Book Review: The Wrong Unit

Released July 4, 2016

CoverThe Wrong Unit is one of the best sci-fi adventures I’ve read in a very long time. It contains 85 chapterettes of excitement, humor, and character development—both human and non. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is chapterette 86, which is a jarring, out-of-place dose of cheesy epilogue that ruined it for me. I definitely recommend you read this book, but stop after chapter 85—which is a perfect ending.

Rob Dircks’ imagination is fantastic, bringing a strong premise and throwing in just the right amount of action, challenges, and humor to its development. I might suggest he paint the scenery just a bit more vividly in future work, but not to the point of distraction as some authors do. This is definitely a page-turner, with good use of plausible sci-fi tropes without falling into a pedantic effort to explain them to us.

Well done, Dircks. Next time, don’t listen to the editor who tells you it needs a Disneyesque ending. (Full disclosure: I received a free review copy from Goldfinch Publishing.)


Book Review: The Life Assistance Agency

img_0829Scheduled for publication September 25, 2016

With a quirky title like The Life Assistance Agency, the offbeat concept, and the humor at the beginning, I was put in mind of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books. As a result, I was slightly disappointed when the wit went away after the first part of the book. That’s unfair, because the book really is a great read. It could benefit from just a touch more editing, but the free advance review copy that Urbane Publishing sent me may well get final touch-up before its release this week.

As best I can discover, this is Hocknell’s premiere novel. I certainly hope it’s not his last, because he does an excellent job of weaving together stories in two different timelines. It was consistently engaging, with pleasant twists and revelations along the way. The characters were interesting—even when not lovable. I will most certainly keep an eye out for future work from Thomas Hocknell. He’s an author I look forward to reading again.

Book Review: Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope


(to be published September 27, 2016 — available for preorder at

You should know up front that this is not an unbiased review. It couldn’t be. I was a fan of the Bloom County and Outland comic strips decades ago, and I was one of the most excited people when Berkeley Breathed decided to post occasional new strips on Facebook last year. In fact, I confess that I am one of those who posted supportive replies to those much-appreciated additions to the Bloom County universe. The fact that Breathed has even included some of those fan tributes from Facebook in this volume makes it even more impossible for me to be unbiased. Then IDW Publishing offered me the opportunity to review this pre-release version free! Deal with it.

Before we even get to the strips, we have to see the artist behind them. I was really moved by a young person like Berke’s words for the great Harper Lee, and the influence that her writing had on him–especially her encouragement to him that Bloom County shouldn’t end.

Breathed speaks of the ways in which the newspaper deadline fervor didn’t fit his creative style, much like Bill Watterson and his beloved Calvin and Hobbes. In a different age, we might have lost Breathed’s insights altogether. In the Internet age, he has been able to find a vehicle that has worked perfectly for his genius.

Yes, all of this review so far is based in his incredible history and a single page at the front of this new collection. It’s important, though, because Breathed’s work is so much more than a highly entertaining comic strip. It’s a movement of the heart. It’s a way to speak truth without the snark (and bias) of Doonesbury. It’s reminiscent of the insight of Calvin and Hobbes packaged in the lovable forms of characters like…penguins (now revived after a 25 year nap). Binkley’s anxiety closet is newly relevant to the things we all see in the world around us.

Thank you, Berke, for finding a new communication vehicle that fits your working style and allows us all be looks at your view of the world. This book is a treasure for anyone willing to take an honest look at the world. Treat yourself to a few hours in this wonderfully insightful universe.

Book Review: Searching the Scriptures

51ksvqxjcel-_sy346_(due for publication by Tyndale September 13)

In his introduction, Swindoll says that this book is an attempt to pass on what he learned from his beloved mentor, Howard Hendricks, and built upon in his 50+ years of ministry. And indeed, there are parts of the book that are very reminiscent of Hendricks’ work, Living by the Book (1991, Moody Press). Swindoll wrote the foreword for that book, which I’ve loaned out more copies of than I’ve had returned. But even if you have that book, Searching the Scriptures is a really valuable work.

He starts with two powerful chapters that address why we should bother studying the Bible–something many people have never really had explained. If you read these two chapters and do the exercises at the end of each, you will likely come away with a new hunger for Bible study.

The next four chapters describe–and give great exercises of–his four key steps of Bible study. I won’t throw in a spoiler here…I will say that they won’t necessarily be surprising, but you’ve likely never had them explained and illustrated so clearly. The advance review copy Tyndale gave me didn’t have some graphics that are supposed to be in the final version, but I still found it easy to follow.

Swindoll puts it succinctly: “Those who don’t learn to prepare their own meals from the Scriptures simply don’t know what God’s Word has to say. It simply isn’t possible to get the spiritual food our souls need in an hour on a Sunday morning.”

There are a few anachronisms, such as his insistence on the need for a concordance. Surely we can forgive a man who has been in ministry for 50 years a few quirks related to being a bibliophile rather than an online scholar with the ability to do a word search with a duplex of taps.

This is not a quick read that you breeze through. I received my review copy from Tyndale a few weeks ago, and am just now finishing this review. If you don’t take the time to go through the exercises at the end of each chapter, you will finish this book informed but not transformed. But faithfully following Swindoll’s wise techniques will prevent one from falling into common traps such as “proof-texting;” pulling one verse or part of a verse out of context and building a false theology around it.

This book will almost certainly give you a new hunger for, and a new ability to gain nourishment from, studying God’s Word. In fact, I would argue that it should be part of every single New Christian class around the world. Even the library of every Christian around the world.

Book Review: The Water Knife

The Water KnifeWell, let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The last thing the scifi genre needs is Yet Another Climate Change Dystopia. And this one comes with the tired sermons about human stupidity and climate change deniers. I was also disappointed that Bacigalupi threw in a gratuitous declaration of one character being gay, when his sexuality contributed absolutely nothing to the story. You’re better than this formulaic stuff, Paolo.

Having said that, the book is a good thriller with very nice character development and a great twist at the end. In my opinion, Bacigalupi is one of the better voices in today’s scifi generation and this story keeps your attention well. So well that I stayed up later than I should have last night because I had to finish it.

Book Review: Bedlam & Belfry: Intergalactic Attorneys at Law

imageBedlam & Belfry are attorneys with rather low scruples, high ambitions, and devious minds. In some stories that leads to interesting contrivances. In others, such as Bedlam & Belfry: The Musical, they aren’t even relevant to the story. Regardless, the reader should approach this book with thoughts of humor, and nothing at all “intergalactic.”

Most anthologies are of the “Best of” variety, where an editor has the ability to select his or her favorite stories of a particular type. In this case, the author has only written 12 so this collection is both the best of and the worst of. That’s why you find really enjoyable stories such as Bedlam & Belfry go to the Dogs beside such clunkers as Bedlam & Belfry Get Elected.

As in the days when people bought entire albums rather than individual tracks, you don’t have to enjoy all 12 to think the album was worth it. But when you made a mix tape, you only selected a few from the album to make the cut. On balance this book (full disclosure: review copy provided free by Rocketship Press) is enjoyable, but don’t approach it with the lofty hopes raised by reviewers who compare this to Monty Python and Douglas Adams.


Book Review: Closer Than Close

51walpeh4olby Dave Hickman
Tyndale House Publishers, 2016

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s good, because the cover of the advance review copy that Tyndale sent me is a really creepy eyeball and unfortunately the book cover misleads you about the book’s content. I also suggest you completely bypass the book’s Foreword, because it will paint the book’s author as someone you have nothing in common with, which makes it harder to relate to the content. That’s a shame, because the book does make some good points worth considering–at least in chapter 1 where he actually discusses what the back cover says the book is about.

He makes a somewhat confusing attempt to explain the Trinity in chapter 2, but if you stay with him to chapter 3, you see that it’s not quite the non sequitur that it seemed as you struggled through chapter 2. The truth is that Jesus said in John 14 that we would be in Him and He in us, just as He is in the Father, so trying to grasp the nature of the Trinity is important in understanding the level of union we have with God.

Unfortunately, in chapters 4 and 5 the author is still trying to explain the Trinity, and making no real progress toward helping me understand my relationship with God. It might well be a good book if you enter it with the right expectations, but the blurb for the book left me feeling like a victim of bait-and-switch.


Why Christian Meditation is Different

When most of us think of meditation, we tend to think of Buddhist monks and other Eastern Mystics. I certainly did, and that has caused me no end of difficulty in trying to develop a habit of Christian meditation.

In the Eastern way of thinking, meditation is not about controlling our mind as much as becoming an outside observer. The frequently-used analogy is that of sitting on the bank of a stream. When an unwanted thought comes in, we are to simply observe it and allow it to flow away. In so doing, we are preventing the thought from becoming too much of an issue so that it will go away as quickly as possible without disrupting our peace.

Perhaps after years of a monastic life that even works.

I have been on a silent retreat for several days now at the Abbey of Gethsemani, trying to calm my spirit and develop better meditation, peace, and communion with God. I spent much time attempting to find a calm center and allow my own mind to quiet enough to hear the voice of God. In the process, I have found that—at least for me—in trying to see those thoughts as leaves that disappear down the stream, they become rather large turds that foul the river completely. As Goll says in The Lost Art of Practicing His Presence, “One of the enemies of Communion with God is a mind busy with other things. It’s hard to hear the voice of God when you’re constantly hearing your own thoughts.”

I read a great deal of Merton, Nouwen, Foster, Guyon, and others, and found myself wondering what was wrong with me. They seemed to have achieved a state of serenity to which I can only dream. And, to be honest, envy.

This morning I tried something different. Instead of reading from these great contemplatives, I went to the Bible. (Oh, like you’ve never looked for answers in human writing rather than God’s Word!) There I learned that while it may indeed be as simple as letting thoughts flow by once you have achieved skill at meditation, that technique is not described in the Bible for beginners. Rather than a passive practice and hoping for the best, the Bible describes it as a much more aggressive practice. For example, aren’t the words of 2 Cor.10:3-5 just as applicable to our mental state as more external spiritual warfare?

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

Our inappropriate thoughts are not things that we simply hope will go away, they are mental strongholds that we must war against. The Bible doesn’t tell us to passively observe our thoughts, but to take them captive! Why, then, should we not take advantage of our mighty power by calling on the name of Jesus to eliminate these thoughts and allow us to commune in peace?

Surely when we are consciously trying to eliminate our own thoughts to listen for the voice of God, the thoughts that continue to interfere are sent to us from the Enemy. Of course he doesn’t want us hearing clearly from God! But James 4:7 tells us to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” This is not a passive state, but an active one.

In Romans 12, Paul calls us to “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” We tend to think of this as a passive thing, since it is up to God to transform us. But did you notice that Paul calls us to “let” that happen? In other words, it doesn’t necessarily happen automatically. God is willing, but gives us the freedom to prevent it. When inappropriate thoughts intrude on meditation, we need to actively reject them to call on God to change the way we think. In Ephesians 4:23-24 Paul tells us to “let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.” Again, we see that we have an active responsibility to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in renewing our thoughts. We don’t await a new nature, but actively work with the Spirit to “put on” our new nature.

Yes, these great Christian contemplatives make it sound easy. And after we have practiced as much as they have, it will likely come far more easily. But I believe Goll was right in saying, “Sometimes we have to fight before we can obtain an inner peace and serenity.” Otherwise, why would we need to follow the Ephesians 6:10-18 details for putting on the full armor of God and staying “alert” in our prayers?

Be Better Than the Media

The media, whether traditional or social, portrays an increasingly polarized and intolerant world. For all the cries for tolerance, there is more anger against those with differing viewpoints than I can ever remember. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way–and in fact it isn’t that way in many instances.

I have a friend who I’ve known for nearly 30 years. We come from different religious beliefs (I’m Christian and he’s Jewish) and differ on a number of social issues. And yet… I always enjoy being with him and talking with him, and I have an immense amount of respect for him.

First, let me tell you what happened. Like many, I have become frustrated with some things going on the world, even though they are out of my control. I am consciously deciding to spend less time on social media because of the intense anger that I see from both sides of every issue. I need to rebuild my sense of the beauty in the world rather than let these things (which I can’t control anyway) cause me to begin acting and speaking in ways contrary to the man I want to be.

As a result, I’ve begin spending a fair amount of time on artistic websites, appreciating the creativity, imagination, and skill of people with their drawings, paintings, and photographs. I’ve done some sketching and some watercolors. For a long time several years ago, I was seriously into photography, and greatly enjoyed it.

My friend has taken some incredible pictures through the years, and I mentioned to him that I hadn’t seen any lately. I told him that I was spending more time on beauty in my life, and was missing his pictures. I said that when I win the lottery (yeah, I know, you have to buy a ticket) I was going to get some high quality photography gear and get back into that part of my life. He responded that some physical issues prevented him from being able to get out and do the level of photography that he used to do. I sympathized with him, and dropped the subject so as to not make him more self-conscious of the limitations his current life has.

About a week later, a box arrived at my house. It was a high-end Nikon camera body, a top-notch zoom lens, the original battery and a spare, a high-capacity memory card in unopened packaging, a polarizing filter to get rid of sun glare, and an excellent third-party camera case. My friend decided I needed the camera more than he did. In fact, he was unable to find the original manual for it so he paid to get a new one to include in the box.

He could easily have sold the set for hundreds of dollars. Instead, he bought a new memory card, bought a new manual, and paid for it to be packed well and shipped to my home. I wonder how many Christians I know would even have Jewish or Muslim friends, much less sacrifice hundreds of dollars and go out of their way to do something nice for those friends.

Now I should prevent some who claim Christianity from getting upset with my “heresy” and refusing to read further. Let me rush to assure you that I wish my friend would become a Christian–and he knows that. Those who claim to follow Christ have no choice but to adopt two of his key teachings:

  • “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  • “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’* The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Jesus said that we are to love everyone else as much as we love ourselves, and that He is the only way to reach God. So it’s impossible for Christ-followers to accept a “lots of roads lead to God” attitude, and it’s equally impossible for Christ-followers to unlove others so much that they don’t want to see them accept Jesus.


Did you know that it is not your responsibility to convert people? The Bible talks about us planting seeds and watering them, but it also says that only God can bring the harvest. Jesus himself said, “For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.” So how should we live with people who disagree with us, even after we’ve given them our best “come to Jesus” pitch?

We love them. We pray for them. We don’t expect them to live according to Christian principles.

That doesn’t mean we agree with them on everything. That doesn’t mean that we condone things that are wrong. That doesn’t mean that we compromise our principles. But we love them through it all.

My friend dramatically portrayed a beautiful picture of what Judaism means. What picture of Christianity do the Jews and Muslims around you get from how you treat them?

Why You Should Celebrate Maundy Thursday

Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a faith tradition that never celebrated Maundy Thursday. It was relatively late in life before I even heard the term for the first time, and my first thought was, “What’s a Maundy?”

It turns out that the word “maundy” comes from the latin word for “mandate.” The celebration comes the day before Good Friday, because it commemorates The Last Supper. And when I realized what it means, I realized how poor my faith tradition was without this holiday.

Evangelical churches tend to focus on The Great Commission as Jesus’ last words to the Church. (That’s especially true of Baptist churches, because it means we get to dunk ’em.) But Maundy Thursday reminds us of Jesus turning the tables on theology before His death and resurrection. John 13-17 tell the story of The Last Supper, and I’m afraid that all too often we just think of that time as the beginning of the ordinance of Communion. But nearly the whole of His words and actions that evening revolve around this statement in John 13:

34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

From the time of Moses to this very moment, the Jews’ commands had been centered completely on the Law and following the rules without fail. In these three lines, Jesus turns that upside down and says that from that point forward theology should be based on His love for us and our response to that with love for each other. It was the new mandate that we remember on Maundy Thursday.

As we think of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter, we’re missing a lot if we don’t also remember His mandate on Maundy Thursday. These days the Church is not known for its love of Jesus or each other. In other words, we’re not following Christ’s last command in human form.