Review: War in a Time of Peace

halberstam

War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Review: A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman

a week

A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman (A Week in the Life series), Holly Beers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A creative rendering of what life was like for a woman from the lower free classes in Ephesus during the period when Paul was preaching in the city.

This book grabs your attention from the very first pages as the main fictional character, a woman from the poorer laboring classes of Ephesus, Anthia, assists her friend Dorema in the perilous experience of childbirth. Something goes badly wrong, and Dorema, her best friend cannot deliver her child despite potions and prayers and the ministrations of her midwife. Dorema exhales her final breath looking blankly past Anthia.

Like other books in this series, we go through a week, in this case with Anthia. She is also pregnant with her second child. She lives a demanding routine of caring for an aging father who soils himself, lives in a crowded one room dwelling with her family (imagine intimacy!), tries to please a husband who doesn’t hesitate to physically abuse her at any threat to his honor, hauls water, cooks what food there is on a coal brazier, and works in the market selling whatever fish her husband catches. The book describes emptying chamber pots and using public latrines open to both sexes. Amid all this she begins bleeding, her baby stops kicking and her pleas to the gods seem of little avail.

Then she hears of this person called Paul who is preaching. And healing. Healing comes close when a handkerchief from Paul heals the deadly fever of her neighbors son. Eventually she joins a gathering of the Way, as they call themselves, for a dinner and time of worship–a dinner where those of higher classes, lower classes, and slaves eat and worship together without distinctions–where slaves are even served by their betters. They even pray for her.

The portrayal helps us understand the confrontation between the worshipers of Artemis, the goddess of Ephesus, and the followers of Jesus, whom Paul proclaims. How will those like the silversmiths who fashion idols respond? How will Anthia’s husband respond? And how will this nascent community meet the challenges?

As with other books in the series, there are images and sidebars on cultural backgrounds for things like marriage, food, pregnancy and labor, Artemis, housing, sanitation, cosmetics, honor and shame and other topics that come up in the narrative. We come to understand what embodied life at its most elemental was like in a city like Ephesus.

We also grasp what it was like for the first Christians to engage this culture with its social strata, its relations between men and women, its ideas of honor and shame, and its gods. Holly Beers helps us understand how powerful, how radically different both the message and the new community of the Way appeared to the culture, and also how strangely attractive it was in the ways it broke down barriers between classes, and men and women. Read this book to enrich your reading of Acts, Ephesians and Paul’s letters to Timothy–or just to read a good story.

________________________________

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

Review: Gospel Allegiance

gospel allegiance

Gospel AllegianceMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that our traditional ideas of salvation by faith reflect an inadequate gospel that fails to call people to allegiance to King Jesus.

A couple years ago, Matthew Bates provoked a conversation about the nature of the gospel and faith with his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone (review). Bates’ contention is that our traditional statements about salvation by faith fails to capture a critically important element of the gospel, that the coming of Jesus was the coming of a king, whose purpose was to call people from the nations to a new allegiance to Christ as king.

This book expands on this argument, designed for a pastoral rather than theological audience. He engages other authors such as John MacArthur and John Piper who have written about these matters, noting both where they are in agreement and where their understanding of gospel, faith, and works may be deficient. He proposes that our typical rendering of gospel presentations like the “Roman road” are inadequate.

In addition to the pastoral focus, Bates proposes that this book focuses more on the gospel, defining it more precisely and thoroughly. He goes further in his discussion of faith, grace and works. He argues that this is not a different gospel but a re-framing of the gospel. Finally, this study primarily focuses on Paul.

A key to understanding Bates’ main idea is this phrase in Romans 16:26 which says, “…so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.” Bates sees pistis, the word for “faith” as more than simply a mental or emotional disposition but rather “faith-obedience” or allegiance, and also emphasizes the idea that Christ’s purpose was to call the nations (“Gentiles”) to obedient allegiance to him.

Bates shows in this book how this is not salvation by works and yet how works are saving in the idea of allegiance to the King embodied in a life of obedience. He show how these are distinct in the writing of Paul from works of the law. His discussion of grace is perhaps the most challenging part of the book, both in terms of understanding and in terms of the ideas he presents. He argues that grace may be both unmerited and require bodily reciprocation, and by this, argues against “free grace” movements as cheap and false grace.

In his final chapter, he connects allegiance back to the Great Commission and Jesus call to make disciples. He argues:

   Any gospel that makes discipleship optional or additional is a false gospel. Gospel allegiance helps us to understand why faith in Jesus, discipleship, and obedience to his commands to hand in hand. In traditional articulations that place saving faith in opposition to works and the law, it is hard to find a positive place for Jesus’s commands. Not so if saving faith is allegiance to the king.

One of the distinctions that I am not at ease with is the distinction he makes between our being saved and our final salvation. He proposes that forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, and glory, are benefits of our final salvation. He speaks of all of these in the present as potential benefits. I would contend that they are already realized in our lives by grace in part, while our full realization of these will be in glory.

The value of Bates’ work is in his idea of allegiance and how it integrates faith, grace, and obedience, often set in conflict with each other. Furthermore, allegiance reminds us of the ultimate claim Jesus has on our lives above any other allegiances, involving our implicit and embodied obedience. It speaks as a challenge to allegiances to present-day Caesar’s and their empires, and all other false gods. It challenges versions of cheap grace that allow people to rationalize persisting in unrepented sin or refusing to advance in one’s discipleship and embodied holiness, claiming they have “believed” and are saved by grace. What most impressed me in this book is that it was clear that Bates’ concerns for gospel allegiance arise from a passion for the glory of Christ and a desire to see people truly converted, and set upon lives of discipleship. He models the kind of concern that every minister of the gospel ought have to be sure we have not run in vain or labored in vain (Philippians 2:16).

________________________________

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

Review: The Conscience

conscienceen

The Conscience (Inner Land, Volume 2), Eberhard Arnold. Walden: NY: Plough Publishing, 2019 (first published in German in 1936).

Summary: A short treatise on the conscience, what it is, what it’s witness is, how it functions apart from God, and how it may be restored.

Conscience. It strikes me that growing up, and in my early Christian journey, I heard much of conscience. These days, not so much. So I was intrigued to receive this little book, only 76 pages, part of a longer series called “Inner Land,” by German philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bruderhof movement.

It is a profound study in part because of where it was written, Nazi Germany, and when it was published, in 1936, shortly after Arnold’s death in 1935. While the work is not openly critical of Hitler, Arnold notes the corrosive effects upon conscience of a society without God, where conscience is formed in a spiritual vacuum.

The book consists of two parts. The first focuses on the conscience and its witness, the focus of which is to serve as a watchman, warning us of all the things detrimental to the inner life of the spirit. It exposes our selfishness and calls us into community. Under God, it brings us great joy. Under sin, it torments and calls us to repentance. It calls us to integrity and justice. Apart from God the conscience is unreliable, finding its bearings only in our rebirth. Christ is the one who restores and purifies through his sacrifice and his Spirit. This opens the way for our consciences to reflect the image of God as we continue to gaze intently on Christ.

The second part considers the restored conscience and the outworking of this in one’s life. At the beginning of this section he sketches the contours of the restored conscience:

   The conscience craves for the very essence of truth. It demands an ultimate, indisputable goal. Strength of conscience, a growing certainty and clarity, is to be found only where peace rules as unity, only where justice rules as brotherliness, only where joy rules as pure and all-inclusive love.

He speaks trenchantly here about the redemption of our sexuality as one expression of good conscience–neither suppression nor unbridled lust but Christian marriages marked by union, self-giving, and the blessing of children. All areas of life come under the purified conscience–our possessions, our business dealings, our approach to conflict, our politics. Christians are people of the conscience set free.

He comes closest here to addressing the issue of Germany under Hitler, not by attacking Hitler but by discussing the choices of conscience one faces in such times. He writes:

Jesus Christ is the only leader [Führer] who leads to freedom. He does not bring a disguised bondage. He does nothing against the free will of the human spirit. He rouses the free will to do that (and only that) which every truth-loving conscience must urge it to do. “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is the free power for free action. 

Anyone who wants to hand over the responsibility for his own actions to a leader [Führer]–anyone who wants to be a human leader–has betrayed freedom. He has become the slave of a human being. His enslaved conscience will be brought to utter ruin if this mis-leader calls to a freedom that is no freedom. All leaders whose authority is merely human ruin people’s consciences.

The book raises the critical issue for me that something will form the conscience of each of us–either in purity, justice, and freedom, or in slavery, impurity, and unreliability. Arnold suggests that it is either Christ or culture that will form us, the former leading us into freedom, the latter ultimately mis-leading us. Arnold recognized how even religious people might be misled, when they seek in human leaders what may only be found in Christ. It raises the question of whether we might be doing the same in looking to a succession of political saviors of the left or right, that ultimately will mis-lead us. Might it not be that the formation of the consciences of a citizenry might prove to be far more important than electing the “right” person to the integrity of both the church, and the country?

________________________________

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

Review: Choosing Community

choosing community

Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L SayersChristine A. Colón. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A compilation of three lectures and responses on the theme of community running through the works of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers experienced real pain in her relationship with the community of the church. Yet, as Walter Hansen, in the introduction to this book notes, this was not reflected in the love of community reflected both in Sayers’ life and work. This work, drawn from the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectures at Wheaton College, examines the embrace of community reflected in Sayers work in the form of action, faith, and joy. One lecture addresses each of these followed by a brief response.

The first lecture looks at the idea of communities of action. Colón traces the development of her detective fiction, as she moves from solving a crime perpetrated by an individual and solved by a detective, a classic crime fiction trope, to a much more complex vision of community, deeply impacted by crime, and restored by the communal action of people of good will (Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, Bunter, and Inspector Parker, for example), each pursuing with diligence and collegiality their particular roles, serving the wider community.

Communities of faith are the focus of the second lecture. Colón turns to the plays of Sayers for this lecture, showing how these portray the disintegration of community, the formation of communities of faith in The Emperor Constantine and the necessity of atonement in her play The Just Vengeance. Even as Colón considers the plays, she also reflects on Sayers’ love of the players, of how the theater was a kind of community of faith for Sayers–particularly the quality of unflinching devotion to “the show must go on” no matter the personal circumstances of the players–a kind of devotion to one another and a greater purpose she longed for in the body of Christ.

Dorothy Sayers is portrayed by Colón as a joyful woman, delighting in her work, her comrades, sometimes in plain silliness, revealed in facsimiles of correspondence reproduced in the third chapter. She delighted in her associations with theater companies and the Detective Club, communities that combined serious work and celebration. She then turns back to the detective stories, Sayers development of Harriet Vane, and her finding of joy in return to her academic community in Gaudy Night, and in her marriage to Peter and return to the community of her youth in Busman’s Holiday.

Colón introduces us to a vision of community that is not sentimental but one that confronts evil, that gathers around serious work, that involves responsible action on the part of each person, that is formed around faith and devotion, and that is grounded in an undercurrent of deep joy. The responses are marked for brevity, grace, and brief expansions on each of the idea Colón introduces, reflecting the community of which Colón writes.

This is a valuable work for anyone who has enjoyed the writings of Dorothy L. Sayers. If you’ve only sampled the dramas, or the essays, or the detective stories, it takes you into the breadth of Sayers work (apart from her translations of The Divine Comedy and The Song of Roland). I came away wanting to read more of her dramatic works, having mostly read the detective stories and her theological works. It also probes our understanding of community, inviting us into both the responsibilities and possibilities open to communities of faith.

________________________________

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

Review: Upstream

upstream.jpg

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays on nature and literary figures and how we might both lose and understand ourselves as we interact with them.

One of my reading goals of 2020 is to read some of the work of Mary Oliver, who I only learned of upon her death in 2019. One of the facts that made her even more interesting to me was that she was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the southeast side of Cleveland. The fact that she was an Ohio-born author makes her of interest to me. The fact that I lived for nine years in Maple Heights makes her doubly interesting.

What I discovered in these essays was a writer not unlike Annie Dillard in her reflections on nature, but one who could do just as much in far fewer words. Perhaps that is the discipline of being a poet. Every word matters. She writes of trees, and wild flowers, connects them to her writing life, and to life itself. The first, and title essay ends with this striking aphorism that I will probably chew on the rest of 2020: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She writes as well about literary figures, particularly in moving terms about Walt Whitman who was a model to her as she began writing poetry. The others are Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth–romantics and transcendentalists–those who (Emerson and Wordsworth at least) connected goodness in nature and humanity, and access to the ultimate through our intuitions of the world. For Poe, it is the wild argument of everyone of us against the universe.

In “Staying Alive” we learn about her perspective that moved from nature and walks with a succession of dogs in the course of life to her interior world (and back again):

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

“Power and Time” explores the creative and intellectual work of a writer, and the loyalty to the work required of the writer. At other times, she arrests our attention with the things she has seen in her meanderings–the beauty of a bluefish, the wonders of a pond, or a ponderous turtle, from which she takes some but not all eggs, enough for a meal. One essay, “Swoon,” describes the life of a household spider, laying eggs, feeding on a trapped cricket, and the “billowing forth” of tiny spiders.

“Building the House” seems a metaphor for the passages of one’s life. Oliver describes building a small house by herself out of salvaged materials, writing a few poems there, and then being done with it. She remarks on her transition from the “busyness of the body” to “the tricks of the mind” perhaps tracing the journey we all take from the vitality of youth to the ponderings of later years that might be mistaken for wisdom.

Nature, the life of writing poetry and communing with the works of others, the physical business of living, all reflect Oliver’s own quest for the transcendent. In “Winter Hours” she concludes:

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

The arc of Mary Oliver’s life, which began in Maple Heights, Ohio, was mostly lived out with her partner of over 40 years, M (Molly Malone Cook) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, until her final years in Florida. The collection concludes with a description of the glory and decline of this fishing town into a tourist attraction and her gratitude for life in this place:

I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.

Review: Sacred Endurance

sacred endurance cover.jpg

Sacred EnduranceTrillia J. Newbell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of running a race, sets out the promises of God and the practices of the believer that enable us to finish the race of faith.

…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” Colossians 1:11, NIV

Years ago, my first ministry supervisor and I were studying through the book of Colossians together when we came to this verse in the middle of Paul’s intercessory prayer for the Colossians. He asked me why “great endurance” is so important as a believer. As a young believer, I’m not sure I fully grasped why this mattered. But the question stayed with me, as well as the promise of God’s strengthening glorious might. The years since have made sense of the necessity of endurance through the parenting years, through disappointments, serious illnesses, deaths of close family and friends, failures, conflict, and the gradual encroachments of age on one’s body. Equally, there are those seasons of the ordinary, the routine tasks that we get up and do over and over. Most of us have wondered at some point, “how can I keep going on?” “How can I finish well?”

Trillia Newbell has written a marvelously encouraging book exploring this crucial topic of endurance. A former runner, she describes running the anchor leg of a 4 X 400 relay, running swiftly until the last 100 meters, when exhaustion left her summoning every last ounce to finish ahead of those on her heels. Throughout the book, she uses the image of a race to speak of both the provision of God to enable us to finish our race of faith, and what it means for us to live into that promise.

The book is filled with biblical passages, grounding our hope for enduring in the promises and instructions of God. She reminds us of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, and the necessity to strip away any encumbering sins and to focus on Jesus. She explores our running motivations, particularly the “love of Christ” that compels. She confronts the lies of the gospel of success and prosperity and explores how the presence and power of God meets us in our suffering, troubles, and weakness. She addresses the importance of the mind to endurance and the call to be renewed in our minds.

I was particularly impressed with her chapter on enduring amid the troubles of society and the world. She acknowledges the particular challenges she faces as an African-American female confronting blatant racism, even white supremacism. She describes her own disciplines of stopping to remember God, taking heart in the truth that the Lord has overcome the world, that people are not the enemy, to persist in doing good, not giving way to cynicism, and knowing toward whom we are running when we can be distracted by other loyalties.

She explores abiding in Christ, and practical disciplines of abiding, particularly the word of God and prayer. She speaks of how God meets us in our brokenness and contrition, helps us press on when we fall and fail, the provision of running companions in the church, and the prize toward which we run. Even her appendix, on those who don’t endure, stresses how God is fully able to help us run to the finish.

There is nothing startlingly new here, but perhaps in our preoccupation with so many challenges in life, we need to hear these words afresh. Trillia Newbell is like the good track coach who keeps telling us the things we need as often as we need to hear them. She coaches out of her own journey with honesty, humility, and a contagious joy that arises from her own experience of the promises of God that help her run and endure with joy. She reminds us of all the resources God provides, the practices that help us keep running, the things we need to let go of, and the God who meets us at our weakest places and the Christ toward whom we run.

If you are asking yourself how you will get through the next year, or month, or even day, this is a great book to read. It is a good book for young parents balancing work, childcare and other responsibilities. It is good for those in the mid-life “sandwich,” wondering where they will find the strength to handle it all, and why it is worth it. It is a good book for those in their senior years, approaching the finish line, wanting to do it well. Endurance never goes out of season.

________________________________

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

Review: The Last Leonardo

the last leonardo

The Last LeonardoBen Lewis. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of the Salavator Mundi, purportedly the last painting of da Vinci, sold in 2017 for $450 million.

Is it a genuine Leonardo…or not? That is the question running through this book, which traces the history of a painting that sold for the highest price of any work of art to date, $450 million in 2017. It is a painting of a blue-robed Christ with right hand raised in blessing while the left hand holds a crystal orb. It is titled Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”).

In 2005 Robert Simon, a distinguished New York art dealer, acquired the work from a Louisiana gallery for $1175. Painted on a poorly selected panel of wood that was falling apart, and overpainted during its history, it nevertheless caught Simon’s attention. At first he thought it could have originated in da Vinci’s workshop. He spent tens of thousands of dollars having the painting meticulously restored by Dianne Modestini, for whom the work represented part of her recovery from the grief of a lost husband. Art scholar Martin Kemp was brought in to authenticate the painting as was art historian Margaret Dalivalle–Kemp a believer, and Dalivalle increasingly uncertain.

Ben Lewis traces all the elements that go into the authentication of a painting. There are comparisons with established paintings of Leonardo, of which there are less than 20 extant. Things like the rendering of the hair, the fine details of anatomy, the folds of the robe argued for the authenticity. Yet for one who studied optics, the one dimensional character of the orb and the lack of distortion is problematic. Whereas Kemp saw the “zing” of a genuine Leonardo, many other gallery curators, including Sotheby’s back in 2005, failed to recognize it as anything more than a derivative work.

Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Much of the book attempts to establish the provenance of the painting from Leonardo’s workshop to the present. We are left with gaps that, despite Simon’s description, leave the provenance of the painting up for question. There is also the question of the restoration, including how substantial Modestini’s restoration went. In truth, even if the painting was Leonardo’s, what was left was only a fraction of his work.

We also see the tireless and shrewd efforts of Simon, and his later partner Alex Parrish, to promote the painting including arranging a National Gallery exhibition of the painting in 2011 and the maneuverings that finally led to the painting’s sale to Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 for the highest price ever paid for a work of art, only for it to remain in storage in a Swiss vault, hidden away from the world, and the possibility of the painting either being accepted or disproven as an authentic Leonardo, the last Leonardo.

Ben Lewis takes us on a fascinating journey into the rare art world and all the difficulties of condition, style, and provenance of Old Masters. We also see one of the greatest gambles made by an art dealer, and the tremendous return it eventually yielded. Lewis also introduces us to the new reality of art as investment–objects to be stored until they appreciate and not to be displayed. At the end, we are still left wondering, did bin Salman spend the most ever spent on a genuine Leonardo, a product of his workshop, or another talented imitation. It may be that neither he nor we will ever know.

________________________________

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

 

 

Review: Love and Quasars

Love and Quasars

Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science, Paul Wallace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.

Summary: An astrophysicist recounts both his journey away from faith as he saw it in conflict with science, and his return to a faith enlarged by his pursuit of science.

There are many books that contend that science and faith might be reconciled. What makes this book stand apart is not merely the reasoned argument, but more deeply the wonder and love for both God and the cosmos that brings science and faith together for the author.

It wasn’t always so for Paul Wallace. Like many children, Paul started out with an implicit faith in God and saw God’s glory in the world (the subject of a family joke). Beginning in second grade, he began to see contradictions between what he read in the Bible and what he was learning about the world from science. The religious adults he discussed this with seemed uneasy, the scientists were in love with their work. As he went along, he gradually came to believe that opposing faith to science was kind of like “chessboxing” the mixing of two very different things that each address different aspects of our existence. Faith shouldn’t exclude scientific explanations of origins, and science shouldn’t pretend to answer the questions of what kind of people we ought to be and ultimate questions of meaning.

He argues for the cooperation of friends, indeed lovers, as the model for the relationship of faith and science, both approaching the universe with wonder and love without imposing what each sees on the other, but mutually appreciating and learning from each other, sometimes coming to a seamless union, as in marriage. He speaks about how science may enlarge faith, even while some choose to believe there is nothing more while others grow in faith. He proposes this rewrite to a materialist vision of the universe:

You have a heavenly father. You’re an amazing product of his ongoing creation project. We’ve discovered a lot about that project, which has been going on for billions of years. We are human beings, the descendants of apes, who were drawn from earlier, smaller primates. Our lineage also includes reptiles and amphibians and fish and worms and even single-celled organisms. Like a flower that grows from the dirt yet is not itself dirt, we have been gradually assembled out of chaotic and disorganized elements. You were formed from the dust of the ground, given the breath of life, and carry the image of a loving and creative Father who is crazy about you.

He proposes that this view of science and faith opens us to a larger and stranger God, one who made a vastly more immense universe than anyone before Copernicus imagined, and even stranger than the universe delineated by Newton. He thinks this leads to a larger understanding of the Bible revealing God’s loving relationship to the world he has made rather than strained interpretations that tend to harmonize a literal reading of Genesis with the findings of science. Science reveals a universe “red in tooth and claw” and faith reveals a Christ who enters into violence and suffering and transforms it. He suggests that our problem with miracles may be that we look at such events from a human point of view whereas from God’s perspective, there are no miracles but only possible things.

One of the most helpful chapters is one in which he re-examines the popular view of the church versus Galileo, suggesting that the real history is more complicated and that much of the purported warfare between science and Christianity has been cooked up and is an oversimplification of history. He describes his own journey back to faith as he recognized the limits of science to address life’s big questions of why we are here and our sense of wonder at the beauty we behold in the world. Most of all, faith, and not science revealed that we are creatures of love, a love that embraces people, God and the cosmos that scientists study.

What I appreciate is that Wallace does not try to argue a concordist explanation between the Bible and science. He doesn’t try to argue God from irreducible complexity or fine tuning. He traces his own recognition of the inadequacy of materialist science to answer the deepest longings and intuitions of his life. He recognizes the connection between the wonder and love of the believer and the scientific researcher. He does all this in a manner that is at times disarmingly offhand and at others is caught up in the wonder of the world he studies, inviting us, “do you see it too?” Just as the woman who eventually became his wife didn’t make him an evangelistic “project” but simply entered into a relationship of wonder and love that was instrumental in his return to faith, so he treats the reader. One feels we are not projects but fellow seekers, trying to make sense of our own wonder and love and a longing for making some sense of the world, even as we listen to his personal journey of discovery.

________________________________

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

Review: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

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

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

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

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

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________

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