Monday, June 30, 2014

Charis, by Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle wants to remind us that "God loves you because of God."  Sprinkle's new book Charis: God's Scandalous Grace f looks at the biblical principle of grace, bringing the focus on God, and away from who we are and what we've done.  Grace goes beyond the tame uses of it we often hear.  It's not merely leniency or acceptance, it's "God's aggressive pursuit of, and stubborn delight in, freakishly foul people."

Too often, modern Christians present a cleaned-up version of grace.  It's easy to forget that there is no sin, no history, outside of the reach of grace.  Sprinkle points out that the twelve disciples were a motley crew.  "Jesus planted the first church on earth with a group of hoodlums who wouldn't be let inside the doors of most churches today."  We might be "willing to put up with social outcasts and misfits, but this isn't grace.  It's tolerance."  Jesus takes the misfits and "doesn't give them a bowl of soup and shuffle them out of the church.  He gives them responsibility--the hallmark of genuine value--and trusts in the God who uses the weak to shame the strong."  Not only does God love us in spite of us, he gives us authority and power!

Throughout the Bible, God uses sinful, broken people to accomplish his purposes.  Indeed, the family line of Jesus is full of the unlovely: harlot, murderer, "down-and-out immigrant," whore, deceiver, and more.  Whatever pain, sin, and flaw we have, Jesus is bigger and he loves us and wants "to enter our pain.  To forgive us.  To save us.  To enjoy us."  God wants to enjoy me.  That's a hard thing to imagine, especially when I don't particularly enjoy me.  And he wants to use me, even when I feel useless.

Big time props to Sprinkle for his mention of my old church, Church Under the Bridge in Waco.  I have never been around a group of people as aware of and as thankful for God's grace than there.  My favorite image in Charis is the reminder that my name is tattooed on God's hand, and it's never coming off.  I and my friends at CUB can count on God's grace.  That's something to sing about.

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Goodnight, Football, by Michael Dahl, illustrated by Christina Forshay

I don't know about you, but I am ready for football season!  Goodnight, Football is a cute children's book that will get little kids (and their daddies and mommies) ready for the most wonderful time of the year.

The book follows a family attending a night football game.  As the family cheers for the home team, the artist captures the excitement of the game through the eyes of the kids.  The band, the cheerleaders, the exciting action on the field, all come alive.

When it's time to go home, they say goodnight to the team, the bleachers, the concession stand, the moon, and the little boy snuggles up in bed with his football, dreaming of the next time they get to go to a game.

Michael Dahl and illustrator Christina Forshay clearly love the game of football.  This book captures the best of the football game experience and will help parents pass along the love of the game to their children.

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage, by Mark Achtemeier

DETROIT (June 20, 2014) - The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted by large margins Thursday to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian in the church constitution, adding language that marriage can be the union of "two people," not just "a man and a woman." - See more at: c

This news is music to the ears of Mark Achtemeier.  Dr. Achtemeier, a PC(USA) pastor and seminary professor, led the way in his denomination's barring of gays and lesbians from ordination, but after years of reflection and study, led the denomination to reverse that stand.  Now, in The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage, he describes his journey and provides a biblical defense of same-sex marriage.

Unlike many who have a similar change of heart and mind, neither Dr. Achtemeier nor anyone in his family has come out as gay.  As he has met and counseled with gay Christians over the years, he was struck by the fact that many gay Christians feel constrained by the choices offered by most churches: live a life of celibacy, or attempt to change what they see as a basic part of their nature.  Some leave the church altogether, while others choose to accept their orientation and lead fruitful Christian lives.  Dr. Achtemeier sees fruit in the lives of many openly gay Christians, and misery in the lives of gay Christians who struggle with hiding or trying to change their nature.

His study of scripture led him to the conclusion that while homosexuality is condemned in several places in the Old and New Testaments, in every case it refers to violent, exploitative, idolatrous, or otherwise forbidden behaviors.  Homosexuality in the context of a loving relationship is not forbidden, he argues.  The purpose of marriage, he writes, is for two people to experience and share self-giving love, after the model of Christ, a purpose that can be accomplished in gay marriage as well as straight.  His bottom line: "God stands ready to graciously bless and affirm same-sex relationships in the same way the god bestows blessing on heterosexual ones."  

