Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why I love Jesus more than Harry Potter

I admit it: I am a Harry Potter fan. I am often skeptical of mega-hits, so it took me awhile to jump on the bandwagon. After recommendations from several different people, I hesitantly decided to give the books a try. So, in the spring of 2005, I purchased beat up old copies of the first four books on eBay, and immediately fell in love. I am now a die-hard fan - although not the type that dresses up and stands in line for midnight book or movie releases. However, I did participate eagerly in online reading groups and passionate debates on how the series would ultimately end. I remember reading the last half of the Deathly Hallows on a church van on the way to a mission trip, heart racing and oblivious to anything else around me as those final chapters unfolded. I have a Harry Potter wall calendar and a Harry Potter ringtone. So yes, I freely admit that I love Harry Potter.

If you have read the books, you are familiar with all the reasons to love Harry. If you have seen the movies, you probably have a pretty good idea. The Boy Who Lived is sweet, loyal, determined, a little stubborn, a little flawed, but ultimately one of those characters who leaps off the page and comes to life. Actually, all of the characters in the series are that way. That is part of the genius of J.K. Rowling. There are some you just can't help but love, and others you can't help but hate. Some of the good characters are hard to like, and some of the bad ones are just as hard to hate. And they all live in this rich, imaginative world where magic is a part of life and events are unfolding that will leave the world changed. It is one of those epic fantasy series that will be loved, hated, and debated for years to come.

But back to Harry. He is the ultimate hero. We meet him as a neglected eleven-year-old with no idea who he really is or what his destiny may be. Throughout the series, he grows into a young man who fully embraces that destiny and confidently leads his friends into battle. He has his rough moments. I actually didn't like him much in The Order of the Phoenix, when it seemed like he spent half the book yelling at people and the other half pouting about his life and relationships and being treated like the annoying teenager he is...but it was at the end of the book when my heart really broke over him as he began to accept who he was and what he needed to do.

So, what does Harry Potter have to do with Jesus? Very little. Rowling wisely leaves religion alone, focusing instead on weaving a brilliant tale that touches on many of the truths of life under the overarching theme of good vs. evil. I believe, like C.S. Lewis, that every good story touches on something deep within us, reminding us that we do live for a greater purpose than the pleasure of today; that we are, in fact, destined for an eternity we cannot fully imagine but that we catch glimpses of on occasion. I do not believe that Harry Potter is "evil" because he is a wizard who is learning magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As much as I love fiction (and I do), I know how to distinguish fiction from reality. The world Harry Potter lives in is no more real than Narnia, Middle-Earth, or "a long time ago in a galaxy far away." Witchcraft in that world and witchcraft in this world are completely different and almost totally unrelated things.

A few months ago, I started seeing previews for Part One of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and like all the other fans out there, I was practically jumping up and down in anticipation. And that got me thinking: wouldn't it be great if people got as excited about church as they do about the next Harry Potter movie? The story of Jesus is every bit as exciting as the story of Harry Potter, and even better: it's true. Yet you don't see lines of people waiting outside the church building at midnight on Saturday, buzzing with anticipation about the upcoming morning worship service. That's a little sad, but it's just reality.

So, I'm a Harry Potter fan. I am not a Jesus fan. I don't "like" Him on Facebook. I love Jesus with all my heart, soul, and strength. Harry Potter is fiction. Jesus is my reality. I'm excited about seeing Harry Potter this weekend. I look forward to spending eternity with Jesus with every fiber of my being. It isn't just that I love Jesus more than Harry Potter. Nothing else compares with Him.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Is it worship?

This morning, my parent's pastor, Wayne Barber, preached on worship. I have to admit I wasn't paying much attention until he said one thing that really got me thinking. He said, "What we do here is not worship." So what is worship? According to Wayne, what comes out of our mouths and how we live our lives is our worship. In Romans 12:1-2, the Bible specifies that "our spiritual act of worship" is being a living sacrifice, not conformed to this world but transformed by God. This goes so much deeper than what we do in a church "worship service," that it makes what we do there seem shallow and trivial in comparison. This is why it doesn't really matter what kind of worship service we have. If our hearts are right before God, our lives are lived in purity, and our speech is full of thankfulness, encouragement, and praise, then when we come together as a congregation to sing, God will be honored and praised. But if we focus our hearts on ourselves, live like the world, and speak words of bitterness, complaint, and strife, our "worship service" becomes a stench in God's nostrils rather than a sweet fragrance rising to His throne.

We cannot truly worship together until we offer our hearts, our lives, and our relationships to God as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to Him.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Phantom Island: Wind by Krissi Dallas

I chose to read this book for two reasons. First, it was written by a friend of Greg's, which made me curious. Second, it was fantasy. I am always a sucker for that. The only reason I didn't jump to read it right away was because it was self-published, and as a total book snob I tend to stay away from self-published books. However, after resisting for awhile I finally gave in and ordered my copy from Amazon. It arrived, and I managed to devour it in a few days even with the time demands of a new baby in the house, proving to myself that even Katelyn isn't strong enough to cure me of my hopeless addiction to fiction.

Wind is the first in (I assume) a four-part series. We are introduced to Whitnee Terradorra, the main character, and her two best friends, Morgan and Caleb, as they arrive at Camp Fusion where they are going to be mentors for the summer. The three met at the camp after sixth grade, have been inseparable ever since, and are now back to help troubled kids begin to find healing over the course of the summer. It is not long before Whitnee and her friends find much more than they bargained for, when they cross to the forbidden property across the river and suddenly find themselves on an Island that may or may not be a part of our world. There, they learn about life forces and prophecies, and Whitnee discovers that there is more to her life and her history than she had even guessed before. The story is full of lessons in friendship, trust, romance, and even a little magic (or at least something very like it). The ending is satisfactory, although there are plenty of ends left to pick up in the next book: Water. Like any good fan, I am now eagerly awaiting the next installment.

In spite of my snobbery when it comes to writing quality, I was favorably impressed with this book. Krissi writes very well, and I was completely caught up in the story after just a few chapters. One of my major issues with self-published books is the frequent and unfortunate lack of editing. Although Wind could have benefited from a little more polish, it did not suffer for the lack of it. I never had the unpleasant but all too frequent experience of being distracted by the story because of the writing which I've felt even while reading traditionally published fiction. Take Mercedes Lackey and Terry Brooks, for example. Mercedes Lackey is a good enough storyteller to almost make up for the fact that she sometimes writes poorly and apparently has a lousy editor, and Terry Brooks is just annoying. But I digress...

Altogether, I thought Wind was a well-written, imaginative, and engaging piece of youth fiction. It is pretty light-hearted, not too dark but not all cotton candy and rainbows, either. The world-crafting is excellent, the pace is good, there is some enjoyable humor and definitely plenty of conflict, mystery, and teen angst. I definitely recommend it for fans of the genre, and wish the author the best of luck in her future endeavors.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson

Well in case you haven't noticed, I haven't posted anything since my verdict on the Twilight Saga. That's because I haven't read anything other than articles on digital imaging since I read the Twilight Saga. My class on digital imaging is absolutely not one of my favorite things, so I won't mention it again! But between it and getting ready for the arrival of the Dukeling (now only a month or so away!), I haven't had many opportunities to read for pleasure. Normally, I don't read non-fiction if I can help it, so this is definitely a notable occasion.

Greg and I are fans of Craig Ferguson. I really can't explain why. He's got a dirty mind and a filthy mouth and he certainly does not share many of our beliefs and values, but he has at least two things going for him: he's brilliant and he's Scottish. I'm not sure how funny he really is, but things just seem to sound funnier with a Scottish accent. We started watching his show because we watched Dave (I liked him at the time, but I'm over him now) and sometimes we would just leave the TV on and stay up too late. During the most recent election, shortly after he had become a naturalized citizen, Craig delivered a few passionate monologues on patriotism and voting that really won me over. Then he started playing with puppets, and I was hooked. So now we DVR his show every night and usually watch it the next night instead of Dave.

Greg checked out American on Purpose, Craig's autobiography, from the library. After he finished it, he handed it to me and told me that it was a fast read and that I'd enjoy it. I did. I did not enjoy some of the language - Craig is particularly fond of the f-word - but I was fascinated by the story and by the fact that this dude who left school at sixteen is as brilliant a writer as he is a comedian and late night host. Of course, he does read extensively, and I always say that avid readers are generally not stupid.

Greg was right: this book is a fast read. I'm not sure whether it's entirely true and accurate, but it is certainly an interesting story. I suppose it's a fairly typical Hollywood story - alcohol, drugs, women, failures and successes - but he tells it in a witty, cynical style that is easy to get caught up in. His story of coming from a lower class Scottish family to achieving fame and fortune in America, while working through all kinds of sordid stuff, is pretty interesting. But woven through it all is this philosophy, this idea that America really is the greatest country in the world, and that ultimately his life is about becoming a part of this country. Craig Ferguson may be an unlikely patriot, but he somehow manages to be an inspiring one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Twilight Saga: My Verdict

Yes, it's true.  I must confess that I actually checked out and read all four of the Twilight books.  Now, you might ask (as I sometimes ask myself): "Why would someone who refuses to read or see anything involving vampires, feels sick at the mention of blood, and is annoyed by teenage love stories read the Twilight books?" It's a good question.  So why did I?  Peer pressure.  I caved.  So many people I know were talking about the books and the movies, and I wanted to have an informed part of the conversation.  So I read them.  And the first thing I have to say after reading them is that I do not want to kill myself, wash my brain out with soap, or wish I had found some better way to waste my time.  Because these books are actually good.  Anyone who finds my reviews boring can stop reading now. If you'd like to know more, please feel free to continue. :)

The first book, Twilight, is a teenage love story with a twist: Boy meets girl, boy saves girl's life, they fall in love.  The twist, of course, is that while the girl (Bella) is a fairly ordinary human, the boy (Edward) is a vampire.  Oh no!  Have I said too much?  Honestly, if you don't know that, you need to get out more.  So Twilight continues and introduces Bella's family and friends and the Cullen family of "vegetarian" vampires who feed on animals instead of humans.  Bella's presence in a group of vampires, even if they are "good" vampires, leads to some fairly predictable conflicts, as well as some not-so-predictable ones.  There is some humor, exciting action, and great character development.  Despite all the teenage angst and the melodramatic love story, I decided the first book wasn't so bad, so I went on to the next: New Moon.

