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Tim Challies

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7 years 8 months ago
Born on a Blue Day is the memoir of Daniel Tammet, a British autistic savant. The subject of a documentary entitled The Boy With The Incredible Brain (also broadcast under the title Brainman) Tammet has gained some notoriety and worldwide attention for his incredible feats of memory and mathematics.

Tammet has a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that effects social and communication skills. It is characterized by narrow interests and unconventional preoccupations; by repetitive behaviors; by logical and technical patterns of thought; by behavior and interpersonal interaction that can be socially and emotionally inappropriate; and by clumsy and uncoordinated motor control. Tammet also has Savant Syndrome, the condition most commonly associated with Dustin Hoffman’s character from the film Rain Man in which he portrayed Kim Peek, an actual person who suffers from the syndrome. Savants are typically developmentally or mentally handicapped in some areas but display extraordinary abilities in others. They are often amazingly gifted in memory, mathematics, art or music. Added to these, Tammet experiences synesthesia, a rare neurological condition which results in the ability to see letters and numbers in colors, shapes, motions or textures. He is truly an extraordinary individual.

My interest in this book was primarily owing to the fact that both a member of my family and three children who live next door to us have Asperger’s Syndrome. While there is much that can be learned about the condition through typical books or websites, Tammet has the unusual ability to describe the condition and to provide an insider’s perspective on it. Like many people with the syndrome, his ability to communicate through the written word far exceeds his ability to express himself verbally.

A frustrating problem I found with this book is that while Tammet’s conditions and abilities are fascinating, his life is in many ways very ordinary and, since he is only twenty seven years old, has probably only just begun. Like many people with Asperger’s, he has a fascination with details and the story sometimes becomes bogged down in these. It seems at times that no detail is too small to include, a fact that is interesting in light of his condition, but can occasionally make for tedious reading. Where the book begins with lots of interesting information about how Tammet’s abilities made him different, the book soon focuses more on his disabilities. It is not until the final few chapters that he focuses again on his amazing and unique abilities.

The book’s first seven chapters take the reader from Tallet’s birth into what soon became a very large family to his first experience of independence—a trip to Lithuania where he served in a volunteer capacity as an English teacher. This trip was pivotal, for it helped him discover that he was capable of some level of independence (certainly not a given for people with Asperger’s) and that this was something he desired. It also allowed him to come to terms with his homosexuality and it was here that he made his sexual orientation public. That he is homosexual did not come as a surprise to me based on my knowledge of people with Asperger’s, for their social handicaps make them look and feel different. It is little wonder that they often gravitate away from traditional relationships. They are also very easily victimized and can be led to homosexual behavior through predators.

Following the description of his travels in Lithuania, the pace of the book slows. Tallet meets Neil, a man who quickly became and continues to remain his partner. Together they began an internet-based company specializing in teaching languages. Tallet also undertook some amazing feats, such as setting the European record for memorizing the value of pi, taking just three months to memorize its first 22,517 digits. As part of the Brainman documentary he was challenged to learn the language of Icelandic in just one week and succeeded enough that he was able to converse quite freely in Icelandic on national television. He also discovered religion, embracing Christianity (he does not mention his denominational affiliation, but judging by his particular love of Ave Maria I think we can guess) and marking his conversion as Christmas of 2002. He enjoys the writings of Chesterton, a man who may well have been on the higher end of the autistic spectrum. Sadly, Tallet’s brief testimony includes no mention of sin and certainly no mention of modified behavior. I found it particularly interesting that he regards his love of Christianity to be almost entirely intellectual. His autism makes it difficult to understand emotions and feelings and thus his conversion was largely intellectual and logical. This is something important to keep in mind for those of us who interact regularly with people diagnosed with this condition and who wish to see them embrace the Savior.

While somewhat uneven at times, Born on a Blue Day was an interesting read and quite a quick one. It is certainly amazing to see the remarkable abilities God gives to some people and to realize that, despite advances in technology and medicine, the power of the human brain is still far beyond our comprehension. This book will certainly not appeal to everyone (though, based on the fact that it has appeared on the New York Times list of bestsellers, it does seem to have wide appeal), but I am glad to have read it and would not hesitate to recommend it to others, though only in view of the caveats mentioned earlier.

8 years 2 months ago
The first I remember of Anderson Cooper was as host of the short-lived reality program The Mole. Prior to The Mole he had apparently been a successful reporter for the Channel One and ABC networks, both as correspondent and news anchor. I knew nothing of this and thought he made a more than adequate host for what was surely one of the better shows to appears at the dawn of the reality craze. After 9/11 though, Cooper decided he had had enough of reality television and returned to the news, this time as a co-anchor of CNN’s Good Morning America. He has since begun anchoring his own program, Anderson Cooper 360. But what Cooper is best known for is for appearing in the world’s most troubled spots. He routinely reports from the scenes of disaster and devastation, both natural and man-made. Dispatches From The Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters and Survival is his memoir of his life and of the most difficult situations he has covered as a reporter. An immediate New York Times Bestseller, the response to this book proves that Anderson Cooper has become a much-loved and highly-respected journalist.

Anderson is the son of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and Wyatt Emory Cooper, an artist and writer. He is the great-great grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and as such comes from a fantastically wealthy family. Cooper’s lost his father when he was only ten years, a death which was enormously difficult for the boy. A second tragedy struck ten years later when his brother, aged twenty three, committed suicide. It seems that this event may have begun his interest in journalism. Serving as a war correspondent for Channel One, Cooper reported on wars, disasters and all manner of human ugliness. All the while he wrestled with the demons of his own life and the devastating losses of his father and brother. The recklessness he so often displays in his career seems to stem from the difficulty he has faced in life.

The bulk of this book deals with four hot-spots Cooper covered as a correspondent: the aftermath of the Tsunami, the war in Iraq, starvation in Niger and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He reflects, often frankly and even graphically, on what he saw and experienced. Woven throughout these other events is the story of his life and the constant turmoil of his heart. This is part history, part current events, and part biography.

Dispatches From The Edge makes for a quick but fascinating read. Cooper’s recollections of the devastation he witnessed first-hand are stark and still raw. They provide the context and tell the stories behind the brief videos we see all too often on television. They tell the stories behind the stories and seek to find meaning in them. Yet I was struck by how, as one who does not believe in God or believe the truths of Scripture, Cooper had no substantial framework through which to understand pain and devastation. He could see the beauty in the actions of human kindness, but could not understand the source of human depravity, the answer to it, and the hope of eternity.

This book is, like the situations it describes, raw. The language is frank and occasionally vulgar. Cooper tells things as they really were, or as he understood them to be. The reader will likely see some liberal bias in Cooper’s attempts to explain the events he describes. This can be frustrating at times, but is, I suppose, inevitable. Still, through this painfully honest memoir, Cooper weaves the story of his life, and all the disaster he has experienced, with many of the disasters the world has experienced. It portrays some of the most cataclysmic events of recent times through the eyes of a man who was there.

8 years 4 months ago
The decision that I would read Mayflower, a book that has made its way nearly to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers, took only as long as was necessary for me to understand that it dealt with the Puritan pilgrims who arrived on the shores of American in 1620. Though the story of the arrival and early struggles of this group of immigrants is now the stuff of legend, I know surprisingly little about these people. Because this story has entered the realm of legend, it is difficult to know where reality ends and mere fantasy begins. Nathaniel Philbrick, who was awarded the National Book Award for his previous title, In the Heart of the Sea, believes that the oft-told tale of the first Thanksgiving, celebrated between the Pilgrims and the Indians, does not do justice to the history of Plymouth Colony. “Instead of an inspiring tableau of tranquil cooperation, the Pilgrims’ first half-century in America was more of a passion play in which vibrant, tragic, self-serving and heroic figures struggled to preserve a precarious peace.” Tragically, that peace was shattered with in the events of the little-known King Philip’s War. Mayflower is a story of courage, community and war. It is a story of the fragile peace that erupted into a brutal war.

There are at least two things I find I need to watch out for when reading history. First, there is the constant danger of historical revisionism, a danger I feel is as prevalent today as at any time in the past. We live in an age when objective truth raises suspicion and, sadly, history has not been immune to the effects of relativism. A second danger is that of twenty-twenty hindsight. With the benefit of all of the facts before us, it can be far too simple for us to determine whether a particular action was right or wrong. But as history unfolds, those caught up in it rarely have access to all the information that would help them to make the best decisions. And so decisions that were made with the best information available and with the best intentions at heart, may appear foolish and immoral when printed in the history books.

Mayflower begins with 102 sick, cold and wet passengers arriving on the shores of the New World. While their long voyage had been both costly and frustrating, it would prove no great trial compared to what awaited them. These men and women arrived at a time when the Native population was being decimated by Old World diseases which ravaged a population that had developed no immunity to such viruses. The two groups quickly forged an awkward friendship held together primarily by the efforts of the Native leader Massasoit and the Pilgrim military leader Miles Standish. This peace lasted for several decades, but as one generation gave way to the next, the peace dissolved into the brutal and bloody conflict now known as King Philip’s War.

The cost of this war was horrifying. Though it lasted only fourteen months, the war was devastating in the loss of human life. During the Second World War, which lasted forty-five months, the United States lost just under one percent of its male population. In comparison, King Philip’s war cost Plymouth Colony fully eight percent of its men. The nearby Indian population fared even worse, losing an estimated sixty to eighty percent of its population to battle, sickness, disease or slavery. The war also destroyed what had been a thriving economy and it would take decades for the New World to recover its wealth, status and infrastructure.

Where the book begins with the Pilgrims arriving in their new land, it ends with a reflection on their losses and the losses of the Indian tribes. Philbrick attempts to make sense of the carnage and with the fact that this war has received little attention until recent years. “In the American popular imagination, the nation’s history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and Concord and the Revolution.” King Philip’s war has become little more than a distasteful footnote in history.

I do not often speak of “history coming to life”, for I feel the phrase is far too commonly used. Yet Philbrick seems to have the gift of doing just that. As I read about the early days of Plymouth I could almost sense the bitter cold and feel the anguish as the Pilgrims mourned the death of another of their people. I understood the bond they felt and wanted them to succeed in building their utopia. History really seemed to come to life.

In telling this story, it seemed to me that Philbrick generally managed to avoid falling into historical revisionism (though ultimately I would have to defer to the expertise of those who have greater knowledge of this period of history) and relying too heavily on hindsight. Still, there were a few occasions when I felt that he was too quick to judge, too quick to assume. In particular, he seemed only too willing to judge the morality of the Pilgrims who fought in this war. When it came to the Native Indians, he seemed less willing to do so. When the white men punish Native insurrection by enslaving parts of the population and shipping them to plantations thousands of miles away, he justifiably declares it an act that is morally repugnant. But he makes no statement about the Natives who ritually torture their victims or who kill men, women and children alike. In fact, the one time he does discuss Indian ritual torture in any detail, he does so in the context of a white man watching these horrible acts as an educational experience. Thus the white man, the spectator, is portrayed as the evil one. While not a constant theme throughout the book, the “noble savage” seems to provide a backdrop for Philbrick’s understanding of victim and victor. The myth of the noble Native is just that, a myth. In this war, as in all others, there is blame enough to share among men of both sides. On both sides of the conflict were heroes and villains. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of King Philip’s War was just how unnecessary it was and how easily it could have been avoided.

Despite its few missteps, I enjoyed reading Mayflower and have no trouble recommending it to others, and especially those who enjoy the writing of other popular historians such as David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose. While the book may seem a little bit intimidating at 460 pages, fully 100 of those are end notes and indexes, leaving it quite a manageable size. It is both an easy and enjoyable read.

10 years 10 months ago

The Sacred Romance, by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, claims that it will “invite us to see what God is doing behind the scenes of our lives to woo us to Himself. A glimpse of His wild beauty arouses our desire and puts us on a journey to capture or be captured by love. It calls us to recognize our heart�s deepest longing and invites us on a journey toward fulfillment.” If that is not clear, it is a book about Christian living and becoming more like Christ.

After being published in 1997, the book gained great acclaim in the Christian world and has spawned several sequels following the same theme (though the sequels are written only by Eldredge as Curtis died since the publication of this first book). The book is written in the flowery, verbose prose so loved by mystics. Stories fill almost as many pages as teachings, and popular movies and books are analyzed in great detail. I will provide first a synopsis of the teachings of the book and then an analysis of it.

Synopsis

The basis of the book is that God calls every human to join in a Sacred Romance with Him. Every human has the longing to form such a relationship with God. Our hearts tell us that we need such a relationship, but we constantly suppress the need and desire, opting instead to do life on our own. The authors “hope to help you discover your soul’s deepest longing and invite you to embrace it as the most important part of your life” (page 10). It is their aim to help us guide our hearts. Every experience we have, every longing for romance or love, every fragment of chivalry and beauty is really us seeking this Sacred Romance.

The authors spend a lot of the book discussing what they call the �Message of the Arrows� (chapter 3). This term describes the experiences of our pasts that have pulled us from God and have kept us from seeing, understanding or believing that God wants to romance us. By looking back at the stories of our lives we should be able to see how every story is really about God teaching us to join in His romance.

In order to understand the world we need to see history as a play � a play where God is not only the author but also the main character. The play goes like this:

  • Act I � His Eternal Heart - The story begins with God as Trinity, already experiencing love and intimacy.
  • Act II � His Heart Betrayal - God created angels but they betrayed God�s heart by rebelling against Him. This called God�s heart and His intentions into question. How would God react to this and what would that say about His character?
  • Act III � His Heart on Trial - God created a beautiful world in order to woo humans to Himself. Because true love can only exist where there is freedom to choose between love and rejection, God took a great risk in creating humans, in that He gave them free will to love Him or reject Him. God was surprised when Adam and Eve rejected Him. He was dismayed when humans continued to reject Him and the authors say that in the 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments �you can almost imagine [God] nursing his wounds, wondering where it all went wrong� (page 80). Fortunately, God sent His son to die and rescue us. God now pursues us as a Lover, trying to woo us to Himself (page 81).

The authors then introduce the role of Satan in this great drama. Satan, being unable to defeat God, decided to wound Him by stealing the love of His beloved ones through seduction. Satan�s strategy is to disconnect us from our hearts. When we are disconnected from our hearts, the heart becomes deceitful and desperately wicked.

The role of each human, then, is to embark on a journey. It is a journey where we can learn to see that God is looking for a Sacred Romance with each of us, or a journey where we can reject Him. We can learn that God does not want our obedience, sacrifice, adherence or busyness, but wants us, our hearts and very beings. The process of this journey rests on our ability to see life from the basis of the question of �what does God have to do with the experiences of my life?�

Analysis

This book is full of error, especially when viewed from a Reformed viewpoint. It is indicative of the sorry state of the Christian world that such a book can gain so great a following. The authors misuse the Bible, equate experience with Scripture, and make God into something He is not. They are mystics, relying on their own thoughts more prominently than Scripture. They rely heavily on other mystics, mainly Catholic, such as C.S. Lewis, St John of the Cross, G.K. Chesterton and Phillip Yancey.

The authors have two grave misunderstandings that pollute the entire book. First, they have no understanding of human depravity. Where the Bible says that the heart is deceitful and full of wickedness, the authors believe it to be essentially good as long as we understand the importance of a Sacred Romance. Where the Bible teaches that no one seeks after God, the authors teach that all of us seek after God. They quote G.K. Chesterton who said, �every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.� In their view, all we do, whether good or bad, is really a search for God. We all seek after Him, whether we know it or not. Inside of each of us is the desire to know and experience goodness. The second great misunderstanding is in God�s omniscience � His ability to see everything, whether past, present or future. They teach a form of �open theism� which says that God can only see certain things in the future, but is unable to see what decisions or choices humans will make. Hence God was surprised when humans rejected Him and did not know that Adam and Eve would sin. Of course this contradicts the Bible which says that God knew who would love Him before the world was even created.

There are literally hundreds of errors in this book but I will focus only on some of the major ones.

  • The book is based on the importance of the heart, yet the authors never identify what the heart is. It seems that in their view it represents only good. This blatantly ignores what the Bible teaches about the heart being deceitful and wicked. They teach that it is only wicked when we are outside of the Sacred Romance with God.
  • The authors paint God as being sad and heartbroken, hoping against hope that we will choose to love Him. It smacks of Arminian theology taken to its fullest extent and reduces God almost to the extent of making Him sound like a whining child.
  • The teaching that is based on the Bible is often dubious or plain wrong. The authors often quote from The Message, relying on that poor paraphrase when it suits their purposes and when the proper translations do not. This shows especially in Ephesians 1 which they use to say God created the world for our purposes, not God�s. The authors use The Message to teach that Job lost faith in God when a better translation shows he clearly did not. They also say that in Matthew 24 Jesus tells us that in the Last Days people will have lost the Sacred Romance. This is a ridiculous misinterpretation of this chapter.
  • The book paints God and our relationship with Him in sexual terms. This far exceeds what we read in Song of Solomon and other places in the Bible. The portray God as One who seeks to have an almost sexual relationship with us. He �desires from us � an intimacy much more sensuous, more exotic than sex itself� (page 161)
  • The authors say that �God�s love is not based on what we�ve done, but who we are� (page 98) Of course God�s love for us is based on who He is, not who we are!
  • �God is not after obedience, sacrifice or adherence � He is after us� (page 91) Teaching like this downplays the importance of following God�s decrees for us. This, of course, is a necessary symptom of teaching that does not follow the Bible. When we rely on our minds more than the Bible this type of teaching is inevitable.
  • The authors rely heavily on the teachings of others as well as books and songs, much more so than they do on the Bible. For example, several pages are dedicated to showing how Lieutenant Jim from Forrest Gump was actually discovering the Sacred Romance through drugs, alcohol and sex with prostitutes.
  • There is almost no importance placed on studying the Bible or praying. The tools God gives us to be transformed into His image are ignored in favor of just understanding our hearts and God�s heart. This is a book dedicated to sanctification � the process of living as God desires us to live � that ignores what God Himself teaches about this.
  • There is no mention of Jesus coming to atone for our sins. The authors seem to say that Jesus had to come to seeks us out and find us � not to save us from hell and take our punishment upon Himself.
  • A knowledge of God, in the view of the authors, is less important then feeling, experiencing and romanticizing Him. The book bears this out as there is little within it to increase the reader�s knowledge of God. Yet classic Christianity teaches that we can best learn God�s will for us by having knowledge of Him and what He commands of us.

One major annoyance I found with the book was that the authors quoted many sources without citations. This is usually a sign that an author has quoted inaccurately or far out of context. Even many Bible passages are quoted without citations.

In the end analysis, the authors have created an inaccurate metaphor for God�s relationship towards us, have attempted to prove it with the Bible and being unable to do so have had to rely on poor paraphrases and mysticism (which can be defined as �trying to know God outside of the Bible�). Their teaching bears only a vague resemblance to the Christianity of the Bible and should be avoided at all costs!

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