What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Very Stupid Book

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I had a college professor that always assigned one lousy book a semester to read.  He claimed we needed to read stupid books so we don’t become stupid people.  The reasoning was that stupid books teach critical thinking in a way good books never will.

Under his thinking, I grew a lot yesterday afternoon.

You see, every year I get a free book in the mail from a forgettable organization that specializes, I assume, in giving pastors free books.  This is now the 4th book I have received from them and the other three were worth reading.  They weren’t ground breaking but they were practical, helpful stuff.

This new book was a step lower.  It might have been the worst book I have read in some time.

It was called “Growing God’s Church” by Gary L. McIntosh.  Apparently Gary McIntosh led a research team that interviewed a bit over 1,000 new Christians and new church members.  Their questions focused on how and why these people had come to Christ.  The book was published to help pastors reach people better.  On that premise, this should have been a book worth flipping through for an hour on a sunny afternoon.

However, very strangely, the book didn’t begin with the results.  Instead McIntosh spent five chapters trying to argue that evangelism should be the only goal of the church.  He retold the four gospel stories and Acts as if they were 1950s gospel tracts.  McIntosh wanted his readers know not to be fooled by what Jesus actually said and did but to know that Jesus really just wanted to get us into heaven and recruit us to preach the 4 point Romans gospel.  He even argued that the only reason Jesus showed compassion was because it was an incredibly effective evangelism means, not for the sake itself of compassion.  Don’t be fooled.  God isn’t love.  God is evangelism.  God only loves to dupe us into praying the sinner’s prayer.

His exegesis of the gospels was more the eisegesis type.  Eisegesis is the frowned upon practice of taking your preconceived ideas to Scripture to find proof texts.  McIntosh seemingly all ready knew that getting people into heaven was the most important thing and he did not want to be bothered by what the gospels actually say, just to know that Jesus agrees.

His most blaring example came from Luke.  In Luke Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming that he will “make blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and to proclaim good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:22)  Then Jesus goes out and does almost exactly that to real life blind, deaf, sick and poor people.  Later Jesus even sends a message to John the Baptist, pointing to the actual miracles he had accomplished as proof that he was the Messiah.  Gary McIntosh brings this up and uses it to argue that Jesus only came to help the spiritually blind, lame, sick, poor and that Jesus didn’t actually care about actual blindness, this despite the fact that Jesus actually made blind men see.  But McIntosh decided it was just metaphorical so it is.  This is just one example of many I could cite.

The research was questionable too but, to be fair, all research is.  For one, his sample size was too small and limited to a few denominations.  He made some wild generational claims that I don’t think will hold true throughout lifespans.  He points out gender and generational differences that were statistical ties but uses the fact that one was .5 higher to argue that everybody in that demographic are that way.

His main assertion in the second half of the book is that family members make the best evangelists.  He argues we should nurture and use that.  Ironically I do wholeheartedly agree and think his research does validate that.  More than that he has some okay ideas about how to go about it.

Also, even though I loathed McIntosh’s eisegetical interpretation of the gospels, he still referenced a few verses that I had not thought of in quite some time.  I have been studying the use of the word “glory” in John’s gospel and McIntosh quoted one of the “glory” verses I had not yet noticed and that verse at first glance does seem to support his thesis and not my own.

But those random useful snippets are not what made the book worth my time.  It is incredibly easy to get stuck in the rut of only reading things that fit my preconceived notions.  Most of my books come to me from the suggestions of colleagues in my own tradition.  Those books are good but I sometimes wonder if it is a waste of time to read things that tell you everything you all ready knew.

In turn, it might not be a waste of a Monday afternoon to read a book from someone in a completely different theological tradition.  He quoted verses I hadn’t noticed and suggested things I would not have thought of.  Even though I disagreed with him, at least I now know why and how his tradition sees things.

In the end I might take a chapter or two to my outreach team to help them think critically about evangelism in our local community.

In my professor’s thinking we might have McIntosh’s stupidity to thank for the elimination of our own.  Or maybe I am wrong about everything and he is right.  We only find out when Jesus comes.

Until then, have a great Valentine’s Day!

