Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Reading: Skellig by David Almond

Nick Hornby on an Art and Literature podcast made a speech titled Why All Fiction Should Be Young Adult Fiction.  It was a very fascinating speech and it introduced me to the novel I am about to review - Skellig by David Almond.  Hornby claimed that Skellig is the best book in children's literature today and I can definitely see the appeal the book has not only to adults and writers like Hornby but to children as well.

“‘See how school shutters you,’ she said.  ‘I’m drawing, painting, reading, looking.  I’m feeling the sun and the air on my skin.  I’m listening to the blackbird’s song.  I’m opening my mind.  Ha!  School!’” 
Skellig is about a young boy named Michael who has just moved to a new home.  His baby sister has just been born but is premature and very ill, leaving Michael in a state of extreme confusion and isolation.  A shed sits in the back yard near the garden and Michael goes inside despite his parents warnings that the foundation is unstable when he comes across a man who is soon called Skellig.  The only person Michael shares this information with is his neighbor Mina.  Together, Michael and Mina help Skellig and in the process they get to know him while all the while getting to know each other and themselves.

“‘It’s for confident readers,’ I said. ‘It’s to do with reading age.’  ‘And what if other readers want to read it? … And where would Williams Blake fit in?’ said Mina.  ‘ “Tyger!  Tyer! Burning bright/In the forests of the night.”  Is that for the best readers or the worst readers?  Does that need a good reading age?’  I stared back at her.  I didn’t know what to say.  I wanted to get back over the wall and go home again.  ‘And if it was for the worst readers would the best readers not bother with it because it would be too stupid for them?’ she said.”
I can definitely see why this book is considered the best of the best of children's literature.  The issues it tackles are very large and adult and yet Almond crafts the story in a very child-like way and forces the reader to question life and the things that are involved in it.  Almond's writing is very simplistic which very much mirrors Michael's mindset and therefore makes the story that much more complicated because we see Michael struggling to find answers that his young mind just can't grasp just yet.  Can't we all relate to that struggle in some way.

“‘Sometimes we just have to accept there are things we can’t know.  Why is your sister ill?  Why did my father die?’  She held my hand.  ‘Sometimes we think we should be able to know everything.  But we can’t.  We have to allow ourselves to see what there is to see, and we have to imagine.’” 
Another thing I liked about this book was what it said about education and the supernatural.  I will never give into what some say - that children's literature is not worth an adult's time.  On the contrary, Almond seems to be writing a narrative that outright goes against the public school system and is speaking out against it through the retelling of Michael and Mina's story with Skellig.
The story seems to speak to the reader about the nature of belief and why we believe in certain things.  Almond is calling the reader back to innocence - to see the angelic wings on the ugly supposed demons in our lives.  He is calling back the readers inner child.
Overall, this was an excellent read.  While I really enjoyed it, I can't say it is the outright best children's literature book I have ever read.  I've read plenty of children's books that say just as much about life as Skellig does, just different subject matter.  I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wasted Wednesday: The Value of Life

