Monthly Archives: April 2011

JRF

JRF’s #12 – Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

This book written between 398-400 AD by probably the most influential early Church father, Augustine of Hippo, is widely recognized as the first Western autobiography.

Part journal, part autobiography and all parts worship, Confessions lets the reader peer into the window of Augustine’s prayer closet as he recounts back to God the spiritual, physical, intellectual, and emotional journeys that they have walked together.

His writing is deeply theological, philosophical, honest and passionate…and at times hard to follow.  Seeing this work not as a traditional, chronological history or autobiography but as a series of fervent prayers ignited by Augustine’s memory and discernment of God’s loving hand in his personal history helps to keep pace with and more fully appreciate Augustine’s writing style.

Although I have read about Augustine and interacted with excerpts of his writings before, this was my first time reading a complete work of his.  I understand why he has been so influential.  While many things flew over my head I constantly found myself being challenged and encouraged.  Many sections of this book were filled with pages of emotional sentences ending with question marks.  Questions like, “By what tricks and suggestions does the enemy lure me to desire some sign from You, O Lord my God, to whom I owe humble and single-hearted service?” or “But what do I love, when I love You?”  I found myself identifying with his way of thinking and struggling through questions with God, as many of my journals are filled with similar questions, although they are not nearly asked with the same theological depth or eloquence.  Particularly Augustine’s lust filled life as an unbeliever, his mother’s faithful and agonizing prayers for his salvation, and his struggles with purity as a believer were aspects that I identified with.

As far as quotations go, Augustine is the 4th cent. C.S. Lewis.  Here is just a small taste:

“You initiate conversation with all, whatever the varied ways they ask to gain Your counsel.  You make Your answers clear.  The problem is that not all clearly hear.  All in some way consult You, according to what they are willing to ask.  Not all are able to hear beyond what they desire to hear.”

“Give us what You command us to have, and You can command anything You want to.”

“He alone moved free among the dead.

He only had power to lay down His life.

He only had power to take it again.

Victor and Victim, and so Victor because Victim.

Priest and Sacrifice, and so Priest because Sacrifice.”

 

Read Augustine.

mark

Mark’s #17 – Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I have my bachelor’s degree in Economics, which means I know enough about economics to know that I know very very little about economics.  Nonetheless, this refreshing look at economics and quantifiable human behavior was a fun read for me, as well as a reminder as to why I enjoyed studying economics in college.

While the subtitle of this book certainly overstates it’s aim (is it really possible to explore the hidden side of everything?),  the authors did do a great job of showing how ‘conventional wisdom’ is often just plain wrong.

Levitt is a highly sought after economist and professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.   In his relatively young career, his trademark has been to ask different questions and apply economic theory to life situations that are not normally considered in the scope of economics.  So for example, in this book, the authors ask provocative questions such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” And, “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?”

Chapter one asks the question, “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?”  Answer: Given the right conditions and incentives, we’re all tempted to cheat. Whether you’re talking about school teachers cheating on their kids standardized tests, sumo wrestlers trying to make it to the top, or professional athletes who take steroids.  We all analyze the risks and rewards in many of the decisions we face every day and act accordingly.

Why do drug dealers live at home?  This was a great chapter… worth the entire book.  Here the authors were able to obtain and analyze the financial books of an upper level crack gang drug dealer in Chicago.  In so doing, the pay scales tend to mirror that of any major U.S. corporation, where the very top may the lions share of the money, while the lowest level ‘employees’ can barely get by. For example, in the 1990 at the height of the crack boom, the average dealer on the street made an average of $3 per hour! Yet, those same dealers risked a 1 in 4 chance of violent death, not to mention incarceration.   So why would someone agree to take that job?  For the same reason the young woman from Indiana heads to Hollywood… for a shot at making it to the top of the pyramid, no matter how long the shot is, the money, power, and fame is a sufficient incentive.

There are many more great little insights into the human condition in this book.  It was a fun quick read… highly recommended.

I should note, one of the more controversial chapters is the one entitled, “Where have all the criminals gone?”  In the mid 1990′s, many sociologist were predicting an oncoming wave of crime amongst America’s youth.  When that crime wave did not come, but rather the crime rate dropped, the experts were left scratching their heads, asking, “why the significant drop?”  The answer, according to the analysis of these authors, was not better police methods, education, or the economy (though they did help to a small degree).  Rather, the authors believe the legalization of abortion to be the primary reason for the crime drop 20 years after Roe v. Wade.   I want to be clear, and even the authors of this book are clear, this does not mean that the ends justify the means.  As the authors point out, if you consider abortion to be murder of a person (as I do), then whatever unintended benefits may result, they certainly do not justify the morality and legality of abortion.

mark

Mark’s #16 – The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

This book marks the third legal thriller I’ve read this year, and the first Michael Connelly book I’ve ever read. Though I enjoyed the first two legal thrillers, by Randy Singer and John Grisham, I have to say that this is the best,  most believable, well-written, most suspenseful of the three.

Since it is a thriller/mystery, I don’t like to go into too much plot detail. Briefly put, the story is a first person account of  defense laywer Mickey Haller, aka- The Lincoln Lawyers.  Traveling in his Lincoln through Los Angeles’ rougher neighborhoods to meet with various clients who are criminals and convicts, Mickey is a shrewd lawyer and businessman.  Like most defense lawyers, Mickey spends most of his time either working out suitable plea deals, or trying to expose the cracks and flaws of the prosecutions case against his clients.

Connelly does well to lead the reader to have uncomfortable feelings about, what many would consider, a sleazy defense lawyer, while still drawing the reader into wanting him to succeed.

As a defense lawyer for some of the worst criminals in southern California, Mickey realizes the vast majority of his clients are guilty as charged – but he’s not concerned with that.

What scares Mickey the most, and where the plot thickens, is the possibility of representing an innocent client and losing the case.

There were a few weak spots in the plot such as Mickey’s amicable relationship with his two ex-wives, who work as prosecutors.

What made me pull the trigger and buy this book was the high reviews on amazon, many of them claiming, “Connelly’s book puts Grisham to shame when it comes to writing legal thrillers.”

I think I agree with that sentiment, and if you read this book you may as well.

Brad Uncategorized

Brad’s no. 3: Radical by David Platt

Radical is a powerful and convicting book that I recommend to all Christians lving in a wealthy nation.  Growing up in the church and attending Bible college, the teachings never shied away from the dangers of loving money.  Upon reflection, however, this was always done in the context of the wealth of our country.  What David Platt aims to do in Radical is shift the paradigm of our thinking to view our prosperity in light of the world’s plight and — most importantly — in light of our earthly purpose for eternity.  Guilt is not the intended response.  Instead, it is a call to love Christ with reckless abandon.  To follow the model of Jesus by loving the world at our own expense.  The greatest dangers to Christianity are never external: persecution, want, suffering, and the like are shown to galvanize Christ followers, separate out the chaff, and provide a platform on which God’s amazing grace and mercy can be lavished on his children.  Instead, Western Christianity celebrates our ease of life and thereby grows complacent with mediocrity.  Radical calls us to trust God and his promises, even when they seem dangerous or foolish by worldly standards.

The title of the book is not accurate from a Christian point of view.  The ideas that Platt brings to the table are merely the teachings of Scripture.  What is radical is the relief between the Biblical truths and the American Dream that has infiltrated Christian thinking.  The two cannot co-mingle just as the love of God and the love of mammon cannot.  The book is sometimes uncomfortable; Platt asks some tough questions.  However, it is apparent that he too has struggled or is struggling with answering the same questions.  Coming from a pastor who reached the religious apex — pastor of a mega-church at a young age — the power of this book is amplified.   Platt challenges –not without, but from within– the extra-biblical presuppositions that the American church holds as “self-evident”.  His book is ultimately the result and the reporting of a narrative: the story of how his church has changed due to this “radical” thinking.

Many might recoil at the book and claim that it is going too far or bordering on legalism.  I find such charges unfounded.  Granted, there were some difficult rhetorical questions, but they must be seen as just that: rehtoric.  They are a literary tool used to jostle our thinking free from its entrenchments and view the familiar Biblical truths in a fresh light.  He does not prescribe a rubric of specific actions to be taken in order to achieve holiness — that would be legalistic.  The closest he gets to such things is sharing stories of how some of his congregation have applied the Biblical call to being “radical”.  These are not measures we must strive for; rather, they are encouraging examples of what can be expected when we let go of the false security of comfort and wealth and embrace the promises of God in His mission for us on earth.

Ultimately, Platt is positing a simple truth: the greatest measure of what we truly cherish and believe is not found in what we say or think, but what we do.

Brad

Brad’s #2: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is among my favorite contemporary authors.  He has an uncanny ability to explore the depths of human frailty and depravity while still crafting a true piece of art that is to be awed and admired for its beauty.  Not many authors can paint such vivid portraits of humanity with so bleak a palette.  In this short yet powerful work, McCarthy paints with his bleakest palette. 

Child of God defies, perhaps more forbiddingly than any other work in McCarthy’s magisterial corpus, the fashionable impertinence which not infrequently inspires the facile elicitation of ideological structure from his text. Besides having, among living writers of the English language, the strongest claim to deferred mortality, McCarthy’s most unassailable works — Blood Meridian, Outer Dark, and Child of God — are, for their predestined readers, a stringent and edifying disinfectant against the sterile prevailing trends of literary criticism.” (From an Amazon.com review).

Such an effusively pedantic review is inappropriate for a book that is amazingly spartan in both words and plot.  Yet, I understand where the reviewer is coming from in trying to capture the essence of the story.  I started this review in January.  This story is difficult to explain; a mere description of the events would elicit wonder as to why one would read such a book and why such dark and pointless novel was even written.   However, such a description would fail to show how it deftly probes the darkness of the human soul while simultaneously providing a pointed critique of what happens when a society ignores its fringes.

It is the story of Lester Ballard; a man moving from the margins of society into outright abandon of all of the restraints that societal pressures and government create to hold back the horrors of mankind.  It is an utterly bleak and shocking book that brought me to the brink of not finishing it on multiple occasions.  However, McCarthy’s skill managed to keep me unconfortably on this precipice for the entire length of the novel.  Mercifully, it was short. 

In telling the tale, McCarthy often employed a disjointed structure in which a chapter would drop you in the aftermath of one of Ballard’s heinous acts, providing no context to understand what happened.   It would then be followed by a chapter that flashed back to provide the setup to the act and the act itself.  In a way, it is a perverse take on the serial killer novel.  By utilizing the disjointed structure and showing the acts from the perspective of the serial killer, McCarthy eschews manipulating the build up of tension and sucks any entertainment value  from the story; by approaching it this way he implicitly scolds the reader for the pulpy enjoyment that may have been experienced had the story been told in the traditional thriller fashion.

I cannot recommend this book.  It is extremely dark and downright revolting in the subjects that it covers.  However, I must make it clear that this book is not to be categorized among the modern movement that revel in shock and depravity as a gimmick – McCarthy is not Chuck Palahniuk.  Rather, it is a deft exploration into the depravity that the human being is capable of apart from regeneration through Christ, just a bit to accurate to warrant reading.

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