Book Review: The Case for Christ (Lee Strobel)

A couple of months ago, I was watching a DVD of a Christian talk, and the speaker asked the question, “Do you believe that what you believe is really real?” Now this was rather a thought-provoking question. Up until that time, while I had certainly dabbled in a bit of reading and thinking about subjects like Christianity vs atheism, creation vs evolution, I really hadn’t spent a lot of time with them.

To tell the truth, I’d been happy most of the time just to accept that, out of all belief systems, Christianity was probably the one that made the most sense.

But as to real . . . that’s a bigger leap than I realised. It’s effectively saying that all other belief systems are wrong. Not that I necessarily believed they were correct, I jus haven’t really thought through for myself exactly why they’re wrong.

So, I’ve felt a bit challenged, I must admit.

So, to that end, I decided that I shall brush up on my apologetics a little bit and (at some stage), I’m going to have to be prepared to start reading and addressing for myself the objections to Christianity that are out there and that are put forward.

I started with The Case for Christ because I’d started reading it several years ago and never finished it, so it seemed as good a place as any.

For those of you who haven’t read it (and as the picture says, there’s been over 2 million sold – so quite a lot of Christians have read it), Lee Strobel was a former journalist specialising in law and court cases in Chicago. He was also a dedicated atheist up until 1981. The reason for his conversion was that his wife became a Christian. Lee decided to research up on Christianity to prove to his wife that it was all wrong – however, in doing the research, he came to the completely opposite conclusion. He became a Christian, and is now a pastor.

This book is kind of a “reconstruction”, if you like, of his original quest for answers. It consists of Lee going around to various Christian scholars and getting their opinion on various questions like the reliability of the Gospels, evidence for the resurrection, etc. On its own, it’s fairly convincing.

I think if you, as a Christian, want a bit of a reminder that there are some rational reasons for believing in Jesus, this book is a good place to start. If what you want to do is tackle atheists, this can only be the beginning. For a number of reasons:

1. Lee is digging up Christian scholars, asking them his own questions that he had, and getting them to answer him. But to be effective against the current echelon of atheists, he needs to be asking the questions that they are asking.

2. Which brings us to the fact that he only addresses a few snippets from various atheist/agnostic books. Does this represent all their thinking? Or just the problems that he wants to answer?

As the Proverb says, a story sounds good until you hear the other side of the story.

I should say up front, I’m not in any way attempting to knock Lee’s book. I think it’s a very good introduction to what is known as evidentiary apologetics (ie defending the faith by using proofs and evidences – usually for the validity of the Bible and Christ’s death and resurrection). But my current line of thinking is: how do we answer the objections to Christianity that are currently out there? For instance, critics have responded to The Case for Christ. This feels a little bit like a (albeit well-meaning) one-sided straw man argument, written for people who haven’t done any reading up on the other side, and are unlikely ever to do so.

Sadly, the far bigger question is this – even if we do work out a definitive answer to these things, how do we change the minds of those people who just accept the status quo? For the most part, in our day and age, only a handful of people actually think through the big issues of what is true and false, right and wrong. The rest of the population is happy to just accept what everybody else accepts. So even if the academics (either Christian or non-Christian) present compelling arguments, how is that going to impact on everyone else?

The quest for answers continues, I guess . . .

In the meantime, this is a 4 out of 5.

Sydney Festival Review: Ghost Garden

I suppose all of us in Sydney end up seeing something that falls under the Sydney Festival banner – it’s really just a matter of what.  For Rachel and I, we went to see Ghost Garden because it was a) free, b) outdoors, so we could take Shelby.

The concept sounded kind of cool.  You rock up to the Botanical Gardens, pick up a little GPS computer, and you go where it directs you around the garden.

When you get to select spots, you get to see a short 30-second video.

I will grant that it’s a very clever use of technology, and I’d be interested to see what other things could be done with it.

For Ghost Garden itself, however, it’s all rather disappointing.  In 30-40 minutes of walking, you get to see 9 little short animations, meaning that effectively, you’ve got only about 5 minutes of story.

