The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See - Richard Rohr
Richard Rohr teaches on our need to reject binary thinking - dualism - and simply seek the dwell in the immediate presence of God. Dualism is not how we experience reality. He distinguishes the church's teaching on contemplative prayer from the ego-centered and ultimately world-denying philosophy of "The Secret". He recognizes that the rejection of dualism does not lead to monism nor a rejection of rationality. He simply argues that reason must take its rightful place. It is not master, but servant. Overall, I found this a helpful, inspiring, and nuanced introduction to contemplative Christianity that accords with the ancient tradition.
The Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts. Selections Annotated & Explained - Annotation by Allyne Smith
This Collection of quotes from the Philokalia is a great introduction to this Eastern Orthodox treasure. It categorizes the quotes under seven headings: Repentance, the Heart, Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, the Passions, Stillness, and Theosis. The richness of Orthodox spirituality never ceases to amaze me. The emphasis on watchfulness in order to maintain a pure, still heart before God is necessary in our spiritually lazy world. Its emphasis on complete transformation of mind, passions, and will takes us deep into holistic spiritual formation. The goal of experiencing union with God and reflecting this in our love toward others makes all the discipline worth it.
No Man is an Island - Thomas Merton
Everytime I read Merton I get the feeling that he knows more - both intellectually and experientially - than I can possibly fathom. His spirituality is not a flight from reality, but the recognition that true spirituality involves the ability to find our true selves in the presence of God. It is not escape, but fulfillment. "The religious answer is not religious if it is not fully real. Evasion is the answer of superstitution" (xvi). The individual has responsibilities, but this must be done in community. This is a good summary of his perspective: "God's will for us is not only that we should be the persons He means us to be, but that we should share in His work of creation and help Him to make us into the persons He means us to be. Always, and in all things, God's will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation, forge my own eternal happiness, in the way He has planned it for me. And since no man is an island, since we all depend on one another, I cannot work out God's will in my own life unless I also consciously help other men to work out His will in theirs. His will, then, is our sanctification, our transformation in Christ, our deeper and fuller integration with other men. And this integration results not in the absorption and disappearance of our own personality, but in its affirmation and its perfection" (64). Merton's call for life in community is matched by the importance of solitude: "If I cannot distinguish myself from the mass of other men, I will never be able to love and respect other men as I ought. If I do not separate myself from them enough to know what is mine and what is theirs, I will discover what I have to give them, and never allow them the opportunity to give me what they ought" (247). Thus, no man is an island. Every person is unique and important. But this is discovered in the rhythms of solitude and community. After the third time, this still remains a brilliant book!
Eating the Dinosaur - Chuck Klosterman
Chuck is a philosopher of pop culture. He considers himself a contrarian by nature, but I find his writings shed light on the human condition through the lens of modern life. In this book he reflects on many themes, but his overarching theme seems to be that media constructs a fake reality that ends up becoming more meaningful than whatever actually happened. He wonders why anyone would expose themselves to an interview. He writes of Kurt Cobain's depression and concludes it "was ultimately due to the combination of (a) having so many people caring about his words, despite the fact that (b) he really didn't have that much to say" (44). He suggests that the reason we fantasize about reliving our lives with our present-day mind is our fear of the unknown. We "want to solve life's mysteries without having to do the work" (64). He loves football because it "allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged" (145). He thinks the group ABBA remains perpetually relevant because they never cared about being relevant in the first place. He laments that the preponderence of visual media keeps us from engaging with reality because we are inundated by "seeing things" that are not actually there (220). Churk's reflections about pop culture are deep and compelling. He remains a lover of pop culture while at the same time criticizing the culture he loves. He is, in many ways, a modern prophet. He's certainly not for everybody, but I thoroughly enjoy reading his work!
Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay
After reading all volumes of The Sword of Truth and the first three volumes of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire I decided to read this one-volume, self-contained epic. This is a powerful novel of a land, Tigana, that has been purged from public memory by the great power of an tyrant wizard-king. A few remaining survivors seek to conquer the tyrant in order to regain Tigana. As the plot moves forward, it is obvious that the tyrant king is not such a tyrant. Dionara, from Tigana, seeks to secretly assassinate the tyrant king, but in the end, falls in love with him. Through her eyes, we see his virtue as well as his vice. The final battle and the surprising conclusion make the whole ride worth it. And the secret that remains in the end is provocative.
The First Law: Book One - The Blade Itself, The First Law: Book Two - Before They are Hanged, The First Law: Book Three - Last Argument of Kings - Joe Abercrombie
A unique, dark, quirky, and often funny take on the fantasy genre. Every character is deeply flawed. Logen Ninefingers is a tired-yet-effective killing machine. Bayaz is a cranky wizard. Jazel is an arrogant nobleman who can't wait to experience all life's excesses. Ferro wants nothing but bloody vengeance. And the pathetic Glotka, once a great warrior but now reduced to a torturer, wonders why he continues his wretched life. Having read all three books, I was surprised by who turned out to be the "bad guy." Also, it was interesting that, in spite of the adventure, not much changes for the characters in the end, and all seem to receive what they deserve, with the exception of a noble captain named West. I think the overall trajectory of most of the storylines are summarized in Jazel. "It can be a terrible curse for a man to get everything he ever dreamed of. If the shining prizes turn out somehow to be empty baubles, he is left without even his dreams for comfort. All the things that Jezal had thought he wanted--power, fame, the beautiful trappings of greatness--they were nothing but dust. All he wanted now was for things to be as they had been, before he got them. But there was no way back. Not ever" (Book Three, 406).
Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie
This book takes place in the same world of The First Law Trilogy. A mercenary, Monza, and her beloved brother are betrayed and murdered. Monza miraculously survives a fall and with a broken body she seeks to avenge her brother's death. She initially thinks this will be a simple process of killing seven individuals. But vengeance spirals out of control until finally, her lust for vengeance is the cause of devastating war. Great characters and surprising twists in a much tighter and compelling story than the Trilogy. However, without the Trilogy, this story would lose a bit of its narrative depth.
Every Thing Matters! - Ron Currie, Jr.
What an amazing, inspiring, and thoughtful reflection on the weighty consequences of every decision, the challenge of mortality, and the willingness to suffer for the sake of others. From the womb, Junior Thibodeau hears voices telling him that in thirty-six years all life on the Earth will be destroyed by a comet. How will Junior handle this information of certain doom? However, this knowledge is no less than the knowledge we all possess that our lives on this Earth must one day end. From the beginning, life is one great risk. The voices tell Junior in the womb that the very umbilical cord which sustains his life is also a danger to him and could kill him if it wraps around his neck. He is informed of the great weight of every choice and the pain of sudden enlightenment which will feel "like a boot in the stomach, like acid on your tongue, and the sooner you accept this the better off you'll be" (5). When he gives birth to a daughter, the voice tells him, "She is either the grandest thing you've ever done, or the cruelest. Our contention, for the record, is that it's possible she may be both" (275). Spoiler Alert: Don't read any further if you wish to be surprised by the ending. And I deeply encourage you to read this book. So stop! In the end, Junior is given the option to start again at any point in his life in any of an infinite variety of alternate universes. He chooses the same world but makes different choices with different outcomes. However, the heartache is still the same. The voice says, "We gave you infinite options, and you could have easily chosen to live in a world free of both comts and cancer. You could have sidestepped those heart, and certainly we would not have blamed you. You chose instead to suffer every same calamity and anguish a second time--chose, in fact, to risk suffering still others--and changed nothing but yourself" (292). The discovery is that every thing matters. Even the wrong choices. At one point the voice says, "You know well that he's wrong. What he's doing matter just as much" (298). Junior's dilemma parallels our own: "You wish they understood, as you do, that there is no escape and never was, that from the moment two cells combined to become one they were doomed" (302). Great book!
Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion- Dan Simmons
In the future, after Earth has been destroyed and humankind has spread throughout the universe, seven chosen people are sent on a pilgrimage on the strange world of Hyperion, known for its sealed Time-Tombs, endless underground labrynths, and the legend of the Shrike - a killing machine. In the first book, each main character recounts his or her tragic tail in order to discover what they have in common and why they have been chosen. The stories are all unbelievably tragic. The second book opens as they finally arrive at the Time Tombs. Spoiler Alert: Read no further if you want to enjoy this incredibly novel on your own. In the end, the story has to do with two gods - one of human invention and one created by the AI Core. All the stories come together in a brilliant climax. Great books!
Endymion and The Rise of Endymion- Dan Simmons
It is 274 years after the Fall of the WorldWeb interlinking hundreds of human worlds. The Catholic Church possesses the power to allow the bodily-implanted cruciforms to lead to full resurrection. But something is happening to those who refuse the cruciform - something led by young Aenea - the child of a cybrid and human. Somehow the Church is in league with the Core. In the concluding book, series-long questions are answered and all the characters from book one are revisited. Spoiler Alert: Read no further if you want to enjoy this incredibly novel on your own. The Core is contained in the cruciforms parasitically attached to each member of the church. The ready availability of resurrection makes it so new life is not pursued and thus humanity does not evolve as it should. Through sharing in Aenae's blood and the experience of her death, the error of the Church is exposed, and humanity is finally able to access the Void Which Binds - the power of Love. These two books were not nearly as good as the first two, but did connect in interesting ways.
The God Engines - John Scalzi
After reading monster-size books, it was a treat to read a short novella by one of my favorite authors. In this book, gods are imprisoned and used to energize spacecraft. The faith of the crewmembers keeps the gods working. Then Tephe sees the true nature of his god and comes to doubt his mission. The results are catastrophic.
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
In a dystopian future, a fallen North America has become the State of Panem which consists of 13 zones that focus on one product in supporting the totalitarian state. Each year a lottery is held for children from each zone between the ages of 12 and 18. The "winner" must fight in the Hunger Games on behalf of their zone. This is the account of Katniss and her partner, Peeta, who fight on behalf of District 12. It is a brutal story about totalitarianism, the voyeur state, and the effects of war on individuals.
Angel Time - Anne Rice
This was a really unbalanced story about an assassin sent back to medieval times to help in a squabble between Christians and Jews. I had to work just to finish it.
Black Sun Rising - C. S. Friedman
In this opening book of "The Coldfire Trilogy" we are introduced to a strange new world that humanity came to in order to escape a dying earth. On this planet some are able to "work" the "fae" - a natural force with the power to prey on the human mind. This world is the opposite of our world of "natural laws." In the words of one character: "Imagine a whole world... of unalterable physical laws, where the will of the living has no power over inanimate objects. A world in which the same experiment, performed at a thousand different sites by a thousand different men, would have exactly the same result each time. That is our heritage... which this world denied us" (218). In the book two characters clash: one who uses the cold, darkness, and death of the world to feed off others. He feeds off the priest's fear by appearing in the form of "a civilized evil, genteel and seductive" that blurs the lines between evil and good. A promising start in an interesting world. On to book two...
When True Night Falls - C. S. Friedman
Tarrant, Damien, and Hesseth head East to face an evil Prince who possesses the power of illusion. Again, one of the main themes is whether Tarrant can be trusted or not. This seems to be a primarily a transitional book because a great evil force is unleashed in the final pages.
Crown of Shadows - C. S. Friedman
The shortest of the three, this book finds Damien and Tarrant in hell and then fighting for their lives against the demon Calesta. Either I was tired of the series by this point or the book was simply not engaging, but I found this a less-than-spectacular ending. Now, back to theology...
The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown
This book is Dan Brown's best so far. He has mastered the art of clearly communicating a fast-paced, gripping, suspense thriller. This time his theme revolves around the mysteries of the masons. However, he does end up bringing the church and the Bible into his plot. But, believe it or not, the perspective he brings on the Bible is remarkably positive. He argues that the Bible is worth reading and understanding because of the ancient truths it contains. Unfortunately for Brown, most of these truths are esoteric and hidden. He writes a lot about our own inherent divinity. If one maintains the distinction between God and us, then I'm onboard with him. Like the ancient church, I believe that our destiny is divinization or theosis. He also is a big advocate of the mind sciences and believes that positive thinking can change the world. One may argue that he is too naive in this regard, but he does have a character who represents the antimony of this way of thinking and this character receives his just deserts in the end, in what appears to be some sort of hell. Though he is more sympathetic to masonic mysteries than to the church, his end is full of hope, and in a strange way, rather uplifting. Philosophies aside, this book is one gripping thriller from the first page to the last.
Intensity - Dean Koontz
The antagonist in Koontz' book, Edgler Foreman Vess, lives to experience sensations. For him, this is the purpose of life: "The sole purpose of existence is to open oneself to sensation and to satisfy all appetites as they arise" (94). There are no moral judgments attached to any sensation. There are only degrees of intensity. Free from morality, he understands the "Big Lie is that such concepts as love, guilt, and hate are real" (94). He truly embodies Sartre's philosophy that "man is a useless passion." To him, "the greatest curse of humanity's high intelligence is that, in most members of the species, it leads to a yearning to be more than they are" (95). But Vess knows we are "nothing other than animals--smart animals, indeed, but animals nonetheless" (95). He embraces pantheism because "When everything is sacred, nothing is. For him, that is the beauty of pantheism. If the life of a child is equal to the life of a bluegill or a barn owel, then Vess may kill attractive little girls as casually as he might crush a scorpion underfoot, with no greater moral offense though with considerably more pleasure" (102). Vess consistently lives out the beliefs of existentialism and pantheism - and he is a psychopath. That is the scariest part of this book!
Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill
Aging Goth rocker, Judas Coyne, collects macabre items. After purchasing a suit that purportedly contains a ghost, Judas discovers that the claim is real and that the ghost is deadly. Judas' attempts to escape the ghost lead him to reevaluate his life. This book was just average, in my opinion.
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? - Neil Gaiman
A tale of Batman's death (or is it?). For someone who has been a Batman fan for a long time, this was a deeply moving story. Without giving away the ending, I can only say that when Gaiman integrates the children's book "Goodnight Moon" to Batman, I had tears in my eyes.
A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1: A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin
When reading "The Sword of Truth" series I was repeatedly told that Martin's books were far superior. I finally found the courage to delve into them (they are monstrous in size and scope) and I am pleased that I did. This is an amazing story of different royal families playing the "game of thrones" - a game where there are only winners and losers. I was absolutely surprised by who ends up dying in this story. Let's simply say that the ones with the most integrity have the most to fear.
A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2: A Clash of Kings - George R. R. Martin
With Robert out of the picture, many kings fight to gain control of the throne. I grew to love Tyrion even more in this book.
A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3: A Storm of Swords - George R. R. Martin
Once again, amazed by who bites the dust in this story.
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer - C. S. Lewis
Lewis is always such a delightful read. His letters to a friend concerning worship and prayer are profound and stimulating. He is a committed liturgist, believing that novelty has "only entertainment value": "The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping" (4). He wrestles with the fact that God is both closer to us than we can imagine yet also infinitely distant. He reminds us that praying for others is easier than "doing" for others: "It's so much easier to pray for a bore than to go and see him" (66). Prayer is not wish-fulfillment, for God has "rough edges": "nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. It is of the very nature of the real that it should have sharp corners and rough edges, that it should be resistant, should be itself" (76). A real relationship with the real God will include such edges. Thus Lewis argues that the "prayer preceding all prayers" should be "May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to" (82). Great book!
Knocking on Heaven's Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer - David Crump
Through a detailed analysis of the relevant New Testament passages, Crump attempt to answer some of the hard questions about petitionary prayer: "How can we know if a request is appropriate? Are there proper and improper ways to ask? How do our concerns intersect with God s designs? Can prayer change God's mind? If so, under what conditions will God adjust? Does God always answer? How do I know when God responds? How do I learn to connect my changing circumstances to my specific prayers?" (15) Though heavy on the academic side - a consequence of his detailed exegetical work and theological analysis - this book hits on most of the relevant passages, shedding light on their original meaning and practical relevance.
The Law of Nines - Terry Goodkind
After hearing that Goodkind's new thriller possessed some "nuggets" related to The Sword of Truth series, I reluctantly decided to read the book. I've read all the Sword of Truth books and have a love/hate relationship with them. Some are absolutely fantastic. Some are slow, dull, and preachy. I approached The Law of Nines as a completely different book with some allusions to Sword of Truth. What I discovered was that this book might as well be the sequel to Confessor, the last book in the Sword of Truth books, because it picks up where that book left off, only in our world. When Richard separated his world into two worlds at the end of Confessor, he created our world. It is our world that is bereft of magic, yet haunted by it. In our world, one of Richard's heirs, Alex Rahl, is visited by Jax Amnell, a woman from another world who has learned to cross between the worlds. Others from her world have learned how to do this to, and hope to bring destruction to their world by ridding it of magic and replacing it with technology stolen from our world. This book is almost a retelling of the first Sword of Truth book, Wizard's Last Rule. And I found it incredibly enjoyable. I guess it re-awoke in me my love for the series - in spite of all its flaws. Even more important, the book was paced well: the story moved fast (which is not true of all of Goodkind's books). Now that I know how connected this book is to the Sword of Truth, I actually long for a sequel. One quote from the book which resonates with me in regard to how we long for a glory we cannot quite communicate. Upon visiting a fantasy store, Jax tells Alex: "Don't you get it, Alex? Don't you see what was lost? Can you begin to imagine the wonder of what it must have been? People here can't remember it, yet they can't forget it. After all this time the world world still longs for it, still mourns what they lost. It was such a remarkable, magnificent, glorious part of life that they ache to have it back, even though they don't remember what it was" (219).
The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories - Rod Serling
Rod Serling sure can tell a story. In this collection of stories, most which came to be Twilight Zone episodes, Serling demonstrates how good he really is. Unlike the television series, we are able to get into the thoughts and motivations of the characters. Serling's descriptions also add nuances and details unavailable in their television counterpart. There were times, at the end of some of the early stories, where the last words from the television script were offered, that I was absolutely chilled by Serling's words. These are all great stories from a great author.
Twilight Zone: 19 Original Stories on the 50th Anniversary - Carol Serling
Followed up Rod's stories with a collection compiled by Rod's widow. Though some of the stories were good, it is further proof that no one did it as good as Rod!
Flash Forward - Robert J. Sawyer
I read this book in anticipation of the fall television series. Coinciding with a particle accelerator experiment the people of the world blackout for a little over 2 minutes and see visions 21 years in the future. Are these actual visions of the future? If so, are the visions unchangeable? Much of the interesting interactions stem from those who perceive the future is as unchangeable as the past and those who believe the future may be altered. Some people radically change their lives because of their future vision. Others grow depressed at what's to come. Some have no visions and must wrestle with the fact that they may possibly be dead. An attempt to reduplicate the event leads to a 2001-like ending with a divine observer. I really enjoyed this book! Now, I hope the series is good.
Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion - Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
The current craze in contemporary spiritual literature is to embrace a Churchless Christianity. But Christ clearly taught that his mission was to build his church (see Matthew 16). Christ is the head of the church, his body. Christ loves his church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). DeYoung and Kluck clearly state the goal of their book: "we hope that this book might have some small effect in helping people truly love their local church no matter how imperfect it may be and serve in it faithfully for the long haul" (15). They hope to maintain the tension that clearly exists, for church "is an organism and organization, a community and an institution, a living entity with relationships and rules" (16). Though postmoderns pride themselves on embracing a both/and rather than an either/or view of things, they often fail miserably in this in regard to the church. Click here for my extended summary.
Spirituality for the Rest of Us: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Knowing God - Larry Osborne
Pastor Osborne aims "to challenge many of our modern-day, widely accepted, and deeply entrenched ideas about what it means to know God, and about what it is that actually produces spirituality" (15). He succeeds in a few areas, but falls short in many others. We get a good dose of the overly-simplistic religion vs. relationship argument. And in spite of challenging every other convention, Osborne remains committed to the truth that "small groups" are absolutely necessary to spiritual growth. But see Joseph Myers' The Search to Belong for evidence that even small groups are not the silver-bullet solution to spirituality. These quibbles aside, Osborne effectively points out that spiritual growth is not a science: "Yet, if we stop and look back at our own spiritual journey, few of us will find anything close to a neatly laid out linear path. For most of us, the road to spiritual growth and maturity is more like a meandering path punctuated by occasional stretches of unexpected twists and turns" (53). His reflections on the effectiveness of little faith, the dangers of legalism, and what it really means to put God first are very helpful and insightful. This book is a mixed bag for me. The best stuff is in the back half.
Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate - Terry Eagleton
In this book, a literary critic argues for a Marxist middle-ground in the God-debate. He notes that critics of religion usually reject "religion on the cheap": "When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion's own" (xi). To support their ideology, they misrepresent religion: "Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether" (6). "Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places" (6-7). The new atheists usually prove to be "hair-raisingly ignorant of generations of modern biblical scholarship" (54). They claim to be objective, but as Eagleton notes, Dawkins' "God-hating is by no means the view of a dispassionate scientist commendably cleansed of prejudice" (66). Of his atheism Hitchens claims, "Our belief is not a belief... Our principles are not a faith" (124). Eagleton demonstrates that "reason only goes so far" and that, in spite of their oppositions, Dawkins and Hitchens possess certain beliefs with the dogmatic passion of a fiery fundamentalist. "An enlightened trust in the sovereignty of human reason can be every bit as magical as the exploits of Merlin, and a faith in our capacity for limitless self-improvement just as much a wide-eyed superstition as a faith in leprechauns" (89). Dawkins and Hitchens need to be more honest with science: "science, like any other human affair, is indeed shot through with prejudice and partisanship, not to speak of ungrounded assumptions, unconscious biases, taken-for-granted truths, and beliefs too close to the eyeball to be objectified" (132). "On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked upon humanity, he is predictably silent. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare. Yet the Apocalypse, if it ever happens, is far more likely to be the upshot of technology than the work of the Almighty" (133-134). Eagleton calls for respect for religion and views it in harmony with his ultimate allegiance, Marxism.
The Magicians - Lev Grossman
What if Harry Potter took place, not during the wonder years of adolescence, but during the disillusionment of young adulthood? That is the setting for this book. Quentin is enormously gifted and terriby bored with life. Everything he thought would bring happiness has proven empty. He remembers with fondness reading about the magical land of Fillory (a Narnia-like land) and longs for this fantasy world to be real. Surprisingly, he is tested and enrolled in a secret school for young magicians. At first, magic seems great - a taste of Fillory. But he soon realizes it is empty as well. Finally, he and a few friends enter the land of Fillory, and once again disillusionment reigns. Using fantasy, magic, and a good dose of crushed idealism and raging hormones, this tale is about the loss of innocence, wonder, and meaning, and the attempt to regain it. Not bad. Not great.
The Pillars of Creation (Sword of Truth, Book 7) - Terry Goodkind
This book veers from previous books in that Richard and Kahlan are not the main characters. Instead, we are introduced to Jennsen and Oba, two pristinely ungifted people. As bastard children of Darken Rahl that do not possess the gift, they are "pristinely ungifted" and thus impervious to magic. Jennsen spends the first half of the book running from the new Rahl that has ascended to power, Richard, and then decides that she must murder him. Oba, arrogant and vicious, determines to do the same. It is great when Richard and Kahlan finally show up in the latter pages.
Naked Empire (Sword of Truth, Book 8) - Terry Goodkind
Having overcome at the Pillars of Creation, Richard and Kahlan, along with Richard's sister, the pristinely ungifted Jennsen, begin the long journey North. Along the way, Richard notices that other boundaries that separated parts of the Old World are gone. Eventually he discovers the Banished Ones - the pristinely ungifted ones that were banished ages ago. The Banished Ones purport to being an enlightened group that rejects violence. When the Imperial Order begins to occupy and ravage their land, they are helpless. They seek the aid of Richard, an unenlightened savage in their eyes, to deliver them from the Imperial Order. To persuade him they poison him. Poisoned in body and losing grip on his magical powers, Richard must face Nicholas, the Slider, who possesses the power to capture and remove people's souls and use them for his dark arts. In order to win, Richard must convince the non-violent banished ones to take up arms and fight evil. He must also come to grips with his own doubts concerning himself and the use of violence to defeat evil.
Chainfire (Sword of Truth, Book 9) - Terry Goodkind
Note: Spoiler Alert. Don't read further if you want to discover key plot points on your own. I've summarized them for myself in order to keep track of things. Richard would have died from a mortal wound if Nicci had not taken the chance to use Negative Magic to heal him. Richard awakens to realize that no one remembers his beloved Kahlan. They have all forgotten her. She has been erased from their minds. Through the book Richard wrestles to prove his belief that Kahlan is alive. His friends believe that he has lost his mind, and he comes close to believing this as well. He seeks out Shota for answers. Though she cannot remember Kahlan either, she offers him a few words of guidance in exchange for the Sword of Truth. One of the words is Chainfire. In the end, Richard's convictions prove true. Kahlan is alive, but she must be found. Which leads to the next book. Thankfully, this book did not include Richard's extended sermons on the virtues of objectivism. However, it does offer the best brief summary of Richard's beliefs: Rational self-interest is the substance of life. There is no greater good than the individual and his or her own self-interests. Self-interest trumps the "common good," unless of course, the common good is in an individual's own best self-interests. "Those who wish to impose an idea of a greater good are simply haters of the good" (170). Of course, Richard does not see the contradiction in his own definition of the "greater good" and his willingness to impose it on others, even by violent force. His rationalism leads him to argue that "faith is a device of self-delusion... the refuge of fools, the ignorant, and the deluded, not of thinking, rational men" (489). Easy to say when one is a war-wizard! I really enjoy these books, but find the simplistic and (in my opinion) contradictory philosophy offered to diminish my enjoyment a bit. If it weren't so heavy-handed I'd be less critical. But still, I press on. Two more books to go!
Phantom (Sword of Truth, Book 10) - Terry Goodkind
Note: Spoiler Alert. Don't read further if you want to discover key plot points on your own. I've summarized them for myself in order to keep track of things. The Sisters of the Dark have Kahlan and the Boxes of Orden. Because of the Chainfire spell, Kahlan does not know her identity, but assumes she is nothing but a servant. She slowly comes to recognize her importance, even though she does not remember her past. The Sisters think that since they have pledged loyalty to Lord Rahl on their own terms that they are safe from Jagang's mind-control. They ultimately discover that Jagang has been using them all along. And thus, Kahlan finds herself in Jagang's possession. Meanwhile, Richard learns more about his unique gift and unique role in prophecy. Zedd, Nicci, Nathan, Ann and friends realize that there are a number of copies of "The Book of Counted Shadows" and some are corrupt. It turns out that the copy Richard memorized as a child is corrupt, and for that reason, when he used it against Darken Rahl, the boxes were not destroyed. The book ends with Nicci putting the Boxes of Orden in play - the player: Richard Rahl. Now, Richard must open one box before a year ends. Everyone's fate rests on which box Richard will open. Now, to Book 11, the final book!
Confessor (Sword of Truth, Book 11) - Terry Goodkind
Note: Spoiler Alert. Don't read further if you want to discover key plot points on your own. Well, after three months I've finally arrived at the final book. By posing as a Ja'La player, Richard is able to rescue Kahlan. Jagang enters the Garden of Life in order to open the Boxes of Orden, but Richard is able to divide the two worlds, giving everyone what they desire. Those who want a world without magic are given their desire. The rest, reside in peace in a New World ruled by Richard's objectivist philosophy. After reading all the books, I find that Goodkind's views on faith and philosophy are simplistic in the extreme. His tortured and simplistic view of faith is silly and his prizing of Objectivism is extreme. I should have followed people's advice and stopped at Book Five. But I had to know how it ended.
The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement - Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell
We live in a narcissistic culture - a society with an inflated view of self-importance. Narcissism is not simply a confident attitude or healthy feeling of self-worth. Narcissists are arrogant and overconfident. In this outstanding book, the authors diagnose our current cultural situation and offer practical solutions. They cannot be accused of political bias, for one is a liberal democrat, the other, a conservative republican. The authors are convinced that if the general trajectory of our country and its elevated view of the self does not reverse, then we will suffer. They conclude by stating: "We need a new cultural belief: if you love yourself too much, you won't have enough love left for anyone else" (223). For my extended summary of this book, click HERE.
Wizard's First Rule (Sword of Truth, Book 1) - Terry Goodkind
My family is hooked on The Legend of the Seeker and so I decided to read the book. Although I love the television series and recognize its limitations, I found the book extremely enjoyable and much more satisfying, especially in regard to its ending. Spoiler Alert: Don't read further if you want to enjoy this book for yourself. The book's presentation of the Boxes of Orden is much more complex. Richard's budding wizard powers are much more prominent. Kahlan's awareness that she is deeply alone because of her powers is more obvious, and the fact that Richard looks her in the eye and is attracted to her rather than terrified by her plays a bigger role in their budding love relationship. Richard doesn't even find out about her powers until late in the book. In the television series, she explains them in the first episode. I love how, in the book, Richard is able to deceive Darken Rahl (and trick everyone else) by making it seem like he has been confessed by Kahlan. We ultimately find out that her powers don't work on Richard, since he has already given her his heart. Great first book!
Stone of Tears (Sword of Truth, Book 2) - Terry Goodkind
At almost 1000 pages, this was a much more difficult book to get through. By defeating Darken Rahl, Richard has created a teil between this world and the underworld that the Keeper seeks to use to plunge all the living into a living hell. Richard and Kahlan are separated through much of the story. Richard's headaches, caused by his budding Wizard powers, will kill him unless he is collared by one of the Sisters of Light. Kahlan must risk coming across as if she has betrayed Richard by demanding that he put the collar on. In light of his previous torture from the Mord-sith, Demmen, in the first book, he can view the collar as nothing more than being enslaved again. While Richard is being trained, Kahlan searches for Zedd. The plodding pace of this book makes it difficult to wade through. On top of that, the climax comes very quickly, so that all the build-up seems wasted. Regardless, now I'm off to read the third book!
Blood of the Fold (Sword of Truth, Book 3) - Terry Goodkind
It seems like every time Richard is successful, there is a negative repercussion. In the first book, Richard defeated Darkan Rahl, but in the process, tore the veil separating the living from the dead. By defeating the Keeper of the underworld in book two, Richard destroys the boundary separating the Old World from the New World. As the Imperial Order advances, seeking to bring all the Midlands under its tyranny, the Blood of the Fold, a group committed to the elimination of magic, also begins its death march across the land. Emperor Jagang, the dream-walker, is loosed to wreak havoc, and Richard and Kahlan must oppose his emissaries, including the Sisters of the Dark. This was a shorter book (only 600 pages) and, in my opinion, sped along quite nicely. I liked it so much, I'm now beginning the fourth book. Here goes...
Temple of the Winds (Sword of Truth, Book 4) - Terry Goodkind
I'm glad I didn't give up on this series. This was the best book yet. Jagang sends Marlin, a wizard-assassin to kill Richard, and he brings a double-bind prophecy that foretells of a time when Kahlan will betray Richard. At the same time, an old flame, Nadine shows up, and tells Richard that the sorceress Shota has sent her to marry Richard. This arouses jealousy in Kahlan and is a point of contention in their relationship. In fact, one of the fun points of this book is that the opening words are from the Mord-Sith to Kahlan, "Should I kill her?" and this carries through, beginning the next few chapters, until finally one chapter begins with Kahlan saying, "I'm going to kill her!" Richard's brother, another bastard son of Darken Rahl, shows up. A plague develops and Richard must find the Temple of the Winds in order to halt its progress. The last 100 pages are non-stop action with great twists and turns. They held me spellbound as they wrapped up so many threads from the book. The themes of betrayal, the difference between intent and action, and how love binds us to others are prominent in this book. I won't give away the final pages, but something very special occurs and it almost brought me to tears. In my opinion, this was the best book yet, and makes wading through 1000's of pages worth it. Now, on to the fifth book...
