Review: A Fatal Grace

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2006.

Summary: An unliked but aspiring author comes to Three Pines and is murdered in front of a crowd at a curling match yet no one sees how it happened.

CC de Poitiers has just published a book, Be Calm, a mishmash philosophy of enlightenment through the suppression of emotion, symbolized by the color white. She hopes to launch a whole line of fashions and accessories around this idea. Yet for one maintaining control of emotion, she manages to make herself hateful to everyone around her–her lover and photographer Saul, her husband Richard Lyon, her daughter, Crie, and the people of Three Pines, where the family has purchased the old Hadley home.

She manages to disrupt the holiday cheer of the village, first by brutally silencing her daughter’s beautiful singing in church on Christmas eve, and then by dying in front of everyone at a traditional curling match following a holiday breakfast. Only it wasn’t a natural death. It was murder by electrocution, when she stood up to straighten a lawn chair askew. Yet none of the witnesses saw anything, and an electrocution of this sort was difficult to achieve, requiring a number of improbable factors to coincide. Who did this, and how, and why? Several items become key pieces of evidence–an ornament of the three pines with the letter L inscribed, a discarded videotape with one section distorted from repeated pauses, and an old pendant of a screaming eagle.

Gamache is called in, his second case in Three Pines. He had been reading an unsolved case file of a homeless vagrant woman who had been strangled in Montreal. Seemingly unrelated, Gamache and his team will discover the two cases are connected. Gamache will also discover that an earlier effort, the Arnot affair, to deal with corruption in the Surete is not over, that there are maneuverings going on to bring him down. One sign of this was the assignment of Agent Yvette Nichol to his team unrequested after her disastrous performance the last time she was in Three Pines. One compensation is a young detective, Robert Lemieux, who seems a quick study and fits in well with the team.

Some of the finest writing comes in the conversations of Gamache with Emilie Longpre, one of the “Three Graces” painted by Clara Morrow, with evidence of a fourth, missing Grace. The three include her, “Mother” Bea Meyer and Kaye Thompson, friends through life. Emilie is not “L,” whose son died young and was remembered by her for a signature violin piece he’d learned. She had been moved by Crie’s singing, and when she heard CC’s attack on her, was troubled by her failure to come to the unusual girl’s defense.

It’s not all conversation. There are drives through blinding blizzards, the panic of being trapped in a burning house, and a dramatic rescue. There are flashbacks, as Gamache and Jean Guy visit the old Hadley house, which figured in the terrifying ending of the first novel.

Of course there is the wonderful cast of Three Pines, Gabri and Olivier, Peter and Clara Morrow, and the curmudgeonly poet, Ruth Zardo, whose “beer walks” each day are finally explained. For the uninitiated, there is also an introduction to curling, and the high drama of “clearing the house,” which came at the very moment CC was electrocuted.

This was the second of Penny’s Gamache novels, good enough to win an Agatha Award in 2007. One revels in reading a work with no one-dimensional characters but real people with histories, hopes and secret and not-so-secret wounds. What a joy to glimpse the comfortable, companionable relationship of Reine-Marie and Armand, so healthy and “adult.” And despite the fact that it is the site of so many murders, Penny’s description of Three Pines makes it one of the favorite places in fiction where people would love to live. I know I would.

Review: Enhancing Christian Life

Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community, Brad D. Strawn and Warren S. Brown. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: The authors propose that as persons we are embodied and embedded in particular contexts, but also that extended cognition expands our capacities as we engage our physical and social worlds, with implications for the importance of Christian community.

The authors begin this work by reminded us of the African-American women who served as human computers during NASA’s space projects. Their calculations extended the cognitive capacities of the flight engineers and scientists. The authors argue that our cognitive capacities are not merely a function of our own intellectual achievements but also the social and physical context in which we are embedded as embodied creatures.

An important part of this argument that the authors discuss early in the book has to do with our assumptions about the mind-body relationship. They contend that the philosophical and Christian assumption of mind-body dualism has been problem in directing the focus of spirituality inwardly, ignoring the embodied social context in which we live in the Christian community. Extended cognition recognizes that our embodied relationships with people and the physical environment extend our minds beyond our bodies and enhance our Christian life beyond an inward and private focus.

They explore various ways extended cognition works to nurture “super-sized intelligence” from our families to meetings to psychotherapy and finally the church. They observe that even the seemingly personal spiritual disciplines connect us to the life of the community, our shared faith and commitments. Our praying for others may be understood as believing for them, enhancing one another’s lives as we pray, learn, and act with each other. The stories and traditions of the Christian faith are “mental wikis,” that enhance our abilities to respond to various situations in our lives.

What is compelling about this proposal is that it shifts the locus of our lives from inward private experience to our shared life in the embodied Christian community. What is controversial about this proposal is the non-dualistic assumptions behind it. The authors exchange the term, “Christian life,” for “spiritual life.” What we call “mind,” “spirit,” or “soul” are simply perceptions of neuro-physical processes. Rather than defend this proposal, the authors critique the spirituality that has developed from dualism. Both defense of these ideas, and consideration of their theological implications need to be considered. While not central to this work, one question that arises is that of the intermediate state, our fate between our deaths and the resurrection. If, when we die, all of who we are ceases to exist, then in what sense are we “with the Lord”?

More pertinent to this project is the question of how we engage with God. The discussion of extended cognition mentions a number of other physical beings and objects. While prayer is mentioned, it is spoken of as primarily for others. How does extended cognition work with a being who is defined as “spirit”?

Also, while there is a privatistic spirituality that may be justly critiqued, this seemed to me to be a bit of a straw man. One may think of many examples of dualists who combine deeply inward lives with communal engagement. Henri Nouwen, for one, comes to mind.

Still, whether one accepts the premises of non-dualism or not, the idea of extended cognition, and how our communal life enhances all of us as Christians is worth considering. It is a valuable corrective to a “solitary man” spirituality (my favorite type in my worst moments). It “extends” our biblical understanding of how our lives are interdependent, how deeply we need each other to become all Christ intends us to be.

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

Review: Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?

Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?, Antipas L. Harris. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores and answers the title question, showing the misreading of scripture and the affirmation of diverse cultures in scripture.

“Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?” This question has been asked and the idea asserted by followers of the Nation of Islam, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, and the Five Percent Nation, among others. It is a question facing not only Blacks, but also other peoples of color. Antipas L. Harris, the president and dean of the Jakes Divinity School affirms not only the rich heritage of the Black Church but also demonstrates that this assertion seriously misreads the Bible and its affirmation of diverse cultures.

First, though, he shows the seriousness of the challenge. He notes the departure from the church of social justice-minded millenials as they have witnessed evangelical embrace of conservative politics and pushback against peaceful protests, often opposing the affirmation that Black lives matter. He observes the rising interest in alternative religious groups. He pinpoints the need for the church to address the issue of identity. Does Jesus care about people of color? What does the call to share in the holiness of Jesus mean for one’s identity?

He observes how our reading of scripture has been dominated by a white, Eurocentric interpretation when the Bible arises in a very different culture and context and needs to be interpreted based on that context. He contends that the white Jesus of Hollywood is not the darker skinned Jesus of the Near East. Within the New Testament, Christianity spread to Ethiopia and North Africa. The gospel writer Mark was from Cyrene, in northeast Libya. From Genesis to the New Testament, there was a good deal of ethnic mixing, including in the lineage of Jesus with Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth, the Moabite, and Bathsheba whose husband was a Hittite. He also gives the lie to the curse of Ham being upon Blacks and justifying slavery.

He invites us to read the gospels through dark lenses, to consider how the both the jubilee message of Jesus and his sufferings resonated with former slaves and those who faced the lynching tree. He concludes with inviting us to see the colorful Bible, and to take this message to the streets, to partner with parachurch organizations (PCO’s) to reach disaffected youth, and that Christian leaders must focus on the humility of Jesus and “redeem the faith from perceptions that it’s no more than a mechanism of power in the hands of good ol’ boys.”

Each chapter concludes with a brief “Living it Out” reflection. A strength of this book is that it distills the best of good scholarship to answer the charge that Christianity is the white man’s religion.” It is a good book to read with someone asking the question. Yet this is far from a sterile argument. Harris invites each of us, black or white, to read the Bible with new glasses, to see how God extends his love across diverse peoples and cultures and that the message of the Bible is good news for people of every color. And he invites us to allow that reading to change us.

