Review: The Basic Bible Atlas by John A. Beck

I remember my first “real” Bible that I received as a middle schooler. It was marketed toward students and had applicable study questions scattered among the text. But one of my favorite parts of this Bible were the full-color maps at the beginning. I was able to imagine the world of the Ancient Israelites, track Jesus’ miracles, and follow Paul’s missionary travels along dotted lines. Those maps helped the Bible come alive as I was able to cross-reference them on our family’s globe.

The Basic Bible Atlas by John A. Beck takes me back to those early maps of my childhood. This comprehensive atlas was designed for those of us interested in historic biblical narratives but who aren’t pursuing a theology degree. I appreciate how map-forward Beck’s commentary is. Divided into sections starting with the Creation, Fall, and Rescue Plan Stories, moving into United and Divided Kingdom Stories, and continuing into the life of Jesus and the early church, the maps are at the forefront of the book. Beck comments on socioeconomic norms and challenges of the times and weaves history into the biblical context.

I appreciate that Beck focuses mostly on history and attainable facts around the region at a point in time. It is set up like a guide into the region and its changes over the centuries. Beck helps well-known stories add new dimension within the parts of the map he chooses to focus on.

It’s not an overwhelming volume. As a 160 page paperback, I found it nice enough to keep on our coffee table without being so daunting that I didn’t pick it up to read through. I kept it in an easily-accessible spot, as I found myself reading a few sections at a time. This book could be read through, cover to cover but it is equally useful as a reference book, read out of order and as needed.

If you’re looking for a supplement to your Bible’s maps, if you have an interest in the geography of the region, or if you’re looking to deepen your understanding of the historic contexts of the Bible, I’d recommend The Basic Bible Atlas as an addition to your shelves––or coffee table!

Do maps help you create context? What are your favorite “additional” parts to modern Bibles?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Defiant by Kelley Nikondeha

Before I begin, I want to give a full disclosure: Kelley is a dear friend – one with whom I chat every day (sometimes several times a day!) I had the honor of reading the very first draft of Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom back when it was loosely called Exodus Strong. She and I finally met in person last October in the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Our week toodling around Israel-Palestine cemented an already wonderful friendship.

I say this because there is no way I can write an impartial review of Defiant. But I will say, Kelley was one of my favorite theologians, long before we became friends. I had followed her essays over at SheLoves Magazine and then was on the launch team for her first book, Adopted where I tried not to fan-girl… too much!

Beyond our friendship, Kelley’s ability to research a passage in the Old Testament and then use that knowledge mixed with her sanctified imagination to bring to life the stories of the twelve women of Exodus is awe-inspiring. From known women like Jochabed and Miriam to naming and filling in the stories of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah and diving into the Seven Sisters of Midian, we are introduced to a world of women whose stories were sidelined for centuries. Kelley weaves into the biblical narratives modern women who defy Pharonic Forces, from Emily Schindler to Ahed Tamini and Bree Newsome.

Defiant is a book written to give home in perilous times and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate season for its launch. I know we’re all looking to freshen our bookshelves in this season of quarantine and social distancing. Do yourself a favor and order it now, before Amazon demotes books to nonessential delivery schedules.

Best Books of 2019

This year was a slower year of reading. Part of this is that my time has shifted, as it does every year with school and seasons. Partly it’s that I read longer and deeper books, which I needed. I still finished 66 total and of those, 20 were 5-star reads.

I won’t share all of those best reads here (you can check out my Goodreads page for all my reading lists and reviews) but I wanted to highlight some of my absolute favorites and am aiming for a mix of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

It’s interesting doing year-end reviews. Some books that I gave 4 stars, I remember with 5-star fondness. And some of my 5-star reads aren’t as memorable as I thought they would be when I finished reading. But I never go back and change reviews. I like to trust the process and the fact that I felt something at the time after finishing a book. So, these are the 5-star books that stuck with me and that I’d recommend to almost anyone.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
This book had been on my radar for a while but after taking an Indigenous Voices class where it was highly recommended by both our teacher and a guest speaker, I knew I needed to read it sooner. I had read The Lost City of Z by Grann and loved his style. Killers of the Flower Moon did not disappoint. Delving into the Osage murders that happened in Oklahoma at the beginning of the twentieth century, Grann combines incredible research, solid journalism, and engaging storytelling to remember the lives of those who were murdered. He also weaves in the formation of the FBI and its role in the investigation. This is a must-read for many reasons––Indigenous history, a perspective on a powerful institution’s beginnings, and a reminder that we must continue to pay attention to stories that aren’t part of mainstream history classes.

Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart by Alice Walker
I started the year reading much more poetry than I ended the year, which is something I’d like to remedy. I loved starting my morning with a mug of coffee and a poem or two as we eased into the day. Alice Walker’s most recent collection of poems were quite political but they made me think. Walker helped me look at the news through the lens of people who don’t look like me, who aren’t in my same socioeconomic bracket, and who are impacted by policies and decisions that don’t necessarily impact my own life. The format of these poems made me pause and reexamine in ways that only poetry can––opening the eyes of those who are looking.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I hadn’t read an epic generational novel for a while and Pachinko didn’t disappoint. The plot follows four generations of a Korean family who moves to Japan before World War II, and who stays through its reconstruction. Lee tells their story in a way that helped me understand a region and history I hadn’t known about before. She also wrote in a way that I could connect attitudes toward immigrants in my own country, regardless of how long they’ve lived here. Lee’s storytelling and ability to connect the past to current events makes this book feel like a timeless classic.

Voice of Witness Oral Histories by McSweeney’s
There are about ten volumes in this series, ranging from stories of those locked in solitary confinement to refugees who have settled in the United States to those who survived Burma’s military regime.

I read three this year: Palestine Speaks, edited by Cate Malek was in preparation for my trip to Israel-Palestine. The stories were powerful and mostly from the perspective of Palestinians living in the region, though Malek chose to include two narratives from Israeli perspectives, which strengthened the collection.

Underground America, edited by Peter Orner followed the stories of those who have come to the United States and have stayed without proper paperwork. Some stories highlighted how easy it can be to extend a temporary visa; others were about human trafficking; and still others were about those who make the treacherous journey across deserts for an “illegal” border crossing. All of these stories helped build empathy and made me remember that there are no easy answers when it comes to undocumented immigration.

Lastly, I read Hope Deferred, edited by Peter Orner about the lives of Zimbabweans living under the terror of Robert Mugabe. I was especially interested to read this, as we have dear friends from Zimbabwe. They would allude to stories but I never fully grasped the terror of those decades of violence and disruption. This was the hardest of the books I read in this series. Many of the governmental crimes are unimaginable and, while none were described in a gratuitous way, it became difficult to read after a while.

I’ll be returning to this series in the new year. My hope is to read a couple of these books a year, to gain perspective through the power of listening (or reading) the stories of those who have lived through what have become political stands.

On Writing by Stephen King
I try to read a couple books about the craft of writing each year and King’s had been recommended by a variety of writers and readers. This book, which is part memoir and part guide, is a reminder of just why King is such a successful author. His storytelling is incredible and his attention to detail impressive. On Writing inspired me to pick up more of King’s work and I plan to read more in the years to come. I’d recommend this to anyone, regardless of an interest in writing.

Runners Up (Because it’s hard to narrow down such awesome reads!)
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Calipso by David Sedaris
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Womanist Midrash by Dr. Wilda Gafney
The God Who Sees by Karen Gonzalez
Circe by Madeline Miller

For 2020, I want to read another book on writing, dive into the idea of pilgrimage in faith, literature, and poetry, and read a scholarly book on something. (I’m not yet sure of the topic!)

What about you? What books stood out for you this year? What are your reading goals for the coming year?

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Review: Take Back Your Time by Morgan Tyree

This year was a pivotal year for my schedule. With Elle in school three mornings a week, I found myself with enough extra time to catch up on dreams and projects while also enjoying the last days of full-time stay-at-home motherhood. It took some weeks of adjustment, but I slowly found a rhythm emerging between time for writing and creativity, volunteering, and taking care of health and fitness.

Now, three months into our school year and with some awkward breaks to mix up the schedule, I’m realizing that I may need a bit more structure to my schedule. It’s one thing to think, Monday mornings are for writing! and quite another to sit down in front of my computer at the library and realize I have no idea where to start. I’m so used to squeezing life into the margins, the wealth of time was crippling!

Enter Take Back Your Time by Morgan Tyree. In this conversational but focused book, Tyree empathizes with women of all walks. From working moms to business women to stay-at-home moms, she understands the stress and struggles of time management.

I’ve read business-based books before and found them helpful – to a point. What I loved about Take Back Your Time is that Tyree acknowledges and affirms all sorts of time constraints. She writes specifically to a broad audience and I felt seen in the pages of her book.

