Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Saving Casper, by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper

A few years go, former pastor Jim Henderson recruited Matt Casper, a self-described atheist, to join him in visiting and reviewing churches.  The product of those visits, 2007's Jim and Casper Go to Church, offered some insightful and amusing reflections on church and why Christians do what they do.  Since the time of those visits and the publication of the book, Jim and Casper have been traveling to churches, colleges, and other venues, taking the "Christian and atheist" in dialogue show on the road.

Saving Casper: A Christian and an Atheist Talk about Why We Need to Change the Conversion Conversation captures some of those dialogues in book form, in a light-hearted but thoroughly challenging discussion of Christian approaches to evangelism.  The strongest theme of Saving Casper is the foundation of Jim and Matt's friendship.  Jim prays that Matt will become a Christian (spoiler: as of this publication, Matt is still an atheist).  Yet they continue to work together, continue to be friends, continue to love each other.

As they point out, too many times Christians' conversations and friendships with non-Christian people end if they reject the message of the gospel, making it seem that the goal is not friendship, but making a "sale."  When we view others as an objective in our quest to convert people, we don't value them as people, but merely look at them as potential trophies.  Jim reminds us to love people as people, not as targets.

As strong as this message is, many readers will be uncomfortable with a seeming willingness of Jim to leave theological questions unresolved.  Matt refers to himself as "currently" an atheist, which is refreshing, as he contrasts his position with the "fundamentalist atheism" or "anti-theism" that we have been hearing more about in recent atheist books and public statements.  But Jim leans toward embracing the "currently" label for himself.  Although I appreciate his intellectual humility--absolute certainty is a sure path to arrogance--I wish he would be a bit more certain about what defines Christian faith.

But that is really the point of the book.  It is not Jim's desire to simply tell Matt, or any other non-Christian, "This is what you must believe."  His desire, for himself and for the reader, is to enter into dialogue with others, listen to their stories and humbly tell your own.  Jesus did a lot of listening, loving, and serving.  Jim and Casper both endorse that sort of life.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, October 28, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I don't know that I can say much to add to any conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird, surely one of the finest novels of the 20th century.  Harper Lee's courtroom drama has been an inspiration to some of my favorite writers of legal fiction, like Mark Gimenez and John Grisham.  But the bulk of the novel is life in small town America, race relations in the South, and learning about class and wealth and poverty, all through the eyes of a little girl.

This is perhaps a story that could only be told from the perspective of a child.  As Scout and her brother Jem grow up, watching their father stand as a voice of reason and justice in a world of unreasonable injustice, we are reminded of what we lose as the innocence of youth slowly wears away.  Atticus is what we should aim to be: fair, patience, selfless, and humble.

I was delighted that Elliot will be reading this for freshman English later this year.  I have enjoyed getting to know the story again.  Even as the racist attitudes of the South in the early 20th century seem more and more dated, we don't have to read the news or even listen to our neighbors very long to realize that Harper Lee's story is as important and powerful as ever.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Forever Friday

I'm not usually one to pick up a romance novel, but Timothy Lewis's Forever Friday was offered through Waterbrook/Multnomah's Blogging for Books program, so it had the magic word "free."  Plus, the author is a Texan and the novel is set in Texas, so that's a plus.  And, heck, I've been married 21 years, so it wouldn't hurt to read about a couple who keeps their love vibrant through decades of marriage.

When an agent is going through an estate preparing for a sale, he runs across an album filled with postcards, on each of which is a short love poem.  He realizes there's a card sent each week for over half a century.  His curiosity leads him to the couple's housekeeper's daughter and the unraveling of this life-long romance.

Gabe and Pearl meet randomly, and instantly fall in love.  They build a life filled with romance together, sharing in and overcoming adversity but mostly just growing old together, deeply in love.  Early in their marriage, Gabe commits to sending Pearl a postcard every Friday, and sure enough he does.  Adam, the estate agent, tells their story, intermingled with his own romance with the housekeeper's daughter.

Of course, the story is pretty sappy.  If you're a fan of Nicholas Sparks's stories, Forever Friday will be right up your alley.  But lest you think it's far-fetched to imagine someone sending his wife a love poem on a postcard every Friday for sixty years, Lewis says the inspiration for the idea came from his great-uncle, who did send Lewis's great-aunt a poem on a post card every year for sixty years!

Finally, this novel is published by a Christian press, but the Christian content is rather thin.  Other than allusions to prayer, off-hand mentions of church attendance, and recurring appearances by a possible angel, the story makes little mention of Gabe and Pearl's faith or how it inspires their lives and romance.  I don't say that as a criticism, just an observation for readers.

