Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review of The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith by Gabe Lyons

The Next Christians Participant's Guide: Following Jesus in a Post-Christian Culture

I was given a complimentary copy of The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons from Blogging For Books in exchange for my honest review. When I read all the praise for the author on the back dust cover I felt encouraged that I had made a good choice when selecting this book. Shortly into the book I was no longer encouraged. In fact, I had a hard time controlling my anger. Frankly, I prayed before writing this review so I could elucidate in a creditable way why I dislike this book so much.

First, a synopsis: Lyons is asked to go to Hollywood to give a movie producer demographic information in order to better market her product for Christians. (Not because she's a Christian but because she is impressed by the cash cow Mel Gibson's The Passion had become). Instead what she got was a dissertation of the different categories of people who consider themselves Christians and why they're all wrong. He then proceeds to tell her -and spends the rest of the book telling us -who the “right Christians” are.

First of all, if you're heavily involved in your church, church activities, have your kids on the church basketball team and ESPECIALLY if you homeschool, you are a “Separatist Christian”. Gabe informs us that these Christians want nothing to do with nonbelievers and hide inside their self made world that only involves fellow Christians. The are always offended and angry at nonbelievers and show it by voting against gay marriage and abortion. They give Christianity a bad image and are responsible for people not becoming saved.

Their motivation for retreating and separating from the broader culture can be attributed to a longing for purity, integrety, and holiness in life.  But by default, their choice to live outside the typical rhythms of culture makes them seem awkward, disconnected, and judgmental toward others....
.....They come across as 'holier than thou' and make mental lists of sins that, to them, are clearly wrong and unjustifiable for a 'true Christian.' Smoking, drinking, cussing, boys with earrings and tattoos, or even cutting your grass on Sunday might make it onto the list.  They sincerely believe that anyone who participates in these activites couldn't possible have a relationship with God.  Strangely, gossip, gluttony, and materialism never make their list.
   ....Another group of Christians is intent solely on getting people 'saved'. ...These Christians are motivated to 'win souls for Christ,' no matter who they offend.  (Chapter 3 pg. 32, 33)

Secondly, if you grew up high church, say Lutheran, Episcopal or Catholic, you're a “Blender Christian.” You're embarrassed by the image the world has attached to Christian believers and you want to make sure no one knows you're a Christian or, if they do know, you want them to know that you're “normal” just like everyone else. They accomplish this by living lifestyles that resemble nonbelievers more than believers. They also give Christians a bad image and are responsible for people not getting saved.

And don't think being a hip and groovy Christian is any better. Those who attend churches with coffee bars, worship to Christian rock music and listen to Contemporary Christian musicians are “imitator Christians”. They are not affecting the culture because they are following it rather than leading it.

Then there's the “Next Christians.” These are the good Christians who have got it right. Instead of being followers of American culture, they are the leaders of the culture. They accomplish this by organizing soup kitchens, working their way up into the upper echelons of Hollywood movie making, organizing fine arts displays and concerts, and otherwise serving their community. They have “engaged the culture”. There's no description of their personal beliefs, how they're saving anyone and in fact at one point Lyons admits that, since these people aren't actually sharing the gospel we don't really know who's getting saved, if at all. BUT. We know that they are showing beauty and love to their community and that is sure to lead people to God.

  Entire churches finally feel free to serve their communities and the world using all their talents. Churches are beginning to feel the power of seeing all their congregants come alive, from doctors co-opting to create clinics for the poor in urban centers to stay-at-home moms starting after school tutoring programs for at-risk children. (Previously) They'd bought in to the modern idea that the only good Christian activity was to convert others or give their money and time to those who could. Today they are discovering that their talent and creativity matter. (chapter 7 pg 104)

Now so far that sounds really good, right? Of course Christians should be serving their community, but why? For what purpose? So people can become acquainted with Christ and receive salvation? Not exactly. The “next Christians” have finally figured out:

 The longings they have felt to do good in the world -even if it wasn't explicitly connected to getting people saved (emphasis mine)- have been validated.(ibid)

But, hey, so what? Getting saved is only part of the gospel-another thing the old fogey Christians have gotten wrong. Getting people's souls secured in the after life is all well and good but we need to focus on the here and now. We need to RESTORE THE EARTH. According to Lyons, this is the ultimate objective of the “next Christians.”

