Friday, September 28, 2012

Ameritopia, by Mark Levin

I have heard Mark Levin's radio show occasionally, and fully expected his newest book, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America, to match his show: well-informed but loud, bombastic, and confrontational.  There was a little bit of that, but mostly Ameritopia was a thoughtful, almost academic treatment of political theory applied to current U.S. politics.  I should known to expect more.  He does have a law degree from Temple University and worked in the Reagan administration.  Plus, I read and enjoyed an earlier book of his, Men in Black, about the Supreme Court.

Levin does a great service in Ameritopia, taking the reader of a Cliff's Notes tour of several important political thinkers with a utopian vision: Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Marx's Communist Manifesto.  Then he spends several chapters discussing the political writings most influential on the founders, particularly Locke and Montesquieu, as well as Alexis de Tocqueville's assessments a few decades after America's founding.  These sections make up at least 75% of Ameritopia.  No matter what your feeling is about Levin or his well-known political leanings, you will benefit from this mini-course in political theory.

But all of that is just preparation for the last two chapters, in which Levin describes how utopian thinking came to displace the Founders' vision, especially with President Wilson's Progressivism and the growth of the federal government's power under President Roosevelt's New Deal.  The administrative state, in which the "mastermind seeks control over the individual" has become so prevalent in the United States that we take it for granted.  The regulatory state has become so entrenched in every bit of our life's minutiae that we hardly notice--to our peril.  The entitlement culture has so many people dependent on the federal government for their basic needs that dismantling it or even reducing its scope has become almost unmentionable.

Levin paints a pretty bleak picture.  I hope his voice and others like it will be heard above the constant clamoring--from both Rs and Ds--for a more powerful central government.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Amped, by Daniel Wilson

Back in December, I read Daniel Wilson's Robopocalypse, an enjoyable sci-fi disaster novel.  I was particularly excited when I read about his new novel, Amped.  The set-up intrigued me: in the very near future, many people with physical and neurological disabilities are "amped."  They have artificial implants which give them full functionality, and, in some cases, super-human abilities.  However, a social-political movement has arisen, giving the "amps" second-class status, stripping them of basic rights.

What I thought would be an interesting treatise on disability rights turned out to be a standard story in sci-fi, the "supers" versus "normals" story played out in X-Men, Heroes, and elsewhere.  Faced with segregation and persecution, a group of amps begins a revolution.  The hero, Owen Gray, whose father developed some of the amp technology, gets caught up in the rebellion.  As the rebellion spreads, Wilson never adequately conveys the scope or implications of the movement.  I wasn't convinced that the events of the book really had a broader impact on the nation.  By contrast, in Robopocalypse Wilson skillfully placed the characters' stories within the context of the world-wide events.

Amped wasn't a bad book.  I was disappointed that Wilson did not develop the problems related to amping.  The persecution on amps did not seem logical, especially since most amps were truly disabled people whose lives are improved by technology.  I know we see rare cases in which people with prosthetics may face societal resistance, such as Oscar Pistorius's struggle to be included in the Olympics.  But I don't see that expanding to full fledged persecution; even though some did not think he should have been allowed to race because of his mechanical advantage, no one was clamoring for his citizenship to be taken away or his human rights to be denied.

If this review was helpful to you, please give my review at a helpful vote!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Unstoppable, by Nick Vujicic

Long-time Reading Glutton readers may remember my review last year of Nick Vujicic's Life Without Limits.  This young man was born with no arms and legs, but has not let that slow him down.  He's an inspiration to all of us, no matter what abilities or disabilities we have.  He has a new book coming out soon from Waterbrook Multnomah, Unstoppable: The Incredible Power of Faith in Action.  I have not read it, but am happy to promote it (in exchange for a copy of it!).  Check in later for a review.

Below are a promotional video and excerpt.  Whether you have heard from Nick before or not, check this out.  I guarantee you'll be inspired.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Great Destroyer, by David Limbaugh

If you can read this book and not wish with all your heart that Barack Obama would not be reelected, you have some delusional problems.  David Limbaugh (yes, he's Rush's brother) lays out a case against Obama that should be enough to convince anyone that Barack has got to go.  In The Great Destroyer: Barack Obama's War on the Republic, Limbaugh picks apart the Obama presidency and reminds the reader why his election was a bad idea and bad for America.

Most of the events and issues Limbaugh discusses in The Great Destroyer will be familiar to any reader with a passing interest in current events: the Gulf oil spill, Fast and Furious, the ongoing financial crisis, etc.  But Limbaugh brings things together to show connections, and takes the stories deeper than a newspaper article or op-ed typically can.  You may have heard some of Obama's speeches Limbaugh writes about, but by putting them in context and putting them alongside the greater body of Obama's work, he brings out Barack's true colors.

Obama's far-left views are bad enough, but hypocrisy, deceit, and determination to tear this country down are astounding.  Limbaugh shines a light on "the bullying, the class warfare, the demonization of opponents, the narcissism, the rigid dogmatism" that come from Obama.  Several times while reading, I just had to laugh aloud.  I hope that history will look to Limbaugh's perspective, not that of the fawning media, for Obama's legacy.  But I doubt it.  Thank you, David Limbaugh, for being a voice in the wilderness.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane, by Kathleen Kaska

When I was a kid growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, a common destination for weekend camping was the  nearby Aransas Wildlife Refuge, winter home of the majestic whooping cranes.  When I went to the World Scout Jamboree in Alberta, Canada, our troop flag featured a whooping crane and depicting the whooper's migratory path from south Texas to western Canada.  One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping cranes were nearly extinct, and still are endangered.  They owe what existence they have, in large part, to the efforts of ornithologist Robert Porter Allen.

Even if you are not a bird lover or nature lover, and even if you think the environmentalist movement is a bit wacko, you will enjoy Kathleen Kaska's telling of Bob Allen's story.  As an Audobon Society naturalist, who had studied roseate spoonbills and flamingos, tracking their migration and identifying their nesting grounds, he was the perfect candidate to save the whooping crane.

Seven foot wing span!
The whooping cranes' winter home on the Texas Gulf Coast was well-known.  The federal government established the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in 1937 to protect the cranes' habitat and diet from hunting, fishing, and development.  But their northern nesting sites remained a mystery for many years.  Allen and his colleagues spent many summers scouring remote areas of the Canadian wilderness before they finally discovered where the whooping cranes summered.

Bird watching, stereotypically a rather dull pursuit, may not seem like material ripe for an engaging story.  Allen himself acknowledged that "a casual but undeviating perseverance and ability to drink gallons of strong coffee can be reckoned among the filed ornithologist's most valuable assets."  Kaska takes her readers far beyond Allen's long days of sitting motionless observing his birds, giving a sense of adventure and suspense to his long struggle to save the whooping cranes, and instilling in the reader a sense of his love and admiration for these rare birds.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

Allan Karlsson firmly believes that "When life has gone into overtime it's easy to take liberties."  So when he crawls out the window of his nursing home, just minutes before his 100th birthday party, sparking a manhunt and a cascading chain of events, he takes it all in stride.  Allan first makes his way to the bus station, where he buys a ticket to as far away as he can get for a 50 crown note.  A young man asks Allan to watch his suitcase while he takes a dump, and Allan impulsively decides to board his bus with the young man's suitcase, leaving the angry young man behind.

It turns out the young man is part of a criminal gang (albeit a small, bumbling one) and the suitcase is full of cash.  As Allan traverses the Swedish countryside, with law enforcement and a criminal gang on his tail, he proceeds more or less obliviously, in search of a good meal and a drink of vodka.  As the story unfolds, Jonasson takes us on a series of flashbacks, telling Allan's life story.  In his century of life, his pursuit of vodka and a good meal took him from Sweden, across Europe, Asia, and the U.S.  Along the way, he dined with presidents and other key figures, crossed the Himalayas on foot, and aided in the development of the atomic bomb.

Allan's simple, common-sense approach to life and Jonasson's wry observations make the book.  For example, on the "fantastic wealth" oil provided for England and Iran.  The wealth went to "mainly England, if the truth be told, but that was only fair because Iran's sole contribution to the project was cheap labor--and of course the oil itself."  Then there was the time Brezhnev "thought that Afghanistan needed his help.  So he sent his elite troops into the country, and they happened to kill the sitting president, so that Brezhnev had no choice but to appoint his own."  Then there was the Anglican priest who tried to convince some Iranian communists to adopt Anglicanism so that "Anglicanism would become the state religion in Iran the day the communists took over."  He did try to pray about his work in Iran: "But God answered with silence.  He did that sometimes, and Father Ferguson always interpreted it to mean that he should think for himself.  Admittedly, it didn't always work out well when the pastor thought for himself, but you couldn't just give up." I can relate to that!

The 100-Year-Old-Man is a fun read, with understated humor and a convoluted story line.  This is the kind of book that Dave Barry's Lunatics was trying to be.  I was reminded more of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk.  I only wish Peter Sellers were alive to play Allan in the movie version!  It's been a best seller in Sweden since its publication in 2009, and is now available in English in the U.S.

Thanks to Edelweis and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Christ Our Mediator, by C.J. Mahaney

C.J. Mahaney, pastor of Covenant Life Church in suburban Washington, D.C., packs a great deal of truth and conviction in his little book Christ Our Mediator: Finding Passion at the Cross.  This is my first exposure to Mahaney.  If the pastoral tone, theological depth, and clarity in communication in this book are reflective of his overall ministry, I certainly wouldn't mind hearing more from him.

In Christ Our Mediator, Mahaney challenges the reader to focus on the cross, and Jesus mediating purpose.  Too often, we focus on subjective feelings, rather than the object teaching of the gospel.  "Our feelings are an essential part of our right response to reality, but they should never in themselves be the determiner of reality."  We should not "invest our feelings with final authority."  Looking to Paul, Mahaney reminds us of the substance of the gospel: "The main theme and essence of the entirety of holy Scripture" is that "there's a unique intermediary between God and humanity: the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as the ransom for all."

Jesus suffering on the cross, unimaginable to us, had a focus.  In spite of the overwhelming weight of the sin of the world, Jesus' focus was on me.  In his darkest our, he still loved me and was thinking of me.  "There's no greater encouragement, and no greater motivation for everything God has called you to do in life, than to recognize His love for you in His darkest hour, and to receive his care for you in your darkest hour."  That's amazing.  And it should never be far from our minds as we grow as Christians.  We need to preach the gospel to ourselves, again and again, above all else.  "Growth in godliness must be pursued, but never apart from joyful gratitude for the cross."

Christ Our Mediator is a challenging read, not in terms of vocabulary or academic language, but in terms of demanding a response.  Don't let its short 96-page length fool you.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah and Edelweis for my complimentary review copy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Kingdom Calling, by Amy Sherman

I have long admired Amy Sherman, both for her insightful writing and for her practical experience in social ministry.  Her practical experience and her research come together in Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good.  More than just another book about Christians in the marketplace, Dr. Sherman wants the reader to understand his or her vocation as a means to extending the Kingdom of God.

Sherman directs Kingdom Calling primarily to pastors and ministry leaders, in hopes that rather than viewing vocation as something incidental or secondary to the "real" work of the Christian life, pastors will support their flock in directing them to see their "secular" careers as outlets of service.  Sherman talks about finding our "vocational sweet spot," where God's priorities, the world's needs, and the individual's passions and gifts intersect.

Kingdom Calling can be a great tool for church leaders, especially those who have a hard time leading professionals in their congregation into meaning service that utilizes their gifts.  It can also be enlightening for career guidance, as many who want to serve God have a mindset that views traditional church-based ministries as the only way to serve God whole-heartedly.

Sherman provides a large number of examples from a wide variety of occupations, yet her examples and arguments apply best to professional, entrepreneurial, and creative occupations.  I don't see a lot here for someone who works in a low-level job in a large corporation, in the service industries, in manufacturing.  She makes some nods in their direction, but a reader in one of those groups might be left thinking he needs to find something else to do if he wants to participate in a kingdom calling.

Nevertheless, Kingdom Calling is a great resource.  If you have always had a feeling that there is more to being a Christian in the workplace than having integrity and witnessing to your coworkers, Sherman, while certainly affirming that understanding, will expand your understanding of living out your vocation in the Kingdom.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kisses from Katie, by Katie Davis and Beth Clark

Earlier this year, my dad went to Uganda with a mission team.  As a side trip, the team paid a visit to Katie Davis, who, besides raising a gaggle of daughters she has adopted, runs a ministry which touches hundreds of children every week in Uganda.  So I had to read about this remarkable young woman my dad met.

Katie and her daughters.
Katie went to Uganda for three weeks during her senior year in high school and fell in love with the country.  After graduation, she returned for a one-year stay.  However, during that year, she adopted several children and started her ministry, putting down roots and establishing a presence that is still felt today.  In Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption, Katie tells her story and inspires the rest of us to follow God no matter where he leads.  I finished the book convicted, wondering what steps God would have me take in obedience to him and out of love for others.

Katie did not set out with a grand plan.  She promised her dad that she would start college after a year in Kenya.  As soon as that first adoption took place, it became clear that college was not going to be in the cards.  She did return to the U.S. for one semester, but with several adopted daughters left behind in Kenya, college was soon abandoned.  Her decision to adopt, in light of her commitment to her family to go to college, is the first of the decisions she makes that seem rather rash and not thought through.  Yet, she clearly has been blessed and has gained the favor of Ugandan locals and American donors.

Katie and her coauthor, Beth Clark, tell Katie's story well, emphasizing her reliance on God and her humility regarding the growth of her ministry.  Yet I couldn't help thinking there must be more to this story.  She finds a solid house to live in, with running water and occasional electricity, for very low rent.  She hosts dozens if not hundreds of people for meals in her home.  She adopts over a dozen girls in a very short period of time.  So much of what she tells is hard to believe.  I wish she could give the reader a little more insight into how she, as a teenager right of out of high school, took on all of this and more.

But she's writing a personal memoir, not a missions manual.  And like any good memoir, Kisses from Katie captures the heart and passion of this young lady.  Questionable decisions or not, her life will challenge you, perhaps into making some questionable decisions yourself.  When we see the need in the world around us and ask, "Where is God?" Katie says, "God is right here living inside the hearts of all who believe.  So maybe the question is, 'Where are we?'"

Thanks to Edelweis and the publisher for this complimentary electronic review copy.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Greater, by Stephen Furtick

Stephen Furtick, pastor and founder of the super-fast growing Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, wants Christians to be greater.  Most Christians know that God has called them to something greater, but they get stuck in "miserable mediocrity," "comfortable complacency," the "lesser loser life."  Can you relate to this: "going every day to a job you'd prefer to quit, doing decent work, being a pretty good person compared to your neighbor, paying your bills on time, and sporadically reading your Bible as though it's your guide to the great things God did in other people's lives in the past."  I know I can.  (Except that sometimes my bills get lost on my messy desk and I pay them late.  I need to work on that.)

Greater is a high-energy read, with all of the pop-culture references and theology-lite you would expect from the successful pastor of a seeker-oriented church.  You surely wouldn't pick this book up expecting great theological depth, but Furtick does inspire without wandering off into humanistic heterodoxy.  The result is effective motivational talk in biblical garb. 

I especially liked his admonition to "dream big but start small."  It makes sense.  For example, you want to be a spiritual giant?  How about starting with praying ten minutes a day.  Furtick reminds us that "you have everything you need to do all that God is calling you to do right now."  Our problem is that "we spend all our time dreaming about where we wish we were and what we wish we had and no time investing in where we are and using what we have." 

I was inspired by Furtick's book, but less for its spiritual, biblical content than for Furtick's motivational message.  He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, so I'm thinking surely his sermons and the overall body of his writing has some solid biblical and theological teaching.  There's not much sign of that here.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah and Edelweis for my complementary electronic review copy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Shift, by Kim Curran

Here's a new superpower to think about: what if you could go back and change any choice you made?  Pick up the penny or just keep walking?  Buy the moped or just ride your bike?  Accept the dangerous dare or let common sense prevail?  In Kim Curran's new novel Shift, a select group of people can change the course of their lives by altering choices they've made.  A secret government agency trains shifters and works to keep their existence a secret while manipulating history, hopefully for the better.

Curran's hero, Scott, discovers his power to shift later in life than most shifters, but he quickly comes to learn that shifting potentially has terrible consequences that we did not anticipate.  As he becomes more deeply involved with ARES, the Agency for the Regulation and Evaluation of Shifters, he learns that not all shifters want to use their power for good, and that some shifters he trusts may not be what they seem.

Shift follows a pretty standard story line: a teenager discovers he has a special power, he's conflicted about what that means for him and what he should do about it, he meets a girl who helps him understand his power, and he ends up in conflict with more powerful establishment figures on his way to becoming a hero.  Curran provides enough action and plot twists to keep the story moving.  She is a little weak on the science and the moral questions, but that's probably appropriate for her teen audience.  There's probably some good material for deeper reflection here, if we stop and think about how the small choices we make every day have wider consequences than we ever imagine.  But that's for another book.  For a fast, fun read, Shift is a good choice.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Hobbit Devotional, by Ed Strauss

The Hobbit is one of those rare books that can be read again again, from one generation to the next, without losing its sense of charm and richness.  Ed Strauss takes the beloved story one scene at a time, unpacking moral and biblical lessons along the way.  His A Hobbit Devotional may not break any great theological ground, but it provides a thoughtful look at some additional layers of Bilbo Baggins's adventures that most readers will not have seen.

"I never though of that before. . . "
If you've never read The Hobbit, I would recommend that you do so before picking up A Hobbit Devotional.  Each chapter tells a little bit of the tale, so that by the end you've read a sort of Cliff's Notes version of The Hobbit, but it does not match the experience of reading the original.  Each of Strauss's sixty short chapters has a similar structure: a quote from The Hobbit, a brief scene from the story, a biblical story, and a lesson to be drawn from the stories.  Strauss does a nice job of putting it all together.  I never thought, "Wow, that's a stretch."

I think Strauss has taken the devotional application much further than what Tolkien probably had in mind, but  the real strength of Strauss's project is his spotlighting Tolkien's deep moral vision.  Even though The Hobbit can be read as a fun adventure story, Christian, moral themes abound.  I especially like Strauss's point that unlike many fantasy stories, The Hobbit portrays magic not as a pagan power or spells and incantations, but as natural powers given by God.

Fans of The Hobbit will enjoy thinking about the lessons Strauss brings out from the adventures of Bilbo, Gandalf, and others in Middle Earth.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.