Review: World’s End (Lanny Budd #1)

World's End

World’s End (Lanny Budd #1), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1940).

Summary: First in a series of eleven novels, introducing the character of Lanny Budd, a precocious youth on the eve of World War 1, his German and English friends and their respective fates during the war while Lanny divides his time between his glamorous mother and artist step-father on the Riviera, and in New England with his father’s Puritan munitions-making family, ending up as a secretary to a geographer at the Paris Peace Conference.

Several months ago, I read and reviewed A World to Win, number seven in the Lanny Budd novels. There, a decidedly adult Lanny Budd functions as a secret agent for the president (Roosevelt) during World War 2. This novel, the first in the series, introduces us to Lanny Budd on the eve of World War 1. Raised by Beauty, his mother, he grew up in the mix of art and culture of Paris and the French Riviera. Although she was a preacher’s daughter, she was rejected by Lanny’s father’s New England Puritan family because she had posed several times in the nude for Parisian artists, and never married Lanny’s father. He acquires the artistic tastes and cultured manners of his mother’s circle, and the savvy of his munitions-salesman father. He also acquires two friends at boarding school, an English boy named Rick, and a German boy of high birth named Kurt. Like other pre-pubescent teens, their discussions range from philosophy to the mysteries of girls.

All this ends with the onset of the Great War. Rick eventually ends up as an RAF flyer, married, and wounded, never to walk without pain. Kurt fights for Germany and eventually becomes involved in espionage at war’s end that catches up Lanny. Beauty retreats to the Riviera, marry an artist, Marcel Detaze, whose greatest work comes after he is severely wounded, before he returns to the front, never to come back. Lanny has his first love affair with a girl destined to marry into an English house, and his first heartbreak.

After assisting his father for a period, learning to code and decode documents and meeting numerous famous figures, even Zaharoff, his father’s main competitor, he returns with his father to New England, meeting his stern old grandfather, his very correct step-mother, and an enlightened old great grandfather, who kept company with the New England transcendentalists. He is used for his connections by another woman, and returns with his father to Europe wiser and sadder.

Due to language skills and his savvy and facility in meeting the rich and powerful, he serves as a secretary to a geography professor who is part of the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He witnesses the high public ideals of the Fourteen Points, and the private maneuvering among Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, for land and oil and the utter subjugation of Germany. At a point of disillusionment, he dabbles with Kurt and the socialists in a dangerous set of liaisons.

Sinclair portrays Budd against the backdrop of the Great War–the folly of the great powers who stumbled into this conflict, and eventually drew in the US. Lanny’s father tries to keep him out of it all, even as his company profits greatly, as do all the munitions manufacturers. He gets an education in the power politics, and the business interests that profit by war. This sets up a tension for Budd, raised among artists and caring for the fine and noble things of life. Does he join his father in an enterprise even his father approaches with cynicism, or pursue another path?

Budd also meets the socialists, and those who have ties to the revolution in Russia, through a socialist uncle, Beauty’s brother and becomes aware of the ways the rich exploit workers in every country. Lanny’s father tries to protect him from such influences as well. In this first novel, we see the tensions and influences at war in Lanny, while the world is at war. Sinclair sets us up for succeeding novels in introducing us to Lanny, able to travel with and identify with artists, the wealthy capitalists, even the socialists, moving through all these circles. We wonder if he really belongs to any of them.

If there is any criticism to be laid to this novel, it is that it seems more preparatory than anything to the stories to follow. The war and the Peace Conference really are the plot, with a bit of suspense toward the end around his relationship with Kurt and his uncle. But the book serves as a great summation of World War 1 and what pre-war Europe was like. It portrays the tragedy of Paris and Versailles that made the second World War inevitable and carved up the Middle East in ways that are still having repercussions. We glimpse the graft and folly behind noble statements and patriotic sentiment. And, similar to “Pug” Henry in The Winds of War, we wonder at what famous events, and with what famous people, Lanny will turn up next.

Review: The Future of Humanity

The Future of Humanity

The Future of HumanityMichio Kaku. New York: Doubleday, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the possibility and necessity of humanity becoming a multi-planetary species, and the revolutions of technology necessary to realize that future.

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist studying string theory at the City University of New York, and the author of a series of best-selling futurist works based on his knowledge of physics and other fields. He is also a riveting, passionate speaker who believes, along with others like Elon Musk, that we must envision becoming a multi-planetary species. This, the latest of his books, explores that idea, it’s necessity, and the technological advances that could make this possible.

Kaku’s argument for the necessity of becoming a multi-planetary species is rooted in the priority of the survival of the human species. He is convinced that, whether through physical causes ranging from cataclysmic volcanoes to asteroids or the final death throes of the sun, our planet will become unlivable for human beings–if we do not accomplish this first through human causation as in nuclear holocaust or global warming. Discussing other great challenges we’ve faced through history, he writes:

But now we face perhaps the greatest challenge of all: to leave the confines of the Earth and soar into outer space. The laws of physics are clear; sooner or later we will face global crises that threaten our very existence. (p.6)

In three parts he explores the technologies that can make this possible. The first part explores interplanetary settlement efforts within our solar system, using moon as a base, and Mars as our first settlement, and later possibly settling, or exploiting the resources of the large moons orbiting the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. He describes existing efforts by public and private enterprise to return to the moon and create settlements on Mars. This itself is formidable considering exposures to radioactivity and the inhospitable nature of the planet but he argues for the eventual possibility of terra-forming Mars, making it livable and life sustaining. What is fascinating is that much of this is possible by applying and extending our current technology, albeit at great cost.

The second part of the book seemed like something out of Star Trek, exploring the technologies of interstellar travel. All of this is beyond our current technologies. As a physicist, he takes us on a tour of possible technologies from nanoships and laser and solar sail propelled vehicles, to ramjet fusion and antimatter engines, and proposes that the warp drive of The Enterprise is possible, and consists not in propelling one faster than light, but literally warping space so that a vessel is pulled through it at hyper light speeds. Nearly all of this requires inordinately great quantities of energy, and presupposes a level of civilization at which we harness, first the energies of the sun, and than galactic levels of energy. This will allow us to explore at least the nearby stars or further into a galaxy of stars where it is increasingly evident that there are many possible habitable planets.

The third part explores the reality that the great distances to be traveled, even should we exceed the speed of light, either require multi-generational crews, or advances toward immortality. He explores research on curing aging, on trans-humanism in which humans and machines become increasingly integrated. He discusses the Human Connectome Project, in which human neural networks are mapped, digitized, and potentially could be reproduced light years away, transmitted via laser networks. He also speculates on the existence of other more advanced civilizations. He mentions observations of recurring drops in energy output of star KIC 8462852 by as much as 30 percent positing an object 22 times as large as Jupiter, speculating that one possibility would be a megastructure like a Dyson sphere constructed by an alien civilization.This part also gets into Kaku’s area of theoretical physics, string theory, as he explores the possibility of travel through wormholes and stargates and perhaps even escaping the present universe into one of many multiverses, particularly useful when this one burns out.

Whew! Kaku’s tour of the technologies necessary for interstellar travel is both breathtaking, and staggering. On one hand, much of the technology we use today, even that I am using as I write, was science fiction in my childhood. It is always dangerous to scoff at what seems impossible. The cell phone at my side represents applications of theoretical physics unknown 150 years ago in terms of the miniaturized circuitry and memory, cellular and wi-fi capabilities, GPS tracking, and touch screens. What would have been an object of wonder 150 years ago is now a commonplace of many of our lives. Yet what Kaku describes in this book, particularly in parts two and three, strings together ventures of immense cost, requiring unimaginable amounts of power, huge quantities of rare (and dangerous) resources like anti-matter, as well as scenarios, the survivability of which are in question, all of which to preserve the human species on a multi-planetary scale. Of course Kaku allows millenia for reaching such capabilities.

The most credible part of the book for me was the near-term ideas of travel to Mars, perhaps even establishing some form of outpost there. If something of a cataclysmic nature were to occur on Earth in the next couple centuries, such an outpost might preserve civilization, and even re-settle earth. Even this is tremendously costly as well as risky. We must expect lives to be lost, even as they were among other explorers and settlers throughout our history. But it also raised questions of several sorts.

Some were questions of priority. Should we think of terra-forming Mars when our own planet’s earth, water and air need so much attention? Should we pour huge funds and inordinate amounts of energy into space travel when transport on earth is still carbon-based and polluting? When we are not yet addressing preventable diseases of childhood, and providing quality and affordable health care on a global basis, is it right to pour huge amounts into life-extending technologies that may benefit a select few? Or even as we think about planetary defense, might we focus on technologies for detection and destruction of planet-threatening objects from outer space? All this falls under the question of caring for the planet and people that we have before we think about settling other worlds.

Some are more fundamental questions having to do with whether we ought to do these things. I think of this particularly around the discussion of immortality. Kaku fails to deal with the issue of whether it is a good thing for humans with our flawed as well as noble nature to live for ever. Have you ever noticed how, as people age, they become who they always were, to an even greater degree? We may grow both more loving and more neurotic. We may grow more knowledgeable and more petty. The closest he gets to this is when he quotes the late Stephen Hawking who said, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.” In my own faith tradition, we believe that it is a severe mercy of God that flawed and fallen people don’t live endlessly in our bodies and that hope is found not in endless mortal life, but life everlasting beyond bodily death.

Finally, I am troubled with the hubristic strains that carry as much attraction for many contemporary hearers as they did for the first couple in the garden, and the tower builders of Babel. Kaku writes:

…our destiny is to become the gods we once feared and worshipped. Science will give us the means by which we can shape the universe in our image. The question is whether we will have the wisdom of Solomon to accompany this vast celestial power. (p. 14)

“You shall be as gods” has been a temptation from the very beginning, and is one this book proffers to its readers. Along with that temptation comes tower-building (or space elevator) projects that reflect our pitiful efforts to offset our creaturely vulnerabilities. Will we exchange dependence on the sustenance of the Creator and responsible care for the world we’ve been given for anxious and costly efforts to preserve ourselves in other worlds, and perhaps neglect the most vulnerable on our own planet? I find the reference to Solomon fascinating, because the record tells us that, while wise, he abandoned the fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom, giving himself to building projects that taxed and enslaved, and that he multiplied wives and experiences. If Ecclesiastes gives us the final verdict on this project, it is all summed up as “meaningless,” “a chasing after the wind,” and that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow.” It seems that this is what always comes of trying to make ourselves gods, and trying to stave off death when a universe of wonder and a world of beauty to be cared for beckons us to trust its Maker.

Review: Introducing the Apocrypha

introducing the apocrypha

Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance, Second Edition, David A. deSilva (Foreword by James H. Charlesworth). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: An introduction to the books of the Apocrypha, covering matters of content, authorship, date, setting, textual transmission, and theological themes and influence in both second temple and post-second temple Judaism and early Christianity.

For many from Protestant denominations, the collection of books that fall under the title “Apocrypha” are considered ones that “didn’t make the cut” and perhaps suspect. However, most of these books are part of the Bibles of two-thirds of all Christians in the world. In his Introduction to this work, David A. deSilva also makes the point that this collection is invaluable in understanding second temple Judaism that is the setting for the ministry of Jesus and Christian beginnings as well as the influence of these writings on the New Testament authors and what they wrote. He also introduces us to the fact that there are different collections (Septuagint, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus) and the challenges of defining this collection.

This work is an introduction and, like introductions to Old and New Testaments, covers introductory matters like the message of the work, authorship (often difficult to pin down), date, and setting, as well as the textual transmission, and different extant textual traditions. In the cases of Daniel and Esther, he shows how the additions are woven into, and differ from the canonical text. It is helpful, therefore to read this work with a copy of the Apocrypha at hand, preferably the New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, which is the version used throughout.

The author explores the distinctive theological themes and influences of particular books. He considers an overall Deuteronomistic theme of the promise of covenant blessing for Israel when they obey, curse when they disobey, and restoration when they return, cry out, and obey Torah. The theme emerges in the prayers, narratives, and precepts found in this collection. In some texts, such as 1 Maccabees, Israel faces a crisis, and faithful Jews experience deliverance. In others, martyrs receive assurance, or potential martyrs are delivered while the apostate or Gentiles face punishment. One can see how these books encouraged post-exilic Jews, particularly under Greco-Roman rule, as well as subsequent generations of Christians.

David A. deSilva states that this is a complete revision involving every chapter, far more consultation with experts in the field, incorporation of the latest scholarship, and an expanded bibliography. His clear summaries of content, theology, influence, and technical introductory matters make this a valuable adjunct for sitting down to read this collection. For those like myself, who have managed to avoid a reading of books that have encouraged Jews and Christians through the ages, deSilva made the case to change that. He neither resolves the canonical issues, nor argues a change, but that we read these works for what we can learn both about Christian origins, and for the encouragement we might derive from them.

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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: A Mentor’s Wisdom

A Mentor's Wisdom

A Mentor’s Wisdom: Lessons I Learned From Haddon Robinson R. Larry Moyer. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: Forty-five sayings of Haddon Robinson with reflections by one of the men he mentored.

Haddon Robinson spent much of his life in one theological seminary or another, as a professor of homiletics (preaching), as President of Denver Seminary, and later as Interim President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A hallmark of his work was a commitment to expository preaching of the Bible, careful application that arose from the text, and clarity of communication without distracting with stories and illustration. Many of us have used his book Biblical Preaching as a guide to expository preaching that honors Christ. He was also a senior editor of Christianity Today.

Haddon Robinson died in 2017 at the age of 86. One of those for whom he was not only professor but also mentor was R. Layer Moyer, the founder and CEO of EvanTell. Robinson helped Moyer get his start, commending him to seminary alumni and serving on his board. This year, EvanTell celebrates its 45th anniversary, and Moyer had the idea of collecting 45 quotes from his mentor, both as a tribute and to commemorate the anniversary. This book is the result, consisting of 45 quotes under the headings of “Life Lessons,” “Work Counsel,” “Spiritual Advice,” “Public Speaking and Preaching,” “Leadership,” and “Evangelism.” Following each quote is a relevant scripture text and a brief reflection, averaging two pages, often giving the context in which the author first heard this statement from Robinson.

