Book Review: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

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This post-apocalyptic thriller imagines a world set four hundred years after nuclear disaster. An inexplicable result of radiation makes each pregnancy result in twins–one is deformed by mutation, the other is not. The result is a binary class system made up of Alphas, the “pure” twins, and Omegas, the rejected twins. Further complicating the situation is the strange connection between the twins. When one dies, so does the other, even if they are far apart.

The main character, Cass, is an Omega with no obvious deformity. She belongs to the rare group known as “seers,” people with the ability to sense things through dreams and visions. The Omegas are an oppressed group, and fear among Alpha population results in increasing government restrictions on Omega life–and in the birth of a mysterious resistance movement.

Strengths: The conflict between Alphas and Omegas gives a fresh twist to the “oppressed people group” narrative. The Alphas send their Omega children to live in settlements and force them to work and live in poverty, but they can’t oppress them to the point of death. The death of one results in the death of another, which puts a check on their hatred of them. For me this was a “big idea” that gave the book some relevance to real life. Though society may reject certain “undesirables,” the upper class cannot exist without a lower class. I don’t know how deep Haig was trying to get with this idea, but I thought it was clever. There are some interesting characters throughout, and the world Haig builds for the novel is coherent and compelling.

Weaknesses: The publisher touts the book as “The Hunger Games meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” I’m comfortable with the comparison the Hunger Games trilogy, but let’s not bring The Road into this. The Fire Semon read like a YA novel, complete with romance, angst, and identity struggles. That’s not a critizicm, mind you. Where the book falls short is in the development of those elements. Most of the dialogue is flat, while some is downright annoying. To be fair, only about half the weaknesses I see can be attributed to the author; the other half is purely a matter of preference.

While I wasn’t spellbound, I am actually curious to see how the series will evolve throughout the trilogy. I’m not sure the world really needs another post-apocalyptic trilogy–which, by the way, has already been snatched up for an upcoming movie trilogy–but we’ll see if the world responds well to it anyway. It was enjoyable enough for me to be able to recommend it–check it out!

Final judgment: It was okay.

Would I read it again? No.

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Introducing Culture Shock and the New Testament

At first glance, our world seems “smaller” now than ever before. It is so small (studio audience: “how small is it???”) that Disney even wrote an annoying ear-worm of a song. Don’t click here, and you won’t hear it. Television, Internet, and movies all give us exposure to cultures and places we’ve never been in direct contact with before. That’s perfectly fine, though it may give us a false sense of familiarity to these other cultures. We may think we’ve got a better handle on the world than we actually do. Just because you read a lot of manga and say desu all the time doesn’t mean you could move to Japan tomorrow and get along just fine. Fully encountering another culture (not just a two-dimensional, fictional portrayal of one) means more than just different food and clothes. It goes deeper than even learning another language. We’re talking about some of our most basic views on the world. This is called culture shock.

Culture shock comes when we run out of a frame large enough to understand what is happening. For example, we have a “script” that we use when we greet each other. Let’s say you are at work and you see a co-worker. The co-worker smiles says, “Good morning, [your name],” and you say the same. You pass each other in the hall as you go about your business. No big deal. If you saw the same person ten minutes later and he or she smiled and said, “Good morning, [your name],” you would probably be taken back by this. That’s not how we normally greet each other after the initial greeting. If it happened a third time, you’d probably start avoiding this person. Why? Because your co-worker broke the “script.” The same rules apply for casually asking how someone is doing, or meeting a stranger. You talk to a loved one differently than you talk to someone taking your order at a drive-thru window. These examples are tiny, but they demonstrate how ordered our social interactions are. We haven’t even gotten into things like perceptions of fairness, what’s considered rude or polite behavior, or appropriate treatment of the opposite sex. Walking into a situation where a common action is misinterpreted as extremely offensive would be horrible, since you probably don’t even know what you did wrong. Suddenly, only having a taste for local food or pop music isn’t as important as you thought.

For those of us who grew up in a typical American-Christian culture, the so-called “world of the Bible” (a uselessly simplistic term) probably seems very comfortable. We’d probably be best friends with guys like David or John the Baptist, right? But, if you loaded your Sunday school class into a scienced-up DeLorean and went back in time, things might be a little different than you imagined. First of all, a DeLorean only holds like two people. Better take the weekly prayer meeting instead! [Cue sad trombone sound.] If you dropped off a bunch of Americans anywhere near the middle east today, we’re talking about major culture shock. Now go back 2,000 years. Is it going to be any better or worse? (Hint: worse.) There are language barriers, differences in basic religious assumptions, gender views, et cetera et cetera…

In his book, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, sociologist Bruce Malina writes, “Perhaps the first and largest step that a contemporary American can take toward understanding the Bible is to realize that in reading the Bible in English (or even Greek), we are in fact listening to the words of a transplanted group of foreigners. It takes only the ability to read to find out what these foreigners are saying, but it takes far more to find out what they mean” (Malina, 2). I’m not saying that the Bible should only be handled by experts. I am saying that we cannot treat the Bible like it was written by modern Americans. It often takes serious thought to understand the meanings behind what is said. I’ll not even hit 800 words in this post—there’s no way I’ve done this subject justice. But Dr. Malina’s work was really crucial to me in understanding the world of Jesus and the early Christian communities. I happened to think of this book a few days ago and my wheels started turning. The scholarly group he has been part of in the past, The Context Group, might be the subject of a future post. No promises.

For Bruce Malina’s book, see Amazon or Google Books.

Here We Go Again

In my experience, blog writing is like dieting. Every so often I start thinking, “I should write a blog!” I get all excited, planning out what kind of things I will want to say. I even write and publish a few posts, maybe get a few likes…and then quit.

Time to give it another try.

Like a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool…returns to his blog? Maybe I shouldn’t start off by misquoting scripture.

So, here is the inevitable “hello world!” sort of entry that begins myriads of dead blogs across the Internet. I’m just going to say a few things and have done with it. I’ll be brief, I promise.

I can’t possibly foresee all the kinds of things I may want to write about, but there are three main areas that have consumed my thoughts for a long time (just ask my wife). In simplest terms–Faith, Literature and History. (If only I had chosen a different major in college, Mathematics or Science would be on this list, too!)

Faith. My faith is rooted in the person and teachings of Jesus, but it only gets more complicated from there. The Incarnation of Christ embodies the kinds of mysteries that we scarcely approach in our days on earth. I wonder about these “far-off” kinds of truths, the numinous, the mysterium tremendumOn the practical side of these pursuits are the political and cultural implications of theological ideals. Biblical interpretation, sexuality and gender norms, economic policies, and racial issues–you know, easy to talk about, non-confrontational stuff like that–are all connected to basic beliefs about God (or not-God) and the world.

Literature. It’s perhaps no surprise that the books which have affected me most deeply touch on the kinds of issues described above. While a great many intelligent and skilled writers are approaching culture with faith in mind, so-called Christian fiction is seriously lacking in such depth. A casual glance inside a Christian book store seems to indicate that if you don’t like reading theology and church leadership books, you’d better like Amish romance. I’m optimistic that there will come a generation of thoughtful people of Faith who will write creative, powerful, and lasting literary fiction. I read a lot, and want to talk about what books have been meaningful to others.

History. I am interested in history because I’m interested in people. The world’s situation today didn’t appear ex nihilo, it is the result of decisions made in the past. The practical issues of faith described above are intimately rooted in history. I can’t study the beliefs of a particular church tradition while completely ignoring the political and cultural concerns of that same group.

Plus, I have a degree in archaeology, and I have to do something with all this dormant knowledge.

Now, a quick word on the name of this blog. The Reforming Mind is about growth. It has nothing to do with “reformed” theology, though I have nothing against it. I just don’t want my seminary brethren (and “sisteren”) to think this is primarily a blog about reformed theology.

Okay, that’s enough. This is a very non-committal intro post, so no promises about content. Bob Ross, painter of over 30,000 landscapes once told me, “this is your world,” and “there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.” Okay, so he was on TV when he said it, but he was looking right at me.

In honor of Bob Ross, welcome to my world.