Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review--Here's Lily

Nancy Rue's "Here's Lily" is not the type of book I'd normally read or review, but I have a 10-year-old daughter who fits right into the target demographic for this and Rue's 100+ other books.

The title character is a 6th-grade redhead who, like most other girls her age, faces concerns about her body image, popularity, and friendships. Rue takes her through these challenges in a warm, caring way, without falling into melodrama. 

Compounding the normal tween/teen issues is a near-tragedy which affects Lily in many ways. Throughout, the love of Christ and the stabilizing presence of good parents promise comfort, wisdom, and guidance, and that alone makes this book worth the price. That said, "Here's Lily" isn't just a book with a good message. It's funny, entertaining, and never boring. 

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program enabled me to have a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review--"Love Does" by Bob Goff

Readers of Donald Miller's excellent book "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" were introduced to Bob Goff, a man who I'd swear is a fictional hero if Miller didn't insist he was a real person. Goff sounds like he's too good to be true.

The Good
The stories in Miller's book are pretty amazing: his kids invited themselves to meet with the leader of every nation in the world, and 29 presidents, kings,  and princes took them up on it. Goff started a New Year's day parade in which several blocks of neighbors participate. He managed to push through several judicial reforms in Uganda which resulted in kids being freed and witch doctors being put out of business. And that's just the start.

Bob Goff is a real person, and he's the real deal; he loves Jesus and has a desire to use what he has to show the love of Jesus in tangible, life-changing ways to as many people as he can. One cannot help but be inspired by reading these stories, and the life lessons that often come with them.

In fact, "inspired" is the key word here. Goff's book, "Love Does" is designed specifically to inspire the reader to live his/her life to the fullest. Not by checking things off of some bucket list, but by using their gifts and available resources to make the world a better place.

When "Love Does" stays on mission, it accomplishes its mission: it's a particularly inspiring read, set apart from many books written with similar intentions. You really get the impression that you, the reader, can make great things happen, with Jesus as your guide.

The Part I Wish Was Different
I say "when it stay on mission" for good reason.  Sporadically and unpredictably, the book deviates from that mission to offer bits and pieces of the author's theology. Ironically, many of these tidbits contain criticisms of those who are stuck on making sure that one's theology is correct. It seems that Goff is just as prone as the rest of us to insist that his perspective on things is the correct one. This idea seems to be on a collision course with itself.

Over the years, there has been a trend among Christian authors to call out those who they deem to be judgmental, and in the process, they become judgmental about judgmental people. Seems like every author/pastor from John Piper to Donald Miller to John Eldredge to Rob Bell to John MacArthur has had moments where they proclaim "Most Christians are not living the Christian life the right way. I am the exception; come be like me." The fact that the group of those who have made this declaration is so dissimilar is at once sad and bewildering. And now Goff seems to be falling into the same trap. 

Using the analogy of a basketball team: depending on abilities and physical gifts, one type of player is best at being a shooter, another is a guard, while a third player may be a good defender. The team that wins is the one that has the right people in place, doing the things they were made to do. What "Love Does" seems to forget is that the world, and the Church, needs the folks he subtly calls out:  black & white thinkers, the ones who study theology, the ones who call out sin; in other words, the ones who are very different from him. These folks, subject to borderline derision in a few spots in "Love Does", have their place, and play an important role in the world.  If everyone was like them, it would be a disaster. But Goff seems to dismiss them altogether, or at least to minimize their importance.

The Verdict
Thankfully, those kinds of things are not a large part of the book. The first few chapters are as heart-tugging as it gets. The last few chapters challenge the reader to act out his or her faith. The middle ones, however, seem to be there just to make the book go over a minimum number of pages.

Too bad. Strip "Love Does" down to about 150 pages by removing the theology which pretends to not be theology as well as the filler, and you'd be left with one of the most beautifully written books I've ever had the pleasure to read. As it is, it's still pretty darn good.

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson, the publisher of "Love Does" provided a copy of this book to me for review purposes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blue Like Jazz--the Film, opens this weekend

James Williams and Donald Miller
Me on the left, Don Miller on right, at the BLJ screening


This is a rewrite of last week's review, as it appears on Burnside Writers Collective:


By making a small contribution to last year's effort to fund the making of "Blue Like Jazz" via Kickstarter, I put myself in line to receive an invitation to the Fort Worth premiere on March 21. This showing was part of a 30-city tour in which Donald Miller, the author of the book by the same name, appeared in person, accompanied by director Steve Taylor and lead actor Marshall Allman.

I went in guessing that the movie would likely stray far from the "Safe for the Whole Family" boundaries that many Christian-themed films seem bound to. And as it turned out, I was right: the PG-13 rating was earned. The story in the movie (which bears little resemblance to the book) is about a young man who renounces his faith before rediscovering it in a fresh way. This necessitated the depiction of various sinful behaviors and attitudes. There are a few naughty words, multiple instances of substance abuse, and flat-out mockery of Christianity.  Plus, a giant condom placed on a church steeple as a prank. One character is a lesbian, which, now that I think about it, was the missing element in "Facing the Giants". (Relax. I kid.)

Speaking of which, it should be noted that the creators of "Facing the Giants" were mentioned in a blog post written by "Blue Like Jazz" director Steve Taylor. In a bit of remarkable timing, his post appeared the morning of March 21, the same day I attended the premiere. In the piece, Taylor called out Sherwood Films, the makers and distributors of "Facing the Giants", "Courageous", and other Christian-themed movies, accusing them of blacklisting actors who had worked on "Blue Like Jazz."
While that part of Taylor's post got the most attention in the press the next few days, I was drawn to the meat of what he wrote: He challenged Christian filmmakers to deliver more excellent work, and he challenged Christian audiences not to accept mediocre films simply because they contained the "Christian" label.

Back to the movie: Because "Blue Like Jazz" is a book of essays, a fictional story had to be created for the film. In it, a Baptist goody-two-shoes high school student named Donald Miller finishes high school, then heads to Reed College, the most godless campus in the nation. Miller, upset by some hypocrisy he witnessed at his home church, begins to question, and then reject, his Christian faith. The more he tries to fit in at Reed, the more he distances himself from the Jesus he has known all his life. He befriends Lauren, who's not romantically interested in him (after all, he's male), and he befriends Penny, an under-the-radar Christian. He also makes friends with The Pope, a senior who's loudly irreligious, who wears a Pope hat, and who is hiding some hurts.

The story was compelling from the beginning, but there was one part everyone in the audience was waiting for: the Confession Booth scene.  Truth be told, I didn't expect a lot out of that scene, simply because I was very familiar with it, thanks to the book. It's difficult to move an audience emotionally when they know what's going to happen, because the element of surprise is gone.

Against those odds, the scene blew me away, and I wasn't alone. The audience gave this film a very deserving standing ovation. That one scene sealed the deal.

I can only think of a couple of things I wish were different about this film:  1. Lauren's open lusting toward other women. (In bringing this up, I am not focusing on her same-sex attraction. I would have been bothered the same had it been a man ogling, and speaking graphically, about the various female body parts that were getting his attention.) The over-the-top-ness of her drooling was a distraction.  2. Evangelical Christians, as a group, are treated a bit harshly in this story. In the Q & A session after the movie, this was brought up by an audience member. Miller disagreed that they were treated unfairly, but I guess we can explore that topic another time.

The above two items are not show-stoppers, but they're worth noting.

To balance the criticism with something positive, I also want to point out that, despite the well-publicized troubles this movie has had when it comes to finding suitable financing, Blue Like Jazz does not look like it was made with money scraped together from the sub-$100 investments of 4,500 contributors (which it was). Typically, you can tell when a film was made on the cheap. There was nothing about this one which betrayed its shoestring budget.

As I mentioned earlier, once the film ended and credits began rolling, Taylor, Miller, and Allman faced the audience and took questions. I was first to raise my hand, thanking Taylor for what he had written that morning, because someone needed to say it. (I am speaking of the part about the need for quality movies with Christian themes, not the tiff with the Sherwood filmmakers.)


It's a bit unfair when those who object to "cheesy" Christian films point to the makers of "Facing the Giants".  The reality is that most of cheesiest of these films are made by organizations other than Sherwood. Think "Letters to God", "Soul Surfer", and the "Left Behind" series.

To be fair, "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof", while featuring imperfect theology and bad acting at times, have their strong points.  And credit should be given to Sherwood because "Courageous" is much better than their previous efforts.  Not as good as "Blue Like Jazz", but still.....


Final word: I loved Blue Like Jazz. On a 5-star scale, I give it 4.5 stars. Please go see it this weekend. Go to www.bluelikejazztickets.com

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Book Review—Crater, by Homer Hickam


The first time I—and most people—can remember noticing actor Jake Gylenhall was in “October Sky”, about a high schooler named Homer whose homemade rockets demonstrated an understanding of rocketry far beyond his years. The real-life Homer wrote about his experience, and that book, “Rocket Boys” was the basis for “October Sky.”

A few decades and several books later, Homer Hickam has given us “Crater”, the first of what promises to be a series of adventure novels written for boys between ages 10 and 90.

As part of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program, I received “Crater” for review purposes, and was excited to let my 10-year-old son read it. These days, it seems the vast majority of fiction written for teens and preteens is aimed at girls. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I liked “Crater” as much as my son did.

The story is set a hundred years in the future, where Earth has been ravaged by war, and several thousand survivors and war refugees have traveled to the moon to begin a new life. Crater is a 16-year-old orphan who works a low-paying—and dangerous—job as a miner of Helium-3, an excellent energy source which is not found on Earth but present in abundant quantities on the moon. Crater’s quick thinking saves the lives of fellow miners, and this action leads to a new, even more dangerous assignment.

When choosing something for your kids to read, you may, as I do, look for a few things which help make the book more attractive. Here’s what “Crater” offers: a main character whose integrity is evident to those who know him; Scripture references without the entire story coming off as preachy; a challenge to a young man to make his life really count for something; a fight worth fighting; an innocent but meaningful budding relationship with a young woman of character; a life purpose beyond the mundane; bravery; older men mentoring younger ones.

I’m glad my son read “Crater” and I’m glad I read it as well. I ‘m looking forward to the next one.