Dr. Achtemeier writes with a pastoral heart, a reasonable tone, a love of scripture, and a respect for the traditions of the church.  But I just can't buy his argument.  Marriage between a man and a woman, the model established in the first chapters of the Bible and demonstrated and affirmed throughout the Bible and human history, is God's ideal for marriage.  If God's ideal included same-sex marriage, it seems that God would have established it sometime before now, when our overly permissive culture has come to accept it.  Dr. Achtemeier argues that this lack is due to the fact that there has never been a cultural acceptance of same-sex marriage until recently.  Further, I don't like the logical extension of his argument.  Loving, self-giving relationships are possible between unmarried people who are committed to one another.  Given the increasing acceptance and practice of cohabitation, are we to find God's yes to shacking up in the Bible, too?

I will admit that his arguments are strong and difficult to contend with.  As his perspective continues to gain acceptance among more and more churches, those of us who would maintain that a marriage between one man and one woman is the historical and biblical ideal for Christians will need to study up and continue to provide a reasonable defense of traditional marriage.  More importantly, we need to face the reality of gay individuals in our congregations and communities.  What a tragedy that they feel condemnation and rejection, rather than finding a place of acceptance and healing in our churches.  Pastoral care for gay Christians has been clearly lacking.  That's my bottom line: it is possible to defend the primacy of heterosexual marriage while loving homosexuals.  

The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage is a well-written, well-argued book which gay Christians and defenders of same-sex marriage will find compelling, useful, and affirming.  Christians who reject same-sex marriage may not be convinced, but they will be forced to reflect on and carefully consider their views.  

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


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When We Were on Fire, by Addie Zierman

I picked up Addie Zierman's book When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over with the anticipation that she would reflect on the simplistic, cliched faith of her childhood and tell the story of how she matured into an adult believer.  That is true, to a certain extent.  But rather than a light-hearted, nostalgic, humorous look at Christian life and culture of her youth, her story is a bitter, ungrateful rejection of her religious upbringing.

I get that many people have been hurt by churches and religious experiences.  Zierman writes about her horrible experiences with evangelical Christianity, which led her to cynicism, depression, alcohol abuse, and despair.  What was her horrible experience?  Molested by a youth pastor?  Church leaders bilked her family out of their life savings?  Beaten with a paddle by her Sunday School teacher?  Actually, none of the above.  Turns out her horrible experience was falling in love with a controlling, more-spiritual-than-thou, "Super Christian" boyfriend.

Now, I know bad relationships can have lasting effects, but it hardly seems fair to tie all of her bad feelings about conservative Christianity to this boy, who is certainly not representative of Christians.  Christians who grew up in the evangelical world of See You at the Pole, True Love Waits, TeenMania, Christian ska bands, and WWJD bracelets will get a chuckle out of her experiences.  Christians who attended a Christian college will nod in recognition with Addie as she recounts the visiting hours at the dorm, the residence hall Bible study leaders, and the student lifestyle covenants that are taken less-than-seriously by many.  It goes without saying that legalism and moralism permeate the church, especially in more conservative circles.  But is all that to be jettisoned, belittled, and pilloried because of a bad break-up?  I don't think so.

Zierman's journey is less theological than cultural.  Little is said about her actual faith or relationship with her savior, except how it is expressed in her culture and surroundings.  The interesting thing about her memoir is that it reflects a larger shift.  Young Christians today are more open to secular music, drinking alcohol, and cursing than the WWJD/SYATP crowd.  Does that make them less Christian?  Not necessarily.  I was bothered by Zierman's implication that the WWJD/SYATP crowd was less Christian.  She writes with a tone of superiority over the childish, immature, rules-following, unthinking people she and her co-believers were.  She is so glad she is above all that now.

Many readers will be able to relate to Zierman's story.  Every Christian has to reach the point at which his or her faith is not just her parents', her church's, her culture's, or her college's, but her own.  She found her faith, and as it turns out, it doesn't seem to look much different from what she grew up with, as little as she would like to admit it.

