Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to PemberleyP. D. James. New York: Vintage Books, 2013

Summary: P.D. James writes a murder mystery as a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen knock-offs are a cottage industry. Even a former neighbor of ours, Regina Jeffers, has written a whole series of Jane Austen books. Among those to try her hand at this genre is accomplished mystery writer, P.D. James. Over the years, I’ve delighted in her Adam Dalgleish mysteries, and though I’m not among the Austen fans, I thought I’d pick this up.

The story takes up six years into the marriage of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth’s sister Lydia has married George Wickham, childhood friend of Darcy, but is banned from Pemberley after attempting to seduce Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. There has always been something a bit disreputable about Wickham, but he distinguished himself in the Irish rebellion, and since leaving the military has bounced around in different jobs, leaning on family and others for support. It is the day before the annual Lady Anne Ball, the big social event at the Darcy estate. Fitzwilliam Darcy is on hand, hoping to win Georgiana’s hand, even while a newcomer, Mr. Alveston, a lawyer from London, takes the inside track. The whole household is busy at their work, including the elderly servant Bidwell, who refuses to go home to his family living in the forest on the estate, even though his son is declining toward death.

Wickham, Lydia, and Captain Denny, friend of Wickham show up at the Pemberley estate, cutting through the forest. The plan was to leave Lydia at the Darcy house while they went on to an errand. Words arise between Wickham and Captain Denny, who leaves the carriage, plunging into the forest, to be followed shortly by Wickham. Lydia and her driver wait, then hear shots fired. They go to Pemberley for help. A search party finds a drunken and distraught Wickham, covered in blood over the dead body of Captain Denny. His first words were, “He’s dead! Oh God, Denny’s dead! He was my friend, my only friend, and I’ve killed him! I’ve killed him! It’s my fault.”

With this seeming confession, he is taken into custody, awaiting trial for the murder. But Darcy is torn between his dislike for Wickham, and a sense that the words, taken for a confession, might mean something else–that it was Wickham’s quarrel that drove Denny into the hands of his killer, and thus his fault. This is what Wickham, when he comes to his senses maintains. But who this murderer could be and how it was done remains unclear as Wickham goes to trial, defended by the able Jeremiah Mickledore.

It is my impression that James captures the manners and maneuverings that characterize the country houses in Austen, and the affection between Darcy and Elizabeth, such that those who love this genre will be at home. Yet I suspect this is neither the best Austen nor the best James. We barely know Captain Denny before he is killed. I did not feel strongly drawn to any of the characters and only rooted for Wickham because Darcy didn’t want him to be convicted. There is little in the way of a murder investigation and the plot relies on an eleventh hour confession.

As far as I can tell, this was the last work completed by James in her lifetime, when she was in her nineties (she died in 2014). It does not rival her Children of Men or the best of her Dalgleish stories. It is a pleasant diversion and was considered worth of a PBS Masterpiece adaptation in 2014. And it allowed James the satisfaction of having written a Jane Austen novel.

Review: On Reading Well

On Reading Well

On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Summary: Makes a case that the reading of great literature may help us live well through cultivating the desire in us to live virtuously and to understand why we are doing so.

Karen Swallow Prior wants us to heed John Milton’s advice to “read promiscuously” great works of literature because they may help the reader distinguish between vice and virtue, and hopefully choose the latter. In doing so, Prior advances an argument contrary to most of contemporary literary criticism that argues against the purpose of teaching literature to form moral character, perhaps most famously argued in Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time (review). Prior argues that great books do set before us not only examples of vice and virtue but help us see the telos or purpose or end of living a virtuous life.

Along the way, as she introduces her theme, she proposes some helpful advice for how we might read well, summarized here:

“Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it.”

