Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: 'Blessed Are the Weird' by Jacob Nordby

Blessed Are the Weird is one of the most unique books that I have ever read. This book, written by Jacob Nordby, is not a self-help guide of any kind, but, rather, is a celebration and reflection of the creative spirit of mankind. Blessed makes the bold declaration that the world’s future will be shaped by creatives or ‘Weirdians’ as Nordby likes to call them. Is this what Dostoevsky meant when he said ‘beauty will save the world’? Nordby writes,

The only success now is living and creating a work-of-art life: unique, rich with meaning, naked of anything we don’t care about, and ruthless about carving out something absolutely real from a world that has gorged itself on fakeness and become critically ill from it. The only failure now is pulling back from that quest because of fear.

It certainly is true that the world has mostly lost itself in the chaos of the routine. We, in our day-to-day lives, hardly have the time to appreciate the beauty in creation.
Nordby starts the book with the following viral poem:

Blessed are the weird people —poets, misfits, writers, mystics heretics, painters & troubadours— for they teach us to see the world through different eyes
Blessed are those who embrace the intensity of life’s pain and pleasure, for they shall be rewarded with uncommon ecstasy.
Blessed are ye who see beauty in ugliness, for you shall transform our vision of how the world might be.
Blessed are the bold and whimsical, for their imagination shatters ancient boundaries of fear for us all.
Blessed are ye who are mocked for unbridled expression of love in all its forms, because your kind of crazy is exactly that freedom for which the world is unconsciously begging.
Blessed are those who have endured breaking by life, for they are the resplendent cracks through which the light shines.

The author celebrates the types of people (and other equivalents) mentioned in this poem, and he urges us to join in this celebratory tribal dance. He reminds us that, for a vast period in history, creatives, or ‘Weirdians’, were given elevated statuses in society by the authorities and rulers. These Weirdians were so cherished in society that they were able to get away by subtly taunting rulers and making fun of their policies. Sadly, today, as Nordby observes, many people of talent have sold their souls to the big money-making machine and become the entity we call ‘celebrity.’ In the wake of this soul-selling, we need to be artists of raw sincerity more than ever.

I have long been interested in a book such as this one. I consider myself a fellow Weirdian—I'm a painter and a creative writer. The art of painting and writing are, for me, the best ways to express the love of God to a broader audience.  The question you may be asking right now is : ‘has this book benefitted me in any way?’ The answer is a resounding yes, though it was difficult, at times, navigating through the more reflective parts in the later pages and trying to make sense. Perhaps, I will be able to understand more clearly during a second reading.

The author feeds us with reflections from his own journey; reading these parts will make you feel a lot for the writer and understand where he is coming from. He also regales us with a few fantastical tales which illustrates his points with great clarity. Nordby gives us lessons from both real and imaginary life. He takes us on a journey unlike any other, as all creatives do, and forces us to marvel at the beauty of the human soul and the magnificence of the ‘Great Everything.’ He fills his pages with delight, triumph, and sadness—things that make no sense to the rationale, yet are dear to the human heart. How I wish these things of the soul are held closer by the modern day church as well; it is why we need to read from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy just as much as we read from theologians and pastors. Who knows? Maybe, we’ll regain the daring colors that we had long lost in our thinking of God and his creation.

CLICK HERE to buy 'Blessed Are the Weird' on Amazon.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

'Silence': A brief review of Scorcese’s film

The movie Silence is directed by Martin Scorcese and based on the Japanese novel written by Shūsaku Endō; it deals with the state persecution of the ‘Kakure Kirishitan’ (hidden Christians) in 17th century Japan after the Shimabara rebellion. The story is told from the perspective of Father Rodrigues–a Portuguese Jesuit priest who travels to Japan in search of Father Ferreira. Ferreira is said to have renounced his faith under extreme torture from the inquisitor; he steps on a fumi-e—a stone slab containing Christian images—and symbolically 'tramples' on Jesus. Unable to believe the news of Ferreira’s apostasy, the young priest Rodrigues decides to find out for himself if Ferreira has indeed turned his back on Christ.

I must say Silence is probably the best film of 2016 along with Hacksaw Ridge; it is also one of Scorcese’s masterpieces. It is a difficult film to watch, yet it is also beautiful and sublime. The moments of persecution and trial of Christians left me deeply moved. Christians are beheaded, burnt alive, left bleeding in pits, and crucified. There is a scene where a Japanese Christian is crucified and left to drown. He is singing in his last moment a serene hymn, which sounds bittersweet, while everyone else, including the persecutors, looks on in silence. By watching and absorbing these scenes, you can feel how everyone involved with the movie are giving their all. Andrew Garfield who plays Rodrigues is especially powerful in his performance and deserves an Oscar. Speaking of Oscars, it is a complete travesty that Silence did not get any nominations this year other than for best cinematography.

Those who have seen the movie may have noticed the film’s complex themes interwoven throughout the plot. In this blog entry, I will attempt to touch on some of these themes and take time to briefly reflect upon them. In doing so, I hope that the reader may appreciate the movie, and admire the author, Mr. Endō, even more for his incredible insights into human culture and various theological issues, many of which are still relevant today. For those who might not have seen the movie, please be informed as there are spoilers that follow.

Cultural Barriers
It is not long before Rodrigues discovers that the land of Japan is a uniquely different country. Here, the people are simplistic, without deceit, and extremely humble—even childlike. The Christians welcome Rodrigues with an affectionate sadness and treat him with overwhelming admiration and warmth. Even the Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, invites Rodrigues to his home for meals and discussion. The Japanese rulers abhor the ‘arrogance’ of the European missionaries, yet they are strangely moved by the Christians’ willingness to suffer. At the same time, they are unable to understand why these European missionaries would allow their flock to suffer such extreme agonies for the simplest of faith-denial acts such as stepping on mere images.

I can say that this is true for many Asian cultures when faced with foreign, particularly western, interaction in any form. It is true that many western ideas have been beneficial with regards to fighting superstition and social discrimination, but at the same time western concepts such as individuality and hyper-capitalism are often seen as threats to the cultural solidarity of Asian peoples. So it is not surprising that the Japanese persecutors in this story think of western Christianity as a danger to their land.

When Rodrigues finally comes face to face with Ferreira, he is told that Japan is a vast ‘swamp’ and ‘our religion does not take root here.’ Ferreira tells Rodrigues that the Japanese simply cannot conceive of a God that exists beyond the realm of nature. Rodrigues shakes his head at Ferreira and says that he saw countless Christians dying for God. ‘But they’re dying for you, Rodrigues,’ Ferreira says to Rodrigues, much to the young priest’s shock.

The author, Mr. Endō, had long believed that for Christianity to thrive in Japan it must abandon certain western concepts such as the patriarchal father image of God. The Japanese do not take kindly to a father image, which exudes stubborn authority and allows no weakness. Endō said that the Japanese are more drawn to the maternal nature of God as revealed in the tender, nurturing nature of Jesus. The maternal aspect of Christ is indeed the most heartwarming and comforting place in the Gospels, and it is true that we Christians have not emphasized on this as much as we should have in our day-to-day lives. Julian of Norwich writes in her ‘Revelations of Divine Love,’

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him, and this is where His Maternity starts, And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

Towards the end of the film, the Inquisitor says to Rodrigues that Christianity in Japan has become a ‘strange thing.’

God’s voice in suffering
In his trials and tribulations, Rodrigues often asks God for comfort and deliverance. He also questions God as to why must the Christians’ suffering be so terrible. ‘Where are you?’ he shouts at God repeatedly in a prison cell while awaiting execution.

The author had said that Japanese culture identifies with the 'one who suffers with us.' Is it true that God suffers with us in silence while we undergo painful and agonizing trials? I am reminded of an account of the Holocaust told by Elie Wiesel in his book ‘Night.’ Wiesel recounts an episode where he and others witness the hanging of a small boy in a concentration camp.

“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing...
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"For God's sake, where is God?"
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
"Where He is? This is where--hanging here from this gallows..."

Rodrigues is disheartened by God’s silence amidst the screams of his children. There comes a time when Rodrigues must commit apostasy in order to save members of his flock from the agony of bleeding to their deaths. He gazes at the fumi-e upon which he must trample, and it is exactly in this moment when Christ breaks his silence. The Lord says to Rodrigues in a gentle voice,

"You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross."

‘Father, I want to make confession.’
When Rodrigues travels to Japan, he meets a drunken Japanese named Kichijiro who later acts as his guide. Rodrigues suspects Kichijiro is a Christian, and it turns out that he is right. Kichijiro is revealed to be one of the Christians who has apostatized and stepped on the fumi-e to save himself, but his family is wiped out in brutal fashion because of their refusal to do the same. Does Kichijiro’s inability to save his own family haunt him? Kichijiro tells Rodrigues that he sees the fire of his family’s death burning less brightly due to the priest’s presence. On top of that, Kichijiro seems to follow Rodrigues everywhere so that he can make his confessions to the priest. Many times, Rodrigues gets annoyed of Kichijiro because of his stubborn insistent need to confess each and every time after stepping on the fumi-e or betraying fellow Christians. How can Christ love such a wretch? Rodrigues often contemplates.

After Rodrigues commits apostasy, Kichijiro still sticks with him as his servant. One day, Kichijiro again asks Rodrigues to hear his confession, but this time Rodrigues is not annoyed; this is because he is aware of the Japanese inability to see God beyond creation. Rodrigues may have realized that Kichijiro is asking for forgiveness much as the same way we Christians ask for forgiveness because of our multiple sins. Rodrigues’ journey comes full circle here. In the Gospel of John, Christ says,

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4, NASB)

The apostle Paul says,

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32, NIV)

Can it be that Kichijiro showed Rodrigues, in his utter weakness, what it means to have Christ living inside of you? Kichijiro begs Rodrigues for forgiveness because, for Kichijiro, Rodrigues is Jesus; the young Portuguese Jesuit priest is to this broken Japanese man the very embodiment of Christ living among his disciples. To Kichijiro, God has already spoken through Father Rodrigues and he has spoken with unconditional forgiveness. Therefore, Rodrigues somehow understands and he finally embraces Kichijiro and thanks him.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Book review: 'A.D. 33' by Ted Dekker

A.D. 33 is a novel written by bestselling author Ted Dekker. This novel is the sequel to A.D. 30 which was one of the best novels I had ever read, except that I didn't like the Mortal Kombat style ending where Shao Kahn shouts “Finish him!” and Maviah says “Naaah!”...... But let’s move on. The story of A.D. 30 is of an Arabian woman named Maviah. Despite being a member of a royal Bedouin household, Maviah is looked down upon because she is a woman, and also because she has a child out of wedlock, and when bloodthirsty invaders destroy whatever little she has, she seeks out a certain carpenter from Palestine. She learns from this carpenter the power of faith, and with this faith she not only restores her dignity and wins loyal friends, but also becomes the ‘Queen of outcasts.’

A.D. 33 continues Maviah’s tale. Maviah is now the leader of her people, but she still has to deal with the invaders who had ravaged her homeland and left her people homeless. Her enemies, furious at her victory over them, strike again and deceive her people, leaving them scattered in the brutal desert of Arabia. Hence, Maviah is once again faced with overwhelming odds, and once again she has no choice but to return to Palestine in search of the famous carpenter prophet of the Jews.

As usual, Ted Dekker fills his pages with suspense and action. He throws us deep headfirst into the savage and cruel world of first century Arabia. His minimal descriptive style works perfectly. But it is the heroine who keeps the reader invested in the story. Maviah is a brilliantly written character. She is not a cardboard cut-out female lead that so often emerges from Hollywood movies; she is thoroughly human. We care for her because she is vulnerable despite being courageous. When Maviah is forced to lose everything she holds dear, she has a crisis of faith. She breaks down during times of utter defeat and humiliation. This makes her a very relatable character. The problems she faces, the uphill battle against principalities and darkness, can so often be our own. Her companion, the feared warrior Saba, is also evolving wonderfully as the story progresses. He becomes a great admirer of Yeshua and ponders a lot on this enigmatic prophet’s teachings. Judah, another returning character, is, as usual, the heroic Jewish zealot who wants to free his homeland from the clutches of Caesar. He and Saba are Maviah’s closest friends and faithful allies. A welcome addition to the cast is Talya, Maviah’s adopted son. All of the major characters, except the antagonists, are handled beautifully and with care. There are some questionable decisions that were taken with some of characters, but I won't spell them out here and spoil the plot. You’ll probably know it when you see them.

The antagonists could have benefited from a little more depth. They are shown to be somewhat one dimensional, but I guess Dekker will work on that in the planned third follow up. Another odd decision made by the author is the repeated switching between first person and third person narratives, but then again this doesn’t obstruct the storytelling in any way. The only serious complaint I have about A.D. 33 is how similar the story is to A.D. 30.

Dekker shows great respect for scripture. The biblical characters are handled very well; nothing overambitious is attempted through them. I admire that. Too many creative nonsense can often leave the reader amused or scratching their heads (cough... The last temptation of Christ...cough). Thankfully, A.D. 33 is refreshing and it does not have any of the self-indulging passages common with most authors who set out to tackle a biblical story.

Maviah’s battle of faith and outright doubt is very relevant. Like Maviah, many young people face spiritual crisis in their lives. And so often, these young people leave the church simply because of the church's inability to guide them. Also, we learn how rash and reckless decisions, often made on the basis of hyper self-reliance, can lead to disastrous consequences. During critical times, Maviah is left without any options; she has only God to rely upon, and in these moments she performs extraordinary feats and finds her true self. By showing this, Dekker illustrates beautifully how we are strong when we are weak.

Despite a few nitpicks, A.D. 33 is another Ted Dekker novel that I fairly enjoyed. The pages just begged to be kept turning every time I opened this book. It was a thrill-ride all the way. I can't wait for the third installment.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book review: 'Possibilities' by N. Turner Simkins

Possibilities is a moving account written by a father who tells the story of how his youngest son battled with leukemia. It is a beautiful and sincere book that causes us to think deeply about our own lives, however ordinary it may seem to be. Like life itself, little Brennan Simkin’s story is one of pain, tragedy, and grief, but in-between are redeeming moments of affection, love, and understanding.

As I read, I thought about how the worst of sufferings or helplessness brings out empathy from us. It is sad but true, that our humanity has become terribly detached, and our best qualities come out only when faced with overwhelming sadness. Maybe this was why Jesus had to die on the cross, and he still suffers in other forms like that of the innocent leukemic Brennan. He suffers also in the anguish and tears of Brennan’s parents and brothers as they try to cope with innumerous hurdles and give their all for the little child. Imagine how it feels to see your loved one fading away slowly and with unbearable pain. It is absolutely unfathomable to me and yet whenever I see Brennan Simkins’ photo on the book cover I can truly understand what it must’ve felt like. Now, I know how Mary must have felt when she was seeing her son suffering at Calvary. It must have taken a tremendous amount of simple faith to have gone through all the pain, as Simkins writes,

We have certainly learned that, like most things in life, faith must be used if it is to remain strong. As, rusty as it may have been, we could not have endured this year without it.

Possibilities is definitely a book about loving people. It will undoubtedly inspire the reader to love people, to see the Brennan in every child, to recognize Brennan’s parents in every parent, and to see the Simkins family in every family. The world needs more stories like that of Brennan’s, not that there should be more suffering, for suffering is unavoidable it seems, but that there should be hope within the pain, and an amazing and irresistible desire to live life and love to the fullest.

Turner Simkins has written a beautiful and sublime book in Possibilities. It is by no means an easy read due to the description of the numerous treatments that Brennan had to undergo. Still, it is a must read for its sheer impact in the heart of the reader. Reading this book will make you cherish life—every nanosecond of it.

CLICK HERE to buy 'Possibilities' on Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Book review: 'Godlings' by Cy Chase

Godlings is a strange novel. It is supposedly a retelling of the creation story; I didn’t know what to expect other than that. The first few introductory pages left me confused as to what exactly was happening. There’s this female character called Erg who is talking with someone she calls ‘Papa.’ And then there’s this black ball thingy whom Erg calls ‘Mr Ball’ (duh!). Erg tries to talk to the ball, but the ball is... Well, it’s a ball! Honestly, I was left scratching my head. But I lumbered on—with mixed results.

There is very little here of what I would call ‘a narrative voice’; most of the writing is black and white. What we basically get is narrated action and a whole lot of animated conversation filled with scientific terminology from the two main characters. Erg is the ‘Eve’; she’s childlike, emotional, and quite untamed. Atom is the ‘Adam’; he’s gentle, strong, and very protective of Erg. The two struggle to grasp their roles in the new world. They try to deal with the absence of Papa. And it is not long before they fall in love (boom!) and develop a chemistry together. Whether the characters are likable or not, I leave that to you. Personally, I felt conflicted about the way both Atom and Erg try to 'contribute' to each other. Their relationship feels more like a contemporary dysfunctional one rather than the first one in the new cosmos. One can even conclude that Atom and Erg are the Adam and Eve of Americana! There's even a speech about how democracy is good for everyone, and poor Atom has to listen to it just after he saves Erg from a snake bite.

Godlings will probably resonate with most readers. Unfortunately, for me, it is somewhat of a mixed bag. With its lack of compelling insight, it is like old wine in new wineskin.

CLICK HERE to buy 'Godlings' on Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book review: 'The Divine Dance' by Richard Rohr w/ Mike Morrel

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar and teacher on the contemplative way of life. The first book I read that was written by him was Falling Upward—an astonishing read which I wholeheartedly recommend. In Divine Dance, Rohr, assisted by Mike Morrell, takes on the subject of the Trinity and what it means for humanity.

If creation is the result of a triune Creator, what are the implications? Too many theological works on the Trinity stress on ‘explaining’ the Godhead, defending it within the realm of logic, and hence missing out on the limitless consequences it has for creation as a whole. Rohr’s attempt is a fresh take on the subject. He focuses on the ‘dance’ between the members of the Godhead. He writes,

Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three—a circle dance of love.

The dance is unceasing; it has something to say about our relationships. Rohr introduces us to a beautiful artwork—a Russian icon portraying the three guests of Abraham. The three guests, or the Trinity, are seated and about to dine at a table. Quite surprisingly, there is a vacant place at the table—there is room for a fourth person. That person is creation itself. God is not content with a closed dance; he wants creation to join in! From here onwards, Fr. Rohr takes the reader on a journey unlike any other.

Rohr shatters our concept of a god detached from everything he created. He destroys, with meek and sincere charm, this god who is the ultimate critic and judger of mankind. He passionately reveals the triune God who is absolutely and unconditionally in love with creation. This Christ-like God is scandalous to our conditioned ‘dualistic’ minds, but yet so infectious that we are compelled to return his love. His love ‘flows’ unendingly (gasp!).

Nothing human can stop the flow of divine love; we cannot undo the eternal pattern even by our worst sin.

And if you believe there is anger and wrath in God, you know where that leaves you. Heresy, you say? The crucifixion says otherwise; and Rohr’s meditative words illustrates a God who is relentlessly loving and forgiving even when ‘crucified’ by our disconnectedness from his flow of love. This disconnectedness—this hyper individualism is what’s keeping us from experiencing the flow of the Godhead. Participation in this dance is just the kind of salvation we need; Fr. Rohr explains this effortlessly in page after page after page.

What Christianity needs today is a paradigm shift—something that will energize it out of its catatonic state. If the message in Divine Dance is taken seriously and sincerely, I believe nothing will ever be the same, and that includes our families, friendships, marriages, politics... everything! It is why I absolutely recommend this book to followers of Jesus everywhere.

CLICK HERE to buy 'The Divine Dance' on Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book review: 'The Remnant' by Monte Wolverton

The Remnant is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where religion is outlawed thanks to a cataclysmic nuclear war. The Earth is now ruled by the ‘World Federation’—an atheistic organization that blames religion for the ‘Final War.’ The novel follows Grant Cochrin—husband, father, and Christian. Grant and his family are some of the few who have chosen to practice religion and, as a result, they are sent to a labour camp due to the Federation’s no religion policy. The Cochrin family is content with their ‘jobs’ and ‘security’—until Grant meets a person who tells him that there are Christians who gather in ‘the wilderness’ outside the Federation’s safety zone. The Cochrin family, along with a few others, break out of the camp and are on their way to this mysterious church. This is where the story actually begins.

What seems like a fairly straightforward post-apocalyptic road story slowly turns into a commentary on religious fraud, sensationalism, control, and manipulation. Grant discovers this community of believers and meets with its leader—a self-proclaimed prophet. He is puzzled when he sees the different worldview of this prophet as compared to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. When I read this, I was surprised at how similar the story is to my own ongoing spiritual path. The Sermon on the Mount was my very first look at Christ’s teachings, and it is Grant Cochrin’s only remaining possession from the Bible. Grant knows nothing of Jesus apart from the famous Sermon, and so did I.

Wolverton builds his story with a steady, if somewhat subdued, pace. There’s enough excitement to keep the reader invested. Grant’s team meets some pretty interesting characters in the wilderness—some of them are downright hilarious. There are numerous funny moments despite the post-apocalyptic setting. And then there are moments that will make the reader think. All in all, Remnant will resonate the most with pilgrims, and I’m sure there are plenty in this world.

CLICK HERE to buy 'The Remnant' on Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.