Review: Chasing Secrets

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Several years ago, author and library hero Nancy Pearl came to the yearly staff training that I was required to attend. She spoke of “doorways” through which every reader seeks to enter the world of books. Some read for plot, others for character. Some read for the beauty of the language, some for setting. Thus there is a reader for every book, a book for every reader.

Immediately I knew that I read for character. I can handle books with slower-paced plot lines because I want to dive into the richness of the human psyche, whether in fictional or real-life form. I want to know and understand people’s thoughts, what they believe, what makes them tick. This is why history is endlessly fascinating to me; far more than a list of dry dates, those thick books record the real (and often surreal) experiences of flesh-and-blood people.

Thus, Chasing Secrets by Lynette Eason was not a book for me.

To be fair, this is the fourth book in a series, so I am lacking some context. Also in fairness, Eason’s books have all received predominately positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, so there is definitely an audience for her work. In no way do I believe her to be a bad author and I don’t think that those who enjoy her books are stupid. Keep all of this mind as you read the rest of this review.

Chasing Secrets falls into the “Christian romantic suspense” category, one that I have rarely ventured into. It’s just not my jam. Honestly, I don’t like much Christian fiction in general. All too often the characters lack depth and the plots are both implausible and formulaic, which is sad. Art is a form of worship and we must learn to do better. When I do find authors I like – Francine Rivers, Mesu Andrews, Neta Jackson – I devour everything they write, because they manage to be at least a little different in a sea of so-far-from-Amish-as-to-be-laughable stories and, let’s face it, bodice rippers without the ripping. (Romance novels without the sex, for the uninitiated).

Skepticism meter already on “high,” I began to read the story of Haley Callaghan – a professional bodyguard practically Terminator-like in her ability to take a licking and keep on ticking. When I figured out two of the major twists within the first couple of chapters, I sighed. And sighed some more when one of those twists was straight-up revealed in the third chapter. In my mind’s eye I could see one of the filler episodes of the late-somewhat-great television show Castle, the ones that you just sort of skipped over in anticipation of another 3XK feature or a development in one of the better “will they, won’t they” relationships of entertainment history.

And now we’re completely sidetracked.

Haley is, of course, beautiful, intelligent and successful, yet wounded. She hides her inner softie under a tough outer shell. Of course the only one who can truly break through her defenses is Steven Rothwell, a handsome, intelligent, successful yet wounded detective. Of course they fall in love in like 5.537 seconds. Of course Steven hasn’t been interested in romance until Haley. Of course Haley has sworn off men until Steven.

Then some assassins and gangbangers and explosions. An Irish castle. Mafia stuff. Old family feuds.

All connected, of course.

This much I sort of glazed over. It’s all part of the usual outline of these kinds of books. One element of the story truly did bother me, however: “white saviorism.” I can’t explain this in-depth without giving away major plot elements, but suffice it to say that the beautiful-yet-damaged white woman is the only one who can fix things for two young black men. Of course their mother made “bad decisions” that left them vulnerable. This left a bad taste in my mouth.

I’m not accusing Eason of being a racist. I’ve never met the woman. I do think she followed a formula that would sell well. That is frustrating to me, because she isn’t a bad writer. This book (and, I’m guessing, the series) had potential to be something more. She writes about women you wouldn’t want to meet in dark alleys. They are supposed to be fierce and capable of fighting alongside men…not conventional damsels-in-distress who need men to save them, which is sadly where this book went.

If you like books that are on the fluffier and fast-paced side, then this one is for you. It is, as they say, probably a good beach read. Nothing difficult within the pages. I won’t smack it out of your hands or judge you for reading it. I would recommend beginning with the first book in the series, Always Watching, because maybe there’s more to this particular story than I am able to appreciate at the moment. A word to the wise, however: Be sure that you start from a place of suspended disbelief, otherwise you will find yourself incredibly frustrated.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

Eugene Peterson made waves with the release of The Message in 2003, a paraphrase crafted from the original texts of Scripture without aid from other English translations and without the input of a committee. In his own words, Peterson began this work because,

“While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.'”

– from the Preface to The Message

The truth is that a large segment of the Western church is bored by Scripture. The problem that Peterson faced was not and is not unique to that particular bunch of believers. So while The Message is not my preferred translation and I disagree with some of the choices that Peterson made (though I do use it from time to time as you can see throughout this blog), I do appreciate the heart behind the work. Scripture was not written in what we see as the “high falutin'” style of early modern English. God used ordinary people who wrote in ordinary language. Poetic at times, peppered with sarcasm, often attempting to describe the indescribable, but ordinary nonetheless. There is no reason why anyone translating the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into any other tongue shouldn’t use terms that the reader will understand.

Thus my puzzlement regarding As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

I’m not the smartest person on the planet. Nor do I have much patience flowery-ness in the written word. Though I spend more than my fair share of time contemplating abstract concepts, I do so in a linear, analytical, orderly fashion. I prefer fifty cent words to five dollar terms. My own dabblings in poetry reveal my love of straightforwardness. Go for the jugular, as they say.

Thus more puzzlement as I attempted to read this book.

I am loathe to post a review of something I did not finish, but I couldn’t get through this book. A collection of sermons grouped under seven different topic headings (“Preaching in the Company of Moses,” “…of David,” “…of Isaiah,” “…of Solomon,” “…of Peter,” “…of Paul” and “…of John of Patmos”), it’s possible that this work is not meant to be read straight through. As with any other sermon, the hearer (or, in this case, the reader) needs time to contemplate what she has learned.

I don’t know what I learned or what I was supposed to learn.

Peterson doesn’t use the five dollar words for the most part, and when he does he provides explanation. I can make some sense of individual paragraphs, but, when strung together to make a complete essay-sermon, I can’t figure out what the main point is supposed to be. This might be attributable to the nature of reading a sermon versus hearing it; I am not privy to tone, pauses, facial expressions, all of which provide the hearer with physical context clues that can aid in understanding.

Yet I wonder if these would illuminate the murky text or not.

Consider,

The Holy Spirit descended on this old world of ours, and there’s a Psalm 29 powwow in Elmo every day of the year: a grace-revealing gestures, a fresh snow-fall, a friend’s forgiveness, the first migrating yellow warbler, a miracle conversion, a truth-telling poem, a pasqueflower in bloom, the good death of a parent, resurrection – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – all the endless permutations of life. The beauty of holiness. And we have ringside seats. Henry James once said that a writer is a person on whom nothing is ever lost. That sounds like a focused Christian identity to me: the men and women on whom nothing, at least nothing that has to do with life – and virtually everything else – is lost.

– p. 84

This is the closing paragraph from a sermon on Psalm 29 and Revelation 4:1-8. Go and read those passages, then come back and read this paragraph again.

Now tell me, is the beauty of holiness found in the creation around us or in the presence of the God who created?

For the life of me I don’t know how Peterson would answer that question.

And this business of focused Christian identity – what? Really, what does he mean here?

No sarcasm.

I’m asking because I really don’t know.

As I wrote above, I am not the smartest person on the planet and I’m aware that my mind works in a specific way. It could very well be that another person could pick up this book and find themselves deeply encouraged and inspired in their faith. In fact, I have seen these people praise this book all across the internet. Someone like me, who is task-oriented to a fault, will find herself throwing the book across the room, yelling, “What do you want me to learn?!”

Perhaps the fault here lies with me, the reader. Maybe I simply can’t hear what he’s trying to say. I don’t know. I hope someone pondering this review does read the book, because I would love to hear your thoughts.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

Review: Worn Out by Obedience

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Exhausted. Worn out. Weary.

These are all states with which I am intimately familiar – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I know what it is to drain the tank to the very last drop and wonder how or why I should keep on the path that God has laid out for me. Wouldn’t it be easier to take a detour? To check out for awhile? In the name of self-care, isn’t it all right to indulge myself?

Because I’m tired.

The shepherd-warrior David felt that, too. After years on the run from King Saul, he gave up on seeking God’s will for a season. Oh, he didn’t hate God. He just sort of put God on the back burner. David took his men into enemy territory, to Ziklag, because he was tired. And that tiredness led him to believe that God wouldn’t take care of him.

Pastor Ron Moore uses this biblical story to show us how easy it is to wind up in our own personal Ziklags. We never intend to go there. We want to do the right things. Except…sometimes we don’t. We hold on to secret, precious sins. Or maybe it’s not that, maybe it’s just that we’re trying to do all the right and good things in our own strength. Eventually, that strength runs out.

