Review: Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2002 (first published 1944).

Summary: Six table guests meet a year after the apparent suicide death of Rosemary Barton, and when her husband dies by the same means, it is apparent there is a murderer in their midst.

“Six people were thinking of Rosemary Barton who had died nearly a year ago…”

So begins the mystery. The six will be gathered at the same table at the Luxembourg where nearly a year ago Rosemary Barton, recently ill from the flu and possibly depressed, died of cyanide in her champagne, apparently from her own hand, from the evidence found in her purse.

The six are introduced one by one.

Iris Marle is the younger sister of Rosemary. The poor younger sister, since Rosemary had received a great inheritance from her Uncle Paul, which Iris would only receive if Rosemary died childless.

Ruth Lessing is the super-efficient secretary of Rosemary’s husband George, who secretly harbors an unreciprocated love for him, and hatred for Rosemary. He relies on her to handle tough situations in work and personal life, including dispatching the devious Victor Drake, whose singular accomplishment is wheedling money from his mother Lucilla, Iris’s aunt and chaperone. She apparently succeeds, but not before Victor insinuates himself into her thoughts and arouses her hatred for Rosemary.

Anthony Browne is an American of whom little is known. He tries and strikes out in having an affair with Rosemary, and then surreptitiously wins the heart of Iris who he wants to secret away to marry, flouting her guardian, George Barton.

Stephen Farraday is an ambitious young Member of Parliament who has married into the powerful Kidderminster clan through Sandra, the shyest, but also perhaps the most politically savvy or even ruthless of the sisters. Stephen, despite his love for and appreciation of his partner, has an affair with Rosemary, realizes there is little of substance to her, and much to his wife, and painfully breaks it off, against the wishes of Rosemary who has threatened to make the affair public.

Sandra Farraday genuinely loves her husband, perhaps more than he does her, at first. He thinks she doesn’t know about the affair, but in fact she does, and despises Rosemary, reconciles with Stephen and makes common cause with him.

Finally there is George Barton. He believes the account of Rosemary’s suicide until he receives letters intimating it was murder, which leads him to move close to the Farradays, and to devise a dinner at the same table of the same restaurant nearly a year later, to expose the murderer. They arrive to find an extra place, supposedly for his friend, Colonel Race, an ex-Army Colonel and MI-5 agent who tried to warn him off this dangerous game. The empty place is set with a spray of rosemary.

After the uneasy party returns from dancing, George proposes a toast to Rosemary, and promptly collapses, also poisoned by cyanide in his champagne. It is clear this is no suicide, and that Rosemary’s death was not either. There is a murderer in their midst. But there are troubling questions. Who sent the letters? And who poisoned the champagne, when none of those at the table had an opportunity. These are the questions that stymie Race, and Chief Inspector Kemp, until an unlikely ally helps them figure it out, and thwarts a third murder in the nick of time.

The story is developed with economy and it is intriguing to see how many motives Christie contrives to make each of the parties a plausible suspect. Not unlike other Christies, it pays to attend to details, and to question your assumptions. And enjoy!

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner

the bookshop on the corner

The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Summary: Nina Redmond loses her librarian job, pursues a dream of a mobile bookshop, ending up in the Scottish Highlands, bringing joy to a cluster of small towns in her Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, while longing for her own happy-ever-after.

I’m a sucker for books on books and so didn’t notice that this is categorized as women’s fiction, and romance, two categories I tend not to read. What is curious-er is that I actually liked it, for the most part. It was a nice break from some other heavier reads, and explored some themes I found interesting.

The story is that Nina Redmond, a librarian in Birmingham, is about to lose her job in a library consolidation. In an outplacement workshop exercise, complete with all the cliche’s of modern corporate life, she is invited to share her own dream job. And she finally admits that it is to own her own bookshop, maybe a tiny one, where she can help match up people with books they will love. The dream lingers and takes the shape of a mobile bookshop in a van. She finds the van–in rural Scotland–and finally, with the help of villagers, persuades the owner to sell it to her. They hope she will bring her little bookshop to their town, and after being turned down for vending and parking permits in Birmingham, and a near-disaster encounter with a train, she decides to stay. At last her book-beleaguered roommate Surinder will get her and her books out of the apartment.

With the help of the train engineer, a Latvian emigre by the name of Marek, boxes and boxes of books are transported from Birmingham to a train crossing near her home at Kirrinfief. She finds a beautiful converted barn to rent from a grumpy, divorcing sheep farmer, Lennox. Surinder comes up and paints the name she chooses for her little bookshop, The Bookshop of Happy-Ever-After on her van while she fits out the inside. The bookshop is a huge success and villagers who haven’t read a book in years are matched up with books they love. Some admit that when the libraries closed and no local stores were available, they just stopped reading. There is one delightful scene where she looks around the village, and sees people reading everywhere. The village embraces her and she finds she cares for them more than she would have thought–a teen girl Ainslee and her brother Ben, who are facing some trouble at home, a shopkeeper who has faced too many disappointments, and even the grumpy farmer, who she assists in delivering twin lambs that only she, with her small hands, could untangle inside the ewe.

