Phenomenal Cosmic Powers: Wicca and Paganism in SFF

Imagine you’re reading an urban fantasy novel and your protagonist encounters Christianity for the first time. They think to themselves, “Wow, this really speaks to me! I think I’m going to be a Christian from now on.” And that decision is when it all changes for them. They have literal conversations with God about how the world should work according to the Divine Plan. They can suddenly perform miracles, astounding and converting their friends with their newfound abilities to walk on water or turn a bottle of Dasani into a bottle of Merlot. They do battle with demons, working their eventual way up to battling Satan.

And I’m fairly sure that the majority of your reactions fall into one of two categories: 1) “This sounds like the worst Christian propaganda series ever;” or 2) “This is amazingly insulting to Christians and Christianity.”

Welcome to how paganism and Wicca are treated in the vast majority of fictional works in which they appear.

In the vast majority of fiction in which Wiccans appear (sometimes more generic pagans, but more often than not it’s Wiccans, because Wicca is a named religion with established tenets and is easier to define), being Wiccan grants you all the coolness of magic and spells, and sure there’ll be some missteps along the way as you figure out how not to be selfish, but pffft, what’s a little selflessness when compared to the ability to influence the minds of people around you, or summon spirits to do your bidding?

All of this utterly misses that Wicca is an actual religion, Practiced by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And sure, that’s a piddly number when put in perspective of a world population of over 7 billion, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to misrepresent it so often.

This is a particular bone of contention with me because I am pagan. I hesitate to call myself Wiccan even though most of my beliefs line up with that religion, and I prefer the more umbrella term of “pagan” for now, until such time as I discover a label that makes sense for me. I celebrate solstices and equinoxes. I believe in both male and female deities. I do spells, and spells in real-world context are literally nothing more than prayers with a little ritual and symbolism attached. So it bothers me when my faith gets represented as something that’s either evil or that grants you amazing powers to fling fireballs around.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually encountered a novel in which there’s a Wiccan character who is portrayed as just a typical person who adheres to personal religious beliefs.

For instance, if I’m going to do spellwork to try and bring luck to my life, it would probably involve a candle, maybe some different-coloured threads or ribbons I want to get fancy, and either a suitable rhyme (because rhyming stuff is easier to remember) or just a general, “Please let some good fortune come into my life,” prayer. Said as the moon waxes, to signify something increasing rather than decreasing. And then keeping an eye out for opportunities or trying to not focus on bad things. That’s about it. Really, no different than a Christian praying to God that they get some luck in their life.

But if you believe pop culture SFF representations of Wicca and Witchcraft, casting that spell would mean that suddenly I can do no wrong and everything happens in coincidental ways to line up just the way I want them.

Which would be awesome, but entirely unrealistic.

It would be one thing if I just kept encountering urban fantasy novels in which some characters were witches and had access to typical fantasy magic. Despite Wiccans typically refering to themselves as Witches and the practice of their religion as Witchcraft, I am perfectly capable of distinguishing the two things, and I don’t assume that every UF witch is also supposed to be Wiccan.

But I have encountered a sad number of novels, often targeted to young adult audiences, in which Wicca itself is something that grants fantasy magic to true believers.

Not just novels, either. As much as I adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m less than fond of its portrayal of Wicca there, which falls into the same tropes and traps. Willow learns magic, which is fine and fits with the presentation of the supernatural established by the show, but then frequently conflates her magic with Wicca. In her first year of university, she goes to a Wiccan meeting and is disappointed that the other women there are talking about awareness and female empowerment and bake sale fundraisers as opposed to conjuration and elemental manipulation. She refers to them as “wanna-Blessed-Bes,” which is a funny line but it serves to more firmly establish in pop culture that real witches can float things and summon spirits from the afterlife. Anyone who can’t is just someone who’s all talk.

Arguments can absolutely be made for why this is done. Wicca is, admittedly, a pretty small and misunderstood religion, and positive portrayals, even inaccurate ones, can do wonders to help dispel the idea that Wiccans are just man-hating woman out to cause the destruction of the Western world. When it’s a choice between one or the other, I’ll take the one that presents us incorrectly but at least says we can be good people.

But like anything else in representation, this should be a stepping stone, not an end goal. And sometimes it seems like people have forgotten that. The positive portrayal boost seems to have stalled since the early 2000s. We’re not really a fad anymore.

