Category Archives: Books

Is The Fault In Our Stars The Future Of Literature?

wallace Claire Wallace is a senior in High School in the fast paced culture center of Glendale, CA. When she isn’t devouring books, she’s hawking them, talking them up and organizing book discussion groups.


In school I have read many famous classic books, which most people define as literature. In their own time, these books were well known and usually popular. I got thinking, “What about today’s popular books?” Will they stand the test of time?

The Fault In Our Stars Banner

Will a supernatural romance or a dystopian future become our next Moby Dick?

Personally I don’t think so. I believe the book that will be considered literature, read in schools and studied, is The Fault in Out Stars. It has beautiful writing, rich literary devices, and most of all, it will continue to resonate beyond its time.

The writing in the book is majestic. It has what I like to call these “profound moments,” – basically when author, John Green, writes a passage prominently presenting a theme and usually it’s beautifully written. An example of this is when the character Augustus confesses to the main character of Hazel (no I am not giving anything away, it reveals it in the movie trailer):

“I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you” (153).

One of the main themes is expressed in this declaration, the idea of fate versus the idea of choosing. Not only does John Greene just write it, he puts it in a love confession, between two teenagers, setting the stage for another theme, one about love.

This is the kind of passage where, as soon as I read it, I just want to read it over and over again. It captures my attention.

Literary devices, yeah, they can be associated with school, but they bring so much to a story. One of my personal favorites is the constant symbolism of names.

First is Hazel, a girl with terminal cancer and the narrator of the story. Her name, Hazel, is an in-between color neither totally brown nor totally green. This represents Hazel’s state of being. She is in-between life and death but also as a regular teenage girl; she is in-between childhood and womanhood.

Then there is Augustus Waters. Due to the cancer, Hazel is drowning in water but in comes A. Waters. He shows her how her life is not just a side effect of dying but so much more. And just like every human needs water to live so does Hazel. Augustus Waters helps her truly live.

The Fault In Our Stars, at first, seems utterly unrelatable; a girl with cancer, having to live in this state of in-between. Yeah, I am not sick. I have no foretold death.

So why is it so relatable?

The idea of oblivion is hard to understand, and we choose to ignore it but that does not change the fact that it is there. How do we deal with it when we are forced to acknowledge it? That is what this book shows: a girl dealing with oblivion but also within that, love.

As humans we can all relate to love.

This is the briefest of examples of why I believe this book will continue. I truly believe that will become one of the great classics. In future generations, someone will look back, and look forward and wonder what book in their time will become like The Fault in Our Stars.

What do you think? Is The Fault In Our Stars the next Melville?

Beating-Burnout-Book

Beating Burnout: A Review of Page 1

Beating-Burnout-Book I’ve started to work through some burn out oriented issues and I thought that I would use Anne Marie Miller‘s book, Beating Burnout: A 30-Day Guide to Hope and Healthto get me going in the right direction.

It’s not a long book. Its quite short actually. You could read through it in no time flat, but that’s not the point. In fact, the first page has taken me about 5 weeks to work through.

That’s right. Five. Weeks.

You might be saying, “That sure is a long time to spend on one page!” And you’d be right. You might be thinking that I have an incredible slow rate of absorption, and well, you may have a point for some things, but reading isn’t one of them.

See, my issue is Margin: I don’t have any. I don’t stop to get gas in the car because I’m always in a hurry to the next thing. Unless the empty light is screaming at me, I can’t seem to find the margin to fill up the tank. I used to see movies, but now I don’t have the margin to even read a title. About a year ago, I bought a book called Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Trouble is, I haven’t had the margin to read a book on margin. Margin‘s author, Richard Swenson, defines ‘margin’ as the space between ourselves (what we can do) and our limits (what we can’t do).

He further writes, “When we have no margin and our limits have been exceeded; when we are besieged by stress and overload; when our relational life is ailing; when it seems the flood of events is beyond our control; then problems take on a different dimension. One at a time they are perhaps manageable. But they just won’t stand in line. Instead, they mound up suddenly and then bury us without warning.”

Sound like a review of another book? No, Swenson’s book is unpacking the reasons one would turn to Miller’s book.

So, one page.

What is on that one page? A simple suggestion to add to your life that will save you from burn out; or at least begin the process of healing from the avalanche of working beyond our limits.

Sabbath. Rest.

The instruction of the first page is simply: “Create Sabbath.” Not a minute or an afternoon on Teusday, but a whole day to rest, recreate and renew. Every week.

It’s been five weeks and I’m just beginning to see how that’s going to be possible. A person can’t go seven days a week and expect to stay sane as a result.

I’m going to work at this first page until I get it. Until I nail it. Until I knock it out of the park. My whole being cries out for rest and Miller is right, if you can’t fight to get beyond page one, you don’t belong on page two.

How do you Sabbath? Do you rest? Or is Margin a silly dream that gets in the way of more important things?

Zealot Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan’s Zealot: A Review/Rant Thing

Over the last few days, I’ve read the new Jesus was a violent revolutionary book du jour, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In part, I picked it up because as a pastor I’m committed to reading Christian exposés that blip huge on the cultural radar and in part, because the botched Fox News interview between the author, Reza Aslan, and Fox interviewer, Lauren Green, was to good to be true…I had to read it. While impossible to imagine, this interview has been called the “Most embarrassing interview Fox has ever done.” You can judge for yourself.

Most embarrassing or no, the interview pushed sales of the book to number one on Amazon, dethroning the (JK Rowling) hardboil The Cuckoo’s Calling. Interestingly, both parties kind of blow it here. Green, because she apparently lacks some interviewing fundamentals and Aslan, because he backs himself intoma corner defending his right to write. Well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, huh?

So far, quite a bit has been written on this book. CNN Belief Blog lists seven points that Aslan makes that stir the waters of faith, but really don’t make a new point. To this, Anthony Le Dunne reviews the book pointing out that the real weakness lies (not in Aslan’s absent theology), but in his unequipped Second Temple history (which, truthfully, I thought was the real value of the book). Of course, I have no way of knowing good Second Temple scholarship, because I’m no Second Temple Scholar. However, Le Dunne says that Simon Joseph is. The Christian Post offers a variety of commentary. And Stephen Prothero reviews the book for the Washington Post, quoted below.

In the end, “Zealot” offers readers not the historical Jesus but a Jesus for our place and time — an American Jesus for the 21st century, and more specifically for a post-Sept ’11 society struggling to make sense of Christianity’s ongoing rivalry with Islam.

Before I chime in, it’s worthy of note that in the FOX interview, Aslan might have overstated his qualifications a bit. This post is ridiculously long and not even a review of the book. I’m addressing some of the attacks on Scripture that this kind of writing usually delivers, Zealot notwithstanding.

I feel very defensive of the Biblical Jesus. I’m not going to lie. It’s not that I feel I have to defend him by any stretch. He’s God! He can do a fine job of that on his own. However, when an author tries to take him out of the pages of Scripture and drop him into the annuls of history-belongs-to-the-victor History, I want to step in and make a comment or two. Aslan’s book is fodder for that. Early on in his book, when he referred to the “brilliant Bertrand Russell” I knew we were in for a ride, and one that we’ve been on before. The Journey to find the Historical Jesus in 2013 is going to be a retread regardless who writes it. Russell may have been brilliant, but he was no Christian theologian.

At the root of “Zealot, the Life and Times…” lies distinction between those who read divinity in Jesus and those who read divinity into Jesus. Aslan is in pursuit of the “historical Jesus,” the Jesus that is completely separate from the Bible, into whom divinity must be read. His thesis is, like so many others, that Jesus’ God-hood is a later addition to the narrative of a Galilean wonder-working militant. I’ll address this below.

As a Muslim scholar, Reza Aslan is not going to believe in Jesus’ divinity.

There is no mystery about his perspective and it is to be commended academically. You can’t produce scholarship that is genuinely unbiased unless you examine your subject from all sides. You can even focus on one aspect and publish. However, you have to be honest about your delimitations. To a Muslim, Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. The second place prophet, but he is certainly not the Son of God. That’s why Green asks the repetitive question, “As a Muslim, why would you write a book about Jesu?”. It’s a good one, and one you have to keep in mind as you read this book. Within Christianity, Jesus is God. If he’s not, it’s not Christianity. You can’t have a Christian that believes Christ was human and not God.
Simple distinction.
Has to be made.

Humanism never builds lasting movements

If Jesus is not God, then he was a humanist leader, albeit a Jewish one. Humanism requires societies to improve based upon the goodness inherent in evolving human nature.
The more we learn and improve, the better the world gets. While I accept this in its ideal, I fail to see that it has actually made anything better. Aslan’s Christianity is nothing more, nothing less than humanism. The problem is that the Jesus movement has lasted 2,000 years. Goodness is relative, God-ness is not. The Kantian-Hegelian worldview has not produced the fruit of righteousness that humanism promises to deliver. While we have been witness to atrocity, the is no comparison to Jesus’ positive impact on both the world and it’s history. To catch the lasting goodness of what Jesus began read John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus. Nothing in history is comparable to the movement Jesus began.

What to do with Mark & Miracles

In order for Aslan (which feels ironic by this point thinking of the great feline Jesus in the Narnia stories) to have a book, you have to buy into a late date for the authorship of Mark, which is a necessity for a “militant human Jesus” perspective. Dating the Gospels is difficult and they are all up for grabs where this is concerned. In all likelihood, they weren’t written in one sitting. It took time. Almost like…writing a book about Jesus. Mark has adherents to an early 39-40CE date. There also exists the realistic possibility of a mid 60’s date. And then, the later date, which Historic Jesus scholars have to go with, is also an option and it hinges upon verse 13:2, “Jesus responded, ‘Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.'”

What this verse suggests is that Jesus is taking a prophetic glance at the future. For the believer, there is no problem here. It’s miraculous, which has no place what so ever in the pantheon of humanism. There is no supernature attributable to a human zealot Jesus, remember? So, the “logical” explanation is that Mark put these words into Jesus’ mouth after the final destruction of the Temple in 70CE at the hand of Romans. The other dates are certainly possible and would definitely explain how Matthew and Luke could get a hold of the Gospel of Mark, if you are able to maintain that Jesus was God and had insight into future events, which Historic Jesus adherents do not.

If Jesus was a human, there are no miracles. Late Mark = No Miracles. Maybe.

The Resurrection and The Witnesses

Assange Since Resurrection is out of the question for Aslan, he spends little time or scholarship on it and instead moves onto Paul and his construction of a post-Jesus religion. As a result, I will spend little time here. We have to step out from behind out computer desks and recognize that there were witnesses to the Resurrection. To have any of this written down and having your name attached; someone at some point would have called “BS.” Right? If none of it were true, why attach your name to it and then stick with the story for the rest of your life? Even if it were going to be cut short by the blade of a saw. There are Julien Assange’s in every era. Christianity, especially in the first two centuries of the Church, cries out for scores of them. When the going got violent, the truth would have been spilled.

The Bible As A Source Document

Interlude. I always find it funny that Scripture is never handled as a source document. It’s always on trial as though nothing in it was factual, representative of fact, historical or representative of history. Jesus, the God-Man, doesn’t seem to bear out. I know, I know, I can hear the chorus of “well, the burden of proof is on him,” but hasn’t the historical timeline born that burden? How long can something remain so consistent and so doubted? Yes, there are written inconsistencies, but nothing that changes the 99% represented truth. Held up against documents of which we possess fewer and were written a thousand years after the fact, the bible holds up pretty well:

Jesus vs Universalism table

There would have been no martyrs

I realize that much has been written about the cult of martyrdom that surrounded Jesus. I’m not so versed in that subject that I feel qualified or organized around how many people actually gave up their lives for the sake of Jesus. However, it happened. My contention is that if Jesus were merely a historical zealot, as it appeared he was in the post-crucifixion Gospel narratives, then the whole house of cards would have just crumbled. The Disciples gathered in real fear, fear that what had happened to every other zealot crusader while Rome had been top dog would happen to them. They were waiting to face the same horror that Jesus had.

To his credit, Aslan does a great job chronicling the failed ‘messiah’ figures, then he points to Richard Horsely as his muse. Read Horsely. I’ve read him a ton and find him fabulously interesting, even if he’s not a raging evangelical.

Can you imagine dying a gruesome death, say…being eaten by lions, for a lie? Would you allow yourself to be burnt alive for a name that passed by like so many others before? A name that wasn’t above all names afterall? The Disciples weren’t theologians, but they weren’t ignorant cattle either. Which brings me to my next point.

The People That Were There Were Actually There

Historians that cow tow to this historical Jesus tend to treat the first century people a bit like they weren’t there, like they weren’t aware of the things that are so clear now thanks to modern scholarship. Aslan doesn’t end the book with Jesus, really. He winds up highlighting a very possible power struggle between Paul and James. In doing so, he sets up this dual church system: That of James the Just and that of Paul The Rogue. As if no one would have been aware had there been two Churches, Alsan assets that Paul could not overcome James and yet went around his back all over the Mediterranean world. My question is, since the people who began to canonize the scriptures early, being unofficially codified as early as the end of the second century, why would James and Paul have ended up in the same canon? Why didn’t two separate Scriptures develop, even beyond the Council of Rome in 382? If Paul was so outside the true faith, why didn’t he end up top man on his own campus?

Aslan is fitting pieces together that will always stand as kind of conjectural. It’s cool how he interlaces the two men’s passion and fury, but depending on the extant 4th century Pseudo-Clementines for his dominant narrative. That would be like arguing against the Synoptics based upon the Gospel of Judas. And just for fun, Aslan uses Josephus as a source, however uncritically. Josephus stands up to no scrutiny from the author.

The men and women surrounding the Jesus event, the Paul event and the early church were actually there. They would have noted a similarly violent tradition between the Bishop of all Bishops and Paul. So Why didn’t they?

Because Christianity survives as a result of Conspiracy

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If Aslan is correct and there is no historicity to the NT, then it’s only cleverly manicured narrative woven into the tapestry of history by the hyperactive scribes of the Christian conspiracy. Each detail would have to have been redacted throughout the ages to maintain a certain status quo, which would inevitably have to evolve. But not worry, the “scribes” could alter every existing document as necessary – they would have to. One thing we don’t tend to lend credence to is that “there are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament. If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, we find that the New Testament manuscripts far outweigh the others in quantity.” via

That’s ALOT of white out.

I know that Aslan would roll his eyes at this, but at a certain point, the Bible has to stand up for itself. No one is as stupid as the historical Jesus argument lays claim they would have to be. Are there difficulties with the Bible? Yes. Are there parts that are hard to reconcile? Absolutely. Does this mean, then that it’s claims are false, wholesale? Definitely not.

Perhaps, one day I’ll actually review the book instead of just mouth off against the rhetorical approach that a book of this type relies on. But for now that is all.

In Islam, the historical Jesus truly is a Jesus worth believing in, as Aslan concludes. However in Christianity, Aslan’s words go down like alcohol and gluten free beer. Instead we have to turn to a voice like C.S. Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.” Mere Christianity

Have you read anything about Reza Aslan and his new book? What are your thoughts?

Book Review: Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity Is Changing Pop Culture For The Better

Writer and essayist Jonathan Fitzgerald has done me a favor: defined a new movement I’d never heard of and written a brief, but dense, e-book about it.

True Confession

As immensely popular as Judd Apatow’s films are, I have never been able to understand their appeal. 40 Year Old Virgin took me four attempts to watch and I still haven’t gotten over the horse sex jokes. I liked “Knocked Up” quite a bit actually, but the observation still holds.

So I find it odd that Fitzgerald uses Apatow as an anchor for the New Sincerity. The New Sincerity is a movement, a generation, a perspective that puts morality on the main stage of pop culture. Fitzgerald puts it like this:

“Our fashionable idea, I believe, is the “New Sincerity,” in which an emphasis on being sincere and authentic creates a space for frank discussion of morality in popular culture.”

The world outside the Church is desperately hungry to understand, express and embrace morality, which is something that I believe the Church has largely dropped from its call list. Perhaps we reason that all the “right” morality is already out there, everybody has heard it before and it’s so deeply engrained that it’s not even worship mentioning. Fitzgerald reminds me that this just isn’t the case as he writes:

“An unadvertised side effect of this trend away from organized religion is that the transmission of ethics and morality—which has long been the domain of the church—has fallen to other institutions. Here, popular culture has stepped in and become a prominent transmitter of morality, as well as a more liberated space to explore our ideas about all things spiritual outside the constraints of a dogmatic religion.”

“Pop Culture has stepped in and become a prominent transmitter of morality.”

As much as society at large has it our for “kids these days,” something pretty exceptional is happening. When I think about it, Apatow does care about morality, perhaps even more than I do. In the 40 Year Old Virgin, there is a forty year old virgin, a man who values the gift of his sexuality – his physical being – so much that he waits. Can you imagine that? While embedded in the authentic language of the times is a morality tale that raises the bar on popular culture. Knocked Up is another film that Fitzgerald mentions as upholding a high standard of morality. Yes, an unmarried woman gets knocked up, but it’s what comes after that that should make us pause and think about the morality of “unvirtuous” Hollywood.

I had never listened to Pedro The Lion before I read this book. I’d heard of them, but quite frankly, the name didn’t inspire me to press play. Yesterday, I listened to them all day long. Pedro was led by singer David Bazan, a Christian who left the faith publically documenting it on his album, “Curse Your Branches.” I was pleasantly entranced by Pedro’s post REM/Smithereens mashup sound. For a Christian artist, I was amazed! They didn’t rhyme “love and dove” once. They didn’t do the traditional and necessary “grace and God’s face” rhyme. It was sincere. Things normal people say. Even Christians. Even me. There’s a line in their song “Foregone Conclusions,” a song for those who think they know everything about people who have (and dont have) faith, that goes:

“And you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord
to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the f#ck up.
You thought, it must be the devil, tryin to make you go astray.
And besides, it could not have been the Lord because you don’t believe he talks that way.”

Now, whether you believe “christians” ought to talk like this…they do. And that’s what the New Sincerity is about, being real. Christianity has a reputation for closing the blinds on what’s inside the house so that the outside keeps up the appearances. What the New Sincerity aims to reveal is that what is on the inside is OK, too. In fact, the more real the better.

Look at the hit TV show Modern Family. While it has gay people, whom we Christians love to hate, it’s a much more accurate look into the life of a real family than say, Happy Days. The reason it’s so funny is that it’s so close to home. And we can care, in fact, one of the hallmarks of the New Sincerity that Fitzgerald point out is that

It’s Cool To Care!

Not Your Mother’s Morals is a great piece of journalism that highlights a movement I wasn’t really aware of until I heard Fitzgerald being interviewed on the Homebrewed Culturecast. The important thing to catch is that pop culture is engaging morality on the other side of the line the Moral Majority drew in the 80’s…you know…where the people are.

Good Read. It’ll make you think.
And it will make you want to catch some Full House reruns.

What examples of “The New Sincerity” moral model have you experienced?

caa

Encouragement for a President

Chester Arthur would not have been the country’s first pick for President.
And yet he became the nation’s 21st.

chester arthur He was the pet of über-conservative Stalwart Roscoe Conkling and there weren’t many gold stars on his personal growth chart. Arthur, was assumed to be a weasel of a man and was immediately suspected of being involved with the assassination of President Garfield. That Arthur was Garfield’s Vice-President was icing on the cake. In the hours after Garfield died, Arthur could be hear weeping in high hysterics, locked in his bedroom. He was finally sworn in at 2:15am.

By the time he became President though, things had begun to change.

Democracy was at work on him.

Do you remember the Preamble? “We the people…” ?
We the People…” ?
So did Julia Sand.

Julia Sand was an unmarried, thirty-two year old, disabled woman who knew that Arthur needed to get his Big Boy Pants on because the buck was going to stop with him the moment Garfield stopped breathing. So, Julia began to send letters to the beleaguered VP. She decided that the hope of the nation was going to be in Arthur’s hands and she felt compelled to encourage him to rise above his best and reach new heights for the sake of the people.

She was as brutally honest in her assessment of the situation as she was galvanizing. “Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right’—adding gloomily—‘He won’t succeed, though—making a man President cannot change him,’ ” she wrote. “But making a man President can change him! Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!”

Listen to those words, “Do what is more difficult and more brave!”

Arthur kept these words along with every letter that she wrote to him.

“Once in a while there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasable. The great tidal wave of sorrow which has rolled over the country, has swept you loose from your old moorings, & Set you on a mountaintop, alone.”

He received 23 of these.
She didn’t necessarily like him when she began to write him.
She told him what she thought about him.
She told him who she thought he was.
And she told him who he needed to be.

And you know what?

He became the President she described in her letters.
He rose to her best idea of him.

Encouraging someone, anyone, requires that we do what is more difficult and more brave.
It doesn’t have to be the President, but it could be.
Encouragement is a mark of character.
Anyone can complain and point the finger.
That takes no skill, no courage and is even less admirable.
But to change someone with encouragement, that’s…difficult and brave.

It doesn’t have to be soft flattery.
Take this for instance:

“It requires about three times as much vitality to run the brain
properly as to run all the rest of the body….if a matter is to
be dealt with conscientiously, it means that you must read & write,
talk & listen, weigh the evidence on this side & on that. Yes, it is
very troublesome – but then, some things are worth the trouble.“

(Julia Sands’ Letter of 09/29/1882)

What the nation got out of her encouragement was a President.
Can you think of anyone that you can encourage today?

US Flag

Election: The Right Man for The Right Time

US Flag

So, the nation is bitterly divided.
The bicameral system is a cesspool of backbiting, infighting, and mudslinging.
The media is in constant frenzy.
The Republican Party is struggling to produce a candidate who can take down a previous President that is embattled, but still fairly popular.
Technology is moving faster than it can be accepted or implemented, and yet it is beginning to be a player in politics.

An election is looming.
For each side, it’s life or death.

Sound familiar?
The interesting thing is…
I’m not talking about tomorrow, I’m talking about 1880.

The nation was still split in two halves by The Civil War; Hundreds of thousands dead, millions injured. While the States united by Lincoln would vote for a new President, another term for Ulysses Grant or a Republican challenger, any Northern victor would be viewed in the South as a Washington oppressor.

But something strange happened: Character.

The last thing that James Garfield wanted was to be President. As a representative of Ohio, the farmer by preference knew that the top office meant giving life and all for the sake of the country. And what a country it was! The north was populated by freed slaves: bold, thankful and hungry for opportunity. Only sixteen feet of the Statue of Liberty lived in the US, the hand and torch were all that had been completed and people clambered to view it. Alexander Graham Bell had just revealed the telephone, transforming his life. Joseph Lister had recently revealed the greatest medicinal breakthrough up to that point in history: The technique for antisepsis and a sterile surgical environment.

I recently finished reading, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
by Candice Millard. What a fabulous read! James Garfield has fast become a hero to me. Not because he was President, but because he was Garfield. Born into extreme poverty, Garfield achieved the top office through an honest desire to serve, a deeply imbedded sense of humility, a firmly rooted identity and unusual intelligence.

Garfield was a “former professor of ancient languages, literature, and mathematics who had paid for his first year of college by working as a carpenter, Garfield’s interests and abilities were as deep as they were broad. In fact, so detailed was his interest in mathematics, and so acute his understanding, that he had recently written an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem during a free moment at the Capitol.”

Garfield’s active time in office was only three months. His life and term was cut tragically short by an assassin, Charles Guitaeu. In reality, the President was murdered by his doctors, who refused to see the value of Lister’s earlier discovery. Sticking to the old ways ended up costing a life.

Why are we so fascinated with the ‘Old Ways’?
Were the ‘Old Ways’ actually so great?
If our answer to that question is, ‘They were for me,’ I wonder how Garfield would answer that.

In Garfield’s three months, however, he brought to an end the career of Washington puppeteer, Phillip Conkling: a power broker who ran things in back room deals and through political slight of hand. Garfield freed the office of President from the greedy, moral bankruptcy of men like Conkling saying rather heroically, “Of course I deprecate war,” he wrote, “but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me at home.”

Garfield brought integrity, honor and action to the Oval Office. He faced the people hours a day, against his preference, listening and learning. His example shaped his Conkling clone Vice President Chester Arthur into a man who could take office and lead the nation after his death.

Most importantly, however, was his ability to unite. His leadership and character united the North and South under his brief administration. The North loved him and the South, quite incredibly, trusted him. His assassination brought the whole country, which was still reeling from the loss of Lincoln by assassination, together. “Even Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy and a man whom Garfield had voted to indict as a was criminal, admitted that the assassination attempt had made ‘the whole Nation kin.'”

Destiny of the Republic is as marvelous a story as it is a timely one.

It highlights a period similar to ours, not the same, and reminds me that perhaps Sting wasn’t correct…History may have something to teach us yet. The book is a reminder of the high qualifications for office and the standard that can be applied. I’m all set to read another Garfield bio, DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Can’t get enough Garfield!

Rotary Phones and How to Read The Bible

The last week in July, my family and I went to Dana Point for a little vacation. In the condo where we were staying there was this phone…an old rotary phone. My kids had seen it last year and I remember them asking about it, but this year there was an even better question. It’s not hooked up, so they couldn’t get a feel for what it does, the tick-tick-tick of the dial.

My daughter looked up one night at dinner and after looking at it for a while, she said, “Oh, are those letters what you used for texting?”

After my wife and I picked ourselves up off of the floor, we tried to recover and let her know that she asked a really good questions. What she was trying to do was figure out how to contextualize the phone. She was asking the question:

How is this antique relic relevant to me and how I experience the world?

I think many of us ask the same question about the Bible.

On vacation, I read a book called How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today
by Mark Strauss.

Years ago, in Seminary, I read Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. At the time, I loved it. As a matter of fact I still love it because what that book taught me was that the Bible is not a monotone monologue aimed to bore and frustrate the average reader. Fee helped me see that Scripture is a multitude of voices, a multitude of literary styles all masterfully wound together to tell one single story: the story of God’s glory, history and plan for humanity; “from creation to new creation”.

Strauss, for my money, takes the conversation a little further. He has heard more people ask questions like my daughter since Fee’s book came out: “How is this antique relic relevant to me and how I experience the world?

The first question about the Bible that has to be addressed is: “What is the Bible?”

Strauss addresses this right up front, in two ways.
First, he answers what the Bible is not.

“It is not a:
1) magic-answer book,
2) list of commands to obey,
3) collection of promises to claim, or
4) textbook of systematic theology.”

In order to answer the question, “Then what is the Bible?”, Strauss addresses the manifold witness, the multitude of voices, styles, purposes, times and places that contribute their diversity to the unified story as a whole. I found it rather inspiring.

The purpose of this book is not academic. I plan to teach this book in the Winter and I can’t wait. Strauss presents a very practical approach to getting a handle on the Bible. The point isn’t to upload gigabytes of information, but to help the reader answer four questions about whatever they’re reading, regardless of it’s place in history, tradition, Hebrew Testament or Greek Testament. What makes the book really valuable is that Strauss’ questions help the reader not only read and understand what they’re reading, but develop a way to answer the question, “And how does this scripture apply to my life?”

By asking these four questions, you will unlock scripture in all of its simplicity and complexity and get a fresh perspective on how to live it out daily.

1) Where is the passage in the larger story of Scripture?
2) What is the author’s purpose in light of the passage’s genre and historical and literary context?
3) How does this passage inform our understanding of the nature of God and his purpose for the world?
4) What does this passage teach us about who we ought to be (attitudes and character) and what we ought to do (goals and actions) as those seeking to reflect the nature and purpose of God?

Ordinarily, I’d feel guilty turning over the center of a book like this, but Strauss walks his readers through each of these questions in each Biblical literary category. Genius, I tell you!

I highly recommend this book, and like I said, I’m hoping to teach it in the Winter. One of the reasons that the Bible gets relegated to “ancient relic” that has no relevance in my life” is that we have lost the art of reading it. Mark Strauss endeavors to change that and engages the contemporary reader, providing tools to discover the Bible again for the first time.

Pick up the book and read like a pro (and as a “pro”, I can tell you there ain’t no such thing).

What are your deep probing, unanswerable questions about the Bible?

All quotes in the review are from the book.

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Voices Inside My Head

I realize that quoting obscure Police lyrics relegates me to the halls of irrelevance. However, the refrain, “Voices inside my head echo things that you say,” is a profound truth. The voices that echo inside of our minds have a great deal to say about who we are, whose we are and how we do what we do.

So…whose voice is inside your head?
What do they say?
Are they positive, encouraging, affirming and strengthening voices?
Or, are they arresting, condemning, violating and isolating voices?

This Sunday, I’m preaching on Jesus last lesson in Matthew, the story about the Sheep and the Goats (or more accurately, the Story of Christ as King). Embedded in this story is a lesson about the voices that we hear and the way that they shape us.

In John 10, Jesus says, “Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice [Jn 10:4-5; CEB].” The sheep listen to the voice of Jesus. They are shaped by it. It guides their actions to the point that they aren’t even aware.

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear?” [MT 25:37-38]

The sheep provided simple, basic acts of dignity and creation-minded ministry to those who needed it most. Their actions looked the Gospel: fending, pouring a cup of water, clothing, caring, visiting. This wasn’t building a building or establishing a 401K. This was deep, profound Messianic ministry. Christ’s voice informed who they are. Their identity is grounded in their relationship with Jesus.

The goats were also unaware of their service, or their lack of it. This story tells us that they were informed by another voice entirely: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels [MT 25:41; CEB].”

Throughout Scripture, the “devil” is known as the accuser, the prosecuting attorney. It his job to make sure you know where you have gone wrong, where you are going wrong, where you will go wrong and that you should hate yourself for it. His is the voice of un-creation and un-grace. His angels are messengers, those fleet of foot who carry these self-condemning suggestions. This triggers human defense mechanisms that range from self destructive practices to Super-Christian ones.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Lewis terrifyingly describes the devil’s angels on a one to one ratio with humans. Their job is to exacerbate our doubts, fears, frustrations with the church, with each other, individualistic entitlements, comforts, pleasures, annoyances…anything to create distrust with God by inflating our personal need for control. The more we are enticed away from the voice of the shepherd the sooner we experience that “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Perhaps this is why Jesus leaves the flock to go after the one?

We begin to believe “our own messages”.

We begin to fear that Christ isn’t enough. We have strengthen God’s plan with a little something extra, dump some NOX into the fuel system of our faith. The diabolical Uncle Screwtape informs his messenger, Wormwood:

“What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And.’ You know — Christianity and The Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Physical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. I they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute the faith for some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.”

This not only tickles our ears, but overwhelms our imaginations. Soon, we too can no longer see the forest for the trees, or weeds as so much goes unattended. Soon, we to ignore the needs of those who cry out. We ignore Jesus trying to find him.

“There have been men…who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they cam to care nothing for God himself…as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! You see it in smaller matters. Did you never know a lover of books what with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them? Or an organizer of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.” The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

  • What are the voices inside your head?
  • Can you hear the voice of the Shepherd?
  • How do you listen to the voice of the Shepherd?
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    Change Your Story, Change Your Mood

    I started to read Jonathan Gottschall’s The StoryTelling Animal, because I’m interested in Story. How do we live story? How does story create and uncreate moments in our lives that add meaning and satisfaction? What elements of my life can be identified as central to the development of story? And, possibly most important, how do I change my story? The StoryTelling Animal is a book about the science of story. I’m enjoying it and have already put the trove of knowledge to use.

    I shall share.

    Really?

    Yes, really.

    Take a look at this excerpt from his chapter on Fiction and the Brain:

    Our responses to fiction are now being studied at a neuronal level. When we see something scary or sexy or dangerous in a film, our brains light up as though that thing were happening to us, not just to a cinematic figment. For example, in a Dartmouth brain lab, people watched scenes from the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly while their brains were scanned by a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. The scientists, led by Anne Krendl, discovered that viewers’ brains “caught” whatever emotions were being enacted on the screen. When Eastwood was angry, the viewers’ brains looked angry, too. When the scene was sad, the viewers’ brains also looked sad.

    What this paragraph says, essentially, is that we absorb the mood of a story as if we were experiencing it first hand. What does this mean? It means that environment matters. How we perceive our environment matters.

    Yestereday, Rebecca and I went to see the movie, The Avengers, finally. I noticed during the opening sequence that I was anxious as in, “Hey, the building has blown up and is crumbling all around me. I could possibly be suffocated by falling rocks, IF my Humvee doesn’t overturn first, that is.” I happened to noticed that I was feeling anxious, which was silly because I was sitting in the regal first class velvet of the movie theater double wide seats. I stopped a moment to think…”Wow! That research is correct. I am an anxiety sponge.” Once I realized that I was soaking in the tension, I began to relax.

    It would appear the researchers are correct on this mark:

    They suggest that when we experience fiction, our neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain.

    That’s what makes story so essential to our lives. We can experience things without actually experiencing them. Which is why I understand what it feels like to SMASH! It’s also why it’s important to recognize the story we are in and whose story we are in.

    How do you feel right now as you read this?

    Are you in an anxious story? Are you taking in someone else’s story as if it were your own? Can you recognize the narrative you are responding to? What is your story right now? Are you in an action adventure? A Tragi-Comedy? A boring indie?

    Take a look at these questions:

    1. What story am I currently living in, responding to?
    2. Whose story is it (this is always important to recognize)?
    3. If it were a book or a movie, what character would I be?
    4. What is my story right now?
    5. What character do I need to be (HINT: main character…it’s your story)?
    6. What shift do I need to make to the plot in order to get to the ending that I want?
    7. How can I make one small change that will push me in that direction?

    Suggestions:

    1. Watch a movie that you not only love, but loves you back! (Groundhog Day, anyone?)
    2. Play music that is guaranteed to give you the happy buzz. Turn off the Depeche Mode…now…do it.
    3. Sneak an earphone, if the music around you is a bummer…and you can get away with it.
    4. Use the phone a friend option.
    5. Get into the sunlight.

    The more you change your story, research suggests, the more you can change your mood. In fact, it would appear that as you live a better story in your own life today, you might just improve the world around you.

    Good Luck!

    Resources of note:

    Jonathan Gottschall, The StoryTelling Animal
    Donald Miller, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years
    Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

    A new book I haven’t read, but really admire the author:
    Rhett Smith, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?

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    Book Review: Unholy Night

    I wanted to get this review in before the craziness that is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter makes Seth Grahame-Smith a household word: like toaster and lamp. Fom the mind that brought you the campy, slightly unnecessary, but shamelessly fun, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Grahame-Smith’s new book, Unholy Night, goes where no one has gone before…literally. Not literally as in, absolutely no one, but literally as in, literature.

    Unholy Night is about redemption…sort of. It’s a quest story about a wise man named Balthazar who is either going to lose his life, or find it. Yes, that was a bible reference and it’s appropriate, because Unholy Night is set during the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus during the Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
    Grahame-Smith is a great story teller and Unholy Night is a fabulous yarn spun from the loom of a now seasoned writer, but what makes it marvelous, from a pastor, bible scholar, sci fi freak is the world that he is able to construct using the written language. Grahame-Smith’s first century Palestine is visceral and dreamishly vibrant.

    This book is easily the best researched first century historical fiction I’ve ever read…certainly that I’m aware of. I doubt the author is aware, but he has created a wonderful teaching tool. If i were teaching a New Testament cours, I would add this to the reading list immediately. His Jerusalem is alive and tangible, teaming with Jewish tension and Roman oppression. There are magical moments where you find yourself no longer staring at a page, but are immersed in a panoramic landscape in the world of Christ. While he takes liberty with history (because who doesn’t?), he utilizes historical gaps and unknowns to create a dark, yet mysteriously redemptive tale.

    For instance, Unholy Night is a story about the three wise men. There isn’t any history on them. The gospels dispute them, and tradition uphold them. Grahame-Smith brings them to life. He gives them a story that isn’t likely, but easily the most interesting since Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

    Unholy Night is a love story.
    Unholy Night is an adventure.
    Unholy Night is a Jesus story.
    Unholy Night is a well written story that delivers perspective as well as fantasy.

    The one thing it doesn’t live up to is its name. There is nothing Unholy about the night. While the antagonist is a wicked magus, Balthazar is on a journey of transformation that no evil can stop…

    Or can it?