To the extent that you find your story in hers, you may enjoy When We Were on Fire.  I found it to be rather depressing and not very encouraging.  She has a gift with words, but I have to say one stylistic choice she made drove me nuts.  At times, she wrote all in second person about her own experiences: "You're a little bit weepy. . . . You have caused him to stumble. . . . You are lonely. . . . You inhale sharply and back away. . . . You should have let him kiss you. . . ." and on and on.  I know she is wanting to draw the reader into a shared experience, but I did not like the style.  But this stylistic quibble aside, I still didn't enjoy When We Were on Fire as much as I'd hoped to.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Confident Faith, by Mark Mittelberg

Christians come to faith through a variety of paths.  And once they become believers, many Christians don't have a good grasp of how they got there and why they believe.  Mark Mittelberg wants to remedy that.  In Confident Faith: Building a Firm Foundation for Your Belief, Mittelberg describes the paths to faith, and gives substantial reasons to believe in the claims of Christianity.

Mittelberg served for many years as evangelism director at Willow Creek Community Church, working with Bill Hybels, and works closely with Lee Stroble, of The Case for Christ fame.  These associations point to several characteristics of Mittelberg's writing: Confident Faith is solidly evangelical, evangelistic, accessible to the lay person, clearly written with logical reasoning, and sure to challenge and enrich new and old Christians alike.

It's really two books in one.  The first section describes six faith paths: relativistic, traditional, authoritarian, intuitive, mystical, and evidential.  Each has potential to bring someone to a knowledge of  Jesus, but the evidential faith path "best tests--and ultimately supports or undermines--all of the others." Whether tradition, a mystical experience, or an influential leader first introduced you to Christian faith, you must have a basis for the truth of what you believe.

Which leads to the second part, "Twenty Arrows of Truth," twenty ways that history, science, nature, and the Bible support the Christian message and point to the truth of the gospel.  Any one of these on their own makes a good case, but the twenty together provide a solid foundation for belief.  I picture several audiences for whom these chapters can be quite valuable: young people who have been raised going to church but who haven't spent much time considering the content of Christian claims; new Christians who have had a moving conversion experience but who have yet to grasp the historical and theological scope of the gospel; and skeptics who would say the Bible is full of fairy tales or who deny the existence of God.

Confident Faith is not a very original work.  Readers who have read a lot of books on apologetics or comparative theology might not find anything new here.  But I don't believe the market for this type of book can ever be to full.  Contrary to what modern skeptics might have us believe, it is not unreasonable to believe in the message of the Bible and to trust Jesus for salvation.  Confident Faith can be a huge help for Christians who can examine why they believe what they believe, and how they can "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Megasaurus, by Thomas Weck and Peter Weck, illustrated by Len DiSalvo

Deep in the forest, Beandom is in trouble.  This peaceful kingdom of bears who look like beans is being threatened by a monster, the Megasaurus, whose favorite meal is beans.  King Limalot calls together the wisest minds of the kingdom--owls, of course--to figure out how to survive.  Sadly, their wise ideas are no match for the Megasaurus, but little L. Joe Bean has an idea that just might work . . . .

The father/son team of Thomas and Peter Weck tell the story of the potential doom and ultimate salvation of Beandom in The Megasaurus, one of a series of books from Lima Bear Press set in this kingdom of bears that look like beans.  The setting and characters come to life in the colorful illustrations of Len DiSalvo.  He captures the expressions of the owls and bears and the Megasaurus beautifully.  The fanciful kingdom is reminiscent of some combination of the Ewok village, Hobbiton, and a Pueblo Indian village.

Like all the Lima Bear Press books, The Megasaurus teaches valuable lessons.  L. Joe Bean teaches us that even the collective wisdom of society can be wrong, and that creative thinking and determination can demonstrate the power of an idea.  I was also reminded of Paul's admonition to Timothy: "Don't let anyone look down on you because of your youth."  Little children might be a bit scared of the big monster, and distressed by the fact that he eats so many owls and bears.  But ****spoiler alert!**** everyone's OK in the end.

The Megasaurus is a fun book with nice illustrations, a cute story, and a good lesson.  The authors even provide a reading and discussion guide, making it perfectly suited for group reading and discussion.  Teachers and parents will enjoy reading this to their children and will look forward to the next Lima Bear Press book.

Thanks to Lima Bear Press for the complimentary review copy, provided in exchange for an honest review!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The White Prisoner, by Ognian Georgiev

From 1999 to 2003, Galabin Boevski was one of the biggest stars in the sport of weightlifting.  His accolades included Bulgarian Sportsperson of the Year, 3 European championships, 2 world championships, and a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.  But drugs took him down, more than once.

Bulgarian sports writer Ognian Georgiev has written The White Prisoner: Galabin Boevski's Secret Story, which covers Galabin's childhood and entry into the sport of weightlifting, his impressive and rocky career, and his imprisonment for drug trafficking in Brazil.  There was plenty to work against him at every step of the way.  His family was not a part of the elite, and he lived in a small town, so he to find his place in the sports world by luck and a lot of hard work.

He found great success, but at two different times, he suffered a ban from the sport because of prohibited drugs.  Georgiev stays objective in his reporting, but I was curious: Did Boevski really use banned substances in his training?  Georgiev strongly implies that the samples has been tampered with, suggesting that there was a conspiracy against Boevski.  His trainers kept him on a regimen of drugs, the make up of which Boevski didn't know.  He did eventually refuse some of the drugs pushed on him by his trainers, but it wasn't clear whether these were banned substances.

The drug trafficking conviction is even more mysterious.  He bought brand new suitcases while on a trip to Brazil.  Drug dogs at the airport discovered 9 kilos of cocaine in the suitcase lining.  How did Boevski not notice nearly 20 pounds of extra weight in the brand new suitcases?  That question is what led to his conviction.  He plead his innocence, was convicted to serve 9 years, but was released in two.  I don't know what all went on there, but Boevski maintains (and Georgiev implies) his innocence.

The White Prisoner is an interesting look into the world competitive weightlifting, and an intimate picture of one man's strange journey in that world.  Based on this account, integrity is hard to come by in this sport.  Boevski's integrity seems to have been above the fray, but The White Prisoner doesn't give a final verdict.  In any case, Boevski was one of the greatest.  The White Prisoner has been translated from Bulgarian, and has the feel of a rough translation at times.  The narrative doesn't flow very well at times, which may be a problem of translation or editing or just style.  In any case, I enjoyed reading about Boevski and getting a glimpse of his world.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy, provided in exchange for an honest review!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Atheist's Fatal Flaw, by Norman Geisler and Daniel McCoy

In recent years atheist writings have flourished.  Many intelligent and thoughtful writers have made the case for the non-existence of God. Christians with an evangelistic bent would do well to be prepared with some intellectual background when they talk with atheists about matters theological. Norman Geisler, long a leading apologist, and Daniel McCoy have teamed up to write The Atheist's Fatal Flaw: Exposing Conflicting Beliefs, in which they examine a central argument of atheists and propose that it falls apart as self-contradictory.

Quoting extensively from atheist writers both contemporary and historical, Geisler and McCoy lay out a central atheist argument against God: the problem of moral evil. Put simply, how could an infinitely powerful and infinitely benevolent God allow evil to occur?  The authors charge that atheists call for God to act to prevent moral evil, yet that would call for a curtailment of human freedom. And yet atheists also would object to divine limitations on human freedom. "The atheist says in essence, 'God is morally bound to go to such extremes to fix the problem of moral evil that he removes at least a good part of out autonomy. At the same time, it would be immoral of God to go to lesser extremes because to do so would infringe on our autonomy."  

Geisler and McCoy spend so much space setting up the atheist position that one might grow weary of reading the source quotes. I would estimate that more than half the book is actually quotes from atheist writers. In some chapters, that figure may be greater than 3/4. So they leave little question about what the atheists say. However, I wasn't as impressed with the response. I mean, they build an interesting argument, but it seemed more like a fanciful logical exercise than a serious challenge. It feels like a very narrow, limited project that I am not sure an atheist, even an intellectually honest one, would be persuaded by. I hope I'm wrong. 

