Category Archives: books

The Hugo Award and Science Fiction

I decided to read all the Hugo Award winners for novel before the end of 2014. I kind of stumbled into this project. I’m not what you’d call a huge sci-fi guy (but that is likely to change by the end of the year). I’ve never written fan fiction, I don’t visit fan websites, that whole thing. So why try this? For three reasons: The first is just practical,  once I tried to read all the Pulitzer winners, but that got boring fast. If there is one thing I can say about this project, five and a half novels in already, it isn’t boring. Second, I think the genre of Sci-Fi can really say a lot about the culture at large, and especially where it’s headed. Finally, I think Sci-Fi/Fantasy is one of the final places that Ethics, Philosophy, and Theology can be explored openly.

Before I decided to do this, while reading Hyperion (review coming shortly) by Dan Simmons, I had read five Hugo winners already. Here is a brief recap from memory, I most likely will not be revisiting these:

Dune – Frank Herbert – One of the first books I bought myself, away at summer camp one year in early High School. Herbert was an excellent worldbuilder and I was really drawn into the story. I remember this as a fast paced tale, a quest for water, avoiding sand worms, and a Messiah. I bought every other Dune book by Herbert afterwards but only got through a couple before losing interest.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling – Sure, you might be thinking, what person my age hasn’t read this one. But, you might be surprised, I took some serious flak for loving these books down in the old Bible Belt. I’m thankful my mom was a reading teacher and literacy coach, not much of a book burner. This was my favorite of the series.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card – I loved this book. It was a quick, easy read with a compelling story. I’m excited that I’ll get to read some more of Card at some point. Another book about a Messiah figure, but a much simpler story than Dune with a nice twist ending.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke – I have mixed feelings about this one. I can certainly see why it won the award, and Clarke is a polished and inventive writer…I just didn’t love this one. I had to force myself to finish, and it was long.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman – This is one of my favorite books in recent memory. What a compelling concept, all the pagan gods are still around, still causing mischief today in disguise. Plus, I love Rock City! Excited to get to read The Graveyard Book, it is the only thing Gaiman I didn’t read this past summer as I gorged on his other works.

And that’s it. Since finishing Hyperion in early December I have read Redshirts (the most recent winner), Starship Troopers, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and The Doomsday Book. I am currently reading Among Others. I will have reviews of these coming shortly. On the shelf and upcoming are: The Left Hand of Darkness, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and A Case of Conscience. Wish me luck, feel free to make suggestions and follow along.

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Book Recommendation: Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson

By rule I read everything that Douglas Wilson writes. Even though we have some theological differences, he is always striving to be biblical, Gospel centered, original and interesting. Since I enjoy his writing so much, and since there was a sale on the e-book for Wordsmithy, I decided it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. I’m glad I read the book, but I’m also glad I got it on sale as an e-book. Let’s deal with the negatives first.

The Bad – I’m not sure if it was just the e-book format, but there were some editing issues. There were a few repeated paragraphs and the book was overall, pretty repetitive. Wilson said he was using the: tell them, tell them why, then tell them again method, I just wish it hadn’t been quite so obvious. The book is also very short. I would not pay the $11+ price tag on amazon right now, wait for a sale or a discount on the e-book again.

The Good – The book contained the usual witty, creative and original writing of Douglas Wilson. I greatly appreciate his writing, so it was nice to see his thought process and learn how he grew and matured as a writer. It is also nice to have a view on writing from a distinctly Christian worldview, something that isn’t forced in the book, but comes naturally out of who Wilson is. The biggest plus was the extensive book recommendations. This was one of those books that had me adding 20 or so books to my Amazon Wish List.

Overall, this is a solid addition to the Wilson Canon and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in becoming a better writer or in the writing process.

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Book Review: Evangellyfish

Evangellyfish by Douglas Wilson is satire, but not the kind of satire that ends up on the bargain shelves at your local Christian Bookstore in a matter of months. There is some not so subtle critique of the evangelical world, but this is also a good story with enough timeless truth to make it enjoyable far after the problems Wilson addresses are no longer problems (please, quickly God?). Also, Wilson is simply a good and enjoyable writer. The P.G. Wodehouse and G.K. Chesterton influences are obvious here, but that is a good thing and may we have more of it.

The book follows the lives of two pastors from a Mid-West metropolis. Chad Lester is is the CEO and MegaChurch pastor of Camel Creek Community Church while John Mitchell is the pastor of a smaller, Reformed Baptist Church in town. Lester gets tangled up in controversy when he is accused of a homosexual affair. Lester knew the affair part was coming (he had taken part in many) but the homosexual part was the shocker since he had honestly never done that. Mitchell gets tangled up in things when Lester calls him out of the blue.The rest is a tangle of relationships and cover ups that the church tries to handle with different degrees of integrity or dishonesty and a healthy dose of naivete.

This is an average story made exceptional by the characters who inhabit it and the perfect tone Wilson achieves for his satire. Never heavy-handed or gratuitous, the humor is light and airy with honest respect and empathy for the people involved. This is a great, quick read. If you are expecting to laugh at the expense of others, be careful with this one because you are likely to find the cross hairs on yourself at some point.

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An Open Letter to R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets

Dear R.A. Dickey,

I heard you on the Baseball Today podcast from ESPN a few weeks back. I’ve seen you pitch before, because I’m a massive Atlanta Braves fan, but I never though much about you other than the rarity of seeing a Knuckleball pitcher. Something in your voice and about your story made me want to get your book…so I did. I chose it over the Smoltz biography that was just released, which should make you pretty happy because he’s been my favorite player since I was a kid.

Thank you for writing the book. I read a lot. I read a lot of theology/Christianity…and I read quite a few Baseball books. There are several things which I specifically appreciate about your book. It is very well written. You can’t say that about all “Christian” books or about all “Baseball” books. I know Wayne Coffey helped, but he has to have something to work with and you obviously have a good ear and a good story to tell.

I appreciate your transparency. In most sports books the author tries to paint his/herself in a good light. Often readers actually believe they get the truth about an athlete/hero, but your willingness to be brutally honest is rare indeed. It is obvious that you had more of a purpose than simply making a buck or getting your name out there. I’m sure it was therapeutic to you, but it was therapeutic to many others as well; it surely was to me, specifically the passage on miscarriage which is almost identical to what happened with my wife’s and my first child, and your honesty over struggling to be a good and Godly husband and father.

I respect you for being brutally honest, but at the same time for protecting your wife and family and keeping them safe. In your story, there were many heroes, not least Jesus and your wife, but you never paint yourself in that light. Your book is not a humblebrag…it is an expression of true humility. You come across as a real person, with warts and all, which is what we all are if we are honest.

I’m thankful for how you presented Christianity. It wasn’t a vehicle for self-promotion. You didn’t tack it on in a wooden fashion that didn’t work with the rest of your story. You didn’t fake an “everything was bad until I found Jesus and everything has been awesome ever since” story. Your Christianity came out organically, as an expression of your life that was important, meaningful, and ultimately redemptive. I particularly appreciated this passage:

    “When I pray, I am not just talking to God. I am deepening my relationship to Him. To me, prayer is not a me-driven, goal-driven endeavor, something I turn to when I really need to pitch a dominant game or get out of a tight spot or a personal crisis. I’ve never prayed to God and said, ‘Lord, please let me strike out Albert Pujols four times tonight.” Nor will I ever do that. God is not a genie in a bottle that your rub when you want something. He is the ever-present, ever-loving Father, the guiding Spiritof my life, my Light and my Truth. He has a plan for me; I believe that as much as I believe anything in my whole life, and even if I don’t end up flourishing in New York or proving myself to be a trustworthy big-league pitcher, I know that’s because He has something else in store for me, and whatever it is, I know I will be at peace (286).”

Your book is a great baseball story, and I am huge baseball fan. I enjoyed the behind the scenes baseball stories and how you approach your profession, your passion for the game and perseverance. Your story is a great underdog story, and we all love those. But, most of all, I am thankful for the Gospel in your life and in the pages of your book. The Good News that, although we are all depraved sinners deserving of God’s judgement, although we all mess things up to some degree or another, we have a Redeemer in Christ the Lord. He doesn’t magically fix things overnight, but if we trust Him in faith and obedience, we will be made new.

So, I will be pulling for you like you pulled for Tim Wakefield. I hope you keep winning and have a long career, and every time you play the Braves I hope you pitch a complete game and give up only 1 run…and the Braves win 1-0. God Bless and I look forward to seeing how God uses you and your family to glorify His Name…wherever you wind up.

Sincerely,

Caleb Land

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Review: “Troll Valley” by Lars Walker

Troll Valley is an e-book published by Lars Walker and is available through amazon.com for only $2.99. Simply put, we need many, many more e-books like this one. Walker writes from a distinctly Christian worldview, but is able to avoid so much of the sentimentalist and moralistic errors of the majority of Christian fiction. This is a novel about the law and about grace. This is a novel about forgiveness and justification by faith, and about unmerited favor. That Walker is able to accomplish these things without being preachy and actually telling a compelling story is a testament to his growth as a writer and storyteller.

My first Lars Walker book was his novel Blood and Judgement, based on Hamlet. The premise was great but the overall pacing and writing left something to be desired. Walker has come a long way in his latest effort. I’m surprised that Troll Valley did not receive release in printed format, because it is far and away better than the majority of modern Christian fiction.

The story is about Chris Anderson, son of the wealthiest family in town in the 1910’s and 1920’s Minnesota. Chris has a deformed arm, which causes at turns anger and self-pity. His father wanted to be a simple farmer, but his mother, an early feminist of sorts, pushes him to make money off of his inventions, which he does. The majority of the story revolves around Chris’s relationship with a girl, who he rejects so as not to feel the sting of rejection himself, and Chris’s journey through anger and bitterness to peace. The Lutheran Church plays an important role in all this. But, in case you were worried that the book was straightforward, it also involves a fairy godmother who likes telling stories about people eating each other, lawn gnomes (and not the cute kind), Cowboys and Indians, trolls and the ability to breathe fire. It is realism meets fantasy in the best possible way.

If you like reading novels, it is hard to beat the $2.99 price tag and the read is excellent.

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Some Thoughts on Why I Like The Hunger Games and Despise Twilight

I just finished the first book in The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Hunger Games. I have also read the first Twilight book. I will be reading the next two Hunger Games books as soon as I can get them, while I read Twilight at the request of some students and parents in my student ministry four or five years ago and have never been remotely interested in picking up the next book. Christian parents and students that I work with are often confused as to why I despise Twilight with such vehemence, yet enjoyed the Harry Potter series, enjoy a great deal of young adult fiction (I strongly recommend anything by N.D. Wilson and Meghan Whalen Turner), and am currently enjoying The Hunger Games series. Well, having now read the first book of each series, I thought I would share some of those reasons.

1) The writing. Yes, it is a “young adult” book, which means it is supposed to be accessible to young adults, but it is still a book and it should not make people dumber for having read it. There are no scientific studies to support this, but I have a strong feeling that reading Twilight might have killed some of my brain cells. The dialogue and prose were just about unbearable. Even if the book had contained great moral teaching, I would have struggled to finish it. Read a few pages from Twilight and then read a few pages from The Hunger Games and you will see what I mean. Collins is simply a much better writer.

2) The story. The story of Twilight was not compelling to me. Maybe because I am not an angst-ridden prepubescent girl. It was just a cheap vampire romance novel. I’m really not sure why it became such a phenomenon. Meanwhile, the story of The Hunger Games was compelling and original. The pacing was excellent and the payoff was perfect. It had deeper themes than finding happiness in shallow romantic love.

3) Love. Speaking of love, the two books have very different ideas about it. In the Bible, love is marked primarily by self-giving and self-sacrifice for the good of the object loved, exemplified most clearly by Jesus. Both Katniss (in her giving her life for her sister, sacrificing to care for her family, etc.) and Peeta (by his humble love and determined protection of Katniss) exemplify this type of love. Love here is deeply intertwined with character and integrity, it has substance. Meanwhile, the “love” in Twilight reflects the shallow vanity of our culture. I could see the citizens of the Capitol in Panem (in the Hunger Games books) really enjoying Twilight. The love is surface level, really more lust than love. It reflects the worst of our personal ideas about love…that the ultimate purpose of it is our own immediate happiness and gratification.

4) The Hunger Games teaches lessons of courage and self-sacrifice. Even in the midst of the most primal and violent circumstances, Katniss and Peeta refuse to become animals. They rebel against the vapid and shallow culture of the Capitol in subtle yet courageous ways. While I have read some commentators making connections between this and the War on Terror (i.e. we are the bad guys and terrorists are freedom fighters) this doesn’t make sense when one truly understands Islamic radicals. It can, however, be a thoughtful critique of American decadence and hollowness. Christians should resonate with the desire to stand against much of modern American culture and stand for a simpler, more meaningful and ethical society. Twilight on the other hand is the definition of decadence and hollowness.

The Hunger Games is not a perfect book, only the Bible is, but it is worthwhile if you enjoy this type of fiction. Twilight is not worth anyones time. I haven’t even gotten into the weird Mormon theology, the disrespect for family (particularly the father) and other issues with the book. I’m looking forward to the rest of the Hunger Game series. Maybe I’ll have more to say on it in the future, especially as the first movie is soon to be released.

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Tom Wolfe from a Christian Perspective

Tom Wolfe is one of America’s greatest literary stylists and observers of culture. Yet, his writing is full of profanity and overt sexuality. How is a Christian to think about such a writer, and how could one justify reading and recommending his work to another believer? In the novels of Tom Wolfe we have an excellent example of how Christians can learn from and appreciate “secular” writing. What follows is not a book review, but several observations on why a Christian might find Wolfe (with particular focus on his novels A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons) enjoyable and helpful, but also some warnings using Philippians 4:8 as a guide.

1) Tom Wolfe is able to discern truth in American culture. He does not glamorize, he does not gloss over and he does not minimize. In A Man in Full Wolfe details the lives of two men, one a wealthy, middle-aged Atlanta real estate developer and the other a young laborer who seek to discover what it means to be a man in the modern world. The realities of sin, lust, selfishness and greed are evident in each of these men, yet neither are beyond redemption. In I Am Charlotte Simmons Wolfe explores the life of an innocent and intelligent young woman as she enters a modern University. The depiction of college life is stark. Drinking to excess, the “hook-up” culture, the degradation of language and the devaluing of life are rife. However, these realities are never glorified or glamorized. Reading about the effects of alcohol on these students lives would make one never want to take a sip of booze. The disgust, the sadness and depression and the shear humiliation and emptiness that fills Charlotte after the graphic depiction of the loss of her virginity is stunning and forms a stark contrast to the biblical concept of sexuality within a loving and self-sacrificing marriage covenant. Wolfe deals with American culture, so he deals with a world spinning out of control through the loss of morals in a very Romans 1 kind of way, and he portrays it truthfully. Paul exhorts people to spend time on TRUE things…too often secular media glamorizes sex, drunkenness and debauchery while the Christian media ignores it leaving only the secular myth as the prevailing “truth” even for Christians. Wolfe describes the utter depravity of sin.

2) Wolfe is a superb writer. He isn’t the best storyteller in the fast paced neatly tied up endings kind of way, but he takes characters and wrings the life and emotion and motives out of them. He explores every aspect of them in a way you rarely see in modern novels. These are people in the fullest sense of the word with complexity and depth. The writing is compelling and interesting, yet you always understand that Wolfe is saying something. Paul exhorts people to spend time on things that are EXCELLENT, and the writing of Wolfe is an excellent place for Christians to learn what good writing is.

3) Wolfe explores the transcendent. Especially in A Man in Full, but also making an appearance in I Am Charlotte Simmons is the idea of the transcendent. Personified in both novels by the work of classic Greek philosophy and the god Zeus. Sure, people are not transformed by Jesus (which is the only place where lasting and real transformation come from), but they do need something outside of themselves in order to change, which is a refreshing change in modern culture. For the men in A Man in Full it is the Stoics and Zeus, for JoJo Johansen it is the philosophy of Aristotle and the moral purity of Charlotte Simmons. In either case, redemption and change are needed and cannot be accomplished without outside forces.

4) Still, Wolfe is not for every Christian and is certainly not necessary for anyone. I would not recommend any of Wolfe’s writing to children, his work is most definitely for adults. If Christians are not used to reading literature, this likely isn’t the place to start. Paul does encourage Christians to spend their time on things that are commendable and pure, which doesn’t apply to much of the action in these books. However, they can be enjoyable and even profitable for mature Christians with a solid foundation in the Bible and a good grasp and appreciation for quality fiction. Good fiction, and this certainly applies to Wolfe, ironically has the ability to show you, and make you feel and understand, TRUTH even more than non-fiction does. If my son was about to enter college, I could see myself reading and discussing I Am Charlotte Simmons with him. In fact, it could be extremely helpful and eye-opening for the parents of a college aged student.

Tom Wolfe, as far as I know, is not a Christian, and his books are certainly not written from a Christian perspective. However, there is a great deal of goodness, beauty and truth contained in his writing that a Christian could enjoy with discernment.

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Christ the Controversialist – Essay 2

Christ the Controversialist is not one of John Stott’s most popular books, especially on this side of the pond. However, it is an excellent corrective in a world that no longer knows how to disagree and a church that no longer understands what it means to speak the truth in love. This is the second post in a series that will summarize the material from the book for an American audience.

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In Stott’s second introductory essay he defines what he means by “Evangelical” Christianity and defends the term as useful and applicable to Gospel centered religion.

First, evangelical means theological. Unlike the term “evangelism” which describes the offer of the Gospel, “evangelical” describes a theological system which the apostle Paul described as the truth of the Gospel. He gives a brief an helpful historical sketch of the term and then defines the way in which it is used in this book, that theological system centered on scripture and the Gospel which runs through Augustine and the Reformation.

Second, evangelical means biblical. Evangelical theology is biblical theology, and a theology of the whole Bible, not just a verse here or there taken out of context.

Third, evangelical means original. If it is biblical then it must not be new, it is not a new “-ism” but an old faith, passed down through the years. This is a key point. It is impossible to be Biblical and Evangelical and yet try to come up with a “New Kind of Christianity,” to reinterpret the Bible’s clear truth, a la Rob Bell, William Young, Brian McLaren, etc. Stott writes, “Christian duty is not to advance but to abide, not to go ahead beyond the apostolic faith but to stay put in it.” Good words. Stott then gives a brief overview of scripture passages that encourage people to remain steadfast in Gospel and to return to the Gospel.

Stott rightly points out that the staunch “oldness” of Christianity is one of the major stumbling blocks with people in the modern world that values newness and revolution. Our faith is built on Christ, the Cross and His and the Apostles teaching and this is non-negotiable. But Stott is not against change and warns the church not to hold fast to things that are not part of the Gospel faith presented in the Bible. He turns his attention to what ways Christianity is new.

First, Christianity is to be freshly understood. Revelation is the historical unveiling of God in Christ. Illumination is the unveiling of men’s minds to see what God has disclosed in Christ. The Holy Spirit is continually guiding the church to understand scripture more fully.

Second, what is old needs to be freshly applied. We have to be careful to make this distinction. We aren’t encouraged to dilute the Gospel, but to apply it to the problems and unique circumstances of the modern world. We aren’t so staunch in  our defense of the old that we reject solid hermeneutics altogether. Stott writes, “To preach is to relate God’s never changing Word to man’s ever changing world.”

Finally, what is old needs to be freshly experienced. We must not become stale in our faith, as if the point is just to win the argument or debate theology. We must know God in Christ. We must love God and experience Him in relationship, through His Word and through corporate worship.

Stott notes that every true reform movement in the church is a return to the Gospel faith of the Bible in some way, not an innovation away from it to some new form of Christianity. Stott is balanced in his approach and these words are so timely to an evangelical community that is struggling to define who they are, what is worth holding tightly to and what is worth compromising.

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Christ the Controversialist – Essay 1

Christ the Controversialist is not one of John Stott’s most popular books, especially on this side of the pond. However, it is an excellent corrective in a world that no longer knows how to disagree and a church that no longer understands what it means to speak the truth in love. This is the first post in a series that will summarize the material from the book for an American audience.

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The first essay is called A Defense of Theological Definition. Stott points out that, although the modern perception of Jesus is that he was meek and mild and tolerant and sweet, the truth is, much of his ministry was made up of controversy with other religious leaders. As evidenced by recent events such as the Elephant Room debacle, the modern church is caught up in a spirit of pragmatism that refuses to tolerate unpractical theologizing. This introductory essay is extremely useful and timely.

Stott points out that the modern world has an extreme dislike of dogmatism, yet rightly notes that as Christians who believe in a revealed word from God, we are by nature dogmatic. If there is a word from God that may be read and received, it is sin and folly not to regard it. However, this does not give us the right to be arrogant. We do not and cannot know everything, but we are called to know, live by and declare what has been revealed.

We should never be modest about revealed truth. Stott writes, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” While we should be open minded, particularly about things on which scripture is not clear, we are reminded of what Chesterton wrote, an open mind is like an open mouth, it is meant to close on something solid.

The second way that Stott describes the modern world is that if people insist on being dogmatic at least they should be quiet about it. A person shouldn’t try to impress his or her brand of truth on others, or really be open about it in a public way. This is evident in the controversy at Vanderbilt University and in the strong reactions to Tim Tebow over his overt displays of religion.

The Christian, especially the Christian pastor and teacher, is expressly commanded to both teach sound doctrine and to refute false doctrine (Titus 1:9). Stott makes a helpful distinction between being tolerant in mind and tolerant in spirit. A Christian should always be tolerant in spirit, giving people the benefit of the doubt, loving people, forgiving and forbearing, etc. However, this is not the same as being tolerant of mind. We cannot be tolerant of ideas that expressly contradict God’s revealed truth.

Christ was a controversialist, he never shirked from the spirit of the age and was unafraid to challenge the religious leaders of his day. Ultimately, Stott challenges us, we must ask ourselves if we are more enamored with the love and acceptance this world offers, or the love of God and His Glory. If we love God’s glory more, we will not shirk our responsibility to speak the truth in love, even if it means engaging in controversy.

Stott finally turns his attention to the brand of ecumenical movement that seeks to close ranks in common defense against opponents of Christianity. The result of this is what Stott calls “Lowest Common Denominator” Christianity. It is the kind of Christianity that papers over deep and meaningful differences for the sake of cooperation and tolerance. It is weak and powerless because it minimizes fundamental truths for the sake of unity. He asks, “how can we expect to defeat this common enemy if we surrender the Gospel, our only effective weapon.”

Ultimately the antidote is more clearly defined terms and positions, and a robust, confessional Christianity. We need less fog and more clarity. The task of the church is to confess the truth, regardless of the spirit of the age.

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