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50 in 2012 #20: Amplified Book - Naming the Elephant

Book #20: “Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept” by James W. Sire

Number of times read: 2

Official Napoleon Grade: A

            For my next amplified book, I wanted to read a book that I had read once before but hadn’t gotten a lot out of. Sire’s “Naming the Elephant” fit this description perfectly. It was on the recommended reading list my junior year Bible teacher from high school gave me when I went to high school, and as much as I enjoyed all of his suggestions, I can’t say that most of it was light reading.

            So for this second time through, I decided to take detailed notes and actually figure out what it was that Mr. Whitla wanted me to learn from Sire’s book. It turns out that this book is a sequel of sorts to Sire’s book “The Universe Next Door,” and outlines Sire’s search for coming to a better understanding of what worldview is and how it informs the way we live in this world.

            Sire systematically breaks down worldview into a series of seven major questions that everyone asks about the world around them. After writing a brief but exhaustively researched history of worldview in both secular and Christian traditions, he asserts that we must begin with ontology – the study of what exists – before we can proceed to epistemology – the study of knowing. God’s existence – what Sire calls the answer to the first question of what is the “really real” – informs and limits the answers we can have for the rest of our questions. We assume God is there; everything else is based on that.

If we begin with epistemology first, Sire says, we fall into the same problems Descarted encountered in his infamous cogito ergo sum argument. We have an idea of who we are, but in order to intuit this, we have to assume that for which we are arguing: I, the ego. Also plaguing the argument are questions about what clear and distinct ideas are, and whether even Descartes himself believes that human reason alone can bring one to an understanding of the existence of God. Over and over again Sire contends that ontology, the existence of God, must precede our knowing. “The importance of God in the Cartesian system can scarcely be overstressed.”

 Sire goes into so much more – metanarrative as a part of worldview, the pretheoretical and presuppositional, how an understanding of worldview can help us to live better in an increasingly pluralistic society – and as thick and heady as the book is, I believe that it has something for even the most casual of readers. The better we understand the way that we see the world, the more easily we can identify our inconsistencies and contradictions and make our worldview and our behavior really match up with each other.

50 in 2012 #19: Catching Fire

Book #19: “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins

Number of times read: 1

Official Napoleon Grade: A-

            *insert “Hungry Games” joke here*

            Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks: “The Hunger Games,” which I read last summer, was excellent. “Catching Fire was an improvement on something already amazing. Collins crafts some of the most compelling, lovable characters (as well as some that make you twist your face in hate and contempt) I have ever read. Her ability to make you invest in Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, and others is what sets this novel (as well as the first one) apart from other post-apocalyptic, dystopian stories of noble citizens of broken world struggling to survive under the thumb of oppressive, tyrannical government.

            Given the saturation of “The Hunger Games” in the media right now, and the hype that has accompanied the release of the movie corresponding to the first novel, I will spare the reader an account of the plot of “Catching Fire” in a hopefully-not-too-presumptuous presumption that he or she is familiar with it. Instead, I want to discuss two things: Collins’ version of a dystopian future world, and why movies ruin books. The former will be discussed in this blog; the latter when I review “Mockingjay.”

            As I have above stated, these books are driven by the characters. This was accomplished in unusual fashion for a novel of this genre because of how little attention seems to have been paid to the actual world. Yes, we are invested in the characters, and this keeps you interested in their circumstances, but the reader actually comes to know very little about the environment in which our heroines and heroes live and fight. We are left to speculate, given only the bait that there are twelve districts, one that is no more, and a capitol that has ruled for seventy-five years.

            Perhaps I am being unfair or shortsighted, but it seems to me that the construction and description of the world of the novel is a major component of the dystopian genre. The Holy Grail of this genre may be Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four,” in which there are numerous detailed descriptions of how Oceania came to be in conflict with (at various times and for indeterminate intervals) Eurasia and Eastasia. There is a recognizable geography. There is a history (though heavily revised) of the global thermonuclear war that brought the earth to its current state. Enough is provided the reader for him or her to construct in the mind a canvas on which to place the proverbial felt board characters of Winston and Julia, though Katniss and Peeta are far more lovable to me, as I found Winston to be annoying and whiny and difficult to root for – his circumstances generated my pity for him, not his mental fortitude or willpower to overcome the Party.

            As for Collins’ world, I have only a few porous speculations as to what the landscape, geography, and history are like. Were I to venture a guess, I would say that the novel takes place in North America between 2100 and 2200 CE. Formidable and advanced weaponry play an interesting part in the trilogy, as do medical and genetic advancements of staggeringly dubious ethics. Perhaps The Capitol is near the modern day west coast, and District 12 near Pennsylvania (the coal mines lead me to suggest this).

            Other than these tentative extrapolations, I have few answers. But perhaps this was Collins’ vision for her trilogy? After all, like Winston Smith in Oceania, it would be easy for us to pity Katniss simply by observing her environment – a world where children are forced to fight and die for the amusement of a despotic regime, a confederation of disjointed and quarreling regions kept at odds with each other to protect and provide for an ever-fattening central government.

            No, despite my questions (which may never be answered), “The Hunger Games” trilogy had to be written this way, because ultimately, if we don’t care for an individual, we will begin to care less and less as their circumstances become more and more commonplace. The mind of a person can always be changed and molded as to what is tolerable for survival, so a meager diet of oppression and functional slavery may yet come to appear as palatable, even desirable (it certainly had for many residents of both Oceania and the Districts).

            But the human spirit is always one that will yearn for freedom, and if we redirect our focus to a person and not a people, we will see their soul scratching and clawing for something more than “good enough,” and this will move in us the growth and maturation of a beautiful seed placed in the soil of our minds: “My circumstances do not define me; my actions and reactions to them are what make me who I am.”

50 in 2012 #18: The Screwtape Letters

Book #18: “The Screwtape Letters” by CS Lewis

Number of times read: 4

Official Napoleon Grade: A

            I first read “The Screwtape Letters” in 8th grade and hated it with a passion. It may have had something to do with the book being completely over my head, or me not really loving my teacher, or just being at a vulnerable, cranky time in my life, but now I look back on my 8th grade self and decide that he was a stupid butthead.

            “The Screwtape Letters” is very similar to “The Great Divorce” in that it is a fiction informed by Lewis’ theology. Senior demon Screwtape is writing to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood. In the underworld of lewis’ creation, humans on earth have demons assigned to them in charge of securing their souls for hell.

            Screwtape advises his nephew to remember the ways that humans work. Their moods and commitments ebb and flow throughout the course of their life, and the junior tempter has his patient’s soul closest to damnation when he can keep him unaware of the spiritual world and oblivious to his faults.

            This lines up well with Lewis’ ideas concerning the “new man vs. nice people” which he discusses in “Mere Christianity.” The addition of an active tempter to the mix makes this concept even more vivid and, dare I say, chilling? If Satan can keep us acting “nice” and not becoming brand new men and women, the way that Christ wants us to be, he can keep us from putting on Christ and letting his Spirit act through us.

            There was, of course, much more to this book than just this, but this is what struck me most clearly and forcefully: am I the kind of person that lets Christ speak and act and work through me, or am I just a nice person? Have I put off the old man that used to be puppeted by my sin nature or have I just covered him up with a bunch of behaviors that fit my society’s ideas of propriety?

            Because “nice people” are able to endure this life well enough, but Jesus has made it clear that he isn’t looking for them to enter his kingdom and do his work. I’m sure that there are plenty of nice people that make up the company of goats clamoring at Christ’s left hand at the judgment of the world, so if I’m going to be nice, I better make sure that the Spirit is working through me also, because being a nice guy isn’t getting me anywhere I want to go – not into Christ’s kingdom, and certainly not to being the kind of person God wants me to be.

50 in 2012: A potential list
I have been asked by a couple people what books I am reading this year in my quest to read fifty books. Here is a less-than-exhaustive list. In fact, these are basically the books that I pulled out of my "boxes o' books" in my closet (my bookshelf is simply not big enough), and the main criteria for choosing them was whether or not I had read the book. Anything that I had not yet read came out. Also, I chose a few that I had already read. Any book worth reading once is worth reading twice, right?

