Sunday, January 29, 2012

Until the Last Dog Dies: a Joe Box Mystery by John Lawrence Robinson

I just finished Until the Last Dog Dies by John Laurence Robinson. I must say that I don’t normally read Christian fiction because I don’t enjoy it. This book turned out to be an exception. Robinson has proved to me that Christian writers can cook up as good a suspenseful mystery with lots of action and interesting characters as any secular writer with the added bonus that the reader doesn’t have to wade through gratuitous sex or bad language to get at the actual story.

Story: Joe Box is a rough and tough Vietnam vet trying to eke out a living as a private investigator in Cincinnati. He lives in a beat up apartment with his cat, Noodles, whom he rescued from a couple of drunks who were trying to set the poor thing on fire.

One day at his office he gets a call from one of his “bros,” as he calls the men from the squad he fought in back in Vietnam. He hasn’t heard from any of them in years so this comes as a surprise. This “bro” who’s called “little Bit” is panic stricken and tries to warn Joe that someone from their past in Vietnam has come back into their lives and is going to wreak revenge on everyone in their unit. Joe dismisses little Bit’s ravings as drunken hysteria since apparently little Bit is not entirely sober, judging from his slurred speech. Joe hangs up on him and the next morning he gets a call from little Bit’s wife that her husband is dead. In the next two weeks three more of the squad also wind up dead.

All the deaths look as though they’ve been self-inflicted so the police don’t investigate or make any connections between them. Joe, however, sees a connection. He remembers a conversation he and his bros had one time in the jungle while hunting for a sniper that was picking off American soldiers like flies. They each confessed what they were most afraid of. And that is how each member of Joe’s squad dies. One by one, what they are most afraid of is what kills them.

The rest of the story is Joe trying to contact the remaining members of the squad while conducting his own investigation to locate and stop the murderer. He knows who the murderer is because he knows the one person back in Vietnam who had the motive. As a recently converted Christian, he also knows that the killer is not working alone. He has someone working with him. Or, to be more accurate, through him. The story takes the reader beyond the physical into the spiritual showing us that when good guys fight bad guys, there’s more to the war than what we can see with our eyes. Robinson puts into action St. Paul’s words that we’re not fighting merely flesh and blood but “against the rulers, against the powers, against this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

What I liked: Robinson’s characters are believable and interesting. He uses dialogue filled with dry wit and sarcasm that effortlessly bounces back and forth between the protagonist and the other characters he dialogues with. He knows how to infuse humor and make good use of the English language to draw the reader into a believable vicarious experience. Robinson’s characters were people I wanted to get to know. His best passages are the flashbacks to the jungles of Vietnam and the interaction between the platoon members. I found myself looking forward to getting back to the book.

What I didn’t like: Because this is Christian fiction, Robinson apparently wanted to somehow get a Christian message into his book. While I wholeheartedly agree with the effort, his attempt seems forced and inserted into the story almost as an afterthought in order to make the story qualify as “Christian”. As a result, his Christian characters are NOT interesting. They lack any kind of character development or color. Robinson may have been trying to make Christians look like great people who are there for you when you need them (something I don’t contest at all) but they’re so vanilla in flavor and their dialogue so stilted and predictable that I think he could be sending the wrong message to nonbelievers-i.e. Christians are good for help in a pinch but otherwise they’re boring and not worth getting to know.

This goes for Joe’s girlfriend as well. Other than a smile and supportive attitude towards her man she has no personality whatsoever. Please tell a single woman that men want more than a female body with a positive attitude for a relationship. That’s so discouraging.

One other thing: why would a woman who is supposedly a mature Christian engage in a relationship with someone like Joe who’s only just become a believer? Shouldn’t she be looking for a spiritual leader?

Having said that, I still like this book for the reasons already stated. I think Robinson could retool his Christian characters by making them more believable; more colorful. Christians have baggage; show that. Show their vunerabilities-show that being saved doesn’t turn you into a member of the Osmond family. Make them interesting. Let’s see some of that witty bantor fly back and forth between the saved guys. Add that to everything that’s so good about this book and that would turn a good read into a great one.

