Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

After my disappointment with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl, I decided to give him another chance and picked up his 2010 novel Ship Breaker.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The future history setting is similar, but rather than Thailand, Ship Breaker takes place on the American Gulf CoastNailer lives with his abusive, drug-addicted father, and works as a ship breaker, scavenging materials from wrecked ships along the coast.  When a storm brings a luxurious yacht to the coast, Nailer claims it for his own and begins to strip it of its wealth before other scavengers discover it.  But the wreck had a survivor: a wealthy girl who is heiress to an enormous shipping fortune.

As Nailer becomes friends with her, his interest in her is less about wealth and reward.  For the sake of friendship and justice, he agrees to help her find her way back home while avoiding her father's business rivals, who would love to see her dead.  Bacigalupi's world is gritty, dark, and unkind.  Nevertheless, the action and settings are well-written, and his characters are compelling.  Even in this dark future, surrounded by adults who do not value any life, much less Nailer's, Nailer finds reason to hope and a will to prevail.  Ship Breaker was enjoyable enough for me to forget about The Wind-Up Girl and appreciate Bacigalupi's vision and writing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Still Evangelical?

I have to admit, when I saw the first sentence of the promotional blurb about Still Evangelical? Insiders Consider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning, I was turned off.  "Evangelicalism in America has cracked, split on the shoals of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, leaving many wondering if they want to be in or out of the evangelical tribe."  Overreact much?  The 2016 election was divisive, especially is you pay attention to the partisan press or spend a lot of time reading the comments sections on social media.  But if you're living your life in the real world, most of us realize that life goes on.

That said, the evangelical label has been morphing for many years.  No one will argue that the last few decades of life in these United States has seen a transformation in the use of the term, and as our sight turns more global, we have to acknowledge and examine its use in the church abroad.  As I read Still Evangelical?, I was happy to see that not all of the authors focused on the political alone, but brought in the social and theological as well.

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, unfortunately set the tone in his introductory essay, describing Trump's win as an "apocalypse," "disorienting to an extreme," leaving many "gasping in despair."  These disappointed voters, convinced that evangelicals who voted for Trump are deceived and fully embrace every jot and tittle of his lifestyle and background, fail to acknowledge the deep moral and policy objections Trump voters had to Trump's opponent.  This election was not "Trump: Yes or No" but a binary choice between two deeply flawed candidates.  To cast evangelical Trump voters as "controlled by white supremacy, more and political inconsistency, and a fearful nationalism and isolationism" is inaccurate, hurtful, and harmful to Christian unity.  I know, it goes both ways, but books like this, to the extent that they embrace this mindset, need to be balanced and reined in. Thankfully, many of the other essays in Still Evangelical? departed from the reaction to the 2016 election.  Karen Swallow Prior stresses the positive elements and historical contributions of evangelicalism.  Historically, evangelicalism has been known for a "commitment to pursue orthodoxy and orthopraxy," "the gift of liberty," and a "good and true belief in the equal worth and dignity of each human soul."  I agree with her that "some of those quitting evangelicalism today do so, seemingly, from embarrassment and shame over the way evangelicalism looks today reflected in the distorted glass held up by media and poorly designed polls."  If all I knew of evangelicalism was portrayals in the media, I probably wouldn't want to be an evangelical, either.

I appreciated the global perspective offered by writers such as Allen Yeh, who teaches at Biola University, but whose academic work and missions experience spans several continents.  He writes, "many Western evangelicals think that everything different is simply wrong."  In a call for unity, Yeh asks evangelicals to reexamine orthodoxy and orthopraxy and acknowledge that "diversity is a beautiful thing." 

Shane Claiborne would agree with Yeh, but falls down hard on the side of those who believe that evangelicals have compromised by supporting Trump.  "To be frank, my commitment to Jesus has put me add odds with evangelicalism."  He said that an alien listening in on election coverage "may have reasonably concluded that the Savior of white evangelicals is a man named Donald Trump rather than a man named Jesus."  Sounds like Shane listened to CNN a lot more than he listened to white evangelicals. . . .  He complains that Trump voters "claim to be Christian and support a man who contradicts nearly every one of the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, both in his policies and in his personal life."  To which, if I were inhospitable and confrontational, and I try not to be, I might ask Shane how he can be a Christian and support a woman who, in my estimation, contradicts Jesus' teachings in her policies and personal life.  Again, this was a binary choice between two flawed candidates.  

Resisting this focus on a narrow, time-sensitive political view of evangelicalism, Tom Lin reminds us that "the decision of some American evangelicals to abandon the term is insensitive to our overseas sisters and brothers; it reflects the worst impulses of American exceptionalism and self-absorbtion."  As president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Lin has seen vibrant expressions of evangelicalism around the world.  As evangelicalism grows and matures in other countries, American worries about portrayals of American evangelicalism will become moot.

No one likes to have one's "tribe" or "family" misrepresented.  We evangelicals don't have a lot of control over how the media portrays us.  Some of the essays in Still Evangelical? bought into this popularity contest, but, for the most part, the essays balanced each other out and kept the focus on evangelicalism's emphasis on Jesus, the Bible, and missions.  We should also recognize that evangelicalism and the gospel transcend the short-term conditions of one presidential administration, no matter how worked up some of these contributors might get over Trump's tweets.

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

When Is It Right to Die? by Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni Eareckson Tada has long been a hero to many Christians and disabled individuals.  Paralyzed in a diving accident as a teen, she has been, for decades, a tireless advocate for people with disabilities and an inspiring witness to Christ.  She has updated her 1992 book When Is It Right to Die?: Suicide, Euthanasia, Suffering, Mercy.  The updated edition, When Is It Right to Die?: A Comforting and Surprising Look at Death and Dying, is even more timely than it was in 1992.  The growing acceptance of euthanasia demonstrates that "the unthinkable became tolerable.  And then acceptable.  And then legal.  And now, God help us, applaudable."

Tada addresses a variety of scenarios: otherwise physically healthy individuals who, due to depression, life's circumstances, or general disappointments with life; disabled individuals who, while not in immediate danger of death, nevertheless struggle with day-to-day living due to their disabilities; and terminally ill individuals, who, in the opinions of their health care providers, will die inevitably and soon.

None of these scenarios is easy, and we have perhaps known or heard of people in each of these categories who have chosen to end their own life or choose an assisted suicide.  Tada writes of her own struggles, but, more than that, writes about how she has been able to help others see the value in continuing to live.

One source of inspiration for Tada was Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who was sent to Auschwitz, where he saw the worst of humanity and witnessed the depths of desperation.  Prisoners felt like there was nothing more to expect from life.  But he wrote that helping them was a "question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them."  Someone's decision to die is just a decision for himself or herself; it will powerfully impact many people around him or her.

For that third group, those whose lives are coming to an end, Tada does not believe that extending life is always the right choice.  "Allowing a person to die when he or she is, in fact, dying is justified."  She continues, "Dying begins when a person rapidly and irreversibly deteriorates.  This is a person for whom death is imminent, a person who is beyond reasonable hope of recovery.  Such people have a right to not have death postponed.  The line of distinction is not so much between life and death as it is between life and dying."  The details vary for every individual, but I appreciated Tada's sensitivity and her helpful perspective on end-of-life decisions.

Tada writes that she longs for heaven, that she longs for the whole, healthy body she will have.  Yet she knows that God expects more from the life he has given her.  The millions of lives touched by her writing, songs, films, letters, and testimony attest to her giving all that life expects of her.

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

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Racism and Intolerance, by Louise Spilsbury,‎illustrated Hanane Kai

Even as very young children, many of us were exposed to racism--treating people differently because of their skin color, parents, or country--and intolerance--refusing to accept differences in religion, lifestyle, or family.  Louise Spilsbury recognizes that children need to begin learning about racism and intolerance before racist, intolerant attitudes engrain themselves in children's thinking.  Her book Racism and Intolerance, from the "Children in Our World" series, provides a simple, understandable introduction to the ideas.

I think everyone can get behind the idea that we shouldn't hate someone just believe they have religious beliefs difference from our own.  And just because one person in a group does something bad, doesn't mean everyone in that group is bad.  One poignant illustration shows a group of people in a waiting room of some kind.  On the TV a newscaster is reading a news item which shows a mug shot of an apparently black male.  A black mother cuddles her toddler while the other people in the waiting room gasp and stare at her.  With a simple picture and a few words, Spilsbury and Kai illustrate the painful experience of black families, who feel like black people are always portrayed as criminals.

I thought of one question that isn't really dealt with, and is probably over the heads of the age group to which this book this book is targeted, but is important.  What if one person's religion and culture teaches that other groups are, for instance, not human or of less significance?  Should we respect their religion and culture?  I have little tolerance for a KKK member who says black people aren't fully human, or a Muslim who says Christians and Jews should be killed.  We have to ask, at some point, if some religions and cultures are inherently more just and admirable than others.  Someone who believes in white supremacy should be respected as a human, but his culture should be condemned.  Some cultural and religious beliefs should not be tolerated when they teach intolerance.  I know, it gets into a circular argument, but it's the reality we are facing in our world.

