Review: Refuge Reimagined

Refuge Reimagined, Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville, Foreword by Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A case for welcoming refugees based on the biblical ethic of kinship, and the responsibility of kin to provide a home for those who have none, with applications to the church, the nation, and the international community.

In 2019, 79.5 million people in the world had been forcibly displaced from their homes. Causes range from political and religious persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and the breakdown of the rule of law. In 2020, the United States admitted just 11,814 of these people, less than the 18,000 places allotted. Similar numerical disparities exist in many countries while poorer neighbors often absorb higher numbers, many in refugee camps.

Faced with these great needs and the reality that sending many people back to their homes is a sentence to a quick or slow death, many countries are closing their borders to refugees, claiming they have more than enough to do caring for their own people. Many church communities support these restrictive policies, citing scriptures supporting the rule of law and even the idea that the passages about welcoming the alien and stranger apply only to “legal” immigrants.

The authors of this work are involved in a community, Kinbrace, in Vancouver providing refugee housing and support. Out of their careful reading of scripture and their experience, they argue that the biblical idea of providing kinship hospitality runs through scripture as God provides a home for Israel as slave-refugees and enjoins this hospitality with others, exemplified beautifully in the story of Ruth. In the New Testament, the story is one of reconciliation both to God and across all human boundaries. The shared table, feasting together as the family of God is a prominent symbol of that reality.

They then build on their biblical study to address three areas where kinship may be practiced. First is the church and they explore a variety of ways churches can practice this ethic in worship and welcome. Then they turn to nations. They consider what it is for nations to practice justice with refugees, and address the objections of maintaining national identity and the argument that scripture only requires care for those who enter the country “legally.” They show that no such biblical warrant exists. Finally, they address the climate of fear that tinges these discussions, reminding us in the words of Marilynne Robinson: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Finally they argue for an ethic of kinship in the global community, challenging the approach of political realism.

I found myself in full agreement with the biblical arguments of kinship, and particularly, their relevance to believing people who are called to “…welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, ESV). I was more troubled by the way in which it seemed they were calling on Christians to advocate with national governments and international bodies to do this. I would have liked to see more of the book devoted to addressing how churches and other organizations can fully prepare to become refugee welcoming communities. Instead of saying to governmental leaders, “we want you to open the borders to more refugees,” with the inference that federal, state, and local governments would bear the weight of this effort, imagine the reaction if church leaders came to government and said, “we have mobilized a network of 10,000 churches and organizations, who are trained and prepared according to best practices to welcome 100,000 refugees and integrate them into our local communities. We’re asking you to work with us to make that possible.”

There’s a lot of heavy lifting with this idea. But I don’t hear the authors discussing the heavy lifting we are asking governments to do, often against the political grain of their populace, to embrace a kinship ethic. I wonder if more hearts may be won by local communities across the country who are becoming known for their generous hospitality, in which others around them see how much fun they are having doing this, and how their communities are enriched by those they welcome, as they fill needed jobs, start businesses, and add the richness of their cultures to our towns and cities.

That said, the appeal to kinship, to expanding our boundaries of “neighbor,” and to trade our fears for the joy of the festive table is compelling. I suspect the beginning in many places are for groups to study and discuss this book, begin learning about groups like Kinbrace, who are involved in refugee work, and pray, dream, and work to mobilize the resources needed in their community. What I hope will arise are supporting structures without bureaucracy to amplify the efforts of these local groups through advocacy, training, and networking. It seems to me, given the magnitude of the crisis, which is likely to grow, that this kind of mobilization is key if we would extend the wings of refuge to more than just a token few.

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

Bob on Books Top Viewed Reviews of 2021

A few weeks ago, I posted my Bob on Books Best Books of 2021. One of the interesting things I noticed as I compiled this post is that none of the books on that list are on this list (although The Lincoln Highway lost out by a whisker to The Four Winds for best literary fiction in my opinion). What this list records are the interests of those who visit this blog. As I look over the list of my most viewed reviews, I see some great books, some well-written works, and important books. Here’s the list:

10. Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land. I think many, like me, eagerly awaited his follow-up to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s a layered story occurring in three different time periods. I thought he pulled it off well.