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Alan Rickman: A Pastor’s Ode to a British Acting Heavyweight

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I grew up watching James Bond movies.  I now own all of them and occasionally will throw one in my antiquated DVD player and let it be background noise while I work on more productive things.

I do not apologize for being a Bond fan.  After all the James Bond franchise invented movie franchises.  When they made Dr. No in 1962 nobody could predict that 50 years later there would be 23 of them and that the arc of quality, and box office sales with it, would extend ever upwards, albeit with occasional dips along the way.  Even the most maligned Bond movies today were considered quality movies in their own era.  They just did not age well (consider Die Another Day).  And the most maligned upon their release have now been given second visits and been found to be ahead of their time (consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

Yet what makes the Bond franchise unique is that the pool of acting talent in England is much smaller than the US pool.  This means that any British actor who makes it big immediately gets considered for a Bond role.  Apparently this was true of Alan Rickman.  If you type “Alan Rickman James Bond” into Google (as I just did) you will find countless articles from the last 20 years claiming he would be or should be the next Bond villain.  The latest was written just months ago.  And I would love a Rickman villain.  Him and Daniel Craig would have been incredible foils.  Moreover, Bond does seem like the perfect fit for a Rickman, especially after his devilish turn in the first Die Hard movie.

All that to say when Harry Potter made Rickman a household name, I ran across an interview with him where they asked him about the number of times he had been asked to play a Bond villain.  In that article he explained that he was not a villain, did not like playing villains and would avoid those roles from here on out.  Those roles were limiting and there is the concern about character formation.

Years later, Snape killed Dumbledore and became
the “Half Blood Prince” at the end of Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book.  Probably being the only person who remembered the interview, I felt a massive sense of sorrow for Rickman.  He had been duped into a villain role after all, albeit an incredibly well written one.

At that point, given my strange attraction to all things dark side, I went on to hope that Snape would become the new dark lord at the end of Harry Potter.  After all he deserved power more than any other character in the series, especially Harry himself!

Alas that was not to be.  It turned out Snape had a hidden love interest and the hidden love saved the Harry Potter-verse.  If he wasn’t going to be the dark lord, I figured I’d settle for secret hero, especially if Harry named his son after him.

I read another article after the last Potter movie was released.  That article claimed Rickman made J.K. Rowling sit down with him before he signed onto the Snape role and explain the entire character’s arc.  Presumably Rickman does not share my affinity for the dark side and wanted Rowling to guarantee him he would not be a villain.  After all, he was done with those roles.

I respect that more than I can say.  In fact it reminds me of Richard Kiel, who played the iconic Jaws in two Bond movies and was a born again Christian.  He talked often about how much he regretted letting the Bond producers make him into a monster.  Rumor has it that Kiel made them humanize Jaws at the end of Moonraker by giving him his own love interest.  That love interest is maligned by fans but I always liked it because the ridiculous plot of Moonraker involved the villain killing everybody who wasn’t “perfect.”  In a movie movie like that only Jaws the imperfect can save the day.  When he does, he tips a champagne glass to the audience and utters his only line in the two movies, “Here’s to us.”  The “us” isn’t just his girlfriend.  It is everybody who isn’t “perfect.”  In his own Richard Kiel way he was reminding us all that the imperfect are not the villains.  They are human too.

Rickman gets a similar scene at the end of Harry Potter when Dumbledore says something to the effect of, “You still love her after all these years?”

Rickman utters, “Always!”

Always I refuse to play 2 dimensional villains.

Always I choose characters with emotional heft.

Always I bring weight and dimension to the big screen.

Always I will act my heart out to increase our understanding of humanity.

And never will I be made into a monster just so that the James Bond’s and Harry Potter’s of the world can have someone to shoot bullets and fling spells at!

Even though my hopes for his rise to Dark Lord status were squashed at that point, I couldn’t help but cry tears that you could put in my own pensieve.

On that note, I close with his other popular line from Galaxy Quest.  It is one of the most absurd movies ever made, but once again Rickman brought a style, a class and a depth to his role that elevated it to a cult classic.  When holding the dying Quellek he utters,

“By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the sons of Wovan, you shall be avenged!”

