Deeply Flawed, But Becoming Beautiful

From our earthly perspective, it may not seem to us that the motley assortment of deeply flawed humanity that makes up the church has much to commend it. What kind of a reward is this for Christ’s suffering? Yet Jesus does not hesitate to call us beautiful!

Iain Duguid writes about the hope and security found in Daniel 6. “My salvation rests not on my ability to ‘Dare to be a Daniel,’ but solely on Christ’s perfect obedience in my place.”

‘Murder Upstream,’ by Mark Hazard

Murder Upstream

If you think a book is well written, but it still didn’t work for you, do you give it a positive or negative review?

I guess I’ll go negative, because I’m a small, vindictive man. But I’ll be honest about my reasons, so you can make adjustments for that.

Murder Upstream is set in a small fictional city called Harding. The rich people live upstream, on the high ground, and the poor people live downstream, where it’s flooding right now, after a period of heavy rains. A beautiful young woman, heir to one of the city’s top real estate developers, is found bludgeoned to death outside her family home. Detective Kyle Villante is sent to investigate, getting assistance from Det. Solomon Aduwo, on loan from the state police. Their investigation pokes into social tensions, environmental concerns, and local organized crime (with which Kyle has connections thanks to prolonged work as an undercover officer).

Murder Upstream was competently plotted and well written (though there were too many typographical errors). My only real objection was that I didn’t care much for the hero. Kyle Villante is metrosexual in his personal grooming, arrogant in his musical tastes, promiscuous in his sexual habits, and inclined to cut legal corners on the job. In real life, I think, a guy like this wouldn’t last long on an honest force, even if his motives were good.

I should mention in his defense, though, that the author inserted one or two of what I’d call “moments of grace,” where he showed real compassion and human empathy. But – for a stuffy moralist like me – it just wasn’t enough. Your mileage may… you know.

Cautions for language, violence, and sexual situations.

‘Mortom,’ by Erik Therme

Here’s a weird book. Mortom by Erik Therme shows signs of promise, but I found it ultimately disappointing.

Andy Crowl is kind of obsessive-compulsive about puzzles. So he’s hopelessly hooked when his cousin Craig, whom he didn’t even know all that well, died and left him his house, complete with a mystery. The house, in a tiny town called Mortom, isn’t worth much, and it looks as if Craig’s debts and the house value will just about balance each other out.

But Craig leaves a clue behind – a gruesome one. Under the refrigerator Andy finds a decomposing rat, and in the rat’s mouth are a note and a locker key. This starts him on a quest for a series of obscure clues, impelled by his cousin’s promise that there’s a prize at the end – and a penalty if he should fail the test. Andy’s sister has come with him to help him close out the estate, but she isn’t enthusiastic about the treasure hunt.

I finished the book, so I’ll give it credit for keeping me interested. But overall I found it kind of disappointing. The plot is improbable, and the characters aren’t very well developed – their words and actions don’t always seem plausible. Andy is kind of a jerk, and doesn’t learn any lessons. And I found the final resolution, personally, unsatisfying.

I’ve read worse, and abandoned worse than that. But I don’t really recommend Mortom. Cautions for language.

Norway May Give Mountain to Finland

Hyvää syntymäpäivää!

Finland is looking forward to its one hundredth birthday next year and it’s Scandinavian neighbor Norway is considering a modest gift to help celebrate. They are discussing adjusting the Norwegian border so that part of Mount Halti will be Finnish territory.

“Geophysically speaking, Mount Halti has two peaks, one Finnish and one Norwegian,” NRK, which is Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, explained back in March. “What is proposed is that Norway gives the Finnish peak to Finland, because it is currently in Norway.”

The proposal has apparently been supported by many citizens, but the prime minister must work out the implications before wrapping the gift. Norway’s constitution may be an obstacle, due to a clause vaguely stating mountains cannot be given as birthday gifts.

Finland declared its independence from Russia on December 6, 1917. Tensions between political parties swelled over the next few weeks until igniting a brief civil war. Once stabilized, Finland became its own republic with its own president in 1919.

So yes, it’s a time to party up, and there’s plenty of fun to be had. But if hiking that particular part of Halti was all you had wanted to do when you visited Norway in a couple years, consider this list of 99 amazing things to do in Norway, such as visit a super big halibut farm, lick a glacier, and milk a goat! Sure, you could do all that on a PlayStation, but this is for real, dude.

