Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not Really So Simple


Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples
by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger

Once again, I must apologize for my gap between posts. Ordinarily I like to post every couple of days, but it was a crazy busy weekend at work, and now G. has come down with strep throat AGAIN! For those who are keeping track, this is the third time in about seven weeks, with a bout of pneumonia thrown in around his birthday just to keep things interesting. Poor little guy. He is usually so cheerful, it is heartbreaking to see him point to his throat and say "OWIE!" He is now on yet another antibiotic, so hopefully will be feeling better soon.

Frankly, this book left me absolutely cold. For one thing, it's language is much more evangelical than my taste, but I usually can get past that if the writer has something interesting to say. The book also is poorly written. If another sentence began with "According to our research..." or "We asked the vibrant and comparison church leaders to evaluate..." I thought I would scream.

It's not to say that these guys do not have some good ideas. I agree with them that faith communities thrive best when the relationships are strong among the members and when they are committed as a group to learning more about how we are called to relate to God and each other. However, they claim to want to strip church life down to its barest essentials. Having served in churches in the past that were over programmed, I certainly see the value in doing fewer things better rather than trying to provide a program for every perceived need that comes along. However, Rainer and Geiger claim that their research shows that "growing" churches commit to a certain process from which they will not deviate. Everything in the life of the church is evaluated according to how well it fits in with their process. Sounds to me like the church leaders are going to spend so much time evaluating and tinkering with their process and "moving" people through the process that they are going to have little time for the relationships that they claim are so important.

I think one thing that I am reacting to is that any cookie cutter formula for being the church bugs me. So much emphasis on "process" and "evaluation" and "paradigm" a) makes me yawn and b) leaves little room for the work of the Holy Spirit. Plus I just do not think there is any one way to be a faith community. I am the first to admit that I am not a terribly strategic thinker - I tend to follow instincts more than process, so it could be that this way of thinking about church leadership makes me feel defensive. Having said that, though, with Rainer and Geiger focusing so much on moving people through a process of discipleship, it seems that we are trying to force them along, getting them to conform as quickly as possible to our agenda, rather than journeying with them as they experience Christ in their own lives.

One of my favorite ways of describing the faith journey is that each of us (and creation as a whole) is a "work in progress," moving forward and sometimes backward as we muddle through trying to become the people God has created us to be. Rainer and Geiger seem to think that people reach a phase where they are done, they have moved through all the steps and are now disciples. That just does not make any sense to me. I am not questioning the results of their research, as it sounds very methodical and well thought out. I would just raise the possibility that those churches that are growing are doing so as a result of something else about their spirit or way of relating to one another or their commitment. Being "simple churches" may make it easier to develop these other aspects of the community, but I doubt that the simplicity in itself is the primary attraction for people.

Agree? Disagree? Thoughts?

Reverent Reader

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sighs Matters


Bridge of Sighs
by Richard Russo

Richard Russo is just an awesome writer. I have read most of his work and have loved all but one. His first novel, Mohawk, written in 1986, is ok but not up to the level of his others. Straight Man is a favorite - absolutely hilarious. Bridge of Sighs does not have the dead on humor of some of Russo's other books, but it is a beautiful story beautifully written. Like most of Russo's novels, this one is set in upstate New York and deals with the hopes, dreams, and struggles of working class people.

At the deeper level, Bridge of Sighs is about the difference between those who believe that all people are fundamentally good and those who believe that everyone (even people who seem good) is a scuzball in disguise. This difference in outlook has major impact on the rest of the choices we make in how we relate to people and how we live our lives. Two of the major male characters ("Big Lou" Lynch and his son, also named Lou) frustrate their wives because they are so kind hearted (and some would say simpleminded) that they get taken advantage of. They are also basically optimistic people, even when they are given very little reason to be.

There are so many other themes in play in this big fat story - racial tensions, father/son relationships, mother/daughter relationships, friendships between boys, adolescent angst, class warfare, academic freedom, domestic violence, frustrated aspirations, marital communication (do we always tell the "whole truth?") and artistic expression are just a few that come to mind. Each of these themes could be a whole post in itself - that is how packed and moving this novel is.

In spite of the numerous and heavy subject matters, the story does not drag. The larger themes are wrapped around daily domesticity and everyday life in a way that Russo makes look easy, but is impossible for most writers. The characters are so well depicted that they seem like real people and we hate to say good-bye to them when the book ends. One great strength of the book is its ending - Russo leaves us feeling that it is never to late for us to grow, that if we continue to stretch ourselves there will always be new things to discover, even in the mundane areas of life that we so often take for granted.

Bridge of Sighs is a book for anyone who has ever wondered about the road not traveled, wondered if we should have regrets about options that we rejected or choices that we avoided. Although not specifically about faith, Bridge of Sighs restores our faith in the truth that grace is present in all our circumstances. We need only look carefully to find it.

I hope many, many people will read Bridge of Sighs. It is a wonderful book that will leave the reader appreciating family, home, and the wisdom that we accumulate over time.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In Memoriam


Dorothy Toner McClung

This is normally a blog about what I am reading, but I feel compelled today to pay tribute to someone who helped me see the place of reading and writing in having a full life that is intellectually and spiritually vibrant.

I learned last night that Dorothy McClung died a few days ago at her home of complications from Alzheimer's disease. She was 86 years old. Thirty-three years ago she was my second grade teacher. Many teachers, from elementary school through graduate school, have had a major impact on me, but Mrs. McClung was the first. She gave me ideas for books to read, and recommended the first chapter books that I tried. She nudged me to read "Little House on the Prairie," and after that I was off and running. She also encouraged me to write my own stories and put my thoughts into words. I still remember the special little book that she made for me - it had that paper in it that has lines on the bottom half and is blank on the top half so you can draw pictures to accompany your story. I felt like she believed I could write something really important.

As is often the case in small towns, Mrs. McClung continued to be a presence in our lives. She and her husband lived across the alley from us until we moved a few miles away when my sister and I were 12. Mrs. McClung brought chicken salad the day our parents brought our baby brother home from the hospital. She and her husband bought numerous raffle tickets, magazine subscriptions, and candy bars and all the other crazy stuff that school kids sell to make money for their various activities. Even when I was in high school, she would send me a note once in awhile saying she was proud of me. She kept on teaching me long after that 1974-75 school year was over.

Mrs. McClung was a gifted artist in her own right - a wonderful drawer and painter - but I will remember her primarily as a teacher. She did what every teacher should do - treated me like I was an intelligent person whose ideas mattered. There is no way to even guess how many people she influenced, but I know of one for sure.

Rest in peace, Mrs. McClung. You made a difference. I know that God has welcomed you and said "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Reverent Reader

Friday, April 18, 2008

Just in Case You're Looking...


Stories Jesus Told
by Mark Littleton
illustrations by Traci Monroney

It's always a relief when something that is lost is found (aren't there a couple of parables about that?). This book is a favorite of G.'s right now - the interpretation of the biblical parables is a little too fundamentalist for my taste, but G. really likes it because it has all those little flaps to lift up and look at things underneath. He spends a lot of time entertaining himself with them - legs outstretched, book on lap, brow furrowed on concentration. He also makes the noise of each of the animals pictured in the book. Adorable.

A few days ago G. could not find this book, and he wanted to take it to daycare. We were all looking frantically for it, with G. running around saying with his usual urgency and exuberance "FIND! JESUS!" Eventually the book turned up, in a very logical, close-by place. It was stuck between the bookshelf and the bed, in S.'s room. G. was ecstatic, especially since he was the one who found it. He clutched the book to his chest and went marching through the house with a big smile on his face. The sentence changed to "I FIND! JESUS!"

If only it were that simple. Maybe for a two-year-old it is. I hope that in some way each of you finds Jesus today, just a few inches away.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Who Is the "We?"


The Member of the Wedding
by Carson McCullers

The other potential title for this post was "I would not go back to being 12 years old for any amount of money." Adolescence is just painful, which Carson McCullers seems to totally "get." She especially gets how it is for girls. If you have read McCullers' masterpiece The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, you will remember the character of Mick Kelley. Frankie Addams, the protagonist of The Member of the Wedding, reminded me a lot of Mick. They both have a restlessness and an unslaked thirst for connection with other people that McCullers is able to articulate in a wrenching way.

Frankie is a motherless child whose father seems to be without a clue as to how to relate to her or what her needs might be. He is not mean or malicious, just distant. Frankie is all too aware of the truth that even though she lives under the same roof as her father and is looked after by Berenice, the family cook, she is essentially alone in the world. This truth that we can occupy space with other people yet still be terribly isolated inside is one of the hardest things to face in life. Carson McCullers, in the character of Frankie, expresses the yearning for contact and the longing to be heard and honored that I think all of us (if we are honest) experience at some point along the way.

In an understandable if misguided way Frankie latches on to the idea that her older brother and his new bride will take her to live with them, that the three of them will be a family unit. She expresses to herself "They are the we of me." Those few poignant words sum up what she is so desperately seeking. Don't we all need to have a "we"? As I made effort to express in a sermon I recently wrote, when the church (or any faith community) is at its best, we can be the "we" for each other, providing an anchor for people and a place to share the inevitable sorrows and punctuating joys of life, a place where we can help each other grow into the people God is calling us to be. We can be the "we" for people outside our walls who are utterly alone. When we fail to be the "we" for each other, and when we fail to recognize that we are called to see all of humanity as a "we" (as opposed to "us" and "them"), IMHO not much else matters. Not programs. Not great music. Not activities. Not even sermons. Those are all important things that add to our life together, but until we become the "We" the purpose of all the rest is lost.

We are a work in progress, working toward the "WE." (As opposed to the Wii, although they are very cool and I'll probably break down and get one for E. and the boys when they are older).

So, does anyone else out there like Carson McCullers? If so, what is your favorite? I have only read the two I have mentioned in this post, but plan to work through all her writings eventually. I have heard that the novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is wonderful.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A New Twist on a Familiar Tale



Reading Judas:
The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity
by Elaine Pagels and Karen King

History is written by the ones who win. That is essentially what Pagels and King are getting at, and it is worth remembering. Pagels and King are both world-renowned scholars who have spent a tremendous amount of time translating and analyzing the Gospel of Judas, which was uncovered in Middle Egypt sometime in the 1970s, but only was made available to scholars much more recently.

Judas forces us to confront assumptions that we have internalized for centuries and at least consider other possibilities for how things might have unfolded during Jesus' life and in the early days of the church. We have made Judas the scapegoat of the crucifixion story, but Judas (both the actual text and Pagel's and King's analysis) suggests that Judas was not the bad guy at all. In fact, he was the only one who really "got it." Judas shows a relationship between Jesus and Judas wherein Judas was Jesus' most trusted confidant. Jesus imparted the "secrets of the kingdom" to Judas, because he was the only one who was spiritual and sophisticated enough to understand them. In this scenario, Judas's betrayal of Jesus is seen as an act of courage, the tipping point after which the rest of the drama unfolds.

Pagels and King acknowledge that the Gospel of Judas must have been written by someone who was feeling very defensive and angry. The text itself definitely has an edge - probably because the writer was not part of mainstream faith or society. One idea of the day that the writer was questioning was martyrdom - the conventional wisdom that Christians should hope to be martyred and even seek it out, because to die for one's faith is to glorify God. The writer of Judas raises the legitimate question "What kind of God wants torture and death for his/her people?" While acknowledging that Christianity's position in society was tenuous at best, and that martyrdom would occur for some unfortunate people, Judas takes the position that martyrdom was not something to be sought after or hoped for.

The writing in Reading Judas is not electrifying, but the book is worth reading for the different perspective that it adds to the biblical narrative. Pagels and King remind us that even the process of developing the canon was undertaken by those who were in power at the time. The books that made it into the Bible as we know it now were the ones that seemed appropriate to Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other 2nd-century church leaders. Pagels and King do not advocate re-opening the question of what writings should be included in the canon, but they make a persuasive case for reading Judas and other non-canonical writings ( such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Truth, and The Apocalypse of Peter) now. The more we can learn about the divisions and disagreements of that time, the more we can understand who we are as Christians today and how we came to this point.

Reverent Reader

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Center Holds?


The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
by Jeffrey Toobin

My husband E. encouraged me to read this - he is a Supreme Court buff and knows a lot about the Court's history and the personalities and judicial philosophies of the different justices. This is a really informative and entertaining book. Toobin traces the history of the Court's major decisions, starting approximately with Roe v. Wade in the early 1970s. Of course, his narrative sometimes goes back in time further than Roe, because he is careful to give the background and precedents of the more recent decisions.

There was one difference among the justices' philosophies that struck me as having a parallel with Christian theology and biblical interpretation. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (and previously William Rehnquist) are part of a judicial philosophy knows as "strict constructionism" or "originalism." More recently appointed Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito seem to lean this way as well. Originalism means that the judge only considers what he or she believes to be the original intent of the framers when trying to determine if a law is constitutional. This originalism stands in contrast to Justices Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter (and formerly William Brennan and Harry Blackmun), who also take into consideration the culture and the way ideas change over time. This difference is at the heart of many of the split decisions on the Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was really at the ideological center of the Court for many years. Since her retirement, that place has been somewhat taken by Justice Anthony Kennedy, although he sides with the originalists more often than not.

I could not help but think about the ongoing controversy between Christians and other people of faith over the interpretation of sacred texts. Those conflicts come down to a similar dilemma - do we take the Bible literally, word for word, assuming that every word of it is exactly as God intended it to be? Or do we take into consideration the fact that the Bible was written by fallible men and assume that it must constantly be reexamined if we are to grasp what its message is for us today? Those of you who know me know that I personally fall into the latter camp, but I do not question the sincerity of those who disagree. Most of the most vicious arguments among Christians today boil down to scriptural authority and biblical interpretation.

As always, the truth very likely lies somewhere in between the extremes of either side of an issue. As I read The Nine, my admiration for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor increased a lot. She seemed to make a genuine effort to find the middle ground on contentious issues and seek ways to be fair to everyone. Even when I did not agree with her rulings, I can understand now that she really tried to make sure everyone got a fair hearing and that every one's voice was heard and considered. Whenever possible, she tried to find a solution where both parties got something (unless one party was a total dirtbag and clearly in the wrong). She had an amazing ability to sense the tenor of American culture - what we could and could not tolerate. I wish those of us who get weary of ongoing conflict in our beloved PCUSA could find a way to meet in the middle in such a way. O'Connor was able to preserve the equilibrium on the Court for many years.

With O'Connor's retirement, the Court lost a moderating voice and vote. I hope another center will emerge in the near future, or much of the precedent of the last three decades could get chucked out the window.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

May the Circle Be Unbroken


Kitchen-Table Giving
by Julie Polter
Sojourners Magazine
April 2008

Philanthropy does not always have to be zillionaires bestowing a few million dollars on some worthy cause (although it is wonderful when that happens). Julie Polter's article in Sojourners points us to a way that all people, even people of limited and low income, can pool their resources for the common good. "Giving circles" are not new (the earliest were formed in the 1780s by African-Americans), but they are gaining in membership and influence. This is especially true for people who have not usually been able to participate in traditional, established philanthropic endeavors - women, people of color, young people, and people with limited disposable income.

In this cooperative form of philanthropy, a group of people puts their money together, educates themselves about community needs and potential recipients, and gives grants. Polter's article describes the process as "people giving to their community, in community." Some groups have dozens of members, others only a few. My favorite description was of a group that holds potluck dinners four times a year, and each woman brings as much money to the dinner as she feels able to contribute to the fund. The group has a system in between their face-to-face meetings through which they evaluate applications and give grants of $500 or less to women with short-term emergency needs.

This reminds me of "investment clubs," which were popular a few years ago (and probably still are, I am just not hearing as much about them), but instead of increasing the wealth of the members the purpose is to lift up the community as a whole. I am intrigued by the idea of giving circles, and their potential to have a positive impact on the lives of people who are struggling. I do not have the time to lead or administer one at this point in my life, but am wondering about finding one in which to participate. Sounds like a great way to help the community and also meet interesting people with similar concerns.

Anyone out there have any experience with a giving circle? I'd love to hear about it. Polter's article includes a couple of websites that I intend to check out - http://www.givingforum.org/ and http://www.givingcircles.org/

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Just Do It


Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather

Now that I have read two Willa Cather novels, I can officially be designated a fan (so saith Reverent Reader). This is a beautifully written book, and I enjoyed it. However, it did not draw me in quite as much as The Song of the Lark, which I read and posted about earlier this year (see January 24, 2008). I think one reason for that is that Death Comes for the Archbishop feels more like a collection of interrelated short stories than a single narrative strand. It was not until near the end that the various characters and story lines seemed to coalesce. It also was hard to get a sense of the sheer perseverance of Fathers Latour and Vaillant, of the drudgery of their days and the routines of their lives, because the book focuses mostly on their travels in the southwestern United States and the more dramatic episodes of their ministries. Cather seems to prefer 3rd person narrative to any other, and description over dialogue (at least in this particular novel), so the continuity and longevity of the relationships between the characters was missing for me, with the exception of the close friendship between the two priests. These are not complaints so much as observations - it is still a wonderful book.

Evidently Father Latour and Father Vaillant are based on actual historical figures. Cather elegantly captures the hardships of frontier life and the lack of support for the church in the early days of settlement in the areas that are now New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. These guys did not even have a road to travel so they could get to their new assignment - it took Fathers Latour and Vaillant literally about a year to get to the southwest when they were ordered by the Vatican to go there. Upon arrival, their reception was mixed at best, and there was very little infrastructure in which to work. But these guys just did it - got on their mules and away they went; baptizing, preaching, marrying, and burying wherever anyone needed or wanted their services. In spite of their lack of understanding of the customs and faith of the Navajo people, and in spite of their single-minded Roman Catholic perspective (typical for that time period, in that part of the country), I found myself admiring these courageous priests. They completely uprooted themselves from their own country (France) and lived very harsh and austere lives because that was how committed they were to carrying the gospel to all God's children. They did not even seem to find it hard to do this - they seemed completely fulfilled by what they were doing.

Next time I feel like griping about a leaky faucet in our church kitchen, or a busted light bulb in the sanctuary, or a "squeaky wheel" who is taking too much of my energy, I will remember the dogged faithfulness of Father Latour and Father Vaillant. They stripped down ministry to its barest essentials - giving people comfort and sustenance in the midst of the uncertainty of living on a harsh and unpredictable landscape; while at the same time challenging those same people to be more faithful to God's call on their lives. We could do that too, even now - we would have to consciously not get so distracted by administration and maintenance that we forget to live out what we believe. Really. We could just do it.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pleasantly Surprised


A Generous Orthodoxy
by Brian D. McClaren

I had put off reading this for a couple of reasons. One, Brian McClaren has gotten so much attention (both positive and negative) on the national church scene that I thought he might think he's "all that and a half" (as the kids in my youth group used to say) and that his writing would reflect that. Secondly, I usually recoil from books with the word "orthodoxy" in the title - too often in our ecclesiastical culture the concept of orthodoxy is used as a fence to designate who is "in" and who is "out." I was afraid this would be a thinly veiled version of fence building, or a proposed way to feel good about our fence building. I'm delighted to say that I was wrong on both counts.

McLaren writes with humility and a gentle humor, and he seems sincere in his love and forbearance for all people. His version of orthodoxy is not the traditional etymological definition of "right thinking." ("If we believe ourselves to be orthodox, thinking right, then it must follow that everyone else is wrong." This is the kind of thinking that makes me crazy and in my opinion is destructive to the church and to all people of God.) In his introduction, McClaren states that in his book a more accurate definition of orthodoxy would translate something like "what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn (p. 32)."

McClaren then proceeds to give brief histories and backgrounds for numerous strains that can be found in the Christian faith (fundamentalist, calvinist, anabaptist, anglican, mystical, poetic, liberal, conservative, biblical, missional, evangelical, methodist, catholic, green, and several others) and what EACH of those factions has to offer to the spiritual life and the genuine attempt to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead of putting everyone else down, he raises everyone up, helping all of us to see ourselves at our highest potential. He points out ways that the original intent of some of these movements got corrupted and twisted by human sinfulness, but that those corruptions do not invalidate the original hope of the intent. Moreover, he reminds us that we are all God's children, trying to find our way as best we can. If we open ourselves to learning from one another rather than demonizing each other, perhaps we will all see a little more of the truth that is God.

