Sobering History

Title: Darkness over Germany:
A Warning from History
Author: E. Amy Buller
Genre: History
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the years leading up to World War II, E. Amy Buller spent a lot of effort fostering dialogue between English educators and Germans. Obviously, war was not averted, but in this book (published in 1943 while WWII was still raging) she recollects many of the conversations she had with German friends and acquaintances. Most of the conversations involve Germans who dislike Nazism to some degree, ranging from unease to outright hatred. This seems to be an attempt to help understand and humanize the enemy to some degree, looking forward to the day when the war is over and people will have to coexist again…perhaps hoping that this will not end in another bitterness-inducing Treaty of Versailles.

Additionally, these conversations provide a sober warning of how difficult it can be to resist once a brutish totalitarian regime has consolidated power. Many of them feature regret that people waited too long to stand up to the Nazis coupled with fear, bewilderment, and/or resignation regarding the seeming futility of making any kind of stand now. For example:

“Of course, our real guilt lies in our slowness and in letting these gangsters get the whole country in their grip sufficiently to paralyze all collective opposition. So many people were so relieved to see any kind of order emerge out of the uncertainty and chaos that they said ‘Certain  things the Nazis are doing are good,’ and left it at that, without inquiring on what this new order was based or what was the spirit of the movement that was sweeping the land.” (p. 20)

Throughout the book Hitler and his cronies are characterized as upstart “gangsters” whose ham-handed foreign policy can lead only to war. For instance:

“It is also, I gather, true that Hitler is completely ill at ease with the more cultured and conventional diplomats, and looks upon them as quite unsuitable agents for putting over his policy with vigour and determination. The groveling insincerity of von Ribbentrop with his horde of keen and fanatical young men, together with the high tension atmosphere of No. 63 [the Nazi Foreign Office], gave Hitler the kind of setting and support he felt he needed.” (p. 69)

and

“And finally there was the von Ribbentrop and Hewel type who had never held power, men who had very little integrity to suppress and who loved the power that was so new to them. They  cheated, bullied and would even murder, I suspect, to gain their ends. All the tricks of the dishonest commercial traveler were in use among this crowd.” (p. 93)

Quite a bit of space is also devoted to exploring how Nazism became widely accepted because it had a religious appeal to those who had drifted from traditional spirituality (especially Christianity).

“The whole world today is full of false gods, and it is not surprising that in Germany they have chosen particularly brutal and violent gods. That makes it easier to see what is happening but there are also other false gods being followed in America and England.'” (p. 157)

The recently written introduction to the book is unnecessary (any relevant information on Buller is presented again and better in the afterward) and goes a bit “Godwin’s Law.” I would strongly recommend skipping it and deciding for yourself what kinds of warnings the sobering history contained in this book has for our own time.

Music, Madness, & Mephistopheles

Image result for Doctor Faustus book cover Knopf

Title: Doctor Faustus:
The Life of German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend
Author: Thomas Mann
Translator: H. T. Lowe-Porter
Genre: Classic
Pages: 510
Rating: 3 of 5

Despite the review title, don’t expect Mephistopheles to show up much in this modern retelling of the Faust legend. The suave devil (who never actually gives a name) doesn’t put in an appearance until about halfway through the book, if he’s real at all. Mann leaves it up to the reader whether the devil is actually there or is a product of syphilitic madness …or whether it even matters one way or the other.

To Mann, the important thing seems to be exploring a variety of philosophical themes. Most central to the plot is the connection between artistic genius and suffering, especially in the form of madness & alienation. Other themes includes the character and history of the German people (especially as it relates to losing both World Wars), avant garde art, apocalyptic imagery, and highly detailed music theory.

As the subtitle indicates, the novel is presented as a biography of the tragic life of (fictional) composer Adrian Leverkuhn. The narrator sounds agitated, apologizing for his poor organization, jumping around in the story, and digressing into his own personal life (he, like the author, is a German living through World War II). I found the style believable but somewhat irritating. Leverkuhn himself is presented as a sociopathic genius whose musical masterpieces are only fully appreciated by the few truly cultured people. As in any Faust story, in the end, there’s a price to be paid when you make a deal with the devil (or contract syphilis).

Overall, there were a lot of interesting ideas in this book, but after 500+ pages it felt overblown and pretentious.

Additionally: I’ll be using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Soft Determinism Defended

Title: Excusing Sinners and Blaming God:
A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil
Author: Guillaume Bignon
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 254
Rating: 4 of 5

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”  – Romans 9:19

Few topics in theology generate as much controversy as how to reconcile divine sovereignty (God’s ultimate control of all things) and human moral responsibility. Rather than trying to limit or explain away divine sovereignty (as in Arminianism or Open Theism), Calvinism views soft determinism as compatible with moral responsibility. Soft determinism or compatibilist free will is the idea that the human will is free in that a person will choose to do what they most desire, but bound in that a person’s desires are caused by factor(s) beyond their control (ultimately by the decretal will of God in a Christian worldview).

This book offers a rigorous logical defense of determinism’s compatibility with moral responsibility and with God’s holiness. This is a highly academic book in which the author makes heavy use of formal logic. I took formal logic back in high school, but that was 20+ years ago, so there were a few places where he pretty much lost me when he started using symbolic expressions. Overall, I think that the author demonstrates his system to be internally consistent and points out some possible logical problems with alternate systems. Enter at your own risk, but if this topic interests you, this is well worth reading. For a more popular level overview of the topic, I highly recommend What About Free Will by Scott Christensen; you can find my review of it here.

