Monday, December 24, 2007

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-085951-0

  • Which form of the Lord’s Prayer did Jesus teach - the one in the gospel of Matthew or the one in the gospel of Luke?
  • Did the original letters of 1Timothy and 1 John teach that Jesus was divine?
  • Was Jesus calm on the night of his arrest or did he suffer intense mental anguish?
  • Why are there thousands of discrepancies between biblical manuscripts?
  • How does a reader determine whether the translation he or she holds in hand is textually accurate or has been translated to favor a particular theological slant?
These are the sorts of questions that textual critics strive to answer. As Bart Ehrman makes clear in this book, the answers to these questions have serious implications for the validity and reliability of numerous religious doctrines.

Ehrman takes his readers through a fascinating tour of the history of biblical transcription, translation, distribution and canonization. With regard to the latter, Ehrman discusses the various Christian ideologies that competed for supremacy in the Church’s first few centuries and the ways in which those conflicts were resolved. With regard to the former concerns, he notes various types of textual changes that have been made throughout 20 centuries of scriptural transmission. Some of these changes are accidental and include such items as punctuation errors, misspellings, transposed numerals and so on. Other changes are intentional, such as those in which scribes sought to ensure that the text adhered to what they believed were faithful interpretations, or to ensure that particular doctrinal and ideological positions were emphasized. Ehrman illustrates his points by examining closely several disputed texts. He also explains, as well as demonstrates, how several methods of textual criticism, such as comparisons with external contemporaneous documents, internal consistency throughout a gospel or epistle, and consideration of the authors’ (as well as scribes and translators’) purposes enable scholars to determine which manuscripts contain fewer or more flaws than others. The chapter on the social world in which biblical texts originated offers insights into how the scriptures were modified to address the roles of women within the church, and the changing relationships of the church to its Jewish heritage and its pagan context. Ehrman closes the book by noting that readers transform texts through interpretative behaviors of their own every time they read. Thus, there is a real sense in which no one ever gets back to the real, original meaning of any text. This is neither bad nor undesirable, it is a simply a process that all readers should take into consideration when they examine scriptures.

Readers who believe in the inerrancy (or the less rigid standard of infallibility) and divinely guided inspiration of scriptures may well find this book irreverent, perhaps even appalling. Readers who view the Bible as a compilation of literary texts composed by human beings likely will find Ehrman’s application of literary and textual methods of study to ancient texts insightful. I suspect that, whichever camp you fall into, once you’ve read Ehrman’s book, you will never read the Bible in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Book Review: Distant Peaks

Author: Peter Len
Publisher: Millenial Mind Publishing
ISBN: 13: 978-1-58982-460-7; 10: 1-58982-460-1

Peter Len is a full-time American software engineer and sometime mountaineer who has scaled mountains in North America, Europe, Africa and South America. Distant Peaks, based upon journals he kept during those expeditions, is his account of those adventures.

Len’s first two climbs took place at Grand Teton, a magnificent mountain in the Rocky Mountain range in the United States. He was accompanied by his father, as well as other climbers and guides, on both of these occasions. Len was twenty years old during their first climb, which was, unfortunately, cut short because of bad weather. Len treasured the memory of that climb for many years, but was always disappointed that they had not successfully reached Teton’s summit. Thirteen years later, Len and his father decided to make another attempt to summit Grand Teton. This time, they both reached the peak successfully.

Three years after he reached the summit of Grand Teton, Len and a friend decided to try their hands at two famous European peaks: Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. A couple of years later, Len and his friend traveled to Africa to test themselves on the peaks of on to Mt. Kenya, their highest attempt to that point. Len’s most recent climbing adventure took him to three mountains in South America: Cayambe, Cotapaxi and Chimaborazo. He reached the summits of all of these mountains except for Chimborazo. Once again, weather conditions compelled the climbers to cut short their adventure.

Len emphasizes that he is an ordinary guy, not a super-jock or extreme sports enthusiast. His simple message is that mountain climbing is something for which average people can prepare and at which they can succeed. He also emphasizes that the challenges of preparing for and enduring the climbs had beneficial effects on his character. The lessons he learned about his own physical, mental, emotional and psychological limits, the natural world and the ways in which groups take care of their members are lessons that have carried over into his everyday suburban life.

Throughout the book, Len discusses such mundane issues as blisters, altitude sickness, climbing techniques, equipment maintenance and menu planning. He also emphasizes the wisdom of always working with professional guides and travel agencies to plan and complete expeditions. He includes interesting historical and cultural tidbits about the places he visited and several dozen photos taken during the expeditions. I found the chapters about Africa and South America much more engaging than the earlier ones about the USA and Europe. It’s possible that Len simply took better notes as time passed. My impression, however, is that the extra details may have been due to enhanced sensitivity to regions with which he was completely unfamiliar before his climbs. In contrast, he had spent much time in the USA (of course) and Europe apart from his climbing adventures. Possibly, this familiarity led him to pay less attention to their unique cultural features. This is not to say that his descriptions of the beauties and attractions of Wyoming and France are lackluster. But the records of his observations and impressions in those areas differ from, and are less intriguing than, his accounts of Africa and South America.

Overall, Distant Peaks is an enjoyable read that should appeal to enthusiasts of climbing and other outdoor adventures.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Quickie Comment - The Canon

Author: Natalie Angier
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 10: 0618242953; 13: 978-0618242955

I've finally finished plowing my way through The Canon. I purchased it a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to get a nice lay person’s overview of the current state of scientific research. Angier more or less provided that, but there were many points at which cutting through her dense verbiage to get to the substance of her material was akin to hacking through Amazonian jungle with a butter knife. Throughout the book, Angier seemed to pay more attention to being clever than to being clear.

To be fair, several sections of the book were very well done. Her chapters on thinking scientifically, probability and statistics, and evolutionary biology were engaging. If these are the only chapters you read, you will come away satisfied. When Angier forgoes verbal gymnastics and actually explains complex concepts in accessible ways, as she does most consistently in these sections, she excels. Unfortunately, throughout much of the rest of the book, she frequently forgoes accessible explanation in favor of witty wordplay. By the time I got to the final two chapters on geology and astronomy, my eyes were glazing over and my attention was fading quickly. I was tired of her cute metaphors. I was tired of her rude jabs at religion, jabs that neither enhanced nor advanced her arguments. And I was tired of the verbosity by which she relentlessly insisted on using a dozen multi-syllabic terms to express things that could have been stated in a half dozen short, plain words.

Natalie Angier is an intelligent science journalist who has a way with words. Unfortunately, as she demonstrates in The Canon, verbal skills and communicative skills are not necessarily equivalent or interchangeable. If you want to read an accessible book that covers much of the same ground as The Canon, do yourself a favor and buy Bill Bryson’s, A Short History of Nearly Everything instead of Angier’s book. Bryson’s book is nearly twice as long as Angier's, but you’ll only spend half as much time reading it. Bryson demonstrates, in a welcome contrast with Angier, that directness and clarity are always the trump cards in the communications game.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Review - Sinking the Ship of State

Author: Walter M. Brasch
Publisher: BookSurge Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-4196-6950-7

Walter M. Brasch, a professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, has followed George W. Bush’s career from his first presidential campaign in 2000 until the present day. Brasch has listened to the president’s speeches, observed his policy formation and political appointment processes, and been dumbfounded by the press’s widespread refusal, until recently, to criticize the president, his policies and his politics. Unlike many of his journalistic peers, Brasch has asked tough questions about George W. Bush for nearly a decade. Sinking the Ship of State is the impressive (and, at 436 pages, bulky) compendium of Brasch’s news and journal articles about the Bush campaigns and subsequent administrations from February 2000 through April 2007. These articles also contain stern words for news media that, through their superficial coverage of campaign politics and presidential pronouncements and policies, have been complicit in the many blunders of the Bush presidency.

The book, which is arranged chronologically, opens with pieces that chronicle the presidential campaign of 2000. Brasch skewers pundits who pretend that speculations regarding candidates’ primary rankings and their prospects for gaining ground in the next round of the race are more newsworthy than examination of candidates’ policy positions and promises. Also missing are examinations of what candidates’ campaign tactics may reveal about their characters. Brasch countered this tendency with his own insightful observations of such items throughout the 2000 and 2004 campaigns and elections.

Brasch’s analyses proceed through the disasters of 9-11, the Patriot Act and other un-Constitutional legislation, the selling and maintenance of an illegitimate war, irresponsible energy and environmental policies, domestic spying, failure to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 and 2006 elections and the accountability that was finally imposed upon the administration by the Democratic Congressional majority that was elected last year. Since that time, new revelations of the incompetence and political corruption of administrative branch departments have forced the Bush administration to assume a defensive posture that had not been compelled by either a complicit Republican Congress or a complacent national press for the previous six years.

Interspersed with the news accounts are updates regarding subsequent developments of the issues at hand. For example, one of Brasch’s articles, published in November 2005, about the Scooter Libby trial, is supplemented by an addendum describing President Bush’s 2007 commutation of Libby’s prison sentence. Such addendums helpfully remind readers of the ongoing nature of the events discussed throughout the book.

Political junkies will likely enjoy this book, which is a good summary of one writer’s view of a critical period in American history. I only wish that the author had included a subject index. One of the most appealing aspects of the book is the fact that it aggregates a series of “real-time” documents and lays them side-by-side, or end-to-end, as the case may be. It is fascinating to step back in time and relive events as they unfolded and to watch, with the benefit of hindsight, one man’s views as they form(ed). The dual nature of such a reading is engaging and thought provoking. Brasch’s writing is, in turns, witty, enraged, heartfelt and uncannily accurate and prescient. As Americans stand poised on the brink of yet another presidential election, Sinking the Ship of State offers insights into what can be expected in the coming campaigns. More importantly, it reminds us of the errors of our recent past, thereby giving us a tool by which we can begin shaping a better political future for our country. It is a timely book that deserves, perhaps even demands, a wide readership.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Book Review - Shopping for God

James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising, spent more than two years researching and writing his account of the USA’s recent rise in religiosity. He notes that consumerism is deeply ingrained in American culture and that American religion has not escaped its effects. In fact, as Twitchell demonstrates, American religion played a role in shaping American consumerism. Thus, the phrase “shopping for God” is literal as well as metaphorical. Twitchell visited dozens of churches and interviewed scores of pastors and churchgoers to discover what churches are selling and what religious consumers are buying. The result is an engaging book that offers substantial insights into both American religion and consumerism.

Twitchell opens by citing the intersections and interactions between American religion and popular culture. It was once the norm that celebrities said little about their religious beliefs. Nowadays, celebrities flaunt their faith. Few, if any, Americans are not aware of Mel Gibson’s Catholicism, or Tom Cruise’s Scientology, or Richard Gere’s Buddhism, or George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. And religion pervades movies and television. Most Americans have viewed, repeatedly, such “sword and sandal” epics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Throughout the 1990s, Touched By an Angel was one of the most popular shows on television. And TV news shows, such as Dateline, frequently do special features on religion. You can’t even escape from religion in your car, unless you keep the radio off, because most programming on the AM band is religious. And guess what subject ranks second only to pornography in Internet popularity? Religion is even ubiquitous in print media. In 2004, Americans spent $3.7 billion on Christian books and related merchandise (sometimes called “holy hardware” or “Jesus junk”). Is it any wonder that the subtitle of Twitchell’s book is: how Christianity went from in your heart to in your face? Religion is everywhere in America these days.

Twitchell devotes a fair portion of his book to examining the history of religion (primarily Protestant) in the USA, giving special attention to the “great awakenings” and evangelism. He contends that the “awakenings” were actually precipitated by the development of new “delivery systems” for religious content. Thus, one awakening began when evangelists stepped outside of their sanctuaries and preached in the “open air,” thereby winning new converts among those who had never entered a church, cathedral or synagogue. Another awakening occurred when itinerant preachers traveled from town to town and held camp meeting revival series. He credits the current religious awakening in the USA to the rise of the “megachurch,” in which a congregation consists of at least two thousand members and services are delivered by an array of professional, technical, volunteer and pastoral staff, and to new communications technologies.

Twitchell characterizes the American religious market as a “scramble market” in which the supply of a relatively homogenous product exceeds the demand for that product. In such situations, the suppliers need to find innovative ways to package their products, separate themselves from their competitors and appeal to prospective buyers. The traditional mainline denominations, by and large, are failing miserably at these tasks and are losing members. This failure can be measured, in part, by the fact that they are noticeably bereft of male members, a circumstance that Twitchell analyzes in some depth.

In contrast to the older mainline denominations, there are two sets of Protestant Christians that have set themselves apart from the others and are growing. The Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist churches are growing the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors or buttonholing people on the street and talking to them one-on-one. The Southern Baptist Convention is doing it by radical decentralization that allows individual congregations to tailor themselves to fit niche markets in their communities. These are examples of denominations that are bucking the trend of most others. Their non-denominational rivals are the megachurches, the Christian equivalent of the big-box store.

What are the megachurches doing that most others aren’t? At least part of their success lies in the fact that they have changed the way the many people “do church.” Worship in a megachurch is more like a rock concert than a church service. Megachurch services feature lots of upbeat music, videos on JumboTron screens, audience participation and little preaching, which typically emphasizes empowerment rather than guilt. Megachurches stress community, casual friendliness, playgrounds, baseball fields, basketball courts and golf courses, web sites and podcasts. The latter two features deliver the ultimate in “designer religions” that allow folks to control the content of their religion, as well as the timing and manner of its delivery. Megachurches are very male friendly and, figuring that where the men go, the wives and children will follow, they have intentionally “branded” themselves to appeal to men.

The mainline denominations have not given up fighting. Several of them are waging multi-million dollar advertising campaigns in their own attempts to change their brands and appeal to new converts (and brand switchers, which nobody admits seeking deliberately, but accepts willingly nevertheless). Twitchell provides some interesting analyses of several of these efforts.

What does the diminution of denominations and the rise of megachurches portend for the future? Twitchell suspects that, as in the wake of previous religious awakenings, the current wave of religiosity will peak and the culture will settle into a period of relatively quiet equilibrium. After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to what will trigger the next spiritual awakening, but rest assured, it too will come.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

Author: Richard Dawkins
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 13: 78-0-618-68000-9; 10: 0-618-68000-4

In the year since its initial release, millions of people have read The God Delusion. Some have echoed Michael Shermer (scroll down to 2nd review) in hailing it “not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature.” Others have sided with H. Allen Orr in deeming it a “badly flawed” book in which Dawkins “makes a far from convincing case” for his opposition to religion. My view lies somewhere between these two extremes. The God Delusion is not Dawkins’ best book. In fact, it may be his worst (even so, Dawkins at his worst is immeasurably superior to most of us at our best). While his scientific discussions are, as always, insightful and illuminating, his philosophical and theological shortcomings are clear. Nevertheless, The God Delusion is a book that should be taken seriously by religious believers and non-believers alike.

Dawkins describes himself as a religious non-believer, a position that he also ascribes to Einstein, Sagan and Hawking – lofty company, indeed. Since theists are often quick to claim that Einstein was a theist too, Dawkins cites several passages from Einstein’s letters and other documents to refute their claim. Dawkins contends that Einstein was a deist, or perhaps a pantheist, but certainly not a theist. This is important because, as far as Dawkins is concerned, there is no room in the cosmos for a deity of the sort postulated by most theologians, particularly those of the three major Abrahamic religions. He states at the outset that he does not accept the idea that religious ideas should be politely excused from critical scrutiny, nor does he accept Stephen Jay Gould’s notion that science and religion are two realms of “non-overlapping magisteria” of human inquiry. Dawkins uses The God Delusion to make his case for both of these claims.

Rather than focusing on a specific deity, Dawkins aims his critical guns at all deities. He says, “I am not attacking any particular version of God. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (p. 36). Accordingly, the generalized God Hypothesis, which Dawkins seeks to falsify, posits, “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (p. 31).

According to Dawkins, “the God question is not in principle and forever outside the remit of science” (p. 71). While it may be difficult to test the God Hypothesis scientifically, Dawkins reports that it was done at least once, when Russell Stannard tested the efficacy of prayer for medical patients (pp. 61-66). In the long run, though, even if the God Hypothesis should be resistant to scientific testing, Dawkins does not believe that theology is any better equipped than science is to address the God question. He asks boldly, “if science cannot answer some ultimate questions, what makes anybody think that religion can” (p.56)? His earlier reference to staunch believers as “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” (p. 5) probably does not endear religious readers either (though it may raise a chuckle from atheists).

Moving on from his hypothesis statement, Dawkins addresses a range of philosophical arguments for God’s existence. Although he is broadly familiar with a range of philosophical ideas, he does not appear to be interested in engaging those ideas in any depth. He notes, however, that even if one accepts these arguments, they still do not prove the existence of any particular deity, they simply point toward the possible existence of some creative entity.

The heart of Dawkins’ argument is entitled, “Why There is Almost Certainly No God.” He begins with a twist on the argument from design. This argument, as it is typically employed by theists, posits that the universe, particularly life itself, is far too complex to have happened by chance. Ergo, it must have been designed. Dawkins contends that this argument rests on a false dichotomy. Instead, the real dichotomy is that of design versus natural selection. He rules out chance as a viable third possibility because it is highly improbable. Dawkins explains that, far from being a random process, “natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces” (p. 121), and then proceeds to discuss flaws in the Intelligent Design argument.

