Friday, February 27, 2015

Tookey's Turkeys, by Christopher Tookey

As much as I enjoyed reading Christopher Tookey's reviews of great movies in Tookey's Talkies, I had even more fun reading Tookey's Turkeys: The Most Annoying 144 Films of the Last 25 Years.  I like the fact that these are not the worst films, but the most annoying.  He concentrates on "movies that had the resources to be good, but spectacularly failed to be so," so he doesn't pick on independent films.  These are virtually all movies that had wide release.  They annoy him for their take on culture and values, especially those that "plumb the depths of ineptitude, depravity, and risibility."  Others "present a deliberately misleading view of history and current events, promote brutalism and yob culture, and attempt to cash in on a section of the public's taste for sexual exploitation and gratuitous violence."

There were many films in Tookey's Turkey's that I had not heard of.  After reading his reviews, I am grateful to have missed them.  In Tookey's Talkies, Tookey showed a tendency toward exuberant praise.  In Turkeys, his criticism is much more entertaining.  When he won the 2013 London Press Club award for Arts Reviewer of the Year, it must have been at least in part for the various and hilarious ways he can say how terrible a movie is.  All of these examples are from different movies, but you will notices some themes that emerge.

. . . mindless spectacle on an extremely grand scale. . .
. . . any intelligent viewer will leave the cinema slack-jawed with disbelief that we have been invited to take this hokum seriously . . .
. . . a terrible movie with barely concealed contempt for its audience . . .
. . . Mere words cannot convey the tedium.  Think of the dullest movie you have ever seen, and quadruple it. . . .
. . . a guilty pleasure if your idea of a guilty pleasure is undergoing a frontal lobotomy without anaesthetic . . .
. . . ponderous, preposterous poppycock . . .
. . . as slow, pretentious, nasty, and unwatchable as a movie can get. . . .
. . . one of the biggest wastes of time, money, and celluloid ever perpetuated in the name of mindless entertainment. . . .
. . . I'm bewildered, appalled, and angry that anyone allowed this puerile idiocy to become such an abominable waste of time and celluloid. . . .
. . . on a par with sitting down in a dark sewer and waiting to be eaten alive by rats. . . .
. . . five minutes of plot is crammed into a two-hour running time. . . .
. . . a rural British romcom that appears to have been painstakingly assembled by a committee of village idiots. . . .
. . . Every scene is lame, every line of dialogue banal, every performance shallow. . . .
. . . awe-inspiring in its awfulness. . . .
. . . puts the "Duh!" back in Cinderella. . . .
. . . puts the rot back into erotica. . . .
. . . If you're one of those old-fashioned souls who enjoy comprehensible plotting or character development, don't even think about going. . . .
. . . The plotting is so scatty that it appears to have been put together by people whose short-term memory has been surgically removed. . . .
. . . The whole script appears to have been assembled by an untalented, 11-year-old Martian. . . .

Some of Tookey's best bits are the rules or commandments.  He offers Adam Sandler's ten commandments for comedies, a list of "every disability ever spotted in an action pic," the "Ten Commandments of the Aquatic Thriller Genre," and "The 10 Commandments of British Cinema."

Besides bad plots, bad acting, and bad cinematography, Tookey is also annoyed by the coarsening of cultural standards in film.  He has particular ire for the declining standards of the British Board of Film Classification, which sets the film ratings in the UK.  He cites several examples of films that a few short years ago would not have been allowed.  Tookey is no Puritan; some of his favorite films include sex, violence, and profanity (He does acknowledge it, so the viewer does not go in uninformed.).  But when a family film contains innuendo, or when a film uses graphic violence "not to denote extreme, anti-social behavior, but to entertain, titillate, and show how 'cool' the film-makers are," or when they "wallow in sexual degradation, rape, and torture," Tookey does not approve.  He says the BBFC's "turn-a-blind-eye approach simply eggs on irresponsible or deranged film-makers . . . to more and more extreme and graphic displays of sexual violence."  This is not only a British problem.  Many of the films he reviews are American releases.

Tookey's reviews are entertaining and informative.  I found that I agreed with him on almost every film that I had seen, and will studiously avoid the Turkeys I have not seen.  I'll be book-marking his web site (movie-film-review dot com) as the go-to source for a reliable take on movies.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tookey's Talkies, by Christopher Tookey

Christopher Tookey loves movies.  This may seem like a tautology when talking about a movie critic, but more than many critics, his reviews reveal a sense of someone who loves the feeling of sitting in a darkened theater, expectant, ready to be delighted by what is about to unfold on the screen.  His delight comes through in his reviews of some of his favorite films in Tookey's Talkies: 144 Great Films from the Last 25 Years.

I was most drawn to Tookey's reviews by his mainstream approach.  Among his 144 great films he includes primarily mainstream films, US and UK releases, plus a few foreign that had wide release in the US (and presumably in the UK).  So there's no snobbery here.  While he does enjoy and admire great photography and other technical aspects, it struck me that his concern lies primarily with the ability of a movie to tell a story and move the viewer.  I like his approach a lot.

Tookey, a British reviewer, seems right at home with American movies.  Unlike many critics, he thinks it's OK to celebrate family, patriotism, business, and community.  Some great movies will challenge us and make us uncomfortable, and Tookey features some of them, but he also likes a movie that is life-affirming, escapist, just plain fun, and leaves the viewer feeling good.

Some of 144 great films are what you would expect, critically acclaimed films that won universal praise, e.g. The English Patient, Jerry Maguire, Les Miserables, Pulp Fiction.  Many were popular but not necessarily praised by critics.  He includes most of Pixar's movies, Babe, sci-fi blockbusters like Men in Black, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings (all 3).  I was surprised to see Dodgeball and The Hangover on his list.  I haven't seen these but had written them off as gross-out comedy garbage.  Maybe I'll add them to my list.

Speaking of lists, if you haven't seen the movies he reviews in Tookies Talkies, you'll want them on your list of movies to see.  He writes engagingly, even adoringly, of these movies he loves.  He does have a tendency toward superlatives.  Virtually every review has an "-est" or equivalent: finest, all-time, most, best, great, most entertaining, most beautiful, best action adventure, most enjoyable, etc.  But the great thing is, he means it.  His love of these movies is infectious.

For more of his movie reviews:

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

Runaway Radical, by Amy Hollingsworth and Jonathan Hollingsworth

Jonathan Hollingsworth lived full of passion and a desire to do more, to live radically in obedience to Jesus.  He and his mother chronicle his adventure of faith in Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, in which he reveals a dark side of service on the Dark Continent.  After a life-changing trip to Honduras, where Jonathan met with deep poverty and a deeper helplessness, he came home to his comfortable, middle-class American existence with a renewed determination to change the world.

For Jonathan, changing the world began with asceticism, giving away material possessions, living simply (under his parents' roof), and making plans for a life of service among the poor.  He found a place to serve in Cameroon, raised money and made plans in record time, and settled in with a pastor in an active ministry.  Within days, Jonathan's hopes of having an impact in Africa were dashed.  The pastor with whom he worked was controlling and manipulative.  His movements and interactions with non-Christian Cameroonians, as well as with other missionaries and local Christians not affiliated with his host church, were limited.  Many promises made to Jonathan during the planning of his stay in Africa were broken.  Against the wishes of the pastor, he only served four months of his one-year commitment.

Once he returned home, the manipulation continued.  Jonathan had serious concerns about the African ministry, the use of funds there, the leaders' treatment of church members and others, and the falsehoods about the ministry presented to their American partners.  Jonathan's American pastor  threatened to defame Jonathan if he chose to go public with his concerns.  All of this amounted to Jonathan's feeling distant from church, and, ultimately, from God.

Jonathan's story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the new radicalism, which fosters a new kind of legalism.  He writes, "The legalism I rejected proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I don't do.  The legalism I accepted proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I do."  Either legalism puts the self in the center, and attempts to put self in control.  Many young Christians have become disillusioned because they can't meet the demands of the new radicalism.  They are "challenged to impact and serve the world in radical way, but we never learned how to be an average person living an average life."

I was sickened by the way trusted leaders in Jonathan's life stole his passion and quenched his desire to serve.  Instead of teaching him to share grace, they taught him that he wasn't submissive enough--to them.  Instead of fostering a passion to follow Christ, they taught him that serving God means following manipulative, controlling church leaders.  It was a failure of discipleship, a failure to teach, a failure to lead, and Jonathan was a victim of their failure.

Jonathan's story is certainly heart breaking.  He does a service by shedding light on the dangers of legalism in every form.  More specifically, he offers a warning to others who are making sacrifices in order to serve in Africa.  He has plenty of stories of Westerners who were deceived, abused, or cheated by African ministry partners.  Unfortunately, the tone of his book is very negative about missions altogether.  I know he would acknowledge that there are worthy missionaries and ministries, but it's easy to see that he is suspicious especially of his peers who are radically serving, assuming they are living under a legalistic drive to prove themselves to God by doing good.

Before he left for Africa, Jonathan read many books by and about "passionate do-gooders" who serve in Africa.  He's right about one thing: these stories inevitably focus on successful, life-changing events and ministries.  So I affirm his efforts in telling his story in Runaway Radical.  Christians, and especially missionaries in training, need to know the realities of failure, of conflict, of the fallenness of people in church leadership on every continent.  I wish Jonathan's story had more balance, but I suppose he brings a balance to every other missionary story in print.

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Head Lice, by Elise Gravel

So I guess if there have to be head lice in the world, we might as get a laugh out of them.  Elise Gravel portrays the head louse as a cute and friendly creature in Head Lice, another addition to her Disgusting Creature series.  I found it to be very informative, and can definitely see its usefulness in teaching young children about head lice.  Readers will learn that head lice feed on human blood, live in and lay eggs in human hair, but can only travel from head to head by contact, or by catching a ride on a shared hat or clothes.
The head louse.
The epitome of cute and friendly.
Like the other Disgusting Creatures books, Head Lice would benefit from some photographs or more realistic drawings of head lice, at least as an appendix.  I would also like to have seen more advice for dealing with lice.  "Next time you see a head louse . . . RUN AWAY!" is a bit lacking.

Gravel's Head Lice is funny, the illustrations are eye-catching, and kids will actually learn something!  Every teacher will want this to be a part of his or her class reading time, head lice outbreak or not.

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Gift God Wants, by Lenae Litzinger

Lenae Litzinger had lived much of her life seeking to please God and others through her own efforts.  Gradually she began to relinquish control and enter into more intimacy with God.  As illustrated in the cover photograph of her book The Gift God Wants: Finding Joy and Peace in a Life of Surrender, she visualized taking all her "hopes, dreams, talents, all my fears, sins and failures . . . everything that I am, and placing them in a humble, rugged box with a little bow and presenting my 'gift' to the Savior."  The book records her experiences as she learns to give that gift to Jesus.

What Mrs. Litzinger lacks in theological depth and biblical insight she makes up for with her honest and personal reflections on what God has taught her.  The Gift God Wants is a very personal narrative.  It reminded me of sitting in a church small group with a thoughtful, reflective person who bares her soul as we meet.  The twenty-six short chapters, each followed with several scripture passages, are just right for daily devotional reading.

The Gift God Wants will appeal especially to young women who enjoy narrative, journal-like devotional reading.  But even a middle-age dude like me can enjoy and be inspired by her writing!

Thanks to Lenae Litzinger for the complimentary review copy!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Politically Incorrect Jesus, by Joe Battaglia

Joe Battaglia, a veteran of media and culture, has a few things to say about culture and the culture wars.  As he writes in The Politically Incorrect Jesus: Living Boldly in a Culture of Unbelief, he doesn't have a lot of patience with political correctness, which he defines as "the 'chic' moral ideology of the day advocated and fleshed out in the public square by self-appointed gatekeepers of public opinion to the point where that definition becomes 'fashionable.'"  In 24 short chapters, Battaglia challenges Christians to be salt and light (and fertilizer) in a culture that demands conformity, a version of tolerance, and a rejection of biblical Christian standards.

Lest you lump Battaglia in with "culture warriors" as maligned and caricatured in the media, he makes it clear that he does not "believe the government could actually become the savior of the American society."  He never wants to "raise the flag higher than the cross."  Culture warriors need to "leave Jesus out of it," so that their political agenda doesn't distract from Jesus' mission.

Nevertheless, cultural and theologically conservative Christians will find common ground with Battaglia.  He bemoans the coarseness of the media, which celebrates voyeurism and has removed a sense of shame.  He questions "tolerance" that refuses to acknowledge the obvious.  For example, after 9-11, law enforcement been criticized for paying more attention to the American Islamic community.  But he asks, based on what we know about who has committed acts of terrorism, "Where else are you going to look first?"

Huge problems arise when PC culture would "have everyone believe that moral absolutes do not exist . . . which is absurd. . . . Not only does it promulgate intellectual dishonesty, it asks us to disregard the internal moral compass built into each of us by the Creator."  In spite of our efforts, "we cannot answer the great questions of life by looking inside ourselves.  We cannot find within us that which can only be found outside of us."  The result is violence, societal unrest, broken families, social isolation, and on and on.

Battaglia wants Christians to be known for what they stand for, not what they stand against.  He offers plenty of food for though in The Politically Incorrect Jesus.  Although not heavy on prescriptive norms, he instead leaves the reader with a framework for thinking about engaging culture.  "Living boldly" as a believer begins with recognizing the ways in which culture today tends unnecessarily to silence voices of faith.  As Christ-followers, "Jesus expects [Christians] to actually believe everything He said and be His representative here on earth."  Yes, that is often a non-PC way to live.  But Jesus set the standard for bucking the PC culture of his day.  In following him, Christians should do the same.

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Room, by Jonas Karlsson

Jonas Karlsson's commentary on modern office life, The Room, is a strange and entertaining little fable.  Bjorn works at an office doing . . . well, we're not really sure what exactly he does.  Writing reports, trying to work his way up the ladder.  In any case, he finds people around him generally insufferable.  Which is OK, because people find him to be insufferable, too.

