Bob on Books Gives Thanks

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I am blessed that I will be at a table like this today. Not everyone has that opportunity and I so appreciate those who extend food and hospitality to those otherwise not able to celebrate.

I also consider myself deeply blessed to be able to read, review, and write about books. I don’t make money from that other than the exchange of getting books for free in exchange for writing reviews. I’ve always loved reading and sharing what I’ve learned, from the time I was a kid, and to do this is a gift for which I’m thankful.

I’m thankful to you, the reader. It is wonderful not to talk to oneself, to know others are reading, and interested, like me in finding that next great book to read. Reading is social and not just solitary–when you discover a good book, you can’t help but talk about it. I’ve been blogging over nine years now, and our interactions, even when you correct my grammar or infelicities, has made it so rewarding.

I’m always so thankful for the writers who pour their energy into getting words on the page. When I read about the writing life, I find most writers only write a few hours a day. It’s not because it is an easy life, but rather it is some of the most demanding work to put a story or a narrative into words. Thank you Celeste Ng, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Ngaio Marsh, Louise Penny, and so many others who have enriched my life through your hard work.

Speaking of Louise Penny, her latest book drops in the next week. That’s cause for Thanksgiving!

I’m thankful for publishing houses–for the work of acquiring manuscripts, negotiating contracts, editing draft after draft, and going from draft to publication. I’m especially grateful for some of the small publishers and university presses who provide a platform for great writing and scholarship outside the mainstream.

I’m grateful for the people who have embraced the calling of bookseller. The indie booksellers have my admiration, and whenever I can do it, my trade. As that big online bookseller scales back their book buying, indie booksellers have been filling the gap. The whole bookselling ecosystem gets my thanks though–from my local Barnes and Noble to the second hand sellers from Half Price Books to indie booksellers selling everything from recent backlist books to antiquarian books–in some cases, those treasures one finds when cleaning out grandma’s house.

I’m grateful for librarians who serve the public and, in educational settings, students and researchers. They do so much more than curate and check in books, sometimes even saving people from drug overdoses.

I’m grateful for teachers who cultivated my love of reading. I have several friends teaching young readers. I’m so grateful for you!

I’m always grateful for those book publicists who handle my review requests along with so many others, and often are key promoters of books. I’ve had the privilege of working with several who do this work with excellence, making my life as a reviewer so much easier.

I’m grateful for all the people who deliver books to my mailbox or doorstep. We like to complain about these people, but I’m grateful for all they do and can think of only rare instances when I’ve had delivery issues.

I’m grateful for the First Amendment that protects authors, publishers, and even reviewers like me. Our speech, press, and religious freedoms are remarkable when you consider global history. It is also something I don’t take for granted. It is always tempting to shut down ideas we don’t like. It can happen here.

Finally, I’m so grateful for books, this wonderful cultural invention. And I am profoundly grateful for the “village” that makes possible that stack by my bedside. Aren’t we all?

Happy Thanksgiving, my bookish friends!

Review: Our Missing Hearts

Our Missing Hearts, Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

Summary: Bird Gardner and his father spend life trying not to be noticed, even as Bird wonders about his mother, the stories she told, why she left them, and where she has gone in a country that turned against her poetry even as one phrase became a rallying cry for all those separated from their children.

This is a haunting work because one sees all the elements except for a PACT act. Economic crisis. Anti-Asian prejudice and violence. The use of blaming foreign powers and actors for our problems. The use of state power to separate children from their parents. The removal of books from schools and libraries. The surveillance state we have lived in since 9/11.

All of this comes together around a twelve year old boy, Bird Gardner, living with his father, who works in an academic library, who loves words, and desperately is working to avoid anything to raise suspicion that could result in Bird being taken away from him. Bird’s mother Margaret left them when he was nine. A book of poems she wrote when she was carrying him, and one poem in particular with the line “our missing hearts” became associated with the rallying cry and symbol of a resistance movement to the forced removal of children from their homes for the least suspicion of violating the PACT Act (Preserving American Culture and Traditions).

Although his father has taught Bird that they must disavow her and have no communication with her, he both misses her and wonders why she would leave them and what she is doing now. Sadie, a school friend, and one of the removed children, thinks his mother is part of the resistance movement that, out of nowhere puts up protest installations of hearts or other symbols of the missing children.