In fact, Lyons asserts that telling the gospel is only half the story.

  I don't mean to diminish the importance of telling others about God's redemption accomplished on the cross, and we shouldn't deny that salvation through faith in Jesus has eternal implications. But shouldn't we be faithful to recount and live out the whole story?(chapter 4 pg. 57)

And what is the whole story?  Lyons declares it's “to restore the earth.”

  The idea of restoration is critical in the Next Christian discussion. They see themselves on a mission, partnering with God to breathe justice and mercy and peace and compassion and generosity into the world. They believe that ...they are turning back the hands of time to give the world a glimpse of what the world looked like before sin entered the picture. ..

..Is evangelism really the only use for the millions of church goers in our culture?..

  Now, put restoration back into the story. Instantly, you've created millions of jobs for all the 'unemployed' and bored Christians in the church - jobs they can get excited about. …. Instead of simply waiting for God to unveil the new heaven and the new earth, the rest of us can give the world a taste of what God's kingdom is all about......

...The bottom line is this: The next wave of Christian engagement seems inherently linked to this idea of restoration.” (pg. 60)

        That's a beautiful thought, I just don't see any of that in scripture. It is true we are to serve people here as Gabe points out. One day each of us is going to an give account to Christ for how we treated the poor, sick and neglected but I don't see anywhere in the Bible that says we're supposed to be cultural leaders and create some kind of Utopia here on earth.

The whole book gives me the same feeling that so many other books written by immature, arrogant so-called Christian writers have (Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller comes to mind) . They condemn the Christian world for being narrow, negative and judgmental while they describe these same Christians in narrow, negative and judgmental terms.

I don't know where Gabe Lyons goes to church. Judging from all the name dropping, he moves in a very different social circle than my own. I'd like to know where he met all the "wrong Christians" he describes.  He doesn't cite references (or maybe just one). I've gone to church all my life and I've met plenty of sinners redeemed by grace but never anybody as flat and one dimensional as he describes. Oh, and by the way, someone needs to tell him that he didn't invent the idea of serving the community. Every church I've ever attended (I've been to a lot because I've moved around a lot) spent a great deal of time and effort plugging themselves into their environment and doing their best to address the communities' needs. I know that we, the body of Christ could do more and be less swallowed up in the busyness of our lives but that's no excuse for making sweeping generalizations about the people to whom you're supposed to be a brother in Christ.

Before closing I would like to address Lyons' presumption that all these “wrong Christians” are responsible for the negative view nonbelievers have toward them and Christianity in general.

I contend that “the bad image” that the world has toward Christians is for a very scriptural reason:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that they hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.(John 15:18,19)

All the world will hate you because of me. (Matthew 10:22)

And one more:

At that time the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the nations of the earth will mourn. (Matthew 24:30)

   If the world is going to mourn at Christ's return why should we assume they're going to welcome any “restoration” Christians would have to offer?

And what about the majority of the Christian church that's living in exile and persecution? What's his solution to them?

In case you haven't figured it out, I recommend this book to no one.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review of Red Scarf Girl by Ji Li Jiang

Red Scarf Girl is a disturbing account of one girl and her family's experiences during the Cultural Revolution of China during the sixties. It's amazing how we look at our world. I remember watching documentaries of the hippies, anti-war demonstrations, psychedelic drugs and “free love” that seemed to personify American and European culture during the 1960's. It's strange to think that at the same time on the other side of the world, another group of people were experiencing a very different reality and culture.

This book is the real-life account of Ji Li Jiang. Ji Li was a smart, motivated, academic achiever who totally embraced the cultural revolution. . She proudly wore her red scarf and carried around her little red book of Mao Ze-Dong's sayings to show her support of the revolution. Like others her age, she believed that China was in a new age.  Anything old or traditional had to be erased or destroyed. This meant that many families had to be deposed of.  “Black family” was the name given to any family that belonged to the old order of things:  landowners, anyone with money or had servants. In order to rid the “New China” of these backward old ways, these wealthy, educated families were turned out of their homes and sent to “re education” camps or labor farms. The people or mobs that turned them out then looted their houses. These mobs were primarily comprised of young people who worshiped Mao Ze-Dong. They believed that they were serving China by ridding her of these “bad” remnants of the past.

Many of the people who were persecuted for their “evil oldways influences” were elderly but no mercy was shown them. People who were once respected members of society were humiliated and forced to do demeaning tasks, such as collecting garbage or sweeping streets. What is especially shocking is the lack of any sympathy the young people felt towards these older people, even their own parents. One boy smirked as his father was forced to ride through the city streets on top of a wagon wearing a dunce hat and his arms tied up above his head.

Even Ji Li was shocked at this but the boy insisted he was glad it happened because his father was part of the “four-olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits).  As things worsened and more and more of Ji Li's friends and relatives fell victim to persecution, Ji Li grew increasingly concerned with the hardened attitudes of people all in the name of Mao Ze-Dong and a new and better China.

She speaks of a wealthy neighbor who was thrown out of her house, all her possessions taken from her and forced to sweep the streets in front of her old mansion.

  She kept her eyes on her work and moved the big broom back and forth laboriously....Somehow she tripped over the broom and fell.

It looked like a serious fall. She moved her hand and struggled to get up, but she couldn't seem to stand. I was about to go to help her when I saw her youngest son, my cousin Shan-shan, walking toward us. Shan-shan would help her, and I didn't want to embarrass her by making her realize that I had seen her sweeping the alley......

After a few steps I turned around to see if they were all right. I could hardly believe my eyes. Shan-shan had walked right past his mother! She was lying there, injured, and he had not stopped to help her.... He must not have wanted to expose himself to criticism by helping someone from a black category....

I took a step toward Aunt Xi-wen and stopped.  Maybe I shouldn't help her either. People would probably say something if they saw me, especially since I was from a black family too..

At school she was respected and held a leadership position but the cultural revolution had its strongest disciples in the school. Teachers were accused by students and turned out and replaced with new teachers who taught the “new ways” which meant showing no respect to teachers or adults or teaching much of anything for that matter.  Also, good grades and academic achievement no longer merited acceptance into a good school. Students who didn't achieve or make good grades had an equal chance of getting into schools that had previously been reserved for those who made high test scores.  Acceptance into schools was based on names pulled out of lotteries. This was to promote equality and to make sure no one was looked upon as a leader, therefore “better” than others who did not achieve as well.

Eventually Ji Li's family was exposed and their house looted. Her father was taken away to a reeducation school and forced to confess all his crimes. Ji Li finds out that any hope for promotion and academic opportunity in school is dependent on her telling the officials all the “crimes” committed by her parents.

She refuses to do this and is consequently ostracized.

The book ends in despair with no resolution. The epilogue informs us that years later Ji Li and her family somehow immigrated to the United States where she subsequently wrote her memoirs.

It is a bleak story but an excellent example of group think and what happens to societies that place their faith in man-made ideals rather than God-made ones.

The forward of the book explains that Mao Ze-dong started the Cultural Revolution to preserve his power which he felt was threatened by other government members. The human suffering and misery one man caused for his own gain is about the most appalling aspect of the madness that overtook the Chinese young people. Ji Li explains in her own words:

  Many friends have asked me why, after all I went through, I did not hate Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution in those years. The answer is simple: We were all brainwashed.

To us Chairman Mao was God. He controlled everything we read, everything we heard, and everything we learned in school.

….I asked An Yi's mother if she had hated Mao when she was forced to climb the factory chimney. 'I didn't hate him, ….I believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary to prevent revisionism and capitalism from taking over China. I know that I was wronged, but mistakes happen under any system. If the country was better for the movement that persecuted me, I was still in favor of it. It was only after Mao's death that I knew I was deceived.'

