Monday, December 31, 2012

Lime Creek

I don’t remember why I bought this book, but I expect it was a strong positive review that appeared in something I read. It could have been because it takes place in Wyoming and there is a lot in the novel about horses and ranching. I also like the simplicity of the title, even the author’s name. Just Joe Henry.
The front cover has a blurb from Larry McMurtry calling it “a wonderful book”. I won’t disagree with that, but I might have used a different adjective. The cover also says fiction, not novel, and I think fiction is a clearer description. Because as I read the short book (142 pages), I had the feeling that I was reading a memoir, not a novel.
If you like plot-driven novels, this might not be the one for you. This book is driven by characters, words and a sense of place. Weather, scenery and man’s struggle with nature are all major characters in this work.
There are a lot of long sentences here (think a ¾ page-long paragraph without a period). Though this seems to be the norm for literary fiction, I find shorter sentences easier to follow. 
Joe Henry, however, has a gift for putting the right words in the right place and pulling his readers into the minds of his characters and putting us right there in a Wyoming winter as a couple raises three sons.
I had already determined after reading the first few pages that I was going to use the word lyrical if I wrote a review of this book before I read the author’s bio.  Joe Henry is a renowned lyricist whose words have been performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Garth Brooks, and Rascal Flatts.
He is also a poet who dedicates this book to Roscoe Lee Browne, renowned actor and former track star, and Anthony Zerbe. Both actors have performed Joe’s poetry. 
Joe is a former professional athlete with an excellent education, but attributes much of his learning to his years as a laborer and rancher. That learning is on display in this book. It’s gritty and very believable. And there’s a nice love story.
Another Review for Go Down Looking by Kelli:
This book had my attention after the first two sentences and held it to the end. The characters are easy to identify with...I cared about each of them and looked forward to reading about their experiences and adventures. Jake's trials and tribulations were especially captivating. 
He dealt with many setbacks and faced difficult decisions...I found myself cheering him on with every page. I could not put the book down.
I often hear people from that generation talk of it being a simpler time...but Jake's story shows us that, while the obstacles were different, growing up back then was not easy and life could be challenging.
Thanks for writing and sharing this wonderful book, Jim. I look forward to joining Jake and his family in the next chapter of their lives!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When Bad Things Happen

Note: This article was written months prior to the recent tragedy in Connecticut. 

God Forsaken: BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Is there a God who cares? YES. Here’s Proof. This D’Souza book explores this question along with many others. Christians praise God when good things happen to them, so should they also blame God when bad things happen to them?

The book of Job has been recognized as one of the deepest, most candid examinations of the problem of evil and suffering. Yet remarkably, it never occurs to Job or to anyone else in the story to question God’s existence. What Job questions is the character of God.

Lucretius challenges our belief in a God who could have made a perfect world, but chose not to. D’Souza says that the Divine Architect could not have made a perfect universe and have us human beings in it. God intended us to be here to marvel at his architecture and get to know the architect and enter into an intimate relationship of mutual love with Him. ..He built the universe in the only way He could to get this result.

D’Souza says that omnipotence does not mean the power to do anything, but rather the power to do what is possible. And there is only one possible way to create a universe containing rational, conscious creatures like us—creatures who are prone to sin, evil and corruption. If the world was perfect, we wouldn’t be allowed in it.

D’Souza also quotes our old friend C. S. Lewis. “The Bible tells us that God made Lucifer (Satan) the ruler of the earth. John’s epistle affirms that the world around us is in control of the evil one.” Lewis suggests that Satan may well have corrupted animals before man appeared. D’Souza disagrees, asserting that God gave man dominion over the earth and the authority of Satan must be inferior to the authority of God.

Do we suffer punishment here on earth for evil deeds? Do we get what we deserve? I explored this through Jake’s character in Rivers Flow in this scene with Claire Hurt when Claire tells him, “Oh, I shook my fist at God, raging at His injustice to us. . . . We were in church every Sunday morning and Sunday night, yet we lost our only child.”

D'Souza says, Most of us, believers and non-believers who have lived long enough, know that there is almost no direct correlation between pain and hardship and our virtues and vices. Earthquakes and tsunamis make no distinction between the just and unjust.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “It’s simply a fact”. Kushner also says that God doesn’t stop the bad things because he can’t. So he does what he can to reduce evil and suffering, and he identifies with the victims.

In Rivers Flow, Claire lets Jake explore his own anger at God, his feelings that he and his family did something to cause their loss. She answers him thusly; “We have a right to be hurt, even angry. Life is unfair, and God is there to help us when unfair things happen to us, not to prevent them from happening.” Kushner says, God is as outraged by it as we are.