Rest in Peace Sir Alan.

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Gilead by Marilyne Robinson

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I try not to gush when I write.  The only exception I can think of is a post about the Grand Canyon from a year ago and even the “gushing” there was done a bit ironically for humor’s sake.

However, I just finished the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and gushing is about all I want to do.  It was incredible.  It was fantastic!  It was gripping!@  It was page turning!@^  It was the best novel ever in the history of ever!@^*

Okay I am done but seriously the novel was recommended by a good friend who is a not a “gushy” person but who did a fair amount of gushing about it.  He was shocked and dismayed that I had not even heard of it.  In my defense I have read several adequate books that he hasn’t.  Though that is a weak defense because very few of the books I have read come close to attaining the mastery that is Gilead.

 

It is fiction but written as the memoirs of a 3rd generation, small town Iowa pastor for his 7 year old son.  The town has been shrinking for decades and at the time of his death is almost non existent.  Many relatives and friends have come and gone, mostly gone and he is left, along with his best friend, another pastor who lives across the street.

He spends his days carrying the heavy

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load an old pastor’s heart.  His brother, the more driven of the two, became an atheist.  His father moved away from the town and on his death bed could not understand why his son stayed.  His godson has led a wreck of a life, impregnating two young girls without the financial means or know how to take care of them.  He looks at boxes of his sermon manuscripts with a sense of dread, feeling guilty for most of what he said or wrote and hoping nobody ever reads them.  And he is penniless, with no money to leave his much younger widow and son.

Yet, even in his late 70s and near his death bed, he continues to study, prepare sermons, lead board meetings, council others and pray.  He is the picture of a pastor who never quit being a pastor right up to his death bed.

It is now becoming cliche to say that most books inform but the rare ones transform.  Gilead belongs with the rarest of the rare.  I have not felt so inspired since reading the first ten chapters of Les Miserables, which also told the story of an old pastor who never stopped being a pastor.

In Gilead’s final moments, the protagonist recalls the parable of the prodigal son to note that the angels in heaven don’t even rejoice over the righteous son who stayed home.  In what I found to be the most poetic phrase in the book he says, “I am the one for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparably restrained.”  The angels aren’t even throwing parties for me!

But then he says, “And that’s all right.”

My ministry is young, only about a decade old.  I was called away by God from the small town that had much in common with Robinson’s fictional “Gilead” and now I am in a very prosperous suburb.  I have a lot going for me and think it is quite possible I won’t leave my family penniless when I die.  In fact, the way things are going, it is possible that my children will actually be in their 60s when I die and will have more money than me.  What is more, my wife will probably die first.  At least that’s how she wants it and I am okay with that because I won’t have to worry about leaving her penniless.

But some days I can’t help but feel like this pastor in Gilead.  After all, other than the boring sins of pride and selfishness, a bit of anger here and there with a bit of laziness thrown in, I have no scandalous stories to tell.  My home was the Church of the Nazarene and I never demanded my share and stormed out of town.  I don’t drink alcohol or do drugs and have never tried.  I waited until I was married and now have two kids and a dog living a very American dream type life.  I would like to think I spend my money well.  I try to give it generously along with my tie.  I am quick to reconcile and have a few other strengths that I play too while ignoring my weaknesses.  To top it all off I spend time in prayer and fasting, not nearly enough but more than your average sinner.  I am the son who stayed home.

That isn’t too brag at all.  That is just to say if I am one of the two sons, I am the one that dad’s not going to throw a party for or kill any fat cows to my benefit.  I am the righteous son whom the rest of the world (along with the angels) rolls their eyes at.

And that is okay.  After all, as Gilead’s pastor reminded me, “There is no justice in love, no proportion in it and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”  It would seem pointing people to that reality is its own reward.

With that said, this short little review didn’t do “Gilead” justice.  So please, go read the book, especially if you are a pastor!

And try to survive January.  May you find blessings in its cold, dark days.

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Christmas Episodes!

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I have been working on a few posts about all kinds of things and none of them have come together all that well.  So instead I bring you something appropriately seasonal!

Over the last week my wife and I have been revisiting some of our favorite Christmas specials on Netflix.  While there are some great Christmas classics for the big screen (White Christmas anybody?) the small screen has produced a wonderful amount of quality holiday spirit!

Below are some of my favorite Christmas episodes.  This list is by no means exhaustive but these are some I have enjoyed this year that I thought you might as well.  (The links are to the IMDB pages)

Scrubs Season 1 Episode 11 “My Own Personal Jesus”

Carla doesn’t believe in Jesus but her new boyfriend Turk does.  J.D. gets stuck working a nightmare shift.  It is all redeemed when a sick woman finds out that she is giving birth to a baby and Turk has to follow a God given star to find her in the park!

 

Frasier Season 5 Episode 9 “Perspective on Christmas”

This isn’t just the best Frasier Christmas episode, it might be in the running for best Frasier episode.  Martin gets stuck singing “O Holy Night” in the Christmas pageant but he can’t hit the high note.  Frasier accidentally tells Roz’s mom that Roz is pregnant.  Niles gets stuck on top of an elevator.  Daphne thinks Martin is dying.  Frasier’s Christmas present is to tell everyone just how much he loves them and why.  When they protest, and in a great punchline to the episode, Frasier calls up a masseuse!

The West Wing Season 1 Episode 10 “In Excelsis Deo”

The President buys books at a used book store.  C.J. finds out her secret service code name is “Flamingo” presumably because she looks like one and Donna wants skiing equipment, only to get an old used book about skiing.  But this episode shines because Toby uses his White House clout to arrange a funeral for a homeless veteran.  A frustrated President chides him by saying, “Do you not think every veteran in the country will now be asking us for a funeral?” Toby disarms him with one line, “I certainly hope so, sir.”  Oh and Mrs. Landingham has her best scene of the show by telling us about her twin sons who died in Vietnam.

Doctor Who Season 6 Christmas Special “A Christmas Carol”

I am not a huge fan of any of the Doctor Who Christmas episodes except for this one.  A grumpy planet owner refuses to let a spaceship land, endangering everyone’s lives.  The Doctor revisits all of the owner’s past Christmases to find out why he is so grumpy.  Due to the timey-wimey stuff, it turns out the Doctor is to blame but in the end the Doctor convinces him to save the day.  This could have been just one more of the countless riffs of “A Christmas Carol” but it manages to be very fresh and heartfelt.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Who can keep themselves from mentioning the classic of classics?  What more needs to be said except Charlie Brown saves Christmas by ruining it.  Although 50 years later it is saddening that this show did nothing to actually change consumerism from devouring Christmas.  In that vein, a certain South Park special is also worth noting.  .  .but not watching.

So there you have it.  I accept your gratitude for filling up your Netflix queue for the next couple days!  You can suggest other favorites in the comments below.

And Merry Christmas!

 

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Man From Oudewater

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I am Wesleyan/Arminian.

It might surprise you to know that four word sentence is rife with interpretive possibilities.  The truly uninformed think the last word indicates I am from a country somewhere in Africa called Armenia, even though Armenia is actually in Eastern Europe.

The slightly more informed know the sentence implies some sort of belief in human free will at the expense of an all controlling God.

The little bit more informed think that the emphasis should lie on Wesleyan and not Arminius because, as we all know, John Wesley died without any of Jacob Arminius’ books in his library.

The even more informed would argue back that Wesley had plenty of books written by Arminians.  Therefore the 18th century Wesley owes much to the 16th century Arminius.

My friend Rustin E. Brian is even more

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informed than that.  Luckily, he wrote a short book to bring the rest of us nitwits up to speed.  Sadly, before reading about the man from Oudewater I was one of those who thought the connection with Arminius was tenuous at best.  I thought that if our tradition had a “Great Grandfather” it would probably be Thomas Cranmer, or even Martin Luther.  I mentioned this to a Wesleyan scholar at a conference awhile back who disagreed and that quite vehemently.  I think an hour later he asked one of my former seminary professors what he had been teaching us!

