Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

The Willpower Instinct

How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Avery (Penguin), 2012. 275 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank you to my friend Kevin, who recommended this book to me more than once. When Kevin out-librarianed me and recommended it to someone else as among three books that help build leadership skills, I finally took note enough to put it on hold.

This book is similar to The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin, in that both talk about motivation and getting done the things you want to do, but The Willpower Instinct is more helpful and more comprehensive. Although The Four Tendencies has the fun side of trying to tell you something about yourself, The Willpower Instinct is more science-based, and everyone will find insights about willpower that they can use among this wealth of material.

The Four Tendencies made me think, “I’m an Upholder! I will do what I want to do!” The Willpower Instinct showed me exactly how I fool myself. For example, I learned about moral licensing and why thinking about getting up in the morning makes me feel like I can reward myself by falling back asleep.

Kelly McGonigal teaches a popular class on the science of willpower at Stanford. She offers actual science about the various self-control challenges we face.

Here’s a section from the first chapter where she explains the three parts of willpower and where she’ll go in talking about it:

“I will” and “I won’t” power are the two sides of self-control, but they alone don’t constitute willpower. To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want. I know, you think that what you really want is the brownie, the third martini, or the day off. But when you’re facing temptation, or flirting with procrastination, you need to remember that what you really want is to fit into your skinny jeans, get the promotion, get out of credit card debt, stay in your marriage, or stay out of jail. Otherwise, what’s going to stop you from following your immediate desires? To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters. This is “I want” power.

Willpower is about harnessing the three powers of I will, I won’t, and I want to help you achieve your goals (and stay out of trouble). As we’ll see, we human beings are the fortunate recipients of brains that support all of these capacities. In fact, the development of these three powers – I will, I won’t, and I want – may define what it means to be human. Before we get down to the dirty business of analyzing why we fail to use these powers, let’s begin by appreciating how lucky we are to have them. We’ll take a quick peek into the brain to see where the magic happens, and discover how we can train the brain to have more willpower. We’ll also take our first look at why willpower can be hard to find, and how to use another uniquely human trait – self-awareness – to avoid willpower failure.

Since self-awareness does help avoid willpower failure, reading this book, and learning the ways we trick ourselves, is a great way to build that self-awareness.

Here are some of the things that struck me as I read this book:

In the section on the physiology of self-control, we learn that in today’s world, we need a pause-and-plan response more than a fight-or-flight response.

The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action. From this state of mind and body, you can choose to walk away from the cheesecake, with both your pride and your diet intact.

We also learn that willpower is a muscle. It can be strengthened with exercise, but can also grow tired. When our body has energy, it will do better. There’s even a physical test – heart rate variability – which you can use to predict who will resist temptation and who will give in. The author has plenty of ideas for how you can build up your physical willpower reserve.

Then there is the chapter on moral licensing.

When you do something good, you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses – which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad….

Moral licensing doesn’t just give us permission to do something bad; it also lets us off the hook when we’re asked to do something good. For example, people who first remember a time when they acted generously give 60 percent less money to a charitable request than people who have not just recalled a past good deed. In a business simulation, managers of a manufacturing plant are less likely to take costly measures to reduce the plant’s pollution if they have recently recalled a time when they acted ethically. . . .

Another study found that merely considering donating money to a charity – without actually handing over any cash – increased people’s desire to treat themselves at the mall. Most generously, we even give ourselves credit for what we could have done, but didn’t. We could have eaten the whole pizza, but we only ate three slices. We could have bought a new wardrobe, but we made do with just a new jacket. Following this ridiculous line of logic, we can turn any act of indulgence into something to be proud of. (Feeling guilty about your credit card debt? Hey, at least you haven’t robbed a bank to pay it off!)

I liked this insight:

To avoid the moral licensing trap, it’s important to separate the true moral dilemmas from the merely difficult. Cheating on your taxes or your spouse may be morally flawed, but cheating on your diet is not a mortal sin. And yet, most people think of all forms of self-control as a moral test. Giving in to dessert, sleeping late, carrying a credit card balance – we use them to determine whether we are being good or bad. None of these things carry the true weight of sin or virtue. When we think about our willpower challenges in moral terms, we get lost in self-judgments and lose sight of how those challenges will help us get what we want.

Another chapter talks about how attracted we are to the promise of reward – even if the reward itself doesn’t turn out to be all that wonderful. And she discusses how retailers use this to manipulate us. Make us think we’re “saving,” and we’ll spend more! But she also suggests using this on yourself – come up with a reward for your “I will” challenge, and “dopamize” the task. Suddenly, it will be much more attractive.

But another thing that leads to giving in is feeling bad.

Why does stress lead to cravings? It’s part of the brain’s rescue mission. Previously, we saw how stress prompts a fight-or-flight response, a coordinated set of changes in the body that allows you to defend yourself against danger. But your brain isn’t just motivated to protect your life – it wants to protect your mood, too. So whenever you are under stress, your brain is going to point you toward whatever it thinks will make you happy. Neuroscientists have shown that stress – including negative emotions like anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety – shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state. You end up craving whatever substance or activity your brain associates with the promise of reward, and you become convinced that the “reward” is the only way to feel better.

This same chapter explains why guilt is not a good motivation to change, and why berating yourself for past failures doesn’t help.

Whatever the willpower challenge, the pattern is the same. Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. And what’s the cheapest, fastest strategy for feeling better? Often the very thing you feel bad about.

What’s more, when experimenters gave subjects the message not to be too hard on themselves, that everyone indulges sometimes – encouraging them to forgive themselves – subjects were far less likely to overindulge in the next part of the test.

If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion – being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure – is associated with more motivation and better self-control. Consider, for example, a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, that tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves. The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness – not guilt – helped them get back on track.

These findings fly in the face of our instincts. How can this be, when so many of us have a strong intuition that self-criticism is the cornerstone of self-control, and self-compassion is a slippery slope to self-indulgence? What would motivate these students if not feeling bad for procrastinating the last time? And what would keep us in check if we didn’t feel guilty for giving in?

Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.

Another chapter looks at our tendency to believe Future Me will take care of whatever challenges come their way. It gives us some strategies for delaying gratification for a bigger reward.

Another chapter looks at how Willpower is contagious, and ways you can use this to your advantage. (Okay, maybe the people that Gretchen Rubin calls “Obligers” will benefit most from this chapter.) But yes, telling someone about your goals – or being around other people who meet goals – will help you meet those goals.

And the final chapter, “Don’t Read This Chapter,” looks at the specific challenges of willpower in “I won’t” situations. I thought this chapter was especially good for trying to eliminate thoughts you don’t want to bother you. I have a friend who had a tendency to scold me when I spent too much time thinking about my ex-husband, for example. (Thankfully, this problem is long past, but there are still times I want to change where my thoughts are going.)

This chapter confirms that self-scolding simply makes you think all the more about the forbidden thoughts.

Trying not to think about something guarantees that it is never far from your mind. This leads to a second problem: When you try to push a thought away, and it keeps coming back to your mind, you are more likely to assume that it must be true. Why else would the thought keep resurfacing? We trust that our thoughts are important sources of information. When a thought becomes more frequent and harder to pull yourself away from, you will naturally assume that it is an urgent message that you should pay attention to.

The solution is elegant and practical:

How can you find your way out of this confounding dilemma? Wegner suggests an antidote to ironic rebound that is, itself, ironic: Give up. When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.

This solution turns out to be useful for a surprisingly wide range of unwanted inner experiences. The willingness to think what you think and feel what you feel – without necessarily believing that it is true, and without feeling compelled to act on it – is an effective strategy for treating anxiety, depression, food cravings, and addiction. As we consider the evidence for each, we’ll see that giving up control of our inner experiences gives us greater control over our outer actions.

So those are some of the points that stood out for me in reading this book. (I hope by writing out lots of quotations, I’ll be more likely to remember them.) Here’s a summarizing paragraph from the last chapter:

If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s noticing how you give yourself permission to procrastinate, or how you use good behavior to justify self-indulgence. It’s realizing that the promise of reward doesn’t always deliver, and that your future self is not a superhero or a stranger. It’s seeing what in your world – from sales gimmicks to social proof – is shaping your behavior. It’s staying put and sensing a craving when you’d rather distract yourself or give in. It’s remembering what you really want, and knowing what really makes you feel better. Self-awareness is the one “self” you can always count on to help you do what is difficult, and what matters most. And that is the best definition of willpower I can think of.

I highly recommend this book, if you have willpower challenges, or even if you think you don’t. There are many more ideas and many more descriptions of fascinating studies all about doing what we really want to do.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Face of Water, by Sarah Ruden

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

The Face of Water

A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible

Sarah Ruden

Pantheon Books, 2017. 229 pages.
Starred Review

The Face of Water looks at the Bible as ancient literature – beautiful ancient literature. The author has translated other works of Hebrew and Greek. Now she comes at the Bible text, not as a theologian, but as a translator and as someone who has worked with these ancient languages in other contexts.

What the author is trying to do here is fairly simple:

I would read in the original languages some of the best-known passages of the Bible and describe what I saw and heard there.

So here I am now, trying to make the book less a thing of paper and glue and ink and petrochemicals, and more a living thing.

The Introduction talks about how beautiful the Bible is as literature in its original languages.

The Bible’s beauty helps explain the astonishing amount of influence this set of texts gained in itself, in defiance of hard and even disastrous circumstances. It had to be something people were genuinely attached to – not distasteful or stern or dull writing they resignedly learned and obeyed; and not decrees they regarded as trivially or oppressively superstitious but went along with for pragmatic reasons. It had to be their book; it had to win their assent by every means available.