Filled with easy-to-implement strategies and structures, Tyree gives her readers tools and resources to start their time management revolution right away. None of her ideas were so complex that I put them off for another day. They were all simple enough to start right away. She also reminds her readers that, like any habits, new structures will take time and tweaking. I loved that she recognizes that these aren’t systems that will be perfect right away – this is an ongoing practice.

If you’re in a place in life where you see spaces of time where you know its being wasted or misused, this is the perfect book for you. Tyree will help you hone your hours and emerge with more space in your days.

What are tools you use for time management? How do you prioritize moments in your schedule?

I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion,

Review: Nice by Sharon Hodde Miller

I had an experience recently where I tried to politely decline a request. I thought I had been clear, firm, and still nice the first time I said, “No, not right now.” The person asking kept asking… and asking… and asking. And each time I said no in a new and still polite way, it became harder. Finally after months, I found myself in a volunteer role I didn’t want and feeling quite resentful toward the whole experience.

In her book, Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, Sharon Hodde Miller describes my experience. She says that niceness for the sake of placating and being polite can often lead to disillusionment and cynicism. Miller isn’t calling for people to be rude or inconsiderate but she does take the stance that we need to be firm, honest, and unwavering.

This starts with responses to requests but is rooted in our faith. In the context of White Churches who stayed quiet during the Civil Rights Movement, Miller reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s words from Birmingham Jail,

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail

Miller expands on King’s statement by saying that in pursuit of niceness, good Christians were, “…committed to the status quo than they were to justice. They were more committed to comfort than they were to courage. They had good intentions – great intentions! – but they weren’t willing to count the cost of them” (pg 77).

Throughout the book, Miller reminds her readers that the fruits of niceness can often be unhealthy and rotten. God calls us to a faith that steps out into the world of justice and pushing against the status quo. It is a faith that is uncomfortable and deep. This can make those around us feel uneasy but by sugarcoating injustices with the excuse of keeping the peace or being polite, we are failing the call of the message of good news.

I appreciate that Miller doesn’t call for unkind confrontation but rather thoughtful subversion and intentional pushback. She warns that niceness can lean to bigger divides than we realize while sacrificing the very character of Jesus.

This book came at the right time for me. It was a reminder to stand firm, not only in my boundaries with others but also in what I’ve learned about my faith itself. How do I engage in thoughtful conversation without ignoring my own convictions?

If you’ve ever been caught in an uncomfortable place because you tried to be too nice, this book is an encouraging reminder that we can be in community while also standing true to our beliefs.

Has being too nice ever gotten you in trouble? How do you balance politeness with conviction?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Review: A Standard of Grace by Emily Ley

Even as an avid journaler, I love the idea of a guided journal. I use journals to mark my days, make lists, sketch out ideas, and keep track of our rhythms but having something to stretch my thinking or turn my ideas in a different direction is appealing. I’ve browsed question-a-day journals and idea books in the aisles of Target and at stationary stores but nothing had ever jumped out.

When I saw A Standard of Grace Guided Journal by Emily Ley, my curiosity was sparked. I love Ley’s clean layouts and planner designs (though have never used one myself.) I decided to give it a try and have enjoyed her prompts.

The journal is divided into fifty-two sections with two questions per section. Because of my perfectionist tendencies, I decided to start the journal mid-April and complete two questions every week and a half or so. I knew that if I boxed myself into finishing it in a year, it would become a chore. For others, that sort of structure may be just what you need to cement a practice of journaling.

The prompts are geared for people who find themselves in the trap of perfectionism over grace. The themes and questions all revolve around letting go, leaning into the mess, and giving up the idea that life can be controlled. As someone who fits all those personality types, the questions are easy for me to think about and respond to. For those who don’t struggle with ordered tendencies, I’m not sure the journal would be as helpful.

My other caveat is that Ley’s audience is narrowed to married women of a certain economic bracket. The photographs scattered through the journal are all of families in environments that evoke middle and upper-middle class spaces. There are questions about spouses and children and an assumption that your home is large enough for hosting and entertaining. While the questions themselves are helpful, I wouldn’t gift this to any of my single friends or friends who may be struggling with dreams about children.

I’ve enjoyed responding to Ley’s prompts and will most likely finish this journal in the coming year. If you are someone who seeks the balance of perfectionism and grace, this would be a handy tool. I do wish the questions and structure were inclusive of a wider audience.

I received this book free from the publisher via BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

Review: Glorious Weakness by Alia Joy + Giveaway

Even though I could tell stories of not being popular in school or of not feeling quite at home as I questioned the theology taught by my very young youth group leader, I never felt completely rejected by school or church or society. I grew up flying under the radar, content with my small group of friends, ready to grow up and find my own path.

