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Monday, November 21, 2011

Books, A Year in Review - 2011, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons Here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year. Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

I usually try to point out my favorite books from the year in this part. In years past, I've had some difficulty because there were just so many books that I liked. This year, though, there were a few standouts. My favorites were Dragon's Keep, All My Friends Are Dead, Why Evolution Is True, Two Years Before the Mast, and Castle. That's not to say that some of the other books weren't really good, but those five, at least to me, were exceptional.

Here's a list of all the books reviewed below. Click on any of the titles to jump to that review.

by Piers Anthony

Anthony may be a renowned author, but it's not for this book. To quote part of the School Library Journal review on Amazon:
Beware, dear readers, of the book that includes a lengthy rationalization of its troubled publishing history. Take note especially of an author's note like Anthony's that follows, rather than precedes, the story. Although he goes to great lengths to convince his audience that editors bounced this book due to differences in ideological beliefs, readers will find a simpler explanation: it's bad writing.
To be honest, I thought the book was decent. It was set in the future, where a research project had brought back to life an extinct giant rhino, the Baluchitherium, nicknamed Balook (the current taxonomic consensus is that the genus should be called Paraceratherium - it's also been referred to as Indricotherium). A young boy becomes involved in the project, and the book is about his adventure when Balook escapes from the compound.

If you have this book laying around, or come across it for cheap at a used book store or garage sale, it's worth reading.


Through the Looking Glass
by Lewis Carroll

Well, this book is a classic, and it's very imaginative, and it's the source of numerous references in literature, and many people like it, but I couldn't get into it. It was just too disjointed, jumping abruptly from scene to scene, without much tying it all together. There was no real plot or central theme, other than the chess references and the loose connection to the Red Queen throughout. Maybe that's the whole point. I read one review that stated, "Rather, the reader is meant to focus on the fleeting nature of childhood and its fantasies, reflected by the many things and events Alice encountered in the Looking-Glass world that were present one moment, but over and gone the next."

Oh well, I suppose this is probably worth reading to understand the references to it, and I'm sure many other people will enjoy it more than I did.


Dragon's Keep
by Janet Lee Carey

My daughter recommended this book to me, and I agree with her that it was great. It's a fantasy set in the universe of King Arthur, but many generations later than Arthur. The story took place on the small island nation of Wilde Island, which had a long standing uneasy relationship with dragons. The dragons would periodically come and steal an islander to eat.

The princess, Rosalind, was born with one finger as a dragon's claw. Merlin had told a prophecy of her, "The signs all point to the twenty-first queen of Wilde Island.... Three things the stars say of this queen. She shall redeem the name Pendragon. End war with the wave of her hand. And restore the glory of Wilde Island....And yet I see darkly in the stars...a beast." The book tells the story of how she eventually fulfilled that prophecy.

The book ended at a good spot, but left open much more that could have been told. I didn't know much about the book when I read it, so I was hoping that maybe it was the start of a series. Unfortunately, it wasn't. I was pretty disappointed when I found out. Maybe Carey will eventually write a sequel. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book.


The Fire Within
by Chris D'Lacey

When Elizabeth Pennykettle put out an ad for a room available for rent in her house, it was answered by college student, David Rain. Liz lived with her daughter, Lucy. She made a living by making and selling clay dragons, and David was struck by all the dragons throughout the house. But he also noticed that Liz must have been moving the statues all the time, since they always seemed to be in different places.

The book differs from many other fantasy novels I've read in that it doesn't have a lot of action. It's mostly about David building a relationship with the Pennykettles, and trying to understand just what's going on with those clay dragons.

The book is good, and my daughter and I would both recommend it. It's also part of a series. So far, I've read one sequel, and plan to read more. My daughter has read three or four of the books in the series.


Ice Fire
by Chris D'Lacey

Warning - Contains spoilers for The Fire Within

After learning the truth about the Pennykettles' dragons, this book starts off with David doubting everything again. He's unsure with himself about whether or not he was just dreaming everything that happened in the conclusion of the first book.

This book introduces a few more characters. David's love interest from the previous book is gone - off on a job in an African game reserve, but he meets a new girl at college, Zanna Marindale. There's also the Pennykettles' Aunty Gwyneth, who David is unsure what to make of at first. There's also Dr. Bergstrom, a college professor of David's, who's trying to get David to join him on a trip to the Antarctic.

This still isn't an adventure book, but compared to the first book of the series, it does have a bit more action. It also reveals more about the Pennykettles and their dragons.


