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Tim Challies

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culture

6 years 1 month ago
I have often heard it said that no subject in history (with the possible exception of Jesus) has received as much attention in the written word as the Second World War. Even today, more than sixty years after it drew to a close, the war continues to fascinate. We still see a constant stream of books, movies and video games drawing upon that worldwide conflict. This makes good sense, I suppose. With countless millions involved in the war in one way or another, and with each person having a story to tell, we will never lack for interesting tales. Like so many others, I never tire of reading these stories.

Escape from the Deep tells the tale of one of the U.S. Navy’s most successful submarines—the Tang. The book was recommended by Dr. Al Mohler in a list he prepared to recommend books for dads and this is where I learned of it. Even in the final months of 1944, the Tang had achieved infamy, having sunk more enemy ships, rescued more downed airmen, and pulled off more daring surface attacks than any other submarine in the Pacific war. But on her fifth patrol, one that took the crew to the Formosa Straight, disaster struck. Near the end of what would have been her most successful patrol yet, the Tang was struck by her own torpedo, killing half of the crew and sinking the submarine in 180 feet of water. Some men were blown clear of the boat and struggled to survive in the water; others went down with the ship and sought to escape from the ocean floor. The handful who survived were captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war facing the brutal conditions of prison camps.

Here is a quote from the book that Dr. Mohler provided in his brief review:

After the last man had exited, he would bang on the trunk—the signal for the escape door to be closed by a lever from inside the torpedo room. Then the seawater would be allowed to drain into the bilges and another four men would take their place in the escape trunk. Unfortunately, because of the Japanese patrol boats above, banging on the trunk placed the men in a terrible double bind. The only way they could communicate with the men waiting their turn was by banging, and yet the sound was bound to give away the Tang’s position to the enemy at some point. It seemed that they were doomed if they didn’t and doomed if they did.

Escape from the Deep is a fast-moving account and one that just about anyone can read and enjoy. With only 220 pages of text and written in a popular style, any reader with even a passing fancy in the Second World War is bound to enjoy it. It comes highly recommended!

6 years 1 month ago

[Please excuse the back-to-back book reviews—I’m trying to clear out a bit of a backlog!]

Though it was weeks ago that I completed reading Why Good People Do Bad Things, it is not until today that I’ve been able to write a review. A book like this presents a challenge to me as a reviewer. After all, my worldview, my entire way of thinking, seems fundamentally opposed to that of the author. Because her assumptions vary so vastly from mine, I hardly know where to begin in thinking fairly about it and in critiquing it in a way that might be helpful. So rather than providing an exhaustive review of this title, allow me to point to just two areas that leaped out at me as I read this book.

First, the book is built upon an assumption and one that, at least to me, seems unfair. We see this assumption already in the book’s title: Why Good People Do Bad Things. The author premises the book on her view that people are innately good but that they occasionally do bad things. But why? Would it not be as fair to ask, “Why Bad People Do Good Things?” Why should we accept one option but not the other? If we look at the millennia of evidence left behind by the human race, I’d suggest we could accrue at least as much evidence that we are a group of bad people who occasionally manage to do something that seems good. To suggest that we are inherently good is presumptuous and, I’m convinced, prideful. There is no small difference between these two options. After all, if we are good people we can believe that we are able to fix ourselves (as, indeed, Ford teaches in this book). But if we take the step of faith necessary to believe that we are bad people, we are prepared to look outside of ourselves for a solution to our badness. If goodness is extrinsic rather than intrinsic, it must change the entire focus of our lives. We will seek one who can save us from our badness.

So this is the first area that stood out to me. The second was a question of authority. Conspicuously absent from this book are any footnotes. Footnotes point us towards authority—it is an author’s means of admitting that he or she must look elsewhere for answers. Yet beyond the occasional mention of a “spiritual guru” Ford offers us no authority other than herself. What she teaches, she backs up only with her own life and her own example. Nowhere does she defer to a greater authority. Can we be satisfied with this, as if she has all the answers and we have none? Or should we seek teachers who can point us towards other and greater sources of authority? Where can one look if he has answers that Debbie Ford cannot answer? Where are the answers to life’s deepest questions to be found?

Whether good people do bad things or bad people do good things is not clear from this book. It is a valuable guide to the life and beliefs of Debbie Ford, but beyond that it offers little guidance, little hope. I’d suggest you seek out a source of greater authority, a source of deeper answers to meaningful questions. And here I’d suggest you try the Bible. There you will find a realistic assessment of the human state and an authority that will change your life.

6 years 1 month ago
In November of 2008 The Soloist will debut on the big screen. Starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Joe Wright (Atonement and Pride & Prejudice) it has the makings of a hit film. Before it was a film, The Soloist was a series of articles written by Steve Lopez for the Los Angeles Times. And between the two it is also a bestselling book. It tells of the unlikely meeting and the even more unlikely friendship between Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers.

Nathaniel Ayers was a prodigy, an African American musician who was accepted to Juliard to play and to study classical bass. During his second year at that school he developed schizophrenia and was quickly unable to function in such a demanding environment. He was forced to drop out. Before long he was broke and homeless, living on the streets. But despite the adversity in his life, his musical talent did not abandon him. Neither did his passion for classical music.

Thirty years later reporter Steve Lopez walked by him as Ayers was standing in Los Angeles’ Skid Row playing a two-string violin. Intrigued by the possibilities of a good story, Ayers wrote about this strange “Violin Man” and was shocked by the reaction these articles received. But as time passed, Ayers became less of a curiosity and more of a friend. Though still inflicted with his illness and exhibiting many of its more pronounced and erratic symptoms, Lopez takes a real interest in his new friend and helps him find permanent lodging, reconnects him to his family and even connects him to the classical music scene in L.A..

The Soloist is a good book and one that is carried along by an intriguing story. While many will find the ending a mite disappointing, it is still worth the journey to get there. The lack of total redemption and recovery at the end of the book, though disappointing, is a mark of the book’s realness. Like so much of life there is a happy ending, to be sure, but not as happy an ending as we may have liked.

(Note: Readers may wish to note that the book includes several occasions where Ayers uses bad language.)

 

6 years 1 month ago
“I tried to get a hold of myself. But again in my mind I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams, night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor. ‘Help me, Marcus! Please help me!’ It was a desperate appeal in the mountains of a foreign land. It was a scream cried out in the echoing high canyons of one of the loneliest places on earth. It was the nearly unrecognizable cry of a mortally wounded creature. And it was a plea I could not answer. I can’t forget it. Because it was made by one of the finest people I ever met, a man who happened to be my best friend.”

In 2005, Marcus Luttrell was part of a four-man mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. A member of the elite Navy SEALs, he was tasked with killing a Taliban leader who had close ties with Osama bin Laden. This small team was hidden outside a village, surveying the area and looking for their target, when a small group of goat herders stumbled upon them. The soldiers quickly detained the two men and the teenage boy and debated what they should do. The most obvious solution and the one that would be most conducive to their mission would be to immediately execute their prisoners. But when the four soldiers put it to a vote, it was determined that they should let these people go. Morality won over personal preservation. But was it morality or fear? “Was I afraid of these guys? No. Was I afraid of their possible buddies in the Taliban? No. Was I afraid of the liberal media back in the U.S.A.? Yes. And I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many, many years in a U.S. civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.” The former prisoners quickly and inevitably reported to the Taliban leaders and the SEALs were soon fighting for their lives. Before long three of the men were dead and the fourth, Luttrell, was running for his life (though not before the Americans killed somewhere around 100 enemy soldiers. Don’t mess with the SEALs!). It was a terrible slaughter, made worse when a helicopter carrying a rescue force was shot down, killing sixteen more Americans.

Lone Survivor tells the story of this mission through the eyes of Luttrell, the only man who lived to tell the tale. The book was released to great acclaim and has become a fixture on the bestseller lists. While the book is in many ways a typical war story (a description of SEAL training camp, tales of combat, lots and lots of bad language and tales of remarkable heroism) it goes beyond the story to share at least a couple of very important statements about warfare today. And this is, I think, where the reader stands to benefit most.

One of this book’s most important statements is that the current rules of engagement soldiers are required to adhere to are irrational and are the product of politicians who are far from the action. “Any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules like a baseball game probably should not get into one. Because nothing’s fair in war, and occasionally the wrong people do get killed.” American soldiers are being forced to fight in situations where they are almost guaranteed to take casualties because of restrictive rules of engagement. These rules may make sense to politicians safely ensconced in their Washington offices, but they are utterly unfair and unsafe on the battlefield. Luttrell states clearly and emphatically that these rules are costing lives and that the United States should not be willing to fight wars that she cannot fight to win.

The other important statement is about the role of the media in modern warfare. Luttrell’s disgust for the media knows no bounds. “It’s been an insidious progression, the criticisms of the U.S. Armed Forces from politicians and from the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of our training, and nothing of the mortal dangers we face out there on the front line.” “I promise you, every insurgent, freedom fighter, and stray gunman in Iraq who we arrested knew the ropes, knew that the way out was to announce that he had been tortured by the Americans, ill treated, or prevented from reading the Koran or eating his breakfast or watching the television. They all knew al-Jazeera, the Arab broadcasters, would pick it up, and it would be relayed to the U.S.A., where the liberal media would joyfully accuse all of us of being murderers or barbarians or something. Those terrorist organizations laugh at the U.S. media, and they know exactly how to use the system against us.” Those of us who have watched recent wars from afar can attest that this is exactly the case. The media, and particularly the liberal media, seems too often to side with the bad guys. Soldiers are fighting brutal warfare, all the while more terrified of their own nation’s press than the guys shooting at them. They hardly know who the real enemy is.

Lone Survivor is an enjoyable book, typical in many of its facets, but atypical in its deeper message. It is a book Americans would do well to read and to consider. (Do be warned, in case you missed it earlier, that Luttrell is a solider and he uses the language of a soldier.)

6 years 2 months ago
It is no secret that Christians have a subculture all of their own. It is an expansive subculture that for some people can encompass almost every area of life. From music to television, movies to sports, Christians can enjoy all manner of entertainment, all of it “blessed” by one Christian organization or another. While the majority of non-Christians are generally unfamiliar with this subculture, I have come across some for whom it presents something of a fascination. They wonder how Christians could have created a subculture that is so huge and yet so unnoticed by the world around. Daniel Radosh, a writer who is a secular liberal, decided to venture into this subculture and to record his journey and his observations. It has recently been published in the form of Rapture Ready.

As he journeys ever-deeper into the Christian subculture, Radosh comes face-to-face with some of its most bizarre manifestations—Bibleman live events where a Christian superhero fights evil villains while quoting Scripture passages; Christian music festivals where bands are judged not by musical talent but by the number of times they pause to pray during a performance; Christian wrestlers who act out ridiculous and violent plots but who have drawn the line of violence at intentional bleeding; skateboarding and extreme sports events sponsored by Christian ministries. Kudos go to the author for the clever chapter titles relating to the theme of each of these chapters: “For their rock is not like our rock” is a chapter on Christian music and “Give me a man and let us fight each other” is a chapter detailing the world of Christian wrestling. All-in-all, the book offers a strange look at a very strange world.

It bears mention that while the Christian subculture is indeed a parallel subculture, it is one that is parallel to many Christians as well. Though I’ve been in a Christian context for my entire life, much of this culture is as foreign to me as it is to the author of this book. But what he finds amusing I find just plain embarrassing. For those of us who have never sat through a performance by Bibleman and who enter Christian bookstores only once in a blue moon, for those of us who would never dream of going to a Christian wrestling show or visiting a Christian theme park, this book represents a world we like to pretend does not exist.

While the book is an amusing read, I was not entirely convinced that it is a particularly valuable read. After all, it takes no great skill to analyze and critique a subculture through the lens of your own. And in this case, it didn’t seem like Radosh offered a whole lot more than that. Seldom did he find much to appreciate in anything but the Christians who were most like him. He found solidarity with the Christian singers who were willing to cuss and affirm homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. He enjoyed spending time with those who represent the very fringe of this subculture, but found little of value in the substance of the Christian faith. If the book has value, then, is as an outside perspective on the often bizarre and too often embarrassing Christian subculture.

Somewhat to my surprise, I quite agreed with most of Brian McLaren’s endorsement of this book, even if it may be just a little bit hyperbolic. “What happens when a secular liberal enters a conservative Christian subculture? Yes, he’s grossed out at times, appalled at least once, amused sometimes, and cussin’ mad at [other times]—and maybe even a little scared on occasion. But in the end, he offers evaluations and insights that might be considered downright prophetic, and compassionate too. No evangelical insider could have done as good a job as Daniel Radosh. He’s a witty, energetic, and insightful writer who grabs your attention and interest on page one and won’t let go until he’s escorted you to a powerful conclusion in the final paragraphs.” I did not find that conclusion so powerful, but I did still enjoy reading the book and would recommend it such that it is. Do note that there are a few occasions where the author uses profanity (and some pretty strong profanity, at that). Taken for what it is, this book is an enjoyable enough read and a bit of a wake up call as to just how weird the Christian subculture can be.

6 years 7 months ago

I have a particular interest in books that seek to give us categories through which we can understand this strange new world that is being built around us through the internet. The sheer pervasiveness of the internet has allowed it to impact our lives so deeply and so profoundly and I’m not sure that many of us really understand this. One person seeking to bring sense to it is David Weinberger, a writer, teacher and marketing consultant. In Everything is Miscellaneous he offers a tour of the new digital disorder that is happening as we move from a physical to a digital world.

As we migrate to the digital world we are suddenly forced to ask how much of the way we learn is dictated not by human nature but by constraints placed upon us by the tyranny of the atom? Will the digitizing of the world’s information we may just find that the way we’ve done some things may be the result more of doing them through physical means. “The physical limitations that silently guide the organization of an office supply store also guide how we organize our businesses, our government, our schools. They have guided—and limited—how we organize knowledge itself. From management structures to encyclopedias, to the courses of study we put our children though, to the way we decide what’s worth believing, we have organized our ideas with principles designed for use in a world limited by the laws of physics.” For “as we invent new principles of organization that make sense in a world of knowledge freed from physical constraints, information doesn’t just want to be free. It wants to be miscellaneous.”

The way we process things that are introduced into our homes neatly summarize the way we handle most types of information: we go through them and then we put them away. We know that disorder leads to inefficiency, so that in order to live efficient lives we will need to bring order to what would otherwise be chaos. And so we sort things and put them in their proper places. We do this with the cutlery in our kitchen drawers and we do this with theology in the great systematic theology volumes on our shelves. Yet this system, seemingly ingrained into us, is not transitioning well to the digital world. Weinberger uses the example of the digital photos that inhabit our computers. Now that we all have digital cameras, many of us snap endless numbers of photos and archive them onto our computers. We end up with large lists of photos—hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of them—with names like DSC00183.jpg. What we do with this is we label the photos and here we see the beauty of the digital world. If we were to print those photos and put them into an album that would then sit on the coffee table, each photo could only be in one place. We could have the photo in the section called “Vacation 2006” but not in the section called “Kids.” A physical object can be in only one place at a time. But in the digital world we can tag things as many ways as we want. A single photo does not need to be in one place but can be in as many places as we want it.

Weinberger describes three orders of order: in the first, we organize things themselves, putting spoons into drawers and photos into albums. Imagine a library in which all of the 10,000 books are arranged with no real semblance of order. Simply by collecting them we have entered into this order. In the second order of order, we create information about the objects (known as metadata, or information about information), perhaps listing them in an index or in a catalog. So now imagine a library with the books stamped with a Dewey number and a card catalog listing all of the books alphabetically by author. You are now in the second order or order. These first two orders arrange atoms and necessarily take up space. In the third order of order we digitize information, taking them from physical space into the digital world. By doing this we remove the limitations imposed by physics. So now we digitize the book, turning it into a file and storing it on a computer, and we digitize the card catalog so it is now searchable through a database. We’re now in the third order of order. Suddenly we can search so much better and so much deeper. We do not have available to us only eight or ten items of information and do not have to rely on an alphabetically-ordered catalog. Suddenly we can search an entire text by a near-infinite number of criteria.

Weinberger says “third-order practices undermine some of our most deeply ingrained ways of thinking about the world and our knowledge of it.” How? Well, consider medical information. Not too long ago, when we needed medical information, we went to our doctors for a diagnosis and then depended upon their advice for treatment. Today we do more: we head online and look for our symptoms. Even after being diagnosed by a doctor we may consult with others who have similar symptoms or look at forums and blogs dedicated to people suffering from the same affliction. In the second-order world we were dependent on experts so they could sift through the information and put it away for us. Today we can bypass this second order and head straight into the miscellaneous on our own. “It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and—perhaps more important—who we think has the authority to tell us so.”

And this is where the book intersected with my particular interest. What does it mean for the world and the church that the traditional patterns of authority have been eroded? If this book is all about what happens when we liberate knowledge from the tyranny of the atom, how are Christians, people of the Book, to react? What do we have to gain? What might we lose?

The author provides hints at ways to think about these things, though obviously specific answers are outside the scope of the book. Everything is Miscellaneous is really quite a good book and a good guide to how information is processed in our new, wired age. It’s far from the only attempt at understanding, but it’s definitely one of the most compelling. I recommend it.

6 years 7 months ago
Where have all the grown-ups gone? It’s a question that has perplexed me. Why is it that young people these days seem unwilling, or perhaps unable, to grow up? What is so attractive about youth, about perpetual adolescence, that is so attractive? My wife and I have discussed these things at length, trying to understand why so many of the young people we know (young people who are really not so young anymore) seem stuck. They are working on second or third college degrees; they are living at home with mom and dad, even into their thirties; they are looking at marriage only in their late twenties or early thirties. What is happening? When I was young I could hardly wait to pass through my teenage years so I could live life as an adult and in so doing I think I followed generations before me. What has happened since?

Diana West has asked the same questions and The Death of the Grown-Up is her attempt at an answer. A book that has generated no small response, it concludes that America is suffering from a case of arrested development and that this will, this must, bring down Western civilization. This is no small claim. Neither is it a popular one (as evidenced by a near 50/50 split in Amazon reviews between 1-star and 5-star reviews). But it is one West manages to legitimize.

It seems that one of the driving forces behind the death of the grown-up was the rise of the teenager. Before the 1940’s, the term teenager was unknown; before this period humans tended to fall into only two groups—children and adults. Exactly when a child transitioned to adult could vary, but what was clear was that there was no intermediate period. Furthermore, children, or those in their teen years, would seek to identify with adult culture—they would seek to behave like adults, to dress like adults, and to be taken seriously like adults. Today the tables have turned. “That was then. These days, of course, father and son dress more or less alike, from message-emblazoned t-shirts to chunky athletic shoes, both equally at ease in the baggy rumple of eternal summer camp. In the mature male, these trappings of adolescence have become more than a matter of comfort or style; they reveal a state of mind, a reflection of a personality that hasn’t fully developed, and doesn’t want to - or worse, doesn’t know how.”

It is teenagers who are respected and teenagers who are envied. Adults now seek to recapture youth and to return to their teen years. They dress like teens, think like teens and increasingly act like teens. This intermediate period between childhood and adulthood, this recent development, is being continually extended. Some organizations today go so far as to suggest that adolescence continues until age thirty. Some go further and suggest thirty-four. Thus a thirty-three year old man or woman should not truly be considered an adult. Any other generation would laugh at the mere suggestion.

After the idea of adolesence became popular, it took only a generation before popular culture, and particularly the medium of television, began to portray age as “square” and youth as “hip.” The dignity of age was replaced with disgust. Where children used to orbit around their parents, today the opposite is true. Parents orbit around their children, “abdicating their rights and privileges by deferring to the convenience and entertainment of the young.” No wonder, then, that people wish to avoid adulthood.

There are consequences to our disregard for maturity. “Even as age has been eliminated from the aging process, they have a hunch that society has stamped out more than gray hair, smile lines, and cellulite. What has also disappeared is an appreciation for what goes along with maturity: forebearance and honor, patience and responsibility, perspective and wisdom, sobriety, decorum, and manners—and the wisdom to know what is ‘appropriate,’ and when.”

Having laid a foundation for the death of the grown-up, West surveys a variety of topics, showing how they are contributing to the downfall of society or how they played a role in the rise of the adolescent. She looks to popular music and entertainment, to parents who need parents, and to a society that values excess rather than control. And then the book takes an unexpected turn. As she moves from the past to the future, West suggests why this matters so much; she turns to the consequences of the death of adulthood and the death of maturity. Focusing on the ideas of multiculturalism and political correctness, cultural forces she believes could only be accepted by an immature society that is willing to pretend that differences are non-existent and unimportant, she suggests that these leave us entirely unequipped to deal with the forces seeking to destroy us. And here she points primary to Islam and to terrorism. She writes about how our immature thinking leaves us unable to grapple with the reality of what we are facing in global Islam. Our society sits passively by, anaesthetized with movies, music, television and video games, while Islam plants deeper and deeper roots within.

The Death of the Grown-Up is a compelling book. While it is certainly not the only book examining the growth of adolescence, it is perhaps the most far-reaching and the most courageous in its analysis of where this will and must lead. If West is correct, our society needs to grow up and needs to do so before it is too late. Yet whether or not you find you agree with her prescription, only a person blind to the culture could disagree with her initial analysis. And on this basis alone this book is worth reading and enjoying. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in understanding the culture we find ourselves in.

6 years 9 months ago
David Robertson, a Free Church of Scotland pastor who lives in Dundee, wanted there to be an intelligent Christian response to Richard Dawkins’ bestselling The God Delusion. To that end he wrote an open letter to Richard Dawkins and subsequently posted it on his church’s web site. The letter somehow found its way to Dawkins who posted it on his own website where it generated a response that was massive in scope and in passion. According to the back of The Dawkins Letters, “The ferocity, and shallowness of thinking, of some of the responses spurred David to write further letters, which form the basis of this book. They explain a credible basis for faith that counteracts the ‘atheist myths’ that so much popular discussion is based upon.”

The Dawkins Letters, then, is a series of letters from Robertson to Dawkins—a series of ten letters that call Dawkins to account for the errors and inaccuracies within his book. It also responds to his arguments—both his novel new ones and the tired rehashed ones common to a whole generation of atheists. Generally speaking, Robertson does a superior job of doing this. He says in his Introduction that he will no doubt be criticized by some for being too harsh and by others for being too gentle; some will say that this is an in appropriate forum for attempts at humor and others will simply miss the humor altogether. But, says Robertson, “It will be helpful to remember that these are personal letters, not an academic discourse, not an exercise in English grammar.” In order to make this a personal rebuttal and in order to reach a wide audience, he has decided not to make this an academic treatise, though I’m sure he would have been capable of doing so.

The book does a particularly good job of point out the unending contradictions between what Dawkins wants to believe and what he must actually believe on the basis of his atheistic beliefs. After all, most atheists stop far short of following their beliefs to fair conclusions. Robertson calls them on this time and time again.

I had very few notable concerns with the book. Robertson perhaps cedes a little too much to theistic evolution, intelligent design, or old earth creationism. He does not state his position on the age of the earth and the way life came about, but neither does he deny the validity of any of the possibilities. I was a little disappointed in this. But beyond that I found little that I objected to. I thought he did as good a job of anyone of interacting with atheistic arguments and of challenging atheists to understand the contradictions inherent in their worldview. Anyone who has read The God Delusion would do well to follow it with this intelligent, measured, respectful response.

7 years 1 day ago
In 2000, when she was only twenty-three, Wendy Shalit published A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, a book in which she argued that the sexual revolution may not have been entirely beneficial for women. She decried the lack of modesty this revolution has brought about and, according to TIME defended “compellingly, shame, privacy, gallantry, and sexual reticence.” Of course many people, and feminists in particular, were disgusted with the book and ruthlessly mocked her.

In her second book, Girls Gone Mild, she writes about a new trend she has discovered in speaking to thousands of girls and young women in the aftermath of the publication of A Return to Modesty. She draws upon over 100 in-depth interviews and thousands of email exchanges with women from ages twelve to twenty eight, representing diverse racial, religious and economic backgrounds. Some identify as Christians or Jewish, liberals or conservatives, feminists or not. The one thread tying all of these together is a desperation to find new and better role models. Shalit says the book is “about my search for an alternative to our Girls Gone Wild culture. It’s about finding a way to acknowledge sexuality without having to share it with strangers. It’s about rediscovering our capacity for innocence, for wonder, and for being touched profoundly by others.”

Shalit opens by discussing Bratz, those Barbie-like dolls that look “hotter than hot,” appearing overtly sexual in slinky clothes. Marketed to pre-teen girls, these dolls encourage even the youngest girls to see themselves as sexual creatures who can use their sexuality to attract others. In a Bratz book even the youngest girls are asked to fill in the blanks: “When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I’ll put on _________.” “These days, the way dolls are dressed,” Shalit says, comparing Bratz to a beloved Cabbage Patch Doll from her youth, “the question is not so much ‘Is my dolly real?’ as ‘How much does she charge per hour?’” From Bratz and the countless similar products, whether sexy dolls or t-shirts sold to infants emblazoned with sexy slogans or thong underwear for six year olds, we see that being a child is no longer a valid excuse not to be sexualized. And further to this, being publicly sexual has become the most, and possibly the only, acceptable way for girls to express maturity. Thankfully a rebellion is underway, and one that may even represent the dawning of a fourth wave of the feminist movement. This rebellion, girls and young women rising against the sultry status quo, is a reaction to the over-sexualization of nearly everything. The rebellion is the theme of the book. It shares equally the despair of the status quo and the hope for a better future.

Our culture has some things backward. Where it was once the “bad girl” who stood out from the crowd and who was known for her reputation, today the bad girl is the new normal, the new expectation. The “good girls,” on the other hand, the ones who refuse to engage in sexual behavior and the ones who refuse to flaunt their bodies, are the ones who face rejection from their peers and, tragically, even from adults. Young people need to be and to act bad just to fit in. And this is exactly what they do. “Consider how girls today need to be thin, available, and always sexy. At the same time they are supposed to have no hopes, no messy feelings, no vulnerability. They must be aggressive, yet somehow inviting. It’s complicated, and to rebel against the new bad-girl script takes enormous confidence.” But it can be done. Unfortunately it needs to be done with few role models to serve as guides or mentors. Where a group of girls is rising and extolling the benefits of chastity and more traditionally feminine behavior, it is adults who are criticizing this movement and attempting to keep it from gaining ground. Many young people are tiring of the game and are tired of experiencing the consequences of bad girl behavior, but adults continue to push them into it.

Shalit thinks this movement towards chastity, towards feminine virtue, would be far greater and far more powerful were it not for the repression girls experience because of the new normal. Many women stifle their desires for more chaste lifestyles simply because society teaches that casual sex is good and wonderful and healthy. Further, society teaches that it is the weak who delay sex while the strong, those who are uncomfortable with their sexuality, are the ones who hold out. Similarly, the ones who are comfortable with their bodies are glad to exhibit their nakedness in public while only those who are ashamed of their bodies keep them covered.

The book has many stories of hope. The author writes, for example, about “Pure Fashion Divas,” girls who hold fashion shows exhibiting clothing that is trendy but not exhibitionist. The way people dress, after all, makes a powerful statement. “Dress can turn a young woman, unwittingly, into walking entertainment for men, or it can do the opposite, and cause people to focus on her internal qualities.” A statement that seems shocking only for how old-fashioned it sounds today. Shalit is correct when she shows that today’s bad girl is really just a girl who is prone to please others. An overwhelming desire to conform to other people’s expectations leads them to surrender their dignity and their sexuality. The costs are high. I was intrigued by a chapter called “Excuse Me, Ma’am, Have You Seen My Friends?” Here Shalit argues that women are fast losing their ability to maintain strong, meaningful friendships. Women today enjoy fewer same-sex friendships because adultery and competition for men is now normal. Women no longer trust other women; they no longer understand what it is to be happy for someone else and to rejoice with those who rejoice. Their relationships are strangled by a sexualized, competitive spirit. Ironically, the liberated woman is increasingly a woman who is alone. The consequences of the new bad girl behavior eventually isolate women from even each other.

I think I can be excused for often thinking, while reading this book, “Isn’t this what the Bible has been saying all along?” Shalit is Jewish and conservative in her belief and practice of her faith. And, in fact, faith is a theme throughout the book as Shalit often turns to the Old Testament or to Jewish tradition to show how Scripture provides wisdom that is applicable to this topic. Many of the examples of young women who fight the status quo are Christian girls, fed up with the sexually-charged atmosphere around them. The Bible has been telling us all along that God has created men to be men and women to be women. Men and women are equal in value and worth but separate in function. The feminist movement has been pushing women, exhorting them to become more like men. But this book shows, as have many Christian authors in recent years, that true liberation comes not from pushing aside feminine distinctives but by rediscovering, embracing and celebrating them. What makes this book distinctive, at least among the similar titles I’ve read, is that it comes from outside the Christian publishing industry. It ties in nicely with titles like Unhooked, Female Chauvinist Pigs and others. It has already been widely reviewed and is sure to generate a great deal of discussion. If Shalit’s first book is any indication, it will generate anger, bitterness and outrage. Yet hopefully it will also give young women at least a few role models—pure fashion divas, girls who refuse to give it all away, and perhaps the author herself—who can be role models to a new generation of girls gone mild.

Somewhat ironically, I wrote this review while spending time with my family at the beach. If we are in the midst of a trend towards modesty, I don’t think there is much evidence of it here. My wife and I conferred and agreed that swimwear does not seem to be showing much in the way of modesty. Yet I do believe that Shalit’s thesis is right. Girls are increasingly fed up with the way they’ve been told to act. They are the ones who bear the consequences for their behavior and they are the ones who are beginning to agree that enough is enough. As the father of two girls I hope and pray that this movement lives through its infancy and makes an appreciable impact. Few things would be healthier for society than to rediscover some semblance of femininity as defined by the One who created women to be women.

