Doom

Some very interesting designs for a Holocaust Museum in London.  This one is my favorite — the sense of something vastly dangerous and beyond individual control*:

akzh-holocaust

Rory Stott, “10 Shortlisted Designs for London Holocaust Memorial Revealed,” Arch Daily (Jan. 17, 2017) [link].

Though not, of course beyond individual action: “…and yet, in the end, did Klara Hitler’s sickly son ever fire a gun? One hollow, hateful little man. One last awful thought: all the harm he ever did was done for him by others.” Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace (2005).

The Nightingale

nightingaleKristen Hannah, The Nightingale (2016).

This month’s book club offering is a lively story of two sisters who live in France during the Nazi occupation.  Although it is longer on emotional than historical detail, it is definitely one of those novels that make you wonder how well you would hold up under the pressures of that situation.  The book was similar in tone and gravity to something like The Winds of War, thus not as serious as All the Light We Cannot See, or as literary as Brideshead Revisited, or as witty as Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

I like the cover design very much.

Recommended.

Losing track of Jesus

finding-godI seldom write “bad” reviews, feeling that (1) writing a book would be a hard feat to pull off and (2) I don’t want to encourage people to spend money on a book simply by making the cover pop up on their feed.  This is not exactly a counterexample to those feelings, just a warning that this is not the book I thought it was when I started it,* and I am not recommending it.

Mike McHargue, Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost my Faith and Found It Again through Science (2016) describes the author’s path from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism to . . . well, it’s hard to say exactly.  Notwithstanding the subtitle, McHargue does not claim to have found the same faith again, but something quite different.  He ends up with a faith which is uncertain about the Bible, uncertain about the resurrection, uncertain about hell, uncertain about whether a personal creator God actually exists.  His faith at the end is not in any way orthodox.

“What I’ve learned to do is be certain that I am uncertain. To revel in the fuzziness of my understanding of the world. And to look with great anticipation toward the next moment I’ll figure out that I’m wrong about something. And that lets you get on this trajectory where you just become more and more and more open.”

I think that to his credit, he would agree with what I wrote in the paragraph before the quotation.  He seems to be trying very hard to be honest about his life, and that is the best part of the book.  He describes the anger that church Christians expressed when he decided (based on The God Delusion and other books) that he (a deacon and a Sunday School teacher) had become an atheist.  He eventually describes the similar anger he felt from his online atheist/anti-theist community when he began to travel to his new faith.  The turning point is a mystical experience which he has on a beach – as troubling to him as it is overwhelming.  He describes this openly, though it does not fit with his self image (“science Mike”), and it does nothing to persuade the skeptical reader.

The problem, quite frankly, is that by the end of the book McHargue has created a God that is smaller than he is.

He seems to feel (and who hasn’t felt this way?) that when he reads something shocking in the Bible (the commands in Joshua to utterly destroy the Canaanites, for example), that he is qualified to decide that that, at least, cannot be part of God’s character.  Part of what Christianity would have traditionally called God’s holiness is trimmed away because it does not fit well with what we (McHargue and I, as 21st century educated Americans) think is “acceptable.”

But the God of historical, orthodox Christianity is first and foremost a God who requires obedience to a standard we do not find entirely agreeable.

McHargue hasn’t yet found his way back to that.  Then again, maybe the God of all grace is not done with him.

*I thought it would be more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (2013) [link], which I do recommend.

Brave & Forgiven

ebif A delightful book, full of clever dialogue (“Sorry I’m late.  There were Germans.”) and heartaches, about the beginning of World War II in London and Malta.  Cleave does a marvelous job of conveying a sense of oppression which must have been felt by the British before 1942:

“[Mary] loathed the way the newspapers printed maps with the stark Nazi symbol on a field of plain white, as if Hitler had sent armies of erasers.  Better to crowd the swastikas in, to have them jostle for space.  [For her class, she] drew them deliberately crooked.  Her swastikas were degenerates that leaned at sickly angles and resembled one another vaguely, the offspring of first cousins who had married against the family’s advice.

