Saturday, November 30, 2013

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the FaithA New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian D. McLaren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I finished reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, all I could say was “Wow!” It blew my mind, mostly in a good way. And it left me with an awful lot to think about.

Countless people have reviewed this book (some rather viciously), so I’m not going to win any awards with some in-depth discussion of the book, but I do want to write about a few things that stood out for me. First of all, the book is based on 10 important questions to be asking these days. The first five are largely theological, and the remaining five are more practical. The 10 questions are:

1. The Narrative Question: What Is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?
2. The Authority Question: How Should the Bible Be Understood?
3. The God Question: Is God Violent?
4. The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
5. The Gospel Question: What Is the Gospel?
6. The Church Question: What Do We Do About the Church?
7. The Sex Question: Can We Find a Way to Address Sexuality Without Fighting About It?
8. The Future Question: Can We Find a Better Way of Viewing the Future?
9. The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
10. The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action?

The cool thing about this book is that while the author raises – and addresses – these questions, he admits to not having the definitive answers and invites us all to participate in the “conversation.”

The first question is pretty important – what is the overarching storyline of the Bible? Well, he argues that the basic story – as believed and adhered to by most of Western civilization – is mistaken in its belief systems. He asserts the beliefs don’t come from the Bible, but are instead taken from (at the time current) Greco-Roman narratives. I can almost buy that, but it didn’t appear to me that he made a strong case for how this exactly transpired. He just gives us Plato and Aristotle and declares that this is how we have based everything for centuries. Odd. I would like a greater understanding of this theory.

As a result of this theory, there are a number of Christian misconceptions floating around, such as the world was created in a “perfect” state, when in fact, it was “good” – which doesn’t equal perfect. Another component of this reading is a rejection of the “Fall” of mankind. This got a bit confusing for me at times, but if you buy into his theory, it makes sense. He relates it as a “six-line narrative,” comprised of Eden, Fall, Condemnation, Salvation, Heaven, Damnation. This is what we learn in Sunday school and church our entire lives. This is the basis for believing what we believe. And he asserts it’s wrong. McLaren feels that the Bible is really telling us numerous stories of God’s never-ending compassion and forgiveness, seen over and over again throughout the text.

In another chapter, McLaren asserts that Christianity has had a “constitutional” view of the Bible and this should be replaced with viewing the texts in the Bible as a type of “community library.” As I dislike the constitutional view of Christians I know and know of, this appeals to me. Enough with evangelical fundamentalism, say I! Part of this constitutional view of the Bible is its static state of being, as in everything is settled, so do as I say. McLaren instead thinks the Scripture is inviting us to be a part of an ongoing conversation. This is a refreshing outlook to me.

Still later in the book, he deals with the nature of God, and this reminds me of Rob Bell’s Love Wins in a way (a book I like very much). Basically, if you go by the six-line constitutional way of viewing the world, one could see God as a mean spirited, punishing god, one not worthy of belief or worship. With a new kind of Christianity, in this case with a redemptive community library narrative to go on, it’s foolish to view God as a god who tortures most of humanity forever in “infinite eternal conscious torment” (ECT). Now that makes a lot of sense to me. Why would God create a world with many billions of people and send the vast majority of them to an eternal conscious torment for the few varied sins they commit during their brief and finite period of existence on Earth? It literally makes no sense to me.

McLaren goes on to discuss many other important issues, all in a radical way of viewing things (to me) that I found appealing. He argues that contemporary Christians are “fundasexualists” in their overt hatred of homosexuals, among others, and reminds us that Jesus forgave the adulteress, sought out and mingled with the outcasts of society, and based his world vision on loving inclusiveness. A refreshing look at things from my perspective.

I enjoyed all of the chapters with the possible exception of the last one – on translating our quest into action – where I think he falters a little bit and makes some assumptions that don’t necessarily need to be conveyed as they are. Still, as he starts and ends the book by writing, he’s not producing definitive answers to these questions. He’s merely starting conversations in calling for a radical rethinking of Christianity, Jesus, God, and the Bible.

In reading through reviews on Goodreads and ones found Googling the author, it’s amazing to me how many people hate McLaren. The vitriol is something else. And it’s all coming from “loving” evangelical/fundamentalist Christians – some of the very people he describes in this book, and some of the very people we need to move away from. Some of the best things he’s called are a false prophet and a heretic. Nice to be able to sit in judgment there, isn’t it? It’s amazing to me how contemporary conservative Christianity is filled with hate – hatred of others who do not espouse the same beliefs that they do, who don’t vote the same way, who – quite frankly – may be trying to lead a life set by Jesus’ example of loving others. These Christians just don’t get it and they probably never will. They have too much invested in the Greco-Roman worldview of life to consider alternatives or change. It’s truly sad. I’m giving this book five out of five stars. I think it’s an amazing book that can be life altering, and it’s made me re-think a lot of things that I wish I had re-thought many years ago. Nice job Mr. McLaren.

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I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. DickI Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow! What can you say about Philip K. Dick and this biography? I mean, I knew Dick was a paranoid, but I had no idea to what degree he was. Stunning. I'm surprised he didn't die from a stroke much earlier in his short life. This book also confirmed for me that many of Dick's books were written in a drug addled state, although he only took LSD once -- everything else was uppers, for the most part. It's how he churned out his novels so fast.

It seemed to me that Dick had a miserable, tortured life, and I left the book feeling quite sorry for him. His interactions with women played a significant role in his life -- he was married five times. We can see elements of these women in some of his works. However, I thought the biographer kind of glossed over some really critical information about these relationships for several of the marriages. I think more could have been learned about Dick if more were put into that area.

I always wondered if Dick was writing from his life, if he was as paranoid as his characters, as caught up with alternative worlds and realms of being. This book seems to answer those questions with a resounding yes, I was right! He really did seem to write from his life. Clearly, he was one messed up dude. However, his literary gems wouldn't exist today without his tortured life to serve as an example for him.

I wasn't completely sympathetic to him though. Carrere makes clear that Dick routinely repeated the same mistakes over and over again throughout his life, particularly with women. It's like he just never learned, never progressed. That saddened me. One would hope life's mistakes would engender personal growth, but that's not the case for everyone.

I have to admit to being a bit disgruntled with my having read this book though. It kind of took Dick down a notch in my admiration. He didn't seem to be a very likeable person in real life, and his paranoias just about drove me crazy (no pun intended). His books reflect his thinking, which is to say enthralling yet warped. One thing that was pretty good about the book, however, was the author tried, it seemed, to really get inside Dick's head and as the book went along, it seemed to mirror Dick's life in his increasing paranoia and delusional states of being. Clever way of writing the book.

Finally, I was really surprised to see how much religion meant to Dick. He converted to Christianity and while that didn't dissuade him from drug abuse and whoring around, it remained a critical element of his life for the remainder of his life. Interesting.... On the whole, it was a pretty sound book, and I don't know how Carrere pulled off such a comprehensive work. The only reason I'm not giving the book five stars is because, as I previously stated, I think Carrere could have spent more time on Dick's relationships to give us a better understanding of the man. Otherwise, good effort.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

A Search for What Is Real

A Search for What Is RealA Search for What Is Real by Brian D. McLaren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is intended to be a guide for those who are seeking something spiritually, no matter what faith, but yes, primarily Christianity. It's a little light (especially for McLaren), but the contents are pretty solid and the book is quite accessible. Some of the chapters deal with experiencing God through doubt (a big one for me), why church is often the last place to look for spiritual guidance, why people don't turn to Bibles in their spiritual search, losing interest, and more. One of the things McLaren writes in the doubt chapter really stood out for me:

"They say that the opposite of love isn't hate; it is rather indifference. And I have to think that the same is true of faith. Doubt isn't a spiritual danger sign nearly as much as indifference would be."

In the final chapter, McLaren writes that Jesus was "scandalously inclusive" and that

"In a world of religious in-groups and out-groups, Jesus created a 'come on in' group. The kingdom of God is open to everyone who will come.... It's like a party to which everyone is invited, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, clean or dirty."

