Unnatural Causes by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery #3)

Unnatural Causes (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries Book 3) cover imageSummary: Scotland Yard Inspector Adam Dalgliesh visits his aunt at her remote home for a vacation after a long case, and he is confronted with another murder but isn’t in charge of the investigation.

I have been reading too much non-fiction, so while on vacation, I scanned through some of my books and decided to pick back up the PD James series about the Scotland Yard inspector. I read the first two about five years ago. I wouldn’t say I liked either of those as much as I liked her Children of Men book, but because I found a cheap edition with the first six books, I figured I should give them another try.

I do not really feel like I have enough of a sense of the main character, Adam Dalgliesh, going into this. First, it has been five years since I read the last book, but also, after reading back over those posts, I did not feel all that connected to the character. This was not much better, but it was an enjoyable enough mystery. Last year I re-read the whole Inspector Ganache series, and one of the things that stood out to me is that as much as I enjoy the series as a whole, a lot of the books need the rest of the series to make sense. Individually, especially in the early books, they can feel fairly weak regarding the characters. But over a series of nearly 20 books, the series becomes stronger because it is a long series that is allowed to develop over time. I cannot expect individual books to have the same characterization as a long series.

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Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted by Gretchen Ronnevik

Ragged cover imageSummary: A very Lutheran perspective on spiritual disciplines, which is helpful for non-Lutherans to read as a different perspective.

When I picked up Ragged, I knew nothing about the book or author other than several people I know recommended it.  I have been trying to prioritize reading women authors this year. And I have been trying to work through different language around spiritual disciplines because so much of the Evangelical orientation toward spiritual disciplines uses pragmatic self-improvement as a motivation.

The introduction was my favorite part of the book, not that I didn’t like the rest of the book, just that her framing of spiritual disciplines was precisely what I was looking for. Ronnevik is a homeschooling mother of six, wife of a farmer, and survivor of a severe car crash that has left her with chronic pain. She directly takes on the type of perfectionistic, strongly ordered approach to spiritual disciplines that deters too many from even attempting regular disciplines. Disciplines are to draw us toward God, not to prove ourselves worthy of God.

After the helpful introduction, each chapter is a different discipline. I understand that approach, but it was not the best move. The positive of that approach is that you can go to disciplines that you are more interested in. The negative of that approach is that it is a type of list of disciplines that we are all familiar with. In many cases, Ronnevik reframes the discipline to make them more approachable, but I still feel like a knowledge presentation of disciplines. Each of those chapters are filled with stories to draw the reader in and be relatable. And I think this is a book that will be particularly helpful for people that struggle with disciplines as a competition to make themselves better.

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A History of the Island by Eugene Vodolazkin

A history of the islandSummary: A novel that I am not sure I fully understood. 

I am a big fan of Vodolazkin’s earlier novel, Laurus, so when I heard the general positive buzz about this new novel, I picked it up soon after it came out because I was in the mood for some fiction. But I think this novel requires more background knowledge to understand the satire than I have. After I started the book, Current posted a review. I try to avoid reviews until after I finish a book, but I read this one because I was a bit bored with the novel and needed some motivation to finish.

It meandered, and I could tell it referenced historical events, but I was unsure what the references meant. At least a part of the target of the satire is the myth of the progress of history. There is progress; we do not have half of our children die before the age of five. And the rate of absolute subsistence poverty has dropped. But progress has not brought about some other promises, radical egalitarianism, an end to poverty, more just institutions, etc.

The book opens as a medieval history written by monks of an island kingdom. After reading for a while, we realize that the commentary on the history is from the King and Queen, who are eventually introduced into the story when their lives are prophecied. They are born, married, and begin to rule. This is a book that slowly unfolds. Parfeny and Ksenia were born in a medieval world, but they have remained alive for over 300 years to also live in the modern world. From the vantage point of their long life, they have perspective. They ruled, and they were ruled, they lived in splendor, and they lived in poverty.

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Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past

Myth America Cover imageSummary: Historians take on mostly conservative talking points. 

Historians have been having an internal battle about their public role in current events. Much of the discussion is framed around Presentism, which is “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” Part of the reality of history as a social science is that interpretation is a necessary part of what it means to “do history.” I am not a historian, although I do read a lot of history and respect historians that are on different sides of this debate.

I think Myth America has two problems, and presentism is one of them. Kevin Kruze and Julian Zelizer are Myth America’s editors, both historians of recent American history. The last book I read from them was Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, which was worth reading, but the problem with recent history is that it is harder to have a broad perspective on that history because it is so recent. Most of the essays are framed around current myths about history that impact current politics, which is precisely the concern over presentism.

Carol Anderson’s chapter on voter fraud takes the concerns around the 2020 election and frames them historically about why we have a current concern about election fraud. That historical framing is helpful to see why we have a current obsession with voter fraud without any evidence of it actually being a problem in most elections. But the book’s very nature is mostly to address current political concerns, leaving the book open to critique of political bias.

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Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Narrative of Sojourner Truth cover imageSummary: An autobiography from Sojourner Truth as told to Olive Gilbert.

This year’s final book for the Renovaré Book Club was Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Because I did not really have any background with Sojourner Truth, I read the new We Will be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth by Nacy Koester as background before starting the autobiography.

One of the parts of the Renovare Book Club that I most appreciate is the podcast/video interviews and weekly emails with links to information and background. In the first podcast, in preparation for reading Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the host suggested that we come at the Narrative without other background materiaial, so as to understand her words on their own terms. This is common advice and not entirely wrong. But at the same time, this advice is influenced by the “plain reading of the text.” And as much as I appreciate that advice, it needs to be tempered because there is real value in expertise, and experts can give you far more information and background than what is possible when reading without the assistance of experts.

In this case, I do not think reading the Narrative without any background would have been helpful for me. Sojourner Truth was a complex figure outside the standard Southern slave narrative. She spoke only Dutch until the age of 9 and spoke with a Dutch accent her whole life. Her most famous speech, Aint’ I A Woman, was transcribed with a Southern slave dialect and likely was significantly distorted in form because of that.

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Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters

feminism cover imageSummary: A short history of the feminist movement, primarily focusing on first and second-wave feminism within England, with a follow-up chapter on feminism in other geographical areas.

Because women’s role in the church has been an active conversation lately, I have been thinking about feminism. A tweet (there were several in the same vein) suggested that part of the issue with the discussion today is that feminism has changed the discussion. Today all except a few want to assert that women are equal, but roles are different. Historically the church fathers, until recently, were influenced by Greek thought that understood women as flawed men or lesser creations. Feminism has changed the terms so that even though hard patriarchalists continue to exist and have influence, most will at least say women are equal in value and Imago Dei.

The book opens with a chapter on the religious roots of feminism starting in the middle ages. And then following is a chapter on secular approaches to feminism. This is followed by a chapter on 18th-century women writers. And then two chapters on the 19th century.

Because voting rights were so central to the women’s rights movement, there were two chapters on voting rights. The last three chapters are about first-wave feminism in the 20th century. Then second-wave feminism in the late 20th century. And then, a chapter on feminists worldwide lightly touches on the critiques of first and second-wave feminism. The afterward lightly touches on continued changes to feminism. Kaitlyn Schiess has a good video on her Getting Schooled series, Feminism 101, that covers similar material in about 40 minutes.

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Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible cover imageSummary: Very good introduction to hermeneutics (how we understand scripture), the cultural background of scripture, and how our own culture impacts our reading and understanding of scripture.

I recently led a book group through Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. When I lead book discussions, I almost always read the book twice; once early in the week, I listen to it on audiobook. And then the day of the book club, I reread the same section in print and take notes and highlight the areas that I want to discuss. But this is not my first reading. My review on Audible has 196 likes. And on Amazon, the book description starts with saying that Bookwi.se (me) named it my favorite book of the year in 2015. So I believe that this is my 3rd and 4th reading of Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes.

What I like about leading book groups is seeing how others respond to a book. In virtually every book club meeting, one of the members held up the book and said a variation of, “I love this book.” By the end of the book club (which was about nine weeks), he had convinced his wife, his mother-in-law, two of his coworkers, and some others to read the book. This is a good book that really can help you see different perspectives on scripture. And that is very helpful in renewing interest in scripture.

