Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best of 2009

Best Movie – Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

If only because it had the best fictional Nazi. Ever:

Honorable Mention: Avatar. This is the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen. Go and see it, and you’ll understand.

Dishonorable Mention: Watchmen. Listen, Zach Snyder, if you’re going to make me watch a midget cut off a convict’s arms with a buzzsaw, you’d better make me care about the characters and the plot somewhat. Epic fail.

Best Book – Relentless by Dean Koontz

Admittedly, I didn’t find the time to read many of 2009’s books, but this novel was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. What else could you expect from a plot about a ruthless organization of postmodern book reviewers that goes around assassinating authors who still believe in truth and beauty?

Best quote from the best book (p. 265):

As long as I can remember, novelists and filmmakers and cult leaders have been depicting and predicting the end of the world by fire or ice, by asteroid or magnetic-pole shift, and they have always found a large audience for their visions.

In the hearts of modern men and women, there is an inescapable awareness that something is wrong with this slice of history they have inherited, that in spite of the towering cities and the mighty armies and the science-fiction technology made real, the moment is fragile, the foundation undermined.

...but if disaster came, it would be the collapse of civilization, not the end of the world. This blue transparent sky, the sea, the shore, the land, the dark evergreens ever rising – all would endure, unaffected by human misery.

...the modern world [has] thrown away the respect for tradition that can be rock under our feet; the certitude of our place in the universe and of our purpose, which allows peace of mind.

Fire, ice, asteroids, and pole shifts are bogeyman with which we distract ourselves from the real threat of our time. In an age when everyone invents his own truth, there is no community, only factions. Without community, there can be no consensus to resist the greedy, the envious, the power-mad narcissists who seize control and turn the institutions of civilization into a series of doom machines.

So good.

Best Album – The Long Fall Back to Earth by Jars of Clay

Holy buckets this album is good. Jars of Clay has been my favorite band since I was ten, and they will probably always be my favorite band for that reason, but this album is unlike anything they’ve ever done before. For lack of better categories, I’ll describe it as an incredibly bold hybrid of indie rock and 80s pop. The last four tracks must be listened to as a unit – they’re like an epic journey through love, loss, war and confusion. I will treasure this album forever.

Also, don’t miss four other fantastic albums from this year: The Decemberists’ fantasy rock opera The Hazards of Love, Regina Spektor’s masterpiece Far, Relient K’s Forget and Not Slow Down (especially “Savannah”), and Switchfoot’s Hello Hurricane.

Best TV Show - South Park

As always, South Park dominated any of this year’s new shows that I might have watched instead. Gut-wrenching humor combined with incisive commentary on American culture – what college student could ask for more? See especially the episodes "Margaritaville," "Fishsticks," "Dead Celebrities" and "Dances with Smurfs."

Happy new year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Book-Reading Progress

Since I started this blog last summer, my "What's on my bookshelf" list (to the right) has remained unchanged. If you’re the observant type, you might wonder, “Is this guy actually reading any of those books, or is he just trying to make himself look good?”


It’s been a busy couple of months, but I have finished a few of the titles on my list. And this is what I thought of them.

Epicenter: Why the Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future by Joel Rosenberg

This book is Bush-era successor to Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. The basic premise of both books is that the Bible can be used to predict current events, particularly in the Middle East. Lindsey published his book in 1970. Not one of the events he predicted came to pass. (It’s still an entertaining read, though.) Rosenberg has done slightly better. He managed to predict Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the death of Yasser Arafat based on his extrapolations of Ezekiel 38-39. But I’m gonna knock on wood: Contra Rosenberg, Russia is not going to invade Israel (at least not in our lifetimes) and forty years from now, Epicenter will be just as dated as Lindsey’s book, and the Bible will remain just as true as before.

I have some massive theological disagreements with both Lindsey and Rosenberg. However, I like Rosenberg’s book much, much better, for one reason: unlike Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, John Hagee and the rest, Rosenberg is an American Jew who has lived in the Middle East, he genuinely cares for the people of the Middle East, and it shows in his book. Where Lindsey and Crew seem to delight in mapping out the catastrophes in store for Israel, Russia and the Arabs, Rosenberg delights in telling stories about Jews and Muslims coming to faith in Jesus. The stories that Rosenberg relates in his final chapters about obscure Iranian villagers and former Muslim terrorists finding salvation and peace are wonderfully encouraging, and for that reason alone, I’m glad I read Epicenter.

Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is one of my three favorite fiction writers (along with Dean Koontz and C. S. Lewis.) His classic war-in-space novel Ender’s Game will always hold a special place in my heart. Lost Boys is the first non-sci-fi book of his I’ve read. I expected it to be a suburban horror/fantasy, and it was (and an excellent one at that). What I did not expect was that it would be such a detailed, human portrait of suburban family life, or that it would revolve so heavily around the Mormon faith.

On the first point – this is not a short book. Card goes on and on about the father character’s office politics, and the mother character’s neighborhood and church politics, leaving the serial killer mystery almost untouched for chapters at a time. We meet and come to know everyone the family encounters over the course of the book. At the ending, most of this material is not directly related to the central plot of the “lost boys.” And yet I don’t get bored with it. And I’m not sorry I read all that tangential information about this fictional family’s life. It was gripping. I cheered on the dad at work. I hissed with the mom at the mean church ladies. To read this book really is to enter another world - another set of lives.

On the second point – if you want to understand Mormonism, read this book. Card is a devout Mormon, and this book is the Mormon equivalent of Christian thriller novels like Frank Peretti’s and Ted Dekker’s. I learned so much about Mormon culture from Lost Boys – how their churches work, what their taboos are, what bugs them, how they feel their faith has been misrepresented in the outside world. (In particular, they don’t expect to become gods after they die. This book cleared that up for me).

Good, good stuff.

“A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

I just finished this book today. If you are interested in international politics, human rights, or 20th century history, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Power takes us through each of the major genocides of the 20th century (the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds, the Rwandan genocide, and the Bosnia and Kosovo genocides) and the U.S. response to those atrocities. It is packed with information, but very relevant and readable. I did not really understand the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia or the Balkans war before I read this book. I do now.

On top of that, Power takes us inside the workings of the U.S. government to explain why the U.S. reacted the way it did. If you’re a political nerd like me, getting to read about the debates that raged inside the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House during these crises is exhilarating, and inspiring, in the sense that you see the way U.S. policy could have gone, and might go in the future, if we can convince our leaders to act. Five stars.

One more thing: this book was published in early 2002, before the genocide in Darfur began, and before anybody knew what the war on terrorism would look like. 9/11 is mentioned twice, by my count. In one sense, that makes the book dated, but in another sense, it is extremely refreshing to read a viewpoint from outside this crazy decade.

Up next: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by Anthony Shadid.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Senator Brownback PWNS Obama’s Sudan envoy

As found here.

Sam Brownback (R-Kansas): President Bashir, he has participated in a genocide in Sudan, is that correct?

Maj. General (ret.) Scott Gration: Sir, he was the president of the country during the time that the genocide took place and, ah, therefore he would have participated.

Brownback: So he has led the genocide in Darfur?

Gration: His government was responsible for that, and he was the leader of the government, therefore he would have done it.

Brownback: President Bashir is an indicted war criminal, by the ICC.

Gration: He is. (Silence. Looks down at table.)

Brownback: Are there in the leadership of the government of Sudan, individuals you're dealing with or negotiating with?

Gration: I'm negotiating with individuals that are in high-level positions in the government of Sudan.

Brownback: You're dealing with a government that is conducting an ongoing genocide, is that correct?

Gration: (Pause.) I'm dealing with the government.

Brownback: That is conducting an ongoing genocide in Sudan?

Gration: (Pause.) I'm dealing with the government in an effort to end the conflict, in an effort to end gross human rights abuses.

Brownback: I understand your objective. I'm asking you, are you dealing with a government that is conducting an ongoing genocide in Sudan.

Gration: I'm dealing with--as I said, I'm dealing with the government in Khartoum, of Sudan.

Brownback: Which is currently conducting a genocide in Sudan, is that correct?

Gration: That's correct.

Brownback: Should we have dealt with Charles Taylor, who is an indicted war criminal?

Gration: I have not been involved with Charles Taylor.

Brownback: Should we have negotiated with the Serbian leader Karadzic, the butcher of Bosnia?

Gration: I have not been involved in that situation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scott Gration, President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, he has previously summed up his attitude toward the mass murderers in Sudan's government this way: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries – they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”

At least we've still got some good men in Congress.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Politics of the ummah

My friend got a free copy of the Qur’an the other day.

He lives in Minneapolis and attends the University of Minnesota. He went to the campus bookstore, and met two bearded students sitting behind a table stacked with books. One of the students asked him, “Have you heard about the Qur’an?” My friend replied, “Kind of, my friend [meaning me] went to the Middle East and bought a copy there.”

One of the students replied, “It is also known as Palestine, well formerly known as Palestine.”

“Would you like a copy of the Qur’an?” the other asked. Yes, my friend said, he would.

Here are my observations about that exchange. Please feel free to correct me on any count:

1) The Middle East is a pretty big region. There’s no official definition of “Middle East,” but I would probably define it as the area in between Morocco in the west, Iran in the east, Turkey in the north, and Yemen in the south. In other words, all of North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Persia and Anatolia. Yet when my friend told a Muslim in Minneapolis that I had gone to the “Middle East,” the Muslim man automatically assumed he meant Israel/Palestine. I’m guessing this means that Americans use the “Middle East” as shorthand for Israel/Palestine way too often (e.g., “The Middle East conflict”). This is probably because, depending on where you stand on the issue, you think that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is a) all Israel b) all occupied Palestine, c) Israel and the occupied “Palestinian territories,” d) Israel and the disputed Palestinian territories, or any other number of ridiculous formulations. So “Middle East” is just simpler to say.

2) Because every description of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is inherently political, this Muslim man was not simply correcting my friend’s geography. He was trying to educate my friend on a political perspective: “It’s also called Palestine.” And if “the Middle East” is “Palestine,” then the existence of the State of Israel there is illegitimate.

3) While in the act of evangelizing for his faith, this Muslim man quickly and effortlessly made the jump to evangelizing for a political cause – the Palestinian cause.

At first I was tempted to say that there’s no analogy to that in Christianity – but of course there is. In the minds of many American evangelical Christians, there is little to no distinction between spreading the gospel and advocating for political causes, like restrictions on abortion and gay marriage, or even America’s continued status as a “Christian nation.” And of course, in American Judaism, sympathy for the state of Israel often comes as a natural part of religion. On my one and only visit to an American synagogue, the message was delivered by a representative of Israel’s natural resources ministry. She gave me a green button that read, “Naturally for Israel.” (Get it?)

So I guess what stands out for me is the identification of Islam with Palestinian nationalism that my friend experienced. In Judaism, where ethnic heritage and religion are so closely related, Israeli nationalism makes a certain kind of sense. But Islam is a religion for all people. So why is it that the vast majority of Muslims around the world seem to uniformly come down on the side of the Palestinian cause? I have a few guesses, but as a supporter of Israel who wants to see a better relationship between my country and the Islamic ummah (worldwide community), none of them make me feel better about it.

If you’re wondering if there’s an exception to the standard Islamic line on Palestine, the answer is – yes. I give you Stephen Schwartz, an American Sufi Muslim and leading neoconservative. “Israel, to me, is the historic, sacred land of the Jews,” he writes. “Neither more nor less. It was given to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the Almighty as their eternal home.” He even backs it up with verses from the Qur’an.