That section of the book really stood out for me because when I was growing up, the various youth groups in school and church "rushed" (like the fraternity allusion?) the popular kids with the alleged goal of the unpopular kids following the popular kids to God. Yeah, right. It was a total joke. I rode the fence between popular and unpopular and I didn't like it. As an adult, many churches I've been to seem little different. We want the "beautiful people" -- those in real need don't need to come on in. I hate that about mainstream Christianity. Jesus was all about love and inclusive love. In fact, he hung out with hookers and outcasts and told the Moral Majority of his day that the scumbags he was with would have an easier time of entering heaven than they would. (That didn't go over too well with them.) So, I like what McLaren writes here. I just wish more actual church people would read and realize this....

The book's chapters all end with interesting discussion questions and a suggested prayer. McLaren tries to stick to guidance, not to telling -- as in, he's not the authority on this, God is. It's not the best book I've read, and it's not for everyone, but I found it worthwhile and others will too.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Best of Frederik Pohl

The Best of Frederik PohlThe Best of Frederik Pohl by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another book of short stories by Frederik Pohl that I've read and he really doesn't disappoint. I like his short stories much better than his novels, to be honest. "The Tunnel Under The World" was published in the mid-50s, but reads like The Truman Show. It's quite interesting. "The Children of Night" is disturbing and spooky. Actually, there are several disturbing pieces in this book. "The Midas Plague," however, is not one of them. In this story, there's rampant over-consumption throughout the world and the poorer you are, the more you have while the wealthier you are, the less you have. The goal is to get the least amount possible. You see, robots are out of control making things like crazy and society has to consume or be overwhelmed. It's an interesting concept. Pohl takes his usual skewering of advertising and PR to new heights in several of these stories, including the aforementioned "The Children of Night." What won't an advertising campaign buy, right? "The Census Takers" is ahead of its time in dealing with pollution and overpopulation. Really, there aren't many weak pieces in this book. It's a good collection, and it's all comprised of stuff written from his first 50 years. (I think he's close to 100 now.) So no newer stuff. That's OK though. These stories stand the test of time and don't feel dated. I strongly recommend this book if you like sci fi with some social commentary and humor, as well as some possibly disturbing ideas mixed in. It's a good read.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Searching for God Knows What

Searching for God Knows WhatSearching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of Miller's Blue Like Jazz. I think it's an immature book written by an immature writer. This book -- Searching for God Knows What -- seems a vast improvement to me, albeit still with the same scatter shot, rambling topical approach to the book. I've got to admit to being annoyed with Miller's writing style. It's certainly not linear, and perhaps I like linear a bit too much, but Miller jumps all over the place. Sometimes I think each chapter of his could stand on its own, as they don't seem to have all that much in common with each other.

However, I wanted to like this book. I was disappointed, then, to feel like it started out like Blue Like Jazz. At some point, though, Miller seemed to tighten things up a bit. A more lucid, more mature style of writing emerged that I occasionally found gripping. The final pages I found to be quite good, actually. For instance,

"I can't tell you how many times I have seen an evangelical leader on television talking about this "culture war," about how we are being threatened by persons with an immoral agenda, and I can't tell you how many sermons I have heard in which immoral pop stars or athletes or politicians have been denounced because of their shortcomings. Rarely, however, have I heard any of these ideas connected with the dominant message of Christ, a message of grace and forgiveness and a call to repentance. Rather, the moral message I have heard is often a message of bitterness and anger because "our" morality, "our" culture, is being taken over by people who disregard "our" ethical standards. None of it was connected, relationally, to God at all." (page 185)

How true. I can relate to Miller here so very much. The bitterness and anger preached from America's pulpits can be overwhelming and, in my opinion, have very little to do with the message of Jesus. Another passage:

"A moral message, a message of "us" versus "them," overflowing in war rhetoric, never hindered the early message of grace, of repentance toward dead works and immorality in exchange for a love relationship with Christ. War rhetoric against people is not the methodology, not the sort of communication that came out of the mouth of Jesus or the mouths of any of His followers. In fact, even today, moralists who use war rhetoric will speak of right and wrong, and even some vague and angry god, but never Jesus." (page 190)

Again, so true. I recently became disenchanted with the minister at the church I occasionally attend when he started politicizing his sermons. He had already been slamming pastors like Rob Bell and preaching fire and brimstone messages on Easter while criticizing those who preached rebirth and renewal. Frankly, the only reason I go there at all is to occasionally make my parents happy. I can do without ministers like that one. Why so much hatred in the pulpit, in the churches?

I guess my final thought on the book is that it's worth a (quick) read, but don't expect too much. It's more solid than some of his other works, but it's not earth shattering. The only reason I give this three stars instead of two is his solid ending to the book.

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Love Jesus, Hate Church: How to Survive in Church - Or Die Trying!

Love Jesus, Hate Church: How to Survive in Church - Or Die Trying!Love Jesus, Hate Church: How to Survive in Church - Or Die Trying! by Steve McCranie
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Can't finish it. Wanted to, but can't. Thought the book had a great premise, and I was very eager to read it. It's even possible the author made some good points. However, these were really overshadowed for me by his writing style. He is so flippant! He's smug, he's smarmy -- he's kind of an asshole. I was really disappointed. Moreover, perhaps because he has a lot of baggage, he rants -- with some authenticity -- but doesn't provide much in the way of solutions. I frankly thought this was a book that needed to be written -- but by someone else, a better writer perhaps. This author needed to go back to college and take a couple of writing classes, as well as a rhetoric class. Oh, one other thing that irritated me was the fact that at every possible opportunity, he injected the title of his book into the text -- and bolded it. Man, that was annoying! Page after page of bolded book title interspersed with the text. Wow. The publisher should have exercised better editorial control. Largely a disappointment.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Review Feedback

Hi. In the month or so since I started this book review blog site, I've posted about 105 book reviews, some very short and others quite long. The main topics have been science fiction, music, religion, and Philip K. Dick books. There have been others as well. I've noticed that as of a few minutes ago, I have 413 Google+ followers and I'm getting quite a few hits on this blog, but to this point, I've only received three comments -- total. I was wondering why that was. People are apparently reading the reviews, but no one feels inclined to comment. Can anyone give me some feedback about this please? I'd love to have some interaction on some of these book reviews. I'm going to keep reading and posting book reviews, but it kind of sucks thinking that you're doing it only for yourself....

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner DarklyA Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very serious book by Philip K. Dick, and it's another mind f***, but in a very literal way. It's about the drug culture in the not-too-distant future, and it's largely autobiographical, if you go by what the biographers write about Dick in the '70s.

The book is about Fred, an undercover narc who uses a scrambler suit to shield his identity, even from his police bosses, and about Bob Arctor, Fred as he actually is, living a drugged out existence with several roommates and other friends. The primary drug of choice is Subtance D, otherwise known as "death." As the book evolves, Bob takes more and more in his undercover role, so that at some point Fred, the narc, has his brain addled just like Bob's.

The bizarre Dick twist begins when Fred is assigned to spy on Bob -- himself. Cameras are placed all over his house, and in his scramble suit at another location, Fred spends time viewing what he -- Bob -- and his roommates do in their house. The dialogue is bizarre, drug addled, and yet witty, almost enjoyable at times. Funny. What's sad, however, is that Fred/Bob develops a split personality, chemically, due to his Substance D intake and is ultimately taken off the case and sent away for rehab, which is pretty gruesome. I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it involves a standard Philip K. Dick plot twist that I found unexpected, and I suppose, somewhat fulfilling.

This book hardly counts as sci fi for me. It's more of a druggie mystery novel with scramble suit technology throw in to make it "sci fi"-ish. Still, it's a good novel, albeit gritty. One of the truly sad moments is at the end of the book when Dick dedicates the book to over a dozen friends of his who died or suffered permanent psychosis or brain damage due to their addictions. It serves to make this book really real. It's a good, quick read, but if you're expecting typical sci fi or even typical Dick fare, you might be disappointed. I still recommend this book though, as I think it's well worth the read.

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Ramones: An American Band

RamonesRamones by Jim Bessman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me begin by saying I've liked the Ramones for a very long time. Since roughly 1980. And while I've enjoyed their music, I never thought they were musical geniuses or lyrical geniuses the way Lennon and McCartney were or even Trent Reznor. It was just fun, fast music. This book is about the music, but I'm downgrading it a couple of stars because the author thinks the Ramones are the world's greatest band, for all intents and purposes. He's a real fan boy. But since this is an authorized biography, I guess you would expect that.

The band started out in New York in 1974. Four disaffected young people who couldn't play a musical instrument to save their lives. They couldn't even imitate their musical heroes, the way Bowie or McCartney did. But they did get instruments and learn a chord. Their first show was a disaster, but soon the new club, CBGB's, found them and nothing was ever the same again. They'd come on stage and rip through 17 songs in 15 minutes or 23 or 24 songs in 20 minutes. The object seemed to be to get through the songs as quickly as possible, with as much loudness as possible. The chiefs at Sire, a new outfit, heard their demo and signed them, and all of a sudden they had a record. And it got great reviews! All of a sudden, they were the founders and leaders of a new punk movement, and they influenced the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, and many, many other bands. They toured a lot and continued putting out records. That's pretty much the book. A couple of lineup changes, the only one of which -- when bassist and song writer Dee Dee quit -- was big. There's mention of drugs and alcohol, but just barely. This is a PG rated book, unlike other rock biographies I've read. A lot of the songs are quoted in the text, or snippets of songs, but it serves, in my opinion, to show just how insipid their lyrics were -- not how great they were like the author asserts! While the Ramones never sold many records, they did tour a lot, and I guess that's what prompted the author to write, "Everyone in the known universe loves the Ramones today." Huh? They made $400 for their shows. Their albums sold in the 25,000 to 40,000 range. Obviously NOT everyone in the known universe loves the Ramones.... One weakness of the book is that it was written in 1993, before three of the four members had died. I'd love an updated version, just to see what the author would say about what happened to them. It was a decent rock bio, but I've read many better. One nice thing about the book, though, was all of the photos of the band and various fliers that would be put up in various places. Nice touch. Recommended for punk rock fans and fans of the Ramones, but probably no one else....

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Why the Christian Right Is Wrong

Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your FutureWhy the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future by Robin R. Meyers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow, Robin Meyers is one seriously pissed off individual! I mean, blow your top pissed off. I can dig it, to a degree, because the same things tick me off, but I think he let his passions get the best of him in this literary effort. I think he spends too much time ranting, and not enough time providing plausible alternatives, nor linking the political with the religious. I think he could have done more with that, and should have. I think he owed it to the reader. Indeed, the first third of the book or so is spent Bush bashing. While I hate Bush and while I know this book was written while Bush was still in office, I just had a feeling of been there, done that. I didn't really learn anything new, and Meyers was just ranting to the choir, in my opinion. I doubt anyone who actually needed to benefit from a topic the title of the book suggests would in fact benefit. They'd just stop reading after 10 pages and say, typical liberal anti-Bush bias -- and it is. I wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't bring myself to be overly impressed with it. Perhaps another writer could have done a better job of it, I don't know. Meyers' polemics just kind of turned me off -- even though I feel strongly about many of the same things myself. Frankly, I didn't feel like this was that much of a "manifesto." Pity....

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of HereticsBad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has strengths and weaknesses. One thing that was an initial turnoff to me, although I got used to it, is it's quite dry and has an almost textbook feel to it, particularly the first half which consists of a history lesson of how the Church (Protestant and Catholic) has come to its present state dating back to the late 1800s. I mean, it's somewhat interesting, but there's only so much about 1920s fundamentalist preachers I want to read about.

Douthat's premise is that we've fallen off the wagon as a Christian nation, and he highlights three main areas where this has happened. One is the "name it and claim it" prosperity gospel preaching that seems so prevalent these days, and he particularly takes Joel Osteen to task. I got into this chapter, because I utterly despise this type of preacher. I think they have nothing in common with the can't serve God and Mammon instructions found in the Bible. I think they're frauds. Apparently Douthat does to. He then moves on to New Agers, like Chopra, Dyer, etc., only he doesn't call it New Age. Instead he refers to this movement as the God Within movement. Call it what you like, but it's a watered down, Eastern influenced form of pseduo-Christianity at best, and he calls a spade a spade. The third primary heresy here is the current politicization of Christianity, most notably contemporary Evangelicals and how they've hijacked the Republican party. I have much to say about that, but I'll resist the temptation for the time being. In my opinion, Douthat didn't spend enough time on this one, because I think this particular heresy is the one that is poisoning American society and politics and it makes me ill.

Here's where the author loses me though. His last chapter is called "The Recovery of Christianity," and he gives a series of examples of what he thinks needs to take place to bring the religion back to sanity and the masses in general. (He's a Catholic and spend a lot of time on Catholicism in this book.) Here are his theories:

1. Christianity should be political without being partisan.
2. Christianity should be ecumenical but also confessional.
3. Christianity should be moralistic but also holistic.
4. Christianity should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty.

And then he goes into minor detail on each topic. And forgive me if I misread this, but it seems to me that he's arguing for an early 20th century Catholicism returning in order to get things back on track. His ideas, the terminology he employs, his pleas all ring of a stern yesteryear, and it's beyond odd to me that he's arguing for a return to the roots when he just wrote an entire book criticizing how Christianity has been full of charlatans and frauds and how it's gone uphill, but mostly downhill for decades, and now he wants a return to the Middle Ages. OK, harsh assessment, but perhaps you get the picture. It just didn't jibe with the rest of the book, and while I thought the bulk of the book was well researched and written in a civil, even way (I would have hated to see a Baptist write this!), the last chapter just kills off everything he's said for me. It's blotto. Utter crap. Maybe not everyone will agree, and I do think the book is worth reading while skipping the final chapter, but I can't get over that last chapter. I cautiously recommend this to anyone interested in seeing what has happened to the Church over the last century and what it means for today.

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More Ready Than You Realize: The Power of Everyday Conversations

More Ready Than You Realize: The Power of Everyday ConversationsMore Ready Than You Realize: The Power of Everyday Conversations by Brian D. McLaren
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I usually like McLaren's books and I wanted to like this one, but in the end, I didn't finish it because I just couldn't buy the primary premise. It's a book about how the Christian church needs to revitalize its efforts at evangelism to a postmodern world by changing guilt inducing preaching to a series of conversations. Fine. I'm OK with that. However, McLaren constructs the book with the skeleton of a series of emails, allegedly legitimate, from a woman he calls "Alice" in order to protect her identity. Alice is a college student who, for reasons that are never clearly explained, WANTS to become a Christian very badly but is turned off by the intolerance, judgmental attitudes, etc., etc., of contemporary evangelical Christianity. Why she's so desperate to become a Christian eludes me. Anyway, they meet at a book signing of his and he helps her pack some stuff while during which time she admits to having glanced at his book and found it interesting. So she starts emailing him. He claims to include the emails in their entirety, misspelling and all, for authenticity purposes. OK, this girl might be a smart college student for all I know, but the emails are absolutely insipid! Just trite ramblings. And then McLaren gleans somehow "meaningful" elements from them, stretching to in some occasions it seems to me, and he apparently responds to her emails so as to answer the various religious/theological/spiritual questions she has. But while he's apparently saved ALL of her emails to him, he saved NONE of his to her (ever heard of checking your Sent Mail outbox Brian?), so we can only go on his word that he made a brief comment or two addressing her concerns. I found this profoundly disturbing. I mean, it feels like he's trying to hide something! What's going on here? And as this woman draws closer and closer to God and Christianity, he continues to encourage her through these email "conversations" all the while printing her emails in their entirety and none of his. What teachings is he sharing with her so that she grows? We're never told. I made it to page 95 before giving up in disgust. I think it's largely a useless book, which perhaps had some promise in its premise, but is ultimately insipid. Pity.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dangerous Visions

Dangerous VisionsDangerous Visions by Harlan Ellison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read a number of reviews of this book and most rave about its importance and the quality of writing. I'm not quite at that point, personally. I thought the book was tremendously uneven, with some strong material being short shafted by some weak, boring, and stupid works. Most seemed to be one or the other; few were middling.

Ellison is the ultimate narcissist and is quite taken with himself as editor and writer, and with the stories he solicited from his favorite sci fi writers. He argues it's quite possibly the most important book of its type, indeed of any type, and he beats the reader into submission by constantly praising each author in his intros to their stories, in his introduction to the book, in his non-stop shameless self-promotions. That really grated on my nerves after awhile.

Ellison strove to produce an anthology of truly "dangerous" speculative fiction stories -- shock stories, if you will, and to a certain degree, it's possible he succeeds. Indeed, the book starts out pretty strongly (following a truly weak introductory story by Lester del Rey) with an absolutely brutal, punch-to-the-gut story by Robert Silverberg called "Flies." Promising. Following are excellent stories by a couple of personal favorites -- Frederik Pohl and Phillip K Dick, both deservedly notable. Ellison himself contributes a good story as a futuristic Jack the Ripper sequel to a Robert Bloch piece. I thought, however, the long piece by Philip Jose Farmer was fairly boring and quite rambling. Larry Niven contributes a piece after Dick's story, but then the "dangerous" component of the book begins to crumble -- unless you think that Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is dangerous. After all, what starts out as an interesting space opera-type story devolves sadly into a '60s-era philosophical argument in favor of incest. I'm not joking. I wish I was.

Poul Anderson's "Eutopia" is bland, boring, and weak. Larry Eisenberg and Henry Selsar's contributions are too short and just boring. What happened to the shock value of the stories? Keith Laumer's "Test to Destruction" is about a man who uses superior willpower to overpower alien mind control, only to fall victim to its power it can provide him, in a thoroughly predictable twist at the end of the story. Roger Zelazny contributes one of his better stories, but considering I think him to be awfully overrated, it's not that impressive, frankly. The book tries to end with a shock story, but it, too, bored me.

When I bought the book, I had heard and read of it over and over again, so I was excited. After getting past the first story, I started delving into some exciting stuff. If I had stopped there, I would have given this book five stars. Even when I made myself finish this tome, I wanted to give it at least four, but I just can't do that. Sturgeon's incest story alone merits a three star review at best. I'm not even horrifically offended at the topic of incest -- just how the story was used to justify it in our society. It was beyond stupid. It was appalling. I'm not terribly pleased with this book, and despite what Harlan Ellison thinks (and he thinks a lot of himself and this book), I don't think it's all that. Three stars.

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Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories

Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best StoriesPlatinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent collection of short science fiction stories. I'd read some of Pohl's work and knew he was prolific, but I don't think I had the appreciation for him that I now have. This is some kick ass work, encompassing decades of writing. Philip K. Dick is probably my favorite sci fi writer because he can do some truly amazing things, but I'd have to say Pohl is probably now my second favorite. Some of the stories which stood out for me were "The Day the Icicle Works Closed," "The Gold at the Starbow's End," "The Day the Martians Came," "Day Million," and "Fermi and Frost," which won a Hugo when it was published. I was worried that such a large collection of short stories might ultimately bore me and become redundant, but that never happened. The material stayed fresh and the editor did a fantastic job at picking out the stories to include in this book. As I've learned, Pohl is truly a giant in sci fi circles, and now I know why. Read this book!

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know HimA Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him by Michael Takiff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I generally enjoyed reading this comprehensive book on Clinton, ranging from his childhood to his post-presidential years. The author had quite an undertaking, interviewing more than 170 people who knew/know him and getting insights and opinions that vary wildly, ranging from total devotion to abject hatred. I learned that Clinton's greatest strength was perhaps his empathy toward others, followed closely by his incredibly high intellect. His weaknesses? Perhaps some arrogance. A bit of a temper. Oh, and women. Yep. There's quite a lot about Paula Jones and Monica Lewkinsky in here. Perhaps a bit too much, but that's just my opinion. I'll be honest. I'm a huge Clinton fan. I think he's the best president I've seen in my 45 years on earth. He oversaw an amazing time during American history, presiding over the greatest economic boom ever. He sought Middle East peace accords, fixed the Bosnia and Kosovo crises, enacted controversial welfare reform, and so much more. I love the man. So it hurt me when I saw some of the really overly dramatic criticisms leveled at him by haters. Some people just genuinely hate him more than anyone on earth and make no bones about it. While the book is fairly balanced overall, I do think it spent quite a bit of time on his weaknesses and failings and not enough time on his successes, but as I said, I'm biased. I would have given this book five stars, but the final few chapters encompassing his post-presidential years basically trash him to hell and back and that really pissed me off royally. Very jaded. It ends with a couple of questions and an odd statement: "Can he overcome his outsized flaws so that his outsized talents can work to maximum effect? ... Maybe now Bill Clinton will finally live up to his potential." I didn't like that. So Clinton didn't end a world war. That's really not his fault, and yet that's actually held against him in this book. He never fulfilled his potential because there was not a major war or depression to fix -- this is actually said in the book. That irks the hell out of me! He did a damn good job under the worst possible personal circumstances with a rabid Republican Congress and hateful media out to destroy him daily. I admire him for that. So, anyway, overall a pretty good read, yes, but like I said, the final few chapters leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. Pity.

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The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of JesusThe Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really liked this book even though its idealistic vision is so utopian that its recommendations can surely never be acted upon by most Christians. It's a heartfelt book with a vision -- one of love and caring for all. I like that. Even though he separates himself from the emergent church group, there are some similarities. I've read other Meyers books though, and sometimes he comes across as really ticked off. In this book, he really tries to balance his insights and comments between conservative and liberals in the Christian church, although it does finally lean somewhat to the left. That's fine with me.

In the book, he takes issue with war, calling it a sin many times over. I'm not certain if I buy that since the God I read about in the Old Testament seemed to love war, but maybe he's right -- I'm no expert. He also feels Christians should actually be conscientious objectors, environmentalists, and frankly, socialists. To back this last claim, he cites Acts 4:32-35, which says

"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostle's feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

Interesting. And thought provoking. And quite possibly dead on. Again, I'm no expert. Toward the end of the book, though, Meyers starts making some recommendations of what people in the "Underground Church" should and will do and it's really overly idealistic. For instance, start up church-sponsored interest free banks. Developing private economic systems within the church. Have pre-church communion meals. All of this he marks as Biblical and it might be so, but I can't see conservatives (or even some liberals) as going for any of this. Indeed, the book is an appealing read, but as to its practicality, I would say I don't know of too many -- if any -- churches that would follow through and become an Underground Church. It just isn't going to happen in Protestant (evangelical) America. Which is a bit of a shame and shows you how off evangelicals are in general. When they should be concerned about feeding the poor, they -- with their Republican politicians -- are cutting food stamp programs even now as we speak. It's truly appalling. Another book by Robin Meyers talks about how the right wing in this country is wrong, and it ties conservative politics to evangelicals and I think it's a fair point, and as I grew up a strong Calvinist but have since moved on, I'm continually appalled by the Republicans and religious right's polemics of hatred and greed. Prosperity gospel my ass!

If you get a chance and you're remotely interested, you should read the book. It's a well written, well intended, moderately well thought out book. It just won't be taken seriously by conservatives or most Christians in general, and that's a real shame.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White HouseThe Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John Furby Harris
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I hate this book and I despise the author. I couldn't believe, when looking through the Goodreads reviews, how many people call this book "balanced." I think it's anything but. I think it's a hatchet job on a great man, Bill Clinton, my favorite president of all time. I admit to being biased, but I've read several Clinton books and none were as unflattering as this one. I couldn't even finish it! I couldn't even get past the second chapter! Virtually every page is stocked with loaded language designed to make the reader look down on Clinton (and his wife). Examples:

Page X: He talks about Clinton's "capacity for drama" and his "usual ... swirling cloud of last-minute chaos and indecision."

Page XI: "Hillary Rodham Clinton ... hovered over the proceedings with the discerning eye of the corporate lawyer she was." Harris makes her out to be a Dick Cheney-like character.

Page XII: In discussing Paul Begala's first meeting with Clinton, Harris writes "In his crush, however, he kept enough detachment to contemplate that the session had been a put-on, and what seemed like a wonderfully guileless performance actually had been a more sophisticated brand of artifice."

Pages XIV and XV: In describing Clinton's politics as "defensive" and his knowledge of this a very conscious one, Harris writes "Certainly he understood, with occasional remedial courses required...." Like he's stupid.... Later, his (Arkansas) opponent "portrayed him, not unfairly, as an arrogant and unseasoned young man who was out of step with his constituents." Harris goes on to talk some more about Clinton's alleged "women problem." It makes me ill.

On page XVI, Clinton is described as "maddeningly noncommittal."

On page XVII, Harris really goes for it. He plunges right in by writing, "his marriage to Hillary Clinton was said to be in turmoil.... He was a man of vagrant sexual appetites. Every political operative or journalist with even a passing knowledge of Clinton knew it." What a crock! Even with all of the right wing-founded rumors about Clinton's alleged infidelities, the only one that ever had any proof associated with in was the Monica scandal. In his book, My Life, Clinton denies any involvement with Flowers or Jones and I believe him. There's no proof anywhere. This author is stooping to tabloid journalism by bringing it up in the introduction!

On page XVIII, he "bristled over the scrutiny," while somehow showing "indifference to the rumors." Contradict yourself much, Harris?

The author then goes on to deride Clinton's intelligence by writing that Hillary "was his equal or superior in intelligence" and he talks about their marriage as a "partnership" and not one based on love. Does this guy have a bone to pick or what?

On page XX!, Harris writes "Traits that would be regarded as emotionally unhealthy by conventional standards -- a desperate need for human contact, or a heedlessness about persona risk -- were in Clinton's case political assets of great utility." Later, on his intelligence again: "Yes, he was smart, but no smarter than many other politicians of his generation." Seriously? Every book I've ever read about Clinton, right or left, has lauded his intelligence! The man is brilliant. Holy crap -- who does this Harris guy think he is? What an asshole!

Harris shows Clinton plotting left and right while being naive at the same time. Honestly, I can't read this book without getting violently angry. I made it to page 12 and that's the furthest I'm going. I had high hopes for this book because of good reviews, but I'm sorry I wasted good -- and a lot of -- money on this stupid book. Definitely not recommended for anyone who admires the Clintons.

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Surprised by Joy

Surprised by JoySurprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Unlike many of the reviewers on Goodreads, I despised this book. Indeed, I could find no "joy" whatsoever in reading this book. It's a tedious tale of a juvenile life and mind and the two words that kept popping into my head were "dry" and "boring." Good Lord, who could plod through this crap??? I really don't care about his schoolhouse beatings at age six or eight or whatever it was. I'm not sure what I expected from this book. I've been reading some postmodern Christian writers like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, so I thought a book from a traditional Christian writer most evangelicals hold up as the pinnacle of Christian writing would be a good addition to what I've been reading. What a disappointment. And while I realize Lewis was writing in a style particular to his own times, it reminded me of why I've never been a big fan of most Modernist writers. I made it to page 146 and skimmed through the rest, vainly trying to discover anything resembling joy or something that would elicit joy within me. Sad. I borrowed this book and will be giving it back soon, ideally without required commentary on my part about the book. I don't want to disappoint the person who lent it to me by my attitudes about the book. I guess if you're a Lewis fan, it's possible the book might be interesting, but I really don't care about reading about 10 year old British schoolboys and their school years misery. I've got better things to do and better books to read. A real waste of time....

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of JudasThe Gospel of Judas by Marvin Meyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have to confess I started this book out of sheer interest in the subject matter, but I couldn't finish it -- I just thought it was too silly to believe. Maybe I've got too much of the traditional four gospels ingrained within me, but for Judas to be portrayed as the favorite and best disciple of Jesus who only did what he was told by Jesus to do and was therefore a hero as he brought about the crucifixion and resurrection strikes me as totally absurd. Not to mention that it was hard to read with all of the missing text that was skipped over and omitted. That was distracting. I couldn't buy the notion of Jesus appearing to his disciples in the form of a child. You'd think that would have been mentioned in another gospel. And here's one thing that might seem trite, but it bugs me nonetheless -- apparently this gospel was written in the second century. Well, who wrote it? It follows Judas for just a brief period of time up until his suicide, I believe. Well, if he killed himself, how did he communicate the secrets of this text to the ones who would ultimately write it? He was DEAD for Pete's sake! Isn't this just some second century made up gnostic tale by people wanting to stir things up? That's ultimately what it strikes me as. So, yeah, I probably should have finished it and maybe one day I'll return to it, but I just thought the premise(s) was too absurd to continue reading the book.

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The Cool War

The Cool WarThe Cool War by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Frederik Pohl, but by his standards, this book was pretty lightweight. It's set in the not-too-distant future where there is a "cool war" between East and West. In it, the spies merely try to irritate each other in order to sow chaos. Amusing, but just barely.

Hornswell Hake, a Unitarian minister referred to as "Horny" throughout the book, is recruited by the Team, the post-CIA spy agency, to unwittingly create chaotic events throughout the world in travels they send him on. Sadly, he's a bit of a bumbling fool, constantly being played by either the Team or their enemies, who also try to recruit him to their side to fight the Team. There's a great bit of irony in the book and some good laughs too, but here are just some head scratching moments. Case in point: Horny and a parishioner named Alys (who is married to two men and a woman) are searching the Middle East for one of Horny's opposites, a woman he's got a thing for named Leota, who has been taken captive by a Mid East sheik to be in his harem. Horny and Alys travel through the desert to this sheik's place and spot Leota outside. There, instead of grabbing her and fleeing, Alys decides to exchange places with Leota, apparently because she thinks it a bit romantic, as well as the fact that she thinks she's better with men. Huh? They changed clothes with each other and then Horny and Leota take off while Alys stays. Pretty hard to believe, even if it is a sci fi novel.

I won't give away the ending, but Horny suffers through all sorts of personal turmoil to get to the end of the novel, only to have it "tied up" nicely by Pohl in just a few short pages, and frankly, rather unsatisfyingly to me. It seemed like he phoned that part of the book in. Weak ending. Still, I did generally enjoy reading it; I'm glad I did. I just can't recommend this book as a good representation of Pohl or even good sci fi. It's inventive, but rather mediocre.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini

The Good Son: The Life of Ray The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini by Mark Kriegel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini was my favorite boxer as a young teen, and remains my favorite even today. He could knock the living daylights out of you, could take a punch, and his story was awesome. Until tragedy struck. I assume most everybody knows about it, and it takes up a large portion of the book, but the author does a great job of treating it with dignity and respect.

Boom Boom was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, a rust belt former steel town with a big Mob presence. His dad had been a fighter and was the number one challenger in the world, up for the title fight, before World War II called and ended his career with a drastic injury. Ray grew up idolizing his father and it seems like he always wanted to be a fighter. He decided early on that he would one day win the world championship that eluded his father, and he would do it for his father. And he fought with fury. He had real presence about him, a magnetism, charisma, and since I lived in the Pittsburgh area with Youngstown so close by, he felt like a homeboy to me. Oh yes, I rooted for him.

He trained hard and he fought hard. Forgive me if I don't get my facts straight, but I read this in e-book format and can't go back to look up the figures, but by age 20 or so, Boom Boom was something like 23-0 or 23-1, most with knockouts. (He was a lightweight.) When he finally won the world championship, you feel like cheering alongside Ray. He fought a few more fights, but as is the case, you have to fight the top challengers to hang onto your belt, and in 1982, an unknown South Korean named Duk Koo Kim was the top challenger. Watching video of him, Ray and his team felt like he mirrored Ray in never stepping back, in always pursuing with dogged tenacity, in taking punches, and dealing out punishment. Ray, always confident, was a little worried, but he trained hard and when it came time for the fight -- which I think was held outdoors in Reno -- he was ready. But the fight was difficult -- for both fighters. They pummeled each other. They held nothing back. They both bled and bruised and inflicted pain. It was a 15 round fight and it was pretty even until the 14th, when Ray caught Kim and knocked him out with a series of blows. Ray's family and team rushed the ring, and he celebrated, but he missed seeing Kim taken out on a stretcher to a local hospital, where tests showed he had severe bleeding in his brain. He wasn't going to live. Within about three days, Kim was dead and a lot of people now viewed Mancini as a murderer. It was devastating! He couldn't believe it. And he thought, as did others, it could have been him. This death in the ring was the beginning of the end for Boom Boom. He'd fight about eight more times, losing four, getting abused twice by one person who won the belt off him (Bramble). His heart wasn't in it anymore, so he retired. At age 23 or 24. Amazing.

However, the book is a lot more than just this. It shows Ray meeting his virginal Cuban American wife in Miami, courting her, marrying her and having three children together. It shows them moving to Santa Monica, where Ray ate and drank with famous people like David Mamet and Ed O'Neil virtually every night. Ray even tried to go into acting, getting some bit parts. Sylvester Stallone did a movie of the week of Ray, starring Ray. The book also has a chapter on Kim, and his upbringing, from a hard childhood to his eventual boxing stardom. It shows the pregnant fiance he left behind, his mother, his family. Ray was further devastated when Kim's mother committed suicide three months after his death. Everywhere he went, people asked him about it, and he just wanted to leave it in the past, haunted the whole time by it. Eventually, Ray screwed up and went for another girl, an actress, was caught by his wife, who divorced him, but who remained a good parent with him for their children. In this book, we see Ray's father, Boom, getting dementia, his brother Lenny getting shot to death. There's a lot of tragedy in this book, as well as honor and excitement. It's a well researched book and surprisingly meaty for being so short. Kriegel could have butchered Mancini -- an easy target for some -- but he treated him and everyone in the book with the respect they deserved, and I thought that was classy. I especially enjoyed the section when Kim's fiance and son came to California to visit Ray and help heal him of his demons. Even if you're not a boxing fan, this book has enough human interest in it to make it appealing to just about anyone. Recommended.

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Everything Must Change

Everything Must ChangeEverything Must Change by Brian D. McLaren
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I tend to like Brian McLaren books and this one had potential. Unfortunately, I think it ultimately falls short of its goal, which is to educate us to an alternative way of acting with and within the world, in a God-centered fashion according to the principles of Jesus -- his radical teachings being given as framework from which to start from.

McLaren does an interesting comparison between the conventional church and the emerging church early on. In asking why Jesus was important, he writes of the conventional view:

"Jesus came to solve the problem of 'original sin,' meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God, which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God's just expectations, expressed in God's moral laws."

He contrasts this with the emerging view:

"Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated." This liberation from the fear of death is "a free gift they receive as an expression of God's grace and love."

Again, a conventional view contrast:

"The conventional view is very familiar to many of us; it is frequently defined as 'orthodoxy' and any departure from it as 'heresy.' ... the purpose of Jesus was to provide a way for at least a few individuals to escape the eternal conscious torment of everlasting damnation."

Wow. I've read McLaren before, so I know his views on the subject, but his view of the emerging church still resonates with me: "God's concern is more holistic or integral, seeing individual and society, soul and body, life and afterlife, humanity and the rest of creation as being inseparably related.... God cares about ALL [my emphasis] people."

McLaren writes that we in the world are trapped in a "suicide machine" devised by and of nearly everything in the world, even seeming polar opposites, such as liberals/conservatives, Democrats/Republicans, etc. He gives an interesting example of how one can compare and contrast the right's obsession with abortion to the left's obsession with global warming, in terms of how such things are sought, presented, dealt with, etc. That was an interesting component of the book.

Where the book fails me, though, is in its solutions to the problems outlined. McLaren asks us to believe 1) we live in a societal system or machine; 2) the system goes suicidal when driven by a destructive framing; 3) Jesus saw these dynamics at work in his day and proposed in word and deed a new alternative; and 4) Jesus' creative and transforming framing story invited people to change the world by disbelieving old framing stories and believing a new one.

OK. I get the part about destructive framings. We're all duped, manipulated, serving the wrong overseers, etc. I get it. What I don't get are McLaren's solutions. He doesn't seem to offer any, at least anything tangible. He writes of a vague personal action, followed by a vague community action, followed by a vague public action, followed by a vague global action. Apparently, if we all act in a manner Jesus taught us to act, big things will change in a big way. Forgive my cynicism, but that sort of hippie idealism isn't "new" or emerging -- it's unrealistic and unlikely. The world just isn't going to change simply because some people start donating more of their time and money to worthy causes. Yin and yang. For every good, there is evil. I don't see a way out. Of course, as an emerging Christian author, McLaren argues for heaven on earth, here and now, as opposed to some obscure future afterlife. That always sounds good to me, but how it's actually accomplished is always a little vague for me at the same time. If we're to experience heaven now, here on earth, what happens to our souls -- assuming they exist -- when we die? I've never had that adequately explained to me by an emerging Christian author, even Rob Bell.

So, pretty decent book, but mid-level material. Not overly thought provoking. Not a huge call to action, in my mind. Good read, stuff to contemplate, maybe some material that's quite valid, but overall, perhaps a futile effort, and that's sad.

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Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frederik Pohl's Gateway is a sci fi classic, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as others. I've been looking forward to reading it for some time. And I've got to say that upon finishing it, I have some mixed feelings. I think the book, on the whole, was decent, a good read, etc., but there were some very unlikeable things about the book as well.

I'll start with the protagonist, Robinette Broadhead. "Bob" is a first class, egocentric, shallow, oversexed, wussie jerk/asshole and it was really hard for me to like him. He spends the novel being a pansy for fear of flying out on dangerous missions from Gateway, a place formerly colonized by a long-gone alien species called the Heechee. (Who came up with that name anyway? It's never explained, and that bugged me throughout the novel.) He has a crap job on earth, wins the lottery, goes to Gateway to find his fortune, as "prospectors" flying leftover Heechee ships that no one knows how they work go out to various locales to try and hit it big by finding Heechee materials and winning large cash awards from the Corporation in charge. Broadhead goes there, gets flight training, but doesn't go out. He's too scared. Instead he spends his time wandering around, getting drunk, high, and laid (this book is from the '70s), until he starts running out of cash and is forced to go out on a mission, which is a failure. He develops a relationship with Klara, which doesn't stop him from having sex with everyone else, but their fights are borderline stupid, and they're both too scared to go out on missions. OK, missions are dangerous, but isn't that why you are on Gateway -- to face dangers in the hope of striking it rich?

The format of the book is interesting. Every other chapter is of a current day Broadhead session with his AI shrink, Sigfrid. During these sessions, Bob pouts, screams, shouts, insults the computer, tries to manipulate his shrink, doesn't relay important facts, and is an unlikeable character altogether. The good part of these scenes is they are very instrumental toward the end to unraveling a couple of major secrets the book is building toward in its climax. And I would have to say the climax is partially good. There are a couple of surprises -- big ones -- that make it worth reading the book through. That said, there are quite a few dry patches in the book, just boring pages following each other into more boredom. I could have used a little more space missions and a little less gratuitous sex. (The other chapters are the tale leading up to his psychological sessions told in chronological order.)

Parts of the book feel a little dated too, although that's surely a curse for most sci fi books. The psychotherapy, especially, that Broadhead undergoes feels dated. And the science component of the book, dealing with light speed and light years and all that, doesn't feel quite right. But Pohl's not a scientist and I'm not either, so I'll not quibble about that.

I'd have to say I cautiously recommend this book, in large part due to its giant reputation. I'm glad I finally read it and even though it took me forever to make it through its 313 pages due to my growing bored repeatedly, I'm glad I did. That said, I doubt I'll ever read it again, and I'm reluctant to pick up one of the Heechee sequels. I'm giving this book four out of five stars -- barely.

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The Space Merchants

The Space MerchantsThe Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this cynical and satirical sci fi novel. It's about Mitchell Courtenay, a high ranking ad exec in a futuristic American society dominated by advertising. Indeed, it's virtually un-patriotic to not adhere to advertising's role in society. Mitch is given the assignment of leading his firm's intention of colonizing Venus, even though it's not remotely habitable, by making American suckers go there based on his expertise in advertising. The book starts taking some bizarre twists at that stage, leading to his being essentially kidnapped and put to work as a "crumb," a common consumer, his escape, his workings with the Consies, or conservations, a Greenpeace-like group which attempts to overcome America's fixation with rampant consumerism and its negative impact on the world, and more.

This book was written 60 years ago, but it was seriously ahead of its time. To quote another Goodreads member, Nancy Oakes wrote:

"Awesome book! Hard to believe this was written like 50+ years ago, because it is so incredibly relevant to our modern times. For example: it takes a look at the dangers of imperialistic corporations & greed, the plight of workers and the ungodly conditions under which some of them have to work, the clear and unmistakeable division of class in society, the total lack of concern for the environment and the treatment of those who care about it and want change."

This book is frighteningly applicable to our current times. Pohl (the book was co-written with CM Kornbluth) was a true visionary. The satire is witty and funny. One scene that had me laughing was Mitch's dissing of Moby Dick due to its lack of advertising. LOL! My only complaint, and the reason I'm only giving it four out of five stars, is that the scene transitions are often lacking. You're in a scene and then, boom, something happens in the course of a sentence to radically change the plot and you're left picking up the pieces, trying to figure out what just happened. This occurs several times in the book and I found it very distracting. Nonetheless, it was a good, quick read and I heartily recommend this book.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless GodCrazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Didn't enjoy. Didn't view it as very realistic. Francis Chan has written a book that claims one must be totally, obsessively "in love" with Jesus Christ or all bets are off. On page 68, he asks "Would you describe yourself as totally in love with Jesus?" Later in the book, he describes a woman he clearly holds up as a model of this. On page 100, he writes

"Have you ever met someone who was utterly and desperately in love with Jesus? I have. My wife's grandma Clara.

I spoke recently at Grandma Clara's funeral, and I could honestly tell the mourners gathered that I had never known anyone more excited to see Jesus. Every morning Clara would kneel by her bed and spend precious hours with her Savior and Lover; later in the day, just the sight of that corner of her bed would bring joy-filled tears and a deep anticipation of the next morning spent kneeling in His presence."

Seriously? Really? I guess I'm not utterly "in love" with Jesus then, nor do I really want to be. I don't want to weep at the sight of my bed, knowing I'll be spending hours praying there sometime soon. I'm sorry, but I don't get giddy over Jesus. I can't view him as my "Lover." I guess I'm one of the "lukewarm" people Chan rips in this book. Sorry Francis, maybe in your eyes, I'll burn in hell, but I simply can't find myself "in love" with a higher being I've never seen or met in person or had an interactive verbal exchange with, etc., et al. I consider myself a Christian. Struggling, yes. Difficulties, yes. But "saved" nonetheless. More importantly, I'll bet not even 1% of 1% of Christians out there meet Chan's definition of being "in love" with Jesus. It's a silly notion. I pray, frequently. I feel like God hears me and sometimes it seems like he might be listening and interacting, but not audibly. Like I believe in air which I can't see, I believe in a god who I can't see, but I'm not freakin' "in love" with him. I believe I love God. I try to. Sometimes it's honestly hard, particularly when you see hypocritical, self righteous Christians living lives that Jesus would recoil against. I despise most self-professed Christians and feel that if Jesus were to come back today, he would view the majority of those who believe in him as being little different from those of his day, what with the dogma, the judgmental attitudes, the intolerance, etc. I guess when it comes down to it, I'd rather have an intellectual relationship with God and try to exercise faith in my belief, rather than engage in having schoolboy crushes on a supreme deity. I think you have to get high to do that. What kind of stuff is Chan smoking anyway? A loser book by a holier than thou asshole. I'm sorry I opened it.

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The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church

The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the ChurchThe Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church by Gregory A. Boyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Myth of a Christian Nation is a pretty good book that makes some excellent points while at the same time hitting the reader over the head with some strong repetitions and yet not going as far as it could in some of its criticisms of the religious right. Indeed, Boyd attempts to take both left and right to task, although to my satisfaction, he does focus primarily on evangelicals -- just not enough to satisfy me completely.

Boyd contends that Jesus taught a "power under" form of service to humanity rather than a "power over" gospel of the sword. Yet, he contends, the Church has historically rooted itself in a "power over" ideology as seen in centuries of witch hunts, crusades, and other atrocities committed in the name of God.

His primary assertion that America is not -- and never has been -- a Christian nation is one of his weakest assertions in the book to me. He spends a tiny amount of time on describing our founding fathers as being little more than deists and then he wanders off to Americans practicing genocide against millions of Native Americans and slavery against millions of African Americans as proof that we've never been a true Christian nation, the assumption being that true Christians would never do such things. While that may be true, I frankly needed more than just this to convince me of what I already know and believe to be true. I wanted more on the founders and their specific beliefs and their efforts to ensure no state religion would ever exist. I was disappointed Boyd didn't take advantage of his opportunity here. Boyd contrasts America's "power over" history with Jesus' "power under" alternative --

"This is what we are called to be: a community characterized by radical, revolutionary, Calvary-quality love; a community that manifests the love of the triune God; a community that strives for justice not by conquering but by being willing to suffer; a community that God uses to transform the world by providing it with an alternative to its own self-centered, violent way of existing."

Later in the book Boyd contrasts Jesus' style with the judgmental attitudes found in so many contemporary evangelicals.

"First, as people called to mimic Jesus in every area of our lives, we should find it significant that Jesus never assumed the position of moral guardian over any individual, let alone over the culture at large. In his ministry, he never once inquired into a person's moral status.... Why didn't the sinless Jesus point out, condemn, and try to control people's morality? ... His purpose, apparently, was not to guard, promote, or fix public morality."

You get the picture.

Boyd also challenges the evangelical obsession with gays and gay marriage.

"Do evangelicals fear gay marriage in particular because the Bible is much more clear about the wrongfulness of gay marriage than it is about the wrongfulness of divorce and remarriage? No, for the Bible actually says a good deal more against divorce and remarriage than it does about monogamous gay relationships.... We evangelicals may be divorced and remarried several times; we may be as greedy and as unconcerned about the poor and as gluttonous as others in our culture; we may be as prone to gossip and slander and as blindly prejudiced as others in our culture; we may be more self-righteous and as rude as others in our culture -- we may even lack love more than others in our culture. These sins are among the most frequently mentioned sins in the Bible. But at least we're not gay!"

Excellent point, in my opinion.

Boyd talks a lot about love and the importance of people, especially Christians, to love as Jesus taught us to love. He spends a whole lot of time on this. And this is actually the one area where I veered away from the book, toward the end. He's a pacifist. In the strictest sense. His final chapter has to do with violence, and it's a Q & A chapter with questions dealing with self defense, wars, the military, etc. Basically, he's all about non-violence to the point that people should not defend themselves if found in a situation where people invade their homes and assault them. He concludes it is better to die loving than act in one's self defense. Call me an insensitive asshole, but I think that's batshit crazy! I can assure you that if I'm victimized by a home invasion, I will do anything possible to save myself and my loved ones from harm. He also says Christians should never engage in wars or, probably, even serve in the military. It goes against God's love. He goes so far as to assert that America should NOT have gotten involved in World War Two, thus saving the world's Jews, even though that could have resulted in the extermination of the Jews. He feels that another option might have presented itself to save the Jews without our having had to resort to violence. I think that's insane. Likewise the Civil War. He thinks it's insane that 600,000 Americans died over slavery. I do too, but if that war hadn't been fought, millions of American blacks would likely still be enslaved today and the country and the world would be different places. Again, he argues another option could have presented itself and that we shouldn't have had to resort to war. I'm no war hawk. I don't like war. But I do believe it's necessary at times, and at times it's nuts, like Vietnam or Iraq. I believe World War Two was an evil necessity. I guess that makes me a non-Christian or Jesus hater in Boyd's opinion. It struck me that the author is as intolerant of those supporting such war efforts as the evangelical people he accuses of being intolerant of others in society today. This section ended the book and it ended it a bit sourly for me, after having largely enjoyed what was written throughout the majority of the book. I guess I think that Boyd is SUCH an idealist, that virtually no one who has ever called themselves a Christian would qualify as such under his stringent guidelines. That's a bit disappointing.

This really is a pretty good book, but it was hard for me to overlook the nonstop repetitions throughout the book, which made it pretty redundant at times, and I was disappointed that he took it pretty easy on current evangelicals. I thought he could have really called them out. The sub-title, after all, is called "How the quest for political power is destroying the church." Ahem. That means YOU, oh right wing evangelicals! Good book, worth the read, but with qualifiers. A four out of five stars.

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Weird Christians I Have Met

Weird Christians I Have MetWeird Christians I Have Met by Philip Baker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a cute little book to read, pretty lightweight, but intentionally so. It provides some Christian archetypes and gently reminds us of why these types of people could use some balance in their lives. Among the types of people we are introduced to here are Pentecostal Pamela, Judgmental Jill, Prosperity Patricia and others. I saw so many people I've known and met in these characters! I wish the book had been a bit heavier and could have done some significant in depth analysis, but it's meant to be whimsical, so you get what you get. One of the really bizarre and funny things is that there are pictures of these characters in the book. Obviously, these are model/actors. Guess who Demonic Dave is? Napoleon Dynamite's John Heder!!! I'm not kidding. There's no doubt at all. This is an Australian book that was published in the mid-90s, so Heder was probably just trying to break in before his fame arrived and he posed for photos for this book. How hilarious is that??? I bought the book used for $1.50, which seems to be about the right price for the book. Chances are if some of the archetypical Christians written about in the book were to see it, ideally they'd recognize themselves and seek some balance, but I seriously doubt that'll happen. Pity. Fun book, but not essential for one's library.

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The Merchants' War

The Merchants' WarThe Merchants' War by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this sequel to The Space Merchants, written decades earlier. Pohl's wit and satire are on full display through the entire novel. This is a futuristic world which is run by advertisers and advertising with protesters having migrated to Venus to escape. There are armies that "attack" aborigines to get them addicted to advertised products. It's pretty funny. Tennison Tarb is a senior ad exec stuck on Venus, but due to go home to an earth that's polluted and run over with billions of people. He has a love interest and there are numerous plot twists and his career goes up and down throughout the novel. He almost immediately falls victim to a new kind of advertising on his return to earth and starts drinking Moke-Koke, a seriously addictive beverage that's a combination of chocolate, coffee, and cocaine. As this book was published in 1984, you can bet Pohl is aware of the powerful pull of cocaine at the time, so when Tarb becomes a Moke Head, he kind of beats it into you, but it still fits the story. Toward the end of the novel, Tarb discovers a Venusian plot to beat earth at its own game and essentially keep Venus advertising-free. The plot is at the highest levels of the advertising world, but he agrees to help them (to save his own skin), going against everything he believes in. By the time the rather abrupt ending rolled around, I found it very surprising and somewhat hard to believe, but I still give Pohl credit for a fairly original book and awfully good writing. Not everyone will like this because it's not hard sci fi, but if you like some wicked humor mixed with futuristic worlds, you might enjoy this book. It's a fun read.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Cyber Way

Cyber WayCyber Way by Alan Dean Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I kind of liked this book, wanted to like it more, thought it was interesting, but ultimately couldn't finish it because the main protagonist, Moody, was so damn unlikeable. My God, he was sarcastic, snarky, bitchy, etc., ALL of the time, and it got damn old, particularly when he was a repeated asshole to his polite temporary Native American partner, Ooljee. Moody is sent from his beloved Tampa out to Arizona to help investigate a murder that might have originated regarding Indian artwork and the second he steps off the plane into the heat he starts griping. And never stops. At some point, you come to expect that virtually everything he says he'll say with a griping, bitchy tone just to offend the likeable Ooljee. What a dick! I hated him. I got as far as page 156 and gave up, even though the book was intriguing and I wanted to find out what ultimately happens. The aggravation of Moody's moods wasn't worth finishing the book. Foster really ticked me off for writing such an annoying character into the main protagonist's role in this book. It is such overkill. You'd think Foster could have eased off the pedal at times, but no, it's non-stop bitchiness. I've never hated a character as much as I hate Moody. I can't recommend this book to anyone and the only reason I'm even giving it two whole stars is because the premise is so original. Otherwise I would have given it one star. Loser character, loser book.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Digital Dead

The Digital DeadThe Digital Dead by Bruce Balfour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not a bad book, but not a great book either. Could have been better. First, though, it's about a new company called Elysian Fields that offers eternal life by implanting chips in people's heads and then when you die, an electronic copy of your personality is stored in a digital universe for people to interact with as though you're still alive. It's an odd premise and hard to pull off. I'm not convinced the book accomplished that for me. This book is also a sequel, which I wish I would have known. I could never figure out why an alien version of the Egyptian god Thoth was wandering around Kate's head. Very strange. Ultimately the book is about power, and the scramble to attain it. The thing that irritated me about the book was that there were too many darn characters! I'm not completely stupid, but I had a hard time keeping up with them all. It doesn't help that I read 4-6 books at a time, so I'd set this down for a couple of days and then had a hard time catching up when I picked it up again. I just kept think that Dick and Pohl, two of my sci fi favorites, never had to resort to dozens of characters. You usually have one or two with them and they still pull off a mean story. It just aggravated me and I almost gave up reading the book several times. However, I managed to finish and I guess I'm glad I did. Things were haphazardly tied up at the end, so I guess all is well with the universe. I'm still not completely satisfied with what happens to all of the digitally living dead people at the end of the book, but I won't write a spoiler. I guess I mildly recommend the book, but with some reservation. Three stars max.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ender's Game

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have some mixed feelings about Ender's Game, but mostly negative ones. Of course, I'd heard of the book for years -- after all, it's won some major awards and is about to be released as a major movie -- but only now got around to reading it. I've also heard the Marines use this book in their classes. If so, I'm sorry.

The world we read about is one that has fought two wars with "The Buggers" (Starship Troopers anyone?), winning the second one through the seemingly amazing strategies of one Mazer Rackham, who saved the earth 60 years ago. And ever since, the world governments have been preparing for a third war. To do this, they take child geniuses at -- get this -- age 6 and train them for years in the Battle School, somewhere in outer space. Ender Wiggin is one of three genius siblings chosen for this school. So begins the problems. First, character development. These characters are one dimensional and we never see them progress, even as they age and allegedly mature. It's sad. Two, the children sure don't act and think like 6 year old children. They think like adults -- mature adults. Witness Ender's thoughts from page 77: "Instinctively, Ender's perception of these events changed. It was a pattern, a ritual. Madrid was not trying to hurt him, merely taking control of a surprising event and using it to strengthen control of his army." Seriously? Those are the thoughts and perceptions of a 6 year old? It just doesn't seem realistic. Third, Ender is God. Honestly, he never loses a battle as he and his army play laser tag is a zero gravity battle zone. He's incapable of losing, no matter how much the evil adult teachers rig the games to beat him. There's also an RPG Ender plays relentlessly that annoyed me in its idiocy. Its role comes into play toward the end of the book, but by that time, events are so unbelievable, it's hard to take seriously. Fourth, Ender's siblings, the evil Peter and wishy washy Valentine, decide at ages 12 and 10 to take over the world by ... blogging. I'm not kidding. To give Card credit, this book was published in the 1980s based on a story of his from the '70s, so it was genius to foresee blogging, but honestly, to have two children take over the world by blogging really stretches the imagination. Meanwhile, the emotionless killer known as Ender is promoted to Command School years early because he's done so well in Battle School. Bear in mind, this whole time I'm skeptical as to whether there's even going to be another Bugger attack. It's been 60 years. And they're treating Ender as if he's the only one who can save the world. He's the Savior. That's a lot of pressure for a little kid and they try to break him even as they build him up. The games he plays at Command School aren't much more interesting than those at Battle School, which become pretty redundant, but there's a major plot surprise toward the end of the book involving these games, so I won't give it away. There's also a major plot surprise involving Mazer, which is sort of interesting. But Card ultimately can't even develop Mazer as a character. Poor writing. The final pages were completely unbelievable to me as Ender travels the universe as Speaker for the Dead, giving Card ample opportunity to write the sequel that follows. At no point are we told how these child geniuses manifest themselves as geniuses, their origins, their growth. Ender whines some, is ruthless often, although in self defense as he perceives it, and cannot lose. Simply unbelievable. I know many people love this book, and I do have to admit that after a slow first half, it did pick up for me and I rushed to reach the end -- which I didn't like. It's rather abrupt. I have a hard time picturing the Marines learning much valuable from this book, and while I may go see the movie to see how much they "Hollywood" it up, I'm not going to read the sequel. I'm glad I finally read this so-called classic, but it's the only time I will. I might give it away now. Not recommended.

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