But Bird doesn’t learn the true story until a series of clues that begins with a letter without return address covered with cat drawings leads to looking in a closet in their former home (still owned but closed up while they live in a dorm apartment), where Bird finds an address in New York City.

With the help of a librarian, who is part of an underground network of librarians who are collecting a database of parents and missing children, Bird figures out how to get to New York where he reconnects with his mother through a rich mutual friend, Dutchess (Domi) who lives at the address he’d found. Over several days in a derelict house, his mother tells the story of her life–how she and Domi survived the Crisis which led to the passage of the PACT act, how she met Bird’s father, wrote a book of poetry with paltry sales until the death of one protestor carrying the words “our missing hearts” was captured in a photograph at the moment she was fatally shot. The book was found among her effects, sold like crazy until the authorities shut it down, and vilified the author, who’d never meant to spawn a resistance.

She tells of the decision to leave to save Bird from being parted from both parents, and her awakening as she learned of what had happened to so many children that she had avoided knowing. She tells the story as she makes bottle cap devices with wires and transistors and “seeds” these throughout the city for her own act of resistance.

I have not heard the audio version of this but the voice I hear is one of quiet, but insistent wondering, both of Bird, and then of Margaret. Each is trying to unravel a story, Bird of his mother, Margaret of all the lost children, beginning with the young woman who died in protest. Both are engaged in a quiet resistance rooted in the pursuit of truth–unwilling to accept any longer the “comply and keep your head down” ethic fostered by PACT. Even Bird’s decision at the very end reflects that quiet, resistant pursuit of truth.

The haunting thing about this book is the awareness that the dystopian state Ng portrays is not that far removed from our present day reality. As I mentioned in the beginning, nearly all of the pieces are there. I suspect most of us are, like Margaret, among those who do not want to see, who think, this cannot happen here. The author of Little Fires Everywhere could have called this Little Resistances Everywhere. Ng portrays what a resistance of truth that will not bow to power might look like. And in doing so, this book feels like it is Ng’s own quiet act of resistance.

Review: A Fine Red Rain

A Fine Red Rain (Porfiry Rostnikov #4), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2012 (First published in 1987).

Summary: When two of three high wire artist die, one by suicide, one by “accident,” Rostnikov suspects more, little realizing the reach of the KGB into this case while his friends Sasha deals with black marketers and Karpo pursues a serial murderer of prostitutes.

Porfiry Rostnikov, once a hero has been demoted after a clash with the KGB, separated from his team of Sasha Tkach and Emil Karpo. Rostnikov’s son has been sent to Afghanistan, a warning of what can happen to family of those crossing the KGB. Rostnikov is reduced to chasing pickpockets in Arbat Square when he spots a man atop a statue of Gogol, spouting nonsense about flying. Rostnikov fails to talk him down as he ends his life with a perfect somersault onto the pavement. He was an aerial artist for the circus where the other male in the act, Oleg, discovers in the last moment of his life that his safety net is not. Rostnikov, thinking that there is more than a concurrent suicide and accident going on, sets out to investigate, The third, Katya Rashkovskaya, doesn’t want to be protected, even after Rostnikov saves her life. Nor will she tell him anything she knows. Then his old KGB boss, dying of cancer warns him off the case. This is KGB territory. But he suspects the deputy director, Mazaraki is behind the deaths and the murder attempt, and he uses that angle to keep pursuing the case.

Meanwhile, Sasha’s undercover work trapping videotape and machine black marketers reveals corruption on the part of his boss. The boss turns the black marketers to his own profitable end. That is, until Sasha teams up with Rostnikov and the two black marketers to mount a sting.

Emil Karpo has an obsession with unsolved crimes, studying the files, brooding over them. His current file is that of a series of murders of a prostitute. We are introduced to the killer, a file clerk wanting to make the Party safe from prostitutes…and he is feeling the compulsion to kill again.

Rostnikov, despite his leg injury, ends up playing a decisive role in the denouement of all three cases, while Sasha intervenes at a decisive moment to save Rostnikov’s life during the climactic confrontation. Clearly this team belongs together, and Rostnikov manages to find the leverage to make that happen by the end.

Kaminsky moves between the three plots in a fast-paced novel. One sees the currency of knowledge that can be used to subdue, to manipulate, and even to murder. Rostnikov, not ignorant of these things surprises us in his apparent vulnerability, and shrewd intelligence, combined with a loyalty to his friends, each with their own vulnerabilities. We see how difficult it can be to be married to someone in law enforcement, compounded in Rostnikov’s case with the ever present danger of falling afoul of his own superiors. Perhaps the only thing that protects Rostnikov is his own humility, the realization that these things could come at any time, and that he is never above or beyond them.

Review: The Art of New Creation

The Art of New Creation (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel Train, and W. David O. Taylor. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Contributions from a variety of artists and theologians from the 2019 DITA10 Conference at Duke Divinity School, focusing on how the theology of the new creation shapes the work of Christian artists in various fields.

Anyone working in the arts in some sense works with existing materials from paint and canvas and clay to words, sounds, musical scales, instruments and one’s own body to make something new, whether a painting or sculpture or musical piece or choral performance or poetry or dance. Christians working in the arts both confront and bring an added dimension. Artists work in an existing creative context but also have in view a faith-shaped understanding of New Creation, the belief that living between the first and second comings of Jesus, we are participating already in anticipatory ways the New Creation, and looking forward one day to its full realization. It means seeing the world both in its brokenness and with the hope of restoration.

The origins of this book, exploring these themes, comes out of a conference (DITA10) held at Duke Divinity School as part of the Duke Initiative in Theology and the Art, headed up by theologian-artist Jeremy Begbie. Between the conference and the publication of this book came both the COVID pandemic and the racial injustices and protests of the summer of 2020. Many of the essays in this work incorporate reflection on these two upheavals to all of our lives.

Jeremy Begbie opens with a theology of new creation focused around how the new creation in Christ is already before us–both its dissonance with the old and the restoration of the broken as it gestures toward the final remaking of all things. New creation is something accessible to the artist already.

The next part, “Soundings,” works all this out in a variety of artistic media. Devon Abts focuses on the rhythms and meters of poetry, something of which Gerard Manley Hopkins was keenly aware, that invite us into rhythms of new creation. Ephrem of Nisibis, a fourth century poet is the subject of Charles Augustine Rivera–particularly the theology of the incarnation evident in the Madrase on Virginity. Daniel Train steps back and explores the tension Augustine enunciated between enjoyment versus use, a tension found in comparing the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Rowan Williams. Train finds a way to reconcile these latter two thinkers. Kutter Callaway wrestles with the idea of transcendence, and how that may be empirically observed in the arts in the response of people to artistic work.

Sara Schumacher considers art and new creation in the context of the environment, exploring the metaphors of artist as responsible servant, apprentice, and prophet. The White Savior, particularly in blockbuster movies including Avatar and Titanic needs to be confronted by Christian artists, argues Jacquelynn Price-Linnertz. W. David O. Taylor observes the ways that singing together works to unite human beings at an embodied level and in the Christian context, our “Spirited songs” express the new community formed in Christ–one that sings itself into our new creation future. He (and I) grieve the loss of corporate singing as one of the deep ravages of the pandemic. Amy Wisenand Krall takes up a similar theme in her essay that follows, and reminds us, amid shortages and self-protection, of the abundant care of the Lord of the new creation.

“Conversations” are just that, pairing theologians and artists in conversations on placemaking (Jennifer Allen Craft and Norman Wirzba), Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets (O’Siadhail and Richard Hays), Creation and New Creation in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (Malcolm Guite and Judith Wolfe) and living into the new creation in musical performance (Elizabeth Klein and Shadwa Mussad). The latter conversation reminded me of the challenges performers experienced during the pandemic and the parallels between orchestral and choral performance and the body of Christ at its best closing with the new creation hope expressed in Duke Ellington’s wonderful “Come Sunday.” Part Three, “Arts in Action” follows with several brief interviews with a dancer, three visual artists (including Steven Prince with several of his works) and a musician.

N.T. Wright concludes the collection with a reflection on the resurrection of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. He focuses on how we see in her “the vocation of arts: to sum up the tears of Mary, the insight of Mary, the renaming of Mary…and the commissioning of Mary to go and tell.” Wright proposes that the artist has the calling to embody the surprising faithfulness of God in Christ.

This is a valuable resource for understanding what it means to be an artist and a Christian. Beyond technical expertise and the cultivation of one’s unique gifts is a different vision, of the new creation, both already and not yet. This collection touches a variety of facets of how that works out in both the thinking and practice of artists. The theologically-oriented reflections, both bracketing and running through the collection offer a vision infusing the life and practice of artists. The discussions of the COVID pandemic and the racist incidents and protests of the systemic aspects of racism ground the various contributions in reality, forcing consideration of what the hope of new creation means amid brokenness. This is a valuable collection for both artists and those who recognize that beauty as well as goodness and truth are part of what it means to be salt and light in the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Emily L. Wick

Emily L. Wick, Screen capture of photo in The Youngstown Vindicator, “Mount Holyoke Honors Dr. Emily L. Wick,” November 19, 1972 via Google News Archive

I have one memory of Dr. Emily L. Wick. She was the Spring Commencement speaker at Youngstown State University in June 1976. Both my wife and I were among the graduates who heard her speak. All either of us can remember was a story she told about aardvarks! I suspect our minds were on other things than commencement words of wisdom–mostly getting our diplomas and getting out of those sticky robes.

That story hardly does justice to the life of this amazing woman. After completing undergraduate and masters degrees at Mount Holyoke College, she enrolled in 1946 as a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where her father had attended. She was an avid sailor although there was no sailing team at the time for women. She was one of only 19 women to graduate from MIT in 1951. After graduation, she worked for A.D. Little, doing the chemical research that resulted in Miracle Whip and many Campbell soups.

In 1959 she was hired as an assistant professor at MIT in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. In 1963, she became the first woman to achieve tenure at MIT. During this time, she developed food systems for the newly established astronaut program of NASA. She became an associate dean of student affairs in 1965, co-founding the Women’s Forum to advocate for the equal treatment of women on faculty, in student admissions, and in every aspect of life on campus. She also became a staunch supporter of the women’s sailing team, which became a varsity sport in 1969. In honor of her work, alumni organized the Emily Wick Regatta. The Intercollegiate Women’s Sailing Championship trophy is named the Emily L. Wick trophy.

On November 19, 1972. The Youngstown Vindicator ran a story about Dr. Wick receiving an honorary degree from nearby Mount Holyoke College. David B. Truman, president of the college said of her:

“You have also won the respect of colleagues and the gratitude of students for your skilled championship of women at MIT, for your unfailing and persuasive sense of humor, and above all for your fundamental integrity — qualities rare in any era but especially valued for their scarcity in these times.”

One wonders if they were preparing the way for her appointment as dean of the faculty in 1973, marking her return to Mount Holyoke twenty-seven years after her graduation. Later, she was an assistant to the president for long range planning before her retirement in 1986.

Why focus on this east coast scientist and academic? You guessed it! She was a native of Youngstown. Her 1947-1948 I.D. card for the MIT Sailing Pavilion lists her home address on South Belle Vista Avenue in Youngstown, Ohio. Her father was James L. Wick, Jr., after whom the James L. Wick Recreation Area is named. She was born December 9, 1921.

Her love of sailing began young, when her family summered in Rockport, Massachusetts, on the coast. When she retired, she returned to Rockport and in 1988 was named the first woman Commodore of the Sandy Bay Yacht Club. In 2012, the club named its Race Committee boat the Emily Wick. She worked to keep memberships affordable for everyone, including teenagers. She was an avid hiker and bird watcher.

Active until her last years, she passed away at age 91 on March 21, 2013. She was a pathbreaker for women in science, gave us Miracle Whip, fed our astronauts, and pursued a love of sailing all her life. And it all began on the West Side of Youngstown.

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

Review: The Chaos Machine

The Chaos Machine, Max Fisher. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2022.

Summary: A deep dive into how social media has rewired our minds and fueled social divisions.

If the events of the past years have not already done so, this book should give you pause about any of the social media platforms you use regularly. It did so for me.

Max Fisher looks at phenomena as diverse as the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the growth of anti-vaccine movements, and the political discord of our recent elections. He shows how these are not simply the result of zealots posting what is often false information or incendiary statements. Rather, he argues that there is something baked into our social media that turns these into potent movements that in some instances have led to the loss of life and the deception of many.

The issue is engagement. If all the things posted on any platform, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Reddit, were given equal weight, the postings of zealots, social media influencers, and bad actors from other countries would still have minimal effect–getting lost in the mass of material posted every day. What makes it different is that each of these platforms and others, in the pursuit of advertising dollars, where they make their money, promote the material that gets the most engagement through the algorithms that determine what we see when we visit one of these sites. Those algorithms are tailored to our interests and show us more of what we’ve viewed, liked, and clicked on.

But there is more. These platforms use recommendation engines that show you other content that is related to your interests, content that is getting a lot of engagement. And often this is inflammatory, engendering fear or anger. And this can lead people into groups that share that anger, that disengagement with society, and down a rabbit hole, away from family and friends in the real world.

What is chilling is Fisher’s account of the indifference of these platforms, even when their internal research calls attention to the effect of their algorithms. Often, government authorities, seeking to stop the spread of misinformation, find it impossible to even get a response from these platforms–unless they pull the plug on these platforms’ access to their countries. But in many countries, these platforms serve as the primary source of information for their people. Hence, the reluctance to take this step.

I found this a deeply disturbing trend. And in the light of the recent takeover of Twitter and the financial struggles of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, I think the chaos Fisher chronicles could easily increase–unless. Unless we educate ourselves about how these platforms work, how they show us content (or not), and make decisions of how we will engage them without being manipulated by them. But this is a big ask. All I know is that I am asking myself hard questions about how I will engage these platforms going forward–or whether I will continue to do so.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Climaturity

Climaturity, Marc Cortez. Morro Bay, CA: Wise Media Group, 2022.

Summary: An argument for a more transparent and measured climate discussion, avoiding either scare tactics or denialism.

Marc Cortez has worked on various projects addressing climate change over several decades. But he writes critically about the way the climate discussion has unfolded. On one side are those saying we are in an existential crisis threatening life on the planet. On the other are the deniers that say the climate isn’t changing and carbon dioxide isn’t a problem.

Cortez stands in the middle, at least this is what he says. He acknowledges the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature rise and that there appears to be a relation between the two but he argues that much of the climate discussion is driven by predictive or attributive models that are far from certain and that costly remedies are being recommended or even pushed through governing bodies. He calls much of this “psyence,” claiming it is more an effort to manipulate public opinion, and worse, scare a whole generation of children and young adults.

Part of his argument is that in reality, no one is acting as one would in a real emergency. Scientists and politicians continue to fly in large numbers in jets emitting great quantities of CO2. More significantly, our carbon reduction strategies only say how much less carbon we will emit, but does nothing with the excess already there, or the fact that we still are emitting amounts in excess of what are being absorbed. It’s like, he says, being told you are 50 pounds overweight and saying you won’t eat donuts. But that does not deal with the excess weight already there. And many of the “carbon zero” goals have no realistic plan for how states or countries will get there. He salutes Microsoft as a rare exception of a company with specific plans not only to get carbon zero but to remove the carbon they have emitted over the years the company has existed, going back to 1976.

He wants us to get realistic about renewables. They are like stopping eating donuts, but even then, require large amounts of carbon fuel in their manufacture, and, in the case of electric vehicles, in their re-charging in many cases. Much of our power grid, agriculture, and manufacturing, and many of our consumer goods depend on fossil fuels. We can’t just make them the bad guys. We all are the bad guys.

I question some of the arguments. Climate modelling has been predictive of regional changes that have proven accurate in many regions. He makes out that temperature rise hasn’t been such a bad thing over the last century and the rise of a degree or two may not be so bad. But warmer temperatures are resulting in ice melts, rising seas, coastal inundations and even the disappearance of island nations like Vanuatu and more severe weather events occurring with greater frequency. Modelling is iterative, subject to continuous improvement based on feedback, and an important resource for many regional planners to do what I think Cortez is recommending–taking realistic measures to mitigate effects of change that has, is, and likely will occur. If not racist, as Cortez contends, the impacts of climate change are at least unequal. Often, the impoverished suffer greater impacts for the actions of rich countries than those in the richer countries–and have less wherewithal to mitigate those impacts.

What separates Cortez from the deniers, although he seems to use many of their arguments, and many may draw comfort from what he says, is that he does take a hard look at what needs to be done. Very simply, he argues our major task is to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. He believes the most effective solutions begin, not with reducing emissions, which are often quite costly, comparatively speaking, but with those that focus on absorbing CO2 which in itself is a necessary component of life, absorbed by all sorts of vegetation. Many of these are relatively low cost for the amounts of carbon absorbed: peatland protection and rewetting, the protection and restoration of all sorts of forests, grasslands, coastal wetlands, and various agricultural methodologies. Making our cities walkable once again with good public transit are other relatively low cost steps. Yet this is not where much of our investment is going.

I do think he has a point in discussing the lack of efficacy and the real harm of our scare tactics. He actually agrees that individual decisions are important–the lifestyle changes people made at the outset of the pandemic resulted in at least an 11 percent reduction of CO2 emissions–now if we could make those lasting. Moving to plant-rich diets, even planting trees is important (our church sits on a former farm property with a lot of grassy area, which, thanks to a donation from an environmental group, has been planted with 100 trees).

Cortez calls for “climaturity.” For him, this means a more honest conversation about our models, our goals and how we will actually get there, and an end to the cheap shots at the fossil fuel industry that in reality we all depend upon. The capacity to feed 8 billion people resulted from an agricultural revolution made possible through petrochemicals. Renewables simply haven’t yet shown they ability to replace our fossil fuels. We should look more at increasing our capacity to absorb CO2.

What I question is whether Cortez will be one of those to lead us to that “climaturity.” His dismissiveness of climate scientists and groups like the IPCC will not draw those who shape climate policy to his “muddy middle.” And his snark and “it’s not so bad” attitude will not influence those who do not think there is a problem. And the citizenry in the middle? By and large, many of us already are taking a number of the personal steps he mentions from reducing our carbon footprints to planting trees. I much prefer what scientists like Katherine Hayhoe are doing in reaching across the divides and engaging with people around what they care about and want to preserve, and finding common ground for good environmental action.

There is one thing Cortez and Hayhoe agree on. We won’t get to productive discussion through manipulating guilt and fear. That, I think, is a good place to begin in the pursuit of climaturity.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: The Thrill of Orthodoxy

The Thrill of Orthodoxy, Trevin Wax (Foreword by Kevin Vanhoozer). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Spirited advocacy for orthodox belief as vibrant, broad, crucial in the battle before us, and for the renewal of God’s people.

Many are the voices echoing Bishop John Shelby Spong advocating “Christianity must change or die.” Orthodoxy is portrayed as dead, sterile, narrow, confining, and irrelevant. In an era of politicized Christianity, culture wars and accommodations, and moral scandals that have left many deconstructing their faith, the temptation is to associate dogma with dogmatism–the sooner abandoned the better.

Trevin Wax would contend just the opposite. Writing in the tradition of figures like G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, he would advocate that the way forward for both personal and communal renewal in the church is to return to the central creeds of the church, those that have defined the “communion of the saints” across the millenia and around the world. He offers the following picture to articulate his vision of the “thrill” of orthodoxy:

“Orthodoxy is an ancient castle with spacious rooms and vaulted ceilings and mysterious corridors, a vast expanse of practical wisdom handed down from our forefathers and mothers in the faith. Some inhabit the castle but fail to sift through its treasures. Others believe the castle stands in the way of progress and should be torn down. A few believe the castle’s outer shell can remain for aesthetic purposes, so long as the interior is gutted. But in every generation, God raises up those who see the value in the treasure, men and women who maintain a deep and abiding commitment to recognize and accentuate the unique beauty of Christian truth so that future generations can be ushered into its splendor” (p. 9).

Wax defines orthodoxy as “the foundational truths, consistent with the Scriptures, upon which Christians through the ages have demonstrated agreement.”

He follows this introduction with a discussion of the ways we drift from orthodoxy, usually without intent. but rather with the complacent “of course.” Some drift into a place of affirming the faith to accepting a lifeless Christianity, distant from God. Some drift into a pragmatic, “whatever works” where action becomes detached from conviction and degenerates into niceness. Yet others downplay uncomfortable beliefs that they would jettison, and perhaps do. Finally, some become more enamored with the good the church can do rather than the transforming good the gospel can do. For each, the problem is gradual drift and the antidote is the thrill of orthodoxy.

Wax argues the adventure begins with discovering who God is and what God has done. While acknowledging mystery, he contends that it is not all mystery but that God has revealed himself and calls us to the encounter of a person: who do you say that I am? We discover that certain boundaries lead to freedom and that humility rather than arrogance is essential to the understanding of truth.

He contends against those who argue that we shouldn’t fuss with the details that details matter. He proposes, for example, that the belief in original sin leaves no room for any form of moral or class superiority–we are all tainted by sin and all need salvation without exception. Even a single letter matters, such as the difference between homoousios (that the Father and Son are of the same substance) and homoiousios (that the Father and Son are of similar substance). As Karl Barth noted, his theology could be summed up with the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” The volumes of Barth’s theology flow from this simple statement.

One of the most striking chapters for me was that in which Wax contends that far from representing a broadening, heresy represents a narrowing. It ends up pitting one truth against another in attempt to make Christianity simpler. But to do so is always to make it smaller, less inclusive than the both-and of orthodoxy. He goes on to advocate for a humble but confident orthodoxy that neither accommodates itself to the world nor retreats from it but rather is “against the world for the world.” It is against self-help for salvation, against naturalism for a world of wonders, against sin for sanctification, and against wealth for true riches. Do you notice that, in all of these, orthodoxy wages battles against falsehoods for the love of the world and its people? When we lower the eternal stakes connected with orthodoxy, we raise the earthly stakes of other things–whether nationalism, racial purity, social justice as salvation, or whatever.

Orthodoxy beckons us to a quest of moral excellence and radical generosity that is always on the penitential path, becoming ever more aware of how far we have to go, and the grace that has been given us that calls us on. He argues that the beating heart of orthodoxy is not adaptation but application, where we take old truths and apply them to new situations, becoming a church that is always re-forming. He reminds us of the journey of Thomas Oden, who cycled through every new theological fad until challenged to go back to the Church Fathers (by a Jewish rabbi no less!) and found himself in a new place of freedom that spanned time and cultures. Orthodoxy is the eternal song of the church, reminding us both where we have come from and of our eternal destiny as the people of a holy, creating and redeeming God of wonders.

Reading Wax is like a plunge into cold, clear, sparkling waters, awakening us from the dull, the tarnished, the clouded indifference of drifting from orthodoxy. It can be both intensely uncomfortable and utterly invigorating. Wax may make you angry or lead you into the delights of the splendor of God. What he won’t do is leave you nicely indifferent. He challenges our creeping universalism, our pragmatic activism divorced from its theological roots, and our accommodations to our culture’s sexual ethics. Yet I find nothing censorious in his tone but rather, as he puts it, a stance against the world for the world–that is out of deep love for what truly contributes to the flourishing of humans created in the image of God. This book is like the fire alarm that cuts through our dreaming slumbers allowing us to find our way to safety and freedom. It is also like the call of Gandalf to home-loving hobbits to glorious and risky adventures–except that the call to us is not a fiction but to an undying future hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin. New York: Vintage Books, 2013 (originally published in 1953).

Summary: An account of John Grimes fourteenth birthday, centering on his brother Roy’s stabbing, his estrangement from his father, and the Saturday night “tarrying service” at a pentecostal church, revelatory of the lives of those around John and his own “salvation.”

It is John Grime’s fourteenth birthday. He’s the well-behaved older son who can never please his father Gabriel, who struggles with his awakening sexuality, a deep sense of both sin, and resentment of his father’s religion. After doing his chores, his mother gives him some money to spend on his own birthday gift. He goes to the movies. When he returns, he finds his younger brother Roy has been cut up in a knife fight. His father is so angry he takes it out on his wife Elizabeth and John before he finally whips Roy, until Gabriel’s sister Florence restrains him. John slips out to clean the church with his older friend Elisha for the evening “tarrying service,” a pentecostal prayer service on Saturday night before the Sunday service.

The second part centers around the prayer service, and the three prayers of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth, with flashbacks to their earlier lives. Florence, to get away from the town where three white men raped a girl, Deborah, but even more, from her brother Gabriel, always favored, moves to New York, marries Frank who never settles down, leaves her for another woman, and dies in the war. She’s the worldly wise Aunt who sees through her brother’s spiritual facades. Gabriel starts out living a wanton life, then is “saved” and becomes a great preacher. Deborah, the raped woman prayed for him and supported him at his lowest. He marries her in an act of both gratitude and condescension, as no one else will have her. It is a childless marriage and grows cold. Gabriel’s affair with Esther leads to a child. She goes away to have the child with money stolen from Deborah, dies in childbirth, as does the child in his youth–the first Roy (for Royal), named by Esther remembering what Gabriel said he wanted to name his son. Gabriel lives with deep guilt for what he has done and the deaths that resulted, and his deception of now-deceased Deborah. Elizabeth’s prayer recalls the loveless aunt who rescued her from growing up in a brothel, parting her from her father, her flight and affair with Richard who gets her with child, then commits suicide after being arrested for being Black at the wrong place and time. Through Florence she meets and marries Gabriel, who sees the marriage as a kind of atonement for his sin. But he never loves Elizabeth’s child, John like their own son, also named Roy.

The third part begins with John on the floor experiencing a vision that recalls the hostility of his father toward him, his hatred of his father’s religion and struggle with the weight of his sins, and finally, “going through” to blessed salvation, bringing rejoicing from all the saints, and brotherly comfort from Elisha. But Gabriel is yet harsh and disbelieving. One cannot help if he resents the grace he sees in John’s experience that he has never certainly known for himself, for he could never live with Elizabeth joyfully, but only oppressively. There is a lot of guilt here, that centers around Gabriel, but also may reflect the version of Christianity Baldwin experienced. Much of that guilt is experienced around sexuality, even the awakening desires both Elisha and John experience. The alternatives seem to be ecstatic release in prayer at the altar, rebellion via a flight to the secular city, or a stern and censorious form of religion.

One wonders where all this will end up for John, who seems a younger version of the author, caught between the angry step-father and the caring older “brother” (is he more than that, reflecting Baldwin’s homosexual orientation?). Baldwin never takes us beyond that single day in John Grimes life, yet it appears that the day is the first step into a greater freedom that Gabriel can only resent but never know.

Review: The Herods

The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. Bruce Chilton. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of this dynasty, tracing its rise from Antipater, the rule of Herod the Great, and his descendants who struggled to recover control over the territories he ruled amid Roman power and rising Jewish discontent.

Any reader of the New Testament recognizes that one or another of the Herods plays a significant part in the birth of Jesus, the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, and the beginnings of the Christian movement, and the trial of and appeal by Paul to Rome. What is often not considered is the rise of this family from Idumea amid the power struggles of the Jews to maintain independence amid, first the Seleucids and then the Roman power that came to assert control over the lands that once constituted ancient Israel.

Bruce Chilton traces the history of this family and their shrewdness in maintaining Jewish support and pleasing their Roman masters. It begins with Antipater, who modestly never claimed the title “king” of Idumea but allied with Hyrcanus II as high priest of the Jerusalem temple and leader of Judea and allying himself with Pompey against the Seleucids, securing both Hyrcanus in Jerusalem and securing Roman favor for his own family.

Herod, known as “The Great,” was his son. He married Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus, gaining legitimacy with the Maccabees, and works first with Mark Antony and then Octavian, securing kingship over Jerusalem, Samaria, Galilee, and Idumea. Chilton traces his ruthlessness, executing first Mariamne’s brother, then Mariamne, and her sons but leaving his kingship in disarray at his death.

Chilton situates the birth of Jesus and the massacre of the innocents during the brief reign of Herod’s son Archelaus over Judea. while Philip ruled in Gaulanitis and Antipas in Galilee and Samaria. Antipas was the shrewdest, stealing his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and working throughout his reign to regain control of Judea and Jerusalem, only to lose it all to his nephew, Agrippa I, who had cultivated Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius, who had favored Antipas. Antipas was the one Jesus called “the fox” and Chilton has some interesting insights into gospel passages alluding to Antipas, who concurred in the execution of Jesus, as well as the beheading of John.

Agrippa I recovered the realm of Herod the great, persecuted restive minorities, including the followers of Jesus, and, as recorded in Acts, died an early and grisly death just days after being proclaimed as a god. He was succeeded by Agrippa II over parts of Agrippa I’s realm under tight control of Rome, aided by his sister Berenike, perhaps the more ambitious of the two. But affairs among the Jews were spiraling into open rebellion that they could not stop, resulting in brutal Roman suppression and the fall of Jerusalem. It was Agrippa II and Berenike who consult with Felix and hear Paul’s defense and appeal to Rome.

Chilton offers a narrative that underscores the shrewdness and ambition and ruthlessness, when necessary, of the Herods. He also shows the significant roles played by women in this dynasty: Mariamne, Herodias, Salome, and Berenike among them. We learn of other competent, but lesser lights, like Philip, who appears to have led well in Gaulanitis, and Phasael, Herod the Great’s more restrained older brother who administered Jerusalem until Herod took control.

While Chilton provides both a timeline and a Dramatis personae of important figures, it would have been helpful to provide a family tree or genealogy to make clear the relations among the various figures, and the offspring of multiple marriages. It is also evident that Chilton credits other sources like Josephus above the New Testament writers at points of conflict.

That said, Chilton’s account of this dynasty enriches our understanding of the figures who intersect with the New Testament narratives and played a vital role in second Temple Israel during the decisive century before the fall of the temple.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.