Then she gives history of how the Bible came together. She concedes the need for translators, but then says this:

Still, to me as a reader of ancient literature, most of what I see in English Bibles is loss: the loss of sound, the loss of literary imagery, the loss of emotion, and – inevitably, because these texts were performances deeply integrated into the lives of the authors and early readers and listeners – the loss of thought and experience. A deep irony is that reverence – fear of God, deference to the religious community, reluctance to impose personal judgment on a sacred text – has the effect, over time, of flattening out the inspiring expressiveness of the original; not only the physical beauty but the actual meanings, as – I have to insist – the two aren’t separate.

In the book that follows, I will use description, analogy, speculation, and experiment in attempts to convey something of what’s lost. I may provoke a great deal of disagreement, but that’s fine. If I merely bring a fuller and more nuanced discussion of the Bible into the public sphere, where it belongs, I will have made a bigger contribution than, a few years ago, I imagined possible.

The main part of the book has an odd format. In Part One, she takes seven Old Testament passages and seven New Testament passages, one of each in each chapter, and talks about the challenges of translating those passages, talks about what special cases come up in those passages.

In Part Two, she offers (in most cases) her own translation of the fourteen passages she considered in Part One. In Part Three, she gives a more direct transliteration of the original languages for the same passages – and a literal translation in parallel.

I would have liked to have the three parts interwoven, so that after reading about John 1 in Part One, then I’d see her translation and the transliteration right away. After all, I read the book slowly, only reading a section per day, so I’d almost forgotten what was said in the first chapter of Part One before I got to Part Two. (I’m tempted to read the whole thing again and do it that way with skipping around. Perhaps someday, I will. It’s worth looking at again.)

However, despite that quibble, this book is lovely. She does manage to convey what was found in the original language in terms of sound, literary imagery, emotion, thought and expression. Her words gave me a whole new level of insight into these passages, and a different way of thinking about them.

I have to say that she chose interesting passages: The story of David and Bathsheba paired with the Lord’s Prayer; The beginning of Genesis paired with the beginning of the gospel of John; Ezekiel’s dry bones paired with martyrs before the throne in Revelation; Ecclesiastes paired with Paul’s song of God’s great love in Romans 8; the Ten Commandments paired with the parable of the Good Samaritan; and finally a chapter on “comedy”: Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites paired with Paul’s talk in Galatians about what those who demanded Christians be circumcised could do to themselves.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s studied Greek or Hebrew. But I have studied neither of those, so I also recommend it to anyone who loves the Bible – you’ll gain new appreciation of its beauty and look at it in a new light.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Heaven’s Doors, by George W. Sarris

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Heaven’s Doors

Wider Than You Ever Believed!

by George W. Sarris

Grace Will Succeed Publishing, 2017. 256 pages.
Starred Review

It’s true – I’ve started collecting books on universalism. I originally came to believe God will eventually save everyone by reading the writings of George MacDonald and then searching the Scriptures to see if it could be true. But George MacDonald doesn’t give a direct, organized defense of universalism.

Then I started finding more and more books that actually do defend universalism. My nagging doubts and questions all got cleared up. One of the most significant moments was when I learned that for the first 500 years of the church, while the leaders were native speakers of Greek, the most prominent teaching was that hell will not last forever, but is for the purpose of restoring and refining those who do not come to Christ while they are alive on earth.

This book, Heaven’s Doors, didn’t contain anything I hadn’t heard before, but I think it may be my new first choice for explaining universalist views to others. The author takes the Bible seriously – He would not have come to this view if he didn’t believe it’s what the Bible teaches. He also researched the teachings of the early church fathers.

But even though there is rigorous research behind his positions, he writes with a light and readable style. He even includes anecdotes at the start of each chapter.

In fact, he was an evangelical pastor before he came around to these views, and had to leave the church where he was ministering because he no longer agreed with their Statement of Faith. This makes me very, very glad that the church I’m attending right now doesn’t require members to sign a Statement of Faith – they just ask you to affirm that you’ve accepted Jesus as the Lord of your life and desire to follow him.

The author has had close friends confront him as following heresy and label him a heretic. He comes to these views and beliefs at great personal cost. (It reminds me to go easy on folks who are ministering with evangelical organizations. Although I firmly believe God will save everyone and this glorious belief gives me joy – it’s going to affect their lives and ministries more than it does mine.)

I did like his section on answers to common questions – some of the answers there were well said and helpfully articulate why certain passages don’t rule out universalism.

He uses endnotes – more than 400 of them – and while that does help make the text readable, I would have preferred footnotes, because as it was reading the endnotes when I was all done with the book, I didn’t always remember what it referred to. But that’s a minor quibble.

Here’s a lovely summary at the end of the book:

Throughout this book I’ve tried to look honestly and carefully at the major historical and Biblical issues that relate directly to the concepts of heaven and hell. I personally have concluded that all the people God created will ultimately be in heaven.

Why? Because of who God is.

He’s not partial – favoring some over others. He doesn’t change – acting graciously toward sinners while they’re alive on earth, but then withdrawing His hand of mercy at death. He’s not cruel – able to save all, but choosing rather to consign most of the human race to endless, conscious suffering. And He’s not weak – desiring to save all, but ultimately powerless to do so.

God is good! God is powerful! And God is loving!

Hell is real, but not forever. Jesus Christ succeeded in His mission to seek and save what was lost.


For an articulate, well-organized and well-researched explanation of universalism and the Very Good News, this book is a good place to start.

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Review of The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin

Friday, January 19th, 2018

The Four Tendencies

by Gretchen Rubin

Harmony Books, 2017. 257 pages.
Starred Review

The Four Tendencies is an interesting approach to motivation. It really does seem to work for me – though I’m the same tendency as the author. I was discussing it with friends on Facebook, and some think it’s a little too simplistic, but of course you’ll get more nuances if you read the book.

Here’s the basic idea: People are divided up by whether they meet or resist outer and inner expectations.

Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.

Questioners question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations.

Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Within this framework – which she definitely doesn’t claim is the last word on someone’s personality – she gives tips about how to motivate someone from that type.

I agree with the things she says about my tendency – an Upholder – but where the book is helpful is helping me see why what motivates me (“Just do it!”) doesn’t necessarily work on others. This book actually explains a lot about some things that went wrong in my interactions with my ex-husband, who I believe is the opposite type. And it sheds light on why the ways I tried to motivate my kids often didn’t work.

To identify our Tendency, we must consider many examples of our behavior and our reasons for our behaviors. For example, a Questioner and a Rebel might both reject an expectation, but the Questioner thinks, “I won’t do it because it doesn’t make sense,” while a Rebel thinks, “I won’t do it because you can’t tell me what to do.”

The main question this book is trying to answer is “How do I get people – including myself – to do what I want?” It’s a book about motivation.

Here’s a section from the first chapter:

Knowing other people’s Tendencies also makes it much easier to persuade them, to encourage them, and to avoid conflict. If we don’t consider a person’s Tendency, our words may be ineffective or even counterproductive. The fact is, if we want to communicate, we must speak the right language – not the message that would work most effectively with us, but the message that will persuade the listener. When we take into account the Four Tendencies, we can tailor our arguments to appeal to different values.

On the other hand, when we ignore the Tendencies, we lower our chances of success. The more an Upholder lectures a Rebel, the more the Rebel will want to resist. A Questioner may provide an Obliger with several sound reasons for taking an action, but those logical arguments don’t matter much to an Obliger; external accountability is the key for an Obliger.

The book isn’t long. It might give you some useful insights into motivating yourself or others. I think it’s worth a read, but the choice is yours. (There, maybe I’m learning – I didn’t order anyone to read it.)

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Where the Animals Go, by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Where the Animals Go

Tracking Wildlife with Technology in 50 Maps and Graphics

by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

W. W. Norton & Company, 2017. First published in Great Britain in 2016. 174 pages.
Starred Review

This is an amazing, fascinating, and eye-catching book.

This book is a set of maps and charts showing how animals move around the world. There are migrations diagrammed and feeding patterns and responses to wind currents. There are maps for every continent and every ocean, and there are maps for land animals, creatures of the air, and creatures of the sea. The format is extra large, and some pages pull out to be even larger. All the maps and graphics are beautifully done.

I thought I could read through this book quickly, because so many of the oversize pages are covered with maps. But there’s text to go with every map, and the print is tiny! So it took me longer than I thought, and it would take some time even to read just a map or two.

Here’s how the Introduction begins:

From footprints to fallen feathers, nests to droppings, the history of where animals go has been a history of physical traces. This book is about a new era, one in which the traces we follow are imprinted not in the earth but in the silicon of computer chips. And while the maps and studies we feature rely heavily on data processing, the desire to study animal movements with new inventions long predates the Information Age. In 1803, John James Audubon was tying threads to the legs of songbirds in order to prove that the same individuals returned to his farm each spring; a map from 1892 illustrates the month-by-month migration of seals in the North Pacific; in 1907, a German apothecary equipped pigeons with automatic cameras in order to document their journeys; in 1962, three scientists from the University of Illinois taped a radio transmitter to a duck; and in 1997, two of the world’s first GPS collars confirmed that elephants from Kenya sometimes cross the border into Tanzania.

The maps in this book show things about animals such as baboon troupes in Kenya, mountain lions crossing the Alps, elk inside and outside Yellowstone, pheasants in the Himalayas, pythons in the Everglades, information flow among ants, sharks around Hawaii, sea otters in Monterey Bay, bird migration paths, and density of penguin colonies.

Each page is packed with information – so it’s no wonder it takes a long time to read – but the maps are eye-catching and communicate lots of information quickly. You’ll be pulled in, then want to know more.

This book lets you in on new discoveries scientists are making about animals all the time – now that we have more effective ways to track them and learn about their worlds.

Once you open this book, you’ll have a hard time putting it away.

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Review of Christ Triumphant, by Thomas Allin

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Christ Triumphant

Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture

Annotated Edition

by Thomas Allin

edited and with an introductory essay and notes by Robin A. Parry

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2015. 345 pages.
Reprinted from the 9th ed. London: Williams and Norgate, 1905. (First edition, 1885.)
Starred review

This is a book from the nineteenth century that has been annotated and edited for today. It’s still in an old-fashioned style with very dense reading.

But my goodness! Thomas Allin lays out the case for Universalism unapologetically. Some authors confess to doubts. Not this one! He is completely convinced of the Larger Hope – and his conviction and enthusiasm is contagious and joyous.

The truth is, it’s wonderful to be able to believe that God’s love will indeed triumph and ALL the world will be saved – just like the Bible says!

He covers three arguments, mentioned in the subtitle:

Reason – this makes sense with everything we know of God.

In this section, he points out the logical fallacies in the teaching of a hell of unending torment after death. He goes into great detail and tackles many possible arguments. He points out the many logical fallacies of the belief in unending hell.

Mind you, he’s not saying there is no hell – only that it will not last for all eternity. If you look at the Greek, that’s not what the Bible teaches. But in using reason, he points out such things as the fact that if all sin gets the same punishment – unending torment – then the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. If punishment is designed to restore the sinner – it will be different amounts depending on the sin that needs to be overcome. Which makes a lot more sense, once you think about it.

But there are many other arguments than that one. Here’s an example, chosen somewhat at random:

Pursuing our remarks, I must also remind you of another feature of the popular belief that seems to present a great difficulty; it is what I must call its paltriness, its unworthiness of God. Let us for the moment not think of God as a good, loving, and righteous Being. Let us now simply regard him as great, as irresistible, as almighty. Viewed thus, how difficult is it to accept that account which the ordinary creed gives us of this Being’s attempt at the rescue of his fallen creature, man. An almighty Being puts forth every effort to gain a certain end; sends inspired men to teach others; works miracles, signs, wonders in heaven and on earth, all for this end of man’s safety; nay, at the last, sends forth his own Son – very God – himself almighty. The almighty Son stoops not alone to take our nature on him, but lower still – far lower – stoops to degradation; meekly accepts insults and scourging, bends to the bitter cross even, and all this to gain a certain end. And yet, we are told, this end is not gained after all, man is not saved, for countless myriads are in fact left to hopeless, endless misery; and that, though for every one of these lost ones, so to speak, has been shed the lifeblood of God’s own Son. Now, if I may be permitted to speak freely, it is wholly inconceivable that the definite plan of an almighty Being should end in failure – that this should be the result of the agony of the Eternal Son. God has, in the face of angels and of men, before the universe and its gaze of wonder, entered himself into the arena, become himself a combatant, has wrestled with the foe, and has been defeated. I can bring myself to imagine those who reject the deity of Christ as believing in his defeat; but it is passing strange that those who believe him to be “very God Almighty,” are loudest in asserting his failure.

The second section is called “Universalism Asserted on the Authority of Tradition” – the majority of the church fathers believed in universalism, that at the end of the ages all will be saved and all will be restored.

This section is even denser, and even harder to read – because Thomas Allin pulls out quotations from hundreds of ancient writings. If I thought nineteenth century prose was difficult to read – these are even harder. However, that said, all the quotations make his case so decisively, it feels like overkill.

He goes chronologically through the centuries, beginning with the very earliest church fathers and proves with quotations that many, many of the most respected pillars of the church clearly taught that God will save everyone at the end of the ages.

An important point I had heard before is that the Greek word aionian — which is translated as “eternal” in English didn’t really mean that at all in Greek. “Of the ages” or “age-long” is a better translation, though it’s not simple to translate – because we don’t really even have a word for it in English. But Thomas Allin makes the point that as long as the church fathers were native Greek speakers, the majority teaching of the church was that all mankind would (eventually) be saved, and that hell is restorative, not punitive.

Most of this is too dense to pull out short quotes, but here’s an example when he’s looking at the writings of St. Jerome:

If, he says, we see one falling into sin we indeed are sorry, and hasten to rescue him, but we cannot be saddened, knowing that “with God no rational creature perishes eternally” (Commentary on Galatians 5:22). “Death shall come as a visitor to the impious; it will not be perpetual; it will not annihilate them; but will prolong its visit, till the impiety which is in them shall be consumed” (Commentary on Micah 5:8).

Here’s part of the summary of that section:

There is another point, whose importance – in view of some modern teaching – seems to me very great: it is the teaching of so many, and such illustrious Fathers, that death is no penalty, but is, indeed, a cure; that it is, in fact, the great Potter remolding his own handiwork to restore it to its pristine beauty, and that the sinner’s destruction means but the destruction of the sin – the sinner perishes, the man lives. Such teaching would be significant even in a solitary instance; but here we have witness upon witness, to whom Greek was a familiar and a living tongue, repeating the same striking idea; teaching death to be no penalty, but the remolding of our nature by the Heavenly Artist, and designed to cure sin; teaching, too, that the sinner’s destruction by God is not loss but gain, is not annihilation, but conversion and reformation.

The third section is called “Universalism Asserted on the Authority of Scripture.” Here the author gets especially animated and joyful – pointing out an abundance of passages that, taken at face value, strongly support the larger hope. But those who support the popular view discount them or read into them things that aren’t there – without even realizing that’s what they’re doing.

Here’s one of the many passages discussed in that section:

“But I say, ’love your enemies.’” Will the advocates of endless penalty frankly tell us how that can be reconciled with the letter, or the spirit, of this text? Will they explain why God commands us to love our enemies, when he consigns his own enemies to an endless hell; and why he bids us to do good to those who hate us, when he means for ever to punish and do evil to those who hate him?

Here’s another question:

Is God in earnest in telling us that he reconciles the world? Does he mean what he says, or does he only mean that he will try to reconcile it, but will be baffled? This question often rises unbidden, as we read these statements of the Bible, and compare them with the popular creed, which turns “all” into “some,” when salvation is promised to “all,” and turns the “world,” when that is said to be saved, into a larger or smaller fraction of men.

There’s a whole lot more where that came from. I’ve been considering this for years, but Thomas Allin finds yet more verses I hadn’t thought of yet as teaching universalism – even though I already had noticed many.

The final section is the conclusion and summary of all the arguments that went before and firmly asserts that we can confidently believe in universalism – and a triumphant Christ.

With all earnestness, I repeat that our choice lies between accepting the victory of Christ or of evil, and between these alternatives only. Escape from this dilemma there is none. It avails nothing to diminish, as many now teach, the number of the lost; or to assert that they will be finally annihilated. All such modifications leave quite untouched the central difficulty of the popular creed – the triumph of evil. Sin for ever present with its taint, even in a single instance, is sin triumphant. Sin that God has been unable to remove (and has had no resource but to annihilate the sinner) is sin triumphant and death victorious.

Here’s the final paragraph, which makes my heart sing. Truly, God is loving, and God is good – to all humanity.

For my part, in this promise I believe – in the sole true catholicity of the church of Christ, as destined to embrace all mankind; in the power of his redemption, as something that no will can resist, to which all things must yield one day in perfect submission, love, and harmony. I plead for the acceptance of this central truth as the great hope of the gospel, that the victory of Jesus Christ must be final and complete, i.e., that nothing can impair the power of his cross and passion to save the entire human race. I believe that he shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied. And I feel assured that less than a world saved, a universe restored, could not satisfy the heart of Jesus Christ, or the love of our Father. I ask all fair and reasonable minds to reject as immoral, and incredible the picture of a heavenly Parent, who, being absolutely free and absolute in power and goodness, creates any children of his own, whom he knows to be, in fact, certain to go to endless sin and ruin. Therefore, in these pages I have pleaded for the larger hope. Therefore, I believe in the vision, glorious, beyond all power of human thought fully to realize, of a “paradise regained,” of an universe from which every stain of sin shall have been swept away, in which every heart shall be full of blessedness in which “God shall be all in all.”


Amen, indeed!

I marked many, many passages in this book to post in Sonderquotes – but it’s going to be awhile before I get them all posted. However, you’ll find some, even from the day I’m posting this review.

This book isn’t easy reading. I read a little bit per day over a very long period of time. But its message is so joyful and uplifting. If you would like to believe in universalism but think the Bible or even the historic church teaches differently – I highly, highly recommend delving through this book.

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Review of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

by Margot Lee Shetterly

William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2016. 349 pages.
Starred Review

After I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I immediately ordered myself a copy of this book. I knew it was one I’d want to own. I was not wrong. (And I have a small collection of books related to Math.)

Now, the movie is – a movie. It presents a summary of the high points of the lives of three female black mathematicians who made a difference at NASA, especially in getting a man to the moon. It’s told in an entertaining way and makes an inspiring story.

The book has a whole lot more detail. The three women featured in the movie had long careers at NASA that lasted decades. Many black female mathematicians began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as far back as World War II.

The book has many more details and a far wider scope. You get hints of all the author will cover in her Prologue. Here are some bits from that.

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943 – the women later known as the “West Computers” – I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands – isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity – have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling….

I discovered one 1945 personnel document describing a beehive of mathematical activity in an office in a new building on Langley’s west side, staffed by twenty-five black women coaxing numbers out of calculators on a twenty-four-hour schedule, overseen by three black shift supervisors who reported to two white head computers. Even as I write the final words of this book, I’m still doing the numbers. I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research….

To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high. I’m sensitive to the cognitive dissonance conjured by the phrase “black female mathematicians at NASA.” From the beginning, I knew that I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research that these women applied to theirs. Because as exciting as it was to discover name after name, finding out who they were was just the first step. The real challenge was to document their work. Even more than the surprisingly large numbers of black and white women who had been hiding in a profession seen as universally white and male, the body of work they left behind was a revelation….

But before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.

I must admit, what excited me about this story is that it’s a story about many female mathematicians!

Why is that exciting to me? Well, back in the 1980s, I was a 21-year-old PhD student in Math at UCLA. Out of 120 new graduate students that year, only 5 of us were female, and only one other female was in the PhD program. I did end up dropping out of the PhD program and settling for my Master’s. But while I was there, I felt so much like an exception. The Math department had a long line of portraits on the wall of great mathematicians – and I only remember one woman, Emmy Noether. I always took great pleasure in getting better grades than my male fellow students (as an undergrad, anyway) – but it would have been nice to know about a time when, during World War II especially, the government specifically recruited women to do math.

Now, once they hired them, it was an uphill battle to get the pay or recognition that men with the same qualifications should get. That’s part of the story in Hidden Figures as these brilliant women worked to get the promotions and pay they deserved. Mary Jackson in the book and in the movie overcame obstacles to get the title of “engineer.”

But the book also talks about the history of civil rights as it was played out at Langley. The beautiful thing was that these brilliant women could do the math – and the quality of their work did prevail over the years.

The book begins in 1943, when Dorothy Vaughan began working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. It continues through landing a man on the moon, and how Katherine Johnson’s equations helped get them there. An epilogue refers to many more years and many more women serving our country with mathematical skills.

This book isn’t a quick summary – watch the movie for that. (And I highly recommend it!) It does give a detailed and epic story of brilliant, unappreciated women who made a lasting contribution to American history.

I like the way the Epilogue puts it:

Katherine Johnson’s story can be a doorway to the stories of all the other women, black and white, whose contributions have been overlooked. By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences, it was to fit in because of their talent. Like the men they worked for, and the men they sent hurtling off into the atmosphere, they were just doing their jobs. I think Katherine would appreciate that.

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Review of March, Book Three, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

March, Book Three

by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Top Shelf Productions, 2016. 246 pages.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
2017 Printz Award
2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award
2017 Siebert Medal
2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction
2017 Battle of the Books Winner

I was at the Youth Media Awards in Atlanta, Georgia, on the Monday after Trump’s inauguration, when this book by John Lewis won an unprecedented four awards, and not a single Honor among them. Atlanta is John Lewis’ home district, so he was there, and had participated in the weekend’s Women’s March. Later that day, I went to the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award program and heard John Lewis speak. Every speaker mentioned how thrilled they were to be in the room with him. After that, I received a free copy of this book, got it signed, and shook his hand.

And this book continues the telling of his story, in graphic novel form. This volume 3 contains more violence than the earlier volumes. It begins with a bombing of a church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, and continues through Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when marchers were met with violence at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and John Lewis was hospitalized, and ends with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law.

The whole story is framed by looking back from the day of President Obama’s Inauguration – a direct result of the work that was done in the 1960s.

The book is about idealism and about conflict – from both within the movement and outside it. It’s also about nonviolence being met with violence and standing for what you know is right.

An accessible look at history through the eyes of someone who was there, this book is a monumental achievement and deserves all of the many awards it has won.

I’m putting this on my page for Children’s Nonfiction, because it is written for teens (and I don’t have a teen page for nonfiction). But be aware that the level of violence is high – because that’s what these activists faced. They put their lives on the line for what’s right.

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Review of Accidental Saints, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Accidental Saints

Finding God in All the Wrong People

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Convergent Books, 2015. 211 pages.
Starred Review

I had checked this book out a few times in the past (as well as the author’s earlier book, Pastrix), but had never gotten around to reading it until a friend mentioned how good it is. Then I checked it out and got started right away – and gobbled it up quickly. I have no idea what took me so long to open it up, but better late than never.

Nadia Bolz-Weber tells stories in this book about ordinary, fallible people in her life who have made her see God’s grace, who have touched her life in miraculous ways.

Her book uses the structure of the church calendar, beginning with All Saints’ Day, where at her church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, they began a tradition of making “saint cookies” on All Saints’ Sunday.

Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them. But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still a part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church. Saint Paul describes the saints as “a great cloud of witnesses,” so when they have passed, we still hold them up, hoping perhaps that their virtues – their ability to have faith in God in the face of an oppressive empire or a failing crop or the blight of cancer – might become our own virtue, our own strength.

But while she was thinking about saints who have gone before, her attention was called to a founder of a church there in Denver who did wonderful things but was also a racist. She was challenged to think of that woman as a saint. But I love this reflection:

Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, and the poor are blessed, and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin. Knowing what category to place hemlock in might help us know whether it’s safe to drink, but knowing what category to place ourselves and others in does not help us know God in the way that the church so often has tried to convince us it does.

And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title “saint” is always conferred, never earned. Or as the good Saint Paul puts it, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones – people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile.

This book tells about those kind of saints – deeply flawed, but people who God works through.

So that’s a description of this book, but it doesn’t completely convey the lovely warm grace the book extends.

And I say lovely – but I should mention that her stories are full of profanity. She doesn’t take a pious pose but presents real people and doesn’t try to cover up her own weaknesses and judgments and anger and need for grace.

Here’s another section I loved, coming after a story of a friend who had done something awful, reminding her of Peter and his denial of Christ:

The adjective so often coupled with mercy is the word tender, but God’s mercy is not tender; this mercy is a blunt instrument. Mercy doesn’t wrap a warm, limp blanket around offenders. God’s mercy is the kind that kills the thing that wronged it and resurrects something new in its place. In our guilt and remorse, we may wish for nothing but the ability to rewrite our own past, but what’s done cannot, will not, be undone.

But I am here to say that in the mercy of God it can be redeemed. I cling to the truth of God’s ability to redeem us more than perhaps any other. I have to. I need to. I want to. For whenwe say “Lord have mercy,” what else could we possibly mean than this truth? And to say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” is to lay our hope in the redeeming work of the God of Easter as though our lives depended on it. Because they do. It means that we are an Easter people, a people who know that resurrection, especially in and among the least likely people and places, is the way that God redeems even the biggest messes we make – mine, Peter’s, Bruce’s.

And I loved this section, in a chapter about Judas and the Eucharist:

Jeff, like so many of us, is changed by the word of grace that he hears in church. He is formed by the Word of God. He is given a place where he is told by others that he is a child of God. He is given a place where he can look other people in the eye, other annoying, inconsistent, arrogant people in the eye, hand them bread, and say, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you,” and then he, in his own arrogant inconsistencies, has a frame of grace through which to see even the people he can’t stand. I argue that this wouldn’t just happen alone.

This is why we have Christian community. So that we can stand together under the cross and point to the gospel. A gospel that Bonhoeffer said is “frankly hard for the pious to understand. Because this grace confronts us with the truth saying: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner, now come as the sinner you are to a God who loves you.”

God wants you, you in your imperfect, broken, shimmering glory.

Amen! This book will uplift you, remind you of your own need for grace, and nudge you to go to a community and receive that grace through other people loved by Jesus.

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Review of Building a Bridge, by James Martin, S. J.

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

Building a Bridge

How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity

by James Martin, S.J.

HarperOne, 2017. 150 pages.
Starred Review

After my son came out as transgender and I began referring to her as my daughter, I’ve been approached by several friends telling me that their own child is transgender, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Most of those friends also attend my church. To all of those friends, I’m going to start recommending this little book, with its focus on letting LGBT folks know that Jesus loves and accepts them.

This little book was born out of a talk the author gave after the Orlando tragedy. At that time, he was saddened that not many church leaders spoke in support of the LGBT community, which had been so horribly targeted.

I found this revelatory. The fact that only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time showed that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church. Even in tragedy its members are invisible.

This event helped me to recognize something in a new way: the work of the Gospel cannot be accomplished if one part of the church is essentially separated from any other part. Between the two groups, the LGBT community and the institutional church, a chasm has formed, a separation for which a bridge needs to be built.

This is not a book about doctrine. I found that refreshing. He didn’t even approach the topic of whether or not having sex with someone of the same gender is sinful. (God Believes in Love, by Gene Robinson, is a good book for explaining from the Bible that it isn’t.) In the chapter about respect, he says:

Recognizing that LGBT Catholics exist has important pastoral implications. It means carrying out ministries to these communities, which some dioceses and parishes already do very well. Examples include celebrating Masses with LGBT groups, sponsoring diocesan and parish outreach programs, and in general helping LGBT Catholics feel that they are part of the church, that they are welcomed and loved.

Some Catholics have objected to this approach, saying that any outreach implies a tacit agreement with everything that anyone in the LGBT community says or does. This seems an unfair objection, because it is raised with virtually no other group. If a diocese sponsors, for example, an outreach group for Catholic business leaders, it does not mean that the diocese agrees with every value of corporate America. Nor does it mean that the church has sanctified everything that every businessman or businesswoman says or does. No one suggests that. Why not? Because people understand that the diocese is trying to help the members of that group feel more connected to their church, the church they belong to by virtue of their baptism.

The three things he focuses on are in the subtitle: Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. And he’s not talking only in one direction, but says that both groups need to work on building the bridge from both sides.

On this bridge, as in life, there are tolls. It costs when you live a life of respect, compassion, and sensitivity. But to trust in that bridge is to trust that eventually people will be able to cross back and forth easily, and that the hierarchy and the LGBT community will be able to encounter one another, accompany one another, and love one another.

But I especially liked the section after the essay on bridge-building, because I didn’t expect anything like it when I picked up this book. This section has the title “Biblical Passages for Reflection and Meditation.” The biblical passages that follow are accompanied by questions for reflection and would be interesting to use in a small group setting. No, these are most definitely not the “clobber passages” used to assert that homosexuality is sinful, or explanations for how they should be interpreted. Instead, we have passages about how the church is one body, about the good Samaritan, about Jesus’ encounters with people who’d been excluded by the religious authorities of his day.

I like the passage about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and especially this question: “At various points in your life, your eyes may also have been ‘kept from recognizing’ the presence of God’s grace in the life of your family member or friend. What opened your eyes?”

Finally, the book ends with “A Prayer for When I Feel Rejected.”

What a lovely book! I heartily hope that someday something similar will be written for the evangelical church. While we are waiting, there is much that Christians of any flavor can find to value in this one. Let’s build bridges, too!

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