Saturday, August 29, 2020

"A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son - Michael Ian Black

If you're familiar with the work of comedian/actor/writer Michael Ian Black, "A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son" may very well come as a bit of a surprise.It shouldn't, really.

While the longtime member of the comedy group The State is well known for his dry sarcasm and irreverent wit, Black has also been known, if you're paying attention, for socially insightful commentary and his increasingly popular role as a successful author of children's books.

Still, "A Better Man" is a Michael Ian Black that for the most part we haven't seen. For the most part devoid of Black's usual sarcasm and cynical nature, "A Better Man" seems determined to break the rules, personally and professionally, that Black has long set for himself.

In case you can't quite figure it out, "A Better Man" is essentially a letter from Black written to his college-bound son Elijah, whom Black most obviously worries about and even more obviously completely adores.

"A Better Man" is, indeed, a mostly serious endeavor though there are certainly moments when Black allows his humor to shine through and lighten, in mostly all the right moments, his most serious and potentially dark thoughts. Black gives us the richness of his humanity here, simultaneously far more vulnerable than we've ever seen him yet also occasionally defensive and fearful and guarded and, well, quite aware that he's intentionally showing the world the Michael Ian Black that they've never fully seen but he's always wanted to show to his fans and, perhaps even moreso, to Elijah.

Black began his journey inward with his last effort, "You're Not Doing It Right." It's a journey that continues here and both deepens and broadens. The earliest pages of "A Better Man" are profound and deeply moving, Black reflecting on the Sandy Hook massacre that occurred only blocks from his own son's school and subsequently weaving together memoir, personal and parenting reflections, and occasional social commentary as he seemingly points his son toward a healthier masculinity and toward the lessons that he hopes his parenting has brought forth in their mutual journeys.

Black knows that he's not a perfect man. He also knows that he wasn't a perfect parent. He occasionally seems to serve up a literary wince, reflecting upon those times when he's allowed his own past traumas and life baggage to get in the way of his being the father he wanted to be. It's not so much an end result that Black shares here as it is his hopes and fears, failures and belief in something other than himself that he doesn't quite call God but acknowledges has helped to illuminate his path.

Black explores the complicated relationship he had with his own father, a man who passed away traumatically at the age of 39 leaving unanswered questions and unresolved issues. "A Better Man," which feels essentially like a call to himself and a calling up of Elijah, immerses itself in light melancholy as Black writes to his son about everything from violence to sexuality to relationships to gender roles and, without question, most of all love.

Simply love.

Black explores toxic masculinity, but "A Better Man" is most certainly not about toxic masculinity. It is, instead, about reclaiming masculinity as something worth celebrating because it loves and protects and guards and is tender and is most certainly non-violent. The social commentary is undeniable here, though for the most part "A Better Man" stays fairly light within the political realm. Black most certainly discusses gun violence and those who work in the area of sexual violence will rejoice at the simple, straightforward way that Black instructs his son to always except "no" for an answer even if it's at the last minute and even if it's right in the middle.

Black makes sure his son understands that the same standard should always work both ways. It's a beautiful lesson, a desperately needed lesson, in a book that is filled with simple, straightforward yet deeply meaningful lessons from father to son as the son prepares to leave home and begin their tiptoe into adulthood.

There are moments, rather brief ones, when "A Better Man" flounders a bit as Black infuses his material with facts and resources that feel more like essays and less like a personal letter. However, these moments are truly relatively brief and also give Black's teachings a layer of substance and depth.

The truth is that "A Better Man" begins and ends sublimely. In between those literary bookends, "A Better Man" is filled with the heartfelt insights and vulnerable imperfections of a comedian and actor and writer doesn't so much want his son to "man up" as he wants his son to be "a better man."

An ideal book for those on the parenting journey and for longtime Michael Ian Black fans, "A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son" may be parenting advice but it's also stellar life advice as Black teaches us that there's a better way for boys and men to live and that better way is love and compassion.

Friday, August 21, 2020

"After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity" - David P. Gushee


I'm embarrassed to admit that David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor Christian Ethics at Mercer University and the current president of the American Academy of Religion, wasn't on my radar despite what I would like to consider to be a rather pronounced effort to recognize and become familiar with contemporary Christianity's more progressive voices.However, I saw Gushee's name cross my Twitter feed when someone talked about this book, "After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity," and after a quick browsing of its subject matter decided to check out the book for myself.

If you've followed my writing for any length of time at all, you know that I've had a rather chaotic and not particularly positive journey with the world of organized religion. From a childhood spent as a Jehovah's Witness, the first of two paths to kick me out, into John Wimber's Vineyard movement, second of two paths to kick me out, I then moved toward an extended period in a New Thought church, where I was ordained, and, with a couple diversions, a seminary journey of licensed ministry with Church of the Brethren before my current tiptoeing between the Unitarian-Universalists and the Presbyterians (USA).

It wasn't really until reading Kate Bowler's "Blessed" that I could solidly identify some of the patterns, mostly dysfunctional, that led me to repeatedly head down theological roads that I inevitably found disappointing and from which I seemed to inevitably get hurt.

"After Evangelical" does, indeed, serve up Gushee's proposal for a path to a new Christianity, a way to set aside our disillusionment with an increasingly ego-driven and decidedly non-Jesus centered evangelical path and move toward a living relationship with Christ that is intellectually consistent and morally robust.

Quite simply, "After Evangelicalism" enthusiastically proposes that it is not just possible to follow Jesus out of evangelicalism but it is necessary to do so.

Thus, how you feel about evangelicalism may very well help determine how you receive "After Evangelicalism." If you're offended by anything I've already written, then it's unlikely you'll find Gushee's proposal satisfying. After all, you'll be unlikely to believe there needs to be life after evangelicalism.

In fact, you're probably thinking evangelicalism is just fine...maybe even better than ever.

On the other hand, if you're troubled by the evangelical embrace of President Trump and if you have more than a few concerns about the evangelical rejection of climate change and the seemingly inconsistent messages about what seems to qualify as "pro-life," then "After Evangelicalism" may very well help you put words to those feelings you've been having about faith, church, your own journey, and how to make sense of it all.

Truthfully, Gushee spends very little time talking about President Trump, though it's pretty clear that, as the old saying goes, that's likely the straw that broke the camel's back. Gushee, who spent a good majority of his life in the evangelical world via his Southern Baptist tradition, began veering away from identifying as evangelical the more progressive his writings and his theological voice became including his call for full acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQ community that pretty much rendered him an untouchable in the evangelical world.

"After Evangelicalism" is a fairly weird mishmash of a book. It's simultaneously an academic endeavor and a surprisingly casual one. In fact, in terms of style Bowler and Gushee could easily be literary cousins given their abilities to write with both remarkable intellectual depth and emotional honesty.

Gushee spends a good amount of "After Evangelicalism" exploring precisely what went wrong with U.S. white evangelicalism by exploring such relevant areas as evangelical identity, biblical interpretation, church life, sexuality, politics, and race. Gushee packs an awful lot of information into "After Evangelicalism," thus at times the collection is both more of a primer to subjects that inevitably require more depth and also a bit of an overview of Gushee's previous writings. Once he's explored these subjects, Gushee begins vividly and passionately proposing new ways of living, belonging, and believing. Each chapter ends rather nicely with a sort of summarized collection of "takeaways," offering a solid framework for the material at hand.

Many who write from a more progressive theological space tend to shy aware from more "churchy" language, but Gushee embraces it. Now attending a more progressive Baptist church along with his wife's Catholic Mass, Gushee clearly still embraces the beliefs and practices of his organized faith while also accepting that the word evangelical no longer applies and, in fact, he defines and embraces the path of a Christian humanist.

"After Evangelicalism" is not likely to be a book with which you'll always agree. Gushee's relentlessly pushing forward here and boldly embracing subjects that most churches don't even talk about let alone actually take a position on. Indeed, I didn't always find myself in agreement with Gushee - I was particularly troubled, for example, by his open embrace of LGBTQ and transgender Christians but then somehow finding space to remove polyamorists from the circle with tremendous intention. To be honest, it just felt unnecessarily mean-spirited to be so specific about it.