I have no plans to start sending my wife a postcard every week, but reading about Gabe and Pearl's romance did inspire me to focus more on her and think about romancing her.  Forever Friday is a sweet story for the romantic in you.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Amish Vampires in Space, by Kerry Nietz

Winning the prize for goofiest title of the year is Kerry Nietz!  Nietz has become a favorite of mine, with his imaginative, highly original sci-fi with a Christian message.  When Marcher Lord Press editor Jeff Gerke mocked up a fake book cover with a fictional author and the silly title Amish Vampires in Space, he meant it to be a joke, mocking the proliferation of Amish fiction among Christian publishers and of vampire fiction in secular presses.  However, Kerry's imagination took over and he actually came up with a story!  No joke about it, this is a great sci-fi novel.

Here are some thoughts, one word at a time.

An Amish colony on a terraformed world gets picked up by a trading vessel, who will relocate them to another planet, since their planet's sun is about to go nova.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but Nietz makes a good case that the people best suited for colonizing a new world are people like the Amish: self-sufficient, able to build a community without an infrastructure in place, committed to cooperative efforts in community building.  I thought of parallels to Westward expansion in the U.S.  Those pioneers had to know how to live off the land, how to build a house from scratch, how to farm and raise livestock, how to make their own clothes and furniture.  Similarly the Amish, in Nietz's future, can relocate to a recently terraformed planet and thrive, without the support of advanced technology.

Nietz further reflects on the Amish people's resistance to technology as a matter of their faith.  They shun technology, yet advanced communication and space travel save their colony, which otherwise was doomed.  Nietz did a nice job of capturing the tension the Amish face when confronted with technology, contact with "Englishers" (non-Amish), and the use of violence.

I don't want to give away any of the story, but these are not your vampires of Bram Stoker and Bela Lugosi (or, I suspect Twilight, although I've never seen those movies or read those books).  Although Nietz's vampires may have common characteristics to other vampires of fiction and film, the origins are different, and perhaps more insidious and disturbing than other vampire stories.

In Space:
Nietz tells a good story about the vampires and the Amish people, but I particularly liked the background against which he tells it.  Other than the first scenes, based in the Amish colony, all the action of the story takes place on an interplanetary cargo ship.  Nietz doesn't dwell on the history, culture, and technology of this particular future, but he reveals enough that the reader begins to feel that this future is tangible and plausible.

The Christian message of AViS is not as explicit as in Nietz's DarkTrench saga, but the faith of the Amish, as well as some of the crew members, plays an important role in the story.  A major theme is faith and works.  The Amish in Nietz's story place their hope of salvation in their works, their adherence to the Ordnung, the rules of community.  Some of them begin to question that, risking a break with their community in hopes of a deeper truth.

Any sci-fi fan will enjoy AViS.  It has the feel of those sci-fi movies which feature a claustrophobic spaceship, lurking aliens, and a crew distant from any source of help.  Fans of vampire fiction will, I believe, feel at home with Nietz's take on vampires.  Fans of Amish fiction would probably be put off by the sci-fi/horror element, but who knows. . . .  Go ahead, laugh at the title, Kerry won't mind.  But after you judge the book by its cover, give the story a chance.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Maddaddam, by Margaret Atwood

In Oryx and Crake, we meet Jimmy (aka The Snowman), his friends the Crakers, and Oryx and Crake themselves.  In The Year of the Flood, we meet God's Gardeners and learn more about the waterless flood, a world-wide epidemic that wipes out nearly the entire human race.  In Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood completes her Maddaddam trilogy by bringing together the Crakers, the surviving God's Gardners, and the Maddaddamites, telling the story of their efforts to survive and preserve the human race, as radically different as it might turn out to be.

As the so-called waterless flood recedes, so to speak, these few survivors, whose lives have intersected extensively, come together to form a new community of sorts.  The humans, some of whom worked for Crake, unknowingly assisting as he planned the release of the global virus, mix and mingle with the children of Crake.  The Crakers, genetically engineered to be the next step in human evolution, and whose lives had been lived completely in an isolated biosphere, have had no contact with technology and human culture.  As they learn and adapt to human ways, the humans see that the survival of human life may depend on the thriving of the Crakers.

As with the first two books in this trilogy, the science is interesting, but frequently not very convincing, based more on fancy than science.  And the action of the story takes a back seat to the development of the characters and interactions of the groups.  The flashbacks, especially those of Zeb, whose brother Adam One founded God's Gardeners, shed more light on events before the waterless flood.

Readers of the first two books in this trilogy will likely be thrilled with Maddaddam.  I would recommend that you read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood before you pick up Maddaddam.
The series as a whole is intriguing, somewhat though-provoking, and memorable.

