Review: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

The Heart of RevelationJ. Scott Duvall. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019.

Summary: A thematic approach to the book of Revelation focusing around ten key themes which answer the basic question of “who is Lord.”

I think I’ve just found my new “go to” book when someone asks for help in understanding the book of Revelation.  Instead of getting engaged in systems of trying to figure out who in contemporary history might be one of the Beasts, or the significance of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, J. Scott Duvall focuses on themes running through Revelation centering around the purpose of proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar is Lord and will triumph, to the encouragement of a suffering and persecuted church.

Duvall thinks that taking context seriously is vital. Revelation cannot mean something to us that it didn’t mean to the original recipients. Duvall helps us understand how the seven churches faced pressure from Rome, from the Jews, and from false teachers. He emphasizes reading the book as a letter, as prophecy, and as apocalyptic, or an unveiling. He proposes that in interpreting that we try to understand what the book would mean to its original recipients, that we take the text seriously, but not always literally, since much is symbol, and that we focus on the theological message of each vision, particularly around the truth that “God is in control, and he will successfully accomplish his purposes.” Also, he offers a kind of theological glossary which he terms “Cast of Characters in the Divine Drama of Revelation,” offering a brief explanations of everything from “abyss” to “woman clothed with the sun.”

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

  1. God: “The Almighty”
  2. Worship: ” You are Worthy.”
  3. The People of God: “His Called, Chosen, and Faithful Followers”
  4. The Holy Spirit: “The Seven Spirits before His Throne”
  5. Our Enemies: “The Dragon Stood on the Shore of the Sea”
  6. The Mission: “My Two Witnesses”
  7. Jesus Christ: “The Lamb, Who Was Slain”
  8. Judgment: “How Long, Sovereign Lord?”
  9. The New Creation: “I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth”
  10. Perseverance: “To the One Who is Victorious”

Each chapter traces the theme through the whole book, summarizing main points, offering key texts and a reading plan and community group questions. Indeed, the clarity of the text, the inclusion of this reading plan and questions makes this an excellent text for a class or small group, as well as an adjunct to personal study.

The thing that stood out to me most was the idea of the greatness of and ultimate victory of the Triune God. At the same time, chapters on the people of God, our enemies, our mission, and judgment emphasize the call to faith and faithfulness in witness, which has often been accompanied by suffering. Much of the global church needs to understand this. I found myself wondering if there is also a message for the American church in coming years. At very least, the challenge to faithful witness, vigilance, and a preparedness to suffer is a clear message of scripture.

I found myself pausing at times in worship and wonder on reading passages on the greatness of God, and the destiny of his people. One example from the chapter on “The New Creation”:

   The new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to live among us. This idea can be a bit scary until you let it sink in that every good thing that exists in our lives now comes from the Lord. He is our loving Father, who only wants to give us good things. He wants to be with us and wants us to be with him and to experience the perfect community, the very reality we were created for. In fact, all our longings and desires for life and goodness and beauty will be completely fulfilled in the new creation because we will be dwelling in God’s presence….Haven’t you ever wanted a short time of such peace and joy and love to last forever because it was so wonderful, almost a fleeting glimpse of heaven? We long for that world, and that longing comes from God, and he intends to fulfill these longings and desires. He will keep his promises (p. 176).

This book makes both a great first book on reading Revelation as well as a helpful resource for deeper study and for those who would teach others. It models a good example of doing biblical theology in tracing great biblical themes running through this book in a way that at the same time is consistent with the context and content of Revelation.

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

My Reading Goals For 2020

reading goalsTo a certain degree, reading has been one of those pursuits guided by my interest of the moment. Even with books I’ve agreed to review, my choice of the next read is often a function of interest–unless I’ve had the book for a while.

