Monday, May 27, 2013

Gospel Justice, by Bruce Strom

I have read a lot about justice, social justice, justice for the poor, all in the context of Christian ministry to the poor and marginalized.  I suspect I am not alone in missing what Bruce Strom makes obvious in his new book Gospel Justice: Joining Together to Provide Help and Hope for Those Oppressed by Legal Injustice.  Justice, a "vital part of any holistic ministry . . . cannot be separated from law and lawyers."

Many commentators have observed that the church in the U.S., especially among younger Christians, seems to be waking up to social issues such as poverty, human trafficking, unfair labor practices, housing issues, and other areas.  But rarely do I here people noting, as Strom does, that the roots of these problems often have to do with a lack of legal representation, and that the solutions will frequently come from legal action.

Strom had achieved a high level of success in the legal profession when God opened his eyes to "how self-focused I was, and He helped me see the needs of others in pain around me." He began to see that many of the problems of the poor cry out for legal solutions, so he began what would become Administer Justice, a group of volunteer lawyers who assist people in need with legal matters of all kinds.

Gospel Justice is full of stories of people whose lives were changed with the help of the compassionate, knowledgable assistance of the Administer Justice staff.  It's shocking to realize how many people suffer in ways that could be prevented or remedied if they had legal representation.  This is not a theological treatise or law review article, but Strom brings in enough theology and legal knowledge to give the reader ample inspiration to use one's legal skills to help the poor, to apply to law school, or at least to seek out a legal group to volunteer with or donate to.

We have seen medical missionaries for generations.  Bible translators, church planters, and evangelists all fit nicely into our picture of what a missionary looks like.  We are familiar with service to the poor: soup kitchens and food banks, homeless shelters, and clothing ministries are commonplace.  Strom has presented a new picture, at least new to me, of one way to be a missionary, one way to serve the poor.  Providing legal services for the poor and marginalized goes beyond what traditional ministry among the poor has done by creating opportunities to address structural issues and root causes.  Justice indeed.  I should have gone to law school.

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

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ghost Spin, by Chris Moriarty

There is no question in my mind that Chris Moriarty is much smarter than I am. (Not that that is any great feat . . . .)  Her newest book, Ghost Spin, demonstrates that she is a thoughtful, imaginative writer, whose vision for artificial intelligence spans the universe. It's an ambitious book, more ambitious than my little mind could enjoy.

Ghost Spin is set in the same future setting and returns characters from her previous novels Spin State and Spin Control, neither of which I have read.  The novel opens as Cohen, an AI who is inhabiting a human body, shoots himself/the body in the head.  His . . . wife, Li, . . . if that makes sense for an AI to have a wife . . . spends the rest of the novel seeking to find out what happened.  In the course of the story, Moriarty takes the reader on a tour of the possibilities of sentient AIs who can exist in a variety of settings, including inhabiting humans.

The result is a confusing mess.  The time frames shift inexplicably with flashbacks and changing perspectives.  There are long passages of dialogue, including characters talking to the AI within themselves.  When Cohen inhabits a ship's captain, there's a split-personality, dual identity thing happening.  When Li comes along and sees her "husband" in the captain's body, I couldn't help thinking of Whoopi Goldberg/Patrick Swayzee and Demi Moore. 

There is some awesome, solid speculative science in Ghost Spin.  Besides AI, the world of the future comes alive with references to terraforming, faster-than-light space travel, and colonization that has dispersed humanity from a ravished Earth.  But I had a hard time making myself enjoy the book.  Halfway through I began skimming to the end.  Again, I'm probably just not smart enough, not a careful enough reader, or maybe I should have read the other 2 books first. 

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Your New Job Title is "Accomplice," by Scott Adams

I love Dilbert.  Even before I worked in a corporate cubicle farm, I loved Dilbert.  Now, more than ever, I love Dilbert and see his scenarios played out every day.  I don't know how Scott Adams does it, but he keeps cranking out laugh-out-loud Dilbert strips, the highlight of my newspaper reading every day.

His new book, Your New Job Title is "Accomplice," finds Dilbert still working with the pointy-haired boss, Dogbert still offering his management advice, and Wally still finding ways to keep his job while not doing anything.  Although little seems to change around Dilbert's office, Adams keeps it fresh and hilarious.  Any fan of Dilbert will love this new collection.

A few samples. . . .

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

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Do What Jesus Did, by Robby Dawkins

When John Wimber was a new Christian, he said he started asking his pastor, "When do we get to do the stuff?"  He was surprised that Christians didn't do "the stuff" Jesus did in the gospels, healing the sick, speaking words of wisdom, raising the dead.  As the leader of the Vineyard churches, Wimber eventually did a lot of the stuff, and travelled the world teaching others about doing the stuff.

Wimber is no longer with us, but his mantle of signs and wonders has passed to a new generation of leaders, including Robby Dawkins, pastor of Vineyard Aurora, in the western suburbs of Chicago.  In his new book, Do What Jesus Did, Dawkins tells of his experiences doing the stuff.  He argues that if "Christian means 'little version of Christ'" then Christians ought to be "throwing out demons, walking on water, multiplying food for thousands, healing the sick and raising the dead."

If Dawkins merely related stories of specific examples of healing and other miracles he has seen, this would be an inspiring enough book, a great reminder that God does still work among us in remarkable ways.  But Dawkins's project is much bigger than that.  He wants every Christian to be willing to be intentionally evangelistic and to be "naturally supernatural."

The purpose of healing and miracles is not to impress or display one's own spirituality, but to show love, touch hearts, and transform lives.  Dawkins says that when we pray for people, we should always ask for God's presence, and tell them that Jesus loves them.  His accounts of praying for people always include a reminder that the healing or miracle is "so that everyone will know that You're here and in pursuit of a relationship with them."

What a difference we could make in the the world around us if we lived every day looking through Jesus' eyes, asking God who we can pray for, listening for his voice, and--this is the important part--actually doing what he tells us to do, no matter how crazy it sounds.  (One woman felt led to pull over at a gas station and stand on her head in front of the counter.  The employee there said that a few minutes earlier, he had said, "God if you're real, send someone to stand on her head right here." Talk about an open door for evangelism!)

I do wish Dawkins would have spent a bit of time on the after.  After the miracles, after the conversion to Christ, what about discipleship?  In his church where half the members are new Christians, many of them miraculously saved out of lives of drugs, gang violence, prostitution, and street life, what sort of discipleship and church structure do they practice?  He mentions the Alpha course, which is a great start, and home groups, which build community.  My guess is that he knows that for every book on miracles, there are approximately thirty thousand books on church growth that dwell on the nuts and bolts.  In this world of seeker services and church growth strategies, Dawkins's message needs to be heard.

The most important overarching theme of Do What Jesus Did is that miracles are for the purpose of demonstrating Jesus' love and drawing people in relationship with him.  That means not only praying for people at the end of Sunday service--although there is a place for that--but also getting out in the world and being ready to pray for people all the time.  You'll be encouraged and inspired by the stories Dawkins tells and by the lives that have been changed.  May we all do more of what Jesus did.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Liars' Gospel, by Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman has a real problem with the historicity of the New Testament.  In her new historical novel, The Liars' Gospel, she presents plausible interpretations of the life of Jesus that are designed to discredit the Gospel accounts.  Yes, it's a novel, but she clearly has an agenda.

First, the good.  Alderman is clearly a talented writer.  Rarely have I read anything that brings alive the world of first century Palestine the way Alderman does.  She pays close attention to details of domestic life.  The characters are not the cardboard cutouts or predictable stereotypes of some biblical dramas, but relateable, complex, and deeply flawed individuals.

Alderman tells the story of Jesus from the perspective of four participants (rejecting their Romanized names): Miryam (Mary), Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), Caiaphas, and Bar-Avo (Barrabas). Each of these four have his or her own perspectives on Jesus, and their own hopes or expectations for who he is or was or will be.  As they tell their stories, a picture comes together of Jesus, the son, the Jew, the madman, the confused, moody, angry, wandering teacher.  Far from being a portrait of Jesus, recognizable to Christians, Alderman comes up with a caricature of a crazy man from Natzaret (Nazareth).  She uses specific episodes of scripture, as well as snippets of contemporary history, to flesh out the story, but mostly the stories come from her imagination.

I was reminded of C.S. Lewis's classic argument about Jesus.  He avers, in Mere Christianity, that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.  Alderman seems to believe Jesus was a lunatic surrounded by liars.  Lord never comes into question.  Of course, we have 2000 years of history to refute claims that Jesus was a mere teacher.  But that doesn't fit into Alderman's worldview.

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mars Attacks IDW

More silliness from Mars Attacks!  This time, the Martians mash up with story lines from other comics. My favorite had to have been the Martians v. Popeye.  Using old-style Popeye illustrations, we get to see Popeye eating spinach and fighting off the "Marsh-kins."  Classic.  Transformers v. the Martians teams up the Autobots and Decepticons to fight off the Martian invaders.  It's fun to see Megatron and Optimus Prime team up.  The Ghostbusters are at their silliest, fighting the ghosts of the crash landed Martians.  And Kiss comics?  I didn't even know there was such a thing.  Finally, the Martians invade Earth in a Robots v. Zombies episode that didn't do much for me.

Popeye and his dad, getting ready to fight the Martians.

This is definitely one for the Mars Attacks completist, or fans of these other comics who like this sort of mash up.  It's a clever idea, but not one I would want to return to.

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

Friday, May 10, 2013

Marathon, by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari

The legend of the first marathon is well-known in one form or another to marathon runners.  Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari tell the story in a dramatic way in their graphic novel, Marathon.  I am in no position to evaluate the historicity of their account.  Probably no one is, given that CNN wasn't there to record the events in 490 B.C.  The gist of the story is that the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, and a messenger ran all the way back to Athens to alert the city of the Athenian army's victory.

But was the runner Pheidippides?  Or Eucles?  According to Wikipedia, Plutarch was the first historian to mention this run, and he calls the runner Eucles.  A later historian calls him Philippides.  But of course the 19th century poet Robert Browning settled the matter with his poem Pheidippides, so now few remember the name Eucles.  Whatever the name, the victory of the Athenians over the Persians was significant for the future of democracy and Western civilization, and worth remembering.  Not to mention this race that thousands of us run every year. . . .

Yakin and Infurnari capture the history, the political background of the war, and the violent clashes in Yakin's sharp text and Infurnari's sketchy, sometimes chaotic illustration.  I personally am not a big fan of the style of illustration, and both the illustrations and the text sometimes seemed to leave too many gaps in the story and in the action.  Fans of graphic novels and movies with gladiator action will enjoy this bit of historical drama.
Marathon runners can relate to how he felt at the end of his run,
but most of us don't run while being pursued by armed men intent on killing us!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Potty Mouth at the Table, by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro is absolutely hilarious.  Her new book, The Potty Mouth at the Table, had me laughing out loud on just about every page, and stopping repeatedly to tell my wife, "You have to hear this!" and reading passage after passage aloud.  Sure, I'm a guy, and her target audience is women, but I still loved hearing stories of her nutty life.

Some of her favorite targets are social networking, self-appointed food critics, and various sorts of pomposity.  But mostly she tells stories about some of the crazy things that happen to her, like when she might have found a dead hobo in her yard, when she was repeatedly groped by a TSA agent, or when a self-righteous poet at a reading called her a "potty-mouth" for saying "sh---y."  (By the way, she is a bit of a potty mouth, but a rated PG potty mouth, carefully selecting her profanity for its humorous effect, not punctuating every thought with it.)

We learn a lot about Laurie.  She does not like to share a bath puff.  She would rather give birth in public than throw up in front of people.  She has serious addictions to buying fabric and second-hand furniture.  She has little patience for foodies and vegans, but don't you dare take donuts from her secret stash.  Her husband makes cameo appearances as the long-suffering partner.  I wouldn't mind hearing a bit more from him.  Life with Laurie sounds like it must be a constant, outrageous adventure!

