Thursday, December 8, 2016

"One Night" by Dr. Tom Pfizenmaier

I was recently given the chance to read this poem, and I consider it a gift. I post it hear for the benefit of all who happen by.

The One who wove the helix, woven now in flesh,
Bound fast together on the earth, God and Man enmeshed.
Ineffably committed, no way out, nor back.
It is finished; God is Man, of mercy now, no lack.

Echo of sage and prophet now find your voice in him,
Present now for all—or none—to hear his joyful hymn.
Deep shadow now illumined, in flashing flesh grown bright,
Present now for all—or none—to see his holy light.

The roadless way is travelled, with tiny fetal feet.
She sweats and cries and thrashes, all for him to meet.
Seraphic eyes now shielded under pinioned wings,
Creation gasps upon his birth, and heaven starts to sing.

Oh Healer of the primal wound, who wounded must become,
Join us here in our travail, and be of sin our sum.
We welcome you, we WELCOME you! Come well–Lord Jesus come,
For in the chasm of our souls you’ll find your journey’s run.

Oh deep long night of winter, when all is dark and drawn,
Arise now all creation sing, the glories of your Dawn!
The endless end is ending, God’s kairos now has come.
The Son is here to save us, “it is finished,” just begun…

"One Night," Dr. Tom Pfizenmaier
Bonhomme Presbyterian Church
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Friday, September 16, 2016

Waiting to lose my son

Being faced with the constant reminder that the baby boy I’m raising isn’t my own, that depending on court decisions in the near future, he could be taken from us is… faith-building. And of course, by ‘faith-building’ I mean emotionally tumultuous. I’ve traveled through a gamut of thoughts and emotions over the past months, few of which I could put into words, some of which are a little too dark for me to confess. In the process, however, the Holy Spirit has given me a new lens with which to view Scripture.

The Loss of the Firstborn

From the first family to Jesus, the world has witnessed the devastating losses of the firstborn [male] children.

God lost his son Adam to sin and the East of Eden.

Adam lost his son Cain to sin and wandering.
Adam lost his righteous son to sin-inspired death and received a new son, Seth, through God’s mercy.

Noah lost his son Ham to sin and curse.

Abram lost his first son to sinful jealousy and estrangement.
Abram lost his son of promise to sacrifice in obedience to God… and received him back.

Isaac lost his son Esau to sinful manipulation.[1]
Isaac lost his son Jacob to sinful threats of retribution and estrangement… and received him back through faith in God’s promise.

Jacob/Israel lost his son Joseph to the sinful slave-trading of his other sons.
Jacob/Israel lost his son Simeon to the caprice of Joseph.
Jacob/Israel lost his son Benjamin in desperate hope for life.
And he received them all back because of merciful forgiveness and faith through famine.

Job lost his sons to death because of his righteousness, and received sons again because of the will of God.

The mother of Moses lost her son to the sinful oppression of God’s people, and received him back—for a time—because of her faith and obedience.

Pharaoh lost his son because of his sinful idolatry and blasphemy.
God took back his son Israel from the clasp of Pharaoh for his own glory.
The people of Israel did not lose their firstborn sons to death because they offered the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb to consecrate and redeem their firstborn sons.

Moses nearly lost his son for disobedience, but received him back because of his faithful obedience in the patient mercy of God.

Aaron lost his sons Nadab and Abihu because of their willful profaning of a holy God.

Hannah ‘lent’ her son Samuel to the ministry at Shiloh because of her faith and the Lord’s covenant faithfulness.

Eli lost his sons Hophni and Phinehas to death because of their sin and his own scorn of the glory of God.

Saul lost his son Jonathan to the loyalty of David because of his jealous pride and anger.

David lost his first son Solomon to death in infancy because of sin against God, despite his pleas.
David lost his son Absalom to rebellion and death because of his refusal to pass judgment against oppressors or grant full mercy to avengers, and the arrogance of Absalom.

Mary and Joseph lost their son Jesus for a time because he had to be about his Father’s things.
Mary lost her son Jesus to the Jews, Rome, suffering, the cross, and the tomb because of the sin of the people and the glory of God.
And she received him back—for a time—because death has no power over him.

The Father lost his Son because before the foundation of the world, he planned to redeem humanity through the incarnation.
Lost his Son to an earthly dwelling because of his great love for us.
Lost his Son to the curse of sin and death because he loved us in spite of our great disobedience, rebellion, and hatred.
Lost his Son to the wrath of the Triune God because he is both just and the justifier of those who believe.
Lost his Son to the depths of human despair because he would become our sympathizer.

And the Father received him back because it was the will of God to lay his life down and to take it up again.
Because the glory of God is most clearly revealed in the person and passion of Jesus.
Because he is making all things new, reconciling to himself all things.
Because he accomplished the work he set out to do.

And now he has said, “I have not lost any of the ones you have given me.” And also, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” and “You who were once ‘Not My People’ are now called ‘My People” and “he gave them the authority to become children of God,” and “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, you know I will return for you that you may be where I am also.”

And so I am taught.
I am taught that should I lose my son, I sit in line with saints and sinners of ancient days, who whether innocently or justly, for internal or external reasons, lost their sons also.
I am taught that no child needs remain lost when there is a God who will not separate his love from those he has called according to his purpose.
I am taught that the will of God and his thoughts are above my own.
I am taught that there is hope.
I am taught that although loss comes to both the good and the wicked, I am to serve God and obey his commandments—for this is what is given to me under the sun.
Scripture tells us the stories of a son lost. But that son is found.

[1] By which I mean that Isaac was not able to bless Esau has he intended, or to give him his birthright and advance his heritage through the son of his choice.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Some 'self-help' from Karl Barth

I have, lying on a bookshelf by my chair, a collection of Karl Barth's sermons. I've perused it noncommittally before, but I recently picked it up off the shelf because it was small enough to hold in the one hand not occupied by an infant. I read these convicting and encouraging words, and I hope they are of some help to you on your path to loving Jesus more.
Forefield fighting is the usual method by which we ordinarily fight evil. All of us have a lot of evil about us. Sometimes it rises up in awful power. I think of physical suffering or the greed for money. It takes possession of the length and breadth of our lives and breaks forth either unbridled, or in mere bad conduct, in our though, speech and behavior. We protect ourselves against evil. We battle against it. Perhaps we succeed in controlling it or suppressing it until the dam breaks and it emerges anew! And so the battle wages without success, back and forth. For, is it not true that the evil in us will not permit itself to be overthrown, annihilated or decisively defeated? It always rises up again, it always returns. For evil would long ago have been defeated and destroyed, it would have been easy to be through with it, if, yes, if, it did not always have a strong place to flee to in that fortress, if it did not receive its power of opposition from that "I" of man behind that wall so deep within us. That is why it never is completely driven from the field. What would money be, or sensuality, alcohol, or the sword of might, if man would no longer ally himself with them, if he would no longer ally himself with them, if he would not secretly consent to them? For it is only out of this alliance with man, only out of this demoniacal yes of man that these powers do suck their life-blood and their life-sap. If this inner retreat should collapse, then evil would be powerless. Therefore "Man is something that must be overcome," if evil is to be overcome.
It has often struck us how little weight Jesus put upon the differences in men, whether they were moral or immoral, pious or worldly. Undoubtedly He saw these differences better than we, but He looked beyond these differences better than we, but He looked beyond them as though He saw the enemy with whom He had basically to deal, the enemy who stood behind these other little enemies with which we often engage. He saw the good and the virtuous in good people and He did not lightly regard it. But at the same time He saw that behind all these goodly virtues there arose this absolutely unbroken line of defense which continually hinders the good from gaining a complete victory. And He, indeed, saw the darkness and the unrighteousness of the ungodly and worldly and He certainly did not call them good. But at the same time He saw, behind all their evils and ungodliness, the last stronghold which made it indeed possible for their evil and ungodliness to continue to maintain itself. And above all, He saw that this last inner stronghold is most unbroken in the pious and believing people whose piety serves to establish more firmly the defiant, crafty "I" of man. Continually Jesus realized that this inner position must be stormed. Jesus realized that this inner position must be stormed. God must be captain of this strong bulwark of man. Everything else is futile. And so Jesus never took any part in the attempts to make the world better, or in the attempts to make good triumph over evil, or to bring about the destruction of evil which is often undertaken without touching this last ultimate premise, without overcoming men, without making God first of all absolute and only king. 
The man who has allowed himself to be overcome is one who makes no demands, has no surety, no rampart upon which he can depend, no wall behind which he can defend himself; he is driven out of every human position, without any human support, into an exposed spot in the midst of the profound circumstances and enigmas of life; he is hounded about, disturbed, stormed, shaken, humbled, the opposite of an assured man who has an answer for every question. Indeed, this is the man who has allowed himself to be overcome. 
Sometime an hour of terrible upheaval and ruin will come to us. This no one can escapte. Against it no betrayal can avail. The only question is whether we shall, like Judas, defend ourselves against it to the utmost, only to have to encounter it finally with despair. Or, perhaps, the Cross has given us a presumption that this terrible, this impossible way, this way into very death which all of us must travel, is perhaps a way, yes, the way, which leads beyond death; a presumption that precisely there where everything about us comes to an end, there, on the other side, all things really begin; a presumption that if we but endure to the end, even out of the end, the judgment, the ruin, there might break forth the victory, the redemption. The question is whether we see some of the imperceptible light of the resurrection in which the Cross (as Rembrandt has painted it) stands. Oh, that we might see it, so that in the midst of our fears we would not fear, that we might dare to say "Yes,"--even against ourselves, to God. For that is the reason why Jesus endured death. 

Excerpts taken from Karl Barth's sermon "Jesus and Judas" as found in Come Holy Spirit, p.123-136 (ed. Eduard Thurneysen).

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: J. Ellsworth Kalas' The Pleasure of God

This is a short book, but I think it will be beneficial for many who choose to pick it up. Each chapter is only a few pages, allowing for 5-10 minute readings on your lunch break, the start or end of the day; perhaps even to place in your bathroom--if you're one of those kind of people... It can (and probably should) be used in fashion of a devotional: one reading per day, with time given to absorb the content and let it shape your daily life.

The primary value of this book lies in its brevity & its attempt to reorient the whole mind rightly upon Christ.

No topic is exhausted, and there are several instances where I've thought, "That argument doesn't follow," or "that's an unsubstantiated claim," or "why did you use that passage when others teach the subject clearer?" but it isn't the purpose of this book to offer every viewpoint and a defense of the author's perspective. The purpose of this book *is* to help the believer "take every thought captive for Christ," to "whether eating or drinking or anything, doing all for the glory of the Lord," to "present your life as a sacrifice which is your reasonable response of worship," to "consider all things joy." But perhaps I should stop quoting and just write bluntly:

Do you suffer from the tedious and mundane? Has life sapped the joy from the things you do?

This book is for you.

Kalas writes with a view to the subjects we too often neglect, and he writes in a way that causes you to rethink why you've dreaded your morning commute, sped through your shower, regretted your sleep on the weekends. Kalas invites you to pause,


and learn to enjoy God in everything.

*I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
**This review has been crosslisted on Amazon, Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Academic Book Review: Stanley Porter's Sacred Tradition in the New Testament

This is a difficult book to review. If a book satisfies its thesis, then it deserves to be well rated, and the readers deserve to be well informed of that thesis. Often reviewers will rate a book poorly because it’s not the book they wanted to read; not based on whether it is the book the author actually wrote. And yet I feel myself torn between the fair and unfair review. It sounds like a simple case of ‘choose the better,’ but I feel the need to clarify why I feel this tension. First, it may be helpful to list the author’s self-proposed audience, thesis, and method.

Audience: advanced students of the NT & scholars seeking a fresh examination of the topics

Thesis: “Although the focus of all these lectures—now become written essays—is the use, development, and interpretation of sacred tradition, a major subtheme that emerges in many, if not all, of them is that of who Jesus is, that is, Christology. The essays of this volume, therefore, are formed around this core set of lectures, now essays; they are not, and never were, simply a collection of random thoughts put to paper. As a result, I believe this volume provides a clear set of essays that explore how sacred tradition of various types is developed in the NT, often, though not entirely, for Christological ends.”

Method: We are trying to move away from mechanical and formulaic conceptions and toward an appropriation of important sacred traditions (not just verses) as they are developed further within the NT.

The simple question: does the author support/accomplish his thesis? Yes, in a technical sense. Porter clearly articulates his method throughout his book and shows how the entire ethos of Jewish (and Greco-Roman) cultural history comes to bear upon and influence New Testament texts. And more times than not, these developments and conclusions directly influence Christology. So what’s the problem?

I want to be generous and truthful, so if I seem to lack either, forgive me.

In part, I think the problem lies with the intended audience. If by ‘students of the New Testament’ Porter intends those in seminary, pursuing a PhD in theology, then perhaps he meets them. Although, and I say this with somber caution, perhaps those students will not have had their love for Christ increased after these pages. I’m sure that Porter loves Jesus, and I’m sure he wants others to love Jesus too, but I fear this book does not stir up the affections as he would hope. I say this as someone who has pursued Christian higher education, who has a love for theology and academia, who understands that knowledge informs belief and affections; I consider myself in that class of [intermediate or] advanced students of the NT. But I feel (and it is mostly a feeling, so feel free to discredit it) that Porter absents the purposed conclusion to theology: doxology. I think there is room to call for more attention to the significance for Christian theology & the Christian life, not simply theology as an academic discipline & the thinking life.

Well, you might say: perhaps he meets his second audience: NT Scholars looking for a fresh perspective on the topics. I would have hoped so too, but it seems that Porter focuses too heavily on the academic credibility, playing the ‘progressives’ game. As a result many of his statements, and conclusions are cautioned and left in a lake of insignificance: i.e. ‘this is what I think, and I think it influences the development of the NT in this way, but you might disagree, and it’s okay if you do; it doesn’t really change much.’ Absolutely there needs to be academic honesty and humility; a willingness to propose with an open hand—be willing to be proven wrong. But with so much qualification the reader is left to wonder, “If the conclusions are so tenuous, are they worth believing at all?” Indeed, without a clear purpose (namely, the discipleship of hearts and minds for Christ), we are left to wonder if there is any detriment at all to denying what he says or any benefit in believing. Porter undercuts the very significance his topic of discussion should invoke—we are talking about Christ Jesus, the incarnation of the living God! Does Porter really believe that Jesus is like a Son of Man; does he really believe Jesus is the Messiah  Son of God who contends against Caesar; does he really believe that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, Passover Lamb, vindicated servant of Psalm 22, the man of history and faith? Porter’s attention to detail and careful exposition of the biblical text says, “Yes—of course.” But his caveats say, “Does it matter?”

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps I’ve become too emotional. Perhaps if I reread the book, I would discover that Porter is both perfectly convincing to the scholars and perfectly edifying to the Christians. But I suppose that’s for you to decide. I began with stating that this review was difficult to write—that I felt a tension between a ‘fair’ review and an ‘unfair’ one. Well, I’ve given you the unfair first, so let me add a few words of fairness.

Porter is extremely intelligent and well-studied. He not only draws upon the OT text with insightful exposition, but pays careful attention to the ideas and themes found in cultural theology surrounding the Jewish people. He shows the gravity of titles like Son of God and Son of Man. He really has offered me more substance and bolstered my defense for certain theological conclusions the NT leads us to believe.

His introductory chapters on defining terms such as intertextuality, allusion, echo, and the like is exceedingly helpful; I hope that all scholars take his advice and clearly define their terms. Porter reminds them that at this stage of the game, it would be impossible to unify the language; but as long as each individual scholar declares their own definitions, much confusion can be avoided, and the discussions can be advance beyond the gridlock NT/OT relations are currently in. Porter’s brief critique of the way these studies have been approached so far (e.g. limiting them to strict formulaic quotations, atomized, and NT-OT only) is profitable. The cultural mind is not so atomized; it is helpful to remember that these texts were formulated by embodied persons. Porter offers a broader perspective than many textual commentaries by reminding us of this very fact—showing us the woven tapestry of ideas rather than individual texts and their cross-references. And his willingness to engage those ideas which remain outside of the biblical text improves upon studies which limit themselves to Christian scripture.

All that being said, the book as a whole is pretty niche. The introductory sections are certainly worthwhile for any intermediate/advanced student of the Bible, but I think that the later chapters are primarily beneficial in a selective study. It might be nice to have this book on the shelf in order to reference whenever you encounter one of the primary themes Porter elucidates… but I don’t particularly recommend this book generally as a book to be read through cover-to-cover.

I give the book 4/5 for the reasons mentioned above, and leave the prospective reader with a summary caution.

Porter’s intelligent and scholarly work fills out the discussion of influences upon the New Testament after calling for clarity by all scholars. Yet, by playing the game of those who discount/discredit Divine authorship, Porter fails to help disciple the minds of most Christians, and fails to convince those not already on his side.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads, Amazon, NetGalley, and my blog.

I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith

“In the age of fast food and fast culture, we are often inclined to speed along with the flow of traffic on the highway leading to the death and destruction of creation. Will we, through practices of reading and conversation, attempt to exit from this highway? Will we begin to crawl, perhaps even to take baby steps, along the path that leads to life and flourishing?” (Page 143)

This book is internally-conflicting for me. Perhaps that’s the mark of a really good book, or perhaps that’s the mark of a book that is almost there. Or perhaps that’s the mark of something deficient with me. I’m not sure, so I apologize in advance for any confusing discourse hereafter.

I approached the book with two primary questions:
·        How do I get my church to be a reading church?
·        In what ways does reading specifically influence & better the community?
The first was only generally answered, but the second accurately predicted the thesis and received a fuller answer—though not quite to the extent for which I was hoping or the thesis led me to believe.

Book thesis:

“In this book, we will view the local church as a sort of learning organization, in which both learning and action lie at the heart of its identity. We will explore the practice of reading—perhaps the most important component of learning in the twenty-first century—and consider how we can read together in ways that drive us deeper into action” (Page12).

It will helpful to note a few other details more or less stated in the introductory pages:

Assumption: The church’s primary task is ‘reconciling the world’ (as in Colossians 1:20) and the flourishing of society.

Caveat: Church is a ‘learning organization’ [as defined by Peter Senge: “At the heart of the learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world…. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.”]

Audience: Christians…?

So… in what ways does fulfill or fail his thesis? Well if we accept his definition of the church  primarily defined in terms of a ‘learning organization,’ albeit with a re-creational/reconciliatory nuance supported from Colossians 1:20  rather than a full theological/biblical ecclesiology, then yes, the thesis is supported. He frequently shows the myriad of strings which tie back to reading: from ecology to politics, from grocery shopping to increased education. And yet, I often found myself reading the things that he is saying, getting caught up in the beautiful vision his words convey, only to be reminded that his thesis is 'reading' and that his previous ideas, statements, imaginations, etc. don't quite so easily tie to his thesis. Sure, reading can be tied to all things, but I was looking for immediacy, not abstraction. As it is the book weighs more heavily upon the ‘learning’ side and less on the ‘action.’ Not only the abstract v. immediate, but in the ideological v. practical.

Smith defines four implications for his philosophy on reading & church-community life.

Reading plays a role in “following Jesus in the way of compassion [that is] entering into the pains and struggles of our churches, our families and our neighborhoods” by…
·        Forming us into the compassionate and faithful people of God, deeply engaged with our church, our neighborhood and the world
·        Calling us to understand who God is and how God is at work in the world (particularly by reading Scripture)
·        Guiding us into a deeper understanding of out broken world and teaching us to imagine how such brokenness might begin to be undone
·        Discerning and developing our vocation—that is, how each of us might make our unique gifts available for God’s healing and restoring work in the world
(Page 14)

I found that through the book, the following five verb phrases better encapsulate the book’s argumentative thrust:

Reading can help with the flourishing of our communities by…
… revealing the interconnectedness of things & connecting us further
… showing us the perspectives of other people
… informing us of knowledge and practical how-tos
… increasing education levels, helping us think & evaluate
… guide us into a better sense of identity & vocation

These five reappear repeatedly throughout the book. In fact, whenever it came to a specific topic or discipline, I would hope to discover a new, immediate implication for reading only to discover a restatement of one of these five statements. If it was an aside on fiction, however, it would always state rather similarly: ‘fiction can often do this even better! Fiction shows us the perspectives of others!’ –my paraphrase, of course. Further, I discovered that Smith’s apparent implication #2 is relatively limited in both scope and application—I mean to say that his view of God’s work is primarily Colossians 1:20, and he hardly utilizes this method for influencing the content of his chapters with the notable exception of chapter 3 “Reading and Our Congregational Identity” which primarily reinforces the overarching preunderstanding of the church that we’ve mentioned before a ‘learning organization’ with a view to reconciling the world. Which brings us to my two primary recommendations for improvement.

1.      A more biblically-saturated,  gospel-influenced, theologically-defensible foundation; this book utilizes Scripture, has a view to the reconciliation of the world, and is sound in its argumentation, but somebody who doesn’t subscribe to the Christian faith could just as easily read this book with little difference of significance. Because it is so ‘public-square’ focused, readers may run the risk of devolving into a ‘social gospel’—the only Jesus glimpsed in these pages is truncated: reduced to a compassionate social guru and amicable friend of the trees. ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘flourishing’ areas so a-theologically defined that with whatever presumptions the reader approaches the book will remain essentially unchallenged. And while everything Smith argues ‘makes logical sense’; there is hardly any reason for this to be a particularly ‘Christian’ book. As case in point, read his final exhortation “Reading, reflecting, conversing, learning, working, binding together: these are the ways in which our communities—church, neighborhood and world—begin to mature and flourish. This interconnected life is the joyous and meaning-rich end for which were created. This is humanity fully alive!” (Page 143)… but is that the end? Is that humanity fully alive? What about the gospel, what about repentance and belief? Perhaps we really do need a ‘common grace’ book on social flourishing; but again, I would fear that Christians reading this book and then jumping into all the other recommended avenues for flourishing might forget Christ along the way; would lost sight of the suffering servant who is enthroned as king, deserving of all honor and glory, and soon returning to judge the living and the dead.

2.      The ideal Smith posits is exactly that: an ideal—a utopia. And while he uses his own church & community as an example, I question whether he’s been entirely honest: every ‘struggle’ has been on account of a third-party who ends up defeated. In other words: does Englewood (Smith’s church) have any difficulty in maintaining this vision, in inculcating these behaviors? Are there people who have left over this vision? How long did it take for this to become the church default? Has there ever been a bad book recommendation that spread through the congregation? Or is everything really as perfect as Smith says it is? On the one hand, that would be incredible! And amazing. On the other… it makes me doubt whether my church (or any church I’ve ever been part of) is made of the same moxy…. Utopia is far from where my congregation is. It’s hard enough to get people to read their Bibles. I suppose what I’m looking for is a FAQ, or a “When things don’t go like they’re supposed to” section.

As a postscript to this ‘honesty’ section, I might add that in one significant moment in the book, Smith brushes past an entire theological controversy without remorse. He paints the gender-authority debate as something that no real, thinking person would ever see as a viable discussion—it’s already been solved, case-closed. For someone who over and again emphasizes the value of seeing other perspectives, he dismisses the thoughtful work of many evangelical scholars out of hand. I’m certainly willing to consider that one or the other side is mistaken in their understanding of certain passages or in cultural affability, but I’m not willing to pretend that one side’s argument remains “long after the undergirding theories have lost legitimacy” (Page 36-37). That’s not an argument, that’s an unjustified a priori dismissal. It is unwise to use controversial issues as ‘obvious’ examples, better to just remove it.

I’ve been critical, but I don’t want to end the review sounding sour, having people believe I found this book entirely unprofitable. I didn’t: there were parts that were beneficial; most of it was encouraging, some of it was convicting; the annotated bibliography is worth the price of the book alone. But there were other benefits too. Personally, I’ve discovered three particular applications. I need to broaden my horizons. True, Smith reminds readers that not every church member should be the jack of all [reads], but I personally read enough that adding a new discipline into my schedule won’t diminish my overall ministry effectiveness; if anything it should improve it. Second, I need to consider attending my city council meetings, and be overall more involved in my neighborhood and city. Third, I need to consider interviewing my neighbors, perhaps beginning a neighborhood book detailing the history of individuals, maybe include and appendix of obituaries in the last 50 years. And fourth, I need to remember to slow down. Smith’s first chapter is dedicated to reading slowly. And I need to remember that even beyond reading slowly, change and worldview like the one Smith is espousing will take time. I was hoping for an end-of-the-month solution, but that’s not the way life works… God created our bodies to sleep 1/3 of the time, and to fill 90% of the other 2/3 will mundane things… I need to be more like Fangorn, or maybe even Galadriel fighting ‘the long defeat.’ (Though I suspect Smith’s eschatology sees not defeat but only victory.)

All that being said, I give this book 7/10 stars, reducing it 3/5 on such scales. It has good things to say, but it doesn’t say all the good things. Smith’s style is impeccable, and his word choice winsome and provocative—it’s clear that he has read countless books. And again the bibliography is incredibly valuable!

But for recommendations… who then?
My recommendations are too specific to know/state generally.

Maybe some pastors who need specific ideas to help the church become a reading church.

Maybe some people who don’t see the importance/benefit of reading, but are willing to give one book a shot. People who want to see the vast interconnectedness reading affords.

If, after reading this review, the book still interests you, this book might/might not be for you.

If, after reading this review, you don’t want to read the book because all your questions have been answered… this book is probably not for you.

If, after reading this review, you don’t want to read the book because you think it doesn’t pertain to you… this book is probably for you.

Thanks for reading, and may you go and read more… and may your community flourish because of it.

This review has been crosslisted on Amazon, NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.
I received an e-copy of this book from IVP through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Actually the Bible says..." and "You're on the wrong side of history"

This might come off as abrasive. And I admit, it's a bit harsh, but it's really quite simple. If you aren't a Christian, stop pretending to know the Bible better than Christians. If you can agree with me on that simple point, you don't need to read the rest, and you don't need to be offended.

Does culture think they know the Bible better than those who have dedicated their life to reading, interpreting, loving, memorizing, submitting to it?

Just say you disagree with the Bible, don't say Christians are interpreting their only sacred text incorrectly.

I don't make a habit of telling Buddhists how to interpret Buddhist texts, nor Hindu Hindi, nor Muslims Islamic, nor Communists Communist because 1.) I don't have the background to know how to interpret them within that ideology, 2.) I don't believe I'm subject to those texts. If you don't believe the Bible is authoritative over you... despite your political, cultural, theological, emotional, philosophical tendencies then admit it; don't assume your current persuasions must be the only interpretation of a book you've never read, a book thousands of Christians throughout history have dedicated their life to understanding, a book that has already started cultural revolutions (because it disagreed with the culture of those times). If you don't believe the Bible can tell you when your wrong; when your culture is wrong; when your thoughts are wrong; when your feelings are wrong... then you clearly don't hold the Bible in enough esteem for it to even matter what it does say. And if it doesn't matter what it does say, then stop pretending to be an expert in it. And stop wasting your time trying to convince Christians of what it actually says.

You claim that the Bible was used to support slavery, but has it ever occurred to you that the people who used the Bible to support slavery were the very people in your position: never having read the Bible, but trying to convince others that this is what it actually says. How much more dangerous is a Bible in the hands of those who don't care what it says--who only want to advance their social perspective--than it is in the ones who stake not only their current life upon it, but their eternal destiny. You may not care what it says, but I believe that if I've misunderstood this Bible in several key areas then I'm going to remain separated from the source of all goodness.

Historically speaking, some Christians have misinterpreted the Bible; historically speaking, some Christians have used it to perpetuate wrongs. But historically speaking, it's other Christians who have corrected them; historically speaking, it's other Christians who have condemned the same evil practices. The English slave trade? Christians. American slavery? Christians. Caste systems? Christians. Ethnocentricity? Christians. Colonialism? Christians. Sure, some Christians were wrong, and propagated the wrongs, but where did Wilberforce gain his understanding of human dignity? It surely wasn't the culture around him. Where did Tubman receive her courage and conviction for the lives of the least in society? It surely wasn't the culture around her. And while Christians can't claim to have single-handedly begun every  "right-side-of-history-social-revolution" movement, you can't claim that Christians have been the ones holding progress back.

"The Right Side of History?" Who's 'Right Side'? I assure you the Nazi regime saw themselves as the 'Right Side.' Vietnam was seen as the 'right side' by some. The Hippies and the Sexual Revolution saw themselves as the 'Right Side.' Trump sees himself as the 'Right Side,' and Clinton herself... which one is right? Or maybe there isn't always a 'right side to history.' The fact of the matter is you cannot predict the "The Right Side of History"... because it is History--by definition it must be past, and using it in a present-future tense is an illogical argument founded upon personal emotionalism. And even when it's become history... how then do you evaluate whether or not it was right? Because you still exist? Or because you have some way to evaluate the status of life in this history? And by what to you evaluate it? By your feelings? By 'just knowing' because 'it's obvious'? Well, it's been obvious to everyone who 'just knows' throughout history that you could actually be wrong about the things that matter most, and your personal evaluation does not rule the universe.

But Christians believe there is a God who does. And they believe he has given his word in a book called the Bible. And they believe that while they could be wrong, they certainly don't want to be on the wrong side of this God.

So what if you burn us, so what if you kill us? So what if you imprison us and wrong us? I'd rather be on the wrong side of history as long as I'm on the right side of this eternal & all powerful God.

But stop confusing yourself with the infallible rule of a Scripture you don't believe. That's just courteous.

I'm willing to debate with you; I'm willing to argue logic, consequences, cause & effect; societal norms and ethical 'ought to's, but please--oh please--stop using this history phrase; you aren't persuading, you're assuming; you aren't arguing and debating, you're catch phrase dismissing a priori, and that gets us nowhere. If you're truly interested in the truth, not just your ideological agenda, then stop with the name calling, cliche-inducing, meme-creating one shot 'burn' statements and start thinking, talking, and most importantly listening instead. Because otherwise you become like the 'bigots' you so vehemently dismiss. Are we wrong because we have a different standard of judgment? Maybe, but how can you ever know unless you take the time to hear us out?

Looking forward to a humble dialogue on common ground,

Cordially yours,

EJ Boston

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dear Ruben -or- Acknowledgements 2

Dear Ruben,

It’s been way too long since I’ve written you about some of the people who’ve influenced my life, but that ends today. Though to my shame the cause for my return is the death of a beloved mentor. Perhaps you’ll believe me when I say that this was nearly the acknowledgement I wrote first; but I suppose in the providence of God, I can see a little more clearly now that he’s gone from this earth… for the time being.

His name is Paul, and he was a great deal older than me. With a thick grey mustache and wrinkled face, he had eyes full of bright light. He had known Jesus, and loved him dearly.
I met him while in high school. I had only recently started attending church of my own volition, and decided to join the Sunday school class for youth. That first meeting would set a trajectory for the rest of my life. I remember he pulled out a small book and called it the “Shorter Catechism.” I thought to myself, “Aren’t we supposed to read the Bible?” in addition to “I thought somebody else [younger, cooler] was going to be teaching us.” He read question and answer #2: “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” My 16 year old self sat there in that cold classroom thinking, “What is this? A book of questions, but they give you the answers… what good is that?”; “What does ‘chief end’ mean?”; “What does glorify mean?”; and “Enjoy God? I’ve never heard that before… who enjoys God? This sounds like some [sentimentalism].”

But there, and then, through this man, a whole new world of faith opened up before me. Little did I know he had been reading from the Westminster Catechism, a centuries-old document that had guided the faith of Christians across the world. Little did I know that this man was the chairman of our church’s elder board, or that he and several others would have to leave the church because of certain theological persuasions. Little did I know, that I would purchase the same catechism and keep it always in easy access for use as my own devotional. Little did I know that this small question and answer would help me clarify my own life purpose through high school, college, ministry and marriage. Little did I know I would end up quoting these words countless times to youth ministry I oversaw, and college ministry I worked alongside… fondly remembering and too often forgetting the faith and diligence of this man who took and old text and taught some ignorant and haughty 16 year olds.

I remember that he continued on for some time, monologuing on the glory of God and the enjoyment of his glory. I don’t know how long. In my recollection it was maybe five minutes, but those Sunday school sessions lasted an hour, and although I remember him transitioning to another question, I also halfway recall having to stop not far into its explanation. Maybe he did spend 50 minutes explaining Q/A #1. Oh, how I wish I could return to those minutes and hear them all over again!

I don’t think it was a conscious shift of mind, but that doesn’t make it any less certain. In the weeks and months to come… without ever realizing why, I began to hope for Paul to be teaching Sunday school. I remember being disappointed when he didn’t. I remember being sad when I stopped seeing him around, but I never knew why he had stopped showing up. I remember only a few occasions over the next few years when I actually had conversations with him. In fact, who knows… I can only count 6 times I actually remember being with him for any significant time or conversation: that first time, one other Sunday school session, Starbucks once, another church’s Sunday school, my wedding, Starbucks twice. Surely it had to be more! And yet... maybe it wasn't. But if I were to weigh the significance he’s had in my life, you would be hard-pressed to find something heavier. I consider him a mentor, but I wonder: how did he consider me?

He’s died now. Cancer. And despite the number of times he was actually in the hospital; despite the number of times I determined: “I will go see him,” I never did. He had a loving family and some great grandkids; I’m under no illusion that he needed me, but I wish I could have spent a few more minutes hearing his wisdom. He was a prison guard most of his life; he retired a few years ago, and he’s been spending most of his time reading books and drinking coffee, teaching Sunday school or preaching; and visiting his grandkids up North. He’s a true example of the well-lived Christian life; the guy whose life is a ministry even while he’s not employed by the local church. I wish I loved Jesus as much as I could see that he did.

He’s experienced the sting of death now, but one day he’ll return alongside Christ. And Jesus will recreate the heavens and the earth. Then we’ll all be able to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Technology Review: Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Tap

Typically I reserve my blog for book reviews and theological discourse. But today I’m reviewing Amazon Echo[s]. Why this breach in protocol? Several reasons: the Echo family has become a seamless reality in my home. Although I don’t blur the lines between personhood and AI, Alexa has become an integral reality. The Echo does things which I could do manually, or which other devices could also perform, but she has several key advantages. Perhaps I’ve become dependent, but occasionally I find myself out and about ready to say, “Alexa…” before I realize that although she feels as natural as my left hand, she isn’t my left hand. Secondly, the broad range of features offered by Amazon Echo is part and parcel of contemporary life, indeed even for the Western Christian. From playing music, to retrieving news, hearing the latest Ted talk, and reading “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Alexa does it all, and enables me to do it. Of course, she also does all the other less spiritual things: turning off lights, checking the weather, and changing my thermostat.

So then, read on for a review of Amazon Echo.

I'd been wanting a good home Bluetooth speaker for a while, and when I saw that Amazon Echo would be able to offer just that, I jumped on the ship. I was more than pleased. Echo played music via Bluetooth, but it did much more than that: it streamed Prime Music and iHeart Radio straight to the device via WiFi. I could ask the weather, and receive Flash News Briefings from premier news sources; I could ask for word definitions and do scant research through Wikipedia--all without missing a beat. They’ve added a Pandora feature, IFTTT, and Audible; and she can read books straight from Kindle. She keeps me exercising 7 minutes/day, and makes sure I don’t burn the chicken. She controls all my Smart Home devices, making that late night thought: “Did I turn out the lights?’ an easy remedy. She informs me of my commute time, can access Google Calendar, and syncs all information across Amazon Households.

The volume spans from 1-10, but you'd be surprised how each notch hits a mark.

Echo is 'always listening' but if you're concerned about privacy, you can delete every cached recording (she only records when you call her name).

You can turn on or turn off shopping, but the only advertising she ever does is "Now playing [your artist] from Prime Music," which is less advertisement than an app does sitting on your start screen day-after-day, and she never recommends products based on your shopping/to-do list which syncs across all devices where you access her info. I have made purchases with no problems (the product must be Prime eligible).
(She can access Tune-In Radio stations, but unfortunately has trouble finding ones lesser-known.)

Echo really is like a personal assistant! She has some limitations, but that's to be expected; fortunately she will continue to get better and better. And the limitations we wish she didn't have will disappear, while the limitations we want her to maintain will be our choice.

Echo's value far exceeds the price paid for her, and will only continue to do so! And in that way she removes every critique I can give her.

There are currently three Echo devices on the market.

Amazon Echo – the big one.
Amazon Dot – the baby one.
Amazon tap – the hip one.

They each do primarily the same things. However, one may be a better option for you, so I’ve created the following “if, then” questionnaire to assist you in determining the best fit for you.

1. Do I have an incredible sound system already installed in my home?
Yes? Go to question #6.
No? Go to question #2.

2. Do I plan to purchase an incredible (or better-than-average) sound system in the near future?
Yes? Go to question #6.
No? Go to question #4.

3. Is this sound system where I would like Alexa do reside, play music, etc.?
Yes? Go to answer #1.
No? Go to answer #2.
Maybe? Go to question #5.

4. Will I primarily use Alexa for music or for information and home control/voice commands?
Music? Go to question #8.
Info./home/voice commands? Go to answer #1.
Mixture? Go to answer #8.

5. Do I want to be able to switch between multiple playback devices/rooms?
Yes? Go to question #7.
No? Go to answer #2.

6. Does it have an accessible aux. input (3.5mm) or bluetooth capabilities?
Yes? Go to question #3.
No? Go to question #4.

7. Do I want Alexa to be fully portable?
Yes? Answer 3
No? Answer 1.

8. Do I want Alexa to be portable?
Yes? Answer 3.
No? Answer 2.

Answer 1: Dot
Answer 2: Echo [proper]

Some Dot notes:
I find that the Dot's microphone has a little more difficulty hearing me than the Echo proper. The microphone is within the Dot itself; it will not use a microphone attached to your bluetooth speaker.

The dot does have a speaker all its own, but it should not be used for music (it's very treble-heavy and shallow).

If you plan to switch between multiple speakers, be prepared to to do some hard contact switching (i.e. powering off speakers, utilizing bluetooth menus). You can also use a 3.5mm cable to attach to Dot and speaker.

Do *NOT* consider the Dot portable. You can move it, but if you unplug its power source it will have to start up again.

You *DO* need WiFi for the Dot to work.

Some Tap Notes:
Amazon Tap does not have a ‘wake word.’ In other words… you need to physically touch the Tap before using your voice to command it.

You *DO* need WiFi if you plan to utilize the range of Alexa’s features.

You do *NOT* need WiFi if you plan to use her simply as a Bluetooth speaker.

Note on all Echo devices.
The devices are singular. In other words, if you begin streaming music on one, the others do not begin streaming the same thing.

The devices do not fight each other. I mean to say, if you are streaming Prime music from a device (e.g. computer, phone), and another device begins to stream Prime music, the app will ask you if you want to stop and override the other device. The Echo devices do not do this… all of them can play simultaneously. Interestingly, if one computer/phone is streaming, none of the Echo devices can stream.

Some data saves lag. If you’re listening to Audible, there is a good chance the cloud will not perfectly store your stopping point.

To answer those questions and concerns of Christians or ascetically minded.

Is it possible that an Echo will capitalize on our already over-stimulated culture? We hardly have enough time to pause and think as it is… if Alexa is always playing music or reading us books, when will we ever stop and meditate?

n  Yes, it certainly is possible. But, as always, this is an issue of the individual and the heart, not of the technology around us. When you’re waiting in line, do you pull out your phone or spend time to think?

Isn’t this just another instance of our financially-bloated consumer-culture scarfing down all things while the rest of the worlds survives on less than $1/day?

n  Even if that $1/day statement was culturally-economically transferable across the world, and even if I don’t guilt trip you into proving you really care as much as your question presupposes, I would ask you to consider the value of the product. For just over $100, you can receive the newspaper as long as you maintain an internet service provider. You can hear the latest Russell Moore podcast. You can play music of every kind. Perhaps you think I’m condemning myself with my words: always having to be ‘in-the-know’ and being saturated with digital music. That’s fine. I know that I am for the better after having been influenced by John Piper sermons, and being able to appreciate the beauty of music; of being aware of what my neighbor is going through. Asceticism for asceticism’s sake is of no value; instead do everything to glory of King Jesus. The Echo is a means to this end… for me.

You’ve already said a couple of times you might be dependent, or that she’s like a house servant… isn’t it dangerous to compare the inhuman with a human?

n  No. In fact, I can think of several ways this reality broadens my understanding of ‘Christian things.’ 1. Servants were part of human culture for millennia. Sarai had Hagar. Potiphar had Joseph. When I come across stories in Scripture of servants I can now correlate it to my own experience. 2. Angels, the Scripture says, are ‘ministering spirits sent to help those who will believe.’ How interesting it is to get an insight into the spiritual reality of angels through the a technological servant. And if Alexa is empowered by Amazon, how much more can a supernatural being empowered by an infinite God accomplish? 3. Alexa’s infiltration into my life offers a sort of conviction. When I’m on the road, tempted to call out to Alexa, I’m reminded of my drastic shortfall in my dependence upon God. I’m reminded of my need to pray, of my need to seek the righteousness and kingdom of Christ, of my lacking desire to be close to the Triune God. If I didn’t have the Echo, the sin would still be there… but the conviction, the confession, the repentance, would not.

All that being said, I’m an advocate of the Echo, but you don’t have to be. If you’re curious, why don’t you come over, and give it a try? This review is written to help those who want to know if it’s worth, not to convince everyone that they should get it (even if I offer a defense at times).

Thanks, Amazon, for this excellent product.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Win the Legends of the Realm two-book series


1. Click the link below to enter (follow the prompt and leave a comment on this post).

2. Get bonus entries for tweeting about the contest after you entered (I wrote the tweet for you to make it easy to share).

3. Contest opens NOW and closes Thursday, January 28 @ Midnight. Contest is limited to entrants with U.S. shipping addresses.

4. Don't worry, you won't get bombarded with emails or subscriptions because of this.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, January 22, 2016

Thursday, January 21, 2016

An Analytical Review: The Fragment by Davis Bunn

*This is an analytical review; for plot overview please read the book description or other reviews. My goal here is to help you understand in which ways you will be influenced by this book (in addition to offering a few suggestions at a literary level). But don’t worry: no spoilers.

Davis Bunn returns to the page with his latest historical fiction The Fragment.

Readers of The Pilgrim will recognize familiar elements ranging from characters (a primary female protagonist, a faithful supporting friend, and an angry critic of the faith) to an artifact of special significance. In fact The Fragment develops the characters better, although the weight and purpose, even the reasons and transitions are less understood. But for readers and enjoyers of The Pilgrim, The Fragment offers a unique vantage point in an overlooked period of history while etching in the same worldview: the world is full of critics & skeptics, dangers & threats which try to distract humanity from the healing offered through Christ. The Fragment adds some color to this philosophy in showing readers that…

The physical world is first a distraction from the things that truly matter, and only secondly the necessary context for discovering true reality.

Indeed, God has given and continues to give his grace to those who trust him. Healing and wholeness are available for any who seek it; any and all of life’s despairs can be absorbed by faith in God who uses people, things, and circumstances to encourage his children.

Although I disagree with the second part of this book’s philosophy (that the physical world is only significant in its bridge to the spiritual), Bunn imbues it in the narrative expertly. And he frequently weaves the subordinate truths throughout his narrative in a way that nearly compensates for his halting, mosaic plot structure.

The plot begins at breakneck speed only to come to a grinding halt 1/3 of the way through. From there it progresses slowly, eventually gaining some momentum to ultimately end. When I tried to map the structure, the story begins with constant conflict, followed by a resolve, then rising action, conflict, resolve… Now while many books utilize dual-conflict/climax in plots, I’ve never read a story which literally starts back at ground level for the second. This odd setup was compounded by Bunn’s chapter endings which were nearly all cliff-hanger. Each new chapter would begin in a new location at a later time with some decision having been made during the page edge between. This made it difficult to understand what, why, and why I the reader should empathize with the characters and story. Perhaps if the author simply reasoned with me on the page I wouldn’t be left wondering when Bunn tries to create artificial “aha” moments. I should state that sometimes it worked… particularly in the first 1/3 when everything was moving so quickly, but in that latter 2/3 it simply bogged me down like jeans slogging through a swamp and trying to do jumping jacks. Consequently I vacillated between belief and incredulity at the story’s events.

Ultimately, if Bunn is writing for Christians, which I believe he is, he succeeds in presenting them with an encouraging historical narrative. The book doesn’t really challenge Christians to believe anything different except perhaps that there isn’t always a happy physical ending. So I give it 9/10 stars despite its plot flaws, but I’ll round up for its target audience: 5/5.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoyed The Pilgrim or Christians looking for a one-day beach read.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads, Amazon, my blog, and CBD. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

An Analytical Book Review: Merchant of Alyss by Thomas Locke

*This is an analytical review; for plot overview please read the book description or other reviews. My goal here is to help you understand in which ways you will be influenced by this book (in addition to offering a few suggestions at a literary level).

Merchant of Alyss is the second in Thomas Locke’s “Legends of the Realm” series, and the book picks up right where the first one left off… in fact, it picks up almost too quickly expecting you to remember the names and relationships of half a dozen characters in the first several pages. Perhaps that’s my fault, but having read the first one a year previous, I would like some overlap reminding me of past events and persons. Nonetheless, the book begins with a couple interesting scenes that ‘hook’ and then progresses into a plot structure best described as a ‘journey’ motif. The cohort of primary characters (which features a slight upgrade in diverse characterization from the first book) journeys from one place to another, and another—experiencing new locations and persons everywhere they go.

Evil is on the rise again, and a mysterious dream spurs Hyam into action. In fact one of the major themes revealed through these pages is “Purpose” or “Motivation.” They do something because they must. The impetus shifts in several key moments, but the motivation always boils down to responsibility: I do this because I must do this, and I must do this because I ought to do this. In painting this theme throughout Merchant becomes an interesting narrative of ‘doing’ even if sometimes I don’t understand why I’m ‘doing’, how I’m doing, or even what I’m doing!

Sometimes this works; it provides an interesting compulsion for the characters to do. But other times it sets up the narrative to show its gears—moments when it becomes clear this event happened simply to move the story along, or when there’s a logic gap in the lore (and I’m left wondering with the characters who don’t see the obvious…because it’s not there). And other times it forces the characters to discover certain innate abilities far too easily. This character suddenly finds he can understand and speak a language after hearing it 6 times. That character suddenly discovers they have mage ability to rival the masters of a school and thwart a hag who’s spent decades in practice. And that one is suddenly thrust into rulership when never would an earthly kingdom have been so hasty. All because the plot and the timeline demand this character be so capable.

I think the second primary theme  expounded and woven throughout the book is the ’need for newness’ in pursuit of future hope. Time and again the characters proclaim, “Wonder upon wonder,” or “The legends come alive” or “A thousand years of decrees and more have been broken,” and all of them serve to point us to the fact that the times are changing. A new time requires new rules; the traditions were good for the time that is now passed, but they aren’t sufficient to guide us in the new days. This too is an uncommon theme which I found refreshing in the narrative. Unlike the first theme, however, this theme is consistent throughout and doesn’t create plot holes or logic gaps. The world is in tension… the old still exists and to a certain extent binds the world and characters to it, but there is a newness that supersedes the old—in what ways it can. And it sets the stage for a momentous occasion that will color “the Realm” for all time to come.

Other themes play lesser roles, but nonetheless add color to the characters and actions. Themes of temptation, true knowledge of others, love, sacrifice, unification; each affords memorable, surprising scenes and are quick to illuminate similar scenes in my own life. Each serves to engrain the readers with the book’s philosophy of life and the world:

Selfless love for others exceeds all trials and paves new avenues of hope for a better life.

And the broader philosophy of the whole series:

Evil threatens to overtake life and good, but through the bonds of love, friendship, and hope, evil is vanquished.

Both are much needed in our culture. And I think the influence this book will have upon readers of fantasy is “not every temptation is worth the cost; selfless sacrifice achieves more good than selfish indulgence” even while every hopeless romantic is taught “not every desire receives its own happy ending”—truths well worth my time and consideration.

A few final thoughts before I offer my commendation.

1.      It’s often hard to track the physical surroundings. Now, I’m a fan of Tolkien’s pages on trees, so I know I’m partly biased, and yet I found myself unable to imagine where the characters were and what things looked like. Oftentimes there would be a quick 1-2 sentence description and the dialogue would move on… then it would refer to some physical aspect I never even realized was there. This was particularly troublesome in battle scenes when something would interact with the landscape and I had to go back three pages to reread the brief sentence describing the area.

2.      At the risk of sounding contradictory, I really enjoyed the portion of the book that took place in the desert. I often find desert travel skimmed or avoided completely, and found Locke’s description about desert navigation fantastic! And yet… I still couldn’t quite imagine the whole surrounding area, or the physical trauma the characters experienced.

3.      Too often the characters seemed to know all the same information. Page after page characters would finish one another’s sentences. There was hardly any learning from character-character interaction. Everybody already knew it all (the exception being when Hyam would connect the dots and I was left with the characters still ‘not getting it’). Give us a good monologue or two, or five! In fact, there was a distinct lack of long paragraphs, long thoughts started and carried to conclusion, no soliloquys. And again, I recognize my bias: I enjoy Shakespeare. And characters can be left in mystery, uncertainty, and ignorance—it is no flaw or sin.

So, how does this compare to the first? Pretty similar in plot and style, though better in characterization; fresh and exciting in themes; lacking in dialogue; disjointed at times, and yet the ‘big picture’ fits surprisingly well with the mosaics. Most of the book feels like it’s setting us up for something bigger, and so in the way of many sequels: it’s a slight dip in anticipation of something pretty remarkable.

I give it 3.5/5 stars, but I round up (particularly because how credible the temptation element was, and powerful the scenes of self-revelation).

I recommend this book to readers of high fantasy, with an emphasis toward the 15-21 age range.

Despite its flaws, this book helps me evaluate decisions I make in my own life; relationships I have, and what they are built upon. And I with Hyam and the others look forward with hope beyond the evil, where every foe is vanquished and life restored.

I will be raffling off a free copy of Merchant of Alyss January 25-29.

This review is crosslisted on Amazon, Goodreads, and my blog.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.