“Character Counts!”

Title: Believe Me:
The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
Author: John Fea
Genre: Theology/Politics/History
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 8/30/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

My earliest clear memory of American politics is of conservative Christians howling “Character counts! Bill Clinton is not morally qualified to be president and must be impeached!”.  Fast forward to 2016 and many of these same voices eagerly led 81% of white Evangelical Christians to vote for a profane, lecherous bully…but it’s okay because “we’re voting for a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief and he’s going to appoint such good supreme court justices.” Major cognitive dissonance! This book, written by a self-identified Evangelical historian who is appalled at this pragmatic hypocrisy inconsistency, explores how this came about.

His main premise is that the evangelical “political playbook” has been driven by three factors:

  • Fear: “If you don’t vote for/donate toward/support [fill in the blank] you’re going to lose your religious freedom (and guns)!”
  • Power: “We must have people in positions of high authority who are on our side or we cannot properly influence society!”
  • Nostalgia: “We need to get back to ‘the good old days’ when everyone acted like Christians and things were so much better” (as long as you were white, male, and born in this country)!

He seeks to demonstrate that these three factors have long been a part of the American political landscape and have caused a variety of sinful/hypocritical behavior along the way (racism, or at least calloused insensitivity toward people not just like me, being a major focus). Because he is primarily historian, the author doesn’t offer a lot of commentary and what could have been done differently. However he does suggest that rather than play power games, maybe Christians need to take the role of outsiders “speaking truth to power” with hope for the future…more like prophets than courtiers.

I greatly appreciate the main thrust of this book, and it has helped me think through some things related to the unedifying spectacle that was the 2016 election. That said, I don’t know how convincing the book would be to someone who wasn’t already inclined to agree with the author. His presentation isn’t always carefully argued/sourced, as he occasionally takes an approach that sounds like “most scholars agree on [insert interpretation of data without presenting the data itself in any detail]…”. Another issue was that along the way I spotted a couple factual errors (the worst being identifying DACA as pertaining to children born in the US!), which made me question his credibility a bit.

Overall, I think that this is worth reading as a critique from someone within the Evangelical movement even if not all of his arguments are as fleshed out as they could be.

Look on My Works…and Despair

Title: I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land
Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Magical Realism?
Pages: 88
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/30/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

This short novella explores an idea more than it tells a story. Our protagonist, a cynical blogger who is more than happy to see outdated things disappear for good, stumbles upon the dusty old Ozymandias bookstore and its vast underground collection of rare books. His attempt to understand what he is seeing and to find it all again after he leaves is basically a way for Connie Willis to ponder how books become lost to history (and how all deserve to be preserved). The blogger’s “tour guide” (Cassandra – who seems to be the author’s mouthpiece) is especially hard on librarians “culling” outdated, unpopular, or otherwise unwanted books without regard for rarity.

Overall, I’m not sure how to feel about this book. I’m going back and forth on whether the book as a whole is melancholy and thoughtful or just cranky and whiny. If it sounds interesting to you, give it a read but don’t expect it to be anywhere near the level of her novels like The Doomsday Book or To Say Nothing of the Dog (one of my all time favorites).

Iconoclastic History

Title: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee:
The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon
Author: John Reeves
Genre: History
Pages: 264
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/1/2018 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

In most of my school history books Robert E. Lee was presented as being practically the fourth member of the Trinity. Among many dedicated church-going people I know, it is a “known fact” that Lee was a godly man fighting for a noble lost cause (states rights, not slavery which he abhorred).

John Reeves calls this narrative into question with his well-researched book. As the title suggests, the main focus is on the treason trials promised by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though he is clearly not very sympathetic to Lee, the author is fairly even-handed in his presentation of the facts; not cherry-picking just the ones that suit his purpose and admitting when contradictory reports (e.g. of Lee’s cruelty to the 197 slaves under his charge) render a point uncertain. The neutral examination of thoughts and attitudes in the North immediately following the war provides a helpful perspective that I had never read about before.

I feel that the book suffers slightly from a lack of focus as it leaps between the attempted treason trials, reconstruction, the character of Robert E Lee (including his inconsistency/hypocrisy regarding slavery), and the revisionist “lost cause” narrative. I am unsure whether the main goal was to simply describe the events surrounding the attempted treason trials as accurately as possible or to discredit the Lee-as-godly-hero mythos. Nevertheless, it was an excellent read that I would highly recommend for those who want to read about a forgotten part of post-Civil war history and for anyone who wants a balance to the usual hagiographic Lee biographies.

Take that, Mafia!

Image result for the french connection bookTitle: The French Connection:
A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy
Author: Robin Moore
Genre: True Crime
Pages: 284
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In 1960’s NYC two off-duty narcotics officers notice a previously unknown mobster type consorting with known criminals at the Copacabana. This kicks off a months long investigation involving the mob, French heroin traffickers, and soooo much surveillance.

