|Disappointment with a book is unsettling, especially when the author is a favorite, but it is not the end of the world. It is an excellent opportunity to evaluate one’s expectations and desires when it comes to books which are good skills to develop when it comes to choosing the next book to read.|
As a writer, Amor Towles is top shelf. I enjoyed his first mesmerizing book, Rules of Civility. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow and read it several times. But his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, was not for me. This book was built on sorrow and violence and fits the description of a modern tragedy – which was a complete change of direction for this author and not what I was expecting at all. The Lincoln Highway is a journey story of three young people but it is a not hero’s journey, although there are aspects of heroism in several of the characters. I wanted to be able to root for someone in the book but there always seemed to be a roadblock, a detour, or a pothole in the plot that threw off my ability to commit to any one figure.
I also had trouble believing the characters’ use of language. It was far too lyrical, beautiful, and worldly-wise for their backgrounds. What came out of the characters’ mouths was intriguing, yet it was not in agreement with the characters’ ages, geographic location, or experience, for the most part. I could not fully believe the arc of the story, either. Amor Towles is a magnificent writer and so I must ask myself: Am I missing something here?
The first part of the story foreshadows the final events of the story, and I wish I had caught the crippling deficiency of one of the main characters before it was revealed at the end. That might have made a difference in my opinion of the book. Maybe.
I watched an interview with Amor Towles on YouTube prior to the release of The Lincoln Highway. The author stated that he definitely did not want to write a book that was a copy in any way of his previous two books. In this Towles has succeeded, perhaps too well. I confess my disappointment in The Lincoln Highway, but I have realigned my compass and look forward to traveling with Mr. Towles on his next book journey.
Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently, the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.
Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague-ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.
In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.
An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in a small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.
I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.
Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to the cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” As unlikely as it seems, this method results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure brilliance. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.
Paul: A Biography
by N.T. Wright
The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes. Dry and dusty? Nope.
In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)
In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:
“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:
‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT (61 Kindle)
Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”
“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)
Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.
In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock-solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.
By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul, who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah, is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright.
 The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011)
Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:
Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life
(Mission House Publishing, 2018)
by Mark Brouwer
Good answers always start with good questions. Here, from author Mark Brouwer, are some good questions that were the basis of his book Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:
“When people are drawn to do important work to help others, what is it that:
- causes them to quit?
- diminishes their effectiveness?
- prevents them from even starting in the first place?”
Drawing on years of personal experience in spiritual leadership, coaching and recovery group leadership, and insights from mentors in his field, Brouwer has responded to those questions with solid, valuable answers.
Early on, Brouwer presents this caveat: “Be prepared to read more about problems than solutions. This book is organized around seven roadblocks that prevent or interfere with our engagement with meaningful service. As you read, you’ll likely notice that I spend a lot more time describing each problem, and much less time suggesting remedies…. As Charles Kettering put it: ‘A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.'”
Brouwer does an excellent job of defining the roadblocks to meaningful service in these seven sections: Losing Touch With What You Really Care About; Getting Overwhelmed by the Needs You Encounter; Struggling With Not Having Enough Time; Living With Confusion; Stress Burn Out; Conflicts and Difficult People; and Discouragement. But he also includes plenty of helpful, immediately applicable suggestions for dismantling some barriers, even if you are not in leadership. In Section 6, Brouwer writes about the feelings of discouragement that can arise in a community from frequent conflicts with difficult people. His comments about how to approach conflict and what it means for a community to achieve harmony rather than unity are important, constructive words that can be used in many situations.
If you are navigating a rough patch in your calling as a leader right now, pick up a copy of Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind: Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life by Mark Brouwer. You will find this book contains thoughtful advice for individuals, delivered with sensitivity and a sense of humor. It also presents help for teams of people in the private or public sector by examining how systems and organizations work – and don’t work. In addition, Leaving Your Mark offers guidance from one who lives the busy day-to-day patterns of life in the church and who maintains the assured viewpoint that, “True community is not efficient – time is the price we pay for authentic community.”
Mark Brouwer has asked good questions, and through research and collaboration, he has produced a book that has good answers. These answers are beneficial on a personal, team and community level. If you have been harboring questions about your calling, you may find your good questions answered here, in Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind.
In Other Words is the fifth book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. This 2016 publication (Vintage, 2016 – English translation) was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. That’s right. Lahiri, who is a native English speaker, fell in love with Italian, learned to speak and write in Italian, then wrote In Other Words – which is about the life-altering experience – in Italian. Lahiri could have translated the work herself but for many reasons, which she catalogs in her book, she chose to use a translator.
