Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics is one of those books way outside my normal reading pleasure that I have thoroughly enjoyed this summer. “Rogue” economist Steven Levitt has teamed up with journalist Stephen Dubner to produce a remarkable “Seinfeldish” story of correlations and observations – that really has no point, other than the numbers don’t lie (and you do).

Did you know your kids are one hundred times more likely to drown in a neighbour’s pool than be shot by accidental gunplay? Have you ever considered that the lowering of the crime rate in America has more to do with abortion than crime policies? Levitt’s skill is in asking questions of the numbers that others have overlooked and making comparisons that no one has yet considered. For instance, while it is true fewer people die on average in planes than automobiles, that number is based on an unfair comparison of data. What one really ought to do is compare deaths per hour of travel… and you will discover that your chances of an untimely travel death are about the same.

Beyond these somewhat useless (albeit fascinating) comparisons, Levitt makes the best case yet outside of the Bible in proving, “all men are liars.” Exactly what they choose to lie about and what they are willing to risk is all a matter of complex inter-relationships, but all men are prone to deceive and advance their own cause. The same is true with cheating. The numbers don’t lie!

Levitt also draws a careful line between risks that scare us and risks that kill us. We are prone to be horrible risk-assessors, and that’s why politicians get elected and your real estate agent sells for less money than she could.

Quoting J. K. Galbraith, Levitt notes, “…we adhere, as to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.” Hence, I observe, someone can hear the Gospel many times and reject its logic and sweetness all because it does not align with what they already believe to be true. We like what we know, what we think makes sense out of the world. Children with Muslim parents generally stick to Islam – that kind of thing. But our comfortableness with a certain idea or set of ideas is not what makes it true.

This is a great book for preachers who want to prove “by the numbers” our propensity to lie and cheat. And it is a great book for parents who live in fear of things they really should just get over. Watch out for some distasteful language at points but enjoy the humour and debunking by a nice post-modern mind – i.e. a man who is great at identifying our problems and does not fall into the trap of promoting more lame solutions.

Book Review: Experiencing God’s Presence by Matthew Henry

Experiencing God’s Presence by Matthew Henry

Somewhere along my path I either purchased or received a little book by Matthew Henry called, The Pleasantness of a Religious Life. The title was enough for me to put it on the shelf for several years, until curiosity got the better of me. Henry is the acclaimed author of the very useful commentary on the entire Bible, and I couldn’t help but think that a man who had spent that much time in the Word might have something to say worth hearing! How right I was – Pleasantness is now in my top 10 of all books and I commend it to you without hesitation.

So, I was glad to grab this book by the same author now published by Whitaker House. Experiencing God’s Presence is a collection of thoughts on how to walk with God in the nitty-gritty of life. And this is Henry at his best – taking deep truth and working it out in the practice of common folks like you and me.

Chapters cover a range of what to pray for, when to pray, how to visit with your Christian friends, how to live in the common world with a view to Christ, and even how to treat our need for sleep:

“Do not dare to go to sleep in that condition in which you do not dare to die.”

One of my favorite little sections was on thanking God for our clothes:

“Do we have clothes to put on in the morning, garments that warm us? Do we have a change of clothes, not for necessity only, but for ornament? Our clothes are from God; it is His wool His flax that are given to cover us. And the morning when we dress ourselves is the proper time for giving Him thanks for our clothes. Yet, I fear we do not thank God for our clothes as consistently as we give thanks for our food when we sit down to eat, though we have as much reason to do so.”

Henry also addresses Christian fellowship, with a quote I think would be quite fitting to speak aloud to one another at the start of our monthly church lunches at GFC:

“Why should we be strangers to one another, we who hope to be together forever with the Lord?”

With such little insights and probing questions this book becomes a tool of cheerful conviction, urging the Christian reader on to greater godliness and faithfulness. And the helpful updating of language and terminology enables the simplest reader to stay the course and not lose heart mid-course.

I have enjoyed reading portions during family devotions and even chuckling aloud at some of the simple instruction. Reading it will be sure to bless and encourage you.