In remembrance of that embarrassing incident, I eagerly snatched up Brians’ book about Jacob Arminius and read it in a couple sittings.  After all, if the scholars of our tradition are saying Arminius is important, I better know my stuff!  Brian’s book was the perfect primer, an albeit really short one.

It turns out Jacob Arminius actually lived a much less impressive life than I had supposed.  Despite underplaying his role in my tradition, I had somehow assumed he died with an international following, several published works to his name and as a martyr for his cause.  It turns out he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and only the last few years as a professor.  He died of sickness at a fairly young age.  He was not burned at the stake or beheaded for his beliefs like I had previously assumed.

But due to one of history’s great ironies, his name has had a far more fascinating history than his life.  It has become synonymous in Protestant circles with “free will” though we should alter that to “freed will.” Arminius’ theology has also become a critical component to theodicy conversations as his framework retains God’s power while not sacrificing God’s love.  Arminius’ name has also been valuable in carving out a middle road through all the Christian traditions, making those of us who bear his name a catch all for anybody seeking a different road.

Yet what I appreciate most about Arminius’ biography, or at least Brian’s reading thereof, is that Arminius’ theology was what it was because Jacob was a pastor first.  John Wesley was too, for the record.  And I am too, as is Brian.

In fact, in late college and all throughout seminary I struggled and prayed with whether or not to apply for PhD programs and seek a faculty position at a university.  At that point I was proving myself to be an adequate teacher and writer.  I was an okay student, a B+/A- one, which one novel cleverly characterized as the black sheep of academia.  On top of that my professors were wonderful people who had a life changing impact on me, a pastoral impact no less.  It was those same professors who advised that academia was a brutal place with low wages and long hours with high expectations.  It was not a job for the weak or uncalled.

In the end I chose the pulpit but not because I don’t value the input of ivory towers.  Most days my entire ministry rests upon the conclusions of those who spend their days doing nothing but studying Scripture.  Their contributions are invaluable and they need all the time in the world to think through them.  However, their contributions are worthless without pastors whose feet are on the ground and whose hearts are among the people.  The great contributors of our tradition have been pastors who spent the morning studying and the afternoons and evenings ministering.

Therefore, I am grateful to call Jacob Arminius my great grandpa and to be one of many who continue the work he began in local parishes.  I am grateful too for my esteemed colleague, Rusty Brian who continues that work in his local parish and write books like these as an extension of his ministry.

Now off to work I go!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Hunger Games’ Mockingjay

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When it comes to teeny-bopper novels with young female heroins I am pretty out of touch.  A couple years ago, I was completely surprised when I asked my Facebook friends what books I should read and this swarm of young women suggested I read Divergent.  I thought Divergent would be a non fiction sociology text about the need to engage culture critically so as to diverge to new paths.  Instead it was a novel about some teenage girl who gets to pick her own faction and then suddenly becomes the chosen one.  .  .because, you know, all teenage girls are the chosen one these days.

But this post isn’t about Divergent.  It is about the last teeny-bopper fad I did catch up with, “The Hunger Games.”  When Suzanne Collin’s trio of novels went big a few years ago, my wife and I somehow came in possession of them and I read all three in a week.  The first was surprisingly brilliant, a wonderful narrative critique of professional sports and their impact (or less than so) on low income neighborhoods.  Strangely, almost nobody is talking about that aspect of the novel, just how all girls get stuck in their choice between the Peeta’s and the Gail’s in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong, I can totally relate.

The other two novels were less than the first, leading me to believe Collins should have stopped after the one hit wonder.  And yet, as I have continued to think about “The Hunger Games” and now have watched all four movies, it is the last two novels that have been the object of my focus.

I should add right now that huge spoilers for the entire trilogy follow this point.

In “Catching Fire” Katniss Everdeen emerges from the hunger games with a raw power that is best described as influence.  She has a national following and is a political force to be reckoned with.  So “Catching Fire” is about President Snow’s attempts to control and co opt Katniss’ influence using his brute force.  When he is unable to do so, he resorts to sending her back to the Hunger Games with the hope that this time she will either die or emerge a victor but with severely decreased influence.

