Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dune, by Frank Herbert


The tale of Paul Atreides, heir to a Dukedom and legal ruler of the desert planet Arrakis, the source of the precious spice melange.  His father has been murdered, and his enemies have seized control of the planet, while Paul and his mother wander the desert, where giant sandworms destroy everything in their past, and no one can survive.  No one, that is, except the mysterious Fremen, desert people who fear nothing and no one.  Will Paul be able to take back what is rightfully his?  What is his role in the future of this strange and unyielding planet?

There is a reason this is the best-selling science fiction work of all time.  It is, quite simply, fantastic.  Herbert weaves a masterful tale, full of the kind of detail that makes Tolkien's Middle Earth so compelling.  The nuances of the story--alternately political, religious, ecological, technological, and anthropological--give it a richness and depth that draws the reader in from the very beginning. 

This book founded the genre of ecological science fiction, and Herbert was green before it was popular.  Indeed, Arrakis is itself a character in the story, as other characters seek to know and understand this curious planet.  Of course, Herbert's ecology is strikingly man-focused--the goal is not to preserve Arrakis in its natural state but to shape it into a place that is habitable for mankind. Yet those who would simply wring from Arrakis the resources they crave, with no thought to the long term effect on the planet, are villified as foolish, short-sighted, and wrong. There is, as a result, a sort of tension between stewardship and dominion--the planet is to be used for the benefit of mankind, but not merely uses it up and leaves.  A surprising--and quite Christian--concept, to be sure.

Then, too, Herbert has an interesting perspective on religion.  Paul's mother is one of a special group of highly trained 'religious' women--a group that has been 'creating' a religion in order to achieve there own ends.  Yet as the story progresses, the women find that their 'made up' prophecies are coming true . . . in ways they never expected.  Thus Herbert articulates a certain skepticism toward religion as a man-made tool for the manipulation of others, and yet there is, too, a sense that religion may in fact be something bigger and more real than men can fathom.  This kind of complexity characterizes the whole story.

Bottom line, this is an amazing book, and if you haven't read it, you should. 

God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, by C.S. Lewis


Editor Walter Hooper has collected an impressive assortment of Lewis's previously unpublished--in book form, at any rate--essays and letters.  The topics range from miracles to apologetics to theories of punishment to gender roles.  The essays are not terribly long, and the collection is necessarily a bit disjointed, as there is often no connection between the various topics.  The individual essays are still quite good, however.

Because Lewis was writing to different audiences at different times, there's a fair amount of repetition, but the arguments themselves are some of his best.  (I particularly enjoyed his rant against the hooligans who vandalize and steal his property.)  Some of the essays are direct responses to articles by other authors, so it is sometimes hard to know exactly which points he is refuting (or, indeed, whether he is fairly characterizing his opponent).  This issue is exacerbated in the handful of letters included in the book--there is not much context, and it's hard to appreciate the merits of the text.  Still, many of the essays are incredibly insightful and persuasive, and this is most certainly a welcome addition to the volumes already published. 

Definitely worth a read.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Saint Indeed: or, The Great Work of a Christian in Keeping the Heart, by John Flavel (in Works of John Flavel, Volume 5)


Possibly my favorite Flavel work so far.  Flavel opens by addressing 'the keeping of the heart'--what it means and why it matters (for Flavel, this essentially boils down to spiritual health or a heart centered on faith in the gospel and rightly related to God).  He examines twelve 'seasons' in which the keeping of the heart is particularly challenging, and offers encouragement and counsel for keeping the heart in each one.  Flavel admonishes hypocrites (those who do not keep the heart, but only preserve outward appearances), and then lists various motives and means for those who would keep their hearts well.

While the whole work is excellent, Flavel's discussion of the twelve seasons was particularly convicting and encouraging.  This list includes such circumstances as prosperity, adversity, when troubles assail the Church, public danger (wars, etc.), injury, provocation, temptation, want, doubt, suffering, and sickness or death. In other words, pretty much any situation any Christian could ever be in, any time, anywhere.  Whatever your issue, there's an app for that. 

There is a lot of repetition, as many of the encouragements are the same across these varied situations, but the substance is incredibly meaty.  Flavel avoids the temptation to offer empty comfort or platitudes--his words are based on reality and Scripture, not warm, fuzzy feelings.  (For example, he points out that if you really are in desperate want of something you cannot live without, you should be encouraged because your want will be of short duration--God will either meet your need, or you will die.  Either way, the period of want is not long. No 'God will make it better' talk for him--just practical, realistic, biblical wisdom.) 

