Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Book review -- Messiah: Origin

Messiah: Origin, a graphic novel by Matt Dorff and Mark Arey and illustrated by Kai Carpenter, tells the story of Jesus through pictures, with minimal words. The words that are used are all Scripture, taken from all 4 Gospels. In this, the earthly life and ministry of Jesus is depicted in pictures and words in a way I've never seen before, and I like it.

This is not the first  graphic novel depicting bible stories, and this is not the first narrative to combine the Gospels into one story. But as far as I know, this is the first time those two techniques have been used to tell this story.  And it's a compelling read.

I must confess, I didn't go into this book with high expectations. And when I hear the phrase "graphic novel", my first thought is that it's a nice way of saying "comic book for adults".  But I was way off. Being able to read the words of the Bible, accompanied by the illustrations, added a dimension to the experience which brought more life into it.

Messiah: Origin is the second in a series. The first was called The Book of Revelation, and was written and illustrated by the same team.  I encourage adults and kids to check out the series.

Note: Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program provided a review copy for me.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

My Problem With Ted Cruz and the Government Shutdown

I've been mostly avoiding politics in this blog, but will jump in: I'm not happy with the efforts of Republican congresshumans to refuse to pass a budget unless Obamacare is defunded.

Obamacare is an awful piece of legislation, and will do more harm to our nation than its proponents can fathom. But it is the law, and it was passed fair and square. Republicans are wrong to use the budget approval process to try to strike it down.  Democrats have tried similar tactics in the past. It's wrong no matter who does it.

Obamacare passed. It's the law. They got more votes than we did. Them's the rules. When we start saying "I don't care what the majority voted for, I'm going to hold my breath till I get my way", we are no better than 3rd-world countries.

If you don't like a law, vote it out. That's how democracy works. Don't try an end-around.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Book review: NIV College Devotional Bible

As part of Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program, I recently received a copy of Zondervan's NIV College Devotional Bible for review purposes.

I'm not a fan of the NIV translation, but I really like the way this bible is put together. The 200+ devotionals are well written, and applicable to anyone, not just college students. The devotionals often use extra-biblical stories to illustrate the point. For example, next to the story about Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers outside the temple, there is a devotional about righteous anger. As an illustration, it refers to Florence Nightingale and her observations at the appalling conditions for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, and how her anger at the situation led to her personal life mission to care for the sick and injured.

This parable-based approach is like to work for anyone, but particularly those at this age, an age that most people are learning the importance of making their life count for something. The devotionals in this bible can be helpful to the young man or woman who is starting to see the world differently than ever before, and trying to his one's place in it.

In additional to the devotionals, there is a bible reading plan that lasts 9 months, as well as things you come to expect, such as index, concordance, etc.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ranking Batman

Before Miley Cyrus stole the spotlight Sunday night, approximately 75% of the nation's Internet's bandwidth was being consumed by comments about the selection of Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming "Batman vs Superman" movie.  Most of the talk was negative, some supportive, and some was just funny. (The best line: "I've just seen Christian Bale going to Affleck's apartment with some Huey Lewis records and an axe.")

The protests kept coming, drowning out admonitions from level-headed people like myself to just. calm. down. We're talking about a fictional character, people.

As one of the few who refused to contribute to the vitriol, I could step back and notice some things about the way these discussions were going. Besides the Bennifer and Daredevil references, the bulk of the protests (and even some of the pro-Affleck comments) focused on comparisons:

"Ben Affleck will be the worst Batman since that fat guy in the ill-fitting suit."

"At least he might be better than Clooney."

"Was Betty White not available?"

When we're talking about an iconic character who has been portrayed on screen by several actors (only James Bond has the same combination of iconic status + multiple well-known actors), comparisons are inevitable. So let's take a stab at ranking--worst to first, Casey Kasem-style--the actors to take on the role of Batman since 1960 on the large or small screen.