New Moon picks up right where Twilight picks off, and just as I was beginning to dread a whole book filled with, "Oh Edward, I love you so much, why can't I be a vampire too?" things took a very interesting and unexpected turn.  Heart-broken and half-crazed Bella now turns to her friend Jacob Black, who helps her repair a motorcycle.  They develop a very close friendship and just as Bella is beginning to hope that she might begin to enjoy life again, Jacob starts acting very strange.  It's only a matter of time before Bella discovers that Jake isn't totally human either, and that his family are the mortal enemies of Edward's family.  Before she can work out all of those difficulties, she's off to Italy to try to save Edward from certain death at the hands of the Volturi, the powerful "ruling family" of the Vampire world.  Things end pretty well, but now there's this whole Edward-Bella-Jacob thing to have to deal with...on to the third book: Eclipse.

Now we have several conflicts to deal with: Bella's "best friend" Jacob likes Bella, who loves Edward; vampires vs. werewolves (oops, did I say werewolves...?); and a crazy evil vampire, bent on vengeance, creating a nasty army to come take Bella out.  If you haven't figured it out, Bella is a sort of magnet for otherworldly, supernatural trouble.  After a whole book full of emotional roller coasters, danger, and action, some conflicts are resolved, while some become even more troublesome and painful.  At this point, it looks like there is no possible way to really resolve everything happily, which is why we have book four: Breaking Dawn.

Breaking Dawn is a LONG book.  It's actually three books in one: Books one and three are told like the rest of the series, in first-person by Bella, but in book two we get to hear from Jacob.  Each part is essentially its own story, but they all tie together into a very fascinating whole.  That's my best way to describe this book: absolutely fascinating and, for the most part, totally unexpected.  At the end of book two, I had to put the book down and just say, "Whoa."  It's really almost brilliant.  The last part is very good too, but I have to say I was mildly disappointed in the ending.  There is ultimately a final confrontation with the Volturi, in which there is a good chance that pretty much everyone will die, but I won't spoil that for anyone who hasn't read them and might possibly do so at some point.  I will just say that Stephenie Meyer did channel enough genius to resolve the conflicts in a way that was both surprising and satisfactory, just that the ending lacked a certain...something.  That's all.

In my opinion, the best thing about these books was the characters.  They are very well-developed, and almost seem like real people, despite the somewhat fantastic nature of the story.  I think the only exception is Edward.  I understand that the point of his character is to be absolutely perfect, but still, I like my heroes to have some flaws, and Edward simply doesn't.  Bella and Jacob are both much more "real," and for me, likable.  Of course, they're much more human, and Edward isn't, so maybe that is intentional.  I don't know.  But it's my review, and so my opinion stands.  I neither like nor dislike Edward.  Comment if you'd like.

The other great thing about these books is how well the story moves.  Every once in awhile it does get bogged down by its own weight, but for the most part, it's a good balance of romance, action, normal stuff, and even some humor.  In the meantime, we really get to know and understand the characters so that we actually care about what happens to them.  I was even able to get past my aversion for blood and vampires and enjoy the story, although I did have at least one fairly disturbing nightmare during the course of reading the series, and I seriously doubt I'll have anything to do with vampire-related material in the future.  I also have to say that I'm not sold on the genre of "paranormal romance," which is how I would classify these books.  Not really fantasy or horror, and definitely more than just romance, they sort of hover somewhere in between.  Twilight definitely feels more like a straight romance, while Breaking Dawn really seems to enter the world of fantasy, but none of it is totally one or the other.

A few final comments, and then I'll be done.  First of all, these books are remarkably "clean."  Considering the fact that they deal primarily with vampires, who are generally portrayed with large amounts of sex and grisly, bloody violence, there is actually very little of either in these books.  More blood than sex, but not terribly graphic.  There are a few scenes in Breaking Dawn that were a little hard for me to handle, but again, I am a total weakling when it comes to any mention of blood.  So if you were curious about those aspects of the story, perhaps I have helped to enlighten you.  Finally, I will say that while these books were good and I enjoyed them, I would not list them among the best I have read, and I'm not likely to ever read them again.  But I do recommend them to anyone who enjoys a good story and can tolerate a lot of romance.  They are worth the read.