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?

What the Shia Is Going On?

Anyone who seriously thinks Israel holds the key to peace in the Middle East either doesn’t know history or believes in prophecy. Imagine for a moment a tomorrow with no Israeli state and new apartments for all Palestinians who have lived for nearly three generations in semi self-imposed exile elsewhere. Does Iraq become a stable democracy? Does Assad relinquish complete control in Syria and make way for a transitional government based on mutual consent? Does Iran proclaim its love for the West, declare that it is content to rely on its oil fields for its energy needs and abandon the pursuit of highly enriched uranium? Does Saudi Arabia stop funding various terrorist groups and governments now that Jerusalem is completely out of the reach of the Jews? Do Yemenis lay down their arms and dance in the streets in an Islamic celebration of victory? I think not.

Muhammad’s Islam was never merely a personal religion, a question of conscience. It was also a mandate that Islam be the political authority over the Arab peoples first and ultimately the world. It is this fervor that spread Islam under the edge of the sword so effectively in its debut century. [1] Muhammad ruled as the prophet of his religion, the general of his armies, and the head of his state. In him was vested total authority over all aspects of life. This authority underwent successful transitions of power three times after his death in 632 AD. But the third caliph proved unpopular.

‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third rightly guided caliph (from the Arabic khalifah, successor), was assassinated 656 AD by Egyptians unhappy with his governance – in particular his lavish expenditures and rampant nepotism – and perhaps incensed at his compilation of an “official” Quran at the expense of alternate readings.[2] This set up a crisis of succession that sparked the First Fitnah, or Muslim civil war. Contending for the post of caliph were Muawiyya, the governor of Syria, and Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Muawiyya was the ultimate victor in the conflict in 661 AD. The Muslims who acknowledged his leadership became what we know today as Sunnis, who make up roughly 85% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Those who followed Ali were known as the shi’atu Ali, the party or partisans of Ali. We know them today as Shias.

Westerners have long been insensitive to the realities of this division in Islam. From Crusaders to Colonials to the current power brokers in the District of Columbia, all have been blinded in part by a conception of the nation state, wherein a territorial base and a relatively homogenous ethnicity define identity and political affiliation. For centuries, this was not so for Muslims in the Middle East and surrounding areas. Their prime identity was in Islam and its subsequent divisions into its Sunni and Shia factions. For most of that history, the Sunnis have held the upper hand and the Shias have lived in subjugation. The primary exception of this rule has been Persia, home of the Safavid dynasty from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and roughly what we refer to as Iran today.

Persian history is ancient, but modern Iran – like the rest of the region – was shaped in the forges of the two great World Wars. Through various machinations, Britain and the United States placed the Pahlavi family in power over Persia from 1925 until 1979. After a coup carried out with the help of the CIA placed him securely back on the throne, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled his country even more harshly and pulled them ever so strongly toward Westernization. This exacerbated and inflamed the Islamic passions of the Shia majority, who deposed him in the Islamic Revolution under the guidance of the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. One doesn’t need American Embassy hostages to know that Iran is no fan of the United States.

For the first time in centuries, Shias had their own country where they were clearly in charge. And they were committed to changing the fortunes of their coreligionists in the region. This set the stage for the carnage that persists in the Middle East today. Iran was a major oil producing country. That it now was in the hands of Shias allied with Soviet Union was frightening to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. What to do? What else but fund the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein in an eight-year war that killed nearly a million combatants, Iran suffering the greater losses.

Iraq is a majority Shia country. But Saddam and his regime were Sunnis. He kept the Shias in line, as well as anyone else who opposed him, by any means necessary.  After the First Gulf War and the return of sovereignty to Kuwait, a mostly Shia country, Shias in Iraq rose up to defy Saddam sure that the United States would support their efforts. We did not. They were suppressed, brutally. When we ultimately removed Saddam from power and helped institute a “democratic” government, the vote flowed toward majority rule. Shias came to power. One doesn’t need a burning Bagdad to know that Iraqi Shias are no fans of the United States.

Saudi Arabia shares a border with Iraq and Iran is just a narrow gulf away. It is the second highest producer of crude oil on the planet, topped only by Russia. Yes, that’s right, Russia. The United States chugs behind in third place, but burns more than it can pump. Russia’s position at the top of the heap in production can be attributed to the vision and commitment of one man, Vladimir Putin. But before he came on the stage, Saudi Arabia was king and nearly brought the US to its knees during the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But oil isn’t its only claim to fame. It is also the most influential power base of Sunni Islam; in particular Wahhabi Suniism. To Arabia and the Saudi family belong Medina and Mecca, undoubtedly the holiest sites in all of Islam – an Islam that Shias see themselves as the rightful leaders of.

Despite the Arab-Israeli conflict in the early seventies and Saudi Arabia’s desire to see Israel lose, the Saudis were acutely aware of their own vulnerabilities to their more populous and Shia neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Causing further discomfort was the knowledge that their oil fields were in the region where their Shia minority was the majority. Their need for security outweighed their religious reservations and made them open to Nixon’s petrodollar deal sent in the hands of Henry Kissinger.  In 1974, Kissinger brokered the deal that would keep the Saud family in power and the American dollar the dominant world currency to the present day.

The US commitment was fourfold: we would provide military protection for Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, we would sell the Saudis any weapons they needed (and ultimately, any they wanted), we would guarantee them protection from any other Middle Eastern country, and we would make sure the House of Saud remained in power. In return, the Saudis would sell oil in US dollars only and they would invest their surplus profits in US Treasuries. Regardless of any other sentiments in the region, this alliance more than any other has determined our foreign policy in the Middle East until now.[3]

If you were a prince in the house of Saud looking at how the US has fared in the region in the past fifteen years, you would have to be scratching your head and watching your back. After punishing Iran and holding her at bay for years with our attack dog Saddam, we removed him from power and allowed the Shias to rise to power. And then we mostly vacated the premises and left a vacuum that Iran is gleefully filling. Meanwhile, Syrian rebels – who are a politically fractured group but primarily Sunni – receive encouragement from the US in their attempted oust of Assad, whose Alawite Shia family has been ruling the country with an iron fist for decades, but no intervention serious enough to definitely remove him from power. ISIS is brutal and thuggish, you might think to yourself, but at least they are committed Sunnis killing Shias with as much vigor as they cut off Christian heads. Staring at the long barrel of Iran, where would you put your money?

Yemen may be proof that Saudi Arabia is done with paying to watch us bleed. The successful Shia uprising on their southern flank has them amassing their own troops on the border and flying sorties with their own aircraft. The US is supplying support in the form of refueling planes and signal intelligence; but thus far, no precious American blood. How far will Saudi Arabia go to secure their Sunni hegemony in Dar al Islam against the ascendancy of the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran? Should they decide that rubles may spend just as well as dollars, particularly if Russia should back off of their patronage of Iran, the move would mark the end of the United States reign as a superpower.

[1] A simple note, dear reader, to inform you that there won’t be many more in this post. The subject is vast and I’ve opted for a wide-angle overview. The facts are there for the confirming should one desire to delve deeper.
[2] The original writings of the Quran, sometimes scribbled on palm bark or hastily painted on rocks as Muhammad declared another prophecy, is a story in its own right and worthy of investigation by the curious.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 53.