Category Archives: Books

Reading List

Just for the fun of it, I thought I’d share my reading list right now. I’m one of those people who reads several books at once, and I found my current list an amusing combination, so I thought I’d let you laugh along with me.

So, here we go.

On my nightstand/kindle app you will find:

– The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis (Re-reading for my enjoyment and learning and so I can share it with my philosophy class.)

– Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins (Part of the Hunger Games Series, just for fun.)

– The Naked Anabaptist – Stuart Murray (Recommended by Greg Boyd)

– Because the Angels – Kathleen Kern (An odd genre stretch for me.)

– Pat the Bunny – Dorothy Kunhardt (Read every night with my daughter before we put her down. It might be my favorite for that reason.)

So, there’s my reading list. Hope it made you smile.

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That’s Fantastic!

My worldview has mostly been shaped by fantasy.

Read that again; it’s very strange. Not only is it strange, it’s also infuriating to the realists in my life. Yet, as strange and potentially infuriating as it may be, it’s absolutely true.

As a very young child I was introduced to such classics as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Wind in the Willows”. As I aged, “The Magic Bicycle” and “The Book of Three” held my interest. Sadly, it wasn’t until my teen years that the marvelous worlds of “Redwall”, “Middle Earth”, and “Star Wars” came into my life. With growing maturity came the fantastic creations of authors like Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole. To this day, Robert Jordan can hold my attention for hours at a time. I say all of this to help you understand that fantasy has always been a large and important part of my life. Also, this will hopefully give you an idea of what I mean when I say “fantasy”.

Recently, I’ve dealt with a number of Christians who stand rather strongly against fantasy as a genre appropriate for consumption. This stance confounds me.

Before I really dig into this, let me get one thing clear. I’m not going to defend fantasy. I don’t feel like it needs defending and the accusations against it are rarely consistent anyways. If you want to discuss what is and is not witchcraft, let me know and we’ll go at it, but that’s not what I’m writing about now. This post is me explaining the value of fantasy as I see it.

First, in fantasy we see a very common theme of good vs. evil. Now, to be fair, this is a two edged sword. I think we have a fondness for over simplifying problems in our modern culture and this plays into that, but it’s not all bad. In the shaping of a young child’s worldview, it doesn’t hurt to give some very clear-cut distinctions. This is especially true when a story goes out of its way to emphasize things like honor, truth, etc. Again, this is a very strong theme in most fantasy, especially the type aimed at children.

Second, fantasy gives us an appreciation for the mystical all around us. This is the point that makes people wonder about my sanity and my orthodoxy most often, but it may be the thing about fantasy that has effected my faith the most. In fantasy worlds we see the plausible impossible all the time. We see the work of higher powers, the manipulation of forces beyond science and reason, the acceptance of things that can’t be understood or even sometimes seen, and so much more that points to the mystic. As a child (and I’m not ashamed to say as an adult) these ideas went incredibly far in helping me define and be comfortable with my belief in the divine.

Let’s face it, we serve a mystical being. Whether you’re comfortable with that word or not, it’s true. Even if you do mental gymnastics to avoid that thought, I promise you that most of the people in your life don’t. That’s exactly how they see your faith; as mysticism. The more comfortable with that you are, the more honest you will be with yourself and others about your relationship with God. We can’t understand God. We can’t even define Him. How can He not be mystical to us?

I don’t think this was an intended effect of the authors I read, but it has been profound in my life none the less. We live in a world clamoring for empirical evidence of everything we believe and serve a God that says simply, ‘Trust”. In the pages of fantasy novels I found attitudes, worldviews, and thought processes that reasonably deal with this discrepancy. Perfect and reliable? Not a chance. Encouraging and thought provoking? Absolutely.

Dragons are real, they just don't look like thisMy last point can be said better by Chesterton, so I’ll let him.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
– G.K. Chesterton

This is by far my favorite thing about fantasy. Some would call it an escape, some a reprieve from life, but those who truly understand this life we live know better. Fantasy gives us a framework to think about our own lives in. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes it rocks. We need tools to deal with both and we need encouragement that this life will work out. We’re not the only ones who have ever dealt with hard times. We’re not the only ones who have striven to conquer our fears or our adversity. Sometimes real life just isn’t enough to show us that.