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

Review: Rostnikov’s Vacation

Rostnikov’s Vacation (Porfiry Rostnikov #7), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2012.

Summary: Rostnikov, on vacation in Yalta, learns that the death of a fellow investigator on vacation was murder, and that top investigators throughout Moscow are being sent on vacation at the time of a major political rally.

Porfiry Rostnikov is on vacation in Yalta. Rather, he was sent on vacation. He accepts it because it is a chance for recuperation of his wife, Sarah, from brain surgery. He meets another investigator, Georgi Vasilievich, has pleasant conversations with him in the evenings, until Vasilievich turns up dead from an apparent heart attack, only it turns out to be murder. The signs show that his killers inflicted painful interrogation first, and searched his room.

Meanwhile, his assistant Emil Karpo is investigating the murder of an East German, until he is also ordered on vacation. He stretches his departure to finish his investigation while the others on the team pursue a band of computer thieves preying on Jewish computer specialists, resulting in Sasha Tkach discovering he is all too human, failing his partner Zelach, who winds up in the hospital. He ends up joining Karpo.

What is it Vasilievich had discovered? What connection did this have with all the top investigators around Moscow being sent on vacation? Who was doing this and why, in a Moscow caught in a power struggle between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin? And why does all this coincide with a major political rally?

You probably have a sense of where this is going. That’s what made this diverting rather than riveting. You want to see how Rostnikov and his team figure out what’s going on. There are predictable instances of things being not as they seem. Perhaps one of the reasons Kaminsky sends Rostnikov on vacation is it offers a chance to develop other characters on the team–Tkach, Karpo, and even Zelach.

This was not the most outstanding in the series. Kaminsky develops Rostnikov’s team, explores the labyrinthine maneuverings of the Kremlin with an engaging enough plot to hold your interest. Sometimes, that’s all a book needs to do.

Review: Caste

Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that American society throughout our history has been structured around a caste hierarchy, showing the character, costs, and hope for a different future.

“Caste” is a social reality in countries like India, right? True, but Isabel Wilkerson argues and shows in this new book that a caste system is embedded in American society. She defines caste as “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

She traces the development of caste from the subjugation of the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619, the institution of slavery and the legal structures that sustained it, the institution of Jim Crow, resistance to de-segregation and civil rights that, and the contemporary backlash against minorities and immigrants and voter suppression efforts. Bluntly put, all of these efforts, even in the face of growing populations of people of color, are designed, Wilkerson maintains to maintain the supremacy of whites, even lower class whites, within the caste system.

Perhaps one of the most chilling chapters in this work is where she documents how Nazi Germany studied the American subjugation of blacks under Jim Crow to develop their own models to subjugate and eliminate the Jewish population through “legal” means. She cites the common and public use of lynching to “keep blacks in their place.” She tells stories, including personal narratives, to illustrate her contentions. She compares the prevalence of chronic diseases among African Americans and Africans who have far lower incidences.

One story that I found gripping took place in my hometown of Youngstown. Al Bright, a black child who later founded Youngstown State’s Black Studies program and was a gifted artist, played on a championship winning Little League team, the only black on the team. When his team was treated to a picnic and pool outing, Bright was banned from the pool. Eventually when parents and coaches protested, Bright was allowed to float on a raft, not touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager after all the other white children vacated the pool. Scenes like this were not uncommon in the North in the 1950’s. It was thought Blacks would contaminate the pool.

In the central section of the book, she delineates “Eight Pillars of Caste,” showing how these manifest in the U.S.:

  1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
  2. Heritability
  3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
  4. Purity versus Pollution
  5. Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
  6. Dehumanization and Stigma
  7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
  8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority

She concludes the work by discussing the backlash to the Obama election, the election of Donald J. Trump, and how these reflect the continued need to maintain the caste structure. She traces the great costs of this structure and ends on a note of hope for a post-caste America.

I found the argument persuasive. What is striking is how excluded eastern and southern Europe ethnic groups could be included under the white umbrella, joining northern Europeans, but Blacks, who have been here far longer continue to face efforts to subordinate and subjugate them. I would like to embrace Wilkerson’s hope, and think we can never give up such hope and keep fighting for that hope. But watching America in 2020, I find myself troubled that we could descend into widespread civil disorder, even civil war, but across the fault lines of caste rather than geographic lines. I suspect many never thought civil war could happen in 1861. It did, and it can. I think the sun is setting on our opportunities to heal the long-standing divisions of caste. We can’t heal what we don’t acknowledge. Wilkerson offers us a clear diagnosis. We must decide whether we’ll act.

Review: The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit (Theology for the People of God), Gregg R. Allison & Andreas J. Kostenberger. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020.

Summary: First in a new series, a biblical and systematic theology of the Holy Spirit, evangelical and continuationist, but not pentecostal.

If the inaugural volume of this new series, “Theology for the People of God,” is any indication, this should be an outstanding set. Each volume pairs two theologians, one in biblical theology, and one in systematic theology to provide an integrated approach deeply rooted in the biblical text.

This approach forms the organization of this book in which the first half is devoted to biblical theology, carefully considering each relevant text on the Holy Spirit in each book and major portion of scripture, followed by synthesizing the teaching of all of scripture on various theological aspects of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is an approach that is thorough, covering the ground, while providing notes and references for those who wish to dig deeper.

A few highlights for each part. In the biblical theology section, each chapter, or sometimes, subsection, provides a chart with all the references to the Holy Spirit and a phrase summarizing the content. One old Testament highlight was the discussion of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah, anointing the Messiah, and empowering the servant of the Servant Songs to bring good news to the poor, and the Spirit’s role in the new exodus and the new creation.

The New Testament portion was lengthier, with treatment of the gospels, Acts, the Pauline works, the general epistles, and Revelation. Kostenberger summarizes the Spirit’s work in Acts with seven points that will preach!

  1. The Spirit is a person and clearly divine.
  2. The Spirit establishes the eschatological messianic community of the exalted Jesus.
  3. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission.
  4. The Spirit fills all believers.
  5. The Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy.
  6. The Spirit convicts people and holds them to moral standards.
  7. The Holy Spirit directs the affairs of the church.

The section on systematic theology left me at times worshiping God the Spirit and our wondrous Triune God. After an introduction laying out methodology and themes, Allison begins with the deity, the intratrinitarian relations and trinitarian processions. Careful discussion delineates both the inseparability of the works of Father, Son, and Spirit, and yet what may be said to be specific to each. Then, in successive chapters, the author discusses the Spirit in creation and providence, in relation to the inspiration and illumination of scripture, a fascinating chapter distinguishing the Spirit and angelic beings, the Spirit’s relation to human beings and sin, the Spirit’s work Christ, salvation, the church, and the future. The author addresses contemporary issues in pneumatology (the three ages, Spirit-emphasizing movements, and the Spirit and theology of religions). The concluding chapter is applicative, addressing our worship of the Spirit, our reliance on the Spirit’s illuminating work, our thanksgiving for the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work in our life, and keeping in step with and being guided by the Spirit.

The book is marked by a clarity of language and explanation and summary throughout, making this a great text for a course in theology or for the lay person wishing to understand more deeply the person and work of the Spirit. One possible criticism of the work is little engagement with theologians in the developing world. Inclusion of theological discussions and issues outside the white European and North American contexts will make this a more broadly useful text. The authors do engage pentecostal and charismatic theology, appreciative of the emphasis on the ministry of the Spirit, affirming, against some Reformed understanding, the continuation of the gifts and empowering work of the Spirit for mission. However they would associate the baptism of the Holy Spirit with conversion and not as a second and subsequent act. The response is gracious, and they denounce the vitriol that has often existed. The concluding pastoral applications are worth the price of the book.

In sum, this book sets a high bar for this series, marked as it is by an approach in which systematic theology is built on biblical theology. It models this work well for young pastors and theologians and offers the clarity of teaching that both preserves doctrinal integrity, and warmth of devotion.

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

Review: The Long Night

The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression, Jessica Kantrowitz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020.

