It’s All Koiné to Me

Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate by [David Alan Black, Benjamin L. Merkle]

Title: Linguistics and New Testament Greek:
Key Issues in the Current Debate
Editors: David Alan Black & Benjamin L. Merkle
Genre: Linguistics / Biblical Studies
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 11/2/2020 – Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This is no way affects the content of the review.

When I was in seminary (10+ years ago), my favorite professor/mentor was Dr. Rod Decker who taught most of the Koiné Greek classes. He kept us up to date on the latest goings on in the world of New Testament Greek linguistics, because getting the most out of learning the biblical languages takes more than memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugations. This collection of scholarly essays provides that kind of help for the intermediate Koiné Greek student (or pastor who is trying to keep current).

This book does require some knowledge of the subject matter and academic jargon. For example, expect sentences like, “This, Barber rightly argues, encapsulates the basic polarity between the active and middle voices, and it does so in categories that manifestly entail a difference in transitivity.” These essays come from presentations at a conference, so their overall tone is slightly more conversational that normal for an academic work, but they are still fairly dry overall.

Most of the chapters relate to one of three topics: linguistic theories, verbal tense/aspect, and the best way to teach/learn New Testament Greek. The authors are not all in agreement on some of the issues (e.g. the aspect of the perfect/pluperfect tense), so you get to see some scholarly interaction in those cases. I thoroughly enjoyed dipping back into the academic world, and picked up at least a few things that should prove helpful in my personal study. I would highly recommend this book to those with some knowledge of Koiné.

Creepy Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to outpace my reviewing again, so it’s time for some mini reviews. In honor of October, I’ll focus on my recent horror/gothic/weird reads. Presented in order read:

Last Days by [Brian Evenson, Peter Straub]

Title: Last Days
Author: Brian Evenson
Genre: Cult-related Horror
Pages: 200
Rating: 3.5 of 5

There’s nothing supernatural in this crime novel, just the horror of human beings with wicked hearts and weird beliefs. In this case, the belief that voluntary amputations are pleasing to God (the more, the better!). The plot follows a former cop who suffered a traumatic injury and is now being forced to investigate a crime related to the internal workings of this amputation cult. This was a disturbing, disorienting read with moderate amounts of profanity and a lot of gore. Don’t read the intro as it contains spoilers (and is pretty pretentious besides).

The King in Yellow Rises [Annotated] [Illustrated] [Translated]: The Lost Book of Carcosa (Lovecraftian Librarium 3) by [Charles Baudelaire, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Schwob, Kent David Kelly]

Title: The King in Yellow Rises
Authors: Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, and Others
Translator (and Editor?): Kent David Kelley
Genre: Classic Weird Fiction
Pages: 246
Rating: 4 of 5

This volume collects Robert W. Chambers’ original King in Yellow stories as well as classic works that influenced or riffed on his ideas. There is no denying the quality of the stories contained here or their influence on later weird fiction and cosmic horror. The editor (I think it is the same person listed as the translator) is what cost this book a star. I appreciate him rounding up these stories and printing them all in one place, but his commentary is sporadic and uneven in style. He wraps up the book with a rambling section about these stories’ influenced on H. P. Lovecraft and then apologizes for not including any Lovecraft stories (yet) because he’s not sure if they’re in the public domain…but he promises to add these and others later if he is able. It all felt a bit unprofessional.

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 167 (usually quite a bit shorter, but this was an illustrated edition)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This isn’t really horror/weird, but the invisible man was one of those classic black and white movie monsters, so I’m including it here. This is a pretty slow book, taking way too long to get to the big reveal that this mysterious stranger is an invisible man (which seems especially pointless given its title). After we finally get that out of the way, things get a little more interesting as we see how being invisible might affect a person mentally and morally. Add in some solid cat and mouse stuff toward the end, and it’s an interesting enough read.

The Necromancers Kindle Edition

Title: The Necromancers
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
Genre: Moralising Gothic Fiction
Pages: 196
Rating: 2 of 5

This book amounts to little more than a warning against Victorian era spiritualism (as well as any other dabbling in communication with the dead). As a Christian I wouldn’t disagree with the overall point, but it’s a pretty dull read for the most part. After a lot of breathless hinting about the grave spiritual dangers and some minimally described seances, we finally get some real creepiness and ill-defined spiritual confrontation around the 85% mark. Meh.

The Abyssal Plain: The R'lyeh Cycle by [William Holloway, Brett J. Talley, Michelle Garza]

Title: The Abyssal Plain: The R’lyeh Cycle
Editors: William Holloway & Brett J. Talley
Genre: Splattery Cosmic Horror
Pages: 300
Rating: 2 of 5

The four loosely linked short stories in this volume describe a world in which “the stars are right” and the old ones have returned. Cthulhu’s spawn rampage across the drowned world as civilization falls apart and strange cults rise. As with any anthology, quality varies, but the first story was just too much for me. It was about life-destroying decisions and addictions with Lovecraftian elements as a mere backdrop/counterpoint. I guess it was clever in that it showed that realistic graphicly described human misery is more disturbing than splattery sci-fi, but the torrent of profanity, booze, drugs, vomit, adultery, abortion, theft, murder, and other human misery and self-destructive behavior was more than I wanted to read. The other three stories were fairly standard (if extra splattery) post-apocalyptic Cthulhu fare that could definitely hold their own within the genre.

Read This First

Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by [David Platt]

Title: Before You Vote:
Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask
Author: David Platt
Genre: Theology/Politics
Pages: 120
Rating: 5 of 5

If you are Christian who claims to live by the principles of God’s Word, you need to read this book. All too often, professing Christians act as if certain biblical principles are somehow suspended during election season. Getting “the right candidate” elected takes on a higher priority than love for our neighbor, unity in the church, or the pursuit of holiness. This should not be!

In this short book, David Platt uses seven questions to help Christians keep a proper focus and God-honoring mindset while deciding how to vote and while interacting with those who decide differently. This is a non-partisan book, and not like the “non-partisan voting guides” that carefully curate their questions to push you toward a certain candidate or party. Platt recognizes that different Christians who have the same commitment to biblical truth may weigh issues differently and arrive at different decisions on who they should vote for in good conscience. He interacts with biblical principles, not party platforms. His seven questions are:

  1. Does God call me to vote?
  2. Who has my heart?
  3. What does my neighbor need?
  4. What is the Christian position?
  5. How do I weigh the issues?
  6. Am I eager to maintain unity in the church?
  7. So how do I vote?

Question seven is kind of the odd one out. Rather than focusing on a biblical principle, it fleshes out Platt’s personal system for weighing issues (using two hypothetical examples rather than his own personal position). This provides a method for organizing thoughts prompted by questions 1-6, but is not necessarily the only way to do so.

My one (very) minor quibble with the book is an omission that I found surprising. When Platt discusses voting options, he speaks of the three options for “stewarding your vote” as: voting for the Democratic candidate, voting for the Republican candidate, or “convictional inaction” (choosing to deliberately refrain from voting in a specific race if you cannot in good conscience vote for either major party candidate). Missing is the option of voting for a “third party” candidate. While very similar to “convictional inaction,” it is different enough (you are expressing your conviction in a way that will be tabulated) that I think it should have been mentioned.

Overall, this is one of the best books I have read on Christian engagement with the political process (see also How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman). It is a much needed reminder that we may disagree on issues of conscience, but such disagreement should not cause us to lay aside love for our neighbors and unity of the body of Christ. To borrow a few phrases from Romans 14 (where varying convictions about food have become a divisive issue in the church): Let us each be “fully convinced in his own mind” because “everything that does not come from faith is sin,” and “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” or, in this case, votes.

Thirdhand Lovecraft

Title: The Last Ritual
(An Arkham Horror Novel)
Author: S. A. Sidor
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 352
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/20 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review.

I have never played any of the H. P. Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror cooperative games, so I have no idea how well this novel ties into the characters and mechanics. However, I have read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and 1920’s detective fiction and, to be perfectly honest, this comes across as a watered down version of both.

There are some decent moments of surrealistic horror and creeping dread, but outside of those moments the writing and plotting did not impress. The investigation is desultory, characters react to disturbing events with unbelievable sangfroid, and the only real indication that we’re in the 1920’s is the presence of prohibition and bootleggers. Even “witch-haunted Arkham” seems watered down, deriving its sinister reputation primarily from prohibition-related crime and corruption rather than the sorts of things that Lovecraft et al. wrote about.

The horror set pieces saved this from being a complete waste of time, but its thirdhand nature (novel based on a game based on a writer’s works) weakened it to the point where it nearly slid into Scooby-Doo territory at times. If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror games you might want to give this a try, but if you’re just looking for Lovecraftian cosmic horror you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Endless Flooded Halls

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy?
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

The author of the character-driven alternate-Regency-era fantasy tome Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has finally written another novel! In style and subject matter it differs significantly from her previous work, but it does not disappoint. Clarke continues her mastery of fantastical worldbuilding that leaves you with a sense of wonder and light narration that sparkles with humor.

The setting is an airy, seemingly endless house, swept by tides and filled with statuary but largely devoid of people. As with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the dreamlike setting is one of the book’s main attractions.

The narration takes the form of journal entries that have a slightly stilted or childish feel to them. At first I worried that the author had completely lost her touch, but the farther you go into the book the more it makes sense. And that’s all that I’m going to say about the plot, because this is the kind of book where the slowly dawning understanding of “what’s going on” (both in terms of figuring it out yourself and then watching the characters figure it out) is the plot. Like her previous book, I think that the strange, low-action, meandering story is going to make this very much a “love it or hate it” read for most people.

Overall, I found it to be enjoyable and thoughtful. The author explores the nature of reality, identity, and more. There are even a few fun “Easter eggs” scattered around, including references to Narnia and Doctor Who.

My one criticism is that there were a couple times where the book skated pretty close to my pet peeve of characters acting a little too stupid/clueless/random to be believable just to keep the plot going. However, within the story it made enough sense that I felt like I could overlook it, and I ended up loving the book. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 15+ years for another book from this talented author!

A Rebuke of Blatant Hypocrisy

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values by [Ben Howe]

Title: The Immoral Majority:
Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values
Author: Ben Howe
Genre: Politics/Theology
Pages: 265 (plus indices, citations, etcs.)
Rating: 4 of 5

How could so many Evangelical Christians go from howls of “Character matters! He must resign!” during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to declaring “we’re electing a president not a pastor” and “it’s just locker room talk” in defense of the flagrant immorality of Donald Trump? How can they not see this blatant testimony-destroying hypocrisy? How can we speak with any kind of moral authority when the majority of self-identified Evangelicals unreservedly applaud and defend the every action of a man who in his personal conduct is the antithesis of our Lord and Savior? If nothing else, this book has let me know that there are at least a few other conservative Christians out there who share these grave concerns.

Ben Howe, a self-identified Christian and political conservative, takes a hard look at the “Trump Evangelicals.” He traces the steps that led from “not my first choice, but…” to full-fledged defense, support, or even celebration, of behavior that should appall a follower of Jesus Christ. He tries to uncover and understand the underlying motives (concluding mostly self-interest & retribution after years of feeling like they were being unfairly mischaracterized), and shows how any “gains” made through policy are essentially “gaining the world but losing your soul.” He ends on a call to return to trusting God’s to accomplish his will as we consistently obey him rather than trying to help God out with an ends-justify-the-means plunge into hypocrisy.

As far as weak points: His definition of Evangelical was incredibly imprecise, some of his attribution of motives may have been overly cynical, and he seemed to go back and forth on whether it was a problem to support Trump at all or just a problem to support/defend his flagrantly immoral behavior. In spite of these imprecisions, I would still highly recommend this book as food for thought and a biblically solid rebuke of the ends-justify-the-means thinking that far too many Christians have adopted in the arena of politics.

I leave you with this quote: “Our job is to ensure our devotion to Christ’s teachings in the means. Our trust is to believe in God’s will as it relates to the ends.” (p. 229)

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!

Carthago Delenda Est

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by [Richard Miles]Title: Carthage Must Be Destroyed
Author: Richard Miles
Genre:  Ancient History
Pages: 471 (plus indices, etc.a0
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you want to know more about Carthage than “Aeneas abandons Dido…Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants…Carthago delenda est,” this is a great place to start. The author manages to make it a fairly popular level overview without giving the feeling that he’s dumbing it down or skimping on research.

Compiling an accurate history of Carthage is no easy task since most of our extant primary sources were written by their enemies. Overall, the author does an admirable job of comparing and stitching together available sources while trying to sort out truth from slander. He probably swings too far in the other direction at times, giving Carthage the benefit of the doubt while emphasizing Roman hypocrisy and perfidy…but I think that most historians tilt things in favor of their chosen topic.

Throughout the book the author emphasizes the propagandizing of mythology/religion by both the Romans and the Carthaginians, with special attention on Heracles/Hercules. Whether or not this was always done as intentionally as the author seems to think, it provides an added dimension that makes the book all the more interesting.

Because the book covers hundreds of years, it provides only the briefest description of most battles in the Punic wars, spending no more than a few paragraphs on all but the most important of them. So, if you are looking primarily for a military history you may want to look elsewhere. However, if you want a solid overview of Carthaginian history, culture, and religion, give this a read.

Potpourri

It’s time for a handful of mini-reviews – all from different genres, none so spectacularly good or bad as to generate a full scale review, presented in order read:

The Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000) by [Chris Wraight]Title: Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Chris Wraight
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Pretty much anything Warhammer 40,000 falls into the grimdark category (I think the WH40k tagline is actually the origin of the word). Books, like this one, that star chaos space marines have an extra helping of grim and dark…and since these chaos space marines are dedicated to the plague god there’s also an extra helping of gross. This is worth reading if you’re interested in seeing the internal workings of plague marines and how they relate to the ongoing “Black crusade.” The overall plot was a bit meandering, but a solid entry for this escapist sci-fi-bordering-on-horror universe.

Things I Want to Punch in the Face by [Jennifer Worick]Title: Things I Want to Punch in the Face
Author: Jennifer Worick
Genre: Humorous Ranting
Pages: 136
Rating: 2 of 5

There are some funny turns of phrase in this series of rants, but if you read more than a couple end to end they just feel mean-spirited. These would probably be a lot funnier as occasional blog posts interspersed with other content than they were collected into a book. Also, she’d save a lot of time by just saying “I hate everything that hipsters and nerds like.”

The Night Manager: A Novel by [John le Carré]Title: The Night Manager
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This isn’t terrible (if you’re okay with LeCarré’s pervasive cynicism), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before and better in his other books: inter-departmental rivalry, possible leak/mole, seedy/promiscuous agents, questionable value of the intelligence game when compared to the human cost, etc. etc.. There just wasn’t much new here, and certainly not enough to justify the bloated page count.

The Alienist: A Novel (Dr. Lazlo Kreizler Book 1) by [Caleb Carr]Title: The Alienist
(Dr. Laszlo Kreizler: Book 1)
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book’s late 19th century setting throws in some fun historical goodies (including Teddy Roosevelt as a prominent secondary character), but this is primarily a “criminal profiler” book. The focus throughout is on constructing a profile of a serial killer, with a lot of time and discussion given to the role of childhood in determining a person’s course through life (all very heavy on behaviorism). The nature of the serial killer (he preys primarily on male child prostitutes) makes for disturbing discussion and situations throughout, so this is not a book for the easily traumatized. There are moments of action, but the overall pace is plodding and methodical. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on my TBR.

Title: On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Genre: History & Politics
Pages: 128
Rating: 4 of 5

Is this largely an attack on President Trump? Yes
Are parts of it a bit overblown? Also, yes
Are parts of it worryingly relevant parallels between the autocracy of German fascism, Soviet Marxism, and the current administration? Also, also yes!

Sold out Trumpers won’t like this, but it really is worth reading with your critical thinking cap on. And that’s all that I really want to say about this because I don’t do the whole “get in political debates with strangers on the internet” thing.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Multiverse Edition

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Rating: 3 of 5

This book explores the idea of the infinite multiverse where every decision made generates a new alternate universe. What would happen if you were able to travel to alternate universes where an alternate you made different major life choices? It’s sort of an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario, but with a magical sciencey box instead of Clarence the junior angel.

Okay, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I don’t want to give away any major spoilers. Suffice it to say that interaction with alternate universes, alternate selves, and alternate loved ones gets pretty convoluted. Some of the characterization is a bit flat and chichéd, and our main character makes some pretty dumb decisions for a world-class physicist, but if you’re really into the idea of an infinite multiverse (and aren’t put off by moderate amounts of profanity, drugs, semi-explicit sex, and gory violence), you’ll probably enjoy this book as fairly well-written, trippy sci-fi.

Personally, while I admired a lot of the plotting, this wasn’t my favorite. To me, the whole concept of every choice generating one or more alternate universes with alternate yous renders moot the very idea of a plot…why is the person who we are following any more the “real” person than one of the infinite alternates spawned by every choice made? To be fair, the book does acknowledge and incorporate this dilemma to a degree, but for me it kind of kills the joy of stories. Sure, the version I read ended this way, but it also ended in an infinite number of other ways none of which is more true than any other. Maybe I’m just overthinking it, but this kind of multiverse fiction just doesn’t work for me (I had similar issues with Michael Crichton’s Timeline).