The Month in Reviews: July 2016

The Nightingale

I noticed a few trends in my reading this month. One was that I read more fiction than in the usual month, including works by Kristin Hannah, Agatha Christie, and Rohinton Mistry. The last author overlaps another trend, and that is reading non-Western authors. Rohinton Mistry is from India, Nabeel Quereshi is American-born of Pakistani descent, and Soong-Chan Rah was born in Korea and now lives in the U.S. I’ve also enjoyed reading a couple women theologians, Michelle Lee-Barnewall and Marva Dawn. All these voices stretch me to see a bigger world than my roots as a white male from the Midwest of the United States. I also had the chance to plunge into David Maraniss’ excellent biography of football icon Vince Lombardi, a social history of the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century and a few other books as well. So, here are my July 2016 reads:

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end. (Review)

Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian

Neither Complementarian nor EgalitarianMichelle Lee-Barnewall. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. Argues on the basis of the biblical texts for a reframing of the discussion of the relationship of men and women from one of power versus equality  to one that focuses on the elements in the biblical texts around reversal, inclusion, unity and service. (Review)

When Pride Still Mattered

When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. The biography of Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, showing a man striving for excellence in, and caught in the tensions of the three priorities in his life: faith, family, and football. (Review)

In the Beginning GOD

In The Beginning, GOD, Marva J. Dawn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. A series of reflections on the texts of Genesis 1-3 focused not on questions of beginnings and the controversies that surround these chapters but on what they show us of God and how this may lead us into worship. (Review)

Mapping Your Academic Career

Mapping Your Academic Career, Gary M. Burge. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Traces the career trajectory of a college professor, identifying the factors that mark the successful passage from one “cohort” to the next, the risks to be negotiated in each season of work, and key resources for career development. (Review)

Answering Jihad

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, Nabeel Qureshi. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. Contends that there is a basis in the foundations of Islam for violent, and not merely defensive, jihad, which neither can be ignored, nor assumed of all Muslims, but calls for a proactive response, particularly of Christians, of love and friendship with the hope of breaking the cycle of violence. (Review)

The Big Change

The Big Change, Frederick Lewis Allen. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2016 (forthcoming,  originally published in 1952). A social history of the United States from 1900 to 1950 chronicling the expansion of the middle class, the technological changes that occurred, and the impact of two World Wars and the Depression. (Review)

Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. A commentary and exposition of the book of Lamentations that advocates for the restoration of the practice of lament as part of the worship of American churches, particularly majority culture evangelical churches. (Review)

One nation under God

One Nation Under God, Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2015. Explores whether and how it is appropriate for Christians in the American context to engage in politics,  how one brings one’s faith into this, and applies this to seven contemporary issues. (Review)

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules, Fil Anderson (foreward by Brennan Manning). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.  Anderson traces his own spiritual journey of moving from rules- and performance-based religion to an intimate relationship with God where he was unafraid of revealing his true self. (Review)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydAgatha Christie. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (originally published 1926). Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, who is killed after learning that the woman he loved, who has taken her life, had poisoned her first husband and was being blackmailed to cover up the fact. (Review)

A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Centered around the flat of Dina Dalal, inhabited by two tailors and a student with a larger circle on the periphery, the novel charts the “fine balances” the people of India sought to maintain through the Emergency Rule of Indira Gandhi–balances of both physical and spiritual. (Review)

Best of the Month: This was a tough one. I was torn between Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Hannah’s The Nightingale. Both are well-written books dealing with profound themes. I will give the nod to Hannah’s book as a better read. Both books actually explore “the fine balances” of survival under tyranny and the razor’s edge between hope and despair. Hannah’s book was the one that kept me up at night thinking about what I had read.

Quote of the Month: One of the runners up for best of the month this month was Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament. He made this challenging observation about the imbalance between celebration and lament in most American churches:

“What do we lose as a result of this imbalance? American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the existing dynamics of inequality and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. Promoting one perspective over the other, however, diminishes our theological discourse. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of a theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”

Coming Soon: I will post a review tomorrow of Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura’s wonderful new book, Silence and Beauty, a reflection upon Shusako Endo’s novel, Silence, and the intersection of Christianity and Japanese culture. I’m also currently reading Julie M. Fenster’s Jefferson’s America, an intriguing account of the explorations of the American west commissioned by Jefferson during his presidency, and how he used these to assert America’s hold on these lands. I’m also reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, having read his sequel on Genesis Two and Three, and Richard Horsley’s Covenant Economics, a biblical study of how the covenant shaped (or didn’t) economic relationships in Israel, and in the communities of followers of Jesus. I’m looking forward to reading a gift from my wife, Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a novel exploring the life of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalinist Russia.

Hope you are able to squeeze a few more “summer reads” into your life before school or work pick up for you!



Review: A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary: Centered around the flat of Dina Dalal, inhabited by two tailors and a student with a larger circle on the periphery, the novel charts the “fine balances” the people of India sought to maintain through the Emergency Rule of Indira Gandhi–balances of both physical and spiritual.

For a twenty-one month period from 1975 to 1977 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled under a decree of a “state of emergency” in which constitutional processes were suspended during which mass arrests, forced sterilizations, and slum clearances forced residents into work camps or onto the streets, where they could be arrested as well. Corruption was rampant and “justice” was bought and sold.

Most of the narrative of A Fine Balance occurs during this period, with “retrospective” narratives of the lives of each of the principle characters and the circumstances that brought them together. The characters are Dina Dalal, a widow after losing, in a bicycle accident, the man she married for love, opposing her brother Nusswan’s efforts to match her up with more prosperous men. She struggles to support herself by sewing in order to hold onto the rent-controlled flat that represented the three years of love she and her husband enjoyed. Maneck Kohlah is the son of a couple living in the hill country who made their living operating a general store, slowly losing its edge to the tide of modernity invading their village. Maneck comes to the city for training in heating and air conditioning, tires of living in a filthy hostel and becomes a lodger with Dina through a friend of Maneck’s family. Ishvar and Omprakash Darji come from a caste of tanners, change occupation and learn tailoring and when custom work dwindles, come to the city even as Dina is setting up a shop to supply a clothing export business.

Already, one senses the “fine balance” between destitution and survival with which most of the characters struggle. Dina struggles to keep her flat against the attempts of her landlord to evict her to secure higher rents. Her steps to take lodgers and run a business put her at greater risk. Given the dearth of housing the tailors are forced to take a hut in one of the slums. Eventually it is bulldozed and they sleep in a shop doorway, paying off the watchman, until they are rounded up by police for a work camp (it is during the time at the work camp when the “fine balance” phrase is used for the Monkey Man, who eventually creates an act balancing two children on a pole, which his audiences found repulsive). Along with them is a beggar, Shankar, without hands or legs, who they help, and who in turn helps them until they can get free of the camp, with the aid of Shankar’s Beggar Master, to whom they are beholden but who also becomes their protector, and eventually Dina’s as well.

Maneck strives for a different “fine balance”, an interior one between parental relationships and expectations, his own aspirations, and the injustices and tragedies that he witnesses in the lives of his friends. In some sense, all of the characters live on the knife edge of hope and despair, but the question of for whom this is hardest–for those who endure the most physically or those who experience the most in their souls, is one of the questions this book raises.

Publisher’s blurbs describe this book as Dickensian in its narrative sweep and compassionate realism. Like Dickens, Mistry introduces us to a group of characters for whom we come to care and whose lives are caught up in the social forces of their time. One sees the tragic human consequences when “necessity” demands the suspension of the rule of law for the rule of power. And the book reminds us of the “fine balance” within which all of our lives are lived.