Book Reviews

Cover Her Face by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries #1)

Cover Her Face by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries #1)Summary: An unlikable maid is found dead and there are too many people that could have killed her.

PD James is one of those authors that I feel like I should have read by now. I picked up a collection of the first six books in the series on kindle for cheap a bit ago and ended up checking out the audiobook from the library last week.

I read some Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes as a teen and was not particularly interested in the ‘who dun it’ aspects of mysteries. But I have been turned on to mysteries over the past several year with the more character based mysteries of Louise Penny, Martin Walker, J Mark Bertrand, Rhys Bowen, Dorothy Sayers and Georges Simenon. The mystery is still present, but the focus is more psychological and about the people around the crime than the particulars of the crime.

I have been listening to a Great Courses lecture on The Great Books for Skeptics and it cites these books and PD James as the start of a shift from the more formulaic pulp mysteries to more literary mysteries that are more common today.

I did not realize until I listened to the lecture after finishing Cover Her Face that it was written in 1962. It does not feel particularly old, but more a historical mystery set a couple of generations ago.

The Gospel in Color by Curtis Woods and Jarvis Williams

Gospel in ColorSummary: A set of books (one for parents and one for kids) to talk about race and racism in light of scripture and Christian faith.

The authors are attempting several difficult things at the same time: 1) to make the process of discussion race and racism simple for parents, 2) to introduce parents and children to a simple, but not simplistic, understanding of race, racism, and the sin of white superiority, 3) to communicate the hope of a Christian understanding of reconciliation in the context of a long history around racial sin. The fact that The Gospel in Color project was completed, and is well done is very encouraging.

There are a couple of aspects of The Gospel in Color that I think were especially very well done. First, the art is very good. It is engaging and there is space in it. The art is not crowded by text and it serves a purpose. It is not surprising that the art is appropriately multi-racial for this project, but I picked up yet another children’s bible a little over a week ago that had entirely White characters. There is no excuse in 2018 for any Christian children’s books to have entirely White characters.

The second aspect of the Gospel in Color that I really appreciate is that with the book was explicit and clear about definition of terms. I do not agree with every definition used, but there is a clarity that is important to this type of project.  Two aspects of the terms I think are very important. First, racism is clearly identified as sin. And second, racism is not reduced to only individual animus, but includes systemic aspects of racism and white superiority. It also addresses the belief of color blindness as a denial of God’s creation.

The Gospel in Color is rooted in the arc of scripture; this is a creation, fall, redemption story. The book opens with the affirmation that skin color was not accidental but part of God’s creation and all are created in God’s image. That may seem like a minor point, but is not. Historically, there have been many Christians that have denied one or both parts of that. There have been teachings about God intentionally creating some racial groups as servants or slaves to Whites. Others taught that non-White people did not actually have souls (and were not made in God’s image). Still others taught that through some sort of evolutionary process (either with God’s direction or not) Whites became the superior race. That history is not delved into deeply here, but it is real and not ancient history. This has been taught within the last generation, it is not difficult to find people my age or younger that have been taught one or more of these.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H Cone

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H ConeTakeaway: Essential theological work not just about historic issues of lynching but the ongoing reality of the impacts of lynching and the modern permutations of lynching. 

When James H Cone passed away earlier this year, yet another of the intellectual leaders of the Civil Rights era was lost to us. Cone has pretty much always been controversial, and not just among White Christians. However, Black Liberation theology has been an important movement within modern theology impacting feminist and womanist theology as well as many areas of more traditional theology. Cone was certainly not the only theologian that pointed out the importance of not just Orthodoxy, but Orthodpraxy, but that is one of the important aspects of his work.

One of the significant themes of the Cross and the Lynching Tree is that Christians within the US context have often had orthodox beliefs, but not found it theologically important to address racism, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching or others aspects of justice.

The Newark and Detroit riots in July 1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 were the events that shook me out of my theological complacency, forcing me to realize the bankruptcy of any theology in America that did not engage the religious meaning of the African American struggle for justice. What I studied in graduate school ignored white supremacy and black resistance against it, as if they had nothing to do with the Christian gospel and the discipline of theology. (Kindle Location 227)

The chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr as an example of progressive White theology that was focused on justice, but fell short in matters of racial justice was very helpful both in how Cone critiqued Niebuhr but also how Cone still valued Niebuhr in areas. “When Niebuhr wrote against liberalism, pacifism, communism, and the easy conscience of American churches, he expressed outrage; but when it came to black victims of white supremacy, he expressed none.” (Kindle Location 1517). Cone certainly respects the work that Niebuhr did, Niebuhr and Barth were the foundation to his doctoral work and have been important throughout his career. Cone says, “What Niebuhr said about love, power, and justice helped me to understand that moral suasion alone would never convince whites to relinquish their supremacy over blacks.” (Kindle Location 1556) But…”What I questioned was his limited perspective, as a white man, on the race crisis in America. His theology and ethics needed to be informed from critical reading and dialogue with radical black perspectives.” (Kindle Location 1574)

There is far more to The Cross and the Lynching Tree than I can easily summarize, but these three long quotes at the end of the book are the best summaries of the intent of the book.

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King with Barbara Reynolds

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King with Barbara ReynoldsSummary: A strong woman who was Mrs King, but also Coretta.

There were two main reasons I picked up this memoir. First, I read/heard/saw somewhere an excerpt of My Life, My Love, My Legacy that included a section about Martin Luther King Jr not allowing Coretta to meet JFK after the March on Washington. A march that did not include any women in significant roles other than music during the program. I cannot remember what pointed this out to me, but that was why I picked up the book in the first place.

The second reason that moved the book up on my reading list is because because I was told that My Life, My Love, My Legacy directly addresses the rumors of Martin Luther King, Jr’s womanizing and affairs. Part of how she addresses this is by building the case, that is well documented outside of this book, that J Edgar Hoover was attempting to smear King, that he tapped personal and private phones and attempted to discredit King to both political leaders like JFK and to the public. She says that JFK personally took MLK on a walk outside the White House in the gardens so that he could warn MLK about Hoover. (RFK separately also warned MLK about Hoover.) Coretta believed that warning MLK outside was to prevent Hoover from hearing about the warning from bugs in the White House. Also there were several other sources in press and law enforcement that warned MLK and those around him that he was going to be specifically targeted using affairs as a way to discredit him. Coretta says that these warnings were all before there was any hint of affairs in the press.

Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought

Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought edited by Willis Jenkins and Jennifer McBride

Summary: King and Bonhoeffer both were killed at 39 after lives known for pushing the church toward greater ethical behavior. Their thinking, lives, and action overlap and diverge, but they continue to impact Christian social ethics over 50 years after their deaths.

Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought is book of essays from 19 different authors. I have read four biographies of Bonhoeffer as well as several other books by or about him. I have also read a number of books about King and his work, but Bonhoeffer and King gave me a number of new ways of looking at their work and lots of new insights into their theology and praxis. Part of what is important about this book is strives to be honest to their weaknesses and limitations. We are all limited, both by our natural created gifts and limitations and by our sin. But for people that are considered saints as many consider Bonhoeffer and King, part of that sainthood is a sanitizing and narrowing of their legacy. Many want to cite King for his work against segregation, but want to ignore his work around poverty, or militarization.

Because there are 18 chapters and a conclusion by Willis Jenkins (the editor) there are a number of different perspectives here, but for the most part there is no real question about social justice as a conceptual (or Christian) good. The authors prod and compare and highlight differences in perspective, life experience, theology, geography and social situation, but the assumption of the authors (which I agree with) is that for any weakness they had, the role of the church is to work toward justice and both Bonhoeffer and King were attempting that.

I made 21 highlights in my book (publicly available on my goodreads review). That it too many to comments about. And a book like this really has too much to comment about anyway. I want to highlight three themes that were touched on by a number of the chapters. First, while not everyone is aware, Bonhoeffer’s work was significantly impacted by his time worshiping and working in the black church while he studied at Union Seminary in NYC. That shared understanding of the church of the oppressed was frequently mentioned by authors here. For King scholars, the black church background is understood, but for Bonhoeffer scholars it is something that is often noted, but not necessarily given the significance that Bonhoeffer gave it to his own theological maturity.

The Enchanted by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicle #4)

The Enchanted by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicle #4)Summary: On the fourth return to Alitheia, Darcy realizes she has fallen in love with Prince (soon to be King) Tellius. But each of their own desires to protect the other keeps them apart.

The Gateway Chronicles has reminded me of the advantages of waiting until a series is done before starting it. That is not particularly helpful for the authors and publishers who need the sales to keep the series going. But for the reader, not needing to wait a year between books is really nice. The Gateway Chronicles are being re-released this summer by the author independently after the rights reverted back to her. KB Hoyle has lightly edited and rereleased the books about every two weeks this summer.

The Enchanted is the fourth (of six) in the series and my favorite so far. I have commented in a number of other reviews that I read for characters more than action and The Enchanted, while still having action, is much more about character development and relationships than action. The characters are older now and the maturity shows, although they are still teenagers.

In earlier books, characters often thought about themselves first and made bad decisions because of it. In The Enchanted, the bad decisions are primarily about trying to protect others. The reader can see why the bad decisions are made, because we can read international motivations, but the other characters are still hurt by what they view as (and sometimes is) betrayal.

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle by Sarah Arthur

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle by Sarah ArthurTakeaway: People are complicated.

Over the past several years since I have started thinking more about how to spiritual formation works, I have been intentionally reading memoirs or biographies of people with the express purpose of mining spiritual wisdom.

Among the most helpful books last year was a quartet of memoirs from Madeleine L’Engle that I was completely unaware of before picking them up. That set of memoirs left me wanting more, but there is not that many options. Her granddaughters have a children biography of L’Engle and there is a 2012 book of reflections by a number of authors about L’Engle, but A Light So Lovely is as close to a biography of L’Engle as I have found.