This is the most frightening lesson of the Cultural Revolution: Without a sound legal system, a small group or even a single person can take control of an entire country.

This is the concern I have with ideologues in my own country. They scorn God and His laws while worshiping their utopian ideologies. I hope they never come to overpower the rest of us. Keep praying.
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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Review of Defiant Joy The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton

Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton

When I chose to review Defiant Joy The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte for BookSneeze (for an honest review) I did so because I thought I would be getting a biography of GK Chesterton. In this I was mistaken. It is not a biography but rather a study of his works and the subsequent influence and impact on the literary world, reading audience, and contemporary authors.

After a brief discourse on Chesterton's childhood, education and conversion to Christianity, Belmonte goes on to describe some of the major works that Chesterton produced. There are twenty-five chapters and each chapter discusses at length different books Chesterton wrote. Belmonte quotes extensively contemporary critics and biographers as well as Chesterton himself. These quotes and excerpts from Chesterton's literary repertoire wet one's appetite and leave one desiring to go buy the complete work. In fact, after reading this book, if I had enough money I'd like to go out and buy everything Chesterton wrote. One book I'd like to get is the biography that Maisie Ward wrote a few years after Chesterton's death. Belmonte gets a lot of his information for Defiant Joy from her. Hopefully her biography includes a little more of GKC's personal life and goes into more detail concerning his conversion to Christianity, something Defiant Joy definitely lacks.

There is, however, much information about Chesterton's dissertations on other famous writers and figures such as St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Austen, Kipling, Stevenson, and especially Dickens. It's was interesting to find out that it was Chesterton that actually saved one of today's most famous Victorian writers from obscurity through his essays and books on Charles Dickens.

Another valuable contribution is the inclusion of essays by both Chesterton and others who explain some of Chesterton's more difficult to understand works, such as The Man Who Was Thursday. I found those passages to be particularly enlightening.

Belmonte includes humorous debates between Chesterton and contemporary atheists. I would say a battle of the wits except Chesterton seems capable of making the most scathing arguments against Christianity seem ridiculous.

In conclusion, I found Defiant Joy to be well-researched with an extensive bibliography. If you like Chesterton or are curious to know more about this under-appreciated literary titan who is considered instrumental in leading the likes of C.S. Lewis to Christianity yet was able to maintain a life long friendship with the atheist, George Bernard Shaw, this is a good book to start with.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Review of the Koran and Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Believe in Christ

The Qur'an (Oxford World's Classics)

At 435 pages long, I recommend everyone read the Koran.  All of us have heard so many controversial things about Muslims and the Islamic faith that I think that it behooves all of us to inform ourselves instead of relying on what others say about the Muslim religion.

The translation I read is the most popluar by N.J. Dawood. Dawood is a Iraqi native, born in Baghdad.  He originally wrote this translation in the fifties but it has since been revised and updated.  I have heard Muslims say that a translation doesn't do the Koran justice therefore an English reader would be misled to its actual meaning.  My response is:  Does God expect the entire world to learn Arabic?  Is it fair of Him to judge us if He knows we can't?  Do most Muslims speak Arabic? (FYI:the answer to that question is no.)  Can Arabic speaking Muslims translate their thoughts into English in order to communicate?  Then why can't God? 

Overall the tone of the Koran is menacing. It is very repetitive, in a nutshell, warning everyone that they had better worship God and obey His prophet (Muhammad) or they will burn in fire, drink scalding water and eat foul food for all of eternity. Those that believe in God and perform good works will return to the Garden of Eden where rivers will flow by their feet, they will have plenty of good things to eat with many blushing virgins. (Jonah 10:10) It repeats this over and over and over again.

This is interspersed with mention of different Biblical figures, mainly Moses and Pharaoh, Abraham and Lot and Noah. The stories about these people are fragments, sometimes distorted from the Biblical stories and also repeated several times throughout the book. Others, such as Job, Jonah and David are mentioned once or twice.

