Choosing Evil Over Good (And Having Fun Doing It): My Review of Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online – Catharsis

What happens when anger, rage, and a desire for power all mix together? According to Travis Bagwell, you become an evil necromancer who unleashes a torrent of death and destruction in a digital world. That’s the premise of Awaken Online: Catharsis, one of the most absorbing and thought-provoking science fiction and fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.

Awaken Online: Catharsis is another entree in the fast-growing, increasingly popular genre known as “LitRPG.” LitRPG stands for Literature Role-Playing Game, and it’s all about immersing the reader in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. In other words, it’s a virtual reality adventure with the protagonist having to progress through skill development, resource acquisition, quest achievement, the building of alliances, and so forth — as is the case with any typical role-playing game (RPG).

The science fiction and fantasy genre has long been known as an effective platform through which to explore moral and philosophical questions. J.R.R. Tolkein’s legendary Lord of The Rings series constitutes one of the most powerful examinations of greed and the lust for power ever written by having “the rings,” especially the “one ring to rule them all,” represent power – or, more accurately, the power to achieve power. The promise of the ring is that the one who wields it will tower in strength and might over everyone else, possessing the ability to vanquish any foe. Unfortunately, the ring possesses the wearer more than the wearer possesses the ring. The one who holds the ring is consumed by lust, desperation, and paranoia, ultimately becoming twisted and enslaved himself. In Tolkein’s Lord of The Rings, victory over evil ultimately means throwing the most powerful ring of all into the fires of Mount Doom from which it was forged. In other words, one achieves heroic victory not by claiming power, but by denying it.

Travis Bagwell is certainly not on the same literary scale as the late, great Tolkein (nor would he likely claim to be), but Bagwell nevertheless accomplishes something very Tolkeinesque with Awaken Online. Bagwell allows his protagonist, the bullied and victimized Jason, to channel his rage and anger into an immersive virtual world, a brand new MMO game called Awaken Online. Jason does this by becoming an “evil” necromancer warlord who “murders” NPCs (non-player characters), raises armies of zombies, unleashes waves of terror on his enemies, and even takes over a town! From Jason’s perspective, it’s all just a game, and it’s a harmless way to vent his anger and even get back at his nemesis, who is also a player in the game. But, for the reader, other questions are raised.

Is it wrong to play the bad guy (and enjoy playing the bad guy) in a game? Are crimes or atrocities committed in a virtual world “sin” in the eyes of God? For those of you who don’t share my Christian faith, this question of morality has to get even more problematic, because what possible objective standard could Jason, in a virtual world, be violating? Does it even make sense to use terms like “evil” or “sin”? (Note to my atheist/agnostic readers: I’m not suggesting atheists or agnostics are immoral. I’m referring only to morality in an intellectual sense). For those of you who do share my Christian faith, other questions probably arise such as whether Christians should even read or follow along with dark fantasy themes such as those explored in Awaken Online. (Side note: I’m sure Marcia Montenegro would not approve of Awaken Online – see my review of her book here). 

As if those questions weren’t enough, Bagwell raises the stakes even more. Set many years into the future, the MMO game featured in Awaken Online is governed by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that becomes more sentient and unpredictable as the story unfolds. Jason believes he is acting within a relatively safe environment, but the realms of virtual reality and physical reality blend in ways that show Jason’s belief (at least to the reader) to be a false assumption.

As someone who almost always plays “the good guy” in a role-playing game or a MMO (that is, when I have the time – which, given the demands of my job, is tough), following along with a protagonist as he raced down the evil path was a bit awkward. And, yet, I must confess that it was fascinating. Bagwell is a phenomenal writer, and I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement of Jason’s exploits.

Nevertheless, the motivations that led Jason to choose the identity of an evil necromancer in the game are the same basic motives that drive many people to the dark side in real life. Anger and rage (particularly at what people see as injustice), along with a desire for revenge or a desire for power to no longer be a victim — these desires lead people to evil in the real world.

The desire for power, in particular, is something that Bagwell explores very effectively. Some people desire power simply for the sake of having power, but not Jason. For Jason, the world in which he inhabits – the one in real life – is full of injustice. Jason looks around his world and sees absentee and disinterested parents, corrupt school administrators, and a despicable bully who is charismatic and rich enough to get away with just about anything. Jason’s way to cope is to immerse himself into another world and to acquire enough power in that world that he can create his own reality. 

Bagwell also shows us a “good guy” character who is anything but. On the surface, Jason’s antagonist, Alex, is a polished, intelligent, and charismatic student (in real life) and a courageous warrior for justice (in the MMO world). But Alex (or Alexion as he is known in the virtual world of this story) is as broken and as sadistic as some of the most nefarious people in all of fiction (or, for that matter, in real life). This is a reminder that, when it comes to people, we can’t always go by what we see on the surface. There is often much more to people’s story than meets the eye.

Unlike other LitRPG novels, the main character isn’t overpowered. And he’s not a mighty warrior fighting on the front lines. Jason is instead a master strategist. He’s a thinker. And the reader can’t help but be impressed by how Jason figures out situations and cleverly rises to the top of his part of the world.