Furthermore, to call it a “story” is a bit misleading.  While we can kind of pick up from the first couple that it is a story of a beautiful woman and a sailor-type person, the animations get more and more enigmatic until Rachel and I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on.

Also, we’re trying to read the screen at 2.00 in the afternoon, which was rather difficult to do with the sun.  However, they did provide the lend of a purple brocade parasol for the duration of the walk, so that was kind of cool.

I think the winner in all of this was Shelby, who got a lightning tour of the Botanical Gardens in her pram while Mum and Dad had inane conversations like, “Are we at the spot yet? . . . A little bit over here . . . Why won’t the animation start? . . . We’re right on the spot! . . . What the heck did that mean?? . . . ”

1 1/2 out of 5

Book Review: Life of Beethoven (Alexander Thayer)

First of all, I should say a word about Folio Books.  This is the kind of thing that if you have an absolute fortune to blow on books, you might consider investing in these.  They’re designed to be the ultimate in books.  They’re all clothbound, with ultra-high-quality paper.  There’s no chance these books are going to fall apart or get damaged in any way. (Though that said, I did stupidly once put an apple in a bag with this book, and the apple was a bit soft – but that’s just making me cringe talking about it, so I’ll leave off there.)  Anyway, with this kind of luxury comes a hefty price tag.

But I inherited this one off my folks’ bookshelf, and they inherited it from the book library of a music school they used to run in Brisbane, so I didn’t actually have to play anything.  But it does indeed look exactly like the photo you see here, and has a red slipcase for it to go into.

It is the first and probably the last Folio Books edition I will ever read.

But enough about that.  I’ll tell you about the book.

Alexander Thayer was an Englishman back in the 1800s who lived some thirty or forty years after Beethoven died, but obviously was fairly interested in his life.  But he noticed that a problem with all the biographies that were put out about the great composer at the time was that they all tended to talk him up.  Beethoven was great because of this.  Beethoven was a noble man.  Blah, blah, blah.  They’d leave things out, they’d make things up.  All kinds of unhistorical stuff.

So Thayer set about clearing the air on Beethoven, and he did this by undertaking a massive research project.  He dug up, as far as I can understand, every letter that was written by Beethoven or to Beethoven that was still in existence.  He chased down anyone who was still living who knew the man. The research is phenomenal, and it shows.

Having previously only learned about Beethoven’s life from films like Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven, this was a much more detailed life of Beethoven than any I’d read before.  In fact, perhaps a little too detailed.

Believe it or not, the Folio Books edition, which is 600+ pages long, is actually an abridged version of the completely two-volume Thayer’s Life of Beethoven.  I’m not sure exactly what made the cut, but the editor in the foreword said that he cut a lot of discussion about music, which I thought was a bit of a shame, because I’m always keen to learn more about the music.

But what we’re left with is still an interesting portrait.  To a degree. While some parts of this biography are absolutely fascinating (for instance, the story of one of Beethoven’s good friends who played a practical joke on him and, in his rage, Beethoven never played the piano in front of him ever again).  And because most of the information is drawn from letters and documents, there’s not a lot of speculation.  It’s all fact.  (Actually, it’s funny – Thayer tends to disappear into the background, whereas nowadays we like our storytellers to have a bit of personality.)

But these letters and documents are part of the drawback.  The vast majority of letters in these books usually consist of Beethoven saying one or more of the following things: 1) I’m sick. 2) I’m poor. 3) Someone has irritated me. 4) You have irritated me. 5) I forgive you for irritating me. 6) Will you forgive me for irritating you?

And, of course, the most frequent of all: 7) Will you buy this piece of music from me?  I’ve got it all written up, ready to go, just for you.

And, inevitably, the piece of music wasn’t all written up, and often it wasn’t “just for you” either (Beethoven would occasionally play two or three publishers off against each other).

All in all, Beethoven is a fascinating character.  If he was just a common man, like a farmer or a politician – he would have angered and irritated so many people that nobody would have wanted to spend time with him.

