When We Cannot Reason Together

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Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

If You Could Meet One Author

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The author I would love to have met.

Over at the Bob on Books Facebook Page, one of the fun things I do is post a “Question of the Day.” Part of the fun is to see the diversity of answers that reflects the diversity of people who follow the page. This was certainly true of a recent question I posted: “Who is one author, living or dead, you’d like to meet?”

The winner was C. S. Lewis, who definitely would be a delightful author to meet, preferably over a brew at the Eagle and Child, perhaps with his Inkling friends, including J. R. R. Tolkien, who was the second most popular choice. I could hear Tolkien chiding Lewis over his children’s books, and everyone ribbing Tolkien about “more stories of Elves.”

I was surprised by the number of poets who turned up on the list: William Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, Dr. Suess (!), Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman. It is heartening to know there are people out there who love poetry.

There were some really interesting choices, at least interesting to me. One person recommended Inger Wolf, a Danish writer. Another suggested Alice Munro, whom we have to thank for the modern short story. Ignazio Silone was a name I had not heard since I read Bread and Wine in college. Should I go back and re-read him? A fascinating choice was Lilian Jackson Braun, who has written a series of mysteries with titles that all begin, The Cat Who…. A mystery writer for cat lovers!

There are some who follow the page of a more theological turn. They would gather an impressive company: Paul the Apostle, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, John Owen, Dallas Willard and Phyllis Tickle. Lewis, Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers might be found at times with this group, and perhaps even Aristotle, another nominee, might have found some interesting conversation. On the other hand, I’m not sure Ayn Rand would have liked hanging out with these folk.

Of course, there were a number of contemporary authors: Richard Paul Evans, Jan Karon, Mary Karr, Dee Henderson, Jodi Picoult, Gaby Triana (a young adult author I’ve not heard of), Jean Hager, Terry Pratchett, Pat Conroy, Sue Grafton, and Stephen King. Then there were a couple of best-selling twentieth century authors, Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. In this list, women outnumbered men nine to four.

I was also surprised that no one named William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, or John Steinbeck. I’m sure you can think of others.

And my choice? Winston Churchill. The man could speak, write, paint, and even stage a genuine heroic escape during captivity in the Boer War. He was one of those who might be described as “often wrong, but never in doubt.’ If you love history, he wrote some of the most readable histories of both World Wars, of the English Speaking people, and of his coverage of the Boer War. I would love to know how he wrote so much and did so much else. I’m also curious about how he held the prodigious amounts of alcohol he drank. If I could get him to paint a plein air, I would love to see him “attack” the canvas.

Most of us won’t actually get to meet these authors. But perhaps the reason we want to is that we have met them–in their works.

Who would you add to the names in this article? Who is one author, living or dead, you would like to meet?

Review: From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels David Wenham (Foreword by Donald A. Hagner). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: Explores the role of oral tradition as a source for the written gospels.

Depending on the gospel and the scholar, anywhere between roughly 30 and 60 years elapsed between the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the accounts of the mission and message of Jesus we know as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Most scholars propose that Mark was the earliest of the gospels and that Mark’s material served as one of the sources for Matthew and Luke. At the same time these gospels share material not in Mark, often posited to originate in “Q” (short for Quelle, German for “source.”). There is also material unique to Matthew (“M”), and Luke (“L”). Most have considered these “literary sources,” that is written and circulated, but all we have are the canonical gospels. Q, M, and L exist only hypothetically.

David Wenham argues that serious consideration needs to be given to oral sources. The cultures in which the gospels arose were oral cultures and the possibility of accurate transmission is far greater than often credited. He contends that significant portions of Jesus life, teaching, as well as passion were proclaimed as early believers pursued the mission of Jesus. Wenham notes the emphasis on teaching, learning, remembering, and witness in Acts, as well as the four gospels, all having to do with the faithful transmission of the accounts of Jesus.

Wenham then turns to the writings of Paul, the earliest written documents. 1 Corinthians 15: 1-3 provides the clearest evidence of Paul’s reliance on what were probably oral traditions in speaking of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is another example, as he speaks of what he received regarding the Lord’s supper. He goes on to note a number of passages including the “thief in the night” of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and other teaching about the Lord’s return, teaching on non-retaliation in Romans 12:14-19 that echoes the Sermon on the Mount, “love fulfilling the law” in Romans 13:8-10 echoing the great commandment, and a number of others.

He also discusses the places where Matthew and Luke record material that is in Mark but seem to be drawing on another source that overlaps Mark. Traditionally, this is the hypothetical “Q” but Wenham argues that oral tradition is an equally plausible explanation. He also focuses on two incidents of oral tradition in the gospels and also in Paul’s writing, the references to the labor being worth his hire, and the discussions of “the thief in the night” and the surrounding material. Wenham argues that these are strong examples pointing to oral traditions around the mission and return of Jesus. He then considers how extensive this oral tradition is and notes that Paul’s writings show evidence of the whole story of Jesus–his ancestry, birth, ministry, last night, death, resurrection, and commission to evangelize the nations.

Wenham then concludes with some fascinating proposals, that the hypothetical Q might be oral tradition rather than a lost written document, and that Matthew and Luke may have drawn not only upon Mark, but perhaps upon oral material that pre-dated Mark. Rather than drawing on a couple of hypothetical literary sources, these writers may well have drawn upon widely circulated oral traditions, instead of or in addition to these.

Aside from offering a possible explanation as to why we have not found any manuscript evidence of hypothetical Q, L, or M, the primary contribution this makes is to help us see an alternate route to how oral traditions preached and taught became the written gospels (though there is little here about John), and how oral traditions may offer a good explanation for the connections between the gospels and Paul’s letters. I suspect if Wenham’s proposal gains traction, many will continue to find Q, L, and M helpful for delineating the departures of Matthew and Luke from Mark but that, increasingly, these may be posited as oral traditions rather than literary sources. There is a parsimony and explanatory power to Wenham’s proposal in this slim volume that is worth far more study.

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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: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature

interpreting old testament wisdom literature

Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of articles on the wisdom literature of the Bible, discussing each book as well as recent developments in Wisdom literature scholarship.

Many of us find the Wisdom books (commonly Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) as both confusing and compelling. Is there some rhyme or reason to the organization of Proverbs? What is the point of Job, his suffering, and all those long speeches? Is everything really hebel or as it is sometimes translated, empty, as Ecclesiastes would tell us? And Song of Songs, is it a sensuous love story, or something more?

The collection of essays in this volume touch on all these questions and more in their survey of the recent scholarship of the Wisdom literature. The work begins with Craig Bartholomew’s overview of current Wisdom literature scholarship. I found his framework of seeing this scholarship in terms of a series of “turns” quite helpful: historical criticism, then literary criticism, followed by postmodern criticism, and finally theological criticism. He surveys the important contributions of each. His most helpful advice:

“What Christian scholars should not do is continue to work away at sites in wisdom studies determined by others who have no interest in reading Old Testament wisdom as Scripture. We always need to be in dialogue with scholars of diverse views, but a Christian perspective will alert us to particular work sites crying out for hard labour if we are to retrieve Old Testament wisdom as Scripture today” (p. 33).

Part Two of the work devotes a chapter each to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Ernest Lucas covers a wide range of issues from questions of structure in Proverbs, the focus on character and consequences in its nuances and contradictions, the personification of Wisdom, and the use of women in various personifications, questions of gender in who is speaking at different points in Proverbs, and the connection of wisdom and creation. Lindsay Wilson’s essay of Job focuses on the faith of Job, and how this is expressed both in the trial he undergoes, and the trial to which he would subject God. Katherine J. Dell’s essay reviews recent scholarship in Ecclesiastes, considering particularly the question of the unity of the book and the tension between pessimism, realism and joy, all of which one will find at some point. Rosalind Clarke explores the question of what wisdom might be found in the Song of Songs, finding evidence that there is wisdom for women, parallels to the personified Woman Wisdom of Proverbs, and in the role of Solomon.

Part Three on Themes considers broader issues. It begins with a delightful essay asking “Is Ruth Among the Wise?” In Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to those most of us read) Ruth follows Proverbs 31 and Gregory Goswell proposes that this “encourages an appreciation of its heroine as an example of the wisdom ethic that is taught in the book of Proverbs” (p. 117). Leonard Boström takes on the theme of retribution in Wisdom literature, that our actions will bring good or bad consequences based on the character of the act–that the righteous will prosper and the wicked suffer. The discussion of the differing portrayals of this principle in different books was helpful under the common but sometimes challenging understanding that retribution traces back to a sovereign creator who ordains in his creation certain consequences for actions, but that this does not reduce to an uncomplicated formula as, in the case of Job, the righteous suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper. David G. Firth looks at wisdom in Old Testament narrative, and the paradox that the wise often are not approved by God, when “wisdom” is not accompanied by obedience to God. Christopher B. Ansberry considers the contribution of Wisdom literature to biblical theology, where there often seems to be a disjunct between the two. He highlights contributions to cosmology, anthropology, and ethics, and also how Jesus is presented as the wise man par excellence. Simon P. Stocks calls our attention to the “wisdom psalms” and the way their voicing parallels Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Brittany N. Melton concludes the book with what I thought was one of the highlights of the collection, an exploration of “divine absence” in the Wisdom literature. She concludes:

“Wisdom is the way to God, but is not always attainable. As such, the determination to find wisdom was fuelled by the sages’ search for divine presence. And yet, even if wisdom is found, the mystery of God is preserved. In the wisdom literature we have a prime example of the tension between divine presence and absence. Insofar as wisdom is personified and takes on a much larger literary presence than God in these books, this speaks to divine absence. Where is God? He is hidden behind Wisdom (p. 216).

What I appreciated about this collection of essays was not only the many connections they made for me (including that of thinking of Ruth in light of Proverbs 31), but also that they exemplified Craig Bartholomew’s exhortation to scholars. Each studied these works as scripture, and engaged in their retrieval as scripture today, nourishing in this reader the desire to read these works of wisdom once more to hear in them the word of the Lord. This is an important resource not only in the academic setting, but for all who would teach the Wisdom literature, and who want their students or congregants to not only be informed of the latest scholarship, but to be shaped by hearing these books afresh as “scripture today.”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Hotel Pick Ohio (Hotel Ohio)

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The early Hotel Ohio, when it was an eight story hotel.

In the era when downtown Youngstown was a thriving retail center and the focal point of the city, perhaps the grandest of the downtown hotels was the Hotel Pick Ohio, part of the Albert Pick chain of hotels. When it opened in 1913 as an eight story building on West Boardman Street, it was known as the Hotel Ohio. A few years later in 1916, a new Tod House opened on Central Square. By the 1920’s five floors were added to bring the building to its present thirteen floors, 148 foot height.

Albert Pick started operating the hotel in the 1940’s. One of the signature additions they made to the hotel was a three panel mural painted by Louis Grell titled “The Kingdom of Ceres,” which may still be seen to this day. Along with the stately lobby, and luxurious lodgings and service, the hotel featured the Crystal Room, known for its buffet, its welsh rarebit, linen table clothes and napkins, and chefs with tall white hats.

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Louis Grell mural “The Kingdom of Ceres” (1946). Photograph used by permission of The Louis Grell Foundation <LouisGrell.com>.

Pick also introduced a chain of Purple Cow Sandwich Shops in his hotels. One could buy a Purple Cow Hamburger for forty cents and the restaurant was open twenty four hours a day. The one on the ground floor of what was now the Hotel Pick Ohio acquired a notorious reputation as a mob hangout, particularly in the early morning hours.

The hotel was a gathering place for meetings and conventions. On July 14, 1963 the hotel hosted the Slovak Catholic Sokol Convention. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy spoke to the group that day. He commended the attendees:

“Clearly, the United States would be a poorer nation today, economically, intellectually, culturally and in every other way, if it were not for the two-million of our citizens who are of Slovak birth or ancestry. And, needless to add, those two million would be poorer if it weren’t for the work of the Catholic Sokol throughout the nation.”

My only visit to the hotel was as a high school senior being honored by the Mahoning Valley Medical Society in 1972. I remember gawking at the mural and all the wood paneling and impressive service. By this time the hotel was changing. Although it went through a renovation in 1968, the clientele was YSU female students (only men lived in its only dormitory at that time, Kilcawley Hall) and increasingly, those who needed low income housing.

In 1982, the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority (YMHA) took over the building, now known as Amedia Plaza. In 2002, a renovation overseen by Ricciuti, Balog & Partners created larger, but fewer apartments for senior citizens. New heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing was installed while preserving the beautiful lobby and mural. YMHA also houses its corporate offices in this building.

It was heartening to learn in researching this piece that not only is the building that once was the Hotel Pick Ohio still standing, but that Youngstown once again has a downtown hotel, with the opening of the Hilton DoubleTree in the old Stambaugh Building, another Youngstown treasure. One hopes this reflects a resurgence of life in downtown Youngstown, recalling something of the city’s former years.

“I Could Read Were It Not For All Those Distractions!”

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“The Distracted Reader” Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, 2013. (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Does that sound like you? It sure sounds like me some times. You settle into your favorite chair with a warm beverage and just get into the flow of a book–and the phone rings, or a child comes out of the bedroom with an upset stomach, which he proceeds to launch all over the room. For those of us who love to read, it often feels like a tug of war to find time to read, or to read well when we do, because of distractions from things, people, and sometimes our selves.

Here are the distractions I and some of my friends on my Facebook page have run into, and some thoughts of how we might deal with them:

  1. Thoughts. Perhaps this is one of my main distractions. Sometimes they come from what I’m reading, and might be worth pursuing. After all, don’t we read to enrich our minds? A notepad to capture those golden thoughts (or maybe brass) might be a good idea. Other times, thoughts just pop into one’s head. In that case, most of the time, just telling them to pop back out is good enough. Sometimes, we are thinking about a troubling life situation. That may be the time to lay aside the book, and pay attention.
  2. Life obligations. Many of us have to work. There are lawns to mow, houses to clean, meals to prepare and enjoy, and bills to pay. Usually the stage of life when we no longer have these obligations comes with advanced age and physical decline. Perhaps we should be grateful for life and health, and find ways to reward ourselves with time to read when our work is done.
  3. Sleepiness. That’s the one problem with reading as a reward for finishing our work. We sit down, and we crash. Standing might be a good alternative. I have a high dresser with a good lamp at which I read sometimes. Many of us sit too much anyways. At the same time, our bodies are telling us something, and most often, it is that we are not getting enough sleep, which for most of us is at least seven hours.
  4. Smartphones. This is a big one, and one I struggle with. I shut off notifications which can nearly constantly distract one. Even better is to put it in another room if you can’t resist checking in on Facebook every ten minutes. Don’t have it sitting by the book–if the book is the least bit dull, or closely written, guess what wins the attention war? If you want to share something you’ve read, bookmark it and come back to it at the end of your reading time. It has been suggested that smartphones are changing the way we read, and our attention span. Finding time to read “unplugged” may be critical for our attention to extended narratives or arguments.
  5. People. Keeping a sense of proportion in our lives and remembering what matters more is important. I don’t think I regret a single hour I spent with our son as he was growing up. As a result, there are some seasons when we will have less time to read. And we don’t want to miss those moments for various forms of intimacy with our significant others! Sometimes, people find a momentary reading retreat in the bathroom–as long as no one else needs the facilities, and people don’t start worrying that something has happened to you! Sometimes, we take some time to turn off the TV and read, and then talk about what we’ve read. Take advantage of different rhythms. I wake much earlier (and crash earlier) than my wife. That early morning time is reading time.

There is life beyond reading, and reading is just one aspect of a richly textured, well-lived life. But taking deliberate steps to set aside undistracted time to savor a book and think about it can enrich the whole of our lives. It is when books occupy an inordinate rather than ordinate place in our lives (something that will be different for all of us) that we have problems. There may come a day I cannot read. Have I cultivated both friends who might read to me, and an inner richness that sustains me when they are not present? There is an episode (here is a short clip of the ending) of The Twilight Zone where bookish Henry Bemis finds himself the only survivor of an apocalypse in the midst of a library full of treasured books and he cries out “time enough at last” only to be cruelly disappointed. We don’t want to be this guy.

Review: On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.

Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.

Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.

“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):

“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.

His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.

In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.

I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.

Review: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenAntonia Felix. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018

Summary: A biography of the Democrat U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, from the financial struggles of her family, her academic life and the research that changed her life, and her work protecting consumers that led to her Senate run.

“She persisted.” These words became a rallying cry when Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Session to the cabinet office of Attorney General. The letter spoke to Mrs. King’s contention that Sessions, as a federal judge had taken actions that chilled the exercise of voting rights by black citizens. She was interrupted once, warned of impugning the character of a fellow senator. The second time, Mitch McConnell stopped her, and she was forced to take her seat after the Republican dominated Senate voted to silence her. He said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And she did. Banned from speaking in the Senate, she read the letter on a live Facebook video.

This was just the latest instance of a persistence born of a commitment to advocate for those our system often overlooks. It began, according to Antonia Felix, in Oklahoma, and her own family’s struggles to make ends meet. She watched her mother go to work save their home when her father had a heart attack. She had a passion to teach when becoming a homemaker was society’s vision for women and struggled in her early years between these two visions. A love of debate led to a scholarship to George Washington University. Her love for Jim Warren, high school sweetheart, led to a move to Texas, and completion of her degree at the University of Houston in speech pathology. A teaching job ended when she became pregnant. Struggling with the life of a stay at home mom after a move to New Jersey following her husband’s job, she enrolled in Rutgers Law School, which she described as “an advanced degree in thinking.” Completing law school, she and Jim moved back to Houston, with a second child, a son.

An offer to teach the legal writing at the University of Houston Law Center launched her career–and led to the end of her first marriage, as conflicts between her and Jim made it clear they had different marriage and life visions. She met her current husband, Bruce, at Houston. The biography goes on to trace her legal career as she moved to Texas, Penn, and eventually Harvard.

More significant, and especially for someone like myself who works with academics, Warren was transformed by her research. When she began her legal career, she was influenced by a law and economics course taught by Henry Manne in a program funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, essentially a right wing group. One of her research interests was bankruptcy, particularly in a period when bankruptcy laws had made debt relief more accessible to financially troubled families. There were many advocating for tougher laws, contending that people were gaming the system and irresponsible. She ended up studying thousands of bankruptcy cases and came to a very different conclusion that contradicted her right wing leanings. She discovered lending and credit card practices that created debt loads that pressed families to limits at which a job loss or illness would push them over the edge. Terms buried in credit card agreements and sub-prime loans for those qualifying for better terms were the most outstanding examples.

It transformed her into an advocate for consumers and led to her helping set up, under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In a landmark journal article (reprinted in the book) Warren argued,

“It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street–and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner. Similarly, it’s impossible to change the price on a toaster once it has been purchased. But long after the papers have been signed, it is possible to triple the price of the credit used to finance the purchase of that appliance, even if the customer meets all the credit terms, in full and on time.”

Bank failures and the sins of Wall Street in 2008 made her a fierce advocate for regulatory reform and finally convinced her to run for the Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2012. Opposition to efforts to roll back reforms made during the Obama years has made her a visible object for attack, including her claims of Indian heritage. The book includes the transcript of an address to Native Americans where she addresses this.

Warren is up for re-election this year, and has acknowledged that she is giving serious consideration to a run for the presidency in 2020. This book does have something of the feel of a campaign piece, introducing the wider public to Warren, addressing criticisms without making new ones. But it also did reveal something extraordinary that impressed me. Here was an academic whose research changed her mind and compelled her to act on what she found. She didn’t remain a “one dimensional scholar” remaining detached from her findings. She moved to work in government to apply those findings in ways that made life better for the people she studied. She cared more about truth than ideology, and allowed evidence to change her mind, and then showed the courage of her convictions over and over in advocacy. She persisted.

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

Review: The Aging Brain

The aging brain

The Aging BrainTimothy R. Jennings, MD. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the causes of aging and brain deterioration and the lifestyle measures that can be taken to avert or delay dementia.

In the area where I live, there has been a boom in construction of “memory care” facilities–nursing facilities that focus on helping seniors dealing with memory and other cognitive losses. One friend, whose parent died recently spoke of saying good bye to his parent years ago, and finally laying him to rest of late. As we age, the thought increasingly occurs, could it be us? With that, we may also wonder–is there anything that can be done?

According to Dr. Timothy Jennings, there actually are a number of steps we can take to delay or prevent certain forms of dementia and stay sharp (he does offer a disclaimer that this book does not address all forms of dementia, but particularly late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and that any of the interventions in this book should be done in consultation with one’s physician).

The good news, in one sense, is that dementia is an issue simply because we are living longer. Yet he maintains as a fundamental principle that brain health and bodily health go hand in hand, in part because so many of our body systems exist to support the functioning of our brains. Even our dental health is connected to brain health. It’s not even just a matter of genes. Epigenetics looks at gene expression and certain factors block or facilitate gene expression–diet, smoking, alcohol, pollution and stress being significant factors. Similarly, there are inevitable aging processes in the shortening of the telomeres at the end of our genes which leads to more replication errors. Some of the same factors mentioned above have impact here as well as sun exposure, physical activity, sexually transmitted diseases and relational conflict.

Oxidative stress breaks down the cells in our bodies in the same way that metal rusts. Obesity, diets high in sugar, and excessive alcohol use, any tobacco use, and illegal substances all create oxidative stresses on the body. One of the big takeaways here is that moderate exercise coupled with reduced consumption of all forms of sugar, browned or deep-fried foods, and more vegetables, fruit, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, and 7-8 hours of sleep seem to be crucial steps we can take.

Exercise and sleep come up in separate chapters. There is clear evidence that moderate exercise for 30-40 minutes a day at least five days a week enhances cognitive abilities. Sleep plays a crucial role in the removal of toxins that build up in the brain during our waking ours. Developing new interests, particularly those that involve both mental and physical learning keep laying down new neural pathways. Beyond this, Jennings returns to the importance of practices that reduce stress and that our beliefs matter, where unhealthy views of God may be worse than a well-adjusted atheism. Ideally, for him as a believing person, it is a belief system where trust and love for a Creator results in a life of knowing one is loved and expressed in loving.

The last part of the book, on pathological aging, apart from its explanation of the physiology of Alzheimer’s disease, and practical considerations for caregivers, seems to review the recommendations made earlier in the book. He does include a chapter on vitamins and supplements and which are, and are not, helpful. There is an addendum in the book on smoking cessation.

While I found the recommendations practical and instructive, and the research support for these recommendations compelling, it felt a bit that this book might encourage a “if I just do all the right things, I won’t have a problem” mentality. Reality doesn’t always seem to work that way. What seems evident to me is that these recommendations do make a difference, particularly when measured over large populations. They do seem to enhance our well-being in the absence of any underlying condition. His “use it or lose it” mantra just makes common sense.

We all age, and our brains with the rest of us. But healthy bodies nurtured by healthy lifestyle practices mean healthier brains. Most of us hope, I think, that our bodies won’t outlast our brains. While we don’t have any guarantees, Jennings helps us understand what we can do, what we should avoid, and how it can help.

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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.

The Month in Reviews: September 2018

On Reading Well

There are a number of people who have followed Bob on Books either here on the blog or via the Bob on Books Facebook Page in the last month. Welcome to all of you and I hope you are enjoying what you find. One of the recurring features of this page is a monthly “The Month in Reviews” post. Each month, I provide capsule summaries of all my reviews in case you missed the review when first posted. It serves as a listing of all the reviews on this site if you select “The Month in Reviews” category on the menu. I also highlight my “best” book of the month (often a hard choice) and a quote I really liked. I also offer a preview of upcoming reviews. One thing you’ll notice–I enjoy reading widely, as well as more deeply in Christian-related books. There is some method to this–it is one way I make connection between my faith and the rest of life–I think it is all connected. So in this month’s list you have theological books on retreats, the nature of being human, and being like Christ as well as a murder mystery, a debut novel by an Ohio author, a presidential biography, a book on Klan influence in my home town, and the story of a Navy baseball team on which Ted Williams played in World War II. One other note: the hypertext link in the title is to the publisher’s website for the book. The hypertext link at the end of the summary labelled “Review” will take you to my full review. Enjoy

What is man

What is Man?Edgar Andrews. Nashville: Elm Hill, 2018. An exploration of the answers different worldviews come up with to the question of what it means to be human, making the case for a Christian view of humans descended from a historical Adam who was created in God’s image, through whom sin entered the human race in the fall, and for the redemption of all who believe through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Review.

answering why

Answering WhyMark C. Perna. Austin: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2018. Argues that behind the skills gap between unfilled jobs and Why Generation job-seekers is an awareness gap about possible careers that fails to answer the “why” question. Review.

Invitation to Retreat

Invitation to RetreatRuth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018. A guide to retreat as a spiritual practice exploring why retreat, preparing for retreat, helpful practices on retreat, and concluding our retreat and returning from (and to) retreat. Review.

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American DreamDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1976. A biography of the 36th president exploring his ambitions, political skills, and vision, shaped by his family and upbringing, and marred by Vietnam, written from the unique perspective of a White House Fellowship and post-presidential interviews. Review.

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit. Review.

Steel Valley Klan

Steel Valley Klan, William D. Jenkins. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990. A study of Ku Klux Klan activity in the Mahoning Valley in the early 1920’s, its composition, and factors contributing to the rise and decline of its influence. Review.

12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful MenCollin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, editors. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018. Twelve thumbnail biographies focused on pastoral leaders who served faithfully through suffering. Review.

On Reading Well

On Reading WellKaren Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018. Makes a case that the reading of great literature may help us live well through cultivating the desire in us to live virtuously and to understand why we are doing so. Review.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to PemberleyP. D. James. New York: Vintage Books, 2013 P.D. James writes a murder mystery as a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Review.

Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His SonHaley Goranson Jacob (Foreword by N. T. Wright). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. An in-depth exploration of the meaning of Romans 8:29b-30, arguing that conformity to the image of the His Son has to do with our participation in the Son’s rule over creation, which is our glorification. Review.

Ohio

Ohio, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Four characters, acquainted with each other in high school return to their home town in Ohio ten years after graduation on the same night, unbeknownst to each other, driven by various longings reflecting lives that turned out differently than they’d hoped. Review.

Cloudbuster 9

The Cloudbuster Nine, Anne R. Keene. New York: Sports Publishing, 2018. The story of the 1943 Navy training school team on which Ted Williams, Johnny Sain, Johnny Pesky and others played, and the baseball hopes and disappointments of the team’s batboy, the author’s father. Review.

Disruptive Witness

Disruptive WitnessAlan Noble. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Drawing on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Noble explores our longing for fullness in a distracted, secular age of “buffered selves,” and the personal, communal and cultural practices Christians might pursue to disrupt our society’s secular mindset. Review.

Best of the Month: My best of the month is kind of a gateway book to cultivating the reading life. Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well not only whets our appetite for the reading of quality fiction, but also explores how great works may change us. Here is one pithy piece of advice to enrich our reading lives:

“Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it.”

Quote of the Month: Ruth Haley Barton has recently written a wonderful guide to retreats, Invitation to Retreat, that I’ve already used on a personal retreat and plan to return to often. Here is a taste:

“Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention; it is, as Emilie Griffin puts it, “a generous commitment to our friendship with God.” The emphasis is on the words extended and generous. Truth is, we are not always generous with ourselves where God is concerned. Many of us have done well to incorporate regular times of solitude and silence into the rhythm of our ordinary lives, which means we’ve gotten pretty good at giving God twenty minutes here and half an hour there. And there’s no question we are better for it!

But many of us are longing for more—and we have a sense that there is more if we could create more space for quiet to give attention to God at the center of our beings. We sense that a kind of fullness and satisfaction is discovered more in the silence than in the words, more in solitude than in socializing, more in spaciousness than in busyness. “Times come,” Emilie Griffin goes on to say, “when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding, but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in.”

Current reads: I’ve actually just finished three books that I will be reviewing this week. Timothy Jennings writes in The Aging Brain, giving practical advice as a doctor, on delaying or preventing dementia and keeping mentally sharp as we age. Elizabeth Warren is a new biography by Antonia Felix, which has impressed me as a striking example of an academic who acted on her research on bankruptcy to protect consumers. On the Brink of Everything is Parker Palmer’s reflections at the end of his eighth decade on aging, and facing the eventual end of his life. My current reads include Paul, a biography of the apostle by N.T. Wright, who has probably written more about Paul than any New Testament scholar. I’m very excited to dip into Jonathan Walton’s Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive, a book coming out early next year. Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature brings together a group of scholars discussing the interpretive challenges of books like Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. And I’ve tackled one of the books on my list of Ten Books I Want to Read Before I Die –Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’ll be at this one for a while.

As the weather gets cooler, a comfy chair, a warm beverage, and a good book seem an ideal way to spend a quiet evening. Perhaps something on this list may strike your fancy. Or maybe not. I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading!