Friday, December 28, 2012

Of Thee I Zing, by Laura Ingraham

Perhaps if I had known what to expect of Laura Ingraham's Of Thee I Zing: America's Cultural Decline from Muffin Tops to Body Shots, I would have been less disappointed.  Based on the subtitle, you know there's going to be some humor here.  But this is really her attempt at stand-up comedy (on paper).  You know those comedians whose wry, observational humor is fun to listen to for a half hour or so?  It's funny to commiserate with them about the stupid, annoying things people do.  But Ingraham takes this basic idea, recycles it through a variety of themes, and comes off sounding like a whiny, elitist bore.

It's not that she didn't make me laugh occasionally, and it's not that I didn't share some of her contempt, but she just got to be dull and grating after a while.  Have you ever had a friend with lots of pet peeves, and at first when he's talking about them, you nod and laugh and say "Yes! I know exactly what you mean!"  But then when that's all he talks about, and just won't shut up, you really don't want to be around him any more.

That's how Laura Ingraham is in Of Thee I Zing.  She is perfect.  Everyone else in the world is just about intolerable.  Good luck getting through this one.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God is More Than Enough, by Tony Evans

It's one of the most familiar passages in scripture.  Many Christians can quote it, and many who have never set foot in church recognize it immediately.  Psalm 23 is not only powerful scripture, it's a beautiful piece of poetry.  In his book God is More Than Enough, Pastor Tony Evans, of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, gives this beloved Psalm a new reading.

Even if you have memorized Psalm 23, it's probably been too long since you have taken time to read it and reflect on.  In what must have been a sermon series at Oak Cliff, Evans reminds us what profound truth there is in this passage.  Walking the reader through the Pslam, line by line, word by word, Evans points out the great truths and promises the Good Shephard makes to us.  He satisfies us in the midst of life's disappointments and our determination to be self-sufficient.  When we realize, sometimes belatedly, that we do need God, he restores us, forcing us to recognize our dependence on him.  In the valley of the shadows, often the shadows we create for ourselves, he offers guidance and protection.

As those who have read Evans's books or heard his sermons already know, his tone is deeply pastoral, and his content is solidly biblical.  God is More Than Enough will remind you, pastorally and biblically, that "Your God is bigger than your need."

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah and Edelwiess for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to Think More About Sex, by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is a writer who, at least for me, defies easy description.  Although he has written novels, I think of him more as an essayist or public thinker.  He might be described as a philosopher, but he doesn't seem to fit the traditional category of philosophy.  Suffice it to say that his writing is a pleasure to read, thoughtful and though-provoking, timeless and relevant.

His recent book, How to Think More About Sex, places the emphasis on think much more than on sex, as you might expect from a writer of his caliber.  This is not a book of titillation, nor is it a sex manual, or a biological study.  De Botton takes this usually unmentionable subject and presents reflections that build appreciation for our relationships.

The book is filled with passages that made me smile and think, that's true, but I never thought of it like that before.  For instance, the attractive/revolting nature of the act itself.  "At the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission.  The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both."  He continues, "Lovemaking purifies us by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in the procedures and thereby anointing them as newly worthy.  This is never more true than when we press our faces, the most public and respectable aspects of ourselves, eagerly against our lovers' most private and 'contaminated' parts . . . thus symbolically lending our approval to their entire selves."

Of course the subject of sex lends itself to humor, which he has plenty of, but it's more understated and observational than bawdy or tasteless.  "One of the difficulties of sex is that it doesn't--in the grander scheme of things--last terribly long.  Even at its extreme, we are talking of an activity that might only rarely occupy two hours, or approximately the length of a Catholic Mass."  And the sex act itself is not merely about physical intimacy; "rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and whom we may home to build a shared life based upon common values."

Despite his non-religious perspective (he is an atheist who has an admiration for religious culture and values), his writing has sparks of religious themes and Christian morality.  He admires the monogamist impulse of religious ethics.  Against the temptation to stray, both physically and mentally (as with pornography), "we should be able to see for ourselves that untrammeled liberty can paradoxically trap us, and that . . . we might be doing ourselves a favor if we willingly consented to cede certain of our privileges to a benign supervisory entity."

Regarding adultery, he recognizes that "few marriages . . . perfectly fuse together the three golden strands of fulfillment--romantic, erotic, and familial," but that even in an imperfect or incomplete marriage, "it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things we care about inside it. . . . That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis."

Manet's Bunch of Asparagus. My wife. 
Don't get me wrong; de Botton's sexual ethic may not pass muster for a Sunday school curriculum.  But, as he intended, we can all learn a bit more about ourselves and our relationships, thinking more about sex.  If nothing else, de Botton will help us not take sex, and our sexual partners, for granted.  I love his advice for the bored or complacent: "We might learn to effect on our spouse much the same imaginative transformation that Manet performed on his vegetables.  We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. . . . [We may] have forgotten that dimension in him or her that remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent and, above all else, alive."  The way I read that is treasure your spouse, view her with eyes that see her as no one else does.  Sounds like good advice to me.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

God Gave Us Christmas, by Lisa Tawn Bergren

Lisa Tawn Bergren has written a series of lovely children's books featuring the polar bear family.  Mama and Papa and Grampa Bear teach lessons of life and faith to the little bears.  In Bergren's newest offering, God Gave Us Christmas, Mama Bear and Little Cub leave Papa at home with the baby cubs as they go on a trip to learn the meaning of Christmas.  Mama Bear, in her wisdom, does not disillusion Little Cub about Santa, but makes sure Little Cub knows that God, not Santa, invented Christmas.

Mama Bear takes Little Cub to see God.  They see the northern lights, and the power of glaciers.  But most importantly, they see Joseph and Mary and Jesus, and talk about the real meaning of Christmas.  As Mama Bear says, "Jesus is the best present of all. . . . Jesus is a present for everyone, grumpy or happy, mean or kind.  God gave us all Christmas."

God Gave Us Christmas will delight fans of Bergren's bear family books.  This new one features art by David Hohn, instead of Laura Bryant.  He maintains the style and characters recognizably, but I tend to like Bryant's work better.  Nevertheless, it's a cute story, with pretty pictures, and communicates the real meaning of Christmas in an engaging way.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Governor's Wife, by Mark Gimenez

Long-time readers of the Reading Glutton will remember the name Mark Gimenez.  I have reviewed several of his books here, and have not been disappointed in one yet.  His latest, The Governor's Wife, continues his streak of winners.  As Gimenez's readers have come to expect, he pays close attention to setting the stage, bringing the story's locations alive.  He develops the characters skillfully and draws the reader along, revealing just enough at just the right times, giving us people and a story to care about.

The governor in The Governor's Wife, Bode Bonner, bears an uncanny resemblance to our real-life governor for life, down to his connection to George W. Bush and his penchant for hunting small game while jogging (in self-defense, of course).  There are plenty of biographical differences to avoid a defamation suit, but the personality is certainly inspired by Perry.  (By the way, I couldn't help feeling like Gimenez is no fan of Gov. Perry!)  While he is trying to figure out how to get noticed on the national stage, looking to follow in GWB's footsteps, his wife is bored and neglected, aware of Bonner's affair with his aide, and seeking meaning outside of photo ops and the public eye.

She finds satisfaction in assisting a doctor in the colonias along the border.  Her training as a nurse and her compassionate spirit fit right in with the saintly doctor, who was born in the colonia, went to Harvard Medical School, and returned to the border to provide health care.  She happens to assist in saving the life of the son of Mexican drug lord, then her husband happens to shoot the same son, leading the governor to the national stage he has longed for.  At the same time, the Democratic party leadership think they've found the perfect candidate to oppose Bonner in the race for governor, a certain border doctor who happens to be falling in love with the governor's wife.

Gimenez weaves these connections into a believable, readable story, with, yes, some melodrama, but, hey, it's fiction!  Throughout we're also treated to more political and social commentary than I remember in Gimenez's other books.  Gimenez is pretty clearly a Democrat, but he gives enough time to the characters that other perspectives are treated fairly.  I especially liked the Mexican perspective.  As he conveyed the history of Texas and Mexico from the perspective of the Mexicans, he almost had me convinced that we should cede Texas back to Mexico.  OK, not really, but it's interesting to hear their side of the story, too.

All in all, The Governor's Wife is a highly enjoyable, can't-put-it-down thriller.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessarily-Super Hero, by Geoffrey Wood

A few months back, I reviewed Geoffrey Wood's second novel, The God Cookie.  All the good humor, quirky characters, and deeply-felt life lessons of the God Cookie were there in his first novel, Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessarily-Super Hero.  Wood does like his coffee.  Leaper, a.k.a. James, a recently-divorced, thirty-year-old, slightly neurotic coffee server (I can't bring myself to use the pretentious-sounding 'barrista.') suddenly discovers that he has the ability to instantaneously "leap" from place to place.  As he struggles to control and understand this new ability, he becomes convinced that it is a gift from God, and wonders if he is good enough for it.

That is the core of James's struggle.  He knows that God has given him this ability in order to use it for good.  But  he knows that he is not good of himself, and does not believe that he has the capacity to do good.  He thus makes up his mind not to leap.  Isn't this how many of us struggle with God?  I feel pretty certain that I'll never be faced with the question of how to handle my super powers, but I, and all of us, have gifts from God.  Will we bury them, or will we use them to God's glory?

Wood wraps these questions up nicely in an entertaining, fast-moving story.  There are plenty of laughs here, but there was too much poignancy--dealing with the question of good, dealing with the pain of divorce, and dealing with the loss of an acquaintance to suicide--to call this a comedic novel.  Nevertheless, it is definitely a well-written first novel, worthy of a read.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

Just in time for Christmas, here's a novelization of the Christmas story that will, well, it will make you look at the Three Wise Men in a little bit different light.  Think less contemplative mystics and more Three Musketeers.  No surprise, Seth Grahame-Smith plays fast and loose with history in Unholy Night, but he does so in a way that respects the source.

This was my first taste of Grahame-Smith's work.  You only have to read the titles of his other novels, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to get the idea that he's not your typical writer of historical fiction.  In Unholy Night, we meet Balthazar, otherwise known as the infamous thief, "The Antioch Ghost."  He's captured, and thrown into prison with a couple of other thiefs, the three of them to be executed the next day.

True to his reputation as a notorious criminal, he escapes, bringing his two new companions with him.  On the run from Herod's soldiers, they flee to nearby Bethlehem, and seek refuge in a stable.  This is not how the New Testament seems to depict the three wise men's meeting with the holy family:
The wise men had poked their heads into the stable and surprised the breastfeeding girl.  With her scream still ringing in their ears, the carpenter had come out of nowhere and tried to stab them with a pitchfork.  Balthazar had, naturally, responded by grabbing the carpenter's throat and punching him in the face--blackening his right eye and bloodying his nose.
Balthazar and his friends stay the night with the holy family, and leave the next morning.  But at they are fleeing Bethlehem, Roman soldiers descend on the sleepy village.  Balthazar hears the screams from town as the soldiers, carrying out Herod's orders, attempt to kill all the male babies.  The three wise men return to the stable in the nick of time, killing some soldiers, and aiding Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in their flight from town.

Unholy Night mostly focuses on Balthazar's story: why he became a thief, his life mission of revenge, the love he lost.  His role as defender and protector of the savior of the world plays into all of that, as he is the leading man in the holy family's flight to Egypt.  This story isn't going to impress many biblical scholars, and you while you won't think, "This is what probably did happen," Grahame-Smith is a skillful enough writer, with enough attention to historical detail, that you might think, "It probably didn't happen that way, but it really could have!"

I have no idea if Grahame-Smith is a Christian.  I am quite sure this book will not be on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore.  (The frequent and graphic depictions of violence and the suggestive depictions of Herod's depravity would be enough to get it censored, theology aside.)  Regardless, I think Unholy Night is a novel that Christians can embrace and enjoy.  In my view, Grahame-Smith honors the Christmas story of the New Testament, respects Jesus, his birth, and his flight to Egypt, and gives credit to God for his miraculous role.  Plus he tells an exciting, rollicking story!

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Perhaps some things are not meant to be combined.  I have read and thoroughly enjoyed several of Cory Doctorow's novels.  His free-wheeling, near-future stories present a believable tomorrow and strong social and cultural commentary.  I have struggled through a couple of Charles Stross's novels.  While his hard sci-fi future, including detailed conceptions of space travel and the colonization of space, have been solid and memorable, his stories tend to spin out of control.

These two have teamed up in a new novel, The Rapture of the Nerds: A Tale of the Singularity, Posthumanity, and Awkward Social Situations.  As the subtitle suggests, there's plenty of good humor and zany sci-fi fun here, including some friendly nods to the greatest comedy sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams.  But the end result of this mish-mash of humor and hard sci-fi ultimately disappoints.  Rapture is chock full of clever ideas, of both the scientific and the silly sort, and manages to weave a convoluted plot leading to the prevention of earth's destruction by an intergalactic, multi-species hive mind.

I really wanted to like this book.  I am certain that Doctorow and Stross had a ball collaborating on it, and it will surely hold some appeal for fans of both.  But I was happy to get to the end and be done with it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Oliver Twist (Radio Theater)

Radio theater may be a lost or dying art, but don't tell the folks at Focus on the Family.  They have produced some great programs over the years, including the long-running Adventures in Odyssey and the fantastic Chronicles of Narnia adaptation.  They have outdone themselves with this new adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic Oliver Twist.

With a wide-ranging, talented British cast, the voices are convincingly right out of 19th century London.  The sound effects and music add dramatic tension and draw the story along.  Although it's only about 5 1/2 hours long, this production captures the essence of the book.  I haven't done a line-by-line comparison, but my assumption is that much of the text and dialogue are Dickens's own words.

By updating this classic tale, while remaining true to the source, the Focus on the Family team has provided a terrific springboard for some moral and spiritual lessons.  In spite of great temptation and the threat of mistreatment, Oliver knows right from wrong and demonstrates the difficulty of making moral choices under duress.  The characters remind us repeatedly that we are not imprisoned by our past, whether choices or circumstances, and the redemption is available.

A radio or TV program is never a substitute for an original work of literature, but this audio program will enhance your family's enjoyment of Dickens's story.  Some listeners might have a bit of difficulty with the accents and occasional archaic language, but most children will be drawn into Oliver's world.  Thanks to Focus on the Family for this well-done, accessible production which beautifully captures the moral lessons and compelling story of Oliver Twist.

One more reason to like this: Focus on the Family is using proceeds from the sale of this audio program to fund its "Wait No More" adoption program.  Included with the audio CDs is a DVD with the documentary, "Modern Day Oliver," which focuses on children in foster care and adoption.

Click here for a preview.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary copy of this terrific program!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Blessed Church, by Robert Morris

If you live in the Fort Worth/Dallas area and have any awareness of churches, you probably know of Gateway Church in Southlake.  And if your church is anywhere near Gateway, some of your former members probably now attend Gateway.  This church, founded a mere 12 years ago, has grown into one of the largest churches in the nation.  Tens of thousands attend services every weekend at their shiny new multi-million dollar main campus, as well as several satellite campuses.   

In The Blessed Church: The Simple Secret to Growing the Church You Love, Gateway's pastor Robert Morris tells the story of Gateway, and gives insight into the principles that have shaped their church and fueled its tremendous growth.  There is much here that can benefit pastors and lay leaders of all kinds of churches.  I have visited Gateway a couple of times, and have friends who are active attenders (including several who used to go to my church!).  Based on my experiences and the reports of my friends, Gateway does accomplish one of their goals: excellence.  The teaching, worship, and childcare are top-notch.  From the start, Morris wanted Gateway to do these three things as skillfully as possible, and few would argue that the teaching is consistently solid, the worship and music are world-class, and the childcare is attentive, creative, and intentional.

While not a manual, The Blessed Church lays out some of the core values the have helped Gateway grow.  Morris is clearly a gifted communicator and leader.  His vision of leadership is feeding, and the focus of his work is his teaching role.  He strives to craft messages that will speak to new and mature Christians alike.  In terms of governance, he describes the church as pastor-lead with support and accountability from a group of elders.  He provides very practical examples for church leaders who seek to emulate the structure and culture of Gateway.

