Aslan Is On the Move

Winter envelops Narnia. It is “always winter and never Christmas” as it has been for longer than anyone can remember. The White Witch holds all the land with an icy grip. The world is cold and gray and miserable. How long has it been since Narnia had any hope?

Rumors begin to spread. There is a feeling in the air. Something has changed. It is not a visible change – the world is still as bleak as it has been for ages, yet something is different. Hearts quicken. Souls stir. A presence that has been absent for so long is back. Hope rekindles. It is a faint hope. A hope built on desperate longing. A hope that is fragile and at risk of blowing away in the icy winds of the accursed winter. Yet the good animals and creatures of Narnia can feel it. They know. Aslan is on the move.

Aslan, the great lion, the creator and destroyer of worlds and kingdoms. Aslan, who brought the world of Narnia to life with a song. Aslan, whose very voice called the stars into existence. Aslan, who had full knowledge of the deeper magic before the world began. The deeper magic of sacrifice, grace, and redemption. This Aslan is on the move. The good animals know it. The rivers and trees can feel it. The grass and rocks quiver in anticipation.


 

In the here and now, our world aches. Darkness threatens to envelop all of creation. Every year, this darkness seems to grow stronger in power. Stronger in fear and in hate. What light there is seems to shine out in vain, pushing against a force that seems unstoppable. Entire lands are blanketed by this darkness. The Light is attacked from every side. The icy winds of evil threaten to weaken its power, limit its reach, and in the end, snuff it out.

Humanity feels the weight of this darkness. It is around us. It is in us. We fight against it, but it is in our very blood. We are conceived and born into this darkness – the curse of Adam. It is our birthright. Even worse, we have each of us chosen this darkness over the Light. It is in us and we are in it. We are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are broken and lost. We are without hope of escaping it through any means we can contrive. Our best efforts to defeat the darkness amount to nothing more than filthy rags. We cry out in despair. Who will listen to our pleas?


 
In Narnia, a great sin has been committed. A son of Adam has betrayed his brother and sisters. He has betrayed Aslan and the good animals of Narnia. His betrayal and wickedness demand payment. The White Witch demands what is rightfully hers. Blood must be shed for this iniquity. The Deep Magic makes this clear. There is no work around. No way out. This son of Adam has to die. His life is forfeit.

Unless…

Unless there is another way. A way known only to one. The very One who was there before the foundation of the world. The One whose knowledge goes far beyond all beginnings. The One who knows the innermost workings of the Deep Magic and the even Deeper Magic upon which all things hold together. The One who knows that “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead…Death itself would start working backwards.”

Aslan becomes that willing victim. Quietly, he gives himself over to torture and death. Yet death has no hold on him. His blood pays the price and in the morning, he defeats death.


 
What about us? What to make of Adam’s miserable and hopeless race? “Rejoice! And again I say, Rejoice!” Our “Aslan” has moved on our behalf. Jesus, the Word who was there in the beginning and the very one through whom all things are made, is our “willing victim.” Jesus, who “committed no treachery” has taken our place. He has “regarded our helpless estate, and hath shed His own blood for our souls.” He shed his blood and death itself started working backwards. The curse of Adam has been defeated forever. Those who accept this great gift are welcomed into the Kingdom as sons and daughters. We are no longer His enemies but have been reconciled to Him through the blood of Jesus. We are in the Light and the Light is in us.

Even still, lovers of the Light are “hard pressed on every side.” Even with our great hope, our world remains broken. The darkness seems to have no end. It is all around us, seeking a way to swallow us whole. We feel alone and afraid. God seems distant and uncaring. How long has it been since we had any hope?


 
In the darkest of lands, the Light shines all the brighter. Yes, the lovers of the Light are “hard pressed on every side” yet we are “not crushed.” We are “persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Our King leads the way. “He goes before us and levels the mountains, breaks down the gates of bronze, and cuts through the bars of iron.” Our Great King “is not dead nor doth he sleep.” He moves. He works. He calls and seeks for the lost sheep. He is not idle. He sees and hears. His Light breaks through the strongest cloud of darkness. His Church Triumphant marches on. In lands where the very mention of His name risks death, His Kingdom grows. Every day, every minute, every second, chains are broken and souls are rescued. Yes, there is great evil in the world, but the Light is greater still. Even when our eyes cannot see it, our hope is in the One who conquered the darkness. Sin and darkness are in their death throes – they impotently splutter and flail against the Light but it has already overcome. He stands victorious and He holds us all in His omnipotent hands. In the midst of our endless winter, we know that we are not alone. We can feel it in our bones. We hold our breath and wait in eager anticipation.

Our Aslan is on the move, as He has always been. We do well to remember it.
 

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

 




500 Words or Less Review: Watership Down (Netflix/BBC)

Watership Down, the novel written by Richard Adams, is one of my favorite books of all time. When I try to explain why I love it so much, words tend to fail me. It is a book about rabbits, after all. How could a book about rabbits be something an adult man would love? Easy. Think of it less as a book about rabbits and more as an epic story about friendship, survival, and hope. The ties that bind these heroic rabbits are easily identifiable and relatable.

That’s the book. The new Netflix/BBC series is a different thing. Fortunately, it’s not different enough to significantly lessen its impact. A few caveats about the new series: First, the animation is not up to the big-budget Pixar or DreamWorks standards. That might be a deal-breaker for some. Trust me and be patient with it. The story is worth it. Second, if you are a book purist, try to set that aside as much as possible when watching this series. Stuff gets changed. Know that going in and it might save you some frustration.

There is good news, though! While liberties are taken the filmmakers prove they have a deep love for the source material and do their best to maintain the spirit and the tone of the book. The series is divided into four 51 minutes sections – each with their own title and focus. I loved this format because it gave the filmmakers a chance to really dig into the story – more time than a two-hour film – but not too much time which would have tempted them to really mess with the key dynamics. It’s a good balance and makes for a mostly focused story.

For my money, the two standouts in this version are the voice actors and the music. The cast does great work in bringing these wonderful characters to life. We get to know Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Kehaar, General Woundwort, and the rest. James McAvoy and John Boyega are particularly good in their key roles. And the original score by Federico Jusid is in turns epic, subdued, and poignant.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is that while these characters are relatable, they also operate on very non-human levels – driven more by instinct and need. For the most part, the series gets this right. There are attempts to shoehorn in a few modern points of view, but they wisely avoid making those things the focal point.

I highly recommend this new series by Netflix and the BBC. It is entertaining and moving. There is a beautiful melancholy that hangs over most of the series, which is also true for the book, and that made my heart very happy indeed. A word of warning: neither the book or series are intended for young audiences, even though they are about rabbits. Older children should be fine but be aware that the story goes to dark places and there is some bloodshed as these brave rabbits fight for their futures.




REO Presents: New Year’s Recommendations

We write reviews often. We’ve also had a semi-consistent book review/recommendation series. (We really need to update that…) This will be a little different. Instead of focusing on one thing: movies, books, music, etc… we are going to try to paint a broad view of things we love that we think you should check out. These blurbs are going to be fast and furious – all around 200 words and all about things we think are pretty great. Consider them our New Year’s gift to you.


Gowdy Cannon

TV Show – Chuck

This is not a popular show but my wife and I watched it this year on Amazon Prime Video. I was blown away. It’s not like any other TV show I’ve watched. It defies any genre box. It may be a comedy at its heart but it has extremely well-executed action scenes and its most important story arc is romance. In a world full of Ross and Rachels it dared to give us Bartwoski and Walker. This show reached deep and pulled wonderful emotion from me often.

Levi, Stahovski, Gomez, and Baldwin are unforgettable as the main players and like any TV show worth watching the role players are dynamite, highlighted by Jeffster! and their hijinks and musical concerts (which were basically the same thing). It is also replete with unforgettable guest stars and if you loved the 80s as much as I did, you will probably get giddy with their choices.

It can be a tad campy and goofy at times, but that never bothered me. It is exceptional at its strengths and it was fantastic entertainment for five seasons.

Food – Bojangles

It’s a shame that so often in America if you claim you like something, people sometimes interpret that to mean you do not like other similar things. I love Chick-Fil-A and think it is blessed by God, but I also eat and thoroughly enjoy KFC and Popeye’s. And to me, the second best chicken place I’ve had in my life is Bojangles, which seems to be less known than these other three. Probably because it is so regional (though its regional fans are pretty passionate from what I can tell).

Whether sandwiches, strips, sides, or those glorious biscuits, Bojangles has excellent quality in taste. There used to be one in Turbeville, SC and any time I was down there visiting family and someone said, “Let’s just pick up some Bojangles for lunch” I would get quite excited. No place has equaled CFA to me but this place is close. And it deserves a huge fanbase.


Ben Plunkett

Book – Strange Stories, Amazing Facts of America’s Past

Throughout most of the second decade of my childhood (about 11-18) I was obsessed with what I called fact books (Most people know them as books of trivia, but I prefer fact books. I suppose they might not be useful for a person’s day to day life, but is any information actually useless? I think not.)

Anyway, when I was 16 my parents got me this particular quality hardback fact book for Christmas. While I am no longer consumed with fact books and have sold most of them, I still have this one and still read portions of it now and then. This book does not attempt to cover all the important basics of American history. What it does do is to highlight fascinating stories about its history that are not discussed much or at all in history class. My edition was published by Reader’s Digest in 1989. They published a new edition in 2007. I cannot comment on that edition since I have not read it yet.

TV Show – Better Call Saul

I realize this show is fairly popular but I don’t understand why this show isn’t more popular than it is. My guess is that people were disappointed that Better Call Saul, which serves as a prequel to Breaking Bad, wasn’t a clone of its predecessor regarding its how the story plays out. It is true that the two shows have the same basic outer feel and framework. It is also abundantly clear that the two are part of the same universe (if you are familiar with both, that is). But the individual stories themselves are very different. Better Call Saul is less dark, intense than Breaking Bad. It is also basically an extremely well fleshed out legal story with multiple intriguing plotlines and angles. The show stars Bob Odenkirk who plays Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman but also stars an amazing ensemble cast. Odenkirk and every one of his co-stars bring it every episode. Forgive the hyperbole but most of them deserve every acting award in the history of mankind.

I will probably be destroyed for saying this, but I believe Better Call Saul is better than Break. In fact, it is in the running for my favorite show of all time. It had an extremely good first season and has been greater every season (It recently finished its fourth).


D.A. Speer

Board Game: Dropmix

One of the most off-the-radar board games right now sounds like something right out of the future. DropMix (created by Harmonix studios…you know, the same team that created Rock Band) has players placing cards onto an electronic, Bluetooth-powered board with six spaces for cards. Each card in the deck has a chip inside of it, and each card space is equipped with a wireless chip reader. When you place a card on the board, the game (which runs on a tablet or phone that sits at the front of the board) reads it, syncs it to BPM and the set key, and then incorporates the loop into the mix. There are cards that have drum loops, vocal tracks, instrument tracks, or even custom-designed effects.

You can DJ your own set in “Freestyle” mode, go head to head in a VS mode, or even play a new Puzzle game based on a surprisingly interesting card game that is incorporated. The music source material is all over the place (electronic, rock, country, pop), and more expansion packs are coming out all the time. You can find the base set on sale frequently…I bought a new one for $30! At the very least, check it out on YouTube and marvel at the technical genius:


Phill Lytle

Food – Aldi “Journey to India” Tikka Masala Simmer Sauce

In the past few years, my wife and I have fallen in love with Indian food. Unfortunately, it’s cost-prohibitive to get it as often as we would like. Enter: Aldi and their amazing sauce in a jar. I was skeptical it would taste anywhere close to restaurant quality, but I was wrong. We keep things simple with some seasoned chicken we sauté in olive oil and some steamed veggies added to the sauce to make it a bit more “healthy.” We serve it over white Basmati rice and we are good to go. It’s moderately spicy so if that’s not your thing, you shouldn’t be eating Indian food anyway.

Comedian – Nate Bargatze

Maybe you’ve seen him on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Maybe you’ve seen his special on Netflix. Perhaps you’ve just seen clips on YouTube. Or maybe, sadly, you’ve never heard of Nate Bargatze. Well, be sad no more! If you like your comedy clean (yet not lame), dry, and just a little bit odd, then Nate is the man for the job. He holds a special place in my heart because he graduated from the school where my wife teaches and my children attend (Donelson Christian Academy). If Nate came from DCA, then there is hope for my family as well.




Book Review: The Gospel Comes With A House Key

When I was in college studying youth ministry and biblical theology, my degree professor read from “My Utmost From His Highest” to begin some of our classes and he referred to it as “The Hammer.” That’s the word that first came to mind as I read the book I’m about to review. There are clearly parts of the Bible and especially the Gospels that are woefully under-practiced in America and our culture is good about making excuses and rationalizations as to why. This book crushes those two things with a mighty swing of a basic theology of what the author calls “radically ordinary hospitality”.

Rosaria Butterfield splashed onto the scene a few years ago with The Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, which my dad strongly encouraged every teenager and adult in my immediately family to read. That work put her on the map and for very good reason. It is a unique story of transformation that only the Christian God could have written. But using her to tell it made her a must-read author to my mind and I am thrilled my senior pastor informed me about this book. In reviewing it I am not going to get fancy; I will tell you what I loved about it and then talk about the things that I was unsure about. I aim to give the benefit of the doubt so I won’t go as far as to say I do not like them. But they are things I would love ask Rosaria about if I ever got to talk to her.


Things I Loved

First, I loved just the simple premise of the book and how plainly yet boldly the challenge is laid out and exegeted: The Bible calls us to hospitality and that means doing the sacrificial thing and opening up our homes to people in extremely intimate and absolutely inconvenient ways. In the Preface on page 11, she articulates her thesis very simply: “A truly hospitable heart anticipates every day, Christ-centered table fellowship and guests who are genuinely in need.” I may be in the minority but I do not know many people who practice this. The fact she wrote this makes me think I am not in the minority. The way she uses the Bible (passages like Luke 9:44-50) and her own experience (including her daily schedule!) to support this statement is the heart of the book. It is what convicted me for nearly 200 pages. She is not afraid to be offensive by speaking a hard truth. I deeply respect that.

Secondly, I love how brutally honest she is about how rough hospitality can be in 3D. After a few dozen pages, you may think (if you are like me), “Man she sure is bragging on herself a lot.” That thought was not enough to get me to put the book down because the material was far too good, and I know that sometimes my own insecurity and defensiveness cause me to perceive other people preaching truth to be haughty. But Butterfield eventually makes sure that God’s grace is manifested through human weaknesses. She tells of a time her family adopted a daughter at 17 years old and how the girl did not take to them and as she aged out she left them behind. She tells about how when her mother lived with them it wrecked their hospitality efforts and put a strain on their family that exposed her (Butterfield’s) own sinful nature. She tells of a time her family got robbed and how no one in her house “found okay” for months. She talks about how to deal with hospitality with a “Judas,” the individual at a church under church discipline and how complicated that makes living out her thesis. By the end of the book, I appreciated significantly how Butterfield demonstrates that life in Christ is not picture perfect and that community can be ugly, messy and filled with rejection. She has a sober view of self in my opinion and does not come across as falsely humble. Any time a Christian is honest about themselves, humility should be the result. She is raw and transparent in her stories.

I also love how she brings self-righteous people like me to their knees by pointing out when church leaders get caught in sins and prove that our judgmental, inhospitable approaches to people we perceive to be more sinful than us are not biblical. Jesus got his hands and feet dirty reaching out to the people in society that no one would touch (the way she explains Jesus’ response to leprosy is masterful) and he was morally perfect. Who am I to walk to the other side of the road to avoid others? People in my circles of Christianity know Jesus ministered to the disenfranchised. Yet who among us is living as he did? We often are too worried about getting taken advantage of to really live out the story of the Good Samaritan or too concerned with dignity to bend down and associate with the dirty sinners among us. The truth is that quite often that the same pride that prevents us from ministering to those people is the same pride that leads to our own downfalls. Butterfield is at her best here, providing a searing rebuke to modern Pharisaical Christianity. Trust me, I need this. I get this teaching at my church but her skills as a writer really accentuated things I can get complacent about. Just recently I heard about a girl who got pregnant at 11 years old and my first thought was a Pharisaical one (I didn’t have sex before marriage!), even though I’ve lusted after women thousands of times in my life. I need this book for this reason.

Lastly I love how she makes a point to say that hospitality is not just receiving people but going into their homes as well. It is being a host and a guest. This is something I have noted good churches in Chicago have been promoting in recent months—why not do what Jesus did with Zaccheus and others and invite ourselves to others’ homes to evangelize and disciple them? This is definitely counterintuitive and countercultural to me but this book motivates me to try it.


What I Am Unsure About

If you have read anything by Butterfield you know it seems like she has passionate and pointed opinions about secondary things, like singing only biblical psalms and not “man-made hymns”. But at the same time, I do not know her personally so I tread very carefully in judging the things she writes that cause me to furrow my brow. One of the things in this book I am speaking to is from page 103:

“Next in the biblical family is a mom who is home and available to serve. While I am employable in a full-time way outside of the home, our family has always needed me at home, and so home I am. As a stay-at-home mom I can do one hundred helpful things for the people I love most in the world in the first thirty minutes of waking. Things that matter and cannot be farmed out to others for pay.”

Now, of course as a man married to a Chicago Public School teacher who is paid pretty well to experience some of the most frightening aspects of humanity, all to be salt and light to inner-city children, I wonder at first exactly what she means by that. Other parts of the book make me think that it is not as myopic as it may sound. Part of the issue is that stay-at-home/homeschooling debate has created a lot of scars, for all kinds of people. But setting aside this baggage, which biblically I should do to live in community, I can try to understand Butterfield better here. She and I are absolutely on the same team. We can sharpen iron with iron on topics like these.

Another thing that gave me a bit of pause is her willingness to bring the government and politics into the discussion on hospitality. Now, I agree with everything she said, but I come at it with a bias. Also, I have zero issue with Christians calling out politicians on their words about people who are different, especially those who are not from America. But on the issue of policy I am less clear how much the Bible says about what a sovereign nation is required to do in the compassion vs. national security debate. I appreciate how plainly she speaks and the risks she takes here, but I am not sure how much I agree with every jot and tittle of her conclusions. I vote for compassion but I have Christian friends who think differently so I do not consider this an absolute truth issue, as some people on both sides seem to want to.


Overall this is a necessary book for 2019 America. It has messed with my mind in the best way possible. I hope to practice it, even with a baby coming. Because as Butterfield teaches, our excuses, even those that involve the protection and safety of our children, can at times succumb to the weight of Biblical demands to love the unlovable and to allow others to infiltrate our most secure dwelling: our home. I recommend it to all Christians everywhere.




A Review of “The Wingfeather Saga” by Andrew Peterson

Once again, and to my everlasting shame, I am late to the Andrew Peterson party. Andrew Peterson has been creating beautiful, inspiring, and challenging music for over 20 years. For reasons that I have yet to completely figure out, he was always on my periphery. I knew about him. I even knew a few of his songs. Nevertheless, I never took the time to sit down and really listen until about five years ago. Of course, I fell in love with his work. He is a gifted songwriter and musician and his music speaks more deeply to my heart than just about anything else out there.

You would think that having completely missed the boat for so long on his music, I wouldn’t have made that mistake again when it comes to his fantasy series, The Wingfeather Saga. You would be wrong. I knew about the books. I have friends who read them and loved them. My oldest son and my wife read them and loved them as well. Still, I ignored them. I have no excuse for that, mind you. I knew better than to doubt Peterson’s ability as a writer. I will admit a part of me was scared I would not enjoy the books and it would cloud my view of his music. I know how preposterous that is, but it’s the truth. For better or worse, I put them off, thinking I would eventually get around to them. Eventually, I read On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (the first book in the series) and enjoyed it, though I would hesitate to say I loved it. In a weird way, it confirmed some of my fears. I thought the series was going to be a witty, quirky, somewhat silly thing and I just didn’t have a lot of desire to read something like that. So I stopped reading after the first book.

Finally, in the fall of 2017, I decided to read the entire series. I started again with the first book, as I am a completist of sorts, and worked my way through the next three books over the period of a few months. It blew me away. Completely. In every way. Yes, the books can be silly and quirky, but they are also epic and emotionally rich. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read my stuff for REO, but I cried a lot reading this series. I cried because while the setting and the world is fantastical and whimsical, the characters are living, breathing people. They are spiritual and emotional creatures and their struggles and triumphs matter. They leave a mark. I’m never going to forget the time I spent with Janner, Tink, Leeli, Podo, Nia, and all the other wonderful characters that populate Peterson’s story. I eagerly await the time when I visit them again.

Peterson is a gifted and natural storyteller, as his music and lyrics attest. He writes with a love of poetry, of song, of food and cheer. He writes from deep places of pain and loneliness to deeper places of joy and belonging. Perhaps most importantly, beyond the artistic skill on display, these books work because they are more than just good stories. They are a reflection, a bright and glorious reflection, of the great Story that underpins all of Creation. The Wingfeather Saga is a story infused with light, love, grace, mercy, hope, and redemption. And it’s funny. Incredibly funny.

When we got married, my wife and I had less stuff than we do now but we were able to care for that stuff a little better than after we added three somewhat rambunctious boys to our lives. Back then, I had a shelf where I displayed some of my favorite movies and books. (We had other bookshelves and CD shelves where the less important stuff was relegated.) The preeminent shelf held my greatest treasures – The Lord of the Rings (Movies and books), The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, and Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. Things like that. If I still had a shelf like that in my house, The Wingfeather Saga would find a place there. Maybe that is the highest compliment I can give it. It would fit seamlessly next to books like The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harry Potter. Andrew Peterson has proven that he takes a backseat to no one. The Wingfeather Saga is a modern day classic, comfortably existing in the same conversation with the great stories by Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and Rowling.

I don’t know if Andrew Peterson will ever write another series like this. I hope he does. I promise that I won’t be late to that party. I know better now.




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.

 




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.






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.