But we’re still real people. And honestly, I think we deserve to be portrayed realistically.

I have not once encountered a book or movie or TV show in which a Wiccan character (or a character coded as Wiccan, by which I mean someone who typically calls themselves a witch, engages in goddess-worship, and does spellwork) is just a typical person going about their life. They’re written as phenomenal, either in-your-face with their religious expression, or else in possession of fantasy magic that is utterly unlike what happens in reality.

One year, in high school, I decided to dress up as a modern witch for Halloween. By which I mean that I came to school wearing my normal clothes. The only concession I made to appearance was bringing in a stick that I’d drawn some runes on and then covered in clear glittery nailpolish. Because sparkles equal magic. And nobody can cast magic without a wand anyway. (Har har.)

And even then, I knew that nobody would get it. I thought, in my teenage way, that I was being wonderfully clever, all tongue-in-cheek, but I look back on that now and think that it’s a little bit sad that even when I told people what I was, even saying I was a modern witch, they only got it once they saw the stick. If then. I’m not saying it was a fantastic costume or anything, but my whole point was that this is what modern witches look like. And nobody really understood.

Unless they were already pagan themselves.

Despite there being portrayals of “modern witches” on TV at the time, such as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Charmed. Who dressed like stylish women with access to a great wardrobe department.

Witchcraft and Wicca was firmly in the realm of the fantastical, incompatible with reality.

I don’t think much has really changed since then.

I can understand where the problem lies. It’s all about the magic. And the witches. And people who can’t separate the realism from the fantastic. But where we have no problems with accepting that a monotheistic religion in a fantasy novel isn’t Christianity or some analogue for it, we do seem to have problems accepting that fantasy magic can be different from real magic. When people hear “magic,” their minds automatically go to elemental stuff, flinging fireballs and calling down lightning. Hell, my mind does that too. But at least I have the excuse of reading dozens of SFF novels every year. Chances are, the context in which people around me talk about magic is going to be fantasy magic.

And as I said before, I have no problem with that. I have a problem with characters being written as Wiccan, with the assumption that being Wiccan means access to fantasy magic.

Writing about real modern Witches would be boring. Slice-of-life stuff. You’d read stories about us going to work, grumbling about our bosses, coming home, cooking dinner, and then going to bed. Maybe with some special stories where we grumble about how we can’t decide what to bring for a Samhain potluck, or how irritating it is that the Dollar Store is out of green candles again. That’s when we get really Witchy, after all!

But that’s just it. We are normal people.

And we aren’t represented as such.

We’re represented as extraordinary and unreal.

It’s hard to be taken seriously when people don’t think your religion is as grounded in reality as anyone else’s.

A friend once asked me, “Do you still think you’re a witch?”

“I am,” I replied.

She looked doubtful.

Because so many others see our religion connected with something that can’t possibly be real, they assume that we, as believers, are delusional. That we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. The constant portrayals of Wiccans as those who Phenomenal Cosmic Powers don’t help. While it’s undoubtedly worlds better than having us all portrayed as evil, it’s not like being seen as delusional is a good thing.

Characters with magic are cool. Especially modern-day characters, because magic adds a new dynamic to a story. What’s life like when you can command your cat to spy on your neighbours? How do you cope when mumbling the wrong set of syllables under your breath causes the sprinklers in the office to go off? This is the stuff stories are made of. This is what can get us watching or reading about a character and wanting to know more about them and the lives they live. I understand entirely why storytellers would want to explore something like that.

But the real Wiccans of the world are done a huge disservice every time our faith is portrayed that way. It’s another inch on the wall between us and being taken seriously. It’s one more hurdle we have to overcome to convince others that no, we don’t believe we can do those things, any more than your average Christian believes they can walk on water just because they believe in God.

I’ve seen it argued, time and again, that when people write witches in urban fantasy, they’re not really writing Wiccans. Even when your witch character believes in a goddess and celebrates on Beltane and writes their own Book of Shadows, they’re not really Wiccan. Not even coded Wiccan. Not really.

I suppose the writer isn’t cherry-picking aspects of my religion in order to add elements to their story, then. Not really.

This sort of stuff really gets under my skin. I’m tired of being treated alternately as delusional or nonexistent. I’m tired of the constant portrayals of people who are nothing like me even as they claim to be there on my behalf. You want your Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, fine, but can you please, please, start separating those powers from a legitimate and recognized religion that many people hold dear? Because you’re not winning any points with us. And you’re making it harder for us to be taken seriously.

