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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Holiday Almanac: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

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Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Monday, Jan. 6, will be Epiphany, the traditional “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” recalling when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed.

For Western churches, especially Roman Catholic, Epiphany is Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. In South Florida, Hispanics celebrate Three Kings Day, with floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Some parishes, or groups of parishes, gather for a colorful “‘Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into a waterway.

Most liturgical churches will hold formal Epiphany observances on Sunday, Jan. 5. Many parishes use incense as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts to jesus. Eastern Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.

— James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

January 2, 2014 at 4:37 am

Colorful interfaith book for children

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Book review: ‘What Do You Believe?’ DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.

As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?

Book cover 02002, onlineOne answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions — and some of the minor ones — into simple terms.

With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it’s much better than that. It’s a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.

There’s a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.

A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.

More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You’ll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.

Other units scan “Native Religions,” including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and “New Religious Movements” like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.

And there’s still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.

History 005, onlineEven departures from organized religion have their say. A look at “Modern Spirituality” notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don’t require belief in a deity.

The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists — those who simply want to spread their teachings — and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.

Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like “What is a Religion?” For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as “to have great trust in something or someone.”

One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.

More basic, the book asks “What is a Religion?” on page 20 — after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn’t it be asked at the start?

And there’s at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, “God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us).” They meant, of course, “immanent,” i.e., indwelling.

But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

‘Les Miserables’: A parable as old as the Bible

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I just saw “Les Miserables,” and I am delighted to say that the film delivers on the main message of Victor Hugo’s story: Law versus Grace.

The film brings out the historical background of a failed rebellion against a king and his army in France. It paints a Dickensian picture of dirty, desperate peasants and callous aristocrats. And it tells a poignant subplot of a loving father who must accept that his daughter is grown, and release him to the young man she loves.

But most of all, “Les Miz” tells about the duo of Jean Valjean and his antagonist, Inspector Javert: one a repentant criminal, the other a ruthless policeman.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is incredulous that the priest he robbed offers him his candlesticks as well.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is incredulous that the priest he robbed offers him his candlesticks as well.

The story opens with Valjean ending two decades of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread for his family. Javert tells Valjean he will be on parole forever, and Valjean finds it almost impossible to find work. He turns bitter and brutal, using his strength and wit for no one’s good but his own.

A priest takes him in for the night, but Valjean thanks him by taking off with the silver chalices. Police catch him and return him to the priest, who says he gave the items to Valjean. It’s a vivid picture of Jesus’ instruction that if someone takes your coat, “give him your cloak as well.”

What happens next is what changes Valjean: The priest says his soul has been bought and he is obligated to become a better person. A repentant Valjean takes another identity and founds a humane, well-run factory. He also finds a sick, destitute street woman and takes care of her, then pledges to raise her daughter after her death.

Unfortunately, Javert finds him out and pursues him for jumping parole. Valjean is forced to flee again, this time with his grown adopted daughter.

The antagonists meet again during a the street rebellion, this time with Javert in Valjean’s gunsights. Valjean spares his life, yet Javert insists he will resume his pursuit at the first chance.

The final confrontation ends with a stark difference between the men: Valjean wanting only the safety of his daughter and her lover, Javert driven by his rigid, heartless version of justice. The inspector can no longer deny that his quarry of several decades is a changed man. Yet the law he serves allows for no compassion or leniency. Under this unbearable strain, someone must break.

How remarkable that a popular author — and gifted scriptwriters and filmmakers — should grasp the nature of the gospel, whether they know the source or not. That belief acknowledges the evil nature of humans and the stern demands of divine law. Yet it also states that God designed an end run around his own law: Jesus, in his own death, has paid the penalty, secured forgiveness and provided a way for people to change.

But accepting pardon carries its own price: Once people belong to God, they are responsible to turn their lives around — i.e., repent.

“Les Miserables” works on a human level as well. Many people try to escape their own flawed nature by condemning, pointing the finger, exposing those around them. Others understand flaws, but they can still see how people can change. Which type of person makes the world better? And which type really pleases God?

These are more than heady thoughts. They are soul-searching concepts.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Justin Bieber’s mom unveils a tragic past and a hopeful future

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Book Review: Nowhere But Up. Pattie Mallette, with A.J. Gregory. Revell. 220 pp. $21.99.

Justin Bieber’s ups and downs — and the recent conspiracy to kill him — are such a fixation of the celebrity media, they may have forgotten or glossed over his own background: the struggles of his mother, Pattie Mallette.

That would be a pity, for Mallette has outlasted wave after wave of horrors. She was molested as a child by a relative, then by older kids in her neighborhood in Stratford, Ontario. She dealt drugs and got hooked on them herself. She was raped by a date at 15 and threw herself in front of a truck at 17 in a suicide attempt. She spent time in the psych ward of a hospital and even conceived her famous son out of wedlock. All before her 25th birthday.

Book cover, reduced 2Her tiny, 4-foot-8 frame must hold an amazing amount of strength. Or, as she says in Nowhere But Up, she’s the grateful subject of the mercy and providence of God.

“It doesn’t matter where you find yourself today — how broken, hurting, wounded, or ashamed you are,” Mallette writes. “If God can help me find my way up, I promise, he can do the same for you.”

She speaks from experience, in a delicate blend of devotion, encouragement and brutal honesty. She talks frankly about the alcoholic father who abused his mother, then left the family. She paints her own episodes of sexual abuse not so much in terms of physical actions as manipulative situations and the outflow her desperation for someone to care for her.

She tells of a downward spiral of sex, drugs, rebellion and petty crime climaxing with her 19-day stay in the psych ward. Her salvation, physically and spiritually, starts through the director of a youth center who visits her in the hospital. He’s the one who gave the book its title with his advice: “When you hit rock bottom, you have nowhere to go but up.”

Yet Mallette doesn’t pretend conversion is a cure-all; for one, she volunteers the fact that she conceived Justin out of wedlock, then lived with the father for awhile. Finally she throws him out after realizing his drinking, partying ways won’t mix with fatherhood.

Through the peaks and dips of her story, she continually speaks of God as a guiding force, steering events, sometimes even speaking through dreams or vivid insights. She lightly dusts her book with Bible verses she has found meaningful. All of this she does with a refreshing sincerity, without sermonizing.

And Justin? Well, let’s just say Mallette is a proud mom. Through her eyes, Justin is the most beautiful baby and the brightest boy. She praises his grades at school, his equal skill at chess and soccer, and especially his ease in singing and playing various instruments. He earns a reputation first by singing and strumming on the street, then entering local contests, then building an audience on YouTube with mom’s eager participation.

Mallete_Pattie_HR reducedShe gives ample credit to the many who helped her and Justin along the way. There’s the computer firm that trained her, then employed her for two years. There’s the neighbor who paid for daycare for Justin while she returned to school. And there’s Scooter Braun, an Atlanta-based promoter minister who mentored the boy just as he was starting the big time.

Mallette also gives some pages to ministries that are helping troubled people like she once was. One is the Bethesda home for unwed mothers, where she stayed until she bore her son. Another is the Dream Center, a church in Los Angeles that runs nearly 300 social service ministries. Perhaps a future book by Mallette should dwell on such places.

A. J. Gregory, Mallette’s writer, turns her story into a smooth narrative, with short words, short paragraphs and little religious jargon. She also adds a lot of telling details — like Mallette’s $700 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme — obviously the product of many interviews and reviews of the text. Only toward the end of the book does Gregory fall into redundancies and some overwriting.

Bieber fans will like the 16 pages of color family snapshots. They show Mallette cuddling and camping with Justin, plus the two of them flying to his first big break in Atlanta.

Now in her mid-30s, Mallette acknowledges that her life is again in transition. With Justin grown, the nurture and protection that consumed her life is past. Just as her son is developing his own identity, she must recast her own. It’s a healthy realization: So many women with famous kids become stage moms, grabbing and holding the reflected fame as long as they can. That virus apparently hasn’t affected Mallette.

Her new role may already be shaping up. She has 1.5 million followers on Twitter, many of them asking the kinds of personal questions they might ask a mother. At least a hundred of them waited for hours before a recent book signing in Fort Lauderdale, squealing at her appearance as if they’d seen Justin. And she has been a guest on national news TV shows and at least two conferences by Women of Faith.

Mallette seems to be using her tragic past to help others with their tragic present. “I’m passionate about seeing people healed of pain,” she told me in an interview during her South Florida visit. “If I can come to a good place, anybody can.”

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm

The bland leading the bland

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DVD review: Love Begins. Twentieth Century Fox Home entertainment. 88 minutes.

Strength, faith, courage, romance and the Wild West just seem to go together. But in Love Begins, it’s not blind faith as much as bland faith.

This film is a prequel to Janette Oke’s eight-book Love Comes Softly series, though it’s part of the Hallmark series based on them. It pretty much fits the pattern of Oke’s less-than-Wild West, where nearly everyone says “ma’am” and “sir” and sticks to a firm code of honor. And where fine, upstanding women always get their man.

Good-lookin’ Ellen (Julie Mond of General Hospital) and kid sister Cassie (Abigail Mavity of Summerland) work hard to maintain the dusty ranch their dead parents left behind. They smile and talk hopefully, but they’re losing ground.

Meanwhile, over the hill gallop Clark (Wes Brown of True Blood) and his buddy Daniel, on their way to join the gold rush in California. In the town of Trinity, Daniel hits on the womenfolk, and he and Clark get in a brawl with the menfolk, busting up Miss Millie’s café (not a saloon; in this version of the West, no one drinks anything stronger than coffee).

The two men are arrested, but Daniel escapes, leaving Clark to work off the cost of repairs. For the sheriff, the obvious solution is to make him a hired hand at Ellen’s ranch.

This arrangement doesn’t sit well with her: She’s still bitter over Jake, her former lover. Like Clark, he left for the gold rush two years ago. She agrees to hire Clark but treats him coldly.

Gradually, her attitude softens as Clark shows a polite, hard-working nature. His tall, rawbowned frame, shy smile and bright blue eyes don’t hurt either. And the annoyingly perky Cassie helps him work and chats him up.

A few dinners, a gentle dance, and Clark and Ellen confess their love. As he pays the last of his debt, he reconsiders his plans to leave. But oh, no, a plot twist! A well-dressed Jake steps off the next stagecoach! Turns out he struck it rich in California after all. He asks for Ellen’s hand and offers to take her and Cassie to his fine house in San Francisco.

What’s an upstanding frontierswoman to do? Will she sell the ranch and run off with newly rich Jake? Will she stay behind with poor but hardworking Clark? Will she listen to her heart or . . .

Aw, c’mon, everyone knows what she’ll do. Fact is, very little in this story is a surprise. OK, maybe the return of Jake, but that’s about it.

Nancy McKeon’s Millie does little to liven the movie, despite her acting credit as tough-talking Jo in The Facts of Life. Jere Burns, currently playing sleazy blackmailer Anson in Burn Notice, does a decent job as the stern but fair-minded sheriff.

Faith is a quiet undercurrent in this film. Ellen and others attend church and drop God’s name now and then (never Jesus’ name, though). But is it a strong faith? How would we know? Our heroines show little doubt or anxiety. They ask why God would allow a thunderstorm to loosen the barn doors. But they never shout or cry. They never worry about keeping the ranch. They don’t even break a sweat lifting lumber in the hot sun.

This isn’t the biblical model. In the scriptures, Jacob literally wrestles with God; Elijah runs and hides after Jezebel threatens him; even Jesus begs for his life in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Yes, we get it. Oke wants to give her audience something solid, strengthening, faith-building. And without the sex and violence that infects most other entertainment.

It’s a good goal, but it misses some crucial steps. Faith grows stronger only through conflict, hardship, opposition. You suffer; you doubt; you resolve and endure; you grow in faith. What you don’t gain is blandness.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 20, 2011 at 5:43 am

How the King James Bible was made

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DVD review: KJB: The Book that Changed the World. Lionsgate Entertainment, 94 minutes, $21.99.

On this 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible comes a rare documentary, imparting knowledge and beauty alike — and a peek into the personalities behind the events. KJB is well worth your time.

Why should you care? John Rhys-Davies, the narrator, spells it out at the beginning. He says the King James Version, “even if you haven’t read it, has had an influence on your life. In fact, its imagery, its language and its influence have been felt around the world for the past 400 years. It also claims to be the living word of God.”

John Rhys-Davies reads the King James Bible from an English pulpit to show its powerful effect.

The video takes an unusual route to the story of the King James Version. Instead of a direct approach, it looks through the eyes and mind and life of what Rhys-Davies calls “this strange little king.” And through the political maneuvers he negotiated, both in his home realm of Scotland and the English palaces he inherited.

First it sets James’ life against the violence of Elizabethan England: political factions, religious sects, assassinations and reprisals constantly tearing at the nation’s fabric. Even the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament — “their very own 9-11,” Rhys-Davies says — is woven into the story.

It traces James upbringing as a boy king of Scotland, whose rebel queen mother was executed when he was a toddler. Thereafter, James was constantly ruled by cold regents and brutal teachers until he was old enough to take the throne on his own. He learned tough thinking from his brutal but brilliant mentor, George Buchanan, and tough dealing from the feuding clans of Scotland.

This cauldron of influences produced a tough, intelligent, often testy young man, yet one who often sought to bridge gaps and unify opponents. It all made him a new kind of ruler as the hand-picked successor of Elizabeth I — a surprising one, given his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed for conspiring against the English throne.

Seeing familiar feuding again — this time between Anglican bishops and Calvinist clergy — James hit on the idea of a new Bible translation to bring the sides together. And not coincidentally, the project would reinforce his authority as head of the church.

What happens, of course, is what often happens when rivals are forced to collaborate. The 50-plus scholars first grumble and circle each other; then they grudgingly work together; then they slowly develop a camaraderie and mutual respect. Over seven years, their checks and balances refine one anothers’ scholarship.

Mounted as a docudrama, KJB is miles ahead of its typically dull counterparts on The History Channel. Cinematography is sharp and vivid, the acting is decent, lighting is by turns misty and luminous, and the story is told through playlets strung into a narrative.

Rhys-Davies, as host and narrator, lends his blend of lordly diction and forceful delivery. Many of the events are shot at the very sites — including Haddon Hall, Hampton Court Palace, Stirling Castle, the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey — where they happened.

In some extraordinary sequences, the video tries to capture some of the intense reverie that produced the KJV. Rhys-Davies opens a precious manuscript of I Corinthians 13, penned four centuries ago by Bishop Richard Bancroft of London himself. He marvels over a copy of a Bible with notes in the margins — a tiny window into the thought processes of the translators

The period costumes are gorgeous, as is the green, stony-fenced English countryside. You can almost smell the old stones and feel the weight of centuries. We also get nice touches like dueling stags and bobbing tulips

But just because this video is about the Bible doesn’t mean it’s G-rated. Not with James’ vigorous, occasionally salty remarks. In one anecdote, he rants that a list of Presbyterian complaints is “a litany of dullness and stupidity blown out of your buttocks. Perhaps we should stick the list back where it came from!”

The film has frequent talking-head professors who lend their insights in a conversational manner. Unfortunately, they’re not identified beyond their names. Where are they from? How are they qualified to comment?

Oddly, it’s only toward the end of the 94-minute program that we get a sampling of phrases that have cemented the King James Version as a towering achievement of poetry and rhetoric. Ascending into a lofty pulpit, Rhys-Davies savors the phrases like verbal delicacies.

Phrases like “Let there be light,” “You are the salt of the Earth,” “Honor thy father and thy mother,” “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

At the companion website, kjv400celebration.com, Thomas Nelson Publishers says that English speakers use 1,000 such phrases in everyday speech. The publisher also notes also that the KJV has more than a billion — yes, with a “b” — copies in print.

Only in its last moments does KJB mention some of the scandals that plagued James’ last years. Perhaps it’s just as well. Those storms have faded, but the Bible he commissioned still stands.

Yes, much of the language is outdated. It’s long been the fashion to make fun of the “thees” and “thous,” to nod off at the lists of “begats.” But for its majestic prose, its compelling poetry, and accuracy that was unsurpassed for centuries, the King James Version stands out as a true treasure of western Christian heritage.

Written by Jim Davis

July 2, 2011 at 3:30 am

Book review: The Szyk Haggadah

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You can get a Passover Haggadah from almost any synagogue or bookstore or even many supermarkets, but you’ll seldom find one like The Szyk Haggadah (Abrams, $40 hardcover, $16.95 paperback, 128 pp). This volume is graced with gorgeous, exuberant pictures and elegant Hebrew script by Polish-American Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).

The book has the full Seder, or Passover service, but the 48 full-color pictures are the literal draw. Rendered in astonishing detail, they set the Hebrew Exodus both in ancient Egypt and the Europe of the 1930s.

You’ll see not only an idealized Eastern European Seder — complete with fur hats on the men — but the epic events such as the parting of the Red Sea. You’ll

Cover of The Szyk Haggadah, published by Abrams. © 2008 Historicana, artwork © 1940 Arthur Szyk.

also see lesser-known tales like when Moses killed an Egyptian for beating a Jewish slave. Szyk also adds other biblical heroes, like the priestly Aaron, the gentle Ruth, and the boy David (toting the severed head of Goliath).

Szyk (pronounced “shick”) used a hybrid technique. He rendered each picture in ornate detail and stylized figures, like sickle-shaped waves. Yet he also shows action and intensity in their postures, conveying a feeling of movement and urgency. Even in the softcover version, they are sharp and vivid.

The book is in a large, 9×12 inch format, suitable for reading at the Seder table. The service itself is in fancy calligraphy, but the vowel marks should make it easy for anyone who reads Hebrew to use it.

But you don’t even need to refer to the Hebrew if you can’t read it; on each facing page you’ll find easy-to-understand text by Rabbi Byron Sherwin of Chicago and Szyk expert Irvin Ungar of California. They also add context with their thoughtful commentary, and even a 49-page section on background and development of Passover.

The commentary deals with matters as basic as how to light the candles and “What is the Afikomen?” It also looks into Kaballistic insights, whether there were really 10 plagues on the ancient Egyptians, and the state of Israel, which many Jews see as a modern redemption. It all may sound overwhelming, but the section is broken into 15 chapters from one to nine pages each. And the longer chapters are broken into several units.

The main problem with this otherwise outstanding book is, well, something about the drawings themselves. Everyone looks so grim. They all scowl even when walking through the Red Sea, which is supposed to be the climax of the Israelites’ deliverance. Passover does have its grim side, but it ends in rescue and liberation.

It’s a small quibble, given the beauty and intelligence of the book. The Szyk Haggadah is one book you may not want to put away after Passover. You may wish to leave it out on the coffeetable during the year.

Written by Jim Davis

April 17, 2011 at 3:50 am

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