Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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Bookish Habits #5: Dr. Steve Brown and Dr. Bryan Chapell

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

Steve Brown

Several weeks ago I sat down with noted authors and teachers Dr. Steve Brown, the founder and president of Key Life Network and Dr. Bryan Chapell, the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church of Peoria, Illinois, to discuss their reading habits.

To be honest, I did not sit down with them. I emailed them. But I like to picture myself sitting with these two men, whose ministries have been so helpful to me,  discussing, among other things, the books we enjoy.

Bryan Chapell

Both men have lengthy careers in ministry and both have well-deserved reputations as being superb preachers. And both have written extensively. I direct you to their Amazon.com author pages (here and here) to sample their works. Personally, I’ve been helped by Steve’s A Scandalous Freedom and by Bryan’s Christ-Centered Preaching and Christ-Centered Worship.

Though I reproduce their answers to my questions with complete accuracy, I may have elaborated the dialog a bit. May have.

Randy (RG): Steve and Bryan, I’m thankful that you have both taken time from your busy schedules to meet with me this morning.

Bryan Chapell (BC): Happy to do so.

Steve Brown (SB): Same here. Mind if I smoke my pipe?

RG: No problem. As you know, we’ve been discussing the kinds of things people read when they simply chose to read for fun and enjoyment. So, in the past year, approximately how many books did each of you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

SB: Forty to fifty, maybe more.

BC: Wow! That’s impressive, Steve. For me it would have been somewhere between twelve and fifteen.

RG: I find it all impressive. What motivates you to read books outside your profession?

BC: For me, really, it is something of a hobby. It enables me to pursue other interests, and honestly, I do it for the pure enjoyment of it.

SB: Similarly, for me, it is both escape and curiosity.

RG: How do you choose what books you will read?

SB: Mostly from friends… or authors with whom I’m familiar or friends who have written books. I also review and read books when someone wants me to write a blurb.

BC: I, too, depend upon the recommendation of friends, as well as book reviews, recommendations in magazine articles, or awareness of particular author emphasis.

RG: It seems that books reach readers like churches reach visitors: mostly through networks of friends. So what book or books are you reading right now?

BC: Those that I’m reading currently are all related to my role as a pastor.

Reformed Catholicity – Michael Allen and Scott Swain

No God but One – Nabeel Qureshi

Serving a Movement – Timothy Keller

The Day the Revolution Began – N. T. Wright

The Family Life of a Christian Leader – Ajith Fernando

RG: What about you, Steve?

SB: Currently I’m reading

The Fellowship: The Literary Life of the Inklings – Philip and Carol Zaleski

Father Brown Stories – G. K. Chesterton

Takedown (5th in The Scot Harvath Series) – Brad Thor

Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religion – Ryan T. Anderson

RG: The books that stick with us and are meaningful to us are the ones we will often recommend to others. What books do you find you most often recommend to others?

SB:

Anything by C. S. Lewis

Orthodoxy – G. K. Chesterton

BC:

The Discipline of Grace – Jerry Bridges

King’s Cross – Timothy Keller

Mere Christianity – C. S. Lewis

Sacred Marriage – Gary Thomas

RG: Thanks to both of you. This has all been very helpful.

BC: You’re welcome, Randy.

SB: Glad to do it.

Lenten Joy

That Christianity is a life of receiving and not a life of doing is at the heart of the gospel of grace. It also is at odds with our popular conception and experience. We cannot shake the idea that Christianity is at heart a life of doing, a confusion that sometimes is unnecessarily heightened during Lent.

Christians peering into the season of Lent anticipate a period of denial where they are challenged to self-examination and repentance. They take themselves low to root out sin lurking in the dark corners of their person. As much as this is a necessary thing bearing much promise many of us cannot help but see it as a time of rejecting delightful things just because, somehow, we are not supposed to do delightful things. We have bought the misconception that Christianity is a matter of what we do, and in order to help us stop doing we have Lent. This is not, of course, the formal framing of Lent, but that this is how some perceive it is sad.

James B. Torrance, a Scottish Presbyterian scholar whose little book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace has recently been refreshment for me, reminds us what we lose when we make our faith primarily about what we do is joy. Repentance (of which much is said during Lent) is not an act we do in order to prompt God to forgive, but it is a reception by us of a forgiveness already given. Christianity is rooted in what God has done securing a forgiveness which we do not prompt but only receive.

We have a hard time with this because we can only think in legal terms. God is a judge before whom we stand confessing our sin. Our penitence, perhaps enhanced by a period of Lenten fasting, persuades God to forgive us and we go on our way. That all seems proper and right, but it is contrary to the spirit of the gospel of grace coming from our covenant keeping God who reveals himself as a Father. Repentance is not an act by which we persuade God to respond to our penitence with forgiveness. Repentance is rather our responding to his already secured and pronounced blessing of forgiveness.

Summarizing John Calvin, Torrance says,

“Repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace.”

On the cross of Christ the sacrifice has been offered and forgiveness pronounced, all prior to our confession and repentance.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son the father’s heart is gracious toward his son even when the son is in the pigsty. When the son repents and returns, he receives the father’s embrace, an embrace which the father was willing to give all along and which the father did not need to be persuaded to give.

Christians tend to enter Lent thinking they need to make themselves somehow more worthy of the Father’s embrace, that they, in some manner, need to act, to do, to urge him to be more forgiving. It is not that at all. Lent is a time for us to clear away the fog and see more clearly the vast measure of the Father’s kindness to us in Christ, that there is in fact no condemnation for we who come to the Father through the Son.

Yes, we are encouraged to take concrete action during Lent. We are encouraged to deny certain privileges, perhaps, or certain foods or other things ordinarily permissible. But we do so not to earn or curry the favor of God. We do so to clear away things that obscure our vision that we might more clearly and more joyfully receive the grace that is already there.

In this way, Lent is to be a joy. Let us with joyful anticipation enter in.

Bookish Habits #4: Jim Jones

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

It took a hurricane to bring my friend Jim Jones and I together. Katrina, specifically. Jim was at the time the East County editor of the Bradenton (Florida) Herald. He lived near the church I pastored, and he had come to visit to see what a local pastor might have to say in the wake of that overwhelmingly devastating storm. Being one deeply committed to the best journalistic ethics, he introduced himself before the service (and I laughed at his auspicious name). He heard me preach and then did a wonderful job of summarizing my point for his article on Monday morning. From there developed a fruitful (for me, at least) friendship.

That friendship led to the formation of a book discussion group formed, Jim, my Muslim neighbor, a retired professor from Cornell’s college of architecture, and me. It was short-lived (we only got through two books) because of time, not interest. But through this I learned that Jim was a reader.

Jim served in Vietnam for 33 months between 1968 and 1971, and is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Upon leaving active duty, Jim earned a BA from the University of South Florida. His entire journalism career has been in small Florida newspapers. His 2013 ‘retirement’ only lasted six months after which he returned to the Herald’s newsroom. He continues as a working journalist at age 70. In the interest of probing the reading habits of a committed journalist, I submitted my questions to Jim.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

Jim: I am very much a sporadic, occasional reader because words are my business as a newspaper reporter/editor. My brain tells me reading is work. That said, there is usually a specific reason for me to pick up a book.

Recent examples include

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Patricia Schultz, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die

What motivates you to read books outside your profession?

I have been working on a small manuscript for several years about my experiences in Vietnam and after the war. Several people have read it, invited to offer criticism, or rip it apart, to make it more interesting and readable. One of my readers asked, “Does the world  really need another book on Vietnam?” My response was that it depends on the story. The world is always ready for another Vietnam story as long as it’s an interesting read.

The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. That tells me that the world does need another book on Vietnam. I read Nguyen’s book because I was interested in what is Pulitzer worthy these days, and also because I was intrigued by the story of a Viet Cong agent who masquerades as a refugee. It is a story told from a minority viewpoint that will sometimes baffle and infuriate. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s parents were Vietnam refugees who settled in California after the war. He is now a college professor on the west coast. All of that makes it  interesting to me because of my own Vietnam history, including having a Vietnam war bride and returning to Vietnam several times after the war.

Nothing Ever Dies landed on my reading list because I wanted to see what else Nguyen had written.

How do you choose what books you will read?

