September 2009: Books Read

September has been a busy month – with starting to drive again and continuing to get ready for the wedding. October probably won’t be any less busy, since we’re getting married on the 24th and are busy moving stuff into our new apartment.

1. Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski. My friend Janet, who is in my church small group and who is a current Regent student, lent me this book to read a couple of weeks ago. It is written by a young man who, in the summer and fall of 2003, left his studies at a Christian college in California to spend five months living as a homeless person. He did it, he mentions in the book, for three reasons:

1. To better understand the life of the homeless in America, and to see firsthand how the church is responding to their needs.
2. To encourage others to “live out loud” for Christ in whatever ways God is asking them to.
3. To learn personally what it means to depend on Christ for my daily physical needs, and to experience contentment and confidence in Him.

He started off by living for a month in a homeless shelter in Denver, and then lived with a friend on the streets of Washington, D.C., Portland, Phoenix and San Diego. They lived off of donations that they received from playing guitar on the streets. They made an odd pair of homeless people: they didn’t drink or smoke or do any drugs, and they only played praise songs on their guitars. Despite their difference from many street people, they seem to have been accepted by many of the people they encountered.

It was particularly interesting for me to read about how they were received by the Christians and churches they encountered. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of Christians did not help them, and many churches either ignored them or actively tried to shoo them away. As they hung out on the campus of a large church in Phoenix one Saturday morning, a church staff member yelled at them for loitering outside the sanctuary. As they walked away, they prayed that God would change their frustrated attitudes and that God would convict the man who had kicked them out. When they went back to the church the next day for the service, the same man sought them out and apologized with tears. The powerful part about the story, I thought, is that if they had allowed themselves to be embittered and unforgiving, they would never have had the opportunity to be reconciled to that man. Yankoski ended the story by saying, “Love can’t cover wrongs if we let frustrations and failures keep us apart” (168-9).

Even though Mike’s descriptions of life on the streets may be something that will make many Christians uncomfortable, I can’t help the feeling that he was holding back. He mentions at the outset that he has cleaned up the language out of consideration for his publisher. This reminded me of the quote from Tony Campolo that I heard many years ago: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” I can understand the consideration, but I think it’s a shame that a Christian publisher is more concerned about sanitizing bad words than it is about being honest about the desperate situation that many people face on the streets of America. Nevertheless, this book is a start, and I’d recommend it for all American Christians who need to be challenged to treat the poor with love, as God commands – and that’s a whole lot of us.

2. Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry by Les and Leslie Parrott. As Mary and I have been getting ready for marriage, we have been reading a few marriage books. This one, by a married couple who teach at Seattle Pacific University, could be a bit corny at times, but was very good. The questions at the end of each chapter were good conversation starters for Mary and me. I’d recommend it to Christian couples who are getting ready for their marriage and would like to talk through some of the issues of perennial conflict that might come up.

3. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. I was excited to take a look at this book ever since I saw the author mentioned in an article about driving in the NY Times. The article looked at why some people are early mergers and some are late mergers when they are approaching a construction zone. I learned a lot of interesting facts over the course of reading the book, but overall it was not a page-turner. I enjoyed, for example, reading the story of how Sweden switched from having everyone drive on the left to having everyone drive on the right, was interested to hear why people in SUVs tend to speed more, and was fascinated to find that roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections. What I didn’t like about it was that it lacked an overarching argument that Vanderbilt was building from chapter to chapter (or if it did have one, it was extremely subtle). The chapters, while many of them were interesting, could have been individual essays with no relation to one another. I learned a lot of facts while reading the book, but the book as a whole lacked focus.

Here is my favorite paragraph from the book, from the chapter “Why You Shouldn’t Drive with a Beer-Drinking Divorced Doctor Named Fred on Super Bowl Sunday in a Pickup Truck in Rural Montana: What’s Risky on the Road and Why” –

Grimly tally the number of people who have been killed by terrorism in the United States since the State Department began keeping records in the 1960s, and you’ll get a total of less than 5,000 – roughly the same number, it has been pointed out, as those who have been struck by lightning. But each year, with some fluctuation, the number of people killed in car crashes in the United States tops 40,000. More people are killed on the roads each month than were killed in the September 11 attacks. In the wake of those attacks, polls found that many citizens thought it was acceptable to curtail civil liberties to help counter the threat of terrorism, to help preserve our “way of life.” Those same citizens, meanwhile, in polls and in personal behavior, have routinely resisted traffic measures designed to reduce the annual death toll (e.g., lowering speed limits, introducing more red-light cameras, stiffer blood alcohol limits, stricter cell phone laws). Ironically, the normal business of life that we are so dedicated to preserving is actually more dangerous to the average person than the threats against it. (271)


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