All of that said, I like the way Spilsbury and Kai treat the subject.  Racism and Intolerance is a nicely illustrated book that I would not hesitate to read to my little ones.

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Uniquely Wired, by Julia Cook, illustrated by Anita DuFalla

Some say autism is a disability.  Julia Cook prefers to describe people with autism as "uniquely wired."  Cook has written a new children's book, illustrated by Anita DuFalla, to help children with autism and their families not only gain perspective on what it means to have autism, but also to see the many gifts that come from autism.

The boy in this book has many traits typical of people with autism.  He has an obsession with watches.  (The objects of obsession vary, but the obsession itself is common.)  He likes to smell things.  He often avoids eye contact.  He does not like loud noises.  He spins, flaps his arms, and repeats things over and over that he hears other people say.  People affirm him, pointing out the gifts of laughter, awareness, and seeing things differently.

Uniquely Wired is helpful and simple.  As Cook points out, "Once you've met one autistic child, you have met ONE autistic child."  Every autistic child won't be exactly like the boy in Uniquely Wired, but it can help a child's peers and care givers as they attempt to discern that child's uniqueness.  I like the bold, colorful illustrations.  One question I had: they sometimes use a variety of fonts within a sentence, giving the text a chaotic look.  Is this just the thing that would flood an autistic reader's brain, much like noise in a room?  I don't know.  Just a thought.

Uniquely Wired would be a great addition to any classroom or school library, especially if there is a population of children with autism.  And, really, what school doesn't have children with autism these days?

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

Friday, January 26, 2018

Dreamers and Deceivers, by Glenn Beck

Glen Beck is well know for communicating conservative political ideas on his radio and television shows.  He's less well known as a story teller, yet he's written several novels and stories, as well as nonpolitical non-fiction.  One example is Dreamers and Deceivers: True Stories of the Heroes and Villains Who Made America

In Dreamers and Deceivers Beck tells the stories of ten Americans who have, in very different ways, influenced life, politics, and culture in the United States.  His selection of characters seems somewhat scattershot, but each of them is inarguably historically significant.  Beck writes that he chose people who are familiar but perhaps misunderstood, teach lessons with ongoing relevance, and who "represent both sides of our past--the selfless and the selfish; the dreamers and the deceivers."

Beck's subjects cover politics (Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Alger Hiss), technology (Howard Armstrong, Alan Turing), finance (Charles Ponzi), and entertainment and culture (Dezi Arnaz, Upton Sinclair, Walt Disney, and John Lasseter of Pixar).  Some readers may be surprised that Beck's choices of subject and his treatment is decidedly apolitical.  The fact that he may disagree with someone's politics doesn't preclude his admiring that person's accomplishments or acknowledging his or her importance.

That said, I would have appreciated a little more judgment and condemnation of some of these people!  President Cleveland's deceit about his health condition may have been defensible for national security, but it came at the cost of destroying the reputation of an esteemed journalist.  The corporate forces that destroyed the dreams of radio pioneer Howard Armstrong led him to suicide.  Ponzi destroyed the fortunes of most of his gullible investors.  Upton Sinclair's outright deception in his novel Boston perpetuated a false narrative and contributed to the acceptance of socialism in America.  The federal government's protection of Alger Hiss allowed him to remain a hero to many and, again, add to the allure and spread of socialism.  As Beck tells these stories, he remains non-judgmentally aloof at several points where he could have condemned.

On the other hand, while the lifestyle choices of Dezi Arnaz and Alan Turning and the political and social leanings of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs call for examination, Beck objectively tells their stories without moral or political correction.  On this he is consistent.  In the final assessment, I came to appreciate his approach, emphasizing the historical importance and contributions of each of these individuals without getting caught up in peripheral issues.

The stories Beck tells are informative, memorable, and, in some cases, downright inspiring.  I enjoyed reading them, and have already shared some of them with others.  That's the kind of stories Beck tells: they stick with you and inspire you to retell them. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Curing Affluenza, by Richard Denniss

I think we can all agree that Western culture is awash in goods, more than we need, sometimes more than we want.  Richard Denniss hopes to promote a cure for affluenza, "that strange desire we feel to spend money we don't have to buy the things we don't need to impress people we don't know."  The size of our shopping malls--and the size of our garbage dumps--attest to the widespread infection of affluenza.  Denniss, an Australian economist, wants to change the culture of consumerism, not by "chiding people for their current conduct and consumption patterns" but by "creating smarter, more attractive patterns of behavior."

Denniss makes a helpful distinction between materialism and consumerism.  Materialism is not the problem.  It's consumerism's "love of buying new things" that drives affluenza while leading to a stream of waste.  "Consumerism is based on the transient thrill of the new. . . . Materialism is based on love of the old."  Materialism is the love of things that encourages us to cherish what we have, to care for them, to repair them, to use them carefully, and enjoy them.  This is the opposite of consumerism, which encourages seeking the new and disposing of the old.

This distinction is important to the extent that our economy is driven by consumerism.  Denniss criticizes the use of GDP as a measure of economic activity.  He says is "like bragging about a car's top speed."  It doesn't say anything about the direction of the economy or the sectors of activity.  Consumerism boosts GDP, but can be detrimental in other areas of a society's health.

Denniss's case for moving society toward a culture rejecting consumerism is strong and makes a lot of sense.  A recurring example is the bottled water industry.  Who would have thought that a very inexpensive, easily acquired (in the developed world) commodity like water would become a huge, profitable industry?  The bottled water is great for GDP--created jobs, consumers spending money on something they spent very little money on in recent years--but has adverse environmental consequences with the waste created by all the bottles, and redirects billions of assets that could be used for other things.  If our culture began to buy less bottled water (as I believe we have begun to see), that small change could have a great impact.  Small changes by millions of people, whether buying less bottled water, choosing to drive less, or using and repairing their goods rather than replacing them, can lead to great changes.

While Denniss makes a good case for materialism over consumerism, pointing out the waste and pointlessness of affluenza, he steps too far down the road of centralization and communalism.  We in the West love our freedoms.  We are free to ride bikes to work, and to promote bike lanes, ride sharing, and other means of reducing urban traffic.  But we also want to be free to drive our gas guzzlers.  Granted, Denniss talks about gradual changes in culture more than statist decrees.  But he seems to be OK with statism, too.

His bottom line still stands: "Just as your stomach should tell you when  you have eaten enough, your cupboards and your garage should tell you when you have consumed enough."  Denniss overplays the "spending to impress others" angle, but we definitely spend more than we need on stuff we don't need.  I'll join him in making those choices in my family to resist the culture of consumerism and promote a culture of materialism rightly understood.

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Let Trump Be Trump, by Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Trump's campaign for the presidency was unprecedented, historic, and staggeringly surprising for pundits and politicians from left and right.  Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie had front row seats and tell their story of the campaign in Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency

Lewandowski and Bossie make no bones about the fact that they are fans of Trump.  This is certainly not a tell-all book that will reveal some deep, dark secrets casting Trump in a negative light.  (We see plenty of attempts to do that in the press every single day.)  Let Trump Be Trump is fun to read for the personal stories and perspectives Lewandowski and Bossie tell.

They confirm what America has known for a long time: Trump is a hard worker who never sleeps.  He is demanding of his employees but takes care of them and is willing to give people a chance to prove themselves.  He values loyalty over resume and experience.  He has a playful sense of humor. 

For those who are glad Trump won in 2016, Let Trump Be Trump is an entertaining trip down memory lane.  No one in the press or the political establishment thought Trump was going to win.  The Republicans bailed on him again and again.  Yet Trump and many of those closest to him never doubted, never gave up.  We may never see another presidential election like this.

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

What would you do if you were a CIA analyst and you found out that your husband of ten years is a Russian spy?  That is the crazy way day started in Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland.  Cleveland, who worked as a CIA herself, puts herself in Vivian's shoes, a CIA analyst working on rooting out Russian sleeper cells in the U.S.  When she hacks into a suspected handler's computer and sees her husband's face staring back at her, her world is rocked.

Her all-American husband confirms the worst: that he's a plant from Russia, that he targeted her and married her to get an inroad to the CIA, and that they are trapped with no way out.  Torn between her sworn duty to protect the United States, and her motherly duty to do what is best for her and Matt's four children, she tries to make things right and stay out of jail.

Cleveland's narrative is brisk and captivating.  I was at the same time frustrated that Vivian couldn't just do the right thing, and empathetic with her struggle to decide what the right thing was.  Just as Vivian can't decide whether or not she can trust Matt, Cleveland keeps us guessing until the end.  I have no idea whether sleeper cells like Cleveland describes exist in the U.S.  But she makes me wonder where they might be. . . .  Need to Know is an entertaining, suspenseful novel that will keep you reading and guessing.  Hopefully Cleveland will be back with more.

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Freedom's Stand, by Jeanette Windle

In modern Afghanistan, competing interests want to preserve Afghan independence, promote democracy and religious freedom, defend traditional gender roles, and promote the Islamic faith.  Jeanette Windle's novel Freedom's Stand personalizes these conflicting forces, giving hope for an Afghanistan in which the gospel of Christ can thrive and women can be free.

