Book Review: Vigil by Russell Newquist

If pious, globe-trotting, gun-wielding demon-hunters aren’t your thing, this review won’t mean anything to you. But if the are, I think you’re going to enjoy Vigil.

Vigil by Russell Newquist continues the tale he began in War Demonsalthough is more of a side story than a direct sequel. Michael Alexander, the hero of the previous book, is nowhere to be found. Instead Vigil features Peter Bishop, the bearer of the sword of St. Michael, and his demon-hunting friends in pursuit of the dragon that terrorized Athens, Georgia in War Demons. This dragon absconded with Peter’s girlfriend Faith. Or at least the girl Peter wouldn’t mind being his girlfriend.

Tracking the dragon to a small village France, Peter and his friends discover that the church in town covers dark, ancient secrets. And I don’t mean the kind of dirty laundry that tends to pile up in small towns. I mean actual, literal dark and ancient secrets that threaten more than just the down. While Faith tries to keep her head in the dragon’s layer, Peter and his comrades fight a desperate battle while under siege in the church during the traditional Catholic Easter vigil. Unfortunately, the church’s old priest is not quite as Godly as one would hope, and threatens to sabotage the whole operation . . .

Author Russell Newquist
Russell Newquist

Yes, as in War Demons, Christianity plays a central part in Vigil‘s story. And like in that book, as well as the other Tales of Peter Bishop short stories, Russell is able to pull this off because the religious elements are a part of the story, and the book is not preachy.

And you know what? I see what Russell is trying to do here, or at least I think I do. And I approve: Continue reading “Book Review: Vigil by Russell Newquist”

I Am Bad At Praying

Praying woman

Meditation, “mindfulness,” solitude . . . whatever you want to call it it’s good to be alone sometimes. For me, I like to pray.

Except, and here’s the thing: I’m pretty bad at it.

I don’t mean the actual act of prayer. I mean at being able to focus.

You know how it is trying to shut your mind off? Even in pre-Internet days, human beings had a lot going on in our heads. Now, with all of the gadgets and distractions literally rewiring our brains, it’s impossible, isn’t it?

It sure feels that way to me.

God doesn’t lay out strict methods of prayer that have to be followed or else. That’s not how He works. In fact, Jesus Christ himself tells his disciples that when they pray, to pray what is now known as The Lord’s Prayer.

the-lords-prayer_1280x1024-black

Seems simple enough, right?

Not so much. You see, prayer isn’t about asking God for stuff and hoping you hit the celestial lottery. There is no magic combination of words that will make Him favor you. No, you need focus, a clear mind, and a desire to listen to what you’re supposed to be doing.

There is no magic length, no special formula, no words that need to be repeated in the exact same way at the exact same time ad nauseum, no proper posture or orientation. And it’s better to do some praying, even abbreviated, than none. But I wish I had the patience of the great ascetics of history.

Meteora monastery in central Greece.

No matter who you are or what you believe, the world can be a nasty, brutal, and tiring place. Time spent alone with self is different than time spent in the blue glow of an electronic device. Time spent communicating with the Divine and just listening is truly sacred.

Because listening is hard.

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Book Reviews: Who’s Afraid of the Dark? and Knight of the Changeling by Russell Newquist

I’ve got a two-fer of tales for you today from Mr. Russell Newquist, he of Silver Empire publishing, and an author in his own right. If you recall, I recently reviewed his fun, action-packed debut novel War Demons.

War Demons featured a supporting character named Peter Bishop, friend of that novel’s main character Michael Alexander. Well, it turns out that Peter is heir to the sword of St. Michael and a pretty important player in the struggle to protect Earth from the demonic forces of evil.

Who’s Afraid of the Dark?and Knight of the Changelingare two short stories in Russell’s saga, and take place after the Prodigal Son series, of which War Demons is the first book. Yet these two stories were published first.

Don’t worry, it works. Continue reading “Book Reviews: Who’s Afraid of the Dark? and Knight of the Changeling by Russell Newquist”

The Devil and Ideology

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If I seem obsessed with evil lately, it’s only because it’s an important idea to understand. Evil takes many forms, and one of the most prevalent being ideology.

You see, the devil–or whatever you want to call that malevolent part of humanity–isn’t a guy with horns and a pointy tail living in a place full of fire. And the devil doesn’t do stuff to you or force you to do stuff. It’s worse.

The devil makes you choose, of your own free will, to do stuff that’s bad while thinking it’s really, really good.