I am re-reading all of the Ayn Rand novels I own because, as I am in the middle of "Atlas Shrugged," I am increasingly interested in how her philosophy is still shaping America today. Also, I have picked out several books on the creationism/evolution debate because I find the conversation fascinating and feel the interwebs (as well as myself!) could do with a bit of healthy reflection that doesn't involve screaming and name-calling.

In addition to the books below, I am reading a handful of books from my Kindle, including a Vonnegut novella (it's short, but c'mon, I think the Rand novels alone will keep my "average pages per book" high) and the Harry Potter books (the first of which I have already read). If you want to read any of these with me, send me a message and I will make sure to read it (sometime in the next nine months!) so that we can dialogue about it and compare notes. 

Happy reading!

Franny and Zooey – JD Salinger

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

We the Living – Ayn Rand

Anthem – Ayn Rand

The Making of Modern Japan – Marius B. Jansen

Twilight of the Idols – Friederich Nietzsche

The Anti-Christ – Friederich Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy – Friederich Nietzsche

The Geneology of Morals – Friederich Nietzsche

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God – John Piper and Justin taylor

The Russian Revolution – Sheila Fitzpatrick

The Moon is Down – John Steinbeck

The Bhagavah Gita – Various

The Koran – Various

The Red and the Black – Stendhal

Defeating Darwinism – Phillip E. Johnson

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Out of the Silent Planet – CS Lewis

Refuting Evolution 2 – Jonathan Sarfati

Darwin’s Leap of Faith – John Ankerberg and John Weldon

Paul: the Man and the Myth – Calvin Roetzel

Paul and the Jews – A. Andrew Das

Profiting from the Word – AW Pink

The Triune God – William C Placher

The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff

The 10 Best Years of Baseball – Harold Rosenthal

How to Read the Bible for All its Worth – Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions – Craig L. Bloomberg

50 in 2012 #17: The Last Stand

Book #17: “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Number of times read: 1

Official Napoleon Grade: A+

            My father is really interested in Civil War and Western frontier history, and when he suggested I read “The Last Stand” about Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, I knew he wouldn’t have recommended it unless it was excellent.

            Part of the reason that he liked it so much, he said, was that it read differently than most history books. Indeed it did, because Philbrick seemed to tell the story almost as if it were a novel of historical fiction or even alternate history. It doesn’t feel like a list of events progressing paragraph to paragraph; it feels like the transcript of a documentary film.

Each page delves into the deepest thoughts of the men and women present in the events. Philbrick has exhaustively researched the lives and correspondences of Custer, his wife Libbie, Sitting Bull, and a host of others who were present in the years following the Civil War when Native American tribes struggled to survive the westward thrust of Americans into the resource-rich plains states.

            One of the most revealing and intriguing aspects of the book, aside from the brilliant and in-depth retelling of the events of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, is the way that Philbrick re-crafts our understanding of George Armstrong Custer, the man and myth of Little Bighorn. Examining his personal letters, newspapers, personal testimonies and more, he attempts to draw a sharper picture of this man who seems so full of inconsistencies: he was madly in love with his wife yet frequently consorted with captured Native American women; he was a man of war, a career soldier, and yet lamented that he had no children to raise in a peaceful home back East; he lived for the spotlight, for fame and glory, yet frequently escaped the chaos of army life to sleep with his hat over his eyes and play with his dogs. Truly he was a complicated personality, far richer than the bellicose, crazy-eyed, “Kill them damn Injuns!” megalomaniac the last 130 years have made him into.

            Perhaps even more interesting is Philbrick’s portrayal of Sitting Bull, a conflicted leader of deep faith and a powerful burden resting on his broad shoulders. Would he and his people resist the ever-encroaching push of white pioneers and dishonest politicians bent on taking their land? Or would they attempt to remain peaceful and preserve their culture by moving to the government-given reservations, meager and inadequate as they were?

