The Battle for Halcyon by Peter Kazmaier (Review)

In Peter Kazmaier’s fast-paced Halcyon Dislocation we read the story of an island university that disappeared from our world and appeared in a new, mysterious place.  Much of the story introduced us to this new world as university students along with naval officers stationed on the island explored the new world.  We learned that an evil force named Meglir had brought the university to his world and was possessing one of the faculty.  At the end of the book Meglir was defeated, but with him still present a sequel was clearly in the works.

The Battle for Halcyon is that sequel, picking up about a year after the events of the first book.  Dave Shuster, the main character of the first book, remains the main character here.  His exploration of the world leads to encountering a whole new civilization of humans.  But these humans, unlike Dave and the humans of his world, never experienced a fall from grace.  Thus, they possess certain gifts, such as the ability to change their skin color.

The story continues the fast-paced tone of the first, covering lots of ground and culminating in a battle on the island of Halcyon, hence the title.

Overall, I enjoyed this story.  It had everything that made the first one so good.  At the same time, it seemed almost too fast-paced at times.  Peter is a good and engaging writer, but he seemed to struggle under the weight of so telling the story while including so many characters.

For example, two of the best secondary characters from the first book, Floyd and Al, play a minor role in this story.  In the first book they were two of Dave’s closest companions and nearly had as much screen time as he did.  It is fine to focus more on Dave, but what bothered me was that when we got a bit of Floyd and Al they disappeared from the story without much explanation (especially Floyd).

Other characters from the first book pop up to serve a function in moving the story along, but do not do much.  For such characters I wish there had been some sort of recap of the first book with brief bios of each character.  Two guys named Tim and Dwight show up and help Al at a key point but I struggled to remember the role they played in the first book.  If you read the two books back-to-back this would not be an issue, but reading the first one two years ago makes it one.  There is a glossary at the end, but the characters I am thinking of (Tim, Dwight, Commander McDonald) do not appear in there.

Also, while the book is packed with action and lots of drama, the primary enemy, Meglir, barely appears on screen.  He is mentioned quite frequently but his threat seems diminished with his lack of appearance.  There is clearly a lot of plotting going on by him and his evil allies and perhaps the payoff will come in the next book.

All that said, the book is still great.  Dave is a likable character and his love interest, Arlana, who is really the other main character of this book, is quite interesting.  His conversion experience and the change he goes through provide an excellent story.  And as before, Kazmaier weaves thoughtful religious dialogue in that is neither cheesy nor unwelcome.

This is where Kazmaier’s greatest gift lies.  So many Christian books are preachy.  Many secular stories ignore religion.  Kazmaier’s character speak on religious topics, like normal people in the real world.  When you read what they are saying, it makes sense and sounds like what you would hear.

Even Dave’s “conversion”, if you can call it that, fits.  It is not the climax of the book, nor is it shoved in your face.  As Dave’s character has grown, you can see him moving in this direction and this step makes sense for his character.

In the end, I liked this book.  As I said before, if you are a fan of the works of the greats like Tolkien and Lewis, I think you would like the Halcyon series.  This book has more flaws than I recall the first one having and I hope the third book sees more Floyd and Al as well as Meglir being fleshed out more.  Overall though, an entertaining and at times thought provoking read.

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Where the Conflict Really Lies – Alvin Plantinga (Review)

You may have heard that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Promoting such a war has enabled many on both sides, fundamentalist creationists and fundamentalist atheists, to sell a lot of books.  Even for those not on the extreme, there is a feeling and a fear that somehow faith in God is at odds with belief in science.

Of course, there is no such conflict.  But philosopher Alvin Plantinga wants to go one step farther then saying there is no conflict between science and religion.  He argues that there truly is a conflict, but it is between science and naturalism.

Before he gets there, he tackles the alleged conflict between faith and science.  This takes two forms, the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution somehow refutes Christian faith and the idea that it is impossible to believe in miracles in a world of science.  Such conflicts simply do not exist.  Not only do they not exist, but promoting such conflict actually hurts science:

As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 54). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In the second part of the book Plantinga looks at two areas where there appears to be a superficial conflict: evolutionary psychology and scriptural scholarship.  While there may be small conflict, the claims of those two disciplines do not provide a defeater for belief in God.

Speaking of “defeaters”, it is important to grasp the understanding of basic beliefs for Plantinga.  Over and over again he speaks of many beliefs we hold with no evidence, things like perception, memory, and that other people have minds.  When we see a sheep on a hill far ahead we do not form an argument that there is a sheep.  We simply see it and believe it is there.  This belief is justified.  In the same way, believing other people perceive the world how we do and remembering what we had for breakfast do not require arguments and evidence.  A defeater is something that would prove such beliefs wrong.  If someone says of our seeing the sheep, “that’s my dog Skip,” we now have our belief defeated.

Plantinga argues that belief in God is just such a basic belief.  We do not need evidence to prove our belief in God, it is rational to believe in God in a basic way.  But can such a belief be defeated?  No such defeater has been found.  Plantinga argues that evolution is definitely nowhere close and the topics of part two, though there is superficial conflict, are not near being defeaters either.

Then in part three he discusses areas where there is concord between science and faith, making the claim that is extended in part four, that belief in science has much more justification for theism then naturalism.

Finally, part four is the height of the book.  Here Plantinga takes science, the belief in evolution, and naturalism, the belief that there is nothing outside of nature.  For Plantinga, you cannot sensibly believe in both evolution and naturalism.  For if all we are is nature, then our evolution is driven solely by survival.  We desire to feed, survive and reproduce.  Survival, not truth, is what is most important.

We assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. But what I want to argue is that the naturalist has a powerful reason against this initial assumption, and should give it up. I don’t mean to argue that this natural assumption is false; like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are, in fact, mostly reliable. What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 326). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One objection to Plantinga’s argument is that it seems obvious that true beliefs would ensure survival.  He admits this is true, but says it is irrelevant.  His argument is not about how things are but how we would expect things to be if naturalism and evolution were both true.  We cannot assume naturalism (materialism) is true from the outset.  If we imagine it being true we imagine a world where all that matters is survival and truth is irrelevant.  He says:

It is by virtue of its neurophysiological properties that B causes A; it is by virtue of those properties that B sends a signal along the relevant nerves to the relevant muscles, causing them to contract, and thus causing A. It isn’t by virtue of its having that particular content C that it causes what it does cause. So once again: suppose N&E were true. Then materialism would be true in either its reductive or its nonreductive form. In either case, the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But in either case it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.29

Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 340). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In a natural world your desire to get a drink of water is driven by your biological need for water.  Any true beliefs you have about water, or false ones, are irrelevant.  Believing in naturalism and evolution thus provides a defeater for naturalism in that you have no good reason to hold it is true.

Plantinga’s argument is long and detailed, so I hope I did a halfway decent job of illustrating it here.  I first encountered some of these ideas of basic beliefs and defeaters in his book Warranted Christian Belief.  I found this book much better, more approachable for a non-specialist in philosophy.  That said, there were parts of it that were definitely a chore.  I am grateful for people like Plantinga who make such arguments, but I am more grateful for those who can distill them down to be made understandable for normal, average people.  I work my way through books like this because I think it truly helps me in ministry, but I can’t say I enjoy reading them as I do some other Christian thinkers like David Bentley Hart or James KA Smith.

Overall, a good and challenging read that has much that can be useful in helping those who have questions about faith and science.

 

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Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Review)

Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset?  Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success seeks to teach you what the mindsets are and why having a growth one is vital for a good life.

My wife recommended this book to me and I found the ideas within it very helpful.  To have a fixed mindset is to see your talents or character as unchanging; you are born a certain way and that is just how you are.  This leads you to end up hiding your faults and failures in an effort to keep up appearances, or not trying to acquire new tasks since if things do not come easy they are not worth doing.  On the other hand, to have a growth mindset is to recognize that though we all may be born with different talents, we can change and improve through hard work.

Last week we took our kids camping.  I had no one else there who was capable of building a campfire so I had to do it.  My wife had full confidence in me.  But my secret was that I had not built a campfire since I worked at a summer camp in college and even then I only did it a few times.  I have been camping quite a bit since then, but I always let other people – my college students, my family – build the fire.  Yet I carried myself in such a way as to make them think I could build a fire if I needed to.  My fear was that I would be put on the spot and exposed as someone without that skill.

A silly example, I know, but it illustrated a place where I had a fixed mindset.  I struggled to build a good fire on our trip and when I began to fail my ego took a hit.  I stuck with it, trying to have a growth mindset, and I figured it out.

So I have found Dweck’s work helpful as I look at my own life.  The main criticism of the book I would have is that it does become redundant after a while.  Her primary points are surrounded by story after story that are easily skimmed through.  It was also amusing to see how some of her stories are a bit dated (the book was written in 2006).  If she wrote it now, she might use different examples, especially when the stories no longer fit her use of them.

Overall, this is a book with some good points that is not too hard to read.  Further, I imagine it would apply in most walks of life.  I work as a pastor and saw lots of connections to the idea of spiritual growth here.

 

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Stop Shaming Women, Start Arresting Pimps and Johns

The headline in the feed from my local news station declares “Reading Police bust 8 women in undercover prostitution sting.”  Then there was the picture: 8 women each with clear bruises on her face, all looking totally dejected.

My first thought – where are the pictures of the pimps and the johns (customers) who have inflicted the bruises on these women?  Why arrest and publicly shame women who are clearly victims?

The use of the word “bust” in the headline is a vain attempt to make this sound like some sort of major accomplishment by the local police force.  But it is easy to arrest women who are selling themselves.  It is also rather pointless as the pimps will just find more women, perhaps move to another location, and keep the business rolling.  Why not arrest the pimps?  I fear the answer is that it is harder.

After all, here is how the story starts:

Complaints about prostitution have helped police put a dent in one Reading neighborhood’s illegal sex trade. Investigators said the city’s prostitution problem has been an ongoing issue in certain neighborhoods, so RPD vice officers went undercover Monday night in the area of South Eighth and Chestnut, the 500 and 600 blocks of Chestnut and the 400 and 500 blocks of Franklin streets. “I see girls walking up and down the street basically getting in cars all day long. It causes a lot of traffic in our neighborhoods that don’t need to be here,” said Walter Fackler, a resident of the neighborhood.

Complaints by residents are totally understandable.  Frustrations of increased traffic also makes sense.  Who wants traffic clogging their neighborhood? Arresting these women seems like a win for the neighborhood and the city – the police have a big headline and the neighbors are happy.  Of course, I wonder again, why not go after the pimps…you know, the ones who are literally the reason for the increased traffic!

“It brings a negative impact to the city that we’re trying to make a better place,” said Sean Moretti, who sits on the board of directors for the Reading Main Street Program.  Moretti said he’s seen the illegal activity outside his office on South Fifth Street, and now he’s praising the police. “We call and complain and I’m glad they’ve done something about it,” Moretti said.

Yes, the police did something.  And this “something” may have helped this one community, at least for a time.  But this “something” they did is not going to put a dent in prostitution in the city as a whole.  But again, the undesirables have been swept away and everyone is happy.  Well, the women who now have one more reason not to turn to the police or the community for help are probably not happy…but no one asked them for their opinion.

One of the problems is simply a lack of education.  What if it was more common knowledge that:

*95% of prostituted women have said they want out of the life but can’t leave due to a variety of circumstances from being controlled by a pimp to having no job skills to speak of.

*The majority of women (anywhere from 70 up to 95%) in prostitution have experienced physical abuse.

*Over 90% of prostituted women were sexually abused prior to entering prostitution*

Statistics like these above, and stories to go with the numbers, about on the internet.  The simple fact is that nothing is going to change in our society until we stop shaming women, stop plastering pictures of women arrested for prostitution all over the internet, and start doing the difficult work of arresting the pimps and the johns.

*I found these statistics here but there are many places where similar stats are found.

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Empire of Liberty – USA from 1789-1815 (Review)

The stories of the Revolutionary War and that of the Civil War are both fascinating to any fan of history.  Last year I enjoyed reading the entries from the Oxford History of the United States on each of those two time periods.  I figured it was about time to read about what happened in the interim, so I read through Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

It was fantastic.

Here are a few of the things I took away from this great book:

*When people say “the Founding Fathers believed” they either ignore or forget the fact that the founding fathers were diverse and had different views.

*I was surprised that so many in early America expected there to eventually be a king, and that most were okay with that.

*I really liked Alexander Hamilton, he came out of this as my favorite founding father.  On the other hand, Wood made Washington appear kind of as a weak president, being pulled between Hamilton on one side and Jackson on the other.  In other words, I do not feel like I knew Washington better after this book, but you really get to know Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison.

*I already knew I would like the religious history chapter, but I was surprised how interesting I found the chapters on economics and judiciary.  The chapter telling of the growth of the Supreme Court and the story of John Marshall was interesting.

*I also enjoyed learning more about the war of 1812.

*Finally, the existence of slavery in early America continues to blow my mind.  It is depressing how so many who spoke so highly of freedom and liberty did not pass this to the slaves.  Further, it was incredibly sad to learn that right after the revolution most in the south thought slavery would just end but a variety of reasons led to the growth and defense of slavery to new levels.

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Defending Calvinism: Being Grateful For the Good Rather Then Fleeing From the Name

I am very grateful for the work of Ben Corey.  His blog is one that I frequently read and often find myself “liking” his posts on Facebook.  I found his book Undiluted to be challenging, well-written and all around fantastic.  And his podcast, That God Show, with Matthew Paul Turner is fun and interesting.

So I was surprised to find myself disappointed with his recent post calling on people to flee from Calvinism.  To be clear – I am not a Calvinist.  If anything I am probably quite close to Corey in my theology.  I have many issues with much theology that goes by the name Calvinism, which I will not get into here.  But I also realize that “Calvinism” is a blanket term that covers a lot of people and movements.

For Corey to say you ought to flee from “Calvinism” because some segments, specifically those in the “young, restless and reformed” world, are damaging seems overly simplistic.  Ought we do the same to any other group?  Would Corey be okay with a warning to flee Anabaptism due to a few examples on the worst side of it?  Do we jettison Christianity as a whole because of a few segments that are awful?

To be fair, the sort of Calvinism that Corey seems to be targeting, which has been labelled is the most vocal in the evangelical world right now.  It is easy to equate all Calvinism with these so-called New Calvinists.  That said, a writer of Corey’s stature, someone pursuing a doctoral decree, owes more to the Christian community.

While I am not a Calvinist, I have been greatly blessed by the work of many Calvinists.  Whatever you think of Calvinism, there is much good in there.

1. Marilynne Robinson – She’s one of the best novelists living today and her books of essays, such as When I Was a Child I Read Books, are fantastic.  If you haven’t read Gilead and its sequels you must.

2. James K.A. Smith – He has become one of my favorite authors and his books have a ton to offer, from summarizing the work of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor to a slightly different (or at least not well-known enough) spin on Calvinism.

3. John BunyanPilgrim’s Progress is a classic that all Christians should read.

4. John Newton – Once a slave trader, ended up being one of the first to speak out against that evil.  Greatly influenced Wilberforce and is most known for the hymn Amazing Grace.

5. Tim Keller – His books and sermons illustrate how a pastor can also be a thoughtful theologian and apologist; the success of his church in NY city is impressive.  His book The Reason for God is still my favorite apologetic work.

6. Alvin Plantinga – He is probably the top living Christian philosopher.  His works are demanding, the few I have read have made my brain hurt.  Any Christian would benefit from wrestling with his work.  I hope to finally read his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, this summer.

7. John Calvin – The man who started it all!  I read his classic work The Institutes of Christian Religion a few years back.  There were times I got so mad I wanted to throw it across the room!  But I also found it encouraging and challenging.  Of all the Christian “classics” I have read, I was most impressed by the style of writing.  This book was clearly written for normal people to read and learn from.

8. Pine Springs Camp – Moving from writers, I worked at this camp in Western PA for two summers in college.  It was one of the most influential and life-shaping experiences of my life.  Had I “fled” from the Calvinism of this place, I would have been the one at loss.  It was also here that I first learned what Calvinism was, being introduced to TULIP, which I thought was nuts.  But in the midst of disagreement, lots of good was done.  The number of individual persons here whose life and work impacted me would be too long to list.

9. Jubilee – I never attended this conference for college students while in college, but I have taken students there.  I can’t say it is the best conference for college students, but it is fantastic and unique.  The focus is not, like so many conferences, on just getting kids fired up for Jesus.  Instead the focus is helping them think through their major and career in relationship with their faith.

 

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Should Christians Watch Game of Thrones? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

Game of Thrones is a gritty television show filled with violence and sex, as well as some fantastic storytelling.  Whenever I talk with students about shows and movies we are watching, they are a bit surprised that I watch Game of Thrones.

My usual retort is that I read the books before they were cool!  I remember heading to the campus bookstore to pick up A Storm of Swords during my senior year.  That was not only the last good book in the series, but that was quite a long time ago!  Little did I know at the time that this fantasy series I was slightly embarrassed to be seen reading then would become tremendously popular in my thirties.

But the nudity!  Shouldn’t that be enough to preclude Christians from watching Game of Thrones?

(Interestingly, the violence is never really an issue as we American Christians love our violence. But anyway.)

The nudity and sex was the big reason John Piper recommended not watching the show last year.  Much of the nudity is unnecessary and, I assume, just there to further entice people to watch.  My evidence for this is the comment section of any review of the show, especially ones without any nudity, as person after person complains about the lack of skin.  Shouldn’t the story be enough to get viewers?

At the same time, this way of critiquing art seems a bit too simple.  When Christians approach a movie or show our response should be more thoughtful then counting bodies (nude or dead) and cuss words.  To judge a piece of art as good or bad based on such tallies misses so much.

An example of a better way to judge art is seen in this great article: “Think Religion is Dead? Just look at Game of Thrones.”  The author looks at what the story says about religion and how this reflects thinking about religion in our world:

What academics loftily call “the secularization thesis” is by now so dead it is almost disrespectful to speak ill of it. Here are its contours: Back in modernity, it was taken for granted that religion would gradually die away, replaced by the logical matters of reason and politics, something we should have managed by now. As we became more enlightened, we’d obviously become less religious, right?

But here we are in the 21st century, and religion shows few signs of slowing. People channeling and claiming the raw power of the gods is barely even surprising anymore. ISIS, for instance, is just our backdrop.

North Americans have an entertaining habit of working out our anxieties about religion on TV. And this season of “Game of Thrones” is as great a catharsis as secularization zealots can hope for.

The world of “Game of Thrones” definitely doesn’t seem secular: There are dragons, curses, undead frozen zombies, magical beasties of all sorts. But those things have only recently reemerged into Westeros and its world that was, until the beginning of the series, a rather reasonably secular age.

The political drama in “Game of Thrones” actually neatly parallels what goes on in the secular West. The capital lives in a kind of cloistered secular innocence, where games of power, intrigue, sex – oh, so much sex – have an almost innocent secular quality.

While the capital whores and gambles and drinks itself into comfortable complacency, the “White Walkers” (frozen zombies, for real) ride. Government, absorbed in an apocalyptic liquidity crisis (the parallels to our world getting eerie), dismisses reports from North of the Wall of this resurgence of presumed-dead religion.

When you watch a movie or show (or read a book or listen to music) do not turn your brain off.  Think about what the message is, what this story is saying and how it may relate to the real world.  This is part of what it means to “love God with all your mind.”

So, should a Christian watch Game of Thrones?   I do not recommend it to people for reasons far beyond the sex scenes – it is an incredibly dark and disturbing show on many levels.  Ultimately though, I cannot answer whether you should or should not watch this or that show.  Every person is different. Some Christians are so disturbed by violent images that they cannot watch many popular shows today that other Christians are okay with.  There are some things that are totally out of bounds for Christians, such as pornography.  On the other hand, much “Christian” art is totally absent of sex and violence but the stories are banal and just bad.

The choice is yours.   I think Matthew Paul Turner, in a response to Piper’s post, sums it up well:

Should Christians watch Game of Thrones? That depends on the Christian. It’s certainly not a show for everybody. At times, it’s violent. Sometimes it’s dreadfully slow. On occasion, it’s sensationalizes the sexual deviance of its characters. And there are dragons. But it’s also quite self aware. Many of its protagonists are very much aware of their demons. Sometimes they fight them. Sometimes they let them have their way. It’s very much a story about humanity (with dragons and zombie-like creatures called white walkers). And like most stories about humanity, there’s a lot of chaos, and occasionally, in the middle of chaos, clothes are optional.

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