Monday, September 1, 2014

Overrated, by Eugene Cho

The subtitle of Eugene Cho's book Overrated: Are We More In Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World? asks a compelling question.  Cho's answer: yes.  Cho writes that "we are more in love with the idea of compassion and justice than we are with actually putting it into practice" and that "we love compassion and justice . . . until there's a personal cost to living compassionately, loving mercy, and seeking justice."

Cho, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, and founder of One Day's Wages, writes this as confession as much as a challenge to the rest of us.  As he and his family struggled with what justice and compassion mean for Christians, they decided to give away a year's salary.  I don't know that there are many of us who would be able to pull that off, but he did.  His mission: to demonstrate a "lifestyle of enough.  We have enough.  We are blessed and blessed immensely.  God has given us enough.  God is our enough."    

With the resources, information, and communication we have, Cho calls us the "most overrated generation in human history."  Looking at Facebook posts and social media, someone might think that we are radically committed to a wide variety of causes, but we are rarely willing to make sacrifices and really make a difference.  "People who demonstrate support for causes and organizations on social media, such as Facebook, actually do less in real life."

I especially liked two of Cho's emphases.  First of all, changing the world and seeking justice must start with prayer and contemplation.  Just as Jesus took time to get away for prayer and to spend time with his Father, so must we.  Cho puts it bluntly: "Shut up, listen, and pray."  Second, when we do take action, it should be done with the right preparation and information.  Remember that "having a good heart is not enough."  It's not about our heart and what makes us feel good, but about the lives of others in need.  In this vein, he openly questions the effectiveness of short-term mission trips.  The money and time resources used for these trips are often wasted.  "Spending more money to visit in person and see the work than you are investing in the work is ludicrous."  At the same time, he does allow that "the value in international travel and 'vision trips' remains."

Cho gives readers an honest, personal challenge to be thoughtful and deliberate about their giving and actions in the name of justice.  The bottom line is that it's not up to us to change the world.  Rather, "God called us into this journey not just to 'change the world' but more so to change us." It's a reminder that we could all heed.

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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Kids Gone Wild, by Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle

I have 3 kids, ages 15, 13, and 12.  So don't you think I'm a little bit interested in protecting them from the insidious influences that surround them?  But wait, what's really out there?  In Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex, Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle examine the much-publicized trends of sex bracelets, rainbow parties, and sexting.  Their bottom line: these media-driven artificial crazes should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Playing on the fears of parents of teens, who assume the worst and are easily convinced that kids these days are much more sexual active than prior generations, the media takes isolated stories, runs a few uncritical "news" stories, and creates an artificial crisis.  Best and Bogle review media coverage, which becomes news stories reporting on news stories, repeating each other without adding to the body of information.  They also review social media and other internet sources to determine attitudes and occurrences of teen sexual behavior.  Despite the breathless, titillating news reports, Best and Bogle conclude that although there may be isolated examples of kids participating in sexual behavior due to the sex bracelet game and rainbow parties, there is no basis to believe that it is as widespread as the media hype would suggest.

The media has more basis for reporting on sexting.  However, the media would have adults believe that every teen with a smart phone is sexting.  Again, the media reports what other media reports, repeating the same stories again and again.  They couple "the most extreme examples to statistics indicating that sexting was widespread" creating a misleading picture.  Although it is a problem when teens do it, "the problem of teen sexting was not nearly as dire as the media's portrayal suggested."

When you think about the implications of these so-called teen sex trends, it makes sense that they are overblown.  Do they happen?  Sure.  Teens are interested in sex, and sometimes act on their interest.  Does the media help by airing these stories?  Yeah, they give ideas to kids, creating self-fulfilling trends.  Yet, as Best and Bogle demonstrate, many demographic studies show that kids today are no more sexually active than teens in the past, perhaps less so.

Their arguments ring true, although their writing is unnecessarily repetitive and their tendency to dismiss a concern about teen sex as completely unwarranted.  Parents should not be sucked into the hype about these supposed trends, but that doesn't mean they should not be concerned, as parents of teens of every generation ought to be, about their teens' sexual knowledge and activities.  I do like their admonition for parents not to assume the worst about their kids: "The younger generation deserves better than how we talk about them."

Kids Gone Wild is more about analyzing media coverage of sexual trends than it is about being a parent of a teen.  I'm glad to know that these trends are not as widespread as the media would have us believe. No matter how widespread they might be, I am no less convinced that I have a tough job as a parent hoping and praying that my kids will reach adulthood with their innocence, morality, and virginity intact.

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chimpanzee, by Darin Bradley

It's the New Depression.  The economy is in the tank.  What is an unemployed PhD in rhetoric to do?  Well, go to work for the Homeland Renewal Project, of course.  And if he can't pay off his student loans, he'll have to go to "Repossession Therapy" and surrender the knowledge that he has yet to pay for.  This is the near-future America that Darin Bradley creates in Chimpanzee.

Benjamin Cade dutifully reports for his homeland renewal assignments, and doesn't fail to attend his repossession therapy sessions.  But seeking a teaching outlet, he decides to start giving free lectures at a public plaza.  His following grows, and soon he finds himself swept up in an underground counterculture that he was only dimly aware existed.

Bradley's future America is believable, if a little exaggerated, developing current trends of a shrinking middle class and subsequent government expansion in social welfare.  He takes the lessons of the Great Depression and portrays an America that has forgotten said lessons.  I was reminded throughout of Chuck Palahniuk's fiction, only more coherent and with less of a twist at the end.  Chimpanzee is much more enjoyable to read than Palahniuk, and it does have a nice twist, but ultimately it's not as satisfying as some of Palahniuk's endings.  Also, I haven't seen 12 Monkeys in a while, but the underground movement in Chimpanzee reminded me of that movie, and not just because of the monkey imagery.

Bradley develops the action from Cade's lectures, interspersing academic lectures with action and political commentary. The result is interesting, intelligent fiction, sort of sic-fi-ish.  I enjoyed Chimpanzee somewhat, but I wouldn't call it an absolute page turner.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Optical Illusions, by Gianni Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber

I remember loving these optical illusions books as a kid.  Gianni Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber have teamed up again in Optical Illusions: An Eye-Popping Extravaganza of Visual Tricks.  Many of these are fresh takes on classic illusions.  Some are wholly original, like this one:
Sarcone and Waeber classify the illusions in several chapters, and leave the explanations or solutions for the back of the book.  Some of these I didn't quite get until after reading the solutions.  I appreciated their explanations, especially as they discussed how the eye and brain analyze color and adjust for what we expect to see.  You will be tempted to return to these, with a straight edge, a ruler, and other means to help your brain make sense of what you think you are seeing.  Optical Illusions is a very interesting diversion.

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Conjugal Union, by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George

Hardly a week goes by that same-sex marriage (SSM) doesn't make the news.  Unfortunately, Christians have done a poor job of holding up traditional marriage as society's norm.  As public opinion sways in favor of approval of SSM, Christians will soon find themselves in the minority as they defend traditional marriage.  To answer this lack, Patrick Lee and Robert P. George have written Conjugal Union: What Marriage is and Why It Matters.  This is not a book about SSM.  This is a book about marriage, an explanation of why marriage is, by definition, the union of one man and one woman.

Over the last couple of generations, marriage and sex have been coarsened and cheapened.  For many, sex has become "just a fun thing to do, without serious meaning or consequences." And with the rise of "no-fault divorce," divorce has become cheaper and easier and thus more common.  Both authors are conservative Catholics, and surely that perspective colors their thinking, but they argue from reason and natural law; they "do not presuppose here any revealed source of truth."

Their argument is carefully explained.  Their reasoning took me back to my years as a philosophy major.  The crux is this: "sexual intercourse is a unitary action in which the male and female complete one another and become biologically one, a single organism with respect to this function." Same-sex partners, "whatever the intensity of their emotional bond . . . cannot marry, simply because they cannot form together the kind of union marriage is."  The good of the marital union is violated in any "nonmarital sexual acts" because they "involve . . . a depersonalization of the bodily, sexual person."

When the state gets involved in defining marriage, the state is attempting to redefine it as "emotional connection, the exchange of sexual pleasure, and shared housekeeping," thus "abolishing marriage and replacing it with some other sort of arrangement--sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership to which the label 'marriage' is then reassigned."  Denying a same-sex couple the right to marry doesn't even make sense: "If Jones and Smith are denied a license to do X, their right was violated only if what they proposed to do really was X. The right or liberty to marry is fundamental, but it is a right to marry, not a right to the state's declaration that one's sexual relationship--which may be of various contours--is marriage."

I think Lee and George make an excellent case. The very definition of marriage is at stake.  A sophisticated defender of SSM would have a hard time poking holes in the logic and conclusions of their arguments.  Some may, however, object to some of their premises, thus rejecting their conclusions.    All in all, Conjugal Union is a valuable resource for those who want a thoughtful, logical, non-theological defense of traditional marriage.

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Undistorted God, by Ray Waddle

Read this book slowly.  Ray Waddle takes a breather from the world and reminds us to do the same in Undistorted God: Reclaiming Faith Despite the Cultural Noise.  Not exactly a devotional book, but not exactly a book of essays, Waddle's companionable style evokes a discussion with a wise mentor on a long walk.  He is, in fact, a big fan of walking: "Walking is the transportation industry equivalent of writing longhand--a way to slow down  your thoughts."  His text is sometimes scripture, but his text is also the world around him.

Waddle doesn't expound on contentious theological questions.  He doesn't make proclamations on the political hot buttons that Christians often take sides on.  And that makes Undistorted God particularly refreshing.  Waddle and I might disagree on many things politically and theologically.  He's a journalist, an Episcopal, and an Oklahoma Sooner.  I tend to be suspicious of all of those groups (unfairly, of course!).  But Waddle's writing transcends all that, directing the reader to be thoughtful, prayerful, meditative, and reflective.  Take time when taking communion to savor the meaning.  Soak in the canopy of stars or the stained glass at church.  Enjoy the space that worship gives your mind to turn to God.

My personality is very different from Waddle's.  I tend to rush through a book like this, like I rush through most everything else.  Undistorted God deserves to be read slowly, not just because Waddle's writing is worth reading, although it is, but also because God deserves to be pursued patiently and deliberately.  Waddle calls for slowing down, taking "the long view, a consoling sanity, a renewed search for the undistorted God."

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb

If you're like Michael Weinreb, the best days of the year are Saturdays watching your favorite college football team play.  If they're not playing that day, watching other college games is a close second.  If it's the off-season, you can watch your favorite games on YouTube, DVR, or even on an old VHS tape.  If you're like Weinreb, some of your best childhood memories are going to a college football stadium, taking in the pageantry, the crowd, and, of course, the game.  If you're like Weinreb, you will really like his new book, Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.

Weinreb grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, where he became a fan of Penn State.  As he selects, for this book, the 14 games that best encapsulate the key moments in college football history, he tends to lean toward Penn State and Big 10 games.  I won't fault him his bias; he makes a good case for each of the games covered.  Each of them are important games, and most of them had a role in altering the game in key ways.  It's actually a very clever and interesting way to track the history of college football.

As he points out, college football is at a turning point.  The BCS has given way to the playoff.  Paying players--legally--looks to be a real possibility.  Programs are bigger and more professional than ever.  The "haves" (the Power 5 teams) and "have nots" (all the rest), seem to be separating more each year.  Weinreb shows that these trends are not new, although they are coming together in an unprecedented way.

As a true college football fan, Weinreb much prefers Saturday to Sunday.  Even as a child, watching college football in his parents' basement, he began "to buy completely into the irrational faith that college football engenders."  College football is full of underdogs and unpredictable plays: "Sometimes, crazy sh-- happens, . . . and the best team doesn't win at all, and it's bizarre and glorious. . . .  It's not that we're pining for the upset; it's that we're pining for the possibility."  The difference between the NFL and college football is paralleled in the video game world.  Madden's NFL game "is for hyperactive perfectionists, just like the NFL."  EA's NCAA video game "is for sentimental nostalgists who still believe in the flukish potential of the double reverse and the triple option."  It's true that college football has unique pageantry and atmosphere, and the fan base, being made up largely of students and alumni, is more secure and dedicated than that of a professional team.  But Weinreb emphasizes this larger distinction of possibility and unpredictability as that which most sets college football apart.

Weinreb's enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that I can forgive him for his tendency toward hyperbole.  Examples: "Other than the automobile, [the forward pass] was the single most important American invention of the early twentieth century."  After Miami beat Notre Dame 58-7 in 1985, "college football never looked quite the same again."  The end of the 1982 Cal-Stanford game--"The Play"--was "the most unforeseeable single moment in the history of American sports."  The missed field goal run back by Auburn against Alabama last year "is the most holy-sh-- touchdown in the long history of holy-sh-- touchdowns. . . . the most surprising sequence in the history of college football."  I know a lot of sports writers get caught up in the moment and make these sorts of comments.  As he points out, "no sport has repeatedly co-opted the term 'Game of the Century' like college football."

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Season of Saturdays for the reminders of memorable games, bits and pieces of college football history, and the perspective Weinreb brings to the current state of impending change in college football.  Now to hunt down videos of some of these historic matchups on YouTube. . . .

(Baylor fan note: I know that despite their recent success, Baylor's football program does not have the same historical significance as programs like Penn State, USC, and Alabama, so I wasn't surprised that Weinreb didn't feature any Baylor games.  The Bears did make a cameo appearance, however.  It seems Arkansas coach Frank Boyles earned the nickname "Pooch Kick Frank" in the 1960s because of a Baylor game.  Tied 0-0 near the end of the game, Coach Broyles called a pooch kick.  The center snapped the ball over the punter's head and Baylor picked it up and scored a TD, winning the game 7-0.  Sic 'em Bears!)

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