Book Review 45: All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers

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What is pop culture?

That’s the one question I’ve always wanted to get a definitive answer to in all of my adult life. Well, I believe I have found a book that attempts to give me that answer.

All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers explores the relationship between Christians and Popular Culture. I heard the author on Christian Radio last year talking about the re-issue of his book. It was first published in 1989 and the re-issue got a new cover (see above) and a new introduction by the author.

“My answer to the question about Christian involvement with popular culture is essentially the same. You can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols.”

That quote sums up the author’s answer on how Christians should deal with the omnipresence of popular culture. Myers examines the historical lineage of popular culture from its roots in Romanticism of the mid 19th century and how it came into full bloom in the 1960s.

Myers explains how Christianity and Popular Culture have always been at odds with each other because one side believes in history, tradition, and the eternal things of life.  While the other side believes in the present, always looking the next thing, and focuses on self-fulfillment.

However, the author doesn’t take the easy route and totally bashes popular culture as one would expect from a book like this. Myers does warn how much popular culture has affected the church and how modern evangelicalism has a symbiotic relationship with it unfortunately.

As previously mentioned,  All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes was published in 1989, Myers ends the book with the pernicious effect of television but doesn’t address how social media and the internet have taken over television’s role in pop culture.  Because of that, the book does feel dated and out-of-step with the 21st century. Nevertheless, the best books still have timeless principles to reflect on and can always be read even if the culture has progressed from when it was published.

In closing, I believe in reading All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, I have gotten as close to a definitive answer to what is popular culture that I’m going to get.  Because of that, I’m truly grateful and will wholeheartedly recommend this book to those who want to know how to live in a world where popular culture dominates every aspect of our lives.

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Book Review 44: Gray Matters by Brett McCracken

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“Christians have a hard time with nuance, gray areas are not out strong suit.”

“Discernment is a tricky business, much more complicated than a checklist or matrix of black-and-white criteria. And it begins on the inside, with an awareness that while discernment is a virtue we should all aspire to, it doesn’t look exactly the same for all of us.”

“Legalism has tainted my generation so much that we don’t even want to go near rules or think in terms of “dos and dont’s.” In the process we’ve lost the idea that character and virtue matter.”

Those three quotes set the thematic scope for my latest book review, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism and Liberty by Brett McCracken. This is my first non-fiction book review for 2013 and I’m glad waited until now to review this important book.

McCracken makes the argument that we have gone from one side of the pendulum as legalists and separate ourselves from the culture to the other side of the pendulum as hedonists and accepting everything the culture has to offer. The author shows throughout the book that there is another route to take instead of those standby positions by having proper discernment and learning how navigate those nebulous areas in our lives.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections (Food, Music, Movies, and Alcohol) that covers an area where Christians have taken one of the aforementioned standby positions.  McCracken begins each section with a historical and biblical perspective on how Christians have dealt with those issues.  Then he offers guidance on how to become more discerning with these gray areas.

The most controversial section of the book is the Alcohol section.   Should Christians drink alcohol?  The author walks a fine line……like a dental floss line in this area but I appreciate the fact he didn’t shy away from its dangers and tried to present an objective view on probably one of the most scrutinized gray areas we could have as a believers and followers of Christ.

McCracken has written a much-needed and courageous book in Gray Matters. As Christians, we claim to believe that Christ has the right to speak into every area of lives, then we need to be honest with ourselves and learn how to deal with the gray areas in our culture.  The author skillfully shows its not about retreating from the world and waiting for the second coming.  Also, its not about accepting everything the culture provides and trying to prove you are not one of those stereotypical fundamentalist Christians.   But, it is about having good judgment and faith in Christ that he can guide you through all types of situations in your life.

Gray Matters is one of my favorite reads of the year and will get a highly recommended must read for Christians and even non-Christians who want to learn some principles on having discernment in their daily lives as well.

Bravo to Brett McCracken for being courageous and may this book create authentic dialogue amongst believers in the faith.

Book Review 43: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA JK Rowling

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I had made it a personal policy to not read and review for this blog the hottest or most publicized novel of the year.  However, I did almost break my policy last year with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  But, I decided against it.