In spite of Morris's title, I didn't pick up any "simple secrets" here, and I kept thinking about factors in Gateway's growth that went unmentioned.  First of all, it helped that when seeking a place to start a church, he chose a part of the D/FW metroplex that has had a lot of population growth, and located the church in Southlake, which has one of the highest per capita incomes of any city in Texas.  He started with a core of wealthy, charismatic lay people.  No matter how great your vision or how passionate your leadership, it sure helps to have people with deep pockets to bankroll your work.  Morris talks about Gateway's culture of giving.  When that kind of culture is cultivated in a high-income community, you can do things like drop $86 million on 206,000 square feet of building.

Second, Morris himself is a uniquely gifted communicator.  His experience at Gateway and the message of the book support the growing trend of pastor-centered megachurches, which center on the pastor's teaching, to the extent of broadcasting his message electronically to satellite locations.  Run-of-the-mill preachers need not apply.  Third, the worship, as I said, is world-class.  The worship team has produced a number of CDs and gets radio airplay.  Listening to Gateway's talented musicians sure has a way of making the worship leaders at your smaller church sound second rate.

My take on the message of The Blessed Church is that if you follow the principles Morris describes, your church can grow, too.  I totally agree, especially if you have those other factors: a wealthy, highly educated congregation, a superbly gifted teacher, and fabulously talented musicians.  Unfortunately, Morris doesn't spend as much time on these other factors, and leaves the reader with the impression that if you're not growing, there's something seriously wrong with you and your church.  He repeatedly says, "not to boast" when talking about how great Gateway is, and constantly gives credit to God, but it's easy for the pastor of a smaller church with less growth (90-99% of churches) to feel rather inadequate.

My final thought: Morris writes that healthy things grow, so church growth is a sign of church health (thus a church that isn't growing must be unhealthy).  But what in nature continues to grow?  Healthy things grow to a certain extent, and then they multiply.  I don't know what constitutes a church that is too big, but it seems like a truly healthy church would be multiplying, not growing and growing.  Oh, and by the way, lest you accuse Gateway of stealing sheep, since it is full of people who used to faithfully attend other area churches, Morris has an answer: "I am not a sheep stealer.  But I do plant delicious grass."

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

It's been a good 20 years or more since I've read anything by Stephen King.  His 2009 book Under the Dome reminded me why he's one of the best-selling authors around.  Some might look at Under the Dome's 1000+ pages and scoff that no novel should be that long, or be put off by the length.  It is long, but I don't think there's a wasted page.  There's a huge cast of characters; King skillfully weaves their stories together into a cohesive, compelling story of a town trapped under a mysterious dome.

One of King's trademark themes is exposing the evil that people are capable of given the right conditions.  When the small town of Chesters Mill, Maine, suddenly comes to be enclosed by a force field of some kind, physically isolating the town from the rest of the world, the character of the townspeople is tested.  Selectman Jim Rennie had always viewed the town as his little fiefdom.  Being trapped inside the dome opened up the opportunity for him to become a vicious tyrant, willing to kill in order to gain and maintain control.  As he builds his personal army and orchestrates events to deepen his powerful hold on the people of Chesters Mill, we are reminded again and again that it could always be worse.

Another of King's trademarks is gore.  Under the Dome is not thematically a gore-fest; there are no mad dogs, possessed cars, or deranged hotel caretakers on a killing spree.  But when someone does die, King makes sure we get a detailed, colorful picture in our minds of brains splattered on the wall, blood spilled on the floor, eyeballs hanging out, people frying like they're on a barbecue.

I enjoyed Under the Dome thoroughly.  I could hardly put it down.  But I do have a beef with King's treatment of Christians.  I don't remember his animosity toward Christians showing up in other books (but like I said, it's been a couple of decades).  Big Jim, the town tyrant, is a Bible toting, scripture quoting guy.  He does not use bad language and insists on "getting knee-bound" to seek God's guidance.  Yet he has no qualms about killing people who get in his way, including his pastor.  He manipulates people, frames people for his own crimes, rules the town with an iron fist, and runs an illegal drug operation out of the Christian radio station.  The other major Christian figure is the female pastor of the Congregational church, who, by the way, doesn't believe in God.  I know it's only fiction, but what is King's problem with Christians?

King is a great story teller, with great insights into the stark divide between good and evil.  Spend some time under the dome getting to know the people of Chesters Mill.  You'll be glad you did.