Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Inkheart" Kept Me Driving

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, tells the story of a man, Mo, who has an unusual talent. When he reads books, sometimes objects or characters materialize in our world, and in their place something or someone from our world disappears into the world of the story. The problem is, he has no control over what comes out and what goes in. Nine years ago, he read out three men, two quite evil, and his own wife disappeared. Now, the bad guys are catching up with Mo and his daughter Meggie, and Meggie, 12, doesn’t know the truth about her mother or about her father’s talent.

The setting is confusing at first. It sound Old World for a bit, especially in the names of some of the characters, like Silvertongue (what Mo is sometimes called), Capricorn, Dustfinger, and Basta, not to mention the presence of fictional characters, like fairies and a horned martin. But then there are references to the modern world, like cars and cell phones. The setting only begins to make sense as you learn about Mo’s gift and the tragedy that occurred almost a decade previous.

The characters are colorful and interesting. The story is imaginative and suspenseful, and there are plenty of twists and turns.

A couple of quibbles: First, I was amazed at how often Mo doesn’t tell his daughter the truth or doesn’t keep his promises to her/others. It appears he is motivated by love for Meggie, but 1) his deceptions aren't always for Meggie's sake, and 2) one looks for a bit more honesty/faithfulness in a “good guy.” Second, the solution that the “good guys” develop and count on isn’t realistic by the rules of the Inkheart’s world itself. But these two items detract little from the story.

Is Inkheart good? I only listen to books on tape (Yes, “tape”) in my van. Inkheart, 10 cassette tapes long, tempted me to take longer routes to my destinations. It successfully tempted me to drive to work rather than walk the mile each way.

First line: Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.

Last line: As Mo had said: writing stories is a kind of magic, too.

Book Publication: ©2003 in German. Translated into English by Anthea Bell. 534 pages.

My rating (on a 5-point scale): 4

*****************
COMMENT ON INKHEART MOVIE
The movie, starring Brendan Fraser as Mo, doesn’t do the book justice (though I think Fraser does a good job). The story is collapsed significantly; thus the tension doesn’t have time to build. Further, the characters are not nearly as colorful. Basta seems more foolish than evil. The book’s Capricorn leaves you shuddering; the movie’s Capricorn does not.

Monday, September 27, 2010

If All Salesmen Were As Good As This Guy, I'd Be Broke

A knock at the door brought me up from the basement Sunday afternoon, inwardly grumbling about the possibility of a salesman disturbing me on a Sunday.

It was a salesman, but he was good. I agreed to give him $12 in November when he brought me a bag of caramel corn, and only 11 oz. of caramel corn at that. I don’t even like caramel corn!

(It’d be nice to say how much I despise caramel corn here--how it has caused me no end of heartache, how it led to my braces and to my merciless ridicule in middle school and my extreme emotional trauma, etc. It's be nice to say all that here because that denunciation would heighten your interest in this amazing salesman. But I never wore braces, and there are a couple brands of caramel corn I do like.)

This guy was probably a little shorter than Anna, was probably born shortly after the Twin Towers went down, and he had a round innocent face.

His pitch started off--no joke--“Hi, Mister … (to himself) No … (looking up at me again) My name is Ezekiel.” It’s like Dad had gone over his presentation with him before he started out, but he just hadn’t quite nailed it down yet.

He was with the Scouts selling popcorn. He had on his Scout cap, his navy Scout shirt--troop 3092, his Scout neckerchief, and black athletic shorts. (The black shorts made me think it was Dad out in the minivan at a discreet distance and not Mom.)

CUTE! That’s what I’m trying to say in all this. CUTE! Ezekiel was adorable. I did not want to buy popcorn. I did not want to spend any money, but I wanted to do something for this cute, innocent Scout, and so I looked over the order form. He may not have had his pitch down yet, but clearly other neighbors were moved by this little cherubic salesman in the same way I was. Six or seven had already purchased popcorn, and my $12 was the cheapest order placed yet.

As I was filling out the order form, Ezekiel was whispering to himself, and it sounded like he was excited that someone else was buying, like he just couldn’t keep it in. He was softly exclaiming something like, "Yes! All right!"

“Do you like Scouts?” I asked.

“Oh yeah! If you have any kids you should let them do Scouts because it’s a whole lot of fun!” A pause. "I like your piano."

"Thanks. Do you play piano?"

"No, I have some drums."

"Oh, you're a drummer!"

"Yeah. I'm kind of more into rock music."

Priceless. I love this kid.

He left. I watched him go to the next house, the minivan slowly following him. I continued smiling. He reminded me of Andrew when Andrew was his age, full of boyish exuberance, and for a few moments I missed my 8-year-old son.

Don't get me wrong; I love 15-year-old Andrew. He's a delight.

Twelve dollars. Too much for caramel corn, but I think it was worth the exchange with Ezekiel and the reminder to enjoy my children at every age.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jungle Sunrise a Good Read

Jungle Sunrise, by Jonathan Williams, is better than I expected. Overall, I’m not impressed with today’s Christian fiction. There are several exceptions, of course, one being Jungle Sunrise.

The best thing about Jungle Sunrise is simply its story. It’s riveting because of its twists, turns, and frequent surprises. The novel actually starts as two stories that eventually merge into one—the story of a young missionary couple, Memphis and Abigail, and the story of a young writer, Jonah, who is down on his luck. The narrative is vivid, and the pace is perfect. There are no lulls. The author tells the story with a good balance of economy and detail.

Further, it’s an action/adventure story. It's more than that, but it’s at least that. One of the endorsements on the back cover warns, “Do not start reading until you have some time because you won’t put it down.” That was very near true for me. It took me about a week to read, but only because I was short on time. It certainly ranks as a page-turner.

The cast of characters is not large, but most of them are interesting and endearing, though character development is somewhat lacking. The story reminds the reader of both the sacrifices and the rewards of missionary life, as well as the dangers that many missionaries face. It also challenges the reader—at least it challenged me—regarding his devotion to Christ and Christ’s kingdom. Conversion is depicted, but not in depth. I don’t know that this is necessarily a weakness. In a way it serves as a subtle reminder that conversion and regeneration is ultimately hidden from our eyes, an invisible work of the Spirit as mysterious as the wind (cf. John 3:8).

My 13-year-old daughter asked to read Jungle Sunrise when I was done. I think she’s going to enjoy it, be spiritually nourished by it, and want to discuss it.

My rating (on a 5-point scale): 4

Further Details:
©2010 Nordskog Publishing, Inc., 211 pages.

First line: Memphis gripped his four-foot-long wooden bow in his left hand as he knelt on one knee behind the thick brush.

Last lines: “Today, I will live,” he declared. “Tomorrow, I will write.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bible Notes: Ex 6

Ex 6:1-8. God portrays himself to Moses as the God of action in the past:
  • He appeared to Abraham.
  • He appeared to Isaac.
  • He appeared to Jacob.
  • He established his covenant with them, promising to give them Canaan.
  • He heard the groaning of Israel.
  • He remembered his covenant.

... and in the future:
  • He will deliver them from the Egyptians, from their burdens, their slavery.
  • He will do so with a powerful arm and with acts of judgment.
  • He will make Israel his people, and he will be their God.
  • He will bring them to the promised land.
  • He will give it to them as there possession.
Our God is a God of action, then and now.

Driving DJ

While waiting to pull out on to a busy Coliseum Blvd this afternoon, a guy approached me.

"Excuse me, sir. My car broke down. Do you think you could give me a ride?"

"To where?"

"Downtown."

(Reluctantly) "Sure, hope in."

In the space of just a few minutes, he asked me my name, occupation, and age (but not my weight, party, or military experience). I felt free to ask the same questions in return.

As 27-year-old homeless unemployed DJ and I headed downtown, he laid out a sad story I'm familiar with. (It's critical to lay this groundwork before one asks for charity.)

Sidenote: I'm guessing knowing that I was a pastor was empowering to him, although I'm pretty sure he would have asked me for financial help anyway.

First, he asked me for money for food. I told him I'd be happy to stop at McDonald's and get him a meal, but I did not have cash on me.

Next he told me what he really needed money for was for a phone card (apparently not food). He had applied for several jobs, but his phone died, and no one could therefore get a hold of him. Could we stop at an ATM and get some cash for him?

Nope. I don't do ATMs.

"Where downtown?" I asked.

"I really need to go further."

"Where?"

The Marathon at Oxford and Hanna. And could I get him a phone card to boost his phone?

"How much?"

"$20."

"I can do that."

Going in to the store he asked me, "Get me some smokes, too?"

(Smiling) "No, just the phone card."

He smiled, too. "All right, man."

