September 08, 2007

Author Madeleine L'Engle Has Died

Author Madeleine L'Engle, whose best known book A Wrinkle In Time was rejected several times before finally being published (and went on to win a Newberry Medal for best children's book in 1963) has died at age 88. From the Associated Press:

Author Madeleine L'Engle, whose novel "A Wrinkle in Time" has captivated generations of schoolchildren and adults since the 1960s, has died, her publicist said Friday. She was 88. L'Engle died Thursday at a nursing home in Litchfield, said Jennifer Doerr, publicity manager for publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Newbery Medal winner wrote more than 60 books, including fantasies, poetry and memoirs, often highlighting spiritual themes and her Christian faith.

For many years, she was the writer in residence and librarian at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Although L'Engle was often labeled a children's author, she disliked that classification. In a 1993 Associated Press interview, she said she did not write down to children.

"In my dreams, I never have an age," she said. "I never write for any age group in mind. ... When you underestimate your audience, you're cutting yourself off from your best work."

She will be truly missed.

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July 19, 2007

Christian Fantasy Literature, Minus Hogwarts

Someone once said (I'm thinking C. S. Lewis, but if you know the quote, please note it in a comment) something to the effect that we don't need more good Christian literature, we need more good literature by Christians. Does the trend mentioned in this news story portend more of the former or the latter?

Could the next Harry Potter be a devout Christian?

As the days tick down until Saturday, when a breathless world learns the fate of the teenage wizard, a new breed of fantasy fiction, with Potter-style stories, is emerging.

Like the Potter series, it has mystical creatures, macabre events, epic battles and heroic young protagonists.

But, unlike the Potter books, this genre has overt Christian tones: messiah-like kings who return from the dead, fallen satanic characters and young heroes who undergo profound conversions. What you won't generally find: humans waving wands and performing spells.

Christian fantasy, which had been a slow seller, has caught fire recently, industry analysts say, ignited by the success of the Potter series, which has sent some Christian readers looking for alternatives.

What could come of this is a boatload of Narnia knockoffs, most with the same redemption allegory. Now, I'm not knocking the allegory itself, per se; there's certainly nothing wrong with presenting the "old, old story" in a new way. But not everything written by Christians has to be a thin veneer overlaying the New Testament.

And there are a lot of good books written that happen to be written by Christians. In our house, Ted Dekker is a big name, not only for his incredible thriller and suspense novels, but because he went to the same missionary boarding school in Indonesia as my wife and was just a grade or two ahead.

The article notes that the Potter controversy continues (interestingly, Dobson has praises for the series), while the array of other options is on the increase. But with great popularity comes great mediocrity, and just because the author's a Christian doesn't mean it's a masterpiece. But trust me, those masterpieces do exist, and we need more of them.

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June 12, 2007

Book Review: Ten Tortured Words

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."
- First Amendment of the United States Constitution

The words seem so straightforward and simple. Yet no other part of the Constitution of the United States is so misunderstood and misconstrued as the First Amendment, particularly the first ten words which deal with freedom of religion. Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield delves into the history of the amendment that has caused more uproar and more court battles than any other in his outstanding new book Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America...and What's Happened Since.

Mansfield, who has spent many years working on behalf of religious liberty all over the world, starts with a careful examination of the Founders original intent in crafing the First Amendment. He takes the reader back inside the debates within the Constitutional Convention and the amendment is being debated. By relying on the transcripts from the Convention, he shares the Founders thoughts in their own words. As the original intent behind the amendment is revealed it is easy to see how these ten words have been so twisted over time.

But the story doesn't just end there. In fact, the drafting of the amendment is really only the beginning of the story. Mansfield moves on to a detailed examination of the man whose words in a private letter have become the basis for almost all battles over religious liberty in the United States for the past sixty years: Thomas Jefferson.

On January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. The Danbury Baptists had written to Jefferson regarding concerns they had about the government's role in religion. Jefferson's reply included a phrase that has since become familiar to many Americans: "a wall of separation between church and state". Although Jefferson's intent was to simply emphasize that the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from establishing any particular religion (similar to the Church of England in Britain), many courts have taken the phrase to mean that the government should not have any role in religion and vice versa.

It was the Supreme Court, in the case of Everson vs. Board of Education (1947) that would first use the "wall of separation" phrase. What's most interesting about this decision is not so much the case itself (although the case is quoted in the appendices and reveals the convoluted logic the Court used to arrive at its decision) but the personalities behind the case, particularly Justice Hugo Black who authored the decision.

Perhaps most surprising is the chapter on the ACLU and their involvement in First Amendment litigation. Many readers will no doubt be shocked to learn how the ACLU has turned this type of litigation into a profit-making endeavor by taking advantage of loopholes in current civil rights statutes.

Ten Tortured Words brings history alive through its engaging narrative. Mansfield avoids the trap of getting bogged down in legalese in discussing the court cases and instead focuses as much attention on the personalities involved in the battles. As a result, it is a highly entertaining and informative book.

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January 16, 2007

Book Review: Christian Theologies of Scripture

Matt Stokes, former Stone (but always welcome back, dude) got a copy of a book he enjoyed and wanted to bring to the attention of our SCO readers.

I must confess that my knowledge of theology is not particularly strong. That's not to say that I am happy with this state of affairs. I am most certainly not. Yet I have only a passing knowledge of Christian theology, just enough to nod and comment over coffee. I have ideas about what I like and do not like about certain theologies, but it would be a stretch to say that I could adequately promulgate a particular line of theology. Therefore it was to my great relief that I was presented a copy of Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, a helpful volume edited by Justin Holcomb.

Holcomb is a lecturer at both the University of Virginia and Reformed Theological Seminary, and he has done a masterful job of editing this volume. Within this text the reader finds brief essays outlining a multitude of angles on the subject, from medieval interpretations of Scripture to the approach of the postmodernists in our own time. In between the reader is introduced to all the ideas of names familiar to any adherent and student of Christianity: Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Balthasar and Barth. This review will not examine every chapter, but I do hope to demonstrate some general strengths and weaknesses found in this volume.

This anthology is particularly important as Christians Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox are currently making a concerted effort to understand doctrine outside the parameters of traditional denominational theology. Moreover it is helpful for both the studious believer and the purely academic student of the Christian faith to understand the multitude of theologies that have existed throughout history. This is particularly important as so many of theologies discussed in this book those of Luther, Calvin, Barth, post-modernism, African-American theology and feminist theory remain hugely influential in much of American Christianity.

It is for this reason that I found the chapters dealing with the above topics to be so beneficial. R.R. Renos chapter on Origen was useful, but academic in the sense that one would not immediately recognize Origens influence in modern Christianity. By contrast, Lutherans, Calvinists and students or adherents of the Emergent Church would find chapters specifically relevant to their own callings and pursuits. Of course the purpose of this volume is simply to inform the Christian laymen. This is an academic text, and in this regard, the book is a great success. Desiring a basic understanding of the various Christian interpretations of Scripture, the reader is presented with the historical Catholic interpretations of St. Thomas Aquinas and the later Counter-Reformation as well as the Protestant Reformers and their numerous descendants.

As someone with more conservative leanings in both theology and politics, it is tempting to offer a more detailed analysis of the chapters on feminism and post-modernism. Instead, one can say, as do the authors themselves, that feminism, post-modernism and African-American theologies are so often rooted in experience. This hits, in so many ways, at the dividing line between many believers. What shall determine our theology? Scripture alone, or should experience that of the Church or that of a particular group (women, African-Americans, other minorities) define theology? There is no clear answer in this volume, nor should there be. This is a question for another volume. If it were handled as well as Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, students of Christianity would be indeed be fortunate.

Posted by Doug at 12:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 11, 2006

"The God Delusion"

John Bambenek, writing at Blogger News Network, has a devastating review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. What some are hailing as a defense of reason, Bambenek shows to be what he calls, "a rehash of pop philosophy and loosely strung together anecdotes, half-truths, and outright falsehoods". Well worth reading.

Posted by Doug at 09:19 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 31, 2006

Changes in China?