Jesus is mentioned once or twice but only as the son of Mary. He performed miracles by being strengthened by the Holy Spirit. He wasn't crucified. At one point a conversation takes place between God and Jesus (Cattle 5:114)

Then God will say, “Jesus, son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind: 'Worship me and my mother as gods besides God?'

'Glory to You,' he will answer, 'how could I ever say that to which I have no right? If I had ever said so, You would have surely known it. You know what is in my mind, but I know not what is in yours. You alone know what is hidden. I told them only what You bade me. I said: 'Serve God, my Lord and your Lord. ; I watched over them while living in their midst, and ever since You took me to Yourself, You have been watching over them...”

It does allow men and women to divorce, several times, if necessary. It allows men to have more than one wife, though it doesn't mention that women can have multiple husbands, except serially through divorce and remarriage. At one point it allows marrying orphan girls as a way of providing for them.

Much of the Koran is a “cut and paste” from the Bible and I don't know how anyone could even understand the stories of the Bible figures mentioned in the Koran without first reading the Bible.

An interesting story that is repeated more than once is about why Satan fell. It was not because he tried to overthrow God but because he would not bow to Adam.

“And when We said to the angels: 'Prostrate yourselves before Adam,' they all prostrated themselves except Satan who in his pride refused and became an unbeliever.” (The Cow 2:27)

That is another interesting point. In the Koran, God proclaims to be one but is always referring to Himself in the plural as in the above quote.

Over and over again, in every chapter, the day of reckoning and the “sound of the trumpet” is mentioned and the fate of unbelievers and believers. Jews and Christians are mentioned specifically as people who received God's word but changed it and consequently are going to burn in hell.

“They declare: 'None but Jews and Christians.'  Say: 'Let us have your proof, if what you say be true...' (The Cow 2:111)

"The Jews say the Christians are misguided and the Christians say it is the Jews who are misguided. Yet they both read the Scriptures. And the ignorant say the same of both. God will judge their disputes on the Day of Resurrection.” (The Cow 2:112)

In the book Repentance 9:121 It says,

“Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous.”

“Fight against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe neither in God nor the Last Day... who do not embrace the true Faith until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued...

The Jews say Ezra is the son of God, while the Christians say the Messiah is the son of God. Such are their assertions by which they imitate the infidels of old. God confound them! How perverse they are!...” (Repentance 9:27-31)

“Whether unarmed or well-equipped, march on and fight for the cause of God..”(Repentance 9:41)

One thing that is utterly lacking is any mention of man's sinful nature and a plan of salvation. There is no reparation of sin only:

“Those that have faith and do good works, they shall be given their reward in full. God does not love the evil-doers.”(The 'Imrans 3:56)

Praise God!! He does love the evil doers or none of us would be saved.

For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, The Holy Bible)

And where is that life? In the presence of God. The Muslim has no hope of ever being reconciled with God. They can only hope that their belief and good works will allow them to return to the garden of Eden but there is never ever any mention in the Koran of being reconciled with God. Of ever meeting Him face to face.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1Corinthians 13:12 The Holy Bible)

On a more positive note:

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and the Assyrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Assyria and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people and Assyria the work of My hands and Israel My inheritance. (Isaiah 19:23,24 The Holy Bible).

That scripture gives me great hope. I am reading books that show that it is already happening. A wonderful book is “Secret Believers” by Brother Andrew. It describes God's spirit moving in Muslim countries and bringing many to Christ. It also describes the great and horrible price they are willing to pay, even unto death, like their Savior. Many of them became Christians simply by reading the Bible and realizing that there is no comparison. The Koran threatens unbelievers, the Bible beckons unbelievers.

One Muslim who belonged to a militant brotherhood set out to prove Islam through the Bible. After reading the Bible he realized that no one could have performed the miracles that Jesus did without being God. It also struck him that there is no mention in the Koran of any miracles that Muhammad performed.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is spreading throughout the Muslim world. We as Christians must pray unceasingly for Muslims so that their religion of hatred can be replaced by God's redeeming love and salvation.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Snowing in East Texas whoo hoo!!