With that in mind, reading books like Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack by Alia Joy are important for me. They remind me of the very real struggles many in my peer group lived through as they fought for a faith that supported them.

Alia Joy tackles a host of weaknesses in her book: poverty, mental illness, body image, and physical health problems are all referenced as part of Joy’s faith journey. As she leans into a life that doesn’t fit the mold of an American Dream, Joy realizes that maybe her spiritual gift is the gift of weakness. Maybe the beatitudes are true – that those who seem rejected by society are the ones who are truly blessed.

I especially appreciated her reminders that the Bible is filled with characters we often overlook. I was especially impacted by her chapter called “Uncomfortable Love.” In it, she recalls the Bible story of the Good Samaritan, who cares for a beaten Jew (and his enemy) on the side of the road. Joy reminds us,

What is hard is not the man robbed on the side of the road, beaten and left for dead. I have felt those wounds in my very soul. What is hard is loving the priest and the Levite who crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by, presumably on their way to do their holy work (pg 105).

Glorious Weakness by Alia Joy

I’ve been thinking about that all week. Who are the holy people I have trouble loving? Often, it is easier to love those who are vastly different than me than to love those who look like me but have different political views. Joy reminds us throughout Glorious Weakness that we are all weak and in need of love; that our neighbors are those who are easy to love and those who are difficult. That God’s glory stretches to the most likely and unlikely of places.

Unfortunately, these stories of strength and perseverance are scattered in such a way that made reading Joy’s memoir difficult to follow. A lot of assumptions were made: That the reader has a fluent knowledge of evangelical language; that the reader has followed Joy’s journey on the internet so can fill in personal references easily; that the reader understands the wobbly timeline presented. I felt like I was always a few steps behind on the journey, struggling to keep up and follow along.

There was enough beauty and truth in this book to make me hope to read more from Alia Joy. I think she has more stories to tell and I hope she continues to hone her craft and strengthen her voice.

Giveaway! I believe this is a powerful book and will be an encouragement for the right person, so answer my question below and I’ll send one person my copy. (Giveaway closes on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.)

How have you leaned into your own weaknesses? How have you found strength from embracing those weaknesses?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Review: The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby

The first (and perhaps only) time I got in trouble in elementary school was in the first grade. Two boys started fighting and I watched them. I missed recess the next day because I hadn’t gone to tell a teacher. I remember sitting against the wall, inconsolable at the unfair treatment.

Looking back on this early memory, I still don’t condone this style of playground management. Punishing six-year-olds for standing by and watching certainly isn’t how childhood conflict should be managed.

However, this scene reminds me of how many white people fit into the structures of racism that have built the foundations of the United States. Maybe we aren’t personally responsible for the building of those foundations. Maybe our ancestors weren’t even living on American soil when those laws and systems were first put into place. But we’ve stood by and watched, benefiting from centuries of racism and inequity.

On the left: The book cover of "The Color of Compromise" by Jemar Tisby.
On the right: "The failure to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression." Jemar Tisby

In The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby provides a survey of American complicity in racism. He tackles overt systems, like slavery and Jim Crow laws, and quieter ones, like many white Protestant churches staying “neutral” during the Civil Rights Movement.

Starting in the Colonial Era, moving through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and into the Civil Rights Movement coupled with the rise of the Religious Right and then into Black Lives Matter, Tisby gives a detailed but brief overview of America’s “original sin” of racism. I appreciated this survey format – while I would love to read a deep book on each of these eras, I simply don’t have the time at this stage in life. Tisby’s overview was just what I needed to learn more about the untold history of my country.

Tisby reminds his reader that even if specific actions of racism aren’t personal, white people in this nation have benefited from the imbalance of systemic racism. We need to recognize our complicity. The church needs to recognize its complicity. Too many pastors either overtly interpreted the Bible through a lens of white supremacy or allowed those misinterpretations by staying silent.

This book is not for people just starting out on the journey of racial reconciliation. This is for people who recognize their part in these pervasive systems and want to know more. This is a book for people who are seeking to read a more rounded history, who know that what they learned in school was the story of the victors. Even though I knew a lot of the pieces of history referenced in The Color of Compromise, it was still difficult to read that time after time Christians and the church failed to make the choice to take a side.

For those of you on the journey toward justice and reconciliation, who are ready to listen and learn, I highly recommend The Color of Compromise.

What’s the last book you read that took something you knew a little about and shifted your thinking?

