Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Love That Boy by Ron Fournier (Book Review #48 of 2016)

Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations

I read this book after reading Stephen Gallup's What About the Boy? which is also by the father of a special needs son. While united in the bond of father-son love, these books are night and day in their tone and outlook. I recommend Love That Boy over the former, although the other does a better job of showing the world of being a special-needs parent (I'm the proud father of an autistic son closer to the son in Fournier's book).
Fournier's son was much higher-functioning, qualifying for an Asparger's diagnosis (before DSM V made it all "autism spectrum"). Fournier was a White House press writer who covered both the Clinton and Bush '43 presidencies. The title comes from the advice President Bush gave Fournier on meeting Tyler and getting a glimpse of his precociousness. Fournier leverages his contact with the presidents to land an interviews/meetings between them and his son.

But the book is more about the relationship between father and son, and an introspection into what we want for our children and why we have such lofty standards. It's about Fournier's journey to "loving your child for who he is, and not who you want him to be." Fournier asks why we have children in the first place--because we wanted someone to love, and/or we wanted someone to love us back. Why do we get disappointed in our kids interests and behaviors? Where do our expectations come from? Fournier encouraged Tyler to try sports, hoping he would take to baseball and pushing him to work "his best." He was not the sports-driven dad, but he admits and repents of his disappointment over Tyler's lack of interest. Fournier confesses his earlier pursuit of his career in DC at the expense of his family, recognizing it almost cost him what he loves most.

Presidents Clinton and Bush both meet with Tyler privately. Bush tells stories off the record, and Clinton also has long, detailed monologues. Clinton and Tyler engage in a humorous transaction about Teddy Roosevelt, who Clinton reveres and compares himself to whenever he can. The amusing part is that Tyler fills in the details about Roosevelt that he has memorized as Clinton waxes on. Fournier's cursory research on autism leads him to wonder whether Clinton might be an undiagnosed autistic himself. (Fournier seems somewhat ignorant of Simon Baron-Cohen's research on autism being an extension of the male brain, which I would recommend others read, but I digress.) Both presidents were kind and generous with their time. Bush was loving and not judgmental. 

Tyler was always different from other children, but the Fourniers hoped he would grow out of it; he was 12 before his diagnosis. Tyler is eventually able to open up to his dad about where his happiness comes from-- why he bothered playing baseball to make his dad happy. He is able to find happiness in solitary activity and other things that don't involve social interaction and sports. He and his dad build a good bond by the time he turns 16. (Aside, Fournier takes his son at his word. I read stories by other autistics as adults that they wish their parents had made them do more activities involving social interaction even though they would have resisted it as kids. This is something I think about a lot as the parent of a 3rd grade child on the autism spectrum.) A family that Fournier knows sees their daughter commit suicide at 24 after struggling with depression. This jolts the Fourniers to embrace every moment they have with their children and to create a loving environment. Fournier rightly relates a diagnosis of clinical depression to one with autism-- they both come with stigmas. But we'd be better off as families running towards the diagnosis, rather than running away from it. Loving our children for who they are and where they're at, rather than trying to fix things so that they are someone else. Fournier closes the book with some advise about expectations, pressure, and creating small moments and memories for your children.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Fournier's message for fathers is great no matter where your son is at in life. The backdrop of interviewing the former presidents painted some nice bipartisan optimism into the book as well.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

What About the Boy? by Stephen Gallup (Book Review #47 of 2016)

What About the Boy - A Father's Pledge to His Disabled Son

This book is the best portrait of what it is like to be the parents of a special needs child that I have ever seen; I recommend it for those who want an insight into that world. I saw so many people I know in the feelings expressed by the author. I read Ron Fournier's book Love That Boy subsequent to this one, and I recommend that one over this one as a real contrast in approaches to dealing with a special needs son.

