Review: Hardness of Heart

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature, Charles B. Puskas. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2022.

Summary: A study of the words and texts in which they are used referring to hardness of heart holding in tension both the refusal to heed God and the purpose of God in the hardening of hearts.

In reading the Exodus narratives, we read both that Pharaoh hardens his heart and that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. There is both a what seems a purposive failure to communicate and a willful refusal and resistance to what is communicated. We want to ask which is it? Charles B. Puskas shows that this is a pattern that recurs both in many Old and New Testament texts. Later in the Old Testament, it is Israel that is hardened. In the New Testament, there is a similar phenomenon with the hearers of Jesus who see but do not see, hear but do not hear. At times, even the disciples hearts are hard, but do not remain so. Later, the apostle Paul speaks in Romans of the hardening of the Jews until the full number of Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:26).

Puskas takes us through a careful study of the words used and the various texts in both literary and historical context, looking at both the world behind the texts and their reception, and subsequent interpretation. One of the observations he makes is that hardness is not limited to hearts, but also to ears, eyes, face and forehead, neck, shoulder, and back. He considers the question of what hope there is for the hard of heart with a God who would have none perish. And he wrestles with the questions of free will and predestination.

What I appreciate in this study is that Puskas conclusion is that we see both human willful refusal and failure of communication that reflects the hardening purpose of God. He cites the work of John Feinberg arguing for free will within divine causation. He also points out that it is God who takes away hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, that is, receptive hearts. Hardening as God’s purpose is to fulfill his saving purposes, whether it is the deliverance of Israel, or later the salvation of Gentiles. But Puskas never resolves the tension between free will and predestination with regard to hardening, Do humans harden their hearts? Does God? Puskas would say “yes.”

In an appendix, he discusses Romans 9-11 further and advances the argument of Robert Jenson against supersessionism–“the idea ‘that the church succeeds Israel in such a fashion as to displace from the status of God’s people those Jews who do not enter the church.’ ” He concludes with his own translation of Romans 11:17-18 as the Jews being “some of the branches [were] bent down.” The tone and inference here is an irenic one of hopefulness for Israel with deep regard for honest and respectful dialogue.

This work, derived from a doctoral thesis, is a careful piece of scholarship. I appreciate Puskas’ restraint in being governed by the textual evidence, as complex as this may be. In the end, he reminds us of our utter dependence on the sovereign purposes and great mercy of a God who not only may harden a heart but also make it receptive.

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

Review: This Day

This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013.

Summary: A compilation of several volumes of Berry’s sabbath poems.

We learn in the preface and introduction to these poems that they were composed by Wendell Berry during his Sabbaths, which he observed each Sunday. He tells us that many of them were written out of doors. Some of the poems even record Berry reclining in the woods near his home and falling asleep. Some, as the introductory poem suggests, were written looking out the window from his study, looking down the sloping property that is his farm to the river that flows into the Ohio.

He records the work of caring for the healing of his sloping lands. He writes in the introduction of having hoped the pasture would revert to forest, but rather his ewes ate the tree saplings. Instead, he tends the pasture in 2005, X “Mowing the hillside pasture–where.” He describes the Queen Anne’s lace, the milkweeds, butterflies, voles, and the contours of the healing slopes for which “He sweats and gives thanks.” In the next poem he speaks of imparting these experiences to his grandson, remembering when he was the young boy waving to an old workman in a pasture.

It is little wonder with someone so committed to the attentive care of his land that many of the poems celebrate the wonders he observes on his farm or the neighboring woods and streams. In 1998, IV, “The woods and pastures are joyous” describes the coming of another spring, the sheep and cattle “like souls in bliss,” the abundant growth and birdsong, and asks, “Who now can believe in winter? In winter who could have hoped for this?”

It also wouldn’t be Wendell Berry if he weren’t decrying the destruction of the land. His poems of 2007 describe this and his struggle to hold onto hope. He returns to his own land and finds hope amid the hopelessness in the renewal of life he witnesses.

Some of the poems are in the voice of characters from his novels, the Port William Membership, including Andy Catlett, Burley Coulter, and Jayber Crow. In others, he speaks of himself in the third person, as in 2011, VII,”A man who loves the trees” where he walks among his “elders” when he sees “a dogwood flower-white lighting all the woods.” In some, he adopts the voice of the Mad Farmer, as in the concluding poem of the collection, 2012, XXI, “As a child, the Mad Farmer saw easily” recounting the captivating vision of the star and the angelic host announcing the Christ child to shepherds that captivated him as a child, fading in the horrors of modernity and fears for what is to come. Yet as a pilgrim, “He sets out.”

