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).