Do We Need to Fight Over Books?

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Image by RyanMcGuire via Pixabay

A couple of interesting things came across my screen today that suggest that even book lovers may act in very unlovely ways toward each other. One was an article on Literary Hub titled “Chuck Wendig on the Time He Enraged a Bunch of Tolkienites.” It seems that the author committed the unforgiveable sin of admitting on Twitter that he just could get through The Lord of the Rings. He learned that you don’t question this holy trilogy of books. Angry Tolkienites even made YouTube videos in response. I read that and thought, “These people need to get a life!”

Now I am a fan of LOTR, having read the books five or so times over the course of my life. But I have many friends like Wendig–and we are still friends! A friend of mine saw this story and commented, “I just don’t understand people’s rage against someone who likes different books, movies, etc than they do.” Truth is, I don’t either. This is like getting into a spat over what flavor of ice cream is best. It seems to me far more fun to celebrate how good ice cream is in all its flavors.

It seems to me that it ought to be that way among lovers of books. I’ve hosted a Facebook page over the past year liked by over 2000 lovers of books. I like the thought both that there are so many like me who delight in this wonderful gift of what we find between the covers of a book (or on our e-reader) but also how different we all are. As I write, people have been responding to a question I posted on how they organize their books. It is fun to see the differences between those who have highly organized systems and those who say, “organize?” I’ve enjoyed times when people could disagree without becoming disagreeable, and discover different perspectives. For example, a recent discussion explored whether you could help a reading averse college grad to come to love reading. There were those who said “impossible,” those who suggested ideas from their own experience, and a few who said, “I was once one of those people and now I love books.”

That brings me to the other thing that crossed my screen. I’m in another Facebook book group, and saw a post from an admin who apologized for an individual who was bullying others in the group, and informed everyone that the individual had been “blocked.” I’d seen similar messages elsewhere on Facebook, but never in a book group. I did not see the offending posts so have no idea what was said, but I guess people can be trolls, or at least very obnoxious, anywhere. I appreciate admins like this one who act promptly to keep pages or groups from going toxic.

It is ironic, and frankly puzzling to me, that there are people who love reading, but haven’t had their minds opened enough by their reading to discover that people see the world differently, have good reasons for doing so, and that people like different things. I suspect it has to do with wounds in other parts of their lives that take more than books to heal. Sometimes it is the case that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). Sometimes all you can do is block continued abusiveness online, and celebrate all the others who enjoy the common love of books, and all the different ways we love them. That’s actually pretty good, and often, pretty good is good enough.

 

Little Golden Books

scuffy-the-tugboatIn a discussion with other readers on the Bob on Books Facebook page, the first book many of us remembered reading was a Little Golden Book. These cardboard cover books with lavish illustrations and the distinctive gold binding have been treasured by generations of children. One of the things children loved was that inside the front cover was a place where a child could write his or her name.

The book I remember as my first read was Scuffy the Tugboat written by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergeley. But I had a whole collection. I remember the Disney movie tie-ins of Dumbo and Bambi, Christmas stories like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Mickey Mouse Goes Shopping, and The Night Before Christmas, and a Marian Potter authored book, The Little Red Caboose.

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The series started in 1942 as the vision of Georges Duplaix, and the idea was to publish very inexpensive children’s books with gorgeous illustrations, sold at half of the 50 cent price of most children’s books at the time, and far less than the $2 to $3 price of some. Simon & Schuster first published the books and figured out that if they did print runs of 50,000 books, they could sell them at 25 cents.  They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In their first fifty years, ending in 1992, they sold 1.5 billion of these books!

Ownership of the Little Golden Books line has changed over the years, with the books currently being published by Random House. The amazing thing is that they are still being published and an edition of The Poky Little Puppy (the all-time bestselling Little Golden Book) being sold new today looks just the same as the one published in 1942. Tootle (another Gertrude Crampton story) that I loved reading our son in the late 1980’s was just the same as the one first published in 1945.

tootle

Little Golden Books featured children’s authors like Margaret Wise Brown, Janette Sebring Lowry (The Poky Little Puppy) and Kathryn Jackson, and illustrators like Richard Scarry and Garth Williams. Over the years the line expanded to include books about children’s concerns, like the first day at school, religious themes such as the Lord’s Prayer and tie-ins with Disney, Nickelodeon, and most recently Star Wars. Audio and video versions in record, tape, CD, and video have been created, and some toy lines. But the books remain the core product with Random House currently listing 590 titles.

Random House celebrated 75 years of Golden Books in 2017, creating a special website for the occasion. We’ve passed down my collection of Little Golden Books to my son. Some were falling apart from use. Whether the books are passed along or new ones purchased, there seems to be something quite wonderful when grandparents can share with grandchildren a book that looks just like the one they had as a child and cherish the bond of commonly remembered story and illustration.

The Trial and Joy of Lending Books

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Books for Lending Library. Photo by Ivan Ives. State Library of New South Wales, 29.10.1943, Pix Magazine. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr

It seems that the old adage, “neither a borrower nor a lender be” applies in the realm of books, as in other matters. The basic issue is that often borrowed books are never returned, and it seems that what makes the difference is whether the lender actually expected the book to be returned. This, for me was the takeaway, from a recent discussion at the Bob on Books Facebook Page.

For a number of participants, lending books and not getting them back was so painful that they have decided to no longer lend their books. One of the hardest experiences was a person who lent a valued first edition they hadn’t finished reading only to have the person who borrowed it deny having received it. One person had a roommate move away and take their books. In an article on the same subject, one person found a book they lent in a book sale–with their name inside–and they re-bought it.

For some, it seems that their personal libraries are very precious and, as one person put it, they “can’t bear to part with books.” Another wrote: “My name is _____and I am an official book hoarder 😉 I don’t lend them out anymore.” Perhaps we need to start chapters of Bookhoarders Anonymous!

Some seem to have worked out ways to get back most or all of the books they lend. Some only lend to family and find they get those books back, or only lend to trustworthy friends. One friend finds a post-it note inside the front cover helps people remember from whom they borrowed the book (which may be the problem for some!). Then there are the fearless ones who don’t mind going after people to retrieve their borrowed books. Most of us are just too polite to ask or don’t want to engender ill will with their friends. One particularly intrepid person wrote: “I’ve been known to go get books back even when it was dangerous to approach the people I loaned them to!” Another observed a difference in return rates when someone asked to borrow a book versus when the book owner offered it to another to borrow.

One difficulty mentioned by some is that books do not come back in the same condition they were given out. Dog ears and folded or frayed pages, crumbs of food or stains, worn or torn covers and more are some of the condition issues people have had with their borrowed books.

Some lend very selectively, having certain books they will not lend. A response I found out of the ordinary but thought provoking because it elevated the act of sharing a book was this:

“I seldom lend out a book. For these reasons. Giving someone a book is a special thing it is like casting bread out upon the water, feeding the imagination, and giving wisdom. Another reason is that it’s intellectual property. That author worked so hard to write us a story and should be rewarded for their efforts. The gift of reading is eternal. I love buying books for friends n family.”

One approach that some take is simply to lend a duplicate copy of the book. One individual, when asked if one of their books can be borrowed, simply orders a copy of the book online and has it sent to the person. Either buying a copy for one’s friend or replacing the book quietly seems to be an approach many take to neither lose a book that means something, nor a valued friend. A professor combs used book stores for copies of books she likes to give to her students.

Finally some just seem to hold their books more loosely. They basically conclude that the book they lend is really a gift and neither ask for or expect it to be returned. For some, they think that if they’ve loved a book, the best thing they can do is share it, and some even encourage the person not to give it back, but pass it along to someone else who will like it. I also got the idea that there are some who are like me and are happy not to get books back because they already have more books than they have room for.

I will leave the last word to C. S. Lewis, whose counsel gives me great comfort:

My friend said, “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.” “Which?” I asked. “The ones you gave away or lent.” “I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I. “Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.*

*C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 216.

Why Are Prisons Banning Used Book Donations?

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Prison Library at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Tobias Kleinlercher / Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

BookRiot reported the other day that my home state of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) is in the process of finalizing a policy that would no longer permit the donations of used books directly to prisoners from non-profit organizations. In advance of this policy implementation, non-profits report that a number of correctional facilities have already returned donations, even though these organizations have been approved in the past and there have been no problems with donated books.

Ohio is joining a growing number of states implementing similar policies. In most cases, the policy permits prisoners to receive new books from a limited number of approved venders including an e-book vendor (with compatible reader), JPay. According to the BookRiot article, the newly appointed director of ODRC, Annette M. Chambers-Smith, previously was a general manager with JPay. In New York state, according to a WNYC article, the selection at one point was limited to five vendors offering 77 books, 24 of which were coloring books! And the books are expensive, compared to the donated books, placing a burden on inmate families.

The ostensible reason being given by states for such ban is security–specifically preventing the smuggling of contraband hidden within books–drugs and weapons. This was the rationale given by the State of Washington when they implemented a similar policy. The Seattle Times requested information about specific instances after the Department of Corrections cited seventeen instances of contraband in books. It turns out that twelve had nothing to do with books and only three directly involved books with contraband, and none of the contraband originated outside the prison.

Books to Prisoners, an award-winning Seattle-based non-profit begun in 1973 contends that the same safety rationale arises in every instance, and yet in their entire history, none of their books have been found with contraband. Books to Prisoners led a massive effort that resulted in rescinding the Washington ban (and similar bans in other states like New York) and is pursuing similar efforts in Ohio.

So why are prisons doing this? It may be that with budget cuts, those tasked with screening books are overburdened, and hence the move to a few “trusted” vendors. Yet we are not talking about individuals mailing books but rather trusted non-profits who have been approved and have clean records going back for years. It is hard not to wonder if there are financial interests involved. Some would go further and argue that with the steep increase in incarceration making the United States the world leader in jailing its citizens, that there is what amounts to a “prison-industrial complex” that depends on a population of inmate labor.

Books are a potent weapon in fighting recidivism, the re-arrest and incarceration of previously incarcerated persons. One program, Changing Lives Through Literature saw a recidivism rate of 19% of people in its programs compared to a control group with a 45% recidivism rate. A Rand Corporation study showed at least a 13% drop of recidivism rates with education programs, 13% higher employment, and that for every $1 spent reduced post-incarceration costs $4 to $5.

Death row exoneree Anthony Graves writes in Infinite Hope about how critical books from his prison’s library were in sustaining hope and fostering personal growth, and he even includes a reading list of books that were formative for him. This is a story many prisoners will tell. Yet funding cuts limit prison library hours, sometimes making them inaccessible to inmates. This is why non-profit books to prisoner programs can play such a crucial role, especially when books become prisoner property rather than prison property.

Some would argue that prisons have an interest in controlling what prisoners read. Many states do ban what prisoner’s can read, examples of which can be found at this page on the Books to Prisoner’s site. I was talking with a friend about this and commented that making Mein Kampf available to prisoners might not be helpful. And then I came across this in the American Libraries Magazine:

“In November 2017, The Dallas Morning News exposed such a list in Texas that included more than 10,000 titles. Books like The Color Purple, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Freakonomics are on the list, but others, such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf and two titles by white supremacist David Duke, are allowed, the newspaper reported. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reviewed the policy following media coverage of those lists.”

Go figure!

Those who have been most concerted in their criticism of prisons have seen them as an effort to maintain a permanent American underclass that sustains the “prison-industrial complex.” The cynic in me sees these baseless bans of books donated by award-winning organizations as confirmatory of such patterns. I’d like to believe we are better than that. If you follow this blog, you probably believe books enrich and transform our lives. Thinking about restrictions on donations of used books to inmates makes me ask whether I want the same for them. I do not think books alone will solve the issues of incarceration rates and recidivism. I do think they can help. Perhaps they may even help enough that some day we will not lead the world in prison population rates.

Seeking the Lofty

Wilder Quote

I came across this quote yesterday, on the birthday of Thornton Wilder, its author. It reflects one of the bedrock ideas of this blog. I am convinced that a life well-lived is shaped by the pursuit of the “lofty.” Any social structure, from a family, to a business, to a country flourishes to the degree that it pursues the good, the true, and the beautiful rather than the tawdry, the base, and the unjust.

The Apostle Paul said something similar:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8, NIV)

I’m struck with Paul’s repeated “whatever’s.” One might most naturally think of sacred scriptures, prayers, or other religious texts. Paul and Thornton Wilder agree. To read, hear, or see great works, whatever they might be, are necessary to “seeking the lofty.”

Implicit in both statements is the idea that there may be other than great things to read, hear, and see and other than lofty lives we might live. We are formed and shaped by what we read, and see, and hear, and think about for good or for ill, every day.

This blog represents my own attempt to curate a reading life around the qualities Paul mentions. As quickly as I read, I can only read in a lifetime a few thousand out of the vast number of books that have ever been published. The real question is, do I want a life that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy? If my answer to that is yes, then why would I read–or for that matter view or listen to–anything lacking in these qualities.

I don’t think this means that we only engage things that look like a Thomas Kinkade painting, reflecting some idyllic world. I would read no crime fiction were that case–nor  the Bible for that matter! Great works often do portray the underside of life, but their effect at the end of the day is not to encourage me to embrace that life, but to strive for something better, to repent my sins, to leave aside meanness and selfishness and small-mindedness.

It does mean that all of us become curators of the material we admit to the museum, the library, the concert hall, of our lives. Every publisher, every librarian, every museum curator, every one who creates a playlist curates. So do the people who feed us the news, whether via social media, online websites, print or televised media. The question is whether we will forfeit the curation of our lives, and the things we see, and read, and watch to someone else. It is an important question if we are “seeking the lofty.”

I don’t want to curate your life. My own is more than enough challenge, one for which I need great grace. I do hope that what I write, and the books I commend point toward some “great work” that may enrich at least some moments of your days. I sometimes despair that our modern world is descending into balefulness, barrenness, and banality. I need voices from beyond the void to remind me of the lofty. I hope in some small way I might be one.

 

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-B

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWell, I’ve finished The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge. I will be doing a full review of the book tomorrow, but for today, want to capture and share some of my reflections on the last third of the book, leaving discussion of the Conclusion to my review tomorrow.

The last third of the book is a continuation of Rutledge’s discussion of motifs of the crucifixion and focuses on just three of these: the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation, with discussions of the first two lengthy enough that she provided an outline at the beginning of each chapter. I will share a few reflections from each.

The descent into hell. It was fascinating that she would embark on such a lengthy discussion of a motif found in but a handful of verses. For Rutledge this serves as the pretext to explore not only the idea of “hell” in scripture and the development of the doctrine throughout church history. Her aim is to take a hard look at the reality of and problem of evil, and how Christ’s death and resurrection have cosmic implications that prefigure the final destruction of the power of Sin, Evil, Death, and Satan and his domain, where the nothingness of these will finally be confirmed in their utter annihilation. Perhaps most striking for me is her assertion that we cannot speak of meaning when it comes to evil, that it is the negation of meaning. Her discussion of the radical nature of evil, that runs through every life sets up her discussion of what she might call Christ’s substitutionary victory (she so closely links these). It gives the lie to any human distinctions of righteous and wicked, and the folly of human pretensions to innocence. She writes: “The unalloyed proclamation of Scripture is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge of history. It is the unique old-world-overturning and new-world-constituting event that calls every human project into question–including especially our religious projects” (p. 461).

The Substitution. This is a marvelous chapter that everyone who derides the idea of substitution should read. Rutledge traces this history of the motif, not going to classic proof texts like 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 but to Romans, to Galatians 3:10-14, and Isaiah 53 and its use in the New Testament. She explores how Christ’s death is both for us and in our place. She surveys the development of the motif in history and the objections that are raised, which often reflect formulations that are problematic, but are not ultimately the underlying reason for rejection of substitution, which she argues reflects our aversion to substitution’s “recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it” (p. 506). She turns to Barth and the idea of “The Judge Judged in Our Place” and the idea that the Godhead is the acting subject of substitution, the agent accomplishing this in God’s self to undo the curse of Sin. What is striking in Rutledge is how she develops in all of this an understanding of substitution, not in opposition to the idea of Christus Victor, but as the means of the victory of Jesus, uniting these two motifs in a splendid display of the glory of God.

Recapitulation. This follows from substitution, in tracing the idea that Christ is the second Adam; that his incarnation, baptism, obedience of faith in the power of the Spirit, death, and victory over death recapitulate in a transformative way, the life of Adam, as Christ represents all of humanity as Adam did, but for our redemption. I love her conclusion here:

“This is what Jesus did. He rewrote the book of love. We are the ‘ugly people’ who put Jesus on the cross, but he is going to give us all his riches nevertheless….Because he has rewritten the story, we are no longer prisoners of our worst selves, nor of the evil powers that would destroy us. At any moment of our lives, God may break through with yet another miracle of rewriting. And laughter will resound from the farthest reaches of the created universe: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4)” (p. 570).

What all three of these chapters underscore is that, as G. K. Chesterton has put it, we are what is wrong with the world, and utterly incapable of ourselves in setting things to rights, and that God, in Christ rectifies, or sets to right by sheer grace what we could never deserve or accomplish.

Website Review: Thriftbooks

Thriftbooks

Screen capture of homepage, accessed 3/28/19

I generally am an advocate of brick and mortar bookstores, as you may know from following this blog. Where possible, I like to buy new books, which helps support these stores and also the authors, who don’t receive royalties on used books, and rarely on remaindered ones. Brick and mortar stores may not always offer the best bargains, but they enrich the fabric of a community and provide employment and local taxes.

At the same time, buying new books can be expensive. Three hardbacks may cost $100 or more at today’s prices. The book has to be one I want to keep to justify that price. Mass market paperbacks are still generally under $10, and quality paperbacks $15-20 or more, but even those prices add up quickly. Used booksellers can often help take a bite out of this cost, but remember that neither publisher nor author are benefiting from your purchase. One upside–you are recycling!

The other issue is that there are often particular editions you might look for to complete a set, or there are books that are out of print. Here, online booksellers such as AbeBooks or Alibris are good alternatives to that mammoth online bookseller. Recently at the Bob on Books Facebook Page (you are welcome to like us!) I asked people about their experiences of buying used books online and discovered I must be the last person on the planet not to know about Thriftbooks. One person wrote, “Thriftbooks is the bees knees.” With such an enthusiastic endorsement, I could not fail to take a look.

Here’s what I found. The homepage to the website works well to connect one to all the features on the site. There is a search bar that allows you to search by title, author, or ISBN. I found that entering the first part of the author’s name brought up a list that allowed me to search the author’s book quickly. One of the things you will notice is that you are not buying from other booksellers through the site but through Thriftbooks itself. (Thriftbooks also sells through Amazon.)

Just below that is a drop down menu bar that allows you to search by categories, kid’s, young adult, fiction, and collectibles. There is also information about special offers, their phone app (which I haven’t looked at yet), their blog, and information about the company. They’ve expanded from a single warehouse in Washington state in 2004 to warehouses in ten states. They purchase books from charities, which helps the charities, recycle books through sales or sending them to recycling plants, and support various literacy programs, schools, and correctional facility libraries.

They have a sliding banner that features their Thriftbooks deals (an additional 10% off 100,000 titles), a bonus currently on offer for their Reading Rewards program, a feature on women’s books, and a chance to vote in their “novel knockout” program. Below this are featured their bestsellers (all selling from $3.79), trending books, and popular books eligible for their Thriftbooks discount. Between the trending books and the Thriftbook deals is a green bar with links to your orders, your current number of points in your Reading Rewards, and a link to Thriftbook deals.

If you go to the page for any category, you see best sellers, new arrivals, and Thriftbook deals for that category. Under Collectibles, you can see New Arrivals, First Editions, and Signed Books. When you click on a book, you are taken to a page for that book offering various price options for the book depending on hardcover, paperback, mass market paperback, and audio and prices by condition. There is also a link to view all the editions of the book.

It is easy to set up an account, which involves providing your name, email, and a password. Click on the Reading Reward link in your profile to enroll in the Reading Rewards program. It allows you to earn points for each dollar you spend (as well as periodic bonuses depending on how many books you read). When you earn 500 points, you get a free book. Starting out, you get 8 points for each dollar. When you spend more than $100 in a year, you graduate to “Literati,” where you earn 10 points.

So I did try out ordering. I ordered a few James Lee Burke books, and the next couple books in the Wheel of Time series that I haven’t read. It was pretty standard for most websites: shopping cart, provide shipping info, and credit card or Paypal. Standard shipping is free with orders over $10 (within the U.S.). Because they do not do business in my state, they do not charge sales tax (which may be up to you to report). It is supposed to take 4 to 8 business days. We’ll see how it goes. I received an immediate order confirmation via email, as well as a 15% discount coupon code for my next order.

If you want to try them out, here is a link to a 15 percent discount (yes, I do get a discount if you order!). So depending on your budget and book buying needs, you might give them a try.

Summing it all up:

Strengths: Inventory, low prices, rewards program, collectibles, overall ease of navigation and use, and the social responsibility of the company.

Downsides: Not the place to find newly released books. These are used books in most cases. It does not connect you to or support brick and mortar booksellers, used or new, nor authors.

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-A

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI have continued to revel in the richness of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What I so appreciate is the marvelous way in which she draws various aspects of the biblical story together into a coherent narrative rather than as simply disparate parts. One of the passages that reflects this, from the second part of her book, considers the love and wrath of God, and is some of the finest thinking and writing I’ve come across:

“God did not need to change his mind about us on account of the cross or on any other account. He did not need to have his mind changed. He was never opposed to us. It is not his opposition to us but our opposition to him that had to be overcome, and the only way it could be overcome was from God’s side, by God’s initiative, from inside human flesh–the human flesh of the Son. The divine hostility, or wrath of God, has always been an aspect of his love. It is not separate from God’s love, it is not opposite God’s love, it is not something in God that had to be overcome” (p. 323).

The focus of Part Two of the book is on motifs of the crucifixion. This reflection will cover the first half of Part Two up through the motif of the Apocalyptic War. In an introduction to this section, she summarizes these motifs under two categories:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin. In this section, this included chapters on the blood sacrifice (6) and ransom and redemption (7).
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death. The chapters that would fall here are those on Passover and Exodus (5), the Great Assize (8), and the Apocalyptic War (9), the later two being closely related for Rutledge.

Rutledge challenges our thinking at every point. Her chapters on blood sacrifice and ransom and redemption get at our squeamishness about the imagery of blood and the idea of a price being paid, which sounds like Jesus paying a price to change God’s mind, justifying the charge of divine child abuse. Instead, Rutledge defends the idea of redemption as deliverance by purchase–that the focus of Christ’s death, as in the quote above, was not on changing God, but on addressing our quandary, but at a cost that involved God investing God’s self.

Likewise, in the chapter on blood sacrifice, she notes the pervasiveness of blood and sacrificial imagery in scripture, but challenges our literalism, that we do not grasp the metonymy in which the term blood stands in for its effect, God’s provision for human restoration. She explores the idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and the superiority of Christ in every way, including his self-sacrifice, in Hebrews. In this chapter she also folds in discussions on scapegoats, the lamb of God, and the binding of Isaac, one of the passages I’ve always wrestled with. She notes how Abraham is the only one ever asked to give up a son, and that God himself does what Abraham does not do because of the substitute provided.

I have to think more about her chapter on the Great Assize. She helpfully notes our fears of judgment excluding some and not others in an era where the watchword is inclusion. Her contention is that the biblical narrative proclaims all under judgment–that there are no “good” or “bad.” She also notes the communal nature of judgment–peoples, tribes, nations, societies will be judged. She argues, however that this is not a mere forensic situation but rather one in which people are held in the power, as well as are under the guilt, of sin. Rutledge makes an argument here that to make people right, it takes both an apocalyptic deliverance from the Power of Sin that holds people in bondage, as well as justification, which she translates as “wording people into righteousness” — a vivid picture of the power of God’s saving word to effect what it declares, through Christ.

This leads to her chapter on the apocalyptic battle and the theme of Christus Victor, first developed by Gustav Aulen. I have to be honest and found Rutledge far more compelling than at least what I remember of Aulen. The basic focus here is that in the cross, God acts in Christ to decisively defeat the Enemy and break the Power of Sin and Death in the death and resurrection of Jesus, bringing about new creation, both already, and to be fully revealed.

As I reflect on all of this, it is making me re-examine my almost exclusive focus on substitutionary atonement and the forensic aspects of justification, or as Rutledge would describe it, rectification. What I find heartening is that Rutledge does not join those dismissive of substitution or the forensic aspects of justification, showing how these motifs are indeed important, even essential, to our understanding of crucifixion. At the same time, she challenges me to think about the victory of Jesus over the power of sin, death, and Satan, in the cross and resurrection. I think of this pastorally. I find people, myself included, wrestle as much with the power of sin as they do their guilt before God. A work of the cross that addresses both is indeed critical, it seems to me, for truly setting to rights our human condition.

I feel I’ve only scratched the surface in these reflections–there is so much more here than I’ve been able to capture including her discussion of the passover and exodus, her discussion of the place of reconciliation, and how one may both embrace pacifism and yet draw great hope from the apocalyptic war of the Lamb. Perhaps the mentions of these things and my brief summary of this part of the book may whet your appetite to dig into it yourself!

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part One

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I’ve taken a break from reviewing new books I’ve received from publishers for a short while to immerse myself in what may be the most significant theological book published in the last ten years. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2017. I thought it appropriate in this season of Lent to finally dig into Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion“Dig in” is not inappropriate for this 612 page (plus bibliography and indices) study on the central event of Christianity. The work is made lighter by Rutledge’s elegant and accessible prose–this is a work of meaty theology meant for those in the pew and not merely the academy. It is such a rich book that I thought I would write several reflections in addition to my usual review to capture, at least for myself, something of the richness of this work. This is on the first two hundred pages, most of Part One of the book.

Right at the start, Rutledge contends for the primacy of the cross, and the challenge Christianity has always faced from various forms of gnosticism, and its devaluation of material life, including the very physical act of a crucifixion in history. In place of an action of the Triune God entering human history to make things right by a gory death, human beings prefer systems of attaining to hidden spiritual knowledge through human achievements, and the devaluation of the body. She notes that Christians have even drawn back, sometimes accepting narratives of the cross as divine child abuse, which she will contend reflects neither the shared will and agreement of the Trinity in the act of the cross, nor the object of the cross, making things right for those under the power of Sin.

She made a statement stunning in its clarity in her chapter on “The Godlessness of the Cross.” She writes in response to those who would ban the cross as a religious object that “[t]he cross is by a very long way the most irreligious object to find its way into the heart of faith.” She then explores at length the horror of the cross as an instrument of torture, degradation, and execution for the dregs of criminal society. the significance of the idea of those who die on a cross being under the curse, and explores the question of why God would choose such a horrific form of death to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes in the world. I’ve often asked the question “why did Jesus die?” What this book is challenging me with is the question of why did Jesus die in this particularly gruesome and horrific fashion?

She begins to explore a response to this in discussing the idea of justice. She notes that “[g]ross injustice demonstrates a basic premise: in our world, something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right.” She uses the example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to show that “putting things right” involves something far different from the “forgive and forget” idea we sometimes think of in God’s work through Christ. It involves accountable truthfulness about atrocities, both confessing wrongs and hearing from one’s victims. Yet the object isn’t punishment, which can never be proportional to the offenses, but a new creation. She goes on to explore the biblical word group connected to dikaiosyne, variously translated as “justice,” “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “justification.” She contends that the underlying idea is one of God making things right and suggests that “rectify” in its various forms may be a better English word and uses this in the remainder of the book. She argues that the cross is an apocalyptic event–a divine intervention that makes right what could not be made right by human law-keeping.

One of the striking emphases here that I sense will run through the work is the gracious initiative of God. Later, in a chapter on “The Gravity of Sin” (a topic she admits we have a hard time talking about) she contends “[t]here is no way to help people to the knowledge of sin except to offer the news of God’s ‘prevenient’ purpose in overcoming sin through the cross.” Countering our tendency  to put repentance first, she argues for an order of “grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.” It is in grasping the grace of God revealed in the cross that we understand the enormity of our sin. It is understanding the mighty work of the cross in delivering us from the power of sin that we are moved to repentance and realize the sheer pardon into new life we enjoy by grace.

This chapter also develops an idea she has hinted at, of capital S Sin. We often think of particular acts. She develops the idea of Sin as a Power, a principle of rebellion that holds people captive, that there is a power of darkness over the human heart in all of us that helps explain the horrors of what humans do to each other. And it begins to explain why the Triune God chose the instrumentality of the cross to deliver us from this horrid power. This is hard stuff. It strikes me that this helps explain our obsession with explaining why people commit mass shootings and other atrocities. We look for some “reason,” perhaps because we do not want to face the reality of the reason-defying logic of human evil, and the scary possibility that it is not so far from any of us. Yet there is also the wonder that in the Cross, God, in the innocent Son, becomes the object of human evil to set to rights what was terribly wrong in us that we could not self-rectify.

One other aspect of this work, in a “bridge” chapter on Anselm, is that she argues that Anselm has been misunderstood as a proponent of penal suffering. She argues that his idea of “satisfaction” is much closer to what she is proposing as “rectification.” It makes me want to go back and read Cur Deus Homo to see if her reading of Anselm can be supported. In the second part of the book she will go on to discuss eight “motifs” for understanding the crucifixion, including substitution. Given her comments on Anselm, and her sensitivities to the accusations against penal substitution, as well as her defense of the death of Christ as a work of love in which the Triune God acted as one, I am curious how she will weight these different “motifs” (she disdains the terminology of “theories of the atonement”) and what she will conclude. Already, it is clear that for her, this will all point to the idea of rectification, of God putting right what was wrong through Christ.

I don’t know whether I will agree with all that Rutledge writes, but this work forces me to look with fresh eyes at what easily becomes too familiar. She helps us to face the skandalon of the cross lost in our back-lit crosses and eye-catching PowerPoints. She confronts us both with things about human nature that are uncomfortable, and the relentless determination of God to address what is terribly wrong with the world and put it right, which is quite wonderful.

On the TBR Pile: March 2019

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Yesterday, I featured the books I’ve received recently for review. The books I feature today came from bookstores, sometimes at very good prices from a variety of genres: essays, mysteries, science, history and autobiography. They are not the only books waiting to be read around my house, but some of the next ones. But don’t hold me to this! Something more interesting may come up along the way. Like yesterday’s post, I’ve included a link in the title to the publisher’s webpage for the book. I’ll let you decide if and where you will buy them!

The givenness of things

The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson. I love Robinson’s fiction and have appreciated the wide-ranging character of her essays. This is a collection from 2016 and includes a two-part conversation with President Barack Obama. The book was listed on Time’s Top 10 of 2016.

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The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny Colgan. I enjoy books with plots that center around bookshops. This one is about a former librarian who moves to a small town, buys a van and turns it into a mobile bookshop, and changes life after life as a literary matchmaker.

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Robicheaux, James Lee Burke. A bookseller put me on to James Lee Burke and his detective character, Robicheaux. This is one of his more recent works, in which Robicheaux becomes a suspect in a murder he is investigating.

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The Second Kind of Impossible, Paul J. Steinhardt. This is a kind of scientific quest for a new form of matter by a theoretical physicist. I’m curious to see if he succeeded!

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Indianapolis, Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. This book has received a lot of attention, making the New York Times bestseller list. It recounts the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the last month of World War II, the struggle for those who did not immediately die to survive (only 316 out of 1200 do), and the fight to exonerate Captain Charles McVay, who was wrongly court-martialed after the sinking.

i am mulala

I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai. This has been out a while, but I came by it recently. Violence against women is an issue I care deeply about, and I’m also interested in learning more about Pakistan. And I’m drawn by the story of this courageous woman.

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Presidents of War, Michael Beschloss. The author traces the leadership of American presidents throughout the nation’s history, in leading the nation into war and in coping with the pressures of war, successfully or not. The power entrusted to the American presidency to lead a nation into war is significant, particular in a nuclear era as we face choices about who will fill this office.

No doubt, there may be some here you’ve heard about, or even read. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books and look forward to sharing mine over the next month or so. There are so many good things out there to read, aren’t there?