Of course we escape into fantasy, but we take our reality with us. We already know that our lives are filled with dragons. Hurtful relationships, fear, anger, illness, injustice and a myriad of other winged tyrants fill our lives daily. When those with temperament and taste like mine “escape” into the fantasy worlds of our favorite authors, our dragons follow us because they are always present. Yet between the pages, between the lines, and outside the words of that book we find metaphor, allegory, and truth. We discover that courage trumps fear, determination will finish any journey, and honor does make you a better person even if it’s hard.

I know fantasy isn’t for everyone. I know that taste is like personality. I even understand that fantasy can be a temptation for some to delve where they know they shouldn’t. Yet when I look back on my life, on my formative years and my recent ruminations, I find the threads woven by fantasy authors pervasive in my consciousness. So much of what is valuable in my thinking can find its roots or at least its close cousin in ideas I learned from fantasy.

Besides, we serve a God who works miracles. Isn’t that fantastic?

 


Focus, People!

I just finished re-reading a book by Peter Hoover titled, “The Secret of the Strength”. I read it before when I was about 17 years old and was (mostly) a Mennonite. I remembered it being fantastic, and wasn’t disappointing when re-reading it.

I’m not going to do a book review, that’s been done before. I’m not going to summarize the book. Go read it if you want to know what it’s about. No, I just want to point out a perspective that was reinforced by my re-reading of the book.

For a long time, I’ve told people that I’m theologically very anabaptist, to which the normal response is, “What’s that?” I used to try to answer that question by saying, “Well, Anabaptists take God’s word very seriously, usually literally, and apply it to every aspect of their life.”

I don’t say this anymore. Mostly because it’s not really true, but also because every Christian I’ve ever met believes that they do the same thing. So how is it that the Anabaptists have taken this perspective and come up with such different convictions?

Here’s how I now explain Anabaptist theology.

Anabaptists put the central focus on Christ and what He said. With that as the foundation, they interpret the rest of scripture through what that understanding.

This thought has confused a lot of people, but then a couple months ago I was explaining it to a good Baptist, and she totally got it. She actually explained it to the rest of the group by saying that the Baptists did the same thing with the teachings of Paul. If there is any confusion or misunderstanding in her church, they go back to what they call the basics, the teachings of Paul, and interpret the confusion in light of that understanding. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Please understand that I’m not implying that the Bible is contradictory. I’m saying that our finite minds can not be certain of the interpretation of each verse and we have to build our foundation for understanding somewhere. Anabaptists do this with the teachings of Christ.

This is how we come up with things like pacifism and community. We don’t read the gospels in light of the epistles, we do the opposite. We start with the fact that Christians are not allowed to retaliate in any way, then we read Romans 13 and see that Christians can’t be in government. We start with the idea that giving away what we have is intrinsic to the gospel, then we read about unity and community in Acts and the Epistles and assume that they’re the same topic.

I’m not saying that we get it all right. To be honest, I’m wrestling with the way we defend and define community right now. I’m not even really sure I should say “we” when talking about Anabaptists, because I know I don’t agree with nearly everything Anabaptists teach.

What I am saying is that I really like the perspective of seeing Christ as the pinnacle and climax of the Bible and interpreting the rest of scripture through what He said to us. Isn’t He the point?


It’s Complicated

I’ve been thinking a lot about complexity recently. I grew up in wonderful little conservative churches being taught great answers to tough questions. I say this not because I still believe they were great answers, but because they made sense, were easy to explain, were easily understood, and were easy to memorize. In the worldview of most people I know, this constitutes a great answer.

However, my worldview refuses to behave itself and get with the program.

Everywhere I look I see incredible complexity, and spiritual matters are no different. If anything, adding a spiritual or theological element to a thought makes it more complicated and harder to wrap my mind around and explain. I never seem to have simple answers anymore. Every question I try to answer is laced with nuance and apparent contradiction. Thinking about and trying to understand God, a task I’ve been told over and over is a simple thing, has become incredibly hard. Not hard like a chore or a construction job, but hard like a puzzle. It’s rewarding, often fun, and well worth the trouble, it’s just  so complex that it’s anything but easy.

I think though, that this is what it should feel like when we try to comprehend an infinite God with a finite mind. We shouldn’t be able to put him in our nice, neat little boxes and label him accordingly. He shouldn’t fit into well laid out categories, and we definitely shouldn’t claim to be able to predict what He will do.

I was reminded of one of these complexities the other day when I heard a pastor quote C.S. Lewis from, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” When the children are first told of Aslan and hear that he is a lion they ask if he’s safe.

“’Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe, but he is good,. He’s the king, I tell you.’”

It’s a great quote, and it’s true.  Not only does it illustrate the complexity I’ve been talking about, but on it’s own it’s a concept I would like to explore a bit.

Our human understanding of God naturally wants to make Him linear, and His goodness is no exception. We usually feel like good equates not only to safe, but to our cultural definitions of protected and prosperous.

We think that if God is being good to us that means he is prospering us in the way our culture defines prosperous, protecting us in a way that we feel safe, causing our children to turn out the way that we want them to, and guiding our lives to be all that we have ever dreamed they should be.

The truth is so much more complex than that.

Scripture is full of the reality of God’s goodness. It’s there right alongside the descriptions of the destruction of Job’s life, the captivity of the Children of Israel, the persecution of the early Church, and the thorn in Paul’s side. We are given a picture of a God who is good to his people through incredibly un-good things.

None of this fits if we look at God linearly and culturally. If we step outside of our expectations and fleshly desires, it works though. God’s goodness is expressed through His love and His growing us toward Himself. It is not expressed through earthly protection or prosperity because often the very things that draw us to the heart of God are things that make us the least comfortable or safe in this life. Often these are things that will never go away. God often works with lifelong lessons, not a one time course in patience and then we’re good. Remember Paul’s thorn? That’s what I’m talking about here.

More than that, God often works in eternal, infinite ways that we simply can not understand. Think of Job’s children. What was the endgame for them? Or how about the Philistine people? Was God loving and good to them? If we believe that God doesn’t change and what he says in John 3:16 is true the answer has to be “yes”, but how do we explain that? How do we understand it?

No, He’s not safe, and He’s not simple, but He is good.

He’s the king, I tell you.


Great Expectations

I’m sitting at my desk today setting up lesson plans for this coming school year. One of the *ahem*joys*ahem* of working at a small private school is that I have yet to teach the same set of classes two years in a row so I wind up doing at least some intensive lesson planning each year.

This year, I plan on emphasizing expectations in each of my classes. Now, this isn’t a goal for my students as much as it’s a goal for me as their teacher. Here’s my thought process.

We (every teacher I’ve ever met) spend countless lunch duties, hall duties, and breaks around the fictional water-cooler complaining that they just don’t make students like they used to. The current crop we’ve been given can’t write, can’t multiply, do the bare minimum to get by, are barely literate, and are making us blind with their handwriting. The complaints are endless.

I think I’ve found something interesting. In my experience there is a huge difference between “can’t” and “don’t”. My students will find out exactly what the bare minimum I require is and do that; every time. Why would they do more? If my reaction to a paper turned in with terrible handwriting is to roll my eyes and then complain to the teacher next door about their handwriting, why should they change? I read it and grade it anyways, they might as well not put as much time and effort into it.

A while back I read through a copy of the New England Primer and was impressed beyond words. The complexity of what first graders were expected to read and understand astounds me. I teach junior high and high school exclusively (I stay away from elementary classrooms on principle) and would be impressed if my students could understand most of that book.

Now I know that part of what you’re dealing with is a change in the vocabulary of the culture. I get that. Still, I can’t help but think that the children of yester-year were capable of reading and understanding words like exhort, zeal, and glorious because they were expected to learn them and there was no excuse for not doing so.

It’s a fact that what we now consider to be a high school education was completed by the eighth grade not that many years ago. Granted, a lot has changed about education in that time. I really don’t believe that much has changed about children in that time. What’s changed is what we expect of them.

From this line of thinking I’ve derived two plans. Well, one plan and an interesting idea for an experiment.

First is the emphasis on expectations and excellence that I was talking about earlier. I’m setting the bar just that much higher in my classroom and I’m taking the time to make sure it stays there.

Second, and more interesting I think, is the idea that in educating my own children they could easily work at the level of a previous century if that is what is expected of them. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about pressure or discipline. I’m simply talking about changing from expecting children to understand, “Dick and Jane will run and have fun”, and instead expecting them to wrap their little minds around, “As runs the glass, our life does pass”.

Wouldn’t that take more time, effort, leading, and time invested in helping your young children understand concepts that our culture would consider beyond the grasp of a child? Of course it would. Isn’t that what education should be?


By All Means, Ask

My wife and I were discussing an interesting trend in modern Christianity last night. Before I tell you which trend this is, let me explain why we were talking about it.