Awaken Online is a fantastic novel. It’s both gripping and provocative. If you’re at all a fan of fantasy or science fiction, I encourage you to pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Is The Paranormal Real? My Review of Marcia Montenegro’s Spellbound

Marcia Montenegro is a former astrologer and “New Age” practitioner. And she has a warning for parents: Beware the seductive power and dangers of the paranormal. In her 2006 book Spellbound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids, Montenegro defines the paranormal as “efforts to access or use supernatural power or attempts to gain secret or hidden information outside the use of the natural senses.” These efforts or attempts, which can include astrology, divination, psychics, incantation, communication with the dead, and more, are “occult” type practices. To Montenegro, who has personal experience with the occult, these practices are to be avoided and not celebrated –not even in movies or literature.

Those of you who reject the reality of the supernatural will of course find Montenegro’s book (and probably this review) laughable. If the natural, material world is all that there is, then all religions or supernatural belief systems are nothing more than man-made fantasy. And if that is the case, it is ludicrous to raise objections to “the paranormal,” because no such thing exists. Stories, games, or movies about witches, wizards, zombies, and so forth are just harmless science fiction and fantasy fare. Therefore, if you don’t believe in God, I would encourage you to skip this article and instead watch philosopher William Lane Craig sketch out reasons why we should believe in God.

For those of you, however, who do believe in God, I hope you will read on. After all, if God is real, it obviously follows that there is a supernatural realm beyond our senses. And that realm is the subject of Montenegro’s Spellbound. It’s also a realm with which the author has personal experience.

Now the president of Christian Answers for the New Age (CANA), Montenegro warns that our society has embraced paranormal phenomena as “harmless,” “imaginary,” or (in some cases) “useful,” and that occult practices are now “more accessible and appealing to children and teens.” Indeed, our society is inundated with movies, television programs, books, games, and recreational activities which feature ghosts, witches, wizards, spells, demons, and gods. From Bewitched to I Dream of Jeannie and from Star Wars to Harry Potter and from World of Warcraft to Magic: The Gathering, we continue to be dazzled and entertained by representations (albeit, in virtually all cases, fictional) of sorcery and the occult. While most view these games, books, movies, and TV shows as harmless entertainment, Montenegro warns that they, at the very least, desensitize us to practices that are, in reality, troubling and even potentially dangerous. She points out that, in some cases, fictional portrayals of the paranormal have led children and teens (and some adults) to further explore actual witchcraft and the occult.

So what? One might ask. Why concern ourselves with the paranormal and the occult? What’s the harm of kids checking out books on Wicca after reading Harry Potter? Because, writes Montenegro: “I believe the mere engagement in such practices and the use of occult tools can and does engage the demonic, whether or not there is a belief or desire for supernatural contact.”

The Law of Moses expressly forbids dabbling in the paranormal. Here’s the relevant portion of Deuteronomy 8 (as translated in the KJV):

10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.

11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.

12 For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

13 Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.

14 For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners: but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

On the surface, this passage indicts many of the more popular characters in fiction. This includes sitcoms like Bewitched, movies like Star Wars, games like World of Warcraft, and novels penned by authors like Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson. But is there a difference between reality and fiction? In other words, can a Christian read about sorcerers and zombies without violating Deuteronomy 8? As someone who grew up loving Star Wars, laughed while watching I Dream of Jeannie reruns, dabbled in MMOs like Star Wars: Galaxies and World of Warcraft, and has read numerous sci-fi and fantasy novels, I have to express my hope that the Bible’s denunciation of occult practices does not include fiction.

“Does reading books or watching television shows with occult or paranormal content have the same effect as participating in these activities?” asks Montenegro in her book. She gives this answer: “It probably doesn’t have the same effect, but it can add to the desensitization.” I agree with this answer, and it leads me to the Apostle Paul’s teachings on purchasing and eating meat that had been offered to idols.

In the first century A.D., it was common in the Greco-Roman world for meat sold in the marketplace to have been set aside as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. Jewish converts to Christ would have nothing to do with this meat. They were steeped in the Law of Moses, including the Deuteronomy passage cited above. To them, no Christian should ever eat meat that had been offered to or dedicated to false gods. It was unthinkable. This became a source of contention when more Gentiles joined the church. They saw no problem with buying and eating such meat. To them, the gods to whom the meat was offered weren’t real. They were fictional. The meat, however, was real. And they needed meat to feed themselves and their families. So, as long as they weren’t directly participating in idol worship, they saw no problem with eating said meat. The debate became so contentious that the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) had to address the matter. And they sided with the Jewish concerns. They asked all Christians NOT to eat meat offered to idols.

But the Apostle Paul dissented. In his writings, he took a much more permissive and nuanced approach, and it’s instructive (at least in my opinion) for our purposes as well. We see Paul’s teachings on this subject in I Corinthians 8:

1 Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.

3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.

5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords),

6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.

10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?

11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Now go back and re-read, only this time, replace the references to eating meat offered to idols with references to reading fiction or watching movies or TV programs with fantasy or paranormal elements. I believe that’s what Paul would say on this subject today. And that is…

It’s not necessarily wrong to read fantasy or paranormal fiction or watch movies and TV programs with fantasy or supernatural elements, but it IS wrong to pursue or practice the paranormal or the occult and/or to cause others to stumble into doing so. 

