Wednesday, July 31, 2019

America's Great Depression, by Murray Rothbard

I'm no economist, and I'm no historian, and I'm no economic historian, but that's OK, because Murray Rothbard's America's Great Depression is accessible to the interested non-professional reader.  It's not necessarily an easy read, and Rothbard does throw around enough facts and figures and charts to cause some readers' eyes to glaze over.  But if you're interested in a thorough factual analysis on the causes of the Great Depression, it doesn't get better than Rothbard.

First published in 1963, America's Great Depression is still in print and remains the standard treatment of the Depression.  He discusses the business cycle, and claims the Depression was an overreaction to the business cycle.  Our political just made things worse and worse by trying to impose artificial controls on the economy. 

The important question is, does anyone today remember this?  Do our political leaders have a clue?  You listen to any of them, right or left (but especially left), and they are fully prepared to head down the path that Rothbard warns us against.  It's almost amusing and quaint to read Rothbard's figures regarding the state of the economy before and during the Depression and compare them to the economy today.  Deficit?  Government expenditures as a percentage of GDP?  Unemployment figures?  I think political and economic leaders today need to revisit Rothbard and act accordingly.  (But I'm not holding my breath.)

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Kingdom, by Bryan Litfin

It's tough to beat a trilogy that gets better as it goes along and leaves you satisfied with the resolution and hopeful for another installment.  In The Sword and The Gift, Bryan Litfin follows Ana and Teo from the kingdom of Chiveis to Rome, where they are seeking the message of a God they have not known.  In The Kingdom, Litfin brings their story to a close, as they face down evil, persisting in a desire to serve this loving God and to take his message home to Chiveis.

Litfin certainly has a strong theological message, which constitutes the driving core of the story.  But he weaves that message with intrigue, action, human moral struggles, romance, battles, and a wrestling of good versus evil.  Due to some of the content--not graphic or prurient, but suggestive and violent at times--this series is best for teens and adults.  These aren't children's books. 

Above all, the Chiveis trilogy takes the reader back to the basics of the faith that Christians follow.  If all we had was the Old Testament, what does that tell us about God?  If then we discover the New Testament, what would our faith look like in the absence of any institutions or individual believers to guide us in our faith?  What must it be like to learn for the first time that the pierced one and the glorious king are one and the same person? 

Take a trip to the future in the Chiveis trilogy and enjoy!

Friday, July 26, 2019

Space Drifters: The Emerald Enigma, by Paul Regnier

If you like your sci-fi fast-paced, slightly silly, and highly entertaining, Paul Regnier's Space Drifters: The Emerald Enigma is right up your alley.  Glint Starcrost is on the hunt for a mythical treasure while on the run from a variety of bounty hunters.  For some random reasons, a teenager from the past and a mysterious, beautiful woman show up on his ship.  Along with Starcrost's reptilian strongman, the four of them bounce around the galaxy, narrowly escaping one peril after another.

I enjoyed the nods to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the comparisons to Guardians of the Galaxy are apt.  This is definitely genre fiction, but The Emerald Enigma is wholly original.  Regnier writes great characters and bars no holds in twisting and turning the story.  Without preaching, Regnier injects some fun religious content as well.  We learn that Starcrost's sidekick has a gift, or a curse: things he dreams about manifest in reality.  So you can imagine the havoc that ensues after he reads their time traveling friend's Bible.

Regnier has fun with the story and works in some thoughtful theological ideas that a discerning reader will enjoy.  I'll certainly have fun reading book 2.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Gift, by Bryan Litfin

Exiled from their homes in Chiveis, Teo and Ana, heroes of Bryan Litfin's The Sword, venture into the wider world.  In book 2 of Litfin's Chiveis Trilogy, The Gift, the pair ventures south, in search of knowledge of Deu and his New Testament.  In this post-apocalyptic world, Christianity has been nearly wiped out, and the Bible is barely known.

Facing peril and evil, as well as their own struggles, they find that they did not leave behind anti-Christianism in Chiveis.  Though the nature of the religious persecution may be different in these lands unknown to them, it is effective and relentless.  In spite of persecution, however, some faithful remain.  Like the pair from Chiveis, these believers seek the New Testament as well, hoping for a better understanding of the faith they try to follow.

Teo, the soldier, continues his acts of derring-do and sacrificial heroism on behalf of Ana, whose penchant for getting into pickles is exceeded only by her alluring beauty.  Despite their clear compatibility and destiny together, she keeps Teo at arm's length, sometimes to her peril.  They are both tested, yet both maintain a desire to learn move about Deu.

The Gift, like The Sword, is first a thrilling adventure story with evil villains, narrow escapes, and main characters with heroic, yet believable, personalities.  I have to admit, Litfin drew me in.  While reading The Gift, I enjoyed the story while skeptically criticizing elements of it.  But with The Gift, my disbelief completely suspended as the story progressed.  And even more than The Sword, The Gift raises questions about how we might respond to a gospel about which we knew as little as these believers knew.

I'm not saying The Gift is without its problems, but it's certainly a fun book with lots going for it.  I won't waste any time getting into book 3.

Monday, July 22, 2019

If Jesus is Lord, by Ronald J. Sider

Ron Sider has been challenging Christians' thinking since at least 1977, when has controversial classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was published.  Here's what I love about Sider: unlike many people who write from the "Christian left," I have no doubt that Sider is writing as an Evangelical, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian.  This is why, even though I don't fully embrace his conclusions in If Jesus is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence, I can thoroughly recommend it for anyone grappling with the question of Christian pacifism.

If you are a follower of Christ, grappling is what you must do with If Jesus is Lord.  As a Christian pacifist, Sider asserts that "it is simply contrary to the facts of history to say that there are only two options: to kill or do nothing in the face of tyranny or brutality."  Giving specific examples from the Sermon on the Mount, Sider shows that "the commanded response is neither violent nor passive.  Jesus calls his disciples not to turn aside passively or hit back but rather to confront the evil nonviolently." 

This third way is the application of Jesus' pacifism.  But the core is more simple: Jesus said "Love your enemies."  Sider points out that loving your enemies while you are trying to kill them is really difficult.  Sider does not see "how it is possible to seek to kill people and at the same time be engaged in inviting them to accept Christ."  In terms of violence, there is little question as to Jesus' perspective.  "Jesus's actions and teaching reject the use of violence.  And he seems to expect his disciples to do the same. . . . The evidence of the New Testament is quite clear.  Jesus called his followers to love their enemies, not kill them." 

I am not prone to violence, and I have never served in the military.  But I have always tended to support the military and police, with the necessary violence that those roles infer, and have always thought that one might, when faced with personal violence, be justified in a violent response.  Sider reviews and debunks Just War theory, and makes a strong case for pacifism based on Jesus' life and teaching.  But as much as he made me think and challenged my previous notions on violence, I don't feel like he adequately answered the questions, What are we to do in the face of a figure like Hitler?  Or, What am I to do in the face of an individual threatening immediate violence to my family?  Never having faced that situation, the third way does elude me. . . .  Nevertheless, I am grateful to Sider's calling me to deeper faith and deeper, more faithful thought about violence.

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

Friday, July 19, 2019

Rebirth: Havok Season 1

What is flash fiction?  Short stories--very short stories.  Havok Magazine provided a platform for flash fiction, mostly in the sci-fi, fantasy, and related genres.  In case you missed it, they have collected 48 of those stories in Rebirth: Havok Season 1.

The authors of the stories range from seasoned writers who have published multiple, award-winning novels to writers whose publishing history might only consist of posting a story on a web site (so far!).  The quality of the stories, as a result, has a range that you might expect, but I bet you would be hard pressed to pick out the novices from the pros.  In other words, just because some of the stories are written by no-name unpublished or little published authors doesn't mean they are poorly written or unreadable.  While I enjoyed some stories more than others, they are all quality work.

Depending on your tastes, some of the stories will be more memorable than others.  I'm not much into magic-infused fantasy stories, and a fair number here fit that mold.  Several of the stories piqued my interest enough to check what else the author has written, and many of them left me wishing there were more to the story.

I suppose that is the point of flash fiction--give the reader a taste, and leave him longing for more.  I was repeatedly impressed by the authors' ability to create a world, characters, and story elements in just a couple of pages.  I won't name favorites--there are too many and it would be unfair to leave several out.  Not every story here is a five star story, but in this case the whole is greater than the parts.  Forty-eight different authors created forty-eight different, unrelated worlds, loosely united under the theme of rebirth.  The final result left me wanting to visit quite a few of those worlds again.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Sword, by Bryan Litfin

Imagine a world in the not-too-distant future where, due to a global pandemic and a devastating nuclear war, human civilization has been reduced to a medieval standard of living.  Actually, it's not that hard to imagine, since that scenario has been played out in many books and movies.  In Bryan Litfin's The Sword, the first book in his Chiveis Trilogy, Litfin adds a twist.  In his post-apocalyptic world, all memory of Christianity has been purged, and pagan religions prevail.

In the kingdom of Chiveis, the priestesses of the pagan religions call the shots.  When Teo, an independent-minded soldier is rescued from a bear attack by Ana, a beautiful country girl, their lives are entwined for good.  Ana's beauty had not been unrecognized, sparking envy in a princess and lust in a neighboring king.  After Teo rescues her from the clutches of the king, they go on the run and discover a partially intact Bible in an abandoned church.

Teo secretly translates portions of the Bible and he and Ana gather a group of seekers who begin to worship this unknown God, who they discern is the creator of all, is infinitely good, and demands sacrifice for sin.  Inevitably, these worshippers face harsh persecution.  Litfin's narrative is full of sword play and action, scheming and betrayal, and exploration of spiritual ideas.

As a work of fiction, The Sword is definitely fun to read, with its action, suspense, and romance.  But Litfin, who has a PhD in religious studies and who taught theology at Moody Bible Institute for many years, has a bigger purpose than spinning an entertaining tale.  The Sword is a thought experiment.  What would society look like if all traces of Christianity were wiped out?  What sort of Christianity would we rebuild if all we had was a portion of the Old Testament?  What miraculous interventions would God choose to use to reveal himself?  What kind of community would a group of new believers create, and how would they stand up under persecution?

The Sword is an entertaining, thought-provoking page turner that leaves readers eager to jump into the next story, The Gift.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield has one of the more unlikely conversion stories that I have heard.  She taught English and critical studies and a large, secular university.  Her specialty was feminism and she lived with her lesbian lover.  But a local pastor reached out to her with acceptance and love, and the truth of the gospel won her over.

In The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith she tells the story of her life before and after her conversion.  The greatest challenge for Christians is the fact that Butterfield did not become a Christian due to sophisticated logical arguments or by challenges to her sinfulness, but through love and relationships.

Now married to a pastor and mother of several adopted children, Butterfield has perspectives that can challenge those of us who have been in the church all our lives.  For one thing, she lauds the community life of lesbians, and, on several occasions, had opportunities for the church community and the lesbian community to work together and learn from each other. 

As an outsider of sorts, Butterfield is not afraid to step on some toes.  But she is now an insider, and her criticisms come with family love.  Above all, her story is a reminder that one should never rule out prospects for conversion.  The warm embrace of Christian community and the power of the gospel of Christ can change any life.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Who On Earth is the Holy Spirit?, by Tim Chester

Tim Chester asks a good question in his little book Who On Earth is the Holy Spirit? and Other Questions about Who He is and What He Does.  Many Christians have this question about the most mysterious member of the Trinity.  True to form, Chester, a pastor in the UK, looks to the scriptural record to gain a broad understanding of what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit.

Every Christian should be aware of the Holy Spirit and his work.  Unfortunately, a minority slice of the Christian world--pentecostals and charismatics--seem to have monopolized teaching about the Holy Spirit.  Chester's is a moderating voice, offering a balanced perspective that will challenge some Christians to open their minds to spiritual gifts like prophecy and healing, and will remind other Christians that these "manifestation" gifts are only a part of what the Holy Spirit is about.

It's short.  It's biblical.  It's theologically sound.  It's balanced.  It's a good book.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Right Side of History, by Ben Shapiro

I really enjoy Ben Shapiro's perspective on his podcasts, Twitter, interviews, and media appearances.  In The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, Shapiro demonstrates the philosophical and intellectual foundations on which he bases his perspective on contemporary political and cultural issues.

While Shapiro is best known for his up-to-the minute commentary, The Right Side of History takes the story back centuries, to Jerusalem and Athens.  The core of his argument is that the Western world has strayed from the Judeo-Christian roots of our moral code and the Greek roots of our intellectual and political traditions. 

Shapiro has great insights and gives an overview of intellectual and moral history that is worth reading.  I appreciate his balance and commitment to clarity.  The nature of the book--mostly a historical primer--doesn't lend itself to much excitement.  But it's definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Seven Longest Yards, by Chris and Emily Norton

Chris Norton was a standout on his college football team until a fateful tackle during his freshman season.  As hard as he tried to get up off the turf, he couldn't move a muscle below his neck.  In The Seven Longest Yards: Our Love Story of Pushing the Limits While Leaning on Each Other, he tells the story of his injury, his fight to recover, and of finding the love of his life.

First of all, fair warning: get the Kleenex ready.  I couldn't help putting myself in Chris's parent's shoes, thinking about how I would respond if my college-age son had a devastating injury such as Chris had.  He is privileged to have a loving, supportive family.  He was also privileged to benefit from NCAA insurance for injured athletes.  So he began his recovery on a solid foundation.

What sets Chris apart after his injury is his refusal to give up hope.  When doctors said he had a 3% chance of ever moving anything below his shoulders, or when a doctor told him he would never walk again, he rejected their predictions, determined to be that small percent to overcome the odds.  His mantra from the start was "Don't focus on what you can't do.  Focus on what you can do."  He has taken that attitude to launch a successful inspirational speaking career, as well as a foundation committed to providing medical care for other victims of spinal cord injuries.

Before he got there, though, he had a lot of work to do.  Having finished his coursework in the fall, he dedicated the spring semester to preparing to walk across the stage at his May graduation.  His girlfriend Emily agreed to assist him during this time.  She attended his therapies and was able work as his home assistant thanks to his insurance plan.

After his successful graduation walk went viral, he was inundated with media requests, appearing countless times.  It certainly helped that he proposed to Emily the night before graduation, adding their storybook romance to the tremendously inspiring story.  After the media buzz died down, Chris still had work to do, and Emily struggled with having given up her professional dreams to help him.  She spiraled into a deep depression, and writes about all she went through to overcome it.

I appreciated Chris and Emily's honesty.  They make no great claims about their faith or faithfulness.  In fact, when they became involved in a church after they moved to Florida, Chris writes that they each desired early on to date another Christian, but "our lives hadn't reflected that priority in a long time."  He said God "had never been a vital part of my everyday life."  Ultimately, they both grew in their faith together.  An elephant in the room that was never addressed is the fact that they lived together, moved to another state, bought a house, and started fostering kids together before they were ever married.  For a book about a Christian couple published by a Christian publisher, it's interesting that this time of cohabitation is never mentioned as such.

Chris and Emily are an inspiring couple in many ways: Chris overcoming the odds to walk, Emily overcoming her depression to function, the two of them committing to love needy children through foster care, and the vulnerability they have chosen to share their stories.  It's not the life they imagined, but it's "a life that exceeded anything we had ever imagined."  They have shown that "with God, all things are truly possible."

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

Monday, July 8, 2019

By Reason of Insanity, by Randy Singer

Catherine O'Rourke is a popular crime reporter, but when she has disturbing visions that give details about a series of murders, she becomes suspect number one.  Randy Singer's novel By Reason of Insanity explores the world of multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder (DID) to consider whether someone could be a serial killer and not realize it.

Murder is the farthest thing from Catherine's mind, but when evidence seems to finger her, and her lawyers suggest that a claim of insanity related to DID is all that could get her off the hook, she begins to have serious doubts about her own innocence.  The victims are rapists, or lawyers who defended rapists.  Catherine grapples with a rape in her own past, so the suggestion that she may be exacting revenge does not seem that far-fetched.

Singer puts together the investigation and trial nicely, as he does in his novels.  His trial experience shows, bringing a sense of realism to the courtroom scenes.  I enjoyed the interactions of the two lawyers who are compelled to work together in Catherine's defense.  The DID angle seemed a bit overwrought.  While it's interesting to consider the possibility that someone could function as more than one person, none of whom is aware of the other, I thought very little about Catherine's story lent itself to a consideration of DID. 

Even though Singer writes for a Christian publisher, there was little Christian content in By Reason of Insanity.  I don't say that as a criticism, just an observation.  Singer is definitely a writer of legal fiction to whom I will return.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Dear Mr. President, by Sophie Siers and Anne Villenueve

Sam has a problem.  He shares a room with his big brother, but they don't get along very well.  He thinks the problem might be solved by building a wall between their two sides.  Sam has heard about the president's idea for a wall, so he begins a correspondence with the president.  Sophie Siers and Anne Villenueve record and illustrate his letters in Dear Mr. President.

This a cute idea, taking a political hot topic and giving it a mostly non-political, real-life application.  Sam weighs the pros and cons of building the wall, although he never can convince his parents or his brother that it's a good idea.  Sam's teacher points out that historically some walls "didn't quite work to plan," and Dad says that "communication and negotiation are always preferable to separation."  Eventually, their parents set Sam's brother straight and he begins to be a more considerate roomie. 

Sam never does hear back from the president, or at least that correspondence is not recorded in the book.  More than making a specific political point, Sam learns that when both sides work together, they can get along, and that coming to agreements and compromise is better than building permanent barriers.  It's a good lesson for domestic relations, but doesn't easily translate to international relations.  Still, this is a fun little book.

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

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Drifter, by Nick Petrie

For people who love a good loner-vigilante story a la Jack Reacher, Nick Petrie's The Drifter is a good place to start.  This is the first novel of five (so far) in the Peter Ash series.  Ash is a Marine who, after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, suffers from a form of PTSD.  He can't stand to be indoors.  After living in the mountains for a few months, he hears about a buddie's suicide.  To work off his grief and the guilt he feels for not being there to support his buddy, he shows up at the widow's house, claiming to be part of a Marine veterans' home repair program.

He does some repairs (out of his own pocket, of course--the program is a fiction he made up as a cover) but while he's there, he discovers that his buddy may have been involved in some criminal activity, and may not have committed suicide after all.  He gets the attention of the local bad guys and begins to unravel the threads of a plot that is much bigger than he would have ever imagined.

The comparison to Reacher is what drew me to Petrie.  Lee Child himself offers a strong endorsement.  Ash is his own man, but the comparisons to Reacher are apt.  He has the same propensity to lay low when he can, but to kick butt if he must.  Petrie focuses on PTSD and the plight of returning combat veterans.  He is not a combat vet himself, and I appreciate the sensitivity and humility with which he approaches the subject.

Is Petrie the next great action novelist?  I don't know.  The Drifter was an entertaining read, enough so that I would consider picking up book two.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Walking with Jesus on Campus, by Stephen Kellough

Stephen Kellough was campus chaplain at Wheaton College for 25 years.  Based on his lengthy experience of meeting, discipling, and counseling college kids, he has written Walking with Jesus on Campus: How to Care for Your Soul During College.  Kellough's passion for college kids, love of the scriptures, and heart to build disciples come through in this practical, pastoral book.

Kellough covers topics that many--all?--college students deal with from time to time.  Some are quite obvious.  Every campus, from small Christian colleges to large state universities, are full of young people ready to explore their sexuality.  Kellough offers biblical guidance on that hot topic.  The strongest, and perhaps most important chapters, deal with perfectionism, depression, self-worth, and serving others.  Kellough challenges students to find their worth in Jesus and in service to others. 

With a warm, pastoral tone, Kellough describes his own experiences with college students, provides scriptural illustrations, and offers plenty of opportunity to personalize and reflect on his message.  It's the voice of a warm, caring presence who must have had a huge impact on the lives of individual students and on the spiritual environment of the Wheaton campus.  Walking with Jesus on Campus is a helpful sourcebook for college students and those who care about their spiritual growth.

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

Monday, July 1, 2019

80/20 Running, by Matt Fitzgerald

If you have ever used a training plan from Runners World or similar source, you've probably practiced the 80/20 running rule.  Matt Fitgerald develops this idea in 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Stronger by Training Slower.  Drawing on research, data, and the training experiences of runners from Arthur Lydiard, the father of modern distance running, forward to contemporary Olympians and marathoners, Fitzgerald describes training with the bulk of your miles run at low intensity.

Fitzgerald writes in such a way that runners at all levels of experience can implement and customize his plans.  Wherever you are in your running, or whatever distance race you are preparing for, you will be able to apply Fitzgerald's plans.  The 80/20 of the title refers to running 80 percent of your training miles at low intensity and 20 percent at high intensity.  Fitzgerald provides some scientific and anecdotal evidence that this works.  He also is happy to direct you to his 80/20 training app (it's not a hard sell, just a suggested resource).

For many runners, 80/20 Running is a great resource and remedy for overtraining.  For some runners, especially lazy runners like me, it's a reminder to increase intensity 20 percent of the time.  According to Fitzgerald, most recreational runners run mostly at moderate intensity.  For real improvement, moving toward an 80/20 balance will help.