Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Belief in God in an Age of Science by James Polkinghorne

I really wanted to like Belief in God in an Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. I really did. He says great things in this book like, “The world is not full of items stamped ‘made by God’ – the creator is more subtle than that – but there are two locations where general hints of the divine presence might be expected to be seen most clearly.” What a beautiful statement. 

But then he also states, “The extreme popularity of the indeterminacy interpretation has been due, I believe, not just to its chronological priority but also to a certain naturalness about an approach that allows overt epistemology to be the guide of ontological conjecture.”

… and then he lost me. 

I feel like a failure, but I couldn’t finish it. It’s probably beautiful and poetic and would make my life more meaningful… if it was written in English.

We the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

I haven’t yet figured out where I got the recommendation for We the Drowned by Carsten Jensen. It’s a quirky novel originally written in Danish. 

This epic tale begins in the mid 19th century in Marstal, Denmark and loosely centers around the life of Laurids Madsen and his son Albert as well as Albert’s adopted son, Knud Erik. Laurids’ boots also end up playing a central role. Marstal is a town peopled with sailors. Every year the men of the town battle the sea while the women “man” the town. 

The story is full of off-beat characters and magical events. It’s a fun story of a culture very foreign to my own. It presents somewhat mystical occurrences with a matter-of-fact tone, although we are repeatedly told the main characters have nothing more than a nominal faith in God. That adds to its quirkiness. 

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book, because, while it was entertaining, it wasn’t great. Worth reading, but don’t put aside a great book for this one!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Miracles by Eric Metaxes

Tim got me Miracles by Eric Metaxas for Christmas last year. Since I always have a library book waiting on my bedside table, it took me a while to get to this one. I wish I wouldn’t have waited. It is a delightful and uplifting book. It left me in awe of our Awesome God with every story.

He begins the book with a discussion of belief and faith and miracles. He believes that we implicitly know there is more out there. Yet our rational minds fight this feeling, trying to convince us the material world is all there is. But, he wonders, if there truly is more? 

In a beautiful paragraph, he asks, “What is it in us that rebels against this lie of life without meaning – and not only a lie but a monstrous lie that stands against everything we somehow know to be true and good and beautiful? Why do we sometimes feel that we are exiles from someplace glorious? What is this innate feeling that we have shared across cultures, centuries, and continents? We can spend our lives denying it, but our very bones and atoms cry out that this denial of meaning is a lie, that everything in us not only longs for that other world and for meaning, but also needs that other world and needs meaning more than food or water or air. it is what we were made for and we will not rest until we find it again.”

If we are willing to acknowledge there is more, there is something or someone else out there, that we long for what is beyond our understanding, then perhaps we can bring ourselves to believe that sometimes eternity touches earth and we experience the beyond. 

In the second half of the book, he tells the miracle stories. He categorizes them into tales of conversion, healing, inner healing, angelic encounters, and heavenly visions. He even includes a “variety of miracles” chapter to catalog the ones that don’t neatly fit into his categories. 

The stories are told by people he personally knows so as to negate and credibility factor. The sheer number of amazing encounters makes me wonder if miracles are more common than I thought. Perhaps many people are experiencing God, and we just don’t know about it. 

This book is a breeze of fresh air, and reading it was a sheer delight.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

Somehow Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre got on my list. I’m glad it did. 

It tells of a fascinating part of the counter espionage activities undertaken by the British against the Nazis in World War 2.

I never actually considered the role of misinformation in helping to defeat an enemy, but this book makes a powerful case for its importance. 

Basically the British unit is tasked with leaking to the Germans false information. The trick is to make it look authentic. Mostly this is done through double agents. It’s harder than it would seem. The Germans are not stupid and they know the British are trying to feed them falsehoods. So the British must concoct very elaborate tales and connections to keep the Nazis engaged. 

One such misinformation campaign centered around an allied invasion on the island of Sicily. This was such an obvious target that the need to introduce subterfuge became readily apparent. The question was, how can the allies convince the Germans that Sicily was not the principle target. An elaborate story was devised that the allies were going after other targets, and that an invasion of Sicily was simply a diversion from the real battlegrounds. In order to maintain the facade, battalions were diverted and whole military operations were done to convince the Germans that these other targets were the focus. 

But that was not enough. Somehow they had to get word to the Nazis of the fake plan, without any hint whatsoever that it was fake. If the enemy felt in any way that the British were trying to fool them, they would redouble their efforts to protect Sicily, convinced it was the real target. 

So Even Montagu and Charles Cholmondely conceived of a plot to create yet another fictitious character. Yet this one was different. He wouldn’t just exist on paper, but in physical form. They needed a body.

The basic plan was to plant the “top secret plan” to fake an invasion of Sicily while actually going after other Mediterranean ports on the body of a victim of an air disaster. When the victim washed up on the shores, with the papers on his person, the Nazis might be convinced they had lucked into something worthwhile. But how to convince them? The logistics were incredibly complex.

Where would the body wash up? Who was he? Why would he have the plans on him? How could they be sure the plans would be discovered? Would they be passed on to the right sources? Would his “accident” be believable? Would his death look like it was caused by drowning? Would the “too good to be true” nature alert the Germans to the implausibility of it?

They worked for months to nail down all these details. That intricate work is wonderfully fleshed out in the book. Every thing from theater tickets in the victim’s jacket, to publishing his obituary in a military newspaper was done to further the illusion. They even had the “family” of the man send money for a headstone and the regular delivery of flowers to his grave. In short, they worked tirelessly to make “William Martin” come alive, using the body of profligate Glyndwr Michael. 

In short, the body “washed up” (rather dropped off by submarine in another harrowing part of the story) in Spain, which was ostensibly neutral, and came to the attention of an intricate double agent ring. The Nazi agent was in fact a Jew, desperate to hide his identity and provide solid intelligence to his superiors. His desire to embellish and impress led him to accept implicitly the story William Martin presented. So desperate to to be credited with a major intelligence coup, he raised no flags. The plans in a brief case handcuffed to Martin were quickly dispatched and reached the highest levels within the third reich. At that point, a normally suspicious officer passed them onto Hitler himself with a glowing endorsement of their authenticity. Why no questions? It’s possible he did this to help lure Hitler into the trap the allies were setting for him. We’ll never know. He was killed shortly after for taking part in a death plot against the f├╝hrer.  

The Sicily invasion was a stunning success, and was the beginning of the end for the Nazis. All due to a man who didn’t exist.

All the details made for a fascinating read. 

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I started watching Call the Midwife on PBS because of numerous recommendations. I really enjoyed it. I cried every time a baby was born. So I decided to read the books (there's 3 of them) because of the mantra that the book is always better. 

In this case, I’m not sure it’s true. I can see a resemblance between the books and the stories on TV. It’s true that the book gives more details and goes deeper into certain stories. On the other hand, what is a little snippet in the book is turned into a bigger story in the show. So I guess there’s a balance between added stuff and stuff they took out. 

Either way, I liked the books, but I think seeing it visualized on the screen gave the TV show the edge. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Dawkins Delusion by Alister and Joanna McGrath

This book came recommended as a rebuttal to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It’s called, fittingly, The Dawkins Delusion. Clever, huh? Written by Alister and Joanna McGrath, “its primary focus is simple and consistent; a critical engagement with the arguments set out in The God Delusion.” They believe that, “Dawkins is correct — unquestionably correct — when he demands that we should not base our lives on delusions. We all need to examine our beliefs — especially if we are naive enough to think that we don’t have any in the first place.” But, they ask, who “is really deluded about God?”

They start off by looking at Dawkins’ assertion that children are being brainwashed into Christianity. However, they make a compelling point that Dawkins has a dogma of his own he seeks to indoctrinate children into. They state, “no case can be made for [children] to be force-fed Dawkins’s favored dogmas and distortion. They need to be told, fairly and accurately, what Christianity actually teaches — rather than to be subjected to the derisory misrepresentations of the Christian theology that litter this piece of propaganda.”

Dawkins’ favorite quip, and the one he thinks stumps all, is, “Who created God?” Serious theologians and new-believers alike look a little incredulously on this question. He’s God. If He was created, He wouldn’t be God. It seems self-explanatory. But this is precisely what troubles Dawkins. To have an explanation that needs no explanation seems like cheating. Yet the McGraths point out that science has its own Holy Grail. Scientists seek what is known as “the theory of everything.” Is this any different than saying God ends the infinite regression? They just want their explanation that requires no explanation to be God-free. 

Next they tackle Dawkins’ denunciation of those who proclaim a “God of the gaps.” Where knowledge fails us, believes answer, because… God. He makes good points about how simplistic this is, and shows that as knowledge grows larger, the God of the gaps grows smaller. But apologist Richard Swinburne turns the God of the gaps theory on its head. He rather asserts that it is “the intelligibility of the universe itself [that] needs [an] explanation.” We don’t need to explain the gaps, we need to explain what we KNOW! Why is the universe intelligible at all? Science has no answer for that.

Part of the problem in Dawkins thinking is his certainty that science can answer all the great questions of life, and that, in fact, science has disproved God. However, many famous scientists acknowledge the limits of science, much to Dawkins’ chagrin. The fact is, “the natural sciences depend on inductive inference, which is a matter of ‘weighing evidence and judging probability, not of proof…. This means that the great questions of life (some of which are also scientific questions) cannot be answered with any degree of certainty.” Yet, even as Dawkins believes science will and can ultimately answer any question, some questions, such as, “is there purpose within nature?” are quickly dismissed as illegitimate. Apparently he believes in the tautology that science can answer any question and those it cannot are not questions deserving of answers in the first place. How convenient. And, although Dawkins believes all real scientists must be atheists, the fact that there are many religious scientists shows that the evidence provided by nature must be open to interpretation. It seems that Dawkins broad-brush belligerence on the matter is actually driving religious people to abandon science rather than vice versa.

It’s interesting that Dawkins is puzzled by the origins of religion. He believes in Natural Selection the way an Islamist believes in Allah. It is all-knowing, all-powerful, and ultimately all-good. Natural Selection, through one random event after another, purposefully moves from one stage to a better stage. So how did religion sneak in there? Dawkins calls it an “accidental by-product” or a “misfiring of something useful.” Again, how convenient. Natural Selection accidentally selected a “mystical” gene that programs us to believe in a God that doesn’t exist. “Where,” the McGraths ask, “is the science?” Dawkins offers no serious evidence to back up this theory. His circular argument is, There is no God, only Natural Selection. If you believe there is a God, it must be because of Natural Selection. Hmmmm.

Another argument Dawkins makes is that religion is violent. He makes this as a huge blanket statement, assuming all religions say essentially the same thing. Yet he ignores the question of whether violence is necessary to religion? Or is it only a part of some religions? If so, which ones? What about Jesus’ statements to “love your enemy and turn the other cheek?” No answer. He conveniently overlooks the unbelievable good done by the religious just as he overlooks the tremendous damage done by atheists. The authors call this “a significant blind spot.” I suppose you could call it that. I think it’s willful disregard. They state, “Dawkins’s naive view that atheists would never carry out crimes in the name of atheism simply founders on the cruel rocks of reality.” I think Dawkins gets tripped up on the phrase, “in the name of atheism.” It’s true that no one yells “Allahu Atheism!” before sentencing millions to the gulag, but nevertheless, it IS done in the defense of an atheistic worldview. 

