My Review of Abbas Amanat’s Iran: A Modern History

For a generation, the word Iran has conjured up a variety of images and thoughts here in the west some filled with hope and others of a more pejorative nature. As a college senior, this reviewer remembers the frustration, futility, and anger, of America and the West, during the events of 1979 and 1980 when the United States embassy in the capital of Tehran was overrun and the staff taken hostage for over a year.

Since then, Iran, as an Islamic Republic, has been much maligned and disregarded by the America and the West in the forty years since the fall of perhaps the last of Pahlavi Shah. It has also brought turmoil to the American political scene since the late 1970’s (the Iran-Contra scandal, aka Irangate, of the mid-1980’s for instance).

But when the opportunity to review Abbas Amanat’s new history of his native country Iran: A Modern History (2017, Yale University Press) was made available to this reviewer, I eagerly began to read it with the hopes of understand the events of 1979 and the history of the nation and people who were behind them.

I was not disappointed. What I found was the history of a proud and resilient people with a dynamic and turbulent past and present.

Amanat’s book begins in 1501 with the Safavid Dynasty and ends with an insightful analysis of why the nation of Iran has been able to exist. But there is more to this book than the historical narrative of the seven dynasties through which Iran has passed to the current Islamic Republic. This is a book in which the cultural history of Iran is also told – architecture, literature, music, and from the mid-20th century to today – film. It is also book in which the depth and tenacity of the Shia branch of Islam is shown and has been a major part, according Amanat, of Iran’s survival, thriving, and identity.

Iran: A Modern History, is a history that has depth and breadth to it. If you are a first time reader of Iranian history, this book will challenge you, as it did this reviewer, with a scholar’s, and a native son’s, understanding and analysis of Iran. But you will discover a perspective, a very long perspective, on a nation who has sat astride history of both the east, and since the 18th and 19th centuries (and before, really) the west. A position that created external tensions with Russia and England and internal tensions between the Muslim clerics, the progressive element seeking democratic forms of government, and the deeply rooted supporters of monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. I helped me to understand the turbulent nature of contemporary Iran as well as the reasons behind much of what has happened since 1979.

It is a book that would be great for book clubs, as well as probably upper class history classes as well as graduate level history and perhaps in Christian seminaries as part of the study of Islam and the Muslim world.

I gave this book a five-star rating on Goodreads!

Note: I received a kindle copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.


My Review of Natasha Crain’s Talking with Your Kids about God

Having been in ministry for over 30 years first as a youth pastor, then a youth and Christian Education pastor, and finally as the lead pastor of my present congregation, and, having raised two boys who are both attending Christian Universities, and who are making their faith in Christ their own now, I was both asked for and a seeker of books and other resources on raising kids to embrace Christ and live for Him. Now that I have read Natasha Crain’s book Talking with Your Kids About God: 30 Conversations Every Christian Parent Must Have (Baker Books, 2017) I will gladly recommend it to parents who are wanting to have helpful and essential conversations with their kids about the core beliefs of Christianity.

Talking with your Kids About God is as an immensely practical book in which Crain offers a process to discuss the thirty topics presented in the book:

Open the Conversation

Advance the Conversation

Apply the Conversation

and, as she notes in the introduction this book

“is designed to equip you, the adult, with the knowledge you need to have these conversations with your kids. In other words, don’t hand this book directly to your kids-it’s not written for them! This is your guide!

The five areas covered in this book are ones which kids raised in the Christian will face as they navigate through their childhood,  adolescents, and into adulthood:

The Existence of God

Science and God

The Nature of God

Believing in God

The Difference God Makes

A strength of this book, is that while Crain presents material, well rooted in the Christian faith, to assist the parent/adult in the discussion, she does so to facilitate the discussion rather that tell her audience what to say and how to say it. Such an approach respects the parent and the child and allows for discussion of (and the often times painful wrestling with) the questions and issues. And she presents the material in a fair and even-handed manner.

Talking to Your Kids About God would be a great resource for a Sunday School class for parents, from elementary through college, quite frankly, to use as a way to encourage the members to have the conversations and hear how they went. It would also be a helpful resource for undergrad and graduate courses in family ministry, educational ministry, children’s ministry, and youth ministry classes.

I liked this book and gave it a four-star rating on Goodreads.

Note: I received a copy of this book from Baker Book Bloggers in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.


My Review of Anne Bogel’s Reading People

Not long after arriving at seminary in 1983, one of my professors, as part of his modus operandi for both coursework and for the “brown bag lunch” small groups he created each year, told me to go to the seminary bookstore and buy the scoring key to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. And this was my introduction to the world of personality inventories, something that I have been fascinated with since that August 1983 introduction. Since that time I have taken, and studied, several different inventories for both personal and professional reasons. And I have engaged in discussion with those who find such tests a bore, unnecessary, and irrelevant.

So when I had the chance to read Anne Bogel’s Reading People:How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything (Baker Books, 2017),  I did so because of my own journey through the various tests and because of the discussions I have had about personality and behavior (something that Anne addresses in the book.) in light of the Christian faith.

I found Bogel’s book to be helpful and informative especially as she unpacked the “cognitive functions” of the MBTI which gave me a fresh, and very helpful,  perspective on this well-known inventory.  In fact, Bogel’s perspective, early on in the book, is a key point about determining the validity of these inventories  for ourselves when she writes of her pre-martial and early marital experiences with one regarding marital communication and conflict-resolution:

“I hadn’t been seeing myself as I actually was but as I wanted to be.”

Bogel’s experience is good advice, in this reviewer’s perspective, as one seeks to understand oneself better through the use of these popular and well-used instruments.

This book focuses on the following inventories: the MBTI, The Five Love Languages, the Clifton Strength Finder (a favorite of this reviewer), and the increasingly popular Enneagram.

And she concludes with an excellent chapter on the much discussed and debated issue of “How much can people change?” with a discussion about the differences between personality and behavior and a great piece of advice:

“Self-discovery and self-formation are lifelong processes. No one is ever going to have all the answers.”

I believe that Reading People is an excellent resource for those who use them to help people: counselors, clergy, teachers, human resource people, etc because it provides a helpful perspective on these inventories.

I liked this book and gave it four-stars on Goodreads

Note: I received a copy of this book from Baker Book Bloggers in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

My Review of Ryan Coughlin’s Right Handed Lefty

Ellis Sayre has lived quite a life when we meet in him 1983 Wisconsin. At the age of twelve he has endured a failed adoption as well as facing the possibility that his current parents may be divorcing.

Of Native American descent, Ellis is a outsider in the southwestern town of Boscobel, Wisconsin and forms a relationship with George Stigerwald a local native of Norwegian descent, and Mason Neng, of Hmong descent in the midst of the teenage angst that seems to be deeper because of their outsider status.

As they struggle to survive, especially Mason and his family, they find themselves in the fight of their lives as they witness the murder of a man at the hands of a local crime boss, whose connection runs deep in the community and…law enforcement.

Ryan Coughlin has given us a collection of characters who can, and does, draw on the sympathy of the reader, as they struggle to prove that what they saw and heard was true, though they are not believed, especially by local law enforcement.

Right Hand Lefty is a novel about overcoming the challenges of growing up not just as a teen but as a teen who is considered an outsider whose word is doubted. It is also a novel about claiming one’s heritage and living in that heritage with dignity and pride.

I really enjoyed this novel. It has characters that reminds me of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders and the current TV hit series Stranger Things. 

This novel would be a great addition to High School and College contemporary literature courses.

I rated this novel four stars on Goodreads.

Note: I received an ebook copy of this book via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

My Review of John C Nugent’s Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church

What is the purpose of the church?

It is a question that has been asked and is being asked in clergy offices, in denomination meetings, in seminaries, in homes around the dinner table, in small groups, and in the quiet of clergy minds on a daily basis.

It is a question that is being answered through many books, conferences, seminars, podcasts, scholarly society papers, and in sermons from pulpits in churches large and small.

Asking it generates considerable (and intense) discussion, anxiety, argument, writing, and, if we are honest, revenue.

What about this answer to the question, What is the purpose of the church?

“the church’s role is to be the better place that God has already made in this world…”

It is a response to the question, John C Nugent has made in his book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Cascade Books, 2016)

Laying out the case for what he calls, a “kingdom centered view” Nugent challenges what he considers the three major views of engagement in which the Christian Church operates today:

The Heaven-Centered View which focuses on going to a better place one day

The Human-Centered View which focuses on making this world a better place now

The World-Centered View which focuses on making this world a better place by working to make it so

and then lays out his view, The Kingdom-Centered view that is based on “two fundamental truths”

  • “Jesus has already made a better place in this world
  • The role of God’s people is to embrace, display, and proclaim this better place.”

To support his belief,  Nugent begins at the beginning of scripture and from there walks the reader through his argument of how God, ultimately through Christ, has already made a better place in the world. This journey takes up the second of three main sections of the book where he lays out an Ecclesiology rooted, this reviewer believes, in the Restorationist or Stone-Campbell movement of American Christianity.

In the third section of the book, A Better Place in Action, Nugent addresses the issue of discipleship, leadership, followership, vocation, missions, and the key issue of witnessing to the powers of society, as well as others,  as it relates to the Kingdom-Centered view. And a very helpful appendix, in which the numerous questions which come as you read are answered, is included.

This book was hard to engage at first for two reasons. First, it is a book that requires a slower read, because of the depth of writing which is essential in discussing the nature and mission of the church. Second, it has challenged many of my assumptions regarding the role and place of the church in relation to society.

But it turned out to be a very important read because in this day the Church is pressured to do and be many things. And such pressure, demands, even, wear on both members and clergy as they attempt to navigate their mission and ministry through competing claims and suggestions on how to do and be the church.

This book was a breath of fresh air to this reviewer, also a member of the clergy, as it gave me some very serious pause on how the Church is to be the Church in this day and age of programming hype, political activism, and cultural relevance.

It isn’t. It is to be the good news now, in the midst of society, as part of the Kingdom that is here and now and is to come.

I liked this book because it provided me with an in depth reflection of my own assumptions regarding the Church and its ministry. It would be a great addition to undergraduate, graduate, and seminary classes as well as for church leaders.

I gave this book a four-star rating on Goodreads.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

My Review of Scott Eyman’s Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart

Scott Eyman has done us a favor with the writing of his book Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart (Simon Schuster, 2017).

First, he has chronicled through interviews with their family members and friends and archival sources, that two individuals, especially two well-known celebrities who hold well-defined and differening political perspectives, can be friends, work together, raise their families together, still care and support one another when one is riding the crest of success and the other is not, and do so over the course of fifty years!

Second, Eyman has given us a very human view of two public men who were celebrities in their hey-day and, for a while after, who were also very private men, troubled at times, and two men who, even though they were becoming leading men in the motion picture industry, entered military service and served America during World War 2.

What a gift for us is Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart! Thank you Scott Eyman!

Well researched and written from a sympathetic and yet honest point of view, Eyman chronicles the rise and the decline of Fonda and Stewart’s careers and lives in a manner which drew this reader/reviewer in. He goes behind the scenes of stardom and gets into the personal lives of both men, in an alternating narrative as the story develops.

And the stories told are priceless…

for they reveal two men who enjoyed one another’s company…

and who delighted in the everyday things of life…

This reviewer’s interest was caught and held by two things Fonda and Stewart loved: model planes and cats!

The story of the model Martin Bomber that they bought as a Christmas present for themselves in New York resonated with this reviewer who built model plans, plastic not balsa wood as theirs was, as a kid.  As did their love of cats, including a group of feral cats that grew to over 30 despite their best efforts to domesticate them. With their LA rental house AND yard becoming flea infested the two decided to get rid of the cats by digging a hole in the fence of their next-door neighbor…an actress named Greta Garbo, with disatrous results, (and who eventually moved).

And as Eyman tells their stories, he also speaks of their films, with the mind and persepective of the art and movie critic that he is, talking about their performances and which films were their best and which were not. (It reminded me of Carl Rollysons’ biography on Dana Andrews, Hollywood Engima, written several years ago.)

Hank and Jim.

It is great biography…and a fresh telling of Hollywood history in its golden years.

It is a great biography…of two well-known stars and their trials and successes on screen and in real life.

I rated this biography five stars on Goodreads.

Note: I recieved a e-copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

(One last thing…my favorite films in which Fonda and Stewart starred both have airplanes in them… for Fonda it was Midway and for Stewart it was Strategic Air Command.)

My Review of Mohana Rajakumar’s Pearls of the Past

Over five years ago, I read my first Mohana Rajakumar novel entitled Love Comes Later  which introduced me to the world of contemporary Arab fiction and the two main characters of Rajakumar’s newest novel Pearls of the Past, Abdulla and his wife Sangita, who met while graduate students in London and fell in love, following the death of Abulla’s first wife and unborn child, much to the chagrin and frustration of his family with whom they now live among back in Abdulla’s home country.

Living in a constant state of tension with both the past and the future hanging over them in a cloud…and with a cloud of another kind about to cover them and their family, Pearls of the Past, is a tense and onrushing work of fiction about dreams and desires of the past still affecting the dreams and desire of the present and future in ways which unfold as the story unfolds…and which threatens to swallow all of them up in a very dark way.

Pearls of the Past, has several plot lines (which this reviewer thinks will be further explored in future novels). It is a novel about romantic love – strained, guided by traditions and customs; it is also a novel about family love – strained, challenged by the traditions of the past as they meet the realities of the present and larger world; it is also a novel about the love of work – increasingly in at least one character’s memory that is fast fading.

I like this novel for its complexity and its humanity. It is a story that is set in the east but those in the west will see themselves – hoping, yearning for love, dealing with expectations and traditions that make themselves known in a variety of ways.

There is more to this complex and interesting novel than I am telling in this review. However, I did enjoy this novel and will simply say that the title of the novel Pearls of the Past is very relevant to the unfolding story line…in more ways than one.

I gave this novel a four-star rating on Goodreads 

Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.