A Light So Lovely is not a straight biography. It is ‘the spiritual legacy’ of L’Engle. I have read several ‘spiritual biographies’ (CS Lewis, Flannery O’Connor) and it feels like it is more in that genre. A Light So Lovely has a rough sketch of her life, but most of the focus is on her influence on others. Most of the chapters are titled and focus on tensions in L’Engle’s life, a both/and focus instead of an either/or focus. L’Engle wanted to draw the sacred and the secular together, she wanted to see faith and science as different, but both as ways to see God. She wanted religion and art to support one another.

Along the way Arthur complicates the picture that L’Engle draws of herself in her Crosswick Journal memoirs. Her marriage was a fairly close one, but Hugh and their relationship was idealized in the Two Part Invention and one quote suggests that her vision of their marriage was in part ‘an invention’. There is a good exploration of L’Engle’s tendency to fictionalize reality as she says she is doing in places in the Circle of Quiet, but also does in other places without saying so.

On the Incarnation by Athanasius with introduction by CS Lewis

On the Incarnation by Athanasius with introduction by CS LewisTakeaway: The intro by CS Lewis is worth the cost of the book. But the rest proves his point.

CS Lewis is known for advocating the reading of old books. And while he put that in print in a couple of places. The best known of these is his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

He advocates not only the reading of old books, which he advocates not because they are better, but because they have a different set up biases and blind spots. And when I read Athanasius I did run up against some of those blind spots, like this quote:

Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. (my emphasis, On the Incarnation, Location 731 in Kindle)

But most of what is here is clear presentation of ancient understanding of the importance of Christ’s bodily incarnation, his life on earth and his physical death and physical resurrection. I would not support every positions, nor would I support every position of any modern author either. But there really is something important to reading directly.

I am going to have a long quote from Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation. One that is emphasizing a different point than old having different biases.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul—or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. (On the Incarnation Location 32 in Kindle)

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequist

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequis

Summary: A realignment from attendance based worship to participatory Christianity.

I was both interested in reading the Eternal Current and hesitant to read it. In some ways I feel like I have been on a similar journey as Aaron Niequist. I have been following him for years on social media and through his wife’s (Shauna Niequist) writing. We have different places in the Church (he is a worship leader and musician and church leaders, I am a stay at home Dad). As I have watched his work with The Practice and read an occasional article or interview or heard about him from some mutual acquaintances, it has felt like we have been moving in similar directions.

As I read The Eternal Current, it is clear we have also been reading similar books. NT Wright, James KA Smith, Scot McKnight, Eugene Peterson, along with lots on Catholic, Orthodox and historic Christian authors. We both started spiritual direction about 5 years ago. We both attend megachurches that we are reluctant to leave, but also do not find completely fulfilling.

Aaron Niequist led a project of Willow Creek Community Church, The Practice, for several years. It was a project that was attempting to put into place a more liturgically informed and historically aware practice of Christianity. Willow has been oriented toward reaching non-Christians for the past 30-40 years. But it has also been aware for at least the last 10-15 years how it has been weak at developing people as Christians. Aaron, based on his passion, and probably at least a bit on his relationship as the son in law of Bill Hybels, started a worship setting that was focused on spiritual development in a historical and liturgical mode.

I cannot really review this book without commenting on Bill Hybel’s status as the former pastor of Willow Creek. Yet another article came out about Hybel’s sexual harassment of a staff member at Willow on Sunday. That makes at least 10 women that have publicly accused Hybel’s of sexual harassment. In addition to the article on Sunday, the head teaching pastor at Willow, which moved into place early because of Hybel’s resignation, himself resigned abruptly Sunday. He had asked to resign earlier because of differences of opinion on how to deal with the allegations against Hybel between himself and other leaders, but after the NYT article on Sunday, he did not show up at church, it was announced that he was sick and then Carter released a statement later in the day.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch #1)

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch #1)Summary: An outcast finds out yet another reason for her to be outcast.

Akata Witch is the fourth book by Nnedi Okorafor that I have read in about 18 months and I will keep reading Okorafor’s books. I started Akata Witch immediately after finishing The White Thread, the third book in the contemporary young adult fantasy series Gateway Chronicles. The two  are very different settings, characters and styles, but both worth reading.

Nnedi Okorafor is a writing professor at University of Buffalo. She is exactly one year younger than I am. Her parents came to the US from Nigeria for school. Okorafor was born in the US but moved back and forth between Nigeria and the US as a child and teen. According to Wikipedia, Okorafor was diagnosed with scoliosis at 13 and at 19, due to a rare complication, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. It was during this time of paralysis that she started writing. She eventually went on to get a Masters in Journalism and a Masters and PhD in English Literature.

Okorafor and several others, primarily women authors, have become known for writing science fiction and fantasy from a distinctly African or Caribbean perspective. I have not read widely in this area yet, but American Street and Akata Witch certainly are examples of Magical Realism in modern Fantasy and come from a distinctly non-US/European cultural perspective.