Well, my resistance has finally dropped with The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA J.K. Rowling. I must admit the pseudonym controversy got me intrigued and I knew I had to read and review this novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling tells the story about the death of Lula Landry, one of England’s most famous supermodels.  She fell from her high-rise loft in London and the police have ruled the death as a suicide. However, John Bristow, the deceased’s brother refuses to believe it was a suicide and hires private investigator Cormoran Strike to investigate the supermodel’s death.

Strike is a hard-livin’ detective who is on the brink of financial and personal ruin when Bristow arrives at his office to see if he will take on his dead sister’s case. The private investigator agrees to Bristow’s request and enters the world of high fashion, fame, and how wealthy Londoners really live.  Also, he is the son of a famous singer and because of that connection gets him entrance into this world without much resistance.

Rowling creates various twists in the plot in order to keep the reader guessing if the supermodel’s murder was really a suicide. The strength of the novel was her descriptive narrative and keen observation of human behavior.  Here’s an example:

“Her antipathy towards Strike seemed to have evaporated. He was not surprised; he had met the phenomenon many times. People liked to talk; there were very few exceptions; the question was how you made them do it. Some, and Ursula was evidently one of them, were amenable to alcohol; others liked a spotlight; and then there were those who merely needed proximity to another conscious human being.”

That passage was early in the novel and it showed Rowling’s strengths of the aforementioned traits that made The Cuckoo’s Calling an excellent  read. But, I must admit there is not a lot of action in the story.  It made me think if Rowling was writing this novel as a tip of the cap to P.D. James.  I could see James writing a novel like this one as well.

I came to reading The Cuckoo’s Calling as someone who had never read the Harry Potter books or her first adult novel, Casual Vacancy.  I had read one of the reasons Rowling wanted to write under a pseudonym was that her work could be judged on the basis if it is good or not.  And not to be judged through the lens as a celebrity novelist.

Well, if this was a first novel by Robert Galbraith…..it would be an outstanding first novel.  But it is Rowling’s second adult novel and deserves to be judged on its own merits as a crime fiction novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is one of my favorite reads of 2013 and Rowling is an engrossing, powerful storyteller.  It was worth breaking my personal policy.

Book Review 42: A Mind To Murder by P.D. James

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P.D. James has been given the unofficial title, Queen of Crime, and after reading A Mind to Murder showed why she has earned this moniker.

A Mind to Murder began with the murder of Enid Bolam, the administrative head at the Steen Psychiatric Clinic in London. She had a chisel through her chest and a wooden phallic symbol in her arms. It appeared like we have the main culprits of sex and violence intersecting once again.

When Adam Dalgliesh arrived to investigate the murder, he found out that Miss Bolam was a goody, two-shoes stickler and having that phallic symbol was a ruse put there by the murderer. The detective was put through various twists and turns until the mystery of Miss Bolam’ death was solved at the end of the novel. Even though, that’s a simplistic overview of most mystery novels, James has really elevated the genre to show that literature can emerge from the murder mystery story.

Her ability to write beautiful passages of setting and place, to have excellent narrative flow, to create solid characters and to have the main character’s personality be revealed like a chef peeling an onion has made me want to read the entire Adam Dalgliesh oeuvre.

This is my second Adam Dalgliesh book I have reviewed for the blog. I reviewed Cover Her Face last year and both books have given me a wonderful reading experience even though they were published in the early 1960’s. A Mind To Murder does have its antiquated values interspersed throughout the novel, but James still deals with the universal themes of death, greed, and ambition that we can all relate to.

I can unabashedly recommend A Mind To Murder and I’m already looking forward to reading and reviewing Unnatural Causes, book three of these delightful novels.

Book Review 41: Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

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Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man, living in 1830’s New Orleans.  Rutherford is a thief, hustler, and womanizer who has lived a nomadic, vagabond life and somehow stayed out being sold into slavery. Well, there’s a prim and devout woman named Isadora Bailey that is in love with Rutherford and wants to marry him.  However, he refuses to marry her and ends up leaving New Orleans via the ship called The Republic.

On the ship, Rutherford learns the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the convoluted relationships between blacks and whites of that time.  The captain of the ship, Ebenezer Falcon, is a hard-driving, eccentric disciplinarian that’s hated by his crew. But, he is fond of Rutherford and two men develop a surprising friendship that will eventually test their loyalty to each other and the rest of the crew.

Rutherford gets caught in the middle of a slave rebellion of The Republic which eventually leads to the ship’s demise. He is deeply affected after the outcome of the slave rebellion and begins to examine the true meaning of his life. There is a surprise ending that caught me pleasantly off guard and brings the novel full circle.

Johnson has written an intellectual, philosophical page-turner that is part Moby Dick, part Gulliver’s Travels and part Invisible Man. I can see why Middle Passage received the prestigious National Book Award in 1990 for best novel.  It deserves to be mentioned with Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Kindred by Octavia Butler as one of the best novels ever written about slavery.

Book Review 40: Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

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A little over a decade ago, I went on a Dean Koontz reading binge.  I read at least ten or eleven of his novels and I couldn’t get enough of them at that time.  However, my reading tastes has changed quite a bit over the years and I really didn’t have a desire to go back re-read any of his books.

Well, I looked on my bookshelf  a couple of weeks ago and saw I had a copy of Cold Fire. I must admit that Cold Fire is the one Koontz novel I have kept on my bookshelf since that reading binge. I don’t have a reason why I’ve kept that novel. But it was still there and I decided to give it a second reading.

Cold Fire is the story of Jim Ironheart, a mysterious man who has a supernatural ability to save random strangers from perilous life-altering events.  As a result, Jim has become an unlikely superhero.

One of his missions to Portland, Oregon, he has a chance encounter with Holly Thorne.  She’s a local reporter that was interviewing a teacher who recently published a book of poetry. Upon leaving the school, Holly sees Jim rescues a student from being hit by a truck. Jim treats the episode like a policeman or firefighter doing their job and Holly is taken by his modesty and self-effacing persona.

Afterwards, she decides to use her journalistic skills and track down this modern-day superhero.  Holly’s investigation into his background leads her to travel to Southern California and ends up becoming a part one of his missions.  By the end of that mission, Holly is convinced there is a lot more to discover about Ironheart.

Eventually, Holly persuades Jim to explore his past in order to find out about his supernatural ability and that’s where the painful memories of childhood, family abandonment, and the ability of books to create your own world comes into view.  By the end of novel, Jim faces up to those issues and learns where his gift actually came from.

Koontz’s strengths as a page-turning storyteller were on full display in Cold Fire.  He is a master at creating suspenseful scenes that makes you want to keep reading.  Also, Koontz has the ability to combine science fiction, fantasy, suspense/thriller, horror, and even aspects of spirituality into a genre gumbo of best-selling commercial fiction.  In this aspect, Koontz is similar to the musician, Sting.  Both men in their respective fields have taken various genres like a master chef would for a meal and use the right ingredients from each genre to create popular art that is uniquely their own.

After reading it for the second time, Cold Fire holds up surprisingly well. It will be the one Koontz novel that remains on my bookshelf.

Book Review 39: Captives (Safe Lands #1) by Jill Williamson

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What is freedom?

That question is the one that kept coming to mind as I read The Captives (Safe Lands Book 1) by Jill Williamson. It is a YA Dystopian novel and not a genre usually read. (However, I did read and review the wonderful Book Thief by Marcus Zusak last year.) This novel was recommended to me by a blogger and reader I trust and I’m thankful for her recommendation.

The Captives is set in a futuristic Colorado and revolves around a family that lives off the land in a village named Glenrock.  The family believes in Christianity and follows its values. However, one of the sons decide he’s had enough of the old ways and beliefs of his family and is determined to make a name for himself in Denver City.  Denver City is a modern utopia and has everything one wants especially for a teenager.

The son devises a plan to get his family to leave Glenrock and join him in Denver City.  However, the plan doesn’t go as expected and there are some disastrous results because of his choice.

While in Denver City, the family learns how the people of the city lives and is in stark contrast to how they lived in Glenrock.  Pleasure and Entertainment is the main lifestyle for people of the city.  Women are used as baby factories for the state and being in a committed relationship or marriage is considered outdated by the citizens.  The city decides on where you will work or what career path you must take and there is a harsh punishment for those who try to buck the system.

However, the eldest son of the family was not around when the rest of his kinfolk were taken into Denver City.  He decides he must go into the city in order to rescue them.  But, he learns quickly that once you come to Denver City it’s not that easy to leave.

Since this is the first book of the series, the author finishes the novel with a few open-ended questions that needs to be answered in the subsequent books of the series. Williamson has written a solid, thought-provoking YA novel that put a smile on this middle-aged reader’s face.  This is the one of the best novels I’ve read so far in 2013 and would recommend it for readers 14 and up.