Review: In the Shadow of King Saul

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays spanning nearly thirty years of Charyn’s literary career, on the New York in which he grew up, his family, other authors and celebrities.

Jerome Charyn may be one of America’s most prolific writers, with over fifty books in fifty years. Michael Chabon has called him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” I only recently became acquainted with him when I reviewed Sergeant Salinger, a novel based on the World War 2 experiences of J. D. Salinger.

This collection of essays, second in Bellevue Literary Press’s “The Art of the Essay” series is a collection of ten essays by Charyn from 1978 to 2005, plus an introductory essay, “Silence and Song” that both traces his life as a writers and explains the selection of essays under his rubric of silence and song. We learn about his childhood in a poor and rough neighborhood in the Bronx, his discovery of his love of words, studies at Columbia, and the beginnings of his writing career.

“The Sadness of Saul” is in some ways the archetype for other essays in this collection. Saul reflects the contrast of silence to David’s songs. Charyn finds Saul of greater interest, a tragic figure who did not want to be king, who lacked a voice. Charyn believes writing begins in the silences.

He offers a fascinating account of the history of Ellis Island, the power brokers in the Bronx neighborhoods of his youth in “Haunch Paunch and Jowl” and the meaning of the “Faces on the Wall” in the rise of modern cinema. Most significant are the authors about which he writes–Saul Bellow, Anzia Yezierska, and a lengthy mini-biography of Isaac Babel. The last two essays are more personal, focused around his mother, “the dark lady from Belorusse,” the inattention of her husband and the letters from her brother in Mogilev that sustained her, and her angst when war interrupted them.

It strikes me that this is a book for New Yorkers and followers of Charyn. Some essays had the feeling of “inside baseball” that those familiar with his context, or the writers of whom he writes, would find fascinating. For me, they suggested that some of these places and people might be worth knowing more of. A few of the essays, on Saul, on Josh Gibson, the Negro league star who sank into insanity, and the forgotten life of Louise Brooks, all of them “silent figures,” were of greater interest.

This is part of a series on the art of the essay. The artfulness of Charyn is to awaken our interest in times and places and people outside our awareness. He is able to connect experiences we have in common, or even the essence of what it means for us to be human, our aspirations and longings, our hopes and despairs, our silences and our songs with the stories on these pages.

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

Review: Watch With Me

Watch With Me: And Six Other Stories of the YetRemembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch, Wendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2018 (originally published 1994).

Summary: Six short stories and the title novella centered around the Port William resident, Tol Proudfoot and his wife, Miss Minnie and their life on a rural farm, part of the membership of a rural community.

This one had me at the title, both for its length, and the “yet-remembered” part. For Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot was a memorable man–a big man of 300 pounds who seemed to be a-bursting out of his clothes, which looked disheveled within minutes of him donning them. He carefully farmed 98 acres, just enough and not two acres more. He was a good judge of horses and all livestock, as well as a good judge of people. Miss Minnie Quinch Proudfoot was as diminutive as Tol was large, but just as impressive. This book of short stories and a novella trace their life together and the lives they touched from the time they began to court until a few years before death parted them.

The first story introduces both of them and tells how Miss Minnie, who had had eyes for him as he for her, consented to let Tol see her home after the Harvest Festival. “A Half-Pint of Old Darling” renders the amusing story of how Miss Minnie, a local temperance movement leader, got pie-eyed drunk on some Old Darling whiskey Tol had bought for his new calves. “The Lost Bet” recounts the time Tol had the last laugh with a store owner who belittled him. Tol was great with livestock and could drive a horse with aplomb, but struggled mightily with his new Model A. “Nearly to the Fair” recounts their attempt to be driven by Elton Penn to the state fair, never quite getting there.

Tol and Miss Minnie never had children and the hospitality they showed to a homeless father and son during the height of the Depression showed the unspoken heartache between them. As the father and son are leaving, Tol half-jokingly says to the man, “We could use a boy like that.” After they left “Tol put on a clean shirt and his jacket, and cap and gloves. Miss Minnie began to clear the table. For the rest of that day, they did not look at one another.” With an economy of words, Berry expresses the bond between them, the diligence of their daily lives, and the unspoken ache they both felt. The last of the short stories recalls a riotous incident from childhood when the family was gathered at Old Ant’ny Proudfoot’s and the boys managed to dump both a cat and a dog down the chimney resulting in all hell breaking loose with the company. Told a few years before his passing with tears of laughter running down his face, “It was Tol’s benediction, as I grew to know, on that expectancy of good and surprising things that had kept Lester’s eyes, and Tol’s too, wide open for so long.”

“Watch With Me,” the final novella is another incident, from 1916, of those “good and surprising things.” Thacker “Nightlife” Hample was prone to spells. Prevented from preaching at the revival at Goforth Church, he comes by Tol’s place, spies an old shotgun that had been loaded to kill a snake, takes it and walks deliberately away, mouthing threats to kill himself. Tol and his nephew Sam and several others follow as a distance, as Nightlife walks on, oblivious of them while they are far from oblivious to the danger of the shotgun. They follow a day and a night, losing him in the woods only to have him come to the fire where they had fallen asleep, uttering Jesus’ words “Couldn’t you stay awake? Couldn’t you stay awake?” He then leaves, taking them in a big circle back to Tol’s workshop. It’s a fine story of human fidelity and frailty–of friends who drop their work to watch their “teched” community member, not sure what they can do, but realizing they needed to be there, even at risk to themselves. That’s what it was to be a “member” of this community.

This is a wonderful collection I never knew existed, introducing me to an older member of Port William. The fine writing says just enough to suggest the things Berry wants us to see–the wonder of marital fidelity with all its flaws, the attentive care to land and crops, and animals, and people that makes for a healthy place, and the laughable incongruities of life. We witness the gentle respect people show for one another’s fallibilities, where people are protected from the worst versions of themselves, offering them space for redemption and growth. Berry makes us long for what was in this fictional town, and what could be in ours. He gently poses the question of us of what it may be to be the Tol, the Miss Minnie to others. We miss what Berry is saying if we only long for the world around us to be like these people and fail to hear the invitation to be like them ourselves.

Important Things We Can’t Seem to Talk About

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Conflict is as old as Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve bickered over who was at fault for their joint act of eating the forbidden fruit. What strikes me about our present moment is that there seem to be so many things that are actually quite important that large parts of our society simply cannot talk about with other large parts of our society:

  • Public health measures in a pandemic.
  • How we will make the drastic changes to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the climate effects that are too late to prevent.
  • How we will face our deeply engrained history and patterns of racism and find ways to repair the damage and move toward the “beloved community.”
  • How we will stop “othering” those who are different than we are and recognize that common citizenship, whether in the nation or the world.
  • How we will address growing disparities of wealth and poverty; particularly when wealth has power to protect its position.
  • What it will take to move beyond gerrymandered politics in which political representatives must pander to extreme bases while the moderate middles that make up the majority don’t have anyone who speaks for them.

I don’t think this is a silver bullet for these really tough conversations. But I do think in our highly internet-mediated world we have forgotten how to talk with others, except those of our tribe. With others, we seem to have concluded that we can be nasty and dismissive and forget that they are human beings.

Tish Harrison Warren in a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests that we need to recover the art of small talk with our neighbors. I don’t have to leave my neighborhood to find those who see the world differently than I–political parties, social issues, race, religion, you name it. But we help each other find lost animals, share recommendations on home repairs, redeliver the mail our postal service regularly seems to scramble. Of course, we all share a love for our home town sports teams.

Can we extend that online? I notice that my “friends” who share what I think the most outrageous things, also share their personal joys and sorrows, the things common to all of us–the birth of a child or grandchild, a graduation, a serious illness, the death of a parent. Sometimes they will say things I can affirm. Do I ignore them, or express compassion or agreement.

We still haven’t gotten to the serious matters I mentioned above. That’s genuinely challenging and I am not sure I see the way forward, entirely, but I can’t help but wonder if caring for each other’s families, and especially our children and grandchildren is a decent common ground. The commonplaces that we love might just be a good enough reason to step into the hard work. The impasses that exist on so many important questions mean we very well could leave a pretty messed up world to those who follow. I so fear that part of my dying words, if I am permitted them, will be simply, “I’m sorry for the mess I’ve left you.”

While the scriptures say, “God so loved the world” they command us to love our neighbors. Neighbors are both tangible and situational. They are the people who live all around me. They are the ones with the immaculate yard, the barking dog, the kid who excels at everything. Neighbors are also situational. They are the ones who unexpectedly intrude into our life–like the girl at the fast food window who tells me she was hesitant to get vaccinated because of a relative who died shortly after getting one. There are logical answers to that and loving ones that recognize loss.

On a spring break urban project years ago with a church in St. Louis, we saw “re-neighboring” in action. In an area with a tenuous fabric of neighborhoods, people moved in, stayed, and cared and then worked to re-develop home ownership and mutual care in that neighborhood. We’re in a time as we struggle to emerge from the pandemic where we need to lean into “re-neighboring” both with tangible and situational neighbors.

Many of our global and national challenges do require concerted action. But I can’t help wonder if the basis for such action are healthy local communities that decide to really practice “neighboring” instead of being isolated into internet echo chambers susceptible to manipulation by the political machines and other nefarious actors. Maybe Mr. Rogers was right when he asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Review: God in the Modern Wing

God in the Modern Wing (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Ten Christian artists offer reflections on different pieces of modern art found in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, considering both the faith of the artists and what one might see in their art through the eyes of faith.

G. Walter Hansen, a retired theology professor and appreciator of modern art, describes the origins of this book in the preface to this book. He worships at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, located about a mile from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. He contrasts the perceived distance between Christian faith and modern art, and his own growing appreciation for the works he finds in the Modern Wing. Out of this came the presentations that are basis of this book. Working with Cameron J. Anderson, former executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts and co-editor with him of this book, Hansen invited ten Christians in the arts to give presentations offering their own reflections on particular artists and works of art found in the Modern Wing. The contributors not only met this assignment but also offer insights into, using the expression coined by Flannery O’Connor, the “God-haunted” character of modern art, as well as the faith of many of the artists.

Cameron Anderson opens the collection with an introductory essay on “Being Modern” exploring the spirit, style, and self of modern art. He observes:

“Calling on their generative agency, artists sought means to foment aesthetic, social, and political revolution. If modern art labored to rid the picture plane of propaganda, then artists became the self-appointed guardians of this new visual horizon. This new generation flaunted its moral and creative freedom, but it also lived beneath the burden of its tragic flaws and lapses” (p. 11).

The following chapters focus on one to a few artists and works in the Modern Wing. The first takes us on a kind of tour through the eyes and ears and sketch pad of “Hadlock,” from Matisse’s Bathers by the River, through the Cubism of Picasso, the work of Diego Vazquez, works of Paul Klee, and others, interspersed with comments of gallery visitors, and the epiphanies of God’s presence in the works and even the inadvertent comments of visitors. Matthew Milliner considers the works of Chagall, Magritte, and Dali, particularly the last’s return to Catholic faith. Cameron Anderson discusses Constantin Brancusi’s soaring columns and his Bird series, and the expressions of joy they convey. Contrast this with the earth-bounded Walking Man of Alberto Giacometti and Anderson sees in these two both the aspirations and existential boundaries of what it means to be human. Joel Sheesley returns to Cubism, considering Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, probably unlike any portrait you’ve seen, not representation, but negation, a statement of what one is not, of what is missing, as apophatic theology has done with God.

Bruce Herman introduces us to the later art of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn. Guston’s Bad Times focuses on “human beings behaving inhumanely.” Many of his paintings explore humanity at its worst, asking “what are we?” but one, Couple in Bed portrays the beauties of faithful love. We are invited to consider Diebenkorn’s Ochre in the Ocean Park series, an affirmation of joy in color and form. Linda Stratford writes of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The latter, with his Stations paintings, especially fascinated me, black vertical bars with differing widths and locations on a series of canvases, or “stations.”

I had the opportunity to see some of Mark Rothko’s works a few years ago. Makoto Fujimura helped me understand the layers of color floating on many of his canvases and why I must visit the Rothko Chapel if I visit Houston. David McNutt introduces us to the faith of Andy Warhol and the connections between the “Pop” and spiritual sides in his life. Steve Prince describes the prophetic art of two black artists, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, as well as some of his own prophetic work, and what it means to be a prophet in art. Finally, Leah Samuelson, who works in the community art movement, writes about her encounters with the walking sticks of Andre’ Cadere, who would walk through exhibits, leaving his color-banded walking sticks as impromptu installations. She uses this to explore the art of protest and restoration.

In what I thought an apt afterword, Cameron J. Anderson considers the significance of these presentations as an invitation to make space in our hurried lives to contemplate these works, how they reflect the human condition and the nature and meaning of our modern selves. He observes the “nature of craft” and “nature of being” that has been under consideration throughout. As we study these works, we both explore how the artists have accomplished their works, and what they “saw” as they worked. He considers Charles Ray’s Hinoki, pieces of a fallen tree that captured his attention that he turned into an installation. It, like all art, poses the question, “Has anyone else seen the thing that I have seen?” And to go with it is the question, are we seen, and loved, and what does this mean for our existence?

The text is accompanied with black and white figures in the text as well as twenty-two color images in an insert. These cannot substitute for seeing the works, but certainly help make sense of the artists readings of these works. Late, in life, without former training, I’ve picked up the paint brush and enjoyed painting with my wife and local artists, many with far more art training. I have only the vaguest understanding of the movements within modern art but this work whet my appetite to know more. It reminded me that Christ is at play (reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins) in the ten thousand places of the modern art world. As Anderson challenges us, will we make space to see, and to be seen?

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

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The ministry with which I work is hosting a conversation with Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen on November 16, 2021 at 5 pm ET. If you want to learn more about God in the Modern Wing you may sign up for a Zoom link for this conversation via https://tinyurl.com/GodModernWing. There will be an opportunity to purchase the book at a discounted price. There is no charge for this event.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Tod Homestead Cemetery

“Todd Homestead Cemetery Gate from outside,” Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In my parents’ last years, they lived on the North side. Some of their banking was at the Home Savings and Loan on Belmont, and not far from there going southbound, we passed Tod Homestead Cemetery. Sometimes we passed going north to Kravitz Deli, which my dad loved. I had always noticed the impressive cemetery gate when we passed. I discovered in writing this article, that the gate was designed by the same architect who designed another iconic Youngstown structure, that is reminiscent of the gate.

The cemetery bears the Tod family name. It was established in 1908 under terms of the will of George Tod, son of industrialist David Tod, the only Ohio governor from Youngstown. The Tods owned a 900 acre farm on the western banks of the Mahoning River, bounded on the east by Belmont Avenue. Of this, 256 acres were set aside along with an endowment fund to establish a cemetery for the people of Youngstown.

The board formed to establish the cemetery included Mill Creek Park founder Volney Rogers. In 1911, Rogers hired landscape architect Warren Manning to develop a land use and plot layout plan. Manning designed the diagonal northwest to southeast plots that give way in the back to east-west oriented plots. Later on, additional plots were added on the south side of the cemetery. In line due east the entrance was an oval sunken garden east of which was the Tod plot, with a stone obelisk as a central feature, located in line with the cemetery gateway..

Rogers also retained Julius A. Schweinfurth, as architect for the cemetery buildings. It was he who designed the Chapel, entrance arch, and administrative building. The entrance arch is 40 feet and the tower 90 feet high. The style is described as “Italian gothic,” consisting of coarse sandstone topped by a tile roof. The sandstone came both from local and Indiana quarries. It was built in 1919 and was entered into the National Register of Historical Buildings in 1976. Have you figured out what other Youngstown structure the gateway reminds you of? It turns out that in 1913 Volney Rogers, having seen a similar bridge in Europe, hired Schweinfurth to design the Parapet Bridge on the east side of Lake Glacier, beloved of photographers. He also designed Slippery Rock Pavilion.

Rodef Shalom Cemetery was moved to the Tod Homestead Cemetery in 1912, and some cemetery sites list this as an alternate name for the Tod Homestead Cemetery. The Youngstown Township Cemetery, a “potters field” for the poor, was also incorporated into the cemetery in 1914.

In the 1920’s, the cemetery faced financial challenges from its construction and land development costs. A $400,000 gift from John Tod and reorganization under Fred I. Sloan put the cemetery on a solid footing. Sloan led the cemetery until 1958 and was buried there in 1963. One of the other significant structures, the Tod Mausoleum, was built by private investors in 1926 and turned over to the cemetery in 1971.

In 2004, Paul J. Ricciuti, FAIA, one of Youngstown’s leading architects of the late twentieth century into the present, was hired to renovate and restore the interiors of the Chapel, administrative offices and the Tod Mausoleum to their original designs. Then in 2014 the “sunken garden” was re-developed into what is now the Columbarium (“columba” being the Latin for “dove,” a symbol of spirituality and peace), accommodating the increasing numbers who wish to place cremated remains of loved ones in enclosed niches. The area consists of ten low profile structures with a fountain, landscaping, and walkways. This drone video shot in 2015 shows the Columbarium as well as the stunning gateway quite well.

Currently, the cemetery states that there are 38,000 people of all faiths whose final resting place are within its confines. Gravesites and niches are available and the cemetery layout indicates available locations. It reflects the generosity of one of Youngstown’s early founding families, the Tods, the vision of Mill Creek founder Volney Rogers, and the architectural skills of both Julius A. Schweinfurth and Paul J. Ricciuti. It’s design reflects both historic and contemporary elements, suggesting a facility in touch with both its heritage and current needs of the community. And like the park Volney Rogers was associated with, Tod Homestead Cemetery was built as a place of beauty and, with care, to last.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Devil’s Star

The Devil’s Star (Harry Hole #5), Jo Nesbø. New York: Harper, 2017 (originally published 2003).

Summary: Detective Harry Hole, still in turmoil over the unsolved death of his partner, is spiraling downward to termination, until asked to work on the case of a serial killer.

Detective Harry Hole’s life is a mess. His former detective partner, Ellen Gjelten was killed and the murder is unsolved. It has estranged him from his partner, Rakel, and eventually his offenses, fueled by his drinking, have mounted to such a point that even his boss, Bjarne Moller, can’t shield him from dismissal.

But there is one more case, or rather a string of them. The murder of Camille Loen, which he walked out on because of being paired with his nemesis Tom Waaler, has turned into a series of murders following a pattern–a finger severed, a red diamond star left somewhere on the victim with another carved in the vicinity, and a shot to the head. Five days later, Lisbeth Barli, a singer living with a theatre impresario goes missing until her finger arrives at the police department. Then in another five days later, a receptionist found dead in a fifth floor restroom.

Hole, the only detective to solve another serial killer case, is asked to assist Waaler, despite his suspicions that Waaler is corrupt. Waaler in turn plays on the imminent dismissal to Hole to try to lure him into his corruption. Meanwhile, it is Hole who figures out the pattern. The five-pointed stars are pentagrams, a demonic symbol. There is a pattern of fives–five days, fifth floors, different digits for each murder. The pattern leads to a suspect and future murder locations. But something bother Hole. It seems a bit too perfect.

This one has a page-turner climax that I will not spoil by discussing it. This was my first Jo Nesbø. I’d heard others recommend his work. Hole is a gritty and flawed character, but like other great detectives, he thinks and muses and keeps thinking. He spots patterns and thinks beyond them. I realized that he has a history that I may have missed by not reading the earlier books (this was a deal on Kindle). Will he self-destruct or find an equilibrium that allows him to survive.

Nesbø sets this in Oslo during the summer, amid the warp and woof of urban life–students, theatre, business. The mounting heat wave provides an atmospheric backdrop as we await the storm to break. A longsuffering boss, a savvy cab driver, and a longsuffering girlfriend and her adoring son all seem to see something beneath the troubled life of this detective. I found myself turning the pages to see how this would all turn out, and find myself wanting to hang in there with this Harry Hole guy as well.

Review: They Called Us Enemy

They Called Us Enemy, George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott. Illustrator: Harmony Becker. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2019.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2, through the experience of George Takei and his family.

They were American citizens and legal resident aliens. Many of the children had been born in the United States. They lived on the West Coast of the United States when Pearl Harbor was attacked by surprise on December 7, 1941. In the following year over one hundred thousand were removed from their homes to internment camps. They lost their businesses, homes, and any possessions they could not carry. They had not committed any crime, nor been subject to any trial. None of this mattered. They were people of Japanese descent and considered a threat.

One of the children who lived through this experience was George Takei, one of the original Star Trek stars, with a distinguished list of credits on stage and screen and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His parents met and were married in Los Angeles and owned a profitable dry-cleaning business that allowed them to buy a home. Three children followed, the oldest of whom was George. Months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a knock came at the door ordering them to pack and prepare to be transported to a camp. Their first stop was a farm, their home a former cattle stall, still smelling of cow manure. Then they were transported by train to Camp Rowher in Arkansas that would become their home for the next several years. Surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, it became home and George’s father became block representative while his mother used the sewing machine she smuggled to make clothes for the children. It almost seemed fun at times.

Then a crisis arose. The American government, needing troops, went through the camps questioning the adults whether they would be willing to serve and to pledge their allegiance to the US alone and renounce all foreign allegiances. Takei describes the different choices Japanese made from military service to active resistance. George’s parents answered “no” to both, not being able to say “yes” to a country that had imprisoned them. Consequently, they were moved to the strictest camp at Thule Lake in Utah, and George’s mother faced deportation. Only the efforts of a persistent ACLU lawyer saved her and others in her situation. When the war ended, the question arose of whether they could safely return to Los Angeles. They did. It wasn’t easy and George encountered anti-Japanese discrimination.

The story is narrated by George, speaking at an event at Hyde Park on the 75th anniversary of Order 9066. He describes both the irony and wonder of telling the story of his internment in the home of the president who signed the order. That reflects a thread running through this narrative–the flawed but still great character of American democracy. George learned this from his father in his angry younger days. This was a country under President Ronald Reagan that formally acknowledged its wrong, and subsequently paid each interned person $20,000 in reparations. War heroes were honored It was a country where Takei could be portrayed as a strong figure on a television and movie series and have a distinguished career on stage and screen. A moving moment is when George, acting in the play Allegiance is reunited with the elderly woman who had served as his father’s secretary in the camps.

There is both truth and grace in this story and something more. Takei notes the juxtaposed Supreme Court decisions in 2018 striking down its World War 2 ruling against Fred Korematsu who had resisted relocation orders, and upholding travel restrictions banning immigration from certain countries. He portrays a country that continues to fear the “other” and discriminate against them. Will we learn from the experience of the Takei family or will we repeat it with a different group of people? This only occupies a few panels on a couple pages. Takei focuses more on narrative than polemics, leaving the reader to draw the connections.

They Called Us Enemy is a great resource for teaching this history. It is neither anti-American nor a whitewash, threading the needle between these contended spaces in our national discourse. In the words of Takei’s father: “Roosevelt pulled us out of the Depression and he did great things but he was also a fallible human being and he made a disastrous mistake that affected us calamitously. But despite all that we’ve experienced, our democracy is still the best in the world…” (p. 196). Would that more of us could speak in terms of “both-and” as George’s father does.

Review: Power Women

Power Women, Edited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil, Foreword by Shirley Hoogstra. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Fourteen women who are both mothers and academics write about how they navigate these callings as women of faith.

Women in the academic world face a unique challenge. The biological clock and the tenure clock are synchronized. The critical years for child-bearing and for career advancement coincide. One’s faith community and cultural background further complicates this challenge with sometimes conflicting values around parenting and career advancement. Many women choose one over the other. Others, like the women in this volume, believe both callings to be important for them, and write about the ways they have cared for their families and continued to pursue their academic callings. Through all of this runs an underlying theme of continue to nourish their own souls and to practice good self-care.

The contributions are organized into four parts: navigating academia, navigating motherhood, navigating multiple callings, and navigating support. In the first part Maria Su Wang describes how she carves out time for research with young children, sharing some of the scriptural reflections that have shaped her choices. Stephanie Chan offered a unique perspective on the synergy of parenting and work (lullaby and syllabi) and how each may enrich the other. Teri Clemons talks about the misperceptions that exist about maternity leave and its importance, including how much time bonding with a child and recovery can take. She urges women (and men) to avail themselves of all the leave institutional and state policies allow. Yiesha L. Thompson closes out the section discussing the unique situation of adjunct professor moms. the special pressures and choices they must make, and ways administrators may offer appropriate support. .

The second section on navigating motherhood begins by asking just what is meant by being a “good” mother. Christine Lee Kim discusses the mixed messages mothers must negotiate and identifies good questions to identify those messages and describes her own process of working through these. Ji Y. Son identifies the double whammy working moms face of being disadvantaged both at work and home and suggests a recategorization that gives women grace by considering herself a “female dad.” Jean Neely describes her struggle with the imposter syndrome and how thinking of God as loving mother as well as father has transformed her spiritual life and how being a mother has deepened those insights.

Part three could be intimidating in its discussion of navigating multiple callings. Jenny Pak describes the juggling acts of the multiple callings of pastor’s wife, mother, and professor. Jennifer McNutt takes it a step further. She is a pastor, professor and mom of three. Yvana Uranga-Hernandez describes taking on homeschooling as a professor mom. For all, these are only possible as they reflect the singular pursuit of Christ and have the support of spouses, extended family, and the wider community.

That sets up the discussions in part four, navigating support. Deshonna Collier-Goubil speaks of her experience as a young widow of assembling a support network. Joy Qualls describes the choice she and her husband made for her to be the primary breadwinner while he managed the household as a stay-at-home dad. Doretha O’Quinn draws on her mentoring expertise to discuss how professor moms may mentor each other and also gets very practical about her own practices of self-care.

The chapters mix personal narrative and academic research. They are honest and practical. Their experiences demonstrate a variety of ways women have approached navigating the callings of mom and professor. While they are amazing in how much they accomplish, worthy of the “power women” label, their stories also reflect the importance of good institutional policies, including leave and tenure policies that do not disadvantage women, and the value of support from spouses, extended family, and a wider community, and lots of grace! This is a valuable work for men to read, to understand how they may be appropriate allies.

The women in this volume represented significant diversity of ethnicity, academic discipline, and life experience. What is missing are women in STEM fields and more women from secular universities (only one contributor is). That said, there is so much wisdom that may be extrapolated into these situations. I’ve worked with many graduate women who wonder whether it is possible to honor God as they pursue both motherhood and academic callings. These narratives offer a resounding “yes” as well as honest and practical models of how that is possible.

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

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The ministry with which I serve recently hosted a conversation with four of the contributors to this work that may be viewed on YouTube.

Review: T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian

T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian (New Explorations in Theology), Joseph H. Sherrard, Foreword by Alan Torrance. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An examination of the contribution Thomas Torrance’s theological work makes to the church’s understanding of missiology, particularly centered around his understanding of the Godhead, the person of Christ, and Christ’s threefold offices and the church’s participation in them.

Thomas Torrance lived in the shadow of his mentor Karl Barth as well as collaborators like Leslie Newbigin. Much of his theological work addressed the nature of the Triune God and the person of Christ, as well as the relationship between science and theology. Joseph H. Sherrard asserts, contrary to first appearances, Torrance’s work offers a distinctive basis for the missiology of the church.

He begins with Torrance’s doctrine of God. Torrance’s doctrine of the homoousion leads to the idea that who the Triune God is in essence is who God is to us. There is no room for dualism, sealing God off from the material world God created. He highlights the lack of separation between God and the logos in Athanasius, the Reformation doctrine that saw the gift of grace and the Giver of grace as one, and the way Barth united these two insights in his thought. God’s mission that reconciles the world and creates the world reflects what God is in essence rather than something added or set apart.

Sherrard then turns to Christology, focusing on Torrance’s understanding of the threefold office of Christ as king, priest and prophet, and how the latter two often come together in Torrance’s work. I thought Sherrard’s treatment here was rich in material for theological reflection, including a discussion of three terms for redemption that form Torrance’s thought and how these map onto Christ’s threefold office:

  • paddah, referring to a powerful, gracious work redeeming from sin’s power.
  • kipper, the wiping out of sin, effecting propitiation between God and man.
  • goel, the kinsman redeemer

In his chapter on Christology, Sherrard also elaborates the importance of the ascension as creating the space for the church as Christ’s body to participate in his ministry.

He then turns to this idea of the church as the body of Christ. Torrance saw the church as shaped by “the analogy of Christ” in four ways:

  1. As a sent church as the Son was sent
  2. As a body constrained by suffering as was Christ as the Suffering Servant
  3. In its identity with fallen humanity as Christ so identified himself
  4. In its movement toward teleological fullness as Christ is the one who fills all in all.

In the chapter, Sherrard also contrasts Torrance and Newbigin, particularly with regard to the latter’s more robust pneumatology.

Chapters four and five focus on the three offices and how the church in its mission participates in these. Chapter four focuses on the royal office. The church reflects the new creation, the new order under, and exercising royal authority, in the world. Sherrard notes that in the realm of political theology, Torrance left us with some ambiguity of how this authority is to be worked out vis a vis the state, a critical lacuna in our current moment. Chapter five then turns to the prophetic ministry and its relation to preaching and the priestly ministry and the place of sacraments in enacting that ministry. One of the criticisms Sherrard notes is that the prophetic ministry takes a back seat to the priestly in Torrance’s writing and is “underdetermined.”

,He concludes with a summary and assessment of Torrance’s contribution to missiology. First is the grounding of missiology in the Triune God rather than sociology. Second, and occupying much of this work is how mission ought be shaped by Christ’s threefold office. Third, and not something I’ve discussed thus far, is the contribution of the idea of the “deposit of faith” to mission, that is that the gospel has been entrusted to the church, to be kept by its continued propagation. Finally is the idea of how the church participates in Christ’s threefold ministry, patterning its life on his.

As noted in this conclusion, it may be that Torrance’s most distinctive contribution is to ground mission in our theology of the Triune God and this God’s seamless relation with and redemptive movement toward the world. Only our ever-deepening worship of the Triune God can sustain our missional efforts. Only his Son provides the definitive pattern for our mission. Only the gospel of a gracious God is sufficiently worthy to proclaim. Sherrard rightly notes our tendency to turn from theology to sociology, or worse pragmatic methodology. We do well to attend to the caution, and the rich contribution Torrance makes to a robust missiology.

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

Review: The Nature of the Beast (second reading)

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.

Usually I will only review a book once. I initially reviewed The Nature of the Beast in February of 2020, sharing my realization that I had started my reading of the Chief Inspector Gamache series out of order. A number of Louise Penny fans suggested that while I could do that, there was so much I was missing out on by not reading them in order. This review is to say that they were right on both counts. The plot of this book stands by itself as an exciting effort to find the murderer of a boy, missing parts and plans to the big gun he found, and the killer of a director of a play written by a sociopath. If you want to know more of the plot, you may read my first review.

There is so much I did not understand about the character and setting of this book that all make sense having gone back and read the series in order (with several more books still to look forward to). Among these are:

  • Just how batty and brilliant Ruth Zardo really is, her hidden depths of insight and moral compass, and why she lives with a duck named Rosa and the unusual relation she has with Jean Guy Beauvoir a.k.a. “numbnuts.”
  • Why Armand and Reine-Marie have moved to this quaint village in eastern Quebec that doesn’t even show up on any maps or GPS systems, and why Armand’s forehead is creased with a scar and why he retired early from the Surete.
  • The long and complicated road Armand and Jean Guy Beauvoir have navigated to reaching their affectionate relationship as father and son-in-law. Little had I realized that it almost didn’t happen.
  • I wouldn’t understand the loss it may be if Clara could never paint again, and why she was trying to paint a portrait of Peter.
  • The development of both Beauvoir and Lacoste, who replaced him, and even lesser characters like Yvette Nichol and Adam Cohen, and the insightful mentorship Gamache offered each of them, recognizing the hidden talents and essence of good Surete officers others missed.
  • The importance Myrna Landers plays to the psychological welfare of Three Pines, including that of Gamache–far beyond the new and used books she sells (or Ruth takes) in her store.
  • What the nature of the corruption of the Surete was that affected the young officers Gamache encounters early in this story, and why the accusation of cowardice made by John Fleming stung so deeply and was in fact so untrue.
  • The element of good food savored during leisurely meals of stimulating conversations, often supplied by Olivier and Gabri, the gay bistro and B & B owners.

I suspect if you are a lover of this series, you could easily add to my list. It is plain to me that one’s experience of these books is far richer when you read them in the order written. Part of the richness for me is a growing appreciation for the world Louise Penny fashions. One wants to visit any place she describes. She sees them with an eye for the cultural and historical richness. And the one place that she creates out of whole cloth seems like such a wonderful place that we would all move there or at least visit if we could.

Deeper than the settings of her novels, I revel in the quiet beauty of the web of relationships in these books. With some exceptions, Penny’s characters are strong individuals with well-formed identities who meet each other with respect and mutual affection, without the neediness and co-dependence we encounter in so many books. None are without flaws, yet even these are accepted with humor and grace in most instances. What a delight to see so many people comfortable in their own skins!

Penny offers us a vision of lives well lived. They are lives lived in community, filled with conversations over good food, lives with time to cultivate the inner life, and out of that, great creativity. One of the things that marks Gamache, that he transmits to others is taking time for a good “think.” In our hurried existence focused on productivity, on doing, Gamache, like many great detectives in literature does his best work by thinking. Three Pines affords space for stillness in which thought as well as creative work may occur.

I only vaguely intuited some of these things and just plain didn’t understand most of them on my first reading. Beyond the value of reading these books is order is what we encounter when we do. Amid riveting stories, Penny explores larger issues of the life well-lived. I think the draw of these books in part is they paint an alternative to our technologized, frantic, and often relationally-isolated lives. While we cannot visit Three Pines, one senses in these books the invitation to bring the best of Three Pines (not the murders!) into our own lives.