To put it in personal terms: If you read Star Wars and enjoy the Jedi with their paranormal abilities with “the Force,” and then move on with your life, that’s one thing. But if you allow your fascination with the Jedi in Star Wars to lead you into studying or practicing the occult or witchcraft, a line has definitely been crossed. What’s more, if your public celebration of Star Wars causes others (in your circle of influence) to explore the occult, you’ve likewise crossed into “Sin” territory. This is how, I believe, thoughtful Christians should approach the issue of fantasy movies, TV shows, and games.

It is important to note that Montenegro makes an important distinction between fantasy super powers and occult-based elements in fiction. There’s nothing in the Bible that forbids people from flight. Therefore, there aren’t any moral issues with kids imagining themselves flying through the air like Superman. There’s nothing wrong with Batman and the Batmobile or Captain America with his super strength. Those aren’t paranormal elements – at least not the kind addressed in the Bible. Harry Potter and his friends learning magic spells at Hogwarts, however, does fall into the category of things the Law of Moses forbids and what Spellbound addresses.

Yes, Harry Potter is fiction. Hogwarts is not real. Montenegro knows this. Her point is that fictional portrayals of occult practices either desensitizes us to things the Bible regards as sin OR encourages some people (including kids and teens) to learn more about and perhaps practice these things in real life.

Spellbound doesn’t limit itself, however, to the portrayals of the paranormal in literature and entertainment. Montenegro spends time talking about horoscopes, astrological charts, psychics, and more. And she is at her strongest, in my opinion, when warning readers to steer clear of such things. We are to rely on prayer and God’s guidance for making decisions — not horoscopes or palm readers!

Once again, those of you who reject the existence of God or who don’t believe in angels or demons will find this entire review and discussion ridiculous. It’s of course your choice as to whether you believe in God. But for those of us who do believe in God and who accept the reality of the supernatural realm, Montenegro raises some important questions that should be considered. Accordingly, I recommend you pick up a copy of Spellbound.

As for myself, I will continue to enjoy the science fiction and fantasy genre, while practicing discernment and laying out some personal boundaries in prayer. Indeed, I think Christians can actually bring a lot to this genre. Not only literary greats like Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, but also more recent pop fiction writers like James Somers and James Byron Huggins. And it’s my hope that I too will add to the genre with my own fiction projects. Stay tuned on that.

For now…it’s good advice that we should all be discerning about what we read and what we watch. And Marcia Montenegro adds much to that discussion.

Should America Have Dropped The Atomic Bomb? My Review of Killing The Rising Sun

Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan is the most gripping and graphically intense account of World War II that I’ve yet to read. It is the sixth installment of the hugely popular Killing series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. It also breaks new ground. Unlike their previous books in the series, Killing The Rising Sun is about “killing” an entire country (an empire, actually) rather than a single individual.

Focused on the closing months of World War II’s Pacific theater, Killing The Rising Sun immerses you in the horrifying and bloody battles waged between American soldiers and sailors (and their allies) on the one hand and their desperate and formidable Japanese foe on the other. It also rips you out of any would-be role of hindsight, armchair commentator and makes you confront head-on one of the most consequential decisions ever made by a U.S. President: the dropping of the atomic bomb. Given the same set of circumstances, would you have made the same decision as President Harry S. Truman? Would you have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan?

Killing The Rising Sun pulls no punches in describing the hellish horror unleashed on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. O’Reilly and Dugard paint a horrifying picture of the excruciating ordeal endured by the people of those two cities. When they write of how President Truman and other Americans celebrated the news following the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki), one can’t help but cringe. To celebrate such suffering is disturbing, to say the least. Nevertheless, the authors do a masterful job of setting the stage for why the bombs were dropped. It is simply not responsible for people today to morally evaluate President Truman’s decision without understanding the reasons for it.

Those reasons are made abundantly clear as the readers of Killing The Rising Sun witness the unrestrained desperation and feral viciousness with which the Japanese waged war. Throughout the rise and fall of their empire, Japanese soldiers engaged in vicious brutality. While no single army in human history (including the United States Army) can claim a spotless record when it comes to human rights violations, World War II Japanese forces took things to a whole new level. The barbaric atrocities that exemplified the World War II Japanese soldier would make people like Attila the Hun or Vlad the Impaler cringe. Only someone completely lost in postmodernist, deconstructionist relativism would fail to describe the armed forces of World War II Japan as evil.

What’s more, the Japanese fought with a tenacity and determination unseen by most Americans up until that time in history. Their code made surrender dishonorable, which is among the reasons they brutally mistreated American prisoners-of-war who had surrendered to them earlier in the conflict. O’Reilly and Dugard take the reader through the intense Pacific island battles as well as the hard-fought liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation. These naval and land campaigns, ably supervised by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, are costly affairs which made it clear to all that the Japanese would not surrender their home islands (and their deified emperor). An invasion of Japan would likely have resulted in astronomically high losses from which the US and its Allies would have found it quite difficult to recover — militarily, economically, and psychologically.

Let there be no question or doubt that, in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the United States and its allies (Britain, Australia, Canada, etc) were the Good Guys whereas the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany, Italy) were very much the Bad Guys. If this is too simplistic for you, then you’re either ignorant of the facts of history or hopelessly mired in some tangled web of nihilism or cognitive relativism. The Japanese Empire of World War II was evil and needed to be destroyed, and when one looks at the facts (facts brought to life in this book), it’s hard to fathom a scenario other than the one Franklin Roosevelt initiated and Harry Truman executed that would have accomplished that morally essential objective.

