Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers

Sayers

The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod (Blackford Oakes #5), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1983).

Summary: As East Germany takes steps to stem the emigration of its people to the west through East Berlin in 1961, Blackford Oakes is tasked to find out what their intentions are and how they and Moscow will respond if NATO and the US intervenes.

After appearing weak and inexperienced in an initial meeting with Nikita Khrushchev President Kennedy learns that East Germany is taking steps to partition East and West Berlin to stem the tide of people emigrating from East to West Berlin and West Germany. This would violate agreements made at the end of World War II, and could trigger a new war, perhaps even a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. CIA agent Blackford Oakes is tasked with getting critical intelligence to determine whether Berlin will be completely isolated from the West, and what the East will do if NATO responds.

Oakes key contact with East Berlin and the East Germans is Henri Tod. Tod leads a resistance organization from West Berlin against the Communists. They call themselves The Bruderschaft and are not above violent efforts to subvert the Communists. He has become enemy Number One but has eluded capture. But the Communists have discovered an Achilles heel. Tod, whose real name was Toddweiss, was a German Jew, who along with his beloved sister Clementa, was shielded by the Wurmbrand family, when Jews were being sent to the death camps. They spirit him out of the country when he becomes draft-eligible. They pay with their lives and Clementa is sent to a camp to die. But she is liberated by Soviet troops, only to become their captive. Thought dead, she lives, and becomes the means to lure Tod and capture him, with Oakes being involved as an intermediary.

Meanwhile, East German leader Walter Ulbricht also has his own Achilles, a nephew Caspar, who he has taken under his wing as a personal assistant, perhaps to atone for killing his father. Caspar has discovered the rail car used by Hitler, abandoned in a rail yard, and turns it into a love nest for him and his girlfriend Claudia. Their paths cross with Tod when Tod is wounded after an assassination of an East German official and the rescue him from his pursuers, nursing him back to health in the rail car, and becoming converts to his cause and a source of critical information.

Blackford Oakes has all this to deal with, as he tries to get the needed intelligence to the President. How will he respond to the likely trap using Tod’s sister? How will he work with the independent Tod and his rogue organization? How will they react to the intelligence they are passing along to Oakes? And what will the U.S. government do?

The book is a page turner, moving quickly between Kennedy, Khruschev and Ulbricht, Oakes and Tod, Caspar and Claudia. Perhaps the most fascinating element is the challenge of divining an enemy’s intent and character, what action one should take, and how one’s adversary will respond. Anyone who has studied this era realizes how easily things could have turned out otherwise than they did, a salutary lesson for our own day.

 

Review: An Unhurried Leader

An Unhurried Leader

An Unhurried LeaderAlan Fadling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017/

Summary: Proposes that influential spiritual leadership that bears lasting fruit arises out of unhurried life in God’s presence that results in unhurried presence in the lives of those one leads.

Leadership can be demanding. People come from many directions with needs, agendas, and sometimes, criticism. To-do lists are longer than there are hours in the day. One may feel they have to run faster and faster, even as energy seems to be draining away. In more reflective moments, we might ask, are the people we lead maturing as Christ-followers, more effectively able to use their gifts and engage their world? That is, if we get a chance to ask the question in the midst of a hurried life.

Alan Fadling doesn’t think we will ever evade these demands. Rather, his thesis is that leadership that bears lasting fruit comes out of unhurried time in the presence of God that both fills us, and overflows into our leadership life. Most of all, he contends that when we cultivate this unhurried life with God, it allows us to come along people as an unhurried presence, able to wait and listen for what God is doing in their lives and through our encounter with them.

A key verse for Fadling is Isaiah 30:15:  “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Fadling writes:

“…Isaiah said that we’ll find salvation—help, wholeness, or rescue—in repentance and rest. He said that we’ll find strength—power, influence, and energy—in quietness and trust. Unhurried leaders are different.