My son is high-functioning on the autism spectrum, which puts us into contact with parents similar to the author, who have kids with more limited ability to express themselves, or who run away, or lash out, etc. Many are tired, look old beyond their years. They've literally given their lives for their children, fighting every battle against "the system." Many have spent much of their salaries and are grateful for donations, running from one possible diagnosis or potential new cure to the next, in desperate need of respite care for themselves. For me, this book brought back a lot of memories of what it was like to be the father of an infant where you question everything you're doing, to being the parent of a young autistic child where you second-guess everything you've done. "What could we have done differently? What if..." "What about the boy?" is the question others ask, or that you ask yourself, when discussing career goals, aspirations to move to a new city, etc. The question is always in the back of your mind, even if left unspoken.

Joseph was born in 1985, oversized and needed suction in the delivery. While he had no bruises, a brain scan later showed an issue. The Gallups ask questions of doctors involved in their pre-natal care-- what did you know, and when did you know it? He is a vulnerable infant, deeply loved by his parents. His father, Stephen, is an engineer bent on treating his son's condition as a problem to be solved rather than a condition to be accepted. Judy, Joseph's mom, had a background in special education and was somewhat aware of what to expect, what ways to measure development. Every issue with the child is a worry or a crisis-- is this normal behavior or the disability? When will he talk? How late is unusual for X or Y to happen? Every parent worries about how their child measures up to the milestones printed in books and on charts in the doctor's office, the Gallups are no different.

Like all parents, the Gallups ask "Why us?" Is it something we deserved? Is it karma? Where is God in the midst of disabilities? They find groups for parents and try to find other means of support. They find a Unitarian church that is willing to help raise money for treatments later. Stephen eventually gets into Kenneth Copeland's "prosperity-gospel" and positivism. Religion, like the wholistic therapies they pursue throughout the book, becomes something they experiment with. They ask big questions-- is wellness a birthright, or should we be fatalistic about disabilities? I believe the Gospel (of Jesus, not Ken Copeland) speaks deeply to these issues. We are all born with different bodies, different brains, different abilities and limitations. But the Gospel reminds us that our bodies suffer, and ultimately die, as a result of sin. But there is an eternity in which all of the suffering and scarcity is made right and complete, because Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice for our sins and His physical resurrection is the proof that this sacrifice was sufficient. There is a limit to the happiness and peace we can find in our short life here, but limitless joy and peace thereafter.

The family almost panics when Judy thinks they are looking at an autism diagnosis. This was pre-Rain Man and little was known, autism was seen by Stephen as a debilitating curse, "a heavy cross to bear." Joseph seems to qualify for a number of diagnoses depending on which version of the DSM you use.

They begin to attend the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Pennsylvania, whose methods and treatments for brain-injured children are controversial and rigid. https://www.iahp.org/about-the-institutes/
They begin a regimen of all-day patterning and masking. Patterning is moving Joseph's limbs to a rhythm to seemingly mimic movement and exercise. Masking is where Joseph wears a rebreathing mask to increase his carbon dioxide intake. These sound tortuous, but are highly stressed by the Institutes. These and other therapies are highly criticized in the scientific community, but the scientific community offers little to parents like the Gallups. They write a plea to their neighbors for volunteers to help in their home as it takes multiple people to hold the child. Joseph's condition coincides with one of their parents dying of Alzheimer's, which leads them to much of the lack of medical and scientific knowledge about the brain. The Institutes require hefty fees, regular contact with staff, trips to attend lectures and seminars, and strict adherence to the regime in order to remain with the Institutes. People come from all over the world to attend. The stress is obvious, one Institutes mother kills her disabled son in a fit of depression. You get a picture of parents desperate to make a brain-injured child "normal." That appears to be Stephen's obsession, and while Joseph is loved, Stephen never comes across as willing to accept his son as anything less than neurotypical, which is quite sad to me. I hate to be critical, but reading this memoir's conclusion where he is still always experimenting with the next new diet, treatment, etc. no matter the cost to Joseph is a bit disturbing. (Again, see Ron Fournier's book as a contrast.) The Institutes allow for "honeymoons" for the parents without their children when they achieve certain milestones.

