Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn (2nd Ed)

Ethics: A Very Short Introduction cover imageSummary: An introductory, but probably too brief to be helpful, look at Ethics.

I have been working on a reading project to think through the concept of Christian Discernment. One aspect of discernment is ethical behavior. When I saw that Ethics: A Very Short Introduction was free to Audible members, I picked it up for a change in pace and to see what it might communicate about Christian Discernment.

Early in the first section, the author glibly dismissed religious influences on ethics and while I thought that it was poorly reasoned, I thought I might still get some value from the book, after all, it is not a very long book. I do not think I have a very good background in Philosophy or Ethics, although I keep trying to read and catch up. But this introduction, I think, was targeted toward people with less background than I have.

I have found the Very Short Introduction series quite uneven in quality. One of the problems is organization. Some want to primarily talk about the scholarship around an area, not the area itself. Some have a very idiosyncratic approach to the area. And some do a great job giving an overview. I think the problem here was that Ethics is a big area, and the author tried to introduce practical ethical dilemmas and a brief history of ethical thought. I think the practical ethical dilemmas section was broadly helpful in introducing the idea of different ethical approaches, but I think he did not give sufficient weight to various approaches and tended to place his views as the right ones without enough explanation of other views. And I think there probably could have been some explanation of why he chose these areas and others.

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Son of Bitter Glass by KB Hoyle

son of bitter glass cover imageSummary: A retelling of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson.

Son of Bitter Glass is the second in KB Hoyle’s Fairytale series. This series is set in the same world, but the novels are stand-alone. The first in the series was a gender-switched retelling of The Little Mermaid. The Son of Bitter Glass is a retelling of The Snow Queen. I have never read The Snow Queen, although these are elements of the story that I can see that CS Lewis adapted into The White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe. Disney’s Frozen was very loosely adapted from The Snow Queen as well. About halfway through the book, I skimmed the Wikipedia summary to see if I missed any significant elements or references. I do not think I was, and if you haven’t read The Snow Queen, I do not think you need to know the story to enjoy this book.

The Son of Bitter Glass opens with Eira and Isbrand as children. Eira is the daughter of an ambassador who himself is a friend of the king. Her mother died before she remembered her, but her father remarried so that she would have a mother. The stepmother has her own children with Eira’s father, and Eira feels out of step with her family. Her best friend is the prince, Isbrand (Isa), and they spend as much time together as they can apart from her family.

On Isa’s 12th birthday, a hobgoblin brings a curse from the Snow Queen. The queen is murdered, and the king, Eira’s father, and many others get a piece of the “bitter glass” in their eyes. But Eira protects Isa and keeps him safe from the bitter glass. The king charges Eira with protecting the prince. Over time, the childhood friends come to love one another romantically. But Eira is duty-bound to protect Isa, and it looks like Isa needs to marry another to keep him safe from the Snow Queen’s curse. As the story develops, there is a quest, and the one overlapping character of the series, James, helps Eira on her quest.

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My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

My Plain Jane cover imageSummary: Jane Eyre meets Sixth Sense, “I see dead people.”

I like the concept of remixes or retellings of classic stories. The very nature of a well known story means that you can retell it by changing the perspective or the gender of the characters and you can easily have a cultural commentary or additional humor, or simply get to hint at part of the story to reference ideas without fully developing them in ways that is not possible for a completely original story.

That being said, I came into My Plain Jane having just finished My Lady Jane and I had a set of expectations that were not met. I thought I knew what to expect and the books are just different. My unmet expectations created a hurtle that I would not have had, if I had started with Plain Jane. But I had to get over my expectations of what the book was going to be. My Lady Jane was a historical figure that was generally told accurately, but with the addition of shape shifting magic (into animals).

My Plain Jane is riffing off of Jane Eyre, which is a fictional story. I read Jane Eyre just over a year ago, the story is fairly fresh in my mind. This is a bit of a spoiler, but My Plain Jane alternates telling the story from several perspectives. Charlotte Bronte is a teen, almost finished with her boarding school. Her real life best friend is Jane Eyre, a barely older orphan who was also at the school but now is a teacher. Charlotte is always writing and Jane is always painting or drawing; they do not have a lot of friends at the school outside of one another.

The main story really starts when Jane sneaks off to a local pub because she hears that a somewhat secret organization, Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits will be there. That organization is an early Ghostbusters society. In this story, people who have briefly died and come back to life can see ghosts. The Society is mostly made up of people who can see ghosts and they go around the country helping to remove problem ghosts. Jane can see ghosts and one of her best friends, Helen, is a ghost. One of the tension points is that Jane wants to keep secret her ability to see ghosts because she is afraid of what people will think if they know she can see ghosts.

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A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks

A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks cover imageSummary: A memoir from sharecropper’s daughter to academic to retired anti-racist educator. 

I do not know how I ran across Catherine Meeks’ work. She was a professor at Mercer and then Wesleyan College. She worked as an organizer for the city of Macon and was the founder of Lane Center for Community Engagement and Service. Then, she retired in 2008 and started another career as an anti-racist trainer within the Episcopal Church, eventually founding the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. She again retired from that role this past December. In 2022, she received the President Joseph R. Biden Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Volunteer Service Award medal.

What I enjoy about reading memoirs and biographies is that I see the complications of lives, not just the awards or recognitions they receive. Catherine Meeks was born to a sharecropper and a teacher in rural Mississippi. Her mother worked as a teacher throughout her childhood, but it took her 18 years to finish her college degree. Her father was illiterate and died when she was a child. The background of growing up in poverty during Jim Crow matters to the rest of her story. But this is not simply a Horatio Alger story of growth and success. Esau McCaulley, in a podcast interview that I cannot find right now, talked about the problems of writing a memoir as a successful Black man. He talked about the fact that people want a happy ending. And even when there is a happy ending, the happy ending can be used as proof against those with a less happy ending.

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Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Remote Control cover imageSummary: A girl finds herself with powers she did not ask for, without a name or a family.

Remote Control is the seventh book I have read by Nnedi Okorafor, but the first in the last four years. I continue to like this length of book, a long novella or a short novel. The print copy is 160 pages or just over 4 hours in audiobook. That length has enough time for real character development but tends to have a simpler plot structure and less fluff. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good long novel at times, but not every novel needs to be 350-450 pages.

Remote Control was written in 2020, and I think it reflects that time. It is a dark novel. Many of Okorafor’s novels have dark premises or realities to them. She Who Fears Death is a post-apocalyptic novel about a girl born after a violent rape. Binti is about an African Teen on her way to college on another planet and who witnesses everyone on the ship she is traveling on slaughtered before negotiating a peace. The Akata series is more for young adults and not quite as heavy, but it still deals with some difficult topics.

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My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brody Ashton and Jodi Meadows

Lady Jane Grey cover imageSummary: A very fictionalized retelling of Lady Jane Grey’s marriage and assent to the throne with magic.

My day job involves very significant data entry several times a year. This allows me to listen to audiobooks, but at some point, my brain begins to shut down, and I need not only fiction but very light and humorous fiction. My Lady Jane fit the bill perfectly.

My Lady Jane is historical fiction, similar to how A Knight’s Tale is a historical fiction movie. That is to say, historical events VERY loosely inspire them but should not be understood as at all historically accurate. Many narrator notes throughout the book suggest things like, up until this point, the story has been relatively historically accurate, but after this point, no history book will tell it this way. Even without the notes, this is a fantasy book in which the characters turn into animals through magic.

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving Castle cover imageSummary: Sophie, the eldest daughter of a hatmaker, is cursed by an evil witch and has to figure out how to break that curse. 

I am not sure why I have not previously read Howl’s Moving Castle. I know that I mistakenly thought that I had watched the movie. (I am pretty sure I watched Spirited Away and wrongly remembered it as Howl’s Moving Castle.) I was looking for some fiction last week and saw the audiobook at my library after seeing someone say on Twitter that they reread it every January. I picked it up on a whim and finished it in three days.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a book that I want to read again in print. I enjoyed the audiobook, but there are a few times when I think I missed small plot points because it was audio and not in print. There is depth in the story here but like many young adult books, there is a lot of the story that is rooted in misunderstanding. And some of that misunderstanding is the characters not understanding their own emotions.

Sophie, the protagonist, is a witch or magician, but she doesn’t not know it. Her lack of awareness of her gifts is the main plot point. She slowly comes to an awareness of her gifts as she comes to an awareness of her love for Howl’s, the self-centered womanizing wizard who is responsible for the moving castle. The magic has a video game and steampunk feel to it. It works, but it isn’t as much classic Mideavil sword and sorcery fantasy as it is a 19th-century world that has magic.

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Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church by Katelyn Beaty

Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church cover imageSummary: A discussion about how the rise of independent celebrity authors, pastors, speakers, musicians, and churches is a problem, not just because of abuse and a lack of accountability, but also because our culture is more focused on celebrities for their own sake. 

In some ways, Celebrities for Jesus is a book that I am not sure why it needed to be written. I say this not because it isn’t worth reading or because it isn’t a good book, but because much of the main point should be self-evident. I think we should know that as churches are more focused on the size and celebrity of their pastors, this will create a harmful culture, even if there is no overt abuse or harm. It should be clear that when a church is centered around a well-known leader, the church is not primarily about Jesus but about the leader. (Or the will of the leader is assumed to be the will of Jesus.)