But there are some goals, or at least aspirations, I have for the coming year:

  1. I want to read at least a couple of the books on my “Ten Books I Want to Read Before I Die.” I read Chernow’s Washington and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism this past year. For this year, I hope to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans.
  2. It has been years since I’ve read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia–really since our son was you, probably over 25 year ago. I think it is time for a re-reading.
  3. There is a stack of books by my bed which is my primary reading pile. Instead of adding to it, I’d like to read down the pile so I can filter in some other books waiting to be read.
  4. I only discovered the work of Mary Oliver with her passing a year ago. I now have one of her books of poetry and a collection of her essays. I want to read them this year.
  5. I’ve heard of the mysteries of Louise Penny and I have the first of her Chief Inspector Gamache series on my stack. I also hope to read one or more of Sinclair Lewis’s Lanny Budd stories.
  6. I want to be a bit more careful on the number of review books I request. I’d like to finish reviews within 60 days of getting books, something I’m not always doing. I do get to them all eventually.
  7. I had to read a Graham Greene novel in college. In the years since I’ve come to a greater appreciation of his work and hope to work in at least one or two of his novels that I have lying around.
  8. I have loved the sports writing of Jane Leavy, having read her biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, both boyhood heroes. Babe Ruth was before my time, but I just picked up The Big Fella, by Leavy as my baseball read for this year.
  9. I will be reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree for a work discussion, so I’ll throw that into my reading goals.
  10. Finally, I do set a conservative Goodreads Reading Challenge Goal of 130 books. I’ll probably read 40 or 50 more, but there are some long books on my list, so we’ll see.

These reads certainly reflect my own idiosyncrasies and interests. But I love hearing about what others are reading or hoping to read. Let me know what you are reading or hoping to read. And if there is anything here that you are reading, let’s talk!

Review: Bowery Mission

Bowery Mission

Bowery MissionJason Storbakken. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A history of the Bowery Mission’s 140 year history of working with those down on their luck on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The Bowery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has often been the last stop for many in New York who are down on their luck: homeless, drug or alcohol addicted, jobless, or broke, sufferers of PTSD and mental illness. In the background of many is abuse and abandonment from an early age. It is thought that the word, “hobo” derives from the intersection of Houston and Bowery.

For many, the Bowery Mission has meant the difference between the end of the road and a turnaround for 140 years. In this book, Jason Storbakken, a former Bowery Mission director who continues to work with the Mission, offers both a history and inspiring description of the ministry of the Bowery Mission that aims to “serve like you are serving a King,” affording tremendous dignity to people who come hungry, dirty, and often times smelly. They receive meals, clothing, hot showers, and for at least some, clean beds.

More than this, they hear what for a number has been a transforming message. Through both chapel services and personal ministry, the book narrates stories of people whose lives have been transformed by Christ. The author describes one of these, Mr. Wynn, addicted to crack cocaine who had attended Bible studies, and had asked about baptism, but when the day came, lingered outside the chapel.

   Just as the last person was stepping from the water, Mr. Wynn dashed down the aisle, pulling a pipe from his pocket and calling, “Baptize me, baptize me!” Shattering his crack pipe on the altar, he leapt into the pool. His splash further soaked my already wet clothes, but my spirit soared, and I could not suppress my emotion as I asked if he was ready to start a new life and if he believed that God forgave and loved him. “Yes,” he declared.

Since then, he has found a home, returned to his work as an accountant, and remained drug and alcohol free. Storbakken also tells the hard stories of those who turn back to old habits, and those who never change, but are nevertheless loved and cared for.

The history is fascinating. In 1879 Albert and Ellen Rullifson began in a rented room at 14 Bowery, gathering with a group of men and women in prayer to launch the Mission. We of the critical role of Louis Klopsch and The Christian Herald  in providing funding and leadership that put the Bowery Mission on a firm footing, of the critical role played by Superintendent Hallimond in shaping the character of the Bowery Mission’s work, how J. C. Penney became a key patron, and the connection hymn-writer Fanny Crosby had with the Bowery Mission. We learn why the doors of every Bowery Mission facility are painted red.

Storbakken takes us through the changing times and transformations in the Bowery and how the Mission continued to adapt while staying true to its gospel message and servant ministry. In the present, the combination of gentrification and the needy results in fascinating contrasts, as well as unusual donations from basketball shoes to sushi. All of this is fitting, Storbakken asserts, for those who they would serve as kings. The theme of how they have consistently treated those on the margins with dignity is a takeaway all of us might consider.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Youngstown Symphony Orchestra

_10 Youngstown Symphony Orchestra - Home

The Little Symphony Orchestra, Source unknown, via Youngstown Symphony on Facebook

One of the paradoxes of Youngstown is that it is a gritty, industrial, working-class town and a city where the arts have long flourished. It is evident in the spaces that have been set aside, like the Butler and Stambaugh Auditorium, and the performance home of the Youngstown Symphony, the former Warner Theatre, now part of a beautifully restored DeYor performing complex.

For the Youngstown Symphony, it all started when two brothers, Michael and Carmine Ficocelli, recruited twelve young musicians under the age of 16 from the Youngstown Schools, where they taught music. They formed The Little Symphony Orchestra in 1926, broadcasting their first concert on WKBN that year. It wasn’t until 1929 that they gave their first public performance. The Ficocellis continued to lead the orchestra until 1951. John Kruger became the third conductor that year, and shortly after changed the name to the Youngstown Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Kruger, the Philharmonic added a chorus, and a Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra, continuing the tradition of young musicians that were the orchestra’s roots.

It was under John Kruger that I first encountered what was then the Youngstown Philharmonic during elementary school. We rode the bus up to Stambaugh Auditorium, dressed up in nice clothes for Youth Concerts, where we heard pieces like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, that introduced us to the different instruments in the orchestra.

In 1965 Franz Bibo succeeded John Kruger in what was a pivotal period in the orchestra’s history. It was during this time that the name was changed to the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra. Bibo pioneered the staging of locally produced operas. Most of all, it was under his leadership that the Youngstown Symphony and the Symphony Society acquired and renovated the Warner Theatre, restoring its glory as the renamed Edward W. Powers Auditorium. The Youngstown Symphony is one of the few orchestras of its size to have its own performing space. He led the orchestra until 1980. We went to several concerts as college students, most memorably a lavish production of The Nutcracker.

The next 25 years saw a succession of four directors. Peter Leonard came as Music Director in 1980. When he left three years later, Youngstown native John DeMain served as Acting Music Director until 1987. DeMain was born in Youngstown in 1944 to a steelworker father and travel agent mother. He was a piano prodigy at age 6 and sang in Youngstown Playhouse productions in his youth before going to Juilliard. His real career has been in conducting with a Grammy winning performance of Porgy and Bess, and premieres of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and John Adams’ Nixon in China. Friends of mine in Madison, Wisconsin rave about his twenty-five year tenure there and all he has done with their orchestra. Youngstown was fortunate to acquire his services when he was in his forties and establishing an international reputation.

David Effron followed from 1987 to 1996, during a time when the Symphony Board led a campaign for a $3.5 million endowment. Isaiah Jackson succeeded him in another nine year tenure through 2006. For many rock aficionados, his tenure is remembered for a joint effort with a re-united Glass Harp on October 22, 2000 at Powers Auditorium, “Strings Attached.”

Since then, the orchestra has been led by Randall Craig Fleischer. Under Fleischer, the orchestra has continued its work with young musicians, filling the gap where music education in the schools has ended and taking Young People’s Concerts to the schools. They have inaugurated a Stain Glass Concert series of free informal concerts at various houses of worship around Youngstown, including St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. They have performed with a variety of popular musicians including country artists Rachel Potter and Patrick Thomas this past Christmas.

In 2016, the Youngstown Symphony celebrated its 90th year. The Vindicator published a special section on September 16, 2016 highlighting its history and current programs. Under Maestro Fleischer, the Youngstown Symphony appears to be a vibrant organization, continuing to inspire young musicians. Who knows who the next John DeMain will be?

More information about the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra including their current concert schedule may be found at their website.

Review: The Last Things

the last things

The Last Things (Contours of Christian Theology), David A. Höhne. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A theology of the last things that is Trinitarian in focus, centered on the exaltation of the crucified Lord, and the preservation of the believer.

There are many books about the last things or the end times. This work takes a different approach. The author contends that the Lord’s prayer is an eschatological prayer, that the focus of each of its petitions is the full realization of the kingdom of God in the person of the crucified and risen Lord through the work of the Holy Spirit. This includes the preservation, purifying, and protection of those whose hope is in the crucified and risen Lord.

