Posted in Book Review, Life, Literature

Books That Promote Thought

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult is more than just another well-written court story. It’s a book carefully woven to leave questions in the reader’s mind. The basic plotline involves an African-American woman on trial after a white baby dies. The baby’s parents were leaders of the Pro-White Movement, which I didn’t even know still existed until this book. Reading this book sent me on an emotional roller coaster of disgust, anger, sadness, and elation mixed healthily with a lot of questions. Rather than spoiling the plot of the book, I’d like to take you through some of the questions in my mind.

Firstly I learned in this book that there is a Pro-White movement. The character claimed that Whites could become the majority. I’ll admit that at times I have questioned why there aren’t White History months or White Student Unions but never to the point that I would actually want those things established. I recognize that in this country and in most of the world, being born with Caucasion skin color puts you a little ahead in the game. I also recognize the injustice others may experience because of their skin color. I would rather appreciate my gifts rather than harbor resentment over a lack of White recognition.

But did you ever think our misfortune is directly related to your good fortune? Maybe the house your parents bought was on the market because the sellers didn’t want my mama in the neighborhood. Maybe the good grades that eventually led you to law school were possible because your mama didn’t have to work eighteen hours a day, and was there to read to you at night, or make sure you did your homework. How often do you remind yourself how lucky you are that you own your house, because you were able to build up equity through generations in a way families of color can’t? How often do you open your mouth at work and think how awesome it is that no one’s thinking you’re speaking for everyone with the same skin color you have? How hard is it for you to find a greeting card for your baby’s birthday with a picture of a child that has the same color skin as her? How many times have you seen a painting of Jesus that looks like you?” She stops, breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed. “Prejudice goes both ways, you know. There are people who suffer from it, and there are people who profit from it. Who died and made you Robin Hood? Who said I ever needed saving? Here you are on your high horse, telling me I screwed up this case that you worked so hard on; patting yourself on the back for being an advocate for a poor, struggling black woman like me…but you’re part of the reason I was down on the ground to begin with.” from Small Great Things

While knowing that my skin color gives me certain advantages is good, it still doesn’t answer what I do about those advantages. I wouldn’t ask for those to be taken away, and simply being thankful for the advantages doesn’t seem to solve the racial injustices. I don’t want to move to the point of feeling guilty for my position of birth, but I also don’t want to lord it over others. I also know that I can’t fix all of the problems by myself.

When it comes to social justice, the role of the white ally is not to be a savior or a fixer. Instead, the role of the ally is to find other white people and talk to make them see that many of the benefits they’ve enjoyed in life are direct results of the fact that someone else did not have the same benefits. From the author’s note.

Then I am moved to ask what I do about the direct racism in the world around me. While I don’t think I consciously treat anyone differently, blatant racism does occur. It would be easy to say that minorities are just making a big deal out of things that aren’t big deals, but I’ve never been followed in a store or told that I couldn’t achieve great things simply because of my race. I don’t know what that feels like, so maybe those seemingly little incidents are important because they add up in the life of a minority person. I also recognize that I can’t stop all of the racism in the world because I don’t cause it all. All I can do is watch my actions and thoughts very carefully to ensure that I don’t perpetuate the problem. In addition, I can teach my students and those around me to see people the way that God sees people. What God sees is a person’s heart, not their skin color. What matters to God is if they are following Him.

“Out of all the people who interacted with Davis Bauer at Mercy–West Haven Hospital during his short life, only one of them is sitting in this courtroom at the defense table: Ruth Jefferson. Only one person is being charged with a crime: Ruth Jefferson. I spent an entire trial skirting a very important question: Why? “Ruth is black,” I say flatly. From Small Great Things

Finally the court case in the book brought up the point of indirect racism. This happens when the question of race is ignored in a situation. I don’t think I intentionally treat anyone any differently simply because of the color of their skin, but I may unintentionally perpetuate the problem by ignoring that racism happens. I teach at a school with a very diverse racial population and a mostly homogeneous racial teaching staff. One of the questions on my application was “what do you think about race?” I think, as a 24-year-old, I answered something along the lines of saying that race didn’t matter to me because God loves everyone. While that is all good and well, ignoring racism in the world doesn’t help my students learn how to handle it whether they or someone else is being discriminated against.