Well, well, well!  Snowing in east Texas.  I know it's no big deal to all you snowbirds up north but this is a rare occasion down 'chere! Here's a few photos from around my house.
 Front yard
 Back yard

 Odie braving the snow

 Both dogs have decided it's just too darn cold!

 Both dogs are saying: "Mommy, come inside! It's cold out there!"

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review of The Quotable Chesterton: The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte

The Quotable Chesterton: The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

I recently received a copy of The Quotable Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte from Booksneeze in exchange for a review. I did this with pleasure because I am a huge Chesterton fan. If you are, too, then this is the book for you. It is a compilation of hundreds of excerpts from Chesterton's prolific amount of books. Much of it is theological or apologetical, some of it is his personal observations and commentaries of other writers.

The book is set up rather like a dictionary in that the topics are in alphabetical order. For instance in A you can read Chesterton's insightful comments about Adventures, Agnosticism, and Anarchy. In B you can read what he has to say about Barbarism, Bigotry and Blasphemies. In C he discourses on Capricious Divorce, Christ, Christianity, the Church and so on.

There are quite a few authors that he comments on such as Austin, the Brontes, Bunyan, Chaucer and Dickens. Other subjects include Cathedrals, Architecture, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Modern books,  and Religious Liberty.

All quotes have sources numbered and listed in the back. Some quotes are short, some lengthy but all are meaty and thought provoking. Hopefully by reading tidbits of his books the reader will be motivated to go out and read the entire source. I've listed a few of his books below.

If you read no other apologetical work by Chesterton, this is the work you must read.  It traces his own conversion largely caused by the illogical arguements of atheists and agnostics.  His own logic and wit can be dizzying at times but if one takes the time to truly process what he is saying they will find themselves going "aha!" over and over again.

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond
A diverting and enjoyable collection of of short mystery stories, all suspenseful  and solved by the humble Mr. Pond.  These shorts are probably among the most intriguing and one of my favorite of Chesterton's works.

The Ball and the Cross
This story, which is one huge chase scene, is wrapped around a debate between an unbeliever and a Christian (albeit a very Catholic one).  Each man, both Scottish, challenge each other to a duel to fight to the death for their zealously held beliefs.  They are constantly interrupted from their objective in their flight from the police.  Along the way they meet many a strange person who are actually metaphors for different belief systems who argue with the Scotsmen before the arrival of the police drive them away again.  Sometimes hard to follow but never dull, The Ball and the Cross is a fascinating story.

The Man Who Was Thursday
And speaking of chase scenes, here's another story where everyone ends up chasing everyone only to find out the whole thing is a, well I won't spoiler.  Again it is Christianity versus man made ideals. Ideals that are dressed up as freedom but in reality only produce tyranny and oppression.  Gabriel Syme joins a group of anarchists who are only known by days.  Syme becomes Thursday.  However, he is not really an anarchist but an undercover agent for Scotland Yard.  What he finds out is terrifying and unexpectedly wonderful.  You'll have to read the book to find out what I'm talking about.

The Father Brown Omnibus
Last but not least, the stories that introduced me to Chesterton, the Catholic priest/murder detective.  Father Brown is like a Catholic Sherlock Holmes.  Chesterton got the idea for a priest detective when he had a conversation with a priest who gave confessions for prisoners.  The priest mentioned some of the crimes and sordid life he was aware of through his confessors.  This caused Chesterton to realize that priests were not the naive, sheltered religious figures that so many people peg them as.  This realization also caused him to eventually convert to Catholicism and become a leading apologist for Christianity, influencing the likes of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. 
  While the Sherlock Holmes stories are entertaining in how the mystery is solved, the Father Brown stories take it one step further by delving into the character and mindset of the criminal.  Each story is really an exercise in apologetics, exploring the desperate nature of man and the grace of God.  As many as they are, you'll be sorry when you come to the last mystery of this omnibus.