But his music cast such a spell over his fans (and there were many loyal friends throughout his lifetime) that they forgave him time and time again for the most antisocial behaviour.  And, of course, the behaviour and the man start to become blurry over time.  Most people nowadays don’t know much about the man at all.  But we do know his music. And we still love it just as much.

3 1/2 out of 5.

Film Review: The Golden Compass

All right, shoot me now.  I’m Christian, and I went to watch The Golden Compass.

Right, now that everyone who is going to strike me off their RSS reader in disgust has done so, and stomped off in disgust, we can get into the review.

First off, I haven’t read the book.  Oddly enough, this was one of those books that I’d been keeping an eye on, though, for quite a while.  Even before I knew about the controversy about these books in Christian circles, I’d been hearing about this trilogy over and over again as being one of the most well-written and memorable of books written for children. (Obviously, not quite as big as Harry Potter, but the reputation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was very strong)

Then I’d heard about the controversy about the books – and now the film itself has made the issue even more public.  So, anyway, while it’s the kind of thing you can keep from your kids when they’re young and impressionable, it’s not the type of thing that you can ignore as an adult, so I thought it was better to see the film and actually understand for myself what the fuss was about.

The story of the film, very briefly, revolves around a girl called Lyra. She lives in Brytain, which is essentially alternative form of our world.  (In fact, the film starts with a voice-over narration announcing that there are many worlds similar to ours, but different in other ways.)  The most noticeable difference is that people’s souls, rather than being inside them, walk alongside the person in an animal form (called, for some unknown reason, daemons).

Lyra’s uncle, Asriel, is sent by the scholars of an Oxford-University like college to make an expedition far up north to discover the secrets of “Dust”, a strange element that connects all the parallel worlds (including ours) to each other and has something to do with people.  This expedition attracts the attention of the Magisterium, a mighty organisation that rules the world, and makes up rules to help people know how to live.

Now, in the course of this film, the actual workings of “Dust” are not explained.  (That’s for the sequel, I guess.)  But you only need to be tipped off a little bit about Pullman’s agenda to realise that the Magisterium are a thinly-veiled caricature of the church (or at least the mighty conspiracy-weaving church that atheists worry about in their heads – I don’t think the Presbyterian Church of Australia is going to end up becoming a Magisterium-like organisation in any hurry). And, obviously, with all the mentions of “a battle over free will”, etc. and from things I’ve read elsewhere, we’re going to find out about a conspiracy by the church to make people believe in God so they will do what they want.

So, yes, all the stories you’ve heard about the atheistic message are true, however, because this film is only one of three, nothing is that explicitly spelled out yet.  There’s certainly been no mention of God yet.

However, I found that the main problem with this film, aside from the atheistic stuff, is that, to be honest, it’s all style and no substance.  I’ve never watched a Harry Potter film without having read the book, but I’ve heard many people who’ve only seen the movies comment that they can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

I have a feeling that the legion of Pullman fans would say the same about this book.  The script (written by the director, which is often a bad sign) sounds as if it’s pared down the book to its bare plot elements, and the dialogue and plot just move from scene to scene.  There’s no real room for character development or anything that makes us empathise with the characters.  Maybe Pullman’s book is actually this unengaging, but I find it hard to believe that it got a solid reputation if this movie is an accurate representation of the book.

So, all we’re left with is, in the end, scene after scene of eye candy.  And I will tell you, some of it is brilliant.  The visual imagery of everyone having their own daemon is stunning, with an animal matching each person’s temperament (watch out especially for Nicole Kidman’s vicious monkey).  Also quite beautiful is the sets such as the alternative London (which looks like the architecture of the Victorian era went mad and became the dominant style) and the kingdom of the polar bears (all of whom talk and fight).