Killing Mr. Griffin
by Lois Duncan

The story takes place in a high school in Arizona. A group of students are fed up with one of their teachers, Mr. Griffin, who's very strict and demanding. One of the students hatches a plot, and convinces the other students to go along with it. As the book description on Amazon says, "High school can be tough. But with teachers like Mr. Griffin it can seem impossible. They only planned to scare him. But sometimes even the best-laid plans go wrong."

Overall, the story was good, if a bit slow. However, there was something odd about the version I read. I'm sure I'm not alone in trying to put myself in the time frame from when a story was written. It helps in visualizing everything, and understanding the mindset of the characters. This book is relatively modern, but a few statements early on made me think it might have been from a few years ago. So, I turned to the title page, and saw that the story was first published in 1978. So, I put myself in that time frame, and visualized cars, clothing, and houses from the '70s. But then, I'd read something about somebody using a cell phone, or checking something on the Internet. It turns out that Duncan had gone back through the story and tried to update it to the present day. The problem, in my opinion, is that it wasn't a complete update. There were still parts of the book that read like a late '70s period, juxtaposed with present day scenarios. It was a bit jarring. So, if you do decide to read this book, I'd recommend looking for the old, non-updated version.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne

Just for anybody who doesn't know what this book is about, it describes the adventures of Professor Pierre Aronnax, a noted French marine biologist, his assistant, Conseil, and a Canadian, harpoonist Ned Land. The three were on a ship that was hunting for a 'sea monster' that had sunk several ships. Arronax was knocked overboard after an encounter with the monster, and Conseil jumped in after him. After hours of swimming, they found Ned Land, who had also been knocked overboard, but who was now riding the monster. They were soon to learn that the monster was in fact a submarine, commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo. The rest of the book deals with their adventures.

This book was interesting, but I didn't find it terribly engrossing. Of course, Jules Verne is well known as one of the fathers of science fiction. And his description of the submarine has been described as prophetic. But, in much the same way as I complained about Through the Looking Glass, this book didn't have a strong central plot. It was mostly a series of short stories, bouncing around from one undersea location to another.

Given when the book was written, it required a bit more suspension of disbelief than a typical sci fi story. Sci fi stories often times tread on the boundary of what's known and what's still a mystery. It gives the writer a place to let his imagination run wild. But when stories like that are read by later generations, much of what was once unknown has now been discovered. So it was with several scenes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

As I've learned of many books, especially from that time period, translation can be an issue. As a Frenchman, Jules Verne wrote in French. Some of what he wrote wasn't so flattering to the British Empire. So, when the book was first translated into English by Reverend Lewis Page Mercier, nearly a quarter of the content was censored. That original translation also had numerous errors that were down to incompetence. So, if you do decide to read this book, check to make sure that you're getting a good translation, first.


A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens

I really enjoyed this story. It's the famous tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his nightly visit by his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the three Christmas ghosts. I don't know what I could write about this story that hasn't already been written. And it's so familiar thanks to its many adaptations, that even including a plot summary seems superfluous.

I will mention that if you've watched the 1984 adaptation with George C. Scott, that it's very, very close to Dickens' story. In fact, I think it may be the most faithful adaptation of any book that I've read personally.


Left Behind
by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

Although it's not a 'full' review, I've discussed this book twice already on this blog, in the entries, Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind and More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book.

To quote myself from the second of those entries, "Left Behind wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. It wasn't, as Slacktivist said, "The Worst Book Ever Written." At the very least, it gives you some insight into the mindset of premillenial dispensationalists. If you can get past the corny dialog, unlikeable heroes, and lack of detail, and then suspend your disbelief about the implausible scenarios, you can enjoy the book. I liked it enough that I'll probably read the rest of the series."


The Color of Magic
by Terry Pratchett

This is the first book in what has become the incredibly popular and extensive Discworld series. To quote from Wikipedia the Discworld is "a flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A'Tuin," who, to quote from the book itself, is "swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters."

There are wizards and magic and gods like typical fantasies, but elements of science as well. The story (as well as the whole series, from what I understand) is also humorous. As an example, one of the characters from a far away land had a magic picture box that made little pictures of people. The locals were convinced that there must have been a little man inside painting tiny portraits. Of course, this is a reference to what primitive peoples have thought when they've encountered cameras. But in the book, after numerous pictures were made with the magic box, the little man finally stuck his head out and said that he was running out of a certain color paint.

This story follows the adventures of Rincewind, a cowardly and somewhat incompetent wizard, and Twoflower, a tourist from the far away Agatean Empire (and owner of the magic picture box). The story line is rather rambling, going to scene from scene without much tying it all together. Much of what happens to the two main characters is being controlled by the gods, resulting in the ultimate deus ex machina. By the end of the book, you've quit worrying about whether or not the two will escape whatever improbable scenario they find themselves in, because they always do.

Overall, the book was fairly entertaining. It had enough humorous elements to make up for the lack of plot. And it's whet my appetite enough that I'll probably read more of the series in the future.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain

This is another classic that hardly needs any praise from me. It's the story of the rascal, Huck Finn, as he runs away down the Mississippi River with the run away slave, Jim, who's hoping to eventually escape North where he can earn enough money to buy his family's freedom.

Since there's nothing for me to add, I'll just quote my favorite passage from the book. Recall that the story took place in a time of deep racism, and in a time when churches supported that racism. People were told that it was immoral to aid runaway slaves. Huck Finn, despite all his adventures with Jim, was worried that he was doing the wrong thing by helping Jim out, and that he'd end up in Hell because of it. So, to 'ease his conscience', he wrote a letter that he was going to deliver that would reveal the full truth about Jim.

It was a close place. I took it up [the letter], and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Even if it wasn't my favorite book I read this year, it's practically required reading. If you haven't read it yet, go read it.


by Mary Shelley

Although this book is a classic and has inspired many interpretations, I think most people know of Frankenstein more for the 1931 movie with Boris Karloff than for this book. The book is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a gifted natural philosopher who discovered the secret of life. His secret in the book is never actually revealed. Electricity and lightning bolts were certainly never mentioned. Armed with this secret, Frankenstein built his own human like creature. But once he animated the creature, he was repulsed by it and abandoned it. Eventually, he came back in contact with the creature, and it wasn't a happy family reunion. The story ended in tragedy, but without any pitchforks, torches, or burning buildings.

The story has been described as one of the first sci-fi stories. And although we usually associate it with the horror genre, when you stop and think about it, there are no supernatural or mystical forces in the book. It's all based on Frankenstein gaining an understanding of life through experimentation and observation.

It took me a little while to get into the book. It was written, as Wikipedia describes it, as a frame story. It started off being told by Captain Robert Walton, a man on an expedition hoping to reach the North Pole, in a series of letters to his sister. Later, he writes of meeting Frankenstein, and the book transitions to a narrative from Frankenstein's point of view. It was those introductory chapters being told by Walton that were a bit hard for me to get through. So, if you start this book and similarly find that section dull, soldier through it and give the next part a chance.

As an interesting side note, I'd just read Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh not long before. It was a nearly perfect book to read first, to help you understand all the names involved in Frankenstein's studies, and to understand the scientific thinking on biological matters at the time. Yes, we've learned more since Shelley wrote her book, making the particulars of her premise a bit hard to swallow, but it was still an interesting story.


All My Friends Are Dead
by Avery Monsen and Jory John

I already wrote a review of this book. Since the review's so short, I'll just quote it in its entirety.

"I just recently bought a rather silly book that I happen to like quite a bit, All My Friends Are Dead. It's described as "either the saddest funny book or the funniest sad book you'll ever read." At only 96 pages long, with only a handful of words per page, it can be read cover to cover in less than a quarter of an hour. It's pretty funny, in an off beat way. I've handed it to nearly everyone who's come to the house since I bought it, and so far everyone's laughed out loud while reading it (not necessarily at every joke, but at quite a few). If you want a taste for what's inside, the book's website shares a few of the pages:

Official Website for All My Frieds are Dead

I definitely recommend this book.


The End of Biblical Studies
by Hector Avalos

I never wrote a full review of this book, but it did prompt one entry on this site, Reliance on Bible Translations. It described how different translations can affect our understanding of the stories in the Bible, and how some peope can dishonestly translate to try to make the Bible seem better than it actually is.

The book, as the title suggests, is a condmentation of Biblical studies. Avalos covered a broad range of topics in the book, from textual criticism, to archaeology, to criticism of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Unlike Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, Avalos looked at the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments. However, I also found this book a bit drier than Ehrman's. So, out of the two books I've read on this topic, I'd recommend Misquoting Jesus first, even though it was more limited in scope. But for those wanting to learn even more, The End of Biblical Studies was very informative.


More Than a Carpenter
by Josh D. McDowell and Sean McDowell

I've already written a full review of this book.

To quote from that review: "The book was bad. Practically every chapter relied on the Gospels being more or less reliable accounts, and then went off defending Jesus's divinity from there. As I've said plenty of times, if non-believers accepted that the Bible was true, we'd already be Christians. But we don't, so citing scripture as proof is nearly pointless. It would be like trying to prove Mormonism by quoting the Book of Mormon, or Buddhism by quoting the Buddhavacana. McDowell only spent one chapter (Chapter 6) trying to make a case for the Gospels being reliable, and didn't really succeed. And without that base, the rest of his book just falls flat."

And from the closing of that review, "This book won't convince anybody who's given serious thought to the question of Christianity, and doesn't even present any particularly thought provoking arguments."

The full review is actually a fairly detailed chapter by chapter discussion of the book, if you really want more.


Thousands, Not Billions
by Donald B. DeYoung

I've already written a full review of this book in two parts: Part I and Part II.

To quote a bit from that review, "The book is a summary of a research project known as Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE), associated with The Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The book was written by one of the Researchers, Dr. Don DeYoung.

"The subtitle of the book, "Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth", might lead you to think that there'd be a bit of discussion of evolution. There wasn't. The book looked only at the age of the Earth, and focused entirely on radiometric dating."

There were many problems with what these 'researchers' did. First, as they even admitted in the book, they assumed that Scripture must be correct, and channeled all of their data to fit their preconceptions - exactly the wrong way to do science. But even in their science there were numerous problems, most of which I covered in Part II of the review. What I consider the fatal flaw of their argument, to which I devoted Part I of the review, was their conjecture that accelerated nuclear decay could be responsible for their 'findings', without ever accounting for all the heat that would have generated

To quote the closing of the full review, "I usually end my reviews with a recommendation for or against reading the book. In this case, I definitely recommend against, unless you already know enough about the science, or are willing to put in the effort to research the claims. Otherwise, the arguments can sound convincing, and could mislead most of the people who read the book. If you don't know about these topics already, go read a real science book on geology."


Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays
by Jeff Lewis

Leaving Christianity, Cover
Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays
by Jeff Lewis
$4.99 from Lulu.com
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.
This book was incredible, great, fantastic - possibly the best book I've ever read on this subject. It was just long enough to be engaging and informative, without being long and overwhelming...

Okay, okay. This was the book I wrote and self published. It may not be the best book ever written, but I do think it's worth the time it takes to read it. It is, as the title suggests, a collection of essays I wrote during and after my 'deconversion' from Christianity. I did actually keep it to a length that should be informative without being overwhelming (~100 pages), so it could be a good primer on non-belief. I've given copies to several friends, all of whom have said it was interesting. Obviously, you wouldn't expect friends to tell you your book was horrible, but one of them even went out and bought 10 copies so that he could give it away to other people.

So, in all honesty, I think this is a decent book to introduce people to atheism, and I think everybody should rush out and buy a dozen copies. (Well, metaphorically rush out. You can only buy the book online from Lulu or Apple's iBooks.)

Oh, I suppose I should mention that all of the essays in this book are available for free on this site, in my Religious Essays section. So, you can read it all for free if you want to. I just think a print copy is nice (not to mention a great gift).


What Do You Care What Other People Think
by Richard Feynman

This was Richard Feynman's follow up to his popular book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character). This sequel was also a collection of many anecdotes, but overall it was more serious. He spent a good deal of it discussing the death of his first wife. He devoted nearly half of the book to discussing his involvement with the investigation into the Challenger explosion. Given that so much of the book was devoted to two topics, it didn't have the variety of the first book. It didn't have the same adventurous feel as the first, either.

If you really like Feynman, or have an interest in the Challenger disaster, this would be a good book for you. For most people, though, I'd recommend they read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! first.


Why Evolution Is True
by Jerry A. Coyne

I've already written a review of this book. To quote from it:

"I've just finished reading Jerry Coyne's book, Why Evolution Is True. This is one of my new favorites for introducing evolution to people who don't currently understand or accept it. It contains a great balance of theory and evidence, or in other words, explaining how evolution works, as well as showing the evidence of how we know that."

"In short, this book is a great introduction to people who don't understand evolution. Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters may have a more detailed discussion of the fossil evidence, and Carl Zimmer's The Tangled Bank may have a more detailed discussion of the mechanisms, but Coyne's book has just the right balance of theory and evidence, especially evidence from a broad range of disciplines."

I'll also add, as I already mentioned in that review, that Coyne spends just the right amount of time debunking creationism, without dwelling on it to the point of distracting from the actual science.

Out of all the books on evolution that I've read, from now on, this is going to be the first one I recommend to people who want to learn more about it.


Two Years Before the Mast
by Richard Henry Dana

When Richard Henry Dana was a young man studying at Harvard, he began having trouble with his vision and thought a stint as a sailor might help improve his constitution. So, on August 14th, 1834, he climbed aboard the ship, the Pilgrim, to start what would become a two year trek.

The ship set sail from Boston harbor, went south and around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, and then on to California. The ship went up and down the coast, trading for hides, periodically returning to port in San Diego to empty their current load of hides to make room for more. At one point, Dana stayed behind in San Diego to work on the hide preparation while the ship went back to trading. After nearly two years of this, Dana got to go home. This time, he was aboard a different ship, the Alert.

The book was interesting for a variety of reasons. First, it gave insight into life aboard a sailing vessel, from the point of view of a common sailor. I've always found that topic fascinating, but never really looked into it before. I even remember wondering what there was to do aboard a ship, and imagined that, apart from short bursts of activity, it would have been a pretty idle life. But apparently, there was always something to do on board, and the crew had very little time for leisure. The book also showed the absolute power that a captain had aboard a ship, and how little recourse there was for the crew if the captain abused that power.

The other aspect of the book I found fascinating was its description of California in that time period. Dana travelled there while California was still a part of Mexico, before the Gold Rush and before California entered the Union in 1850. It was only sparsely populated, at the time, and it's prime industry was the hide trade. Many of the names we now recognize as big cities were in the book, but the settlements were relatively small at the time. San Francisco Bay, for example, had the Presidio, the Mission of Dolores, and a few villages. What makes this more interesting is that in the 1869 edition of the book (the one I read), Dana added an appendix where he wrote of his impressions after visiting California 24 years after his first trip. His second visit was after the Gold Rush and California's statehood, and you could read a first hand account of the changes that had taken place.

The book was hugely popular when it was published, and especially during the Gold Rush as it was one of the few 'guides' to the region. Herman Melville even wrote of it, "But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle." If you have any interest in sailing or the history of California, I recommend this book.


Soul Made Flesh
by Carl Zimmer

The subtitle of this book was 'The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World'. The descriptions I'd read beforehand billed it as mostly following the research of Thomas Willis. However, both of those statements are a bit misleading. The book is far more ranging than that. It looked at the beginning of the modern understanding of the human body, from understanding that the circulatory system was actually circulatory (not one way), to finishing the book with a chapter discussing MRI machines, while touching on the English Civil War and the founding of the Royal Society. The book was written with Zimmer's trademark storytelling, making the people involved more than just names associated with discoveries.

There's actually a very good review of the book on Amazon, that says exactly what I wanted to say.

If you like Carl Zimmer (and who doesn't), or are interested in how we came to actually understand human anatomy, this is a good book to read.


by David Macaulay

Back when I was a kid, I watched the documentary, Castle, on PBS, and I loved it. It was such an interesting animation showing how castles were built and used in the Middle Ages. Once I found out there was a book it was based on, I'd always wanted to read it. I finally got around to doing so this year, and it was great.

The book was written in McCauly's signature style - detailed ink illustrations accompanied by text to explain it. It was the fictitious story of the Lord of Aberwyvern building a castle, but based on how castles were actually built, and how people actually lived in the Middle Ages. The book is short. I read it in a night or two, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and plan to read it again. It was good enough that I went out and bought another of McCauly's books, Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction.

I suppose it's also worth mentioning that this book earned the Caldecott Honor in 1978 (one of two runner ups that year).


Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax"
by Philip C. Plait

This is the first of the two books that Phil Plait has written (so far - I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote more in the future). The other, Death from the Skies!, I'd read a couple years ago.

If you've ever read Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, you'll know that he's passionate about science, particularly astronomy, and that he's also passionate about correcting misunderstandings and urban legends. The reason for the title of this book is because Plait was addressing 'bad' astronomy. He covered such wide ranging topics as the Coriolis effect (and how people mistakenly believe it's responsible for the direction toilets flush), the 'Great Planetary Alignment of 2000' (and the disaster it didn't cause), and the Moon-landing hoax (which wasn't a hoax).

All in all, it was a very informative book, and entertaining at the same time. However, having read Death from the Skies first, it's apparent that Plait's writing has matured. If you have the time, then by all means, read both of these books. But if you're looking for a single book by Plait to read, I'd recommend starting off with Death from the Skies.


The Meaning of Tingo
by Adam Jacot de Boinod

This book carries the dubious distinction of being one of the few books I've started and not finished. I picked it up from the clearance rack of the local book store, and it seemed to have an interesting premise. The author collected interesting words and phrases from around the world, organized them by subject, and put them in the book. It's an interesting way to see how different attitudes get manifested in language. For example, 'tingo', from the title of the book, comes from the Pascuense language of Easter Island and supposedly means 'to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by borrowing them'.

However, I decided to look the book up on Amazon while I was in the middle of reading it, and I checked a few of the reviews. A native Chinese speaker complained of Boinod mistranslating the Chinese. A native German speaker complained of mistranslations of German. A native Russian speaker complained of mistranslations of Russian. So, with all those people complaining about so many inaccuracies in the book, I lost my enthusiasm to read it. And it's a shame, because like I wrote above, it really was an interesting concept.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone

Pat BooneI've received yet another erroneous right wing e-mail forward. This one was a copy of an editorial by Pat Boone, that was originally published in World Net Daily. I wrote a response to the e-mail, which I'm adapting for this blog entry.

Since this entry started as a response to an e-mail, it started with the assumption that the person I was writing it to was familiar with Boone's editorial. So, I'm not going to quote all of his editorial. If you go to the Snopes link below, you can find a link to the full version.

To get the easy error checking out of the way, Snopes confirmed that this was written by Boone.

Accuracy of Quotes

The editorial started off with 4 supposed quotes from Obama.

"We're no longer a Christian nation." - President Barack Obama, June 2009

" America has been arrogant." - President Barack Obama

"After 9/11, America didn't always live up to her ideals."- President Barack Obama

"You might say that America is a Muslim nation."- President Barack Obama, Egypt 2009

As far as the accuracy of those quotes, this article on UrbanLegends at About.com covers all four of them pretty well:

None of the four is an accurate quote. The first cut short what Obama said, changing the meaning. Here’s the full quote:

Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

If Boone had included the full quote, he’d have realized that it said almost exactly what he wrote near the end of his article about what Obama should have said.

BTW, the awkward wording on that was due to Obama misspeaking. The originally prepared written copy of the speech put ‘just’ right in the middle of the first sentence, not tacked on at the end.

The second and third quotes are paraphrased, though not changing the meaning too much. However, it’s always best to read quotes in full context, which you can do at that UrbanLegends at About.com link.

The fourth quote doesn’t appear to even be a paraphrase. The closest Obama came to saying anything like that was in an interview with a reporter. Here’s the section of the interview where that probably came from:

Now, the flip side is I think that the United States and the West generally, we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam. And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there's got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples.

Christian Nation? Founders Intentions

Okay, moving past Boone’s inaccuracy in the quotes, let’s look at some of his other points.

Let’s start at the whole notion of the U.S. being a Christian nation, and being founded by Christians. In fact, this is a bit of a complicated issue. The Founding Fathers were no more uniform than any group of politicians. Some were definitely Christians. Some definitely weren’t. Some called themselves Christians, but were outside what would be considered mainstream Christianity today. And some probably changed their views throughout their lives.

Thomas Jefferson is probably the most famous example. He called himself a Christian, but for all intents and purposes, he was a deist. He didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ, and went so far as to make his own version of the Bible where he removed all the miracles. In letters, he wrote that he disagreed with some of Jesus' teachings. Jefferson certainly disliked organized religion and churches. He wrote “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,” as well as, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

Boone, for some reason, dismissed Jefferson’s statement about a ‘wall of separation between Church and State’. I think Jefferson was quite clear in what he wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

Elsewhere, Jefferson wrote statements that confirmed this, such as:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

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George Washington didn’t discuss religion much at all. However, it’s interesting to consider the story of him and Communion. He never took Communion. On those Sundays at which Communion was served, he would leave the church early. After the pastor warned him that he might be setting a bad example by leaving early and not taking Communion, Washington quit going to church on Communion Sundays altogether. Many people have used this example (among others) to argue that Washington only went to church for social reasons, and wasn’t very religious himself.

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You can look beyond statements from individuals. The Treaty of Tripoli had wording that I can hardly imagine being passed in today’s political climate, but which didn’t seem to faze the Founders. Article 11 of the treaty states:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This wasn’t something that just slipped by. It had unanimous Senate support. To quote from the link below:

[The treaty] was, according to the official record, read aloud (the whole treaty was only a page or two long), including the famous words, on the floor of the senate and copies were printed for every Senator. (It should be noted that the controversy about the Arabic version is irrelevant here: all official treaty collections from 1797 on contain the English version, and all include the famous words of Article XI.) A committee considered the treaty and recommended ratification. Twenty-three Senators voted to ratify: … The vote was recorded only because at least a fifth of the Senators present voted to require a recorded vote. This was the 339th time … that a recorded vote was required. It was only the third time that a vote was recorded when the vote was unanimous! (The next time was to honor George Washington.) There is no record of any debate or dissension on the treaty.

President Adams signed the treaty and proclaimed it to the nation on 10 June 1797. His statement on it was a bit unusual: "Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof."

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While the Declaration does mention a ‘Creator’, that could be taken as a deistic stance as easily as a Christian one (in Jefferson’s original draft, there was no mention of a creator at all). But, that’s somewhat beside the point since the Declaration was a statement of war against the British, not a founding document of our nation, and it doesn’t carry any weight in current U.S. law. The Constitution itself never makes mention of a god or a creator at all, except for listing the date as “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven”, which is no more explicitly Christian than using the convention of B.C./A.D.

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It’s also worth noting that the first de facto motto of the U.S. was ‘E. Pluribus Unum’ (from many, one), and that ‘In God We Trust’ wasn’t made the official motto until the Red Scare and McCarthyism. ‘In God We Trust’ didn’t even start appearing on coins until the Civil War. Similarly, even though it’s from a later period than the founding of the nation, the original version of the pledge of allegiance (written by a socialist, by the way) made no mention of the divine, and it was also during the McCarthy era that the pledge was altered.

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However, like I wrote above, the issue of religion in the founding of our country was complicated. There were numerous Christians among the Founders, and many people who did want religion to be more prevalent. When it came to state constitutions, many did include language about God and Christianity, and many states even had religious tests to hold office. (Keep in mind that the Bill of Rights originally applied only to the federal government, so state governments could violate those Amendments).

So, the short answer is that people were divided on the role of religion in government even at the start of the country, but it appears that the federal government, at least, was primarily secular.

Judeo-Christian Values?

But even if our government wasn’t explicitly religious, was it still founded on Judeo-Christian religious principles? Not really. At least, not values that are exclusively Judeo-Christian.

Many laws are so basic that they’re present in practically all societies, regardless of religion. Any laws against murder, theft, etc., are pretty much common to all civilizations, not just Judeo-Christian ones. The golden rule, for example, was present in many ancient societies, from the Egyptians to the Chinese.

The structure of our government certainly is not based on Christianity. It’s a democratic republic, which dates back to the Greeks & Romans (who worshipped a pantheon of gods). Enshrining laws in a written code dates back at least to the Code of Hammurabi.

One aspect of our government that’s actually in direct contradiction to Judeo-Christian values is the religious freedom part of the 1st Amendment. Compare it to the first few Commandments (either 1-3 or 1-4 depending on how you count them). Giving people the freedom to worship whichever gods they want to, or none at all, is not a Judeo-Christian value. (Deuteronomy 13:7-12 is another passage from the Bible going against the 1st Amendment).

I think it could be argued that our government was based more on Enlightenment values than any particular religion. That’s not to say that many Founding Fathers and citizens didn’t have Judeo-Christian values, but rather that those values were applied more to their personal lives, not politics.

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Last Remarks on Religion

As one last part of this discussion on religion vs. government, above I was only correcting Boone’s factual errors. Moving to the subjective realm, another point is to question the importance of the Founding Fathers’ original intentions. They weren’t infallible, or guided from on high. They were simply men doing their best. Remember, these are men who (as a group, at least) agreed that slavery should have been legal and that women didn’t deserve the right to vote. And like I wrote above, they originally only applied the Bill of Rights to the federal government, so states could infringe on liberties as much as their citizenry allowed. So if we want to change things about the country that we no longer like, we shouldn’t feel like slaves to the Founders.

As far as the current makeup of the country, it’s still majority Christian, but the trend is away from that. In 1990, around 86% of the population was Christian. In 2008, it was down to 76%. In 1990, 3.3% of people were of non-Christian religions. In 2008 it was 3.9%. The biggest change was in people of no religion. In 1990, they were 8.2% of the U.S. population. In 2008 they were 15%. (Those numbers don’t add up to 100% partly due to rounding, but mainly due to the people who refused to respond to the question on religious affiliation in the survey.)

If that trend continues, it will only be a few more decades until Christians are a minority in the U.S. (according to some surveys, this point has already been reached in the UK). But do you want a new majority to be able to push their religious beliefs through government? I don’t. That’s the whole point of Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’. It ensures that no matter what your religious beliefs, you’ll always be free to practice them without government interference (so long as they don’t break any other laws, of course).

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Not Living Up to Ideals

Honestly, I’m not sure why anyone would disagree with this statement unless they were blinded by irrationally extreme nationalism. I have yet to talk to a single person I know personally who likes the Patriot Act, or who doesn’t think that it’s a gross violation of our liberty. Or the TSA - every time I fly, I’m annoyed at the pointless hoops I have to jump through, knowing that they’re little more than show, which would do practically nothing to stop a determined terrorist, but which violate the 4th Amendment.

Or consider the detainees in Guantanamo, who are being held without trial, on suspicion of having committed a crime. Granted, those detainees are not citizens, but have we become so cowardly that we’re willing to deny 6th Amendment rights to human beings over a technicality? (Especially for the people who put so much stock in the Declaration. It says ‘ALL men are created equal’, not just ‘all men born on American soil or to American parents’.)

And what about using a method of torture which, during WWII, was considered sufficiently horrendous to justify the hanging of Japanese soldiers who had employed it against our troops? And the present day torture is not an isolated case of some rogue soldiers, but a decree that came from the White House.

To quote another of the Founding Fathers, it was Benjamin Franklin who wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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I guess that’s most of it. My e-mail response, and hence this blog entry, grew a lot longer than I’d originally intended, but Boone just said so many untrue things that I wanted to respond to. But the summary is that Boone misquoted Obama and went off on some ranting from that false base, while adding in a bit of a distorted history of the nation, as well.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Earthquake Followup

EarthquakeI recently wrote about the Oklahoma earthquake we felt here in Wichita Falls last Saturday night. Of course, there are people claiming it's a sign of the end times, which is a little silly, but this is the Bible Belt, after all.

The quake's been a topic of quite a few conversations here in Wichita Falls. Earlier this week, I had a dentist appointment. My dentist is pretty friendly, and we usually talk a bit about non-teeth related topics. He's never brought up religion with me before since that would be unprofessional, and given my views and the region I live in, I never make it a point to bring up religion myself. However, when we got to talking about the quake, he told me about the mental checklist he went through trying to figure out what was happening.

I can't remember his exact words, but he said that at first he thought it might have been the Rapture. Now, he wasn't exactly sure if was going to be taken, but he was pretty sure his wife was going to make the cut. So, when he looked over and saw her still sitting there, he knew that that couldn't have been it.

Anyway, I have no commentary. I just thought it was funny.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Shake Up in Wichita Falls

EarthquakeMy wife & daughter and I were watching a movie on Netflix Saturday night, when I felt the couch start shaking a bit. At the same time, I noticed the TV shaking, and then looking around, saw the blinds shaking and a light flickering. There was also a lot of noise and some creaking, and I could hear the glasses rattling in our wine cabinet. My first thought was that a storm had just hit, since really powerful straight line winds that shake things up a bit aren't uncommon here. But this was a lot more shaking than that, especially on the ground floor since our house is built on a slab. I considered and immediately dismissed a tornado, since the sirens weren't going off. I even wondered if there had been a nearby explosion. By the time the shaking was done in about 5 seconds, though, I'd figured out what was going on.

It turns out, the largest earthquake to hit Oklahoma in recorded history happened on Saturday night, and we were close enough to feel it. The quake was centered near Sparks, which is about 150 miles from Wichita Falls, as the crow flies. According to Times Record News, "The USGS says the quake was shallow, about 3 miles deep. It was initially registered as 5.2 magnitude, but later upgraded to 5.6. It was the latest in a trio of tremors that struck Oklahoma Saturday."

The girl staying with us was up in her room studying at the time, and came running downstairs scared. I guess the shaking was worse on the second story. She said the ceiling fan was shaking pretty bad. But really, there wasn't any major damage - just a few slight cracks that maybe were already there and I just hadn't noticed before.

The quake did cause some more substantial damage to buildings in Oklahoma, but nothing I've seen that's truly catastrophic, and it doesn't look like anybody was seriously injured.

Earthquakes aren't unprecedented in Oklahoma. The Meers fault line runs through the state, causing on the order of 50 quakes a year. They're just not normally this strong.

So now I can check off an earthquake as something I've experienced. I realize that it was pretty minor, and people from California or other areas might not think much of it, but feeling a quake at all in Wichita Falls is something pretty out of the ordinary.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

My Book on iBookstore

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI was hoping to have Part II of my yearly book review done this week, but that's taking a little longer than I'd hoped (I'm not as slammed at work as I had been, but I'm still working through many of my lunches). But, on a book related them, I'll mention that my book is now available through the iBookstore. So if you have an iGadget of some sort, you can go get it at the following link:

God? Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays

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