Friday, June 28, 2013

But actually I kind of like Iceland

So I heard something about Iceland revolting...which may or may not be a hoax...but is suddenly A Thing today. It doesn't matter. The real importance of Iceland is that this video exists:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? By Brian McLaren

As promised, my partial review of this book with an amusing but rather long title. I admit, I had mixed feelings going into the book. On the one hand, it seemed like it would address issues that are often glossed over or tut-tutted within the Christian community; but on the other hand it seemed like it would do this in a very liberal, "right and wrong are relative" sort of way. And in some ways, my mixed feelings were both correct and incorrect.

McLaren is writing specifically to combat, well, Christian combativeness. This isn't "soldier of the Lord" combativeness. This is "Westboro's at it again" combativeness. It's a very important issue that I haven't heard addressed by many, except for Lutheran Satire's extremely amusing video. As I stated above, I've heard a few, "oh, that's terrible what they're doing, they should stop", but not much else. In other words, McLaren is purporting to fight against the hypocrites in Christian culture-the ones who believe they know it all, and all others are clearly an inferior order of beings. Many Christians place special emphasis on certain sins and not others; others forget that their salvation does not make them better than everyone else.

McLaren does not confine this to Christianity. He points out that other major religions do the exact same thing. There is a great deal of misunderstanding, hatred, and superiority complexes out there. McLaren calls for a Christianity that understands and loves people of other religions while still maintaining their own faith.

However, McLaren doesn't seem to quite get over his early confusion on how to go about this. Certainly, we shouldn't treat people like crap, or even in a kindly but condescending fashion. We also shouldn't back down from our own faith. But I read through half the book, and still did not get a clear answer.

For one thing, McLaren's definitions of "hostility" are confused. He has the traditional version of hostility-hatred and annihilation of others. But another definition of hostility involves "wishing other religions would cease to exist."

Now, I find that somewhat vague. How should other religions cease to exist? Well, they should cease to exist by their members becoming Christians. Does wishing others to become Christian make one hostile toward others? McLaren doesn't make it clear.

Another problem with McLaren is that he essentially blames much of present day conflict on early Christianity. For example, his tale of how Mohammed decided to make his own religion seems to indicate that really, the guy would have totally become a Christian, but Constantine was just a big war-mongering jerk! Mohammed never wanted his people to become warmongerers!

McLaren doesn't mention how Mohammed did lead a few battles in his own lifetime.

This, of course, doesn't mean that he's entirely wrong. Yes, Christianity, as with any religion, is rife with examples of people who were, ah, too zealous. Or perhaps too hypocritical. And in that case, we should refrain from assuming that anyone from another religion must embody all the terrible things we've heard about it. I know that there are plenty of Muslim terrorists out there. I also know that the lady who runs the cafe down the road is one of the friendliest people I've ever met. Unless she's really trying to trick us all, I doubt she has C4 hidden under the counter, right next to the coffee.

McLaren also seems fuzzy on doctrine himself. Oh, he defends the usefulness of doctrine well enough. But he refers to both the Flood and Creation as stories in the context of other mythology. He gives no indication he believes them to be true, unlike other doctrines. Now, he could have just neglected it, but I do find it odd that he sounds as though he's writing my Comparative Religions textbook whenever he mentions certain stories from the Bible.

He also uses the tired "what would Jesus do" scenarios. Now, in some ways, this is a good point, cliche as it is. How would Jesus treat a random person on the street? He would treat them with love and kindness. But McLaren goes farther and insists that Jesus wouldn't try to correct their own thinking or beliefs. However, we see Him do that many times throughout the Gospels. When Jesus helped a person, He didn't just say "Well, that was fun, wasn't it? We should do this again some time!" He said, "Go and sin no more." This is the struggle to be like Christ. Not just speaking truth, or showing love, but learning to do both at the same time.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

What do you get when you combine mega-churches, heresy, Lovecraft, and the spy genre? No, not Rob Bell, although I half suspect that he kept an eldritch horror hidden under Mars Hill church while he was pastoring there. No, what you get is Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross.

Our poor protagonist is just barely over his last escapade when he gets a call from “External Assets”. External Assets? The Laundry isn’t supposed to have External Assets! But they do, and it is up to Bob Howard to keep an eye on them as they investigate the pastor of a mega-church, who appears to believe that the Sleeper on the Pyramid is in fact Jesus. (So, see, it’s not that different from your average mega-church.) However, there is more going on than Christianity with some bad juju thrown in, and Bob may find himself saving the world…again.

This was a pretty fun book, even though Stross had the token “obnoxious atheist “ character. He balanced that out by giving Bob a helpful vicar friend (who may become part of the Laundry for his knowledge in ancient religions-gotta keep an eye on those crazy cultists these days), and through the vicar certainly contrasting the crazy church with regular Christianity (even though in this Lovecraftian universe it is not considered factual either). Stross gleefully parodies mega-churches and the odder doctrines that pop up (at one point the vicar character compares the mega-cult to the Mormons…but worse). It is also refreshing to find that Stross continues to contrast his spy to the spies often seen in popular fiction. Bob is happily married, squeamish about hurting others, and his main asset is his ability to think geek-fast in a bad situation. Oh, and he has gained his boss’ ability to command the dead. That always helps.

It was quite a fun ride, and I’m looking forward to Stross’ next book, whenever we get that.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

And then some days you just post dumb pictures

An excerpt from Sanditon by Jane Austen:

‘Oh! no no’—exclaimed Sir Edward in an extasy. ‘He was all ardour and Truth!—His Genius and his Susceptibilities might lead him into some Aberrations—But who is perfect?—It were Hyper-criticism, it were Pseudo-philosophy to expect from the soul of high toned Genius, the grovellings of a common mind.—The Coruscations of Talent, elicited by impassioned feeling in the breast of Man, are perhaps incompatible with some of the prosaic Decencies of Life;—nor can you, loveliest Miss Heywood (speaking with an air of deep sentiment)—nor can any Woman be a fair Judge of what a Man may be propelled to say, write or do, by the sovereign impulses of illimitable Ardour.’

A comment on Lutheran Satire's video about evangelicals:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Review: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter by Susan Wittig Albert

Last time, I ranted about a fluff mystery because it was ridiculous. This time, however, I am going to praise some fluff mysteries, because they are actually interesting and the protagonist has more to worry about than her appearance.

Without further ado, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter.

I resisted these at first. I thought, “how could someone take the author of twee Edwardian children’s books and make her into a sharp witted detective?” Ah, but I underestimated both Beatrix Potter and Susan Wittig Albert.

The first book opens up as Beatrix has bought Hill Top Farm. She is still mourning the loss of her fiancĂ©, Norman Warne, and is uncomfortably positioned as both an outsider in Near Sawrey, and a woman who bought a prime piece of land. As unpleasant as this is, however, Beatrix has more to deal with soon enough, as an odd mystery crops up in the village. Beatrix’s powers of observation are put to the test as the animals of the village lend her some surreptitious help.

Yes, not only is this partly biographical, it also takes place within the universe Beatrix Potter created for her books. Albert does an excellent job of capturing the general mood of Potter’s own world, while still crafting interesting mysteries, catchy dialogue, and diverse characters. I particularly like that each book has a chapter dedicated to showing (quite hilariously) how a rumor is distorted and spread through the tiny village. (If you've grown up in a small town, you can already imagine it.)

Albert does a fine job with the animal characters as well. Some are characters from Beatrix’s own books, which she modeled after animals she owned or knew in the village. Others are Albert’s own creations, such as Professor Galileo Newton, the wise owl who is pompous and every night likes to take a “friend” to his home “for dinner” and is always helpful with his sharp eyes. Then, Albert clearly takes great glee in taking things farther, including a couple fairies in one book and giving us a young but kindly dragon to round things out. After all, we’re in a world where animals talk and have tea. Why on earth shouldn’t there be fairies and dragons? And Albert makes this all seem completely sensible and invites us to laugh at readers who would be incredulous.

Each book also contains recipes for some of the English dishes mentioned (Albert loves describing food-so much I found myself craving tea and scones, and using more British terms than usual), as well as more background on Beatrix Potter at the end of each book.

This is a fun, light mystery series that isn’t mindless and is difficult to put down.

The website for The Cottage Tales contains plenty of information on Beatrix Potter (as well as pictures!):

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

When Precious Ramotswe’s father dies, he leaves her his large herd of cattle, telling her to sell it and buy a good shop. Instead, Mma Ramotswe decides to open a detective agency.

And so, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency opens on a rather curious note. It is not one single mystery, but a collection, and with digressions into Mma Ramotswe’s past, and how she came to be a detective. We see her first faltering steps, and how her good sense, sturdy principles, and of course the advice of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni help her establish herself as the only female detective in Botswana.

Alexander McCall Smith does an excellent job of capturing the beauty and culture of Africa, and gives us an indomitable heroine who makes several gaffs but pulls through charmingly. Smith lived much of his life in Africa (including Botswana) and his love for his home shines through in this book. It’s generally lighthearted but is touching and thoughtful at times. I’m definitely looking forward to the next book.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Whatevah! I do what I want!-The Idiot Male Version

So I decided to continue my rant from before, on the subject of the way females dress. However, this time, I’m going to the other side of the issue, where we discuss why precisely it is wrong for a man to lust after a woman, even if she is in a bikini. (Apart from that pesky Bible verse that says "don't lust"; but, you know.)

First off, anyone who says “a woman dressed provocatively was just asking to be raped” is the type of person who needs to be locked far away from the rest of civilized society. For one thing, rapists are sociopaths who target women who look like easy victims. While wearing few clothes may be one of those signs, if it is a female body builder wearing few clothes it is highly doubtful they will be a target, because rapists don’t like getting beat up by women. Secondly, an atrocity is still an atrocity. Understanding why a person did something is not equivalent to saying that person is right. You may see that a woman wearing few clothes looks like an easy target, but that does not mean that the rapist is justified in harming her, or that she even “deserved it”.

Secondly, let us move on to the less egregious kinds of sexual sin. A young woman’s blog post came to my attention, and her story is heartbreaking. I would advise everyone to go read it, but I will summarize here. She has naturally large breasts, and because of this, she is regularly harassed, not just by strange men on the streets, but by people at church, despite dressing in an appropriate manner. The most horrifying example she gives is being asked to step off the stage where she was preparing to play music, because a teenage boy was, ah, performing certain private acts while watching her. For whatever reason the boy was not taken straight to the pastor’s office where he would get the lecture of his life and possibly forced to write Matthew 5:30 over and over again.

(As an aside, this is why icons come in handy. What boy would do that with Jesus WATCHING HIM EVERYWHERE HE GOES? And let’s not get started on St. John the Baptist’s stern look.)

This is purity culture run mad. Yes, of course women should dress in a decent manner. But women also cannot help if they are built very curvy. Young boys should not be taught that if they lust then the woman is to blame. Of course teenage boys are going to have their minds in the gutter. The purpose, though, is to teach them how to get their minds back out of the gutter, and how to direct their thoughts elsewhere. And of course provocatively dressed women will make this more difficult, but no less imperative. But when it is simply because the brain of the teenage boy sees a girl and immediately thinks of sex, then this is not the fault of the girl. This is the fault of the parents who raised the boy, the church who was supposed to protect the girl, and the boy WHO REALLY SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN DOING THAT IN A CHURCH MEETING I MEAN WHAT.

This is the balancing act we must face every day. We must be aware of how our actions affect others, decide if that effect is the sort that should cause us to change our actions, and be mindful of how we react to others in kind. (And, naturally, other people should do the exact same thing-not guaranteed, however.) Churches should be places of refuge for young women, not yet another group that objectifies their femininity.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James

After the atrocity that is Death Comes to Pemberley, I was not particularly interested in reading anymore P.D. James. The combination of dry writing, character deconstruction, and odd asides on early English laws put a bad taste in my mouth. However, my brother insisted I must try more P.D. James, in her own element, and so I checked out Death in Holy Orders.

I’m really glad I did. P.D. James is not trying to be Jane Austen, and she is not under pressure to appease the rabid fans (of which I am a part). She has her own story and her own characters to work with, and her understanding of the English legal system is much more natural in her own stories.

The book starts out with the elderly laundry woman at St. Anselm’s College reminiscing about the recent death of a student, found face down in the deep sand on the beach nearby. She doesn’t last long, but that need not concern us. What does concern us is that the student’s father receives an anonymous note saying that there was more to the student’s death than local police determined. The father, a wealthy, influential man, convinces New Scotland Yard to send Commander Adam Dagliesh to St. Anselm’s to “look into” the matter. Dagliesh goes, and finds more and more secrets buried in every corner of the college…and the body count starts rising…

What I liked so well about this novel is that the characters are so realistically complex. The good characters have dark secrets, the bad have a desperate fragility, and viewpoint is everything when it comes to judging them. Its twists and turns do not make this an easy read, but it’s a very compelling one. I plan on reading the rest of James’ books, and will do so as long as she promises to never ever try to use someone else’s characters ever again.