There were other times I found myself mumbling "Yes!" or "I don't agree," but that's really part of the joy of a book like "After Evangelicalism." It's a joy hearing and exploring new ideas and following that up with thought, prayer, research, and discussion.

Indeed, "After Evangelicalism" is a book that practically begs to be studied and discussed.

To use Gushee's own language, if there's one thing I take away from "After Evangelicalism," and it's a huge takeaway, it's this central idea of Christian humanism. Gushee explains it beautifully and it explains so much so perfectly about my own journey, beliefs, practices, and why despite multiple challenging experiences I continue to believe, explore, follow, and worship. It feels, on a certain level, like I have words to describe my faith journey.

While at times I wished "After Evangelicalism" would dig even deeper within its subjects and there were times I wished for a lengthier book that would have allowed for a more relaxed presentation, "After Evangelicalism" is undoubtedly a book I will refer to again and again and a book that has already left me in deep contemplation and feeling more peaceful than ever with my chaotic spiritual past and a present that feels like it was worth all that chaos.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

"The Buddha and the Bee: Biking Through America's Forgotten Roadways on a Journey of Discovery" - Cory Mortensen

It's difficult to describe the experience of reading Cory Mortensen's "The Buddha and the Bee: Biking Through America's Forgotten Roadways on a Journey of Discovery," a never less than engaging collection of roadside musings and nostalgic factoids that meanders nearly as much as did Mortensen himself during his 2001 solo bicycle trip from Chaska, Minnesota to Truckee, California.

The truth is that "The Buddha and the Bee" is more an entertaining read than an inspiring one, Mortensen's charismatic personality shining through his written pages as we join him on a journey that would have likely been ill-advised by just about anyone with a lick of common sense.

Aren't those the best kind?

I couldn't help but reflect upon my own life while reading "The Buddha and the Bee," a life that has been certainly less far-reaching but a life that has included my own weird journey when in 1989 I embarked on a 41-day, 1086-mile wheelchair ride around the border of Indiana with a handful of zigzags included just for fun. It was the first of what would become a 30-year journey in social justice for me, while Mortensen's journey led to a detoured life and a semi-impulsive but lifelong commitment to living life on his own terms.

At times, "The Buddha and the Bee" feels like what would happen if Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn's iconic anti-hero from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," had taken up biking and set his sights on San Francisco.


"The Buddha and the Bee" sort of turns the idea of the inspirational memoir upside down, a few obscenities here and there joined at the hip by an occasional joint and near daily rural roadside Chinese dinners and overnight stays in forgotten America's roadside motels.

It is true that the journey that unfolds here was incredibly impulsive and lacking in what most people would consider common sense or adequate preparation, though it's worth noting that Mortensen was no stranger to bicycling and he had adequate personal funding to allow for overnight motel stays when available and ample restaurant meals and bicycle repairs for which he'd been woefully unprepared. Granted an extended leave of absence from his employer with certainty of employment if he so chooses, it's zero surprise when the experience of riding across a good majority of America changes the directionless young man and sends him off toward a more meaningful life.

The truth is that you root for Mortensen throughout "The Buddha and the Bee," though you really don't get to know him all that well. In a certain way, this is actually rather refreshing as "The Buddha and the Bee" is devoid of the usual self-congratulatory narcissism that often accompanies this type of book. Mortensen has an almost dry humor throughout "The Buddha and the Bee," from snarky memories of personal encounters to not always so gentle opinions about these roadside destinations where sometimes the stranger isn't exactly always welcome.

For the most part, "The Buddha and the Bee" is quietly endearing. Mortensen is that rare soul who embarks on a weird journey and learns from it in tangible ways that impact his life. While the book itself doesn't expand upon Mortensen's life beyond this journey, a quick web browse reveals that Mortensen has ridden his bicycle over a million miles throughout his lifetime while traveling to over 55 countries and completing marathons on five continents. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a thirst for adventure, it's clear that Mortensen has lived a life far beyond that for which he was destined prior to this 2001 trip including being in rural America when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

"The Buddha and the Bee," which was released just this week and is Amazon's #1 new release in Sports Travel," is more likely to appeal to the adventurous spirit than those seeking another pure-hearted inspirational tale. It's an honest sports travel memoir, Mortensen unreservedly sharing his impulsive behaviors, equipment breakdowns, unusual encounters, body odor, and aliens.

Of course, there are aliens.

You might be inspired anyway, but for the most part "The Buddha and the Bee" will engage you and entertain you and cause you to reflect on your own life journey and, just perhaps, your bucket list of life experiences and personal/professional goals. You can't help but appreciate Mortensen's sharing of a wide variety of small-town factoids and historical reflections even when they occasionally seem to replace what would have been greater character depth and a greater connection with the man who serves as our guide in a weird and wonderful way.

With ordinary insights and a strong sense of gratitude, Mortensen has created a not so inspirational memoir filled with humor, insight, honest reflections, and the knowledge that sometimes it's those unplanned moments of uncommon courage that define us for the rest of our lives.

"The Buddha and the Bee: Biking Through America's Forgotten Roadways on a Journey of Discovery" is available now and most certainly worth your time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" - Barbara Brown Taylor

In a landmark survey of clergy by Baylor University, Barbara Brown Taylor was named one of the twelve most effective preachers.I'm not sure you would realize such a lofty recognition while immersing yourself in Taylor's "Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home," not because it's not written with Taylor's usual ample doses of wisdom and spiritual insight but because Taylor manages to come off as both incredibly intelligent and, quite simply, one of us.

I am not as intelligent as Barbara Brown Taylor, of this I have no doubt despite my having attended seminary and despite my having spoken from my share of pulpits.

The simple truth is that Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left parish ministry years ago, weaves together biblical exegesis and application expertly while making spiritual truths accessible to both lifelong students of the Gospel and those getting their feet wet, or perhaps washed, for the very first time.

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" is a collection of 31 messages, presented here as chapters, delivered by Taylor in her now present role as a frequent guest preacher along with her ongoing roles as professor, author, and theologian. While she is Episcopalian by background, the messages here represent Taylor's presence across a wide array of denominations and spiritual paths including churches, conferences, and seminaries. In fact, it would seem those wonderful Presbyterians are particularly fond of Taylor, while Taylor time and again presents with a wonderful ability to, well, tailor her messages to her particular audience.

"Always a Guest," while not a lengthy book, is not a quick read. "Always a Guest" is a collection that practically demands patience and the moving of Spirit amidst the words. You can practically feel Taylor's presence and you can practically hear Taylor's words as you read, her language undeniably that of a seminary-trained pastor yet her presence undeniably that of someone whose life has been irrevocably changed by that seminary training and a life lived in service to God and to God's people.

I found myself reading "Always a Guest" most nights before drifting off to sleep, 30-60 minutes of Barbara Brown Taylor feeling like the kind of church experience to which we all should aspire. Each night, I would slowly immerse myself in 2-3 messages, a surprisingly slow pace for an unusually fast reader but a pace that felt necessary and which seemed to honor the intent of this life-giving and faith-celebrating collection.

As is true of nearly every sermon ever delivered, some will resonate more deeply than others There will be times you'll be be-bopping along with Taylor's distinct preaching rhythms, while there may be other times you'll find yourself thoughtful, maybe even resistant, as her words can challenge and charge and command with spiritual authority. There may be times you disagree, I certainly did, but her words will still leave you informed, inspired, and motivated to keep learning and keep seeking understanding.

While inspiration is present throughout "Always a Guest," Taylor's messages are quite often real world messages with applicability to daily life, social justice, global issues, and even politics. Episcopalians aren't Episcopalians if they're timid and, trust me, Barbara Brown Taylor is far from timid. These are the words and the messages of a pastor and theologian lived and learned and who continues to do the hard work of trying to love the world as God so loved the world.

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" is a "must have" collection for fans of Barbara Brown Taylor and for preachers, seminarians, professors, everyday theologians, and for those who simply seek to find church between the pages of her written words.

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" will be released by Westminster John Knox Press on October 20, 2020.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

"Find Layla" - Meg Elison

There were a million ways that Meg Elison's upcoming YA novel "Find Layla" could have gone horribly wrong, yet somehow this never happens in what is, I'll confess with some surprise, a most rewarding and incredibly moving literary experience wrapped around the coming-of-age story of fourteen-year-old Layla.

Layla isn't the kind of young girl who usually gets her own YA novel. Yet, within a few pages of "Find Layla" you'll find yourself drawn to this remarkable young girl who's never really been given the chance to be remarkable growing up with a mostly absent mother in a chaotic, unpredictable environment while trying to provide for some normalcy with her younger brother, Andy.

There are many things that are admirable about "Find Layla." There are many things that are stunning about "Find Layla." Yet, what I am most drawn to with this somewhat short yet substantial story is just how much empathy Elison offers to Layla and how much she manages to ensure the young girl's dignity even in those difficult to read moments that are traumatic, humiliating, and far too often the stuff of very real childhoods.

Fourteen-year-old Layla is a SoCal teen living a life that is hidden but actually isn't. She's incredibly self-aware, yet underprivileged and the subject of nearly constant bullying at the junior high school where it seems like everyone else is privileged. The only real attention she gets is from the school's "mean girls" who tweet about her ragged appearance, greasy hair, dirty clothes and, well, smell.

Somehow, amidst it all, she carries a deep love for science and a 4.0 GPA.

When a school competition calls for a biome, an increasingly vulnerable Layla decides to peel off the layers of masks she's been wearing over every aspect of her life.

Boy, does she get attention.

When Child Protective Services inevitably responds, Layla loses the only world she's known. I mean, sure that world sucked. But, she knew it.

Visible for the first time in her life, Layla has to learn how to face her truths and maintain her wholeness in a world that is suddenly watching her every move.

"Find Layla" could have gone wrong. It probably should have gone wrong. "Find Layla" never goes wrong, because Elison infuses the story with honest characters, a realistic story, just the right amounts of hope, empathy without pity, and a resolute determination that Layla deserves the dignity that life hasn't given her.

This is an immersive, difficult to put down book and yet an emotionally resonant book that will move some to tears and perhaps be a tad too difficult for some others. An Amazon First Reads offering during the month of August, "Find Layla" is due for release by Skyscape on September 1st and it's a definitely winning novel for the award-winning Elison.

At its literary core, "Find Layla" paints a realistic world for Layla that is undeniably tragic in that truth. Yet, Elison is also writing about growing from the lives we're given and breaking free from the cycles that continue to bind us. Refusing to offer Layla anything resembling an articial, paint-by-numbers resolution, Elison instead offers her something even greater - empowerment and a sliver of light with which to grow.

The dialogue in "Find Layla" feels honest and truthful, Layla's occasional advanced language an obvious result of her strong academics and fiercely disciplined studying even against amazing obstacles. There could have been so many cliche's that came out of "Find Layla," but Elison for the most part avoids them in favor of multi-shaded social workers, foster parents, well-meaning do-gooders, and those godawful bullies who sometimes truly never change.

Refreshingly, even the supporting characters are drawn with complexity. Layla's brother Andy is so clearly developed that you can easily visualize him, while her mother waxes such a tragic figure that you practically expect her to spew forth Shakespeare. Layla's friend Kristi feels just like the kind of friend that Layla would have, while other characters like Bette, Dr. Jones, Erica, and others come alive in really special ways.

To offer too much in the way of narrative would spoil the emotional rollercoaster that is "Find Layla," a book that I can't quite call entertaining yet a book that is so substantial that it feels as if it shifted around my reader's DNA. As my first title from Elison, "Find Layla" is a book that will inevitably lead me to explore more of her previous works.

Filled with insightful exploration about poverty, neglect, and the worlds in which many of our children are raised in, "Find Layla" finds strength and resilience in vulnerability and courage and creates one of the year's most memorable YA characters whom you'll find yourself wanting to hug and you'll find yourself wanting to check in with every once in a while.

Primarily known as a science fiction author, Elison has masterfully woven science into life's human tapestry and created an honest and true masterwork of survival of the teenage spirit.