Biographies and history are some of my favorite reads. Alexander Hamilton and Richard Nixon are among the bios in my little library, along with books on The Beatles, Ronnie Spector, Chuck Berry, Grace Slick, and Keith Richards.

I have just finished the Springsteen bio (for which he received a $10 million advance) and highly recommend it to anyone interested in popular culture. Springsteen is the rare clear-headed entertainer who eschewed drugs, and goes into details about his struggle for success, and the creative process involved in some of his best songs, including “Born to Run.” Although he never served in Vietnam, he talks about the significant impact that war had on him (seeing a pattern here?).

Keith Richard’s bio is amazing as well, given his well documented destructive lifestyle which he survived and remained a creative force. But I would have preferred to read more about Richard’s music and less about his substance abuse.

With Springsteen, there are personal connections we can make (dysfunctional family, struggle with playing the guitar, struggle, struggle, struggle), and things that are more mysterious, such as how one leaves a field of competitors and contemporaries and becomes a megastar.

What book or books are you reading now?

In front of me now is 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I am planning a trip to Europe in the late spring-early summer. Practical tips on maximizing my time and making travel as efficient as possible are valuable.

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

Most recently I recommended the Springsteen book to a young reporter. She had been told by others that it wasn’t so good. I can only speak for myself and found that it was one of the best pop bios I have ever read. Springsteen is a surprisingly good writer.

Thanks, Jim. I hope your writing goes well, and that you land a Springsteen-like advance. I look forward to reading it.

Community for the Self-absorbed Millennial

My post on community generated a couple of offline queries both of which, for different reasons, were referring to the idea that the church is failing to reach Millennials, that supposedly self-absorbed and entitled generation that Gen-Xers have unleashed on the world under the benevolent and clueless gaze of Boomers like me.

And yes, I think too much is made of those supposed generational distinctions, but that is for another day. I’ve a different fish needing to be fried this morning.

When my correspondents mentioned Millennials leaving the church I went to the articles on which those concerns were based. I have a suspicion that arises whenever alarmist statistics are being tossed about in Christian circles. Somewhere in this will be the hand of Barna the Christian statistical guru. And my suspicions were confirmed.

Why I suspect this and why it is a concern I expressed now nearly 6 years ago. I encourage you to click through to that post and read it (although it is long).

The point of that post is that Barna’s work has credible critics which should cause us to hesitate in referencing him. Particularly concerning is his tendency to use data to fan into flame worries on which, coincidentally, he has written a book. When Barna’s sky is falling other more careful analysts see a rather sunny, or at most a partly cloudy, day. Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion offers a calmer, more nuanced take on the data, normed over many more years and consequently more carefully nuanced.

Believe who you will. But I hope you share my concern that Christians especially should be anxious to speak the truth. We should be as cautious with what we say following “Statistics say…” as we are (or should be) when our sentence begins “The Bible says…”.

What does this have to do with community? Those who like to divide the world into Millennials vs. Gen-Xers vs. Boomers say that it is the Millennials who are longing for community and that in this the church is failing them. Whether this analysis is accurate or not I’ll leave for those more skilled in demographic research. I rather think, statistical research aside, that the demographic slice most looking for and longing for community are those humans created in the image of the Triune God. I think the church should seek to serve these people.

Fragile Community

One of the women helping us develop a new web site for our church (jokingly, I think) suggested this for a ‘tagline’:

COVENANT PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Trust us; you’re not too weird to fit in here.

There is a sense in which this works, or should work. Churches should be welcome places for those weary of trying to fit in a world that does not easily tolerate difference. No one should be too weird to fit in.

Our actual tagline is the far more sophisticated ‘Building Gospel Community.’ We believe that the church should be a community living out the truths of God’s kingdom in such a clear way that a world longing for shalom will be attracted to that kingdom and its King. Apparently we are not alone in this aspiration. Christine Pohl in her book Living into Community identified this as a trend.

For the past twenty-five years, scholars…have emphasized the importance of the church as a ‘contrast’ or alternative community, and have argued that Christians can challenge the beliefs and practices of the larger society by the beauty of their shared life. (8)

This, we are convinced, will have a far more long lasting and profound impact upon a struggling world than the failed attempt to shape culture by political power and verbal dominance. In a book tour for her book Absence of Mind, novelist Marilynne Robinson captures the hope for such intentional community:

Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess.

A gospel community, a community where Christians, even weird ones, are being Christians, is what we are after, and what we think the world needs. The problem is that we may not be sure what such a community looks like. We know what ‘church’ looks like, but not such a clear-visioned intentional community. What will such community look like?

Should the church emulate monastic communities by sharing space and goods and vocation? Or should we rather aspire to be a community set apart by language, custom, and dress, like the Amish? Do we know? Are we saying, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said regarding pornography, “I know it when I see it”? Will we know community when we see it?

Conservative Jewish scholar Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic that strong communities of faith are vital for the promotion of human flourishing in an age that feels gravely fragmented. He defines genuine community as

…a concrete, tangible grouping…that gives you a role, a place, and a set of relationships and responsibilities to other particular human beings. (181)

This is a useful starting place. Many others could be posited. But Levin reminds us why we need to ground our conceptions of community in reality. If community involves human beings, it will be hard. Christine Pohl pointedly observes that

The winsome and life-giving character of Christian community is often accompanied by profound difficulties arising from disagreements and betrayals…. The testimony of our shared life is crucial, but it is also fragile. (8, 9)

Community is crucial, but it is fragile. Community is critical, but people will hurt other people in the pursuit of it. That can’t be helped, but the pursuit of it cannot be abandoned. If we are aware of the difficulty, failure will not surprise us, and imperfection will not dissuade us. Community is fragile. Most beautiful things are.

Bookish Habits #3: Dr. Wesley Hill

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

Wesley Hill is a man who clearly loves to read and loves to read all kinds of books. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Bethlehem College and Seminary in the United States as well as Durham University in the United Kingdom. He is a theologian and a teacher, serving as an assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Wesley Hill

He not only reads books, but he writes them. He is the author of a number of books and countless articles spanning several interests. The honesty and sensitivity of his writing have helped many, particularly as he works through what it means to be a gay Christian in today’s complicated world. In addition he writes regularly for the magazines “Christianity Today” and “First Things” and he blogs at Spiritual Friendship.

Also, on Sunday, August 13, 2017, the church I pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida, will be blessed to have Dr. Hill preach.

If you gain nothing else from this interview, hear here a voice of grace and passion. Perhaps you will be inclined to pick up one of the books he has written as well as those he recommends. I would encourage that.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’ (that is, books outside your direct professional interest)?

Wes: This is a hard question to answer because my personal and professional interests line up so closely. If I weren’t a seminary professor, I’d be reading all the theology books I read for “work” simply for fun. There’s not a clean or easy separation for me here. As I’ve described in a column for the First Things website, I am a big believer in the importance of “irrelevant reading” for “work”: Often novels and books of poetry end up being important for my “professional life,” and my “professional” reading often worms its way into my daydreams and prayers and personal musings. Here’s how I put it in my column:

“I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign. They’ll be working away on an essay for me on the theme of faith in the Gospel of Mark, and something in an Auden poem will be just the thing that connects the dots for them. Or they’ll be writing about the motif of light in the Fourth Gospel, and something about the way Wallace Stegner described the character Charity by the lake in Crossing to Safety opens a wider vista for their reflections. This is what broad, indiscriminate reading of interesting texts does—it furnishes the raw materials for unexpected correlations and associations to spark. It’s often the irrelevant reading that does this, the reading you’re not supposed to be doing, the reading that’s not related at all to that project you’re meant to be completing.”

I remember that article and was encouraged by that idea that everything relates. I tell those learning to be pastors that in a very real sense EVERYTHING is sermon preparation. So, what else motivates you to read books outside your profession?

Before I discovered what my profession would be, I was already a voracious reader. I grew up reading mostly pulpy detective novels and some pretty bad Christian fiction. But I also started reading people like C. S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen—neither “professional theologians,” as I am—in high school. Those habits have stayed with me. I once heard a theologian on a panel critiquing The Da Vinci Code boasting that it was the first novel he’d read in decades. And I thought, “How sad!” What an impoverished life it would be if I could only read “theology,” narrowly circumscribed.

How do you choose what books you will read?

Basically, I do what my friend Alan Jacobs has advised: I read at whim. I am a woefully undisciplined reader. At any given time, I have five or six books going, and I’m always picking up another based on changing moods or interests. In my professional life, I am a bit more systematic, but even there, I rely on personal impressions and the recommendations of friends just as much as I do on the advice of professional journals.

Several more considerations shape my approach to reading. One is from Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He recommends “reading upstream,” which is to say, once you find a book or an author you love, read what they read and loved.

Another thing I often do: When I find an author I love, I read all their books. (Right now I’m doing this with E. L. Mascall, one of the great Anglican writers of the twentieth century, and Robert Farrar Capon, the late grace-addicted Episcopal priest-cook.) I’ve also been influenced by the theologian Fred Sanders’ advice: If you’re a theologian, as I am, he says you ought to (1) pick a doctrine and read everything you can on it and (2) pick a theologian to ‘make your own’ as a touchstone for all your work. In my case, (1) is the doctrine of the Trinity and (2)… well, I haven’t done it consistently, but the closest person to that for me is probably Karl Barth.

What book or books are you reading now?

I’m just finishing Luther’s 1535 Lectures on Galatians—wonderful! And I’m in the middle of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, which aren’t quite what they’re billed as being (a story of friendship) but they’re immensely insightful and rather harrowing actually.

I’m also reading a collection of essays by younger people of color, edited by Jesmyn Ward, talking about race, called The Fire This Time. The essay on “Walking while Black” by Garnett Cadogan is worth the price of the book.

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

I often find myself telling students and friends to read the novels of Chaim Potok. Better than virtually anyone else I’ve read, he understands the growing pains of a childhood religious faith as it moves into adulthood.

In my discipline of New Testament studies, I regularly point people to God Crucified by Richard Bauckham and The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. On a personal, spiritual, emotional level, probably no book has actually helped me more than Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet.

I love Potok. Glad we share that. Thanks for taking part and expanding my vision of what is worth reading. My ‘wish list’ of books to read is now expanded, probably beyond reason.

So Goes the Church

Issues that matter seem to be landing as profusely and as suddenly as the frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film Magnolia.  As a Christian pastor, I want to speak intelligently and helpfully to the issues, for they do matter. But I do not want my responses to be based on uncertain information or misinformation. I want my responses to be reflective and careful. And I plead that I don’t often have time to pull that all together before another frog has dropped and the world is off in another direction.

One of my pastoral heroes, the late John Stott, alluded to two errors pastors confront when addressing controversy.

Our task as preachers, then, is neither to avoid all areas of controversy, nor to supply slick answers to complex questions in order to save people the bother of thinking.

Complexity demands nuance, and nuance time, and under the protest of time I am silent. It may be rather that I am gutless. I need to take his words to heart.

Instead, it is our responsibility to teach them with clarity and conviction the plain truths of Scripture, in order to help them develop a Christian mind, and to encourage them to think with it about the great problems of the day, and so to grow into maturity in Christ. (Between Two Worlds, page 173)

The recent debate regarding immigration and refugee resettlement was stirred by the president’s executive order barring (temporarily?) immigration from certain countries (an act widely seen as one designed to close our borders to Muslim immigrants). When such issues surface, pastors are often told by good people what to preach. I resist such direction. Whether I do so out of wisdom or laziness I’ll let others determine. This time novelist Stephen King offered to choose my text for me.

I didn’t comply and so probably need to give up trying to get his autograph. (However, if Mr. King or anyone else is still interested he can listen to my sermon on that text from June of 2015. It may be still relevant to this situation.)

Others have been directing our attention to the book of Leviticus and its language of care for the stranger. As gratifying as that might be, I’m guessing that some of those doing so are not quite so fond of what it seems to say about homosexual sex or the viability of human life in the womb.

There are those telling me what to preach and those who want to make sure that what I preach does not impact the church’s tax exempt status. The president this week announced his intention to free churches and pastors to endorse political candidates.

On the one hand, I’m all for this. The government should have no more say over what I say from the pulpit than Stephen King, and if churches curb their message to gain tax relief, they have already voluntarily compromised that freedom.

I don’t endorse candidates from the pulpit, but the government’s preferences on that matter have nothing to do with that decision. It is utterly foolish to hitch the church’s wagon to a political horse. When the horse goes down, it takes the wagon with it. (It’s intriguing in this regard to watch Trump supporter, Eric Metaxas, twist and turn as he uncritically defends Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office.  But he must. It’s what one must do, individually, or as a church, when we have declared someone besides Jesus to be ‘our’ man.)

“Evangelical” Christianity used to be honorable. But what it once was has now been dishonored by wittingly or unwittingly allowing itself to be defined politically. In the process its vital message of the kingship of Christ and the supremacy of his gospel has been obscured if not lost. There is more wisdom in Stephen King counseling me to preach on a biblical definition of neighbors than there is in a church celebrating the ‘right’ to endorse a candidate. One can only bring good, the other only disaster.

So when some want to hear a sermon on the “Good Samaritan” or when others find biblical support for compassion in the remote outposts of Leviticus, they reveal good instincts. That instinct says that the biblical authors who form the framework of Christian faith and practice are those to whom we are to listen first in framing a response the the issues of the day. We are, as Stott reminds us, to “develop a Christian mind” and then “to think with it.” This we should do, but only after having first removed our nationalistic “America first” lens.

As Christians, Christ and his kingdom must always be first.

Who Is My Neighbor? The Movies…

Film is story, and story is powerful.

Film can be used as a tool of propaganda, as can any media, but as art it can illuminate. It can help us see what we would not otherwise see and sense what we might never otherwise experience. It can in a powerful way put our feet firmly in another’s shoes and help us see life through their eyes.

Over the past few days I’ve been trying to bring some focus to my own thoughts regarding the immigration and refugee responses being determined by my country. Perhaps they will soon come to a shape that I can share with grace. In the meantime, though, I would like to suggest some movies that might help us feel the issues more powerfully than argument ever could.

Film is never objective and neither are the suggestions below. Good movies can, without undo pontification, inform our empathic impulses in helpful and profound ways. These are movies that succeed in that. These are good movies touching upon current themes and encouraging sympathy and openness.

Regardless of one’s take on the issues before us, these are movies worth watching. They are well made, thoughtfully produced, and the themes are handled artistically without a heavy hand. I invite you to disengage from Facebook and Twitter for a couple of hours and enjoy one or two. I’d be interested (I think!) in what you think.

🎞

Brooklyn – This is a sweet and delightful film chronicling an early 20th Century immigrant’s experience. The immigrant is Irish and so the story feels distant and far removed from the current debate. But perhaps it is not.

🎞

The Lost Boys of Sudan – This and the next two deal with immigrants from Africa. This documentary touches upon the tens of thousands of children orphaned and forced to flee their home and enter East African refugee camps. The movie follows the story of a few who are granted resettlement in the United States.

The Good Lie – Reese Witherspoon stars in this drama touching upon the same issue – resettled Sudanese refugees. The refugee and the communities into which they are settled are both severely stressed by the process.

The Visitor – A touching story of a lonely widower whose broken heart is given a start toward healing by an encounter with undocumented African immigrants. It’s worth watching if only to see the Walking Dead’s Michonne play a sweet and defenseless character who decapitates no one.

🎞

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – This is an odd movie of friendship across borders, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones (and filmed on his ranch). With this one we enter the realm of immigration from Mexico. Viewers should know that this film earns its ‘R’ rating from a scene or two of sex.

Under the Same Moon – Perhaps it is sappy and sentimental, but given the family disruption and constant fear, this movie of a boy who crosses the border in search of his mother who crossed years earlier prompts the question of what would motivate one to make such drastic moves.

🎞

Of Gods and Men – Finally, not related to immigration per se, this story of a difficult choice foisted upon the monks of a Trappist monastery in Algeria revisits the question once asked of Jesus, as do all these movies, really: “Who is my neighbor?” And that is the fundamental question really, isn’t it?

Bookish Habits #2: Rev. Mike Osborne

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

I have asked several pastor friends of mine about their reading habits, and their answers have varied widely. When asked about books he had read for fun in the past year, one pastor responded, “Only two I can think of.” Some of us do better than that.

The answers to my survey questions below come from a good friend of mine, the Reverend Mike Osborne, associate pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Orlando. Mike is a (rather proud) graduate of Clemson University and of Covenant Theological Seminary. He has been a pastor since the mid-80s and he himself has written a wonderful book on persevering in ministry, Surviving Ministry, which I reviewed here. Mike is a perceptive and wise pastor and friend who blogs occasionally at SurvingMinistry.com.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’?

Mike: 10 plus parts of 4 or 5.

That’s tough for me. I’m obsessive enough that once I start a book, I feel morally obligated to finish it. Why do you stop?

Sometimes the book doesn’t hold my interest. Some books say everything they need to say in the first few chapters and the rest is either obvious or redundant. And, of course, sometimes the problem is not the book but my lack of discipline. Unlike you, I do not feel morally obligated to finish a book.

In that, you are a better man than I!

Another thing… If I see a book in a bookstore I might be captured by its cover or subject, but then after I’ve bought the book and started into it, I find I’m actually not all that interested in the content. It was flirtation rather than true commitment. Like when I was last in Chicago, having just seen the Cubs play, I was browsing in a used bookstore and found a book on baseball history. I thought how great the book would be. When I got home and the baseball thrill was gone, I had more objectivity and found the book to be not well written. So I stopped.

Even pastors flirt and can’t commit, I see. I just gave up on a book, but it took me 400 pages to do so. What motivates you to read books merely for pleasure?

The need to relax, to think about things other than ministry, to learn about history and popular culture, to grow more well-rounded.

How do you choose what books you will read?

I get interested in one thing or another at random times. I may watch a TV show that sparks my interest, let’s say, one set in WWII. I may get on a kick to read biographies from a certain time period or about a certain songwriter. As soon as a new book by Erik Larson comes out, I’ll get it and read it no matter what it’s about.

On Larson, we are agreed! What book or books are you reading now?

Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love (Beatles bio)

Amity Shlaes, Coolidge

Don Carson, Praying with Paul

R. C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, The Legacy of Luther

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

Within my ministry interest –

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life

John bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Outside of ministry –

Anything by Erik Larson

C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

Ron Chernow, Hamilton

Do you ever recommend fiction to people? If so, what?

I’ve read so little fiction that my answer would probably be no. I recommended Kite Runner some time ago. And Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

Two interviews, two recommendations of 11/22/63. I sense a pattern. Finally, you are a great fan of Erik Larson. Which of his is your favorite?

Devil in the White City

Mine, too. Thanks!

Bookish Habits #1: Dr. Roy Starling

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

Roy Starling recently retired as a teacher of English at Oviedo High School in Oviedo, Florida. Prior to that he was a professor of literature at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He has a PhD in literature from Florida State University. Though I never sat in his classroom, he has several attributes that  tell me he was a wonderful teacher: a love of his subject, a passion for his students, and a good sense of humor. I’ve observed all this in him over the years I’ve known him. Roy is a wonderful writer who blogs at StarkNotes.

Randy: In the past year, approximately how many books did you read for ‘enjoyment’?

Roy: 20+

What motivates you to read such books?

Pleasure, but not what is mistakenly referred to as guilty pleasure.

What is the difference between ‘pleasure’ and ‘guilty’ pleasure?

It might’ve been Stephen King who said it’s time for us to retire the ‘guilty’ in front of pleasure. If you’re reading and it’s pleasurable, why would you feel guilty? Infinite Jest gave me pleasure. Duma Key is giving me pleasure, but not the same kind. But it sure isn’t guilty. I haven’t done anything wrong. Also books not considered a part of the literary canon by academics would supposedly evoke guilt from a lit professor.

Language used well gives pleasure, end of story, turn out the lights, don’t let the screen door, etc.

How do you choose what books you will read?

Hearsay, plus knowledge of an author, plus a decent possibility that the book will be complex, True, aesthetically appealing, and thought provoking.

Exception: Stephen King for the pure pleasure of reading as a worthwhile pastime, and hence not guilty.

What book or books are you reading now?

Donald Barthelme’s short stories

Stephen King, Cell

Joyce Carol Oates, Little Bird of Heaven

What three or four books do you find you most often recommend to others?

To readers:

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life or A God in Ruins

Don DeLillo,  White Noise

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

David Guterson, Our Lady of the Forest

For non-readers (who are probably only going to read my recs):

Stephen King, 11/22/63 or Misery

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