Review of The Lives We Actually Have, by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie

The Lives We Actually Have

100 Blessings for Imperfect Days

by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie

Convergent Books, 2023. 229 pages.
Review written September 8, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

I purchased this book because of a recommendation on Sarah Bessey’s Substack and was absolutely delighted with it. And then I discovered this is the same author who wrote the wonderful book Everything Happens For a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved). And I sat down and ordered a couple more of her books before writing this review.

What I found in this book is a perfect addition to my morning devotional time. I’d read one blessing on one spread. The next day, I’d read the previous day’s blessing over again and then move on to the next one. Lots of profound wisdom, solidarity — and blessing — was the result.

The situations in the book feel real, not sanitized. This makes sense when I realize this is the same author who wrote about getting terminal cancer at 35 years of age.

Here are some examples of some of the headings for these blessings:

“for this ordinary day”
“for when you just need to put one foot in front of the other”
“for when you are looking for love (and it’s complicated)”
“for this tired day”
“for when you’re running on fumes”
“for when you’re hanging on by a thread”
“for friends who hold us up”
“for when it’s been a great day”
“for when the unthinkable happens”
“for collective grief”
“for all the firsts without a loved one”
“for this overwhelming day”
“for when you can’t catch a break”
“for the gift of doubt”
“for this painful day (and our bodies feel like the enemy)”
“for when your family disappoints you”
“for when you can’t love yourself”
“for when you’re not getting any better”
“for this beautiful, limited day”
“for learning to delight again”
“for the life you didn’t choose”

And there’s so much more! But just listing so many situations doesn’t show you how beautifully these authors deal with them. Let me show a few examples.

Here’s the beginning of the first one: “for this ordinary day”:

Lord, here I am.

How strange it is,
that some days feel like hurricanes
and others like glassy seas
and others like nothing much at all.

Today is a cosmic shrug.

My day planner says,
rather conveniently,
that I will not need you,
cry for you, reach for you.

Ordinarily, I might not think of you at all.

Except, if you don’t mind,
let me notice you.

Show up in the small necessities
and everyday graces.

God, be bread.
Be water.
Be laundry.

This is from “for feeling it all“:

So, you beautiful creature,
here is your permission slip to feel it all.
To feel the joy and delight and excitement.
And the sorrow and fear and despair.

All the yellows and pinks, and violets and grays.

Because you are the whole damn sky.

From “for what makes us us“:

Blessed are you, the strange duck.
You with the very intense hobbies.
Or the collection of movies or mugs or sneakers.
You with the hometown or home team
that makes you very, very proud.

Not everyone will get it,
but these are the things that bring you delight,
that let you swim around in the weeds
of who you are.

Sometimes the words gave me lovely reminders, like this bit from “for this lovely day”:

Refresh me, oh God.
Remind me of the loveliness found in today.
Surprise me with the details I have lost
the eyes to see.

Blessed are we, awakening from the
boredom of routine,
desiring to drink in from the beauty
around us once again,
full of the love you have given us,
the joy that is hidden among
the reeds of the ordinary.

Or this beginning of “for learning to love yourself”:

When I don’t feel worth loving,
God, help me remember
that you made me on purpose.

God, let me look through your eyes
to see the way you look at me
with pride and tenderness,
deep joy and love.

There are many that are about tough days, that are honest in turning to God in an incredibly bad time, like this from “for collective grief”:

Remind us that you, oh God,
are our home and our refuge.
When life’s unthinkable fragility
is too difficult to hold,
take my hands.

This part from “for others” resonated with me:

God, I will openly admit
that my plan was to rescue us all.
Pry this out of my hands.
Absolve my guilt.
Calm my spirit.
Let me allow you to do the impossible
and bear up the weight of the world
I am determined to carry alone.

And the section that especially spoke to me was “bless this beautiful, limited life,” including this part from “for an unfinishable day”:

In this culture of more, more, more,
make me less.

Less tidy and afraid,
less polished and buttoned up,
less prideful and judgmental.

Turn down the volume of my expectations,
and let me hear the birds sing
another lovely truth:

I am deeply and wholly loved.
I am beautiful and somehow delightful
even as I am unfinished.

That should give you the idea! In these blessings, you’ll find raw honesty. But you’ll also find comfort, beauty, encouragement, and the reminder that you’re not alone.

I think that now I’ve finished, I very well may start over at the beginning and go through this book again immediately, but at the very least, I’m going to pull it out for Advent and Lent. She’s got guides in the book and on her website for using the book in those seasons.

In whatever way you choose to use this book, I promise it will indeed bring blessings.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of I Swear, by Katie Porter

I Swear

Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan

by Katie Porter

Crown, 2023. 284 pages.
Review written August 8, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Okay, reading Katie Porter’s book made me a Katie Porter fan, similar to the way reading Elizabeth Warren’s book years ago made me an Elizabeth Warren fan. What both women have in common? They have both studied bankruptcy and fully understand that financial trouble does not imply moral failing.

One of her early stories is of studying mortgage law — and learning that banks were breaking laws, to the detriment of consumers, when they foreclosed, time and time again.

As a mortgage holder, you do what the banks tell you. You assume they’re following the law. Well, Katie Porter checked. And they weren’t. She began to get attention on that as a professor.

While I had started to change minds and get people in power to see that mortgage companies made mistakes and misbehaved, I did not want to be right. I wanted things to be right. Banks used the law to try to collect every penny; we should expect them to follow every rule.

And she decided to run for office to try to make things right.

This book has plenty about running for office and the challenges of being a single mom in Congress and commuting to the other side of the country. (She and her kids tried living in Virginia, but it didn’t work out.) It tells about her background growing up on a farm and the difficult end of her marriage. But my favorite part was where she describes her work in Congress.

As I see it, the real work of Congress is civic education. Democracy only functions if voters know what’s going on in their government and elected representatives know what’s going on in their communities. As a congressmember, that means teaching and learning, respectively.

The American people set the nation’s agenda every two years with House elections, and every four years with presidential elections. They cannot decide if they support a government policy without first knowing what the government is doing (or not doing). Representatives should be teachers, with constituents as our students.

At the same time, we should also be students, learning from our constituents. Without knowing the challenges and ideas of the people we represent, congressmembers can only substitute their own views for voters’ views. While that may happen, it is not how representative democracy is supposed to work. Getting the facts, doing the research, and gaining experience are moments of learning that help me make the best votes for my community.

Teaching and learning are the exact work I did as a law professor, before I ran for Congress. I loved that, and so not surprisingly, I love Congress work.

And yes, using a white board is a fundamental approach to teaching. Visual aids always help!

This concern for people — trying to make government better for actual people — can’t be faked. May Katie Porter continue to serve in this way for many years to come.

Oh and Hooray! When I checked her Twitter account (@katieporteroc), I see that she’s running for Senate in 2024. And she’s got a tagline on her profile: “I did not go to Washington to learn how to play by the rules. I went to Washington to rewrite them.” This book goes into the reasons why she cares about people and wants to make lives better by making government better.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Prayers from the Heart, by Lorna Byrne

Prayers from the Heart

Prayers for help and blessings
Prayers of thankfulness and love

by Lorna Byrne

Coronet, 2019. First published in Great Britain in 2018. 278 pages.
Review written August 13, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

Here’s another book by the wonderful Lorna Byrne, who writes her story in Angels in My Hair, telling how all her life she’s been able to see angels.

In this book, she gives us guidance for praying and fills the book with example prayers for specific situations. The examples are all simple and heartfelt, and reinforce that you really can pray about anything.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where she talks about how angels help us and the benefits of prayer:

We all need prayer. Now matter what you say — whether you believe in it or not — there will always be a time in your life when you need prayer. And we do all need it, though sometimes we are so cast down we feel unable to pray. That is why we should all pray for each other, because sometimes we simply cannot pray for ourselves. We may be in too much pain, physically and emotionally, and we cannot say the prayers we need to help us in our lives at that particular time.

It was when I had just read the first chapter and was thinking about how she teaches there are angels all around us that I had a lovely experience that convinced me to believe it.

After all, I believe God loves me. Why not believe that this loving God has servants all around, protecting and helping me and the world around me? This book uplifts me, encourages me, and reminds me to pray.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Cultish, by Amanda Montell


The Language of Fanaticism

by Amanda Montell

Harper Wave, 2021. 310 pages.
Review written August 8, 2023, from my own copy, signed by the author.
Starred Review

Last September, I was asked to speak at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University on a panel about book banning. After my panel, I went to hear Amanda Montell and another author speak about cults. The talk was fascinating, and I purchased both books and got them signed. I didn’t mean to take so lomg to read it, but I had lots of library books checked out, too, and have been reading for award committees, and, well, I finally finished reading it. This is not a reflection on the book — I’d often intend to read just one chapter and instead read two or three. This is just a reflection on how I read nonfiction and don’t give enough priority to books I own. The book was amazing, and got me thinking about so many things.

Amanda Montell has a background in linguistics, and she takes a look at cults from this angle — looking at the language cults use to bring in followers, which she calls “Cultish.”

Before I go any further, let me talk about what constitutes a cult. I thought I knew all about them, because I studied them for a semester at my Christian high school. We defined them as any group that doesn’t acknowledge that Jesus is God. Hmmm. Maybe that definition isn’t adequate? Especially in view of what I learned watching the “Shiny Happy People” documentary series (I blogged about my reactions to that series with “Shiny Happy Childhood” posts.), realizing that Bill Gothard’s “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” that I attended many times as a child ended up having more and more cult-like characteristics.

Amanda Montell’s intro tells stories of two people each heavily involved in a different kind of group. She asks, “What do Alyssa’s and Tasha’s stories have in common?”

The answer: They were both under cultish influence. If you’re skeptical of applying the same charged “cult” label to both 3HO and CrossFit, good. You should be. For now, let’s agree on this: Even though one of our protagonists ended up broke, friendless, and riddled with PTSD, and the other got herself a strained hamstring, a codependent friend with benefits, and a few too many pairs of overpriced leggings, what Tasha Samar and Alyssa Clarke irrefutably share is that one day, they woke up on different sides of Los Angeles and realized they were in so deep, they weren’t even speaking recognizable English anymore. Though the stakes and consequences of their respective affiliations differed considerably, the methods used to assert such power — to create community and solidarity, to establish an “us” and a “them,” to align collective values, to justify questionable behavior, to instill ideology and inspire fear — were uncannily, cultishly similar. And the most compelling techniques had little to do with drugs, sex, shaved heads, remote communes, drapey kaftans, or “Kool-Aid” . . . instead, they had everything to do with language.

You might think that a book on cultish language would have a definition of cults. The author indeed went looking for one, but it turned out that different people think of different things when they use the term. Academics don’t like to use the word because of the pejorative context. I like what the author ended up with — a sense that there’s a continuum of cultish behavior. All humans crave belonging, being part of a community. On the benign end of the cultish spectrum is simple community, being part of a close-knit group. And it’s not tremendously difficult to leave (though of course there are always emotions involved).

On the opposite end of the spectrum are groups like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate where people can’t leave even if they want to and follow the cult leader to their deaths. But most groups are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

I can’t stress enough how fascinating this book is. Amanda Montell covers religious cults, yes, but also multilevel marketing companies, fitness movements, political groups (yes, QAnon is mentioned), and so much more. It went so far beyond “groups who don’t agree with us about Jesus” and is just amazing to see how much these disparate groups have in common — particularly in their use of language.

One of the early chapters lays out the language tactics. Making people feel special and understood, often with love-bombing and inspirational buzzwords is how they begin. Conditioning follows, working over time, and the end result is coercion, convincing people to “act in ways that are completely in conflict with their former reality, ethics, and sense of self.”

She breaks down some of the techniques:

The first key element of cultish language? Creating an us-versus-them dichotomy…. The goal is to make your people feel like they have all the answers, while the rest of the world is not just foolish, but inferior. when you convince someone that they’re above everyone else, it helps you both distance them from outsiders and also abuse them, because you can paint anything from physical assault to unpaid labor to verbal attacks as “special treatment” reserved only for them.

This is part of why cults have their own jargon in the first place: elusive acronyms, insider-y mantras, even simple labels like “fiber-lab.” It all inspires a sense of intrigue, so potential recruits will want to know more; then, once they’re in, it creates camaraderie, such that they start to look down on people who aren’t privy to this exclusive code. The language can also highlight any potential troublemakers, who resist the new terms — a hint that they might not be fully on board with the ideology and should be watched.

Another technique came up over and over again:

There’s a companion tool to loaded language that can be found in every cultish leader’s repertoire: It’s called the thought-terminating cliché. Coined in 1961 by the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, this term refers to catchphrases aimed at halting an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought. Ever since I learned of the concept, I now hear it everywhere — in political debates, in the hashtag wisdom that clogs my Instagram feed. Cultish leaders often call on thought-terminating clichés, also known as sematic stop signs, to hastily dismiss dissent or rationalize flawed reasoning…. While loaded language is a cue to intensify emotions, semantic stop signs are a cue to discontinue thought. To put it most simply, when used in conjunction, a follower’s body screams “Do whatever the leader says,” while their brain whispers “Don’t think about what might happen next” — and that’s a deadly coercive combination.

But as when I learned to identify verbal abuse by reading Patricial Evans’ writing, identifying cultish language is more for yourself than it is for warning others:

Thought-terminating clichés are by no means exclusive to “cults.” Ironically, calling someone “brainwashed” can even serve as a semantic stop sign. You can’t engage in a dialogue with someone who says, “That person is brainwashed” or “You’re in a cult.” It’s just not effective. I know this because every time I witness it happen on social media, the argument comes to a standstill. Once these phrases are invoked, they choke the conversation, leaving no hope of figuring out what’s behind the drastic rift in belief.

So, this all gives you an idea of what you’ll find in this book. Along with this conversation about things cultish groups have in common, there are many, many case studies, examples from everywhere on the spectrum from innocent to harmful. Some extra time is given to Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, but there are plenty of more everyday examples. She even talks about how social media is designed to “generate ideological sects, to pack people’s feeds with suggested content that only exaggerates what they already believe.”

After looking at so many types and degrees of cultish behavior and language, the author reminds us that we are made for community. We won’t avoid cult-like spaces altogether, nor do we want to.

Above all else, it’s important to maintain a vigilant twinkle in your eye — that tingle in your brain that tells you there’s some degree of metaphor and make-believe here, and that your identity comes not from one swami or single-minded ideology but from the vast amalgam of influences, experiences, and language that make up who you are. As long as you hang on to that, I think it’s possible to engage with certain cultish groups, knowing that at the end of the day, when you come home or close the app, strip off the group’s linguistic uniform, and start speaking like yourself again, you’re not all in.

So, yes, this is a valuable book. It gives perspective on how people get pulled into cultish groups and ways to check where the groups you’re part of (and we are all part of groups) fall on the health spectrum. But it can also give us compassion for those who find themselves in a difficult place. it’s not stupidity that gets them there, it’s design.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of The Gift of Story, by John Schu

The Gift of Story

Exploring the Affective Side of the Reading Life

by John Schu

Stenhouse Publishers, 2022. 170 pages.
Review written August 1, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

First, a disclaimer: John Schu is a librarian I’ve met and even was briefly on a committee with. He’s also the kind of person whom once you meet, you think of him as a friend. He has Mr. Rogers’ ability of focusing on the person he’s talking with, making you feel like he cares – and you can’t help but care back. So this is a review of a book by my friend and fellow librarian, and of course I’m going to love it.

That said, this is a wonderful book for people who love children’s books and want to influence children to love children’s books. It’s a book about Story, and the wonderful ways that Story touches and enriches our lives. The book is written mainly for those who work with kids in schools, teachers and librarians and staff, with many ways for connecting children with books they will love. Here’s how John sums it up in a note at the front:

I want you to know that this is a book of my heart. In it, I’ll share thoughts, recommendations, stories, and the interactions I’ve had with thousands and thousands and thousands of students and educators over the past twenty years. And, even as I write — without the energy of a live audience providing input, guiding the conversation, and filling the room and my heart with joy — I will imagine you are sitting beside me as we take this journey together, working tirelessly to create environments in which all children interact with teachers, teacher-librarians and administrators who read to them, booktalk with them, and view them not as labels but as individuals who need to be surrounded with authentic literature, given opportunities to discuss, debate, connect, laugh, and cry over stories — and experience buckets and buckets of love.

What is Story, anyway? John Schu has been pushing children’s books in schools for years, and so he has connections with hundreds of authors. He asked authors what Story is to them, and their answers appear throughout the book. In fact, he invites people to make their own #StoryIs statements, and you can find responses by searching the #StoryIs hashtag.

He sums up where he’s going at the end of the first chapter:

Stories affirm our experiences. They challenge our comfort zone. They give us space to hibernate and pull us out of our isolation when we need to be reminded we aren’t alone. They help us evolve. They feed our human existence. In the following chapters, we’ll explore how stories can change us, inspire us, connect us to others, answer our deepest questions, and help us heal. We’ll look at ways sharing our hearts through literacy can help us celebrate, tell, define, revise, and imagine our own stories and how experiencing other people’s stories can connect us through universal truths. And we’ll do all of this while shining particular light on the important role books and libraries in our communities play to help us connect across stories.

The chapters that follow focus on particular aspects of Story: Story as Healer, Story as Inspiration, Story as Clarifier, Story as Compassion, and Story as Connector. Each chapter talks about the topic, has a section “From the Brain to the Heart” talking about what it means in lives, a section “From the Heart to the Classroom” about getting the ideas into the classroom, a section bringing in other voices on the topic, including other librarians and teachers and authors, and many recent book recommendations that tie in with the theme. And of course the whole thing is peppered with authors’ #StoryIs quotations. At the end of every chapter, there’s a place to list your favorite titles for that chapter’s focus on Story.

I was reading this book on vacation and saw my sister who’s a school psychologist. She needs this book! In fact anyone who works with kids in schools needs this book. There are so many ideas of ways to bring books into your students’ lives, so many great children’s books introduced, and inspiring reminders of how you can touch and uplift students’ hearts.

Yes, it’s also fantastic for public librarians who work with kids. You’ll get a fantastic list of books to check out and recommend, and you, too, will get ideas for ways to connect books with readers and be inspired.

This book reminds me how lucky I am to do the important and wonderful job of connecting children with books that will touch their hearts.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of You Could Make This Place Beautiful, by Maggie Smith

You Could Make This Place Beautiful

A Memoir

by Maggie Smith

One Signal Publishers (Atria), 2023. 314 pages.
Review written July 18, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Oh my goodness. This book was hard to read. But so evocative. So perfectly expressing something awful — what it’s like to go through divorce.

The book is a series of essays, vignettes, poems, thoughts — all about the time period after the author learned her husband was cheating on her.

But it’s not so simple as that. Not by a longshot.

And that’s what I loved about the book. Because, I, too, learned my husband was cheating on me. For me, it was Dalmatian hair on his socks, not a pine cone. And nothing, but nothing, was simple after that. I love the way she captures the oh-so-complicated emotions and thoughts and heart-pangs involved.

It also made me feel like some of the things I was slightly ashamed of — Oh, someone else did that, too!

For example, I didn’t tell my family and friends at first — because I didn’t want to hurt their relationship with him. (And that was a lonely, horrid, place to be.) I, too, went to counseling with my husband, where we didn’t talk about my husband seeing another woman, but about what I was doing wrong. For me, too, the hardest thing to forgive was when he moved to the other side of the world from our children, in order to get away from me. The second-guessing. The weird dreams. So much about her experiences reminded me of my own.

I very much liked the way she told the story in essentially a nonlinear way. Because I’ve tried to tell my story in linear ways, and it inevitably leaves so much out. Not that this includes everything, but I like the way it expresses the wounds within wounds, but also how it’s all tied up in someone you once loved with your whole heart and it’s tangled up in beautiful memories and what does your life mean now and all the bundle of questioning and pondering and trying to keep moving.

And I already loved Maggie Smith’s Keep Moving book. Her divorce happened many years after mine, and as thoroughly happy as I am with my life now — this will always still strike a chord.

Yes. It’s the story of the end of a marriage and moving on after it and somehow coping with parenting and adulting and making a living with a completely unexpected life — all beautifully told.

Thank you, Maggie Smith. This book is beautiful.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Razing Hell, by Sharon L. Baker

Razing Hell

Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment

by Sharon L. Baker

Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 222 pages.
Review written July 3, 2023, from my own copy, ordered via
Starred Review

For decades now, I’ve been collecting books on universalism. Razing Hell is a lovely example. The book is focused primarily on rethinking our views of hell, by looking at what the Bible says about it in the original languages, and checking how it matches the strong Bible message of a God of love.

I like Dr. Baker’s approach, because although she’s coming at it from deep scholarship (as evidenced by the list of sources in the Appendix), she makes the book accessible and uses the questions of actual students she’s known to elucidate these views. I also liked that she goes beyond presenting a new view of hell to talk about the aspects of theology that would affect, such as retributive vs. restorative justice and the purpose of the atonement. It’s all presented in a readable and accessible way, with the Appendix loaded full of references, both Scriptural and academic.

She presents a view of hell I found familiar from George MacDonald’s writings: She builds off the idea that God is a consuming fire. And then suggests that this fire is love — that will burn away what is evil — so will be painful for those who hold onto evil. She even imagined part of the pain of judgment may be an offender being confronted by the pain of all those they had hurt. She isn’t saying this image is necessarily exactly how things will go, but she does present a solid case that the purpose of hell is restorative justice, not retributive justice.

One small point that I don’t remember seeing in other books on universalism is that in the Bible, justice and violence are often presented as opposites:

First, in the biblical texts, justice is often opposed to violence. In Isaiah 5:7, God “expected justice [from Israel], but saw bloodshed” instead (NRSV). Isaiah 59:3-4 begins with the violent, wicked actions of the people, stating that “your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue utters wickedness. No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly” (NRSV). Because of these unjust, violent actions “justice is far from [them]” (59:9). If we compare that passage to Isaiah 16:4-5, it indicates that once oppression and violence are gone, justice is established. From these verses we see that justice and violence have nothing in common. In other words, where there’s violence, justice is absent. We may even be able to say that justice and violence stand as opposites so that one cancels out the other. The absence of justice in acts of violence begs this question: If justice is not present in violence, how then can we conceive of a God who executes justice through violence, especially the eternal violence of hell as we have traditionally thought it?

She talks about how forgiveness fits into this picture of justice:

Reconciling justice is also transformational justice. It pierces the darkness of retributive violence with the grace of God and the message of peace through love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. to do justice is to love; to do justice is to forgive; to do justice is to reconcile; this is a chain reaction in which love forgives, forgiveness reconciles, and reconciliation restores — all characteristics of divine justice, God’s reconciling justice.

And here’s a crucial question that years ago got me started along the path of universalism:

But does the defeat of sin within the person take place only in the temporal realm, within time itself, while we live in this body? Why should it? If we are beings who live on after death, like the Bible seems to say, what makes us think that God limits the bestowing of eternal grace to one time period? Why can’t God extend the offer of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation through Jesus even at judgment — when all will be laid bare, when all persons will see the extent of their sin and the extravagance of God’s love?

And later on, she asks similar questions, after referring to the parable of the workers in the field (where those who labored one hour got the same wages as those who worked all day, who were angry about it):

If God desires to continue the work of reconciliation up to the last second, how can we protest? A sermon I heard as a new Christian put forth one of my favorite images of God as a God of second chances, a God who never gives up on us, who pursues us like a hound of heaven, always offering opportunities for repentance and reconciliation. Why wouldn’t God offer that same invitation on that final day? Why would God’s work of salvation end just because someone’s body dies? The work of Jesus must still be effective after the end of time or even after time runs out.

And here are some broader questions, at the end of the chapter “The Fire, the Wicked, and the Redeemed”:

Which vision of hell most coheres with the God revealed in Jesus — the view of hell in which persons suffer for all eternity with no hope for reconciliation with God, or the view of hell in which persons understand the depth of their sins, take full responsibility for them, and reconcile not only with God, but also with their victims? Which view offers a more compassionate eschatology? Which view takes more seriously the extensive significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Which view most adequately and permanently exterminates evil? Can hell coexist with God’s kingdom of love?

And there’s more. She looks at specific Bible passages and the meaning of Greek words translated “hell” or “eternal,” among others.

Then I appreciated where she looks deeply at the Old Testament sacrificial system. It wasn’t about payment, but about cleansing and dedicating your life.

For the Hebrew people, blood was a symbol for life or the giving of life represented in the Old Testament sacrificial system. So when the priests sprinkled the blood on the altar, it symbolized the people giving their own lives up to God as living and holy sacrifices. The blood served as an outward symbol of an inward reality: the life of the worshiper given to God, set apart (the meaning of “holy”) for God’s purposes.

And then she lists many Old Testament scriptures, especially from the prophets, where they learn God is far more interested in their hearts than in their sacrifices.

We needed to see the message of the prophets, proclaiming that God rejected blood sacrifices, the formalism of worship without the heart to go with it, and the shedding of blood without the investment of a life given to God to back it up. I’ll reiterate for the sake of emphasis: God never intended for Israel to kill animals and pour their blood out on the altar as an exercise in itself. God hoped the people would catch on to the true meaning of the blood poured out and perform their external sacrifices as a symbol for the true internal sacrifice of their very lives set apart to God and for God.

And there’s lots more about atonement, about forgiveness, about the kingdom of God, about Jesus reconciling people to God — and what that all means in our lives now.

Jesus makes this clear to us in John 13:35. He says that all people will know we are his disciples . . . how? By preaching hellfire and brimstone? By throwing around threats of eternal punishment for those who reject Jesus? No! All people will know we are the disciples of Jesus by the love we have for one another. Through our love for others! The very nature of our reconciliation with God through Jesus makes us God’s agents, God’s ministers of reconciliation — not so that we can work to keep people out of hell, but so we can transform the world through reconciliation. The only way to get rid of enemies is not to throw them into an eternal hell, but to preach divine forgiveness and guide them to a life reconciled with God and others.

As with all other books on universalism that I’ve reviewed, please don’t imagine that my summary is a complete argument or contains all the important points. I hope this review piques some people’s curiosity and inspires them to read this book.

There’s a spectrum for books about universalism that ranges from super academic and full of footnotes, designed for biblical scholars, all the way to books written entirely for laypeople and that don’t use a lot of Scripture references to back up their points. This book is pretty squarely in the middle of that spectrum. Maybe a little on the academic side, because it does get into the weeds of other ramifications of universalism — but she puts the notes into an appendix to keep the analysis flowing.

Highly recommended, and I do hope this will motivate some of my blog readers to read this book.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of One Coin Found, by Emmy Kegler

One Coin Found

How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins

by Emmy Kegler

Fortress Press, 2019. 209 pages.
Review written June 4, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

What a beautiful book! I bought it years ago and meant to read it, but recently read something the author wrote in A Rhythm of Prayer, edited by Sarah Bessey, and was reminded that I’d been meaning to read it. So I took it on vacation and was thoroughly blessed by its words.

The book is the author’s life story and how she found grace and love from God even when some churches failed her.

Emmy grew up in church and felt called to be a preacher. But when she realized she was queer, that was an even bigger obstacle than being a woman. The story of how the Lord’s calling kept after her is a story that she compares to the parable of the woman who loses a coin and keeps searching until she finds it.

Also along the way, she teaches beautiful principles about interpreting Scripture which tied in well with a book I was also reading, Godbreathed, by Zack Hunt.

Here’s a beautiful passage in the introductory chapter, where she talks about the “Lost” chapter of the Bible, Luke 11, which has the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son:

What I think, my fellow second sons, is that we were told the truth. The story is for us. We are the prodigal son. But too we are lost and hungry sheep. We have gone unfed, walked without rest, been chased by wolves, and our friends and leaders did not see our pain. But God, in big and little ways, has donned a shepherd’s cloak and come running after us. God, in big and little ways, has clambered over rocks and climbed down cliffs. God has found us, hungrier and more hurt and terrified, and cradled us close to say: No matter why you left or where you went, you are mine.

We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine.

The book is more theology laced with memoir, and her writing is beautiful, and it builds to this conclusion that mirrors the beginning:

We are, beloved, the impossibilities of God. We have dared to believe the stories of Scripture. Not the verses easily slung like stones from a condemning hand, but the stories that are real, and make us real, and bring us home. We have faced near-insurmountable boundaries between us and God. We have had the treasured stories of Scripture torn from us by those too bound in fear to see the beauty of our witness. We have been pushed to the edges again and again, our voices silenced, our cries mocked. And every time, the love of God has gone out after us. God has put on callused feet and taken up a knobbly staff to crawl down crevices and call us back to pastures full of lush love, nourishing and sweet. God has taken up a broom and cleared each corner, untucked and retucked each sheet and quilt, turned over pitcher after pitcher to see where we have landed. And God has paced the flagstones of a farm porch, eyes always on the horizon, wondering and wanting, a seat still empty at the table, heaven incomplete until all the family is home.

We have been and are and will be found in such a myriad of ways, but always, always, always love is seeking us.

Dare to be found.

I highly recommend reading about Emmy Kegler’s journey, with its beautiful picture of what our faith can be.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

X + Y, by Eugenia Cheng

X + Y

A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender

by Eugenia Cheng

Basic Books, 2020. 272 pages.
Review written May 9, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

I love this book so very much! And I’m so glad I finally got it read — had meant to ever since it came out. I’m going on vacation this week and decided to finish it before I left — and Wow! — it’s full of transformative concepts.

Now, if you’re not a math-lover like me, please don’t be put off by the fact that this book is written by a mathematician. She works with Category Theory, a branch of mathematics that doesn’t necessarily deal with numbers, but about relationships and how things interact with other things.

In this book, she uses category theory to take on gender. And wow! What a lovely job she does.

Now, she starts with something I related to completely — the lack of women in higher mathematics. I started a PhD program in math at UCLA immediately after college. I was one of only 5 women out of 120 new math graduate students that year. Three of the other women were in master’s programs, not doctoral — and I ended up dropping out a year and a quarter later with my Master’s. So I am very aware that there’s a gender disparity in mathematics.

The first part of the book looks at difficulties with even talking about gender disparities. She looks at problematic arguments about nature or nurture.

And then she takes us to another dimension. She takes the gendered dimension out of the discussion and defines some new terms.

We need new, ungendered language in order to separate character traits from gender and have less divisive conversations in which people don’t have to get defensive about “not all men” or “not all women” being a certain way. Because indeed men are not the same, and neither are women. Not all men are aggressive, competitive, risk-taking, and unempathetic. And even those who do behave in those ways might only do so because of social pressure and the idea, perpetuated by social norms, that this is how to be successful in society. When certain behavior is rewarded by society many people will strive to behave in those ways even if at some deeper level it makes them unhappy.

The ungendered language she comes up with are the terms “ingressive” and “congressive.” Ingressive behavior focuses on the individual, and congressive behavior focuses on the group. Here are her definitions:

ingressive: focusing on oneself over society and community, imposing on people more than taking others into account, emphasizing independence and individualism, more competitive and adversarial than collaborative, tending toward selective or single-track thought processes

congressive: focusing on society and community over self, taking others into account more than imposing on them, emphasizing interdependence and interconnectedness, more collaborative and cooperative than competitive, tending toward circumspect thought processes.

This is not a clean dichotomy even though some aspects sound like exact opposites of each other. It’s not a classification of people into two camps. It’s a way to evaluate behavior in a flexible and dynamic way to reflect the fact that people are flexible and dynamic day by day and also over the course of their lives, not fixed and rigid.

She goes on to talk about spaces that are more ingressive and spaces that are more congressive. Interesting to me, she left her position at a university and began a career teaching math at an art school. Yes, she found many more women at the art school, but she can go beyond gender and talk about how it’s much more set up as an ingressive space. And she’s happier working in that space.

She describes examples of other people, both women and men, who gave up more ingressive careers (after achieving success) for more congressive roles.

And she talks about how math education is set up to reward ingressive behavior, with lots of testing and competition. This was interesting to me, because at first I thought, oh, I must be mostly ingressive because I love competition, and really enjoyed math competitions when I was a student.

But then I think about my happy switch from teaching college math to becoming a librarian. I’ve said many times, “In the library, I still get to help people learn, but now I’m on their side! As an instructor, I had to test them, and I felt like their adversary. Now I get to show kids the fun side of math.” So I have to stand as another example of someone who turned out to be much, much happier in a more ingressive career path.

I was also fascinated by her ideas to make education – yes, even mathematics education — more congressive. She suspects that could attract more people to the field who might be turned off by the current more ingressive way it tends to be taught. I loved when she started elaborating on that idea:

Congressive math is what I have been teaching to art students for several years. I think it’s also what is introduced to children at the very beginning of school, when it’s all about play and exploration with blocks and toys and other things they can touch and feel. It comes back around to being like this at a research level, but by that time I think we’ve already put off far too many congressive people with the phase in between.

I think math should be congressive all the way through. We really don’t need to train people to be human calculators anymore, now that we have actual calculators with us more or less all the time (for example, on our phones). So math could be more congressive by being about exploration and processes. It could be more about ways of thinking than about knowledge.

I would like to see a non-cumulative curriculum so that each stage doesn’t depend on the previous stage. The traditional model is more like a series of hurdles that get higher and higher and are specially designed to weed people out at each level. Not only is this ingressive, it’s also counterproductive, as we are not weeding out the right people.

But I shouldn’t go on so much about math, because that was a side point. The really beautiful thing about this book was how it took gendered language out of discussions about our society. I suspect you could also use these ideas in discussions about race.

I believe that the new dimension of ingressive and congressive traits can help us overcome bias that can’t be addressed on the dimension of gender alone. I think this is how we can deal with implicit bias in the system that comes from our association of character with gender, and how we can deal with indirect bias that comes from favoring ingressive behavior. But I think it will also have an effect on explicit bias, as it is a way for everyone to escape one-dimensional gendered thinking in their heads and think more clearly about what contributions to society we want to see. With every individual who escapes that thinking, the hold of both implicit and explicit gender bias will be lessened.

And the book finishes up with a vision of what things could be like in a society that encourages congressive behavior — and offers tips on ways to be more congressive in your personal life and perhaps in your personal environment (such as her math classrooms in art school). There’s even a helpful appendix at the back that demonstrates how you can respond to personal attacks with congressive statements instead of ingressively attacking back.

Now I’ll admit, I was predisposed to love this book having been a woman working in the field of mathematics, even if it was at a lower level than Dr. Cheng. But I’m also delighted with and impressed by her ideas. May we work together, in our lives and in our communities, to make the world a more congressive place. I highly recommend this book, and would love to discuss it with others who have read it.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Godbreathed, by Zack Hunt


What It Really Means for the Bible to be Divinely Inspired

by Zack Hunt

Herald Press, 2023. 188 pages.
Review written May 30, 2023, from my own copy purchased via
Starred Review

Godbreathed is a book about inspiration and what that means when we’re talking about the Bible, but also what it means when we’re talking about ourselves.

Zack Hunt was brought up, as I was, revering the Bible and believing in its inerrancy. But he shows in this book what’s wrong with that and how Christians who worship the Bible end up worshiping their own interpretation of it.

Here are some thoughts I marked from the first chapter:

When we transform the Bible into the divine, or more accurately our interpretation of the Bible into “a biblical worldview,” we begin to focus on the story we think it tells, rather than the story we are being invited into. When we conclude we have the Bible figured out, we end up telling others where they belong instead of trying to figure out our own place within the story of the people of God. We begin to tell a new story of our own creation and we have become very bad storytellers. We tell stories about exclusion and damnation, oppression and misogyny, of condemnation of the poor and scapegoating the stranger, and we do it all in the name of God.

When we put bad stories in the mouth of God, we smother what the Hebrew Bible calls the ruach of God, the very breath of God — that is to say, the Spirit herself from blowing how and where she will and to and through whom she will. This sort of idolatry kills, sometimes physically, but always spiritually. It should come as no surprise then to see the Bible lose not just its place of authority in modern life, but also its relevance or appeal to anyone not already warming a pew on Sunday morning. After all, who would want to be part of a story that crushes your spirit with constant judgment and damnation?

But this is not a book primarily about tearing down beliefs. It’s also a look at how the Spirit moves in the living church today.

It is from this biblical rebirth that we can begin to reimagine divine inspiration not as a form of heavenly dictation, but a Spirit-infused, wholly saturated way of life that begets more life. This is the indwelling of the spirit in our lives, this inspiration, literally the in-Spirit-ing of our very being. Or as the Bible calls it, being godbreathed (2 Timothy 3:16).

This is by no means a book about throwing out the Bible. But the author looks at the Bible as a godbreathed book written by humans in specific places and times. This is an uplifting book challenging but also helping the reader to be moved by the Bible to live a life of love.

I can’t say it enough: you are godbreathed. You. The one reading these words right now. God breathed you into existence and wants you to find your story within the story of faith that has already been told and is being told all around you. This is the calling of all godbreathed things, whether that be the written word or flesh and bone — to be godbreathed, to be filled with the Spirit of God, to be filled with love and wonder and share that love and wonder with the rest of the world just as God first shared it with us. We cannot make any claim to believing the Bible is godbreathed if that belief in a godbreathed word doesn’t lead us to love our godbreathed neighbors just as God first loved us.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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.

What did you think of this book?