9. Review: The Western Canon. This one surprises me. I didn’t expect so many to be interested in Harold Bloom’s defense of the Western Canon

8. Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I had a mixed assessment of this book, appreciating the intellectual tour de force of Carl Trueman’s exploration of the expressive individualism at the heart of the modern view of the self, but not the polemical tone of the work, which I believed would be off-putting to all but those already persuaded of his thesis. Clearly, a number were interested in this book, or at least in what I had to say.

7. Review: A Gentleman in Moscow. I was fascinated with the premise of this novel, a political detainee sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a Moscow hotel. Perhaps it is the feeling that all of us are living this life to some degree that made this such a fascinating book.

6. Review: The Nature of the Beast (second reading). This is the eleventh book in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. It was the first of her books I read, then I realized this was one series it was best to read in order. And so I have, and when I got to this book, I re-read it and reflected on how much richer the re-read was for having read the first ten. I was surprised so many others liked the idea.

5. Review: Bury Your Dead. This was the other Louise Penny book to make this list. It follows a volume in which Gamache and Beauvoir solve murders separately while dealing with the trauma following an ambush in which both nearly died, and several other officers did. I explored the process of healing and growth Penny develops in this book.

4. Review: Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes. E. Randolph Richards and Richard James show how we often misread the Bible which was written in a collectivist society when we approach it individualistically. I appreciated the nuance that saw both the good and the faults in each approach while showing how our reading could be enriched as we see that salvation is about “we” and not just “me.”

3. Review: Jesus and John Wayne. Kristen Kobes Du Mez explores the develop of the rugged masculinity typified by John Wayne, and traces how this shaped evangelical religious and political culture, and created a culture in churches often abusive or at least hurtful to women. This book has been discussed a great deal in circles I work in, perhaps accounting for the interest.

2. Review: The Hidden Wound. This is an extended essay from Wendell Berry written in 1968 on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work. Berry’s analysis of the wound of racism in our national life seems as relevant today as in 1968, because we still are trying to conceal the wound. I hope it wasn’t only Wendell Berry fans who read the review!

1. Review: Lincoln Highway. This is the second Amor Towles book to make the list, representing my discovery of this author (I also read Rules of Civility). I suspect the popularity of the review was that it came out soon after the book. I described this as “one of the best road novels I’ve ever read–leaving Kerouac’s On the Road in the metaphorical dust.”

Even though none of these made my “best books” I like the choices of my blog readers. I was struck that both Louise Penny and Amor Towles had two books on this list. The Louise Penny choice is easier. I’m sure that a number of views are thanks to the Louise Penny group in which I post. Amor Towles is more interesting–the only reason I can think of is that many others are also discovering this author. I will likely buy his next book, as I will Penny’s as well.

I also realized that this list reflects the particular audience of my blog as well as the books I chose to read and review. It’s an interesting snapshot. I’ll leave it to you to analyze the picture, since I’m part of it. What I do want to say above all is how grateful I am for everyone that follows, who reads, and comments, and even buys some of the books. I hope you liked them and I look forward to another year of talking books!

Review: Riding High in April

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021.

Summary: A freelance writer faces some crucial life choices as she joins her software entrepreneur partner of fifteen years in Asia as he tries to launch an innovative open-source platform.

Stuart is a software entrepreneur has developed an innovative open source platform enabling people to securely network in the “cloud.” He teams up with a classmate, Niraj, from India to form a company to pursue clients and venture capital, a move that has taken them to South Korea, pursuing a contract with a telecom as well as the first round of venture capital funding.

Marie, his partner of fifteen years has a gift of finding the words to help companies explain their products. She sets all that aside to join Stuart in Asia. She tells him, “I don’t want to be apart anymore.” Yet Stuart keeps leaving as he pursues contracts, deals with his business partner’s meltdown in a family crisis, the betrayal of co-workers, and ultimately that of Niraj. She follows as he tries to put out fires, and has several encounters that force her to question the premise on which her life the last fifteen years has been based.

The narrative is punctuated with episodes of Marie’s swimming. It is her attempt to teach a fearful young girl to swim and consulting with a swimming guru, that confront her with a realization about her own life and how she has made decisions.

Stuart has those moments that could be moments of insight. A heart to heart with a Japanese investor speaking to him about his health. A bite by a deadly tokay that became infected. His father’s loving words to him amid the father’s declining physical and mental health.