It doesn’t work.  Katniss escapes the game before all the victors are dead and, in the “Mockingjay”, awakens in a 13th district that is led by a cunning President Coin.  The third novel is about Coin’s attempts to control and co-opt Katniss’ influence, but not with brute force.  Instead she uses a very cunning manipulation, that is almost worse than Snow’ss force.  This leads to a stunning climax where Katniss has standing in front of her both Snow and Coin with the entire nation looking on.  Forget Peeta versus Gail.  This is Everdeen’s true choice and she uses it to kill Coin instead of Snow.  I must admit that during my first reading of “Mockingjay” it did not occur to me that Coin was a villain until Katniss killed her.  But then it made sense.  Cunning manipulation is just as bad as brute force.

Therefore, the reason these two novels have consumed my thoughts since I read them is because I feel like Katniss’ story is the church’s story.  Since the first Pentecost, the church has had access to a raw and supernatural power that is best described as “influence.”  We are not powerful in and of ourselves but the Holy Spirit has given us access to the Trinity’s power, which is what C.S. Lewis calls “the deep magic.”  It is a power deeper and more pure than brute force or cunning manipulation.  It is the power of love and it is that love that powers us.

Since the outpouring of that power, the lesser powers, the national and corporate interests, have desperately tried to control and co-opt it.  Some, like President Snow, have used threats and force.  Others have been more like Coin, using cunning and manipulation.  This still goes on today.  Politicians are right now fighting to co-opt our votes and use our influence to get them elected.  Corporations still use Christian symbols and imagery to get us to buy their product.  Sports’ teams still tout the religious credentials of their star players to convince Christians to root for them and in turn, buy their merchandise.  When the principalities and powers see our “deep magic” they recognize it and desperately want it for their own.

Sadly, we are not as unique or as brave as Katniss.  We sell our religion to the highest bidder and remain loyal until another bidder comes along.  There is quote that traces back to Augustine that claims, “the church is a whore!” and I agree.  We sell our bodies to anybody who offers to buy from politicians to athletes to CEO’s.

At the end of Mockingjay it becomes clear that there is no win for Katniss.  In the movie she explains to her newborn daughter that fighting nightmares is her new game.  Thus, I walked out of the theater last night feeling very somber and downcast because rejecting the principalities and powers is a tough and costly chore.  But Katniss did find a subtle win.  She notes to her daughter that fighting the nightmares is a better game than the other ones she played.  Her win was not executing Coin or even Snow.  It came when she retreated to a quiet, humble and good existence, becoming a wife and a mother.

Her choosing of Peeta in the end is indicative of that choice and the church would do well to follow her, to deny the cunning manipulators and the coercive tyrants and instead follow the commands of our one true King, who tells us through the Apostle Paul, “to make it our ambition to live a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11)  and who adds to it through Peter, “live such a good life among the pagans that they might see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (1 Peter 2:12)

It is the quiet but good life lived among the ungodly that beats the principalities and powers.  It is the quiet but good life that refuses to be co-opted by nations and politicians and armies and businesses.  It is that life that wins the raw victory with God’s raw power.

Last Sunday we celebrated this with Christ the King Sunday where we proclaimed anew that Jesus is Lord and King of all. He stands above the athletes and corporations and politicians and nations.  He is the Ancient of Days and one day, hopefully not long from now, He will take his throne and open the scroll!  May that assurance carry you into a blessed holy-day season!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Viscious by V.E. Schwab

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When I was a kid my mom worked for a public library for a brief time.  It was a gorgeous four story, brick building with white letters that adorned the top floor proclaiming, “LIBRARY!”, exclamation point and all.

If you were about five years
old and you walked inside it and turned left, you experienced a wonderland of children’s fiction.  There were large plastic picture books, young adult “chapter” books, Archie comics and even some old movies on VHS tapes.  They even had computers (which were quite rare for 1990) where you could play reading games or look up books.  To top it all off the very back of the place had a large amphitheater style reading room where they hosted special readings of popular books.

I am just young enough to remember spending hours in this section and thinking, “Why could there possible be three more floors to this place?  What other books could possibly be important enough to include that wouldn’t be here?

