Review: The Triangle

the triangle

The Triangle, Nakisanze Segawa. Middletown, DE: Mattville Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: Set in Buganda, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the novel narrates through the eyes of three figures intra-tribal struggles fed by competing colonial powers, weakening African rule, and ultimately leading to colonial rule under the British.

Nakisanze Segawa is a Ugandan writer and performance poet. She has contributed short stories to various anthologies, writes for the Daily Monitor and Global Press Journal. This is her first full-length novel.

The Triangle looks at the transition from tribal to colonial rule in Buganda (modern day Uganda) through three characters, each dependent in different ways upon the tribal chief or kabaka, Mwanga (Mwanga is an actual figure in Bugandan history). Nagawa is Mwanga’s second wife, hoping to bear a son who will eventually be kabaka, before one of the other co-wives. Kalinda is one of the kabaka’s pages, a servant in the royal court, and an intimate in several senses of the kabaka, who seems of late to have lost favor. Reverend Clement is a Church of England missionary, seeking to win converts, which means convincing people to leave the traditional ways, while yet courting the favor of the kabaka.

“Triangle” is a fitting image for the progression of this story, not only because of this particular set of three characters, but other triangles that run through the book. “Triangles” in relationships often reflect either three competing parties, or one party caught in a tension between two others. Such tensions run through the book. There are three wives all wanting to bear the future kabaka. Court pages, compete for the favor, including the sexual favors, wanted or forced, of the kabaka, who seems more interested in them than his wives, particular Nagawa. Sekitto, in particular has become the new favorite of the kabaka, supplanting Kalinda, and the increasingly disfavored Bukenya, a Catholic convert who has the temerity to plead for the life of a Bishop who did not take the approved but longer route to Buganda.

A religious triangle of Anglicans, Catholics, and Muslims, compete for the religious affections, and control of the kabaka-ship. Back of these religious interests are commercial and colonial interests of Muslims, French and English.  Mwanga has two brothers, who also are in line for the position of kabaka if Mwanga can be displaced.

As one may imagine, the noble aspirations, the commonplace longings for a peaceable existence, and the baser instincts of people clash. The kabaka and his premier recognize the encroaching threat of Christianity upon tribal ways and leadership, resulting at one point in Clement’s imprisonment, and his witness of the horrible martyrdom of both Anglican and Catholic converts. Brothers with Muslim allies succeed in deposing Mwanga who flees in exile, along with Christians who eventually become his allies. Kalinda aids in the overthrow, obtains high office, and then flees in turn when one brother eliminates the other, and Muslim control of tribal leadership becomes complete.

The latter part of the book chronicles Mwanga’s exile and plots to regain his position, bringing him increasingly under the sway of Reverend Clement and his British friends. Clement’s work becomes as much about guns as the gospel and we begin to see how the spiritually motivated missionary becomes entangled in imperial interests.

Segawa’s triangle of central characters around the embattled kabaka, Mwanga lead us into the competing and interlocking tensions that help us understand something of the dynamics of how an African kingdom might have been fatally undermined leading to British control under the British East Africa Company. Even as we root for Nagawa to conceive a child, for Kalinda to survive through the shifting alliances, we also see a ruler struggling to maintain a way of life during the colonial powers “Scramble for Africa.” We witness the nobility and courage of converts to Christianity as they are martyred, and the compromises with temporal power made by missions that undermined the spiritual power of their message. Segawa weaves all of this together in a powerful first novel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: A World to Win (Lanny Budd #7)

A World to Win

A World to WinUpton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1946).

Summary: Presidential Agent 103, in the guise of an art dealer, embarks on a series of journeys, planned and unplanned, in which he gathers significant intelligence for the Allied cause in its fight against Nazism.

Most of us know Upton Sinclair as the author of The Jungle, an expose’ of conditions in Chicago meat packing plants at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was unaware that he was author of the Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, named after the primary character, the son of an American arms dealer, a gentleman of tact and insight who moves among the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and eventually becomes Presidential Agent 103, using the cover of a fine art dealer to travel into occupied France and Germany to gather intelligence against the Nazis critical to the allied threat. The third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Novel. The series went out of print for years only to recently be resurrected by Open Road Media.