We don’t have those powers. We can’t influence the minds and hearts of others by our vast spiritual reserves, suddenly convincing people that we’re valid people and as wise or foolish as any other person with a religion. We can’t conjure fire out of thin air to convince you that our paths are valid paths to walk on. All we have is our word versus the word of pop culture, real stories versus flashy stories.

I want a pagan character who saves the world through their wits and cunning and tae kwon do skills, not because they’ve been granted lightning spells by their Great Goddess. I want a Wiccan who got their powers when they still called themselves Jewish, and only through other circumstances did they realise that Judaism wasn’t right for them anymore. I want a witch who isn’t a teenage cisgender girl, who finds her school overrun by monsters and she has to team up with a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Buddhist in order to figure out how to escape.

I want stories that portray us as real people, as more than the powers that literally none of us actually have. I want to have someone ask my religion and then not instantly do a mental jump to some supernatural-based TV show as their only touchpoint. I want to be honest about that aspect of myself and not worry that people wrongly think that I wrongly think I’m practically one of the X-Men.

It’s 2017. We’re past the 1990s and early 2000s. This should be an issue anymore. But like so many other issues that shouldn’t be, it still is. And I’m tired of it. And all it would take to change it is enough people taking us seriously enough to give a damn about portraying us decently, and caring enough to not fall into the flashy pitfalls dug by storytellers that came before.

Take us seriously.

Ask us question.

Write us properly.

Last God Standing, by Michael Boatman

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Publication date – March 25, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When God decides to quit and join the human race to see what all the fuss is about, all Hell breaks loose.

Sensing his abdication, the other defunct gods of Earth’s vanquished pantheons want a piece of the action He abandoned.

Meanwhile, the newly-humanised deity must discover the whereabouts and intentions of the similarly reincarnated Lucifer, and block the ascension of a murderous new God.

How is he ever going to make it as a stand-up comedian with all of this going on…?

Thoughts: What if God was one of us? (Oh come on, you really didn’t see that song title coming with a concept like this? I’m just surprised it didn’t get mentioned in the book itself!) The god of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion is living a mortal life, as are most of the gods from various pantheons through humanity’s history. Yahweh, in this case, is a black stand-up comedian named Lando, who hails from a tremendously effed-up family. Lando would be pretty content to go through life as a normal guy, without any divine issues getting in the way of things, but other gods seem to have different ideas and are bent on revenge for past slights and sins. Add in the fact that these attacks on Lando seem to be part of a plan by some unknown and newly-emerging god for the modern age, and Lando finds himself in over his head in more ways than one.

Boatman gets serious kudos for taking the basic concept behind this book and running with it to places that others often wouldn’t. I’m sure there are some people out there who read this and were ticked off that God was a black guy who makes a living by being rather absurd on stage, or that all the myths are true and that all prior deities from other religions are just as real (and often just as corporeal and real and yet still divine) as the God of Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam). Which says more about them than about the book, really, but I mention it to show that Boatman clearly isn’t afraid to buck trends and go against the status quo just because it might anger people with a narrow-worldview. And there’s a strong vein of humour running through the novel, as can be expected given that it’s told from the first-person viewpoint of a stand-up comic. Keen observation and wit is the order of the day, and there’s plenty of opportunity for it seeing as how there are so many twisted characters, human and divine alike. It’s an extremely diverse cast of characters that Boatman brings to the table.

Part of the problem is the general lack of tension expressed when it comes to divine battles. On pages where two deities are fighting it out and reality is getting warped and twisted as an effect, I figure I should be able to feel something. But no matter how often those scenes occurred, the most I felt was confused, since Lando himself seemed more concerned with witty retorts and insults to make his opponent angry than he did with how the world is twisting around him. It seems odd to complain about how unrealistically unreality was presented, but with distanced narration and scattered commentary on what was essentially the laws of physics and perception getting thrown out the window, it made it hard to feel anything from those scenes.

Especially when it gets obvious quickly that the scenes have no actual lasting effect, since Lando can just wipe out the time and set reality back to rights again. No consequences, and so no threat.

Oddly, the parts of the novel that felt most developed to me were the ones that centred around Lando’s mundane mortal life. Issues with his (incredibly gorgeous and self-assured) rich girlfriend and her family. Trying to please his parents. Watching his mother fall prey to a charismatic cult. These pieces of he story were fascinating, and stranger in many ways than the parts about divinity. Secondary to that was the section of the book in which Lando finds himself in an alternate reality, one with a history very different from our own, and that was well put together and detailed and so fascinating that I could have read an entire novel set in that reality and been perfectly happy with it. It was a shame to me that it was such a short part of the book and so near the end.

In many ways, it felt like the characters relied on their extreme diversity in place of any real development. I can give you a dozen descriptive words and labels for some of the characters, and with maybe 2 exceptions, none of the characters were actually deeper than those labels. It was as though readers were getting little more than an overview of them, and the diversity was a bit of a fake-out, a way of making characters seem deeper and more nuanced than they really were.

Last God Standing played with some very interesting concepts and ideas and was nicely thought-provoking at times, but it was sporadic and uneven, and that was the novel’s real downfall. It had some great visual promise, the kind of thing that would actually make for a great film, but the presentation as a novel didn’t do the trick for me, and in spite of the promise that it held I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. Worth a read, and it will probably stimulate some discussions on the nature of reality and divinity, but as with many of the characters, the surface was barely scratched and the ideas don’t get too deep. Good for light reading and when you’re in the mood for fast and snappy dialogue with a good sense of wit and levity, but if you’re looking for something more, you’re not likely to find it here.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

DNF Week: I don’t even remember the title…

I wish I could remember the title of this one. I think it’s something like, “Between Two Worlds,” but I can’t find mention of this book anywhere, nor can I remember the author. I think it was self-published or possibly published by a very small publisher, which doesn’t help matters.

Anyway, I got a copy of this one during my early days of book reviewing, back when anyone approaching me with, “Want to review my book?” evoked a giddy thrill in me because holy crap, someone’s trying to pitch to me, that’s freaking awesome! The author informed me that it was a Christian fantasy tale intended for younger audiences, and I admit, that concerned me a little, but  figured that hey, if Narnia can have heavy Christian themes and still be loved the world over, then I ought to at least give this one a chance.

The book started out in a way that made me raise an eyebrow. It takes place in Heaven, and apparently, everyone in Heaven reverts to being about 7 years old and eats cookies and plays all day, because hey, why not? Kids probably do think that’s what an ideal afterlife should be about. And since the book was geared toward kids in the first place, as much as that didn’t sound like a great afterlife to me, I let it slide.

Most of what I read of the book was odd, simplistic, and definitely full of preachy morality. Little Heavenly kids go to earth to save lost souls and bring them to the light. Not so much Christian fantasy and really evangelical Christian fantasy.

But the turning point for me was a scene in which some guy who’s been brought to Heaven by our little munchkins ends up running into the Good Prince, who’s a transparent expy for Jesus. And the Good Prince demands to know what this man’s doing in his domain, how did he get in, and before the guy can even start to explain, the Good Prince starts causing him severe pain and practically tortures him on the spot! Until the little tyke who brought him here runs up and goes, “Stop, he’s with me!” Then the Good Prince is all smiles and kindness.

So the moral of the story is that Jesus is totally cool with torturing people if there’s any sign at all that someone snuck into Heaven without his knowledge, I guess. And you know, I’m not Christian, but that was too painful for even me to take. This is supposed to be the good guy! In a sickly-sweet story for evangelical tykes! You’d think that the Good Prince would, I dunno, show some mercy and compassion and hear the guy out or something, but no. Jumps straight to torture, because someone wandered into the wrong section of his home without an escort.

Good thing he doesn’t throw many dinner parties…

The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

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Publication date – June 3, 2010

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As a sophomore at Brown University, Kevin Roose didn’t have much contact with the Religious Right. Raised in a secular home by staunchly liberal parents, he fit right in with Brown’s sweatshop-protesting, fair-trade coffee-drinking, God-ambivalent student body. So when he had a chance encounter with a group of students from Liberty University, a conservative Baptist university in Lynchburg, Virginia, he found himself staring across a massive culture gap. But rather than brush the Liberty students off, Roose decided to do something much bolder: he became one of them.

Liberty University is the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s proudest accomplishment – a 10,000-student conservative Christian training ground. At Liberty, students (who call themselves “Champions for Christ”) take classes like Introduction to Youth Ministry and Evangelism 101. They hear from guest speakers like Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, they pray before every class, and they follow a 46-page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way” that prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, contact with the opposite sex, and witchcraft. Armed with an open mind and a reporter’s notebook, Roose dives into life at Bible Boot Camp with the goal of connecting with his evangelical peers by experiencing their world first-hand.

Roose’s semester at Liberty takes him to church, class, and choir practice at Rev. Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. He visits a support group for recovering masturbation addicts, goes to an evangelical hip-hop concert, and participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, where he learns how to convert bar-hopping co-eds to Christianity. Roose struggles with his own faiththroughout, and in a twist that could only have been engineered by a higher power, he conducts what would turn out to be the last in-depth interview of Rev. Falwell’s life. Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, Kevin Roose’s embedded report from the front lines of the culture war will inspire and entertain believers and non-believers alike.

Thoughts: When I first found out that A J Jacobs’s “slave” was writing a book of his own, I was intrigued, and decided there and then that I had to get my hands on it. I’m happy to say that it was a fantastic book, a truly inspiration look at crossing the culture divide between religious and secular, showing how the line between left and right are not always as clear as many people want them to be.

Kevin Roose was inspired to take a semester away from Brown and transfer to Liberty University, a strict Christian university known for, is essence, being run by Jerry Falwell. It was a daunting prospect. Having to pretend to fit in while still maintaining journalistic distance, running the risk of making friends who have no idea about a very large part of his personality, spending time in close quarters with people whose ideology he didn’t exactly share. Immersion journalism is always tricky, especially in a time of such contention between the religious and secular worlds.

I was quite impressed with the way Roose handled everything – that is, with humour and an open mind. He didn’t try to instantly condemn everything from Liberty just because of its associations, neither did he attempt to fake blind acceptance. He struggled, he took chances, and he came away from the experience a changed man, but its a chance that he eventually felt somewhat comfortable with going through. He took something away from Liberty that he didn’t enter with, more than just the notes he took.

What he discovered, in essence, is that the people on both sides of the divide are remarkable similar in their good and bad points. Both sides have their misconceptions of the other, both sides have their jerks whom nobody likes, both sides have their sweet caring people who make your life better for having known them, and both sides have their secret dissidents and malcontents. It’s a prime example of not judging a book by its cover, of basing your opinions on experience rather than knee-jerk assumptions and self-imposed blindness.

You can’t help but close this book with a feeling of deep respect for what Kevin did. You can’t help but feel somewhat changed, yourself, after following along with his journey. There are things to laugh at (Jersey Joey’s constant ribbing), things to raise a wondering eyebrow at (Every Man’s Battle meetings to help stop masturbation), and things to give serious thought to (the way the university deems education as a dangerous thing that can lead students away from God), things to make readers pause and wonder just what all the fuss is about, on both sides of the debate.

Ultimately, this was a well-done experiment and a fantastic memoir that comes highly recommended for anyone on either side of the fence. Give it a chance; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

A Year of Living Biblically, by A J Jacobs

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) From the bestselling author of The Know-It-All comes a fascinating and timely exploration of religion and the Bible.

Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. He vows to follow the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love his neighbor. But also to obey the hundreds of less publicized rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers.

The resulting spiritual journey is at once funny and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal and will make you see history’s most influential book with new eyes.

Jacobs’s quest transforms his life even more radically than the year spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for The Know-It-All. His beard grows so unruly that he is regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. He immerses himself in prayer, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and tells the absolute truth in all situations – much to his wife’s chagrin.

Throughout the book, Jacobs also embeds himself in a cross-section of communities that take the Bible literally. He tours a Kentucky-based creationist museum and sings hymns with Pennsylvania Amish. He dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and does Scripture study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He discovers ancient biblical wisdom of startling relevance. And he wrestles with seemingly archaic rules that baffle the twenty-first-century brain.

Jacobs’s extraordinary undertaking yields unexpected epiphanies and challenges. A book that will charm readers both secular and religious, The Year of Living Biblically is part Cliff Notes to the Bible, part memoir, and part look into worlds unimaginable. Thou shalt not be able to put it down.

Thoughts: As fascinated as I am with all the various interpretations of what’s in the bible, I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of this book when it was on sale, and I don’t regret a single penny of its cost. Jacobs has a wonderful style, fluid and funny and educational, and he manages to effortlessly draw the reader into his adventures and misadventures until it feels like we’re living the very same project.

This book does a wonderful job of showing, for one thing, how a lot of people cherry-pick which rules they do and do not follow from the bible. I’m sure by now everyone’s heard the old argument against homosexuality that comes from Leviticus, but the very same book contains admonitions against eating shrimp and rabbit, and not wearing clothes of mixed fibres. But a lot of bible-thumpers in cotton-polyester suits convenienty pass over those other laws, for any number of reasons. Jacobs sought to incorporate every aspect of biblical law into his life, including such tricky things as not touching any surface on which his menstruating wife sat, or wrestling with the ethics of stoning people in this modern age. He struggles to reconcile the conflicting messages and rules within the bible, and seeks out other worshippers of all flavours in order to better understand and get to the heart of religion itself.

What comes out is a hilarious example of just how both Christianity and Judaism have changed since their respective inceptions, and also brings to light just how few people who claim to follow the bible actually bother to do so. It reveals just how many differences in interpretation are rationalized. It shows how living “old-school biblically” doesn’t often work nowadays. It offers great insight into the minds of believers and nonbelievers alike, from varying perspectives, and it’s an enjoyable ride the whole way through.

For those who enjoyed David Plotz’s Good Book, I highly recomment A Year of Living Biblically, and vice versa.

The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin, by Charles Foster

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Publication date – April 16, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) If evolutionary theory is correct, what does that say about creator God?

Ever since the famous debate on Darwinism between Huxley and Wilberforce in 1860, there has been little real conversation between the scientific community and much of the Christian world. This book offers the prospect of reconciliation between what are seen as two opposing worldviews.

With remarkable insight and skill, Foster shows that most evolutionary theory and its consequences are easily reconciled with Christian orthodoxy and explores the ethical problems of natural selection in a fresh and invigorating way.

Charles Foster insists on getting to the heart of the topic and succeeds through a scientific and biblical analysis that is second to none. The Selfless Gene has the potential to become required reading for theologians and laypeople alike.

Thoughts: This books premise was simple-sounding but difficult in practice, as is evidenced by the fact that there’s still raging debate between evolutionists and creationists about how life came to be as it is. As is my observation (in this issue and others), the real answer doesn’t lie at either end of the scale, but somewhere in the middle.

This is the approach the author chose to take, and he did it well. He does not use the same old standby arguments that most people use, but instead started fresh, right from the beginning. He not only looked at what the bible has to say on the subject of life’s origins, but also compared and contrasted that to what Christianity at large says, and what hard-core evolutionists say.

I was quite impressed by this book, and the thoroughness of the research. It made me stop reading in order to have a good think more than once, and presented facts and opinions in such a way that it shot down some arguments without seeming insulting or derisive, which must have taken a lot of effort in some case. It gives respectful treatment of both sides of the debate, explores the options carefully, and offers ways that the two theories might live side-by-side and complement each other rather than competing with each other.

I definitely recommend this book for those who are Christian and having difficulty reconciling science with what the bible and the church say. Or even for those who are just interested in seeing both sides of the debate without having people scream in your face about which side is “clearly” right and which is “clearly” wrong.

(This book was a complimentary copy from Thomas Nelson publishing.)

Good Book, by David Plotz

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Like many Jews and Christians, David Plotz long assumed he knew what was in the Bible. He read parts of it as a child in Hebrew school, then at-tended a Christian high school where he studied the Old and New Testaments. Many of the highlights stuck with him—Adam and Eve, Cain versus Abel, Jacob versus Esau, Jonah versus whale, forty days and nights, ten plagues and commandments, twelve tribes and apostles, Red Sea walked under, Galilee walked on, bush into fire, rock into water, water into wine. And, of course, he absorbed from all around him other bits of the Bible—from stories he heard in churches and synagogues, in movies and on television, from his parents and teachers. But it wasn’t until he picked up a Bible at a cousin’s bat mitzvah—and became engrossed and horrified by a lesser-known story in Genesis—that he couldn’t put it down.

At a time when wars are fought over scriptural interpretation, when the influence of religion on American politics has never been greater, when many Americans still believe in the Bible’s literal truth, it has never been more important to get to know the Bible. Good Book is what happens when a regular guy—an average Job—actually reads the book on which his religion, his culture, and his world are based. Along the way, he grapples with the most profound theological questions: How many commandments do we actually need? Does God prefer obedience or good deeds? And the most unexpected ones: Why are so many women in the Bible prostitutes? Why does God love bald men so much? Is Samson really that stupid?

Good Book is an irreverent, enthralling journey through the world’s most important work of literature.

Thoughts: David Plotz started his bible-reading project when he came to the conclusion one day that he really didn’t know much about what was in it. He knew the stories that nearly all of us had been taught, but really only the watered-down child-friendly versions. Most of the grit and grime and blood and sex of the bible was unknown to him, as it’s unknown to most people.

So he sets out to read the entirety of the Old Testament, and to record his commentary on it. In doing so, not only did he discover some interesting stories and fascinating pieces of trivia, but he also got to connect with his heritage and culture.

Even though sections of commentary that I would normally find boring, Plotz livens up the book with a wonderful sense of humour with good timing, being sarcastic one moment and witty the next. He’s also not afraid of letting the reader know when the stories he’s reading fills him with a sense of almost childlike wonder, and tries to recount for us exactly why. He lets us share his little thoughts, his revelations, and even when I disagreed with his conclusions, I could appreciate how and why he arrived at them.

Plotz’s journey was a very personal one, which is why I disagree with him in regard to his surprise that high school students are not required to read the bible the way they are required to read Shakespeare. For one thing, most high school students don’t read every play of Shakespeare’s, so to do the equivalent study to the bible would essentially be picking the stories that are best known and just telling them again.

But while the bible helped a great deal to shape western society as we know it today, the fact that it’s a religious book means it doesn’t actually have a place in some lives. That attitude reminds me much of something my father said once, that he thinks every religion should incorporate the bible into its teachings. It has good morals, after all.

it also has a religious history that may not be applicable for some, and a doctrine of conversion that frankly shouldn’t be applied to secular schools. The Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita have good lessons in them too, but people don’t tend to study those in high school or insist that Christianity and Judaism incorporate them into their religious teachings.

Aside from that little nitpick of a single sentence, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and recommend it to anybody who’s interested in the bible but doesn’t feel that they can sit down and slog their way through it. Good Book gives you the meat of the stories and meanings behind them without throwing in all the begats and dietary laws.

Ellie, by Mary Christner Borntrager

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Publication date – April 1988

Summary: A fascinating look at the world of the Amish, as seen through the eyes of a young Amish girl growing to adulthood. Through Ellie’s experiences, including a runaway buggy and a death in the family, readers get a real-life picture of the Amish lifestyle. The first book in the “Ellie’s People” series.

Thoughts: This isn’t the first time I’ve read this book, but my fascination with the Amish means I occasionally read such books over again, just for fun.

This isn’t a very challenging book even by YA standards, but I have to commend it for giving a curious people an insider’s view on what it is to be Amish. Not many books bother with that, instead looking upon the Amish from the view of an outsider only.

That being said, though, the book does have a few problems. Aside from various typos that slipped into the final publication (“forbidden fruity”), the story doesn’t have much in the way of pacing. The main character, Ellie, goes from being six to sixteen to somewhere in her twenties, and half the time there’s absolutely no indication that she’s changed in age until a character mentions it in thought. This means that sometimes I’m not sure whether Ellie is a child or going through puberty sometimes, and believe me the style of writing doesn’t make it easy to tell just from character viewpoint alone.

Though I must say, it is better handled overall than some of the later books in the series. The first book of the author’s that I read was Sarah, and while it too suffered from problems of pacing and timeline, it also suffered from an overabundance of pointless Pennsylvania Deutsch words. Ellie has a smattering of them and they’re explained decently, but in Sarah, the author seems compelled to remind us about every ten pages or so that maut means “hired girl.” Really, Mrs. Borntrager, we all had it figured out after the first few chapters.

The non-Amish are not protrayed in a very good light, either. We see Ellie’s childhood friend Missy all grown up near the end of the book, the person Ellie used to admire very much for her conveniences and pretty clothes and all that. Missy has two children of her own whom she treats rather shabbily, the kids themselves seem like brats, Missy smokes, and her husband is absent because he’s in the army. Missy becomes the epitome of everything that isn’t Amish, and it’s clear from the portrayal which person, and thus lifestyle, the reader is supposed to think of as the better one.

Still, in spite of its problems, this book was an interesting read, seeing a young and willful Amish girl grow up and fall in love and get married, finally content in her lifestyle despite the temptations of the outside world. Combined with Sarah (the only two books in the series I’ve read, though I’d love to read the others if I can ever find them), I think this series reveals more about the life and worldviews of the author than anything else, and that can be as fascinating as the book itself.