  • Rather than fill their lives with noise, unhurried leaders make time for silence in which to listen (quietness).
  • Rather than allow anxiety to drive them, unhurried leaders learn to depend on a reliable God who invites them to join a good kingdom work already well underway (trust).
  • Rather than tackle self-initiated projects under the guise of doing them for God, unhurried leaders humbly orient themselves to the Leader of all, learning to take their cues from him (repentance).
  • Unhurried leaders also learn to rest as hard as they work.
  • Rather than measuring the productivity of their lives only in terms of what they do, unhurried leaders understand the importance of certain things they don’t do.”

Fadling walks us through what he has learned about leading out of abundance, allowing God’s living water to flow through us. He invites us to “come, listen, buy, and eat” in God’s presence, and to cultivate practices of contemplating God’s greatness where we open ourselves to a vision of God from which we lead. “Questions that Unhurry Leaders” was a delightful chapter that was not what I expected but rather a reflection on the wonderful questions Paul asks in Romans 8.

He turns to how our unhurried life with God flows into unhurried influence in leadership. He explores how developing fruitful leaders takes time–not trying to pursue quick, but not abiding fruit. He talks about how grace empowers us, as God meets and works through us in our weakness. Grace doesn’t make us strong, but rather we are strong in God’s grace in our weakness.

One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is the relentless stream of thoughts that hurry through our heads. Fadling offers a practice of noticing, discerning, and responding, allowing God into our thoughts–both those unworthy of us, and those that are, in fact, his promptings. This takes us into a life of prayer, in which our primary influence comes through prayer, and in which we do our work “with God,” which has the power to transform our “to do” lists–not necessarily by shortening them, but by allowing us to rest in God rather than anxiously work. He ties all this up by proposing a cycle of contemplation, discernment, engagement, and reflection that may become a rhythm of unhurried leadership.

Fadling helps us “try out” this unhurried leadership life through practices in each chapter as well as reflective questions that help us examine our own leadership. I took this book with me on a recent retreat and found the content, the practices, and the questions all helpful in reflecting on my own leadership journey. Most of all, he reminded me of the foundational truth that I learned as a student leader, and am still learning that he succinctly sums up:

“The secret of my spiritual leadership is God.”

Fadling helps us to examine our own leadership and ask if God is really enough for us. He helps us consider whether our leadership is simply a function of technique and skill, done in our own strength, often leading to hurried drivenness, or whether it is the unhurried leadership that is the overflow of abundant life with God. This is a great book to read for personal renewal, and even better with a team of leaders who can think together how they might encourage each other in the “unhurry” practices Fadling commends. The rest and refreshment both leaders and those they lead experience will more than amply repay the cost and time spent on this book.

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Visit my review of Alan Fadling’s earlier book, An Unhurried Life.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Meander Reservoir

_meanderwaterdistribution8x11 copy jpg 2200×1700

Meander Reservoir and the communities (shaded) that it serves

Mom always used to say there was no drinking water as good as Youngstown’s drinking water. I was not quite as opinionated, but on a hot summer day, there was nothing as refreshing as a cool glass of water.

It wasn’t always that way. Until 1932, Youngstown got its water from the Mahoning River. Yes, the Mahoning River. The old water works on West Avenue, built in 1905, had the unenviable task of making that water fit for consumption. Even then, the Mahoning was the most polluted river in Ohio, with temperatures that sometimes reached 104 degrees. They managed to make it safe to drink, but taste was another matter altogether.

A petition effort began in 1920 to form what became the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District and find a new source of water for Youngstown and surrounding communities. The district was comprised of Youngstown and Niles, along with McDonald, with other smaller communities receiving water via these three. Youngstown and Niles approved the district in 1927, with a $2,450,000 bond issue approved the following year to purchase land around Meander Creek and build the Mineral Ridge Dam that would create the Meander Reservoir. The work was completed and the reservoir filled in 1932. At the time, the reservoir held 7.5 billion gallons of water and could supply the city’s needs for two years. In 1958, a nine-mile pipeline from the Berlin Pumping Station to Meander Reservoir created additional capacity and a backup during periods of extended drought.

Today, the reservoir district comprises 7,510 acres, of which 2,010 are water. The reservoir capacity is 11 billion gallons, with a 50 foot high dam that is 3550 long, with a 260 foot spillway. Approximately 21.6 million gallons of water are delivered to Youngstown and surrounding communities. Youngstown and the communities it distributes water to use about 74 percent of the water, Niles 24 percent, and McDonald, 2 percent.