Either way, enemy territory looks mighty pleasant.

Moore’s years of pastoral work is evident on every page. He relates stories of men and women who turned aside from God for a time, as little as a few days or as long as many years. Some of them wound up in Ziklag because they didn’t want to give up sin – but they were still able to put on a good religious show. Others bought ground there out of burn-out, the kind that comes from never being able to say “no” to all the good things that need doing.

This would be enough, but Moore goes a step further and shares his own struggles, never denying his own humanity. This allows the reader to explore the discussion questions at the end of each chapter in safety and vulnerability, knowing that the author isn’t out to condemn from the confines of a hypocritical tower.

Divided into three parts, Worn Out by Obedience begins by describing the ways in which we become exhausted. Are we asking God to order our days? Are we holding onto things we need to get rid of? Are we trying to earn His grace by our good deeds? Whether we are worn out by service, expectations, disappointment or sin, we risk giving in to the temptation to listen to our own advice and pack our bags, as outlined in the second part. Finally, Moore reminds us of the grace of God that enables us to get out of Ziklag and get back on His path.

Though I cannot reproduce it here and am reduced to mere description, the graphic on page 22 provides a nice summation. The Christian experience is one of hill and valleys, ecstasy and agony. At the same time, it is one of overall progress is upward, toward Christ. The pits and the progress coexist. And so, as Moore writes,

When the reality of soul weariness is ignored, we slowly slide into dangerous time of spiritual disconnectedness, disappointment and discouragement. It is during these vulnerable stretches when we are most susceptible to suspend the battle against temptation, lay down our armor and surrender to sin. As a lion goes after worn-down prey, so Satan charges after the tired believer. We have to recognize the reality of spiritual fatigue, understand the danger and takes the steps of refresh our soul.

– p. 25

The rest of the book explains how to identify weariness and how to address it in order to avoid Ziklag. However, if Ziklag is where we are, there is always grace to leave.

As this is a book from Moody Publishers, there are a few sections that are heavy on the Calvinism, but this doesn’t effect the overall message of the book. One paragraph did, however, stand out to me:

I became a Christian when I was around twelve years old, and my family was very involved in our small church. The fellowship was meaningful. The worship was uplifting. The messages were based on the Bible and applicable. But there were challenges with the church’s doctrine. I was taught that Christian could lose their salvation, that an act of sin severed one’s relationship with God. I grew up believing that I could be headed for [H]eaven in the morning, then sin at lunch and be on my way to [H]ell by the afternoon.

– p. 180-181, emphasis mine

As Moore does not name this church, it is impossible for me to know if he was taught an incorrect doctrine of assurance or if he misunderstood the Arminianism the church espoused. If the former, if he really was taught that one sin meant he had to be somehow saved again, then there were definite problems with the church’s doctrine. That would inspire terror and legalism. If the latter, he would not be the first to misunderstand the Arminian teaching on assurance and apostasy. The Society of Evangelical Arminians addresses this directly:

…a believer cannot lose his or her salvation (cf. John 3:16, 36; Rom. 5:1), since he or she by definition remains in the state of belief or trust in Christ and is hence a believer. The one who falls away from salvation is the one who is no longer believing or trusting in Christ alone and is thus not a believer. Second, the believer does not lose his or her salvation by falling into sin. Though sin may lead one to deny Christ, the act of sin itself does not cause one to lose his or her salvation. A person is justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). And a person is not justified due to unbelief. If a person no longer believes in or trusts in Christ Jesus for salvation, then that person will not be justified by God — accounted righteous in Christ and by His merit.

As this comes up in the penultimate chapter, and Moore does not spill significant ink in trying to convince his audience of Calvinism or in attacking those who do not find TULIPs lovely (neither of which is the point of the book), it is only a minor detail and one that a casual reader may not even notice. The mindful non-Calvinist need not fear being blindsided or belittled, not should he fear manipulation.

I recommend Worn Out by Obedience to anyone who wishes to avoid burn-out and wandering off of God’s path, but especially recommend it to those who, like myself, have strayed more often than they would like to admit. The struggle is real. The climb is steep. There may be miles to go in order to get back on course. But there is more than enough grace to save us, more than enough love to console us and more than enough Spirit to empower us.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.