Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Star Trek Encyclopedia

Author: Michael Okuda, et al

Type: Science Fiction

Shepnerd Rating 4 Stars

I bought this book to write an essay on the Bajoran Prophets for my StarFleet Academy class (no, serioulsy - check out Its a fanstastic resource in encyclopedia form - cross referenced and contains story lines, ship schematics, character explanations and even uniform codes. The whole thing is quite fun and it is very easy to find information in.

Why only 4 stars from the Shepnerd? 2 reasons - the pictures are in black and white (making for a very bleak apprearance, and the book was written before DS9 was finished so there are a lot of unfinished entries for DS9 and none of Voyager. I would love to see this work expanded to include Voyager and Enterprise (eh).

However, if you are wanting info on Star Trek TOS or TNG - its a great book to have.

Sacred Speech: A Practical Guide for Keeping Spirit in Your Speech

Author: Rev. Donna Schaper

Type: Spirituality

Shepnerd Rating - 5 stars

Inclusive language, political correctness and all types of uses of words have leaked into Christianity over the years. What Donna Schaper noticed was that while we are getting better and better at talking - we are not getting better at faith, healing or love.

This book is an outstanding help in learning the difference between being politically correct and speaking the truth in love. It offers many real-world example conversations and points out where they go right, and where they go wrong. Its a great source for Pastors or people who need to learn how to sad hard truths without offending others and a good primer for anyone who wants more God in their words.

And as a plus - there are study questions in the back if you want to use it for small group work. The book embraces diversity, and reflects wisdom.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I'll Fly Away: Testimonies from the Women of York Prison

Editor: Wally Lamb

Type: Nonfiction/Memoir

Shepnerd Rating: 5 Stars

Wow. I dare you to read this book and not be changed. In a world where even Christians sometimes lack compassion and argue for longer sentences, or say "well, they are drug addicts, prison is the place for them" - this book is a much needed eye opener. The women in these essays do not deny their crimes, nor to they blame abusive childhoods, battering husbands, or drug addiction for their incarceration (although there is plenty of pain to go around). Yet seeing how the women come from and relate to - drugs, gangs, alcoholism, abuse, molestation and downright no common sense -- shows how very little faith and understanding society gives them.

I was reading this book when Michael Vick's 23 month sentence for dog killing was handed down and listening to commentators talk about the "stiff sentence". I just shook my head because I was reading an essay from a 18 year old girl sentenced to 15 years for accidentally killing a man who was raping her. SHE wasn't complaining about the length of her sentence, but missing the normal things of adolescence.

One inmate sums her faith experience up extremely well - on her first terror-filled night in prison serving 4 years for theft - she prays "Dear God, I know you were with me in the courthouse today, and I know you are with me now. Thank you for your blessings even though I am blind to them at this moment." If we could all be so honest with God.
Its a moving book that reminds us that prisoners are people, and we are not so different than they are. I conclude with a discovery one inmate shares which sums up this book nicely:
"Everyone in prison has a story; a need to be listened to, and a longing to be loved."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

Author: N.T. Wright

Type: Theology

Shepnerd Rating: 4 stars

I bought this book by N.T. Wright because of his close working relationship with Marcus Borg, whose work I respect tremendously. I was surprised to find a very different voice. The book is much more lyrical (and misses some of the "plain common sense" I enjoy from Borg), and yet intelligent and stunning.

It's a little stuffy sometimes, but profound and uplifting none-the-less. It seeks to answer the questions: why do we crave justice? Why do we desire spirituality? Why do we need beauty. It refers all of that the the echo of God in the world calling the church, the bible and Christians to a high level of living and being. There is a critique of modern culture and Christians who abuse the authority of Christ. There is a pathway for reclaiming the true power of Christianity and bringing justice, faith and beauty back to our world. An excellent, softly-spoken vision of the way things are, and the way they ought to be.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Back to the Well: Women's Encounters with Jesus In the Gospels

Author: Francis Taylor Gench
Type: Biblical Scholarship/Theology
Shepnerd Rating: 4 Stars

The person who loaned me this book told me about the author and described her as a feminist theologian - so I expected feminist theology. However, this book has so much more. Each of the texts has an overview of perspectives ranging from ancient, to traditional to modern and progressive. Each text also involves her view, and the best part - questions to think about for you to understand your own view. I love books that let you think!

One of my main complaints about Christian books is that the first half to 3/4 is usually good but the last half seems to contain filler to make the book longer. By focusing on only 6 vignettes and keeping her prose sharp and well referenced - there is no fluff -- just a lean mean theological machine.
Of course, the massive perspective can have a small minus (life is a double edged sword, afterall) -- sometimes there are so many quotes from so many sources its hard to untwine what the author thinks or where she is taking you - from all the perspective. Overall, though - an excellent study of scripture, time, women and thought.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Almost Moon

Author: Alice Sebold
Type: Fiction
Shepnerd Rating: 2 stars

In her memoir, “Lucky”, Alice Sebold recounts the true story of how she was raped during college (and the tragedy of the campus police offer who told her she was “lucky” because another woman had been killed) and how she recovered. It’s a shocking and healing book as she muses about her violation and her alcoholic family of origin. In “The Lovely Bones” she tells the story from the point of view of a raped and murdered girl who watches her family from Heaven. It seemed she was speaking about the way rape affects everyone around the incident. I liked her previous books tremendously. So I bought “The Almost Moon” expecting further brilliance – what I found was nonsense, and I hated it.

“The Almost Moon” is not about rape – but it is messed up about sexuality. It’s about growing up in an abusive home, and the way it can leave claws in your heart that keep pulling you back into the insanity if you don’t let go. Specifically, it’s about matricide. Helen Knightly, the main character, is care-taking for her ill and abusive elderly mother when she “snaps” and kills her. The rest of the book alternates between the crazy path she takes after the murder (involving casual sexual encounters, going to work, and seemingly framing someone for the killing) and flashbacks of her childhood dominated by her crazy, critical abusive mother. The mother’s insanity is realistic, but the rest of the situations – the neighborhood men who storm the house trying to throw the mother out – the father who has another house he goes to – the gay aging neighbor who gives her alcohol and is her only ally – are so far-fetched it’s ridiculous. The only reason I read this book til the end was to find out if she will get caught and punished.

Why 2 stars then? Why not 0 or 1? Because some of it is absolutely right, and it’s written beautifully. Cathy suggested I hated this book because it was “a little too close to home”. As the child of an abusive family, who escaped to college much like Helen did, I saw a lot of her feelings grounded in my reality: The fear and dread of going home when the school day ended, tip-toeing around every corner so you wouldn’t draw attention and violence your direction, and the way hurt, fear, and love all mix together inside you. In the book Helen calls the days she senses an outburst of abuse from her parents “hard days” as in “It’s a hard day”. I used to call them “bad days” – as is “that was a bad day.” But the meaning, and the ways those days felt - were the same. She’s right about the setting inside that house and describes it perfectly. I’m very thankful I chose therapy and a relationship with God as opposed to Helen’s remedies (sex and murder) – but Cathy was right – some of this book is all too raw and real – those are the good parts – worth 2 stars.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Dharma of Star Wars

Author: Matthew Bortolin
Type: Wisdom/Buddhism
Shepnerd Rating: 4 Stars
Shepnerd Note: This past summer I heard a pastor criticizing Tiger Woods for saying he was both Buddhist and Christian. The pastor said “Buddhism and Christianity are completely incompatible and opposite”. I didn’t voice my objection at the time, but I do disagree with the statement. Believing “only Christianity has truth” is to shut off so many ways God could teach you and talk to you. I don’t think you can be any two world religions at the same time, but I do believe you can learn a lot from the beliefs of others. While no one can serve two masters – you can serve one master in many different ways. For me as a Christian, I believe God put wisdom all over the world for me to use in walking Christ’s Way.

The Bible says, “Test everything; hold onto what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5). I am not Buddhist, but I practice meditation and the Eightfold Path because they help me on my Christian walk. As a young Christian, leaders kept saying I needed spiritual discipline – but never taught me how to develop it. Christianity kept promising me peace, but didn’t offer any advice on how to structure my life to have it. I was told not to act in anger, but no Christian book taught me what to do with anger when I felt it. I found some of those answers studying Buddhism as a world religion. I meditate (with my goal being “an intimate time with God” – not “Nirvana”), and follow what is wise and helps me. God has blessed me through this ancient wisdom and allowed me to know I can learn a few things from Buddhism, while still loving Jesus Christ as my savior and Lord of my life.

This book is a fun and witty text on basic Buddhism. Its perfect for people trying to understand what Buddhism believes and stands for – and its entertaining for anyone who loves Star Wars (Episodes 1-6 are covered in the book – yes, he even found redeeming features in “The Phantom Menace”). It’s a good beginner book though – people who have been practicing or studying for years won’t learn anything new. But it is fun to see the ancient principles illustrated by using Star Wars characters and dialogue.

His best work is on the Eightfold Path: Right speech, right action, right livelihood (work), right mindfulness, right concentration, right view (perspective), right thought, and right effort. He also does well with “the Padawan Handbook” – with Buddhist perspectives about war, violence, prayer, compassion and time.

It’s clear the author understand both Buddhism and Star Wars. He makes fun of Jar Jar (who doesn’t?), points out the humor, and shows the frustrations of joys of being Luke Skywalker. This book won’t make you a Buddhist or a Star Wars Geek – but if you are already one or both – you’ll like it.

Monday, November 5, 2007


Author: David Kinnamon
Type: Research Study
Shepnerd Rating: 4 Stars

David Kinnamon is the president of the Barna Group – a nationally recognized church research organization – who embarked on the 3 year task of discovering what Mosaics and Gen X-ers (16 – 30 year olds) think about Christianity – what he discovered was horrifying. 60% of those interviewed were churched individuals, and 40% were not. The statistics?

Only 16% of the total number said they had a “good impression” of Christianity. The vast majority said they were “Skeptical and frustrated” with the Church and Christians.

Of the unchurched interviewees, only 3% said they have a favorable view of Christians.

91% of churched individuals said ministry was hard because people are increasingly “hostile and negative about Christianity”.

The number one comment that was heard was "Christianity doesn't look like Jesus anymore, its "UnChristian". The vast majority said adjectives that described Christians were ones like: judgmental, hypocritical, too political, scientifically ignorant, homophobic, and sheltered.

What’s striking about the study is that it was commissioned by conservative right-wing Christians, and it reveals a scathing truth about their message to which they have countered “But Jesus said the world would hate us, so we are doing good!” – However, being hated was not the goal of Christianity. Jesus said the world would hate the disciples for shining the light of truth and mercy into a cruel and oppressive Pharisaic church structure. Kinnamon’s book shows clearly - Evangelicals are hated, but not for the right reasons. They are not being hated because they are teaching grace and truth, they are being hated because they are opposing science, common sense (can they truly believe that climate change is not occurring and the world is only 10,000 years old? Haven’t they heard of dinosaurs?), acting badly, rudely and without grace.

Each chapter ends with some thoughts about the issue at hand from some of the most well known evangelicals of the day. It lacks a call to change the church from being an entertainment palace/bully pulpit into a missional fellowship dedicated to Jesus Christ. Realizing evangelicals are the hands that feed him, he spends much time healing their hurt feelings, and neglecting to lay out a map for the healing of these wounded generations and furtherance of the real message of the Kingdom of God. Still it offers a hope that with our understanding of the effects - we can hear the Spirit to change the cause.

A Baptist minister wrote a review of the book in which he concluded: “This is a book all church leaders should read on their knees”. I heartily agree.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Starving Jesus

Authors: Craig Gross and J.R. Mahon
Type: Theology/Ecclesiology
Shepnerd Rating: 1 star

“Dangerous” is the first word I think of when it comes to this book. The authors will like that, patting themselves on the back for “offending” in the name of Christ. But this is not the kind of offense that should be spread around.

The book starts off well – with some spot-on critiques of the modern church. The premise is that American Christianity has become like the Pharisees – buildings that do internal programming for the “included”, and leaves the desperate, addicted and outcasts without the gospel. It’s true – in America we are far from the body Christ intended to create. Many of the ideas have been batted around emergent (a group they seem to love/use and hate/lampoon) and missional conversations for years. The solution – according to these two is three fold – Give, Fast and Pray. The give part goes okay. Then it all comes crashing down.

The authors advocate a 40 day fast (with water and juice – if you feel that is okay with God). It’s medically dangerous, physically damaging, and spiritually harmful. Let me count the ways:

1. The book doesn’t encourage a doctor’s help or advice even though that kind of starvation has potential harm written all over it. What about people with undiagnosed diabetes, hypoglycemia or other conditions? What about the fact the human body is not wired to go that long without food? Just because the author’s bodies are able to sustain this and they don’t die doesn’t mean it’s a good idea – it means God saved them from themselves.

2 The book ridicules anyone who thinks this “might not” be a good idea for people. Mahan writes “Our tendency is to listen to the doctors and health experts of the world. It’s an easy trap” (pg. 177) - My experiences is that a minister who tells you to ignore science, health and people who are trying to keep your body alive like doctors – is the trap.

3.The book uses weight loss (a vulnerability in many people’s lives) as a motivation for a “spiritual fast”. Weight loss is a medical/health pursuit – not a holy quest. Yet it keeps talking about the physical weight they lose.

4. The premise is flawed. The premise is that in Matthew 6 Jesus tells the Pharisees “When you fast, do not look somber…” not "IF you fast" – However – it may shock these “ministers” to discover that the Bible was not written in English – and the Greek text does not use a time indicative word like WHEN. It also does not say the fast has to be food. Christians for centuries have used lent as a fasting time without starving themselves.

5. The book makes fun of anyone who does not agree completely with the authors. It’s a very “my way or the highway” presentation. Anyone who disagrees is called “big-toothy-grin fake super Christian.” Which is the other sad part of the book = two Christians who claim the ability to love anyone in the porn industry where their ministry is focused – but cannot love the faithful who seek God in other ways.

Yes, the church is flawed and in many cases ineffectual. Yes we need to get into the world living the gospel message of freedom from sin. However, there are parents, grandparents and beautiful souls who pray with sincerity in church, believe with everything they have and raise their kids to know Jesus Christ is Lord. What do these people get for lives of goodness, love and devotion? From these authors they get ridiculed, talked down to and taken for granted. Driving around in an RV starving doesn’t make you more holy – just more mobile.

What starts out as a well intentioned voice for helping the church overcome apathy and materialism disintegrates into self-promoting (the last 3 chapters are all about their trip), and dangerous advice.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lifting Our Eyes

Full Title: Lifting Our Eyes: Finding God’s Grace Through The Virginia Tech Tragedy: The Laura McCain Story
Type: Biography/Inspirational
Author: Beth J. Lueders
Shepnerd Rating: 5 Stars

I read this book because it was recommended to me by a source I trust, and I’m really glad it was. I would have probably walked right past it at the bookstore because I don’t often like books written purely to inspire. It would have been my loss to have done so.

Using the story and journals of VT freshman Lauren McCain, whose love for Christ emanates from her like a sweet fragrance, combined with other witness testimony including Lauren's Campus Crusade group and police accounts, Lueders explores the events of the Virginia Tech tragedy and tackles tough issues like God’s presence in tragedy and whether forgiveness is necessary and possible.

This is not the first tragedy where someone has asked “Where was God?” or suggested vengeance and blame were more probable reactions than forgiveness. The book covers well the accuracy of understanding God is with us even in the midst of the fallout from the evil humans choose to enact. As for forgiveness, it examples and guides a truth I have learned to live long ago and wish more people knew – with Jesus Christ in your life, true forgiveness is possible and life can go forward. Lauren's parents even find answers to prayer in the midst of losing their daughter. Their faith is powerful, and life changing.

The best parts of the book are taken from Lauren’s journals, her myspace page, and statements from friends and family which show Lauren not as a victim of violence, but a victorious inheritor of Heaven. The book gives you permission to grieve, and power to know what a difference God really does make when the relationship is real.

It’s a fast read (took me 6 hours), and you won’t want to put it down. Her writings took me back to a college journal I wrote years ago when I expressed my enthusiastic love for Jesus every time pen hit page. I realized when I was reading this book how lucky I am to have found that love, how faithful Jesus has been to keep the relationship vibrant, and how very blessed I am to be writing about Christ’s love again. On a rainy October night, it was so good to be reminded.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Metamorpha: Jesus as a way of life

Author: Kyle Strobel

Type: Spirituality, Spiritual Formation

Shepnerd Rating: 3. 5 Stars (good but not great)

“We create a box to put God in, and spend the rest of our lives meditating on how impressive a box it is.” (page 182).

“Metamorpha: Jesus as a way of life” is a book that wants to help you take God out of the box and live in a unique and real relationship with God. There is much wisdom between its pages about the need for people to stop following “rules” about what they think Christianity is, and start living a life in Christ that is transformed and passionate.

Sadly, there is too much Kyle Strobel in Strobel’s Metamorpha. He makes a point toward the end about churches relying to heavily on leaders and their personalities but ironically most of the book is based on his personal experiences (from growing up spiritually empty in a megachurch, to confessing his sins of disbelief and lying about his own wisdom, to his own enlightenment). It is a very white, upper-middle class, western sanitized crisis of faith and encouragement to change. Most people don’t’ get out of college and obsess on their spiritual worldview – they need to get jobs, apartments, and qualify for a car loan. His faith precepts live in a vacuum where real life is put on pause so we can all start thinking about Jesus. However most of us must do our thinking WHILE we do our living – and he really doesn’t address that.

He presents something most Christians in our age can relate to:

“My idea of the Christian life was going to church, doing good things, and trying to be nice…shortly after I started college I came to realize I had no faith of my own and I knew nothing about the God I supposedly “loved”, whatever that meant.”

This is the strength of this book -- helping people see that being a Christian isn’t about being dutiful to church and following the God we “believe” – but its about learning (through the bible, the Spirit, and mentors in community) who God really is, loving that God with passion and living in a unique Christ-journey through this world.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love

Type: Non-fiction/Travel

Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

Shepnerd Rating: 4 stars

I think one of the blessings of the Christian community is our common strength and encouragement. However, one of the pitfalls is that we become so surrounded in our community we forget how other people view God, tragedy, each other and self. Elizabeth Gilbert is like millions of people who describe themselves as Christian (sorta) but do not go to church or have any daily relationship with God...until she discovers she needs a divorce.

With the pain of that separation, and a lost love affair afterward Elizabeth Gilbert spends a year seeking healing, self, balance and God. Her journey through the pleasures of food in Italy, the sacred discipline of prayer in India, and the balance and possibility she finds in a romance found in Bali are the focus of this very funny, human book.

Although its not a book you'll find in the Christian bookstore - it is a very spiritual experience to see someone's healing and connecting take place. Its honest, and revealing of the internal dialogue millions in the world go through every day - asking God are you real? God are you here? God why do I feel so sad, lost, happy, trapped....

Quick read, and worth looking at.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Sopratos

Type: Comic Strip Collection

Author: Stephen Pastis

Shepnerd Rating: 5 Stars

The Sopratos is a "Pearls Before Swine" collection from comic strip artist Stephen Pastis. It contains some of his funniest material ever - including:

More attempts by the crocs of Zeeba Zeeba Eata to catch our friend Zebra, a hysterical series with Pig and his Girly-men viking action figures, Goat's gentle wisdom and blogging, Rat's myriad of jobs he is too rude to keep and Pig's grace.

I was slightly devastated when Bill Amend stopped putting out daily Foxtrots (I am Jason Fox!) but Pearls Before Swine has lessened to blow and given me lots of enjoyment. I have spent a lot of good working hours sitting in my recliner laughing loudly over The Sopratos. Laughter is a sacred sound. As for the wasted time -- in the words of my brother crocs:

"Peese shut mouf. Me no want lecture."

Until I Find You

Type: Fiction
Author: John Irving
Shepnerd Rating: 3 Stars

Until I Find You is a fun and typical John Irving book. What I like about Irving is how deeply he researches his topics and presents such a full picture of them that you feel like you understand a culture or idea completely when its done.

The best part of the book is the history of tattoo culture. The protagonist, Jack Burns, grows up with a single mom who is a tattoo artist in the 1960's. "Daughter Alice", as she is called, takes Jack on an amazing journey to find his womanizing, abandoning father. From "sleeping in the needles" to the interesting history of the "Sailor's ruin tattoo" - the information and world she inhabits is fascinating.

Traditional "Sailor's Ruin" Tattoo

Sadly, also like Irving's later books, the story collapses under a slew of sexual romps and odd encounters, barely making the point by its end. I enjoyed the way Alice explains to 5 year old Jack that the kind-hearted prostitutes who help them are "women who give advice to men" and the wisdom from the "Grey Ghost" he discovers as one of the few boy students in an all girl's school. However, by the time adulthood hits Jack, the sex is as meaningless as his rambling pursuits and the interest wanes.

If you are starting with Irving - get "A Prayer for Owen Meany"
If you love him enough to forgive him - try "Until I Find You"