Summary: Short readings and personal narratives reflecting the author’s experience with depression, both honest and hopeful.

I’m an odd person to review a book on depression. This just has not been my experience. I tend toward an even temper, and although I’ve experienced real setbacks and discouragement, I can’t honestly say I’ve experienced the “long night” of which the author writes. A book on obsessive compulsive disorder would probably be more in my neighborhood.

But I’ve known people who have lived through depression. In more than one instance, I didn’t see it at the time. In some instances, they didn’t initially either. In the general population roughly 6.7 percent of all people experience symptoms of depression at any given time (about 16.2 million in the US). Globally, the WHO estimates that 300 million experience depression (from this article on Healthline). Inside Higher Ed indicates that among graduate students, a population I have worked with, the numbers may be higher. One study found up to 39 percent scored in the moderate to severe range of depression.

All of this is what makes this book so valuable, whether you are experiencing depression, know someone who is, or, like me, was pretty clueless when it came to recognizing symptoms of depression. Jessica Kantrowitz gives us an honest account of her own experience through depression. She doesn’t offer promises of healing or “six steps out of depression.” She offers herself as a companion to those walking in the pain and darkness of depression. She doesn’t offer answers, but shares her own questions and how she has struggled with them.

She describes her own experience with episodes of depression, sometimes so bad she could not get out of bed. She describes the migraines that accompanied her depression, quitting a ministry job because she just couldn’t turn around her work performance quickly enough. She described the companions who helped her, the friends who simply listened, said “That sucks,” and stayed. She tells us about trying as hard as she could, and of those who stuck with her through barely incremental progress punctuated with setbacks. She describes other companions, writers like Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner, whose writings helped.

She narrates learning new prayer practices that involved the body and practices of centering prayer, that instead of suppressing emotions or distractions allowed her to notice them and learn to let them go, like clouds passing overhead. She tells us about leaving an unhelpful community and finding a new one, as well as a number of fellow travelers online. She names some of the ways depression lies and distorts reality. She talks frankly about suicide and what it takes to love someone in the pain of depression.

There is so much of value for those who haven’t been through depression. Kantrowitz helps us understand how much it hurts. She invites us to see how those in the midst of depression are “doing their best” to get out and the long process of dealing with medications, food, exercise, sleep (which often is a problem), and so much more, what she calls learning healthy coping mechanisms. From her own experience we learn that the way to help is to listen, to pray, to empathize, but no advice. Our best present is simply to be present.

At the same time, this is a book of hope. Not quick fixes, but the growing awareness that God accepts us in weakness, and that we are not alone in the dark night. There is the hope of becoming more truly and fully human and oneself in the process. She offers hope that it will not always be this way against depression’s lie that it always will. A quote on the book’s cover says, “You are not alone, and this will not last forever.”

The hope offered seems to be that one may live with and grow through depression. She suggests resources to help and offers in herself the hope of finding companions on the journey. Not sermons but stories. Not cures but companionship. Not happy thoughts but hope toward the dawning light.

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

Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, John Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.

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

Review: Into the Unbounded Night

Into the Unbounded Night, Mitchell James Kaplan. Raleigh, NC: Regal House Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Historical fiction set in the mid-first century AD in the Roman Empire, spanning conquests from Albion (Britannia), Carthage, and Jerusalem, and the center of power in Rome.

Imagine a narrative that connects the characters of Vespasian, Roman general and future emperor, Saul of Tarsus, and Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who escaped rebellious Jerusalem and established a center that preserved Judaism after the fall of the temple and Jerusalem. Throw in cameos by Stephen the Martyr, Lucanus (Luke the physician), Caiaphas the high priest, and Josephus. Imagine a narrative that knits together the conquest of Britannia, the fires of Rome, Paul in prison, and the rebellion leading to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

This is that narrative.

