Sunday, November 6, 2016

Elders Quorum 1st Sunday Lesson

Lesson given in Elders Quorum on November 6th 2016
1.     Understanding Responsibility
·         Synonyms: __________________,   __________________,   __________________.
·         What article of faith talks about responsibility for our own actions?
·         What %?
·         Surveys show that most people take credit for success for themselves, but blame failures on external forces.
                                          i.    Why do people want choice but avoid responsibility? __________________.
·         What are some of the things people say or do to try to avoid responsibility?
·         Famous excuses:
                                          i.    1 Samuel 15:13-15,20-22,24: (Who did he blame?) __________________.
                                         ii.    Other excuses: ____________________________________.
·         Excuses do not correct mistakes. They do not = __________________.
·         What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? __________________­­­­
                                          i.    1 Nephi 19:6 (Nephi)
                                         ii.    Moses 4: 17-20 (Adam & Eve)
2.     The power of Responsibility
·         Responsibility is a willingness to confront fears, guilt and embarrassment
                                          i.    It is a willingness to see and accept yourself as the one in control of your life, then to seize control of the conditions that produce your success and happiness and allow dreams (faith & hope) to be realized.
                                         ii.    Three traits necessary for high effectiveness:
1.     Confidence: Hebrews 10: 35-39, D&C 121: 45, 1 John 3: 18-22 (Cognitive Dissonance). Segue—Faith and Humility— Helaman 3: 35
2.     Humility: 2 Nephi 9: 42, Ether 12: 39 (Humility of Christ), Culture—People of Limhi (Mosiah 21) vs. People of Alma (Mosiah 24), Proverbs 18: 12
3.     Impulse Control: Mosiah 3:19 (Natural Man); Ether 12: 27, Jacob 4: 7, Stanford and Rochester Marshmallow Tests
                                        iii.    Power to turn the other cheek & Forgive
                                        iv.    Power to seek guidance
                                         v.    Power to confess and repent
3.     Being Responsible / Taking control “If it is to be, It’s up to me.”
·         Assuming responsibility increases our __________________ & __________________, while blaming, making excuses, self-justifying, and self-pity limit our options and control. If others are at fault and have to change before further progress is made then others are in __________________ of the outcome or desired results.
·         Agency and responsibility are inseparable and interdependent principles—you cannot avoid one without also __________________ the other.
·         The Courageous man finds a way, the other man finds an excuse.” Elder David B. Haight. (1 Nephi 3: 13-15 — Nephi vs. Laman & Lemuel).
·         Acknowledging that you are responsible for messing up your own life gives you the power to change things.” (How Could You Do That: The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience, Dr. Laura Schlessinger)
4.     Responsibility and repentance—primary gifts & keys
·         Primary Gifts of the Gospel—Agency & Responsibility
·         Primary Keys of the Gospel—Remember (Faith) & Repent
                                          i.    Keys unlock the power of the Gospel and open opportunities for growth.
Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man. … Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any possession earth can give” (David O. McKay; in Conference Report, Apr. 1950, p. 32).
·         Can the lord look upon sin with any degree of allowance? (Alma 45: 16)
·         Which of God’s Laws demands 100% responsibility for sin? (Alma 42: 25)
                                          i.    Justice requires that we take 100% responsibility.
1.     Does the atonement absolve us of responsibility for our sins? __________________.
2.     Is this absolution free/unconditional/automatic? __________________.
3.     What is our responsibility? __________________.
                                         ii.    Mercy allows us the opportunity to progress by providing us a mechanism to correct mistakes and address weaknesses.
                                        iii.    Faith is the dynamic driving force of recognition, correction, and progression. Avoid obvious, large sins through obedience and correct small sins/transgressions through repentance.
“In order to have success, you must increase your failure rate.” – Thomas Watson, Founder of IBM
·         Faith requires that our desire for success is greater than our fear of failure—never let fear dominate our decisions or actions. (Life Choices—Anxiety and confidence).
·         What is the first step in the repentance process?                     __________________
·         What does responsibility have to do with this first step?           __________________
·         Is spiritual growth possible without recognizing sin in our life? __________________
“The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none. – Thomas Carlyle, quoted in The Miracle of Forgiveness Ch. 3
·         What does the Gift of Confession have to do with 100% responsibility? __________________