There is a wealth of wisdom in this little book, worthy of the reflection of any Christian leader or minister. The collection begins with a profound statement worth taking a retreat day to consider: “Decide now what you want people to carve on your tombstone, and then live your life backwards from there.” A number reflected Robinson’s generous and humble character: “I want to be on your team, not on your back,” “I know what that is what I suggested; that was a bad decision,” and, when Parkinson was in an assisted care situation for advancing Parkinson’s disease, “This Parkinson’s is rough. But the people hear are great and the food is good.”

Without giving away too much of the book, the section of quotes on “Public Speaking and Preaching” summarize a life of teaching in this area:

  • 25. “Learning how to speak is like learning how to think. If you think clearly, you will speak clearly.”
  • 26. “God has not promised to bless your words; he has only promised to bless his.”
  • 27. “The biggest problem I have had while training preachers has been, strangely enough, getting them to preach the word.”
  • 28. The stance of a preacher is the stance of a persuader. You are not there to simply teach; you are there to persuade.”
  • 29. When people come to church on Sunday, they want to know what you can tell them that will help them get through the following week.”
  • 30. “The art of preaching isn’t hinged upon knowing what to put into your message but rather what to take out.”
  • 31. “The passage has to hit you before it hits the audience.”
  • 32. “When you say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ you better be right. That is an awesome claim.”
  • 33. “The problem is that too many preachers tear the passage apart in their studies and then don’t put it back together before they step into the pulpit.”

Haddon Robinson primarily left his mark through those he trained directly or influenced indirectly through his books. For that reason, his name may not be widely known. Perhaps this was because of his conviction, framed in another quote not found in this book, “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

This book, useful for devotional reflection, acquaints us with a scholar and teacher whose life was shared by that conviction. We get the chance to overhear wisdom about life and ministry and to see how that wisdom, under the grace of God formed a Christ-shaped, yet one-of-a-kind life.

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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: A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard

a field guide to your own backyard

A Field Guide to Your Own Back YardJohn Hanson Mitchell. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration, season by season of the animals, plants, insects, bird, amphibians and reptiles, and weather conditions we might encounter in our own back yard, even as city dwellers.

Many ecological books seem to be concerned either about really big problems like air pollution or climate change, or really big spaces away from cities–from polar ice to wilderness to forests. It has long seemed to me that if we don’t care and notice the spaces where we live and most immediately have care for, the rest of it tends to be an abstraction. I became aware that at least our own climate was changing when I discovered that I could now safely plant frost tender things after May 1 when I used to wait at least a week longer. Our local nursery confirmed it several years ago noting that we were now in a warmer growth zone with a longer growing season, reflected in their having annuals in the greenhouse earlier.

Still, I suspect there is much in my backyard to which I’m oblivious until it stares me in the face. I considered skunks denizens of the woods until one stared me in the face recently on several visits to my back yard. It occurred to me when I saw some growing in a ditch, that it had been several years since I’ve seen Queen Anne’s Lace, considered a weed, in my backyard. Aside from cardinals, sparrows (what kind?), blue jays, robins, and the occasional crow, and the ubiquitous Canada geese in nearby retention ponds, I don’t pay attention to the bird life. I mostly notice insects and arachnids if they get inside my house, or nibble my roses. So when I saw A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard, it struck me that it might be helpful in being a bit more observant of my own patch of the creation.

That’s John Hanson Mitchell’s aim as well. He writes, “…the talent for observation is a learned art, and with very little effort it is possible within a single year to become intimate with the natural environment of your immediate neighborhood. The best place to begin, of course, is your own backyard.” This, in a nutshell, describes the contents of the book, as Mitchell walks us through the seasons from early spring of one year to late winter of the next. He notices and tells stories season by season about his observations of weather conditions, migratory birds, trees, wildflowers and weeds, butterflies, morels and mushrooms, shrubs, insects, amphibians and reptiles, backyard mammals, pests and their natural enemies. He writes about the things we’ll come across if we look closely: nests, holes in trees and what we might find living there, hornets nests, galls on plants, wetland life, life under the bark and running sap. He writes about the life we might find around our woodpile, and our birdfeeder. A number of hand drawn illustrations complement the text at key points.

I discovered that the skunk in my yard was probably eating grubs and that this is its redeeming virtue. I looked where it had its nose in our turf and suspect the author was right. There were little holes where it was probably feeding after a rainfall. Still, this is a mammal not to be encouraged and so I made sure there were no sheltered spots around our foundation where it could make a home, because sooner or later it would spray. I suspect, the skunks (we later saw it trailing four or five babies) is living under a neighbor’s deck.