In Other Words is a story about language, identity, and writing. It is also an autobiography of sorts. Perhaps one could call it a work of non-fiction that features the author as one major character and language as another. In Other Words is a fascinating book for anyone who loves languages and appreciates learning about how one’s language affects the process of writing.
Lahiri is a beautiful writer. Her writing manifests story like a gifted singer’s voice embodies song. On entering the story, the reader becomes happily enticed and wholeheartedly enmeshed in her prose. And there is plenty of insight as well. In an early chapter, Lahiri writes this as she begins to describe her journey into the Italian language:
“I think of two-faced Janus. Two faces that look at the past and the future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings. He represents a moment of transition. He watches over gates, over doors, a god who is only Roman, who protects the city. A remarkable image that I am about to meet everywhere.”
Lahiri does indeed encounter the spirit of Janus, metaphorically and in semi-actuality, in her pursuit of a new language. Among the author’s tales of the joys and predicaments involved in her quest to possess Italian, she recounts a story of her family’s move from the US to Italy during Rome’s mid-August holiday, a time when the entire city goes on vacation. In the process, her family practically meets itself coming and going when they lock themselves out of their apartment:
“There is no one in the building but us. We have no papers, are still without a functioning telephone, without any Roman friend or acquaintance. I ask for help at the hotel across the street from our building, but two Hotel employees can’t open the door, either. Our landlords are on vacation in Calabria. My children, upset, hungry, are crying, saying that they want to go back to America immediately.”
The traumatic moment passes, and the family begins their transition to living in the Eternal City. Janus has granted them entry.
One negative of In Other Words is the amount of time Lahiri gives to writing about her inner struggle with choosing Italian over English or Bengali — her parents language — as the language with which she identifies. I grew tired of Lahiri’s self-analysis about three-quarters of the way through but continued reading because this is not a long book. The book is designed so that the left-hand page contains the Italian by Lahiri. The right-hand page is Goldstein’s translation of Lahiri’s work, so though the total number of pages is in the book is 230, the English language portion is 115 pages.
The decision to read the book in its entirety paid off — to my way of thinking, anyway — because of Lahiri’s comments of the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof in the last section of the book. Kristof arrived in Switzerland as a refugee at the age of twenty-one and began learning French when she was twenty-six so that she could write to a receptive French audience. Despite the fact that Kristof’s motivation to learn French was far different from Lahiri’s inducement to be proficient in Italian, Kristof and Lahiri share some of the same struggles and insights about what it means to truly learn, speak and write in a language that is not one’s native tongue.
If you are intrigued by languages, curious about how language brings people together and can drive them apart; if you have wondered about the inscrutable process of learning a new language, how it works and what effect that it might have on your life if you were to choose a new language to inhabit; if you want to acquire some guidance for your writing life, this intriguing book by Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, is meant for you.
I read In Other Words in a paperback edition, but it is available in e-book and audio formats, also. I think it would be fascinating to hear an audio version of the book because in the English translation there are numerous Italian words, and it would add a lot to hear them read aloud by someone who can speak Italian. Requesting an audio book version of In Other Words from your local public library is a good (read that as “free”) way to experience the audio production of Lahiri’s book.
It was on an August evening in the 1990’s that our family was leaving the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair after a full, EPIC day there. We had participated in all the events that were of interest to us, eaten Fair food until we could eat no more, and admired scores of award-winning projects, plants, animals, and performances. Our exit route from the Fair would take us past the Lea and Rose Warner Coliseum, a 5,000 seat edifice where farm animal exhibitions and competitions took place.
Dusk was falling as we turned the corner toward the Coliseum — and it was there our exit was totally blocked by a procession of eight stunningly beautiful pure white horses. Our family came to a halt, and we stared in amazement as the superb horses and their liveried riders strode before us. The impressive cavalcade was quietly and steadily moving in a perfect single file arrangement from the horse barn to the Coliseum, about five-hundred feet away. Every step of the horses, every nod of their proud heads, was perfectly synchronized without any apparent instruction from their riders. It was obvious that the riders and horses were cooperating fully with each other. We watched in wonder as the column moved gracefully into the huge, brightly lit riding arena of the Coliseum and we continued to gaze after the horses until the last one disappeared from view. “Mom! What kind of horses were those?” the kids asked. “Lipizzaner,” I said, not really believing what we had just seen. “Lipizzaner from Austria.”
Instead of continuing on our way to the Fair’s exit, we raced around to the front gate of the Coliseum to get tickets for the Royal Lipizzaner performance. Unfortunately, the tickets were sold out for that night, and for the duration of the Austrian riding troupe’s stay in Minnesota. Lesson learned. If you want to see the Royal Lipizzaner up close and personal in the performance ring rather than by happenstance on the Fair backstreets, get your tickets early.
With this memory making a racket in my brain, I picked up the book, The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts.
Letts has a double mission in her book, The Perfect Horse: The Daring Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazi’s (Ballantine Books, 2016). The first is to inform the reader about the history and special qualities of the breed of horses known as the royal Lipizzaner; the second is to relate the harrowing events of the U.S. military’s involvement in efforts to rescue and protect the Lipizzaner from the Nazi’s toward the end of WWII. Letts has achieved both of these goals, producing a book that is not only well researched, winning the PEN USA Literary Award 2017 for Research Non-Fiction, but also presenting a rich story of the relationships that can develop between humans and animals and how each can offer the other trust, companionship, and love under the harshest of conditions.
Author Leonard Sweet’s mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet, shines like the finest gold in Sweet’s most recent book and semi-memoir, “Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story” (NavPress, 2017).Written using the metaphor of a memory box, Sweet presents his family’s story by employing chapters titled with memory box “artefacts,” for example, “Ma’s Wedding Ring, Dad’s Hellevision,” “Polio Braces,” “Lye Soap,” and twenty-two others. Sweet composes the chapters as spectacular dioramas or stage settings so that the reader can step directly into the home and lives of the remarkable family of Leonard L. and the Reverend Mabel Boggs Sweet and their sons, Leonard I., Philip, and John.
Although Mother Tongue is the tale of the Leonard L. Sweet family, Mable Boggs Sweet was the powerful hub of that tribe and home – and what a home it was. Set on “Hungry Hill” in the town of Gloversville, N.Y., Mabel Boggs Sweet, “an early woman preacher, a church planter, and lay theologian,” (xxiii) took a low profile in public ministry after her marriage and the birth of her three sons. She shifted her outreach from the tent meetings of her time to her boys, whom she saw as her new mission field, and she made their home a “religious community.”(51) Had Rod Dreher been writing “The Benedict Option” (PenguinRandomHouse, 2017) then, he might have used the Sweet household as his model for Christian family life.
Mabel Boggs Sweet, a dynamic Pilgrim Holiness preacher, instituted a family pattern of prayer, Bible study, evangelism, and excellence in academics and musical skills for her sons. Sweet, in his evocative and image-rich way, makes clear that these activities were done to form Christ in the Sweet boys, and with a heart for reaching the lost. Not one to keep the good news of Jesus Christ to herself, the boys struggled with their Mother’s outgoing style of evangelism. Even so, writes Sweet, “In spite of all the embarrassment as kids growing up, we got the sense that to be a follower of Jesus is to be heir to an extraordinary heritage, host to the very Son of God, and harbinger of a promised future….”
In the chapter that features the artefact of an “Upright Piano and Soundtrack for the Soul,” Leonard Sweet describes the way in which Mabel Boggs Sweet put her boys to bed: “But mostly Mother would tuck us in musically. We would call down hymns we wanted her to play, and she would either play them by memory or look them up in one of the many hymnbooks scattered on the piano or stored inside the bench. If a radio pulls sound out of the air, prayer pulls sounds out of the heart. The assumption was that our musical requests would reflect the need of our hearts at that moment. There was hardly a problem that didn’t have disharmony as its cause, and there was hardly a problem that a song couldn’t cure.”
It is clear in Mother Tongue that Jesus was first and foremost in Mabel Boggs Sweet’s mind and heart, and she imparted the Jesus-way of life to her boys. This could lead one to believe that peace and perfection were everywhere in their home, but not so. The Sweet clan was a fully human family in our get-real modern world. Together they experienced rejection and shunning from church leaders and fellow church members, suffered the physical results of professional medical negligence, endured the brutal effects of polio, and lived through the destructive, rebellious years of teenage children. Despite these devastations, Mabel Boggs Sweet persevered as she followed her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and clung to the Truth in her role as a mother and a preacher.
“Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story” is a frankly intimate and revealing book. Pain is present in these pages, but humor, beauty, love and wisdom are paramount. There is no doubt about who the central character of the narrative is, or what heritage has been passed from Mother to sons in this story: it is Jesus Christ – King, Shepherd, Lord, and Lover of Mabel Boggs Sweet’s soul.
Mabel Boggs Sweet’s life was lived in the Refiners fire, a complex process that produces the finest gold. Her life of burnished gold is truly the most precious artefact in “Mother Tongue” and is what shines so luminously in Leonard Sweet’s outstanding book.
“There’s no blood on the pulpit this morning.”This is what Mabel Boggs Sweet, mother of Leonard Sweet, the author of Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching, would say if she were listening to a bad sermon. Mabel Boggs Sweet was a preacher herself and, therefore, had earned the right to make such an assessment. But then, don’t all of us who listen to a preacher’s message make a judgement every week about what we have heard? What makes a sermon bad or good? Why is it some preachers can make us levitate with joy as we listen to them, and some make us want to leave the building through the closest exit? And especially in this visual age, how can a preacher deliver a dazzling, image rich message? Is there a way to preach to and reach this generation of sermon listeners?
Giving Blood (2014 Zondervan) was written to offer a fresh transfusion of life to those who have been called to write and deliver sermons. Dr. Leonard Sweet, who is one of the most creative and engaging preachers you will ever hear, has written over 1500 sermons and understands the process, pain and passion of this vocation. He also understands that it is way past time that preachers were equipped with skills to interact in the TGIF – Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook – world. Drawing on his background in semiotics, preaching and teaching, and incorporating the use of narraphor (narrative + metaphor), Sweet expertly and invitingly encourages preachers to review, rethink and renew their approach to telling the story of Jesus. “Semiotic preaching differs from traditional sermon building in its insistence on seeing the sermon itself as an incarnational medium..In semiotic preaching we return to the roots of our faith, and to a form of conveying truth favored by Jesus himself.”
A word about the organization of the book. Sweet uses blood as a metaphor throughout his book as the framework for the content. The title, sections, chapters and “labs” are all identified with names that are related to blood: blood types, streams, flow, cells, vessels, thinners, poisoning, etc. Rarely does a metaphor lend itself to such broad use without breaking down somewhere. Yet in Giving Blood the metaphor of blood holds up throughout the book’s entirety, and in all its applications.
Many people consider the use of the word “blood” to be politically incorrect and offensive, and therefore to be avoided at all cost. Sweet mentions in the Introduction that he did his best to come up with another more suitable less controversial metaphor for preaching, but could not find one. “Something kept pulling me back to this biological symbol for life and the organizing symbol of the Christian faith. The metaphor kept me in its grip no matter how hard I tried to wrestle free. What you hold in your hands is my surrender and my limping free of that street fight.” I believe the reader will see that using blood as the metaphor for preaching in Giving Blood was not only the right choice but its use brings unity to the many facets of the topic in an ingenious way.
For anyone who is interested in sermons and preaching for any reason, including critiquing a weekly sermon, I recommend reading Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching. Even as a layperson, it was a fascinating and enlightening book.
Full disclosure: I am not a preacher, pastor, elder or deacon, but I do participate in a weekly church service. I read an early version of this book. My opinions are my own.
Nothing is more intriguing, in my estimation, than to learn that an ordinary, everyday object has the potential to be transcendent. In his book From Tablet To Table, Dr. Leonard Sweet opens up the table to display the power this ubiquitous piece of furniture has to be just that – transcendent. No matter the make-up of your family – single household, community, or church; no matter the type of meal served – PBJ sandwiches, drive-thru service or potluck, Dr. Sweet tells us the family table has the potential to become a positively transformative place for those who gather around it. It was hard for me to imagine that the table, or the lack of it, could matter so deeply to the culture or to the church. It was especially surprising to discover the pervasive connection the church has with food, and to learn that it was Jesus who led the way into this “open table” foodie lifestyle. I never really considered the idea that Jesus’ dining pattern became a faith-forming experience with his disciples, and their enjoyment during meals may have looked pretty suspicious to the Pharisees, which is probably why they accused him of being a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”(Matt 11:19) From Tablet To Table covers these surprising and engaging ideas, and many more. Presently, as far as the Western Christian church goes, there is a lot to be concerned about regarding the table says Dr. Sweet. Quoting Jean Leclerc’s definition of the gospel, “Jesus ate good food with bad people,” Dr. Sweet points out that it was the table that shaped early Christian worship, as we see in the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection meals Jesus shared with his disciples. “Food is a building block of our Christian faith. We are part of a gourmet gospel that defines itself in terms of food and table. Yet we find ourselves at a juncture in history where we have lost the table…” The culture of today is also feeling hunger pangs for the table, and this is noted in several places in From Tablet To Table. One example is a list of “quantifiable negative effects both physically and psychologically” on families and kids due specifically to the loss of the table. These include a negative impact on shaping vocabulary in young children, and in combating childhood obesity. On a positive note, another bit of data suggests that sitting down to a family meal three times a week can cause a student’s performance in high school and college to skyrocket – just three times a week! When I think of all the time I put in to making sure our kids had access to special lessons and practices and performances that were expensive and long distances away, it doesn’t seem so impossible to get together for an inexpensive meal at home three times a week – especially if it could mean a better chance for kids to do well in school. The table… the family table. Who would have thought that it carries such power, and potential and promise? Who would have thought of it as transcendent? Well, Jesus did, it seems. He spent a lot of time around one, and he also made a sacrament out of bread and wine, as Dr Sweet reminds us in his book. Here is a quote from Dr. Sweet’s book that I love that may whet your appetite: “First commandment and final commandment to humans in the Bible? ‘Eat freely’, Gen 2:16 NASB, and ‘Drink freely’, Rev 22:17. Everything in between these two commands is a table, and on that table is served a life-course meal, where we feast in our hearts with thanksgiving on the very Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation: Jesus the Christ.” Why you should read this book in less than 140 characters – From Tablet To Table by Dr. Leonard Sweet is rich, rare, filling and satisfying reading. Help yourself to a copy and enjoy every morsel.
