One Writer’s Journey (So Far)

Writing

Photo by Free-Photos via Pixabay

I discovered that the post that will go up on Bob on Books on Saturday will be number 2000 on the blog. In the interest of truth, a handful of these have been contributed by a guest reviewer, for which I’m thankful. This is in a bit over six years. The biggest surprise in this has been to discover I am a writer, that this is at least a piece of my calling. Six years ago I would not have described myself this way, which has been one of the biggest surprises of this journey. I will leave judgments on the quality of my writing to others.

What I’ve noticed about myself over the years is that at times I’ve had the knack of distilling the sense of what people are trying to say into something with a bit greater clarity. Some of that I’ve done at work in emails and memos, letters and documents, or in research papers in grad school or talks given in collegiate ministry. It is often the case that in the writing, I figure out what I want to say. Myers-Briggs people will chalk it up to my INFJ type. Usually it has just been work that needed done. I never thought of myself as a writer.

The blog grew out of posting reviews on Goodreads. I started that mostly as an exercise in remembering what I’ve read and what I thought of it. The exercise of reducing hundreds of pages to 500 to 800 words (usually) was a good way for me to see if I had grasped the essence of the book. Eventually I added summaries where I reduced it to a sentence. That is hard. Enough others found it helpful that I was encouraged to attempt the blog to make the reviews available to those not on Goodreads.

I can’t review a book every day. So I wrote posts on reading and on life. Some of the latter provoked a good deal of comment as I wrote on things I care about such as the captivity of the evangelical church to politics, the environment, immigration, and on different issues in higher education. Here again, I had the strange experience of hearing from people that I had given words to the things they thought and felt. I had a younger friend recently thank me for being an older (!) voice affirming things she held deeply.  Of course there were those who took issue with me. Most of the time, I was just working out my own ideas on the things about which I was writing.

Then I started writing about my home town of Youngstown. I initially thought it would be a post or two, until I made the mistake of writing about food! Youngstowners love food (don’t we all?). That work has been a combination of putting into words what a good place this was to grow up in during the years I lived there, and exploring the people and events, and forces, natural and human, that shaped this place. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with hundreds if not thousands of Youngstowners who have added so much to my understanding of the place where we grew up, while discovering that so many of my memories resonate with theirs. Now I’m working to put some of this into book form under a contract with a publisher.

This “side hustle,” as it were, led to another interesting turn in the road as I took on a new assignment with the collegiate ministry for which I work. In July, I started directing a “digital first” effort to develop resources and network aspiring scholars who want to connect their faith and academic lives, living out their God-given callings. That means both more writing and work with others writers, as well as other kinds of collaborations.

I admit that I muse on what this all means and I have even less clue today than six years ago where this will go. What I have concluded is that I am a writer, if by that you mean a person who writes. I want to get better at this work and put time into it nearly every day. I love finding words for ideas.

Some things I’ve been learning along the way:

  1. The only way to improve at writing is to write…and write…and re-write!
  2. Reading and writing are inextricably linked in my life, not only because I review, but books are part of the community that feeds my own imagination. When I find writers I like, it is fascinating to figure out what in their writing I like.
  3. Speaking of community, I draw so much from both local and online communities. While actual writing at times requires solitude, it is impossible (at least for me) without others.
  4. Facility in writing comes with practice–writing begets writing.
  5. Story-telling is vital even in non-fiction. The only difference is making sure that the story you tell is true. Even ideas have a story, a history.
  6. It’s amazing where curiosity will take one. I’ve probably found this most in writing about Youngstown. How did a place get its name? Who is the person it was named after and what did they do? Recently I wrote a post about a place I passed many times but never knew what happened inside (nothing nefarious!). Finding the answer to that, and the history behind it was sheer delight.

Finally, I would say I’ve written about what I like and am interested in. Why would you do otherwise? I guess I believe that if you work hard to convey your interest in something, you don’t need to worry about whether others are “interested.” I would also say, don’t wonder about whether you are a writer. I think one discovers that in the writing. At least I have.

 

 

Review: Mr. Penumbra’as 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan. New York: Picador, 2012.

Summary: When Clay Jannon starts clerking in Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, he discovers a most unusual bookstore with unusual customers and figures out that the store is part of a far-flung scheme pursuing one of the oldest quests.

Clay Jannon is an out-of-work web developer who happens on a help wanted sign for the late shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He takes the job. He discovers there are two kinds of customers. There are the ordinary customers who buy books in the front of the store in its eclectic and relatively limited selection. As it turns out, there are relatively few of these. Then there is a much more interesting group of members of a secret society, which we later learn is called The Unbroken Spine. They have a card with a number. They return a book and ask for another. A description of the transaction, including the person’s appearance and the book returned and requested are to be logged. No questions asked. No looking in the books. These books are in the back of the store on shelves that tower up several stories and must be reached by ladders. They are the Waybacklist.

Jannon’s curiosity gets the best of him, so he uses programming skills and the advice of geeky friends to create a 3-D visualization of the store, then programs the current log into the visualization. He discovers there is a pattern. About this time a cute girl who works at Google, Kat Potente, happens into the store as a result of a Google ad Clay wrote. She spots his visualization and they start working together to add more to the visualization by “borrowing” another log book. Penumbra happens on him in the store just as the visualization is complete. It is a face, that of Aldus Manutius, a pioneer in type-setting. Jannon has completed a task in hours that it would take other members years or even decades.

This discovery sets an unexpected turn of events into motion. Mr. Penumbra’s store is shut down and he is called to New York to meet “Corvina” who it turns out is head of the secret society of the Unbroken Spine, which has stores (really libraries) all over the world for novices to solve the first part of the quest. It turns out that the ultimate quest is to decode the codex left by Manutius, and those who have significantly progressed are all engaged in this, yet for centuries, no one has done so. It is believed that to decode Manutius will result in immortality for all the members of this secret society.

The plot turns on the conflict between old fashioned scholarly study, and the marvels of Google’s algorithms. Should such new ways even be employed? Will either yield the solution to Manutius? And what will happen to Mr. Penumbra and his store?

For lovers of bookstores, this is a great mystery, with the smell of old books and a quest for knowledge. It explores the time we are in, between the world of texts engaged by readers, and the different path of knowledge the web and its algorithms offer. The plot is a page-turner, first as Jannon and his friends (and Kat, with whom Clay falls in and out of love), try to unravel the mystery of the Waybacklist, and then the quest to decode Manutius.

If I would have one beef, it is the characters. They are quirky, but flat. They seem to be caricatures that provide the needed personnel to move a story of old and new ways of knowing forward. It almost feels to me that they are in a video game. The plot saves this book as one is drawn in by the mystery and sense of adventure. I find it interesting that the book was named a best book by NPR and several newspapers and won several other awards. It was a good and diverting read but fell short of great for me. I did like the cool, glow-in-the-dark cover, however.

 

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

The AwakeningFriedrich Zuendel. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2000.

Summary: An account of Pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt’s victorious ministry with a demonized woman, Gottlieben Dittus, the awakening in the village that followed, and the miraculous works and the reactions that followed.

Pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt at thirty-three was assigned to ministry in Mottlingen in 1838. Very soon he learned of a woman in his parish suffering a strange illness, accompanied by bizarre symptoms that her doctor had been unable to alleviate. The symptoms were not limited to her body, but also in her surroundings. There were sounds of tapping, objects moved and more. Sometimes she reacted with great fear or hostility to prayer. Ruling out other explanations, Blumhardt entered an extended fight to rid this woman of demons, which eventually is accomplished. Blumhardt attributes the victory to Jesus. We see a pastor who quietly persists in invoking the name and power of Jesus in commanding the demons, who sometimes try to negotiate the terms of their departure, to leave.

Subsequent to this, an awakening breaks out in Mottlingen and the neighboring parish of Haugstett. A parish that had been indifferent to the things of God suddenly becomes stricken with their sins, coming to Blumhardt to confess those sins. As he hears their confessions, he experiences the Spirit’s prompting to absolve them in Christ’s name, a controversial act, but one marked by transformed lives in many who came to him.

Then miracles began. Blumhardt was eventually banned from personal ministry, limited to urging people to attend to the preaching of the gospel, and responding in faith to what was proclaimed, and still more miracles occur. This extends to deliverance of Blumhardt from several enemies who sought to kill him, including one who had broken into his home at night who was miraculously transformed when Blumhardt cried out, “Jesus is victor.”

This phrase, “Jesus is Victor” could have served as the title of this book. What is striking about Blumhardt is the combination of humility and authority that characterize this man. He has a humble estimate of his own abilities, but acts with conviction and confidence in the power of Jesus to counter the powers of sin and evil that he meets. One has the sense that the fight with Gottlieben was one engaged reluctantly, not sought. He refuses to use manipulative techniques to stir people up, trusting to the ministry of the Word and the work of the Spirit.

The book also makes a powerful case for the reality of spiritual warfare, the real existence of demonic personalities that may invade and afflict individuals. Much of this is connected in this narrative with engagement in magical and occult practices which opened people to these dark powers.

Blumhardt also contends that all he did was ask for and do what he saw in the gospels, coming importunately in prayer and exercising the authority Jesus spoke of to forgive sins. He wrote:

Jesus says, “I have authority from my Father to forgive sins, and those whom I forgive are forgiven.” What the Lord did ought to continue, for everything he did as a man shall be done by other human beings until the end of days. The Father authorized him, and he authorized others. He said to the disciples,”As my Father has sent me, so send I you.” Thus his disciples could say to repentant sinners as decisively as Jesus himself did, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven.” And what is to shake our conviction that this power remains in force for those proclaiming the good news today–that they, too, should have authority to forgive sins.

Blumhardt’s words offer a bracing challenge to those who seek revival. Are we prepared for spiritual warfare, and have we fostered a life of dependence upon the power of God? Are our revivals marked by deep grief and repentance for sins, and do we offer the assurance of the Lord’s pardon warranted in the finished work of Christ? His book also reminds me that we live in dark times where our nightly news carries reports of acts of singular evil. I’m troubled by our tendency to reduce all of these to mental illness, though in some instances, there is clear prior evidence of illness. In a society increasingly open to dark powers, might it not be possible that at least some individuals, or even groups have been invaded by such powers, giving themselves over to destructive evil. Blumhardt raises the issue of the call of the people of God to confront such evil under the greater authority of Jesus. Will a politically captivated, culturally co-opted, and personally compromised church be able to respond? Who are the Blumhardt’s of our day? Where is the repentance that marks a truly reviving church?

________________________________

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

Review: Discover Joy in Work

Discover Joy in Work

Discover Joy in WorkShundrawn A. Thomas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A response to the widespread lack of engagement in work, exploring the changes to our approach to our workplace, our work ethic, and our work life that foster joy in work that is more than a job, more than an occupation, but rather a calling.

Shundrawn Thomas is the president of a trillion dollar global investment firm, who has worked in many other settings before attaining his present position. He has found deep joy in his own work and is concerned about the statistics that show that the majority of workers are not engaged with their work.

Thomas contends that the discovery of joy in our work has little to do with the job we are in and everything to do with the person doing that work. He writes:

However, only one person determines your joy: you. If you want to truly experience joy in your work, you only have one person to deal with: yourself! You are the only person standing in the way of experiencing joy in your work.

He begins with our approach to our workplace. He starts with changing our attitudes, our perspective on our workplace that shapes our feelings and actions, that when content and positive, sustains us through our workday. He proposes that we need to alter our approach, including proactive preparation, prioritization of our time, and partnering well with others. He advocates for raising our aptitude, working with talented people, and involving discovery, development, and deployment. Finally, we can take steps to ensure achievement by avoiding distractions, and working together with resolution to achieve team goals.

He then turns to our work ethic, what motivates us to put in the effort for excellent work. He addresses the love of money and how money may both be a primary and yet inadequate motivator when we recognize the value of time, the satisfaction of work that aligns with our gifts and interests, the greater value of our health and sense of worth, and the sharing rather than amassing of wealth. We can work for the praise of people, but growth occurs not only through praise but also through criticism. The most satisfying work is not what is praised but is praiseworthy. We may work for respect but greater joy comes when we are motivated from within and concerned more about doing good work for the benefit of others and modest about our own self-importance.

Finally, he talks about the fruits of our work life. Work reveals purpose when we allow it to perfect us rather than looking for the perfect occupation, and give ourselves diligently to it. This means work requires effort, calling on all our physical, mental, and spiritual efforts, undeterred by setbacks. Work promotes growth through training, advanced degrees, certifications, workshops, and seminars as well as cultivation of professional relationships in which one regularly receives and welcomes feedback. Work develops our skills, particularly the four skills of listening, visualizing, collaborating, and leading that are critical for success. Work fosters relationships of trust, transparency across a network of personal connections. All this comes together in producing value as we set goals that answer the questions of which opportunities we will pursue, what problems we will solve, and who we will serve. Most of all, work may glorify God as we combine all these qualities in work offered to God in service of others. Work becomes calling in which our efforts answer to God’s bidding.

This is a book chock-full with principles that feels a bit like reading Proverbs. Each paragraph, sometimes each sentence is worth reflection. Thomas has written a book rich with “work wisdom.” It also reflects a conviction of the inherent goodness of work, that it is not a curse, but done rightly, with the right attitude, can afford deep satisfaction within the greater joy of glorifying God. He does offer many examples, and each chapter concludes with a summary of key insights, valuable because each chapter, though short, is so full of these insights. If one reads too rapidly, or feels one must implement at once all that Thomas advises, this could be daunting. Listening for the one insight that resonates right now and considering what changes this means for one’s work life may be more helpful. This book could be dynamite read together with colleagues sharing a commitment to live transformatively in their work place.

Most of all, this book rings true with over four decades of my own work experience. I’ve found that I can never depend on an organization or workplace to make work joyful. Joy has much more to do with the perspective, the work ethic, the investment I bring to my work, than what I find there. Surely, work places are never optimal, and sometimes far less than that. Sometimes this means changing employers or at least jobs. It is apparent from the book that Thomas himself did so. Years ago, an executive search consultant advised me not to relinquish responsibility for my career path to my employer or anyone else. Shundrawn Thomas would add that we not relinquish responsibility for our joy to others.

________________________________

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

Review: The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God

the reformation and the irrepressible word of god

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of Godedited by Scott M. Manetsch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of eight papers on the vital role of scripture in Reformation thought and practice.

“Irrepressible.” What a great word to use in a title. Mirriam-Webster’s definition of the word is “impossible to repress, restrain, or control.” The Reformers often pointed to Hebrews 4:12 which says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).

I suspect for many, “irrepressible” is far from the first word that might come to mind as they think of scripture. Some might consider it ancient, confusing, irrelevant, or even tedious. Yet many others (I would include myself here) have experienced the power of scripture to convict, to comfort, to open one’s eyes in wonder toward God, to assure in one’s hope in life and death, and to “equip for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). It is not so much a matter of understanding the Bible as discovering that I am understood by the Word of God, as God speaks through the words on the page, knowing me better than I know myself, facing me with those things of which I’ve been blind, deluded, and sometimes willfully oblivious.

Beginning with Martin Luther, it has been contended that the Reformation was driven by the study of and preaching of the scriptures as the Word of God for the people of God. This drove translation of the scriptures into the vernacular in countries where the Reformation took hold, particularly in Germany and England. In more contemporary scholarship, the power of the “scripture principle” has been eclipsed by other factors — economic, sociological, and political. However, recent scholarship has seen a resurgence of the Bible as a key factor in the Reformation, and this volume, consisting of eight papers plus an introduction by Scott Manetsch and an afterword by Timothy George, is a significant contribution to that scholarship. The papers were first presented at a conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2017 on the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

The collection consists of four parts, each with two papers (complete table of contents at the publisher’s website):

  1. Biblical Interpretation in the Reformation
  2. Preaching and Pastoral Care in the Reformation
  3. Justification and the Reformation
  4. The Christian Life in the Reformation

Space does not permit discussing every paper, all of which were both accessible and rich in insight. David S. Dockery discussed Christological interpretation as central to the authority and interpretation of scripture. Scripture is not the final authority but Christ to whom all of scripture points and through which Christ speaks to us. Michael A. G. Haykin’s paper on Hugh Latimer highlighted his passion for the preaching of the Word of God. Latimer urged people to pray for both him and themselves that by God’s Spirit:

“…I may speak the word of God, and teach you to understand the same; unto you that you may be edified through it, and your lives reformed and amended; and that his honour and glory may increase daily amongst us.”

The following essay by Ronald K. Rittgers featured the devotional literature of the Reformation, which usually consisted of quoting one text of scripture after another, without commentary. It was believed that scripture read and meditated upon in this way was powerful to minister to hearts, a kind of “sacrament” as it were.

Michael S. Horton’s essay on justification makes a striking proposal that I could see as serving as the basis of a more extended research project. He observes that the idea of justification by faith was not discovered in the Reformation, but is evident in the church fathers. He focuses particularly on Chrysostom, who recognized Paul’s distinction of works of the law and faith, the difference between justification and sanctification and the idea of justification as the “great exchange” between Christ and sinner.

I also thought the last essay in the collection, by David Luy helpfully discussed both what is meant and not meant by the “priesthood of all believers,” a key Reformation tenet. He shows both that this was not meant to replace church offices or hierarchy, but rather that all Christians, having the Word of God, may share the grace of God in Christ with others.

Timothy George concludes by asking what we may learn from the Reformation, and particularly fleshes out how the Reformers ideas about scripture as the Word of God deepen and give substance to the four distinctives of evangelicalism noted by David Bebbington, without which evangelicalism is thin gruel, neither satisfying nor enduring.

It seems to me that George and the contributors to this volume have an important word to those who wish to move beyond the Reformation or are calling for a new one. In one sense, the church is to be semper reformanda, ever reforming. For some, what needs to be reformed is a “bibliolatry” that they perceive in the Reformation. No doubt, there are some that worship the Bible rather than the Lord to whom the Reformers pointed. But such bibliolatry is evident neither in the Reformers nor in this collection. What needs to be continually reformed is us–our hearts, our structures and practices, our tendencies to self-sufficiency and self-promotion, our indifference to God and other people. Only the alive and active, double-edged sword of God’s Word, illumined by God’s Spirit, pointing to God’s Son, can do this work. In this work, I was reminded afresh of the preciousness of this irrepressible Word for the people of God.

________________________________

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Lowellville

Train Number 85 in Lowellville OH 1949

Train Number 85 passing though Lowellville from the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company Records

One of my childhood memories was driving down to Lowellville to the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie switching yards watching trains loaded with coal, or products from the nearby mills being switch for transport to various places. As you drove down, the valley became steeper and you realized that you were witnessing the transition to the Appalachian foothills that became more pronounced in western Pennsylvania.

In the early 1800’s John McGill, a Revolutionary War veteran, and his brother Robert, established both a grist mill and a sawmill on the south side of the Mahoning River and a settlement that was known as McGillville in its early days. Across the river was another settlement, Lowell, probably after the proprietors of the Lowell Milling Company, a flour mill.

Greetings from Lowellville

Things were pretty sleepy here until the 1830’s with the development of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal. In 1836, the village was platted as Lowellville and the canal went into operation in 1839-1840. Lowellville became a shipping center for flour, and for coal from nearby Mt. Nebo. Later on limestone quarrying also contributed to the industrial growth of this area. This growth also led to siting Ohio Iron & Steel’s “Mary Furnace” there in 1845. It was purchased by Sharon Steel Hoop Company, later Sharon Steel. The mill operated until 1961 and was closed in 1963.

Roslyn I. Torella has written what is probably the definitive history of Lowellville. Her Lowellville, Ohio: Murders, Mayhem & More chronicles how Lowellville became a rowdy place when both Struthers and Lawrence County in Pennsylvania (New Castle) went dry, and all those seeking alcohol descended on Lowellville, filling its bars, leading to fights and a prison lock-up for the drunks. But it brought a lot of money into Lowellville. During Prohibition, it was a site of bootleg operations.

On the other side of the coin, the boys of Lowellville stepped up during the Second World War with over 20 percent of the town’s population signing up. Clingan Jackson, longtime Vindicator political reporter lived here for part of his youth and graduated from Lowellville High School. The population in Lowellville as elsewhere in the Mahoning Valley, peaked in 1957 at 2500. The eclipse of the steel industry has turned Lowellville into a quieter place, shrinking from 1281 to 1155 residents between 2000 and 2010. The village has renovated historic buildings in the center of town as well as erecting a gazebo in the park. The village website lists a few restaurants, a number of small businesses, and houses of worship. Of course, there is the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Festival each summer.

IM000439.JPG

Lowellville City Hall – Nyttend – own work, Public Domain, via Wikipedia

It will be interesting to see whether this little village declines are grows in the coming years. One thing is clear, it is a place with an interesting past with a strong focus on family and community and its local school, perhaps with less problems than some of the larger nearby communities. Wouldn’t it be great if Lowellville were thriving when it comes time to celebrate its 200th birthday in 2036?

Review: A History of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport

OHare

A History of Chicago’s O’Hare AirportMichael Branigan, foreword by Christopher Lynch. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.

Summary: A history of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from its earliest days through to the post-9/11 environment for air travel.

I probably have flown to or through O’Hare at least a couple times a year over the last forty years. I never thought much of the history of the place until a recent trip when I walked past a series of aerial photographs showing the development of the airport over time. I realized then that the place I traveled through had gone through many changes over those past forty years–many I had not noticed.

Michael Branigan, who worked in aircraft maintenance at both Midway and O’Hare Airports shares his love and inside knowledge of these places in this book, which includes many photographs from different eras at O’Hare. He takes us back before the beginnings, when it was a battlefield for the U.S. military’s fight with the Sauk Indians in 1832. Later it became the home of a German settlement known as Orchard Place (from which the airport code ORD comes).

The beginnings of the use of this site as an airport trace back to World War II when McDonnell Douglas sited it’s C-54 Skymaster plant here. Midway Airport was too small, and this prairie site offered the land needed for the plant and runways. The Douglas plant became the first of the air-oriented cities here until its closure following the war. Branigan recounts how Chicago Mayor Ralph H. Burke had the vision for converting this to a major airport facility exceeding what was possible at Midway. The first terminal was developed and opened to commercial operations in the mid- 1950’s. At this time the airport, which up until then was know as Orchard Place Airport, was named after “Butch” O’Hare, a decorated Naval flier who died in action.

Branigan follows the development and rapid growth of O’Hare, the efficiency of its operations (except when the weather did not co-operate, as many of us who have been delayed in O’Hare can attest), transitioning into the jet age, expanding its terminals and facilities to accommodate the jumbo L-1011’s, 747’s, and DC-10’s. As I write, O’Hare handles more aircraft movements than any other airport in the world (Atlanta’s Hartsfield currently handles more passengers), and this book helps one understand how air traffic control, runway layouts and gate services all contribute to O’Hare’s success.

Branigan also traces air travel from the novelty and luxury of those early years to de-regulation and post 9/11 airport security that so many of us tolerate for the hope of secure travel. He recounts the terrible crash of flight 191 in 1979, when the engine of a DC-10 fell off just as the pilots “rotated” the plane into the air and the earlier collision of two planes on the ground in 1972. What is striking to me is that these were the two worst crashes at an airport that achieved over 900,000 aircraft movements in 2018. While one may remember the rare disasters, and the more common delays, what Branigan’s book impressed upon me was what an incredible place O’Hare is, moving so many passengers and flights safely through every day. I wonder if I’ll look at it with different eyes when I fly there in a few weeks for meetings in Chicago…

Review: The Storm on Our Shores

storm

The Storm on Our ShoresMark Obmascik. New York: Atria Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of a forgotten battle in 1943 on Attu in the Aleutians, and two soldiers, “enemies” to each other, one who died, one who survived, and the after story.

You are living quietly as a Japanese-American on the west coast, caring for an aging widow, whose husband died in the Japanese war effort. An elderly man visits your home who was in the battle in which your father died. As he leaves, he finally blurts out the reason the real reason for his visit: “I’m the one who killed your father.”

Mark Obmascik tells the story of the battle that the devoted pacifist Japanese husband and father, Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, died in, and the story of Dick Laird, the scrappy, courageous soldier at whose hand he died. He fleshes out the life story of each that brought them to this moment, the moments that followed, and the healing Laird finally found as he and Laura Tatsuguchi Davis eventually talked.

Paul Tatsuguchi had emigrated from Hiroshima to California in the 1920’s, was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist home, and eventually enrolled in medical school, where he excelled as a surgeon. While there he met, and married Taeko Miyake, who he had known from childhood in Japan. Family needs brought them back to Japan where Paul served as a doctor in an Adventist tuberculosis sanitarium. As the clouds of war gathered, their first daughter Joy was born. Then Paul, who was a pacifist, was drafted into the Japanese war effort. Fortunately the need for doctors meant he would not be called on to kill the enemy. But he could still encounter those who once had been his American friends.

Dick Laird grew up in a southeast Ohio coal town. Enlisting in the army seemed the one thing that promised a better life. He met Rose in Columbus while going through training. They had a tumultuous relationship until the army finally grew him up. Laird was the guy you wanted on your side in a fight and he became a leader among men, rising to sergeant. He could have risen further except for his doubts about his education, offered the opportunity to go to Officers Candidate School.

In June of 1942, Japan invaded a lonely island at the western end of the Aleutians named Attu, about as far west as the U.S. goes. They thought they were getting a stepping stone, but the storms, the spongy soil, the cold and the fogs made it more or less useless as a base. They eventually took Kiska to the east. None of this afforded them much strategic advantage but they did not relinquish it.

American pride could not let this invasion of even these insignificant islands go unchallenged and so in May of 1943, Dick Laird was part of an invasion force sent to retake Attu. Much of the book chronicles this effort and the horrors to which this led. There was the Japanese no-surrender policy of fighting to the death, either in battle or in bushido (ritual suicide). There was the fog in war, in this case the literal fog that led to Laird accidentally killing one of his own runners, mistaking him for the enemy, and nearly taking innocent lives at another point. There were the gruesome deaths all around him of friends and others he fought alongside.

Meanwhile, there was the diary kept by Paul Tatsuguchi chronicling the deteriorating conditions that led to the giving of grenades to his patients so they could take their lives rather than be captured. There is also his faith, and his love for his daughters, including Laura, born during the war. The end came when the remaining Japanese defenders mounted a banzai attack. Tatsuguchi was among a group of soldiers charging Laird and his men. Laird had no choice but to throw a hand grenade, followed by his and his men’s rifle fire that wiped out the group.

When they searched the dead, Laird found Tatsuguchi’s diary, later widely copied and circulated by others. Someone else found his Bible. Laird struggled after the war with what we now know as PTSD, the memories of gruesome deaths, the runner, the innocent he almost killed, and the death of Tatsuguchi, a pacifist doctor mixed up in a fatal charge. He had nightmares for years, even as he tried to leave the war behind in the daylight.

The most moving part of the book is the encounters he has with Laura, including the incredible letter she wrote him that finally enabled him to sleep at night. The book also raises the questions war so often raises about soldiers each doing their duties honorably, mixed up in what was a needless battle because of the decisions of others and bearing the consequences in their deaths, or their lives. Laird is the embodiment of the tension of doing what he must do, deeply regretting what he had done and yet seeing no way out of this tragic dilemma. All the decorations he received could not unravel this. Only the aggrieved mother and daughter could do so. The wonder of this book is how they did.

Review: Into His Presence

into his presence

Into His PresenceTim L. Anderson. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2019.

Summary: Offers a biblical study of the idea of intimacy with God, and engages with Catholic mystical, Pentecostal experiential, and Evangelical devotional approaches to intimacy with God.

Tim L. Anderson contends that scripture assures us that God both longs to draw near to us and for us to draw near to Him. He writes this book to uncover the wealth of material in scripture that both assures us of this truth and explains how this can be a reality in the life of the believer. He writes that he is also seeking “an intervention of sorts.” He believes there are three approaches to intimacy with God that suffer from theological imprecision and thus will fail to lead believers into the fullness of intimacy with God that is promised the believer. He describers these approaches as Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional.

He begins with defining intimacy, which he proposes is “the movement of God and Christians toward a place of true knowledge and close contact.” He believes this consists in four elements: movement toward intimacy, intimate knowledge, intimate place/location, and intimate contact/touch, elaborating each of these from scripture. Chapter 2 looks at the place of intimacy with God in theology and philosophy, beginning with the God who is source of our existence, consciousness, and delights, thus making knowledge of God both our gift and our responsibility, pursued through God’s self-revelation in scripture, showing us a God both immanent and transcendent, all-present and knowing, and yet condescending to us.

Chapter 3 considers the fall and the barriers to intimacy this raises. Chapter 4, then, explores the beautiful symbols of scripture that convey God’s communication of intimacy, especially the anthropomorphisms of face, ears, hands, voice and mouth, and how we are to understand these.

Chapter 5 then elaborates the particular image of God as Father and how a proper understanding of God as an intimate. loving Father heals unhealthy shame that hinders our approach to God. Chapter 6 looks at Christ through the lens of the marriage images in scripture. Here he focuses on the intimate care and faithfulness of Christ and the church, but sets bounds on some of the highly romanticized or even sexualized applications of this imagery. Chapter 7 turns to the Holy Spirit and how he discloses truth in illuminating scripture and intercedes for us in prayer.

Chapter 8 deals with suffering and the apparent hiddenness of God in times of suffering. He shows from scripture how God knows us in our suffering and provides in himself a place of security as we suffer. He underscores this with the stories of the suffering of Moses and Elijah, and ultimately of Christ.

Finally, chapter 9 applies all this material on intimacy to assessing our songs of intimacy, our worship music, past and present, particularly for how the four elements of intimacy are present in them. I loved his treatment of “Just as I Am,” a song deeply etched in my own life from Billy Graham Crusades and other contexts.

I greatly appreciated the emphasis of setting forth the rich biblical testimony for intimacy that grounds intimacy in the promises, works, and commands of God and not in our experience. His critique of the “Jesus is my boyfriend or lover” kind of spirituality is a much needed corrective. I felt that the approaches of Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional were treated somewhat as straw men against which he took a few whacks while focusing more on elaborating a biblical theology of intimacy, and critiquing some examples of unhelpful teaching. I thought the book might have been stronger had he left the straw men out while focusing on his primary aim of a theology of intimacy, while offering helpful correctives to specific examples of inadequate or even false teaching, which I felt did not represent the best of the three approaches.

Because of the lack of good biblical/theological instruction in many of our Christian communities, many believers do not know what is theirs in Christ. As human beings, we long for intimacy. Anderson’s work assures us that God’s longing for intimacy with us more than matches our longing for Him, and in Christ the bridegroom, and the Spirit who discloses his bidding and intercedes for us, He has made that intimacy possible.

________________________________

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

The Month in Reviews: September 2019

Working

Working in collegiate ministry, it seemed a good idea to read some books related to higher education, one on Christian colleges, and one on free speech and speech codes in the academic world. Also apropos were a couple of books on science and faith, one a review on theology after Darwin, contributed by guest reviewer Paul Bruggink. Two books outlined approaches to counseling and personal transformation. A pair of books were set in the Roman world, one from the point of view of slaves, and one from emperors. One was a memoir on the writing methods of biographer Robert Caro and one considers “place” and the arts. Place is always a theme of Wendell Berry’s books and a recent collection of his essays was part of this month’s readings as well as one considering how we lost an opportunity to address greenhouse gases that affect the place for all of us, the earth. Finally, a lifelong Inkling lover can’t go too wrong without reading something about one of them–in this case Tolkien, his methods, and his works. Here are the reviews!

fundamentalist u

Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher EducationAdam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time. Review

science and faith

Science & Faith: Student Questions ExploredHannah Eagleson, editor. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Academic, 2019. A collection of essays addressing various questions on the relationship of science and Christian faith, incorporating groups discussion questions for use with small discussion groups. Review

a liberated mind

A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What MattersSteven C. Hayes, Ph.D. New York: Avery Books, 2019. An introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a psychological counseling approach that develops psychological flexibility through learning acceptance rather than resistance or flight from painful thoughts and reality, and how we may pivot toward commitments rooted in what we value most deeply. Review

Findng Ourselves After Darwin

Finding Ourselves After DarwinStanley P. Rosenberg ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. This book presents and discusses multiple approaches to thinking about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of biological evolution. Review

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author’s methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work. Review

placemaking

Placemaking and the ArtsJennifer Allen Craft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. Considers the “place” of the arts in placemaking, particularly in the settings of the home, the church, and the wider society. Review

a week in the life of a slave

A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series), John Byron. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A creative re-telling of the story of runaway slave Onesimus that casts light on the institution of slavery in Greco-Roman society and the church’s response. Review

The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President, Alan Sears and Craig Osten with Ryan Cole. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019. Traces the spiritual heritage and growing religious faith of Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially through the years of his presidency and later life. Review

Losing Earth

Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019. An account of the lost opportunity of the 1980’s to address climate change and the birth of the polarized dialogue that exists to this day. Review

The Road to Middle Earth

The Road to Middle-EarthTom Shippey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, rev. ed. 2003. A study of Tolkien’s methods in creating the narratives of Middle-Earth, including words, names, maps, poetry, and mythology. Review

The Winding Path of Transformation

The Winding Path of TransformationJeffrey Tacklind, Foreword by Cathleen Falsani. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2019. The author proposes that spiritual growth means walking in paradoxical tensions of glory and humility lived out in a winding journey toward the transformation of our character and spiritual freedom. Review

I Claudius

I, ClaudiusRobert Graves. New York: Vintage International, 1989 (first published 1934). A fictional autobiography of Claudius, of how a physical handicap and speech impairment enabled him to escape death by intrigue until he rose to emperor. Review

boundaries

Boundaries for Your SoulAlison Cook and Kimberly Miller. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019. A therapeutic approach to dealing with overwhelming emotions through a process of understanding them as parts of oneself, allowing one’s Spirit-led self to befriend and care for these parts, and integrating the parts as a “team of rivals” within one’s life. Review

What you take with you

What You Take With YouTherese Greenwood. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2019. Therese Greenwood had minutes to evacuate her home as the Fort McMurray fire approached. The book recounts both her escape, and reflects on what she took, and what this revealed about her life.Review

Tyranny of Virtue

The Tyranny of VirtueRobert Boyers. New York: Scribners, 2019. A distinguished liberal scholar critiques the new academic orthodoxy, one that defines virtue through the excoriating of privilege, identity, safety, microaggression, ableism, and appropriation, creating an academic tyranny in which people fear to speak their minds under threat of denunciation. Review

Our Only World

Our Only World, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015. Eleven essays on various subjects related to our care for our world and its people emphasizing the local and the sustainable. Review

Best Book of the Month: Perhaps it is because I am working on a book, but I especially enjoyed Robert Caro’s Working. I could never see myself spending the time in archives or re-writing as Caro does, but neither will I write the definitive five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. His doggedness in tracking down the facts, his passion for understanding the ways of power, and commitment to excellence was inspiring. Most of all, there is the diligence of showing up and writing every day.

Quote(s) of the Month: One of the more sobering books I read this month was Losing Earth. Nathaniel Rich spoke to why the discussion of climate change is so loaded. The truth is that none of us likes to think of a catastrophic die-off of many of the species on earth, including possibly our own. He writes:

We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species. Our queasiness even infects the language we use to describe it: the banalities of “global warming” and “climate change” perform the linguistic equivalent of rolling on sanitary gloves to palpate a hemorrhaging wound.

Even his language of “existential threat” feels a bit sanitary to me, but he puts his finger on the problem: no one wants to admit that we may have signed the death warrant of our children or grand-children’s generation. It is almost too terrible to contemplate or even to admit for most of us. Hence we mock or cast aspersions upon a young, autistic woman who has the temerity to ask the world’s leaders, “How dare you?” Yet I do not wish to end here, because we still must consider how we will live the days given us. Wendell Berry helped me in writing:

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good–good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places–by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future.

Current reads and upcoming reviews. I’ve just completed Tim L. Anderson’s Into His Presence which explores a theology of intimacy with God. Many of us start with experience or a romanticized idea of relating to God (“Jesus is my boyfriend”). Anderson starts with scripture and the wealth and wonder of intimacy with God on God’s terms. Shundrawn Thomas, a CEO of a financial services company, reflects on what makes work joyful, which has as much to do with our approach to work as the work itself. His book, appropriately is named Discover Joy in Work. I am thoroughly enjoying The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God. The importance of scripture has come under attack for bibliolotry and other shortcomings, but these authors explore the Reformers belief in scripture as the Word of God, and the power of preaching and use of scripture faithful with this conviction to transform lives. The Storm on Our Shores describes a forgotten battle on Attu, an island at the end of the Aleutians briefly occupied by the Japanese during World War II, centered around a Japanese surgeon who had trained in America, and the American soldier who killed him. Finally, I’ve flown to or through O’Hare Airport countless times. With A History of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, I’m learning about this place where I’ve spent so much time, including who O’Hare was.