In seeing religion as the source of all evil, rather than human nature itself, Dawkins does not acknowledge that, “it is well established that prejudice and discrimination are shaped by perception and group identities. Gross simplifications about religion, exclusion and violence will simply delay and defer a solution of humanity’s real problems… There is a real need to deal with the ultimate causes of social division and exclusion.” Ironically, religion may be just the thing to do that! A religion like Christianity preaches love, acceptance, inclusion, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, free nor slave.” Where else is that kind of equality and lack of division promulgated?

In conclusion, they state, “The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers and others seeking for truth.” Amen.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Path to Power by Robert Caro

My friend recommended I read The Path to Power by Robert Caro after she heard the author interviewed on the radio. She was fascinated by the fact that anyone would want to write a 3-volume behemoth on Lyndon B. Johnson. After reading the first volume, she could not stop recommending it. I finally got a chance to read the 800-page first volume. It was illuminating. 

Honestly, I felt like my friend. Who cares that much about LBJ? I don’t personally think he was a great president. I oppose his politics and feel he damaged the United States. But he was gone before I was born, so I know little about him. I was sure he was probably an interesting guy personally, but not interesting enough to spend weeks with him.

I was wrong. He’s a fascinating study in twisted, narcissistic human behavior!

The author starts off with a story of Johnson and an associate of his from Texas who had known him for years. After LBJ rejects some money from an oilman because he doesn’t want to be associated with oil money, and the taint it could put on his heretofore unknown presidential aspirations, the friend, George Brown, realizes he doesn’t even know Lyndon. That’s a story repeated time and again. He’s a chimera. Those that thought they knew him have to admit they didn’t. So Robert Caro sets out to find out just who exactly this man is. And Johnson doesn’t make it easy. He has repeatedly fabricated his own biography so that even Johnson’s own word cannot be trusted. 

Caro is told if he want’s to know anything about LBJ, he has to start in the Texas Hill Country. He goes back to Johnson’s ancestors and those that first settled in this hard, arid country. He first describes the Bunton family, one known for “temper and pride, ambition and dreams, and interest in ideas and abstractions,” but that is combined with the Johnson strain, known for fierce pride and their own flaring tempers, a passion for ideas, but none of the shrewdness and toughness of the Buntons. These strands combined in a family with big dreams and no sense of practicality. 

Lyndon’s dad, Sam Johnson, felt the zeitgeist of the people and ran for statewide legislature in Texas. He felt, as they all did, that they were trapped, and that there were forces too big to overcome stacked against the working man. Although it was generally agreed that the family was happy, everyone knew Lyndon was an exception. Not only was he never really happy, he was unusually precocious. From age 6 or 7, he would drop a game with his friends to listen to men discuss politics. He felt the need, not only to argue, but he had to win. As a teenager, Lyndon followed his father to the legislature and would imitate him so closely, people had a hard time telling them apart. But that changed in 1920 when his dreamer father experienced a devastating financial setback. After that, Lyndon never regained respect for his father and actually treated him with contempt. It marked a real turning point in his life. 

Lyndon became an incorrigible brat, defying all authority. His frenetic attempts to make something of himself were given “a powerful dose of insecurity and humiliation” by his family’s fall. He was a braggart and suck-up and public disgrace infuriated him. He lashed out in the most powerful way he could towards his education-loving parents, he refused to go to college. He decided to go to California to work for his lawyer cousin. Although he brags this was a time of tramping up and down the coast, scrounging for work and food, it was nothing of the sort. He lived in his cousin’s nice house and worked in his nice office. Not only was he a liar, he was a jerk. One friend recalls how he would pull up next to a car and hit it with his hand to get them to pull off the road and let him pass. Only Lyndon mattered to Lyndon. 

Returning to Texas, he worked for the State Highway Department. The grueling manual labor and a humiliating loss in a fist fight finally convinced him that if he ever wanted to be anybody, he had to get out of Hill Country and go to college. 

His fellow students were not impressed with his bragging and prevaricating. But he didn’t care. He only cared about impressing the president of the school. He sucked up to him with no shame and in return was given plum jobs and room assignments. While on campus, he took a little-known organization and challenged the popular “Black Stars” on campus. What, until that time, had been a meaningless student council, Johnson ramped up by getting people loyal to him to get elected. He worked the machinations of campus politics to his advantage, caring nothing for the people in his way. It wasn’t the last election he would steal. A fellow student describes him as “just the type of character who was snaky all the time. He got power by things you or I wouldn’t stoop to. But he got the power, and he cheated us out of jobs we had worked very hard for, and had earned.” Johnson would not let the integrity his father embodied stop him. He would not be a failure like his dad. 

After graduating from college with a teaching credential, LBJ first went to Washington on the staff of little known congressman from his area. He had a knack for picking people to work under him whom he knew he could control. He drove them as frenetically as he drove himself. Compliments were offered sparingly and criticisms were harsh and spewed in anger. “Dignity was not permitted in a Johnson employee.” In fact he would often make his underlings accompany him to the bathroom where he would insist they write down what he dictated from the toilet. He did it with the specific intent to humiliate them and show them his power. 

Caro states, “In Washington, his fellows would be astonished by his frantic, almost desperate aggressiveness — that aggressiveness would have been familiar to his college classmates. The desire to dominate, the need to dominate, to bend others to his will — and the manifestation of that need, the overbearingness with subordinates that was as striking as the obsequiousness with superiors — had been evident at San Marcos [college].”

Soon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal came to power. Although the man LBJ worked for, Congressman Kleberg, opposed the New Deal, Johnson saw that the people of the district would fare very well under the new infusion of federal spending. While Johnson worked for a conservative congressman, he also helped the Marxist congressman next door. He saw very early that having principles, like his father did, would do him no good. It was remarked that he was an ideological chameleon, taking on whatever ideology he needed to in order to gain power. A fellow secretary on the hill remarked, “Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition. Everything he did — everything — was for his ambition.” He recognized early on that New Deal spending was his ticket up. 

As for a wife, Lyndon Johnson tried very hard to land a rich girl whose family influence could further his ambition. Perceptive fathers saw right through him and thwarted him every time. But when he met painfully shy, retiring, and most importantly, rich Lady Bird, he made his move quickly, before he could be rejected. He wrote her beautiful, flowery letters and in a very short time convinced her to elope with him. Yet after their marriage, everything changed. The man in the letters turned out to be a controlling jerk who humiliated her for fun and constantly imposed on her. However his plan worked, her father’s money would eventually pave the way to his first political run. 

Lyndon found just the man he needed to attach his star to in the powerful congressman from Texas, Sam Rayburn. Fortunately for Johnson, Rayburn was amenable to flattery and loved Lady Bird. Getting frustrated with only being a secretary, Johnson asked Rayburn for help. After talking with FDR, Rayburn got Johnson a job running the newly formed National Youth Administration in Texas. 

Although it did not seem to advance him towards his real goal, the Presidency, the NYA did afford him the opportunity to build a machine. He surrounded himself with sycophants and the power to disperse federal funds. 

Eventually Johnson’s political skills would be desperately needed by some of the most powerful people in Texas. A politically connected and ambitions attorney, Alvin Wirtz, already loved Johnson like a son. This was Johnson’s MO, get a powerful man to mentor and promote him. And Wirtz had a very important political project, a dam, he was shepherding that would enrich him and further his career. Fortunately he had a congressman in his pocket who could make sure the funding went through. Except, weeks before an important vote, the Congressman, Buchanan, died. Wirtz tapped Johnson to fill the seat, even though he’d be facing some powerful people wanting it for themselves. The lawyer knew that Johnson, and none of the others, would do his bidding. Taking a lot of illegal contribution from his father-in-law, Wirtz, and the contractors on the dam, George & Root, Johnson worked harder than anyone could imagine to get the seat. 

On this effort, Caro reflects, “All his adult life, because of the agonies of his youth, the insecurity and shame of growing up in the Hill Country as the son of Sam and Rebekah Johnson, had grasped frantically at every chance, no matter how slender, to escape that past. In Washington, and before that in Houston… he had worked so feverishly, driven himself so furiously, forced his young will to be inflexible — had whipped himself into the frantic, furious effort that journalist and biographers would call ‘energy’ when it was really desperation and fear. He had tried to do everything — everything — possible to succeed, to earn respect, to ‘be somebody.’” He won. This set him on the path to the Presidency, the Great Society, and Vietnam.

Once he got to Washington, this time elected in his own right, he began to cultivate friendships that would be very useful to him. And Johnson got right to work using those friendships to make the dam happen. The problems and obstacles were myriad. The state of Texan, being once a sovereign nation, had decreed that it would never give land to the federal government. The federal government had decreed that it would never build projects on land it didn’t own. Johnson used contacts in Roosevelt’s office to get the president on board with the illegal dam. Once his blessing was secured, the dam got the funding, and Johnson got the credit.

Another powerful friend, one highly susceptible to the flattery of Johnson, was the owner of the influential daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, Charles E. Marsh. Marsh owned a beautiful home in Virginia called Longlea, where he and his mistress, Alice Glass, entertained the most powerful people in Washington. Although Mrs. Johnson occasionally came to the parties, she was clearly out of her social league. While Johnson had cultivated Marsh as a powerful friend, that did not stop him from engaging in an affair with Alice Glass. She, as a principled liberal, committed to helping change people’s lives, saw in the chameleon Johnson, a fellow traveler. Their affair continued for years. It was one of the only times in his life that ran counter to his ambitious drive for power. Risking alienating Charles Marsh was “taking one hell of a chance.” Quite uncharacteristically, when it came to Alice, he was not his usual boorish self who would describe or make-up every detail of his physical relationships with women. That he kept to himself. 

Being a congressman was clearly only one step to his ultimate goal of the presidency. To gain a statewide reputation, he began to make speeches all over Texas and court the other members of the Texas delegation. He had his sights on being a senator. This was despite the fact that Texas’ two senators were relatively young, had no plans to leave, and there was quite a queue already in place for the job. As for his career as a congressman, because his only concern was his national ambitions, he didn’t want to make a name for himself ideologically. As a consequence, he introduced almost no legislation and didn’t fight for what he did offer. He made no speeches in Washington and didn’t even take advantage of the ability to enter speeches into the record without actually delivering them. All his efforts were directed towards Texas and securing support there for the job of senator.

Caro states, “Lyndon Johnson did not participate — neither with legislation nor with debate, not on the well of the House or on the floor or in its cloakrooms or committees — in these battles. He had shouted “Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt” to get to the Congress; in Congress, he shouted nothing, said nothing — stood for nothing. Not only was he not in the van of any cause, he was not in the ranks, either. Lyndon Johnson would later be called a legislative genius. A legislator is a maker of laws. During the eleven years that Lyndon Johnson served in the law-making body that is the House of Representatives, few of its 435 members had less to do with the making of its laws than he.” He did not ever want to be confronted with a record. 

When Roosevelt debated running for an unprecedented third term in 1940, his disillusioned vice president, John Garner decided to throw his hat in and try to keep Roosevelt out. As he was from Texas, the Texas delegation, including the powerful Sam Rayburn, was expected to back him. In their loyalty, they did, but Johnson could see which way the path to power lay. While seeming to support Garner with the other delegates, he secretly met with Roosevelt to appraise him of what was happening in the Garner group of supporters. Although Rayburn was a huge fan of Roosevelt’s and only supported Garner out of a sense of Texas loyalty, Johnson even managed to smear his friend and mentor as a member of the “Stop Roosevelt” coalition. HIs behind-the-scenes smarmy behavior gained him Roosevelt’s trust and made him Roosevelt’s “man in Texas.” Rayburn was never aware of Johnson’s double crossing. 

Through more back-room dealings, Johnson was able to revamp the way the Democratic National Committee gave money to candidates. And through Rayburn’s connections, Johnson was able to tap into a new vein of political donations, Texas oil money. Johnson became a very powerful player in Washington, someone all Democrats had to bow before in order to get much needed funding. When he helped shepherd unexpected wins with his timely, and in many cases illegal, funneling of funds to the various candidates in need, he received the accolades of a grateful party. Once again, this shows Johnson working very hard, not as his job as a congressman, but at shoring up for himself power and powerful friends. He was simply brilliant at perceiving opportunities to put himself in a position to forward his interests. 

Then, the senator from Texas died of a stroke. Johnson and his supporters kicked into action. Johnson, more than any other candidate, knew how to campaign and how to pull in favors. His biggest opponent was the well-liked New-Dealer Gerald Mann, the attorney general of Texas. But Johnson felt confident he could outflank him. Then the very popular and charismatic governor of Texas, Pappy O’Daniel entered the race. At one point, Johnson, feeling completely hopeless, suffered a nervous breakdown. He refused to campaign and sunk into a deep depression. He eventually pulled himself out of it with an ingenious plan. He would get those that supported O’Daniel to fight for his defeat, saying that they needed him more in the governor's mansion than in the Senate. 

Plus, he knew where to buy votes. However, Johnson made a fatal mistake. He announced the unofficial tallies of votes he received in the bought counties too early on election day. There was another group of powerful people who saw what Johnson was doing by trying to keep O’Daniel in the governors chair. They actually wanted him out of the chair. So despite their opposition to him, they worked hard to get him to Washington DC. After seeing how many votes Johnson had bought, they knew exactly many they had to buy back. They set out to change those unofficial tallies with numbers in their favor. Everyone was shocked when what looked like a clear victory for Johnson the night of the election abruptly shifted to a win for O’Daniel in the morning. 

Johnson returned to the House, but World War II was brewing. He had made a promise while campaigning for Senator in Texas that if he ever had to vote to “send your boy to the trenches” he would go with them. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked, Johnson made good on that promise. He became a Lieutenant Commander in the United State Navy. This display of patriotism so affected his mentor Rayburn, that a new level of closeness resulted. 

Then Roosevelt died and Johnson boldly proclaimed that he had never been Roosevelt’s man and was not a New Dealer. He saw the winds were shifting. The next book picks up here. 

Caro aptly sums up Lyndon Johnson, “The more one thus follows his life, the more apparent it becomes that alongside the thread of achievement running through it runs another thread, as dark was the other is bright, and as fraught with consequences for history: a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will. For the more one learns — from his family, his childhood playmates, his college classmates, his first assistants, his congressional colleagues — about Lyndon Johnson, the more it becomes apparent not only that this hunger was constant throughout his life but that it was a hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself — or to anyone else — could stand before it.”

Wow. What an epitaph. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wish You Happy Forever by Jenny Bowen

I have no idea how Wish You Happy Forever by Jenny Bowen made it on my list. It is well outside my usual scope of reading. That being said, it was interesting. I’m not saying I’d tell everyone you HAVE to read this book. Just that if you happen to have a copy, it’s an ok read and won’t feel like a waste of your time. I think if you were interested in Chinese orphans specifically, it’d be more interesting. 

Jenny Bowen and her husband decided to adopt a Chinese girl after hearing about the plight of unwanted girls in China. Their own children were grown and out of the house. They had a busy life as film producers. Yet they felt they had to rescue at least one child from the horror.

After adopting and realizing how bad the orphanage conditions were, Jenny committed to changing that situation. Although clueless as to how to begin, she began assembling people around her who could help her form a non-profit dedicated to improving the orphanage conditions in China.

This book tells the tale of her multi-year struggle to make headway into the Chinese government and to finally convince them of the need for more human, happy, and healthy orphanages. She documents the victories as well as the setbacks. Ultimately, they end up moving the Chinese government to reform, and adopting another girl they fell in love with during the process.

While it’s a good story with a happy ending, I was left a little confused. It seems odd to me that the Chinese people had to be told it’s a bad thing to tie an infant in a crib with a bottle attached to her and leave her that way for hours. That it’s a good thing to hold a child and comfort her. That “potty-training” does not mean strapping 1-year-olds to toilets all day, every day. That toys should not be broken. That the rooms should not be dark and dirty. 

I mean, are the Chinese people stupid? Are they uncaring and evil? Have they never raised children before? Why do they need a white woman from America to come in and work VERY HARD to convince them of the need for relatively small and inexpensive changes? It’s odd. I have a sense they were playing her. Of course the knew the conditions were horrendous, but like all government projects, quality is not the goal. I think the failure was a failure of their vaunted government and to change meant to admit that. I think the only reason they did change was to save face with the rest of the world. I think they are so enamored with government and “efficiency” and have so little respect for human life, that this is what that looks like. 

