Thursday, August 28, 2014

On Twitch and Reminiscing about Nintendo Power

"On Monday, Amazon said it would spend more than $1 billion for Twitch, a website for watching video games. The site, which started three years ago, was never supposed to exist. Today, thousands of players are broadcasting, or streaming, their games on the site at any given moment, with many amassing a loyal audience...Those viewers can translate into revenue: Top streamers can earn money from ads, donations and subscriptions from their followers, who watch videos on the site for almost two hours a day, according to Twitch" (from the New York Times).

Besides spending hours a day in front of screens playing games, kids apparently spend hours in front of screens watching others play games. I first noticed this phenomenon on, which Twitch spun off from, where some of the most popular streams are just someone streaming their video game progress. While many internet users had not heard of Twitch before this week's announcement, "Twitch accounts for nearly 2% of peak U.S. Internet traffic." Ostensibly this helps you get tips and tricks to getting further in the game or just serves as entertainment. There has been some marvel at this, and I've recently read articles of parents (who are about my age) complaining of their kids spending so much time watching video games rather than playing them. My first thought was "Really? That's what kids waste time on these days?"

But was my generation in the 1980s any different?  I used to subscribe to Nintendo Power magazine which showed me screenshots of games I didn't have, previews of upcoming games, and tips or step-by-step guides to beating levels on games I did have.

Mall rats used to hang out at the arcade watching people play Street Fighter or other games they couldn't afford at the moment. My sister had a friend who could beat Mario Brothers pretty easily, and a couple times she called him to come over and show us how he beats the game (there was one level he could only complete if he used his feet instead of his hands on the controller...was bizarre but good entertainment). That's a good hour or two watching someone go all the way through that game. Nintendo Power also had a 900 number hotline you could call for help with specific games where one of their "Game Counselors" would pop in a particular game and play it over the phone to get to the level you were having trouble with; walk you through step-by-step.

So, I guess it's not that unusual and had been in the workings for a while. Seth Godin recently wrote that he had an idea for an early version of Twitch back in 1989, but couldn't find an investor willing to stick with it. Some of the programming courses on Udemy are essentially recorded screenshots of programmers writing code, solving particular problems in order to teach a language. I think that's a decent use of screen time.Just not as popular as video games, I guess.

Monday, August 25, 2014

DIY Pullup Bar

Since we bought a house a few months ago weekends have been about various DIY projects. A neighbor and fellow church member helped me clear out a sturdy wooden wheelchair ramp that was taking up a lot of the garage space, which cleared room for me to convert part of our garage into a gym. The disadvantage had been that there was no mounted pull-up bar in the garage (I mounted a Perfect Pull-Up bar inside the house).

I used the supplies and instructions from this website to construct the pull-up bar you see below, made from plumbing supplies you can get at Lowes and a 2x6 left over from the wheelchair ramp. This version allows you to grip the bar in multiple ways (there are two other hand grips that will also go into the base of this one, but I've left them off for now).

I recommend his set up, but I found getting all of the components to be rather expensive relative to the basic pull-up bar also found on that website. The 3/4" iron crosses had to be special ordered as Lowes, Home Depot, and no local plumbing supply place carried that size. I later added tennis racket grip tape to make it easier on the hands; take my advice and wear rubber-palmed gloves while assembling the bar.

The biggest issue I had, however, were the lack of studs going the direction I needed. I have studs going horizontally across my garage which gave me only about 1.5" to play with. I found it quite the challenge to mount this thing over my head. I recommend a vise (which I did not have) to help you tighten all the connections in the pipes.The bar ended up being a little higher than is ideal, but this at least makes me less likely to cheat; I have to go all the way up and down.

So far, so good, it's been a sturdy bar to work out on in the mornings. The same weekend I built it, I added this and a bunch of weights to my collection of from a neighbor's garage sale for $25.

Now I need to figure out how to make some weight racks for my disc weights and dumb bells. I also plan to install a holder for hanging resistance bands from the ceiling and my ultimate project is to create something that I can dangle a climbing rope from.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sermon of the Week (8/17-8/23, 2014) From Worry to Worship, Dale Anderson

Dale Anderson is formerly a pastor of Grace Evangelical Free church in Louisville but filled the pulpit at Ironworks Pike Community Church in Georgetown on 8/3 and preached a great sermon overview of Habakkuk 1-3 (mp3).

Habakkuk focuses on God's wrath on Israel. The word "wrath" has become unpopular in churches, as this recent story about the Getty's hymn In Christ Alone makes clear. Habakkuk's response to God's promise of wrath on Israel and surrounding nations is to trust God, worship, and find joy.

Habakkuk 3:16-19

"I hear, and my body trembles;
    my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
    my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
    to come upon people who invade us

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nine years of marriage

Yesterday Joni and I celebrated our ninth anniversary. "Four of the best years of our lives," as the old joke goes. We ate lunch (on my parents, thanks) at Sage Garden Cafe in Frankfort, which is one of the best restaurants in all of Central KY. That was a good time.

I'm thankful for Joni for many reasons, but most recently for how supportive she has been of my endeavors. When I come home from yard sales or Big Lots with exciting finds, she indulges me. When I wanted to convert half the garage into my workout area, she obliged and even helped me complete a major physically-taxing project there last weekend. Every week she makes homemade protein fiber bars that get me through morning workouts and late afternoons at work. She sets up the coffee maker the night before so I am motivated to get up and at it. She listens to my concerns and generally hears me out. I have posted several books on this blog which have been helpful to us in communicating, we try go go through a couple together every year, although we are imperfect at executing all we intend. She agreed to come along when I wanted to teach preschoolers at church. She handles the financial record-keeping and I'm able to trust her in finding the best deals on things.

A lot I could say. I'm thankful for my bride of nine years. Here's to you, babe!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review (#78 of 2014) The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
How important to the health of an organization is it to have the freedom and wherewithal to fire people who are not living up to the organization's standards? It is vitally important, and this book is an excellent case study.

Ricks' Fiasco, on the 2003 Iraq war, basically defined that war for me when I read it in 2005. This book, in turn, has changed my view of several other wars. You cannot read Ricks' books and not be skeptical of the plaudits for the U.S. military's competence and professionalism. We go to war with the army we have, and that is why we end up in protracted conflicts.

Part I of the book looks at World War II, particularly at George Marshall's role in shaping the military. The "Marshall Rule" is held up as the gold standard. Marshall wanted vigorous young generals who could be team players internationally, who erred on the side of aggression, and did not hesitate to relieve commanders at lower levels who were not up to the job. Marshall also stood up to FDR on occasion--he pushed back.

Marshall got along well with Eisenhower, who held many of his views. It was not unusual for division commanders to relieve incompetent or ineffective battalion commanders in WWII, but Ricks tells many stories where failures to do so resulted in unnecessary losses. As Ricks writes elsewhere,
"Forget about Saving Private Ryan, with its fantasy of a handful of American soldiers blocking superior German forces in improvised street fighting. The real deal was that the Army General Eisenhower threw into Normandy, for better or worse, was undertrained and all too often horribly led. Almost all the pre-invasion preparation was about getting to the beach, with little taught about what to do after crossing it. Many officers knew more about how to transport troops in trucks than about how to lead them in combat. Gole notes that even data from the previous two years of fighting Germans in North Africa and Italy was largely ignored. "

After WWII, firings in the Armed Forces went from an action crucial to the health of the organization to a little-used politically-tainted decision often left to civilians to make.

Part II looks in depth at battles and strategy in Korea. MacArthur, of course, is the poster child of a bad commander. The wonder is how MacArthur could have been so lauded, when he was so narcissistic and unethical-- accepting medals he didn't earn as well as cash from foreign governments, and trying to command a war from a country away. In Korea, one sees a disparity between the Marines and the Army in terms of relieving commanders and general tactics that still exists today.

Lt. Col. Don Faith, Jr., whose regiment lost 90 percent of its force in the disaster at the Chosin Resevoir is one that is singled out as both an example of command failure and a victim of it-- his own commanders were inept. The draftee army of the 1950s suffered from micromanagement as officers could not tell who was competent with only a couple years of time to get to know soldiers. Ricks mentions the 1950s management bestseller The Organization Man which stated that companies should focus on conformity and groupthink in making decisions--this was the Army.

The Korean conflict improved only after Matthew Ridgeway, a Marshall protege, was given a command and began to relieve officers and make changes that lifted morale and improved outcomes. However, Ridgeway gets a letter from his superiors warning him that relieving too many officers would lead to a Congressional investigation. The legacy of Korea was that it was up to civilians to make changes in the military.

Part III is Vietnam. I have read a few books on both Korea and Vietnam and this one cast both conflicts into a new light. American involvement in Vietnam began in 1955 and originally included CIA and Special Forces training self-governing villages on self-defense, which Ricks writes was highly effective. Former General Maxwell Taylor, who Ricks criticizes (among other things) for his role in getting America embroiled in Vietnam in the first place, convinces the CIA to give the program to the Defense Department, and it quickly comes apart. The Marines again adopt a forward-thinking strategy of holding ground around bases and villages, and slowly expanding outward to bring more civilians under their perimeter. This is criticized and changed until post-Tet 1968 when it essentially becomes official policy and works to bring 95% of the population under protection and actually start winning the war. By that time, however, morale and discipline had so broken down that you had crimes like the My Lai Massacre, for which top commanders got barely a reprimand. In the entire war, only one top general was relieved by commanding officers.

Ricks examines the experience of Gen. William E DePuy, a WWII veteran and believer in the Marshall Rule of accountability and relieving incompetent subordinates. DePuy's firings of incapable battalion commanders came under fire from his superior, for which he expected to be relieved himself. Despite this strength of character, DePuy opposed "pacification" policies-- paying the Viet Cong to stop fighting-- that Ricks writes had worked well in Vietnam and would later become official counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan. DePuy would later reform the post-Vietnam Army that fought the 1991 Gulf War.

General Westmoreland fares only slightly better than MacArthur in Ricks' analysis. He is described as being basically illiterate, never known to have read any books, and repeatedly falling back on what he knew as a less senior commander rather than as a generalist, as he was supposed to be. The only consolation is that he was better than his predecessor, Gen. Paul Harkins, who was scarily incompetent. Eventually Gen. Abrams replaces Westmoreland, who was relieved by LBJ. Abrams adopts tactics similar to previous Marine strategies and sees success, but politically it is too late and the Army is essentially broken.

DePuy worked to reform the Army after Vietnam with an emphasis on smaller units, more commanders, and special forces. He built the Army that liberated Kuwait in 1991. But, as Ricks writes "his relentless focus on tactics and training has unfortunately proved to be a poor way to prepare the Army for Iraq in the 2000s."

If there is a weakness of the book it is that the 1980s and late 1990s are hardly mentioned, so generalship in Grenada, Somalia, and the Balkans go unexamined.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf is given mixed reviews in the book. Definitely politically inept, Schwarzkopf even negotiated a cease fire with Iraq with little civilian input or advice from his senior advisers. He gave explicit permission for Iraqi's to fly armed helicopters, which allowed them to put down Shia and Kurdish uprisings that threatened to topple Saddam Hussein, something those groups did not forgive the U.S. for allowing. The 1991 Gulf War was "a tactical success but a strategic draw."

Gen. Tommy Franks is painted as MacArthuresque in his incompetency both in Iraq and Afghanistan. From allowing Bin Laden to escape Tora Bora to writing a memoir that paints a rosy and short-sighted picture of the 2003 campaign, Ricks piles the criticism on hard. Sanchez and others also are roundly criticized. I find it hard to believe that G.W. Bush read "dozens" of books on military occupations and wars (as he claims in his memoir) yet did not see the importance of relieving commanders and his own Defense Secretary. Only one general was relieved in 2003, by the Marines, essentially for cowardice. But a battalion commander who conspired with subordinates to cover up murder received only a reprimand from Gen. Odierno. Ricks does not mention Rumsfeld's repeated attempts to resign but that failure of the Bush Administration speaks for itself.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is praised for making changes and for his focus on accountability. This jives with Gates' memoir where he discusses the generals he fired from the battlefield to the V.A. hospital system. David Petraeus is also held up as an "outlier" of exceptional performance.The Army still has yet to conduct an in-depth review of its 2003-2012 conduct in Iraq, even after all the helpful changes Petraeus implemented.

Ricks' epilogue proposes potential changes, such as teaching officers critical thinking and encouraging officers to work toward advance degrees. Some of it is pie-in-the-sky dreaming, such as probationary periods for lower-ranking officers and requiring officer candidates to first do a peaceful term in a cross-cultural situation, such as the Peace Corps.

Ricks has an admiration for the sacrifice of the military, but a journalistic intent to get to the bottom of the story-- the truth. While there is no completely definitive work on Vietnam yet written, Ricks cites several books, such as Dereliction of Duty, as important reading. If you follow his blog and articles, you know he's still following up on research of the characters he documents. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review (#77 of 2014) Attitude 101 by John C. Maxwell

The bestselling author now has a 101 series dealing with small aspects. This book reads like a cut-and-paste from other books and is filled with feel-good soundbytes. This book could be called "The Power of Positive Thinking" and at times Maxwell sounds just like Joel Osteen. The difference between the two is that evangelicals roundly praise and promote Maxwell's books while criticizing Osteen's sermons for saying the identical thing. "Eliminate the following from your vocabulary: 'I can't,'; 'doubt'; (etc.)" You can be whatever you want to be if you just persist with the right attitude. With plenty of biblical tidbits and anecdotes to illustrate.

A definition: "Success is knowing your purpose in life, growing to reach your maximum potential and sowing seeds that benefit others."

Failure and adversity are key to success. Fail forward. The best literary works were produced by people in prison/exile. Obstacles are opportunities in disguise.

It is not that I disagree with much of what Maxwell says, but this is just another rah-rah book that lacks scholarship related to psychology that you can find in other works today. Hence, it's a "101" book but I can't rate it highly. I would disagree with Maxwell that focusing on a single goal is effective as opposed to focusing on the habits that get you there. Read some Tim Ferriss or James Clear.

Want to change your attitude? Then:
1. Evaluate your present attitude
2. Realize that faith is greater than fear
3. Write a statement of purpose
Write specifically what you want to accomplish each day.
Verbalize to an encouraging friend what you want to accomplish each day.
Take action on your goal each day.
4. Have the desire to change
5. Live one day at a time.
6. Change your thought patterns
7. Develop good habits
8. Continually choose to have the right attitude

If the above seem like common sense, then don't spend time/money on the book.  2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review (#76 of 2014) Work by Ben Witherington III

Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor
This book should be a part of the library of anyone who is interested in the theology of work, work as worship, or business as missions movements. Witherington wrote this book out of his perceived dearth of material on the theology of work, and that is one weakness of the book-- he examines a few sources in depth but somehow has missed so many others. If you read Hugh Wenchel's How Now Shall We Work or Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor you can find a host of sources over the centuries on this topic that Witherington somehow missed.
Andy Crouch, Mirslov Volf, H. Richard Niebuhr are three he extensively cites that are also cited by the aforementioned works. As such, there is much agreement between all of these books. But Witherington offers his insights which are different than the Reformed writers above. He offers this critique of other attempts to look at a theology of work: "they work forward through the Bible, rather than backward, and...never get to an eschatological or Kingdom perspective on work, that is, work in light of the in-breaking Kingdom," which is Witherington's contribution (p. xvi.)

Witherington offers his own definition of work: "any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human beings, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation" (p. xii). 

Human beings were intended to work, and not just to do any kind of work, but to do good works, and do them in accord with the way we have been fashioned, the abilities we have been given, and therefore the vocations for which we are best suited (p. 7). Expanding on his definition of work, Witherington writes

"Before we engage in any sort of work, we have to as whether it will glorify God and edify other persons, whether it can be an epression of love of God and love of neighbor...Work is not a secular activity; it is a sacred one originally ordained by God, and so it must be undertaken in holy ways...Whatever we do, we are to strive for excellence...'Good enough' is not good enough whe the standard of excellence is the example of Christ the worker" (p.15). 

