Refreshing Grace: The First book from Biblical Framework Press!

RefreshingGraceFrontCoverOnlyHave you ever wondered how God can be in control of everything and still allow people to have free will? I think that for many Christians, this is a real conundrum. Sure, there have been “fights” between Calvinists and Arminians over this issue for 500 years; Calvinists argue that God is great and in control, and Arminians counter that God is good and offers salvation to all.

 

For many Christians, though, neither answer is sufficient because God says both in His Word. But how can both be true?  Well, this week I published a new book titled Refreshing Grace. This book takes a new approach to this often emotionally charged issue and explains the issue, and a fresh biblical solution to it, in an understandable way.

 

If you’re interested in the issue of God’s sovereign control and our free will in salvation, my prayer is that Refreshing Grace will help you understand the issue with more clarity and passionately pursue Christ with that new knowledge.

 

The book is available on Amazon.com in paperback as well as on Kindle.

 

Amazon.com paperback edition.

 

Amazon.com Kindle Edition.

Book Review: The Hunger Games

This book review is somewhat timely, as the movie version of “The Hunger Games” comes out next week.  I have seen a lot of parents asking about this movie and the book version for their kids, and my two oldest have read the book. (we allow our older two kids to be semi-independent, discerning readers because we have tried to raise them to be good thinkers)   This book is published by Scholastic and is generally in the “young adult” genre, i.e. teens.  It is a relatively short (275 pages or so) and quick read.

 

Parents: beware. This book is very, very violent. If violence bothers you or would be difficult for your teen or older child to process, steer well clear of this book.  If you want a feel for how the movie is going to be (I haven’t seen it yet), watch it on YouTube. (sorry they won’t let me embed the video) It looks like it is going to follow the same general plot.

 

A good plot review can be found at Wikipedia if you want to know the basis, though of course there are a lot of plot spoilers in it. The basics are this: the book is set in North America in a dystopian society after the breakdown of the USA. The new country called Panem is controlled centrally and despotically by the Capitol, and after a failed rebellion the Capitol controls each of 12 districts ruthlessly.  Starvation, mistreatment, and totalitarian control are the norm.

 

Each year, each of the twelve districts must send one boy and one girl ages 12-18 to a tournament known as The Hunger Games, where they are placed in a huge arena (many square miles of varied terrain and opportunity) and left there until only 1 of the 24 are left. They are chosen by random draw, and each child must put their name in the draw when they turn twelve.  In a cruel twist a child may be given rations of grain and oil for their family by voluntarily putting their name in the draw additional times.

 

The book follows a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen as she is chosen for and experiences the Hunger Games.

 

The Good:

 

This book has some interesting stuff in it.  There is even a Forbes article about what THG can teach us about strategy

 

Katniss is in no way an evil person.  She is scarred by the death of her father and emotional distance from her mother, desires to protect her sister, and hates the strong picking on the weak.  That theme is repeatedly brought up in the book, as Katniss partners with the supposedly weaker contestants against the stronger and uses wits and cunning, not brawn, to stay alive.

 

I’m kinda-sorta a tinfoil hat wearing government-stay-out-of-my-life libertarian, and this book hits the theme of totalitarian governmental control very hard.  Not only that, there is certainly a theme of the rich versus the poor, though Collins does a good job of not laying that angle on too thick.  The contrast between the Capitol and the conditions of the people in District 12 is clear, and any follower of Christ would be wise to consider the implications of justice and taking care of the poor that the book offers.

 

The whole of the Hunger Games is broadcast over television and is mandatory viewing, and from the perspective of Katniss we get to see how contrived the whole thing is, that it is being controlled and that very little is as the viewers think it is.  That is a good lesson in media for all of us, that it is controlled and that they are selling us something.

 

There is no mention of God in this book whatsoever.  This omission is actually a learning point, as the morals and behaviors of society that are purely governed by their own ideas and desires becomes a terrible display of brutality and poverty and control.  The lack of peace and the sheer nastiness of the end game of that kind of society is a good theme, though like I said it is a theme from silence.

 

There is also some good lines from Katniss about the effects of a child who has lost a parent or is forced to grow up too fast.  She is a protector, and distrusts all, but under the veneer of arrogance is a little girl unsure of who she is and unsure of how to love.

 

A couple of the people attached to Katniss genuinely care for her.  Peeta (the boy from District 12) certainly loves her.  Haymitch, her “mentor”, and her wardrobe people all seek to help her navigate the tricky and deadly dance that is THG.  Though the world is dark, there are still decent human beings in it.

 

The Bad:

 

The entire premise of this book is about a death-match between 24 teenagers to make sure that no one rebels against the State. That says a lot.

 

Boy, the violence in this book is intense.  It isn’t described every time, but many times when a contestant (called a tribute) dies no punches are pulled when they are killed.  One girl has her head crushed in with a rock.  Several die from being pierced through the guts with spears or through the neck with arrows.  One boy has his neck snapped by another.  There is incredibly little compassion, though Katniss’ compassion gets her some in return from unlikely places.

 

Every part of “the good” above can also be placed here in “the bad.”  This book is a gritty, dystopian look into the future where the State controls everything (it looks like fascism to me, but it is not fleshed out), the people are oppressed and starving, and the future is bleak.

 

Katniss learns in the book to use her innocence and her supposed love for Peeta to get help and to get the audience to like her. Thus she is taught to manipulate people to survive.  It is a survival ploy and perhaps explainable, but that does not make it acceptable.  The sexuality in the book is certainly downplayed (nothing more than kissing), but nevertheless the romance in the book is manufactured for the sympathy it engenders.

 

Overall:

 

This book is in the teen section of most libraries. Boy, I must say that I would be careful of letting young teens read it.  Before I let my kids read it I would suggest that parents read it first to help their kids work through the book and learn the lessons.  If a child or teen has an aversion to violence, of course I would skip it.

 

I am not going to let my kids see the movie before I do.  My two oldest are not very violence sensitive (my son, who is younger, hunts with me and knows what death is), but still the big screen tends to amplify that kind of thing and I want to see it to check that before they get to view it.

 

I CERTAINLY would not recommend this book to kids under 12 or 13 unless they are very, very mature and they are very discerning readers.  Even then, there is no way I would allow my younger kids to read it.  It’s brutal, and that kind of imagery stays in young minds a long time.  For teens it is probably okay if they like action and are not sensitive to violence.  For adults who are not sensitive to violence it is a pretty engaging and very quick read, and it tells a compelling story.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

And so the series ends. I finished the 7th book in the Harry Potter series and frankly I am sad to see them end. They were well written and for those who are fans of the genre they are great stuff.  As always, those whose consciences are bothered by magical stuff should stay away (but should stay away from Barbie Fairy Princesses too!).

 

Find a good plot synopsis here.  For my part, reading this series was for the purpose of seeing whether they are acceptable reading for my children.  As of the end of the series I would say that kids who have a firm grasp on the difference between reality and fantasy, age about 12 and up (depending on the child) should be fine with these books.  I also strongly encourage mom or dad to read them ahead of time and then talk through the themes and ideas in the book with their child.

 

POSSIBLE PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD.

 

This book follows Harry, Ron, and Hermione through what should be their last year at Hogwarts.  Instead it is a year of trying to hunt down the remaining pieces of Voldemort’s soul so that he can be finally killed. He is dag-nasty evil and he needs to go, and Harry is the only one who can do it.  There are lots of plot twists and turns in the book, but as you’d expect Harry comes out on top, Voldemort is killed once and for all, and the good guys win the day.  But it is a painful and difficult victory.

 

The Good

 

There were several themes to like throughout The Deathly Hallows.  First off, I was struck by how innocently and appropriately this series of books treats marriage! Fleur and Bill marry after Bill is pretty badly disfigured by a werewolf, and Fleur standing by her fiancée  and marrying him is touching.  Remus and Tonks getting married and having a baby is a touching story too.  I thought it a nice epilogue that we get to see Harry and Ginny married with children, and Ron and Hermione in the same way.  This book (and the series) really upholds the value and sanctity of marriage.

 

I also LOVE how the plot arc of the treatment of house elves comes to a wonderful close in this book.  Harry finds out that Kreacher can go where he can’t, he treats him with respect and in return is helped immensely by Kreacher.  And Hermione finally shows her feelings for Ron when he tries to help a house elf. Harry’s care for Dobby at his death is touching.  A major point in favor of this book is that the treatment of others who many think are beneath them is important and has consequences, and that is a lesson every adult and every child needs.

 

Good ultimately triumphs in this book, and that is worth celebrating.  More than that, it is very costly to Harry for win the Second Wizarding War. He loses many close friends in the Order, and several Weasleys who are nearly family to Harry are badly injured or killed.  Dumbledore, Harry’s near-father figure and near-God figure, dies.  He finds out that the only way to defeat Voldemort is to allow Voldemort to kill him because he is a horcrux, a recipient of a piece of Voldemort’s soul.  Harry’s action in the face of great fear and even of death is quite noble.

 

Harry has to make a lot of decisions in this book that are costly to himself and emotionally hurt those who Harry loves.  The most significant of this is that Harry really loves Ginny, but he stays away from her so that she can’t be used against him.  That is selfless and loving and worth noting.

 

Harry and his friends go out of their way to help others, even when it is costly to them.  I loved it when they infiltrated the Ministry of Magic and found themselves in a place where they could either leave or help some people who were in danger of being imprisoned falsely.  They stayed at their own risk and saved many lives, and that is absolutely praiseworthy.

 

Last but perhaps as important as anything, there is Severus Snape.  Harry HATED Snape throughout the books, and Snape is painted by the end of book 6 as a terrible traitor.  When Harry finds out how wrong he was about Snape and how Snape protected him for so long and was so instrumental in his ultimate victory, and how his killing of Dumbledore was a mercy and at Dumbledore’s request, he knows the truth and has to adjust his understanding of who this man is.  That is a fantastic lesson for kids to learn, in that we all have complex motives and it’s not always wise to judge a book by its cover.

 

There is more to like, but these are the big things.

 

The Bad

 

There is death in this book.  Several important characters die in it. (in this way it mimics the Lord of the Rings series in that important characters are not immune from death) None of those deaths are gruesome, but they can be emotionally intense. I think that the most intense one is actually Dobby, though Fred comes in a very close second. 

 

Also, there is a bad but not really bad issue in the book in that Harry uses two of the unforgivable curses (The Imperius and Cruciatus curses, only Imperius here), though he does so benignly and does no harm.  Further, it could be argued that they were used in a time of “war” and in a wartime act, and there are different ethics in war than in peace.  So I suppose it could be a discussion for parents on just war and ethics.

 

There are a couple of needless curse words in the book.  None of them are terrible, but they don’t add much to the plot and should not have been included. But I am a bit of a prude with that. Smile

 

Harry’s view of Dumbledore goes through many, many doubts in this book.  he really deconstructs the God figure and we find out at the end that Dumbledore was really flawed, like any human being.  He is no God.  While this could be bad, I actually think it is a positive because it reinforces that Dumbledore was not God or a God-figure, but a powerful man whose mistakes needed atonement.

 

Overall

 

Overall, this book is about a young wizard, put in a terrible and unenviable position, accepting his responsibility and despite the cost doing what it takes to carry it out.  That is very good, and even though Harry Potter has its weaknesses I think that it is good.  I am officially a fan.  Frankly I would LOVE to see J.K. Rowling pen a new series as a prequel, perhaps with James, Lilly, Severus, and Tom Riddle.  Perhaps with Dumbledore and how he became who he was.  Maybe the back story with Hagrid.  There are lots of angles to explore and I would read them all.

Book Review: Arminian Theology-Myths and Realities by Roger E. Olson

Have you ever gotten completely fed up with debates between Calvinists and Arminians about eternal life? Have you read lots of Calvinist literature on Calvinism and Calvinist descriptions of Arminianism, but had a hard time finding a readable treatment on the subject from a distinctly Arminian perspective?

I am leading a seminar next week discussing Calvinism, Arminianism, and Free Grace theology as systems of salvation, and was really struggling with those very issues.  Not that Arminian theology is hidden in America, per se; it’s just fragmented and represented by such a varied tradition that it’s not easy to find a classical Arminian theology work that is not embedded in its’ own unique bent as well.

If you’re interested in a book along those lines, Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities is a great place to start. (go read the customer reviews on Amazon at the link…you’ll get a feel)  I recommend it highly and am going to offer it as an extra-credit book to my theology students and recommend it to my leaders at church.

The Good:

In any theology book, it must always in my opinion begin with approach.  Olson does a phenomenal job of being approachable to readers.  The book is easy to read, and arranged topically so that subjects of interest can be found quickly.  It’s also relatively brief at 246 pages!

I really appreciated Olson’s irenic approach to this discussion. Many times, Calvinists and Arminians like to throw rocks at one another from their respective camps.  Olson stays away from that and instead warmly interacts with 10 “myths” or misunderstandings of Arminianism that are popularly called “Arminian” but are more straw men than actual positions.  This quote is certainly worth thinking about:

One principle that ought to be observed by all parties to this debate is Before you disagree make sure you understand. In other words,we must make sure that we can describe another’s theological position as he or she would describe it before we criticize or condemn. (pg. 41)

Amen!