She had no real words of condemnation for this mentality. She didn’t comment on it at all. It’s clear that she is not a Christian, but is kind of “spiritual.” Obviously she cares more for humanity than for a political system saving face. But why did she never critique their worldview? Why did she never wonder how the system came to be? Why didn’t she at least attempt to get into their heads? Maybe she didn’t want to lose access. That’s fine, I guess. Maybe I'm looking at this too politically and neglecting the beautiful story of salvation contained within the book. But still, I felt strangely disappointed at the end of a book that should have left me with hope.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester was probably a case of choosing a book by its cover. I love to do that, even though it’s not unusual that it doesn’t pan out. It’s the designer in me. I so love good design, that I assume good design = good book. Irrational, I know but…

I would say this book mostly lives up to its cover potential.

The subtitle is “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s a big subtitle to live up to, however. Again, it does a pretty fair job here as well.

Basically the book is about one of the biggest contributors to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It begins with the story of the head editor wanting to meet the prolific contributor to whom he owed so much. When the man refused to travel to Oxford, the director, Dr. Murray, decided to travel to meet Dr. Minor, the recluse, for himself. Arriving at a large ostentatious home and being directed to the owner's office, Dr. Murray begins his speech of gratitude. The man behind the desk then informs Murray that he is not in fact Dr. Minor, but rather the warden. You see, Dr. Murray has traveled to an insane asylum in which Dr. Minor is a patient. Great beginning!

The book merges two stories, that of Dr. Minor and his struggle with mental illness, culminating in a lifelong incarceration in an asylum after murdering a random stranger and the making of the famous Oxford English Dictionary. Both are fascinating.

However, I think I found the story of the dictionary’s beginnings more interesting. The book grew out of an interest in the mid 1800s to standardize the English language. “It took more than seventy years to create the twelve tombstone-size volumes that made up the first edition of what was to become the great Oxford English Dictionary…. The OED’s guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language.” They believed this to be the best way to show the subtlety of the definitions of the word as well as to trace its heritage. Remember, this is pre-internet, pre-Google. You couldn’t just look up the uses of every word in the English language, you had to read the books and find the words, and then catalog what you discovered. 

Prior to this enormous undertaking, some had attempted to create dictionaries of a sort. But they were poorly done and not as helpful as what was needed. Usually they were done by one person or a small group. The product was small and nowhere near exhaustive. To do it right, the Delegates of the Oxford University Press hired Dr. Murray, a man who loved learning, as well as other formidable minds to write what everyone knew would be an overwhelming task.

The method they came up with would involve the whole country. They invited readers everywhere to submit words. Slips were printed and distributed all over the country that someone could fill out, submitting a word and the quotation and the book in which he found it. Although they initially received a lot of odd words and rarely used words, they stressed that they were looking for all words. Even mundane and common words had to go in their dictionary. Dr. Murray initially set up a set of pigeon-holed boxes to hold all the slips of paper. But the sheer volumes of words soon overwhelmed him, and he had to move his family and his team to the campus of Oxford and into a large warehouse. It was sort of the original Wikipedia!

Enter Dr. Minor. He was an extremely bright man. During the daytime, he was lucid and well-versed in literature and learning. It was only at nights that the paranoia and hallucinations consumed him. His eminently reasonable daytime persona led to great freedoms at the lunatic asylum. He had two rooms, one dedicated entirely to his books and art supplies. When he heard about the OED project, he felt he had finally found and outlet for his intellect. He read voraciously and submitted word after word. When his prolific inputs caught the eyes of the OED team, they began to send him requests to read certain book and find certain words. He delighted in being useful.

Obviously a dictionary that takes 70 years to complete, from the initial idea to the final published volume, will not be finished in author’s lifetime, Dr. Murray and his team finally got to a point, five years after they began in earnest, where they could publish the first volume, A — Ant. Dr. Murray felt confident predicting the entire thing would be done in 11 more years. It would actually take another 44. When “the entirety of the infuriating letter C (which the lexicographers found unusually filled with ambiguities and complexities, not least because of its frequent overlaps with the letters G, K, and S)” the university decided it was time to celebrate. It was to this party that Dr. Murray wished to invite his long-time correspondent, Dr. Minor. 

Apparently the story told at the beginning was mythological. It seems Dr. Murray was not surprised to find that Dr. Minor was incarcerated with mental health issues. They had, in fact, been corresponding for some time and Dr. Murray was well aware of his friend's condition. They had actually met several times, with Dr. Murray trying to offer any help he could to his friend. 

Eventually, the demons won and Dr. Minor became incapable of helping with the OED. His brother brought him back to America where he lived until he died. 

I found the book a very fascinating piece of little-known history. We so take for granted the ease with which we look up words and discover their meaning. Right now, the definition of any word is just a right-click away. Seeing the immensity of the endeavor has given me new appreciation for what is so easily dismissed. For a non-fiction book, it read like a novel. That’s the best kind of history!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jesus on Trial by David Limbaugh

I try not to read books by pundits, politicians, and professional commentators too often. They tend to be regurgitated pablum. But I had heard lots of amazing things about David Limbaugh’s Jesus on Trial, and besides, it was given to me for Christmas. Plus, it wasn’t political, so I thought it might be interesting.

It was good, although somewhat basic. But it was interesting to hear his story and how he came to a deep and abiding faith in Jesus. Although he had a religious background growing up, doubts plagued him, and eventually, he gave up on his faith. But once he began really seeking answers to his questions in earnest, he came to a renewed, intellectually based, faith.