I mean equity. Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.” I look at her. “The first one sounds fair. The second one is fair. It’s equal to give a printed test to two kids. But if one’s blind and one’s sighted, that’s not true. You ought to give one a Braille test and one a printed test, which both cover the same material. From Small Great ThingsThis means I carefully choose the literature we read in order to bring up these questions of race and the general treatment of people. It means I don’t allow discriminatory talk of any kind to happen in my classroom. It also means that if a student accuses me of acting in a racist way, whether he is right or wrong about my intentions, I examine my actions to ensure that it wasn’t unintentional racism. It means that I teach my students to look for the similarities between us all as humans rather than seeing the differences while also celebrating the variety of cultures. Finally it means that I teach my students and those around me to love as God loves by demonstrating that love and humility in my actions.

While it may be a moot point now, I encourage others to read Piccoult’s Small Great Things. There is a little bit of language to represent the cultures in which the characters live, but overall wholesome thinking is applauded. The book provokes thought, creates complex plot, and develops characters at just the right pace. She really looks at the question of racism from every angle, and I haven’t really even begun to do this conversation justice. That’s what this book is: a conversation about race. So go read, then come back and converse with me.

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Posted in Book Review

The Truest Pleasure

Sometimes books are about a plot line full of conflict and suspense, but other books quietly tell the story of a character. The Truest Pleasure by Robert Morgan falls into the latter category. Telling the story of a young Appalachian girl’s marriage and family, this book is full of wisdom and great characterization. The ultimate message, in an Ecclesiastical way, is to appreciate the important things in life. At first the narrator strives for spiritual connection and euphoria while her husband seeks pleasure in making money and expanding the land. Neither are happy; even though their pursuits are individually noble, their dreams don’t draw them closer. Only at the end of the novel does the narrator realize that the truest pleasure is to love those around her.

Posted in Book Review

The Road is Confusing

“and they hummed of mystery.”

The last words of The Road by Cormac McCarthy ring true for the entire book. It’s a book of mystery, but it’s one I want to solve.

The story is simple: a man and his son travel south through a world where most people are dead and food is scarce. It’s been this way since as long as the boy can remember. Occasionally they meet another traveler, but they rarely want to meet someone else.

The meaning is complicated. The book is definitely about place, specifically a very lonely place. The world is covered in ash. Humans seem to have died right where they were. It feels like a desert when they’re traveling. They never seem to reach their destination.

His writing style is also very curious. The book is full of simple sentences. The dialogue is concise. The narration describes the world precisely. He lacks quotation marks, almost as if to flow speech with thought. Contractions which contain “not” lack an apostrophe, which might indicate an emphasis on the negative or that the negative simply is part of the word.

Having finished this book within the past hour, I am still pondering its meaning and purpose. If someone has read it, I’d love to discuss it with you. If you’re not connected to me personally, shoot me an email at multicatableblog@gmail.com.

Happy Reading!

Posted in Book Review

Southernmost: Controversial

There are some books that become more than just leisure reads because they open internal dialogue as well as create space for external dialogue. Silas House’s newest novel Southernmost does just that. The novel centers around a country preacher whose estranged brother is openly gay. After a huge flood covers his community, religious people in the community begin to think there is a connection between the legalization of gay marriage and the flood. There is great turmoil within the main character’s church when he speaks out openly in favor of loving the gay couple who have begun attending their church.

As always, House’s writing style is incredible. He creates scenes that are crystal clear by vividly describing the scenario. The plot is developed in such a way that the reader can feel the turmoil within and around the characters, much the way the opening paragraphs describe the flood waters rising. Hints to the culture arise through references to songs, poems, and news create a multi-sensory reading experience. For its literary quality alone, it’s a good book.

The parts that created the most turmoil in me were the beliefs expressed within the book. Now I am a reader who is okay with reading viewpoints that contradict my own, but when a writer expresses clearly controversial topics, it is good to create a space for dialogue. This book obviously expresses the belief that the gay lifestyle is acceptable and a couple of methods that churches tend to use to respond. While I do not think the gay lifestyle is pleasing to God, I can see some valid points in the book about how the church should respond to people living this lifestyle. In the book, the preacher remembers the experience his brother had coming out to his family, which eventually led to the estrangement of his brother from the family. When a gay couple comes to their house during the flood seeking shelter, he feels a conviction to help them while his wife feels strongly that sheltering them would equate with condoning their lifestyle. In this instance, I would lean more toward the preacher’s perspective. There are ways to show love to people who are living with sin, whether it be homosexuality or lying, that don’t require us to condone the sin. The church in this novel wants to throw the men out and shun them, but to me that doesn’t show the love of Christ. Jesus mingled with sinners in order to show them the forgiveness and redemption of God. As a church, we don’t have to condone their sin nor do we have to judge them; our job is to love all people in order to point them to God, the ultimate judge of souls. If we love sinners (because we must admit that we still sin even after being redeemed by Christ), we can point them toward God who can work in their hearts to bring them to righteousness better than our condemning words could ever do. For more on this topic see the book Messy Grace and my accompanying post about the book.