The book is written for those (all who have ever believed in Christ), are living in the Middle. It is both about what God has promised us for the future but how this is already being fulfilled in our lives. It concerns how God has already established a relationship and a people, and how we will one day be perfected.

The chapters focus around each of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer. At the same time, he discusses these through the lens of interacting with Karl Barth’s theology of the Word and Jurgen Moltman’s theology of hope. The first three petitions for the hallowing of the name, the coming of the kingdom, and the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven are the what, how, and why of God the Father’s purposes through the Son in the Spirit. The prayers for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for deliverance focus around what we need to make it to the resurrection, and our eternal glory with Christ.

I found this the hardest “read” in the series. I think this has to do with the author’s engagement with Barth and Moltmann throughout, and a conscious effort to emphasize the work of the persons of the Trinity throughout. The introduction to the series speaks of making this accessible to educated laypeople. The author appears to assume a familiarity with Barth and Moltmann that may be true of seminarians, but probably only a minority of others. I founded the presentation stronger where the author connected themes in the Lord prayer to the rest of scripture, establishing the eschatological “arc” of this prayer.

I had looked forward to the completion of this series, this “last” volume of which had been long-awaited. While there were elements I appreciated, particularly the structuring of the work around a prayer many of us pray daily or weekly. But I had hoped for more in a series that had set a high standard of theological reflection accessible to the educated layperson. What the book did make clear is that we will not be disappointed by the God who keeps all his promises both for the exaltation of the crucified and risen Lord, and the resurrection hope of we, his people.

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

The Month In Reviews: December 2019

a prophet with honor

I finished the year with a flurry of reading, including a massive biography of evangelist Billy Graham and a memoir by one of his associates, Leighton Ford, both quite excellent. I read and reflected upon some profound Advent books by N. T. Wright and Fleming Rutledge. I read books on both the religious left and the religious right. Os Guinness challenged me to reflect on how I might best seize the day. I read books asserting that it was scientifically tenable to affirm Adam and Eve as common genealogical ancestors, that Paul was a “new covenant Jew,” that I can become an ordinary mystic, and on the value of narrative apologetics in Christian proclamation. I also returned to two old favorites, Wendell Berry and Agatha Christie. So here is the wrap up of the last of 2019!

a life of listening

A Life of ListeningLeighton Ford. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. A memoir in which Ford sums up his life as one of listening for God’s voice, and the unique voice of his own he discovered as he did so. Review

Divine Impassibility

Divine Impassibility (Spectrum Multiview Books), Edited by Robert J. Matz and A. Chadwick Thornhill. Contributions by Daniel Castelo, James E. Dolezal, Thomas Jay Oord, and John C. Peckham. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A discussion of God’s experience of emotions and the possibility of God suffering with views ranging from one of God not changing or experiencing emotion to God, while not changing in nature, is in relation with his creatures and experiences emotions and suffering in those relationships. Review

genealogical adam and eve

The Genealogical Adam and Eve, S. Joshua Swamidass. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A physician/scientist who studies genomics argues on the basis of genealogical science that the existence of a historic Adam and Eve, specially created by God, who are universal ancestors of us all, is not contradicted by evolutionary science. Review

Santayana

The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic TheoryGeorge Santayana. New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (originally published 1896). A philosophical discussion of the nature of beauty, grounding it in the pleasure of the perceiver with an object and its associations. Review

rise and fall

The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and BeyondL. Benjamin Rolsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. A study of the ecumenical movement among the liberal religious catalyzed by television producer Norman Lear and the causes, particularly stemming from the rise of the religious right, both for its rise and waning influence in American society. Review

Becoming an Ordinary Mystic

Becoming an Ordinary MysticAlbert Haase, OFM. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2019. Explores what it means to be a friend of God, to walk in an awareness of God’s grace, in the ordinary of life. Review

Advent

Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus ChristFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. A collection of sermons and writings organized according to the lectionary calendar of pre-Advent and Advent Sundays and special days, focusing on preparation for return of Christ. Review

remembering

RememberingWendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008 (originally published 1988). Following the loss of a hand, a grieving Andy Catlett struggles with both his loss and his anger with agribusiness, that he believes is destroying a way of life, and gropes his way toward healing. Review

carpe diem

Carpe Diem RedeemedOs Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. A consideration of how, in our present day, we ought make the most of the time, to properly seize the day. Review