In school I learned the other books had a name:  “Non fiction” which I quickly understood was a synonym for “boring.”  They didn’t have pictures or funny stories.  The covers were bland and the titles used big words that nobody understood.  Rumor had it that the inside were nothing but large lists of mindless data about inane topics.

Long story short, I now read about one book a week and those books are almost always from the “non fiction” floors of the public library.  This is not because I have become boring.  It is quite the opposite.  I learned the truth all adults do.  Non fiction, or what I call “real life”, is way more entertaining than the stuff of fantasy novels.

Just the other day I read a “non fiction” TIME article about how Mormons insist you only marry Mormons but their young adults are 60% female which leaves a large percentage of them single and childless, which is unfortunate given their faith’s predominance of family values.  Let me summarize the article a different way, “A religion that preaches you have to get married and have children doesn’t have enough men around for the women to marry.”  You can’t make this up.

I also recently completed a more tragic but true tale about a struggling church who decided to talk more about Jesus and saw their attendance decline dramatically.  A woman who left their church told them, “I am glad you are talking more about Jesus but I will come back when you start talking about marriage and parenting again.”

It is not that I am deriding fiction.  I have several friends, including my wife, who still read it in excess.  Furthermore, I am mindful of all those studies out there (mentioned in non fiction books) that claim people who read fiction all the time are just as intelligent as those who read non fiction all the time.

Yet, even so, the extent to which fiction succeeds lies in how it best mirrors non fiction.  Take for example Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter tales.  Voldemort was fine and all but I have never met a Voldemort and kind of don’t think people like him exist.  Delores Umbridge is another story.  She went to my church growing up and I hated everything about her.  She was there to keep me from having fun.  Of course, she wasn’t evil.  It turns out she had an extremely low self esteem from a childhood of abuse and neglect and she was now compensating for it by barking out orders and trying to exert control over the only people that would respect her, the children.  The reality that J.K. Rowling wrote her so well means that Delores Umbridge probably went to J.K. Rowling’s church too.

Click to buy.

All that aside, this last week I read the first pop fiction book I have read in quite some time.  A friend recommended it, using multiple exclamation marks and I wanted an easy read and an engaging story, one that I might be able to use in a sermon some day.  The book was V.E. Schwab’s “Vicious” a short and choppy tale about scientists trying to become super heroes.

It is the stuff of summer movies and prime time dramas and as is now common in the stuff of both Marvel and D.C. there can be no black and white super heroes, only several shades of gray.  So it is with “Vicious.”  The good guy quickly becomes the bad guy and the bad guy struggles to find anything virtuous in himself.  In fact, neither is good nor bad, merely yin and yang, two contrasting forces circling around each other and occasionally butting heads and trading bullet and knife wounds.

Still, “Vicious” works because I have met the characters.  They , too, went to my church.  There is the self righteous, religious zealot who thinks he is entirely in the right while he persecutes the less honorable or deserving.  Then there is the tragic villain whose misdemeanors are quite understandable, coming as they do from an unstable personality caused by decades of pain.

Along the way they are joined by two sisters who have also picked up some super powers.  The younger lives in the older’s shadow, wanting to be like her until she realizes how sinister her older sister is.  The older struggles with serious identity questions that are somewhat typical of all college aged adults.

I knew about halfway through the book that we weren’t headed towards a happy ending and, without giving too much away, I was right.  As is typical with the stuff of super heroes, they circle around each other in ever decreasing velocity until they all crash in the climax and none of them walk away unscathed.

That is the stuff of non fiction as well.  Our abilities and personalities circle around each other until we finally crash.  It happens in marriage, in family, in friendships and workplaces and, yes, even in churches.  What remains is the ending of “Vicious” which leaves the readers with a ghost of guilt whose premonitions insist we try to make it right, dealing with our wounds and hurts while we try to keep from hurting each other again.

And that ghost too, went to my local church as I was growing up.  He probably inhabits yours today, as he does your house and your business.

For that reason alone, “Vicious” belongs in both the fiction and non fiction parts of our libraries.

See you all later.  I have Brennan Manning’s autobiography to read.