Prior then leads us into the practice of reading literature with an eye to what great works might help us understand about specific virtues. Most of this work focuses on twelve virtues in three groups, with a discussion of that virtue being focused on a particular work. While other virtues may be found in each of these works, her discussion is focused around one virtue in each work. Here is how the work is organized:

Part One: The Cardinal Virtues
1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
4. Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Part Two: The Theological Virtues
5. Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
6. Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Part Three: The Heavenly Virtues
8. Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
9. Diligence: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
10. Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
11. Kindness: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders
12. Humility: “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor

One of the effects of reading Prior’s discussion is to introduce us to the vocabulary of virtue, one that may seem archaic for many, and yet is central to the well-lived life. Tom Jones’s observations of the imprudence of many helps us understand that prudence is “right reason direct to the excellent human life.” From The Great Gatsby, we discover that temperance is not abstinence but that “One attains the virtue of temperance when one’s appetites have been shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion.” While chastity may often be regarded, in the words of C.S. Lewis, as “the most unpopular of Christian virtues,” we discover through Ethan Frome that “chastity is not withholding but giving” of our bodies in the right context, keeping faith that we say with our bodies what we’ve vowed with our lips and that individual chastity is nourished in a community that healthily values the living of chaste lives.

Prior’s discussion is nuanced, distinguishing between false versions of virtues as well as how each virtue is a mean between an excess and a deficiency. For example, from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, we learn not only that patience is born out of enduring suffering but also that patience is virtuous “only if the cause for which that person suffers is good.” It may not be a virtue to be patient with injustice!

One of the effects of reading this work was to make me want to read or re-read the works she explores in her book. Some, like The Great Gatsby or Ethan Frome, I read in high school. Her chapter on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and her discussion of hope amid the dystopian setting of the book intrigued me enough to pick up a copy of the book.

I do find it curious that all but one of the writers she chose were westerners of Caucasian descent. The exception is Shusaku Endo and his fine work, Silence (review), in which she explores the virtue of faith. Perhaps her selection reflects her own academic area as a professor of English whose research has focused in the area of Eighteenth century English literature and the work of the Eighteenth century women’s writer, Hannah More. It might be valuable in future editions of this work (for which I hope!) to offer a reading list, perhaps organized around the virtues, of other great works, including those of non-Western authors and Western authors of color.

The book includes a discussion guide at the end, making this a great resource for reading groups, as well as for personal study. The work features delightful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by artist Ned Bustard (who also drew the cover illustration).

Karen Swallow Prior makes a convincing case in this work for what many of us have intuited–that great literature can change our lives as we reflect on examples of virtue. And far from “spoiling” the great works she discusses, she opens them up in their possibility to instruct us such that we want to go out and read them for ourselves. But before you buy the works she discusses, I would suggest you pick up On Reading Well, because I believe it will enrich your reading of the other books.

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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: 12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful MenCollin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, editors. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Twelve thumbnail biographies focused on pastoral leaders who served faithfully through suffering.

Pastoral ministry is not for sissies, contrary to some popular stereotypes. The hours can be long, you often encounter people at their worst (and sometimes at their best), your call is to be faithful to God’s word, and a shepherd of God’s people. Sooner or later, conflict and criticism homes in on you. Pastors not only help the suffering. If they are at all faithful to their work, they are the suffering.

This is a book to give courage to pastors. It consists of twelve thumbnail biographies of faithful men (I would hope a companion volume on faithful women is forthcoming–there are a host of examples). Some are quite familiar: Paul, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon. Some you may have heard of: Andrew Fuller, Charles Simeon, J.C.Ryle. And some like John Chavis, an early Black preacher; Janani Luwum, the Ugandan archbishop martyred under Idi Amin; and Wang Ming-Dao, a Chinese pastor who led the house church movement under Mao.

What they all have in common is that faithfulness in ministry led to some form of suffering. A number went to prison, including Paul, John Bunyan, Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao. Others faced controversy with their people, including Calvin and Edwards and Simeon. Spurgeon struggled with the black dog of depression throughout his ministry. Chavis, highly educated and even a tutor of white children was barred from preaching, though licensed, simply because he was black.

Each of the biographers in this volume explore the ways these men were formed through suffering. For Paul, suffering portrayed what he proclaimed, focused him on eternal things, authenticated the integrity of his ministry and destroyed self-glory. Calvin came to understand through the suffering of exile the call to exile we all share. Prison plunged Bunyan into the scriptures such that Spurgeon comment that if you cut Bunyan, he would bleed “bibline.” Fuller learned through the heartbreaks of the death of his wife and son, and another wayward son, to give comfort to all who struggled with similar circumstances. Simeon pressed on despite great opposition in prayerful, humble expository ministry from which might be traced the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the United Kingdom, InterVarsity/USA and the ministry of John Stott, Kent Hughes and others.

I appreciate the inclusion of examples of African American, Chinese and African examples and would hope that the western Church might hear more examples of Christian faithfulness around the world. In a culture where it seems that the most common prayer is that things would go “smoothly,” the honest portrayal of the various forms of suffering that is the lot of faithful pastors is both a bracing word, and a welcome balm. I suspect many pastors wonder if they are alone, and if they have done something wrong if they are not “prospering.”

The biographies are short, rather than exhaustive, averaging about fifteen pages, making this ideal for devotional reading. While more lengthy and definitive works have been written about many, the focus on the theme of endurance through suffering and God’s provident work makes these pithy biographies welcome support amid the press of pastoral duties. Buy two of these, one for your pastor, and one to understand and pray for her or him (and other faithful pastors around the world).

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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: Steel Valley Klan

Steel Valley Klan

Steel Valley Klan, William D. Jenkins. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990.

Summary: A study of Ku Klux Klan activity in the Mahoning Valley in the early 1920’s, its composition, and factors contributing to the rise and decline of its influence.

Beginning with the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, there was a rapid rise in Klan activity throughout the United States in the early 1920’s, organized around fraternalism, nativism, and law and order, themes appealing to a broader cross-section of white Americans of northern European descent. Klan endorsements of political candidates played a significant role in many local elections. Historical studies have looked at this movement on a national basis and also looked at local manifestations–their distinct character, and the influences between local and national organizations.

Wlliam D. Jenkins, a professor of history at Youngstown State University researched Klan activity in the Mahoning Valley, in the cities lining the Mahoning River from Warren to Niles through Youngstown and Struthers, Ohio. At one time, in 1923 Klan activity in the Youngstown area reached a peak represented in a rally of 50,000 at “Dead Man’s Curve, celebrating victories in which Klan endorsed candidates won the mayor’s race, most of the city council seats, and all four school board seats.

Jenkins traces the rise of the Klan in the Mahoning Valley. Conditions were ripe for the Klan with the influx of both immigrants and blacks into the Valley seeking jobs in the rapidly growing steel industry. This was the time of Prohibition and the “blue laws,” and enforcement of such laws in immigrant and black communities became an issue in the city. Enter “Colonel” Evan A. Watkins, who became pastor of First Baptist Church in Girard, welcoming the Klan into his church. Jenkins traces the rise of his influence as pastor, and as editor of the Citizen newspaper, and a sought-after speaker at “100 percent” American functions. He advocated for a strong law and order emphasis throughout the Valley, a kind of moral crusade that was a response to the eastern and southern European Catholic and Jewish populations and the black populations coming into the Valley. The growing Klan presence identified candidates for the 1923 election who would pursue these values, and taking advantage of a non-partisan election, a result of a home rule initiative, succeeded in electing most of their candidates by uniting behind them in a crowded field.

Jenkins highlights several key findings in his research. One was that, contrary to previous scholarly opinion, Klan membership was not confined to working classes but crossed class and occupational boundaries. Also, Klan support was strongest among churches with a pietistic emphasis, not only fundamentalist churches but also many in the mainline denominations. It was sobering to discover that among these was the church I grew up in (thirty-some years earlier). Watkins skill in playing up the moral crusade aspects of the Klan and downplaying racist elements seemed key in lining up such support across such a wide cross-section of churches, organizations, and individuals. A notable opponent was the city’s major newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator, whose opposition was pretty consistent throughout.

Jenkins also chronicles the decline of the Klan. A riot in Niles in 1924 between the Klan and the Knights of the Flaming Circle, an alliance of Irish and Italian opposition to the Klan served to intimidate the local Klan. Also, Watkins was shown up to be a ladies man and a fraud, was removed from his newspaper, and eventually fled the Valley. These events led all but the more extreme elements to disavow the Klan and from late 1924 on, their influence rapidly waned.

One always needs to exercise caution drawing parallels between historic events and the present. The rise of political movements that combine promises of moral advance with anti-immigrant and nativist appeals seems a perennial issue, and in other parts of the world as well as America. Is there a parallel between the support of the Klan’s efforts by a broad swath of the church establishment in the Valley for pietistic motivations, and the support of 81 percent of white evangelicals for a presidential campaign that was anti-immigrant, supported by nativist groups, and that promised court appointments and religious liberty protections?

I find it troubling that a former pastor from the 1920’s of the church in which I grew up was not troubled by “100 percent American” rhetoric and what this insinuated about Jews, Catholics, immigrant citizens and blacks in the Valley. Did law and order platforms and moral crusades for Prohibition and sabbath-keeping warrant turning a blind eye to the invidious elements that have always been a part of nativist groups?

Jenkins’ book raises those questions for me while casting light on a darker aspect of the local history of my home town. Sadly, I wonder if we will learn anything from these lessons of history.

Review: Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit.

Don’t you hate it when a set of choices are presented to you as mutually exclusive options, when all are good and possible together? For example, apple pie or ice cream, or more seriously, being pro-life or pro-creation care. Gordon Smith contends that this is often the case with the three emphases of his title. Often, churches are either evangelical, that is scripture or Word-centered, or sacramental, emphasizing baptism and the Lord’s table, or pentecostal, focusing on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in worship, witness, and growth in Christ-likeness. Smith asks, and then asserts, why shouldn’t the church be all three?

Smith begins his discussion with John 15:4, exploring what it means to abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, and how this is fulfilled in the grace of the Word written which witnesses to the Word Incarnate, in water, bread and cup that includes and nourishes us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit through whom Christ indwells us. He then traces the outworking of all this in Luke and Acts. He goes on to explore in the work of John Calvin and John Wesley, how the grace of God comes to us in all three of these ways. He then focuses a chapter on each of these “means of grace,” both elaborating how each has been expressed distinctively in the life of the church, and how they function in tandem with the other two.

  • The evangelical principle is rooted in the truth that God speaks in creation, in his Son, through the apostles and prophets, through their message inscripturated, and through those who proclaim the word in witness and instruction. Word and sacrament complement each other as those who hear and believe are incorporated into the church through baptism, and those who are taught of Christ are then nourished on Him at table. Likewise, the Spirit illumines our reading, our study, preaching and hearing of scripture, so that the Word becomes alive, convicts, and warms our hearts.
  • The sacramental principle reflect the material, enfleshed nature of creation, the Incarnate Son, and the visible body of the church. Visible symbols of water, wine, and bread are Christ-ordained gestures that speak of our inclusion in and ongoing fellowship (communion) with Christ. They visually demonstrate the message of the gospel but also have no significance apart from the words of institution. Likewise, these acts are not our acts but are “in the Spirit” and depend on the Spirit’s work to accomplish in us what they signify.
  • The pentecost principle reflects the immediacy of our experience of God through the Spirit, where the realities of scripture and sacrament are experienced. Smith talks about the two “sendings” of scripture and advocates that we need to experience both the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit through whom the fruits of Christ-likeness, as well as power for witness are fulfilled.

While I fully affirm Smith’s argument, I hope readers will not be put off by the three key words of the title. “Evangelical,” “sacramental,” and “pentecostal” all have negative connotations, that reflect abuses and failures of the church, but are not inherent in the principles these words represent. I think few would object to the idea that people are called to Christ and conformed to his image through the ministry of the Word, that they are included and nourished in Christ through baptism and the table, and that they are empowered for growth and mission through the Spirit. Smith puts it this way in his conclusion as he describes the new Christian:

“This new Christian would very much be a person of the Scriptures–knowing how to study, read, and pray the Scriptures and how to participate in a community that is formed by the preaching of the Word.

The new Christian would recognize the vital place of the Lord’s Supper, within Christian community, as an essential means by which the Christian meets God, walks with God, grows in faith, and lives in Christian community.

And, of course, the new Christian would know what it means to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

In other words, the Christian would be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal. And the evidence of such would be that they live with a deep and resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with the ascended Christ.”

Would we want any less, or other for new (or all) Christians? We do well, I think, to weigh the argument Gordon Smith makes, and consider where, in each of our churches, we may more fully lay hold of all Christ has for us. And it just may be that in so doing, we may more closely approximate the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” reality we profess in our creeds.

Review: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American DreamDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A biography of the 36th president exploring his ambitions, political skills, and vision, shaped by his family and upbringing, and marred by Vietnam, written from the unique perspective of a White House Fellowship and post-presidential interviews.

This month, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Timeswill hit the bookstores. The book explores lessons learned from her biographies of four presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. The book that began her study of presidential leadership was her biography of Lyndon Johnson, first published in 1976. In a Goodreads interview about her new book, she describes how her personal encounter with Lyndon Johnson led to her career as a writer and historian:

“I became a historian first, and then a writer. In graduate school, I was working on my thesis on Supreme Court history when I was selected to join the White House Fellows, one of America’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service. At the White House celebration of the newly chosen Fellows, President Johnson asked me to dance—not that peculiar, as there were only a few women in the program. He told me he wanted me to be assigned directly to him, but it was not to be that simple. 

For like many young people, I had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and had co-authored an article that called for the removal of LBJ, published in the New Republic several days after the White House dance. Despite this, LBJ said: “Bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can.” I worked with LBJ in the White House and later assisted him in the writing of his memoirs. I will forever be grateful to him because there’s no question that my experience working for him shaped my desire to become a presidential historian.”

That experience of working personally for and with Johnson, both in the White House, and later, on his ranch, gave her unique access into Johnson’s self-conception of his life, his House and Senate experience, and his exercise of presidential leadership. Goodwin renders a story of a young man torn between the high hopes and expectations of his mother, and the much easier and more personable style of his father. He hated formal speaking but was the consummate student of people who knew how to make deals and get things done. From his cultivation of a relationship with a university president, a congressional aide who rapidly makes others beholden followers, several terms in the House, a failed, and then successful Senate bid and his rapid rise to Senate Majority Leader, we see someone who studied those around him, learned how to accrue power to himself by bestowing benefits to his followers, receiving their support, if not love, in return.

Presidential ambitions required a different set of skills that Kennedy had and Johnson lacked. Failing his bid in 1960 for the presidency, he accepts the role of Vice President, thinking he could use the methods that worked so well throughout his life, only to find, as have so many, that the office of Vice President has great status, and no power, or potential for such, unless the President dies. Thrust into the presidency by Kennedy’s death, he uses his Senate leader skills to continue and realize Kennedy’s vision, articulated by Johnson as the Great Society. In his first year, and the year after his landslide election, he enacts landmark Civil Rights legislation (as a President from the South) and social legislation including Medicare. Foreign affairs, never a strong suit, struck in the form of Vietnam, a war he could neither win nor walk away from. Goodwin explores why and describes his efforts to sustain his social programs while escalating the war, and the disastrous consequences to his social agenda, and to the economy until the epiphany of the Tet offensive and the McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies made it plain that he could not win in 1968.

Goodwin spent extensive time with Johnson in his last years, and narrates his inability to write his memoirs, his conversations about his presidency, and Vietnam, and his deep frustration from trying to bestow so much of benefit on the country, only to be reviled by the demonstrators and so many others (Goodwin among them). A combination of meticulous research and up close and personal contact helps us understand the tremendous force of personality that made Johnson great, and the flaws that cast a shadow on what, otherwise, might have been a great presidency. I tend to approach psychological portraits with some skepticism, but her accounts of Johnson in his own words, his actions and her rendering of his character has an internal consistency that offers deep insight into a man for whom I had little respect growing up. Now I find myself longing for the political mastery and vision he exhibited at his best leading the enactment of the Civil Rights legislation which was perhaps his proudest legacy.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has gone on to give us memorable portraits of Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and even the Brooklyn Dodgers of her youth. This was her debut effort and reveals the promise of all that would come from her pen over the last forty years. Perhaps the publication of Leadership in Turbulent Times might encourage some to go back and read the work that led to her distinguished career as a presidential scholar.

 

Review: Invitation to Retreat

Invitation to Retreat

Invitation to RetreatRuth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018.

Summary: A guide to retreat as a spiritual practice exploring why retreat, preparing for retreat, helpful practices on retreat, and concluding our retreat and returning from (and to) retreat.

Jesus gives a startling invitation to his disciples in Mark 6:30-31. He said, “Come away to a deserted place…and rest a while.” Wouldn’t you love an invitation like that? Ruth Haley Barton proposes in this book that this is an invitation Jesus extends to each and every one of us. She encourages us to embrace retreat as a formational practice. She explains what she means as follows:

“Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention; it is, as Emilie Griffin puts it, “a generous commitment to our friendship with God.” The emphasis is on the words extended and generous. Truth is, we are not always generous with ourselves where God is concerned. Many of us have done well to incorporate regular times of solitude and silence into the rhythm of our ordinary lives, which means we’ve gotten pretty good at giving God twenty minutes here and half an hour there. And there’s no question we are better for it!

But many of us are longing for more—and we have a sense that there is more if we could create more space for quiet to give attention to God at the center of our beings. We sense that a kind of fullness and satisfaction is discovered more in the silence than in the words, more in solitude than in socializing, more in spaciousness than in busyness. “Times come,” Emilie Griffin goes on to say, “when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding, but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in.”

Barton goes on in this book to offer extensive practical help in various aspects of taking retreats, from preparing to retreat and facing our exhaustion (including encouraging us to sleep until we naturally awaken on retreat if possible). She addresses the rhythms of retreat and even offers a suggested daily schedule. She gives help on prayer during the retreat including fixed hour prayers. She addresses the challenge of letting go, unplugging and the deeper issue of relinquishing our false-self patterns. For those familiar with the Enneagram, she suggests particular false-self patterns we may relinquish for each Enneagram type. She discusses the chance retreat gives us for discernment, for paying attention to our life situation and how God may be leading. There is practical help for re-entering our lives.

Throughout, Barton relates personal experiences in retreat, discussions with spiritual directors, insights as she reflects on scriptures, her own practices, including taking time to exercise during retreats (something I’m inclined to forget!), and some of her personal compulsions and how retreat has been an important factor in God’s transformative work in her life. Each chapter concludes with a “Practicing Retreat” page with questions we may use in preparing for or engaging in our retreat. Three “interludes” break up the content with poetry for reflection and prayer. Appendices offer a form of fixed hour prayers and practical considerations such as choosing a retreat location, our intention, and even what to pack.

This is a slim book is full of wisdom and practical insights like the following:

“Many of us are wasting our life’s energy fighting for things that aren’t that important in the whole scheme of things. There are times when the quiet of retreat is the only way we will be able to discern well what battle we should be engaging and how.”

As I husband energies that wane with age, I can’t afford to waste them on unimportant battles. Mercifully, Jesus invites me to come away with Him.  Barton’s book reminded me of that pending invitation. It is one I will turn to as I prepare for retreat. And its convenient size makes it the perfect book to pack, to hold, to use in reflection, on retreat.

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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: Answering Why

answering why

Answering WhyMark C. Perna. Austin: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2018.

Summary: Argues that behind the skills gap between unfilled jobs and Why Generation job-seekers is an awareness gap about possible careers that fails to answer the “why” question.

Mark Perna thinks we are at a “branch creak” moment, where employers struggle to find people with requisite skills to fill critical positions while Generation Y and Z youth often have no clear idea of what they want to pursue as a career and end up racking huge college debts. One of the problems he observes across industries is the 1:2:7 ratio in which there is one job requiring a masters degree or higher to two requiring a bachelor’s degree and seven that require technical training and certification that may be completed in a year or two, often through internships, apprenticeships, or while working in entry level roles.

As the title suggests, the critical failure Perna sees is one of failing to answer “why” work, and why the requisite courses and other preparation is necessary. He argues that this generation needs to “see the Light at the End of the Tunnel” and if they do, and it connects to things they care about, they will work hard to pursue their goal.

What this translates into is career education that begins as early as middle school that helps students become aware of different careers, as well as alternatives to college, which Perna believes is often presented as the only path to career “success.” In Perna’s work with school systems and employers, he overcomes the awareness gap through the use of the Career Tree. It has three levels for each career field: entry-level careers, technical careers accessed via associate degrees, certification, or experience, and professional careers most often accessed via a bachelor’s or other specialized training. Students often research these trees, including the “roots” of academics, experiences, professional skills and passions that position them to reach their own “leaf”–the career they find attractive. In the process, they come to their own answers to the why question, and what it takes to pursue their passion.

Employers can do this as well, mapping the Career Tree in their business or industry which Perna believes creates Employment with Passion, a planning culture that offers young employees a better understanding of the opportunities for growth in an organization and how to pursue them.

I found myself getting pretty excited as I read this book. I have watched too many college students incur debt, and graduate students pursue rabbit holes, because they lacked clear ideas of what they cared about, what a job doing what they cared about looked like, and what the best way to pursue that job was. Too often, they were doing “the next thing” encouraged by parents and the colleges themselves. I’m also keenly aware of the scramble to find qualified workers in many skilled positions. It just makes sense that one of the most critical pieces of education is career education–youth just do not come by this instinctively, any more than they do calculus.

Whether or not schools and employers use Perna’s training and materials (which I thought quite clear), his challenges and insights ought to be front-burner material for everyone concerned–most of all students and parents. The branch is creaking.

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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: What is Man?

What is man

What is Man?Edgar Andrews. Nashville: Elm Hill, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the answers different worldviews come up with to the question of what it means to be human, making the case for a Christian view of humans descended from a historical Adam who was created in God’s image, through whom sin entered the human race in the fall, and for the redemption of all who believe through the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

The question of who we are, and our place on Earth and in the cosmos, is perhaps one of the most important questions that we face. The author of this work, Edgar Andrews, an emeritus professor of Materials Science, looks at three of the possible answers on offer today–that we are evolved from the family of Apes, that we (or our predecessors) arrived here from an alien world, or that we were created by God, descended from a historic Adam.

The book consists of three parts. The first considers our place in the cosmos, and perhaps did we come from somewhere else? He considers the origins of the cosmos, and whether it is possible for the cosmos to be self-generating and he describes the search for extra-terrestrial life and the absence of any substantive finding, albeit many worlds have been identified that may be candidates for such life. He lays out a form of the “fine-tuned universe” argument advanced by Sir Martin Rees, and the counter explanations of multiverse theories. All of this suggests at very least that our existence in the cosmos may be a fairly singular event begging explanation.

The second part of the book explores man and the biosphere, that is, evolutionary explanations for our origins. He raises a number of questions about our descent from the apes in terms of the distinctiveness as opposed to the commonality of our respective genomes and he contends that paleontology has very little conclusive to tell us about our forebears. Finally, in one of the more fascinating chapters of the book, he discusses the challenging question of how human consciousness is to be explained. Using the analogy of a house, he discusses materialist, epiphenomenalist, and dualist explanations and contends that humans were created with material bodies and a nonmaterial, self-aware mind.

In part three, Andrews considers the biblical account of what it means to be human. Beginning with a discussion of worldview, and how we know what is real, he contends that the Biblical account warrants belief as being consistent with our understanding of ourselves and the cosmos, has made accurate predictions of future events, passes tests of historical accuracy, and leads people into transformative experiences of God through faith in Christ. The remainder of the book then unpacks this Biblical world view of a sovereign and immanent creator God, human sin, accountability, and the person and work of Christ. He argues for a historic Adamic couple from whom we are all descended, against other explanations of our progenitors, and what it means for us to be in the image of God distinguished as creatures of soul and spirit, language and logic, creativity and competence, and law and love. The book then concludes with two chapters on Christ as the second Adam and the evidences for Christ’s resurrection, and the implications of this truth for our salvation and eternal destiny.

Andrews writes about fairly technical scientific material in clear, and sometimes witty, language, using readily understood analogies. I find it a bit puzzling that he at times uses scientific arguments (the Big Bang and Fine-Tuning) to advance his argument and then turns around and is utterly skeptical and questioning about anything to do with the evolution of human beings. I would have liked to see more engagement with scientists like Francis Collins, who not only see God’s design in the human genome, but also do not see evolution as antithetical to the creative work of God, or even a historic Adam.