I was surprised by the number of poems remembering friends who have died and reflecting on his own advancing years. In 2005, VII, Berry makes an observation that would find many of us nodding our heads in agreement: “I know I am getting old and I say so/but I don’t think of myself as an old man./I think of myself as a young man/with unforeseen debilities.”

Some of the most touching poems are those marking anniversaries and talking about what it is like for two people to love one another in all the ways couples love for many years. He celebrates the power of the marriage vow in 2009, VI “Our vow is the plumb line.” It is a line that seems to separate as both speak, “but vanishing as only we two know when we indeed are one.”

A final theme recurring in many poems is Berry’s piety. He doesn’t “wear this on his sleeve,” filling his poems with references to faith, When he speaks, it is powerful as in these six lines from 2005, I:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.

Berry advises, “I hope some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort.” A friend who has read this collected comments that she loved taking these on sabbath walks, and reading and pondering one each sabbath. That may be a good approach to these poems that direct our thoughts to the most important matters of our lives as well as the sheer wonder amid which we move, that we often miss in our distraction and hurry. But then, is this not why we sabbath?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John A. Logan, Jr.

Major John A. Logan, Jr. Public Domain via Wikipedia

His Oriole farm was the site of some of the finest horses, especially Hackney horses, in the world. His father was a friend of Chauncey Andrews, Youngstown’s first millionaire, and he came to Youngstown to run Andrews’ Carbon Limestone Company in 1884. In 1887 he married Andrews’ daughter Edith. He led a National Guard Unit, formally Company H, 5th Infantry but informally known as “Logan’s Rifles.” He died in the Spanish-American War, in San Jacinto, the Philippines, receiving the Medal of Honor. Logan Avenue and Logan Way in Liberty Township, where Oriole Farm was located, bear his name.

John A. Logan, Jr. was born Manning Alexander Logan on July 24, 1865 in Carbondale, Illinois. His father was Major General John A. Logan who is most known for introducing a bill into Congress, at the suggestion of his wife, designating May 30 as Memorial Day, remembering America’s war dead, especially from the Civil War. John A. Logan was a candidate for Vice President in 1884, on the losing Republican ticket with James G. Blaine.

John A. Logan, Jr, already living in Youngstown, followed his father’s military footsteps, attending West Point in the class of 1887. In 1887, he married Edith Andrews at the Andrews estate, the location of the present Ursuline High School, in a gala wedding. The Logans acquired the Oriole farm and three others, Oakhill, Vienna, and Austintown. But Oriole farm was the center of their life and the breeding of Hackney horses, which won top honors at some of the major horse shows in the country. They built a 10,000 square foot mansion on this site.

Oriole Farm, from a 1908 postcard. Public Domain

Besides his work with the Carbon Limestone Company and his horse breeding, Logan formed a militia group that became known as Logan’s Rifles. For a time, its armory was at Phelps and Front Streets, at different times being used by a couple churches and as a dance hall. Later, Vahey Oil Company purchased the building for $80,000.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, fighting occurred on two fronts, Cuba and the Philippines. Logan’s Rifles, a group of 82 men, served as part of the Ohio National Guard, departing from the Erie Station to be sworn in, in Cleveland. Further training occurred at Camp Bushnell, in Columbus, from which they departed May 21, 1898 for Tampa, and then on to Camp Fernandina, in Cuba. It is unclear what action they saw, and it appears their only casualties occurred due to typhoid fever, attributed to the unsanitary conditions that characterized this war. They returned to the U.S. on September 8 and mustered out in Cleveland, November 5.

That was not to be the end of Major Logan’s service. He went on as a battalion commander in the 33d United States Volunteer Infantry, during the revolution in the Philippines in 1899. His battalion faced a much larger force in the Battle of San Jacinto on November 11, 1899 and he was fatally wounded. Howard C. Aley writes, “The military funeral marking the occasion of Major Logan’s death was a local event long to be remembered. In the line of march was the Major’s mount, Bonfire, in whose saddle were the Major’s empty boots reversed.”

