Review: There There

there there

There ThereTommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Summary: The narratives of twelve “Urban Indians” making there way with various motivations to a powwow in Oakland.

Tommy Orange has done for “Urban Indians” what Sherman Alexie has done for those on the reservations. In There There, he captures in the stories of twelve people a cumulative narrative of the quest for identity of Native Americans living in cities. They are people who in various ways are trying to figure out what it means, beyond ancestry and heritage to live as Native Americans in urban America.

In both Prologue  and Interlude, Orange discusses the dispossession of Native peoples from their lands, the struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, the challenges to discover one’s identity and the significance of powwows like the Big Oakland Powwow.

The book is structured around the stories of twelve people whose lives are connected who will end up at the Big Oakland Powwow. The book opens with Tony Loneman, “the ‘Drome” representing his birth with fetal alcohol syndrome. He deal drugs with Octavio, along with Charles who is owed money by his brother Calvin. These four hatch a plot to steal the prize money at the powwow, using 3-D printed guns to elude metal detectors. Others come for different reasons. Dene Oxendene is there to set up a story booth to capture the stories of his people. Thomas Frank is a former custodian at the Indian Center and a drummer at the powwow. Edwin Black is a bi-racial young man who lives on the internet who discovers his father is Harvey by accessing his mother Karen’s social media and takes an internship at the Indian Center, coordinating the powwow. Karen’s boyfriend, Bill Davis, a Vietnam veteran, works cleaning up trash at the stadium where the powwow will be held, having held a series of jobs after a prison term in San Quentin. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield cares for three of her half-sister Jacquie Redfeather’s grandchildren including Orvil who discovers Indian regalia packed away in a closet and wants to dance at the powwow. Jacquie, living on the edge of substance abuse, works as a substance abuse counselor. Jacquie and Opal were part of the Alcatraz occupation in 1970, where Jacquie had sex forced on her by the same Harvey, resulting in a daughter who she adopted out. That daughter happens to be Blue, the head of the powwow committee. In a weird turn of events Harvey and Jacquie encounter each other at a substance abuse conference and an AA meeting, and end up traveling together to the powwow.

The narrative moves back and forth between these characters who represent the conflicting currents of Urban Indian identity, from the criminal to those devoted to the cause, or to people they love. The book is organized around four parts: Remain-Reclaim-Return-Powwow, terms that reflect both movement toward the climactic powwow with the threat of violence, and the struggle to reverse the effects of dispossession.

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein reference to Oakland — “There is no there there.” Orange writes:

“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The book retraces the struggle to recover a sense of identity and community, and some kind of way of life when there is no “there there.” For the most part, it seems the women fare better at this in the book. Even though Jacquie, Opal, and Blue bear the wounds of their heritage and upbringing, they are the ones caring for others, offering stability and direction to a next generation. Only Bill Davis seems to have clawed his way to some settled identity while the other men are either groping, or descending into criminality.

This is not a “feel good” book. But perhaps those of us who are the descendants of the disposessors need to understand the trauma that has worked its way down the generations. What is evident in a number of the stories is a perhaps inchoate sense that there is something valuable “there” in one’s native heritage that must not be given up on but striven for, perhaps in the shared telling of stories that both Dene Oxendene’s storybooth and this book represents.

Review: Live the Questions

Live the Questions

Live the Questions, Jeffrey F. Keuss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that a deep and satisfying life is closely related to the questions we ask, how we pursue them, and to whom they lead us.

It is sometimes thought that Christians are those who have found answers, perhaps the answer and that strong faith is characterized by a sense of certainty. To have questions, or even worse, doubts, is thought to reflect a lack of faith, or to be on the road to leaving one’s faith behind. We often err in one of two ways: we either anesthetize ourselves to the questions, or we take shortcuts, accepting textbook answers without facing what the questions expose about us, and about the ultimate we seek beyond the questions.

Jeffrey F. Keuss believes that the questions we ask may be more important than the answers we think we have found. He writes, “I hope you find that to be human is to ask more and more questions, and that deep meaning is found in the journey and pursuit of where and to whom those questions will bring us.” He proposes that we live the questions rather than just ask for the answers.

Keuss takes us a step further. He proposes not only that we live our questions but to consider the questions that fill the pages of scripture and that shape and form the lives of those who people its pages. He explores eight such questions:

  1. Where are you? (with Adam and Eve)
  2. Am I my brother’s keeper? (Cain)
  3. How will I know ? (Abraham)
  4. Who am I? (with Moses at the burning bush)
  5. Why this burden? (Moses, under the burdens of leadership)
  6. How can I just vanish in darkness? (Job)
  7. How can I be born after growing old? (Nicodemus)
  8. Where can I get that living water? (the Samaritan woman)

We are faced with how we will respond to the God who pursues those who are estranged from Him. We encounter the irony of a God whose mark on Cain makes God the keeper of a brother who murdered. We discover a God whose answer to Abraham is to take him out of his tent to the stars in the heavens, a God who delights in Abraham’s probing honesty, and whose answer is far more than Abraham could dream asleep in his tent.

In each chapter, Keuss probes the question asked, whether by God or people and how these questions brought these people into deeper contact both with their own humanity and the living God. Along the ways he references everything from Kierkegaard to Steve Martin.

Perhaps one of the most moving stories he relates is from his time as a young minister in Glasgow, visiting a comatose, unresponsive patient with whom he read scripture, prayed and spent thirty minutes just being there, doing all he was supposed to do, and feeling utterly futile. Later he receives a small bequest from the family that he is ashamed to use, until a colleague counsels, “This check isn’t about you, Jeff….This is about paying it forward beyond you. For some reason what you did was more than you or your intentions, so you need to honor that somehow in his name.” And he did by buying a pair of black Dr. Martens boots that he wore wherever he ministered “reminding [him] to have faith, to show up, and be ready for the unexpected.”

Keuss invites us in this book to listen to our questions, and the questions of the scriptures. He urges us that a healthy process takes us into relationships, and not isolation, and that questions and a life of faith and worship in community need not be at odds. He invites us not merely to discuss questions but to live in them, to walk in them, and rather than simply looking for answers, to allow the questions to take us deeper into the mystery and wonder of God.

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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: Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936).

Summary: Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was.

Mr. Shaitana was an enticing host of great dinner parties. Yet people feared him. “Mephistophelian” is a word that describes him,  after the elegant demon who deceived Faust. A seemingly chance meeting with Hercule Poirot leads to a boast of knowing murderers who had gotten away with their crimes and what proves an unwise idea of hosting a party at which Poirot, Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist are invited to join four guests presumably guilty of murder. The four other guests are Dr. Roberts, daring in bridge and perhaps in life, Mrs. Lorrimer, an intelligent and proper widow, Major Despard, an adventurer, and young and seemingly vulnerable Anne Meredith.

After dinner the four guests adjourn to play bridge. The four sleuths play in one room. The four “murderers” play in the other. Shaitana joins them by the fire. At the conclusion of play Shaitana appears asleep, but has been stabbed in the heart with a sharp implement from his collection. No one but the four bridge players, the four who had gotten away with murderer had been in the room. None says they saw anything amiss.

And so begins the sleuthing. Interviews with each of the guests. An investigation to learn if they could have committed a previous murder they would cover up. Battle, shrewd but stolid pursue conventional police methods. Race pursues inquiries on Major Despard. Mrs. Oliver focuses on young Anne and her roommate Rhoda Dawes. Poirot focuses on the bridge scores and what each remembers of the play, and the details of the room. Each has been connected with a murder. Things get more exciting yet with one more murder and another murder attempt. When we think the murderer of Shaitana is arrested, there is one more twist before the real murderer is exposed. In the end, the scores and play at bridge yield the critical clue.

Many consider this among Christie’s best novels. She pokes fun at herself in the character of novelist Ariadne Oliver.

” ‘I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve written only thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then, I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ “

It is enjoyable to see the character and interactions of the sleuths, the subtlety of the clues, and the surprise at the end when we think we have the murderer, caught in the act of attempted murder. This is a great summer read, or for any time one needs an engaging diversion.

Review: Saved By Grace Alone

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Saved By Grace Alone: Sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018.

Summary: Fourteen sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, demonstrating from this text that salvation is by grace alone, due to our inability because of sin, and God’s loving initiative for his glory and our salvation.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Welsh preacher who succeeded G. Campbell Morgan as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. His ministry at Westminster began in 1939 and concluded because of health reasons in 1968. For a time he was president of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK. His ministry was marked by consecutive exposition of different portions of scripture, combining careful exegesis of the text, treatment of the broader theological implications of the passage, and personal applicative appeals to his listeners. One series on Romans was published in fourteen volumes. In the case of this book, he takes fourteen sermons, preached over three months, to cover twenty-one verses in Ezekiel.

If that seems daunting, you are in for a surprise if you read this book. Lloyd-Jones preaches for the lay person and not the academic. Here is an example from one of the early chapters, on the Bible:

“This book is not a human book, it is not man’s ideas. It is the word of the Lord. Ezekiel had not been spending weeks and months in study, trying to understand the situation, and at last felt that he had discovered it and went to address the people; not at all. While he was sitting in helplessness and hopelessness with his fellow countrymen, the word of the Lord came to him. And that is still the only hope for our world. The word that comes to the world today is precisely this old word. Here is a perfect summary of the gospel” (p. 18).

The gospel in fact is the theme of this series of sermons, each on a verse or two from Ezekiel 36. As the title indicates, Lloyd-George is contending that this passage teaches us about God’s saving work, and that it is by grace alone. Following the passage, he traces Israel’s rebellion, their folly, and inability of themselves to live up to God’s standards. That is why Ezekiel is writing to exiles in Babylon. Exile reflects his just judgment on their sin, and there is nothing they can do to escape it or make up for their wrong. Yet God does not stop there. This would only be bad news, not gospel. Although they profaned God’s name among the nations, God will vindicate his name by restoring them, separating them unto holiness, bringing them back to Canaan, cleansing them from sin, giving them hearts able to obey, a new Spirit within them, a salvation that touches every aspect of their existence.

In each sermon, Lloyd-Jones moves from what salvation meant for the people of Israel to the parallel of what salvation means in the New Testament, accomplished through the work of Christ, confronting us with and cleansing us from sin, restoring us to life in Christ, reclaiming and going beyond what was lost in Eden. While showing the damage of human rebellion against God upon every dimension of life, and life’s futility under this regime, Lloyd-George repeatedly goes on to explore all the ways God in his grace meets us to liberate us from its hold, bringing forgiveness, and the indwelling Spirit, and an expanded vision of the purposes of God in us.

He also addresses his hearers (and readers), coming back again and again to commend the grace of God in Christ as our only hope. The sermons are wonderful examples of calling people to faith. Here is one example:

“Can you say, ‘My God?’ Do you know him personally? That is what Christ came to give you: not only forgiveness, not only new understanding, not only cleansing and holiness, but all that in order that we might be enabled to go into the holiest of all with full assurance of faith and know that we will always be there. Have you got that? Are you in that position? That is Christianity. That is the ultimate of it; the acme, the glory of it. He gave himself for us that he might bring us to God” (p. 147).

These sermons are not only valuable for exploring this passage in Ezekiel, and its gospel implications and as a model of appealing to someone to come to faith. They also preach the gospel to those of us who have believed. My heart was warmed by these truths afresh in reading Lloyd-Jones, even though I first believed them as a child. I can never get beyond but only go deeper into all that it means to be saved by grace alone through Christ alone. This book was a valuable aid in that journey.

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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.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Lake to River Canal

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Proposed canal route

One of the most interesting “might have beens” in Youngstown history, is whether Michael Kirwan’s “Big Ditch” would have made a difference to the steel industry in Youngstown. Michael J. Kirwan was the congressman from Youngstown for most of the years I lived there. He was in office from 1937 to 1970, dying in office. James L. Wick, Jr. wrote to him in 1937 about the idea of a canal, and it was one he campaigned for until his dying day and the one initiative that most people who know him associate with his name. His vision was for a canal running south from Ashtabula on Lake Erie, connecting with the Mahoning River and running southeast into Pennsylvania, connecting with the Ohio River at Rochester, Pennsylvania. It would create a water route between the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps the interest in a canal goes back to the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal completed in 1839 from New Castle, Pennsylvania to Akron, running through Youngstown, and connecting with the Ohio and Erie Canal, running from Cleveland to the Ohio River. For a period of time in the mid-1800’s, the canal contributed to the rise of the coal and iron industry in the Mahoning Valley, providing transport of both raw materials and finished products to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The rise of the railroads led to the demise of the canal, which was abandoned in 1872 and officially closed in 1877.

Ironically, it was the rising freight rates on the railroads that sparked renewed interest in a lake to river canal. By the early 1900’s, the idea of a new canal was already under discussion, with a route from Ashtabula to Pittsburgh approved by 1912 by the National Waterways Commission. In 1919, the Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to study proposed routes, favoring a route that ran via the Mahoning and Beaver Rivers to the Ohio. The estimated the cost at the time at $120 million, which was deemed impractical and economically unsound. Supporters of the canal, particularly Youngstown Steel interests pressed their case. Routes were surveyed in 1926 and 1931. Against the steel interests were equally powerful rail interests that helped stall the project again and again. Disagreements over the route also caused problems. Pennsylvania interests started arguing a route that passed further east, entirely in Pennsylvania. Yet more funds were appropriated in 1935 for further study.

Another factor that stalled progress on the canal was opposition from rural communities in Ashtabula and northern Trumbull counties. Part of the canal plan included a dam near Farmington that would create a reservoir, the Grand River Reservoir running across Ashtabula County to just south of Ashtabula. Austinburg, Mechanicsville, Rock Creek, Eagleville, Mesopotamia, Windsor, East Trumbull and Farmington would be submerged. Rock Creek would have been under 42 feet of water.

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Michael J. Kirwan

Michael Kirwan campaigned for the canal throughout his tenure. Given his tenure, he was a powerful figure on important committees, but he could never turn the canal into a reality. The railroads continued to resist, arguing the high costs of altering bridges. Further studies were made in 1958 and in 1965, the Army Corp of Engineers recommended construction. The death knell was sounded when Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Schafer, a Republican, refused to grant right-of-way for the canal construction in his state.

Even so, funds were allocated as late as 1988 and 1994 for feasibility studies. From an engineering and navigational point of view, it was judged feasible, but not from an economic point of view. But by then the steel industry had died.

Would the building of the canal have been a game-changer for the Valley’s steel industry? It seems to be a question of whether the enhanced and possibly more economical transportation facilities this would create would offset foreign competition. What might this have meant if it had been built by the 1960’s, enhancing a still strong industrial economy? Seems we’ll never know.

Sources:

1937-1939: Kirwan Pushes for ‘Big Ditch’ ” The Business Journal, January 8, 2008.

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County (Youngstown: The Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975), pp. 216-218.

bkbrennan, “Congressman Kirwan’s Own Story” YSU Archives Weblog, May 22, 2008.

Canalization” Lake Erie and Ohio River Canal.

Judith J. Carroll, “Proposed Lake Erie-Ohio River Canal and Grand River Reservoir Records” Kent State University Libraries, April 2018.

Ed Runyan, “Warren Marker Teaches About Canal That Passed Through the Mahoning Valley” The Vindicator, July 20, 2013

Jeffrey Snedden, “A Missed Opportunity: The Canal That Never Was” The Times, October 10, 2017.

 

 

Review: How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ TalksC. Christopher Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of how substantive conversation can be central to the growth and transformation of our churches and the people who are part of them, the ground rules and spiritual practices that enable such conversation, and how conversation might be sustained as conflict arises.

C. Christopher Smith believes that one of the reasons many of our churches are struggling and many people are heading for the exits has to do with the lack of the capacity for substantive conversation about things that really matter. Just as our physical bodies are an ongoing conversation between our various members, so our social bodies, including churches, require ongoing and deeply connected conversations for both individuals and our collective bodies to thrive. Yet we live in a society where people have lost the capacity to talk about any serious matter where they might differ and we have become isolated in echo chambers of those who think like us. Sadly, conversation in the church often is little more than polite chit-chat about sports or recipes, or where we are going out to eat afterward. This happens in a body that is an earthly echo of the mutuality and conversation of the Triune God who is “God with us.”

Smith and his church have been practicing substantive conversations about ideas and practices that deeply matter in their congregation for over a decade. It was messy at times. People became angry. Some left. They learned how to set up ground rules to enable the speaking of truth in love. They developed practices to prepare for those conversations. They learned how to address conflict that can threaten to shut down conversation. This book is the distillation of that experience.

He begins by treating the subject of conversational dynamics, dealing with questions of group size, formal and informal conversation, how often a group meets, who facilitates and how to foster coherent conversations. He explores what to talk about, and not talk about, particularly when a group is learning conversation. He highlights three methods that have been developed to facilitate conversation: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café, giving brief explanations of each method and providing additional resources in an appendix.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the book is the section on “Spirituality for the Journey.” Smith focuses on prayer as a means of being attentive to God first and throughout, including Quaker practices of silent, listening prayer. He helps us see the connection between the messiness of real life and our honesty about that, and the messiness of our conversations. Good sustained conversations have a high capacity for messiness. Finally he speaks of how we might prepare ourselves heart, mind, and body for conversation.

Conversation is critical in remembering and telling our story and discerning its next chapter. Often understanding our history and identity helps us discern how we might proceed on questions of how we might pursue our mission. The toughest season of conversation is conflict, which Smith believes is inevitable and can be healthy. Using the analogy of broken bones, he talks about acknowledging our fractures, aligning the fractured parts (our “like heartedness in Christ”), and supporting and healing the fractures.

His final chapter fuses the idea of conversation and dance and the picture of being drawn into the dancing conversation of the Triune God. His conclusion focuses on his church, Englewood Christian Church, and how conversation has eventuated in action creating a vibrant set of community ministries in the Englewood, and a church community that is integrally a part of the community in which it is situated.

The book includes numerous examples from different churches, including an appendix of examples of conversational ground rules different churches have set, and the governing principles at which a church arrived out of extended conversations on how to relate to LGBTQ+ persons joining their community in a denomination with traditional convictions.

Smith dares us to believe that the church could be the place where we recover the art of serious conversation, the kind that has the capacity to cultivate respect among people who differ, to live with messiness that defies neat resolutions, and to persist to the shared understanding that enables people to act creatively and missionally in their context. He shows how it has taken shape in real congregations, which makes it the most valuable sort of guidebook, one born out of years of trial and error and learning.

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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.

Why I Have Confidence in the Work of Research Scientists

banner-982162_1920The title of this blog post is written carefully. I do not trust individual scientists more or less than any other persons. I have confidence in the work they do because of the rigorous process to which it is submitted. I also particularly specify researchers, people who are testing theories, running experiments, presenting findings at conferences, and submitting papers to journals for publication. I am not speaking of scientific popularizers or those who use the cloak of science to advance ideological agendas. I also speak in the plural. Individual scientists, like any humans may err, but the scientific community has built in processes that sift out the erroneous.

I will be honest, I do not write as a scientist. I write as someone who knows scientists from work in collegiate ministry at a major research university. I write as someone who has watched people work for months setting up lab apparatus for experiments, only to get inconclusive data and start over. I’ve watched people spend hours of effort crafting research proposals for grants that are vetted by fellow researchers in a system where one in four or less are funded. I’ve listened to reports of those who report research findings in conference presentations only to have their work torn apart in question sessions, forcing them to go back and correct mistakes in their research process. I’ve observed the agonizing process of writing articles for academic journals in one’s field–articles that are sometimes rejected, at other times are returned with reviewer critiques that must be addressed before re-submission, and sometimes published only to be challenged by other researchers who cannot reproduce the purported results under the same conditions. The price for deliberate fraud is high. One is basically black-balled.

