The Legend of the Firefish

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Legend of the Firefish, by George Bryan Polivka

I've been a bit wordy lately, and it's getting late, so I'll keep this post short. Basically, this book was a stinker.

This is a sterling example of Christian fiction. Authors try to make profound theological points while hiding in trendy literature. The writing wasn't awful, but the story felt like "Pirates of the Caribbean" edited for a youth group. I guess my biggest complaint with the book was the author's lack of imagination. He tried to create another world, but it was basically a copy of 18th century England with fire-breathing fish. Half the names were English, and half were made up, but they all sounded clunky: Land Lunder, Packer Throme, Will Seline, Scat Wilkins, etc. They lived in the country of Nearing Vast and had sheriffs from the City of Mann. Their currency was "gold coins"--there wasn't even a descriptive name for money. Tolkien created detailed, comprehensive worlds with their own histories. CS Lewis made earth seem like a weak copy of his own worlds. This author could have had a much more believable book if he had just made it historical fiction.

I'll spare you an excerpt this time. Just imagine some mildly interesting sword fights interspersed with "good grief" moments. Meh.

P.S. Read the first review on Amazon--their a good evaluation of the author's theology and pacifism. The main character's mantra (who was a Christian character) was "resist not evil." What?!? A pirate ship is not the place to practice that theory.

A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the uniqueness of the Shoah, by Alain Besancon

I've been putting off writing this review. I'm not sure why: I raved about this book to anyone who would listen. Despite its subject matter, I raced through reading it, but maybe now it's catching up with me. After a long day, tired Rachel just doesn't feel like curling up in bed and thinking about... a century of horrors.

It really was a fantastic book though. It evaluates Nazism and Communism, especially how they relate to the Holocaust (or "Shoah" if you're Jewish). The author avoided the grisly details of both ideologies to instead evaluate the bigger issues: physical destruction, moral destruction, the destruction of political life, theology, and memory.

Have you ever wondered why Nazism is considered evil incarnate, and communism just brings to mind "McCarthyism" and badly dressed dictators? According to the author, we have "hypernesia" of the former and amnesia of the latter, even though communism killed more people by over a factor of ten. The best analysis, I think, can be summed up from the following quote from "Physical Destruction" (chapter 1).

  • The mode of killing is not a criterion of evaluation. The temptation to judge one death as innately more terrible than another must be resisted: no death can be seen from the inside. No one can know what a child experienced while inhaling Zyklon B gas or while starving to death in a Ukrainian isba. Because people were killed without any form of justice, one must exclaim that they all perished terribly--one person as much as the next--because they were innocent. (p. 11)

This quote references premeditated "famines" in Ukraine by Stalin, who simply decided to eliminate some Slavic people. Just because.

I would like to read this book again someday. It was concise but powerful. It's been a long time since I've read philosophy, and I would probably comprehend more if I were better-read. I haven't heard references to Hegel, Hume, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, or Trotsky since high school. The chapter on Memory was particularly over my head, probably because the author reference French politics and wrote from a Jewish perspective. As a Christian, I disagreed with a few minor points about Christianity, but he "gets" it, what Christianity is really about.

I was struck by Chapter 4 in particular, "Theology." He argued that both Nazism and Communism hated Christianity and Judaism because their gods were jealous. Fundamentally they are both evangelistic worldviews: Nazis thought the world would be redeemed through the "Aryan" people, and communism thought the world would be saved through their new definition of morality. They both tried to destroy God because they were/are His enemies, and they couldn't abide a God greater than them.

I highly recommend this book.

Smile When You're Lying

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Smile When You’re Lying, by Chuck Thompson

I didn't want to admit reading this book, but it’s not very honest to omit less-than-stellar books. I read it: here’s the review.

The author is a travel writer who was tired of sucking up to the various industries in travel, where everything is ‘breathtaking!’, ‘delicious!' and ‘an enticing mix of the old and new!’ So he wrote this book as an outlet for colorful stories like Shanghai Bob's exploits, muggings, and waking up in a pool of his own vomit. The biggest caveat of the book was that it was as descriptive of the Thai sex industry as you would expect an unregenerate, anti-Christian single man to be.

Still, it was funny. Right away, I pegged him as from the Pacific Northwest. He had that cranky, sunshine-deprived, angry liberal outlook on life that I remember from growing up in Oregon. Who else would say that by voluntarily paying taxes, even if you vote Democrat, you have Iraqi blood on your hands?

Chapter titles like "Is it okay to miss the Cold War? The philosophical dilemma of Eastern Europe" and "Why Latin America isn't the world's number one tourist destination and probably never will be" reveal the kind of humor to be found in this book. My honey kept reading me quotes and cracking up while I was trying to read a serious book, and it was very hard to concentrate while your spouse reads you excerpts like these (p. 100):

"American public school teachers have the world's best PR operation going. Whining every chance they get about how demanding their jobs are, how many "extra hours" they put in, how little they make, how much of their own money they have to spend just to do their jobs, how noble they are working this job that nobody ever asked them to do--welcome to the (expletive) world."

Thompson writes about the travel industry, hack travel writers, how he became a writer, destinations he should love but doesn't, and surprising locations that became his favorites. He is a funny (but crude) writer, and he has an excellent grasp of history. I learned several back stories to historical events I thought I knew. The book closed with an unexpected positive tone. As a general rule, Americans are the cleanest and most polite travellers you will ever meet, despite an international image that is otherwise ("Americans are the new Germans," page 301). Depending on how the supply of foreign oil concludes, we could be in the golden age of travel right now.

"You can take a week off work and be in Dakar or Tashkent or Borneo in less time than it took Ben Franklin to get from Boston to Philadelphia. Largely taken for granted, this revolutionary ability to go anywhere on a whim has altered our perception of the world in ways we probably don't fully comprehend. If that instant mobility is taken away, our worldview will be drastically reshaped again. The planet could once more become a forbidding place, expensive to see and scary to traverse, one that forces us to reexamine the basic lessons about the world collective that travel used to teach. This might not be a bad thing."

Hard to Believe

Hard to Believe, by John MacArthur

Let me just start, by saying I love my honey. He’s leaving for a business trip tomorrow, the beginning of a month of in-and-outs and back-and-forths for the next month and a half or so. He said he feels bad to leave me alone for so long with just the baby and a hyper dog, so he encouraged me to go out tonight and get some alone time while I can. Isn’t that thoughtful?

So here I am at Starbucks, finally with the opportunity to write about what I’ve been reading lately. (Sidenote: why doesn’t Starbucks offer free wi-fi? Isn’t it bad enough to pay $4.50 for a skinny decaf cinnamon dolce latte? They want me to pay $6.00 for the internet, too?) Last week, I finished “Hard to Believe,” by John MacArthur. I got it on clearance at the Green Valley Book Fair, and I’m not surprised it was discounted twice by two separate retailers. The premise of the book is it is hard to follow Jesus: it’s not about signing a pledge card or walking down the aisle. It’s a powerful condemnation of seeker-sensitive churches, marketing the gospel, and examples like Robert Schuller’s “Self-Esteem: The New Reformation.” To quote from MacArthur on page 11: “So you want to follow Jesus, do you? It will cost you absolutely everything.”

MacArthur thoroughly builds his argument, starting with Jesus’ teachings about self-denial, and then moves to the unpopularity of the concept of God’s sovereignty, the disgust of crucifixion, and the lowliness of his followers. Thomas More disparaged Martin Luther by calling him a “privy pot”, which isn’t much of a stretch from the Apostle Paul saying that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) In true paradoxical Christianity, I found this chapter particularly encouraging. It’s always a struggle for me to get everything done on my daily list; I could always be smarter, richer, thinner, funnier, etc. I stutter, I’m not ‘contributing to society’, and my second toe on each foot is freakishly long. After reading this, I was encouraged that I am among the foolish, lowly, and the “dregs of society” according to Paul (1 Corinthians 4:13). God has chosen me to glorify himself and expose the world for the foolishness it is. In my weakness, He is strong. I don’t understand it, but it’s really cool.

What I appreciated most about the book was his chapters on those who fall way from the faith, who appeared to be following hard after God and then renounced everything. I’ve had several friends do this, and I was beginning to think I was doing something wrong. It was a reality check: this also happened to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, so at least I was in good company. MacArthur showed how pride, false assurance, and religious activity can trick two groups of unsaved people in the church: the superficial and the involved. We actually just discussed this topic at our Bible study group last night. Can someone lose their salvation? The author argues (which I firmly believe) that they never truly had saving faith. It’s heartbreaking, but it should motivate us to question our own faith.

“The Lord brings us to His communion table over and over again in order that each professing Christian may examine himself. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, ‘Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you now know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless you are indeed disqualified.' You need to look at your sin and your motivation for doing what you do. Believe me, if you are genuinely saved, God will confirm that by His Spirit witnessing with your spirit. Raising your hand or walking the aisle has nothing to do with it.”

Building Her House

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Building her house: commonsensical wisdom for Christian women, by Nancy Wilson

I like Credenda/Agenda, a theology magazine. One of the editors conviced his wife to write a column for women, and this book is a collection of her essays. My mom gave this book to me, and she blogged it here. Here I am modeling my Christmas gifts:

Her issues are concrete and her tone direct. Mrs. Wilson is very practical in her subject matter and her advice. I appreciate it--I think too many Christian women writers say too little in too many words. Here's one of my favorite paragraphs, from the chapter "Your Baby Has a Soul."

"All the loving attentiveness a mother gives her children is food for their souls. When the child is a small baby, all those smiles and kind words, the laughing and playfulness, and the motherly delight and pride in each new accomplishment is used by God to prosper a baby's soul. And it continues as the child grows. Even the smallest gesture, if done in love and kindness, is nourishing. We want our children to have fat little souls, to be healthy plants, as in Psalm 144:12: 'that our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth.'"

Isn't that a great image? What a great phrase, "fat little souls." I don't believe there is a neat and tidy deliniation between the physical and spiritual world. I like to think that chubby baby thighs and round little bellies and apple-cheeked smiles somehow contain the sustenance needed to grow this little person into spiritual maturity.

You may think I'm nuts, but this thought is greatly encouraging when I'm nursing Violet at 3 am!)

Nothing in particular

Hello, my bookish friends.

I just had a lovely afternoon which I want to share with you. I left the baby napping with my honey, and I walked to the library. Not really a big deal really, but I still feel a happy buzz from the experience.

Normally when I walk, it's with the baby and a hyper dog, so it was a treat to just be by myself. It's still unseasonably warm in the Shenandoah Valley, so it feels like a crisp fall day instead of dreary mid-January. The shortest route to the library is through the downtown of our little historic town. On the way I browsed in a used furniture store, and then lured by the appearance of a sidewalk sale down the street, I found myself right next the sweet shop. Three truffles later, I was on my way again. I found some great books at the library, three CD's I want to burn (I know, I know. But it's my tax dollars, right?), and some yummy magazines. I also got some cute books for the kidlet. On my way home, I walked by the park and took a hilly shortcut through an old cemetery. I weighed my loot when I got home: eight pounds of library goodness!

It's afternoons like this that make me enjoy my life. I only saved 30 cents by not driving, and my $1.58 at the sweet shop will not keep the proprietor in business. But my waist is a little trimmer, the gas tank a little fuller, the town's main street a little more vibrant, and my life is undeniably richer.