Tempter . . . seducer . . . dare I say it, the champion of convenience.

This is how we get a world where, for example, babies are killed in the womb in the name of “liberation,” and we all just go, “Meh.”

The worst part of this, the most devilish of all, is that, since no one likes to change their minds, ever, any such behavior that leads to bad results is nearly impossible to reverse.

I’m sure you can see the connection between devilishness and ideology now.

Ideology, and we’re talking political ideologies here, box you into a way of thinking that’s tough to break out of, no matter how consistently bad the outcomes are. It’s the old saying about how when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail come to life.

Ideologies can be useful. They provide a framework for seeing the world, for conceptualizing causes and effects, and for proposing solutions.

In a way, though, they are like science, or at least what science should be: constantly tested, constantly revised, and in danger of being falsified. In short, they should be flexible in light of new information and evidence.

Instead, ideologies become rigid, entrenched, and oddly antifragile. Indeed, it seems that the more holes you poke in a given ideology, or the more flaws you point out, the stronger its adherents devotion. They become highly dogmatic and, dare I say it, cult-like.

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“But Alex, aren’t you a Christian? Isn’t religion just another ideology?”

In short, no. Christianity is (1) a highly individualistic religion, (2) not concerned with political structures, (3) is reliant on a person’s own actions and faith for salvation, and (4) doens’t require forcing every other person on Earth to live the exact same way you do. Other religions might be more akin to an ideology–I can think of one, in particular, that just can’t seem to keep itself out of the news–but I leave further discussion to the experts.

Back to the secular, and smellier, realms of law and politics. Whether you’re a hardcore free-marketeer or a Marxist, your answer to everything is more of the same. The market-worshiper is just as apt to lament “We’ve never had really free markets!” as the communist is to whine “We’ve never had real communism!” And in both cases, there is a strange belief in the magic power of laws, as though laws are powerful spells that can compel proper behavior if only we use the right combination of words!

More, more, more. Hammer, hammer, hammer. Continue reading “The Devil and Ideology”

Inhumanity Is All The Rage These Days

The logo from the Marvel comics The Inhumans

What is it about tragedy that brings out the worst in people?

I know what you’re thinking: Tragedies can also bring out the best. We have seen how America has banded together in the wake of the terrible devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose.

But then, there’s the recent Las Vegas shooting.

I’m not going to go into the gory details here, but suffice it to say an incredibly evil man shot a bunch of people at a music festival, killing close to 60 and wounding hundreds of others before turning the gun on himself.

Once again, the reaction to this act of inhumanity is nearly as inhuman as the act itself.

No, you see, it wasn’t the killer who bears responsibility. It’s the NRA. It’s NRA members. It’s the Republican Party of the United States of America. It’s any lawmaker who didn’t vote to enact laws (that wouldn’t have made a difference anyway).  It’s anyone who supports the Second Amendment. It’s anybody who likes country music. It’s anybody who voted for Donald Trump. It’s Donald Trump himself (for God’s sake, the man is living rent-free in 60,000,000 people’s heads. Why does anybody let a politician control their thoughts and emotions?!).

The impulse to immediately start casting blame at people who had nothing to do with an act of violence instead of blaming the actual perpetrator is terrifyingly inhuman and evil. 

It’s sick and it’s wrong and it explains so much of what is going on in this country.

This attitude explains why there seems to be no hope of communication, no hope of reconciliation. One group of people wants the other to actually die.

How do you overcome this? How do you get over hatred, which seems to be one of the easiest, most enjoyable emotion to succumb to?

For starters, you have to imagine the other person as a human being with a soul and inherent worth. This might take a hell of a lot of imagination, but it can be done. And once it’s done, you start to extrapolate what would happen if this person were to die:

  • Do they have wife? Children? A family?.
  • Do other people enjoy spending time with them? Are other people relying on them?
  • How would other people’s lives be impacted if this person were to die?
  • What about the important people in your life? How would they be affected if you died?
  • How would you feel if someone that you cared for were murdered merely for their beliefs or opinions?

Really, it’s no different than the old cliche of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. These are really basic, human questions to act. And yet humanity seems in such short supply. Continue reading “Inhumanity Is All The Rage These Days”

Eight Insights About God, Man, and Creation from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

Moses Maimonides - The Guide for the Perplexed cover

How does one “review” a dense, millennia-old treatise on Jewish philosophy and religion?

One doesn’t. But what one can do is share insights and particularly powerful ideas and concepts with another.

In The Guide for the Perplexed, written around 1190 in Moor-occupied Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides aka Rambam) writes to his student Rabbi Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta, to remove some of his confusions regarding certain aspects of faith and philosophy.

The Guide touches on many, many topics including:

  • The multiple meanings of Hebrew words and how to properly interpret the Torah (aka the first five books of the Old Testament)
  • Aristotelian philosophy: what Aristotle got right and wrong
  • Problems Maimonides sees with certain aspects of Islamic theology
  • The nature of God and proof of His existence
  • The nature of evil, and why it exists
  • Divine Providence
  • The nature of angels, prophecy (with a detailed discussion of Ezekiel) and dreams
  • Astronomy (as understood at the time) and the “spheres”
  • The purpose of God’s commandments

And yet instead of seeming disjointed, the Guide has as a constant thread two main themes:

  1. Discerning who God is and what He wants
  2. Achieving perfection, as much as possible, by coming to true knowledge of God

It’s heavy stuff, but it makes you appreciate the magic of the written word, and how one man’s letters nearly one thousand years ago still speak to us today, explaining mysteries and, as the title says, removing perplexities . . . or at least easing them and providing a way forward for further studies and thought.

Moses Maimonides statue Cordoba, Spain

Regular readers of Amatopia know that I am a Christian and don’t shy about writing on religious topics, so if that isn’t your bag, you have been warned. But even though Maimonides was Jewish, there is much overlap between Judaism and Christianity–same God, same creation stories, same traditions, similar rites (or at least the meaning behind them) and much of the same general theology and philosophy about God and man.

Obviously, Christians accept Christ as the promised Messiah and Son of God described in Jewish prophecy and Jews regard Him as a prophet and religious leader, but not Divine.

But the point remains: Christians can get a lot out of The Guide for the Perplexed. And even if you are not Christian, Jewish, or religious at all, Maimonides is a powerful thinker you will get a lot out of reading. Here are eight of my favorite takeaways from The Guide for the Perplexed:

Continue reading “Eight Insights About God, Man, and Creation from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

Must We Politics?

Must politics ruin everything?

Must politics infect even our art?

Must blog posts have bad grammar?

These thoughts came to me recently (well, maybe not the grammar one) as I witnessed author Jon Del Arroz on Twitter going back-and-forth with other authors about the seeming impossibility of keeping politics out of fiction. Jon, clearly, thinks that it is possible to write politics-free fiction, and that it is, in fact, easy to do. This is part of the impetus behind the Pulp Revolution, after all:

Just don’t write politics into it.

 

Author Jon Del Arroz
Jon Del Arroz

On the other side is the view that it’s impossible because political viewpoints form who the author is, and that such a fundamental part of the writer–or artist in general–is always going to seep through:

Politics are a part of the author, and every work is a piece of the author’s soul.

I have a problem with this second position, for four main reasons:

  1. Hypocrisy on the part of those who make this argument. These are the same people who try to tell us that, in our politicians, character doesn’t matter and that personal beliefs, whether philosophy or faith, need to be kept out of politics. Yet it’s “impossible” to separate personal values and beliefs from something with arguably far fewer consequences like art? Do we pick and choose based on some arbitrary metric? How does this even make sense?
  2. The conflation of contemporary politics with universal themes about humanity. Much of what passes as contemporary political philosophy is meaningless gibberish. Deconstruction, critical theory, tax policy, post-modernism, and the reduction of every single facet of human interaction into the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy has as much to do with the human experience and the intellectual life as your bowel movement has to do with high art (unless you’re a Dadaist, I guess, then have at it).
  3. It demonstrates a lack of skill. This one is short but sweet: a good writer can write from the perspective of anyone, and make the reader believe it…without the character sounding like a mouthpiece for the author.
  4. The conflation of politics with values. This is the big one. Values might determine what political affiliation–if any–you gravitate towards. But when we talk “values,” we usually aren’t talking “I’m a Republican!” or “I’m a Democrat!” Or at least we shouldn’t be.

I am a firm believer that one can enjoy art despite its creator’s politics. Don’t like Nazis? No one does! But just because Richard Wagner was Hitler’s favorite doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Nibelungenlied.

What’s that, you say? You’re not a Che-worshipping, Lenin-loving murderous Marxist? Well guess what: You can still listen to–and enjoy!–Rage Against the Machine (though those dudes will still hate you).

You get the idea.

But far more interesting is the “power lifts as values” issue. Let’s explore this a bit further. Continue reading “Must We Politics?”