Some of you may remember The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. The main character of that book “Pug” Henry was also an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and met with a number of world leaders. Reading A World to Win, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wouk had drawn his inspiration, consciously or not, from this work, published 25 years earlier. In the course of this novel, Budd meets with Marshal Petain, Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler, alludes to meetings with Churchill, hobnobs with William Randolph Hearst, is entertained by the widow of Sun Yat-sen, meets Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), and finally, at the end of the novel, Joseph Stalin.

After each of his forays, including a kidnapping by underground forces who suspected him of Nazi ties when he was actually on their side, escapes from Luftwaffe bombings, and other perils including a near fatal plane crash, he has late evening meetings in the bedroom of Franklin Roosevelt where P. A. 103 is debriefed. During one of these, he even gives Roosevelt the words, “the arsenal of democracy,” that Roosevelt used in one of his famous speeches! This incident underscores Budd’s singular ability to endear himself to whoever he is with, even those he inwardly despises, like Hitler, and keep them persuaded that he is nothing other than a disinterested art dealer.

At the same time, Budd’s endearing qualities draw him into affairs of the heart with two women. Lizbeth is the young daughter of a Baltimore industrialist, beautiful but incapable of anything beyond conventional conversation on conventional subjects. Laurel Creston, her cousin is a socialist-leaning anti-Nazi journalist who Lanny helped escape from the Gestapo, and easily his intellectual equal. While on his “missions” for the president, he refuses to consider either, given his dangerous lifestyle. But when “furloughed” after the plane crash, which also destroyed his “cover,” he finds himself in a different place.

Things get even more interesting when Lanny gets invited on a cruise to Hong Kong (where a psychic had predicted Lanny would die) by Lizbeth’s father. Laurel also manages an invitation, leading to an interesting predicament. Who he ends up with, how they escape the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and how they end up meeting Mao and Stalin, I will leave you to discover.

One detects in the book Sinclair’s life and interests–Baltimore where he grew up, interests in psychics and spiritualism, and socialist leanings, which characterize Laurel, and in a more chastened form, Lanny himself, despite his loyalty to Roosevelt and to his arms manufacturer father.

While the idea stretches credulity that Budd could somehow manage to meet all these great personages in one novel, and end up traveling around the world, the journey is rip-roaring good fun. The closest this seemed to me to get to a plot was the recurring allusions to Budd’s death in Hong Kong, fantastic at best, until Hong Kong becomes a cruise destination and we realize that his arrival date coincides with the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s invasion. At the same time, there are seasons of reading when one does not particularly care as long as the book keeps your attention.

I should say that I started this series with this book which is number seven, which happened to be available at a discount in e-book form. It was definitely good enough that I want to go back and read the series from the beginning. If that sounds interesting to you, Open Road has a page showing all eleven novels in their proper sequence, and other Sinclair works, with links to purchase them in different e-formats.

Review: Jesus, Beginnings, and Science

Jesus, Science and Beginnings

Jesus, Beginnings, and Science, David A. Vosburg and Kate Vosburg. Farmville, VA: Pier Press, 2017.

Summary: A guide for group discussions on the Bible and beginnings, human origins, and science co-written by a scientist and a campus minister.

Many people think there is a war between Christian faith and science, and one must “choose up sides.” Sadly, many committed to science have thus rejected faith, and many committed Christians either distrust science or distort it to conform to their faith. The husband and wife team of David and Kate Vosburg, a chemistry professor and campus minister, respectively, represent a marriage of science and faith. Investigation of the physical world deepens their appreciation for the work of God, and embrace of a biblical world and life view enhances their love of the scientific enterprise.

In this group discussion guide, they provide a series of twelve discussions around three main areas where tension may arise: the Bible and creation, the Bible and human origins, and the Bible and science more broadly. Part One looks at the Bible and creation and in four studies looks at Jesus’ role in creating and sustaining the world, praise to God for the majesty of creation, the creation account of Genesis 1 as a liturgy of creation, and the new creation of Revelation 21-22.

Part Two turns to what is often more controversial, the origins of human beings. This portion begins with considering the authority of the Bible and how we read the Bible, then turns to the Genesis 2 narrative of the creation of the first couple. The third study in this section considers this disagreements among Christians on origins, how we talk about these with each other and provides a very helpful table outlining the major positions. The fourth study focuses on Psalm 139, and how the wonder of God’s involvement with us from conception ought temper our disagreements.

Part Three is more broadly concerned with Christians and the scientific enterprise. The first study looks at some of the descriptions of the physical world in scripture and how these might not be so much about the science of creation but the Creator of science. The second study explores the limits of human knowledge and how this ought temper our statements about what we learn from science and conclusions about what role God does or does not have in the world. The third study was particularly helpful in showing the compatibility of foundational beliefs of science and Christianity. The last discussion concerns how pondering God’s deeds in the world is a way of loving God and opens the doors for Christian involvement in science.

Each study begins with review of the previous session or an activity between sessions, then offers an opening question followed by biblical texts with time for personal study and questions for group discussion. The discussion closes with a Share. Pray. and Reflect question. This is followed by a “Scientist’s Reflection” written by David, song suggestions if groups incorporate music, and further readings. Each of the three parts ends with a summary of that part. The book also includes an extensive bibliography at the end.

At the end of the guide, David and Kate reflect on their journeys. I appreciated what Kate has written here, which parallels my own journey in exploring these questions:

“In studying Scripture and combatting my biases against science based on fear, I’ve realized how much more Scripture tells me about God and the world and how much less it tells me about science. I’ve come to trust scripture much more deeply and become less defensive and nervous when people raise questions or issues. For example, I used to read Genesis 1 and be disturbed by conflicting scientific creation accounts. Now when I read Genesis 1, I see a beautiful poetic description of God’s creating. I see how the Lord is shown to be good, powerful, and creative. I see the incredible relationship God established with humanity. And it leads me to worship” (p.85).

The studies encourage respectful dialogue, and the Vosburgs don’t expect everyone to agree with them or each other. Rather, what they have come up with is a great set of discussions meant to facilitate thoughtful conversation around the Bible and what it does and doesn’t say, and how it bears on scientific findings and work. I think this could be used equally well by a group of Christians, or Christians and seriously seeking friends wondering about Christianity and science (I might skip the songs in that context). There is a great need for a better conversation about Christianity and science than what we often see in our media and in some of our churches. This is a great resource toward such conversations.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit

cultivating the fruit of the spirit

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A study elaborating what it means to grow in Christlikeness looking at each of the nine fruit of the Spirit.

“Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

This is a portion of a prayer prayed by the late John R. W. Stott each morning. Perhaps, as author, and Stott’s successor in leading the Langham Partnership, Christopher J. H. Wright notes, it is no surprise that many who met Stott felt he was the most Christlike person they’d ever met.

This is a book about growing to be more like Christ through cultivating in one’s life the nine fruit of the Spirit the apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. Wright nicknames these the “9-A-Day” through which our character is formed to be like Christ. He begins this study by setting Paul’s list in its Galatian context. Paul argues for the gospel of being reckoned right with God by our faith alone apart from works. Then he addresses what may be a criticism–that in rejecting legalism, haven’t you opened the door to license? Rather, what comes through the Christ who indwells us by the Holy Spirit is freedom from slavery either to law or to licentious sin. This Spirit, as we root our lives to Him each day in prayer, study, and faithful obedience bears the fruit of Christ’s character in us over the course of our lives.

Wright goes on in the next nine chapters to consider each quality in Paul’s list. His approach is not to tell a lot of stories but to focus on the biblical material about each of these qualities, both how we see this quality in the character of God, and what this looks like in the life of a Christ-follower. Much like the teaching of John Stott, Christ gives is clear and memorable outlines to help us reflect on each of these qualities, and concludes with practical application to everyday life. For example, in the chapter on “kindness” his subheadings are “Kindness and the Character of God,” “Kindness as a Quality of Those Who Worship God,” “Kindness and the Example of Jesus,” and “Kindness as a Habit of Life.” He concludes this chapter with two questions that may help us in our practice of kindness:

  • What would I do for people if were the Christ?
  • What would I do for people if they were the Christ?

Wright concludes each chapter with a few reflection and application questions. An additional feature at the end of each chapter is a link to a video of Wright talking about the particular fruit of the Spirit. For a sample, here is a link in which Wright introduces the series.

This is a book I wish I had as a young Christian. I understood that I had become a Christian through the work of Christ. But I found little help in what it meant to be a Christian, to live a life marked increasingly by the character of the Christ I was following. This is such a helpful study that offers hope that God, through his Spirit will indeed work out his character in our lives as we root our lives in Christ, heeding his word, gathering with his people, yielding ourselves in prayer, and faithfully acting on what he says.

I also appreciated the combination of scripturally-based instruction, and thoughtful application throughout. This comment about patience is just one example:

“That kind of patience is sadly needed more than ever in Christian churches–and even (maybe especially) among Christian leaders. In the world of instant blogging and commenting (and comments on comments), patience seems to be a very neglected virtue. Some people simply can’t wait to put their word in, get their point across, speak their mind — however harmful and hurtful it may be. We have become very impatient — in attitudes, communication, and expectations” (p. 79).

This strikes me as a great book that one might use for personal reflection, for discussion with a younger believer, or in a group. In that context, using Wright’s videos to set up discussion of each chapter could work very well.

It also strikes me that this work, unassuming as it may seem, is vital in our day. I observe on one hand Christians bemoaning the flight of millenials from the church and at the same time grasping at power and influence in American culture. Wright’s quote of a Hindu professor points to why the Christlikeness of lives characterized by the fruit of the Spirit is so important:

“If you Christians lived like Jesus, India would be at your feet tomorrow.”

Dare we believe it could be so of our own country?

Review: The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006.

Summary: A series of meditations “on the joys and travails of thinking” focused around the central idea that thinking is discovering “what is.”

It is likely the case that other creatures “think” but thinking is one of the things that particularly sets apart human beings. We may also recognize that it is possible to think well or poorly and that an education, even a liberal education, may not necessarily set us up to think well.

This is a book about thinking, about the use of our minds to think well. The chapters are a series of meditations on aspects of the life of the mind. Schall begins with a fundamental premise, that the life of the mind is about the discovery of what is. As a Platonist (and a Christian), he believes that there is a reality that is “not ourselves” and that it is possible to discover this what is, and that it is.

He begins, in the chapter “On the Joys and Travails of Thinking,” to introduce us to A. D. Sertillanges book The Intellectual Life and the “habits of mind” necessary to an intellectual life. This then leads to a broader discussion on “Books and the Intellectual Life” of the place of books in the discovery of what is. He reminds us that any truly great work is worth reading more than once. He concludes the chapter with this peroration:

“Tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are. In any intellectual life, books and the books we have around us do not just indicate where we started or where we have ended, but how we got there and why we did not go somewhere else or by some other path. They ground and provoke our inclination to know. Books and the intellectual life go together, provided we always remember that it is the books that are for the life of the mind and not the other way around” (p. 20).

In his chapter on the liberal arts, he observes that the liberal arts as opposed to the “useful” arts open us to the what is that we have not or cannot make. Then he moves to “wisdom” which is the fruit of liberal study and learning what is, that we might live well, employing our energies for what is best in ways that yield joy.

“On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited” is a chapter of comfort for those who only later in life discover Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and other great writers. Often, these works mean more than they possibly could when we were young and lacking in the experience of life. There is a marvelous little chapter on “The Metaphysics of Walking” which is yet another way of our encounters with what is, and that there is a long history of walking thinkers! Then he speaks of the joys of discovering “a most wonderful book.” Most bibliophiles have had this experience and will gladly share their most wonderful book.

In later chapters, he challenges the relativism of the modern academy and the idea that it is all about questions. He believes that good philosophy, and good teaching leads to answers, and not just questions.

He concludes these reflections with an observation that is worth chewing on: “In the end, it is indeed a ‘risk’ to be a human being. That risk consists largely in our choosing not to know what is because we do not want to know where such knowledge might lead us.” I’ve often found that in discussions of faith that the real issue is not an inability to believe, but an unwillingness to consider belief because of what that might mean in one’s life, where that might lead one. Thinking can be dangerous!

The book also includes three appendices including a list of twenty books to awaken the mind (!), a transcript of an interview in the National Review Online on Education and Knowledge, and the text of a talk he gave on “Reading for Clerics” that speaks compellingly to the importance of reading and thinking to maintain vitality for any who engage in ministry, lay or clergy.

While Schall is a Catholic priest, this is not a Christian or Catholic text per se. What it represents is a good example of a work written for a wider audience that draws on Plato and Aristotle, as well as on Christian thinkers. He does what I think scholars who are Christians in the public square ought to do: engage a subject in the language of their discipline while unashamedly speaking of the contribution of Christian thought to that discourse. That too, I would propose is one of the fruits of a long engagement with careful thinking, a seamless weaving together of faith and reason in helping all of us understand better what is.

Review: Bookstore

bookstore

BookstoreLynne Tillman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.

Summary: The story of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co., once one of the premier independent bookstores in New York City, connecting readers with books and their writers until their closing in 1997.

Jeanette Watson is the grand-daughter of the founder of IBM, and the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr. who built the company into a computer industry leader. A reader from childhood, this daughter of wealth spent her early adult years working in early childhood education, mental health care, and going through one marriage and divorce. She struggled with depression, then faced hip surgery for congenital hip dysplasia. Facing surgery and a long recovery, she reached a turning point:

“I had a dream. The dream came almost immediately after I was told I needed surgery. I dreamed I was in a bookstore, surrounded by books, hundreds of books, and the place had two floors, and it was cozy. It looked like what would become Books & Co.

* * * * *

“Throughout the ordeal, the operation and the long recovery, the dream sustained me. I was determined there would be a bookstore at the end of the tunnel. One day I invited my friend Steve Aronson out for lunch. He was the only person I knew who was actually in publishing. I told Steven I wanted a bookstore that would look very old-fashioned, be like a private home, and carry wonderful books. There would be events, parties and gallery openings” (p. 13).

This book tells the story of the bookstore that came out of that dream, its twenty year run, and how Watson found her own calling in life in the process. The book, though authored by Lynne Tillman, is Jeanette Watson’s narrative of the history of Books & Co. and her own love of bookselling, interspersed with memories from publishers, writers, representatives, other booksellers, customers and celebrities about there experiences at Books & Co. The contributors anecdotes give us a sense of how Books & Co. served as kind of a literary nexus during this time.

It begins with Watson and her father investing in the startup after finding an old brownstone down the street from the Whitney, who owned the property, on Madison Avenue. She links up with Burt Britton, a book trade veteran who she signs on as a partner. The partnership lasted a year and resulted in “The Wall” representing the best of past and present literary fiction. Burt knew no limits to spending or acquiring books and eventually, Watson ended the partnership to try to meet the bottom line.

Watson realized her dream. She created a two story bookstore that included a green sofa on the second floor, and a curated collection of books centered on literature, philosophy, art, and children’s literature. She became renown for the authors who appeared and did readings in her stores. The list of those who did readings which appears at the back of the book is a snapshot of the literary world in New York in the from the late 1970’s to the late 1990’s. She was an aspiring writer’s friend, and introduced writers, and works she liked to the literary world, and underscored the important role booksellers play in promoting great writing.

Perhaps her greatest joy was connecting people with books, everyone from Woody Allen and Michael Jackson to ordinary residents of the city. Watson comments:

“There’s a significance too–almost a drama–in introducing readers to books. Dramatic because books can and do change people’s lives. I’ve felt that importance as much as I’ve felt it about introducing new writers to readers. Burt used to say, ‘It’s just as easy to read a good book as a bad book.’ If people were given the right book, they could experience something wonderful. One woman told me that she wasn’t a reader until the bookstore opened, but because of my suggestions, she was reading Balzac. It’s what I’m most proud of doing over the years” (p.52).

The book chronicles not only the joys but the struggles of bookselling. Apart from a few boom years in the 1980’s, it was a constant struggle to break even and Watson put a lot of her own money into the store. We get a glimpse behind the scenes of working with publishers representatives and making decisions about book acquisitions, working with distributors and staff, paying bills and making returns.

