Review: Basil

Basil

Basil (Oxford World Classics), Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1852).

Summary: The account of a secret marriage between an aristocrat’s son and the daughter of a shopkeeper and all the ways things went terribly wrong.

You are the second, and favored son of a wealthy aristocrat. Your older brother, Ralph, is alienated from your stern father because of his indiscretions. Your sister, Clara, adores you, and delights in your company and wants only the best for you in all things.

And then one day you are smitten with a young girl you see on an omnibus–so smitten you discretely follow her home. Subsequently you see her in her window, talking to her parrot. You know this is love. You learn she is Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, a shop keeper well below your social class. You know your father would never countenance such a relationship. Keeping your intentions secret from him and your sister, you manage an interview with Margaret’s father, speaking of your love, and seeking her hand in marriage. Mr. Sherwin agrees on one condition–that they marry in a week but not consummate the relationship for a year. He also has to take an insurance policy on his life. Without consulting anyone, he accepts. And so begins a strange relationship that eventuates in a betrayal, insanity, exile, death and mortal danger to the title character.

Basil goes through with the wedding, and is permitted to see her regularly, chaperoned by Mrs. Sherwin, who seems disturbed in some way about all this. Basil keeps all of this secret from his family. They know he has a secret, which estranges him, even as they respect the secret in their rectitude, and in Clara’s case, her affection and concern. At first, things seem wonderful between Margaret and Basil, with evenings spent reading and talking together.  Then Mr. Sherwin’s assistant Robert Mannion returns, with whom Mrs. Sherwin is decidedly uneasy. Margaret’s mood seems to change at this time, even as Mannion acts with unfailing courtesy toward Basil, even welcoming him to his apartment on a stormy night. As they part, a bolt of lightening illuminates Mannion’s face, giving it a sinister appearance. Only on the evening before the year is up does Basil discover the evil when he spots Mannion escorting Margaret, not to her home, but a hotel room!

I won’t spoil the rest of the story except that this is where the tale of insanity, betrayal, mortal danger, and death comes in–along with an element of family revenge. The buildup to all these things occupies roughly the first half of the book, and, at least this reader found himself wanting to shake Basil and alert him to how he is being taken advantage of by this conspiracy of father and daughter, and of the sinister Mannion. Ah, love is blind! It is the second half that is riveting as all of this blows up in Basil’s face, and his secret is exposed to his family. These pages seemed to read much more quickly, particularly as we discover the mania of Mannion (interesting name for a character!).

This is early Wilkie Collins, his second novel (the first was destroyed) and second publication, the first being a memoir on his father’s life. The plot seems a bit to obvious, and the characters are caricatures to a certain degree. It is obvious that Collins can tell a story, in this case through a first person narrative of the title character, and the story redeems some of the other flaws.

There are at least two aspects of Victorian society that Collins exposes. One is the rigid class structures that prevent marrying below one’s class and engender both the harsh rectitude of Basil’s father, and the resentments of Mr. Sherwin and the vengeance of Mannion.

The inferior place of women in this social structure also is in evidence. Basil and Mr. Sherwin really decide Margaret’s fate. Mrs. Sherwin is silenced (at least until the climactic events of the story). Clara is the loving but ineffectual sister. Ralph, the outlaw brother, is the one who gets things done. Margaret can only assert her wishes through manipulation, or an adulterous affair.

It seems here that Collins evolves in his later fiction. Consider the contrast between these characters and Valeria in The Law and the Lady (review). The Victorian structures still exist, but Collins has begun to envision stronger women characters and more creative plot possibilities for them.

If you are a Wilkie Collins fan and have read works like The Moonstone, or The Woman in White, or the above-mentioned The Law and the Lady, you will find this work of interest not only for the themes, but to see the development of Collins’s skill. If you are just discovering Collins, one of the first to write in the genre of crime fiction, I would go with either The Moonstone or The Woman in White first, and if you find you like him, then delve into other works, including this, the earliest published of his novels.

 

 

Review: Grit

Grit

Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceAngela Duckworth. Scribner: New York, 2016.

Summary: Contends that those who achieve outstanding success combine purposeful passion with perseverance–in other words, they have grit.

Angela Duckworth came to a realization as a psychologist that psychology had no good theory of achievement. Talent, IQ, test scores, fitness–none of these were reliable predictors of who would achieve high measures of success. An answer began to emerge as she and colleagues studied those who survived “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of training of cadets at West Point. It came down to the fact that cadets who made it simply did not give up. This led to her developing the first “Grit Scale” which turned out to be the first reliable measure of which cadets would make it through. Duckworth has become convinced that most attempts to assess potential end up getting distracted by talent. The real issue is effort times two. Effort develops talent into skill and effort turns skill into achievement. Perseverance in effort, though, is fueled by purpose. Clarity in top level goals and ruthless evaluating low and mid-level goals in their light is critical. Duckworth concludes this discussion with the example of Robert Mankoff, who had nearly 2,000 cartoons rejected by The New Yorker before getting one accepted in 1977. The real key was determining that he was funny and loved doing this more than anything. From 1997 to 2017, he was cartoon editor, and now is an ongoing contributor.

