Review: Embracing the Other

Embracing the other

Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love (Prophetic Christianity), Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015.

Summary: Explores the multiple oppressions experienced by women who are Asian-American (or other) immigrants of color, and how the “Spirit-Chi” of God enables the embrace of others across ethnic and gender boundaries.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes about the experience of immigrants and women from a first person perspective. As a child, her family emigrated to Canada where she experienced  racism as she was mocked and treated as the other because she was from Korea. She also experienced sexism in the strongly patriarchal church her family became a part of in their conversion to Christianity. In the introduction of this book addressing the embrace of the other, and how a re-imagined understanding of the Spirit of God can speak powerfully to the marginalization of the other, she begins with her own painful experience, and then widens the scope.

First, she turns to the foreign women of the Bible, and particularly to the foreign wives of Ezra and Nehemiah, who were “put away,” expelled as unclean so the Jewish community could purify itself, and then to Hosea as a word of hope for the importance of all women. She then considers the racial experience of Asian Americans, the “almost white” or “model minority” who are nevertheless, always “foreign,” even if they have been citizens for generations. The experience of women compounds this marginalization as they are often subordinated in both home and in ethnic congregations. Kim goes back and traces this experience through western imperialism and colonial experience down to the present. She then outlines the history of feminism, from the outliers of Rahab and Ruth in scripture, to both white feminist and global feminist theologians. It is in this context that she introduces the appeal of the spiritual experience of God to ethnic minority women that allows approaches to God that are relational, life- and other-affirming, and not shaped by Western patriarchal and discriminatory structures.

All of this lays the groundwork for Kim’s own pneumatological proposal of the Spirit-Chi of God. This at once draws on the Spirit of Shalom in scripture that sets things right and brings wholeness and connection, and the concept of “Chi” in many cultures–the life energy or spirit that inhabits us all. She believes this connection of Spirit with Chi enables a conversation across cultures and faith that allows for fundamental human connection, or embrace as we tap into the enabling power of the Spirit. She also relates this work of the Spirit to erotic live, the powerful connection between human beings, hence the subtitle of “The Transformative Spirit of Love.” For women who struggle with the “male” persons of the Trinity (although beyond gender in human terms), Spirit can be a powerful and transforming means both of engaging God and pursuing the shalom of God in the world.

Kim’s description of the experiences of racism and sexism, particularly among Asian-American women, speaks out against how both church and society oppress.  To address how our pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) empowers the embrace of the other is a vital and needed area of theological work in moving beyond sentimental expressions of being “One in the Spirit” to substantive talk about oneness with the other.

The most controversial elements of this work are the association of Spirit with Chi, and the discussion of erotic love. I personally did not have difficulty with the latter, believing that the redemptive work of God extends to our most basic loves and restores them to God’s creation intent. The power of the Spirit of God to work through even our most primal and embodied affections to forge strong human bonds is not to be looked down upon, but may be foundational in many instances in growth into agape love. More troublesome was the idea of Chi-Spirit. I think there definitely is a point of contact between the biblical idea of the human spirit and concepts of “spirit” or “life force” or “energy” that is worth exploring in inter-religious conversation. It is the equation of this and the Spirit of God in singular, rather than distinctive or even complementary terms that was troubling, and could be construed as a form of pantheism. I find myself wondering whether the transformation of which she speaks need involve the regenerative and sanctifying work of the Spirit resulting from faith in the redemptive work of Christ, or simply by increasing one’s chi.

I’m hesitant in raising this as a white male, given the framing of this discussion in terms of race and gender. I think it can be reductionistic and dismissive to consign much of the church’s historic discussion of the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity to white, male, hegemonic discourse (my words, not Kim’s) without argument. This is particularly so given the involvement of Near Eastern and African Christians in the early church councils, including the Cappadocian Basil the Great who wrote one of the earliest formulations of Christian teaching on the Holy Spirit. Also, one of the most potent forces in global Christianity is Pentecostalism, where the empowering fullness of the Holy Spirit energizes mission across cultural boundaries. I was surprised that a book on the transformative work of the Spirit, empowering love for the other, does not address this vibrant movement.

In fairness, Kim has written elsewhere in greater depth on these subjects including her reimagining project relating the Spirit and Chi (visit her website for a list of her publications). I have not read those works, which may justify the assertions presented in briefer form here and answer some of the questions this book raises for me. I cannot help wondering if much of what Kim seeks to affirm in this re-imagining may be done without importing the conception of Chi into the conversation, which seems to me to blur the distinctions of Christianity and other religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I do want to affirm both her important focus on pneumatology and its importance in bringing liberation and transformation for the oppressed and power for all of us to love the other.

