Archive for November, 2011

Review of ScreamFree Marriage, by Hal Edward Runkel

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

ScreamFree Marriage

Calming Down, Growing Up, and Getting Closer

by Hal Edward Runkel, LMFT
with Jenny Runkel

Crown Archetype, New York, 2011. 276 pages.
Starred Review

Why, you may ask, would someone who’s recently completed a painful divorce want to read a book on improving your marriage?

Well, I asked myself that a few times as I was in the middle of this book, and I did read it slowly, only a chapter at a time, because in many ways the good advice made me wistful.

If I ever remarry, I will purchase a copy of this book. As it is, for my own growth, I think it’s good to look back and figure out the ways my own immature responses hurt our marriage. It can only help me grow.

And that’s what this book is about: Behaving like a grown-up, an emotionally mature person in your marriage.

I read the book because I was extremely impressed with the author’s earlier book, ScreamFree Parenting. So even though I’m not married any more, I very much wanted to read what he had to say about marriage. His mantra is in the subtitle: “Calm Down, Grow Up, Get Closer.” As the author talks about different scenarios in marriage, you can see what good advice that is.

When Hal Runkel talks about calming down and keeping your cool, he’s not referring to hiding your emotions from your partner. Indeed, that’s one of the ways he describes that some people scream.

“In ScreamFree Marriage, ‘keeping your cool’ does not refer to simple anger-management techniques or artificial rules of engagement (fighting fair). No, becoming ScreamFree in your marriage refers to something far more optimistic. Here, keeping your cool means discovering and holding on to your truest self — and having the courage to openly pursue your truest desires — even in the midst of your greatest conflicts. It means willingly and calmly facing the natural fires of marital commitment, and actually growing up — and getting closer — through them.

“Entering into such conflicts with integrity is not an easy task; it’s not supposed to be. Developing a marriage built on passion, commitment, and deep connection means committing yourself to a new way of relating. It means keeping your cool as you face conflicts with your spouse that may have previously set you off in some form of ‘screaming.’ Being Scream Free means holding on to your deepest desires for connection and boldy making yourself vulnerable . . . without knowing how your spouse will respond. It means viewing old marital patterns through new lenses, no longer seeing those patterns as indications of irreconcilable differences, but rather as opportunities to grow your personal integrity and transform your relationship. It’s not a journey for timid spirits, but the rewards are certainly worth the struggle.”

Now, I used to absolutely hate it when my husband said I was “screaming” at him when I knew full well that I was not. (I can give an example of screaming!) However, the author has this to say:

“Now, I hear what some of you are thinking. ‘But I don’t ever scream at my spouse.’ And that’s what I used to think as well. But what I mean by ‘screaming’ is not just yelling with a raised voice. Screaming is the term I use to describe the greatest enemy we all face in our marriage: emotional reactivity. That’s a big, clinical expression to describe the process of letting our anxious emotions override our clear thinking. Getting emotionally reactive means allowing our worst fears or worries to drive our choices, instead of our highest principles. And whenever we allow ourselves to be driven by our anxiety, we usually create the very outcome we were hoping to avoid in the first place.”

Again, the author is not talking about stuffing feelings. He’s talking about getting to a calm place where you can share your true feelings with your partner and be open to hearing your partner’s true feelings. And the “Grow Up” part of his mantra is about coming from a place of maturity, not from emotional reactivity. I liked this passage, because it rings true:

“The greatest thing you can do for your marriage is to learn to focus more on yourself, yes, I believe you actually need to become more self-centered. Now, before you call this crazy talk, hear me out. Every great marriage is a self-centered marriage because every great marriage requires two centered selves. Every great marriage is a bond between two whole, centered people. These two strong individuals actively work on improving themselves for the other’s benefit, without necessarily depending on the other to do the same. These two are afraid of neither separation nor togetherness, and work to seek a balance of both. These two pay more attention to their own behavior, which they can control, than their spouse’s which, thankfully, they cannot.”

The author goes on to show you the beauty of his formula: “Calm Down, Grow Up, Get Closer.” I’ll just summarize the two sub-steps of each step. For “Calm Down,” you Pause Yourself (self-explanatory) and Go to the Balcony, mentally take yourself out of and above the moment, gain some perspective.

In the “Grow Up” step, you first Spot Your Pattern. Figure out what part of the pattern you are contributing to. What actions that you are taking are contributing? Once you’ve figured that out, “Step on the Scales.” Analyze your own behavior and ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. (And Hal Runkel has a nice example in his own marriage to illustrate these steps.) Ask yourself why this particular pattern means so much to you. But also ask yourself, “What, in this situation, do I want most to see happen?”

The third step of ScreamFree Marriage is “Get Closer.” This begins with part one: “Show Your Cards.”

“And the first step in getting closer is, naturally, quite revealing. It is quite risky. It is the move we so often avoid in all our relationships, especially our marriages, because it necessitates so much openness and vulnerability. And yet, do it we must if we are going to have a chance at getting what we want most. What are we talking about? We’re talking about doing or saying that one thing you’ve been so reluctant to do or say for fear of rejection, abuse, looking stupid, feeling weak, or simply not getting the response you’d hoped for. We’re talking about laying down your hand and showing your cards.

“Now, for those of you totally unfamiliar with poker, this metaphor may not mean anything. My guess is that most of us, however, can understand the meaning here quite clearly. Showing your cards is about mustering the courage to recognize that it’s your turn to reveal what you’ve got. In the game of poker, this is always the tensest moment, because it’s the boldest effort to win — and thus carries with it the opportunity to lose. Showing your cards in marriage is daring to risk revealing who you are, what you’re thinking and feeling, and what you want most. This is the clearest, starkest move of Authentic Self-Representation.”

Then, after you Show Your Cards, the final part is to “Champion Your Spouse.” This does not mean telling your spouse he’d better do what you want.

“While getting closer is all about focusing on yourself and representing that self to your spouse, it is also about welcoming, and encouraging your spouse to do the same.

“Now I know that sounds a little contrary to what I was saying earlier about not doing this in order to provoke a particular response from your spouse. That’s not what this is. Championing your spouse is working hard to communicate — not so much with words or actions but by your very calm presence — that you welcome, and even invite, any response at all. Even if that response is reactive screaming (non-abusive, of course). Even if that response is silence. Even if that response is confusion, frustration, or choosing to voice a concern right back at you. By championing your spouse, you are again communicating what you want most — that voluntary connection that makes both partners feel prized, valued, and stronger as individuals. In reality, you cannot have that connection without your spouse choosing to reveal himself, in some way, back to you. . . .

“What you do want your spouse to do is show you what he’s got. You don’t want him to ‘play it close to the vest,’ hiding himself and his true feelings and desires from you. You want him to reveal and represent himself because just as you want to make yourself known, you want to know him. That’s why you got married! To share yourself with someone who wants to share himself with you. It’s ironic that we can’t wait to get to know each other better, until we get a few years under our belt. Then our fears, and memories of disappointment, make us a little gun-shy. We either shy away from conflict or reactively reveal ourselves in aggressive, attacking ways that force our partner to shy away from us.”

So you get the idea. The author talks about how to use these steps in many common areas of marital conflict, and then talks a bit more about developing true intimacy through self-revelation. I wish I could have tried it out in my own marriage!

Before I close my review, I want to cover a section that impressed me toward the end of the book. The author does, very realistically, encourage you to focus on yourself and your own growth — but I liked this section about personal growth and encouraging your spouse to grow:

“I certainly understand the dynamic of one spouse trying to change the other, and the other trying to resist those efforts. In many ways, that dynamic is the exact pattern I’m calling people away from. I’m asking folks to stop focusing on their spouse and return their gaze to themselves. But that applies to both the spouse doing the attempted manipulation as well as the spouse trying to resist being changed. Stop focusing so much on what your spouse is trying to do to you, and start focusing on something much more fruitful: changing yourself.

“What’s fascinating about the Popeye defense” [“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” Your spouse should just accept you for who you are.] “is that when it’s used, it comes across as some healthy self-acceptance that everyone needs to adopt. ‘I can accept me for me — why can’t she?’ On the surface, in our pop-psychology-riddled society, this may have the appearance of wisdom. But dig deeper, and this attitude is not only unwise, it’s actually harmful to both you and your marriage. . . .

“Just think about that for a moment. You want your spouse to just accept you for who you are? Really? Even if you’re lazy? Even if you totally let your body go and become weak, fat, and unhealthy? Even if you drink too much or watch too much TV or read too many romance novels? Even if you neglect your kids, spend without discretion, complain about your spouse to your friends instead of addressing the issue directly? Your spouse is just supposed to sit back and accept all these behaviors as the honest, unchanging you he/she is stuck with forever?

“If your answer is no, then Calm Down, Grow Up, and Get Closer by actually seeking out your spouse’s feedback. Go to him and ask what you could be doing better. Ask her directly how she thinks you’re doing, and what she wishes you would do more or and less of. Why? Because if you’re going to be the best spouse possible, then you need continual feedback on how you’re doing and how you can improve.

“Now, if your answer is yes, that you believe your spouse should just accept you fully, warts and all, then I want you to listen carefully. Your problem is not your spouse’s efforts to change you. Your problem is that you don’t respect yourself — at all. You don’t even like yourself. Anyone who respects herself is going to actively work to improve herself, rarely sitting back and remaining satisfied. Anyone who even likes himself is going to nurture his God-given desire to grow in wisdom, and build on his skills and abilities. Instead, you’re just wallowing in atrophy, using your emotional muscles only to defend yourself against your spouse’s efforts to change you. And you’re wondering why even the good things in life just don’t seem to be as pleasurable as they once were. That’s because you’ve ‘accepted’ yourself and demanded that your spouse do the same.

“But I know you. I know that you don’t want your spouse to just accept you. You want her to respect you. You want her to respect that you are not a child, incapable of doing anything for himself and in need of a mommy to tell him how to behave. You want him to see you as an adult, one who knows herself and knows what she needs to do. Well, there’s one way to gain that respect.

“Let love rule. Call yourself to your own standard. The standard you’ve already set for yourself by saying ‘I love you’ and ‘I do.’ You wish for and work for your spouse to have the best possible life, including the best possible spouse, and you believe you’re the one for the job. That’s what it means to love your spouse, and yourself.”

See what I mean? There’s good stuff here! May it help many, many couples Calm Down, Grow Up, and Get Closer.

I’m going to close with a quotation Hal Runkel included that made me laugh:

“My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me.” — Garry Shandling

After all, if your spouse doesn’t understand you, could there perhaps be something you can do about that?

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

Review of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Harper, 2011. 256 pages.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story Kamila Sidiqi and how she kept her family of sisters — and many of their neighbors — going when the Taliban came.

Kamila got her teaching certificate in 1996, just before the Taliban came. She’d gone to classes despite the war. But with the Taliban in charge, she couldn’t teach. Her father and oldest brother had to leave Kabul, for fear of getting targeted by the Taliban. She and her sisters had to stay inside, and could only leave the house in full chadri with a male relative escort. The situation in Kabul got worse and worse.

“This is what I have to figure out, Kamila thought to herself. I need to find something I can do at home, behind closed doors. I need to find something that people need, something useful that they’ll want to buy. She knew she had very few options. Only basic necessities mattered now; no one had money for anything else. Teaching school might be an option, but it was unlikely to earn her enough money, since most families still kept their girls at home out of fear for their safety. And she certainly didn’t want her income to depend on an improvement in the security situation.

“Kamila spent long days thinking about her options, considering which skills she could learn quickly that would also bring in enough afghani to make a difference for her family. And then it came to her, inspired by her older sister Malika, who, along with being a great teacher, had over many years developed into a talented — and sought-after — seamstress. Women from her neighborhood in Karteh Parwan loved her work so much that Malika’s tailoring income now earned her almost as much as her teacher’s salary. That’s it, Kamila thought. I’ll become a seamstress.

“There were many positives: she could do the work in her living room, her sisters could help, and, most important of all, she had seen for herself at Lycee Myriam that the market for clothing remained strong. Even with the Taliban in power and the economy collapsing, women would still need simple dresses. As long as she kept quiet and didn’t attract unnecessary attention, the risks should be manageable.

“Kamila faced just one major obstacle: she had no idea how to sew.”

This book tells the compelling story of how Kamila faced that, and many other obstacles that were by no means minor, and built a thriving business that even helped other neighboring families without men in charge.

I like the author’s summary at the end of why Kamila’s story is so important:

“Brave young women commit heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed. I wanted to pull the curtain back for readers on a place foreigners know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage. And to introduce them to the young women like Kamila Sidiqi who will go on. No matter what.”

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

Review of The Little Rabbit Who Liked to Say MOO, by Jonathan Allen

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The Little Rabbit Who Liked to Say MOO

by Jonathan Allen

Boxer Books, 2008. 28 pages.
Starred Review

I was very surprised to realize I hadn’t reviewed this book yet. It’s been a favorite Storytime choice of mine ever since I found it in the New Books section in 2008. It’s absolutely perfect for toddlers and young preschoolers. They are generally quite good at animal sounds, and this throws in a nice twist.

Here’s how it begins:

“Little Rabbit sat in the farmer’s field.

“‘Moo,’ said Little Rabbit. ‘Moo.’

“‘Why are you saying moo?’ asked Calf. ‘You’re not a cow.’

“‘I like moo,’ said Little Rabbit, ‘and rabbits don’t have a big noise.’

“‘Can you make other noises?’ asked Calf.

“‘I like baa,’ said Little Rabbit.

“‘So do I,’ said Calf.”

You can guess how the book goes from there. The two cute little animals Baa together and a lamb comes to investigate… and so on. At the end, all the animals declare their favorite sounds, and Little Rabbit makes a surprising choice that will provide a laugh.

This is a happy book, with cute baby animals doing silly things and making the “wrong” sounds. Like I said, it’s a fantastic choice for Storytime, and would also be great for sharing with a little one who has mastered animal sounds and knows how the world works. They will especially enjoy the twist!

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

Review of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, New York, 2011. 213 pages.
Starred Review

I do love the No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency books! This is the twelfth book in the series, and I really do think you will enjoy them more by reading them in order, though I’m sure you would also enjoy them jumping right in.

These books are for people who don’t mind a little author meandering. The fact that Mma Ramotswe is a detective adds some interesting cases, and plot related to that, but mostly the book is about the people and the interesting problems they encounter. Some of the problems always relate to their own personal lives, but they are also tied in with the problems brought to them in their role as detectives.

In The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Mma Ramotswe seems to be haunted by the ghost of her beloved tiny white van; Mma Makotsi is finally preparing for her wedding, including finding the perfect shoes; the apprentice Charlie has gotten into bigger trouble than ever; and they have a large and complicated case, involving rich men, a possibly innocent child, and someone cruel enough to harm animals.

The details of the plot are not the point of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. They are about spending time with dear friends, kind friends who take seriously the bad things out in the world, but also thoroughly enjoy the good things. I happened to read this volume in the hospital, and it was the perfect light pleasant reading, not requiring a lot of thought, but nicely taking my mind off how I was feeling.

I love Mma Ramotswe’s musings on life. Here is one brought on by a remembrance of her father:

“Later, much later, she remembered his words and pondered them. We cannot always stop the things we do not like. She knew now what he meant, of course — that nature had to be left to take its course — but she had realised that there was a far greater truth there too. There were some things that one could stop, or try to stop, but it was a mistake to go through life trying to interfere in things that were beyond your control, or which were going to happen anyway, no matter what you did. A certain amount of acceptance — which was not the same thing as cowardice, or indifference — was necessary or you would spend your life burning up with annoyance and rage.”

And here are her musings on weddings:

“She stood still for a while, thinking about marriage. A wedding was a strange ceremony, she thought, with all those formal words, those solemn vows made by one to another; whereas the real question that should be put to the two people involved was a very simple one. Are you happy with each other? was the only question that should be asked; to which they both should reply, preferably in unison, Yes. Simple questions — and simple answers — were what we needed in life. That was what Mma Ramotswe believed. Yes.”

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

Review of The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

The Return of Captain John Emmett

by Elizabeth Speller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 442 pages.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a mystery set in England a few years after the Great War. Laurence Bartram has returned from the war. His wife died while he was in France, when she was giving birth to their firstborn son. He’s writing a book on old churches, but not making much progress.

“Then, one Tuesday teatime, he was surprised to find a letter, addressed in unfamiliar handwriting, lying on the hall table. Later he came to think of it as the letter. It had been forwarded twice: first from his old Oxford college, then from his former marital home; it was a miracle it had got to him at all.”

The letter is from Mary Emmett, the sister of a boy he knew when he was in school, John Emmett. She writes:

“I wanted to tell you that John died six months ago and, horribly, he shot himself. He seemed to have been luckier than many in the war, but when he came back from France he wouldn’t talk and just sat in his room or went for long walks at night. He said he couldn’t sleep. I don’t think he was writing or reading or any of the other things he used to enjoy. Sometimes he would get in furious rages, even with our mother. Finally he got in a fight with strangers and was arrested.

“Our doctor said that he needed more help than he could provide. He found him a place in a nursing home. John went along with it but then the following winter he ran away. A month later a keeper found his body in a wood over thirty miles away. He didn’t leave a letter. Nothing to explain it. We had thought he was getting better.”

Mary asks Laurence to investigate John’s death, to try to find out why he would do such a thing. His investigation is leisurely and slow, but one thing leads to another, and he begins to get a picture of John Emmett’s war and especially a firing squad where a British officer was executed, and John Emmett was required to be the commanding officer. Recently, quite a few other people who were there that same day have died or been killed. Is there a connection?

Laurence’s well-connected friend Charles is reading golden-age detective fiction during the book, but this book didn’t really evoke those books. With the details about the war experiences, this isn’t really a “cozy” mystery, and the clues aren’t really in place for the reader to spot the denouement.

However, this book was just perfect for the end of my stroke recovery time off. It told an interesting mystery at a leisurely pace, but really evoked the time period after the Great War and let you watch Laurence Bartram taking a new interest in life. With him, you got to know the many different characters who touched John Emmett’s life, and piece together the story of what happened.

I should add that this book is a first novel, and is very impressive as such. I don’t know a whole lot about England between the wars, but the author clearly does, and fills the book with loving detail.

Don’t pick up this book if you’re looking for an action-packed quick read! But if you’re looking for a leisurely and lingering story of people making sense of a difficult time when the world was changing — then this book is a good choice.

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

Review of Love Wins, by Rob Bell

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Love Wins

A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

by Rob Bell

HarperOne (HarperCollins), 2011. 202 pages.
Starred Review

I first read that Love Wins was coming out when I was sitting at the Information Desk at the library, reading a publishing newsletter about upcoming titles. I couldn’t restrain myself: I burst out with a “Yes!” I had to explain to my bemused co-worker how happy I was that a mainstream evangelical writer was writing about Universalism. When I quietly believed myself that all will (eventually) be saved, that love wins in the end, well, those who found out seemed tolerant but a little sorry for me with my silly ideas. I knew that if Rob Bell wrote about it, it would come to the attention of many people whom I respect.

I ordered the book right away. And of course I was coming from a position of whole-heartedly agreeing with him from the start. So I can’t really judge if this book is convincing for people who do believe that unbelievers will burn in hell with unending torment.

Personally, I think this book was written more for people who are looking at Christianity from the outside — to tell them that the Christian faith is not as exclusive and judgmental as they may have thought. And I think it presents that message wonderfully.

Christians who are considering these ideas, but don’t think they are Biblical, might have more of their questions answered reading Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years: With Authorities and Extracts, by John Wesley Hanson, or The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott.

However, I was right: my pastor actually mentioned this book in his sermon, when talking about acceptance. He had not read the book, but said a little bit about the controversy and that Rob Bell says that love will eventually win for every person. He said that he does not think Rob Bell is right, but I loved this comment he made: “Shouldn’t we all want him to be right?” Shouldn’t we want Love to win for every person?

I loved that he said that, because one of the things that has come out of this belief for me is indeed a greater acceptance of others. And since, even with the current mainstream view, none of us knows another person’s heart, and who is saved or not or will be saved or not, we should not presume to write off anyone.

But another reason I loved that response:

When I tell other Christians how I came to the belief that God will eventually save everyone, that hell is redemptive not retributive, I start by saying I didn’t think I could believe that, because I didn’t think it’s what the Bible teaches. But it dawned on me that’s what George MacDonald was saying, and he clearly knew the Bible well, including studying the original languages, and he clearly believed that’s what the Bible taught. So I read the whole New Testament with new eyes. It seemed to me that there are many, many verses that, taken at face value, really seem to teach that all will be saved. (Such as “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow,” or “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Look up “all” or “every” in a concordance to find more.) There are definitely some verses that need to be explained away. But those who believe in unending torment also have many verses they need to explain away.

All in all, when I looked at the Biblical writings, I felt that the case for Universalism was just as strong as the case against it. (Now I think it’s stronger, but that was when I was first studying it.) At this point, I thought I should choose the belief that has the higher view of God.

Now, this is the point where my friends tend to object. They say that I shouldn’t base my judgment on my own wishful thinking. Or they get offended that I’m saying it’s a “higher view of God.”

So that’s why I loved my pastor saying “Shouldn’t we all want it to be true?” To me, that question admits that if God could really save everyone in the end, that would be a wonderful thing, to the great glory of God.

So is God not as big as we can imagine?

Okay, all of that is beside the point. What does the book itself say?

Now, the book is written in a conversational style. It’s not at all rigorous like Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years: With Authorities and Extracts, by John Wesley Hanson. But the author makes a strong case that the church should be making a difference in the world.

The author gives his purpose for writing in the Preface:

“First, I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere….

“There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.

“I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’

“You are not alone.
There are millions of us.

“This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story. A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.

“And so this book.

“Second, I’ve written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them….

“And then, last of all, please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.

“If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity — well, I’d be thrilled.”

There’s lots more, really great stuff in this book. I’m posting lots of quotations on Sonderquotes, and plan to read through the book again, more slowly this time. I’ll write out one more passage here that I like very much:

“So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will ‘get into heaven,’ that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club.

“The good news is better than that.

“This is why Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.

“When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

“Life has never been about just ‘getting in.’ It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world.

“Jesus calls disciples to keep entering into this shared life of peace and joy as it transforms our hearts, until it’s the most natural way to live that we can imagine. Until it’s second nature. Until we naturally embody and practice the kind of attitudes and actions that will go on in the age to come. A discussion about how to ‘just get into heaven’ has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus, because it’s missing the point of it all.

“An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation. Or a number of other things. It’s a cheap view of the world, because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination….

“Witnessing, evangelizing, sharing your faith — when you realize that God has retold your story, you are free to passionately, urgently, compellingly tell the story because you’ve stepped into a whole new life and you’re moved and inspired to share it. When your God is love, and you have experienced this love in flesh and blood, here and now, then you are free from guilt and fear and the terrifying, haunting ominous voice that whispers over your shoulder, ‘You’re not doing enough.’ The voice that insists God is, in the end, a slave driver.

“Have nothing to do with that God….

“Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer….

“There is another dimension to the violent, demanding God, the one people need Jesus to rescue them from. We see it in the words of the older brother, when he says he ‘never even disobeyed.’ You can sense the anxiety in his defense, the paranoid awareness that he believed his father was looking over his shoulder the whole time, waiting and watching to catch him in disobedience. The violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that’s how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic, full of fear. Whatever you do, don’t step out of line or give this God any reason to be displeased, because who knows what will be unleashed.

“Jesus frees us from that, because his kind of love simply does away with fear. Once again, the words of the father in the story, the one who joyously, generously declares: ‘You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’…

“Jesus meets and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don’t, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness, and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces.”

And here’s the final paragraph, which expresses my wish, too:

“May you experience this vast,
expansive, infinite, indestructible love
that has been yours all along.
May you discover that this love is as wide
as the sky and as small as the cracks in
your heart no one else knows about.
And may you know,
deep in your bones,
that love wins.”

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Review of Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years: With Authorities and Extracts, by John Wesley Hanson

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years: With Authorities and Extracts

by John Wesley Hanson

Universalist Publishing House, Boston and Chicago, 1899. 321 pages.
Starred Review

The title of this book well sums up what it’s about. This is not a book for the general reader. This is a reprint of a book in the public domain, originally published in 1899. The language is dense and old-fashioned.

When it first dawned on me that George MacDonald was teaching that all will (eventually) be saved, I was surprised. He clearly believed this is what the Bible teaches. But how could he think that? Doesn’t the Bible teach that the wicked will perish and burn eternally? Isn’t that what all good Christians think?

So, I reread the Bible and saw how much was open to interpretation. At the time, I thought the case for either view was about equal. (Since then, I think it’s actually stronger for universalism.) I chose to believe the view that I thought had a higher view of God. If it bothers me that God would send people to burn in hell forever and ever, should I believe in that God? It also meant that I can’t write off other people nearly as easily as before.

But I still thought I was bucking tradition believing this. So I was amazed and delighted to read this book, showing with many examples that the early church believed all will be saved. That the “mainstream” view was not at all mainstream until about 500 years after Christ. In fact, when the church was dominated by those who spoke Greek, it was also dominated by Universalism.

Now, this book is dense, as I said. It’s only for people like me, whose biggest obstacle in believing in Universalism is thinking that it’s not Biblical, and is against the mainstream view of the church. This book shows that not only did a deeply spiritual man like George MacDonald think that Universalism is Biblical, so did Christ’s first followers. It’s for people who deeply believe in the authority of Scripture.

I had to laugh when I read this paragraph in the Foreword:

“The first form of his manuscript contained a thousand copious notes, with citations of original Greek and Latin, but such an array was thought by judicious friends too formidable to attract the average reader, as well as too voluminous, and he has therefore retained only a fraction of the notes he had prepared.”

I laughed because the book is still formidable indeed, and not at all for the average reader. But there’s excellent information here, and Christians who wonder about the Biblical basis for Universalism will have their eyes opened.

Also in the Foreword, the author states:

“The purpose of this book is to present some of the evidence of the prevalence in the early centuries of the Christian church, of the doctrine of the final holiness of all mankind. The author has endeavored to give the language of the early Christians, rather than to paraphrase their words, or state their sentiments in his own language. He has also somewhat copiously quoted the statements of modern scholars, historians and critics, of all shades of opinion, instead of condensing them with his own pen.”

This is why the book is formidable, but it’s also why it is most convincing and thorough.

The author’s purpose is not to present the Scriptural evidence for Universalism. “Neither is it the purpose of the author of this book to write a history of the doctrine; but his sole object is to show that those who obtained their religion almost directly from the lips of its author, understood it to teach the doctrine of universal salvation.”

When my pastor talked about Love Wins, by Rob Bell, which teaches Universalism, he said that he did not agree with Rob Bell’s conclusion. But I loved that he said, “Shouldn’t we want to believe it?” In many ways this book gives me permission to believe that all will be saved. After all, if the early church fathers believed it, how can I possibly contend that it’s not Biblical?

The book goes into great, convincing, and, yes, tedious detail. I’ll present a few of the points.

First, he looks at the oldest creeds. There’s simply nothing about everlasting punishment.

“Thus the credal declarations of the Christian church for almost four hundred years are entirely void of the lurid doctrine with which they afterwards blazed for more than a thousand years. The early creeds contain no hint of it, and no whisper of condemnation of the doctrine of universal restoration as taught by Clement, Origen, the Gregories, Basil the Great, and multitudes besides.”

He does look at the teachings of the church fathers listed above in great detail. I’ll list some paragraphs that give some insight into his arguments:

“The talismanic word of the Alexandrian fathers, as of the New Testament, was Father. This word, as now, unlocked all mysteries, solved all problems, and explained all the enigmas of time and eternity. Holding God as Father, punishment was held to be remedial, and therefore restorative, and final recovery from sin universal.”

“The Greek Fathers derived their Universalism directly and soley from the Greek Scriptures. Nothing to suggest the doctrine existed in Greek or Latin literature, mythology, or theology; all current thought on matters of eschatology was utterly opposed to any such view of human destiny. And, furthermore, the unutterable wickedness, degradation and woe that filled the world would have inclined the early Christians to the most pessimistic view of the future consistent with the teachings of the religion they had espoused. To know that, in those dreadful times, they derived the divine optimism of universal deliverance from sin and sorrow from the teachings of Christ and his apostles, should predispose every modern to agree with them.”

I thought this part about the Greek words used was fascinating:

“When our Lord spoke, the doctrine of unending torment was believed by many of those who listened to his words, and they stated it in terms and employed others, entirely different, in describing the duration of punishment, from the terms afterward used by those who taught universal salvation and annihilation, and so gave to the terms in question the sense of unlimited duration.

“For example, the Pharisees, according to Josephus, regarded the penalty of sin as torment without end, and they stated the doctrine in unambiguous terms. The called it eirgmos aidios (eternal imprisonment) and timorion adialeipton (endless torment), while our Lord called the punishment of sin aionion kolasin (age-long chastisement).

“The language of Josephus is used by the profane Greeks, but is never found in the New Testament connected with punishment. Josephus, writing in Greek to Jews, frequently employs the word that our Lord used to define the duration of punishment (aionios), but he applies it to things that had ended or that will end. Can it be doubted that our Lord placed his ban on the doctrine that the Jews had derived from the heathen by never using their terms describing it, and that he taught a limited punishment by employing words to define it that only meant limited duration in contemporaneous literature?”

The author goes on to give many examples of the different terms used in Greek at the time of Christ.

“Had our Lord intended to inculcate the doctrine of the Pharisees, he would have used the terms by which they described it. But his word defining the duration of punishment was aionion, while their words are aidion, adialeipton and athanaton. Instead of saying with Philo and Josephus, thanaton athanaton, deathless or immortal death; eirgmon aidion, eternal imprisonment; aidion timorion, eternal torment; and thanaton ateleuteton, interminable death, he used aionion kolasin, an adjective in universal use for limited duration, and a noun denoting suffering issuing in amendment. The word by which our Lord describes punishment is the word kolasin, which is thus defined: “Chastisement, punishment.” “The trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful.” “The act of clipping or pruning — restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement.” “The kind of punishment which tends to the improvement of the criminal is what the Greek philosophers called kolasis or chastisement.”

This close look at the Greek background makes it all the more interesting that the teaching of Universalism prevailed while the church fathers were primarily Greek-speaking.

Some other interesting points:

“Not a writer among those who describe the heresies of the first three hundred years intimates that Universalism was then a heresy, though it was believed by many, if not by a majority, and certainly by the greatest of the fathers.

“Not a single creed for five hundred years expresses any idea contrary to universal restoration, or in favor of endless punishment.”

“While the councils that assembled in various parts of Christendom, anathematized every kind of doctrine they supposed to be heretical, no ecumenical council, for more than five hundred years, condemned Universalism, though it had been advocated in every century by the principal scholars and most revered saints.”

“The first defense of Christianity against Infidelity (Origen against Celsus) puts the defense on Universalistic grounds. Celsus charged the Christians’ God with cruelty, because he punished with fire. Origen replied that God’s fire is curative; that he is a “Consuming Fire,” because he consumes sin and not the sinner.”

Believe me, the author goes into excruciating detail to back up these, and many other points. He looks at a multitude of ancient writings and commentaries on the writings.

So, reader, you will know if this book would be interesting to you. It was definitely interesting to me, though I had to take it slowly! But I feel much much less out of the mainstream than I did before. To me, it definitely establishes that a Christian can believe the Bible and still believe in Universalism. After all, is there anyone who would say those early church fathers were not Christians? And if those native Greek speakers believed the Bible taught universalism, who are we to say different?

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Review of Lulu and the Brontosaurus, by Judith Viorst

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Lulu and the Brontosaurus

by Judith Viorst
illustrated by Lane Smith

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010. 113 pages.
Starred Review

Last September, at the National Book Festival, I got to hear Judith Viorst read from this book, and I was eager to get my hands on it from that moment on.

This is definitely a book that begs to be read aloud. The biggest catch is that it’s really too long for preschool story time. Still, I think any elementary school teacher or librarian could have an entire classroom eating out of the palm of their hand by reading this book.

I must say that Lane Smith was the absolutely perfect choice for illustrating this book. The pictures match the irreverent, over-the-top tone and make the story absolutely right. (I wonder what would have happened if Lane Smith had illustrated Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Anyway, that book’s so good, I wouldn’t change a thing — and this book is the same.)

This book is perfect for reading aloud because the author takes an irreverent, in-your-face, obtrusive tone. The very first page sets the tone. (Imagine typefaces to match.)

“OKAY! All right! You don’t have to tell me! I know!

“I know that people and dinosaurs have never lived on Earth at the same time. And I know that dinosaurs aren’t living now. I even also know that paleontologists (folks who study dinosaurs) decided that a dinosaur that was once called a brontosaurus (a very nice name) shouldn’t be called brontosaurus anymore, and changed it to apatosaurus (a kind of ugly name). But since I’m the person writing this story, I get to choose what I write, and I’m writing about a girl and a B R O N T O S A U R U S. So if you don’t want to read this book, you can close it up right now — you won’t hurt my feelings. And if you still want to read it, here goes:

“Chapter One

“There once was a girl named Lulu, and she was a pain. She wasn’t a pain in the elbow. She wasn’t a pain in the knee. She was a pain — a very big pain — in the b u t t.”

Okay, I went on past the first page. But since this is my review, and I’m the one writing it, I can do what I want. Oops. The style’s rubbing off on me.

Well, Lulu decides she wants a brontosaurus for a birthday present. Her parents, who are used to indulging her every whim, are stymied as to how to comply. They end up actually telling Lulu “No.” Lulu, predictably, throws a fit.