I also realized beyond the basics, I don’t know the identity of our trees. I could do far better at learning and observing the different avian visitors who consume many of our pesky mosquitoes. I might learn when the bird migrations are in our area and watch for them. I learned this about the fireflies I delight to watch on a summer evening: “Electric lights are only about 10 percent energy-efficient, whereas firefly lighting approaches 100 percent and is, in comparison to firelight, gaslight, or electric light, entirely pollution free.” I learned at that the toad I found in my downstairs office last summer is my friend, eating up to 200 insects a night, mostly pests. I’m glad I released him into our back yard! I decided that some of the weeds at our property margins might be worth leaving rather than cutting down with the weed eater. I learned that if you are good, you can distinguish calls of the different kinds of crickets and frogs at night. And the author confirmed something else I’ve observed over the year–nothing deters a hungry and very clever squirrel!

This might be the year I begin a back yard journal. Mitchell’s stories remind me of things I’ve seen, but perhaps not sufficiently paid attention to. He also helped open the eyes to the reality that the quarter acre on which we live is bustling with life that happens to share the space with us and the wonders awaiting me outside my front and back door. We might find different things in our back yard that Mitchell does in Massachusetts. But he gives us some good clues of what we might look for.

Review: Serving God in a Migrant Crisis

serving god in a migrant crisis

Serving God in a Migrant CrisisPatrick Johnstone with Dean Merrill (foreword by Stephen Bauman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Concisely sets forth the scope of our present-day global refugee crisis, how as Christians we might think about all this, and several levels of action steps we may take.

We are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. Corrupt regimes. Violent gangs. Climate change driven migration. Religious persecution. Ethnic cleansing. All these causes and more are leading people to do something no one wants or easily chooses to do–leave home, sometimes paying large sums to shady figures, with no certainty of finding refuge on the other end.

Patrick Johnstone is well known to many as the author of successive editions of Operation World, a guide that has helped many of us pray, or even be led to go to parts of the world and people groups who have not heard the Christian message. His study of these people groups made him keenly aware of these unprecedented movements of people, and the possibility that the very people we hope to reach with the Christian message may be on our doorstep. The question is not, how will we reach them, but will we welcome them?

Johnstone begins by inviting us to connect with our own immigrant histories and by drawing our attention to the one who we follow, who was himself a refugee as a child. In the first part, he explores the unprecedented human tide of immigrants, one out of every 122 on the planet. He turns to fears real and imagined and separates fact from fiction. Then he looks at the factors driving the refugee and migrant crisis, arguing that there is no end in sight and that more developed nations will be dealing with this for some time to come.

In the second part of the book, he focuses on what we need to know. First of all, he helps us understand why people leave their homes, often taking great financial and safety risks to do so. He reminds us that the biblical story is an immigrant story. God even causes some immigration. Our savior was an immigrant. Immigrants are not the “other,”  but rather are people who are “one of us.” Johnstone asks whether our immigration discussions ought to begin with policies and legalities, or with a concern for the humanity of the immigrant. Whatever we, and our nations do, it will have some kind of profound effect on the lives of real people, many of them among the most defenseless in the world. On the other hand, we often do not consider is that these people may turn out not as a problem to be solved, but a blessing. They provide needed workers in low-birthrate countries, some are fellow believers who rejuvenate the faith of complacent Christians, and some of our most respected scientists, political leaders, and business people have been immigrants.

So, what should we do? That is the concern of the final chapters in the third part of the book. He begins by suggesting five starting points:

  1. Appreciate the strategic opportunity. God is bringing the world to us!
  2. Recognize and admit our past mistakes.
  3. Become more sensitive to other cultures.
  4. Believe that God truly cares about migrants.
  5. Start praying.

This last point literally struck home. The author quotes a Ghanaian theologian who participated in African immigrant revivals, praying for the awakening of the West in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago. I live in Columbus and my church hosts a Ghanaian congregation. It made me wonder if some of those worshiping in our church building were among those the theologian was praying with. It makes me wonder if we are the ones being blessed by their presence and what they might teach us about prayer and spiritual warfare in the post-Christian West.

He then concludes with four action levels: the individual, the church, what Christian agencies can do and what the global body of Christ can do. This lasts challenges us both in speaking to ourselves about the need at hand, and speaking to our governments.

What was so refreshing about this book is that it stepped aside from media circus and the political fray and centered the discussion on the reality of the human crisis behind the policy debates and the biblical convictions and dispositions of the heart of people who follow Jesus the refugee. While not ignoring the important role Christians can have in challenging the government, it also focused on the critical role Christians can play in their home church communities by hosting refugees, welcoming immigrants into our homes, networking them into work opportunities, and sharing our faith with them.

This last phrase will be a problem for some. Certainly, we should do all that we can for the immigrant whether they believe or not. But Johnstone makes a telling observation that comes out of his years of work among many people groups: “Immigrants will think it odd if you don’t introduce your faith. They will wonder if you are ashamed of your beliefs for some reason.” This reminds me that the greatest tragedy of yielding to the fears and insecurities that feed political bases and media ratings; is that in so doing we miss the opportunity to love the alien and the stranger, see them become friends, and perhaps witness their turning to new life in Christ. What others see as a crisis and a problem, Johnstone recognizes as a great opportunity. Will we?

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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: White Fragility

white fragility

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: Explains white fragility, its sources, expressions, the challenge it poses to conversations about race, and a different way to engage.

You’ve been there. A conversation about race begins and quickly, tension settles in the room. You don’t need a person of color to be present. The defensiveness is palpable and takes a variety of forms. For some the best defense is a good offense. In a conversation about the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, someone pushes back and shifts the topic–“what about blue lives, what about unborn lives, what about all lives?” Another person might take an approach that personally distances them, saying that they have lots of black friends, or that when it comes to race, they are color blind. Some just become emotional, and the conversation shifts to comforting the weeping or upset person and shames the source of the bad feelings.

All of these, according to Robin DiAngelo are expressions of “white fragility,” a phrase she coined in 2011. She describes this phenomenon as follows:

“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable–the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” (p. 2)

DiAngelo sees this first hand as an equity education trainer and consultant for corporations and educational institutions. Her most striking observation is that is it white progressives who cause the greatest daily harm, and it is primarily for this group of people that she writes. To understand why this is, she takes us to the roots of white fragility. She contends that we do not understand the powerful forces of socialization in our lives and consequently have a simplistic understanding of racism focused around conscious attitudes or intentionally offensive actions. Our problem is in what we don’t see, and one of the most compelling things about this book are the examples the author shares of her own unconscious biases and the ways these get expressed in her own behavior, as for example in a joke with one of her fellow trainers. We also do not understand the socially constructed character of racism in our national history. We speak of other racial groups but don’t grasp what “whiteness” means for us, thinking individually rather than collectively, even though we participate collectively in its benefits. We do not realize all the subtle ways whiteness shapes our lives, which DiAngelo chronicles.

Since the Civil Rights movement, among more progressive individuals racism takes subtler forms. We avow “color-blindness,” we maintain a positive self-image by using coded language like “good neigborhoods” rationalizations for white dominance, and maintain we have lots of people of color as our friends, or if we don’t that our neighborhoods are diverse. She calls this “aversive racism,” a form of denial that says, “this is not my problem.”  Much of this stems from a “good/bad” binary. You either are or are not a racist according to this binary in which racist is bad. This doesn’t come to terms with the formative character of being socialized as a white person, and how deeply racist bias and behaviors are embedded in our lives and society, regardless of our conscious attitudes or deeds done. The binary means that “progressive” folk are committed to protecting a racial “righteousness” and this often triggers white fragility when issues of race are raised, particularly of a personally critical nature. The author proposes we do far better to see ourselves on a racism continuum, where, with the help of others, including people of color, we are seeking to move toward growth.

She goes on to talk about things that trigger white fragility and the feelings, behaviors, claims, assumptions, and most important, function of white fragile behavior, which is to protect our image and dominance as whites. Her concluding chapters talk about the “rules of engagement” typical to racial discussions, that white feelings and sense of safety need to be protected, particularly by people of color. The author suggests a very different approach when being given feedback about behavior that has a racist impact:

  1. How where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant–it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
  2. Thank you. (p. 125)

Her final chapter on “Where Do We Go From Here?” has a number of additional suggestions as well as a story of how DiAngelo responded with “racial stamina” rather than “white fragility” in a situation where she had racially transgressed.

From a Christian perspective, I’m reminded of an old saw that says, “there is more to being righteous than being right.” Sometimes our compulsion to “be right” reveals the depth of sin in our lives that right beliefs, right words, and right actions do not address–our “rightness fragility” as it were. If racism is sin, it should not surprise us that it is deeply embedded in our lives and society, and that right attitudes, words, and actions are no surety that racism is not embedded in us, perhaps in ways we are blind to until others bring them to our attention. Eradicating sin in my life is not simply a matter of ceasing to do certain things. It is a progressive, transformational process where I am indeed on a continuum of being conformed to Christ’s image, always an incomplete process in our lives. I am, in AA language, a recovering sinner.

This book helped me realize both that I am a [recovering] racist, and that the “go to” responses of white fragility hinder my recovery and cut me off from those who might help. Instead, I need to listen, and learn to say, “tell me more,”  “I’m sorry, I was wrong” and “thank you.” This is an important book for individuals and organizations committed to racial equity, but wondering why they are not making progress. It suggests that for whites, even “progressive whites,” we may need to take a look in the mirror. In matters of race, as in many other things, we are often our own worst enemies.

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

Review: The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we say God is good, contending that God is essentially good, that this is why the Psalms focus so much on the goodness of God, and how Thomas Aquinas may prove quite helpful in our reading of Psalms and understanding of God.