I loved the correction that Olson makes with regard to the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.  For many Calvinists, the difference in their minds is that they say that the central interpretive motif in Calvinism is God’s sovereignty while the central interpretive motif in Arminianism is the free will of people.  Olson objects to this strenuously; instead, he says that Calvinists center their theology on the sovereignty of God, and Arminians center their theology in the goodness of God. (pg. 72-73) Both take their interpretive center from the character of God, which is a helpful corrective. As he says, “Each theology’s view of free will arises from and is based on more fundamental commitments.” (pg. 97)

I also think that Olson does a good job of discussing the difference between Calvinist monergism and Arminian synergism, especially showing that from an “Arminian of the heart” perspective that this is at least present in important Greek church fathers such as Athanasius.  This is a helpful discussion.  Even if you read and disagree (and many will, especially Calvinists!) having an accurate view of Arminian theology is significant and important.

I also found it helpful that Olson gave an historical treatment of each “myth” in the book.  He traces each doctrinal position from Arminius through to the present, citing each author and critiquing where some leave the classical path.  I find his treatment even-handed.

The Bad:

No book is perfect, and this one is no different.  It has several shortcomings that are puzzling.

First off, it has no bibliography! For a book that purports to deal with a scholarly topic this is just puzzling.  Further, Olson uses SBL footnotes but does so inconsistently and doesn’t always provide a full bibliographic reference for every work in the book! This should have been fixed before publication, though it may well just be a challenge with the publisher or an oversight. That doesn’t affect the content of the book, but it is nevertheless a shortcoming.

Next, Olson takes great pains in arguing that Arminianism is an orthodox evangelical theology.  Since there are multiple evangelical Arminian denominations in America today (Nazarene, Church of Christ, and all Pentecostal denominations for instance), this constant defense seems a bit redundant.  Only one “myth” directly addresses this, but it is mentioned on multiple occasions in other places and that does not help.

Finally, Olson takes great pains to talk about classical Arminian synergism as opposed to Calvinist monergism.  This is all well and good.  That said, there is an entire different system (known as Molinism) that he gives scant mention to. (pg. 195-197 are actually 2 pages of text, more than half of which is devoted to saying that Molinism is actually determinism)  His failure to interact with this system well is a weakness. (granted, this book came out in 2006 and Ken Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty” not until 2010; nevertheless, Keathley leans heavily on WIlliam Lane Craig, who Olson quotes)

Another weakness is that Olson really does not discuss the Arminian understanding of security, i.e. whether justification can be lost.  This seems to be a significant area of disagreement with Calvinism, and while they end up in the same place (that only those who persevere in faith end up justified) there is significant difference in the instrumental cause and in the interim states that deserved discussion.

Overall:

In an overall sense, this is a very good book.  As Olson himself says, “this book attempts to fill a gap in current theological literature. To the best of my knowledge no book currently in print in English is devoted solely to explaining Arminianism as a system of theology.” (pg.12) In this sense, he has succeeded very admirably.  Despite any shortcomings, he does a wonderful job of laying out classical Arminian theology in a thorough, concise, and practical manner.

I recommend this book to all people interested in the discussion on salvation and how Scripture speaks of the intersection of divine sovereignty and human free will.  At the end of the day I am not convinced to become an Arminian, but I have been enlightened and encouraged greatly.  I think that this book is good reading for all theologically-interested Christians.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Okay, I have sat on this book review for a couple of days because this book has made me think long and hard.  I am reading it with an eye to whether it is appropriate for my kids, not for whether it was entertaining or engaging.  It was definitely entertaining as an adult reader, and if you like fantasy books then this series is a good one.

But is it good for kids?

This book follow’s Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts; a good plot synopsis, as always, may be found at Wikipedia. At over 650 pages this book is no small read, but it definitely had me turning pages throughout.

For a short-short-short plot synopsis (spoilers in this paragraph!), Harry once again tries to get through a year at Hogwarts.  Snape has taken over the job of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and Harry gets lucky to be given an old copy of his potions book written in by an anonymous former student called “the half-blood Prince” (hence the name of the book), with whose help Harry becomes quite adept at potion-making.  During this book, Dumbledore finally lets Harry in on Voldemort’s past through several memories they get to see, and Harry finds out that Voldemort has tried to attain immortality by ripping his soul into pieces and putting it within magical devices known as Horcruxes.  Dumbledore takes Harry along to find a Horcrux, where Dumbledore is weakened considerably getting to it.  He and Harry hurry back to Hogwarts, only to find that Draco Malfoy has let Death Eaters into Hogwarts.  Upon finding Dumbledore, Malfoy is tempted to kill him but Dumbledore almost succeeds in convincing him to switch sides.  Right at the last moment, Severus Snape steps in and kills Dumbledore with the Avada Kedavra curse, and then tells Harry that he is the half-blood prince.  At Dumbledore’s funeral, Harry tells his best friends that he is not coming back to Hogwarts for his seventh year, but will instead seek out Voldemort to kill him.

The Good:

Again, this book has a lot going for it.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it was a real page turner.  Adults who enjoy fantasy will enjoy it immensely.

The whole theme of the book revolves around Voldemort tearing his soul apart by killing others (never in gruesome ways, but he definitely does it) in an attempt to safekeep it in magical devices.  There is a clear lesson in this story, in that murder is irreparably harmful not only on the victim, but also on the perpetrator. (Genesis 5, anyone?)

Voldemort’s quest for immortality is also an EASY play for parents to talk to their kids about death and life after death.  While Voldemort seeks immortality by evil, God says that it is only by faith alone in Christ alone that we can have eternal life. (Eph 2:8-9 among the many)

Professor Slughorn is a good character in the book.  Well, he is not good, but a good opportunity to look at the pitfalls of seeking popularity.  He is so obsessed with knowing important people and being a bit of a “king maker” that he inadvertently gives Voldemort critical knowledge that allows him to shred his soul in his quest for immortality.

Harry’s character growth in this book is good.  He is growing up and must begin to make the transition from boy to man.  In Harry’s case, that means that he must accept his place as “the Chosen One” who must fight Voldemort and has a good chance to defeat him.  This is, naturally, not an easy thing for Harry to accept! But he has to choose between easy and right, and in the end he realizes that it is his sense of right and wrong, of loyalty and love for his friends, that sets him apart from Voldemort.  That is an important story line.

I also think that Harry’s love interest is a good story here.  He has feelings for Ginny Weasley, but his friendship with Ron makes him very hesitant to say anything.  That is a clear indication that Harry understands Man Law, which is important for any man, teenaged or otherwise.  He finally dates Ginny with Ron’s consent.

I love the free enterprise in this book! Fred and George have a raving success with Weasley’s Wizard Weezes, and they profit handsomely from their entrepreneurial spirit!  That’s a good lesson for kids, that it is not necessarily the most highly educated who are financially successful. (and, with that lesson, it is not always financial success that indicates true success)

There is a strong undercurrent in the books that love is greater than hate and greater than lust for power.  This is not absolute in the books, but the love of the characters in the book for one another (not just romantic love, though that is there in an innocent manner) is good and right.

The Bad:

The bad here is not great.  Voldemort’s power is rising, the dementors are working for him, and he has a lot of access to Hogwarts through Draco Malfoy. (and perhaps through Snape as well)

There are several deaths in this book.  None of them are gruesome, though all of them involve magic and they are murders plain and simple.  Voldemort kills several people, and at the very end of the book Snape kills Dumbledore.  The lone slightly gruesome aspect of this is that Dumbledore falls from the tower at Hogwarts and is of course battered by the fall.  Though it is not described in detail, it is clear that his body is quite broken.

Dumbledore’s death is shocking and earth-shattering to Harry.  Dumbledore has functioned in the series to this point as a surrogate father figure to Harry, almost a God figure in the books.  He has been a guide, a mentor, and a protector, and while he has not been perfect in any of these roles he has provided Harry with a sense of security and protection that is shattered at the end of this book.  Dumbledore’s death, especially coming at the hands of a man that he defended as worthy of his trust again and again and again to many who doubted him, is hard to stomach in the series.

Snape is outed at the end as a Death Eater in his murder of Dumbledore. That is bad, but just as bad is Harry’s reaction.  He seems to want vengeance even more than he wants justice.  He hates Snape, and hates Voldemort, because they have taken people from him that he loves.  He loves, they hate and have killed those he loves, and so he is going to go get them.  This kind of vigilantism is not acceptable and should be addressed by parents.

Overall:

I had to take a few days to really think about this book.  Dumbledore’s death is earth-shaking to the series, and while it is so, it appears that Harry uses this to accept his role and take on the mantle of a grown man. 

That said, the book is intense at the end and a bit shocking.  I am going to rate this one PG-13SGDRF. (not recommended for kids under 13, and only for those kids who have a Strong Grasp of the Difference between Reality and Fantasy)  For those who meet these guidelines, it will be a book you can’t put down and that makes you IMMEDIATELY reach for book 7.