I found Girls Gone Mild a fascinating read and am glad to recommend it to others.

7 years 4 weeks ago
I really don’t understand Anne Lamott’s appeal. I’ll grant that she is a talented writer but clearly this, in an of itself, cannot explain it. I suppose a good bit of her appeal probably stems from her gut-honest authenticity, her willingness to say exactly what she’s thinking all the time. She’s profound, she’s profane, she’s shocking and people seem to love her for it.

Her latest nonfiction book (she has also authored several novels) is entitled Grace (Eventually) and it is a series of essays. As such it is somewhat disjointed with incomprehensible section names and odd chapter titles. There is little cohesion. If there are common themes they revolve around some kind of faith in Jesus, the trials of being a single parent, the difficulties that come with life, and an overwhelming hatred of George W. Bush (along with various members of his administration) and everything he has done as President. I haven’t done a word count, but I suspect the name Bush appears significantly more times than the name God (unless, perhaps, we also count the times she uses God’s name in a profane way; that would even things up some.). The essays recount episode after episode where Lamott was depressed or angry or belligerent or foul-mouthed or, in many cases, all of the above. It’s exactly as depressing as it sounds.

This excerpt, drawn from the beginning of a chapter, is quite typical of the book’s content:

I woke up in a bleak place on Sunday. It was not the place of ashes, like the morning after the 2004 Presidential election, but there was no comfort anywhere. It was miserably hot, and the news couldn’t be worse—a new crop of mutilations in Iraq, with 2,500 U.S. soldiers now dead, and a North Korean ICBM apparently pointed at the West Coast. Two of my dearest friends had terrible diseases. There was a nasty separation going on in our family, and a small distraught child. Also, my son had not obeyed his curfew and we had had words at two a.m.

In the face of all this, I did the most astonishing thing a person can do: I got out of bed. At least I could still walk. A better person would think, Thank you, Jesus. But I thought, God do my feet hurt. God, am I getting old. Then I had some coffee, to level the playing field of me and my mind, as it had had several cups while I slept, and now if felt like talking.

Then I headed to church.

And it was not good.

Lamott has proven to have wide appeal, writing for Salon, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of other periodicals. It should be exciting to see a professed Christian writing for what is clearly a largely secular audience. Sadly, though, the spiritual insights shared by Lamott are more shocking or embarrassing than exciting and inspiring. Here is a smattering of what the reader will discover:

  • On Jesus: “You’ve got to wonder what Jesus was like at seventeen. They don’t even talk about it in the Bible, he was apparently so awful.”
  • On abortion: “I wanted to express calmly and eloquently, that people who are pro-choice understand that there are two lives involved in an abortion—one born (the pregnant woman) and one not (the fetus)—and that the born person must be allowed to decide what is right: whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term and launch another life into circulation.” “Then I said that a woman’s right to choose was nobody else’s goddamn business. That got their attention.” “We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.”
  • On euthanasia: “Mel was somewhat surprised that as a Christian I so staunchly agreed with him about assisted suicide: I believe that life is a kind of Earth School, so even though assisted suicide means you’re getting out early, before the term ends, you’re going to be leaving anyway, so who says it isn’t okay to take an incomplete in the course?” In the chapter “At Death’s Window” she eloquently describes assisting her friend in taking his own life by overdosing on barbiturates.

As we’ve come to expect from Lamott, there is a handful (or two) of uses of profanity spread throughout the book (using the name of God casually, several uses of language of the four-letter variety, and so on). Of course the book is not without its interesting insights. Readers will be able to identify with many of the difficulties Lamott has faced. They will laugh at some of her reactions to the situations she has encountered; they will roll their eyes at the same things that frustrate her. There are some notable quotes like this one: “A good marriage is supposed to be one where each spouse secretly thinks he or she got the better deal.” But when it comes to spiritual content that is distinctly biblical and profoundly Christian, well, there is not much at all. Lamott seems to embrace a very wide faith that extends far beyond the bounds of Scripture. She celebrates things the Bible forbids and hates things the Bible commands us to love. Her self-loathing is so prominent it is easy to wonder if it isn’t simply narcissism weakly disguised. In fact, with a fair bit of faith talk, but very little that is distinctly Christian, I suppose it is not difficult to understand why this book has wide appeal outside the church. I hope Christian readers are discerning enough to ensure it has little appeal within.

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