The Atheist's Fatal Flaw is certainly not a waste of time for Christians interested in apologetics.  It is a great source book (with an extensive bibliography) for readers who want to understand the atheists' perspective on the moral argument. I'm just doubtful that this is the  apologetic silver bullet implied in the title.

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

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Brainy Bunch, by Kip and Mona Lisa Harding

Kip and Mona Lisa Harding would want us to believe that their family is not at all exceptional, that their kids are not genius, and that any family can send their kids to college at the age of twelve.  Maybe they're right.  The story they tell in The Brainy Bunch: The Harding Family's Method to College Read by Age Twelve will make you wonder what your own kids could accomplish, given the right inspiration and motivation.

Genius or not, this family is impressive.  The Hardings have created and fostered a love of learning and education in their home and have provided the tools, time and resources for the kids to follow their academic interests.  Going to college at age 12 might not be for everyone, but The Brainy Bunch forced me to ask Why not?  Thinking about my own high school experience, which included honors classes and a high class ranking, I know there were way too many wasted hours, both by me and by the curriculum, teachers, and school requirements.  Parents of young, motivated kids would do well to check out the Hardings' experience and consider whether their own children would have the desire and ability to follow in the Hardings' footsteps.

The Hardings are unabashed fans of home schooling.  Some of their comments made me cringe and think, "Why are my kids in public school?!"  For example, "We do not feel that strangers should educate our children."  "Your children's being instructed by you, the one who loves and knows your children the most, is far better than being in a crowded classroom and taught by an overworked teacher who cannot give them the individual attention they need."  And think about this when your trying to get the family out the door: "There is no morning rush to get dressed, eat breakfast, pack the lunches, finish last-minute homework, load up the car, and fight traffic to drop off kids at school.  Homeschoolers can have peace in the morning instead of the mad rat race to get everyone to school on time."  How many hours a week does my wife send driving the kids back and forth to school?  Ugh.

So I read The Brainy Bunch with a mix of feelings.  Even though I think my family has made the right choice for our family to send our kids to public school, after initially homeschooling for 3 years, the success of the Harding children makes me think "That could be us!"  And the Hardings write in such a way that makes it seem possible for other families to emulate their experiences.  At the same time, their story leaves me with feelings of inadequacy and failure.  Shouldn't my kids be excelling on the ACT at age 10?  Why don't my kids have a passion for a profession by age 12?  Am I not fostering the right atmosphere at home?

The Brainy Bunch primarily trumpets the accomplishments of the Harding kids.  But there is a practical element, too.  By example and with specific tips and resources, they give a model that a homeschool family can follow.  They don't have much good to say about public schools, so don't expect to feel affirmed in your well-thought-out decision to send your children to public or private school.  Try to read The Brainy Bunch with thick skin, so you don't fall into comparison and inadequacy.  Read with an open and adventurous mind, and let them challenge you to free your children to escape the limits of traditional educational structures and schedules.

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson

In Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson tells the story of a future in which the robots, controlled by a central super-intellegent artificial intelligence, kill almost all humans and take over the world.  Robopocalypse ended with the humans victorious and the robot army defeated--or so we thought.  In Robogenesis, we follow the survivors of the New War, including humans, humans who have been modified by robot technology, robots who are independent and autonomous (having been disconnected from the central AI), and the bodies of humans who were killed but who host parasitic robot-like structures.  I know, this last one sounds weird.  It is.

The defeated AI from Robopocalypse now is rallying the troops against another powerful AI.  Are the humans and autonomous robots to believe it when it says it was fighting on the right side all along, plotting not to exterminate the humans but to save them?  The new AI power, after all, has designs to obliterate all life on earth.

The story of Robogenesis jumps around from group to group, ultimately bringing them together.  The vignettes of robot life, and of the lives of advanced humans and their interactions are what really make Robogenesis interesting.  As one of the narrators observes, "The line between man and machine is blurring."  Wilson's imagination runs wild as he creates this new world of robot-driven creation.  Not only do the humans adapt robot tech, but some of the high-functioning robot intelligences actual create new, autonomous creations.

