Review: The Quiet American

the quiet american

The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1955).

Summary: A novel set in French-occupied Vietnam paralleling the entangled lives of a British journalist and American agent with the entanglement of war in Vietnam.

Thomas Fowler, a British correspondent in French occupied Vietnam in the early 1950’s, arrives at home one night to find Phuong waiting outside. She reports that American  Alden Pyle has not returned home. She has been living with Pyle, supposedly with an American Economic Mission. Before living with Pyle, she had lived with Fowler. She stays the night, and they learn the next morning that Pyle is dead when they are summoned for questioning by the French Sureté.

Graham Greene then narrates the strange conflicted relationship of these two men who love one woman, and the equally entangled and conflicted relationships of all those who get involved in Vietnam. Fowler wants to believe that he is the uninvolved British journalist, whose country is not a party to the conflict. He has a wife at home from whom he is separated but who will not divorce him. Phuong meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes and she benefits materially from his attention but he can offer nothing more, although holding out the hope of a divorce. Pyle, who loves her at first sight, is unattached and due to come into money becomes a rival, candidly telling Fowler his intentions, and yet strangely taking to Fowler as his best friend, He saves Fowler’s life at one point when they are stranded in enemy territory, and steals Phuong.

Fowler gradually learns that Pyle isn’t all that he seems. He discovers that Pyle is doing something with plastics, that turn out to be plastic explosives, being used to undermine the regime in Saigon. He is actually a CIA agent. Fowler is curious, but remains detached until a bombing of a square intended to break up a parade that is cancelled kills and maims scores of innocents, an act with the fingerprints of Pyle all over it. He faces hard choices of what to do with his knowledge of this “quiet American,” his rival in love, yet one in some ways to whom he is beholden.

Fowler has tried to avoid entangling involvements. A conversation with a French pilot who napalmed villages describes the folly of such an attempt, in both love, and in the Vietnam conflict. When Fowler protests, “That’s why I won’t be involved.” the French pilot replies:

” ‘It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love–they have always been compared.’ He looked sadly across the dormitory to where the métisse sprawled in her great temporary peace. He said, ‘I would not have it otherwise. There is a girl who was involved by her parents–what is her future when this port falls. France is only half her home…’ “

Greene’s tale was prescient, published in 1955, of the troubling future that would face, first the French, and then the Americans, already present, in Vietnam. Fowler discovered that he, too, was involved with Phuong, with Pyle, and that Vietnam was a far more complicated mistress than any understood. He evades his editors requests to return to London. Love and War has claimed him, as it would many others.

Sadly, this was an instance of prophecy ignored, and it could be argued that there have been others since. We are still in Iraq, and Afghanistan, unable to extricate ourselves from commitments made in “moments of emotion.”  The Quiet American is a cautionary tale as relevant in our times as it was in the mid-1950’s. Hopefully, we will not proceed as heedlessly now as we did then.

Review: In This World of Wonders

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In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.

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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: Clingan’s Chronicles

Clingan's Chronicles

Clingan’s Chronicles, Clingan Jackson. Youngstown: Youngstown Publishing Co., 1991.

Summary: A memoir of Youngstown political writer and office holder, Clingan Jackson.

Clingan Jackson was a newswriter, and later political editor of The Vindicator, Youngstown’s newspaper from 1929 until 1983. His life spanned most of the twentieth century (1907 to 1997), and this memoir, published six years before his death chronicles not only his life, but nearly a century of local and political history in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. As you can imagine, covering political life in the Mahoning Valley makes for an interesting narrative!

Jackson actually begins his account with family history of both the Clingans and the Jacksons that make up his lineage and how they came to Coitsville Township, what eventually became part of the East side of Youngstown. We learn about the family homestead on Jacobs Road (still standing) and how they were among the early settlers of the area. During part of his youth, his immediate family moved to Carbon, Pennsylvania, just across the state line, while he attended Lowellville High School in Ohio, holding his first political office as class president of his class of fifteen.

He spent his college years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, majoring in English and History, good preparation for a political writer. He describes the typical experiences both of learning and social fraternities, and the highlight of hearing Will Rogers speak. Reading this narrative, one senses he sought in his own writing to be a commentator on politics in the vein of Rogers.

