Arts and Entertainments: A Novel by Christopher Beha

I am reposting this review from earlier this year beciase the kindle edition is on sale for $1.99 Takeaway: What we think we want may not be what we need.

Christopher Beha is an editor at Harper’s Weekly and co-editor of Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. But it is because of John Wilson at Books and Culture that I picked up this book.

Wilson mentioned Beha was one of the best modern Catholic novelists and I picked up Arts and Entertainments nearly a year ago when it was briefly on sale.

Like many fiction books, I tend to pick them up on recommendation without even reading the description. Honestly I am not sure I would have picked it up if I had read the full description or the reviews. Eddie Hartley is a washed up actor. He has returned to his Catholic High School as drama teacher in order to support himself and his wife.

After a long period of infertility and a lot of debt (both from bad spending and the infertility treatments) Handsome Eddie (as he was nicknamed in high school) decided to sell a sex tape of him and a former girlfriend, who is now a top rung actress. He mostly did it to pay for more infertility treatments and pay off old debt, but he did not really think through the whole thing and soon is out of a job and kicked out of the house by his newly pregnant wife.

It is here that the book, which has been good up until this point, starts revolving around the idea of celebrity culture in a much more focused way using a reality tv ‘story’. The guided stories, the mixing of real and fake lives, the point where you are in too far to get out, and bad actions for good intentions are all discussed in an way that is appropriate to the story.

This is not quite satire, but it is leaning in that direction. It reminds me most of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, but also of Christopher Buckley’s books. The character’s Catholic faith is mentioned, but it is not a significant role. This is not what I would consider ‘Christian Fiction’. There is language, a sex tape, drinking and drugs, etc. But there is a real critique of our modern notions of celebrity and a look at the directionality of culture and media that I think many Christians should hear.

I am not sure I would rate it as highly as John Wilson did, but I certainly am glad I read it and it is a book I read quickly and enjoyed. I put the rest of Beha’s books on my watch list and will pick them up eventually.

Arts and Entertainments: A Novel by Christopher Beha Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Macmillan Price Drops

It looks like Macmillan is dropping the prices of a lot of books.

These might be short term sale prices, but I think there is a good likelihood that these are just lower standard prices.

Here is a scattering of the drops in prices

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor – $5.99 (Also her book Mystery and Manners)

Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time Books are mostly $4.99 or $5.99. The O’Keefe trilogy that starts with Arm of the Starfish are all $4.99

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do is $5.99

Unrelated, God Is In the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is $2.99. This is a 40 day devotional for Advent. The audiobook is $3.49 with the purchase of the kindle edition.

A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community and Mission around the Table by Tim Chester

I am reposting this 2011 review because the kindle edition is on sale for $3.99.
A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table (Re:Lit)Takeaway: Meals are an important part of being human, being Christian, being missional and being with Jesus.

There is much to commend about A Meal with Jesus. If you are interested in being more missional in your Christianity the chapter of meals as mission is great. It talks practically about how important actually getting people in your house and sharing food builds relationship in ways that virtually no other activity can do.

There were also extended discussions using Luke as the primary text about the role of the meal in the life of Jesus. In most of the gospel of Luke, food or a meal is the setting for Jesus’ teaching and Jesus is almost always coming from or going to somewhere to eat. Luke also is very concerned with the poor. In most of his parables in Luke there is a coupling of one parable about a rich or prestigious person with either another parable about a poor person or another character in the parable being poor. Chester connects the meal and Jesus desire to eat with the people. Jesus ate with both the poor and despised and the rich and powerful. Jesus was always gracious to the poor and usually quite confrontational with those that are rich.

Unintentionally this book became another in my six month study of Luke. I am in my last Luke commentary now, but this book helped to reaffirm that scripture is not just about learning or about doing, it is about the way that we become Christians.

There is also a great thought by Chester in the context of one of his discussions of Jesus talking with some Pharisees over a meal. Chester says, “These verses also speak to a professionalized church ministry—a life seen as the epitome of godliness, but all but impossible for those not in full-time ministry.” Jesus was bringing the Pharisees down to size, not as much for what they were doing (observing the law, keeping ritually pure, etc.) but they way they were doing it. The Pharisees, like many of us, were doing life in a way that was unattainable to those around then and then holding themselves up as an example against the other, instead of empowering the other to do what they can.

The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith

I am reposting this review because the kindle version is on sale for $1.99. Before the sale I had planned on re-reading this book and it is on my very long list of books I want to re-read. My review would likely be more positive today and I think many should seriously consider the book. The current edition also has an extra couple chapters which I have not read that address some of the initial complaints about the book.


The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of ScriptureTakeaway: The purpose of the bible is to tell a story God wants us to hear. It is not an instruction manual.

There are many books that I would get everyone I know to read if I could. This is not one of them. I do not want to be heard wrong, but there are many that will not get this book and will be left worse off for reading it.

Christian Smith has a provocative thesis. Essentially he says that in the attempt to hold scripture against the modernists, many Evangelicals have become “Biblicists” and have placed on the bible a role that Smith believes is inappropriate. Some biblicists have replaced the Holy Spirit with the Bible as the third member of the trinity. Some Biblicists use the bible as a rule book or instruction guide and attempt to force a single view of theology on it. Others try to reconcile all of the issues within scripture and create a bible that was written primarily for the 21st century understanding of history, science and theology.

