Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs Ethan K. Bryan (eLection Publishing) regularly $15.99 - our sale price $12.79
In the last few BookNotes I've introduced you to some pretty serious books - from old theology to new liturgy, from a good, young writer talking about hard times to a respected older writer talking about God's divine conspiracy. Soon I'm going to share an important list of books about some very heavy stuff, so for today I'm going to tell you about the feel-good book of the summer.
Interestingly, fun as it is, it includes some data about, and reveals a huge heart to work against sexual trafficking and modern day slavery. I'm glad to say that even though it has a sub-theme about justice, it is about that quintessential American game, baseball, but, even more, about the simple joy of having a game of catch. Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs is truly delightful, an enjoyably nice read, and at times, even stirring. I'll admit, one touching chapter just slayed me and I closed the book, happy about the ending, but wishing for more. I loved this book about playing catch and trying to bring release to the captives.
I have previously reviewed Ethan's other two books about baseball. Run Home and Take a Bow (Samizdat; $14.99) is about a summer full of going to Kansas City Royal games and what our intrepid author learned as he followed his team (read my rave review, here) and Striking Out ALS: A Hero's Tale (eLectio; $9.99) a moving, short account of a beloved coach and his struggle against Lou Gehrig's disease. Ethan is a great storyteller, earnest and kind. He is a fine theological thinker, too, but doesn't often wear that on his sleeve; in these books, his love of the game, and those who play it (not to mention the fans, who he also loves) are his happy place. And it will be yours, too, even if you aren't a true blue fan like Ethan.
Even though Ethan is a wholesome Missouri family man - I don't think he has a cynical bone in his body and he exudes joy and sincerity - he is passionate about a few things other than baseball, Dr. Pepper, and his beloved wife and two daughters. (I think that may be in the wrong order, but I'm not sure of that.) He used to work in youth ministry and really loves kids, especially the less than popular teens, the goof-ups and loners and trouble-makers. He loves playing guitar and writing songs about freedom and God and hope. (And, yep, wrote a little book about that, too; Tales of the Taylor: Songs That Changed the World (eLectio; $9.99) tells about playing songs and getting signatures on the wooden body of his beautiful six-string Taylor at various little venues and gigs at which he has played. Did I mention that he's a born storyteller?) Ethan can't help himself - his whole life is a story, and nearly everybody that he meets ends up being a part of his grand adventure. He was doing Bob Goff before anybody read Love Does and realized his life was a storyline before Donald Miller explained how to live as if they are making your life into a movie in Thousand Miles in a Million Years. Mr. Bryan, a graduate of Truett Theological Seminary and man of many talents, loves to eat and play and talk and dream and now sees himself primarily as a writer. His life is a story and he loves to write about it.
Oh, and, by the way: he wants to end slavery.
It is just that simple.
Like many younger evangelicals Bryan combines solid faith, sincere worship, with a broad vision of compassion, social change, and public justice. The issue of sexual trafficking appeared on his radar screen early on.
In fact, on the back cover of Catch and Release there is a tone that sounds like an old comic book plot, or the trailer from an action-hero movie. It reads, "At the intersection of the fight to end human trafficking and a love of baseball stands one man." I bet you didn't know there was an intersection between the right to end human trafficking and a love of baseball. But now you do. And you know who stands there: One Man. That would be your humble author, Missourian Ethan D. Bryan.
NOT FOR SALE
Years ago, in fact, he ordered from us the essential Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It by David Batstone (HarperOne; $16.99.) He calls Batstone Dave the Abolitionist. (He calls me Byron the Bookseller, and it's hilarious to see that in print; thanks, Ethan the Namer.) Ethan ought to himself be called Ethan the Abolitionist, because he is always thinking about ways to generate interest in the anti-trafficking cause, always telling people about the need to rise up against great injustice, promoting organizations like the organization Not for Sale. His slightly Southern/mid-Western charm, his good humor, and his love of sports (and losing sports teams) makes him an ideal spokesperson for social justice issues -- seriously; we don't need more hard-core activists turning people off with uber-radical rhetoric or thinking they can't get involved since they don't understand the issues (or have time to commit to full-time activism themselves.) Using no tactics of shame or guilt, Ethan takes his children to events, gathers one dollar bills from kids, talks to PTOs and church suppers and at Little League games, and invites ordinary folks to care a bit more, to act on their own deepest concerns, and to pony up some dough to set slaves free.