“Four days, eight days, ten days, twelve days passed. Lulu kept saying, ‘I WANT A BRONTOSAURUS.’ Her mom and her dad just kept on saying no. Lulu kept screeching and throwing herself on the floor and kicking her heels and waving her arms. Lulu’s mom and her dad kept saying no. Until finally, on the thirteenth day, the day before Lulu’s birthday, right after lunch, Lulu said to her mom and her dad, ‘Okay then, foo on you.’ (She had terrible manners.) ‘If you aren’t going to get me a brontosaurus, I’m going out and getting one for myself.'”

So Lulu sets off into the forest, singing:

“I’m gonna, I’m gonna, I’m gonna, gonna get
A bronto-bronto-bronto Brontosaurus for a pet.
I’m gonna, I’m gonna, I’m gonna, gonna get
A bronto-bronto-bronto Brontosaurus for a pet.”

She encounters various dangerous creatures, and gets the better of all of them with her pugnacious ingenuity — until at last she meets a brontosaurus.

And when she meets the brontosaurus, whom she calls Mr. B, there is a lovely reversal that teaches Lulu a nice lesson.

Just to keep things interesting (as if they weren’t already!), the author gives us a choice of three endings, so the reader can decide for themselves how happily to let things end. And did I mention the perfect illustrations on almost every set of pages?

As I look through this book again, I notice that besides being a phenomenal read-aloud, it’s also a true stand-out in the elusive category of chapter books for beginning readers. The chapters are extremely short — usually only a couple pages; there are lots of pictures; but the story is completely delightful and absorbing. Definitely a non-threatening and highly enjoyable reading experience.

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Review of Son of the Shadows, by Juliet Marillier

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Son of the Shadows

by Juliet Marillier

Book Two in the Sevenwaters Trilogy
TOR Fantasy, New York, 2001. 590 pages.
Starred Review

I very greatly enjoyed Juliet Marillier’s young adult books, Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret, but these books about the ancient Irish tuath of Sevenwaters have me completely enthralled.

Son of the Shadows takes up the tale with Fiadan, the daughter of Sorcha, the heroine of Daughter of the Forest. Fiadan and her twin brother Sean are sixteen, and the people of Sevenwaters are feeling uneasy. It seems an old evil is awakening, and they aren’t sure how it will break out.

Sean is training to be the next chief of Sevenwaters, after their uncle Liam. The family still wants to win back their sacred islands from the British family of Northwoods. Sean thinks there is no point in waiting for the prophecy to come true.

Fiadan, like her mother, is a healer, and she’s blessed, or cursed, with The Sight. But Fiadan doesn’t quite fit into the pattern that the Fair Folk seem to be manipulating. In Daughter of the Forest, the Fair Folk did a lot of directing in the background. In this book, Fiadan doesn’t like the requests and commands the Fair Folk give her, and she makes her own choices. But will it mean disaster for her family?

After I read this book, I decided that this series is too good — I am going to order my own copy of the next book, and a copy of this book while I am at it. I know I will want to reread them. Fiadan feels like a precious friend. I want her to succeed! I want to find out what happens to her family next.

Juliet Marillier writes an intricately plotted novel that feels like a beautiful tapestry. There are many places where the characters tell stories, and they are always pertinent to the tale. I like this paragraph where Liadan defends telling tales to the chief of a band of outlaws:

“If what you want is to achieve a victory, what better to inspire your men than a heroic tale, some tale of a battle against great odds, won by skill and courage? If your men are weary or downhearted, what more fit to cheer them than a foolish tale — say, the story of the wee man Iubdan and the plate of porridge, or the farmer who got three wishes and squandered them all? What better to give them hope than a tale of love?”

As for me, I found no better therapy when recovering from a stroke than to read this tale of love and adventure and danger and treachery and loyalty and courage.

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Review of Guyku, by Bob Raczka

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011


A Year of Haiku for Boys

by Bob Raczka
illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Houghton Books for Children, Boston, 2010. 48 pages.
Starred Review

At the end of this book, Bob Raczka explains why he wrote Guyku, a collection of haiku for boys.

“Now that I’m a grownup (sort of), I realize that haiku is a wonderful form of poetry for guys like us. Why? Because haiku is an observation of nature, and nature is a place where guys love to be….

“One more thing about haiku: they’re written in the present tense. In other words, whatever happens in a haiku, it’s happening right now. From my experience, guys are always interested in what’s happening right now.

“In case you were wondering, every haiku in this book is about something I did as a boy. Or something I’ve seen my own boys do. It’s the kind of stuff I — along with amazing and inspiring illustrator Peter H. Reynolds — wanted to share with guys like you.”

The poems are wonderful, with a section for each of the four seasons. The illustrations beautifully capture the playful, adventurous spirit expressed in the haiku. I’ll give an example from each season, but please remember that the illustrations make them all the more wonderful!


“In a rushing stream,
we turn rocks into a dam.
Hours flow by us.”


“Pine tree invites me
to climb him up to the sky.
How can I refuse?”


“Hey, who turned off all
the crickets? I’m not ready
for summer to end.”


“Winter must be here.
Every time I open my
mouth, a cloud comes out.”

Check this book out and share it with a guy in your life!

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