Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind by J Heinrich Arnold

Review: Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind
 by J Heinrich Arnold

  • Print Length: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Plough Publishing House; New Expanded Edition edition (January 2, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English

Okay, first things first: I never knew who  J Heinrich Arnold was before receiving this book to review. As anyone who reads my blogs knows, I avoid reading much modern theology because I find the more popular ones -- by famous televangelists and theologians-- to be a tad empty. Not that I'm that full or that deep, but I've read enough to know that other theologians --of old-- wrote about certain topics with more knowledge, maturity, subtlety etc.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered the author of this book (or collection of writings) was born in 1913 and died in 1982. Yes, my kind of theologian! He also served as an elder in a Christian communal movement called Broderhuf. I don't know much about the Broderhuf except for being in their neck of the woods one day in our family travels. But I do have a soft spot in my heart for Christians who turn their backs on the world and try to live holy simple communal lives. Unless it gets all cultish and oppressive.

The book is divided into three large sections (The Disciple, the Church, the kingdom of God), which are further divided into subsections such as (under the Disciple) The Inner Life, Repentance, Conversion, Faith, Dogmatism, Commitment, Reverence, Surrender, Sincerity); (under The Church) Community, Gifts, Forgiveness, Unity, Baptism, Lord's Supper, Family Life, Illness and Death, Evil and Darkness, World Suffering; and (under The Kingdom of God) Jesus, The Living Word, The Cross, Salvation, The Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God.

This edition has the Discipleship book, with expanded sections such as taken from different works and from letters. As such, there is a flow to the paragraphs in the sections but sometimes....not. Because the excerpted letter paragraphs are placed in the chapter without introduction.  Still, its good to see these excerpts from the letters which show a very kind pastoral heart...which can be firm if need be.  

One would think that a spiritual leader of people committed to living apart from the ruin hypocrisy of Christendom would be very hard and dogmatic. On the contrary. In the section on dogma we see a person who respects Christian dogma but who seeks primarily that those in his fellowship find the relationship with Christ.

This book is really good. I love what he says --in his firm way-- about love, marriage and sex.

A couple of examples:

"Sex is man's secret, something that he feels touches on his inmost being. Every disclosure in this sphere reveals something intimate and personal and lets another person into his secret. This is why the area of sex is also the area of shame: we are ashamed to unveil our secret before others."

Or this (from a letter):

"Your question, 'Why do I feel attracted toward this boy if he is not meant for me but for someone else?' is a bit of a rebellious one, It accuses someone higher than yourself. Ultimately, it accuses God. Human nature being what it is, we often feel attractions that we have no choice to reject. That is simply part of our human weakness. Who is destined for you, or whether or not someone is destined for you, is not for me to say. The important thing for you is to give your life to Jesus."

Can you imagine getting a rebuke like that from your spiritual leader? And keeping the letter?

He must have been a very great man.

I highly recommend this book. A copy was sent to me by Plough publishing for a fair and honest review.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Review: Gift of Truth by Robert Fleming

Gift of Truth 
by Robert Fleming
Urban Christian

  • File Size: 1110 KB
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Urban Christian (February 1, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00HG21C4S

  • Robert Fleming is one passionate writer. He understands the history of African-Americans and the history of the Black church and his knowledge abounds in this novel about a minister who tackles racial religious compromise in the South.

    We've met this minister before in Fleming's first novel Gift of Faith. In that novel, we were more involved with the main character's/narrator's life as he recovered from his wife's suicide and her murder of his children.

    In this novel, he is more of a spectator. He is healed of the wound caused by his wife's betrayal and suicide but now he has to encounter betrayal on an even larger scale. Trouble is, discernment and truth is needed.

    His friend Reverend Peck, another minister, has called him down to Alabama; a self-styled prophet has arrived on the scene and has sheep-napped the minister's flock. The prophet, Wilks, comes from a long line of shysters and con men and he performs flamboyant healings in front of frenzied audiences.

    I'm trying to review this book without giving away spoilers because there are twists galore!

    Complicating the problem of flock-nabbing are the racial and socio-economic tensions between the poor Black farmers, the rich white agribusinessmen, the KKK, and white lawmen. For the religious Black men, there are great obstacles and temptations. Social compromises to protect one's reputation or one's life, sexual temptations, monetary temptations, and the compromising of truth.

    This is a very good novel. The challenge of being a prophet --especially one who is called to battle social ills-- echoes both the lives of prophets in the Bible and the lives of African-American activists such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others. Of course the prophets in the Bible are totally holy, but the prophetic activists and great ministers of Black history have been flawed.  

    I had a few nits of course. The main one is that the author is so knowledgeable about African-American culture and history that sometimes there feels like way too much teaching going on for a novel. It's not bad, of course, and one does get the feeling the book is written to honor great Black heroes and musicians. But Mr. Fleming is a cultural historian and that kind of writing is to be expected.

    A few writers might feel the author is picking on certain types of Christians i.e. pentecostal types. But I don't think that Mr Fleming was doing that. But I do think he is saying that Christians can sometimes be like sheep if they don't discern the truth and stand up for it.  Some Christians might be offended by events in the story but I encourage them to read through the book and finish it. As I said, there are some good twists. 

    Wednesday, November 26, 2014

    Review: Evening Prayers For Every Day of the Year by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

    Evening Prayers For Every Day of the Year by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

    Growing up with the Book of Common Prayers, I have nothing against written prayers per se. Some of them are lovely and the best written-in-stone (so to speak) prayers are usually like perfectly distilled, perfectly chistled heartfelt communication from the depths of our spirit. As a penteocostal, charismatic, Christian, I also love a good spontaneous prayer. Who knew there was a book of written prayers that was perfect for folks like me!

    I've never heard of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt but apparently (at least from the cover) he was quite influential with folks like Karl Barth and Boenhoeffer. And I can see why.  

    First, the prayers are addressed to a living God who wants to do wonders in the world. They are prayers which seem to be born from someone keenly acquainted with the work, love, and power of the Holy Spirit. This is amazing to me. One cannot read these daily prayers and the Bible verses connected with them without developing a spirit of expectancy.  Blumhardt repeatedly asks God to show His power, His love, His healing, His Wisdom.

    Secondly, the prayers in this book are not necessarily evening prayers. There are very few prayers which actually should only be said at night.

    Thirdly, the prayers are very very very insightful and although they don't read like treatises, they very well could be. The prayers are heartfelt and one often feels as if one is overhearing an intimate private conversation between a holy saint and God. But the prayers pack so much wonderful theology that they enlighten the heart and mind as one reads them.  

    Fourthly, the prayers are accessible. The language they are written in are modern and conversational. A child of ten or eleven can understand them as well as an adult. The super-theologically-educated will like it as well as those who know little about God.

    Fifthly, the theology is presented in a way that will not offend anyone. Okay, unless one is extremely legalistic and picky about some pet theology, one will not find anything to argue about.

    Lastly, this book is a classic. I didn't know the author until I got this book. And now I know why this is a classic.

    I highly highly highly recommend this book. I have the book in hardcover and I guess my only nit is that the kindle is so expensive. ($8.49) Especially for a Christian book.  But that's my nit, I guess.

    I received this book freely in exchange for a free and honest review.

    Review: Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner

    • Paperback: 336 pages
    • Publisher: Harmony (August 5, 2014)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0385348118
    • ISBN-13: 978-0385348119

    When I first saw the description (and promise) of Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner I thought this book would be perfect for travelers, missionaries, ex-patriats, and public servants in federal/regional/local government offices. Now I think it would be perfect for COMMITTED travelers, missionaries, etc.

    The book promises to teach us the natural way of learning a language. But natural doesn't necessarily mean easy. After all, as Wyner relates, children learn language naturally. Adults do not. Primarily because children are surrounded by a language they have to learn. So they pick it up. But adults either have other things to attend to (and thus cannot concentrate on learning a foreign language) or they are trained wrongly when they do try to learn.

    As is common in all self-help books, there is a lot of research to ponder. Research helps us understand why we have to do what the author is telling us we have to do. So yeah, there is some stuff to wade through. Most of it is fun wading if one likes learning and understanding new linguistics stuff. But if you just want instructions, you might be put off by the scientific/psychological reasoning behind the game plan.

