My Top Five Reads of 2015

 

Twenty-five books a year – roughly two a month – isn’t a lot of reading compared to some. I am part of a family of speed readers. My father devoured books. My brother turns the pages fast enough to burn his fingers. My wife reads faster than I can talk and my children appear to be following suit. I love to read, but it takes me a while to carve through the text. I usually put out a top ten list of my reading journey for the year, but in 2015 writing took as much of my attention (if not more) than reading. With two book projects, two blogs, weekly sermons, and reviewing some of my children’s writing I only managed to finish reading through seventeen books in 2015. I felt that the data set wasn’t large enough to warrant a top ten list and opted for a top five instead. Though I could easily list ten very good books, you deserve a true cream of the crop listing. So, without further ado, following are my top five reads of 2015 listed in the order I read them.

  1. hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice by Randy Alcorn. If you’ve never read any of Alcorn’s work, do yourself a favor and grab one – any one. Alcorn is a deep thinker who delves into the implications of the plain text of Scripture with a boldness I’ve seldom read elsewhere.[1] This book is his contribution to the Calvinism (God’s will saves and man has no choice in the matter) vs. Arminianism (God’s will saves and man has a choice in the matter) debate. Regardless of which theological camp you find yourself currently in, this book will challenge your presuppositions and give you some appreciation for the other side. Alcorn spent his first ten years in the faith as an Armenian and then slowly moved over to four-point Calvinism (which, to be fair, some would say is no Calvinism at all!). I found that much of my angst toward Calvinism was really a reaction to what could be more aptly termed hyper-Calvinism (which to me is nothing more than pagan fatalism wrapped in Christian terminology). After reading this book, I am still closer to Arminius than I am comfortable with Calvin. But the book helped me temper some of my hyper-Arminian assertions (which at times could be nothing more than secular humanism wrapped in Christian terminology). Alcorn’s book is a fine apologetic for two contrary views that remain orthodox. Not only is the text engaging and provocative, the book also includes great tables and informative diagrams. What’s not to like?
  1. The American House of Saud by Steven Emerson. Published in 1985, I consider this book a classic and a must read for anyone who really wants to understand our government’s response to 9/11, how we’ve prosecuted the War on Terror, and the real power of the petrodollar. My greatest regret in reading this book was that I hadn’t read it sooner – thirty years sooner! The influence of Saudi money in the US reaches beyond government to the business decisions that impact many middle class Americans living blissfully in fly-over country. If you’ve ever wondered why America went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq after 19 Saudi Arabian nationals killed nearly 3,000 US civilians, this book is for you.
  1. The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp by Marin Katusa. I ran into this book while researching the petrodollar undergirding of our financial system. What I found was a treasure: a venture capitalist and energy expert whose telling of the stranger-than-fiction tale of the rise of Vladimir Putin puts Tom Clancy to shame. Great books have great beginnings and I wish I had come up with this one: “I’m going to tell you a story you’ll wish weren’t true.” And he delivers. Katusa is a specialist in his field – he’s made millions at it – but he makes the subject matter accessible to the layman. Making the complex concise and comprehendible is a great talent; which Katusa displays in spades. He doesn’t allow the text to get bogged down in jargon and the statistics are given in great infographics. Though he has skin in the game in the sense that he advises educated speculation in the energy market as a hedge against the impending implosion of the petrodollar[2], he doesn’t say “invest with me and I’ll make you rich” as other authors on this subject do. Katusa’s sense of humor is salted throughout the text in numerous insightful and funny quips. Here is his observation on the succession of the Saudi throne: “Whenever a throne room is crowded with would-be successors, it’s easy for a brawl to break out, which favors the most ruthless over the best qualified. The chance that Prince Right will emerge the winner is remote.”[3]
  1. A Time to Betray by Reza Kahlili. When I was a young teenager, I had a mentor who was a missionary living in Iran when the Islamic Revolution took place. She was a courageous woman and her eye-witness accounts of how demonstrations and riots broke out did much to help me see through what I was watching on the evening news. Some years after the American hostages were released from Iran, I read Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles, the story of the two EDS employees that Ross Perot made sure got home. Kahlili’s book rivals Follett’s on multiple fronts. While both are non-fiction, Kahlili lived his. As a member of the Revolutionary Guard from the early days of the revolution, he was a spy for the United States. In America, we incarcerate spies. In Iran, they arrest them and their families, friends, and loved ones. The captured endure untold torture while their wives and daughters are raped before them and their loved ones are executed. Only after extracting its ten pounds of flesh does the regime decide to execute the traitor. Kahlili knew this before he became an agent for the US in the hopes of saving the Iran that once was. True spycraft is the ultimate confidence game. Kahlili walked that tight rope for years while providing vital intelligence to our government. As I read it, I wondered how many hundreds – if not thousands – of foreign agents our government has been able to recruit because the assets really believed in the American ideals of truth, liberty, and justice for all. Kahlili’s belief and honesty are palpable throughout the text. The manner of his handling by the US in light of American foreign policy would certainly justify a fair level of cynicism on his part. But his narrative never falls into it. His hope for his people and his pain in their suffering shines above it all. Any who agree with the Iran Nuclear Deal should be made to read this book.
  1. Agnes Sanford and Her Companions by William L. De Arteaga. This is a complimentary and updating work to Quenching the Spirit by the same author and contains great perspectives on the Charismatic Renewal from the Catholic and Anglican perspectives. They laid the groundwork in many ways for the growth of modern Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. His explanation of experimentation and his understanding of the graces in sacraments and the energies of God are enlightening and refreshing. I’ve been a fan of De Arteaga’s since reading Quenching the Spirit over a decade ago. Through a series of divine appointments, we wound up being Facebook buddies and I recently attended a healing workshop he held in an Anglican church in North Carolina. De Arteaga is the real deal. He doesn’t just study, write, and teach. He walks the walk and preaches a full Gospel, ministering not only the revelation of the Scriptures but the grace of healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