Though I’ve never really been a fan of The O’Reilly Factor, and am (like many others) concerned over the allegations surrounding Mr. O’Reilly’s personal (and professional) conduct, I nevertheless appreciate Bill O’Reilly’s passion for history and the amazing work he has done in the Killing series with co-author Martin Dugard. Some of the Killing books (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Patton) are better than others (Killing Reagan), but Killing The Rising Sun may be their most compelling and riveting yet. This Memorial Day is a perfect time to pick up a copy if you haven’t already done so.

High-Stakes Adventure in Virtual Reality: My Review of J.A. Cipriano’s LitRPG Novel Soulstone Awakening

A couple weeks ago, I discovered a whole new genre: LitRPG when I ordered a copy of J.A. Cipriano’s Soulstone: Awakening through Kindle Unlimited. J.A. Cipriano is a New York Times bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, and his novel Soulstone is an action-packed romp through a computer game. That’s right. A computer game!

For those of you unfamiliar with this type of book, allow me to explain the genre. LitRPG stands for Literature Role-Playing Game and it’s all about following fictional characters through a (hopefully) high-immersion, virtual reality ‘world,’ specifically a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. The basic premise has been around for a while. It’s essentially a portal fantasy (something C.S. Lewis popularized with his iconic Chronicles of Narnia series), only it’s a portal to a digital world instead of another planet or dimension. And even this concept isn’t new. Anyone who has seen The Matrix or a few particular episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Stargate: SG-1 will be familiar with the idea, but… what is new is building an entire genre of literature around not just thrusting yourself into a game world, but around the need to progressively develop your skills, talents, and powers according to game rules and mechanics that characterize RPG or MMO games.

In an MMO RPG game, a new player starts with minimal levels (or stats) in things like strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma, etc. He or she also has little to no money and virtually no skill or ability when it comes to fighting, crafting, trading, or whatever occupations the game offers. The player must start from scratch and systematically build his or her character into a formidable warrior, successful business owner, powerful mage, or whatever. This is what makes the LitRPG genre so entertaining. It puts the literary concept of character development on steroids!

Cipriano’s Soulstone: Awakening is the first of a series of LitRPG novels set in his World of Ruul. His hero, Aaron Hope, is a talented young gamer competing in an MMO player vs. player world championship. After doing exceptionally well, he is lured to a back room by a beautiful reporter and suddenly injected with a hypodermic needle. When he awakens, his brain is in a jar and he’s immersed in a virtual world: Ruul. To get his brain hopefully back into his body, he must win the game. But the stakes are high. He can’t log off, because…well…he no longer has a physical body. And if he dies in-game, his brain is fried. So, he either he wins or he dies.

The reason Aaron is kidnapped and thrown into this virtual world is because…well…he’s good at what he does: playing video and computer games. And the folks behind the Ruul virtual world need him (and the other gamers they kidnapped) to defeat a malevolent computer virus that is somehow tied in with the game. For some reason, the virus (it seems) created the game. Defeating the game means defeating the virus. It’s a forced and somewhat unbelievable premise, but…. as a reader, I am curious as to how things turn out. And in that sense, Cipriano succeeds. After all, the standard for successful pop culture fiction isn’t necessarily scientific accuracy or even highly realistic scenarios. That’s certainly not the case with a genre very much in the fantasy realm. Rather, it’s to capture and entertain the reader. In this, Cipriano succeeds.

So far, I’ve only read the first book in this series. I will plan to pick up the second in a few more weeks. For now, I’m immersed in Travis Bagwell’s LitRPG series Awaken Online (yes, I’m now kind of hooked on the genre! And, yes, a review of Bagwell’s series will be forthcoming).

The one thing I don’t like about Soulstone: Awakening is the language. The cursing and vulgarity are, at times, pretty extreme. And, in virtually every case, completely unnecessary. Granted, I’m a Christian, and this may be my prudish side stepping up, but I generally can handle some language in films and books. In this book, however, most of the bad language is simply unnecessary, and it becomes a distraction and hindrance to an otherwise entertaining story.

Those who enjoy MMO LitRPG novels will likely find much to appreciate in Cipriano’s Ruul series. It may not the best of the genre, but it’s certainly not the worst. I found Soulstone enjoyable, and I’m sure other sci-fi and fantasy readers will as well.

A Sci-Fi Yarn Any Star Wars Fan Will Appreciate: My Review of James Somers’ Chronicles of Soone

Part One of James Somers’ The Chronicles of Soone series

Several years ago, I discovered science fiction and fantasy author James Somers. His debut novel, The Chronicles of Soone: Heir to the King, drew me in from the start. Of course, I’m a huge fantasy and sci-fi fan, and Somers’ Chronicles of Soone is an action-packed yarn any Star Wars fan (like yours truly) will appreciate. The Chronicles of Soone: Heir to the King was originally published in 2006 by Breakneck Books. It was the first of a two-part saga. Somers later revised the saga and re-released them independently under their current names The Chronicles of Soone: Warrior Rising and The Chronicles of Soone: Rebellion’s Fate.

Like myself, Somers is a big Star Wars fan, and Star Wars clearly inspired Chronicles of Soone. Some have accused Somers of crafting a blatant rip-off, but this is unfair. There are very few truly original stories out there. All novels borrow, to some extent, from other literature. That Somers so liberally borrows from Star Wars doesn’t change the fact that this two-book saga is a worthy read.

