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.


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.


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.


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.