Flavel repeatedly points to the gospel as the source of all solace--the gift of our salvation outweighs any hardship or circumstance, and no matter how bad things are, we deserve worse.  The text is littered with references to Scripture, and it is on this rock that Flavel builds his arguments and exhortations.  He promises only what Scripture promises, and no more.  Thus each encouragement is based on the full heft of God's own faithfulness.  This is no 'hang in there' kitty poster.  This is real, solid, substantive encouragement, and Christians everywhere would benefit from Flavel's unflinching perspective on their circumstances.

Definitely a book that's going on my re-reading list.

Navigation Spiritualized; or, A New Compass for Seamen, by John Flavel (in Works of John Flavel, Volume 5)


Another excellent and insightful examination of the spiritual lessons that can be learned from seemingly mundane and secular occupations--in this case, the life of a sailor, which Flavel clearly perceives as significantly more dangerous than the life of a farmer. 

Each discussion is between 2 and 5 pages in length--slightly shorter than those in Husbandry Spiritualized.  As in the previous volume, Flavel begins with the natural phenomenon (storms at sea, etc.) and then compares it to a spiritual truth.  The truth is applied, and Flavel closes each section with a brief poem.  The poems are, by and large, shorter than those in Husbandry Spiritualized, and more effective.

After thirty-two such lessons, Flavel transitions into five longer discussion--dissuasives against various sins common among sailors.  These sections were decent enough, but may be less helpful for those who don't struggle with drunkenness or partake of the services of prostitutes.  These cautions are followed by six sermons addressed to sailors, and tracking through the various stages of a sea voyage--the farewell, the storm, travels in foreign lands, success, failure, and ultimately the return home.

Flavel's observations are, as usual, excellent, but this book could cause some confusion.  Flavel focuses almost entirely on 'right living'--that is, what a sailor should or should not do.  Each 'should not' is grounds for the wrath of God, and each 'should' results in His pleasure.  This only works if Flavel is addressing sailors who are already Christians and have already placed their faith in Christ's saving work on the cross--and even then, the theology seems a bit off.  If they are not Christians, no amount of right living will endear them to a righteous, angry God.  If they are Christians, God's wrath has been poured out on Christ in their stead, and they no longer suffer that penalty for their sins.  Thus Flavel's encouragement to 'live rightly' does not enable the unbelieving sailor to avoid punishment, and divine wrath will not fall on sinners who are saved by grace.  I agree wholeheartedly that those who believe the gospel should--and indeed will--make every effort to live rightly, and that sin does anger God.  However, that anger was poured out on Christ, and those who believe need not fear damnation.  Which Flavel knows full well, given his other writings, so I am willing to just chalk this up to a lack of clarity.

Still an excellent read, though.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Dark Descent, Volume 3: A Fabulous, Formless Darkness, by David G. Hartwell (ed.)


A largely lackluster collection of stories--by far, the weakest entry in the series.  This time around, Hartwell has selected stories where the perceived threat is never fully defined.  There is no readily idenitifiable 'bad guy', and often the victims themselves have no idea what they are facing--or even if they are facing anything at all.  Hence the title:  A Fabulous, Formless Darkness.  However, vaguely-creepy-for-undefinable-reasons is a tough genre to pull off.  If you do it wrong, you end up with a story where nothing happens at all and the end result is just kind of pointless.  If you do it right, the reader will be creeped out but unable to pinpoint the source of his or her unease--an unease which is prolonged by the seeming lack of resolution to the story. 

Sadly, many of the stories here fall into the first category. The attempt to sustain an eerie tone devolved into a meandering story that dragged on much longer than it needed to, and more than once I found myself thinking at the close of a story, 'Nothing happened!'  Still, the stories (though long) were decent enough, and some--'The Hospice' and 'Afterward' in particular--were quite good indeed.  'The Hospice' was an especially effective example of a story where nothing much really happened, but it was pretty much terrifying from start to finish.  'Afterward' had the tidy feel that goes with so much early twentieth century literature, but it managed to still hold my attention from start to finish.

Stephen King's contribution--'Crouch End,' an extension of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos--was interesting (though it made me wonder why Lovecraft was not directly represented in this collection, as he is the master of the 'indescribable'), and the almost empirical tone of 'What Was It?' provided a nice contrast to the 'spooky' interminability of stories like Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows' or Disch's 'The Asian Shore.'  'Clara Militch' and 'The Beckoning Fair One' are effective reminders that love (or some twisted shadow of love) can be just as scary as hate.  Dickens shows his horror chops with the mercifully short 'The Signalman', and Shirley Jackson's equally brief 'The Beautiful Stranger' was somehow both warm and creepy. 

I find that the most effective short stories are, well, short--they plant an unsettling idea in the mind and just as it sinks in, the story ends.  Unfortunately, most of these stories clock in at upwards of 30 pages, and 4 are longer than 50 pages.  It's tough to really sell a short story that long, especially if it's full of vague weirdness and no real resolution or explanation.  Most of these stories would have benefited by more active editing--had each of the longer stories been about 20% shorter, the collection would have packed a much bigger punch.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri


Dante continues his journey with Beatrice as his guide (Virgil having returned to Limbo). This paradise is a series of concentric circles corresponding to various heavenly bodies--the moon, the planets, the fixed stars, etc.  This ascent is a bit trickier than the progress in Inferno and Purgatorio, as all the souls in heaven are supposedly perfect.  It becomes problematic, therefore, to categorize them by what would normally be considered flaws (inconstancy, ambition, intemperance, etc.).  The idea seems to be that rather than possessing a negative attribute (which would imply sin), these souls were deficient in a positive attribute.  Still, I think the concept falls a bit flat--it certainly does not work as well as the seven deadly sins in Purgatorio or the nine levels of Inferno

I also struggled with the idea of heaven being in 'outer space', as it were.  Although heaven is traditionally located 'in the sky', the idea of heaven being in an among planets and stars does not really gel with my mythical or symbolic idea of heaven.  Heaven is, at least in most literature, a place of comfort and welcome--full of light and life and warmth.  Space, on the other hand, is cold and empty and hard.  Heaven is fantasy.  Space is science fiction.  So while Dante's imagery was striking and his creativity laudable, there was, for me, a disconnect between the symbol and the substance.  Of course,  in the 14th century, space may have been a much more mystical place.  But to my modern sensibilities, the placement of heaven out among planets and stars is jarring, to say the least.

Paradiso also suffers from its more Marian focus.  Such a thing is to be expected from 14th century Catholic, but it still leaves a sour taste in my Protestant mouth.  Dante's otherwise accurate presentation of the gospel is marred by his belief that Mary is the ultimate go-between for man and God, and that she is the most elevated among human creation.  His theology of heaven is at times problematic, as there seems to be some idea of arrangement by relative merit--that is, souls are placed according to their works.  There is some reference to God's sovereign (and incomprehensible) choice, but Dante's obsession with men's actions (which served him so well in Inferno and Purgatorio) becomes a liability when discussing the residents of heaven, who have arrived through no merit of their own but purely by the grace of God.

Still, it's a masterful work, and undeniably creative.  Images of lights and roses are less compelling to me than the vivid descriptions of torment and punishment for sins that permeated Inferno and Purgatorio, but Dante was grappling with difficult subject matter.  And some images--like the souls arranged in the shape of an eagle and moving as one--are striking in their modernity.  As with the other parts, it works well read aloud, and a good (and well-annotated) translation--like Ciardi's--is a must.

The Death of Yorik Mortwell, by Stephen Messer


Another review posted at Children's Books and Reviews.  Here's an excerpt:
It’s not every day you come across a book where the hero dies in the first chapter.  But in The Death of Yorik Mortwell, that’s exactly what happens to 12-year-old Yorik Mortwell, orphaned son of a gamekeeper at Ravenby Manor: he dies. Fortunately for the readers, Yorik does not pass quietly into the great beyond, but returns as a ghost.

[...] a delicious spooky and morbid tale that never loses its buoyant, childlike spirit.  And with a [SPOILER] happy ending to boot, all but the most sensitive readers will be able to enjoy the thrills and chills without any actual distress. [...]

[The book] provides an excellent structure for discussing sin, confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  Children learn that hiding wrongdoing is a recipe for personal disaster, that confession is good for the soul, that forgiveness is always possible, and that they, in turn, should forgive others.  With such a great set of life lessons wrapped up in an eerily entertaining story, I couldn’t help enjoying this little book.
Full review available here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Knowing God, by J.I. Packer


This.  Book.  Rocks.  Solid, dense, and hard-hitting, Packer presents the reader with a crash course on Christian theology.  He starts with the importance of knowing God, then introduces the three persons of the Trinity.  From there, he walks through the attributes of God and then clearly, thoroughly, and repeatedly explains the gospel and its effect on the lives of Christians.  The end result is both deeply convicting and extremely encouraging. 

Packer is particularly focused on the gospel as adoption--that is, that Christians are not only justified before God and saved from the wrath their sins deserve, but that we have been brought into an intimate relationship with God through the blood of His Son.  I was particularly encouraged by this aspect of the book, as I can sometimes forget the personal and relational nature of salvation.  It is all well and good to know that your sins have been forgiven, but to be welcomed into a holy family is a different experience altogether.  This kind of immutable acceptance and affection is what ultimately breeds love in us toward God, and it is a useful lens through which we can rightly perceive hardship, suffering, and doubt. 

