Thursday, January 28, 2016

‘Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave’ (Book Review)

I remember reading about Shyima Hall in the news: a girl kept as a family slave, literally right under everyone’s nose. It’s one thing to hear about such things happening. It’s quite another to have it so close to home. (She was in Irvine in Orange County. I was living in Tustin, an adjacent city, during the time.) Some years later, when I heard about her memoir, Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave (Simon & Schuster, 2014), I was eager to have a chance to read her side of the story.

The book begins with Shyima’s younger years in Egypt, her family plagued with financial difficulties. While the author doesn’t excuse her parents handing her over to work for another family, the book does show the reader why they probably felt they had no other choice. Kept as a slave, eight-year-old Shyima tolerated substandard living arrangements, received no education, and had no time for herself. It was work day and night. She kept track of time passed by the birthdays of her owners’ children.

When her owners decided to move to the United States, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure Shyima joined them. Shyima’s life of slavery continued over here, until someone dropped an anonymous tip about the suspicious girl to the police. Now free, Shyima’s struggles didn’t end. She faced court trials, foster family drama, and the struggle of trying to find her place in a very different culture. But in the end, you can see that she’s happy and optimistic about life and eager to educate the American public about the modern-day slave trafficking problem.

Hidden Girl is a great book, taking its reader through a whole range of emotions. Cowriter Lisa Wysocky did an excellent job keeping a very foreign and little girlish voice to the narrative. And it was encouraging for me to learn that the Orangewood Children’s Home (with which my old church had been involved) played a positive role in helping her. The book is good evidence that – even though there’s a lot of social and economic issues abroad – there are real problems here at home that need our attention too.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

‘A Girl’s Guide to Moving On’ (Book Review)

Middle-aged Leanne has put up with her husband’s cheating for so long that she’s forgotten what it was like to be loved in her younger days. She’s content, however, to continue the charade her marriage has become, that is until she realizes the price of her silence. Her son has followed in his father’s footsteps, disregarding his own marriage vows. Leanne, now fearful that her grandson too will grow up thinking that cheating is acceptable, informs her daughter-in-law Nicole of the infidelity; and both women promptly begin divorce proceedings. Offering each other support and encouragement through the process, they eventually learn how to “move on,” coping with financial changes and finding new love.

Only the last line above refers to the actual plot of Debbie Macomber’s  A Girl’s Guide to Moving On (Ballantine, 2016). The rest is merely backstory, which if it had been included, I think would have made a more exciting book. Instead the reader is treated to two overly clichéd romances. Both women are supposed to be “classy” but fail to show it. Both ex-husbands try to manipulate our heroines’ lives (rather than basking in their newfound freedom, go figure). Both new love interests are overly stereotyped – one a manly tow-truck driver (who punches things when angry), and the other a sensitive European (who gets unreasonably jealous). Both plots are left seriously underdeveloped because of the space taken switching back and forth from Leanne’s perspective to Nicole’s.

I liked the close relationship the author shows between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. I also like Leanne’s personal growth as she learns how to forgive her ex-husband. But I finished the book wishing for more substance. A Girl’s Guide to Moving On might work if you’re looking for something mundane to read in bed before dozing off or while waiting for your kid to get out of soccer practice. Otherwise, I recommend giving it a pass.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced reading copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on GoodReads.com. There was no obligation to write a review.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Engraving Heavenly Truths – Survey of the New Testament

In an effort to standardize our children’s Bible class curriculum here at Alhambra Church of Christ, our unofficial minister of children’s education purchased the Engraving Heavenly Truths Series, put out by D. L. Woods Publications, that came highly recommended by another congregation. The EHT Series is a four-year systematic study of the Bible and Church doctrines, designed for flexible use with any age group.

The curriculum is really bare bones. The foundation is actually a flashcard packet of “facts” to memorize (like a catechism) and a booklet containing content outlines with some additional details and verses. The wording is designed to be consistent with the Authorized Version of the Bible (called the King James Version) and its modern update, the New King James Version (NKJV). There are some supplemental materials available, but most of the responsibility for creating the lesson and suitable activities rests with the teacher. This explains why the writers suggest devoting the previous quarter to course preparation.

Right now, our children are working on EHT-1, Survey of the Old Testament with another teacher, and I’ll be heading up EHT-2, Survey of the New Testament during the second quarter, beginning in April. (Our year begins in January, not September like most congregations.) As I’m preparing over the next couple of months and then teaching, I’ll be blogging my thoughts about the curriculum. I hope that these upcoming blog posts are informative for my readers, especially those who might be considering using EHT.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

‘Fallen: Out of the Sex Industry and Into the Arms of the Savior’ (Book Review)

As a little girl, Annie Lobert longed for love and acceptance. Instead she learned that she was worthless in the eyes of others, from her emotionally abusive father to the men she met at bars and clubs, who thought nothing of drugging and raping her. Anxious to gain control over her life, she turned to “high-class prostitution,” making some serious money. But what she thought would be a short-term job (to save up for school, of course) soon turned into a terrifying form of slavery.

If you’re looking for something to read this Human Trafficking Awareness Month (or anytime really), consider Fallen: Out of the Sex Industry and Into the Arms of the Savior (Worthy, 2015). Part testimonial, part memoir, this book tells the heartbreaking story of Annie Lobert’s experience working as an “escort” in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and her home state Minnesota. While a life of expensive jewelry, handbags, and cars might appear glamourous to some, Lobert reveals the darker side of being a sex worker, including the toxic relationship between her and her pimp. Now free from that life, the founder of Hookers for Jesus devotes her time to reaching out to other prostitutes and raising public awareness.

Despite its heavy topic, Fallen is a quick read. I attribute this to the fact that the story didn’t grip me the way similar ones have. Perhaps this is due to the author’s style of writing. Lobert doesn’t allow the events of the story to unfold naturally. For example, we learn of her eventual reconciliation with her father when she’s first trying to explain her troubling childhood, instead of later in the book. Hindsight influences her comments about being used and manipulated by lovers, clients, her escort agency, and her pimp. And we don’t get to see how her miscarriages and clinical abortions affected her while she was a prostitute because she doesn’t mention them until the end, when discussing how difficult it was to forgive herself. The end result is a lack of a clear picture of how Lobert finally became aware of her situation, decided to get out for good, and came to convert to charismatic Christianity.

I appreciate Lobert opening up about her past. It’s not easy for anyone to do. I also appreciate her willingness to speak frankly about the sex industry, when many under-informed people promote it in the name of freedom and many Christians prefer to turn a blind eye to its victims in the name of upholding decency. While there is always room for improvement, Fallen is an important book in the growing number of resources addressing this social problem. For that reason, I think it deserves your consideration.

Monday, January 4, 2016

‘Unsung Heroes (and a Few Villains)’ Bible Study (Book Review)

At a conference early last year (2015), a speaker recommended Wanda Robinson’s Unsung Heroes (and a Few Villains): A Women’s Study of Lesser-Known Men in the Old Testament (Gospel Advocate, 2015). I decided not to judge the book by its messy title and bought a copy. Unfortunately, that book recommendation was probably better left ignored.

The study guide contains thirteen chapters, each centered on some of the relatively minor roles found in the Bible: Ishmael, Hur, Ithamar, Caleb, Korah, Achan, Boaz, Nabal’s servant, the 450 prophets of Baal, Gehazi, the man who touched Elisha’s bones, King Manasseh, and Ebed-Melech. The author notes some key lessons the reader can learn along with some questions for group discussion.

While I liked the overall idea and appreciated some of the insights offered, I was overwhelmingly disappointed with the book. There’s enough commentary in the Bible on some characters like Caleb and Boaz to draw some conclusions. However, featuring others like Hur and Ebed-Melech just led to a lot of unfounded speculation. The bitter truth is that the Bible just doesn’t give enough information about many individuals for us to undertake a worthwhile character analysis. Imaginative elaborations might work for fictionalized stories and feature films, but pretending that certain case studies exist when they don’t isn’t helpful for a Bible study, especially a grown-ups’ one.

The other thing that bothered me was the factual errors. This not only calls into question the author’s competence, but also that of the editor. Robinson confuses the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. (No, Babylon was never the Assyrian capital.) She claims that Ishmael was a slave because of his mother’s status. (No, this wasn’t colonial Virginia.) And she repeats a really silly story about Zulus catching ring-tailed monkeys with melons. (It’s ring-tailed lemurs. And what those Zulus were doing in Madagascar, I don’t know.) Clearly, the author never did her research, and this is the age of Google.

Needless to say, I can’t pass on the recommendation. In many churches, women’s education is sadly neglected, but books like this one don’t improve the situation. We don’t need more authors who take passages out of context or repeat a story as true because it makes a desired point. We don’t need more authors who cite one verse in six different Bible versions when Strong’s Concordance will just tell you that na‛ar can mean both “servant” and “young man.” Instead, we need authors who will fact-check, authors who will bring the content up a notch. And we need ruthless editors, who will send manuscripts back for revision until they’re truly ready for publication.