Inspirational / Religious


Christmas is almost right around the corner.  With the rush beginning to build, I felt it was good to touch base with Christmas’ origins — the story behind our gilt laden trees, the frenetic shopping, carols, and festively wrapped presents.  Should the Season start to get overwhelming, the story will be with me to sustain my perspective of joy and thanksgiving.

Author :  Angela Hunt

Publication Date :  October 25, 2006

Publisher :   Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

ISBN-10: 1414314620

ISBN-13: 978-1414314624

No. of pages:  224

The Story :

A young virgin, Mary, betrothed according to Jewish customs to a carpenter, Joseph, is blessed by the appearance of Angel Gabriel who tells her some extraordinary news.  She is chosen to bear the Messiah, the Son of God who shall be conceived by the Holy Ghost.  Mary accepts God’s will without question.  But, now she is faced with a dilemma: how to convince  Joseph and her family of this divine conception?

With understandable doubts and disappointment threatening to break his betrothal, Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him of God’s will for Mary.  Joseph embraces this revelation and takes her to wife unconditionally.  Despite the sardonic regard and the barely concealed distaste of the Jewish community for what it considers a blatant disregard of morals,  Joseph and Mary carve a life for themselves with a great and also anxious anticipation of the Miracle soon to be born to them.

As it was the time of Caesar Augustus, a Roman edict for a census was passed which forced everyone to travel to their place of birth.  Joseph had  no choice but to take Mary, who was close to her time, on a long, perilous journey to Bethlehem.

The couple arrived in Bethlehem at nightfall to find no accomodations available.   Because of the edict, every home and inn in Bethlehem were full to the rafters of travelers.   By this time, Mary was going into labor and Joseph had to find a place.  They were directed to the only space available, a holding pen for animals.  So, the couple settled there for the the Birth of the Messiah.  And the rest is Biblical history…

The Review :

Angela Hunt treats us to a more vibrant retelling of the otherwise bland Biblical rendition of the Birth of Christ.  This is a novelization of the movie of the same title by Mike Rich.

Hunt tries to recreate the Jewish lifestyle under Roman rule in the first century.  We read about the helplessness of Jews under Roman law and under their own  corrupt government, the stringent social rules governing male and female roles and behavior, the perils of travel in ancient times, and the wonderment of spiritual appearances that had to do perhaps with people’s total God-centric lives then (a life alien to most modern lifestyles).

The focus of this book is Mary and Joseph (whose contribution is often overlooked), as a couple who had to face social distancing from their community which considered an unmarried woman’s pregnancy as taboo, the gravity of which was perhaps akin to adultery.  The fact that Joseph was willing to wed Mary despite her condition only made them marginally socially tolerable to their Jewish community.

It is refreshing to know that a usually Biblically downplayed or  often ignored person such as Joseph is wonderfully characterized and given importance here.  He is depicted as a staunch, reliable, faithful, strong and patient man whose love for Mary is quite touching.  Hunt’s portrayal of Joseph will endear him to readers who will come to be more aware of the sacrifices this saint had to undergo as Jesus’ stepfather.

Hunt’s Mary is not the doormat she may be perceived to be.  Although always pure and good, she is courageous and has a stubborn streak in this book that serves her well when she needs to be firm about going away to visit her cousin Elizabeth or going through the rough journey to Bethlehem.  She is quiet and docile but  definitely not spineless, no siree!

Hunt’s writing style is simple, actually on the average, mundane level which however, makes for very fast, easy reading.  There isn’t any flair to her style but the book is still well-written and enjoyable.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Read the book, why not?  For Christians, it  will give you a better appreciation of the Christmas celebration. Although the personalities of the characters are enhanced, they all still remain true to their core characterizations in the Bible.

If you’re a non-Christian, this story will be another interesting one to add to your knowledge should you have a curiosity on the beginnings of  interesting Christmas symbols and traditions  like gift-giving, the star on the tree, the Christmas tree itself (which I think represents the triangular rays of the Star of Bethlehem shining down on Christ’s birthplace–hence the ubiquitous decorative star topper), etc.   You may or may not believe in the story; nonetheless, it is still a good story about great things starting from humble beginnings.

In A Nutshell :

The Nativity Story by Angela Hunt adds a new and delightful dimension to the famous Biblical First Christmas.  It does pique an interest in the movie as well.  But most importantly, this book will bring the essence of Christmas closer to our hearts.

As the author has succeeded in accomplishing this purpose, despite an ordinary, simplistic style, I give :

My Mark  :  Outstanding!

Advertisements

After witches and black magic,  I wanted to lean towards the other end of the pole for something inspirational and good.  The Shack is my second read for my Fall Into Reading 2009 challenge.

Author :  William P. Young

Date of Publication :  July 1, 2007 (1st edition — paperback)

Publisher :  Windblown Media

ISBN-10: 0964729237

ISBN-13: 978-0964729230

No. of pages :  256

The Story:

Mackenzie Phillips is an average family man whose Christian faith is perhaps, like all the rest — seemingly steadfast,  until tragedy of immense proportions strikes.  Mack takes his kids, one day, on a camping trip where this life-changing event takes place.  Missy, his six-year old daughter is kidnapped and the worst is presumed.  A massive manhunt begins.  Soon evidence of Missy’s brutal murder is found through her bloody red dress on the floor of an old, ramshackle shack in the middle of the woods.  Not a trace else can be found, neither her body nor any DNA imprints from her abductor.

After four years, Mack still has no closure.  As he struggles with relationships within a family still struggling to cope in the aftermath, so does he wrestle with his relationship with God.  One day, Mack receives a note inviting him to go up to the shack.  The note is signed, “God”.

Angry, intrigued and prepared for the worst, Mack makes a trip up to the shack.  To his surprise, he does meet God…Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.   But They are not who Mack expects.

My Review :

This is a kind of book that strikes the core of anyone who has ever been a parent. For what is a parent’s greatest fear but that of losing his beloved child? And how does one cope with a loss this staggering; more emphatically how does one come to terms with God, the only One a person is supposed to rely on when all else fails? How can one trust Him who has allowed such a horrible tragedy to happen? How can one even believe He exists?

These are the painful and complicated questions to which The Shack ambitiously tries to grapple. It does so by laying down the the framework of  Christianity, told through a beautiful story of a grieving father coaxed back toward redemption through face-to-face conversations with the Holy Trinity about questions that have plagued many a religion. Why does God allow evil? Why is there evil?  Why me?

This book answers philosophical questions with simplicity, distilling them down to their essences. It aims to cover man’s questions about existence sans religion;  although, it really pushes “Born-Again” Christian philosophies more than anything.

At the onset of Mack’s meeting with God, the author wipes out preconceived notions of God’s physical attributes giving totally different “looks” and personality to Him. God the Father is a big black woman; Jesus is an average looking Middle Eastern guy; the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman. Thus the author signals us that what his God will say are probably stuff that never occurred to you or was never taught in school theology.

The Shack is really a touching book, if you allow it to be.  It is over simplistic ; but God’s lessons,  although delivered so plainly does need some time to absorb. You may have to re-read some conversations and mull over them in order to get the full import of what the author wishes us to realize.

It’s quite easy to understand the popularity of this book.  It is by no means preachy (thank goodness, as I have an aversion to those).   I think the author was careful not to make it so.  He cleverly persuades the reader to look at it his way by creating casual conversations between God and Mack.  This way, he isn’t directly telling the reader what he ought to believe. The book is popular because it is simple, fictionalized into a heart-warming story which can touch Christians of all persuasions— Catholics, Baptists, Adventists, etc.  The author’s objective, I believe, must have been to write a book that would reach a wide audience, and to be sort of a subtle “missionary” piece of work. From this perspective, I’m sure it has achieved what it was meant to do.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Whether to read this or not, I give mixed encouragement.

If you are put off by authors who humanize God, the depiction of God as a colored woman in a colorful “mumu”, baking pies while fielding answers to serious questions may not be your cup of tea.

To read this book, you must drop all prejudices and just try to get into the author’s head — really look at what he is trying to say and you may just discover some really good philosophies. They may not answer everything but what man can, anyway? William P. Young, though, makes a marvelous try.

Some Catholics may find this a bit pushy on the “Born-Again” Christian concepts; but then, most of the lessons here are pretty universal and the reader may be enriched by them:

God : “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”   — p. 185

God :  “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice.  If I were to simply revoke all the choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning.  This world is not a playground  where I keep all my children free from evil.  Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say.  Now it touches everyone that I love, those who follow me and those who don’t.  If I take away the consequences of people’s choices , I destroy the possibility of love.  Love that is forced is no love at all.”  — p. 190

In A Nutshell:

One important criteria I usually keep in mind when reviewing a book is how successful an author has been in accomplishing what he set out to do.   He may have characters I may not like nor identify with but if he was able to do what he aimed to do, (ex. create a character and develop him realistically),  I regard this as a success and factors heavily in my decision toward a good rating.  Why do I say this?

A number of condescending reviews have been written to complain of the naivete  of Young’s concepts, his lop-sided depiction of  God— kind, patient, forgiving, loving… (where is His other side, the side that punishes (ex. The Great Flood),  that is wrathful of  sin (ex. Sodom and Gomorrah)?)

Perhaps, they have missed the point of this book.  The author’s mission for this story is  redemption, about persuading people to turn back towards God and faith. This is what I believe Young set out to do.  Therefore,  to inspire people to do so, he wrote something simple, easy to read, with a topic close to people’s hearts, and with a God who is benevolently reaching out to them.  If this book has touched someone enough for him to discover God again, then Young is a success.  And this book has touched many.

If The Shack has made a mark on you, however small, then it is a good book to get back to from time to time, one deserving of a permanent space on your shelf.

My Mark  :  Outstanding

Author : Mitch Albom
Release Date : September 23, 2003
Publisher : Hyperion; 1 edition
ISBN-10: 0786868716
ISBN-13: 978-0786868711
Pages : 198

“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” – p. 1

For “Eddie Maintenance”, life simply crept up on him. His plans to better himself often got pushed to the backburner when life’s demands frequently took first place. One day, he wakes up to realize that he is too old and too late to start pursuing dreams. Regret over wasted years becomes his guilt as years pass until his accidental death while saving a little girl from a carnival ride gone wrong.

He wakes up in heaven where he meets five people, who have, directly or indirectly, been connected to him in life, at one point or another. Each has one lesson for him that makes him gradually perceive that his seemingly purposeless life had great meaning after all.

What an insightful book for one so short and so easily read. And a comfort as well, for its message is : “No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.” With these two lines, Mitch Albom succinctly expresses what this book is really all about. In essence, every life has a purpose. It is when you have understood why you have lived and know that you have actually lived with purpose, that you get to come to your own paradise.

So, now we understand. No matter what life throws our way, in the end we truly know that everything’s going to be alright after all.

The book reads like a parable and is rife with little thoughts and reflective one-liners. It’s a touching little story that can make you shed a tear or two; but, definitely worth picking up for its optimism and hope.

For this is Albom’s heaven: “Everyone has an idea of heaven as do most religions, and they should all be respected. The version represented here is only a guess, a wish, in some ways, that my uncle [Edward Beitchman]), and others like him — people who felt unimportant here on earth—realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they are loved.” I guess we can make this our own, too.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this book becomes a modern classic.

My Mark : Outstanding

A little aside: I wish authors would really take the time to check on things they write especially if they need to use words foreign to their language. In this instance, a little Filipina girl refers to a soldier as “sundalong”. The correct term should be “sundalo”. I hope the next reprints will take care of this little bit of carelessness.

Some memorable thoughts from the author :

“Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.” – p. 49

“When your time came, it came, and that was that. You might say something smart on your way out, but you might just as easily say something stupid.” – p. 13

“Love, like rain, can nourish from above, drenching couples with a soaking joy. But sometimes, under the angry heat of life, love dries on the surface and must nourish from below, tending to its roots, keeping itself alive.” – p.164

“…the secret of heaven: that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.” – p. 196