Review: An Irish Country Doctor

An Irish Country Doctor

An Irish Country Doctor, Patrick Taylor. New York: Forge Books, 2007 (an earlier version published 2004).

Summary: A young doctor fresh from medical school becomes the assistant to a rural, and somewhat eccentric, general practitioner in a small village in Northern Ireland and learns lessons about life, love, and medicine they didn’t teach in school.

Sometimes even I like a “feel good” book, one with characters, setting, and plot line that warm the heart. This was one such book, and judging from the series of books (now up to eleven) that followed, it is clear that many other readers agree that Patrick Taylor has combined all three quite well in his Irish Country Books. [In this interview, Patrick Taylor talks about the writing of this, the first book in the series.]

Barry Laverty, M.B. has just completed medical training and has signed on to be the assistant to Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, the general practitioner, serving the village and environs of the fictional town of Ballybucklebo, slightly inland on the south side of the Belfast Lough.

Once a Navy doctor with a sterling reputation, he is now an aging practitioner with some unusual methods and a dedicated housekeeper, “Kinky” Kincaid and an overly affectionate dog, Arthur Guinness. As Barry approaches to interview, O’Reilly literally heaves Seamus Galvin out of his office for showing up with dirty feet when he is complaining of an ankle sprain! O’Reilly regularly injects patients (through their clothing into their buttocks) with B 12 injections, kind of a harmless “pick me up”.

Nevertheless, Barry accepts the assistant position and begins to learn that so much of healing involves the relationship between doctor and patient, whether in his vigilant care of a little girl with appendicitis, an old man, Sonny, living in his car to fend off the village real estate tycoon who wanted to seize his property, or Julie, a girl in service who turns up pregnant out of wedlock.

He soon begins to form these bonds as well, as he delivers the baby of Seamus and Maureen Galvin, who is named after him, diagnoses a thyroid condition O’Reilly missed, and learns to speak the language of the village, and not that of a medical textbook. He falls in love with a girl, Patricia, torn between her career aspirations and her love for Barry (funny how at this time, the Sixties, men did not have similar struggles). And he learns the hard limits of his work as he misses the earliest signs of a stroke in a hypochondriacal patient, Fotheringham, treating neck pain as simply a sprain. No other symptoms had yet manifested, and did not for hours, yet he blamed himself, and bore the blame of the patient’s wife.

As the author mentions in his interview, the various plot lines resolve, all in the ways we would like with some delightful surprises, at a party at the end. Seamus, Maureen and Barry Galvin are going to America, funded by Dr. O’Reilly’s “mysterious” sale of Seamus’s “rocking ducks”. A number of other plot threads resolve as well, including that of the Fotheringhams, all in ways that we would want, even some we might not have been thinking about.

This was a delightful read, and carried within it the seeds of setting and people and the possibilities for more stories that make me well inclined to look out for the sequels to this book. You have people at their best and worst, the language is sometimes mildly “salty,” and yet there is an delightful underlying goodness in the relationships built between O’Reilly, Laverty, and the villagers in this delightful place called Ballybucklebo that leaves one wanting more.

An Interview with Timothy G. Gombis

Timothy G. GombisYesterday, I reviewed The Drama of Ephesians by Timothy G. Gombis. He is an associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and has a Ph.D from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Dr. Gombis agreed to respond to questions I submitted to him via email about his book and his academic work. I appreciated his willingness (and promptness) in sending  responses to these questions, both of which appear unedited below:

1. How would you distinguish The Drama of Ephesians from other commentaries and books on Ephesians?  Why drama?

 The book is not really a commentary, but something more like a biblical-theological-cultural reading of Ephesians. A few things distinguish it from a traditional commentary. First, the book doesn’t merely situate the letter within a first century cultural context, examining its meaning within that setting. Many commentaries do this, and that’s an essential part of interpretation. The book situates Ephesians within the overall thrust of the Scriptural story of God’s redemption of humanity, so in that sense it might be a “canonical” reading of Ephesians. But it also recognizes that “meaning” happens when we read the biblical text within concrete communities of disciples seeking the heart and mind of God for his people and his world. So in that sense, perhaps it’s also an “ecclesial” reading. But I attempted to situate the letter within a contemporary cultural setting, letting the world of Ephesians interpret our cultural situation in order to determine how we might faithfully hear it as God’s word to our communities.

Second, I treat larger discrete sections of Ephesians rather than taking each verse or each phrase or clause. In a sense, it’s more thematic, but I tried to capture the overall thrust of the letter, knowing that detailed treatments of the text can be found in many other excellent commentaries.

I thought that “drama” was helpful when I began thinking of the sort of letter Ephesians is. It’s almost certainly a circular letter that Paul intended to circulate to a range of churches in Asia Minor (and beyond). And it was supposed to shape the life of each community that heard it and studied it and discussed it. So, the letter wasn’t supposed to be a reservoir of doctrine but a script for how gospel players were to go about living out (and living into) the fullness of the gospel. I thought that this whole framework was a helpful device to frame what Ephesians was supposed to do. When I began to explore the metaphor more fully, it opened up more possibilities than I had first imagined and I really found it useful.

2. You write about the heavenly warfare and the powers in Ephesians? How important do you believe this is for understanding Ephesians, and for the church in its life today?

Because the powers and authorities play such a major role in the argument of the letter (and in Paul’s thought, generally), it’s important to understand the role these figures played in the Jewish worldview shaped by Scripture. Now, because of how easily these figures can be sensationalized in our current American fantasy-oriented culture, we need to proceed with caution. We should not be looking for cosmic figures behind every car crash or power-outage!

In the ancient Jewish worldview, cultural corruptions, perverted ideologies, and idolatrous systems that enslaved nations were all thought to have their origins in cosmic figures that had rebelled against God. The crucial function of these figures is that in Scripture, systemic evils have intention behind them. There are large-scale corruptions in culture and in human relations and these evils and their attendant destructions all have a perverse enslaving logic behind them.

It’s not so important for us to talk about cosmic figures in our world today so long as we realize that even today we have enslaving systemic evils and corruptions that the church must discern, identify, and resist. We need to recognize the subtle ways that the church is tempted to compromise its identity and calling by God. The alternative is that the church naively assumes that culture is neutral.

A perfect example is contemporary American Christian participation in the national party political system. The system and its associated behaviors is perverted and corrupted. Christians need to realize that participation in the system draws one into the rhetoric of anger, demonization, and quests for power. If one is involved in such a system, one simply cannot practice love for one’s neighbor.

3. Can you say more about your scholarly interests and current projects on which you are working?

I am currently working on a commentary on Mark’s Gospel in the Story of God Commentary series (Zondervan). Most of my research is in Paul, so this is a bit of a departure for me, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I hope to be finished next August and it may be available sometime in 2017. I’m also exploring some more of the themes from Drama of Ephesians in a new book on Paul’s pastoral method (Eerdmans). I’m taking a look at how Paul pastored his churches given his acknowledgment of cosmic realities and given his dramatic conversion and the revolution in his thinking after seeing Jesus Christ raised and exalted by God.

4. In your book, you reference work with a congregation in Springfield, Ohio. How do you think your participation in the life of a local congregation contributes to your theological scholarship and academic teaching?

I think it’s crucial for professors and biblical scholars to be involved in the life of the church. And I don’t mean involved in speaking to varieties of churches or running big “ministry” organizations. Local congregational and parish ministry isn’t very interesting or sexy. The practices of peacemaking, reconciliation, and those associated with negotiating community life over a long period of time require that one develop wisdom and learn the ways Scripture orients and renews the life-patterns of a community. Sustained participation in a community helps one read Scripture with attention to this pursuit, and it helps biblical scholars remember that we’re most blessed when we’re involved in relationships of mutuality.

In the classroom, we’re used to speaking about Christian realities in the abstract. Living in actual community helps us remember that Christian realities simply aren’t abstract, and simplistic principles aren’t helpful for ministry practitioners who truly want to see God honored in their churches. My ministry experience has been immensely helpful in that way. It has freed me from the illusion that church life is easy and that ministry is straightforward.

5. If there is anything else you would like to say about The Drama of Ephesians or your scholarship and ministry that I’ve overlooked, that you think is important to know about you, I’d love to hear it!

Well, just the basics — I currently teach New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and I’m beginning my fifth year here. My wife, Sarah, and I have three kids. Two are in college and one is a junior in high school. We are currently involved in a ministry at our church that partners with other churches to help homeless families get into sustainable housing.