All these titles can be found on Amazon and would make a worthy addition to any library. I certainly enjoyed them and found them enlightening. I trust you will too.

[1] In his book Heaven, he makes 21 brief jaw-dropping observations on the nature of existence in the intermediate Heaven from just three verses (Rev 6:9-11).
[2] The short story: The Saudi’s only sell oil in US dollars. This arrangement causes a demand on US currency that keeps it valued beyond its real worth. For this hedge, we provide the Saudi’s with just about anything they ask for. Russian energy development threatens to upset this paradigm. Should the Saudi’s abandon the dollar, the US economy would suffer greatly.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 189. Since the publishing of the book, King Abdullah died and was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. One of his first reforms was to reduce cabinet level positions, consolidating power in fewer hands. Portents of things to come?

I Want a Name: Olympic Perfection and Nationalist Pride

“Why would I know the name of the jackass that supplied a 30 kopeck insulator to do a 50 kopeck job?” This is what came to mind as I watched the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics and the final snowflake refused to undergo its transformation. The quote comes from the film K-19: The Widow Maker. It appears in the first part of the movie when Liam Neeson is asked to provide the names of those responsible for his submarine’s electronic failures during a drill and is filled with all the implications of the pitfalls of the Soviet system.

I found myself a bit nostalgic as the pageantry continued; no doubt brought on as a consequence of the games being hosted in Russia and my being a child of the Cold War. As the unfinished Olympic ring quintet floated by, I am sure that there were many like me who instinctively felt someone was going to be sent to Siberia over it. I’m not so sure that my children fully appreciated my comments to that effect. Lost on them was the drama and anticipation regarding which athlete would defect to the West next. The somber presence of steroidal East Germans and stoic Soviets in red warm-up suits with the ever present CCCP stamped on them has been replaced by colors, lights, and fanfare.

I realize that any ten-minute review of a nation’s thousand-year history is bound to be reductionist. But the white-washing of the Red Period was palpable. A short clip from Doctor Zhivago would have served the truth better. The Olympics are no longer about West versus East, Democracy versus Communism, freedom versus state slavery. But they are still about extraordinary personal achievement and nationalist pride, albeit sandwiched between super-sized Broadway productions.

Our proclivity to project on our athletes never ceases to amaze me. The human condition hasn’t changed much in the nearly three thousand years since the Greeks first began celebrating their Olympiads. The city-states would certainly celebrate their heroes, but pride of place trumped individual achievement then as it does now. It seems somewhat surprising that a culture that prized excellence in all things centered its penultimate expression on physical prowess. Amid Homer’s poetry, Plato’s perfect forms, Salanion’s sculptures, and Sophocles’s stage stood the Olympians crowned in their laurel leaves: humankind’s epitome of excellence and representatives of the superior city-state.

And thus we sat, Americans pitted against Soviets, somehow sure that gold meant our system was better, our cause more noble, our people more skilled. If it happened that it was the sickle and hammer that flew high at the end of the contest and not the stars and bars, it was only because they didn’t play by the rules. Their athletes were state sponsored, professionals under another name. We could all acknowledge in the games that it was a contest of ideologies played out on the stage of athletic achievement. And for a time, the world would pretend that we weren’t actually firing live ammunition at each other through proxies in jungles far from home.

What enemy are we being distracted from now? I remember thinking that we were on the verge of WWIII when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. We nobly entered the fray, introducing our shadow warriors to train the freedom fighters bravely defending their homeland from the Communist threat. Did anyone notice when the mujahideen turned into the Taliban? Did anyone realize that they were committed to their cause (mujahideen comes from the Arabic mujāhidūn, “those who engage in jihad”[1]) and not ours?

While the nations compete, the Russians close rank with a security ring of nearly sixty thousand personnel. Gone is the simple fear of a Munich-style assault by a want-to-be rogue state. Whether we call them Georgians, Chechens, or Saudi Arabians, the real enemy is jihad.

But don’t worry. I doubt you will hear any updates on the Russian’s anti-jihad security measures. Neither will there be breaking news in the middle of the competition regarding America’s progress in the War on Jihad. Such straightforward speech does not belong in the political PR arena. The religious implications of anybody’s crusade cannot be openly acknowledged. Let us call it terrorism and remove its face and cause. And let us all relax as we enjoy our bread and games.