Freedom's Stand, sequel to Windle's 2014 book Veiled Freedom, continues the story of American aid worker Amy MalloryMallory's friend Jamil, who became a Christian in Veiled Freedom, has gained a reputation as a healer, traveling around the countryside offering medical care and teaching about Isa Masih, Jesus the healer.  When he draws more attention than the Islamic religious leaders like, Jamil is arrested on charges of apostasy.

Faced with certain death if he doesn't deny his newfound faith, Jamil refuses to embrace Islam's rejection of the divinity of Christ.  Mallory and her friend Steve Wilson, an American defense contractor, wrestle with trying to intervene on Jamil's behalf.

Windle tells a great story with lots of action, political intrigue, social commentary, and personal interaction.  The Afghan setting is believable (I say that as someone who has never been there), and the political setting is timely (again, as a casual American observer).  Most importantly, as Jamil, Mallory, and Wilson live out the implications of their Christian faith, they challenge American readers in their free and comfortable setting to think about their own commitment to Christ.

On a similar note, Windle's depiction of the status of women in Afghanistan leads me to wonder how American feminists can complain about their treatment in American culture as compared to traditional Muslim culture.  I know we are not perfect in the United States, obviously, but I can say with confidence that, political correctness aside, American culture is superior when it comes to the treatment of women.

Freedom's Stand is a page turner with a strong message of encouragement for Christians to stand up for their faith, and of the power of the gospel to change lives and to impact a culture.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Automating Inequality, by Virginia Eubanks

The amount of personal information floating around in the electronic world is staggering.  In Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, Virginia Eubanks argues that we have created an electronic poor house, with "automated decision-making systems [which] shatter the social safety net, criminalize the poor, intensify discrimination, and compromise our deepest national values."  Lest her readers think this only applies to the poor and not their own educated, middle-class selves, she adds, "systems first designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone."

Eubanks, a political science professor, examines a few very specific systems used in agencies which serve the poor: an Indiana program which sorts data for welfare eligibility, a Los Angeles program which identifies homeless clients for housing programs and services, and a Pittsburgh program for child and family services.  Each has been touted as improving efficiency, reducing fraud, and reducing waste.

Eubanks isn't much of a fan of any of these programs, or others like them.  A big, obvious problem is the possibility that "all that data is being held for other purposes entirely: to surveil and criminalize" the poor.  In some instances, law enforcement has accessed data from these systems to track people down and run sting operations.  In others, officials extrapolate data to anticipate issues and preemptively intervene in family's lives.  Eubanks calls this "poverty profiling."

For Eubanks, the root problem is that these systems don't address the root problems of poverty.  They reveal a historical pattern in which "during times of economic hardship, America's elite threw the poor under the bus."  It continues today, but now "they are handing the keys to alleviating poverty over to a robotic driver."  Her solution would be to dismantle the electronic data and surveillance systems and establish the universal basic income, which is simply a cash transfer program.  As socialistic as this sounds, her argument is certainly sound, and by reducing or eliminating welfare bureaucracies it could conceivably work.  Wouldn't you rather a few thousand of your federal government's dollars go to a needy family rather than a electronic data tracking system?

Eubanks offers terrific insight from her extensive observations in these three programs.  It's downright scary to see how much of our information is mined for use by government agencies.  The Pittsburgh program identifying potential future child abusers is particularly troubling.  Automating Inequality is an important read for people concerned about the future of government services for the poor as well as the future (and present!) of government surveillance of individual Americans.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker

Life on earth has been decimated by a bombardment of meteors.  Where cities once stood are now craters.  Where civilization has survived, death, chaos, and lawlessness prevail.  This could be the start of any number of post-apocalyptic movies or novels.  So the challenge of writing in this genre is finding an original voice or twist.  Adrian J. Walker does just that in The End of the World Running Club.

Edgar Hill gets a few things right in the face of impending doom: he gathers a few supplies, gets bottled water, and helps his family to safety in the cellar of their home.  After a couple weeks of increasing misery, trapped in a tiny space with their small children, their own stench, and dwindling food and drink, they are rescued and relocated to an army base.  While he and a few other civilian survivors are out foraging for supplies, helicopters come and ferry Edgar's family and others from the base to another base.  Ed and his companions are left behind.

After waiting for a second flight which never comes, and fighting off other, more feral, survivors, Ed is left with little choice but to head to the coast in hopes of meeting the ships that will be taking survivors to points south.  Automotive travel quickly becomes impossible, so they turn to the means of transportation available to them: running.

However, in order to reach the boats for their Christmas Day departure, they will have to cover more than thirty miles a day!  With no other choice, they start running.  It's painful, especially at first, and they face challenges and perils along the way.  Hydration and caloric intake is tough, not to mention murderous thugs and autocratic warlords.

Ed has a history of failure and self-doubt that only motivates to move forward, find his family, and redeem himself.  Ed's advice, after the grueling journey, applies to recreation and competitive ultrarunners, people running for survival and family, and everyone who faces life's challenges: "You choose the right option.  Then you repeat that choice a hundred thousand times.  You don't run thirty miles; you run a single step many times over."

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

Sex in a Broken World, by Paul David Tripp

Paul David Tripp is passionate about remedying the sexual brokenness in our world.  Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts calls Christians to break away from the sexual chaos of the world around us and reclaim it for what it is meant to be: a reflection of the glory of God.

If you have read other Christian books about sexual ethics and related topics, you may be surprised about what Sex in a Broken World is not.  It is not a review of sex in media and culture.  Tripp does not discuss internet filters and accountability groups.  He does not give "sex-ed for married couples."

For Tripp, sexual issues cannot be solved horizontally.  It's all about the vertical--where our hearts stand with God.  "Our problem with sex begins when we forget that God must be at the center of this part of our lives as he must be with any other."  When we succumb to the sexual insanity of the world, we are putting ourselves in God's place, rejecting his sovereignty in our lives.

Our "sex insanity" is not a result of culture, entertainment, or the internet; it "reveals the disloyalty and rebellion of our hearts."  The key is a heart submitted to God.  "Sexual purity begins in the heart with a love for God that overwhelms all the other loves that battle for the allegiance of the heart."

In a way, some of the more popular recent books about sexual addiction, purity, and faithfulness are easier.  Draw boundary lines, make a plan, start a group, add a filter, avert your eyes, make more rules.  And I'm not sure Tripp would disagree with those books completely.  But Tripp's point is larger and greater.  None of the strategies or plans for sexual purity will mean a thing if our hearts are not turned to God.

People affected by or trapped in sexual insanity must work on the vertical before the horizontal, putting our reliance on God first, acknowledging that his commands are "kind, wise, and good," and believing that "only the heart-satisfying riches of the grace of Jesus can protect and free you from the deceptive and dissatisfying 'riches' of this fallen world."  Sex in a Broken World is a strong and welcome call to return our hearts to God.

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

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Zen Pencils--Creative Struggle, by Gavin Aung Than

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than has, since 2012, been posting cartoons based on various inspirational quotes and stories at  For his newest book, Zen Pencils--Creative Struggle: Illustrated Advice from Masters of Creativity, he selected quotes from some of his favorite authors, writers, musicians, and scientists and drew them in comic book form for our enjoyment and inspiration.

The featured subjects are eclectic, and the quotes are, indeed, inspiring: Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks, Stephen King's Memoir, Akira Kurosawa's Autobiograpy, Nikola Tesla's My Inventions, Ernest Hemingway's Nobel acceptance speech, and others.  The quotes are well-selected.  Stephen King reminds us that "Life isn't a support system for art.  It's the other way around." Kurosawa encourages us to read actively, with pen in hand, collecting memorable quotes and thoughts in a notebook. 

Most of the cartoons set the subject in his or her natural setting, but in an unusual turn, Than applies the writings of the Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti to a modern urban setting.  I don't particularly like Indian mysticism or rap music, but I loved the message that art should be created for the love of it, not merely with the aim of notoriety or material success.  "Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing."

I thoroughly enjoyed Than's approach to this book, presenting the respective figure's words without editing, but with his own clever illustrated interpretation.  As one of his subjects, Brenè Brown, writes, "There's no such thing as creative people and non-creative people.  There are only people who use their creativity and people who don't."  Check out Creative Struggle and be inspired to unleash your creative side.

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

Friday, January 12, 2018

Spirit Runner, by Richard Ferguson

Ron Campbell, the central figure of Richard Ferguson's Spirit Runner, was just a boy when his whole family died in a car crash, but he was old enough to know that his father was a great Olympic marathoner.  Despite the fact that his legs were devastatingly injured in the wreck, and he face years of rehab before he will even be able to walk and run normally, he carries a determination that he will be a great runner like his father.

Ron's tragic life begins with the auto accident, but that is not the end of the tragedy.  He's placed in the care of his aunt and uncle, who mistreat him and are literally willing to kill for Ron's inheritance.  Thankfully his loving, kind grandparents intervene.  He also has a therapist who lives at the ranch with the family, and who has the skills and determination to get Ron back on his feet.  His favorite nurse from his hospital stay becomes a regular feature at the ranch, as do some kids from neighboring ranches who become his best friends.

