Book Tour – Night of the Living Dead Christian

I usually don’t go for books about zombies, vampires and werewolves or any other “sci-fi/fantasy” book for that matter.  But having read Matt Mikalatos’ first book Imaginary Jesus and knowing how completely off the wall that one was, I knew I had to give Night of the Living Dead Christians a shot.  We join Mikalatos on his one-man Neighborhood Watch tour and are soon up to our eyeballs in wacky encounters with the undead of various shapes and sizes.  Chief among them are his one of neighbors, Luther Martin, who has the misfortune to be a werewolf.  Determined to help Martin find a cure for this malady, Mikalatos and a few other sidekicks try various methods, including attending a church that ends up being full of brainless zombies.  The journey is hilarious and, when you least expect it, thought-provoking.  Interspersed between the off-kilter narrative are more heady chapters written by “Martin” as he contemplates his life as a werewolf and his journey through the various methods of losing his werewolfishness.

Although the narration is very quirky and often downright weird, the meaning of the book is surprisingly clear and well thought out.  As the book’s subtitle indicates, Night of the Living Dead Christian is about being transformed or more clearly perhaps, what it doesn’t mean.  The zombie Christians we meet along the way show the absurdities of those who blindly follow some Christian leader’s teachings without a second thought (giving a whole new meaning to “Brains! Brains! We want your brains!”)  Then there are the vampires, those who “steal the life force of others to increase their own longevity…to increase their own quality of life.”  And then there is the guy relentlessly hunting down these monsters, who is eventually revealed to be the embodiment of the law.

Through these characters, Mikalatos shows many of the follies bound up in the heart of a man and where true freedom is found.  Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book comes toward the end.  (SPOILER ALERT) Martin eventually finds freedom from being a werewolf, but not everything ends up perfectly in his life.  One night, he is found out in the rain, with his old wolf skin tied on with string.  “He thought that everything would be wonderful when he was born again, but he was wrong.” (p.234)  There is pain and a recognition of the struggle against the old flesh.  But as Mikalatos so beautifully points out, “It’s not all wonderful. It’s worth it, but it’s not wonderful.” (p.234)

Night of the Living Dead Christian is a fast read, but one that is chock full of thought-provoking situations.  I would recommend it not so much because of the zombie genre, but for the insightful glance into a struggle for transformation that should be in every Christian. (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Tyndale House for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – Force of Nature

I have a love/hate relationship with Wal-Mart.  Seeing as I’m not made of money, Wal-Mart’s low prices, especially on groceries, are a great help to my family’s budget.  Additionally, it is a good example of how capitalism and the free market works.  Sam Walton started his business small and by offering consumers goods that they needed or wanted at a low price soon built this business into one of the largest companies on the planet.  However, its size has also been misused in a number of ways.   All this and more is covered in Edward Humes’ new book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution.

As the title suggests, Wal-Mart is not usually the first company that people think of when considering any kind of “green” revolution or anything that makes a positive impact on the environment.  In fact, it’s probably closer to the bottom of that list than the top.  In Force of Nature, Humes chronicles the Wal-Mart story, pointing out both the good and the bad aspects of the company, including its aversion to anything related to a “save the planet” mantra.  In the company leaders’ eyes, such concerns were relegated to the “social responsibility” category and were completely optional.  But this all changed – and quite dramatically – when  Jib Ellison, a corporate consultant entered the scene.

Ellison’s crowning achievement was to convince Wal-Mart executives – CEO Lee Scott foremost among them – that “making profits and saving the planet can—and must—go hand in hand.”  Humes takes the reader through the process that Ellison followed, showing how small changes here and there added up to huge savings AND reduced pollution in some form or fashion.  Wal-Mart began to use its formidable size and clout to push its suppliers to more energy-saving, trash-reducing measures.  The result is a reshaping of entire industries to be more conscientious of the environmental effects of their business and the effect this has on bottom lines.

Much of the book is a very fascinating read.  It was quite interesting to see how small changes added up and how Wal-Mart is aiming for the harder-to-attain changes.  Humes does a fair job of presenting Wal-Mart’s positive influences as well as the not-so-pretty side of the lawsuits and employment issues it has faced.  Even though certain undesirable aspects of Wal-Mart’s business operations are discussed, the book often comes across as a PR effort trying to get Wal-Mart into environmentalist’s good books.  And in some aspects, it worked.

Perhaps the slowest part of the book dealt with the measures and in-depth analysis of Wal-Mart’s big push in creating a sustainability index.  Even as an analyst who deals with numbers all day, I found this section to be tedious.

Ultimately, Force of Nature shows that when businesses, especially ones the size of Wal-Mart, get serious about green initiatives, the result can be industry shaping.  This is a quick and interesting read that certainly has me looking at Wal-Mart just a little bit differently.

(This book was received via the Amazon Vine Program. )

Book Review – The Barber Who Wanted to Pray

In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, the story unfolds as we join a family gathered together for family worship.  One of the children asks her father how come he could pray so beautifully.  In answer, the father tells them the true story of how Herr Peter once asked his famous client, Martin Luther, a very similar question.  Luther replies by writing the simple, yet profound classic, A Simple Way to Pray. He emphasizes three things to focus on or pray through: the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed.  In the end, the family clusters together again to practice this new and exciting way of learning to pray.

I love children’s books and love that my children love books.  We were given R.C. Sproul’s book, The Prince’s Poison Cup a few years ago and my children have asked me to read and reread it.  It is a beautiful illustration of how Jesus Christ died willingly, taking God’s punishment for sin on himself and how the “poison” turns to sweet water.

When I received The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I was expecting the same caliber of storytelling.  Alas, this was not the case.  In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I felt like the storyline was too forced and dry.  Much detail is given to the barber’s preparation for Luther’s shave (including a somewhat graphic musing about the possibility of killing Luther by cutting his throat with the razor!).  The opening details of the dad’s family worship routine seem overdone and geared towards providing an illustration of how family worship time could look.  Although I certainly think that such illustrations can be valuable, it felt misplaced in a children’s story.  A true test of a book’s ability to capture a child’s attention is, well, to read it to them.  Unlike The Prince’s Poison Cup, my children had a very hard time sitting through this book.

While the intent of the book (teaching our children how to pray) is very important, the execution of it in this particular book felt rushed and lacking the wonder of many of Sproul’s other children’s books.  The message of the book, especially Luther’s method of praying, is worth learning.  I would recommend those looking for resources on family worship to turn to Luther’s book itself  or to Voddie Bauchum’s book, Family Driven Faith  (a book which has issues of its own, but the chapter on family worship is invaluable.) 2/5 stars

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – American Emperor

Mention Aaron Burr’s name and the first thing that comes to a person’s mind will most likely be his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.  What might not be so well known is the path Burr took after he fled New York or the fact that, even during his tenure as vice-president under Jefferson, he was plotting to build his own empire in the western half of the United States.  In American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, David O. Stewart masterfully sheds light on this lesser-known portion of Burr’s career.  While the Burr/Hamilton duel is touched on, it is only briefly and as a backdrop to the animosity many Americans felt towards him at the time.  The majority of the book is spent covering Burr’s machinations with General James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett along his subsequent trial for treason.  Stewart also discusses the dislike Jefferson had for Burr and Jefferson’s dead-level best attempts at ensuring Burr was found guilty of treason.

While the book doesn’t portray Burr in the most favorable light, I was left with the impression that Stewart gave a fair account of Burr’s character as well as his attempts at empire building without necessarily labeling him an outright traitor.  Burr isn’t painted as a monstrous traitor but neither are the charges of treason completely whitewashed.  In the end, Stewart agrees with the “not guilty” verdict based on John Marshall’s interpretation of the Constitution and not on whether or not Burr actually schemed against the U.S., which Stewart notes as being completely plausible.  The book also includes a copy of the “cipher letter” and the indictment against Burr.

American Emperor is a well-researched, readable account of Aaron Burr’s controversial plans.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about what happened after the duel.  (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing an electronic copy of this book.)

Book Review – Give Them Grace

Are you a parent who wants perfect kids?  Adjust your parenting style to any number of the hundreds of books on parenting currently in print and you’ll be the successful parent you’ve always wanted to be with the successful children you’ve always wanted!

Sadly, this is the message of many parenting books that draw the hopeful and discouraged to their pages with each new publication.  In Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, mother and daughter team Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson want parents to be the best Christian parents they can be, raising Godly children.  So what makes this book any different?  The answer is found in the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.  The path to successful parenting isn’t found in what parents do or even how children react to what parents do.  Such a method leads only to law and, as the book cover says, the law is “a set of standards that is not only unable to save our children, but also powerless to change them.”  Not only do they take aim at the path to successful parenting, but they offer a rethinking of what it means to be a successful parent.

Much of the book is focused, not on the behavior of the child, but rather the belief system of the parent.  You won’t find very much in the way of the “how-to’s” of child discipline, but rather solid principles intended to have parents examine their own attitudes and understanding of the concept of grace.  Further, this idea of grace is firmly grounded in what believers have been given through Christ’s finished work on the cross in paying God’s penalty for sin and obtaining our right standing before God.  Based on the parents’ understanding of gospel work in their own hearts, the authors then answer the question of successful parenting – that is pointing our children to God by modeling the grace of God in our lives.

There were two chapters that I appreciated the most: one (“The One Good Story) offers wise principles for pointing our children to the grace and love of God in various situations.  For example, the question often comes up (at least it does in my family) of which movies to allow children to watch.  Instead of giving a bulleted list of do’s and don’ts, the authors offer several questions to ask about how that movie (or other entertainment medium) will either point to or prevent them from seeing gospel truths.  In their own words, “Our hope is that if we have taught them how to discern the one good story and judge every other story by it, they’ll be better equipped to answer the wicked Imposter’s lies when they hear them.” (p.120) They also touch on the subject of modesty and, instead of going straight to the obvious question of “is it revealing?” they suggest principles that will get to the heart of the child and not simply outward appearances.

The second chapter I appreciated the most was Chapter 9 (“Weak Parents and Their Strong Savior”) in which the authors gently point out that sometimes, even after all our best efforts and trusting in God, our children may not live as believers.  This chapter dealt with seeming failure as parents.  But even here, the authors point us to the fact that God is honored and glorified in everything.  In what was perhaps the most poignant statement of the chapter, they write “What if he has called us to Jeremiah’s ministry rather than to Daniel’s? Is there room in your parenting paradigm for weakness and failure if weakness and failure glorify God?” (p.149)

Perhaps the one negative aspect of the book is the examples of conversations between parent and child.  The table in Appendix 2 (“Common Problems and the Gospel”) is helpful in keeping our focus on Christ and the gospel in various situations, but the examples of conversations given seem too overblown and forced.  While I certainly want to teach my children the beauty of the gospel and of Christ, it seems more than a little forced to relate losing a baseball game to the suffering of Christ.  There are times when we as parents simply need to be there for our children, encouraging them when they fail/lose and helping them to do better next time.  Does this mean that we are ignoring the gospel and only promoting selfish little bootstrap hoisters?  Absolutely not!  However, the adage “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good” seems to apply here.

Give Them Grace gives us a much needed reminder as parents that changing our children’s hearts and the outcome of our parenting is not dependent on us.  Oh yes, God uses this tool for this change but ultimately it is God who does the changing.  I was encouraged to continually point my children to the love, beauty and grace of God that is ours because of Jesus.  (4/5 stars)

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review of this book.)

Book Review – The Unlikely Disciple

What would happen if you took a student from Brown University,  a decidedly liberal college, and sent him for one semester to one of the bastions of conservative education, Liberty University (LU)?  While this sounds like the makings of yet another “reality” TV show, it is exactly the situation Kevin Roose placed himself in during his sophomore year at Brown.  Instead of embarking on a European cultural experience, he decided to experience an American culture, yet one decidedly foreign to him.  In his own words, he states, “Here, right in my time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any European capital, and these foreigners vote in my election! So why not do a domestic study abroad?” (p.10)

The result of this “domestic study abroad” is his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.  In it, he documents his experience of being completely immersed into the world of evangelical Christianity.  Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly?), Roose is able to pass himself off as part of the evangelical crowd, so much so that at the end of the book when he reveals his true purpose for being at LU, most if not all of his friends are completely shocked.  He gets involved in everything he can in an attempt to learn the culture.  He joins the church choir, takes Bible classes, works hard to curb his swearing habit, and even goes on a weeklong missions trip for some street evangelizing.  Along the way, he discovers that while some of his previous held beliefs of the stereotypical evangelical are true, many other beliefs about them are unfounded.

Roose’s writing style flows very well, making this book feel like a relatively quick read.  What gives this book an edge though is the evenhandedness with which Roose gives his encounters.  He is just as quick to praise the good he finds at LU as he is to point out the flaws.  For example, it doesn’t take him long to realize that many of the students and faculty at LU are sincere in their love for God and their desire to let others about God.  At one point, Roose states “I’m still adjusting my mind to all the earnest God talk I’m hearing at Liberty….But one thing has become clear: these Liberty students have no ulterior motive.  They simply can’t contain their love for God.  They’re happy to be believers, and they’re telling the world.” (p.64)  He also tells of his encounter with a pastor who, while firmly believing homosexuality is a sin, doesn’t involve himself or encourage the “gay-bashing” that Roose does come across in the dorms.  The pastor wanted to help those who struggle with “same-sex attraction” by befriending them, not berating them.  Although it is evident that Roose disagrees with the underlying belief that homosexuality is sinful, he can’t help but respect the pastor for his approach.

On the flip side, we observe with Roose the disconnect between the students’ theological beliefs and how it affects their lives on the practical level.  Many of the guys in Roose’s dorm engage in frank and often crass discussions about women.  At first it seemed like Roose was unfairly painting all LU men with the same brush; however in the end I think he focused more on these types of encounters because he wasn’t expecting this and also because he admittedly liked to hang out with the “wrong crowd” as it were – those more prone to indulge in such behavior.  While he admires those students willing to be ridiculed and rejected while street preaching, he makes a fair point in asking whether or not this is truly effective.  He has a difficult time in some of the classes where his professors draw a distinct line between accepting what science says vs. accepting what the Bible says.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am more in the evangelical category than not.  My graduate degree is from LU and my undergraduate degree is from the even more conservative Pensacola Christian College (a college that Roose mentions briefly in an effort to find a stricter environment than the one at LU- believe me, LU has nothing on PCC!)  That being said, I don’t think LU could get a more evenhanded, balance perspective from someone who is not only unfamiliar with the evangelical culture, but is in many areas diametrically opposed to the LU belief system.  If I were an administrator at LU, I would take great encouragement from the fact that the students’ zeal for God was readily evident.  I would be encouraged by the stance taken by such individuals as the pastor who reached out in love and grace to those struggling with same-sex attraction.  On the flip side, I would be concerned about the disconnect between the students’ faith and the application of that faith in the everyday areas of life.

In the end, I would not recommend this book so much to people outside the evangelical circle so much as I would recommend it to those INSIDE evangelicalism.  To get a true grasp of how effective a culture or belief system is, you have to have an outside perspective and Kevin Roose gives us exactly that. (5/5 stars)

Book Review – The Band That Played On

Any discussion of the sinking of the Titanic will usually include a mention of the heroic band of men who, even though facing certain death, played their instruments to the last, providing some measure of comfort and serenity to their fellow passengers.  As a band, their last act lives on in fame, but as individuals very little is known about them.  Steve Turner, in his book The Band That Played On, attempts to delve into the little that is known about each of the eight musicians, chronicling the history of each man, including family backgrounds and how each came to be a part of the Titanic’s fateful voyage.  Turner also weighs in on the “last song” debate, answering the question of which song the band is purported to have played in their last moments.  Was it really “Nearer My God to Thee” or some other song?  Read the book to find out!

Although the amount of details available about each man varies, Turner weaves them together to present a stirring narrative.  He does not go into the details of the sinking of the Titanic, choosing instead to focus on the musicians themselves.  He gleans snippets of information about the band from accounts written by other passengers, both during and after the voyage/sinking.  The end result is a book that brings the musicians out of the murky waters of obscurity and gives them back their humanity.  (4/5 stars)

(Thanks to Thomas Nelson for providing a review copy of this book.)