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

 

 

Review: A World Lost

a world lost

A World Lost, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008. (no publisher’s webpage available)

Summary: Young Andy Catlett’s life is forever changed the day his namesake Uncle Andrew is murdered, an event he spends a lifetime trying to understand.

Andy Catlett is nine years old on the summer day when his adored Uncle Andrew refused to take him on a job salvaging material from an old building. Otherwise it is a perfect day with a satisfying dinner with grandparents, meandering across farm fields, quenching his thirst at a cold spring, watching insects and a world alive, and swimming in a pond to cool off, even though it was forbidden. He arrives home that evening in 1944 to be told by his father that Uncle Andrew had been shot twice by the ill-tempered Carp Harmon. Shortly after he dies.

It is like a long swath of fabric being torn out of a favorite shirt for all of them, never to be repaired. He tells of being with his grandparents and father one night, all of them in tears as they think of what they’ve lost. And shortly after, grandfather dies. Andy’s father no longer plays songs on their piano. We learn how close his disciplined, responsible father came to savage revenge. Something had been snatched out of their world that left it irreparably changed. As the title states, a world lost.

But who was the beloved uncle, brother, son, and why did Carp Harmon kill him? Andy spends the rest of his life trying to understand these things and this novel is his narrative of both discovery and lingering questions. Uncle Andrew was the strong, handsome ladies man who married into the town’s elite, only to live in a loveless marriage with a hypochondriac wife and demanding mother-in-law. He struggled financially, drank too much, and was trying to put his life back together with his brother’s help. This complicated man was the uncle Andy adored.

He interviews witnesses to the murder, reads news stories, and trial records. None of it fully makes sense and often seems contradictory. Even the accounts of whether Uncle Andrew had done anything to provoke the murder conflict. Letters in his father’s effects, shed little more light. It was senseless, as all murder is senseless. He wonders sometimes if things would have been any different had he been with Uncle Andrew that day.

This is the narrative of any family who has suddenly lost someone by violent means. Life may go on but it can never be the same. We discover the complicated mystery of the one we have loved and lost, the shades of light and dark that comprise the portrait of a life, and the ambiguities that fail to resolve. We wrestle with making sense of the senseless–and fail. We carry our own private grief, guilt, perplexity, and trauma, hidden to the world but never far from mind.

Wendell Berry, in his measured way, unfolds this exploration of a world lost in the context of the Port William membership we’ve met in other novels. We have the familiar backdrop of the web of relations and the care of the family farms and the work that must be done that reminds us of the tension of darkness and life within which we live. Berry captures that tension in the narrator’s concluding reflections:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

“That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.”

 

Review: The Gift of Wonder

the gift of wonder

The Gift of WonderChristine Aroney-Sine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: A “serious” Christian discovers creative practices that cultivate wonder, joy, and even fun in one’s relationship with God.

The one danger of being serious about one’s faith is, well…seriousness. It’s a danger for any committed Christian, especially those engaged in Christian work. After all, these are serious times, we deal with serious matters of life and death, injustices, suffering, and more. Often, when we talked about the practices that nurture a serious faith, we consider things like prayer, fasting, scripture study, worship, giving, and others.

This was the life Christine Aroney-Sine lived for many years. She describes how the shift in her practices to those that foster joy, child-likeness, curiosity, and play:

“It all began when I asked people, ‘What makes you feel close to God?’ They responded with stories of sitting by the sea, playing with kids, turning the compost pile, washing the dishes, and walking in the local park. Even taking a shower got a mention. Hardly anyone talked about church or Bible study. Most people connect to God through nature, interaction with children, around the dinner table, or in their daily activities. However, they rarely identify these as spiritual practices” (p.5).

Subsequently, the author developed a list of child-like qualities that we too-serious adults need to rediscover. Things like: delight in God, playfulness, sharing stories, imagination, curiosity, awe and wonder, love of nature, living in the present, gratitude, compassion, hospitality, looking with fresh eyes, and trust. The chapters of this book explore these qualities in scripture and her personal experiences and end with a creative exercise, best done with a group.

For example, in the chapter on imagination, she begins with a prayer on imagination, explores the imagination that leads to great books about future worlds and great discoveries. She invites us to reflect on what gets our own creative juices flowing. She narrates some imaginative expressions of worship. She tells of friends whose imaginations are opened by the reading of children’s books, or just by doodling! The chapter proposes that even good argument can be imaginative as we explore and debate different points of view. Then her creative exercise suggestion is to read a children’s book, and to choose a favorite Bible story, and re-tell it as a children’s story.

Along the way, you will be invited to plan a playdate, identify ten miracles before breakfast, walk a finger labyrinth, seed bomb your neighborhood, have fun with leaves, plan a gratitude scavenger hunt, and more. I’m tempted as I look at this list to pooh-pooh all this, and then it occurs to me that maybe I am far more like Eeyore than Pooh in such moments, and certainly not like Tigger!

Perhaps my favorite chapter, because it may be something I most struggle with was the one on resting in the moment. Aroney-Sine invites us into breathing and circling prayers or CAIM, drawn from Celtic spirituality. These think about the circles of our lives, God’s encircling care and protectiveness from that we would keep out of the circle of our lives. One simple example she quotes:

The Sacred Three
My fortress be
Encircling me
Come and be round
My hearth and my home. (p. 135)

The exercise for this chapter helps us walk, draw, and pray in circles. What qualities of God do I want in my life circle, even as I envision Christ’s outstretched arms embracing the world. What do we want excluded from our circle, who is in our circle and who do we want to invite in? We get to write our own circling prayer.

This might be a great book for a ministry team where things have gotten serious and earnest. Aroney-Sine never dismisses the serious challenges of life, but invites us to rediscover the wonder and joy and beauty of God that is the deeper reality that grounds our lives, the wisdom children grasp and we tend to forget. Who’s ready for a playdate?

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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: Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram

enneagram

Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram, Adele and Doug Calhoun, Clare and Scott Loughrige, foreword by Jerome Wagner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: More than just a discussion of Enneagram numbers, this handbook utilizes “harmony triads” to lead to greater spiritual and relational transformation, and offers recommendations for spiritual practices suitable for each number and triad.

There have been a host of books published in recent years on the Enneagram, including several from this publisher. This may be both the most comprehensive resource out there on the different numbers (the term used for your type), and one that takes a novel approach using what the authors call “harmony triads.” Unlike traditional approaches that have arrows to and from a number reflecting where one goes under conditions of integration or disintegration, this approach uses triangles where each number connects to a number three ahead or behind it, allowing access to what are called the Gut, the Heart, and the Head triads. For example, someone who is Enneagram number 2, called Love here (in the Heart Triad), also has access to the Wisdom of a 5 and the Strength of an 8. The writers repeatedly emphasize that we are all more than our number, and that balancing the strengths of head (IQ), heart (EQ), and gut (GQ) helps us move toward greater integration and relational wholeness, and away from the vice of our number.

After providing a brief overview and section on key terms (important to keep a bookmark in for reference), the book devotes a chapter to each number beginning with a description and seven sections:

  1. Who am I and who am I not. Offers a list of descriptors and invites us to sit with these and how they resonate.
  2. True self and false self. Describes how we act under impulsive and compulsive reactions stemming from our own ego, and how we may act out of love of God, ourselves and others.
  3. Harmony. How to integrate Head, Heart, and Gut for our type leading to FLOW (Free, Loving, Open to head, heart, and gut), With God and reality as it is).
  4. Healing childhood hurts. Helps each number process where they were dismissed as a child and experience healing.
  5. Discernment: desolations and consolations. How to use each of our intelligences to understand how we experience the presence and absence of God.
  6. Spiritual rhythms. Practices that address each number.
  7. Empathy. This is especially for others close to a person of a particular number, helping in understanding that number with practical pointers for relating to that number.

The last part of the book offers twelve “soul resources.” Most offer unique information for each number, for example how each number may STOP (See, Triggers, Open, Presence) in the face of stress. I found the varied responses of different numbers to silence and solitude both amusing, and painfully on the money. There are several for different types of prayer, one for examen, one for practicing the presence of God, one on work styles, a summary chart of the harmony triads, tips for finding one’s Enneagram number, and small group discussions for using the empathy section of each chapter.

This is not a book to read straight through. Reading slowly and reflectively through each number helps us exercise better empathy for each number, and can be helpful for the person who does not yet know there own number. Working section by section through one’s own number, and the other two numbers in one’s “harmony triad”  can offer much self-understanding. Woven through the seven sections in each chapter are personal testimonies of people with that number and their transformational journey. Also, each chapter has several scripture readings and prayers woven throughout.

All four of the authors (two couples) are Enneagram instructors and it is evident that this text comes out of countless seminars and personal interactions, and reflects that kind of wisdom. Because this is not an introductory Enneagram book, they only spend a brief time on background of the Enneagram and do not offer a rationale for the use of the Enneagram. I would recommend this for someone who believes the Enneagram to be a useful tool for self-understanding and spiritual growth. For me, the harmony triads, or at least the integration of head, heart, and gut made good sense. I found the adaptation of spiritual practices to each number and the empathy section on relating to each number most helpful. Overall, I think this is one of the best resources that I’ve seen in print for groups and individuals who want to go deeper with the Enneagram.

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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: We Want to Do More Than Survive

Survive

We Want to Do More Than SurviveBettina L. Love. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.

Summary: A plea and argument for abolitionist teaching that advocates for educational justice in our schools, that understands and is in solidarity with the struggle people of color face in our often racialized schools, and affirms the goodness and joy of one’s ethnic, sexual, and gendered identity.

This book is an impassioned argument for “abolitionist teaching.” The writer, educational theorist Bettina L. Love, offers this definition:

“Abolitionist teaching is the practice of working in solidarity with communities of color while drawing on the imagination, creativity, refusal, (re)membering, visionary thinking, healing,  rebellious spirit, boldness, determination, and subversiveness of abolitionists to eradicate injustice inside and outside of schools” (p. 2).

In this work, she describes an “educational survival complex,” in which schools serving people of color struggle under regimes of performance testing (and the testing companies who profit from all this), school report cards where “failing” jeopardizes funding, and often where students see few teachers of their own ethnicity. She describes how important the seemingly simple thing of mattering can be with examples of teachers, coaches, mentors, and advocates who said she mattered, helping her to obtain an athletic scholarship that launched her academic career.

She has harsh words to say about an educational culture that has only a cursory grasp of the power of white privilege, and does not understand the need for advocacy for children of color, or as she describes them, “we who are dark.”  She is highly critical of character education programs like Grit, arguing that the circumstances under which many students live already require grit in abundance. Instead, they may need celebrating. She also decries the substitution of character courses for those on civics–then engagement with the political structures needed to advocate for justice. She believes students need co-conspirators who educate with a culturally relevant pedagogy. She seems most concerned for teachers who call themselves “white” and who labor under the burden of whiteness and then afflict this on students of color.

Love also engages the additional layers of intersectionality as a black woman who is lesbian. She helps readers recognize the added layers of struggle to thrive involved in these additional layers and seeks to advocate for others in this situation.

I mention this book is an impassioned argument. Apart from citing some studies of the impact of having teachers of one’s own ethnicity in one’s schools, this book feels long on theory and short on practice. I do not have reservations about her arguments. It makes sense that students will do better when they know they matter and when their education speaks to their identity rather than tries to conform them to a dominant culture.

Rather, I would like to have seen a few case studies beside the author’s own experiences where theory has been translated into practice, showing marked flourishing of students. Perhaps it is hard to implement such programs in the state and federally mandated testing regime approach to schools that I have heard teachers decry even in suburban schools with good report cards. It would be great to know of places where Love’s approach is working.

Also, I recall a presentation by an educator on the faculty of a school dedicated to training teachers in justice pedagogy, but whose teachers were found to lack content competency in the subjects they taught, with the impact that school districts would no longer hire their teachers. It seems to me that a culturally relevant pedagogy that results in students flourishing, fosters excellence not only in artistic and social studies programs, but in reading, language, math and science programs. I hope subsequent works by this author addresses these matters.

Perhaps this is asking a great deal of one book. Perhaps first we need to hear the educational equivalent of “black lives matter” and sit with that truth. Love contends that “dark” students matter and what is needed are those who so enter into these students lives that they know existentially that they do matter. Too many are going through our schools without knowing that fundamental truth so crucial to grounding one’s life. Anyone who has had a teacher who showed them they matter knows what this can mean. Hopefully every child will not be left to struggle to survive rather than be buoyed by such support and advocacy.

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

Review: Conscience

Conscience

Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (Forthcoming June 4) 2019.

Summary: Exploring the neuroscience of our sense of right and wrong, integrating our knowledge of neurophysical causation, social factors, and philosophy, arguing that moral norms are based in our brain functions, interacting with our social world.

Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a transcendent basis for this, something written on the heart. Yet, what is written on one heart often varies from another’s. Often we experience uncertainty about these things in our own hearts. Furthermore, those “cognitive impairments” and advancing neuroscience are demonstrating that many aspects of human moral behavior from social bonding and care for others to where one may fall on the political spectrum with regard to moral issues is rooted in the neurophysiology of the brain. Are we conscious actors, or is our moral sense and moral behavior in some way determined by our brain chemistry?

Patricia S. Churchland is one of the pioneers in the field of neurophilosophy–exploring this intersection of neuroscience research and philosophical discussion of questions like ethics and free will. This work is an engaging introduction to her work that moves between discussions of neurotransmitters and a philosophical survey of theories of moral behavior and the question of free will.

She looks at the role of oxytocin in human attachment (“The Snuggle to Survive”), how we are wired for sociality, and how behavior is shaped by the reward system in our brains, and the physiology of empathy. We learn what the brain response to a person eating worms may indicate about political attitudes. Churchland explores the bewildering field of psychopathology–those whose anti-social behavior reflects a lack of moral compass, guilt or remorse–and thus far, our futile efforts to arrive at remedies.

The last two chapters of the book focus on the philosophical questions, and here is where it got really interesting for me. Churchland considers “rule based” moral behavior from the ten commandments to Kant’s categorical imperative to utilitarian-based systems. The flaw, she argues, is that human behavior endlessly deviates from these rules, and there is even significant disagreement on the rules. She argues for a socio-biological basis for moral behavior in which the evolution of our neurophysiology is such that we are well-equipped to engage in social life and behavior that sustains the bonds between us. This leads her to a definition of morality as “the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behavior to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group.”  She seems sympathetic to forms of virtue ethics in which habits of behaving may be modified by particular case constraints.

The final chapter explores free will, and here, Churchland seems to be trying to navigate between those who would fully advocate for free will, and even argue moral certainties, and those who would argue that what we have learned about causation in neuroscience undermines free will, and exonerates criminals from guilt. She argues for the distinction between causes beyond our control and causes under our control, using the example of Bernie Madoff, who was under no compulsion, but knew exactly what he was doing.

Churchland’s discussion in these two chapters also indicated to me some of the concerns that underlie this book. She is deeply concerned about those who tout moral certitudes and also authoritarian approaches that may lead to morally justified abuses of others. She believes that an understanding of how we are “wired” for morally decent behavior shaped by social norms to be superior to such approaches.

As a Christian theist with a deep respect for scientists, and one who shares a sense of being humbled before the realities of our existence, I wonder whether there is a third way between a pure naturalism of “morally decent humans” and a rule-based authoritarianism, whether rooted in ideology or theology. Might we not allow for the possibility that we are indeed “wired” for moral behavior in social contexts that reflect transcendent concerns expressed in the great commands, which are really broad moral statements of principle, to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself? It seems we often get caught in binary discussions of either science or the transcendent. Might there be an approach of both-and that both celebrates the wonderful mechanisms that bond parents and children, or larger social groups, the mechanisms by which we learn what it is to be moral, in all its societal variants; and recognizes the possibility that at least some communal norms might be grounded in transcendent realities that are not occasions for arrogance or authoritarianism, but humility and grace and empathy, and are consonant with the ways we are wired?

I could be wrong, but it was not evident that Churchland has engaged with neurotheologians like Andrew Newberg, (see my review of his book Neurotheology) who covers similar ground. There are many others interested in a conversation rather than a war between science and religious belief, and see the possibility of a kind of consilience that mutes the voice of neither. When I consider Churchland’s account, I find myself marveling anew at the marvels hidden within my own body and am grateful for her exposition of these. I hope going forward, there might be a growing appreciation on the part of neurophilosophers like Churchland, not merely of problematic aspects of rule-based ethics in philosophy or religious teaching (which I will admit exist, just as there are problematic questions in neuroscience), but also the ways religious frameworks of moral teachings have profoundly shaped many communities for good (for example Andre’ Trocme’ and his community of Le Chambon, which hid Jewish refugees during the Holocaust), and helped individuals lead morally worthy lives as people of conscience.

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

 

 

 

Review: The Second Kind of Impossible

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The Second Kind of ImpossiblePaul J. Steinhardt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: A narrative of the search for a new form of matter, first theorized, then synthesized, and then first found in a mineral collection of questionable provenance that gave tantalizing hints that it might really exist.

This is a real science detective story. It has all the hopeful leads and unsettling reverses of a detective mystery, and one where the lead character, in this case the lead researcher, finds himself in a situation far removed from the normal environs of a theoretical physicist.

It begins with the question of whether an impossible five-fold symmetry could be possible under some circumstance.  Then Paul Steinhardt, and a graduate student, Dov Levine,  began began looking for a loophole to the forbidden five-fold symmetry, and found it, suggesting the possibility for something they termed quasi-crystals. Meanwhile, in another lab, a researcher synthesized a compound that turned out to have the predicted electron diffraction pattern. It takes the two labs a couple years to find out about each other but it demonstrates that something that seems impossible can actually exist, hence the title of this book, coming from Richard Feynman’s response to a paper by Steinhardt, who had been mentored by him. It was the kind of impossible that defies known knowledge but has an intriguing logic to it.

The next phase of Steinhardt’s research was to discover whether such a quasi-crystal actually exists in nature–the quest for a needle in a haystack as it were. He and a student comb mineral collections around the world, looking for promising diffraction patterns. They strike out over and over again until they find one sample in an Italian mineral collection administered by Luca Bindi. Part two of this book describes all the tests to confirm that this tiny sample indeed has a quasi-crystal imbedded in it and all the arguments against it. Then another sample is discovered in Russia, but the scientist, a Russian official, will not share it except for an exorbitant price. Furthermore, questions arise about both samples and their provenance–until the field researcher who actually found the material is discovered and agrees to help them find the tiny stream and collect additional samples.

The third part of the book is the trip to this stream, in a remote part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Steinhardt, who has never done this kind of field work, is leader of the team, and against all the improbabilities, the challenges of mosquitoes, weather, bears, and the terrain, they find additional samples, leading to discoveries of other quasi-crystals, and clues to how this material was formed.

One of the fascinating qualities of this book was the quest that started with a theoretical question and eventually led to a remote peninsula of Kamchatka. For those not acquainted with the life of a research scientist, this account captures something of the excitement of pursuing a really interesting research question, how one question can lead to another, and the roadblocks and dead ends researchers sometimes encounter along the way. What we realize eventually is that all this takes over thirty years, and involves collaboration with a number of researchers from Russia, Italy, and all over the U.S. It is not the only research Steinhardt works on, but imagine spending most of one’s adult working life pursuing a research question. The combination of curiosity and sheer perseverance commands a certain kind of respect.

The other fascinating aspect of this book was understanding how research science works. Richard Feynman is not the only one to declare “impossible.” Some did so with outright opposition for good scientific reasons. This happens constantly in the submission of research papers and at scientific conferences. Steinhardt enlists his opponents on his research team, forming a “red team” and a “blue team” with opposing views. The opposing teams were good at recommending all the tests that would eliminate alternative possibilities. Eventually the opposition, formidable researchers in their own right, are convinced–but that took years.

This is a good book to illustrate the skepticism, the meticulous rigor, and the self-correcting character of scientific research at its best. The other wonderful aspect that arises out of this process is the international collaboration of people willing to share knowledge, samples, and credit, to advance a shared understanding of the world, indeed the universe. In short, this is a great book to see how science really works at its best.

Review: Three Hours

Three Hours

Three Hours: Sermons for Good FridayFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: Short messages on the “seven last words” of Christ on the cross, preached on Good Friday of 2018.

One of the ways churches have remembered the death of Christ on the cross on what is called Good Friday is through a three hour service from noon until 3 pm, usually organized around the seven “words” of Jesus from the cross, interspersed with liturgy, hymns, prayers, and silence.

Fleming Rutledge gave seven meditations on these “seven last words” at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City on Good Friday, March 30, 2018. These meditations were published, with little alteration earlier this year, and served as my own Good Friday meditations this past Friday.

Each of these short meditations left me with a thought for reflection. This may or may not have been Rutledge’s focus, but I share these as much to capture them for myself, as well as to give you a taste of what is here. There is much more to each short meditation than my summary thought!

Luke 23:32-34. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What about those who know what they are doing, as is the case for all of us at times? Christ is the one who died to justify the ungodly!

Luke 23:39-43. “Verily, I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” We speculate much about the afterlife. We focus little on what it means when Jesus says that it will be “with him.” “In his presence is fullness of joy!”

John 19: 26-27. “Woman, behold thy son!…Behold thy mother!” Two unrelated believers become kin. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” (p, 32).

Matthew 27:45-46. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus “steered toward the pain” and plumbed the very bottom of despair and alienation as he “became sin” and surrendered to Death. This is the one who has defeated Death and Hell, whose love, nothing can separate us from.

John 19:28-29. “I thirst.” Water is life. Living water is nothing less than real water–the water from Jesus side along with his life-giving blood. The one who thirsted now says, “come to the water.”

John 19:29-30. “It is finished.” Rutledge writes, “The crucifixion is not just an unfortunate thing that happened to Jesus on his way to the resurrection. It is not a momentary blip on the arc of his ascent to the Father. John tells us otherwise. It is precisely on the cross that the work of Jesus is carried through to its completion” (p. 67). Tetelestai!

Luke 23:44-46. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In Flannery O’Connor’s words quoted here, “The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ.” We each may commend our lives to the Father through this Son.

It was the reading of Rutledge’s magnificent study on the crucifixion (review) that prompted me to buy this book. In much briefer form, I found the same depth of thoughtfulness, and elegance and economy of words. More than this, I was led to meditate through the Seven Words on the meaning of the cross–who Christ died for, the community Christ established, the hope of being “with him,” and the cross as the consummation of Christ’s work. I found myself stopping again and again and saying, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

This review comes too late for you to read this on Good Friday in 2019. But it is far from too late to acquire and read this book, particularly if you rushed through Passion Week preparing for Easter, or to have on hand for next year. This book will bear multiple readings and I look forward to returning to it again and again.

 

Review: The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and WhitfieldJoseph Tracy. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2019 (first published 1842).

Summary: A reprint of the first comprehensive history of the English and colonial revivals of the late 1730’s and early 1740’s, focusing in New England and upon the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

In New England in the 1730’s, if one had been baptized in infancy into the church, had given assent to its doctrines and led a life without scandalous behavior, this was sufficient to receive communion, even if one could not give an account of God’s saving work, or “regeneration” in one’s life. Regeneration is the idea of passing from being dead in one’s sins to spiritually alive in Christ through a gracious work of God’s Spirit. One passes from deep concern and dread concerning one’s state to great consolation as one knows one’s sins forgiven through Christ and that one is now alive in Christ and able under God’s grace of living a life pleasing to God.

Due to this state of affairs, men even entered the ministry without such an experience of the grace of God. It was sometimes the case that in an affluent household of several sons, one of these took a church position, in part to relieve stretched family finances. As Jonathan Edwards, and others began to address this issue of the “unconverted” within the church, a great revival broke out. It began with many being greatly troubled about the state of their souls. Edwards urged people to trust not in their good acts but to resign themselves to God, hoping in the work of Christ to be accepted by God. There were no “anxious benches” or altar calls of the later revivals. The belief was that God would come in God’s time to whom God would, to save, and God did. Many reported experiencing great comfort and consolation in God’s grace, and there was a new liveliness of holy living and service in the lives of many of these.

Joseph Tracy was a Congregational minister who lived from 1798 to 1874. This work by Tracy represents the first comprehensive history of the Great Awakening, particularly focusing on the events of 1740-42, when this awakening was at its peak. What he does is feature the two major figures of the revival, Edwards and Whitefield, and reports of revivals in various parts of the American colonies (with one chapter on Whitefield in England). This is a valuable historical document because Tracy cites many primary source reports written at, or shortly after the time of the Revival. many of these accounts repeat occurrences along the pattern of great concern, an experience of consoling grace, and transformation of behavior following.

The reports also recount the controversies that arise which include the following:

  • Excesses of emotion, faintings, other bodily manifestations. Quickly, wise leaders like Edwards grasped that these are not definitive signs of awakening grace, which is most evident in the amended life of converts. They are neither necessary nor conclusive of conversion, and may be either genuine adjuncts or spurious in nature.
  • Declarations that ministers were “unconverted.” While there were unconverted ministers, and a legitimate concern for the state of their souls, some revivalists made sweeping, summary and public statements about the unconverted character of particular ministers which often did not go down well.
  • Itineracy. A number followed the example of Whitefield in going from town to town preaching rather than confining their ministry to a particular place. This was not a problem when a minister longing for the benefit of his people invited a guest to preach, but this courtesy was not always observed, and open-air preaching circumvented the need for such invitations, but amount to “sheep stealing” in the eyes of local ministers.
  • Exhorters. These were unordained enthusiasts who arose particularly out of the concern that existing ministers were unconverted.
  • Excesses or errors on the part of revivalists. This was most noteworthy in the case of Rev. James Davenport, who made wholesale judgments against ministers, acted more by “impulses” of the Spirit that scriptural warrant, and gathered numerous informal assemblies in homes and public places.

Tracy recounts all of this through reports, public statements of individuals and church bodies, and other documents of the time. Some of this can be heavy going if one is reading straight through but it is a trove of insight second only to Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections on the nature of spiritual awakenings, and the controversies, excesses and errors that may arise amid a genuine work of God.

He also shows the efforts of some, no doubt looking at the excesses and errors, and perhaps stinging from questions about their own spiritual state, to thwart the efforts of the preachers of the Awakening. We see the maturation of a Whitefield, who is able to acknowledge errors while not relenting in what he sees to be a God-given ministry, or Edwards, whose careful reflection and pastoral leadership addresses problems, and then offers a record of abiding value.

If you bog down amid the various accounts, don’t turn from this book without reading the final chapter on “The Results.” Tracy believed that as many as 50,000 were converted, and that the transformation of so many substantively affected the character of the colonies at the time of the War for Independence. It led to a renewed concern for the spiritual qualifications of the minister, fostered mission efforts, laid a basis for religious liberties, and led to the establishment of Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton.

I hear a renewed hunger for revival and awakening in many circles. The value of a book like this is to give theological substance, as well as practical warnings, that may prove useful should God be so gracious as to grant this work in his churches in our day. This history also warns us of the temptations of pride and censoriousness for preachers in the center of such movements, most evident in the ministry of Davenport. Banner of Truth Trust is to be applauded in bringing this classic work of history of the Awakening of 1740 to a new generation, who hopefully will benefit from the experience of those who have gone before.

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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: The 21

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The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic MartyrsMartin Mosebach, translated by Alta L. Price. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of the background and faith of the twenty-one men martyred on a Libyan beach by ISIS, profiling their village, family, the Coptic faith, and the challenges of living as a minority religion throughout history.

Twenty-one men in orange jumpsuits walk single file along a Libyan beach, each accompanied by a hooded figure clothed in black. They are forced to their knees with a figure in black behind each, holding their color with one hand, the other hand on a sheathed dagger. Then the speech “The Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Then back to the kneeling men, who in the last moments of their lives softly pray, “Ya Rabbi Yassou!” (O My Lord Jesus!). The video resumes, twenty one decapitated bodies, heads laid on their backs.

With this, twenty Coptic migrant workers and a Ghanaian Christian who had joined their company, become martyrs and saints. Icons are printed of each with the martyr’s crown. Their remains become sacred relics.

Martin Mosebach traveled to Egypt to explore the families, the village, the land, and the faith associated with these men, a group he refuses to call “victims”  because “they had a strength that granted them a well-protected inner core of independence, and I was convinced their murderers cruelty couldn’t penetrate that deep.”

He begins with a dialogue on martyrdom with a “doubter” exploring what to many of us is the strange phenomenon of people who accept the consequence of death out of love for Christ. Mosebach then takes us on an exploration of the culture out of which these men came. He interviews the bishop of these men and discusses the history of oppression and martyrdom etched deeply into the Coptic Church. He visits first their pilgrimage church, and then their village El-Aour, in upper village. We meet their families, most in new homes because of assistance by the Egyptian government. We hear of men who were good sons, husbands, and people of integrity and piety, yet ordinary young men. One, after hearing a sermon about martyrdom said, “I’m ready.” We meet Fathers Abuna and Timotheus, who had ministered to the migrant workers in Libya until it had become too dangerous. They tell of this group sharing a single room to send more home to their families, their readiness for martyrdom, and Issam, who especially seemed to play a role in strengthening the resolve of the others.

The latter part of the book goes more deeply into the Coptic Church, the liturgy that shaped them, their special connection with the flight of the holy family into Egypt, the church hierarchy that mirrors the heavenly hierarchy of angels and archangels, the cloisters. We also zoom out to the larger context of Egypt and the cave churches of Mokattam next to the garbage mountain, old and New Cairo, and the minority that calls itself “The Church of the Martyrs” in a time of increasingly tenuous relations with the Muslim majority.

Mosebach neither glorifies or denigrates any of this. Rather, he takes these people on their own terms. He brings to life a church most of us know little about, that has preserved the ancient faith from earliest Christianity, has survived and even revived under great pressure, and whose people have lived with martyrdom, not as a theoretical possibility, but a possible reality.

Through Mosebach, the martyrs also bear witness (what the word “martyr” means) to those of us in the West. They bear witness to love for Christ in the face of death. They bear witness to faithfulness as a religious minority when conversion would be easy and safe. We also see working men, some illiterate, trying to support their families, now pictured with martyrs crowns. One thinks about the last being first, the humble exalted. Many who will read this have far more education and other resources. I do, and I find myself wondering, both how I would respond, faced with what they were faced with, and whether many of us will be among the “least of these” honoring these men.

The Coptic Church has been a footnote in my church history. Through this book, I realized that I need to reconsider that outlook. Might they be one of those parts of the body of Christ worthy of greater honor? Might there be gifts they have been entrusted with, as well as an important history, that the rest of the church needs? Above all, if we are entering a post-Christian world, they may have much to teach us of how, then, we might live…and die.

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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.