500 Words of Less Reviews: The Count of Monte Cristo (Book)

 

Sprawling, epic, multifaceted, ingenious. Those are just four great words that describe the 1462-page unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. This massive work was written by Alexandre Dumas. It was published in 18 installments in a popular French newspaper. Do you want to know what happens? Everything. Everything happens. The tale recounts the long story of the young, promising seaman Edmund Dantes. On the eve of his marriage to the beautiful Mercedes, three jealous rivals (technically four, but he is very drunk and doesn’t really know what’s going on) plot to get him thrown into prison for treason.

Halfway through this term, he is on the brink of madness and committing suicide when he meets the kindly, wise, industrious and extremely knowledgeable Abbe Faria. For the next few years, the abbe bequeaths to Dantes all of his substantial earthly knowledge and on his final deathbed the knowledge of a vast fortune hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. After the death of his friend, teacher, and mentor, Dantes escapes and indeed finds this mountain of treasure securely hidden on the island for many, many years.

Despite the wise words of the abbe that revenge will not bring him peace, Edmund (who now calls himself The Count of Monte Cristo) spends the next ten years concocting an incredibly complex plan of vengeance of the men involved in his wrongful imprisonment with almost 1200 pages worth of carrying out his end game.

The synopsis I have just given might be sufficient to describe the recent 2002 movie adaption of the book (it is to that popular adaptation I will be referring to when I mention the film version), but it is certainly not an adequate representation of the novel itself. The staggering complexity of the novel is something the movie did not even hint at. I love the movie, I really do, but it is barely an outline of the real deal. It is really only minorly inspired by the full story. The real story is infinitely more complex, rich, and, as mentioned, sprawling. When I say that everything is in this book I mean there is just that. And that is only a slight exaggeration. There is action, adventure, mystery, comedy, drama, romance, and at least a hundred subgenres in each of these genres. There are stories in stories and stories in stories in stories.

There are so many richly drawn characters and subplots here that for sizable chunks of the book the count isn’t even involved or is but a secondary character. One of the overarching of these characters: God. Not surprisingly, almost all talk of God is exempt from the theatrical rendition. As a result, I think the ending is very different and the conclusions of the count are very different from the cut and dried tale on film.

In conclusion, although the trip is long and sometimes tedious, it is a trip incredibly worth it. Here’s to them making the wise decision to make this into a two-week miniseries.

 

This is the cover of the edition I read.




Three Things I Love About Audiobooks (And Three I Don’t)

As a man who went from farm boy in Tookeydoo, SC to pastor in inner-city Chicago, I do not mind change. Not even in small things. Except when it comes to reading. I have never for one second read a book from a Kindle or any similar device and do not plan to. I just can’t do it. Not having a physical paper book in my hands is about as comfortable as trying to write with my left hand.

Until recently, I had felt similarly about audiobooks. I’ve listened patiently as friends like Josh Crowe have informed me that listening to works like the Harry Potter series is an amazing experience. I nod politely but think, “Nope. Never gonna do it.”

Yet one day this April I had an epiphany: a huge reason I hate driving in Chicago’s bumper to bumper traffic is that I feel like I’m wasting time. If I’m going 70 MPH at least I feel like I’m doing something. When I’m going 0 MPH, I go from calm to irrationally angry in about six seconds. Music helps a lot of people, but not me. No, I needed something else. And so I purchased an Audible account on Amazon, a website I adore about like I adore Chick-fil-a.

In the last three months or so, I have listened to about 16 audiobooks. I’ve listened to everything from a two-hour long self-help book in Spanish to a 27-hour Steve Jobs biography. And I’ve listened enough to start forming opinions about this medium. Here are are a few things I consider advantages to audiobooks over actually reading a book:


1. The Voices

The very first audiobook I listened to was As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, written and narrated by Carey Elwes. Elwes was already high up on my list of cool people, but his reading of this work was just enthralling.  His accent is exquisite. He did impressions of people like Andre the Giant that were sublime. I would guess he made the book twice as entertaining with his voice than it would have been had I read it. 

Later I listened to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The narrator’s voice was rustic and pitch-perfect, especially when he read the dialogue of the father and the son. The writing is already packed with emotion but the reader really brought it to life.

Another notable one was Gabriel Wyner reading his work, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. Not only was the material incredible and effective but Wyner, who is an opera singer, conveys an enthusiasm through the reading that can be felt in his timbre and inflections. He reads with joy and I can even see him gesturing in my mind’s eye several times in the book. Extremely well done.

 

2. The ability to “read” while walking and driving

I started this to have something to make me feel productive while driving, as I said above. But then I realized that I spend nearly an hour a day walking to and from work. And while I often use that time to listen to Polish, I could also use it to listen to books. Before 2017 I was about a 15-20 book a year guy. Last year I read 50 without a conscious effort to up the normal count. This year I decided to read every free second I can get and I’ve read a lot more. And it was beginning to annoy me that I was losing precious time doing things where reading is impossible. Now that has been solved.

 

3. Zero shipping and storage issues

I love Amazon Prime in part because I can see a book I love and have it in my hands in two days. Now, with Audible, I don’t have to wait but a few seconds. Also, occasionally, with physical books, I will get the wrong book or my order will be lost or late. Not an issue with audiobooks. And then there’s the storage issue. I love bookshelves and having a reading room, but every time I’ve moved, the boxes of books have created extra work. And I don’t have infinite space in my house. Now I have a way to add to my library without taking space from my home.  Admittedly this is an advantage to a Kindle but this was never enough motivation in and of itself.


And here are three things I don’t love:

 

1. It’s easy to lose focus

If I’m driving and a car in front of me swerves then it will take me a few seconds to be able to refocus back to the book I’m listening to. Audible has a 30-second rewind feature, but it’s unwise to manipulate while driving. Also, even when I’m walking sometimes a loud motorcycle will go by and I will miss some of the book and I’m too lazy to rewind. Plus, in general, I just have an easier time getting distracted and letting my mind wander when listening than when reading. Admittedly, this is a character flaw more than a book flaw. Audiobook from Amazon has thought of very easy ways to combat a lot of this.

 

2. I lose my place sometimes

This is a problem more with my phone than with the medium, but it happens sometimes that if my phone gets bumped then the place will skip and I won’t be able to remember exactly where I was. And it takes a while to figure it out. That is frustrating but does not happen very often.

 

3. Selection is limited

The selection is not terrible, but I can find just about anything on Amazon books. On Audible, this is not the case. That’s just the nature of it. Not every book has been recorded to hear or will be recorded. But to be honest, Audible is a supplement to my regular reading, not the main source. So this is a minor complaint as well.


One final thought on price…I didn’t include this as a positive or a negative because it depends. I have found books on Audible for $5.95 often but I also can’t find books I want for under $25 sometimes. Audible does run sales though where you can get 3 “credits” for $35 and then buy any three books you want (one a month for three months), which is often cheaper than the physical copy of books. So Amazon is still finding ways to eliminate potential complaints.

Overall I am quite pleased with Audible and I plan to use it until I die. Some may think audiobooks don’t count as real reading and that is fine. But my soul needs them to keep myself sane at times.

Questions or comments? Please tell us below.

 




Five Great books from Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark is a Sociologist from Baylor University. He has mostly applied his craft to understanding religious history in over 30 books and countless articles. Very few authors have such a direct impact on my academic life as him. While great theological minds remain among my favorite authors, Stark has had a profound impact on the way I understand the world. Since I am in the business of communicating an understanding of the world (I’m a history teacher) Stark’s influence is incalculable. For today’s Friday Five, I offer a mini-review of 5 of his books.


Churching of America with Roger Fink (1992)

I came across this book in graduate school by recommendation of one of my best professors. As an AP US History teacher, I make frequent use of this book. The authors’ argument attacks the idea that the United States was a universally Christian nation at its founding. Their major source for studying religious devotion is church attendance. What they find is that while Americans may have been largely culturally Christian in 1776, they were not zealous church-goers. In fact, a greater percentage of Americans go to church today than in 1776.

It’s no surprise then that evangelists of the early 19th century felt the need for religious revival. It was these revivals, the Second Great Awakening, that made America a “Christian” nation in the way we tend to think of it. As conversions sored, so did church attendance. Every year, I get to teach the Second Great Awakening and using Finke’s and Stark’s research, I make the argument that it was the most important social or cultural event in American history.

Aside from the immense impact of the Second Great Awakening, another fascinating argument is that of religious competition. Finke and Stark assert that religious freedom in the colonies and early republic led to a sort of “Free Market” of denominations and religious groups. Each was in competition with the others and had to work for converts. As compared to established state churches in Europe, American denominations had to work to attract new members or die. This factor explains why the United States had not experienced the massive decline in church attendance that Western Europe faced, even if in 1776 we were perhaps less Christian than Europe.


The Rise of Christianity (1996)

For Christians, this may be the most important book on the list. While there were some parts that Bible-believing Christians bristle at, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in church history. The question it addresses is: how did an obscure Jewish sect become the major religion of the Roman Empire in less than 300 years? His answers are exhilarating.

First, he argues that the mission to the Jews worked much more than readers of the Bible would think. Unfortunately, Stark too often presents this as a problem with what the New Testament says rather than what our perception of the situation is. The Bible never claims that all the Jews rejected Christianity so Starks arguments are not incompatible with Scripture. At this point, Stark makes his classic argument about religious conversion, one that has been the staple of his career for some time. Stark argues that religious conversions do not happen (mostly) because of a preacher or missionary. He argues that people convert to a religion because of the influence of their social networks. If an individual feels a deep connection (through kinship or employment or friendship) to a group of people that are largely one religion, they tend to convert. In other words, conversion is conformity. A more positive way to say this, including people in a community of believers, is the only real way to make converts.

Interestingly, Stark argues that the social networks used by first century Christians were the network of the diaspora Jews. He claims that the number of Gentile God-fearers was probably high and it was through these networks that Jews, half-Jews, and God-fearers became Christian.

Perhaps my favorite argument in the book is how Christian sexuality transformed the Empire. Romans were not interested in reproduction; they were interested in gratification. Newborns were often abandoned to die, especially if they were girls. This led to a situation where there were more men than women and where homosexual sex, heterosexual anal sex, and temple prostitution sex were the norms. In this context, Christian sexuality simply out-reproduced the pagans. Christian women married at an older age than pagan girls who often married before puberty. As a result, Christian women had less damaged reproductive systems and were more fertile. They also kept their babies instead of the common practices of abortion and infanticide. Christian men were encouraged to marry and have families rather than gratify themselves in other ways.

Christianity’s more positive treatment of women (along with the lack of murder of girls) led to female converts. This established a situation where Christian women outnumbered Christian men significantly. According to Stark, Christian women married pagan men regularly, but would often bring their pagan husbands into their Christian community. This often led to the conversion of the husband and even more so led to more children being born and raised into the Christian community.

There are several more compelling arguments in this book, arguments that have a significant practical impact on our understanding of the early church. In short, however, it was the willingness to include others in social networks, compassion for the poor, intellectual viability, and Christian marital sexuality that won over the Roman Empire and changed the world.


Victory of Reason (2005)

For those interested in medieval history, this is where to start. In this book, Stark goes into the Middle Ages to see the impact of Christianity in advancing the cultural and intellectual life of Western culture. The standard narrative that Stark attacks is the idea that the fall of Rome was the fall of cultural progress, learning, and any sort of modern progress. The medieval era that followed was an era hampered by religiosity and superstition. This era, called the Dark Ages, was eventually rescued by the secularism of the Renaissance.

Stark masterfully destroys this erroneous assumption about the past. Despite some obvious hardships during the medieval period, Starks argues that they are a time of increased moral, technological, intellectual, and economic progress. The Romans used slaves in abundance, the middle ages saw greater amounts of freedom and human dignity. While the Romans built great aqueducts for the wealthy with those slaves, the medieval times saw the invention of practical labor-saving devices like the windmill. Yes, the classical period produced great minds, but the scholastic emphasis on reason was the foremost prelude to the scientific method. Moreover, the decentralization of the government after the fall of the Roman Empire produces the Italian city-state and chartered towns. These freer societies are responsible for the development of market capitalism that allowed for common born people to climb out of crushing poverty for the first time in human history.

The idea that was most behind all these advances, which give birth to the modern world, is the Christian faith’s dedication to reason. Believing that a God of order and logic made the universe, the Christian societies of Western Europe were able to use reason to advance more than any society before them.


God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009)

I get the feeling that Stark so enjoyed researching the Medieval period and correcting misconceptions, that he felt the need to set the record straight on the crusades. This work relies much less on originally researched that most of his other works, but is still worth the read for anyone interested in history.

God’s Battalions is a fairly detailed history of the Crusades designed to defend Western Europe’s involvement in the Wars. Stark sees the Crusades as a counter-attack to centuries of Muslim aggression in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Aside from the centuries leading the Crusades, the specific violence toward Western pilgrims and Byzantines justify the need for the war. Not only was the reason for War justified, the warfare tactics of the Crusades (while often brutal) were typical of their time and no crueler than those tactics used by Turkish troops.

As someone who cares deeply about Muslims and Muslim-Christian relationships, I hesitate to recommend this book to just anyone. Stark does, however, seem to have a firm grip on the historiography of the Crusades and the way historical understanding has been impacted more by modern political climates than actual historical facts. If you are interested in the Crusades, it is worth the read.


A Star in the East with Xiuhua Wang (2015)

Stark brings his understanding of Sociology of Religion to a modern topic—the growth of Christianity in China. His research is aided significantly by one of his Chinese graduate students, Xiuha Wang. Its in China where more people are currently converting to the Christian faith than anywhere else in the world. How is this possible given traditional oppositions to the Christianity found in Confucianism and Buddhism as well as an officially atheist society imposed by the Communist State? The answers to the questions are multilayered, but ultimately Stark sees that what is going on in China in the 20th and 21st centuries is basically what was going on in the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

People are converting, Stark argues, in the way they always convert—connections to social networks. In other words, friendships and family ties are how people are coming to Christ. As people feel more connected to a group of Christians than they do to their previous social group, they are willing to convert to the Christian faith. The more people convert to Christianity, the more potential social networks there are to be connected to. The momentum is moving in the direction of the Christian faith.

One of Stark’s claims that I found intriguing concerned the impact of Christian missionaries of the 19th and 20th century. Stark asserts that those missionaries, like almost all missionaries, averaged about one or two real converts each. This does not mean they did not have a lasting impact. Institutions like Schools and hospitals were critical in continuing Christian witness long after the missionaries left. More importantly, one convert tended to make more converts than the missionary. As generations pass, thousands of Chinese come to a knowledge of Jesus because of the seemingly insignificant work of that missionary.

One final point about A Star in the East deals with the persecution of the Church in China. Since the Boxer Rebellion during the Qing dynasty, Christians have been objects of persecution in China. The modern state has tried to monitor Christianity in China by making some churches legal, while others have resisted. Stark’s analyses of these realities is that the persecution in China has led to a more conservative, Bible-following, church than was around in China in the mid-20th century. In the mid-20th century, Protestant (and Catholic) missionaries from the West dominated Chinese Christianity. Many of these westerners were significantly impacted by the popular theological liberalism of their day.  As Western influence was curtailed and Chinese Christians were forced to make the choice to conform or face persecution, the church in China became more devout and more faithful to the Scripture.

“A Star in the East” is a short book that is illuminating for anyone interested in the story of the world’s soon-to-be largest Christian nation.


As shown above, Stark is a revisionist. He seems to live for debunking accepted wisdom and providing fresh new understanding of historical or sociological questions. In doing so, he challenges our cultural’s post-enlightenment negative understanding of Christianity and advocates for the real world benefits of faith. Hopefully my efforts today will bring someone to read one of these great books. If you’ve read anything by Stark, tell us what you think in the comments below.




Five Literature Moments That Made Me Ugly Cry

For a year now on REO I have shared about how much I laugh and cry at fictional moments. Who doesn’t like to feel deeply? Today is the fifth in this series, moments in literature that brought the ugly tears. Links to the others in this series can be found at the end of the article. Links to the books on Amazon are embedded in their titles. And please note that MAJOR spoilers will be revealed, so if you have not read a particular work and plan to, please skip it.

On to the list!


1. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

The Moment: Tom is Found Guilty

A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge. 

I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty….guilty….guilty….guilty….” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them. 

Even knowing American history, I was foolish enough to believe that they may find Tom Robinson innocent. Atticus had argued so well. And I had seen “A Time To Kill” before I read this book, even though this movie came decades later. But I fooled myself. The moment was too much. It caused me to hate injustice real or fictional. Why don’t I hate it more?


2. The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

The Moment: The Father’s Last Words to His Son

“You said you wouldn’t ever leave me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here, you can still talk to me. You can talk to me. And I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.”

“Will I hear you?”

“Yes, you will. You have to make it like talk you imagine. And you’ll hear me.”

I listened to this on Audiobook and finished on a Sunday morning very early while walking to church. The tears actually started before this part and continued until the very end of the book. The ending is incredible as well, with the boy finding a new protector and his family. But there was something special about the dialogue between the father and son throughout this story. I don’t have kids, but I have an incredible father who would protect me until death. The dad here reminded me a little bit of mine in how simple of speech and blunt he was and in how he corrected his son.

Unlike three of the other books on this list, this one doesn’t have an abundance of characters and geography in an elaborate fantasy world. Just two main protagonists in a crucial life relationship whose plight and conversations will rip your heart into a million pieces if you’ll let them.


3. North! Or Be Eaten (Andrew Peterson, The Wingfeather Saga Book 2)

The Moment: Janner’s First Night in the Coffin

“When he awoke again, he found that the box was not an awful dream but a black reality. He panicked again. He lay panting in the blackness, talking to himself praying aloud to the Maker, accusing, pleading, screaming things that, while no one could blame poor Janner for saying them, will not be repeated here. 

And the Maker’s answer was hollow silence. 

Hours and hours passed. Janner wept again, a different weeping than before. These tears were not from fear but from weariness and a vast loneliness.” 

I have written honest words for REO a few times but I have never written about the darkest time in my life. Perhaps one day I will. Suffice it to say, I get what Janner went through above even though I was in a spiritual coffin and not a physical one. But our responses were the same. And so was God’s. It was impossible for me to read this and not lose it. It is like Peterson had access to my own personal journal when he wrote this scene.


4. The Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkien)

The Moment: Sam carries Frodo on Mount Doom

“Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. ‘I said I’d carry him if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’

“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go and he’ll go. 

I recall the moment I first read this like it were five minutes ago. I was on a plane to a youth retreat in Florida. And I tried to hold it in, not wanting complete strangers to see me openly weeping. But I lost that battle. Sam’s character was too much. What he did for Frodo the entire length of the series was heart-wrenching at every turn and at this moment the emotional dam burst and the tidal wave of tears overcame me. I could not read the rest of the chapter for a few minutes.

It’s funny to me how the books and the movies caused me to cry at completely different parts.


5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)

The Moment: Dobby Dies and Harry Buries Him

“‘DOBBY!’ 

The elf swayed slightly, stars reflected in his wide, shining eyes. Together, he and Harry looked down at the silver hilt of the knife protruding from the elf’s heaving chest.

‘No—no—HELP!’ Harry bellowed toward the cottage, toward the people moving there. ‘HELP!’ 

‘Dobby, no, don’t die, don’t die — ‘

The elves eyes found him, and his lips trembled with the effort to form words.

‘Harry…Potter…’

And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still and his eyes were nothing more than great glassy orbs, sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.” 

I remember being in my church’s auditorium a little while after my ESL class ended, reading this. I was standing up against a wall and I slowly and subconsciously started crouching to the ground in unbelief. But I kept reading, and Harry offered to bury him:

“‘I want to do it properly,’ were the first words of which Harry was conscious of speaking. ‘Not by magic. Have you got a spade?’

And shortly afterward he had set to work, alone, digging the grave in the place that Bill had shown him. He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorifying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of sweat felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.”

Floods of tears. I have never been impacted by a fictional moment like this one. It still wrecks my soul after about 10 readings of the books. I am weeping even as I type this. I’ll never get over Dobby, my favorite hero in the book, simply because of how humble he was. And although I didn’t catch this detail until about my third reading, it deserves to be mentioned:

“Harry wrapped the elf more snugly in his jacket. Ron sat on the edge of the grave and stripped off his shoes and socks, which he placed on the elf’s bare feet.”

Ron gave him his socks. To know Dobby is to know what a heart-shattering touch of genius this was by Rowling, to this already tear-stained scene. My heart feels empty and full at the same time.


As always, we’d love for our readers to share their moments below.

 

To read about Five Movie Moments That Made Me ROTFL go here.

To read about Five Movie Moments That Made Me Ugly Cry, go here.

To read about Five TV Moments That Made Me ROTFL, go here.

To read about Five TV Moments That Made Me Ugly Cry, go here.

 

 

 

 

 

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: To Kill a Mockingbird (Film)

In 1960, Harper Lee published her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. It has since become one of the most beloved books of millions of readers. The movie adaptation of the book bearing the same name was released just two years after its original publication. One might have thought that since the movie was released so quickly after the book’s first appearance it would be extremely good at best, but it is debatably the greatest movie adaptation of a book ever. (To be honest, there are several others that are very close contenders. Nevertheless, TKaM gets my vote.)

In the year it opened, To Kill a Mockingbird garnered eight nominations at the Oscar’s, winning three of those. But moviegoers recognized that it was more than merely one of the best movie of the year; both critics and audiences rightly saw it as one of the greatest movies of all time. It has maintained that status.

I don’t think anything made by mankind is ever perfect. Things that we do and make can always be perfected in some way. But I do admit that there are some things pretty close to perfection. This particular work of art directed by Robert Mulligan fits well in that category.

There is so much to appreciate here, from the mastery of the music, the directing, the writing, the cinematography, etc. Everything clicks, everything turns like a well-oiled movie machine, a projector, if you will. A good argument could be made that the acting is the film’s most outstanding feature. This is particularly true of its three main actors: Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch), Mary Badham (Scout Finch), and Phillip Alford (Jem Finch). This is Peck at his award-winning and iconic finest, which is actually no surprise. Peck is always so good at his profession that he could probably out-act most actors at acting while gagged, tied, and encased in a coffin—and still win an Oscar. No, the actual surprise here is the acting of Badham and Alford, neither of whom had been previously trained but who both did a superb job carrying most of the movie alone.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in a quaint little town and looks at the world from the young vantage points of Scout and Jem. The story is a coming of age one of sorts. Along their young journey they get their first real glimpse into the adult world filled with its selfish pride, racism, death, and hatred. In the midst of this stands the pillar that is their father, Atticus, a lone bulwark of wisdom and mercy and grace and love.

Along the journey, they will adventure with their best friend Dill Harris, and encounter unforgettable characters like Boo Radley (portrayed by Robert Duvall in his debut film appearance), Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, Mayella Ewell, Bob Ewell, and many other wonderful and colorful people.

Lastly, a final shout-out to legendary composer, Elmer Bernstein, for the film’s haunting, beautiful, utterly timeless soundtrack.




Reading Ever On – 2018, 1st Quarter

Here are the books we read the first three months of 2018 and what we thought of them…

 

Gowdy Cannon

Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards by Robert E. Picirilli

Book Review can be found here.



The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Some of this material is over my head but at times it is thought-provoking.



The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

White hot in certain plot points and pretty slow in others, I was more than stunned by how adult it was. Even though it advertises itself that way it was more extreme than I anticipated.



Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller

One of the shortest books I’ve read this year, it is a true sledgehammer to my soul and to my ego in how it challenges me to do more.



The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything by Stephen M. R. Covey

A crucial concept that will help me be a better pastor.



1984 by George Orwell

A classic I had not read in probably 20 years, this novel has messed with my head both times I read it.



Looking For God In Harry Potter by John Granger

I wish this book would have been written after the 7th Harry Potter book instead of the 5th.



Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever by Don Haskins

Fantastic autobiography that sports fans and civil rights students should read.



Holy Types: Gospel in Leviticus by Joseph Augustus Siess

The book is 150 years old but reads very modern. Leviticus deserves this excellent a treatment!



The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona

The book is good; the pages and pages of citation material in the back are incredible.




Ben Plunkett

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Since the 1897 publication of the War of the Worlds, there have been several movie adaptations of the story. Of these, I have seen the 1953 version and the 2005 Spielberg version. While I thoroughly enjoyed the 2005 film, it is quite a different story than the book. All of the basics of the setting are there, but the human stories are very different. In addition, the book is much more detailed and descriptive. It also has a more complex format with there being two parts to the entire story, with the first part following the stories of two brothers in separate adventures. If you choose to join the adventure, be warned that it will not read like a contemporary sci-fi novel. It is more scientific in description and almost impersonal in how it unfolds, but it leaves little question why H.G. Wells is considered one of the greatest science fiction of all time.



Mike Lytle

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Alan Thornbury

I have known of Larry Norman for many years. I was familiar with many of his songs and even saw him in concert at a festival once. I was intrigued by his life and place in Christian music history and had been anticipating the release of this book for at least a year since I first heard about it. With all that being said this book still exceeded my expectations. Norman led an incredibly interesting and eventful life. His influence far exceeded his actual record sales. Thornbury captures that, noting that everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono of U2 considered themselves Larry Norman fans. Thornbury also refuses to shy away from Norman’s personal failings. He paints what appears to be a thorough, well researched, and balanced portrait of the godfather of Christian Rock and Roll music.

This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the history of Christian music. I would also recommend it to those interested in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s since it intersects with wider cultural events at times. Even those who simply enjoy a well-written biography would find much to like here.



Phill Lytle

The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive) by Brandon Sanderson

This was my 3rd time reading The Way of Kings and my second time through Words of Radiance. If you don’t like epic, world-building fantasy, you can skip this review. If you enjoy this sort of thing, there is no one writing better books in this genre than Brandon Sanderson and there is no better current series than The Stormlight Archive. Sanderson has this whole thing worked out in his head, which I find baffling and impossible, but when you read these gigantic, 1,000 page books, you realize that is not a joke or a lie. He does have it all worked out. I can’t get my head around the depth and complexity of the plot, even though I am only reading it and not trying to create it. These stories take place in a world of magic, tradition, war, politics, and racial and ethnic oppression. Sanderson takes his time to create living, breathing characters with real problems, real inner worlds, and real connections to each other. I’m currently reading the third book in the series, Oathbringer, and it is just as good and satisfying as the first two books. Sanderson is a master at his craft and I am more than happy to hang on for the ride.

 

Visionary Parenting: Capture a God-Sized Vision for Your Family by Rob Rienow

If you have read Christian parenting books, there is probably not much “new under the sun” in this book. That doesn’t lessen its impact. Rienow writes with humility and authority, both traits making his advice and teachings all the more powerful. I recommend that all parents read this challenging and encouraging book. It’s a quick read too, so there really is no reason to skip it.



The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

One of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, spiritually challenging books I have read. I recommend it to everyone who will listen but it is not an easy sell. If you have an aversion to sci-fi, the plot of the book has the potential to really turn you off, but the story is about so much more. It’s a story about a group of Jesuit priests and a few others who discover music that is being transmitted from a far away galaxy, and they decide to journey there to meet God’s other children. It is beautiful and heartbreaking.




D. A. Speer

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

This is one of the few books I have read so far this year, mainly because I needed it at the time. The contents are actually a compilation of Lewis’s personal diary from around the time his wife died. As my wife is still with me, I almost put it down, because I had little ability to identify with his specific pain. I’m glad I read on. The Lewis I expected to find at the beginning of the book was far different than the Lewis I encountered. He is reeling, emotional, and is very frank with his hurting, pain, and doubt. I’m so thankful to have found that, and I’m also glad to have seen how his grief unfolded throughout the remainder of the book. Most beneficial to me was his perception of God as a surgeon. He writes:

“But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary…What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”

I recommend this short read to anyone who is going through a season of loss in their life, whether a loved one you have known for some time or a loved one that you never even got the chance to meet.



Nathan Patton

A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door (Time Quintet) by Madeleine L’Engle

 

I began reading the Time Quintet in response to hearing about the A Wrinkle in Time film before it was released in theaters. I somehow had managed to not read it as a child, and I wanted to read it before watching the movie. I loved the book but never managed to make it to the theater to watch the movie.

I appreciate that these books are children’s fantasy stories with overtly Christian references yet don’t shy away from scientific principles. It presses all the right buttons for me.

I look forward to my children reading these books because of the emphasis on certain character traits it would encourage within them: love, humility, faith (and reason), loyalty to friends and family, courage, personal responsibility, creativity, empathy, and sacrifice.

I have finished the first two books (and enjoyed them immensely) and hope to finish the other three in time for our next “Reading Ever On” article.






500 Words or Less Reviews: “Tyndale, The Man Who Gave God An English Voice”

“And the Lyght shyneth in the darkness, but the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 4:5, William Tyndale New Testament) 

 

I’m coming up on 40 years of life this Summer and it has me all self-reflective and evaluative. One thing I absolutely need to change is that I need to read more biographies. As someone who has championed fantasy-fiction as reading that captures the imagination, I have woefully underestimated how real flesh and blood human beings with real lives can accomplish the same thing. And in some ways, in a deeper sense, since they are actual history.

Enter this book, written in 2012 by David Teems. It is cleverly written, packed with history down to the small players in Tyndale’s life and absolutely edifies the English-speaking Christian reader with a life worth dissecting.

I confess that Tyndale’s life is fascinating to me on the big story arcs because I am a pastor of a bilingual ministry, an ESL teacher and a subscriber to Voice of the Martyrs. Translation is my life’s work, though not nearly to the significance that his was and to the cost that his gave. Persecution and martyrdom are horrific in a human sense, yet biblically we can see how God exalts it. William Tyndale literally gave his life to give people of my native tongue one of the most precious gifts there is, the readable Word of God.

Christian history is indebted to countless people for the Bibles we have today, many of them nameless and faceless, like the Masoretics of the Old Testament and the often maligned scribes and copyists of the New Testament. Tyndale thankfully is a name we can know and celebrate. He wasn’t just a translator. He was a noble man, an educated yet humble man, and a great man. He is a hero. All of us who hold a KJV, or NASB, or NIV in our hands should know his name and his story.

Beyond the major and more well-known plot lines of his life, Teems gives other details that are equally as important. Like how much of the KJV was influenced by Tyndale and how many phrases we find in our Bible, and hence our popular culture, that can be traced back to Tyndale. Like “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Tyndale used beautiful, easy-to-memorize, poetic English. And we owe our ability to recall many verses so easily to him.

Teems also speaks over several pages to how much Erasmus and Luther affected Tyndale and how much he affected them. These men were not friends, yet God used them all in their own way to greatly affect how we do church and bible study today. It is a testimony to how no one can do anything on their own. Not just without God’s grace, but without Christian community. Even from a distance.

I recommend this book to all Christian teenagers and adults. It’s not just an inspiring story, but an illuminating one.  In 500 years, this story will still matter. Yet let us read it today.




The Other Stories of J.R.R. Tolkien

Considered by many as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for his two masterpieces of the fantasy genre: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Yet the good professor wrote so much more than just those two great books. With the recent announcement of a previously unpublished story by Tolkien that is to be released this August (The Fall of Gondolin), we felt this was a good time to shine the light on some of his lesser-known works. Ben Plunkett, Nathan Patton, and Phill Lytle discuss some of their favorite “other” stories by J.R.R. Tolkien. After you read their recommendations, stick around and tell us about the other Tolkien stories that you love in the comment section below.


The Silmarillion – Benjamin Plunkett

 

To make a huge understatement, J.R.R. Tolkien was a slow and very meticulous writer. It took him 14 years to write The Lord of the Rings. That right there is a very long time for an already published author to write a novel for an expectant editor. But that has got nothing on his writing of the text of what would become The Silmarillion. He began working on it in 1917 during World War I and kept on working on it until his death in 1973. His son, Christopher, took up the task of compiling the many texts that would ended up becoming what we now have. It was as a soldier in the trenches that Tolkien started composing the vast and rich mythology of the Middle Earth universe. The Silmarillion begins at the literal creation of Middle Earth. Much of the rest of it discusses the history of the elves, with the other races playing very key roles throughout time.

As you probably know, elves are immortal so although the book spans many thousands of years, there are elves most readers will be familiar with who were living at the time of LOTR, which chronicles a story that comes at the tail end of The Silmarillion.

Like the LOTR story, many of the stories herein are expounded upon more fully elsewhere. But don’t think of The Silmarillion as just a book of summaries. It is a masterpiece. It is probably my second favorite Tolkien book after LOTR. There is so much more of rich complexity than I have mentioned here. There is so much more depth. There is the Ainur, Beleriand, Glaurand, Hurin, Morgoth, the rings of power, Gondolin—and these are only the tip of the iceberg. But if you are not familiar at all with The Silmarillion, be warned: It does not read like a regular novel. It is first and foremost a history of Middle Earth which gives Tolkien’s vast mythological creation an incredible richness.


Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, and Letters From Father Christmas – Nathan Patton

 

Many of Tolkien’s books began as stories that he told to his own children, inspired by events in the lives of their family.

Mr. Bliss

In 1932, Tolkien went out and bought himself a motorcar and, evidently, had a series of misadventures with it that inspired this tale.

This is a silly story about a man named Mr. Bliss who buys a motorcar on a whim and experiences rather ridiculous events as a result. It is a delightful and charming read. We also see our first glimpse of Sergeant Boffin and Gaffer Gamgee, whose names, at least, we will see again in Lord of the Rings.

Sadly, this book is out of print. Even the 2007 25th anniversary edition is no longer available. (However, the audiobook version, read by the excellent Sir Derek Jacobi, is quite affordable on audible.) If you can manage to find a copy, though, you really should read the hardback edition, as it contains copies of the entire original manuscript including many original illustrations by Tolkien himself.

Tolkien had originally attempted to have Mr. Bliss published as a picture book, but his publishers deemed it too expensive at the time.

Roverandom

In 1925, the Tolkien family took a holiday to the Yorkshire coast where a five-year-old Michael Tolkien lost his favorite toy: a miniature lead toy dog.

Papa Tolkien, in order to console his heartbroken son, told him the tale of what happened to that toy dog afterward. That story became Roverandom.

It turns out that the toy used to be a real dog named Rover, who got on the bad side of a grumpy wizard and found himself turned into a toy as a punishment. That toy spent some time with a nice young boy who unfortunately misplaced him on the beach. The toy dog then meets a “sand-sorcerer” who sends him on a series of adventures including a trip to the moon and a journey under the sea.

Unlike Mr. Bliss, Roverandom is still in print and widely available.

Letters From Father Christmas

Starting in 1920, when John Tolkien, the eldest child, was three, every Christmas the Tolkien children received a letter from Father Christmas detailing the happenings at the North Pole that year. His primary companion is the North Polar Bear who is continually getting into mischief. Later letters include Snow-elves, Red Gnomes, Snow-men, Cave-bears, and the North Polar Bear’s nephews. There’s even an attack by Goblins attempting to raid Father Christmas’ cellars.

This book contains the letters from 1925 through 1938 as well as the final letter and a short note from the North Polar Bear written in an invented alphabet based on Goblin drawings. Each letter is accompanied by illustrations by Tolkien himself.

We, as a family, traditionally read the letters, one per day, in the days leading up to Christmas.

Like Mr. Bliss, the hardcover version is the way to go with Letters From Father Christmas as it includes copies of the original letters and illustrations; however, it is also, like Mr. Bliss, seemingly out of print.


The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – Phill Lytle


Professor Tolkien is my favorite author of all time, and much of that is due to his two most popular works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But my love for his writing goes well beyond those two. Tolkien was a prodigious letter writer, a skill-set that I fear is quickly becoming extinct. He wrote letters to friends, to family members, to fans, and to publishers. This book – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – selects some of the best correspondence to and from the great author. His wit is on full display throughout the book. His passion for language, faith, and family is evidenced as well. Tolkien was a man of strong beliefs and not so insignificant stubbornness. His back-and-forths with his publishers are a highlight of the book. Perhaps the best moments though, are when he engages with fans or his family and you can see the teacher, the father, and the deeply committed believer shining through. This book does a fabulous job of adding insight and clarity to his other books once you see the man behind the words.

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: Ready Player One

Time warps our memories of things we once loved in various ways, and when enough time goes by, the exact memories we had begin to slip away from us like sand through an hourglass. When we finally are able to come back to the thing itself, whether a good book or a Nintendo game played with a trusty NES controller, some pieces of time come shooting back up to us through the hourglass. For a moment, we are reconnected to those past memories and versions of ourselves. And yet, we have changed in that time span. Our perception of what we are able to experience again is colored by eyes that have since matured and have felt more of the weight of the world.

I read the book version of “Ready Player One” almost two years ago, so it’s fitting that enough time has gone by for me to forget key scenes or details from the plot. It’s like my memory of what happened has since dissolved into fragments. During the early screening for the film, I was sitting between a close friend and a random stranger, and all three of us had read the book. We discussed a few scenes, and the plot progression started to come back to me. My anticipation started to build. Would the film deliver, or would it let me down?

When I first heard that the Ready Player One movie was in production, I wasn’t too thrilled. The book was an ambitious and expansive imaginary romp through 80’s nostalgia. “They’ll never pull a movie like this off convincingly,” I told myself. The trailers left a lot to be desired because it looked like they were going to change the plot significantly. And they did.

But you know what? Somehow it worked.

After the movie, the three of us sat and reflected on what we had just watched. The movie had the overall feel of an 80s adventure flick, Spielberg style. It felt like what author Ernest Cline (who was part of the creative process on the film) might have done with the plot in a parallel universe. My biggest fear going into the movie would be that it would turn out to be a heartless, piecemeal version of what I had experienced and loved while reading the book, but I was quite happy to be wrong. Yes, parts of the movie felt a bit rushed or contrived, and I was still miffed at a few parts of the book that didn’t make it into the movie, but overall I was very glad to have seen it.

The movie left me feeling a bit bizarre because it was like what I had once experienced, yet it was different altogether. It’s akin to playing a favorite game from your childhood that is now radically different in form, yet still retains the original essence of what you had enjoyed in the past.

8/10

(Parental content advisory: There are a few strong curse words throughout the PG-13 rated film.)




Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Introduction by Gowdy Cannon

He left a mark on American Culture which is as unique and inimitable as could be. A few years ago, in a Facebook tournament I did on people who influenced your love for fantasy, I included him alongside names like Tolkien and Disney. Because he deserved it. Very few children in the U.S for the last several decades have escaped his influence. And considering how he took something as crucial to development as learning to read and crafted words and pictures to make us long for more books and to reread the same ones over and over, I would say his legacy in this arena is unrivaled.

So to honor what would have been the 114th birthday of Theodore Seuss Geisel, we pay tribute to five Dr. Seuss books that were formative to our childhoods and that have even impacted our adulthoods.


How The Grinch Stole Christmas – by D.A. Speer

As with (I assume) most other people in America, almost every childhood holiday season the animated Grinch movie would somehow end up on our TV. It usually wasn’t deliberate on my family’s part. The television would be on, and one of the major networks would be airing it. Thus, my memory of the story was piecemeal at best. And my most recent memory of it involved Jim Carrey, but we won’t speak of “that one.”

This past year while we were in Japan, my daughter suffered greatly from bacterial meningitis and made a miraculous recovery from both that *and* a mass/tumor that they discovered behind her eyes. After we moved back the States and she was given a clean bill of health, we were in shock. I think we might still be. Thus, I wanted to make this past Christmas extra special, because I was celebrating with my special daughter.

I hyped up the movie for her one day, and we sat down on the couch that evening to watch it, my arm around hers. I’m sure it was the first time I have seen it through as an adult.

I soon realized while I was watching just what it was that kept Dr. Seuss’s works alive and relevant after all these years. It wasn’t the nostalgia. It wasn’t the artwork. It wasn’t that it was kitschy or had meme value. It was simply the heart.

When the townspeople gather together after all of their stuff is taken and happily sing their song anyway, I was completely overwhelmed. Tears started flowing.

“Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand.”

I hugged my daughter that much closer.


Hop On Pop – by Gowdy Cannon

A huge draw to Dr. Seuss has always been how he combines simplicity with zaniness to produce education and Hop on Pop is a premier example. This book is a riot to read and as a kid you probably do not realize how much you are learning about English sounds. As I’ve written recently, English is extremely inconsistent with pronunciation yet the good Doctor found some very common patterns and put them to at times nonsensical, other times pointed and yet always delightful phrases. I could live to be 100 and never forget the fish in the tree. Yet the quick wit of Dr. Seuss responds “How can that be?” And I will always associate this book with wanting to hop on my dad and him letting us (though not quite like in the book). Put this together with Seuss’s hilarious illustrations and you have a timeless classic of a book.

This book to me is more entertaining than half of the TV episodes I have watched. At nearly 40 years old, it still tickles my brain.


And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street – by Benjamin Plunkett

As a child, I read and owned around 20 books by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). No other books, juvenile or adult, have done more to inspire my imagination through both writing and imagery. The most imagination-inspiring and thus my favorite Seuss book of all is And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. Upon researching this book for REO I was surprised to discover that this was the very first children’s book that he wrote in 1937.  The story goes that he wrote the story to alleviate the immense boredom while traveling on a ship. And presto changeo, his first of a long and legendary line of children’s books that inspired imagination in millions of kids for decades.

If you are not familiar with the story, you should be. Look it up now. The entire text of the book is online for free.  Wow. Marco’s imagination really grows on Mulberry Street. First it is just a horse and cart, then the horse turns into a zebra, then the cart turns into a chariot, and on and on it goes until finally there is a squad of policemen on motorcycles guiding two giraffes and an elephant pulling a wagon with a big brass band pulling another wagon with an old man watching them in awe. And that’s not all. Marco’s imagination has spawned more stuff than you can, well, imagine. But Seuss could and he did. It is not an overestimation to say that Seuss probably had more of an impact on generations of children through his unforgettably imaginative writing, incredibly clever storylines, and the unfailing beauty of his signature illustrations than history’s many pop culture personalities. Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss, may your works continue to impact children for many more years.


Green Eggs and Ham – by Phill Lytle

Sam (aka: Sam-I-am) is persistent. He is a bit pesky. It’s no wonder the unnamed curmudgeon at the center of Green Eggs and Ham is so curmudgeonly. Sam just will not leave him alone. Sam-I-am makes his appearance riding the back of a happy-go-lucky creature while holding a sign announcing who he is….because, who wouldn’t want to know who Sam is? Our humorless curmudgeon makes it clear at the outset that he does not care for Sam-I-am. So Sam does the most logical thing: he offers the grump some green eggs and ham. It’s a hard pass on the green eggs and ham for Mr. Curmudgeon but Sam does not give up because he knows that if he can get his new “friend” to try this delicious meal, everything will change.

Sam is a genius. A happy, creative, crazy genius. His new friend – the curmudgeon – does not really dislike green eggs and ham. He dislikes Sam. We don’t know why, but page 9 makes that perfectly clear. So Sam decides to wear him down. He presents one absurd option after another. Each more ridiculous than the one before. There are goats, boxes, and trains involved. By the end, Sam triumphs. The curmudgeon eats the green eggs and ham. He loves the green eggs and ham. He smiles. He puts his hand on Sam’s back. He thanks Sam-I-am. They are friends indeed.

Only 50 words. That was all it took. The entire story, all 62 pages, used only 50 different words. That was the genius of Dr. Seuss. In this book, arguably his most popular, he used silly characters, crazy antics, and inventive rhymes to teach us how to try new things, how to deal with grumpy people, and how to admit when we are wrong and make amends.


Oh, the Places You’ll Go! – by Amy Lytle

“You can go anywhere and be anything!”

Except when you can’t.

“You are so amazing, everyone will love you!”

Except when they don’t.

And that little word “except” is what makes me, a person who isn’t very emotional, choke up nearly every time I read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! In addition to Seuss’ typical style of rhyme and imaginative word usage, he tackles the truth that life is hard and doesn’t always go as planned, even for the brainiest and the footsy-est.

It’s a book about grit.

As a teacher and a mother, I’ve read and studied and researched the concept of instilling resilience in children. We now have the research that shows the tell-everyone-they-are-great concept of building self-esteem does not work. Kids are too smart for empty words. Dr. Seuss was ahead of the research, publishing Places in 1990. He tells kids they have some choices in life, and even with brilliance and a sense of adventure, things don’t always work out. But they should keep moving.

He tells them the truth.


That’s five. There are so many more stories to talk about. We would love to hear about your favorites in the comment section below.