            Philbrick’s history is brilliant in its execution and in what it teaches us about the facts of history, but also in what it teaches us about the nature of history: the truth defies simplicity. To say “Sitting Bull was a martyr,” or “Custer was insane” may not be entirely true or entirely false; instead, it may be an insufficient attempt to encapsulate a complex, intricate story in just a few words. To give what really is, and not just what we say is, the time and effort it deserves to properly articulate its veracity is to become a keener student of life and a better critical thinker.

50 in 2012 #16: The Great Divorce

Book #16: “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis

Number of times read: 2

Official Napoleon Grade: A

            If you ever stumbled across Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” expecting another great theological treatise like “Mere Christianity” or “The Problem of Pain,” then you were probably either very confused, slightly disappointed, or both, when you read it.

            “The Great Divorce” reads more like the retelling of a dream over coffee and bagels than a two-hour lecture on the nature of some weighty philosophical issue. In fact, this was the way Lewis meant it to be both told and received. It is a story about a man’s dream of waiting in a bus station in an other-worldly-type place with people who don’t quite seem real and situations that seem more like the product of the tall tales of children and braggarts than reality.

            As he boards a bus, which then lifts up off the ground and begins to fly away to its destination – where it goes he knows not – he converses with several different individuals he soon comes to call Ghosts. In the land of their destination, everyone hops off the bus and instantly seems less tangible, less corporeal than they once were. Everyone is translucent and walks painfully on rocks that are impossible to lift and grass that refuses to bend under even the heaviest of feet.

            We soon discover that this is a dream of Heaven, and the travelers have hopped on board a bus from either Hell or Purgatory. The narrator sees different ghosts with whom he rode encountering individuals they knew in their former life. These angelic Spirits implore the ghosts, “Become real! Follow me to the mountain and become who you were meant to be! The journey will be difficult, but the closer you get to the destination, the harder the soles of your feet will become, the more solid and opaque your body will begin to appear. You need only say, ‘Yes!’ and you are halfway there!”

            But every ghost has some reason it cannot come, and this is how Lewis’ brilliant and thoughtful opinions on the theology of the afterlife come through. They complain that it isn’t right how they were forced to live, and if they could only have but a life that they consider better, they could be convinced to come to the mountain. They think that the place from which they have come is the place for them, where they can hold their meetings and their rallies and their support groups with others of like mind. They think that if only their wrongly-taken loved ones were returned to them they could begin to love a God who had no right in stealing them away in the first place.

            Lewis’ point is clear: there are many who will come from the east and from the west and will say to Him, “Lord, Lord, did we not write papers in your name, and did we not act in the name of love, and did we not hold weekly meetings to talk about what we think about your name?” And ultimately, these people have made their choice about their eternal destination. They want to remain in their tiny, self-absorbed hells. They don’t want to become real; they are addicted to their problems, and this makes them too insubstantial to walk in a realm more real than life itself.

50 in 2012 #15: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron

Book #15: “X-Wing: Rogue Squadron” by Michael A. Stackpole

Number of times read: 2

Official Napoleon Grade: B+ish

            Next up on the chronology of Star Wars novels I am reading is the first in a series of books primarily about Commander Wedge Antilles and the reforming of the deadly Rogue Squadron. For those of you who have seen the movies, you will remember that it was Rogue Squadron that engaged the Imperial walkers on Hoth in order to give Rebel transports time to escape.

            After two Death Stars, AT-ATs, alien invaders (see The Truce at Bakura), and the heroic deaths of countless friends, Wedge decides that he still has something to give the Alliance in its continuing struggle against the tyranny of the Empire. It is about two years after the Battle of Endor, and two out of every ten Imperial worlds are in open rebellion, with another three expressing interest or measured support.

But if the Rebels are to mount a true offensive against the Empire, they will need to make a major thrust at Imperial Center, formerly known as the world of Coruscant. A brand new Rogue Squadron is being assembled, brought together from every corner of the galaxy to be the scourge of TIE pilots and Star Destroyers in every system.

Led by Wedge, Imperial defector and brilliant military strategist Tycho Celchu, and the naturally gifted CorSec officer-turned rebel pilot Corran Horn, Rogue Squadron seeks to clear the galactic path for the planet-hopping Rebellion to assault Imperial Center. Ysanna Isard, following her meteoric rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, is bent on not only keeping the hub of the Empire out of Rebel hands, but also on crushing the Alliance once and for all.

Despite featuring barely a mention of anyone named “Skywalker” or “Solo,” the book is exciting and fun to read. Stackpole’s descriptions of the space dogfights are, if not terribly original, easy to understand and lend themselves to vivid pictures in the mind’s eye. It’s also exciting to follow Wedge more closely; he is, in my opinion, the one character that could have really used some more development in the movies.

The only drawback of the novel is for seasoned readers of Star Wars Expanded Universe. Those who aren’t terribly familiar with a lot of the Star Wars lingo will find the almost-parenthetical descriptions of anything foreign to the casual fan extremely helpful; I, on the other hand, know that Bothans make haughty, arrogant politicians, bacta is for healing, and that SoroSuub is the Sullustian starship manufacturing company, and I occasionally found the extra paragraphs of narrative footnotes distracting from the dialogue.

In all, Stackpole has launched an intriguing series and created fascinating and deep characters that I look forward to meeting again in the following half dozen books in the “X-Wing” line.

50 in 2012 #14: The Problem of Pain (amplified book)

Book #14: “The Problem of Pain” by CS Lewis

Number of times read: 1

Official Napoleon Grade: A+

            I was sitting at a Chinese buffet with my high school principal talking books and movies when he asked me, “What are you reading right now?” Sure, it’s easy to talk about books you have already read, or books you want to read. I was a little too embarrassed to admit that the only book I was currently reading was a Star Wars novel, so I told him that I was about to read “The Problem of Pain.” It was true; I was about to read it, but I had been about to read it for a couple weeks – it was sitting, lonely, on the shelf over my desk.

            Unfortunately, this plan to not look so nerdy completely backfired.

            “Oh, great. I’m going to be gone for a day in March – why don’t you come in and teach my CS Lewis class for a day on that book?” I agreed, and soon realized that not only would I need to read it; I would need to understand some of it well enough to teach nine girls who had been studying Lewis’ greatest works all year.

            This is where I got the idea for the amplified book: I would go through the whole thing, page by page, and take copious notes organized into an outline that would encourage me to read for full comprehension as well as allow me to go back to any point in the book without having to flip through the pages searching unsuccessfully for some quote that would probably end up being in another book anyway.

            As for the book itself, I can only say that I had my mind blown on multiple occasions. Lewis opens the book humbly and reminds the reader that the it is not an attempt to offer advice on how to deal with any specific episode of trial. Rather, it is an intellectual endeavor to reconcile the presence of pain in the world with the existence of a good and omniscient God who loves his creation.

            Lewis posits that, despite this seeming incongruity of this situation, it is actually impossible for the love of God as it is to coexist with a world absent of pain. Pain is a result of human choice – not a product of an imperfect plan on God’s part. Sure, God could have swooped down and miraculously removed the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin, and even every subsequent sin. But that would result in a world where human choice really didn’t mean that much, and “nothing of great value would be left to human choice.”

            He also talks about, among other things, the nature of love as it truly is (and not simply as ‘kindness’), a speculation on the state of humanity pre-fall, and how it was humanity may have come to an understanding that pain ought not be present in our lives.

            The book is straightforward, relatively easy to read, and not that long. Were I simply reading it through without taking notes I could have finished it in a day or so. But it is definitely a book that rewards deeper inquiry; the more you reach in to learn from Lewis’ writing, the more you pull out. In all, I find this book an indispensable addition to the library of any maturing Christian, and would encourage anyone of any age to read it.

            *note the reader: if you are interested in my outline of the book, leave a comment or message me.

50 in 2012 #13: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Book #13: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by JK Rowling

Number of times read: 3

Official Napoleon Grade: 1/7 of an A+

            I’ve put off writing this blog for a week or so because I’m just not sure I know what to write about a book so well known. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? The series is brilliant. The story is fun and original. The writing is fast-paced and light, enjoyable even in the most tense of moments. It’s simply excellent.