The Anti-Christ Doctrine: men are not responsible for their own actions.
      Alma 1: 4     Nehor – Save by grace alone, not responsible for our desires/actions.
      Alma 18: 5   Lamoni – Tradition/nurture, they could do no wrong
Alma 30: 17 Korihor – “whatsoever a man did was no crime.” (also, Alma 31: Zoramites).
2 Nephi 28: 8-9– “justify us in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little…”
D&C 93: 39 – 2 ways of the adversary: 1) Disobedience, 2) Cultural Tradition

·         Self – Justification
Trying to pay the law of Justice with an excuse (rationalization)
Trying to become our own savior with an excuse
The Enemy of Repentance is self-justification” Spencer W. Kimball
What is the consequence of Self-justification? (D&C 121: 37) __________________
·         Christ’s Justification and Mercy: (Luke 18: 9-14; Alma 34: 15-18)
Justification: to receive a remission of sins and be declared free of the responsibility of sin.
Man becomes justified through the grace of the Savior as a result of faith exercised in Him. That faith is demonstrated through repentance and obedience to the commandments and ordinances of the gospel. The atonement of Jesus Christ makes repentance and justification possible for all mankind. Thus justified, he is forgiven the consequences that he would otherwise receive.
If we take 100% responsibility, the Savior with pay for our sins.
·         When we excuse, procrastinate, hide, or blame our sins on outside forces, what are we denying? (Alma 42: 30). __________________
Why does the Lord Chasten us? (D&C 95: 1) __________________
When we aren’t responsible to God, we lose control to Satan

6.    How does our father in heaven feel about personal responsibilty?


·         What about those who are lukewarm? __________________
·         What about those who are not lazy and say they have a willing heart, but are too busy, or they don’t have the time? Where are they in the spectrum? __________________
7.    Responsibility for / to others (Am I my brother’s keeper?)
Love our Spouse and Family:
·         It is a commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” [Matt. 22:37, 39]. This is a command that requires a decision.
·         “Ye will teach them [your children] to love one another, and to serve one another” (Mosiah 4:15). How can something be taught that cannot be learned? __________________
·         Command to love our spouse: “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” (D&C 42:22).
·         “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34; emphasis added). Loving as He loved is a higher form of love than loving “as thyself.” It is a pure love that puts another higher than self.
·         This pure love is the same love that should exist between husbands and wives. In Ephesians. 5:25, the Apostle Paul exhorts, “Husbands, love your wives, [How?] even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” How, then, did Christ love the Church? __________________

                                          i.     1 Corinthians 13:1–8 and Moroni 7:44–47

Acknowledgement: Parts of this lesson owe much of their material that was derived from articles, and talks given by Stephen Covey and Elder Lynn G. Robbins.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Movie: The Lorax

In Hollywoodland, evil corporations and bourgeois consumerist middle class leads to the destruction of the environment, but in the real world it is due to central planning, lack of property rights, and a conspicuous absence of the middle class that leads to the destruction of the environment (rich people don't use public parks, Hollywood has those posh riviera resorts, and government party leaders have their mountain retreats). Fact: there are no trees in North Korea. Fact: America has more forestland than it did in the 1940s or the 1920s. Fact: you are more likely to die from environmental hazards in communist countries which totally lack private property and corporations than anywhere in the capitalist West. Fact: only carpet bombing a city would be a more efficient way to destroy the environment than rent controls and public housing. In my mind, having reasonable commons protection and externalities regulation in addition to a flourishing middle class is the best way to protect the environment. That's not to say that we shouldn't be mindful of excessive consumerism, but we shouldn't make up narratives that contradict reality.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Confidence Men by Ron Suskind

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a PresidentConfidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President by Ron Suskind
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a point at which journalism turns into historiography, when the current events have passed sufficiently to allow the historian beach-comber to piece together a more comprehensive representation of the events. This was one of those first historical accounts to emerge from the nascent Obama administration. The author was given plenty of access to the President and his economic team in writing this book. Previously, Ron Suskind had written critically of Pres. Bush and so perhaps the administration thought that Suskind was ‘on their side.’ That extraordinary access provides a clear look into President Obama’s management style, thinking, and the resulting conflict and success in his first two years.

