Monday, December 22, 2008


Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism is a 2006 nonfiction anti-religion, pro-atheism book by David Mills. Ostensibly, this book points out why God is unnecessary to explain the existence and origin of the universe, and rebuts arguments in support of God’s existence.

David Mills is not a scientist. What he seems to be, if anything, is a professional atheist. Atheist Universe’s “About the Author” section begins, “David Mills has been an atheist for thirty years…” Not surprisingly, then, this book fundamentally isn’t about science – it’s about atheism as an ideology versus religion as an ideology. Mills is not a historian, either. He’s on record that Jesus never lived at all, which shows a profound ignorance of the kind of accepted historical standard we have for that era.

Mills’ biggest hang-up with Christianity seems to be the hypocrisy of many Christians and the un-Christian behavior of the Church throughout history. Other problems with God that Mills has include God’s punishment of evil, the fact that bad things happen, and God’s failure to solve all the world’s problems immediately. On the whole, Mills shows himself to have a very juvenile and simple concept of what God should be, and what humanity by implication would be.

Mills does point out some legitimate problems with Christian fundamentalism. Yes, you run into problems when you try to make everything in the Bible completely literal. Yes, you run into problems when you throw doctors and modern medicine away completely. But Mills irresponsibly bases almost his entire argument against all religion on these problems. Mills takes his arguments against those on the fringe and applies them to the whole. Similarly, he takes a few poor arguments that some proponents of intelligent design have made and applies them with broad strokes to the whole of creationism. In Mills’ mind, God and science are never compatible at all for any reason.

Mills claims to understand the Bible, but the way he quotes it and uses it shows that he doesn’t, on any fundamental level. This is not to criticize him for not believing the Bible; rather, many of his attempts to use the Bible against itself (“here’s a Bible verse – look how silly that is”) are poor, silly, baseless, and stupid. And he’s often completely wrong about what the Bible says, period. He frequently attacks those whose pro-Bible arguments boil down to “The Bible is true because it’s the Bible”, but his criticisms of the Bible often boil down to “The Bible is untrue because it’s the Bible.”

The fundamental problem with Atheist Universe is that Mills makes little in the way of meaningful arguments to support his positions. He mostly draws from the old “Here’s the religious/Bible/Christian position – see how ridiculous it is?” well. Those arguments would carry a little more weight if he had any clue what he was talking about. Either way, debunking something else doesn’t prove the point you’re trying to make (not that Mills does a good job of debunking anything other than his credibility). On the whole, Mills comes across as petty, juvenile, and not much of a thinker.
Atheists who evangelize are always remarkable. If nothing has eternal bearing, than what’s the point converting other people to atheism? It’s one thing to say, “God doesn’t exist.” It’s quite another to say, “God doesn’t exist, and I hate him.” Mills carries on at length about “injustice” and “evil” in the world – Mills, you’re an atheist - injustice is relative, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Mills doesn’t want God judging him, so he judges God and finds him profoundly lacking.

Atheist Universe is poorly reasoned and poorly argued. David Mills is, on the whole, quite content to throw the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater and grind his axe against God and religion. Calling this book “The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism” is an insult to thinking people everywhere.


Friday, December 19, 2008

JESUS ON MARS by Philip José Farmer

Jesus on Mars is a 1979 science fiction novel by Philip José Farmer, author of the magnificent Riverworld series. The title is also the premise: An expedition from Earth lands on Mars to investigate a crashed spaceship, and discovers a large society comprised of aliens and Jews, whose ancestors were brought to Mars around the time of Christ. The leader of this group claims to be Jesus Christ, has miraculous powers, and has been with them for two thousand years. Is this Jesus real, an impostor, or the antichrist?

Farmer’s Jesus and his Martian society reject the traditionally accepted Christology – that Jesus was fully God and fully man. This Jesus is man only, an imperfect “adopted son” of God. This Jesus says he did no miracles during his life on Earth (the biblical Gospel writers made that up afterward), he died, was resurrected and appeared on Mars, where he gained his miracle-working powers. For this and other reasons, Farmer’s Jesus doesn’t ring true, nor does his society of Martian Jews. They are billed as a God-fearing, good people, but it never feels like there’s much love in them. As such, the reader is never in much danger of accepting Farmer’s Jesus as the “real” Jesus. And somewhere, Saint Paul is rolling over in his grave.

Farmer’s writing has some problems. The main character’s romance doesn’t feel natural. None of the characters are particularly well-developed, and Farmer missed a wonderful opportunity to explore his themes more deeply by not including a committed Christian in the crew. Everyone comes to faith in this Jesus rather easily – all it takes is a few tossed-around allegations that the biblical Gospels were fabricated and a circus performance by Jesus, and everybody’s on the wagon. Further problems – every female character in the entire book is specifically described as having a large bust. Busty women are well and good, but come on, Farmer. And if you want to play a Jesus on Mars drinking game, your word is “aquiline”.

Farmer does raise some valid issues as he pursues his theme of skepticism versus faith. Certainly, if Jesus appeared on Mars as he does in this novel, then yes, Christianity as we understand it would be bogus. But that isn’t really the issue – the real issue is the nature of Jesus himself, and by implication, God. The fundamental issue of who Jesus is is relevant to anyone, something that Farmer makes abundantly clear in Jesus on Mars (whether he was trying to or not).

Any way you slice it, Jesus on Mars discredits the biblical Jesus. Farmer’s Jesus, his Martian society, and the ship’s crew all endorse and/or buy into the idea that the Gospels were tampered with when they were initially written, a concept that Farmer throws out as accepted fact but offers no real evidence for.

Jesus on Mars is hardly Farmer’s finest work, as his writing and execution of the premise are both somewhat lacking. And while the novel raises some legitimate questions on faith and skepticism, Farmer doesn’t handle these weighty issues as well as he might have, or as thoroughly.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008


A Case of Conscience is a 1958 science fiction novel by James Blish. It won the 1959 Hugo Award.

In 2049, Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest, accompanies an expedition to an alien planet to see if it should be opened to human contact. The inhabitants are a perfectly moral but completely non-religious people. This causes a crisis of faith for Ruiz-Sanchez, who comes to suspect that the planet and its inhabitants were created by Satan to trick humanity into believing that it can be good without God (that Satan can create relates to the heresy of Manichaeism).

A Case of Conscience is a relatively short novel, but the length never feels insufficient for the task. Blish does just enough world-building with his futuristic Earth to communicate the issues. Curiosity would have liked more information on the planet Lithia, but the story works well enough as is. Blish is heavy on the hard science here, at least enough to overwhelm (and thus fool) the casual reader. This is an idea-driven, not character-driven book, and Blish doesn’t bother with much deep introspection on anybody’s part (There’s great potential for it on Ruiz-Sanchez’s part, and it’s refreshing to see it not happen).

This novel was expanded from a novella, and there’s plenty of room left for further expansion. Egtverchi is a fascinating character and full of potential. But again, it’s refreshing to see the idea cow not milked to death – that was how people wrote fifty years ago, but not in our age of Robert Jordan and those hacks that cranked out the Left Behind series.

Like a good science fiction novel should, A Case of Conscience raises some interesting and valid moral and theological issues, and it’s entertaining, too.


P.S. - "A Spanish-speaking Jesuit priest travels to another planet as part of an expedition to make first contact with an alien race and subsequently suffers a crisis of faith" – this also is the premise of Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow. Whether Russell borrowed from Blish or not (obviously she did), Blish’s novel is incredibly superior (no great achievement, since Russell’s is so bad).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is a 1994 book on writing and life by novelist and writing instructor Anne Lamott. This is partly a book on writing and partly a memoir – obviously, when writers write books on writing, this is not an infrequent combination, although Lamott more or less melds them inextricably together – there is no "writing" section and "memoir" section.

There is relatively little in Bird by Bird on craft. Lamott gives a few tips on plotting, character and dialogue, but by and large she's more concerned with the writer's mindset (and telling her little stories). Lamott talks at length here about the writer's mindset, and this is where Bird by Bird makes good. She gets writing and the writing process, and she discusses it empathetically. Writers who experience anxiety, frustration and writer's block will relate to her, although she does seem to be more schizophrenic than most.

Lamott's style will turn some readers off. She is mildly humorous, but she tends to ramble on frequently, and readers who do not think she's particularly funny will find her writing style tiresome. Lamott talks often about God and spirituality, but she ascribes to an annoyingly vague and general mysticism.

Bird by Bird is going to be hit or miss with most people. If you're a writer looking for tips on craft, look elsewhere. If you're a writer looking for someone to sympathize with your travails and encourage you to keep at it, Lamott is it.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by Mark Twain, originally published in 1884. It is the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Ernest Hemingway (and many others) called it the greatest American novel ever. Huck Finn picks up right where Tom Sawyer left off – Huck's abusive father appears to lay claim to Huck's fortune, so Huck fakes his own death and goes down the Mississippi River with Jim, the escaped slave.

Much like Tom Sawyer, there's not a lot of plot going on here most of the time, and that's okay, because Twain's writing is extremely entertaining. Twain has a good old time mocking social conventions, and the novel is gripping almost all the way through. Hemingway was right: the end of Huck Finn is poor. After Jim is abducted and Tom Sawyer reappears, things just get silly, not to mention highly convenient (And Tom Sawyer here is just as immature as he ever was, reinforcing that no real maturation occurred in Tom Sawyer, and that that book really isn't a coming-of-age story in the truest sense).

Twain has made Huck the narrator. On the whole, this works, although it gets tiresome to read Huck's dialect sometimes. Twain-as-narrator is definitely missed here. Nobody could write a clever sentence like Twain, and most of that is lost here, although occasionally Huck will turn one (and by doing so break character, but that's the price you pay).

Huck Finn has been exceedingly controversial because of the extensive use of the n-word. So is the novel racist? Certainly the characters have the racism of the day ingrained in them – in that sense, it is racist. But more important to most people is whether Twain was racist; that is, whether he put his own personal racism in the book. That is harder to determine, especially since Twain has made Huck the narrator. Perhaps the fairest thing to say is that Twain was genuinely criticizing racism, but the way in which he portrayed Jim and the other characters contains some residual racism of its own.

So is Huck Finn America's greatest novel? Well, maybe not. But it's definitely up there.


Friday, December 5, 2008


The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a 2008 book written and illustrated by J. K. Rowling. Set in the Harry Potter world (although it features none of these characters), it includes five fairy tales about witches and wizards. These are nothing special, and some are blatant adaptations of old fairy tales. This is hardly enough to make a book, so Rowling has added Professor Dumbledore’s commentary (which is just as long or longer than the stories) following each tale. This is an attempt to humorously add moral and sociopolitical significance to these stories. This doesn’t work as well as it should have, in large part because it doesn’t feel tongue-in-cheek enough. Rowling did the illustrations here herself, but she’s no great artist, to put it kindly.

The cumulative effect of this is the distinct feeling that Rowling thinks very highly of herself, and can do whatever she wants. Which she has done, and by doing so created a very so-so work. It’s remarkably short, too – yes, it’s 100 pages, but that includes illustrations, double-spacing (at least) and vast margins. Most people will read this entire book in 30 to 60 minutes. It’s not for the tiniest children, either – Rowling uses an adult vocabulary, and several of the stories are fairly violent (much like many classic Grimm tales).

Proceeds from the sale of this book benefit Rowling’s charity, the Children’s High Level Group. Which is well and good, but the way Rowling has written her introduction, the reader might well think this charity is fictional.

Ultimately, on many levels, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is nothing short of mediocre.


Monday, December 1, 2008


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a novel by Mark Twain, originally published in 1876. In this review, I will not attempt to analyze it from any pretentious literary perspective, but rather as just another novel.

In this novel, Tom Sawyer, a boy who lives with his aunt on the Mississippi River in Missouri, has all kinds of adventures, most of which involve misbehaving in some way. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer does not seem to be a coming-of-age story, as it initially may appear to be. Certainly Tom has many experiences that theoretically lend themselves to the maturation process, but at the end, he lapses back into his more childlike behavior. He is a "bad boy" when the book starts, and he is a "bad boy" when it ends (albeit a wealthy and popular one).

Twain's wit is what carries this book. He can write a clever sentence like nobody's business, and his dialogue, characters and story developments are all highly entertaining. Even though there's not a lot going on here plot-wise, the story grips the reader.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an enormously entertaining book, and if taken purely for entertainment value, will not disappoint any discerning reader.