Finally, she drew Britain, being generous with the width of the English Channel and giving the British Isles three times the area on the blackboard that they merited.  She thought it unfair to expect children to understand that it was possible to resist, from an island the size of her hand, a tyranny that stretched the whole width of the blackboard from Brest to Bialystok.”

It is not really a book about the war, but about friendships, family relations and love affairs in the shadow of great uncertainty and disruption.

Highly recommended.

A Hard and Heavy Thing

26542105Matthew I. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing is the best novel I have read in 2016.

AHAHT is the story of three friends, two men and a woman, who struggle in situations dangerous, terrifying and mundane.  It is written with a gritty wide-eyed realism, but conveys deep compassion for the flawed characters.

No spoilers here, but the narrator (Levi) self-consciously looks back on his history with Nick and Eris, and the choices which led two of them to enlist in the Army.  The story lurches back and forth between third-person narrative and Levi’s direct discourse to the reader, who fills in for Nick.

The back-and-forth is purposely a little clumsy, which works beautifully to further the author’s artistic aims.

Highly recommended.

Changing the Past?

Three quotations on changing the past:

26542105[He] thought, even if it was not true that he was a hero, perhaps it was true that he was not a criminal or a failure.  The possibility existed for him that the past was mutable — that he might have a new truth, a new narrative that was truer than his own tortured memory.  For the first time, he realized how subjective it all was and how the past was not as inviolable as he had come to believe.

Matthew Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing 207 (2016).

Now for you and me it may not be that hard to reach our dreams,
But that magic feeling never seems to last.
And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past.

Jackson Browne, ”Fountain of Sorrow,” Late for the Sky (1974).

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
   All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” l. 1-10, Four Quartets (1943).

Silence & Beauty

9780830844593-194x300I am very much looking forward to reading  Makoto Fujimura‘s Silence and Beauty, which is described as using Shusako Endo’s Silence as a starting place for consideration of issues of suffering and faith.  Fujimura is a painter of great power and a believer.  I taught Endo’s book several times in my World Lit class.

I will let you know.

Between Mr. Coates and me

50c0c9d1dLast week I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015). Actually, I listened to it, and found it a powerfully unsettling book.

I had no knowledge of Mr. Coates and no preconception about the book except that in some sense it was about race. The book is (sort of) a long letter to his son about what it is like to be a black man in America. (“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”)

I say “sort of” because you have to put aside even that vague description very quickly. Mr. Coates would remind us that in any society there are those whose aspirations to achieve “the dream” will necessarily involve putting some people — identified by color, ethnicity, gender, language or some other characteristic — at the bottom of the well. I think he would say that in 2016 in America that characteristic is still often race.

Mr. Coates tells his son stories about his experiences and about those of his friends and acquaintances.  Some are touching and some are extraordinarily upsetting. No one could listen to his account of the death of Prince Jones without horror, shame and outrage.

One of the recurring themes is that the fragility of “the black body”:

We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. A year after I watched the boy with the small eyes pull out a gun, my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.

I am convinced that Mr. Coates is telling me truths I need to hear.  I am not sure that Mr. Coates tells me what any white American can do to ameliorate the evils he describes. It is better to hear truth than to block it out, of course, but that is not enough.

What is enough?

Mr. Coates declines to believe in any otherworldly justice, though he seems to concede that there have been times when the church has been one of the few refuges for the black body. As I listened to him in the midst of Passion Week, though, I thought that Jesus, certainly, voluntarily offered his body to be destroyed by the system of the world as a sacrifice for all of us.

This is not a “good read,” or an “interesting study.”  It seems to me to be an important book that has challenged my assumptions and beliefs.  I hope and pray that I will allow it to change the way I act and live, and that God will help me to understand what is enough.