    Wyner describes three kinds of fluency: hearing the language, speaking the language, and writing the language. All these are interconnected, but they are connected in a way that we need to understand. Specifically the mind needs to be engaged in order to learn and preserve language -- and most language techniques don't engage the speaker's heart well enough to create permanent language learning. Thus Wyner gives techniques to help his readers learn how to train their minds.    

    And the techniques are many. As are the resources. This book is jam-packed full of techniques. Techniques having to do with Google Images. Techniques with flash-cards. Techniques with ear-training. Techniques with tongue-training. I really love the sections on how to pronounce certain vowels. There are a lot of lists as well. I tried a few of these and downloaded some software. I think this book will help a lot of people, even if they don't use all the techniques. As I said, it's all about committment. I suspect, though, that a lot of people will find the book confusing in parts. Those IPA charts are still muddling around in my brain.   Recommended...if you're committed.

    I got this book free in exchange for a fair and honest review.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2014

    Review: Pieces of Me by Amber Kizer

    Pieces of Me
    Amber Kizer
    Delacorte Press
    US $16.99/$18.99CAN
    ISBN 978-0-385-74116-3
    291 pages
    Amber Kizer’s story is about organ donation and the lives of teens who are affected by it. As such it is not primarily a fantasy; it’s more like an illustrative story with some philosophical and theological existential discussions thrown in.

    Jessica, a teenaged loner with an overbearing mother, would rather be left to herself. Except that she dies. And pieces of her are sent to various recipients. She spends the rest of the book hovering near them, attempting to converse with them, trying to comfort them with sage advice, and being something of a dead guardian angel.

    After Jessica's accident, the book leaps six months and this is troublesome. Jessica's reaction to her death is not explored at all. That is problematical because Jessica's behavior as an all-knowing super-helpful dead person is so at odds with her formerly living self that the reader wonders how such a change occurred.

    Some books are difficult to review, especially if the book is from the heart of an author who has health issues. At least, I find those books hard to review because the book is obviously a heart-child. The book seems written primarily to show the importance of organ donation and it does that. The characters are the typical teenagers one finds in young adult novels; they find life especially difficult

    I had expected this to be more of a fantasy. But, aside from the fact that Jessica is invisible, not much else is fantastical. When alive Jessica felt there was no purpose to her life. Now that she is dead, she strives to become part of the world. . .even if vicariously.

    The living characters are all in emotional or physical ruts. They include Samuel, a religious boy who tries to see small miracles in life; Vivian, a girl who has cystic fibrosis and who is loved by; Leif, the gorgeous school athlete who begins examining himself when he get an injury; and Misty who feels very guilty because someone died in order that she might get a liver.

    The lives of all the characters are caught in snapshot like moments. It gives the story a cinematic after-school special episodic feel but it also made this reviewer wish the story had been only about one or two characters. Connecting to the characters becomes difficult because they almost feel like symbols. And although I felt some of the insights given by the characters to be simplistic or maybe theologically light psychobabble, they may prove helpful for some children who need to accept or verbalize the emotions caused by their health issues.

    Recommended for children who are going through a hard time because of health issues.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2014

    Review: NIV First-Century Study Bible

    This is a review of the kindle version which I freely received without for a fair and honest review.

    The NIV First-Century Study Bible is arranged like most study Bibles. There are the usual sections with charts, maps, word indexes, etc. The differences with this study Bible is a long list of ancient texts used to shed light on the verses, Middle Eastern history, literary tropes, ancient laws, poetry and writing stule.

    I love archaeology, anthropology, history, linguistics, and cultural studies so I really liked this Bible. The Bible is thorough and most of the verses are annotated. The hyperlinked annotations shed light on the cultural and religious meanings behind the Bible verses we know or think we know. Historical documents such as the writings of ancient historians --Josephus, for instance-- and documents by Jewish and Christian scribes are included.  Some of these might bother some people who don't want to see how (for instance) the story of Job is similar to another story in that region.

    There are many definitions and explanations of the significance of words and objects. The editors also show how full of humor some of the Bible texts are. There are some notes which show a more direct less prudish (honest?) reading of certain texts. The Bible is full of slangs and sometimes translations prefer to translate certain words in a way puritanical minds would appreciaate. This version shows in the footnotes what was really going on in some verses. For instance, Genesis 43:34 is translated "drank freely" whereas the literal meaning of the words are "they got drunk together."  

    Moving about and through the kindle version is intuitive. Or maybe I'm just getting better at moving around the kindle version. (I don't have a kindle. I used a kindle app on my chromebook.)

    The reader who may enjoy this book best of all are Messianic Jews and readers who want to understand Jewish history. The reader should also be someone who doesn't get too bent over shape about opinions, surmises, and varying opinions. The fun of this Bible is looking at the history of what other rabbis have said about certain passages. If you're prickly about knowing exactly what certain passages mean, you'll lose out on the fun of this book.

    The blessing and the curse of this version is that it brings the reader face to face with the assumptions we have about certain passages. For instance, many Christians are taught that The Lord's Prayer was created by Jesus. But the footnotes show that Jesus used parts of different rabbinical traditions to put the prayer together. The idea of God being called "Abba" ("Daddy") is another example of Christians thinking that Jesus had changed many aspects of religion. There are paragraphs taht show how similar certain aspects of Egyptian law are to the laws in the Bible.

    This kind of challenge to a certain kind of argumentative Christian who likes to believe that the word of God is being tested. Yet the editors are profoundly committed to the uniqueness of the Christian Bible and it is evident that for all their archaeological commentary, they believe the word of God to be God-breathed. I would not give this book to the kind of person who is argumentative or who is not skillful in reading comprehension. I know that's a harsh thing to say but I can see some people feeling the book is challenging Scripture when it isn't.

    I highly recommend this book. It might turn the reader into a history nut but some people might think it shakes their faith.

    Friday, October 31, 2014

    Review: The Goblin Emperor

    The Goblin Emperor

    By Katherine Addison
    Tor Books
    Published 2014
    448 pages
    Hardcover $19.70
    kindle $10.99
    Paperback $8.09
    ISBN 978-0765326997

    The protagonist of The Goblin Emperor is Maia, fourth son of the emperor of Elfland. He and his goblin mother were cast-off by his elfin father. But the sudden death of the emperor (and his heirs) in a nasty airship accident has thrust Maia back into a court that was not expecting a half-goblin to rule over it. Maia, who has lived in uneducated exile, now has to learn what he should have been learning all along — court etiquette, clan alliances, court laws and politics, dance moves, imperial behavior.

    Maia is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in a while. He’s kind-hearted, tolerant, self-loathing (because of his dark skin), apologetic about his existence, and full of insecurity. He’s confused about everything and his intellectual growth is the same as the reader’s because we are as lost in this world as Maia is. More so. Luckily for Maia— perhaps too luckily— he is surrounded by a few relatives, courtiers, and councilors who are willing to help him in a court which largely belittles and despises him. And this is one of the serious miscalculations of the novel.

    The Goblin Emperor contains whole sections that cause one’s eyes to glaze over. There are other sections where a reader simply rolls her eyes. First, the eye-rolling. There are a whole mess of Wish-fulfillment characters in this book. All are placed in the right places to make our main character feel better about himself. I have nothing against wish fulfillment characters but Horatio is a good wishfulfillment character to Hamlet, Prince Idra is not a good character for Maia. Prince Idra pretty much takes the words out of Maia’s mouth whenever they are talking.  While the emperor has many enemies out to get him, he also has a whole bastion of people whose existence are made wonderfully better because he has arrived in their lives. Worse yet, the characters who dislike the emperor are “bad,” worthy of (the reader’s) mockery, unenlightened, greedy, or weak. Yep. whoever loves the emperor is incredibly good. And because Maia likes and approves of certain oppressed people we know he is good because he is politically-correct for the reader. There are feminist-agenda storylines that don’t actually matter to the plot. They seem thrown in to make the emperor look “good” and progressive or because the author seemingly had to get all her agenda stuff off her chest. I mean “all.” This easy delineation of good characters versus bad characters is so judgmental, easy, and childish that
    one can only endure it and keep reminding one’s self that this is a flaw of many newbie writers with passionate convictions who don’t believe they’ll have another chance to get all their stories out in other published books. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. When I first began writing, I was tempted to do this kind of thing but luckily my friends slapped some sense into me.    

    The oldfashioned feminism creates pages of sorrowful wimpy princesses who “want to study the stars” but are forced to marry, noble good homosexual former priest who are being blackmailed, and lesbian princesses who run away from home to become sea captains.

    As for eyes glazing over: The worldbuilding is a mess and is not integrated into the story as well as it should be. I’ve always thought that a good world-builder should also be a good teacher, specifically a good language teacher. The reader should be dropped into a novel like an immigrant dropped into a large city. Utterly confused but with enough clues to fend for ourselves.  This book is overly complicated and doesn’t have that teacher sensibility. And no, the glossary in the back is not that helpful.

    For one, the language and naming system get in the way. I’m all for inventing new languages and names but information should not be continually thrown at the reader at breakneck speed on every page of the book.  And, if they are being thrown at us, they should really be part of the plot. It often feels that the author throws information at the reader in memo form and almost as an aside. Casual backstories are jockeyed around as self-contained or extended anecdotes. And again, they often have nothing to do with the main plot, which makes the main plot somewhat thin.

    Even with all this glut of information, the world-building is insufficient. It’s as if the author’s priorities were in the wrong place. So much is left unclear. The only difference I can see between elves and goblins is that elves are white and goblins are black. I don’t know the difference between elves and men or if men really matter in this world. The magic and fantasy are inconsistent. A conversation with the dead here. An airship there. But for the most part the racial issues between elves and goblins weren’t really explored.

    The book is a strange compelling combination of the confusing and the simplistic. I say compelling because although I found this book incredibly confusing more on this later I couldn’t put it down.

    While I’m not a feminist, I do agree with some of their tenets. I admire some authors’ goodwill toward black folks, equality, etc., but sometimes I cringe when I see token Black women or Magical Negroes. While it is good to have allies, sometimes those allied to our cause can be frustrating. Bad Feminist fiction is often reductionist and The Goblin Emperor  often seem to exist primarily as a vehicle to carry an agenda. Gay rights is a large part of the feminist movement but the presence of Magical/Suffering Homosexual might make some gay folks cringe. The blackmailed suffering homosexual snippet was particularly egregious because the author’s desire to show how much gay folks have suffered at the hands of conservative people not only doesn’t fit into the story but she leaves the reader wondering if the author thinks homosexuality is unnatural, given the elffolk and goblins reaction to it.  Why not just create an elfworld where homosexuality is normal? Unless this is a specific branch of Judeo-Christian elves out there, this is a case of the agenda missing its mark. I’m thinking of Kari Sperring’s fine fantasy novel, Living With Ghosts which had homosexual characters and of Sylvia Kelso’s Amberlight, which is a feminist fantasy novel which does not fall into typical feminist tropes. 

    Wednesday, October 22, 2014

    Review: The End, My Friend by Kirby Wright

    The End, My Friend
     by Kirby Wright 
    ISBN 978-0974106793

    In Kirby Wright's The End, My Friend, the powers that be have come undone. National and local laws have crumbled. Militias, warlords, and gang-leaders rule the streets.And Tony and Eva have to get away from it all. 

    They have to get out of the city and into the safe areas, Oregon for instance. Other humans are dangerous, and yet it would be great to find allies one could trust.

    This is a futuristic story without any science fiction or supernatural events. It's the author's image of a possible scenario -- the USA after economic and governmental collapse. The author assumes --probably rightly-- that if the US ever had a meltdown, there would be looting, murdering, raping, and mayhem throughout the larger cities and danger on the highways. The country would be full of badlands and bad guys with only a few safe regions. 

    The first two or three chapters have a distinctively "real" feel. But then, the author does something with his characters which some readers may not like. The story, which had felt like a mainstream novel suddenly becomes a bit stylized. Not entirely, but a bit. The characters speak and do things that characters in a noir novel might do.  Think Mad Max meets Sin City. It's not a bad thing, and it certainly will not mar the book for those who like hip larger-than-life characters. Evo is tough, but for those who like to see regular folks in novels, she is way too tough. She is a broad, a dame, a femme fatale, if necessary. And the conversations between the characters are a bit too tough-guy lingo. 

    This is a good book, a novel filled with suspense and disturbing insights into the American psyche.  But the hipsterification of the main characters and the stereotyping of some of the Big Bads they encounter reduces the impact. Recommended. 

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