Yes, it is a romance novel, an adult one in places. Nina strikes up this odd romantic relationship with the Latvian, Marek, who leaves books on a tree by the rail crossing for her, and she in return for him. They meet sometimes, and it nearly becomes something more. Yet, it is pretty clear to the reader that the real deal is Lennox and we all wonder what it will take to bring the two together. We wonder if Nina will find her own “happy-ever-after” or if these are just the stuff of fiction.

I loved the descriptions of the Scotland, the countryside, the short summer nights and the Northern Lights, the village life and festivals. More than this, I love the transformation that occurs both in Nina and in Kirrinfief and how books are the medium of that transformation. Nina discovers a calling in bringing people with little access to books together with books they love, books that broaden their horizons, or even books that are gateways for them into reading, as it was with Ben. In the process, we witness a village discovering what it had lost, settling for electronic media substitutes, and the joy of recovering what was lost and making the fabric of their life a bit richer. The contrast between Kirrinfief and Birmingham, with its hectic pace of life, shuttering its libraries and bookstores for an electronically mediated life, portrayed by her friend Griffin, who manages to keep his job in a technology-oriented thing called a library that has little to do with books.

None of this is heavy-handed, maybe a bit cliché at times, but an enjoyable page-turning read. This was a romance in more ways in one. Yes, there is the romantic element of Nina caught between the “puppy-eyed” Marek, and the gruff, angular Lennox. But there is also the romance of bookselling–the wonderful matchmaking work between books and their readers–as well as the practicalities of getting stock and making a living at it. More than that, we have the reminder in Nina’s rolling bookshop of how everything from Little Free Libraries to bookmobiles and libraries and village bookshops weave together to enrich the social ecology of a place.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George J. Renner Jr.

George J Renner JrHe built the largest brewery in Youngstown. He made failing businesses profitable and suffered several reverses from which he re-built each time. He built one of the most beautiful homes bordering Wick Park, now on the National Register of Historic Places. He was George J. Renner Jr.

A big man at six foot three inches with broad shoulders, he could lift a full barrel of beer onto a wagon by himself. A professional wrestler once persisted in challenging him to a match at a bar, the loser buying a round of drinks. Renner refused, was repeatedly badgered, until they finally came to grips, at which Renner threw the other man over his head and walked out.

Renner came from a brewing family. His father ran breweries in Cincinnati, Mansfield, and Akron. After learning the trade from his father, he ran breweries in Zanesville and Wooster, making losing operations profitable. Learning of an idle brewing plant on Pike Street on the south side of Youngstown, off Oak Hill, overlooking the Mahoning River (and what is now I-680), he purchased the plant for $4800 in 1885. The plant had an onsite water source, an artesian well. 

Renner’s first home was next to the plant at 209 Pike Street. He refurbished the plant and began operating it more or less as a solo operation at first, brewing, selling, delivering, and collecting payments. By January of 1889, he had a small core of employees including plant engineer, George Richter. A plant boiler exploded, killing Richter, and resulting in a fire destroying the plant, now valued at $75,000. Parts of the boiler were found on the other side of the Mahoning River.

Obtaining loans and an inadequate insurance payment, Renner built a state of the art brewery from the ground up in 1890, adding a bottling operation in 1895. The new plant had an 18,000 barrel annual capacity and this was further enlarged in 1913. He had stables for 52 horses for the delivery wagons. In 1907, he had sixty employees and the largest brewing operation in the city.

1024px-George_Renner_House

George J. Renner Jr. Mansion, 277 Park Avenue. Photo by Nyttend, Public Domain via Wikipedia

In the same year, he began construction of his home on Park Avenue by Wick Park. It is a three-story, Georgian Revival brick mansion. The two story portico on the front is support by four pairs of columns with ionic capitals. It has a tiled roof. The interior walls between rooms are 18 inches thick with many of the rooms having pocket doors. The construction cost was projected at $40,000 but eventually soared to $75,000 by the time the home was complete.

The brewery explosion was not the last setback Renner faced. The beginning of Prohibition in 1919 led to shutting down the plant after an unprofitable attempt to sell a non-alcoholic beer (Reno). After 1921, they bottled soft drinks and stayed afloat due to real estate holdings. Most of the plant lay dormant. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Renner spent $250,000 renovating and expanding the plant, employing 200 men at the height of the Depression. The renovated plant had a capacity of 100,000 barrels annual production, later raised to 175,000. They produced a number of lines of beers and ales, serving Youngstown and neighboring counties. At this time, close to Renner’s death on December 1, 1935, the company’s stock was valued at $600,000, quite a significant increase from Renner’s initial investment of $4800 in 1885.

The family sold the home in 1939, at which time it was broken up into apartments. As for the brewery, Renner’s son Emil became chairman of the board for the remainder of the company’s history. His son Robert became president in 1948, at a time when national companies increasingly challenged its position in local markets. Efforts to modernize and compete kept them afloat for a time but the brewery shut down in November of 1962. An investment group purchased the buildings in 1963 but they remained vacant until a fire on the site in 1978, after which most of the buildings were razed.

