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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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.