Saturday, January 24, 2015

Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards

The awards will be presented on March 12 at the New School in a free ceremony that is open to the public. The full list of nominees follows:


Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  (Bloomsbury)

Lacy M. Johnson, The Other Side (Tin House)

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (Random House)

Meline Toumani, There Was and There Was Not (Metropolitan Books)


Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown (W.W. Norton & Co.)

S.C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (Scribner)

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Ian S. MacNiven, Literchoor Is My Beat: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (Bloomsbury)


Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press)

Vikram Chandra, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (Graywolf Press)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

Lynne Tillman, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade)

Ellen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)


Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press)

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books)

Lily King, Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead Books)

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Alfred A. Knopf)

Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon)

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co.)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)

Hector Tobar, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press)

Willie Perdomo, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin Books)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

Christian Wiman, Once in the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Jake Adam York, Abide (Southern Illinois University Press)


Alexandra Schwartz


Charles Finch

B.K. Fischer

Benjamin Moser

Lisa Russ Spaar


Toni Morrison


Phil Klay, Redeployment (Penguin Press)

Friday, January 23, 2015

What They Don't Tell You (but should!) about Short-Term Mission Trips

(Here's my Engage post for the week.) 
Researchers estimate that more than a million people per year take short-term mission trips (STMs).  Some say that in the 13- to 17-year-old bracket, that number is closer to two million.
When I took my first STM, a seasoned missionary told my friend cynically, “She will probably get a lot more out of the trip than any of the nationals she’s going to help.” I like to think the people I met on that trip—some of whom I still have regular contact with—would say he was wrong. Still, it would have helped to have some guidance for avoiding pitfalls.
Today—many STMs later— my husband is a missionary, and we have seen first-hand what does and doesn’t help. Additionally, I took a poll of some ministry workers. So here are some suggestions for your group’s next trip.
  • Prepare well. Before going, read a history of the country where you’re going, catch up on current events there, and read books such as When Helping Hurts.
  • Truly serve. One person told of teens and single men sitting through a marriage conference their team was helping to provide while the local pastor had to hire someone to care for his kids because such work was “beneath” them.
  • Invest in the long term. Consider partnering with one church in one place over a long term. Rather than using mission trips to see different parts of the world, really develop one relationship.
  • Let the locals call the shots. Ask the nationals to tell you the best week or month to visit. Make sure the time you have chosen is actually best for them. Student teams going over spring break often arrive at the host country when kids there are in school, and the church has no extra hands to spare for translators or hosting. Going at Christmas may be less convenient for the STM team, but much more convenient for those who “can easily add more beans to the pot.”
  • If your group goes to build something, make sure they aren’t taking work from nationals who could benefit from the income. Sometimes churches in the developing world will invite teams to do such projects because the Americans often leave lump sums at the end that the nationals grow to depend on.
  • Look at the economics. If your group plans to spend $10,000 in travel, lodging, and food to build a $7,000 school foundation, you might want to reconsider.
  • Do for the nationals only what they cannot do for themselves. Creating dependency on STM teams is unhealthy for the receiving organization.
  • Assume that the people you are going to help will also teach and minister to you. See the relationship as give-and-take. Never view the nationals as the primary recipients. See yourselves as the nationals’ students. And notice in what ways you are impoverished that they are rich.
  • Take cues from the ministry workers on the ground. One husband, ignoring the advice of the local missionary, built orphanages in his wife’s name as a gift to her—in a place where the church was moving to a model that was emptying orphanages in favor of supporting kids in extended family members’ homes. Today those buildings sit empty.  
  • Think twice about going simply to play with/do VBS for kids in orphanages. The process of bonding and separating can complicate existing attachment issues. The money may be better spent supporting a relative of the orphan, such as an aunt, who cannot afford to raise the child but could do so if the funds were available.
  • Replace references to “third world” countries with references to the “developing world.” The former ranks the receiving country below the sending country, suggesting superiority on the part of those lending aid.
  • Let them reciprocate. A Texas congregation with a sister church on the US/Mexico border took a seminary student with them who was from Mexico and assigned him the task of talking with the local pastor privately to find out if there was anything they could do to better serve. That conversation yielded a number of suggestions: Stay on the Mexico side of the border every night instead of seeming to “flee to safety” on the US side; and invite the receiving church up to help with VBS—creating a true partnership. Notice they didn’t say, “Don’t come.” But rather, do it better.
What advice do you have for those leading STMs?  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Whitney Houston: The Movie

