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.

Bawdy Tales from the 14th Century

Title: The Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Genre: Classic Narrative Poetry
Pages: 492 (not counting Modern English translation)
Rating: 4 of 5

I had a hard time deciding how I felt about this book (and what to rate it). I mean, it’s one of the classic English texts composed with obvious skill and having huge historical interest…but having 80-90% of the stories center around adultery and (frequently disavowed) misogyny got pretty old (though it did allow Chaucer to show how different kinds of people dealt with the same subject matter).

I decided to read this in the original Middle English since the Barnes & Noble edition I read has facing pages with the original text and a Modern non-rhyming translation. I had to look over at the Modern English translation about 1-5 times per page, but it was worth the effort to experience the original rhyme scheme and turn of phrase. In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters. Human nature doesn’t change, and many of Chaucer’s characters are recognizable and believable in spite of the passage of 600+ years (and most of the cultural differences were nicely explained in footnotes). Overall, I’m glad to have read this for a look into late 14th century culture and the experience of reading some of the earliest English literature.

Also, this is my entry for the Classic Travel or Journey category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Beware the Psychoactive Swamp Powder

Title: Come Back to the Swamp
Author: Laura Morrison
Genre: Weird/Horror?
Pages: 108
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 8/7/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for giving me a free eARC in exchange for a review – this in no way influences the content of the review)

When I saw that the author described herself as having “a bachelor’s degree in applied ecology and environmental science,” I was a bit worried that this novella might turn out to be little more than preachy environmentalist propaganda. Thankfully, that was not the case at all. Environmental issues contribute naturally to the creepy, unsettling plot and there is no heavy-handed attempt to scare or guilt the reader into some sort of activism (though I suppose the whole thing could be an extended metaphor for how you can get sucked into environmental causes).

Our protagonist, Bernice, is a grad student who is doing field working on her ecology degree (by clearing invasive species in Cleary Swamp) when she runs into a crazy old woman who claims to be the swamp…a crazy old woman who might be looking for a successor. What follows includes the pressures of being a grad student, space opera, psychoactive swamp powder, and the implacable will of nature.

The narration is frequently humorous but by the second half there is a continually mounting dread that the author pulls off very well. As with any novella, the low page count leaves some issues unexplored (e.g. what does the scary swamp lady do besides mess with poor Bernice?), but it was a satisfyingly creepy read.

MI-6: The Old Boys’ Club

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by [Macintyre, Ben]Title: A Spy Among Friends:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: True Crime / Espionage
Pages: 328
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is a tale of cold-blooded betrayal by a charismatic double agent and of monumental incompetence by his colleagues at MI-6 who sheltered, enabled, and defended him for several decades . Soviet mole Ken Philby (and associated traitors in “the Cambridge five”) wreaked havoc in both the British and American intelligence communities, compromising operations and costing the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Ben Macintyre examines Philby’s career with a focus on his friends/dupes in the intelligence community, especially his closest friend and most loyal defender, Nicholas Elliott.

Clearly, the authors had to wade through massive amounts of self-justification and obfuscation in writing this book, so we are getting version of the story of which a definitive version is probably impossible. That being said, his presentation is convincing, well-sourced, and hangs together well. MI-6 is portrayed as an above-the-law “old boys club” that couldn’t be bothered to do serious background checks on “gentlemen” and refused to believe that one of their own class could really be a Soviet agent (even when presented with damning circumstantial evidence by MI-5 and the CIA). I think that the author was trying to be as nice as possible in his portrayal of Philby’s friends, but to me Nicholas Elliott comes off as a class-blinded moron and naive fool of the first order.

After reading this, it is easier to understand the cynicism in the spy novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarré (the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based on Philby). Overall, it was a fascinating book, though largely in a “can’t look away from the tragedy being brought about by arrogant fools” kind of way.

Christianity & Roman Culture

Title: Destroyer of the gods:
Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World
Author: Larry W. Hurtado
Genre: Church History
Pages: 260
Rating: 4 of 5

Larry Hurtado explores ways in which Christians and Christianity diverged radically from the religious landscape of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries AD/CE. The characteristics he describes are largely inherited from Judaism but were regarded as bizarre, offensive, and/or antisocial in Christians who were not ethnically Jewish and thus were abandoning their duties to the gods. The points he discusses included:

  • Belief in only one God and absolute refusal to participate in the worship of any other deities (and a confusing identification of Jesus with God…a major divergence from Judaism)
  • A reliance on written Scripture
  • Behavioral requirements and community values significantly more restrictive than Roman culture at large – especially in the value of human life (opposing abortion, the exposure of infants, and gladiatorial games) and sexuality (limiting it to marriage in a culture where men were pretty free to sleep with anyone who wasn’t married or a freeborn virgin).

The author presents the beliefs and practices of the early Christians fairly neutrally, mostly refraining from evaluating their truth or even elaborating on specific beliefs about Jesus (e.g. he’s pretty coy about the exact relationship between Jesus and God the Father). He generally accepts the books of the New Testament as accurately representative of the dominant early form of Christianity though he does seem to consider many of them to be pseudonymous.

The main text of the book is complemented by copious end notes (over 40% of the page count) in which the author interacts with other scholarly works relating to early Christianity and the culture/religion of the Roman Empire. In these notes he generally argues against positions that seek to radically reinterpret or call into question the reliability of early witnesses.

Even though I have some disagreements with the author (e.g. he doesn’t seem to hold as “high” a view as Scripture as I do), I found this to be a profitable and fascinating look at the tension between early Christians and the predominant culture of their day. It has interesting implications for how it has affected the way people in general now think about religion (one of his main points throughout) and for how Christians should be distinctive today (something he doesn’t really explore).