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Never Go Back, by Lee Child

I didn't know anything about Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels until I saw Jack Reacher, the recent movie starring Tom Cruise as Reacher.  The movie, based on the novel One Shot, captivated me and put me in search of Child's novels.  His latest, Never Go Back, lived up to the movie version of Reacher (although, of course, you would have to say the movie Reacher lived up the Reacher of the novels).  He's smart, aloof, marches to his own drumbeat, and has a knack for figuring out what is eluding others.

In Never Go Back, Reacher, an ex-MP who lives as an anonymous drifter, travels across the country back to the MP station where he had been commanding officer.  There he finds himself mired in a mess, having to defend himself from old, questionable charges, and helping the current CO out of her similar mess.  True to Reacher, he has to prove that everyone else is wrong, and in doing so, knocks a bunch of heads together, breaks a bunch of laws, and ticks a bunch of people off.

Never God Back is all about the chase.  Military authorities, shadowy maybe-military dudes, meth-producing hicks, and others are trying to track him down, beat him up, or put him in jail.  He, of course, outsmarts them all.  The problem is, his reason for going back to the MP post, and the reason all these people have framed him and are chasing him down, is first of all unclear and unconvincing.  In the end the revelation and resolution were yawn-inducing.  Oh, that's what they're trying to cover up; big deal, I thought.

It seems odd to say, but the telling of the story makes up for much of the start and finish.  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience, even though I was disappointed in some of the substance.  I will probably pick up more of Child's Reacher novels, to listen to on my commute if nothing else, and I certainly would look forward to more Reacher movies.

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Identical, by Scott Turow

Scott Turow has carved out a niche in legal fiction.  As a practicing lawyer who has several novels that have been made into movies, he has a great feel for translating legal concepts and arguments into an interesting story.  In Identical, one brother confesses to murdering his girlfriend, while his twin brother establishes his legal and political career.  As the story begins, with the first brother's release from prison after his 25 year sentence, it becomes clear that there is more to the story.

When the lawyer brother ends up facing the murdered girl's brother in a political campaign, the old case takes center stage again, and the rest of the story slowly comes out.  Much of the development of the novel reads like an episode of CSI or some other TV crime drama.  Turow may be found guilty of abusing the readers' credulity.  A couple of allusions are made to Shakespeare's use of confusion between twins in his plays.  Those plays always frustrated me for their silliness.  There is an element of that silliness in Identical, too.

Silliness aside, Turow moves the story along nicely, with occasional flashbacks to the scene of the crime, told from different characters' perspectives.  The truth comes out, eventually, in a not terribly surprising conclusion.  Ultimately, the family drama, long-held secrets, and the twin-swapping detracted from the strength of the legal and investigational strength of the story.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

In The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood returns the world she developed in Oryx and Crake.  This isn't really a sequel, but a parallel story that dovetails with the earlier novel.  This story revolves around members of the "God's Gardeners," a religious group that blends eco-consciousness with a variation on Biblical Christianity.  (It's much more of the former; it would not be considered Christian by most Christian denominations of today.)  As they separate themselves from the world at large, God's Gardeners anticipate a "waterless flood" that will decimate the human race.  Readers of Oryx and Crake will, of course, recognize that this decimation is coming, not as a judgment from God, but as an expression of Crake's hubris.

We do get glimpses of the Snowman and the children of Crake, who played a large role in the first novel.  As Atwood develops this future history, she comments insightfully on cultural and scientific developments in our world.  Her view of the future of the human race is pretty bleak, but realistic enough to give pause.

Readers who appreciated Oryx and Crake will especially enjoy The Year of the Flood and will be eager to revisit this alternate future in her newest book, Maddaddam.  Enjoy!

(By the way, these books are currently ranked 825, 1124, and 369 at Amazon.  That's pretty impressive.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Doomed, by Chuck Palahniuk

Last year I read Chuck Palahniuk's Damned, didn't enjoy it much, so of course I jumped at the chance to read the sequel, Doomed.  Unsurprisingly, I didn't like Doomed any more than Damned.  In case you missed it, Damned was the story of a precocious teenager's trip to hell.  In Doomed, her ghost returns to the land of the living.  We learn more about her life, her death, and the nefarious deals her rich and famous parents made with the devil in order to become rich and famous.

It's Palahniuk, so of course Doomed is full of clever bits.  But as a whole, the story drags on.  I was turning the pages as fast as I could, not because I was so eager to read what would happen next, but because I was eager to get to the end of the tiresome book.  Palahniuk's die-hard fans will probably want to read Doomed, but most will find the humor lacking and the narrative tiresome.

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

Friday, October 4, 2013

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a strange book.  Fans of science fiction, as traditionally understood, may not enjoy this very much.  The tone is more literary than genre, the story is told in a roundabout way with lots of flashbacks, and the action, well, there's not much action.  In fact, not much really happens.

We meet Snowman, who, we learn in flashbacks, was known as Jimmy before a global pandemic killed off, as far as Jimmy knows, every other human on the planet.  He's not alone, though.  He has become the God-like leader of the children of Crake, genetically created humans who lived in an isolated, sealed dome, thus were not affected by the pandemic.

The strongest past of the Oryx and Crake is the development of biotechnology depicted in the flashbacks.  The biological experimentation, the competition between corporations, the separation of the classes, and the means by which the pandemic spreads, are all very believable--and rather scary!  Some of the scientific and cultural developments get sort of fanciful, providing a bit of lighter-hearted relief.

I would say most sci-fi readers might have a difficult time getting into Oryx and Crake.  But Atwood is an interesting writer, and once you get a feel for her pace and style, it's an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

God Bless America, by Karen Stollznow

It goes without saying that the United States is a theologically diverse nation.  One result of the religious freedom we enjoy is the freedom to believe whatever wacky thing we want.  And some Americans believe some pretty wacky stuff.  Karen Stollznow, an Australian transplant to the U.S., has spent some time doing anthropological research on several examples of the wacky religions of our great nation.  Her book God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States recounts her findings.

The groups she covers are, for the most part, tiny minority groups that are easy for most mainstream Americans to dismiss.  Few would disagree with her conclusion that polygamist, fundamentalist Mormons who force young teens to marry older men are despicable, or that there's something a little off with practitioners of voodoo, Scientologists, or New Agers.  She is particularly bothered by charlatanism, when said practitioners perpetuate a set of beliefs in order to make money off the true believers.

Her greatest ire is reserved for the groups or subgroups that harm others.  "Several of these religious groups are closed societies, allowing corruption to flourish.  Religious freedom becomes an excuse to commit crimes under guise of God. . . . [M]any religious beliefs and practices endanger the physical and psychological health of their followers."  Some of the groups she describes have abundant examples of such harm.

Each chapter gives a brief history or background of a particular religious group, raises some objections to their beliefs and/or practices, especially dwelling on harm inflicted or fraud perpetrated, and, in most cases, she describes her own experiences as a guest and observer at their religious services.  Her presentation is, for the most part, even-handed and objective, but it becomes clear that she is writing as a nonbeliever.  I don't think she ever comes out and says it, but I feel fairly certain she would self-identify as an atheist.

As an evangelical Christian who has attended Charismatic churches for over 20 years, I was struck by her negative portrayal of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement.  It's not that what she writes is inaccurate or false.  My problem was the unbalanced focus on some unsavory elements in the movement.  Most Charismatics would share her disdain for fake faith healers and over-the-top prosperity gospel preachers (although these guys have way too many followers).  I would invite her to spend some time at some of the churches I have attended, where genuine prophetic words have been spoken to great effect, where people have been certifiably healed of various medical conditions, and where lives have been miraculously changed through an encounter with the Holy Spirit.  Stollznow's experiences and conclusions should serve as a stark reminder to all Christians of the need to present a consistent, biblical witness, and to see signs and wonders not as a sideshow or focus of our faith, but as loving expressions of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.

Given that I had a more personal perspective on her chapter on Charismatics, it led me to reflect more deeply on the other chapters.  I wonder how much of her focus on the unsavory elements of the groups covered is deserved.  Very few Mormons are fundamentalist, polygamist pedophiles.  Very few Amish are reclusive, controlling, incestuous fiends.  Very few exorcists are insane, abusive murderers.  The bottom line is that whatever the belief system, some people are bad.  That applies to any group of people, whether a minority religion, a particular profession, fans of a particular football team, or whatever.  So even as Stollznow presents a thoughtful discussion of religious beliefs and practices, including her own first-hand experiences, it's possible that she was swayed by possibly atypical, anomalous negative examples.  (By the way, one group she defends a little is Satanists, whom she says have been unfairly persecuted by false claims of Satanic ritual abuse: "Satanists certainly have their faults, but they have been unfairly stigmatized and victimized for crimes they didn't commit.")

Despite a possible tendency to focus too much on the negative, the minority of minority religionists, Stollznow's book is a good-natured, naturally irreverent tour of some interesting byways of our religious landscape.  As a Christian, my prayer for her is that she will see this truth: belief in God and in the saving work of Jesus Christ is not intellectually irreconcilable with the natural order and the witness of history.  Further, the Christian life does not necessarily lead to wacky, irrational beliefs and practices.   More power to you, Dr. Stollznow, as you seek truth, and may you know that the giver of all truth is seeking you, too.

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