Monday, August 10, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Book Reviews, part I

Note: On my sabbatical, I am visiting churches, working on a new devotional book, and catching up on some reading.  Here are reviews of two books I've read so far.

            All the Places to Go: How Will You Know?  John Ortberg

            Ortberg is the Senior Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, and is one of my favorite preachers and authors.  This book is about capitalizing on opportunities God places before you.  In many ways, it is a book about making good decisions.  However, Ortberg says early and often that God is not a crystal ball, who exists simply to help us choose the right path and avoid pain.  In fact, he insists sometimes choosing a more difficult path is exactly what we need.  And sometimes God’s answer when we ask, “What should I choose” is “Whatever you want.”  God knows that the act of making decisions helps us grow, so sometimes He lets us choose, and no amount of praying it through will help us discern the right choice.  The book is full of statements like that, that turn conventional wisdom about hearing God’s voice upside down.  Throughout, he uses the concept of open doors (from Revelation 3:8, where Jesus tells the church in Philadelphia “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut”) to represent the opportunities God engineers for His people. Ortberg wants us all to be “open door people,” who are constantly ready to walk through the doors God has in mind for us, even though most of us would rather stay where we are. 
            As he puts it: “God is doing something magnificent in this world.  When a door is opened, count the costs, weigh the pros and cons, get wise counsel, look as far down the road as you can.  But in your deepest heart, in its most secret place, have a tiny bias in the direction of yes.  Cultivate a willingness to charge through open doors even if it’s not this particular door.”  Ortberg acknowledges all doors are not the right ones for us.  My favorite chapter of the book is chapter 5, “Door number 1 or door number 2?”  In this chapter, you read some of the best, most biblical and practical advice on making decisions that I’ve ever read or heard.  He also has an excellent chapter on how God’s closing a door is often the best, most merciful thing He can do for us.
            The title is a riff on Dr. Seuss’s book All the Places You’ll Go, and Ortberg occasionally writes like Dr. Seuss, particularly (and hilariously) in his chapter retelling the story of Jonah.  Mostly, however, he uses Scripture, plus stories from his own life, from the Bible and from the world around us to illustrate his points.  He is an excellent writer, and this book will appeal to a wide variety of readers.  It is inspiring, often funny, sometimes poignant, and difficult to put down. I would recommend this book to people who struggle with decision-making, young people who haven’t yet learned how to make good choices, older people who have gotten stuck in the mud of never taking risks or trying anything new, impulsive people who tend to leap before they look, and people who simply need a kick in the pants to get them moving again.  So…basically everyone.   

            Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

            If you’re an avid reader, you’ve heard about this book, the publishing story of the Century.  It’s a “lost” manuscript for Lee, the woman who famously wrote a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, and then wrote very little since.  Lee is elderly, but still alive, and allegedly gave permission for this book--written in the 1950s and thought to discarded--to be published.  I had it on pre-order, and started reading it the day it appeared in the Kindle app on my phone.  The book has been pitched as a “sequel” to Mockingbird.  It features most of the main characters from that book, twenty or so years later, in the 1950s.  As such, the big news about the book is that Atticus Finch, the heroic small-town attorney who defended an innocent black man--Tom Robinson--accused of rape in a small Alabama town and refused to let his children use the “N” word, is by the mid-fifties an old, arthritic man who is concerned about racial unrest and the NAACP and has joined the local white citizens council to stop racial agitation from changing the status quo.  In other words, Atticus Finch, a hero of racial equality in this country for over fifty years, has himself become a racist.  The book is about Scout Finch, the narrator of Mockingbird, now in her twenties and living in New York, coming home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week vacation.  She weighs marriage prospects with her high-school sweetheart, clashes with her old-fashioned Aunt Alexandra, and finds out, to her shock and horror, about her father’s activities in defense of segregation.  Scout feels betrayed that her idol has turned out to have feet of clay.  She has to decide what to do, now that the one sure thing in her life--her father’s moral perfection--has turned out to be false. 
            This would all be depressing--and it has indeed depressed many readers and reviewers--but for a couple of factors: First, this isn’t actually a sequel.  Lee wrote Watchman first.  It was rejected by her publisher, who urged her to write another story about the same people from a different viewpoint.  That’s what led her to write Mockingbird.  Why was Atticus so flawed in her first writing, and so outstanding in the second?  There are theories.  Lee admitted long ago that Atticus was based on her father, a small-town attorney and good man.  However, Lee’s father  was a segregationist who, late in life, changed his mind and began to work for racial equality.  Perhaps Lee wrote Watchman when she was disillusioned by her real father’s racial views, and wrote Mockingbird after he had been come over to the side of integration.  Or, perhaps since she chose to write Mockingbird from the perspective of a little girl, she chose also to present Atticus as an ideal man, the way many a little girl would view her daddy.  Second, it is a reminder to all of us that good people are still flawed people.  Good people can be very wrong.  Most of my own ancestors of that same generation took racial segregation for granted, and believed that the best thing for all races was to keep everyone “in their place.”  This was an evil belief, and they bought into it.  Yet these were also gracious, genuine Christians to whom I owe a legacy of faith and love.  I am who I am in part because of them.  Atticus Finch in Watchman is still the same kind, wise man he has always been.  He’s just terribly wrong about an incredibly important issue, like my own departed relatives were.  We have a hard time seeing things with that nuance; we want to believe that anyone who agreed with segregation was fundamentally evil.  We want to believe this because we want to believe we’re not capable of such evil ourselves.  But when our own grandchildren look back at us, what horrid attitudes and destructive habits will they remember?  We are all sinners in need of grace…and in need of someone courageous enough to tell us we’re wrong.

            Go Set a Watchman (the title is based on Isaiah 21:6, the text of a sermon Scout hears in her childhood church) is not a great book, but it is a very good one.  Ironically, a manuscript that was rejected is better, in my opinion, than most of what passes for writing today.  And the thing that brings me the most joy when I remember this book is that rejection.  If Lee’s editor had not turned down this book, she might never have written To Kill a Mockingbird, and the world would be a much poorer place.  It amazes me how God can use a closed door to bring about something wonderful. 

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Excellent reviews. Thank you for sharing.