A Guided Tour of Atheism

Title: Seven Types of Atheism
Author: John Gray
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley – this in no way affects the content of this review)

I believe that it is important to understand where other people are coming from in terms of differing culture, beliefs, and worldview. It can help foster respectful dialogue rather than talking past each other or yelling at each other. To that end, I picked up this overview on atheism.

Just as no major religion is monolithic in its belief and practice, those who espouse atheism have a wide variety of arguments, beliefs, ethics, worldviews, etc. John Gray gives a guided tour of seven kinds of atheism, describing major proponents and beliefs of each category and pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. He strongly criticizes most versions, mostly alleging inconsistency via partial dependence on a monotheistic or even Christian worldview. He speaks favorably only of what he calls “Atheism without progress” (George Santayana & Joseph Conrad) and “The Atheism of Silence” (Arthur Schopenhauer & Benedict Spinoza).

Obviously, the seven categories are Gray’s own generalizations, but they were helpful in getting an overview of a huge topic. As far as persuasiveness, some of Gray’s argumentation is pretty shoddy. For example, he summarily dismisses certain topics touched on by some atheists philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche & Rand) as “silly” without any further explanation, and his main argument against Christianity is little more than “there are much more likely explanations of who Jesus was than the one offered by Christianity.” Overall, this was a helpful overview, and that is what the author stated as his primary goal, so I guess he was successful in spite of occasionally lackluster arguments.

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).

Kafkaesque Police Procedural

Image result for the city and the cityTitle: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Surreal Police Procedural
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In the Surreal world of The City & The City, two antagonistic city states locked in a Cold War-like relationship share the same geographic location. The citizens of each city employ doublethink worthy of Orwell’s 1984 to unsee, unhear, etc. anything that is not in their city. Violations are an unthinkable crime and are summarily dealt with by the shadowy agents of Breech.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation with “international” complications. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the more run-down, Eastern-European-flavored city of Beszel must cooperate with Detective Qussim Dhatt of the more prosperous Middle-East-flavored Ul Qoma. The murder mystery plot wraps up in a satisfactory manner after plenty of twists, turns, and conspiracy theories. Along the way we learn quite a bit about how the politics and culture of the two cities and Breech operate. However, we never really receive solid answers as to why the cities exist as they do and why Breech does what they do.

The lack of solid “why are things like this?” answers didn’t really bother me since that was not the main plot. If the author wants to leave his setting unexplained, I’m okay with that…especially in a book this surreal. What did detract from my personal enjoyment of the book (knocking it down from a 4.5 to 3.5) was the pervasive profanity. Call me a prude, but I’m not a fan of F-bomb-strewn dialogue. Overall: if you’re a fan of fantastic world-building and don’t mind profanity or non-answers to some questions, this might be a good book for you.

Shelfies!

Just over two weeks ago we closed on our new house and moved all of our stuff in. Unpacking is going slowly, and much of the house still looks like the aftermath of some sort of disaster…but most of our books are unpacked and arranged on the shelves, so things are looking up! In celebration, here are some shelfies (please ignore any bits of disaster area that you can see around the edges):

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 3. It’s posted on a week delay, and the website is pretty out of date (one of my upcoming projects), but there you go.

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.

The Love of Money…

Title: Redeeming Money:
How God Reveals and Reorients Our Hearts
Author: Paul David Tripp
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 5/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

How you handle your money says a lot about your heart. Paul Tripp explores what Scripture has to say about money and how it fits into a “Gospel Worldview” that centers on God and his glory. His style is blunt without being rude or arrogant, and he provides much needed perspective in our materialistic society. I would have appreciated a little more discussion of situations where circumstances beyond a person’s control (e.g. medical debt) put them in financial difficulties, but overall it was excellent.

What this book does not do is offer practical solutions if you have gotten yourself into a “money mess.”  This is more of a big-picture book, all about heart attitude, motivation, etc.. I would love to see the author write a follow-up with “now that you have a godly perspective, let’s fix this.”

Resurrection Roundelay

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. – Acts 2:24

Bound I was to sin enthralling,
Death eternal in wait lying.
I am saved from wrath appalling;
Jesus’ death my freedom buying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ victorious! Death is dying!

I am saved from wrath appalling;
Jesus’ death my freedom buying.
Enemies, his body mauling,
Left him in a cold tomb lying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ victorious! Death is dying!

Enemies, his body mauling,
Left him in a cold tomb lying.
Vain Death’s bars and Death’s inwalling;
God the Son their pow’r defying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ Victorious! Death is dying!

Vain Death’s bars and Death’s inwalling;
God the Son their pow’r defying.
Listen to the Savior calling:
Grace, eternal life supplying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ Victorious! Death is dying!
(by Joel E. Mitchell)

…and bonus links to The Victor and He Holds the Keys as sung by Steve Green.

Yom HaShoah

On Holocaust Remembrance day I am struck by this well-known quote by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It reminds me of this challenging passage:

If you falter in a time of trouble,
    how small is your strength!
Rescue those being led away to death;
    hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
    does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
    Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?
– Proverbs 24:10-12

These should be sobering reminder as we are living in a day where the tendency is to demonize those with whom we disagree…an attitude that blots out compassion for anyone who isn’t just like us.

Back to the Classics Challenge Entry

Thanks to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for running this challenge again! Last year it was a great motivator to read more classics (including some that I had been putting off), so I’ll be entering again this year. Here is my (very tentative) list of what I will be reading for each category:

  • A 19th century classic – Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome
  • A 20th century classic – Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
  • A classic by a woman author – Silas Marner by George Eliot
  • A classic in translation – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • A children’s classic – The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • A classic crime story – The Grifters by Jim Thompson
  • A classic travel or journey narrative – The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • A classic with a single-word title – Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
  • A classic with a color in the title – Black No More by George S. Schuyler
  • A classic by an author that’s new to you – Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  • A classic that scares you – The Metamorphoses by Ovid (I read a really lousy translation once so I’m going to try again)
  • Re-read a favorite classic – The Poetic Edda  by Anonymous (Translated by Lee Hollander)