Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Review: Russell Moore, Onward

A short review of Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (B&H Publishing, 2015), for NetGalley:

Having only recently learned of Russell Moore’s work, when I began wading through the post-Obergefell debate over questions of culture war and “exile” that the North American church faces today, I was excited to read his new book. Onward is, for the most part, a pleasant surprise: though I don’t consider myself a “liberal” Christian, I don’t often find myself agreeing with Southern Baptists, but I often agreed with what Moore says here. From his opening indictments of American civic religion (noting an atheist friend’s entrance into politics: “Finding Jesus was his way of asking America into his heart, as his personal lord and savior”) to the poke he takes at Joel Osteen (describing the Gospels’ rich young ruler wanting “a religion that would promise him his best life now”!) and his comparison of “pop-dispensationalist” depictions of the Rapture with American culture’s perception of the post-Christendom church, Moore’s critique of Christian culture is enjoyably wry and incisive. As Moore has blogged against the misuse of the “exile” trope as an excuse for nostalgia and despair, it’s good to see him expand that argument here. The church, he reminds us, “is never a majority—in any fallen culture—even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us.” And elsewhere: “If the church believes the United States is a sort of new Israel, then we become frantic when we see ourselves ‘losing America.’ We then start to speak in gloomy terms of America as, at best, Babylon, a place of hopeless exile, or, at worst, Gomorrah, slouching toward the judgment of God. This leads to a siege mentality…”

Moore does make a few missteps. For example, yes, it’s important to see that the “world system around us, the cultural matrix we inhabit, is alien to the kingdom of God”; but it’s also vital, in learning to live into our new (or perhaps reclaimed) calling “to an engaged alienation,” that we remember that we are not in charge of our own alienation. God, through his gospel and his calling, is the One who alienates us—and the One who has the right to alienate himself, to absent himself, from us if he so chooses, if his seeming absence will help us to grow. So I agree, once more, with Moore when he says, “The church is not to be walled up from the broader culture but to speak to it (1 Pet. 2:12), but that can only happen if, as sojourners and exiles, we have something distinctive to say (1 Pet. 2:11).” I only want to make certain, in recommending this book, that we remember that it is not our prerogative to call ourselves into exile: God is the only One who may call or send us there. I think Moore knows this, but it should be a clearer point in this ongoing discussion.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: Kuhn's The Kingdom according to Luke & Acts

A short review of Karl Allen Kuhn, The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts: A Social, Literary, and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2015) for NetGalley.

As I've been hunting for a good auxiliary textbook for an upcoming course I'll be teaching on Luke-Acts, I had dismissed Karl Kuhn's new book when I first saw it advertised, thinking it would not be able to provide a solid but accessible introduction to kingdom themes in Luke-Acts and a satisfactory introduction to the overall books at the same time.

I was wrong. I'm now seriously considering this book for that second textbook slot. Here's why, briefly. Kuhn skillfully uses Luke's view of the kingdom of God as his lens for understanding the evangelist's entire work, so the introduction to the overall content of Luke and Acts is gradual, methodical, and easily digested. In separate chapters, he also incorporates the background of both "Israelite Visions of the Kingdom" and Rome as an "Empire of Disparity and Want," repeating this latter description as a refrain throughout the book. Luke's social location as a member of the elite, calling his patron Theophilus and other readers to leave behind their commitments to the elite lifestyle, furnishes him with the narrative artistry he needs in order to tell his kingdom story with such evident pathos and (beautifully explained) rhetorical flair. At times, Kuhn's kingdom themes and the components of Luke's narrative become richly interlayered, so much so that they can be hard to keep distinct; but as Kuhn encourages us as readers, if we remember even some of these themes, he will have accomplished something helpful and enriching. Kuhn's role thus mirrors Luke's, helping readers to see what a life of kingdom-oriented discipleship begins to look like: "Such is part of the bold vocation of embracing the Kingdom in a world gone terribly awry -- it is not simply an unfortunate reality to be endured," but a cause for rejoicing, even in the midst of hardship and persecution.

So why am I still uncertain about selecting this book? Simple: it's the occasional moments where this remains, for all its accessibility, an academic text. Predictably and understandably, for a book from the Baker Academic imprint, words like "agonistic," "Hellenistic," "midrash," "ethos," and "inclusio" aren't explained; though a skilled and careful reader can pick up at least part of these terms' meaning from contextual clues, not all readers will be so skilled or careful -- or so patient. Then, too, Greek words are not transliterated, probably with the assumption that most readers will have at least a cursory knowledge of New Testament Greek. To his credit, Kuhn doesn't assume too much here, offering translations of all the Greek words and phrases he includes. But for my undergraduate students, most of whom will have a NT intro course as their only prerequisite, the un-transliterated language will prove a challenge. So if I do opt for this text, I'm thinking of drawing up and distributing a glossary (just a short page long, able to be fit inside the book) of the Greek and technical English terms employed here. My hope is that such a glossary would allow less advanced students to experience the full benefits of Kuhn's thorough -- and thoroughly enjoyable -- text.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Guthrie's 2 Corinthians

Another short book review for NetGalley: George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2015).

It's difficult to summarize a commentary as detailed as this in only a few words, so I will focus here on just a few short passages in this fine book from Guthrie. 

First, on Paul's use of triumphal imagery (a word-picture that draws from the Roman Empire's victory parades): Guthrie makes a strong argument that "Paul actually distinguishes himself and his ministry from those who 'are being destroyed,' who are spiritually aligned with death, a point that speaks quite loudly against the interpretation that he sees himself as represented by the captives in the triumphal procession." I'm not entirely convinced, as I think the "captives" interpretation agrees with Paul's theology of suffering in 2 Cor (and throughout his letters, for that matter) in ways that remain underappreciated in the church; but Guthrie's argument may yet change my mind as I continue to reflect on it.

Second, concerning Paul's statement that "as long as we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord" (2 Cor 5:6): I appreciate Guthrie's sensitive treatment of Paul's theology here. He skilfully unpacks what Paul is (and is not) saying by using words like endēmeō ("to be at home"/"in a familiar place") and its opposite, ekdēmeō (to be away, in an unfamiliar place; the alien-ness of this term could have used more elaboration): "So long as Paul is 'at home' in his mortal body, he is 'away from' the presence of the Lord. This does not mean that Paul doubts the presence of Christ, through the Spirit, in the believer's life prior to death or at the parousia [the return of Christ]," but rather that our relationship with Christ "will change both spatially and qualitatively at death and will be consummated at the resurrection from the dead." As I've been wrestling with this passage in Paul, personally and theologically, off and on for the past few months, I deeply appreciate Guthrie's thoughtful engagement with what Paul means by absence and presence. 

Third, one of Guthrie's introductory statements proves helpful throughout the reading of the commentary as a whole: "one approach to grasping the book's reason for being is to analyze the relational network reflected in its pages." This is put simply enough, but Guthrie unfolds this statement into the relationships between (1) Paul and his God, (2) Paul and the Corinthians (in keeping with the ministry and sphere of influence God assigned to him: 2 Cor 10:13-14, as Guthrie notes), and (3) Paul and his opponents at Corinth (including, of course, attendant disagreements about what true apostleship looks like). As he begins to chart the ways in which these relationships intertwine and inform one another, and the ramifications of each, we begin to suspect what the rest of the commentary goes on to prove: Guthrie is offering us a reading of 2 Corinthians that will keep us prayerfully reflecting -- and faithfully responding! -- for quite some time. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Book Review: Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath

Another short book review for NetGalley: Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline (Study Edition; Paraclete, 2015).

I've only read snippets of Lauren Winner's work before, so I was happy to read this new Study Edition -- some 50 pages longer than the 2003 edition, thanks to more endnotes, multiple sidebars, and reflection/discussion questions. In the introduction to this edition, Winner points out that although "study" itself could have been added on as a twelfth chapter, instead it "threads" throughout as a further invitation, echoing the book's new subtitle. It's a little difficult to tell from the advance proof, but I think this idea will work well, as it offers (there's that invitation again!) greater depth and opportunities to study, without overwhelming those who wish to read more sparingly. Winner even acknowledges this, noting that she herself, her students, and her colleagues don't necessarily ruminate on the texts that they purportedly "study," but race through and even "cannibalize" their readings. She doesn't condemn that practice, but wisely offers, again, the chance to read more deeply here.

Other than the sidebars and so on, the text of the book stands much as it did in the earlier edition. Winner guides us through eleven spiritual disciplines, each informed both by her Jewish upbringing and her conversion to Christianity: sabbath, "fitting food" (kosher), mourning, hospitality, prayer, body (i.e., embodied-ness), fasting, aging, candle-lighting, wedding, and doorposts (the making or setting-apart of Christian space, drawing from the traditions of Deuteronomy 6). Winner's decision to leave her original text largely unchanged gives her readers a bittersweet window to her past -- we know that her mother will die, and that the marriage she is about to begin will end -- but that adds a rich, honest poignancy to her earlier words. And the words she adds in sidebars bring additional warmth to her invitation, and occasionally some humor, too: having noted that sabbath-keeping entails rest from the act of creating, she asks us, "What do you make" of the weekly reiteration of this ritual? With this and other pointed but hospitable questions (many of which have both individual and communal applications), Winner shows us the best of what a "study" edition can be. I highly recommend this book as a welcome reminder that the rich heritage of spiritual disciplines is an integral resource for our practice of them.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Flash Fiction Wednesday: When Foxes Have No Holes

I'd already made plans for today when I saw East Coast Ink magazine's promotion of Flash Fiction Wednesday; so while I didn't have time to write a new story (600 words max., apparently), I'll post this one that qualifies, which I wrote pretty recently, as part of a much larger story cycle. The only disclaimer I'll add is that the use of meter is very deliberate: to convey a dog-like dissatisfaction with being enclosed, the narrator's voice slips in and out of (usually trochaic) meter -- and not just in the parts that are set in verse. 

“When Foxes Have No Holes”

            Bark! Bark, my kits!
            Bark across the empty space until it carries sound.
            Bark as if keen ears could hear your echoes coming home.
            Bark: the Farmers weren’t the ones who drove us from our dens, yet they fend us off and Fence us out into the dark.
            Bark! The Fence! It keeps us prowling, searching out ways In.
            Can’t you all remember how and when we met the Fence? Come! We’ll catch the tale in our paws so it can’t (yip!) escape. It begins:
            First Outfoxes saw the Fence
            (sitting there, all innocence!),
            Metal balls, misthrown and lost;
            Outside noses caught their scents:
            Lonely, shiny outcasts.
            Nosed and pawed, the balls bit back
            (in an unprovoked attack)
            There, Outfoxes learned, beware:
            Pouncing Fenceposts in the Black
            Punish those who trespass.
            And the sentries spied, we found,
            Those who sought out routes around
            Digging under, jumping o’er,
            Foxes tasted vacuum, drowned
            In the airless reaches.
            Then would all the Fenceposts speak
            In that whistling, rasping squeak
            Painful to Outfoxes’ ears,
            Squawking while we cowered, meek
            Animals, mere creatures.
            Stay, they whined. You can’t come in. There’s no controlling you. You’re uncivilized. You’re wild. You’re robbers. Now go home!
            Go home, kits? How could they?
            Driven from their planet-den by Vermin long ago, now the Fence had locked them out; they never could return. Days when kits could chase and play and loll in warm sunlight, growing into sandy-whiskered gentlemen: all gone. Even days of sauntering and hunting 'cross the stars, catching prey as chickens in their interstellar coops – never caring what it was or who it was we ate – all gone now, too, my kits!
            Soon they found that Fenceposts, like Outfoxes, like to move: discontent, unjust, their border migrates as they go. Piece by piece expanding, yip! so gradually it grew, spreading civilized space, shrinking ours; for we could sense larger predators out lurking, out beyond the stars’ firelight.
            Would the Fenceposts listen, when we whined of this?
            No, the biting toys squeaked, still you can’t come in, you dogs, good barbarians! (Bark!) Noble scavengers! Protect our border that we share. Guard our space. You’ll keep it safe from darker animals.
            What to do, my kits? What Fencepost knows nobility? Are we noble, living witless, carefree lives? And weren’t we more helpless than so many creatures, worrying bones of helplessness? But when we gnawed the problem down – so the caught tale tells – we saw what we must do to let our barks be free, be heard!
            Settle down! Now settle down! What taming irony: minding what the Farmers and their Fenceposts asked of us, settling down against the Fence, nomads no longer. Leashed our caboodles, panting ships, together, save for scouts sent to roam the Fence in search of holes or gaps, where Outfoxes might slip through. We bark! in savage protest, bark! Not so noble, but defiant: outside, barking in.
            So bark! bark! for our remembered home.
            Bark again! at those who Fence us out.
            Pant! with gnawing hunger for the day
            (Yip!) when hole is found, or hole is made,
            When Outfoxes find ways In,
            Lollop, hunt, and feast again.

            Bark, bark, my kits!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Z for Zcreepy

The Internet Movie Database seems tailor-made for "rabbit-trail" research: look up a particular movie, intending to find out who that actor is that you can't quite place, and you end up looking up someone else, and a movie she was in -- and before you know it, you're eight links away from where you started, and only your browser's search history remembers how you got there. So I approached IMDB's ad for Z for Zachariah carefully, intrigued by something new and post-apocalyptic, but not wanting to get drawn too far down the pop-culture rabbit hole. The synopsis didn't promise much in the way of originality, but the movie's based on a novel by a name I knew: Robert C. O'Brien, probably better-known as the author of the Newbery-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (yes, it was adapted into The Secret of NIMH, but please don't judge the book by it, even if you liked it!), and a National Geographic contributor under his real name, Robert Leslie Conly. Thus ends the rabbit trail; but since I find it helpful to balance my nonfiction reading and writing with a novel, I picked up Z for Zachariah on my next visit to Mills Library (Thanks, McMaster, for free alumni library cards!). If you're a see-the-book-before-reading-the-movie geek like me, read on...

Yes, it seems weird that the same person who wrote an acclaimed children's book also penned something that could be readily adapted into a post-apoc love triangle. But it doesn't take long for the commonalities between Mrs. Frisby and Z to emerge. For one, they're both well-written for their respective audiences. The former puts its main characters (Mrs. Frisby, her family, and friends she makes along the way) in occasional jeopardy, both in their present and in the rats' backstory; this allows moments of empathy, tragedy, suspense, and joy, but never beyond what, say, a precocious six-year-old could cope with. Z, which won O'Brien a posthumous Edgar Award, takes the form of a journal, newly started by a lone teenager; it begins with beautiful, suspenseful simplicity ("May 20: I am afraid. Someone is coming."), appears to offer some promise of a hopeful future, then gradually steals that promise away, in ways that are definitely not for younger audiences. For another similarity, both books convey a healthy respect for the day-to-day details of farming -- not just as survival, but as the grounding of personal dignity, too.

That said, it's easy to see why Z lends itself to Hollywood adaptation, and why it does so now, when the novel is nearly 40 years old. Although the love-triangle aspect is added for the movie (after the first few pages of backstory, there are only two characters in the book), Z anticipates pop culture's current infatuation with ever-more-disturbing stories of young adults being forced, with varying degrees of nuance, to kill or be killed; The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series are only the most (in)famous examples. There are several moments in Z that read like Misery for young adults. The problem's not that it's not good storytelling (quite the opposite; I took a few mental notes for my own novel), it's just that it's also just plain creepy.

I'm not sure I'll see the movie, but I wonder if Z was also chosen for adaptation because it's subtly suited to post-Christendom. The title derives from the heroine's description of a Bible alphabet book: she remembers reasoning, as a child, that if A is for Adam, the first man, then Zachariah must be the last man -- foreshadowing the problems of encountering someone who may be the last man on earth. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see how (and if!) the title is explained in the movie, to an audience less biblically literate than the protagonist herself. On the other hand, it's more than interesting: it would illustrate just how well-matched the post-apocalyptic genre and post-Christendom culture are. Weirdly, they might be the perfect couple -- even if neither of them understands why that is. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Review: Nancy Jane Moore's Walking Contradiction

It's time for another embarrassingly late review, this time for LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Nancy Jane Moore's Walking Contradiction and Other Futures (Book View Cafe, 2014) is an entertaining collection of science fiction stories -- well outside the normal purview of my LibraryThing collection, but well worth reading. The common thread between these eight stories is the question of what it means to be human; in most cases here, that question centers on what role gender plays in identity. That question is front and center in the title story and in "Nohow Permanent," as both stories' narrators are "ambi" (or, as the latter narrator puts it, "mostly" female). "Walking Contradiction" itself is skillfully told, full of intrigue and estranged regret; if it's over-exposited at times, that's made forgivable by the narrator's film-noir profession and tone. Here and elsewhere, there are moments when Moore starts to sound like Robert Heinlein, whether in references to the "troubled" years or in sentences like "All the people -- and not people, and not quite people -- made Vlad nervous" (113), reminiscent of gender-bending stories like Heinlein's "All You Zombies." The stories "Borders," "Gambit," and "In Demeter's Gardens" are a little less memorable, all featuring female protagonists in (relatively) near-future military scenarios, but told capably. "Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars" is a tragic love story that weaves a nice twist into interstellar travel; if it challenges gender assumptions, it's only because of assumptions the reader may bring to the text. "Or We Will All Hang Separately" completes the collection, with a post-apocalyptic tone that still manages to remain more hopeful than some of the other stories included here. Altogether, Moore's talent shines frequently in this book. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for more of her work.