Safe drinking water is critical to the life of a community, as Flint, Michigan illustrates. One of the most significant safeguards to the reservoir are the 4 million evergreen trees on a preserve of land surrounding the reservoir that serve as a buffer to contaminants. The Vickers Nature Preserve, just south of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District land, also serves to protect the tributaries to Meander Creek. With rare exceptions, fishing and boating are prohibited. In recent years, upgrades were made to the water treatment plant.

Still there are concerns. Algal blooms, like those that have occurred on Lake Erie and other Ohio lakes could render Meander water unusable. There have been discussions of routing water directly from Berlin Lake to the treatment plant, by-passing Meander, but this would involve rate increases, and these have to be weighed against the likelihood of a bloom or other contamination of the reservoir. Agricultural and lawn fertilizers are the principle causes of such blooms so area residents have a critical role to play in preventing runoffs of these chemicals that feed algal blooms.

The other significant threat is contamination from oil and gas wells, the closest less than a mile from the reservoir. All told, according to a Vindicator article, there are 182 gas and oil wells in the vicinity, eighteen miles of pipeline, as well as a 72 inch above-ground sewage line from Canfield to the Meander Creek Treatment Station. There are also risks from the bridges over the reservoir, and contingency plans are in place to handle hazardous material spills into the reservoir. MVSD publishes fracking lab results on its website, with test results in roughly three month intervals, as well as other water purity tests.

Meander Reservoir has provided safe drinking water to the Mahoning Valley on an uninterrupted basis since 1932. Government officials, businesses, and local residents all have a role to play in ensuring the continuing safety of the water. While algal blooms can occur fairly suddenly, contamination from gas and oil wells seem to be a serious threat that could render the reservoir unusable for a long period of time or permanently. The fact that the Mahoning River is only just beginning to come back to life after forty years should be a warning. At present, if an “incident” took place, the 220,000 people who depend on the reservoir might have to use bottled water for an extended period of time, not unlike Flint.

Meander Reservoir, photo courtesy of Tom Volinchak

I hope many more generations talk about the great taste of Youngstown water, have no fears of what comes out of the tap, and enjoy the beauty of the forest preserve and clear blue waters of Meander Reservoir. It is an irreplaceable treasure!

Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity in the Roman empire

Christianity in the Roman EmpireRobert E. Winn. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A survey of Christian history in the post-apostolic era from 100 to 300 A.D., introducing the reader to key figures, events, controversies, and the development of various church practices and structures.

For many of us, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that extends from the close of the New Testament era until the Reformation era. The era this book covers, 100-300 A.D. was particularly crucial not only in the church’s response to persecution, but also in the development of various aspects of church order and practice and the growing recognition of the body of works the church would consider canonical, and figuring out the relation of these to the Hebrew scriptures they began to call the Old Testament. In addition, controversy forced the church to more clearly articulate its understand of key beliefs, particularly related to the person of Christ.

Robert E. Winn presents this material in a compact 137 pages of text, suitable for use in an adult education series, small group, or reading group, as well as for personal reading. He divides his treatment into three parts:

  1. Christianity in the Year 100. He begins with the contours of Christianity in the first generation following the apostolic era. They had arisen out of a Jewish context that has been decimated in its rebellions against Rome from which they drew apart, they spoke of Jesus as “Lord” and had developed clear authority structures and a moral life. Roman rulers like Pliny were presented with a conundrum of how to treat them. Early teaching in The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas set out the distinctive way Christians ought live. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians builds on this and reminds them of their common faith, as well as obedience to the bishops as key to their unity. Ignatius, in addition to addressing the importance of obedience to the bishops, is perhaps the earliest to address false teaching, both from “Judaism” and from the docetists, who maintained that Christ only “appeared” to be human. The section closes with these teachers instructions on church order including baptism and the Eucharist, laying groundwork still evident 2000 years later.
  2. Christianity in a Hostile World. Over the next 150 years, the church confronted attacks on its teaching and very existence. The section opens with the first comprehensive attack on Christian doctrine and practice by Celsus, and the anonymous response in the epistle to Diognetus, a Roman official. Then, Winn summarizes Justin Martyr’s First Apology, responding to charge that Christians are atheists, immoral, and disloyal to the empire. While Christians are not searched out from house to house, key leaders are martyred, including Polycarp, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity, whose stories are recounted. The persecution threatens the unity of the church about how those who denied their faith to escape death should be treated if they seek re-admission to the church. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was a key figure in arriving at a response that was kind of a via media between extreme factions on either side of the issue.
  3. Faith and Practice in the Third Century. The church’s belief and practice continued to develop in the third century. Winn opens his discussion with the development of a canon, and the different ways of reading scripture that developed, the typological being represented by Melito, and the allegorical represented by Origen. Irenaeus of Lyon’s articulation of the faith around the triune God, against heretical ideas, is considered. Tertullian’s defense of Christianity against Marcion follows in defending the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He returns to Origin in his teaching on prayer, emphasizing both the hours, and the postures of prayer. We close with Eusebius’ history of early Christianity, striking in his account of Christians’ response to plague, the transmission of the faith, and the dealing with heretics like Paul of Samosata.

Each chapter includes questions at the conclusion to review and reflect on the chapter content. Chapters are short and many include quoted material from the early Christian writers. There is a “What to Read Next” section at the end of the book that provides both general readings and books on each part, many of which are texts on, or by, the early church fathers.

Perhaps the one surprising omission in this work is the lack of discussion of Gnosticism, and the challenge it posed, particularly in the second century. This is all the more significant given the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism in our own era, and even the contention that it was an alternative form of Christianity that was suppressed by “official” Christianity. Irenaeus was a key figure in these controversies and Against the Heresies an important part of the church’s response. Winn summarizes this work but is silent about Gnosticism.

What this book does do is provide a concise treatment of early Christian history, focused on Christian practice, key beliefs, and the response to the ever-present threat of persecution from Rome. Winn acquaints us with the writings of the early fathers (the reading of which I would encourage!). He helps us see the origins of ways of reading scripture, of articulating and defending the church’s faith, and ordering the church’s life that are with us in some form to this day.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

How Do You Read So Many Books?

My Review Stats Goodreads

My reading stats as of 11/13/2018

A friend asked that question recently over at the Bob on Books Facebook Page. Yes, I do read quite a few books, 155 so far this year. I’m far from alone. Just two examples. Teddy Roosevelt was reputed to read a book a day. Warren Buffett reads 500 pages a day (I typically read about 125). Both far exceed me. Here are a few thoughts on how that works for me:

  1. There are other things I don’t do. I don’t watch very much TV. If you cut out an hour of TV a day, you can read 60 books in a year.
  2. I try to cut out other distractions when I read, which slow me down as well as divert my attention from the text. Keeping the cell phone out of sight and hearing is key. I need to stay away from screens when I read.
  3. I try to read when I am most alert, which for me is early in the day. Sometimes, I stand when I read when I have to read closely, and might be inclined to doze off!
  4. I always have something available to read–on breaks, in airports. This is when I do some lighter reading.
  5. There is something to reading skills–reading speed, comprehension–that improve with practice. I pay attention to chapter titles, headings, first sentences in paragraphs, which tip me off to meaning.
  6. I find punctuating reading with some physical activity–say five minutes of walking–results in greater alertness.
  7. I always have books on hand to read next, the proverbial TBR (to be read) pile.
  8. I vary my reading–fiction, history, biography, sports, theology, science and more.
  9. I’ve been part of a book group, and over the years, we’ve read nearly one hundred books together.
  10. Track your progress, which is a kind of reinforcer in itself. Goodreads has a reading challenge. Be realistic and keep it fun.

The point in reading though is not how many books we read, but what happens in us as a result of what we read. Books can enlarge our world, enlarge our ideas of a life well-lived, sharpen our thinking, and feed our imagination. There are times to read quickly, times to read carefully, and times to savor the richness of wordplay in a poem or particularly well-written passage. Hopefully these ideas will help you make more space in your life for books, whatever number you read.

 

Review: Race on Campus

race on campus

Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018.

Summary: Addresses myths and misconceptions around issues of race on college campus using research data.

Race continues to be an issue on campus as well as in our larger society. It is popular to note how students of color may be found sitting together in the college cafeteria and self-segregate into ethnic-specific organizations. Some object to using race in admissions processes and argue that the same ends might be achieved by class-based admissions alone. Of course, affirmative action is argued back and forth, and the case has been made for students with high test scores who were turned down for admissions including those from Asian-American backgrounds. Recognizing some of the inequities in college tests, proposals have been made to remedy with offering universal test prep. Some have recommended that affirmative action programs at some of the nations elite schools “mismatch” students of color and set them up for failure, when they may have excelled at a lower tier university.

These are the issues Julie J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, addresses in Race on Campus. Her approach is to come up with data-driven insights from peer-reviewed research to explore if what is being proposed or observed is actually the case. Often times, she argues, the data reveals a very different story, and that cognitive bias is actually a big issue in discussions where data belies what is contended. Here is a sampling of some of her findings:

  • The self-segregation of students of color in cafeterias and organizations reflect only an hour or two a day of a student’s life, and that students in ethnic specific organizations actually have more interactions with those of other ethnicity. Times with one’s own ethnic minority re-energizes students for engagement across ethnic boundaries. She also observes that most of us don’t notice that all the white students are also sitting together, or the instances where students are crossing boundaries.
  • Where self-segregation is a greater issue is in Greek life on campuses, as well as in religious organizations. Especially in the Greek system, self-segregation leads to fewer interactions with non-White students. This is less the case in religious organizations, but most students in self-segregating religious groups will have fewer close friends of another ethnicity.
  • Studies show that admissions processes that are both race- and class-conscious result in far more diverse classes than class-conscious approaches alone. She observes the wealth gap between median household wealth of Black and White families ($7,113 versus $111,146) and that this supports that we need to focus on race to get to class diversity because of disparities in wealth.
  • Asian-American students actually benefit from affirmative action, both by not being discriminated against, and in being part of more diverse student bodies. The discussion here goes beyond the test scores to the variety of factors in a student’s profile that are considered in admissions and student success. She deconstructs the “140 points” myth (that Asian-American students need to score 140 points higher on the SAT to be competitive with other students for admission).
  • There are all kinds of problems with admissions tests and the test-prep programs touted to bring big score increases. The actual overall gains, from test to test using test prep are minimal. Furthermore, there are inequities both in educational backgrounds that cannot be made up for with a test prep course, and inequities of access to the best test prep programs that make tests like the SAT an unreliable measure of how a student will perform.
  • The problem with the “problem of mismatch” is that under-represented minority students admitted to elite schools on the whole do about as well, and in some cases, better than majority students. Here, Park takes apart a study by Sander and Taylor that has been invoked for encouraging students to go to “slower-track” institutions.

This is a winsomely written book addressing a tough subject. I especially appreciate the epistemic humility of Park, who in the course of her research discovers some of her own cognitive biases, and has the courage to admit them. I also appreciate an academic citing academic research who writes accessibly for a wide audience. In the Introduction, she says,

“Who should read this book? Everyone! If you’re a graduate student, academic, policy-maker, educator, everyday citizen–come on in. One of my key goals is to highlight empirical studies on race in a way that is more accessible than the original peer-reviewed journal articles, which are primarily read by academics. Don’t get me wrong, academic journals are riveting reading, but it can be tedious to comb through study after study, so I’ve done that work for you. I’ve also done my best to write this book in a conversational tone to make it accessible to a wide range of readers” (p. 6).

I believe she succeeds on both counts. The work is meticulously researched with 32 pages of end notes in a book that comes in at under 200 pages. Park keeps it accessible, citing key statistics within the text without bar charts and graphs (which I know will disappoint some). The tone remains conversational, and Park avoids the “detached researcher” voice that often result in accurate but sterile works.

This work is important for its conclusions as well–that we are tempted to adopt policy proposals driven by cognitive bias rather than data, that we need more robust measures of merit than test scores that recognize different ways excellence manifests in students across race and class, and that racism and racial inequalities continue to need to be addressed on campus. The book challenged some of my own cognitive biases around issues like self-segregation.  This is an important book for anyone connected to higher education who aspire to seeing campuses as diverse as our population, that prepare students to lead in a diverse society.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: God’s Mediators

God's Mediators

God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of the Priesthood (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew S. Malone. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on priesthood, considering both God’s individual priests, and the corporate priesthoods of Israel and the church, and some implications of this material for our contemporary understanding of priesthood.

The language of priesthood can mean quite a number of different things in church circles. We may think of ordained religious workers who lead the church in its liturgical and eucharistic functions, particularly in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings. Depending on what part of the Christian family we are part of, we may regard this favorably, neutrally, or unfavorably. Then there is this stuff about the “priesthood of all believers” that particularly arose out of the Reformation, contending that every believer has access to God through Christ, and may minister for God in the world.

The purpose of this work is to look at the biblical theology of priesthood. That is, looking at the passages that speak about priesthood in Old and New Testaments, and formulating from this, the Bible’s teaching about priesthood, mindful of other doctrines and how they intersect with the truths we uncover.

The book divides in two parts reflecting two major threads in the biblical material about priesthood. The first are individuals who are set apart by God both to represent God to people, and to act on behalf of people with God. The second set of references are corporate in character, referring first to Israel, and later the church as a “kingdom of priests.” After an introductory chapter, the book devotes four chapters to individuals as priests, and two chapters to corporate priesthood, with concluding reflections on the relevance of this material.

In Part One, Malone focuses first on the Aaronic priesthood of Exodus, and the clear restriction of that priesthood to Aaron and his familial descendants. Only they may approach, under strict commands, the Lord. But they act such that other Israelites, may “draw near” God, and that through them, God communicates with Israel. Then Malone steps back and considers antecedents to the Aaronic priesthood including a fascinating section on Eden as a garden sanctuary, Adam and Eve as priests, priestly behaviors of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, other priests, and the priestly activity of Moses. Particularly, the activity of setting up altars and the offering of sacrifice certainly antedates the Aaronic priesthood.

The story of the priesthood after entering the land is one of decline, with occasional exceptions, prophetic denunciations, and a glimmer of hope for the future. The priesthood continues into the New Testament period, often portrayed in conflict with Christ and the nascent Christian movement. He studies the hints of Jesus as priest in the gospels (the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the prayer of John 17, and the connection between Jesus and the Temple). Clearly, Hebrews represents the culmination of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as great high priest, superior in every way to the priesthood that had gone before it.

Part Two turns to corporate priesthoods beginning with that of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5-6, NIV).

The question is whether this priesthood derives from the Aaronic priesthood. In fact it precedes that priesthood, and Malone suggests “perhaps God instituted a class of priests in order to illustrate what the nation’s corporate identity might look like.” As a people, they had a “priestly” role in representing the character of God by the character of their national life to the nations. Sadly, much of the story is one of failure to fulfill this destiny.

Attention then turns to the church’s priestly commission, particularly the echoes in Peters words in 1 Peter 2: 4-10 of Exodus 19:6, the regal priesthood language of Revelation, and the access to God Hebrews speaks of through the priestly work of Christ. Perhaps most fascinating is his exploration of the priestly language Paul uses in describing his ministry to the Gentiles. The sense throughout is not taking the place of Christ as mediator, the great high priest, but fulfilling the priestly mission of the people of God among the nations, both representing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God.

So what may be concluded? First of all, he contends that the corporate priesthood of the church derives, not from the individual priesthood of Jesus, but as the fulfillment of the priesthood of Israel. What then of the contemporary priesthood as a vocation for individuals? He addresses the lack of basis in the biblical accounts–the priesthood of Jesus is unique and a class of those who mediate, as in the Aaronic priesthood are not necessary. He also observes the difficulty of language, where our usage of “priest” derives from the word used for elder (presbyter) rather than the biblical idea of one who offers sacrifices. His argument is not that the church leaders who are set apart under this term are not important but that a vocational priesthood, in the same sense as the term is used in scripture has problems with aligning with the biblical usage of the term because of the definitive work of Christ. Rather, the work of such individuals is one of calling the whole church to its holy priestly mission in the world.

Certainly, some of this might arouse a fierce response on the part of some who would defend the ordained priesthood. It is significant that Malone writes this as a member of the Anglican communion where this terminology is used. What I found in his writing was great exegetical care throughout to claim neither more nor less than could be established from the biblical texts. I found this especially in his handling of gospel texts that some might press further in arguing Jesus’ priestly role. He is content to focus on Hebrews as well as some material in Revelation, where this is more clearly established. He is also careful to not derive the priesthood of believers from Jesus, where evidence of this is lacking.

Yet the effect here is not to arrive at a place of simply telling us what the Bible does not say. Rather, the conclusion I derived is a deepened appreciation of both the high priestly work of Jesus that fulfilled where the Aaronic priesthood failed, and the noble calling of the church as a holy kingdom of priest, representing God’s reconciling work to the world. There is plenty here both for worship, and our work in the world.

 

Review: Finding Holy in the Suburbs

Finding Holy

Finding Holy in the SuburbsAshley Hales (Foreword by Emily P. Freeman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Suburbs reflect our longings for the good, that we often fill with gods of consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. Only when we repent and find our longings met in belonging to God, can daily life in the suburbs become a holy endeavor.

Nearly one-half of Americans live in suburbs, and yet many view the suburbs as a place of desolation, a deadening affluence and isolation that James Howard Kunstler has described “the geography of nowhere.” In many Christian circles, the “cutting edge” Christian life is one lived in urban neighborhoods. So what does one make of a call of God to leave an urban community that has been a thriving place of ministry and rich relationships to return to the California suburb of one’s youth? That was the challenge faced by Ashley Hales and her husband as they moved from urban Salt Lake City to that California suburb.

Hales discovered that there was a hunger in the suburbs, a longing for “home” that people filled with consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. In the first part of this book she described her own wrestlings with these false gods. She describes the consumeristic fantasies of granite countertops and therapeutic shopping at Target. She describes the individualism of measuring worth in the square footage of suburban castles that close us off from community. She narrates the busy life of the mom in a minivan ruled by the schedules entailed by all the childhood experiences our community says our children must have. She confesses the fears for safety that lead to walls and fences and gates that end up shutting out the joyous life of the kingdom.

Hales believes that “healing begins at the place of hunger.” It is when, in conversations over coffee, or the back fence, the doubts and frustrations arise that expose the brokenness of this life and the chance to “find holy” opens up. The middle part of the book deals with two movements that are critical. The first is repentance, when we acknowledge that the “glittering images” of suburban life mask an inner emptiness. The answer is not to double down or to look for a different place, but to acknowledge our mess, and stay put, waiting for God’s grace. The other part is to know that grace, that we are God’s beloved, and that our belovedness is not in how “ripped” or svelte we are, but in finding a better Lover who sees us in our beautiful brokenness and will not let us go. The challenge is to live in that reality each day in the little acts of suburban life.

The concluding chapters commend an alternative life in the suburbs that arises from repentance and belovedness. It begins with hospitality that doesn’t worry about how Pinterest-worthy our homes are but shares meals together as family and invites others into the warmth, with children interrupting, and crumbs in the sofa. Instead of consumerism, we live with an open-hearted and intentional generosity with our stuff and our time and our money. It means choosing vulnerability over safety in opening up our lives to our church and our neighborhood. It is living into the shalom of God in the midst of our broken-busy lives.

Hales writes in a style that at once evidences deep spiritual reflection, and personal honesty about her own moments of failure, repentance, and of rooting her life in the suburbs in an awareness of the presence of God in the ordinary. Each chapter concludes with some practices that individuals, families or groups may use.

As one who has lived in a suburban community for 28 years, there was much that I recognized, from the dreams of kitchen remodels to the minivan lineups at schools, practices, and fast-food drive-throughs, to the concerns for safety (far greater than in the urban community of my youth). I appreciate the insight of the author to see beyond these things to the hunger and longings of her neighbors, and the needed posture of Christians who live in this setting.

At the same time, I wonder if her and her husband’s commitment to minister in that community sets them apart from many. Our suburb significantly empties out during the day as people spend the bulk of their waking hours working somewhere else–often a place where they form their most significant friendships. She doesn’t deal with the transience of suburban communities (the house next to us has had four owners during the time we have lived here, the house behind us seven). Suburbs have life cycles from the squeaky clean “new build” stage to aging housing stock and changing demographics as many move to newer exurbs while some stay after raising families to become empty-nesters, and eventually, those who choose to “age in place.”

I hope the author and her husband will stay long enough to wrestle with these realities and work out the practices described in this book, which I believe reflect what kingdom presence looks like, as believers in the suburbs. Many suburbs really are a “geography of nowhere,” removed from shops, services and workplaces, and with attached garages that allow us to enter our “castles” without any interaction with neighbors. Many communities have no real identity and have little beyond the local schools to offer cohesion.  This work describes well the spiritual landscape of suburban life and the posture needed for those who will minister there. I look forward a sequel to this book, something like, “Further Adventures in Finding Holy in the Suburbs.” This is needed work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. Leslie S. Domonkos

Leslie Domonkos

Leslie Domonkos, Source unknown

I grew up disliking history. Up through high school, history had largely been presented to me as a series of events, dates to be memorized, and important people. All this, I had to remember for tests, and promptly forget afterward.

Today, I love history as the story of how different factors and forces contribute to events and how these help us understand how we got here, historically, at least. As you might tell from my posts about Youngstown, I love local history–how places get their names, who was such and such, and how they were important in Youngstown history and how the cultural institutions of the city developed?

I think I owe this love of history to Dr. Leslie Domonkos, now an emeritus professor of history at Youngstown State, and the professor who taught the Western Civilization course I took during my first quarter at Youngstown State, 46 years ago. What I remember about his class, is that I never took so many notes in my life–and it was a good thing. His exams were tough. They weren’t fill in the blanks, or a computer-read form. They were essay-based exams of three or four questions that we would answer in handwritten “Blue Books.” You needed to study your notes, do the readings, and take his exam prep suggestions seriously. His lectures were riveting as he opened up the events of European history and the cultural, social, economic, religious and political forces that led to them. He made us think about these forces, and argue which were most important. It was hard, and I loved it, and he awakened a love of history I never knew I had. Looking back, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t major in history. I also think of how much work it was for him to read all those hand-written Blue Book exams and grade them!

Both Dr. Domonkos and his wife Eva were born in Budapest, Hungary, he in 1938 and she in 1941. Her tribute in The Vindicator notes that she came to the U.S. as a World War II refugee in 1951. I do not know if this is true of Dr. Domonkos but he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959. For both of them, their arrival in this country was a gift. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse, and later as a childbirth educator at St. Elizabeth’s, returning to Hungary to introduce modern childbirth techniques to that country.

Dr. Domonkos gift to this country was his scholarship and inspired teaching. He graduated from Youngstown University in 1959 with a Bachelors degree in history and completed Masters and Ph.D. degrees in medieval history at Notre Dame. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Vienna during 1963-1964.  He returned to teach as an instructor at Youngstown in 1964, then as an assistant professor in 1965, associate professor in 1969 and full professor in 1975. Twice he served as acting department chair. In 1971, he received an Outstanding Educator in America award. Over the years six Distinguished Professor Awards followed. He published numerous articles in medieval and Hungarian history in addition to co-editing three books. He was admitted to the Corporate Body of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2003. He retired from Youngstown State in 2002, receiving emeritus status.

In 2013 he was awarded the YSU Heritage Award, the university’s most prestigious award, recognizing faculty and administrative staff who have made a major contribution to the university during their career. At the date this was written, he is continuing to enjoy his retirement.

It is staggering to think of how many students lives were touched by Dr. Domonkos during his four decade career at Youngstown State. Some went on to academic careers in history. No doubt some were just glad to pass his course! But I can’t help but believe there were many of us who gained a much bigger vision of the world beyond the Mahoning valley through his teaching. For me, he inspired a lifelong love of history, manifested in a house full of history books, and a curiosity to know the story behind the facts. I know my life is richer for it. Thank you, Dr. Domonkos!