In my life, I have been exposed to many megachurch leaders. Like many, I have read many books and watched many sermons by those leaders. But I have also been involved in small closed-door meetings with some megachurch pastors. And honestly most of those in the meetings are no longer in leadership. A few retired without scandal. But many, including James MacDonald and Bill Hybels, who are both profiled in the book, had significant scandals, and that scandal felt to me like it was just a matter of time from when I met them in the early 2000s. I also spent years as a member of a mega church without significant scandal, and in deciding to leave that church, the issue of celebrity was involved because it felt to me that the church was making decisions to continue to center the pastor in ways that made me concerned for the long term future of the church.

Despite my somewhat facetious question about why the book was written, it is helpful to think about what has shifted. Part of the early book is about the difference between fame and celebrity. I am oversimplifying here, but fame is about being well-known for a position, talent, or product (being a good writer, speaker, or musician). But as Beaty describes it, celebrity is a shift from being famous for what you have done to being known for being known. Celebrity, especially with the rise of social media and mass media, means we have a false “illusion of intimacy while drawing our attention away from the true intimacy available within a physical community.” Said more simply, Beaty says that the summary of the problem of celebrity is “social power without proximity.” Not only do celebrities influence us without us actually knowing them as a whole person, but in some sense, we do not want to know them as a whole person because to know someone as a whole person would break the illusion of intimacy and perfection that we have of celebrities.

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The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul E Miller

The Religion of American Greatness: What's Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul E Miller cover imageSummary: The best critique of Christian Nationalism I have read, because Miller so clearly understands the reasons that Christian Nationalism can be attractive and reasonable.

There have been various books about Christian Nationalism; initially, they were all condemning, and more recently, a few made positive cases for Christian Nationalism. The Religion of American Greatness is a conservative (theologically and politically) case against Christian Nationalism, one that does mention but does not focus on Trump. And one that is generous in its assumptions about why some find the movement toward Christian Nationalism appealing.

His fifth chapter, Nationalism, Cultural Pluralism and Identity Politics, is a good example of where I agree broadly with the conclusions and disagree with how he got there. As a broad stroke, he points out the weaknesses of the Nationalist orientation and the methodology of using the state to maintain a particular cultural orientation over time. To illustrate this, he commends freedom of speech and the rule of law, which must be done for all to have a sense of fairness and equity. He uses the “Drag Queen Story Hour” complaint as an illustration and, I think, rightly critiques how it is used to stir up a culture war agenda. This brings him to consider whether Christian Nationalism is a type of identity politics. I understand this point, and I do not entirely disagree with it, but I think he misses the reasons that we need to repair past harm and how minority identity sociologically works. (Although he does have a stronger call for repair of past harm later in the book.) I believe that Christian Nationalists are acting as an identity group, but what needs to be teased out more is whether that identity group has justification in their complaint. (But that is more about sociology than political science.) Regardless of the accuracy of the complaints, his ability to take those complaints seriously is the book’s strength.

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Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers by Richard S. Newman

Summary: The biography of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and one of the early Black leaders in the US. 

Many people may be slightly aware of Richard Allen, but not much about him. At least that describes me and why I decided to pick up Freedom’s Prophet. This quote from the introduction sets the stage for why Richard Allen is important.

“Allen did not live through these immense changes passively, a black man adrift in a sea of impersonal and malevolent forces. Rather, he shaped, and was in turn shaped by, the events swirling around him. As the most prominent black preacher of his era, he helped inaugurate a moral critique of slavery and slaveholding that shaped abolitionism for years to come. As one of the first black pamphleteers, he pushed not only for slavery’s demise but also for black equality. As a black institution builder, he spurred the creation of autonomous organizations and churches that nurtured African American struggles for justice throughout the nineteenth century. As a sometime doubter of American racial equality, he participated in black emigration to Haiti. As a leader of the first national black convention, he defined continent-wide protest tactics and strategies for a new generation of activists. Bishop Allen’s lifelong struggle for racial justice makes for a compelling and illuminating story—a tale about a black founder and African Americans in the early American republic.” (p5)

Richard Allen was born into slavery in 1760 and lived until the age of 71 in 1831. Like many who were enslaved, his family was split apart and sold as a child. He became a Christian through the work of early Methodists, who welcomed Black participation in the church. At 17, he joined the church and started to evangelize and preach. Through his preaching and evangelism and the preaching of a white abolitionist preacher, his owners became convinced of the evil of slavery. But his owners did not simply free him and others who were enslaved; he allowed them to buy their freedom. Richard Allen bought his freedom for the equivalent of about five years’ wages for an average laborer by age 20. When he was 24, he was officially ordained and spent two years as a circuit-riding preacher before becoming one of the ministers at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.

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