Book Review: The Shack

shack1I only read the first six chapters of The Shack, and I won’t be reading any more.  Author William P. Young uses a story about a man who loses a young daughter to violence, and then accepts an invitation from God to meet with Him at the scene of the crime, as a vehicle for his own pseudo-theological pontificating.  I’d call it the philosophy of men mingled with scripture, but Young never quotes any scripture.

He’s a competent enough writer but, like too many I’ve read, he makes his protagonist have thoughts and feelings that are too easy just to move the story along.

Mack: “I’m angry about the death of my daughter.”

God: “Let’s talk about something else.”

Mack: “Okay!”

That’s my next problem with The Shack: as soon as Mack comes to the cabin to commune with God, God proceeds to welcome him with…a lecture about the nature of the Trinity.  And it goes on for the rest of the chapter.  I’m not sure which bothered me more: that Mack would so calmly go along with the plan, or that Young would have the audacity to use his character’s pain as a vehicle for selling his own ideas about religion.

And make no mistake about it, that’s what The Shack is for.  Young has an axe to grind with anyone who “limits” God by suggesting that he has any kind of concrete church, truths, salvation system, or other such apparently trivial nonsense like that.  You know, the little things that religion doesn’t really need.  No, the God of The Shack is a stereotypical, multicultural, I’m-OK-you’re-OK, let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya kind of God, exactly the sort of silly, watered down, narcissistic Baby Boomer fantasy that gets made fun of with things like “Buddy Christ” statues.  Continue reading


SATIRE: Telegraph, Railroad, And Steamboat Companies Demand Government Bailout

Washington D.C., A Few Generations Ago–Leading executives from America’s major communications and transportation endeavors are converging on the floor of the Capitol today to plea for federal bailout money from Congress to prop up their flailing enterprises.

A spokesman for AT&T–American Telephone and Telegraph–laid out his case for receiving government assistance to the tune of, say, $14 billion.  “The telegraph industry is suffering a severe economic drought.  If the taxpayers don’t pony up and help us ensure the ongoing stability of the telegraph…the telegraph industry may collapse.  Do you realize what a catastrophic emergency that would be?!”

Representatives from Central Pacific Railroad and the Mississippi Delta Steamboat Company also made their case to elected officials for the critical need to immediately inject gobs of fluid funding into their bankrupt institutions.  “These are American jobs we’re talking about here, people,” they read from a prepared joint statement, getting emotional.  “America needs our businesses to continue operating, and to continue operating exactly the way they always have.  If Congress doesn’t approve a bailout for us, how many good, honest, hard working Americans will be permanently out of work?  After all, nothing could ever come along to replace those jobs.  Railroads and steamboats are all we’ll ever have.  And our stocks have dipped sharply recently.  C’mon, America!  We absolutely need to keep the railroad and steamboat stocks up.  Without them, the future will surely be a barren wasteland.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by several other major American conglomerations of industry.  In fact, when one Senator suggested that some businesses might get a bailout and others wouldn’t, a fistfight broke out between the officers of two of America’s most permanent pillars of stability: Horse and Buggy Franchises and Confederated Slave Holdings. 


NOTE: Obviously I wrote this in a hurry, not doing any of the research the idea deserves.  Please excuse the lack of rigorous historicity.  Still, I think the point is pretty clear.

Book Review: The Christmas Sweater

beckIt’s only on the title page of The Christmas Sweater that you’ll learn that Glenn Beck enlisted the help of two co-authors in the writing of his book.  I don’t know just how much each of the three writers contributed, but I have a guess: though the book is uniformly plain throughout, there are segments that feel like little more than a glorified movie of the week, and others that produce some decently composed examples of subtlety, imagery, and thematic development. 

The narrator’s running interior dialogue favors crediting himself with unlikely, convenient leaps in self-understanding and psychological perception; at times I half expected him to become aware that he’s a fictional character being manipulated by an author.  However, one specific character trait rings true each time it’s used, and done so with increasingly frustrating realism: his conscious decisions to shut people out and embrace the cold comforts of anger and self pity.  We’ve all been there, and it’s a dark place, one from which we do need to decide to be rescued.

That is The Christmas Sweater‘s strong point: ultimately, it’s a sermon about letting God into your life to help you find joy amidst life’s nearly-crushing sorrows.  Though most of the story reads like a preteen’s coming-of-age after school special, the climax is surprisingly effective: the protagonist confronts the dark world “of his own making” in a very real way.  That scene is genuinely harrowing, and his path through it (not around it, through it, with God’s help), makes the whole thing worthwhile.  It’s a satisfying illustration of the power of the Atonement in our lives, and isn’t shy about telling readers as much up front.

Last week a popular evangelical Christian web site removed an interview with Beck about the book because of complaints that, as a Mormon, Beck shouldn’t receive any warm quarter from “real” Christians.  Though this would be a perfect opportunity to vent my incensed spleen as a Latter-day Saint myself, the protesters, if they want to keep the mainstream gene pool unpolluted by Mormon toxins, might do well to avoid The Christmas SweaterContinue reading

Fireworks On Christmas Eve?!

As usual, my wife and I stayed up late on Christmas Eve getting everything ready for the kids in the morning. By the time we got to bed, it was a little after midnight.

Almost as soon as we closed our eyes, loud noises outside made our 3-year-old son wake up crying. When I went to investigate, I saw people down the street whispering in Spanish and setting off huge, obnoxious fireworks.

I told them to stop, that people were trying to sleep. One woman protested, “But it’s Christmas Eve!” I said that what they were doing was illegal. They said they would stop.

Soon after, another barrage of fireworks detonated. No more went off after that, either because the neighbors came to their senses, or because by that point I had called the police.

The next day, I looked up “Christmas, fireworks, and midnight” online. Turns out it’s a fairly common practice…in Latin America.

So much for “Silent Night.”

Recommended Listening: “Tolstoy”

So I’m flipping through folk music CDs at the library one day and I see this compilation called Songs Inspired By Literature.  I check it out and give it a listen, but it’s mostly forgettable.

Except for Bob Hillman’s song “Tolstoy.”  In fact, I saw this CD again last week and checked it out just for this song.  The next time I teach Tolstoy in World Lit, I need to bring this in.

It merits all the usual superlatives: fresh, original, and (especially for folk music) fun.  The music is a resonating punch of running guitar chords, set to a brashly declarative lyric that shifts from appreciation of the author to brief plot summaries to bracingly apt images that serve as metaphors for the Russian giant’s achievement.

At one point, Hillman praises Tolstoy’s work for its “gargantuan themes” and for being “impossibly long,” and offers this modern example of something that could illustrate what he means: “Down to the quivering lip and the look in your eye / When your father died / And you couldn’t quite say what you wanted to say / But you touched his hand and he knew you were there.”  It’s not random, it’s an uncanny impersonation of exactly the kind of subtle psychological insight Tolstoy crafted out of simple glimpses of ordinary life, seen as a panoramic tapestry. 

And, ironically, he delivers this paean to epics in about two and a half minutes.  Listen to it free at Rhapsody.

Recommended Reading: Reading The OED

27493046I mentioned this book a few weeks ago, with only mild enthusiasm.  The further I got into it, though, the faster I read through it.  No, it isn’t as ambitious as A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All; Jacobs drew funny and poignant parallels between his reading and some stresses and changes in his life, while Ammon Shea only goes as far as the occasional observational nugget in that vein. 

The great pleasure of Shea’s book, however, is its pervasive, unabashed, gloriously valedictory nerdiness.  Imagine someone making an exaggerated parody of word lovers.  Shea’s actual nerdiness is still deeper than that.  In fact, in a contemplative review section at the end, which compared to the pacing in the rest of the book is drawn out not unlike the similarly loving tribute that is the end of the third Lord of the Rings movie, he resists the temptation to brag about the tedious rigor of poring over every word of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and instead revels in the joy of it, calling it his favorite book, and carefully explaining his plan to read it again right away, savoring each page with the delicate attention of an enraptured lover. 

Heck.  Yeah. 

Shea writes a short chapter for each letter of the alphabet, starting with a quick essay on some aspect of the dictionary itself, his love of dictionaries, or the process of reading the OED.  Then, he gives a sampling of his favorite words from that section, most all of which are odd, rare, and hilarious.  (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that when the word “fizzle” entered the Anglo lexicon in the sixteenth century, it meant “a silent fart.”)  Like Jacobs, he splices clever wit into his commentary on each word (as Jacobs did with encyclopedia entries), and comes across as refreshingly engaging.  It’s not huis conversational style that makes this reader comfortable, it’s Shea’s confident use of polysyllabic vocabulary, as well as his casually deft array of complex grammatical constructions.  He sure doesn’t talk down to you, that’s for sure. 

Add to all that just a wee smattering of misanthropy.  This, I said to myself more than once as I read, is a guy I can relate to.  We may not have much in common (although I can’t help but wonder if his first name implies what I think it does), but we have a solid brotherhood of logophilia.  I briefly wondered if I should offer to buy him lunch sometime so I can gush about his work and bounce some hopefully-erudite ideas off of him, but I quickly remembered the (in)famous meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust which, no matter which account you believe, fizzled.  In every sense of the word.  So maybe lunch would be anticlimactic.

Highly Recommended: Milk From Winder Farms

img00001112I love nder Farms, milk.  I never realized just how much of it I drank growing up until I got a little older and saw much more often other people drank water and juices.  I don’t drink nearly as much as I used to, but that childhood attachment has actually made milk one of my favorite comfort foods.

So I was pleasantly surprised when a friend from church brought over a half gallon of milk once as a gift for my family.  It was obvious that I loved it, and he’s brought over more of that milk since.  I enjoy this milk so much that I want to start ordering it sometimes as a special little indulgence for myself.

I say “order” it because this isn’t something I can just run down to Wal Mart and grab.  Winder Farms is a pretty classy dairy outlet, and one must order from their inventory online

If you fancy milk nearly as much as I do, treat yourself to some of the richest, creamiest, smoothest milk you’ll ever drink.  In fact, now that I’ve seen their extensive catalogue, I think I might try some of that cheese, too…

A Fireside With Joseph Smith’s Great-Great-Great-Grandson

Last week Michael Kennedy spoke to members of  the Las Vegas Stake.  My in-laws are in that stake, and invited my wife and me to attend.  It was a wonderful event.

I knew that Joseph Smith’s wife and children had not gone west with Brigham Young and the pioneers, and that his son Joseph Smith III had been the first president of the Reorganized LDS Church (now the Community of Christ), but I had also assumed that that meant that all of Joseph’s descendants were RLDS. 

Wrong.  Not that he has that many descendants, anyway.  The highlight of the fireside for me was a seventeen foot long chart he and his wife displayed that showed the family tree of Joseph and Emma, including every single member of his posterity, including those still alive.  The most surprising thing about it was how bare it was.  Of the five children he had with Emma who survived to adulthood, only two have lines that would be considered normal for population growth from one generation to the next.  Various reasons exist for this, but one example is particularly striking: one granddaughter joined the LDS Church and was so hounded by other relatives that she refused to have children, not wanting them to have to bear the stress she went through.  Many of the lines of Smith’s descendants have died out. 

(Incidentally, as I’m sure you’re thinking, Kennedy shared an important bit of trivia that bears on the number of descendants as well as a common criticism of the Prophet: though he was sealed to many other women, he doesn’t appear to have had children with any of them.  DNA testing continues, but has ruled out every candidate tested so far.  Though skeptics like to point out that some of the women he was sealed to were still teenagers, some of those “wives” were nearly twice his age.  Strange, if he was abusing his hold over people just to “sow his oats,” don’t you think?) 

The first half of Brother Kennedy’s presentation was his conversion story, which was just as entertaining as it was inspiring.  He grew up in rural Nevada, unaware of his famous ancestor until the early ’70’s when he had to do a report for a history class about an important American in his family tree.  Just as his father was showing him some family heirlooms about Joseph Smith, two missionaries knocked on his door.  Continue reading

A Footnote About The Killers

A couple of weeks ago I saw this fun essay about how the local roots of Las Vegas-based rock band The Killers are reflected in their music.  It reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about for a while: I went to high school with their drummer.

I didn’t actually know Ronnie Vannucci; he was two years older than me.  However, like everybody at Western High School, I knew his dad.  His dad was famous.

Mr. V. was a substitute teacher, and he was the sub that everybody wanted.  When you came into class and saw that the teacher was gone, you were happy.  When you saw Mr. V. sitting at the desk instead, you were elated.  First of all, Mr. V. cussed like a sailor…a drunk sailor.  With Tourette’s.  Not surprisingly, we teenagers loved it; the novelty never wore off. 

Not to say that he was a bad sub, he was just very…relaxed.  He certainly never followed any lesson plan, assuming one had been left for him.  He usually just let the class have a free day.  Teachers would return the next day, ask how we liked the sub, and everybody would give a glowing review.  The teacher would then smile and nod, satisfied that education had proceeded unimpeded in her absence.  And we all snickered into our flannel jackets.

In fact, I remember going back to Western for some student teaching observations when I was in college, but he was subbing for the class I was supposed to take notes on; he asked for the sports page from the newspaper I had with me, I gave it to him and left.  Remember the traffic cop who gives Bruce Willis a ticket at the beginning of Die Hard?  Mr. V. looked exactly like that guy. 

That’s about all I can add to public knowledge about The Killers, other than this, Vannucci’s picture from his senior yearbook in 1994 (he’s in the middle of the bottom row):


Email About A Truant Student

The following is an email I just sent to a parent of a student.  The young man in question was caught leaving school with some friends by another teacher on his prep period.  Sadly, this kind of communication is not especially rare in my work experience: I send emails like this one at least a few times per semester, and could send several times as many more, if more parents even bothered to request “make up work.” 

(This parent must have “appealed” [read: demanded, begged, threatened to sue] the school, so his blatant string of skipped classes have all been “excused.”  This was the second time this week a [nominal] student of mine had such an array of ditched days excused, though the parents of the other boy didn’t have the effrontery to ask for “make up work” for two months of voluntary truancy.)

Mrs. _______, A request for make up work for your son _____ has come to my attention. Since starting to come back to class recently, _____ has shown little engagement in class work, much less motivation to discuss making up what he missed during his absences (on one vocabulary assignment that he did do–writing example sentences to illustrate the meanings of words–the majority of his sentences simply said, “________ is a big word”).

With 14 absences at this point in the semester [in my class alone], and the majority of those within the last few weeks, he has a staggering load of “make up” work to do. Add to that the fact that practically none of that work is just a simple worksheet that can be handed out; most work involves examples, class discussions, and extensive reading. Such work can be made up, but it is difficult and requires a commitment of time in here outside of school hours. Further, he has missed a few quizzes on material that he was not here to review; making those up with any kind of quality will obviously be very difficult.

That being said, he’s welcome to try, and I’m certainly here to help him do so. What he would absolutely need to do is come in with at least ten or fifteen minutes set aside, before or after school, to get started on some of this “make up” work, but that’s just a start. Hopefully he can get some of this work turned in for some credit when we return from Christmas Break.

_____ got a 50.9% first quarter, and currently stands at a 20.4%. A productive thing to do at this point is to start planning for how he will make up the credits he will probably lose this semester, especially since the long block schedule, with its two extra classes per semester, may not be available next year.

_____ has potential and doesn’t seem to have any academic problem in his way, so certainly next semester could be very successful. I wish you both good luck and look forward to seeing him in class regularly, where I’m sure he can do very well.

Clearly, I’m trying to introduce a dose of reality to this situation, without being quite confrontational enough to warrant any ire directed at me.  I don’t need any more grief this close to Christmas.

I think I’ll keep this email as a form letter for future use.  Please tell me that other states aren’t like this.

Should Non-Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Non-religious friends and associates often ask me if I’m offended when they express a lack of belief in traditional religion, usually with the tone of an apologizing diplomat. I assure them that such ideas are not inherently offensive. However, ironically, few people seem to worry about something which truly is offensive: the warping of traditional religious belief itself.

We’re trained to resist offense and be as accommodating as necessary so that nobody feels that their toes are stepped on.  To that end, the public celebration of Christmas, enshrined for generations as a bedrock part of American culture, has been quietly stripped of religious significance.  We’re now to the bizarre Orwellian point where we see many voices in the media complaining that the secular holiday of Christmas is being infringed upon by nosy Christians. 

Glancing at the news this morning over my breakfast, I saw a local news channel announcing a contest: they’d be giving away a “holiday tree.”  What?  Why is Christmas picked on like this?  (Have you ever heard of a “holiday menorah?”)  Why are so many in our country desperate to preserve the commercial trappings of Christmas long after they’ve abandoned its spiritual significance?

Continue reading

Recommended Reading: “Brimstone P.I.”

Here I am, whiling away the time as the last several students in this section of English 101 finish their final exam essay.  In another hour, the semester will be over for me, nothing left of it but to wrap up grading the last few items and turn in my paperwork tomorrow. 

As a few of the students come by the desk to shake my hand on the way out, I look up from the book I just started this evening: Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea.  It caught my eye on the new release shelf as I was checking out a DVD of Oedipus Rex for my English II class.  So far, it’s pretty good: clearly modeled on A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All (where Shea’s book chronicles his year-long study of the entire Oxford English Dictionary, Jacobs’s similarly humorous memoir covered his year-long reading of the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica), it’s clever, accessible, and yet still just obscure enough to be nerdy fun. 