There is hope for all of us. Duckworth offers a Grit Scale readers can take. Her research suggests that grit can grow over a lifetime as we define a sense of purpose and learn to pick ourselves up after failure and keep going.  It starts with identifying and developing an interest–noticing where our mind goes when it wanders, noticing what we enjoy in a task. Then we develop an interest, exploring its nuances, what keeps making it even more interesting. Practice is key. Gritty people not only practice more but they practice deliberately. They have goals and focus in their practice. Ultimately interest arrives at purpose, a sense of calling, of why one is in the world. Purpose in turn needs to be sustained by hope. Here, one of the key insights is the idea of attribution retraining–the conclusions we draw from events good or bad–are they focused on success or growth. Success says “your a natural. I love that.” Growth says, “you’re a learner. I love that.” Success says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.” Growth says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.

Duckworth discusses not only how we cultivate grit, but how others can cultivate it “from the outside in.” Parents cultivate grit by combining high support and high demands. She talks about the Hard Thing Rule in her family: 1) everyone has to do a hard thing, 2) no quitting is allowed until the season or term or whatever interval to which you have committed yourself is over, and 3) each person picks their own hard thing. She studies the “cultures of grit at J.P. Morgan Chase, with the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll, and at West Point. One of her most valuable insights comes from Carroll–the commitment to finish strong in everything.

Duckworth explains her research by examples from her own life and from clients she has worked with and studied across the spectrum of human endeavors. I loved her insights on practice. One of my “hard things” is music, something I’ve picked up late in life. It has been enriching to apply her ideas on deliberate practice to my practice of a major choral work we are performing later this month. Instead of just going over a part, I will work on pronunciation, or counting time to get my entrances down rather than listening to other parts (which usually makes you late). One practice session, I’ll focus on dynamics. Another time, I’ll go over the sections I don’t have “down” until I do.

I’m also fascinated by the high demand-high support culture that creates gritty performance–whether it is parents, sports teams, or businesses. There is both empathy and care, and the relentless demand to keep improving, keep growing, keep stretching. Finally the relationship between perseverance and purpose is intriguing. Perseverance both realizes and expands purpose, and purpose sustains perseverance when it is grounded in hope.

It strikes me in reading this that all of us are capable of more than we think we are. Duckworth’s book suggests that we have hard work to do in two areas. One is in paying attention to the things we really care about and relentlessly focusing our lives around them. Then there is the hard work of turning a talent and a passion into a skill, and the further work of using those skills with determination and focus to achieve worthy goals. That’s grit.

 

Review: Sinners and Saints

 

sinners and saints

Sinners and SaintsDerek Cooper. Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An unvarnished summary of the first five hundred years of church history, looking unflinchingly at the flaws, as well as the favorable qualities of early Christians.

Perhaps the worst thing any institution, and especially the church, can do is to pretend that it is better than it really is. As disheartening as it is to hear of respected leaders guilty of very human failings, it is even more repugnant when those leaders, and sometimes powerful institutions behind them, cover up those failings in images of sweetness and light. In so doing, institutions try to “gin up” their own sham holiness, instead of the genuine holiness God works when meeting people in their brokenness.

Derek Cooper believes that many of our church histories reflect this same pretense in portraying the church and its leading figures. This work, which covers the first five hundred years of church history, and is first of a series, takes a different approach. Cooper writes:

“Unlike countless other church history books that dance around the distasteful details of our Christian past, let’s humanize our history. Counterintuitively, perhaps, let’s emphasize as much grit as glory, let’s feature as much flesh as faith, and let’s showcase as many sinners as saints. It’s important for you to know at the onset, however, that we are not going to do this because we think mudslinging is a spiritual discipline, but only because we believe truth-telling is. I, personally, have no desire to sully the reputation of saints, nor do I find any pleasure in wallowing in the faults of our most faithful. When I air the dirty laundry of our most hallowed heroes and heroines, I am fully aware of all the clean clothes they have neatly pressed and attractively arrayed in their dresser drawers. Because of the nature of this book, I will not usually refer to that clean laundry; but make no mistake: I know it is there” (p. 11).

The approach of the book is thematic rather than chronological. He surveys these ten themes, and here are some of the highlights and my takeaways:

  1. Daily life. Except for the rich it was dirty, toilsome, and short.
  2. Leadership. From Paul on Christian leaders “led with a limp” and often fought tenaciously in controversy. Damasus, who commissioned the Vulgate translation, fought a bloody battle for his papacy in which 137 died.
  3. Martyrdom. While some martyrs died nobly, martyrdom was often sought in almost suicidal passion by some. Before his martyrdom, in pursuit of holiness, Origin castrated himself.
  4. Church faith and practice. In many respects, it would have looked strange to us: dinners in graveyards, holy kissing (and perhaps not-so-holy), and nude baptisms.
  5. Apologetics. This arose in response to attack on the church from both Romans and Jews. Able defenders like Justin Martyr and Chrysostom also helped introduce anti-Semitism to Christian rhetoric.
  6. The family tree of heresy and orthodoxy. From the beginning, controversy existed between the line of Simon the Magician and Simon Peter when it came to defining Christian orthodoxy. Cooper traces the rise of apostolic succession in the bishop of Rome as the authoritative means of adjudicating doctrinal disputes and defining heresy.
  7. Canon and apocrypha. Cooper discusses both the criteria of canonical New Testament books but the contents of the apocryphal ones–everything from apocryphal infancy and childhood narratives to the possibility that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s girlfriend. He also discusses the recently found fragment of The Gospel of Judas.
  8. God and money. With the growth and eventually Constantinian patronage of the church, the question became how to interpret (or re-interpret) the radical gospel teaching about money, widening the needle’s eye, as it were for the increasingly rich patrons of the church.
  9. Sexuality. Cooper traces how the church moved beyond chastity in its response to the promiscuity of the Roman world (where wives were simply for the procreation of legitimate heirs, and husbands sought pleasure elsewhere with both sexes) to the sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes clear privileging of abstinence and celibacy that reflected a view of all sexual intimacy as filthy. In the cases of both Jerome and Augustine, their own sexual histories may well have shaped their subsequent views.
  10. Missions: We learn about the spread of Christianity to other parts of the world–Africa, India, and Armenia–which may very well hold the title as the oldest Christian nation on earth.

Cooper writes in an engaging, witty style and definitely achieves his aim of an honest account of the failings and foibles and follies of the early Christians. While almost none of this was new to me, it was helpful to find this material in a work of popular scholarship, not buried in turgid text or footnotes, or hurled at the Christian community without context in an atheist diatribe.

In his introduction, Cooper alludes to the “clean clothes” of these saints, and that he “know[s] it is there.” I believe he does, and the text shows some evidence of this. However, I would not commend this as a stand-alone history of this period but as a complement to a standard church history text, particularly in an introductory church history course. Not everyone will know about the “clean laundry.” Most good modern church histories are not hagiographies, but this book serves as a good complement in “keeping it real.”

Just as it does not do the church well to conceal its flaws, controversies, and most grievous sins, it likewise does not serve well to gloss over these in our histories. An honest rendering, in books like this, reminds us of the challenges the church has always faced, from within as well as from without. It also reminds us of the providence of God– that through such flawed, broken people the Christian message has spread throughout the world, and with it literacy, universities, hospitals, and the rule of law, as well as unhelpful things like colonialism. Ultimately, the story isn’t about how good we are but rather how sovereignly gracious God has been with this motley bunch of sinner-saints.

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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: Modern Technology and the Human Future

modern tech

Modern Technology and the Human FutureCraig M. Gay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the factors shaping modern technology and how a mechanical view that fails to acknowledge embodiment has diminished human flourishing.

Unplugging retreats. Technology sabbaths. Concerns about technology addictions. These are all symptoms of a growing unease with how technology, rather than serving and enhancing human existence, is shaping and controlling and diminishing our lives. Craig M. Gay digs into the factors that have shaped our technological world, and how we might think Christianly about technology. He contends that what we need are not practical, technological fixes but a different philosophical and theological perspective to shape our development of and engagement with technology.

Gay begins by describing some of the ways that technology, far from enhancing human existence has diminished us, particularly in de-skilling us in both mechanical skills and cognitive function, and through invading our private lives. He traces much of this to the development of a mechanical view of the world coupled with an economic logic driving increasing efficiency, and assembly and bureaucratic control systems that have shaped the development of a technological worldview. Gay summarizes a discussion drawing on the work of theorists ranging from Charles Taylor to Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul as follows:

“As we have now seen, this mechanical world picture has deep and extensive roots within the Western tradition. To use Charles Taylor’s terms, modern culture is characterized by an ‘instrumental stance’ toward life, a stance that is ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that it has arisen from a number of different sources and is even now buttressed by compelling convictions concerning the meaning and purpose of human life. Not only is the instrumental stance supported by modern science, Taylor observes, but it has also become, largely by way of religious convictions, central within the modern ethical outlook. That outlook continues to place a high value upon taking rational and efficacious control of all things by way of methods, procedures, techniques, and technologies” (p. 129).

