Make America Read Again: The Mid-Term Wave Edition

So, I have read some more books.

“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics of Extremism” by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

Pretty much everyone knows that Congress is broken and has been for some time.  Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, in a fairly short work, have set out to explain what some of the contemporary problems are which include extreme partisanship and a win-at-all-costs mentality.  While Mann and Ornstein have criticisms for both Republicans and Democrats, they place the blame for the bitter stand off mostly on the shoulders of the Republicans whose ever rightward drift has caused a perpetual stand off type gridlock and, in their view, has led to a complete collapse of governing ideas.  They describe the GOP as “an insurgent outlier–ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.  The accusations include the Republican party as being more loyal to their brand than the country.  Did I mention this book was published in May 2012 before President Obama’s re-election?

The authors recount the recent history of the Tea Party.  On replay is the debt ceiling, a plot hatched by Virginia Representative Eric Cantor (before he was run out of office for not being conservative enough), that involved using the country’s coming debt default as leverage against President Obama to get him to agree to deep spending cuts.  The result was a pathetic charade and a fiasco but also something that was dangerous for the country’s economy.

“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” also recounts the times Republicans supported a bill (Conrad-Gregg proposal to deal with the federal debt crisis as one example) and as soon as the White House decided the administration could support the same bill, the Republicans ended up voting against the bill.  This was done to not give President Obama any political wins.  Hyperpartisanship was the genuine status.

The media doesn’t even escape criticism from this book.  Mann and Ornstein hammer many mainstream press outlets for trying to have an even-handed approach to political coverage when one party was disingenuously spinning, obstructing and distorting the reality of what was happening.  Worth noting is that both Mann and Ornstein have been reporters themselves and work for the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institute respectively.

Haunting that this book was written in 2012, four years before the Republican Party supporting Donald J. Trump and helping him win the presidency.  A revised edition of the book recently changed the title to: “It’s Even Worse Than It Was”.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Today’s Republican Party…is an insurgent outlier. It has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government. The Democratic Party, while no paragon of civic virtue, is more ideologically centered and diverse, protective of the government’s role as it developed over the course of the last century, open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining with the Republicans, and less disposed to or adept at take-no-prisoners conflict between the parties. This asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for ‘balance,’ constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance.”

“Since the debt limit simply accommodates debt that has already been incurred, raising it should, in theory, be perfunctory. But politicians have found it a useful shibboleth for showing their fealty fiscal discipline, even as they vote to ratify the debts their previous actions have a beginning the country to pay. The symbol of railing against debt has proven politically beneficial, even if not substantively meaningful.”
“The single-minded focus on scoring political points over solving problems, escalating over the last several decades, has reached a level of such intensity and bitterness that the government seems incapable of taking and sustaining public decisions responsive to the existential challenges facing the country.”

 

Faith in the Shadows:  Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer

Here is a book I actually read shortly after it was released (for a change).  ‘Faith in the Shadows’ by Vista Community Church pastor Austin Fischer is a brisk dive into the subject of doubt that is more refreshingly honest than most Christian books on this topic.

Fischer brutally recounts his wrestling with doubt…as a pastor and accurately surmises that crisis of faith come often not from a single moment but from numerous thoughts that have piled up over time.  He talks about the vastness of space and the universe while quoting the late atheist astronomer Carl Sagan.  There is an excellent summary of the crazy account of Job in the Old Testament.  His experiences and parishioner’s questions fill the pages.  The moment he directly challenged God to reveal Himself is included.

The approach of Fischer is to be honest about doubt and to not put up phony facades around other Christians but to embrace the thoughts and the questions which keep us up into the night.  To have faith, after all, implies at least a small amount of doubt just by the definition of the terms.

A striking way to think about doubt is presented by Fischer later in the read.  There is a riff on 1 Corinthians 13 where the Apostle Paul tells us that faith, hope, and love remain but the greatest of these is love.  Fischer postulates that when we have doubts, we often go immediately to a perceived conclusion that more faith is the answer to our probing inquisitions.  This concept is flipped by Fischer suggesting that perhaps love is the answer to our doubts and here, thinking about the great commandment:  love God and love your neighbor.  After all, Paul said the greatest of the virtues was love.

I’m a person that doesn’t struggle too much with doubt although I have at various junctures of my life.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are a legion of questions that I do not have the answer too and passages in the Bible that I don’t quite know what to do with all the time.  However, the divine person of Jesus remains compelling to me and more so than when I first encountered Him at the age of 14.

Fischer reinforces the important ideal that doubt is a part of life.  People do not need to be shamed for having doubt or severely judged for asking tough questions.  Rather we should approach one another humbly and prayerfully by our love (as the church and we have a long way to go here) be the answer to our doubt as we seek to serve and make a positive difference in the communities we find ourselves residing in.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“People don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts.”

 

The Shack by William P. Young

This is a book that I had sitting on my book shelf where it had been for a long time.  “The Shack” by William P. Young has been extremely popular and controversial for the theological ideas within the novel.  For that reason, I thought I would give the book a try.  “Meh” is my response after reading the book through and it will soon be off my bookshelf and into the donate pile.

A lot of people have criticized the theology.  The main character, Mackenzie (or Mack as in Mack at the shack), encounters the Trinity at an old abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness after his daughter is brutally kidnapped and murdered.  There is evidence that this shack is where his beloved daughter was taken.  God the Father (called Papa) is an African-American woman, Jesus is there as a buddy, and the Spirit of God is a gardener called Sarayu.  I won’t necessarily criticize the theology much.  Young is dealing with the most problematic of issues for Christians: the problem of evil.  Why would such a barbaric act happen to an innocent 7 year old?  I will give anyone grace trying to parse these mammoth issues.  In Young’s case, he goes hard into free will but also flirts with open theism.  Whatever verbal gymnastics that open theists want to do in order to explain the presence of a good God and evil, open theism does not solve the problem.  Even if God intentionally blocked his omniscience of the future (or relinquished his control in some way), critics would add that God still may be culpable because he could have stopped the evil anyway by not limiting Himself.

Theology aside, this story is not very good.  There is even sloppiness with the logic at which the story unfolds.  At the beginning, a narrator is introduced that is telling Mack’s story.  There is a scene described where Mack is all alone and falls asleep on the couch and Young describes what was on TV.  How would a narrator know this who wasn’t present?  How would Mack know this in order to tell the narrator as he was asleep?  It is this kind of not thought out writing that pulls the reader out of the story completely.

The incident where Mack’s precious daughter Missy is kidnapped seems outrageously far fetched as well.  Mack and his family are at a campground.  His son and other daughter are canoeing.  The canoe tips over and Mack runs to save them in the lake. When they come back, Missy is gone with ominous clues left behind.  So, a would be kidnapper and murderer was watching them for days and waiting for a moment to grab the 7 year old?  And that moment comes by a random canoe tipping of which may have distracted Mack for 5 or 10 minutes so his daughter could be lured or kidnapped and the assailant could drive away?  This is not very well thought out and even as you read this, you could probably come up with better scenarios on your own for a kidnapping to take place in a story.

The rest of the story gives way to sentimental spirituality and writing that really wants to sound poetic and deep but just isn’t.  Not even close.  The answers that Mack seeks at the shack he doesn’t really get any solid resolutions for either.

Lester Lauding Level:  1.5 (out of 5)

 

The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do by Edward G. Dobson

“The Year of Living Like Jesus” by Edward Dobson, right from the start, is a gimmick.  Dobson has no qualms about saying that he was inspired by AJ Jacobs book, “The Year of Living Biblically” where Jacobs apparently tried to live according to Old Testament law (I haven’t read that book).  One day, a Christian publisher thought that the religious marketplace could perhaps use its own book like this.  Enter Ed Dobson.

Most of this book reads like a person’s journal entry.  Dobson existentially tries to come to terms with what living like Jesus would actually be like.  Not just the morality but keeping in mind that Jesus was Jewish and came from a specific culture.  Dobson sought the advice of Rabbi’s and dipped into other faith traditions including praying the Catholic rosary, the orthodox prayer rope and the Episcopal prayer beads into his life.  As a note, the historical figure of Jesus would have done none of these.

Dobson did start observing Sabbath (Shabbat) on Saturday and wearing tassels as well as growing a long beard.  He lamented over the kosher diet and not being able to have some of his favorite foods.

The books becomes odd and seemingly distracted in places.  Dobson spends a good deal of time explaining why he voted for Senator Barack Obama for president in 2008.  He also has an unintentionally funny internal debate about whether Jesus would golf (!).  Dobson preceded to golf.

The book continues on through choppy journal entries and Dobson describing his reading over and over again of the 4 gospels.

A good thing that I took away from the book is wanting to understand more fully Jewish culture in the first century.  A solid historical and cultural understanding of the time when Jesus lived would provide a more rich picture when reading the gospels or thinking about Jesus’ life.

Lester Lauding Level:  2.5 (out of 5)

 

 

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About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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One Response to Make America Read Again: The Mid-Term Wave Edition

  1. Yes, the conservative movement has been extremely toxic for a very long time. I remember being filled with anger, back in the Nineties when as a young and impressionable teen I was exposed to talk radio. There’s nothing that Trump is saying now that they haven’t been saying for decades. It’s hate speech and it’s toxic, and it is perhaps our greatest spiritual crisis right now (amidst many).

    The thing is, I don’t think being “extreme” is a problem in itself. Jesus was too “extreme.” Abolitionists were labeled as “extreme” simply because they opposed slavery. And in my lifetime, people who have talked of climate change have been labeled extreme, and in the time and place (Midwest) where I was raised, even recycling or eating organic foods would have been “extreme.”

    Extremists aren’t the problem. The question is the motivation, which by coincidence collides with the other book you reviewed. I don’t care if people are extreme, I just want to know if it is motivated by love or hate. Conservatives and the right-wing have always been motivated by anger and fear and hate, at least as long as I’ve been alive, which is why I eventually had to set it aside and dig deeper, to find a political perspective that I could base on love and that would perpetuate goodwill and solidarity with the poor, just as Jesus of Nazareth sought to do.

    Thanks for the post and the insightful reviews.

    Cheers.

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