Review: The World-Ending Fire

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry, Selected and with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2019.

Summary: A collection of the essays, mostly focused on local culture, the care of places, and the hubris of technological solutions.

The works of Wendell Berry span the gamut from poetry to novels and short stories to essays, in addition to many articles contributed to various magazines and journals. I have a number of volumes just with his essays. This recently published work draws from them, and I think, does capture the “essential” Wendell Berry as an essayist.

The collection opens with “A Native Hill” and “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” They capture one essential of Wendell Berry–the loving knowledge of and care for a place, as Berry tramps the ground once farmed by his family, and describes his own farm, its features and how it must be cared for to continue to be useful beyond his life. He describes the slow work of rebuilding topsoil, describing a bucket which has collected leaves, twigs, feathers, droppings, and other debris, which have slowly decayed over decades into a few inches of soil. He comes back again and again to the idea that we should give up looking for big solutions, or solutions for someone else to implement. The question is what does our place require to preserve its soil, its life, and thus to sustain us? What must we do to protect the air, the water, the soil, and feed ourselves.

He decries the global food economy in “The Total Economy” in which production and consumption are separated, where farm work becomes servitude done by unseen workers rather than the hard but noble work of feeding both oneself and others through the care for plants and animals living on the soil. He reminds us in “The Pleasures of Eating” of both the joy and act of self-defense of growing, preparing, and being mindful of the sources of our food.

He writes of his own choices to use simpler but sufficient technologies: a good team of horses and various plows, mowers, and other attachments. He gives his reasons for not buying a computer. Hand-written text, edited and typed up by his wife to be sent to his publisher is enough, and he questions how a computer can make it better. He offers standards for technological innovation that should give pause, including that it should be cheaper, as small in scale, do better work, use less energy, and be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence with the requisite tools.

The essay following “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” addresses the firestorm that resulted when people found out about the work his wife did for him and made all kinds of invidious assumptions. He uses it as an occasion, one of several, to talk about domestic economies–of the home being the center of work for husband, wife, and children. In “Economy and Pleasure” he talks about how we have separated our work and our pleasure, recounting the storytelling among a crew during tobacco harvest time, or time with a grand-daughter, who drove a team for the first time, hauling a load of dirt to spread on a barn floor, and her response at the end, “Wendell, isn’t it fun?”

One of his repeated themes is that big tech and big government are not going to solve the problems they’ve created, because all of our challenges reduce to local challenges–this stream, this strip mine, this local community, this school system. He not only advocates for local culture but names the prejudice against country people and questions, what is the best way to farm in all of earth’s “fragile localities”

His penultimate essay, “The Future of Agriculture,” is the most recent in the collection, and in a pithy way sums up his essay-writing career. He offers seven things we must do that are straightforward common sense and concludes:

“This is a agenda that may be undertaken by ordinary citizens at any time, on their own initiative. In fact, it describes an effort already undertaken all over the world by many people. It defines also the expectation that citizens who by their gifts are exceptional will not shirk the most humble services” (p.333).

Berry’s words seem prophetic to me. The disruptions of the pandemic to global supply chains has awakened us to things like computer chip shortages. But a recent problem with infant formula brought to our attention how fraught is our system of producing and transporting food essentials. Climate-change induced droughts in food-producing areas as far flung as California and southern France and Spain should be alarm bells. A threatened rail strike as I write could be catastrophic.

So where do I begin? Perhaps it is to look at converting some of the lawn I mow to gardens. I recall a 15 by 15 garden at our former home and how much food we got out of it, how good it was, and how much fun we had ordering seeds and starting plants under lights. How did I get away from that? We’re coming up on the time to replace a roof as well as some electrical upgrades. Perhaps it is time for solar. Not sure it will pay back in our lives or change things in a big way. But that’s Mr. Berry’s point. It’s the small, local acts of care that extend even beyond our lives that are our “humble service.” Now, if only I can get off this computer…

Review: Fight Like Jesus

Fight Like Jesus, Jason Porterfield (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2022.

