Book Review: Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple

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I recently read and reviewed Churched, the memoirs of growing up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, by Matthew Paul Turner. That book gave a humorous and curious look at Fundamentalist Baptist culture as told through someone that desperately wanted out. It was an enjoyable and eye-opening read, but lacked in the getting out phase. I was left with a lot of questions.

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose stands opposite the looking glass from Turner’s Churched. It gives an account of a liberal, non-religious college student spending a semester at a Fundamental Baptist college.

Several aspects of The Unlikely Disciple are reminiscent of Turner’s memoirs. Both are detailing the same culture, though Turner gives the childhood account and Roose gives the college account. Both expose the same problem: a faith that is difficult on the surface with little answers beneath. Both Roose and Turner struggle with the outward demands of the culture while never fully learning why such outward demands are made.

I’ll give credit to both. I think they searched for it. I’m not sure anyone around them was prepared with answers, but I’m sure both writers have searched. I also want to give credit to Roose in that he really tries to understand those around him. I am impressed with the compassion and understanding he shows toward people he opposed ideologically. I think Roose does everything he can to try to understand the faith that moves the students of Liberty University. He engages the culture at every level attempts to learn all he can. His account is thorough and enjoyable.

As an evangelical Christian, I found The Unlikely Disciple to be both challenging and frustrating. It was frustrating because I am an evangelical but I would probably have as much difficulty understanding the culture as Roose does. There are many pockets of evangelical Christianity that are less focused on legalism, more interested in spiritual matters, and more open to questions. Yet, in all fairness, evangelical Christian culture tends to have a louder voice and that culture is what speaks to Roose. I cannot be frustrated for what a writer reports, but rather, evangelicals would be wise to note what the culture portrays and begin to question it a bit.

As for challenging, I am moved by the level of understanding Roose displays. I have never been as respectful toward Jerry Fallwell as Roose even though ideologically, I am much closer. That is to my shame. I think there is a lesson in compassion and understanding in this book. I am appreciative for it.

I can easily recommend this book. Its an easy, fun read, that in the end will challenge everyone toward a greater degree of understanding. For my fellow evangelicals, I would recommend that after reading this book, an evaluation of evangelical culture is in order. A message is getting out, but is it the message we intend?

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A Season of Giving

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The holiday season is a hectic time for me. At the church, there are several various fellowships, services, and other events that take extra time. There is also a lot of activity at home with shopping, planning, and the annual shuffle from house to house seeing aunts, uncles, in-laws, and out-laws. I’ve come to notice that despite the wishes of good cheer that accompany the season, it seems to be the time when people are most likely to anger, hurt, and otherwise bother one another; myself included. As one given to anxiety, it is a stressful time. I enjoy the holidays, but I’m always glad when they are over.

The moment Christmas ends, I begin to think of where the church is and where we need to be. There are victories and challenges that must be examined before moving into a New Year. As for victories, this has truly been a season of giving. We have had several mission projects as of late, all showed great giving. We donated five large boxes of new gifts to the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. We collected gifts for needy children in our community. We gathered stockings full of gifts for the local nursing home. Hopefully, in those efforts we have helped spread some joy in areas where joy doesn’t always take. We also collected over our goal on our annual Lottie Moon Offering for International Missions. Hopefully, in doing so, we have supported the spread of the Gospel. Beyond these planned projects, I have watched our members give of themselves for each other. This has come largely from those who teach children. There have been parties, movies, and even a trip to a famous roll-throwing restaurant; something many of the kids had never experienced before. The teachers and helpers who gave of their time and resources here invested in the hearts of children. Those dividends tend to be longer in coming, but rewarding nonetheless. Truly, we have had a season of giving.

I would love for such a season to set the tone for the year ahead. If anything, we must learn to give more. Our budget includes about 10% for various “mission” causes. By the year end, that number runs closer to 20% but it should be more. Further, we must give more of our time. In order to accomplish the task the Lord gives us in the Great Commission, we must be willing to give a lot of time. Yet, it doesn’t stop at time and money. It would be so much easier if that’s all it were, but there is more.

We must truly learn to give of ourselves. We must give of ourselves to the point that we become smaller and smaller. We must become slight in order to make much of God. This will mean sacrifice. This means first and formost, the sacrifice of will. Everything else after that will be quite an adventure

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30 ESV)

Gotcha Day!

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I think this story begins in the shower. Really, it begins earlier, but we’ll pick it up in the shower. I was taking a shower. In the middle of my shower, Sam yelled that I had a phone call, and came in and handed me the phone. Must be important. She later said, she had a strange feeling about that call. So I turn off the shower and took the phone to speak to this person who tells me that they have just mailed us a check for $20,000 to help us in our desire to adopt a baby.

I almost dropped the phone.

The journey began. That was in June of 2002, and it would be another year and a half of paperwork and red tape. And waiting. Always waiting. Waiting so difficult, it’s impossible to know unless you’ve been there. It was June 2003 when we saw the picture. A swaddled, chubby-cheeked, 1 month old Kazakh, described as being very healthy and very happy. We could meet him, they said, in September, no October, no, November.

It didn’t seem that possible in November. One thing after another seemed to cause a delay. Everything seemed so uncertain. I said over and over again, that I won’t believe we’re going until I step on a plane. Even there in Memphis, when we got on the plane, we knew weather was closing Airport after airport, and when our plane stopped on the taxiway to wait for clearance to take-off, I was holding my breath.

It took off. On a Sunday afternoon, just before Thanksgiving in 2003, we took off to Detroit, then to Amsterdam, and finally, in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, we arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Just stepping off the plane, we knew we’d left it all behind. Nothing was the same. It all seemed like something out of a 1960’s spy movie. I remember the surreal feeling we had as an early 90’s model Vulga sped us through the streets of Almaty and to the hotel.

The next day was spent sightseeing, and the day after it was time for another flight. This time it was on Air Kazakhstan to the frozen north. Pavlodar. We landed on a sheet of ice, and getting off of that plane, I learned what cold is. The winds of Siberia cut right through me. We could hardly breathe. Then came another crazy ride to a hotel, but on the way, our lawyer (Svetlana…she met us at the airport), pointed to a building and said, “your baby is there.” What?!? After a year and a half. After all the prayers and tears and all the “I won’t believe it until…” After this surreal journey around the world, you’re telling me that we just casually drove by the building where he lives?

The next day was Thanksgiving, but there were more important things. There were interviews with government officials. We had to be approved by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Orphan Care and Guardianship. The next day would be one to remember forever.

On the day after Thanksgiving, we met Danat Kalievavich Rhakhmatov. They took us to the music room of the orphanage, and brought this nine month old, baby boy to us. He smiled at Sam immediately. My low voice (he had probably never heard a man speak before) startled him, but he just looked at me in his curious way and opened his eyes really wide…and poked me in the nose with his finger. I think we got to see him for five minutes. I don’t mind admitting that we both cried. Once back to the hotel, I made my way down the street to the internet cafe where I crashed the server trying to email pictures. I didn’t care. There were waiting family and friends who HAD to see these pictures. Yes, its true, we wanted to say, see, we’re actually holding him!

This began the two weeks of orphanage visits. Sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. Always interesting. He was usually in good spirits, except for the one day when he was a little sick, but I’ll spare you the details of how we learned that. We even got to see him pull himself up to stand for the first time during one of those visits. We lived for those visits. We spent the rest of the day talking about them, or trying to pass the time by exploring.

And exploring was fun. With two wonderful couples, the Zimmermans from Iowa and the Stewarts from North Carolina, we found cafes, shops, parks, the ice village, etc. We tried out the American food place. We tried Horse Milk. We learned that it was more than ok to eat the chicken sold on the street corner…it was great! We learned that Kazakh police do not give directions. We learned that people were always making fun of us, but what did we care? We bought leather coats at ridiculously low prices…and we talked non-stop about the children we’d be taking home

On December 12, 2003, we had our day in court. We were ushered into a small room. The cast of characters was Sam and I, Svetlana, Lena (her interpreter), a representative from the orphanage, the prosecutor, and the judge. We each had to stand and be questioned by our lawyer and the prosecutor. He was a little tougher on Sam, but it all turned out to be a cultural misunderstanding. Then we sat down and listened as people spoke Russian all around the room. If you’ve ever listened to people speaking Russian, you know it sounds angry. Lena could hardly keep up to tell us everything, so we waited nervously, then the judge looked at us and said something in Russian which Lena translated, “Congratulations, you are parents.” At that moment, little Danat’s name changed to Caleb Ray Davis, and all legal documents were changed to list us as his parents. It was official. As we tell Caleb, its gotcha day because that’s when we got-cha!

Yes, there was more waiting. Another week to actually take him out of the orphanage, and due to a mix up with the good ‘ol US of A, it would be another month before we returned home.

And it’s all remembered as the best trip we ever took. Probably the happiest time of our lives. Among the vivid memories, I remember walking down the concourse of the Memphis airport on January 13. We were tired, but beside ourselves. My wife, who although she had been traveling for 24 hours and had just spent 3 hours in immigration, looked radiant as she proudly carried Caleb. Way down at the end, I could see our families anxiously waiting. I choked back tears and jumped up and down to wave at them. We were home…and we are a family.

So today is our own little holiday…Gotcha Day. We’ll tell this story to Caleb (again). We’ll get out the pictures…which we would show you if you want. We’ll watch the videos…again, we’d love to show you too! We’ll share our favorite memories of Kazakhstan. We’ll make it a day to tell Caleb how happy we were to adopt him.

People always say that he must be so fortunate to come from such a bleak world of the Kazakhstan orphanage into our family. I always think, are you kidding? Sam and I are the fortunate ones!

So, celebrate with us….Happy Gotcha Day!!!

Peace, Love, and Christ,
Aaron

Book Review: Matthew Paul Turner’s Churched

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Churched is Matthew Paul Turner’s memoir of growing up fundamentalist. From the onset there may be some confusion. Much of the world may view Baptists in general as a fundamentalist faith. From that view, Turner’s stories sound like wild hyperbole. They are funny, but perhaps so exaggerated, they have no value. However, among Baptists, there are distinct differences between fundamentalists, conservatives, moderates, liberals, and a ton of other labels. Turner was raised in a sect of Baptist that originates out of Hammond, IN. In regards to that group, he is not exaggerating.

This is not to say that there is no common ground in this book for those with no experience in that group. There is. Some trends seem universal among the more conservative Christian denominations. If nothing else, Turner’s book finds enough common ground to be amusing. In many ways, it is like laughing at embarrassing pictures in the family photo album.

That is what this book does best. It brings to light the ridiculous and embarrassing elements of his past in an amusing way. Turner is particularly good at telling these stories through the eyes of his childhood. He does not just tell us about the Barbie-burning Sunday School teacher, but he relives it through the thoughts of a wide-eyed boy trying to figure it all out.

Unfortunately, Turner does not tell us much more than that. He sums up his post-high school spiritual journey in a very short chapter. He ends with himself as being a struggling, somewhat skeptical, open minded Christian that wants to worship without being afraid. He does not tell us why he still wants to worship at all. He does not tell us how he manages to wade through the problems in church to find something worth keeping. He has thrown out the bathwater, and does not tell us how to save the baby.

To some extent, Churched comes across as whining. After all, if it were not for such odd characters as those in his book, there would probably not be a Christian culture such that authors like Turner can thrive. However, Turner’s accounts are realistic, and as such, point to some real problems. Churches would do well to consider what certain lessons and examples really say to the mind of a child. If anything, Churched is a warning that the end result of childhood in a church may not be what the church intends.

For those who have been raised in a similar type of church, this book will be a very entertaining look at familiar territory. It really works on that level. I laughed out loud through much of it. Perhaps some of Turner’s other books deal with his spiritual journey a bit more. This book left me wanting to hear more about that.

The Little Drummer Boy: EXPOSED!

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The subject of my most hated Christmas song comes up every year. To hate any traditional Christmas song will immediately lead to suspicions that I am the Grinch, I know, but I hate so many songs, that there is bound to be a Christmas song or two.

Knowing full well, that you may suspect that my heart is two sizes two small, I want to discuss The Little Drummer Boy. No, I don’t dislike this song because of its historical inaccuracy. I’ll let that go since we are not actually discussing the theology of the Little Drummer Boy. I generally leave my historical criticisms at “who are all those white guys in the nativity scene?” No, its not the twisting of history that bothers me; its the message. Yes, I hate the message of that song.

If you’ve spent much time in church, you know what a horrible temptation a microphone can be. Every church has at least one person that, if not properly restrained, will desire to serve the Lord with the one gift he has not given them: song. Lack of talent will not stop this person, for it is not the Lord they are after but the wonderful attention that only a microphone brings. How many songs have been butchered? How many wonderful worship moments have been ruined because one person decided that was the time and place for them to belt an off-key rendition of whatever sappy quasi-Christian country song happens to be popular that week? That person, my friends, is the Little Drummer Boy.

I cannot imagine a single woman I know appreciating a small child banging his drum around her newborn baby. Yet, the Little Drummer Boy seems to think it is perfectly acceptable for him to torture the eardrums of Mary, Joseph, some humble shepherds, and the infant Jesus.

Now, some will say that the song is not about that at all. They will plead with me that the Little Drummer Boy plays his drum because it is his talent, his gift. It is all he has to give to Jesus. They will argue that the Little Drummer Boy sets an example for us all by giving his talents to the Lord.

I agree. If that is what the Little Drummer Boy does, then he is setting a fine example. However, that only holds true IF the Little Drummer Boy can actually play the drums. However, if he cannot play the drums; if that is not his gift; then all he is showing is an example of selfish pride. And I submit to you that the Little Drummer Boy is no drummer at all.

Consider for a moment what a drummer does. At the core of his art, the drummer has one function: to keep the time. That is what a drummer does. In fact, a drummer can do nothing else at all if he cannot first keep the time. However, in the song, “The Little Drummer Boy” it clearly states that the “ox and lamb kept time.” If you are depending on the livestock to keep the beat, my friend, you are not a drummer.

The Little Drummer boy has secured his place in Christmas tradition on the basis that he could play the drums; that it is all he could do. In reality, he can’t. He is not a drummer. Playing the drums is not his gift to bring, but his own ego demanding attention. I say its high time we send him off to figure out what he can do and stop that infernal racket!