Friday, May 27, 2011

The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream, by Gary Shapiro

Observant readers of the Reading Glutton will note that the last book I reviewed talked about taking your faith back from the American Dream, where this book wants to restore it.  Other than the reference in the respective subtitles, these two books have little, if anything to do with one another.

Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, has held a front row seat to many innovations in late 20th century and early 21st century America.  The book is a wake-up call to us, as Americans, to reclaim our place as the world's leading innovators.  With policy proposals and a touch of inspiration, Shapiro hopes to reignite the innovative spirit.  Of course he emphasizes education, but I like his emphasis on immigration.  While some say immigrants take American jobs, he argues that immigrants in fact have created jobs and boosted American innovation, especially in his field of consumer technology.  He has a simple proposal for keeping promising foreigners here: if someone earns a PhD, put them on the fast track for citizenship.  Too many come to the U.S. to study, then, unable to gain permanent status, return to their home countries.  Some would return in any case, but why not try to get them to stay here?

Much of Shapiro's proposals are explicitly free-market, libertarian positions.  He does call for some level of government intervention in a few cases, but mostly to protect and encourage markets.  I think this statement sums up his position fairly well: "Government at its best will be neutral.  At its worst, it will get in the way and create barriers to innovation, investment, trade, and the creation of long-term jobs."  We need a neutral government, not what we've had lately, a government that rewards failure and tries to pick winners.  Your bank is failing?  I'm sorry, how about a few billion to tide you over?  Your product can find a market?  Oh, sorry, how about we heavily subsidize it, even though no one wants to buy it?

I've been listening to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in the car for a few weeks (more on that later).  Shapiro's book reminds me of what Rand was talking about: when the innovators disappear from America, the country falls apart.  Hopefully we can recover innovation before things get as bad as that.  I don't think I have it in me to be an innovator, but The Comeback makes me want to be.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, by David Platt

My friend Christina recently returned from a mission trip to Central America, where she and her husband joined a group building simple ovens for families who live as their ancestors have for centuries, cooking over an open pit in their hillside hovels.  She mentioned this book to me as an inspiration for how they were seriously reconsidering and altering their lifestyle.  Upon that recommendation, I was eager to see what this book is all about.

I must say I came away with mixed feelings.  Early on in Radical, David Platt describes himself as the "youngest megachurch pastor in the United States," making me cringe in response to his humility, or lack of.  Throughout the book, he describes his struggles, what a tough life he has, trying to downsize from his big house, dealing with his big church, leading his wealthy congregation.  As he challenges his readers to downsize and rearrange priorities, he seems to suffer from a lack of perspective.

That said, his challenges are still valid and, well, challenging.  Platt calls on American Christians (of course some of this would apply to all Christians, but his particular target is a complacent American church) to live more radically committed to Jesus.  A worthy message, to be sure!  But has there ever been a generation of Christians that didn't need to hear?  The only ones who come to mind are those who are or who have been persecuted.  Platt has spent time in communities of persecuted Christians around the world.  The stories he tells certainly inspired me to take my faith more seriously and to be thankful that we live in a free country with endless resources for Christian growth and worship.

When Platt began venturing into the world of economics, I braced myself.  The subtitle implies that the "American Dream" is incompatible with genuine Christianity, and his text supports that stance.  Whenever preachers start talking about economics, it's bound to get ugly.  It's true that American Christians can afford to live more simply and give more generously, but Platt's examples and exposition imply that Jesus wants all of us to sell our houses and quit our jobs.  But where does it stop?  If I live in a 6000 s.f. house, I should downsize to a 3000 s.f. house, right?  But 3000 sf is bigger than what most people in the world live in, so I guess I should look for a 1800 s.f. house.  I happen to live in a house that's less than 2000 s.f.  It suits my family of 5, and doesn't seem extravagant, but it's more than many people have.  Should I put it on the market?  (Maybe there's some radical Christian who is looking to downsize from his 5000 sf house and would like to buy mine.)  And beyond the house, what about your personal spending.  Eating out twice a week?  You could feed a family for a year on that money in some parts of the world.  That $100 pair of shoes?  Someone is going without a home.  That $3 cup of coffee?  You just drank someone's week's worth of groceries.
The money you spent on that lovely fountain?  Could have provided clean water for thousands of people with dysentery in the third world.
The money you spent on that spiffy sanctuary?  Could have built dozens of churches in Africa.
Similarly, what about quitting one's job?  To be sure, many Christians have quit their jobs to follow Jesus and serve in various capacities.  In my opinion, Platt sets this up as the norm, at least implicitly.  But what about the professional who uses his unique skills and resources in more secular ways?  There's nothing explicitly spiritual about performing surgery, trading stocks, or arguing a case in court.  But those jobs can be done in such a way to bring glory to God.  What about someone who owns a small business?  He provides jobs for his employees, adding to the economy.  Or the manufacturer who produces goods for others' use?  If these people walked away from their jobs in order to serve the poor or become a missionary, what would they be taking away from the livelihood of others?  What contributions would their fields of expertise be missing out on?  In Platt's view, missions and work among the poor are higher callings than so-called secular work.  I heartily disagree.