That’s what research scientists do. They are part of a scientific community relentlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) committed to attaining ever-closer approximations to understanding the truth about the physical cosmos around us. Scientists don’t always agree on theories or the significance of research findings. Sometimes, a dedicated researcher or group of researchers will persist 40 years (basically their working life) to substantiate a theory, sometimes changing the ways scientists think about some aspect of their field. Often they replace a workable, mostly right theory, with one that works even better. It’s a process without shortcuts that takes time, and a good deal of money. But their work has yielded space shots and smartphones, cancer treatments and eradicated small pox and nearly eradicated polio.

Why do I write about this? I write because the work of these people is under attack. People are fostering the notion that these people are not to be trusted, that their reports on things like the earth’s climate and our contribution to climate conditions are nothing more than a deep state conspiracy. It is one thing to write such things when you are talking about some distant “them” you may never have personally encountered. I have friends who do this work, and they are mystified by this. Many would say they don’t have a political bone in their bodies because their research is so engrossing. There are many who share my faith. There are many others who don’t. At the lab bench and the scientific conference, it doesn’t make a difference. It comes down to how good your research is. My friends are usually among the first to cry out against those who make false claims in the name of science. Truth matters that much to them.

There are those who use science to advance political or ideological agendas. They are usually popularizers who either never wore a lab coat, or have given it up but use their reputation to bolster their claims. One may think here of ethologist Richard Dawkins who cherry picks scientific studies to support his militant atheism. One research study shows that most British scientists believe he misrepresents science. Others cherry pick science to support their particular view of biblical creation. Both approaches use science to answer questions science was not intended to answer. Most research scientists I know, no matter what they believe, want no part in any of this, except to go on the record that this misappropriates science.

It is axiomatic that when a particular group attacks a group of “them,” be they scientists or immigrants or home schoolers, we would be wise to recognize that the attack is primarily designed to garner support for that group, and to use a grain of salt in assessing their attack. I would suggest, in the case of science, that if you really care about truth and don’t want to be “faked” that you go and meet some real scientists at your local college or university. Ask yourself, “do I personally know any scientists?” Most Americans do not, which makes them an easy target.

I don’t absolutely trust science, in the way I do God. Any scientist worth his or her salt wouldn’t want me to. Most often, they present their research in terms of confidence levels or intervals, such as a 95% probability that a predicted result will occur, or results within a certain range will occur. Most of us formally or informally act with confidence even when probabilities are not that high. At what percentage of rain chances will you carry an umbrella or rain gear? At what odds will you place a bet on your favorite team?

So when scientists who have worked through the rigorous process I have described publish results and their work has survived the rigorous winnowing process of peer review, I’m willing to place confidence in the work of this scientific community. That doesn’t mean a better theory might not replace it at some point. Newton’s understanding of gravity still works pretty well in most cases, even though Einstein’s theory offers a better account. All of life is like this. But that’s a far cry from believing scientists are purposefully deceiving us. At the end of the day I’m far more inclined to place confidence in the scientists than the deniers. There is no comparable process to the peer review and criticism process for deniers who often just have to put something on the internet. So in whom are you going to place your confidence?

 

Review: I Am Malala

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I Am MalalaMalala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Summary: A memoir describing a Swat Valley family committed to education, including the education of girls, Malala’s shooting by a Taliban fighter, and her recovery from near death.

Malala Yousafzai was a fifteen year-old schoolgirl who had advocated for the basic right of education for girls, along with her father, a school director. On October 9, 2012, she nearly payed with her life for that advocacy, having been targeted some months before by a Taliban cell, and nearly killed by a bullet to the head.

The larger story is one of a daughter born in a society that values sons who had an exceptional father committed to education, including the education of girls. She describes his struggle to build a school in their village in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, which she describes as a beautiful garden spot nestled in the mountains not far from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. She describes a setting where Muslim piety, education, and love of one’s place all wove together with a fair amount of harmony, given the tumultuous political history of Pakistan.

She traces the changes that came after 9/11, and when the Taliban, routed from Afghanistan, infiltrated her country, despite the official denials of government and military, who often seemed oblivious to what was right under their noses. She describes how they won the hearts of some of the native peoples through the use of radio broadcasts and then increasingly dominated the society, requiring burkas, and closing schools, especially schools for girls. Malala and her father were among those who spoke against this. Malala even kept a blog diary under the assumed name of Gul Makai.

Finally, Pakistani military routed the Taliban, though they failed to capture the leaders. The threats went underground but still existed. It was thought that Malala’s father was the endangered one until the attack on her bus when she was critically wounded and two other girls were hit.

The last part of the book chronicles the fight for her life, both in Pakistan, and eventually in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, the skilled and loving care of Dr. Fiona and Dr. Javid, and her struggle to recover from the head wound, a severed facial nerve, loss of hearing, and the swelling of her brain. As she recovers physically, she and her family discover they are exiles in England, at risk if they try to return to Pakistan. (Since this was written, she returned once, in 2018 to meet the prime minister and give a speech in her home town of Mingora.)

The value of this memoir is to listen to a devout Muslim woman who is not a terrorist and does not want to enforce sharia law, but aspires to the things women around the world do–an education, dignity, the freedom to choose one’s entertainment, to be secure in her home. She shares the rich culture of a Pashtun Pakistani, the sincere devotion of her faith, and her love of her people. In her conclusion, she writes:

“I love my God. I thank my Allah. I talk to him all day. He is the greatest. By giving me this height to reach people, he has also given me great responsibilities. Peace in every home, every street, village, every country–this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.”

Whether we share Malala’s faith, do we not share Malala’s dream? Wouldn’t it be a different world if we sought this dream for all of God’s children? Malala asks us, why not?

 

Review: Death and the Afterlife

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Death and the Afterlife (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Paul R. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the biblical texts concerning death and what follows: the state of the dead post-mortem, the resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven.

One of the most indisputable statistics is that one out of one die. While many other things differentiate us as human beings, the terminus of our lives is one thing we all have in common.  Our responses to this vary, from denial to despair, to mute acceptance that when we die, that is all, to some hope for continued existence beyond the grave. What we believe about these things profoundly shapes how we live.

In this monograph, Paul S. Williamson explores these questions in light of contemporary and ancient thought, and biblical teaching. He writes at the outset, “My primary focus, however, is not the theological case that proponents of various views can mount but rather the prior question: What does the Bible say?” In his opening chapter, he summarizes various views, both ancient and modern, and some of the areas disputed even by evangelical interpreters.

Following this he explores first the biblical materials surrounding what happens to us at death. While acknowledging the limits of the evidence, he recognizes the possibility of some form of post-mortem existence, although this involves a radical separation from embodied life and is thus interim. The ultimate destiny is resurrection. He considers but dismisses the idea of the dead being outside time, and thus the resurrection “immediate.” He traces the idea of resurrection and its development in later OT and intertestamental periods, to its full blossoming following the resurrection of Christ. His chapter on judgement particularly deals with tracing the idea of divine recompense for one’s deeds and how this might be reconciled with salvation by grace alone. He contends that saving faith is trust in action through persistence in doing good, that reflects the transforming work of God in our lives.

Many will turn to the final two chapters on hell, and on heaven, and the contention that ultimately all will wind up in heaven. On hell, while he argues that the language of fire and darkness may well be metaphor, we cannot ignore the language of torment that is everlasting, dismissing the language arguments that deny this. He would argue that annihilation must be read into the text. On heaven, he would contend from scripture that this is the interim resting place of those who die in Christ, but that God’s intention is for a new creation which the resurrected will inhabit. He responds to the arguments of “Gregory MacDonald” for a final universal salvation in which those in hell are brought to post-mortem repentance, showing that this case cannot be made from scripture.

The outcome of Williamson’s study is to uphold the traditional teaching of the church and contend that this is rooted in scripture. There is evidence for an interim state between death and resurrection, for the final resurrection and judgement of all and for eternal conscious punishment in hell. Following some newer interpreters, he would argue that the ultimate destiny for new believers is eternal life with God in the new creation, where heaven “comes down” to a transformed and renewed earth.

No doubt, this is contrary to what interpreters like Rob Bell (“love wins”) or “Gregory MacDonald” (“God wins”) would contend. What Williamson makes the case for is that while such opinions may be popular, they are wanting in terms of biblical evidence. For those who really care about searching such things out, this book is a good, careful statement of the traditional understanding of what scripture affirms, cautious in acknowledging what is not known, and equally cautious in not speculating on what scripture does not say. It makes clear the hope of the resurrection, how we may hear God’s “well done” in the judgment, and how one may enjoy eternal life in God’s new creation as well as warning of what faces the unrepentant. As much as we struggle with the hard truth of the latter, this book poses the question of dare we go beyond what scripture has plainly affirmed?

Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

The future of academic Freedom

The Future of Academic FreedomHenry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Summary: A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university.

What is academic freedom? Classically it has been defined as the protection of the freedom in research and publication, freedom of discussion in the classroom on matters related to their discipline, and freedom when they speak or write as citizens from discipline or censorship, with the expectation that while they do not speak for their university or profession, that they nevertheless represent these and ought speak with both accuracy and constraint. (Summarized from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure adopted by the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).

Henry Reichman, the Chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers in this work a rigorous defense of academic freedom, and a discussion of some of the related controversies on campus, and trends that threaten that freedom. He opens by posing the question, “does academic freedom have a future?” He explores the different trends threatening academic freedom that he will explore in more detail, from efforts to censor faculty or outside speakers on campus, the limits on students expressive freedoms, and more serious in his view, efforts to administratively or legislatively censor faculty speech,

In his chapter justifying academic freedom, he engages what he calls the “cramped” argument of Stanley Fish that argues that the responsibility of faculty is to research and teaching focused in one’s discipline, and that extramural expressions of ideas (for example on politics or personal ethics) fall outside the duties of faculty. He argues that this is not consistent with historic AAUP commitments that contend that the profession’s devotion to the larger common good justify accurate and responsible speech on wider issues both as members of the universities as citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

This leads to further discussion on faculty freedoms to speak as citizens, including utterances on Twitter. He explores challenges to that freedom by administrations or pressures brought to bear when faculty make controversial public statements. One of the things that comes out is a differentiation between free speech and academic freedom. While faculty can speak freely as citizens, not all such speech may be protected under provisions of academic freedom, particularly when such speech raises questions of fitness for their position. He considers specific cases, some in which he would argue that dismissal was unwarranted.

He discusses some of the much-ballyhooed threats to free speech on campuses (particularly speakers who are dis-invited or shouted down) and contends that these threats, while real and requiring a vigorous response, are often isolated and exaggerated. He points to the thousands of counter-examples of speakers on a variety of issues who speak on campus, sometimes with vigorous dialogue, which he contends is what campuses are for. He contends for the expressive freedom of students, which, while not academic freedom, per sé, nevertheless is consistent with the university as a place of free inquiry.

The real issue, he believes come from the pressures exerted on administrations by donors, cost-cutting pressures in increasingly corporatized universities that are reducing the numbers of tenured faculty and resulting in the increased use of contingent faculty, and political pressures attacking the idea of higher education, particularly public education, and seeking to reduce research funding and student aid.

One of the most revealing aspects of Reichman’s discussion is the evolving AAUP stance on unions and collective bargaining. AAUP has sought to maintain itself as a professional organization, and yet the pressures of both faculty speech and finances around both the corporatization of the university have necessitated the evolution of unions or union-like structures in AAUP chapters at many universities. One senses that Reichman accepts this as a necessary evil that has arisen in an era of bloated administrations and eroded faculty governance and standing.

Reichman gives us a discussion at once careful, grounded in historical precedent, and at the same time attuned to the changing environment of contemporary higher education. The work serves both as a good introduction to the idea of academic freedom, and a spirited discussion of what that means in the present time. He shows that academic freedom is not a mere indulgence, but essential for the education of students, the advance of learning, and the wider common good of society.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.