Summary: A study of the accounts of Holy Week through the lens of how Jesus chose peace amid his ultimate confrontation with power.

For someone who has been following Christ over fifty years, Jason Porterfield helped me look at the accounts of Holy Week with fresh eyes. He believes that a key to understanding the actions of Jesus throughout this week is found in Luke’s account of the “triumphal entry” at 19:41-42 where it is written:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes” (NIV)

Porterfield sees the whole week as Jesus’ campaign of peace, that corrects our mistaken notions of making peace.

Each chapter takes one day of Holy Week (except for combining Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday) and looks at the peacemaking way of Jesus.

Palm Sunday; Confronting the religious and Roman power, people herald him as king but he rides in on a donkey, not a charger, entering the city through the gate where sacrificial lambs would enter. Peacemaking doesn’t evade conflict but moves toward it but extends peace to all. He bids us to follow the way of the Lamb.

Monday: The clearing of the temple seems a most “unpeaceful” action. Porterfield makes some interesting observations. The whip of “cords” may be understood as rushes braided together, primarily used to shoo animals. The te and kai language of John 2:15 (Porterfield conflates this with the synoptic accounts) indicates that “all” references the sheep and cattle, and not people. Jesus concern is the radical inclusion of the Gentiles, repulsed by turning their court into a marketplace. The lack of violence is evident in the lack of response of Roman authorities standing by to keep peace.

Tuesday: It’s the day of confrontations, of traps, and truth-telling, of giving Caesar his coin but calling on people to render their whole lives to God. He speaks truth to the hypocrisy of those plotting his death and in his “little apocalypse” warns his followers to flee rather than indulge in violent revolt, to feed the hungry rather than fighting in an insurrection.

Wednesday: We see the chosen road of the Sanhedrin in Caiaphas words that one should die for all; the beautiful act of the woman and Jesus’s defense of attempts to marginalize her; and finally the betrayal of Judas. Porterfield sees two diverging roads, toward and away from Jesus. Which will we choose?

Thursday: The focus here is on the new command to love one another, forming a new community where love is given and received. We call it Maundy Thursday because of Jesus “mandate.” He also deals with the “two swords” of the disciples and sees this not as a license for bearing weapons but to fulfill prophecy. He says two will be enough. Enough to fulfill prophecy about Jesus among the rebels; certainly not enough for any real defense!

Friday: The two forms of peacemaking–that of Jesus and the violent one of Barabbas stand side by side. Instead of the message of vengeance, Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness, and by refusing retaliation breaks the cycle of violence with forgiveness of all through his death.

Saturday/Sunday: Drawing on the illusions of scripture to the “harrowing of hell,” Porterfield points to the call to trust God in the darkest places. Then we have resurrection Sunday and the appearance of Jesus to the disciples bidding them “peace” even as he commissions to be his ambassadors of peace.

The book is designed to be read and discussed through the Sundays of Lent, taking one day each week. Of course, it may also be used for a series of Holy Week readings. Questions for personal reflection or group discussion are also included. The chapters include “peacemaking” applications drawn from the narrative.

I found that the lens of peacemaking takes disparate events and and weaves them together in a powerful and compelling narrative, one where we see the contrast between how God makes peace with the world’s attempts, often violent, to “make peace.” Porterfield combines exegesis that pays attention to often-overlooked details with pastoral applications that call us, not to passivity, but the active peacemaking of people following Jesus. This comes at a time where a robust peace witness of the church in a world fraught with violence has rarely been more needed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: My Vertical Neighborhood

My Vertical Neighborhood, Lynda MacGibbon (Foreword by Michael Frost). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: The author’s account of moving from a small eastern Canada town to a Toronto highrise and how strangers became neighbors that she learned to love.

Lynda MacGibbon transferred for work reasons from a small eastern Canada town to Toronto, moving into a highrise. She had wanted to learn how to love her neighbors but for months couldn’t get beyond brief greetings and small talk. Then she found a partner, a co-worker named Rachel who loved to cook, and after prayer, proposed that they host dinners in Rachel’s tiny apartment. They began with a party that turned into a weekly dinner. At first it was only the two of them, and then Elizabeth, and Fran, and Nicolai and Yolanda and her son Luka…and then Brian.

Brian lived large, loved food, and was a gay man with many lovers. He had strong opinions, that even turned some off. But Rachel and Lynda welcomed him, first to dinners, and then the Writing Group. And he kept coming, along with his parrot and made his way into their lives. They spent one day searching as a group of friends for that parrot when he was separated from Brian. Later, Brian went out for a day with Lynda–she thought an hour but he wanted a day, going all through Toronto.

MacGibbon tells a story of the power of a partner, of learning to love unconditionally even those with zero interest in their faith, of the joy of sharing good food, and the hard lesson of neighbors looking out for each other, when they had not heard from Fran for several days only to learn she had died in her apartment. She also discovered that loving means becoming vulnerable–opening up her own stories and pain and not just listening to others, or even going dancing for an evening with Brian in a nightclub. It meant getting hurt and learning to forgive.

This book is an invitation to become open to loving our neighbors, not just in theory but in practice–whether we live in apartment complexes, high rises, old neighborhoods with porches or those with attached garages and fenced in back yards. It’s an invitation to share food, to celebrate, and to begin to take the risk of not only opening our doors but our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Religion of American Greatness

The Religion of American Greatness, Paul D. Miller (Foreword by David French). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A conservative’s critique of Christian nationalism, distinguishing it from patriotism, and making a case against it both biblically and as an illiberal theory that is at odds with the American experiment of a constitutional democratic republic.

What first caught my attention with this book is that it is written by a White, theologically conservative, Afghanistan war veteran who served in the George W. Bush White House and at the CIA as an intelligence analyst, is pro-life, lives in Texas, and reads the Declaration of Independence to his kids on the Fourth of July. He is also a Georgetown University professor who offers a scholarly treatment that both carefully explains Christian nationalism on its own terms and offers a well-supported critique of it, both as a Christian and as a patriot who passionately believes in the American experiment.

He begins as all good academics by discussing what nationalism is and differentiates it from patriotism, which he supports. He offers this definition:

“Nationalism is the belief that humanity is divisible into internally coherent, mutually distinct cultural units which merit political independence and human loyalty because of their purported ability to provide meaning, purpose, and value in human life; and that governments are supposed to protect and promote the cultural identities of their respective nations” (p. 5).

He then looks at the American version of this, arguing that the particular cultural identity that American nationalists seek to protect is Anglo-Protestantism. What is problematic with this is that cultural identities have blurry boundaries that don’t align with political boundaries. The consequence is illiberal forms of government that marginalize and disadvantage ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other cultural groupings, treating them as second class citizens. Far from promoting national unity, this results in fragmentation and division.

The Christian, evangelical version of this takes a universal faith and weds it to identity politics, reducing it to a tribal faith rather than a faith for every tribe. Miller spends a good deal of time discussing the concepts of “nations” and “peoples” in the Bible and argues that the template of Israel cannot be used to uphold the United States as a uniquely chosen nation under God. He concludes that Christian nationalism is a form of idolatry. He traces the uneasy tension between nationalism and republicanism throughout the history of the Christian right.

Whereas other commentators of a more progressive bent automatically associate Christian nationalism with racism, Miller focuses on the illiberality of nationalism in how it thinks about race, inequality, and naming and remedying the sins of the past. Some may consider this a distinction without a difference, but I appreciate the measured tone and the focus on consequences rather than on the labels we apply.

He discusses the embrace of the former president’s form of Christian nationalism and its attraction for White evangelicals. One of the most telling aspects of this discussion is the suspicion of elites as well as the fear of elite efforts to restrict religious expression. I’ve experienced that in university ministry where universities used institutional power to attempt to restrict access of religious groups on campus (and I met the contributor of the foreword, David French, in conjunction with standing against these efforts). I observed the condescension with which religious convictions were treated. I chose to love those who treated me as an enemy but I can understand how this sense of grievance can be played upon to oppose and defeat “progressive elites,” something I think few progressives really grasp. Miller observes that “while conservatives are proud of their bubble, progressives deny they are in one.”