Waiting in line, he said, in a questioning sort of way, "$50 gets me unlimited minutes for a month."

"No, I'll just do the $20."

Guess what? Marathon only takes cash for phone cards. At this point, he and I are both bummed. He then asked me to take him to another place, close by.

I agreed, and finally there, on Clinton, at a small Boost shop, we got his phone card. He grinned, thanked me, and shook my hand ... and asked me to drop him back at the Marathon.

Dropping him there, he thanked me again.

In retrospect ...

  • This was one instance where I was glad I didn't have cash on me.
  • I got to see where Ward School is. A friend of mine taught there not long ago, and I never knew where it was. Turns out it's just down from the Marathon I visited twice today.
  • I'm sure this guy was lying to me about some things--maybe the homelessness, maybe the broken down car, maybe the job apps, maybe his name. But I don't know that I would have done anything different if I could have.
  • I could have been in danger. That's why common wisdom is not to pick up strangers. Sara asked me, "Did you pray about this?" I didn't have time. I didn't know he was going to ask me for a ride. At this point I was trusting in God's sovereignty and protection, and I was consciously trusting in it.

Jessica told me her mom's instructions: When you see a hitchhiker, don't pick them up right away. Pray about it. Circle back. If the hitchhiker is still there, then pick them up. They're meant for you.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A 15-Story Middle Finger

Thomas Sowell's editorial on the proposed NYC mosque is worth reading, even beyond the first two priceless lines:

"The proposed mosque near where the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed, along with thousands of American lives, would be a 15-story middle finger to America.

"It takes a high IQ to evade the obvious, so it is not surprising that the intelligentsia are out in force, decrying those who criticize this calculated insult."


Side note: Andrew asked me about posting the above quote on his Facebook status. His mom wasn't sure. I told him I was planning on putting it on my blog, to which he replied (perhaps more astutely than he realized), "But not as many people read your blog."

Whither Our Immorality?

Pastor Ryan said this from the pulpit Sunday, and I think insightfully so:

"Our drive for and obsession with pleasure and what makes me happy has been the leading cause of the downward spiral of morals in our society."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bible Notes: Ex 2,5

Ex 2:23-25. The Hebrews languished under slavery. They “groaned … cried out … [and gave] cry for rescue.” God is not absent. He is close to the brokenhearted (Ps 34:18). Here we read “God heard … God remembered … God saw ... God knew.” (ESV)

Ex 5. Moses and Aaron’s initial confrontation of Pharaoh doesn’t bring any gains; quite the opposite, it brings further suffering. The flow of information regarding the new hard-nosed policy is delineated in this chapter through a series of brief conversations (summarized below).
  • Pharaoh to taskmasters (Egyptians) and foremen (Hebrew): “No more straw provision but same quota of bricks.”
  • Taskmasters and foremen to Hebrews: “No more straw provision but same quota of bricks.”
  • Taskmasters to Hebrews: “You’re slacking.”
  • Taskmasters to foremen (as they were beating them): “Why are you behind?”
  • Foremen to Pharaoh: “You’re unfair!”
  • Pharaoh to foremen: “That you want to worship in the desert shows you’re too idle.”
  • Foremen to Moses and Aaron: “The Lord judge you for what you have done to us!”
  • Moses to Yahweh: “Why?!”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bible Notes: Ex 1-2

Ex 1:8-2:10. No matter how powerful you are, if God is against you, you aren’t going to accomplish what you want. Pharaoh devises three successive plans to subdue and weaken the Hebrews, and none of them truly work.

--First, they enslaved them. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (1:12 ESV).

--Second, the Hebrew midwives were instructed to kill the Hebrew sons born. “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them … So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong” (1:17,20 ESV).

--Third, Pharaoh commands “all his people” to cast every Hebrew baby boy into the Nile. But what happens?
  • One of his people, in fact one very close to him, his daughter, instead of throwing a Hebrew baby into the Nile, draws one out of the Nile! The very opposite of what he commands! And here thwarted by his own daughter!
  • Then that boy is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter and goes on to completely free the Hebrews from Egypt’s clutches.
  • And get this: “She named him Moses, ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’” (2:10). The boy's name, which is similar to the Hebrew word for “draw out,” stands as a defiant reminder that even Pharaoh’s family, his daughter in this case, can be used by God to foil Pharaoh’s plans!

I am reminded of Ps 33:10-11: “The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (NIV).