Narrative apologetics

Narrative ApologeticsAlister E. McGrath. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019. An argument for and description of narrative approaches to offering a defense for the faith. Review

Advent for Everyone

Advent for Everyone: MatthewN. T. Wright. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. An Advent devotional with four weeks of daily readings and commentary by a noted New Testament scholar and pastor. Review

Paul

Paul, a New Covenant JewBrant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid (Foreword by Michael J. Gorman). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019. In answer to the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”, three Catholic scholars, focusing on 2 Corinthians 3:2-16, argue that he was a new covenant Jew and then relate this idea to apocalyptic, Christology, atonement, justification, and the Lord’s supper. Review

a prophet with honor

A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham StoryWilliam Martin. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018 (Updated edition, originally published in 1991). An in-depth biography of the life of Billy Graham, chronicling his evangelistic crusades, shaping influence on evangelicalism, his pivotal role in organizing consultations and training to mobilize world evangelism, and his relationships with presidents and international leaders, as well as his associates, and family members. Review

Revolution of Values

Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith For the Common Good, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. Argues that the religious right has taught its constituency to misread the Bible, portray those advocating for the marginalized as anti-biblical, and the need to listen to these communities as part of recovering a biblical commitment to the pursuit of justice for all for the common good. Review

elephants can remember

Elephants Can Remember (Hercule Poirot #37), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1972). Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver team up at the request of a mother and young couple, to learn the truth about an unexplained double suicide many years earlier. Review

Best Book: I spent a good part of the month reading A Prophet with Honor on the life of Billy Graham. William Martin, while showing Graham’s flat spots, including his political involvements, helps us understand Graham’s gifts, his vision, and how he faithfully and energetically pursued these things over a long life. Beyond the crowds of those he evangelized was the crowd of faithful witnesses he trained to go to every part of the world.

Quote of the Month: This was from the memoir of Graham’s associate, Leighton Ford. In the Introduction to the book, he describes his youthful response to the call of Jesus after listening to a retired missionary and a college student speak of Jesus:

   I was five then. Now, eighty plus years later, I can barely recall the voices and face of that missionary lady and that college student, but I know that through them I heard another Voice calling me, a voice I have been listening for ever since. So I write my listening story not because it is a perfect story or one to emulate but as a testament to the power of listening for the voice of my Lord.

I hope, like Ford, to live “a life of listening.

Current reads and upcoming reviews. I’ve read the volumes of the Contours of Christian Theology series as they’ve come out. The Last Things is the final one, and uses the lens of the Lord’s prayer and the theologies of Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann to explore what we believe about the last things. The Last Leonardo concerns a painting that sold for $450 million, reputed to be da Vinci’s last work, a painting of Christ, Salvator Mundi. It is a fascinating account of the challenges of establishing a work like this as a genuine master, rather than a student or later copy, and the unique challenges of restoration of a painting that was literally in pieces when an art dealer acquired it. Bowery Mission is a history of one of the oldest and most distinguished “rescue missions” in lower Manhatten, and the many lives turned around through its ministry. Love and Quasars is a book on an astrophysicists journey away from and back to Christian faith, first as he thought the two incompatible, and then as he saw them as best of friends, and more.

All the best as you take a final glance back at the books you’ve read over the last year, and begin the ones that you will associate with 2020.

Bob on Books in 2020

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Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The year of 2019 was a banner year for Bob on Books, both the blog site and the Facebook page. Early in 2019, the blog topped an all-time total of a half million views. At the end of the year, the total was over 650,000 with over 162,000 views from nearly 113,000 viewers. We posted over 180 reviews of books, including a number of science-faith reviews from guest reviewer Paul Bruggink. On the Facebook page, we started the year with around 2,000 people who “liked” the page. By the end of the year, we had topped 5,500.

Numbers are only part of the story. Early on, I wrote on my “about” page:

While I am a person of faith as a follower of Christ, I hope the blog will be a meeting place for anyone who cares about good literature, who loves books and reading, and wants to talk about ideas that matter. We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world. My hope is that this blog will contribute to the latter.

