The 13th Reality: Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner

As a kid I remember imagining myself fighting alongside Prince Caspian in the battle to retake Narnia from his evil uncle. I my mind I crawled with Digory and Polly through the creepy attic and right into mysterious study of her creepy uncle Andrew. I dreamt of exchanging riddles with the fishy Gollum or crafting secret nicknames for the Dragon Smaug. These stories never die and the of childhood blends faery-land with reality. Now, as an adult the nostalgia and beauty of stories has never left me. And every so often I slip them on like a secret ring and enter the portal of the faery and the hero. I some ways I enjoy these stories even more now that I understand that my yearning to join the hero is based upon my own participation in the Great Story in which I am a servant of the Great Hero. A couple years ago my younger siblings discovered The Mysterious Benedict Society. Though not set in a fantasy land it incorporates all the best elements of of faery tale: A despicable villain, riddles, secrets, a courageous hero, and the clear call to do the right thing no matter what the cost. After devouring this series last Summer my only regret was that there weren’t more books in the series. My usual diet of theology, apologetics, biographies and history occasionally screams for a break. And at last I found it: The 13th Reality: A Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner. Best known for his Dystopian Maze Runner Series Dashner weaves a spellbinding story of fear and courage. A nerdy boy—Tick—from Washington receives crazy letters at first doubting his own sanity but soon begins to meet some strange people. As he solves the riddles contained in the letters he learns that he has been called to lead a quest to save the world. Sound like every fantasy novel you’ve ever read? Okay. But there are at least three characteristics that put this series in a class above their ilk: Tick lives with his loving family and throughout his solid relationship with his Dad is strengthened and his Dad is shown to be a courageous, kind man. The story revolves around theories of quantum physics which allow the characters to jump between alternate realities and explains that significant choices can lead to significant consequences in an alternate reality. The writing style is excellent—and the British characters were a nice touch. It has a fine balance between serious adventure and humor.
Though there are a few cliche moments and spots where the dialogue drags a bit the book is mostly a gripping fun, rollicking adventure punctuated by a few moments of sheer terror—for the characters at least. It is no psychological thriller but I may make you think twice about the world you live in and the choices that you make and will certainly give a few evenings of pleasant enjoyment for kids and adults alike. And in this way it exemplifies C.S. Lewis’ maxims: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

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Alan Jacobs: Musings On The Reading Life

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In the past six months I have read three books by Alan Jacobs. [1] In an age dominated by blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and endless books I find this to be rather unusual. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation nearly a century ago that “In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” And Jacobs is eminently a man of letters. He makes me think and stretches my intellectual and literary horizons far beyond what my inner cartographer had ever dreamed possible. But perhaps more than this, my affinity for Jacobs is largely due to our mutual nerdish admiration for C.S. Lewis. In fact it was his biography of Lewis—or more precisely of Lewis’ mind and imagination— that was my first serendipitous encounter with Jacobs. Having loved Lewis from the earliest memories of my father reading Narnia to my sisters and I while still young children and reading Mere Christianity—not for the last time—during my formative theological education to my more recent forays into his older classics The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man and, an odd book even for Lewis, Till We Have Faces.
Jacobs—along with literary critic Larry Woiwode and historian Carl Trueman—is one the very few Protestant essayists that I have read who are able to weave a witty cultural sophistication with a razor sharp eye to our modern idiosyncrasies. My interest in Jacobs was further piqued when I found that he had been interviewed about the disappearance of Christian intellectuals by Albert Mohler—one of my favorite theologians—on his thinky podcast “Thinking In Public”. Reading Jacobs, at least given my limited literary repertoire, is like finding a goldmine. Anyone who has quoted Samuel Johnson and Soren Kierkegaard before chapter one must be worth reading. If anything, reading him seems to lend credibility to all of the reading in the classics that I did through college and seminary. There is a definite pleasure when he quotes from Augustine’s Confessions thinking back on the nights when I too savored my intimate conversations with the aged bishop of Hippo. But so many other writers that he quotes I do not know. It is depressing to think how much there is yet to read: a whole world of cultural icons and intellectual elites who I will probably never know. And now I am reminded of Luther’s firm belief that it is better to read a few good books over and over rather than skimming hundreds of new books each year. He is echoed by C.S. Lewis who commented, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” I find that tend to follow this injunction most closely in fiction (so far this year I have only read Les Miserables, The Princess Bride, and some short stories by P.G. Wodehouse all of which are re-reads). Perhaps this is due to a inherent suspicion toward fiction which I have not had strongly recommended by reliable sources—so much modern literature is utter trash both aesthetically and morally. It is in poetry and history and theology that I am more willing to forage further afield. There is a certain stolid confidence grounded in several years of research (in theology at least) that questionable accuracy or certain bias may be balanced by other reading. Balance is everything, even in ones reading. This is why I enjoy reading theologians with whom I profoundly disagree—such as post-conservative “evangelicals” Donald Bloesch and Roger Olson—since it forces me to consider the very grounding of my own biblical worldview.
War and Peace is probably the longest and most tedious novel I have ever read. But there is one scene where one of the protagonists, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, notes that the constant social conversations in St. Petersburg were insipid and redundant and claims that it was only in the country that he had time to think for himself: “He did nothing, did not even think or find time to think, but only talked, and talked successfully, of what he had thought while in the country. He sometimes noticed with dissatisfaction that he repeated the same remark on the same day in different circles. But he was so busy for whole days together that he had no time to notice that he was thinking of nothing.” [2] And this comment caused me to pause and consider: do we of the 21st century live forever in the city. Rather than balls and fetes we are surrounded by our iTunes playlists and iPhone newsfeed always telling us what to think and crowding out any time for thoughtful reflection or prayer. So as I consider the numerous tidbits of knowledge which Jacobs sets before his reader—more like a hors d’oeuvre platter than a full meal—it is how he makes me pause to the think that is the most satisfying result of reading his books. In the cacophony of noise in which we of the 21st century live we rarely have time to think for ourselves and it is an incredible boon to simply stop and think about our lives and ask the hard why questions: why do I read what I read? Why does anything in the culture in which I live or the culture of past generations matter? And, narcissistically but necessarily, why does my own life matter? And this a good gift for which I will return again and again to Jacobs’ books.

