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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Yiddish Policmen's Union, by Michael Chabon

How about a little detective story in an alternative present?  I've never read Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon before, but I figured if he won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) maybe he's worth a read.  Speaking of awards, The Yiddish Policemen's Union won a Hugo award for best novel (Hugo awards are for science fiction and fantasy.  TYPU fits the sci-fi genre in the sense that it presents an alternative history.)

In the world of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the fate of the Jews took a different twist in the mid-20th century.  In the late 1930s, when the persecution of the Jews was becoming uncomfortably evident to those outside Germany, a number of proposals bounced around for relocating the Jews.  Two weeks after Kristallnacht, FDR's secretary of the interior proposed the use of Alaska as a "haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions."  In real life, this proposal didn't get far.  In Chabon's world, thousands of European Jews immigrated to Sitka Island, establishing a Yiddish-speaking stronghold of Jewish culture.

Against that backdrop, Chabon spins a noir detective story featuring a hard-boiled, independent-minded, rumpled detective of the sort we see in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe private detective stories and others.  Chabon's detective, Landsman, is called in to investigate the murder of an apparent junkie in a sleazy hotel.  Turns out the victim is the son of  a prominent rabbi/organized crime figure, so Landsman gets drawn into that world.

Besides the strong detective story, Chabon explores the world of Orthodox Judaism in Alaska, the land of the "Frozen Chosen."  An entertaining subplot involves the keeper of the boundaries.  The eruv is the enclosed area out of which an Orthodox Jew may not travel on the Sabbath.  The boundary keeper has extensive maps of the eruvin, which are marked out with rope around the community.  For someone unfamiliar with this practice (me), this sounds like it must surely be made up, but it's really observed in many Orthodox Jewish communities.

A larger Jewish theme, and a theme more central to the story, is the Jewish hope for the coming of the messiah and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Sitka Jews had placed a lot of hope that one of their own would be the messiah, but then, well, he turned up murdered in a sleazy Sitka hotel.  His death doesn't deter them from continuing with their plans, and we learn that the Jews are in cahoots with right-wing elements of the U.S. government, who want to see the Jews returned to Israel in accordance with their evangelical beliefs.

With Landsman's quirky personality and personal problems, his uncanny ability to get into problematic situations while uncovering the truth behind his case, and the believable alternative Jewish world, Chabon manages to make the reader laugh out loud and believe that there really is this Jewish enclave in the north.  Driving the urgency of the story is the fact that the 60 year agreement is coming to an end; soon the Jews will be on their own again, seeking a homeland.  I, for one, am grateful that in our history they did find a homeland in the restoration of the state of Israel.  In the meantime, you'll get a kick of Chabon's picture of what might have been.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Superlative Stream, by Kerry Nietz

I recently read Kerry Nietz's first novel, A Star Curiously Singing, loved it, and was delighted to see that the adventures of Sandfly continue in a sequel, The Superlative Stream.  In ASCS, we meet Sandfly, a debugger who is sent to investigate the self-destruction of a robot on the space ship DarkTrench.  In the course of the investigation, he discovers a possible cause: curious singing from a distant star.  TSS picks up where ASCS leaves off.  Sandfly and his fellow debugger HardCandy take DarkTrench to search for the source of the singing, the superlative stream.

Nietz clearly matured as a writer with TSS.  As good as ASCS is, TSS adds a higher level of depth and complexity to his engaging style.  Utilizing flashbacks to their lives on Earth, we get to know Sandfly and HardCandy better and see how circumstances have brought them together.  We also gain insight into the Muslim culture of their world.  Nietz will not win friends in the Muslim community, as he takes certain elements of Sharia law to their logical, painful conclusions.

A subplot in both books deal with Sandfly's implant.  As a result of his encounter with the superlative stream, his stops are removed, so, if he wishes to, he can sin with impunity.  For the first time in his adult life, he experiences free will unencumbered by the programmed controls of the implant (and this right at the time time he embarks on an interstellar voyage, alone, with a beautiful woman!).  Given the Islamic theology of good works, he struggles with the realization that his good works can never tip the scale in his favor; his sinful nature will continually pull him toward 50.1% bad works.

Sandfly's understanding will no doubt continue to develop as he gets to know the source of the stream, whom he knows now only as "(A~A)3."  (That's A not A cubed, A being the shorthand for Allah, who is not named in the novel. )  Nietz skillfully weaves basic, thoughtful ideas like this throughout the story without preaching or distracting from the overall plot.

Much of the story takes place on a planet in the Betelguese system.  There the humans encounter a whole new civilization, technically far ahead of human civilization.  This part of the story will feel very familiar to any reader of sci-fi or viewer of sci-fi movies and TV shows: an idyllic, communal society, where there is no evident material need, where everyone seems happy, yet everyone sort of looks and dresses alike.  Nietz kept me going for quite a while, trying to decide if this were some sort of angelic community, or if there were something more ominous under the surface.  I'll leave that discovery to you when you read it. . . .

Nietz shows his skill as a bona fide sci-fi writer with his use of hard science as a driver in the story combined with plenty of realistic scientific and technological speculation.  Combining that with his use of hard theology, exploring theological questions from a refreshing outside perspective, he gives us a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read.  And here's the good news: the Dark Trench saga will continue!  An e-mail from Nietz confirmed that he has completed book 3.  It's in the hands of the publisher now, so we should see it in the coming months.  Keep an eye out at Marcher Lord Press for the release.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

To Find Hope: Mother Teresa, by Sam Wellman

Few Christians in the 20th century were as well-known and admired as Mother Teresa.  Though a devout Catholic, her humility in service to the poorest of the poor brought her fame and adulation from around the world, among Christians of all stripes, and among people of other faiths or no faith at all.  Sam Wellman, prolific author of Christian biographies for young readers, provides an easy-reading introduction to Mother Teresa in his novelized biography, To Find Hope.

Like most people, I have been vaguely aware of Mother Teresa's work and legacy for some time.  I remember when she died, on the same day as Princess Diana, regretting that Mother Teresa's death was overshadowed by the publicity-loving celebrity princess.  But that is probably what Mother Teresa would have wanted.  Never comfortable with the media attention and honors she received, including a Nobel Peace Prize, she suffered through the praise with humility in order to bring more attention and needed funds to the poor.

One thing I always loved about Mother Teresa was her speaking out on behalf of the most helpless people: the unborn.  Her Nobel speech summed up her view: "I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion. . . . Because if a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me?  There is nothing in between."  Preach it, sister!  Er, Mother!  She backed it up by promoting adoption.  "Please don't kill the child. . . . I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child."

However, I was never quite comfortable with her universalist-sounding talk.  There is no question that she was a follower of Christ, and that she followed and adored Christ in a way that has been equaled by few Christians.  But I have a hard time processing statements like this: "We convert Hindus into better Hindus. Muslims into better Muslims."  Surely there are many who became followers of Christ as a result of her ministry, but, at least in Wellman's telling, we don't hear of many.  To be sure, serving the poor for the sake of the poor, and touching them as if touching Jesus, is a good unto itself.  But I'm left wondering about her ready embrace of other faiths.

Wellman's uncritical treatment may not satisfy someone with a serious scholarly or theological interest in Mother Teresa's life and influence, but he captures her life and work in a way that will inspire the reader to try "something beautiful for God."
"Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans . . ."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Star Curiously Singing, by Kerry Nietz

I have long been a fan of sci-fi, but have been skeptical of Christian sci-fi as a genre.  Several years ago, I read some novels by Jeff Gerke (under the pen name Jefferson Scott) in the sci-fi/tech/suspense genre.  I enjoyed them, and wondered what happened to him.  Lo and behold, he has started a publishing house dedicated exclusively to Christian sci-fi and fantasy titles, Marcher Lord Press.  Of course, titles from this small, new publisher are not available at my local library, so I went against my reading glutton, cheapskate tendencies and actually bought a few titles from Marcher Lord Press.

I was more than pleasantly surprised by Kerry Nietz's first novel, A Star Curiously Singing.  This is not a second-rate, knock-off imitation sci-fi novel, but the real deal. Nietz creates a believable, if a little scary, near-future earth, incorporates creative technological ideas, and introduces likable characters in an engaging story.  I was reminded of some of Asimov's stories; like Asimov, Nietz weaves a detective story into a future setting, letting the technology and cultural commentary provide a rich background while giving primary attention to an engaging plot.  Sandfly, the narrator and central character, is a debugger whose owner sends him to check out a robot who self-destructed during a deep-space mission.  That sentence alone requires a large amount of explanation, immersed as it is in the context of the book.  Nietz takes the reader directly into that world, so it may take a few pages for you to feel comfortable, but he does so artfully, quickly drawing you in.

Without giving away the story, I'll highlight a couple of story elements that set A Star Curiously Singing apart.  First, the cultural context.  In the world of the novel, everyone, I mean everyone, is now Muslim.  Sharia law is the law, and it's zealously enforced.  Nietz doesn't go into much detail about how that transition came to pass, but he does off-handedly imply that the Muslim takeover occurred primarily due to birth rates.  It's a little on the extreme side, of course (Catholics have high birth rates, too.), but it stands as a warning to us Western Christians who have small families and whose children tend not to embrace their parents' faith.  And before you write off the possibility of world-wide sharia law, keep in mind that there are heads of state in the Middle East whose stated goal is just that, and they have, or will soon have, nuclear weapons.

As a debugger, Sandfly has an implant which not only gives his owner a means of control (think of a training device like you might have for your dog, only implanted in the brain.  Ouch!), but the implant also controls his actions when he's alone.  Tell a lie.  Zap!  Steal.  Zap!  Blaspheme A (The full name of the deity is not spelled out here.).  Zap!  Yet free will and the sin nature survive.  Using this device, Nietz explores human nature and our sin nature in a unique way.

The core of the novel, the singing of the star, makes the story.  In a world where Christianity has been successfully quashed, where all reference to it has been eliminated, no witness to God remains on Earth.  But, as Jesus said, if we keep silent, the stones will cry out!  Why not the stars, too!  I love this depiction of God's calling out to his children, even when his children have cut off all communication.  I hope and pray we don't come to a place where the whole world rejects God, but if it ever comes to that, Nietz reminds us that creation will not keep silent.

I heartily recommend this book, and encourage you to check out Marcher Lord Press, as well.