Multi-Grammy® Award-winning singer and musical icon Whitney Houston was the voice of a generation. We heard Whitney live at the Grammy® Awards in 1994, and her voice shook the walls with its power like no singer I've ever heard. 

For the first time ever, a movie has been made about her life. Directed by Golden Globe® winner and Academy Award® nominee Angela Bassett, the much-anticipated world premiere of Whitney will air tomorrow at 8 PM/7 Central. 
When casting began, everyone asked, “Who will play Whitney?” No one could imagine filling the shoes of this great artist. But after a grueling casting call, Yaya DaCosta landed the role, capturing the essence of Whitney in every scene, according to Lifetime. From her early beginnings in daytime television to most recently, her role on Lee Daniels’ "The Butler," Yaya has proven she has what it takes to bring Whitney to life once again. Arlen Escarpeta (Final Destination 5) stars alongside her as Bobby Brown, and Houston’s vocal performances in the film are sung by Grammy-nominated and multiplatinum-selling entertainer Deborah Cox.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Today's guest blogger, Shannon Gianotti, and I had lunch together on Tuesday at Jimmy's. Posted below is what she wrote about the place, which—if you live in or near Dallas—you must visit! I came home with a pound of spicy Italian sausage after munching on an oversized muffaletta sandwich. Next time, I'm buying some E-V-O-O (and some milder sausage—yeow!). The clerk knew her customers, and the back room provided plenty of eating space. You just have to know to walk through the kitchen to get there. 

It shocks me how many people haven’t heard about one of the epicurean gems in our community. So, for the good of my neighbors and delight of their tastebuds, I propose that everyone make a pilgrimage to the corner of Bryan Street and North Fitzhugh to visit Jimmy's Food Store—twice—and that’s not a suggestion.

Because, whether you work like Emeril in the kitchen or get by on Kraft dinners, your pasta skills can use the help. Jimmy’s Fine Italian Food and Wine works magic on the palate. Try adding a pound of sweet Italian sausage to that no-name marinara sauce you bought for $1.98, and your spouse may worry that he forgot your anniversary. Or, if you live on a higher culinary plane, sauté the spicy variety with garlic-seared mushrooms before simmering in 28 ounces of imported San Marzano tomatoes. Your friends will wonder when Julia Child took possession of your body.

True, you'll pay for it. But, what else can you expect after settling for that boring porker at the corner grocery store? And true, you'll have to travel all that way for just one ingredient. But that only bothers people who haven’t gone to Jimmy's.

Inside the store, teetering aisles crammed with imported cans lure the adventurer. Foreign labels flirt with language lovers. But only the foodie will find true love, probably somewhere between the basil and mozzarella of a prosciutto panini. Or perhaps, while the flavors vie for center stage on your tastebuds, the panini will uncover the foodie in you. And, since Jimmy’s offers too many culinary delights to swallow in one visit, you need to plan a second trip, perhaps for tiramisu and a wine tasting.

Considering that Jimmy’s provides a mini-international experience without the cost of airfare, the sausage feels like a steal. For the low fare of $5.95/lb, teleport yourself across the pond, teach yourself some Italian, and forever ruin how much you loved your mom's spaghetti—unless she grew up in Sicily.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Today I finished Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas—the same author who told John Newton’s story in Amazing Grace.  Considering that Metaxas released this book about three-and-a-half years ago (it was ECPA's 2011 Book of the Year), I know I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of book-review timing here. But who cares? This book has a timeless appeal, as it tells the story of a man who laid down his life for what he believed.   
A friend insisted that the audio version of the book was preferable to the print one, so I took her advice and learned passively as I drove to and from work and to appointments. I also learned some German pronunciation. I regret, however, that I had no way to underline in order to capture amazing quotes. Bonhoeffer had much wisdom, especially on the subjects of being single, heaven, ministry to young people, the dangers of mixing nationalism with Christian faith, about taking risks for the sake of the gospel, and about death and the Christian.

My favorite way to learn history is through the stories of individuals, whether real or fictional. And World War II is one of the eras I find most interesting—a fact I blame on Herman Wouk and the productions of  “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” based on his books. I especially love the combination of deeply researched history and the world of ideas, including theological ones. Consequently, I loved this Bonhoeffer book, as it was part biography, part history, part theology, and inspiration through and through.

Metaxas used sermons, letters, journal entries, lectures, the Barman Declaration, and news clippings to bring to life the events and people who made Bonhoeffer who he was: a musical, intellectual, theological, art-loving, Goethe-toting, cigarette-smoking teacher, theologian and Lutheran pastor. Bonhoeffer was among those who fiercely resisted the Nazis, to the point that he participated in a failed plot to kill Hitler. The young pastor wrote many volumes, including one on ethics, and he had a completely clear conscience about his efforts to stop the evil of the Third Reich. The book includes his rationale for how he could follow the God of the Ten Commandments ("you will not murder") while plotting a murder.

Bonhoeffer includes letters between the theologian and the fiancée he would never marry, as well as his musings from prison—during which, by the way, he felt he had too little time to get any writing done(!).

The broadcast of his funeral, through which his parents learned of their son's death (they lost three to wars), included these words from an old familiar hymn:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

 Life is short, y’all. Spend yours well.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2014 was a year of rising hostility toward Christians

By guest contributor Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST and the ASSIST News Service (I met Dan on a press junket in the Middle East.) Please pray for the persecuted church!

LAKE FOREST, CA (ANS) —While the world's eyes were riveted to Syria and Iraq in 2014, life for Christians worsened even more profoundly in Africa, according to an annual report on religious freedom.

According to World Watch Monitor, the situation deteriorated most rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries where Islamic extremism is the main source of pressure upon Christians, according to the 2015 World Watch List, released Jan. 7 by Open Doors International (ODI). ODI is a charity that supports Christians who face hostilities because of their faith.

The list, published annually since 1993, ranks the 50 countries considered to be most hostile to Christians during the 12 months ending Oct. 31, 2014. It surveys religious freedom for Christians in five areas of life: private; family; community; national; and the church. It also measures violence against Christians, and 2014 was a very violent year.

According to Open Doors, the 4,344 Christians reported to have been killed during the 12-month period are more than double the 2,123 killed in 2013, and more than triple the 1,201 killed the year before that. The majority of the deaths in the most recent period occurred in Nigeria, where 2,484 people were killed, and in Central African Republic, where 1,088 people were killed.

"Overall, the survey scores assigned to the 50 countries rose by nearly 10 percent compared to the 2014 scores, indicating a generally rising tide of antagonism toward Christians in the 50 countries most hostile to believers," said World Watch Monitor.

"The report also noted a resurgence of anti-Christian hostility in parts of Asia and Latin America, two regions where conditions had been comparatively favorable in previous years.

"And for the first time in three years, Mexico is back on the list, at No. 38."

The main engine: Islamic extremism

In 40 of the 50 countries on the World Watch List, WWL, Open Doors said "Islamic extremism" was a primary source of pressure on Christian life.

"It is fair to say that Islamic extremism has two global centers of gravity. One in the Arab Middle East, but the other is in sub-Saharan Africa, and even Christian majority states are experiencing unprecedented levels of exclusion, discrimination, and even violence," wrote Ron Boyd-MacMillan, director of strategic trends and research for Open Doors International, in a report supplementing the World Watch List.

Though violence against Christians made headlines throughout 2014, it was largely the same in most countries, with the exception of Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, according to the report. Instead, pressure on Christians increased mostly in less obvious ways: being shunned by family; losing a job and rejection within the community for faith related reasons. Such "squeeze" tactics, the report said, are especially hard on former Muslims who have embraced Christianity.

"It's important to understand this extremism is not only from the violent jihadists like the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, but Islamists who seek to take over cultures by stealth," Boyd-McMillan wrote.

Influence of 'Islamic State'

Daily life for Christians in most of the top 50 countries became more difficult during the past year, but the situation especially deteriorated in the northern provinces of Nigeria, where the Boko Haram insurgency has followed the lead of the so-called "Islamic State" and proclaimed a caliphate of its own. (I was born in this part of Nigeria of British missionary parents.)

Ranking No. 10 on the World Watch List, Nigeria's levels of pressure and violence against Christians are at a record high.

In April, the abduction of the 276 school girls in the Borno State village of Chibok commanded worldwide attention, but the mass abduction was only part of a wider anti-Christian front, one which killed nearly 2,500 Christians across the country. Open Doors said the links between al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Boko Haram, as well as with other Islamic terrorist groups in the region, make it likely the church will suffer more violent persecution in the near future. The charity said violence from Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen in the country's Middle Belt region is expected to add to the threat, as is pre-election violence later this year.

Tiffany Lynch, a policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body to Congress, drew a distinction between the apparent expansionist ambitions of Islamic State and the six-year-old Boko Haram uprising in Nigeria.

"ISIL fits in with greater national security concerns in the Middle East, whereas Boko Haram is a domestic Islamic insurgency with regional concerns," said Lynch, using a common name for Islamic State, in an email to World Watch Monitor. "More importantly, ISIL attacks on Christians and other non-Muslims are part of a broader question about the future of these small religious communities in the region and their homeland."

According to Open Doors, al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based militant Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and other extremist movements in Eastern Africa also are drawing inspiration from the tactics of Islamic State.

Asia increasingly difficult; North Korea still No.1

With the exception of North Korea, which has been No. 1 on the World Watch List since its inception, Open Doors had been reporting improving conditions for Christians in the Far East in recent years.

The trend reversed course in 2014, when every country on the list but Laos and Sri Lanka received a higher persecution score. China, India and Malaysia registered the largest increases. Twelve countries from East Asia and the Far East are among the top 50.

Open Doors said some fundamentalist Hindu and Buddhist leaders feel threatened by the growth of Christianity.

The score assigned to No. 21 India is the highest ever. "The season of impunity for anti-Christian action in India has started since the world's largest democracy elected a Hindu extremist Prime Minister who has declared open season on Christians," Open Doors said.

In China, which rose to No. 29, scores of churches were attacked, with some being destroyed and about 300 crosses being removed. Open Doors said the fact that the communist government is still undecided about how to deal with the church is good news because it suggests a debate about church liberties is happening within the Chinese government.

Latin America

Mexico is the highest entrant on the WWL this year at No. 38. The report said the growth of organized crime in the country, as well as better reporting of anti-Christian violence, helps to explain the country's return to the list. The sources of persecution are complex in the predominantly Christian country. Open Doors said weak states allow local forces, such as drug traffickers, to hold sway. When Christians stand against the trade, they are targeted.

The World Watch List, the only annual global survey of Christian religious freedom, ranks countries using eight primary "persecution engines" to explain why the Christian community becomes especially targeted in certain circumstances.

The "engines" are not always specifically anti-Christian as they include forces such as "dictatorial paranoia" and "organized corruption," which sweeps up people of all faiths.

"Dictatorial paranoia is the second-most prevalent force making life difficult for Christians, and is a primary source of persecution in 13 countries, including North Korea, according to the list. North Korean citizens who are discovered to be Christian face long prison terms or execution," continued World Watch Monitor.

"Against the backdrop of media coverage of violence and beheadings in the Middle East, Open Doors said new co-operative relationships being forged between Muslims and Christians could have long term benefits. The charity said the crisis is forging a new level of inter-faith respect as pressured minorities have been forced to live and work together."

For more information, please go to World Watch Monitor.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Four Activities for Families in Dallas

Dave Friese, Ed Gossien, and John Peterson sent me a message with a subject line “Quickly written, half-baked satire.” Take three guys from out of town (taking a DEdMin class) and give them 20 minutes to come up with four ways families can have fun in Big D. And here’s what you get. (At least they didn’t say anything about grassy knolls or Southfork Ranch):

Four ways to help families in Dallas in fifteen minutes or less  
  • Did you know that uninterrupted family time during rush hour traffic actually lowers blood pressure and increases circulation? Road rage is really a myth. [Those other drivers] are just trying to get to the next BBQ stand over your dead body.
  • Research tells us that families who play together stay together. We’all want to see a Cowboys game! (Everyone wants to see a screen bigger than Jerry Jones’s ego.)
  • If your marriage is in the tank, find an expert to help your marriage, like Mark Cuban. He knows everything.
  • Everything is bigger in Texas. Go big or go home. Families need big BBQs, big trucks, big churches, big blonde hair, and a big DEdMin degree from big, bad DTS.

[Okay, they did get serious here at the end.]  

Truth is, families need each other. 

Joseph and Mary went to Egypt alone. Baby, donkey, belongings; that’s it. They stayed together, relied on God’s promise and provision, and just kept going. Sometimes families just need to keep going—regardless of the circumstances—and enjoy the donkey ride. God is faithful.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Newsweek Pans the Bible; Wallace Talks Back

In 2014 on Christmas Day, I noticed that The New York Times ran two articles highlighting atheism, and nothing that mentioned the event millions across the globe were celebrating.  Among such predictable Christmas fare was Newsweek's tirade against the Bible. In case you're interested, Dan Wallace wrote a lengthy response.

Three Bible Passages about Family Life

I asked three doctoral students—from left, Patricia Sibley, Dickson Chan and Ed Shyu—in a seminar on family issues to share with my readers three Bible passages that talk about family basics. Here’s what they recommended:

Ephesians 5:21
“Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Job feared the Lord. He portrayed the righteousness of God. The fear of the Lord lays the foundations of godly family relationships. Job taught his children the word of God. He prayed for them and asked forgiveness for them. He fulfilled the roles of the priest, prophet, protector, and provider of his home.

Deuteronomy 6:6–9
These words I am commanding you today must be kept in mind, and you must teach them to your children and speak of them as you sit in your house, as you walk along the road, as you lie down, and as you get up. You should tie them as a reminder on your forearm and fasten them as symbols on your forehead. Inscribe them on the doorframes of your houses and gates.”

The Book of Deuteronomy commands us to keep the word of the Lord in our hearts and in our minds. So, therefore we teach our children intentionally at all times and everywhere and with all means. The teaching should be remembered and modeled daily. We are to write [God’s words] as a visual reminder. Our lives become a living word of God. The word becomes flesh through our lives.

Psalm 127

If the Lord does not build a house,
then those who build it work in vain.
If the Lord does not guard a city,
then the watchman stands guard in vain.
It is vain for you to rise early, come home late,
and work so hard for your food.
Yes, he can provide for those whom he loves even when they sleep.
Yes, sons are a gift from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb is a reward.
Sons born during one’s youth
are like arrows in a warrior’s hand.
 How blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!
They will not be put to shame when they confront enemies at the city gate.
God is the LORD of all families, providing for them and protecting them. He is the master builder of the home. Children are God’s gift to us to be good stewards of. We are to train them up and send them out for the work of the Lord and for his glory. 

God is the LORD of all families, providing for them and protecting them. He is the master builder of the home. Children are God’s gift to us to be good stewards of. We are to train them up and send them out for the work of the Lord and for his glory (Psalm 127).