Rather than attacking evolution, I think it would have been more helpful to attack the underlying worldview of evolutionism, a worldview that assumes there is nothing more or other than the material world, and that only what may be confirmed empirically is real or true (of course this statement itself cannot be confirmed by such means!). Such assumptions not only preclude the activity of God in creating but also in sustaining the world. There are many who study evolution who see the hand of God at work, as they do in other “natural” processes. Andrews seems to suggest they have to choose between their science and their faith.

Nevertheless, this book addresses an important question, and eloquently describes the human dignity we enjoy as creatures in the image of God, and the wonder of Christ’s redemptive work, and the joyful destiny of those who partake of his redemptive work and the power of the resurrection in salvation, Christ’s living rule over his people, and the certainty of his return. Christian teachers and apologists will find this helpful–particularly, I think the discussions about fine-tuning, and about human consciousness as well as his delineation of what it means to say we exist in “the image of God.”

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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: Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A biography of da Vinci, from his illegitimate birth, his life long quest for patrons, his insatiable curiosity, his various artworks, and the notebooks, in which are revealed so much of the genius of da Vinci.

This is a magnificent biography in every way. Isaacson delves deeply into the life, the notebooks, the travels, and the works of art of da Vinci and renders an account of the peculiar, dazzling, and flawed genius of Leonardo. This is a book you need to read in print. It is a heavy book because it is printed on high quality paper with ample, full-color Figures rendering the notebooks and artworks of Leonardo. A full-color timeline at the front of the book highlights the works of Leonardo, and the key events of and during his life.

A theme that runs through this book is the insatiable and child-like curiosity of Leonardo, who wonders why the sky is blue (and arrived at a basically accurate explanation of this phenomenon) and wanted to describe the tongue of the woodpecker. He was fascinated with optics, from how the eye works to how light was refracted, and why distant objects appear different in color and distinctness from those closer up. He was an innovator in applying these insights in his use of perspective of his paintings. He did pioneering studies of human anatomy that, if published, would have advanced the understanding of anatomy a hundred years earlier. His fascination with hydraulics resulted in an accurate explanation of the closure of the heart’s aortic valve. His notebooks contain speculations questioning a geocentric universe in advance of Copernicus.

Leonardo was an observer. He not only was curious about everything, but he closely studied the objects of his interest, whether it was the play of light on his subjects, the proportions of the human body, consummately illustrated in his Vitruvian Man, the movements of the wings of a dragonfly, the contractions of the leg muscles of a horse, or the way water flowed in a river. Isaacson notes: “Here’s a test. All of us have looked at birds in flight, but have you ever stopped to look closely enough to see whether a bird moves its wing upward at the same speed as it flaps it down? Leonardo did….”

Leonardo had the ability to draw upon everything he knew with anything he did. This was one of the things that made him such a fascinating subject for Isaacson, who writes, “I embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines-arts and sciences, humanities and technology-is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” His study of light and optics shows up in his use of sfumato in painting, where objects are not defined by hard lines, but gradual shadings of tones into one another. He sees analogs between root and branch systems in plants and the human circulatory system. His anatomical studies culminate in the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa and his anatomical drawings are themselves works of art.

Isaacson also traces the peculiar genius of Leonardo, who conceives of giant cross bows, flying machines, and engineering projects, all of which are never executed. He was a path-breaking scientist who never published the results of his studies. Thankfully, even after 500 years, we still have 7200 pages of his notebooks. A number of his paintings were never “finished” and even Mona Lisa was still in his studio when he died. He abandoned commissions that he never finished. He experimented with techniques of mural painting that were spectacular failures and have challenged preservation efforts ever since.

Isaacson candidly discusses Leonardo’s personal life without becoming lurid. He covers his illegitimacy, his ambivalent relationship with his father, and his homosexuality, including his relationship with his apprentice, Salai. He traces his lifelong quest for patrons, courting the various powerful families of Florence and Milan, and ending with King Francis I of France, who, legend has it, cradled the head of Leonardo in his death throes (a legend that has been questioned).

The author concludes with lessons from Leonardo’s life, some that run through this review. Even if you don’t buy this book, I would encourage you to peruse these. The front cover jacket copy refers to Leonardo as “history’s most creative genius.” Isaacson’s biography makes that case, and does so with exquisite writing, typography and graphic design. This one’s a keeper!