Review: The Theology of Jeremiah

The Theology of Jeremiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A survey of the life of Jeremiah, the composition of the book, and the theological themes running through it.

The book of Jeremiah is a formidable book to study. It is a long book, one John Goldingay likens to a series of blog posts stitched together into a scroll, the contexts of which are not always apparent. It covers over forty years. Its author was reviled by many, ending up carried off to Egypt while many of his people were relocated to Babylon and those who remained in Judea struggled to eke out an existence.

This book is not a commentary to unpack the tough textual questions (the author has written one of these as well). Rather, what John Goldingay does is help us see the forest instead of just the trees, as well as the rivers, fields and hills. He looks at Jeremiah’s life and literally overviews the book forward and back. Then he considers the major theological themes running through the book.

He begins with Jeremiah’s life and the kings during whose reigns he prophesied largely unheeded (apart from Josiah). Goldingay stresses how he both embodies the faithfulness to which Israel was called, and in the treatment of Israel, he reflects how they are in fact treating God. He considers the composition of “Jeremiah,” originally a scroll of messages read to and burned by Jehoiakim, subsequently a scroll Goldingay believes his followers compiled of his messages in the years following his exile and after his death. He takes a retrospective view of Jeremiah’s life that he believes reflects the retrospective vision of the scroll of Jeremiah. He then traces the themes of the various sections of the two parts, chapters 1-25 and 26-52. He walks through various divisions that he singles out with “Begins with: Think About…” and then walks through the section concluding with a section outline. For example Jeremiah 2-6 is “Begins with: Think About the Exodus” the subject of chapter 2 followed a call to turn back to God in chapter 3, warnings of devastation in chapter 4, condemnation of their unfaithfulness and injustice to the poor in chapter 5, and warnings of devastation from the north because they have been judged and found wanting in chapter 6.

The second part of the book centers around biblical theology, considering five theological ideas and how they are unpacked in Jeremiah. They are:

  1. God
  2. The People of God
  3. Wrongdoing
  4. Being a Prophet
  5. The Future

The chapter on the people of God is rich with reflection on all God wanted (and wants) for his people. a possession belonging to God, a household, a community, a country and domain, a city and also a sabbath resting place. God wants for them well-being and good leadership. The chapter on “wrongdoing” delineates the ways God’s people turn from him. The chapter on being a prophet includes a striking list of the qualities of prophets evident in Jeremiah the man and the book: do they say the opposite of what we think? do they get attacked by the people of God and especially their leaders? do they love the people of God? and do they intercede? to name a few. Each of the chapters reflects on the implications of these themes in a Christian context.

This book is both concise (140 pages plus a page of commentary recommendations and scripture index) and rich. Leaving exegesis to the commentaries, Goldingay helps us make sense of the whole scroll, the collection of messages (blog posts) over 40 years, the section themes, and the larger theological themes. This is invaluable for anyone studying, teaching, or preaching this book who has to make sense both to oneself and others the message of the sections of the book and the recurring themes of the whole. This helps us move from the information of exegesis to the formation we long for in our lives and those with whom we share this rich and complicated text called Jeremiah.

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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 Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

Summary: An extended treatise on the idea of surveillance capitalism, in which we are the “raw materials” for others economic gain and the object of instrumentarian control.

I heard about this book from an interview with the author. I wish I had been forewarned that the soundbite argument of a radio interview was a bloated treatise laden with abstraction, jargon, and a determination to “show all one’s work.” A much shorter work may have been more effective in making its point.

There are two major ideas in this book. One is that a new form of capitalism has arisen as companies like Google and Facebook have figured out how to monetize their platforms through the information that users willingly and sometimes unwittingly surrender that are used to generate the advertising revenues that really fund their enterprises. We are not the customer, we are the raw material, and these platforms have become increasingly skilled at “scraping” data from every aspect of our lives that may be monetized. Our posts, our likes, our searches, and via our smartphones, our locations, and all our app use are sources. So are the devices wired into our cars and our homes, and eventually, even into our clothes. All of this data is “behavioral surplus” about us enabling various entities to market to us and, less benignly, manipulate our perceptions and behavior.

