Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

Francis Chan, a pastor in Simi Valley, California, does not seem to fit the typical best-selling pastor/author mold.  In Crazy Love, he pushes the reader to reexamine not his faith but his faithfulness to living out the faith.  This book did not really present anything new, controversial, or earth-shattering, but it provides strong reminders of well-known truths, calling Christians to passion and commitment.

Much of Chan's ministry has been built on preaching and teaching to college and young adult audiences.  He became a favorite at the Passion conferences, gatherings of Christian students hungry for radical commitment.  He planted a church in Simi Valley that has grown quickly and spawned a number of church plants.  But his teaching and ministry, as best I can see, is marked by his humility and a passion for knowing and loving God.

I first read of him in a Christianity Today profile.  His non-traditional teaching style and his church style, not building-centered or mega-church-like, attracted me.  So I picked up Crazy Love at the library to see what he's all about.  And I wasn't disappointed.

The major premise of Crazy Love states that the way we live our Christian lives ought to be marked not by a sense of obligation or legalism, but by our love for a God who loves us beyond measure.  Anything less shows a rejection of his love for us.

His chapter on lukewarm Christians struck me hardest.  Many of the items on his checklist of sure signs of a lukewarm Christian fit me uncomfortably well.  Then he goes on to point out what is clear in the Revelation 3 passage on lukewarm believers: they are neither hot nor cold, and God is about to spit them out of his mouth--in other words, they are not Christians!  Now, he does go on to say that he does "not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book."  God's grace covers us in spite of our lukewarm lives and failure to fully follow God.  But the message is clear, that half-hearted responses to God's love are not responses at all, but rejection of his courtship of us.

I was reminded at times of John Piper's books.  Piper, another Passion conference speaker and pastor in Minnesota, writes frequently of "Christian hedonism," the unyielding passion to know more of God.  Similarly, Chan compares romantic love to love of God.  If I am truly in love with someone, I want to spend as much time as possible with her, no expense is too great to spend on her, and I long for her when we are not together.  If time spent with her becomes a chore, or I am reluctant to spend money on her, or avoid her presence, I would begin to question the depths my love.  Our love for God should be marked by joyful times of fellowship with him, extravagant giving to him, and a longing for his presence.

Too often I view devotional time as a duty or mandate, giving as an act of obedience, sometimes wishing to do other things with my money, going to church as a chore, etc.  I know those attitudes are not pleasing to God, but I get stuck--how do you stir up passionate love for God when it's just not there?  The usual answer is to act: read the Bible, give more than you think you can, spend time in worship, serve in the church and the community, all out of obedience, and the love and passion will come.  Act like you love, and your heart follows.  I think there's some truth to that, but I don't know that Chan goes that way.

Chan promotes the attitude of the man in the parable who found the pearl of great price in a field, then sold everything he had to buy the field, so that he could claim that pearl as his own.  The church tends to neglect that forward thinking, focusing instead on the here and now, the things of this world.  (Whether he intends it or not, one of Chan's chapter titles, "Your Best Life. . . Later," pokes fun at a Texas megapastor's book, Your Best Life Now.)

I enjoyed Chan's challenging book, and it made me want to hear more from him.  His sermons are available as podcasts from itunes, and he has some videos expanding on the themes of the book here.  But more than wanting to hear more from Chan, it stirred up in me a desire to return to my first love, to restore the joy of my salvation.  Crazy Love has given me fodder for reflection.  It is well worth reading and will be well worth revisiting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor is one of those authors I feel like I ought to like.  Her name pops up from time to time among Christian writers I respect.  She's supposedly this great Christian writer, loved by other writers, theologians, and teachers of college fiction classes, but she is simply not to my taste.  Does that mean I'm less cultured and intelligent that people who like to read her work?  I don't think so.  Just a matter of taste, I'd say.

Wise Blood, O'Connor's first novel, follows the travels of Hazel Motes as he tries to run from God.  For reasons never made terribly clear, he's never been able to reconcile some dissatisfying or disturbing experiences of his youth with the truth of the gospel.  Hypocritical or perverted expressions of Christianity aside, as he matures couldn't he have found what he was looking for: a genuine expression of Christ's love and grace?  Instead of looking, he takes on the affectations of a preacher, preaching the Church Without Christ.  In the meantime, he hooks up with a prostitute, beds an underaged girl, and ends up murdering a rival.