He summarizes the problem as Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. As Christians if we believe that scripture is God’s word (dictated by God) then we should have a single interpretive framework and it should be easier for us to agree what the Bible actually says. Smith says that is clear that we do not have that, so instead we have Christians creating frameworks and then pushing the evidence of scripture into a particular framework. His best illustration of this of a bunch of puzzle pieces without a picture. Many people make many different pictures out of the pieces, but no system uses all of the pieces or creates a whole picture.

Overall I agree with many of the complaints that Smith has. But I believe that he is needlessly antagonistic toward many that would benefit from reading this book. The tone of the first half is fairly harsh and while I understand why it is harsh (he seems to have been hurt and somewhat persecuted because he is trying to push through and find a real understanding of scripture that fits with the evidence that he finds in scripture), I still think that if he had a co-writter or editor that had helped tone down that rhetoric a bit, it would have been a better book. I believe that there are enough intellectually honest Evangelicals that a presentation of the evidence really would be enough to convict many.

The second half of the book is Smith’s attempt at solving the problem. 1) Smith says we just need to get over the fact that there seems to be contradictory points in scripture. He encourages us to view scripture progressively. In the example of slavery, scripture does not condemn slavery, but does move in the direction of increasing human rights and pushes the cultural boundaries of the times when scripture was being written. So over time, most Christians have come to believe that scripture really does lead us to condemn slavery, even if the condemnation is not explicit within the pages of scripture.

2) Smith believes that scripture should be read Christologically. The way we should understand all of scripture is by looking at it through the lens of Christ’s incarnation. Scripture is the story of God’s creation, the fall of humanity, God’s choosing and work through Israel, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection and God’s work in the church and the hint of Christ’s future work of his second coming and the recreation of Earth under Christ’s future reign. (This is very similar to the way NT Wright says we should understand scripture.) Smith believes that looking at scripture Christologically will diminish (but not eliminate) many of the minor issues that are debated among Christians.

3) His third point is that we need to read scripture in community. For Smith this means converting to Catholicism to maintain a interpretive framework around scripture to prevent errant readings. The vast majority of Evangelical readers will not do this (and he really does not talk about it here, but this is what Smith has done.) I wish he had written a bit more about this third suggestion. In general, I agree with it, but the problem I see is that some will chose church community options that allow them to reject the teaching of scripture that they find inappropriate or difficult. So Southern Baptist Churches broke away from Northern Baptist churches because of a different of understanding about slavery. Lutherans and Presbyterians have a different understanding of the sacraments. The result of a greater lay reading of scripture is that we have at least 35,000 different denominations now. But I still think that he point is basically right, even if it is not specific enough.

There are several other suggestions that I think are useful but less important (deciding what beliefs are more important, get comfortable with mystery, stop looking for all information within scripture and allow for more understanding of general revelation, etc.)

On the whole, I really think that Smith make some good points about how we inappropriately use the bible. My problem with the book is that he is better at tearing down the inappropriate use of scripture than building up the appropriate use of scripture. (I think that is just part of the problem. It is harder to do it right than it is do complain about others doing it wrong.) I also am a bit concerned about the tone, but others that I have read this with were less concerned about the tone. So maybe it is my problem more than the books problem.

I have read this after reading a number of other books on scripture recently. If I had not read Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, Peter Enn’s Inspiration and Incarnation, Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and The Challenge of Jesus, and others I do not believe I would have been ready to read and receive the message of this book.

Purchase Links: Hardback, Kindle Edition

First Draft Father by Ed Cyzewski

I appreciate Ed Cyzeski’s writing. I have read three or four of his books now. This is a collection of blog posts and articles that were mostly written in the first year of his oldest son’s life.

Much of it I relate to as a stay at home (and part time work from home) Dad.

Cyzewski and I have come to fairly similar places theologically and parenting has helped us both with parts of that theological understanding.

This does read like a series of blog posts. And it was a bit too long. But if you are a new parent, or soon to be new parent, there is much to like here.

First Draft Father by Ed Cyzewski Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities by Stephen Breyer

Takeaway: The globalization of the world in economics, travel and relationships require the US courts to grapple with international law.

I am fascinated with the court system. Several years ago I read extensively about the Supreme Court and its history and current makeup. After hearing a couple interviews with Breyer about this book I was interested, in part because I know that Breyer has made it part of his mission to work toward the international training of judges.

This is a technical legal book. Breyer is making a case and (as I understand it) legal cases are largely made through understanding of precedent and understanding the legal language of the relevant law. I listened to the audiobook, which is well narrated by Breyer and feels like a constitutional law class (in a good way.)

In a 12 chapter book, Breyer spends the first 9 chapters charting how the US court system has reached our current place. The first four chapters are historical view of how the courts have understood their role during war.

The next two chapters are about how American law has stood outside the US through international commerce regulation and US laws on international Torts and Human Rights.