In the Shadowlands movie, Anthony Hopkins as Jack Lewis lectures to various audiences about the good that comes from suffering. In his book, Theodicity, Gottfried Leibniz says that if not for evil and suffering, how would we appreciate painlessness and good? We need the one to appreciate the other, just as we need the night to appreciate sunrise.  

Why does God let us sin? D’Souza says that God sought to create a creature (us) that could reciprocate his love. Now, it is in the nature of love to be free: love cannot be compelled. He made us free so that he could love us and we could love him in return. But free will also brings sin. Freedom is the necessary prerequisite for virtue. Coerced actions have no moral value.

Why does God mostly hide himself from us? If he made his presence obvious, then humans would, in a sense, be forced to believe in him. Because his presence would be so overwhelming, even atheists would believe. And He wants us to believe of our own free will.

In later chapters, D’Souza also explores the uncomfortable violence in the Old Testament, using a debate between himself and Hitchens and  Dennis Prager, a Jew who is also brilliant. The brain power with these three on the stage is awe-inspiring.  

This book has three purposes: First, to answer the atheist argument that evil and suffering in the world somehow contradict the idea of a God who is omnipotent and good.  Second, to convince both believer and nonbelievers that there is reason and purpose for evil and suffering, that even bad things have their place in God’s great providence. Third, to specifically address Christians who are suffering.

See if it does those three things for you.

I started this series of articles with a quote from Pat Conroy. “A novel is my fingerprint, my identity card, and the writing of novels is one of the few ways I have found to approach the altar of God and creation itself. You try to worship God by performing the singular courageous and impossible favor of knowing yourself.”

I close with quotes from Kent Nerburn’s terrific book, Letters to My Son. Once you love an art enough that you can be taken up in it, you are able to experience an echo of the great creative act that mysteriously has given life to us all. It may be the closest any of us can get to God.  Hopefully, there is a little artist in all of us.

One of the things I was taught by a mentor many years ago is the concept of deliberate practice, the way we develop good habits and get good at anything.  Also from Nerburn’s book:  Spiritual growth is honed and perfected only through practice. Like an instrument, it must be played. Like a path, it must be walked. Whether through prayer or meditation or worship or good works, you must move yourself in the direction of spiritual betterment . . . only a fool refuses to walk in the sunlight because he cannot see the shape of the sun.

Have a very merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Life After Death--The Evidence

Continuing with our wondering about God’s punishment, C. S. Lewis has these words:  A Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death Christ Himself carried out . . . the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us (emphasis mine).

There are many, many more explanations, of course, but this one speaks to me.Makes me wish Lewis had “spoken to me” as a child.

But it still does not answer the question of life after death and why God allows bad things to happen. Remember Lucretius’s quote, “Had God designed the world it would not be, a world so frail and faulty as we see”? The quote that C. S. Lewis repeated does raise some doubts. If God is perfect, then why did he not design a perfect world? Why do bad things still happen?

For those answers, I turned to another author and two recent books: Life After Death: The Evidence and God Forsaken (subtitle: Bad Things Happen.Is there a God Who Cares? Yes. Here’s Proof). I admit a certain attraction to the words, evidence and proof in the subtitles. I also have read Dinesh D’Souza before.  
I knew him first as a secular think tank intellectual. I have seen him debate the now deceased atheist (but brilliant) Christopher Hitchens, who acknowledged D’Souza as a world-class advocate for the Christian faith.

Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, writes in the introduction to Life After Death: The mortality rate on earth is 100 percent. This book by my friend Dinesh D’Souza is a brilliant investigation of the fascinating and crucial issue of what happens when we die. It is an inquiry based on scholarship and reason and it provides a convincing answer that is explosive in its impact.

D’Souza deftly turns the table on scientists who say, “If they really believe in a life after death, why not conduct sound experiments to establish it?” D’Souza answers that religious believers don’t believe in the afterlife based on scientific tests. He then challenges them to come up with some tests to prove or disprove it. Without such tests and empirical evidence, how can true scientists reject it?

Atheists say that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. D’Souza answers that “not found” is not the same thing as “found not to exist”. Again, that speaks to me.

Life After Death also explores the beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists and their views of a life after death. The author also writes about near-death experiences including the out-of-body phenomenon, the tunnel of darkness, the bright light, the sensation of love and warmth, the life review, and subsequent life transformations.

Evolution?  Yep, he covers it, saying, . . . contrary to atheist boasting, evolution cannot provide an ultimate explanation for life because evolution itself presupposes specific environmental conditions and specific entities with specific properties.  The human cell, thousands of times tinier than a speck of dust, has the processing power equivalent to the largest supercomputer. So how did we get cells? How do they self-replicate? Darwin does not attempt to answer.  

D’Souza also says that evolution does a good job of accounting for why we are selfish animals, but it faces immense challenges in accounting for why we simultaneously hold that we ought not to be selfish (emphasis mine).

In a chapter called Good for You, D’Souza refers to William James, the founder of modern psychology. James makes the point that while belief in life after death poses the risk of adopting a position without complete proof . . . unbelief poses the risk of missing out on the blessings of immortality that are promised to believers. Makes sense to me. Who was it who said only half in jest, “Why take a chance?’

Believers are provided with hope at death and a way to cope. For atheists, death is a disaster. Belief infuses life with an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose. Belief gives us a reason to be moral and a way to transfer that morality to our children. Finally, there is strong evidence that belief in life after death makes your life better and also makes you a better person.

On page 166, I found my favorite words from D’Souza. Here is my pre-suppositional argument for life after death. Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be.

Why is it my favorite passage? Because on page three of Rivers’ Flow, Griffin Rivers says, “Flow is the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be.” I promise not to sue D’Souza for plagiarism. Just kidding. I am sure others have said and written this many times before.

Next week: D’Souza’s book on why bad things happen and whether God cares.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When the Student is Ready, the Master Will Appear

We all know the old proverb, “When the student (pupil) is ready, the master (teacher) will appear”. I dabbled around the fringes of C. S. Lewis’s writings for many years. I quoted him in many seminars and training sessions, even though I had read only excerpts from his work (I plead guilty). I decided it was about time for “the teacher to appear”.

Clyde Staples Lewis preferred to be called Jack. If you are not familiar with him, I suggest starting with the movie “Shadowlands”, currently on cable TV. Anthony Hopkins plays Lewis in this excellent rendition of a part of Lewis’s life.  I collect quotations about writing and reading and use them to “defend” my writing habit during times when there seems to rational justification for it. This movie provided one of the best. “We read to know that we are not alone”.

We also write to find out if we are alone. What does that mean to you? To me, it means we read to vicariously experience situations such as illness, death, murder, betrayal, great business success or failure, and athletic or artistic accomplishment. 

We need to see how characters in books react to situations that we may have experienced, want to experience or just wondered about. We see also that other people in other places might have troubles worse than our own. We see places where they live, places we will likely never visit. This provides regular reassurance that “we are not alone”. 

C. S. Lewis is probably best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, etc…). He was also close friends with J. R. R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame. Both were on the English faculty at Oxford. But the book I am referring to today is Mere Christianity. I perused it many years ago, but didn’t apply myself.

I picked it up about a year ago and read it again, this time with a highlighter and post-it notes. I wondered, for heaven’s sake (a cliché meant to be taken literally here), why I had not done so before. After all, a boy’s struggle to understand was partially revealed in this early passage from Rivers Flow.

After nine weeks of perfect attendance at Sunday school and church in Klondike, Jake heard the teacher ask the question he had been dreading. “Please raise your hands if you have been saved by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” All of his classmates raised their hands. Jake sat on his.

And there is this later passage where Jake is in church again. As the sun rose higher, one of the spiraling dust tunnels focused on Jake, and he felt himself floating above the congregation, his mind drifting back to events that seemed so long ago.

Several things sparked my revived life-long need to understand (most would not interest you).I have written previously about the Cowhill Council, a group of seasoned sages who meet regularly for coffee. I make no pretense that our discussions are usually highly intellectual, but occasionally we try.

One morning, we were fortunate enough to have two evangelists and a fellow in the middle of the rigorous training required to become a Catholic Deacon present for our meeting. I stuck my neck out and asked if anyone could explain the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Atonement in terms that an ignorant mortal like me could understand and spiritually absorb.

Everyone stared at me as if asking if I had just arrived on planet Earth and never set foot in a church. But then, their faces lit up as they launched into vigorous attempts to comply. It led to a vibrant and enjoyable discussion, but their explanations were the same ones I had heard all my life.  

C. S. Lewis speaks to me. He lost his mother at nine. Raised in the Church of Ireland, he turned atheist at fifteen, even becoming interested in the occult, quoting Lucretius, “Had God designed the world it would not be, a world so frail and faulty as we see.” But he slowly re-embraced Christianity, influenced by his friend Tolkien and by his own “teacher” G. K. Chesterton and his book The Everlasting Man.

In Mere Christianity, he explains the Atonement and Resurrection this way: The only person who could do it perfectly (repentance) would be the perfect person—and he would not need it. But supposing God became a man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God .

You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence. But we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies, and he cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt and suffers for us what He need not suffer at all (emphasis mine).  

That explanation speaks to me. Next, we will see what Lewis has to say about God’s punishment and explore what another author has to say about life after death.