Something in the first chapter reminded me of a great experience I had a couple of years ago.  I was sitting in a chair at United Blood Services, giving blood and passing the time with the new issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I came upon a story called “Brimstone P.I.“, by Beverle Graves Myers.  Within the first paragraph, it was apparent that this was no typical procedural.  The very novelty of it sucked me in.

It’s about a dead detective–in hell–who’s called upon by the devil to find out who’s been decorating the place with greeting cards and air fresheners.  Continue reading

SATIRE: Counterculture Vindicated In Wake Of Local Tragedy

ANYWHERE, U.S.A.–After yesterday’s terrible accident, the details of which will remain mysteriously vague in this report, observers were surprised to see hundreds of society’s hedonistic deviants spontaneously emerge as local heroes.  The scenes of chaos were greatly ameliorated by such visions of mercy as the regional university’s entire Department of Atheism, which immediately organized an ad-hoc counseling center and helped victims get in touch with loved ones, and a group of stoned teenage skateboarders who helped set up a triage and blood donation tent, themselves clamoring to be the first to donate.

Local video game enthusiast Ray Potakis, 24, dropped what he was doing to rush right out and join in the relief efforts.  “I was just surfing the Internet for some por…uh, portable water purifiers…for those starving kids in Africa, you know?…when I heard about the tragedy on the radio, and I put some pants on and went to volunteer to help.”

Another of America’s young who suddenly rose to the challenge of greatness when his community needed him was Jordan Jackson, 17, who described his response thusly: “I was chillin’ wit my boys when we saw what was goin’ on out the window.  We got in the car, turned up the Tupac, and went straight down there to see what we could do.”  Jackson and his friends ended up handing out blankets and water to children, then telling them fairy tales to keep them from going into shock. 

A representative of Def Jam Records quickly took credit for the sudden spurt of altruism from Generation Y.  “A quarter century of popular hip hop culture has produced millions of lives of carefully disciplined sacrifice, ready to put the needs of family and country first.  Continue reading

Karma Plus Schadenfreude

It’s surprising to me just how entertained people near me have been by a couple of incidents of mild misfortune that have come my way.  Karma, I suppose: I’ve certainly derived more than my fair share of amusement from schadenfreude in my time; it’s only reasonable that others will get to have a chuckle at my expense, too.

Let’s get the facts straight, though:

RUMOR: I got a student to call a radio station in the middle of class on Friday and request “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.”  She got on the air and I got in trouble.

STATUS: True.  I’ve perpetrated this cute diversion in other classes over several years, but this time both my name and the name of my school were aired, and as the DJs had a tone of mildly confused consternation as they talked to the student, there were those who worried it made us look bad.  Suffice it to say, I won’t be doing this again. 

However, they did play the song, so it was pretty much worth it.  :)

RUMOR: On Saturday morning, I left my baby in a bookstore.

STATUS: True.  Continue reading

Narcissist Nation

250px-michelangelo_caravaggio_065It’s a cliché in advertising that “sex sells,” but that really isn’t the driving force in our society anymore.  The motor that runs America now is narcissism: the power of our collective all-seeing eye is now firmly focused on nothing more substantial than our own navels. 

When a pioneering cosmetics campaign told us, “Because you’re worth it,” we replied with a resounding, “Darn straight!”  The majority of advertising in the last decade hasn’t enticed us to buy something because it will make attractive people want us, but because we deserve to indulge, relax, and spoil ourselves.  Watch some commercials tonight with this in mind, and you may be surprised.

Our culture, of course, has now taken the rampant hedonism of the last two generations to the next logical level: carnal solipsism.  Lower case pronouns notwithstanding, the brand names iPod, iMac, and iPhone leave no doubt as to what primitive urge they’re pandering to, that of
total self-obsession.  Nor is it a coincidence that the dominant online media forces of our Zeitgeist are called MySpace and YouTube. 

In a world where we’re being encouraged to use our incredible entertainment and communication technology as little more than a flattering funhouse mirror, someone needing to sell, say, an orthodontic device, would do well to advertise it not as a means of becoming more phyically appealing to others, but as a luxury that people have earned the right to splurge on.  Don’t picture it next to a bikini model, but show someone resting in a bubble bath and flashing a content (and perfectly even) smile, or sneaking a slice of chocolate cake from the fridge past their newly-improved teeth.