Christians can inhabit many spheres of vocation, but activities like prostitution do not fit the definition of "work." Witherington likewise contends that Christians cannot be soldiers, since Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to bless them, not kill them. All work can be God-glorifying, even if it is not our specific vocation:
"The truth is that even when work seems like drudgery, if it is done to God's glory it is good in character, and if it is done for the edification of others it is at the very least divine drudgery, not mere toil, not mere activity. It has meaning, purpose, direction. It is Kingdom-bringing." (p. 21)

Witherington looks at Veith's God at Work, which I am not familiar with, particularly to analyze Martin Luther's views on work. Luther held the probelmatic sacred vs. secular view of work, which Witherington (like Keller et al) rightly critiques:
"But the Bible says nothing about God having two kingdoms, one spiritual and one physical, one sacred and one secular. The only Kingdom in the Bible that has the name God appended to it is the one Jesus claimed to be bringing in through his preaching, teaching, healing, dying, and rising" (p. 28).

Witherington later approvingly quotes Andy Crouch that "If the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in the New Jersualem, our work, no matter how 'secular,' can too." (p. 123).

"the sacred-versus-secular dichotomy doesn't work when it comes to defining Christian work. Any work that is good and godly, any work worth doing, can be done to the glory of God and for the help of humankind. And while we are at it, any such work is full-time ministry" (p. 126).

The Lutheran view focused on serving one's neighbor in his work, not God Himself. Witherington rightly points out that this does not conform with Paul's epistles and personal example.

Witherington contends that when Jesus says "my yoke is easy and my burden is light," (Matthew 11) He means that Christ shares our yoke-- we are co-laborers with God (1 Cor. 3:9) in His work in the world. "(W)hen we are doing Christ's work he is sharing our yoke...this is what makes the burdens light...The Christian...(must) recognize that the whole yoke does not fall on our shoulders" (p. 64).   This also plays into Witherington's thoughts on the important of taking a Sabbath from all activities, which he develops in the latter parts of the book. He encourages Christians to take a day of rest, say, Saturday as separate from their day of worship (Sunday).We must consider how we should best Sabbath.

Vocation is something that was defined pretty well in Hugh Whelchel's book-- and Witherington works to hash out a definition as well. Your vocation is basically what God has called and equipped you to do. Many Christians may work in a profession that is not their vocation, even though they are working in that profession in a Christian manner. The author then looks at the parable of talents from Matthew 25:14-30. God does not give everyone the same amount of faith (Romans 12:3-6), but we are called to step out and work with what we have. Our work ethic ("zeal") and quality matter to the Master who is going to return one day (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-15) (p.71-76).

"Everything is to be done coram Deo, before the face of God, not merely bearing in mind that God is watching, but bearing in mind that God is now working, and also will one day do the quality control test on one's work" (p. 89).

"(A)ll persons in Christ are called to both ministry and discipleship of various sorts. Labor is part of this calling...Work is part of what we offer to God on a daily basis as we respond to God's call to do various things that matter in life, even do things that change life for the better, or even save lives" (p.81)

Witherington is clear, work doesn't save us or endear us to God, but it is an expression of our holiness and desire to do the will of God. He critique's David Jenson's statement that "Human work can never detract from or add to the work God has already accomplished," as being unbiblical and something that "undevalues our work" (p. 130). Witherington elaborates:

"God could have chosen to redeem the world and bring in his Kingdom without us, but he has not chosen to do that. He has chosen to use us as his instruments to do His work. Our work, then, if it is good and godly, can never be seen as merely a response to the work of God, though it is often that as well. The work of God can be hindered or helped, added to or destroyed by what we do" (see Romans 14:20, 1 Cor. 3:9, and Ephesians 2:10) (p. 130).  

Witherington echoes Andy Crouch's call for Christians to "make culture."
"Christians must work hard to produce the best art, the best movies, the best neighborhoods, the best restaurants, the best athletics possible, not merely by copying, but by coming up with something fresh, new, interesting, life-changing" (p. 111). 

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Witherington is mainly critiquing a few other works and adding his own contributions. But it lacks supporting evidence and anecdotes from those who work in professions other than theology, like himself, and is therefore weaker than Keller or Crouch's work. It is a necessary read, and I would like to explore more Wesleyan/Methodist views on work as worship.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sermon of the Week (8/10 - 8/16): Andy Stanley on Accountability and Small Groups

Stanley is encouraging his congregation, particularly the men, to be involved in a small group. Autonomy and independence is a myth, and not what is intended for Christians according to the New Testament. Stanley actually uses an Old Testament example of David & Bathsheba to show consequences of trying to isolate ourselves from our community and accountability, as David did by not going to war with his men. "We need the forced, sometimes uncomfortable, structured relationships that groups provide."

Stanley remarks that North Point spends more money on small groups than any other ministry in the church. I find that interesting, and wonder how that could be true. I also wonder what percentage of their membership actively participate in small groups. You can see their method for plugging people into a Community Group on their website. My church just adopted a strategy to create intentional small groups, and I thought this was a good motivational message towards that end.

Sermon is available on iTunes.

Book Review (#75 of 2014) The Economics of Medicaid (Mercatus Center)

The Economics of Medicaid: Assessing the Costs and Consequences
You have to be a Medicaid wonk to like these books. This book is a compilation of papers produced by the Mercatus Center, a free market voice out of George Mason University (free PDF download). Contributors include Charles Blahous, a public trustee for Medicare and Social Security, and James Capretta who worked in OMB during G.W. Bush's term. This was good to read after having read Medicaid and Devolution by the left-leaning Brookings Institute in the 1990s. Economics of Medicaid rehashes and addresses some of the arguments for and against state block funding for Medicaid, a Medicaid reform proposal preferred by conservatives, that Devolution highlighted.

The latest data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services tell us that 59.1 million Americans were enrolled in Medicaid in 2013 (up 0.7% from 2012), roughly 20% of the population. About 40 percent of all U.S. births are funded by Medicaid. Enrollment in 2022 is projected to be 80.9 million, a rate of 3.3% growth over this period as states expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act are problematic primarily because they are expensive: "Some 72 million people will have received Medicaid benefits at some point during the year 2013. Over the next decade, Medicaid will spend $7.5 trillion, with federal payments accounting for $4.3 trillion." They are expensive for all Americans because Medicaid, while run by states, is subsidized with federal tax dollars. State budgets pay about 43 cents of every Medicaid dollar. In 2010, Medicaid payments per beneficiary were $2,129 for children and $3,102 for the adult category but $15,339 for the elderly and $15,752 for the disabled; the average payment per elderly Medicaid recipient for nursing home care was about $35,000. 64 percent of total Medicaid spending is on the 24 percent of enrollees who are elderly or disabled. CMS projects that expenditure growth per enrollee will average 4% from 2013-2022, with newly-eligibles being less costly than the rest of the population.

As health care costs and Medicaid burdens began to rise in the 1990s, most states shifted to managed care to manage costs; Medicaid is about 24% of state budgets. In 2009, 71 percent of Medicaid recipients were enrolled in managed care. However, several studies show that managed care has not succeeded in reducing costs, at least in the short-run. Managed care itself is not a panacea and its cost benefits come over a longer period of time as overall health of the population improves (and needs less late-in-life expensive care).

Most disturbing, especially with the ACA and Medicaid expansion, is the number of physicians who do not accept new Medicaid patients. "In a study conducted by MIT economists Jonathan Gruber and David Rodriguez, nearly 60 percent of the 3,860 physicians surveyed reported higher fees from the uninsured than from Medicaid. Low fees coupled with excessive paperwork and late payments make it difficult for physicians to accept Medicaid patients...The 2008 Health Tracking Physician Survey found that only about half of all physicians will accept new Medicaid patients." One chapter is written by a physician who explains the dilemma of accepting Medicaid patients. If you're an OB/GYN with a Medicaid patient who comes in with symptoms that could perhaps be related to a pregnancy but need to be diagnosed by a different practitioner, but that service is not covered under Medicaid, then Medicaid has failed you.

Several authors point to studies which show a negative correlation between Medicaid and good health outcomes. There is an endogeneity problem here that is rarely admitted (and nowhere in the book)-- part of the reason Medicaid patients suffer poorer outcomes than private insurance patients receiving similar care is because there are a host of other health problems already associated with low-income people, like smoking, obesity, and diabetes. Correlation does not mean causality. There is also a lack of understanding that the recent swelling of Medicaid rolls was a phenomenon of the last recession. Looking at Kentucky data, the numbers of people who would have been eligible prior to the ACA is trending downward as the economy improves. These facts are neglected by the authors, which is a weakness of the book.

A few solutions are proposed, but none quite as detailed as Avik Roy's recent prescriptions. Besides block grants to states, a per-capita grant of federal funds is proposed. This proposal includes higher rates for individuals who are in special/waiver programs like long-term care. Indiana's waiver experiment with health savings accounts is also applauded, but the authors do not mention Indiana's tight restrictions on who can receive Medicaid. In all states that use managed care, there are still many waiver and fee-for-service programs that are difficult to budget for and it is difficult to find simple solutions. This level of complexity and diversity among the states is not highlighted very well in the work.

In all, the up-to-date information in this book and studies cited were very helpful. Some of the numbers are cherry-picked; rates of cost growth, for example, depend on your starting and ending points. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review (#74 of 2014) Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

Michael Jordan: The Life
Lazenby was apparently able to roll together chapters from previous books about Michael and the Bulls together with new information into this comprehensive 700 page biography of the Greatest of All Time. It spans from Jordan's ancestry all the way to his caustic Hall of Fame acceptance speech and failures as Charlotte owner.

I grew up in the Jordan Era, had The Dunk on my wall, wore Nike everything, and watched Bulls games on NBC and WGN religiously. This book includes every anecdote and story I ever heard about MJ's early career-- pretty much anything that was ever put in print or on the air. Lazenby has exhaustively gone through public record for much of this; a weakness of the book is that he seems to lack personal access to Jordan over his 30 years of covering him. That is probably just as well, plenty of other journalists were close to Jordan and protected his secrets. But the depth of Jordan's relationships with others aren't explored, it is not an expose like The Jordan Rules was. But critics wrongly assail Lazenby on this point as Jordan does not open himself up to just anyone, and neither do those who know him well-- Jordan never forgets a slight and does not care to make amends.

The strength of this book is looking at Jordan's family tree beginning with his great grandfather, who came of age in the post-Civil War South. Speaking of him still brings tears to Jordan's eyes, the man was tough and relentless and Lazenby has the reader believe that his resolve runs through Jordan's DNA. Jordan's ancestors faced discrimination and hardship that helped mold his family into a unit and created opportunities for Jordan. They could never have imagined a black man from the South being an icon for billions of people worldwide.

Every man has a wound, usually from his father. James Jordan wounded Michael early in life when Michael was trying to help him work on cars. "You don't know what the hell you're doing. Go back inside with the women," would drive Jordan to push to win his father's affection over that of his brothers. I did not know what a douche James Jordan was, a pedophile, thief, and serial philanderer. It's very sad that Michael seems to idolize him, even though Michael learned he could not be trusted in business. Michael's mother, on the other hand, comes across as "solid," and "professional," and Nike preferred working with her than with James.

Despite an unbelievably competitive nature on the court, Jordan is his mother's "laziest child," paying others to do his chores and holding a paying job for only one week. His competitive light came on only in sports. The legend of Michael being left off his high school varsity team is explored, that is somewhat of a complicated story but the logic made sense at the time.

The Jordan era didn't have AAU, where all the best kids travel and play three games a day and can't take the time to care about winning all that much-- it's rather about showcasing their individual talent. Lazenby floats others' hypotheses that Jordan would not have the competitive fire if he had grown up in the modern era like LeBron James.

Jordan didn't really have another coach/person motivate him by intentional wounding until Bobby Knight did it on the '84 US Olympic team. (Knight comes across as a real douche in the book as well.) His time at UNC served him well, and Dean Smith comes across as an honest person who cares about his players but has the same ego and competitive drive as any major college coach.  Jordan resented the Carolina Way, how fast break dunks that showed up the other team were punished and seniors were given the limelight. "The System" limited his individual ability, but helped him play in Tex Winter's triangle offense and be somewhat of a teammate.

I was interested in the back story on the Bulls' seasons, Phil Jackson's mind games, and Jordan's mind games with himself. People comment over and over how Jordan, often privately, goes out of his way to make time for the common person and autograph seeker. This wears on him, he's a prisoner in his hotel room for much of the book. But despite the inner rage that makes appearances mostly on the court, Jordan is shown as having a sense of humor. His friends are journalists, drivers, equipment men, etc. But you get the sense he's not really close with anyone. Even Phil Jackson betrays him (and gets away with it) by being a key source about Jordan's caustic personality in The Jordan Rules. That I found interesting.

I was a teenager and a bit less interested in the '96-98 era and was disgusted by the Wizards run. I enjoyed Lazenby's insights into the back story of '96-98, how Jordan and the team embraced Phil Jackson's meditation and other unusual methods, how an inebriated Jordan would disrespectfully  harass GM Jerry Krause on the team bus after games. The inner demons, invented and real, that drove Jordan on the court. Jordan could never be taught to not call his teammates "my supporting cast," and that's what they knew they were.

The depth of the book becomes pretty shallow in Jordan's later years, however. His divorce is mentioned almost as an afterthought. One never gets the full sense of Jordan's philandering, but there are stories of games of pool in topless bars, all-day golf excursions, and plenty of fine cigars and booze to fill the time. Lazenby makes MJ's playing for the Wizards seem like a benevolent deed, not something Jordan did because he couldn't succeed at anything else and his ego just wouldn't let his position within the game go. The book is fairly critical of his time as "The Loser" as owner of the team with the worst single-season record in league history. In some cases, perhaps Jordan is reaping bad karma from having been so critical of Krause and Reinsdorf and holding grudges when they traded his friends or made other necessary business decisions.

Jordan's demons are on display in this book, compiled from public statements by and about Jordan as well as information from other books. The older he gets, the worse it gets. He both acknowledges the uniqueness and blessing of being the only truly worldwide global icon, but also seems to blame the world for it and feels begrudged like everyone owes him something. If you want to know as much as can be known about the man's career, then check this book out. 4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Assymetry of price movements in gasoline relative to crude oil

Jim Hamilton's blog is great for discussion of energy prices. In this post, Hamilton explains the long-run relationship between movement in oil price to that of gasoline:
"The relation implies that a $10 increase in the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil is typically associated with a 25 cent increase in the average U.S. retail price of a gallon of gasoline. The relation only captures the long-run tendency, and leaves out seasonal factors that for example brought the price of gasoline temporarily lower this last winter. But since this spring U.S. gasoline prices have moved back in line with what you’d expect given the long-run fundamentals."

(There is a nice gasoline price estimator based on current barrel of brent crude at that post.) 

However, Dave Giles (with a nice econometrics blog) recently linked to a paper he authored (PDF) testing whether movements up and down in the price of gasoline are symmetrical-- he found they are not. Giles finds gasoline prices respond more rapidly to oil price increases than decreases. Giles is using data from Vancouver, other studies using different countries' data have confirmed the so-called "rockets and feathers hypothesis." 

The purported possibilities for this phenomenon, as listed by Giles, are interesting. On the more highly-competitive end, think of firms' prices asymptotically approaching cost (where their profits are then $0). When one firm suddenly raises its price, the competitor can follow and the asymptotic movement toward cost begins again. Another possibility is that consumers are less choosy when they see everyone's prices falling; that puts less competitive pressure on all firms to lower their prices. Both are interesting hypotheses. I suspect my behavior is akin to the latter; I'm less likely to look for a "better deal" when I see all prices are low relative to what they were last week/month than I am when I see a relatively high price at one station I drive by.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Sermon of the Week (8/3-8/9, 2014) Damian Kyle (Calvary Chapel Modesto) on 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.

My blog just passed 100,000 page views for its life, according to Google. Thanks for stopping by!

This week's sermon is entitled Money Matters and is a very good, complete sermon on giving financially and Paul's instructions for the collection of relief funds for the church in Jerusalem. Available here on iTunes or as a download on Calvary Chapel's website. Kyle has a very steady, methodical teaching style. Calvary's Sunday a.m. services are New Testament, p.m. services the Old Testament.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Book Review (#73 of 2014) Martin Luther for Armchair Theologians

Luther for Armchair Theologians
2.5 stars out of 5. The book would more properly be titled "The Gospel According to Luther," as the author focuses on Luther's theological evolution towards the understanding of the Gospel that caused him to nail his theses to the church door and work out his understanding of the Gospel in everyday life. I have become more interested in the Luther's views on work recently, and that is mentioned toward the end of the book.

In many places it is not clear what thinking is the author's and what is Luther's. Luther said a lot of disturbing things or supported some causes that in hindsight were not very Gospel-centered (as this website shows). But the author doesn't give much biographical information as the context for these or explain their theological underpinnings. That said, his quotes from various Luther writings inspires the reader to dig deeper.

This is the third Armchair Theologians book I have read. It contained some cursory biographical material, mostly at the beginning and end (paraphrase, "oh, by the way, he got married and it meant a lot.") I would recommend reading something like Civilization of the Middle Ages for the pre-Lutheran context so you can better understand Germany and the state of doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church when Luther came onto the scene.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Book Review (#72 of 2014) Radical by David Platt

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
I give this relatively short book three stars. It is well-written and says great things, but I get frustrated with how books like this pretend to be saying something new when others have wrestled with the same ideas for centuries, and there are a host of classic books out there addressing the same topic. For whatever reason, David Brooks singled the book out for a column, increasing its readership. This book is now very popular among Southern Baptist churches, having spun off book studies, "Secret Church" movements, etc. even though there is nothing new here-- other than it having been written by a Southern Baptist and not someone from another denomination. There are plenty of contemperaneous works that Platt appears to draw from or have identical ideas. For example, Ron Sider wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (my review) in 1978. This book is probably considered subversive by many Southern Baptists but it's roughly half of Platt's book. Dallas Willard, A.W. Tozer, and others also wrote several works that make calls (and better arguments) for authentic worship and discipleship than Pratt does. Pratt does not mention these, so a young reader is left with the impression that he's discovered all these ideas on his own from the Bible. I get frustrated with how much praxaeology Southern Baptists rediscover in the 21st century, from Mark Dever's 9 Marks movement on church policy to Platt's Radical.

Platt's exhortation is for Christians to live simpler lives, be more "radical" in their giving and going (to the unreached), and to reclaim the true meaning of discipleship from the modern emphasis on buildings and programs. To his credit, he does cite the work of Elisabeth Elliott and works by or about missionaries of centuries past.

A couple positive takeaways from the book:

Platt affirms people in their vocations, giving the example of a man operating his accounting firm for God's glory and being very influential both in discipling his co-workers and contributing to overseas work.

He also makes the point that since we are all called to make disciples, discipleship necessitates teaching and modeling. Thus, we are all teachers, teaching is not necessarily a vocational calling to only a few. He encourages all of us to study and learn things as though we are going to teach them later, which is a good lesson to apply to all of life.

A few weaknesses of the book:
Namely the aforementioned lack of original thought. Another weakness is that while the book encourages being in a reproducing community it lacks ideas of the greater power of Christian community (that you can find in other books). Platt doesn't tie the idea of Church community very well in deciding how we spend our money and the types of things we buy, and how we handle ethical issues at work. Platt essentially leaves it up to the individual family to figure out if their house is too big or their giving not radical enough rather than among a community of believers in accountability with one another as we saw in Acts.

I'm struck by the number of churches who are actively promoting or studying this book, but the changes in their attitude toward buildings and programs seem only changed at the margin-- if at all. Platt would set a high standard to whether a church should focus its resources on its weekly services or increasing its numbers or instead focus on discipleship and giving to the poor.

In all, 3 stars out of 5. There are a host of other, more complete, books I'd recommend before this one.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Successful locavore-ing

We've been trying to eat "lower on the food chain," in the parlance of Michael Pollan (see my reviews of two of his books here and here). It's a bit time-consuming and costly to get locally-sourced produce, but we've been moving that direction. We bought a share in one of our community-supported local farms, planted our own garden (complete with a DIY composter and rain barrel), and recently got a donation of garden vegetables from a generous aunt and uncle. All of this culminated in the first 100% vegan locavore meal we've ever had. This made me extraordinarily happy. Joni took a picture of her plate:
Yellow tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and zucchini from Triple J farms. Squash and red tomatoes from relatives. Not pictured: okra from relatives and cucumbers from our garden. I ran across a chipwave microwave potato chip maker / vegetable steamer for $2 at a garage sale, and that produced the ruffle cut steamed veggies and homemade potato chips on the plate. Joni later made homemade ice cream with some greek yogurt, and that was not a locavore dessert but it was fantastic and healthy.

"There's only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and home grown tomatoes."

Friday, August 01, 2014

Book Review (#71 of 2014) The Shack by William P. Young

The Shack
How can I give heresy three stars?  Read and find out. 
The Shack is a fictional story written as a way for the author to illustrate his own spiritual journey and finding healing from sexual abuse, addiction, hidden sins, and suffering loss through the Gospel. It emerged initially from compiling 15 years worth of devotionals and journal writing and personal experiences. Rather than write an autobiography, the author chose to use fictional characters and to write a story he could give to his kids for Christmas. The sensation came later when others read the book and wanted more copies.

Tim Challies has written one of the most-read critiques of the book, calling it subversive heresy (PDF here), not just for its portrayal of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as physical characters but for its "bad theology" and criticisms of the contemporary American church. The accusations of bad theology include universalism, modalism, and a poor or incomplete picture of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture. I will address those accusations in this review. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary writes: "The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative — a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?" Mohler concludes: "The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us — a failure even to understand the Gospel of Christ." (Mark Driscoll preached a brief piece accusing the book of modalist heresy, but I think that accusation has been fairly well debunked. Driscoll later admitted he'd never read the book. I am fairly certain from the ease I had of finding counterpoints to his criticisms that Tim Challies has never actually read the entire book either.)

I agree with Mohler's conclusion, but we differ in that I believe the Gospel presentation in the book is what is attracting people to the book and not some false hope created by bad theology. Challies, Mohler, and myself essentially play on the same "team," as Reformed Southern Baptists, though I cannot claim their theological credentials. In this review I will show how the Gospel is described in the book and explain why I think Challies and Mohler are missing the forest because of the trees. I also believe Challies is hypocritical in his criticism of this book relative to the more positive reviews he gives non-fiction books that arguably contain greater error by his own judgement. The criticisms also beg the question: What should Christian fiction look like? I'll also try to address that question at the end. Nonetheless, Challies and Mohler raise some valid points and I have some areas of agreement with them.

I'm not sure why Mohler did not bother asking any of his fellow church members (of which I'm sure there were some) why they liked the book, instead of accusing everyone of being biblically ignorant.  People I know who love this book are not unintelligent. They are also well-versed in Scripture and were raised in Bible-teaching churches. To better answer Mohler's question about why people are attracted to the book, let's look at the main character (Mackenzie).

Despite having a childhood with an abusive alcoholic father and abandoning his family at an early age, he is now a "nice" man who tries to be a good husband and father. His wife is the spiritual one, has a closer relationship with God than he can understand, but he admires her for it. He suffers a parent's worst nightmare, losing his young daughter in the woods to a serial killer. He is left with a "Great Sadness," personal guilt, and pent up anger against God for allowing it to happen. Mack's seminary training taught him that God no longer communicated with man outside of Scripture which requires experts to interpret properly. He had also been taught that the Genesis stories of creation and the garden of Eden were not literally true but merely legends containing some truths. His experience with church life was mostly one of dull routines and programs, legalism, judgement, and American patriotism. His understanding of God's love was that it was conditional upon him keeping the rules and doing good works. He did not see God as someone he could trust or love like a dad, in part because his own dad had been very abusive. The shack is the deep inward place that contains all of the guilt, pain, and unforgiveness and has to be dealt with. In the course of the story, Mack learns that his "preconceived notions" about God's love and sovereignty were false, and he reaches a better understanding of the Gospel and finds healing and forgiveness for himself and his family.

Everyone at some point asks "if God is good and love, how could he let such evil happen?" Everyone is wounded deeply at some point in their life (men most often by their fathers, see Eldridge's Wild at Heart) and struggles with forgiveness as a result. For those experiencing tragedy such as the loss of a child there is often a sense of guilt "Is God punishing me for something?" We all desperately want healing, forgiveness, and to make sense of what has happened. THAT, Dr. Mohler, is why people are attracted to this book. The underlying theme of the Shack is that forgiveness is essential to healing. That is a deeply biblical message rooted in the Gospel. Young dedicates it to those with "grief, broken dreams and damaged hearts...unique losses, our own 'shack.'" I might rather everyone read non-fiction like McGee's Search for Significance or Piper's Future Grace to find answers to these questions, but most people find it easier to read light fiction (that I argue says the same things), which is The Shack.

Challies contends the book is "subversive" for criticizing "many aspects of the church and contemporary Christianity" and demeaning of Scripture and seminary education because of Mack's background and how his theological training failed him. I do not see God helping Mack work through his false beliefs and errant "preconceived notions" as subversive of Scripture, rather it is Scripture that is confronting his false beliefs. If we admit it, even though we know that God is Spirit, we Americans picture him as a white Gandalf-like figure, with a booming voice like we saw in the movie The Ten Commandments. My Southern Baptist churches have always been made up predominantly of white, middle class Americans who overwhelmingly vote Republican. These are more of Mack's "preconceived notions," and I don't find God's criticism of them in the book subversive. Perhaps it would be subversive if Mack were told that his new understanding gives him superiority. But observe what Young writes instead:
“Mack, the world system is what it is. Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.”
“But so many of the people I care about seem to be both in it and of it!” Mack was thinking of his friends, church people who had expressed love to him and his family. He knew they loved Jesus, but were also sold out to religious activity and patriotism.
“Mack, I love them. And you wrongly judge many of them. For those who are both in it and of it, we must find ways to love and serve them, don’t you think?” asked Jesus. “Remember, the people who know me are the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda.” 

In the book, Jesus says "Who said anything about being a Christian? I'm not a Christian...I have no desire to make (my followers) Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved." Many point to this passage as overtly subversive and problematic. However, I read somewhere that a recent surveys in America have suggested that the word "Christian" is associated with being politically active, anti-abortion, and for lower taxes and nothing to do with the Gospel. This coincides with Mack's background and "preconceived notions" that I have explained above. If you have ever lived in a Muslim country (I have) you know how politically charged the word "Christian" is when the native associates it with an enemy nation next door rather than by what YOU mean by the word and the struggle to find the right word to identify yourself.

I believe that Challies and Mohler know plenty like Mack who have been hurt or disappointed by the church, not actually found Jesus or understood the Gospel there, and fallen into legalism. Also, most seminaries in the U.S. do not teach the Bible as literal. The book affirms the truth of stories like Genesis, much to Mack's surprise, so I find it hard to believe it's undermining Scripture in the way Challies claims. Many of the truths in the book could have come from the pages of Search for Significance, Piper's Desiring God, C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, or Tozer's The Pursuit of God (Tozer and Lewis are cited by Young as influences). Those are all books that helped me work through the same issues that Mack works through. Search for Significance, in particular, taught me Romans 8 and the meaning of propitiation in a way I had never heard growing up in a prominent Southern Baptist church and having exposure to the teachings of Mohler and others in great churches. Is my criticism of the church "subversive?" I don't think so. If so, then Challies ought to heavily criticize David Platt's book Radical, rather than praising it, for its critique of contemporary American church.

Many of the explanations God gives Mack about his sovereignty, salvation, and love are also straight from Romans 8. There are emotionally powerful scenes where Mack wrestles to accept the entire Gospel and to forgive others as he's been forgiven. Those of us who have been through Christian counseling can relate to this, so I find Challies and Mohler's insensitivity and dismissals somewhat concerning. Challies asks: "A question worth asking is this one: does The Shack point Christians to the unfailing standard of Scripture or does it point them to new and fresh revelation?" In my experience there are many cessationists out there, particularly in the evangelical Reformed (ie: Calvinist) world, who believe that the canon was the end of the miraculous. Perhaps Challies and Mohler are among those. I am one who believes that Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant, and that all other revelations and "spirits" are to be judged in light of Scripture, but Scripture itself tells us that God speaks in ways other than the written word (1 Corinthians 12,13). (Matt Chandler, a Reformed Southern Baptist, recently preached a great sermon critiquing cessationists, check it out).

Many of the critical reviews of this book are, unfortunately, by those who run in more cessationist circles. I think that makes their critiques at least appear biased, even if they themselves are not cessationists. The difference between this book and, say, Search for Significance is that it's fiction and does not directly cite Scripture that is being quoted and paraphrased. This does not mean that Scripture is not the standard. On the contrary, I found it easy to think of parallel passages or the exact passages being referenced by the characters in the book (in that sense it's similar to Pilgrim's Progress). I will agree that to the biblically illiterate this may look to hold up a "fresh revelation" but Challies should recognize the lessons presented to Mack come straight from Scripture and do not supercede it. Those Scriptures, like the Search for Significance or Radical examples above, are not taught clearly in many churches (that's why they were written). I would have liked the book more if God had said "Haven't you read what is written...?" more often. But since the truths essential to the narrative presented and accepted by Mack are backed by Scripture, I think it behooves Challies and others to point that out instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

For example, The Shack affirms a literal Garden of Eden and the consequences of sin as described in Genesis 3 and Romans 1 (something that ran contrary to Mack's seminary education). It affirms the descriptions we have in Scripture of Jesus' relationship with the Father (John 14:8-12, 16:25-32, Philippians 2:5-11, etc.), the sovereignty of God in all of our circumstances (Romans 8), God's redemptive plan for all of creation, etc. It also affirms Jesus as "fully man and fully God" in accordance with orthodoxy and contrary to the modalism claimed by critics.

What about the Gospel and the cross, are they presented clearly in the book? Challies contends that the Cross is only "hinted at." There is some validity to this, the Passion narrative and resurrection are not clearly recounted. But at one point Mack is broken by the sin of the world:
Mack struggled for the words to tell her (God) what was in his heart. “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die.”
She walked around the table and gave Mack another big hug. “I know you are, and thank you. But you need to know that we aren’t sorry at all. It was worth it. Isn’t that right, son?” She turned to ask her question of Jesus, who had just entered the cabin.
“Absolutely!” He paused and then looked at Mack. “And I would have done it even if it were only for you, but it wasn’t!” he said with an inviting grin. 

This scene may look hokey but the message is not much different than what was taught in my conservative Southern Baptist Sunday school classes as a child. There is another chapter where Mack learns that salvation is not based on works but was accomplished on the cross and is available by grace:
Holy Spirit: “Why do you think we came up with the Ten Commandments?” ...
Mack: “I suppose, at least I have been taught, that it’s a set of rules that you expected humans to obey in order to live righteously in your good graces.”
“If that were true, which it is not,” Sarayu countered, “then how many do you think lived righteously enough to enter our good graces?...only one succeeded—Jesus. He not only obeyed the letter of the law but fulfilled the spirit of it completely. But understand this, Mackenzie—to do that he had to rest fully and dependently upon me.” (my note, see: Luke 22:39-44)
“Then why did you give us those commandments?” asked Mack.
“Actually, we wanted you to give up trying to be righteous on your own. It was a mirror to reveal just how filthy your face gets when you live independently.”
“But as I’m sure you know there are many,” responded Mack, “who think they are made righteous by following the rules.”
“But can you clean your face with the same mirror that shows you how dirty you are? There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you—so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you. And the Law that once contained impossible demands—Thou Shall Not . . .—actually becomes a promise we fulfill in you.” She was on a roll now, her countenance billowing and moving. “But keep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment.”
... “Mackenzie,” Sarayu continued, “those who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.”
“Is that why we like the law so much—to give us some control?” asked Mack. “It is much worse than that,” resumed Sarayu. “It grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them. You believe you are living to a higher standard than those you judge. Enforcing rules, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse.” 

Is that not a good partial explanation of Jesus' substitutionary atonement, and how we're saved by grace rather than works?

"The Shack also muddles the concept of redemption," writes Challies. "(T)he Bible makes it clear that redemption has already been accomplished."
If that is so, then why does Jesus speak of redemption as an event beyond the time after his ascension (Luke 21:28)? Why does Paul use the word redemption in describing an event that will occur in the future (Romans 8:22-23, Ephesians 4:30)? There seems to be a semantic issue where Challies would prefer Young have used "salvation" or another term instead of "redemption." I do not think this is grounds for claiming heresy. For example, Challies critiques young for writing that God would want to "redeem" the man that killed Mack's daughter. "“[H]e too is my son. I want to redeem him.” In this passage, God is imploring Mack to forgive the killer and release him to God; that this is essential to Mack's healing. What if God instead said "I desire for that killer to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," would that not be 1 Timothy 2:4? Is that radically different from saying "I want to redeem him?" Also, see Ezekiel 18:21-23. I'm not a theologian, so perhaps Young muddies the difference between Challies' definitions of salvation and redemption. Young is not likely Reformed so the critique seems more like a family matter than one of heresy. If Challies is arguing from an Augustinian view that if Mack's killer is elect then God already knows that and knows his redemption has already been accomplished, then okay, but he logically must conclude semi-Pelagian points of view are also heresy (which he might believe, I don't know).

In the book, Mack sees a redeemed version of the shack. Instead of a dilapidated old cabin that served as a place of evil, he sees a pristine log cabin in its place. That is symbolism of God's plan for the redemption of all creation. I do, however, take issue with Young's calling everyone a "child" when we know that " to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12). We are all created in God's image but not "all God's children." I think the use of that language opens Young up to the universalism critique, which I address later.

There are some good dialogs with the Holy Spirit where Mack gains greater understanding of the sovereignty of God which is essential to him being able to understand forgiveness. Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Many times in Scripture we see evil acts ultimately for God's good. Joseph told his brothers "What you intended for evil, God intended for good" (Genesis 50:20).  Why, then, do we as Christians complain and act as God has abandoned us when something befalls us that is hurtful? Why don't we thank God in these moments and trust what He is doing? I find this to be relatively unaddressed from pulpits, but it is illustrated well in the book in this conversation between Mack and the Holy Spirit (sounds a lot like this Andy Stanley sermon):

(Holy Spirit:) When something happens to you, how do you determine whether it is good or evil?” Mack thought for a moment before answering. “Well, I haven’t really thought about that. I guess I would say that something is good when I like it—when it makes me feel good or gives me a sense of security. Conversely, I’d call something evil that causes me pain or costs me something I want.”
“So it is pretty subjective then?”
“I guess it is.”
“And how confident are you in your ability to discern what indeed is good for you, or what is evil?” “To be honest,” said Mack, “I tend to sound justifiably angry when somebody is threatening my ‘good,’ you know, what I think I deserve. But I’m not really sure I have any logical ground for deciding what is actually good or evil, except how something or someone affects track record isn’t very encouraging either. Some things I initially thought were good turned out to be horribly destructive, and some things that I thought were evil, well, they turned out . . .”
(Holy Spirit:) "Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they do not have any actual existence. I am Light and I am Good. I am Love and there is no darkness in me. Light and Good actually exist. So, removing yourself from me will plunge you into darkness. Declaring independence will result in evil because apart from me, you can only draw upon yourself. That is death because you have separated yourself from me: Life.”
“Wow,” Mack exclaimed, sitting back for a moment. “That really helps. But, I can also see that giving up my independent right is not going to be an easy process. It could mean that . . .”
Sarayu interrupted his sentence again. “. . . that in one instance, the good may be the presence of cancer or the loss of income—or even a life.”
“Yeah, but tell that to the person with cancer or the father whose daughter is dead,” Mack postured, a little more sarcastically than he had intended.
“Oh, Mackenzie,” reassured Sarayu. “Don’t you think we have them in mind as well? Each of them was the center of another story that is untold.” 

A character identified as Wisdom from Proverbs, who seems like the Holy Spirit, engages in a logical conversation in which Mack gets convicted for having judged others, something he knew God warned against:
"What right did he have to judge anyone? Sure, in some measure he probably was guilty of judging almost everyone he had met and many that he had not. Mack knew he was thoroughly guilty for being self-centered. How dare he judge anyone else? All his judgments had been superficial, based on appearance and actions, things easily interpreted by whatever state of mind or prejudice that supported the need to exalt himself, or to feel safe, or to belong. He also knew that he was starting to panic." 

Even with this conviction, Mack still condemns certain people:
Wisdom: “And what about the man who preys on innocent little girls? What about him, Mackenzie? Is that man guilty? Should he be judged?”
“Yes!” screamed Mack. “Damn him to hell!” ...
“How far do we go back, Mackenzie? This legacy of brokenness goes all the way back to Adam, what about him? But why stop there? What about God? God started this whole thing. Is God to blame?” Mack was reeling. He didn’t feel like a judge at all, but rather the one on trial. The woman was unrelenting. “Isn’t this where you are stuck, Mackenzie? Isn’t this what fuels The Great Sadness? That God cannot be trusted? Surely, a father like you can judge the Father!” Again his anger rose like a towering flame. He wanted to lash out, but she was right and there was no point in denying it. She continued, “Isn’t that your just complaint, Mackenzie? That God has failed you, that he failed Missy? That before the Creation, God knew that one day your Missy would be brutalized, and still he created? And then he allowed that twisted soul to snatch her from your loving arms when he had the power to stop him. Isn’t God to blame, Mackenzie?” Mack was looking at the floor, a flurry of images pulling his emotions in every direction. Finally, he said it, louder than he intended, and pointed his finger right at her.
“Yes! God is to blame!” The accusation hung in the room as the gavel fell in his heart. 

This is powerful. Mack has four people to forgive in order to gain healing:
1. God
2. Himself
3. His father
4. His daughter's killer

Once he understands God's sovereignty and that everyone (and all creation) suffers the consequences of sin like Mack does because of Adam & Eve's sin in the garden, and that God is working all things together for good and His glory (Romans 8), he can start to trust and love God. Then, Mack needs to know that Missy wasn't killed for his own sins and faults. Another powerful scene:
“Is that who your God is, Mackenzie? It is no wonder you are drowning in your sorrow. Papa isn’t like that, Mackenzie. She’s not punishing you, or Missy, or Nan. This was not his doing.”
“But he didn’t stop it.”
“No, he didn’t. He doesn’t stop a lot of things that cause him pain. Your world is severely broken. You demanded your independence, and now you are angry with the one who loved you enough to give it to you. Nothing is as it should be, as Papa desires it to be, and as it will be one day. Right now your world is lost in darkness and chaos, and horrible things happen to those that he is especially fond of.”
“Then why doesn’t he do something about it?”
“He already has . . .”
“You mean what Jesus did?”
“Haven’t you seen the wounds on Papa too?”
“I didn’t understand them. How could he . . .”
“For love. He chose the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. Would you instead prefer he’d chosen justice for everyone?" ... Return from your independence, Mackenzie. Give up being his judge and know Papa for who he is. Then you will be able to embrace his love in the midst of your pain, instead of pushing him away with your self-centered perception of how you think the universe should be. Papa has crawled inside of your world to be with you, to be with Missy.”
Mack stood up from the chair. “I don’t want to be a judge any more. I really do want to trust Papa.” 

This reminds of a recent Andy Stanley sermon which drew from Lewis' Mere Christianity.  When Mack is honest with himself, he confesses that he has judged God to be unjust and to blame. So, the Spirit invites him to judge the whole world and choose which among his children will spend eternity in heaven, and which in hell:
"I can’t. I can’t. I won’t!” he screamed, and now the words and emotions came tumbling out. The woman just stood watching and waiting. Finally he looked at her, pleading with his eyes. “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that?” He fell at her feet, crying and begging now. “Please let me go for my children, please, I would be happy to . . . Please, I am begging you. Please . . . Please . . .”
“Mackenzie, Mackenzie,” she whispered, and her words came like a splash of cool water on a brutally hot day. Her hands gently touched his cheeks as she lifted him to his feet. Looking at her through blurring tears, he could see that her smile was radiant. “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you!”
“But I haven’t judged anything,” Mack offered in confusion.
“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. That is how Jesus loves.” When he heard the words he thought of his new friend waiting by the lake. “And now you know Papa’s heart,” she added, “who loves all his children perfectly.” 

Mack is later told that there is now no condemnation for him (Romans 8:1) because of what Jesus did. Mack is then given a vision of his daughter in heaven, enjoying it. He's reminded that what we experience on this earth is a momentary, light affliction compared to the glory that is to come (2 Cor. 4:17). He is later given a vision of his earthly dad, and is allowed to tell his dad how sorry he was for abandoning the family. He is able to both forgive his dad and himself. Forgiveness is essential to healing, and that's the appealing message of The Shack.

His daughter's killer is a bit more difficult to forgive.
“Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.” “Redeem him?” Again Mack felt the fire of anger and hurt. “I don’t want you to redeem him! I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in hell . . .” His voice trailed off. Papa waited patiently for the emotions to ease. “I’m stuck, Papa. I just can’t forget what he did, can I?” Mack implored. “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”
“But I thought you forget our sins?”
“Mack, I am God. I forget nothing. I know everything. So forgetting for me is the choice to limit myself. Son,” Papa’s voice got quiet and Mack looked up at him, directly into his deep brown eyes, “because of Jesus, there is now no law demanding that I bring your sins back to mind. They are gone when it comes to you and me, and they run no interference in our relationship.” 

 How a perfect, infinite God can "remember their sins no more" (Hebrews 10) is a great mystery that Young is trying to describe here. Some may take issue with the words "choice to limit myself" but I do not think it's grounds for heresy. The entire passage is an exhortation that we must forgive others as Christ forgave us, and it's only through the cross that God will "remember their sins no more." There are other helpful biblically-based statements in this book that have meant a lot to those who liked it.
"The person who lives by their fears will not find freedom in my love. I am not talking about rational fears regarding legitimate dangers, but imagined fears, and especially the projection of those into the future. To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. You sing about it; you talk about it, but you don’t know it." 

There is a critique of relativism:

"The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow to find their identity, value, and security. By choosing to declare what’s good and evil you seek to determine your own destiny. It was this turning that has caused so much pain.” 

There is affirmation that all we do as children of God is for God's glory:
Mack: "Let me ask you something. Is what I do back home important? Does it matter? I really don’t do much other than working and caring for my family and friends . . . “
Holy Spirit: “Mack, if anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.” 

Back to the accusation of the heresy of universalism: Jesus being described in The Shack as the best way instead of, correctly, as the only way (John 3:3). As I mentioned above, calling everyone "child" is scripturally incorrect. However, the passage that Mohler and Challies point to as being universal is as follows: Jesus says:
"Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”

As I mentioned above, the "system" Mack is from is American cultural Christianity. Jesus is saying that that definition of "Christian" doesn't fit, people come from all different backgrounds. Note it says they WERE Buddhists, murderers, they self-righteous--past tense! Those who are such now have no place in the Kingdom. Mack then asks for clarification:
“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?” “Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” 

 Note the "not at all" (Mohler conspicuously omits it from the passage he quotes from). That seems to contradict the alleged universalism. Jesus traveling "any road" to find me is no different then saying God extends grace to us where we are-- not of our own works or merit. I know of a pastor in Turkey who came to faith in Christ while on hajj to Mecca, he would use similar language to describe his experience. Look again at the passage about forgiving Mack's daughter's murderer. God says that he wants to "redeem" him (which I argue is just 2 Timothy 2:4), but does not say that he will be or is already redeemed.
"Believe me, the last thing this man is, is free. And you have no duty to justice in this. I will handle that." 

From the same section:

"In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship."

Now, this is obviously not Augustinian thought but I would contend it could be semi-Pelagian and still be within orthodoxy (I know plenty of Arminians who love the Lord even though I believe them to be in error). Mohler writes that a long-time friend of Young states that Young embraces “Christian universalism.” "The Shack, he concludes, 'rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation.'” If so, that is unfortunate, but I contend that it's not overtly in the book based on the evidence above. Someone who is weaker in their faith or more biblically illiterate may reach a conclusion of universalism, which is problematic. But it is not grounds for discounting the entire message of the book and the various correct Gospel illustrations it provides, as I've documented.

Mohler heavily critiques the portrayal of the trinity in a human form and Challies contends that making God in man's image is likewise a violation of the Ten Commandments. In C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus is portrayed as the lion Aslan. Is that not a violation purely because Lewis doesn't overtly write "Jesus is Aslan"? I grew up watching Superbook, The Flying House, and other cartoons that retold Bible stories, usually not with 100% accuracy. Jesus, God, angels, etc. were portrayed in these cartoons-- are they also in violation of the Ten Commandments? 

In my opinion, The Shack is a modern fictional remake of the Book of Job. In Job, we see God's interaction with Satan and in conversation with humans in a way unique in Scripture. Job is, in the words of John Piper, a book "filled with bad theology." God corrects much of it at the end of the book, redeems Job from his circumstances, and blesses him. There was little developed thought of a trinity prior to Pentecost, and if you're writing a modern Job you need all three persons of the Godhead. Young is not clever enough to write an elaborate work like Lewis or Tolkein. But both Lewis' and Tolkein's works are filled with allusions that scholars have deciphered over the years-- I contend that neither Lewis nor Tolkein's stated theology line up exactly with Challies and Mohler, but I don't see them criticizing their works in the same way as The Shack.

What should Christian fiction look like? In the 1800s, biblical fiction was much more commonplace and more like science fiction than today's Christian fiction, which mostly looks like stories about pioneer women and the Amish (judging from covers I see at Lifeway). How many imperfect illustrations and allusions and analogies do I read in non-fiction books and sermons that don't get criticized? The Shack is allegory, not an actual description of how God works or physically looks like. The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings are similarly allegory, but much more veiled (and entertaining) than The Shack. Many theologians disagree strongly with the premise in the Left Behind series of a pretribulation rapture, but those books were not widely removed from church library shelves. Those books do not have crusades against them as we see with The Shack, and I find this odd.

 There is one disturbing passage that Mohler rightly points out:
"Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”
Mack was surprised. “How can that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?”
“Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.”
“And that’s how you want us to love each other, I suppose? I mean between husbands and wives, parents and children. I guess in any relationship?”
“Exactly! When I am your life, submission is the most natural expression of my character and nature, and it will be the most natural expression of your new nature within relationships.” 

 Mohler writes: "The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being — or to all human beings — is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous." When Jesus was on earth, he submitted to his father and gave us that example. Further, he washed the disciples feet, saying "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Is it possible that is what Young is referring to? It is not clear. In the entirety of The Shack, however, Mack is exhorted by God to submit to God and to trust God-- not the other way around. God is constantly held up as sovereign and in control, whereas Mack is finite. So, it's not a book that would seem to invoke the self-worship Mohler contends. But the lack of clarity on this point is admittedly problematic, as is Young's decision not to cite any scripture in his text.

My own criticism of this book are many. It's not great fiction. The passages I've quoted above look pretty hokey. It does not cite Scripture, nor does it encourage a new believer to pick up their Bible and find out if what God says in the Shack jives with Scripture. Upon their departure, the characters tell Mack:
"And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship—a way of coming to be with us.”

That's not exactly motivation to read, but it does assume that Bible reading is an essential part of knowing and understanding God. In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. I would recommend a host of non-fiction books like Search for Significance over it. A mature believer might find the Gospel truths in the book to be illustrated well such that it speaks to his/her heart-- that is the case among the Christians I know to have read it multiple times. The majority of people I know who love this book are God-fearing people who hold up the authority of Scripture and find what they gleaned from this book to be found in Scripture. These truths can perhaps never be conveyed adequately in fiction.