When he moves to a new floor, Bjorn comes across a room, a small, apparently unused office.  He takes advantage of the fact that no one else seems to be using it, and finds there a place of respite and, in fact, a place where he can get lots of work done.  The catch is that no one can see the room, and when he enters it, others see him standing beside the wall as if in a trance.  Awkwardness ensues, and the rest of the office insists that he not do that.

I'm not sure if we ever know whether there is some portal or supernatural room there, or if it's all in his head, but that's not really the point.  Karlsson's project is exploring our relationships with others and with the world around us, in the office or otherwise.  Bjorn regularly turns conversations and interactions around, viewing himself as superior to the people around him.

I got a kick out of Bjorn's social interactions.  He has an ongoing feud with his desk mate, whose messy habits inevitably intrude upon Bjorn's neat streak.  In spite of himself, he nearly engages in an office romance, although even when meeting this attractive lady his social aloofness persisted: "'My name's Margareta, by the way.' 'Oh,' I said, then thought that I ought to say something more.  She looked as if she were expecting a reply, but what could I say?  What could I possibly have to say about her name?  Her name was Margareta.  Okay.  Good.  Nice name."

Comparisons have been made to Kafka, and I think they're apt.  Karlsson doesn't write with the depth or the utter darkness that Kafka's fiction has, but The Room is an offbeat, entertaining story worth a read.

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Spider, by Elise Gravel

Nobody really likes spiders.  But Elise Gravel's funny and informative book The Spider makes them cute and approachable.  Gravel describes spiders' habitats, mating habits (the female eating the male) and usefulness.  She reminds us that most spiders are not dangerous, and they can even help us by eating insects.
Did you know some spiders carry their babies on their backs?
Now you do.
I do have two mild criticisms: one, Gravel points out, correctly, that the spider is not an insect, as it has eight legs.  But then she twice says spiders "eat other insects."  This could be confusing.  Second, as much as I like her silly drawings, I think a short appendix with photographs or realistic drawings of spiders would have add a lot to the educational value of the book.

The witty text and silly drawings combine for a great little introduction to our friend, the spider.  The Spider is fun, educational, and sure to be enjoyed by elementary age boys and girls.

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Why We Pray, by William Philip

Glasgow minister William Philip would certainly encourage his congregation to pray, but in his new book Why We Pray his concern "is not with an exhortation to pray but with an explanation of prayer."  He writes that "nothing is more important and nothing more difficult to maintain than a meaningful prayer life," so an explanation is in order.

Here are the four reasons we pray:

  • God is a speaking God
  • We are sons of God
  • God is a sovereign God
  • We have the spirit of God

Prayer is all about talking.  We speak to people with whom we want to have a relationship.  "Speech is the audible form of a real and living relationship."  We were created for relationship with God, and "we have been redeemed that we might again respond to him."  This, to me, is one of the most important points Philip makes.  We don't pray because we are worthy to approach God, but because of our status as adopted children of God.  Our purity or sincerity are irrelevant to our ability or worthiness in prayer.  Because of our adopted status, "God cannot not hear us."  So when we pray not believing that God hears, or when we don't pray, we are "disbelieving the gospel."

I struggled with Philip's exposition on the third point: God's sovereignty.  I agree that prayer should not primarily about asking for stuff.  Christians have long struggled with "the efficacy of prayer" as C.S. Lewis wrote about.  Responding to the common assertion that "prayer changes things," Philip writes, "People repeating this phrase rather assume . . . that God won't work unless we pray, or (worse) that God can't work unless we pray," implying that "God is, in fact, impotent without the help of our prayers."

A better approach is to think of prayer as agreeing with God.  Because we have the spirit of God, we are alongside him, like a less-skilled player playing alongside the all-time league champion on the same team.  Philips writes, "So if we mean by the phrase, 'Prayer changes things' that prayer takes control of God and his thoughts and his ways, I'm afraid that just won't do at all.  A much better dictum is this: 'Prayer is thinking his thoughts after him.'"

I can't argue with this.  I was nodding right along with him.  But later on, I'm thinking about praying for specific things, about the woman pleading with the judge, about other scriptures that point to asking God.  I have to conclude that this is one of those enigmas of faith.  I don't subscribe to open theism, which Philips links to the idea that we change God's mind when we pray and that God does not know or control the future.  However difficult it is to reconcile God's perfect knowledge and our need to bring our petitions to him, I think we can, in faith, believe both.

Nevertheless, Philip's book is pastoral and readable.  What a great reminder that as God's children, God wants to hear from us.  Now that Philips has provided a rationale for why we pray, well, let's pray!

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rebellion, by Stephanie Diaz

In Stephanie Diaz's Extraction, sixteen-year-old Clementine is chosen to live among the elite, in the underground city apart from the surface.  She revolts against the class divisions, sees through the mind control of the leaders, and joins a rebellion, which takes shape in Rebellion.  Diaz's Extraction series shares many cliches with the growing YA, dystopian, post-apocalyptic genre: stratified society, underground cities, mind controlling drugs, relentless tyrants.  Comparisons to Hunger Games, Divergent, and Red Rising are inevitable and accurate, even obvious.  But to be fair, this style didn't start with Katniss.  I think of The City of Ember (2003), The Giver (1993), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), all continuing a tradition dating back to George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, to Plato and Thomas More.

So it's not completely fair to call Rebellion derivative, even if it sort of feels like it is.  Diaz's hero Clem is really interchangeable with Katniss and Beatrice.  In Rebellion, Clem attempts to subvert the plans of her arch-enemy Charlie by fomenting rebellion.  Her attempt to conceal her identity is uncovered, and she once again has to rebel against Charlie's mind-control drug.  She proves herself willing to make sacrifices for the ones she loves, and must prove herself strong enough to resist the control Charlie wields.

Rebellion picks up the action immediately after the end of Extraction.  Fans of these first two books will be pleased/disappointed to know that Rebellion is quite the cliffhanger; book 3 won't come soon enough!  Diaz writes the action well, and Rebellion is fast read, but it didn't just grab me.  I have not read Extraction.  Diaz fills in the story well enough for me to have an idea of what's going on, but I have the feeling of starting a novel in the middle.  My recommendation: read Extraction first.

Diaz's style is heavy on the teen girl's mind, light on the sci-fi, which is appropriate for her target audience.  I had a hard time accepting the young people in the story being as decisive, wise, and capable as they were.  I admit, I'm a middle-aged sci-fi fan, but I was 16 once, too.  I also felt like the world Diaz creates wasn't very believable.  It seemed to have no infrastructure or depth, like a stage play or something.  Subjectively, given my reaction to Rebellion, I would give it a three-star rating, "It was OK."  But taking into account the target audience and the fact that I haven't read Extraction, four stars it is.

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

Monday, February 9, 2015

Damaged Goods, by Dianna E. Anderson

Dianna Anderson's new book Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity frustrated me, leaving me conflicted and disappointed.  The Amazon blurb reads, "Anderson's new sexual ethics draw on core biblical principles and set a standard for today's Christians that may be as influential Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Don Raunikar's Choosing God's Best, and Elisabeth Elliot's Passion and Purity."  A new sexual ethic?  Yes, but here's a hint: she hates those books.

Anderson's goal is positive and admirable.  She notes that the "purity movement," with its emphasis on virginity and modesty, has left many young women burdened with shame and worthlessness.  This is no doubt true, as the women Anderson interviewed testify.  Women or girls who engage in sex, willfully or under coercion, before marriage can feel as if they are worthless, unmarriageable, and unredeemable.  The church needs to be a place of healing and grace through Jesus, no matter what choices we make or what we are victims of.

But Anderson goes too far in completely rejecting an emphasis on purity.  She describes it as anti-sex, quoting women who are unable to have a satisfying sex life when married because of "the idea that sex, no matter the circumstances, is a Bad Thing that requires punishment."  She even implicates the church in the "cultural acceptance of rape" for blaming the victims and creating "leniency toward rape and forgiveness for rapists."

Related to the purity movement is the emphasis on modesty.  She says the modesty movement argues "that men can dictate what women wear, and that women have a  Christian duty to keep their brothers from lusting."  Anderson counters that women are not responsible for the sins of men, and that their bodies are their own, to adorn as they wish.  Here she gets a little ridiculous.  Fashions change and every body is different.  A particular dress on some women is modest and on another is immodest?  Obviously.  This doesn't reflect a problem with a modesty standard; it simply reflects the fact that women come in all shapes and sizes.  Personally, I would not want a man looking at my bare cleavage, if I were a woman.  I agree with Anderson that women who wear "sexy" clothes (by whatever standard one might use) is not asking for rape, but if she then complains about men staring at her chest, well, I don't see that she has grounds to object.  And I certainly don't want men staring at my daughter's chest!

Anderson treats the purity movement, especially Joshua Harris's views, and the modesty movement as reflective of all of American Evangelicalism.  Sure, those views are out there, but in my experience at a Christian university and in Baptist and nondenominational churches in Texas and Michigan, it seems Anderson gives far too much weight to these writers.  While they must be flattered, and might hope to have the kind of influence Anderson attributes to them, I don't see it.

The larger problem I see with Anderson's book is her goal: a personal ethic of sexuality.  She wants to develop a "shame-free sexual ethics." The foundation of her ethic is non-controversial: "A healthy sexuality that takes others into account, that asks for maturity and understanding and respects others and their bodies, is a Biblical sexuality."  Sex "requires listening, patience, mutual pleasure, and grace."  And who could possibly disagree that "a healthy sexual relationship is one based on mutual pleasure and mutual enthusiastic consent"?

All of that sounds great, except that for Anderson all of that is true, "whether it happens inside or outside of marriage.  Sex is for couples "married or not, committed for life or not."  Sex brings unity, "but it doesn't require the bond of marriage to do so." And in case you missed it, "Sex need not be exclusive to marriage."  Sure, some might still want to wait until marriage to have sex, and that's fine with her, but "for others, it will mean having a mutually pleasurable and consensual encounter on a first date" or "participating in a 'friends with benefits' relationship wherein everyone understands what the agreement is."  She affirms bisexual, homosexual, and polyamorous relationships, as long as they meet the "mutual pleasure and mutual consent" standard.

Whatever ethic you come up with is fine.  Study the Bible and "make your own decision about what you will give weight and what you will cast aside." Anderson talks about "develop[ing] your own understanding" and "developing our own personal sexual ethics." You must "decide what sex means for you."  And as you develop your ethic, remember that "gender and sexuality are not fixed states.  Rather they are fluid, intermingling identities. . . . Whom we are attracted to has the ability to expand or shift over time." You know, be curious, explore, because "all sexual and gender identities [are] valid."  As you develop your personal sexual ethic, everyone should do so "as they see fit, so long as it doesn't involve hurting other people."

This personal ethic of Anderson's opens the door for virtually any expression of sexuality imaginable.  She does draw the line at sex with minors, as they are incapable for truly consenting.  She doesn't describe specific scenarios, but her "mutual pleasure and consent" standard would allow for multiple partners of either gender, a different partner every day, sex in pairs or groups of any size, sex with people you know and love or with strangers, just let your imagination run wild.  She doesn't address the porn industry or prostitution, but based on the "mutual pleasure and consent" standard, I don't see how she could object to a personal sexual ethic that includes these activities, as long as everyone is a willing participant.

Is that really what Anderson wants as an alternative to purity vows?  Ask yourself, should we be teaching teens that God's ideal is to have sex exclusively with your spouse?  Or should we be teaching them to have sex with whoever, whenever, and however they want, as long as it is mutually pleasurable and consensual?  Yes, of course there have been abuses in the church.  Yes, we should foster an atmosphere of grace rather than condemnation for victims of rape.  Yes, we should first an atmosphere of forgiveness and redemption for those who sin.  Yes, we are all sinners and we recognize that many, many Christians fall into sexual sin of every sort.

In spite of the shortcomings of churches' teachings on sexuality, we have to recognize that God's plan--one man and one woman becoming one flesh in the bond of marriage--is an ideal established by God for our good.  As with all of God's ideal's we fall short, way too often.  And God in his grace will restore joy and wholeness to those who fail (which is all of us).  But Anderson wants to jettison God's plan for whatever she might come up with on her own.

I will end with a song that came to mind while reading Damaged Goods.  This is from the album, "Door Into Summer" by Jacob's Trouble, released in the late 1980s.  I think it fits.

Are you tired of religion that only seems to bring you down?
Cramping your lifestyle like a certain thorny crown?
Are you sick of being told that you can't make it on your own?
If that's your case, I've got a place that you can call a home!
It's the Church Of Do What You Want To
The Church Of Do What You Please
The Church Of Do What Feels Good Baby
And Believe What You Want To Believe

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

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Stealing the Game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar knows basketball, but does he know story telling?  In Streetball Crew Book 2, Stealing the Game, Abdul-Jabbar, with some help from co-author Raymond Obstfeld, tells a fun story for teens.  The Streetball Crew made their first appearance in Sasquatch in the Paint.  The middle-school basketball buddies now face a new challenge, a club team from the rich part of town.  They are older and bigger, but the Streetball Crew still brings a game.

When Chris's brother Jax returns from law school, Chris knows something's up.  Jax sets up the game with the club team to pay off a debt to their coach.  Chris sets his pal Theo on the case, and when things finally become clear, it's not at all what Chris thought was going on at first.

Stealing the Game portrays the importance of teamwork, believing in your family, and doing the right thing.  I appreciated the character that Chris and his friends showed on and off the court.  It was also nice to see such positive portrayals of their school basketball coach and their principal.  Stealing the Game isn't all about playing basketball, but basketball-loving young readers will want to keep on reading after the games are over.

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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

How to Be a Husband, by Tim Dowling

Marriage and family life can be inherently funny.  Living with our soul mate can be rewarding, challenging, and entertaining.  Some marriages, like Tim Dowling's, sometimes "subscribe less to the 'soul mates' model and more to a 'cell mates' one."  Dowling tells some of his stories in How to Be a Husband.  He doesn't write this as a marriage manual; in fact, he writes, "if you come across anything that resembles advice in [this book], I would caution against following it too strictly."  Yet, "you cannot be married for twenty years without other people thinking there must be some trick to it."

Dowling, an American journalist, met a British woman when she was visiting mutual friends in New York.  They began a long-distance relationship, and eventually married so they could live together permanently in England, the culmination of which he describes as a "sham marriage we've hastily arranged just so we can stay together forever."  He writes about gender roles, and the unusual ways their marriage sometimes rearranges them.  They have three children together, who seem to have turned out well.  And, as noted, they are still married.  So they must be doing something right.

To paraphrase Bill Cosby, those of you with or without a spouse, you'll understand.  Here is a taste of Dowling's wit and wisdom (I know this is a lot of quoting for a book review, but I can't help sharing):

"Some people possess both a talent for cooking and an ability to derive pleasure from exercising their skills to feed others.  Whenever possible you should try to include such a person in your holiday plans, whether you enjoy that person's company or not."  (Neither Dowling nor his wife possess such abilities.)

One of my favorite sections dwelt on DIY tips.  I could relate to what he said about saving spare parts from a project: "To be honest these pieces of saved junk rarely come in handy, but the bits you throw away are always the ones you'll wish you'd kept."

"It's never too late to apologize.  By which I mean, when it's obviously far too late for saying sorry to do any good at all, you still should."  Amen.

Of course he has a few things to say about sex:  "The basic strategies for maintaining a healthy sex life are not, in themselves, sexy.  It has a lot more to do with emptying the dishwasher without being asked than you think.  I'm sorry about this."

"Waking up your partner for sex is famously not a good idea, although I've always imagined I would be a totally accommodating about it if it ever happened to me."  This made me laugh!  I wish I'd written this line!

"I had always imagined that my children would at some point graduate from being charges to being minions--that I would be able to assign them tiresome chores or dispatch them on small errands in exchange for their upkeep.  It would be like having an army of personal assistants. . . . It turns out that parenting is a lot more like being a personal assistant than having one."  Ah, parenthood!

"The best thing about marriage, at least initially, is that no change is required: someone is willing to marry you as you are, rubbish bits included."

This last line provides a nice theme for How to Be a Husband.  The book is chock full of self-deprecating humor.  Dowling is open and honest about his mistakes and goofs in marriage, career, and life.  And he certainly does not present his wife as a flower of perfection.  She is alternatively irritable, foul-mouthed, critical, and distant.  But under the turmoil and craziness at the Dowling house, I came away with a sense of a committed family, of a married couple who don't look past the "rubbish bits" but embrace them, because they know that it's all a package of this person they love and are committed to.

I thoroughly enjoyed laughing along with Dowling through his 20 years of marriage in 288 pages.  In spite of his disavowals, I may have actually come away with a few things to think about in my own marriage.

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

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Counter Culture, by David Platt

Slim Banner 2 - Counter Culture

In his best-selling book Radical, David Platt challenged American Christians to become radical followers of Jesus, in other words to actually do those things that Christians are supposed to do.  In his newest book, Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Abortion, Persecution, Orphans and Pornography, Platt calls on Christians not to conform to the world's views on all of these issues, but to let their actions conform to the attitudes and teaching of Jesus and the Bible.

In one sense, this book is easy to describe.  Platt is a conservative Southern Baptist pastor.  If you know what conservative Christians in general, and conservative Southern Baptists in particular, believe about all the issues listed in the rather cumbersome subtitle, then you have a pretty good grasp on what Platt believes.

However, Counter Culture is more than a simple "what we believe" pamphlet.  As Platt delves into the scriptural foundation for each of the stances he takes in the book, he gives a very personal spin.  On each issue he tells how he has struggled to follow Christ's example.  Further, he helps the reader by ending each chapter with steps to pray--suggestions for prayer time, to participate--ways the reader can be involved, and to proclaim--scriptures to mediate on regarding the issue of the chapter.

Overall, Platt maintains a very positive tone.  He offers the hope of the gospel for those involved in sexual sin, for those struggling with materialism or poverty, for those in slavery.  The weight of the issues he discusses began to feel very heavy, and our response, inadequate.  But as he reminds us, "God alone is able to bear these global burdens." In his grace, he allows us to participate in his work.

There are a couple of points I thought worth mentioning.  In his section on poverty, Platt states that "One of the primary ways we help the poor is through diligent work."  He honors labor, specifically the use of one's skills and education to earn money one can use to assist the poor.  He acknowledges that some will be called to forgo college or leave professional positions in order to work in direct service to the poor, but that we need people in a variety of professions to develop and sustain the economy and use their job skills in service to God.  I was gratified to see him take this stance.  In my review of Radical, I criticized him for implying that missions and work among the poor are higher callings than so-called secular work.  In Counter Culture, he states the opposite.  Well done.  I'm sure my review at was very influential in his thinking.

Another interesting point Platt makes is some potential inconsistency, especially among younger Christians.  He observes the zeal and activism among young evangelicals on issues such as poverty and slavery, but challenges them not to be silent on other issues like abortion and homosexuality.  In light of the strong connections between sex slavery and pornography, Platt cites studies that indicate up to 90 percent of college males view pornography.  "No matter how many red Xs we write on our hands to end slavery, as long as those same hands are clicking on pornographic websites and scrolling through sexual pictures and videos, we are frauds to the core."  Powerful, convicting words.

Throughout Counter Culture, Platt never fails to keep the focus on Christ and the hope we have in him.  We all have sinned, and are guilty of following culture on some or all of the issues he addresses.  As we live to counter culture, we live to follow Christ.  And as we do so, we recognize that the point is not to transform culture by focusing on these issues, but "by giving our lives to gospel proclamation--to telling others the good news of all God has done in Christ and calling them to follow him.

Here is a cool trailer for the book:

Also, Platt has a web site associated with the book.  Here he lists additional "participate" resources, as well as a section where readers can share their own stories.

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

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Opposite of Spoiled, by Ron Lieber

Nobody wants their kids to be spoiled.  New York Times columnist Ron Lieber wants to help.  The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart about Money provides some principles and guidelines for parents to think about as they talk about money with their kids.  And as Lieber says, talking about money is a great place to start.  So many parents keep their kids financially in the dark, either out of a desire to avoid boasting and pride or to protect the kids from financial worries.  But Lieber wants parents to "promise to our kids that we will make them better at money than we are."

Lieber recognizes that there's not a good word for the opposite of spoiled as we use the word to describe spoiled kids.  So he starts by describing spoiled kids.  They have few chores, few rules, doting parents, and lots of material possessions.  As any parent of any socio-economic level will recognize, these traits are not found exclusively among children in wealthy families.  In The Opposite of Spoiled he attempts to describe the "values and virtues and character traits" that "collectively add up to the kind of grounded, decent young adults that every parent hopes to send out into the world."

Of course the quality of being spoiled doesn't have only to do with financial matters, but that's where Lieber keeps his focus.  As the cover illustrates, Lieber is a big fan of the three-jar, save/spend/give plan.  Even at a young age, kids can learn to make choices and think in terms of budgeting.  One principle I especially liked is the Fun Ratio: before we (or the kids) spend money on things we want, we can "estimate the hours of fun per dollar that any Want of theirs might provide."  An expensive electronic toy that a kid only plays with a couple times might deliver very little fun per dollar, while an expensive video game that kids play for hours over many months or years deliver lots of fun per dollar.

Lieber also encourages the promotion of a lifestyle of giving and generosity.  It starts with an awareness of and appreciation for the high level of wealth and privilege enjoyed by almost any American family, when compared to the rest of the world.  More than that, Lieber calls for parents to foster a recognition of needs around them and the potential we have to assist others.

Lieber interviews and tells stories from a variety of families at different levels of wealth and income, but  he definitely leans toward the upper end of the spectrum.  That mild criticism aside, many families will be encouraged to start conversations with their kids and take active steps to change their thinking about money and maybe even shape their character.

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

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Juneteenth for Mazie, by Floyd Cooper

Floyd Cooper's book Juneteenth for Mazie beautifully illustrates and celebrates a great day in American history.  Mazie's a little miffed about her lack of freedom.  "I can't go where I want, have what I want, or do what I want," she complains.  Her daddy tells her that tomorrow they can all celebrate, and talk about the time when Great, Great, Great Grandpa Mose "heard 'no' even more" than Mazie does.

Mazie's daddy tells her the story of Mose, who worked and worked and dreamed of freedom until the
day the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveson, Texas.  That June 19 is celebrated every year as Juneteenth.  Mazie's daddy tells her about the joy of freedom, the struggle of the civil rights movement, of forgiveness, achievement, and celebration.

Cooper's illustrations have a dream-like quality, conveying the slaves' dreams of freedom, and the dream-come-true of the end of slavery.  The faces of characters capture the joy and intensity of freedom, determination, and celebration.  The text is rather stark and a bit thin on content, but is probably just about perfect as an introduction to Juneteenth for the very young, pre-reading child.

The children of the slaves, who never had a living memory of slavery, and the children of the civil rights movement, who never knew a world of whites-only water fountains and legally segregated schools, can keep alive the story of freedom and equality by hearing and telling the stories of their grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents.  Juneteenth for Mazie reminds a new generation to remember--and celebrate!

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