November 2009: Books Read

1. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne. I bought this book at a small used book shop in Hanapepe, when Mary and I were on Kauai for our honeymoon. It is very engaging and story-driven, which made it a very fast read, and I finished it on the plane ride home.

Shane, who grew up a Christian in Tennessee, is part of the Simple Way community that lives among the poor in inner-city Philadelphia. I found his account of this life, and how he got there, to be fascinating and compelling. I agree with much of what he wrote in this book about the life-transforming power of the gospel, about how Christianity has been married to political power, and about the biblical mandate to serve the poor.

But I didn’t like everything about this book. It may seem like a small thing, but Claiborne’s folksy tone (literally – he uses the word “folks” 165 times in the book) was annoying after a while. I mean, did he really have to call Mother Teresa “Momma T”? I also got the impression that he looked down on his fellow Christians who were rich, or who were Republicans. He seemed quite willing to love his enemies when they had names like Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh, but I was left with some doubt as to whether he loved his enemies named George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. This was unfortunate, given the fact that Claiborne’s activist lifestyle by no means requires him to look with scorn on other people. Last summer I read Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness, and I did not detect a self-righteous tone in her at all. Even though Claiborne’s irresistible revolution is in many ways compelling, and what the church in North America deeply needs, the tone he sometimes adopts isn’t.

2. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. The premise: Roose, a student and aspiring writer at Brown University, decides that he wants to spend a “semester abroad” at conservative evangelical Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. Though raised in a household he identifies as Quaker, Roose seems thoroughly secular in his outlook at the beginning of the book. While working as an assistant to A.J. Jacobs (author of The Year of Living Biblically), he visits Liberty and comes to think that spending some time at Liberty would be a good way to understand the evangelical Christian subculture in America (and a good premise for a book).

The result: a highly entertaining read. I did not attend a Christian university, but I am an evangelical Christian, and I understand the sort of subculture that Roose enters when he enrolls at Liberty. I found his outsider’s observations about dating life (he finds that the option of sex being off the table is strangely freeing – i.e., two people can just get to know each other without ulterior motives), battling with lust (he visits a support group for what he calls “chronic masturbators”) and evangelical attitudes toward homosexuality (he finds that the subject comes up way more often at Liberty than at Brown, where there actually are gay students) to be illuminating and, at times, hilarious. My favorite passages in the book are his account of going on a Spring Break mission trip to Daytona Beach with a group of his fellow students, and his account of meeting Falwell himself and interviewing him for the school paper – just a few weeks before his death in May of 2007.

Roose is surprised to find some diversity at Liberty, including students who experience doubt and regularly break the social rules. He is also surprisingly charitable toward the people at Liberty, with whom he ultimately disagrees about many things. He even has kind words for Falwell, about whom he writes,

Realizing that Dr. Falwell isn’t a fraud – as troubling a notion as that is – has helped me solve one of the great mysteries of this semester. For months now, I’ve been puzzled by the thousands of good, kindhearted believers at Liberty who follow a man who seems, to my mind, to be almost unredeemable. They like him, I’ve learned, because he’s a straight shooter. In half a century of preaching, Dr. Falwell has said some outrageous things, and he’s angered Christians and non-Christians alike, but he’s never revealed himself as a hypocrite. He’s never been caught in sexual sin, and he’s been as transparent in his financial dealings as you could reasonably expect. And in the world of televangelism, a world filled to the brim with hucksters and charlatans and Elmer Gantry-type swindlers, a little sincerity goes a long way. (261)

All in all, this was a highly entertaining book and a compulsive read; I was sad when I reached the end. I’ll certainly take a look at Kevin Roose’s next book.

3. The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British by Sarah Lyall. Lyall is an American journalist who has lived in England for several years, is married to an Englishman, and has two daughters. Her book pokes fun at various British idiosyncrasies, such as their attitude toward sex (covered in a chapter titled, “Naughty Boys and Rumpy Pumpy) poor dental hygiene (“I Snapped It Out Myself”), the House of Lords (“Lawmakers from Another Planet”), and their stiff upper lips (“By God, Sir, I’ve Lost My Leg!”).

Mary took this book along on our honeymoon for some light beach reading, and it certainly fit the bill. I found many passages to be incredibly funny. I also found some of them to be discomforting, such as those on drunkenness and sex. It isn’t that I’m particularly prudish (that is, I’m not shocked at what I read). Rather, what made me uncomfortable is that those passages depict the British to be singularly unattractive. Also, Lyall doesn’t use profanity in her narration, but she certainly doesn’t shy away from reporting what others say, especially in her chapter on British journalists.

The question that I was primarily left with at the end of the book was, “Is it accurate? Or is she merely embellishing on her own experience in order to get a laugh?” Not being British, and never having even traveled to Britain, I can’t say. I can only say that, having lived for a year in Prague, I found her description of British stag and hen parties (in the chapter “Distressed British Nationals”) devastatingly accurate. Almost every time I walked around the city center at night, I would see (and more often, hear) a crowd of drunken, boorish men, often dressed alike (except for the groom-to-be, who was more often than not in drag), making lewd comments to passing women and generally making fools of themselves. They were always, ALWAYS British. So perhaps her descriptions of Britons are accurate, but in the same way that descriptions of “Ugly Americans” are accurate. That is, there is an uncomfortably large slice of the population in both countries that makes everyone else look bad. A more accurate title for this book would have been Ugly Britons. But that probably wouldn’t sell.


2 thoughts on “November 2009: Books Read

  1. Such interesting reviews! I appreciate your in looking objectively at positives and negatives. For example, your review is the first I’ve read/heard about Claiborne that doesn’t exalt the kid to some extent. (p.s. Did you know Dave and Shane were college friends?) I haven’t read any of Claiborne’s books (haven’t yet had the inclination).

    The Roose book sounds very interesting.

    Merry Christmas to you & Mary!

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