I am encouraged that by and large, both on the blog and the Facebook page, we have cultivated a meeting place that is a pretty good approximation of this description. It feels to me that this is a volatile time, especially around matters that have been part of our political debates and that volatility has occasionally flared up, especially over on Facebook–a medium that is most prone to this. A simple post of the text of Greta Thunberg’s United Nations speech (reading material!) brought out some of the most vicious comments I’ve seen.

Most of the time, we’ve just enjoyed discussing the books we are reading and the quirkiness of those of us who are bibliophiles. My awareness of the diversity of genres people are reading has grown, and I’ve picked up some great ideas of mysteries and science fiction to read from others. While I post a number of reviews of Christian works, others have written about different religious and philosophical texts that have been formative for them. At least we haven’t fought about religion, but rather learned from each other. I was most delighted when several on Facebook commented that our page was the main reason they hadn’t closed their accounts.

As for the coming year? I’m in a new job that also involves a blog, social media, and other web media to encourage and equip and network emerging Christian scholars, and much of my creative energies are invested in that project. I’m applying much of what I learned these past years to this job (it might have even helped me get the job!). But here are a few things I want to keep on doing and do better here:

  • I love reading and reviewing books, and if there is anything I want to do this year, I want to pay attention to great reviewers, and work at the craft of writing reviews that are both interesting to read, and help you decide whether the book in question is one you want to read.
  • I will keep writing about Youngstown. I haven’t run out of things to write about yet and love discovering more about the people and places and institutions of the place where I grew up. Just as our own lives are enriched by our family history, I believe our communal life is enriched by understanding our communal history–what has made us uniquely us!
  • I also enjoy learning and writing about everything bookish. I hope I get around to more bookstores this year. I also believe libraries play a critical role in fostering reading among both children and adults and an increasingly important role as a “third place” in our culture. I’ll continue to explore the quirky qualities that make us bibliophiles, and hopefully help us laugh at ourselves, something we all need.
  • I was warned recently about writing about religion and politics. I happen to think there is nothing more important than how we answer the “big questions” of life, whether they concern what we believe to be really real, or how we order our relations and priorities in society. I strive to be neither a proselytizer nor a partisan.  Whether in religion or in political discussion, I hope we can reclaim a civil public square from the trolls, the gaslighters, the echo chambers, and the partisans. I hope to moderate and write (when I do) toward that end! When we can’t engage civilly and substantively around the big questions and the common good, we surrender our culture to the demagogues and the power-mongers.

That’s it, as far as I can see, although you never know what comes along. Thanks for coming along with me this far. I’m looking forward to some great books in 2020 and I wish for you the same!

Review: Elephants Can Remember

elephants can remember

Elephants Can Remember (Hercule Poirot #37), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1972).

Summary: Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver team up at the request of a mother and young couple, to learn the truth about an unexplained double suicide many years earlier.

Celia Ravenscroft and Desmond Burton-Cox want to marry. Desmond’s mother by adoption, looking for cause to oppose it, seeks out the help of crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who is Celia’s godmother. Celia’s parents died years ago in what authorities determined to be a suicide pact. Mrs. Burton-Cox want to know who killed who, and if there is a streak of mental instability that Celia might inherit. Celia and Desmond wish the truth as well.

Oliver enlists her old friend Poirot, and the two of them go in search of “the elephants,” those who remember crucial facts that might bring to light what truly happened, and incidentally, why Mrs. Burton-Cox is really so bent on discouraging the marriage. Along the way, we learn of Mrs. Ravenscroft’s deranged identical twin sister, who died by falling from the same cliffs where the Ravenscrofts took their lives three weeks later. Poirot wonders about the exceptional number of wigs worn by Mrs Ravenscroft, despite a healthy head of hair. What did French au pair know, who was staying at the time of their deaths? Finally, we wonder about the affectionate dog that inexplicably bit.