I’d say that at least 70-80% of the book describes surveillance, including interminable scenes in which we get blow by blow descriptions of the exact routes taken in shadowing the suspects as they performed evasive maneuvers. I think that these scenes would be interesting for a New Yorker, but for a non-local they can get a bit tedious and confusing.

Overall, it’s interesting to see an old-school investigation where (for the most part) the good guys win, but this is not an action-oriented book. I’ve never seen the movie based on this book so I can’t compare them, but my guess is that there’s some serious embellishment to make it acceptable movie fare.

Racism in the White Church

Title: Plantation Jesus:
Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward

Authors: Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, Andi Cumbo-Floyd
Genre: Theology / Social Justice
Pages: 196
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 5/22/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC through Net Galley…this does not affect the content of the review)

This book addresses a genuine problem in white American Evangelicalism: an attitude that says (though usually not in so many words) “serious racism doesn’t really exist anymore, you lazy, over-sensitive whiners.” However, for a book with “a new way forward” in the title, it offers relatively little practical help in dealing with the issue (just some “how do you think you can help fix this?” questions in the discussion exercises).

The book as a whole focuses almost exclusively on getting white Christians to acknowledge that they are cavalierly ignorant of systemic racism and shamefully benefited by white privilege. The lack of specific applications left me with little more than the (I’m sure unintended) message that “you and your ancestors are bad and you should feel bad.” Add to this the occasional poisoning the well argumentation (implying “if this is painful for you or you disagree with this it’s because you’re racist/ignorant”), and I just wasn’t at all impressed (and slightly worried about writing this review). Basically, I think that these authors do have important things to say (I have observed and confronted serious racism in both churches I have pastored), but I don’t think that those things were said in a helpful way.

Some Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up on the books that I’ve read that didn’t warrant a full scale review (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy them):

Title: Saga of the Jomsvikings
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: Norse Saga
Pages: 116
Rating: 3 of 5

I enjoy Norse mythology (especially in poetic form) but find the more historical prose sagas a bit “meh.” There is certainly historical, cultural, and poetic interest in this tale of a brotherhood of warriors and their participation in a major battle with Earl Hakon, but the Old Norse style is a bit dry.

Image result for the informer liam o'flahertyTitle: The Informer
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Irish Crime/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This felt a lot like Crime & Punishment…if it were set in Ireland during “the troubles” and the protagonist was a brutish moron instead of a sensitive, philosophical type. We get to watch the mental torment of an oaf who betrays his friend as the vengeance-seeking revolutionary party plays a game of cat and mouse with him. The plot crawls through the seedy underbelly of Dublin and was surprisingly deeper/better than I expected.

Image result for Night Squad GoodisTitle: Night Squad
Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This is a good, solid noir tale, featuring an ex-cop, who unlike his “chump” father (an honest cop  killed in the line of duty), looks out for his own interests even if it means a bit of corruption. He eventually finds himself working for the local mobster and reinstated as a cop on the infamous Night Squad. This isn’t necessarily Goodis’ best work (Dark Passage is much better), but it’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of noir.

Image result for Right ho Jeeves book coverTitles: Right Ho, Jeeves / Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 256 / 282
Ratings: 4.5 & 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and these are two of the best. Unlike the previous books in the series, these are each one continuous (though episodic) story rather than a collection of loosely related short stories. As usual, good-hearted but dim Bertie Wooster tries to help his friends and relations, gets himself in trouble (which usually means engaged to someone he doesn’t want to marry) and has to be rescued by his genius valet (which frequently seems to involve temporarily throwing Bertie under the bus, but it’s all good in the end).

Title: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
(omnibus containing Swords & Deviltry, Swords Against Death, & Swords in the Mist)
Author: Fritz Leiber
Genre: Swords & Sorcery
Pages: 520
Rating: 3 of 5

There’s really not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s fairly standard antihero swords and sorcery featuring a northern barbarian (basically a less broody, less rapey Conan) and a thief/swordsman who dabbles in magic (though we seldom see him use any). It’s entertaining enough but nothing special.

Title: Immeasurable:
Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.
Author: Skye Jethani
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This insightful little book offers bite-size reflections on what it looks like to biblically lead, serve in, and be the church in a day when many churches and Christians are all about counting attendance, perpetuating programs, offering the “full service church” experience, and honoring celebrity pastors. While I disagree with some of his views on preaching (e.g. that it should inspire rather than teach), it offers some thought-provoking insights that would be helpful for both pastors and church members.

Rigorous Bibliology

Title: Light in a Dark Place:
The Doctrine of Scripture
Author: John S. Feinberg
Genre: Theology (Bibliology)
Pages: 770
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/30/18 (Thank you to the author and Crossway for providing an eARC through NetGalley!)