Gay contends that, for Christians, we must return to a Christian narrative of “where we are and who we are.” A mechanical/technological worldview loses sight of a creation brought into existence as a loving work of God and our own embodied existence. Far from a gnostic, “virtual reality,” God considers our embodied existence good. Instead of facing our fallenness, humans often have resorted to technology to evade and transcend the vulnerabilities of our bodies, and the reality of death. The redemptive work of Christ delivers us from our own technological attempts to save or extend our lives with the hope of resurrection. He contends for an approach to technology that “practices resurrection” in it valuing of human embodied existence, and adopts a non-mechanical way of relating to the world as a creation to be loved rather than stuff to be manipulated.

This is not a “how to” book on managing your technology. Gay does something far more challenging. He teases out the way of thinking that has become our “default mode” for engaging our world, even for those of us who claim to embrace a “Christian worldview.” His insights on how the logic of money is connected to technological development is worthy of reflection for those who claim to worship God rather than Mammon. It is rare, for example, to hear Christians reflect on how the logic of money has destroyed local “Main Streets” in our preference for big box and online vendors that enable us to buy more stuff for less, while destroying vibrant local economies and personal connection with vendors. Gay is also one of a growing number of prophetic voices awakening us to the dignity of our embodied life and future destiny. He invites us to recover a relationship of love and care for a creation that drives us to careful, even scientific study, but not mechanical exploitation, of God’s good creation.

Technology will not go away. Gay helps us see we have a choice between depersonalizing technological thinking, and a creational, incarnational, and embodied engagement with technology that pursues the flourishing of people and creation. The quality of future human existence may well depend not only on what we do, but how we think.

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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: Welcoming Justice

welcoming justice

Welcoming Justice (expanded edition), Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018 (original edition 2009).

Summary: A renewed call for the church to pursue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community” even in a day of increased white nationalism and polarization.

When this book was first published in 2009, the first African-American president had been elected. Nine years later, the vision of “beloved community” that appeared to be on the horizon, now feels like a distant memory. Charles Marsh, in his new preface acknowledges the current circumstances in the events in his home town of Charlottesville where Heather Heyer, simply standing in solidarity against the demonstrations of white nationalists, died when struck by a vehicle driven into the crowd by a white nationalist from Ohio.

Yet Marsh, and his co-author, John M. Perkins, a leader in Christian community development work, have not given up on the vision of Dr. King. Both believe that despite appearances, there is a movement of God afoot toward “beloved community. In alternating chapters, the two authors share why they are still hopeful, and what they believe needs to happen.

Marsh leads off with the contention that the Civil Rights movement lost its vision and cohesion as a movement when it lost its connection to a church-based and gospel based vision of “beloved community.” At the same time, he sees movements, like that which Perkins has led at Voice of Calvary, continuing this gospel-based vision in its focus on relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Perkins, however, contends that the church, to realize such a vision, needs to give up its captivities to culture which has so divided it. He makes the fascinating observation that the neglect of outreach to a white underclass has made them open to the counterfeit community of the Klan. The challenge is to forsake the dividing lines of our captivities to reach out across those lines in the power of Christ.

Marsh then writes of the need for true conversion in our lives, a conversion that is always personal, even as it has social implications. He movingly recounts his first encounter with Perkins as a student staying with his segregationist grandmother. Perkins answer came not in an argument of what was wrong with segregation, but to send a gift of blueberries from his garden as his gift to her. Marsh in reflection writes:

“The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches or the cultural relevance of our pastors. It depends, instead, on our ability to sing better songs in our lives. True conversion is always personal, but it is never sole about the individual who experiences God’s love and knows the good news of salvation. True conversion is about learning to sing songs in which our life harmonizes with others’–even the lives of those least like us–and swells into a joyful and irresistible chorus” (p. 78).

Perkins responds with stories of the young men and women he has the joy of working with, and the hope this gives him for awakening. He doesn’t speak of programs but of loving people, those of his own community, and those who come to learn, and then go and pursue a vision of community development across the country. Marsh in turn writes about the inner life of silent embrace of the gospel of the kingdom that sustains the practice of peace over the long haul. Perkins writes the final chapter calling for a re-building of our cities, interrupting the brokenness of our cities as churches re-assert their own love of the places and people to which they are called, forming the character of their young.

The question I had as I read this in the light of the present time is how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful. I think the difference between them and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose Between the World and Me I reviewed yesterday) comes down to the former’s belief in the gospel of the kingdom. Perkins knows the violence against blacks as well, or perhaps even better than Coates, growing up in Mississippi. He was beaten and thrown in jail unjustly by police. Perkins has experienced the power of the love of God in his own life, and devoted a life to loving his place and pursuing reconciliation. What he and Marsh describe seems to be illustrative of the parable of the mustard seed, where small, seemingly insignificant efforts, like Perkin’s work in Mendenhall, not only bring local healing and reconciliation, but spawn movements of people committed to King’s vision of the beloved community. Perhaps the real question is not how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful, but will we forsake our cultural captivities and join them in their hope and embrace God’s movement toward “beloved community?”

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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: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Summary: Coates extended letter to his son following the Michael Brown verdict on the struggle for the dignity of his people against the violence to their bodies by those who “believe they are White” and part of a pursuit of a Dream built “on looting and violence.”

Th-Nehisi Coates fashioned this work as an extended letter to his son, Samori (whose name means “struggle”) following the decision that there would be no indictment against the policeman involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Samori, on hearing the news, simply responded “I’ve got to go” as he went to his room and wept.

This letter is Coates attempt to articulate what it means to believe in the beauty and dignity of one’s people in a world where the black body is often the object of violence. He describes growing up on the West side of Baltimore with a severe father who often beat him, declaring that it would either be him or the police, where Black children had to be “twice as good.” He describes the sobering moment when another boy pulls a gun on him, and his realization that violence to the body could snuff out a life and nullify all his effort in a moment. He recounts his engagements with “those who believe they are white,” whose pursuit of an American dream, has come at the cost of “looting and violence” against the black body.

He shifts the scene to Howard University, a Black Mecca where every form of what it meant to be a beautiful and great people was celebrated, often in a walk across the Yard, the green space on campus. He recounts his intellectual life in the Moorland Library, his loves, and the girl he lost to Prince Jones. He falls in loves again with the woman who gave him his son.

After leaving Howard, and having his own encounter with the fearsome Prince George police, he learns that the beautiful young man he knew as Prince Jones was followed by these same police in plain clothes across the D.C. area, and killed when supposedly he had tried to run them down.

He struggles as a young writer and father in New York, when a white woman pushes his young son aside to get on a subway. He stands up to her, and describes his subsequent conflicted feelings as he realizes how much he has risked his son’s safety while standing up for his son’s dignity. There are other moments in Chicago, covering the humiliation of an eviction in North Lawndale.

Coates recounts a respite during a trip to Paris, where for a brief moment he experiences what it is like to live without fear for violence against his body. And then he narrates his encounter with Dr. Mable Jones, the mother of Prince. She rose from being the child of sharecroppers to being chief of radiology in a Philadelphia hospital. She bought cars for her children including the Jeep in which Prince was killed. The conversation reflects both her Christian faith and deep grief that all for which she worked could be lost in a moment to law enforcement officials who would not be held to account.

Coates, who has rejected any religion, is provoked to wonder:

“…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.”

In his concluding words to his son, however, he does not have much hope to offer the son who he obviously loves deeply, but only the struggle expressed in his name:

“And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

I found myself reacting in a number of ways to this work. One was to just sit and absorb it and try to imagine a life lived every day with the awareness both of the preciousness of one’s body, and that it could be snuffed out in an instant by powerful others. I had to sit with the incredible pressure of constantly thinking I had to be twice as good because of the color of my skin. I had to sit and think what it must be like to want a different life for one’s children, and yet recognize that one’s own struggle, and peril, will be theirs as well.

The closest it seems that Coates gets to the transcendent is his descriptions of The Mecca of Howard, and his time in France. But I wondered what it must be like to glimpse goodness, truth, and beauty only to find it submerged in the ever-looming danger of structures that oppress, and powers that may kill, and a life of struggle against them.

Coates helps me to see how evil is the social construction we call “race.” He does this by speaking of people who believe they are white, who paint themselves white. One of the most sobering realizations that comes through is that this social construction not only is deadly for those labeled “black,” but also that the construction is deadly for “whites” as well. A former pastor once made the comment that “the American dream is killing us.” Racism is a burden for those who call themselves white. It drives us into suburbs, an automobile and energy dependent culture, the costs of maintaining a system of mass incarceration and much more.

I find myself thinking about the almost wistful longing Coates has for the faith that shaped Dr. Mable Jones life, and yet the sadness that such a faith could not protect her son. Coates challenges me that my work is not to persuade him of the Christian vision so much as to confront and repent from an American Dream that necessitates the struggle that he and his son alike face, and that is indeed our deathbed. It is time for such dreams to die, and for those who embrace the faith of Dr. Jones to lean into the call to the peaceable kingdom and beloved community. I think Coates is right that it is we “Dreamers” who need a conversion.

 

Review: Democracy May Not Exist, But We Will Miss It When It’s Gone

Democracy

Democracy May Not Exist, But We Will Miss It When It’s GoneAstra Taylor. New York: Metropolitan Books, (Forthcoming May 7,) 2019.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we speak of democracy, argues that real democracy has never existed, and explores the balance of paradoxes or tensions inherent in the idea of democracy.

All kinds of people toss around the language of democracy. We may contend that part of American greatness is its democratic institutions. A movement toward democracy has offered hope for many countries. The official name of North Korea is The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Astra Taylor poses the question in this book of what it is we mean when we speak of democracy. On its face, it seems simple, the word is a compound of the Greek terms for “people” (demos) and “rule” (kratia), hence the idea of the rule of the people. Taylor’s argument in this book is that a perfect democracy has never existed, that the best we have are approximations, but that striving for closer approximations is worth the struggle and something significant would be loss if we yield to the forces that diminish democracy.

Taylor resorts to an analysis of tensions within existing democracies that reflect the struggle between its ideals and its shortcomings. The book explores eight tensions:

  1. Freedom versus equality. Often some have been free-er than others, who sometimes are losers in the system, sometimes branded as inferior and marginalized.
  2. Conflict versus consensus. Rule of the people seems to imply deliberation leading to consensus, yet on many things people conflict, and “consensus” simply reflects what those in power enact.
  3. Inclusion versus exclusion. The question here is, “who are the people?” Often, supposed democracies have excluded or marginalized groups of people within a state. Women, blacks, LGBTQ persons, those of lower economic status may argue that they have lacked a voice in the deliberations of democracy.
  4. Coercion versus choice. While we speak of government exercising its power by the consent of the governed, this often results in behavior that is coerced in subtle and not so subtle ways. There are roadways I would be crazy to try to navigate on a bicycle or as a pedestrian. The rule of law reflects ways we have structured our economic life that shape our behavior in certain directions. At times, acts of civil disobedience are the only choice one has in the face of an unjust coercive law.
  5. Spontaneity versus structure. Often existing structures (for example gerrymandered districts, or restrictions of voting rights through efforts thwarting voting registration or voting) only change in consequence of spontaneous actions uprising against structures that are apparently “democratic.”
  6. Expertise versus mass opinion. Can a “Socratic mob” rule? Don’t we need experts for the complicated decisions that must be made in a society? Shouldn’t parents just defer to “trained educators” on what is best for their children?
  7. Local versus global. We live in an increasing global village, and yet, is not democracy most achievable at the local level? Do not local decisions have ripple effects all the way up to a global scale?
  8. Present versus future. What are the rights of those yet to be born in our democratic system, weighed against those currently alive, or even those who lived in the past whose influence may still be felt (for example, the limiting of inheritance taxes to all but the wealthiest estates that concentrate wealth among a few). Likewise, our environmental policies have implications for generations we will not see.

All of this is delivered in a lively style, translating political philosophy into easily understood prose, and illustrated with contemporary as well as historical examples.

While Taylor distinguishes her analysis from a strictly Marxist approach of identifying contradictions leading to the collapse of the system, her solution seems to rely on Marxian and Gramscian analysis, and in fact, a kind of uprising of the proletariat, that is a reform from below and admits that her economic vision is one of socialist redistribution of resources. There are suggestions in this book that it is time for a new form of constitution. I find all of this troubling, in some ways a modern equivalent of the French revolution of 1789. Democracy can disappear in a variety of ways, whether through nationalist plutocrats or liberal revolutionaries with their own statist solutions.

What this points up however is that these ideas become popular precisely when supposedly democratic leaders move away from democratic ideals–the importance of all of our citizens, a determined focus on social inequities and the limiting of rapacious capitalism. Books like Taylor’s are a wake up call to those who may least like what she is saying to take a hard look at how well all “the people” are served by our government. It is also a challenge to every one of us who calls themselves a citizen to take a hard look at what is taking place in our democratic institutions, and what it means for us to exercise responsible citizenship in this present time.

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

Review: The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

The Rise and Fall of Peace on EarthMichael Mandelbaum. New York: Oxford University Press, (Forthcoming, March 1,) 2019.

Summary: Develops the thesis that 1989-2014 represented a singular period of widespread peace marked by absence of conflict between major powers, and what might lead to a return to peace in the future.

Michael Mandelbaum proposes that the period between 1989 and 2014 was a singular period in recent history of global peace. At first glance, I want to say, “you’ve got to be kidding.” My mind goes to Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, 9/11, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, just for starters. Yet each of these represented more localized conflicts rather than globe-spanning conflicts between superpowers.

During this period, the old Soviet Union was dismantled with the Eastern Bloc countries gaining autonomy, and in some instances, more democratic forms of government. Even Russia, under Boris Yeltsin took halting steps toward democracy and more of a capitalist system. In East Asia, the opening of commercial trade relationships with China eased tensions with its Communist government. In the Middle East, for a period after the Kuwait War, most or all accepted the U.S as a “benevolent hegemon” (at least until our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan).

Why did it all change? Mandelbaum traces the rise of autocratic nationalist leadership in Russia, China, and Iran, and argues that the ambitions of these leaders have brought us into a new era of global conflict, along with the added factor of North Korea in East Asia. With Russia, the economic setbacks of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure in office combined with the expansion of NATO to incorporate most of the Eastern Bloc but not Russia in a united Europe paved the way for the rise of Vladimir Putin. With the transition to Xi Jinping, and following the Recession of 2008, China took steps to strengthen its military presence, threatening other nations and the region and bringing it into increasing conflict with the U.S. North Korea’s young ruler, particularly feeling threatened by the U.S. presence in South Korea, also pursued a military buildup and nuclear program, one difficult to counter. Shia clerics in Iran seized on the weakening of Iraq and Afghanistan after U.S. intervention to extend influence on behalf of Shiite Muslims throughout the region and to pursue a nuclear enrichment program which could allow them to become a nuclear power in the region.

Mandelbaum considers the possibility to a return to such peace. His fundamental thesis is that peace is fostered by the rise of democracy, accompanied by economic capitalism, which discourages conflict with trading partners. He points to democratic movements in all three of the major powers (not so much in North Korea) as offering potential.

Mandelbaum’s thesis seems to rely on continued American greatness and “benevolent hegemony” combined with skillful relations that make it advantageous for these autocratic regimes to become more democratic and less belligerent. I have questions of whether such a continued role is sustainable for the U.S. given its burgeoning debt, fluctuating foreign policy and internal divisions. I also wonder whether democracy depends on worldview and cultural factors that cannot be addressed simply by implementing democratic processes, even if these powers were inclined to move toward them.

I’m far less sanguine than Mandelbaum and think we are in for some “heavy weather.” It seems to me that this new dangerous world order is a challenge for the United States to get its own economic house in order, to address the structural inequities that weaken its own democratic institutions, and to take the measure of these other powers in our diplomacy and military strategy for what they are rather than what we would like them to be. This will call for singular political leadership and national resolve–clearly absent in our currently divided political processes and national life.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: New Creation

New Creation

New CreationRodney Clapp. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of how the end of the Christian story, or eschatology, ought shape the life of the church in this time between the comings of Christ.

“We are storied creatures, and everything happens because we lean toward endings. These endings are the goals, the pursuits, the destinies, the termination points that mark and animate our lives. Without endings we could never begin anything. We would lack plots and our lives would be without purpose, devoid of meaning” (p. 1).

This statement from the Introduction captured my attention. I’ve long felt that the Christian faith is not merely beliefs to embrace, or precepts to practice, but a story in which we find ourselves. It has seemed to me that one of the great needs of the church, and individuals within her, to understand is the story within which we live. Often, I believe that we are living in other stories, perhaps familial, or cultural, rather than the story of the kingdom.

Rodney Clapp begins this work with a summary of our story of creation, fall, the mission of Israel, the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus, and the kingdom yet to come. He crucially observes that the idea of kingdom implies a politics for the church–not that we so much have a politics, but that we are a politics as the people of God.

Clapp then explores a number of topics in light of “the end of the story.” He begins with a discussion of heaven, and the Christian teaching of our ultimate destiny as resurrected people caring for the new creation with heaven as a way station. He discusses our identity as a royal priesthood, that are also the temple of the living God. Every other allegiance is secondary, and releases us to identify with the powerless, those on the margins. The day will come when the lion will lay down with the lamb when the rule of the Prince of Peace is established. For now we follow Jesus by turning from violence to bear the cross of peace, even while we engage in warfare, not with people, but with the Principalities and Powers, the structures of life that oppress. We name them and refuse them our allegiance.

He moves on to prayer, reflecting on the Lord’s prayer, how prayer is the watchful waiting of the pilgrim, and how the lament and theodicies of scripture give us language to face the disjunct between our broken world and the new creation we await. He considers what our hope for the new creation means for our care for the present creation, one whose creatures God knows and provides for. He even includes a poem on “Lessons in Prayer, from a Dog,” inspired by his own dog, Merle. For many, the most interesting will be his discussion of sex in the eschaton. He proposes, in the language of the Song of Solomon, that love is indeed stronger than death, and that although the scriptures are not definitive on this, there is reason to hope for sex in the new creation, even if there is no marriage or giving in marriage. If we are resurrected bodies, he proposes that our genitalia will not be mere ornamentation!

Finally, Clapp explores the question of the last judgment, offering an interesting discussion in which he argues against eternal conscious torment as inconsistent with God’s reconciling work through the cross of Christ. He explores both the idea of conditional mortality, that the unrepentant simply cease to exist, fading to “nothingness,” and hopeful universalism, in which, after suffering judgment that purifies and redeems, all will be saved. Clapp does not commit to either of these positions, which he shows have been embraced by various parts of the church, and argues that ours is not to judge but to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. He concludes that our view of eschatology enables us to deal with the tragedies and ironies of our current existence and to live with both calmness and joy in the present time.

The book includes appendices in reading the Bible for the first time, and also some suggestions for reading Karl Barth, whose influences are evident through the book. What is so good about this book is how it deals with the misapprehensions so many have about the last things. For many, a destiny of only being ethereal spirits strumming harps is far less attractive than embodied, and perhaps sexual, creatures working in the new creation. He speaks of an end of the story that answers to our deepest longings for peace and healing the rifts within humanity and the rest of creation. His account gives us hope to face the hardships of life, and a call to a higher allegiance that transcends all earthly political engagements. Twice during the book, he makes this assertion:

“If the Republicans are the last ones caring for the unborn, the Christian will be among them. If the Greens are the last fighting for a caring stewardship of creation, the Christian will be among them. If the Democratic Socialists are the last ones fighting for the poor and the working class, the Christian will be among them. If Black Lives Matter are the last ones believing that black lives do matter, the Christians will be among them. If the relief agencies are the last ones caring for refugees, the Christian will be among them. If the pacifist anarchists are the last ones standing for peaceable alternatives to war, the Christian will be among them” (pp 45, 113).

If nothing else, Clapp is an equal opportunity offender! Readers will doubtless find something to take issue with in this brief and forthright account. Some might disagree with Clapp’s take on the last judgement. But if he provokes us to think about what the end of our story is as the people of the kingdom, in all its glory, and challenges us to shape our lives, in these tumultuous times, by this story rather than other cultural stories, then this book will have accomplished its purpose.

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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: Basics for Believers

Carson_BasicsforBelievers.indd

Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (Re-packaged edition, originally published in 1996).

Summary: Expositions of the Letter to the Philippians focusing on the core concerns of Christian faith and life.

This work is part of a series of expository studies by D. A. Carson originally published from the late 1970’s to the mid-1990’s being re-issued in a reasonably priced, re-packaged form. In this case, Carson exposits the Letter to the Philippians. These messages are lightly edited versions of four messages given during Holy Week of 1994 at the “Word Alive” conference in Skegness England. The second message has been broken into two messages.

The title of the work, Basics for Believers, might give the impression that this is a book for new believers. The subtitle actually helps us see the importance of the book for all believers: “The Core of Christian Faith and Life.” He draws this from his study of Philippians, in which he sees a church perhaps ten years old, challenged in various ways, and needing encouragement to re-focus and maintain their commitment to the core of the Christian faith, centering around the gospel of Christ crucified and raised, and a life lived worthily of that gospel. I suspect we all can use this, kind of like an annual physical that reminds us of essentials of healthy physical life.

The five messages address the following themes:

  1. Put the Gospel First (Philippians 1:1-26)
  2. Focus on the Cross (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 2:5-11)
  3. Adopt Jesus’s Death as a Test of Your Outlook (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 1:27-2:4, 2:12-18)
  4. Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders (Philippians 2:19-3:21)
  5. Never Give Up the Christian Walk (Philippians 4:1-23)

Several qualities about these messages stood out to me. I appreciated the gracious and clearly articulated explanation of the propitiatory work of Christ in his chapter on the cross. This is not a popular idea in contemporary discusses, often caricatured. Those who would oppose propitiation ought to consider and engage Carson’s articulation of this doctrine. Carson carefully connects doctrine and life throughout.

While these are not exegetical commentaries, but rather expository studies, it is very clear that Carson’s messages reflect disciplined exegesis and that his preaching outline arises from careful textual study and reflection. An example I particularly appreciated was in his fourth message, “Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders.”

  1. Emulate those who are interested in the well-being of others, not in their own (Philippians 2:19-21)
  2. Emulate those who have proved themselves in hardship, not the untested upstart and the self-promoting peacock(!) (Philippians 2:22-30)
  3. Emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Jesus Christ and in nothing else (Philippians 3:1-9)
  4. Emulate those who are continuing to grow spiritually, not those who are stagnating (Philippians 3:10-16)
  5. Emulate those who eagerly await Jesus’s return, not those whose mind is on earthly things (Philippians 3:17-21)

The outline elaborates both the basic theme of the text (“emulate worthy Christian leaders”) and summarizes the content of each section in memorable form. The outline alone gives much grist for reflecting on the question of, after whom we are modeling our lives.

The other mark of good exposition evident in this work is incisive application. Once again, I will give but one example from the first message on putting the gospel first. He has just cited a scholar who traced the course of a movement who in one generation believed the gospel and advanced certain social, economic, and political entailments, the next generation assumed the gospel and identified with the entailments, and the third denied the gospel and made the entailments everything. Then he asks:

“What we must ask one another is this: What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? What consumes your time? What turns you on? Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, homeschooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and much more….Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?” (pp. 31-32).

Theological acuity, exegetical and expository clarity, and searching application. All of these challenge the reader to join the Apostle Paul in his aspiration: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).

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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.

Reviews of other D. A. Carson books in this series:

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

The Cross and Christian Ministry

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World