Reading the story, I was curious how much of Agatha Christie is written into the character of Ariadne Oliver. It was fun to envision Agatha going about with Poirot crime solving. I have to admit that the solution was fairly apparent before the denouement. What I liked about this story was the diverse set of characters Christie offers us: the somewhat eccentric Ariadne Oliver, the strong-willed Celia, the determined Desmond, the unlikable Mrs. Burton-Cox, and the au pair torn by love and the promise to keep a secret. We also encounter an older Poirot, one who sits and thinks even more. We wonder, as does Ariadne at one point, whether he still has his edge. As always, we discover his edge is to listen, to observe, to wait, and to think, drawing on his insights into human nature, until the pieces fall in place.

I didn’t think this was Christie at her best. She left too many clues, too few red herrings. Yet I found the story a pleasant diversion, with a great mix of characters and good pacing. This was published less than four years before her death. Some have speculated that she was struggling with the onset of some form of dementia when she wrote Elephants Can Remember. Perhaps the title was a valiant attempt to say “I’ve still got what it takes!” She was in her early 80’s when she wrote this–and still capable of writing circles around younger writers!

Review: Revolution of Values

Revolution of Values

Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith For the Common Good, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Argues that the religious right has taught its constituency to misread the Bible, portray those advocating for the marginalized as anti-biblical, and the need to listen to these communities as part of recovering a biblical commitment to the pursuit of justice for all for the common good.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was a child of the culture wars. He grew up in a white, Southern Baptist culture that saw “biblical and traditional values” under attack from progressives concerned to advocate for the marginalized and the vulnerable. Then he met some of those people, also believers, and saw them read the same Bible very differently. As he dug deeper, he discovered a strategy of reading the Bible going back to the slavery era and the religious resistance to abolition that characterized abolitionist opponents as “anti-biblical.”

He began to recognize that the dark side of advocating for a pro-life stance, for the traditional marriage and family, and for religious liberty, was that this became associated with efforts to maintain white ascendancy, the use of “law and order” and voting procedures to limit the growing number of people of color from fully participating in society, the raising of barriers to immigration, including refugees (despite the abundance of biblical references to welcoming the stranger), the subordination of women, the exploitation of the environment, and militarism.

Wilson-Hartgrove elaborates both how the Bible has been appropriated by the religious right and in subsequent chapters both offers historical and sociological background and personal narratives showing how other communities have been marginalized. He also shows how scripture has shaped the self-understanding, resistance, and engagement of believers in these communities. Perhaps one of the most striking personal narratives was that of Alicia Wilson Baker, a pro-life evangelical Christian who was abstinent before marriage. She learned on the eve of her wedding that her insurer would not cover birth control, leaving her with a $1200 medical bill. She subsequently testified at the hearings of a supreme court nominee who indicated he would uphold such exemptions for insurers. She told the author, “I’m still for life…but my understanding of what that means has expanded. As Christians, we should work for policies that protect life from womb to the tomb.”

That spoke deeply to me. I’m tired of the rhetoric that brands me anti-biblical if I signal that I care for refugees whose lives are in danger, if I express concern for the unwise ways we are using God’s creation that may threaten all life on the planet, at very least the most vulnerable, if I express concern that life expectancy shouldn’t be a function of our zip code and our ability to afford health care. I’m tired of the partisan binaries that force me to choose between religious liberty and the liberties of all when scripture teaches me about justice, especially for those most vulnerable to be treated unjustly, of love for neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and, yes, for the sanctity of life from conception to death for all people.

At the same time, there were things that troubled me about this book. Foremost was the lack of acknowledgement of the rhetorical strategies used by those Wilson-Hartgrove would term “progressive.” Wilson-Hartgrove does not equally critique the rhetoric of the left that has made “intolerance” the worst form of sin, and “inclusion” the highest form of virtue, the use of public shaming for violations of speech codes, or the statist pretensions often concealed in progressive policies. He does not acknowledge the intolerance of tolerance experienced by religious people. Furthermore, I don’t see Wilson-Hartgrove disavowing culture wars, but just changing sides. This book feels partisan to me, speaking against the policies of the current administration, while mute about the previous one.

I’m troubled by the failure of this book to transcend the partisan binaries that have so divided us into progressive and conservative camps. It does helpfully deconstruct the religious right’s reading of the Bible. Years ago, Os Guinness described Christians as “third way” people. Mary Poplin called my attention to the numerous warnings in scripture to veer neither to the left nor the right. While Wilson-Hartgrove rightly calls out the white nationalism that runs as an undercurrent through our national narrative and helpfully listens to and amplifies voices often lost in our political debates, it feels like all I’m left with is a posture of progressive resistance when I had hoped for a call to reclaim our public square from the extremes of left and right, to offer a third way that doesn’t set fetuses against refugees, entrepreneurship against the environment,  ethnicities against each other, or religious liberty against liberty for all. That would be a revolution.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Christmas Tree Twinkler

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The Christmas Tree Twinkler, Photo by Bob Trube © 2019

On Christmas Day, we were visiting with my son and his wife. While we were there, he gave me the box of ornaments you see above. Mutual friends, whose son works with my son, passed along this box of ornaments, which had belonged to one of their parents, knowing of our interest in all things Youngstown (yes, we are getting a reputation!).

So I thought I would look into the history of The Christmas Tree Twinkler (or as some people call them, spinners). In the process, I found a fascinating account of the man who invented it, the Plakie Toy Company in Youngstown who manufactured it, and the Hoover family who started the company which lasted until 1992.

John Garver grew up on a farm outside Youngstown, learning to tinker as he had to repair farm implements. After college in Indiana, he returned to teach at Boardman High School. He continued to tinker. Eventually he had ten patents to his name including the patent for The Christmas Tree Twinkler (you can see his patent drawings in this Popular Mechanics article). He created the dual brake pedal used in driver training vehicles and machines that could throw tennis balls, footballs, and baseballs (he even wrote a book on baseball cybernetics).

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A Birdcage Twinkler. Photo by Bob Trube © 2019

The Twinkler was a simple idea: mount a spinner on a pin inside a hollow plastic cylinder within a decorative birdcage or star. Place it above a Christmas tree light (one of the old C7 lights that generated a bit of heat) and the heat would set the spinner in motion, hence the twinkling. The idea for the star apparently came from his wife, who was cutting star cookies and suggested putting a spinner in the middle. He patented it in 1954, took it to one of his classes, and mentioned that he was interested in marketing his invention.

It turns out that one of his students was Dean Hoover, son of Frank and Dorothy Hoover, who had a toy company called Plakie Toys based in Youngstown. In 1932, Frank Hoover returned to Youngstown after a stint of working in steel plants in Detroit. He started out manufacturing custom gearshift nobs for manual transmissions. By 1935, his business began to struggle with the rise of the automatic transmission. By then he had married and had an infant son Dean. One day, he spotted his infant son having a great time shaking some plastic squares strung on a chain, and the idea for a plastic toy company was born. The company name, Plakie, came from “play key.” During the war, they diverted to wood toys because plastic was scarce. Right after the war, his father purchased one of the first blow mold machines in the world, and the business was off and running.

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A Twinkler set. Photo by Bob Trube © 2019

So Plakie was a natural fit for manufacturing John Garver’s invention. They began selling them at Strouss, selling as many as 1,000 in a day. Eventually they were manufacturing over three million of them a year. They had a few problems. The biggest was that if the ornaments were too close to the lights, the plastic would melt (it is kind of amazing in light of this to receive a full intact set!). There were problems with the machine that cut the pins, which were sometimes dull, preventing the spinner from twirling.

The big problem was the advent of artificial trees, which could be flammable. Cooler midget lights were invented, but they did not get hot enough to make the spinners move. Still, it is estimated that there could be as many as ten million of these still out there, probably stashed away in attics. They are a collectible and I found them selling online for anything between $15 and $50.

Frank Hoover died in 1960. Dorothy took over the company at that time and shifted the focus of the company to cloth products for children–blankets, crib sheets, cloth toys, cloth covered book, dolls, and dust ruffles. The companies sales grew to $4 million a year during this time. Eventually production costs and competition led the company to close its doors in 1992.

John Garver lived until 2015. He actually kept working on a Twinkler design using anodized aluminum until his death in 2015.

I don’t remember these ornaments from my childhood. I would have been fascinated back then, and I delight in their designs even now. They are one more point of Youngstown pride–both invented and manufactured in the Mahoning Valley.

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A Star Twinkler. Photo by Bob Trube © 2019