Category Archives: Reviews

The End of Secularism, by Hunter Baker

Our friend Hunter Baker’s new book, The End of Secularism, reminds me more than anything in my own experience of the work of Francis Schaeffer (though Baker criticizes Schaeffer in certain areas). It’s a dense book, heavily footnoted, presenting a lot of information in a relatively short (194 pages) format. You’ll want to keep a highlighter in hand as you read it, and if you’re like me, you’ll have to stop and contemplate what you’re reading from time to time.

Baker begins with several chapters of historical overview, tracing the history of the Christian church, then explaining how secularism as a world-view and ideology burgeoned in a world increasingly weary of religious conflict and war. Secularism—the view that religion (if tolerated at all) must be cordoned off from public life, so that even someone whose politics are formed by faith must find secular public arguments for it in order to participate in the process—was originally marketed, and continues to be marketed today, as the only rational and impartial alternative to the passions and intolerance of believers.

Baker then applies to this claim of rationality and impartiality the same kind of analysis that secularists like to use on religion. He finds secularism greatly wanting, and fatally blind to its own unexamined presuppositions. It’s strange to find postmodern thinkers presented positively in a Christian book, but Baker takes particular note of recent deconstructions of secularism by younger thinkers. These postmoderns note that secularists are not, as they imagine, impartial referees in the world of thought, but partisans holding a distinct ideology, and that their efforts to silence religious ideas in the public square are simply a new example of an elite class attempting to muzzle heretics. Baker also marshals historical facts to demonstrate that secularism has no better record of tolerance and the prevention of conflict than Christianity had. He devotes a later chapter specifically to the “legend” of the incompatibility of religion and science. In the final chapter he examines an interesting situation from recent history where politicians explicitly appealed to religion in a controversy in a southern state, and the secularists made no complaint at all—because in that case, religion was being marshaled in the service of a liberal cause.

The End of Secularism will challenge the Christian reader, and will raise some Christian hackles—Baker gives short shrift to those who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, for instance. (Update: Hunter points out to me that he criticizes those who claim a secularist founding as well, which is a fair point.) But Christians should read it, for the mental exercise, and for the hope it presents that the long cultural dominance of secularism may finally be coming to the beginning of its end. Secularists should read it for an education.

Highly recommended.

“Souls on Ice”

Anthony Sacramone reviews the movie “Souls on Ice” at Filmwell. As he sees it, a promising concept, disappointingly delivered.

Alas, Cold Souls’s parts are greater than its whole, and sounds funnier than it is. It fails to cohere in part because the central conceit—Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti—serves no great purpose. After all, Giamatti, however ill at ease and sad-sackish he may appear, is a successful and respected actor. If we are to believe that he is nevertheless experiencing a soul-shifting crisis, a deep-seated desire to, as Vanya says, “live the rest of his life in a different way,” those scenes must have been left on the cutting-room floor or on Barthes’ laptop.

The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly

The Brass Verdict is Michael Connelly’s second novel about his new character, lawyer Mickey Haller. I wasn’t too sure whether I liked Mickey much when I read the first one, The Lincoln Lawyer, but this book definitely warmed me to him.

Mickey Haller is a defense attorney. He’s just coming off a one-year hiatus when he gets the news that an old friend, another defense lawyer named Jerry Vincent, has been murdered, and has left his stable of clients to him. One of them is a “franchise case,” a big-paycheck, high-profile case involving Walter Elliott, a Hollywood movie mogul.

There are problems with defense lawyers as heroes of stories. We all know that in the real world they’re not Perry Mason. They defend the worst people in the world, and if they’re good they get very rich off it. What makes Mickey Haller sympathetic is that he feels that moral tension, on a deep level. It probably had a lot to do with the cocaine-and-alcohol habit that destroyed his marriage, alienated his daughter, and nearly cost him his life.

On moving into Jerry’s office, Mickey finds two policeman going through the case files—illegally. He kicks them out, but oddly finds himself drawn to one of them, who turns out to be Harry Bosch, the hero of the majority of Michael Connelly’s novels. This is an excellent strategy on the author’s part, and helped me settle into the story.

Harry asks questions—who had Jerry Vincent bribed? How was the FBI involved? Mickey doesn’t know the answers. Harry doesn’t believe him. But they will still be drawn together into the double mystery of Jerry’s murder and the Elliott trial, which turn out to be linked. And the killing isn’t over.

A good story by a master storyteller. Connelly did telegraph one surprise though, at least in my case. He generally keeps politics out of his books (for which I’m eternally grateful), but here he did mention one character’s conservative affiliations. I immediately thought, “I’ll bet this character turns out to be a villain.” And behold, it was so.

Maybe Connelly’s done the same thing with liberal characters in the past, but I never noticed it. (Then again, I probably wouldn’t.)

But storytellers, be warned—we know your poker tells.

Frankenstein: Dead and Alive, by Dean Koontz

If I were actually the kind of industry insider I pretend to be as an author/blogger, I would have been aware that Dean Koontz’ long-awaited final volume in his Frankenstein trilogy was coming out at last. (He delayed it, he has reported, because New Orleans, the setting of the books, had suffered enough after Hurricane Katrina, and deserved a break. I’d been very worried the story would go forever unfinished.)

Koontz dedicates Frankenstein: Dead and Alive to “the late Mr. Lewis, who long ago realized that science was being politicized….” It would appear that C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength was an inspiration for this book and for the whole trilogy. That gives me particular satisfaction, as I did an homage of my own in Wolf Time.

Although it’s not necessary to read the first two books before reading Dead and Alive, I would recommend it. It’s a pity there was such a long lag between books, because, in my opinion, this book works best as the capstone to the trilogy experience. Continue reading Frankenstein: Dead and Alive, by Dean Koontz

Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

The title of Jared’s first book, Your Jesus Is Too Safe: Outgrowing a Drive-Thru, Feel-Good Savior, brings to mind J.B. Phillips’ classic book, Your God Is Too Small: Miracle Grow for Your Puny Religious Imagination (OK, I made up that subtitle, and Phillips would not have thought it funny). What I remember most of Phillips’ book is the first part, the destructive part, in which he tears down inadequate views of the Almighty. I expected to find Jared’s book similarly organized, but it isn’t. He doesn’t spend much time describing poor views of Jesus, like Hippie Jesus or the inhuman Flannel-graph Jesus. He touches on them in the context of healthy views on Jesus’ role as a shepherd, a judge, a prophet, a king, and many others.

Something Jared says while discussing one role puts a finger on his approach to the whole book. “In contemplating Jesus as Shepherd, I’m most tempted to make a short list of things shepherds do—the shepherd’s responsibilities chart—and cram Jesus into and see how he fits. Some books actually take this tack. I believe this is a backward way to go about things—sort of getting the cart before the horse . . . or sheep, I guess.” Jesus—the real, historic, biblical Jesus—is the focus on the book. If a reader finds it unfamiliar or oddly lacking in application, then I suggest they question whether they may be influenced by preaching and reading that presents the Christian life as a pattern of moral behaviors, who Jesus is not being nearly as important as what he supposedly wants us to do. Your Jesus Is Too Safe is a Christian Living book, but not a book with 40 ways to have a victorious Christian life. Just to iron out any possible subtly here, the latter book is the safe one; this book isn’t safe.

It isn’t too dangerous either. Even though Jared jokes about making readers angry when talking about Jesus’ humanity, (he says people in some circles get riled at the suggestion that Jesus may have relieved his bowels at some point during his life) he does not draw excessive lines in the sand and call out the heretics lurking in every church. He is very charitable, while presenting sound, biblical portraits of Jesus. I appreciate how he reasons deeply from the Scripture and does not fill each chapter with personal stories or extra-biblical illustrations. It’s a darn good book, in other words.

One outstanding point of interest for readers of Brandywine Books is the section on Jesus’ human intelligence. Jared quotes from Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy to say Jesus isn’t generally considered smart because “the world has succeeded in opposing intelligence to goodness.” Saintly people who are also brilliant are considered anomalies in the world, if their brilliance is recognized (I suppose Chesterton’s Father Brown was one). Some Christians take this idea so far as to discourage heavy study, even in theology, but noting that Jesus was God in human form, Jared states “anytime a Christian denies the importance of reading, learning, and studying . . . one is, practically speaking, denying the incarnation.” So loving the Lord our God with all our minds may mean reading Plato or Shakespeare because doing so would enrich our imaginations.

Continue reading Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

Catalina’s Riddle, by Steven Saylor

I picked up a couple of Steven Saylor’s Rome Sub Rosa novels because James Lileks praises them highly, and I have a high opinion of James’ taste. Unfortunately, I find I can’t share his enthusiasm.

Not to say the two I’ve read have been bad books. Catilina’s Riddle, which I just finished, and The Venus Throw, which I reviewed a while ago, are well-researched and well-written mysteries centered on the political conflicts that convulsed the Roman republic during the ascendancy of Cicero and the rise of Julius Caesar.

This story starts in 63 B.C. Gordianus the Finder, the detective hero of the series, has settled down on a farm in Etruria, some distance north of Rome, which he inherited from a friend. His new farm is entirely surrounded by the properties of his late friend’s siblings, and they (with one exception) do not welcome him. But Gordianus has had his belly full of Rome and its intrigues. The simple life of a gentleman farmer looks very good to him.

Neverthless, his past—in the person of an agent of his old patron, Cicero—intrudes. Cicero has an odd request. He wants Gordianus to play host to (and to spy on) Cicero’s own greatest political enemy, the charismatic young politician Catilina. Gordianus is sick of Cicero, and initially refuses. But he changes his mind after a headless body shows up in one of his barns. He interprets this as a threat, and begins to realize that you can flee Rome, but Rome will always follow you. Thus he gets more and more enmeshed in the plots and counter-plots of Cicero and Catilina. As in The Venus Throw, the actual murder mystery—the question of the headless body, along with two more that follow—turns out to be a footnote to the great events that overtake them all by the end of the story. Continue reading Catalina’s Riddle, by Steven Saylor

West Oversea, by Lars Walker

I’m hesitating a bit on how to review Lars’ latest adventure. You’ve seen several other reviews both light and heavy on details, so a straight-forward review like the last one I wrote isn’t appropriate. It would not advance the storyline, as it were. I’m also tempted to write something very silly such as a long-winded ramble about my daily life, barely touching on the book itself, or a review promising full spoilers and offering none. I don’t care to write either of those.

West Oversea by Lars Walker

If you are not already convinced by reading it yourself, Lars has written a darn good story in “Westward Ho” (see, I can barely stop myself). It begins strong; the conflict which prompts Erling Skjalgsson to sail west comes upfront. New problems emerge along the way, both small and large, and just when you start to wonder if the heroes will ever return home, the battle flames hot again. But this is what you already know. Let me write about other things, making this a review supplemental (though you already got some of that in the Q&A we posted before).

West Oversea is written within a beautifully rich framework. It is like an actor who does not break his character, even when everyone else goes off-script. Several decisions the characters make are not fully explained to the modern reader, making the story more believable and less of a teaching tool. So many Christian works of fiction seem to want to teach more than tell stories, but if they were to follow Shakespeare’s example, much as West Oversea does, their stories would be better and their readers may have more to talk about. I’m thinking of how Hamlet dies at the end of his play, not because it’s more dramatic for him to bite it along with the others, but for the sake of justice. He had murdered Polonius, therefore his life was justly forfeit—a life for a life unjustly taken, the essence of capital punishment. Does Shakespeare ever spell that out to us? No.

In a similar way, Lars’ tale has characters acting within their worldviews and not necessarily talking it through for the reader’s sake. That may be the narrative style. Father Aillil, who relates the adventure to us, does not wallow in his emotions, even when he is deeply stirred. He gives us no soliloquy on the merits of living as Hamlet does. Many times, he merely acts.

But the theme of the book is not at all opaque. Erling speaks it clearly in the beginning when he must decide how to deal with the overarching conflict of the book. “One kind of right is simple. You do what the law says. You keep your vows though it beggars you. The other kind of right is knottier. It means asking what action will bring the best fruit. . . . Looking at it that way, a man might persuade himself it was right to break the law; right to break his vows.”

Is there a good cause greater than one’s duty to the law? Yes, if the law is unjust, but how much does it take for a man to argue the injustice of inconvenient law? That is Erling’s position. He says, “I think any crime and dishonor might be justified” once a man allows himself to believe his desired end is the greater good.

West Oversea is a fantastic book and deserves to be one of many in a long series. Men like Erling Skjalgsson ought to spring readily to mind when men and boys think of heroes from the past. Let me close by quoting Erling from The Year of the Warrior, a passage which shows something of the man’s character:

“We went a-viking in Ireland,” said Erling, “my father and I. I saw a man—a priest—die for Christ. We were holding him and others for ransom, and some of the lads were having a lark and thought it would be sport to make him eat horsemeat. He refused, and the lads took offense at his manner. They tied him to a tree and shot him full of arrows. He died singing a hymn. I thought he was as brave as Hogni, who laughed while Atli cut his heart out. My father said not to talk rot, that a man who dies over what food he’ll eat dies for less than nothing.”

“I’ve never seen a true martyrdom,” I said. “I’ll wager it wasn’t like the pictures.”

“No,” said Erling. “It looked nothing like the pictures in the churches. Martyrs die like other men, bloody and sweaty and pale, and loosening their bowels at the end.”

“So I’d feared.”

“What of it? The pictures are no cheat. Just because I saw no angels, why should I think there were no angels there? Because I didn’t see Christ opening Heaven to receive the priest, how can I say Christ was not there? If someone painted a picture of that priest’s death, and left out the angels and Christ and Heaven opening, he’d not have painted truly. The priest sang as he died. Only he knows what he say in that hour, but what he saw made him strong.

“I saw a human sacrifice once too, in Sweden. When it was done, and my father had explained how the gods need to see our pain, so they’ll know we aren’t getting above ourselves, I decided I was on the Irish priest’s side.”

Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Sports reporter Jack Hall didn’t see any problem with black athletes, especially if they were good, but he didn’t want his friends to think he was chummy with them or any Negro person. That would be crossing the line. His friends felt the same way. Playing baseball was fine. It’s not like those people were sitting in the same classroom or dancing with our children.

And Jack and Rose Marie Hall had a personal interest in avoiding desegregation issues. In the previous year, 1954, their home had been bombed by someone who didn’t like Jack’s public stand in favor of the Negro player on the local team. Now, the Halls have moved to Atlanta, and Jack’s new boss, Ralph McGill, wants to look into the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. Jack is the only reporter at a meeting of community leaders who choose then-unknown-preacher Martin L. King to lead the boycott. That frontline position gets King’s house bombed within a few months, and the Halls feel a new link to a family they would rather not befriend.

Crossing the Lines is loaded with historical detail, even some casual references from the characters which are not explained to the reader. It lead me to wonder if certain characters I took as wholly fictional creations were actually based on living people. Continue reading Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Tell No One, by Harlan Coben

Notice of personal appearance: I’ll be at the Norway Day celebration in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, with the Vikings on Sunday, from about 11:00 to 4:00 or so. They say the weather will be nice.

I appreciated Gone for Good so much
that I immediately launched into reading Tell No One, which Harlan Coben wrote just before it. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be a little let down. There’s nothing at all wrong with Tell No One. It’s a gripping, fast-paced thriller with engaging characters and plenty of surprises. But for some reason (perhaps just a subjective identification with one main character over another), I didn’t like it quite as much.

There are actually a lot of similarities in the set-ups of both stories. Gone for Good’s hero was a gentle do-gooder, a volunteer who works with the homeless, whose girlfriend disappears and who soon comes under the suspicion of federal investigators. In Tell No One, the hero is Dr. David Beck, a young physician who has voluntarily chosen to work with charity cases in Manhattan. Three years ago, he was gravely injured when his wife, Elizabeth, was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. But now he starts getting e-mail messages that seem to be coming from Elizabeth herself. Meanwhile, the FBI has suddenly decided that he must have murdered Elizabeth, and they’ve got a warrant for his arrest. But David has an appointment to meet with Elizabeth—or whoever’s pretending to be her—this afternoon, and there’s no way he’s going to be sitting in a cell when that happens. So he runs.

Very good story. I’ve got no complaints. The language is not bad for the genre; the violence (some of it quite horrifying) is mostly off camera. There is a lesbian couple with a child who are highly sympathetic characters, so you might (or might not) want to be warned of that.

I liked it, and I’ve got no legitimate complaint.

Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben

Oh my goodness, Gone For Good is a splendid novel.

I hate to blaspheme Andrew Klavan by calling it the best suspense novel I’ve ever read, but I’ll go so far as to say I’ve never read a better one.

Will Klein, the hero and narrator, is a do-gooder. He works in New York City for Covenant House a (real-life) humanitarian organization that tries to reach out to street kids and (when they’re lucky) help a few of them escape that world before they’re irreparably damaged (which doesn’t take long).

He lives with his girlfriend, Sheila. She’s his “soul-mate,” and he’s planning to propose soon. The only reason he put it off was because his mother died of cancer recently, and life got complicated.

It didn’t help that, shortly before her death, his mother told him his older brother Ken was still alive. Obviously she was just raving.

Ken had been Will’s hero as a boy, up until the day his girlfriend (Will’s former girlfriend) was found murdered, and Ken disappeared. The official assumption has been that Ken killed her and ran.

Believing his brother innocent, Will has always assumed he was also murdered, his body never found.

Then Sheila receives a mysterious phone call, leaves a note saying, “Love you always,” and vanishes completely.

Will has always been a passive guy (I identified with him heavily). But now, the weight of personal loss becomes too heavy to endure, and he sets out (with the help of his friend “Squares,” a millionaire yoga guru) to find the woman he loves. Quickly he learns that it has something to do with his brother’s disappearance. And we are given just enough glimpses (in Hitchcockian fashion) of the plans and deliberations of his enemies to understood the extreme danger he’s walking into. Very powerful, very ruthless people are interested in the whereabouts of Ken Klein. But even this information leaves plenty of surprises along the way. The twists come relentlessly, right up to a jaw-dropping revelation at the end.

What I loved about Gone For Good was that the plot and the surprises all rose from believable, complex characters. Coben understands Solzhenyitsin’s dictum that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Every character in this book is flawed, but also well-meaning (by his own lights). The wide disparity between the things that individuals consider right and necessary is almost a part of the background scenery, like the Grand Canyon.

Outstanding. Recommended highly for adults.

The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor

I was trying to figure out why I feel so depressed today, and then I remembered that Al Franken is going to be my new senator.

In related news, the official Minnesota State Accessory is now the red rubber clown nose.

I decided to try reading a mystery by Steven Saylor
on the recommendation of James Lileks (not, I probably ought to add, a personal recommendation, but one heard on the Hugh Hewitt Show). I’m glad I did, and I’ll be reading more. But they’re odd books.

The hero of The Venus Throw is Gordianus the Finder, an established private detective in Rome in the time of Julius Caesar. This story takes place in the year 56 BC, and is based on actual events.

Gordianus is visited, unexpectedly, by an acquaintance from the past, an old Egyptian philosopher named Dio, with whom he used to have informal dialogues when he lived as a young man in Alexandria. Dio explains that he is part of a delegation from Egypt which has come to petition the Roman Senate. One by one or in groups, most of the original 100 emissaries have been murdered or scared off. Dio asks Gordianus for just one favor—to do a sort of security check on the house where he is staying, so that he can eat the food without fearing poison.

Gordianus, very regretfully, has to refuse. Not only does the case involve political risks, but he is leaving on a trip to visit his oldest stepson (a soldier of Caesar’s in Gaul) the next day.

On his return from Gaul, Gordianus learns that Dio was murdered that very night. Continue reading The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor

The Children of Hurin, by J. R. R. Tolkien

(Yes, I finally got around to reading this book.)

The trouble with Tolkien’s Middle Earth writing,
apart from The Lord of the Rings, is the acute lack of hobbits. It’s hard to carry off the high heroic tone for a modern audience without offering non-heroic, funny intermediaries with whom the modern reader can identify. The moment I came up with the character of Father Aillil for my Erling books, I understood that the books could work. Modern readers find purely heroic characters and situations kind of clunky. I say it to our shame, but there are few old-style heroes among us (I’m talking about a whole cultural ethic here, not people who do heroic things), and we experience culture shock when we encounter such characters.

I’m not saying The Children of Húrin fails for this reason. I read it with great enjoyment. But you should be prepared for a rather different experience than what you get from Tolkien’s masterwork. If you’ve read The Silmarillion, you know what I mean, and indeed you will have read this story already, in a different form.

The Children of Húrin has been compared to an Icelandic saga. That’s true, if you’re thinking of the high heroic sagas, like the Volsunga Saga, sagas about heroes of old who were larger than life in every way—braver, crueler, more passionate than you and I.

Húrin is not the hero of this book, but his story frames it. At the beginning we learn how he earns the enmity of Glaurung, the evil dragon, who curses him and his family, then forces him to sit watching on a mountain as the curse works itself out. At the end he reappears for a brief epilogue.

The central character is his son Túrin, who (as the Vikings would have put it) has every good quality except for luck. Mighty and brave in battle, devoted to his family and friends, he nevertheless takes every wrong turn. He makes disastrous choices, trusts the wrong people, is offended by his best friends and offends those who should be his allies. In the end the dragon’s curse works itself out in his personal relationships, in a manner worthy of Greek tragedy (something Tolkien imposes on the saga form here, like the recent movie, “Beowulf”). Pity and terror are here in full measure.

I enjoyed it a lot, but it wasn’t lighthearted reading.

Recommended for serious-minded readers. I think it would be all right even for younger teens, if they’re mature.