I love the spat of books by ordinary people insisting that we all can make a difference - Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery by Shayne Moore & Kimberly McOwen Yim (IVP; $15.00), for instance, is pitched as a guide for anyone, showing just what two soccer moms can do, and it is a great, great book, by two women I admire. You should order it from us.
But Ethan doesn't live in a big city, doesn't have Bono on speed dial, he doesn't even have a very stable family budget and his book are on homespun indie presses. When Ethan Bryan says anybody can make a difference, truly ordinary readers will be inspired, empowered, even, as they say. When he tells you just a little about the horrific slavery going on in our world today - from sweat shops in Pakistan to brothels in San Diego to bonded servitude in central Africa - and how children are at risk, it is informative but not overwhelming and it is not harsh. It isn't harsh because he's having such a good time making a difference.
You see, as Catch and Release explains, Ethan thinks the hard-boiled, grim world of production and consumerism and self-centeredness that fuels so many social injustices can be countered by an ethos of play. Yep, there it is. I told you it was simple. Ethan thinks -- and he could wax philosophical about this if he had to -- that grace and gratitude and community (virtues and realities that you can learn in games and simple play) can erode the awful values that drive our culture's dysfunctions. Greed and ugliness cannot be simply overcome by "Chicken Soup for the Soul" cheeriness, of course, but Bryan is on to something. From the thoughtful and fun The Well-Played Life explored recently by Leonard Sweet to the sophisticated aesthetic theory of Calvin Seerveld found in Rainbows for the Fallen World we are reminded that play is part of what it means to be human and that leisurely recreation is vital for a healthy culture. (We've got a whole section of books about a theology of sports, by the way, including some new ones.) And what better play is there than a "nobody loses" low-stress partnership called having a catch? He writes briefly and simply about it, but it is actually pretty profound stuff.
THE (NOT SO) SIMPLE PLOT
And so, here's the simple plot: Ethan decides to play catch with people all over the country - that's part of the story as he invites folks to the game, cooks up ways to pursue this immersion journalism experience, writing about the places he goes and the people he plays catch with. It is, perhaps surprisingly, a very engaging story as the tension mounts as he awaits correspondence back from the White House, gets kicked off a major league field, as he secures small victories and admits his disappointments after large set-backs. You will want to keep turning pages, reading about his developing friendship with some Major League players, his eagerness to pitch the ball with Rob Bell on a Southern California beach, his hanging out with fans and sports journalists and celebrities and a lot of kids. In most cases, the catch is part of a fund-raising effort for Not For Sale; everywhere he goes he is a good will ambassador, and an advocate for those whose voices aren't typically heard or considered.
RECORD-SETTING GAMES OF CATCH
gotta love this: Ethan's plan is to declare himself a world record-breaking
catch player and aligns himself with an on-line
Guinness Book of World Records type outfit called Recordsetter which posts all kinds of crazy one-of-a kind records
after videos documenting the exploits are sent in and validated. Besides the never-ending quest to find
left-handed gloves for his partner players (three quarters through the book I was thinking "Dude, just buy one and keep it with all the others who carry around with you everywhere" Ethan also has to find volunteer videographers
and time-keepers. These events must be documented now.
Here they are working on the record for "Most Throws and Catches While Players Are Standing On One Foot."
These escapades -- excuses for good fun, and an opportunity to speak out against slavery, and maybe raise some cash -- usually work out well, although sometimes things backfire. Once he was playing with a Major Leaguer whose arm was worth, and probably insured for, uh, well, more than Ethan's entire assets. Suddenly, Ethan choked -- what if this star athlete did something dumb, sprained his finger or worse, and it would be Ethan's fault. A guy's career and a teams fortunes could plummet before his eyes! Goofing around with beginners or kids is one thing, but this? Major League catch? Yikes!
Once there was an epic effort made with a high school track team going for the longest game of catch played while tossing the ball while also running the mile - a stellar idea, you'd have to agree. Alas, the good folks at Recordsetting refused the video as the runners and catch-players were too far away from the cameraman; the guys doing that last long stretch while pitching back and forth to each other couldn't really be seen clearly enough. That would have been one for the record books, though, that's for sure. Rats.
Usually though, the odd-ball efforts -- a hilarious one about using the wrong handedness, another catching while holding one's breath, another with a number of nervous teens who had never played pitch and catch before -- were truly record setting and award winning. Except for one epic fail outside of a big league stadium where some nationally known sportscasters and major league wives were involved, and he still failed to reach the goal of biggest game of catch; he was hoping for 1000 people to toss the ball. They got 53 recorded, including his own wife and children and the volunteer video guy. (Where's J.R. Briggs when you need him?)
the book is endearing and funny, and you end up rooting for this screwy, knuckleball plan that takes Ethan on amazing highs (imagine getting correspondence
from the White House, or getting to hang out with famed Christian ball player
Mike Sweeney, or re-united with old high school English teachers who come out
to applaud your writing and affirm your calling as a writer.) But there are a
lot of disappointments, bitter ones, even, and Ethan doesn't really have to remind us what is at stake. His own career as a writer - following your own dream by daring greatly is a theme of the book as he longs for a way to use his writing
More urgently, of course, there are the oppressed, the captives, the slaves, and he wants his efforts to be helpful, effective. "Rescue is coming" he promises them, but for every failed catch event, every fund-raising goal missed, every clever opportunity that didn't come to fruition, he knows, and we know, that the cause is diminished. These set-backs come to matter, and we care about his efforts. Who wouldn't root for such a good plan to raise awareness and money, and who wouldn't want to know how it turns out?
Some very interesting stuff happens along the way in this campaign and his plan to write the book documenting his playing catch as a way to raise awareness about modern day slaver. Yes, he meets some famous players, notably Jeremy Affeldt who himself has written of his own major league career and how he has leveraged his fame for the sake of fighting trafficking in To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice, and Major League Baseball and a few authors and sundry public figures. Mostly, these stories unfold in small ways, giving the book an exceptionally authentic feel. Anyone who has worked in small fund raising efforts for some local team or club or to fight some disease knows how this works.
SMALL TOWN EFFORTS
It was my experience that reading the small-town, local nature of many chapters -- Watching the Minor Leagues in Arkansas! Meeting Negro Baseball League radio announcers in Missouri! A teen church retreat in, uh, I don't even recall where, but nowhere you've heard of! -- are among the very best. This is how local activism plays out, usually, not in Manhattan or DC or in the national media, but in your own town with your own family and among your own neighbors and friends. If you're lucky, your tweets get re-tweeted a time or two. Maybe you get on the six o'clock local news for 60 seconds. Big time advocates of grand plans for renewal of culture take note: Ethan illustrates the principle explained at the end of Andy Crouch's excellent Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling where he talks about starting initiatives with just a few other folks. Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs is culture-making par excellance: local, fun, well-recorded in a book to share the story, and deadly serious.
CURVE BALLS, SERIOUS STUFF
There are a few curve balls in here, and I won't spoil it. (Yes, there is am actual knuckleball, too, another nice little side-story that comes up a time or two, tied together as a good writer will.) Some chapters of Catch and Release invite us to struggle with the wisdom of some commonly-held theological views, and he tells of his own convictions and questions, as well as his own joys and sorrows along the way. I admire his simple faith and insistence that we love everyone, accepting those who see things differently; I respect his persistence in his work offered in great hope for a Christ-like social order where it is easier to be good and where all are valued. He quotes Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen, Nelson Mandella, N.T. Wright, Harriet Tubman, and other important writers, but the book is breezy and, even when challenging, not threatening. It is, as I said, a feel good book, perfect for summer reading. You will root for this dreamer, be inspired by his involvement with an on-line community helping one another follow their dreams by reading Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, Do Work That Matters (Jon Acuff's guide to fearlessly living into your greatest dreams and taking up one's calling, day-by-day, step-by-step) and how they show up to cheer him on. What a moment!
As you read you will cheer Ethan Bryan, too, and his good effort described in this fun book. And, maybe - he'd be so pleased - just maybe you'll take some time to play and have fun, celebrating creativity and joy and re-creation. Maybe you'll even get out a glove and pitch a ball around. Heck, he'd be happy if you watched Field of Dreams or read Shoeless Joe. (Yes, he has written to W.P. Kinsella. Of course he has.) Who knows, maybe you or yours will even find your own way to start something cool, making the world a little better along the way.
The book includes the author's email address, firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to create some wacky way to set a record with Recordsetter and raise some money for NFS. Give it a shot; he's always looking for a catch. Maybe he'll even give you a new moniker. As Bob Goff might exclaim, "How cool is that?"