The thing that bothers me most about this novel is not its attempt at satirizing and challenging complacent Christianity, but the poor story telling.  The characters, terribly wooden and one-dimensional, behave in inexplicable ways that do not fit with their portrayal and certainly do not fit with the way real people act in real life.  For instance, when a policeman pulls Motes over, Motes informs him that he doesn't have a driver's license, so of course the officer pushes Motes's car off a cliff then offers him a ride back to town. Huh?  And the disconnected, rambling plot goes nowhere.

One of my favorite stories about O'Connor, which I read years ago in the introduction to a collection of her stories, tells of her conversation with, as I recall, the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  O'Connor, born, raised, and educated in Georgia, could not make herself understood.  The midwesterner to whom she was speaking stopped her and said, "Young lady, you are going to have to stop and write down whatever it is you're saying, because I can't understand a word of it," or something to that effect.  Maybe if I lived in the deep South, I would have more appreciation for her gothic Southern tone, but for now it's falling on deaf ears.

I won't quit her forever; I understand her short fiction is her best work.  It's certainly what she's better known for, so maybe I'll pick some of that up.  Like I said, I want to like her, but for now I'll be looking elsewhere for both good storytelling and faith-challenging literature.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

In the mid-1990s, with the Republicans in full control of Congress, Gingrich's Contract with America in full swing, and a batch of new, reform-minded members of the U.S. House, I thought we might see some real change in Washington.  Maybe we will finally see smaller government that Reagan used to talk about. No such luck.  In the middle of some budget debates where the two major parties argued over who could spend more taxpayer money, I received a solicitation to join the Libertarian Party.  I was already familiar with libertarianism, but finally decided to capitalize the L.

For someone who is a big l or a little l libertarian, it gets difficult to find sources of right thinking.  So much of the media and commentary leans hard left or hard right.  Both left and right have elements of libertarian thinking, but neither provide an intellectual core for the libertarian to cling to.  Murray Rothbard gives us that core.

Starting with a libertarian take on the American Revolution, Rothbard gives a reasoned defense of libertarian thought.  The most fundamental idea is the right to self ownership.  Every person has a right to his or her own body and the right to the fruits of his or her labor.  To the extent that the state makes demands on people against their will, involuntary servitude emerges.

Rothbard applies these ideas to several area of policy.  I was with him at almost every point, until he came to the passage on abortion:
What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being's body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person, and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person's body.
I don't know how the absurdity of this can be missed by Rothbard and others.  Consider this: you come home to find that a helpless child has been deposited in your living room.  You have the right to eject the child from your home, but do you have the right to kill it?  I think not.  I point this out because so many libertarians are vehemently pro-choice, and use this type of argument, but in my view it conflicts with the greater idea of self sovereignty.

This passage aside, Rothbard brilliantly defends and applies the ideas of liberty.  He cogently rebuts those who say that courts, roads, defense, etc. must always be the realm of the state.  He provides a framework for market responses to environmental and social issues.  (On the environment, for instance, he points out that the biggest polluters are government bodies who stifle market responses to environmental concerns.)  There are places where his anecdotes and data are dated--the book was originally published in 1973--but the principles have not grown stale.  This will continue to be a resource for me as I consider and reconsider my own thinking in matters political.

The Mises Institute has provided the full text online (here), either on the web site or as a PDF file.  You may also download the mp3 version or purchase the actual book or CDs with the mp3 file.  I downloaded the whole book as a series of podcasts on itunes.  And of course you can buy it from

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Two Towers

The brilliant story of The Lord of the Rings continues in The Two Towers.  Like I said in my comments on The Fellowship of the Ring, I have little to add to what has been said about such a profound, incomparable work of fiction.  But there are a few passages that caught my attention and warrant a second look.

The Two Towers opens with Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli discovering that Merry and Pippin have been taken by the orcs.  The three take off on foot, in hot pursuit.  Now I realize that for most of the history of earth and middle earth, the main means of transportation was by foot, but as an ultrarunner in an age where most transportation is motorized, I was impressed by their speed and by the descriptions of their running.  Legolas takes the lead: "Like a deer he sprang away.  Through the trees he sped.  On and on he led them, tireless and swift."  That's the kind of pacer I would like on an ultramarathon!  "All night the three companions scrambled in this bony land, climbing to the crest of the first and tallest ridge, and down again into the darkness of a deep winding valley on the other side."  I've never run the Western States 100, but this sounds like a description of part of the course!  "As if fresh from a night's rest they sprang from stone to stone."  The smell of the lush, green valley, Legolas declares, "is better than much sleep.  Let us run!"

