A Handful of Mini-Reviews

Working from home plus “attending” an online conference (T4G20) kept me busy all of last week, but it’s time for a few mini-reviews to help catch up with what I’ve read (presented in order read):

The Bondage of the Will: Luther, Martin, Packer, J. I., Johnston ...Title: The Bondage of the Will
Author: Martin Luther
Translators: J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston
Genre: Classic Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

Martin Luther’s response to Desiderius Erasmus’s The Freedom of the Will is a classic of Protestant theology. It demonstrates that a belief in “total depravity” and “saved by grace alone through faith alone” are the dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

While I tend to agree with most of Luther’s conclusions, I felt like his arguments were a mixture of straw man, ad hominem, and sound exegesis. Stylistically he comes off as a bully who swings back and forth between bombast and smug sarcasm. I admire some things about Luther, but his polemical writings could have used a dose of Christian charity.

Title: Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: John Sturrock
Genre: French Classic
Pages: 496
Rating: 3 of 5

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really understand the attraction of this book. A large part of the “action” of the story (when Hugo isn’t off on one of his rabbit trails or swooning over Gothic architecture) is two skeezy older men (one of them a supposedly celibate priest and the other engaged) lusting after and attempting to seduce/rape a teenager, and/or purge their obsession with her.

Quasimodo the deaf, deformed rage monster is tragic and memorable in his devotion to Esmeralda, but for me it wasn’t enough to balance the boring digressions and lecherous behavior that dominated the story.

The Plague: Camus Albert: Amazon.com: BooksTitle: The Plague
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Stuart Gilbert
Genre: French Modern Classic
Pages: 278
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of a modern city quarantined during an outbreak of plague had been lurking on my mental “I should read that someday” list, and this seemed like an appropriate time (or is it an inappropriate time?) to give it a shot. I have to say, Camus has a pretty good grasp on the dark and depressing side of human nature. While the plague in his book is far more deadly than COVID-19, there were some interesting parallels to what is currently playing out around the world.

As a pastor, I found the priest’s second sermon in the book fascinating. It’s basically an appeal to acknowledge the sovereignty and goodness of God in all circumstances (unfortunately followed up by a nonsensical application of rejecting the care of doctors).

Overall, the book was a depressing, largely hopeless slog, which is probably not surprising given its author and subject matter.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtTitle: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [Audiobook]
Author: Mark Twain
Narrator: Nick Offerman
Genre: American Classic Satire
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ron Swanson (I mean, Nick Offerman) is the perfect narrator for this classic tale of a practical, no-nonsense factory boss transported to the court of King Arthur. The Yankee has a bit more braggadocio and showmanship than Ron Swanson, but in their intensely practical outlook and ingenuity they’re the same.

Twain’s biting satire brutally (but humorously) mocks courtly medieval romances along with the concepts of monarchy, aristocracy, state religion, and more. It can be mean-spirited and overly cynical at times, but it’s entertaining and thought provoking at the same time…and Offerman’s narration will delight fans of Parks and Recreation (it bumped it up from a 4 to a 4.5 for me).

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe Book 3) by [Neal Shusterman]Title: The Toll
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi with YA vibes
Pages: 637
Rating: 3 of 5

I have mixed feelings about this final book in the series. The convoluted political and religious corruption and intrigue from the previous books escalate and play out in a satisfactory way. A few plot points seemed to come out of left field, but that may have been my own current crop of distractions causing me to miss things rather than any plotting problems by the author.

What really bugged me was that I felt like the series as a whole and this book in particular got more and more overtly preachy in favor of ideas like consequentialist/situation ethics, non-binary gender ideology, and euthanasia. Overall, an interesting series from a philosophical viewpoint quite different from my own that suffers a bit from preachiness.

The Confederacy & Nazi Germany

Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by [Neiman, Susan]Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Genre: History/Philosophy
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5

I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).

The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.

The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.

Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Questions & Proverbs

I planned for my next post to be my best/worst of the year wrap-up, but two of my most recent reads were so good that I want to post at least a short review for each of them:

Title: Confronting Christianity:
12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 226 (plus indices etc.)
Genre: Theology
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I hadn’t heard of Rebecca McLaughlin before reading this (her first book), but I’ll definitely be snatching up anything she writes in the future! She addresses common questions/accusations leveled against Christianity (and sometimes organized religion in general) with an erudite blend of statistical data and theological explanations. Topics include diversity, religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Her tone and honesty are refreshing amidst the polarizing, demonizing rants that too often pass for apologetics. She does not shy away from admitting when/where Christians in general have failed to live up to their professed beliefs. Yet, her defense of the truth and value of Christian orthodoxy is firm without being condescending.

I highly recommend this book for non-Christians as a thoughtful counterpoint to “new atheists” (and other common objectors/objections), and to Christians as a help in better understanding your faith and humbly defending it without vitriol and straw-man arguments.

Title: The Proverbs of Middle Earth
Author: David Rowe
Genre: Literary Analysis (Worldbuilding)
Pages: 193 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

David Rowe explores the cultures and people of Middle Earth through their wise sayings. If you aren’t a big Tolkien/LOTR geek, this book probably isn’t for you, but for those of us obsessed with Middle earth it’s fantastic!

Rowe picks out dozens of instances of proverbial wisdom woven into the speech of Tolkien’s characters and shows what they reveal about the speakers and their culture. As with any literary analysis there is some speculation involved. Occasionally it is debatable whether what he picks out are genuine proverbs or just high-sounding wise speech, and a few of this inferences may be a bit of a stretch. However, he makes many astute observations and points out a number of connections that enrich the story.

For me, the fact that you can analyze Tolkien’s world to this extent shows what an amazing “sub-creator” he was. Highly recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of Middle Earth.

“Come let us reason together…”

Title: Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views
Authors: Owen Strachan, Mark A. Yarhouse, Julia Sandusky, Megan K. DeFranza, Justin Sabia-Tanis
Genre: Theology/philosophy/science
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors, editors, and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of the review)

I appreciate multi-view Christian theology books like this one. They provide insight into controversial topics in a way that largely prevents straw man argumentation or ad hominem. Each author (or team of authors) gives their view on the topic at hand, and each of the others authors is allowed to write a short rebuttal/response. By the end you have a good idea of major points of agreement and disagreement across the Christian spectrum.

The four views in this book aren’t given “official” names, but they range from Strachan’s conservative Christian view that transition to a gender different from biological sex is immoral to the view of Sabia-Tanis a trans man who celebrates transgender identities as an expression of God’s creativity and diversity. The two mediating positions are really more like four mediating positions as Yarhouse & DeFranza’s chapter offers three different approaches to the issue (and doesn’t really take a stand on any of them).

Strachan’s chapter deals most extensively with potentially relevant biblical passages (but seems very short on nuance or rubber-meets-the-road application), while the others spend more of their page count with scientific & psychiatric theories, pragmatic descriptions of what seems to best help a gender-dysphoric person’s well-being, and/or appeals to emotion. DeFranza and Sabia-Tanis rest their Bible-based arguments almost entirely on passages dealing with eunuchs while brushing aside other passages as irrelevant and/or misinterpreted.

If you are a Christian, you may or may not find a view here that exactly matches up with your own, but you will at least gain an understanding of the specific issues, questions, and lines of reasoning involved. This is a solid multi-view theology book.

“Comico, Ergo Sum”

Title: Superhero Thought Experiments:
Comic Book Philosophy
Authors: Chris Gavaler & Nathaniel Goldberg
Genre: Philosophy
Pages: 202 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

It’s Superman vs. Batman: consequentialism vs. deontology! Within these pages you will find this and other astounding speculations as our intrepid authors perform feats of daring philosophy.

Okay, this isn’t actually a high-action book, but if you enjoy philosophy it’s a lot of fun. Gavaler and Goldberg treat superhero comic as thought experiments to explore the nature of doing good, existence, time, identity, communication, etc. (or morality, metaphysics, meaning, and medium if you prefer the alliteration of their section titles). Fodder for philosophizing includes Bizarro world, Dr. Doom’s time machine, Scarlet Witch’s imaginary twins, retcons & reboots, and much more. To me, the first three sections that focus on characters and stories were much more interesting than the last section that focused on comic books as a medium.

If you’re the kind of person who when confronted with someone asking “how do I know I’m really here?” gets annoyed by anything more theoretical than pinching/punching them and asking “did that hurt,” this isn’t the book for you. If you enjoy thought experiments and speculating on the nature of life, the universe, and everything give this a shot.

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

God & Guns

Title: Beating Guns:
Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence
Authors: Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 288
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: March 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I come from a denominational background (American Evangelical/Baptist) where it is not uncommon for people to treat the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment (right to bear arms) with practically the same devotion as any of the basic tenets of the faith. Attempts to discuss gun violence are met with, “It’s not a gun problem. It’s a heart problem” or some similar slogan. Over my last eight years as a pastor I have grown increasingly troubled by the gun culture I see among Evangelicals and the not-so-Christlike attitudes that it seems to foster in many people. I picked up this book to try to get another perspective on the issue.

These authors contend that the US has both a heart problem and a gun problem. The book is loaded with history and disturbing statistics on gun sales, ownership, lobbying, laws, crime, self-defense, and suicide in the US (especially as compared to other industrialized nations). Furthermore, they point out Scripture passages where the prophets speak of a future without weapons or warfare (the title Beating Guns is a play on prophetic verses about “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” – Isaiah 2:4) and where Jesus speaks of non-violence and loving one’s enemies (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7). While leaving some room for individual conscience as to what “commonsense gun laws” and responsible gun ownership might look like, they rightly challenge Christians to seriously reflect on how we as followers of Jesus Christ should relate to guns as far as ownership, admiration, advocacy, voting, etc.

Unfortunately, there is some serious “cherry picking” going on in their use of Scripture. They completely ignore passages that are in tension with their completely pacifist approach…passages that, if we take the Bible seriously, must be taken into account. For example:

  • Most of the prophets who describe the coming world peace talk about it being preceded by violent judgment from God/Jesus rather than a utopia brought about purely by social reform (e.g. Revelation 19)
  • Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for attacking a member of the party who came to arrest Jesus is preceded by a difficult, variously-interpreted passage in which Jesus talks about his disciples arming themselves (Luke 22:36-38)
  • The government is said to be God’s instrument for restraining evil, including by use of the sword (Romans 13:1-5)

This is not to say that the authors are entirely wrong in their concerns, but their approach to the Scripture is selective and incomplete. This makes me wonder if some of the history and statistics have been similarly oversimplified or misrepresented.

Another minor quibble that I have with the book is that the some of the information gets repeated over and over with very little variation in wording. I did read an eARC so maybe an editor will remove some of the redundancy and tighten things up before publication.

Overall, I appreciated the roundup of information and the challenge to think biblically (not just pragmatically) about the issue, but I do feel that there was some serious oversimplification going on here.

A Guided Tour of Atheism

Title: Seven Types of Atheism
Author: John Gray
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley – this in no way affects the content of this review)

I believe that it is important to understand where other people are coming from in terms of differing culture, beliefs, and worldview. It can help foster respectful dialogue rather than talking past each other or yelling at each other. To that end, I picked up this overview on atheism.

Just as no major religion is monolithic in its belief and practice, those who espouse atheism have a wide variety of arguments, beliefs, ethics, worldviews, etc. John Gray gives a guided tour of seven kinds of atheism, describing major proponents and beliefs of each category and pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. He strongly criticizes most versions, mostly alleging inconsistency via partial dependence on a monotheistic or even Christian worldview. He speaks favorably only of what he calls “Atheism without progress” (George Santayana & Joseph Conrad) and “The Atheism of Silence” (Arthur Schopenhauer & Benedict Spinoza).

Obviously, the seven categories are Gray’s own generalizations, but they were helpful in getting an overview of a huge topic. As far as persuasiveness, some of Gray’s argumentation is pretty shoddy. For example, he summarily dismisses certain topics touched on by some atheists philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche & Rand) as “silly” without any further explanation, and his main argument against Christianity is little more than “there are much more likely explanations of who Jesus was than the one offered by Christianity.” Overall, this was a helpful overview, and that is what the author stated as his primary goal, so I guess he was successful in spite of occasionally lackluster arguments.

Wise as Serpents & Innocent as Doves

Title: How the Nations Rage:
Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 272
Rating: 5 of 5

Over the last few election cycles I have grown increasingly troubled by the manner in which many professing, Bible-believing Christians participate in the political process – as if the platform of their preferred party had equal authority with Scripture; as if showing love, gentleness, and respect to their neighbor is not an obligation when politics are involved; and as if their hope for the future depends on “the right people” being in office passing the “right legislation.” None of this seems spiritually healthy or consistent for a citizen of heaven who claims Jesus Christ as their Lord, example, and ultimate source of hope (Philippians 3:20-21).

I have been trying to find a book that offers an informed, biblical overview of how and why Christian should participate in politics. Until this week, my search uncovered mostly partisan books on what and who the authors thought Christians should vote for (and why “the other side” is mistaken, hypocritical, and/or just plain evil). This week I finally found a winner: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman. The author states that, “The primary goal of this book is not to help Christians make an impact in the public square. It is not to help the world be something. It is to help Christians and Churches be something” (p. 33).*

Rather than pushing a partisan agenda, Leeman warns us to “…be leery of being too captivated by any political worldview. Your tight-gripped principles should come from Scripture, not ideology” (p. 157). He reminds Christians that our primary identity is who we are in Christ according to the glorious Gospel of grace, lived out in fellowship with the local church. One of his goals “…is to encourage us all to stop letting our political parties set our political agenda. Even more, we should not conflate our parties with our faith. Parties are good servants, but bad masters; useful instruments, but awful identities” (pp. 116-117).

He deals very practically with how Christians should approach and advocate for issues that are important to them – both issues that directly relate to clear biblical principles and ones about which individual Bible-believing Christians might disagree because they are based on logical arguments, inferences, pragmatic concerns, etc. rather than a single principle. An important part of this is the discussion on how we treat those with whom we disagree. For example: “If you participate in social media, does your tone edify or convey care? Or does it lambaste and belittle? How will it affect your evangelism? Our arguments should seek to persuade rather than to score points” (p. 165).

I have another whole page of quotes that jumped out at me as I read this. However, rather than include them all, I will settle for urging you to read this book for yourself. As with any political or theological book, you probably won’t agree with everything in it (e.g. I thought he put a little more weight on Genesis 9:5-6 than it could legitimately bear), but it provides a much-needed biblical perspective on government and our participation in it. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, be guided by God’s Word, not a party platform or the combative, contemptuous attitude that prevails in today’s politics.

 

*all quotes are from the Nook eBook edition