Sunday, July 5, 2020

Books for Fans of the Lord of the Rings

My family and I have always been huge fans of the Lord of the Rings, as an exciting story, with rich and memorable characters, set in a world built with amazing depth, and filled with themes that inspire us to be better people. The only problem is that after you finish reading everything that Tolkien wrote, you wish someone else could write something similar. So, I've been searching my whole life for similar efforts by other authors, and I thought I would create an ongoing list of those resources which I have read and enjoyed.

1. The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis (Ages 9+)
I'm sure Tolkien was appalled by Lewis's use of allegory and somewhat haphazard world-building attempts, but I don't think any collection gave my imagination more scope and inspired me to be a better human being like the LOTR did more than Lewis's.
2. The Space Trilogy - C.S. Lewis (Ages 13+)
There is a brief moment where in Lewis's final work of this Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, he briefly makes the book a crossover with the LOTR. I imagine Tolkien didn't love that, but Lewis does a better job world(s)-building here, and his ideas, as always, are born of unparalleled genius.
3. Watership Down - Richard Adams (Ages 9+)
Who would believe that a book about rabbits would have such amazing world-building and be full of characters that inspire one to be a more courageous and noble human being? There is also a book called "Tales from Watership Down" that is well worth reading.
4. Time Quintet - Madeline Le'Engle (Ages 14+)
I would skip "An Acceptable Time" the concluding effort to this series, but there is a depth and resonance to this series that reminds me of the Lord of the Rings. It can also get creepy when needed, which is an underrated aspect of the LOTR.
5. Series of Unfortunate Events - Lemony Snicket (Ages 11+)
Somewhat a satire, somewhat a fantasy, somewhat a mystery, Series of Unfortunate Events surprises you how it sucks you into its world and makes you feel immensely for its characters.
6. The Pendragon Cycle - Stephen Lawhead (Ages 15+)
Tolkien was always clear that the Lord of the Rings was meant to be set in a real world environment, even with its elves, hobbits, dwarves, orcs, trolls, etc. So, I find that some historical novels do a great job getting at the feeling of the LOTR, probably because they are based on a world that human beings have been building for many thousands of years. Lawhead's re-imagining of the Arthur legend is well-worth reading.
7. The Chronicles of Prydain - Lloyd Alexander (Ages 9+)
These books based on Welsh myths have a LOTR feel at several points, with a cuter, gentler Gollum-type character. Highly underrated. The 12 year old Quincy was thrilled to find these with a LOTR craving after finishing the Tolkien omnibus.
8. The Scions of Shannara - Terry Brooks (Ages 13+)
Slightly older Quincy was thrilled to find these books. I find some of the Shannara books that Brooks has written to be derivative of Tolkien, but this series has plenty of originality and some good world-building. I highly enjoyed them.
9. The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro (Ages 14+)
This book has heavy metaphor, but the metaphor is beautiful (I honestly think about it almost daily), and it has dragons and plenty of fantasy elements.
10. Harry Potter Series - J.K. Rowling (Ages 12+)
Rowling built a beautiful world under-girded with Christian morality. The issue of magic is important to keep in mind, but I think she keeps it effectively separate from the Satanic magic that actually exists in the world. If it offends you conscience, however, don't read it.
11. The Cadfael Chronicles - Ellis Peters (Ages 14+)
Amazing mysteries containing romance, swashbuckling sword fights, and a beautiful world of history. Also, Brother Cadfael shows us the heart of Jesus in how he responds to every situation.
12. Bloodstone Chronicles - Bill Myers (Ages 10+)
Highly allegorical, but very clever, original and fun for teens. I don't know that anything helped me understand the atonement of Jesus better than the second book in this series, and I think about the lessons of the last book in the series constantly.
13. The Trilogy - Henryk Sienkiewicz (Ages 14+)
It's dense, but there is a lot to like about these novels diving into the history of Poland's people. Romance, battles, good and evil. I need to re-read them when I have the chance
14. The Once and Future King - T.H. White (Ages 12+)
This is another great re-telling of the story of King Arthur, a story with which Tolkien was familiar. Archimedes the owl was a genius addition.
15. The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques (Ages 11+) - Jacques does a great job building a world and giving you characters to love. The series gets a bit repetitive, but definitely hits LOTR-type notes! Check it out!
16. King Raven Trilogy - Stephen Lawhead (Ages 13+)
I've always loved the Robin Hood legend, and Lawhead places it in its most realistic historical context here, and gives some good spiritual lessons to go with it. As always, he can write a stirring adventure with the best of them.
17. Earthsea Cycle - Ursula K. Le Guin (Ages 11+)
Le Guin built a beautiful world here, and the plot, but the characters are a bit shallow for me.
18. Wings of Dawn - Sigmund Brower (Ages 10+)
A great standalone adventure. I HIGHLY recommend it, and it has some great spiritual themes.
19. The Dun Cow Trilogy - Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Ages 12+)
A very unique allegory about the redemption of Christ as seen in the animal kingdom.

I will continue to add to this list as I explore other works of fantasy/historical/science fiction that remind me of the Lord of the Rings.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Parable of My Life

At a Biblical Imagination conference, I was challenged to write a parable for my life. What I wrote turned out to be more an allegory than anything else. Here it is:

My life is like an at-bat with one-out in the bottom of the ninth in a championship game. My team is down by a run with chances at ultimate victory slipping quickly from our grasp. I come up to the plate, but I’m facing the most intimidating pitcher in the game. His fastball blazes in with incredible speed and unerring accuracy. His curveball drops with terrifying and humiliating deception. The crowd filling the stadium around me waits with uneasy anticipation, fearing even to hope that my meager abilities are a match for this buzz-saw force, at whose feet countless of his enemy batters had fallen. I dig into the batter’s box, blurring the marks that outline the rules for this encounter, knowing I need every possible benefit of the doubt to have the chance. Before I know it, the first pitch pounds the catcher’s mitt, a strike. The umpire marks me down for the first sign of my impending failure, the count against me now indicating that all my strengths, talents and abilities will not be enough to survive this battle.
I try to remember every piece of advice I’ve been given. I draw on every ounce of heart and courage I’ve acquired. I let the love of the fans, my teammates, my wife Chelsea and my family give me a confidence I don’t really feel inside. WHAP! Strike two. I stand virtually condemned. My eyes have failed me. I’d seen that pitch as high and my perception is clearly off. The umpire has no mercy, nor do I deserve any. If I fail to swing, I deserve to be sent below, to the dugout, unable to achieve victory by my own strength. I make up my mind that I will swing on this next pitch, I’m not going to go down without a fight. As the unstoppable force opposing me delivers his next pitch, I prepare to deliver all my force to punish the ball, only to realize that it’s a hard curveball thrown too far inside. I quickly try to check my swing, to undo what I have done, as the ball bears in on my hands. Pain shouts in my brain as the ball glances off my hand, and immediately the catcher appeals to the first base umpire, shouting, “He swung!” I bow my head, knowing that I had certainly swung and canceled out my chance to reach base through a hit-by-pitch. I glance up to see confirmation of my defeat, only to see the first-base umpire’s “Safe!” signal. Somehow, I was going to first, not of my own merit, but because of the grace of an unexpectedly lax law-keeper, giving me and my team undeserved life. The protests of the catcher and the buzz-saw on the mound are to no avail. The authority of mercy trumps all, and I find myself on first base, still with a chance to find my way home.
The batter after me is the driving force of our team, Clete “the Ghost” Haggio. The Ghost is the driving force of our team. He encourages everyone, he’s always willing to give advice or share resources. Amazingly, he has been my teammate since Little League, drafted the same time as me to the same team, and has accompanied me all the way during my climb through the minors. The Ghost has always been cheering for me and strengthening me when I doubted myself. I know exactly what he will do and as soon as the pitcher delivers, I break for second base. The Ghost’s perfectly-placed bunt leaves the third-baseman no choice but to throw to first as I slide safely into scoring position. The Ghost’s incredible speed is not quite enough this time; the third-baseman makes an amazing play to get him. My friend, constant counselor, my encourager has submitted himself for the good of the team to give us hope.
The pitcher growls as he receives a new ball. While frustrated, he is confident in his ability to overcome these unforeseen developments. With two outs, our chances are still slim, our doom still imminent. As Joshua Christo steps to the plate, I give him a quick salute. Born to immigrant parents in Bethlehem, Pennyslvania, Josh was discovered as a late bloomer while playing his senior year at Nazareth College, and he worked steadily in the minor league system for a while, developing as a catcher known for his adept handling of pitchers and umpires.  He has always seemed far more interested in the success of his teammates than his own, constantly pointing to our value, perpetually reminding us of the victory possible for us together with him leading our club. The only hope we have now is that Josh will intervene. I take my lead from second, doing everything in my power to put myself in a position to let Josh pull through. The pitcher wastes no time in delivering a 100-mph heater for a strike. Then, the second pitch, a curveball, hits the dirt, and bounces to the backstop. I break for third and find myself 90 feet from home, through no skill of my own. This game has brought me to within a few steps of unimaginable joy, yet I cannot do anything now to get to the Promised Land. I watch as Josh swings over a curveball for strike two.
Now, I am resigned to our fate. Even if I scored, we wouldn’t win the game, just tie and hope for a miraculous win in extra innings. The best that luck, talent, education and the rules could get me was a tie, a postponement of eventual defeat. My hopes rested entirely on the shoulders of Josh – Josh who was only on this team because he cared so much about us. He had gathered national attention for donating his entire salary to local homeless shelters and migrant communities. And, yet, all that goodness would not provide him any advantage against this closer of doom on the mound. I held my breath for the final pitch. Joshua Christo swung and connected. The ball flew out towards the fence, and delirious happiness began to break like a sunrise across my mind. From as good as dead in a two-strike count to victorious life, Josh had hammered that pitch into the seats, a two-run shot to win the game and bring me safely home.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Quincy's Rankings of U.S. Presidents

Since I was 9 years old, I have loved reading about the U.S Presidents. On my own, I memorized the order of the Presidents and I can still weirdly recite that order today. I have made it my goal to own and read a biography of every U.S. President, and while I've read short bios of all of them, I've read at least one full-length bio for 31 of them at this point. With this in mind, I have undertaken to rank the Presidents based on four categories: (1) Leadership - essentially, were they able to get things done? (2) Policies - essentially, did the policies they promoted further the good of the country? (3) Character - essentially, did they display high moral character in personal and public life? (Note: Presidents who were slave-owners could not score higher than 2 in Character). (4) Legacy - essentially, did their presidency influence the country positively and does their time as President have a positive, lasting influence today? For those who were tied in their ranking scores, I tried to evaluate who was the better president in general as objectively as I could to break the ties. So, each number represents where I think each President ranks out of the 40 who completed at least 2 years of a term.

Please note: I have tried to make this list with as little bias toward my own political views as possible. For example, I am typically in favor of limited federal government, but I recognize that there are times that an active federal government is the only right course of action for a President and the country. If I have a bias in this list, it's towards Presidents who were able to further the good of the country by finding a middle ground. So, please don't believe that I hate your favorite President because I ranked him too low. I'll also say that the more recent the Presidency, the more difficult it is to rank that Presidency accuracy, so I'm sure that as I read more and more time passes, some of these grades will change.

I hope this list will encourage someone to do some reading on the lives of the Presidents, and, most importantly, inspire us to look for inspiring, moral, effective leadership in future Presidents. As I updated this list for this year, I realized anew some of the futility of it. The vast majority of men on this list have glaring flaws; actions or character traits that lead us to look at their legacies with skepticism and even disdain. So, while recognizing that you could justly argue for every slave-owning President to be at the bottom of the list, that as many great things as FDR did, his running Japanese internment camps tarnishes all of the good he oversaw, and so on... I have tried to give each person their due credit for noteworthy accomplishments while not avoiding the harm they did to the nation. 

Presidents listed in following order...
Rank Name Leadership Policies Character Legacy Total
 1-40                    5-1             5-1        5-1       5-1         20-4

THE BEST OF THE BEST: We were fortunate with the leaders who came to power at the crucial moments of both the U.S.’s founding and its being put asunder in the Civil War. Lincoln’s incredible abilities to unite his political rivals and keep those under him focused on the goal of preserving the country and ending the forces that threatened to divide them. Lincoln loses one point for the repeated suspension of habeas corpus, but this is more of a sad necessity of being a War President than anything else. He also executed Dakota Indians in the Dakota War. He did try to commute as many executions as politically possible, but this is a character mark. Lincoln was did not always hold the right views, but he virtually always found his way to the truth through his experiences; he was an expert manipulator and I am of the view, historically-speaking, that he always had as his intention to accomplish abolition, but he used any rhetorical tactic he could to keep people at the negotiating table. He is known as the Greatest President for a good reason. Washington’s ability to lead without coming close to dictatorial status is crucial. His decision to voluntarily stepping aside after his second term almost single-handedly established the nation as a democratic republic. Washington was a slave-holder, but he did decry slavery and release his slaves in his will. It is not enough, but it is at least a sign that he recognized a great evil in his life.
1. Abraham Lincoln 5 4 4 5 18*
2. George Washington 5 4 2 5 16*

ELITES: Each President in this section lead the country at an absolutely elite level, but each had their flaws.  FDR took drastic steps to help the citizens of the country escape from the Depression and, then, to defeat the threats posed by the Axis powers in World War II. Eisenhower had a huge influence on the development of new technologies and the highway systems. He also governed from the center and reading about his years of power makes one pine for that kind of even-handed political dealing, but he could have certainly been more forceful in his support of racial issues and his administration was particularly unfair to Latinos.  With that said, , Roosevelt cheated on his wife, created a Japanese prison camp, and paved the way for some big government initiatives that remain somewhat unwieldy (while also helping millions). Eisenhower's open faith was refreshing, but he could have used to be more mindful of the importance of not mixing church and state, Eisenhower's administration's record on issues of race was also very poor.  In both cases, however, I am confident that with the benefit of historical perspectives on their failings, each man would have been able to see and correct many of the errors that beset them and lead the country effectively.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt 5 3 3 4 15*
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower 4 4 3 3 15*

PRE and POST-WAR EXCELLENCE: Theodore Roosevelt makes his appearance in this category, just as he does on Mount Rushmore. We also had a good run from 1945-1963, with three reasonable, high-minded leaders who were able to get some bipartisan support in leading the nation through the couple decades following World War II. TR was a strong leader, without a doubt, and his dealing with corruption and support of the National Parks system had far reaching effects. However, a thorough examination of his record leaves one with the impression of a man who had a little more style than substance. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to say that to his face, however, and he was able to make deals to accomplish an agenda without sacrificing his principles, a key to effective leadership. He espoused some racist beliefs that guided some of his policies, and that is reflected here as well. Kennedy was easy to like and inspired a fervent following, but made some youthful mistakes, and his philandering lost him points in the character category. Truman had the unenviable task of following FDR, but did so admirably, allowing for a return to normalcy for a nation that had been at war. His Midwest common sense guided him well, though it is fair to question the use of the atom bomb. While it most certainly prevented prolonged bloodshed, it still sets a hellish precedent we all pray no future nation will follow. 
5. Theodore Roosevelt 4 3 3 4 14*
6. John F. Kennedy 4 4 2 4 14
7. Harry S. Truman 3 3 5 3 14*

UNDERRATED GREATS: I would say this section contains Presidents who are often ranked lower than what I think they deserve by historians. Grant committed to reconstruction, crushed the Klu-Klux Klan, and provided stability for a nation seeking to heal after the Civil War. However, his misplaced loyalty to army friends allowed rampant corruption to seep into his administration, though his own awareness or involvement in it seems to be negligible. He also abandoned the cause of Reconstruction toward the end of his second term.  LBJ certainly had his high-points – working for racial equality, attempting to use the federal government’s powers to help people in need, reforming immigration, and working for civil rights progress – and also his low-points – prolonging and intensifying the Vietnam War, deceiving the public in regards to the war, and personal infidelity to his wife. Though I disagree with many of his policies, there’s no doubting his effectiveness as a leader. McKinley led a reformed government with a moral conscience he brought to bear on all affairs of state, but his reach sometimes appeared a bit limited. However, when all said and done, his presidency set the pattern for a more responsive and active chief executive, a legacy that continues (with pluses and minuses) today. His assassination unfortunately cut short a Presidential career that might have seen him rise to the top 10. Barack Obama was a model of an excellent dad and husband and endured plenty of criticism unfairly because of his race, but his steady leadership helped the country pull out of a Recession and saw the capture and killing of notorious terrorist Osama bin Ladin. Obama failed to negotiate consistent compromises with a Republican Congress and the long-term effects of his healthcare plan and other increases in federal government powers and the deficit leave his legacy an uncertain factor. I also deducted points for lack of pro-life policies in his support for abortion for any reason and drone assassinations. James Monroe united the yet fledgling nation in an unprecedented fashion and established an expansive identity for the United States under one of the most skilled cabinets ever assembled. Monroe was an unrepentant slave-holder who made no move toward abolition
8. Ulysses S. Grant 3 3 4 3 13*
9. Lyndon B. Johnson           4 3 3 3 13*
10. William McKinley 3 3 4 3 13*
11. Barack Obama                 3  3 4  3 13
12. James Monroe                 4  3  2  4 13*

RELIABLE LEADERS: This group of capable men had their share of turmoil, but weathered the storms to carve out meaningful legacies. Reagan was able to pull the nation through the Cold War, to work with the opposite party to enact needed compromises and to set the country up for an economic recovery. However, it seems clear that trickle-down economics is not an effective strategy for long-term growth, and Reagan was inattentive to the cries for justice from people of color and other minorities, overseeing a good degree of harm to those communities, whether intentional or not. James K. Polk was a slave-holding President, which dramatically decreases his character score, and he entered an unnecessary war against Mexico. However, he was able to navigate numerous challenges and restore the nation to financial stability while enhancing U.S. territorial holdings. Grover Cleveland’s style of limited government saw the country through some tumultuous years in two non-consecutive terms at the turn of the 20th Century, but his personal dealings were not always morally circumspect.  Harrison’s personality was a bit too abrasive to win him many political friends, but his presidency saw some important anti-trust laws passed, six more states be admitted to the Union, and a strengthening of the Navy which would be crucial for later years. Harrison also pushed for measures to preserve racial equality, but nothing was accomplished because of his inability to navigate the political world. 
13. Ronald Reagan                 3  3 3 3 12*
14. James K. Polk                4 3 2 3 12*
15. Grover Cleveland 3 4 2 3 12*
16. Benjamin Harrison         3 3 4 2 12*

UNEVEN PERFORMERS: Jefferson was a slaveholder who raped and had children with one of his slaves, and while his pushing the nation toward recognition of states' rights while also overseeing nation-building efforts like the Louisiana purchase deserve a noteworthy place in terms of legacy, he was also a very hands-off administrator which led to factionalism. Coolidge supplied moral leadership when Harding died, and his fiscal policies seem to have sparked some booming economic times – however, those times were followed by the Great Depression and much debate has ensued as to how much Coolidge was to blame for that event. Coolidge also had a surprisingly good record speaking for racial equality, but failed to stand up against a racially-motivated immigration bill from Congress, perhaps because of depression that besotted him after the loss of his young son to blood poisoning. John Adams’ personality, skills and character were absolutely crucial to the American cause during the Revolution, but his uncompromising nature and prickly manner hindered his effectiveness as a President. However, he was avowedly against slavery, he stood up for the separation of church and state, and he established the Presidency as a force to be reckoned with even after Washington’s retirement. Though not the most intellectually-gifted of Presidents, Madison was limited by the communication methods of his day in his turbulent and sometimes disastrous management of the War of 1812, but his continuation of Jeffersonian republicanism helped lead to the prosperity of the Monroe era of Good Feelings. Madison was also a slaveholder, which lowers his character score. 
17. Thomas Jefferson  4  3 1  3  11*
18. Calvin Coolidge 3 3 3 2 11*
19. John Adams         2 2 5 2 11*
20. James Madison 3 3 3 10*

REDEMPTION STORIES: John Quincy Adams was less politically adept than his father, but had great ideas including a national highway system and federal encouragement of the study of astronomy. His was a failed Presidency, but his passionate attacks on slavery as a congressman after his Presidency and defense of the Amistead case dramatically helped his character and legacy ratings. Arthur was a political hack thrust unexpectedly into the Presidency, who showed an undiscovered conscience in continuing the reforming efforts of his predecessor and standing up for the rights of the oppressed with limited political sway. 
21. John Quincy Adams 1 2 5 3 10*
22. Chester A. Arthur 3 2 3 2 10*

THE GREAT WHITE MIDDLE: Clinton ranks a lot higher on many other lists, but, I cannot point to many specific accomplishments of his administration, and he seemed to draft off of strong economic models built by his predecessors. He certainly was an expert politician, but his moral lapses are well-documented, and their legacy continues to bear sordid fruit today. Hayes, meanwhile, was a moral paragon, but also suffers from a lack of tangible results. He stood for reform, bravely held to a vow to seek one term, but made no attempt to support Reconstruction efforts and remained stymied from pushing any notable agenda due to his one-term vow and a very sketchy electoral process that empowered him. George H.W. Bush attempted to continue the policies of the Reagan administration from a more centrist perspective. His administration won the Gulf War, but their nation-building and foreign interference led to conflicts in later years, including those when his son was President, and questions about his moral character have emerged in these later years. Martin Van Buren was a political savant with a real rags-to-riches story who failed to show as much aplomb in the White House while facing financial crises and the burden of living into Jacksonian principles. He was not a friend to abolitionists or First Nations peoples, but his opposition to slavery in his post-White House years is worth noting. Jimmy Carter’s moral fiber bumps him up on this list, but he was not a particularly effective President. His commitment to his own ideas often seemed to keep him from recognizing the best policies and practices to keep the U.S. safe and prosperous. He did broker a peace between Israel and Egypt that remains in place to this day, and, from almost all accounts, is a very good person. Andrew Jackson killed the National bank, advancing the cause of the common citizen, and kept disgruntled states from Secession. However, his support of slavery, terrible treatment of Native Americans and general lack of political negotiating skills are huge blemishes on his record. Woodrow Wilson held abhorrent views on race and suffered from some dictatorial tendencies, but he navigated the nation through World War I and influenced increased involvement by the Federal Government in the lives of its citizens, for good or ill. 
23. Bill Clinton 3 3 1 2 9
24. Rutherford B. Hayes       2 2 4 1 9*
25. George H.W. Bush 2 2 3 2 9
26. Martin Van Buren 2 2 3 2 9*
27. Jimmy Carter 2 1 4 2 9
28. Andrew Jackson              3  2 1 2 8*
29. Woodrow Wilson            2   2 2 2 8*

BRACE YOURSELF FOR THE MEDIOCRE: A lot of very middling performances here. George W. Bush was able to lead the nation through the worst terrorist attack in world history and prevent large-scale follow-up attacks in the aftermath. However, the now clear illegitimacy of the War in Iraq, a lack of concern for certain minority groups, his increase of the deficit, and the financial recession of his terms’ later years lessen his score. Taft essentially became President because Theodore Roosevelt wanted him to be President, halfheartedly attempted to promote the progressive cause, and then lost re-election only to become a good Chief Justice. Ford was a good and honest man who pardoned a twisted and dishonest man, providing just enough stability to the office of the President to allow the nation to begin to recover a sense of trust in its Executive Branch. That’s about all he did, but it’s probably all he could have done. Millard Fillmore was a weak-kneed political flunky who did nothing to combat the issues threatening to tear the Union of the States apart. Hoover failed to recognize the signs of the oncoming Great Depression and his efforts to push back against it were futile. 
30. George W. Bush          2  1 3  2 8
31. William Howard Taft 1 2 4 1 8*
32. Gerald Ford               2 1 4 1 8
33. Millard Fillmore 2 1 3 1 7
34. Herbert Hoover 1 1 4 1 7

THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL: These five Presidents ruined their respective chances at making a positive impact on the nation and world through their leadership of the executive branch of government. There are Presidents from the 1850’s and 1860’s, 1910’s, 1970’s and 2010's on this list. They all have in common a lack of legacy, as none receive much respect from historians. Here you will find Tyler who was a slave-holder and eventually joined the Confederacy. Despite accomplishing the annexation of Texas and establishing a hold in the Pacific, Tyler's appalling commitment to white supremacist thinking tainted every accomplishment of the first Vice President to take over for a President who died in office. And Tyler was the best of this bad bunch, which includes a crook who promoted nationalist ethnocentrism (Nixon), a corrupt philanderer (Harding)two inept pushovers (Pierce and Buchanan), a man who trafficked in jingoism, oversaw a riot on the U.S Capitol after losing an election, and showed zero effort to work for a common good of the country, instead simply seeking his own power (Trump) and an incompetent, racist mountebank (Johnson). For my more complete thoughts on our most recent President, please see the post on this blog called "The Trump Presidency in Retrospect."
35. John Tyler                 2  2 1  1 6*
36. Franklin Pierce 1 1 3 1 6
37. James Buchanan 1 1 3 1 6*
38. Warren G. Harding  2 2 1 1 6
39. Richard Nixon 2 2 1 1 6*
40. Donald J. Trump       1  2 1  1 5
41. Andrew Johnson 1 1 1 1 4*

INCOMPLETE GRADES – Combined, these Presidents did not even serve a total of two years. It seems, unfair, then to judge their abilities and policies. It is especially sad in the case of Garfield and Harrison, as both displayed moral courage to enact positive changes in government, both pushing back against their respective era’s electioneering and spoils systems. Garfield’s support of the plight of black citizens makes his assassination most poignantly tragic. 
1. James A. Garfield*
2. William Henry Harrison*
3. Zachary Taylor

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Best Costume Award: A Halloween Poem

Best Costume Award.
The time has come to mask yourself.
Disguised as goblin, gnome or elf,
Patrol the streets and ask for treats.
Expect a fright and make a sight
That chills the feet and leaves heartbeats
To race in spite of lighted night.
But, for a cloak that won’t be seen,
Dress up as me for Halloween.

Though I’m not famed like Superman -
Both myth and wealth have yet to pan -
Tell I to you of all that’s true:
My front’s the best to stop a guess.
My gaze can fool and hands pull wool
O’er eyes - I dress to hide the mess
Inside the man – oh you’d be keen
To dress as me for Halloween.

Won’t find my hide inside a shop -
You’ll have to rush, I mean, don’t stop
To find a place that sells a face
That screens a soul of pain and strife
As joy. I’ll praise without a trace
Of true belief that comes from life.
What lurks beneath this look, this sheen?
Go out as me for Halloween.

Let’s look for ways to shed these scales
To stop this show, to drop these veils.
Refuse to come as white-washed tombs.
Instead we’ll find our cups and minds
Are clean as rooms that knew no dooms
Placed down by signs of sin and binds.
I’ll not pretend, here’s what I mean -
I won’t dress as me for Halloween.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Five Reasons Christians Should Read Khaled Hosseini

I've just finished reading "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini. This is the last of his three novels I've read, and I've been impressed with him as an author, a theologian and a person. I want to take this opportunity to share with you five reasons to give his books a try, specifically if you are a follower of Jesus:

1. His books preach tolerance, compassion and empathy without being preachy. The number one rule of writing is "show, don't tell" and Hosseini is an expert at letting his character's actions speak the words of life for which our world is in desperate need. It can get a little exhausting to read of abuse after abuse perpetrated against Afghanistan's women and marginalized, but there's little doubt of the accuracy of Hosseini's portrayals.

2. Reading a Hosseini novel shows the beauty as well as the darkness in Islam. I am frustrated by Christians who believe that Islam is an entirely evil religion. Islam is a false religion, of course, because it does not proclaim the word of God whose name is love in Jesus. But, it does not mean that it doesn't also contain truth and beauty at many points. As they say, a broken clock is still right twice a day. Hosseini's books provide great connection points for Christians trying to find common ground and understanding with Muslims - and if you're not trying for that, you SHOULD be.

3. Hosseini's books are not anti-American in any form. He shows the tragedies committed in Afghanistan without passing judgment on the political entities involved. With that said, certainly the U.S. DOES need called to account for its actions in Afghanistan at certain points, and you could glean some insight into the problems we've caused there in his books.

4. The books are a good mix of drama, introspection and fantasy. My favorite is his latest, "And the Mountains Echoed," which has become one of my most beloved books. However, his earliest and best-known book, "Kite Runner," is certainly just as worthy of a read.

5. Hosseini is writing today, he's writing well, and he's writing in a way that will expand your mind and open your heart. That is what all good art, especially fiction, can do. Give him a shot!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Reading Dostoyevsky: Thoughts on his novel "Demons" translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky

As I read and reread Dostoyevsky, I finished reading his novel called "Demons" also sometimes titled "The Possessed." The book is an especially fascinating read in light of later works such as Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, First Circle and Cancer Ward, as well as Orwell's classics Animal Farm and 1984, as it's clear that Dostoyevsky saw the fatal flaws at the core of the socialist movement beginning in Russia in the late nineteenth century. However, Dostoyevsky's treatment of the movement stands the test of time as it speaks in relevant and powerful tones regarding modern political movements from both the right and the left that subscribe to societal programming, communal initiatives and social revolution to bring meaning and order to life. Dostoyevsky argues that in these movements lurk demons which destroy movements and societies by ordering their desires and efforts toward self, thereby disordering their aims toward debauchery and licentious behavior. Instead, Dostoyevsky believes that Jesus must cast the demons out of humanity and free them to live into the wholeness God has created within them.

Though it is long, the novel is well worth the read, full of humor, intrigue, intellect, and even some horror. I can't help but wonder how different Russia might have looked had they taken the warnings Dostoyevsky penned to heart, and I also wonder how his words might be applied to our various political fads of today.

Some notable quotes from the novel follow (note that these are quotes from the perspective of characters in the novel, and do not necessarily reflect Dostoyevsky's views or main points):
"You may be sure that all those who cease to understand their people and lose their connection with them, at once, in the same measure, also lose the faith of their fathers, and become either atheists or indifferent." - p. 38

"The more socialist a man is, the further he goes, the more he loves property. ...Why is that?" - p. 77

"God is the pain of the fear of death. He who overcomes pain and fear will himself become God. ...He who only kills himself to kill fear will at once become God." - p. 115-116

"They must find out that they're good, then they'll all become good at once, all, to a man." - p. 238

"Nations are formed and move by another ruling and dominating force, whose origin is unknown and inexplicable. This force is the force of the unquenchable desire to get to the end, while at the same time denying the end. It is the force of a ceaseless and tireless confirmation of its own being and a denial of death." - p. 250

"Acquire God by labor. The whole essence is there, or else you'll disappear like vile mildew." - p. 255

"Every man is worth an umbrella." - p. 270

"If your God found it necessary to offer a reward for love, it means your God is immoral." - p. 397

"Desire and suffering are for us; for our slaves there will be no desires." - p. 418

"Mankind can live without the Englishman, it can live without Germany, it can live only too well without the Russian man, it can live without science, without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world!" - p. 486

"It has always seemed to me that you would bring me to some place where there lives a huge, evil spider, as big as a man, and we would spend our whole life there looking at him and being afraid. That's how our mutual love would pass." - p. 525

"Something unusual, altogether unexpected, trembled in his soul. Three years of separation, three years of broken marriage, had dislodged nothing from his heart. And perhaps every day of those three years he had dreamed of her, the dear being who had once said to him: 'I love you.'" - p. 569

"God, when he was creating the world, said at the end of each day of creation: 'Yes, this is true, this is good.' This... this is not tenderheartedness, but simply joy. You don't forgive anything, because there's no longer anything to forgive. You don't really love - oh, what is here is higher than love! What's most frightening is that it's so terribly clear, and there's such joy. If it were longer than five seconds - the soul couldn't endure it, and would vanish. In those five seconds I live my life through, and for them I would give my life, because it's worth it. To endure ten seconds one would have to change physically." - p. 590

On Children: "There were two, and suddenly, there's a third human being, a new spirit, whole, finished, such as doesn't come from human hands; a new thought and a new love, it's even frightening... and there's nothing higher in the world!" - p. 593

"This generation must be re-educated to make it worthy of freedom. There are still many thousands of Shatovs [innocent murder victims] ahead of us." - p. 607

"Without Christ, the whole planet with everything on it is madness only. There has not been one like Him before or since, not ever, even to the point of miracle. This is the miracle, that there has not been and never will be such a one. And if so, if the laws of nature did not pity even This One, did not pity even their own miracle,  but made Him to live amidst a lie and die for a lie, then the whole planet is a lie, and stands upon a lie and a stupid mockery." - p. 618

"For years I have been searching for the attribute of my divinity, and I have found it: the attribute of my divinity is - Self-will! ...I kill myself to show my insubordination and my new fearsome freedom." - p. 619

"God is necessary for me if only because He is the one being who can be loved, eternally..." - p. 663

"Even if you do not attain to reconciliation with yourself and forgiveness of yourself, even then He will forgive you for your intention and for your great suffering... for there are no words or thoughts in human language to express all the ways and reasons of the Lamb 'until his ways are openly revealed to us.' Who can embrace Him who is unembraceable, who can grasp the whole of Him who is infinite?" - p. 711