Unfortunately, the story starts to feel disjointed and overlong amid these vignettes and explorations of rob tech.  Still, Robogenesis is a fun read with interesting tech, exciting action, and continues the story from Robopocalypse nicely.  Fans who enjoyed Robopocalypse will love Robogenesis, and will be eager for the inevitable sequel.

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On the Road to Find Out, by Rachel Toor

Alice Davis has problems.  She's at the top of her class, is the only child of wealthy, driven parents (one's a doctor, one's a lawyer), and she only has two friends in the world, one of whom is her pet rat.  In Rachel Toor's novel, On the Road to Find Out, Alice steps out the door for a New Year's Day run and ends up on a road to self-discovery.

On a bit of a whim, Alice makes a new year's resolution to start running.  It's painful and embarrassing but she ends up liking it.  Many runners can relate to how she feels once she gets in the groove:
I didn't expect to like it so much.  Sometimes it's hard to get out the door.  When I don't feel like going, I can find a whole lot of other things to do. . . . I tell myself it will still count if I only go for ten minutes.  Once I'm out, and I'm running, I start to feel good.  It's like I have to trick myself into doing it, but when I do, I am happy to keep going.  
She ends up taking a part-time job at her mom's friend's running store, gets involved with the local running community, and meets a cute boy who's a top-notch runner.

The culture of running is woven through On the Road to Find Out, but that is only the backdrop of the story.  This is not a book for runners only.  It's primarily a book about a teenage girl's coming to grips with becoming herself, and trying to figure out what drives her.  Having been rejected by Yale, her dream school, and, subsequently a handful of other top colleges, she is forced to reevaluate her dreams.

Toor's characters tend to be a bit stereotypical (the brainy loner, the overbearing professional parents, the loyal best friend), but she goes beyond the stereotypes and brings them together nicely.  Toor captures the troubled teenage girl mind and provides positive adult role models.  The story is touching, the romance is believable and not overdone, and I was happy to see Alice's growth throughout the story.  Plus, I learned all I ever wanted to know about the joys of having a pet rat!

Toor's target audience may be teen girls, but I'm a middle-aged man and liked it.  (What does that say about me??)  Also, runners and non-runners alike will enjoy this story.  But a word of warning: you might just be tempted to don some running shoes and join Alice in her resolution!

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

One More Try, by Gary Chapman

When a marriage is on the rocks, a great place for couples to turn is Dr. Gary Chapman, one of the best marriage experts around.  Best known for his The Five Love Languages and subsequent love language teachings and writings, Dr. Chapman has addressed, in his newest book, a very specific stage of marriage: on the brink of disaster.  One More Try: What to Do When Your Marriage is Falling Apart is aimed at couples who are separated or whose marriages seem to be on their last legs.

Chapman boils down what unfulfilling marriages lack to "one of three sources: lack of an intimate relationship with God, lack of an intimate relationship with your mate, or a lack of an intimate understanding and acceptance of yourself."  He points out that the first and third of these "can be corrected without the aid of your spouse."  When the goal is reconciliation, which is, of course, the ideal, each spouse has to be willing to work on 1 and 3 in order to make much progress on 2.

I like the fact that Chapman prioritizes getting one's spiritual life in order.  Spending time in scripture and prayer every day is essential.  Starting with the simple routine of reading a few verses every day and seeking to apply it to your life a great start.  Chapman asks, "Can you envision what might happen in your life if you would begin reading the Scriptures daily, listening to the voice of God, and responding to his commands, in the power of the Holy Spirit?"

No matter what the condition of your marriage is, Chapman has some good reminders here.  If you want to be happy, work on making your spouse happy, since "genuine happiness is the by-product of making someone else happy."  And no matter how perfect you think your spouse is, he or she has probably screwed something up from time to time.  With our spouses, "we need to follow God's example," who "no longer holds our sins against us" and "never reminds us of past failures." Moving on from failure, "what is important is how you treat each other today, not how you treated each other in the past.  Forgetting the past is the key that can open the future, bringing reconciliation between your spouse and you."

