Friday, January 30, 2015

The Life of Billy Kim, by Billy Kim

The life of Billy Kim, Korean pastor, evangelist, broadcaster, and Christian statesman is nothing short of inspirational.  The Life of Billy Kim, the autobiographical account of Billy Kim's life and ministry, falls a bit short of inspirational, unfortunately.  Maybe it's the style, the translation, or the editing, but the book simply doesn't do justice to the man.

I don't want to take away from the man himself, and, more importantly, what God has accomplished through him.  Kim grew up during the Korean War, offering his services to American servicemen, cleaning their living spaces, polishing their boots, and performing other tasks.  His friendly demeanor and hard work drew the attention of many soldiers, especially Carl Powers, who arranged for Billy to study in the U.S.  Thanks to Carl's generosity and his family's hospitality, Billy went to the U.S. as a teenager, and returned to Korea eight years later with a maturing faith in Christ, the heart of an evangelist, and a graduate degree in theology (not to mention a pretty American wife!).

He made his life's mission to evangelize his home country, starting with his own family.  He came alongside an elderly pastor in a tiny church in his hometown, and grew that church to a congregation of thousands.  He became head of a Christian broadcasting company, spreading the gospel across Asia, including broadcasting messages into China and North Korea.  He travelled the world as an evangelist and, eventually, as president of the Baptist World Alliance, never hesitating to share his faith, whether with Fidel Castro or the janitor at the site of a huge rally.  He touched many lives, and seemed just as happy sharing the gospel in a private, humble setting with one person, as with a stadium full of tens of thousands.

One interesting note about Bob Jones, where he studied in the U.S.  Bob Jones University has long been known for their view on interracial dating.  It wasn't until 2000 that they dropped the ban.  Apparently, however, that ban only included black/white relationships, because Billy Kim met his wife at Bob Jones; their courtship was encouraged and even facilitated by faculty members.  Billy's relationship with the school soured, however, when he served as Billy Graham's interpreter during a crusade in Korea.  Shortly after the well-publicized crusade (which, incidentally tremendously increased Billy Kim's visibility and ministry opportunities), Kim received a letter from the president of Bob Jones University condemning his involvement with Billy Graham and informing him that they no longer considered him an alumnus.  He wrote, "You are a disgrace to the school. . . . We are no longer proud of you."  This is simply astonishing to me.

In The Life of Billy Kim, Kim is always quick to give credit and glory to God.  At the same time, the book reads like hagiography (autohagiography?).  Strangely enough, he writes in the third person, "to show the story of my life not as how I experienced it, but through the eyes of God."  (This choice seems especially awkward when he quotes himself. . . .)  Kim's message throughout the book is that God can use even someone from humble, unlikely beginnings to accomplish great things.  He recognizes that without the help of people like Carl Powers and many others who touched his life he would not have been able to serve and live in the way he did, so he has always made a point of helping others in many ways, including assisting Koreans who wanted to study in the U.S.

Kim will long be remembered as a key figure in the growth of Christianity in post-WW2 Korea.  His influence and impact have reached around the world, far beyond the borders of his home village.  Despite its literary flaws and wooden style, The Life of Billy Kim is a useful and inspirational introduction to his life and work.

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Prepare, by J. Paul Nyquist

J. Paul Nyquist wants to have a word with you, you prosperous, comfortable American Christian.  You have enjoyed generations of preferential treatment, stability, and cultural dominance in the United States.  But things are changing.  Nyquist's word for you: prepare.  In Prepare: Living Your Faith In an Increasingly Hostile Culture, Nyquist, president of Moody Bible Institute, wants to remind us that the culture is changing, Christians will find themselves pushed to the margins, and none of this should be a surprise.

In recent years, high-profile news stories have shown the extent to which "the culture war is over--and we lost."  Cultural attitudes are embracing abortion rights, extra-marital sex, drug legalization, and, more than any issue, gay rights and gay marriage.  Not only are these minority positions gaining ground, their advocates frequently demand exclusion of alternate opinions.  Thus it's not sufficient to allow gay marriage, it must be embraced and advocated.

Christians who defend and practice traditional Christian values have begun to suffer persecution for their beliefs.  Nyquist believes they will to a greater and greater extent.  He turns to scripture to remind us that for Christians, persecution is the norm, as Jesus promised and as the experiences of the early Christians demonstrated.  Yet we "should face trials with joy because they produce spiritual fortitude."  They bring blessing and heavenly rewards.

However, Nyquist's bottom line is that while "America seems to be in the low ebb between revivals," it may be that we may be due for a revival.  It's certainly something we can be praying for and looking expectantly to God for.  He conclude, "If God graciously visits this land in a powerful way, the current cultural trends will be immediately arrested, biblical values will return, and the threat of persecution will disappear."

Nyquist's presentation is orderly and systematic.  His Dallas Theological Seminary classes trained him well to find the three points of every scripture passage, and to pay special attention to the significance of the verb tenses in the original Greek.  Thus, even when he is being thorough, he isn't very nuanced.  This isn't really meant to be a criticism, simply a comment on his style.

However, I do have a bit of a criticism.  As he winds up the book, after spending a lot of time telling the reader that persecution is to be expected, he turns to giving us an out through revival, and the message of the book becomes muddled.  He lists several periods of renewal in U.S. history, and indicates that each movement lead to changes in cultural mores.  So there is this circular dilemma: culture rejects Christianity, Christianity is strengthened by persecution, persecution decreases and Christianity gains cultural prominence, cultural prominence leads to a weakening of Christianity, a weakened Christianity leads to culture rejecting Christianity, and the cycle repeats.

Wherever we are in the ebb and flow of Christian history and cultural prominence, Nyquist is certainly right to point out Jesus' words.  We should never be surprised if the world despises us as Christians.  Nyquist includes a lengthy letter to the American church from a Christian leader in Pakistan.  American Christians are beginning to feel themselves being pushed to the margins culturally, but in Pakistan, generations of Christians have experienced life as second-class citizens, suffering actual physical, legal, professional, societal harm because of their faith.  While we comfortable Christians in the U.S. find it hard to relate to such a state of things, perhaps we should prepare ourselves for it.

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

When the Georgia flu runs rampant, killing ninety-nine percent of the world's population, society falls apart, as anyone who has read a post-apocalyptic novel or seen a post-apocalyptic movie can tell you.  In Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven, there are no zombies or motorcycle gangs terrorizing the countryside.  This is far from the worlds of World War Z or Mad Max.  Instead, we meet a gang of musicians and actors who travel from town to town performing classical music and Shakespeare's plays.  As St. John Mandel tells their story, flashing back to the time just before the flu and the early years after the collapse, this post-apocalyptic world seems much more believable than most.

St. John Mandel's style is much more artful than action-packed.  Her timeline jumps around, which was distracting at times, but by the time the end rolled around, I had grown to appreciate the way she pulled together the disparate stories of the characters.  Station Eleven strips down American culture, exposing the banality of celebrity worship and focusing on lasting beauty.  In the absence of modern technology and communication, the high art and timeless essence of King Lear and the simple beauty of a glass paperweight recall the great achievements of mankind and give hope for a renewal of humanity's greatness.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Peter & Lisa, by Charles Katz and Linda Baron Katz

In some ways, understanding someone with an evident disability--blindness, cerebral palsy, missing limbs--is easy to understand.  I'm not saying that someone without those disabilities can ever truly understand living with such a disability.  But I can imagine what it means not to be able to see, or being unable to walk, or having a hand that I can't use.

It's the invisible disabilities that are more difficult to understand.  Someone who is not bipolar, or who does not suffer from depression, may not be as quick to recognize how powerful and debilitating these disabilities can be.  Charles Katz and Linda Baron Katz, who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, have written a children's book to help build understanding of these disorders.  Peter & Lisa: A Mental Illness Children's Story tells the story of Peter and Lisa, friends who, through their mutual friend Trudy, get help for their illnesses and find love in each other.

The simple text and illustrations of Peter & Lisa probably won't win the Katzes any awards.  But the Katzes certainly accomplish the goal of the story--to help "children to understand that with the right kind of help mental illness can be treated and people can live normal, healthy, happy lives."  To me the most important message is that mental illness is not something that can be treated with will power or pushed through with hard work.  Peter and Lisa had community, in their friend Trudy and in each other, and they were willing to get professional help, including in-patient treatment and medication.  Hopefully Peter & Lisa will be a tool to remove stigmas from mental illness and encourage those who suffer from mental illnesses, as well as their families and communities, to take steps for treatment and recovery.

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

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Divine Magician, by Peter Rollins

Sometimes a book just leaves my scratching my head, wondering "What was the point of all that?"  That's how I felt about Peter Rollins's The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith.  Not only was I left wondering what exactly Rollins was trying to accomplish, I was wondering where this guy has been to church?  Is he really drawing on his own experiences or on some stereotypical picture of church?