            But every story must start somewhere, and so Harry Potter’s does in the first installment of the seven part series. Harry’s parents die; Dumbledore brings him to his aunt and uncle’s house; he’s mistreated, yet always knows he’s meant for something more than living in the under stairs closet of a dingy house in the middle of suburban England.

            And I think that, aside from the wonder of spells and the intrigue of a villain come back from the brink of death to plague the last stronghold of good in the wizarding world, that which captures us about Harry is the prospect that we too might only seem ordinary; that, in fact, we are powerful beyond our wildest dreams, as Marianne Williamson might say. We, too, want to wield a wand and cast spells and thwart evil schemes.

            I had a conversation recently in which I discussed a Pauline exhortation to have nothing to do with “silly myths” and how this might include books like Harry Potter. It is, after all, entirely about witchcraft and sorcery, activities pretty clearly forbidden to Christians by the Bible.

            I haven’t done any studying on this issue, and I am really interested to see what there is to unpack and understand about Paul’s command to the people of his churches, but honestly, I hope that Harry Potter and Star Wars and DragonLance and all kinds of fantasy and science fiction novels, games, and movies aren’t what Paul had in mind, because I think that we need myth.

We need things that just can’t happen in this world. We need to dream about flying brooms and talking machines and king dragons. I think that part of the human experience is overcoming our human limitations, if only briefly, and soaring into the beauty and creativity of an impossible world only able to be imagined by a  finite mind straining at the chains of credulity.

50 in 2012 #12: The Book Thief

Book #12: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

Number of times read: 1

Official Napoleon Grade: AA

            While wandering through a secondhand bookstore in Kathmandu, Nepal with a friend of mine, I came across a thick, yellowed book with a picture of a young girl haloed by death on the front cover. Carly immediately snatched it off the shelf and thrust it at me.

            “You absolutely have to read this book.” Choosing to trust a fellow English major, I paid 700 Nepali rupees and added the book to my growing stack of literature I was lugging around the world.

            I read the book the week after the New Year, mostly in Nairobi, Kenya, and the somber character of the novel echoed the difficulties I was experiencing at the time, and proved a beautifully melancholy companion.

            “The Book Thief” is about a young girl named Liesel Meminger who lives in Germany during the Second World War. She is adopted after her mother is unable to care for her. It’s narrated by Death, who holds a unique perspective on the war and the holocaust that took place between the beginning of Hitler’s reign and the end of hostilities in Europe.

            Zusak paints as beautiful a picture of anything I ever read in my life. His descriptions ignited images in my brain that I could smell, with colors I could taste and warmth and coldness I could feel against my skin. It helped me to feel, something I was struggling to do in the throes of a deep depression. Zusac made it impossible to continue reading and not be intimately connected to the fate of every single character, from Leisel, to her painter, accordion-player foster father, to the most minor and insignificant of townspeople that wander through the pages for even the briefest of moments.

Historical fiction always pains me to read. To some extent, you always know what is going to happen. There is going to be conflict and pain that grows the characters, and you have a context for it because you have learned it in class and from other books. I knew what atrocities were going to occur within this book from the second I started reading. The only question is, just how much am I going to be hurt by this character? How deeply will the ache in my heart and the emptiness in my stomach drag me down?

It is very much like loving a real person, a flesh-and-blood man or woman. You can only give your heart to them, hoping that the Author and his agents have what’s best in mind for you, though those agents sometimes prove fallible. But to not give of yourself in effort to escape any hurtful stimuli is to equally shield yourself from enjoying any positive sensations of love and goodness those individuals can bestow upon you. Our happiness necessarily involves submission to the possibility of brokenness, lest in the end it mean nothing and have accomplished no great salvation.

And that’s why, though you know you’re going to be shattered to pieces by this novel, you should read it – because you can’t let the pain you will inevitably experience by its hands to prevent you from beholding the breathtaking beautiful picture it paints.