This book group, which has been meeting on and off for about three years now, started as a church small group reading books about race. The group has expanded and changed, and because it has always been a Zoom group, it isn’t only local people or only people from one church. For several years I have been suggesting to anyone that will listen that one good way to raise consciousness about racial issues in the White Evangelical church is to start with Misreading Scripture because it is a helpful book that raises issues of culture and meaning. When we discover that other people, especially those that are from different cultures and times, have different understandings of how the world works, we can start to investigate how our understanding of the world may be culturally constructed. This isn’t “post-modernism”; this is just acknowledgment of reality, similar to the suggestion of CS Lewis about reading old books. I think, handled correctly, Misreading Scripture can be effective in introducing people who may be reluctant to discuss race and culture by concentrating on a book that is primarily about understanding scripture.

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Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality by Zachary Wagner

Non-toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy male sexuality cover imageSummary: Can men have a non-toxic masculinity, and what would that look like?

Non-Toxic Masculinity is a book that I decided not to read initially. And then Josh Butler’s book and TGC article came out. And Patrick Miller stonewalled Sheila Wray Gregoire and then eventually apologized. So many other things happened recently that are mainly about toxic masculinity that I decided to accept a review copy.

Up front, I am not the target audience here. I am 50 and have spent nearly 15 years as a stay-at-home uncle and then dad. I have not once earned more than my wife. I am firmly in favor of women’s ordination. My senior sociology project in the mid-90s was about the acceptance of rape myths among students at evangelical colleges. I have long thought that many men are toxic. I read Everyman’s Battle on a friend’s recommendation and immediately threw it away as trash precisely because it treated women as the problem instead of rightly paying attention to evangelical sin avoidance as the problem. I favor men working toward being less toxic, but I am highly suspect of any gendered approach to discipleship for men.

I was too old for the main purity culture teaching; I had been married for several years when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. The term dodging a bullet is probably too weak of a statement when I have talked to people about the harm of purity culture. In my mid-20s, despite being a fairly outspoken egalitarian, a seminary professor and a friend separately challenged me because they thought I was adopting a kinder, gentler form of sexism. I can remember talking about the problems of porn (and this was long before smartphones) and suggesting that part of breaking the power of porn was to firmly establish that women in those videos should be treated as “mother, sister, daughter.” My friend challenged me to think about how that framing still established women in relation to men and not as a child of God or imago dei. My professor challenged me to think about how I was thinking of marriage as a means of equipping me for others things. I argued with both of them but eventually came to realize that they were right.

It wasn’t good enough to be a kinder, gentler sexist that categorizes women by their relationship to other men (by default, still maintaining a gender hierarchy). And it was not good enough to think of marriage as a means of maturity building. I do not live up to my ideals, but from that point, I have attempted to live as if all hierarchy violates God’s good creation, whether it be gender, race, class, or other types of hierarchy.

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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

on Tyranny cover imageSummary: A long lecture or short book on ways to prevent tyranny based on 20th-century history.

I have looked at but not read On Tyranny several times. It came out about six years ago. But I decided to pick it up after a tweet from Samuel Perry about regularly rereading it and teaching it. I looked it up again and saw the audiobook was on sale for $3 and was less than 2 hours. (It is $4.50 as I am writing this.)

This formatted too quickly read. Each chapter is only a few pages; the longest chapter is nine pages. While most sermons or commencement addresses won’t have 20 points, it is that type of approach. These are short pieces of advice with brief historical references. Chapter one is Do Not Obey in Advance. That may seem like it doesn’t need to be said, but if we look at history, there are many examples of trying to appease by preemptively doing what you think they would like done. Appeasement may work in some cases, but not in cases of tyranny. In cases of tyranny, it just cements power.

Many of the pieces of advice are about understanding truth or learning. These are always helpful whether we are talking about tyranny or not. Other is more specific like Make Eye Contact and Small Talk. This is primarily a “know your neighbors” idea.

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