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.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book Review: High Performance Health

Author: James M. Rippe, M.D.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
ISBN: not assigned yet

How do you define "good health?" Being disease free? Performing essential physical functions independently? Being physically fit or athletic? Maintaining a good weight? According to Dr, James Rippe, none of these notions completely captures what it means to be healthy. He suggests that a better way to achieve optimal health is to adopt a "values-based approach" that pays attention to physical factors, quality of life and spiritual well being.

In the book's first section, Diagnosis and Understanding, Rippe uses ten chapters to explain the seven basic strategies behind his values-based approach to high performance health. These are:

  • Physical activity
  • Weight control
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Rest
  • Positive Environment for Change
  • Appropriate Mind-Set

Rippe introduces readers to the basic concepts behind all of these strategies and directs them to numerous resources from which they can acquire additional information. Equally important, he explains the pitfalls of particular exercise and diet fads and addresses how to incorporate each strategy into an overall healthy lifestyle. Rippe strongly encourages his readers, particularly those who have been sedentary, to adopt walking programs for their initial exercise regimes. He also encourages his readers to keep journals for developing health plans, setting goals and tracking their progress. Rippe assists readers in starting their journals by providing brief assignments at the end of every chapter. By the time readers finish all of the exercises in the book, they will have discovered ways to make their journals uniquely personal and useful to themselves.

The second section of the book, Action Plan, consists of two chapters. The first of these outlines "ten steps for achieving high performance health:"

  • Assess health, set goals, track progress
  • Connect with your body and mind
  • Use active rest principles
  • Establish a "third place"
  • Fifteen minutes of solitude
  • Thirty minutes of physical activity
  • Discover spiritual age and live it
  • Eat to fuel performanc
  • Connect with others
  • Connect with your spirit

The concepts behind these steps are explained in the book's first section, then rearranged and summarized here. The book's final chapter is a brief summary of Rippe's personal story of striving for optimal, or, as he calls it, high performance, health.

High Performance Health is a clearly written book that does not intimidate readers with vast bulk or dense verbiage. It is a good introduction to the issues involved in developing healthy lifestyles. Although it can be scanned quickly, readers who are serious about improving their health will want to take time to do the assignments carefully and slowly incorporate the strategies into their lives. I highly recommend this book to them.