Monday, December 26, 2011

The Litigators, by John Grisham

I think I have read every one of John Grisham's novels.  Some are better than others, but I have enjoyed them all.  The Litigators has some of the elements that make Grisham fun to read: the idealistic young lawyer, the bashing of big firms and big companies, the little guy getting the win.  But I have to say, even though I enjoyed it, I kept asking myself why.

I don't know if this is a criticism or an observation, but after the first few chapters, The Litigators reads more like an account of an actual case.  You know, one of those readable but ultimately pretty dry nonfiction works that tell the story of a case from the news or from history?  It starts out on an entertaining note.  David Zinc, sick of working 80 hours a week in a big firm making deals on foreign fixed income instruments, flips out, gets drunk, and, after seeing an ad on a bus for an ambulance-chasing law firm, shows up there looking for a job.  He, along with the two colorful and ethically-challenged partners, gets involved in a class action suit against a giant pharmaceutical company.

Once that case, which fills most of the book, gets going, Grisham's lawyer takes over for his storyteller.  This certainly may be his intent.  If there's a good case in real life, with a good story behind it, I would want Grisham to write that book.  It's generally considered a good thing when a work of non-fiction reads like a work of fiction.  But I would counter that when a work of fiction sounds like a work of non-fiction, perhaps a bit more life needed to be injected into the story.

Yeah, I know, that sounds pretty shallow and petty, but that's my opinion.  Two things: Grisham fans will like The Litigators, and, in spite of my criticism, I'll probably read his next book as soon as it's released.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Fourth Fisherman, by Joe Kissack

You may vaguely recall the stories a few years ago about some Mexican fisherman who drifted across the Pacific for months, ending up 5500 miles from home.  The story of their survival made them into celebrities for a brief time, but came and went from the attention of Americans, like last year's rescued Chilean coal miners.  Their story did not, however, escape the attention of Joe Kissack, a former TV executive whose life was falling apart.  The Fourth Fisherman tells the fishermen's story, but mostly turns out to be the story of Kissack's struggles with addiction and workaholism, and his pursuit of the rights to tell the story of the three fisherman.

I like a good survival story as much as the next guy.  The three fisherman struck a chord with Joe because of the fact that they said they read the Bible continually throughout their 9 month voyage and said they relied on their faith in God to help them survive.  The facts of their survival are provided, with a bit of descriptive color, but I didn't get a real sense of the passage of time.  They drifted a long, long way.
The four fisherman. (Three plus Joe.)
Their survival story ended up taking second fiddle to Joe's story.  And his story sort of annoyed me.  It's not his fault.  I just get sort of tired of this type of story: the self-absorbed, materialistic businessman, making a ton of money, begins to get stressed out and reassesses his life.  He quits his job to pursue his dream.  That's what Joe does, spending years of his life and all of his savings to meet the three fishermen and tell their story.  After spending all his money, selling his lake house and his wife's Lexus (feel sorry for him yet?) he's not much closer to getting a movie made.

Ultimately, we have here a pretty nice story about some fishermen who got lost at sea, and the impact they had on an American struggling in life.  I like the way one lady summarized his story after Joe spoke at her church.  The fishermen looked lost, floating in the middle of the ocean, while Joe had everything, but Joe was the lost one.  "The fishermen were not lost at all--they had God."  Maybe Joe will reach his goal of making a movie about the Tres Pescadores.  I'll watch it.  In the meantime, while I'm happy he got his life straightened out, I'm not that happy with this book.

This book is to be released on March 13, 2012.  I received a complementary pre-release review copy from WaterBrook Multnomah.  Thanks!

Please rate my review of this book here:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

You know that cool remote engine starting feature of your car?  How about the computer controlled traffic light system?  Or the drones the military is using?  What if a malicious artificial intelligence entity managed to gain control of all that--and more?  That's the scenario Daniel Wilson lays out in Robopocalypse.  In his near-future novel, we don't just have remote start but auto drive; not only traffic lights but emergency vehicles are computer-controlled; and most actual combat is done by robots.  A lone scientist has perfected the creation of a complete thinking, reasoning artificial intelligence.  He took safeguards to keep the AI contained, but it learned so quickly that it was able to "escape" and slowly take over the computers of the world.

The problem is that Archos, as the AI calls itself, has apparently been reading Al Gore's books.  It is disgusted with the way humans treat their environment, and begins to eliminate the human virus from the earth.  His program of extermination begins with small acts, like a domestic robot who attacks humans, a peacekeeping robot who overcomes its nonviolent programming to kill civilians and soldiers, a robotic doll who attacks the child owner, the elevators that take building residents to their deaths.  (Uh, oh, maybe it's beginning!  This happened in NYC!  Story here.)  This is where Robopocalypse is strongest: telling the stories of these episodes of technology turning on us, where people are no longer the master, being mastered by their tools and toys.  Imagine the horror of being behind the wheel of your cool new car with all the bells and whistles, then losing control as the autodrive takes over, mowing down pedestrians, then drives you into the lake where you slowly drown with your family.

With so much of human life relying on computerized and robotic controls, civilization quickly crumbles once the robots really get going.  Here's where the weaker part of the book.  Not that the second half of the book is bad; it's certainly entertaining.  But it becomes a little cliched: if you've seen one post-alien invasion or post-nuclear war movie, you've seen them all.  People flee, they learn how to survive in adverse conditions, unlikely heroes arise, and they unite to fight a common foe.  This will make a fun, special-effects filled movie.  In fact, the book reads like that, cutting from one scene to another, playing out like a screenplay.

There's not a ton of depth here, but it's a fun read, like the summer blockbuster it's destined to be.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

To Be Perfectly Honest, by Phil Callaway

He's a funny guy!
I have never met Phil Callaway, but after reading To Be Perfectly Honest, I almost feel like I know him.  Callaway brings his sense of humor and perceptive view of life to bear on the question, Can I go a whole year without telling a lie?  Truth-telling is the thread that holds the diary-like narrative together, but he offers insight and encouragement for lots of areas of life.

To Be Perfectly Honest is like a bag of potato chips, only it's not bad for you and doesn't leave your fingers greasy.  I found it hard to put down, not like a page-turning thriller, but like a snack that you keep on eating until all of a sudden you're at the bottom of the bag.  Callaway is a great story teller, and manages to mix humorous anecdotes, touching moments, and even some challenging, convicting passages.

I particularly enjoyed Callaway's self-deprecating humor and humility (he is being honest, after all).  Under the guise of humor, the reader can relate to his confessions, laughing along with an "I resemble that remark!"  To Be Perfectly Honest is good fun and might even make you think a bit about how you're living your life.  I think you'll enjoy it--no lie!

Check out his web site,, or go to YouTube for some funny videos.

Thanks to WaterBrook Multnomah for this complementary review copy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Freeheads, by Kerry Nietz

Last summer I read books 1 & 2 of Kerry Nietz's DarkTrench saga, and loved them (see my reviews here and here).  Lucky me, about the time I was finishing those books, Nietz was finishing up book 3, so my wait was blessedly short for Freeheads.  In books 1 & 2, debuggers SandFly and HardCandy are sent to repair a robot on DarkTrench, an interstellar ship which has just returned from a voyage to Betelgeuse.  The robot, as well as the crew, had encountered a curious song from a star, which had transformed them. SandFly and HardCandy then take DarkTrench on a return journey to Betelgeuse where they encounter a seemingly idyllic but ultimately malicious alien race.  Freeheads opens with the pair returning to earth, in hopes of bringing the message of A~A3, Nietz's moniker for God, to people spiritually enslaved by a controlling Islamic regime.

Through a series of events driven by both divine intervention and sabotage, SandFly and HardCandy have to abandon DarkTrench, intending to head straight to earth, but end up on the moon.  There they discover a colony of exiles from earth and learn the source of the rogue stream they had briefly accessed on earth.  To their great surprise, they realize that due to a malfunction on DarkTrench, 40 years have passed since they left earth; to them, it had only been weeks.  Also to their surprise, the message of A~A3 and the superlative stream managed to make its way to earth via the original DarkTrench crew.  However, the fledgling group of followers of the message have been persecuted and nearly eliminated.

Things had changed on earth during their absence.  Before they left, everyone lived under religious oppression, but that oppression had progressively become widespread slavery.  SandFly returning after 40 years to confront the leaders and lead the people out of slavery?  Any Biblical allusions you might imagine here are certainly no accident. 

Nietz has a spiritual message in Freeheads, not in the sense that he preaches, and certainly not in a way that deters from the story.  In fact, that's part of the fun of the whole DarkTrench series: In a world in which Christianity has been effectively quashed by world-dominating Islam, what would it look like to reintroduce the gospel?  Nietz gives us a warning to heed.  Sandfly's theory as to why the message of the Bible "just faded out": "Those who knew the Truth got lazy, or worse, refused to share what they knew. . . .They cloistered.  Failed to do something when they had a chance."  Sobering words for a Christian culture that sometimes seems to make itself irrelevant to the wider world. . . .

Besides a great story and a compelling spiritual message, Nietz handles the science well.  Freeheads is chock full of speculative technology, but Nietz, not satisfied with simply throwing out crazy devices or giving people and machines unfounded superpowers, gives enough description and background to make the technology almost believable.  He's no stranger to natural science either; his descriptions of a close encounter with a comet and a walk on the moon's surface are quite convincing as well.

With his DarkTrench saga, Nietz shows his skill as a captivating writer, adept at conveying a fast-moving story with thoughtful spiritual reflection and an imaginative view of the near future.  The three books can certainly be read and enjoyed independently, but they're best taken as a whole, showing both SandFly's development as well as Nietz's development as a writer.  He's got a few more books to write before he enters the pantheon of sc-fi greats, but I do like Tim George's blurb from the back cover of Freeheads: "Nietz writes in a way that makes me wonder what the masters of the genre like Asimov and Heinlein might have written had they known A~A3."  Well-said.  I'm already wondering what Nietz will come up with next!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

What a game!  I don't consider myself a gamer, although I wasted plenty of hours with my Atari 2600 and later with a Nintendo.  Now I play with my kids sometimes on their Wii and PS3, but it doesn't quite have the appeal as it once did.  Ready Player One is a novel for gamers, especially for those who fondly remember those Atari 2600 days, but the story will draw in non-gamers as well.

In Ernest Cline's world, about 3 decades in the future, the internet has become a virtual reality environment.  It started with the OASIS, an online game, which became the standard operating system/ web browser/ social environment for virtually everyone.  The creator of the OASIS, game programmer James Halliday, a fabulously wealthy, childless recluse, hid an "Easter egg" somewhere in the OASIS and, when he died, had a video released in which he stated that whoever finds the Easter egg would inherit his fortune.  The hunt would require an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s pop culture, including video games, TV shows, movies, music, and more.  The world goes crazy for 1980s fashion and culture, as everyone would love to have a piece of that fortune.

Cline's protagonist, Wade Watts, known in the OASIS as Parzival, is about to finish high school, and as a poor orphan in a bleak world, lives in the OASIS as an escape.  He has dedicated the 5 years since the start of the contest to learning every bit of Halliday's favorite 1980s culture.  Finally, he has a flash of inspiration and becomes the first person to find the first clue, making him not only an overnight celebrity, but also the target of a ruthless corporation with the aim of taking over Halliday's company.
Cline's Delorean doesn't travel through time, as far as I know.
Ready Player One makes for a fun read, a roller-coaster ride of Wade's adventures, avoiding threats both virtual and real-life.  A child of the 1980s will love some of the tasks he has to perform in his search, like playing the Matthew Broderick character in an interactive version of War Games (if he misses a line, he loses points; luckily Wade has watched the movie enough that he has it memorized) or playing against Halliday's avatar in the arcade classic Joust.  All of his research pays off time and again.  Many of the cultural references, on which the story hinge, will be lost to readers older or younger than Halliday's generation, but it's still a fun story.

This is a fun read, sure to satisfy readers like me, fans of Cory Doctorow, and players of online multi-player games.  I'm sure it will make a great movie, coming to theaters sometime in 2012.  In the meantime, let your imagination run wild as you picture life in the OASIS, where you can drive a time-traveling DeLorean, go to school exclusively in a virtual reality school, fly your own X-wing fighter, and make your virtual living room look just like the one on Family Ties.  Enjoy!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

God, No! by Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is a hilarious comedian, talented magician, lucid thinker, and noted libertarian.  He's also a proselytizing atheist, a hard-core atheist who feels like it's his duty to inform anyone who believes in God of the error of his ways.  God, No! continues his atheist proselytization, but I'm not sure how many converts he'll get.

If you don't know Jillette, you may recognize him as half of the comedy/magic team Penn and Teller (and a recent appearance on Dancing with the Stars, if you're into that sort of thing).  One thing you need to know before you pick up this book, or watch his T.V. show Bulls---, is that he has a filthy mouth.  He cusses and curses and uses crude sexual and scatological language more than anyone I've ever known.  So if that sort of thing turns you off, you'll want to avoid this book.  (I assume the Penn and Teller magic show in Vegas is a bit less profanity laced.)
Would  you buy a philosophy of life from this man?

God, No! is really for a the Penn Jillette fan.  Mostly it's a memoir, with loosely connected autobiographical stories intermixed with anecdotes from Penn's adventures in life and show business.  There are plenty of stories to make you laugh, like his account of his trip on the zero-g plane and his ill-fated use of a blow dryer in lieu of a towel after a shower.  He also tells plenty of stories that show his big heart, love for people in his life, and love of life itself.  This man loves life and makes the most of it.

The stories provide some relief from the stated purpose of the title and chapter titles: an attempt to deny the existence of God and to provide an alternative ethic for atheists, "one atheist's ten suggestions."  Penn says he's been an atheist all his life, in spite of his being brought up in church, but he refers frequently to some of the "new atheists," like Hitchens, Dawkins, and others.  Penn has done some reading.  God, No! is not an academic treatise or systematic defense of atheism, but Penn does make some good points.

The most damning argument for Christians revolves around proselytizing.  Penn thinks Christians are wrong about God, Jesus, and eternal life.  However, if someone really does believe that anyone who does not become a Christian is going to hell, he has an obligation to tell everyone he knows how to become a Christian.  Otherwise, Jillette doesn't want to hear anything from him:
If someone really believes in everlasting life . . . , then letting someone ---- up everlasting life is much worse than letting someone get hit by a train.  ----ing up everlasting life is being hit by a train forever . . . . This is like real no-kidding . . . forever, like dentist-drilling-into-your-teeth forever.  You have to do whatever you can, even if the heathens laugh in your face . . . .  You can't respect someone's right to not believe in something that's going to give him or her eternal life.  That's not real respect, that's callous disregard.  That's negligent eternal homicide. . . . If you believe in everlasting life and don't annoy me about it, if you're polite and let me believe what I want, even thought I'm going to spend eternity in real break-is-over-back-to-the-handstands-in-the-river-of----- hell, what kind of scumbag are you?  Get away from me!  How much do you have to hate someone to let the everlasting train of lost eternal life squash someone's heathen ---?
 Wow.  As a Christian who believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven and eternal life, this passage convicts me.  In the same way, Rob Bell and Francis Chan, in their books about hell, assert that a belief in hell should inform one's evangelistic choices.  Surely if I believe in God and hell, my lifestyle should demonstrate a regard for others which demands that I share the gospel at every opportunity.

A video Jillette posted on his blog about proselytizing made rounds in some church circles recently, leading some groups to target him with prayers for his salvation.  I'll join those prayers, specifically praying that, in spite of the many phonies in the American church, Jillette will meet some Christians who demonstrate the love of Christ in such a way that he will see both the hope we have in Jesus as well as the reasonableness of believing in him and following him.  Miracles do happen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Scroll, by Grant R. Jeffrey and Alton L. Gansky

Biblical archaeology might not strike you as fodder for an adventure novel, but Grant Jeffrey and Alton Gansky make it work in The Scroll.  Taking cues from Indiana Jones and Michael Crichton, these authors send the world's foremost biblical archaeologist, Dr. David Chambers, back to Israel for the dig of his life.  Struggling with his faith, he has decided to branch out into other pursuits, but his old mentor and a pile of money lure him back.  He and his team, including his ex-fiancee, pursue the treasures of the Copper Scroll, including artifacts from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here's where The Scroll excels, adding fiction to non-fiction for a thoroughly believable story.  The Copper Scroll in question, one of the scrolls found with the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, inventories the locations of vast stores of gold and silver, as well as the Temple items.  The monetary value would be sufficient to inspire a hunt, but we quickly learn that the real agenda is to recover the Temple artifacts and use them in a new, restored temple.  This effort has been the subject of many fictional works since the discovery of the Copper Scroll.
The real scroll.
One major plot element is the discovery of tunnels beneath the old city of Jerusalem.  I particularly enjoyed this due to my own experience there.  In the early 1990s, when I was in Jerusalem with my parents, I took a solo journey through Hezekiah's tunnel, which runs from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam.  According to 2 Kings 20:20, Hezekiah directed the tunnel to be built to bring water into the city.  This tunnel is only a few hundred yards long, but with the curves and utter darkness (I only had a book light to guide me), it felt much longer.  Dr. Chambers's treks through much longer tunnels reminded me of my short walk, and made me thankful there weren't armed men pursuing me.

However, The Scroll is fiction, after all, and gets into plenty of fanciful archaeology, a petty love triangle, and melodramatic action sequences.  I appreciated the setting and history, especially the realistic portrayal of a dig site and the reminder that biblical archaeology constantly affirms the historicity of scripture.  But The Scroll qua novel fell short, feeling a bit amateurish.  Not a great book, but a fun read.

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Waterbrook/Multnomah in exchange for an unbiased review.  Thanks!)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In the Garden of the Beasts, by Erik Larson

The more I read about Hitler's rise to power, the more I am convinced that a) he was pure evil, and b) the German people were not duped, but handed over power to him gladly.  Erik Larson's new book, In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, covers the period from 1933 to 1937, portraying Hitler's rise and the consequent transformation of Germany through the eyes of William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Germany during those years.

Dodd was not FDR's first choice.  In fact, he asked a whole string of people who refused before Dodd accepted.  At the time, Dodd was contentedly teaching history at the University of Chicago.  He did not fit the diplomatic mold.  Diplomats then, as seems to be the case now, were independently wealthy and lived well while in the field.  Dodd, whose modest personal wealth and small diplomat's salary did not permit him to live and entertain like most diplomats, ruffled many feathers with his frugal, no-nonsense ways.  He rented the home of a wealthy Jewish family drawing criticism both from Germans, who were offended that he lived in a Jewish home, and from some Americans, who felt that he was taking advantage of a persecuted family by paying so much less than market value.
The Dodd family
Another source of criticism came from people who knew something about Dodd's daughter, Martha.  A bit of a tart, to put it mildly, she made the most of her status as the young (in her 20s), attractive daughter of the American ambassador.  She traveled in elite circles, carrying on affairs with Germans and foreigners alike, including the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet diplomat.  Her well-known and indiscreet "social life" caused one critic to say that the Dodd's house was a bordello. She got around, but was attractive and desirable enough that one of her Nazi friends thought she would be a good match for the Fuhrer himself.  She was introduced to Hitler, but apparently didn't make enough of an impression for a second date.

Not only was Dodd a little clueless about Martha's affairs, but, at least at first, took some time getting up to speed with diplomacy in a changing Germany.  To be fair to him, nearly everyone in the U.S. government failed to see what was boiling under the surface.  The greatest concern in the U.S., even into the latter half of the decade, was not the rising Nazi threat but the failure of Germany to pay off bonds held by Americans.  FDR charged Dodd with getting payment from the German government, but no one there cared much about satisfying the Americans.

Over time, the Dodd family came to see what the Nazis were made of.  When violence against their own people by the German police state even spilled over into violence against Americans in Germany, Dodd's objections went unheeded.  His refusal to attend Nazi rallies caused the Nazi leadership to shun him.  Dodd was slow to grasp the reality of what was coming in world history, but being on the ground in Berlin placed him way ahead of the curve.  Ultimately, he was called home, to his relief, but the U.S. might have been better off if they had heeded his warnings and taken some action against Germany when it might have done some good.

Larson's highly readable account will certainly satisfy any World War 2 history buff and the general reader alike.  The story of Dodd and his family provide a unique perspective on this piece of history.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Retarded Isn't Stupid, Mom, by Sandra Z. Kaufmann

Raising children with special needs can be full of challenges.  Every parent has the task of providing children with a safe, nurturing environment at home, school, and in the community, but the task can be much more daunting if the child has physical or mental disabilities.  Likewise, every parent struggles with letting go of the strings and control as children approach adulthood.  Parents of children with special needs have to struggle with how many strings to let go, how soon, and then worry over and question every decision.

In Retarded Isn't Stupid, Mom, Sandra Kaufmann tells her story.  When she is told that her daughter, Nicole, has mental retardation, her world is permanently and inextricably changed.  In her sometimes brutally honest and consistently insightful narrative, Sandra tells stories of the good times, struggles, and failures of her family's life together with Nicole from early childhood to early adulthood.  Besides her experiences as a mom, Sandra returns to college to complete her degree and ends up as a researcher in a UCLA ethnographic research group studying the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.  So her researcher's eye adds to what might have been a typical parental narrative.

Sandra's stories will make you laugh and cry.  Much of the focus of the book involves her helping Nicole work toward independence.  Nicole, who repeatedly shows her resourcefulness and independent-mindedness in spite of her intellectual shortcomings, announces to her parents that she wants to move out.  Against all logic and reason, they agree to help her get set up in an apartment.  Shortly, her boyfriend moves in, leading to constant worry about pregnancy.  Together, Nicole and her boyfriend--whom she would eventually marry--go through the typical trials of a newly independent couple trying to make it with their low-paying jobs.  Facing the usual struggles, not to mention prejudice, mistreatment, and bad luck, with aplomb and determination, Nicole makes her way with some success.

One thing I hadn't thought much about before is friendships among adults with intellectual disabilities, and friendship between disabled adults and typical adults.  The ideal would be for such friendships to get past the point of one helping the other, or serving the other, to both serving, loving, and learning from the other.  Nicole sees the distinction here.  At one point, in a conversation with Sandra about a trip to Universal Studios, Nicole said she'd like to go back with her sister, Jill, and Jill's boyfriend, "If they wouldn't be offended by us."  After that conversation, Sandra wonders, "What would it be like to know that all the 'normal' people in the world, even brothers and sisters, merely tolerated you?  To know that they would never permit the close sharing of reciprocated friendship?"

Sandra acknowledges that she and her husband do help Nicole in many ways; without their help, her struggles would be immeasurably greater.  Even with the support that disabled individuals can access from community programs, as well as from government assistance, just getting by can be a huge challenge.  For Nicole, many "angels" in her life helped her out with assistance on the job, at home, and around town.  I was challenged to think about how I can be an "angel" to people with disabilities in my life.

Sandra bares all as she struggles with letting go of control in Nicole's life.  Managing her own money, maintaining her own apartment, even opening up to the possibility of pregnancy, Sandra finally lets go and lets Nicole learn on her own, growing from her many mistakes.  The Kaufman family's experiences are instructive for any parent, but parents of disabled children especially can relate to and learn from the hard choices they have to make.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hell, no? Hell, yes!

He wears all black and stylish glasses.
How can we not believe what he says?
Rob Bell knows how to make a splash.  When we moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1998, Bell preached at the Saturday night service at a local megachurch.  In 1999, he founded Mars Hill Church, which, by the time we moved back to Texas in 2002, had taken over a shopping mall, where thousands of people attended multiple services every weekend.  His best-selling books and teachings have raised eyebrows in the church world, but none more than his most recent book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell, a gifted communicator who captivates his readers and listeners, couches weak theology in entertaining and thoughtful messages, leaving them wondering how anyone could disagree with him.  In Love Wins, Bell makes the case that a God who loves us and created us for fellowship with him would not toss us into a fiery pit of eternal suffering.  Bell loves narrative theology, the story of God.  He says, "Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn't do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn't a very good story." 

Another gifted communicator whose resume parallels Bell's in some ways is Francis Chan.  Chan started a church in Simi Valley, California, in 1994 which now has thousands of members and has planted a number of other churches.  He also has a couple hot-selling books, especially Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God.  His theology is, shall we say, more in the mainstream of evangelical theology.

Also wears black.  Also shaves his head.
No cool glasses.  Hmmmm. . . .
Partly in response to Bell, Chan co-wrote, with New Testament scholar Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We've Made Up.  They argue that while we may not always understand the ways of God, the full testimony of the Bible teaches the existence of hell, where there is actual suffering.  While Bell certainly does quote scripture, he does so in a selective way to fit his "story."  Chan approaches scriptural themes more comprehensively.  On universalism, for example, in Philippians 2, Paul writes that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord."  Taken alone, that sounds like it could teach universalism.  But in chapter 1 of the same letter, Paul writes of those who oppose Christ being destroyed, and in chapter 3, he says the destiny of the "enemies of the cross of Christ" is "destruction."

Given the choice between story and scripture, I have to choose scripture.  Bell is certainly a good storyteller, and avoids dogmatic statements while making some really good points.  I have to agree with him that we have over-simplified the gospel to mean mere fire insurance.  But he goes too far the other way, stopping just short of declaring himself a full universalist, but still strongly implying that all will eventually be saved.  Hell is not a place to him, as taught in so many passages in scripture, but it is a state of horrible conditions on earth: famine, holocausts, domestic abuse, sexual slavery are all forms of hell.  Jesus will redeem the earth and rescue us all from this earthly hell.  Amen to Jesus' redemptive work, but as hellish as those human experiences are they are not hell.

Not so fast, Chan and Sprinkle argue.  Jesus taught in the context of a Jewish theology and culture that firmly believed in hell as a place of suffering.  He never denied that, and that cosmology is supported in his teaching.  Good stories aside, the one story we should avoid is the one that starts, "If I were God, I would never. . . ."  That seems to be Bell's take: if he were God, he would not send anyone to hell.  But just as the clay can't tell the potter how to shape it, much less understand it, neither can we understand all the ways of God.

My pastor, Jack Deere, has responded to this and other heresies in some recent sermons.  (There, I said it: heresy.  Bell is teaching heresy.  Jack never names Bell, but I am thinking he would agree.)  He made a couple of relevant points.  First of all, we should never put our own reason before scripture.  Sure, we might be able to come up with some good arguments to support a point of view, but it our conclusions are out of line with scripture, we have to lean on God's word.  A second, related point is that mysteries are OK.  Predestination, Trinitarianism, inspiration, all leave us with unanswered questions.  But the author of those questions is much bigger than we are, and we can't expect to have perfect understanding of his ways.

Both Chan and Bell have a compelling writing style and a refreshing humility when it comes the their teaching.  But Chan's approach, based in scripture, must prevail.  It's not without a cost, though.  If there is an actual hell, where people who don't know Christ will suffer, the burden is on us who do know him to live as if that's true.  People we meet every day, people we love, are destined to suffer there.  Our task is to partner with God in leading people to relationship with Christ.  It would be much easier to agree with Bell, that we'll all end up in heaven anyway, so no big deal, but I'm afraid we don't have that option.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

A measure of a great biography may be the extent to which it elicits a desire to learn more about the subject and read his or her writings.  With this extensive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas has certainly accomplished both, as far as I'm concerned.  I think I first became aware of Bonhoeffer while I was in college, through his Discipleship, or The Cost of Discipleship as most English translations title it.  Other than than, I had no more than a vague, one or two sentence idea of his involvement with the plot to kill Hitler.  That did become a defining element of his life, as it lead to his execution, but, as Metaxas tells the story, there is much more to the man, his ministry, and his work in public and church life.

As a young pastor and theologian during the Nazi's rise to power Bonhoeffer opposed the German church's easy assent to the dictates of the Nazi party, including excluding anyone of Jewish heritage from ministry positions, and supplanting the message of the cross with the message of the twisted cross of Nazism.  As a leader in the confessing church movement, and as head of a new seminary founded as an alternative to the Nazi-tainted seminaries of the German church, Bonhoeffer rose in status and became a target for the Gestapo.
I think I would have liked Bonhoeffer.  Maybe we can hang out in heaven.
While telling Bonhoeffer's story, Metaxas does a beautiful job of portraying life in Germany in the years leading up to and including the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party.  Bonhoeffer's family, not rich but certainly among the intellectual and cultural elite of Germany, had close connections in academic, political, and military circles.  For the most part, these groups did not welcome the rise of Nazism; they hoped for its quick demise, and bemoaned its unlikely entrenchment in German politics and governance.  That surprised me as much as anything: in spite of the powerful opponents to Nazism, and there was much, Nazis managed to gain unprecedented power.  Many common Germans, not just Jews, opposed the Nazis.  I can't help but think most of Germany was complicit in Nazi crimes, but Metaxas makes it clear that many opposed them, even in the military.

I particularly enjoyed Metaxas's portrayal of Bonhoeffer as a defender of the faith against theological liberalism and against Nazi attempts to dilute the work of the church.  The ready acquiescence of the German church distressed him.  Neither was he very impressed with the academic theology he encountered in the U.S. during his stay in New York, at Union Theological Seminary.  Of the students, he had this to say: "There is no theology here. . . .They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level."  He also had a hard time finding good preaching:
In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life. . . . The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. . . . I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro.
Bonhoeffer himself has been, at times, championed by theological liberals, due in part to some fragmentary writings that he left behind, the unfinished nature of which lead to some misinterpretation.  On religionless Christianity, an idea which, Metaxas points out, has "led to a terrific misunderstanding of Bonhoeffer's theology," Eberhard Bethge said the "isolated use and handing down of the famous term 'religionless Christianity' has made Bonheoffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God."  Contrary to his liberal interpreters, Bonhoeffer's theology, Metaxas writes, "was dedicatedly Bible centered and Christ centered."

As Hitler's power increased and life for Jews and the confessing church (not to mention the disabled and many other groups), Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to return to New York for an extended stay as a lecturer.  He could easily have stayed in the U.S. for the years, perhaps even through the duration of the war.  But Bonhoeffer knew his place and his work was in Germany.  He joined the Abwehr, military intelligence, and worked as double agent.  Besides working on behalf of the church, he helped smuggle Jews out of the country and was a part of the plot to kill Hitler.  (This plot was portrayed in the movie Valkyrie, but I don't remember that Bonhoeffer was named in the movie.  Obviously it involved many in the military, as well as many civilians.)  I was interested to read about Bonhoeffer's struggle with the ethical issues of his work.  Lying, deceiving his government, even plotting to kill a head of state became justifiable in light of the actions of the Nazi government.

Bonhoeffer was arrested not because of his involvement with the assassination plot, but because of his covert intelligence work.  Later, however, after the near-miss with Hitler, the Fuhrer wanted vengeance on everyone he could find who was involved.  Bonhoeffer's name made the list, and he was hanged only days before the Allies claimed victory, and weeks before Hitler took his own life.

Metaxas's biography, a terrific read with just the right blend of historical background and detail about Bonhoeffer's life, renewed my interest in Bonhoeffer.  On my shelf I have copies of The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics.  I read the first two, but I'm not sure I ever tackled the third.  I'm inspired to do so now, and to wonder what Christendom lost with Bonhoeffer's early death.  What more can we ask of a biography: a great writer writing a great story about a great man.  Worth a read.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Inside the Revolution, by Joel C. Rosenberg

It's refreshing to read a perspective of the Middle East that is both informed, from an insider's perspective, and is Bible-centered, from someone knowledgeable about Biblical prophecy.  Joel Rosenberg, a Jew by heritage, Evangelical Christian by faith, has worked as an advisor with U.S. and Israeli leaders, and, as founder of the Joshua Fund has worked extensively on humanitarian projects throughout the Middle East.  He has written a series of novels in which Biblical prophecies play out in today's climate, and has written Epicenter and Inside the Revolution, non-fiction books about the Middle East. 

I was particularly impressed by a promo for his books that pointed out his foresight.  Check this out, from his Wikipedia entry:
Nine months before the September 11th attacks, Rosenberg wrote a novel with a kamikaze plane attack on an American city. Five months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he wrote a novel about war with Saddam Hussein, the death of Yasser Arafat eight months before it occurred, a story with Russia, Iran, and Libya forming a military alliance against Israel occurring the date of publishing, the rebuilding of the city of Babylon, Iran vowing to have Israel "wiped off the face of the map forever" five months before Iranian President Ahmadinejad used similar language, oil and natural gas in Israel (a major gas discovery occurred in January 2009).
All of this to say, Rosenberg has extensive experience in the Middle East, and has uncanny insight into trends and events as they occur, even before.  Whether or not he's right on every point, he deserves to be listened to.

Inside the Revolution is really three books as one, as indicated by the subtitle: How the Followers of Jihad, Jefferson, and Jesus are Battling to Dominate the Middle East and Transform the World.  In the first section, Rosenberg details the threat of Islam from those who believe Islam is the answer and jihad is the way.  This is the message we hear from many on the right: Iran wants to wipe out Israel, American is the great Satan and Israel is the little Satan, the Koran teaches Jihad against infidels, radical Islam won't rest until the whole world is under sharia law.  Based on his account, it's worse that I thought.

The second section, on the followers of Jefferson, showcases the vast majority of the Muslim world, those leaders who truly desire Jeffersonian democracy and an Islam that does not do violence against its enemies.  They believe Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way.  These are the Muslims President Bush refers to when he says Islam is a religion of peace.  It's hard to believe, if you only listen to reports of terrorist attacks and threats and IEDs and insurgents.  But Rosenberg makes the case that Jeffersonian Muslims are on the rise.  Based on his account, it's better than I thought.

The third section is most encouraging.  In pockets of the Muslim world, revival is breaking out!  Many Muslims are becoming Christians.  They believe that Islam is not the answer, and Jesus is the way.  Of course, by the very nature of life in the Muslim world, we don't hear much about these Christians.  But some Muslim countries do enjoy a measure of religious freedom.  It's fascinating to hear about these MBBs (Muslim background believers) who are following Jesus and evangelizing the Muslim world.  Prepare to be amazed both by the incredible stories of faith under persecution, and the miraculous ways our loving God reaches out to people in these countries that lack much Christian witness.  He wrote more about the conversion of Muslims in the booklet Inside the Revival

Rosenberg's reporting is thorough, and the cast of characters is huge.  Inside the Revolution provides valuable insights into the recent history and current trends in the Middle East.  Unsurprisingly, he is strongly pro-Israel, which will bother some of his Muslim readers.  He also clearly holds a pre-tribulation rapture view, which some of his Christian readers will nod in agreement with, but others (like me) pause and wonder if he's right.  (Side note: I was curious about his fiction, so I picked up Dead Heat, which starts with a nuclear attack on the U.S. and ends with the rapture.  He writes in page-turning, pot-boiler style, but raises some good questions, not the least of which is, How do we protect the U.S. from a terrorist attack like this one?  It would be very easy for a dedicated band of bad dudes to pull off an attack that makes 9/11 look mild.)

Another side product I looked at was his documentary, Epicenter, which is based on his first non-fiction book by the same name.  The video focuses more on the first 1/3 of Inside the Revolution, the threat of Islam.  Even though the threat comes from a tiny portion of Muslims in the world, it's hard to overlook.  A small group of people can do a tremendous amount of damage, physically, culturally, and otherwise.  So in spite of the hope Rosenberg offers in Inside the Revolution, I can't help but focus on the threats, and the possible scenarios of Dead Heat and his other novels.  There's no question that Islam poses a grave threat to the U.S. and to the hope of peace around the world.  Rosenberg reminds us that whatever the state of the world, God is in control, has a plan, and loves his children.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Farthing, by Jo Walton

Here's another fun story set in an intriguing alternative history of World War 2 and its aftermath.  Farthing is a murder mystery not unlike what I imagine Agatha Christie would have written.  (I've never read Christie's books, which is why I imagine. . . .)  At a gathering of aristocratic Englishmen and -women at a storied country estate, one of the guests, an up-and-coming politician, is found murdered.  A detective from Scotland Yard, feeling a bit out of place among these blue bloods, comes to investigate.

The year is 1949, and the victim was one of key players in the negotiation of Britain's peace treaty with Hitler in 1941.  Yes, you read that right.  In Walton's world, the British and Germans negotiated for an end to hostilities before the U.S. even entered the war.  Hitler reigns on the Continent, and anti-Jewish Fascism is taking hold in England.

Walton weaves an intriguing mystery, drawing out the suspense while capturing the culture and mores of the mid-20th century British upper class.  But what makes Farthing most interesting is her exposition of her alternative post-WW2 history.  I think we'll all agree that Germany's defeat and Hitler's death were good things, but what about the loss of lives and destruction during the war?  Could that have been avoided?  My tendency is to think that the lives lost and cities destroyed were worth the defeat of Hitler, but if it were my city, my father, my sons who were lost, I might think differently.

By exploring a world in which Hitler still reigns in most of Europe, Walton can show the dangers and evil of fascism, both in an established expression under Hitler, and its creeping influence in England.  Farthing is quite entertaining on a number of levels.  Highly recommended!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Saving Jesus from the Church, by Robin R. Meyers

 In the interest of Christian charity, I will begin this review by looking at the positive elements of Robin Meyers's Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.  As a tenured pastor, at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, and a professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University, you might expect that Meyers knows how to communicate.  Indeed, his writing is lucid and engaging, as I suspect his sermons are as well.

The latter half of the book's subtitle encapsulates the strength of Meyers's message.  The church has tended to ignore the teachings of Jesus and has not done a good job of following him.  We have reduced faith to "a set of 'beliefs' that certain statements about the Bible, Jesus as the Christ, and church doctrine and dogma are true. . . . faith as intellectual assent to propositional statements."  In doing so, we neglect the Christian life as a way of being.  Being a Christian should not simply mean reciting a creed or praying a formulaic prayer, but should be an all-encompassing way of life.

Some of Meyers's chapter titles show how he builds on this theme: "Faith as Being, Not Belief," "Christianity as Compassion, Not Condemnation," "Religion as Relationship, Not Righteousness."   I can jump in with Meyers on many of his assertions, especially as they apply to American megachurches and fundamentalists.  There is often more concern with theological, biblical purity that with practice, defending the Bible but neglecting to do what it says.  As a telling example, he recalls Albert Schweitzer.  While he was toiling in Africa, heroically treating the sick and destitute, well-fed theologians sat in their comfortable offices criticizing Schweitzer's liberal theological writings.  Meyers asks, Who better exemplifies and follows the teachings of Jesus?

So Meyers rightly calls on the church to examine itself and follow the example and teachings of Jesus.  The problem is that Meyers jettisons orthodox Christian theology.  The first half of the subtitle reveals Meyers's case: Jesus is not the Christ.  Stop acting like he is.  The church's obsession with the blood atonement needs to stop.  We are not sinners in need of a savior, we are children of God trying to do good works.  So in spite of his friendly tone and readable prose, Meyers lost me early in chapter 1, "Jesus the Teacher, Not the Savior."  That title says it all.  He buys into the whole liberal project, denying the divinity of Christ, his resurrection, and his redeeming work on the cross.  How about these examples:
[Fundamentalist Christians] are 'decoding' the salvation 'contract' that is presumed to be hidden in scripture, so that true believers can cash in their winning ticket and collect their eternal inheritance.  Being a disciple today means little more than believing stuff in order to get stuff.
The conviction of the followers of Jesus that he was still with them was itself the resurrection.  To ask the question of whether the resurrection is true, and to mean by this that only a resuscitated corpse constitutes such proof, is to impose the standards of the modern mind upon a prescientific culture of myth and magic. 
We need to turn away from the institutional forgeries that constitute orthodoxy for millions: the blood atonement, fear-based fantasies of the afterlife, 'vertical' notions of heaven and hell, selective providence based on human ignorance. . . . (emphasis added)
Winning ticket?  No resurrection?  Myth and magic?  Forgeries?  Fantasies?  Ignorance?  Throughout Saving Jesus, Meyers ridicules and rejects core values of orthodox theology.  Many Christians have held to the Apostles' Creed as a statement of central beliefs that unify Christians across denominational lines.  He can only mock it, directly and indirectly.  "The Apostles' Creed . . . eliminated the life and message of Jesus."  Meyers quotes from the Creed: "'Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate. . . .'  Look carefully at what separates the birth of Christ from his death.  The world's greatest life is reduced to a comma."  He makes a clever point, but the larger point is that he would throw out most of the Apostles' Creed as superstition or irrelevance.

Here is the creed, and my imagined response by Meyers.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.(OK, so far so good.  But the creation stories in the Bible are primitive superstitions.)
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, (Yes, as a historical figure, but certainly not divine.)
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, (Are you kidding me?)
born of the Virgin Mary, (Mary, sure, but a virgin?  A laughable claim added by later Christians.)
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried; (He may have been crucified.  He certainly died--doesn't everyone?--and would have been buried, perhaps, although he may have been carrion, like most who were crucified or otherwise executed.)
he descended to the dead. (Are you talking about Hell?  It doesn't exist.)
On the third day he rose again; (Haha!  You really believe that stuff about the resurrection still?)
he ascended into heaven, (a figment of hopeful imaginations. . . .)
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.(Whatever.)
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints, (This is what it's all about.  People who follow Jesus' teaching getting together to share community and do good works.)
the forgiveness of sins, (As if we need forgiveness.)
the resurrection of the body, (Not.)
and the life everlasting. Amen. (This life is the one that matters.  Not some fantasy of an afterlife.)

Meyers'sMeyers's position is not unlike that of followers of Buddha, Hare Krishna, Martin Luther King, or Justin Bieber.  Pick someone you admire, and try to be like him.  But Jesus did not come just to be a teacher or role model; he came to seek and to save the lost!

I can join with Meyers's mocking of televangelists, megachurches, and certain streams of fundamentalism such as the prosperity gospel.  But he uses these as straw men to attempt tear down a huge swath of historical Christianity, anyone who believes in the redemptive power of the cross and Jesus death and resurrection as atonement for our sin.  It's almost as if he's never met Christians who both believe in the traditional Christian faith and follow Jesus.  For every Albert Schweitzer, there are thousands of Christians whose theological conservatism would appall Meyers but whose works in service to God would rival Schweitzer's.

Paul said he "resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified," and that "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day," and that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless."  Dr. Meyers, I'm sure you know how to preach a lovely sermon.  Although I've never been to your church or heard you preach, my thought is that perhaps your preaching is useless.

Don't buy this book.

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If it wasn't helpful. . . .Sorry.  Forget I asked. . . .

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Skallagrigg, by William Horwood

Earlier this year my whole family read and loved Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind (review here), a novel told from the perspective of a young teenage girl who has cerebral palsy.  That wonderful book gives insight into the life of this girl and any other individuals who have difficulty communicating due to physical disabilities, and the frustrations they experience when their mind can't connect with the minds of others.

An review of Out of My Mind referred to another novel with a similar theme, William Horwood's Skallagrigg.  Following the lives of Arthur and Esther, who both have C.P., Horwood delves into not only the communication challenge, but the culture of the disabled and the changing role of institutionalization in the 20th century.  Arthur, in the early part of the 20th century, is institutionalized as a boy.  He begins to tell stories of the Skallagrigg to his friends, and the legends grow, passed along from one institution to another.  Esther, in the latter part of the century, hears bits and pieces of these stories, begins to compile them, and incorporates them into a video game which becomes a world-wide hit.  Her whole life turns into a quest to find the Skallagrigg.

Without getting too much into or giving away the story, several elements are worth noting.  First, the system of institutionalization of the disabled in England.  Arthur, institutionalized most of his life, suffered terrible abuse by those charged with caring for him.  With no means to communicate, and inadequate supervision, the abuse continues for years.  Although not the main purpose of the book, Horwood's depiction of the institutions and the changes and reforms over the course of the story make me glad for more humane and enlightened treatment of others.

Second, Horwood describes a subculture of the disabled that I never thought about.  With limited ability to communicate with others, people with C.P. communicate with a combination of speaking (as they are able), gestures, sounds, and eye movements.  I love the way the characters manage to communicate on a different plane from the rest of us, and create a unique community and relationships that others are only dimly aware of, if at all.

Finally, Horwood traces the development of assistive technology for disabled persons.  Esther's father, a high-tech executive who got into the field early on, directs the resources of his computer company to develop specialized keyboards and devices to help Esther and others communicate like never before.  Of course we all think of the brilliant Stephen Hawking and shudder to think of how different his life would have been had he been born a few years earlier.  But even non-genius but perfectly intelligent people benefit from the efforts of the non-fiction counterparts of Esther's dad.  Like Melody in Out of My Mind, Esther's life is completely changed by the simple ability to type.

Besides being a story that brings insight into the life experiences of people with cerebral palsy and the improvements that have come in treatment and communication, Skallagrigg is a thoroughly enjoyable story of a young woman's quest.  It doesn't pack the emotional punch of Out of My Mind, primarily because it's a densely told, intricately plotted novel of over 700 pages, versus OOMM's 300 pages, written for a younger readers.  But with the additional length comes a more satisfying and substantial read.

I highly recommend Skallagrigg for anyone who comes into contact with people with cerebral palsy or other disabilities.  It's guaranteed to broaden your view of people with disabilities.  Besides that, though, it is a beautiful story, beautifully written.
First published in 1987 in the UK (I'm not sure if it was ever published in the U.S.), Skallagrigg was not the easiest book to find.  I got it through ILL at the FW library.  Because I want to read it again and share it, I have ordered a copy from Amazon.  If you are reading this and would like to read the book, let me know and I will lend it to you.

Also, for an abbreviated but still decent portrayal, the BBC produced a movie version in 1994.  You can watch it on youtube.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Declaration of Independents, by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch

During the 1996 budget battles in Congress, when the "Contract with America" was beginning to show its worthlessness, and the Ds and Rs fought over who can spend money faster, I received a solicitation in the mail to join the Libertarian Party.  It seemed like they were the only political voice supporting limited government, free markets, and personal freedom.  The Ds and Rs get bits and pieces, but inevitably increase government power, constrain the market, and limit freedom.  Alas, the Ls have not made any no significant inroads in national politics.  The D/R duopoly has reigned for decades.

In the meantime, Reason, one of my favorite magazines, has been promoting "free minds and free markets."  Editors in chief Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have teamed up, with their characteristic good humor, solid insight, and strong libertarian perspective, to give a breath of fresh air and a challenge to conventional two-party thinking in American politics.

The Rs squandered the opportunity, with a majority in congress and a popular president, to bring real change to the way the U.S. government works.  Instead of cutting spending and reducing government programs, they increased federal involvement in education, added an enormously expensive drug entitlement for seniors, and spent billions on war and everything else.  To top it off, they gave millions away to failed business at the end of Bush's term.  Obama has only made things worse.  Gillespie and Welch write:
Americans have watched, with a growing sense of alarm and alienation, as first a Republican, then a Democratic administration has flouted public opinion by bailing out banks, nationalizing the auto industry, expanding war in Central Asia, throwing yet more good money after bad to keep housing prices artificially high, and prosecuting a drug war no one outside federal government pretends is comprehensible, let along winnable.  It is easy to look upon this well-worn rut of political affairs and despair. (6)
There doesn't seem to be much hope that either party has anything to offer, and fact share the goal of centralized power.  "It's time to stop pretending that the two parties are actually in conflict with one another (as opposed to colluding in a power-sharing agreement at the expense of the rest of us)." (14)

Knowing that we cannot look to government for serious reform--"Looking to Democrats and Republicans for the next big thing is like asking General Motors and Ford circa 1975 to map out the future for the auto industry." (37)--the authors look at the airline industry, trends in the business world, and the media for direction.  Whether we're talking about travel, corporate structures, or how we get our news and entertainment, choices are better and freer than ever before.  We should embrace that same sense of independence and choice in the world of politics.

Unfortunately, in three important areas, health care, K-12 education, and retirement, the government has such a stranglehold that innovation is near impossible.  The authors point out that "we are so out of money," and to expect government to bring real reform to these areas may well be delusional.

This is a terrific read, and will be sure to challenge Rs and Ds alike.  If you are familiar with libertarian thinking, and/or are a reader of Reason, not much here will surprise you.  More power to Welch and Gillespie as they try to get Americans to both be independents in politics and to declare independence from politics.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Awakening: A New Approach to Faith, Fasting, and Spiritual Freedom, by Stovall Weems

Stovall Weems, pastor of a large multi-campus church based in Florida, believes there is a key to having a "life fully awakened to God at all times."  We should aim to "live life as God intended it to be lived--fully awake, fully alive, and walking in a continual state of freshness and newness before God!"  I don't know about you, but my walk with God has not been marked by freshness and newness.  Sure, there have been moments, but they are few and far between.  I don't mean to belittle those times of increased intimacy with God or awareness of his active presence in my life, but most of the time I'm left dry and feeling distance from God.

So what is the key?  For Weems, it's fasting.  He has led his church in Awakenings, 21-day periods of fasting and focusing on God.  This book is part inspiration, but mostly it's a handbook for having an Awakening of your own.  While I can't really disagree with anything he says here, it seems like he's oversimplifying and overpromising.  However, I should say that I'm writing this before actually going through the 21-day fast.

The second, and more important, part of the book is a guide for the 21-day fast.  Each day he includes a short selection to read, a scripture passage to read, suggestions for prayer focus, and some space to write down reflections.  I can't help but think that if one were to follow this plan consistently and intentionally, one would certainly be drawn closer to God.  Plus, as Weems points out, after 21 days, habits begin to form, and the faster's devotional life might be moved up a notch.

So my preliminary evaluation is a little bit skeptical, but hopeful that at least some of what he talks about here will be available to me.  My plan is to start up the fast next Tuesday (after a weekend at Mom's--I can't fast when she's cooking!).  I'll check in after the 21 days and let you know how it goes. . . .

(I received this book for free from Waterbrook/Multnomah in exchange for an unbiased review.  Thanks!)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is on a mission.  This parenting book is not written by a psychologist, counselor, or pediatrician.  Caplan is an economist.  As an economist, one of his interests is measuring costs and benefits; he knows that a good investment is one in which the reutrns justify the investment.  In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, he demonstrates that the costs of parenthood don't have to be as great as they sometimes are and that benefits or returns are usually greater than we realize.

First, the macroeconomic question.  One of Caplan's inspiration was Julian Simon, who argued that man, as the title of his most well-known book indicates, is The Ultimate Resource.  In other words, every person born is not just a consumer--sure, the first years of life are spent primarily consuming--but virtually everyone makes a contribution.  As long as they're "alive and self-supporting" they are a net gain to humanity.  And, of course, as we grow older we need younger people to sustain society as we age and fade back into a position of being a net consumer.

Most of Selfish Reasons is spent on the microeconomic level, arguing that for an individual family more kids are better than fewer.  Caplan asks for parents to think long term when considering family size.  When you have a little one at home, keeping you up nights and requiring constant diapering and feeding (or two, as Caplan did with twins), you think, "No more!"  Or when you have two or three running around to sports and school activities in different places, you think, "This is plenty!"  But when the kids are out of the house, married and having kids, that's when it's nice to have a bunch.  More kids increases your chances of having more grandkids, which, as my Dad (father of 4) says, is when parenting pays off!  More kids also means better odds that you have an adult son or daughter come around to visit or help out when you're old and lonely.

One of the reasons some people choose not to have more kids is the pressure for performance.  Parents want their children to succeed academically, to be involved in sports, music lessons, etc.  Parents believe that if they have more kids, they have less time to invest in their kids' development.  But Caplan compiles the results from twin and adoption studies that show that parents ought to just relax.  There is very little we do as parents that determines the long-term success of our children.  We might have some short-term impact, but nature wins out over nurture.  Caplan says that we think children are like clay, that we can shape them and mold them.  But in reality, they are more like plastic; when we mold and shape them, they may stay that shape for a while, but they ultimately pop back into their original shape.

Because we have little long-term impact, we should avoid activities or parenting methods that introduce undue stress or difficulty on the family.  The little guy doesn't want to go to karate class?  Stay home and play.  The little girl doesn't want to go to ballet?  No sweat.  An easier schedule will make happier parents, and the kids won't be any worse off.

Of course, there are limits to Caplan's arguments.  He points out that all of the twin and adoption studies involve first-world families.  There are obvious benefits for children raised in the developed world where nutrition, sanitation, and health care are adequate.  And he certainly does not promote neglecting or ignoring your children altogether.  But he emphasizes relaxing.  Rather than get stressed out about parenting, reading parenting books, signing up for all the activities we can fit in, and worrying about college prospects of graduates of certain preschools, Caplan says if we can be approved by a typical adoption agency, we are good enough parents.  All of our other efforts, for whatever short-term impact they have, have very little long-term effects.

Caplan's writing is certainly entertaining, especially considering that he's an academic economist, and, I think, he makes a compelling argument.  But I'm an easy audience: I have a huge admiration for parents who choose large families, and as a father of 3, I can't help thinking that we're not done.  We have two biological children and one adopted, and hope to add by adoption at some point.  I do wish he would have spent more time addressing family growth by adoption.  I share Caplan's hope, that couples who have no kids will think about having a couple, and that couples with two or three might think about having a couple more.