There are several themes that run through this book. It is principally rooted in the events and people surrounding the 2007 financial meltdown and aftermath. It is not a rosy assessment of Pres. Obama or his economic team, which Suskind labels the ‘B-team’ of Summers, Geithner, Romer, &co.. The book outlines how many of these advisors were the very people who sowed the seeds of financial collapse by removing the laws that resulted in the 2007 financial collapse during the final hours of the Clinton Administration. It was interesting to read about how Wall Street financiers were able to cloak the true market price and risk of their collateralized debt obligation derivatives by operating financial cartels (Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Citibank), and backed up by low-interest non-risk adjusted lending and a quasi-governmental business that was essentially guaranteed not to fail (Fanny May and Freddie Mac).

The focus of the book, however shows Obama administration reacted to the crisis, and can be summed up in the words of Larry Summers who said they were ‘home alone’ in the white house (his full quote was “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”). President Obama did exhibit his grasp of the issues, however he saw his role as more a storyteller in chief who needed to instill confidence in the American People by inspiring them to greatness rather than by substantive ‘administration’ or legislative work. This resulted in a supremely dysfunctional administration where actions and agendas were constantly being relitigated, ignored, or pursued independently of other administration officials. President Obama serves more as an impartial sage moderating the bickering amongst his staff, all the while nothing is actually accomplished. For example, the supposed chief accomplishment of the Obama administration, Health Care Reform, took a year before Nancy Pelosi was able to get the bill to President Obama with almost zero input from the administration (a fact that enraged Nancy Pelosi). That’s not the worst managerial flaw of this administration—as the book points out, which is the burdensome and pervasive sexism of the good-ol’-boy mingled with the juvenile boy’s only basketball and golf games that clearly favored men.

Having read the books chronically the Bush Administration written by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, and Bush himself, I find it interesting to compare the two administrations up to this point. Sure, Bush’s administration had similar problems with e.g., Condoleezza Rice taking action before getting approval from the President—a degree of power assumption is par for the course with such a large unwieldy administration, but whereas Bush saw himself as a decider, Obama appears to see himself as the inspirer—a movement president who actualizes greatness through the sheer force of words and speeches. Perhaps Bush was less curious (although he was reportedly a voracious reader of history and non-fiction), and perhaps Bush’s intellect was not so grand (although this too seems to be overstated since his grades were in fact comparable to both his opponents Kerry and Gore). Even so, it will be interesting to see how the clarifying hindsight of history compares both of these presidents: one, the decider, and the other, the inspirer.

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The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a finance layman who isn't as familiar with the craft except on the individual, micro level, I was interested in reading this book to clarify in my mind the way real equity capital (is there really such a thing?) works along with derived financial products such as stocks, bonds, options, etc.. I typically read a series of books of the same theme, and as I just finished Pinker's 'Better Angels' about the decline of violence and the blossoming of culture--including the role of good government, I decided to pick this book up to better understand how the increasing complexity and liquidity of finance has helped industrious citizens and countries prosper. This is a poorly understood topic (not helped by the populist demagogues who amass power by investing ignorance twinged with the black sin of envy on the public)-a subject that when properly understood and followed can produce general wealth and social flourishing.

The book runs through a history of finance from the Babylonian times through the Medici up past the engineering of corporate and national bonds as a mechanism to finance enterprise and finally through the most recent advances in finance that have incorporated the massive computing power and statistics that have generated incredible fortunes as well as incredible losses. As with any complex political or economic instrument there are bumps along the way that usually increases the efficiency of the instrument--sometimes through catastrophe, or that reveal some essential flaw in the instrument, which is then promptly discarded. The book runs through many of these forays into financial innovation and the constructive and/or destructive consequences for society. The cultural attitudes towards money, profit, greed and wealth through the centuries are explored as well.

By the end of the book I had a better appreciation for the progress we have made in finance and continue to wonder at how, like the building of a great city, the efforts of individuals come together to erect a system that is almost too complicated to understand in real-time for any one person or group, but that simply works to the benefit of every member. I have lived in broken societies with failed governments (Nicaragua--two years), and have experienced the effects of political phenomena such as hyperinflation as well as the social turmoil that comes from diminished wealth accumulation and credit, and this book helped me understand better the reasons for these financial failures.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence and Flourishing of Humanity

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
--The Federalist, No. 51, James Madison

This is easily one of the best books of 2011, and I suppose it must already be earmarked as a Pulitzer finalist. It’s about violence, but so much more than that since it strikes at the very core of human nature, the human condition, government, economics, and moral philosophy. Stephen Pinker starts with a simple premise—proving the decline of violence in modern times. This apparently is so controversial to some that he meticulously plots the decline of violence with great historical and statistical detail—this is the descriptive ‘what’ that Dr. Pinker illustrates in the first 2/3rds of the book. The writing is absorbing even if it rings a mildly irreverent tone that betrays a subtle anti-religious bias (especially vis-à-vis politico-religious violence of the Roman Catholic and Old Testament societies—he was a roommate of Harold Bloom after all and is a dedicated humanist) that includes some humorous satire and contemporary references to lighten the mood of such a grim topic. Indeed, his graphic descriptions of torture, rape, suffering and grotesque sadism is enough for even the most macabre minds. Stephen Pinker is a true evolutionary scientist who is adroit in the heuristic of categorization and you can find lists, and lists of lists to aid in understanding the narrative he describes.
For example, the declining trend of violence is broken down into these historical themes:
1) The Pacification Process—our evolution from hunter/gatherers into political, agrarian societies.
2) The Civilizing Process—included the consolidation of feudal economies into larger kingdoms and empires with central authority, trade and economic specialization.
3) The Humanitarian Revolution—17th and 18th century that marked the that included the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment
4) The Long Peace—a result of a Kantian trifecta of 1) Democracy, 2) Trade and 3) International organizations
5) The New Peace—arising out of a U.S. led post-cold war globalized world
6) The Rights Revolutions—exhibited a more finely filtered intolerance of violence on smaller scales that included violence against minorities, women, children, and animals.

Within these historical themes we see five major historical forces that helped snuff out violence:
1) The Leviathan—this includes a Hobbesian social contract which grants to the state a full monopoly on the use of violence from within
2) Gentle Commerce—closely connected to #4 this force increases economic incentives for cooperation
3) Feminization—results in a decline of authoritarian/patriarchal based societies and the empowerment of women as intellectual equals who tend to be more risk-averse and less violent
4) The Expanding Circle—from a mixture of globalization, commerce, and increased access to information this purportedly increases sympathy and helped usher in the Rights revolution that even extended to animals
5) The Escalator of Reason—leading to higher levels of intelligence and emotional empathy in conjunction with more sophisticated foundation for managing moralized concerns in favor of the flourishing of all humanity

The second part of the book is what really interested me and seeks to elaborate the psychological factors that dictate our behavior depending on their interplay with our environment and circumstance. Here the statistical reasoning is a little more squishy and correlational residuals are not quite as well characterized—perhaps leading to creeping confirmational bias. Put aside these minor critiques of this part of the book, the ability to marshal data from such varied fields of study as anthropology, economics (including game theory), social psychology, and cognitive neuroscience into a coherent and powerful explanation of the decline of violence.