More religious openness in China? Could be happening.

A Christian author has been permitted to sign his books at a press conference at the Beijing International Book Fair, a first, according to Chinese officials.

"This is the first time in the history of China that an international religious leader has been permitted to sign copies of his book in a large public secular venue," said Shen Weiping of the China Association for International Friendly Contact.

The signing was by evangelist Luis Palau, whose book, "Riverside Talks: A Friendly Dialogue Between an Atheist and a Christian," was released Wednesday at a Beijing news conference cut short when the crowd of journalists, photographers and television crews rushed the stage to get autographed copies and interview the authors.

It's the first time such a book has been issued in China, according to Craig Chastain of the Luis Palau Association, because it has a clear statement of the beliefs of Christianity and a description of how to become a Christian.

There were 500 copies of the book prepared for the book fair, but they were snatched up immediately.

I suppose this could be considered propaganda, but considering the description of the book, I kinda doubt it.

Palau wrote the book with Zhao Qizheng, the vice chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and former minister of information for the People's Republic of China.

As he used the book, Palau also used the press attention to explain what is meant when Christians say they follow Jesus or have peace with God.

"I believe with my whole heart that God loves China. I believe He has a special message for China and wants nothing more than to share His love with the entire nation," Palau said.

Zhao told reporters that the book – as well as his friendship with Palau – models how two people with different ideologies and backgrounds can have a dialogue and be friends.

The book was started several years ago when Zhao suggested a project to build bridges and mutual understanding, and the two held a series of face-to-face conversations.

Tapes of those meetings were turned into book form.

The project, the authors said, is a dialogue, not a debate between opposing perspectives – an atheist and a theist, a scientist and a Christian evangelist, a Marxist scholar and a religious scholar, a leader from the East and a leader from the West.

They exchanged ideas and beliefs on ethics, politics, atheism, Confucianism, Chinese and Western cultures, the Bible, religion, history, creation, philosophy and the relevance of Jesus Christ to society.

A book that describes a discussion of the Christian faith with a member of the Chinese government is certainly a big step forward. Yes, they apparently cover a wide range of topics, and perhaps the Christian message of saving from sin is spread thin among all the other information. However, it sounds like it presents the Christian perspective on a number of other relevant topics, something that many Chinese may not otherwise get exposed to. It could break down the disinformation they may have heard. This is certainly a good first step.

Hopefully also, a good first step toward the end of the persecution of Christian in that country.

Posted by Doug at 03:50 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 18, 2006

What's Da Big Deal About Da Vinci?

"The Da Vinci Code" is a work of fiction, right? Right, but it's based on a series of "facts", many of which have been debunked. Thus it winds up leaving to the reader where to draw the line as to where fact stops and the fiction begins, even when dealing with Brown's "facts".

The results, then, are not surprising.


"The Da Vinci Code" has undermined faith in the Roman Catholic Church and badly damaged its credibility, a survey of British readers of Dan Brown's bestseller showed on Tuesday.

People are now twice as likely to believe Jesus Christ fathered children after reading the Dan Brown blockbuster and four times as likely to think the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is a murderous sect.

"An alarming number of people take its spurious claims very seriously indeed," said Austin Ivereigh, press secretary to Britain's top Catholic prelate Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

"Our poll shows that for many, many people the Da Vinci Code is not just entertainment," Ivereigh added.

The Edmonton Journal:
Almost one in five Canadians believe that Jesus Christ's death on the cross was faked and that he married and had a family, according to a new poll that challenges the cornerstone Christian belief in the resurrection.

Albertans were most likely to accept The Da Vinci Code's premise, with 22 per cent reporting they believe in a hoax.

See extended entry for an update.

It is true that this book and movie will also cause people to look more closely at the Bible to find the truth, but I believe it will mostly be those who would already be skeptical of Brown's book. But the price at which this is bought--the further distancing from the truth those who haven't made up their mind--seems too high for a Christian to stomach. Saying "it's just fiction" doesn't answer the problem. Saying "I wasn't fooled" ignores the problem. Saying "only the foolish will be fooled" condemns the uneducated and ignorant (something Jesus wouldn't do).

The reason Christians need to make a noise about this is because the truth is being muddled to the point that people are being led away from the truth under the guise of a work that, while covered by the fig leaf of the label "historical fiction", blurs the line between "historical" and "fiction" so profoundly that a significant number of people can't tell the difference.

If someone wrote a "historical fiction" novel about the the battle of Gettysburg with as many problems with the facts as "The Da Vinci Code" has, it would be rightly panned by Civil War historians. It wouldn't change their minds as to the truth of what happened during that battle, but they would be properly concerned that the general public, who didn't have the same information they do nor necessarily the inclination to research it, would tend to believe it. They would try to convince people to stay away from such a movie. No one would blame them. It should be the same for the response you're hearing from many churches (sans any calls for banning books or movies).

And with "The Da Vinci Code", there's far more at stake than simple historical accuracy. There's eternity to consider.

UPDATE: In case you still think that Dan Brown's motive is purely entertainment, consider this quote from an interview on CNN (emphasis mine):

SAVIDGE: Obviously, you were just looking at the Last Supper there. When we talk about da Vinci and your book, how much is true and how much is fabricated in your storyline?

BROWN: 99 percent of it is true. All of the architecture, the art, the secret rituals, the history, all of that is true, the Gnostic gospels. All of that is -- all that is fiction, of course, is that there's a Harvard symbologist named Robert Langdon, and all of his action is fictionalized. But the background is all true.

This is a book meant to persuade under the guise of entertainment.

Posted by Doug at 01:47 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 18, 2005

"No More Christian Nice Guy"

Bryan Preston has a review of the book by that name. An excerpt:

Modern Christian men, argues Coughlin, have grown up with an image of Jesus as always patient, longsuffering, deferrent and even obsequious and effette. This softheaded, soft-focus Jesus is a false image that removes the very masculine character of Christ's leadership, thereby giving Christian men a false understanding of their role in life and church. Christian men cannot be effective leaders if they're afraid that Christ discourages them from being men. Coughlin argues that the Christian Nice Guy who is a product of this false, emasculated Jesus is unwilling to stand for truth, to battle wrong and to make waves. Ultimately, the Christian Nice Guy lives in fear that he'll upset someone, and so he takes no action even when he sees clearly that something must be done, and perhaps even knows what that something is.

Christ never lived that way. He picked fights with the Pharisees to expose their hypocrisy, used sarcasm to mock their false holiness and their stinginess, and even went on a rampage in the middle of the temple in order to correct gross misconduct. Christ never feared that his actions might upset someone, and in fact at times went out of his way to say upsetting things in order to advance truth.

Posted by Doug at 10:12 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

October 13, 2005

The Outdoor Bible

A few weeks ago I received a sample in the mail of a new Bible called the Outdoor Bible. When I first heard about this I was admittedly skeptical given the recent efforts to repackage the Bible and market it to different audiences (this and this are some of the more extreme examples of this practice). However, when I actually got my hands on the Outdoor Bible I was pleasantly surprised.

The Outdoor Bible was the brainchild of two friends who loved the outdoors but couldn't figure out how to carry a Bible with them that wouldn't get wet or ruined by weather. Eventually they came up with this product which is very durable and folds compactly and is easy to carry in a backpack.

This is one of the few instances where I can say a "repackaging" of the Bible makes sense as this is a very handy way for hikers and other outdoor lovers to carry the Bible with them wherever they go.

Posted by Tom at 04:25 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 14, 2005

Total Truth Wins Award

Congratulations to Nancy Pearcey whose groundbreaking book Total Truth has just been awarded the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book in the category of Christianity and Society.

This is by far one of the best and most important books I have read in quite some time. My review of the book is available here.

Congratulations to Nancy for this award.

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March 14, 2005

How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

Tim Challies is not kind to Blog. No, not kind at all.

As I read Blog, I was continually struck by how self-serving the book seemed. It struck me as being almost like the biography of a proud, self-made billionaire, except with site traffic and recognition in place of dollars and European models. If you do not know how many visits Hugh has to his blog in an average day, a busy day or an election day, you will before you have finished the book. You will know how many blogs have been started because of his influence and just how useful a link from his blog to yours can be. I came to realize, though, that in a sense the blogosphere is built on just this sort of self-importance. Bloggers succeed by driving visitors to their sites by whatever means possible. The most important person in the blogosphere is the one with the greatest readership, just like the most important person in my hometown is the one with the most money. And lest I sound hypocritical, I will admit that I have a blog of my own and that I have no right to cast the first stone.

But it's not all bad . . .

This book has much to say that is valuable, especially in regards to the importance of trust and the application of blogging to corporations and organizations. Unfortunately, I found it frantically-written and poorly-organized. I wanted to love it, but in the end just could not. Yet I still do give recommend it, especially to those in positions of leadership. Its alarmist tone may convince some of the value of blogging, but I suspect just as many others will be put-off. I agree with Hewitt that the blogosphere is giving individuals power in the marketplace of ideas and agree that this is generally a good thing. I think there is great future for the blogosphere.

Go here for the whole review.

Posted by Drew at 10:27 PM | Comments (2)

Who Would Jesus Dismiss?

(Hat Tip: Brainpost)

You may not have heard that a professor was recently fired from the University of Colorado for his controversial viewpoint. No, I'm not talking about Ward Churchill -- he's still there. I'm talking about Phil Mitchell, a professor in the history department.

According to Family News in Focus, Mitchell lost his teaching position for assigning a history class to read Charles Sheldon's In His Steps -- the book that asks the question "What Would Jesus Do," the phrase that launched a thousand marketing gimmicks.

Mitchell said he was immediately terminated when one student complained to the history department about the assignment.

"I called the director of my program on Monday morning," Mitchell explained, "and he confirmed that the department was going to let me teach one more year and then I would no longer be permitted to teach history at the University of Colorado."

When asked about Mitchell, a secretary in the history department—who asked that she not be identified—angrily responded, "We don't let him teach here."

This isn't the first time Mitchell, who has taught at CU for more than 20 years, has taken heat for using conservative sources in his classes. He said that when he quoted from Thomas Sowell, a conservative black commentator, the department head berated him and called him a racist.

Now I'm not exactly sure why one would assign In His Steps in a history class, but I might make a guess or two. The message of the book -- "What Would Jesus Do?" -- is certainly a timeless one, but the book itself is locked to a particular era in U.S. history. Written around the turn of the last century, one can connect In His Steps to a period of religious revival -- what some might consider the nation's third "Great Awakening." Christians began to emphasize the sins of society. There were temperance movements calling for the prohibition of alcohol, and poverty was seen less as a personal problem and more of a societal failure. This religious revival probably resulted in a political revival that led to FDR's "New Deal," and other social programs that are still with us today, even while their religious roots have been lost in time.

In His Steps certainly touches on the problems of turn-of-the-century America, even as its wide cast of characters seek their own personal revivals by trying to do what Jesus would have done. But though the message is timeless, I might suggest that the book itself is not. When I read it a few years ago, I found it difficult to relate to the struggles of the book's characters. One, a newspaper publisher, rethinks his newspaper's decision to run stories about boxing matches. He believes that people should not be reading about such things and so excises them from his newspaper. Later he decides that people should not be reading newspapers at all on Sundays, "the one day in the week which ought be given up to something better and holier," though it costs him advertisers and subscribers.

This isn't exactly a modern moral dilemma, which might explain why Sheldon's great-grandson decided to write an updated version a few years ago.

Meanwhile, back to Phil Mitchell.

The timing of the controversy is especially odd, considering how the campus has rallied around Churchill.

"I think it's interesting," Mitchell said. "People are marching for Ward's academic freedom, and I think—to a point—that's legitimate. I just wish somebody would march for mine. I don't have any."

I could see assigning In His Steps in a history class if one is discussing the social and political issues at the time the book was written, particularly as they relate to religious revivals which are certainly a historical reality. I have no idea if that was the context in which the book was presented.

I would love to know more about this story.

Posted by Drew at 09:56 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack