Midweek Odds and Ends (2/13/2019)

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Happy Wednesday, friends! What can I say, I can’t bear to stay away too long. 

I don’t have anything specific prepared for today, so I figured I’d provide a little “This is Where I Am Right Now (TIWIARN)”-style update.  Brace yourself for the hail of bullets!

  • My current season of work is uniquely challenging. There have been times when the vibe around the office has been pretty light, pretty loose. The current atmosphere is…decidedly not that. Nevertheless, we persevere. I’ve been reading Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin and have had opportunity to put their personal discipline and leadership principles into practice (thinks like “taking ownership,” “prioritize-and-execute,” and “simplify”). And if that sounds like cubicle-jargon…well, whatever, man. It’s useful to me. All this to say, work has been a beast, and my lunchbreaks have become times to shut off my brain for a bit (usually watching Youtube or reading fiction). The downstream effect of that is that I’m not writing as many posts during that mid-day break. Sorry.
  • Man, I am LOVING this #52Stories project. I’ve got notes on 5 or 6 stories that I’m going to turn into posts soonish, but just the actual reading has been a joy. Plus, as I had hoped, it’s getting my brain clicking on some short-form ideas of my own. At some point (the procrastinator said), I’ll share the fruit of that brainstorming with you. But for now, just know: this project was a great idea. (Though not an *original* idea; check out Jay’s yearly “Deal Me In” Challenge! Dude has been killing it for YEARS!)
  • Interesting and providential confluence of events: the Houston Chronicle’s heartbreaking series on sexual abuse and cover-up inside Southern Baptist churches, coming just one month after I become an elder in my Southern Baptist church. Needless to say, I see addressing this issue as a serious and urgent responsibility. While I’m not aware of any concerns in our church, I’m also not naive enough to think something awful *couldn’t* happen. We have plans and policies in place to vet our children and youth workers, but we can always do more. If you know of any good resources for churches who want to do more to prevent abuse, drop it in the comments or shoot me a message in one of my other feeds. I’m happy to read and learn so I can serve my church family well.
  • Married life is great. We’re coming up on five years in June, which itself is amazing to me–it seems so much shorter, and yet longer (in a really good way). It’s becoming harder and harder to remember daily life before marrying H. She’s so much a part of my day to day, I couldn’t imagine life without her. She has my heart.
  • Not only that, but our little baby isn’t so little anymore. She’s 18 months old, talkative, fearless (climbs on EVERYTHING!), and a sweet kid. She’s also getting a head start into the “terrible twos.” We need prayer, y’all. Kidding aside, this little girl–ugh. She’s my delight.
  • I will try to post something on Friday, but realistically, my next post may be Monday. Lots going on. Thanks for hanging with me.

Quick round-up of my “currently’s”:

  • Currently watching: Life Below Zero on Netflix — a BBC docuseries about people who live near or above the Arctic circle in Alaska. FASCINATING program about what it takes to live in such an unforgiving environment. The language is often harsh, and the footage itself can be unflinching when it comes to hunting/trapping for subsistence and survival. My wife discovered this one, and I started watching it with her pretty early on. This is the only TV show I’m watching these days. I lost interest in what’s currently on network TV–which is probably for the best, to be honest.
  • Currently Listening: My favorite Pandora channel lately is “Coffee Shop Covers” because I am a SUCKER for good covers. My favorite track on there right now is “Wish You Were Here” by the Milk Carton Kids. At work, if I’m not listening to podcasts, I’ll listen to video game soundtracks as background music–today’s selection was Assassin’s Creed, I think, but SimCity is my usual go-to.
  • Currently Reading: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin; The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever; and a bunch of short stories!
  • “Currently” Playing: When I have a little bit of extra time once in a while, I fire up my SNES Classic. I’m about halfway through Super Metroid and a few hours into The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (my favorite video game of all time, I think). “Extra time,” however, is becoming more and more scarce.
  • Currently Thinking: Oh yeah! I have coffee brewed. See y’all later!

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What’s going on with you? Anything cool happening that you’d like to share? Drop it in the comments below!

 

#FridayFive: Five Books I Finished in January (2/8/2019)

Happy Friday, y’all! I’m back with five books that I finished reading (or listening to) in January. Hope you find something you might want to check out soon!

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Somewhere A Band is Playing, by Ray Bradbury

I’ve already written about this a bit. Technically, this was one of 2 novellas by Bradbury, published under the title Now and Forever (along with “Leviathan ’99,” a futuristic take on Moby Dick). After finishing Band, I wasn’t eager to keep reading Bradbury’s later work, so I stopped with the first novella. That said, if you like light science fiction, Somewhere a Band is Playing is a pleasant-enough diversion (though you could do better, especially with Bradbury).

The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch

This short hardcover volume by Andy Crouch is a must-buy if you have any concerns about how you and your family engage with technology. Crouch details ten commitments that he and his family seek to follow, so that they can learn to be more in control of their relationship with technology and social media. I appreciate that the author is also honest about how successful he and his family are at keeping those commitments. Using a large amount of research from the Barna Group, Crouch describes the typical family’s use of technology and helps the reader think through the potential dangers of its “easy, everywhere” promises. This is a book that I’m still thinking about, weeks after finishing it, and I encouraged my wife to read it as well, so that we can discuss how it may influence our household.

Them, by Senator Ben Sasse

In some ways, Senator Sasse’s book Them reminded me of Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage–a warning that life is more than politics and that we need connection and community to help address cultural issues as individual citizens. While Sasse is a professing Christian, what he proposes is not a theological solution as much as an ideological one: make the decision to see people who disagree with you politically as neighbors and fellow citizens, and work for their good as well. (Could you make the argument that you can’t do that well or effectively or for long without Christianity? I think so, but that’s not what he’s getting at in this book.) Sasse makes some pretty pointed observations about how our national conversation has become fragmented and fractured, and make suggestions about what we can do to try to shift course. I listened to the audiobook (read by the senator) and enjoyed it immensely. He gave me lots to think about and discuss with others. His chapter on political media and the monetization of outrage is stellar. He also suggests pulling back from overuse of technology by not only referencing Tony Reinke’s excellent book 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You but also talking through Andy Crouch’s commitments from Tech-Wise Family. In other words, my favorite senator and I have a similar reading list. I wonder if he likes short stories…

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

This short-but-deep volume by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is a 125-page meditation on one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28. However, in All Things for Good, Watson slowly considers each phrase (almost each word) and encourages the reader to meditate at length on God’s sovereignty and kindness. This was a rich and rewarding read, that I consumed a few paragraphs at a time before bed over several weeks. Just a page or so gave me enough to think about in the few minutes before I drifted off to sleep. As someone who struggles with nighttime anxiety, I can’t think of a better cordial (other than the Scriptures themselves) for soothing my worried heart.

Family Shepherds, by Voddie Baucham

I am reminded that there is no greater earthly role for me to take on than husband and father. Voddie Baucham’s excellent book Family Shepherds is a direct and bracing charge to men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. In the book, Baucham looks at the man himself as a disciple, what it means to be a shepherd, the primacy of a man’s marriage in how he leads his home, how he should raise his children (with both formative and corrective discipline), and how he engages the world as a family shepherd. If you don’t know Voddie, I can’t recommend his preaching and speaking highly enough. Add this book to the list, especially if you are a Christian man who is or aspires to be a godly husband and father. In a culture that is currently debating the value and place of masculinity, it is imperative that Christian men seek to portray and exemplify Christlike leadership and care for their families, and so let their light shine.

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What have you read so far this year? Share your recommendations below in the comments!

52 Stories: 3 Stories about the Tyranny of Smart Tech

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today, let’s take a look at 3 science fiction stories about “smart tech” and the danger of AI that becomes a bit too independent.

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#4: “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

I remember reading this story back in high school (more than 20 years ago!), specifically the concept of an autonomously-running house, so I decided to revisit it for this project. You can find it online here.

The Set-up

A “smart house” springs to life, in the stillness after war.

The Pay-off

My memories of this story were solely of the idea of an empty, automated house, but I had forgotten the actual reason why the house was empty. The line that most clearly explains what happens is almost a throwaway, but its simplicity and starkness caught me off-guard. This was part of Bradbury’s themed short-story collection The Martian Chronicles, which is an undeniable classic and a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century science fiction.

The Takeaways

  • While there were some limits to Bradbury’s imagination (would a robotic house still use film reels and spools of audio tape?), you have to credit him for foreseeing the popular uses of personal tech. (“Hey Alexa…”)
  • The idea of personal automation continuing to run after the demise of its owners is both tragic and a bit chilling. Plus, you factor in the contrast between an “easy, everywhere” life of household convenience and the sudden horror of atomic war, and it’s hard to see the future with quite as rosy a lens.
  • “August 2026” isn’t a story as much as a scene or vignette, a stack of photos (do anyone besides hipsters use actual film anymore?) depicting a society after its downfall. There is no plot or movement of action–just a description of slow collapse at the end of an era. If there is a message, it’s a warning against the threat of atomic war and the idea that no civilization is so advanced that it cannot still destroy itself.

#5: “Autofac” by Phillip K. Dick

My friend Leann K. on Facebook recommended this one to her feed, in light of our current cultural discussions on advancements in AI within social media. I had never read it, but I was a little familiar with the author, so I thought I’d check it out. I found it in a collection of Dick’s stories from the library, but you can find it online here. (And thanks to Leann for the link!)

The Set-up

A group of people seek to stop a factory on auto-pilot.

The Pay-off

Most PKD stories I’ve read are great ideas that never quite landed. It always seemed to me that he concocted great scenarios or set-ups, but they were better fleshed out by others. (Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle stand as evidence.) However, I have to give him credit on this one (and another story I’ll review soon): “Autofac” was a pretty effective yarn — lean, kinetic, and comes complete with that Rod-Serling-style gut-punch at the end.

The Takeaways

  • In the war of Man vs. Machine, PKD seems to argue that machines will win because they are single-minded, relentless, and unaffected by hope/disappointment. In “Autofac,” humans try to throw off the rose-petal shackles of a machine-run economy by force, by reasoning, and by subterfuge, but in the end, the machines’ innate drive toward self-perpetuation wins out.
  • I don’t know anything about PKD’s politics (and might just be scandalizing his devotees in saying this), but “Autofac” feels like a pretty effective allegory of statism’s eventual choke-hold on economic freedom. (For example, the machines say they will relent when the outside (human) forces provide the same level of  product output as theirs–yet they control all the materials for production.) Money quote: “We’re not children! We can run our own lives!” Throw in a “taxation is theft” meme and a Gadsden flag, and you’ve got a Libertarian protagonist.
  • Nanobots! How cute and absolutely terrifying! But seriously, though: PKD is writing about nanotech in 1955. Either he knows Dr. Emmett Brown, or he was WAY ahead of his time. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wasn’t talking about nanotechnology until 4 years later.

#6: “Digitocracy” by Andy Weir

I recently read a great piece by N.A. Turner on Medium about reading short fiction, and he mentioned how new short fiction is being written and shared on Medium, including new work from authors like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, one of my favorite novels from the past few years. Here is the short story by Weir that Turner mentioned.

The Set-up

A man on a mission to destroy the electronic “brain” controlling his city.

The Pay-off

…Eh. “Digitocracy” has a plot, such as it is, but again is little more than a scenario: a lone man stands against an “all-knowing” artificial intelligence, seeks to destroy it, and fails. I was looking forward to this story, based on my appreciation for the author’s longer works, but either the format didn’t give him space enough to flesh this out fully, or he didn’t have enough of a story idea to run with yet.

The Takeaways

  • I thought the idea of the city-computer-hivemind-entities taking the names of their locations (Wichita, Madrid, etc.) was fun, as was the fact that the cities discussed the events of the story after the fact as if they were a funny little anecdote.
  • I wonder if “Wichita” manipulating the events of Damak’s life to increase his “happiness” is Weir’s critique of the idea of a sovereign god. I have to admit, reading the story through my own theological lens, I couldn’t help but see Wichita’s dialogue about incorporating new events into an unfolding plan to bring happiness or satisfaction to its citizens as mimicking an “open-theism” style of Arminianism. On the other hand, Wichita’s grooming of Damak as a happy rebel could be argued as a weak critique of compatibilism. (I’m not sure Weir had any such thoughts beyond the conflict between free will and determinism, but hey, you ask a theology student to read science fiction… wait, you didn’t ask? Huh.)
  • Oh good, extended discussion about an unseen character’s same-sex relationship. Mark your social awareness bingo cards, kids!
  • The story left me a little cold. Damak was a cipher, and “Wichita” didn’t have the time or material to develop into a true menace like “HAL9000” did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it was a little too “aren’t-I-clever,” even as it started monologuing like a Bond villain. You could strain and draw an idea that Weir might think the war over control of technology has been lost, but that would be reading way more into the story that what was likely intended to be a fun little bit of scary-AI fluff. Judged on that standard, then sure.

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Agree? Disagree? Do you welcome the smart-tech overlords? Let me know in the comments!

I hate not posting.

 

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There was a time when I would go for weeks without posting anything and feel only a twinge of guilt.

These days, I feel kinda anxious when I can’t hit three posts a week.

Life has been super complicated and full and challenging and good lately. I’ll tell you about it sometime soon. In the meantime, you’ll need to bear with me.

So, in lieu of new content, a question for you, dear reader:

What’s one positive thing from your 2019 so far? Big or small, share your joy in the comments below and let us celebrate with you!

I’ll be back on Wednesday with more short-story talk and hopefully a return to regular posting!

52 Stories #3: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My third story in this series is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. (Thanks to Pedro Jorba on Facebook for the recommendation!) It’s part of Gaiman’s 2007 short story collection Fragile Things (and was apparently made into a motion picture).

The Set-up:

Two teenage boys crash a house-party hoping to meet some new girls and have a fun evening, but end up getting much more than they bargained for.

The Pay-off:

Wow, there’s a lot going on in this story. It begins as an everyday “boys being foolish on a weekend” tale and then slowly morphs into something else entirely. The protagonist’s matter-of-fact naivete is both funny and sad, as the reader picks up on what’s going on long before he does. In the end, this story is haunting, strange, and incredibly effective.

The Lessons:

  • This is a story that pays to read at least twice. Gaiman seeds the story with clues about the twist from the very start. When you begin to pick up on the references throughout, you have to shake your head at the author’s cheekiness.
  • What makes this story so effective is that Gaiman uses the science-fiction genre to explore the inscrutability of females to young men of a certain age and maturity level. The cliches about “Mars and Venus” are true in some sense when it comes to teenage boys who are both confused and intrigued by the fairer sex. Strip away the fantastic elements, and this is still a story about feminine mystique and masculine mistakes.
  • The title points to the recurring theme of talking without listening. The narrator’s inattention adds to the slow-burn reveal of the plot twist. Even when it seems almost incredible that he isn’t picking these clues up, I’m reminded again of how foolish boys are in high school. (And while I *hope* I wasn’t that clueless, I can’t be too sure.)
  • Although this collection of stories was published in 2007, you could probably draw some takeaways regarding the current #MeToo conversation, as well as discussions of masculinity and respect. But I’ll leave that to more skilled analysts.
  • I was just thumped by the sentence, “I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.” Well done, Mr. Gaiman. Wow.
  • The ending, and the implications of the ending, are well-served by what is left unsaid. I’ll admit, while I have an idea of what is implied by Vic’s comments, I’m not 100% sure. Truth be told, I’m happy to keep it that way, because what I’m imagining is bad enough.
  • Here’s the thing, though: not every story should be made into a movie. After reading this one a few times, I’m convinced that any movie treatment of this short story would likely destroy what makes it effective by adding anything to it. And though I have not seen the 2017 film adaptation, seeing descriptions of it that include the words “romantic comedy” and watching just the first 30 seconds of the trailer is enough to prove me 100% right. What a bizarre and lousy transformation it seems to have had.

In the end, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a surprising and slightly-unnerving story about the dangers of not listening. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s creepy and strange, it’s worth a look.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #2: “Somewhere A Band is Playing” by Ray Bradbury

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My second selection for #52Stories is Somewhere A Band is Playing by one of my favorite novelists from high school, Ray Bradbury. (Thanks to @ByronsShade on Twitter for the recommendation!) This 2008 story is technically a novella (clocking in at 115 wide-spaced paperback pages!), but I hadn’t read this one before, so I decided to fudge my own rules a bit to count it.

The Set-up:

A man on a mission jumps off a moving train at what appears to be an abandoned desert train station, in search of an idyllic community with a strange secret.

The Pay-off:

I have to admit, while I was intrigued as this one progressed, I was a bit underwhelmed by the ending. I don’t know if I was hoping for more of a supernatural/fantasy twist to the plot, or if it was actually an idea that could have worked better as a short(er) story. In the end, it felt a little padded, a little too wistful, and then it just sort of ended. I have found Bradbury’s later stories to be quite a bit weaker than his more notable early works, and this story just confirmed that opinion.

The Lessons:

I enjoyed Bradbury’s use of dialogue–particularly the banter between the protagonist and the delivery/taxi coachman who served as his guide through the town (like Virgil in the Inferno?). Their conversations were playful, with little bits of subtext peppered throughout until the big secret was revealed.

There seemed to be plotlines and characters that were introduced and then just left off or ended. (The whole business with the newspaperman was just ended abruptly, for example. The fact that he was still alive seems like a pulled punch from Bradbury to save the reader’s feelings about his main character.) It makes one think that keeping the story leaner and more focused would better help to emphasize the big ideas you want to communicate. There’s something to be said for providing atmosphere, but with shorter pieces, it would make more sense to make the scene-setting work toward the central concept (I’m struggling to working a joke about “Checkovian gun-cases” but it’s not quite landing.)

Somewhere a Band is Playing was an interesting idea that didn’t quite work in the prolonged execution. I have seen better from Bradbury, so I know what he is capable of, and I don’t think this was reflective of that.

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Agree? Disagree? Have suggestions for my next story to explore? Let me know in the comments!

Rethinking My Feeds: Outrage.

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What a difference a weekend’s non-stop news cycle makes.

I was going to write a post about the latest internet debate last week, concerning razor advertisements, implications of toxic masculinity, and the necessity of teaching young men virtue. (Of course, by the time I had started to put some thoughts together, several writers of higher calibre had already written excellent pieces in that vein, so I left off.)

Then I spent Friday and Saturday with some other men from church thinking through discipleship at home and in the church, and Sunday with my church family and friends. As I slowly got back online yesterday evening, another outrage had replaced the last outrage–this time, regarding the issue of racially-based disrespect and (later in the day) media narrative bias. Some people who were quick to repost the initial reporting began stumbling over themselves to walk back statements and reassess the latest available information, while others were doubling-down and disregarding any other data points or newly-available information.

One could point the finger of blame at social media for the flare-up of such stories, but then again, if not for alternative outlets beyond the “big three networks” and the cable news channels (ever the bulwarks of, um, “fair and balanced” reportage), we would not often get additional data points that challenge the way stories are framed.

Yes, there’s the ever-present danger of “fake news” and false leads (as was demonstrated when a young man was apparently misidentified as the infamous “smirker” and was hashtagged, stalked, harassed, and doxxed over the course of a few hours). On the other hand, if you limit yourself to what the “officially verified” and check-marked set report, you still may not get the full story. (After all, what’s the good in listening to only one verified source of “real” news when that source is Pravda, comrade?)

Suffice it to say, social media was abuzz with the reaction, the counter-reaction, the reactions to both, and the finger-wagging and tongue-clucking pointed in various and sundry directions. I got sucked in, reading about the drama, forming opinions on second- and third-hand accounts, until I realized I was doing the same thing everyone else was–feeding on the drama as an outside observer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I engage with social media and how that engagement affects me.

Some of that thinking has been helped by recent books (Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage, Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family, and Senator Ben Sasse’s excellent book Them). Some of it has grown from observations in myself and others, through the ebbs and flows of social media’s outrage spin cycle.

I’ve arrived at a few conclusions about how I need to change my social media use, which I will think through and share over a few posts in the coming weeks. Here is the first:

I am choosing to minimize the amount of rage-baiting in my feeds–both in terms of what I write and what (and whom) I read.

I doubt that term’s original, but I haven’t heard it used much, so I’ll claim it. “Rage-bait,” like “click-bait,” is an attractive invitation to engage–but specifically to engage in order to get angry.

Ben Sasse talks about “nut-picking” in his book Them–the practice of finding an extreme example of bad behavior or ignorance in another ideological tribe and holding it up as an example of that whole group. I think a lot of us are guilty of this, even without realizing it. We post and share stories that incense us, but if we were pressed, I doubt many of us would honestly say that “Wacko #5” is truly representative of the millions of people we would classify in the same ideological tribe.

But man, Wacko #5 gets us those sweet, sweet clicks, doesn’t he…

I want to resist the temptation to rage-bait. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that deserve our outrage; on the contrary, there are realities that rightly require attention, comment, and even strong rebuke. It may not be healthy to fly to the opposite extreme and live in blissful ignorance of real-world concerns and issues, if we want to be good citizens and neighbors.

The problem is, to borrow a phrase from The Incredibles: If everything is outrageous, then nothing is outrageous.

Internet outrage becomes white noise. It’s barely a blip. One outrage sweeps in after another like waves lapping the shore, and we are all awash in it–partly because we choose to accept it and engage in it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to distinguish which issues are worth discussing, and which ones we can just ignore. In other words, we don’t need to go off every time someone is wrong on the Internet. We can just shake our heads, close the browser window, and move on.

(And if there are specific people or sites in our feeds that are light on information or content and heavy on rage-bait, maybe the best response is to click that “unfollow” button. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

So here’s my challenge to you, reader: Take a step back and look at what you post and read on your various social media feeds. Consider the posts and tweets and shares that provoke you to anger the most. How much of it is actual issues-focused interaction…and how much of it is rage-bait?

Does the rage-bait actually make you a better citizen? A better neighbor? A better person? Or does it just make you angry?

And what might you do about that?

The4thDave Reviews: “American Gospel: Christ Alone”

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What is the Gospel?

How is that word used and misused, especially in 21st-century America?

American Gospel: Christ Alone, a new documentary by filmmaker Brandon Kimber, seeks to answer those very important questions.

American Gospel sets out to accomplish 2 goals: to present a clear and unmistakable presentation of the Christian message we know as the Good News (or “gospel”); and to contrast that message with the most popular imitation of the Gospel in American culture, commonly know as the “Word of Faith” or “Prosperity” gospel.

Kimber takes on the biggest names in popular American religion, not by attacking these figures personally with sarcasm or snark, but by directly comparing what they teach to what is written in the Word of God and has been passed down as the historically orthodox, protestant Christian doctrine.

The film’s main premise is built on one of the 5 “Solas” of the Protestant Reformation: the idea that we are saved by Christ alone–not Christ plus works, not Christ plus others’ accomplishments, not Christ plus pedigree. Furthermore, when we turn from our sins and put our trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are coming to Christ alone for Christ alone–not just for what He can offer us in this life, as if He were a butler or genie.

The juxtaposition between orthodox Christian teaching and the claims of popular prosperity preachers and faith healers could not be more striking. Kimber takes the first 30-45 minutes to establish the truth claims of historic Christianity, and then sets them against the modern substitute in stark contrast. The history, doctrinal characteristics, and key figures of this theologically poisonous movement are then examined in detail.

In short: American Gospel: Christ Alone is a stunner of a documentary, rich with theological truth and unflinching in its critique of the most popular preachers and miracle healers today. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The cinematography, editing, and video production work is absolutely top-shelf. The sheer number and calibre of Christian pastors and theologians featured in the film is astounding.

Rather than get into more details, I’ll just say: You really need to watch this film. Watch it with your family, your friends, your church small group or Sunday School class.

The documentary is almost 2 1/2 hours long, so it could be broken up pretty easily into a few viewing sessions with time for discussion afterward. I can’t think of a more fruitful and edifying film that has been released in the last several years. Don’t miss out on this one!

You can rent/purchase digital copies of American Gospel on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vimeo, and the Google Play store. Most of those rental options are around $4-5. You can also purchase the film on DVD/Blu-Ray at the distributor’s website.

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Have you seen American Gospel yet? Share your thoughts below!

Need just a bit more time!

Hey y’all! I apologize for missing my Monday post deadline. I’m working on some neat stuff right now for you, but I just don’t seem to have enough time with work and other obligations. Here’s what’s (potentially) coming in the next 10 days or so:

  • A review of the documentary American Gospel
  • Two #52Stories posts
  • Some thoughts on razors, masculinity, and virtue (possible cross-posted on my Medium feed)
  • The next round of #FridayFive
  • A post about internet outrage
  • A mini-review of Senator Ben Sasse’s book Them

Hoping to have something new posted by tomorrow afternoon. Thanks for your patience! Have a great day!

 

#FridayFive: Five Book Series I Loved in Grade School (1/11/2019)

Happy Friday, friends!

As I’ve said repeatedly, I was blown away by the Wingfeather Saga series of books last year. (Have you read those yet? Seriously, what are you waiting for?!?) They are the kinds of books I would have loved as a young reader–funny, playfully-written, just a bit scary, and full of heart.

Speaking of which, here are 5 series of books I *did* get to enjoy in my younger years. (And I’m going to purposefully leave off the Chronicles of Narnia series, because that’s pretty much a gimme, right? Lewis’ masterwork was my all-time childhood favorite, so let’s leave it aside.)

While there may have been more books or series that I would call “favorites,” these are the books I look back upon with a deep and abiding fondness:

The Hank the Cowdog Series, by John R. Erickson

I can’t tell you how many of these books I ate up over the years. Erickson created two of the great children’s book characters in the eponymous Hank the Cowdog and his trusty (but cowardly) sidekick, Drover. These two ranch dogs are duty-bound to protect their master’s cattle ranch from such terrifying threats as mysterious noises, unusual smells, and the occasional vampire cat. There are DOZENS of these books, and I’ve probably logged most of them in my time, thanks in large part to my old church’s huge lending library. I had the double-joy of listening to the audiobook versions of these stories, and if you get the chance, you really REALLY need to do the same. Many of the stories include original songs (which are a HOOT), and if I were pressed, I could probably recall a few of those tunes, more than 25 years later. Just a delightful series of books.

The Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald Sobol

For kids who liked a good puzzle, Encyclopedia Brown was the jam. This pint-sized Sherlock Holmes would be face with a mystery of some sort, and would use the powers of deductive reasoning to solve the case and find the culprit or the missing whatever-it-was. The thing I loved about these books was that the story would reach a point where EB would be able to solve the case, and then you (the reader) would be asked by the narration if you figured it out, too. The solution would then be revealed at the back of the book on Page __ , where you could flip to see if you were right. (Confession: I was never right.) This series of fun short stories was perfect preparation for enjoying Arthur Conan Doyle’s classics later in my school-aged years.

The Cooper Kids Adventures, by Frank Peretti

I’ve talked about my love of Peretti’s writing before, but this series was how I became acquainted with his work. This brother and sister duo traveled with their archaeologist father around the world, discovering all sorts of mysteries and facing various middle-grade-appropriate perils. These books also fed my fascination with exploring ancient civilizations (fueled by a viewing of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” if I recall). I haven’t read these books since middle school, but I have a hunch I would still enjoy them.

The Spirit Flyer Series, by John Bibee

Obviously, as a fan of Narnia, I enjoyed some on-the-nose Christian allegory. This series (which I always thought of as the “Magic Bicycle” series, since that was the first book!) by John Bibee brings straightforward Christian allegory into a modern setting, with a group of heroic kids taking their stand against a diabolical corporation called Goliath Toys (diabolical in a “controlled by dark forces” way, not a “capitalism is bad” way). They face these spiritual foes with the help of some old magical bicycles that contain secret powers and abilities to help their owners overcome the darkness. The allegory is painfully obvious in some ways, but there was also something charming about it. Certain books in the series were quite thrilling and some of the imagery was striking. This series may be worth giving a spin if you’re into Christian middle-grade fiction.

The Archives of Anthropos series by John White

Okay, this is a really deep cut, but I discovered this rarely-discussed fantasy series when I was in fifth grade. I happened upon the first book in the school library and was blown away by the adventure it contained. While these stories are very similar to Lewis’ Narnia (apparently, this was the author’s intention, since his own children loved Narnia) and begin in an almost identical way (siblings discover an enchanted commonplace object that becomes their portal to another world), I remember them taking a decidedly different turn into a more classic fantasy plot. I’m surprised to discover (thanks to the power of The Internet!) that I may have never actually finished the series! I only remember four volumes, but it looks like there are 6 on Amazon! This may require a re-read, then. Hopefully, they still hold up! (They probably won’t, but one can hope, right?)

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There you have it: 5 children’s series that still hold a warm spot in my heart. If you haven’t read these, and are looking for something fun to enjoy and perhaps share with a younger reader in your house, these would be a great place to start.

Your turn: What books or series did you love as a child? Share your picks in the comments!