Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Recommended Read - The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns

The Hole in Our Gospel
by Richard Stearns
Thomas Nelson
Nonfiction, 279 pages

Richard Stearns was a corporate CEO enjoying success beyond what most people can imagine. Then God called him to become president of World Vision, a move he made in 1998.

The strength of this book are the stories. Stearn's accounts include his development as a youth, meeting the woman he married, the challenge of coming to Christ, and his immersion into corporate America. Strung together under a bigger theme, they alone are exciting to read.

The story that stays with me, however, is the story of his move to World Vision. Both touching and funny—who wants to give up a modern-day mansion and a company Jaguar to live in a modest home and drive an adequate but used car?—this book provides perspective on God’s preparation of a man for a big job. And Stearns shares it candidly. Not many men would reveal they were so dispirited by God’s call that they went home, pulled the covers over their head, and cried.

The Hole is the Christian’s lack of response to the world’s needs. Story after story illustrates his point. Whenever Stearns stays with the stories, the book is riveting. Statistics less so, but they provide important details. While the book is shameless about soliciting others to join World Vision or other Christian humanitarian groups, he wouldn’t be faithful to his beliefs if he didn’t do as much.

The Hole in Our Gospel was both an enjoyable read and a call to action. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review - Shadows by John B. Olson

By John B. Olson
B & H Publishing Group, 2009
Fantasy, 390 pages

Shadows opens with a young girl named Mariutza (Mari) who was raised in isolation by a grandfatherly gypsy in the swamps of Louisiana. Conflict begins when we learn that prophetic powers of a spiritual nature made the elderly man a target of what Mari calls the badness. After he dies in the opening pages, the badness follows Mari as she leaves the swamps to look for Jaazaniah, grandson of her mentor.

Jaazaniah, (Jazz) is a New Orleans jazz artist raised by a father who rejected his heritage. The young man's story (beginning in the second chapter) opens with strange visions that interfere with his performances and turn life into a nightmare. A rich benefactor, medical personnel, police, and even the military enter the action.

Readers may not understand the concept, but will notice the limited third-person viewpoint. When reading about Mari, readers see the world in third person from Mari’s point of view. When reading about Jazz, readers see the world in third person from Jazz’s point of view. The effect can be comical, as when Mari receives miscue after miscue because she cannot decode the culture of New Orleans. More often it causes crisis. Jazz tries to reject the strange occurrences he can’t understand when they invade his world. The twi misunderstand each other. Readers immersed in the limited viewpoint of the characters feel their struggles.

A predictable romance is a key to resolution, but aspects of suspense held my interest. Powers offers an enjoyable, quick read.

I purchased this fantasy because it came with a writing tutorial that sounded helpful, and because I thought it would be interesting to learn something about a genre I rarely read. In the process, I discovered I was interested for another reason. I believe a spiritual realm with good and evil elements is real. And although Christian elements are toned down, much of the narrative seemed within the realm of possibility. But some did not. So was it or was it not an attempt to describe spiritual reality? Or was it supposed to be total fantasy? Or did Olson intend to leave lingering questions?

Perhaps readers who pursue the genre could answer that question.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reviews - Man's Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

I don’t know where this title ranks now, but a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress lists it as one of the ten most influential books in America. Frankl wrote it shortly after his release from a World War II concentration camp. It presents theories he formulated during and shortly after his prison experience.

Frankl was interred because he was Jewish. Everything about his status was unfair and he had no recourse. While in camp he performed the normal debilitating labor duties of all prisoners. But because he had been a practicing psychologist prior to the war, he eventually also worked in a clinical setting, doing what he could to help the severely depressed patients interred with him.

He was also an existential psychologist, and he did not accept the Christian concept of Truth as an objective reality. Yet I believe Frankl did not undermine Christianity because he made room for the Christian experience. Understanding his theories can be a key to understanding and dealing with many of the theories presented today. And yet, it isn't simple.

The printing of the book that I read was 192 pages. In the first section (about three-fourths of the book), he gives an account of his concentration camp experience with stories of heroism and degeneracy. Some of the images of death—and people’s lack of response to death—overwhelm.

But Frankl’s training enabled him to analyze people’s lack of response as clinical depression. He observed his own depression and the despair/depression of those around him, and he concluded that although individuals do not choose their circumstances, they choose their responses. Their choices define their moral character.

Frankl observed that prisoners who found meaning had the will to live, and he said meaning comes from three sources: relationships, a vital life’s work, and ability to embrace meaning in suffering.

The second section titled Logotherapy in a Nutshell (just over one-fourth of the book) explains Frankl’s theories systematically. It’s not easy reading, but his experience in the concentration camp continues to provide his supporting evidence.

The emphasis is freedom of choice. He notes how the best often sacrifice to save others—and find meaning in their suffering while achieving moral greatness. In addition, he recognizes Christianity as a viable source of meaning. That fact alone makes it possible to receive Frankl's theories as non-threatening. In fact, I think it indicates Frankl's objectivity as a scientist.

When considering Frankl together with Christianity, we must recognize that traditional Christian doctrine is a dichotomy. While it states faith focuses upon objective fact, the journey of faith is subjective and personal.

Christians can intuitively live this paradox whether or not they analyze it, while no one outside of Christianity fully appreciates it. Yet Frankl’s scientific approach recognizes Christianity as a vital source of meaning on the subjective level. In fact, on several occasions he uses Christian terminology when he identifies suffering as accepting or as enduring the cross.

Although Frankl’s insider views of life in a concentration camp—and of human responses to the events in the camp—are disturbing, they are important and cannot be ignored. In addition, his theories impact on present-day thinking are huge. Even a cursory understanding paves the way for insight into a variety of schools of thought today.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, January 1, 2010

On Larry Woiwode and "What I Think I Did"

Have you ever heard of Larry Woiwode? My first exposure was an off-the-record statement by an English professor: One of the best prose writers today is Larry Woiwode, but we don’t study him because he’s a Christian. The man didn’t say it with glee or as a judgment—just as a statement of fact. I was too shocked to react and later checked with a classmate to get the name of the writer for future reference.

It turns out Woiwode was a regular contributor of short stories to The New Yorker as well as to numerous other literary magazines. His first novel, What I Think I’m Going to Do, received the William Faulker Foundation Award for best novel of 1969. When I read it, I thought it insightful and enjoyable. But his second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, deals with a family struggling with loss. It took my breath away. Published in 1975, it was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Book Critics Circle Award.

I’m not trying to make a case for Christian writers—some might even argue as to whether or not Woiwode’s work is truly Christian because he doesn’t present an overt Christian message. In fact, he didn’t claim to be a Christian when writing his early works—but he was dealing with his Christian heritage. The secular university has trouble with him because he never moves away from a Christian worldview. The Catholic denomination of his background is present and vital to his life as he struggles to make sense of it all.

Right now Woiwode looms large in my mind because I spent time with him during our Christmas blizzard. I wanted to dig into something meaty, so I finished the first installment of his three-book memoir. What I Think I Did was published in 2000. (A Step from Death, which I haven't read yet, is the second. It was published in 2008.)

Although there are several themes, a blizzard—how fitting for my circumstance—held everything together. Not a small blizzard, but a blizzard of epic proportions. As he struggles to literally survive while maintaining and feeding a wood burning stove (in southwest North Dakota where trees do not grow naturally), his mind moves back and forth from the blizzard to incidents of his youth in Illinois and his early years as a writer in New York. The scenarios might seem disparate, without possible connection—but the struggle for survival binds them together.

Portions featuring the blizzard focus on family connections and the need to think practically. Portions featuring his development as a writer feature mentors (such as William Maxwell), colleagues (such as John Updike), and friends (such as Robert DeNiro). Considering his contacts and achievements, he could hardly avoid dropping names when writing about his life among them. I found his portrait of Maxwell—another writer generally ignored by academia—especially intriguing.

The surprise was DeNiro whom he met when he took an acting job because he had yet to sell a story and was desperate for money. Woiwode trained as a classical actor but decided against acting because he had trouble walking away from the characters he developed. DeNiro trained as a method actor and the description Woiwode offers of him changing the position of moles through the movement of his facial muscles was priceless.

Woiwode’s sentences are complex. While the flow in his novels could perahps be described as gentle and flowing, the sentences of this first memoir seem convoluted at times. And yet, once I yielded to the experience, I discovered the rhythm and syntax of what must be an unusual mind. He's worth reading for his use of language alone.

At the same time, while Woiwode is sensitive by nature and excited by art, the rigidity and reticence of his northern European background shows up at times. Reading What I Think I Did is a bit like stumbling onto a road not taken.

I was also fascinated by the influences on his life as a writer. In the end, the people he lived and worked with were significant because they impacted him rather than because they were interesting. I couldn't have asked for a better read to absorb my thoughts when bound by the constraints of a blizzard.