Readers' Reviews

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Masterfully composed by journalist and musician James McBride, The Color of Water seamlessly weaves together two coming-of-age narratives. The first describes the author’s mother, Rachel Shilsky – the daughter of a poor, itinerant rabbi – as she grows up in a small Southern town that is as anti-Semitic as it is racist. The second story follows the early life of McBride himself, the eighth of 12 mixed-race children raised in the projects of Brooklyn. These two stories are expressed in captivating prose, exploring issues of race, class, faith, and identity.

McBride’s mother, later known as Ruth McBride Jordan, stands out as one of the most resolute and inimitable characters in modern literature. I first read this book a decade ago, and her unique perspective and vernacular continue to resound in my mind. Raised in an abusive household, Jordan interprets her childhood trauma in a way that is forthright and expressive, yet lacking in self-pity. Over time, we see her transform from an emotionally-stunted Orthodox Jewish teen to an indomitable Christian woman who identifies most strongly with the black community.

The title of the book derives from a childhood conversation McBride has with his mother. Noting that she usually cries during church services, he wonders if this is because she wishes to be black like the other congregants. He asks her if God is black or white, to which she responds, “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” McBride’s own struggle to understand his racial identity is closely bound up with his mother’s complex history. This is a relationship he explores with tenderness, candor, and unflinching self-examination.

Due to the multi-faceted natures of both stories, it is difficult to characterize this book. The Color of Water embodies the many layers that comprise an identity and the faith that brings great love and triumph out of suffering. It is a son’s vibrant tribute to the tenacity of his mother, and a story of deep, abiding love. It is powerfully illuminating for empathizing with the other, and instructive for how a faith community can serve as either a great barrier or an irreplaceable support for building that understanding.

Note: Though this book is not overly explicit in nature, there are scenes and themes that could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse.

Published by Riverhead Books in 1995; reissued 2006

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Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches by Russell Moore

“You can’t talk about the doctrine of adoption without talking about real adoption.”

Dr. Russell Moore begins his opening chapter with a flashback to the day when he and his wife first met their two adopted children in Russia. He describes the raw emotions he and Maria experienced when they met their sons in a dank orphanage, clearly neglected and in poor health. Moore writes, “The thought that there are thousands more like them in orphanages in Russia, in government facilities in China, and foster care systems in the United States haunts me enough to sit down at this computer and write.”

Adopted for Life is a marriage of doctrine, exhortation and practical ‘how-to’ guide. Moore fleshes out common misconceptions surrounding adoption while also sharing about his personal story as an adoptive father. Sprinkled throughout his book are valuable nuggets of practical advice, especially surrounding the subject of how to deflect awkward questions “with a smile or humor.”

While reading this book, I felt moved by Moore’s exploration of the Biblical doctrine of our adoption by God the Father. I was exhorted by his call for a church-wide missional approach to adoption (based on James 1:27) and the great need for adoptive families. I also found myself laughing out loud in response to the interactions he faced with well-meaning but intrusive individuals who questioned his decision to adopt.

While Moore does not assert that all Christian families are called or equipped to adopt, he does argue that all Christians have a responsibility to be involved in adoption in some manner. For example, believers could work to create or support an adoption ministry in the local church.

If there is one complaint readers have about this book, it is with Moore’s decision not to educate his sons about their Russian heritage. As the daughter of an American father and a Turkish mother, I am very thankful for how my parents taught me about my own background. Some might feel that Moore was dismissive of the importance of cultural heritage, particularly for internationally/transracially adopted children.

While I believe that any adopted child of God will glean wisdom from Adopted for Life, I would highly recommend this book for prospective/adoptive parents, adopted children and anyone involved with adoption ministry.

Published by Crossway, 2015.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt & Co., 2017)

Because of God’s compassionate love in Jesus Christ, the Church is called to care for those who suffer. And among those who suffer acutely, at least because of the stigma attached, are people with mental illness. Over 20% of Americans struggle with some form of mental illness. As one way to increase public awareness, May has been observed in the USA as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949.

Vincent Van Gogh suffered from mental illness. You think of him first and foremost as the Dutch post-impressionist genius behind such iconic paintings as “Sunflowers” or “Starry Night.” And that he is! But throughout his adult years, Van Gogh suffered from a combination of illnesses, possibly including clinical depression, epilepsy, acute anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And his world, including his parents and siblings, was uncomfortably at a loss as to how to handle it. As his father wrote in a letter when Vincent was 27, “If only some light would shine on that distressing darkness of Vincent.” But no such light did shine. In the end, at age 37, Vincent took his own life.

Vincent and Theo is not primarily about mental illness. Instead, it is a retelling of Vincent’s life through excerpts from letters to his brother, Theo. Deborah Heiligman, the author, argues convincingly that “the world would not have Vincent without Theo.” And so it is the relationship between the two brothers that takes center stage. Through that, I came to see Vincent’s development as an artist in an entirely different way. For example, I saw the beauty of “Sunflowers” in a fuller context, especially its choice of vibrant colors that Theo had advocated for years.

But most profoundly, I experienced the confusion and pain that a family feels when a loved one struggles with mental illness. Sadly, the church of Vincent’s father, who was a pastor, did not serve Vincent well. Nor did most of his family. But Theo was there for Vincent—at least most of the time. And that brotherly commitment to someone in dark need is the reason I recommend this award-winning book so highly.

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Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Cover art for Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains is a historical novel in which the reader experiences slavery through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl named Isabel. As the Revolutionary War begins and America starts to fight for freedom, Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist (pro-England) couple in New York City. In the city, her cruel master separates Ruth from Isabel. From that moment on, much of the plot is driven by Isabel’s deep longing and hope for being reunited with Ruth.

In my history classes I have learned about the evils of slavery; however, when they are witnessed through the eyes of a teenage girl, they become so much more powerful and personal. For example, history textbooks talk about slaves being branded, but when Isabel undergoes the excruciating pain of the hot metal pressed against her cheek, you the reader cannot help but cringe in horror. How could people have done that to a thirteen-year old girl?

This is just one of the many examples in which Isabel experiences the hardships of slavery, injustice, and loss, yet she remarkably maintains hope. I loved this book because its gripping plot described Isabel’s personal struggle for freedom while simultaneously describing our nation’s battle for independence. I admire Isabel’s strong will and determination, which allow her to continue to hope and love despite her horrific situation.

Another reason I appreciate Chains is that every chapter begins with a historical quote. Each quote comes from various leaders of our nation (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) or from important documents that were circulated at the time (e.g., Common Sense by Thomas Paine). The author brilliantly weaves those famous excerpts into the chapter as Isabel experiences them in real time.

Chains is the first book in The Seeds of America trilogy. In the rest of the series (Forge and Ashes), Isabel, Ruth, and a loyal friend named Curzon must depend on each other as they endure the war, separation, and ultimately fight for their freedom. I highly recommend this book and the rest of the trilogy!

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Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements by Tim Stafford

George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Recently, John Tiersma-Watson, one of the missionaries that Stone Hill Church supports, drew my attention to Shaking the System. Written by Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today, it is a book that strives to heed Santayana's advice by learning from Christians of the past who engaged in activist movements.

When Stafford himself was a college student during the Vietnam War, a pastor advised him not to waste his time on social activism but to focus on saving souls. That pastor was typical of an entire generation of evangelicals, especially white evangelicals, who saw activism as a distraction from the gospel.

That attitude is changing today, but many American churches today have no institutional memory of Christian activism in our country’s history. Stafford aims to fill that gap. The strongest point of the book is its well-chosen and engagingly narrated historical examples, featuring fascinating people from various reform movements such as Theodore Weld (abolitionism), Carrie Nation (temperance), and Bob Moses (civil rights).

Stafford carefully describes the promises and pitfalls of various options facing the would-be activist. For example, he shows how easy it is for avowedly non-violent activist movements to unwittingly slip into violence, and how alliances with political leaders so often lead to compromise and betrayal. These are lessons we could well apply to the many social upheavals of today. 

If the book has a weakness, it is Stafford’s treatment of truth. Nowhere does the author state that truth is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ; instead, he refers to "truth that you believe in your gut." But what if your gut and my gut disagree? Who is right? Stafford does not address this problem.

Nevertheless, I believe that Stafford has done the Christian community a great service; studying his book will certainly help churches today pursue social activism more thoughtfully and effectively.

Read Tim’s full-length review of Shaking the System here.

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Everyone a Child Should Know by Clare Heath-Whyte

Cover Art for Everyone a Child Should Know by Clare Heath-Whyte

Everyone a Child Should Know teaches that you can make a difference for Christ:

…whether you grow up rich or poor. (Amen!)
…in many professions. (Amen!)
…whether you are a man or a woman. (Amen!)
…whether or not you have a disability. (Amen!)
…only if you were born in Europe or the United States. (Wait... what?)
I was really excited to find a book with engaging, well-written mini-biographies of Christians. The illustrations are interesting and fun, each accompanied by a verse. The biographies start with questions that pull kids in. They hit on the many ways to serve Christ with our lives, appropriate for ages 3 to 8. My children wanted to read more. Of the 54 people profiled (two biographies feature couples), 19 are women – and all have changed the world for Christ.

For example, the biography of Adoniram Judson shows him in Burma (now Myanmar), quoting Psalm 22 about all nations worshiping God. After asking “who first told you about Jesus?” Heath-Whyte talks about Judson’s decision to go where “almost nobody had heard about Jesus at all.” This book doesn’t shy away from serious difficulties, either: “He was ill, he was put in prison, his wife died, his children died - but Adoniram kept going.” Heath-Whyte does a brilliant job of showing examples of perseverance, compassion, and hope. Our children (and we!) need to hear this.

While the individual biographies are good, as a whole, this volume is incomplete. More than half of the people profiled were born in the UK, with the rest being primarily from Europe or the US. There is not a single Christian profiled from Central America, South America, or Asia, where more than 60 percent of Christians live today. The only African Christian is Augustine of Hippo, from the 4th century. Only two of the biographies are of Black people, and everyone else is White. To have no profiles from the vast majority of the world ignores the reality that God’s kingdom includes people from “every tribe, tongue, language, and nation.”

Despite my reservations, this book is still a good way to introduce younger children to heroes of the faith. But it’s only a start. Pair it with other resources to better represent the body of Christ. Or, could we get Everyone a Child Should Know, Volume 2?

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ReSET: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray (Crossway, 2017)

Some of the best books I’ve read deliver hard medicine. They provide real soul care. That’s the case with David Murray’s ReSET. It brings necessary gospel medicine to all those who are crazy busy and feel overtaken by a burnout culture.

You would think that a pastor like me would already have the “grace-paced life” of the author’s subtitle. Sadly, my profession—and often my personal ministry—demonstrates the problem. ReSET was written after a life-threatening crisis that Murray, himself a pastor, faced. But Murray paid attention to God’s kind discipline, and this book is the result.

I am a David Murray junky. I read as many of his books as I can. He is biblically smart, incredibly balanced, and eminently practical. Books like Christians Get Depressed Too deal with real issues. Murray writes clearly, he makes cultural connections, and he holds a kind, pastoral posture toward the reader.

So, here are three reasons why you should read ReSET:

  1. It deals with hard stuff well. One reviewer, Jemar Tisby, commented, “Murray pries our fingers from the death grip we have on the idol of activity.” There are plenty of books that deal with this idol by slinging guilt and putting you under some new law. Not so with ReSET. The book is premised on understanding forms of grace that can shape life patterns and rhythms.
  2. The book has a grand purpose. It’s not just about getting your schedule under control. Its purpose is self-care with a view to loving your neighbor. Self-care, as Murray observes, is “the first step in caring for others.”
  3. Murray lays out a step-by-step path toward resetting your life. Like bringing a car into the shop, he walks you through nine different “repair bays,” including: Reality Check, Re-Create, Relax, Reduce, Refuel, and Resurrection. Knowing about these bays is, itself, worth the price of the book.

ReSET is especially, but not exclusively, intended for men. It easily lends itself to group discussion and Lenten self-examination. A sequel coauthored with his wife Shona, ReFRESH: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands, might be similarly encouraging for women.

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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2014)

Paradoxically, though perhaps not surprisingly, Christians often do not cope any better than anyone else when it comes to facing their own mortality. When illness or infirmity strikes, they are taken by surprise and do not always make the decisions that they would have, had they thought through things well in advance.

One might think that since the medical profession has to deal with terminal illness and death on a daily basis, it would be well equipped to help patients navigate these difficult waters. But the truth is quite the opposite. In his extraordinary book Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande puts the point this way:

"I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it's not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering."

Gawande approaches the subject of mortality from multiple perspectives. From the fascinating history of nursing homes and assisted living centers, to the decline of geriatrics as a field of medicine and the benefits of palliative care, Gawande takes an unflinching look at how we currently deal with these difficult issues, as well as how we got to where we are now. The most powerful section of the book is the intensely personal story of his own father's terminal illness and how his family collectively faced the many challenges.

I do not know what Gawande believes about God. But for those of us who are Christians, I believe that the many questions raised by his book should prompt us to ask: what are we doing, both as individuals and as a community, to craft a better roadmap for the last years of our lives? The message I have taken away from Gawande's book is that outsourcing this final stage to the medical profession is a mistake. Obviously there are no easy answers, but we should start by discussing these questions within the Christian community. The hope that we have in Christ means that we should not be afraid to confront our mortality, and so we should live and think and talk as people who, indeed, have no such fear.

An expanded version of the review can be found here on Tim’s blog.

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Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen B. Oates (Harper Perennial, 2013 reissue)

“…  the church has been like a weak and ineffectual trumpet making uncertain sounds,

rather than a strong trumpet sounding a clarion call for truth and righteousness.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain its power, and its message its authentic ring,

it must go out with a new determination not to conform to this world.”

- From King’s sermon “Transformed Nonconformist” (1962-1963)

April 4, 2018 marks fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. It seems fitting that in the month that we honor Dr. King, I review a biography about his life and impact. Let the Trumpet Sound, by American historian Stephen B. Oates, presents King as a very real and admirable leader, showing his challenges and triumphs and detailing how, against great odds, he changed American history.

Choosing what book to read about King’s life is no easy task. First of all, King wrote a number of exceptional autobiographical works. In addition, King biographies abound. In fact, in my quest to learn more about King, I started by reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, the first volume of a 3000-page trilogy that is as excellent as it is formidable. For this review, however, I wanted to recommend a shorter volume. Having tasted Branch’s breadth, I found this 592-page biography to be accessible and, at least by comparison, “concise.”

Oates’ biography is a well-researched, chronological study of King’s life, starting from his birth and moving steadily through his non-violent campaigns, all the way to his untimely death. We meet King’s friends and foes. We see the relentless schedule he kept as he battled prejudice in South and North, stood against both black and white violence, and wavered between doubt and confidence, depression and elation. We also see how the backdrop of national and personal events – Vietnam War politics, Civil Rights legislation debates, family needs and concerns, and a growing Black Power movement – influenced King’s campaigns.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who heard the call of God and continued relentlessly towards the goal of bringing justice to his people and equality to his nation. Fifty years later, King’s vision is closer but not yet achieved. We would do well to listen to his heart and to follow his example.

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (David Fickling Books, 2006)

In a mere 200 pages, John Boyne stunningly captures both the best and worst sides of humanity. This deceptively simple fable portrays the horrors of the Holocaust through the innocent eyes of its nine-year-old protagonist, Bruno, the son of a commanding Nazi officer. 

Bruno knows little about the war – and nothing about the persecution of the Jews – when he arrives at Auschwitz. He only knows that his family has been forced to leave their home in Berlin on account of his father’s job. He finds himself in an isolated town, living in a cheerless house that borders something very mysterious. On the other side of a tall, barbed-wire fence, he sees hundreds of men, from young boys to the elderly, all wearing identical striped pyjamas and forlorn expressions. When Bruno asks about his new neighbors, he is told to ignore them, that they really aren’t “people at all.”

Despite his father’s explicit instructions, Bruno walks along the fence for hours each day and befriends a boy on the other side named Shmuel. Over the course of a year, the two boys meet nearly every day, although Bruno cannot understand why they can never be on the same side of the fence to play.

The stark juxtaposition of the narrator’s guileless, childlike observations with the appalling realities of Auschwitz and World War II make this book utterly unique and unforgettable. Shmuel and Bruno form a lasting, affectionate friendship, unsullied by the prejudices tearing their families apart. In viewing the Holocaust through Bruno’s perspective, the reader grapples with the complexity of the human condition, the atrocities of war, and the evil that conceived of and permitted the Holocaust to occur. In writing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne challenges us all to closely examine ourselves, to recognize our common humanity, and to guard vigilantly against anything like the Holocaust from ever happening again.

In an age rife with divisiveness, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is particularly relevant for Christian audiences. It urges us to recognize all people as bearers of the Imago Dei and reminds us, in hauntingly simple prose, that we must become like little children in order to possess the Kingdom.

Note: This review uses the original UK spelling of “pyjamas.” US editions have changed the title to reflect the common American spelling of “pajamas.”

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