And what about the clock-puncher, who doesn't have the resources to leave his job?  No big 401K to cash in, no big house to sell.  He has to live on something if he quits to be a radical follower of Jesus.  He can just pray that the doctors and executives and business owners in his church stay in their jobs long enough to contribute to his cause.  The problem is, I am confident Platt would agree: Of course not everyone is called to quit their job or sell everything and give it to the poor!  But his book implies that to do so is the highest calling, the norm, and the path of the radical.  I was reminded of what Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck wrote in Why We Love the Church (my review here).  The younger generation, DeYoung and Kluck argue, is "prone to radicalism without follow through."  It might not seem radical, they argue, "to be a line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the praise team every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income," but such a lifestyle reflects a "long obedience in the same direction" and can be just as much a lifestyle of submission to God as Platt's radical Christian.

My biggest problem with Platt's book is his guilt mongering.  You're not giving enough, your house is too big, you're not spending enough time evangelizing, you're too self-centered, you're not serving Jesus in your job enough.  All of which may be true.  But Platt leaves the reader with a feeling of "I've got to do more! More! More!" without a good set of principles or guidelines for making judgments about how much more.  To me this seems pedantic and irresponsible.

OK, that all sounds vitriolic and maybe a bit defensive.  Fact is, I know I'm not giving enough, I know my house is plenty big, I'm not spending any time evangelizing, I am too self-centered, and I'm not serving Jesus in my job!  So I will end this review on a positive note.  Even though Platt made me a bit angry and I grew frustrated by his undisciplined exposition, he did challenge me to think about where my life is and what about it, if anything, is directed toward serving Jesus.

He ends the book with a challenge he calls The Radical Experiment.  For one year, he challenges the reader:
  • To pray for the entire world
  • To read through the entire Word
  • To commit our lives to multiplying community
  • To sacrifice our money for a specific purpose
  • To give our time in another context
In fact, these are not radical things to do, but should be normal for Christians.  That's where we are as a church: what should be normal is viewed as radical.  Or, again, is that always how it is for Christians?  The radical ones are the ones who are actually doing what they're supposed to do?  (Remember when The Door magazine named Mother Theresa Loser of the Month, because she receives such accolades for doing what a nun is supposed to be doing?  Of course you don't remember, because that magazine had a readership of about 500 which is why it's no longer published!)

So in spite of my problems with Radical, when I finished reading my mind (dare I say my spirit?) was racing with how its message might apply to my life.  My life is far from radical.  My heart is far from sold out to following Jesus.  But Platt has planted some seeds and pushed me along, forcing me not only to reflect on where my Christian life stands now, but to think about what I'm going to do about it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Average Joe, by Troy Meeder

The promo for Average Joe caught my eye:
Now we're older, with a wonderful wife and kids, as well as a mortgage, a minivan, and a fulfilling but not-so-glamorous job.  What happened?  All the dreams that once inspired us have evaporated into traffic jams, computer screens, bills, and deadlines.  Why is life so ordinary?
Look at that!  A book about me!  I had mixed feelings picking it up, though.  I was not supposed to be average or ordinary.  I always believed what my parents and teachers told me: that I was a cut above, that I had promise, that I was exceptional, etc.  I entered college and my ordinariness reared its head quickly.  I can relate to what my cousin once told me, that he seemed to get a little less smart at every step in his education.

So here I am, middle-aged, an average Joe.  (Or maybe below average. . . .)  So what encouraging words does Mr. Meeder have for a guy like me?  Not a lot, as it turns out, but I still was encouraged by his great stories and affirmation of what, in the world's eyes, is mundane and common.  Meeder's strength, his down-home storytelling with life lessons, has made him a sought-after conference speaker.  I love the fact that the stories he tells and the people he profiles are not public figures or historical personalities, but, of course, average Joes he has had the privilege to know: the head landscaper at his college, his grandfather who loved to fish, the cowboy who exemplifies simple wisdom.  None of these people made a big impact on business or civic life, but the way they lived touched lives around them in profound ways.