The efforts at patterning and masking appear to pay off; local TV news films their work, their plight, and shows the progress of Joseph with testimonials from their volunteer neighbors. His talking and getting mobile are big deals. This helps them raise some volunteer help and donations to fly to the Institutes from California. Joseph eventually begins to walk, talk, laugh, and swim. By the end of the book, Stephen admits that it's impossible to know what "works" and what doesn't, everyone is different and many times they felt something was "working" because Joseph would be happy or speak in paragraphs, he does not do so consistently.

While complying with the rigor of the Institutes, they learned to be "dynamic" and not cookie-cutters. To encourage others in their treatments. Stephen writes that caring for Joshua literally took Judy's life-- she is diagnosed with cancer and dies before Joseph is even a teenager. Reading between the lines of the epilogue, Stephen seems to be coping with the loss of Judy, one way he coped was with an extended trip to China in which he met a woman who decided to keep Joseph for an extended period while Stephen goes back to the US. She raves about Joshua's progress after acupuncture, but Stephen notes that the results seem to be superficial and temporary, like everything else. He still attends autism conferences and notes the effort to try one new big initiative every year. Stephen is now 18. As I mention above, my perception is that Stephen was never really able to accept his child for who he is and continues a quest for some type of cure to make Joseph the same as him. If Joseph is autistic, Stephen never seems to explore that perhaps the cause is genetic and maybe Stephen is somewhere on the spectrum himself. His bio would seem to indicate that possibility.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. There's no better book for understanding the lengths a parent will go through for his children, and a great view of the uncertainty and determination about special needs parents seeking solutions. But the mind-numbing obsession with a "cure" is a bit much. I recommend Ron Fournier's Love That Boy first.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Multiply by Francis Chan (Book Review #46 of 2016)

I did not go through the study guide or spend much time on the study questions in this book; I did not do it with a group, I listened to all 24 sessions it on my own. Basically, I was determining whether it would be a good discipleship study, as it is designed to be; I think it is. Some people in my office went through the study as a group and found it good enough to meet around every week. It serves as an excellent foundations course for someone who is a new believer or someone looking to disciple a younger believer. The best part is that the lessons and videos are available for free online. This is my third Chan book (Crazy Love, Together Forever) and my wife is an avid fan of his sermons.

My notes:
Discipleship is about life with disciples, not leadership or knowledge.  It's about a visual demonstration of our faith. What evidence can you point to that shows you truly love others around you?

Following Jesus requires a change of heart, not a change of circumstances. Circumstances for believers around the world are difficult, they always have been. But people know Jesus' disciples by their love and unity in the midst of those circumsntaces, which is what Jesus prayed for (John 17).

Don't study the Bible out of guilt, or for sermon material, or for pride. Does my Bible study make me more "puffed up" with knowledge? Am I truly depending on the Holy Spirit when I read it?

At the same time, it's important to study the Bible logically. To learn to read it slowly, to understand historical context and hermeneutics. Chan works through several lessons through the Old Testament demonstrating biblical theology-- that the arc of all Scripture bends toward Jesus. He also walks through several of the covenants that are fulfilled in Jesus, a la D.A. Carson. "The greatest gift that God can give is Himself...that is the Tabernacle."

Chan reminds everyone what the mission of the Church is. It is hard not to desire to be a "Great Commission Christian" after working through this book; I would enjoy doing it as a group study.

I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. There may be something else better out there, but this is available in many formats, is free, and easy to get started. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper (Book Review #45 of 2016)

90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life

It would be incorrect to call Piper or this book a "modern-day Book of Job," because it contains no poetry, prose, or a search for theological meaning. But Job is the closest analogy I can make for the book; Piper was a pastor and aspiring church planter who followed Jesus and had a pretty normal life until his accident. It took a long time for him to tell the complete story and writing it all down was as much for therapy as it was for posterity. It is quite difficult to read about someone describing chronic pain 24 hours a day, an inability to move, 34 surgeries and counting, and an inability to take care of yourself for years. That is what this book is-- a description of what that is like.

Piper was clinically dead after a car crash on a bridge involving a Texas inmate without a drivers license who was drafted by prison guards to drive a van of prisoners (which put Piper's estate oddly at odds with a Texas Attorney General he otherwise supported). The legalities of that get little mention, other than noting that Texas lost the case and had to pay much of the enormous medical bills.