As part of the launch team, I received an advance copy of the book from Zondervan. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Review: I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers

Without a doubt, we live in a divided climate here in the United States. Churches are making decisions about inclusion and who can participate; business are reckoning with gaps in pay; and our political parties seem more extreme than ever. I’m not sure if this is actually true––America has been divided before to the point of going to war and literally fighting neighbors. But there is no doubt that our divisive opinions have framed the current narrative.

Cover: "I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening)" by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers.
The top half of the book is blue with a coffee drink showing the image of a donkey in the foam. The bottom half of the book is red with a coffee drink showing the image of an elephant in the foam.

In I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening), Sarah Stewart Holland, a Democrat, and Beth Silvers, a Republican, talk about their journey toward understanding. Politically different but with numerous similarities, these two started a political podcast to talk about current issues with perspectives from “the other side.”

I don’t listen to Pantsuit Politics so can’t comment on the tone of the show but as I read this book, I kept thinking that it would be more appropriate in conversation form. The topics are rooted in headlines of the past year or two. Even the format of co-authoring seems better suited to an audio conversation.

The book has practical and applicable advice on how to start your own political journey. Holland and Silvers give concrete examples and steps to remembering that the other side isn’t as evil or as different as you may think.

Perhaps that’s the point. Holland and Silvers may align with different political parties but for all other categories, they are the same: white, (upper?) middle-class, Christian, mothers, living in Kentucky. My guess is that both of them are more in the center of their parties so it is very easy to find commonality. I have a feeling that for the majority of us, this is true about those we disagree with––there are far more similarities than differences.

I wasn’t looking for a fighting book but I kept thinking about Desmond Tutu’s observation, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I think it’s important to see the humanity in all people but I don’t think it’s important to simply “agree to disagree” or to let “you do you.” There are policies and points of view that cause actual harm to large swaths of our population. Part of aligning with a political party is supporting the tension of keeping systems in check and holding people and institutions accountable.

If you’re at a loss for how to have an enjoyable dinner with friends or family from “the other side,” this book may offer helpful advice. If you’re looking for perspectives on policies and politics from opposing points of view, this is a lukewarm offering.

Do you find it difficult to engage with “the other side”? How do you have political conversations? (Or do you avoid them?)

I received this book free from the publisher via BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

Review: Loving My Actual Neighbor by Alexandra Kuykendall

When we moved to our cul-de-sac in the suburbs, I didn’t realize how intertwined our lives would be with our actual neighbors. My daughters dash across the street, inviting themselves into the house of their best friend. (I’m told this is ok because “we actually family, mom!”) Our neighbor two houses down keeps a stash of crackers at the ready for Elle, who only likes what Judi offers. When I called an ambulance to rush Frank to the hospital last October, I got texts from my neighbors, checking in and with offers to help in all manner of ways.

White and red text on a faded background of wildflowers in a forest.
Text reads: "Our neighbors––the people right in front of us––are not those we choose, but those we can choose to treasure."
Alexandra Kuykendall, Loving My Actual Neighbor

These relationships didn’t happen overnight. They took time and intentionality. It meant bringing my book out front so that we’d interact with folks coming and going. It meant accepting offers of dinner during tax season and hanging out in pajamas and sweats on snow days. Now I see these neighbors as an integral part of our family’s rhythms but I also recognize the work that went into opening our lives to our neighbors.

In her newest book, Loving My Actual Neighbor, Alexandra Kuykendall sees the need to love our actual, right next door neighbors as well. In a divided world, remembering to love the people who live along our daily routes is important. We don’t really get to choose our neighbors and so getting to know them and immersing ourselves in their lives is a practical way to break down walls and misconceptions.

She says, “Our neighbors––the people right in front of us––are not those we choose but those we can choose to treasure.”

Alexandra Kuykendall, “Loving My Actual Neighbor”

This is easier said than done and Alex offers seven practical stories and steps in Loving My Actual Neighbor. From asking questions to actively listening and honing our empathy, Alex grounds her steps in story and scripture, reminding us that loving our neighbor is the most important of the commandments. Each chapter ends with a call to action, a reflection, steps to practice, and a scripture to guide you on the journey.

Loving our neighbors can be overwhelming, for a myriad of reasons from perfectionism to social anxiety. Alex takes the guesswork out of connection and helps dismantle the idea that loving our neighbors is something out of the realm of possibility.

If you have neighbors, you need to read this book. Alex will encourage you, push you, and help you remember that loving our neighbors can become second-nature. And what a gift that is.

What are ways you love your actual neighbors? What are some challenges in loving the people right next door?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon,any purchase you make supports this site.