This leads to the second and perhaps more sinister idea that the entities controlling these platforms are seeking to establish instrumentarian, not totalitarian control of society, working toward the idea of a “frictionless” hive mind, controlled by “Big Other.” The aim is total certainty in the control exercised and guaranteed outcomes to marketing efforts. Platforms own the means of behavioral modification, the use of which is concealed. Zuboff’s description of these efforts reminded me of Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (review), a world in whose ideal is that nothing be hidden, nothing secret, and all transparent. For Zuboff, the greatest problem these platforms face is “friction,” in which individuals do not surrender privacy or information.

One idea introduced toward the end of the book is that of “equivalence.” Anything that produces more traffic, more engagement, and information is good. It struck me that this was the flaw in the supposed dream of a “hive mind.” This was amply on display in recent elections and efforts at social disruption. Platforms do have the ability to control these but tend to refrain, even though these promote conflicting rather than harmonious interests. My hunch is that capitalism is of greater interest than control and that these platforms are relatively indifferent to content as long as it is profitable.

The bigger problem I have is that this book is long on assertion and short on data or practical recommendations. The most she can offer is “be the friction.” I do believe she offers legitimate warnings about how unwittingly we yield up all kinds of information about ourselves. She doesn’t explore the networking of platforms, and how everything from what we buy at the grocery store to our credit records to our health records, the layout of our homes and our travel histories can be compiled. I’m not convinced that “Big Other” is the greater danger than “Big Brother.” What I do believe is that Zuboff raises a necessary warning that our democratic freedoms, including some measure of self-determination, may be lost. It may even be that they are not taken from us so much as willingly surrendered.

Review: Hurting Yet Whole

Hurting Yet Whole, Liuan Huska. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: When a vibrant young writer descends into a season of chronic pain, she discovers the disembodied character of much Christian theology, that she could be whole as a person yet hurting, and that pain and physical vulnerability can be a place where we are met by God.

It started as a pain in her left ankle. Soon she could not walk more than a few blocks before the pain became too great. Visits to orthopedists and an array of other specialist brought no relief. Unremitting and spreading pain and unanswered prayers to be made whole once again brought her to a crisis of faith:

“I struggled to patch my faith into the growing hole of despair in my core. There were no easy answers. I wanted to be healed. I wanted to be whole. Wholeness is a unity of parts, a fitting together of pieces into a seamless, coherent entity. I was anything but whole. I was falling apart on so many levels.”

Liuan Huska, p. 8

As Huska confronts her despair, she discovers that much of Christian theology is split at the core between body and soul, influenced by ancient (and perhaps contemporary?) Gnosticism to see the soul as under assault by the fallen body. And when our bodies suffer from vulnerabilities of illness and pain, there is an urgency to restore bodily wholeness because this means spiritual wholeness. And if healing eludes us, there must be something spiritually wrong.

Huska discovered that while healing does sometimes comes, wholeness can come amid acceptance of our body’s brokenness. God may not spare us from pain, but God may give us something more–God’s own presence in which true wholeness is found.

Before unfolding more fully what this journey was like for her, she describes the myth of medical mastery as she worked her way through a variety of specialists, and found herself no better. She also talks about the particular vulnerabilities women face and the ways women’s experience of pain is often dismissed by the medical establishment. (This is one reason why this book should be read by men as well as women!)

Huska helps us see that all of us have vulnerable bodies. It just takes some of us longer to find out! Vulnerability can take us from independence to interdependence in which accepting the care of others while respecting their needs allows both them and us to flourish. Facing our limits becomes a place where we discover God is able to work his abundance through our broken bodies.

One area I’m surprised Huska didn’t address was the use of pain-relievers. Opioids have brought both blessed relief and the added burden of addiction. This does not appear to have been part of Huska’s pain treatments but have been prescribed (and sometimes over-prescribed) for others. This is also a part of bodily brokenness and one to be handled with sensitivity and without shaming.

Huska offers help in how we care for others in pain. Mostly listening. Open-ended questions. No nostrums. No fixes. Meals. Hugs. If welcome, accompaniment on doctor appointments. Her own story of helpful friends, a mostly supportive husband (caregivers get tired!), and her journey into a theology of embodiment, suffering, and wholeness is helpful whether we are suffering pain or care for someone who is. Perhaps the most significant message is simply that we don’t have to be healed to be whole.

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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 — South High School

South High School, circa 1916

It was a time when Youngstown was undergoing explosive growth and particularly expanding south of downtown. Between 1900 and 1920 the population grew from 44,885 to 132,358. In 1910, there was one high school serving the city, The Rayen School. School superintendent N. H. Chaney started leading a campaign to expand the Youngstown City school system.

Architect Charles F. Owsley, the architect for the Mahoning County Courthouse, was employed to design the building. Looking at both buildings, you can see the family resemblance. Metro Monthly has a video online of both exterior details and pictures of the interior of the school. It was a grand building–the auditorium, ceilings, the school offices. The cornerstone was laid in 1909 and the school opened in 1911. The Rayen School had a reputation for excellence, and the opening encountered skepticism that the new school would match Youngstown’s first school for excellence. Superintendent Chaney assured parents of students that would be sent to South High School that they would be prepared just as effectively for life.

Whether the school matched The Rayen School in academics, South quickly proved itself in athletics, defeating Rayen in their first football match 12-0. For many years to come, this would be the major rivalry between Youngstown schools. By 1914 money had been appropriated for a new stadium behind the school. One of the early football stars at South High School under “Busty” Ashbaugh was Chet McPhee, who played at half back, graduating in 1915. After college, he returned to Youngstown to coach at newly established Chaney High School, a new rival for South.

During the flu epidemic of 1918, South High School was converted to an emergency hospital for a time, when existing hospital capacity was overwhelmed. Approximately 380 patients were cared for there, 90 of whom died, including three teachers who had volunteered their services.

Perhaps the most illustrious alumnus of South High School was Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. in 1927. Judge Nathaniel R. Jones was another South High School grad, who eventually rose to the second highest court in the land. Football players Bob Dove and Fred Mundee as well as Major Generals Wilbur Simlik and Robert Durkin were graduates. In later years, Simeon Booker who wrote on civil rights in Jet Magazine was also a graduate. Joseph Napier, Sr, is another South High grad and Youngstown storyteller. One of his videos recounts “The Youngstown South Nine,” South’s one championship cross country team in 1980. Napier was a member.

Warrior Logo

At Chaney, we went to a lot of games at South’s stadium, one of two serving the high schools in the city. The South High Warriors in their red and blue were often a tough opponent in football and basketball. My other major encounter with South was the field house, from which I graduated. Beyond those experiences, I did not have a lot of contact with South and don’t think I was ever in the building. From the pictures I’ve seen, that was my loss.

Population was the reason South High School was built and it was the reason it closed. As Youngstown’s population shrank in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Youngstown closed a number of schools. In 1993, the decision was made to close South High School. For a time, a charter school used the facility, Eagle Heights Academy. Eagle Heights Academy came under scrutiny because of poor academic performance and financial irregularities around 2010 and eventually closed. A new school, South Side Academy, took its place, and in 2015 moved out of the South High facility due to dissatisfaction with White Hat Management, who at that time owned the building. South Side moved into the former St. Patrick’s Elementary at 1400 Oakhill, out of which they currently operate.

It is not clear to me whether the South High School building has a tenant at present. The satellite map from this year suggests that the bleachers in the stadium are deteriorating, and I wonder from looking at it about the condition of the roof. If that goes, then the interior will deteriorate quickly. This would be sad–it is a gem of a building and a South Side landmark. And it represents an illustrious history as the city’s second high school, one that launched many students into life.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

OK. I’m just going to put it out there. I am convinced that the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for a more serious challenge that makes infection control, treatment, and a global vaccination campaign look like child’s play. The challenge is our rapidly warming planet and the ways it will change and imperil life on our planet, the only one we have.

An article from 2013 states that the last time CO2 levels on earth were as high (then 400 ppm, recently as high as 420) was before we humans were around. The oceans were 100 feet higher, the arctic was a tropical paradise. Since 1800, planetary temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, and far more in some locations. The evidence of a changing climate is evident in rising sea levels, melting glaciers all over the planet, more extreme storms in some areas, drier, prolonged drought and fire seasons in others. The growing season where I live is at least two weeks longer than when I moved here 30 years ago. In some places, summer temperatures have hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, levels that challenge human habitability. Coastal cities globally face inundation.

At this point CO2 outputs continue to rise as the rest of the world catches up to the US in outputs, and likely global temperatures will follow. If the permafrost melts, large amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, will be emitted, further accelerating global warming. Now some forms of life survived while others died during this previous time of high CO2 levels. One thing that is clear is that some people will die from heat or famine or flooding. Many others will be displaced and what will happen when they (or we) try to share the remaining habitable places. We haven’t even begun to reckon with other creatures on the earth. Even if we make the requisite effort to reduce CO2 output to “net zero” by 2050 or earlier some of this will happen. If it is not evident yet to everyone, I believe we are facing an existential threat.

It is one that:

  • Threatens our very existence.
  • That will wreak significant global devastation even if we take the necessary actions, which may mitigate but not eliminate the consequences of what we have already done contributing to global climate change.
  • Will require significant changes in the way we live.
  • Will require concerted efforts to address the primary causes of CO2 emissions–cows, coal, and petrochemicals.
  • Calls for a shared ethic of pursuing the common good.
  • Cannot be accomplished without global cooperation and coordination.

Do you recognize the parallels with our global responses and sometimes lack of responses to the coronavirus? I think the verdict is mixed. We did mount a global scientific effort to study the virus, sequence its genome, and develop highly effective vaccines in record time. Efforts to mitigate the virus’s impact worked to a certain extent, more in some countries than others. In the US where personal freedom is more highly valued than acting for the common good, these efforts have faced a tug of war between public health and personal freedom that has led to an acceptance of infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths that have outpaced the rest of the world. At this point, there are great inequities of vaccination rates reflecting distribution of vaccines in various parts of the world. Meanwhile the virus continues to mutate becoming more effective in spreading itself, especially in parts of the world where it can continue to spread unchecked, which imperils us all.

The thing is, we have seen human beings at their best and worst through all of this–selflessly caring for the very sick in ICUs and hoarding toilet paper. We’ve seen the capacities of researchers to study something that was novel and learn immense amounts about how it infects and spreads and effects the body and where it can be attacked in the space of a year. Medical personnel have made major advances in treatment. And we’ve seen it turned into a political football, where nearly every insight into prevention, treatment, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines has been contested.

It makes me wonder how we will respond to the coming climate challenge. Now some of you don’t buy that this is really an issue. I do. Truthfully, I’d rather you were right. I respect you if you think differently. But I would hope you might think about the “what if?” Because if “what if” turns out to be true, this will be one of those situations where we either choose to “hang together or hang separately.” We can choose to listen to our better angels and work for the global good. Or we can choose a “survival of the fittest” (and the richest) ethic in a hotter and less hospitable world. Ultimately, what happens to the earth is beyond me. But what kind of person I will be as we face these challenges is not. At this juncture of the pandemic, it seems time for me to consider how I’ve played my own part in this “dress rehearsal” for the greater challenge before us.

Review: Torah Old and New

Torah Old and New, Ben Witherington III. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018.

Summary: A study of the texts from the Pentateuch quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and how they were understood both in their original context and as used in the New Testament context.

Ben Witherington has previously written Isaiah Old and New and Psalms Old and New. Following this same pattern of studying texts used in the New Testament both as they were understood in their original context and in the New Testament, Witherington takes on the ambitious project of doing the same with Torah, the first five books of scripture, also known as the Pentateuch.

This is an ambitious project as is apparent in Appendix 1, where we find listed all of the passages in Genesis through Deuteronomy cited, alluded to or echoed in the New Testament, and where these occurred. A study of this Appendix explains the layout of the book and demonstrates why the chapters on Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are so much longer than those on Leviticus and Numbers. The three former books were cited much more. Witherington covers all of these instances in the pages of his text, first consider the passage in the Pentateuch, and then the various New Testament references.

One observation, that Witherington notes, is that much more of the material is “law” material than narrative material. The big exception is some of the the songs, particularly the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. The narrative is important, however, especially the narratives of Abraham and his faith, who in the new covenant is father by faith for all of humanity, not only the descendants of Jacob, or Israel.

The use of Torah in the New Testament is centered around the significance of Jesus, who extends the application of some parts of Torah while dismissing others such as laws around sabbath and cleanliness. Paul was the first to grasp the significance of this, allowing Jewish believers to remain Torah observant while Gentiles would observe the aspects of the law re-affirmed and deepened by Jesus.

What all this has in common is that the laws of Torah and the new covenant are both framed by the saving work of God. The laws, contrary to later conceptions focus on what it means to “stay in rather than how to get in.” Both assume already being “in.”

The book sparkles with insights throughout whether or not you find yourself in agreement with Witherington at every point. One insight I found helpful is that many commentators debate whether a New Testament citation is drawn from the Greek (Septuagint) or the Hebrew (Masoretic) text. Witherington proposes that in many cases, they may not have had either text at hand and quoted from memory. That seems like just good common sense!

In addition to the Appendix 1 mentioned above, quite useful for study are two others, on a review of Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight and a second discussing the enigmatic references to Enoch in 1 Peter 3:18-22. The review is fascinating, particularly to see Witherington’s defense of a historic Adam, but doesn’t quite seem germane to this work, other than it references material in Genesis.

My experience over the years is that there is far more preaching from the New Testament than Old in most Christian churches. What Witherington shows is that we cannot go far in the New Testament without some Old Testament allusion or outright citation. What Witherington helps us recognize is both what these texts meant in their context and how they are being used in the New Testament, and have been in the life of the church which reads all scripture in light of Jesus. Witherington’s book is a valuable reference for those preachers, written by one whose preacherly background shows through on nearly every page.

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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: Where the Eye Alights

Where the Eye Alights, Marilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021.

Summary: A collection of forty Lenten meditations drawn from words or phrases from scripture and poetry, inviting us to pause and attend.

“Lent is a time of permission. Many of us find it hard to give ourselves permission to pause, to sit still, to reflect or to meditate or pray in the midst of daily occupations–most of them very likely worthy in themselves–that fill our waking minds and propel us out of bed and on to the next thing. We need the explicit invitation the liturgical year provides to change pace, to curtail our busyness a bit, to make our times with self and God a little more spacious, a little more leisurely, and see what comes. The reflections I offer here come from a very simple practice of daily meditation on whatever has come to mind in the quiet of early morning.”

Marilyn McEntyre, p. v.

These opening words, in McEntyre’s Preface to the forty meditations in this book, gave me permission to pause and sit with her as she reflected upon the things on which her eyes alighted. For McEntyre, who loves words and their careful use, it is words and phrases upon which her eyes alight and which she invites us to join her in considering. Most come from scripture, some from poetry. Her reflections sometimes help us see the strange in the familiar. Isn’t it strange, for example that Isaiah 30:15 pairs “repentance and rest”? For most of us, repentance does not seem very restful. McEntyre observes:

“And repentance, to return to Isaiah, allows you to rest. I think of the many times I’ve heard–and said–some version of ‘I’m wrestling with…” “I’m struggling with…” “I’m working on…” changing a habit, coming to terms with self defeating patterns, releasing resentments or guilt or old confusions. Repentance allows us to rest in forgiveness, regroup, and rather than wrestling, float for a while, upheld while we learn to swim in the current, or walk unburdened, or do a dance of deliverance, day by day releasing the past and entering fully, with an open heart, into the present where an open heart is waiting to receive us.”

Marilyn McEntyre, p. 11.

Another reflection draws upon a Christian Wiman poem title “Every Riven Thing.” She reflects on the rivenness of our lives amid our own griefs and fraught politics: “We live among–and are–what is riven, cracked, and split, having to revise our understanding of ‘healing’ and ‘wholeness’ as we age into inevitable learning that those words don’t mean a fairy-tale ending, or closure, or even a denouement at the end of the last act.”

Thus she draws us into the reflections of Lent when we remember we are dust (another reflection). We consider what it means to be a people prepared, the loving listening of obedience, and the moments of epiphany that come as each of us wait and watch. She invites us to consider prayer as a place and in the movements of prayer open ourselves to the Spirit’s coming upon us. The reading for Good Friday guides us through the Stations of the Cross, providing guided prayers for each station and may be used at any time one prays the stations.

Each of the reflections are two to four pages long. Since the Sundays of Lent are not included in the forty days of Lent, there are no reflections for Sundays (although I’m sure some of us would use Sunday as a makeup day!). A marginal note indicates the week and day of each reflection. An attached ribbon is included in the book for marking one’s place.

I’ve come to love the combination of elegant attention to words and perceptive attention to life I find in each of McEntyre’s books. I recognize this review comes after Lent. While most appropriate for Lent, this book may be used for devotional reading at any time, or taken for reflection if you are accustomed to take personal retreats. If nothing else, if you purchase it now, you will not have to cast about wondering what you might read next year. Just keep it some place “where the eye alights.”

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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.

Surveillance Policies

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

That is what Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, calls privacy policies, whether they are ones we sign when we apply for a loan or seek medical care, or when we click on a website or install a phone app. She contends that basically what we are doing over and over in daily life is agreeing to how a variety of organizations may surveil our behavior and mine and distribute the data that every click we make, everywhere we go with our smartphones, how we drive our vehicles, and the conversations we have with Alexa or Google Home.

We think we are accessing sites like Facebook or Google at no cost. Actually, we are the raw resource that these companies use to mine tons of data. Our “likes,” the articles and ads we click on, our location, our demographics are all used to supply targeted information to us. It is also shared, often without our knowledge. It can go badly wrong as occurred with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to attempt to manipulate voters.

But increasingly, it is not simply our behavior on our computers and phones. The expansion of the “internet of things” all offer data about us. Computers in our cars provide insurers and others information about our driving behavior, determining insurance premiums. Lenders who do not receive payments can literally turn our cars off! A variety of devices are being installed in our home. If I wanted, I could connect my garage door and washer and dryer to wi-fi and control them by my phone. Thermostats can feed information about the interior of our homes. There are beds that transmit sleep data and even can record sounds. Not sure I like that! In addition to the phones we carry, there are fitness wear that record and transmit a variety of biometric data. Personal digital assistants like Alexa and Google Home are always listening (as are SMART TV’s).

Of course, our customer cards and apps that we use for grocery shopping, at pharmacies, and other retail outlets appear to offer us discounts on our purchases, but what is really happening is offering data about us. Sure, some of it is anonymized, but the coupons and offers mailed to us seem keyed to our purchasing history. Likewise, our credit cards offer and record of our commercial habits, our recreation preferences, our charitable giving and more.

I’m reading Zuboff’s book and it is chilling both to realize how much of our lives are rendered into data sources often distributed to parties of whom I’m unaware and the relative contempt with which various entities view the privacy of our information. Furthermore, we willingly comply in the surrender of this information in most cases. Most of us never read the “privacy agreements” allowing various entities to obtain and distribute our information. We click or sign without reading, and some estimates suggest we could spend a good part of each year reading these if we chose.

I have a friend who prefers to use cash and works hard to minimize his electronic footprint. He’s accepted the fact that this limits his access to many things. He stays off all social media. Yet it’s hard, he carries a cell phone, a huge source of data about us.

What, then, can we do? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Assume that nothing about your life is private. Maybe that has a silver lining. If we believe in an all-knowing God, we already believe that nothing in our lives is private!
  • Assume that anything you have ever done online, anything you’ve said is still out there and accessible to someone, and that every click yields information about you.
  • Review the “permissions” for each app on your phone. The defaults for some ask for far more than the app needs to function. Deny these.
  • Be aware of all the devices in your home that are or may be connected to the internet, usually via your wi-fi, or to your phone via bluetooth. Think carefully about enabling each of these and what information they collect. Assume all of it leaves your home and you may not know where it goes.
  • Consider the wearables, like fitness trackers, that are uploading biometric information about you. Any health and fitness apps on your phone also upload any data you voluntarily or involuntarily provide.
  • Assume that all privacy policies are surveillance policies. They are not intended to protect you, but rather whoever is providing service.
  • You may consider DuckDuckGo for internet searches, which has greater privacy protection.

The challenge right now is all these “applications” have you over a barrel. Unless you agree to their surveillance policies, you either can’t install the app, or use the service, or it only has highly limited functionality. Companies don’t need to do this but there are huge financial interests that favor this surveillance. Probably only broad-based advocacy with legislative support can change this, unless someone figures out how to protect privacy and make money, creating an alternate business strategy.

Caveat emptor friends!

Review: Breaking Bread with the Dead

Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.

Summary: A case for reading old books as a means of increasing our “personal density” to expand our temporal bandwidth.

Alan Jacobs teaches students to read old books and contends, contrary to many critics, that this reading is essential in a day when we are bombarded by an avalanche of information, and all matter of questions about the future. Drawing upon Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, he argues that old books increase our “personal density” through expanding our temporal bandwidth.

What does this mean? Jacobs is not arguing for learning from the lessons of the past or that old books help us recognize universal truths. Rather, he suggests that the great works of the past startle us with their difference. They help us see the choices of our own age in light of those of the past. They are the “other,” the “generative oddkin.” Jacobs believes that understanding how people of other ages met the challenges of life equip us to better face challenges of the future than if we draw only upon the resources of the present.

The greatest challenge to Jacobs’ proposal is the invidious aspects of many of these works–racist, chauvinist, colonialist, and more. Jacobs does not deny any of that. What he observes is that those in the past often enunciated ideas, the implications they failed to fully grasp in their own lives. He points to the American founders who laid the groundwork for our own ideals of equality, yet held slaves and failed until 100 years ago to enfranchise women. Reading them forces us to ask how future generations will evaluate us. Drawing upon Ursula LeGuin’s novel Lavinia, an adaptation of the Aeneid, giving voice to the woman Aeneas loved, Jacobs argues both that we read with double vision, recognizing both the work and the flawed character of work, and that our reading from our time can bring new insight that perhaps even an author like Virgil had not grasped.

Jacobs develops these themes through nine essays in which we consider works like The Iliad, The Doll’s House, and Jane Eyre, and authors from Virgil to Italo Calvino. He contends that the presence and tranquility of mind enabling us to meet the challenges of the day comes from a perspective that goes beyond “the latest thing.” If we read only sources from the present, as diverse as they may be, we may still be caught in “echo chambers.” Sometimes, the voices of the past will give voice and words that make sense of our own reality. At other times they will startle and challenge us. Rather than lulling us to sleep with placid verities, they challenge and shake us up, nurturing the kind of resistance fostering “unfragile” and resilient thought.

Jacobs does all this in elegant prose evoking the voices he would have us give more careful attention–an engaging read and a warm invitation.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Snap The Whip

Snap the Whip, Winslow Homer, 1872. Butler Institute of American Art. Public Domain

When I was growing up, I was told this was the most famous painting in the Butler. If it was on display, every school tour stopped to see it. If memory serves, we had a print of the painting hanging in our school library. I can’t say it was, or is, my favorite. That honor goes to Robert Vonnoh’s In Flanders Field. Art tastes are an individual thing! But it does remind me of some of the playground games we played…

Snap the Whip was painted in 1872. It captures a rural scene in post-Civil War America. It is recess from a one-room school house. You can see the teachers (playground monitors!) standing in the distance. The nine boys are barefoot with a variety of hats, suspenders and jackets, in a grassy field (with a few rocks!) sprinkled with wild flowers. The school and field are nestled in a hilly wooded landscape, thought to be somewhere in upstate New York, perhaps near the Hudson Valley or near Easthampton, on Long Island, both places where Homer spent time.

The painting captures a favorite playground game, Snap the Whip. The lead boy runs back and forth causing the line to weave, and then comes the snap, when the boys in the lead plant their feet and everyone tries to hang on with the “snap” of momentum. Two of the nine boys have let go and are tumbling. Will the rest of the line tear apart as some boys plant their feet and others are still striding?

Executive director and chief curator of the Butler, Louis A. Zona says, “Homer was to painting what Mark Twain was to literature. It shows what life was like in America after the Civil War. Homer has captured the wonders of youth at a special moment in time.” The painting captured for people of the time innocence, simplicity, and play in a peaceful setting after so much turmoil. Even today, it recalls a simpler, agrarian day. I suspect in our risk-conscious, litigious society, Snap the Whip would no longer be permitted (at least when adults are around).

The painting featured as one of the most celebrated works at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, held in Philadelphia. Joseph G. Butler acquired the painting in 1919, the year the Butler Institute of American Art opened. Butler grew up with William McKinley, with whom he remained friends and about whom he wrote a biography after McKinley’s death. The painting reminded him of their friendship and shared boyhood. There is a second, smaller version of the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The big difference is that Homer has removed the hills, replacing them with blue sky. My personal opinion is this makes it a less interesting painting. What do you think?

Snap the Whip, Winslow Homer, 1872. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Winslow Homer lived between 1836 and 1910. Many people consider Snap the Whip to be the greatest work of one of America’s great artists. He was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. One of Homer’s lesser works, Lost on the Grand Banks, sold in 1998 for approximately $30 million. It makes one wonder about the worth of the painting in the Butler. Hopefully, it never will be sold–the Butler’s own website describes it as “the heart and soul of the Butler’s collection.” I personally think the Butler is the heart and soul of Youngstown–built and funded to this day out of an industrialist’s fortune. If so, the painting is at the heart of this heart, the soul of this soul. Writing this article and looking at the painting makes me want to sit with the actual work the next time I visit Youngstown. And it reminds me of what a treasure we have in the Butler.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!