To start with, Love Wins has been a fairly continual conversation for the two of us over the last month or so. Neither of us has yet read it due to how popular it seems to be in our local library system, but we are both intrigued by the controversy it has sparked. My interest was deepened and perhaps changed after I read the review over on Internet Monk. (Granted, I don’t take the new authors’ word for things as readily as I did Michael Spencer’s, but their perspective is still interesting and sincere.)

Fact number two is that I am, and have been for a while, a bit of a Greg Boyd fan-boy. I was introduced to his sermons back when he was ticking off the general population with “The Cross and the Sword” and have enjoyed his thought process and insight ever since. I regularly read his works and listen to his sermons as well as often refer to his rethinking of Christian-Social Interactions.

Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back, was my mother-in-law. She was very surprised that I appreciated and recommended Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy and took it upon herself to encourage me to look deeper at what Brian McLaren believes and teaches to see if I can really value what he says. So last night we listened to a lot of interviews with Brian McLaren, which led us to reference some Greg Boyd materials, which led us to refresh our look at Love Wins. It was genuinely entertaining.

Here’s what we noticed. The trend right now among “edgy” Christians isn’t so much to claim strange or radical beliefs. No, what you actually hear them doing is simply questioning the currently predominant perspective. In essence, these “radicals” are taking a question that is generally put into terms of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and saying, “We’re asking the wrong question.”

For example, I watched a video clip of Brian McLaren talking about homosexuality. He pointed out that on both sides of the issue we’re asking “Is it right or is it wrong?” and that we’ve proven over the last few decades that there’s enough room for interpretation that we’re not going to get every well meaning Christian to agree on the right or wrong question. So, instead of continuing to beat that dead horse, shouldn’t we start asking how we’re going to minister to and love people who disagree with us on this issue?

I’m not sure why this is seen as dangerous or even dissident, but it is.  Thinking about it today, I’ve come up with two things that I think play into this.

First, questioning of a traditional belief or perspective is seen as destructive. People don’t want to see things that they have held near and dear destroyed. Often they don’t even want them changed enough to fix them because they don’t think they need it. If we’re questioning if it’s even the right way to be addressing something, all of a sudden we’re worse than changing, we’re destroying.

I’ll wager that this is traumatic to so many people because of what Greg Boyd calls a “House of Cards” mentality – which would be the second thing making these questions dangerous. We’ve been taught our faith as a package deal. If you mess with one part, all of it comes into question. That is if all of it doesn’t come tumbling down around your ears. I’ve seen this most often in people who grow up or are introduced to the faith inside the confines of a single ministry or denomination. The entire theology and lifestyle set is presented as a whole unit. If you remove, or even question, a single part you’re endangering the whole.

I wonder if perhaps what scares us is the same thing that got Socrates killed.

Socrates was known for going around asking questions of the “so called wise” of Athens in order to, as he said it, learn from their wisdom. His goal was, of course to educate them and the observers by asking questions that either pointed out the flaws in their thinking or that their wisdom couldn’t answer. This of course infuriated those who believed themselves wise as their conventional wisdom was challenged and shown to be incomplete. To be honest, I can understand why Socrates was seen as a nuisance.

Perhaps this is what scares a lot of traditional Christians. The most obvious flaw in neat little pre-packaged theology as I described when talking about a “House of Cards” is that it very seldom includes enough perspective to answer all critiques and account for certain issues in our world. It can cover most concerns, but never all.

The result of being taught from such a perspective is that we know only that viewpoint and simply can’t answer the deeper questions without saying, “Don’t question my faith!” When people ask the questions that shoot holes in part of our thinking we’re left with very few options. Namely, pretend they don’t exist, give up on our faith, or label them as dangerous attackers of truth. This last is what we’re seeing done with such “radicals” as Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Greg Boyd.

I would suggest though that they’re not so much dangerous to truth as they are dangerous to some of our incomplete ways of thinking. It’s not dangerous to think. It’s not dangerous to be challenged. It’s not even dangerous to be wrong from time to time, especially when we’re humble enough to listen to and answer honest questions.

I don’t agree with everything any of the people I’ve mentioned today teach. All them ask some great questions though. I honestly believe it is more dangerous to refuse to be questioned than to ask questions. Unless of course we don’t think our truth can stand up to a little inquiry.

If that’s the case, I must ask, how reliable of truth do we believe it is?


When it Comes to Taste…

I’m never happy when a book takes more than a couple of chapters to grab my attention. Still, I’m willing to give almost anything a fair shot if it will eventually get moving. My preferences are for authors who can grab my interest in the first chapter, prefereably by the end of the first paragraph. I know, it’s a tall order, but it’s possible and with the prolifieration of libraries and book stores, it’s not hard to find quality fiction these days. Sadly, I don’t think my current reading endeavor qualifies. To explain, let me contrast the two novels I’m currently reading through. 

The first is the offending piece of literature that I’m finding slow, awkwardly written, and on the very fringes of believable, even for a murder mystery. It’s a murder mystery by english author P.D. James by the name of Original Sin. I bought this book over a year ago and am just now half way through the volume. Before you laugh or criticize, that has nothing to do with my rate of reading. I’ve tried a half dozen times over the last year to get into it and never got myself past the fifth chapter. It is, simply put, boring.

Why then am I reading it? Good question. I guess there are two reasons. First, I feel an odd and unexplainable loyalty to any book that I begin. If I’ve started it, I feel obligated to finish it. Second, I was in need of something to read while administering SATs this week and it was the only unread novel on my shelf. It’s hard enough to stay awake and alert with something to read. Try sitting watching kids take tests without a diversion.

What makes this worth writing about is that as of last night I saw a fascinating contrast. Last night I handed my wife a copy of “The Green and The Gray” by Timothy Zahn and she started reading it aloud. Now, this is one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s easily my favorite Science Fiction/Fantasy novel. It’s really good. Which makes the comparison to what I’m reading today all the more ghastly. Here’s what I saw last night.

Zahn is no Edgar Allen Poe. He’s certainly not as popular or prolific as say, Stephen King or James Patterson. But I’ll tell you what, Zahn can tell a story and leaving you begging for more at the end of every chapter. By the end of the first page I was grinning with anticipation and Katherine was eager to see what was happening and what would happen next. She was even already emotionally attached to the main character. This is what I love in a novel.

Oddly, it’s not incredibly attractive to my wife. To be honest, she thought the opening chapters were too intense and is leery of the rest of the book. She remains unimpressed with the brilliance that I see in Zahn’s writing.

Let me back up just over a year. The reason I purchased “Original Sin” was because I wanted to expand my library in ways that were, for me, unconventional. I had never purchased a murder mystery before but knew that I enjoyed the style. Not only that, but I wanted to extend past the obvious Agatha Christy or James Patterson and read an author that I had no previous knowledge of. I know, that’s a recipe for disaster, but I had a plan. I looked for an author with a large section of books that had been in print for a significant period of time. I assumed that their success would dictate that their style and technique was at least good, if not great, and the stories would be engaging.

I failed to recall one slight detail.

The section of novels by P.D. James that I found was extensive. Her name was mildly known to me. She is, from a publishers point of view, a great success. Timothy Zahn, a personal favorite and inspiration, is none of these things in the modern bookstore. His shelf space consists of maybe two feet if the store’s collection is extensive, and that includes multiple copies of his more current endeavors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than one printing of most of his novels. He is successful, but not in the same way.

Here’s what I wasn’t factoring in and what I failed to think of before expecting my wife to be as excited about a book as I am.

Taste

It’s simple, really. The idea that what we appreciate and enjoy is individual, personal, and varies greatly from person to person. We all know this is true. Some would say the story I just told proves that I have poor taste. Some of us try to make ourselves feel better about it by proclaiming that our tastes are truer, purer, more universally correct. Those who disagree with us are simply uneducated, ignorant, or careless in what they choose to like. I really don’t see either of these as valid though.

I believe firmly that there is a standard for good writing that causes bad writing to exist. I believe that there are poorly written manuscripts, even in print. I have to remind myself though, that other than being inferior, most of the things I dislike in literature come down to a matter of taste.

I want to be thrilled and excited when I read a novel. This is why the works of Poe, Lovecraft, Zahn, and Stackpole entertain me so much. Not everyone is looking for this thrill-seekers high in their reading though. In their minds the high adventure style I enjoy fails to connect with the reader on deep emotional levels that allow true connection to the characters and stories portrayed, so they see the work as poor fiction. Yes, we’re dealing with a matter of taste.

Honestly, I could probably write this same post about music, film, or any other art for you choose to mention. We all know it’s true, but we fail to remind ourselves to bear it in mind when we interact with those who disagree with us.

So there you have it. It’s not brilliant, but it’s what’s on my mind.