Another more troubling aspect of this book are the spiritual aspects presented through the character of the preacher’s son. There are several chapters entitled The Everything that show the turmoil about the son’s beliefs concerning God. At one point the boy says “Dad I believe in God, but I don’t believe in church.” At another point the book narrates, “The ocean is a mystery and so is God. They are both so big we cannot see all of them at the same time but we can catch pieces of them her and there. Justin believes God is big like the ocean. Even bigger. But lots of people don’t. They think he’s small enough to fit in a church house or an offering plate or an ancient book. He’s not, and his mind is even bigger than him.” At this point it just seems like the boy is trying to figure out who God is in relation to the religious fanatics in his church who turn away his dad for preaching a message they don’t like. At this point, I was standing okay with his turmoil, but then about halfway through the book, the boy begins to think along the lines of what I understand to be pantheism. The most telling quote that demonstrates this belief is “This is the kind of talk that would horrify his mother, but he believes God is in everything and everybody. Pieces of him. He doesn’t just mean the spirit, he means the actual chunks of God… The ocean is God but so are we all.” While God’s nature is expressed in nature and God is omnipresent, the equation does not go the other way. Nature and humans are not God. That leads to worship of things other than God, which is idolatry. For more on this, check out this very short and to the point article.

Finally, there is a part of me that wonders if there is a small commentary on the effect of broken homes. The boy only begins questioning his faith when his parents have such trouble that causes them to split. The young child watches his father question his faith and his mother cling harder to hers and tries to make sense of what he should believe. No one thinks to talk with him about what is really happening in his world, so naturally he starts to try to figure it out on his own. I’m not saying that divorce always leads to losing faith in God, but divorce definitely affects children in all different ways. In this instance, it seems to have led this small child down a path of spiritual ambiguity. If there had been someone to guide him through this process, he might have known the truth about God’s nature rather than the conclusions he came to on his own.

While I respect the writing and opinions of this book, it is not a book I would openly suggest to anyone. If you choose to read it, appreciate the literary value but be cautious of the theological impacts. Be sure to keep your eyes fixed on God while reading. It’s a good book for creating dialogue, but, if you are a believer of God, take caution in your dialogue so as to demonstrate love to those who disagree and maintain your own beliefs.

Posted in Book Review, Devotion

Fleeing from Anxiety

What if he doesn’t show up? What if I don’t like it? What if I forget that? What if I can’t get them under control? And the list goes on.

I often find myself thinking through every detail and possibility of the future in order to attempt to avoid embarrassment or failure. That’s worry. It’s not so much that my fleeing thoughts of worry or anxiety are a sin but that they potentially keep me from trusting God if I don’t push them away. Reading Max Lucado’s Anxious for Nothing helped me think through my reaction to worrisome thoughts that pop into my mind.

My anxiety stems from a lack of control. I worry when I don’t know exactly how a future situation will pan out. As Lucado points out, those initial thoughts aren’t the problem. It’s what I do after those thoughts that counts. I can either continue to dwell in that dark place and panic, or I can praise God.

I’ll admit, the idea of praising God when I’m anxious seems crazy and a bit impossible, but it’s Biblical.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I’ll say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to all. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious about anything, but instead in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-6

The solution is clear: rejoice, be thankful, pray, and allow God’s peace to take over.

Here’s an example. The first day of school always makes me nervous, even though this will be my third year of teaching and my fourth first day of school as a teacher. As the day grows closer, worries about classroom management, likeability, and content knowledge will seep into my thoughts. I can be completely prepared physically, but mentally I will still have anxieties. Knowing what I do about Philippians 4 and remembering Lucado’s admonitions, I should replace those worrisome thoughts with gratitude and prayer to God. Every time they pop up, I need to say a little prayer and breathe a breath of gratitude because my God is in control.

God is in control.

