Women of Faith – Dallas

This morning I'll head over to the first day of the Women of Faith conference here in Dallas at the American Airlines Center. I live more than 50 miles from downtown Dallas. Although I commute in daily for work, I decided to splurge on a hotel room for the conference, so I'm staying at the W Hotel, across the street from the AAC.

I'm not sure what to expect from the conference. I've not attended something like this before. I'm not a big fan of crowds. But I'm keeping an open mind and plan to enjoy the experience. I'll share my thoughts here in this blog as the event unfolds. If anybody's reading this who happens to also be at the conference, drop me a note to say hi – maybe we can meet up at the event.

Book Review: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? by Martin Thielen

I recently was given the opportunity to read a galley version of this book, provided to me at no cost by the publisher. Subtitled “A Guide to What Matters Most,” Thielen’s purpose in this book seems to be to winnow out the essential tenets of the Christian faith from among the many doctrinal tangents that churches divide over and Christians argue about. For that purpose, it’s well worth reading. I have long felt that too many (all?) churches spend too much time focused on nonessential matters. Thielen addresses that issue, starting with a list of ten things that Christians don’t have to believe. He starts that list with the idea that “God causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes.” For each idea that he discards on this list, he offers a brief explanation for why it’s not necessary to believe it to be a Christian.
The second half of the book is Thielen’s list of (and justification for) the bare minimum concepts that a person must believe in order to be considered truly a Christian. That list starts with the obvious—Jesus’ identity—and continues with discussions of Jesus’ priorities, his work, his example, his resurrection, his legacy, his promise, and his vision. He ends with a discussion of what it means to be “saved.”
What’s the Least I Can Believe is well written and well reasoned. In concept I agree with much of what Thielen included on his lists. I disagree with some of his reasoning, in particular where he seems to rely on the idea that “God wouldn’t do (or support) this because it wouldn’t make sense.” My problem with Theilen’s reasoning in some of these areas is that he assumes that we, as humans with finite minds, are capable of fully comprehending the ways of an infinite God. Just because something seems unfair or unjust to us (e.g., sending some people to hell) doesn’t mean that God wouldn’t do it. While I agree that being a Christian doesn't require us to believe, for example, that Jews who don’t accept Jesus will go to hell, I hesitate whenever anyone imposes human standards of “fairness” or even “rationality” on God. As God reminds us in the book of Isaiah, His ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
For a long time I have thought that Christians spend way too much time focusing on, and fighting about, nonessentials, and that denominations in general have been built upon doctrines built upon a tortured interpretation of a few verses, rather than looking at the core concepts that Jesus himself focused on. I appreciated Thielen’s attention to Jesus’ teaching regarding the Great Commandment (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all of thy heart, soul, and mind”) and the second that he said is like the first (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself). It seems to me that believers in Christ could both unite around those two principles and spend the rest of their lives trying to live by them, and we could discard a whole lot of arguing and law-giving.
Although I disagreed with some of Thielen’s reasoning, I generally agreed with his lists and found this book well worth the reading. It provokes thought, which always is a good thing. I recommend it to any of my thinking friends, Christian or otherwise.
What’s the Least I Can Believe is published by Westminster John Knox Press. Martin Thielen is Senior Pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.

Crazy Days

I haven't forgotten about the second half of the “my approach to fitness” post. Between vacation and visitors and work demands, I just haven't had a chance to get it written. But it's coming! In the meantime, I hope everybody's enjoying the last weeks of summer.

Book Review: The Lady’s Maid, by Susan Page Davis

 When Lady Anne Stone is orphaned at age 20, she learns that she will lose her home and her luxurious lifestyle as a member of British nobility unless she can locate her beloved uncle David, heir to her father’s title and estate. Unfortunately, David disappeared years before after traveling to America. When it becomes clear that the estate’s lawyers and trustees are not willing to continue the search, Lady Anne decides to undertake the unthinkable – she will travel to America with her trusted maid, Elise Finster, and search for David herself. What follows is a difficult sea passage that leads eventually to the two women joining a wagon train west, following David’s trail with no certainty that he will be found alive.
The novel’s premise and story questions are intriguing – can a pampered British noblewoman and her maid, both of whom have lived their entire lives in the sheltered luxury of an English estate, survive the perilous journey from England to Oregon? Will they learn in time that the man they’ve hired to help them is actually in the employ of men who have a vested interest in seeing that David Stone is never found, and who will use any means to make sure the ladies fail in their quest? And will one or both of them find love in this most unlikely scenario?
Susan Page Davis does a fine job of establishing the story’s premise and laying the background for the importance of the ladies’ mission. She explains Elise’s commitment to Lady Anne’s mission by showing her loyalty to the family and her secret infatuation with Lady Anne’s Uncle David. I enjoyed the early chapters’ depiction of British society at this point in history, including the references to the entailment system and its potential impact on Lady Anne’s future if David is not found. Unfortunately, the novel’s weaknesses overshadowed what could have been a really absorbing read, and I had to force myself to finish this book.
Here’s what I didn’t like about The Lady’s Maid:
  •  Lack of focus – notwithstanding the book’s title, it was hard for me to tell whose story this was supposed to be. Although Elise took action to solve problems, she really was just along for the ride – this was Lady Anne’s quest, her story, and Elise really had very little at stake. Furthermore, there were too many point-of-view changes. Most of the story was told from Elise’s point of view, but frequently the story switched into the POV of Thomas Costigan, the sneaky man in whom they put their trust, or Eb Bentley, the taciturn wagon train scout who becomes Elise’s love interest. The frequent POV changes were distracting and seemed aimed only at disclosing information that the author thought was necessary but she couldn’t figure out a way to reveal through Elise’s POV. The story would have been stronger if Davis had found other ways to disclose the information that came in through Costigan’s POV, especially.
  • Slow pacing – the story dragged in many places. For example, there were multiple scenes whose purpose it seemed was solely to demonstrate that Anne and Elise were tenderfeet and ill-equipped for the trail’s hardships. This was an important element of the story, of course, but it could have been demonstrated in one or two scenes rather than repeatedly, and the story would have moved along more quickly. Similarly, there were numerous scenes whose purpose seemed to be to share the “interesting” facts that the author had uncovered in her research, such as how to bake cornbread or how to hitch up the mules. A little bit of that information is interesting; too much slows the story down. I felt like this author didn’t weave the historical research in as gracefully as she could have.
  • Unsympathetic lead character – specifically, Lady Anne comes across as a weak, helpless woman whose role is simply to give Elise a chance to show how strong and resourceful she is. This made it harder for me to get behind Anne’s mission and to really believe that Elise would continue to stick by Anne. Furthermore, Davis’s characterization of Anne seemed inconsistent. Anne was brave enough to make the decision – by the end of Chapter 1 – to embark on the difficult journey to America, but from that point forward she seems to turn into a weepy, helpless, indecisive, incompetent girl who’s totally dependent on Elise to make things happen and keep her motivated. She has her moments of strength during the wagon-train crossing, but for the most part she seems to lack to courage and strength to have made the decision to do this in the first place. As a result, I found myself thinking more than once that she should just quit her whining and go back home to England – I just stopped caring whether or not she succeeds in her mission. If, as seems to be the case (see below), there will be a sequel that focuses on Anne’s continued journey without Elise, I’m less than enthusiastic about reading it.
  • Distracting error – as a long-time resident of middle America (ten years in Nebraska and nearing that in north Texas), I was seriously distracted by the scene later in the book in which the wagon train is caught in a summer hailstorm. Davis does a fine job of depicting the sudden violence of such storms in this part of the country, but in her effort to add drama to the story she gets some elements very, very wrong. Specifically, in her scene, the hailstorm causes the temperature to drop to freezing, and the animals (cows, mules, horses) are both “traumatized” and chilled by the storm. The experienced scout informs Anne and Elise that there’s a real risk that some of the animals could die of shock from the trauma of the storm, and instructs them of the importance of warming the animals up quickly so they don’t die from cold. This is simply not credible. I’ve lived through many such storms in both Nebraska and Texas. Summer hailstorms can produce large hailstones capable of damaging property and injuring humans and livestock. But while the temperature might drop somewhat during and after a severe hailstorm, I’ve never seen one in which the temperatures drop to freezing. In fact, I believe that most summer hailstorms occur because the temperatures near the ground are warm, but there is a layer of colder air aloft, and it is that higher cold air that produces the hail. Furthermore, while an animal that’s hit by large hailstones will most certainly be distressed by it, I haven’t seen animals panic and become “traumatized” by even a severe storm. To the contrary, rather than stampeding, the animals typically gather together, put their rear ends toward the storm, drop their heads, and wait it out. Once the storm is over, they go back to grazing, enjoying the (usually only slightly) lower temperatures in the storm’s wake. Perhaps Davis has had a different experience than mine, but to me this scene demonstrated a lack of understanding of how weather occurs in this part of the country and how it affects the animals.
  • Unsatisfying ending – after a very, very long lead-in and build-up to the ending, with so much discussion about the importance of the search for David and the necessity of finding him, the novel ends abruptly, with the heretofore doggedly loyal and self-sacrificing Elise making a decision that seems uncharacteristically self-interested, and with David still nowhere in sight. The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying, giving no resolution whatsoever to the main story question, and seemed simply to be a set-up for a sequel.

Susan Page Davis has a good story to tell in The Lady’s Maid and does a good job of creating the premise that should drive an absorbing tale. For the reasons noted above, though, the story fails to deliver. I am hopeful that the sequel will do a better job of delivering on the promise of the story premise.