Until the Last Dog Dies is the first of three in the Joe Box Mystery series.  I enjoyed it enough to want to buy the next two.

Kindle Edition only .99

For more information on John Lawrence Robinson:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Myth of Autism: How a Misunderstood Epidemic Is Destroying our Children by Dr. Michael J. Goldberg

Throughout the years I was an educator I was disturbed to find so many students labeled with ADD, ADHD, Asberger’s Syndrome, PPD, and autism. I wondered how so many children could have these conditions. Even my own son was labeled with first ADHD and then Asberger’s syndrome.

Michael Goldberg, in his book, The Myth of Autism:  How a Misunderstood Epidemic is Destroying Our Children, asserts that if these conditions are genetic then why is the number of children who are being diagnosed with these conditions growing exponentially?

After years of studies, research and successful treatment, Goldberg has arrived at the firm conclusion that thousands of children are being mislabeled when what is actually affecting them is a compromised immune system due to a viral infection-often caused by receiving too many inoculations at the same time or while the child already had an overextended immune system due to illness as well as allegry induced diets.

Goldberg makes the connection between these conditions and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in adults (as well as children) who are suffering from the same weakened immune system. He demands that the medical community stop misdiagnosing these conditions as genetic or psychosemantic disorders and start regarding them for what they are: physical conditions that can be treated through proper medication and diet.

This particularly hits home for me because not only was my own son misdiagnosed for years but my niece has been battling Chronic Fatigue (and she’s only 14 years old!) I recognized the symptoms Goldberg described as well as the narrow mindedness of the countless Doctors who, because none of the micro-specific tests they ran showed anything, concluded that there was nothing wrong with her-even though she spends many days lying around, hardly able to move.

I found Goldberg’s book fascinating as he showed cat scans of the brain of those afflicted with the aforementioned conditions and these same brains after they’d received his treatment. Even a non medical person like myself could see the remarkable differences.

Goldberg writes in an easy to understand style that makes his book facile reading for those of us who aren’t medical professionals.  His findings will give hope to many parents who have battled for years, advocating for better treatment for their child cast under the autism spectrum labels.

He concludes his book with a number of inspiring testimonies by parents who had been told to pretty much give up on their own children but, through his treatment, came out of their isolated “autistic world” to become, happy, functioning, independent members of society.

I bought this book.

For more information:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Big Book of American Trivia by J. Stephen Lang

 What is the only U.S, city to have its coliseum and arts complex named for a German rocket scientist?

What sitcom (a spinoff from another sitcom) holds the record number of Emmys for a comedy series?

Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last queen, wrote what popular song or who was the boy in Bobby Gentry’s 1967 song who jumped the Tallahatchee bridge?

Then there’s my personal favorite: what TV series has the most clubs (hint: I’ve got a photo of two of the stars in my side bar)?

If you’re a sucker for trivia or just need a book to flip through while waiting for your rice to suck up water or maybe even while away the time during a bathroom break, The Big book of American Trivia by J. Stephan Lang is the book for you.

I mention rice cooking because that is how I whiled away the time while getting dinner ready. I kept the book on my kitchen counter and read through it while waiting on this or that dish to get done.

Basically, American Trivia is a fun, light read. It was fun to see how much I knew about TV (what children’s show had Mr. Moose, Miss Worm ad Mr. Green Jeans?), history (In 1956 what president signed a bill authorizing the construction of the interstate highway system?), parks (what state has Space and Rocket Center, Gulf Shores, and Bellinsgrath Gardens?) as well as facts about wars, leaders, famous landmarks, artists, authors, theme parks (do you know what Epcot stands for?), holidays, natural phenomena and ten questions about each state plus much more. Just remember, this book deals exclusively with American trivia so while there may be a taller building somewhere else what is the tallest skyscraper in the US (hint it’s named after a department store)? Or what musician has a parkway named for him in Henderson Tennessee (he fell into a ‘burning ring of fire’)?

There was quite a bit I didn’t know that I found quite interesting. I was surprised to find out what president spoke about no tolerance to the spread of Communism but let the Soviet Union take Hungary without a peep. I was both surprised and glad to discover that a nearby town here in East Texas is the source of more than half of the US supply of roses (I did know it had a Rose festival.)

In short if you’re a trivia nerd, want to practice for Jeopardy or, as I said, need a time filler for making dinner or make that bathroom trip a little more enjoyable, I would suggest increasing your brain’s storehouse of information with The Big Book of American Trivia by Lang.

Answers in order: Huntsville, Alabama after NASA scientist, Von Braun; The Carol Burnett Show; Aloha Oe; Billy Joe; Star Trek; Captain Kangaroo; Eisenhower; Alabama; Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow; the Sears Tower; Johnny Cash; Eisenhower; Tyler, TX.

I received this book for free from Tyndale Publishers

Friday, January 13, 2012

No We Can't : Radical Islam, Militant Secularism and the Myth of Coexistence by Robert Stearns

I was just reading an article about a professor in Canada who was teaching ethics to his high school students. He showed them a photo of an Afghan woman who had had her nose and ears cut off by her husband. He then tried to get the students to engage in discussion about what they saw. He was not prepared for their response:
    They said, "Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it's okay." One student said, "I don't feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff."

    Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), "It's just wrong to judge other cultures."  
(For the full article you can go here)

Where did this kind of crazy mentality crop up? According to Robert Stearns, the source is our public school systems that teach the religion of secular humanism.

In his book, No, We Can’t: Radical Islam, Militant Secularism and the Myth of Coexistence, Stearns asserts that in today’s world, three houses of belief exist: The house of Islam, the house of militant human secularism, and the house of Judeo-Christianity.

Stearn examines  each house in detail, what their belief system involves and the impact each have on society.

The house of Islam is based on a committed devotion to the teachings of the Quran... this ideology combines radicalized religious obedience to the god Allah with sociopolitical force, using many different tactics (including violence) to assert Muslim supremacy in the world. The ultimate goal of this house is to establish an Islamic caliphate, a ruling kingdom that holds all lands under its sway. (pg. 24)

The house of Militant Secularism is “one of the most influential forces in the world today… its aggression lies in its appeal to the independent, prideful human spirit and the power of human accomplishments. Its prevailing belief is that it is unlikely there is a god, and if there is, this “god’ can be defined by us, because human beings determine their own destinies. (pg 24)

The house of the Judeo-Christian worldview:    Adhering to the basic moral code derived from the ten commandments and Jesus’ teachings, this unique value system has grown to become the world’s single largest religion…the creeds of the faith have kept it strong and served as guardrails along the way. In recent times, cultural expressions labeled  “Christian” but lacking real devotion and biblical truth have diluted the strength of the faith in this house.” (pg 25)

Stearn goes on to describe how each house views the other. He quotes political scientist, Samuel Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilizations as saying that Islam is “not enamored with the secular approach to commercial influence that has captured the hearts of America and Europe. Islam has a different battle plan-one rooted in tribal customs and a staunchly Muslim identity-and it is actively at war with the West. (pg. 60)

While secular humanism differs from Islam and Judeo-Christianity in that it claims to believe in no moral absolutes (like the Canadian students) they are every bit as bent on making the entire world kow tow to their belief system. They have been relentless in their attack on religion-doing their best to oust it from the public arena and have been particularly effective in keeping it out of our public education system.

What’s so hypocritical about this is that secular humanism is in fact a religious belief and receives tax exempt status accordingly. When they demand “separation of church and state” they do not mean themselves. In fact since they hide the fact that they are an organized religion (however it is on public record) they have enabled their belief system to prevail in public schools while keeping every other religious belief out!

The humanist Charles Frances Potter, author of Humanism: A New Religion wrote:

Education is the most powerful ally of Humanism, and every American public school is a school of Humanism. What can the theistic Sunday schools, meeting for an hour once a week, and teaching only a fraction of the children, do to stem the tide of a five-day program of humanistic teaching.
(pg. 118)

What about Christianity? What is Christianity? The belief in God, personified in Jesus Christ, who through the ten commandments exposed man’s sinful nature so man could understand his need to be saved from his own wickedness. While Muslims define sin as not worshipping Allah and humanists deny its existence altogether, Christianity looks at the world with the eyes of God (as revealed in the Bible) and says,

“Yes! There is right and wrong! It is wrong to abandon your wife (or husband) and children; it is wrong to sell girls and boys into sex slavery; it is wrong to kill people through pogroms and concentration camps. It is wrong to cut off a woman’s ears and nose no matter what culture she belongs to!

It is right to love other people as yourself. It is right to love and honor and protect and even die for others. It is right to live honestly and work ethically and value life!

I had a friend from Germany who did not believe in moral absolutes. I asked her if what Hitler did to the Jews was not wrong. Her answer? “Well, I personally am against what he did but it was right for him and for Germany at the time.”

Since we both were holding our babies during this conversation, I asked her that if our government decided to take our babies away and experiment on them would she consider that wrong. She told me to shut up and walked away.

As Stearns so aptly points out in his book, every house believes in absolutes. ("There are no absolutes" is, after all, an absolute statement)  The house that claims to believe in no absolutes is the least tolerant of all. They absolutely believe in the wrongness of Judeo Christian values and they are doing everything they can to eradicate it.

Here’s the sad irony: It’s the secularists that are paving the way for the Islamic extremists by their misguided notions of “tolerance,” little realizing that if Islam gains control of a country the first to be eliminated would be the secularists.

Stearns’ books is an eye-opening and disturbing look at the three houses of faith and by the end of it you will hopefully come to a better understanding as to how each faith is defined and how it is influencing our society and world at large.

I received this book for free from Bethany Publishers.

Robert Stearns is founder and executive director of Eagles' Wings a global movement of churches, ministries and leaders.  He is publisher of Kairos magazine and co-founder of the worldwide Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem. For more information you can go to the following links:

Watch Robert Stearns on youtube

And here's an excellent article by Michael Youssef here

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Brother's Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I heard someone say once that certain books like War and Peace, or other similarly mammoth works should not be read before the age of thirty. I strongly disagree with that statement. I first read “War and Peace when I was twenty and it was a turning point in my life. It also initiated a life long love affair with Russian authors. Tolstoy led me to another Russian dynamo, Fyodor Dostoevsky. I also read The Brother’s Karamazov in my early twenties. It was one of those books of my youth that hit me like a lightening stroke.

Now I will agree that certain books can be read in different seasons of one’s life and affect you in entirely different ways. This was my experience with the book that has been called the summation of Dostoevsky’s life and work. I will not attempt to describe every detail of this masterpiece in the brief space I have here but what I do want to do is describe the impact the work has had on me each time I read it.

It’s hard to briefly summarize this book because there are so many characters with subplots intertwined around the main one but I will try: Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov- a real swine of a man- marries twice and produces three sons, one from the first marriage, two from the second. He treats both wives abominably, probably drives them to their early graves out of stress and grief and completely abandons his sons.
The first son, Dmitri, is cared for by his father’s man servant and the other two, Ivan and Alyosha, are raised by an eccentric old woman who used to keep their mother as a maid servant.

Dmitri, grows up wild and unprincipled and is completely controlled by his passions. He is forever conniving to get more money from his father-whom he firmly believes owes him but he immediately loses whatever he gets through impulsive and extravagant living. To further add to an already flammable and hostile relationship, both father and son have fallen in love with the same woman, Grushenka. Dmitri is determined to get money from his father in order to run away with Grushenka and Fyodor is equally determined to spend his money in persuading her to come live with him.

Everything comes to a head when one night, Fyodor is found in his bedroom, murdered, his head smashed in. Dmitri is found in another town, with Grushenka, where he is throwing around a great deal of money-money that he supposedly didn’t have before that night. He also, unfortunately, has a bloodied pestle in his pocket. Naturally, he is the number one suspect since not only does he suddenly have so much money, but for the past few weeks he had been going around town breathing threats against his father-even at one point in a drunken rage writing a confession of his intention to murder him. And did I mention that he had already beaten his father to a bloody pulp once before?

Needless to say, Dmitri is arrested and put on trial.

Now. That is the plot outline and, in my opinion, the least interesting part of the whole book. What makes this book so fascinating are the characters and the universal truths about human nature and God that Dostoevsky reveals through his characters.

Let’s examine each character:

We’ve already met Fyodor –who personifies the ultimate slime ball. He’s selfish, he’s unprincipled-he lives to take advantage of others and has no sense of mercy or compassion on anyone’s suffering not even his own blood relatives. He is Dostoevsky’s Unregenerate Man Character.

Dmitri possesses the same unbridled animal passions as his father, but he’s different. Through it all he knows he’s a scoundrel and hates himself for it. He is Man at the point when he knows he is desperately wicked and cannot save himself yet arrives at the place-in Dmitri’s case when he’s on trial for murder-when he seeks that salvation.

But what about Ivan and Alyosha?

Ivan is an atheist. Through his own means he became university educated and lost any faith he may once have had in God. He is sardonic towards any belief in the metaphysical. He detests his father and Dmitri and more than once remarks that two animals trying to destroy each other is no sin but an inevitable, and in fact, desirable conclusion to their unworthy lives.

And then there’s Alyosha. He is the most lovable Karamazov because he so guilelessly and unconditionally loves everyone. He at first wears a monk habit and is mentored by a venerable and godly monk, the Elder Zozima. Through Zozima, Alyosha sees the love of Christ in practice. He in turn practices that love, authentically and passionately on his family members as well as everyone else he comes in contact with-more than one that doesn’t deserve such love.

Alyosha is the staple of the Karamazov family, even if the others aren’t consciously aware of it. All of them, father, brothers, as well as many other characters that come into play in this novel, turn to Alyosha as the means for a solution to their turmoil.

When I was twenty-one, I read Brother’s Karamazov for the first time. As a Christian, I trusted the author, also a Christian, to gently guide me to a nice tidy conclusion as to why my beliefs are right. That is not what happened. In a certain scene, Ivan throws every dart of Satan at Alyosha, explaining to him why there can be no God. I was not prepared for his attacks. They were not absurd. They were highly reasonable and at the time, for me, unanswerable. I didn’t lose my faith, but Ivan did give me a punch in the stomach.

I now realize that God wanted me to be confronted with these arguments so I could think my faith through and give a reasonable defense for it-not only to others but to myself as well.

The second time I read the book I was in my thirties. I must confess it was the wrong season to read it. My mind was so distracted with many problems that I couldn’t focus on what I was reading. It made me sad that a book that so excited and mesmerized me in my youth packed no punch. Had I become so jaded?

I am now in my forties and have just finished reading Brother’s Karamazov for the third time. With the eyes of maturity and wisdom and a peace and joy that I didn’t possess in my thirties, I was able to read this wonderful story with fresh insight and understanding. For one thing, I can see the genius of Dostoevsky as he uses the atheist, Ivan, with all his arguments to actually prove the existence of God.

He does this through a number of ways but I’ll point out one:

Ivan tells Alyosha that since there is no God, all things are permitted, even murder. It’s only when God exists that an established right and wrong can be put into practice. Of course this whole argument caves in on Ivan’s head when it IS put into practice and by an unexpected person.

You see, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha are not the only sons of Karamazov. There is a fourth son who was produced by a woman whom Fyodor raped. This son is raised in Fyodor’s house as a humiliated servant, treated with contempt and neglect by his own father. This son, Smerdyakov- becomes a devoted disciple of Ivan’s teaching and puts it into practice. Ivan realizes that to pontificate about no God, no morals is one thing.  But to actually live in a society that ignores God and uses no absolute morals to govern themselves produces a lawlessness where no one is safe. After that, Ivan is visited nightly by a demon who mocks him and throws back in his face every smug tirade he ever made against God and drives him insane.

I hope I haven’t given the book away. One still needs to read it for oneself to receive the full impact of Dostoevsky’s genius, besides I’ve left most of the characters out and many of them are the most interesting.

Stepping into a novel by Dostoevsky is like falling into a whirlwind and it is certainly worth the ride.