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Book Review: Hope Beyond Cure

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We will all, one day, die. That realisation can be a terrifying thought, and one that we are remarkably good at pushing to the back of our minds, but we all have to face it at some point.

Nothing sets you face to face with your own mortality quite as squarely as stage-4 lung cancer. In Hope Beyond Cure, David McDonald tells the story of his own cancer diagnosis. After twenty years of pastoring Crossroads Christian Church in Canberra (my own home church, when I’m in that part of the world), he and his family were getting ready to move and get involved in ministry all the way over in Darwin when cancer arrived and completely demolished their plans. Within a couple of weeks, he went from having big hopes for future ministry to looking at probable death within about a year. This little book is about the hope Dave has — real and powerful hope — even in the midst of his cancer.

Dave notes that there are many things that can give us hope during our life. We can have hope in medicines, in a healthy lifestyle and in loving relationships with others. He reminds us that these are all good things, but, ultimately, they don’t bring lasting hope — all of these things will come to an end with death. Instead, Dave’s primary purpose is to point to a deeper hope, a hope beyond death. He warns us against getting so caught up in the very good hopes that we have in medicine and lifestyle and all the rest that we forget about the very best hope we have — the only hope that will last. I think nearly all of us, in our quest to ignore the reality of death, do this only too often.

So what is this “best hope”, this hope beyond death? Dave explains that it is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and “the reality that Jesus Christ was crucified, buried in a tomb, and then resurrected from the dead”. He clearly explains that our deepest problem is “not cancer — it’s sin”. It is as a result of our sin that God has allowed pain and suffering to come into the world, but he still loves us and sent Jesus to suffer our punishment in our place. “We can find hope in the face of our own deaths by placing our faith in Jesus’s death. Without Jesus we’re headed for death and judgement, but with Jesus we can look forward to a hope-filled future in relationship with God.”

Dave is careful to show his audience that this hope based on faith in the gospel of Jesus is not misplaced; it is not a crutch invented to soften the difficult reality of death. He honestly tells us how, when faced with his own death, he began to question whether the message he had believed was real. He had to be completely sure. In the book, he shares with us some of the things that have convinced him that his faith is absolutely based on the truth, including the persuasive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a really important part of the book, because it shows us that this “hope” is not about making dying people feel good — it’s a genuine, substantial hope that’s based on verifiable truth.

Not only does Dave remind us of the wonderful hope we have in Jesus, he shows us how this hope should influence our life. “…faith and hope set us free to love. We know longer need to worry about our own needs, because God has them covered. And so faith and hope set us free to live — right here and now, even in the midst of pain and suffering — in love”. He reminds us how Jesus suffered terrible things, and how God worked through that terrible suffering to bring us hope. “In a similar way, God is able to bring about great good through our pain and suffering.” Dave relates how God has used his own suffering with lung cancer for great purposes, including in helping him to show love in various ways to others affected by cancer. This was quite inspiring and challenging, I found, because it shows how our hope is not just a passive thing, an insurance, rather it’s something that should motivate us to reach outwards and bring hope and love to others.

Hope Beyond Cure is only a short book, but it’s very encouraging and also potentially quite confronting. It’s a great book to read and to give to anyone: Christian or non-Christian; healthy or sick; young or old. We will all die one day, and we all need to be reminded about the hope that exists beyond cure because of what Jesus has done. It’s especially powerful because it is written by someone who has experienced cancer himself, and been faced with death. It doesn’t feel trite or superficial or misguided: it’s honest and real, as written by someone who has grappled with the big questions that we all have to grapple with some time (but that most of us are putting off).

I will also add that this book has been especially encouraging for me because I know Dave’s family personally, especially his two younger children. I’ve been very encouraged by them and their faith, which was clearly strong even when their Dad was diagnosed. It makes the book all the more powerful, because you can see how their hope actually impacts their lives.

If you want to get a copy of this book, I believe you can order it from http://www.matthiasmedia.com in the US or http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au in the rest of the world. You can also read more stuff from Dave at his blog, macarisms.com.

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Book Review: Mockingjay *Spoilers!*

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was the very first book I paid to get on my Kindle. Its ardent fans swarmed the YWP NaNo WriMo website in such great numbers that I was willing to put down $5 for it without even bothering to get the free sample. And it was worth it. But at the end of the book, the story was clearly not over: Katniss may have survived the arena — and Peeta too — but she had got on the wrong side of the president of Panem himself. And, possibly of greater importance, she still had one too many suitors. So I willingly forked out $15 for the next two books: Catching Fire, the first rumblings of rebellion, and then Mockingjay, the final struggle between Katniss and the Capitol.

Having read Catching Fire, I am glad I read Mockingjay (though it may have been best to stop after The Hunger Games). It was a legitimate ending to the series. Collins’ style was much the same as in the first two books; the same first person present tense, the same dark intensity, the same dramatic chapter endings. The storyline was different — there was no Hunger Games — but we’ve been waiting for a showdown between the Districts and the Capitol ever since the end of the first book. Was the showdown good? In some ways it was; in many ways it wasn’t. Let’s look at it.

When Katniss became the Mockingjay and they started filming her first inspirational message, I didn’t like it one bit. The whole thing was so fake and scripted. It might have looked okay on television in the Districts, but it was clear I would hate a book-full of painfully fake telecast recordings. However I think Collins expected a response something like this, and indeed played for it. She used Katniss’s ineptness as a TV star as an excuse to send her to dangerous zones, despite the fact District 13 would be protective of someone they spent so much on rescuing. Katniss’s courageous acts in war zones (like shooting down Capitol aeroplanes) were far more inspirational than her telecasts, and there was more scope for suspense and danger there too. Even so, they were still a long way from her inspirational best — which we haven’t really seen since The Hunger Games.

One of the biggest shocks in the entire trilogy-ful of shocks was when Peeta turned against Katniss. District 13 rescued Peeta from the Capitol, and when Katniss went to visit him, he throttled her. From about three quarters of the way through The Hunger Games and then all the way through Catching Fire, Collins has built Peeta’s love for Katniss into a universal constant. So she could hardly have created a greater effect had she reversed the law of gravity (and this isn’t Phil Phorce).

In terms of plot, I think this was a good move by Collins: it provides a necessary and unexpected twist in their relationship. Does it seem wrong though to make Peeta’s steadfastness so easily vanquishable? At first I thought so, but in the end he managed to mostly overcome the effects: his love was that strong. As they journeyed through the Capitol, Peeta frequently argued for his own death — or if they would not kill him, at the very least tie him up — to keep him from killing anyone. So I don’t think this showed Peeta to be weak: if anything it highlights the strength of his character that he would rather die than endanger those he loves.

In The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Katniss was in the clutches of the hostile Capitol, so there was great scope for danger. In Mockingjay, however, she is under the protection of District 13. Thankfully, about two thirds of the way through, she is assigned to a sharp-shooter squad and things start to go wrong.

Firstly, Peeta was added to the squad. Since Peeta’s mind still partly thought that Katniss was a muttation, this put her life in danger.

Then Boggs, the squadron leader and one of the few people Katniss got along with, stepped on a mine and died within minutes. Strangely, in a way this was a good thing for Katniss. Katniss had been wanting to steal the holo (the 3-D map of the pods) from Boggs and make off to assassinate President Snow. But since she was indebted to Boggs, it would have been a major twinge  of conscience to do so. With Boggs’s dying breath, he transferred control of the holo from himself to Katniss.

Once Katniss had control of the holo, she revealed her plan to assassinate Snow, claiming that it was a secret mission. Everybody came along with her and they travelled underground across the Capitol. Strewn across it, just like above ground, were pods, and before long the Capitol sent muttations after them.

Most of their party perishes in that journey, including Finnick. Finnick’s death was for me the most tragic death of all up to that point. Not because I necessarily liked him better than the other characters (though he was likeable enough), but because he had just married Annie, the slightly deranged girl he loved so much. What would poor Annie do now that Finnick was dead, go totally insane? The marriage was a rare happy point during the book. But what does Collins do when she creates something happy, something good? She destroys it. Characters are only built up so that they make more of an impact when they are taken away.

When the remnants of the squad reached the heart of the Capitol, Katniss and Gale go to kill Snow. Gale was taken by peacekeepers on the way, and Katniss arrived at Snow’s mansion alone. She arrived just in time to see Prim killed by a bomb.

For me this is narrowly eclipsed Finnick’s death as the climax of tragedy in the series. If there was any lingering doubt that the series was a tragedy story, it is vanquished with this grand final stroke. The irony; the irony. Prim was not a terribly major character — to be honest, I think she was underdone —  but she was the one who got the whole thing rolling; it was for her that Katniss entered that first Hunger Games. The first courageous thing Katniss did in the series, perhaps the most courageous thing Katniss did in the series, was to volunteer to enter the Hunger Games in order to protect Prim from death. And now, at the end of the series, Katniss fails. Prim dies.

This may have been the climax of tragedy, but it was not the final tragic blow. The next thing that I found terrible, that destroyed any respect that I had for Katniss (and I had plenty in the first book, but it  eroded as the series has progressed) happened on the day of Snow’s execution. Coin suggested a final Hunger Games, a Hunger Games of Capitol children, to punish their parents for their oppression of the districts. She asked the surviving Hunger Games victors to vote on it. Peeta, Beetee and Annie voted no. I expected them to. Johanna and Enobaria voted yes. It lowered my opinion of them, but I was not surprised. Then Katniss voted yes. Her terrible ordeals, it would seem, had eroded all her morals and compassion. Perfectly natural under the circumstances, perhaps, but the heroine ought not be in a moral abyss at this point. Heroines are not there to do what is “perfectly natural under the circumstances”; they’re there to resist evil and make us love them for it.

Immediately afterward, Katniss killed Coin. All through the story she had been aching to kill Snow; all through the story, though they didn’t lay eyes on each other, Katniss and Snow had been engaged in a very real struggle. Then, at the end of the book when she finally has her glorious chance to kill him, she fired at Coin instead. I must say I quite liked this twist on the story goal. Even though a lot of the bad-painting of Coin was tell rather than show, it was clear (especially after the Hunger Games incident) that she wasn’t a great person. And Katniss was already in a moral abyss, so having her kill Coin in cold blood hardly made any difference.

Once Coin was dead, and Snow too by suffocation of his own blood, the only thing that remained was the resolution of the love triangle.

The new government sent Katniss to District 12 where she lived in the Victor’s Village. Peeta and Haymitch are sent there too. For a while nothing happens: Katniss just lolled around feeling depressed — and let me tell you, I was depressed at that point in the novel too. But eventually she came to realise that she loved Peeta. She didn’t need Gale’s fire, rage and destruction; she need Peeta’s hope and “promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses”. She chose Peeta.

I respect her decision — and her reasons — but I expected something more profound. There seemed to be a lack of conviction about her decision. Also, I expected that her choice would be set up — the clues would be there — and when Collins revealed the answer it would all make sense. In a way it was like that: I began to dislike Gale in the final book because of his desire for vengeance and his disregard for life. But Gale and Katniss had been so similar, they knew each other so well, they fitted together. And Gale had not only loved Katniss, he had looked out for her family too. So I felt that this conclusion was a bit under thought out, even though the last page was eloquent and relieved some of the depression of the last few chapters.

The style of this book was in keeping with the other two, and I enjoyed most of it. The suspense and action were high. Much of it was very well done. But on the whole I felt that Mockingjay was a disappointment, an underwhelming finish to the trilogy. I thought the end was too tragic, and I was very disappointed by Katniss’s vote for a 76th Hunger Games. Also, the resolution of the love triangle could have been done better. Thus for the rating: 3/5. Please tell me what you thought of the book too!

A Few Quick Words on The Lightning Thief

For a little while now, I have been wanting to read the Percy Jackson series and see if it is what it’s made out to be. Now that I’ve read The Lightning Thief, I should probably say a word about what I thought of it. I don’t feel like writing a full-blown review at the moment, but a few thoughts mightn’t go astray.

In some respects, the book actually reminded me of Harry Potter. Percy, like Harry, is not normal: one is a demigod, the other a wizard — but both spent their early years thinking they were normal and wondering why supernatural things always happened to them accidentally. Both were bullied in the normal world and were never really happy there. Both of them, while brave and kind-hearted, have a slight rebellious flair. Both of them are good fighters and seem to have good luck.

The book has other similarities to Harry Potter. There is another trio of friends: Harry, Ron and Hermione is replaced with Percy, Annabeth and Grover. The world of the gods is very much a modern world of the gods — it mirrors today’s society — in very much the same way as the wizarding world of Harry Potter. A major difference is that Harry Potter stays at Hogwarts (like Camp Half-Blood?) while Percy treks across America. The climax is also different to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in make up, but there are characters which remind me, in some ways, of Snape, Quirrel, and Voldemort. And then, of course, there is the ubiquitous element of the villain telling the protagonist all his secrets before he kills him…

I don’t know think I liked The Lightning Thief quite as much as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone though. The world of the Greek gods, while still brilliantly put together, doesn’t captivate me as much as the wizarding world, with Quidditch, interesting school subjects, and a Ministry for Magic. I think it is a very good idea, and reasonably well executed, but perhaps not as tremendous idea and as tremendously well executed as Harry Potter. There are a few little things that put me off very slightly as well. For example Percy’s mother works at a sweetshop: I am not a big fan of most candy (with the exception of chocolate) so to me doesn’t really seem to fit her personality (I mean such a lovely lady always comes home with a bag of sticky, tooth-rotting stuff for Percy?). Now if she worked in a bakery and came home with all manner of lovely baked goods, that would be different…

So, I liked The Lightning Thief; I liked the way humorous way Rick Riordan deals with Greek gods in modern times; I liked the exciting adventure — but it’s not quite my new favourite book. I’m definitely glad I read it though, and hopefully I’ll get to read a few more in the series in the next couple of months. It probably wasn’t helpful to compare it so much to Harry Potter because they are different series by different authors, but there were a few elements I thought I’d compare and as I wrote I kept thinking of more.