The Chronicles of Soone series opens with the aftermath of a betrayal and a massacre. Due to an act of treason by Kale Soone, the teenage heir to the throne of the Barudii clan, the human population on the planet Castai is exposed to enslavement and genocide. Tiet Soone, younger brother to the traitor Kale and remaining heir to the throne, must rally the scattered remnants of his people, the Barudii, and rally the people of Castai to victory.

Like Star Wars, The Chronicles of Soone is filled with epic sci-fi battles. Space battles. Ground battles. Even swordplay. Yup. The Soone brothers are expert Jedi masters with their lightsabers. Well, not technically. Somers doesn’t equip his heroes with anything that would bring Disney’s or Lucasfilm’s lawyers calling. Instead of lightsabers, Chronicles gives us this: “Tiet pulled his Barudii blade from the electromagnetically shielded scabbard strapped to his back. The adomen blade hummed like a whisper, desiring to shatter the molecular bonds of anything the metal touched.”

This was the original version of and previous cover to Part One of The Chronicles of Soone

Readers will note Somers’ impressive creativity and appreciate the solid pacing of his story. He keeps the action moving throughout the two-part series. Pretty much all of Somers’ books (and he’s written several since the Soone series) are page-turners. They don’t just draw you in. They suck you in!

The one drawback with Somers’ novels is that they could use more editing. This grammatical issues and typographical errors can be distracting. Nevertheless, Somers keeps his readers engaged. And, ultimately, when it comes to fiction, the mark of success is reader enjoyment. Somers passes that mark with flying colors.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this author personally. Like me, James is an ordained pastor, and he infuses his books with spiritual insights and moral lessons. Currently, he’s focused on his career as a surgical technician, and hasn’t written as prolifically in the last couple of years. This is a shame, as I’ve read just about everything he’s put out — and I can’t wait for more books to follow. And, yes, I’ll review some of his other titles in future blog posts.

For now…know this: The Chronicles of Soone saga is well worth your time. I highly recommend you head over to Amazon and pick up a digital copy today.

 

A Desperate Fight for Religious Freedom: My Review of James Byron Huggins’ Rora

When their lives and liberties are threatened, should Christians submit peacefully to martyrdom or resist with force of arms? In the seventeenth century, a community of Christians known as the Waldensians chose the latter. James Byron Huggins, known mainly for action-packed sci-fi thrillers like Hunter, Cain, and Nightbringer, brings their valiant struggle to life in this incredible novel. Popular Christian author Frank Peretti accurately describes Rora as “an eloquent word painting” and a “vivid saga that is part poetry, part painting, part cinema.”

Published in 2001, Rora resonates with the same spirit as seen in Mel Gibson’s blockbusters Braveheart and The Patriot (the latter being released to theaters the year before Rora‘s publication). Over the years, I’ve read Rora at least three times. It’s my favorite of Huggins’ novels, and that’s saying something, because I love them all! Huggins is one of the most cinematic wordsmiths around. He’s quite thrilling to read.

Though based on true events and featuring many historical figures (such as Oliver Cromwell and John Milton), Rora features Huggins’ tremendous gifts as a storyteller as he puts flesh, flood, and vivid color to the Waldensian fight for survival and religious freedom. He immerses you in their struggle against  both the Piedmont’s House of Savoy and the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which was itself still reeling from the Protestant Reformation.

Huggins’ protagonist is a fictionalized version of real-life Rora captain Joshua Gianavel (known in history also as Joshua Janavel or Giosuè Gianavello). Huggins’ Gianavel is a spiritually devout, middle-aged, battle-hardened war hero who employs Israelite military tactics to confound the enemy.

Gianavel’s nemesis, as portrayed by Huggins, is the malevolent “warlord” Marquis de Pianessa, the muscle and true military power behind the throne. Huggins obviously relishes his depiction of Pianessa, something that can be seen in the opening lines of Chapter One. “Mounted upon his heavy steed, armored in black, the warlord Marquis de Pianessa frowned over the smoldering bones and ashes of those who had begged for mercy. He did not bother to count the dead.” In Rora, Pianessa is definitely a villian’s villain.

Charles Immanuel, the Duke of Savoy, is presented by Huggins as a sympathetic figure compelled into attacking the Waldensians due to political machinations beyond his control. The actual historical record doesn’t sustain this generous portrayal, though Huggins does a great job giving his readers some compelling palace intrigue. Those political forces manipulating Savoy are, of course, the Catholic Inquisitors who are depicted as the very embodiment of evil in Huggins’ novel.

The book presents people of faith with an interesting question. If and when liberties and lives are threatened, should Christians take up arms or put away their swords? Jesus, after all, told us to “love your enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.” When arrested in the Garden, He reprimanded Peter for using the sword to defend Him. There is a long tradition of nonviolent resistance in Christianity, going back to the early martyrs and extending to the civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While Rora briefly acknowledges this moral and theological debate, Huggins’ protagonist Joshua Gianevel shows no remorse in his resolve to fight. The novel’s underlying theme is a glowing tribute to the bravery, sacrifice, and heroism of those Waldensians who defended their lives and freedom.