‘Thread of Danger,’ by Jeff Shelby

Thread of Danger

I was almost surprised there was a new installment in Jeff Shelby’s Thread series. Thread of Danger is a well done, exciting book, though it seems to me the series is looking to find a new direction.

Years ago, Joe Tyler’s daughter Elizabeth was kidnapped. He left his job as a Coronado, California policeman and devoted himself to hunting for her, financing his existence by searching for other missing children as well. He succeeded well (except, for a long time, with his own daughter), but his marriage fell apart.

Over the course of several books, he finally located Elizabeth, and managed to bring her home and reestablish a relationship. Now he’s adrift in life, not looking for work, caring about little except his daughter, who – he can hardly bear to think about it – will be going to college soon.

So he gives in when she asks him to help him look for her boyfriend. The boy went camping in the mountains with a friend, and now the friend says he’s disappeared. Without enthusiasm, Joe drives to the camp site and starts searching with the two young people – and soon discovers something that puts them all in imminent peril.

Thread of Danger is a well done novel, like all Jeff Shelby’s books. Joe’s scenes with Elizabeth are especially memorable and poignant. But Shelby is either going to have to find a new direction for the series, or leave his characters in peace. A new character who appears in this installment may provide a way for him to do that.

I recommend Thread of Danger (though you ought to read the series in sequence. Don’t start with this one). Very little objectionable content.

‘Mine,’ by Brett Battles

Mine

I’m fond of Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn novels, so I bought Mine. It wasn’t what I expected – I think of Battles as a thriller writer. But this is a science fiction/coming of age story. Nevertheless, I read it to the end and enjoyed it.

One night years ago, seven teenagers took an illicit forest hike, away from their summer camp. Only three came back, and they were changed. Joel and Leah were suddenly off-the-charts intelligent, sucking up knowledge like vacuum cleaners. They also became stronger and faster than normal people. The third camper, Mike – well, he adjusted less well than the others, who made efforts to disguise their unusual gifts. Each of them forgot most of the events of that awful night, even one another’s names.

But Leah, now a young woman, discovers a clue, which leads her, eventually, to Joel. But Joel doesn’t want to remember what happened. He wants to drop out of sight and live in obscurity. They gradually realize, however, that they’re not alone in their own heads – someone or something is using them. And they finally agree that the only way to get their freedom is to return to the place where it all started.

Mine was tightly written, well charactered, and compelling. I recommend it. I don’t recall much in the way of objectionable material.

My only quibble is an epilogue the author felt it necessary to include. Such epilogues show up again and again in SF stories, and they’re all the same and totally predictable. I wish he’d done something else.

But that’s a small thing.

The Realism of “The Witch”

I’ve read that the historical accuracy of this year’s powerful horror film The Witch is very strong, not just in the setting and costuming, but also in the roots of the story. A New England family isolates themselves in an effort to maintain their purity and in doing so imperil themselves. They aren’t entirely innocent victims of Satan’s disciples, but they cannot foresee the repercussions of what we might consider accusable sins.

Jeffrey Overstreet writes:

The realism of the film is also powerful because of how spiritual evil only seems to grow more and more persuasively present the more closely we attend to the real-world details, and the farther we travel through this time warp into the 17th Century. That has bothered some critics — that Eggers “literalizes” the evil forces that people believed in back then.

That’s a complaint from people who would snicker at the suggestion that the devil is an actual person, not a symbol of human ugliness or a boogeyman for our enemies. But you can’t literalize what is real.

Video review: ‘The Last Kingdom’

The Last Kingdom
Note the back scabbard. Also the inauthentic two-handed grip on the sword.

Someone on Facebook told me The Last Kingdom, the BBC TV adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about the days of Alfred the Great, was really good. So I watched one episode. Then someone else on Facebook said that it was all right, but Cornwell’s antipathy toward the Christian church was implicit throughout. So I decided I wouldn’t watch any more.

But that won’t stop me reviewing what I saw.

First of all, it seemed to me superior, from a historical perspective, to the execrable Vikings series on the History Channel. Cornwell is a serious historical novelist, and so the story bears some recognizable resemblance to real events and conditions. The picture of the Danes in England follows reality to an extent.

I was mostly troubled by the design of the production – the kind of muddy look that is so characteristic of the Vikings series. Everybody dresses dull, in browns and grays. In fact, the Vikings (as well as the Anglo-Saxons) loved bright colors, and chose them whenever they could afford them.

And the armor. Mostly leather armor, and helmets that seem inspired by real Viking stuff, but are oddly… vestigial. As if manufactured for Wal Mart. Where are the bright corselets, the gilded shields, the boar-crested helms of Beowulf (a roughly contemporary poem)?

And back scabbards. I am so sick of back scabbards. The Vikings didn’t use them, the English didn’t use them. The only way to make a back scabbard work is to strap it real tight, so it doesn’t shift around, and that will chafe you very efficiently after a few hours’ march, believe you me.

The Danes’ hall wasn’t bad, except for the upper gallery, which has no archaeological warrant. But I could forgive that, I guess.

Still, all and all, The Last Kingdom wasn’t appealing enough to persuade me to endure the ecclesiophobia of the overall production.

‘White Bone,’ by Ridley Pearson

White Bone

I’m a fan of Ridley Pearson’s Lou Boldt police procedurals. But he seems to be easing off on Lou these days, which is understandable considering Lou’s age. Instead he’s moving into the currently hotter genre of the international thriller, with his Risk Agent novels starring John Knox and Grace Chu. They are contractors who do occasional work for Rutherford Risk, a private agency specializing in hostage negotiation and extraction. I liked the first book, so I bought this second one, White Bone.

The title is a reference to elephant ivory. In this story, Grace, a talented computer technician, is sent to Kenya to look into the records behind a spectacular – and cruel – crime, where precious vaccine was stolen and replaced with a dangerous substitute, resulting in many deaths. Suddenly she drops off the grid altogether, and John Knox – somewhat to his own surprise – is concerned enough to leave his mentally disabled brother, his only family and the center of his life, at home while he goes to Africa to search for her, clashing both with the police and with ruthless animal poachers.

What follows is a white knuckle adventure story. While John runs down slender leads with increasing desperation, Grace is forced to revert to her most primitive instincts in order to survive in a suddenly prehistoric environment.

The book delivered on its promises of suspense and adventure. I wasn’t enamored of it, myself, because wilderness survival stories aren’t a flavor of literature for which I have a lot of taste. But people who like that sort of thing will find Grace’s survival story riveting. I’ll admit I was also troubled a little by some of the other story elements. The book is pretty solidly in favor of shooting poachers on sight, an idea that bothers me because it puts animals before humans (though I probably wouldn’t be as troubled by Old West ranchers hanging rustlers, so that may be prejudice on my part). Also, there is a minor subplot involving a group of hostages, and no sympathy whatever is expended on them.

But White Bone is a well done, exciting thriller that will probably please many readers more than it pleased me. And I’ll read the next book in the series. Cautions for the sorts of things you’d expect.

How Politically Diverse Are Christian Colleges?

Historian Thomas Kidd says he’s long had a theory about Christian colleges and universities. He thinks they “may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.”

My theory is that if Christ is the center of a Christian university, that commitment can open the door for a real range of views on politics, because politics becomes a second-order priority. (Traditional seminaries, I would argue, are a different matter— there you must have stricter theological standards that tend to produce more uniformity in all areas of life and thought.)

He offered this theory to historian Molly Oshatz, who has written about hypersensitivity to differing points of view in elite colleges. She attested to the truth of this theory, citing experience at Florida State.

… my classes there included many students with strong faith commitments who were able to bring their perspective to the classroom in appropriate ways. Perhaps even more importantly, their fellow students responded to these contributions with respect and civility. A politically, religiously, and ­ideologically diverse student body, as well as a faculty that did not see their job as one of indoctrination, made for an excellent teaching environment.

Big Sandwich Theory

Tonight on my way home from work, I stopped at a sandwich shop (not a chain) that I like, and ordered their submarine sandwich. The girl who took my order was a cute Asian teenager.

As I sat and waited for a few minutes, there was a fellow employee there with her. He was tall, and fat, and bespectacled. About her age. He was earnestly trying to explain to her the wonders of a particular video game.

It could have been a scene from a TV comedy.

“My brother,” I said silently, “no joy will come of this.”

Can Poetry Be Popular, Fun Again?

No one has perfected a method to restore poetry’s place in public culture. It is unlikely that the art will ever return to the central position it once held. But is it unreasonable to hope that poetry can acquire some additional vitality or that the audience can be increased? Isn’t it silly to assume that current practices represent the best way to sustain the art into the future? There are surely opportunities for innovation, renovation, and improvement. Literary culture needs new ideas.

Poet Dana Gioia learned “students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page.” He recommends exploring new ways to revive the place of poems in our lives.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture