Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dangerbooks! Buy This Book So I Can Go to Ethiopia

In the current reading climate, books that confront the status quo are often strategically overlooked in favor of books that are "safe for the whole family" or some other category of innocuousness. Given the choice between reading a book that makes us feel comfortable and one that makes us feel uncomfortable, we'll more often than not choose comfort. It's the books that make us uncomfortable, though--and by that I don't mean books that manipulate us with portraits of savagery or salacious details of sexual experimentation, but rather books that poke and prod at the presumed legitimacy of the comfortable life--such books are born in a belly-fire, written because they can't not be written. The best of them aren't driven by sales but by, I dare say, the Spirit.

The authors of books that threaten to change people don't see their writing as a sort of literary 401k, so they don't typically expect to break sales records. Nevertheless, I like to do my part to showcase them and their books, as much out of appreciation for their impact on me, as out of my conviction that the responsibility of publishing is to push and stretch and confront and afflict, even as it encourages and empowers and even comforts. So without further ado, I offer my latest Dangerbooks! review, this one of Buy This Book So I Can Go to Ethiopia!

Buy This Book's author, Tony Melton, is an unassuming guy. Local to the core, he substitute-teaches in our mutual hometown of Lombard, Illinois, but when he's not teaching (and even when he is) he's getting it done. I and other friends have nominated Tony on multiple occasions for Lombard citizen of the year, and I suspect the only reason he hasn't won yet is that he puts so much of his energy into the people of Lombard who are perennially overlooked or even actively marginalized by the kind of people who would deign to select and award someone with a "Citizen of the Year" award. Tony is a tireless advocate of the homeless community where we live, and not just in systematic or programmatic ways but in true relationship. He and his family know the names of the men and women who wander the streets from shelter to shelter; they know his name too, and the names of his wife and kids. While other shelter volunteers hide in the kitchen or struggle to come up with conversation topics, Tony is back-slapping and organizing book discussions and fantasy football leagues.

Those relationships inform many of the insights of Tony's book. The goal of the book is Ethiopia, but the context of the book is decidedly local and everyday, an exploration of what following Jesus offers and entails for your average American. Much of what emerges as he chases that question is a frank but winsome critique of middle-class priorities, and the hidden damage they do to those of us in the middle-class, and the great things they prevent us from doing and experiencing. The structure of the book (he calls it a "blook," book + blog, but that's just an excuse to write how he talks) is twenty-two "ideas" that have come to him as he tries to live as a person of faith somewhere in middle America. The first idea is "Quit Your Job"; the second is "Stop Biting Your Nails." One would think that these ideas are mutually exclusive, but Tony's so crazy that he makes them seem sensible together.

You'll see pretty quickly that Tony is an unembarrassed fan of megachurch Willow Creek and its present and former pastoral staff, particularly Bill Hybels and John Ortberg. For the record, I'm a former member of Willow Creek and I retain a fondness for both those leaders (my wife has a bit of a crush on Ortberg, and honestly so do I). But from the book you would never picture Tony sipping a Lamb of God Latte or freely mashing up Gospel stories with Stephen Covey leadership principles, or whatever you imagine when you hear megachurch. What you imagine when you read his book is pretty much what he is: a down-to-earth guy eagerly anticipating God's kingdom come, God's will done. Read enough of Tony's stuff and you'll start imagining "every valley . . . raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground . . . level, the rugged places a plain" (Isaiah 40:4).

Tony needs 500 people to buy this book so he can go to Ethiopia, where he'll meet and imagine with people from the village that gave him two nieces. I'd love to see enough people buy this book so he can visit again and again, like a good neighbor would, and help us better understand our own faith by the insights he brings back from our brothers and sisters there. To that end, if you'd like to contact Tony about the book or bring him to your church to speak, let me know and I'll get him in touch with you.

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