The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction by John Guy

Takeaway: A strong monarchy does not prevent political complaints about taxes and the economy.

As the saying goes, “so many books, so little time.” Very Short Introduction books can be helpful as a quick guide to a subject. My English history is not that great, so I picked this up on sale to help fill in some gaps.

The Very Short Introduction series is a mixed bag, some have been excellent and some have been horrible. The most common problem is that some of the guides skip the content and spend all of their time talking about the scholarship. That is not a problem here. This is straight narrative history. Starting immediately before the rise of Henry the VII, going to Henry VIII, Mary and eventually Elizabeth.

I was actually better informed about this era than I thought because of my readings in reformation history. But this was a decent overview. There were two short chapters at the end that talked about the influence of the arts (primarily architecture and music) in the era.

Modern Library $2.99 Kindle Sale

Modern Library (a publishing house focusing on classics and liturature, but also with a significant group of history books) is having a $2.99 sale. Most of the books from last year’s sale are back on sale again, but also a number of additional books. The complete list of over 350 books is here.

The Faulkner Reader by William Faulkner – $2.99

669 pages, 83% of reviews are 4 or 5-stars

With a Foreword by the author. The Sound and the Fury, selections from other novels, three novellas, nine stories, the Nobel Prize address, etc.

Also Faulkner’s Selected Short Stories is $2.99
51HI3rORLxL._AA160_Stories by Anton Chekhov – $2.99

496 pages, 93% of reviews are 4 or 5-stars

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the highly acclaimed translators of War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago, and Anna Karenina, which was an Oprah Book Club pick and million-copy bestseller, bring their unmatched talents to The Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, a collection of thirty of Chekhov’s best tales from the major periods of his creative life.

41HalGvdCZL._AA160_Bellow: A Biography by James Atlas – $2.99

736 pages, 58% of reviews are 4 or 5-star

With this masterly and original work, Bellow: A Biography, National Book Award nominee James Atlas gives the first definitive account of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s turbulent personal and professional life, as it unfolded against the background of twentieth-century events—the Depression, World War II, the upheavals of the sixties—and amid all the complexities of the Jewish-immigrant experience in America, which generated a vibrant new literature.

Drawing upon a vast body of original research, including Bellow’s extensive correspondence with Ralph Ellison, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, and many other luminaries of the twentieth-century literary community, Atlas weaves a rich and revealing portrait of one of the most talented and enigmatic figures in American intellectual history.

Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker Edited by David Remnick – $2.99

530 pages, 73% of reviews are 4 or 5-star

New York City is not only The New Yorker magazine’s place of origin and its sensibility’s lifeblood, it is the heart of American literary culture. Wonderful Town, an anthology of superb short fiction by many of the magazine’s most accomplished contributors, celebrates the seventy-five-year marriage between a preeminent publication and its preeminent context with this collection of forty-four of its best stories from (so to speak) home.

Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis by Abigail Santamaria

Takeaway: Real life is usually not like the movies.

Joy Davidman is best known, not for her own work, but as the wife of CS Lewis. The story of their marriage was featured in the movie Shadowlands. It is a good movie, but it seems as much fiction as reality.

I have previously read a short biography by Lyle Dorsett that was the rough basis of Shadowlands and I have read several biographies of Lewis which include discussions of Joy and her life.

This new biography is the first full fledged biography of Joy Davidman and is the product of much new documentation (primarily newly discovered letters) and research. It is hard to think more documentation would become available to warrant another biography.

Santamaria has written a highly readable and interesting biography of a complicated and not always likable woman. Davidman was a child prodigy, a promising young author and poet. But she was swept up with communist fervor, atheism, and her art became primarily focused on her causes.

Davidman was brilliant, but troubled. After strings of affairs, starting as a fairly young awkward teen she started a relationship with Bill Gresham. They were married in August 1942 and had two children. But it was a turbulent marriage. Bill was an alcoholic and likely had other mental health issues. But Joy was an equal partner to the turbulence.

Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality by David G Benner

Takeaway: God is love is not the only important thing in theology, but it may be one of the harder parts of the Christian life to truly accept.

I have a theological bias. I believe that any description of God and the Christian life that does not include God’s love as central to his essence, not just one of his characteristics, is missing the heart of the Christian life.

Yes, the ‘God is Love’ can be and has been misused. But I would much rather move toward the potential over adoption of God is love than the under adoption. Going too far is balanced by prevalent themes in scripture. But under adoption of the ‘God is love’ principle fundamentally changes the nature of Christianity. It becomes performance based, rule following, and eventually a self-saving religion that rejects the concept of grace and ceases to be the orthodox Christianity of scripture.

I like to be (and need to be) continually reminded of God’s love of us as fallen, broken humans. David Benner (who I have read previously talking about spiritual direction) has expanded and re-issued a trilogy of books which starts with Surrender to Love.

I did not read the earlier edition, but the expanded version is still just under 100 pages of main content. It could be a quick read, but I spent nearly a week slowly reading it and then it has been nearly a week of processing before writing this review. It also has helpful questions after each chapter that would make it a good discussion book or if reading alone help to focus the reader on the main points.