Why You Should Come To “JOY” – The Chapel’s Christmas Celebration

Christmas is now less than two weeks away. And I for one cannot believe how quickly it has come! For many of us, the season is one of the busiest times of the year. For me the time has flown in part due to preparation for our Chapel’s Christmas Program, a night of celebration called JOY… More on that in a minute!

This busyness tends to go with the season. We often hear complaints about missing the “true meaning” of Christmas (read: Jesus) because the holiday has been hijacked by a lot of secular traditions–spending time with family, throwing parties, giving gifts, eating tons of food, etc. Not untrue. Christmas has a lot more associated with it as a holiday than just a celebration of the birth of Jesus. There are many reasons for that, but there is one that many may not consider…

History Lesson

In the western world, our current secular take on Christmas owes much of its rise to prominence to one man: Charles Dickens, author of the beloved classic A Christmas Carol. Here is what I mean: Dickens, who was a known critic of religion, wished to reimagine and redefine the spirit of Christmas around positive secular (or not uniquely Christian) themes like family, giving to the needy (Dickens was also a huge social activist regarding the state of poverty and the plight of impoverished children working in factories), festive merrymaking, and appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. His goal was to make Christmas accessible to all as well as raise a level of nostalgia for a traditional old English Christmas, which was being threatened by the industrial revolution. It worked too. His values, now imortalized through countless adaptations (the work is in the public domain), play a huge role in society’s understanding of the “true” meaning of Christmas.

A Christmas Carol

And we all know the story of his novella. If you have never read it, you have seen it in one version or another, from the definitive 1951 film version, Disney’s cartoon with Mickey and Ducktales’ Scrooge McDuck, the Muppet one, or the most recent CG interpretation featuring a motion-captured Jimmy Carrey as its protagonist. Each depicts the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, a joyless, horrible man with no love for his fellow man, no desire to share any of his immense wealth or spend time with his family. If ever there was a man who did not know how to appreciate life and its simple pleasures, it is the character of Scrooge. We all know what happens. He is visited by three ghosts who magically show him his past present and future, with each journey slowly softening his heart until Scrooge sees the error of ways and emerges a changed man.

And let's not forget the Bill Murray's classic "Scrooged." A favorite.
And let’s not forget the Bill Murray’s classic “Scrooged.” A personal favorite.

The Truth

I *love* this story. I will pretty much watch any version. Liam has probably watched the Mickey version half a dozen times already this year. When things settle down tomorrow after rehearsals, I am planning on watching a new version on Amazon Prime with Patric Stewart as Scrooge. Can’t wait!

Here is why I love it: Scrooge completely transforms. Though Dickens was not a Christian, he portrays well a crucial part of the Christian’s journey–transformation at a heart level, which brings about repentance. But it is not just repentance as in a change in behavior. It is motivated by newfound joy that he has realized the truth and can now live in that reality! Dickens’ surprisingly Judeo-Christian values are instilled into his character basically by a supernatural experience that uniquely changes his heart. So, while Dickens clearly wrote a secular Christmas story, glimpses of God’s truth still appear.

Joy of Every Longing Heart

This past Sunday, we shared with our congregation one of the songs from our upcoming Christmas event called “Joy of Every Longing Heart.” I want to reiterate what I said then. Those of us who have trusted Christ have seen the truth; the truth that our hearts are all empty and are longing to be filled with something. Hope… peace… joy! We know this world is broken. It doesn’t work the way it should, and our own lives reveal it to be true. But we have found the answer. We have found hope, peace, and joy in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ! And by his grace, we have been transformed to live in a new reality.

Here is the sticking point though: We forget. We miss it. We lose the joy. We are like the man James warns us about who sees his face in the mirror and then immediately forgets what he looks like (James 1:23-24). We’ve heard the truth, but our attitudes and actions don’t reflect it. I am there too. My life doesn’t look the way it should. I wanna be like Scrooge at the end of the story. Compassionate. Giving. Joyful. Sometimes I am more like how he is at the beginning. Often I am like Scrooge in the middle. Torn between the truth and the way I want to live my life.

Music helps me. I think it helps a lot of us. God’s word helps me. I know it can help all of us who struggle to find the joy. Make no mistake though, whether you feel joyful or not, there is much to celebrate when it comes to Christmas. The stories are true. They really did happen. Jesus came for us! He rescued us! He made us whole. So the Chapel Worship Staff, our teams, and the choir have created a way for us to respond.

So lets be joyful.

Hope to see you there
Hope to see you there

[END]

Book Review: Stephen Kings “Under The Dome”

Ahhhh, Stephen King. How did you get so weird and creepy? Never-mind. I don’t think I want to know. What I do want to know is how you can write 1,100 pages in 480 days. As an extremely amateur fiction writer with about 30 pages in my portfolio, that boggles my mind. You know what else boggled my mind? Stephen King’s Under The Dome.

I am not an avid Stephen King fan. I have seen a lot of the movies based on his books, but I had never once even cracked the spine of one of the dude’s novels. Based on the films (which I know aren’t necessarily accurate indicators), I have been a fan of some of the things that have come out of that dude’s head, and other times I just think he is bizarre.

So, I had never really gotten around to reading any of his stuff based on my so-so opinion of his body of work. Looking back, this was probably not a great way to form my opinion about an author. If you can’t judge a book by its cover, you also probably can’t judge a book by its movie adaptation. So, I decided it was time for some of the King.

So the next obvious question: If I was going to read Stephen King, why did Under The Dome appeal to me out of all of the other books in his vast body of work? After all, it was pretty new when I got it. Still in hard cover. I could have read The Stand or any of those Watchtower novels that are so widely praised by nerds like me. Why an untested, largely unread new novel? A few reasons. One, I like sci fi more than I like horror, and though this book surely contains elements of both and is set in present day, it is at its core a science fiction story. Two, Guillermo del Toro wrote a featured review on Amazon.com that sort of affirmed what I had already thought (“This is something YOU NEED TO READ”). Three, it is also the plot of The Simpsons Movie.

Did Stephen King steal from Matt Groening?

Actually, Stephen King did start writing this book in 2007, the same year The Simpsons released into theaters. But, the author’s note in the back of the book says the genesis of this story happened way back in the 70s where Stephen King first conceived the idea, wrote about 75 pages and then got intimidated by it and moved on to other things. I am glad he came back to it because he crafted a truly unique story.

In Under The Dome, we are treated to a large ensemble of characters, all inhabitants of the township of Chester’s Mill, Maine, which in the first few pages gets a giant invisible force field put around it, exactly following the town’s borders as if someone had traced the thing from a map. So it isn’t really a dome per se, but functionally, that’s exactly what it is. It has an invisible roof miles high, and you can’t tunnel under it. It isn’t much of a spoiler to tell you that thing can’t really be penetrated or deactivated by any technology or other means. Once its up, that is pretty much the main conflict-generator for most of the 1,100 pages because the people of Chester’s Mill are effectively sealed off from the rest of Planet Earth.

Enter the town’s Second Selectman, Jim Rennie. Rennie is not a good man. Think of him as an “Emperor Palpatine” type but if Palpatine were a hypocritical, televangelist-style Evangelical Christian and used car salesman. If you don’t know who Emperor Palpatine is, then why are you reading this blog? Anyway, like old Palps, Jim Rennie is basically looking for a way to seize even more control over “his” town and uses the Dome crisis as his way to basically set himself up as a dictator.

Are you questioning my LOW, LOW PRICES?

If the book has a protagonist, it is Dale Barbara or “Barbie” as he is called by his friends. Barbie is an Iraq War veteran-turned-fry-cook for the local cafe. Barbie was not planning on staying in Chester’s Mill (he’s even on his way out of town) but once the Dome comes down his plans obviously change. From the onset you like Barbie, and you hate Rennie. There are PLENTY of other characters, important ones, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just leave it at that. You basically have team Barbie trying to solve the problem and keep people safe, and Team Rennie and his new “police force” of small town thugs trying to make sure the problem stays a problem until he can completely seize control of the town.

The book definitely can be taken as a political commentary, which is probably my one of my biggest gripes with Under The Dome. Considering the “Christian Fundamentalist” and politically conservative town leader is an evil maniac and key villain, it is safe to assume King’s views are on the liberal side. King’s attempts to draw links to the Iraq War and the Bush Presidency to the Dome Crisis and Rennie’s rise to power (whether legitimate or not) were definitely intentional. King said as much in an interview with the New York times. So, while there are definitely politics thrown into this book–even mentioning Barack Obama several times as the current president in the “Dome Universe”–it was never at the forefront for me as a reader. It irked me, but it didn’t ruin it.

From my reading, if there is a real politic to the premise it is simply the old adage from Lord Acton’s Dictum: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Jim Rennie was pretty much already controlling the town before the Dome. After the Dome, whatever power he didn’t wield, he gained in a matter of days. Other allusions to contemporary politics were not lost on me. I just chose to enjoy the novel as entertainment and not get so bogged down in left vs. right sort of debate. I wish King had done the same.

Concerning other elements of the storytelling, the “science” part of the science fiction is for the most part believable, and King’s friend, Physician’s Assistant Russell Dorr, does a great deal of research into the science of it all for the sake of the narrative. It is also apparent that the character Rusty Everett, who is also a PA, is loosely based on Dorr. There were some unanswered questions that I had, and definitely some things that annoyed me. But I am not smart enough to know how plausible any of the weird stuff really is.

In terms of writing style, I have mostly positive things to say. The principle characters are well thought-out, and you easily understand their motives and personalities because King does such a good job of bringing them to life. Though a lengthy read, the pacing is great, and the way King tells his story is fairly unique compared to other fiction works I have read. One of his more interesting and compelling writing tactics is tipping his hand as to the character’s future or the implication of some simple action with statements like, “It was the last time he would ever kiss his wife,” or “She had no idea just how important that letter would become.” I would have thought that those sorts of statements would ruin the element of surprise, but more often than not, it raised the level of tension even higher because I was then anticipating what was coming, but I didn’t know when or even how!

To bring it all together, I can’t give it a glowing recommendation for a few reasons. First, there are plenty of folks that won’t like the ending. I wasn’t one of them, but I can definitely understand the hate. I won’t give it away, but I will say this, for an 1,100 page novel, the ending isn’t exactly “epic.” Think more Twilight Zone, so not really a large scale conflict. More cerebral of an ending than the “final showdown,” which you might be expecting given the set up. Secondly, there are plenty of people out there who may not be able to get past the politics, which as I mentioned earlier, are pretty blatant. Again, this didn’t bother me, but I know some folks won’t take to kindly to the fairly left-of-center worldview King infuses into his “good guy” characters and the “Religious Right” worldview of the main antagonist of the story. Third and finally, King is a very graphic writer, and Under The Dome has quite a bit of disturbing violence and sexuality. There is quite also bit of bad language. The violence and language I didn’t mind much, but what I could have done without was the sexuality. There is a lot of sexual language throughout the novel that seemed a bit unnecessary. There is also a crazy necrophiliac character as well as a graphic rape scene. You’ve been forewarned.

That being said, I do think it was a good read, and I am glad I read if for no other reason to say I read a novel that was over 1,ooo pages, which I am pretty sure is a first for me. It also was an extremely fast read, and I finished it in about a month mostly just reading before bed. While flawed, it is an engaging, mostly entertaining, and extremely thought-provoking novel. It just hit stores in paperback (see above image), so if you are still interested in it, I would say go for it.

I give Stephen King’s Under The Dome 3.5 out 5 impenetrable force-fields.

The Bet Is ON!

That’s right. I am writing this entry to make the following a matter of public record: Hans Googer and I have a wager. “What might this wager entail?” you ask. Well, you see, it is very simple. It all started about two weeks ago, when one of our Chapel members, Roger, left me a box set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings for Hans to borrow. “Hans hates Lord Of The Rings, Roger,” I said. But Roger informed me that he and Hans had recently had a conversation where Hans had asked him to recommend him some good fiction.

Hans was out of town, but I left him the books as instructed. The next time I saw him, I said the following: “I will give you 25 bucks if you read Lord Of The Rings all the way through.”
He laughed… and then he thought… And then he said. “Let’s sweeten this.”

Behold, I give you the terms of THE BET:

If Hans should win and read all of LOTR by the first day of his 27th year (June 26), I will abandon my preferred instrument, electric guitar, for one Sunday and play Hans’ preferred instrument, acoustic guitar, for the entire set. If I win, and Hans should not finish all three books, he must WATCH all three extended edition movies with me.

AND THAT, is a bet. Either way, I win because Hans has been exposed to the awesomeness that is LOTR. So your move, Googer.

You can experience THIS:

The Book

OR THIS:

The films

Either way, I have seen your future, Hans. It smells of pipeweed, and in it I have seen journeys along The Road, from the Shire, to Rivendell, through the Misty Mountains, Lothlorien, and to Black Gates of Mordor. Hopefully you make it There And Back Again.

Book Review: Johannes Cabal Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

Right before Christmas, I was recommended this book by my father. Every now and then, we will exchange books that the other might be interested in. This one in particular had intrigued my father, who knew nothing about it other than the fascinating title and cover. It was a simple impulse buy. Well, needless to say, he loved it, and soon I had received the book with my father’s, “You have to read this. You will love it!” declaration.

The Cover

Now, let me say this up front. This novel does not at all share my worldview about death, Heaven, Hell, God, or Satan. This book’s main character is a sorcerer who raises things from the dead after all. There are zombies, demons, ghosts, and one of the side characters is Satan himself. This book may not top your reading list if you have a problem with any of that. If you can read the story for simple entertainment, I guarantee you that you will be entertained.

Johannes Cabal is, of course, our main character, and, as the title suggests, he’s a necromancer. He is also not a good guy. He is, in fact, much closer to what you would call a bad guy. He has, before the start of the novel, already sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for learning the art of necromancy. It hasn’t bugged him much though, until he finds out his lack of a soul has been interfering with his experiments. What are his experiments? We don’t really know at the start of the novel, but we can assume nothing good. After all, he is a soulless necromancer!

The story begins swiftly with Cabal storming the gates of the author’s wonderfully and comically-realized version of Hell with no more than a little magic and a lot of cunning, to gain an audience with Satan. Cabal wants his soul back. Satan, who is not in the habit of giving away anything for free, proposes a wager in the vain of Pirates of the Caribbean 2: one year to steal 100 souls in exchange for his re-ensoulment. I don’t think spell-check knows that word. Its real. I promise. Anyway, along with the proposed wager, Satan also gives Cabal an evil carnival and its demonic workers, which will travel from place to place and be the primary vehicle for his soul-stealing.

Very quickly, you realize that Cabal is a main character that you love to hate. He is incredibly cold and emotionally void, yet dryly witty and extremely sarcastic. He seems to have no real sense of right or wrong, or at least doesn’t hold to that sense if he does have it. On the other hand, there is Cabal’s older brother, Horst, whom Cabal recruits to manage his evil carnival. You like Horst and are meant to. He is everything Cabal isn’t: kind, attractive, moral, and, oh yeah, a vampire (his brother’s fault, I might add). Their relationship is strained, to say the least.

As the story unfolds, you learn more about Cabal’s past, but his reasons for devoting himself to necromancy remain almost entirely shrouded in mystery throughout the months of soul-stealing. As the deadline approaches with a few souls yet to be stolen, the last act begins. You are about to find out if Cabal has any principles at all. Will he beat the deadline? Will Satan win the wager? Will Horst ever forgive him if he does? Why has Cabal sold his soul in the first place? The last act answers all of these questions. And it leaves you wanting more.

This is Jonathan L. Howard’s first novel. I would never have known. The story is not only immensely entertaining, it is unique in that it is greater than the sum of its parts. Obviously inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the novel not only answers the question “What would a haunted carnival look like from the inside?” but also “What kind of person would run an evil carnival?” The universe Howard has created leaves you guessing as to when or where these events take place. Some events seem all together modern, while others seem like they are set post World War II Europe, or even Victorian England. There are trains and tracks that are old enough to be abandoned, but seemingly no cars. No TV or computers. Don’t remember if there were radios. Plenty of guns though.

Hopefully this is just the beginning of the universe that Howard has created. The novel unmistakably leaves room for a sequel. In fact, the reveal at the epilogue almost demands it. This author has captured my attention with a thrilling and entertaining morality tale that asks some great questions. But at the end of the day, it was the mystery of his protagonist that propelled me through the story and left me wanting more. So, hopefully Howard will continue to tell the story of Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer.