The Sermon on the TV

Time for a rare non-book review post. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own creative writing, but that’s what you’re getting today. This is my first ever attempt at satire and comes from a sermon series I started a few weeks ago on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). There seems to be a vast gulf between what Jesus identifies as the values of his Kingdom and the shape that Christianity has taken for many American Evangelicals. From the way some of us behave you would think that this is what Matthew 5:1-12 says:

Now when Pete Johnson got home from work sat down in his recliner, turned on his TV, and the televangelist began to teach him. He said:

Blessed are those who believe in themselves,
     for they shall accomplish great things.

Blessed are those who never express sorrow,
     for they are more well-adjusted and spiritually mature.

Blessed are the brash and arrogant,
     for they shall not be mistaken for sissies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for possessions, wealth, and ease,
    for they shall live their best life now.

Blessed are the cynical,
     for they shall not be taken advantage of.

Blessed are those who are good at following a list of rules,
     for they are clearly righteous.

Blessed are the angry and argumentative,
     for their passion draws many to righteousness.

Blessed are those who always experience religious freedom,
     for that shows how great this country is.

How shocking for you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your faith. Complain and be outraged because how dare they?! For this is America, and that shouldn’t happen here.

Here’s what Matthew 5:1-12 actually says

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit [those thrust upon divine resources],
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek [i.e. humble, gentle],
     for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [includes the idea of justice],
     for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful [i.e. unconditionally compassionate],
     for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Let’s not let cultural, political, or nationalistic preferences/tendencies control our worldview and actions more than the priorities of the Kingdom of Heaven! And if by any chance you’re interested in hearing my sermon series it can be found here. It starts on the sermon called Citizens of the Kingdom from June 3It’s posted on a week delay and the website is pretty out of date (one of my upcoming projects), but there you go.

Espionage & the Afterlife

Title: Summerland
Author: Hannu Rajaniemi
Genre: Espionage Thriller / Alternate History / Supernatural Fiction
Pages: 304
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/26/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

The overall plot of this book follows a mole hunt on the order of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, in this alternate 1938 death is merely a transition into a different dimension (or something) that still interacts with the world of the living. “The Great Game” continues on both sides of death as the British and Russian Empires vie for supremacy with the Spanish Civil War as their chessboard.

I won’t go into much detail about how Summerland (where dead Brits go) and the Presence (the Soviet collective afterlife) work because gradually discovering how this world operates and what kind of effect the meaninglessness of death has on society is half the fun. The actual spy storyline is well-plotted, incorporating historical characters and events and heading in an unexpected direction by the end.

Unfortunately, there were a few issues with the writing style that detracted from my enjoyment of the book: weak characterization that made it hard to tell characters apart, stilted dialogue due to no one using contractions, and too much time spent on our protagonist’s relationship woes. Some of that may be my own personal preference or exhausting schedule lately, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds interesting. The author has created a fascinating world, and I would love to read another book set there.

Brutality & Redemption

Title: A Tale of Two Cities
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 466
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I enjoy Charles Dickens. I don’t (usually) mind his wordy style, ridiculous names, amazingly convenient coincidences, or overblown page counts because he creates such wonderful, memorable characters and situations. That said, it took me several tries over quite a few years before I managed to slog through the first chapter or two of this book. Once the book gets going, it becomes clear that its status as one of Dickens’ most celebrated novels is richly deserved.

To me, much of the book’s impact was in the setting and events more than in individual characters, as is more usual with Dickens. I’m not sure how the people of France view the French Revolution, but this book crystallizes the horrified British view of the bloody affair. Dickens vividly portrays both the cavalier abuse of the poor by the Ancien Regime and the almost bestial vengeance of the mob once the tables were turned.

As always, Dickens’ cast of characters contain a wonderful mixture of the pathetic, the loving/virtuous, the ridiculous, and the loathsome. The two most prominent women were the best of characters and the worst of characters (come on…you know I had to make at least one comment like that). Lucie Manette is virtuous, loving, and completely flat: very much the ideal Victorian “angel in the house”…blech. Madame DeFarge, on the other hand, is truly terrifying as she embodies the bloodthirsty implacability of the Revolution. She may have been the most interesting/memorable character in the book until she was beautifully upstaged at the end by true love and redemption (“It is a far, far better thing that I do…”).

Overall, Dickens’ lone foray into historical fiction deserves its reputation. As long as you don’t completely hate Dickens’ style, you should read it. Don’t let the first chapter or two stop you.

Crime & Detection Mini Reviews

My life is still pretty chaotic so nothing long and detailed today, but here are some mini reviews of several crime and/or investigator stories I have read recently.

Related imageTitle: Kill the Boss Good-by
Author: Peter Rabe
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 124
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Tom Fell, A small-time crime boss, checks himself out of a mental institution (against doctor’s orders) and tries to re-assume leadership of his bookmaking/gambling racket. With Tom’s mental stability in question, a power struggle ensues. Plotwise it’s a fairly typical mob story with the added dimension of the protagonist becoming increasingly manic throughout. That dimension gave it some added interest but didn’t pull it up into the category of the great crime writers like Hammett or Cain.