I was a little bit surprised that Chapman leaves room for separation as a viable, sometimes necessary step in reconciling a marriage.  He makes a good case that as long as, during the period of separation, both husband and wife are working toward communicating better, working on their own issues, and not seeking romantic relationships with others, separation can be a productive time.

I agree with Dr. Chapman that marriages "are either growing or diminishing.  You must continue to do the kind of things that stimulate growth."  Couples who are separated or on the brink of divorce should pick up this book, but even couples whose marriages are in good condition can glean some insights.  And, like Dr. Chapman's other books, One More Try can be a great resource for pastors, counselors, and others who might counsel married couples, formally or informally.

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

Friday, June 6, 2014

Farewell to Mars, by Brian Zahnd

Like most Americans, I spent some time on Memorial Day contemplating the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces.  In fact, I got to spend some time with my nephew, who was home on leave after serving with the Air Force in Africa.  But I also spent a good portion of the day reading Brian Zahnd's new book, Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace.

Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church in Saint Joseph, Missouri, describes how his thinking changed when he "encountered Jesus in a fresh and new way" and he "began to take the 'words in red' seriously."  He repented of his voyeuristic cheerleading during the broadcasts of the events of the first Gulf War, and of his "war prayers and war sermons," particularly after 9/11.  It is not unusual to hear theologians and pastors on the theological left decrying war and preaching peace, but Zahnd seems to be otherwise in line with more a conservative, evangelical theological grounding.

The problem he points out is that "the gospel of peace is being obscured by a church that has long been more interested in serving as a chaplain to its host superpower than embarking about the risky path of following Jesus as the Prince of Peace."  Christians have tended to overlook, ignore, water down, or outright reject those parts of Jesus' teachings that decry war and violence.  Justify our interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount as we might, but "at some point, you have to decide what Jesus did mean with his kingdom imperatives on nonviolence and enemy love."

Zahnd makes a convincing case, forcing any follower of Jesus and believer in the Bible to carefully consider what he says.  By focusing on the words and character of Jesus, and pointing out the church's tendency to ignore Jesus' peacemaking, "relegat[ing] [Jesus] to the hyperspiritualized role of personal Savior," Zahnd leaves little room to argue against what is so self-evident in Jesus' teaching.

Yet I wish he would have addressed the centuries-long debate over the issue of peace and war.  He never mentions just war theory.  He doesn't engage justifications for violence, whether by individuals or the state.  Is it just to use violence to defend a child against an aggressor?  Is it just to use military force to defend innocent people against a warlord?  When one nation attacks a neighboring nation without provocation, is another nation justified in intervening militarily?

I found myself agreeing with Zahnd on every point.  Yet I am still troubled by the duty of a Christian, for that matter of any person, not to stand by in the face of violence.  If my nephew's next tour of duty takes him somewhere to take up arms against, for instance, a band of terrorists plotting to attack a peaceful country, or an opposing sect in their own country, should I not support him in that, and rejoice when good triumphs over evil?  Even more, should I pray for him to have the victory?  Should I pray for the terrorists to be utterly destroyed?  These types of questions certainly do come up in A Farewell to Mars, but aren't explored to the extent that he probably should have.

Even so, Zahnd will challenge even the most red-blooded, flag-waving evangelical, assuming he or she is willing to take seriously the words of Jesus.  Unfortunately, Mars, the god of war, has sneaked into our theology.  In addition, Zahnd goes so far as to say that "the moment the church took to the Crusades in order to fight Muslims, it had already surrendered its vision of Jesus to the model of Muhammad." Ouch.  I, for one, want to follow Jesus, and to take his words seriously.  I know that won't look like Mars or Muhammad, but I'm also fairly certain that, as Zahnd argues, it won't look like what we see taught and practiced in evangelical churches today.  I am grateful that Zahnd has challenged my thinking with Farwell to Mars.

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

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rescue Mode, by Ben Bova and Les Johnson

On the heels of last year's Mars, Inc., sci-fi legend Ben Bova takes a slightly different tack on kicking off a mission to Mars in Rescue Mode.  I don't know whether it was his teaming up with Les Johnson that caused the writing to be much improved over Mars, Inc., but Rescue Mode is a much better book.

Set just a few decades in the future, Rescue Mode follows the first crewed Mars mission from prelaunch to return.  Bova and Johnson give a lot of detail about the requirements and preparations for the mission.  Johnson, a long-time NASA scientist, must have added technical, logistical knowledge to the novel.  Everything is very believable, and made me feel like this could start happening today!  As Johnson points out in the introduction, "We have the technology to get people to Mars and to bring them safely back to Earth."

These guys are definitely cheerleaders for a Mars mission.  Through the course of the story, they address the superiority of human astronauts over robots ("One human mission will gather more information, make more discoveries, than a dozen robot probes."); on the economic impact of space exploration ("We don't shoot the money into space! It's spent right here, on scientist and engineers, on technicians and mechanics and schoolteachers and truck drivers and grocery workers.  It adds to our economy.  And the knowledge we'll eventually earn will bring an enormous bonus to our economy.); and the overall benefit to society (Exploration of space and Mars "gives people hope, excitement, something to be thrilled about, something to be proud of.  And the technology we develop builds our economy better and faster than all the handouts we offer to the people.").

The great thing about Rescue Mode is that even with the didactic, almost propagandistic tone, the story is still primary.  There's no hiding that fact that a mission to Mars is perilous, perhaps even fatal for the astronauts, and that difficulties abound.  Yet the story offers hope and confidence in human ingenuity and resilience in the face of impending catastrophe.

I was a little disappointed that Bova didn't continue the theme of privately-funded space travel he established in Mars, Inc.  I guess Johnson, the NASA guy, convinced him that NASA was the only outfit that could handle such a mission.  I enjoyed the characters, the story, and the great push for travel to Mars.  Bova and Johnson have me hoping and believing that we'll be sending crewed missions to Mars in my lifetime!

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

Monday, June 2, 2014

Money, by Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames

Anyone who has read Steve Forbes's columns in Forbes or any of his prior books will not be surprised that his new book, Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy--and What We Can Do About It, is well-written, accessible to the non-specialist, and quite convincing.  He and Elizabeth Ames, with whom he has collaborated on several prior books, make a solid argument for a return to sound money.

Forbes and Ames argue that the economic problems of the last several decades are the result of the lack of stable currency, and that the means to a stable currency is the gold standard.  "Without an economy based on stable money," they argue, "we will face an ever bigger government, stagnation, and ever more severe political troubles."  That sounds pretty much like the story of the last 40 years, since Nixon abandoned the gold standard.

Money describes what money is: a measurement, a signal, basically information.  Without a measure of what things are worth, transactions turn chaotic.  Could a butcher sell his meat if the number of ounces in a pound was in constant flux?  Could a builder build a house if he wasn't sure how many inches are in a foot this week?  By the same token, an economy without a stable measure of value is subject to the whims of, well, the Federal Reserve.

Forbes and Ames are highly critical of quantitative easing, the most recent move to weaken the dollar.  They write, "QE did not just fail as a stimulus.  It prevented recovery by causing a destructive misallocation of credit" and caused "spikes in the prices of commodities that raised the cost of food and fuel, inflaming political divisions and unrest in many developing nations."  Proponents of QE are followers of John Maynard Keynes's theories.  But "Keynes and monetarists are on the wrong side of history.  Increasing the supply of money cannot create prosperity because that is not how wealth is created.  Wealth and growth come from innovation."  Any Keynesian growth is artificial.  The only genuine growth is from innovation.

Even though Forbes and Ames make a convincing case, I am not sure they believe anyone who matters will listen to them.  They know Keynesianism dominates among politicians and economists today.  But I think we can also see the tide turning.  When Ron Paul called for a return to the gold standard, and demanded that we audit the Fed, he was, at first, written off as a loon.  But voices like his and Forbes's seem to be taken more seriously now.  Perhaps, against all odds, the right people will read Money and be spurred to agree that "the way to growth and a more prosperous future is not through weak money or tight money--but through sound money."

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