I'm no perfect Christian, and certainly no perfect church member, and I've never been to a perfect church, as if there is such a thing.  When people like Rollins start talking about what's wrong with "the church" or with "religion," it always seems like they get into straw man arguments that don't hold up in reality.  Rollins talks about the "snake oil claims of religious movements."  He talks about "pious professionals" in whose hands "'God' is presented as nothing less than an object that promises satisfaction and certainty."  Those professionals "hand out placebos," offer a "security blanket," and their followers rely on belief as "an emotional crutch."

To Rollins, Christianity has become "an ideological system."  Churches "create their own constellation of beliefs and practices that tell their congregants how to think and behave." His whole point is that faith in institutions and leaders is bound to disappoint, that fulfillment can't be found in ritual and dogma.  So this is news?  All my life, I have heard affirmations like the simple phrase, "Christianity is not about religion, it's relationship."  In the evangelical world in which I live, it's common knowledge that joy and wholeness and salvation are not found in a building, a pastor, a set of doctrines, or a ritual, but in a personal encounter with Jesus himself.  The reality is that oftentimes a building, a pastor, a set of doctrines, or a ritual can be instrumental in fostering such an encounter.  But Rollins wants to get rid of all of that, or at least diminish the role they play.

I don't know Rollins.  I don't know anything about him except what you can read on the book jacket or the Amazon profile.  So I don't want to pass judgment on him as a person.  All I can judge is this one book.  (And by one I mean one; I don't intend to read any more of his books.)  His writing is pretentious.  His style is that of someone fascinated with his own thoughts and caught up in his self-perceived cleverness of his own ideas.  It's the equivalent of someone who drinks only rare, organic, free trade coffee, or hard-to-find regional craft beers, and looks down on anyone who drinks grocery store coffee or national brand beers.

There, I got that off my chest.  It sounds rude, I know, but my reaction reflects the visceral offense I took to his arguments.  I love the church because I know it offers, in a very human, imperfect, distracting way, a means by which we can come to know Jesus in community.  We have screwed it up in every denomination and every generation, but the church universal is the body of Christ, and local congregations make up that body.  Rollins rejects the church in pretty much any form you see from day to day.

For all the promise of the disappearance of religion and the discovery of faith, Rollins's book was a huge disappointment.  Perhaps he unintentionally pulled a magic trick of his own.  He pulls back the curtain, tears the veil, and reveals not a revelation of a fresh approach to living as a follower of Jesus, but an empty confession of someone who's disconnected and discontented.

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gateway to Freedom, by Eric Foner

The phrase "Underground Railroad" conjures up images of escaped slaves fleeing through woods and swamps, crossing perilous rivers, getting assistance from kind-hearted farmers' families, and crossing the border to Canada.  While there is much truth in that stereotype, historian Eric Foner presents a much more complex picture in Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

Foner, a historian at Columbia University, focuses much of his attention on the activities of the underground railroad in New York City.  Drawing on some previously unexamined records kept by organizations aiding fugitive slaves, Foner details the work of sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating groups.  I found it interesting that the work of the Underground Railroad was so varied.  For example, one point of contention was the support of helping escaped slaves get to freedom as opposed to working toward "making their own soil free."

Even though major Underground Railroad groups worked in New York, New York was not necessarily a great place for anti-slavery activists or for former slaves.  Much of the business of southern agriculture and trade went through the financial houses of New York; they were not clamoring for the end of slavery.  Slave hunters moved freely about the city, entering private homes and churches to find their prey.  As in many other places, free blacks were regularly kidnapped and sold into slavery, as in Twelve Years a Slave.

Gateway to Freedom is very readable; it's not written only for the scholar or professional historian.  However, the stories Foner tells of the experiences of the slaves are too short to satisfy the reader looking for drama.  There is so much drama to be found here.  Any one of the stories he hints at could be a gripping movie or book.  But drama is not his purpose.  He provides context and structure to what we think of as the Underground Railroad.  It's not as simple as is popularly thought, but turns out to be much more interesting and real.  Foner is to be commended for adding to body of knowledge of this troubling, but important and inspiring, chapter in American history.

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unbreakable, by W. C. Bauers

W.C. Bauers is a strong new voice in military sci-fi.  His first novel, Unbreakable, introduces Promise Paen, a tough soldier who is climbing the ranks and bringing the pain (pun intended, of course) to all comers.  After witnessing her father's murder and her home's destruction by raiders, Promise joined the Republic of Aligned Worlds Marines.  Little did she know that she would end up defending her home world from being taken over by the RAW's cold war enemies, the Lusitanian Empire.

Bauers does a nice job of setting the political stage, but not letting that get in the way of the story.  The RAW and LE are not at war, but there are contested worlds like Montana, the planet from which Promise hails.  Sitting strategically between the two alliances, both would like to bring Montana into the fold.  When the LE tries to do so by subterfuge and force, Promise leads the Marines in the defense of Montana.

Don't worry, if I made that sound confusing, it's really not.  Bauer's focus is on Promise and her platoon.  They use a lot of sci-fi military tech and weaponry, but life in a platoon and on the battlefield, when you get to boots on the ground, doesn't change much.  Marines are concerned about defeating the enemy and defending their brothers and sisters in arms.  Baeur writes with the feel of someone who has served in combat or who has a great knowledge of and respect for those who have.

One odd story telling device that didn't seem to fit: Promise is regularly visited by her deceased mother. Is she a ghost?  Only in Promise's head?  Somehow attached to Promise's gun (which used to belong to her mother)?  Bauer uses these visits to fill in Promise's back story, so they are important for learning more about Promise, but it's just sort of odd. . . .  And never really explained. . . .

Bauer writes about this future of human colonization in way that I could embrace.  As The Chronicles of Promise Paen continue, I'll be interested in his fleshing out the demise of Earth and the logistical, political history of the expansion of the RAW, LE, and other alliances.  Unbreakable is familiar ground for sci-fi fans, who are comfortable with the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other universes in which mankind's territorial disputes include planets and star systems rather than islands and continents.  But Bauer's convincing character development, hard-hitting military action, and a gift for story telling promise (pun intended, of course), more great adventures for Promise Paen.

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Lions of Lucerne, by Brad Thor

Millions have come to love Brad Thor's literary creation, Scot Harvath.  Ex-SEAL, Secret Service agent, hunter of terrorists, Harvath's legacy begins in The Lions of Lucerne.  The seemingly invincible Harvath, working in the Secret Service, saves the life of the president's daughter during an attack, but many of his colleagues are killed in the process and the president himself disappears to points unknown.  Middle-eastern terrorists are suspected, but Harvath is too smart to be fooled by the ruse.  Following a trail of clues that everyone else misses, as well as his intuition, Harvath tracks down the Lions of Lucerne.  I don't think I'd be revealing too much to let slip that he saves the day. . . .

Sure, Harvath is larger than life.  Sure, he is inconceivably lucky.  Sure, there is sometimes a cartoonish, melodramatic flavor to the story and the action.  But this isn't Jane Austen.  This isn't Ernest Hemingway.  It's fast-paced, raw meat, superhero, special forces, flag-waving action and adventure!  It's fun to read, fun to observe as Harvath puts the puzzle together, fun to see him get the girl, and fun to see the bad guys lose and lose big.  The Lions of Lucerne starts out with Harvath serving in the secret service White House detail.  As Thor's readers are well aware, Harvath's future is much broader than that, hunting terrorists where they roost.  The Lions of Lucerne sets up that future.

One word on the audio book.  I listened to the abridged version (that's what they had at the library).  It tells the story efficiently, but it definitely had the feel of being abridged.  On many occasions, I had to check my iPod to see if it skipped a track.  The shifts in action were just too abrupt.  I should have waited for the unabridged edition.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Plato's Republic famously imagined a just city, but Plato himself could not have conceived how to pull of manifesting the just city the way Athena did in Jo Walton's novel The Just City.  Being a goddess does have its perks.  As an experiment, Athena brings together philosophers from around the world and from many different eras to be the masters of the just city.  They plan and build (which the help of "workers," multi-tasking robots from some future era), then travel through time again to buy 10-year-old children at slave markets--10,000 of them--to populate the just city and train to be philosopher kings.

In some ways, Athena's plans begin to work out beautifully.  The children are encouraged to forget their former lives.  Many do so gladly, but some retain a sense of having been snatched unjustly from their families.  They train in art and music and physical fitness, striving to become their "best selves."  Five years or so into the experiment, Athena brings in a special teacher to instruct the children in rhetoric--Sokrates himself!  He, of course, questions everything, teaching the children to do so as well.

When the children come of age, the masters begin to implement Plato's plan for building the next generation.  Marriages are arranged by lot, lasting for one night only for the purpose of procreation, and long-term coupling is expressly discouraged.  Quickly all involved become dissatisfied with this arrangement, for reasons obvious to everyone except Plato and his followers.

Walton keeps The Just City interesting by exploring ideas of free will and self-governance in this setting. If the children were rescued from slavery, but clearly have no choice about their future, are they truly liberated?  When the robots who do the labor in the city being to express self-awareness, how does their emerging consciousness fit in with the concepts of the soul and free will?  I also found her reflections on love--philia, agape, and eros--insightful.

At times, especially early on, I was reminded of some recent YA fiction: the Percy Jackson series, with all the references to the Greek gods and the young people living and training together; the Divergent series, with the ordered, segmented society and the selection of defined roles.  But I realize that this probably has less to do with Walton's reading recent fiction than with Plato's influence reaching throughout history.  Perhaps every utopian work of fiction reaches back to The Republic, directly or indirectly.

Even if it's been years since you've read Plato, The Just City can be read and enjoyed without a good working knowledge of the Greek philosopher.  Walton fleshes out the ideas of The Republic in engaging ways, but I thought she missed some opportunities to tell a great story.  The first half of the book was background and buildup to what I thought would be some interesting conflict.  She laid plenty of hints of a stirring up of rebellion and potential ascendence of the machines, but those story lines didn't go much of anywhere beyond talk.  The good news is, the talk is what makes The Just City compelling.  What else do you expect on an island of philosophers and future philosopher kings?

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Killing Floor, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher.  Mysterious hobo.  Murder investigator.  Lifetime military man.  Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Millions have enjoyed Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, which all started with Killing Floor.  Originally published in 1998, it's still #698 in the Kindle store.  Impressive for a 17 year old thriller!

Set 6 months after Reacher left the army, Killing Floor introduces Reacher to the world.  With his military pension, no ties to family, and a desire to see the country, Reacher wanders from place to place, anonymous and free.  Unfortunately for him, as he stops in to visit a small town in Georgia, he becomes the fall guy for a murder investigation.  The attempt to frame him for the murder falls through due to his solid alibi, but of course he becomes involved in the investigation.  When he discovers that the murder victim was his only brother, it becomes personal.

As Child's readers know, Reacher's randomly getting caught up in an investigation is par for the course, so I wasn't too bothered by the coincidence of Reacher's arrival in town on the morning after the murders.  But the fact that the victim was his brother seemed so far-fetched that it detracted from the story.  Don't get me wrong, I still liked it, and Child kept me interested to the end.  But you really do have to be prepared for some rather contrived story elements.

I enjoy Reacher as a character.  I like that fact that his transience allows Child to put him wherever he wants, with little connection between the stories, so they can be read in any order.  I do have one question, though.  Reacher makes a point of traveling light.  He never has any baggage; a toothbrush in his pocket is all he needs.  When he needs a change of clothes, he usually buys new ones, and leaves the old ones in the trash or in the changing room at the store.  But it leads me to wonder: does the guy ever wear underwear?  In those stretches of time in which he wears the same clothes, don't he clothes start to stink a bit?  I don't remember Child addressing this in any of the Reacher books.

So if you don't mind some story-telling contrivances, and a main character that surely must smell from time to time, Reacher is a fantastic hero: smarter than those around him, just about invincible in a fight, and loved by the ladies.  I look forward to reading the next Reacher book!

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Path, by Peter Riva

When you give a computer system god-like powers, is it surprising that it evolves into a god-like being?  In Peter Riva's The Path, America is idyllic, with power, food, weather, virtually all aspects of daily life controlled by the System.  The System has eliminated scarcity.  People only do the work they wish to do, all their needs are taken care of.  Of course, this state of wealth has come at a cost, both to America and the rest of the world, which doesn't share its wealth.  When programmer Simon Bank inadvertently begins a chain of events that exposes long-held, dangerous secrets about the System, America, the rest of the world, and the very concept of sentience and humanity will be radically changed.

Peter Riva explores some interesting ideas in The Path, and forecasts a technological future that is believable in many ways.  Much of the first half of The Path occurs inside the system, with Simon wired in, interacting with the programming.  In a way, this was reminiscent of Tron or The Matrix, but, like those movies, it required a pretty big stretch to imagine the landscape and types of interaction that would take place within a computer system and between humans and computer-based entities.  Still, Riva handles it fairly well.

The second half takes place mostly in the physical world.  Riva transforms Simon into a sort of action hero, evading capture, running to safety, saving the world.  The action sequences tend to fall a little flat.  And the shifting alliances and revelations of who was who and who could trust whom, while unexpected, were not well-enough developed that I cared about the outcome or the characters.

The Path evolves from a cyber-mystery, to a conspiracy/suspense thriller, to a philosophical/ontological exploration.  It does so with a rough-cut, unfinished feel.  Lots of good material is here, but the finished product just seems a little wobbly and not too attractive.  The strongest element of The Path is Riva's extension of today's technology and computer programming into the near future, and imagining the possibilities of using integrated computing power to coordinate daily functions.  When this type of scenario is explored in much sci-fi, the powerful computer turns out to be a malevolent force.  In The Path, Riva offers the possibility of shaping the ethical mind of an emerging sentience.

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

God Loves Haiti, by Dimitry Elias Léger

Earthquakes, politics, suffering, and romance.  In his debut novel, Dimitry Elias Léger revisits Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January of 2010, when it was devastated by a massive earthquake.  God Loves Haiti focuses on the lives of Natasha Robert, a young artist who has married the current president of Haiti, and her lover Alain Destiné, an up-and-coming leader in the developing nation.

At the time the earthquake hits, Natasha and her husband are about to board a plane for Italy, where they plan to retire (escape) from the responsibilities of the struggling nation.  After a final night of illicit romance with her lover Alain, in the nation palace no less, Natasha locks him in a closet.  He manages to escape, and decides to go to the airport to find Natasha.  All their plans are shattered when the world comes tumbling down around them.  Each assumes the other is dead.  They go on living with a new resolve.  The president, too, has a new resolve to serve his country, as he appeals to world leaders for assistance and attempts to inspire his countrymen.  Each of the three is forced to reconsider his or her motives and purpose in life.

Léger jumps back in time, telling the back story of the love triangle, painting a picture of life and culture in Haiti while doing so.  With the historical fact of the earthquake at the center of the story, I wondered how closely the details of the story followed reality.  The fleeing president, the 13th floor of the U.N., where only heads of state can enter, the camps in the parks, cemeteries, and soccer fields, the American movie star who takes up residence in a tent in a Port-au-Prince park, the quick resurgence of commerce, the wedding in the rubble of the cathedral, all combined for a very convincing, intriguing view of life in Haiti and determination of Haitians to rebuild and renew.

The title hints at the theological struggles that Haitians must have had in the wake of the earthquake.  The old priest tells Natasha, "The earthquake was the latest sign that God loves Haiti. . . . The way we Haitians suffer misfortune, deprivation, and disproportionate foreign enmity is right in line with the fate of chosen peoples throughout history.  Biblically speaking, anyway."  Alain has a more cynical response: "'F---ing God,' Alain thought.  'There was no God.  There never was.  There were tectonic plates deep beneath the sea.  That's for sure.' . . . His new religion was no religion.  His new God was no God. . . . There was death and there was life filled with micro moments to fill before death."

There are certainly no easy answers to a natural disaster like the Haitian earthquake.  By focusing on these three individuals' responses to the earthquake, Léger sheds some light on the human condition beyond this Carribean island.  His writing is lucid and tight, a nice balance of story, background, and reflection.  (Although his non-use of quotation marks drove me a little crazy.)  God Loves Haiti is a strong debut novel that portrays a side of the earthquake that wasn't shown on CNN and draws the reader into the mindset of a devastated Haiti.

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

Beyond Apathy, by Elisabeth T. Vasko

In Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders, Elisabeth T. Vasko points out that "We live in a society that is all too willing to tolerate violence."  That may be true.  Just turn on the news or read the paper.  But to her thinking, persons who "occupy social sites of privilege" due to their "race, class, sexual orientation, or gender" are frequently bystanders, "those how aid and abet perpetrators (oppressors) through acts of 'omission and commission.'"  In other words, white males are complicit in violence against women, homosexuals, and non-white individuals.  

In our "heteropatriarchal" society, "gay bashing and slut shaming reveal that gender-based violence remains endemic to Western culture." Similarly, "white racism appears in the form of unconscious bias."  I won't argue with Vasko that culture is permeated with prejudice of many kinds.  But as a white male, I have to object to her assertion that white males are guilty of violence no matter what.  In her view, I could live in a racially mixed community, adopt an African-American child, worship and serve in a racially mixed church, give money, time, and resources to all varieties of organizations which serve the black community, and love everyone, regardless of race, with a pure heart, but I would still be guilty through "systemic unknowing," "latent racial bias," and having benefitted from structural racism.

The idea of structural sin has always been problematic for me.  How do I incur guilt for something I have not done?  But for Vasko, structural sin makes me guilty since I am a person of privilege.  While I don't like the idea, I understand the point and can see how theologians make it.  However, Vasko takes the idea farther, outside of Christian orthodoxy.  Jesus, she says, "is not immune to ethnic prejudice and religious exclusivism." He is "inscribed in structural sin."  He is not "innocent, morally perfect, and one how takes sides with the oppressed."  He "appears to take sides with the oppressor, his actions mirroring present-day patterns of privileged escape, racism, and bullying."  She even goes as far as to reject substitutionary atonement.  Rather than glorify the cross, she promotes a "theology of survival that emphasizes Jesus' healing ministerial vision."

Vasko misses an opportunity to speak to an important issue in society.  When we see violence, whether perpetrated by family members, random criminals or bullies, or even by the police or other officials, we must speak out.  However, Vasko places moral equivalency on those who swing the fist and those who stay in the shadows for their own safety.  And I am just as guilty, sitting here at home in my living room, because I am a white heterosexual male.  Guilty, guilty, guilty.

I honestly think she's living in another universe, or at least in another era.  In my world, I have had bosses who are black, female, and even black females.  I have worked with black, female, and homosexual coworkers, some of whom have been promoted ahead of me.  A black police officer lives in my neighborhood.  I even have a black president.  Yes, racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist.  But Vasko goes to far in saying that because I live and breathe as a white man, I am, ipso facto, culpable of any racist, sexist, or homophobic acts of violence.  (By the way, she leaves no space for a legitimate theological claim that homosexual activity is sinful.  Simply making that claim makes one guilty of violence against homosexuals.)

So, the bottom line on Beyond Apathy is that I found it offensive in its prejudice against white, heterosexual males.  More importantly than that, I found her diminishing of Christ's atonement to be outside of Christian orthodoxy.  She is writing inside an echo chamber of liberationist and womanist theology.  But of course, what do I know.  I am blinded by privilege and culpable because of my DNA.

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

Friday, January 2, 2015

Slaying the Debt Dragon, by Cherie Lowe

It's a new year, a great time to make changes and build new habits, but as Cherie Lowe points out in Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After, "there is no good time to begin paying off debt.  There is only today." She tells the story of her family's four year journey of paying off over $120,000 in debt.  Their combined student loans, credit card debts, and assorted debts were a burden; they decided to make some changes and get it done.

Readers or radio listeners familiar with Dave Ramsey will recognize his attitude and principles in Lowe's book.  She looked to his Total Money Makeover for inspiration.  She and her husband are avid fans of Ramsey, and even appeared on his show to declare "We're debt free!"  Lowe doesn't necessarily introduce new ideas for paying off debt in Slaying the Debt Dragon, but it's refreshing to hear her perspective and gather some of her money-saving tips.

Like Ramsey, she tries to keep it simple.  "It isn't that complex.  Spend less than you make so you can whack away incrementally at the debt dragon with all you've got."  The biggest key (again, no surprise) is making a budget and keeping it.  She's a fan of the envelope system, and using cash only, especially at the grocery store and eating out.

She explicitly ties in freedom from debt to freedom to live a fuller life as a Christian.  "We had lost a sense of contentment. . . .  We had lost the bigger picture of the adventure God wanted to take us on through our story.  Living day to day, paying bill after bill, our lives had been locked into a boring status quo existence." I like this perspective.  It's not about making money and saving money.  It's all about making space in your life and your lifestyle to follow and obey God.

Slaying the Debt Dragon is a very personal, honest book, but I wish she had given a bit more perspective on the income side.  Her husband is a lawyer, so I assume he was making a decent income. On the other hand, she mentioned that he picked up some side jobs, but she doesn't go into what they were or what kind of hours those demanded.  $120 thousand is certainly a ton of debt, but did they pay it off while earning a salary of $40K a year, or $200K a year?  I was just curious about that detail of the story.  Whatever their income, their story is still inspiring and informative.  She doesn't make paying off mounds of debt sound easy, but she definitely makes it sound doable.

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