Miller concludes in arguing that national identity is not bad–we just need a better story than nationalism, one rooted in our history that both celebrates our ideals, especially as they have distinguished us in practice, as well as our ugly failures, that inspire us to overcome and strive for a better future. He argues for a kind of open exceptionalism in which we hold the nation up to the light of our high ideals combined with Niebuhrian humility that faces our national sins and failures. He believes pastors can do a better job in careful teaching that gives the lie to the idea of America as the new Israel, chosen of God and thinking beyond specific issues as to how to engage politically in a pluralistic society and the duties of responsible citizenship.

Miller is self-aware enough to recognize that many Christian nationalists won’t read his book. I hope some will because they will meet someone who actually cares about much of what they care for, who genuinely loves America, and is equally critical of progressives for their own brand of illiberalism. He writes as one who sees the religion of American greatness as an idol, a counterfeit version of the great vision of our faith of God’s love for all the nations of the earth. Miller is unwilling to see it reduced to one puny White evangelical tribe identified with a mere vision of national identity.

He also sees nationalist efforts, Christian or otherwise, as incongruous with our national experiment of a constitutional form of democratic republicanism. He alludes to writing not only a similar critique of progressivism but also a book outlining his ideas of a “framework of ordered liberty.” I hope he gets to write both of those books, but especially the third, which I think will offer great help for all of those who want to think politically beyond the issues that so often divide us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Why Local History?

An early sketch of the Brier Hill district and the town of Youngstown

I was in a conversation this week with someone who asked me why we should honor people in the Youngstown area who have done great things. It is a good question. Part of my response was to say that “For me, it is about more than honoring them or their memory. It is about the values they stood for that you hope to perpetuate.” That answer is part of why I write so much about Youngstown people, cultural institutions, businesses, and events that have shaped Youngstown.

We’re not a bunch of people who happened to land in a particular place that is just like other places in the U.S. Youngstown is a storied place and those who call it home are part of a 225 year old story. I happen to think part of how we make sense of our lives, what matters in them, what values shape them, is to understand the story of which we are a part and within which we live.

Yet one of the most common responses I receive to many of the articles I’ve posted in this series is, “why have I never heard about this before. I never knew that!” The reason, of course is that, with few exceptions, most of us were not taught our local history in school. I happen to think that is a great lack.

Sadly, the only local history many of us know about Youngstown are the stories of the mob, bombings, the closing of the mills, and political corruption. I would be a liar if I were to say that these aren’t part of the Youngstown story. But they are only a part. I haven’t focused much on these things because so much has been written. It also happens that in the plot of the Youngstown story, such things are only a small part of our rich story.

Yet so much that we continue to treasure in Youngstown we owe to people who put their time, skill, energy, and money into our community life. We owe our schools to people like Judge Rayen and N. H. Chaney and Paul C. Bunn. and Howard Jones. The efforts of Reuben McMillan contributed to the excellent library system of today. We have one of the most amazing museums of American art that we can visit for free because of the vision and bequest of Joseph G. Butler. Mill Creek could have become another industrial zone were it not for the vision and labors of Volney Rogers and the park leadership from then until now that stewarded this singularly beautiful place. Leaders like Charles P. Henderson showed that politics needn’t be corrupt. The Warners built an amazing theatre that the Powers family and later, the DeBartolo and York families preserved as a wonderful space for the performing arts. The Covelli Centre recognizes the efforts and investment of a contemporary restaurant entrepreneur. I could go on and on.

Local history helps us know how our city developed in the shape it did. It answers questions like “How did Brier Hill get its name and why is it so important?” What connection did the famous educator William Holmes McGuffey have with the east side of Youngstown? How did East Youngstown become Campbell? How did Salt Springs Road get its name? Why is the Wick family so important to our history? What importance did the Gibson, Zedaker, Foster, and Brownlee families have in the development of the South Side?

Local history matters because it is a story we get to help write. Among those I listed above are people from the early beginnings of Youngstown, a number from a century ago, and some who are our contemporaries. How do we write that story? The people in that history did it through hard work, integrity of character, a willingness to go out on limbs and take risks, and a stick-to-itivness. Many of them persisted twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty years in pursuing the common good of the city. I suspect that if anything is done that lasts another one hundred years or more, it will be because of people who embrace those same values and pursue a similar course.

And this is why our local history matters. First it made us, and then we get to make it.

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

Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II in March 2015, Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence Derivative: nagualdesign – defenceimagery.mod.uk, Licensed under OGL 3

Today is the first day in my life in which Queen Elizabeth II is no longer the Queen of the United Kingdom and the nations of the British Commonwealth. I am 68 and she was Queen before I was born. I’ve seen so many world leaders come and go. Churchill, de Gaulle, Khrushchev (and Gorbachev), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. And always there was Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer reminded me that this day would come. Yet I was among those who said, “God save the Queen” because I didn’t want it to come yet. But her absence from many of the festivities suggested the increasingly fragile nature of her health at age 96. I suspected it would not be much longer before she followed her husband Philip.

I remember a youthful Queen. I collected stamps as a kid, and upon her coronation, every country in the Commonwealth at that time printed stamps with her youthful, crowned profile. I remember a young mother with children around my age or older. In pictures of her over the years, I saw a maturing, and then aging monarch, always self-possessed, but bearing like all of us, the marks of advancing years. That mental montage of images including the frail Queen with youthful incoming Prime Minister Truss on Tuesday remind me of the arc of life we all follow.

What strikes me, as it has so many, is how she persisted in fulfilling her royal duties from her youth, even while Princess during the war years until this very week. She once said, “Work is the rent you pay for the room you occupy on earth.” She traveled more than any monarch in history, visiting Canada twenty times alone. And this from one who, while Edward VIII was king, did not expect to reign. In the end, she reigned longer than any British monarch.

I think part of her longevity had to do with her resilience. Think of what the past seventy years have brought: the end of Great Britain as one of the greatest powers, the end of empire, advances in technology, changes in moral standards, the shift from industrial to technology driven economies, and so much more. Media shifted from print to radio to television to the 24/7 news cycle, and the internet. Historians and biographers have and will point out mistakes made by her and her family negotiating the traditions of monarchy in such rapidly changing times. What stands out is that she learned and she lasted. Can any of us do more?

I’m reminded of her courage. She and her family could have fled to Canada during the war. Along with Churchill, they stayed and gave support to those who faced untold trials. She faced the dangers of public life, including at least two attempts on her life.

I think of her faith. Formally the Queen was ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. I sensed there was more. She was not just a Christian monarch but a monarch who was an openly professing Christian. This was evident in her annual Christmas messages, that I made a point to listen to once they were on video. In 2000 she said:

“To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Yet she was never parochial or intolerant, practicing warm inter-faith relationships.

She combined representing the Kingdom and the Commonwealth with dignity with setting people at ease. When World War Two ended, she mingled unknown among the celebrating crowds. She could do that no longer once Queen but many pictures showing her setting people at ease, whether children, soldiers, ordinary people, or foreign dignitaries. And who of us will forget how she did this with Paddington Bear during her Platinum Jubilee.

Ma’amalade sandwich Your Majesty?

As an American citizen, she was not my Queen. And yet, in both her Jubilee and her passing, I believe in some sense she became the Queen of all of us and today I feel the loss that she is no longer with us, the first day this is so in my life. Her passing reminds me that all of us, even monarchs, are mere mortals. All of us run a race with a finish. The Queen ran hers to the end. Now, may she discover all that she in faith believed and defended. And may she Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

Review: Four Views on Heaven

Four View on Heaven (Counterpoints), John S. Feinberg (Contributor), J. Richard Middleton (Contributor), Michael Allen (Contributor), Peter Kreeft (Contributor), Michael E. Wittmer (General Editor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2022.

Summary: Representatives of four different views on heaven respond to ten questions and each other’s responses.

For many, if asked their view of heaven, they would be hard-pressed to say much more than that they hope to go “there” when they die. Among theologians and biblical scholars, as you may suspect, there is a much more extensive discussion, and some disagreement. This work presents four views representative of those shared by many thoughtful believers. It might be noted that the four contributors to this work all agree on three important truths: the Return of Christ, the bodily Resurrection of believers, and the Restoration of creation, a new heaven and new earth.

Following an introductory historical survey of the doctrine of heaven, worth the price of admission, Michael E. Wittmer lists ten questions he had asked each of the contributors to address. Some referenced the questions specifically while others formulated responses reflective of those questions:

  1. Where is the final destiny of the saved?
  2. What will we be there?
  3. What will we do there?
  4. How, what, and who will we see of God?
  5. How does your view of our end relate to the intermediate state?
  6. How does your view of our end relate to our present life?
  7. Will we possess special powers?
  8. Will we remember traumatic events in this life or loved ones who are not with us?
  9. How will we relate to our spouses and other family members?
  10. Will we be able to sin in our final condition?

The four contributors and a summary of their views are:

John S. Feinberg represents a traditional evangelical reading along the general lines of dispensational premillenialism. He would affirm an intermediate state of believers’ spirits going to be with the Lord, a “rapture” of the saints before Christ comes to defeat evil and inaugurate his millemnial reign, followed by the great white throne judgment, and the new heavens and earth.

J. Richard Middleton emphasizes that our ultimate destiny is not to go to heaven but that in Christ, heaven will come to earth in his return and we will reign with him on the renewed earth, engaging in the normal activities of life, participating in that renewal. Middleton traces the temple theme throughout scripture, seeing in Revelation 21-22, the renewal and final form of God’s temple.

Michael Allen represents a Reformed corrective to Middleton’s position, focusing on a beatific vision of God in a new creation, a radically renewed heaven on earth.

Peter Kreeft, in what I thought the most engaging of the essays, represents a Roman Catholic understanding including the affirmation of Purgatory as the “washroom” for believers before they enter the joys of fellowship with a holy God. Kreeft is the only one who explicitly answered all ten questions, including what we remember and how we will relate to our spouses and others in our family.

Each essay is followed by courteous but substantive responses from the others that point up the differences of their approaches, followed by a short rejoinder. Feinberg’s are the most scripturally focused (although I don’t think he fully reckons with his own theological premises). Middleton reflects the temple theology and neo-Calvinist focus on the renewal of the earth. Allen offers a reformed corrective to others from a theocentric perspective while Kreeft reflects explicitly the combination of scripture and tradition of the Catholic Church.

Several things stand out as quite wonderful in this discussion: no matter the specifics of our final destiny of believers, it is wonderful. It is filled with the presence of God in Christ that will occupy us forever. We will have resurrection bodies with enhanced but not omnipotent capacities. While there is disagreement, there will be work fitted to our faithfulness and gifted capacities. Sin in our lives and the creation is vanquished and death is no more.

This work both fosters our awareness of our glorious destiny as well as the details over which disagreements remain, which may help in clarifying our own understanding. It is also marked by the generous courtesy of each toward all the others, a quality of interaction that serves as a model for theological discussion, and indeed all discussions between Christians.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Maigret’s Pickpocket

Maigret’s Pickpocket (Inspector Maigret), Georges Simenon (translated by Siân Reynolds). New York: Penguin, 2019 (originally published 1967).

Summary: Maigret becomes much more acquainted with a pickpocket than he bargained for when the man contacts him and leads him to his wife’s body, a victim of murder.

Maigret is enjoying a beautiful day riding the rear platform of a bus, jostled occasionally by a shopper, then jostled again. He then realizes that his wallet has been stolen by a pickpocket–with his badge that costs a month’s pay to replace. Except he doesn’t have to replace it. In the next day’s post he finds the wallet with his badge and contents returned–nothing stolen. A little later he receives a phone call. It is his pickpocket, Francois Ricain, who meets him in a restaurant and confides that when he realized he had Maigret’s wallet, he decided he would take the risk in confiding with him. He takes Maigret to his apartment, opening the door of his bedroom where his wife Sophie is lying dead of a gunshot wound to her face.

While the decontamination and investigation team are on the way, Maigret buys him lunch (he’s neither eaten or slept) and gets his story. He’d gone out the night before to borrow money for his rent–he was about to be evicted. He’s a poor writer hoping to write some screen plays and was seeking help from a film producer he’d done some work for, Carus at a restaurant that a circle of those who all worked at various times for Carus would gather. Carus was out, and by the time he had tried his other friends, it was nearly morning. He found his wife shot dead with a pistol he’d kept in a drawer, know to his friends with whom he’d acted out a scene using that pistol. It wasn’t suicide. Ricain had thrown the pistol in the river, easily recovered but without prints.

Sophie was modestly attractive, and had a bit part in one of Carus’s films, and was intimate with him at a special apartment he kept. There was an aborted child that Carus said wasn’t his. He wasn’t her only lover. Maki, a sculptor had also been with her, and others. Some considered her a slut. Carus’s partner (his wife was in England), Norah knew about her.

Of course the husband is the prime suspect. Yet Maigret doesn’t arrest him. He feeds him, gives him lodging in a hotel for a night, then keeps him in a holding area at the Quai des Orfèvres. He questions the others and learns of all the men Sophie had slept with. But did any, or perhaps Norah have a reason to kill her? Simenon waits, talks to them all, enjoying several marvelous meals at their gathering spot, the Vieux Pressoir.

What is he waiting for? Why does he treat the prime suspect with an almost fatherly concern? In this case, the murder is exposed by the murderer’s own words and actions with Maigret on the scene to save the murderer’s life from a suicide attempt. Simenon’s Maigret is one more example of the investigator careful to observe and patient amid pressure, waiting, along with us, for the truth to emerge.

Review: My Ántonia

My Ántonia, Willa Cather (Foreword Kathleen Norris). Boston: Mariner, 1995 (Originally published in 1918, no publisher web link available).

Summary: Jim Burden’s narrative of his relationship growing up on the prairie with Ántonia Shimerda, one he would live with throughout his life.

[Review includes spoilers.]

Jim Burden was an orphaned boy who came to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Ántonia Shimerda was a young girl, four years older, of Bohemian immigrants living nearby. This story, described in the opening narrative as a manuscript describing his friendship with Ántonia, given to a friend from the same town in Nebraska months after a train ride in which they had spoken of her.

Jim is quickly enlisted to teach Ántonia English so she can help with the family’s transactions in the community. And thus begins a deep friendship between the two lasting a lifetime. Tragedy quickly shadows Ántonia’s life when her sickly and unhappy father, several weeks after a beautiful Christmas Day visit, takes his life. Ántonia and her brother Ambrosch are left to eke out a living, and they do, by Ambrosch brute force and Ántonia’s hard work, through which she becomes somehow even more vibrant. Their friendship continues in the moments she is free, including an incident in which Jim, who happens to be carrying a shovel, kills a deadly and huge rattler, becoming a hero to her and all.

Later, Jim’s grandparents move to town and Ántonia also takes up a job, working as a housekeeper with Mrs. Harling, teaching her domestic arts she has not learned on the farm. The two keep up, Jim shunning younger girls for Ántonia and her friend Lena, to whom he is attracted. Lena has different ideas, and becomes an independent dressmaker, beholden to no man and eventually living in San Francisco. Jim went off to college and eventually law school. Meanwhile, Ántonia goes off with a young man to get married. He abandons her, pregnant. She returns home and joyfully, as she does so much, raises her daughter, leaving shame to others. She and her brother work together on the farm. Jim returns once to visit, holding her hands as he prepares to return to school, saying he will return.

It is twenty years until he does. They do continue to write. In the meanwhile, Ántonia marries Anton Cuzak, with whom she has ten children and builds a prosperous farm. Jim becomes a railroad lawyer. The book concludes with his visit to the farm, where he meets the children and Anton.

As in O Pioneers, the story unfolds amid Cather’s descriptions of the glories of the Nebraska prairie. And like that story, Cather portrays a woman of strength and joy in her life. One senses she could have spent her life with Jim, who never pursues her beyond their shared friendship. And yet she not merely accepts, but joyfully embraces a life with Anton, who honors her initiative and industry. We sense that Jim comes to realize this as well. What strikes me is that each honors the commitments of the other. A modern novel would probably have written in an affair that would destroy them both, and Ántonia’s family in the bargain. They choose a different road, generous friendship that honors boundaries, and finds joy in what they have, “the precious, incommunicable past.”

Review: Ideas Have Consequences

Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 (first published in 1948, link is to expanded 2013 edition).

Summary: An argument tracing the dissolution of Western society to the abandonment of philosophical realism for nominalism and what may be done to reverse that decline.

Many authors have traced the decline of the West (if there is such a thing) to the ideas that shape our culture. Few have argued that more trenchantly or been cited more often that Richard M. Weaver, an intellectual historian and professor of English at the University of Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. I’ve been aware of this book for over twenty years but just now have gotten around to it.

Weaver’s argument begins with the abandonment of philosophical realism, the existence of transcendent or metaphysical truth for nominalism, the denial of absolute universals but only the particulars of our existence. He then traces some of the ways this manifests itself. First he discusses the obliteration of the distinctions and hierarchies which constitute society for an egalitarian ideal. He then notes the fragmentation of modern societies. No longer capable of philosophy, we are reduced to facts without coherent structure. Without the transcendent, the self is the measure of value. Egotism is a word that runs through his discussion. When work is only about self-realization rather than being divinely ordained, work becomes a matter of getting the better of others rather than pursuing the common good. Art, as it becomes solipsistic, degenerates. Weaver saves his harshest criticism for the distinctly American music of jazz.

In the rejection of a transcendent metaphysic, moderns come up with a modern synthesis which Weaver calls “the great stereopticon” consisting of the trinity of the press, the motion picture, and the radio (television was just coming on the scene in 1948). These foster the fragmented, disharmonious experience of our lives, often distracting us from their banal character, a critique that seems to have anticipated Neil Postman’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death. All of this fosters in us a “spoiled child” psychology amid technological advances that believes in a material heaven easily achieved.

Weaver’s final three chapters address his proposed remedy–what must be done. First is to reassert and protect the right of private property, the only metaphysical right he believes has not yet been jettisoned in the four hundred year decline he traces. The extension of this from homes to businesses to agriculture preserves and restores volition and undercuts authoritarian tyrannies–whether capitalist or communist. He also argues for the power of the word, both poetic and logical, advocating for instruction in logic and rhetoric. Finally, he contends for restoration of “spirit of piety” with regard for nature, for one’s neighbors, and the past.

For me, what I would most criticize is his concern about distinctions and orders, that seem for him established on the basis of heredity and immutable characteristics, like gender. It felt like women, and perhaps the races must be kept in their places, an idea more in a Platonic rather than Christian metaphysic. It also makes me wonder whether Weaver would want to extend private property to all in society, or is arguing for the protection of the “haves.” I also don’t think much of his application of egotism to the arts, and especially to jazz, rooted in the laments of the blues, and the transcendent hope of the spirituals. I thought this deeply dismissive and a critique imposed from a superficial extension of his basic idea of egotism that little considers the actual work of the artists.

That said, his basic discussion of the consequences of the shift from realism to nominalism, from absolutes to relativism, particularly in the rise of fragmentation, exacerbated by the stereopticon of our media is worth our attention, prescient as it was in 1948. I find myself wondering whether his remedies of private property, the power of words, and the recovery of piety toward the earth, our neighbors, and history get us all the way back to life grounded in transcendent realities, from which he traces our decline. These seem more a holding action at best.

I also found this a challenging read in which the thread of argument gets buried in prose, sparkling at times, and obscuring at others. It felt like reading John Henry Newman–there is a great argument in here, somewhere! It’s an important work, especially for classic conservatives, that anticipates the thought of others. Just be ready for some work as you read it!