Soul of the Fire (Sword of Truth, Book 5) - Terry Goodkind
At the end of Book 4, Kahlan, in order to save Richard's life, had to perform a ritual where she pronounced the names of the three chimes. By doing so, she unwittingly let the chimes loose on the world. The chimes slowly absorb magic. Without the aid of the Sword of Truth or their magic, Richard and Kahlan must reverse what they have done and bring the world to right. In order to do so, they must travel to Anderith where the ancient weapon Dominie Dirtch resides. The story of what the repression of the Hakens by the Anders is compelling. The corrupt leaders exercise control over the Haken by feigning righteousness and superiority. Richard believes he can convince the Anders and Hakens of the truth and goodness of his reign and their need to submit to D'Haran rule rather than the brutal Imperial Order, but in the end the people choose the oppression and bondage of their corrupt rulers. They reject Richard and while shouting out "Give Peace a Chance" they are overrun by the Imperial Order, who could care less for their peace marches. This is a moving, powerful, and disturbing part of the book. Finally, the way that one male leader in Ander exacts his vengeance on his sex-crazed Sovereign and the Sovereign's power-hungry wife and his own star-struck wife is absolutely unbelievable. The force of what he has done does not come through until the final moments. In the end, having been "voted out" by the people of Anderith, Richard leaves for the Westlands. Now, on to Book Six!
Faith of the Fallen (Sword of Truth, Book 6) - Terry Goodkind
This book was tough trudging through. The first 200 pages were great. Richard builds a home deep in the Westland woods so that Kahlan can heal from the near-fatal beating she took at the end of Book 5. It was great to see Richard and Kahlan (and Mord-Sith protector, Cara) happy together for awhile. They are then split up by Nicci, a dark sister who has the power to leave the presence of Jagang. She is searching for an elusive answer and hopes to find it in Richard. This is where the story becomes a bit outlandish. But that won't stop me from proceeding to Book Seven!
Debt of Bones (Sword of Truth Prequel Novel) - Terry Goodkind
This short novel tells the story of young Zedd's creation of the boundaries separating the Midlands from D'Hara and Westland. Zedd, the trickster, uses his wits to defy and deceive Panis Rahl's invading forces. Originally, Zedd must have told a sorceress friend that the boundaries would move into D'Hara, killing all its inhabitants. Zedd tells her that this cost is too high, and that not all D'Haran's are guilty because of their leader's evil. It was nice to read a short Sword of Truth novel for once.
Why Faith Matters - David J. Wolpe
I'll be honest. It was the strange juxtaposition of names on the cover of Rabbi David J. Wolpe's book, Why Faith Matters, which initially drove me to pick it up. Mitch Albom, known for his short and sentimental stories, and Rick Warren, mega-church pastor and author of the bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, both highly recommended Rabbi Wolpe's book. I skimmed through the short book, thinking it may provide some interesting light reading, but expected little more. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this book's depth, passion, and clear, compelling and (dare I say it) beautiful case for faith. Though it is not as detailed or scholarly as Keith Ward's excellent Is Religion Dangerous? or The Case for Religion, it serves the same purpose, in a remarkably accessible and inspiring way. I recommend this book to all believers who desire to strengthen their faith and for skeptics and agnostics who want to gain a fuller perspective on the possibilities and promise of gracious and life-affirming religion.
The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development - Richard Weissbourd
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Our well-meaning actions can often blow up in our face. In this helpful and insightful book, Harvard child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd exposes some of the ways well-intentioned parents undermine their children's moral and emotional development. Our children need a stronger foundation than self-interest and peer approval. We need to help our children nurture and develop their moral commitments. We must be parents, teachers, and mentors for our children's sake. For parenting is not about us feeling good, but about our children becoming good, principled, moral adults. For my extended summary of this book, click HERE.
At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message - L. Ann Jervis
By examining Paul's letters, Jervis hopes to learn how we, as Christians, should respond to suffering. "The challenge to suffer is, then, not a call to seek out suffering. It is rather an exhortation to continue in faith, love, and hope while we suffer" (35). "Believers have the hope that, while our afflictions a present tense, they do not have a future. This means we can even say that all our sufferings work together for good" (121). "The effect of the cross and resurrection is not that suffering is experienced by either Christians or non-Christians any less intensely or horrifically. It remains suffering... But those who accept Paul's message no longer suffer in darkness. In Christ, the light of God has broken into the black prison of the world's pain" (135).
Humane Christianity: Arguing with the Classic Christian Spiritual Disciplines in the Light of Jesus of Nazareth - Alan Bartlett
While seeking the best, we may actually encourage the worst: inhumane religion. Bartlett believes that some qualities and disciplines Christians have valued in the past have proven to be unhelpful in the present. Bartlett seeks to shape Christian spirituality in light of Christ's humanity. He claims that if we do this, "we will be more fully alive, more merciful, more humane" (xiii). This is preferable to "a Church that is hostile to human desires and careless about human dignity" (10). For one, we need to embrace a more material spirituality. Creation is good and will be redeemed. One expression of our sinfulness is our "unwillingness to accept our identity as material creatures, whether that is seen in the modern quest for endless youth or our arrogance towards the dignity of the rest of the created world, and towards God" (24). God is renewing our humanity, not replacing it. Some ancient Christian teaching seems to so denigrate the enjoyment of creation that it denies how Jesus actually lived: "the good things in life are given by God to be enjoyed - whether it is the taste of good wine or singing and dancing... Jesus himself was a party-goer and parties are not free. I want to say that it is alright to party" (49). This book is full of provocative challenges to ancient spiritual disciplines - seeking to find what is good in each one, but also recognizing that if the ancient spiritual disciplines are not filtered through the person of Jesus, they may prove more oppressive than liberating.
The Sacredness of Questioning Everything - David Dark
Dark believes that questions are the key to spiritual vitality. In this book, he questions God, religion, the media, language, and governments. Sometimes his analysis is a bit heady, but his use of popular culture to illustrate his points is superb. One of his main point is that if we believe that God is angry, offended, and on the defensive, then we might conclude that to act this way is to be more firmly aligned with the Almighty. But Dark calls us to a more thoughtful, critical, and gracious Christianity. We must be willing to question our own interpretations and, indeed, our own thoughts about God in order that we might be faithful witnesses of the God beyond our thoughts and interpretations. We must not forget that, even at our best, we are cracked and flawed people: "there are cracks in absolutely everything... The cracks ... are how the light shines in, and it is only by remaining aware of our imperfections that we remain open to redemption and reform" (14). I really like his thought that "the real story might not be evil versus good, but death versus resurrection" (230).
Off the Rails: Aboard the Crazy Train in the Blizzard of Oz - Rudy Sarzo
As a teenager, I was blown away by Randy Rhoads guitar playing on Ozzy Osbourne's first two solo albums. They not only played in constant rotation on my stereo, but I also saw the band play live in Indianapolis a few months before Randy's fatal airplane crash. I remember feeling the tragic loss of such a great musician at such a young age. In this book, Rudy Sarzo, who toured with Rhoads during these years (and also went on to play with Quiet Riot, Whitesnake, and now Dio) tells the story of these years on the road with Randy. It is a bittersweet story, because we know how it will end. Such talent lost. And yet, this is the stuff that makes guitar legends. Rudy tells the story well. He is upfront about his faith in Jesus and how this turned his life around at a young age. He also honors Randy by shedding light on how Randy was just beginning to come to his own. He was working hard at his craft and if he had lived, I am confident his playing would only have gotten better. In light of this book, I've been listening to these first two albums again and recognizing how brilliant the guitar work is and how good the songs are crafted. This was a great book for any fan of Randy Rhoads. Thanks for writing it Rudy! One final note: Rudy offers many examples of concert reviews. After one particular scathing review he offers this gem of truth: "By now I've come to realize that the ones who can actually play go on to become real musicians, while the ones who can't go on to become critics" (93).
Enemies & Allies: The Dark Knight Meets the Man of Steel - Kevin J. Anderson
Having read and deeply enjoyed Anderson's previous book, The Last Days of Krypton, I delved into his new book about the first meeting between Batman and Superman with great vigor. The story is set in the 1950's postwar fear of the Communist menace and the threat of bombs that could destroy the world. Superman and Batman are both initially suspicious of one another. Superman thinks Batman is hiding something behind the mask. Batman things Superman, committed to regulations, is in league with Lex Luthor. I found this to be an exciting and enjoyable story. Not quite as good as the Animated Series' story of the heroes' first encounter, but still pretty good.
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University - Kevin Roose
During his sophomore year at Brown University, Kevin Roose transferred to Liberty University in order to gain first-hand experience of Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp." In order to fully immerse himself in the experience, he freely chose to conform to the forty-six-page code of conduct called "The Liberty Way." No drinking. No smoking. No cursing. No dancing. No kissing. No R-rated movies. These are just a handful of the rules - rules that clearly reveal the wide divide between Kevin's experience at Brown University and the world of Liberty University. Find out what he learned by clicking HERE.
American Babylon - Richard John Neuhaus
Richard John Neuhaus' final book is a stirring call to civility and hope in our troubled political and cultural climate. Neuhaus fears that, for both the left and the right, "God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two" (24). As Christians, our chief allegiance is to the City of God. We are citizens of the kingdom, and thus we walk as aliens as strangers in this world; "every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland a foreign country. America is our homeland, and, as the prophet Jeremiah says, in its welfare is our welfare... America, too, is Babylon. It is, for better and worse, the place of our pilgrimage through time toward home" (26). The church must remain a pilgrim people. We must refuse to conflate God with our social agenda. Neuhaus warns: "without a Church that bears a promise and a purpose that transcend the American experience, the American experience itself, in ways both subtle and vulgar, offers itself as a substitute church" (50). Neuhaus concludes with a stirring call to the theological virtue of hope!
The Three Tasks of Leadership: Worldly Wisdom for Pastoral Leaders - edited by Eric O. Jacobsen
A minister is called to be a preacher, pastor, and leader. This book is a series of essays elaborating on the leadership insights of Max De Pree, and particularly, his quote, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor." The leader defines reality not by demanding, "my way or the highway" but by casting vision for the community by teaching "the grammar of the faith." The leader is a servant - welcoming a life of service for the sake of others without regard to cost. This reflects the heart of God revealed in Christ. Finally, the leader shows dependence on others through gratitude.
Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average - Joseph T. Hallinan
Hallinan points out different reasons why we often make mistakes. We skim rather than really see. We remember what is meaningful to us. We simply. We cannot really multitask. We tidy things up. We are overconfident and think we are above average. This book is similar to Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).
Steal Across the Sky - Nancy Kress
In this book we follow three humans sent to an alien planet to witness with their own eyes the wrong done in the past to humanity by the mysterious Atoners. Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you plan on reading this. Eventually, they discover that in the past the Atoners experimented with humanity, removing DNA from ancient humans that allowed them to see the dead. When the witnesses return to earth with the story that humans should be able to see the dead, and that, therefore, there really is an afterlife, some believe and others don't. Scientists refuse to believe this is true, attributing the sight of the dead to telepathy or some other more plausible explanation. The difference between scientific evidence and eyewitness testimony is highlighted in one exchange between Cam - a witness - and scientists. The scientist says, "Until we have any real evidence that--" "And what I saw doesn't count as evidence?" Cam was shouting now... "My eyewitness account doesn't mean anything? And not Frank's and not Jack's and not Andy's and not Christina's and--" "None of you is a trained observer, are you?" Dr. Frantz said (271). To add to her frustration, Cam is uneducated, lacking a college degree, and the scientists hold it against her (much like a modern day Mary Magdalene who witnesses the resurrection). The Atoners truly atone (or do their best to atone), but it takes awhile to uncover how they are doing it. The final pages give us evidence of whether humans with the old DNA are truly seeing the dead. It is a fantastic finale. I really enjoyed this book!
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon
This book was recommended to me by one of the youth at my church. This is a first-person account of Christopher Boone. Christopher is autustic and a mathematic genuis. His mother is dead and his father does his best to raise him alone. Christopher discovers that a neighbor's dog has been killed with a fork and seeks to uncover the mystery. Along the way we learn about his relationship with his father and mother - and that a greater mystery exists in regard to his mother's absence. We also are given unique insights into the world of autism.
The Last Colony - John Scalzi
The sequel to Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades finds John Perry and Jane Sagan recruited to found a new colony consisting of people from ten different colonies. They quickly find out there is more than meets the eye. The Colonial Union tries to use this new colony to confound the growing Conclave (a confederation of 412 species). Is the Conclave a threat to human existence? Or has the Colonial Union been too war-hungry? This final book provides a satisfying wrap-up to the series.
Spares - Michael Marshall Smith
A novel about cloned humans who are grown and kept in a facility as spare parts for their wealthy counterparts. I was fascinated by the premise, but the story was mostly a future noir thriller, so I struggled to finish it.
Pride of Baghdad - Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
Four lions escape from the Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in 2003. Along the way they wrestle with their newfound freedom. Their experiences mirror those of the Iraqi citizens displaced by the conflict.
God's Top 10: Blowing the Lid Off the Commandments - Anne Robertson
Anne provides a unique book on the commandments by focusing on "the public and social face of moral behavior" (xii). She is concerned to confront the systems and issues that make it difficult to obey the Ten Commandments. She has strong (and often controversial) opinions, but she offers them with humility and grace. She intends her reflections to be "discussion starters, not conclusions" (xv). For example, in regard to the first commandment, she speaks of how profit and national interest can become idols that infect our system: "The danger is not that we love our country, but that we love our country more than God. ... The danger is not that we want to make a profit from our labor, but that profit becomes the thing for which we will make ultimate sacrifices. This is a commandment about the centrality of God" (14). Although her sympathies are decidedly liberal, she is humble enough to seek common ground and embrace the possibility of needing correction: "I've read the Bible cover to cover more times than I can count and trust me--there are more than enough Bible passages, even within the sayings of Jesus, to make both Republicans and Democrats decidedly uncomfortable" (23).
Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe - Edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward
Heretical beliefs stand in opposition to orthodox beliefs and produce division within the church at the very points where the church should be unified. Heretical teaching fails because it either says too much (removing all mystery by explaining what cannot be explained) or doesn't go far enough (failing to maintain the full radicalness of orthodox Christianity and replacing it with a more common-sense solution). If heresy is guilty of saying too much or not going far enough, the challenge of orthodoxy is great: "When all is said and done orthodoxy is the hard discipline of learning to say what needs to be said and no more" (x). Consequently, "Orthodoxy shows why what we believe cannot be explained but can only be prayed" (x). Orthodoxy is worship. It is the best human expression of divine mysteries. It attempts to preserve the mystery while simultaneously refusing to explain it away. Thus, orthodox belief is not "some sort of easy way out of intellectual hard work; heresy is more often the easier option" (7). For an extended summary of this book, click HERE.
Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box: Opening up to a Limitless Faith - Anne Robertson
Let's not be afraid to admit it. We all do it. Without it, we simply have no practical means by which to approach God. What am I referring to? We all put God in a box! It is an overused metaphor, but Pastor Anne Robertson breathes new life into it by turning it upside down. Often, those who refer to our tendency to place God-in-a-box warn their listeners to refrain from this practice altogether. But this is naïve and misguided. We all do it. We all have to do it or God remains an empty term, void of meaning and unable to guide any sustainable practice. Anne encourages us to admit we have a God-box. But she then challenges us to make sure we never close the lid! For my extended reflection on this great book click HERE.
The Ten Commandments - edited by William P. Brown
This book is a collection of essays on the history of interpreting the Ten Commandments and contemporary reflections on the Decalogue in our culture.
I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments - edited by Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz
Another collection of essays on the Ten Commandments offers some real gems. The first two essays disagree on whether the Ten Commandments reflect "natural law" and thus have universal significance. The essay on how the state attempts to subvert our allegiance by allowing it rather than God to define who must die in wars is outstanding! In our self-centered, individualistic society, we must learn once again that only God deserves our ultimate allegience, and that we are - above all else - moral beings in the image of God made to reflect God's holiness, personally and corporately.
Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them - David Anderegg
Making fun of nerds and geeks is tolerated in our society because most people view this as harmless fun. David Anderegg argues that this is bad for our children and even worse for our society. If our children come to believe that their only two options are to be sexy and attractive or intelligent and ugly, there is little doubt which option they will pick - especially as their hormones kick in during their tweenage and teenage years. This does not bode well for academic achievement or respect of elders. Even worse are the social consequences of anti-intellectualism and underachievement. Take it from an admitted geek who desperately tried to fit in (and self-destructed in the process) and has finally embraced his inner geekdom: The toleration of making fun of nerds and geeks is not harmless fun but has serious consequences for our children and for our society. We must bear this in mind in order to oppose the oppressive influence of our consumer and hyper-sexualized culture. For my extended review, click HERE.
The Thief of Always - Clive Barker
I love Barker's horror stories for adults, so I thought I would give his children's book a try. It was a fast-paced engaging story about how one child's desire to escape his "boring" life leads him to a house of illusion. Over time, he comes to discover how his longing for illusion has caused him to lose more than he bargained for. He eventually comes to fight the evil by exposing the emptiness of the illusion. Finally, he comes to value his whole life - the "boring" days as well as the good days. Reality is much better than illusion.
Show of Hands - Anthony McCarten
A desperate auto dealer holds a contest to generate business. The rules are simple: Whoever can keep one hand on a Land Rover the longest wins the car. The contest draws a mass of people desperate to win the vehicle. However, it gathers little media attention and gains no new business. We mainly follow two characters: Tom, an arrogant know-it-all who feels the world owes him his due and Jess, an insecure single mother of a physically disabled child. It is interesting to note all the diverse reasons people give for participating in the contest. The quiet desperation that underlies most people's lives is highlighted, as well as the cheats who will do anything to win. I came to really enjoy the characters and their interaction. Even though Tom is a real jerk, the author provides reasons for us to understand his frustration - and why he is so often misunderstood. As much fun as this was on one level, it was also, in its own peculiar way, a love story.
The Walls of the Universe - Paul Melko
John Prime tricks his doppelganger, John Rayburn, into using a device to travel into a parallel universe. He doesn't tell him that the device is broken and that John Rayburn can only move incrementally through universes - he cannot return to his former universe. John Prime then begins a new life in John Rayburn's world, taking advantage of the world's lack of knowledge of the Rubik's cube to make money through his creation of the Rayburn cube. Meanwhile, John Rayburn travels from universe to universe, seeking to find a way back home. This was a fun, fast-moving journey. It was interesting to watch how the two John's lives worked out.
Old Man's War - John Scalzi
In the future, when people turn 75, they have the option to enter to join the military - the Colonial Defense Forces that combat alien species in a war to enable the human colonization of habitable planets. Their bodies are rejuvenized. If they survive for 10 years - which is highly unlikely - they will be allowed to retire from the Colonial Defense Forces and become a civilian on a newly colonized planet. This is a fascinating, fast-moving, and very enjoyable read about war and its toll. Diplomacy is not an option - it takes too much work. The endless combat and bloodshed takes its toll on John Perry, the main character.
The Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi
Having thoroughly enjoyed Old Man's War, I picked up this sequel and found it equally enjoyable and entertaining. Jerad Dirac possesses the body and memories of Charles Boutin, a scientific genius who faked his death in order to join up with a new aliance of three alien races bent on fighting the human race. It takes awhile for Boutin's memories to kick in, but when they do Jerad has to wrestle with his own identity and ability to make choices. Jane Sagan - a Special Forces character from the first novel - plays a significant role in this book. Like the first book, the science is fun and interesting, and the action is fast-paced. Guess this means I'll be reading the next sequel. Stay tuned.
The Glister - John Burnside
Children go missing in Innertown, a town suffering from the effects of a failed chemical plant and the toxic environment it has created. The authorities do nothing about the children's disappearances. Their story is that the children have left town for a better life, but there is a greater mystery at work. Burnside's reflections on life, death, and meaning are profound, and the story unravels in a gripping way (I read it all in one sitting), but the ending left me unsatisfied, mostly, because I'm not quite sure what happened. Regardless, I enjoyed the ride and will probably reflect for awhile on unraveling its meaning.
Inferno - Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
After accidentally falling to his death, science fiction writer, Allen Carpentier, cannot believe he is in hell. As he experiences the landscape of hell that clearly resembles Dante's vision, he assumes that some alien technology has pieced this place together for some ulterior purpose. He cites the science fiction axiom to prove this: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Not sure what to believe, Carpentier follows a guide named Benito to descend to the very depths of hell, in order to escape.
Escape from Hell - Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
This is the sequel to Inferno. Allen Carpenter stays behind in Hell in order to discover its purpose. He must confront his fear that God is a god of infinite power and infinite sadism. He cannot understand how the punishments of Hell fit their crimes. He wants to find out if everyone is able to escape from Hell if they ever decide to do so. Over time, he finds some who are able, and some who wish to never escape. Some do learn and repent of the error of their ways. Others do not - and have absolutely no desire to do so. Allen must wrestle with the fact that he - with his limited knowledge - wants to judge God. In one discussion, Carl Sagan asks Sylvia Plath, "What gives God the right to demand we worship Him?" Sylvia responds, "Maybe we just need Him, and we're miserable if we don't have Him." This is an interesting, and surprisingly, generally orthodox treatment of Hell.
American Nerd: The Story of My People - Benjamin Nugent
This book was a letdown after reading the far superior Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg. Outside a few interesting comments concerning the origin of the word nerd and connecting it to Jerry Lewis' portrayal of The Nutty Professor, this book offers little to chew on. Nugent's nerds span a wide spectrum. In the end, Nugent denies his subtitle by telling how he left the world of nerds in order to become cool at age 14! I didn't feel like Nugent qualifies as a nerd, understands nerds, or even observes nerds in an interesting fashion. Again, if you are interested in the topic, read Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg instead!
The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher - Rob Stennent
Ryan Fisher is a born salesman looking for fame and fortune. After watching his sales double when he places an ad with his picture by an icthus symbol (the Jesus fish) in the Christian Business Directory, Ryan comes up with a new plan. He decides to use his business savvy to plant a church and build an empire. There is only one problem: Ryan does not believe in God. This is an interesting book on many levels. It is well-written and fun to read. It playfully pokes fun at many Christian conventions. It challenges pastors (and all Christians) to think about why they are doing ministry in the first place. As the story progresses, Ryan runs through every major leadership fad in the past few decades. He puts together a church that is fun, relevant, and seeker-friendly. He then moves on to a more Late Night talk-show format interviewing people in crisis, choosing Leno's style over Letterman's. He then decides to imitate Oprah's model of new-age, self-help (yet relatively godless) spirituality. At first his wife Katherine is excited by all the attention, but she eventually sees the error of her ways and calls Ryan's bluff. In her confrontation with Ryan, she finds out that there is a more diabolical edge to his actions. When she tells him, "You're not God!" Ryan counters by saying, "I'm better than God. God can't help them... But I can actually help them. I can change their lives." Katherine realizes that Ryan's "problem wasn't that he didn't believe in God. The problem was that he believed he was God (281). As the scriptures teach, Pride goes before a fall. Ryan's ruse is exposed and his empire collapses. Though an enjoyable read, it is hard to determine the moral of the story. Ryan's church explodes in numbers through business techniques and gimmicks in spite of his unbelief. Does this mean that these techniques and gimmicks work on their own - apart from faith? If so, what does this say about faithfulness? Is faith really necessary to build a church? Or is it simply a matter or implementing the right techiques? What does this imply about the kind of church that is created by these fads and gimmicks? In the story, it is clear that people's lives are truly changed by Ryan's church. Is this an affirmation of the fads and gimmicks? Or does it simply demonstrate God's amazing mercy and grace in using poor means and broken (even bad) people to bring about God's good ends? Maybe the book is like a modern day story of Joseph or Esther - a story where God is hardly mentioned, but God is at work the entire time, through strange events and unintentional actions. Or perhaps the book is simply a challenge to pastors to be real rather than phony. Regardless, its a fun ride!
GameNight - Jonny Nexus
Lately, I've been in a nostalgic mode, revisiting my youthful fascination with role-playing games. For gamers, this book is a hilarious look at all the oddities of gaming. I particularly liked the mindless warrior whose answer for everything was simply to attack and destroy. If you are a gamer, this is a clever and fun book. If you're not a gamer, then nothing in this book will make sense.
Infected and Contagious - Scott Sigler
I really enjoyed these two books by Scott Sigler about an alien infection that becomes more horrific with each chapter. My favorite character, Perry Dawsey, a former football star, is able to use his abusive childhood to aid him in overcoming the infection. If you like good sci-fi with an edge of horror and elements of a thriller, check this out. The books definitely made me think twice every time I reached to itch a scratch. Can't wait to see if there is a third book!
The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life - Stanley M. Hauerwas, William H. Willimon
Contrary to modern ideas of freedom, "God demands freedom from Egyptian slavery so that the Hebrews may go out into the wilderness to worship (Exodus 3:18)." In contrast to other ancient societies and their gods, Yahweh's call is unique: "This God has a peculiar notion of worship in comparison with other gods. Some gods are into war or sex or gold. Here is a God who wants a holy people, a family where everyone is clergy" (16). Consequently, "The commandments are not guidelines for humanity in general. They are a countercultural way of life for those who know who they are and whose they are" (18). In order to embrace the commandments we must reject our culture's anemic definition of freedom. "Because we live in a culture where submission to any authority other than our own egos is considered unduly authoritarian and unfair, command-obedience is difficult for us. We have freed ourselves from all external authority except servitude to the self. This we hail as freedom, though Israel testifies that slavery (particularly slavery as the necessity to do "what I want to do") comes in many guises" (26). I'm in the process of reading multiple books on the Ten Commandments for a Summer sermon series. But if you can only buy one book for personal use, this is the one to purchase. As usual, Hauerwas and Willimon provide much food for thought!
Feed - M. T. Anderson
In a nightmarish novel of the future, the human body is directly and irreversibly connected to a live corporate feed that pours forth an endless stream of information and advertising meant to stimulate consumption. Things - cars, clothes, hairstyles - go from "in" to "out" in a matter of days. Every situation and circumstance brings a relevant feed that advertises a new product to purchase. The teenagers are superficial stoners and the parents aren't much better. The environment is toxic (because of endless consumption) and the teenagers all wear their skin lesions with pride. When lesions prove to be blasé, one girl pays for cuts to be made in her skin, capped off in plastic, allowing her insides to be seen as she moves. Violet, who had her feed implanted later in life, responds in disgust and screams to a crowd of kids fawning over the cuts: "Look at us! You don't have the feed! You are feed! You're feed! You're being eaten! You're raised for food! Look at what you've made yourselves!" (160). Violet sees through the smokescreen of the feed: "The only thing worse than the thought it may all come tumbling down is the thought that we may go on like this forever" (154). Eventually, she finds out her feed has not taken to her body, and is going bad. Because it is connected to every bodily system, it cannot be removed. If it is not fixed, she will die. She seeks to have it fixed, but the corporation that provides the feed responds, "We're sorry, Violet Durn. Unfortunately, FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don't feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time" (195). As Violet dies, she confesses to her boyfriend Titus, "Everything I think of when I think of really living, living to the full - all my ideas are just the opening credits of sitcoms" (174). When Titus abandons Violet, her father confronts Titus, "We Americans are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them"--he pointed at his daughter--"what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away" (228). This book is intended for teenagers, but I think this haunting parable of the dehumanizing aspects of consumerism is better suited for adults.
Death With Interruptions - Jose Saramago
The novel begins and ends with these words, "The following day, no one died." It is the story of a period of time in a certain unnamed country where death literally takes a holiday. The disappearance of death - at first something that provokes great celebration and national patriotism - ultimately proves devastating. It negatively impacts undertakers, insurance agents, and retirement homes and hospitals which begin to overflow. People too old or diseased who will neither die nor be restored to health prove overwhelming. Eventually, death (which is personified) returns, but promises to warn people one week in advance of their death through the mail. The letter reads: "Dear sir, I regret to inform you that in a week your life will end, irrevocably and irremissibly. Please make the best use you can of the time remaining to you, yours faithfully, death." This proves to be another disaster. And then, one person "cheats" death, leading to another twist in the story. This is a great tale (almost a twisted fairy-tale or parable) that plays on our fear of death. It presents the possibility of the end of the human experience of death - not in resurrection glory, but by maintaining "more of the same." This is a nightmare. There is a fascinating part of the tale where death is shown holding an index card for every person: Death watches people "as they rush hither and thither, unaware that they're heading in the same direction, that one step forward will take them just as close to death as one step back, that it makes no difference because everything will have but one ending, the ending that a part of yourself will always have to think about and which is the black stain on your hopeless humanity" (183).
The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman
Although the link above only refers to Volume 1, I have just completed the entire 10 Volumes that cover 75 (or 76, I can't remember) issues of Sandman. This is an epic story about Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. He is one of the Endless along with Destiny, Death, Destruction, Despair, Desire, and Delirium - a group of beings who embody powerful forces or aspects of the universe. The stories are good, but they do seem at times to meandor about. But the two final volumes bring together everything in one grand, epic, unbelievably great climax. I will definitely be reading this - and by this, I mean all 10 volumes - again!
The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully - Joan Chittister
I will be painfully honest: I am not afraid of death, but I am afraid of old age! I believe in eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. I don't believe that death is the end. The hope of resurrection gives me personal comfort in life and in death. But I have seen firsthand the trials and tribulations of old age. The challenges that accompany the senior years overwhelm me. I can hardly picture myself weathering these challenges in a courageous way that honors God. I am, quite frankly, terrified when I think of growing older. For this reason Joan Chittister's book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, is a godsend for me. It has lifted my fears and given me hope for the future. Its one dominant theme is that the later years can be a blessing and not a burden when approached with faith, hope, and love. She convincingly argues that the spiritual task of later life is to twofold: to overcome the burdens of this new stage of life by embracing its unique blessings. For an extended summary of some of her rich thoughts, click HERE.
Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? - Hans Urs von Balthasar
Balthasar offers two reflections rooted in the Jesus revealed in the sacred scriptures, for he argues that "every critical attempt to approach [Jesus] from a position other than that of the faith witnessed to in the Scriptures can only result in a pallid, distorted picture unworthy of belief (and hence devoid of interest)" (5-6). The first reflection is on Jesus' knowledge of us; the second is on our knowledge of Jesus. Why is this important? "It is a fact: only the person who is convinced that Jesus knows him personally gains access to knowledge of him. And only the person who is confident of knowing him as he is, can know that he is also known by him" (6). God is not an object for reason. Reason cannot contain God. God is known through love: "if one loves God, one is known by him" (1 Cor. 8:1). "Everything begins with the love of God: this is waht gives rise to the real knowledge which can fulfill man's yearnings" (54). This knowledge is mutual: "I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14). Jesus is God's interpreter and the revelation is love. The Spirit is the interpreter of Jesus, and manifests this love to us. Through the divine witness we believe in God's loving knowledge of us: "We know and believe the love God has for us" (1 John 4:16). Like Paul, our trust is personal and rooted in God's love for us: "I know whom I have believed." It is not, "I know what I have believed" but "I know whom I have believed."
Missing the Mark: Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology - Mark E. Biddle
Salvation, according to the Bible, is from sin. What then is sin? Contrary to our Western emphasis on personal guilt and individual sinful actions, sin cannot be reduced to a single, simple concept. The Bible employs a variety of terms to describe sin. Though we tend to focus on guilt, the primary term used to describe sin is "missing the mark." Sin is not simply transgressing God's commands - a prideful overreaching of ourselves. Sin is also underachieving - failing to live fully human lives. Thus, sin is expressed in pride (overreaching) but also in sloth, despair, and apathy (underachieving). Both these expressions are rooted in distrust - a refusal to trust God. Also, contrary to Western individualism, sin is never just the responsibility of an individual. It is informed by a twisted context and contributes to its further twistedness. Once sin is committed, it takes a life of its own. Its consequences may exceed the initial "act." Even if forgiven, sin's consequences in God's moral universe can linger: "Sometimes the consequences of an act of wrongdoing are irreversible... Sincerely to repent of one's decision seconds after jumping from a bridge does not prompt God to reverse the effects of gravity" (127). This book is an outstanding introduction to the Bible's treatment of sin. By refusing to reduce the act of sin to prideful transgression and the consequence of sin to individual guilt, it offers a more robust, realistic, and relevant view of sin and its consequences and our need to be saved from it.