Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

Leading a church through the craziness that is 2020 (trying to keep people compassionate, encouraged, safe, & law-abiding) continues to be exhausting, but I have just enough brain power left right now to catch up with several mini reviews.

Title: Agent Zigzag:
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Spy biography
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Ben Macintyre’s historical accounts of spies. His A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor were two of my favorite non-fiction reads over the last couple years. This one was still interesting, but it lacked some of the “wow” factor of the other books.

The author never gave the impression that Eddie Chapman made quite as big of a contribution to history as the spies in the other two books. I was left with the impression that he was colorful (in a self-promoting, bigtime criminal, womanizing cad kind of way) and bold, but he was just one of many double agents working for British intelligence during WWII. It was still a well-written book, but the stakes didn’t seem as high, which slightly lowered my interest.

All Quiet on the Western FrontTitle: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Genre: Modern Classic / Historical Fiction (barely)
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

What a horrifying book! The author barely fictionalizes his experiences in the German trenches during the Great War (WWI). This is a soldier’s-eye view of the dehumanizing horrors of war. I was especially struck by the question of “how can we possibly go back to living normal lives after experiencing this?” This is a difficult, disturbing read but an important sobering balance to the “war is glorious” way of thinking.

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Classic Mystery
Pages: 418
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Reading Victorian era books with enjoyment often requires that you look past product-of-its-era casual sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. This is definitely one of those books with an extra helping of cringe. I think that at times Collins was intentionally satirizing the prejudices of his contemporaries, but other times not so much. I quite enjoyed Collins’  The Woman in White even with all its improbabilities and eye rolling moments, but this classic mystery didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if it was really any worse or if I just wasn’t in the mood to charitably overlook his nonsense.

Bio of a Megalomaniac

Title: The Great Successor:
The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un
Author: Anna Fifield
Genre: Biography
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/11/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Given the snarky subtitle of this book I wondered if it was going to be a bit on the satirical side. However, the author provides a serious, well-researched portrait of the eccentric North Korean dictator. She is able to offer some details of his early childhood, school years in Switzerland, rise to power, and political maneuvering at home and in the international community.

Rather than portraying Kim Jong Un as nothing more than a deranged lunatic, Fifield seeks to understand him. She strikes an excellent balance between recognizing him as a canny politician and as a brutal, entitled egomaniac who couldn’t care less about the suffering he inflicts on others to maintain absolute power, an obscenely luxurious lifestyle, and the “adoration” of his people.

Personally, I would have liked to learn a little more about what is faced by religious people (who must be in the extreme minority) in North Korea, but maybe there was no way for the author to obtain this information. Overall, I was very pleased with this book as it provided an informative overview of this horrible little man and his devastated country while seeming to maintain a bit more objectivity than is usual with this topic.


Title: The Essential Karl Barth:
A Reader and Commentary
Author: Karl Barth & Keith L. Johnson
Genre: Neo-Orthodox Theology
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 of 5 (with serious reservations)
Future Release Date: 4/2/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’m not quite sure how to rate this book. As a detailed introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, it is superb. However, I find parts of Karl Barth’s theology itself problematic (e.g. the Bible becomes a means of God personally revealing himself to us but is not itself revelation, the vague answers on the origin/nature of evil and possibility of universalism, taking as a starting point God as “wholly other” who cannot be known through any “creaturely” means, etc.). I have neither the desire nor skill to engage in a detailed critique of Barth’s theology, but suffice it to say that an overall positive rating on this book is by no means an endorsement of his theology.

That said, I think that you can learn more about someone’s views on life, the universe, and everything by reading their writings rather than by reading someone else’s criticism of their writings. The format of this book allows you to dip into significant excerpts from Barth’s massive body of writings and see how his theology grew and changed over time (as well as how it led him to interact with German politics up to and during World War II). Copious endnotes provide a running commentary on the text. I would strongly recommend the electronic version of this over the print version as it is much more convenient for toggling back and forth between text and explanatory notes.

In summary: if you are interested in Karl Barth and his “Neo-Orthodox” theology this works beautifully as an introduction. I would also recommend reading critical responses to his theology, but start with the man himself if you want to know what he actually believed and taught.

The Anti-Philby

Title: The Spy and the Traitor:
The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Espionage History/Biography
Pages: 334 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 5 of 5

Ben Macintyre spins another true tale of espionage and betrayal. In A Spy Among Friends (one of my favorite reads last year) he told the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who wormed his way into the highest levels of MI-6. Now he focuses on “our” double agent: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who spied for MI-6 in the waning years of the Cold War.

Macintyre captures the paranoia and internal conflict of a double agent from Gordievsky’s first tentative effort at contacting Western intelligence to the final daring overland escape attempt from the heart of the USSR. Along the way he highlights Gordievsky’s contributions to preventing nuclear war and promoting more cordial relationships between East and West. While a primarily positive portrayal of the spy (especially as compared to Aldrich Ames whose story is interwoven with Gordievsky’s), the book does not completely gloss over mixed motives, the personal toll on family, and other nasty parts of a life wholly dedicated to deception. Overall, this is a fascinating spy story, right up there with anything written by LeCarré… but real!

Visual Dad Jokes

Title: The Ultimate Droodles Compendium:
The Absurdly Complete Compendium of All the Classic Zany Creations
Author: Roger Price (Author), Fritz Holznagel (Editor)
Genre: Comics / Humor / Art / Biography
Pages: 280
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: March 6, 2019 (Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

When I was ten or eleven years old I found a book of brainteasers that had belonged to my mom when she was about that age. The most interesting things in it were these strange “guess what this is” line drawings called droodles. Most of them were pretty much unguessable and made you groan when you read the answer. They were basically visual dad jokes. I especially remember one a lot like this (courtesy of wikipedia):

In case you’re wondering, that is four elephants sniffing a grapefruit (as well as several other possible unrelated answers). The most famous droodle is “ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch” which was used as an album cover by Frank Zappa.

It turns out these things were somewhat of a fad back in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m a child of the 80’s and only encountered them once before by chance, so I had no idea they were such a big deal until running across this book on NetGalley. This large collection provides plenty of laughs/groans depending on your sense of humor…my wife and daughters inform me that they’re mostly stupid, but they think the same thing about my (dad) jokes.

Aside from the absurdist humor, it is entertaining to see the little stories and slices of life that Robert Price could conjure with a few simple lines, squiggles, and shapes…and frequently adds to with meandering tangential footnotes. His mind certainly worked in strange ways. That said, I didn’t find the biographical section at the end terribly interesting. However, I’m not usually much into biographies of pop culture icons, so that’s just my own personal taste.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this collection of visual dad jokes and would highly recommend it to fans of absurdist humor and/or minimalist art and creativity.

Cromwell in Painstaking Detail

Title: Thomas Cromwell:
A Revolutionary Life
Author: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Genre: Biography/History
Pages: 575 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 10/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way reflects the content of the review)

In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s scheming and plotting overseeing and subtly nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust and greed than concern for godly living or doctrinal purity (as aptly summarized my Rowan Atkinson and Horrible Histories here). However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s thesis is that Cromwell was driven, at least in part, by real (but cautiously concealed) Evangelical leanings.

MacCulloch’s biography is built on an examination of what must have been reams and reams of correspondence and court documents. The whirl of names, titles, legislation, favors granted, animosities provoked, etc. can be a bit dry and confusing, but no one can accuse the author of not being thorough!

Throughout the book, MacCulloch assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of the major events of the Tudor period especially ones relating to Henry VIII’s marriages and relationship with the church. His goal is to describe Cromwell’s role and motivations in this history, not to give an “entry level” summary of it.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically throughout, though the author admits more than once to “blood on his hands.” I can’t help but wonder if in an effort to save him from being portrayed as a monstrous “mustache-twirling villain,” MacCulloch hasn’t gone a little too far in the other direction. Many of Cromwell’s actions (e.g. participation in the destruction of Anne Boleyn) seem to be more about personal vengeance and/or advancement rather than Protestant idealism. Whatever the case, this book filled in some gaps in my understanding of the Tudor period in general and the English Reformation in particular. I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period who appreciates (or at least doesn’t mind) painstaking detail derived from primary sources.

Luther Demythologized?

Title: Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
Author: Eric Metaxas
Genre: Biography
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

The introduction to this book boldly claims that “much of what the world has come to ‘know’ about [Martin Luther] is fiction” and “sloppy glosses on the actual facts.” So does this volume illuminate for us the One True Luther as he has never been revealed before? Well…it is certainly a good biography that provides a lot of historical detail, but I don’t think it is anything groundbreaking. Like any biography, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Metaxas’ strength is in describing the historical events. When it comes to the timing of occurrences, the words that were spoken/written, the people who were involved, the settings, etc. there are no “sloppy glosses” here. He usually shows sound historical research to back up his descriptions. However, he does occasionally indulge in speculation in what seems to be an unnecessary effort to suck the grandeur out of the best-known events (e.g. Maybe the 95 Theses was posted a couple weeks after October 31 by the church custodian and Maybe it was stuck up with paste instead of nails and Maybe Luther’s “Tower/Cloaca conversion experience” took place while he was sh*tting on the toilet…and, yes, he did use that word repeatedly).

The discussion of the theological and political issues involved was a little more hit-and-miss. Metaxas’ main takeaway throughout is that Luther unintentionally opened up the way for the modern pluralist understanding that people should be allowed to investigate spiritual truth themselves and draw their own conclusions and beliefs (whether right or wrong) without coercion.

He does discuss Luther’s developing theology on justification by faith alone, the sacraments, the relationship between church and state, etc., but it is largely subsumed into his freedom of conscience (or priesthood of the believer) emphasis and is not discussed with the level of detail you can find elsewhere (e.g. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton which I reviewed here). I found this a bit disappointing and possibly a bit misleading. Luther took great strides in acknowledging the Bible as the only authority for Christian faith and practice, but he did not advocate religious freedom or separation of church and state as we know it today (e.g. he agreed to the execution of peaceful Anabaptists who preached something different than the state church…which this book completely omits).

Overall, this is well worth reading for the rich historical detail even if the strong emphasis on pluralism and freedom of religion does feel a bit forced and Americanized.

Sola Scriptura!

Title: Here I stand:
A Life of Martin Luther
Author: Roland H. Bainton
Genre: Biography / Theology
Pages: 356
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Five hundred years ago (on October 31) a monk named Martin Luther changed the course of history. His public posting of objections to some of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is usually seen as the spark that truly ignited the Protestant Reformation. While I am not a Lutheran (in fact, my beliefs probably put me in a category of people Luther said should be executed), I greatly admire this man’s stand for his faith and the influence that it has had down through the centuries. Luther pointed people back to the Bible as the final and only perfect authority on Christian faith and practice. His speech before the Imperial Diet at Worms (a speech that got him outlawed and contributed to his excommunication) sums up the Protestant position of Sola Scriptura:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” (some sources add, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”)

This book provides a solid overview of Luther’s life, theology, and influence. The author interacts with other Luther biographies and occasionally disagrees with them on minor issues, but does not radically reinterpret any of the widely accepted facts of Luther’s life. He is fairly evenhanded in his treatment of Luther’s Roman Catholic opponents in the theological and political controversies that arise from Luther working out the implications of his realization that “The just shall live by faith.” Though the author’s sympathies clearly lie with Luther, he does not stoop to straw man argumentation or presenting the opponents as mustache-twirling villains.  Along the way he does not omit Luther’s personal struggles with depression and a vicious temper, but occasionally seems a bit too eager to explain away some of his more caustic, violent, and/or antisemitic rantings as “not really that bad.”

Overall, this is well worth a read if you are interested in Luther and/or the development of Lutheran theology. I plan to read the brand new Luther biography by Eric Metaxas and am looking forward to comparing them since it is being presented as “everything you know about Luther is wrong”…we’ll see.

A Thorough Biography

Title: C. S. Lewis – A Life:
Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
Author: Alister McGrath
Genre: Biography
Pages: 448
Rating: 4 of 5

Time for the last book that I read for my C. S. Lewis class. This one was not by Lewis, but about him. For the most part, this had everything I look for in a biography. McGrath showed neither fawning hero worship nor venomous character assassination. He clearly respected Lewis, but did not act as if he were practically the fourth member of the Trinity.

Because he was not a friend or acquaintance of Lewis, McGrath seems to be able to be more objective than they are in their biographies. At one point he got very nit-picky about the exact timing of Lewis’s conversion and spent (I felt) way too much time trying to show that he was right and all other biographers were wrong, but in general he interacted with other biographies (especially that of George Sayers) only when it was helpful to do so.

I appreciated that a good part of McGrath’s research came from Lewis’s personal letter, and that he took the content of those letters seriously. For the most part, McGrath wasn’t one of those biographers who has a pet theory about what was really going on behind the scenes and offers odd/unlikely interpretations of the primary sources to make his personal theory work. I was not fully convinced by some of his speculations about the impact of World War I on Lewis or his relationship with Mrs. Moore, but since Lewis was fairly reticent to talk about these things, a certain amount of reading between the lines and speculation is understandable and necessary.

Overall, this provides great context for Lewis’s works (especially Surprised by Joy), and I would recommend it to any fan of C. S. Lewis.

Get to know Søren

41exr0luuml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Title: Kierkegaard:
A Single Life
Author: Stephen Blackhouse
Genre: Biography (and philosophy)
Rating: 4 out of 5

Stephen Blackhouse introduces readers to Kierkegaard in a way that is engaging and does not require much background in philosophy. Blackhouse makes the interesting choice of separating the account of Kierkegaard’s life from a detailed discussion of his philosophy. The first 80% of the book tells about Søren’s life and public reputation. The circumstances, motivations, influences, and publication history of his writings forms a major part of the narrative, but the actual content of the writings is described very minimally.

The remaining 20% of the book gives a more detailed overview of the content of each of Kierkegaard’s books. For me, this was helpful but did not provide a very unified understanding of Kierkegaard’s thoughts; but maybe that was the point. After all, early on the author mentioned Kierkegaard’s disdain for summaries and overviews. In any case, this book definitely piqued my interest and some of Kierkegaard’s shorter works may be showing up on my TBR next year.