At the end of July, Relevant Magazine posted a really interesting blog post titled Can You Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty? - Examining the tension between defending life and condoning death.  I haven't actually read the post yet because I wanted to figure out my own opinions and thoughts and talk about them here on The Reader without watering everything down by repeating the blog's message with different wording.
First off, let me state my stance on both of the subjects.  Essentially, I consider myself pro-life when it comes to my own body and I feel very strongly about this statement.  I believe that every single child has a right to life and that right should not be taken away no matter what.  That being said, I also consider myself pro-choice when it comes to other women because ultimately it is not my decision whether someone wants to have an abortion or not.  It is the mother's choice.  This may seem to be a weird view coming from a Christian but I firmly believe that God loves each and every one of us for who we are right now at this very moment and will love us during every moment of our lives.  While I believe life occurs right after conception and that every single living soul has the right to life, that is not something I struggle with.  I can not make this decision for anyone.  It is extremely personal.
The death penalty is something I only recently began to grasp my opinions on.  For a while, I believed in it because I believed that people should be killed for doing bad things.  But now that I am older and have read many books and have come in contact with many varieties of people, I think the real question we need to ask is - what is so bad about death?  Our culture constantly portrays death as this horrible thing and they paint it in such a black and white light but death is much more complicated than we have been taught.  Is death really the worst punishment?  No - I don't believe so.  Do two wrongs make a right?  No - not at all.  I now believe that, as I mentioned in my review of Torn by Justin Lee, that sin is sin.  I believe that murder holds the same amount of weight as a child purposefully stealing from a candy store.  Sin is sin.  Do we have a right to kill?  No.  Therefore, I do not agree in the death penalty.  What scares me most about America sometimes is that we seem to like celebrating the death of those we hate or are afraid of.  The night Osama bin Laden was killed, my entire college campus erupted in loud applause and riots throughout the quad and on campus began.  Sure, I was happy too that the threat this man posed was gone but I began to wonder - is it really gone just because this man is dead?  Not at all.  And then I wondered how we could celebrate taking a human life.  Thinking about this really started putting things into perspective for me.
Donald Miller points out in his brilliant novel Blue Like Jazz that America is run by a system of checks and balances.  As a Christian, this system just doesn't work.  Christianity sits on the idea that our being is reflected in Jesus Christ.  God is love and in Him we are forgiven.  He removed all of our sin when He died on the cross.  Whatever I have done or will do, He has forgiven me as long as I put my identity in Him.  America, and organized religion for that matter, believes that when someone does something wrong they should be punished.  The bigger the crime, the bigger the punishment.
To be pro-life means that you believe in new life.  It means that we should save the ones who don't have a voice and deserve a chance in this world.  To be pro-death penalty means that life should be taken away because of wrong doings.  To be both of these things is just downright hypocritical in my opinion.  To say you believe in life in some cases but not in others is an oxymoron.  Either you believe in life or you don't.  Now let me be clear - I'm not saying that those who are pro-choice don't believe in life.  Many pro-choice people believe in saving a woman's life and giving her the right to choose.  But this stance is about saving a person who is already alive.  What connects those who are pro-life and those who are pro-death penalty is that they are both speaking about a life entering this world and a life leaving this world.  It isn't about choice or about health risks.  It is purely about life.
This idea of life can even tie into the gun control discussion that has been widely talked about over the past several months.  The question seems not to be about how to restrict guns but how to teach children the sanctity of life.  Guns don't kill people, people kill people.  And with that in mind - if a pro-life person claims that we do not have a say in an unborn humans life, who is to say that we have a say in the lives of those who are already alive? 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reading: Torn by Justin Lee

I once read a blog written by the musician Michael Gungor titled God and Country.  In the blog, Gungor recalls overhearing a conversation between two people who were arguing about abortion...