He begins by tackling the seeming paradoxes within Scripture by stating “If there were no enigmas — no riddles in Scripture — and all Biblical truth were completely straightforward and comprehensible without the necessity to think deeply about it, we wouldn’t learn the principles as thoroughly or grow as much.”

One paradox that troubles people is the idea of Salvation through the grace of God, solely. It can be difficult to understand because, “... in one sense, salvation can be simple for us to the extent we don’t have to do any work to earn it, but it’s not simple at all for some people to set aside their pride and humbly turn to Christ with the admission that they need Him and the plea that He save them.” Our sense of pride cannot abide being give something we don’t feel that we earned.

Another paradox that troubled him was the idea of the Trinity, that God is three separate persons, and yet one. And that one of them had to live a sinless life as a human and die for the sins of humanity. Why and how did that even work? What kind of a plan is that? But when he began to understand all that Jesus, as the second person in the Trinity gave up by becoming human, all that it took for Him in human form to live a sinless life in a corrupt and fallen world, all the physical pain of the crucifixion, combined with the soul-rending pain of separation from the Father because of the sin heaped upon Himself, and the knowledge that Jesus didn’t have to do it, these combined to become a “foundational pillar” of Limbaugh’s faith rather than a stumbling block.

He then turns from the paradoxes to “The Amazing Bible.” He describes the Bible as, “like no other book ever written. It is the living Word of God with the power to transform hearts, to convert, to comfort, and to sustain. The Bible is truly divinely inspired, it is infallible, it is indestructible, and it is inerrant.” He delights in the unity of the entire book. In fact, when one looks through the lens of Jesus Christ, we see, as Graham Scroggie puts it, “Christ is predicted in the Old Testament, present in the Gospels, proclaimed in the Acts, possessed in the Epistles, and predominant in the Revelation.” It’s all gloriously, and consistently about Him, yet is written by 40 authors (kings and peasants), over 1500 years, in 66 separate books. 

Limbaugh tackles the most famous stumbling block, the question of the existence of pain and suffering as well as the existence of a good, all-knowing, all-loving God. He quotes Ravi Zacharias, “The reality of evil does not disprove God’s existence because evil only exists if an absolute moral law exists — and if an absolute moral law exists, then God exists.” I like this response. We cannot call something evil if there is not a “good” to compare it to. And we cannot have “good” if we do not have “God.” Only He, as outside our natural experience, is qualified to set the standard of “good.” Or else it is simply another human’s opinion. In addition, Limbaugh states, “God suffered with us when He didn’t have to. God is the ultimate answer [to the question of pain and suffering] because He suffered in Christ.”

I would recommend this book to someone questioning Christianity without actually being versed in all its aspects. Many reject Christ superficially, without much introspection and research. This would be a good book for them.

Finally, he lists these resources for anyone struggling with doubts:
Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter Kaiser Jr.
When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Tom Howe (or The Big Book of Bible Difficulties)
Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions by Craig Blomberg

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

I have no idea how I came across the book Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. Maybe I saw it in a bookstore and judged it by its cover. It really does have a fantastic cover. 

It’s an odd, twisting fictional story about real people. Charles Carter, the title character, is a real person. He’s thought to have killed President Harding. Other real people are interspersed in this wonderful tale. I was left wondering how much of it was true. Probably none, but, who knows?

I enjoyed the story because I usually enjoy well-written fiction. Although I must confess, the overall story kind of escaped me throughout most of the book. It is marketed as a murder mystery, but even though the President dies early in the book, it's not clear that he's apparently the actual murder victim. It felt more biographical than plot-driven. 

I’m fascinated by magic, torn between wanting to believe and wanting to know the secret. Gold gives very little away in this book, although he did extensive research and probably could have told us how it’s done. He makes it clear, however, that magic is not simple. It's apparently very costly and complex. 

The story is basically that of the rise and fall of Carter the Great. Intertwined is the death of President Harding. Gold introduces several Secret Service agents and gives a detailed background to one of them. We follow his story as well as that of the magician. As the agents seem to be somewhat investigating the death of the president, Carter proceeds, as much as possible, with his life. Lots of little subplots rabbit-trail throughout. One thing I really like is how Gold fills the story with wonderful, fleshed-out, quirky characters. 

I don’t want to give anything away. The ending is unexpected and fantastical. Everything is wrapped up, but like any magic show, I am left thinking, “What part of that was real?”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Reason for God by Timothy Keller may be one of my new favorite books. He lays out in a very clear fashion arguments for believing in God. I think everyone, regardless of whether he is believer or not should read this book. It will challenge unbelievers and give intellectual ammunition to believers. In fact, Keller is calling everyone to reexamine doubt. Christians need to come to terms with their own doubt and confront it, and non-believers need to look at their assumptions and subject them to some doubt. Without asking the hard questions about what we believe and why we believe it, we leave ourselves open to being tossed and turned by well-sounding pablum.

As a pastor of nearly two decades in a large church in New York City, Keller has been able to talk to and confront many people from many backgrounds. In the first half of the book, he responds to the most common reasons for disbelief. In the second half, he simply and brilliantly gives reasons to believe.

The first reason for disbelief concerns the idea of “exclusivity,” or the belief that there is only one true religion. He cleverly points that those who would say there cannot be just one religion or that they are all equally valid are simply making a faith statement of their own. It is no more valid to say all religions are true than it is to say one religion is true. Therefore, we are all exclusive to one degree or another. Ironically, it is the exclusive Christians who are more open to others than any other religion. “Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making.”