In this environment of love and hatred, he faces obstacles, human and natural, which seem determined to ruin his rehabilitation and break his spirit: sabotage of his aquatic training trench, an attack from a rabid wolf, getting swept away in a flash flood, physical abuse from his aunt and uncle, cruelty from his cousin, harassment from bullies, and other struggles.  Somehow he perseveres and, miraculously, does not turn out to be an embittered, mean young man, but a strong, kind young man who turns out to be an even greater runner than his dad.

Some of the drama is over the top in Spirit Runner, but the overall message and the story of redemption from out of tragedy makes this an enjoyable read.  Although he faced hardship and had to deal with hateful relatives, he was fortunate to have such great, positive support.  When things seem darkest, look for the light and press on.

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

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Wind Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

There are a couple reasons why I went ahead and finished The Windup Girl.  First of all, I have a compulsion to finish any book that I start.  Second, I was interested in the fate of the windup girl.  In the meantime, I became quite distracted and bored.

It's not that Paolo Bacigalupi is a bad writer.  His writing is, at times, beautiful and poetic.  His portrayal of a future Thailand, where fossil fuels are rarely used, sea levels have risen tremendously, and genetic engineering has permanently transformed the world's flora and fauna, including everyone's diets, is detailed, elaborate, and compelling.  But the multilayered story, the political and societal changes that are bubbling up from under the surface, and the contemplative passages interspersed among passages where something actually happened, lost my interest.

I did get to the end.  Some of the threads from early in the story that had seemed extraneous came together, to a certain extent.  But, ultimately, The Windup Girl is not a book to my taste.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Samson, by Eric Wilson

The story of Samson doesn't fill a lot of pages in the Bible, but he is one of the more memorable characters in the Old Testament.  Eric Wilson has written Samson, a novelization based on the 2018 movie about "the original super hero."  I have not seen the soon-to-be-released movie, so I can't speak for it, but based on what I've read, Wilson and the movie's writers seem to have made an effort to capture the essence of the biblical account while humanizing the characters and dramatizing the story.

Samson struggles with his anointing as a judge over Israel.  His eyes wander to the Philistine women and he falls in love with one.  She happens to be a servant of the prince.  When the prince learns of her love of Samson, he recruits her as a spy on Samson, who has proven to be a foe of the occupying Philistines.  Many years later, the prince's own lover, Delilah, is sent for the same duty.  Samson, of course, lets his love of these women cloud his judgment, leading to his downfall.

Samson's story is familiar.  (If it's not familiar to you, go read Judges 13-16.)  Wilson fills in the gaps of the biblical account, putting names and contexts on the bare-bones biblical narrative.  I enjoyed the book, and look forward to seeing the story on the big screen.  Based on the previews I've seen, in this case I bet the movie will be better than the book.

Samson trailer:

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

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Moran Cartoons Vol. 1, by John Moran

John Moran must be a strange and funny guy.  His cartoon collection, Moran Cartoons, Vol. 1 is full of odd, quirky humor that strange and funny guys write and draw.  I enjoyed this collection, which must mean I'm a little strange and twisted.

No disrespect to Mr. Moran, but I couldn't help thinking of Gary Larson's The Far Side.  Many of Moran's cartoons look like they could have been drawn by Larson.  The fat guys in lab coats, the lady with the cat-eye glasses, the deer standing on two legs are familiar to The Far Side fans.  I would be very surprised if Moran did not say Larson was an inspiration and influence on his work.

Even though Larson's influence is evident, Moran has his own voice and his own humor.  Moran does, at times, take things to a darker, grittier place than Larson typically did.  He's willing to step on some delicate toes with his cartoons.

I must say I enjoyed every page of Moran Cartoons, Vol. 1.  You can find some samples of his work at, but, of course, I'm sure he'd rather you just bought the book.  I hope that his fount of off-beat humor will not run dry for a long time.

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

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Nellie found her Prince Charming, and he was great--until he wasn't.  Now he has a new fiancee, and she's determined to stop the marriage.  The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pakkanen, takes the reader on a few twists and turns in this tale of jealousy, marital hell, and revenge.

Vanessa, who met Richard on a flight and had a story-book romance, wanted to be a good wife, and Richard wanted to be the perfect husband.  They both had secrets from their past.  Anytime Vanessa's secrets came out, or she didn't live up to Richard's ideals, his controlling, manipulative, and sometimes violent side came out.  After they divorced, she becomes determined to stop him from marrying again.

The Wife Between Us features zero likeable characters (except for Vanessa's aunt.  She's OK.).  This world is populated by people who keep secrets from people they love, make terrible life choices, and see other people as objects useful for their own goals.  Richard is, conveniently, a moneybags, but we don't get much insight as to how he got there, other than he's a hedge fund manager.  I don't guess it matters, but I'm a little bothered by people in fiction who are tremendously wealthy just for the sake of the story without the story telling us how he got there.

The story is suspenseful, but the suspense is a bit overplayed for the payoff.  The back stories are slowly revealed, but, again, by the time I learned about whatever dark secrets the past held, I didn't much care.  This is just the kind of story about nasty people and the nasty ways they behave that makes readers thankful that their own world is not full of such nasty people.

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

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Financial Diet, by Chelsea Fagan

Millennial Chelsea Fagan has some advice for other millennial women: it's not too early to learn to be good with money.  Her new book, The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner's Guide to Getting Good With Money, is aimed specifically toward female millennials, but her tips apply just as well to anyone, whatever sex or generation, who needs to get better with money.

Fagan's successful blog The Financial Diet gave her exposure and a platform for educating and inspiring others to get their financial lives in order.  The Financial Diet covers familiar territory for personal finance books: create a budget, set aside an emergency fund, start investing for retirement, take advantage of your employer's matching funds, etc.  Fagan covers these areas nicely, with plenty of explanations and definitions for the total beginner.

Where Fagan sets herself apart is her chapters on household matters.  For millennials, or anyone else setting out on their own or making adjustments to a household budget, Fagan's practical tips on cooking and furnishing a home are welcome.  Her step-by-step guide to equipping a kitchen, including shopping guidelines and sample recipes, is great for anyone, especially anyone who frequently asks himself or herself, "What will I fix for dinner?" and ends up answering, "Take out."

Fagan has a bit of an attitude and a mild potty mouth.  I guess this appeals to millennials.  In spite of that, The Financial Diet is a great, basic resource.  Maybe my kids, who will be out on their own sooner than I would like, will follow her advice, because I'm sure they won't listen to me.  

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

Monday, January 1, 2018

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, by Brian Zahnd

Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life church in St. Joseph, Missouri, challenged Christians to embrace Jesus as peacemaker in Farewell to Mars.  In Sinners in the Hands of Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News, he challenges Christians again.  Responding to perhaps the most famous sermon in American church history, Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Zahnd shifts the focus away from God's wrath to the love of Jesus.

Zahnd acknowledges that the Old Testament is overflowing with examples of a vengeful, violent God.  But the perfect revelation of God is Jesus himself, who embodies love and rejects violence.  God didn't change between the Old and New Testaments, but "the Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. . . . God doesn't evolve, but Israel's understanding of God obviously does."  Based on the cultures that surrounded them, Israel made assumptions about their God that Jesus negated.

This explanation of Israel's changing view of God is the most satisfying justification for the vengeful, violent portrayals of the Old Testament I have heard or read.  Zahnd reminds us to read the Old Testament in light of Jesus and his character.  In fact, remember that "the Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus."  Zahnd says he doesn't hold a low view of scripture but a high view of Jesus.  I just wonder if he takes it too far: "Jesus saves the Bible from itself!  Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it.  Jesus delivers the Bible from its addiction to violent retaliation."  This rings true in part, because Zahnd provides a filter through which to read those horribly uncomfortable Old Testament passages.  Yet it still sounds . . . wrong.  Sure, Jesus ranks higher than the text of the Bible, but the Bible is the record of what we know about Jesus.  It's great to say we default to Jesus, but that means turning to scripture to learn about Jesus.  We either get into a circular argument or else we create the Jesus of our personal experience and preferences.

From there, Zahnd takes a turn toward what might be interpreted as universalism.  He certainly raises questions about the way many evangelicals view salvation.
According to Jesus, the avoidance of afterlife condemnation is not based upon being able to give particular answers to abstract theological questions cribbed from John Calvin and labeled "faith" but on how one actually lives his or her life.  Jesus certainly did not lay the foundation for an afterlife theology that claims all non-Christians go to hell.  This has become a common way of thinking about heaven and hell--"Christians go to heaven; non-Christians go to hell"--but it is not based on anything Jesus ever said!
This is the kind of passage Zahnd likes to write, giving us a lot to think about but studiously avoiding developing a further argument.  Zahnd continues, "The gospel is not the appalling claim that billions of people are fated to unending agony by a capricious God!"  Well, sure if you put it like that. . . .  "Jesus can save whomever he wants."  True.  Of course.  But it seems to me that one message of the Bible is that not everyone will be saved.

The best that can be said about much of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is that he inspires me to pull out my Bible for some refreshers and reminders about the gospel.  I think Zahnd would affirm that as one of his missions as a teacher, preacher, and author.  He certainly discourages his readers from wholly embracing conventional theological wisdom.  And his over-arching point remains: Jesus is the revelation of God, and Jesus is all about love. 

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