Monday, February 28, 2011

Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families & Churches, by Russell D. Moore


A decent enough book on the importance of adoption for Christians--part memoir, part practical guidebook, part theological text. Nothing terribly earth shattering, though. Moore clearly has a passion for adoption, and encourages others to consider adopting, primarily as a result of our own adoption in Christ. And he makes several excellent points along the way--we do get fixated on the value of having our "own" children and are willing to pursue any possible means of "acquiring" them. We can view adoption as an inferior option, or consider it only in addition to natural children. But it is not inferior, and more than Christians are inferior to their Jewish forbears. Our bond in Christ supersedes our genetic bond with our biological offspring--there are more important things than blood ties.

Moore addresses several common misconceptions and talks frankly about his family's struggles with infertility and his own resistance to adoption. He also firmly but gently highlights (and rebukes) the consumerist mentality that is so pervasive, even in our attitudes about children. Adopted children are more work, we think--health problems, abuse, behavioral issues, cost, who knows what all. But we have no guarantee that our "own" children will be free of such struggles. Even biological children can have birth defects or develop deadly diseases or experience trauma that affects them for years to come.

Really, to Moore, adoption is like missions. Well, adoption is missions, from his perspective. What I mean is, he believes that just as even those who are not called to move to a third world country to become missionaries are still called to support missions, even those who are not called to adopt children have an obligation to help facilitate and encourage adoption. I have to say, I think he has a point.

This might be a much harder read for someone who is either steadfastly resistant to adoption, or who desperately wants his or her "own" biological children and has trouble with the idea of letting go of that dream. But since I have no dog in this fight, I merely found it a moderately interesting exposition on the theological case for adoption.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub



This book marks my first foray into Stephen King's fiction . . . and I was not disappointed. It's rather long--perhaps longer than it needs to be--and certainly darker and more graphic than most books featuring such a young protagonist. (In other words, don't assume that just because this book is about kids, that it was written for kids.) But the story is well developed and well told. King wisely avoids portraying Jack as an "everyman"--he is not merely an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances, as so many child characters are. This is not a task any boy could complete; it is a heroic task requiring a heroic lead. And King tosses in some stylistic fillips that take the story out of the realm of the purely narrative and highlight the otherworldliness of the book, its characters, and even the way they communicate with each other.

Still, as is often the case with such a promising set up (boy travels cross country on a mission to save his dying mother while flipping between parallel universes containing fantastical--and often dangerous--creatures), the ending gets a bit untidy and leaves a host of unanswered questions in its wake.*

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Women of the New Testament: 30 Devotional Messages for Women's Groups, by Abraham Kuyper


Good, if rather uneven at times. Some of these studies are great. The opening section on Elizabeth is fantastic. Others . . . involve more speculation than I am comfortable with. However, where he restricts himself to reliable information (from the bible or from historians as opposed to is own speculation), Kuyper's thoughts are informative and challenging. I, for one, knew little or nothing about many of the women mentioned in passing in the New Testament. Many of them appear not in narrative tales but in mere passing references in the epistles. Indeed, it's fairly surprising that Kuyper thought them worthy of study, especially in his time period. I appreciated the chance to learn more about the backstories of these seemingly peripheral women--or I did when Kuyper actually presented their backstories and not his unsubstantiated thoughts about what could have been. Of course, the real tragedy is that so few of these women have names which could in good conscience be bestowed on a child. Drusilla? Dorcas? Eunice? I think not.

All in all, not a bad read. The sections are short enough to be manageable--on average, each woman is discussed from four pages or so. Reading a section a day is quite doable.

Despite Kuyper's tendency to "imagine" rather than interpret scripture, I am looking forward to reading Women of the Old Testament: 50 Devotional Messages for Women's Groups.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Plotting correction

The vertical axis indicates the importance of the issue being considered. The bottom reflects issues of low importance such as trying to resolve whether President George Washington ever wore socks that didn’t match. It is an issue of virtually no consequence. Moving up the axis, toward the top we reach issues that are important, issues that have life-and-death significance, perhaps for a great many people. Between the top and the bottom is an array of issues and their relative importance or unimportance.

The horizontal axis indicates my certainty that I am right. Toward the left are issues about which I don’t have the foggiest clue (what is the name of the dog owned by the bit player in that 1938 movie that no one saw?). Toward the right are issues about which I am sure that I’m sure before God, the angels, and all the witnesses that could be summoned that I am right. Most people find that there are surprisingly few of these issues.

Any issue of controversy can be plotted on this matrix.

Plumbing new depths?

There's a lone genius—possibly evil and certainly entrepreneurial—behind Ashley Madison. His name is Noel Biderman, and he's the chief executive officer of Avid Life Media, based in Toronto. "Monogamy, in my opinion, is a failed experiment," he declares. It's unclear if Biderman actually believes this—he's married and has two young kids—but like Hugh Hefner before him the business he has created pretty much requires that he say it. Behind his desk, in an office so lacking in embellishment it almost looks like a hastily assembled low-budget film set, is a large flat-screen monitor promoting his company's flagship brand. It reads: "Life is short. Have an affair." [...]

Biderman is quick to explain why his business isn't hurting anyone. "You eradicate Ashley Madison, you're not going to eradicate infidelity. That's what allows me to sleep at night," he says. "If you think that all affairs happen on Ashley Madison, you're very naive. The majority happen in the workplace. People are thrust together, that's where they happen." In that context, Biderman likes to argue, affairs can be much more damaging, by causing meltdowns at work, becoming public, and blowing up marriages. Ashley Madison and its clandestine, more transactional approach, he says, is actually a marriage saver, a public service of a kind. "Do you think if you stop allowing divorce attorneys to advertise, we would stop people from getting divorced?" he says. [...]

Biderman [...] makes the case that no marriage is defined entirely by sex. "I have two children, I have a wonderful extended family, I have deep economic ties," he says. "If I woke up and found my partner wasn't interested in being with me sexually and I tried to do everything I could but sex was now off her radar...Well, sex is important in my marriage—it is—but it's not No. 1 and it's not No. 2. So I would stray before I would just leave, because maybe that would give me enough of what I need to stay within my marriage to do all the other things that are critical to me."

When I asked Biderman's wife, Amanda, what it's like being joined in holy matrimony with an anti-marriage entrepreneur, she let out a long sigh. "Really, the business itself doesn't match who he is as a person—it's not our lifestyle or value system or any of that," she said. "I mean, yeah, I'd love it if he were working on a cure for cancer. But it's a business, and that's how we look at it."

 ~"Cheating Incorporated," by Sheelah Kohlhatkar (Bloomberg Businesweek)

Ooh, baby, baby

1. The rise of our birth control-friendly culture and our abortion-friendly culture happened as twin parts of the same zeitgeist. This was all part of our cultural apostasy, and our rejection of the Christian view of marriage and family.

2. Notwithstanding, the Scriptures say nothing definitively about birth control considered as such. Despite the anti-family bias that created the default assumptions of the world around us, we still have to be careful not to go beyond what is written. We especially have to take care not to go beyond what is written. Slavish following of the world is bad, but so is knee-jerk reaction to it.


7. While the Scriptures don't say anything definitively about birth control as such, they do teach an enormous amount about the blessing of faithful covenant seed. This is one of the three main reasons for covenant marriage -- the begetting of a godly seed (Mal. 2:15). This should be taught and emphasized in the church, and is the only really effective way to counter the world's anti-child bigotry. If this is effectively done, visitors to your church will think you must teach against birth control, and they will think this because of the large teeming population at the three foot level that they can see during fellowship hour.

8. More is involved in raising up a godly seed than to have a man with dogmatic convictions about birth control, matched only by his unwillingness to feed, read to, educate, pay tuition for, bestow upon, and love the results of his dogmatism. There are no promised covenantal blessings for the self-absorbed proprietors of stud farms.


11. As each married couple make their decisions about this, and as pastors help them, they should take care to make careful distinctions with regard to motive, as well as a sharp distinction between principles and methods. We must learn to distinguish between a couple postponing fruitfulness for no reason other than that the worldlings told them they should spend some time surfing together in Argentina first, and a seasoned married couple with six kids who stop having them because their covenantal hands are quite full. It appears that the former do not understand the creation order at all, and that the latter don't have any problem at all understanding it. To focus on birth control in isolation interferes with such essential distinctions from being made.

~"Eleven Theses on Birth Control," by Doug Wilson (Blog and Mablog)

I can go anywhere . . .

The general wisdom seems to be that the bookstore will go the way of the record store and the video rental outlet. [...]

Some go further and suggest that the demise of the bookstore is a signal of the demise of the book itself, at least as a printed product with pages between covers. That dystopian prophecy is almost surely overblown, but the book’s survival in printed form does depend, to a considerable extent, upon the survival of bookstores.

The reason for this is simple. Printed books are physical objects that cry out to be handled even before they are read. The physicality of the book is important to the experience of the book itself. The arrangement and order of the words is supreme, but the appearance of the book and the feel of the book in the hand are also part of the reading experience. [...]

Mark Coker, chief executive of Smashwords Inc., an e-book company, told the Journal that when the physical space on the shelves of bookstores disappears, “it’s gone forever.” He added: “If you remove books from our towns and villages and malls, there will be less opportunity for the serendipitous discovery of books. And that will make it tougher to sell books.”
~"The Marketplace of Ideas--Why Bookstores Matter," by Al Mohler

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Longshot, by Dick Francis


One of Dick Francis' better books. Not a lot of action, and because of the nature of the villains' tactics, what action there is tends to play out more as man vs. circumstances more than man vs. man. Still, John Kendall is one of my favorite Francis characters (unassuming and capable, as Francis leads tend to be), and I enjoy the slow build of tension over the course of the book.

Like Koontz and others, Francis often falls into the cliche of the insanely evil villain--atrocious acts committed by individuals who are clearly deranged. I tend to see this as a pretty lazy choice and prefer everyday villains. We all of us have the capacity for evil, and the more sympathetic and complex villains remind us of that. The maniacal villain seldom makes for a compelling story, and Francis is at his best when he resists the impulse to sidestep a more legitimate motive in favor of "because he/she is crazy."

That being said (and I hope this does not constitute a spoiler), this book avoids the cliched pyscho killer pitfall. Which is probably a large part of why it ranks among my favorite Dick Francis novels.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz



By far the weakest entry in the Odd Thomas series so far. Koontz fails to realize that Odd Thomas works best as the lone "supernatural" factor in a normal world. Instead, Koontz insists on surrounding him with increasingly fantastical circumstances.

The plot in this story was particularly weak. So bizarre as to be downright ludicrous, the "bone beasts" and "grim reaper" were laughable rather than scary. And the climax was telegraphed from the beginning chapters of the book. It is a well known literary trope that the brilliant and secretive physicist monk brought on in the first act must go off in the third. Especially when the author forces him to engage in this little gem of dialogue:

"I want to know."
"Know what?" I asked.
"Everything," he said, and the door slid shut between us.
These words, reminiscent of Eden and spoken by a scientist, always herald the impending arrival of some horrific discovery/invention man was never intended to make/create, with catastrophic consequences. Koontz likes cliches too much to deviate from this pattern.

He still fancies himself a wordsmith, and he certainly knows a lot of words. But his usage of words feels forced, rather than effortless. Every once in a while, his descriptors are dead-on. But the rest of the time, he sounds like he wants to be a poet, and the flowery prose rings false.

There was one line in the book that made me laugh out loud, though:

"There's a girl named Flossie Bodenblatt--"
"Surely not," said Romanovich.

But other than that little gem, you're better off spending your time elsewhere.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Writing, by Stephen King


I've never read any of King's books, and I have no idea what I'll think of them when I do, but this book? Is great. King's conversational style is forthright and flecked with humor--as with all good books of this type, the reader feels as if he or she is sitting down for a chat with the author. Or at least getting a flavor of what a chat might look like. Based on the tone of this book, I'm guessing such a conversation would be eminently enjoyable.

But the purpose of the book is not merely to wile away a few hours listening to/reading King natter on about his life and thoughts--though as purposes go, you could do much worse. King also wants to educate his readers on the business of writing.

Bottom line:
1) You must read. (Check.)
2) You must write. Not just think about writing, or wish you were writing, or intend to write. You must write. (Which . . . not so much a check for that one.)

Still, it's good advice, and consistent with what I've read/heard from other authors I respect (Anne Lamott, Neil Gaiman, etc.). So much of writing is just discipline. It's that simple, and it's that hard.

Of course, King also gives a brief nod to the mechanics of good writing--grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc.--which is a thing that I for one greatly appreciate. And he talks some about the nuts-and-bolts of publishing, agents, and getting your foot in the door. But the main focus is on the sheer fact of doing. Write. Revise. Repeat.

Books like this always make me wonder if I could be a writer. Probably not. I don't really have ideas, and I certainly don't have the discipline. Still, it's nice to think about, and I appreciate King telling it like it is. Or at least like it is from his perspective, which is all anyone can do anyway.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in writing. But even if you're not a wannabe writer, I still recommend this book to you. Because regardless of your own authorial aspirations, if you enjoy reading good writing, this book is well worth your time.

The weight of the law

Sometimes I feel like those old commercials where they say, 'I’m not a doctor but I play one TV." Only I would say, "I’m not a Christian, I just play one on a blog." [...] Why? Because my thought that God loves me when I have a "good month" is so opposite of what grace is. [...] For weeks I white knuckle my way through life convinced that living [...] is about being perfect, not forgiven. I hold it together. For a while at least, but then the pressure of performing crushes me. Being perfect gets so heavy. I can’t do this. I can’t.
~"The problem with the pigpen," by Jon Acuff (Stuff Christians Like)

Friday, February 4, 2011

The South Beach Diet Supercharged: Faster Weight Loss and Better Health for Life, by Arthur Agatston


A good update of South Beach Diet: Original Recipe. Essentially, it's just the South Beach Diet plus interval training (to increase metabolism) and core muscle development. Agatston has added more recipes, of course, and lots of success stories, as well as a whole slew of studies supporting the science and results of the the South Beach Diet. And while of course he touts his own diet, from what I understand, this is one of the better ones. Not only does it help people lose weight, but it's supposed to do wonders for your blood chemistry. Agatston, a cardiologist, is more about being healthy than skinny. His main concerns are diabetes, prediabetes, and heart and cholesterol issues.

And the food really IS pretty good and satisfying (I've tried it on and off before). The trick is, it's mostly fresh stuff that doesn't keep well (which means lots of potentially time consuming trips to the grocery store) and stuff you make yourself (which consumes yet more time). I would like to try this, but I worry about having enough time to do it well. All too often I come home starving and create something from whatever non-perishable items I happen to have on the shelf. Successful completion of the South Beach Diet requires a less haphazard approach, and more meal planning.

Whether or not you end up trying the diet, though, Agatston does a good job of explaining why it works. The book definitely motivates you to improve your diet and exercise. And it's a fast read, since the last half of the book is mostly the step-by-step exercise plan and recipes and meal plans for the different phases.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire



I definitely went into this read expecting a better book. While the idea is clever (a story analogous to the wolf's defense in The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, which I loved), Maguire divests the story of all the humor and whimsy that such parodies usually possess. What is the appeal of Oz if there is no humor, no delight, no whimsy?

Not that I don't appreciate a dark tale--I consume dystopian fiction with gusto. But I think dark stories either need a healthy dose of humor (the two are not incompatible, after all), or the story needs to be about something real. There has to be some reason for the darkness--a social commentary, a cautionary tale.

Yet, Maguire seems to obliterate humor AND largely sidestep any kind of moral or lesson. The characters do appalling things, but the book never really comments on them. These immoral acts--adultery, neglect, selfishness, betrayal, apathy, laziness, murder, bullying, and a good deal of violence--are presented as commonplace, unremarkable, and ethically neutral, if not entirely acceptable. The only "crime" actually decried in the book is the treatment of Animals (talking, ensouled animals, like the talking beasts of Narnia) as mere animals (that is, chattel), indifference to their plight, and the murder of those who would stand up for the rights of Animal kind. And even these admittedly horrific acts fade over the course of the book. Elphaba's passion for defending them is lost in a morass of character changes that remain impenetrable to me even after finishing the book.