Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Review: Anybody Can Be Cool but Awesome Takes Practice

Title: Anybody Can Be Cool but Awesome Takes Practice

Author: Lorraine Peterson

Date: 1988

Publisher: Bethany House

ISBN: 1-55661-040-8

Length: 208 pages

Quote: “Peace was certainly what she needed. She was sure that Jesus had plenty of it. But how could she get some?”

Lorraine Peterson wrote several less-than-a-full-year “daily devotional” books for Christian teenagers. She had a following before she wrote this one. Knowing that may help balance reader reactions to the introductory “devotional” essay, which warns us that this book will focus on the idea of resisting bad ideas “suggested by Satan.”

Some Christians do find it helpful to picture “angels” and “devils,” more literal and credible than the familiar cartoon versions, as the sources of the good and bad ideas that pop into our minds. Others do not. So…if you’re in the intended audience for this book, you’re the former type of Christian, or at least you’re not offended by that way of talking about these things.

Personally, I don’t rely on angel-and-devil imagery very often. With time and practice it gets easy to spot and ignore really bad ideas, to trace emotional moods to food reactions and hormone cycles rather than spiritual crises…one even begins to suspect that some people who see “devil” influences everywhere are judging their neighbors in a downright satanic way.

This is not, however, proof of special spiritual enlightenment. Martin Luther found it helpful not only to visualize Satan suggesting bad ideas to him (brilliant and highly educated as he was!) but, occasionally, to throw things at Satan, as do Muslim pilgrims at Mecca. Jesus reported only one face-to-face confrontation with Satan, but He talked as if He perceived the Evil Principle as a person—and as a father.

So here is a book for teenagers who are able to see everything going on in their lives as part of the Cosmic Conflict Between Christ and Satan. On page 13, Peterson gives the example of a teenager who’s somehow been left out of a social club activity. “Taking advantage of your disappointment and hurt feelings, the devil stages a full-scale, lonely, left-out loser attack.” The devil? Y’mean…like…teenagers haven’t always felt self-conscious and insecure, all by themselves, since the beginning of time? “BUT THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE,” Peterson continues. (In the 1980s, children, even the word processing systems that were available didn’t always have bold or italic fonts, and most people used typewriters, so many of us typed in ALL CAPS to express the kind of emphasis we would now express with italics.) “It’s replacing the devil’s lies with God’s truth. Let God’s word form your thoughts: ‘Love covers over a multitude of sins’ (1 Pet. 4:8). You can decide to love and forgive regardless of the reason you were not invited.”

Ah, yes…note that the alternative of deciding to reconsider why you, the left-out teenager, wanted to be in this crowd in the first place, and find other things to do with your free time, is not discussed. Funnily enough, it is discussed in the Bible, where Christians are told that, if people don’t want to listen to us or attend meetings with us, we should leave those people and ritually “shake the dust off your feet…as a witness against them.” That’s one of those Bible texts a certain kind of Sunday School book never acknowledged. Why not? Well, for one thing, church youth groups can be some of the cliquiest places on Earth, and if young people “shake the dust off their feet” certain churches would find themselves left with only one or two little snobs whining that the church doesn’t have a youth group.

Perhaps more important for writers like Peterson, though, is the fact that discussing a whole range of options in strictly human terms would make it harder to identify one choice with the angels and one other choice with the devils. At least these writers would have to dig into the reality that it might be possible for Left-Out Lee to decide, either to move away from Bill, Tom, and Judy after the snub, or to ignore the snub and plan to do something else with them next week, or to trace the snub to its origin and get the ego boost of learning that just one member of the group is actually jealous of Lee, or to confront the whole group about having been left out, or to complain to an adult, or do other things in this situation, for either “angelic” or “devilish” reasons. That would be more complicated; it would move the whole book to a college rather than a high school level. It might even give some high school readers the idea that making moral choices is a very complex, confusing process that involves a lot of hair-splitting that they, themselves, aren’t ready to try to understand.

Before simply saying that Peterson oversimplifies things and thus dispenses bad advice, I think back…it's not always bad advice. In fact, the day twenty or so church college friends took a day trip, I asked his co-worker Joe, “Where is John? I would have thought he’d want to come along.”

“He agreed to work in my place,” Joe said cheerfully. Even though I, personally, wished John had come along and Joe had stayed behind, everyone thought John had been very generous to forego this visit to people most of us felt we had known more closely than John did. Next time, we agreed, John had to be particularly invited.

Next week when I mentioned the trip to John he said, “I agreed to work Joe’s shift, but he didn’t tell me you were going there!”

It would have been erroneous if John had concluded that we didn’t like him, whether he’d felt angry, felt hurt, or felt that he was more interested in other activities and people anyway, and whether he’d listened to the angels or to the devils about what he might have done with any of those emotions based on his mistake. It really was sensible that John chose to pass over the offense and enjoy the next trip. Only Joe was guilty of any intention to snub John, whatsoever, and even Joe was only guilty of putting his desire to enjoy the trip ahead of John’s. There was no perception of John as a loser anyone wanted to leave out; there was even a consensus that John had to be invited first, next time.

In this and many other examples scattered through the book, Peterson is drawing on her experience as a teacher, describing the most common way she’s seen these stories play out. Her advice may be oversimplified enough to be wrong for some young readers, some of the time. More often, although oversimplified, it will be right.

My advice to teenagers would therefore be that Peterson’s books certainly are not the Bible. If you go along and get along and make nice when you believe you’re among Christians, and avoid people who are not Christians, which is the general tendency of what Peterson recommends…sometimes you will go wrong and end up more confused (and possibly harmed) than ever. More of the time, you’ll be doing a “right thing,” if not the “right thing,” and you’ll be able to find more precise and helpful answers by working through the questions Peterson’s sort of advice will raise.

So, Anybody Can Be Cool is recommended, with some reservations, to teenagers. (Especially to the one who’s willing to commission me to knit a Norwegian-style sweater like the one in the cover photo. Any day now those things are due to come back to the height of fashion, and I enjoy knitting them.) “‘Follow the leader’ is a game designed for kids,” Peterson says. For Christian “kids,” whether they’re teenagers who are just beginning to think about making Christian choices or adults who are thinking about making Christian choices as “baby Christians,” the game of following Jesus as Leader is a good game to play. this a Fair Trade Book? I'm not sure. Peterson isn't active in cyberspace and it looks as if she may have died--less than a year ago. If that was another Lorraine Peterson, and the author of this book is still alive, I'll be glad to upgrade this one to Fair Trade Book status. As things are, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of this page; you could fit at least five of Peterson's other paperback devotionals for high school readers into the package, for a total of $35.