After graduation, he returned to Youngstown in 1929, and almost immediately hired on with The Vindicator. At the end of 1929, he received notice that his job was ending, but when he went to turn in his key, the publisher let him stay on until he found another job. He ended up staying fifty-four years.  His account of covering The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was one of the most riveting parts of the book. Here is a portion:

“Ed Salt, a Vindicator photographer, and I were dispatched to Poland Avenue to cover the tense situation. It was growing dark by that time, lights were being shot out and hundreds of men were milling along the street. We parked near the fire station and started walking down the sidewalk. As we passed by a bush, we saw its leaves completely eliminated as a shotgun blast rang out. Being a brave man, I went back to the fire station; needing to take pictures, Salt pushed onward.

When I arrived at the station someone exclaimed, ‘Salt has been shot.’ Mustering my courage, I went to his rescue, and found him with his white shirt completely bloodied. I got him into the car, and we headed up Poland Avenue. Although the street was barricaded, I persuaded the pickets to let the car through by explaining I had a passenger who needed to go to the hospital.”

His tenure as political editor spanned the presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. Perhaps one of the little known facts about Jackson that came out in the book was that he was a pioneer in political polling and his polls more often than not were right on the money. The Gallup organization consulted with him on his methods. His book narrates his coverage of a number of the national political conventions during these years as well as the local politics of Youngstown, and particularly its shift over time to a Democrat Party-dominated town. We meet both office-holders and party leaders, including John Vitullo who helped lead the Democrats to their ascendancy.

One of the unique aspects of Jackson’s career is that he both covered politics and held office at the same time, and satisfied his publisher with his ability to impartially cover politics. He held office as a city council person in Lowellville, and state representative and senator. Later, he was appointed to a number of state commissions. His career was distinguished by introducing the first strip-mining act, helping create the state Department of Natural Resources, and participating in commissions that laid out the state’s interstate highways and later, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. As he writes about his various association with both Democrat and Republican governors and other leaders, one has the sense that he, like Hubert Humphrey, was a “happy warrior,” far removed from the partisan vitriol of the present day.

His final chapters reflect back over his career, his retired life (although he continued contributing articles for the Youngstown-Warren Business Journal into the 1990), and his three marriages. Though aware of his own failings, what makes this part of the book quite wonderful is the deep joy and gratitude evident as he thinks of his times, his acceptance of his own mortality, and his thankfulness for each of his wives, two of whom pre-deceased him. He wrote of his three wives, “Good fortune is a necessary element of most any man’s success, and mine was having three farm girls for wives.”

The book includes a number of photographs of his life, surroundings, and of the people and places of Youngstown. Between each chapter are columns he wrote between the 1950’s and the 1990’s.

The voice in this memoir is warm and personal and has the feeling of a transcription of oral history. It strikes me that his book is a memoir of what might be looked back upon as a golden age of journalism, politics, and perhaps, the Mahoning Valley. People interested in any of these subjects will enjoy his account.

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Although published in 1991, I learned that new copies of the book may be purchased by contacting The Business Journal (the last publication Jackson wrote for) at 330-744-5023 Ext. 1008, asking for Eileen Lovell. Cost is $20 plus sales tax.

Review: None Greater

none greater

None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, Matthew Barrett (Foreword by Fred Sanders). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Drawing on classical and reformed theology, discusses the perfections of God, that set God apart from all else.

It seems a common tendency in Christian preaching, and even in our informal conversations, to try to “bring God down to our level.”  Christian Smith, in a study of the religious beliefs of American teens, coined a term to describe the God of many: “moral therapeutic deism.” In this system, there is a belief in a God who made the world, who wants us to be nice and fair, the purpose of life being to feel happy and good about oneself, God only gets involved in our lives when we need God, and that good people will go to heaven when they die. Such a God is nice, domesticated, and mostly irrelevant to our lives. God is like us, only a bit better and maybe more powerful.

The classical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and those in the Reformed tradition of the author thought quite differently. For them, God, as Anselm put it, is “someone than whom none greater can be perceived,” hence the title of this work. While God may have certain communicable attributes like love, that are evident in part in human beings, God’s incommunicable attributes are utterly unlike any other creature and set God apart as incomparably greater than human beings.

It was this God that Matthew Barrett discovered in college when he read Calvin’s Institutes, and the other theologians mentioned above, opening his eyes to the glory and majesty of God. His hope in this book is that through a study of God’s attributes, particularly those dealing with the incommunicable perfections of God, to sow the same sense of wonder in his readers, inviting them to give up their domesticated versions of God for the incomparably greater undomesticated God of scripture.

The first three chapters of the book lay groundwork. First he explores the incomprehensibility of God, that we may speak of attributes, but none of us may see or know God in God’s very essence. It is not that God in unknowable, because God makes God’s self known through God’s works. He discusses how we may speak of God in analogical language as revealed by God to us, and sometimes in anthropomorphic language of hands, eyes, even wings, none of which are true of God’s essence. Most of all, we must recognize that God is infinite in God’s perfections, and without limits–a staggering realization for finite and imperfect creatures.

The remainder of the book discusses the perfections of God:

  • God’s aseity or self-existence independent of all of creation.
  • God’s simplicity, that even when we speak of various attributes, these are not “parts” of God but compose a seamless whole.
  • God’s immutability, that God does not change, grow, improve, or diminish, which is a tremendous comfort.
  • God’s impassibility, that God does not experience emotional changes, both settled in his promise-keeping love, and holy wrath toward evil.
  • God’s eternity, that he is timeless and not exists in the eternal present.
  • God is omnipresent: not bounded by a body, infinitely present.
  • God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnisapient: all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise.
  • God is both holy and loving: the high and lifted up God Isaiah sees, who cleanses his mouth and takes his guilt away and lovingly commissions him.
  • A God who is jealous for his own glory, inviting us into a similar jealousy for the glory and reputation of God above all in our world.

I found this discussion far from the “sterility” often found in such treatments of the attributes of God. Barrett helps us understand how each attributes both feeds our worship of God and is of great consolation to the believer. For example, the aseity of God means that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us. He deals with questions that may arise, such as how we can speak of simplicity and yet believe in a triune God. He differentiates an immutable God from one who is rigidly immobile. He deals with the classic conundrum of God creating a rock so big he cannot lift.

His discussion of impassibility is particularly intriguing in taking on Jurgen Moltmann’s “suffering God.” Yes Christ in his humanity suffers, but God does not suffer, God redeems. God is not like the family suffering over a family member trapped in a fire, but rather the fireman who has the capability and compassion to enter the burning building, enduring the flames and the smoke, to rescue the loved one. I’m not sure I buy this, and it seems these ideas are framed in either/or terms, not admitting the possibility of both/and, or the possibility of a quality of suffering in the God of eternal love who from eternity both purposed creation and the redemptive work of Christ.

This is a highly readable contemporary rendering of classical theology. It has become popular to bash classical statements of theology. Often, what is being bashed are caricatures. Here is the real stuff, articulated clearly and winsomely. I didn’t agree at every point, but found myself again and again marveling at the greatness of God and challenged to consider the ways I’m tempted to domesticate God. That, I think, is what makes for good theological reading and may be found here.

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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: Indianapolis

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Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent ManLynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A narrative of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine at the end of World War Two, the five day struggle for survival that took the lives of nearly two-thirds of those who made it into the water, and the fifty-year effort to exonerate her court-martialed captain.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a storied ship. For a time, it was the ship of state for Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently, it was the flagship of the naval fleet in the Pacific theater, winning ten battle stars. After refitting due to a kamikaze strike, it is sent on a super-secret mission to deliver the components of one of the atomic bombs that ended the war. Then, just after midnight on July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine surfaced within striking distance as Indianapolis, under command of decorated Captain Charles McVay III, was steaming unescorted to the Philippine Island for crew training. Two torpedos sink the ship in twelve minutes. Nine hundred of the twelve hundred men, including McVay make it off the ship due to his abandon ship orders. SOS messages had been sent, although whether the radio equipment was working at that point was in doubt.

Days and nights elapse in the oil-slicked waters where survivors board rafts, nets, or simply hold onto each other, staying afloat with their slowly water-logging life jackets. Somehow, no one realizes the ship is missing and no search is mounted. Men succumb to injuries, or the consequences of drinking salt water when desperately thirsty, or to sharks. After five nights and four days, only a little over 300 are still alive. Only then are they spotted by a patrol plane and a rescue operation mounted, some dying even as they attempt to swim to rescue. Only 316 survive.

While the men’s physical ordeal has come to an end, that of Captain McVay is only beginning. Before leaving for the Philippines, he was assured there was no enemy activity along his route, despite intelligence to the contrary never communicated him. Because of overcast conditions, he had secured the ship from zig-zagging, a defensive measure, which was normal practice given what he knew. Nevertheless, he faced a rushed court martial for negligence that resulted in the ship’s sinking, on which he was found guilty, even while exculpatory evidence was either being covered up or developed. The failures of others were covered up, only he was held to account.

The last part of the story is about the efforts of a group of the survivors, the captain of the modern namesake submarine, William J. Toti, and a precocious eighth grade boy. Hunter Scott’s history project turns into a crusade that takes him to the halls of Congress and an appearance as witness in a Senate hearing, and is the most inspiring and heartening part of the book. Sadly, Captain McVay did not live to see this, only one of his sons.

This is a wonderfully told story that manages to fuse human and technical elements into a page-turning narrative. We experience the moments of fear, panic, and the shipboard disciplines of those last twelve minutes of Indianapolis. We sense the growing despair and struggles to sustain hope and sanity as hours stretch into days, and good friends succumb to injuries or sharks. We share the growing awareness of all who look into the court martial of McVay that a cover up has taken place, and an injustice done. All of this propels us to keep reading to see how this will resolve, and whether there will be survivors to celebrate. Whether you are a naval history buff, or simply enjoy a good story, this one has all the elements to be your next great read.

Review: Ultimate Cleveland Indians Time Machine Book

The Ultimate Cleveland

Ultimate Cleveland Indians Time Machine Book, Martin Gitlin. Lanham, MD: Lyons Press, 2019.

Summary: A collection of stories about baseball in Cleveland chronicling the up and down and strange history of the Indians (and their predecessor, the Spiders).

In 2016, my dream World Series happened. I had always wanted to see the Cleveland Indians play the Chicago Cubs. I was convinced that one of these star-crossed teams would have to win. Sadly, it wasn’t the Indians I had rooted for since childhood, even though they pulled out to a 3-1 lead and were on the edge of winning in the seventh game. This has been the life of an Indians fan. Now there is a book that collects all the strange stories of this franchise, a walk down memory lane for many of us, and a way for others to understand the unique pain of being a Tribe fan.

In twenty-seven short, witty, and engaging chapters, Martin Gitlin tells the story of the high and low points of the franchise. We actually begin with the baseball team before the Indians, the Cleveland Spiders. For those of us who suffered the years of 100 loss teams and the race to the bottom, this team was even worse, chalking up a 20-134 season, the worst ever in major league baseball.

There are high points. The amazing pitching of Bob Feller. The Lou Boudreau-led teams including the 1948 World Series champions, the last time the franchise won a World Series. The Indians were the American League pathbreakers in knocking down racial barriers with Larry Doby on the playing field, and Frank Robinson as the first black manager in baseball. In 2017, they had the longest winning streak at 22 games since the New York Giants won 26 in 1916, propelling the Indians to a 100+ win season.

There are the heartbreaks. The meteoric career of Addie Joss that ended when he died of tubercular meningitis in 1911. The rise and fall of Herb Score, hit in the eye with a line drive never to be the same (although he became a consummate announcer of Indians games). The trade of popular Rocky Colavito and the “curse of Colavito” that followed. Thirty years of mediocre teams from the Sixties to through the Eighties. “Sudden Sam” McDowell who never realized his potential due to alcoholism, Tony Horton who broke down under the pressure to excel and had to leave baseball, and one-season wonder Joe Charbonneau. Saddest perhaps were the off-season deaths of Indians Steve Olin and Tim Crews from a freak boating accident in 1993.

And then there is the weird. The Cleveland Crybabies of 1940. Ten-cent beer night in 1974, and the riot that followed. Albert Belle’s corked bat and the shenanigans that surrounded it. The invasion of the midges against the Yankees. The demise of Chief Wahoo, the politically incorrect logo beloved by generations of Indians fans.

All this and more is captured by Gitlin in words and photographs. It brought back memories of seeing many of the players, living through the seasons of hope and disappointment, and yet never in a heavy-hearted fashion. It was a great read on the treadmill, would make a great gift to the Indians fan in your life, or to anyone who loves America’s pastime. And if your team is suffering through a mediocre season, this book will help you say with generations of Indians fans, “there’s always next year.”

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

Review: Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the ShadowsAustin Fischer (Foreword by Brian Zahnd). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Explores how one may live a life of faith in Christ in the midst of doubts and questions.

Austin Fischer was a pastor who struggled with doubts and feared they might lead him to abandon his faith. Then he came to this pivotal realization:

“People don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts.”

In this book, Fischer explores how it is possible to be a Christian for whom doubt is the path to a deeper and more honest faith. He begins with the mistaken notion that faith requires certainty, and the misbegotten quests for the proof that answers every question and defenses of hyper-literal readings of the Bible. So many who go down that road leave the faith when certainty fails them. Instead, Fischer invites us to be “ants on a rollercoaster” who throw up their hands “in equal portions of terror, bliss, and surrender.”

He observes how Job teaches us to doubt by telling God the truth about our doubts. In the end, he was commended by God as speaking rightly of him. Fischer writes of evil, not as a problem, but as a crisis, and of a God who is there on the gallows who fights back against evil. He writes of Jesus who forgives sin, heals disease, casts out evil, and conquers death. Rather than starting from sovereignty and the glory of God that makes evil a problem, he begins from the freedom God gives and the love of God, that bids us resist evil. He explores the times when God is silent, and offers no easy answers but simply waiting, with the hope that Christ waits with us.

He then turns to a trenchant critique of fundamentalism, drawing heavily on Mark Noll’s work in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about the intellectual retrenchment and rigid ways of reading scripture that developed. He argues this simply gave people more ways to lose their faith. He explores the challenges science has posed, particularly when it dismisses the idea of God, moving from a method to a metaphysic. He argues that the real place where people often have the most problem is with stuff–affluence that gives us the luxury to consider God superfluous, in a way rare among the poor.

He deals with hell, in which he agrees with a congregant that he believes in hell, but is not happy with it. He explores the idea that the love of God is wrath to those who hate God and heaven is hell to them. Paraphrasing Barth, he claims that “anyone who does not hope for universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.” Ultimately, Fischer argues for the priority of the way of love in dealing with our doubts, that our love for the beauty of Jesus means “we would rather be wrong about him than right about anything else” and living in curious wonder rather than certainty.

There is so much that seems right about this book (perhaps because Fischer agrees with my own way of thinking in so many ways!). Working among graduate students and faculty, I’m surprised how many that are resistant to Christian faith came from very fundamentalist backgrounds and concluded that because they could not attain the certainty required, that they could not be Christians. I’ve witnessed the incredible relief of students when it was affirmed to them that they could doubt and still be Christians and that doubt didn’t preclude faith, especially when one believed enough to voice one’s doubts to God. I also prefer the approaches of resisting evil to debating it as a problem, and proclaiming the gospel rather than speculating whether all will be saved in the end.

Most of all, I loved the insight that faith is not the absence of doubt but the presence of love. It tracks with my own experience of watching doubting folks remain in community, continuing to care for each other, continuing to learn with each other from scripture, praying with and for each other, and moving to a deeper place of faith.

This book is classified as an apologetics book. It is, but not the sort you would expect. It doesn’t give answers that “demand a verdict” even though it explores some of the toughest questions Christians face. It offers instead reasons for hope in Christ in the midst of a messy world, and ways to live one’s faith when God is silent and doubts impose. For most of us, this may be the most necessary apologetic of all.

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.