McClaren's chapter "Why I am Incarnational" is a moving articulation of how we can be unapologetic for our Christian beliefs, claim our identity as followers of Christ, and yet still acknowledge the truth to be found in other faith traditions. I highly recommend that chapter for people who are asking the question "What about them?" As our world gets smaller and more and more of us know, care for, and live alongside Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, etc. more questions get raised about God's purposes for all of us, Christology, and salvation. McClaren beautifully expresses some of the same thoughts I have been fumbling through for several years - that we can still claim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life and at the same time acknowledge that the love God has shown us in Christ can extend to people and traditions that we do not fully understand. This seems like a much better presumption to me than the one that so many Christians have operated on for so long, which goes something like "We have the Truth. God loves us the best. Everyone else is just out of luck." I can't go there.

Something else I liked is that McClaren fully acknowledges his own mistakes and innate sinfulness, as well as the truth that, like all of us, he sees only through a glass darkly. He is one cog in the timeless machine of theology, doctrine, and practice. He freely admits that he is not a systematic theologian, but that works to his advantage in this book, because his writing is accessible for everyone, not just Ph.Ds. Even though A Generous Orthodoxy undoubtedly is not the whole picture, McClaren calls us to an openness and sense of wonder that surely will be healthy for all of us.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dispatch From Oz


The Marvelous Land of Oz
by L. Frank Baum

We finished reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz out loud to S. about a week ago. To my surprise, he wanted to jump right into the next one. We have modified the routine a little bit. Instead of me and E. taking turns with reading time, we all want to keep up with what is happening in Oz, so we all curl up on Mommy and Daddy's big bed and read a couple of chapters before bedtime. It is one of my favorite parts of the day. Can't wait until G. is old enough to participate as well. G's. current favorites are Click Clack Moo, Giggle Giggle Quack, and Llama Llama Mad at Mama.

Dorothy is not on the scene in The Marvelous Land of Oz, but I understand she comes back later. There is a new human character, a small boy named Tip who S. really likes because he is inventive and brave. My favorite new character is Jack Pumpkinhead, a wooden man with - you guessed it - a jack 'o lantern for a head. He worries a lot about his head spoiling and shortening his life. A couple of chapters ago, one of the other characters, either the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodman, I can't remember which, told him not to spoil the blue sky of today with the looming clouds of tomorrow. Something we can all remember and take to heart.

Yesterday I heard S. emphatically end a sentence with the word "indeed." Clearly picking up on Baum's writing style and the dialogue patterns of some of his characters. Find time today to read out loud to a child. It will make a difference for them and for you.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Simpler (and Funnier) Time


The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
by Bill Bryson

Frankly, am still riding a bit of the Tolstoy high. I re-read large segments of Master and Man last week, because I had decided to use the story as a major piece of the March 30 sermon. The more I read it, the more beautiful it became to me. This book of Bryson's, although utterly hilarious, does not provide the reader with that same spiritual depth. Referring back to the ongoing discussion that E. and I have regarding what makes a classic, maybe that desire to go back and re-read again and again, always finding new nuances, is part of what gives a book real staying power.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I did. Very much. It is the first book in awhile that has made me laugh out loud. I think parents of boys will particularly like it, as it is a window into the minds of little and adolescent boys - how they think, what is important to them, and the lengths to which they will go to make and perpetuate mischief. "The Thunderbolt Kid" was a superhero persona that Bryson gave to himself as a little kid, complete with costumes, special powers and a mission. ("Superman fought for truth, justice, and the American way. I killed morons. Still do.") Since my older son, S., is totally into superheroes, and has been for a couple of years now, some of the young Bill Bryson's antics really hit home.

The book is also sprinkled with references to the history and culture of the 1950s, and how certain features of that decade (the Cold War, economic prosperity, the ascendancy of television) affected kids at that time. For a more comprehensive history of the 50s, I recommend David Halberstam's less than imaginatively titled book The Fifties. Bryson's book is lighter, but does bring in the child's perspective in a delightful way.

Some of the antics that Bryson wrote about that resonated for me, even though my little kid years were in the late 60s and early 70s, were going to matinee movies and acting like lunatics, playing long, intricate role-playing games like "house" and "school," and tormenting elementary school teachers. Bryson clearly exaggerates a lot, but his memories of childhood in Des Moines, Iowa have a certain timeless quality to them.

Anyone who has ever been a kid will find a laugh or two in this book. What are some of your favorite childhood memories? What is the funniest thing you can remember from that period of your life? Who were the friends with whom you had the most fun, and where are they now? Those things are worth calling back to mind now and then. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid will help you do that, and your day will be brightened for it.

Reverent Reader