Honestly, I cannot recommend this book highly enough--for the young and old in the faith alike.  Packer's writing is clear, and he speaks with gentle and straightforward authority about some extremely complex issues.  Still, the book is simple enough to be understood by newer Christians, yet substantive enough that I suspect even spiritual giants would benefit from its wisdom.  Be warned, however: there's so much here it's almost impossible to glean it all in one go.  Fortunately, the book improves on re-reading--I discovered things I missed the first few times around and was blessedly reminded of things I noticed before but had sadly forgotten. 

If you haven't read this book, read it.  You will not regret it.  And if reading isn't really your thing, the audiobook version, read by Simon Vance, is quite good.  Vance's slower reading pace allows for maximum absorption of the meaty text, and his British accent helps focus the wandering mind.

The 6th Day (2000)


It's 2015, and cloning has become commonplace.  Pets, organs, plants--pretty much every biological entity can now be cloned.  Except, of course, for human beings.  Human cloning is highly illegal, thanks to a failed experiment a few years back and the ensuing '6th day' laws forbidding human cloning (the 6th day being, of course, the day that God created man).  Not that these laws keep it from happening--as pilot Adam Gibson (the Governator) (get it? Adam? 6th day? get it?) discovers when he arrives home to find himself already inside with his wife and kids.  He's been cloned, and now the people who cloned him are trying to kill him.  Can Adam figure out who did this to him before it's too late?  (Answer: Yes.)

This is a later Arnold pic, with lots of explosions and action (though perhaps not as much carnage as in younger days--see, e.g. Commando).  And with twice as many Arnolds, you know it's going to be fun. The clones here are not just clones--they are imprinted with all the memories of the original.  They don't even know that they are clones.  So really, the movie offers a form of resurrection; you can be born again as a clone.  Unless, of course, you never died in the first place . . .

The Canary List: A Novel, by Sigmund Brouwer



Improbably named middle school teacher Crockett Grey is drunk.  And he means to be.  It's the anniversary of his daughter's death and all he wants to do is be alone and miserable.  And it looks like he'll get his wish . . . that is, until one of his students knocks on his door.  Twelve-year-old foster child Jaimie Piper is terrified and on the run from an Evil no one else can see.  Before he knows it, Crockett finds himself behind bars, embroiled in a swirl of false (and devastating) accusations--he's being framed for child abuse and pedophilia, his elderly neighbor Nanna is missing, Jaimie's foster home has been torched, and he may never get to see his son again.  Crockett is determined to get to the bottom of what looks to be a conspiracy far deeper than he ever imagined . . . and implicating powerful people in very high places.

This book was rather a pleasant surprise.  Most of my experiences with 'Christian' fiction have been, shall we say, rather lackluster.  Then again, this book is not so obviously 'Christian' as many others, even if the main character does undergo a bit of a spiritual change of heart during the course of his adventures.  More than anything, this is a suspense/conspiracy tale--and not a bad one at that.  There were some less-than-original choices, to be sure--the Catholic church has been a popular fall guy for quite a while and I think it's safe to say that we've been there, done that.  Then, too, the combination of 'evil lurks in the Catholic church' with allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia feels at times like an attempt to capitalize on semi-recent events (as well as a possible attempt to defend the church by laying the ultimate blame on supernatural forces). 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

More thoughts on the incarnation

I recently stumbled across the quotation I had such difficulty placing in my earlier post.  And no wonder, for it's not a Lewis quote at all, but an observation from J.I. Packer's excellent book Knowing God.  As you might expect, he says it much better than I could.
[T]he real difficulty, the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, [...] lies not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of Incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man [...], and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human.

[...] It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. [...] The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the Incarnation.

This is the real stumbling block in Christianity. It is here that Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many of those who feel the difficulties concerning the virgin birth, the miracles, the atonement and the resurrection have come to grief. [...] But once the Incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve.

If Jesus had been no more than a very remarkable, godly man, the difficulties in believing what the New Testament tells us about his life and work would be truly mountainous.  But if Jesus was the same person as the eternal Word, the Father's agent in creation, 'through whom also he made the worlds' (Heb 1:2 RV), it is no wonder if fresh acts of creative power marked his coming into this world, and his life in it, and his exit from it.  It is not strange that he, Author of life, should rise from the dead.  If he was truly God the Son, it is much more startling that he should die than that he should rise again. 

[...] And if the immortal Son of God did really submit to taste death, it is not strange that such a death should have saving significance for a doomed race.  Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of this; it is all of a piece and hangs together completely.  The Incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.
~J.I. Packer, in "God Incarnate", from Knowing God