Title: Standard Hollywood Depravity:
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1.5)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi Noir
Pages: 144
Rating: 4 of 5

This novella of earth’s last robot, originally a programmed as a private eye but now a hit man in alternate 1960’s LA, fits nicely between the first two books (reviews here and here). In this one, Ray’s violent, morally ambiguous hit man side is more on display than  previously. This made him a bit less sympathetic but no less interesting and entertaining. My copy also contained the very first Ray Electromatic short story Brisk Money, but it wasn’t very interesting if you’ve read the other three books since most of it has been recapped at some point.

Title: A Tale of Two Castles
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Children’s Fairy Tale
Pages: 352 [Audio – 8:27]
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Gail Carson Levine is one of those children’s authors whose works are worth reading as an adult. Her plots are either clever reworkings of classic fairy tales or highly original worlds that are all her own. In this book, a girl trying to apprentice herself to a mansioner (actor) instead finds herself assisting a dragon in investigative work, largely related to the noble, much despised, ogre who owns one of the two castles in Two Castles.  The dragon and the ogre are both outsiders with their own quirks and lore. I found the dragon particularly entertaining IT (that is how you must refer to dragons since they do not reveal their gender) is a commoner who makes most of ITs money toasting bread and cheese skewers in the market. IT is a bit capricious and vain but ultimately a good masteress (master + mistress). I listened to the audiobook narrated by Sarah Coomes and her voices (especially the dragon’s self-satisfied laugh) added to the enjoyment of the book.

Sobering History

Title: Darkness over Germany:
A Warning from History
Author: E. Amy Buller
Genre: History
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the years leading up to World War II, E. Amy Buller spent a lot of effort fostering dialogue between English educators and Germans. Obviously, war was not averted, but in this book (published in 1943 while WWII was still raging) she recollects many of the conversations she had with German friends and acquaintances. Most of the conversations involve Germans who dislike Nazism to some degree, ranging from unease to outright hatred. This seems to be an attempt to help understand and humanize the enemy to some degree, looking forward to the day when the war is over and people will have to coexist again…perhaps hoping that this will not end in another bitterness-inducing Treaty of Versailles.

Additionally, these conversations provide a sober warning of how difficult it can be to resist once a brutish totalitarian regime has consolidated power. Many of them feature regret that people waited too long to stand up to the Nazis coupled with fear, bewilderment, and/or resignation regarding the seeming futility of making any kind of stand now. For example:

“Of course, our real guilt lies in our slowness and in letting these gangsters get the whole country in their grip sufficiently to paralyze all collective opposition. So many people were so relieved to see any kind of order emerge out of the uncertainty and chaos that they said ‘Certain  things the Nazis are doing are good,’ and left it at that, without inquiring on what this new order was based or what was the spirit of the movement that was sweeping the land.” (p. 20)

Throughout the book Hitler and his cronies are characterized as upstart “gangsters” whose ham-handed foreign policy can lead only to war. For instance:

“It is also, I gather, true that Hitler is completely ill at ease with the more cultured and conventional diplomats, and looks upon them as quite unsuitable agents for putting over his policy with vigour and determination. The groveling insincerity of von Ribbentrop with his horde of keen and fanatical young men, together with the high tension atmosphere of No. 63 [the Nazi Foreign Office], gave Hitler the kind of setting and support he felt he needed.” (p. 69)

and

“And finally there was the von Ribbentrop and Hewel type who had never held power, men who had very little integrity to suppress and who loved the power that was so new to them. They  cheated, bullied and would even murder, I suspect, to gain their ends. All the tricks of the dishonest commercial traveler were in use among this crowd.” (p. 93)

Quite a bit of space is also devoted to exploring how Nazism became widely accepted because it had a religious appeal to those who had drifted from traditional spirituality (especially Christianity).

“The whole world today is full of false gods, and it is not surprising that in Germany they have chosen particularly brutal and violent gods. That makes it easier to see what is happening but there are also other false gods being followed in America and England.'” (p. 157)

The recently written introduction to the book is unnecessary (any relevant information on Buller is presented again and better in the afterward) and goes a bit “Godwin’s Law.” I would strongly recommend skipping it and deciding for yourself what kinds of warnings the sobering history contained in this book has for our own time.

Music, Madness, & Mephistopheles

Image result for Doctor Faustus book cover Knopf

Title: Doctor Faustus:
The Life of German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend
Author: Thomas Mann
Translator: H. T. Lowe-Porter
Genre: Classic
Pages: 510
Rating: 3 of 5

Despite the review title, don’t expect Mephistopheles to show up much in this modern retelling of the Faust legend. The suave devil (who never actually gives a name) doesn’t put in an appearance until about halfway through the book, if he’s real at all. Mann leaves it up to the reader whether the devil is actually there or is a product of syphilitic madness …or whether it even matters one way or the other.

To Mann, the important thing seems to be exploring a variety of philosophical themes. Most central to the plot is the connection between artistic genius and suffering, especially in the form of madness & alienation. Other themes includes the character and history of the German people (especially as it relates to losing both World Wars), avant garde art, apocalyptic imagery, and highly detailed music theory.

As the subtitle indicates, the novel is presented as a biography of the tragic life of (fictional) composer Adrian Leverkuhn. The narrator sounds agitated, apologizing for his poor organization, jumping around in the story, and digressing into his own personal life (he, like the author, is a German living through World War II). I found the style believable but somewhat irritating. Leverkuhn himself is presented as a sociopathic genius whose musical masterpieces are only fully appreciated by the few truly cultured people. As in any Faust story, in the end, there’s a price to be paid when you make a deal with the devil (or contract syphilis).

Overall, there were a lot of interesting ideas in this book, but after 500+ pages it felt overblown and pretentious.

Additionally: I’ll be using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Soft Determinism Defended

Title: Excusing Sinners and Blaming God:
A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil
Author: Guillaume Bignon
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 254
Rating: 4 of 5

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”  – Romans 9:19

Few topics in theology generate as much controversy as how to reconcile divine sovereignty (God’s ultimate control of all things) and human moral responsibility. Rather than trying to limit or explain away divine sovereignty (as in Arminianism or Open Theism), Calvinism views soft determinism as compatible with moral responsibility. Soft determinism or compatibilist free will is the idea that the human will is free in that a person will choose to do what they most desire, but bound in that a person’s desires are caused by factor(s) beyond their control (ultimately by the decretal will of God in a Christian worldview).

This book offers a rigorous logical defense of determinism’s compatibility with moral responsibility and with God’s holiness. This is a highly academic book in which the author makes heavy use of formal logic. I took formal logic back in high school, but that was 20+ years ago, so there were a few places where he pretty much lost me when he started using symbolic expressions. Overall, I think that the author demonstrates his system to be internally consistent and points out some possible logical problems with alternate systems. Enter at your own risk, but if this topic interests you, this is well worth reading. For a more popular level overview of the topic, I highly recommend What About Free Will by Scott Christensen; you can find my review of it here.

Even Better as an Audiobook

Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Mythology
Pages: 293
Rating: 5 of 5!

Last year this was one of my favorite books of the year. I’m not going to repeat my praise since you can find the original review here, but I want to highly recommend the audiobook version (as read by Neil Gaiman himself). Some people find the style of this book disappointing since it very much copies the simplistic Norse style found in the Prose Edda. What may come off a bit childish in print for those unused to the style works brilliantly in the audiobook! These stories were originally passed along orally from generation to generation and listening to a master storyteller like Gaiman spin them anew gives a feeling of being part of that grand tradition. We listened to this in the car on the way back from our (successful) house hunting trip in Michigan, and everyone in the family loved it (beware a few crass bits and discreet references to seduction/lovemaking if listening with young children).

Ode to Our Future Overlords

Title: Robots vs. Fairies
Editors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Genre: Sci-fi & Fantasy Short Story Anthology
Pages: 373
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The introduction to this collection assumes that we will eventually be ruled by either robots or fairies and includes ample flattery of both sides. After all, we wouldn’t want to anger our future overlords. Each story features robots, fairies, or both (and a couple with robotic fairies). After each story the author takes a page to tell why they are “team robot” or “team fairy.”

As with any short story collection, the tone and quality varied quite a bit between stories. There was only one that I actively disliked (“Ironheart” by Jonathan Maberry was just whiny and depressing). Some of the cleverest ones riffed on classic fairy tales (e.g. PinnochioThe Tempest, A Midsummers Night’s Dream), but my favorite was the hilarious “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” by John Scalzi. Only one story featured an actual robots vs. fairies conflict, which I found surprising given the title, but the variety that was present made this a highly entertaining collection that was greater than the sum of its parts.

In unrelated personal news, the move up to Michigan is moving steadily along…just put in an offer on the house (5 minutes from the beach!) and should have a definite move date by Tuesday.

A Quick Personal Update

It’s time for a rare “what’s going on in my life” update. You may remember that for the last few months I’ve been looking for a new job. After a lengthy candidate process, last Monday I was officially called to be pastor of a church in Port Huron, Michigan! This means moving back to the state that I consider to be home here in the US (my other home is the Distrito Federal in Brazil) and we’ll be only an hour and a half away from my parents, grandmother, and one of my brothers (we’re currently 500+ miles away and have never lived closer than that)…so we’re pretty excited! There is no set moving date since we still have to find a place to rent in Port Huron, so between trying to find a house in a city 8.5 hours away and getting everything packed (the one time I regret owning so many books) things will be pretty crazy around here for a while. I’m going to try to keep posting here once or twice a week, but it may be even more sporadic than usual until the chaos dies down.