You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

-Psalm 119:68, ESV

This verse serves as the kernal or core of the argument of this book. The author’s contention is that God is goodness, and that this attribute, among all the others, is pre-eminent in the Psalms. Futhermore, because God is essentially good, his acts are simply an extension of his being, particularly all that God has done in creation. Because God is good, we exist. Furthermore, while there are some qualities that are particular to persons of the Trinity, goodness is common to the persons of the Triune God as one undivided essence. Consequently, particularly as creatures fallen away from God’s original goodness and restored through Christ, we cry out “teach me your statutes” that we might understand how to live into the goodness of God.

Holmes begins this argument with a discussion of the simplicity of God–that God is his attributes. These qualities do not exist apart from God but because God is these qualities. However Holmes argues for a particular understanding that goes back to Thomas Aquinas, rather than Karl Barth, whose theology serves as a reference point for much contemporary theology. His approach that is compatibilist rather than dialectic, where God is known by what God does. Holmes would argue for a much more seamless connection between who God is, what God does, and who we are and are becoming (if I understand this distinction correctly).

In subsequent chapters, Holmes explores how saying “you are good” is to describe a “pure act of being that is God.” He argues for the unity of God’s essence as good as prior to the Trinity. For God to “do good” is a reflection of the God’s being as pure act. God’s goodness is generative and results in a good creation.

The chapter on evil is striking as Holmes make the argument that evil is not a “something” but a “nothing,” a corruption of good. We recognize our need for help, leading to our cry to “teach me your statutes,” that mirror the goodness of their source. He explores how the incarnation of the Son uniquely communicates the goodness of God to us. He then concludes with an exploration of how the goodness of God leads to our perfection.

It is frustrating to try to summarize such a rich work in a few paragraphs. This is a work to be read slowly and savored. Sometimes a single sentence would stop me dead in my tracks, moving me to reflection and then to praise. One example was this: “God loves us by willing good to us, so much so that he conserves and perfects us in the good he is.” Another, from his chapter on creation: “Creation is radically contingent and has no other reason for being than God’s great goodness.” The effect was not simply intellectual illumination, but a response of turning to praise for yet another facet of God’s infinite goodness.

The challenge of this work, is that there is so many sentences of this character, really one after the other, in this work. It is rare that I have encountered writing of such precision, depth and elegance. It brings to mind the summer I spent reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for its combination of intellectual rigor and devotional warmth. Like Calvin, Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God. Unlike so many books that are “chop steak” theology, this is filet mignon, to be eaten in small slices savoring each bite, each chew, for the rich and juicy fare that it is.

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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: Every Job a Parable

every job a parable

Every Job a Parable John Van Sloten. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017.

Summary: A theology of work proposing that our different jobs are “parables” that reveal various aspects of the character and ways of God, and therefore that all work matters and that God speaks to the world through our callings.

John Van Sloten has approached the theology of work in a way I’ve not seen before. He notes how so many of the parables of Jesus focus on the various kinds of work his hearers would readily have recognized and observes:

“When Jesus wrapped a parable around a particular vocation, he was affirming the creational goodness of that job.

I think Jesus is still doing the same today–through the parable that is your job.”

For him, this sheds new light both on how we image God in all of our endeavors, how God is revealed in our work, and how we might more effectively image God in our work. He traces the significance of our work from creation where God speaks through our work and our world; the fall and the ways we are hindered from experiencing God in our work; redemption and the transforming power of naming God’s saving presence in the world, and the New Earth that reminds us that our work is a foretaste of our eternal destiny.

He did something else I’ve not seen before. He interviewed and studied scores of workers from different occupations: astronauts and Walmart greeters, forensic psychologists and restaurant servers, emergency response personnel and asphalt contractors and explored how God meets them in their work and reveals himself through it. One of the powerful experiences for both Van Sloten and the various workers was to see their work in new light as they revealed that it all matters to God.

Perhaps one of the chapters that most resonated with me was his discussion of our lives as part of God’s great story, that he speaks through us–where we have the sense that we are participating in something greater than ourselves, where Someone greater than ourselves is speaking or singing or composing or caring or building or crafting through us. He calls this entering into the spokenness of our work.

Through short chapters that weave stories of workers with theological reflection, Van Sloten offers one of the richest and most accessible treatments of the theology of work I’ve read. He invites individuals and groups to join him in this reflection on the significance of our work with reflection questions titled Lectio Vocatio at the end of each chapter. Van Sloten has also created a series of YouTube videos around different vocations. One example is a sermon on restaurant servers. He includes a list of links to all the videos in an index.

There are many people who sit in our churches who wonder what connection their work has with the things we speak of Sunday by Sunday. They spend the major portion of their waking hours at work in many cases. John Van Sloten offers the tremendous news that God not only speaks on Sundays but through us in our work, which matters greatly. God “calls” to the world through our callings. Rather than a necessary evil, our work images the good and beautiful and true God. The book may serve as a great resource for an adult education class, or a preaching series, giving people hope that it is not simply through their involvement in the church, but also through their work in the world that they may know the pleasure of God upon their lives.

Review: The Warburgs

the warburgs

The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish FamilyRon Chernow. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Summary: The story of a prosperous and sprawling Jewish banking family who eventually established banking and philanthropic efforts in Germany, England, and the U.S., experiencing both great success and influence, and stunning disillusionment with the rise of Nazi Germany.

The Warburgs. It sounds like the title of a serialized TV drama chronicling a wealthy, influential, family with its own inner struggles, eccentric and driven characters, triumphs, tragedies and affairs. This wouldn’t be far off of the truth about this Jewish banking family whose rise began with the founding of M.M. Warburg & Co. in 1798.

I picked this up because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Grant (review). This is a much earlier work, and in many ways far more complicated, in telling the story of several generations of a family from the turn of the nineteenth century into the 1990’s. It was a family with two major and rival branches, the Alsterufer and Mittelweg Warburgs, and a family that became established on both sides of the Atlantic.

For much of the story, the Mittelweg side of the family was in the ascendent. The five sons of Moritz Warburg, exercised great influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Max Warburg stands out in the development of M.M. Warburg as a power house private bank in Hamburg before the rise of Nazi Germany. His elder brother Aby relinquished his place in banking for intellectual pursuits, amassing a unique library that reflected his synthesis of knowledge, bankrolled by his prosperous brothers, who stay by him during periods where his genius descended into insanity. Brothers Paul and Felix emigrated to the U.S. Paul was an economic genius who outlined the framework for our Federal Reserve System while Felix married into the Schiff banking family and became an influential partner in Kuhn, Loeb, in New York City and engaged in extensive Jewish philanthropy. Fritz fled Germany for Sweden.  Max remained and struggled to maintain his banking house’s clients in an increasingly hostile atmosphere and held out the hope that some accommodation could be reached with the Nazis. In the end, he turned the bank over to the Aryan Brinckmann, supposedly a caretaker for the Warburg interest, but who fought to retain control after the war.

The later part of the book chronicles the post-war trajectory of Warburg interests and the rise of the Alsterufer branch in the person of Siegmund Warburg, who established S.G. Warburg in England in 1946 and built it into a major investment banking firm before his death. Chernow’s portrayal of this financial genius was fascinating. We observe a leader who exercised perfectionist control over the firm while delivering excellence of customer service to both small and large investor, a man of both towering rages and refinement, one as much inclined to the philosopher’s retreat as to the hurley-burley of the financial world. The tense alliance/rivalry between him and Eric, Max’s son, over the re-establishment of the Warburg name in Germany accentuates the continued competition between the two branches of the family.

One of the themes is the tension the Warburgs struggled with over their German and Jewish identities, a tension many Jews in Germany faced. They, with other Germans, took great pride in the rise of Germany as a power, and saw their own efforts as part of this. Max even served as a pre-war director on the board of I.G. Farben, the chemical concern that manufactured Zyklon B, used to exterminate Jews in the concentration camps. We follow the gradual opening of the eyes of Max and other family members to the unfolding tragedy of Nazism and how a nation would willingly participate in the elimination of some of its greatest fellow citizens. Max both tried to encourage Jews to wait it out, and yet also helped bankroll and facilitate the flight of many others and was one of the last to leave while Jews could.

Another theme is the dissipation of Jewish identity through wealth and marriage outside the faith. Each generation was increasingly less observant, and the main thing that marked them out was philanthropic efforts. Some became secular, others married Christians, allowing children to be baptized and raised in Christian faith.

What is striking at the same time is a family marked by financial and intellectual genius, whether it was Moritz, the first of the Mittelwegs or Max, or his son Eric, who eventually succeeded in restoring the M.M. Warburg & Co. name in Hamburg. Jimmy, Paul’s son advised Franklin Roosevelt for a time, and flip flops between progressive and conservative stances, alienating him from most of those in power until he came back in favor during the Kennedy administration. One could go on and discuss the varied careers of the Warburg women, including Max’s four daughters.

One of the challenges was keeping all the names and family relationships straight! Chernow provides a family tree in the front matter and it’s good to keep it marked. What is striking is that he spins a fascinating narrative of this sprawling family, its hopes, its genius, its outliers, it’s impact and the cost of wealth over the generations. Even today, the Warburg name remains on Warburg, Pincus and M.M. Warburg & Co.  S.G. Warburg was bought out by Swiss Bank, became Warburg Dillon Read and later UBS Warburg before the Warburg name gave way to UBS Investment Bank. Chernow helps us understand the drive and the significant actors behind this enduring legacy of influence in the worlds of banking, philanthropy, and culture.