Factors that influence violence are broken down into two categories of human nature: Demons that incite to violence and Angels that slaken the thirst for blood. The demons include the primal urge to dominance, revenge, sadism including the banality of evil, and ideologically driven moralized violence. On the other side of the ledger are qualities such as empathy (or more importantly sympathy, Dr. Pinker distinguishes the two), self-control, our moral sense, and reason. Here, the meat of the book can be found in the chapters on the moral sense. Stephen Pinker adapts from the ethics, moral foundations, and relational models of moral reasoning of other people like Shweder, Haidt, and Fiske. First, to understand the psychology of moral reasoning (as opposed to objective moral truth itself), we are to understand that moralized beliefs are more than just the avoidance of something distasteful, but is a ‘distinctive mode of thinking about an action’. Thus, moralized beliefs are universalized (should apply to everybody), actionable, and punishable. These beliefs spring from relationships since, in Pinker’s view, evolution acted upon the population and there is no such thing as a philosophically independent human being. Moralized norms generally include relationships, a context (at home, in the street, at church, at work, at the beach, etc.), and are centered around a resource (information or knowledge, food, money, land, sex, labor, etc.). These relationships upon which socioeconomic moral reasoning is based are divided into 4 categories:
1) Communal Sharing—the most basic tribal foundation for moral reasoning emphasizing in-group loyalty, also includes sacred or pure values that are shared within a group and reinforced through rituals and periodic but specific contextual references.
2) Authority Ranking—e.g., military, paternalistic, totalitarian/fascist, divine right etc.
3) Equality Matching—gifts, tit-for-tat, first relational moralized norm to recognize individual autonomy, fairness, and reciprocal altruism
4) Market Pricing/Rational-legal—much more complex relational model of morality that incorporates universal ethical principles, a high level of individual rights, rule-of-law, social contract orientation, and requires a high level of literacy and numeracy along with a grasp of information technology and access to data on price, costs, benefits, risks, alternatives, etc.

As an explanation of the basis of moralized norms this seems quite well-developed and accurate. As I read through this chapter, the current debate over the allocation of scarce health care resources came to mind as a good illustration of this relational model of moral reasoning. The argument is usually centered on the diametric poles of the relational models between communal sharing of universalized health care to rational-legal/market pricing model. Here again we see that moralized norms require more than facile affirmation of one or the other relational models since the specific contexts and resources are important. Which relational model should be employed in the state of emergency, or when the resource is a human organ in which a dead individual does not benefit, or when the allocation of the resource in the community is considered a sacred good such as the right to life-sustaining medicine.

Personally, I see a need for a hybrid system that protects sacred values of life, and the protection of the vulnerable (e.g., the elderly and children) with market-pricing and equality matching for preventative or non-emergent care should the patient choose--respecting the autonomy of the patient to make the most rational choice given the risks, costs, benefits, and alternatives. The difficulty with market-based health care, just like the difficulty of running a democracy that this market-based/equality matching system is only functional for the government of a citizenry that is based on the moral foundation of reciprocal altruism and rational-legal system of checks and balances. Like a functioning democracy, a market-based health care system requires high literacy and numeracy rates as well as the dissemination of pricing/cost information (something that the AMA has consistently blocked by restricting access to ICT coding for purposes of pricing across hospitals, specialties and regions). This leads to corruption in which supposed medical principles (e.g., doctors and hospitals who have a fiduciary and moral duty to remain financially disinterested in patient decisions) have the ability to obfuscate their own cost and market prices. With these established cartels, it's not difficult to enrich oneself by choking off a few grains of sand at strategic locations in the billions-dollar health care economy. In this model, there is no difference between the orthopedic surgeon recommending back surgery (that evidence from the Dartmouth ATLAS study shows actually does more harm than good), and the Goldman Sachs executives who traded in collateralized debt obligations, which they 1) controled the price through financial cartels, and 2) were at the same time shorting (had proprietary knowledge that they were bad investments and thus were insuring at low cost against loss of these supposed AAA-rated investments).

Some favor total universalization of health care based on moral norms, but I simply think this ancient hunter-gatherer communal-based economy is insufficient for the maximization of public good by actually rationing health care resources away from those who by definition need it most (e.g., through price controls and misallocation of scarce resources). Just because other industrialized nations have atavistic central rationing of health care as a vestigial throw-back to the devastation of the post-WWII days when virtually every single resource was rationed (e.g., labor, currency, food, shelter, etc.) is not sufficient rationale for a complex and advance economy like the U.S. to regress to the communal-sharing model of health care delivery.

Finally, Stephen Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and a progressive and here his confirmation bias shines through quite strongly in my view. Much has been made of the Flynn effect that made the claim that IQs are actually increasing as people today are evolving on an organic and biological level to be more intelligent than those who came before us just a few decades ago. I and not quite persuaded by the data just yet. Furthermore, there is an assumption that modern western elites who exert social control are currently and likely to continue in the progressive beneficial model; this may be a bit too optimistic. The utility of some form of the Hobbesian social contract for the government monopoly of violence and justice is pretty clearly established by Dr. Pinker, however, caution is warranted in today’s modern age when an fewer and fewer of our ‘best-and-brightest’ sociopolitical/cultural prophets can do increasingly greater damage. This is a view that Pinker seems to acknowledge, but dismiss this line of thinking by citing historical data that the introduction of nuclear weapons or other WMD are uncorrelated residuals in the decline of violence. However historical data do not necessarily determine future relationships between the concentration of greater technical power into the increasingly fewer hands of elite social engineers and the decline of violence.

With the exception of those minor critiques, however, I am sure this book will contribute greatly to our cultural understanding of the psychology of violence, and by extention, peace. The ideas found here will no doubt be debated everywhere from college bowl sessions up to the halls of congress. This can only be a good thing since the overriding theme of the book is a very well-qualified optimism for the flourishing of humanity.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Walter Issacson's Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First the disclaimer: I own an iPhone, but have never really been too drawn into the Apple phenomenon. I appreciate art, but I also appreciate learning how things work and tinkering—something that is impossible with Apple products. My interest in Steve Jobs is as a cultural and business innovator. I am interested in his success and creativity. I wanted to see what type of personality could influence culture in so many beneficial ways.

I picked this book up after reading Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer, so it was interesting to contrast the two personalities—as Plutarch’s Lives. Both sought to change contemporary culture, and both dedicated their lives to a certain core principles that would pave the path of their lives. Both possessed a high level of emotional intelligence that allowed them to influence people in remarkable ways; for Bonhoeffer it was his ability to evade detection as a principle conspirator against the Nazi power regime even though he was in full view at the center of influential German society, and for Jobs it was his uncanny ability to elicit greatness in people around him to invent, innovate and produce. The difference was in their core principles: Jobs believed in creating aesthetically and technically great products based on simplicity, hope, and wonder, whereas Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to complete submission to God’s will through revelation and action. Jobs’s focus was immediate and temporal that seemed to treat other individuals around himself as a means to achieve his ideal of producing great products—while Bonhoeffer’s ethics extended past his own existence and art and was swallowed up in God’s will. Thus, Bonhoeffer viewed other people as ends in themselves. It is true that at times Bonhoeffer would employ deception to fool his adversaries in the Nazi regime; however deception and even assassination were tools that were to be used only in the honoring and defending of life; which in his case included the lives of millions of Jews.

Steve Jobs was a law unto himself often ignoring vulgarities like license plates, speeding tickets, or cost overruns. He was prickly, demanding, and self-centered in the way he commandeered other’s talents and efforts. For example, Jobs went through dozens of nurses before settling on one whom he could accept to take care of him. Bonhoeffer was introspective and a friend to nearly every man except those who he worked to thwart in their murderous ambition. In his days imprisoned at Tegal military prison where he became such good friends with the guards and inmates that he was able to move about freely within the prison ministering to the guards and other inmates.
In the final moments of each of these great men’s lives, Jobs worked tirelessly to leave a progressing legacy in the form of his company. He was skeptical of ultimate existence outside of his mortal life, but refused to shut the door on the possibility. This is one reason why Steve Jobs refused to have power buttons on any of his products. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand was resolute and calm in his last he is reported to have said just before his execution “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life”.

Steve Jobs changed the world, and underlying his highly developed sense of art and technology was a shadow of ethics that emphasized innocence, simplicity, hope, creativity, and progress. This is seen in the way he participated in the creation of the most beautiful children’s movies and his ban of pornographic or explicitly violent apps on his devices. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand probably didn’t do much to change the arc of history; including the implacable Nazi evil that was unleashed in the 1930s and 40s. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that it is ethics of people like Bonhoeffer who, while living their ordinary lives and sacrificing with dignity and decency who are the true heroes that make our world flourish. Steve Jobs was a phenomenon who was very gifted, but who also benefited from the love of a hard-working parents and a stable home that provided the fertile ground for his creativity.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Book review

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I must say that I have put off writing a review of this wonderful man’s biography feeling myself inadequate to put words to the nobility, goodness, and grand heroism of his life. However, not putting thoughts to paper would not do the man’s life justice.

Bonhoeffer’s razor-sharp intellect complemented an unalloyed moral integrity that combined in a man who rose to the top ranks of the few noble Germans who pushed back against the Nazi leviathan. His constant efforts to influence and resist the evil that surrounded him sprang from a rigorously cultivated personal moral script that is so lacking in today’s post-modern state of confusion (e.g., the top-down/bottom up dearth of moral certitude in the case of the Penn state sex abuse scandal rife from the student body to the University President). The central tenant of that moral script written by hours of study, meditation, and selfless service of others was the same that we have seen from others on the road of discipleship: Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and yes I would include Joseph Smith. That tenant is summed up in the acceptance of suffering in total mortal defeat in submission to Christ in hope of transcending this brutish, nasty world of sin. Bonhoeffer spoke of the need for costly grace and eschewing the ethical laziness offered in popular sermons as a false hope thinly disguised in the tawdry garb of cheap grace.

Some ne’er-do-well critics of the Latter-day Saint religious expression is that their theology of duty and service is nothing more than a babelian attempt to ‘buy salvation’. Bonhoeffer seems to reject such facile reasoning with his strenuous Christian struggle for costly grace.

Another pearl I gleamed from Bonhoeffer was his insistence in a living revelatory faith that compelled him to action. Bonhoeffer seemed to accept God’s will unreservedly by deep personal experience and not just through theological training. And this revelatory faith propelled him to understand his fellow man (both good and evil) and act accordingly. It was the surprising paralysis and capitulation of the German Church to the evil of Nazism that brought Bonhoeffer to this revelatory moment where he saw his personal calling of God to bring life to the church even though it be through the shedding of his own blood in martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer’s life was ended in the final hours of the Third Reich by the evil men whom he so forcefully resisted. It is a testament to his legacy that he fully accepted the consequences of his righteous action, and that he was so effective that those he opposed spent the precious few last moments of their ill-gotten power to destroy him.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historical writing is a difficult endeavor since it requires rigorous detail integration as well as a special kind of fact-based imagination and faith to bring the full rich, subtle texture of the people, places, and events into full bloom. Laura Hillenbrand's high-fidelity use of language to put the reader in the times could be as good as the David McCullough's, except she has this great power to evoke and connect personally; that served as a conduit between Louis Zamperini and me. She is able to bring specific moments in the life of this remarkable person into sharp poignancy as she recounts his experiences in intimate detail. For example, there's a beautiful passage where the Louis and another castaway were past starvation towards the latter-end of a 47 day journey at sea in a rubber raft where the winds calm and ocean turns to glass. It was in that moment that Louis was filled with such sublime joy and peace as he looked over the ocean and sky even though he had lost almost half his weight and was on the precipice of death. That moment resurfaced later in the tent of a Billy Graham revival as Louis was struggling with hatred and revenge, alcoholism and imminent divorce. This one moment of sublime peace was the miracle that leavened his soul to spring up into a miracle of forgiveness and redemption from the evil visited upon him by nature and by the evil intentions of his prison guards.

There are other harbingers and signals that give added meaning to the events in the book like the train whistle that Louis heard in the prison camp that reminded him of his childhood running away from home in a train, or the scars that accumulated on his body that told the story of his life that would reappear later in the book, or the role of running in Louis's life.

This is a book about physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance that pushed one man to his absolute limits, and ultimately about the real miraculous power of Christ's redeeming atonement to assuage the physical and spiritual evil/dischord that is part of the Human Condition.

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Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had this book on my 'to-read' list for a couple of years now. Initially, I was drawn to learn more about this man who was the illegitimate son of a bankrupt farmer living in the culturally rancid West Indies where more slaves were imported than the entire 13 American Colonies combined. To think about what Alexander Hamilton overcame to become the man he was is quite inspirational. He was an autodidact of the classical type who worked with indefatigable passion and expediency. He was courageous on the battlefield, and became the singular friend and confidant of General Washington in the revolution and during the 8 years of Washington’s presidency. In his time of service as the Secretary of Treasury he single-handedly designed and erected the largest branch of the federal government at the time which would, within a generation, place the United States on an economic footing that would rival that of the major world powers and eventually help propel the United States to become the manufacturer and bank of the world. Hamilton was also instrumental, with the help of Madison, in the establishment of our federalist system of government that endured the crucible of the War between the States and has since proven to be one of the most stable, free, and prosperous forms of government of a virtuous people ever created.

It was a bit painful reading about Hamilton’s affair with the unscrupulous Maria Reynolds, but it is also instructive to see how men of such talent and capacity fall from grace—as a caution to others. In the end, Hamilton was undone by a political foe who killed him in cold blood during a duel after Hamilton refused the first shot. It was an amazing life and a personality that was precisely situated to in a key role to midwife the creation of the greatest nation in history, and the last best hope of Man.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This first-in-the-series gateway into Robert Jordan's massive imaginary world was interesting with some good characters (that at times may seem a little one-dimentional--especially the female characters). All in all it was very articulate and vividly described. The action sequences seemed a little punctuated and not quite as good as his static descriptions. All in all, I enjoy entering into fiction and exercising my imagination, and this was an plesant way to accomplish that.

A word about Jordan's mythology:

This is a coming-of-age mixed with messianic/demigod-like myth tale. The one problem I have with it being a Christian is that it borrows from Hindu and eastern concepts (e.g., the 'Wheel' of time) as well as greek mythology where gods are no more than extremly powerful men who simply treat non-gods as chess peices for their own leisurly pleasure. This compared to Tolkien's creation myth of the father, Eru Iluvatar, and the singing of the first song that is, although perhaps not explicitly Christian, distinctly drawn from fundamental truths that comprise Christian theology of the creation and fall.

On the other hand, Jordan's Rand al'Thor seems to derive from a mixture savior/demigod theme that perhaps is about as satisfying a mythology for me in comparison as a faded picture of the golden valley is to a stroll through it's trails. If you are going to introduce a supernatural force, then this yin/yang kind of equilibrium just will never do for me. I need a more absolute footing from which my imagination might wonder and hope. I can tell Robert Jordan placed a great deal of thought into the concepts of the Wheel of Time in crafting his savior-tale, but will there be some absolute resolution and a permenant golden valley or gray haven's? What of the conflict of good vs. evil. In Tolkien or even Rowling's Potter we never doubt the supremacy of good over evil. Jordan's themes are circular and cyclical. Like the Hindu swastika or the proverbial snake eating it's tail it turns in on itself and answers the question with an inanimate object that signifies everything and nothing. Will this change--time will tell; or as they say: "The wheel turns as the wheel wills."

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