However, that was about it.  So, in the end, I could probably only recommend this film to Christian parents who want to their older children about some of the concepts like atheism, is Christianity rational?, God vs science, etc. For parents with younger children who are too young to think through these things, I’d keep them away from it, because you don’t know where the thinking will lead.  For those of you who are older, you can make up your own mind whether you want to see it, but I don’t think you’ll find it a particularly engaging film.

2 1/2 out of 5.

Further Note:  While looking for an image for this post, I just found out from Wikipedia that apparently the director deliberately toned down the anti-Christian nature of the book for the film.  So there’s deliberately no reference to God or the church, etc.  So it seems that if you want your real dose of atheism and good storytelling, you have to look to the books.  The sequel films may be more brave, but they’re not even on the agenda to be made unless this one does well at the box office. We’ll see what happens.

DVD Review: A History of Violence

Those of you Christian blog readers may have read the popular Christian book, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. In it, he puts forward the theory that the reason men love war films so much is because it’s tapping into their innate desire to be involved in the battle against Satan.  These films bring out the warrior in them.

Actually, this is utter rubbish, and I find it even more offensive when it’s given a Christian sheen.  I’ll say it now – the average male (Christian or otherwise) likes war films because he likes watching violence.  The more violent, the better.

Sometimes, the violence is disguised by giving the hero a “cause” (such as a war to win, or an evil bad guy to fight).  But more and more nowadays, we’re seeing the rise of the “revenge” movie.  This is where a bad guy does something evil, and so the hero doubles or even triples the carnage to get payback.  (Kill Bill and Sin City would be the two strongest examples of these type of genres.)

Combine that with the fact that the realism and gore levels of films have been getting stronger over the years.  There have always been some violent war films, but the turning point was probably Saving Private Ryan.  For the first time, we not only saw people get hit by bombs and shot, but we saw their intestines hanging out.  Their limbs blown off.  Originally, it was meant to shock us – to show us that war is not for kids, but really gross stuff.

But you know what? All we’ve done is overall raised the gore level for films.  Horror films, dark thrillers and war films now all have disembowelment, dismemberment and beheadings.  It’s par for the course.  Why?  Because men (I don’t think there’s so many women out there) want to see violence.  There’s an aggressive streak in us that’s being fed by this.

Now, I must confess at this stage, that I like a bit of an action film/battle epic as much as the next man as well, and there’s certainly something attractive in visceral displays of violence.  But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  We look back and wonder how the Romans could turn out in the thousands to watch people get killed in the arena.  But, as humanitarian as we are in this day and age, we’re as keen to watch violence as the Romans were.  We excuse it because it’s not happening to real people – but, seriously, did the Romans excuse it because gladiators and Christians weren’t considered as real as citizens of Rome? They probably did.

Anyway, I should say, that I’m not against all violence in films.  And it can be used to great effect (especially in a well-made horror film).  But the thing that worries me is that violence is losing it’s horror and becoming increasingly mainstream.

Which brings us to A History of Violence.  I was attracted to borrow this DVD because the reviews when this film was out were quite strong in praising it.  While reputedly violent, it was apparently quite a strong film.

Having now seen it, I can certainly agree that it’s violent.  What gets me, though, is what all the reviewers saw in it.  It’s certainly a well-made film, and I don’t fault the acting jobs of Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, etc in this film.  But what’s the point?

Either a) this film is meant to be an ultra-violent crime story or b)  it’s meant to be an indictment against violence.  If it’s a), then it’s all been done before.  If it’s b) then it fails miserably, because this film revels in its violence.  If it’s hoping to shock, then I’m sorry – it just gives us the level of gore that we’ve come to expect and want in this type of film.

The story, for those of you who need to know, is that Viggo Mortensen works at a little diner in a country town in America.  One night, two psychopaths show up and hold the place up.  Viggo shoots both of them.  He becomes a hero, but then Ed Harris shows up, playing a one-eyed mobster who reckons that Viggo used to be the gangster that blinded his other eye.  Is Viggo a former gangster or an innocent man caught in the middle?

I’m not going to tell you, but I didn’t feel that this film went anywhere different from other similar films.  In the end, violence won the day.

1 1/2 out of 5.

Film Review: The Darjeeling Limited

I actually think that there’s an art to programming plane movies. I mean, you think that getting a movie on a plane is pretty exciting, but to really work, they’ve got too meet certain conditions:

1. They can’t really contain any quiet scenes or dialogue, because you’re not going to hear it over the roar of the engines.

2. They can’t really be the type of films where, if you miss a couple of minutes you’re going to be lost, because for sure you’re going to get interrupted by the food wagon, your baby daughter (if you’re us) and umpteen other things. Who’s got time to hardcore movie watch on a plane?

Anyway, The Darjeeling Limited, viewed while travelling from Cairns to Sydney, definitely didn’t fit the first condition, and kind of felt like it didn’t fit the second either. (This is as opposed to The Bourne Ultimatum, which I watched on the way up. That film was great. As soon as you worked out that some people wanted to kill Matt Damon and he wanted to escape, you could happily miss huge chunks of the movie and pick it up where you left off.)

But The Darjeeling Limited was a whole other kettle of fish. This is what I can work out:

1. It’s quirky. I worked that out, because the film opened with Bill Murray sitting in an Indian cab, racing through the streets of some Indian town to catch a train (the previously-mentioned Darjeeling Limited). Bill missed the train (even with everything going in slow motion, which shows how out of shape he is . . .) but Adrien Brody caught it. See, wasn’t that quirky?

2. Owen Wilson is playing himself again. (But then you could kind of work that out from the fact that he was in the movie. When he decides not to play himself, then I’ll sit up and take notice.)

3. It’s meant to be funny. I worked this out when there was a scene where Adrien Brody bought himself a cobra and then it escaped in their train carriage. (Unless they were trying to do a tribute to Snakes on a Plane. I mean, Snakes on a Train – it’s the logical next step, isn’t it?)

4. It’s set in India. I worked this out because of all the Indian people, the title of the film, and Rachel was having flashbacks of India (having travelled on one of those trains herself when she was over there).

5. It’s a brotherly bonding story. I worked this out when they kept sharing each other’s illegal Indian painkillers.

6. Something must have happened to their parents. I worked this out because they kept talking about their Dad’s funeral and their Mum living out in India in a temple.

7. It contained some spiritual stuff, because they Owen said they were taking a “spiritual journey” and they kept visiting Indian temples.

8. It was also a road movie, sort of, because it had a train in it.

9. I think it had a bittersweet, happy ending, because of the type of song they had on the end credits.

However, despite my diligent observation of what was going on in this movie, it seemed to incredibly have not much happening at all. For a drama, it wasn’t grabbing me. For a comedy, even the snake gag seemed a bit boring. The only thing that was kind of interesting was the fact that it seemed definitely set in the middle of India (no sets here) and the interesting camera angles, which consisted of lining the guys up in a row and getting them to stare into the camera.

Look, I probably should watch this film in the real world at some stage and see if I actually like it, but the 1 1/2 hour trailer that was the plane version didn’t really sell it to me. But to be kind, I won’t give it a rating.

Book Review: Grace Based Parenting (Tim Kimmel)

Final parenting review.  This book kind of got me off to a bad start, because, in true American-mainstream-Christian nonfiction book style, it jumbles up all kinds of pop psychology and vague use of the Bible.  If you remember from my previous posts, I believe that the Bible’s teaching about the main aims of parenting are that we are to raise children who love and serve Jesus.  While we certainly are told not to exasperate them and to love them, at the end of the day, the goal is not to have kids who feel loved, so much as children who love Jesus. (I have especially been noticing this since reading When People Are Big and God Is Small.)

So I have issues with Kimmel’s main point, which is that the goal of parenting is to meet the three driving needs of your children.  These are:

1. A need for security
2. A need for significance
3. A need for strengthWhile I don’t doubt that children (in fact, most people) need these three things, I don’t see that this is the be-all and end-all of the Bible’s comments on parenting.

However, I found that as the book went on, the book actually did improve.  Kimmel is arguing for a style of parenting that enforces rules and moral boundaries, but at the same time, also lets your children know that they are loved, and that they can make mistakes.

The problem for any potential readers will depend on what your starting point is, and what moral absolutes you think you should impress upon your children.  If you’re the type of parent who wants to protect your children from the world, make sure their hair is kept to a suitable length, monitor their music closely, watch what they wear, etc. then you will probably find this book far too permissive for your liking.

If, on the other hand, you think teaching your children grace means letting them get away with everything, well then, this book will challenge you as well.  On the whole, I found by the end that I understood a lot of what he was talking about.  The problem is, quite simply, that if he wants to take in strong fundamentalist parents who are very strict with their children, then Tim Kimmel needs to be much more exegetically sound.

I’ve seen books written by Christians against rock music, daughters wearing jeans, etc. and believe me, they back up their assertions chapter and verse from the Bible, quote Scripture in every paragraph.  A bit of talk about grace is not going to convince people.

However, most people I know are not that strict.  In which case, you’ll probably agree with most things in this book.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The No-Cry Sleep Solution (Elizabeth Pantley)

Well, here we go – second-last of my parenting books to be finished.  First off, I’ve got to hand it to Elizabeth Pantley – she is a remarkably good writer.  Everything she puts down is calm and very methodical, so even if the advice does nothing, the book calms you down while reading it.

I’ll be interested to see how this book goes while putting it into practice, which Rachel and I are going to try.  Not having tried that yet, I can only comment on the information contained in the book, not on how effective it is.  But here goes:

Currently, when it comes to books on getting your child to sleep, there are really only two different methods that are put forward.  The most common is “let them cry it out”.  This is not rocket science.  At night time, you put your baby in their cot and leave them there. They will cry.  You let them cry until they fall asleep.

Obviously, the main trick with this technique is getting the parent (especially the mother) to put up with the child’s screaming until such time as the baby gets used to it.

On the other hand, there is also a group of people who say that this is quite an inhumane thing to do and that letting the baby scream causes quite severe distress to the baby.  However, what does this mean?  That we’re supposed to just stay up all night, feeding the Baby That Never Sleeps?

In the middle of all this somewhere is Elizabeth Pantley, who suggests all manner of things that parents can try to get their baby to sleep – none of which require letting your baby get all upset and scream.

I quite like the suggestions here (such as establishing a clear night-time routine, having a regular nap each day) and think they make sense from what we’ve seen with Shelby over the last 18 months.  But, whether we can improve her sleep remains to be seen. But for now, we’ll give it a cry.

I’ll give this a 5 out of 5 if it works.

DVD Review: The Bellboy

I’m not quite sure why we ended up watching this to tick over the New Year, but this is what ended up in the DVD player on New Years at my in-laws. (It seemed a better choice than BMX Bandits.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a Jerry Lewis film.  He kind of dates back to my childhood, and sits alongside Abbot & Costello and Francis the Talking Mule as Saturday afternoon entertainment (in the off-season when there was no football).

I remember Jerry best in all his comedies with Dean Martin, the crooner, but this one was a solo effort written and directed by Jerry himself.  In the film, he plays a mute bellboy at a big Florida hotel.

The film (as we are told at the beginning in an appearance by the film’s producer) has no plot at all.  It’s just a random collection of comic vignettes, most of them playing up on the fact that Jerry’s character doesn’t speak.

I’m not sure if it is was funny at the time, but most of the gags here were on a level with the visual gags you’d expect to see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Cute, but it felt aimed at little kids.  (Or are we so used to comedy being off-colour/black/quirky that we can’t cope with straight slapstick comedy any more? Who knows . . .)

The funniest moment (probably due to lack of sleep) wasn’t actually with Jerry, but with a trio of hillbilly bluegrass artists who make a cameo in one scene.  I couldn’t find them on YouTube, so you’ll just have to track it down yourself.

Or not.  At least the film is short.

2 out of 5.