Even Better as an Audiobook

Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Mythology
Pages: 293
Rating: 5 of 5!

Last year this was one of my favorite books of the year. I’m not going to repeat my praise since you can find the original review here, but I want to highly recommend the audiobook version (as read by Neil Gaiman himself). Some people find the style of this book disappointing since it very much copies the simplistic Norse style found in the Prose Edda. What may come off a bit childish in print for those unused to the style works brilliantly in the audiobook! These stories were originally passed along orally from generation to generation and listening to a master storyteller like Gaiman spin them anew gives a feeling of being part of that grand tradition. We listened to this in the car on the way back from our (successful) house hunting trip in Michigan, and everyone in the family loved it (beware a few crass bits and discreet references to seduction/lovemaking if listening with young children).

Ode to Our Future Overlords

Title: Robots vs. Fairies
Editors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Genre: Sci-fi & Fantasy Short Story Anthology
Pages: 373
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The introduction to this collection assumes that we will eventually be ruled by either robots or fairies and includes ample flattery of both sides. After all, we wouldn’t want to anger our future overlords. Each story features robots, fairies, or both (and a couple with robotic fairies). After each story the author takes a page to tell why they are “team robot” or “team fairy.”

As with any short story collection, the tone and quality varied quite a bit between stories. There was only one that I actively disliked (“Ironheart” by Jonathan Maberry was just whiny and depressing). Some of the cleverest ones riffed on classic fairy tales (e.g. PinnochioThe Tempest, A Midsummers Night’s Dream), but my favorite was the hilarious “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” by John Scalzi. Only one story featured an actual robots vs. fairies conflict, which I found surprising given the title, but the variety that was present made this a highly entertaining collection that was greater than the sum of its parts.

In unrelated personal news, the move up to Michigan is moving steadily along…just put in an offer on the house (5 minutes from the beach!) and should have a definite move date by Tuesday.

A Quick Personal Update

It’s time for a rare “what’s going on in my life” update. You may remember that for the last few months I’ve been looking for a new job. After a lengthy candidate process, last Monday I was officially called to be pastor of a church in Port Huron, Michigan! This means moving back to the state that I consider to be home here in the US (my other home is the Distrito Federal in Brazil) and we’ll be only an hour and a half away from my parents, grandmother, and one of my brothers (we’re currently 500+ miles away and have never lived closer than that)…so we’re pretty excited! There is no set moving date since we still have to find a place to rent in Port Huron, so between trying to find a house in a city 8.5 hours away and getting everything packed (the one time I regret owning so many books) things will be pretty crazy around here for a while. I’m going to try to keep posting here once or twice a week, but it may be even more sporadic than usual until the chaos dies down.

The Love of Money…

Title: Redeeming Money:
How God Reveals and Reorients Our Hearts
Author: Paul David Tripp
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 5/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

How you handle your money says a lot about your heart. Paul Tripp explores what Scripture has to say about money and how it fits into a “Gospel Worldview” that centers on God and his glory. His style is blunt without being rude or arrogant, and he provides much needed perspective in our materialistic society. I would have appreciated a little more discussion of situations where circumstances beyond a person’s control (e.g. medical debt) put them in financial difficulties, but overall it was excellent.

What this book does not do is offer practical solutions if you have gotten yourself into a “money mess.”  This is more of a big-picture book, all about heart attitude, motivation, etc.. I would love to see the author write a follow-up with “now that you have a godly perspective, let’s fix this.”

Wise, Beautiful Fantasy

Related imageTitles: The Princess and the Goblin / The Princess and Curdie
Author: George MacDonald
Genre: Classic Children’s Fantasy
Pages: 256 each
Ratings: 4.5 of 5 (both of them)

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest” – C. S. Lewis

I like to think that Lewis learned this from reading George MacDonald…I know that both he and J. R. R. Tolkien admired (and were influenced by) his works, including the two Curdie books. Echoes from these two books sound in The Lord of the Rings and Narnia: hostile goblins living in mines, a hero who comes singing to frighten away that baddies in the old forest, and a character who embodies the guidance and care of God Himself (more on her in a minute).

Each story is so full of symbolism and clever little nuggets of wisdom that the relatively simple plots sparkle with wonder. In The Princess and the Goblin, the unseen goblin threat and Princess Irene’s mysterious great-great-grandmother provide opportunities for the princess and the miner boy, Curdie, to exercise trust and belief. In The Princess and Curdie, Curdie, sent and empowered by the great-great-Grandmother, must confront corruption in the King’s capital, discovering inner character and true beauty.

Occasionally Princess Irene borders on being a little too big-eyed and sweet (think Lucy Pevensie in Narnia), and Curdie can be irritatingly dim, but the author never allows them to become too annoying. The character who really shines is the mysterious great-great-Grandmother. In many ways she beautifully symbolizes the ministry of the Holy Spirit; not in the direct way that Aslan = Jesus in the Narnia books, but by powerfully fulfilling many of the Spirit’s roles (convicting, comforting, guiding, empowering)…and she’s frequently associated with white pigeons just in case you miss the connection.

Another C. S. Lewis quote provides a perfect summary of these sparkling fantasy gems: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

“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 on 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).