The Renner House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. All this does is state that the home has historic and architectural value that is worth preserving. Currently, it is a rental property listed as having fifteen apartments. Hopefully it will remain as the one visible mark of Youngstown’s greatest brewers. And the next time you pour yourself a tall, cold one, raise a glass to George J. Renner, Jr., Youngstown’s greatest brewer.

Sources:

George J. Renner Jr. (1856-1935)“, Riverside Cemetery Journal.

Renner Brewing Company, Youngstown, Ohio” Ohio Breweriana.com

George J. Renner Jr. House” Wikipedia.

George J. Renner Jr. Mansion” All Things Youngstown

277 Park Avenue – Youngstown, Ohio” ApartmentFinder

 

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

the uninhabitable earth

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After WarmingDavid Wallace-Wells. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.

Summary: An exploration of our near future if projected increases in global temperatures occur and the multiple impacts of these increases.

This is a sobering book. It opens with the evidence that four of the last five episodes of planetary extinctions were related to climate warming. The premise of the title and this book is that there will be major repercussions if even the projected two degree Celsius increase in global temperatures occurs. If those temperatures increase by four or five degrees or more, the changes could be exponentially greater, affecting not merely the quality but the possibility of life for many of the planet’s inhabitants.

The first part of Wallace-Wells book discusses “elements of chaos.” There is heat, and the summer temperatures in tropical parts of the world, that will render them uninhabitable. Rates of death from heat will climb dramatically (remember the Chicago heat wave of 1995?). Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields in many food-producing parts of the world. Coastal cities throughout the world will be inundated due to sea level rise due to melting ice in Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets. Drought in many areas may lead to year round fire seasons over increasing areas, as has been the case in California and other parts of the western US. Terms like “500 hundred year” storms will become meaningless when they occur at five year intervals, and rebuilding in frequently hit areas will become increasingly costly and unlikely. Diseases once considered “tropical” will spread to more temperate regions: malaria, yellow fever, dengue will join the spread of diseases like East Nile Virus, Zika, and Lyme disease.

Economic projections suggest the possibility that each degree of global temperature rise may cut the GDP by 10 percent, or higher percentages as temperature levels continue to increase. Economic pressures and displaced populations will increase the level of conflicts, both civil wars within countries and international conflicts.

One of the sobering aspects of this book is that these changes are already upon us. Just in the last two years 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has died from warming ocean temperatures killing off the organism the coral depend upon for sustenance. Increasingly intense storms, greater flooding, more powerful hurricanes, year-long fire seasons are already part of life. Day time temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and night time temperatures that never drop below 100 degrees are already common place. Glaciers around the world are melting, jeopardizing water sources for many communities.

The second part of the book explores some of the non-scientific aspects of projected climate change, from economic systems no longer based on growth, a planet covered with carbon recapture facilities, what life might be like for those who survive when progress is no longer a part of life. He closes with a section on the anthropic principle and the discussion of why we haven’t found life on other planets. He speculates that this might be because the trajectory of civilizations is to burn themselves out and self-destruct as we appear to be doing.

Many will object to the speculative character of parts of this book. In part, much of the discussion is not, but is based on well-established scientific findings, and current manifestations that fulfill prior predictions. It is true that we are notoriously bad at predicting the future. What I might suggest is that while things might be better, they could also be worse, perhaps in ways yet unforeseen. Yet this isn’t a work of despair. Wallace-Wells observes that the reality that rising global temperatures have been caused by human causes (from rapidly burning carbon sequestered underground for years) to our taste for meat that multiplies methane-producing animals is good news. It means that humans can take measures to reduce and offset carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time, the window for action is increasingly short, and in some cases, action will consist of adjusting to the “new normal” and preventing further degradation of the planet’s climate. It is striking to me that many of our younger politicians and other youth are advocating climate action. While some of us may not see the world Wallace-Wells is describing beyond the present day harbingers, our youngest generations and their children will. If Wallace-Wells is right, the opportunity to avoid being cursed as the generation that made Earth increasingly uninhabitable may rapidly be coming to an end. His book asks me, and others of my generation whether that is the legacy we want to leave our children.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: Becoming a Just Church

just church

Becoming a Just ChurchAdam L. Gustine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Develops the idea that the pursuit of justice for Christians begins in and flows out of their communities as they learn to practice God’s shalom in every aspect of their church life.

There is a great deal of discussion about the pursuit of justice, particularly in public settings in some Christian circles. The problem is that these conversations are often “echo chambers” preaching to the converted while significant portions of the church is either indifferent or even hostile to these conversations. They are relegated to “justice teams” or even forced to begin their own “parachurch” organizations. Some question their gospel fidelity. Adam Gustine thinks this won’t change until justice, which he equates with the shalom of God, the wholeness of life shared by all of God’s people, flows through and out of the life of our local congregations.

The first part of his book develops an ecclesiology for justice, a way to think about justice in the church. The four chapters in this section first of all focus on what it means to be “the people of God,” thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and practicing justice, not as an outreach strategy, but as a way of loving God and one’s neighbor. Gustine challenges us to think as exiles in American culture rather than natives and that the church is meant to be a prophetic alternative to the American way of life. That alternative way of life is a mañana way of life that allows a vision of God’s future for his people to shape the way we live in the present, kind of like demonstration garden plots. Finally, along the lines of gardening, he invites the church to pursue the flourishing of the physical communities in which we are situated. Perhaps the challenge here to our commuter, big box model of “doing” church, is that he envisions a parish model in a particular place where we worship and live.

Part two of the book then looks at the practice of justice in the warp and woof of congregational life. First of all, Gustine talks about what it means to be a church that includes and empowers the “low ground” people in a “high ground” world (referring to the reality that in most places, those who have means and power live above flood-prone low ground areas where the poor live). He challenges us to radical hospitality that welcomes the “other,” whoever that may be in our setting, talking about the food pantry “guests” who had a hard time truly sensing they were full participants in his church. He believes that the practice of justice must be integral to our discipleship efforts, and critical to this is helping people to gain awareness of their own social location, and think of the kingdom implications of their particular place in society. Finally he contends that justice ought shape worship, moving us beyond the “Pleasantville” of “just praising the Lord” to confession, repentance, and lament, expressions rarely heard in most white evangelical contexts, but much more common elsewhere.

The book concludes with a conversation on power, a critical issue in the practice of justice in churches. He engages with Juliet Liu and Brandon Green, two other pastors of churches who have joined him in the pursuit of “just church.” Then in his epilogue, acknowledging that he hasn’t discussed “public justice,” Gustine briefly gestures toward some of the tangible ways the pursuit of public justice in his own South Bend, Indiana community has flowed out of his congregational life.

Gustine puts his finger on an important issue, that we put “doing” before “being” far too often, in this case the “doing” of public justice without “being” just communities, places where the kingdom is setting things to rights across the cultural barriers of class, and gender, and ethnicity and status in our own communities. Indeed, we often are trying to care for a community as disparate collections of individuals, a bunch of “I’s” doing our own justice “thing” rather than a “we,” a people.

Currently, the evangelical church is deeply divided about justice, often along secular political lines justified by a veneer of scriptures we hurl at one another. Sometimes, these divisions even find their way into local congregations. Becoming a Just Church offers a path for a church to come together as a “third way” people, not beholden to political and theological outlooks of the left or the right. Discussion questions allow for group use and the author has also developed a companion Just Church Vision Retreat set of resources that church leadership teams may use in conjunction with the book (information about this pops up when you visit the publisher’s website for the book).

Gustine mentions the lament of Carl F. H. Henry over nascent evangelicalism’s neglect of justice back in 1947 when he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (reviewed here). Seventy years later, we are still wrestling with an evangelicalism deeply divided around issues of justice. Might it be that the practices Gustine commends, pursued in local congregations, offer a way forward? Finding that way forward seems crucial to me–I’m not sure the American church has another seventy years to fritter away.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Leading Minds

Leading Minds

Leading MindsHoward E. Gardner with Emma Laskin. New York: Basic Books, 2011 (Review is of the 1996 edition).

Summary: Studies how leaders effectively communicate with the minds of those they lead using case studies of eleven direct and indirect leaders.

Howard E. Gardner is a cognitive psychologist who works in the field of education. One of his most significant works is The Unschooled Mind, the thesis of which is that outside of domains where an adult has great expertise, most adults theorize about the world with the mind of a five year old. In this work, Gardner focuses on effective leadership as an exercise of communication with the minds of others, seeking to influence them to action that follows one’s leadership. For Gardner, storytelling is central, and effective leaders are not only able to tell a story that communicates with those who share their expertise, but also with a wider public responding with the “unschooled mind” of a five year old. He identifies two types of leaders, indirect leaders, like Albert Einstein, and direct leaders, like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some individuals exercise both kinds of leadership.

Gardner considers eleven individuals who exercised leadership in a variety of domains:

  • Margaret Mead: Anthropology
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer: Physics
  • Robert Maynard Hutchins: Higher education
  • Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., Business (General Motors)
  • George Marshall, Military and Statecraft
  • Pope John XXIII: Religion
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: American women
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil rights
  • Margaret Thatcher: Political
  • Jean Monnet: International leadership
  • Mahatma Gandhi: International leadership

After introductory chapters outlining his basic approach and methodology, Gardner devotes a chapter to each of these leaders, except for the last two, who he considers together. What is fascinating is that he looks at the development of these leaders, the story they told and how they adapted their stories when their leadership moved beyond those who shared their expertise, and how effective they were. He looks at indirect leaders like Jean Monnet, who essentially served other national leaders in forming the framework of the European Union, and direct leaders like Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. who communicated a compelling, missional story for General Motors. He also considers their areas of failure. For a leader like Robert Maynard Hutchins, his inability to embody his story with the faculty at the University of Chicago, and include a wide constituency in his vision were critical failures.

From these profiles, Gardner identified six constants of leadership:

  1. The Story: Leaders must have a central story or message that includes those necessary for accomplishing her vision. Often these are inclusive, but not always, as in political or military conflict.
  2. The Audience: A story cannot succeed without being heard and heeded, and the effective leader is able to communicate in a nuanced fashion that different audiences will understand.
  3. The Organization: The influence of a leader’s story depends on an organization for implementation–be it a business, a political party, a movement. Margaret Mead never created an organization and had no school of followers after she died.
  4. The Embodiment: Leaders, especially direct leaders, must embody their story. George Marshall not only spoke about a vision for service but embodied it in his integrity, hard work, and willingness to work behind the scenes for the success of the war effort.
  5. Direct and Indirect Leadership. Indirect leaders influence through symbolic products whereas direct leaders engage with their followers as they articulate a story.
  6. The Issue of Expertise. Those who move from leadership within a domain to wider leadership, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, do so because of proven expertise. The paradox is that the wider one’s leadership, the less their technical expertise alone is a factor.

Two appendices in the form of extended tables chart Gardner’s analysis, the first consider the eleven leaders in this study, the second ten world leaders during the World War II era.

I did have one reservation about this study. It seemed to me that Gardner’s approach presupposed his conclusions. This does not necessarily invalidate his conclusions, given that this work extends prior research. But I would be cautious in considering this as an all-encompassing account of leadership. For me, it suggested the importance of having, and effectively communicating to different audiences, one’s story of a preferred future.

Gardner’s eleven leaders, although they each have their failings, are generally positive figures. His account of story and the unschooled mind also recognizes that some leaders are able to communicate compelling stories and gather a following with very bad consequences, as in the case of Hitler or Mussolini. There are also instructive lessons for those who are so “wonky” about their stories, that they are unable to garner a following outside those who are already sufficiently wonky. There is also a quite wonderful lesson in the stories of those like Pope John XXIII, George Marshall, and Eleanor Roosevelt who embodied the stories they conveyed, and so were able to lead all the more effectively.

Most of us both lead and follow in our lives. Gardner’s book shows important qualities of story, inclusion, embodiment and expertise as critical in leading well. He also helps us when we follow, to listen to the stories leaders tell and the congruence between story and the life of the leader. It seems to me vital to consider whether the story is one that works for all who a potential leader would lead, or whether those stories will intensify the divides between those included and those excluded.

Review: The Common Rule

common rule

The Common RuleJustin Whitmel Earley. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Offers an alternative to the habits of our technological world that make us busy, distracted, anxious, and isolated by proposing a set of habits enabling us to live into loving God and neighbor, and into freedom and rest.

Justin Earley was a well-intentioned, missional Christian with ambitious goals who found himself having panic attacks and self-medicating with pills and alcohol and other destructive habits. A life of busyness shaped increasingly by technology was undermining his health and relationships. He recognized that he was being shaped by a set of cultural habits, ways of being that left him busy, distracted, anxious, and isolated. He saw that these habits were not only shaping his schedule; they were forming his heart. Along with some friends, he identified an alternate set of daily and weekly habits that they thought were consonant with their shared faith. He began sharing these with others, and eventually, in conversation with a pastor, realized that he and his friends had rediscovered an ancient practice going back to Augustine and Benedict of living under a rule of life, hence the name they adopted, The Common Rule.

The Common Rule Consists of four daily and four weekly habits. Two of each of these focus on loving God, and two on loving neighbor. Also two of each focus on embracing the good in God’s world, and two of each focus on resisting destructive cultural practices, even as we pursue a life of love. The eight are:

Daily:

  1. Kneeling Prayer morning, midday, and bedtime (Love God/embrace)
  2. One meal with others. (Love neighbor/embrace)
  3. One hour with phone off (Love neighbor/resist)
  4. Scripture before phone (Love God/resist)

Weekly:

  1. One hour of conversation with a friend (Love neighbor/embrace)
  2. Curate media to four hours (Love neighbor/resist)
  3. Fast from something for twenty-four hours (Love God/resist)
  4. Sabbath (Love God/embrace)

After introductory chapters explaining the rule, one chapter of the book is devoted to each habit, explaining the rationale for each habit and concluding with practical instructions for practicing the habit. He concludes the book with the observation of art critic Michael Kimmelman that the greatest work of art is the “curating of all of life as a single witness to something grand” (p. 162). Earley then applies this to the work of habits in our lives. He writes:

“I believe that paying attention to the work of habit is similar. It is best thought of as giving attention to the art of habit. It isn’t about trying to live right; it’s about curating a life. It is the art of living beautifully” (p. 163).

The book concludes with an extremely helpful set of resources for individuals or groups (Earley believes it is especially helpful to practice these disciplines with others who voluntarily enter in so that individuals can encourage each other). The resources include the habits in a nutshell, a guide to trying one habit a week, trying the whole Common Rule for a week or a month, ways congregations can use the Common Rule, prayers for those trying the Common Rule, and ways the Common Rule might be used in different walks of life for skeptics, parents, at work, for artists and creatives, entrepreneurs, addicts, and those with mental illnesses.

It may be a small thing, but I appreciated the typography of the book. The medium blue of the cover is used for titles, subtitles, diagrams, quote grabs, and headers, setting this book off from most mono-chromatic texts. More substantively, the practical application of James K. A. Smith’s ideas of cultural liturgies and the early fathers practice of rule of life makes for an inviting book grounded in rigorous thought and tested practice. Couple this with his own vulnerable example, and you have a winsome exposition of the practices that makes you want to start right away. The practices of scripture before phone, shutting off the phone for at least an hour, and curating media were both challenging and helpful for this reader whose life is too dominated by the smartphone. Whether you embrace the full rule, or substitute other practices, Earley’s Common Rule offers an important alternative for people of faith to the ways our technological culture may lure us into frantic busyness, distraction, anxiety, and isolation instead of helping us curate beautiful lives of love for God and neighbor.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Under Pressure

under pressure

Under PressureLisa Damour, Ph.D. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Summary: A book on responding constructively to stress and anxiety so that it stretches and builds resilience in girls, and empowers them to alleviate unhealthy stress and anxiety.

School age children are reporting more stress and anxiety than ever. This is especially true among girls. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of girls reporting stress and anxiety jumped by 55 percent. Lisa Damour, a psychologist who works both in private practice, and with the Laurel School for Girls in the Cleveland area, has had plenty of experience addressing the stress and anxiety girls face, and distills the insights from her practice in this highly readable book.

Damour begins by distinguishing between stress and anxiety, and between healthy and unhealthy stress and anxiety. This in itself is important because stress and anxiety often are necessary elements in stretching experiences that result in enhanced performance, the development of one’s capacities, and the building of resilience. Unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, by the same token, impair one’s physical and emotional well-being, and can contribute to a decline in performance.

She explores stress and anxiety through the multiple relationships girls must negotiate: with parents, other girls, boys, their school, and the wider culture. Often with parents, the key is to show care and interest without over-reacting, which only intensifies the anxiety. She reminds parents that “snit happens” and talks about “glitter storms” (remember snow globes?) that need to settle. Beginning by offering a drink, a snack and time to settle can be vital. She suggests that the monitoring of girls digital lives can lead to knowing too much, and, while not discouraging the practice, says that this is at best an adjunct to a relationship where the communication lines are open.

In beginning to talk about girls with other girls, she observes that “anxious is the new shy,” and it may not be a bad thing for girls to have a few good friends, rather than many. In fact, sometimes the larger the friend network, the more the problems. Social media creates a number of these problems, from crafting an online identity to interfering with sleep, which only intensifies anxiety. It’s a good idea to agree on turning off social media in the pre-bedtime hours, and not having phones in the bedroom.

The issues with boys range from harassment to negotiating sexuality. Damour has some of her strongest words here about the double standards in sex ed, the problems with the language of consent, and the different ways one may need to say no in different social situations. Her aim is that girls become comfortable and able to take pleasure in their bodies and make decisions about sex on the basis of when they want this intimacy with men and can enjoy it. She observes that the coupling of much casual sex and alcohol indicates girls are denying something in themselves when they engage in sex on those terms.

As she turns to school, she emphasizes that school should be stressful, that the academic challenges build capacity, and that a critical piece is ensuring that students have good recovery strategies. Also, girls tend to take school more seriously. She argues that girls often study excessively and inefficiently and need to develop more effective study strategies, particularly using practice tests and working on gaps. At the same time, she concedes that for girls with ambitions to get into elite schools, demanding schedules are unavoidable because of high admission standards and low acceptance rates. Here, I might like to have seen her ask more questions about the college admissions racket which turns high school into nothing more than college prep. Perhaps the most critical issue is that the pursuit of admission to a college or set of colleges is rooted in healthy personal aspirations rather than reputational or parent and social pressure.

Two elements in her treatment of girls in the culture stood out to me. One was the issue of “speaking while female” and the different standards girls and women face from male peers when making the same communications. She is realistic about the “verbal tool kit” girls need, including the understanding when one can be transparent, and when you are on “front stage.” The other area was the culture’s obsession with the form of a woman’s body. She observes that compliments focused on physical attractiveness may reinforce the obsession with form, and that focusing on physical function, often cultivated in team sports, enables women to feel good about what their bodies can do.

In her conclusion she suggests two questions that may helpfully be asked:

  1. “What is the source of all this stress?”
  2. Why am I anxious?”

These questions presume that stress and anxiety are messengers, and understanding the message, including when something is a challenge, and when something is not right, gives girls greater agency in their lives.

I thought this was a highly practical book that takes a thoughtful and nuanced approach to stress and anxiety–recognizing that it is a sign of something, and that one can grow when stress is at a healthy level, and needs to be heeded and addressed when unhealthy. Damour’s book lives in the tension of what is, and what ought to be, particularly in talking about issues like social media, sexuality, college admissions, and the double standards that persist in our culture. Purists who live in an “ought to be” world might not appreciate all her counsel.

I could see that this might be a book a parent and daughter might even read and talk about together to open up conversation about stress and anxiety. School staff, and those who work with youth in religious organizations will find this beneficial, especially in responding to the emotional storms that are an inevitable part of this season of life. Meeting the “rising tide” of stress and anxiety calmly and constructively is vital for this rising generation of girls.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Wilford P. and Olive Freeman Arms

Greystones

“Greystones,” The Home of the Arms Family Museum of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Photo courtesy of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society

When I was a student at Youngstown State, we regular walked by the Arms Museum, but I don’t think we ever visited. I did not realize that the name of the museum referred to the family who had at one time lived in the home. We thought it was a collection of “arms” or weapons, and in the anti-war times of the early 1970’s, that didn’t hold much appeal. If we had paid closer attention, we would have realized that it was the home of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society (MVHS)–a home with a history of its own.

Before the house at 648 Wick Avenue was taken over by MVHS, it was the residence of Wilford P. and Olive Freeman Arms, who were distant cousins. Wilford’s grandfather, Daniel Arms, was Olive’s great-grandfather, making them half first cousins, once removed. They also are related to various Youngstown “royalty”–the Wicks, Baldwins, Booths, and Bonnells among them.

The Arms family goes back to early American New England stock. William Arms settled in the colonies in 1677. Wilford Paddock Arms was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1861 to Mr. and Mrs. Lawson Arms, who after ten years returned to their native Sodus, New York. He went to the Sodus Academy, then worked on his parents farm until 1881, when he went to work for Powers, Brown, and Company, a Youngstown coal company that operated a mine in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania. After a few years there, he worked with a company quarrying marble near Knoxville, Tennessee until moving to Youngstown in 1888. Apart from two years in Pittsburgh working with the Pittsburgh Coal Company, he lived in Youngstown the rest of his life.

Wilford P. Arms

Photo source: Find-A-Grave

He worked with several different Youngstown area firms: The Brier Hill Iron and Coal Co., The Falcon Iron and Nail Co. in Niles, The Warren Rolling Mill in Warren, and the Trumbull Iron Co. of Girard. During the latter part of his work he worked with the Realty Trust Company and was chairman of the board of Palace Realty Co. in Youngstown and McCaskey Register Co. in Alliance. He was also a director of the Central Store Co. in Youngstown.

He held a federal appointment, a position of trust, as central fuel administrator for Mahoning County during World War I. Joseph G. Butler paid this tribute in describing his work as “a position entailing a vast amount of work and responsibility, and [he] discharged his duties in a manner that earned him the commendation of all who knew of his work in that relation.”

Olive Freeman Arms

Olive Freeman Arms. Photo courtesy of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society

Wilford P. Arms married Olive Freeman Arms in 1899. Olive was born to Charles Dayton and Hannah Wick Arms in 1865. A biographical entry for her appears in Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary and she is described as a watercolorist and designer. She had studied at the Bradford and Peebles schools in New York as well as spending time in art studies in Europe. In 1904, a building permit was issued to built a home at 648 Wick Avenue, next to Olive’s parent’s home. The construction was completed in 1905 and the home, which Olive helped design, was named “Greystones,” after the stone exterior of this Arts and Crafts style English residence.

Mr. Arms could regularly be seen walking to and from his office in the Realty Building on Central Square until the year before his death, when he suffered a fall in his home from which he never fully recovered. At the time of his death, he and Olive had begun to develop a property on Logan Avenue Extension, that later became a residential development.

Wilford P. Arms was described in a Vindicator article on April 28, 1947 as follows:

“Mr. Arms was a gentleman of the old school, the soul of courtesy and consideration for others. In this day of free and easy manners there was something refreshing and uplifting in his lifelong predilection for formality and the proprieties. It was good to have him remind us that careful attention to the graces and amenities of life adds much to one’s own and others’ enjoyment of it.”

Olive Arms continued to reside in Greystones the rest of her life. She was the source of a wealth of information about Youngstown’s early history and families, particularly given her connections to so many of them. She worked closely with then-president of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, James L. Wick, Jr. at a time that the Society had no home for its archives, many of which Wick stored at his own residence. On Mrs. Arms death in 1960 at 95, she left Greystones and its furnishings to the Society along with an endowment for its maintenance, augmented by Wick’s fundraising efforts. She specified that the facility be named after her parents, hence the name The Arms Museum (now The Arms Family Museum, a name change perhaps motivated by the confusion of many like me as to the nature of the museum!).

The Arms Family Museum is now one of two facilities operated by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, the other being the Tyler History Center. Wilford P. Arms and Olive Freeman Arms not only contributed to the commerce and arts of Youngstown but to the preservation of our history. It only makes sense that their family name should adorn the home of the organization preserving that history!

Article Sources:

“The Arms Family History,” Mahoning Valley History.

“The Arms Family Museum — Celebrating 50 Years!” Mahoning Valley History

“Olive Freeman Arms Arms,” Find-A-Grave

“Wilford Paddock Arms,” Find-A-Grave

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio.

Joseph Green Butler, History of  Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, “Wilford P. Arms,” p. 2. Accessed on Google Books.

Jeffrey Weidman, Artists in Ohio, 1797-1900: A Biographical Dictionary, “Arms, Olive Freeman,” pp. 23-24. Accessed on Google Books.

 

Review: The Crucifixion

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.indd

The CrucifixionFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: A study of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus including the biblical motifs that have been used to express that meaning.

It is striking to consider how relatively few books in recent Christian publishing deeply explore the meaning of the death of Christ by crucifixion, particularly considering that the death and the resurrection are central to Christian proclamation. Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion goes a long way to remedying this deficit.

This is a large book, but I would encourage the prospective reader not to be daunted by the size. While rich in insight, it is also a model of clarity, among the very best theological books I have read, both worthy of the academy, and written for the people of God.

The book consists of two parts. The first considers the crucifixion, particularly the godless character of this brutal execution, and the critical importance of this horrible execution as primary to the Christian faith. Rutledge also deals in this part with the biblical understanding of justice as the setting right, or rectifying, of something that is radically wrong, and that this something is the radical power of Sin over humanity. She makes a case that Anselm’s version of “satisfaction” is actually closer to her idea of rectification than he is credited for.

The second part of the book (about 400 pages) explores eight biblical motifs of the crucifixion that, together, help us understand the meaning of the crucifixion and what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. Rutledge prefers the language of motif to the more common language of theory because she believes all of these work together, rather than at odds with each other, to convey the glorious significance of the work of Christ. The motifs are:

  • The Passover and the Exodus
  • The Blood Sacrifice
  • Ransom and Redemption
  • The Great Assize
  • The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor
  • The Descent into Hell
  • The Substitution
  • Recapitulation

She would contend that these show two basic things that happen in the cross:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin.
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.

There are several things about her treatment of these motifs that are quite wonderful. One is that she reintroduces into theological conversation terms we are often averse to speak of: blood, ransom, judgment, hell, and substitution among others. Two is that she helps us see through these terms both the gravity of the human condition and how Christ truly has paid what we could not and triumphed over sin and evil, breaking their power and hold on humanity. These terms tell us essentially that we are worse off than we thought, and that is good news because God has done what we could not. Finally, she retrieves the language of substitution from the disparagement that it has become popular to pile upon it, while acknowledging the problems in some formulations. She beautifully unites the idea of Christ’s substitutionary death for us and Christ’s victory of the power of Sin, Evil, and Death (she capitalizes these terms reflecting the idea of these as powers). Instead of opposing these two ideas, she sees substitution as the basis of the victory of Jesus. I also found her treatment of Christus Victor as far more compelling than Aulen, in her linkage of this idea with the apocalyptic war.

The conclusion of the work returns to the beginning and amplifies these themes with the motifs she has developed. She emphasizes again the uniqueness of Christianity as the account of the Son of God who not only dies to redeem, but does so facing utter contempt and horrible suffering. And she emphasizes that this work makes right what was wrong. What she does in this conclusion is draw out the implications of these ideas. All the distinctions humans make are muted in the face of this work. All of us are in the same predicament, and this work of Christ addresses the wrongs in all of us, banal or horrid, and sets things right. This is not “God loves you just as you are” as we blithely love to say. The gruesomeness of the death of Christ reflected the cost to God necessary to set things to rights in breaking sin’s curse and power, and the horror reflects the power of this act to address the condition of even those who have done the most horrid.

What she is saying is that it is all of grace, all of God. In summary, she writes:

“Forgiveness is not enough. Belief in redemption is not enough. Wishful thinking about the intrinsic goodness of every human being is not enough. Inclusion is not a sufficiently inclusive message, nor does it deliver real justice. There are some things–many things–that must be condemned and set right if we are to proclaim a God of both justice and mercy. Only a Power independent of this world order can overcome the grip of the Enemy of God’s purposes for his creation” (p. 610).

This is what the crucifixion accomplished. Not only are individuals justified (or rectified) through this work, but all the injustices of the world are atoned for, and the process of setting these right has begun. Both the preaching of justification by grace, and the preaching of the restoration of justice find their warrant in the cross and are not at odds.

Rutledge does not come out and say this, but an implication of her “inclusiveness” is the possibility of the ultimate “rectification” even of those who have resisted the proclamation of rectification, as in her treatment of the Jews in Romans 9-11. Elsewhere she speaks of the final annihilation of Satan and those given over to him, but here she speaks of Christ’s death as an outcast as redeeming even those on the outside. She admits (p. 459, note) to struggling with Matthew 25:46 and Jesus’s own statement about eternal punishment. Perhaps this restrains her, as it does me, from asserting a final universal “rectification” of all people, but she comes very close. What is clear is that, for her, this arises from her expansive understanding both of the utter helplessness of all of us to save ourselves, without distinction, and the utter greatness of God to save through the cross of Christ. Perhaps in the end, this is a call to humility, of leaving these matters in God’s hand, and never presuming upon but utterly trusting in the grace of this God.

Without question, this was perhaps the most profound theological work I’ve read in at least the last five years. It made me look again at the uniqueness of Christ and his work on the cross. It made me think deeply not only of why Jesus died, but why he did so in such a horrid way. It made me think, and question, the ways I’ve formulated my understanding of the work of the cross and particularly challenged me to think more about the victory of Christ on the cross over the power of Sin, as well as his atonement for the guilt of sin. This was a marvelous work to read in this season of Lent.

In addition to this review, I’ve written three reflections on portions of this work that may be accessed at:

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/22/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-one/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/27/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-a/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/04/04/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-b/