But the pursuit of the dream, the ability to solve problems, the inability to fail, and the refusal to settle for…what? The house on a beach with Marie?

It’s a story about two people approaching midlife faced with choices about the second half and what these will mean for their relationship. But this central thread seems to get obscured with highly technical dives into the world of open-source software, networks, clouds, and data and the opportunities for fortunes or failures. At first, I thought this was a tech thriller, but the story unfolds amid a seemingly endless round of meetings, pitch decks, the ordinary business reverses and betrayals, the crises and the pivots.

And this seems to be the problem with the execution of this story. The “deep dive” into tech seemed to be so fascinating to the author that the reader scratches one’s head trying to figure out what kind of story one is reading. Then it dawns on you that it is about the choices of growth (or not) of two people and what those choices will mean.

And that is an interesting idea, one many couples face as they move from the first half to the second half of life. Perhaps the “deep dive” reflects how one or both may become so obsessed with their work, their dream, that they lose sight of the other or even of themselves. But I can’t help but wonder how many readers will wade through the tech parts of this book and how many others who geek out on the tech will be disappointed that this was not the tech thriller they might have hoped for.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Singing in the Shrouds

Singing in the Shrouds (Roderick Alleyn #20), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: Alleyn joins a ship bound for Cape Town seeking a serial murderer, one of nine passengers.

Hmm. This isn’t my idea of a good time. A cruise on a cargo ship with eight other passengers, all strangers. Add to that the possibility of a serial murderer on board, one of those passengers. That’s the scenario Ngaio Marsh has created in this installment of the Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

An eccentric group comes aboard the Cape Farewell, captained by Jasper Bannerman, an old sea dog used to being in charge–perhaps too much so. Mrs. Ruby Dillington-Blick is a widowed socialite, living large in every sense, used to being adored. Fred and Ethel Cuddy are a middle-class, middle-aged couple. Katherine Abbott is a spinster specializing in church music, with large hands and feet! Philip Merryman is a fussy retired schoolmaster. Jemima Carmichael is on the cruise to heal from a broken engagement. Dr. Timothy Makepiece signed on as ship’s doctor to travel to South Africa. Aubyn Dale is an alcoholic TV emcee skating very close to a breakdown. And Mr. Donald McAngus is an elderly, stamp-collecting bachelor.

Just before the ship sailed, a young girl is murdered near the docks. The murder has all the marks of “the Flower Killer,” who strangles the victims with a necklace, found broken, strews flower petals over them, and departs the scene singing. The murderer has killed at ten day intervals. The girl is found just as the Cape Farewell departs. Part of an embarkation notice for the ship is found in her hand.

The suspicion is that the murderer is one of the passengers. They all had been in the vicinity prior to sailing. Alleyn is assigned the case, boarding at Portsmouth, assuming the identity of a shipping company official. He has to investigate without appearing to do so or alarming the passengers. And Bannerman is less than willing to help. He doesn’t believe any of these passengers could be the murderer. But the case is urgent. The next ten day interval will expire while the ship is at sea. There could be another victim.

This is one of my favorites so far. There is a budding love affair between Jemima and the doctor. The doctor and the priest have alibis that check out and become silent partners with Alleyn in watching out for the women. Marsh does well in leaving both red herrings and avoids giving away the murderer. We can’t help but admire Mrs. Dillington-Blick, as do all the men around her. I found myself wondering a bit about the mysterious Katherine Abbott. And I didn’t want anything to happen to Jemima, who struck me as the perfect murder victim. This makes for a great holiday or vacation read!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Fifty Years Ago

“The familiar Christmas music beamed from our downtown tower expresses the wish that the spirit of the season may be shared by everyone.” Home Savings and Loan ad in Youngstown Vindicator, December 27, 1971.

In December of 1971, I was a senior at Chaney High School. I probably had worked my tail off on Christmas eve at the layaway at McKelvey’s, taking breaks to sample the spread of baked goods all the women in customer service and the cashiers had brought in. That night, I’m sure our family all piled into the car for candlelight services at our church followed by a drive around town to see the lights. Christmas Day was a rest before the big work day on the 26th as customers brought in returns and we tried to sell more than we gave credits or refunds for.

