RLW 1947-2017

Robert Wears was my friend.

I am sorry, I know most of you called him “Bob,” but I met him through his wife Diane, and to me he was always “Robert.” With my wife Katherine, we four were members of a book club for the last 20-plus years. We have met more or less monthly, and read well over 200 books together.

I did not know him in his professional life, I was not a member of his family, we shared no school ties, we did not go to the same church. I interacted with him medically only once, and in that moment, as he visited me in the hospital before my abdominal surgery, he gave me permission and I threw up on him. Continue reading RLW 1947-2017

On “book lust”

ScreenShot164David Bentley Hart writes a nice piece on “book lust” (that’s what my wife and I have always called it) in First Things: “From a Vanished Library” (April 2017) [link].*  In this piece Hart reminds us that

I learned from the experience [of losing my library], in the end, that all vanity is vanity, all lust is lust, and all excess is excess, no matter what the objects of one’s desire. The aesthetics of bound volumes is unique and exquisite; but there are more important things.

In the end the article was somewhat deflating as I have not read a single one of the books in his “catalogue of suggestions.”  But it is good to remember that books, marvelous as they are, can be distractions from the common purpose of every human.


*Coming across this piece was particularly poignant (and ironic) as my church gave me two first editions as a (sabbatical? retirement?) gift after teaching Genesis, ExodusLeviticusNumbers, DeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuthSamuelKingsDanielEzra- Nehemiah, and Matthew (with some help, and a few detours) 2003-2017.

The Last 1956 Cessna 182

dogstars

Just finished Peter Heller,The Dog Stars (2012) which was a very enjoyable apocalyptic novel in the tradition of The Stand, Alas, Babylon, The Road, Station Eleven, or I Am Legend.  The novel is written entirely in internal monologue (not always grammatical, sometimes profane), which is a little confusing at first, but ultimately very satisfying.

Recommended.

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).