Piper came back to life after a fellow Christian felt strongly impressed to argue with the police (who were waiting on the coroner) to allow him to climb into what was left of the car and pray. Skeptics can say what they want, there is plenty of medical evidence and eyewitnesses that document this event. As word spread, thousands of people in churches around Texas began praying for Don Piper. Piper should have bled to death and yet was alive enough to be transported to two hospitals. That's where the pain begins. He was fortunate enough not to suffer any serious head or thorasic injuries. While that meant he would live, it also meant he would feel the pain.

Piper's wife and children have to make arrangements as Piper lives in a hospital. He is hand-fed, has an unusual Ilizirov apparatus attached on his arm to slowly and painfully allow bones to grow in place. (Aside, I used to live in Qusar, Azerbaijan where Ilizirov grew up and I first saw the apparatus at a museum there). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilizarov_apparatus . Piper's body fights dangerous infections as he undergoes surgery after surgery. The never-ending pain saps his will to live and he is faced with depression. Initially, Piper tolerates those from his congregation who come to visit him but wishes they would not. Eventually, he is rebuked by a deacon for not allowing people to help him more, and he gives in-- recognizing the joy that comes to people when they bring him magazines, milkshakes, or whatever. He gets over the deep shame he feels about his helplessness, and this teaches him more about his own dependence on God. When he eventually returns home, he makes a brief, exhausting visit to his church-- leaving the house at all is exhausting.

Once his attitude changes, so do his prayers and praise. He meets others in the hospital who have the Ilizarov apparatus or are suffering and begins to bring encouragement to them via empathy. He saves the life of one man with the apparatus by discovering he was badly infected an in danger of death. He encourages others that life is worth living. In an emotional part of the book, Piper includes his children's thoughts and response-- Piper regrets missing his boys' formative years and not being able to go hunting, fishing, or play catch with them-- they have an invalid father.

Piper never develops a deep theology of suffering; there is no preaching to that effect in this book. Nor does he come to any conclusions as to "why" God let this happen. He only recognizes that it has given him a connection to others who are suffering and tries to use that for God's glory as best he can.

After some time in the hospital, Piper confides to a friend the vision he had of heaven while in his 90 minutes of official death. He heard a cacophony of praise, saw faces of many he knew, and had indescribable happiness. It was from these moments of comfort and peace that he can't compare to anything on earth that he returns to his bleeding body in his car. His friend convinces him that he should share this remarkable story. Piper puts this heaven story at the front of the book, and that is what has gotten the ire of many who want it banned from Christian bookstores. My guess is they don't bother slogging through the other 95% of the book. Piper's suffering then gives him an audience with people who are terminally ill, in chronic pain, or have about given up on their own lives. He uses both platforms to share the Gospel. He closes the book with an acknowledgement that some people with near-death experiences return back to life saying unbiblical things. He maintains he's only sharing what he remembers.

I heard Don Piper speak at a week-long series of revival services hosted by local churches in the small town I used to live in. I did not return after the first night, so I had not heard his tale of suffering. I am glad to have read this book, though I would not do so again and don't recommend it if you're not ready to deal with gruesome. I would, however, like to read his wife's book about her perspective on dealing with a husband and how marriage works in sickness and in health.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I am glad he wrote it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trump and Me by Mark Singer (Book Review #44 of 2016)

Trump and Me

The foreword to this book, by David Remnick, suggests that Trump really decided to run for President after being the butt of several jokes delivered by President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Trump's run for the Presidency is as much about proving people wrong about his ability to do it as it is about putting his name, his brand in the most highly-visible peace of real estate possible-- the White House.