Troy Meeder, above-average Joe
This is one of those books that's easily summarized, with its simple lessons and gentle reminders of what you probably already know.  But like a good motivational speaker, Meeder engages you with stories and examples that drive home the simple message.  I either read too much into the promotional material for this book, or else the promotional material oversold the message.  The subtitle, "God's Extraordinary Calling to Ordinary Men," gave me hope of a stronger, more motivating message.  I am torn between Meeder's theme, that even though you're ordinary, you can have an eternal impact on the world around you, and what we typically hear from motivational speakers and writers, that we should aim beyond the ordinary.  Meeder's task is to redefine what is ordinary, but I think that task ends up being bigger than what he offers here.

Meeder may be a case in point.  This book is the first I have heard of him, but he mentions his work with Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, which he and his wife founded in 1995.  This sounds like a terrific ministry, which rehabilitates rescued horses and where kids and families can come for healing and restoration.  Yes, Meeder came from a poor family, definitely average Joe material, but he founded this ministry, which is "a global force in its ministry to children, families, and equine rescue."  He and his wife "speak at conferences, churches, and events throughout America."  I don't know about you, but being the founder of "a nationally renowned nonprofit organization" sounds like former average Joe material, definitely above average Joe.  So I'm left feeling like an average Joe being encouraged by an above average Joe that it's OK to be average.

I wouldn't by any means say, Don't read this book!  Meeder's stories are engaging, and he provides a handy discussion guide for use in small groups.  But I have mixed feelings about it.  Maybe I'm wrong.  I'm just an average Joe, what do I know?

By the way, Waterbrook Multnomah provided this book to me free of charge for review.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Science of Kissing, by Sheril Kirshenbaum

On a whim, I picked up The Science of Kissing from the new releases shelf at the library.  I thought it would be a fun read, and I wasn't disappointed.  Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist and science journalist (and a research scientist at UT-Austin, but I'll try not to hold that against her), decided to delve into the nature and origins of one of my favorite things to do, kissing.  Turns out there's not a ton of primary research in that particular field, but she tracked it down, and did some original research of her own.

Why do we kiss?  Well, there are a number of possibilities.  The origin of kissing could be tied to the practice of mothers pre-chewing their babies' food and depositing it in the babies' mouths (this pertains to humans as well as animals).  She reveals her background as an evolutionary biologist when she observes that babies' mouths have evolved to be a perfect receptacle for a nipple.  That the system of feeding our young with mother's milk originated by design is completely outside of her worldview.  Kissing could be linked to the practice of smelling one another on greeting (again, humans and non-humans).  There are definitely chemical triggers and responses when we kiss, determining compatibility and guiding relationships.  "Kiss and make up" works for a reason: we trigger chemical reactions in one another.

Many animals kiss or engage in kissing-like behaviors.
Lots of what she writes is speculative.  Controlled experiments to observe chemical responses and neurological activity related to kissing inevitably interfere with the act of kissing.  The closest she came was  exposing subjects to images of kissing and measuring neurological activity.  But that didn't seem to lead to many firm conclusions.

Kirshenbaum's goal with The Science of Kissing seems to have been more about entertainment than serious science.  That's not meant as a criticism: she is skilled at engaging her reader while distilling good research, in ways that a layman can understand and enjoy.  This is a fun read, sure to make you want to put into practice what she writes of.  She does conclude with 10 (definitely scientifically based!) tips for kissing.  I like the final one best, and I will be sure to mention it to my kissing partner:
Kiss regularly and often.  Once you've found someone special, a kiss works to maintain the strong partnership you share by helping to keep passion alive--with plenty of assistance from those hormones and neurotransmitters.  Lots of kissing is a telltale sign of a healthy relationship, because the connection fosters a sense of security through companionship--which in turn has been physiologically linked to happiness.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Something old, something new, something borrowed: Clancy and Flynn

Back in 2009, I read the whole Mitch Rapp series (books 1-10) by Vince Flynn.  (Reviews here and here.)  As I noted at the time, these books feature super-agent Mitch Rapp, who has much in common with Jack Bauer of the TV series 24.  The books could each be a season of 24.  I also wondered about a link to Clancy.  The two are often compared, or I should say, Flynn is often compared to Clancy, as in "fans of Tom Clancy will like Vince Flynn."  Clancy is a master of spy/military/political fiction.  I won't say he created the genre, but I think he did prime an audience for Flynn and others.

With that in mind, I picked up The Hunt for Red October on CD.  Red October, the 1984 novel that vaulted Clancy to instant celebrity, set the standard for realism and accuracy in suspense.  This great story of the defection of a Soviet submarine commander introduces us to the hero of Clancy's books, Jack Ryan.  Clancy famously won a huge following in military circles with the realism and accuracy of the story.  Reading it now, 27 years after publication, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I enjoyed the Cold War perspective.  What a different world, when the U.S was the beacon of prosperity and capitalism, and the Soviet Union was a slave state.  I'm afraid our beacon doesn't burn as brightly now, and we are closer to being a slave state than we have ever been in my lifetime.  Cold War-era books like this can hopefully stick around as a reminder that we have been, and still are, at least for now, the nation to which people will give their lives, or steal a submarine, to get to. 
Clancy, looking pretty military.

Over the course of the next several decades, Ryan moves on from CIA analyst to president to retiree.  His son takes up the mantle of American hero, and in Dead or Alive we find him fully enmeshed in a secret, off-the-books ops group tasked with hunting down Osama bin Laden and thwarting a major nuclear attack on the U.S.  OK, it's not really bin Laden, but the character in the book is clearly modeled after him.  Over the years, Clancy's books have become longer and more complex.  He handles the vast cast of characters and variety of settings well, but sometimes it just feels too unwieldy.  The nuclear plot Clancy creates for Dead or Alive made me wonder if any real terrorist had thought of it before, and if they hadn't, whether they would try it now.  Readers of Debt of Honor (published in 1994) had to wonder if the 9/11 terrorists got some inspiration from Clancy's rogue Japanese pilot who crashed a 747 into the capital during the State of the Union speech, crippling the government.

As I write this, a few days after the real Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed in his home, I can't help but wonder how Clancy might have inspired some of those involved.  The raid was carried out by Seal Team 6, which sounds similar to Clancy's Rainbow 6.  I know there have been occasions where novelists and script writers have met with government officials to brainstorm about terrorism (and I'm sure may other things).  Surely Clancy would be at the top of those lists.

So how are they?  If you've never read The Hunt for Red October, do.  It's a great book, a great story, and the book itself has a great story.  If you've read some of Clancy's other books and liked them, you'll want to pick up Dead of Alive.  It's been a long time coming; it had been seven years since he published Teeth of the Tiger.  But a Clancy newbie might not embrace it.  There's an awful lot of reminiscing and hinting at the previous books, interrupting with the flow of the story, and, as I suggested, it is pretty cumbersome.

I don't know if Flynn would credit Clancy for inspiration, but the comparison is hard to avoid for fans of both.  Flynn's stories seem much more serial-like than Clancy's.  As I've said, one of his books could be a season of 24.  Clancy's could be 3 or 4 seasons.  In a way, that makes Flynn more enjoyable.  His books are generally shorter and narrower in scope than Clancy's.  His writing does not neglect great character development and depth, but are more action-oriented and fast moving.  His style may be different, but his themes, characters, and military descriptions do recall Clancy.

Flynn doesn't look so military.
American Assassin goes back to before Transfer of Power, the first Mitch Rapp book.  We learn about the Rapp's early days, his recruitment, and his first major mission.  It stands alone, but Rapp fans will enjoy meeting some of the regulars from the Rapp books, and will appreciate the back story here.  But it's not all back story; it's a hard-driving action story, too.  Rapp's fiancee was killed in the Pan Am Lockerbie explosion; now he gets to track down the terrorists behind the plot and get his revenge.  Of course, it's not as simple as it seems.  Once again, I am reminded of Osama's take down.  The plot the Seal Team 6 guys used could have been planned out by Flynn--or is it vice versa?  I have never been in special ops--far from it!--but from reports we hear in the press about raids such as the one on Obama's compound, Mitch Rapp is based on the real deal.  Insiders could, I'm sure, pick Flynn's descriptions apart, but it seems like Flynn, like Clancy, does his military homework.

Osama and his followers are the enemy.  Osama got just what he deserved: a shot in the head.  Flynn couldn't have written it any better.  I don't know about the American reports of efforts to treat Osama's body according to proper Muslim tradition.  He certainly didn't respect the lives of the Americans he murdered.  It would seem more appropriate to leave his body to be eaten by wild dogs, or whatever scavengers roam around in the Pakistani countryside.  But I digress.  Clancy and Flynn write great pro-American, pro-military action stories.  I hope they continue to inspire more men like Mitch Rapp and Jack Ryan to serve our country and fight our country's enemies.