"They were not really listening to the other person, but just spouting off the clich├ęd answers of their particular parties.  (Pro-choice) is horrified at this monstrous (pro-life) because (pro-choice) assumes (pro-life) wants to take rights away from women. At the same time, (pro-life) is horrified at (pro-choice), thinking that she wants to kill babies.  In these situations, we stop conversing with human beings and start dealing with principles. Principles aren’t supposed to bend and flex. You’re not supposed to stay “kind of” faithful to your spouse. You’re not supposed to “pretty much” pay your taxes. So, when we get into these divisive discussions, we end up arguing against people and for principles, demonizing the other into a “them” that stand in the way of our principles.  (Anti-gay marriage) is horrified at this monstrous (pro-gay marriage) because (anti-gay marriage) thinks that (pro-gay marriage) is trying to desecrate the sacrament of marriage while (pro-gay marriage) is horrified at the monstrous (anti-gay marriage) who is trying to discriminate against gay people.  As a result, we’re rarely even talking about the same thing. The pro-choice person is talking about the woman’s body, but the pro-life person is talking about the baby’s body. And neither side really wants to talk about the exact thing that the other does. The pro-gay marriage person is talking about the right of an individual to be who he or she is without discrimination and the anti-gay marriage person is talking about the concept and sacrament of marriage." - Michael Gungor
This idea really puts things in perspective for me.  I am the child of a conservative household who was schooled by liberal intellectuals.  I don't say that to offend, I say that to be real with you.  Needless to say, my worldview is challenged quite often when it comes to God's word and the political debates that are going on in our culture today.  I always thought that these sort of debates that Gungor mentions were self explanatory but they are not - they are extremely complex, so complex that it gets to a point where we aren't even arguing over the same thing anymore because of our completely different world views.
There are a lot of topics that I struggled to understand in high school and throughout college that seem to fall under this notion.  One of these topics was gay marriage.  Growing up, my understanding was that gay marriage was a sin and that gay people were weird and gross.  This isn't something my parents taught me per say - I didn't grow up super religious - but it was sort of an unspoken fact in our house that didn't pertain to any of us.  This fact is something I came to learn on the school playground and during seemingly harmless conversations I had with my friends during youth group.  My black and white worldview was soon radically challenged when I entered college and encountered a whole student body that was diverse with straight and gay students embracing their sexuality and proud of it.  It seemed that my view was outdated.  I became friends with a gay woman (who I also roomed with for a semester in college) and to this day I don't know how I could have gone through my freshman year without her.  She was one of the nicest people I met during my first year of college.  We were art majors together.  We shared the same love for music and both enjoyed animation and witty internet humor.  What I found was that she was nicer than most straight people I had met on campus...which made me wonder why God condemned people who were gay.  For the first time, I began to think that what I had been taught all of these years was wrong.  The gospel, according to Christians, is about love.  God created each and every one of us equally and with the same amount of attention.  I had been taught that Jesus loved me and that Jesus loved the little children and that Jesus loved everyone no matter what.  So why exclude gay people?  If God called us to love, why were Christians showing so much hate?
I wasn't confident in my views yet, though.  I wanted to be but I also wanted some reassurance and unfortunately I wasn't finding that anywhere.  Books, blogs, articles, movies, etc., were all one sided arguments.  The creator was either all the way on the left side of the argument or all the way on the right side.  There was no in between.  On top of it all, each creator would insult the other side of the argument which seemed very immature and ignorant.  Their arguments were full of hate.  I began to wonder if anyone had answers and if I was the only one who was wondering these things.  Thankfully, I wasn't.

“What a horrible choice: Would you be a good person, or be an honest person?  Deny what you believe about God, or deny what you know about yourself?  Condemn yourself to a lifetime of faking it, or condemn yourself to an eternity in hell?” - Page 156

I can't exactly remember how I heard about this book Torn by Justin Lee but I somehow found out
my library had it and decided I would check it out even though there were other books I wanted to read instead.  Right away I was hooked with Justin's honest writing style and the fact that I could relate to him wholeheartedly.  I, like Justin in high school, was very much a play by the rules sort of person.  I would get mad at my fellow students for skipping senior skip day because it was wrong in general to skip a day of school.  Yeah...I know, I was a nerd (and I am still am a nerd in many regards) but I don't regret having that mindset.  Now that I am older and have had more experience, I am able to look back and realize that I have learned a lot and come a long way from the girl I used to be.  Back to the book though...Justin's story moved me to tears.  I don't think I've ever cried so hard while reading a book.  His story really struck a chord with me.  Justin, who used to speak out against being gay, realized he himself was gay during high school.  He lived in denial at first but soon told a pastor at his church and came out to his parents after.

“In one action thriller, the hero races across town, dodging roadblocks and breaking laws, all in pursuit of a van he believes is carrying a bomb.  Only after arriving at his destination does he realize in horror that he’s been tricked.  In the film’s shocking conclusion, we learn that the van he was following was clean; the bomb was in his car, and he’s just brought it to the very destination the villains wanted.  A good twist ending, like a good magic trick, depends on misdirection.  While you’re watching one hand, the magician is doing something with the other hand.  While you’re focused on the van, the villains are planting the bomb in the car.  And while so many of us in the church have been focused on the “threat” to our culture posed by homosexuality, we’ve missed the realization that the church in our culture is under attack – not by gays, but by Christians.  We Christians are the sleeper agents.  The bomb is in our car.  We have become the unwitting assassins of people’s faith.  The Christians are killing Christianity.” - Page 135-136

Wanting to seek help, Justin and his parents decided to go to a week long ex-gay conference but Justin quickly realized that the ex-gay program was promoting false information.  They claimed that being gay was a choice and that they could take someone who was gay and help them become straight.  But Justin knew better.  He knew that he had not chosen to be gay and came to the conclusion that no matter what, he was not going to change.  His biggest concern was how he could fit in the Christian community after coming out.  He wanted to be honest with himself and the people around him and he was not planning on abandoning the faith he was raised with and believed in 100%.  There had to be another option in the gray between the black and the white.
“Context matters!  The Catholic Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the earth revolves around the sun.  Their rationale was based around a ‘plain sense’ reading of several passages like Psalm 104:5: ‘[The Lord] set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.’  Today, the poetic imagery is obvious, but at the time, Galileo’s interpretation of such passages as metaphors was seen as a weaselly way of trying to avoid the plain sense of Scripture.  Similar arguments were made about slavery, hair length, and women’s head coverings.  In each case, the church ultimately realized that the passages were relevant to a specific context or culture and did not apply in the same way to us today.  Couldn’t the same be true of same-sex relationships?” - Page 191-192
This book is a complex narrative; part memoir, part spiritual guidance, and part academic.  Justin takes an entirely fresh approach to the gays vs. Christians debate and I think it is one we have all been waiting for because he is able to come from both sides of the spectrum.  Instead of blindly accepting what the world and the church told him, Justin instead went and interacted and did research on his own, bringing unique conclusions to the table that shake things up in a good way - much like Jesus does and calls us to do.  While the book is first and foremost about the gays vs. Christians debate, it also speaks about faith in general and what it means to be a Christian and why it is important to not accept the propaganda people offer us every single day. 
This book will definitely be one of the best I have read in 2013.  While it has confirmed many of the beliefs I have come to on my own terms these past few years, it also taught me a lot of new things and revealed a lot of truths to me that I needed to hear.  I have slowly come to the conclusion that sin is sin no matter what - so that stealing a loaf of bread and murder are both sin and there is no weight to either of them.  What has come to anger me though is that gay relationships are the same as straight relationships essentially - they center around love for one another.  In fact, studies are showing that the divorce rates are extremely high in straight relationships while same sex relationships are remaining strong.  The church rejects gay people along with murders, drunks, porn addicts, etc., yet somehow we have murders, drunks, and porn addicts being allowed into the church who are legitimately doing wrong while gay couples are doing what Jesus preaches - loving one another.  Far too often I see the church hating those who are different while gay people accept one another for who they are despite their differences in opinion.  Something is servery wrong with this picture and Justin Lee has realized this as well.
I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.  Don't hesitate.  Read it as soon as possible.  I feel like this should be a required text that sits in every church pew next to Bibles and church hymnals.  It actually looks at the gospel in its whole form instead of defacing it and using it to condone self-righteousness and promote fake Christianity.  It is a book that has been long awaited and I believe we are all blessed to be living at this point of history when so much is changing and growing and falling apart because God is shining through and revealing that He is not a judgmental, kill joy, uptight God but a loving God who does not only exist in a building on Sunday mornings but in every spade of grass we step on and every horrific tragedy that strikes us and those around us and every relationship we encounter.