The second question asks, “How could a good God allow suffering?” This age-old question sometimes leads one to deny the existence of God altogether, or to at least the refusal to serve Him. Christians begin to answer this question by looking at the cross. It may not answer the question, but it tells us what the answer is not. It is not because God does not love us. In fact, “God takes our misery an suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on himself.” If nothing else, we cannot say He doesn’t understand suffering. In addition, He promises to eventually end it once and for all. He proved He can overcome death on the cross and that serves as a down-payment on His eventual overthrow of all of suffering. 

Some believe that becoming a Christian will subject them a straightjacket of rules and regulations. Actually Christianity has within it the ability to unleash freedom. Even starting with the cultural way Christianity is lived out. The new Gentile believers weren’t required to live according to strict rules and regulations as their Jewish counterparts. Christianity easily moves in and adapts to any culture. Keller believes we need to evaluate what freedom actually means. It is not simply the ability to do whatever you want. That actually leads to enslavement. Rather it is fitting the limitations and constraints we will all experience to our nature. Christianity is a love relationship that calls for mutual loss of independence in order to love and be loved by another. If God truly loves us, then His constraints will only free us to be who we were meant to be. 

A fourth complaint points to how much injustice the Church has perpetuated. While acknowledging the truth of that statement, Keller shows that those injustices were done by individuals acting counter to the true precepts of Christianity. If Jesus taught salvation through God’s grace alone, the believer should be humbled. And many are. Many Christians are at the forefront of injustices being righted. These are the Christians Christianity should be judged by. Interestingly those who criticize the Church use the standards set up by Christianity herself to judge her. Therefore Christianity has within the seeds of its own redemption. Without the Bible’s standard for right and wrong, no one can judge the Church “wrong.”

Still others are bothered by the thought of a loving God sending people to hell. We recoil at a God who judges. “The belief in a God of pure love -- who accepts everyone and judges no one -- is a powerful act of faith.” Yet we ourselves demand judgment. If someone wrongs us, we want that person judged and forced to pay some kind of price. Should God ignore our pleas for justice? Or are we simply guilty of special pleading? Judge that guy for hurting me, but don’t judge me for hurting others? In fact, our passion for justice required Christ to go to the cross. Someone has to pay, and He did. So while He may reserve the right to judge us on the Judgment Day, we can be assured that our wrongdoings have already been paid for... by God Himself. He has given us an out if we will but take it. 

Some are bothered by the “unscientific” nature of Christianity. Yet interestingly, science has kicked God out, not the other way around. Imagine it’s true that God actually created the universe. Science can NEVER posit that as an answer to where did all this come from. It has created a realm in which it would be impossible to actually state the truth. Some scientists have boxed themselves into a corner where they can only state that which is false. Therefore, if it is true that God is the creator, it is science that has rejected truth. Nothing in Christianity conflicts with science, in fact major scientists are believers. It is science that has put itself in conflict with God by a priori rejecting Him.

Many will liken the Bible to a game of “telephone” and contest its historical accuracy and our ability to take it literally. In fact, when subjected to the same tests as other ancient literature, the Bible comes out miles ahead of any other work. Others will scoff at the “backwardness” of the Bible and mock its cultural prescriptions. This arrogance assumes we have achieved the height of progress. One day our generation will be mocked. Who are we to say we own the standard? God claims that for Himself. It is only through struggle with the text that we can know we “have gotten hold of the real God and not a figment of [our] imagination.” Picking and choosing makes me God. And how can I have a real relationship with something I made up?

So many of the above critiques can be simply restated as just another faith system, masked in rationality.

In the second half, Keller invites, not to “look into the sun, as it were, demanding irrefutable proofs for God. Instead we should look at what the sun shows us. Which account of the world has the most explanatory power to make sense of what we see in the world and in ourselves?” Those that demand “absolute proof” are engaging in “strong rationalism” which is its own kind of faith. Rather we look at the clues God gave us. 

Science gives us any number of clues from the Big Bang to the laws of nature to the existence of beauty. Many will argue that evolution and rationality brought us to this point. But Darwin himself wonders, can we really trust a mind that evolved to pass on genes and not necessarily to distinguish truth? What if "rationality" is just a trick our evolutionarily-derived minds play on us? Without a belief in a rational God who makes a rational universe, it is a statement of faith to believe that rationality exists apart from Him or that it will continue.

Then he skips to the chase and says basically, “We all already know there is a God.” “What?!?,” some will say. He points to our inherent moral feelings. Where did those come from. We simply KNOW there is right and wrong. We try to be relativistic, but at the end of the day, we all KNOW things like harming an innocent is wrong. Why? Evolution gives us no clue. Rather, Keller states that this moral knowledge is a gift from a moral creator. Otherwise we are left with “the grand ‘sez who?’” Only God can say, “Sez me.” We would like to live with the benefits of a moral universe without acknowledging the existence of a moral law giver. “But there is no integrity in that.” We must admit what we know to be true. 

Additionally, we all know the world is fundamentally flawed. But by whose standard? Ours? Christ tells us the reason is sin. Keller defines sin as “the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him.” That’s good! Sin is not “breaking the rules.” Sin is being who you were never supposed to be. He created us for better, to be better. Instead we follow our own path and muck it up royally. “Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence.”

We KNOW this. 

Only Jesus and Christianity offer us a way out of this sin trap. Only God offers us our perfect identity. All other religions say clean yourself up. God says, “I will wash you whiter than snow.” Self-righteousness is disallowed in a relationship with God. We cannot be self-righteous, as it is simply the other side of the sin "coin." He is the source of any righteousness and it negates His grace to think otherwise.

He ends with, “The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.” That means we are free. We cannot despise those who do not yet believe. They are similarly flawed. And we cannot feel superior. Jesus died for everyone. His justice and love demanded it.