Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Questions & Proverbs

I planned for my next post to be my best/worst of the year wrap-up, but two of my most recent reads were so good that I want to post at least a short review for each of them:

Title: Confronting Christianity:
12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 226 (plus indices etc.)
Genre: Theology
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I hadn’t heard of Rebecca McLaughlin before reading this (her first book), but I’ll definitely be snatching up anything she writes in the future! She addresses common questions/accusations leveled against Christianity (and sometimes organized religion in general) with an erudite blend of statistical data and theological explanations. Topics include diversity, religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Her tone and honesty are refreshing amidst the polarizing, demonizing rants that too often pass for apologetics. She does not shy away from admitting when/where Christians in general have failed to live up to their professed beliefs. Yet, her defense of the truth and value of Christian orthodoxy is firm without being condescending.

I highly recommend this book for non-Christians as a thoughtful counterpoint to “new atheists” (and other common objectors/objections), and to Christians as a help in better understanding your faith and humbly defending it without vitriol and straw-man arguments.

Title: The Proverbs of Middle Earth
Author: David Rowe
Genre: Literary Analysis (Worldbuilding)
Pages: 193 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

David Rowe explores the cultures and people of Middle Earth through their wise sayings. If you aren’t a big Tolkien/LOTR geek, this book probably isn’t for you, but for those of us obsessed with Middle earth it’s fantastic!

Rowe picks out dozens of instances of proverbial wisdom woven into the speech of Tolkien’s characters and shows what they reveal about the speakers and their culture. As with any literary analysis there is some speculation involved. Occasionally it is debatable whether what he picks out are genuine proverbs or just high-sounding wise speech, and a few of this inferences may be a bit of a stretch. However, he makes many astute observations and points out a number of connections that enrich the story.

For me, the fact that you can analyze Tolkien’s world to this extent shows what an amazing “sub-creator” he was. Highly recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of Middle Earth.

Theology Mini-Reviews

It’s time to catch up a little bit on some theological books that have been hanging out on my mental “I really need to review this” list. To that end, here are five mini-reviews (in the order I read them):

Title: Gay Girl, Good God:
The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been
Author: Jackie Hill Perry
Genre: Autobiography / Theology (sexuality)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is probably the most controversial title on this list because it assumes the premise that Scripture passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 should be taken seriously when they say that a homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with biblical morality. This is Jackie Hill Perry’s account of her spiritual experience of “being made new.” She honestly recounts her hurts, struggles, and triumphs as God works in her life, drawing her to himself and helping her deal with issues related to pride, anger, sexuality, etc. Interwoven with her personal story are wise observations about showing love and acceptance, helping new believers, dealing with sin in your life, and much more. My only (minor) complaint was that some threads of her personal story felt like they were left dangling (in an “I forgot to round this off” way rather than a “this is still an ongoing part of my life” way).

How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by [Carson, D. A.]Title: How Long, O Lord?:
Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Genre: Theology (Theodicy)
Pages: 233 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

I think that the most difficult challenge to Christian theism is the problem(s) of evil: basically, “If God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” This isn’t the most rigorous treatment of the topic that I have read (that would be The Many Faces of Evil by John S. Feinberg), but it is certainly the most readable and useful. This isn’t intended as counseling tool for the person in crisis, but as an aid to thinking through and building a basic biblical understanding of evil, suffering, and related issues beforehand for when life does bring grief and pain. I highly recommend this book!

Title: Does God Desire All to Be Saved?
Author: John Piper
Genre: Theology (Predestination)
Pages: 56
Rating: 4 of 5

Another difficult issue in Christian theology is the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. One sub-category to that is the question that goes something like “Some passages say God desires all to be saved, but others make it clear that not everyone is…so if God is sovereign meaning that all things happen according to his will what’s going on here?” If you’re curious about the topic, this little booklet is well worth reading for the Reformed perspective on the issue. It isn’t as rigorously argued as it could be in a full-length book, but it’s a basic starting point.

Title: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys:
A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way
Author: Richard Twiss
Genre: Theology (Syncretism, Culture) / Anthropology / History
Pages: 261
Rating: 2 of 5

The history of American treatment of native Americans is shameful, and that often includes the history of missionary work. Many (most?) missionaries identified the Gospel of Jesus Christ so thoroughly with American/Western culture that they deemed virtually all elements of native American culture evil simply by virtue of not being Western (e.g. drums as primary instrumentation). Richard Twiss sought to find ways for native Americans to be followers of Jesus Christ in their culture. I love the premise of the book, but it spoke in such generalities (and with so much angry defensiveness and so many academic buzzwords) that I did not find it very helpful.

Title: Buried Dreams, Planted Hope:
Finding Hope in Life’s Darkest Moments
Authors: Katie Neufeld & Kevin Neufeld
Genre: Autobiography / Theology (Grief, Hope)
Pages: 293
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a brutally honest account of loss, grief, and hope. Katie Neufeld’s fiance was killed in a car accident shortly before their wedding. She wrote this book with her father as a record of living with this tragedy and in the hope of helping others who find themselves or loved ones facing similar heartbreaking loss. I appreciate the vulnerable honesty of this book, but to be honest, it could have used an editor. I’m pretty sure it’s self-pub and it shows in the odd formatting/organization and repetitiveness.

“Come let us reason together…”

Title: Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views
Authors: Owen Strachan, Mark A. Yarhouse, Julia Sandusky, Megan K. DeFranza, Justin Sabia-Tanis
Genre: Theology/philosophy/science
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors, editors, and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of the review)

I appreciate multi-view Christian theology books like this one. They provide insight into controversial topics in a way that largely prevents straw man argumentation or ad hominem. Each author (or team of authors) gives their view on the topic at hand, and each of the others authors is allowed to write a short rebuttal/response. By the end you have a good idea of major points of agreement and disagreement across the Christian spectrum.

The four views in this book aren’t given “official” names, but they range from Strachan’s conservative Christian view that transition to a gender different from biological sex is immoral to the view of Sabia-Tanis a trans man who celebrates transgender identities as an expression of God’s creativity and diversity. The two mediating positions are really more like four mediating positions as Yarhouse & DeFranza’s chapter offers three different approaches to the issue (and doesn’t really take a stand on any of them).

Strachan’s chapter deals most extensively with potentially relevant biblical passages (but seems very short on nuance or rubber-meets-the-road application), while the others spend more of their page count with scientific & psychiatric theories, pragmatic descriptions of what seems to best help a gender-dysphoric person’s well-being, and/or appeals to emotion. DeFranza and Sabia-Tanis rest their Bible-based arguments almost entirely on passages dealing with eunuchs while brushing aside other passages as irrelevant and/or misinterpreted.

If you are a Christian, you may or may not find a view here that exactly matches up with your own, but you will at least gain an understanding of the specific issues, questions, and lines of reasoning involved. This is a solid multi-view theology book.

Shepherds Who Feed Only Themselves

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel:
How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi Hinn
Genre: Theology / Autobiography
Pages: 224
Rating: 5 of 5

Many of the world’s most popular Christian preachers proclaim a message of unending, guaranteed health, wealth, and prosperity for those who exercise the right kind of faith. Jesus must have misspoken when he told his followers they would experience mistreatment, conflict, troubles, and weakness/sickness, because these men and women can tell you how to have it all right now (in Jesus’ name, of course). You know it’s true because just look at how rich they are! If it doesn’t work for you, you obviously don’t have enough faith, and maybe throwing some money their way would be a demonstration of your faith that would really catch God’s attention.

In this book, Costi Hinn (nephew of faith healer Benny Hinn) confronts this twisted, self-serving teaching. For the first 60% of the book he recounts his own story of growing up in luxury (funded by the offerings of people desperate for healing or prosperity), slowly coming to the realization of the abusive, deceptive nature of this false gospel, and rejecting it. The remainder of the book examines the nature, history, and impact of the prosperity gospel. He emphasizes its distortion of Scripture and the true Gospel (e.g. Romans 5:8-10, Romans 3:23-25, Ephesians 2:4-10). Given his family ties, the teachings and actions he refers to most directly are Benny Hinn’s, but he touches on beliefs shared by Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, Joyce Meyer, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (a church I was acquainted with where I grew up in Brazil), and many others.

Costi’s overall tone is as gracious as you can possibly be while warning that someone else’s belief system is dangerous and completely in the wrong. The abuse of Scripture and exploitation of people carried out by the prosperity gospel makes my blood boil, so I am impressed with his self-control and ability to “speak the truth in love.” The most scathing criticism in the book comes when he quotes from Scripture. These are the words of Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, writing about exploitive teachers:

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea,foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. – Jude 12-13 (NIV)

Please, don’t be led astray by these people or write off Jesus Christ because of wolves in sheep’s clothing who exploit his name for personal gain. I highly recommend this book as a very readable warning against a pervasive false teaching and a record of God’s grace to a young man who was caught up in it. (And if you want a shorter, blunter explanation of the problems with the prosperity gospel and examples of those who teach it check out Fal$e Teacher$ by hip-hop/rap artist Shai Linne).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.

Book Haul from TGC19

This year I was doing fairly well at reading books that I already owned and not buying too many new books (though we won’t speak of $3/bag day at the library book sale), and I had just gotten my TBR under 60 books. Then I spent the last three days at the The Gospel Coalition conference. It’s an excellent conference that I would highly recommend if you want solid biblical challenges to live your faith and not just frothy “you can do it!” prosperity gospel.

But bibliophiles beware: all the best Christian publishing houses are there with 2,500+ heavily discounted books, and we’re not talking “bonnet ripper” barely historical romance tripe (I don’t think there was any Christian fiction outside of the children’s tables). I had more or less controlled myself and bought only 7 or 8…and then I got 4 or 5 freebies…and then a friend/enabler told me to go pick out another $75 worth on him…and, long story short, I ended up with 20 new books.

Ten on social issues / applied theology:

Social

…and 10 that are more straight up systematic theology, philosophy, or biblical studies:

Systematic

Have you read any of these? Where would you start?

Neo-Orthodoxy

Title: The Essential Karl Barth:
A Reader and Commentary
Author: Karl Barth & Keith L. Johnson
Genre: Neo-Orthodox Theology
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 of 5 (with serious reservations)
Future Release Date: 4/2/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’m not quite sure how to rate this book. As a detailed introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, it is superb. However, I find parts of Karl Barth’s theology itself problematic (e.g. the Bible becomes a means of God personally revealing himself to us but is not itself revelation, the vague answers on the origin/nature of evil and possibility of universalism, taking as a starting point God as “wholly other” who cannot be known through any “creaturely” means, etc.). I have neither the desire nor skill to engage in a detailed critique of Barth’s theology, but suffice it to say that an overall positive rating on this book is by no means an endorsement of his theology.

That said, I think that you can learn more about someone’s views on life, the universe, and everything by reading their writings rather than by reading someone else’s criticism of their writings. The format of this book allows you to dip into significant excerpts from Barth’s massive body of writings and see how his theology grew and changed over time (as well as how it led him to interact with German politics up to and during World War II). Copious endnotes provide a running commentary on the text. I would strongly recommend the electronic version of this over the print version as it is much more convenient for toggling back and forth between text and explanatory notes.

In summary: if you are interested in Karl Barth and his “Neo-Orthodox” theology this works beautifully as an introduction. I would also recommend reading critical responses to his theology, but start with the man himself if you want to know what he actually believed and taught.

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.