Review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

How to Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: A concise and engaging guide to the habits and practices of mind that enable clarity of thought, expression, and learning.

“I have not read very much Shakespeare in my adult life. Will this book make much sense to me?” In an email exchange with the author who asked me to consider reviewing this book, I asked this, seeing the title of the book. The author assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.

Here’s why. What this book is really about is education’s purpose. He writes:

“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills.

Education isn’t merely accumulating data: machines can memorize far more, and far less fallibly, than humans. (Albert Einstein: The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.)

Scott Newstok, p. .ix

So where does Shakespeare come in? Newstok, an English professor and founder of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College draws on Shakespeare to identify the formative habits and practices that are evident in Shakespeare’s work and helped shape his particular genius. And then he draws on others from antiquity to the present day to make the case for thirteen aspects of learning to think well.

Newstok begins two introductory chapters on the hard work of thinking and the ends of study. He proposes that the formative practices of Shakespeare were very different than the current practices of our schools. He had classes in Latin, had to submit to a variety of writing exercises, copied out quotations, imitated other writers until he found his voice, and so forth. In the chapter on ends, he proposes that modern education focuses far too much on means and not on the ends of forming people who speak and do well, who are useful citizens who can think well about every aspect of life

The next twelve chapters focus on a particular aspect or habit of thought and expression:

  • Craft: The ability and power to work with raw materials to create a work. Shakespeare was a playwright; the etymology suggest dramas wrought with words.
  • Fit: Whether the glove on the hand, two pieces of wood joined, or the apt word or phrase.
  • Place: Learning and careful thought arises in thinking spaces, whether Shakespeare’s school or a classroom.
  • Attention: Often in his plays, Shakespeare’s characters are distracted. Newstok focuses on how learning, thought, prayer, and our best selves emerge from attention.
  • Technology: Writing in the sand, or with any other technology. Do we get distracted by the sand or attend to the writing, the message of which abides when the marks in the sand disappear?
  • Imitation: Art begins with imitation. Shakespeare borrowed all over the place until he came to sound like himself.
  • Exercises: One cannot write well unless one writes…and writes…and writes. Exercises, from imagining oneself in a different gender or station in life, or finding the myriad ways to express a thought all hone the gifts of expressing our thoughts.
  • Conversation: Newstok shares the fascinating image of Kenneth Burke of joining a conversation in process, learning the topic, and issues at hand, putting in our own thoughts, learning to question and explore the ideas of others, and then leaving the conversation to others as an image of the intellectual conversation that has run through history.
  • Stock: The wide reading that offers a store of ideas from which we assemble thought in creative new ways.
  • Constraint: Thought and expression works within the constraints of words, sentences, grammar and forms, such as the sonnet, and liberty is found within the bounds of our art.
  • Making: We not only make things with machines but also with words, and often in these words, we make ourselves.
  • Freedom: Not just freedom from but freedom to. At the heart of the “liberal arts” is to practice the craft of freedom.

Newstok concludes with a reading list, “Kinsmen of the Shelf” for going further in the practices of good thought, connected to each chapter of the book. I was reminded of some old friends and learned of some intriguing new ones.

This sounds like a serious book but Newstok treats serious matters with an artisan’s lightness of touch. The chapters are short, filled with quotes that will offer additions to your own commonplace book, and introduced by fitting artwork. It is a work worthy of attention by educators, whether in the liberal arts or not. Our present time underscores the vital need for education to be far more than the inculcation of information. Otherwise, in the words of Stephen Muller, former president of Johns Hopkins University, we are just turning out “highly skilled barbarians.” It is also a book that may be read reflectively and repeatedly for any of us who care deeply about the work of thinking and writing. We all have a long way to go in our craft.

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

Review: Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved The Monarchy

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, A. N. Wilson. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.

Summary: A full length biography, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, stressing his contributions to cultural and political life in Victorian England, published on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Most of us, at least on “this side of the pond” mostly know of Prince Albert as the subject of a prank beginning with the line “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Actually, in reading this biography, the prank has added irony both in that its subject was a very serious man, and that for one who died so young, he accomplished so much. A. N. Wilson’s biography, published on the two hundredth anniversary of Albert’s birth goes far to redress that unfamiliarity.

Wilson presents Albert as the son of a Coburg Duke (Ernst I), who failed at marriage but was determined to prepare his sons for dynastic greatness. Albert learned not only the lessons that prepared him for this station, but also shaped the strong sense of rectitude he brought to his eventual marriage with Victoria, a Coburg cousin who was in most direct succession to William IV. He also develops the influence of Stockmar, Albert’s mentor from his early teen years through the first decade of his marriage.

Wilson portrays the genuine love affair between Albert and Victoria, initially cool to him but warming to great passion, and the lukewarm reception of Commons, reducing his proposed annual grant. At the same time, Wilson teases out the complicated character of that marriage, of Albert’s quest for control, even influence over royal matters, and how Victoria’s nine pregnancies played into all of that. At very least, the two contributed to the great influence of the House of Coburg in dynastic affairs across Europe through their progeny!

Much of the account explores the struggle Albert had with his position–for most of the time, merely husband of the Queen, and only at the end of his life Prince Consort. His own son was ahead of him in precedence. He aspired to so much more, trying to shape foreign affairs through long missives to foreign secretaries, as well as weighing in on political matters. Over time, he helped shape Victoria’s approach to constitutional monarchy that sustained her popularity, and that of the monarchy long after her death. He shrewdly managed royal finances, allowing for the purchase of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

One of his distinctive contributions was as Chancellor of Cambridge University, overseeing the modernization of the curriculum stressing modern history and the sciences. Another was the Exhibition of 1851 and the develop of the complex of museums in Kensington known as “Albertopolis,” later complimented by Royal Albert Hall, a premier concert venue. Wilson portrays the intensity of Albert’s work ethic for his adopted country, recognized only late in his short life when, finally, he was designated “Prince Consort.”

There is an air of sadness that hovers over this hard-working man of rectitude. He found himself worn by the moods of Victoria, the troubles of Europe, and the evidence of profligacy on the part of his own son Bertie. Sadly, he was a seriously ill man, possibly dying of stomach cancer. Perhaps he pushed himself so hard, knowing his time was so short. It was sad that he could not bask in his considerable contributions to the monarchy and England.

Wilson not only portrays the man, but the various key figures like Peel and Palmerston, and the transformation occurring in England, to which Albert had contributed. Of course, all of this was in the backdrop of Victoria, who went on to reign for four decades after Albert’s death at age 42, in the end showing herself stronger even than Albert. This is an important account of a figure whose impact is still felt two hundred years after his birth.

Review: Prayer Revolution

Prayer Revolution, John Smed. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A call to kingdom prayer movements based in houses of prayer through which Christ comes, the Holy Spirit advances, and renewal spreads in cities, nations, and globally.

I write this review amid a global pandemic with accelerating case numbers and deaths and in a nation in the middle of efforts to violently subvert the constitutionally governed processes of presidential succession. If ever there was a time for a prayer movement, it seems now would be a good time.

John Smed would agree. He believes we are in a world desperately in need of a prayer revolution, and having led prayer movements, he lays out in this book a biblical basis for prayer movements, how prayer movements break out and how they break through to bring renewal to church, city, and nation. Jesus is central to his focus as the risen King who comes to his people as they seek his kingdom in prayer. He writes as one who has prayed what he preaches. He writes:

Immersing myself in the prayer practices of Jesus, my prayer life changed. Praying like Jesus became a discipline and a habit. Like Jesus praying all night before choosing His disciples, before major decisions and crossroads, I take seasons and days of prayer. Our team does not make plans, we make prayer plans–meeting regularly for interactive times of prayer and planning. We have learned to face the ever-present onslaught of electronic noise and busyness by waiting on God.

Smed begins by laying a basis for kingdom prayer movements by talking about how the king comes as his people pray. The Lord’s prayer shows the Lord’s strategy for prayer–focused outward on kingdom advance rather than inwardly. He wants to work through “houses of prayer.”

This kind of prayer breaks out. The ascended Lord hears his people throughout the world as they gain a vision for renewal. This leads to advance through the work of the Spirit who empowers the church in multiplying ministry. That can scale to a global movement and to the renewal of our cities.

Ultimately, kingdom prayer breaks through. It brings national renewal and repentance from idols. In scripture it has sustained exiles, and those present day “political exiles.” Churches are revived and cities renewed.

Appended to this work is a ten step description of how to implement kingdom prayer, a prayer grid using the Lord’s prayer, and a prayer exercise that may be used for praying for nation or city. Also, the author includes stories of kingdom advance through prayer in history from the Moravian movement, the Welsh revival, the Fulton Street awakening, and the prayer movement in Cuba.

What is puzzling to me in our present moment is that there are professing Christians who have joined in violence, others who are making statements of all sorts. Most of us are just “doomscrolling” through endless stories on our phones that make us sadder or angrier. We are watching bodies stacking up massively while we argue with instead of submitting to sensible public health mandates. Where is our urgency in prayer? Where is repentance? Where is pleading for the peace of our cities and for the inbreaking of the just rule of Jesus?

Prayer Revolution is that call to prayer. It is a book that offers hope of what God may do and vision for how we as God’s people may pray. It’s a book for our time. Many times in history prayer movements break out in desperate times. And God hears. How desperate must things get before we pray?

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

Review: Charitable Writing

Charitable Writing, Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, Foreword by Anne Ruggles Gere, Afterword by Alan Jacobs. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Two writing professors explore how Christian faith ought shape both how one writes and how one teaches students to write, shaped by the virtues of humility, love, and hope.

When many of us think of writing in our present time, we think of contentious writing, angry writing, divisive writing. Whether in academic discourse of a scroll through your social media feed, one doesn’t have to go far to find examples of a “scorched earth” approach to writing. Charitable writing? Not so much.

Actually, the authors of this work only have this indirectly in mind. As writing professors at a Christian college, they realized that their approach to writing wasn’t any different than when they had taught in secular settings. If as Christians your aspiration is “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), then what might this look like in both the practice of writing, and the teaching of students to write? It is a question about which I think. This is the question out of which this book arose.

The authors propose that virtuous actions manifesting charity ought to shape our writing. They organize the book around three threshold virtues or concepts: humble listening, loving argument and hopeful time keeping. They devote several chapters to each of these ideas. One of the striking features of this book is that they explore these ideas through visual art as well as their own writing.

Humility begins in humbling oneself before God in prayer as one enters one’s study or workspace to write. Humility is the openness to God and denial of self of Mary at the annunciation. Other images point toward humility as an abiding virtue of writing. The authors go on to discuss humility in writing communities, including writing classes, and in discourse communities, where humility means careful listening to the community and attentive use of that community’s language as one communicates.

They turn to loving argument, beginning with a painting of Augustine symbolizing the triangle of head, heart, and tradition or logos, pathos, and ethos in writing. They explore our metaphors for argument, mostly warlike, explaining both our aversion to argument and why they often end badly. They propose different metaphors. One metaphor is the table, a place of hospitality, a feast together. We can share the meal with generous care for each other or we can feast in a “beastly” fashion, where we seek to get ours at the expense of others. Do we make space for the writing of others at our table?

Finally Gibson and Beitler talk about keeping time hopefully. One aspect of this is writing slowly. As others have observed, there is no good writing, only good re-writing. They walk us through pre-writing, drafting, and revising. Writing is an exercise in hope as one engages the slow, patient work involved. Slow writing allows others to join in, helping with revisions and edits, making our ideas better. But writing in hope also incorporates “liturgies” that invite God in, to inform our writing and to point it toward his telos for life.

As they draw to conclusion, we are reminded that these virtues are social virtues. Writing is social and not solitary. Charitable writing reaches out, it converses and disputes, it holds, embraces and releases. Writing in this way reminds us of our call as disciples to love God and each other, even when we argue. As bonuses this book offers an afterword by Alan Jacobs, a guide to discussion with writing prompts, an essay on teaching charitable writing, and one on the spiritual discipline of writing.

I deeply appreciated this book. For someone who never thought of himself as a writer, I’ve done quite a bit of it in the past decade. It can be hard and humbling and drive you to prayer as you look for the words to get past a block. To send one’s ideas out to others invites both community and criticism. Most of the time I’ve written with great love, and sometimes unlovingly. One writes with hope that your words will connect with others, that long deliberated ideas will give encouragement and light to others. If nothing else, writing changes us, and hopefully for the better. Gibson and Beitler show us how that may be so, to the end of loving God and others.

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

Review: Frozen in Time

Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.

Summary: An account of rescue efforts in 1942-43 and a retrieval effort in 2012 to recover several lost heroes, all occurring on the Greenland icecap.

In November of 1942, a C-53 cargo plane took off from Iceland to an airfield on the west side of Greenland. For unknown reasons it crashed inland from the eastern coast of Greenland. A B-17 diverted from transport to England joined the search with a crew of nine, captained by Armand Monteverde. Unsuccessful, they ran into a bad snowstorm that was like “flying in milk.” They also crashed, the plane splitting into two pieces. All nine survived the crash and much of the narrative in this book describes their efforts to survive in subzero temperatures, avoiding life-ending crevasses and fighting frostbite and keeping up hope as months went by with little more contact than overflights by another B-17, piloted by “Pappy” Turner, dropping supplies and communicating with the survivors.

Part of the 1942-43 story concerned the efforts to rescue these men either by plane or motor- or dogsled. Sadly, rescuers, both by plane and motorsled died, as did one of the B-17 crash survivors. Three of those who died were on a Coast Guard plane called “The Flying Duck” piloted by John Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms. They rescued two crash survivors, one who was most severely affected by frostbite. Coming back, they picked up another survivor. Loren Howarth, who had repaired a radio on the crashed B-17. They, too, encountered a fast approaching storm and went down with no survivors.

Here enters the other part of this story. Lou Sapienza, who had participated in previous recovery missions learned the story about the lost men from the Flying Duck. On a preliminary survey in 2010, they identified possible crash sites. Now, he wants to go back. He needs the help of the Coast Guard and a lot of money the Pentagon doesn’t have. He enlists the author to chronicle (and help bankroll) the effort. Offsetting a reluctant bureaucracy is Coast Guard Commander Jim Blow, whose passion is not to leave those missing in action behind. Somehow, they come up with enough for a week on the Greenland ice cap.

So much of what sustains interest in this narrative, which goes back and forth between the rescue and recovery missions, is the uncertainty that they will find a way to rescue the B-17 survivors or recover the Flying Duck and her crew. The big challenge is Greenland itself. There are so many ways it can kill you from crevasses to polar bears to cold. For the surviving crew, the challenge was crash injuries, advancing frostbite, and morale. One is impressed in all the ways this crew improvised shelter, jury-rigged radios, and used what they had on hand. The recovery mission led by Jim and Lou had its own challenges. Faulty GPS coordinates, moving heavy equipment across crevasses, and conflict within the expedition pose challenges, even as they scramble to locate the Flying Duck as another of Greenland’s storms approach, necessitating evacuation.

Zuckoff’s eyewitness narrative coupled with careful historical research makes for a riveting account of the effort to “bring them home” that is a heartbeat of the services. The efforts to survive, to rescue, and to recover are all heroic. In a day when so many public figures disappoint, a narrative about heroes, who have their own struggles, but transcend and work and risk for noble ends, is a welcome gift.

Review: The Columbus Anthology

The Columbus Anthology, edited and with an Introduction by Amanda Page. Columbus: Trillium (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press) co-published with Rust Belt Publishing, 2020.

Summary: An anthology of non-fiction prose and poetry by Columbus authors, mostly relating to Columbus.

As many of you know, I write quite a bit about the town I grew up in, Youngstown. There’s a bit of irony in that. I lived in Youngstown for my first twenty-two years, the first few of which I have no memory. I have now lived in Columbus for thirty years. Apart from a book by Wil Haygood, I’ve read nothing about the town where I have spent most of my adult life. That’s not entirely surprising. Columbus is this town where most everyone seems from somewhere else (including a substantial part of the Youngstown diaspora), that is the only major city in Ohio that has grown in the last thirty years. All this is to say that I’ve realized that it might be wise to know more about this place I’ve called home. So I picked this up on a Small Business Saturday from a local indie bookstore.

The Columbus Anthology is kind of a cross between local memoirs and a literary journal. If nothing else, it serves well as an introduction of the literary talent of the city, a city that has produced the likes of James Thurber and the aforementioned Wil Haygood. It evokes a city that is “a good place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit.” It celebrates the music scene of past years around Ohio State, the legendary Buckeye Donuts, neighborhoods past and present like Bronzeville King-Lincoln and Franklinton, and those marks that we have become a big league city, the Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL) and Columbus Crew (MLS).

Here are a few pieces I enjoyed, taking nothing away from the rest of the collection. David Breithaupt in “Every Day I Ride the Bus” captures the unique ambiance and sights riders of the High Street COTA bus route.

“In a City Marked by Change, Columbus Crew SC Remains a Powerful, Unifying Force” by Hanif Abdurraqib recognizes the ethnic diversity of the city and how our soccer team brings people together across these lines.

Both “The City That Raised Me Has a New Face” by Tiffany Williams and “What Would Jane Say” talks about the Bronzeville King-Lincoln area of Columbus, eviscerated by I-71 and the observations Jane Jacobs would make here about the once vibrant life and decline of a neighborhood.

The city that has been the nation’s test market for restaurant franchises (and is the home of White Castle and Wendy’s) struggles to define a distinctive food. For Nick Dekker, a restaurant writer, it is breakfast and he celebrates the great places to start the day in “Breakfast with Columbus.” We’re also the home of Marzetti’s, known for salad dressings. In the family’s restaurant days, they were the reputed inventors of “Johnny Marzetti,” which showed up on cafeteria trays all over Ohio–that casserole of ground meat, pasta, cheese and sauce–great comfort food. Shelley Mann Hite writes about the history and her quest to reinvent the perfect Johnny Marzetti.

Turning to poetry, “Nighthawks” perfectly evokes that institution of students and street people, Buckeye Donuts where:

Smoke from the burning doughnut oil/infuses with the lonely

post-game colognes lining the formica/counter at the High Street

haunt simmering in the late night.

“Night Hawks,” Joseph Hess, p. 127.

“Walking in the Topiary Park After Snowfall in February” by Jeremy Glazier beautifully captures a place and moment in time and the evanescent character of our lives.

“The New Oath” by Hannah Stephenson with its repeated, rhythmic “If a child…” enlists us all to the universal moral commitment to protect and pursue the flourishing of children.

Fariha Tayyab’s “Thanksgiving” describes the immigrant who, drawing on their own experience of colonial powers, sees through our national mythologies as one “Migrating from one stolen land to another.”

This anthology captures both some of the distinctives of this city and its underside. It is a great place for writers to live (“Five Reasons Why Writers Should Move to Columbus”) and Fayce Hammond’s experience of assault that began at a gas station weeks after moving to the city (“Fear of Fuel”).

The anthology includes brief profiles of all the writers and it is a diverse group that represents the diversity of the city. It’s a good collection that allows one to see the city through many different eyes.

Review: Dear White Christians

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014.

Summary: Argues that a reparations rather than reconciliation paradigm is what is necessary to heal the racial divides in the United States.

The author of this book describes an address by Brenda Salter-McNeil at Urbana 2000 speaking of that student generation as the “Reconciliation Generation.” I was in the hall when she spoke and I found myself praying, Lord, make it so. Sadly, that has not taken place, and the contention of this book is that I was asking for the wrong thing. Jennifer Harvey, who is white, contends that the reconciliation paradigm has failed and needs to be replaced by a reparations paradigm.

Perhaps a word of clarification is needed here. Speak of reparations, and the response of most is to think one is talking of massive amounts of money paid for past wrong. Strictly speaking, the idea of reparations comes from the word “repair” and what the author explores in this work is what is the harm done that needs repair. Her contention is that racial reconciliation approaches are inadequate to address the harm done.

How so? To explore this she first describes the history of the reconciliation paradigm and the critical problems with that paradigm. At the core is the problem of whiteness. Racial divides exist first of all because of the social construction of race that defined “whites” as a race superior to others, and then created systems and structures to maintain that superiority. She uses two exercises that illustrate the issue. One is to ask whites to identify racial qualities they can wholeheartedly celebrate. The second is to ask what reactions we would have to signs that say “Black is beautiful” versus “White is beautiful.” The discomfort that occurs for many of us almost immediately underscores the reality of our racialized society. Yet the reconciliation paradigm ignores this and takes a universalist approach that ignores the particular work whites need to do in addressing race. Inclusion and integration is not enough. Given the history of racism, asking blacks to trust is asking the victim of abuse to trust their abuser.

As Harvey turns to discussing reparations, she begins with the Black Manifesto, presented in 1968 by James Farmer during a service at Riverside Church in New York. This was the first demand for reparations, in this case it was monetary, for $500 million. She describes the reaction and how national church bodies side-stepped the demand. But for the first time, there was a call for repentance and for a redress for harms done. As she turns to what a contemporary pursuit of a reparation paradigm would mean, she contends it means addressing “race as a social construct, an emphasis on racial particularity, and the focus on the repair of unjust structures” (italics in the text). She then considers what might be learned from Vine Deloria’s reparation efforts for Tribal groups, and the examples of several church bodies in Maryland (still in process at the time of writing).

This book has me wrestling. I am convinced that healing our nation’s original sin of racism against both Black and Native peoples means more than inclusion, more even than reconciliation. I do not see that we have ever in any national sense acknowledged how we’ve not only committed wrong, but also embedded injustice into our systems and structures. Nor have we committed ourselves to a serious and persisting effort to root these out of our structures. The work advocated in this book is for churches to begin this effort, rather than for a public policy agenda. I could see this extending to national bodies and to church-related institutions–colleges and seminaries. What I wrestle with is whether the will is there, particularly in our present climate. Yet I hear the longing of many for spiritual revival in the church. Isaiah 58 tells me that there is no true revival without repentance and reparation, of concerted efforts to pursue justice and remove oppression. Isaiah 58:12 addresses the repair aspect of this:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

It seems to me that it would be good to be known as Repairers of Broken Walls and Restorers of Streets with Dwellings. Harvey remains hopeful. Amid the protests of this summer, a new edition of this book was published (the link is to the new edition, my review is of the first). She addresses in an introduction the changes that have happened since 2014, and also includes an appendix that gives more practical guidance of what a reparations paradigm might look like in practice. Hopefully, there will be White Christians who will read and listen, who will kneel in prayer and arise with their tool belts on to begin the work of repair.

Review: The Message of Wisdom

The Message of Wisdom, (Bible Speaks Today). Daniel J. Estes. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of the theme of wisdom, primarily in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament but also incorporating other passages in scripture including those in the New Testament focusing on the culmination of wisdom in Christ.

I’m not sure there has ever been an age when wisdom has been in abundant supply. In this work, Daniel J. Estes, an Old Testament professor at Cedarville University surveys the biblical material focusing around the Wisdom books of scripture: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. His method is to present and elucidate the key passages in scripture on wisdom and to allow these texts to speak for themselves. Very simply, he believes the intent of wisdom in the Proverbs and throughout scripture is to “guide human beings, and especially the young, in the direction of the good life, not as contemporary culture measures it, but as the Lord defines it.”

He organizes his study of the biblical material into five sections:

  1. The Concept of Wisdom. Through expositions of Proverbs 1, 2, 8, and 9, centering around the idea of the fear of the Lord as the beginning or source of wisdom, reflected in a life centered around obeying God and trusting his teaching.
  2. The Context of Wisdom. Here, Estes widens his focus to the rest of the Old Testament considering history in the law, history, prophecy, and in Psalm 112. Throughout the choice between wisdom and folly is clearly evident.
  3. The Conduct of Wisdom. Estes examines the teaching of Proverbs in four aspects that pervade daily life: work, speech, decisions and righteousness.
  4. The Complexity of Wisdom. What happens when the law of retribution does not work–when the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to thrive? Job and Ecclesiastes address life when this principle doesn’t work and how to live wisely, by trusting in the all-knowing God, and enjoying as it is given, God’s good gifts in life.
  5. The Culmination of Wisdom. Here as in other things, wisdom finds its fulfillment in Christ, who teaches wisdom and is the wisdom of God. To know him is to know wisdom’s source and to walk in wisdom.

While Estes provides lexical and contextual help, the focus is clearly expository and applicative. One hears in Estes writing a teacher who cares that his students walk in wisdom, and who understands how they can be drawn away from it into folly. In his chapter on wisdom in speech, he offers these insights in his concluding section of the chapter:

“Why is it so hard for us to be truthful? Truthfulness can fail for many reasons, but oftentimes it surrenders to fear. We fail to be truthful because we fear criticism, but then we end up looking like cowards when the truth eventually comes out. We fail to be truthful because we fear responsibility, but we end up trapped in a web of our deceptions. We fail to be truthful because we fear the personal cost of getting hurt, but we end up enslaved to the guilty conscience pricked by our dishonesty. We fail to be truthful because we fear upsetting others, but we end up missing the chance to provide constructive reproof that would actually help them” (pp. 121-122).

The book from beginning to end reflects a kind of exegetical and moral clarity much needed in our day, beginning within the Christian community. Engaging this work is aided by a study guide written by Ian Macnair that follows the passages treated in the text, aiding in personal study and group discussion. This book is a gem for those who want to learn to live well and wisely with God and others.

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

Review: A Rule Against Murder

A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache #4), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2008.

Summary: The Gamache’s getaway to a peaceful lodge is interrupted, first by an unloving family reunion, and then by the death of one of the family, crushed under a statue. Meanwhile, the naming of a child forces Gamache to face his own family history.

Manoir Bellechasse is one of the most exclusive and peaceful getaways in Quebec, and just a stone’s throw from Three Pines. Armand and Reine Marie Gamache have come here for anniversaries for many years, reveling in the hospitality of Madame Dubois. Displaced by a family reunion of a demanding and unhappy family, they are once again in the smaller back room where they had spent their first visit to the auberge. They are treated by the family as “shopkeepers” who didn’t belong. They observe and befriend the strange child, Bean, whose gender is unknown. S/he is Mariannas’s child, a quirky single mom. There is Thomas, the seeming business success, Julia, perfect it seems in every way, but recovering from divorcing her husband, in prison for securities fraud. They talk disparagingly of “Spot and Clare” called the greediest of all. Given this, imagine the surprise of the Gamaches when they discover that Spot and Clare are Peter and Clara Morrow, artists from Three Pines who have become good friends. The family is together for their mother Irene, and their barely tolerated step-father, Bert Finney. The father, Charles Morrow had died some years earlier and would be remembered by the unveiling of a statue that Manoir Bellechasse agreed to give a home in exchange for a substantial gift.

The place to which they have come offers peace, attentive hospitality, and safety, away from the world’s troubles. Madame Dubois and her deceased husband turned an old hunting lodge into a premiere getaway. She remembers her husband in every corner of the inn. Pierre Patenaude is the maitre d’ and along with Chef Veronique are the two permanent residents, alongside Madame Dubois. Pierre oversees the wait staff, young people from all over English-speaking Canada to learn French, and the skills of serving and attending to the needs of guests. Most are trying to “find” themselves. One, Elliot from Vancouver, the same city as Julia, is the exception to the rest who are grateful for Pierre and Veronique’s attentions. He is determined to defy Pierre.

The statue of Charles is unveiled, surprising all with its expression of sadness. That night, the family’s ugliness unfolds in front of the Gamache’s. Julie throws a cup to the floor, crying out “Stop it, I’ve had enough.” and proceeds to eviscerate each of her siblings, including Peter, who she calls cruel and greedy. She concludes by looking around at all of them, and says “I know Daddy’s secret.” Overnight, a terrible storm hits. The next morning, Gamache is aroused from his breakfast reveries by screams, coming from the gardener, Colleen, who has found Julia crushed beneath the statue of her father, arms out as in an embrace.

The question is not only who could have done this but how. The heavy statue would be impossible to push off the pedestal. Furthermore, there were no marks on the pedestal. Even the sculptor has no explanation for this. Gamache, de Beauvoir, and LaCoste gather, and patiently unravel the stories of the family, and those who work at the inn. But “how” eludes them.

Meanwhile Gamache wrestles with his own family’s past, thrown in his face both by his son Daniel, and by the Finney family. His father had been a pacifist, and had been accused of lack of courage. This is brought up by the family in their anger and grief. But his son has gotten their first. The son wants to name their first child, if he is a boy, Honore’, Gamache’s father’s name. Because of the disgrace with which his father was regarded, Armand opposes this, at the risk of estranging his son.

Penny continues to develop Gamache, exploring the ways his father’s life, who he lost at eleven, shaped who he is. We also discover that Peter Morrow may be a more complicated character than we thought, the one other character in a previous murder that Gamache thought capable of becoming a murderer. The conversations between him and Gamache offer Peter the chance to expose the complications of his story.

After the intricate plot and tense climax involving Bean, Gamache sits with Bert Finney on the dock by the lake. Throughout the book, it was thought that Bert, an accountant was doing his sums. It turns out that he was, counting his blessings. He leaves us with a stunning piece of wisdom:

We’re all blessed and we’re all blighted, Chief Inspector,” said Finney. “Every day each of us does our sums. The question is, what do we count?”

Review: White Evangelical Racism

White Evangelical Racism, Anthea Butler. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, (Forthcoming, March) 2021.

Summary: A short history of the evangelical movement in the United States, showing its ties to racism and white supremacy from the time of slavery down to the present.

This was an uncomfortable book for me to read and review. In our racialized society, I would be identified as white. By conviction, I would identify as evangelical. What troubles me about this account is that it makes a good case that the evangelicalism in America with which I am identified is inextricably bound up with the history of racism, America’s original sin, as Jim Wallis has called it.

Anthea Butler offers in this book a concise historical account of white evangelicalism’s complicity in racism. She traces that history from the support of slavery in white, mostly southern churches. She follows this through post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the support of white churches for segregation, and the participation of churches in lynchings. While some mainline denominations gave support to the civil rights movement, evangelicals remained on the sideline, calling this a “social gospel.”

Butler is not the first to note that the coalescing of evangelical political engagement in the Seventies and Eighties came as much around the denial of tax exemption for segregated schools like Bob Jones University as it did around opposition to abortion, which was originally not an evangelical cause. She traces the rise of organizations like Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition that led to an increasing alliance of evangelicalism with the Republican party, culminating in the support of 81 percent of self-identifying evangelicals with Donald Trump in 2016 despite race-baiting language, anti-immigration stances, and support of white nationalistic aims.

Perhaps no one person has defined American evangelicalism more than Billy Graham and so Butler devotes a chapter to him. While he desegregated his meetings, and hosted black speakers on his platform, and even include a black evangelist on his team, he took care to distance himself from the civil rights movement as it embraced nonviolent civil disobedience. King may have shared his platform once, but no more. Graham also preached against communism, associated by many in the South with the civil rights movement. His record was ambiguous at best and in the end, the focus remained on winning people to Christ rather than unequivocal stands for racial justice.

Parts of me wanted to protest against this sweeping indictment by citing the abolitionist efforts of northern evangelicals, and other socially engaged efforts in the nineteenth century. Butler does mention this as well as other forays like that of the Promise Keepers into racial reconciliation. The sad fact is none of these movements prevailed over the long haul in standing against white supremacism. The first decade and a half of the twenty-first century saw some promising evangelical initiatives around racial reconciliation and immigration reform, only for these to wither over the last five years.

I also wanted to protest that evangelicalism is not inherently white. Black and Latino churches in this country share the same theology. And people globally identify with the same theological convictions that form the core of American evangelical belief. I’ve been in a meeting with representatives of over 150 countries where this was the case, where those of my skin color were a minority. But in the ways American evangelicalism has separated itself from its Black and Latino kindred, the judgment stands. The typical first response of many white evangelicals to a Christian person of color trying to talk about racial injustice is to defend and argue rather than listen to a fellow Christian. We seem remarkably untroubled that divisions by race in our churches mirror our political divisions.

Butler, a former evangelical who still cares about this movement, reaches this sobering conclusion:

“Evangelicalism is at a precipice. It is no longer a movement to which Americans look for a moral center. American evangelicalism lacks social, political, and spiritual effectiveness in the twentyfirst century. It has become a religion lodged within political party. It is a religion that promotes issues important almost exclusively to white conservatives. Evangelicalism embraces racists and says that evangelicals’ interests, and only theirs, are the most important for all American citizens.”

I have no defense against this. I fear evangelicalism in the United States may be like the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2:1-7. The church was marked by its orthodoxy and yet Jesus has this to say: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV). I fear we are at imminent risk of losing our lampstand, that is, our witness within the culture. In fact, I find most churches are more concerned about political interests than even their historical distinction of seeing lost people come to Christ. Butler’s message mirrors that of Jesus in Revelation. This book is a call to repentance. The trajectory of history is not inevitable. We can turn away from the precipice. But I fear the time is short.

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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.