What ties this together is a young woman of Albion, Aislin, mentored by the warrioress Muirgheal. When the Romans under Vespasian come, Aislin alone survives, raped and then discarded by Vespasian. Aislin vows revenge. With a soldier who chooses anonymous exile to death, she flees Britannia (Rome’s name for Albion) ending up in Rome. While in Rome, she survives on the streets, bears a mentally deficient but lovable son, and ends up in prison with the Apostle Paul for burning Rome. As the flames spread, she and Paul escape, she agrees to carry a special coin to the Christians in Jerusalem as Paul’s emissary, and meets up with Yohanan ben Zakkai, also traveling there. There she remains as Yohanan forms a rabbinic community while failing to temper the brewing rebellion that brings down the wrath of Rome

Somehow, Aislin survives it all.

The narrative offers a glimpse of how Roman, Jewish, and early Christian history interweave. And somehow, it works as the narrative moves back and forth between Aislin, Yohanan, Vespasian, and Paulus (as he is called in the narrative). The strangest part perhaps is the “Messenger” Azazel, rescuer of scapegoats and lost children. We gain a sense of the rival religions of the empire and the rival hopes and visions of the diverse peoples. We glimpse all these through Aislin as well, who never quite embraces anything besides the remnants of her own spirituality, yet is enriched and moves beyond revenge to love a strange child and a mystical rabbi. We also see the brutal exercise of Roman power in colonial conquest and political decadence. The account is bracketed by encounters between Aislin and Vespasian, who discovers that he can only conquer land, but not the human spirit.

I wasn’t sure this would all work, but strong and complex characters (even Vespasian), a first century world the author brings vividly alive and a plot that spans an empire all come together to spin a fascinating tale. Sometimes we find ourselves puzzling at cultures so different from our own. At others we forget that two millenia separate us from these all-too-human people.

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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: How to Read Daniel

How to Read Daniel (How to Read series), Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A helpful introduction to the Old Testament book of Daniel, dealing with its original setting and context, the theme of the book, basic commentary on each story and vision, and contemporary applications.

Most of us who have read the Old Testament book of Daniel the prophet find we can make pretty good sense out of the first six chapters, which are narratives. It is the last six which are more problematic, consisting of visions with all sorts of strange beasts, divine figures coming on the clouds, and future kings.

Tremper Longman III does for Daniel what he has done in other books in his How to Read series. Without getting engaged in highly technical commentary with extensive introduction, he introduces the reader to the original setting of Daniel, and then offers a concise commentary of the book, offering the thoughtful lay reader enough to study Daniel for oneself, or with a group.

He introduces the context of Babylonian oppression of Israel including Daniel and his companions and the structure of the book, noting the chiasm of chapters 2-7, the six stories and four visions of which the book consists, and the shifts between Hebrew and Aramaic in the book. He reviews the story of Israel, exile and the succession from Babylonian to Persian, and eventually Greek empires significant to understanding the book. The author takes a more traditional position of Daniel as a sixth century BCE rather than second century BCE work, and for the real possibility of predictive prophecy.

He then works through the book chapter by chapter. He does alter the order slightly, looking first at stories of court contest in Daniel 1 and 2, and 4 and 5, and then stories of court conflict in Daniel 3 and 6. Then he moves on to the four visions in Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 10-12. Longman sees all this material held together by a primary theme “that in spite of present difficulties, God is in control, and he will have the final victory.” In each section, he shows how the material develops that theme. He also notes a secondary theme, that “God’s people can survive and even thrive in the midst of a toxic culture.” We witness this repeatedly throughout the book as people live faithfully and experience God’s provident care, whether in superior abilities to interpret dreams or deliverance from fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.

He concludes the book with discussion of what it means to live in a toxic culture where we cannot force the government to act like the church, providing a basis for a far more nuanced political theology than we customarily encounter. He also explores what it means to find comfort in God’s ultimate victory that begins with the recognition of the real existence of a battle between good and evil operating behind many of the conflicts we face in the world today. There may be real instances where we need to stand against evil, and this may even cost our lives. Likewise we need to be attentive to the war within, finding courage to stand against both external and internal evils, the systemic and the personal, in view of the victory of God portrayed in the visions.

This is a great resource for an adult ed class studying Daniel, as well as a personal devotional study. Each chapter includes a few reflection questions helping connect specific content to the larger themes of Daniel. Commentary recommendations will help the person know where to look who wants to dig deeper. This is a sound work of introduction and interpretation that I would recommend as a great first book on Daniel.

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