Decreasing attention spans, increasing binge-watching

Reading habits are changing, and writers are adapting to keep up.

Thousands of authors worldwide participate in a free program to try to write a novel from start to finish during the month of November. I joined this past fall and wrote a 55,000-word story in slightly less than one month. Then I put it away for two weeks so I could read and edit the manuscript with fresh eyes, and came to realize I needed to add about 15,000 more words of material to flesh out the characters and add depth to the story. 

But in the three months since then, the additional material remains elusive. Why? With no deadline to keep me focused, my productivity dropped like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner to the edge of a cliff. My attention span seems to wander far and wide when I don’t have a reason to focus.

It’s not just me. Over the years I have noticed movie and TV producers have shortened scenes and even advertisements to flit rapidly to a different idea or storyline, as if the viewers can’t follow a train of thought for more than half a minute.

In fact, this trend has even come to the attention of Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California at Davis. She recently authored a book entitled, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, which draws on almost 20 years of study she has conducted on attention spans.

Mark’s work, and an overview of the general problem, were recently discussed in a Newsweek article by Aristos Georgiou, “Our Attention Spans Are Declining, and Technology Is Not Solely to Blame.”

However, at the same time that our attention spans are plummeting, we are seeing an increasing trend for TV viewers to “binge-watch” series on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Prime TV. A recent study reported by Johns Hopkins Medicine found that binge-watching has been steadily increasing in recent years, especially during the pandemic. 

So, while people struggle to focus on a single screen of material for more than a few dozen heartbeats, they will spend about four hours a night watching a string of episodes of a series that they would ordinarily have to see one per week. Is it because commercial TV programming has become so mundane that they flee to alternatives to the usual format? Or, the author asks, is it similar to binge-eating as a response to stress?

I would also note that many TV series these days seem to keep at least four sub-plots running at the same time as the primary story, and the flitting from one short scene to the next also often involves jumping from one sub-storyline to another—sometimes even in different time periods. Many series may preface a scene with an onscreen notice reading, “Five Weeks Earlier” or “Ten Years Later” to give either the backstory or the long-term aftermath of the action in the current scene. 

Perhaps this is related to the decline in attention spans. Rather than wait for weekly installments of a series, binge-watchers want to see it all right now, and they want immediate answers as to why such-and-such happens and what happens later down the road. But rather than focus just on the main story, they need to “multi-task” by trying to follow four or five storylines simultaneously because the viewers are used to interruptions. We have grown so accustomed to interruptions of our concentration that we have built-in assumptions that we will be interrupted; when no external interruptions occur, we create our own. (Cue the social media, email, and computer solitaire.)

As an author, I have noticed that I write very short chapters and keep several side plots going at the same time as the main story. I was a print journalist for many years, so I have always tried to write as concisely as possible. As much as I admire JRR Tolkien and find his novels so much deeper and more fulfilling than the movies based on them, I could probably never build a world with thousands of years of historical lore like Middle Earth. Frank Herbert’s universe in Dune would also be a stretch for me. Many of my chapters range from a mere 750 to 1,500 words. Tolkien might use that many words just to recount an abbreviated tale of an ancient heroic elf that lays the background for a single scene in a much longer chapter of current events.

Looking to the future of literature, we also must take into account the increased popularity of audiobooks. According to, the use of audiobooks has grown ten-fold in the past decade. This development will have a significant impact for authors. If people are listening rather than reading our text, we will probably need to write shorter sentences and use less complex language. Writing dialogue may mean using fewer voices or at least identifying speakers at the beginning of paragraphs rather than the middle or end. Using multiple voice actors to differentiate between characters would prove too costly.

The world of writing has changed significantly since I got into journalism decades ago. When I celebrate my 125th birthday, I probably will not even attempt to read the news that day. Whatever medium writers are using to deliver information at that time, I can be fairly certain that it won’t require me to hold a sheet of paper in my hand or gaze onto a desktop computer screen. Maybe I’ll invite some 75-year-old kid to my birthday party who can show me how to use whatever technology is popular among the younger generation.

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The addiction

It would be tempting to date the beginnings of the addiction to the mid-1990s. That was when senior management and field personnel were issued Blackberry PDAs so we could all get in touch with any of the organization’s 7,000 employees whenever needed. According to theory, this was done so we could get Very Important Messages while sitting in less important meetings, or while at lunch, or between appointments away from the office. 

In reality, though, it put us all on 24-hour call. When one receives upwards of 100 emails per day, in addition to phone calls, snail mail and routine office communications, the Blackberries gave us the chance to respond to emails at home after dinner. It soon turned out that when bouts of insomnia hit, some of us would get out of bed in the wee hours and look at the little screens. Many employees would go to the office in the morning to find emails from us that were time-stamped at 3 a.m. 

Yes, that would look like the red flag. But the addiction probably started decades earlier.

Young people nowadays may have to use their imagination to picture a time when the landline phone was the only avenue of two-way electronic communication for the entire household. The parents and all their children had one line. So, when the phone rang, sometimes we would race to answer it, hoping the call was for us rather than some less deserving member of the family. That urge to answer the phone immediately carried over to my work life, and I almost always answered my office phone before the third ring if not before the second; in fact, I was shocked when I found coworkers sitting at their desks letting many of their calls roll over to voicemail, unanswered by the live human sitting right next to the phone. It seemed like sacrilege.

Fast-forward to the present. Even though young people today did not experience the telephone urgency of the 1960s or the email/Blackberry revolution of the 1990s, they clearly have gotten hooked on the instant gratification of same-time electronic communications. Now that our cell phones have the capability to connect us to email, text messages, Internet search engines, and more encrypted communications apps than one could ever possibly need, a casual observer does not have to look far to notice countless people paying more attention to their phone screens than their physical surroundings. It used to be that pedestrians would shout at errant drivers to quit texting and pay attention to the road. Nowadays, drivers are shouting the same message at pedestrians who blindly walk into traffic while staring at their phones. 

And when a digital addict sees a news report about a natural disaster that wipes out a city’s water, electricity, and transit, the first thought is, “Oh, those poor people! They won’t be able to charge their phones.”

But, as with addictions to alcohol, drugs or other destructive behaviors, the addict often does not realize the extent of the problem until after “hitting bottom,” when it threatens family life or, in worst-case situations, the continuation of the family itself. One whose nose is buried in the phone screen ignores his or her spouse, ignores household routines, and can’t even follow the storyline of a TV show the family is watching together because of repeated checks on social media. Eventually, the addict must face the truth.

A 12-step program may become necessary, because it’s so much easier for a backslider to slip a peak at a phone screen than to get a drink or a fix. But there is hope.

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When drama equals stupid

Do you find yourself resisting the urge to scream at characters on your favorite TV dramas? They seem like reasonably sane and intelligent people, but something comes up to make you question that assumption. They do something stupid.

 For instance:

  • The hero and heroine are about to escape the Bad Guys and finally find peace. But even though they are facing a hard deadline and time is of the essence, they stop to make speeches or to kiss passionately to make sure the other character (and the audience) appreciates how happy they are to be together at this moment. And then the Bad Guys arrive on the scene.
  • Speaking of kissing, a pair who should NOT be kissing because their relationship is a secret, stop to make out in a place where there is substantial risk they will be seen. And the vantage point of the camera suggests someone is, indeed, watching. 
  • After escaping from a dangerous place where they were previously trapped or imprisoned, they go back to that place for a last look around and to congratulate themselves before leaving forever, even though they risk getting caught and trapped again. As, of course they are.

This is the stuff of dramatic manipulation of the audience. Producers WANT you to scream at the characters, “Don’t do that, you idiot!” They want you to get wrapped up in the story because you know that you are so much smarter than the characters. You know how you would handle the problems they face, so you keep watching to see if the characters finally listen to the advice you are shouting at the screen, and start being smart (like yourself). 

You get hooked on the show. You can’t miss a single episode because, without your advice, the characters will continue making stupid decisions.

The same holds true for the disgraced, twice-impeached ex-president, Donald J. Trump.

Remember how many utterly inane comments he made during the four years of his term in office? You may have noticed a pattern. He would say something ridiculously stupid early in the week, Monday, Tuesday at the latest. That would dominate the news for most of the week as reporters rehashed the stupid comment over and over again and quoted other leaders’ reactions to it. Or, if some other world news event overshadowed events, Trump would make a stupid comment late Thursday or early Friday to try to dominate the news going into the weekend and, hopefully, the Sunday morning talk shows.  

And while the pundits remained focused on the latest stupid comment, Trump and his henchmen would carry on their more serious business away from the public eye. 

We see the same thing happening now as federal and state prosecutors agonize whether to indict the former president for a number of significant crimes. For instance, regarding the hundreds of classified and non-classified documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago, Trump tries to keep the public focused on whether this is a “witch hunt” against him, whether the FBI agents were biased against him, or if the agents handled the documents correctly, or if they planted evidence, etc. But the focus should remain on this: Trump illegally took government documents from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, and he appears to have illegally obstructed justice when the government tried to get the documents returned. 

Or how about the investigation of his attempt to commit fraud in the counting of votes in Georgia? Trump tries to distract attention with various side issues, but the fact remains. We have a recording of him browbeating the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” him enough votes to give him the victory. Same pattern with the New York case, and the multi-state investigation of Trump’s false slates of electors.

And let’s not forget his actions on January 6, 2021.

Don’t get distracted by the drama resulting from stupid. Stay focused on the facts.

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Mary Magdalene’s role in the birth of Christianity

Who was Mary Magdalene, and what was her role in the birth of Christianity? That question has sparked controversy—and allegedly some coverups and rewriting of church history—for about 2,000 years

Several reviewers of my novel, Acts of the Women, remarked on my elevation of Mary’s status and that of many other women of the early Jesus movement. Several issues seem to arise consistently, such as:

Did the title Magdalene refer to the Galilean village Magdala, or to Migdal, which meant The Tower?

Were Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany the same person?

Why does my book omit Mary of Bethany’s sister, Martha?

Jonathan Poletti has published an essay entitled, “Did Christianity slash Mary Magdalene’s part in the Bible?” It touches on the questions above s well as several others. Here is a link:

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America has got roots. And they are showing.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck the U.S. in about February 2020 and has stretched on for two and a half years so far, some hidden truths about countless Americans have become apparent. Most apparent of them, their natural hair colors.

Full disclosure: I dyed my hair and beard for many years. I doubt if it fooled anyone. Heck, former coworkers and I even joked about it on occasion. But I kept it up for appearances anyway, or at least until 2020. I now proudly wear what hair I have left in its natural silver hue.

When we started “sheltering in place” in San Francisco in March 2020, all meetings and even most church services switched to Zoom and other online platforms where multiple people from almost anywhere in the world could gather together on a computer screen to discuss agendas and make group decisions, just as they would in a boardroom. In fact, many men who would ordinarily wear a business suit, white button-down shirt and a silk necktie found that, working from home on their computers, they could skip the pants and leather shoes because others in their Zoom meetings would only see them from the chest up.

After a time, attitudes relaxed on some aspects of the onscreen appearances. Many male TV newscasters made a habit of openly wearing tennis shoes with their business suits. And the white rubber soles on their sneakers beneath a sharp Armani three-piece suit at first sparked a few giggles among home viewers, but we got used to it. 

Hair coloring became a much more obvious sign of the times. It was already obvious that many female TV newscasters were dyeing their hair blonde. How else would one explain that while blondes make up less than 25 percent of the female population worldwide, they nevertheless seem to account for more than 75 percent of the women working in TV news? During the pandemic, as an increasing number of TV reporters did their on-air appearances from their home computers rather than in the TV studio, more of them kept a less rigid regimen of applying dye. The sight of dark roots became so prevalent that soon it became the fashion. I suspect (but have absolutely no proof, and it’s probably a silly idea anyway) that some natural blondes started dyeing some of their roots dark just to keep up with the competition. 

Not just women. Many men have long used store-bought remedies to achieve their distinguished “salt-and-pepper” hair color. As the pandemic progressed, we witnessed a growing dominance of salt over pepper. In the cases of some men who wore beards, the results could elicit chuckles because they did not apply the coloring to both their hair and beards. There was often a sharp dividing line between dark and light just in front of the ears.

Of course, hair coloring can be seen as just a symbol of much deeper conflicts in the souls of men and women. Hair coloring is, in the end, an attempt to put forward the best possible façade on a body that has perhaps aged past its prime. This is similar to the sparkling and congenial personalities we have historically tried to present to the world. We want others to think the best of us, so we pretend to have a completely collegial outlook, a witty response for every situation, and to have a winning persona that nearly everyone finds adorable. In other words, we pretend to have no flaws.

But compared to the pre-COVID days, many of us have let the pretense of perfection fade just like an alluring auburn shading on a head of naturally plain brown hair. After spending less time in close social situations for two years, it would seem that many people have grown less tolerant of others’ faults and have become more blunt in saying so. Sometimes such utterances appear rude, but other times they sound like a refreshing bit of honesty.

As workers gradually return to their physical places of employment, will the bluntness continue? Or will we return to the polite language of congeniality at the cost of our newfound honest exchanges of views? We have seen many people incorporating their black or gray roots into their hairstyles, just as some men continue to wear casual pants and sneakers under their suit coats. We will monitor these fashion trends, as they may give a hint of the near future of social discourse.

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56 shooting incidents today before 3pm

Continuing my earlier theme on gun violence in the United States, you may find it instructive to look at the website for the Gun Violence Archive. The site has a tab entitled, Last 72 Hours. After the horror of the Independence Day shootings yesterday, I studied the data on this tab today and had to quit after tallying results for only July 5, 2022. And mind you, this was at 3pm Pacific time. The website was updated several times while I was reading it, and there were still nine hours to so before the end of the day. So the July 5 data at the end of the day will be much higher than what you see here.

But five-eighths of the way through the day, there had already been 24 deaths and 60 injuries from 56 incidents of shootings in the U.S. 

Not that the states are competing, but the worst numbers of casualties were in the following locations:

Indiana: 3 dead, 7 injured, I incident

Illinois: 3 dead, 5 injured, 5 incidents

North Carolina: 3 dead, 4 injured, 5 incidents

Texas: 5 dead, 3 injured, 8 incidents

Michigan: 1 dead, 5 injured, 5 incidents

New York: 1 dead, 5 injured, 3 incidents

Maryland: 0 dead. 5 injured, 4 incidents

These are numbers only; we don’t have details on whether these were caused by road rage or drug deals gone bad or liquor store holdups or kids playing with their parents’ firearms. But the reports are continuously updated as more information comes in, so you can visit the link below if you wish to learn more.

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U.S.—Third World? 

Has the U.S. become part of the Third World?

In the past decade major cruise lines have boycotted several Mexican ports on the west coast due to crime and violence in those cities, or due to swine flu outbreaks. American tourists are often warned by the State Department to avoid certain areas around the world due to the potential for danger from disease, crime, or terrorism.

So, who is warning international tourists about visiting the United States?

As of early June 2022, there had already been 246 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive .  Gun violence had caused the deaths of more than 18,800 people. 

Unfortunately, the tally keeps increasing. A domestic terrorist even opened fire on crowds waiting to watch a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing at least six and wounding dozens more. Domestic terrorists have attacked churches and other places of worship, shopping malls, places where large crowds congregate, and peaceful demonstrations. 

The ethnicity of the American terrorists is difficult to gauge because of differing definitions of what constitutes a mass shooting. Media outlets have tried to track ethnicities of the shooters, but no government agency appears to have kept statistics. Politifact studied the various stats compiled as of October 2017 and found that between 54 percent and 63 percent of the shootings were committed by non-Hispanic white males. A Rand study found that 98 percent of mass shooters are males, and 82 percent are 45 or younger.

Many Americans arrogantly look down on Third World countries that only make the local news when they have suffered a sensational, severely violent incident. But those same Americans should open their eyes to what is happening here in their own back yard. According to the statistics above, foreign travelers should think twice about visiting the U.S. And if they do come, they should especially keep an eye out for young white guys. They might be dangerous.

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Why So Mean?

Several readers of my two biblical novels, Second Born and Acts of the Women, have put the same question to me in a variety of forms. The politest version is, “Why are you so mean to St. Paul?” Others posed the question in earthier tones, with a sprinkling of Germanic verbs and even a few questions about the legitimacy and very species of my lineage. (It’s always amusing when believers who profess to follow the Prince of Peace most closely are the quickest to anger, condemning anyone who doesn’t toe their line.)

But back to the question: In the first book I portray Saul of Tarsus as a self-important young man of the Jewish Diaspora whose very wealthy parents have sent him to Jerusalem to study under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel. When James, Jesus’ older brother who is historically known as James the Just, is held up by Gamaliel as his greatest protégé and is appointed to provide tutoring to other bright students, Saul only begrudgingly accepts James as his superior. The second book might seem downright hostile to Saul, who now calls himself by the Roman name Paul. He proclaims that he knows more about Jesus than James and all the others who lived and worked with Jesus, and Paul seems to view himself as the Savior. 

So where did that come from?

First, Paul himself acknowledges that he persecuted the early church and that he was not well liked. We have the famous story about his revelation in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus, followed almost immediately by his return to Jerusalem to work with the Apostles there. That’s the story as it was told in Acts of the Apostles, believed to have been written by the same author who wrote the Gospel According to Luke. Many scholars agree that Luke was written sometime between the years 85 and 95 CE, so Acts was probably written more than half a century after Paul’s conversion. 

But we have another account of his conversion experience told at a time much closer to the event and written by Paul himself in his letter to the Galatians in about 49 or 50 CE. Rather than a blinding flash, Paul (not one to shy away from the dramatic) says only that God chose to reveal his son to him. And rather than going immediately to Jerusalem to consult with the others, he swears that he went away to Arabia for three years and received revelations directly from God, not from any humans. Elsewhere he states that he was taken right up to heaven where he was told things for his ears only, that other humans cannot hear. Biblical scholar James D. Tabor speculates that during these three years Paul may have gone to Mt. Sinai, also known as Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the prophet Elijah went to consult directly with God. 

Seeing that Paul tells his readers that he was singled out by God before birth to carry salvation to all the nations, it’s clear that he considered himself at least the equal of Moses and Elijah, if not their superior.

So, did Paul perhaps suffer from an “inflated ego”? We could easily find many who would describe him in earthier tones and sprinkle in a few harsh words. But to put it politely, yes. Inflated ego would capture the essence of it.

More on Paul in future blogs.

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Why write Acts of the Women when we already have Acts of the Apostles?

By Patrick W. Andersen

When any author contemplates writing a book recounting a biblical story, the first question always seems to be, “Why? This story has been told thousands of times and shown in countless movies. Why spend so much time and energy telling it again?”

I agree with that sentiment entirely. That’s why I don’t tell the same story again.

Acts of the Women, my new novel, tells of the birth of Christianity from a perspective that has been intentionally downplayed or ignored for two millennia. Men gave flowery speeches and wrote history books extolling their own noble deeds. But I’ve long suspected that women did most of the work.

A careful reading of the New Testament finds subtle, almost-hidden hints about this truth. The most obvious example is Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciple who was the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. It was she who reported to the male disciples that Jesus was alive, and they disbelieved her until they saw him themselves. Church leaders (male) later decreed that Mary was a prostitute, though there is absolutely no proof of that anywhere in the Bible. And yes, I called her “the beloved disciple.” That phrase has always been applied to the author of the Gospel According to John, simply because that author seemed to claim the title to himself. But the accounts of the crucifixion indicate that the male disciples were hiding for their own safety during the crucifixion. Maybe a few watched from a distance, but none of them were near enough to hear anything Jesus might have uttered as he neared death. The gospels, which are Christianity’s only accounts of the crucifixion, say that women stood at the foot of the cross, not men. Even John only names three witnesses: Mary, Jesus’ mother; Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene. Three women, no men.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find mention of Joanna, who knew Jesus and provided support for his ministry. She is described only as the wife of Chuza, the chief steward for Herod Antipas. I introduced these characters and their relationship in my previous novel, Second Born, and Joanna plays a significant role in Acts of the Women.

And what of Susanna, who is only identified in the New Testament as one of the women from Galilee who provided support for Jesus’ ministry. The apocryphal Gospel of James claimed that the mother of Mary (mother of Jesus) was named Anna. As this latter name seems to be the foundation for Joanna and Susanna, these two could have been sisters whose names paid tribute to their mother’s mother. And if both were daughters of Mary and sisters of Jesus, that would explain how they could travel with him and provide support without creating a scandal. Luke also says an elderly prophetess named Anna was at the temple when Jesus was brought there as a baby; this might be an allusion to Mary’s mother, to whom later legends attributed great things.

Paul gives recognition to Priscilla as one of his chief partners in ministry. I will say more about Paul in a future post; here I will merely point out that his personality was quite abrasive, as evidenced both in Acts of the Apostles and his own epistles. It doesn’t require too great a leap to assume that someone with a more congenial persona served as his manager. 

Finally, though she is not mentioned in the Bible, there is the European legend of the Black Madonna. I will not say too much of her here. But I will point out that in Luke’s genealogy for Jesus, he is descended from David through Nathan, a son born to Bathsheba and thus a brother to Solomon. Matthew says Jesus was descended through Solomon. In either case, Bathsheba was the link. Various interpretations link her origins to either southern Arabia or Ethiopia. In my books, she and many of her descendants were dark-skinned, among them Jesus and his brother Judas (nicknamed Thomas, the Twin). If Thomas fathered a daughter, there is a good possibility her complexion would be black.

And just a small note here about Thomas. While ancient writings attributed to him have surfaced in Egypt, legends also say Thomas founded seven churches in southern India starting in the year 52. If that is correct, then the Indian practice of Christianity had its foundation in one of the disciples who actually knew and worked with the man Jesus. The European church, on the other hand, took its teachings from Paul, who did not know Jesus and vehemently rejected the apostles who had known him in the flesh. But back to Thomas: after the crucifixion, did he go south to Egypt and then west to Europe, or did he travel east and south to India? Or both? Acts of the Women offers a new take on Thomas the Twin.

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Reconciling Nonviolence with the New Testament

Jesus Unarmed

By Keith Giles

Here is a book that addresses an age-old dilemma surrounding Christianity, to buy swords or to beat them into ploughshares? To quote the author: 

“One of the reasons why so many Christians are confused by the notion of Christian nonviolence is because the Bible seems to advocate for war on numerous occasions. So, to them, warfare and violence are ‘Biblical’ concepts and, therefore, should not be rejected. However, what they misunderstand is the difference between something that is ‘Biblical’ and something that is ‘Christlike.’ The two are not synonymous.”

Keith Giles’ new book, Jesus Unarmed, acknowledges that untold billions of people over the past two millennia have found justification for violence in the pages of the Bible. Even in the New Testament, which is supposed to preach the ways of the Prince of Peace. 

When most people—Christians included—read the passages where Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies and refrain from answering violence with more violence, our response is almost always, “Yes, but…” Fill in the blank after the “but” with your own excuse why nonviolence will not work in your own case. 

Giles reveals a new paradigm for reading the biblical stories. When Jesus appears to be advocating violence (e.g., telling followers to buy a sword or, in Revelation, apparently leading an army against the forces of evil), look beneath the surface to find the real intent of the story. The author makes the argument that these tales from Scripture preach the opposite of the common perception. 

Jesus Unarmed will not convert nonbelievers to adherents of the faith. Giles clearly writes from the assumption that his readers accept the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament as the gospel truth—pun fully intended—and even addresses some of the sayings as if Jesus is being quoted in the manner of modern journalism, in his exact words. No, this book intends to bolster the faith of Christians who have found themselves perplexed over what appears to be justifications for violence.

Giles enumerates examples and studies that show nonviolence is actually more effective. He also passes along anecdotes of notable examples literally torn from the pages of recent newspapers. It takes time to get from the rhetoric to the tangible, but patience pays off. This is a good read.

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