Ex 2:15-21. Parallels between Moses and Jacob.
--Both fled to another land. (cf. Gen 27:42-45)
--Both came to a well. (cf. Gen 29:2)
--Both watered the flocks of their future wife at the well. (cf. Gen 29:10)
--Both went home to the woman’s father, stayed with him, and helped shepherd his flocks (cf. Gen 29:15-20).
--Both eventually married the shepherdess at the well (cf. Gen 29:28).
Ironic that the one then led Israel into Egypt (cf. Gen 46:5-7), and the other led them out some 400 years later.

Bible Notes: Gen 46

Gen 46:1-4. It’s interesting that the Lord appears to Jacob on his journey to Egypt to tell him several things, including that Joseph will close his eyes in death. God’s revelations are often scant. Perhaps some might wonder if the Lord couldn’t have appeared at some point over the last 14 years to let Jacob know that Joseph was at least alive. Of course, the Lord has his superior reasons.

Monday, September 6, 2010

9 Probable Complaints of Americans in the Desert

What if Moses had led the Americans from Egypt to the Promised Land? What would they have complained about?

  1. Only water? No coffee? No Espresso?”
  2. Too many dropped calls in desert region
  3. No separation of church and state
  4. The blue laws
  5. Cruelty to animals, especially sheep
  6. Health care: “You’re joking, right? You want me to look at a snake statue? How about a prescription, Doc?!”
  7. The taxes: “A half shekel!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! … What’s a shekel?”
  8. Capital punishment for alternative sexual proclivities
  9. The Ten Commandments posted everywhere

Saturday, September 4, 2010

"The Trivialization of God" Renews Appreciation of God's Holiness

I picked up The Trivialization of God by Donald W. McCullough several years ago when I saw it listed as a book award winner in Christianity Today. (That would be some time ago, because it's been quite a while since I subscribed to CT.) But I only read it this past month.

Subtitle: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity
Copyright: 1995

McCullough attempts to get us back to an appreciation of God's holiness by pointing out how we've domesticated God. In truth, we haven't actually domesticated God; rather, we practice idolatry with such idols as god-of-my-success, god-of-my-comfort, god-of-my-nation, god-of-my-experience, god-of-my-understanding, and god-of-my-cause.

McCullough then goes on to explain God's holiness in terms of his majesty and in terms of his moral purity. He then talks about God's revelation in Jesus Christ and about how his holiness moves him to build a community of the redeemed. The balance of the book focuses on aspects of that community: worship, Word, and love.

On balance I appreciate the book. Engaging illustrations abound. The theology seems sound despite a fascination with Barth and Tillich. And he reframes theological truths in helpful and enlightening ways.

The book is helpful in knocking the reader off center when it comes to his nonchalant certainty about God (one of the chapters is even entitled "In Praise of Agnosticism"), thus renewing awe for God's ways and power expressed in the community of the saints.

The book is readable: barely 150 pages long, 10 chapters even, many stories.

Curious were the endnotes: Many of cited secondary sources. He referred to ministry and theological journals which cited the stories, quotes, and illustrations he used.

First line: Visit a church on Sunday morning--almost any will do--and you will likely find a congregation comfortably relating to a deity who fits nicely within precise doctrinal positions, or who lends almighty support to social crusades, or who conforms to individual spiritual experiences.

Last line: I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me--will this commandment be first in our lives?

My ranking (out of 5): 3 1/2

Friday, September 3, 2010

9 Reasons I'm Glad I'm Not Living in a Star Wars Universe

1. Luke Skywalker as a whiny young man and Anakin Skywalker as a whiny young man annoy the snot out of me.

2. I would be against electing Senator Palpatine emperor from the beginning, but I would be in the minority, everyone thinking him to be the savior we all need, not recognizing the totalitarian brand of socialism he would foist upon us.

3. I think I would find Darth Vader’s heavy breathing distracting.

4. I’m afraid I would laugh unceremoniously at Queen Amidala’s hairdo, thus jeopardizing diplomacy.

5. The fact that Anakin didn’t have a biological father would mess with my theology.

6. At some point in Imperial politics, a Gungan could be just a heartbeat away from the emperorship.

7. I’m allergic to Wookie dander.

8. X-Wing Fighter emissions rip holes in the ozone layer.

9. Because Yoda sounds so much like Fozzie Bear, I’d be forever waiting for “Wocka, wocka, wocka” and a punch line.

Bible Notes: Gen 37-44

Gen 40-41. Joseph and Daniel, both dream interpreters, are quick to point out that it is actually God who gives them the interpretation of dreams.
--And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” (Gen 40:8; all quotes from ESV)
--And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “… I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Gen 41:15-16)
--The king said to Daniel, … “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” Daniel answered the king and said, “No … but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, … this mystery has been revealed to me.” (Dan 2:26-30)


Gen 37-44. Joseph’s brothers appear to undergo transformation (for the better) from the time they sell Joseph to the time they buy from him. Judah’s transformation is most explicit. In on the plan to kill his brother, Judah is the one who persuades his brothers to turn this whole scenario for profit. “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh” (37:26-27).

But 14 years later, Judah pledges Benjamin’s safety to father Jacob if Jacob will just let Benjamin go with them the second time to Egypt--Benjamin must go if they are to obtain food (Gen 43:8-9).

(And remember, Benjamin is another favored brother, as Joseph was. But there is no ire in Judah now.)

And when Joseph announces his intention to incarcerate Benjamin and let the rest go free, Judah pleads with Joseph to take him instead and let Benjamin go free, not wishing to bring more sorrow to father Jacob (Gen 44:18-34).

So Judah goes from being a man who sells his favored brother into slavery, to being a man who is willing to indenture himself in order to free another favored brother. Quite a transformation!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Submarine Book As Monotonous As Submarine Life

Snapshot from my middle school days: A couple other boys and I are sitting around a table in the Kekionga Middle School library. The other boys are testing my speed reading ability. They decide to time how long it takes me to read two pages of my current book. They are duly impressed.

Snapshot from a couple months ago: I remember that scene at Kekionga, and I remember the book I was reading—Run Silent, Run Deep. But I don’t remember the story line, only that it was about a military submarine. Looking for a different kind of novel, I decide to read it again.
*****
Written by Capt. Edward L. Beach of the U.S. Navy, Run Silent, Run Deep, copyright 1955, tells the tale of a U.S. submarine skipper during the last half of WWII, from shortly before Pearl Harbor on.

I have no plans to read this a third time. The story is somewhat interesting, but the author takes too long (364 pages) to tell it. The conflicts in the story occur between Commander Richardson and Bungo Pete, a Japanese boat skipper who is notorious for his success in sinking U.S. subs, and between Commander Richardson and his second-in-command, Jim, who nurses a grudge against Richardson for pulling the plug on Jim’s chance for promotion. Throw in a love triangle between Richardson, Jim, and Laura, and you’ve got the potential for a good story. But ...

The story bogs down in the details of submarine maneuvers. To his credit, the author continues to shorten up such descriptions as the novel progresses, but by then he’s already torpedoed interest. There came a point about halfway through where I considered whether to quit or continue.

The other weak element of the story is the love triangle. The reader gets the impression at the beginning of the story that the Laura aspect of the story is going to play a big role throughout. It doesn’t.

Unique is a beautiful, almost poetic, passage towards the end of the book that honors the sacrifice of all soldiers in wartime (quoted at the end of this post).

Apparently, my opinion of the book isn’t everyone’s. It was made into a movie starring Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, and Don Rickles (his first movie appearance). If the library has it, I plan to watch it.

First line: “My name is Edward G. Richardson and I am a Commander in the Navy, skipper of the submarine Eel.”

Last line: “For once there’ll be plenty of time for everything.”

My rating (out of 5): 2

*****
Inspiring passage from Run Silent, Run Deep
Captain Blunt, informing Commander Richardson that another sub was lost:
“There are some parts of that ocean out near Japan which are worth more than any material value can ever express. They are parts which are consecrated, for they are hallowed by our heroic dead. One day God, in His infinite wisdom, may let us see the reason why some men must die young that others may live to a useless old age—why men like me, who have never heard a shot or seen a torpedo fired in anger, must be the arbiter of life and death for younger and better men….

“Every grave on land and in that ocean is a tomb to an ideal. Some of the ideals are wrong, some right. But the graves are never wrong—they are monuments to the heroic men of either side who sleep there. For who has the right to say to the men who bear the brunt of the battle, ‘This was wrong, this was worthless to die for?’ Is not the warrior the purest and most heroic of all, because he dies for his beliefs? It is the men who send the warriors on their quests who must answer to that question.”
(308)