Tuesday, November 16, 2010

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

The Chinese Christian church is rapidly expanding in modern China despite oppression and sometimes persecution by the Chinese government. At a conference a couple of years ago I heard a Chinese woman pastor speak movingly about the trials and triumphs of the church in her country.

When I was offered a review copy of City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell, a novel about missionaries in China in the early twentieth century, I was intrigued and agreed to read it.

The novel is a fictionalized account of the story of the author's Mennonite missionary grandparents who spent many years in China. Caldwell's grandfather self-published a book about his experiences for his family and she uses that material as well as letters and diaries from other relatives who also served in that mission field during the pre-WWII era. Although none of these sources are ever directly quoted in the novel, it is clear that the flavor of that time and place seem to be accurately depicted by the author. I would have liked to read her grandfather's account.

The novel is in the form of a memoir told by the aging Will Kiehn as he looks back on his work in China alternating with the diary of his wife, Katherine, a missionary nurse. or "deaconess". Their struggles with learning the language and the culture of the people, the privations and joys of their work, and personal tragedy are set in the historical context of the civil war in China. 

There is much to like about the novel. It is gentle in tone and reflects the pacifistic, loving theology of the Mennonite missionaries. Will Kiehn is a well-defined character with flaws as well as virtues. Katherine is not nearly so well drawn, but her diary provides a different, but complimentary viewpoint to Will. The destruction of the Chinese civil war is accurately depicted, well written,  and is an important theme of the book.

My criticism of the book is that, with the exception of the Bandit King, none of the other characters--American or Chinese--are fully realized. The author tells us that the Kiehns came to deeply love the Chinese people and nation but never shows us why and how that came to be. Even the converts who are closest to the Kiehns are little more than names.

That said, I did enjoy reading City of Tranquil Light. I am in awe of these missionaries--and the others around the world--who left the familiarity and comfort of their home countries to follow Christ by bringing the gospel to others. It's not something I can ever imagine doing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Jew Is Not My Enemy by Tarek Fatah

When I was asked to participate in the Green Books 2010 Campaign by publishing a review of a book printed on environmentally friendly paper today, I chose The Jew Is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths That Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism by Tarek Fatah from the list of books offered to me for review. 

I have not seen many books written by moderate/liberal Muslims speaking out against the extremist acts of a few, so I thought it would be an interesting read. And it is.

Tarek Fatah, a Canadian of Pakistani descent, is a journalist and the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a liberal group. In his introduction to the book he says that he is on a jihad against Muslim anti-Semitism.

Prior to the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, the small Indian Jewish community had not been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. The fact that the terrorists came from Pakistan, which has no Jewish population, horrified Fatah and inspired him to write this book about the origins of Muslim anti-Semitism.

Fatah relates the history and development of anti-Semitism in Islam', and the factors that encouraged it from the Qur'an to the policies of the modern state of Israel. 

The purpose of the book is more to persuade his fellow Muslims that anti-Semitism is not a core tenet of Islam than it is to make an apology to non-Muslims. Fatah makes a distinction between the authority of the Qur'an and the writings of the Hadith in order to make his point. He also argues that the creation of an independent Palestinian state would help reduce Muslim anti-Semitism.

I am not familiar enough with Islam or the history of the development of anti-Semitic attitudes in its theology or in the cultures of the countries where it is widely practiced to know whether or not Fatah is making a persuasive case to other Muslims. I do appreciate the courage that it must take for him to take on this subject in a very public forum.

I will give away my review copy, so if you are interested in reading this book leave a comment here!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Two Giveaway Winners!

My apologies to all for the delay in having the drawings for Exercising Your Soul and The Church Awakening. I do like to wait about a week before doing a drawing to give ample opportunity for folks to enter but I got a bit behind.

Congratulations to Robin who will receive a copy of The Church Awakening from the publisher. (Robin, I have your address so you don't need to send it to me.)

Congratulations to Michelle who won a copy of Exercising Your Soul. Michelle, please email your address to me (jody dot harrington at gmail dot com) so I can get that information to the publisher.

Please let me know when you receive the books! I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guest Book Review: Exercising Your Soul by Gary Jansen

Note from QG: When I skimmed through this book after receiving it from the publisher, I realized that I did not have much background in Catholic and Ignatian spirituality. Fortunately my friend Robin Craig has much experience with this and agreed to be a guest reviewer for me. Many thanks, Robin! I know my readers will really appreciate your fine review of this book.

Gary Jansen's Exercising Your Soul is a humorous and helpful read for anyone who wants to explore a life of prayer.  

Sympathetic to the struggles we all face in developing an honest and disciplined prayer life, Jansen offers candid and wry anecdotes detailing some of his own challenges.  And, recognizing how difficult it is for many of us to figure out how to make a start, he provides numerous illustrations drawn from popular culture -- movies, television, and everyday encounters -- to demonstrate how easily we can make use of the ordinary events of our lives in order to discover the God who is present in all things.

Although Jansen writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, with many of his insights based upon the 16th century Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, most of what he  suggests offers prayer potential to anyone of Christian faith.  Many of his very short chapters give helpful introductions to various prayer forms -- historical background, explanations of the how and why, and brief but easy-to-follow instructions.  If you've been curious about lectio divina, or contemplative prayer, or imaginative prayer, he offers lots of practical ideas for for developing a new practice or for revitalizing one that's stalled.

Protestants who are accustomed to focusing primarily on Scripture in their devotional life may find the chapters on praying the parables particularly helpful.  Interestingly, Jansen uses (perhaps unwittingly) a famous metaphor of John Calvin's.  Calvin urges us to understand Scripture as the "spectacles" which God gives us to see and understand God's creation in a way that out brokenness precludes; Jansen offers us prayer as another lens through which we may see God's activity in our lives .

The final section of the book addresses the Stations of the Cross, a Catholic form of devotion. Jansen presents two versions: the traditional one, developed in the Middle Ages, which incorporates moments of Jesus' journey toward the cross as depicted in legend as well as Scripture, and a newer version promulgated in 1991 by Pope John Paul II, based solely upon events related in the Gospels. The latter may be more acceptable to those Protestants who are distracted or troubled by stories and customs that have emerged from tradition rather than from the Bible itself.  As always, Jansen provides detailed but not overwhelming instructions for those wading into new waters with respect to this form of meditation.

As Jansen says in his Introduction, we often think of prayer as :"asking for what I want" rather than as an experience of God's grace.  This book would, I think, be helpful as a guide to either an individual or a small group desiring to explore forms of prayer or seeking to deepen the experience of prayer as grace received as well as desire pursued.
--Robin Craig
GIVEAWAY: The publisher has offered a copy of Exercising Your Soul to one of my readers. Please leave a comment if you would like to enter the drawing. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Spice Necklace by Ann Vanderhoof

Books that combine travel and cooking are great to take with you on vacation. Or to pick up and read when you need a vacation but aren't going anywhere.

Ann Vanderhoof's The Spice Necklace is an excellent example of how to combine these two genres into an entertaining and educational read.

I'm not a big aficianado of Caribbean cooking, despite the fact that I do like hot and spicy food. Vanderhoof's book didn't change my mind and send me out to Whole Foods looking for jerk spice, mangoes, fresh coconuts or plantains so that I could try out some of the recipes she includes in the book. So I can't comment on how the recipes come out. 

However, her memoir of a recent trip around several Caribbean islands included great descriptions of each as well as insight into what is distinctive about each one. She and her husband made friends with islanders on each of their stops and took the time to learn about their lives and participate in their traditions.

The title is meant to remind the reader of the old term for this area of the world: The Spice Islands. Vanderhoof shares the education she gained through her experience about the history and cultivation of their traditional spices such as vanilla, wild oregano, nutmeg and mace, and congo peppers as well as their use in the native cuisine.

All in all, The Spice Necklace is a fun, escapist read that informs as well as entertains. If you try any of the recipes, let me know how you liked them!