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

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Surprising Grace of Disappointment, by John Koessler

In his new book The Surprising Grace of Disappointment, John Koessler, chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute, has said out loud what many of us feel but would not be willing to voice: sometimes being a Christian is a disappointment.  Sometimes Jesus is a disappointment.  I know I have felt like that.  I hear about revivals in the past and pray for revivals in the future, but long to be there when it happens.  I hear stories of miracles, manifestations, visions and dreams, visitations, but they always seem to happen to someone else.

All Christians long for, or should long for, intimacy with Christ, but we sometimes use language that is reserved for physical intimacy rather than that mediated by the Holy Spirit.  While I have no doubt that Jesus manifests himself in tangible ways, to expect that he does all the time is to set oneself up for disappointment.  We might prefer that, and even expect that if only we had better spiritual discipline we would have a deeper experience.  But we "should not turn to the mechanics of the spiritual disciplines hoping that they will generate a sense of His presence."

When we hear stories in the Bible or from the experiences of other Christians about healing or miraculous provision, it's tempting to think that is the normative way God deals with us.  But "there are some things God will not normally do except through the ordinary means of human effort."  Sometimes we have to take action; it may be that Jesus would say, "Do all that can be done first, before you come crying to me."

We are also sometimes tempted to think that when things are going well in our spiritual life, we'll be happy; if someone's not happy, clearly it's because they are not right with God.  Not so fast: "The pressure for Christians to present a bright and cheery face to the world does not come from God.  If you doubt this, read the Beatitudes."

Keossler's writing is pastoral, scriptural, and reasonable.  I just wonder if he undersells the Christian life.  He says all the right things, about submission to God, God's sovereignty, righteousness, and faith, but I was left wondering if it's really better to be OK with disappointment, or to continue to long for more.

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

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Limitless: Devotions for a Ridiculously Good Life, by Nick Vujicic

Who says you need arms and legs to swim?
If you don't know who Nick Vujicic is, you really must read one of his books.  This newest book, Limitless: Devotions for a Ridiculously Good Life, takes selections from his other two books, Unstoppable and Life Without Limits, couples them with a brief scripture and a one or two sentence point of reflection or challenge, and puts it all together into 50 short devotional readings.

Nick, who was born without arms and legs, has to be one of the most positive people ever.  When you try to imagine the hardships he has had to overcome, and reflect on the little things in life that you might complain about from time to time, you have to respect his tenacity and faith and question your own.  Nick doesn't say "Look what I have accomplished in spite of my disability," he points to God as his provider and strength.  He says he decided to put the word go before disabled to remind him that even though he is disabled Godisabled!  (Get it? God is abled. . . .)

The devotions lean toward self-image and motivation, making them most appropriate for younger Christians, but Nick has such a broad appeal that anyone can benefit from reading these.  Nick is a hero, a star, an inspiration.  You will be blessed and inspired.

Thanks to WaterBrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers

Who am I to contradict the esteemed panel (whoever they are) who select finalists for the National Book Award (whatever that is)?  If that award is supposed to recognize the greatest work of literary fiction published in a particular year, I have a hard time believing that this was among the best books published in 2012.  Now that I have once again revealed my ignorance and apparent lack of quality literary tastes, I will speak a bit about the book itself.

Dave Eggers, whom I previously knew as the author of What is the What? and a screenplay writer of the curiously distorted movie version of Where the Wild Things Are, explores the life of a washed up, late career, middle aged businessman.  Alan Clay spent most of his career with Schwinn, way behind the globalization curve, and now finds himself trying to get the contract to provide internet service at a new economic development in the Saudi desert.  The king is supposed to come, sometime, to hear his team's presentation, which includes a demonstration of their holographic teleconferencing tool.

So if you think a book about a salesman spending a few weeks in Saudi Arabia waiting for an audience with the king, biding his time with his much younger coworkers, hooking up with lonely ex-pats, and buddying around with a local driver sounds good, more power to you.  It's not as if Eggers is a poor writer, it's just that this series of well-written sentences and occasional insightful vignettes never really congeals into a story worth telling or reading.