Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Prepare, by J. Paul Nyquist

J. Paul Nyquist wants to have a word with you, you prosperous, comfortable American Christian.  You have enjoyed generations of preferential treatment, stability, and cultural dominance in the United States.  But things are changing.  Nyquist's word for you: prepare.  In Prepare: Living Your Faith In an Increasingly Hostile Culture, Nyquist, president of Moody Bible Institute, wants to remind us that the culture is changing, Christians will find themselves pushed to the margins, and none of this should be a surprise.

In recent years, high-profile news stories have shown the extent to which "the culture war is over--and we lost."  Cultural attitudes are embracing abortion rights, extra-marital sex, drug legalization, and, more than any issue, gay rights and gay marriage.  Not only are these minority positions gaining ground, their advocates frequently demand exclusion of alternate opinions.  Thus it's not sufficient to allow gay marriage, it must be embraced and advocated.

Christians who defend and practice traditional Christian values have begun to suffer persecution for their beliefs.  Nyquist believes they will to a greater and greater extent.  He turns to scripture to remind us that for Christians, persecution is the norm, as Jesus promised and as the experiences of the early Christians demonstrated.  Yet we "should face trials with joy because they produce spiritual fortitude."  They bring blessing and heavenly rewards.

However, Nyquist's bottom line is that while "America seems to be in the low ebb between revivals," it may be that we may be due for a revival.  It's certainly something we can be praying for and looking expectantly to God for.  He conclude, "If God graciously visits this land in a powerful way, the current cultural trends will be immediately arrested, biblical values will return, and the threat of persecution will disappear."

Nyquist's presentation is orderly and systematic.  His Dallas Theological Seminary classes trained him well to find the three points of every scripture passage, and to pay special attention to the significance of the verb tenses in the original Greek.  Thus, even when he is being thorough, he isn't very nuanced.  This isn't really meant to be a criticism, simply a comment on his style.

However, I do have a bit of a criticism.  As he winds up the book, after spending a lot of time telling the reader that persecution is to be expected, he turns to giving us an out through revival, and the message of the book becomes muddled.  He lists several periods of renewal in U.S. history, and indicates that each movement lead to changes in cultural mores.  So there is this circular dilemma: culture rejects Christianity, Christianity is strengthened by persecution, persecution decreases and Christianity gains cultural prominence, cultural prominence leads to a weakening of Christianity, a weakened Christianity leads to culture rejecting Christianity, and the cycle repeats.

Wherever we are in the ebb and flow of Christian history and cultural prominence, Nyquist is certainly right to point out Jesus' words.  We should never be surprised if the world despises us as Christians.  Nyquist includes a lengthy letter to the American church from a Christian leader in Pakistan.  American Christians are beginning to feel themselves being pushed to the margins culturally, but in Pakistan, generations of Christians have experienced life as second-class citizens, suffering actual physical, legal, professional, societal harm because of their faith.  While we comfortable Christians in the U.S. find it hard to relate to such a state of things, perhaps we should prepare ourselves for it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

When the Georgia flu runs rampant, killing ninety-nine percent of the world's population, society falls apart, as anyone who has read a post-apocalyptic novel or seen a post-apocalyptic movie can tell you.  In Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven, there are no zombies or motorcycle gangs terrorizing the countryside.  This is far from the worlds of World War Z or Mad Max.  Instead, we meet a gang of musicians and actors who travel from town to town performing classical music and Shakespeare's plays.  As St. John Mandel tells their story, flashing back to the time just before the flu and the early years after the collapse, this post-apocalyptic world seems much more believable than most.

St. John Mandel's style is much more artful than action-packed.  Her timeline jumps around, which was distracting at times, but by the time the end rolled around, I had grown to appreciate the way she pulled together the disparate stories of the characters.  Station Eleven strips down American culture, exposing the banality of celebrity worship and focusing on lasting beauty.  In the absence of modern technology and communication, the high art and timeless essence of King Lear and the simple beauty of a glass paperweight recall the great achievements of mankind and give hope for a renewal of humanity's greatness.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Peter & Lisa, by Charles Katz and Linda Baron Katz

In some ways, understanding someone with an evident disability--blindness, cerebral palsy, missing limbs--is easy to understand.  I'm not saying that someone without those disabilities can ever truly understand living with such a disability.  But I can imagine what it means not to be able to see, or being unable to walk, or having a hand that I can't use.

It's the invisible disabilities that are more difficult to understand.  Someone who is not bipolar, or who does not suffer from depression, may not be as quick to recognize how powerful and debilitating these disabilities can be.  Charles Katz and Linda Baron Katz, who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, have written a children's book to help build understanding of these disorders.  Peter & Lisa: A Mental Illness Children's Story tells the story of Peter and Lisa, friends who, through their mutual friend Trudy, get help for their illnesses and find love in each other.

The simple text and illustrations of Peter & Lisa probably won't win the Katzes any awards.  But the Katzes certainly accomplish the goal of the story--to help "children to understand that with the right kind of help mental illness can be treated and people can live normal, healthy, happy lives."  To me the most important message is that mental illness is not something that can be treated with will power or pushed through with hard work.  Peter and Lisa had community, in their friend Trudy and in each other, and they were willing to get professional help, including in-patient treatment and medication.  Hopefully Peter & Lisa will be a tool to remove stigmas from mental illness and encourage those who suffer from mental illnesses, as well as their families and communities, to take steps for treatment and recovery.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Divine Magician, by Peter Rollins

Sometimes a book just leaves my scratching my head, wondering "What was the point of all that?"  That's how I felt about Peter Rollins's The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith.  Not only was I left wondering what exactly Rollins was trying to accomplish, I was wondering where this guy has been to church?  Is he really drawing on his own experiences or on some stereotypical picture of church?

I'm no perfect Christian, and certainly no perfect church member, and I've never been to a perfect church, as if there is such a thing.  When people like Rollins start talking about what's wrong with "the church" or with "religion," it always seems like they get into straw man arguments that don't hold up in reality.  Rollins talks about the "snake oil claims of religious movements."  He talks about "pious professionals" in whose hands "'God' is presented as nothing less than an object that promises satisfaction and certainty."  Those professionals "hand out placebos," offer a "security blanket," and their followers rely on belief as "an emotional crutch."

To Rollins, Christianity has become "an ideological system."  Churches "create their own constellation of beliefs and practices that tell their congregants how to think and behave." His whole point is that faith in institutions and leaders is bound to disappoint, that fulfillment can't be found in ritual and dogma.  So this is news?  All my life, I have heard affirmations like the simple phrase, "Christianity is not about religion, it's relationship."  In the evangelical world in which I live, it's common knowledge that joy and wholeness and salvation are not found in a building, a pastor, a set of doctrines, or a ritual, but in a personal encounter with Jesus himself.  The reality is that oftentimes a building, a pastor, a set of doctrines, or a ritual can be instrumental in fostering such an encounter.  But Rollins wants to get rid of all of that, or at least diminish the role they play.

I don't know Rollins.  I don't know anything about him except what you can read on the book jacket or the Amazon profile.  So I don't want to pass judgment on him as a person.  All I can judge is this one book.  (And by one I mean one; I don't intend to read any more of his books.)  His writing is pretentious.  His style is that of someone fascinated with his own thoughts and caught up in his self-perceived cleverness of his own ideas.  It's the equivalent of someone who drinks only rare, organic, free trade coffee, or hard-to-find regional craft beers, and looks down on anyone who drinks grocery store coffee or national brand beers.

There, I got that off my chest.  It sounds rude, I know, but my reaction reflects the visceral offense I took to his arguments.  I love the church because I know it offers, in a very human, imperfect, distracting way, a means by which we can come to know Jesus in community.  We have screwed it up in every denomination and every generation, but the church universal is the body of Christ, and local congregations make up that body.  Rollins rejects the church in pretty much any form you see from day to day.

For all the promise of the disappearance of religion and the discovery of faith, Rollins's book was a huge disappointment.  Perhaps he unintentionally pulled a magic trick of his own.  He pulls back the curtain, tears the veil, and reveals not a revelation of a fresh approach to living as a follower of Jesus, but an empty confession of someone who's disconnected and discontented.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gateway to Freedom, by Eric Foner

The phrase "Underground Railroad" conjures up images of escaped slaves fleeing through woods and swamps, crossing perilous rivers, getting assistance from kind-hearted farmers' families, and crossing the border to Canada.  While there is much truth in that stereotype, historian Eric Foner presents a much more complex picture in Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

Foner, a historian at Columbia University, focuses much of his attention on the activities of the underground railroad in New York City.  Drawing on some previously unexamined records kept by organizations aiding fugitive slaves, Foner details the work of sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating groups.  I found it interesting that the work of the Underground Railroad was so varied.  For example, one point of contention was the support of helping escaped slaves get to freedom as opposed to working toward "making their own soil free."

Even though major Underground Railroad groups worked in New York, New York was not necessarily a great place for anti-slavery activists or for former slaves.  Much of the business of southern agriculture and trade went through the financial houses of New York; they were not clamoring for the end of slavery.  Slave hunters moved freely about the city, entering private homes and churches to find their prey.  As in many other places, free blacks were regularly kidnapped and sold into slavery, as in Twelve Years a Slave.

Gateway to Freedom is very readable; it's not written only for the scholar or professional historian.  However, the stories Foner tells of the experiences of the slaves are too short to satisfy the reader looking for drama.  There is so much drama to be found here.  Any one of the stories he hints at could be a gripping movie or book.  But drama is not his purpose.  He provides context and structure to what we think of as the Underground Railroad.  It's not as simple as is popularly thought, but turns out to be much more interesting and real.  Foner is to be commended for adding to body of knowledge of this troubling, but important and inspiring, chapter in American history.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unbreakable, by W. C. Bauers

W.C. Bauers is a strong new voice in military sci-fi.  His first novel, Unbreakable, introduces Promise Paen, a tough soldier who is climbing the ranks and bringing the pain (pun intended, of course) to all comers.  After witnessing her father's murder and her home's destruction by raiders, Promise joined the Republic of Aligned Worlds Marines.  Little did she know that she would end up defending her home world from being taken over by the RAW's cold war enemies, the Lusitanian Empire.

Bauers does a nice job of setting the political stage, but not letting that get in the way of the story.  The RAW and LE are not at war, but there are contested worlds like Montana, the planet from which Promise hails.  Sitting strategically between the two alliances, both would like to bring Montana into the fold.  When the LE tries to do so by subterfuge and force, Promise leads the Marines in the defense of Montana.

Don't worry, if I made that sound confusing, it's really not.  Bauer's focus is on Promise and her platoon.  They use a lot of sci-fi military tech and weaponry, but life in a platoon and on the battlefield, when you get to boots on the ground, doesn't change much.  Marines are concerned about defeating the enemy and defending their brothers and sisters in arms.  Baeur writes with the feel of someone who has served in combat or who has a great knowledge of and respect for those who have.

One odd story telling device that didn't seem to fit: Promise is regularly visited by her deceased mother. Is she a ghost?  Only in Promise's head?  Somehow attached to Promise's gun (which used to belong to her mother)?  Bauer uses these visits to fill in Promise's back story, so they are important for learning more about Promise, but it's just sort of odd. . . .  And never really explained. . . .

Bauer writes about this future of human colonization in way that I could embrace.  As The Chronicles of Promise Paen continue, I'll be interested in his fleshing out the demise of Earth and the logistical, political history of the expansion of the RAW, LE, and other alliances.  Unbreakable is familiar ground for sci-fi fans, who are comfortable with the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other universes in which mankind's territorial disputes include planets and star systems rather than islands and continents.  But Bauer's convincing character development, hard-hitting military action, and a gift for story telling promise (pun intended, of course), more great adventures for Promise Paen.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Lions of Lucerne, by Brad Thor

Millions have come to love Brad Thor's literary creation, Scot Harvath.  Ex-SEAL, Secret Service agent, hunter of terrorists, Harvath's legacy begins in The Lions of Lucerne.  The seemingly invincible Harvath, working in the Secret Service, saves the life of the president's daughter during an attack, but many of his colleagues are killed in the process and the president himself disappears to points unknown.  Middle-eastern terrorists are suspected, but Harvath is too smart to be fooled by the ruse.  Following a trail of clues that everyone else misses, as well as his intuition, Harvath tracks down the Lions of Lucerne.  I don't think I'd be revealing too much to let slip that he saves the day. . . .

Sure, Harvath is larger than life.  Sure, he is inconceivably lucky.  Sure, there is sometimes a cartoonish, melodramatic flavor to the story and the action.  But this isn't Jane Austen.  This isn't Ernest Hemingway.  It's fast-paced, raw meat, superhero, special forces, flag-waving action and adventure!  It's fun to read, fun to observe as Harvath puts the puzzle together, fun to see him get the girl, and fun to see the bad guys lose and lose big.  The Lions of Lucerne starts out with Harvath serving in the secret service White House detail.  As Thor's readers are well aware, Harvath's future is much broader than that, hunting terrorists where they roost.  The Lions of Lucerne sets up that future.

One word on the audio book.  I listened to the abridged version (that's what they had at the library).  It tells the story efficiently, but it definitely had the feel of being abridged.  On many occasions, I had to check my iPod to see if it skipped a track.  The shifts in action were just too abrupt.  I should have waited for the unabridged edition.