

The Lost World of Genesis One

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At  the recommendation of two of the former pastors from my church, Pastor Bo Matthews and Pastor Bill Parsons, I grabbed a copy of John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Walton, an expert on the book of Genesis, attempts to propose an approach for reading and understanding chapter one of Genesis, one of the more fiercely debated portions of the Bible. He outlines eighteen propositions towards a literary and theological understanding of the passage. A large part of his approach centers on the idea that our best way of approaching the passage is NOT with our 21st century cultural and scientific leanings, but instead to understand how people in general understood and approached the cosmos 3500 years ago (approximately when Moses wrote Genesis), and how that would have shaped their understanding of Genesis one. Here are two of the key quotes that really resonated with me as I started reading it:

Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity. (page 20)

If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science. We are well aware that science is dynamic rather than static. By its very nature science is in a constant state of flux. If we were to say that God’s revelation corresponds to “true science” we adopt an idea contrary to the very nature of science. What is accepted as true today, may not be accepted as true tomorrow, because what science provides is the best explanation of the data at the time. This “best explanation” is accepted by consensus, and often with a few detractors. Science moves forward as ideas are tested and new ones replace old ones. So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time. We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood. (page 18)

I was a history major in college. My approach to scripture has generally been shaped by that influence, which makes sense. And in reality, there are three types of writing that primarily shape scripture: poetry, history, and prophecy. Because of that, as our knowledge of history outside of scripture grows over the centuries, it tends to confirm what we read in scripture – of course. Scripture is in part history, so man’s historical discoveries should confirm the authoritative history that God inspired. But the debate about Genesis one in particular, and science in scripture in general, is a separate issue. It is looking at scripture as something that it was not intended to be. Does that mean all science in scripture disagrees with our scientific knowledge today? Of course not, but that does not mean it was intended to communicate what we sometimes try to read into it.

Ultimately, Walton makes the case that Genesis one is more about assigning functions than it is anything else. For example, the purpose behind labeling the light day was defining its role as a portion of time. This lines up with much of ancient thought that was more focused on role and function than material origin. Function defined existence and value.

Towards the end of the book I began to feel that Walton was dragging out the argument longer than he needed to. He made his most powerful statements when he focused on culture, understanding, limits of language, writing style, ancient culture and cosmology, etc. Some of his propositions later in the book seemed to focus more on the issue of whether or not science could address the issue of God and it seemed unnecessary to me. The historian in me loved the bulk of his propositions that focused on putting ourselves in the sandals of the original readers and how they would have understood Genesis one. Regardless of that, however, this is a must read. Walton has effectively proposed a thought provoking approach to understanding Genesis one that reconciles scripture and science in a powerful way.