First, Singer isn't some young opportunist-- he's in his 60s and has spent over 40 years writing for The New Yorker. Second, Singer published this Kindle Single basically just to make money. It is "meta" in that it is about an article he wrote for the magazine many years ago, it's a reminiscince and a look back at his notes. Singer wrote the profile in 1997, and recounted it in his 2005 book Character Studies. When a New York Times reviewer of Character Studies mentions the piece on Trump, Trump writes a disparaging letter to the Times which catapults Singer's book up the Amazon sales ranking from 45,638 to 385. Singer writes a thank you note to Trump and a $37.82 check for what he estimates to be a percentage of the royalties earned. Trump returns the letter with a scrawl: "“MARK, YOU ARE A TOTAL LOSER! AND YOUR BOOK (AND WRITINGS) SUCKS! BEST WISHES, DONALD. P.S. AND I HEAR IT IS SELLING BADLY," but Singer notices that Trump cashed the $37.82 check.

That, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump. In 1996, Singer determined that The Donald was hollow:
"All of (this) informs my conclusion that he does not have an interior life. The penultimate line: 'He had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul'" (p. 15).

Nothing much has really changed since then. No need to buy this book, just read the New Yorker piece. (Interestingly, in Trump's letter to the NY Times he claims to be somewhat widely read: "I’ve read John Updike, I’ve read Orhan Pamuk, I’ve read Philip Roth. When Mark Singer enters their league, maybe I’ll read one of his books" (p. 17)).

But if you must know what's in this book you'll see the many faces of Trump. He's sexist and shallow (p. 14):
TRUMP: “You really want to know what I consider ideal company?”
ME: “Yes.”
TRUMP: “A total piece of ass.”

He's a narcissist (as seen on 60 Minutes):
"Everywhere inside the Trump Organization headquarters, the walls were lined with framed magazine covers, each a shot of Trump or someone who looked an awful lot like him" (p. 21).

He's had major debt issues, seems to thrive on them emotionally, and used his financial crisis to get out of his pre-nuptual agreement with Ivana (p.22-28). 
"Within seven weeks, he failed to deliver a forty-three-million-dollar payment due to bondholders of the Trump Castle Casino, and he also missed a thirty-million-dollar interest payment to one of the estimated hundred and fifty banks that were concerned about his well-being. An army of bankruptcy lawyers began camping out in various boardrooms" (p. 28).

He likes complicated deals:
“Whatever complicates the world more I do,” he said. Come again? “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out” (p. 34).

He likes watching basic action films:
"(H)e got bored and switched to an old favorite, a Jean-Claude Van Damme slugfest called Bloodsport, which he pronounced 'an incredible, fantastic movie.' By assigning to his son the task of fast-forwarding through all the plot exposition—Trump’s goal being “to get this two-hour movie down to forty-five minutes”—he eliminated any lulls between the nose hammering, kidney tenderizing, and shin whacking (p. 40).

He's also the aspiring diplomat:
"The list of superpower leaders and geopolitical strategists with whom Trump has engaged in frank and fruitful exchanges of viewpoints includes Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff" (p. 44).  (Carter hit Trump up for a donation to his library as retold by Trump in The Art of the Deal.)

Even back in 1987, Trump was pondering a greater stage:
"Trump contemplated how, in a larger sphere, he could advertise himself as a doer and dealmaker. One stunt involved orchestrating an 'invitation' from the federal government to examine the Williamsburg Bridge, which was falling apart. Trump had no real interest in the job, but by putting on a hard hat and taking a stroll on the bridge for the cameras he stoked the fantasy that he could rebuild the city’s entire infrastructure. From there it was only a short leap to saving the planet. What if, say, a troublemaker like Muammar Qaddafi got his hands on a nuclear arsenal? Well, Trump declared, he stood ready to work with the leaders of the then Soviet Union to coordinate a formula for coping with Armageddon-minded lunatics" (p. 45).

Trump is friends with Russians. Alexander Lebed visits Trump's office during Singer's interview where they talk boxing.

Trump loves his own creations:
“This is the greatest apartment ever built. There’s never been anything like it. There’s no apartment like this anywhere. It was harder to build this apartment than the rest of the building. A lot of it I did just to see if it could be done. All the very wealthy people who think they know great apartments come here and they say, ‘Donald, forget it. This is the greatest’” (p. 50).

Singer gives his own character assessment of The Donald based on more recent events. Here's Trump as the rabid defender of his image:
"In the early nineties, Trump stiffed his creditors for eight-hundred million dollars, give or take. Later, whenever this fact was mentioned, he reflexively insisted that it had never happened. Except that it had, and subsequently no one with a lick of sense was willing to lend him fresh money. Gail Collins, of The New York Times, once referred to him as a 'financially embattled thousandaire.' Trump sent her a copy of one of her columns with, across her photograph, the chivalrous scrawl 'The Face of a Dog!' In 2005, Timothy O’Brien, then a Times colleague of Collins, published a book, TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, in which he estimated Trump’s net worth at $150 million to $250 million. Not unpredictably, Trump sued for $5 billion, alleging that this lowball calculation constituted libel and defamation."

Singer criticizes Trump for criticizing John McCain while comparing his own battle against STDs as "Vietnam":
"It was unmistakably the same fearless and valiant Trump, who once, while discussing with Howard Stern the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, had observed, 'It’s amazing. I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world. It is a dangerous world out there. It’s scary. It’s like Vietnam. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.'"

It's safe to say Singer is on the #NeverTrump list. Perhaps the biggest criticism should go to the media that fuels the Trump machine (p. 76):
"Leslie Moonves, the president and CEO of CBS, let the truth out a while back: 'It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS….This is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.'”

I give it 2.5 stars. Not much there, not really worth reading. It won't teach you much if you're already #NeverTrump and won't change your mind if you're voting for him.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

In the Arena by Richard M. Nixon (Book Review #43 of 2016)

In the Arena: A Memory of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal
This was Richard Nixon's eighth book, published in 1990, and I was surprised at how some of his advice and philosophy would be applicable today. His thoughts on leadership are find Some of it is good, some of it is disappointing, and some of it is unnecessary. I think some of the Nixon White House tapes that have been released publicly since this book show that Nixon wasn't completely honest with himself in his memories.

Nixon begins recounting the night before he left the Oval Office; he had trouble sleeping. His family had opposed his resignation. Ruth Graham (wife of Billy Graham) had put a banner behind an airplane supporting him (Nixon tapes later revealed that the Grahams initially thought the whole Watergate scandal was a "communist plot." Graham's autobiography, Just As I Am, expresses regret for his unreserved support for Nixon as the tapes revealed his heart). Nixon does not express guilt for disgracing the Presidency so much as disappointment at the media pressure on him to resign. He denies ordering the Watergate break-in and notes that wiretaps did not require warrants at the time (a point that is admittedly overlooked in the media today).

Nixon trumpets his fiscal conservativism-- he gave up Secret Service protection after the Presidency to save taxpayer money.

He mentions his popular 1980 book on foreign policy, which I should read. He was and remains an optimist on China, believing that capitalism would lead to more political opening and more freedom-- if slowly.

Nixon was a Quaker and believed his faith should be intensely private. He avoided injecting religion into his speeches and was not a fan of the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s. But he notes his White House worship services were somehow controversial and drew the ire of the media.

He mentions his visits with the USSR, the fate of Kruschev, his thoughts on Gorbachev's reforms and more about the enigma that is Russia. This leads to some thoughts on alcohol, when it was served on foreign trips and when it wasn't, and what that signaled. He had advice about alcohol for political leaders-- it's not for everybody, but helpful to some, everyone is different.

President Nixon expresses his thoughts on the benefits of pressure and tension to improve performance, perhaps he was ahead of the modern psychologists who write books on this today. An example of pressure for him was the "Checker's speech" in which he successfully deflected criticisms that he basically accepted bribes. The Alger Hiss case was a huge career risk at the time, he's glad he took it.

"The key to effective leadership is pragmatic idealism" - an idea that is completely missing from the Republican party's candidate and the RNC in 2016.

Mr. Nixon spends time praising Pat Nixon.

Most cogent are President Nixon's thoughts on war and peace. Virtually every aggressor in history says that peace is his goal, but peace on his terms. There is a real peace, and then there is the "perfect peace." He criticizes liberals who want peace at all costs or those who argue that greataer understanding and even trade between countries will eliminate war (maybe he anticipates Thomas Friedman's "McDonald's theory" here). Trade cannot produce peace, but it can create incentives for countries to work together so they can reap the benefits. Learning to live with our differences, rather than dying for them, is what produces lasting peace-- not greater understanding of eachother in and of itself.

Nixon closes the book with an encouragement for the reader to take risks. No risk, no growth, and no reward.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars. It is a good read and historically interesting. The leadership and psychology bits hold up well and are basically repeated by people writing books today who don't read books written longer than 20 years ago. But the lack of introspection and plea of "not guilty!" about his last days in office are pretty bad.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi (Book Review #42 of 2016)

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity

I recently reviewed a host of books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history (list at bottom of this post). I also read several which included some critiques along with views to the future and reform. I then worked through a list of books by Muslim women, most of which bring light to and critique inhumane practices found in their home countries. Included in this list was Nick Kristof's Half the Sky which looks at women's rights globally, and I'm also including Qureshi's book as someone who left Islam after an extensive intellectual and spiritual search, including its authoritative teachings on the treatment of women. This book review is in the context of all of those books as a whole. The list (some reviews forthcoming):

Reform and human/women's rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Qureshi's memoir is engaging, and satisfying if you like the story of someone who abandons his prior steadfast beliefs after examining them logically and scientifically. Coming from an Eastern culture, he learns to reason and falls in love with it. But the logical part is only half the battle, his choice forces his loving parents to abandon him. Qureshi was born into an Ahmadi Muslim family from Pakistan who migrated to America via Scotland. His father was both an officer in the Navy and considered a devout Muslim apologist. Nabeel recalls being instructed in the Quran, recitations, and the Islamic teaching given to children, along with his family's Pakistani culture. Like many children, he memorized impersonal prayers. He found it confusing that Ahmadis were considered heretics by some. (I once read a book by an Ahmadi in Pakistan who left his faith for Jesus in that context which was even more difficult). But Qureshi seems to argue for Islam from a more orthodox Sunni position when he is defending his faith in college.

In the U.S., Nabeel initially had an easy time as an anti-Christian Muslim apologist, easily exploiting Christians' ignorance of the Bible with his own limited knowledge, mainly from various Islamic apologetics he'd been taught. His first church experience was a performance of Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames which he was easily able to dissect the weaknesses of. As he grew older, he learned about the various Hadiths and Muslim doctrine-- he notes most Muslims believe in the doctrine of abrogation-- some verses in the Quran cancel out others. But he relies on a supernatural Allah, praying to find friends. In college, he is assigned an intelligent Christian roommate, David Wood.

Qureshi's mind was first challenged in an undergraduate course on the Theory of Knowledge, something new to an Eastern mind (not to mention most Western ones). The East, Qureshi writes, is an honor/shame culture where authority is given to elders and tradition rather than reason. Nabeel and David become good friends, debate team comrades, and comisserate as monotheists in atheistic or pluralistic classrooms. David is pursuing philosophy while Nabeel is actually a pre-med student who is highly interested in philosophy. As David and Nabeel progress in their philosophical studies and debates over religion, they get used to assigning probabilities to what they believe in. You can basically measure Nabeel's progress by the probability he gives to a historical resurrection of Jesus. After September 11, 2001, David's family fears and experiences some persecution-- which they also experienced during the 1991 Gulf War. But David proves to be a good friend and meets Qureshi's family. He is also the kind of guy who gives Qureshi a copy of Josh McDowell's simple More than a Carpenter and encourages him to read Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

Nabeel invites David to his house to discuss the resurrection with his dad, and the group attend a regular "Dream Team" meeting of debators discussing religion attended by Mike Licona and Gary Habermas- an incredible stroke of fortune both for David and Nabeel. Licona and Habermas are well-versed in defending the reasonable probability of a historical resurrection, and Nabeel notes that they are able to refute his father's criticisms well. Attending these meetings give the students the chance to hear a wide range of philosophical arguments. The group also attend a debate of a well-known Muslim apologist with Mike Licona over the resurrection. Nabeel increases his understanding and probability of an actual resurrection, but maintains a steadfast position in the orthodox Islamic teachings, particularly on the life of Muhammad.

The difficult aspect about Islam is that Quranic stories have no clear beginning, middle, or end-- Muslims turn to commentators to understand them and the myriad of scholarly thought on the Hadith to interpret them. This is something that laypeople cannot easily do, so there are many misconceptions or ignorance of what is actually contained either in the stories or Hadith. Nabeel finds Muslim apologists who are ignorant or make logical errors, something that frustrates him now that he's a seasoned debater himself. Nabeel begins investigating Islam with the same reasoning and skepticism which which he approached Christianity. He looks into the manuscript evidence and finds support for the New Testament's historical reliability to be more solid than other ancient texts. When he eventually investigates the compilations of the Quran and Hadiths he disappointedly finds he was never taught the entire story about Caliph Uthman ibn Affan's role in determining what is considered authoritative Quranic text and the later destruction of anything considered questionable. Hadiths compiled centuries later are problematic for their reliability is based on subjective judgment about the reported character of the witnesses.

The Gospel of John shakes Nabeel, but he becomes a more devout Muslim. Even assigning a high probability to a historical resurrection, he has a hang-up with the concept of a trinity - how can one God be equally God and man and Spirit? But this hang-up falls apart in a chemistry course where he learns about the concept of resonance with nitrate. Resonance shows that something can take on many forms at once. (I'm not a chemistry major; wikipedia suggests this is either a misconception about resonance or that this characteristic of molecules is properly termed "delocalization" instead.)

Qureshi frantically researches Islam and studies the various Hadith, finding that many who cite Hadiths as authoritative about one aspect of the life of Muhammad tend to omit certain aspects of the same Hadith that would support violence, subjugation of women, and slavery. Ibn Hisham, who edited Ibn Ishaq's authoritive biography of Muhammad in the 9th century, wrote that he omitted the egregious parts of Muhammad's life-- a huge indictment on the text that Qureshi was previously unaware of. The more he investigates, the more he finds the version of Muhammad he had been taught growing up was whitewashed. The author cites from various hadiths, such as those by Al-Bukhari, that are considered the most authoritative in Sunni Islam but are cited by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda today for justifying violent action against any non-believer. Even Nabeel's father, who kept the Hadiths on this bookshelves, was surprised at Nabeel's discoveries. Nabeel reads Muslim apologists but finds that they have selectively filtered from these hadiths and never deal adequately with their compilation, or with the Quran's compilation.

Further, now as a medical doctor, Qureshi finds scientific problems with things in the Quran. He notes surahs in the Quran (Al-Muminun 23:6 and Surah Al-Maarij 70:30) that clearly justify sex with female slaves, something many modern apologists deny but history records was a primary motivation in owning female slaves. At this point, Qureshi is deeply distraught and at a crossroads of faith. He writes little of his personal life outside of his investigations, you get little window into his professional work or social life.

Eventually, he continues to pray for dreams and visions and then gets disturbing ones that his mother uses a book to interpret-- he feels the interpretation uncanilly match his internal debate. After three clear dreams, he travels with his father to Europe to tour various mosques and gain insight from leading Islamic clerics, none of which satisfies him; he basically has more knowledge than any of them at this point and is using Western reasoning which they may not embrace. In the end, Nabeel Qureshi gives up and becomes a Christian. Giving up his parents was the cost of his salvation, which is followed by seven months of joining with David in an apologetics ministry, seeing exorcisms and many miracles that Qureshi does not elaborate on. The reader gathers that in the end, they went their separate ways in ministry but he and David (and his wife, who David and then-Muslim Nabeel helped convert from atheism) remain cordial friends.

In all, I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. In a couple chapters, Qureshi asks questions of Islamic texts that I have not seen in reading Reza Aslan and various other modern Islamic apologists or books on the history of the Quran and early Islamic thought. It's a deeply personal story, but void of various details of Qureshi's struggle and professional life. I intend to read at least some of Qureshi's other books to see more detailed critiques of Islam.

A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Reform-minded but with defense of Islam:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)