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“We the Underpeople” – Cordwainer Smith and Humanity in the Future

wtu-smith

Cordwainer Smith (actual name: Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) was an expert in psychological warfare, a scholar of Eastern Asia, an Anglican, and a science fiction author, among other things. He wrote a number of short stories and one novel all set in the same universe–our own. These stories go from the past into the far future and put forward a vision of the future that is at once hopeful and bleak. Here, I’d like to discuss a few themes in the works of his I’ve read, collected in a volume called We the Underpeople by Baen. There will be some minor Spoilers in what follows.

Free Will and Determinism

A prominent theme found throughout Smith’s work is the discussion of free will and determinism. The “Rediscovery of Man” is a time period in which members of the Instrumentality decide that they need to change the world such that people aren’t always happy any more. You see, they made it so that accidents wouldn’t happen (or if they did, prompt healing was available), people wouldn’t say bad things, and the like. If someone did get unhappy, they were brain wiped and reconditioned. Everyone’s happy, see?

Yet the members of the Instrumentality argued and finally allowed for some unhappiness to be allowed back into people’s lives: the Rediscovery of Man.

Smith here notes that human freedom is something that is at the core of our being. Without it, “happiness” falls away into determinism. We may be “happy,” but it is a happiness that is not truly experienced or real. The feelings might be there, but the reality is not. The human capacity for wrongdoing and suffering is there, but it must be in order to have the capacity for truly experiencing and enjoying happiness and delight.

A challenge might arise here: what of heaven? I think this is a tough question, and one that I admit I have no answer I feel firmly about. It’s possible that the choices we make are, over time, enough to solidify us into a sinless existence (a position of Greg Boyd). Perhaps instead, the renewal of our minds that takes place in the New Creation helps us to avoid doing those things that we would not like to do but find ourselves doing in our fallen state.

Humanity and Inhumanity

Humans in Smith’s world have created “underpeople”–animals that have been bred to serve humans in various capacities. Yet these animals are self-aware and brutally oppressed. They experience free will and life, but are trampled by human wants and desires. They are not “people.”

The poignancy of this theme hits close to home when we consider those people who are often set aside in our own world. Things like the Rwandan Genocide are allowed to happen by those we have put in power because there aren’t resources there deemed worth protecting; people are allowed to starve to death because we don’t want to give “handouts,” and the like. How might we as Christians work to correct the wrongs in our own world done to those we have deemed “underpeople”?

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a major theme in Smith’s novel, Norstrilia. The main character, Rod McBan, is attacked by a bitter man, the Honorable Secretary, who is upset that he cannot also have his life extended for a very long time. At a pivotal scene in the book, McBan forgives the Honorable Secretary for the attacks. However, he also forgives himself, for he had–even in thought–mocked the man and his inability to get the same treatment as everybody else to extend his life. McBan realized that his own behavior towards the Honorable Secretary had, in part, lead to the man’s wrongs.

It is a stunning change in the tenor of the plot thread, for the reader had been prone to sympathizing with the main character and forgiving his own “innocent” jabs at the man who tried to kill him. Yet here, Smith elegantly points towards the need for mutual reconciliation and the need to confess one’s own sins. It is masterfully done and speaks very highly of the power of forgiveness.

Conclusion

Cordwainer Smith masterfully wove his Anglican worldview into his science fiction, but he did so very subtly. I haven’t even touched on some of the other messages conveyed in his body of work, such as the allegorical story of Joan of Arc. There is much to contemplate in the works, including human freedom and the need to forgive. I highly recommend his science fiction to my readers.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)

Cordwainer Smith– Another blogger writes on the themes found throughout Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction.

 

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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“Zeroboxer” by Fonda Lee- Bioethics in the Future, oh, and boxing

zeroboxerFonda Lee’s Zeroboxer is a science fiction work about the sport of zero-gravity boxing. See my review for more details on the work. Here, I’ll be highlighting aspects of the book that deal with bioethics, and offering some philosophical and theological comments on them.

The basics of the book are that Carr “The Raptor” Luka has been rising in the ranks as a great zeroboxer (one who boxes in zero-gravity). As his star rises, so does his fame, and possibly his infamy. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Genetic Therapy vs. Enhancement

The first question is simple: What is the difference between genetic therapy or genetic enhancement? I wrote about this distinction elsewhere:

Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

In the world of Zeroboxer, genetic therapy is standard, and enhancement is regulated, but normalized.

The main character, Luka Carr, unbeknownst to himself, has “illegal” levels of enhancement. His mother allowed a criminal to modify him and make him some kind of superhuman. But it is hard to see why he should be faulted for it–after all, as he says, he’s still himself. It isn’t his fault that others made such choices around his life.

Enhancement is more common on Mars than on Earth. The latter, so-called “Terrans,” stage protests on Mars and about Martians as they seek to go against their “freakish” ways of enhancing. It’s not hard to imagine just this would happen. Who are we to play God, after all? But that kind of argument leads to questions about what it means to play God. Is it playing God to prevent illnesses through modern medicine? How far a step is it from surgery to correct vision to enhancing vision genetically? These questions defy easy answers.

Poverty and Enhancement/Therapy

Lee also raised the issue of poverty and the enormous inequalities that could be created by furthering genetic enhancement. Luka remarks on the state of a friend, Enzo, who’s just shown up wearing glasses:

“Why don’t you get your eyes fixed, then?”
[Luka] guessed the answer before Enzo lowered his face in embarassment. “My mom doesn’t have the money right now. She said maybe in a few months…”
A surge of anger brought heat to Carr[ Luka]’s scalp. It was bad enough that the kid had an asthmatic wheeze and carried around an inhaler. Now he was half-blind too? What next, a peg leg? Didn’t Enzo’s mother care that her son walked around with genetic poverty written all over him? (117)

The phrase “genetic poverty” is forward-thinking and possibly prophetic on the part of Lee. What happens if and when genetic therapy and enhancement become norms? It seems to me that therapy is potentially very valuable and a great good. But what kind of greater inequalities would come to be from it? We must try to anticipate these and work to prevent further inequalities. As Christians, we need to care for the impoverished, and that includes what might be considered “genetic poverty.”

Supposing diseases begin to be cured on a broader scale through genetic therapy, it seems that Christians ought to support these changes with every effort. After all, curing illness and helping those in need is what we are called to do. But what does this mean for enhancement?

That question is much more complex. Enhancement, it seems to me, would necessarily increase the inequity between the haves and have-nots. After all, those who have the money to get super-sight or super-strength or predispositions to being great musicians could simply cash in to do so. Those who don’t, cannot. But does this mean it is wrong? It’s a very difficult question, and one that I don’t have a firm answer on. I lean towards saying that such things are permissible, but regulation seems a wise choice given we have little idea what impact modifying genes might have on the broader person. Again, I’ve written more on these questions here. What are your thoughts on answers to these questions?

Conclusion

Zeroboxer is an unexpectedly thoughtful book. Though it has some flaws, it is a worthy read. Just be aware of the violent and explicit content. See my review for more details on that. Exploring these issues related to genetics is very important. I see this as a field that will be expanding rapidly over the next decades. Christians need to engage with it and think about it ahead of time.

Links

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?– I delve into deeper questions about genetic enhancement vs. therapy. I also provide some further reading on the topic.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Silence” by Shusaku Endo – The Hidden God, the Crucified Lord

silence-endoShusaku Endo’s Silence is one of the most moving, deeply theological novels I have ever read. Here, I will discuss but a few worldview-level issues found in the book. There will be SPOILERS below.

The Hidden God

The most pervasive theme throughout the book is that of silence. The hiddenness of God is pressed home poignantly in scene after scene. Early in the book, the main character, a Jesuit priest from Portugal named Sebastião Rodrigues has confidence that no matter what, we will find out a purpose for any and all suffering in the world. His thought is that because God is good, there must be a reason behind each and every possible evil.

Yet as the book continues, the persecution of Christians intensifies and is made extremely clear to Rodrigues. Time and again he witnesses Christians being tortured to death and prays. Each time, a refrain is found in the book: he is answered by silence.

Again and again, the please of Christians and of the priest, Rodrigues, are answered by silence. He looks out to sea surrounding Japan and sees only blackness.

Silence confronts us with the problem of evil front-and-center, and offers some of the most frequently used answers in response. Yet many of these answers seem inadequate when set alongside the continued suffering of Christians being tortured.

The Absurdity of Life Without God

Life without God is absurd. Yet even this point, as found in Silence, points to the silence of God. Rodrigues reflects on his life, and finds that it is completely absurd if there is no God. But rather than focusing on big picture points on this topic, he points it to his own life and laments the absurdity of how he’s lived it if there is no God.

Christ, the Crucified Lord

Rodrigues is captured, and he is forced to endure the screams of tortured victims as time and again they ask him to apostasize. What is required of him is that he trample on an image of Christ. If he does not do so, the suffering of others will continue. He begins to wonder about the mercy of God and whether it would, indeed, be better to trample on this image of Christ and be seen as an apostate. Finally, he decides he will do it, if only to prevent further torture of others:

How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. 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.’
The priest placed his foot on the fumie [image of Christ]. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew. (171)

Christ came to suffer, and our sin is part of that suffering. Yet, Christ calls to us, letting us know his mercy is boundless, and that it was for our sake he “was born into this world.”

Ultimately, the silence of God is not silence at all. As the priest says it in the closing lines of the novel: “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him” (191). Christ works in us and through us.

The dialogue Rodrigues has with Christ in the end is just as poignant:
“Lord, I resented your silence.”
“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” (190)

Conclusion

Silence is one of those rare books that is sure to be remembered from the time you read it onward. I don’t know that I will ever forget the vivid scenes in which priests are forced to choose between allowing continued torture or being labeled as apostates. It is a stirring, heart-rending book of faith in the face of apparent silence. But the ultimate message is more hopeful: Christ is in us.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

Source

Shusaku Endo, Silence (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1980). Edition linked is a newer edition.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Her Dangerous Visions” by Brandon Barr- Prophecy, Evil, and Hope

hdv-barrBrandon Barr’s Her Dangerous Visions is a science fiction/fantasy drama that will suck you in and not let go. Here, I’ll offer a brief review of the book alongside a few comments on themes found therein. The shortest possible review is: get the book, it’s great.

Review

Barr’s writing style is direct, but has depth. There is an enormous amount of political drama, tension around love, and action packed into each page of the book. Moreover, Barr seamlessly combines elements of science fiction and fantasy, such that it is difficult to categorize the book neatly. But that combination works remarkably well here, as Barr moves from farms to space with ease.

This first entry in the series offers glimpses of a broader universe, leaving readers wanting more from future installments. The focus is on the planets that are involved in a conflict, Loam and Hearth, that is apparently much more than any of their inhabitants realize.

Barr’s style is driven by characters. The characters are all remarkably deep. They have qualities that make readers get immediately invested, and faults that make readers want to scream at the pages as they watch favorite characters make foolish choices time and again. Meluscia was my favorite character–a woman whose ailing father is debating whom to appoint as his successor. She works to become that successor, but her desires in other areas could throw her off her apparently single-minded quest. Winter, another character, is said to be a seer, but the visions she sees continue to show sickening danger. Does she share the visions to try to prevent what they foretell, or keep them silent in the hopes that sharing them will not cause them to happen? Each character, as I said, is full of depth and develops of the course of the story. They feel very real–with motivations, aspirations, and faults that drive them.

The plot itself is complex, with layers peeled away through the course of the book and in interludes between sections. The pace never lets up, and once readers start, they won’t be able to put it down.

Overall, Her Dangerous Visions is a simply phenomenal read. I highly recommend it, just be ready to read for a while, because you’ll want to dive into the next book ASAP.

There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Prophecy

Prophecy is clearly an important part of the book and the whole series. Winter’s gifting as a Seer means that she must try to understand what it means and come to comprehend it. There are portions where scenes with Winter remind me of biblical prophets and their own struggles. Think about it: how many prophets truly had it easy in the Bible? Nathan had to tell the King he’d committed great evil; Elijah was hunted for much of his career; John the Baptist ate bugs in the wilderness; etc. Similarly, Winter doesn’t have it easy, and finds herself questioning the wisdom of deity in this book. There is more to be explored in the coming books in the series, but at the end of Her Dangerous Visions, it is difficult to see where Winter may end up on her journey.

Evil

Evil is not often black-and-white in the real world, but there are some clear instances of it being such (i.e. Stalin/Hitler). Similarly, Barr’s book shows evil at times being black-and-white, but at other times it is much more subtle. Much of the evil in the book is from the characters themselves–finding themselves motivated wrongly by lust or vengeance rather than by virtues. It is a dimension that, as I said, makes the characters feel very real, and causes reflection in readers.

Hope

In our world, hope may be found in Christ, no matter how bad the darkness gets. Similarly, in Her Dangerous Visions, hope is found in trusting in others and the goodness of God. The spiritual realm in the novel is not fully revealed yet, so it will be interesting to see how it comes to be shaped over time.

Conclusion

I’d recommend readers pick up Brandon Barr’s book. He’s a man of faith who has written a phenomenal set of novels that are thought-provoking and thrilling.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

 

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”- A Christian Perspective- Re-enchantment, Grace, and Loyalty

hpccThe new Harry Potter book is out, and people all over the world are diving back into the series. What kind of world does the latest adventure depict? How might Christians interact with the book? There will be SPOILERS in what follows. There will also obviously be SPOILERS for any other books in the series.

Harry Potter and Christianity… what?

Some may immediately object to the notion that Christians can or should interact with something like Harry Potter. What I say likely won’t convince anyone. But what I would say is that Harry Potter helps re-enchant the world, and our world is in great need of re-enchantment. The Bible speaks of a world created by God, inhabit by angels and demons, and full of the miraculous. The world we most often observe is utterly mundane in comparison: a world which we often think we have entirely figured out.

Harry Potter, however, opens the door to re-enchantment. The world of Harry Potter is magical–and the wonder of magic is similar to the wonder that readers have the first time they enter that certain Wardrobe from the Spare Room or see the White Wizard reappear. It’s a world that moves beyond the mundane and speaks to something more. And Christianity teaches that there is something more. The world is not just what we see with our eyes–it is a world that is utterly enchanted, full of mystery, and created by a loving God.

What’s more, the Harry Potter story so far ended in a kind of re-telling of the Messianic story. Potter laid down his life for his friends, was resurrected, and saved them. It’s a familiar story with different trappings, but one that each generation must learn anew.

Grace

One of the most important themes in “Cursed Child” is grace. Harry must have the grace to love his son, Albus, despite the imperfections. Albus must forgive his father and show grace to him to begin healing their relationship. Albus must learn the lesson Harry learned long before–that grace can defeat evil. He spares Delphi, an act of grace, despite her deserving great punishment. It’s a lesson that is brought forward time and again. In every relationship mentioned in the book, grace is needed to help heal wounds of doubt, of barbed words, and more.

Loyalty

Loyalty is another theme that shows up time and again throughout the series, and Serverus Snape’s loyalty to Lily and Dumbledore is perhaps the greatest example. Even in the alternative future that Albus visits, Snape remains loyal to the memory of Lily and his promises to Dumbledore. He fights alongside those who, in some cases, he has every reason to despise, at least historically.

That history is another major theme of the book: does one’s past determine one’s present and future? Delphi felt as though she must follow a prophecy that would allow her to be reunited with her father. Snape had to get beyond the history that he had with Harry’s father to continue the fight against darkness in an alternative future. Harry and his son Albus’ relationship is strained both by their own history and by the history of Harry. Who you are, it seems near the beginning, is determined by what you–or your parents–were. But that myth is dispelled as it becomes apparent that current action and decisions can break away from the bonds of history. Through the power of grace, as already mentioned, relationships may be healed, people may move forward.

But is it good?

Okay, okay, we get it. There are themes that interact with Christianity in Harry Potter. Is the new book worth reading?

I’d say absolutely, for fans of the series already. It’s not as detailed as the novels are, because it’s a script. But it is a good script, and the characters do develop quite a bit. There are some moments that will make you gleeful as you pick up references to previous books. The main complaint I’d have is that because it is a script, there is so little description of the environment and the characters’ internal struggles–something Rowling excels at. It’s a good entry in the series that won’t make you completely disappointed, but it isn’t as fabulous as the previous books in the series.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Ken Follett’s “Fall of Giants” – Deconversion, Hope, and Strife

fog-follet

Ken Follett’s “The Century Trilogy” is a sweeping series . I just finished the first book, Fall of Giants, and realized there were several themes found therein that begged comment here. Here, I will analyze the book from a worldview perspective. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

I will not go over the plot of the book. A brief summary may be found here.

Deconversion

Billy Williams is a Welsh boy who goes to work in a coal mine. The first day on the job he is left alone in the pitch black–his lamp went out. Rather than wandering lost in the tunnels he keeps working until someone comes to get him. To keep himself from being too frightened, he sings Christian hymns and draws comfort from them. At the end, when the light is restored, he sees a fleeting vision of Christ just at the corner of the light and says “Thank you.”

If that sounds like the start of a storyline that will be an example of a life of faith to you, you would be disappointed. After an explosion in the coal mine, he is distressed by the problem of evil–why does God let bad things happen? As he grows older, Billy is exposed to textural criticism. He is disturbed that we don’t have copies of the original texts from which we get the words of the Bible. His father, who often preaches at their worship services, has insufficient answers. Later in life, Billy’s sister gets pregnant and is judged sharply by his father and their town because she is not married. He is strongly put off by the apparent hypocrisy of the people. He never returns to church.

I admit that “deconversion” may be a bit of a misnomer because it is never specifically said that Billy doesn’t believe in God anymore, but the implications are there. He has a deep distrust of and distaste for Christianity, it seems, after this.

The story illustrates the need for a firm foundation. Textual criticism is not something Christians should fear, as it allows us to recover the text of the Bible more accurately. The problem of evil is not unsolvable. And, unfortunately, Christian hypocrisy is actually something to be expected. Indeed, the Christian worldview would expect hypocrisy at times because we are still sinners in this world and will continue to commit wrongs, despite being people of faith. None of this was hinted at in the novel, but I suspect that this is due in part to the fact that Follett is himself an avowed secular humanist. There seems to be an agenda here (and see below).

Unfortunately, Billy’s story is similar to one we can see repeating in churches and families all over. We have not studied our faith. We have not worked out the hard problems related to Christianity, so when we are confronted by them, we are often found with pat answers rather than the truth. We need to actively seek out answers and be aware of our own limitations. Unable to answer every question, we should commit ourselves to a life of faith seeking understanding.

Hope

There is hope found in the darkness throughout the coming World War and the plights of the individual people. Hope is found largely in the actions of other people–the small kindnesses that are done even in the face of evil. As the world seems to be crashing down all around, it is relationships which keep people going. Some of these are vaguely religious in nature, though the persisting theme seems to be that people need to do for themselves whatever they’d like to accomplish.

Religious Leaders?

One persistent theme throughout the book is that those involved in the church are mean, nasty, and most likely sexual deviants. Any time a priest-whether Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodoxy or Anglican–is mentioned or encountered, it is almost always in context of some offhand remark about how they sexually harassed a child or how someone who is now an adult remembers when they were asked to have sex with the priest, etc. It’s actually quite tiresome. While on the one hand it is important to note that there are those within Christianity who have abused power throughout time, on the other hand, to suggest that everyone in some sort of position in power was a power-hungry sexual predator is uneven, to put it mildly.

Those who are not in established religion–like Billy’s dad–are portrayed as aloof, distant, and largely uncaring. Billy’s dad does get a chance to redeem himself as he accepts Ethel back into the family, but only after he had to consider the possibility of having his whole family fall apart.

Conclusion

Follett has woven an intriguing story with a very strong premise. It is unfortunate that throughout there also seem to be straight polemics against Christianity. A better balance was needed to make it seem realistic and not so much a diatribe against Christianity. Some good takeaways can be had from reading the book, but the worldview it presents is largely bleak and hopeless.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)

Source

Ken Follet, Fall of Giants (Signet, 2012).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Conviction” by Kelly Loy Gilbert- Faith, Baseball, and the messiness of sin

Conviction-Kelly-Loy-Gilbert

Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction is a novel that covers any number of sensitive topics, from faith to familial abuse, from homosexuality to racism. There are few punches pulled in the book, and it centers the narrative around both a baseball season and a murder trial. There will be SPOILERS for this thought-provoking book in what follows.

Baseball and Conviction

The plot centers around Braden as he waits to testify in his father’s murder trial. His father,  Martin Scott Raynor, Jr., is accused of intentionally running over and killing a police officer during a traffic stop. Meanwhile, the dead cop’s nephew plays baseball for the major rival team that Braden has to prepare to defeat. Braden is a pitcher, and many of the anecdotes in the book center around Braden’s experiences in baseball.

Indeed, many of the moments throughout the book where baseball is discussed are linked directly to faith and conviction. For example, years before the events of the book, Braden prayed for a sign from God and was at a San Francisco Giants game when a home run ball landed in his glove. He took it as a sign that his family would not fall apart. It did. Another example is Braden’s own focus on pitching and how it puts him in stark relief against the universe.

Conviction and Messiness

Above I mentioned that Braden had asked for a sign and felt he’d received it. Yet the interpretation he layered over the sign did not stand up to reality. His family–his dad Mart, and his brother Trey–did indeed fall apart spectacularly. But towards the end of the book, Braden realized that his interpretation had been too simplistic. It would be easier to walk away from God in disappointment, but that didn’t reflect the reality that Braden experienced.

What struck me most about Conviction is how uncomfortable it made me. It demonstrates, time and again, the messiness of a world that has been infected with sin. Braden’s father clearly cares about he and Trey, but he’s also both physically and verbally abusive. Mart also makes clearly racist statements at times, and these statements are never clearly condemned. Gilbert has written a subtler book than that. Readers are left to read the story and come to their own conclusions. Hints are left, but what Gilbert has done is present the world in all of its messiness. It would make me more comfortable if she had revealed clearly where her own stances were, but instead we are left with a plot and characters that feel remarkably like the real world. The real world is not so easy to put in individual boxes and definitions.

Perhaps that is what Gilbert does best, then, in Conviction. She portrays a world sin has infected by showing us broken people who don’t deserve grace. Nevertheless, grace is shown to them by a God who is near.

God’s Love

…I think about how with my dad, and with Trey, no matter what either one of them ever does I think I’ll still feel exactly the same way about them that I always have. I know it shouldn’t be like that because it isn’t safe, and because I think most other people get to choose who they care about and when to stop and it’s not fair… I think that’s the worst and the most dangerous thing I know.
But I hope–I hope–that’s something like what God feels about me. (327)

These lines are so poignant because of all that has come before them. Braden realizes that he loves his family unconditionally, and hopes that God feels that way about him.

Indeed, the love of God is one of the most prominent themes throughout the Bible, and Braden’s thoughts on this matter reflect, I think, the kind of existential reality that all Christians must live in. We realize that though we are sinners, God has declared us saints.

Conclusion

Conviction  is one of those rare novels that will keep you thinking about the story and characters long after you have read the book. I think it is one of the most honest, heart-rending books I have read. It comes highly recommended.

Links

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SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier – Creationism, women, and paleontology

rc-chevalierRemarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is a historical fiction novel based on the lives of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, early fossil hunters in England. It raises an astonishing number of worldview questions related to women, paleontology, and creationism, and we will here discuss just a few of these issues. There will be SPOILERS in what follows, but it is history!

Paleontology, Creationism, and Controversy

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Remarkable Creatures is its survey of the controversies surrounding the discovery of fossils that challenged reigning scientific and religious paradigms. One of the greatest challenges was to come to believe that extinction had occurred. Think about it: if all you ever knew was the living beings around you, what possible reason would there be for thinking that those beings could die out, such that none were left anywhere? Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot’s finds of creatures like icthyosaurus challenged even the greatest thinkers of the time to come up with new paradigms for fitting these creatures–which didn’t exist anywhere on earth at their time–into reality.

For a time, it was thought that the bones of icthyosaurus were just those of a crocodile. But then Mary Anning discovered a complete fossil that included huge eyes (eyes that even had bones in them!). This forced people to the realization that these truly were novel creatures.

It’s a fascinating thing to think about, because the problem wasn’t just that it forced them to come up with a new concept–extinction. It also led to theological crises. After all, why would God create creatures that would all die out? One pastor in the book was particularly disturbed by this notion. He argues with Elizabeth Philpot: “All that you see about you is as God set it out in the beginning. He did not create beasts and then get rid of them. That would suggest He had made a mistake, and of course God is all knowing and incapable of error…” (144, citation from large print edition [only one they had at the library]). Philpot then comes back, noting that rock formations change and that if creation is supposed to be without change, how could rock fall or change a cliff face? The pastor ultimately comes back by saying that “God placed the fossils there when He created the rocks, to test our faith…” (145). Chevalier cleverly puts an answer in Philpot’s head: “It is my faith in you [the pastor as interpreter of Scripture] that is being tested, I thought” (145). The pastor, it should be noted, was also using, as was commonplace, Bishop Ussher’s chronology of the world, which put the date of creation “on the night preceding the 23rd of October 4004 B.C.” (144). Philpot wryly remarks- “I had always wondered at his precision.”

Another idea that was prominent at the time was the notion of anatomical laws or conformity with Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being. According to these ideas, there is a kind of hierarchy of being that puts humans at the top (usually) with other creatures in stages below that. It is not evolution, for it predates that idea. Instead, it is a way of ordering those creatures which exist now according to some principles. Mary Anning’s finding of a plesiosaur challenged this chain of being by violating the ways that creatures were supposed to appear or exist.

Late in the book, Elizabeth Philpot is finally questioned on what she thinks about the fossils and God. She is pleased to finally be asked:

I am comfortable with reading the Bible figuratively rather than literally. For instance, I think the six days in Genesis are not literal days, but different periods of creation, so that it took many thousands–or hundreds of thousands of years–to create. It does not demean God; it simply gives Him more time to build this extraordinary world. (391, again note reference from large print edition)

Although this is a work of historical fiction, these debates continue into today. Some groups still use Bishop Ussher’s chronology to date the age of the earth. Although few would argue that there are no extinct creatures, new forms of the same arguments have led to the young earth creationist movement, in which people argue that the Bible requires us to believe that all the creatures that are extinct were alive at the same time as humans. I have personally had conversations with young earth creationists who say that fossils are one way God tests our faith (I know of no young earth organization who would use this argument, thankfully). Scientific findings continue to challenge entrenched religious beliefs.

One is perhaps left to wonder, like Philpot’s thoughts, on how some people get so much precision. The Bible nowhere puts a date on creation. Nor does the Bible demand that all creatures that have ever lived were allowed at the same time. Yet these beliefs persist, and many Christians insist that if one does not hold to them, they are not true Christians, or are perhaps abandoning Scripture. As in Mary Anning’s time, we still have much work to do. We cannot let our external paradigms (things like Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being, or perhaps more germane, our own assumptions about how texts ought to be read “literally” and what the word “literal” means) determine how God is allowed to act or what God may communicate to us.

Women

The book does a good job portraying the way the contributions of women were ignored or even stolen. Mary Anning was an expert fossil hunter–self taught. Yet time and again, men used her expertise to find their fossils and then take credit for the finds. Although her contributions were acknowledged later, her life of poverty is a sad testimony to the way that unequal treatment of women can so easily be perpetuated. The book portrays this unequal treatment in many ways. First, there is the exclusion of both Philpot and Anning from societies of geologists (this was before paleontology was a separate field of study from geology). Second, social norms provide for a simple way to create inequality. When one sex is given the benefit of the doubt (men, in this case) while the other is considered permanently damaged even by gossip about impropriety (women), restraints upon the social movement and capacity of the latter follow by necessity. Third, the contributions of women were ignored.

Unfortunately, parallels to each of these scenarios continue today. Women are excluded from certain groups or positions (such as those who keep women from becoming pastors), thus creating spiritual inequality. Conventions of purity culture, for example, treat women as “impure” or “damaged goods,” putting the onus on young women to abstain while simultaneously removing blame from young men. The power of imagery–objectification of women–continues to impact both women and men in negative ways. We can learn from Remarkable Creatures that much progress has been made, but it also points us in the direction of more work to be done.

Conclusion

Remarkable Creatures is a fascinating read. Although it is dry at times, it provides much insight into a number of discoveries that changed the world. It highlights the careers of two women who contributed much to paleontology in its formative stages. Perhaps most importantly, it challenges us to keep improving, to keep thinking, and to keep observing God’s remarkable world.

Source

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures (New York: Penguin, 2010).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

Mary Anning: Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs, and The Age of Reptiles– A post that highlights the contributions Mary Anning made to the paleontology. It particularly focuses on how these discoveries pre-dated Darwin.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

“Ghost Hawk” by Susan Cooper- Cultural Imperialism and Christianity

ghost-hawk-cooper

Susan Cooper is a renowned author best known for The Dark is Rising Sequence. Her latest young adult novel, Ghost Hawk, is an deeply compelling look at the dangers of cultural imperialism and the ways that cultures interact. Here, I’ll examine the book from a worldview level. The will be SPOILERS in what follows.

 

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism occurs when a dominant group asserts its customs or traditions as normative over those of another. For a fantastic book that looks at some of these issues in context of First Nations/Native Americans, see Richard Twiss’s Rescuing the Gospel from the CowboysThe white settlers coming into the land are imposing their culture and customs on the Native groups in the area. That this is historical reality is beyond dispute. Cooper presents this, however, in an intriguing way.

John and others are in favor of reform–working with the Native groups and trying to understand them. Others, notably Puritans, believe that all the Natives are without any kind of possible hope. They are simply the heathen, and must be not only converted, but must conform themselves to the European cultural standards. This same imperialism carries into today as missions to Native groups too often wish to banish all Native expressions of spirituality.

The story does not take a happy turn. The efforts to come to mutual understanding largely fail, and Little Hawk is murdered in the process. Little Hawk’s spirit lingers to speak with John for some time (see below).

Despite all the reasons why Little Hawk and John might give up hope, they persist in trusting that hope might be found:

“These people[,” John said, “]they have no charity either for the Indians or for Christians who do not follow their own harsh rules. They talk about the word of the Lord, but they do not listen to it. Shall we destroy each other, in the end?”
…”Change is made by the voice of one person at a time,” [Little Hawk/Ghost Hawk] said…
“But you had no choice [to kill the wolf,” John said to Ghost Hawk. “]We too kill wolves, to keep them from eating the animals that we want to eat. We choose to do it. We have choices all the time, and so often we make the wrong ones.” (291-292, cited below)

There are a number of avenues to explore in this quote. First, it is worth noting that that different Christian voices are presented in the novel. Yes, some present a view in which the Native peoples are merely the heathen–not even worth associating with. Yet others work towards understanding and following God’s word. Second, the concept of choice is quite blatant here: our choices is what can make the difference going forward. When we choose to continue to act as a cultural aggressor, the cycle is perpetuated. What can be done to make a change? Again, different choices–following God’s word.

Ghost Hawk

The story of Ghost Hawk is set during early colonization of what would become known as Massachusetts. The first half of the book follows Little Hawk, a Native American boy who begins his quest to become a man. He encounters the spirit of a hawk/osprey in the wild, but when he returns home he discovers that plague has killed the vast portion of his family and tribe. As the story goes on, he encounters John, the son of a settler. Little Hawk is murdered by one of the settlers as John looks on, and himself becomes a kind of Manitou spirit, communicating with John for some time. Yet the story reaches beyond the initial setting, swirling past over a century of time as the land that was once used by the Massachusetts and other tribes now “belongs” to others. Ultimately, Little Hawk’s spirit is released as a kind of totem of his–his axe–is melded into a tree.

Conclusion

Ghost Hawk asks us to think about cultural imperialism from a different perspective. Susan Cooper invites us to consider the societal and systemic wrongs that have been done to Native groups and to enter into a conversation about how we can work to change that going forward. Moreover, her care to show different perspectives is admirable. Christians should be reflective of past wrongs and seek mutual reconciliation. We need to be aware of how our own expectations are not equivalent with the expectations of the Bible. Reading Ghost Hawk provides a way to start thinking about those issues.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

Source

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk (New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2013).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

What about those who haven’t heard? – Part 1 of a Case Study on Religious Pluralism from Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur”

ben-hur

A beautiful cover for an edition of Ben Hur- I was unable to locate the exact copyright information.


Ben Hur 
is one of my all-time favorite novels. There are many issues related to worldview raised throughout the novel. I have started a series which outlines some of the ways it interacts with

Selection from the Book

Each post in this series will begin with a segment from the book itself. Here, we jump into a scene in which one of the wise men is telling the story of how he came to be in a desert, meeting up with the others. He is Greek. I have abridged the segment to focus on the areas in which this series is most interested, namely, the ways God interacts with humanity.

“I am Gaspar, son of Cleanthes the Athenian…

…”It happens that two of our [Greece’s] philosophers, the very greatest of the many [reference to Plato and Aristotle, presumably], teach, one the doctrine of a Soul in every man, and its Immortality; the other the doctrine of One God, infinitely just. From the multitude of subjects about which the schools were disputing, I separated them, as alone worth the labor of solution; for I thought there was a relation between God and the soul as yet unknown…

“In the northern part of my country–in Thessaly… there is a mountain famous as the home of the gods… Olympus is its name. Thither I betook myself. I found a cave [nearby]… there I dwelt, giving myself up to meditation–no, I gave myself up to waiting for what every breath was a prayer–for revelation. Believing in God, invisible yet supreme, I also believed it possible so to yearn for him with all my soul that he would take compassion and give me answer.

“…One day I saw a man flung overboard from a ship sailing by. He swam ashore. I received and took care of him. He was a Jew, learned in the history and laws of his people; and from him I came to know that the God of my prayers did indeed exist; and had been for ages their lawmaker, ruler, and king. What was that but the Revelation I dreamed of? My faith had not been fruitless; God answered me!”

“As he does all who cry to him with such faith,” said the [Hindu].

“But, alas!” the Egyptian added, “how few are there wise enough to know when he answers them!”

“That was not all,” the Greek continued. “The man so sent to me told me more. He said the prophets who, in the ages which followed the first revelation, walked and talked with God, declared he would come again…

“It is true… the man told me that as God and the revelation of which he spoke had been for the Jews alone, so it would be again… ‘Had he nothing for the rest of the world?’ I asked. ‘No,’ was the answer, given in a proud voice–‘No, we are his chosen people.’ The answer did not crush my hope. Why should such a God limit his love and benefaction to one land, and, as it were, to one family? …When the Jew was gone, and I was alone again, I chastened my soul with a new prayer–that I might be permitted to see the King when he was come, and worship him. One night I sat by the door of my cave trying to get nearer the mysteries of my existence, knowing which is to know God; suddenly, on the sea below me, or rather in the darkness that covered its face, I saw a star begin to burn; slowly it arose and drew nigh, and stood over the hill and above my door, so that its light shone full upon me. I fell down, and slept, and in my dream I heard a voice say:

“‘O Gaspar! Thy faith hath conquered! Blessed art thou! With two others, come from the uttermost parts of the earth, thou shalt see Him that is promised, and be a witness for him, and the occasion of testimony in his behalf. In the morning arise, and go meet them, and keep trust in the Spirit that shall guide thee.’

“And in the morning I awoke with the Spirit as a light within me surpassing that of the sun…”

This passage can be found in Ben Hur, Book I, Chapter III. It may be read in its entirety online here (it is public domain due to expired copyright).

An illustration from the Ben Hur novel. I was unable to find a specific copyright.

An illustration from the Ben Hur novel. I was unable to find a specific copyright.

Notes on Religion from the Selection

Christians have proposed many different answers to one of the most pressing questions, itself having been pondered for centuries: “What about those who have never heard?” The question is regarding salvation–can those who have never heard be saved? But it isn’t only that. It might be nuanced in many ways. For example, are there any who have not heard what is required to be saved who would respond if they did hear it? Though the answer initially may seem obvious, it must be thought over carefully before one simply says yes or no.

In this passage from Lew Wallace, we find not one, but two separate answers to this question combined into one account. The answers are: direct divine revelation, and sending a witness. (I have dubbed them this, but the titles summarize common proposals–see below.)

Sending a Witness

One of the answers Christians have given to the question of those who have not heard and their salvific status is pretty straightforward: there simply are none who have not heard. The claim seems rather extraordinary, for, after all, entire swathes of humanity never had contact with any Christian missionary for vast periods of time. Yet, this answer to the question suggests that God sends a witness to anyone who would respond. Thus, if there is someone in a place where Christianity had not yet reached who would have responded to a missionary, God somehow sets it up such that that person hears from someone about Christ.

In the example from Ben Hur above, we see that the Greek was looking for the divine–hoping for a response. Thus, through providential act, a Jew washed up on shore to instruct him about the truth.

It seems this solution to the problem of religious pluralism and those who have not heard is unsatisfactory. There are many reasons for this. First, it supports a rather dim view of other cultures through a system that is ultimately culturally imperialist. Second, it seems to stretch credulity, for it would follow from this position that either there have only been very few outside of the parts of the world where Christianity is dominant who would have responded to the Gospel anyway (see previous point) or that there are innumerable instances of shipwrecks washing missionaries on shore in far off places all over the world to wherever someone might respond to the Gospel. Either of these seems unsatisfactory.

However, it is possible that the “Sending a Witness” answer could be part of an answer to the questions posed here. It just does not seem capable of carrying all the weight on its own.

Direct Divine Revelation

Like the previous answer, the “direct divine revelation” solution to the problem of religious pluralism and specifically those who have not heard is one which ultimately results in the answer: None have not heard. For, if someone would respond to the Gospel, God simply reveals Christ through direct revelation. In the selection above, we see that a dream reveals the Holy Spirit to Gaspar.

This answer to the questions raised above is perhaps more satisfactory than the previous one, but difficulties remain. The primary one is that although several firsthand instances of this type of thing happening are found, they do not seem to be as ubiquitous as they might need to be in order to adequately account for all those who have not heard. Again, this may be part of a larger multi-level response, but I don’t think it can stand on its own.

Conclusion

Wallace provides here an overview of two of the traditional answers to the question of those who have not heard about Jesus Christ. Neither solution seems entirely satisfactory, though either or both might be integrated into a holistic view of witnessing and missions. We will explore other aspects of Wallace’s exploration of religious pluralism

Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I think that John Sanders’ book, No Other Name is perhaps the best work I have read for providing background into the different proposed solutions for the question of those who have not heard about Christ. It would be a good read for those wishing to explore the topic further.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace– The post introducing this entire series on “Ben Hur.” It has links to all the posts in the series.

Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic– I look at the 1959 epic film from a worldview perspective. How does the movie reflect the deeply Christian worldview of the book?

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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