Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara R. Rossing

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

The Rapture Exposed

The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

by Barbara R. Rossing

Westview Press, 2004. 212 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed November 16, 2019, from a library book

When I was only in elementary school and junior high, I was already an expert on the End Times. That is, the End Times as defined by dispensationalists. (Dispensationalists believe that God deals with humans in different ways during different time periods or dispensations.) The church my family attended had a chart on the wall in the library where my Sunday School class met showing all the dispensations of human history, including the Church Age (when we are now), the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium, the Second Coming, and the New Heaven and New Earth. It was all charted out in that order. Many books were being published about biblical prophecy, including Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. My family purchased many of them, and I read them, fascinated. Our church held some conferences on biblical prophecy where some of the authors spoke. I read Tim LaHaye’s books on the End Times a couple decades before he ever became a best-selling author with the Left Behind novel series.

When I got to college, I attended a Christian university. As it happened, I took a class on “The Church and Last Things” at the same time I was memorizing the Book of Revelation. I couldn’t help but notice that the Book of Revelation has no chart. And that the things I’d been taught might be something of a stretch to actually find in the Bible.

I’d already noticed that when Jesus came the first time, he did not meet the expectations of religious leaders. I have a feeling that prophecy isn’t usually given so we’ll be able to predict the future, but more so that we’ll be able to recognize God’s hand when He moves. I also noticed that Revelation is about telling us who’s going to win. Almost every chapter has a significant section of praise to God.

Things certainly don’t seem to be strictly chronological in Revelation. And a lot of the imagery to me doesn’t seem to quite fit what I was told it represented. When I did read the first several Left Behind books, I thought it was silly how they took some things literally – like locusts with human faces – and others figuratively.

I also clearly disagreed with some theology in the books, but I still had pretty ingrained in me that Revelation would happen basically the way they predicted. I am thankful to this book for showing me another way to look at Revelation, and a way that makes more sense and to me seems to follow more easily from what you read.

Now, I did know from my class at Biola University that not all Christians believe in a “pre-tribulation rapture.” But almost everything I’d read about end times – except the Bible itself – was from that perspective. Barbara Rossing begins her book this way:

The rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!

Most of this book is about going through the book of Revelation and looking at the things it actually tells us, but the author begins by giving us the history of the idea of the “Rapture.” She explains that it began about two hundred years ago when a girl in Scotland had a vision that the second coming of Jesus Christ would happen in two stages. The word “Rapture” does not occur in Scripture, but comes from the Latin word raptio, a translation of the Greek word for “caught up” from I Thessalonians 4:17 about what will happen when Jesus returns. But the two-stage return idea was new, and the idea of dispensations was developed to make it fit.

Dispensationalists admit that they pull things together from different parts of the Bible to make their teachings and their charts. Even the idea of seven years of tribulation has to be pieced together within the book of Revelation.

So you can read all this – where the Rapture came from and how the whole theory is pieced together, and it’s all very interesting, sounding much less coherent than when I read the theories from the authors themselves when I was a child.

But what I especially love about this book is the way she looks at Revelation and helps me to look at it with new eyes. She talks about how Revelation fit with other apocalyptic writings of the time and followed a similar format. Here’s an overarching view of the message of the book:

In the first of his apocalyptic journeys (Rev 4-5) John travels up to heaven. There he sees a beautiful vision of God’s throne, revealed to be the true power behind the universe. Angels and animals are worshiping God and singing songs of praise to Jesus, the Lamb. Revelation’s subsequent visions pull back the curtain to “unveil” the Roman empire for what it really is: Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be, but a demonic beast that oppresses the world. God’s people must undertake a spiritual exodus out of the empire, led by the Lamb. God threatens evil Babylon/Rome with plagues like the plagues of the Exodus story. We must not put our trust in Roman security or power, nor that of any other empire. We are to give allegiance to God alone.

She reminds us of how the book came across to its original recipients:

Revelation was originally written for those whom South African theologian Allan Boesak calls “God’s little people” – communities of people who struggled under oppression – not for people with access to airplanes or money or the latest technology. The best way to understand Revelation’s message for today is to put ourselves in the place of the audience for whom it was originally written. Imagine Revelation as a message from the underside, written to comfort beleaguered churches struggling under Roman imperial violence and power. Revelation has spoken powerfully to oppressed people throughout history. Its voice of protest is heard in spirituals as well as gospel songs and hymns.

I do love that she points out something that struck me hard when I memorized the book of Revelation: the book is packed with praise.

Revelation is full of songs – heavenly choruses praising God and encouraging us to sing in the midst of tribulation. Just when the book begins to sound hopeless or despairing, a host of witnesses in heaven break into song. Even animals join the Lamb’s chorus, singing along with a cacophony of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” No other book of the Bible has shaped Christian hymns and music as much as Revelation, from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” African American spirituals, and even reggae (“Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armageddon,” from Bob Marley’s “One Love”). Revelation’s songs are not intended to be literalistic. Indeed, the metaphorical dimension is precisely what gives Revelation’s songs their power. Songs connect us to something deeper: they evoke our capacity for solidarity and resistance, they give us hope.

Or as she puts it later:

Singing and worship are central to Revelation, a fact often overlooked by people who see the book only as a system of end-times predictions and timetables. In Revelation we sing our way into God’s new vision for our world, more than in any other book of the Bible.

The author urges us to relish the metaphors of Revelation:

Revelation’s world of vision is like that of a Magic Eye picture. It is an “Aha” kind of vision that draws us in to see the deeper picture. God invites us to let go of the flat page, to stop trying to figure out each literal detail of Revelation, and instead to enter further into the larger picture. As we read and meditate on the images of Revelation, we find whole new levels of God’s vision for our world unveiled to us: We taste water that is not just water – it is living water, the river of life. We follow Jesus, the shepherding Lamb, who invites us to drink from springs of that living water. We hear God’s lament for our world that is oppressed, and we witness the trial and judgment of oppressors in a suspense-filled courtroom. Finally, most wonderfully, we see God coming to earth to live with us in a beloved city – to wipe away all the world’s tears.

But I especially love the chapter called “Lamb Power,” where Barbara Rossing explains the subversive heart of the book of Revelation. She points out that just when you expect Rome’s images of power and victory is when the Lamb comes out.

Seated on the throne in heaven, God holds a scroll sealed shut with seven seals that must be opened. But who is worthy to open this scroll? God’s voice from the throne tells John in chapter 5, “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Two words in this admonition – “lion” and “conquer” (nike in Greek) – lead us to expect that a fierce animal will appear to open the scroll with its claws, like the conquering lions in gladiatorial spectacles. A lion would be typical for an apocalypse; such fierce animals are often introduced to advance the plot. In Second Esdras, for example, the Messiah is portrayed as a roaring lion prophesying judgment against the Roman eagle and its violence.

But Revelation pulls an amazing surprise. In place of the lion that we expect, comes a Lamb: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6). It is a complete reversal. Actually the Greek word John uses is not just “lamb,” but the diminutive form, a word like “lambkin,” “lamby,” or “little lamb” (arnion in Greek) – “Fluffy,” as Pastor Daniel Erlander calls it. The only other place this word arnion is used in the New Testament is where Jesus says he is sending his disciples out into the world “as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). No other apocalypse ever pictures the divine hero as a Lamb – Revelation is unique among apocalyptic writings in this image. The depiction of Jesus as a Lamb shows him in the most vulnerable way possible, as a victim who is slaughtered by standing – that is, crucified but risen to life.

Reminiscent of the servant-lamb of Isaiah 53, who “is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent,” the Lamb of Revelation became the victor not by militaristic power and slaughter but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, Revelation’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians. Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.

Lamb theology is what true victory or true nike is. For we, too, are “victors” or followers of the Lamb on whom the term nike or conquering is bestowed. This is one of the amazing features of the book. Much of Revelation can sound so violent, but we have to look at the subversive heart of the book — the redefinition of victory and “conquering” — to understand how Revelation subverts violence itself. Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer not by fighting but by remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love.

Another point that I love comes when the author talks about the centrality of the final two chapters of Revelation – chapters that dispensationalists gloss over as for a far distant day.

Contrary to the dispensationalist view, there is no rapture in the story of Revelation, no snatching of people off the earth up to heaven. Look at it this way: it is God who is raptured down to earth to take up residence and dwell with us – a rapture in reverse….

The word “dwell” in Revelation [21] is the same word as used to describe Jesus’ coming to earth in the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The whole message of the Bible is that God loves the world so much that God comes to earth to dwell with us. The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means in Hebrew “God is with us.” Revelation proclaims that same message of God’s dwelling in our world. It is the message that God’s home is no longer up in heaven, but here in our midst, incarnate on earth. In Revelation 21-22 God’s throne moves down out of heaven, where it was in chapter 4, and is now located in the midst of the city – in the city descended down out of heaven, down to earth.

There’s lots more in this book. I highly recommend it. I admit that I am still will freak out if someone suggests everyone get a chip embedded in their right hand or on their forehead in order to buy and sell. But for the most part, this has enabled me to look at revelation with eyes of hope instead of fear and terror.

The hope of Revelation centers around the slain-yet-standing Lamb who has conquered – and around everything that that Lamb represents in God’s vision for us and for the world. The Lamb who replaces the expected lion in Revelation’s storyline continues to dwell with us and to overturn all the structures of war and injustice. In the face of empire, Revelation teaches us a way of life that is “Lamb power” – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The hope of Revleation is simply this: that the Lamb has conquered the beast and that a wondrous river of life now flows out from the Lamb’s throne to bring healing water to every corner of our wounded world.

I also appreciate how she leaves us in the Epilogue:

To read the Bible’s hardest passages is like wrestling with God, much like Jacob who wrestled through the night at the river Jabbok. You grapple to make sense of the words, you hold on, you struggle for clarity, you seek to wrest answers for all your questions. What God gives you instead of a system of answers is a blessing, a new name — a living relationship. You are forever changed by the encounter. You have seen the face of God.

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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 Raising Hell, by Julie Ferwerda

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Raising Hell

Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire

by Julie Ferwerda

Vagabond Group, 2014. 293 pages.
Starred Review

I first came to believe that God really will save everyone, that it’s literally true that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” and that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” from reading writings of George MacDonald in the 1990s and then checking with Scripture. Since that time, I’ve discovered many more books by people who believe the same thing, and I’ve reviewed them on my website. Each one has something new to offer, and together they bolster my picture of a great big triumphant God of love.

Raising Hell is the first book I’ve read about universalism that’s written by a woman. (About time!) This book is for laypeople and brings an emphasis on how you can study the Bible for yourself – how you can check for yourself on whether these things are true. She references many Bible study tools available to anyone with internet access. She says in the Introduction, “Raising Hell is intended to be the starting place, the opening of a most important conversation that I hope continues well beyond this book. One of my goals within these pages is to teach the reader how to do their own research by using a large variety of scholarly, historical, and informative resources that are easily accessed by anyone and everyone.”

Before I get into this, let me mention that, like all the books I’ve read on universalism, she has great arguments for universalism. Let me pull out some quotations I like:

This one’s from the Introduction:

Universal Reconciliation is the belief that all people for all time will eventually be reconciled to God – that this lifetime is not the “only chance” to be saved – but that there is only one way to God, through Jesus Christ.

Through a very intentional plan that reaches into future ages, I believe the true Gospel is that all people for all time will be willingly and joyfully drawn by the unconditional, irresistible, compelling love of a Father into a relationship with Him through His Son. In the end, every knee will have bowed, and every tongue will have confessed Jesus as Lord, giving praise to God (see Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Like most universalist authors, she makes good points about the character of God, particularly looking at the parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son:

Throughout this book, we are going to explore how understanding the message of these parables and learning the heart of the Father will deliver the fatal blow to any such notion of an everlasting hell, or even the more palatable version of “eternal separation from God.” As we piece together a remarkable story, we’ll find that it can’t be possible that He would turn away even one son or daughter, and that every person, given enough time to “starve among the swine,” will come to the realization that home is where they belong. Even before they can round the bend for home, they will be welcomed with the happy reassurance that the eyes of their true Father never stopped searching the horizon, ready to run to them with loving, open arms. If Jesus’ words are to be our instruction in the matters of life, then we can have assurance that love is the healer of all things. Our Father will ultimately never give up on nor ever reject – ever!

She talks about how her own quest began by noticing significant translation differences between different versions of the Bible, in many cases contradicting one another. This helped her realize that the English Bible we read – whatever version we choose – is not going to perfectly translate the original language. And the first word she looks at which is very suspiciously translated is hell.

The notion of hell is suspiciously missing from the OT as the destiny for most of mankind, unless you read the KJV or TM (The Message), both of which include the word hell over thirty times. Do KJV and TM know something others don’t? Why the inconsistency? . . .

In the rest of the popular modern versions, the literal translations, and the Hebrew and Greek texts, there are NO references to hell in the OT, or of the concept of everlasting tormenting flames – not one.

Then she looks at the New Testament.

Red flag alert. There are essentially three different Greek words that translators inconsistently pick and choose to translate as “hell” — Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaroo, but not one conveys hell as we know it and teach it today.

She looks in detail at the references where these are mentioned and how they can easily – and more naturally – be translated differently.

She also looks at where the idea of eternal hell came from. It wasn’t prevalent in the church until Augustine popularized it. He spoke Latin instead of Greek, and our early English translations were translated from the Latin rather than from the original Greek, so our understanding has drifted from what the original writers were talking about.

After looking at teachings on hell in the first part of the book, the second part looks at the character of God and the important teaching of the Bible that love never fails. The focus on fire is over and over combined with talk of a refining, purifying fire.

Is it not the same with our own children, each their own yet fully out of us? When I think of the bond earthly parents have with our children, I know it is utterly impossible that God would ever ask us to lose a part of ourselves forever, any more than He would ever intend to give up a part of Himself. His answer is not damnation, but regeneration of all His children into purified sparks!

Jesus always esteemed children because He came to show the heart of the Father toward His children. A true father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be done away with. Just as we would never give up on our children, God will never give up on His children; His love will not fail them.

The third part of this book looks at Hebrew themes carried throughout both the Old and New Testaments. This is where she covers the word that all universalist authors bring up, aion, which is incorrectly translated “eternity” in many English versions.

Eternity had no place in the mind of the early Hebrews, probably because neither their Scriptures nor their dealings with God included any such concept. In fact, the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek were solely written with the perspective of generations or long periods of time (eons or ages), unfolding like a chapter book. About the closest you get in the Scriptures to the concept of never-ending is the word for “immortality,” (athanasia) which literally means “un-death.”

Julie Ferwerda has lots to say about the mistranslation of aion for “eternity” or “forever,” or actually many other words that are used. But I do love it when she points out something I noticed when I did my blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Very often, eonian life is talked about in the present tense, as something we are receiving right now. After a list of many verses like this, she says:

There are many more such verses you can look up, correcting them with eonian life and the proper verb tense to experience the greater truth that Jesus came to give us life right now — not just later – and that people’s lives are markedly improved when they believe, understand, and live the true Gospel message.

She does talk about the specific ages and covenants and harvests she sees in Scripture. I’m not sure I would get so specific, though her application of some Old Testament concepts of harvests and the Jubilee is fascinating. I am sure that I do agree with this:

We are living in a plan of ages, but the purpose of these ages – at least the ages we know about – is going to come to an end, as will all of the eonian (temporary) elements in them. The Scriptures do not provide detail as to what happens after the Story of the ages is complete, when all prodigals have been reconciled to their true Father, but we do know that all forms of death will have been destroyed and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Her perspective also sheds great light on the problem of evil. With her big picture view, she is able to bring me where I can see it like she does:

I have come to regard the problem of evil like a tension in a compelling novel, juxtaposed to the ultimate, euphoric resolution. In any good novel, the reader longs to find resolve, but has to wait until the final chapter to see how it is accomplished. In our Story, I believe God’s expression of love is exponentially expanded, not diminished, through the necessity of evil. Evil does not reign supreme or have the final say, but is only a limited, temporary tool or a means to an end of a great, full circle, happily ever after.

She sums up so nicely the effect believing in universalism has had on my own life:

When you realize that God fills everything and nothing is outside of Him, suddenly life around you becomes less dangerous, more hopeful, promising, and beautiful. The skies look bluer, the trees look greener, every single person you meet is more valued – even the filth and pollution is less oppressive, and darkness is less suffocating.

Thank goodness I don’t have to try to play God anymore. I can completely trust Him with my kids, my marriage, my finances, my health, and my future. I can simply trust Him in all things because His unchangeable plan has already determined that everything will work out in the end. In other words, if it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not the end.

Like her, I find this teaching is full of joy:

This is the kind of Gospel – where no one is a throw away – that breeds life, and joy, and continuous wonder. This Gospel births a sincere, deep love for people, and the excitement to share the truly unconditional love of God with everyone. It is so gratifying to know that every single kind word or deed offered will someday result in the growing of a seedling or the bearing of fruit from a person created in the image of God. No effort will ever be wasted or insignificant. The joy and energy this realization has brought into my life is positively captivating and simply impossible to fully articulate.

The final section of the book contains resources – resources so the reader can study these things for themselves and figure out if these ideas are true. She lists several online resources, gives a chapter called “Simple Steps for Identifying Mistranslations,” and another chapter that looks at commonly misunderstood concepts in Scripture – with their Strong’s number so you can look up the original Greek word involved.

Several more resources are offered. One that especially gratified me is the final list, titled “Modern, Well-Known Commentaries of Aion and its Derivatives.” She gives quotations from nine different commentaries that agree that aion does not carry the meaning “unending.” These begin with Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Lange’s Commentary American Edition, and six more.

Why does this gratify me? Well, not long ago two different people – one a stranger on Facebook and the other my former pastor – pointed me to one particular Greek dictionary that said that aion can be translated “eternal,” and they said that was the final word on the subject. I didn’t have a resource those arguing with me would recognize as equally authoritative. Now I have nine.

I always hesitate to write a long review about a book that makes a persuasive case for something – lest you think that reading my brief summary of the argument is as good as reading the book itself. But in this case I wanted to give you a taste of the good things contained in this book. And like Julie Ferwerda, I challenge you to examine these ideas yourself. This book offers a wonderful jumping-off point.

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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 Watchman and Other Poems, by L. M. Montgomery

Friday, September 20th, 2019

The Watchman and Other Poems

by L. M. Montgomery

Leopold Classic Library, reproduced from McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart Publishers, 1916. 159 pages.
Review written September 20, 2019, from my own copy

I’m rereading my L. M. Montgomery books in publication order, but never had found a copy of her book of poems, the eighth book she published. I found it in a reprint on Amazon and rectified that omission.

I am probably not the best audience for poetry. And these are old-fashioned in style, often using archaic language. They all rhyme, and many of the rhymes seem trite.

The story goes that when Maud Montgomery was a girl, she tried her hand at unrhymed poetry and read an example to her father. He said it didn’t sound like poetry.

She said, “It’s blank verse.”
He replied, “Very blank.”

And she wrote rhymed poetry forever after.

I wasn’t crazy about the format of the book, because it grouped poems about the sea together, and then poems about the woods together – and they began to all sound the same.

The poems I liked best were the poems that tell a story. Perhaps that’s because what L. M. Montgomery is good at is telling stories. The title poem, “The Watchman,” was about one of the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb when he was resurrected. Another poem, “If Mary Had Known,” told about the very bad and very good things her son would go through.

L. M. Montgomery likely suffered from bipolar disorder, so that gave a little extra light on “The Choice” – where she tells Life that she would rather “sound thy deeps and reach thy highest passion, With thy delight and with thy suffering rife” than have a boring life. “Wan peace, uncolored days, were a poor favor; To lack great pain and love were to lack savor.”

Another one I liked was “To My Enemy.” In it, she thanks not her friend, but her enemy for spurring her to do great things.

I had not scaled such weary heights
But that I held thy scorn in fear,
And never keenest lure might match
The subtle goading of thy sneer.

Thine anger struck from me a fire
That purged all dull content away,
Our mortal strife to me has been
Unflagging spur from day to day.

It’s possible that I will appreciate the poems about the woods and the sea more after I have actually visited Prince Edward Island. I think I’d better go find out!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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 Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

by Catherine Reid

Timber Press, 2018. 280 pages.
Starred Review

Hooray! This was the perfect book to discover shortly before my own long-awaited trip to Prince Edward Island! I finished reading it a few days before I set out myself with two childhood friends.

The book is full of full-color photographs taken on Prince Edward Island. Most of the spreads that don’t have one have a black-and-white photo that L. M. Montgomery took herself, or an illustration from the original edition of Anne of Green Gables.

The author does a nice job of getting across the basics of L. M. Montgomery’s life and how important Prince Edward Island was to her. She peppers the book with many quotations about the island from the Anne books, from Maud Montgomery’s journals, and from her book The Alpine Path about her career – and how important the beautiful landscapes of her home were to her.

At the back of the book there is a list of L. M. Montgomery sites to visit, and you can be sure I’m going to visit all of the ones on Prince Edward Island.

I wish these photographs could be printed on the pages of L. M. Montgomery’s books! Seeing how beautiful Prince Edward Island truly is made me appreciate much more her many descriptions where she hopes to explain that to the reader. She does a good job – but pictures verify that instantly.

The section about Gardens on Prince Edward Island pulled together gardens in her books and gardens she talked about in her journals – with photographs of the flowers she mentions and gardens such as the kinds she described. That chapter especially gave me new appreciation of what L. M. Montgomery was saying – since I didn’t even know what some of the flowers she names look like.

Browsing through this book is a delightful experience. There are enough well-chosen words to help you appreciate what you’re seeing. And for building excitement for an upcoming trip – it is absolutely perfect!

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Review of The Alpine Path, by L. M. Montgomery

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The Alpine Path

The Story of My Career

by L. M. Montgomery

Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1990. First published in 1917.

I’m visiting Prince Edward Island in a few weeks (Yay!), and as part of my preparation, I’m rereading L. M. Montgomery’s books in the order they were published, so this short book about how she got started writing was up next.

In the Preface, the purpose of the book is explained:

In 1917 the editor of Everywoman’s World, a magazine published in Toronto from 1911 until the 1920s, asked L. M. Montgomery to write the story of her career. What she produced was published in six instalments, June through November, under the title she chose, The Alpine Path. It came from a verse that had been her inspiration during the long years when success as a writer seemed remote and only dogged determination kept her on

The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.

Now, I’ve read L. M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals and am currently reading her Complete Journals — so this little book doesn’t really contain any new information for me. Instead of focusing on just her writing career, Maud Montgomery writes a lot about her childhood. Though that part very much reflects how she came up with a child as imaginative as Anne and a child so in love with the natural beauty of Prince Edward Island – this is simply who she herself was.

She also finished up The Alpine Path by copying her journal entries from her honeymoon in Scotland. It’s not very pertinent to how she became a writer, and it feels like padding to make this long enough to be a book. Visiting Scotland is very interesting, yes, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story of her career. This time through the book I enjoyed that section much more, since I got to visit Scotland in 2003 and have been to some of the same places.

Since I am now reading her books chronologically, I did notice in particular how much of this story of how she got started as a writer she later used in her book Emily Climbs, as her heroine Emily of New Moon works and struggles to become an author – just as Maud Montgomery did herself. In fact, some of these scenes are pulled exactly and used for Emily, emphasizing how autobiographical a character she is.

I was also reminded that Maud Montgomery did her apprenticeship writing short stories. Here she writes about how her first efforts were spurned. But she persisted and started getting published by magazines that paid her in copies. And she persisted still more until she actually got paid, and eventually made quite a sum with her pen, even before she published a book. So Anne of Green Gables didn’t come from nothing.

This book does remind me that L. M. Montgomery is in her element writing about characters in a small town and incidents and interactions that happen with them. She knows the foibles and quirks of human nature and can draw people to great effect with her pen.

It’s also interesting that her career had just begun when she wrote The Alpine Path. She had published the first three Anne books, Kilmeny of the Orchard, the two Story Girl books, a book of short stories, and a book of poems. She would go on to publish fifteen more books in her lifetime. So it’s no wonder that this book talks more about how she got her start than on what it was like to continue to build a career as an author. I do recommend reading her journals to find out more about that!

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Review of The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery, edited by Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

The Annotated
Anne of Green Gables

by L. M. Montgomery
edited by Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones

Oxford University Press, 1997. 496 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 2, 2019, from my own copy.

This book is an obvious purchase for any L. M. Montgomery superfan like me. I ordered my own copy as soon as I learned of the book’s existence several years ago (though not as long ago as when it was first published in 1997). (Okay, it looks like now it’s out of print and expensive on Amazon. It’s worth looking for a used or library copy!)

I did not, however, get the book read very quickly. The content is marvelous and full of interesting tidbits, but the format is oversized. It’s a heavy book, not suitable for curling up with in bed, and not fitting easily into the books I pile up near my dining room table and read bits of daily. So I was making very slow progress.

However, this year I’m heading to Prince Edward Island with two dear friends – and that was enough for me to get motivated and finish reading this book. It’s also the perfect book to read for background on L. M. Montgomery and the book that made her famous.

The full text of Anne of Green Gables is included in this volume, but there’s a plethora of materials to go with it.

Yes, there are annotations with the notes written in the wide margins on the sides of the pages. We get insights on the books Anne refers to and notes on the sources of quotations used. We get definitions of words like “bush” (uncleared natural woodland) and “wincey.” (I once tried to use “wincey” in Scrabble because of Anne of Green Gables, but it wasn’t in a current dictionary.) We get explanations of household chores at the time like boiling the dishcloth before washing machines existed.

There are also an abundance of illustrations. Many are from early editions of Anne of Green Gables, but there are also photographs from L. M. Montgomery’s journals and other illustrations and photos from the time period.

The material at the front and back is particularly fascinating and helpful. There’s a Chronology of L. M. Montgomery’s life. I used it to update my list of her books in publication order, which I’d gotten from the internet and had a few small errors. There’s a short biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery and notes about her writing of Anne. There are even Textual Notes detailing when the manuscript differs from the first published edition or the English edition, which had some changes.

The Appendices have a wealth of material. And this is the part of the volume that I finished up recently – so they were perfect reading just before my upcoming trip. They include “The Geography of Anne of Green Gables,” and much information about the times – orphan care, education, gardening, home life, and the “concerts” where music and elocution were demonstrated. They also list the complete text of many songs, literary works, and recitation pieces that are mentioned. And at the end are book reviews that came out when Anne was first published.

This book is for the adult Anne aficionado. I, for one, found many surprises – things I’d glossed over, thinking I knew what they meant – but now I have a more complete picture. This was so much fun to read – especially in anticipation of visiting the Green Gables Museum in a few weeks!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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 Reckless Love, by Tom Berlin

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

Reckless Love

Jesus’ Call to Love Our Neighbor

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2019. 144 pages.
Starred Review

Reckless Love is written by the lead pastor of my new church, Floris United Methodist. I’ve been attending since July, and have been impressed by his consistent message that God loves everyone, and no matter how sinful, the image of God still shines in everyone. He challenges his listeners to love like Christ and stand with the marginalized.

I’ll admit it. This is the second time I read the book, and I wasn’t as impressed with it the first time, because it didn’t meet my specific expectations. (On the Newbery committee, we called that reviewing the book you want instead of the book you have.) But now that I’ve been sitting under Tom Berlin’s teaching and got a glimpse of his heart, I tried the book again, more ready to learn. The second time around, I was moved and challenged.

When I first read the book, I was attending a different church which was considering adopting a new “Christian Living Statement” that I didn’t agree with. You can read more about why I disagreed so strongly in the Transcending series I posted on my Sonderjourneys blog. I was thinking about visiting Floris United Methodist Church, so I read the pastor’s book. I was hoping that with a title Reckless Love there would be some mention of reaching out to LGBTQ folks. Then I’d be sure the church was as inclusive as I was looking for.

Well, LGBTQ folks are not mentioned in this book. But I visited the church anyway and learned they are mentioned at church. The pastor is leading the church to seek to take concrete steps toward being more inclusive of all ethnicities, all abilities, and all sexual orientations. He talks about standing with the marginalized as Jesus did. And he clearly means to apply toward LGBTQ people the challenges to love found in this book.

Taking the book together with his sermons, I’m freshly challenged to open my heart toward people in need, to be curious about people, and to work to see people. I work in a public library with many homeless customers, and it’s easy for me to overlook or dismiss some of the people I see every day. This book challenges me with the example of Jesus.

The six chapters are based on the acronym BE LOVE: Begin with Love, Expand the Circle, Lavish Love, Openhearted Love, Value the Vulnerable, and Emulate Christ.

Thinking about churches being more inclusive, I appreciated this section in the “Expand the Circle” chapter:

One look at the group Jesus first assembled as his followers tells us that something is lost when sameness is the defining characteristic of a church. Jesus’ example teaches us that something is wrong when we leave out people who differ from us and only feel at home when everyone is the same. His goal is not to make us more of what we are, but help us to become what we can be. That requires us to expand our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. Christ shows us that the only way to learn the greatest commandment is to have people in our lives who we personally find so difficult to love that we have to get up every morning and pray to our Creator for a love we could not produce on our own. The first disciples had to ask God to expand their hearts so they could overlook the past sins of the tax collector, put up with the ideological torpedo the zealot launched at breakfast, ignore the angry brothers’ latest argument, or figure out if it was time to confront the group treasurer they were beginning to think was embezzling funds.

As I am thinking about how Jesus wants us to love rather than to judge, I was especially challenged by sections like this in the “Value the Vulnerable” chapter:

I would like to love other people enough to go to extraordinary measures to open the door and invite them in, rather than passively allow the door to close, go on my way and keep them out. Jesus said, “I am the gate. . . . All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:7).

Jesus encouraged his followers to become door openers rather than gatekeepers. He hoped that once people experienced the goodness of God, the love of God, and the grace of God, they would reside in it and be free to share it with others. This is why people who were sinners, outcasts, and poor loved Jesus and felt such joy in his presence. They were unaccustomed to being loved by someone who was talking about the ways of God. They knew that Jesus valued them, that he saw their worth, not one that they had earned or instilled within themselves. He saw their intrinsic value, the image of God that was imprinted upon their lives.

How does one become a door opener who leads others to the joy of Christ rather than a gatekeeper who judges others? Observing Jesus enables us to see how to value a vulnerable person.

This book can challenge you if you let it. I love the emphasis that God loves us and placed his image in us, and that’s why we can love. Here’s a section from the very end, challenging the reader to go out and apply what they’ve learned:

We must see this clearly, or we will miss the point of our life in Christ. Christ’s followers today receive the same calling and commission. If we miss this, it will have consequences. Rather than be witnesses to Christ in the way we love God, others, and ourselves, we will begin to think that Jesus came to make us nicer or a little more thoughtful, the kind of people who remember birthdays and select more personal Christmas gifts. Rather than tell others about God’s grace or offer mercy, we will believe that living a Christian life is about feeling forgiven of our sins. Rather than telling others about the habit-changing, bondage-breaking, turnaround-making power Jesus can have in our lives, we will cultivate a relationship with Christ that is so personal that we never share it with anyone else. Rather than speaking out and working for justice with those who hold position and power in our community and society, we will spend our time telling the already convinced how much better the world would be if it were not exactly as it is. Rather than offering acts of solace to those who grieve, comfort to the sick, or kindness of conversation with prisoners or returning citizens, we will simply offer thanks that we are not in such predicaments ourselves.

Jesus takes us on a journey so that he can deploy us on a mission. He offers his love to us so that we will share it with the world. He does this because he loves us. The first disciples knew they were beloved, not only because of what Jesus did for them, but because Jesus believed in them when he called them to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. He knew what they could do for him. Jesus believed in them more than they believed in themselves. He saw more potential in them than they ever thought possible in their lives. He forgave them for what they were not, just as he celebrated all that they were. All of this is what is at the heart of being beloved by another. When we are beloved, we gain the confidence another has in us and make it our own. That confidence transforms how we think of ourselves. It guides the journey that, in the end, leads to who we become. Such love, once extended, is what stirs up a new sense of possibility in our lives.

This is the love God has for you, and the belief God holds in you. We must have faith that God believes in us, in our ability to love our neighbor, to treat ourselves properly in this life, and to worship the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

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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 Histories of the Transgender Child, by Julian Gill-Peterson

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Histories of the Transgender Child

by Julian Gill-Peterson

University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 262 pages.
Review written August 9, 2019, from a library book

This book is dense and written for academics, and it took me a long time to read. However, what I could understand was fascinating.

The big point of this book is that there’s a false narrative circulating that transgender children are some kind of new phenomenon. The author looks at medical histories of transgender children throughout the twentieth century, which was when medical science began getting involved in sex organs and hormones. We learn about attitudes toward transgender children and attempts to “cure” them or force them into preconceived ideas of what they should be.

Here’s a section from the Introduction:

Yet an even more fundamental assumption about trans children that floats this contrast has yet to be challenged: that they are, in fact, new and future-bound. The narrative that we are in the midst of the first generation of trans children is so omnipresent as to be ambient. It is repeated ad nauseam in the media, online, by doctors, and by parents. Trans children, these various gatekeepers say in unison, have no history at all. Trans children are unprecedented and must be treated as such, with caution or awe. What happens if this consensus turns out to be baseless? The bleached and medicalized image of the trans child circulating as unprecedented in the twenty-first century is actually prefaced by an entire century of trans children, including black trans children and trans children of color. And trans children played a decisive role in the medicalization of sex and gender, rather than being its newest objects. These are two of the key ruptures that Histories of the Transgender Child uncovers. If the contrasting effect of contemporary figurations of black trans and trans of color life, placed next to trans childhood, is so damaging in its staging of an antinomy between negativity and futurity, this book argues that the twentieth century provides a surprising archive of trans childhood that undoes them from the inside.

Histories of the Transgender Child rewrites the historical and political basis for the supposed newness of today’s generation of trans kids by uncovering more than a century of what came before them. From the 1910s, children with “ambiguous” sex were medicalized and experimented upon by doctors who sought in their unfinished, developing bodies a material foothold for altering and, eventually, changing human sex as it grew. In the 1930s, some of the first trans people to seek out American doctors connected their requests for medical support to reports that “sex changes” on children were being regularly performed at certain hospitals. In the 1940s and 1950s, five decades of experimental alteration of children’s sex directly led to the invention of the category gender, setting the stage for the emergence of a new field of transsexual medicine and the postwar model of binary transition. And in the 1960s and 1970s, as that field of medicine became institutionalized, many children took hormones, changed their names, attended school recognized in their gender identities, and even underwent gender confirmation surgeries. Trans children not only were present but also were an integral part of the transgender twentieth century and the broader twentieth-century history of sex, gender, and race in medicine.

The material is dense, academic, and full of detail from medical records. This isn’t for everyone curious about the history of transgender children. I did wade through it and understood some of it. After that process, here are some thoughts that stuck with me:

Transgender children are not new. When medical science began to have a way to get their bodies to match their gender identity, that’s when they made themselves known, in hopes of getting treatment. But that wasn’t when they began to exist.

There are a hugely wide range of intersex conditions. Some of them are life threatening, which is why medical science began to get involved in sex and gender. Medical procedures used on intersex children then were requested by transgender people, and children were seen as the perfect object of study.

These stories made utterly clear that gender isn’t nearly as binary as we’d like it to be. If intersex children exist for a wide variety of medical reasons (and they do), it’s not logical to doubt the legitimacy of transgender children, who may be transgender for a physical reason in their brains that we can’t see.

I also have a better realization that for decades, doctors tried to “cure” transgender children. The truth is, it did not work. If being transgender could be changed, the folks in the twentieth century surely would have figured out how to do it. They gave it prodigious effort.

And this brings us to one of the main conclusions of this book:

Histories of the Transgender Child asks us to turn against and away from figurative thinking about trans children in general. Trans children must no longer bring us to some new knowledge of trans life or sex and gender, making them a means to some other abstract end. Rather, through the twentieth-century history of the chapters that follow I propose an ethical relation that calls upon adults to stop questioning the being of trans children and affirm instead that there are trans children, that trans childhood is a happy and desired form – not a new form of life and experience but one richly, beautifully historical and multiple.

Transgender children exist. Transgender adults exist. Medical doctors have been studying gender for more than a century. Gender as it occurs in humans is nowhere near as binary as some would like to think it is. Transgender people do not need to be “cured.” Those who believe medical treatment will improve their lives should be allowed to get it without stigma.

This book isn’t for everyone and is definitely not light reading. But if you’re curious about the history of how transgender children interacted with the medical profession and how attitudes toward them changed, this book is an valuable resource.

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Review of The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr

Monday, August 12th, 2019

The Universal Christ

How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe

by Richard Rohr

Convergent Books (Penguin Random House), 2019. 260 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 9, 2019, from my own copy, ordered via Amazon.com

This book hit the spot for me, and came my way exactly when I needed to read it. I had recently switched churches because my former church had adopted a policy that declares transgender people are wrong to change their gender and that opposes same sex marriage. As a universalist, I already had some disagreements with their theology, so I’ve been thinking about theology and inclusiveness, and was very ready for this book.

I will freely admit that some of the ideas went over my head. There’s a lot of mysticism here, a lot of talk about insubstantial things. But I marked fifty passages to put in Sonderquotes, and I’ll be going over these ideas again. Maybe after a few times through, more will sink in. And I’m sure of this: These are uplifting and beautiful ideas. They’re based in Scripture and I believe they honor God. I’d like to put these concepts into my life.

This book is about trying to grasp – with experience and with our spirits, not necessarily our minds – the concept of Christ, who has been present much longer than the human Jesus.

Here are some questions from the beginning of the book:

Across the thirty thousand or so varieties of Christianity, believers love Jesus and (at least in theory) seem to have no trouble accepting his full humanity and his full divinity. Many express a personal relationship with Jesus – perhaps a flash of inspiration of his intimate presence in their lives, perhaps a fear of his judgment or wrath. Others trust in his compassion, and often see him as a justification for their worldviews and politics. But how might the notion of Christ change the whole equation? Is Christ simply Jesus’s last name? Or is it a revealing title that deserves our full attention? How is Christ’s function or role different from Jesus’s? What does Scripture mean when Peter says in his very first address to the crowds after Pentecost that “God has made this Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36)? Weren’t they always one and the same, starting at Jesus’s birth?

Here’s another paragraph from that first chapter:

A merely personal God becomes tribal and sentimental, and a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles. But when we learn to put them together, Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal. The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. (We should not be surprised that the word we translate from the Greek as Christ comes from the Hebrew word mesach, meaning “the anointed” one, or Messiah. He reveals that all is anointed!) Many are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus, “so that we could hear him, see him with our eyes, watch him, and touch him with our hands, the Word who is life” (1 John 1-2); and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the Body of Christ), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18ff). We are still in the Flow.

As I said, I read this book at exactly the right time. Many of the ideas resonated beautifully with other books I’ve been reading, indeed, some of those books were quoted. But they were all brought together in a new way, taking things I’d been thinking about and going further.

An especially lovely resonance happened on Monday this past week. I was looking up a George MacDonald quote to insert in my blog series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, and when I found it, discovered that my favorite George MacDonald Unspoken Sermon, “Justice” is available online, and I had a lovely time rereading it. This sermon explains why George MacDonald does not believe God’s justice and God’s mercy are opposed to one another and why he finds the idea that Jesus had to save us from God’s wrath utterly abhorrent.

Well, I read that sermon in the afternoon. Later that same day, I picked up this book to read the next chapter – and the chapter was called “Why Did Jesus Die?” and also explains the problems with the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

At best, the theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At worst, it led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure, who demands acts of violence before God can love his own creation. Now, there is no doubt that both Testaments are filled with metaphors of atonement, sacrifice, expiation, ransom, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. But these are common temple metaphors that would’ve made sense to a Jewish audience. Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if you just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for you in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.

There are so many inspiring tidbits in this book. They are big ideas, and I’m going to need to go over it all again to try to grasp it better.

Overwhelmingly, this book is about the love of Christ, all around us and within us. And changing our lives and our vision.

Mostly, we must remember that Christianity in its maturity is supremely love-centered, not information- or knowledge-centered, which is called “Gnosticism.” The primacy of love allows our knowing to be much humbler and more patient, and helps us to recognize that other traditions – and other people – have much to teach us, and there is also much we can share with them. This stance of honest self-knowledge and deeper interiority, the head (Bible), heart (Experience), and body (Tradition) operating as one, is helping many to be more integrated and truthful about their own actual experience of God.

This book is not about doing or achieving, and I’m finding words like these freeing and inspiring:

Once the real inner journey begins – once you come to know that in Christ, God is forever overcoming the gap between human and divine – the Christian path becomes less about climbing and performance, and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is largely about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending spiritually or thinking we can remain unwounded. (The ego does not like this fundamental switch at all, so we keep returning to some kind of performance principle, trying to climb out of this messy incarnation instead of learning from it. This is most early-stage religion.)

His idea of the Universal Christ is fundamentally BIG:

To be loved by Jesus enlarges our heart capacity. To be loved by the Christ enlarges our mental capacity. We need both a Jesus and a Christ, in my opinion, to get the full picture. A truly transformative God – for both the individual and history – needs to be experienced as both personal and universal. Nothing less will fully work. If the overly personal (even sentimental) Jesus has shown itself to have severe limitations and problems, it is because this Jesus was not also universal. He became cozy and we lost the cosmic. History has clearly shown that worship of Jesus without worship of Christ invariably becomes a time-and culture-bound religion, often ethnic or even implicitly racist, which excludes much of humanity from God’s embrace….

For you who have loved Jesus – perhaps with great passion and protectiveness – do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer, and enjoy? You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class. Why oh why, do Christians allow these temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” to pass for the substantial self, which is always “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)? It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel.

It’s tempting to keep finding bits to quote, but stay tuned to Sonderquotes, and you’ll see many more inspiring words from this book.

Try it out – perhaps the timing will be as lovely for you to hear these inspiring words as it was for me.

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Review of Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Just Mercy

A Story of Justice and Redemption

by Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau (Random House), 2014. 336 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 6, 2019, from a library book

A big thank you to the Racial Reconciliation Group at Floris United Methodist Church for choosing this book for a book discussion. I confess, I did not read this book in time to participate in the discussion, but their choice brought it to my attention, and the book blew me away.

This book is the story of a young lawyer who in 1983 did an intensive course on race and poverty litigation, met some prisoners on death row, saw their humanity, and began working for people who didn’t have a voice and were not receiving either justice or mercy.

After talking about his first experience visiting a prisoner on death row, here is how Bryan Stevenson introduces this powerful book:

This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. . . .

After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, I’ve gotten close to people who have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillan. In this book you will learn the story of Walter’s case, which taught me about our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walter’s experience taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsibly – not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of crime. But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light within this darkness.

Walter’s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. I’ve represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whose illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violent crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass imprisonment – prison staff – have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less just and merciful.

I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity – seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.

This was a difficult book for me to read. As a white woman who’s never had a personal encounter with the justice system, I’d like to believe that our justice system in America is fair and above board, and if you do no wrong, you won’t have any trouble with it.

Bryan Stevenson does highlight the story of Walter McMillan, telling about his case in alternate chapters. Walter was an African American on death row for a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed – since it happened the same time as a barbecue he attended, and multiple witnesses saw him there. The story of how the murder was pinned on Walter is complicated, involving plenty of racism, sentiment against him because he had an affair with a white woman, a strong desire to pin the crime on someone, pressure on the unreliable witness who testified against him, and a public defender who didn’t make much of an effort, among many other factors.

Even working hard on Walter’s case, there were still numerous obstacles to vindicating Walter, and he ended up spending six years of his life on death row, causing layers of pain to his entire community, since their testimony hadn’t been heeded.

The chapters in between the ones about Walter’s story tell about so many other people who needed justice. Some wrongfully accused and convicted, some harshly punished out of proportion to the crime. I learned that death by electrocution can be horribly painful. I’d had no idea. In view of recent law changes, especially heart-wrenching were stories of women who miscarried when alone – and then were convicted of murdering their newborn infant. This happened despite how much the women wanted to have a baby, and even to a woman who miscarried so early, there’s no way a baby could have survived.

So this book filled my heart with sadness and disillusionment – yet the focus is hope. And the book is written by a man who’s fighting for justice and making good progress at changing laws and helping folks wrongly imprisoned be set free.

In the Epilogue, Bryan Stevenson tells us some things he learned from Walter:

Walter had made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.

This was an amazing and powerful book that shook up my worldview. I hope many more people will read it, and it’s consistently on hold, which is a good sign. It was because I was reading this book that my heart sank when I read the news that federal executions are going to begin again. This book will change your perspective. Highly recommended.

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