Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Year of the Lord's Favor?, by Darren Hibbs

In 2001, two days before the World Trade Center fell, Darren Hibbs had a visionary preview of the events of 9/11.  As time went by, and Darren had a further vision of the new building being planned to replace the WTC, Darren became convinced that God was speaking a message for our country through those dreams.  In The Year of the Lord's Favor?, Darren details that vision and calls Christians to repentance.

Writing with the passion and trepidation of a reluctant prophet who knows he must convey a painful truth, Darren recounts his first experiences of hearing clearly from God.  He began by simply asking God to speak to him.  As he says, "One of the hardest parts of asking God to speak is just remembering to do it.  It does not take fancy words, just words."  But God's meaning and message to Darren became clear.  He gave Darren the dream of the towers falling to get his attention; a subsequent dream contained the message for the church.

Darren would never say that God caused or planned the attacks of 9/11, but God has chosen that event to get our attention, just as God used foreign invaders to get the attention of Israel in the Old Testament.   However, Christians in the U.S. got caught up in patriotic, nationalistic fervor, rather than turning to God.  "Instead of asking God what He was saying and thinking after 9/11, the church collectively set its hands to rebuilding what God was trying to destroy. . . . God was seeking repentance in the days of 9/11, but His people chose to make it off-limits to suggest those acts were possibly judgment from God trying to wake us up."

This is a hard message to hear, made even harder by Darren's indictment of the church.  Before and after 9/11, the church has aligned itself with political and cultural positions that often run counter to scriptural guidelines.  On both sides of the aisle, and in both liberal and conservative churches, Darren points out that our nation has not protected life, allowing millions to be aborted; has not welcomed the stranger or loved the poor, with immigration and welfare policies being abused and used for political ends; and has chosen nationalistic militarism over peace.

Darren's ultimate message is that we, as a nation, must repent.  Based on his dream, he believes the timing of the completion of 1 World Trade Center is crucial.  Will we be like Ninevah, and repent before the completion of 1WTC?  Like Judah, and repent after?  Or like Sodom and Gommorrah, not repent, and be destroyed?  The bad news is that the church usually tries to fix things through programs, politics, or study.  The good news is that God is a God of grace and love.  Darren calls for humble, repentant prayer, as the time is indeed short.

I have known Darren for years, and have confidence in his integrity and passion for this message.  I remember his sharing this in a nutshell version several years ago, sitting in my living room, and am so pleased that he has developed it into a challenge for the church and the nation.

Learn more about Darren at his internet home, www.joelarmy.com
Thanks to Darren and 10 Week Books for the complimentary electronic copy.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

As I wrote a couple years ago, I think Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is a great novel of great ideas.  I read it and Rand's The Fountainhead between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college.  I recently reread (OK re-listened to) The Fountainhead and was not as impressed as I remember being 25 years ago.

It's not that Rand isn't a great writer.  In my opinion, she is a great writer of fiction.  Her crisp dialogue, poetic descriptive passages, and ability to tightly weave a compelling story over hundreds of pages of tiny print testify to her skill as a novelist.  But I can't really figure out what appealed to me so much philosophically here.

In the broadest sense, Rand's hero, innovative architect Howard Roark, is a hero I can cheer for.  He stands by his convictions even when it means bucking the world of architecture and losing business.  But in terms of aesthetics, Rand leaves no room for taste.  Whether the medium is architecture, sculpture, painting, or something else, there are technical and objective measures by which a work can be judged, but there is also the simple human reaction: some like it, some don't.  If you produce a work of art that is technically brilliant, but which I don't like, I am under no obligation to praise it, and you are wrong to be offended if I pan it.  But in the world of The Fountainhead, Roark's work is brilliant and correct, while all other architects produce derivative, contemptible trash.  Perhaps my view of aesthetics is overly simplistic, but Rand's is overly exclusive.

Another point of contention I have with Rand is the view of the market in The Fountainhead.  Rand is a hero to proponents of free markets, and rightly so based on Atlas Shrugged.  But in The Fountainhead, market considerations take second place to aesthetics.  If I am a businessman, I make money by selling a product or service that others want to buy.  If I make something no one wants, even though it's a brilliant something, I will go out of business.  That does not make me a hero, it makes me a poor businessman.  Now, if it really is brilliant, hopefully I will find my market niche before I am completely bankrupt, and maybe I will even influence the market.  But if someone is producing something aesthetically bad, and people are buying it, we can criticize the product, and criticize the consumer, but we must defend the right of the producer.  If people like buildings that borrow design elements from several eras, the buildings maybe offend the refined sensibilities of a great architect like Roark, but the architect has the right to design it and the consumer has the right to pay him to do so.  Rand demonizes free exchange between free people of bad taste.  A true defender of free markets would not do so.

Finally, Rand's heroine, Dominique Francon, is horrible.  Even though she admires Roark to the point of worshipping him, she uses her influence to stifle his early career.  Even though she is in love with him, she marries his detestable rival, whom she hates, to--to make some kind of point.  Then she marries another rival to--to make some other kind of point.  All the while she is in love with Roark and looks forward to the time when they can finally be together again.  What kind of sick, twisted romance is this?  Sure, defend Rand, tell me I am oversimplifying Dominque's complex motives.  I just think she's stupid.

Well, this may not be the greatest review of The Fountainhead you have ever read.  But maybe you can see these points of contention I have with the book.  There is much to admire in Roark's steadfastly holding on to his integrity; that is the strength of the story.  But in the process of displaying Roark's brilliance and indefatigable spirit, Rand looks down her nose at anyone else with whom she does not agree and who does not measure up to her standard of genius.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Any Psalm You Want, by Khary Jackson

Khary Jackson wants you to hear his poems.
I think I would like to meet Khary Jackson.  I feel almost as it I've met him in his new collection of poetry, Any Psalm You Want.  Jackson, a Twin Cities poet originally from Detroit, shows his hip-hop sensibilities and his civil rights roots, but his reach is much broader and deeper than those elements alone.  None of his poems are in verse*, but they have a rhythm, a rhythm of life, a rhythm of the streets.  He's done well in the poetry slam circuit; I could almost hear him reciting at times.  Watch some of his videos on You Tube and you'll get a taste of his passion.

That passion does come through in print, in a different way.  Jackson takes the reader to Detroit, where an abandoned house reflects on life and longs for what has been.  To L.A., where a black man and his son can't make sense of the Rodney King verdict and the riots that followed.  To Italy, where Antonio Stradivari lovingly creates violins as tribute to his beloved.  Jackson writes of love, loss, family, and justice, of slavery, civil rights, and the streets.  Most of the selections left me wondering, "What is the back story? Who are these people?  What am I missing?" not in a way that leaves the reader frustrated, but in a way that leaves the reader coming back to read the poems again.  I have a feeling that is just what Jackson wanted.

*Note: I am no poetry expert.  I don't read a lot of poetry, to be honest.  But it sort of bothers me when a "poem" isn't arranged in verses like a poem by Blake, Yeats, Shelly, Browning, etc.  Rhyming is nice, too, but not totally necessary.  I know, I am stuck in another century.  So are these poems?  Is this poetry?  I suppose so.

Meet Khary Jackson: reciting "Her Name"
His publisher, Write Bloody.
His web site, LayItBare.

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

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality, by David H. Jensen

David Jensen, a theology professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has taken on one of our culture's favorite topics in his new book God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality.  His treatment of sex has many encouraging, even inspiring passages that offer a stark contrast to the popular conceptions of sex in American culture, but his departure from traditional, biblical views of sex will satisfy only the most liberal Christians.  Conservative, traditional Christians will find much not to like.

I did like Jensen's sacramentalizing of sex.  Sex is a gift and an expression of the desires God instills in us.  Jensen writes, "Erotic touch is not where we escape from God and lose ourselves in another, but where we meet God."  As an act of hospitality, "in sex one makes room for another . . . ordinary members of the body . . . become gestures of a hospitality that God is continually creating among us in the risen body."  Put simply, "Sex, by itself, is not redemptive; but by God's grace it becomes a celebration of grace."  By contrast, American culture seems to cheapen and distort sex, calling for more frequency, more pleasure, more partners, reducing sex to a one-dimensional, merely physical act.

If he stopped there, he'd be doing fine.  But Jensen extends his arguments far beyond scripture and church history to embrace gay sex and premarital sex.  He does rely on scripture, but seems to, at least in part, agree with revisionists who would say that the "use of the Bible alone in constructing a view of sex and marriage is naive and anachronistic at best, and dangerous at worst."  He claims a fluid, culture-bound view of sexual mores: "Today's fornication . . . becomes tomorrow's sexual norm," and calls for Christians to get with the times.

Today's times call for the embrace of same-sex marriage, and the condoning of premarital sex.  Jensen shows that he is definitely with the times, as he wants to qualify the "traditional sentiment that sex belongs in marriage."  In addition to the church's recognition of "celibacy and marriage as Christian vocations," he wants to add "singleness that does not entail sexual abstinence."  Of these three, "no one stands normative or preferable in Christian life."  Premarital sex, he says, "can be a good part of the way in which couples come to know and be known, to trust and be trusted, to promise and be promised to."  He calls for churches to "offer guidelines for discussing responsible sexual behavior in a nonmarital context" and to "recognize how and in what ways it can be a good."  The fact that he spends a lot of time arguing that sex should take place within a covenant relationship doesn't seem to match here.  I guess single people can have a sort of covenant with their lovers, but without the vows of marriage, it seems like he's opening the door to promiscuity.  I found his reluctance to endorse abstinence for adolescents particularly disturbing.

In discussing gay marriage, Jensen's arguments start from a position that gay marriage is a reality, and the church at large just needs to accept it.  He finds it strange and disturbing that many churches do not accept and endorse gay marriage.  For instance, "the argument against gay marriage that has so often vexed the churches often proceeds from the rather odd assumption that only the opposite sex can complement me." (emphasis added)  I will step out on a limb and say that only a very small minority of Christians find that assumption odd. 

Jensen rejects "the binary of male/female" which "is unable to address the complexity of sex and gender as it is lived."  In the context of the church's standard of ordination, he objects to sexual orientation being "the ultimate marker of a graced life."  Gay marriages, according to Jensen, ought to be celebrated to the extent that they express covenant and mutual society.  Instead, they expend effort "trying to prohibit gay marriage, in effect keeping people from making promises of commitment to one another, . . . arguing against enduring relationships when the church ought to be fostering the hope that relationships can endure by God's grace."

For Christians who are in favor of gay marriage, Jensen's book can be an valuable and inspiring resource.  For the rest of us, for, I dare say, most Christians, there is much here that misstates and misinterprets the witness of scripture, defies traditional teachings of the church, and is offensive and sometimes rather bizarre.  I won't be recommending this one.

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

Monday, April 22, 2013

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip Dick

I try to like Philip Dick.  I really, really do.  I think my lack of appreciating of Dick is just a matter of taste.  I recognize the literary quality of his work, and the strength of his ideas, but his books always get me down.  Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said didn't do much for me.  It's not known to be one of his better works, but still, I expected more.

When a world-famous, fabulously wealthy media star wakes up in a seedy motel with no ID, and no one, including his close friends, his agent, and his girlfriend, recognizes him, he knows he's in trouble.  He has to figure out how to get around in this near-future dystopia, where being caught without ID can get you sent to a labor camp.  What could have been an interesting exploration into the psychology of identity and a look into parallel universes turns into a weak story of drug trials and perceptions of reality.  This isn't the first time Dick's stories have seemed too caught up in the drug culture of the 1970s.

He has great ideas for stories, or the kernel of stories, that frequently translate into terrific movies.  A movie version of Flow My Tears could be great, in the right hands.  I would just ask the filmmaker to make it better than the book.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Fifth Assassin, Brad Meltzer

In The Fifth Assassin, Brad Meltzer reintroduces us to Beecher White, archivist at the National Archives, who we met in The Inner Circle.  He ends up on the trail of a killer who seems to be mimicking the methods of presidential assassins and who has the sitting president in his sights.  Meltzer tells the story through implausible historical plots and secret societies, implausible personal connections among the major players, and a whole series of implausible events.

Do I mean to imply that the implausibility of the story makes it a terrible book?  No, not necessarily.  If you've read anything by Meltzer, you know he has some story telling skills.  He includes lots of interesting facts and background about presidential assassinations and the history around them.  But the events and connections became so silly, I stopped caring, even though I did keep listening to the end.  But now that I think about it, I can scarcely remember how it ended.  That's how much I thought of the book!  Oh, and Scott Brick's overly dramatic reading only added to the excessively grave, melodramatic tone.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Willing to Walk on Water, by Caroline Barnett

It goes without saying that most American Christians tend to live pretty safe, risk-free lives.  In her new book Willing to Walk on Water, Caroline Barnett challenges the reader to take some risks, to be willing to step out in faith and obedience, even when it doesn't make sense.  As the wife of Matthew Barnett, pastor and founder of the Dream Center in Los Angeles, she has seen and done her share of walking on water.

Willing to Walk is strongest when Barnett tells stories of her and Matthew's experiences of stepping out on faith, but she liberally sprinkles in powerful stories from other staff members and lay people from the Dream Center, and the miracles that have been worked in their lives.  It's so encouraging to hear stories from a church and ministry that does great Jesus-centered, life-changing, practical work in people's lives.  Willing to Walk was my introduction to the Dream Center, a church that can (and has) provide inspiration and a model for churches around the world.

The Dream Center bought this huge hospital in the heart of LA for  its ministry.
Where the book fell short was in practical application.  She did not write this to be a manual for ministry, but, in my experience, stepping out on faith does not exclude careful planning and hard work.  Mrs. Barnett sometimes left me with the feeling that the ministries she started and is involved in sprung up with a little prayer.  Similarly, she sometimes alludes to the enormous financial needs of the Dream Center but gives little indication where the money comes from.  When your congregation is made up of former addicts, people living in hovels, and street people, you know the budget doesn't get a huge boost from the Sunday morning offering.  I know there has been a lot of relying on faith and miraculous provision, but surely they were getting out and raising money from donors, writing grants, sending fund-raising letters, too.  Again, her purpose in writing is more inspirational than instructional; maybe the instructional will come in another book, or in one of Matthew's books.

All criticism aside, Barnett makes us think about our faith, the way we live our lives, and the expectations and aspirations we have for our churches.  Does outreach really mean new signs in the parking lot?  Or does it mean providing health care and food to the poor around us?  And when we think, I can't really do more to reach or serve people, she and Matthew would say, Find a need and fill it.  It may seem as impossible as walking on water, but we serve a mighty God.

Learn more about the Dream Center at http://www.dreamcenter.org/

Read an interview with Caroline Barnett here.

Still interested?  Read Chapter One.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network and Tyndale House Publishers for my complimentary review copy!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Men at Work: Why Women Live Longer Than Men

Have you ever seen those "epic fail" web sites, that have ladders perched precariously on unstable surfaces, tools used improperly, everyday objects improperly used as tools, and other silly, unsafe, but somehow sort of ingenious improvised solutions to simple problems?  If you like those sites, you'll like Men At Work: Why Women Live Longer Than Men, by the Cheezburger Network.  This is a collection of favorite photos from the web site cheezburger.com, mostly from the "There, I Fixed It" section.  I got a kick out of the photos, and some of the accompanying captions are amusing, but, honestly, I think I would rather surf to the web site, which has regular updates, than look at the book.

This actually didn't seem like that bad an idea.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Courageous, by Randy Alcorn

I still haven't seen the movie Courageous, but I have seen the others produced by Sherwood Baptist Church (Fireproof, Facing the Giants, Flywheel).  Based on those movies, I knew what to expect: Christian life lessons in the lives of ordinary people.  As I suspect the movie does, Randy Alcorn's novelization of the movie follows this pattern as well.

Courageous is the story of a group of friends, most of them cops, dealing with moral choices in life, especially in their efforts to be good dads.  Yes, the moral lessons are heavy-handed.  Yes, the plot is full of emotional manipulation.  But the story is strong, the characters are likable, and Alcorn's fleshing out of the movie makes me want to see it.

One thing I particularly liked about the book was the ease with which these men talked about their faith, with each other as well as with non-believing friends.  For them, it was as natural to talk about their faith as talking about last night's baseball game is for most men.  That challenges me, as I tend to make small talk and dwell on insignificant things, even when I'm talking with my Christian friends.

The core of the story is the men's deliberate decision to be stronger parents, as shown in their formal resolution.  This will challenge any dad, and is worth a look.  My 13-year-old son read the book right after I did; I have to wonder whether he's thinking, "My dad must have taken that pledge, which is why he's such a great dad," or, "I wish my dad would take that pledge!"

Now I just have to see the movie.

Here is the Resolution :

I do solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife, and my children.
  1. I WILL love them, protect them, serve them, and teach them the Word of God as the spiritual leader of my home.
  2. I WILL be faithful to my wife, to love and honor her, and be willing to lay down my life for her as Jesus Christ did for me.
  3. I WILL bless my children and teach them to love God with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength.
  4. I WILL train them to honor authority and live responsibly.
  5. I WILL confront evil, pursue justice, and love mercy.
  6. I WILL pray for others and treat them with kindness, respect, and compassion.
  7. I WILL work diligently to provide for the needs of my family.
  8. I WILL forgive those who have wronged me and reconcile with those I have wronged.
  9. I WILL learn from my mistakes, repent of my sins, and walk with integrity as a man answerable to God.
  10. I WILL seek to honor God, be faithful to His church, obey His Word, and do His will.
  11. I WILL courageously work with the strength God provides to fulfill this resolution for the rest of my life and for His glory.

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

If I could measure up to that, I'd be doing OK!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Star Trek: The Stuff of Dreams, by James Swallow

I enjoy Star Trek.  I've seen all the movies, and many of the TV episodes (except for Deep Space 9 and Enterprise; I never got into those), but I had never read any Star Trek fiction.  I'm glad I watched Star Trek: Generations recently.  Otherwise I would not have liked this book much.  The story of The Stuff of Dreams takes place some time after the Enterprise's encounter with the Nexus in the movie. The Enterprise returns to the Nexus to rendezvous with a Federation science ship, with orders to destroy the Nexus.  It seems some unfriendly neighbors, the Kinshaya, have plans to claim the Nexus for nefarious purposes.

What follows is classic ST:TNG material.  Picard's hunches are right, Geordi is smarter than the other Federation scientists, Worf is tough, the bad guys are really bad, and the Enterprise, though battered, prevails.  In short, this is a ST:TNG TV episode, or maybe a double episode, in print.  That is either criticism or praise, depending on how much you loved ST:TNG.  If you've seen them all, and can't get enough of Picard and his crew, read on.  If you're a casual viewer, content to watch reruns of ST:TNG, you might not want to pick this up.  For both groups, this story is a bit of a tease; the great characters or ST:TNG have many more stories to tell.  It's just too bad the TV show couldn't go on forever.

So the bottom line: James Swallow is a talented writer and tells a good story.  Fans of Star Trek, especially TNG, will love this.  General readers may feel like they've entered the middle of a stranger's family dinner and they don't know who anyone is or what's going on.

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Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for this complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Get Off Your A-- and Run!, by Ruth Field

Sometimes we need someone to kick us in the behind and get us moving.  If we are to believe the news reports of the ever-growing problem of obesity in the United States, many of us need some encouragement.  That's exactly what Ruth Field, a.k.a., The Grit Doctor, gives the readers of her book Get Off Your A-- and Run! A Tough-Love Running Program for Losing the Excuses and the Weight.  (This is the U.S version of her U.K. release, Run Fat B---h Run.) (She doesn't obscure the naughty words.  This is a family blog, so I have chosen to redact her words. . . .)

Field takes a basic, no-nonsense approach to get the non-runner out the door.  Her premise is that anyone can do it.  Her plan is pretty basic: start walking for an hour and a half, several days a week.  Eventually start jogging part of it.  She's realistic about the fact that it won't be easy to get started: "Embracing the fact that this is going to be hard is the only cure for the terminally unmotivated."  And she's not out to make you into a speed demon: "Go slow.  Go slower.  As slowly as is humanly possible.  The aim is to go as slowly as you can for as long as you can without having to stop.  As soon as you have to stop, it is time to walk, not to sit down . . ."  Sound advice for beginning runners who give up too quickly because they go too fast.

Her focus is on women who are inactive, especially those who want to lose some weight.  Her basic formula: "run, eat less junk, lose weight."  I totally agree with her.  Too many weight loss plans focus on a special diet, and underemphasize physical activity.  She writes that as we become more active, we will naturally gravitate toward better foods.  I think she's overly simplistic on this point, but then I was pretty convicted on the hard line she takes on candy and soft drinks: "Frankly, as an adult, you should be ashamed of yourself if you are still buying candy and soda on a weekly basis.  Stop it now."

I might have to try one of her motivational methods: "When I want to lost a few pounds urgently, I look in the mirror early in the morning--pre-shower, no makeup, and with my entire naked body in view--and I repeat to myself over and over again, 'You fat b---h.'  I then glance immediately at Cameron Diaz or another equally buff celeb in a bikini. . . and the mantra begins to take on a life of its own."  Whatever works, right?

Get Off Your A-- and Run! is certainly geared toward the beginner runner.  I guess she figures there are plenty of books on the market that go into more detail about splits and training plans.  She talks about running intervals, and long runs, but is pretty casual about times.  "Fooling around with stopwatches is generally better for wasting time than tracking it.  Just mix up your speed during your regular runs and don't worry about the exact times."  I enjoyed her breezy, get-to-it style.  She leaves the non-runner with no excuses.

She sums it up nicely: "If you take only three things from this book, let it be these: Run. Drink more water. Eat less crap.  You. Can. Do. It."  If most long-time runners are anything like me, it doesn't hurt to be reminded of these three basic rules.  Field is a motivational running coach with attitude, and has little patience for those of us who can't seem to get off the couch.  Run!

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