And here’s an endlessly fascinating (to me) video of Jews and Muslims clashing over the subject of Israel at an interfaith dialogue:

(If the dialogue in that video seems harsh, remember – at least they’re talking to each other.)

As soon as you’re done chewing on that one, I have another question: In the past six years, around 300,000 Muslim civilians have been murdered and 2.7 million displaced in the Darfur region of Sudan. Since the early 90s, over 50,000 Muslim civilians have been killed in Chechnya by the Russian army, 25,000 since 1999.

In all the wars fought between Israel and its neighbors in the last 61 years, around 150,000 people – Israeli civilians, Israeli soldiers, Arab civilians and Arab soldiers – have been killed. Since 2000, Israel has killed around 7,000 Palestinians and Lebanese – civilians and terrorists – in its various wars.

The rage directed at Israel by the Muslim world, compared to the rage it directs at the governments of Sudan or Russia, seems a little disproportionate, no?

فلسطين حرة

Free Palestine.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I will probably never do a “Bible-in-a-year” program, but I do want to read through the entire thing someday. I recently made a list of all the books in the Bible that I know I’ve read all the way through (sadly, it was pretty short), and I’ve started reading the rest of the books one by one, marking them off as I go. I decided to start with the prophets, since I don’t know them very well. It’s going at a snail’s pace. Last semester I finished Isaiah. Last week, I finally finished Jeremiah.

The prophets are something else. They are poetic, and beautiful, and terrifying. For me, what separates them from the rest of the Bible is the amount of talking God does in them. In the histories, the narrative mostly follows human beings, and every once in a while God interrupts to give blessing, teaching or condemnation. In the gospels, we follow God incarnate around, but we’re still reading a story. In the prophets, God just talks – for pages and pages and pages. When I read the prophets, I imagine him bellowing from the heavens about the sin of Israel and the nations, and the judgment and restoration he has planned.

Beyond that, I don’t really have any profundities to offer. So I decided to assemble a list of some of the verses in Jeremiah that stuck out to me the most – probably because they’re relevant to what I’ve been thinking about lately. (Politics, politics, politics.) Maybe they only make sense together like this in my own mind, but hopefully you, dear reader, will get some sense of the book from this post.

Without further ado, thus saith the LORD:

“Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their Glory
for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, O heavens,
and shudder with great horror,” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 2:11-12

“On your clothes men find
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.”
- Jeremiah 2:34

“The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end?”
- Jeremiah 5:31

We hoped for peace
but no good has come,
for a time of healing
but there was only terror.
- Jeremiah 8:15

“Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 23:23-24

“See, the storm of the LORD will burst out in wrath, a driving wind swirling down on the heads of the wicked. The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand this.”
- Jeremiah 30:23-24

“Later, however, Egypt will be inhabited as in times past,” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 46:26

“Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
for I am with you,” declares the LORD.
“Though I will completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you,
I will not completely destroy you.
I will discipline you but only with justice;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished.”
- Jeremiah 46:28

“Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the days to come,” declares the LORD. Here ends the judgment on Moab.
- Jeremiah 48:47

“Yet afterward, I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites,” declares the LORD.
- Jeremiah 49:6

“Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam in the days to come.”
- Jeremiah 49:39

“Her [Babylon’s] people all roar like young lions,
they growl like lion cubs.
But while they are aroused,
I will set out a feast for them
and make them drunk,
so that they shout with laughter –
then sleep forever and not awake,” declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 51:38-39

(I’m mostly including that one because it was a head-scratcher for me.)

“Babylon must fall because of Israel’s slain,
just as the slain in all the earth
have fallen because of Babylon.
You who have escaped the sword,
leave and do not linger!
Remember the LORD in a distant land,
and think on Jerusalem.”
Jeremiah 51:49-50

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It is not good for man to be alone

My roommate Neal got engaged over break.

I met him over three years ago, when we were both freshmen living in North Hall at Dordt. He liked loud music, scary movies, Mountain Dew, Guitar Hero, and Dean Koontz books. He’s changed a lot since then. So have I. He still likes Dean Koontz books. So do I. Now, he likes good music and good movies, and no longer wears Hollister or plays video games.

We were roommates for the first time our sophomore year, when we lived together with our friend Zach in West Hall. None of us had any clue what we wanted to do with our lives. We watched a lot of dumb movies, watched a lot of good movies, read the Chronicles of Narnia, watched Lost, had dance parties with the girls down the hall, made lots of coffee, fell in love with the Shins, swore for hours on end just for the heck of it, tried to get girlfriends, took a golf class together, made a few trips to the emergency room, and chased down a tornado. Those were the days.

When I came back from Egypt last year, and struggled to adjust to life without dorms or dining halls, Neal invited me over to his room for coffee-and-homework time at least once a week. I never had to call him; he called me. Sometimes he cooked supper for me without my asking. It was the worst semester of my college career, but Neal was the highlight.

We argue a lot. I’m a coldhearted capitalist/neoconservative. He’s a...well, I’m not sure what to call him. I once made up the label “neo-ag,” short for “neo-agrarian,” to describe him. Sometimes I accuse him of being a hippie, an anarchist, or a Luddite, depending on if I’m winning the argument. He wants the government to stop spending so much money and stop subsidies to big farms and encourage regular Americans to return to the land. He loves the simple and the beautiful, and hates the overly practical and efficient. He scorns technology – TV, videogames, cell phones, the internet. He has no Facebook account. I have pledged multiple times to rescue his kids from technological backwardness. He composts and recycles and rides his bicycle and shops at secondhand shops and frets about what the corporations are putting in all our food. He makes me feel guilty, though I’ll never admit that.

Neal will say, “Joel, have you read the gospels lately?”

I will say, “Neal, you are so wrong, I don’t even know where to start.”

We enjoy it.

Neal once read through the whole Bible, start to finish, vowing not to take a stand on anything until he had finished it. A while after he finished, he discovered that his Bible was made in China, and immediately wrote an angry letter about it to Zondervan.

When I applied for the Peace Corps this fall, I needed a reference from two former employers and a close friend. Without my asking, Neal volunteered. He got it done right away. I was still hounding my employers weeks later for the references they had volunteered to write.

This summer, he went to the Ivory Coast to help a native Dordt alumnus get some agricultural development projects started. He came back with funny stories about policemen, rebels, chickens, churches, Muslims, and bribery, and no firm desire to return to Africa.

I will not tell you how he asked Laura to marry him – that’s her job – but it was awfully sweet.

Soon he will be married, starting a wonderful life with a wonderful girl. Nevertheless, this is not an obituary blog post. But sometimes, when someone embarks on a new stage in life, with all the doubts and uncertainties attendant, you think to yourself, “Someone really ought to tell that person how cool they are.”

So this is my clumsy attempt at doing so.

Congratulations, brother. I love you more than you know.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The things one learns in the freshman-level economics course one decided to take as an elective one’s senior year...

According to today's assigned reading in my economics textbook:

• The poverty rate in the United States in 2005 was 12.6%.
• If “in-kind transfers” – food stamps, healthcare, housing vouchers, etc. – were counted as income, the poverty rate in the United States would only be about 3%.
• The average income of the richest fifth of Americans is fifteen times higher than the average income of the poorest fifth of Americans. ($149,963 per year vs. $9,974).
• The average consumption of the richest fifth of Americans is only two times higher than the average consumption of the poorest fifth of Americans.
• In a typical 10-year period, one-quarter of American families will sink below the poverty line at least once.
• Fewer than 3 percent of families are below the poverty line for stretches longer than eight years.
• Only 20% of millionaires in the United States inherited their wealth.

My textbook is Principles of Economics, by N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, who was a member of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers a few years back.

Think my textbook is biased?

Scratch that. Of course it’s biased. Think my textbook is so biased that by reading it, I am getting a picture of reality so inaccurate as to be damaging?