Then comes the second part that helps the peace stick in my mind. Paul goes on to say,

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:7-8

Once I’ve given the worries to God through prayer, I have to let them go. The easiest way to let go of something and not grab it back is to fill your hand, or brain in this scenario, with something else. In almost any situation, there is something true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise. On that first day of school, I can focus on the opportunity I have to minister to my students, the training I have received, or the successes of my peers. Even if I’m in a situation where it’s really hard to find something else to think on, I can always think on God because he fills all of those requirements.

If worry and anxiety plague you, even just on occasion, I’d encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Max Lucado’s Anxious for Nothing, or at the very least, start memorizing Philippians 4:4-8. Christians, let’s show the world that, because of God, we don’t have to live constantly in worry.

N.B. I do want to clarify that I recognize the difference between anxious thoughts and and clinical diagnosis of anxiety. While I believe God can overcome a mental illness, I don’t want to simplify anyone’s pain or anxiety.

Posted in Book Review, Education, Literature

Dear me,

One beauty of summer break is having time to read an entire book in one sitting. I know it’s only June, but I’m already looking forward to next school year. One of my favorite writing projects of the year is the letter to your future self. At the start of the year I ask the students to write a minimum of five paragraphs in letter form. I give them a topic for each paragraph and review letter form. It’s a simple assignment with the purpose of reflection and to give me an idea of their writing abilities and style. It also serves as a great back up writing assignment for when students inevitably enter the school at the tail end of a larger writing project later in the year. I grade this assignment for completion, checking that they’ve addressed each part of the letter and followed letter format. Then we put the letters in an envelope and hide them away in the cabinet.

Watching the students read their letters, along with a letter I wrote to each of them, at the end of last year was sweet and funny. Some were pleasantly surprised to see they’d accomplished goals such as making honor roll or passing all of their classes. Some chuckled as they read their adorations of some guy or girl who wasn’t so important to their lives at the close of the year.

Even though I’d planned to do this writing assignment again, reading Dear Me sparked an idea to make this project more reflective. Dear Me by Warren Hanson is a 77-page series of letters between a young person and the older version of that person. The young person wonders about her future, while the older person gives general advice about how to live. It was quick read that left me thinking about reflection. After the students receive their letters back at the end of the year, an end of the year assignment should be to reflect upon this letter and respond with a Dear Younger Me letter. This could also be worked into a class wide letter to the upcoming sophomores.

I just love when my casual reading connects to my teaching life. Now I’m off to write my Letter to My Future Self and my Dear Younger Me letter for this point in my life. And of course I need to listen to Matthew West’s song of that title.

Posted in Book Challenge, Book Review

The Great American Read

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. -C.S. Lewis

With that statement being true for me, you can only imagine my excitement when I first heard about The Great American Read, hosted by PBS. Firstly, book lists make me excited because I want to see how many I’ve read, but then secondly, I get to vote and prove to other people that my favorite books are awesome as well!? It’s an English major/teacher’s favorite fantasy.

Speaking of teaching, I can totally see this being an interactive bulletin board in my classroom. I can put up copies of the book covers and let the students cast their votes within the classroom, while also encouraging them to vote online in their free time. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire them to read some of the books they haven’t read? It might also be interesting to see if any students have read more of these books than I have.

So now are you curious about which book I’ll vote for and how many I’ve read? Well, it made me feel better to know that I can vote for a different book each day because choosing just one book on this list would be extremely hard. I mean, The Chronicles of Narnia, To Kill A Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, and Little Women are listed. I’ve used all of those books as answers to the inevitable “what’s your favorite book?” question.

Let’s start first with the number of books I have read. Out of 100, I’ve only read a dismal 44. This brought me spiraling back to my lifelong conundrum of never having enough time to read all of the books out there. Then I started looking at some of the books I haven’t gotten around to reading that I really need to. For example, why did I never finish Catch-22 or Heart of Darkness? Why did I spend time reading Moby-Dick when I still haven’t read The Lord of the Rings? Oh I can answer that question: Melville was required reading for a class. Then there are some like Jurassic Park that I didn’t even know were books. Overall, I’m impressed with the list that Americans chose and hope to get my hands on these and understand the American mind even more.

So, the book I will choose to vote for? I think I will have to begin my voting with Narnia because technically I’m voting for seven books that way. I also think more people need to read the books and not focus on the movies as much. After that it’ll be a toss-up between Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. Some others that might catch votes include Little Women, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Giver, Gone with the Wind (that thing is monstrous!), and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Go to pbs.org/greatamericanread to get your own list and cast your vote(s).

Happy reading!

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