NOTE: I don't have Lewis Wilson, Robert Lowery, Bruce Thomas, or Kevin Conroy listed here, as I am unfamiliar with their work and frankly, so are all but the most dedicated Batman fans.

5. George Clooney
Although Clooney is not a bad actor, he mailed this one in. In fact, even he freely acknowledges his inability to handle this role, famously stating that he may have broken the franchise. He didn't. Somehow, he managed to salvage a career since then. Perhaps you've seen Clooney in a successful film or two since then.  I can't say the same for....

4. Val Kilmer
Kilmer was a better Batman than Bruce Wayne.  He did a good job, but it appears that he had trouble landing good acting jobs afterward. Kilmer's best roles (Tombstone, The Doors) happened mostly in the 9 years between "Top Gun" and "Batman Forever".   After that, not much to be proud of. Exhibit A: for the voice of KITT the car in the new Knight Rider.Exhibit B: The musical version of "The Ten Commandments"

3. Adam West
We all know the 1960's TV series (and the one movie) was campy. In fact, you look up the word "campy", and the dictionary shows a picture of Adam West as Batman. But he knew what he was doing at the time, and he played it to the hilt. He was in on the joke. He never tried to be "Tortured Son of Murdered Parents" Batman. He knew what he needed to do to make that TV series work, and he did it spectacularly.

2. Christian Bale
Bale played the role as one would imagine when reading the darkest versions of the comic books/graphic novels. Wayne/Batman was forever screwed up because his parents were murdered in front of him. He was a detective's detective. As Bruce Wayne, he was a great pretender.  He personified the type of man who could bring self-discipline of body and soul to unprecedented heights.

For all these reasons, he should be the best Batman ever. But Bale's performance has one very noticeable flaw: the voice. He went out of his way to not sound like Christian Bale, and to adopt a raspy voice similar of one of Marge Simpson's sisters. Many viewers, myself included, had a hard time not thinking about Christian Bale changing his voice as we were watching The Dark Knight, and ultimately, an actor's job is to make us remember he's not acting. The resulting loss of points knocks Bale to 2nd place, right behind...

1. Michael Keaton
The current negative comments predicting failure for Affleck have a ring of familiarity to those of us old enough to remember the announcement of Mr Mom/Beetlejuice/Johnny Dangerously as the new Batman. In fact, had this occurred after Al Gore came down from heaven and brought us the Internet, perhaps the outcry against Keaton would have been even worse than that we witnessed this weekend. But the fact is, he nailed it. When Tim Burton's "Batman" made its way into theaters, moviegoers realized immediately that Keaton was an excellent choice. He captured the tortured soul aspect of the character, but wisely avoided over-acting.

Of course, when you're sharing screen time with Jack Nicholson playing The Joker, under-acting is the wisest move you can make. But it's more than that. Keaton let the director direct. He let the other actors shine. He let the lighting & sets set the mood, and most important, he let his eyes tell the story. That's the mark of an excellent actor. His restraint, subtlety, and his anti-Beetlejuice persona was exactly what was needed. That's why the 1989 "Batman" is ultimately more enjoyable than the Dark Knight movies, and it's why Keaton is the standard that Affleck and future Batmen should aspire to.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Does Anyone Still Listen to Entire Albums In Order?

In a recent tweet, Rosanne Cash said that she is obsessing over the order of songs for her new album:

Within a minute, she received over 100 replies from fans (including myself) who still find value in listening to whole albums, in order.

I don't do it all the time, of course. Listening to various songs by different artists is how music fans have listened to the radio for longer than I have been alive. Clearly, there's no harm is doing the same with our personal music collections.

But some albums are so well put together, and have a common theme running throughout, that they actually have a stronger impact when heard in their entirety, in the intended sequence.

It's a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

My favorite CD's to listen to in order (ironically, this list is in no particular order):

[Yes, I realize that there is nothing recent here. I'm old. I'm entitled to hold songs from my generation more dear to my heart than songs from your generation. Cut me some slack.]

Like Red on a Rose (Alan Jackson)

Control (Janet Jackson)

King's Record Shop (Rosanne Cash)

Bill (Tripping Daisy)

Tunnel Of Love (Bruce Springsteen)

She's So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper)

My Life (Ronnie Milsap)

Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits)

Lubbock Texas in my Rear View Mirror (Mac Davis)

The Memphis Record (Elvis)

Centerfield (John Fogerty)

Will the Circle Be Unbroken II (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)

Graceland (Paul Simon)

The Magazine (Rickie Lee Jones)

Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder)

Volume 1 (Traveling Wilburys)

Rattle and Hum (U2)

Got any you want to add to the list? 

Friday, August 02, 2013

Here is What's Doing the Most Damage to Christiantiy These Days

If you were asked to name the single biggest threat to American Christianity these days, what would it be?

Some will argue that laws curtailing free speech are doing the most damage to Christians today.

Some will argue that changing marriage laws and acceptance of various sexual sins are a bigger threat.

Some Christians seem to think that it's those Target employees who say "Happy Holidays" and find other ways to secularize Christmas.

From where I stand, none of the items listed above, which all originate from sources outside the Church, has as much potential to do the most damage to the cause of Christ and the work of the Church in America as this one thing, and it's coming from within:

Christians refusing to see God as He is, and replacing the real God with one which makes them most comfortable. 

The most uncomfortable, difficult thing to accept about God is His anger, and the most difficult thing for 21st-Century American believers to accept is that we are to fear Him. As Exhibit A, I offer this. A large denomination has removed the song "In Christ Alone" from its hymnals, simply because it contains the line "Till on that Cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied".

Apparently, the existence of the wrath of God is an offense to many modern professing believers. Well, that's not entirely true. We want God to be angry at pedophiles, racists, know, the same people we're mad at.  But the idea that God had wrath toward me?  Well, that's different.

I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: Jesus died on the Cross because our sin separated us from a perfect, holy God. We need a Savior because we aren't good enough to save ourselves. This has been a foundational, fundamental part of Christian belief forever. To remove the wrath of God from our faith is like telling a baseball team they have to use a football instead. Yes, they can still technically play the game with a football, but it won't look anything like real baseball. Just as Christianity which denies the wrath of God isn't real Christianity.

For 2000 years, Christians have understood that the Gospel message is, by its very nature, an offense to unbelievers. That's a given. But in a strange, sad, and unwelcome twist, some church leaders don't want to offend the sensitivities of believers.

"In Christ Alone" has another key line we all should meditate on: "No guilt in life, no fear in death."  That's powerful. That's something to embrace. Let's celebrate this truth by acknowledging God's wrath, and then by rejoicing in our freedom from it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Burnside Writers Essays

Toward the end of Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz", the author mentions Burnside Writers Collective, a website he created with friends, in order to create a web presence for aspiring young Christian writers who tend to be a little Left of Center.

While I am neither young nor left of center, I have been privileged to have some of my writing published at BWC. Here's a list:

How God Will Use Unimpressive People 

The Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

Book Review: Billy Coffey's "When Mockingbirds Sing"

God Expresses His Love For Me and Offers to Heal the Wounds of Fatherlessness

Why I Voted For Mitt Romney

The Value Of the Hurts In Our Lives

My Disagreement with Springsteen's "Glory Days"

A Lesson I Learned From Little League

In addition to those, I have participated in Cross Talk, a series of  discussions in which Emily Timbol (Reaves) and I have talked out our disagreements on important theological/political topics:

When Is It OK To Use the Word "Homophobia"?

The Obama-Romney Town Hall Debate

President Obama's Use of Executive Orders: Did He Overstep His Bounds?

Let's Talk About Sex, and Abstinence-Based Sermons

Freedom of Religion and Government-Mandated Birth Control

Sunday, June 16, 2013

When Mockingbirds Sing, by Billy Coffey: A Review

Through Thomas Nelson Publishing's Booksneeze program, I obtained a free copy of Billy Coffey's "When Mockingbirds Sing" for review purposes. I'm free to give my honest take on this book. This paragraph is here to make the IRS happy.

I started reading Coffey's blog about 2 years ago, and along the way, I read his first two novels, "Snow Day" and "Paper Angels". The former is a nice first effort, while the 2nd is not only an improvement, but with it, he demonstrated an ability to walk the fine line between saying something profound and not trying to sound like he's trying to be profound.

"When Mockingbirds Sing" continues in that direction, but the result goes from being merely good to remarkable. The author manages to tell a compelling story that contains important truths without the reader feeling he's being preached to.

I've never written a novel, but it seems to me that the difficulty of writing fiction for the Christian market is that readers are examining anything that might look like a theological statement, and comparing it to their doctrine, looking for holes.

Equally difficult, I imagine, would be avoiding the temptation to preach directly to the reader. One doesn't have to think very long to recall some well-meaning books which consist of God speaking through a character, to another character, when the reader is supposed to realize he's really the one being talked to. Such works are exhausting to read, and not satisfying.

In "When Mockingbirds Sing", I am impressed with Coffey's ability to turn a phrase, to tell a great story with a powerful ending, and to not make me feel like I have been lectured.  Additionally, I'm impressed with the characters he has described. In fact, I grew to like several of the main ones to the point that I actually got unnerved at the unfairness of the actions of the antagonists. After a few minutes, I realized I was furious at nonexistent people, and I let it go, but anytime a story takes you to a place where you can get mad at a character, that's a well-crafted story.

Perhaps a plot description is in order: It's set in a small Virginia town. A family moves in from a larger city, and it doesn't take long for their little girl Leah and her imaginary friend, the Rainbow Man, to issue some prophecies through her words and her paintings. She gains a loyal friend, Allie, whose personality and spunk bear a strong resemblance to Scout, from "To Kill a Mockingbird".

The local pastor cares deeply about God and about the people of his church, but he has a difficult time grasping the idea that a little girl with a speech impediment could be used by God when he had been serving God all his life and has yet to hear God speak. In the story, the community puts misguided faith in Leah when her paintings and prophecies come true, and we see those same folks turn against Leah later. We see our own shortsightedness and judgmentalism in some of the characters, but as I said earlier, the author shows us this in the course of an engaging story, not guilt-driven sermon under the guise of a story.

We see a marriage in trouble. Hard things happen. And then the ending. Oh my. That ending. I can't say much about it, but let me just say, "When Mockingbirds Sing" ends in a strong and powerful way.

I really loved this book. I have three hopes for it: (1) It will become popular through word of mouth; (2) someone will make it into a movie without making major changes; and (3) the characters that were introduced will be further developed in future works from Billy Coffey.  Till then, read the book. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book review--7 Men, by Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas' new book, Seven Men, and the Secret of their Greatness, is designed for the audience of his two best-known books, biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. "Seven Men" contains 7 mini-biographies of those two, plus George Washington, Chuck Colson, Jackie Robinson, Eric Liddell, and Pope John Paul II.  The length of each subject's story (20-36 pages) will make this book appeal  to many of those readers who want to know about someone's life without going into the kind of details found in full-length biographies which typically only are appreciated by enthusiastic fans and historians.

Although this book is intended for adults, the brevity of each bio makes it perfect for teens and preteens. My 11-yr-old son enjoyed it as much as I did. More important than the stories themselves, especially when it's being read by a boy about to become a man, is the theme which binds the 7 stories together: that the world needs courageous men, willing to sacrifice their own comfort and reputations in order to make positive change in the world.

And while this theme is implicit in the 7 chapters, it's explicit in the introduction. Metaxas opens the book with a 14-page explanation of what true manhood is, and like the main body of the book, it's written in such a way that my kid can clearly grasp the message, one that needs to be heard by his generation.

As for the 7 stories themselves, they are well-told. This book reads well, and I recommend it for the 7 stories of the seven heroic figures, and also for the introduction.

(I received this book for free as part of the Booksneeze book review program. I offer an honest review and in return get to keep my copy of the book.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I Am Legend: Someone Please Help Me Understand

I recently watched "I Am Legend" for the first time in a couple of years, and the 2nd time ever. I'm not a big zombie-movie guy, but this one is different. My first time watching this film left me satisfied with the notion that I had seen a well-thought-out, intelligent movie, not afraid to pull punches nor to explore important topics that go way beyond typical zombie/apocalyptic movie fare.

The second go-round, though, was disappointing. I noticed plot holes so blaring, so huge, they could not be ignored. I was left with an uneasy feeling that I had been duped the first time around, tricked into thinking I was watching something thought-provoking and cleverly put-together.

I'm holding out hope that the incongruencies I observed were based on some misunderstanding on my part. That's why I am inviting you, the reader, to help explain to me those items which are troubling me, and to assure me that the "I Am Legend" plot is not as full of holes as it appears. I really don't mind being corrected on this one.

1. In the scene where Robert (Will Smith) wakes up from hanging by one leg because he stepped into that trap, the zombies, accompanied by zombie dogs, are viewing the goings-on from the shadows, because there's still a sliver of sunlight left. Then the sunlight goes away, and the dogs come out, in full attack mode. But the non-dog zombies, who were right there with the dogs, did not come out and attack Robert. Why? Didn't the absence of sunlight open up a window of opportunity for them just like it did their pets?

2. In flashbacks, we are told that the government tried to contain the virus to Manhattan by keeping residents on the island, and blowing up all the bridges. But late in the story, Anna comes driving up to rescue Robert, and later she drives away from the island to Vermont, in the same car. How did she get to the island and then leave the island without a bridge?

3. At the end, the safe place in Vermont is protected by walls which seem about 10-12 feet tall. Maybe 15. But the zombies demonstrated that they can climb up multi-story buildings with ease. How is that little wall going to keep them out?

4. Anna saves Robert by shining her headlights, not real sunlight, on the zombies. So they obviously cannot stand artificial light. But when they invade his apartment, and go down to his lab, they have no problem being in a well-lit room.

5. Before Robert blows himself up, he tells Anna to stay in the little cubby-hole till dawn. What good will that do if they are inside?

6. The zombies are able to figure out where he lives when they follow Anna home, but why didn't they follow him home the previous day, when they had Robert hanging and attacked his dog? That occurred right at sundown.

I guess these will do for now. Somebody tell me the error of my ways, and restore my faith in "I Am Legend."

Monday, March 04, 2013

Grammatically Correct Song Titles

Here we are: the moment you've all been waiting for. The unveiling of my Top Ten list of song titles (or well-known lyrics), corrected to reflect proper grammar:

10. There isn't any sunshine when she's gone.

9. I'm traveling along a highway, simultaneously thinking about seven different women, four of whom are possessive, two who are insincere and one who is a friend.

8.  I can't get any satisfaction.

7. We don’t need any education.

6. Your mother doesn't dance, nor does your father rock and/or roll.

5. There isn't anything that is going to stop us now.

4. Lie Down Sally.

3. I Still Haven't Found That for Which I Am Looking

2. Whip It Well.

and the Number One grammatically correct song title of all time:

(drum roll)

1. You're nothing, if not a hound dog.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Problem I'm Having Regarding the Gun Control Debate

I like Facebook. While its usefulness may be debatable, there's no doubt that it can be enjoyable for those of us who like to engage in dialog. Whether it's a silly joke or a more serious topic, if there's a discussion going on regarding something I'm even mildly interested in, I want to jump in.

The last few months, countless discussions have come up regarding gun control, and how much our laws should be changed. Thing is, I have many friends who take both sides of the issue. All of them truly believe that if people will see things their way, more lives will be saved, and if their views are ignored, then more lives will be lost. And that's fine.  Passion about something you care about is a good thing.

That said, I saw something on Facebook last week that, several days later, is still very troubling to me. Before I tell you what it is, I want to be clear that I agree with those who say that:
(1) our Constitution gives citizens the right to protect themselves with weapons;
(2) any changes/alterations to that right, if any, should be addressed through due process.

On the other hand, I am not comfortable with the idea of using guns myself. There's a long list of reasons for this, but I'd rather not go into all that now.

But I will share that someone made a Facebook comment last week that really bothered me. No, it's better to say it grieved me. Someone, a conservative pro-gun-rights person from my church, posted a link to a story or video clip or something that backed up the pro-2nd Amendment position. Which is fine.

But then someone else from the church (not a FB friend of mine, though) commented:

(My paraphrase, because I don't recall the exact words)
"Hey, I know we are to love our enemies, and I want them to know God, but if someone threatens my family, I'll be more than happy to arrange their meeting with God as soon as possible." Then they ended their statement with a smiley face.

I am disgusted and saddened that so many professing believers have this hatefulness in their heart. If one must kill to protect their family, fine. But rejoicing in the idea of doing so is abhorrent and, IMO, not in the spirit of Christ.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Book Review: Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer, by Jo Hilder

Jo Hilder, a cancer survivor who lives in Australia, has written  something we all should read. I say all of us because, statistically, just about everyone reading this will know someone who faces cancer. I know I have a tendency to say insensitive things from time to time in all situations, but cancer is a situation which especially requires sensitivity.  Judging by the fact that Jon Acuff's "Stuff Christians Like" blog post about the same topic received hundreds of comments last June, this is a subject which needs addressing.

Hilder's experience as a cancer patient gave her an insight that we all can learn from, of course. But I have to say that when I read the title, I was afraid the book would be taking on a lecturing tone and would shine a light on all the buffoonish things I have said over the years. I am glad to say I was wrong.  "Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer" never condescends, never lectures, and never makes the reader feel discouraged by anything he might have said in the past. In fact, it's quite encouraging in many ways.

The tone of the book is not so much instructional as it is helpful. The author shares her observations and experiences, and these stories really helped me see how my words can be taken in a way I never intended.
Yes, I did wince a time or two as I read Hilder's stories about things she has heard from well-meaning folks not unlike myself. But I never felt like a heel; I simply learned. And that's the point.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it to you in the hopes you never have to apply it in your own life. That said, there's a pretty strong chance you will.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author, for the purpose of providing an honest review. 

Book Review: Everything, by Mary DeMuth

Although I was unfamiliar with Mary DeMuth prior to reading the free review copy of "Everything", I'm now a big fan of her work. I quoted from it in this post when I was part of the way into the book.

The main point of the book is simply to make Jesus your everything. That sounds so easy, so cliche, and certainly sounds like something that has been said before. It begs the question:  Why write a book like that? It can't possibly contain any original thoughts, right?

Wrong.  I've been a Christian for a long time, and heard thousands of sermons and read more books than I can count, but I've never heard anyone put it like DeMuth does. The purpose of this book isn't to pretend to come up with new ideas about how to live life. It's more like a compass: coupled with a map, it helps the reader re-orient and get back to a place where he can find True North and then find his way back to where he should be.

"Everything" is a breath of fresh air. At the end of a year when so many believers are expending their energy associating their Christianity with the stance they take on Chick-Fil-A, or their preferred political party, DeMuth encourages the reader to make it all about Jesus:

"The gospel…shouldn’t merely be the crutch we fall on when life gets ugly. It should be the legs we walk on, the air we breathe." 

I recommend Mary DeMuth's "Everything" for all Christians, and I intend to check out her previous work.