We also see the beginnings of a transformation of the book trade. Readers interested in the serious works sold by a store like this seemed to be aging and their numbers declining. The advent of the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders (!) began to erode sales as people turned to booksellers who discounted. Amazon was just new, and not yet perceived as the force that would threaten them all. E-books were still in the future. But the internet was dawning and cable and video were supplanting reading.

The death knell of this great indie was rent. For many years the Whitney and Books & Co. enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with people often visiting both. The Whitney was landlord, and as Madison Avenue rents were rising, it became necessary for the Whitney to raise rents on its properties to attend to their own bottom line. These rents became increasingly difficult to meet. There were negotiations, explorations of a merger with the Whitney, all coming to nought. After Christmas in 1996, Jeanette Watson announced the closing of the store on May 31, 1997. Some attempted to save the store, but it was not to happen. The last part of the book is painful in some ways, as the attempts to sustain the life of a dying patient.

Reading the book brought to mind the wonderful encounters I’ve had with great bookstores over the year, especially the ones where the booksellers knew their books and loved connecting their customers with books they would love. I wish I had visited this one. It also reminded me of the passing of so many of these, each like the death of a friend.

At the same time, the pronounced death of the indie bookstores seems premature. Their number is actually growing while Borders is no more and Barnes and Noble is struggling. People are still reading Jane Austin and Dostoevsky, and so much else.

This autobiography, of Watson and her bookstore gives a glimpse into what it takes to make a great bookstore. There is one wrinkle in the book that may be off-putting to some. Watson, like so many bibliophiles, has a curiosity for everything and writes with more fascination than some might find comfortable of inter-species sex and every form of human sexuality, as well as an author’s study of cannibalism. Clearly, this is written in the progressive (and transgressive?) literary milieu of New York City. At the same time, we see the power of books to introduce us to so much of the world beyond just our own experience and the wonderful gift bookstores like Books & Co can be to writers and readers.

Jeanette Watson’s new memoir, It’s My Partywas released October 10, 2017. A video interview with Watson on her book is available on YouTube.

Review: Forgiveness and Justice

forgiveness and justice

Forgiveness and Justice, Bryan Maier. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017.:

Summary: Interacts with other models of forgiveness from a biblical perspective, proposing that healing through trust in the justice of God precedes forgiveness, which can only occur where there is sincere confession and repentance by the offender.

This book changed my thinking about forgiveness. Like many, I’d come to believe in the therapeutic value of “forgiveness” even when the offender has not confessed to wrong-doing and repented of it. I can think of situations where this counsel didn’t ring true. There had been great offense, and while individuals wanted to forgive, the refusal of the offender to acknowledge the wrong, and in some cases continued the wrongful behavior, leaving a deep sense of grievance that “forgiving” could not address.

This book helped me understand why. First of all, the author, basing his discussion in scripture, focuses on a more careful definition of forgiveness, which isn’t “letting go” or reframing the offense or having greater empathy. Fundamentally, he argues that forgiveness, as God forgives, is not about our feelings, but about the offender, and can only occur when the offender confesses to the wrong, and repents from it.

How then are we to deal with the deep feelings of anger, hurt, and grievance. Maier observes that we tend to make the decision that it is good to get rid of these, and he would say, “Not so fast.” If there has been real offense, and in many cases he deals with as a counselor, profound abuse, these may be warranted feelings that stem from a deep sense of wanting to be vindicated. We should not try to reframe these hurts. Maier argues that it is the God who is just who vindicates and that healing starts with trusting in the justice of God, that we need not seek vengeance, but trust God to deal with the offense. He argues that it is precisely this about which the imprecatory Psalms are concerned and encourages their use by counselees.

He also proposes that as we begin to trust in the God of justice we find healing, before we forgive, and that in fact this prepares us to forgive. For one thing, realizing that the offender faces God’s justice if they do not repent may in time move us to pray for that repentance. That in turn raises the important question of how will we respond if they do repent.

Part of this has to do with discerning genuine repentance, something we can never fully assess. He suggests several indicators: 1). No demands, even requests for forgiveness, 2) A willingness to assume responsibility, and 3) A willingness to pay off the debt over time, realizing that trust is not restored instantaneously.

All this also means that repentance does not necessitate an instantaneous response of forgiveness. While this may be desired, the person offended must truly be ready for this and the offender must not expect or demand this. Clients should not be pressured into premature forgiveness.