Dawkins continues by twisting another favorite argument of anti-evolutionists, the so-called anthropic principle, into a new shape. The basic anthropic principle has two components. First, it is highly improbable that life would have arisen by chance. Second, the conditions on earth are too fine-tuned to the generation and sustenance of life to have arisen by chance. Dawkins’ response to the first argument, which is merely statistical in nature, is that there are in fact so many planets, perhaps as many as a billion billion (stop and think a moment about how large that number is), that the statistical probability is in fact likely to have happened somewhere. Given the vast number of planets actually in existence, even if the chances of life arising on any one planet are one in a billion, it’s still statistically possible that there is life on one billion planets. Earth happens to be one of them.

I think people often look at the statistical argument from the wrong end of the lens. They start from the probability of life arising, uncreated and undesigned, on any one specific planet, i.e., earth. From that perspective, of course it looks impossible. This is typical of the geocentric fallacy that humans have committed for millennia. Dawkins looks at the question from the correct end of the lens: earth is one of literally billions of planets, so the likelihood of life arising here is just as great (or small) as it is anywhere.

The second part of the anthropic argument is the fine-tuning argument. Dawkins’ response to this is weak. He avoids dealing with it by discussing, instead, several multi-verse hypotheses, all of which are interesting but speculative in nature. He then concedes that he does not have a satisfactory rebuttal for the fine-tuning argument (p. 158). He concludes this chapter by arguing that the gods posited by theists are highly improbable because any being capable of designing complex beings would itself have to be even more complex. This is a variant of the infinite regress response to Aquinas’ First Cause and Prime Mover arguments. It is a solid response, but not a knockout punch. Ultimately, Dawkins believes that the existence of a god is highly improbable, but it cannot be ruled out definitively at this time (p 51).

Next, Dawkins turns his attention to the roots of religion. This section includes interesting, but largely speculative, ideas about the evolution of religion. Dawkins believes that the religious instinct arose as a by-product of an adaptation that was initially suited for some other condition. His hypothesis is based on the need for children to learn from and trust their parents. Thus, because their survival requires it (especially in primitive cultures) young children absorb information readily. Unfortunately, this happens before they develop the means to critically assess data. Therefore, they are particularly impressionable and susceptible to bad teachings as well as good ones. Dawkins then discusses the meme hypothesis, which seeks to explain how ideas are transmitted between individuals and across generations and cultures. Again, this is an interesting hypothesis, but, as Dawkins notes, it is speculative.

Dawkins gets inexcusably sloppy with his terminology in this part of the book. Sometimes he refers to these speculative ideas as hypotheses – the appropriate term – and sometimes he refers to them as theories – not appropriate in a scientific discussion. As an evolutionary biologist, he really should be more careful. A pet peeve of evolutionists is the criticism that “evolution is only a theory.” What people fail to realize is that, in scientific discussions, the word “theory” is a technical term with a precise meaning. In lay terms, a theory may be an idea that rests on little or no foundation. In scientific terms, a theory a) rests on a body of supporting data, hypotheses, principles, etc. , b) integrates and explains information contained within its supporting data, and c) enables scientists to predict the outcomes of future experiments and observations, thereby leading to the development of new knowledge. Evolution is a theory in this strong, technical sense because it is supported by a wealth of data from diverse fields of inquiry, and it has strong explanatory and predictive powers. Dawkins undermines the evolutionists’ cause by failing to adhere to the technical use of the term, theory.

Following a brief discussion of the evolutionary bases for morality, Dawkins trains his guns on the Christian bible. He gives quite a bit of attention to spectacular, gory Old Testament tales of slaughter, genocide, racism and misogyny. He also finds the New Testament doctrines of atonement and original sin (as articulated by St. Augustine) reprehensible and asserts that the admonition to “love one another” was initially limited to relations between Jews. This latter assertion is contradicted by the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, a teaching that Dawkins does not acknowledge at all. More substantially, he takes Christians to task for their inconsistencies in interpreting the scriptures. He does not take biblical literalists seriously at all, and he challenges liberals to explain the processes by which they arrive at their conclusions. He says, “We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories . . . By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which are literal” (pp. 238, 244)? This is a great question. Unfortunately, Dawkins ignores the fact that biblical scholars can answer it, for they are trained in methods of biblical research, exegesis and interpretation. Had Dawkins actually been interested in his opponents’ answer, he could have had a fruitful, fascinating and urgently needed discussion about whether biblical and theological methods of study meet standards of academic rigor. Instead, he asked the question simply as a matter of rhetoric, because his whole point in this chapter is to argue that westerners don’t actually derive their morals from their holy books (p. 249).

Dawkins contends that people actually acquire moral values via evolution, personal interactions, media, education, scholarship and other human endeavors. According to Dawkins, all of these sources, and others not enumerated, form the Zeitgeist of human morality. At this point, he addresses whether atheistic morality should be preferred above theistic norms. In order to make his case, he needs to rebut the standard objections regarding Hitler, Stalin and other 20th century despots who caused incalculable carnage and devastation. Dawkins’ response is two-fold. First, it is debatable whether Hitler was indeed an atheist. After all, he used the language of Christianity throughout his life. Second, even though Stalin was an atheist, Dawkins asserts that it is unclear whether Stalin’s actions were prompted by or on behalf his atheism. He asserts, “Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism . . . Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion” (p. 278). While conceding that there are many reasons for warfare: politics, patriotism, vengeance, greed, etc., Dawkins contends that religion is an equally strong incentive for violence. He misses an important point, however, in that he discusses atheism as if it is a system of thought comparable to theistic ideologies. The sole content of atheistic “belief” is its lack of belief in God. That is its only doctrinal statement. Atheism is not an ideology. It can be a component of many ideologies, such as humanism, or naturalism, or Marxism, but it is not, on its own, a body of beliefs.

Meandering toward the finish line, Dawkins cites additional reasons for his hostility toward religion. First, he is “hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise” (p. 284). Evidence for this assertion is the ongoing American political wars over science curriculum and research priorities. He also states, “absolutism almost always results from strong religious faith” (p. 286). While I agree that religion can be, and often is, a source of absolutism, it certainly is not the only one. Communism and fascism, to name just two possibilities, are also absolutist systems of thought and government. One can’t help wondering if religion itself is the primary obstacle to human freedom, or if totalitarianism in any form is the actual obstacle that should be opposed? Dawkins does not give this question the attention it deserves. By focusing too narrowly on religion as a source of absolutism, Dawkins squanders an opportunity to discuss totalitarianism generally.

Dawkins also notes his objection to even moderate religion because he believes that it provides a shelter for breeding extremism. He puts it this way: “As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers” (p.306). Differences between moderate and extremist faith are merely matters of degree, not kind. They are not different faiths traveling along on unconnected trajectories. They are, rather, the same faith situated at different points along one continuum. Dawkins goes on to raise another objection: how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert (p. 306)? How and where does society draw the line between legitimate and illicit faith? Dawkins’ solution is to dispense with line drawing altogether and just discard all religious ideologies.

One of Dawkins’ most controversial claims is that teaching children religious doctrines, such as original sin and eternal punishment in hell, is abusive. He also believes that allowing exotic religious communities, such as the Amish, to rear and educate their children outside of the mainstream of society is immoral. Dawkins argues that the Amish oppress their children by prohibiting them from choosing for themselves whether they want to remain within the traditions of their parents. Moreover, by suspending their education far too soon (after eighth grade) the Amish rob their children of opportunities to prepare adequately for participation in a technologically sophisticated society, should they wish to do so. Thus, from Dawkins’ point of view, Amish children are imprisoned in an archaic way of life. He would be pleased if western governments would just allow Amish culture to die of attrition.

Dawkins closes the book by refuting the idea that religion fills a gap within the human psyche. He discusses some traditional roles played by religion, such as consolation in times of grief and inspiration to live a good life and asserts that those gaps can be filled by other worldviews. He concludes with his “testimony” regarding his naturalistic view of the world and the power of science to infuse his life with wonder.

While Dawkins’ writing prowess is evident throughout, this book’s quality is uneven. When reading his scientific passages, one pictures Dawkins writing furiously, eyes alight with passion, mind racing ahead to the next idea. These are the points where his prose flows. When reading the philosophical passages, one sees Dawkins plugging away at the keyboard, eyes glazed, impatient to get through this stuff and move on to more compelling ideas. These are the points where his prose becomes perfunctory. When reading passages that explicitly address religious ideas, one envisions Dawkins with his brow furrowed, his words clipping along angrily. These are the points where his prose grows pedantic and his successive thoughts don’t always cohere. At these points, he is prone to rambling and stringing together anecdotes rather than arguments. As numerous critics have noted, these are the points in which Dawkins is always passionate but not consistently credible.

Having said that, Dawkins nevertheless manages to score some significant points against religion. For example, philosophical arguments regarding God’s existence are currently at an impasse, as all of them are inconclusive. Additionally, scientifically grounded arguments for a creator, such as the one from design, can be reconstructed to lead to the opposite conclusion from the originally intended one. And mathematical arguments for a creator are moot because the universe is large enough for statistical probabilities to be rendered not only possible, but also likely. Finally, even though Dawkins’ discussion of biblical morality is slanted, this weakness is countered by the range of evolutionary evidence for morality that can be drawn from such fields as evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, primatology and others. Had Dawkins engaged his opponents’ theological and philosophical arguments in more depth, The God Delusion would have been more persuasive. As it stands, while Dawkins did not deliver a fatal blow to religion, he did give it a bloody nose.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Review: Blue Heron Marsh

Author: Douglas Quinn
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-595-45822-6

Webb Sawyer is a divorced, techno-phobic former military investigator with a troubled past. After his discharge from a U.S. Army psychiatric hospital, Webb settles at Blue Heron Marsh, where he contentedly spends his days fishing and collecting Negro Baseball League trading cards. His solitude is disturbed when he is asked to investigate a recent murder that occurred on the mainland. As Webb is drawn into the case, he realizes that the murder is connected to a forty-year-old mystery: the unexplained disappearance of a black man from his home in the middle of the night. Webb’s efforts to solve these mysteries compel him to traverse North Carolina in his dilapidated pickup truck. Throughout his journeys he reconnects with old friends, acquires vicious new enemies, and deals with the vicissitudes of sex, love and family. At the story’s resolution, Webb learns that the ways and means of justice (and love) are not always clear.

Blue Heron Marsh is an entertaining mystery that holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. Clues, solutions, red herrings and roadblocks are sprinkled generously throughout the story. Webb Sawyer is an appealing lead character and his supporting cast is similarly engaging. These are characters readers can look forward to meeting time and time again in future stories. In addition to creating strong characters, Quinn uses clear, unpretentious prose to draw the reader into his setting. The beguiling history, geography and culture of the Outer Banks make this an unusual, yet appealing, setting for a mystery series.

Notwithstanding its strong characters and setting, Blue Heron Marsh suffers from some shortcomings. First, and most seriously, the solution to the mystery is fairly obvious quite early in the story. Even so, readers will likely enjoy following Webb to the end. After all, one wants to see what he will do with the information once he catches up with the reader and “gets it.” Moreover, the reader will probably want to see if there is any hope at all for his confused love life. The second error is a factual one: the Baseball Hall of Fame is not located in Canton, Ohio, as Quinn asserts on p. 47 of his book. It is located in Cooperstown, New York. Canton is the home of the Football Hall of Fame. Finally, the book is marred, slightly, by a small assortment of spelling errors. If possible, these last two issues should be addressed in future copies of the book.

Blue Heron Marsh is the first installment of a mystery series. The second book, Pelican Point, is already in process and an excerpt is included at the end of Blue Heron Marsh. Quinn has also written other works in other genres. His experience is evident as his writing style is fluid and engaging. Mystery readers will enjoy this book and may adopt Webb Sawyer as a sleuth to follow as his career continues to unfold.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Book Review: Illuminated

Author: Matt Bronleewe
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
ISBN: 10: 1-59554-249-3; 13: 978-1-59554-249-6

In 1997, Time-Life magazine declared Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th-century printing press as the invention of the millennium. Two years later, the Arts & Entertainment network proclaimed Gutenberg the man of the millennium. The story of Gutenberg and his printing press is so significant that it’s rather perplexing that relatively few authors have mined his life for historical fiction materials. Matt Bronleewe has filled that gap by taking details from Gutenberg’s life and times and crafting a historical adventure tale along the lines of The Da Vinci Code.

Illuminated is an adventure story that centers around a rare books dealer named August Adams and his family: ex-wife, April, and eight-year-old son, Charlie. As the story opens, August is seated next to a mysterious woman on a trans-Atlantic flight. His routine flight becomes a nightmare when he learns, via his seatmate, that Charlie is being held hostage. In order to save Charlie’s life, August must work out clues hidden in illustrations in several Gutenberg Bibles, one of which is in his possession. A short time later, while still in flight, August learns that his ex-wife, an employee at the Library of Congress, has been kidnapped and coerced into stealing that institution’s copy of Gutenberg’s Bible. She too, must assist in deciphering the clues hidden in her copy. A third copy of the Gutenberg has already been acquired (read: stolen) and the requisite clues have been made available to August via the Internet. In all, the complex puzzle is built upon nine clues hidden in three different rare Bibles, plus a tenth clue that is provided near the end of the story. The tale follows the separate adventures of August, April and Charlie, until a point near the end of the book when they are brought together to assemble all ten of the clues. From this point, the book quickly winds down to an exciting conclusion in which August’s evil airplane companion and her accomplices obtain their just rewards.

Matt Bronleewe has written a fairly compelling tale in his first novel. The story is well paced, the pieces fit together neatly and he balances description and dialog, plotting and character development quite nicely. He weaves historical tidbits into the narrative with ease, but did not inject quite enough of such material into the story to satisfy me. August and April are compelling characters, and Grandma Rose (April’s mother) is a feisty lady whom I’d love to meet. On the other hand, Charlie, for all his charm, seems more like a ten- or eleven-year old than an eight-year-old. Of course, children are probably the most difficult characters to portray realistically. A handful of other characters should have been eliminated entirely. Since extraneous characters frequently do little more than clutter plots, their essential tasks should be re-assigned to other, more prominent characters as often as possible. My strongest criticism of the story is that it grew monotonous reading the exhaustive details of the resolutions of nine analogous puzzles, all of which were resolved via similar, if not identical, methods. The tale would have been enhanced by having either fewer such puzzles, or a similar number of more varied puzzles. Notwithstanding these criticisms, Illuminated is an entertaining, quick read.

Similar to all publications offered by Thomas Nelson (a Christian publisher), this book contains no sex or sexual innuendo, no coarse language and no graphic violence. It is suitable for pre-teen, teen and adult readers. It also has no overtly spiritual message – it is simply a good, clean adventure story. Readers who enjoy such fiction will likely enjoy this book.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Book Review: A Song for the World

Author: Frank McGee
Publisher: Many Roads Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-9787948-0-4

Date: January 18, 1974
Place: Miami, Florida – Orange Bowl
Event: Super Bowl X

Notwithstanding the belief of many residents of Pittsburgh, the Steelers 21-17 win over the Cowboys may not be the most memorable aspect of Super Bowl X. Those same residents undoubtedly know that Super Bowl X is significant in the history of mass entertainment because it marks the first time that a half-time show featured a musical extravaganza rather than a marching band show. This historical performance featured 400 performers (from nine casts, forty US states and 17 countries) that were involved in a youth service program called Up with People.

Up with People had begun nearly a decade earlier when the United States was enduring political and social upheaval. American youth were struggling to reconcile their idealism with the realities of living in a country engaged in a Cold War with the USSR and a hot war in Vietnam. Some youth expressed their angst with drugs and sex. Some burned cities. Others, like members of Up with People, used their energies and talents to encourage people and build communities.

A Song for the World tells the story of Up with People’s beginnings and some of its diplomatic achievements. As fascinating as this story is, however, it is only one segment of the stories of the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen. Those stories open in the 1940s.

The Colwell Brothers, Steve, Paul and Ralph, formed a musical group when they were aged 14, 12 and 10, respectively. They played on Saturday morning radio shows and at a variety of fairs and civic events. As they matured, their musical style evolved from western to bluegrass to country to folk. Within a few years, they had cut several records and signed some lucrative contracts. Just as they were poised to rise to the next level as professional entertainers, however, they became involved with a group called Moral Re-Armament (MRA). MRA’s aim was to promote world peace and progressive social change. The Colwells adopted MRA’s mission as their own, and began touring the world as musical ambassadors. Ralph completed his high school education via a correspondence course with the University of Nebraska.

Meanwhile, as the Colwells continued honing their skills, Herb Allen, a world-class xylophonist, had already begun touring post-war Europe under the auspices of MRA. He and the Colwells eventually joined forces in 1953 and spent the next eleven years touring Europe, Asia and Africa. They performed for princes, presidents, prime ministers and peasants. They composed and performed folk songs in dozens of languages. They took shelter during African wars of independence and befriended Cypriot guerrillas. And they did not return to the United States until 1964.

Within a few months of their return to the United States, the Colwells and Allen began touring college campuses. In conjunction with dozens of other performers from several countries, the foursome put together a variety show called Sing Out ’65. One of the highlights of the show was a new song, “Up with People,” which became a favorite across the USA. Within twelve months of the 1965 debut performance, three casts were performing Sing Outs in venues from Washington, DC to New York City to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Seoul and beyond. At times, five separate casts were required to respond to all of the invitations. The group was renamed and incorporated as Up with People in 1968. In 1978 an Up with People cast spread messages of hope and goodwill to China. In 1988, the group broke down another international and political barrier in a tour of Russia.

In the midst of all of this activity, Allen and the Colwells had married and begun raising families. They are now senior citizens, and Up with People, which was restructured in 2005 continues to keep their mission alive.

The author of this book, Frank McGee, has compiled a wealth of information from interviews, letters and other documents. He opens each chapter with lyrics from songs written by the Colwells and Allen, and includes dozens of photos documenting their travels. Even though the story moves at a brisk pace and is riveting at points, McGee relies too heavily on quoted material. At times, the reader forgets who is narrating a particular part of the story. It would have been nice to hear more of McGee’s voice and less of, for example, Paul Colwell’s. Another shortcoming of the book is that McGee writes pages at a time without mentioning Allen. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that he is also involved in the action; the reader can’t help wondering why he is featured at all.

Perhaps the most confounding characteristic of the book is that the reader gets little sense of the personalities of the subjects. We read snippets of correspondence and hear excerpts from interviews, but we get little insight into the growth of men who left home and country in their teens and returned a decade later as young men. How often did they see their families? Did they date? Did they go to movies? What were their political convictions? The book focuses primarily on the Colwells and Allen’s public personas and barely touches on their personal lives. This imbalance becomes strikingly clear when the reader finally encounters the stories of their courtships and marriages in one brief chapter at the end of the book. The story would have been more engrossing if these details, and others like them, had been integrated into the heart of the narrative rather than tacked onto the end of it. Overall, A Song for the World tells an interesting story, but it is not compelling biography. The book will appeal primarily to readers interested in American folk music and mid-twentieth century youth movements.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Book Review: Fitness Kills

Author: Helen Barer
Publisher: Thompson Gale
ISBN: 13 978-1-59414-585-8; 10 1-59414-585-7

Nora Franke, a food critic for MetroScene Magazine, is juggling several projects at Rancho de las Flores, a spa in Baja California. Professionally, she is assisting the spa in its efforts to update its menu and produce a cookbook. Personally, she is losing excess weight and sorting out a stalled love affair. All of these projects are interrupted when murder comes to Rancho de las Flores.

Alan Nardy, a regular spa guest whom Nora never met, is found dead in the mountains on a Sunday morning. The next evening, Nora and several others watch helplessly as Cece Clayton, another regular guest and a friend of Alan’s, sips a poisoned beverage and dies before their eyes. Throughout the week, Nora is injured in several inexplicable, but clearly dangerous, encounters. This formerly idyllic health spa has quickly become one of the unhealthiest venues on the planet. Nora is spurred to action by the realization that she must solve the murders before she becomes the next victim.

Fitness Kills reads like Agatha Christie on steroids. As Christie often did, Barer sets her mystery in an exotic, isolated locale. Although Barer tries, like Christie, to limit her cast to a small number of characters, she does not succeed in this endeavor. There are several bit characters that could (and should) have been trimmed. Unlike Christie, Barer does not conclude the story with a public confrontation and revelation of the killer’s identity. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our age that, even though Nora identifies and confronts the murderer, the book ends in a distinctly postmodern fashion. I find this type of ending unsatisfying, but that probably has more to do with me as a reader than it does with either the author or the story.

The story’s momentum starts briskly and never lets up. It is not a gripping, suspenseful tale, but it is entertaining. The characters are varied: some are quirky, some are fun, some are annoying, some are funny, some are intriguing and some are tiresome. Nora is quirky, fun, funny and intriguing, a mildly flawed yet likeable heroine. The plot, like all good mysteries, is littered with red herrings and false leads. Nevertheless, the clues regarding the killer’s identity are clearly visible, perhaps too much so, to the astute reader.

Helen Barer has much experience as a non-fiction author. Fitness Kills is her first Nora Franke mystery (the second one is underway). In this book, Barer’s overall skill as a writer is obvious, but her relative inexperience as a fiction writer is also evident. Her pacing, plotting and setting development are generally satisfactory, though her plotting and setting techniques could be improved. In general, however, her character development is the area in which she has the most room to grow. This does not mean that Fitness Kills is a poor effort. To the contrary, Nora Franke is a fine character who will be able to engage and hold readers for years to come. I, for one, am looking forward to developing a lifelong reading relationship with Nora and her cohorts. Other mystery fans also may want to start right at the beginning of this series so that they too may share in the pleasure of watching this character and her author as they grow together.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Quickie Comment: The Meaning of Jesus

Authors: Marcus J. Borg & N.T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
ISBN-10: 0060608765
ISBN-13: 978-0060608767

Borg and Wright are two of the leading contemporary scholars engaged in studying the life, ministry, message and meaning of Jesus Christ. Both men are outstanding scholars and fine writers. This book contains their dialog about such issues as Jesus' humanity and divinity, the historicity and significance of his deeds and teachings, the historicity and meaning of his death and resurrection, the meaning of "second-coming" doctrines and the mission of the Christian Church in the 21st century.

Each section of the book is divided into two chapters written by each of the authors. The authors lay out their points of view and frequently identify points at which they agree with and differ from each other. Borg, a member of the Jesus Seminar, generally takes more liberal positions than Wright. It is likely that most evangelical Christians will find themselves agreeing with Wright's more orthodox positions rather than Borg's. Nevertheless, Wright throws some curveballs that may make conservative Christians wince. One example is his view of the significance, or lack thereof, of the Christmas narratives and the Virgin Birth (which should probably be called the Virgin Conception) doctrine. Wright may be the more conservative participant in this dialog, but it is simplistic to distinguish his views as merely "conservative" and Borg's as merely "liberal." The positions of both men are far more nuanced than such labels can convey. Having said that, Borg's views of both Jesus' conception and his resurrection may well scandalize conservative Christians. While Wright throws effective curveballs, Borg's knuckeballs are truly wonders to behold.

In spite of their significant theological and interpretive differences, Borg and Wright have been friends for well over two decades. Their mutual respect is displayed throughout the book and their critiques of each other's views are always delivered courteously. Throughout the book they offer a fine example of how to conduct substantive dialog without rancor. This book, which should be a welcome addition to the vast literature of Jesus studies, gives Christians from the full spectrum of faith interesting insights to ponder.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Book Review: When the Nile Runs Red

Author: DiAnn Mills
Publisher: Moody Publishers
ISBN: 0-8024-9911-2; 13: 978-0-8024-9911-0

It is July 2005. Sudan has endured more than twenty years of civil war, and every city, town and village across the country has suffered. But hope is alive now; the warring factions of the north and south have signed a peace treaty and a southern hero, John Garang, has agreed to be vice-president of the northern-based government.

Larson Farid, an American doctor, runs a clinic in the village of Warkou. The danger she faces is even more intense than the usual perils of warfare, for her husband, Paul, an Arab pilot for a charitable group called Feed the World, is a hunted man. He has rejected the religion of his youth, Islam, and converted to Christianity, a decision that has infuriated his powerful family. Colonel Ben Alier, who stills loves Larson despite her marriage to Paul, knows how urgently their skills are needed and he does everything he can to protect them.

Larson, Paul and Ben are also facing personal crises. Larson discovers that she is pregnant. She is unprepared for this and wonders how this will affect her medical ministry and her marriage. Paul’s brother, Nizam, is asking Paul questions about his Christian faith and wants to meet face-to-face with him. Paul is not certain whether Nizam’s queries are sincere, or an elaborate ploy to trap and capture him. And Ben, confronting his imminent death from cancer, seeks to reconnect with the family he deserted more than a decade earlier.

In addition to these political and personal dilemmas, Larson, Paul and Ben are struggling with spiritual questions. Larson and Paul’s questions center on identifying and obeying God’s will. Ben’s questions center on whether any religion offers him peace and hope for an uncertain future.

When the Nile Runs Red is full of action and its characters are unique and engaging. Paul and Larson flirt with each other, they argue with each other and they act like actual flesh and blood married couples. Larson is a doctor who has, of necessity, become a proficient marksman. Paul is an Arab Christian struggling to relinquish his past cultural biases. Ben is a hardened soldier who loves Larson and grudgingly respects Paul. He is fearless in military operations, yet apprehensive about how he will be received by his family. Even minor characters are carefully developed and Mills balances effectively description, back-story, action, dialogue and introspection. From its tense opening scene to its dramatic finish, the book’s plot is well constructed. The momentum never falters and the various political, personal and spiritual conflicts all meet and resolve at the conclusion.

This is DiAnn Mills’ third book about Sudan. She has spent time there and even “roughed it” in villages that lack running water and electricity to conduct her research. She has a deep knowledge of the lives and dreams of the Sudanese, and of the political and economic stresses with which they struggle. Her thorough knowledge of the Sudanese may be exceeded only by her compassion and respect for them.

Readers who enjoy Christian fiction and those who enjoy adventure stories will find plenty to like in this book and they will probably find it hard to put aside once they’ve begun reading.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Book Review: Parenting Beyond Belief

Editor: Dale McGowan, Ph.D.
Publisher: Amacom
ISBN: 13:978-0-8144-7426-6; 10: 0-8144-7426-8

This book, written from an explicitly atheistic perspective, is unlike many other books about parenting that are available throughout the USA. The editor states that “There are scores of books on religious parenting. Now there’s one for the rest of us” (p. x). In spite of its clearly non-religious posture, this book is not intended to denigrate religion and its practitioners. In fact, McGowan observes at the outset that “religion has much to offer parents: an established community, a predefined set of values. . .comforting answers to big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss” (p. x). Nevertheless, McGowan and many others believe that there are compelling benefits to raising children outside of religious traditions. This book is intended to assist such parents.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which is comprised of an introduction by the editor and writings from various authors, many of whom identify themselves as “freethinkers*.” These authors include philosophers, scientists, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, a former Pentecostal minister, a comedian and several others. The chapters address such issues as religious literacy, parenting in a mixed secular/religious marriage, good and bad reasons for belief, celebrating religion-free holidays, developing moral values, coping with death and consolation, developing critical thinking skills and habits, and building secular communities. McGowan and several other authors agree that this final task, building communities, is the one at which freethinkers, in stark contrast to religious adherents, have been least successful.

It is not surprising that most of the contributing authors have negative feelings about religion. To their credit, they generally focus on the positive aspects of atheism and avoid, for the most part, criticizing particular religious tenets and practices. They accomplish this in spite of their contention that the greatest challenge of secular parenting is enabling their children to cope as members of a nonreligious minority within an overtly religious society, particularly one that leans heavily toward conservative Protestantism and evangelicalism. They note that, since they and their children are frequently criticized, and even persecuted, for their lack of faith, it is important to form supportive communities with other freethinkers. This is an interesting counterpoint to the repeated contention of religious conservatives that it is their values, in fact, which are under attack from secular humanists.

The quality of deliberation and expression is consistently high throughout all of the selections in this volume. Some pieces, such as the excerpt from Mark Twain’s inimitable Little Bessie Would Assist Providence, and Yip Harburg’s short poems, are outrageously funny. Others, such as Margaret Downey’s account of her struggle with the Boy Scouts of America – who refused to admit her son because he would not join an “acceptable” church – are heartrending. Still others, such as Kristan Lawson’s explanation of evolution, are richly informative. None of the writings are shallow and all are thought-provoking. Ethical philosophers, in particular, will be intrigued by chapters four, “On Being and Doing Good,” and five, “Values and Virtues, Meaning and Purpose.”

The book includes a glossary, short biographical sketches of the contributing authors and an index. It can be read straight through from cover-to-cover, or readers can pick and choose chapters or individual selections at random as it suits them. Even though the book will be of interest primarily to parents who want to raise their families outside of the constraints of traditional religions, it may also be of interest to readers who want to explore atheism, agnosticism and freethinking.

* FREETHINKER: Someone who does not passively accept views or teachings, especially on religion, preferring to form opinions as a result of independent inquiry” (p. 276).

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Book Review: Private Guns, Public Health

Author: David Hemenway
Publisher: The University of Michigan Press
ISBN: 0-472-03162-7

Professor David Hemenway, of Harvard University, has spent much of his career studying public health policy. In Private Guns, Public Health, Hemenway examines many intersections between American gun policies and American public health issues. In the book’s preface, Hemenway states, “Public health is prohealth . . . . Public health is not anti-gun owner” (p. xii). His concern throughout the book is to balance the interests of gun-owning individuals with those of society.

In the book’s opening chapter, entitled Guns and American Society, Hemenway cites several studies which indicate that, even though crime rates in the USA, overall, are similar to crime rates in other high-income countries, American rates of lethal violence, most of which is perpetrated with guns, are much higher. He also notes that approximately 25% of American adults own firearms, and American “gun culture” continues to be fueled by popular Revolutionary War Minuteman and rugged Old West Cowboy images.

In the second chapter, Hemenway describes a public health approach to the issue of gun violence. In addition to changing the public perception of what levels of gun injuries are acceptable (which has happened with such products as toys and automobiles), Hemenway seeks to emphasize injury prevention rather than faultfinding and punishment after injuries and crimes occur.

In the third chapter, Gun-Related Injury and Death, Hemenway examines accidental injuries, suicides and homicides and argues that several measures, including childproofing guns, personalizing guns so that only authorized persons can fire them and requiring trigger locks would go a long way toward reducing or preventing injuries without imposing in any way upon gun ownership privileges.

In the fourth chapter, Self-Defense Use of Guns, Hemenway reports that the efficacy of gun use for self-defense is still in question, since available evidence suggests that guns are rarely used for this purpose.

In the fifth chapter, Location, Hemenway notes that the presence of guns in the homes greatly increases the risk of injury or death by gunfire. Much of this risk is associated with the fact that many gun owners do not store guns and ammunition safely. Moreover, the presence of guns in homes increases the likelihood of successful suicide attempts. Hemenway also discusses the use of guns in school violence and links those events to their larger community contexts. He concludes this chapter by noting that gun-carrying permits have mixed consequences. Available evidence indicates that, while the presence of guns in public places occasionally deters violence, the presence of firearms may also be a factor in escalating violence. For example, some criminals have revealed in interviews that they carry firearms in the event that they may have to defend themselves against armed victims.

In the sixth chapter, Demography, Hemenway notes that adolescents and young adults face the highest risk of injury or death or injury by gunfire. Women and African Americans are also more susceptible to gun violence than other populations.

In chapter seven, Supply, Hemenway discusses the manufacture and distribution of firearms in the United States. He points out that, like all manufacturers, gun makers are primarily interested in profit rather than safety. Therefore, they emphasize measures that require additional responsibility from consumers and resist measures that require modifications in gun design and production. Hemenway also argues that the gun distribution processes in the USA are problematic. Gun sales between private individuals, and at gun shows, flea markets, etc., are not regulated to the same degree as gun sales via licensed dealers. These are venues through which criminals, youth and the mentally unstable procure guns all too easily.

In the book’s final three chapters, Hemenway discusses American gun policy background, lessons and actions. He argues that the current prevalent understanding of the Second Amendment is mistaken. He points to a substantial body of legal precedent to make the case that this amendment is not about individual rights to gun ownership at all. Rather, this amendment addresses the rights of states to defend themselves against an aggressive federal government. He also argues that most Americans favor “reasonable” regulation of gun ownership and do not desire to ban gun ownership. With regard to lessons learned, Hemenway posits that society would benefit greatly by shifting its focus away from punitive gun laws toward practices that will prevent gun injuries. In his view, a public health perspective does not seek to prohibit guns ownership, it simply seeks to reduce and minimize society’s burden for that privilege. He concludes by recommending some broad policy actions, such as better education and enforcement of safe storage practices, more stringent regulation, licensing and manufacturing requirements and better surveillance of firearm practices and policies so that futile practices may be discarded and good practices enhanced.

The newer paperback edition of this book includes an afterword in which Hemenway provides updated evidence from recent studies to support his claims. The book also includes a helpful appendix that describes the strengths and shortcomings of methods employed in most gun policy studies and an extensive bibliography. The appendix listing famous civilians shot in the United States struck this reviewer as a trite, somewhat sensationalist, item to include in a work that generally achieves a high scholastic standard.

Overall, Private Guns, Public Health is clearly written, albeit dense with academic material. Hemenway occasionally uses anecdotal evidence in his arguments, but, by and large, he relies on a large body of statistical and scholarly analyses, presented in a fairly erudite tone. This is not light reading matter. Nevertheless, readers interested in policy studies, public health issues or the American “gun control” debate will benefit from reading this book.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Book Review: The God Tools

Author: Gary Williams
ISBN: 0741431297

In September 1999, Scott Seymour and Curt Lockes subdued a supernatural fish. In March 2000, they suppressed an ancient serpent. Now they are about to encounter another potent creature and an antediluvian man with an astounding connection to all three beasts, known collectively as the God Tools.

On a stormy night in June 2000, Cody Seymour vanishes from his Florida home. Less than an hour after his disappearance, the President of the United States receives an alarming phone call in Washington, D.C. The message is simple yet chilling:

Mr. President, we have a problem. We have to act now.

Thus begins Scott and Curt’s most harrowing adventure with the God Tools.

As Scott frantically searches his house and neighborhood for his missing son, he senses that Cody’s disappearance is tied to ominous events that extend far beyond a family crisis. His suspicion is confirmed when Dr. Samuel Tolen – the man with deep access to government resources, the man with a multitude of skills, some of which are legal – arrives to help Scott and Curt find Cody. He also warns that, if they don’t find Cody within five days, the earth will suffer a catastrophic event equivalent to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In order to resolve both dilemmas and rid the world of all three God Tools, they must decipher clues contained in an obscure passage of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As the story unfolds, the reader learns the answers to some of the questions that remained unresolved in the first two books. In Fish of Souls, for example, there was a hint that the pond in Scott’s backyard was no ordinary body of water. The significance of the pond becomes clear in The God Tools. Moreover, in this final book we learn that Curt and Scott’s involvement in this chain of events was not coincidental. Everything that happened to them over the past nine months was orchestrated by a character whose presence and identity are finally revealed in The God Tools. The reason for their involvement, revealed in this book, is staggering. The resolution of all the mysteries and the overall conclusion of The God Tools are deeply satisfying. And the final scene will leave you shaking your head in wonder as Mr. Williams uses an infamous disaster to dispense justice to the villains.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I should point out that Mr. Williams’ character development remains uneven. His depiction of Scott’s anguish over his missing son was poignant but not maudlin. Achieving such a balance was no small accomplishment and Mr. Williams handled it well. He also offered occasional glimpses into the hearts and minds of Curt and Sherri. But Tina and Kay remained frustratingly bland and one-dimensional throughout the series, as did some of the villains. All three books in this trilogy have been driven by their plots rather than their characters.

Overall, The God Tools, the longest and best book in the trilogy, is an agreeable read. The story’s threads are tied together tightly and the reader is propelled forward, breathlessly, until the end. The plot is engaging, the balance between description and dialogue is pleasing and the momentum never falters. Mr. Williams’ ability to construct a coherent, complex structure is noteworthy. His connections of the events and characters throughout this book and across all three books were clever, and I’m looking forward to reading his next book.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Review: A Dialogue of Civilizations

Author: B. Jill Carroll
Publisher: The Light, Inc., & The Gϋlen Institute
ISBN: 978-1-59784-110-8

North American scholars, writers and politicians frequently refer to the distinctions between Islamic and Western cultures as a “clash of civilizations.” Dr. B. Jill Carroll takes exception to this characterization. As the title of her book suggests, she prefers to look beyond the overt differences between Islam and other cultures and to examine points of similarity between them. Thus, rather than perceiving cultures as engaged in inevitable conflict, Dr. Carroll believes that there is substantial common ground upon which they can reach mutual understanding and respect. To this end, she compares some of the core ideas of Western philosophy and Confucianism with those of M. Fethullah Gϋlen, a Turkish scholar of the Sufi tradition of Islamic faith.

Carroll organizes the book around five major concepts that philosophers from a diverse range of cultures have addressed over the centuries. These are:

• Inherent human value and human dignity
• Freedom
• Ideal humanity
• Education
• Responsibility

Carroll dedicates one chapter to each concept. She begins each chapter by discussing the writings of one or two non-Islamic philosophers. She then introduces the writings of Gϋlen on that topic and proceeds to compare and contrast his ideas with those discussed previously. The chapter on human value and dignity examines the works of Immanuel Kant and Gϋlen. In the chapter on freedom, Carroll compares the thoughts of John Stuart Mill and Gϋlen. The chapters on the human ideal and education examine the ideas of Confucius, Plato and Gϋlen. The final chapter, which deals with responsibility, compares the writings of Jean Paul Sartre and Gϋlen.

In each chapter, Carroll offers excerpts from the writings of the philosophers whose work she is discussing, and then presents her own summaries and analyses of the excerpts. This technique is helpful for readers who may be unfamiliar with the body of philosophical writings being considered. Readers who have never encountered the writings of Kant or Sartre, for example, may find them difficult to understand without any assistance. Carroll’s explanations restate the philosophers’ prose in language that is accessible to twenty-first century readers. Some readers may posit that she should have omitted the excerpts and just offered her interpretations. This, however, would be a lazy, perhaps even specious, approach. Carroll demonstrates her integrity by offering the excerpts alongside of her analyses and allowing her readers to judge for themselves whether she is being faithful to the original authors’ intentions.

Notwithstanding the clarity of Carroll’s writing, one cannot help wondering if, when she began this project, she was entirely clear about her purpose. If she sought to create a dialogue between Western and Islamic thought, then the inclusion of Confucian philosophy may be out of place. If she sought to create dialogues between Western, Islamic and Eastern thought, then the writings of Confucius should have been included in the chapters from which they were omitted. As it stands, the Western and Islamic voices are present throughout the conversation, but the Confucian voice is only allowed into selected segments of the discussion. Thus, the Confucian voice is relegated to a lower status in the overall conversation.

It is also interesting that the writings of one man, Gϋlen, are juxtaposed with those of several giants of Western thought – Plato, Kant, Mill and Sartre – as well as a giant of Eastern philosophy, Confucius. Carroll chooses an array of philosophers to represent Western ideals, yet allows only one voice of many from Islamic thought, that of Gϋlen. A more substantive dialogue could have been created by including the voices of several Islamic scholars, just as the voices of several Westerners were included. Similarly, if the conversation was intended to include Eastern thought, then other representatives, in addition to Confucius, should have been invited. As it stands currently, the conversation is lop-sided.

In spite of these shortcomings, A Dialogue of Civilizations is worthwhile reading. It is a good book for readers who may want to delve into philosophy but are afraid of diving in too deeply, too soon. Readers can read the excerpts sprinkled throughout this book, as well as the endnotes and bibliography, and decide which authors and books may be of interest to them for further study. Perhaps more significantly, this book introduces readers to ideas that have moved and molded civilizations for millennia and it allows them to look at other cultures with respect and empathy rather than fear.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Author: Gary Williams
ISBN: 0741419165

Having barely recovered from their previous adventure with an ancient, deadly fish, Curt Lockes and Scott Seymour are hurled into another chilling escapade. They must locate and disable the Staff of Moses, which unwittingly has been transformed into a heinous Serpent. Their task is confounded by the fact that there are others who seek the Staff for their own evil ends, thugs who will not hesitate to kill all who stand between them and the Staff. Moreover, the Serpent itself has selected Curt and Scott to be its victims. Thus, Scott and Curt are both the hunters and the hunted in this gripping sequel to Fish of Souls.

The action begins when a stream of blood flows from a fresh water spring in a small Florida town. The drama continues with a tragic bridge accident in which Curt and Scott heroically save several people from drowning. As you read about the accident and rescue you may find yourself looking for a towel and a change of clothes: Williams’s description of this scene is so riveting that you’ll feel like you’ve been submerged in the river alongside of Curt and Scott.

From this point the book oscillates between past and present as Williams sows the various seeds of his story. This sowing process takes several chapters (there are lots of seeds to sow), with the result that the book’s forward momentum sometimes falters. Once all of the seeds are sown, though, the story hurtles through rivers, caves, alligators, a tornado and pyramids and the reader is captivated until the story’s climactic resolution, which binds all of the seeds into a coherent entity.

Williams’s recipe for this book is similar to that of his previous one: premonitory dreams, an old document, biblical lore and history, archaeology, all sprinkled with historical and geographical flavorings from Florida. Plus lots of destruction and death: death by gunfire, death by drowning, death by burning, death by ingestion. . . . This time around, Scott’s family becomes more integral to the story as his young son, Cody, is attacked – twice – by the Serpent. Moreover, the book ends with Cody’s warning that “it’s not over.” This is a fitting conclusion to a story in which the mission – disabling the Serpent – was accomplished, only to have the object of the pursuit vanish mysteriously. One can’t help speculating that the Serpent may reappear in the next episode.

You may want to keep a pen and paper handy to keep track of all the characters in this complex plot. It’s not “a cast of thousands,” but sometimes the novel seems to be populated by enough people to occupy a small country. By the time you reach the book’s conclusion, you will understand the roles played by most of the characters. Nevertheless, some of those roles really are just bit parts that could have been deleted without harming the story. Even though I enjoy Williams’s ability to weave several strands into a satisfying, complex whole, I do not enjoy complexity for its own sake. In this case, the additional complexity slowed the book down instead of driving it forward.

This book, which suffers from the same editorial weakness that plagued the first book of the series, is generally a satisfying read. Gary Williams has a vivid imagination and a knack for descriptive detail. His characters are enjoyable, but I hope to see some deeper character development in the next book. The beauty of doing a series is that characters can evolve. The pitfall of doing a series is that, in order for it to be satisfying over the long run, the characters must evolve. If you liked Fish of Souls, you will also enjoy this sequel.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Book Review: When the Bluebonnets Come

Author: John J. Dwyer
Publisher: Bluebonnet Press
ISBN: 978-0-9768224-1-7

Young Katie Shanahan’s life is idyllic until the day her father sets out in search of a rabid dog and encounters several men discussing a mysterious business deal. Upon spying him, the men assure him that their business venture will bring plenty of jobs for folks in Cotton Patch, Texas. At a town meeting a few days later, the men reveal their plans to establish a casino, race track and “Family Entertainment Complex” on the outskirts of town. Katie’s father, Ethan, and several other ministers immediately form a coalition to oppose the proposal, which is supported by several members of the town council. As the town of Cotton Patch grows increasingly divided, tempers flare, loyalties are strained and broken, and violence ensues. As Katie reveals in her narrative, these events have permanent, devastating effects on her and her family.

When the Bluebonnets Come is a beautifully written, enchanting story. Dwyer tells it from the perspective of a young girl and adopts a very effective Texan voice throughout the narrative. His understanding and love of Texas culture are obvious and his portrayal of the small-town distrust of the big-city folks from Dallas rings true. Even though the story unfolds more or less chronologically, the reader initially may find the juxtaposition of some scenes startling. The lack of smooth transitions between chapters and the occasional disjointedness of the narrative enhance the book’s character as a series of remembrances rather than a formal, scholarly recounting of events. The relationships between all of the scenes and characters become clear throughout the book and the disjointed feeling dissipates after the first few chapters.

Dwyer develops his characters expertly. His heroes have flaws that have significant, sometimes tragic, consequences. They are far from perfect, yet they are always amiable. Some of the villains also are quite likeable; they are not simply evil rogues who merit only the reader’s contempt. Heroes and scoundrels alike are people with whom the reader can identify and sympathize. The plot and subplots flow together nicely and are cleverly integrated by the end of the book. The story is well paced and flows smoothly and evenly, like a gentle, lazy river. This is not a story that hurtles at breakneck, adrenaline-pumping speed. It is, rather, a story that invites the reader to quietly enter another time and place that has its own unique tempo.

When the Bluebonnets Come is appropriate for readers of any age from middle school through adulthood. There is no profanity or overt sexuality and the infrequent violence is rendered tastefully. Readers who enjoyed David Baldacci’s lovely story about rural Virginia, Wish You Well, will also enjoy this book.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Book Review: The Creation-Evolution Debate

Author: Edward J. Larson
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 13-978-0-8203-2912-3; 10-0-8203-2912-6

In January 2006, Edward J. Larson presented a series of three lectures on the topic of this book at Stetson University. In this volume, Larson offers those lectures in print form. Each of the book’s chapters corresponds to a lecture, each of which was designed to stand independently of the others. Nevertheless, all of the lectures taken together provide a coherent overview of the ways in which this debate has developed over the past 150 years.

In the first chapter, Darwinism and the Victorian Soul, Larson discusses the British cultural environment into which Darwin unleashed his theory in The Origin of Species. This book generated tremendous responses, positive and negative, upon its publication in 1859. People from a wide range of philosophical and political persuasions eagerly accepted Darwin’s ideas. Others, however, objected strenuously to them. Perhaps unexpectedly, some Christian theologians accepted Darwin’s theory, with limitations. These limitations were articulated more forcefully upon Darwin’s publication, in 1871, of The Descent of Man. Larson concludes this chapter by noting that both philosophers and theologians contested this aspect of evolutionary theory, and continue to do so today.

The book’s second chapter, The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution, focuses on the American context of the debate. Larson divides this debate into three phases. He calls the first phase, epitomized the by famous Scopes trial in 1925, the antievolution crusade. At this point, American opponents of evolution fought to keep evolution out of American high school curricula. Since public school curricula reflected a Protestant worldview, no other action was deemed necessary at that time. The second phase of the debate opened subtly in 1947 when the United States Supreme Court began enforcing the establishment clause of the first amendment. It became more visible in 1961, upon the publication of Henry Morris’s book, The Genesis Flood. This book, which promoted an antievolution “young earth” creationist theory, became immensely popular among conservative Christians. This Creation Science movement lasted until the late 1980s, when the Supreme Court ruled against the inclusion of scientific creationism in school curricula. The third stage, which is still ongoing, began in 1997 when Phillip Johnson launched the Intelligent Design movement. Larson discusses several recent legal cases involving the inclusion of Intelligent Design theory in school curriculum and concludes by observing that, “If history is any guide, dark clouds remain on the horizon” (p. 36).

In the book’s final chapter, Scientists and Religion in America, Larson discusses three models that historians commonly use to explain the relationship between science and religion. The first model, which may be the most prominent, is the “conflict” model, which sees science and religion in a state of perpetual warfare. The second model views science and religion as “complementary” ways of knowing. Its proponents believe that scientific information can reinforce religious belief, and vice versa. The final model views science and religion as pursuits that “coexist” in separate realms. According to this model, science deals with natural phenomena and religion deals with the supernatural. Therefore, there need not be any conflict between these two distinct spheres of inquiry. Larson closes this chapter by detailing several surveys, conducted in 1914, 1933, 1996 and 1998, of the attitudes of American scientists toward religion. He concludes that, “in terms of its relationship to religion, American science did not change fundamentally during the twentieth century” (p. 50).

Larson’s slim little volume (66 pages) provides a nice introduction to the history of the evolution-create debate, particularly as it has unfolded in the United States. It should be especially helpful to readers who are just diving into the vast body of literature on this issue. Larson’s treatment is even-handed and respectful of all parties; he does not denigrate or disparage any points of view. Nevertheless, it would be much more helpful if Larson had included a bibliography. A reader whose book list begins with Larson’s account will have difficulty determining what to read next if he or she wants to read more about this topic. I sincerely hope this shortcoming will be rectified in the future.

The Creation-Evolution Debate is well written and easily digested. It is good for newcomers to the debate, and I readily recommend it to them. Readers who are already familiar with the issues and the players, however, will find little of interest in this volume.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Quickie Comment: Queen Isabella, by Alison Weir

Last night I finished reading a biography of Queen Isabella, a 14th century English queen. Isabella was a French princess who married King Edward II in 1308. She was 12 and he was 24. It's no surprise that Edward wasn't too interested in his child bride until she turned 16 or 17. They probably had little in common to talk about. Besides, notwithstanding the fact that they had four children, Edward's presumed homosexuality was not an asset to their marriage. As Isabella matured, she became a shrewd diplomat. Unfortunately, Edward did not share her skills. He became an incredibly awful ruler who let his allies run amok. Corruption and greed were the rules of the day during Edward's reign. Edward's international policies were as dismal as his domestic ones. Consequently, as relations between England as France deteriorated, Isabella traveled to France on a diplomatic mission to renew peace between the two nations. She also felt safer in France than she did in England, where she was at odds with Edward's powerful allies, and she extended her stay there as long as possible.

In France, Isabella became politically and sexually involved with Roger Mortimer, a member of the English nobility who was also in exile. Isabella and Mortimer invaded England, overthrew Edward II and had Isabella's teen-aged son, Edward III, proclaimed king. Since Edward III was still a minor, Isabella and Mortimer ruled as regents in his stead. As things turned out, Mortimer grew as greedy and corrupt as Edward II's cohorts. He even seems to have plotted the murder of Edward II, who was being held prisoner in a English castle.

Tradition has held that Edward was gruesomely disemboweled, but there is evidence that he may have escaped his prison, fled to the Continent and spent his remaining few years in various monasteries. Just before Edward III reached the age of majority, he overthrew Mortimer, who was tried and executed for his crimes. Isabella, fortunate to have avoided the gallows herself, spent her remaining years in retirement in England. She was closely guarded for the first couple of years, but the restrictions were gradually lifted. By the end of her life, she enjoyed cordial relations with her children and grandchildren and occasionally served as an advisor to Edward III, who is regarded as one of England's best kings.

Historians (primarily men) generally have judged Isabella very harshly. Well, it's easy to see why: she was smarter than her husband, she refused to let the men in her life abuse her, she possibly was sexually frustrated and did something about it, and she successfully planned and executed an invasion of England and the deposition of a king. She didn't stay barefoot in the kitchen, that's for sure. She was colorful and spunky, to say the least. If I could meet any historical figures, she'd be on my list, as would Eleanor of Aquitaine and Elizabeth I. England certainly has had some interesting queens!

I've read several of Alison Weir's books and she's definitely one of my favorite authors. She's a great historian/biographer and a wonderful writer whose books read like novels. If you don't think a history book or biography can be a page-turner, you have to read Weir's work. Queen Isabella is a good one with which to start.