John S. Feinberg is one of my favorite theologians, but his books are not for the faint of heart. They could best be described as academically rigorous…which being interpreted is he absolutely beats his topic into the ground. He examines every facet with precision: interacting with other scholarly treatments of the topic, exploring every possible interpretation of potentially relevant Scripture passages, and pulling together all of the strands into precise, nuanced arguments & definitions. To be honest, it can become a bit tedious and repetitive at certain points, but it is worth it as you are left with a thorough understanding of the topic.

In this particular volume from the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series (of which Feinberg is the general editor), he explores the doctrine of the Bible. He thoroughly discusses such topics as its divine origin (revelation & inspiration), characteristics (inerrancy & authority), contents (canonicity), and usefulness (illumination, clarity, & sufficiency). His conclusions are solidly within the boundaries of evangelical Christianity, but are stated with more clarity and precision than you will find in many (most?) evangelical theology books. The section on illumination, the Holy Spirit’s ministry of helping people understand God’s Word, was particularly helpful to me (exactly what is meant by understand in this definition being a key point of discussion). Overall, despite being a bit of a slog at times, this was a helpful book that left me with a greater appreciation for God’s Word.

Resurrection Roundelay

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. – Acts 2:24

Bound I was to sin enthralling,
Death eternal in wait lying.
I am saved from wrath appalling;
Jesus’ death my freedom buying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ victorious! Death is dying!

I am saved from wrath appalling;
Jesus’ death my freedom buying.
Enemies, his body mauling,
Left him in a cold tomb lying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ victorious! Death is dying!

Enemies, his body mauling,
Left him in a cold tomb lying.
Vain Death’s bars and Death’s inwalling;
God the Son their pow’r defying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ Victorious! Death is dying!

Vain Death’s bars and Death’s inwalling;
God the Son their pow’r defying.
Listen to the Savior calling:
Grace, eternal life supplying.
Walls of Hades shaking, falling,
Christ Victorious! Death is dying!
(by Joel E. Mitchell)

…and bonus links to The Victor and He Holds the Keys as sung by Steve Green.

Whimsical Dystopia

Title: Ella Minnow Pea:
A Novel in Letters
Author: Mark Dunn
Genre: Dystopia?
Pages: 208
Rating: 5 of 5

In my experience, novels that are considered epistolary, experimental, or dystopian have a good chance of being pretentious self-indulgence and/or derivative drivel. Ella Minnow Pea delightfully combines all three of these into a whimsical dystopia (who knew there was such a thing?).

The small island nation of Nollop is most famous for being the home of Nevin Nollop, the man who came up with the pangram The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When a letters falls off of the monument to the miraculous sentence, the ruling council outlaws its use in spoken or written language…and other letters soon follow. This is obviously the will of Nevin Nollop speaking from beyond the grave, and those who break the law face dire consequences!

These absurd decrees and their effects upon society are discussed and reflected in the letters (as in epistles) that comprise the novel. The letters are to and from the 18-year old Ella Minnow Pea and her family and friends. The author’s skill in avoiding more and more letters (of the alphabet) as he writes is truly impressive. The one complaint I have about the novel is that, in the beginning, the characters all have nearly the same voice and vocabulary, making it hard to tell them apart.

The story as a whole serves as a nice commentary on censorship, totalitarian government, and speculation-based but fanatical ideology. Unlike most dystopias, this book is mostly light, hopeful, and just a little bit silly. It is currently my favorite fiction of the year, and you should go read it if you haven’t.

 

In other news, the reason I haven’t posted anything in longer than usual (and I know I’m already pretty sporadic) is that I’ve been up in Michigan interviewing for a new job, and things are looking very positive. There are still a few hoops to jump through, but there is a very good chance that within a month or two we’ll be moving to somewhere closer to family, better for my wife’s health, and more financially stable!

Wry Humor & Maudlin Sentimentality

Idle thoughtsTitle: Idle Thoughts of and Idle Fellow
Author: Jerome K. Jerome
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This collection of humorous essays by the author Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is entertaining right from the get-go as he dedicates the book to his pipe. As he covers topics like clothing, food and drink, babies, pets, and (of course) idleness, he occasionally flirts with trying to sound cynical and “wicked” like Oscar Wilde but mostly he swings back and forth between wry humor and Victorian maudlin sentimentality and ends up sounding like a real-life Bertie Wooster. As with Three Men in a Boat, it’s hard to tell whether the sentimental bits are intended seriously or sarcastically… perhaps a bit of both.

While not quite as funny as Three Men in a Boat, it is well worth reading for fans of wry humor. I had the added joy of reading it in the old copy pictured here that I got from my wife’s Grandfather. I’m not sure how old it is, but the gift inscription in it is from Christmas 1896.

Also, I’m using this for my 19th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.