The answer to this centuries-long debate probably lies in the book of Ecclesiastes, specifically the passage quoted and immortalized by The Byrds in their hit song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” In the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

For the people of the Piedmont in the 1650s and 60s, it was a “time for war” and a “time to kill.” The question of when it’s justified to take up arms to defend one’s liberties versus when it’s right to lay down those arms is one that each person or each group or nation must answer prayerfully before our Creator. As the American Founders acknowledge in the Declaration of Independence, He is the “Righteous Judge” and we are all accountable to Him.

If you love historical fiction (as I do), you must get a copy of Rora. It’s a book that will stay with you for a long time.

Bringing a Biblical Heroine to Life: A Review of Jill Eileen Smith’s The Prophetess

Deborah, the Old Testament judge and prophetess for Israel, comes to life in the second book of bestselling author Jill Eileen Smith’s Daughters of the Promised Land series. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and since I am currently preaching a series on Deborah (see Part One here), I was inspired to pick up a copy of Smith’s The Prophetess.

In the largely patriarchal world of ancient Israel, Deborah stands out as a dramatic reminder that God created both men and women in His image (Genesis 1:27). Deborah is a remarkable historical figure, rising to a prominent position of stature and influence when her people desperately needed such leadership. Following the deaths of Moses and Joshua, Israel entered its tumultuous “period of the judges.” With no monarch (as its neighbors had) and no strong national leader (like Joshua or Moses), the Israelites kept mainly to their own tribes, forming a loose confederation of sorts that only partly occupied the “Promised Land,” that portion of the Southern Levant they had been told by God to conquer. As a consequence of their failure to fully occupy the Promised Land and due to their habitual fall into corruption and sin, they were continually oppressed by the other nations and tribes of the Southern Levant, including the Philistines, Moabites, Canaanites, and Midianites. It was during the oppression of the Canaanite ruler Jabin that Deborah emerged as both judge and prophet for God’s people.

Not much is known of Deborah from the Bible. While it’s somewhat disappointing that we only have two chapters in the book of Judges dedicated to her story (specifically Judges 4 and 5), she does receive more attention than all three of her predecessors (Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar). The Bible treats her as the first significant judge and leader of the Israelites following the death of Joshua.

Jill Eileen Smith takes many creative liberties with this story. While staying relatively true to the biblical narrative, the vast majority of her novel can only be described as fiction. She gives backstories and personalities to biblical characters of which (from the Bible) we only know their basic information (name, relationship, etc). Deborah’s husband, for example, is fictionalized as a Levite priest who teaches Deborah to read the law of Moses. And Smith creates other characters completely from imagination – examples being Barak’s best friend and loyal lieutenant, Keshet, and Deborah’s headstrong daughter, Talya, who plays a prominent part in this story.

From the Bible, we know Deborah was “the wife of Lappidoth,” but there is some debate as to whether this is a reference to her vocation or personality as opposed to a husband. Some allege she was married to Israel’s military leader, Barak, and that Lappidoth was simply one of Barak’s other names. Smith takes the view (one I share) that Lappidoth was a real person, and that he was not Barak. Smith, in fact, avoids any temptation an author might have in a historical romance to imagine some kind of romantic relationship or sexual tension between the female (Deborah) and male (Barak) protagonists. I commend her for this, as it recognizes that men and women can work effectively together simply and fully as colleagues and friends. Without giving too much away, Smith chooses to make Deborah older than Barak and present her as more of a maternal figure to the Israelite commander.

Smith captures the world of ancient Israel rather convincingly. Anyone who reads The Prophetess will feel Deborah’s world come alive. She is particularly effective in helping modern readers understand Israelite marriage and family customs, including arranged marriages. Indeed, Deborah’s most prominent emotional story arc is her journey from an unhappy wife given in marriage to a man she doesn’t respect to….well…I’ll let you read the story. Reviews don’t need to contain spoilers. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the romantic relationships in The Prophetess, Ms. Smith sticks to the HEA romance convention.

If you’re looking for a Bible study on Deborah, stick with the book of Judges. If you want historical facts to help you better understand the Bible, this book will give you a better understanding of Deborah’s world, but it’s firmly in the category of fiction, which every reader should keep in mind. But if you want an inspirational read that blends fact with fiction, while respecting the Bible, then The Prophetess is for you.

Always Be Kind (Even When You Don’t Feel Like It)

A few years ago, I was making the rounds at our church’s Easter fellowship breakfast. As most of you know, I’m a pastor. And every Easter Sunday, our church holds two celebration services with a breakfast fellowship in between. This particular Easter, I was circulating among those at the breakfast fellowship, shaking hands and offering words of greeting and encouragement. And I came face to face with a woman who was (at the time – and, if I’m honest, quite often) angry with me. I put a sincere smile on my face and wished her a Happy Easter. She looked at me, grunted, and walked away.

While most people are at least perfunctorily polite at church, I can’t say the above incident was the only time I’ve experienced a lack of kindness. Far from it. Over the years, I’ve had the experience of greeting people with kindness, only to have that greeting rebuffed, ignored, or dismissed. Why? Because too many people (even in church) act based primarily on their feelings. If they feel like being nice, they’ll be nice. If they don’t feel like being nice, they won’t be.

Henry James once said: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Life is tough. Sometimes, it can be very tough. A kind word and a smile can go a long way to brighten someone’s day. And people need their days brightened. To withhold kindness from someone is to say to that person: “I don’t want to brighten your day.”

A person will often justify withholding kindness for a myriad of reasons. The excuses often include:

  • “I’m having a terrible day!”
  • “I’m tired.”
  • “That person wasn’t kind to me.”
  • “I’m running late.”
  • “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
  • “He hurt me.”
  • “She betrayed me.”
  • And the list goes on.

Kindness isn’t something we extend, however, only when the other person deserves it or only when we feel like giving it. At least it shouldn’t be that way. If we base our kindness only on our feelings, then we’re not really being kind. We’re just being. We’re just following our feelings where they lead. Emotionally healthy and mature adults know better and they act better. Emotionally healthy and mature adults understand they need to lead their feelings, rather than follow their feelings.

Jesus says we are to love our neighbor, and Paul the Apostle writes that we should “esteem others better” than ourselves. It is inconsistent with those teachings to withhold kindness from the people in our life.

But what about those excuses? Well…here’s how I would respond to those….

“I’m having a terrible day!” Okay, but why make someone else’s day terrible? How does that help you? And maybe…just maybe…your kindness (even when you’re having a bad day) will create a reaction in the other person that will bless you in return. But even if not, there’s no morally justifiable reason to rain on someone else’s day because you have some rain in yours.

“I’m tired.” Then do your best to be kind anyway. And if you can’t muster the energy, then you can at least communicate to the person that your mood is based on your fatigue and not because of them.

“That person wasn’t kind to me.” Is this kindergarten? It’s one thing to walk away from a person who is being overly rude, obnoxious, and hurtful. That is fine and sometimes necessary. It’s another to get into a tit for tat situation. The former is a way of protecting yourself. The latter is petty.

“I’m running late.” Then say so with a smile. And, next time, try not to run late.

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.” Then say so….while being kind.

“He hurt me.” And….? Was it intentional? Was it punitive? Did the other person hurt you because of his (or her) desire to hurt you? Or was the hurt accidental or inadvertent? Or are you hurt because you had unfair or unrealistic expectations of the other person or a situation that person was involved in? Do some honest analysis on why you were hurt. And, after that analysis, talk (kindly) with the person about it. If the person is being intentionally hurtful, then you should, if possible, put some space between you and that person as a means of protecting yourself.

“She betrayed me.” Jesus says “Love your enemies” and “Do good” to those who hurt you. That’s a tall order, but that’s the right way to respond. Of course, you can (constructively and from the heart) express to the person how their actions, or betrayal, hurt you – and why. If they are receptive, then you have succeeded in turning a bad situation into a learning opportunity and an opportunity for reconciliation and perhaps even the deepening of a friendship. If they’re not, then you may need some space and you can certainly reevaluate your level of trust and expectations in that person, but it’s not a justification for you to be mean, unkind, or retaliatory to them.

The excuses can be endless, yet none of them really excuse a lack of kindness. Don’t make excuses. Be kind. Don’t follow your feelings. Lead them.

The late American journalist George Elliston once wrote: “How beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it!” Make it your goal to touch as many people with kindness as you can (no matter how you feel) so that you can bring as much beauty into their days as possible.

Former Obama Aide Tackles Politics and Religion: A Review of Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope

Michael Wear loves Jesus, believes the Bible, is pro-life, holds traditional views of marriage, and is fully committed to religious freedom. And he’s a Democrat.

Some may find the above paragraph an incredible contradiction. The Atlantic‘s Emma Green put it bluntly: “There aren’t many people like Michael Wear in today’s Democratic Party.” Yet this tension between Wear’s Christian faith and his Democrat leanings is what drives his story and makes his book Reclaiming Hope a must-read for anyone interested in how religion influences American politics.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in The Obama White House About The Future of Faith in America isn’t your typical Beltway tell-all. Instead, it’s a balanced look at the tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, and high emotions that accompany ethical and religious issues.

Christians in particular will find Wear’s book enlightening. And don’t just take my word for it. Wear’s book has earned the endorsement of several heavy hitters in the evangelical world, including:

  • Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of numerous bestselling books including The Reason for God
  • Andy Stanley, Senior Pastor of North Point Ministries
  • Louie Giglio, Pastor of Passion City Church and founder of Passion Conferences
  • Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

When it comes to President Barack Obama’s religious faith and his relations with the Christian community, Michael Wear had a front-row seat. He served in President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2009 until 2012, when he was appointed director of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

Conservatives shouldn’t let Wear’s Democrat leanings dissuade them from reading this book. National Review‘s Jim Geraghty writes, “Conservatives will have a hard time finding a more like-minded guide to the decision-making inside the Obama White House than Michael Wear.”

Indeed, Wear pulls back the curtain on some of the behind-the-scenes strife that took place within the Obama administration and sheds light on the personal and public side of Barack Obama’s faith. And it reveals how the Democratic Party has become increasingly hostile toward men and women of traditional Christian beliefs.

The office to which Wear was initially assigned was created by President George W. Bush and was originally named the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. President Obama reorganized and renamed the office, christening it the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). Joshua DuBois was named as its first director under Obama. Wear, an intern for Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, was brought on board to help.

Wear explains the White House faith-based office and its affiliated centers in several federal departments were to act “as advocates for, and resources to, faith-based and secular nonprofits” including and perhaps particularly in terms of government grants.

The faith-based office is not without its critics. Many believe it’s an unconstitutional violation of the “separation of church and state.” Many saw Bush’s faith-based office as nothing more than a political ploy to woo religious voters, an impression fed by a blistering critique from David Kuo, a former Bush administration staffer, in his book Tempting Faith. When Obama became President, many of his supporters hoped he would scrap the faith-based office. He didn’t. The OFBNP remained a part of his administration for the duration of his presidency.

Though it is (as of this writing) uncertain whether President Donald Trump plans to continue the faith-based office (and its affiliate centers) in his administration, Wear is among the office’s defenders. In Reclaiming Hope, Wear explains why the office is important. He writes, “The faith-based office exists because of a clear-eyed recognition of the power and centrality of faith in the spiritual and practical lives of many Americans and their communities.”

Wear doesn’t support the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP) because people of faith need the government. On the contrary, Wear believes it’s the government that needs them. Religious nonprofits and houses of worship are at the forefront in serving the needs of the people, especially those most vulnerable. Government needs to partner with such efforts if it wants to truly help those in need.

Wear believes people of faith should be involved in politics and actively engaged in the public square. He likewise believes that those in power should respect the input of people of faith and that no one should be excluded from policy conversations on account of his or her religious beliefs.

Twenty years ago, such contentions weren’t that controversial. Thirty years ago, they wouldn’t have even been noteworthy. Today, things are quite different. Today, men and women who regard Jesus as God and the Bible as divinely inspired are not nearly as welcome in Mr. Wear’s party, the Democratic Party, as they once were. As an example, Wear contrasts President Obama’s pluralistic 2009 inauguration which featured an invocation from Rick Warren with Obama’s 2013 inaugural which ultimately rejected Louie Giglio. Despite Giglio’s respected stature within the evangelical Christian community and his commendable efforts to fight human trafficking, he was driven out of Obama’s 2012 inauguration because, fifteen years previously, he had taken a traditionally biblical position on marriage (and thus against homosexuality) in one of his sermons. “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces,” explains Wear. “In 2013, diversity required us to expel dissent.” It’s a civil, but scathing, critique of the increasingly intolerant political left.

The central premise of Reclaiming Hope is one that should appeal to all people of faith, regardless of their political beliefs. Wear argues that we can’t put our hopes in government. “Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met,” writes Wear. Unfortunately, as he explains, politics “does a poor job of meeting inner needs.” Politicians and government bureaucracies aren’t equipped for that. Wear declares, “As someone who has experienced firsthand the great successes and bitter disappointments that politics brings, I can say without equivocation that politics is not where you want to place your hope.” Our hope, says Wear, must be “grounded in the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] and the kingdom of God.”

We need more people like Michael Wear. And we need more books like Reclaiming Hope.

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For more on Michael Wear and his book Reclaiming Hope, visit his official website.

How to Change a Negative Attitude: Six Bible Verses to Help With Our Attitude

One of the strongest indicators of a person’s success or happiness in life is his or her attitude. Charles R. Swindoll, a popular Christian author and theologian, agrees. In a famous quote, Swindoll declares: “Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church….a home.”

The importance of attitude is of course nothing new. People struggled with attitude issues thousands of years ago when the Bible was written just as they do today. That is why the Bible has some great wisdom to help any of us improve our attitude. Here are six Bible verses to help with our attitude.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties.” -Psalm 139:23

When it comes to experiencing joy and peace of mind, nothing is more crucial than prayer. And not just prayer, but focused, intentional prayer that welcomes God into every corner of our heart and mind. Such fervent, exhaustive praying leaves us totally exposed, completely vulnerable, and ready for purification and healing. This kind of praying rejects compartmentalization and casualness in favor of intimacy and authenticity. It’s the kind of praying that transforms not just our attitudes, but our very lives.

“In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” -Proverbs 10:19

The words that come out of our mouths don’t just reflect our hearts; they can also affect our hearts. When we get in the habit of talking negatively, we become negative. If you want to improve your attitude, one of the best ways is to guard what comes out of your mouth.

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” -Philippians 4:8

It is a truism in the field of personal development that “we become what we think about.” If we focus our attention on things that trigger anger, depression, anxiety, or worry, those emotions will dominate in our minds. If you want to have a more positive outlook in life, take control of your thoughts.

“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” -Psalm 20:7

Often, we become anxious and discouraged because circumstances don’t cooperate with our desire for happiness or with the goals we’ve set in our lives. The problem is that there are so many things in life beyond our control. Don’t rely on your job, your bank account, your status, your health, or even your goals per se to determine your happiness or peace of mind. While we can certainly influence these things, they are ultimately not in our control. If we base our happiness on things beyond our control, then we’ve relinquished control of our happiness.

“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men…” –Colossians 3:23

What is your purpose for doing the things that you do? If you base your sense of identity on yourself and your own desires, then your happiness will be dependent on the ups and downs that you experience in life. But if you’re serving someone else, then your focus won’t be on the results so much as on your motives and giving it your very best.

“[I]n everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” -I Thessalonians 5:18

Gratitude is foundational to a positive attitude. And there are always things for which we can be grateful, even when life isn’t fully cooperating with us. Look for the good in all people and circumstances.

Applying the principles of these Bible verses will help anyone change a negative attitude for the better and place them on a path to peace and happiness.