I appreciate the care Maier shows in handling of scripture as well as in recognizing the seriousness of offenses like abuse and sexual assault and the need for victims to legitimately protect themselves from further harm from offenders. Moreover, this book seems to me to give a better account of unresolved feelings of anger than the “let it go” school. It acknowledges the role of God in healing, and also the very real concern for justice that is sometimes minimized in forgiveness teaching. And it helpfully focuses on when and how real forgiveness of the other may take place in a way that reinforces healing for both parties rather than compounding the problems between them.

I would highly recommend this work for all pastoral and clinical counselors, and for anyone who is wrestling with having experienced deep wounds at the hands of another. You may have heard the Lord’s teaching of “forgive as I have forgiven you” and struggle to do this, particularly when the offender has made no attempt to acknowledge the wrong done. This book unpacks what biblical and not merely therapeutic forgiveness looks like and the ways of healing that prepare us to truly forgive.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Race and Place

 

Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.

 

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

weapons of math destruction

Weapons of Math DestructionCathy O’Neil. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

Summary: An insider account of the algorithms that affect our lives, from going to college, to the ads we see online, to our chances of getting a job, being arrested, getting credit and insurance.

Big Data is indeed BIG. Mathematical algorithms shape who will see this post on their Facebook newsfeed. If you go to Amazon or another online bookseller, algorithms will suggest other books like this one you might be interested in. Have you seen all those ads about credit scores? They are more important than you might imagine. Algorithms used by employers and insurance companies determine your employability and insurability in part through these scores. Far more than another credit card (bad idea, by the way) or a mortgage are on the line. These algorithms seem objective, but how they are formulated, and the assumptions made in doing so mean the difference between useful tools that benefit people, and “black boxes” that thwart the flourishing of others, often unknown to them.

Cathy O’Neil should know. A tenure track math professor, she made the jump to Wall Street and became a “quant” who helped develop mathematical algorithms and witnessed, in the crash of 2008, the harm some of these caused. And she began to notice how algorithms often painfully impacted the lives of many others.  She describes how a teacher was fired because of the weighting of performance scores of a single class, despite other evaluations finding her an excellent teacher (afterwards it was found that there were a high number of erasures on tests for students who would have been in her class the previous year, suggesting these had been altered to improve scores).

As she looked at the algorithms responsible for such injustices, she came to dub them “Weapons of Math Destruction” or WMDs and she identified three characteristics of these WMDs:

  1. Opacity: those whose lives are affected by them have no idea of the factors and weighting of those factors that contributed to their “score”.
  2. Scale: how widely an algorithm is applied across industries and sectors of life can affect how much of one’s life is touched by a single formula. For example, the FICO scores mentioned above affect not only credit, but the ability to get a job, the cost of auto insurance, and your ability to rent an apartment.
  3. Damage: WMDs can reinforce other factors perpetuating a cycle of poverty, or incarceration.

She also shows that what makes these algorithms destructive is the use of proxy measurements. For example an employer may not know directly how savvy someone is as a marketer, and so they use a “proxy” measurement of how many Twitter followers that person has. Or age is used as a proxy for how safe a driver one is. For a group, the proxy may work well, and be utterly inaccurate for an individual that falls within that proxy group.

Then in successive chapters, she chronicles some of the ways WMDs operate in different parts of life. She discusses the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, and the use of algorithms in admissions processes. Social media uses algorithms to target advertising, which means some will see ads for for-profit schools and payday lenders, and others for upscale furnishing or Viagra, based on clicks, likes, searches, and comments. Policing strategies, including locations for intensified “stop and frisk” policing are shaped by another set of algorithms. Algorithms to filter resumes may use scoring algorithms that discriminate by address and psych exam algorithms may render others unemployable in a certain industry. Scheduling algorithms may promote efficiency at the expense of the ability of workers to sleep on a regular schedule, or arrange childcare, or work enough hours to qualify for health insurance. Algorithms sometimes shut people out from credit or low cost insurance when in fact they are good risks. She concludes by showing how algorithms determine ads and news we see (and don’t see). In an afterword she explores the flaws in algorithms revealed on the election of Donald Trump (algorithms, for example predicted Clinton would easily win Michigan and Wisconsin, where consequently she did not campaign, and lost by small margins).

In her conclusion, she makes the case not only for a code of ethics for mathematicians but also argues that regulation and audits of these algorithms are necessary. The value assumptions, as well as the mathematical methods of many algorithms are flawed, and yet opacity means those whose lives are most affected don’t even know what hit them.

She helps us see both the sinister and useful side of these algorithms. They may reveal where a pro-active intervention may save a family from descending into family violence, or provide extra assistance to a child in danger of falling behind in a key subject. Or they may be used to invade personal rights, or even to perpetuate socio-economic divides in a society. The reality is that the problem is not the math but the old GIGO problem (garbage in, garbage out). The values and assumptions of the humans who devise the formulas and weightings of values and the use of proxies determine what may be destructive outcomes for some people. Yet it can be hidden behind an app, a program, an algorithm.

The massive explosion in storage capacities, processing speeds, and the way our interests, health status, travel patterns, spending patterns, fitness, diet and sleep habits, our political inclinations and more may be tracked via our online and smartphone usage makes O’Neil’s warning an urgent one. We create mountains of data that may be increasingly mined by government and private interests. Perhaps as important as asking whether this will be governed in ways that contribute to our flourishing, is whether we will be alert enough to care.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Our Deepest Desires

Our Deepest Desires

Our Deepest DesiresGregory E. Ganssle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Makes the case that Christian faith, truly understood, is most congruent with our deepest human longings.

Gregory Ganssle believes that one of the most important questions we can ask is “what sort of person should I be?” and two other related questions: 1) what sort of person do I want to be? and 2) what sort of person am I becoming? These get at our deepest desires and commitments, the vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful toward which we aspire to live. In this book, Ganssle makes the argument that some of the basic human longings common to many of us are most congruent with the Christian faith. It is not that those who are not Christians, and Ganssle especially has atheists in mind, cannot embrace and pursue these longings. He argues that in fact they do, despite the fact that these longings are often dissonant with an atheist or materialist worldview, whereas they are consonant with a Christian worldview. He does not argue that this shows that Christian faith is true or that this “proves” Christian faith, but only that Christian faith is consistent with our deepest longings. He says, “There are many people who think that Christianity is false; I want to help people see that they really want the gospel to be true.”

Ganssle looks at four types of longings that he believes are consonant with the Christian story. The first is our value of persons and longing for relationship, that he sees grounded in a God who is personal and relational, the triune God, whose relationships are marked by submission and self-giving. The second is what might be called the problem of goodness, that we want goodness, even when we are faced with evil, that goodness seems somehow primary, that we want to be thought of as good, and and that goodness is good for us. The gospel is a story that grounds goodness in God, that accounts for our rebellion against it, and enables us to be what we long for.

We also long for and are drawn to beauty. We have a deep impulse to create things of beauty, that mirror the Creator. We long for beauties beyond what this earth offers in ways that suggest we are made for another world. And finally, we long for freedom, to live consistently with our sense of our best self, and the gospel proposes we are set free by truth, by a truth-shaped life, and enabled to live freely in the face of death because of hope. Ganssle concludes by proposing that if this case seems to make sense of our longings, then the next step is to determine whether the Christian faith is true.

What I like about this is approach is that he explores aspirations that are common to most or all of us. He raises what is a genuinely important question–how do we explain these aspirations? Are they just an artifact of our evolution and can they be explained in purely material terms? While he proposes that Christian faith is the best explanation, he recognizes that some may conclude differently and that each must decide what makes the best sense of our longings for love, goodness, beauty, and freedom.

His book poses a challenge for Christians as well. Does the kind of people we are becoming reflect the loving, good, beautiful, and liberating story we proclaim. Do we value people above programs–all people? Do we love goodness so passionately we pursue justice where it is lacking? Are our communities places that both celebrate beauty and evidence our hope in the beauty of the new creation? Are we consciously working to undo the personal and systemic evils that bind and limit people? In short, are we story-shaped people who find the fulfillment of our deepest longings in the story we proclaim? That, it seems to me, may be our most powerful apologetic.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.