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.

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 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.

Book Review 37: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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“For me writing has always felt like praying.”

“Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”

Those touching, powerful quotes are from Minister John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead tells his story in letter form to his young son about his life and struggles as a man of the cloth in the town of Gilead, Iowa.

Robinson creates a three-dimensional picture of Minister Ames through his belief in Jesus Christ, the struggles with his faith, and the relationships with his family and others in the town.

There were two relationships in the novel that I believe truly formed Minister Ames.  The first one was with the atheist, Edward Feuerbach and this comment said a lot to me about their relationship:

“Boughton takes a very dim view of him, because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.”

Ames was willing to risk having a friendship with a man that could shake his faith. It exhibited the depth of his conviction and a genuine love for humanity not something learned from seminary or taught over the pulpit.

Even though, I thought the relationship seemed distant and remote at times, Ames clearly loved him and mentioned in the story his failed attempt to convert him to Christianity.

The second relationship was with his best friend, Jack Boughton’s son, John Ames Boughton.  The younger Boughton believed in Christ growing up but drifted away from the faith as he got older.  However, he always had a respect for Minister Ames and came to him often for spiritual questions. Even though, Minister Ames answered his questions, the younger Boughton could never get over the intellectual hurdles he had in order to become a believer.

This relationship with the younger Boughton was more dynamic than his relationship with Feuerbach.  As a result, it showed a man who truly believed the gospel was for everyone.  From those who believed blindly and uncritically to those once believed and rejected it to those who never believed in the gospel.  Minister Ames walked the walk as well as he talked the talk.

Gilead was the first novel I’ve read that grew on me.  It was okay at first, because the lack of action or suspense and even no chapters.  As I kept reading, I began to like the novel more and Robinson created such a full, rich character that it made me think of my own spiritual journey.

I would highly recommend Gilead and consider it to be the best novel I’ve read and reviewed in 2013 so far.

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“Many modern artists, it seems to me, have forgotten the value that art has in itself. Much modern art is far too intellectual to be great art. Many modern artists seem not to see the distinction between man and non-man, and it is a part of the lostness of modern man that they no longer see value in the work of art as a work of art.
I am afraid, however, that as evangelicals we have largely made the same mistake. Too often we think that a work of art has value only if we reduce it to a tract. This too is to view art solely as a message for the intellect.”

(Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible)

Book Review 36: Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

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Gene Wolfe is considered one of science-fiction’s greatest living writers. His Sun Saga Books (Book of the New Sun, Book of the Long Sun, & Book of the Short Sun) are recognized as modern classics and one of the best series ever written in the genre.

Also, he has received the genre’s major awards (Nebula and Hugo) and acclaim from other authors and critics in the field as the science fiction writer who belongs on the same literary stage with heavyweights like Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, &  Thomas Pynchon. With all that praise, I had to read a Gene Wolfe novel and find out if he deserves that kind of recognition.

Pirate Freedom is a story about Father Christopher, a Catholic priest, who has heard many confessions from his parishioners. However, he decides to reveal his past as a pirate and how his own confession made him become a man of the cloth.

His adventures as a pirate made this novel akin to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson or the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian than a traditional science fiction novel or the science fantasies that Wolfe is known for.

Moreover, Wolfe is known for having unreliable narrators as his protagonists and making his readers work in his novels. Pirate Freedom bucks that tendency and read pretty straightforward and I felt the main character was a reliable narrator.

I believe that Pirate Freedom will disappoint Wolfe readers and fans because he decided to take a left turn from his standard themes in his other novels. Literary fiction readers would find this novel engaging and readable (like I did) but unless you’re a fan of sea adventure stories, it will leave you wanting more like eating an appetizer at your favorite restaurant.

However, Pirate Freedom is a good introduction into this celebrated author’s oeuvre and has made me want to read his aforementioned Sun Saga series to get a better representation of  how great a writer Wolfe really is.

Book Review 35: The Unspeakable by Tessa Stockton

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My first review of the new year is from a new novelist I had not read before. I enjoy discovering new authors and trying out someone outside of the mainstream of contemporary fiction is one of the great pleasures of reading fiction.

The Unspeakable by Tessa Stockton is a first-person narrative about Sylvia Abbott’s ordeal in Colombia’s guerilla war. The story focuses mostly on her relationship with her torturer, Horacio Botello AKA Puma.

Sylvia travels from her home in Portland, Oregon to Colombia to visit her brother, Spencer, who has been living there as a language instructor.  However, when she arrives her reunion with Spencer doesn’t go as planned and Sylvia becomes suspicious about her brother’s behavior and whom he is involved with. Her curiosity leads to being captured and tortured as a political prisoner.

There are several twists and turns in this thriller and I found the relationship between Sylvia and Puma the most intriguing parts of the novel. I thought their relationship was the most developed parts of the story and if the author could have focused the entire plot around those two characters the novel would have been more vibrant.

Moreover, I thought the pacing and rhythm of the story to be somewhat uneven.  Some chapters ended rather quickly and other chapters continued longer than I expected.  As soon as got into the flow of the story, the plot jerked in a different direction.

In closing, I felt the author knew the various aspects about torture, the politics of Colombia and the belief that anyone can be redeemed from a faith based perspective.  Ultimately, I wanted more from the story and didn’t quite get it.  Overall, I thought The Unspeakable was a decent read  and will keep an eye on Tessa Stockton’s works in the future.

Book Review 32: Daughter of Light by Morgan L. Busse

Every so often, you will get a book that takes awhile for you read for no apparent reason. Work schedule gets a little longer, family obligations eats up more of your time, and distractions from like getting sick or car problems will keep you from giving your full attention to reading.  However, once you’re able to get some reading time, the story takes you away from what life has thrown at you.

Daughter of Light became that book for me.

It’s a debut novel from Morgan L. Busse and the story revolves around Rowen, a young woman who got banished from her village because she was accused of being a witch. Even though she was devastated by her banishment, Rowen gets an opportunity to become a varor (bodyguard) for Lady Astrea, daughter of King Gaynor of White City.

Rowen’s journey from banishment to discovering her purpose and coming to grips with her gift has been told before in many fantasy novels. However, Busse adds her own style to this theme and creates a fully fleshed out fantasy world in Daughter of Light that made a familiar trip truly enjoyable to read.

Moreover, the story is infused with a Christian worldview, with acknowledgement to The Word as an ancient source of power, inspiration and faith for some of its citizens. It is definitely a reference to biblical scripture but Busse weaves it into her narrative pretty well without being preachy or overbearing.

I did think the rhythm of the novel was at a different speed than I’m used to from this genre. There were a lot of short sentences in the narrative where I was expecting longer flowing sentences and more expository passages. However, the characters were fully developed and made up for whatever lack of rhythm that the novel had.

Daughter of Light is an excellent addition to the fledging genre of Christian Speculative Fiction and should be recommended for all readers of fantasy literature.

Book Review 30: Junior by Ray Donley

“Junior, I did not know if the tape would be helpful, but you can never have enough good information. I did not trust Fairman, in part because I never trust men who marry rich women, particularly if they use their spouse’s money to fund their political amibitions. That’s just unseemly.

Now I had absolutely no idea that Fairman would defile those poor women, but his actions illustrate a truism you should never forget: men–be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, white, black, brown, or purple–are stupid when it comes to sex. At least once in his life, and generally dozens of times, a man will do something stupid because the blood leaves his brain and heads south. Never forget that, Junior. Every man you deal with his this defect, and there will come a time when you can use this defect to your advantage–like we are about to do with Fairman.

And one more thing. Truism number two is that all women know Truism number one. Not only are they aware of it, they rely on it.

Nothing like sex education from beyond the grave.”

That nugget of wisdom is from Joshua Jennings Jr’s journal in the hilarious, zany first novel, Junior by Ray Donley. Junior is a fugitive accused of bombing a Native American Reservation in New Mexico where the President and Vice President of the U.S. were killed along with his father.

However, Junior is shocked to hear his father’s voice on the tape recording saying that bombing was planned by him and Junior would be the main suspect of the murders.

Wow!

Did a father plan his own death and frame his son for the crime? In usual circumstances, a plot like this would be great for a mystery novel. But, Junior’s story is completely different than the standard whodunit story and his three years on-the-run journal is being hailed and praised as a classic study of the human condition.”

Well that hyperbolic statement is one of many in the novel that made me laugh out loud while reading it. Moreover, after reading serious books like Tracks by Louise Erdrich and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a over-the-top hilarious story is a much-needed and refreshing change of pace.

Junior pontificates in his journal on various topics: religion, politics, ethnic behavior and culture, sports, companionship, and his father whom he still loves despite his predictament. For example:

“Some interesting election news today. Dr. Davis and Big Fly Washington, the Democratic candidates, held a rally today at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Davis told the crowd: ‘I am going to say something very unusual, so you should probably pay attention.’ When the crowd stopped cheering, he continued:

A couple of weeks ago our Republican opponents took a bold stand by promising they would never commit this great country to a stupid war. Big Fly and I have talked about Ebenezer Cohen’s “no more stupid wars” speech and the truth of the matter is that we could not agree more. We join with Ebenezer Cohen and General Dozier in their stand that America should not fight any more stupid wars. I know it is rare for candidates to agree on anything, but we think Ebezener and General Dozier are exactly right on this issue and we thank them for elucidating it so clearly.

Civility in a presidential campaign? Agreement on an issue by the candidates? The end of the world as we know it must be right around the corner. Tell the Baptists that the Antichrist is lurking in the shadows.”  

Imagine if our current political climate could adopt this approach?  Hmmm…..

For serious readers, Junior has too many coincidences and over-the-top stories that would stretch the credulity of the story in their eyes.  I must admit I thought some of the journal entries were a little long-winded and bogged the story down a bit. Nevertheless, I had not read a novel this fun and imaginative since Tom Robbins’ counter-cultural best-selling novel, Jitterbug Perfume.

Junior was a breath of fresh air to read and the story had a fascinating premise with interesting characters and revealed the importance of a father/son relationship.

(Lastly, I would like to thank the author for providing me a copy of this novel to read and review for the blog.)