I looked at the Youngstown Vindicator for Christmas Eve of 1971. No paper was published on Christmas Day that year. Christmas eve weather that year was cloudy, breezy, with temperatures dropping to the low 30’s with snow flurries. Not too bad for Santa to make his deliveries.

Many churches were having special services Christmas eve and morning. St. John’s Byzantine Rite Catholic Church was featured in a photograph with notices about their midnight mass at 9:45 am Christmas Day mass. One other that caught my eye was Boardman United Methodist’s “Service of a Thousand Candles” at 8 and 11 pm. There was also an article about the tradition of Slovak and other Catholic parishes distributing oblatke to homes, unleavened wafers with holy scenes, blessed by the priest and eaten, often with honey, by families on Christmas eve. Fr. George Franko from Holy Name Church on the West Side was featured in the article. Local fire stations were accepting donations of good used toys up to ten days after Christmas for the Salvation Army.

In national news, the big stories were a Christmas cease fired by American and South Vietnamese troops over Christmas day, even while bombing went on. President Nixon ordered the release of former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa after five years of prison to join his ailing wife. On July 30, 1975, he disappeared from a suburban Detroit restaurant. His body has never been found. Locally, not all was “peace on earth, good will toward men.” Gary Bryner, President of UAW Local 1112 vigorously denied charges of shoddy work and sabotage at the Lordstown Assembly Plant.

Lindley Vickers was still writing columns for the Vindicator, in this case about nature observations at Little Beaver Creek. Youngstown State had just won its sixth straight basketball game under coach Dom Roselli, defeating Illinois Wesleyan 85-76. Boardman handed a previously undefeated Columbus South team an 80-60 loss. Disney had re-released Lady and the Tramp for the holidays. Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, “$” with Goldie Hawn, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever were also showing.

Throughout the paper on that day were large ads from many of the businesses in Youngstown sharing holiday greetings. In addition to the iconic Home Savings ad, there was a full page ad from McKelvey’s with holiday greetings in every language represented in the Valley and beautiful ads from Strouss,’ Hartzell, Rose, and Sons, Lustig’s, Butler Wick, Ohio Bell and A&P. All those names are gone. A number of restaurants also had holiday ads while the more enterprising already advertised New Year’s events. The Zanzibar had $20 couples packages!

Peanuts that day featured Snoopy and Woodstock knocking back mugs and celebrating Christmas atop Snoopy’s dog house with the two disheveled and Snoopy commiserating in the last frame, “Bleah!! Every time we have an office party, I drink too much root beer!” Then there is Dennis the Menace praying, “…an’ please tell Santa I got all the clothes I need.”

That’s a snapshot of Christmas in Youngstown fifty years ago. So many memories. For most of us, our family celebrations and our religious traditions, if we had them, are what we remember the most–the three “F’s”–faith, family, and food. Many of the events are in the past or forgotten, a number of the places of business are no more, but the memories we carry last, at least as long as memory does.

So I will close with wishes of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you who follow these articles. I appreciate you all so much and wish you all the blessings of the season.

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

Review: Finding Your Yes

Finding Your Yes, Christine E. Wagoner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: An exploration of what it means to listen for God’s invitations and say “yes” to them.

One of the questions I often dealt with in student ministry was how one knows God’s will. Christine Wagoner, in Finding Your Yes, suggests that one of the key aspects of this is listening for God’s invitations, and that implies that God is even more interested in guiding us, at times, than we are to be guided.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is “Getting to Yes.” She begins by confessing that “yes” has often begun with “no.” She illustrates this with the story of how she kept saying “no” to writing as well as to teaching a woman’s group in her church and how Jesus pursued her until she said “yes.” She discusses all the “not me” obstacles we erect to those invitations, and how Jesus can shift our perspective, as he did with the woman at the well. She addresses the places of inner resistance, particularly our fear of failure. She tells stories of people who began with small “yesses” and how these led into bigger things. And she discusses how we grow in our yes through partnership and debriefing.

The second part is “Staying with your Yes.” Yes doesn’t automatically lead to a promised land of fruitful life. Sometimes “yes” involves waiting, as it did for Abraham, or recalibrating, when a reality we’ve said “yes” to, like motherhood, is not being fulfilled. Sometimes we say “yes” and life seems to fall apart. Were we mistaken? Sometimes “yes” takes us to a place of pain. Some of this is complicated by lies of the enemy: “this will destroy you”, “if, as a woman, you keep growing as a leader, you will never get married.” She talks about how we sometimes say “no” without exploring the possibility of yes and sometimes have a “no” concealed in our “yes.” I did find myself wondering in this chapter about discerning when God is inviting us to say “no” in order to say “yes.” Finally, she concludes with the joy of a life of saying “yes” again and again.

Wagoner shares a lot of her own experiences of God’s little and bigger invitations, her struggles to find her way to “yes” and then to live into those “yesses.” She writes as a woman leader, single until approaching forty. Her story may help other women who struggle with what saying “yes” to God may mean in terms of marriage and family, and where the use of one’s gifts defy traditional gender role expectations. But the basic message of the book speaks to men as well as women. God’s invitations come to all of us, and we all find ways to try to deflect them, or struggle within ourselves to say “yes.”

As we approach the new year, this book may be helpful as we consider what God may be inviting us to say “yes” to in the coming year. The questions at the end of each chapter are great to talk over with a trusted friend. As Wagoner reminds us, we often grow into and through our “yesses” with partners on the journey. Wagoner’s book can also be a partner in the journey of finding your yes.

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

Review: The British Are Coming

The British Are Coming (The Revolution Trilogy [Volume 1]), Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

Summary: A history of the first two years (1775-1777) of the American Revolution, discussing the causes, personalities, and key battles.

This is the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s proposed Revolution Trilogy. Based on my reading of this volume, I look forward to reading the next two. Atkinson skillfully manages to interweave accounts of the various British and American figures, and battles from Quebec to Charleston, South Carolina without confusing this reader or losing him in minutiae. Yet one has a sense of “being there” at Lexington, Quebec, Boston, Charleston, New York City, and Trenton and Princeton. We sense how insufferably certain of himself and earnest to flex his power George III is, and how subtle and skilled Franklin is in cultivating the support of a reluctant French court.

I discovered what a near run thing it was that Quebec almost became a fourteenth colony, save for Carleton’s determined defense and the critical shortages of manpower to win the decisive battle. I learned that Benedict Arnold, before his capture, was probably the most brilliant military leader in the colonists’ cause. The feat of his march into Canada alone established his ability to lead and overcome the impossible.

I almost found myself turning my nose as I read about conditions in American camps and that desertions and illness took more than the enemy. And I came to understand as never before how hard Washington had to work to just hold together a cohesive fighting force.

More significant was to see Washington’s evolution as a commander, particularly after his failure to grasp the topography of Long Island, and his misbegotten defensive attempts to hold New York. Victory, not in battle, but in establishing a superior position in Boston failed to teach the crucial lessons both of dispositions of his forces and the folly of trying to defend New York against a superior British force. Finally he realized that his most important task was to ensure the survival of his army while maintaining morale. His lightning strikes against Trenton and Princeton reflected a growing understanding of the need to fight as he could rather than as the British wanted him to, in which he could not succeed.

The other thing that became clear in the reading was that military superiority of the British was no match for the geography of the colonies. The end of this volume shows them controlling only two ports and a radius of geography in New York and New Jersey. The defeat in Charleston showed the British were not invincible when Americans fought from a position of strength, led by the flamboyant Charles Lee.

Atkinson combines lively narrative organized around the campaigns of 1775, 1776, and the first part of 1777 with well-drawn maps and helpful illustrations throughout the text. While the political efforts of the colonies are discussed as they enter in, this is first and foremost, a military history. Even Franklin’s efforts both in Canada (a failure) and France (a growing success) centered around military supplies. Along the way, we learn of many young men, both officers and rank and file who entertained hopes of a family and a bright future only to die either instantly, or in slow, painful death of wounds or illnesses in the camps. The story of every war was no less true in the inception of this country. The follies that refused to see a greater vision of birthing a new nation that might become a strong trading partner, would sadly become the story of colonialism over the next two centuries. And it would be the source of the “butcher’s bill” to be paid in blood over the next years of the war.

Review: A Sacred Journey

A Sacred Journey, Paul Nicholas Wilson. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2021.

Summary: A practical description the journey toward faithful Christian presence in secular institutions.

Many Christians do not enjoy the privilege of working for Christian employers. Working in a secular context, they neither want to ignore the rules and expectations of their workplace, nor leave their faith at the front door. The world of higher education is no exception.

Paul Nicholas Wilson has lived in that world for over 40 years and believes that a kind of “muscular” faithful presence is the proper approach to walking the line between living out a Christian life in the workplace and respecting that workplace. Before taking us on a journey into the practicalities, he offers a narrative of his own journey from his conversion through his academic career at the University of Arizona. He touches on his self-disclosures on the first day of class, his office decor, his association with Christian ministries on campus, his service in classroom and curriculum design, and support of public outreach efforts. He concludes that most important are personal acts of public faithfulness, community with other Christ followers, and a seamless integration between his faith and vocation on campus.

He then uses a travel analogy to offer practical insights on the journey of faithful presence. He discusses the roadway of higher education, both the common grace of God coming through various cultural goods as well as “road hazards” like apatheism, idolatries, tribalism, and the quest for money. He warns of the danger of dualism, the strategy of separating one’s personal faith from one’s work altogether. Sometimes, this is motivated by a misperception that any form of faith expression is illegal. Wilson offers a helpful chart and discussion of what one can, probably should not, and definitely should not, do.

Instead of dualism, Wilson advocates for integration of faith and discipline, marshalling the support of a number of Reformed thinkers. Then, over several chapters, he takes us through a “Gospel Positioning System” for the journey centered on the Triune God and a core of basic beliefs about creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration. He then elaborates the journey of faithful presence first by commending the character of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, all of this worked out in our vocations.

He offers trenchant warnings about speech in a setting rife with speech. His honesty about the challenges he faced in dealing with professional gossip was refreshing. He challenges scholars to excellence in their work and in all of life. He offers a simple rubric for evaluating research efforts:

  • Why now?
  • So what?
  • Who cares?
  • Done well?
  • Well done?

He advocates for collaboration, especially with graduate TA’s, helping them develop their skills as well as enhancing the classroom experience for students. Finally, all this creates a platform in which a faculty member can pursue “public goods and positive externalities”–serving the common good through advising, departmental service, and sharing resources, including funding. All of these offer the context in which respectful personal and public witness can be shared respectfully and forthrightly.

Wilson concludes with a word for churches and seminaries. He contends that these rarely recognize and affirm the sacredness of secular vocations, and center ministry around the congregation itself rather than the work on congregants in the world.

James Davison Hunter’s ideas of “faithful presence” hold a strong attraction for many academics I know. Yet sometimes, I feel this becomes little more than “niceness.” What Wilson does is flesh out faithfulness in character and the specific deeds of professors in teaching, research, and service. He makes a strong appeal that one cannot do this alone but only in community. And he challenges the dualism often unwittingly supported by churches that confines a Christian’s ministry to personal and church contexts rather than affirming workplaces as worship places.

This is a valuable resource that I’d love to see get into the hands of every Christian faculty member, staff person, and administrator on campus. It would make a great book for discussion in groups, offering mutual encouragement to put into practice the precepts found here.

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

Review: Absence of Mind

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Summary: The text of Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, challenging “parascientific” explanations reducing the mind to nothing more than the physical brain.

The idea of the mind has been under assault from those who would contend our “minds” are nothing more than the physical processes making up the extensive neural network of our brains. In this collection of four essays, the text of Marilynne Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, she challenges this notion. She does not oppose the work of neuroscientists, but rather those like Daniel Dennett, who in the garb of science, make metaphysical conclusions about the existence of the mind, or rather the absence of such apart from the physical substrate of the brain. She calls this “parascience,” an intellectual argument operating alongside and apart from real scientific research.

Her first essay “On Human Nature” notes the modern assumption of a threshold, before which explanations of human nature were benighted, compared to the enlightened explanations of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Daniel Dennett, who “explain away” the mind and traditional religion.

“The Strange History of Altruism” challenges the assumption that evolutionary forces protecting gene pools explain altruistic behavior and the disregard of counterfactual evidence.

The third essay, “The Freudian Self,” takes on the suspicion of the mind in Freud, that the mind is not to be trusted due to subconscious processes. She looks at the intellectual milieu surrounding Freud and how this shaped his ideas.

The final essay, “Thinking Again,” celebrates our sense of self-awareness, that mechanistic explanations dismiss. She writes in introducing her discussion:

“Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as an argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently” (p. 110).

Each of these essays are densely argued, invoking the various shapers of the modern mind, challenging the “authorities” who reduce mind to materialistic explanations.

Essentially, Robinson is saying, “not so fast.” At the same time, her argument also has a bit of a feel of a “mind of the gaps,” the mind not yet explained by physical processes. I would not want to see another version of the evolution-creation battle of the last 150 years in the field of neuroscience. Might there be an approach of humility, of genuine listening that refuses to dismiss both the powerful experience of our self-awareness, our consciousness, and the powerful advances of neuroscience in understanding the physical substrates of many of our “mental experiences”? Physical explanations of other phenomena have only increased for believing persons their joy in the Creator. Could not more holistic physical explanations of the mind also increase our wonder, even as we understand how that wonder is wired into us?

Robinson challenges the reductionistic materialism of parascience. I would also want her to speak against the denials of real advances in scientific understanding. I hope we can develop both a robust materiality and a robust spirituality, neither of which are at war with the other. Perhaps what we need is a sequel to these lectures titled “Presence of Mind,” for it seems that this is what we require in the present time.

Review: Abundance: Nature in Recovery

Abundance: Nature in Recovery, Karen Lloyd. New York: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2021.

Summary: A collection of essays describing both the loss of and recovery of abundance in the natural world, where people have caused harm and brought renewal.

Karen Lloyd is a border stalker. In this collection of essays, she describes her journeys throughout the UK and Europe at the border of where human activity is intersecting in the natural world–both for ill and for good. She describes her project using the ornithologist’s term of “getting your eye in”:

“When I turn on the news or read a newspaper, I am assailed by all the losses in the natural world. The natural world is being flushed out. In the natural world, there are no rites of passage to cope with this. Sometimes, frequently in fact–I am overwhelmed by all the losses and the reporting of all the losses, and what I want to do is get my eye in, in a different way. I want to use my binocular vision to look at and think about abundance and what that might mean. I want to take my binoculars into the field and see if it is still possible to see abundance–or something like it” (p. 14).

She begins her journey with the “murmurations” of starlings over East Cumbria and their response to the attempt of a peregrine falcon to penetrate the flock Her travels take her to the Netherlands, and attempts to site some of the wolves and jackals that are gradually returning and the debate over protecting these animals in what was once a natural habitat. A trip to Extremadura in southern Spain leads to sightings of vultures, harriers, and an abundance of bird species in a national park also devoted to wool production and lumber production serving the human population while preserving the natural environment allowing vultures to soar thermals and others to thrive.

We follow her and friends attempting to save a bird with a broken leg in eastern Hungary while chronicling the loss of the slender billed curlew, last sighted there. She describes efforts in Scotland to preserve beavers, that had slowly been eradicated by farmers and hunter. She witnesses the architecture of beaver lodges and dams, and the balance struck of running “beaver deceivers” through dams to pipe excess water through to regulate pond levels without disrupting the beavers efforts.

One of the more creative chapters was “Eighty Fragments on the Pelican” a “weird and perfectly adapted species. The most riveting chapter describes her time in the Carpathian forests of Romania, forests under threat of logging and an endangered habitat for bears. She takes us on a hike following bear tracks with a guide as well as her son, learning along the way not to get between a mother bear and her cubs, a hopeless situation.

As she observes the efforts of those seeking to balance human and natural interests and preserve abundance, she identifies their work as “cathedral thinking”–an attitude of planning and working that thinks in terms of future generations, even for centuries. She tells a wonderful story of Hatidze, a sixty year old woman in a rural village in Macedonia, who keeps bees, is never stung though not wearing protective gear, taking half a comb for her family, leaving half for the bees, exemplifying an ethic of respect and reciprocity.

This is a moving collection of essays. I felt I was present with the author on her travels. I was watching out for those bears, and reveling with her as she watched the vultures ride the thermals. She captures the joy of those working on the front lines to preserve and restore abundance and the love of these creatures. LLoyd articulates something often lacking in our environmental debates–the recognition that we must love what we seek to preserve and that there is a joy to be found in natural abundance.

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