Review — “Mondays With My Old Pastor,” by José Luis Navajo


_225_350_Book.649.coverNo one is immune to having a crisis of faith. While we like to think of pastors as being virtual Supermen of holiness, the truth, of course, is that even they struggle at times. “Mondays With My Old Pastor,” by José Luis Navajo, is a picture of that struggle, told largely as a conversation between two pastors, one entering into those challenges and the other having walked through them over his long career. The book centers largely around old stories of varying degrees of familiarity, accompanied by discussions of how they can be applied in a walk with God.

While it’s easy to see how this book would be quite valuable to a church pastor, that includes a rather small minority of people. The lessons of the book, however, are broader in their application. Just as the main character of the book is comforted to know he’s not the first pastor to go through the struggles he’s dealing with, any Christian should take comfort in knowing that even leaders of the church deal with their moments of doubts. And even if the lessons about guiding a flock don’t apply to a particular reader, the books contains truths for anyone, about getting priorities right, about discipleship, about forgiveness. Some of the stories in the book may be familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program.

• Thomas Nelson Product Page

Review — “The Grace of God” by Andy Stanley


“The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” For some, this can be a difficult truth to understand. At times, God is spoken of almost as if He’s two different beings — a harsh and angry God in the Old Testament, a merciful and loving God in the New. Pastor Andy Stanley explores the Bible as one continuous narrative, telling the story of just one God: a god of Grace.

Stanley tackles a very large subject in this book, and handles it in a way that focuses on making it accessible. “The Grace of God” selects a handful of Biblical high-points from both the Old and New Testaments, and delves into them in a way that shows how, even when it’s not obvious, these stories are ultimately stories of God’s grace, and how they are all part of one ongoing story.

If the book has a shortcoming, it’s that, in making “The Grace of God” easily accessible and understood, it avoids some of the more challenging events of the Old Testament. This doesn’t mean that the book is superficial, however, only selective — even for mature Christians, the book will challenge readers to view what they think they know from a new perspective. (Note: I received a review copy of this book through Booksneeze.)

“The Grace of God” on Booksneeze

Apollo 18 Movie Review — Unrealistic Realism


Lloyd Owen as Commander Nate Walker in Apollo 18. Photo credit: Dimension Films

There is a note towards the end of the credits for “Apollo 18” that watches were provided by the Swatch Group.

Which, of course, is just wrong. Everyone knows the official watch of the moon landings was the Omega Speedmaster.

And given the level of attention to detail in “Apollo 18,” it’s a little surprising they would use Swatch. Maybe they were just for the Earthbound scenes or something; I can’t rule it out.

“Apollo 18” is the most realistic unrealistic space movie I’ve seen; or possibly the most unrealistic realistic space movie, I’m not sure. I was impressed with the level of detail, but distracted to the point of it taking away from the movie by the whole “found footage” approach.

Basically, there are two types of people who will watch this movie.

There are those who will actually believe it is, or could be, real. For those people, the incredible level of detail makes it easier to buy the lie. However, those people are idiots, and we shall speak no more of them.

The other type of viewer is the people who will watch it understanding that it’s fiction. And for those, the approach is a mixed bag.

For people like me, the level of detail is entertaining. The moviemakers were advised by Gerry Griffin, who would have been the flight controller for the actual Apollo 18, had it flown, and in a lot of ways, they get it right. During descent, there’s a line — “You’re go on the 1201” — that’s just a little present for the space nerds in the audience.

However, for the space nerds in the audience, the “found footage” approach asks you to buy into some things that are just too hard to swallow. Set the movie in a fictional universe in which this happened, and, OK, fine. Ask me to believe that someone no one noticed the launch of a Saturn V in 1974, and you’ve just taken me out of the movie — my mind is being filled with all the reasons why that’s unbelievable. (They were keeping this mission so secret that the crewmembers couldn’t even tell their families they were flying, and yet NASA went ahead and contracted out for mission patches? Really?) And that’s just the obvious stuff. The movie protects itself a little in that you can’t really criticize the “found footage” approach without major spoilers.

All of which is a shame. Because it’s an entertaining movie, and very well made — the best cinematic version of Apollo on screen since “Apollo 13.” It takes some unrealistic flights of fancy, but even those are done in a cool “what if” sort of way — if they had just settled for taking a “what if” sort of approach.

“The Help,” You Say?


The Help photo

Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help” Photo credit: Disney

Ironically, the longer I lived in Indianola, Mississippi, the more recent the boycott seemed.

I started working there in 1996. The boycott happened in 1986. When I started, it was so long ago that it was when I was just starting middle school, and now I was out of college. Which, at that age, was forever.

By the time I left Indianola, I’d been there six years. A pretty decent chunk of the time between the boycott and when I started. And it seemed like it wasn’t as far in the past as it had been. And, of course, living in Indianola made it seem like maybe the boycott wasn’t as far in the past as I’d thought, either.

The boycott was probably the last major battle of the civil rights movement for Indianola. Robert Merritt, a very qualified, very capable and very popular principal had been passed over for the city school district’s superintendent position by the white school board. Initial protests were ineffective, and eventually a boycott of downtown businesses was mounted, which eventually resulted in changes to the school board that in turn resulted in Merritt beginning a productive tenure as superintendent.

There were still more “firsts” to be marked — it wasn’t until I was there that the majority-black city and county saw their first black mayor and black sheriff, for example, but those changes were relatively straightforward, without the need for boycotts or legal action. Merritt’s appointment wasn’t the end, but it was the turning point. It was before my time, but I definitely lived among its effects.

“The Help” is set in a period that was also before my time, three times further back than the boycott had been when I got to Indianola.

It was an odd experience watching the movie. I knew the locales, even if I was distracted by newspaper-name changes. And while the people were fictional, I knew them — not the exact individuals that inspired the Kathryn Stockett’s book, but certainly their peers. The White Citizens Council was, after all, founded in Indianola, and I dealt with people who had formerly been among its ranks.

Formerly because it no longer existed, and formerly because it was not the sort of thing you would have claimed by the time I was there.

And that was what made watching “The Help” such an interesting experience — it was at once hard and all too easy to believe. The Mississippi I knew was far removed in some ways from that time, enough that it was hard to imagine it being that recent, that immediate. But, at the same time, not far enough not to see how the past and the present were connected.

“The Help” may be based in reality, but it’s still fiction. It’s a slice of what life was like in Jackson, but it’s a carefully cut slice.

The truth, of course, is better and worse and stranger and more distant and more immediate than any movie could convey.

Review — “Rumors Of God” by Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson


Chances are very good, you’ve heard about this “God” guy Christians talk about. You probably even have some idea of who you think He is. But how accurate are those impressions? How many of those are misconceptions? Even for a lot of Christians, some of the most important truths of the nature of God are things they’ve only heard something about. In this book, Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson explore the deeper reality of these “Rumors of God.”

The greatest merit of the book comes in making the divine personal. The book is divided into chapters that each explore the truth of a different “rumor” of God, exploring a different aspect of each nature — grace, love, freedom, justice. But in doing so, the authors do far more than reveal who God is — by shedding light on who He is, they explore what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a church, and how the two are intricately linked.

For me personally, I could not have asked for a better book at a better time. I read it serendipitously, having received a free review copy through BookSneeze, but it was an incredible blessing. I’ve been through a period that had really challenged my view of who God is, and this book helped me break apart and better rest in my understanding of Him.

Rumors of God on BookSneeze

There Goes Ryman Simon


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I reserve the right to post a more detailed review later, but this was the thought going through my head during Thursday night’s Paul Simon concert at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville:

Whatever I do next, I want to love it in the way that Paul Simon appears to love music.

In fact, forget limiting that to career. I want to love Heather the way Paul Simon appears to love music. I want to love the boys that way. My church. Improv. Everything I care about.

I read an article 20 years ago about the 1991 concert in Central Park arguing that Paul Simon is much more a studio musician than a concert musician — that he’s very much a deliberate perfectionist who focuses on getting things “just so” on the recording. Live shows, then, are just an impossible attempt to recapture what was done perfectly in the studio.

And I would agree with that assessment of his studio work. If I had any criticism of his most recent album, “So Beautiful Or So What,” it’s that at times it’s seems too meticulous, too deliberate, too intentional, too perfect; that at times the combined artistry and craftmanship seem to have lost a very little of the feeling.

But I was aware of that perception of his concerts — as well as a perception that he can be a bit dour, dating back to old SNL appearances and the “You Can Call Me Al” video — when I saw him solo for the first time at the Ryman.

I was surprised at how much fun it was.

I guess maybe I was picturing music appreciators sitting respectfully in a performance venue while a respected artist shared classics of the medium.

Late in the evening, Paul Simon played “Late In The Evening,” and it captured the mood perfectly.

When I come back to the room, everybody just seemed to move
And I turned my amp up loud and I began to play

It was late in the evening, and I blew that room away

It was like he was that kid again, with his funky electric guitar, having fun rocking for a crowd that was eating it up.

We were having fun. He was having fun.

“Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” from the last album captured the dichotomy for me. It’s perfect on the album. It’s raucous live. Both are great. They’re just different.

And that’s how Paul Simon seems to love music.

He loves it devotedly.

He loves it as a studio musician who pours himself into it, studies it, wants to understand it, wants to do it right, wants to be dedicated and meticulous and deliberate. He invests, and works, hard.

But he also loves it passionately.

When he was on stage Thursday night, he looked like there was nowhere he would rather be. He looked like he couldn’t be having more fun that night than he was having on that stage playing those songs.

And that’s what I want — I want a job that I can love in a way that engages me and I’m absolutely dedicated to doing and doing well, but that I enjoy. I want to be to Heather and the boys someone who loves them devotedly and works hard for what’s best for them, but who also can’t imagine anything more fun than being with them.

Devotion and passion. I don’t think that’s too much to strive for.

Review: David Levithan’s “The Lover’s Dictionary”


Heather gave me David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary for Valentine’s Day.

I moved it pretty high up my reading list (I still haven’t read the book she gave me for my birthday) because it looked interesting, and it looked like a quick read.

I was right on both counts.

As an author, I’m jealous.

In part, I’m jealous because, through the clever formatting of the dictionary-entry-esque approach of the book, Levithan has turned what is, at best, a novella’s worth of writing into “A Novel,” as it declares on the cover. It’s a clever approach; I’m much more comfortable calling the book novel than a novel.

I’m jealous in part because Levithan has captured the mood of a novel I’d hoped to one day write better than I could. The book is the story of a relationship, the good and the bad, both told with equal weight and believability. The out-of-chronology storytelling approach portrays the relationship as a series of moments, set in a variety of emotional landscapes, that captures the ups and downs of love without weighting the one through the filter of the other. In a relationship, it’s hard to remember the good during the bad or the bad during the good, but here both coexist side-by-side.

Finally, I’m jealous because it’s a good book. Levithan is talented. The book may be sparse, but it’s nuanced. There’s great emotional depth in the interwoven vignettes. The dictionary motif places a lot of focus on words, and Levithan is well aware of their power, and uses them well.