By the third day of their pursuit, "they hardly paused, now striding, now running, as if no weariness could quench the fire that burned them."  Gimli tired, but "My legs must forget the miles."   Legolas "still stepped as lightly as ever, his feet hardly seeming to press the grass, leaving no footprints as he passed."  When they finally meet up with the Riders of Rohan, they are impressed with the trio's speed: "The deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall.  Forty leagues and five you  have measured ere the fourth day is ended!  Hardy is the race of Elendil!"  I think a league is about three miles, so that would be 135 miles, the length of Badwater, only with no support crew, carrying packs and weapons, on trails, and tracking Orcs.  Quite an ultramarathon!

After a harrowing escape from the Orcs, Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard and the other Ents.  I love the Ents.  They are among the oldest living creatures, easily mistaken for trees.  They take their time, unlike all the other "hasty" beings.  Their language, definitely not hasty, "is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to."

Despite their unhastiness, they do have the capacity for decisiveness.  After the council of the Ents, at which they decided that they must march against Saruman at Isengard, Treebeard acknowledges that they decided quickly, for Ents, perhaps too quickly, acting without thinking.  "They are all roused now, and their mind is all on one thing: breaking Isengard. . . . We have a long way to go, and there is time ahead for thought.  It is something to have started."  Then, in what must portray the mind of anyone going to war, Treebeard reflects, "Of course, it is likely enough, my friends, likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents.  But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.  That thought has long been growing in our hearts, and that is why we are marching now."  Pippin, looking up at Treebeard, "could see a sad look in his eyes, sad but not unhappy."  I am not, nor have I even been, in the armed forces, but surely soldiers in the War on Terror share that kind of sentiment.

The second book of The Two Towers focuses on Frodo, Sam, and Gollum.  The hobbits reluctantly take Gollum on as a guide, but never quite know whether they can trust him.  Sam's faithfulness to Frodo and suspicion of Gollum, and Frodo's increasing burden of carrying the ring, make for some interesting interactions.

The Two Towers ends with Frodo captured by the orcs, Sam following behind, and the rest of the fellowship preparing for war.  The forces of good and evil will come into ultimate conflict in The Return of the King.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trespassers Will Be Baptized, by Elizabeth Emerson Hancock

Elizabeth Emerson Hancock apparently has some issues with her Southern Baptist upbringing.  I picked this up randomly at the library, amused by the title.  She tells of her entrepreneurial childhood; during the family yard sale, she offered to baptized all comers in the family pool.  Cute.  I hoped for some more good stories.  The blurbs on the back cover promise "laugh-out-loud funny and touching at the same time" and "hilarious and touching in turn."  I can say Trespassers Will Be Baptized is mildly amusing and sometimes a little touching, but not much more than that.  I think I may be the wrong audience, anyway.  Perhaps she's aiming for the middle-aged to older female reader.

Hancock distances herself from her Southern Baptist roots, with criticism a little too biting.  Her experience in rural Kentucky perhaps tainted her view.  I know plenty of Southern Baptists who are intelligent, cultured, and theologically wise.  I wonder if her criticisms of Southern Baptists as dumb, moralistic, and simplistic might show her classism against the South, now that she is a Harvard educated east coast lawyer.

I guess I was really more bored than offended by her stories.  Whatever the case, I was more than ready to be through with this book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pursuit of Honor, by Vince Flynn

In Extreme Measures, Mitch Rapp and his partner Mike Nash come under fire for their unorthodox and perhaps illegal means of extracting information from a group of terrorists--in other words, torturing them. They still fail to prevent a terrorist attack on Washington, D.C., but they do manage to save hundreds of lives with their quick thinking and quick triggers. The book ends with the debris smoking and some of the masterminds of the attack on the run.

Pursuit of Honor finds Rapp hot on the trail of the terrorists. The president has given him the green light to go after them, and former foes in the halls of power are coming over to his side. Pursuit, less action-heavy than some of the books in the Rapp series, showcases the cerebral side of Mitch Rapp. No question he still leaves a trail of writhing bodies if people get in his way, but more importantly, he tracks down leads and puts pieces of the puzzle together to bring the terrorists to justice.

More than I can remember in the other books in this series, Flynn spends more time with the terrorists themselves. The reader sees their conflicts between one another, their internal struggles with the whole idea of the jihad, and, almost, a touch of sympathy and humanity. Flynn never compromises by taking the side of the terrorists, but he does let us see the terrorists' actions from their own perspective.

We also see into the mind and background of Rapp. For a series that has gone on for 10 books now, Flynn keeps building Rapp's background, keeping it fresh. (One note that the Rapp fan will appreciate: Marcus, the CIA computer wiz, appears in most, if not all, of these novels. There were several in a row in which, when Flynn first introduced Marcus, it seemed as if Flynn used cut and paste, putting the exact same text in each book. Thankfully, he managed to include Marcus in Pursuit without the cut and paste addition.) Rapp is probably not someone I would want to hang out with. He would probably think I am a wimp and a loser, although since he was a highly competitive triathlete, he might grant me some grudging respect for being an ultramarathoner. Personalities aside, he is the kind of man I wish we had on the hunt for Bin Laden and his ilk.  Maybe we do; if the real CIA is as good at covering its tracks and running black ops as Flynn's fictional CIA, there's a lot going on in counter-terrorism that noone ever hears about.

I mentioned in my review of Protect and Defend that Rapp was much like Jack Bauer of the TV show 24.  They both passionately chase the bad guys, don't hesitate to knock heads, use "extreme measures" (torture) to get information from captives, or even put a bullet in the head of a terrorist.  Neither has any patience for bureaucratic barriers to justice, and both tend to act on their own, asking forgiveness later rather than permission before.  But neither Rapp nor Bauer need to ask forgiveness, since things always seem to work out for them.

Rapp, more concerned with what is moral than what is legal, has an enlightening exchange with a nemesis of his in the Senate.  At a closed hearing, the liberal, female senator chairing the hearing, confronts him with accusations of torturing a suspect.  (The suspect, a confirmed participant in the terrorist bombings, was reluctant to give up information about the ongoing activities of his colleagues.)  Leaving all decorum aside, Rapp confronted the senator with the contrast between her active advocacy of the right to partial-birth abortion and her desire to protect the rights of a known killer.  What is more moral, to stick a tube in the skull of an unborn child and suck out her brains, or to slap around a known terrorist to save countless American lives? 

This kind of conservative ideology does inform Flynn's books, but it takes a back seat to the plot and character development.  The politically liberal reader might be put off by it. Oh, well.  These books are a fun, exciting read, and without flag-waving naivete portray the hard-core patriotism that I hope any American warrior in the war on terror will hold to.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Fellowship of the Ring

I don't know that there's much I can say about The Fellowship of the Ring. The Lord of the Rings is one of the great novels of the 20th century, no question about it. It has so much richness that it warrants revisiting from time to time. Even though you know the end, and have seen the wonderful movies, a rereading will not disappoint.

This time around, I listened to the audio version read by Rob Inglis. This is an unabridged reading of the original text, not a dramatization, so there's no music or sound effects. But Inglis does a brilliant job of bringing the story and characters to life.

One thing that struck me, which I guess is a pretty obvious point, was the picture of addiction painted by the draw of the One Ring for its bearers. Kelly and I were house parents and spiritual directors of Manna House, a ministry of Mission Waco, for a while, and saw first-hand how drug and alcohol addictions can control a person. The Ring, possessed by Gollum for many years, reduced him to an unrecognizable, withered creature. Does that sound familiar to anyone who has been around drug addicts?

Bilbo found the Ring, and held it for many years without becoming the addict that Gollum was. Still, when it came time to give it up, he was reluctant to do so. To his friend Gandalf, who insists that Bilbo not keep the Ring, Bilbo hotly replies, "I don't like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don't really see why I should. Why do you want me to? . . . You are always badgering me about my ring." Imagine confronting an alcoholic about giving up drink. You might hear, "You are always badgering me about my drinking," if he were someone who might use a word like badgering. Bilbo finally does leave it with his nephew, Frodo, but not without some internal struggle.

Like Bilbo, Frodo keeps the ring without letting it control him. Gandalf warns him, "It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him." Of those who possess any of the Great Rings, "sooner or later--later, if he is strong and well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last--sooner or later the dark power will devour him." Some years after Bilbo leaves the Ring to Frodo, they meet again. Bilbo asks to see the Ring, but when Frodo hesitates, he sees Bilbo as the latent addict: "a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands."

