Friday, February 20, 2009

Coffeehouse Theology – Ed Cyzewski

©2008 NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO

Theology. Here’s a word that scares most Americans, even those who are generally a part of an established church. After all, we believe that only the clergy and the deep thinkers are truly theologians. But break the word down to its bits and what do you have? The study of God. Who is it that studies God? Simplistically, I would answer everyone. Even those who make it a point to point out that they believe that there is no God have spent time studying to decide that they do not believe in God.

Those of us who have been to institutes of higher learning with the express purpose of studying God have become theological snobs of a sort with the end goal of convincing others that our ideas about God are the right ideas about God, and theirs are not unless they agree with ours. Ed Cyzewski has taken a few pages to try to break through these barriers—both the fear of addressing theology, and the prejudicial version that most people like me practice—and find the relevance of theology in the everyday life of a postmodern world.

Before dismissing the book altogether because Cyzewski gives a level of legitimacy to postmodernism (which would turn hundreds of conservative evangelicals off before breaking open the book at all), set aside your semantic prejudices and take a moment to do what the author suggests: reflect on God.

Cyzewski addresses how postmodern thinkers think about God because, he argues, we are living in a postmodern world. We have moved beyond the modern age which taught us to try to find the definitive answer to all questions by using logic and the scientific method and into the postmodern era (dated at 1970 and beyond) which suggests that you must attack any question from a variety of angles. The ultimate in postmodern thought leads us to the sad conclusion that there is no real truth. The Christian response keeps the ultimate truth of Salvation through Christ in focus while remembering that we as humans cannot assuredly claim to understand all that there is to know about Christ.

In addressing the tricky task of theology, the author suggests that we all approach our own theology within the context where we live—so Americans see God through the eyes of the American culture, Latin Americans see Him through the eyes of their culture, and so on. In order to accomplish our task of knowing God better and making Him known to the world in which we live, we must first understand our own culture. Then we can at least begin to see the strong points and shortfallings brought to the table in our culture.

According to Cyzewski we must consult three theological perspectives in order to arrive at the answers to theological questions that crop up in everyday life. The place to begin as we reflect on God is the Scripture. This is the foundation and the best witness to who God is and how He works in the world. Any other sources that we use to build our theology should be measured by Scripture. Again we should remember that we read the Bible through glasses that are tinted by our culture and should strive to overcome the limitations that our personal preferences build in to the conversation that we have with the Bible as we read.

The other “experts” that we should include as we approach theology are church tradition and the global community of Christians. Church tradition can guide us by keeping us on a stable path, as long as the tradition is not a contradiction to the Bible itself. Consulting with Christian thinkers from other parts of the world from our own will open our eyes to perspectives that we cannot see through our cultural biases.

Coffeehouse Theology at times gets a little heavy as you read, especially in the passages dealing with history and philosophy that brought us to the postmodern age in which we live. Even so, it is a readable volume that basically suggests that in order to be the best theologian (reflector on God) we can be we should expand our horizons and let our theology grow. I would have to agree with that assessment and give this book four out of five reading glasses. Pick up a copy today and discuss it over a cup at your local coffeehouse.

—Benjamin Potter, February 19, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Voices Under Berlin – T.H.E. Hill

©2008 CreateSpace

Sometimes you can meet with a serious laugh. Rarely does the copy on the back cover really do justice to the book within those covers. Authors and publishers are always good to find a blurb or quote that flatters the author or the book itself. And why not? The cover is there to do two things: hold the pages together, and convince readers to buy the book. Here’s what I found at the top of the back cover of Voices Under Berlin:

The 9539th T.C.U. does to the secret Cold War what the 4077th M.A.S.H. did to the Korean War.

Kevin is a linguist, but not just any linguist. Kevin is the linguist extraordinaire. He can hear between the lines as he listens to the tapped lines of the Soviets in Berlin of post-WWII Germany. He’s so good, in fact, that even his co-workers and superiors think he’s making this stuff up. His transcriptions and interpretations lead to numerous foiled operations in the Cold War Russian spy network. Blackie offers superb practical jokes (often at the expense of Lt. “Sheerluck” Sherlock, ABD), and Fast Eddie disbelieves most of the reports turned in by Kevin, but learns to report them anyway.

The story is filled with gullible inept officers, madcap antics by the enlisted men, and spy/counter-spy conversations that lead to disaster or triumph, depending on who listens to the tapes and who listens to Kevin.

Voices Under Berlin is written in such a way as to engage anyone who likes military fiction, spy stories, or comedy. The good guys don’t always win, but then they do, too. The one distraction—military alphabet-soup speak—is addressed by a glossary at the beginning of the book (rather than the end) with specific jargon, abbreviations, and initials listed and explained in alphabetical order for the convenience of the reader.

The novel bears a resemblance to a post-War memoir with photos peppered throughout to bring credibility to the story. I highly recommend this one for a few days of escape to a different time and exotic place. Five reading glasses.

—Benjamin Potter, February 13, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

Of Dreams and Realities – Dr. Frank L. Johnson

©2008 BookSurge (a division of

The bio sheet that came with this little book of poems claims that Frank L. Johnson’s work is thought of highly in the poetry community. The selections collected here are not prime examples. The overwhelming majority of the poems—trying to focus on everyday things and events to make them thoughtful—distract the reader.

Johnson’s style, time and again, is to write in quatrains. The four-line verses are filled with near- to no-rhyme lines that are fighting for a rhyme scheme. One selection, “On Being Sensible,” is arranged in couplets, but when read, would find a better fit arranged as quatrains. Oddly, an imitative take on one of my all-time favorite poems finds its way into the book twice. The title of the poem is “Let Your Dreams Mature” and it wavers from the quatrain versing by holding its own as a single, five-line stanza. The message seems to be the same as Langston Hughes espouses in “Dream Deferred” but Johnson’s poem leaves the reader wondering whether he really gets it.

Some of the selections start well, but lose steam in the reading. For instance, “Dreaming Out Loud” gives a comical view of one brother teasing another who began talking in his dreams. This selection starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. “Henry’s Drinking” is a nice little two stanza poem which would find its ranks among the great if the second stanza were omitted.

Having said that, there are some redeeming selections in the book: of specific interest would be the poem “Show Me the Way” found on page 29, and the closing selection entitled “You Said You Couldn’t Do It. But You Did.”

In his favor, Johnson has kept the book short (only about 39 selections, rarely over a page in length), and the design of the book shows his intention. The selections themselves look more like a journal than a collection of poems, and might work better as prose to get the writer’s thought across.

I can only award the collection one and one-half reading glasses, and wish Dr. Johnson more success in later projects.

Benjamin Potter, February 13, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Too Tall Alice – Barbara Worton, Dom Rodi (Illus.)

©2009 Great Little Books, LLC, Glen Rock, NJ

Recently, I have found myself stacking up the children’s books for review. That’s okay, because I like children’s books—they don’t take nearly as long to read, and I can usually get the message. Even so, I have to put on a different set of reading glasses when reading these kinds of books. First of all, I have to ask myself, how would my kid who’s the age-audience for this book respond to this book? I recently posted a review that fell short on this category because my 5-year-old loved the book when I read it to him. Then I have to consider the illustrations—do they add to, take away from, or otherwise influence the story?

With this in mind, I picked up my review copy of the up-coming Too Tall Alice. The author, Barbara Worton is an accomplished story teller. And here she plies her trade well.

Alice is eight years old and is taller than all the other eight-year-old girls at the Cherry Tree School. She isn’t as tall as a building or even as tall as her dad, but she still knows that she’s the only girl in the back row with the boys in the school picture. Alice is not the only one who notices that she is taller than the average eight-year-old girl. She wishes she was four inches shorter—then she would not be so different.

Worton tells how Alice learns to be who she is and that being Alice is a good thing no matter how tall you are.

My take is that Worton has a winner of a story here. It teaches children to accept themselves without being too preachy about it. It’s a very child friendly story that will speak to children with a variety of differences that make them stand out.

Children’s books often have the unique distinction of being works of art. This is not to say that the story isn’t a form of art in itself, but for the purpose of bringing the story to life for young readers, or read-to-me-ers, publishers have long partnered the story writers with illustrators who attempt to produce the 1000-wo

rd form of the story. The balance that must be struck is telling the story in pictures without under- or over-doing it.

In the case of Too Tall Alice, the illustrator crosses that line by detailing every word or phrase. The result is distracting to an older reader like me. It makes for a beautiful work of art, but clutters the page to the point of overwhelming the story itself.

At the bottom of this review, I’ll give my age-targeted young reader a voice to help balance out my opinion before locking in my three reading glasses. I’d give the story five and the pictures by themselves four and three-quarters, but when mixed together this beautiful book loses something somewhere.

Recommendations? If you have a young reader and the extra sixteen dollars, I’d say get this book. You won’t be disappointed because it’s beautiful and has a beautiful story, if you can find it amid the beautiful pictures.

—Benjamin Potter, February 3, 2009

P.S. Having convinced my young reader to try the book, I will admit that I was surprised at the reaction. Her first indicator was that the print was difficult to read (which has to do with the busy-ness of the illustrations). When I asked her if she liked the book she said, "It was okay." When I asked her if she would like to read it again, her simple and quick response was, "No."

Understanding this, I'll have to stick with my original rating. Still, it is a beautiful book with a good message for young readers.

Patterson Giveaway

I've not had much opportunity to read James Patterson (although I have enjoyed audio-reads and movies made from his books), so I'm hoping to win the giveaway over at Marta's Meanderings, where the reviewer is giving multiple opportunities to readers to win a copy of the collaboration Run for Your Life by Patterson and Michael Ledwidge.

I know that posting this gives my readers a chance at this thriller, but it also gives me another pea in the pod. So hop on over and take a gander, but don't comment, so I'll have more chances than you. Besides, if I win then you'll get to read my most humble but accurate opinion of Run for Your Life at some point in the future. Everybody wins!

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Suburban Dragon – Garasamo Maccagnone, Al Ochsner (Illus.)

©2007 BookSurge Publishing, Shelby Township, MI

Booksurge is a way to re-issue some older or little-known titles that may have fallen through the cracks. The Suburban Dragon bears an original copyright date of 1992 by Crate & Fly. Sometimes we wonder why people bother to drag their old manuscripts back from oblivion. Sometimes we wonder why people waited so long.

What are three children to do on a cold and wet day? Instead of stare out the window at the rain, Mom suggests that Garret, Anthony, and Aimee let her read their favorite book to them. But the book is well-known and has lost the interest of the children. And then they are surprised by a dragon who sweeps their mother away. The children devise a plan to rescue their mother and they become knights and a princess along the way.

The story itself is very endearing and gives many ideas for how families can use their imaginations on bad-weather days. The themes of imagination, family, and love come ringing clear in this cute little book.

The artwork, more than the story, is what captures the attention of the child with whom you read this book. You will enjoy the story well enough, but buy it for the story in the pictures.

Three and one-half reading glasses.

Benjamin Potter February 2, 2009

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