Thursday, November 27, 2014

Flesh by Hugh Halter

My teenage son saw the title of this book and almost had a conniption because he thought I was reading something akin to Fifty Shades of Gray. When I explained that the subtitle was "Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth," he breathed a sigh of relief and sauntered back into his room. I'm not sure he even knows what that means, but it sounded theological enough to convince him I hadn't gone off the deep end.

There is much to like about Flesh. Halter takes the pressure of Christians who have been taught that evangelism means counting off on your fingers how many people you have led to the Lord. He defines the concept much more broadly, inviting believers to be more actively engaged in the world by building friendships with non-believers rather than cocooning themselves in their comfy church pews.

He occasionally throws out disturbing (in a good way) ideas that cause you to rethink church norms. Take this example from page 32:[Jesus] didn´t come and take on flesh so that you would someday pray a salvation prayer, go to church, and settle for a semi-religious life. He has bigger hopes and dreams for you than that. He came so that His divine life could actually take root in you and so that you could relate to Him like humans used to before sin messed everything up.

And this from p. 58: The gospel is not news that we can accept Jesus into our lives. The gospel is news that Jesus has accepted us into His life and that we can live His life now. This echoes Galatians 2:20 -  "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..."

Another thing I liked was his emphasis on the price of living incarnationally. To a culture that practically worships comfort, I loved it that Halter says, Living the gospel costs! If you follow Jesus, you will lose energy, time, money, friends, and quite possibly even more. (p. 69)

Although I was greatly encouraged and challenged by the book, I had two major quibbles with Halter's theology. Early in the book he writes, "Here´s the deal. People are not looking for doctrine. They´re looking for a God with skin on, a God they can know, speak with, learn from, struggle with, be honest with, get straight answers from, and connect their lives to." (p. 14) I agree heartily with this statement, but at the same time I worry about the fact that Christian dogma can so cavalierly be thrown out the window.  The gospel is both incarnational (relationships) and theological (truth).

My biggest problem with Halter's book was a strange affirmation he made regarding our humanity. He boldly asserts that Christ did not come to make us more godly, but to make us more human. But nowhere in the Bible does it say, Be human as I am human. Jesus was the perfect, sinless man who came to show us what a perfect, sinless life was like. I get the feeling from Halter that humanness means wearing our warts and weaknesses as badges of honor. This is plain silliness. Our weaknesses define us as fallen sinners, but they should not define us as Christ-followers.  As Oswald Chambers puts it, "The miracle of redemption is that God turns me, the unholy one, into the standard of Himself, the Holy One. He does this by putting into me a new nature, the nature of Jesus Christ." (My Utmost, Nov 19). Even Halter admits this when he talks about how all who follow Christ are under "spiritual renovation."

Redemption cannot be limited to salvation from hell. If it doesn't include the promise of transformation, we have only a forlorn hope.

In spite of my disagreements on these points, I really enjoyed Halter's book. His ideas are nothing new, however; they have been freshly worded for a new generation. Previous bestsellers on the subject have been Lifestyle Evangelism by Aldrich (1981) and Out of the Saltshaker by Pippert (1994).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart starts out like a book lover´s dream. Each chapter begins with a delectable quote from a famous classic. The hero of the story, Mortimer Folchart (known as “Mo”), is a “book doctor” who binds up broken books. Three of the main characters are book addicts. Mo is such a gifted reader that he has the ability to read books and make the contents come true. (Years ago he read the book Inkheart out loud and it changed his life forever.) The bad guys in the book can´t read. Obviously, there is a lot here for bibliophiles to savor. So why didn´t I love this book?

For one thing, it was about a hundred pages too long. By page 450, I stopped caring very much about the outcome. (Sadly, I had seen the movie and knew how it would all turn out.)

Secondly, even with the magic qualities of literature woven into the story, Mo never comes across as an appealing protagonist. Meggie, his daughter, and Elinor, an aunt, add interest to the story, but fail to carry it.

Third, the villains are too stereotypical : Rotten to the core with no subtleties of character.

In spite of all this, there were some marvelous quotes:

If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens; the book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it.. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it . . . yes, books are like flypapers. Memories cling to the printed page better than anything else. (p. 21)

There was another reason why Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange - familiar voices, friends that never quarrelled with her, clever, powerful friends, daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventures who had travelled far and wide. (p. 21)

Books have to be heavy because the world´s inside them. (p. 25)

So, even though the story never really grabbed me, I enjoyed the great quotes and the good writing. Funke´s book was translated from German into English by Anthea Bell who hails from the U.K., which gave the book a nice British feel.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Poet's Corner by John Lithgow

The Poet’s Corner is subtitled "The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family." I suppose the word “family” is in the title because there is some nonsense poetry included and because of Lithgow’s grandfatherly tone. But if I were trying to introduce my children to poetry, this is not the selection I would choose. The inclusion of modern poetry with its clunky rhythms and obtuse meanings would surely create a distaste for poems among the very young. (If someone has to explain a poem to you before you can like it, you have already missed much of the magic, soul-touching quality of poetry.)

The positive side of this mixture of old and new poems is that you can compare them for yourself. As you listen/read, it becomes increasingly clear that the “new” is, in fact, very much like the Emperor and his new clothes, pretending to be well-dressed, but sadly naked. One poem was so awful, I laughed out loud.

If I had known how much modern poetry was in this audiobook, I probably would not have purchased it. On the other hand, I was glad to have such a painless, crash course on the “greats” of Western poetry. I even learned to appreciate the talent of several poets who I hadn’t liked before (even if their poetry still does not appeal to me).

John Lithgow introduces 50 poems and their authors in alphabetical order of author, so you get the likes of Gertrude Stein right next to Shakespeare, which can be disconcerting. But as I wrote above, it makes the modern authors look pretty silly. The poems are superbly narrated by Hollywood stars such as Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Jodie Foster, et al. 

Even though, the book did not meet my expectations, my enjoyment of the classic poems superseded my disappointment in the others. And it rekindled my desire to brush up on memorization.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

Peter Pan and Wind in the Willows are children´s classics that I revisit regularly. But I would not have read Charlotte's Web again if it had not been for the student I am tutoring. Frankly, I had forgotten what a beautifully touching book it is.

E. B. White succeeds in creating a gentle story while at the same time acknowledging some of life´s harshest realities: death, loneliness, selfishness, and the passing of time. But, thank goodness, he is never maudlin.

I´m a sucker for gorgeous language and this book offers up a rich serving of delectable words and phrases that should whet a child´s appetite for more: "Play?" said Templeton, twirling his whiskers. "Play? I hardly know the meaning of the word." "Well," said Wilbur, "it means to have fun, to frolic, to run and skip and make merry." 

Other words to savor are explained by Charlotte or understood in context. For example, Templeton tells Wilbur to be careful by saying, "I don´t want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummeled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffeted about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed." (p. 29) I love any book that treats children as intelligent enough to figure these words out.

The gentle philosophizing was a treat that probably only adult readers would catch, and I relished it.

When your stomach is empty and your mind full, it´s always hard to sleep. (p. 32)

Men rush, rush, rush all the time. (60). Charlotte´s philosophy is Never hurry, Never worry. (p. 65)

Life is always a rich and steady time when your are waiting for something to happen or hatch. (p. 176)

The book´s main impact comes from the unusual friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur. When Charlotte determines to save his life, he declares, "Why did you do all this for me? I don´t deserve it... I´m just an ordinary pig!" "You´re terrific as far as I´m concerned," she replies. And herein is the essence of the story - sacrificial love based not on merit, but on grace.  It is a beautiful story because it echoes The Truest Story.

Its gentle jabs at human foibles, its remarkable prose and its theme of self-giving love make Charlotte`s Web a delight to read.