What does the phrase “new normal’ mean, anyway? It seems that “new normal” has been applied to almost every aspect of our culture since 2007, when the US economy faced its most challenging downward shift since the Great Depression of the 1930s. To my way of thinking, “new normal” carries a negative connotation. It means that our robust American quality of life has taken a big step backward, and it is not going to return to its previous, presumably healthy, levels of enjoyment or accomplishment. Therefore a different, less vital, more difficult way of life has ensued which is here to stay, so get used to it – this is the new normal. The Church has certainly experienced its own downward shift over the last decade or so, with yearly membership numbers declining in all mainline Protestant churches, and disdain for Christian beliefs and values being the norm in our culture. Is this the Church’s “new normal”? Dr. Ingram’s book helps us to consider this question.
In his book, The New Normal – A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With, Dr. Tom Ingram demonstrates that skillfully researching a patient’s health history, ordering appropriate tests, determining a diagnosis and designing a treatment plan to establish a “new normal” for an ill individual can be life changing for the patient. Dr. Ingram also uses this medical model to evaluate the ailing 21st century Christian Church in America. In his concise and witty book, Dr. Ingram observes the Church’s overall health, both by looking at some of the history of the Church’s past challenges, and also by using data collected from a website he created recently called the tenthingsproject.com . This website provided a space where non-Christians could vent their frustrations with the Church and Christians. In compiling and comparing the past and present information in the church’s health history, Dr. Ingram skillfully helps us see the parallels that exist between the health challenges of an individual, and those of the post-modern church.
As is illustrated in The New Normal, when a diagnostician has completed the ill person’s work-up and meets with him or her to determine the next step in treatment, an important question is asked of the patient, “Are you ready to get better?” At this point the patient has a choice to make, one that could represent a “new normal”. As is stated in the book, “It is a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple: for one answer requires nothing of the patient, while the other answer may take everything they’ve got.”
In the book we read that this same question, “Are you ready to get better”, can be asked of the Church. Dr. Ingram emphasizes this point by relating the story in John, Chapter 5, in which Jesus says to the paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be made well?” Amazingly, the paralyzed man does not answer Jesus with a clear “yes”. How puzzling. Why wouldn’t the man eagerly say yes? Could it be that the afflicted man is not ready to change? Perhaps he does not want the dis-ease of being made able bodied, and therefore held accountable for his actions? Might the Church have the same paralyzing affliction, and be hesitant to get better for the same reasons? Is the Church’s “new normal” one of inaction and powerlessness in our culture?
Not necessarily, according to Dr. Ingram. The Church can still chose to be obedient to the One who is our source of life and health, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can initiate service to the ones most in need, most alone, most marginalized in our communities, and there bear good fruit to the Lord. In the chapter called Treatment Plan, Dr. Ingram offers some ideas for activities to get Christians moving, active and involved in rehabilitation, knowing that when we have served “the least of these, we have served the Lord.” In this way, it might happen that followers of Jesus could turn the idea of a “new normal” in the Church from a negative to a positive statement. Will this rehabilitation be easy – no. Dr. Ingram admits that asking the post-modern person to exchange self-absorbed living to sacrificial giving is only possible because “with God all things are possible.” Matt 19:26. He states that the powerful inducement for this change is that the way, truth and life of Kingdom living, the person of Christ, is “with us” in all that He asks us to do in obedience to Him. We aren’t left alone by the One who assures us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matt 28:20. He will be with us as we follow Him in the way, he will enable us to see Him as the truth we need to guide our choices, He will ultimately be our source of life during the tough times. He will be our “new normal” and our source of joy. That is definitely a “new normal” the Church can live with.