Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Religious’ Category

Some books introduce a new approach to old ideas and as such challenge one to grow. Other books reinforce ideas that one already adheres to and in doing so reassure one in their beliefs. The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright successfully did both for me.

What did Jesus mean when he said the kingdom of God is at hand? Or to put it another way, what did the average Galilean villager hear when a young prophet strode into town and announced that Israel’s God was now at last becoming king?–N.T. Wright

A scholar investigating the life of Jesus, N.T. Wright contends that Christians have much to learn from a historical study of Jesus. He encourages readers to imagine themselves back into the world of the Old Testament as perceived by Jews or into the world that Jesus lived in and spoke to. The Jews had been living under foreign rule and were waiting for salvation from God. They had three options: One, they could separate themselves from the world and bide their time until they received direction from God; Two, they could align themselves with political leaders, build fancy buildings, and hope that God would approve; Three, they could pray, sharpen swords, and then fight a holy war. Into this world came Jesus, who suggested a fourth model: the kingdom of God at hand. Wright argues that the parables of Jesus weren’t just a commentary on heaven as Christians take them today, but also intended for his Jewish audience. For example, the parable of the sower isn’t simply about how many people hear the gospel but then don’t listen. It’s instead about what God simultaneously judging Israel for idolatry while also calling Israel to renew itself in God.

So what? How do we move from a detailed, historical reconstruction of this Jesus, living in the world of the first century, to our own world with its very different contours and agendas?–N.T. Wright

The more I read of Challenge of Jesus, the more I wondered how Wright would apply the historical Jesus to the modern-day Christian. Wright explains that although the Crucifixion would have devastated the hopes of the Old Testament Jew for a king, the real story of God was never about Israel beating up everyone and taking control. Instead it was always the story of God redeeming Israel and the world. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are beginning the task of being God-image bearers in a new creation. When they ate of the forbidden fruit, everything changed. But Jesus reversed the story. Jesus brought a new order, one in which those who accept Him are ambassadors and witnesses.

The Challenge of Jesus was heavy-going and dense. I had to reread sections and I know that there are still parts I’m trying to grasp. Yet I’m reviewing Wright’s book, because it inspired me to want to learn more about the historical context of the Bible and the gospel.

Among other things, my dad raised me love books and to love the Christian faith. For that reason, whenever I add religious books to my wish list, I let him know about them. Sooner or later, most of those books show up as gifts. The most recent books my dad gave me are: Case for Faith, Allure of Gentleness, and Man Myth Messiah.

Case for Faith by Lee Strobel interested me for two main reasons. My first reason was that Strobel is a journalist well-known in Christian circles for his four nonfiction books that explore evidence for the faith and refute challenges. I have three of them. The second reason for my interest was that In Case for Grace, Strobel writes about the transforming power of God’s grace on several men and women–including Strobel himself. During his teens, Strobel left his home, determined to prove himself to the world. My one disappointment is that I expected Case for Grace to focus more exclusively on Strobel. The first and last chapters do cover the broken relationship between Strobel and his dad. Moreover, there are occasional references throughout the other chapters. Beyond that, the format of Case for Grace is reminiscent of What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey, a favorite Christian author of mine, in that it about a diversity of real people. There’s the ones whom we might typically associate with needing redemption such as the drop-outs, addicts, and gang members. But there are also the ones who are less cliche such as the intellectual. Craig Hazen had always been a good guy, sciene geek, and teacher’s favorite. He started out as an agnostic, but eventually took a journey that led him to belief in the validity of the faith. One of the most touching is of Stephanie, who grew up biracial in Korean, when there wasn’t a place for biracial children. She faced both abandonment and abuse and grew up believing herself to be garbage.

alluregentlenessAllure of Gentleness by Dallas Willard caught my attention when I browsed my hometown’s Christian bookstore this past summer. Number one reason was that I felt challenged by an earlier book of his, Spirit of the Disciplines. That book helped me better understand the place of solitude, prayer, meditation, sacrifice, and service in the Christian life. Another reason for my interest was that, according to the subtitle, about defending the faith in the manner of Jesus. I’ve been going through a season of reading about apologetics and Willard’s approach intrigued me. There’s much I appreciate Allure of Gentleness, including the simplicity or casualness of its tone. With each new chapter, I felt almost as if Willard were having a conversation with his readers. I also found of interest his contention that apologetics isn’t for those outside of the faith; but for the doubters and questioners within the faith. While I did initially seek out books on apologetics as a way to answer questions by the skeptics, I’ve also come to find them to reassure me when I walk through valleys. Because reading material in defense of the Christian faith isn’t new to me, I found myself already acquainted with much of what Willard wrote. Yet I still enjoyed Allure of Gentleness and believe it a worthy addition to my shelves.

Man Myth and Messiah by Rice Broocks ended up on my wish list after my husband and I saw the God’s Not Dead movies. The book was released concurrent to the God’s Not Dead movie sequel, which covered the same theme. In the first chapter, Brocks refers to the famous trilemma posed by C.S. Lewis in an earlier generation. Lewis said that based on the claims of Jesus in the Gospels about being the Son of God, Jesus was either a lunatic (because Jesus thought He was God), a liar (because He knew his claim wasn’t true), or He was indeed the Messiah. Broocks goes onto explain how the legend or myth got added to the list. The question has apparently been raised: “What if Jesus didn’t claim to be the Son of God?” That would mean all our stories about Him are simply legends. The rest of Man Myth and Messiah presents evidence to validate the existence of the historical Jesus and concludes with a call for everyone to make a choice about whom they will believe. The section dedicated to exploring whether Jesus is simply a product of mythology presented material I haven’t read in other books and feels solid. Too often evidence in other sections felt too flimsy or subjective to stand up to scrutiny by those who are seriously searching for the truth. Over all, Man Myth and Messiah is a nice introduction to apologetics, but true doubters will want to read other books too.

All three of the books I’ve mentioned fall under the category of apologetics. There’s a part of faith that needs to come from the heart and emotion. I’m ready now to check out some of those titles, including a biography that my husband gave me about a missionary. At the same time, part of faith should also come from the mind and reason. Even the scriptures admonish believers to always be ready to give a defense of their faith. For these purposes, I encourage you to check out my three recent summer reads.

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

Walking Two Worlds introduces young people to the inspiring true story of Ely Parker, A Native American who gained greatness in both the world of whites and the world of his Seneca people. This fictionalized biography by Joseph Bruchac successfully provided me with an understanding of a great American whom I hadn’t previously known. Perhaps due to it being at hi-lo readers, Walking Two Worlds also left me with a desire to know more of what it means to be torn between two cultures.

Fictionalized biographies are a subgenre of biographies. Materials can apparently be freely invented, scenes and conversations are imagined. Indeed, while the majority of the events in Walking Two Worlds are validated in biographical accounts, Bruchac clearly takes advantage of elements allowed in this subgenre. Foremost, he often relies on dialog to create interest in Ely’s story. In addition, feelings are accredited to characters that probably can’t be substantiated with primary or even secondary sources. Then there’s the accuracy of the events themselves. While biographies do talk about an incident in which Ely was ridiculed by British officers because of his poor grasp of English, one that hardened his resolve to learn the foreign language, I couldn’t find any which detail the controversial romance between him and Clara Williams. Students may find it an interesting activity to determine which events are factual, which are more loosely based in history, and which may have been imagined.

Hi-lo novels are intended for struggling readers. They’re written at a lower reading level, but intended to have high appeal through intense action and somewhat complex themes. In telling Ely Parker’s story of how he came to draft the terms of surrender that led to the end of the Civil War, Bruchac found the perfect hook for hi-low readers by revolving all actions around a dream his mother had about her son, one that stated he’d “become a white man as well as an Indian, with great learning; he’ll be a warrior for the palefaces; he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people….” What young person doesn’t like stories with prophecy and warriors? Moreover, the majority of youth will relate to the feeling of walking between two worlds, in that they spend their teens being torn between childhood and adulthood.

This dream his mom had remained with the family, forever impacting their decisions. After his initial schooling, Ely went to live with relatives in an Iroquois settlement in Ontario where he learned how to hunt, fish, and trap in the old ways. When satisfied with his learning, he returned home and within a short time received admission to Yates Academy, where he quickly mastered the English language and became noted for his oratorical abilities. While at Yates, Ely was often called upon by his tribal elders to represent the reservation in Washington regarding treaty disputes with the United States government. With each one of these decisions, Ely gradually learned to walk between two worlds, as he’d continue to do for the rest of his life.

While I appreciated learning about a great American whom I hadn’t previously known, I did find Walking Two Worlds of limited appeal to me. The characters seemed one-dimensional, rarely struggling with their choices, or making mistakes. In addition, I finished the fictionalized biography wishing Bruchac had spent more time exploring what the emotional side of what it means to walk two worlds. Yet I also realized that hi-lo novels are aimed at a different audience than myself, and so don’t want to get too hung up on what turned me off about Walking Two Worlds. The bottom line is that as an hi-lo fictionalized biography, Walking Two Worlds should have an appeal to its intended audience.

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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs



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