Tag Archives: books

Review | Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God | Timothy Keller

I recently finished Pastor Timothy Keller’s latest book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, and wow. What a phenomenal work. It’s got a permanent place in my library, now, folks, and I highly recommend it to each of you.

As a Christian, and especially as a worship pastor, I believe prayer is of utmost importance, but I’ve always struggled with it. That’s why 2014 was the year of prayer for me. I pray everyday, but I made it a personal goal to find the prayer life God had for me.

I read two books last year that had an impact on my prayer life:

I’d recommend them both to you without hesitation, but Keller’s book is the one that’s left the most lasting impression on me.

Keller provides the reader with a deeper understanding of what prayer is scripturally and historically, as well as what it is not. And he gives practical tools that focus your prayers on God, rather than your own needs and wants.

In the couple of weeks since I finished the book, I have applied Keller’s wisdom, and I’ve seen the difference. In all honesty, I’ve experienced God in my prayer time in ways that I never have before.

There’s no magic here. Keller simply points us to Scripture as our source for the power of prayer.

Review | An Exposé on Teen Sex and Dating by Andy Braner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

An Exposé on Teen Sex and Dating: What’s Really Going on and How to Talk About It is something of a misnomer for Andy Braner’s latest book.  Braner does give us the low-down on the sexual behavior of teens and what “dating” really means to this generation, but an exposé would provide us with some hard evidence.  Braner simply tells us, “Teenagers have told me all about hooking up and what their dating relationships look like, and it’s scary!”

Not only does he offer nothing more than anecdotal evidence – and not a lot even of that – but he presents it as though ALL teenagers are involved unimaginably sordid behavior.  The lack of evidence and the abundance of alarmism were off-putting for me.  I found myself doubting whether teens were really involved in the kinds of behavior he was talking about and doubting his insights into dealing with them.  (The question isn’t whether they’re engaging in these types of behaviors.  It’s whether the behaviors are as prevalent as Braner’s rhetoric makes them seem.  They may very well be, but he gives the reader no real reason to believe so.)

In the end, though, the title and the alarmism do a disservice to this book.  There’s a lot of good material to chew on.

The fact is, teens ARE engaged in sexual hookups that are completely devoid of commitment – among other things – and the strategies that youth pastors and parents have used for years to help their students stay pure just aren’t working.  Many teens have no problem going to a purity rally Friday night and having sex with their significant (or not-so-significant) other on Saturday.

Braner’s idea is that we cast aside the notion of courtship (he calls special attention to Joshua Harris’s well-known book I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and help teens engage in a type of dating that centers around communication, getting to know each other, getting to know themselves and learning what it means to be in a committed relationship.  I found myself agreeing enthusiastically.

There’s much more going on here, including how student pastors and parents can communicate the realities of marriage and sex to their teenagers as well as how we model some of these behaviors for them.

I’d encourage any youth pastor or parent of a teen (or younger – my girls are four and one, and I found a lot to think about) to read this book.  Just remember, it’s not really an exposé, but it can be a big help in the battle for students’ purity.

I received this book for free from NavPress for this review as part of their blogger review program.

Review | Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Click to buy Ready Player One My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is not a literary masterpiece by any means, but it’s been a long time since I had this much fun reading a novel.

Ready Player One takes place in a near future in which human society is on the verge of collapse (sounds fun already!), and everyone has taken refuge in a massive online simulation known as the OASIS. The OASIS’ creator, James Halliday, dies an old man, leaving a will that initiates a contest inside the simulation, the winner of which will inherit all of his vast wealth, as well as control over the OASIS. The “Easter Egg,” as the ultimate goal of the contest is known, can only be found by locating – inside the OASIS – three keys that open three gates, each of which opens to an unknown challenge. Halliday, a child of the ‘80s, leaves no clue to the whereabouts of the keys except for his journal, which contains his musings on his life, the human condition, and – most importantly – the pop culture of the age of excess.

In the beginning, the contest seems to captivate the entire population of the globe, but over time interest wanes. Only a relatively small group of people known as “gunters” – short for “egg hunters” – continue the quest, immersing themselves in all the things that Halliday loved in the hopes that this will direct them to the location of the first key. Finally, years after Halliday’s death, an OASIS avatar named Parzival (his name is Wade in the real world) – our hero – finds it, setting the story in motion.

Let me put this right out there – for those of you who don’t already know. I’m a geek. I grew up in the ‘80s. Cline wrote this book for me people like me. It’s overflowing with random movie lines (“Dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”), references to comic books, video games, sci-fi and fantasy novels. And the highest geekery of all, Dungeons & Dragons plays a major role in the plot early on. (To be fair to myself, I was never THAT into D&D, though I have played my share of RPGs*.) These little nuggets often made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do when reading.

Apart from this, the story moves along at a lightning pace, making Cline’s too-frequent forays into long-winded exposition bearable. (Though, perhaps this was purposeful. I’ve read many a science fiction novel, and I’ve never met a sci-fi author who didn’t LOVE exposition!) The primary line of the plot follows the adventures of Parzival and his friends inside the OASIS, but chilling and compelling events take place in the real world as well. And these serve to get the reader truly invested.

The narrator’s voice is a little weak. There’s too much telling instead of showing. The characters aren’t terribly developed, though there is a little to hang on to. But I’m willing to bet Cline had an absolute blast writing this because that’s what comes across on the page.

For my Christian readers out there who may be concerned about these things, there is some profanity and a somewhat prolonged discussion of a particular sexual activity that is pretty crass, which is to be expected with these characters in this world. Overall, it was bearable in my opinion. If it were a movie, it would probably garner a PG-13 rating.

Ready Player One is a really good story set in a vivid world and told with imagination and childlike joy. This is escapist fare in the best sense of the term.

*Role Playing Games, for the uninitiated.

Review | Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Vessels is a hard book to pin down. The author’s voice is at once conversational and classical. (With titles like, “Preface: In Which I Clear My Throat,” I was often reminded, stylistically, of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton.) And while he is not afraid of big words, he is somehow deceptively simple in his delivery. Imagine you have an old high school friend who grew up to be a philosopher and you guys get together for a cup of coffee – that’s Anderson’s style.

His tone belies the depth of his subject – “why our bodies matter to our faith” – but this is not a weakness. On the contrary, Earthen Vessels could have read like a text book, but it doesn’t. It’s a much, much easier read than it has any right to be.

Anderson presents as the basis for his book the idea that our physical bodies are “the place of our personal presence in the world.” (pg. 233) As such, we cannot separate our bodies from ourselves as easily as we sometimes try to (philosophically, at least). And in fact, Christ took on a human body, and He “died to save and renew human bodies.” (pg. 16) Therefore, we are inseparable from our bodies. There’s a lot of very interesting philosophical delving here to elaborate and drive the point home.

Once that premise is established, Anderson takes us on a wide-ranging journey into topics as varied as pleasure, tattoos, homosexuality, and death and the implications they hold for our bodies and our faith.

Earthen Vessels covers a great deal of ground in its 230 or so pages. The book may leave you with more questions than it answers, but Anderson’s purpose in these pages is to start a conversation rather than end it.

It takes a while to wrestle with all these topics, and it is not for the casual reader. As I’ve said, the book was easy enough to read, but understanding what you’ve read takes some serious thought. Unless you’re some kind of genius, it may take a second or even a third read. However, it’s worth the time. There’s a lot of meat to chew on here, and that’s something that is sorely missing in most Christian literature. I definitely recommend Earthen Vessels.

I received this book for free from Bethany House Publishers for this review as part of their blogger review program.

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Review | Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who geeks out a little over Silicon Valley history and the birth of the personal computer, the first several chapters of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the iconic Apple CEO were particularly engaging. While the rest of the book was not quite as exciting to read, it was still worthwhile.

Isaacson’s style is conversational and easy, making for a quick, fluid 571 pages. At times he leaves out details that might better inform certain situations, but this may have be necessary in keeping the focus on Jobs rather than on Apple and its products.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat Jobs. Indeed, there would be no point, since his perfectionism and brutality are legendary – at least to those who are fans of Apple. He is presented here as, quite honestly, a jerk. He is also presented as a genius. He is presented as not much of a father but as a great corporate leader. All are probably true.

However, Isaacson does show his bias when it comes to the company Jobs started and saved and its products. Sometimes he seems so in love with Apple, Inc. that it annoys even me! (I’m a proud Mac and iPhone user and Macworld.com reader.)

In the end, the book certainly gives one a well-rounded view of Steve Jobs, his relationships – both personal and professional – and the company he built. Definitely a worthy read.

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Review | The Historical Jesus: Five Views

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just a heads up: This one is pretty academic and may not be for everyone. I actually wrote it for a seminary class but thought I’d share it with all of you.

Bethel University professors James K. Bielby and Paul Rhodes Eddy have put together a volume in The Historical Jesus: Five Views that provides a glimpse into the broad range of perspectives found among those who quest for the historical Jesus. Robert M. Price, a professor at Johnny Coleman Theological Seminary, begins the book with the most radical of views, followed by DePaul University emeritus professor of religious studies John Dominic Crossan. The works gradually move through the center toward the conservative end of the spectrum with essays by Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson and Durham University professor James D. G. Dunn. Finally, the book draws to a conservative close with an essay by Darrell L. Bock, research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary.

The Historical Jesus begins with a survey of the quest for the historical Jesus, covering its beginnings in the late eighteenth century to today. Bielby and Rhodes provide the reader with a quick glimpse of each separate quest – or stage of the overall quest – as well as the views that drove it or, at times, brought it to a halt. The editors do not bring their own views to bear. They leave that to the contributors.

Their introduction is followed by each contributor’s essay, in which he puts forth his view. Each essay is then followed by responses from each of the other four authors.

Price’s essay, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” is easily the most liberal and radical. He has no qualms about sharing his view with the reader. “I will argue that it is quite likely there never was any historical Jesus” (55). He then proceeds to completely deconstruct the Gospels. He does this by relying on the criterion of dissimilarity and the idea that each of the Gospel stories is simply a retelling of an Old Testament story.

John Dominic Crossan’s work “Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology” reduces Jesus to a simple nonviolent revolutionary whose battle was against the Roman Empire. Though not the Messiah, he says, some Jews saw Jesus as “a nonviolent Davidic Messiah” (120). He attributes those of Jesus’ actions in the Gospels that he deems historically accurate to a political motivation, and the crufixion he attributes to Rome’s standard policy in dealing with nonviolent rebels.

Next comes “Learning the Human Jesus” by Luke Timothy Johnson. His conclusions are moderate when compared to those of his fellow contributors. Leaning more toward acceptance of the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus, he writes that, when taken strictly as narrative, the Gospels provide a valid perspective on the character of Jesus. The question of character “is a question that narrative is distinctly capable of addressing” (173). Johnson still doubts the historical validity of the Gospels.

James D. G. Dunn writes the essay “Remembering Jesus,” in which he accepts a faith-based viewing of the Gospels as a valid historical perspective. He states, “…it is the ear of faith which is likely to hear the Gospels most effectively” (225). Dunn seeks to convince the reader that the right course in the quest is to look for those characteristics of Jesus that can be seen across the Gospels (220). Dunn does not accept all the Gospel material as true, though he is more conservative than prior contributors.

Darrell L. Bock shows himself to hold the truly conservative view in this work. The entirety of his essay, “The Historical Jesus,” gives the reader a view of Jesus as He appears in the Gospels, spelling out His character and motivations as exhibited by His actions. Bock declares that the Gospels’ picture of a “messianic Jesus who saw himself standing at the hub of God’s program and completely vindicated as Son of Man at God’s side” (281) is the most accurate view to take.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Price’s view is the least well-researched. It appears to be based entirely on his own biases and reading of other liberal theologians, rather than on arguments from factual data. The essay’s greatest weakness is his stretching of the criterion of dissimilarity to contend that the Gospel stories are simple reworkings of Old Testament stories. While this reviewer doubts that the criterion in question has any value whatsoever, even the other authors in The Historical Jesus take issue with Price’s use of it. Dunn writes, “Such an extension of the criterion of dissimilarity simply undermines what value it has” (95).

Crossan’s view, while perhaps more informed, is no less biased. He draws upon a great deal of extrabiblical historical knowledge – some of which is dubious at best – but he discounts nearly as much of the Gospel material as does Price. He believes Jesus existed, but his picture of Jesus is shaped by his own values and knowledge of the fishing industry in ancient Palestine (116). Even Price states that Crossan reduces “Jesus to a function of the categories and methods through which he has decided to study him.” (133). Crossan infers in his essay, and outright insists in his response to Dunn, that the Jesus of the Gospels who taught love and pacifism cannot be the same as the Jesus of revelation who will return in violence (234). For Crossan, nonviolence is the one defining characteristic of Jesus, whose life and death hinge on “the crucial difference… between the eschatological kingdom of God and the imperial kingdom of Rome,” which is “Jesus’ nonviolence and Pilate’s violence” (132).

Johnson and Dunn, while espousing slightly different views, straddle the center. Johnson leans more heavily toward the liberal side, and Dunn leans toward the conservative side. However, they both – like the more liberal contributors to this book – rely on sources like Q that may or may not exist to determine which parts of the Gospel are true. For a conservative reviewer, Dunn’s view is easier to swallow, since he accepts faith as a valid historical perspective. Johnson, however, seems inexplicably to accept faith as faith and historical knowledge as something else altogether.

Bock is the one among these contributors who takes the Gospel texts seriously. He writes that the Gospels provide “a multiperspectival impression” that “can be as historical as the autobiographical words of the individual” (251). From there he provides a historical view of Jesus that is drawn entirely from Scripture and, therefore, reads more like a sermon – with generally solid exegesis – than the apparently scholarly views of the other contributors. The only real weakness this reviewer found in Bock’s contribution was that it might have fit better in a different book, but that appears to have been the point of The Historical Jesus: Five Views.

The Historical Jesusis a worthy read, providing opposing perspectives against which to hone one’s views. It strengthened this reader’s trust in the Gospels as the only reliable picture of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, who are one and the same.

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Review | The Walk | Shaun Alexander

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Walk by former NFL star Shaun Alexander is apparently written for those Christians young in their faith, but its bland, trite style and theologically questionable premise make it a book only someone with a fairly mature understanding of Scripture ought to attempt to slog through. Even then, there would be very little reward in the end.

Alexander’s premise is this: Since “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33 – often translated as “order” rather than “peace”), that He has created a very specific path to maturity in Christ. That path consists of this series of stages: “Unbeliever, Believer, Example, Teacher, Imparter.” (pg. 21)

Up until this point in The Walk, I had actually been pleasantly surprised. I had fully expected it to be another Christ self-help book – “Here’s how to get spiritual power for your life – to be everything you want to be!” It wasn’t, and I was glad of that.

However, Alexander completely lost me here. The passage he quotes as the basis for his sequence of spiritual maturity clearly relates to worship in the church – not the progression of a believer’s growth. While it is true that 1 Corinthians 14:33 is a statement with broader implications, there is absolutely no Scriptural support for this order that The Walk is entirely based upon. Consequently, it took me about six weeks to read this short book because I felt compelled to continually question the author’s credibility. And I continually found it lacking.

He essentially invents his premise and tells the reader it’s from God, and this plagues the entire book.

There are notes of truth throughout the book, and I would encourage any believer from a non-charismatic background to read the final chapter with an open mind. Like Alexander, I believe that there are still miracles out there. We just don’t see them happen because we have cut ourselves off from this kind of working of the Holy Spirit.

At the risk of being too harsh, The Walk turns out to be a more or less useless book. I absolutely would not recommend it.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review as part of the Blogging for Books program.

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Five Books Every Christian Should Read

With my review of Eileen Button’s The Waiting Place earlier this week, this blog is embarking on a new phase that will see a lot more activity and a greater concentration on book reviews.

With that in mind, I’m going to share with you five books I’ve read that I think every Christian should read. (If you’re interested, here’s my list on Amazon.)

  1. The Bible – I know this one probably seems like a cop-out, but too few of us really read the Bible. I struggle with it just like everyone else, but I can say that I read it more consistently now than I ever have before. A few years ago, I prayed that God would give me a greater love for His Word, and He did. (You can read about it here.)It’s the Word of God. It is more important than any other book we’ll ever read, and as it shapes us, it shapes the lens through which we read everything else. We should read it in big chunks and study it down to the briefest statement.I like the NASB because it is a word-for-word translation. The NIV – because it translates ideas more than individual words – is generally easier to read in large sections.
  2. unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons – The information in this book may not be news to some people, but for those of us who have grown up in the traditional church culture, it can be world-altering. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group provides in-depth research into the attitudes and reactions of teens and young adults toward the church.
  3. Crazy Love by Francis ChanunChristian was the beginning of a journey for me and several other folks in my life. God had begun to alter my perceptions of faith and the church not long before reading it, and those changed perceptions were solidified upon reading it. But Crazy Love took it one step further, showing me what I ought to be doing with those new perceptions. It was no longer enough to follow the rules and be part of the institution of the Church. I had to love God with everything, and that love wouldn’t make sense to most people. Read my review here.
  4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan – Yes, it’s another Francis Chan book. Yes, I’m a big fan. But this one was the next step on my journey. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live the life God has called us to live. The Holy Spirit does things beyond imagining. We’ve put Him in a box and written off the miraculous, or – worse – we’ve forgotten about Him altogether. We neglect Him to our detriment and that of the Church as a whole. Read the review.
  5. Radical by David Platt – Pastor of a megachurch in Alabama, Platt challenges us to turn our backs on the American dream and embrace the call of God to go against the culture around us, focusing first on the Kingdom. Though the book has its flaws – it loses some steam in the middle – its premise is powerful, and for me, was the culmination of many things God had been teaching on this literary journey.

Take the time to read these – especially the first! – and you will be challenged. Your perceptions will be altered. And maybe – hopefully – you’ll begin to think a little more like Christ.

Review | The Waiting Place | Eileen Button

At times beautifully written and at times full of cliché, The Waiting Place: Learning to Appreciate Life’s Little Delays by Eileen Button is a worthwhile read if only for its powerful honesty.

Button – an adjunct professor, newspaper columnist, and pastor’s wife – is a competent writer, but she relies a little too much on trite sayings like “too much month left at the end of the money” (pg. 65) that she seems to think are clever.

She also leans too much sometimes toward corny sentimentality – “When we listen closely enough, we think we hear the angels cry.” (pg.121) Button is at her best when she simply tells the stories. These are stories that don’t need sentimental embellishment to bolster their power (good stories rarely do!), and the book falters when she tries to do so.

There’s little that stands out in her writing style, but I found her honesty so courageous that the book’s flaws were forgivable. Indeed, the beauty of The Waiting Place is found in her honesty. Most of us know that church people often expect complete perfection from pastors and their wives, but Button is brave enough to talk about the struggles of a white, formerly middle-class woman who finds herself applying for WIC, a mother suffering through her child’s horrific birth defect, and a pastor’s wife on the receiving end of both the grace and the venom of the church. Some of these struggles are born out of her self-centeredness, and that is what’s so refreshing about The Waiting Place. She is honest about the struggles and about where they come from.

One of my favorite passages is found in chapter 13. Her description of the church is powerful: “She is loving and life changing; she is malicious and overbearing. She is beautiful; she is ugly. She is as light as day, capable of astonishing kindness and generosity; she is as dark as night, capable of unspeakable evil.”

There is not a great deal of theological depth here, all of the stories in The Waiting Place come back to one thing. Eileen Button and her husband had wonderful dreams about where their lives were going and what God would do with them, but it’s never quite looked the way they’d hoped. That is the waiting place – the place where you wait to become. The problem is – as Button discovered and shares with us – that we spend most of our lives in that place. Button tells us that the trick is to find the beauty – the workings of God – in the waiting.

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We Have Forgotten God

I recently read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It honestly wasn’t an enjoyable read (then again, I don’t think it was supposed to be), but Solzhenitsyn is considered such a great thinker, I had to give it a shot.

He paints a pretty convincing portrait of the bleak life of a prisoner in a 1950s-era Siberian work camp in the Soviet Union. It’s freezing cold. The food they’re offered is unappetizing, to say the least. The most striking aspect of the novel, though, is Ivan’s attitude. More than once, he says something like, “This is the good life!” when he gets an extra hunk of bread or bowl of mush. And he takes pride in his work, even though he will get absolutely no benefit from it – just more mistreatment from the guards.

But the thing that hit home with me the most was a passage near the end of the book in which Ivan is speaking with a character called Alyoshka the Baptist. Here’s an excerpt:

“The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.”

“You mustn’t pray for that.” Alyoshka was horrorstruck. “What d’you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: ‘What mean you to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Ivan is without hope. He’s in prison for no good reason, and he doesn’t understand Alyoshka’s perspective. Ivan’s world was full of cruelty, self-preservation, and grief.

The cruelty of that society was summed up by Solzhenitsyn himself in a speech when he said, “We have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” The Soviet government had forgotten God. Therefore its only purpose was to create an order that served the nation’s power-mongering leaders. Since they only cared about themselves, their government could be as cruel, suspicious, and tyrannical as they wanted it to be.

Subsequently, the people of the Soviet Union forgot God and lost hope. That’s what we see here in the passage. Alyoshka hoped in the Lord. He knew there must be a purpose to his imprisonment even if he didn’t know what it was. He knew that Christ holds everything together, that all things work for good for those who love Him. If God wanted him to be imprisoned or even die, he was joyfully ready (hence his quotation of Acts 21:13). Ivan didn’t have this hope.

While we don’t see this level of cruelty and paranoia in the US, we can still see the effects of the same attitude. In its subtlest form it has invaded the church. The very thought of going to prison for the cause of Christ is foreign to us. True, that doesn’t happen in America, but think about this. If we attempt to do something for God and it ends badly, most commonly, we think, “It’s hard. God must not want me to do it.” So many of us believe God’s greatest goal for us is financial security. We avoid suffering at all costs. We don’t go to places like Haiti because the political environment is too volatile. It would be dangerous for us. And when someone decides to go to a dangerous place for the cause of Christ, we often criticize them.

We have no hope, no reason to risk, no thought that suffering could be the right thing to do. Why?

America has not become like the USSR, but it’s coming. Attitudes in this country have already shifted against Christ. And while we fight to change those attitudes (and I believe we should), our church is slipping further away from His teaching, and our nation is becoming less and less tolerant of us. (I believe those two are interconnected, by the way. See “Hated and Highly Regarded.”)

But maybe that’s what God wants. Look at places in our world where the church is persecuted. It is growing. The people are serious about Christ – in many instances serious to the point of their own death. This attitude is alien to American Christians. We are like Ivan – looking for an extra bowl of mush when the glory of God’s kingdom is waiting for us if we’ll only hope in Him and take a chance. So what if they put us in prison? So what if they kill us? They cannot kill the soul.

But instead, in this nation where we are more or less accepted, we have become content, complacent even. Possibly complicit in our own downfall.

Why are we this way? Because we have no hope. Because we have forgotten God.