[1] The Narnian; The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of Distraction; A Visit To Vanity Fair
[2] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, p. 797

War and Peace—Review

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Finals are done. Summer has come again. I can finally leave my theologies and grammars to collect dust while I once again head to the literature section. Entrees are served: Tennyson, Longfellow, and Frost. Along with the house special: Shakespeare. Next for a delightful helping of mystery stories, most notably Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey Series tops my list. I may add some Agatha Christie to spice things up a bit. Next comes the main course: A three-layered dish composed of the greatest Russian classics: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov. The cook is still deciding whether Fathers and Sons (what is it with the conjunctions in Russian titles?) should be included in the meal. A friend brought a sumptuous dish called The Mysterious Benedict Society which I am dying to try. For dessert a chocolate concoction of swashbuckling adventure by the Italian cooks Emilio Salgari and Rafael Sabatini will fill out my perfect summer reading menu.

I find a spot in the grass. My toes wriggle in the warm dirt as the breeze ruffles my hair. I can hear the nostalgic hum of a mower in the distance as I pop in my earbuds preparing to fill my ears with the vibrant music of fugues by Bach. At last I am ready to begin my summer reading.

Nearly three thousand years ago Solomon wrote that all is vanity without God. As I read War and Peace this point was burned in my mind. At the beginning of the novel the characters are young and fresh, excited by the future stretching ahead of them. The protagonists are wealthy, healthy and beautiful—they have it all. But a subtle change happens, as they experience life—society, riches, love, and war—they begin to realize that nothing that they are pursuing is fulfilling them. One of the characters—Pierre Berzukev—even searches masonic mysteries in a futile attempt to find the peace that he cannot find in life.

As Napoleon in a stunning string of victories advances into the heartland of Russia, even capturing Moscow in 1812, the whole country is left in pandemonium. The status quo world of the aristocracy was rocked. Throughout the novel Tolstoy argues that the war was not determined by Napoleon, or Alexander, or Kutuzov—the Russian commander in Chief—but by the thousands of random, seemingly inconsequential, events which happened every day leading to retreat or advance, fear or excitement, and defeat or victory—this thesis is strongly questioned by many savvy historians, by the way. The vanity of war is painted in striking relief. Why do men throw themselves against each other? Why this pointless rage?

Real life is presented as being more significant than politics, like Voltaire in his satire Candide, Tolstoy, with his gross satire of Napoleon and inaccurate portrayal of Kutuzov seems to say that history only matters insofar as it is a mirror of each man’s private life—that swashbuckling adventure and heroic deeds should be replaced by one’s private garden. This theme is reflected in his description of the soldier Pierre meets in prison—Platon Karataev—who shows him the value of the simple peasant life where a wife, children, hearth and table are what fulfills a man.

Reflecting the duality—of individuals in a quest for self-definition and the mass movement of history—many characters represent larger groups within the nation. Prince Nikolay Bolonsky illustrates the traditional aristocracy of Old Russia. Prince Andrey pictures the more critical younger Russia, desperate to leave their mark on the pages of history. Pierre pursues individuality seeking to define the world around him by his dominant personality. Natasha lives out frivolous, selfish life, for a time—dictated by her emotional sensitivity—which she finally resolves through marriage and family.

Even more significant than the national war was the personal, moral war being fought by each character. This emotional and spiritual war is fought not for riches or honor or land, but for purity and righteousness. Sadly few of the characters knew how to fight such a war. Their whole life became a struggle against transience for purpose in life. Some payed homage to the facade of Russian Orthodoxy. Others worshiped at the altar of social status. Only their pride kept them from committing heinous sin. Many did live in grave sin and simply used their wealth to keep critics at bay. Most tried to use their lifestyle—whether in brilliant society in Petersburg or amongst the cannon fodder on the front—to drug away their nagging conscience. Pierre finds that most men live life soldiers under fire, diverting themselves with cards, women, horses, parties, in order to forget about the impending death.God becomes nothing more than a foil for their vain life. Only in death could they find a final cure for the pain. Some critics argue that. “Pierre learns freedom through imprisonment, and Andrey achieves love through hate and a knowledge of life as he lies dying.” Yet even here the characters find little peace. Andrey dies in pain and Pierre is still plagued by his rebellious conscience.

All is vanity. Fame. Wealth. Sex. Triumph. Family. These are all idols. Nothing can bring true hope and true satisfaction except the Son. He came to bear our sins and give us His righteousness and He promises that in Him we will never die.

Speaker for the Dead—Review

“That is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.” —Andrew Ender Wiggin, Speaker For The Dead

One of the great advantages of Science Fiction is that we our able to read our own story in lives and cultures and worlds of others. Society can be observed and critiqued on a macro-scale. In a way, Speaker for the Dead is somewhere between a philosophy essay, a theological parable, and a mystery story. It is the Speaker’s job to discover the truth about a dead man or woman so that they can reveal both the sin and the good and bring healing through pain.

In Ender’s world the Xenocide of the Buggers (described in Ender’s Game) looms large over the Hundred World systems With the rising popularity of the Speaker’s book’s The Hegemon and the Hive Queen the destruction, oppression, and colonization of the old days was rejected. Toleration is embraced. In theory.

But when the a new race of sentient life is discovered on the distant colony Lusitania humanity must once against decide how it will react. Eventually, a policy of non-contamination was embraced and the few Xenologists studying the primitive pequeninos are tied to a strict code of regulations. For awhile The Starways Congress is content to study the piggies but when the scientists reveal technological secrets to them they intervene. A rampant virus also begins to threaten the human community. When the pequeninos “piggies” murder the great Xenologist, Pipo, the whole colony is thrown into chaos. What does it mean to be human? Are the piggies us or them? Shouldn’t we destroy them before they can destroy us?

This book definitely digs into the deep questions of how morality can exist in a world run by Evolution. When death seems inevitable for one species or another, there is no doubt that humans will commit Xenocide again in order to survive. Even within the Lusitanian Colony there is fierce debate about whether killing the piggies is murder. After all, what makes a human, human? Without any theology of the Image of God, there can be no moral distinction between the species. One is limited to categorizing by intelligence, language, and technology.

Since Lusitania is a Catholic Colony, religion is a major theme in the book. Though Card, a Mormon, is not often very warm towards the more dogmatic religions, there are many discussions which will give a thoughtful Christian ideas to ponder. He also has some rather impressive metaphysical discussions. The questions of good and evil, origin, human nature, and afterlife are all discussed. Card himself has admitted that the book is “chatty” and has elsewhere observed “It consists of talking heads, interrupted by moments of excruciating and unwatchable violence.” Because of his Mormon worldview Card often drifts into humanism. His main character, Andrew Ender Wiggin—first introduced in Ender’s Game—is himself a Humanist. He has little room for God and seems to believe that man just needs to try to be good enough.

I find Card’s books intriguing. He has smart, witty characters who usually are somewhat reclusive and see the world differently from everyone else. Most of the characters are scientists, others are philosophers, and one is a historical writer. These characters face impossible scientific and ethical questions, deal in intergalactic politics, and fight to keep the colony from tearing itself apart.

Amidst the cosmic struggles, there is also a very personal side of Speaker. When Wiggin arrives a Lusitania to speak for the dead he meets the cold and contentious Ribeira family. They are scarred by years a anger and secrets. His skill and love help bring them together. Andrew Wiggin has much to teach us about true love and fatherhood.

Christians will find many of the ethical and metaphysical conclusions unsatisfactory, but it is undeniable that this book and its sequels Xenocide and Children of the Mind will make you think about what you believe.

Some Thoughts on The Iliad and The Odyssey

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There are few books that have shaped whole civilizations like the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is a tale of a love that killed hundreds of thousands and determined the fate of empires. It tells how a man’s pride cost him his dearest friend and how, in revenge, he wreaked his anger on a whole city. It is a story of gods and men, hate and fear, honor and treachery, bravery and cowardice.

Christians must have a mixed reaction to these epics. Both are grounded in the world of paganism. Jove, Venus, Hercules, Juno, Mars, and the lesser deities vie with each other in intrigues to help their favored hero. Treachery, revenge, weakness, immorality, and avarice all abound among the gods. The only difference between the gods and men seems to be that humans cannot kill the gods. The holiness, justice, grace, and love of the Judeo-Christian God is not found in the despicable deities of the Greeks. Rather these gods worked only to appease their own capricious pleasure or fiendish hate. Although worship is extolled and injustice is condemned there is much that is wanting in the worldview of the Iliad and the Odyssey. For the heroes honor is the only purpose in life. Die gloriously! That is the single law. Salvation is neither needed nor desired. Cowardice is the only sin. Such hopelessness was a nagging theme throughout the story. When one paused to reflect the pointlessness of the war became an unbearable din. I am not a pacifist, but the gratuitous warfare and immorality described in the Iliad is clearly against the love which God demands.

Another striking feature of both epics is the long lists of characters. To the modern reader it is draining to read whole chapters describing, by name, all great warriors (and their ancestors) and who they killed (and their ancestors). More unpleasant are the rather gory deaths described. At several points I reflected on the differing values in Homer’s day versus our own. The fight scenes are rather crude and messy. Drama (in the modern sense) is almost entirely lacking. Contradictory morals also added confusion. While the gods prided themselves in their amorous affairs with humans, Odysseus, on his return to Greece, is praised for his vengeance on those who would tempt the virtue of his wife.

Contrary to so much modern literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey revolve around mature male heroes who fight for their families, gods, and honor. The modern values of personal autonomy, materialism and entertainment were wholly unknown to the heroes of Homer. Age and wisdom was valued by the greeks more than youth. Old men were respected for their past victories and present wisdom.

As poetry the Iliad and the Odyssey are arguably without peers. The translation by Alexander Pope I read was truly awe inspiring from a literary perspective. While immersed in these poems I found myself beginning to think in rhymed verse. It was quite a stretch from the genres I usually read. One benefit I received was the ability to understand the numerous allusions to characters or scenes in these stories in other books. I also came away with a greater understanding of the ancient worldview.

In the final analysis, these poems are probably only worth reading if you are a classics buff. At the very least it is a testimony to the depravity of man and his need for salvation through Christ. Even at his greatest the work of man is mere ashes but the work of God, the true God, wrought salvation for all of us. The cross is the greatest act of courage. And that is a message which we cannot be told too often.

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Romans 6:20-22)

How People Change—Review

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*Note: I originally wrote this review for a counseling course I am taking so its form is a bit more academic than most reviews that were prepared specifically for this blog.

In their book “how people change” authors Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp argue that most christians have a “gospel gap.” Instead of living as sanctified saints, these people live burdened by guilt and fear. This comes, the authors say, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. Replacing their identity in Christ for some other identity leads to a failure to comprehend the process of sanctification. “God is not working for our comfort or ease; he is working for our growth” (p. 6). Everyone has heat (difficult situations) in our lives, how we respond to it shows what identity we are rooted in (cf. pp. 113, 142-145). “The things that happen to me,” they say, “will influence my response but never determine them. Rather, the responses flow out out of the thoughts and motives of the heart” (p. 93). In fact, they assert, “Jesus says that all obedience grows out of a transformed heart” (p. 173). Because of this, if we are rooted in a selfish externalism rather than a cross centered worldview we will produce thorns (negative, unbiblical responses to the difficulties in our lives), instead of producing fruit (positive, biblical response to difficulties in our lives). These four concepts (heat, thorns, cross, and fruit), drawn from Jeremiah 17, comprise the author’s ‘big picture’ of sanctification. They can help counselors deal with believers by showing counselees that even though they may not be in control of their situation, every believer has the ability, through Christ, to shape their responses into godly fruit. Lane and Tripp make a strong argument for the need to change, an argument which is solidly rooted in the teaching of the Bible. A mere Christian externalism is not sufficient. It is in the cross of Christ alone that we can be convinced of our shame and God’s glory and so turn to Christ as the only source of change. This is a fundamental truth which Christians must grasp if they are to progress in sanctification. When we truly understand our new identity in Christ, “we can look life in the face and still be hopeful because of who Christ is and where he is taking us” (p. 44). This leads to the authors’ key argument: our marriage to Christ perfectly meets our weaknesses and disabilities (p. 55). Lane and Tripp demonstrate that it is in the cross of Christ alone that we can eradicate the shame and guilt which form such a barrier to change in our lives (pp. 23-24). This point is solidly biblical. Every part of the Bible reinforces the truth that the thorns which so easily ensnare us must be pulled up by the roots and replanted with a fruit bearing tree which is watered by the blood of the Lamb (p. 28). This cross-centered understanding of change leads to practical results. After all, “every time I lay aside my own desires to minister to another, I am living out the result’s of Christ’s death on the cross” (p. 193). We are no longer shackled to our identity as sinners. The Holy Spirit is able produce new fruit in us (p. 189). In every situation we are led to ask “does grace shape my relationships?” (p. 193). This leads to real change in our lives: the heat is still there but we now produce fruit, “Patient people and faithful people don’t run away when people mess up. Loving people serve even when sinned against. Gentle people help a struggler in bear his burden” (p. 189). This is how people change.

The power of Lane and Tripp’s thesis is that it is rooted in the gospel. Their book is founded upon the centrality of the cross. They use important passages like Jeremiah 17, Psalm 88, Galatians 2:20, and Romans 8:9-10 to back up their thesis. These passages validate the biblical truth of their thesis and present a convicting argument against those who would try to bypass a cross centered route to change. The only thing I think they could have improved was to include more discussion our identity in Christ, versus how we perceive that identity. The Bible is clear that we are in Christ, yet we must mature and “grow into Him who is the Head, that is Christ” (Eph. 4:15). This seemingly paradoxical truth makes sense when we begin to understand the already-not yet nature of our sanctification. The reason we need to change, however, is that all too often we forget this identity and replace Christ with something else. I think that if they had spent more time on dealing with our positional versus our relational sanctification it would have strengthened and clarified their overall argument.

In conclusion, I found this book to be biblically sound, and practically useful. They present, not only the theology behind biblical change, but also the steps to that change.

Fahrenheit 451—Review

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Guy Montag enjoys burning houses. It’s his job after all. He’s a fireman.

Times have changed. Houses are fireproof now. Now firemen burn the houses of rebels who have refused to give up their books. But he doesn’t mind. Books are just useless, sometimes dangerous, trash. Books make people think. People who think are mean.

Then, one night, he meets a strange girl who gives him strange ideas. She tells him of smelling peach leaves and the dew on the grass. Then she asked him a strange question: “Are you happy?”

This question was like a match applied to Montag’s life. The catalyst of movement. It’s starts a fire which burns…and burns… and burns. He goes home. But he is knows he is not happy. His wife, Mildred, is addicted to sleeping pills. She ate too many that evening. He has to have her pumped out. She is cold and distant, not intentionally unloving, simply a shell. She is obsessed with the TV. She doted on her “family” who talked to her through the daily soap opera.

That night he has to burn another house. Everything is the same as the thousand fires before except this time the woman won’t go. She burns with her books. This is so shocking to Montag that he tries to play sick and skip the next night of work. Montag muses, “There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” He wanted time to think things out. And he stole a book to help him discover the truth.

When he is missed at work, Beatty, his Fire Chief, comes to give him a pep talk. He tells him of the important work he does as a fireman. They erase controversy. They keep people happy.

But as Montag sifts through the past days he sees that happiness, even fun, often doesn’t come from transient pleasures like soap operas or racing along at hundreds of miles and hour.

His world continues to unravel. His house, his wife, his very worldview are in chaos. A covert meeting with a professor leaves him with more questions than he had before.

The war is beginning. Actually, the war had begun months ago, but he had forgotten it because of his personal problems. Now he cannot ignore it. It is right over his head. The bombers will destroy the city.

Pursued by the firemen Montag flees the city and joins a group of old professors living as hobos. They have memorized old books and are simply waiting.

Censorship is a very prominent theme in Fahrenheit 451. Books are banned not only because they are considered to be dangerous, but also because people simply stopped caring about them as the culture got faster, shallower, and put less of a premium in intellectual knowledge. Everything must be subjected to the whims of any minority. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.” Beatty tells him, “Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” He continues, “Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.” Critical thinking, society held, became an enemy to equality and toleration. If we can show that something is bad it will be impossible to tolerate it.

Addiction to entertainment is another important theme. People are constantly bombarded with advertisements, fun, and distraction. They are never allowed to think for themselves. Thus the society becomes shallow. Instead of living their own life they are more caught up in the fictional shows they watch. Mildred, for example, knows the “family” of her soap operas better than she knows her own husband. Montag complains, “Nobody listens anymore. I can’t talk to the walls because they’re yelling at me, I can’t talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say. And maybe if I talk long enough it’ll make sense.” People are conditioned to equate this motion, entertainment, and distraction to happiness.

A great irony exists in the story as Montag is told that everyone will be happy without books given the plenitude of TV’s and other media, when it is clear that everyone is not happy. There is a war going on!

In contrast to the previous themes the reader is left to ponder the importance of knowledge. Only through knowledge can man rise, like a Phoenix, from the ashes of his own suicide. But Beatty, has a good point when he complains that all books contradict each other. Books are based on finite human knowledge. Books can cause wars. Books can stop wars. Books can make or break friendships. Books can make us better or worse people. Books can make us temporarily happy or sad. But books cannot bring real happiness. Books cannot give us salvation. Only Jesus Christ can do that.

Montag discovers a Bible. But he never understands its importance. To him it is only a symbol. A symbol of hope, or freedom, of new life. But to us it is not just a symbol. It is a reality. Jesus offers real hope and real knowledge. He offers a real solution to the battle which wages within our souls and the war that rages around us.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame—Review

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It would be hard to imagine two beings more opposite: Notre Dame, towering in architectural magnificence, beautiful, ancient, revered as the Church of the mother of God; and Quasimodo, hunchbacked, one eyed, bow-legged and, at twenty-one, deaf from ringing the bells since he was fourteen. As Hugo describes Quasimodo, “that tetrahedral nose, that horse-shoe of a mouth, of that small left eye obscured by a red and bristling brow, while the right disappeared entirely entirely under a monstrous wart, of those uneven teeth, with breaches here and there like the creneled wall of a fortress, of that horny lower lip over which one of the teeth projected like an elephants tusk, of that cloven chin, nor above all, of the expression overlying the whole of—an indefinable mixture of malice, bewilderment, and sadness… His whole person was a grimace. An enormous head, with red bristles; between the shoulders a great hump balanced by one in the front; a system of thighs and legs so curiously misplaced that they only touched at the knees, and viewed from the front only appeared like two sickles joined at the handles; huge splay feet, monstrous hands, and, with all this deformity, a impression of formidable strength, agility, and courage.”

Around these two main characters swirl many others: Esmerelda, a bewitching gipsy girl; Claude Frolle, a lovesick, conniving priest, who had adopted Quasimodo; Phoebus, a dashing Captain of the guard, though wholly immoral and careless; Gringoire, a poor and pusillanimous poet; an old recluse, who had her daughter stolen by gypsies and now she spent her days praying for the girl and screaming imprecations on all gypsies who pass by her self imposed prison; and young Jehan Frolle, who is the rascalous and impudent brother of the Priest.

The gispy becomes the fulcrum on which all of these characters turn. All these men want her, but she is too slippery for them. Intrigue, hate, kidnapping, seduction, and trickery; all these fail to destroy her self imposed chastity. Esmerelda herself has determined to wait to find the mother from whom she was stolen away fifteen long year ago. As this maelstrom of lovers plot and counterplot against each other around her Esmerelda shows interest in only one man: Captain Phoebus. Yet he is murdered (or so she is told) by her hand and she is condemned for a witch who summoned up the spectre of a Priest to assassinate the Captain.

Wretched, alone, despised, Esmerelda is dragged to the gimlet to be hanged. The whole world had abandoned her; but what is this? A huge form streaking down from amidst the gargoyles of Notre Dame. Quasimodo, like a human comet, dashed up to the executioner and grabbing Esmerelda from him carried her in to the cathedral, a sanctuary which none but an act of the council could transgress.

But such happiness was not to last for the hunchback. The priest set the people to storm the cathedral as a pretext for carrying the girl off, and while Quasimodo defended Notre Dame the priest dragged her away. Yet she still refused his advances of love; in desperation he offered her the choice between himself and the gimlet. She chose the gimlet.

Poor Quasimodo, destitute of human affection and alone with his bells and the stone statues and gargoyles of Notre Dame, is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. Only rather than wreaking vengeance on his maker, Quasimodo serves his adopted father with an almost pitiful loyalty. Until at last, finding out the treachery of the priest, he had to choose between fililial love and his love for the girl.

Personally, I found The Hunchback of Notre Dame interesting not merely for the stellar plot and vivid characters, but also because Hugo, as in all of his books, paints a picture of a whole society. Hugo immerses us in Quasimodo’s world. Not only does he tell us of Kings, diplomats, merchants, beggars, poets, thieves, and priests; he also describes the political, and architectural scene in Paris. Of particular interest is his description of the massive edifices (like Notre Dame) which would soon be supplanted by the written word. “The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius,” Greek and Roman architecture made way for Romanesque which, in turn was replaced by Gothic. Each one did not simply start fresh, instead they added to each other: thus many cathedrals or palaces might contain parts from all three periods. They were, Hugo argued, the great book upon which man, both ancient and medieval, left its mark.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame portrays both the beauty and the hollowness of the Medieval Church. The Church was a sanctuary. It portrayed the glory and holiness of God. Unfortunately the corruptness of the priests (after all, even believers still sin) was, and is, a seeming paradox. Why can the most religious be the least godly? The answer lies in the biblical understanding that it is knowing God in a personal, saving way through Jesus Christ that creates godliness not just head knowledge. The Catholic Church, as many Protestants are in danger of doing today, made the mistake of believing that simply going through the motions of faith (baptism, church attendance, saying the right prayers) would equal salvation. This confusion of the visible church (those who call themselves Christians) and the invisible church (those who are really saved), as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical context, lies at the bottom of many accusations of religious abuse by Christians (most prominently cited are the Crusade, the Spanish conquistadors, and the Inquisition).

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a profound commentary on the men and women who make up this world. In many ways it makes the same point as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray from the opposite side. Whereas the Dorian Gray is a rich, beautiful young man who is corrupted by evil, Quasimodo is a poor, ugly young man who is redeemed by love and virtue. But both stories (SPOILER ALERT) end in tragedy because these men try to create their own virtue. Although both men live in a world where God is acknowledged, they never rely on Him as their own personal Savior. Although neither Hugo or Wilde were adherents of Christianity, both these books offer a remarkable call to salvation since both, in their own way, show that man simply cannot save himself. Neither riches, nor beauty, nor even virtue will ultimately save a man, for “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23). True redemption is can only be obtained by “the power of God who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Timothy 1:8-9).

1984 by George Orwell—Review

497-1

Winston’s world is insane. This is clear from the three slogans of the Party: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

Even the Party knew that its propaganda is nonsense. But it used the technique of doublethink to accomplish the feat of making nonsense truth: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” The Party seeks to abolish individuality. Sameness. Community. The Party is everything. It accomplishes this through brainwashing and torture. Love, happiness, freedom, all are forgotten in a blind allegiance to the Party.

These totalitarian lies were enforced by the ruthless Thought Police whose job it was to search out and destroy everyone who practiced crimethink (that is, they thought something which was not orthodox to the Party’s ideology). This was made the more effective through the telespeak. a monitoring device (sort of like a cross between a videocamera and a TV) which allowed the ThoughPolice to view and listen to the party members at any time. The telespeak was an ever-present reminder that, “Big Brother is watching you.”

Winston was a party member. Only in the party could you get decent food or be considered a respectable citizen. Everyone else, namely the proles, are not worth considering. They merely grease the machine. They were not even human [the Party compares them to animals].

Never had Winston imagined being unorthodox. He worked faithfully at his job at the Ministry of Truth (minitrue) changing the facts on file whenever the Party changed its propaganda. For example when Oceania (ruled by the Party) switched from being at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia, to being at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia Winston’s department worked feverishly for a week so that anyone checking back issue of the Times, or speeches, or interviews would see that Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia. By this means the Party had effectually obliterated every vestige of the unorthodox past from its members’ memory. Hence the favorite Party mantra, “those who hold the past hold the future, those who hold the present hold the past.” “Reality,” the Party held, “was not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else… whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.” In the beginning Winston was willing enough to go along with this charade. It was the only way to survive, after all. But things began to change when he ran across an old notebook. Journaling allowed Winston to collect his thoughts. He knew he was dead—the very act of starting a journal had made that a certainty—the trick was to live as long as possible before they caught you.

That was before he met Julia. Julia’s only interest in life was pursuing clandestine relationships. Outwardly she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Party, in reality all that only served as a cloak for her real life after work was done. It was all so unorthodox, but, as Winston soon discovered, it was really enjoyable. For a few short months Winston was able to ignore some of his fears and forebodings.

Finally, the inevitable happened. They were caught.

Both were dragged off to the Ministry of Love (minilove) to be questioned, starved, and tortured both psychologically and physically. Any hope that had glimmered earlier in the story is effectively snuffed out as Winston’s tortures progress and the reader speedily comes to realize that in the draconian world in which Winston lives there can be no happy ending. There are no rebels. There is no savior. As one of his torturers puts it: “if you want a picture of the future imagine a boot stomping on a human face—forever.”

Despite the horrors of his tortures, it was here, crushed and bleeding, that Winston faced reality. Still reeling from shock after shock of electricity Winston was forced to hammer out what is truth in the face of a sinister persecutor whose only God is power.

Winston realizes that, “Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

But his torturer refused to allow him to remain under this delusion,

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Eventually Winston came to realize the futility of his position. Even so, he wanted the Party to be destroyed. Unwilling to let the Party have the last say he declares to his tormentor that the Party cannot last.

“In the end they [the proles] will beat you. Sooner or later they will see you for what you are, and they will tear you to pieces.”
“Do you see any evidence that this is happening? Or any reason why it should?”
“No. I believe it. I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe—I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will not overcome.”
“Do you believe in God, Winston?”
“No.”
“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”
“I don’t know. The Spirit of Man.”
“And do you consider yourself a man?”
“Yes.”
“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct.”

This is a profound critique of the particular humanist view which, while recognizing that man is evil, does not believe in God. Not to say that God is true simply because we want him to be true, rather, without God humanity will ultimately find themselves with Winston grasping at nothing in desperate hope for a savior who does not exist. Because if Orwell’s book offers nothing else, it does at least candidly show that “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9)

Christians, after reading this book, should not dwell too much on the terror and hopelessness, instead we should recognize that 1984 is a powerful example of what God told the prophet Jeremiah so many millennia ago:

Thus says the LORD:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
And makes flesh his strength,
Whose heart departs from the LORD.
For he shall be like a shrub in the desert,
And shall not see when good comes,
But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness,
In a salt land which is not inhabited.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
And whose hope is the LORD. (Jer. 17:5-7)

Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students—Review

02202012_spurgeonCharles Haddon Spurgeon was a master at teaching the Bible. He was one of the dominant preachers of nineteenth century. His native wit and sagacity served him well as a key figure among English Baptists. Not only was he a charismatic preacher, he also was the president of the Pastor’s College (founded in 1856). Part of Spurgeon’s role at the College was to teach one lecture each week on the practical elements of being a preacher. Tired after a long week of studies in languages, classics, mathematics, and theology the students would gather together for a more interesting lecture. He explains that, “my lectures are colloquial, familiar, full of anecdote, and often humorous” (xiii). Even so Spurgeon hands out heavy doses of theology and critiques many of the all too common practices of Christian pastors.He exhorts pastors to be prayerful, whether in public or private. SpurgeonHe decries the pathetic inauthenticity which so often mars a pastors mannerisms.  Gestures while speaking, how to use one’s voice, gaining and retaining the attention of the congregation, and open air preaching all receive Spurgeon’s wise examination. Similarly Spurgeon addresses the content of preaching. Should sermons be impromptu or a read discourse? Should ministers ever spiritualize a text in scripture? How does a pastor choose a text? Spurgeon also spends a whole series of lectures offering numbers of useful collections of fables, anecdotes and parables from which a pastor can get illustrations. Spurgeon exhorts pastors to not underestimate the crucial role of the Holy Spirit and prayer in their ministry. Finally he concludes that conversion should be the stamp of God upon any pastor’s ministry. In his opinion, until a pastor has been used to convert at least one person to Christ his ministry has not yet received the stamp of God’s approval. The method of preaching that seeks to appease the sinner and draw him in with countless niceties has no ally in Spurgeon. He denounces the ministries of those who seem only to care for pretty speech or esoteric novelties which titillate weak minded men. He argues that since we live in an age of doubting and questioning, “we must show a zeal for the truth continually, in season and out of season, endeavoring to to maintain it in the tenderest and most loving manner, but still very earnestly and firmly. We must not talk to our congregations as if we were half asleep. Our preaching must not be articulate snoring. There must be power, life, energy, and vigour. We must throw our whole selves into it, and show that the zeal of God’s house has eaten us up” (p. 271).

Admittedly this book is not for everyone. Those who desire a shallow christian ministry which focuses on programs rather than unadulterated gospel preaching will find little benefit from Spurgeon’s lectures. Those desire to pamper their hearers rather than preach Christ Crucified may find Spurgeon to be overly condemnatory. Those who are so wrapped up in their own self-esteem that they cannot bear to hear criticisms of their own awkward or inappropriate mannerism or preaching styles will think Spurgeon is rather too harsh. However anyone who earnestly desires to grow in their ability to preach the gospel will find these lectures to be a rich mine of wisdom and truth. Even lay people would benefit from these lectures. Albeit they would find the part about preaching rather unnecessary, but Spurgeon’s exhortations on prayer, truth, the Holy Sprit, ignoring slander, and earnestness in our Christian life and ministry would never be amiss for anyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus.

C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust. 2008 (694 pgs.)