We get some insight into why Bilbo has avoided the withering addiction that Gollum gave into. Gollum originally took the Ring by force from his companion, killing him in the process. Upon hearing the story of the Ring, and how it came to Gollum's hands and then BIlbo's, Frodo exclaims, "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!" Gandalf sagely replies, "Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."

His charge to steward, and eventually destroy, the Ring weighs heavily on Frodo. But the Fellowship that forms around him, first with his faithful companions from the Shire, then with wise and powerful allies he meets at Rivendell, proves to support and protect him faithfully on his journeying. Even though Fellowship ends with Frodo leaving the Fellowship, through the next two books the Fellowship does not falter in their support of Frodo's quest.

Tolkien masterfully combines creativity, believably constructing a new world, with its own history, geography, anthropology, and languages, with a story that is at once suspenseful, humorous, entertaining, and thematically profound. Few have matched him. I'm eager to continue Rob Inglis's reading of the next two books of The Lord of the Rings.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Manifold: Time and Manifold:Space

Stephen Baxter, acknowledged by some as an heir to the sci-fi tradition of Clarke and Heinlein, takes on big questions and extrapolates hard science in the Manifold series.

Manifold: Time started out with great promise.  The story builds on one of my favorite sci-fi themes: private entrepreneurs and adventurers ignoring the stifling red tape of government and beating NASA at their own game.  In Manifold: Time, Reid Malenfant (doesn't that mean bad child in French?) has made a fortune in high-tech industry, and uses that fortune to fulfill his dream of going into space.  What starts out as a business venture to make billions of dollars mining the asteroids gets a bit sidetracked when a message from the future directs the mission to a less-promising asteroid.

Baxter, with degrees in math and engineering, brings a convincing sense of realism to his science fiction.  The design of his spaceship uses currently available technology.  His descriptions of the mundane details of space travel reflect the time he took training for a guest spot on the Mir (he wasn't chosen).  The brain augmentation of squids to equip them with the ability to follow commands and operate the spaceship seems brilliant, and adds to the story in a very interesting way, but I don't know how believable it is.

The conflict with the government over the launch, the squids' adaptation and quick evolution in space (as swimmers, they are more suited to zero-g), the mystery around the brilliant children, all put together make for some gripping story telling.  When they arrive at the asteroid and discover a time/space portal, the speculative nature of the story gets pretty wild.  The squids stage a revolt and take off in a space ship of their own design for a new home, and Malenfant ends up taking a tour of the future for millenia, via the space/time portal, giving a fast forward picture of the destiny of the galaxy.   

Manifold: Space builds around one of my other favorite sci-fi themes.  I remember as a kid thinking that either God created this universe to be colonized, eventually, by humans, or he created beings on other worlds that we would eventually meet.  I didn't think the infinite universe would exist only for us to observe from our little corner of the solar system.  Baxter explores similar thoughts, which Enrico Fermi articulated in what is known as the Fermi Paradox.  In an infinite universe, the paradox states, there should be abundant extraterrestrial life, so why don't we encounter any? 

In Manifold: Space, we do.  The Gaijin, who remain very mysterious and aloof, have used the time/space portals, such as we saw in Manifold: Time, to explore many galaxies.  They selectively let humans in on some technological secrets, but many suspect the Gaijin's humanitarian (Gaijinarian?) motives.  Humans begin to see evidence of planets laid waste, they suspect as a result of invading species from other planets, and wonder if Earth is next.

Manifold: Space, even more than Manifold: Time, becomes too unwieldy to enjoy.  Both of these have wonderful ideas, brilliant descriptions of technology and explorations of scientific ideas, and some elements of an interesting plot.  The problem is that the latter (plot) gets lost amid all the brilliance.  Manifold: Time especially suffers from Baxter's scope; the story drags on for centuries, with a huge, sparsely related cast of characters.  I got lost.  But I have a little bitty brain.

There is a third book, Manifold: Origins, but I don't think I care enough about the fate of Malenfant's many universes to pick that one up.  I'm not through with Baxter, though.  I read Light of Other Days, which he co-wrote with Arthur C. Clarke, and enjoyed it, and I'd like to read his alternative history in which the U.S. space program heads to Mars rather than focusing on the shuttle program.  Maybe with that series, he can stay a little more focused and bring together the great science and great story telling.