Since it had taken several months to return his body to the States, he was buried on February 7, 1900 in Oakhill Cemetery. The Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded May 3, 1902, its citation reading: “For most distinguished gallantry in leading his battalion upon the entrenchments of the enemy, on which occasion he fell mortally wounded.”

Major Logan did not live to see 35. The language of “the crowded hour” is often associated with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who fought in the same war. While Logan was not part of this group, his life, in a sense, was a crowded hour: West Point, leadership of a nascent Youngstown industry, marrying a wealthy tycoon’s daughter, establishing a premiere horse breeding farm, fathering three children with Edith, forming and leading a volunteer militia, fighting in two different parts of the world, and making the ultimate sacrifice.

The Logan name lives on, and the estate, later known as the Sampson estate, is beginning a new life as a winery, according to a recent Business Journal article. Edward J. Stieglitz said, “And in the end it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.” There are few for whom this could be more true than Major John A. Logan, Jr.

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

Review: Necessary Christianity

Necessary Christianity, Claude R. Alexander, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: In a culture of options, focuses on the necessities of the Christian life by looking at the “must” statements in the gospel associated with Jesus.

Bishop Claude R. Alexander, Jr. makes a trenchant contrast between our culture and a vibrant Christianity. We like to think about our options, our possibilities. Alexander contends that the mature follower of Jesus is shaped by the necessities of undivided loyalty to Jesus. Alexander organizes his book around the “must” passages associated with Jesus, six in number that lead to six “musts” for the maturing disciple of Jesus:

1. I Must Focus. (Luke 2:40-52) “I must be about my Father’s business.” Jesus was intentionally focused on his mission and his relationship with his father from the age of twelve. He pursued his calling as one who would teach about the Father’s way even as a young man, declaring implicitly that carpentry would not be his life.

2. I Must Progress. (Luke 4:38-44) “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also…” Life with Christ is dynamic. It is life lived on assignment, no matter the context.

3. I Must Be Directed. (John 4:1-30) “He needed to go through Samaria.” Jews ordinarily avoided Samaria. Jesus needed to go through Samaria because God directed him to do so to encounter the Samaritan woman, and through her to see a town believe. We learn that we may be directed to those others shun and called into things others don’t understand.

4. I Must Be Clear. (Matthew 16:13-27) “…Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” The maturing disciple is clear that following Christ may entail suffering and that God’s purposes may be unpopular and will face opposition. The disciple also embraces the whole plan and purpose of God, not only suffering and death but also resurrection and glory and is not deceived by the enemy.

5. I Must Be Diligent. (John 9:1-5) “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day.” Jesus discerns the moment and meaning of his encounter with the man born blind. He acts with urgency, realizing it will not always be day, maximizing every moment. He challenges us to live in this way. Even on the cross, Jesus forgives and promises paradise to the thief, arranges for the care of his mother, quenches his own thirst with God’s word, takes on himself the judgement of God against sin, and accomplishes our redemption, and can declare “It is finished.”

6. I Must Yield. (Matthew 26:46-54) “Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” Jesus refuses to avoid God’s purpose for his life, even when able, he has exercised patience from age 12 to his death, knowing all that time this was God’s purpose. Jesus took God’s way as his and accepted that only he could walk it–others would flee. The assurance is that God will stand by us. He raises the Son and he will raise us up as well.

Alexander has this way of writing in simple declarative sentences that convey the sense that “this is just the way it is for those who set themselves to follow Jesus.” There is neither bombast nor subtle nuancing. It’s simply, “this is what Jesus knew were the “musts” in his life, and so they are for us. We often “complexify” our lives and use that to evade the call of Jesus. This book strips discipleship down to the necessities. And therein is life.

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

Winter 2023 Christian Book Preview

As you can see from the stack, it’s been a while since I’ve done a book preview. Here are some books that have come in recently that I will be reviewing over the next few months. If we have a snowstorm or two, I’m all set. But you might find something in this list that looks so good that you may want to pick it up sooner. I’m sure the author, publisher and bookstore won’t mind a bit. The links, as always are to the publisher’s website. I prefer people make their own decisions about where they buy their books rather than being directed to an online site. I personally prefer buying from Hearts & Minds Books, which meticulously packs and ships books and is committed, as I, to promoting the best that is being thought and written in Christian literature.

The Inconvenient Gospel, Clarence Jordan. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2022. A collection of writings on war, wealth, race, and religion by this Baptist preacher from the south during the Civil Rights era.

A Just Passion, Ruth Haley Barton, Sheila Wise Rowe, Tish Harrison Warren, Terry M. Wildman, and others. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. A collection of readings for the six seeks of Lent drawn from InterVarsity Press books on justice and our hope in the redemptive work of Christ.

The Hope of Life After Death, M. Jeff Brannon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series this explores how the hope of life after death occurs throughout scripture, coming to its fullest expression in the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of those who follow him.

Epic Science, Ancient Faith, Dan Guenther. Ellensburg, WA: Truth in Creation, 2022. Important attitudes to making sense both of God’s works in creation and God’s words in the Bible for anyone who has questions about science and Christian faith.

The Emotions of God, David T. Lamb. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. We’re not always sure we want to associate emotions with God. Lamb examines seven divine emotions: hate, anger, jealousy, sorrow, joy, compassion, and love.

Finding Phoebe, Susan E. Hylen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023. Uses first century sources elaborating cultural backgrounds to illuminate what the women of the New Testament were really like.

The Power of Group Prayer, Carolyn Carney. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2022. Praying together isn’t easy. Carney talks about how we move from “just another prayer meeting” to effectual prayer for revival and a deeper life with God.

Why the Gospel? Matthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023. We may know what the gospel is, but why has God issued this royal proclamation and how should this shape our lives?

The Wonders of Creation, Kristen Page with contributions from Christina Bieber Lake, Noah J. Toly, and Emily Hunter McGowin. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. What we learn from the fictional landscapes of Lewis and Tolkien about the stewardship of creation. Part of the Hansen Lectureship Series at the Wade Center.

The Back Side of the Cross, Diane Leclerc and Brent Peterson. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022. How the doctrine of atonement speaks to those who have been wronged, abused, and abandoned.

Reading the Bible Around the World, Frederico Alfredo Roth, Justin Marc Smith, Kirsten Sonkyo Oh, Alice Yafeh-Deigh, and Kay Higuera Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A global team of scholars shows the value of reading and interpreting scripture in different cultural contexts.

Untrustworthy, Bonnie Kristian. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022. Explores the knowledge crisis at the root of divisions within our culture and corrupting the church and how we think about truth.

Being in God’s Image, Carmen Joy Imes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023. Imes explores the significance of being created in God’s image to what it means to be human–what it means for our work, our gender relations, our care for creation, and our eternal destiny. 

Mapping Atonement, William G. Witt and Joel Scandrett. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. A study of the various streams of atonement theology throughout church history, focusing on key theologians for each view.

Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2022. Explores both the weekly practice of sabbath within a rhythm of work and rest and the taking of more extended sabbaticals.

A Bond Between Souls, Coleman M. Ford. Bellingham: Lexham Academic, 2022. A scholarly study of friendship in the letters of Augustine, which he understands as the overflow of love.

The Trinity in the Book of Revelation, Brandon D. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A study of the theology of the Trinity in John’s Apocalypse in conversation with theologians from the early church.

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature, Charles B. Puskas. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022. A study of key texts throughout scripture to understand why people are obstinate toward God and whether there is hope for change.

Humble Confidence, Benno van den Toren and Kang-San Tan. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A global, intercultural introduction to Christian apologetics presenting a model of apologetics as crosscultural dialogue and accountable witness.

The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect, Jamie Davies. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022. An introduction to the Apocalyptic reading of the Pauline letters, explaining the rationale for this approach.

Cultivating Mentors, Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. “Drawing on traditional theological understandings of the mentee-mentor relationship, they consider what goals should define such relationships and what practices make their cultivation possible among educators.”

Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World. David F. White. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2022. On the role of beauty and creativity in Christian formation.

Tell Her Story, Nijay K. Gupta. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023. Another book discussing the first century context of women and focusing on women leaders in the church as revealed in Paul’s writings.

Anchorhold, Kristen Pinto Gfroerer. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2022. Reflections in the form of letters on the Revelations of Divine Love, addressed from the author to Julian of Norwich.

Flood and Fury, Matthew J. Lynch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023. A study on violence in the Old Testament focused on the flood and the Canaanite conquest.

A Christian Theology of Science, Paul Tyson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. “This book reframes the discussion between Christian theology and contemporary science, arguing that it is good both for religion and for science when Christians treat theology as their first truth discourse.”

Doing Asian-American Theology, Daniel D. Lee. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Explores how Asian-American identity might shape the language and methodology used in doing theology.

The Apostle and the Empire, Christoph Heilig. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. A study of ways that Paul implicitly and explicitly criticizes the Roman empire in his writings, often overlooked in past scholarship.

The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church, Richard E. Averbeck. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Explores the law in its original context, the New Testament perspective and its relevance today.

The Kingdom Among Us, Michael Stewart Robb. A comprehensive account of the theology of the late Dallas Willard, centered around his understanding of the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Whew! That’s quite a stack–thirty books, actually. Books on the gospel, science and faith, women in the first century church, Pauline studies, the theology of the atonement, challenging biblical and contemporary issues. I’m of the conviction that growing Christians are reading Christians, reading scripture first of all, good spiritual literature and substantive theology. Furthermore, to be God’s people in our time requires not only discerning the times, but discerning and applying truth. I hope one or more of the books I’ve previewed might be helpful to you in your journey with Christ. That’s an important reason for me to do this blog that keeps me going!

Review: Five Views on the New Testament Canon

Five Views on the New Testament Canon, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Benjamin P. Laird. Contributors: Darian P. Lockett, David Nienhuis, Jason David BeDuhn, Ian Boxall, George L. Parsenios. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022.

Summary: Statements from five different theological perspectives on the history, theology, and hermeneutic related to the formation of the New Testament canon, with responses from each to the others.

Many of us in Christian churches give little thought to how the New Testament became the New Testament–how the 27 books that comprise this part of the Bible, originally written by different people, at different times, and from and to different locations, came together as a collection, and in the order we find them in. More recently, questions have arisen anew about works like the Gospel of Thomas, basically the question of “why these books and not others?” Was it, as many assume, simply a consequence of who won the “doctrine wars” of the early centuries?

This work, while not representing every stream in scholarship around the New Testament canon, does offer a well-articulated survey of the different understandings of canon among different persuasions of Christians. The five views and their authors in this book are:

  • A Conservative Evangelical Perspective — Darian R. Lockett
  • A Progressive Evangelical Perspective — David R. Nienhuis
  • A Liberal Protestant Perspective — Jason David BeDuhn
  • A Roman Catholic Perspective — Ian Boxall
  • An Orthodox Perspective — George L. Parsenios

The editors asked each contributor to address three fundamental concerns: 1) the historical factors leading to the formation of the canon, 2) the theological basis of the canon’s authority, and 3) the hermeneutical implications of the canon. The editors also offer an introductory essay on the state of canonical acholarship and a concluding chapter that summarizes common themes and differences among the scholars. Each scholar also responded to the contributions of the other four.

I will not try to outline each of the contributor’s presentations but rather share some of my own observations of the discussion. One thing all the contributors had in common was admitting that the history of the canon’s emergence was both complicated and there is much that is missing in how all this occurred. We learned that at some point the four gospels began to circulate together as well as the Pauline corpus, but we’ve no idea how this came about (Lockett is particularly interesting in this regard). We know that by the fourth century (or perhaps earlier depending on how much credence we give to the Muratorian fragment), the list of books that comprise our present New Testament was being attested to by church leaders by Athanasius.

I was not aware that only at the Council of Trent did the Catholic Church formally codify the canon, mostly in response to the reformed churches rejection of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and that the Orthodox Church, having broken away before Trent, never specified the canon, although the twenty-seven books did serve as its rule, with other texts treated as helpful to Christian formation.

Another matter all of the writers address is how the formation of the canon shapes interpretation of the texts of the individual books. Matthew’s placement, even though most likely not the first gospel, as first in the collection, links to the Old Testament. The placement of Acts at the head of the Pauline corpus rather than with Luke encourages us to read Paul in light of Acts.

Lockett is the only one who unequivocally articulates the conviction that the authority and inspiration of the texts was intrinsic to the texts that the church recognized, that canon is the “norming norm” rather than the “fixed list” of books that the church subsequently treated as its “normative norm.” Others give more sway to the role of the church in defining canon, and BeDuhn allows that although twenty-seven books were delimited, this should not limit the sources of contemporary Christian nor be normative. George Parsenios, the Orthodox contributor, rightly, I believe, notes this arises from a strong conviction that there was no theological center to the early church, nor ought there to be at present.

I personally most appreciated the clarity of the essays by Lockett and Boxall, even though they articulated different positions. At the same time, especially in the responses to one another, both gracious engagement and clear distinctions came through, and it seemed that several understood their own positions with greater precision through engagement with others. I thought Parsenios clearer in response than in setting forth his own position. Nienhuis seemed to me to be trying to navigate between an evangelical and a more historically nuanced discussion of the church’s role in canon that seemed very much in progress. I not only found BeDuhn’s centerless Christianity unappealing but thought he gave short shrift to the awareness of the writers of scripture that they were writing something authoritative for the church.

This is quite a useful survey of the current state of play in scholarly discussion of the canon. It gives anyone interested a good pictures of the shared challenges all scholars in this field face, as well as the divergent views and the reasons for them. The spirit is irenic rather than polemical without muting disagreements, one that models substantive argument while maintaining respect for one another. The editors, contributors, and the publisher are to be commended for the publication of such an even-handed treatment of this important subject.

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

Remembering What We Read

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Memory is the treasure house of our lives, unless it is a gallery of our nightmares. And sometimes it is both. The memories we carry of our lives are a substantial part of our sense of self. A visit after many years to a conference center where we worked for over twenty years for parts of every summer evoked a raft of memories as we thought about conversations in a particular cabin, speakers in the meeting house, and so many special moments with our son. Perhaps one of the best part of the week was recalling these parts of our lives, of re-membering them in the sense of infusing them with life once more. What is so difficult about memory loss is our loss of parts of our lives, whether the immediate past, or more distant parts.

For those of us who are readers, we while away hours in our books. Yet it is funny how often it is hard to remember what we have read last week or month. The Atlantic re-ran an article titled “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read,” that captured the oddities of our forgetfulness and our memories when it comes to reading. Sometimes we remember where we bought the book or where we were when we read it or the book group we discussed it with, but precious little of what is in it.

Some of it is the reality of our lives. The article noted that we may “read” 100,000 words a day, although how much attention we give them all is a question. Much never makes it out of our short term memories. Perhaps we read too much. There are times when I’d love to set aside reading multiple books for reviews, and so much else on my news feeds, and just savor a good book, perhaps a significant book, perhaps an old friend I read many years ago, the memory of which I’d like to renew. And perhaps, the time will come when I shall.

Some of us use writing to crystallize our thoughts about our reading. This is how this blog began–originally as Goodreads posts whose main purpose was just to remember what I’d read. Others keep notebooks, jotting down significant ideas, or just keeping a list of what they’ve read. And some will debate you about whether writing undermines memory. At least for me, it allows me to capture what I want to take away from a book.

Still, this has its limits. The other day, someone commented on a review of Under Western Eyes from 2014. I barely remembered reading the book in this case and did not remember enough to reply to what was an interesting comment. It makes me wonder why I remember some books and not others. I think it has to do with the fact that there are some, that because they engaged or provoked me, I keep revisiting and sometimes re-reading. For some it is the emotional context, such as The Long Winter by Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder that we read aloud as a family during a particularly cold winter in the 1990’s.

I think it makes a difference of whether the book is in sight. Often seeing the book, even the title on the spine, reminds me of what I read. My treadmill is in front of one of my shelves, and I often recall the content of books as I wrack up the steps. I squirrelled Under Western Eyes away somewhere and probably haven’t seen the book since I read it.

Some reader friends don’t think it matters so much. It is the enjoyment of the moment. And with some books, more may not be worth it. They were just a pleasant diversion. Yet even the best of these sort are memorable. I think of Thurber’s “The Night the Bed Fell.” His stories were both a delight and memorable.

Sometimes, it is the sheer intensity of the book that makes it memorable. Every one of Kristen Hannah’s books have been like that, and more than one has had me lying awake at night, none more than The Nightingale. While not as intense, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See stayed with me when I closed the covers.

Still, I wish I were C.S. Lewis when it came to memory. It seems that he remembered just about everything he read, down to being able to tell you on what page you might find a particular quote or statement. But that is not my gift and won’t be.

What can I say about remembering more of what we read? At this juncture in life, the question for me seems to be as I read a book, what is worth remembering? I find myself praying that I might be attentive to what matters out of all the information, all the words, that I will inevitably forget. What is worth pondering, considering, even taking to heart? It might be a single sentence out of a book. Is it worth it? If it is a nugget of intellectual gold, absolutely! I will ponder it until it is added to my treasure house of memory.

Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks. New York: Touchstone, 2006 (originally published in 1985).

Summary: Brief case histories of twenty-four patients with unusual neurological conditions.

Oliver Sacks is one of those authors I discovered in recent years, beginning to read him only shortly before his death in 2015. Only now have I gotten around to what is probably his most famous work. It is organized in four sections: Losses, Excesses, Transports, and The World of the Simple. Each section is introduced by a clinical discussion followed by four to nine illustrative case histories.

The title essay is found in the first section on losses, or cognitive deficits due to disease or damage to a particular brain structure. In the case of Dr. P, a musician and teacher, while the cause remained undetermined, he could not identify the objects he was seeing. He could describe them in detail, but he did not know what he was seeing. Hence at one point, when getting dressed to go out, he grabbed the top of his wife’s head, thinking it a hat. His visual agnosia left his musical abilities untouched, and with accommodations was able to continue in this work. One of the other cases described in this section was of a woman who lost all sense of her body, a loss of what is called proprioception. She could not tell where her arms or legs were apart from seeing them and had to learn to function by sight rather than by this sense of ourselves we take for granted. Sacks also describes cases of phantom limbs, pain, of someone who could see only the right half of their world, and a man who could not remember his life after 1945.

The section on excesses covered cognitive functions that might be describe as being in hyper mode. He covers things like Tourette’s syndrome, and a fascinating instance of “Cupid’s Disease,” a case of late onset in a patient nearly 90 of symptoms from syphilis contracted when she worked in a brothel as a young woman. It made her “frisky,” symptoms which for her were actually somewhat welcome! Although treated for syphilis, the symptoms remained.

“Transports” covers instances of sensations, memories, or visions that come due to epilepsy, or sometimes drugs, as was the case of a student who suddenly had a heightened sense of smell for a three week period before reverting to normal. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Hildegard of Bingen, whose migraines were accompanied by visions rendered in drawings.

The final section, discussing subjects with profound mental deficits were some of the most touching as Sacks recognizes what they possessed rather than what they lacked, such as Rebecca, who blossomed in a theatre program despite an IQ of 60, or twins who spoke to each other in prime numbers and could almost instantaneously calculate the day on which any calendar date would fall for 80,000 years. The last case of an autistic patient, Jose, shows how much things have advanced since Sacks wrote. He was considered mentally deficient but Sacks discovered an artistic ability that brought him to life. When he was moved to a quieter setting and allowed to develop his artistic expression, he flourished. Perhaps Sacks anticipated (and maybe helped) the advances in the treatment of those on the autism spectrum.

Sacks account is fascinating for its account of unusual neurological conditions, revealing the influences of neurophysiology on our personalities. What is also impressive is the delightful respect Sacks has for his patients. He listens to them and recommends treatments and accommodations that respect their individuality. At the same time, this book strikes me as a “snapshot in time” that reflects the state of knowledge in the 1980’s, which has advanced tremendously since then. What hasn’t changed is the care for the person Sacks shows. They are not just cases to him but people, and hopefully we will never advance beyond respecting the dignity of each person in the way Sacks does.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Albert L. Pugsley

With the retirement of Jim Tressel from the presidency of Youngstown State, my thoughts went back to the man who was president of Youngstown State when I enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 1972. He was Albert L. Pugsley and my one memory of him was his refusal to close Youngstown State during a snowstorm, saying, “This is northern country” or something to that effect. I don’t remember him as being particularly popular with students, but this was the Vietnam War era, and very few college presidents were popular with students. An article in The Vindicator in April of 1976, when Maag Library was dedicated, noted that “Dr. Pugsley kept the peace on campus here with a firm, but a fair policy, to maintain confidence without disrupting the educational process for the vast majority there to learn.” That may be a somewhat rosy assessment, but the truth is that while there were protests, no buildings were burned down and no students died.

What I didn’t realize was that Albert Pugsley played a key role in putting the “State” into Youngstown State University, and in beginning the building construction that transformed the campus. He was inaugurated in 1966, a year before Youngstown became a state university. An engineer and architect by training, he led the physical and academic expansion of the campus. Although Maag Library was dedicated after the end of his presidency in 1973, he was the one responsible for the plans that led to its construction as well as other campus buildings built in the 1970’s including the Kilcawley expansion, Cushwa Hall, Beeghly Center and other buildings. His planning was why I spent most of the time at Youngstown avoiding muddy construction areas.

What most of us didn’t realize was the successful career he had before coming to Youngstown. He was born in 1909 in Woodbine Nebraska, the son of Charles and Lillian Pugsley. He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and Brookings, South Dakota. He graduated from South Dakota State University in 1930 with an engineering degree. He went on to Harvard, where he was awarded a Masters degree in Architecture and a one year University Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study abroad.

He returned to Nebraska to teach architecture at the University of Nebraska as well as engaging in private practice as an engineering and architecture consultant, designing a number of buildings in Lincoln, Nebraska during this time. During World War II, he served as assistant director of Engineering, Science and Management of the War Training Program in Washington, DC. After the war, he went to Kansas State as a professor of structural engineering and Assistant Director of Engineering for the Experiment Station. He was appointed dean of administration in 1950 by Milton Eisenhower, then president of the university and brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1963, he became an administrative Vice President of the university. He also held several top positions with college accrediting associations. He also held honorary doctoral degrees from South Dakota State University and Kansas Wesleyan University.  

He was a vice president at Kansas State when the opportunity called to become president at Youngstown, succeeding President Howard W. Jones, Youngstown’s first president. Dr. Eisenhower came to speak at his inauguration. He led Youngstown through the crucial transition years to a state university amid tumultuous times and exploding enrollments. He may not have been popular, but I think it can be argued that he left the university a much better place than when he came there. He strikes me that he was one of those people who wasn’t flashy but got things done.

After his retirement in 1973, he moved to Atlantis, Florida. He passed away October 16, 1977 while fishing on the banks of a lake near his condominium, of an apparent heart attack. He was buried in Woodbine, Nebraska, the town of his birth, in Woodbine Cemetery.

Albert L. Pugsley is remembered today at Youngstown State in the President’s Suite in Kilcawley Center, which may be divided into three smaller rooms named after President Pugsley and two of his successors, Presidents Coffelt and Humphrey. He should also be remembered as the man who led the university through a crucial and challenging time of transition.

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

Review: Spinsters in Jeopardy

Spinsters in Jeopardy (Inspector Alleyn #17), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2014 (first published in 1953).

Summary: Alleyn takes his family along to visit a distant cousin in southern France while collaborating with the French in investigating a drug ring.

The lesson of this story may be not to mix work and pleasure, particularly if your work is as a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. Alleyn is on assignment with the French police to bring down an international drug operation. Before he can even reach his destination, two things happen that get wrapped into the plot. He and Troy both witness what appears to be a murder of in a chateau immediately opposite where the train stopped before entering a tunnel. Ricky, their son, is still sleeping. Then they learn an unaccompanied elderly woman, Miss Truebody, has come down with acute appendicitis. When they reach Rocqueville, there destination, they learn the only available doctor (since the others are at a conference) is an Egyptian doctor Baradi, residing at the chateau.

Alleyn learns that authorities think the chateau is the center of the drug operation, which uses a nearby chemical factory. Taking Miss Truebody there gives him an in, particularly because he had experience administering anesthesia in the war and is needed. He learns that the chateau is the center of a weird cult led by M. Oberon, who likes to parade naked in their ceremonies. The guests are mostly elite socialites and actors, many with, or who will soon acquire, drug habits. Marsh devotes several of her stories to plots involving drugs–clearly something of which she did not approve and it’s apparent in her treatment of the characters.

Alleyn and his family arouse suspicion even though they are unsure of his identity, and Ricky is kidnapped to keep them out of the way, and plays a key role in helping break the case. Alleyn’s young and dashing driver becomes his right hand man both as they recover Ricky and help bust the drug cult/ring.

The title? There are three spinsters in jeopardy in this story and one is the apparent murder victim seen in the window by the Alleyns. Along the way, Raoul’s girlfriend Therese gets caught up in kidnapping Ricky but then plays a key role in assisting Alleyn and Raoul. Alleyn’s complicated schemes depend on his French counterpart showing up when needed. Troy pitches in by persuading a young woman not to return to the chateau and helps her and her young man recognize their love is more important than a crazy cult.

It’s all a bit madcap and out of the ordinary for an Alleyn mystery. One might object to Ricky being placed in the middle of this, but I recall that Marsh is not alone in using this device, which Elizabeth Peters uses to great effect with Ramses, Amelia’s son. It would be great to see Raoul and Alleyn team up again. But if not, then this was good fun!