Bellwether: A Novel by Connie Willis

bellwether cover imageSummary: A satirically comic novel about scientists trying to understand the world around them.

I needed something different to read, an audiobook novel, preferably a funny one. I looked around in the Audible Plus Catalog (audiobooks free to members) and picked Bellwether mostly because I enjoyed the humor of the two previous novels I had read by Connie Willis (and that it was short).

Bellwether felt like a good Christopher Buckley novel. It was written in the mid-90s and feels like it was written in the mid-90s. Sandra Foster is a statistician who studies fads. Most fads have something that you can point to as the cause. New colors become popular because of a technological change in development (car colors, appliances, or ways to make LED lights that allow different colors.) But some fads become popular without an apparent cause. Sandra studies these unknown cause fads to understand how they start and how to stop those that are a problem. The central fad her research is focused on is the rise of the Bob haircut, which does not seem to be explainable through technology, media, or social events. A random wrong package delivery introduces Sandra to Bennett O’Reilly, a chaos theorist immune to fads. That eventually leads to them working together, and what the reader knows from the start will be a romance.

Read more

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck cover imageSummary: A discussion of the problem of disenchantment in Christianity. 

It has been several years since I have picked up one of Richard Beck’s books. I am a fan of his and would highly recommend the previous books I have read: Unclean (about hospitality), Slavery of Death (about the power of sin), Reviving Old Scratch (about the importance of the concept of evil) and Trains, Jesus and Johnny Cash (a gospel according to type of book).

Primarily, Hunting Magic Eels is about the problem of disenchantment in the modern world. There is an irony that we are disenchanted with Christianity, but not necessarily all enchantment (crystals, ghosts, etc.) He describes the problem well and in a way that others also have lamented. The traditional distant God as a watchmaker who created but is no longer needed or God in a two-story world (God exists but doesn’t interact except occasionally) is insufficient for historic Christianity.

Karl Rahner, in a famous sermon he preached in literal rubble at the end of the Second World War, has an even more famous quote: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” I read that sermon on mysticism in a class. What Rahner meant there was mystic in the sense of enchantment. A disenchanted Christianity is a purely intellectual or moral system. But Christianity, while having intellectual and moral aspects, believes that God is real and is relational. A religious system that is only moral and/or intellectual has ceased to be Christian because it has removed the relational aspects from the faith. This is the positive sense of the quote, “Christianity is about a relationship, not a religion.”

Read more

The Black Tower by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh #5)

The Black Tower (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #5)Summary: Dalgliesh, recovering from surgery and a misdiagnosis of cancer, Adam heads to the coast to visit a family friend only to find that he had recently died.

I have almost forced myself to pick up fiction this year. I am unsure why, but I have barely read any fiction. I have been slowly working through a collection of the first six books of the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series, which I purchased years ago. I don’t love the series yet, but the most well-known books of the series are still to come, so I have been continuing to read, hoping that the series will engage me like Inspector Gamache or others.

In this book, Adam Dalgliesh is not on duty as a homicide detective. Instead, he is on sick leave and planning to resign once he has recovered. Dalgliesh was the son of a pastor. When he was a child, he knew a pastor who had retired to be the chaplain at an estate where the owner was trying to create a community that could care for disabled people who did not need the full care of a nursing home but could not live independently.

Read more

Medieval Christianity: A New History by Kevin J. Madigan

Medieval Christianity: A New History by Kevin J. Madigan cover imageSummary: Medieval Christianity is important to understand the development of Christianity, but also the development of Christianity is a result of both theology and social issues outside of the church. 

I have been slowly working through Medieval Christianity for months. After reading Jesus Wars, I had questions about The Virgin Mary, which led me to pick up Medieval Christianity and Cultural Christians in the Early Church. As with any good history of Christianity, you realize that Christian history is not simply a history of people thinking big thoughts about Christ. It is also about a response to events and realities outside the church. Discussions about the role of the Pope in political affairs are not just theological but also have a relationship to tax rates, the need for armies,  potential invasions from outside of Europe, the way reform movements frame their arguments, and how the technology of information transmission works.

One of my seminary classes was about the history of Christian thought, and the professor’s method was to talk about philosophical ideas, but he did not connect them to the history that helped to give rise to those ideas. As someone who likes to ground ideas in historical movements, I felt lost throughout the class because I did not feel like I had anything to connect those ideas to the context from which they arose.

Read more

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cover imageSummary: I read it (a sixth time?) through my kids’ eyes, who were reading/listening for the first time.

I love reading books to my kids, a lot more than my kids love being read to. I didn’t write about it here, but I started Wrinkle in Time a couple months ago and my kids did not love it. They tolerated it until we got to IT being introduced, and that was just too much so we put it down. I might have tried to pick it up again, but my son’s teacher gave him a copy of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire because she thought he might like it. He loved the idea of reading such a big book. He may have read it independently, but he does not tend to have that much reading stamina. I had read them the series’ first three books, and we had already given up on Wrinkle in Time because it was too scary. But I had not previously read Goblet of Fire because I suspected it might be too scary for them. So I was not really sure if we would make it through.

I talked about it with them, and they were willing to try. I like to keep the book moving and listen to the audiobook in the car. We started with the Stephen Fry audiobook version, but I have that on a bootleg MP3 file that is impossible to find your place on. So we gave up on that one about 1/3 of the way through and moved to the Jim Dale version when my wife drove the kids on a trip without me. I continued to read out loud here and there, but by the time we were about 2/3 of the way through, it had become mostly an audiobook.

Read more

Practicing Christian Doctrine by Beth Felker Jones

Practicing Christian Doctrine by Beth Felker Jones cover imageSummary: Well-written intro to theology text.

I picked up Practicing Christian Doctrine because I had an audiobook credit that had to be used before it expired, and I remembered a good podcast interview with Beth Felker Jones and decided to see what else she had written. All of that is to say I was not looking for a theology textbook; I was looking for a book by Jones, and the one I found happened to be an Intro to Theology textbook.

My last seminary theology class was more than 25 years ago. I read Erickson for my undergrad systematic theology class. My seminary systematic theology class was with Dwight Hopkins, and we read Reinhold Neibhur, Delores S. Williams, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and I think James Cone (or I read James Cone on my own at the time, I can’t remember), among some others. Hopkins’ class was focused on reading theologians not summary textbooks. I wish I could take that class again because I would get a lot more out of it now than I did. I remember at the time learning about a lot of perspectives in theology that I had not been exposed to. But I also remember thinking that I was glad I had had an undergrad course in systematic theology because I needed that grounding to understand what the authors we were reading were responding to.

Practicing Christian Doctrine is exactly the type of systematic theology book I would recommend to someone who does not have a seminary background but is interested. I listened to it as an audiobook, which is probably not ideal for this type of book, but it was ideal for me. There are several things that I really liked about it. First, Jones cited widely throughout history and around the world. She also included a note about when and where the author being cited was from. That is a very small feature, but it really helped to note that background matters in how a person approaches theology.

Read more

Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy

Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life cover imageSummary: A series of lectures about spiritual direction from the perspective of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, who emphasized the moral life and prayer and was particularly interested in expanding spiritual direction to the laity and the urban poor in 18th century Naples.

I like to keep one book in my current reading (or listening) stack directly on spiritual direction. This keeps me thinking about my practice of spiritual direction and exploring new dimensions or deepening my practice as a spiritual director. Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy was a complete unknown. I did not know anything about St Alphonsus, and there were no reviews on the lectures. But because I have almost entirely read about spiritual direction out of the Ignatian or Benedictine tradition, I picked it up. These are 22 roughly fifteen-minute lectures. Mostly I listened to them while walking my dog over a period of about two months.

The main weakness of the lectures is that they do not have a clear target audience. The early lectures are very basic introductions to spiritual direction, which is helpful for people who are new. But those with a background will be bored for the book’s first quarter (I nearly gave up at this point.) Then, the last three-quarters of the lectures will be interesting for those with a spiritual direction background, but those new to spiritual direction, especially those not Catholic, will be lost.

Those who are Protestant without much background in Catholicism can learn here, but terminology and theological orientation may be hard to overcome. Two minor examples: earlier in the book, the lecturer talks about taking on a Christological focus on spiritual direction, which means something slightly different in a protestant world. In his perspective, this is about becoming like Christ to others, which many Protestants may resist as a viable perspective. Another example is the medieval understanding of spiritual formation, which has three stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. This language is very common in Catholic presentations of spiritual formation but almost completely absent from Protestant understandings of spiritual formation.

Read more

Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son

Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son cover imageSummary: Thirty-seven letters of varying lengths from Eugene Peterson to his son Eric about being a pastor.

Eugene Peterson has strongly influenced me, and I definitely have a tendency to idealize Peterson. Peterson’s memoir and Winn Collier’s biography helped humanize Peterson. Eugene Peterson was not perfect.

Letters to a Young Pastors is equally good at humanizing Peterson in a different way. There is tension here because these were private letters (I assume Eugene approved of being turned into a book before he passed away), and the very nature of private letters has personal details. Regularly throughout this book, there are comments about looking forward to getting together or talking about personal details, similar to how Paul talks about bringing his books and cloak in 2 Timothy 4. The humanization of Peterson in Letters to a Young Pastor is partly the details of personal life discussed here. The reader knows from this book that the Petersons had their grandkids over regularly and that they went to a local church where Eugene liked the pastor but didn’t really like his preaching.

But the most important part of humanizing Peterson here is the open struggle expressed in the letters. Some of the struggle is trying to work through ideas that made it into his books, and if you have read a number of his books, it is easy to pick out those details even when they aren’t explicit. Even in later years, Peterson was grappling with his vocation and faith, not in the sense of doubting God, but in the sense of trying to figure out how to live his faith in public best. He grappled with the difficulties of aging, and if you listen to the audiobook, the last half of the last letters is read by Peterson himself, and he sounds very old at that point.

Read more

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Summary: A brief introduction to philosophy through jokes.

I have repeatedly commented about my lack of a philosophy background in my education. I have been reading books to make up for that for years. In some ways, I alternate between trying to get the main ideas and understanding the actual history. Both have some value but are not the same type of work.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar is a book that tries to get the reader to the basic ideas of philosophy but does not have much interest in the history of philosophy and how or why different movements arose. The presentation is mostly topical, with chapters on logic, metaphors, existentialism, or ethics. And the format is fairly standard. There are “jokes,” and then the jokes are explained. Some of the jokes are actually funny. And some of them are less funny.

Read more

What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman by Lerita Coleman Brown

What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman cover imageSummary: Spiritual reflections on the life of Howard Thurman.

I have been reading books by or about Howard Thurman for about six years. I started with Jesus and the Disinherited, which I have read twice. I have also read three collections of sermons as well as an audiobook collection of recordings of Thurman, his memoir, and two biographies. I have much more to read because we are in a renaissance of interest in Thurman, like James Baldwin, Thurman is more relevant today than ever. I went to a book launch event with Lerita Coleman Brown hosted by Chanequa Walker-Barnes when What Makes You Come Alive first came out. But other things came up, and I never started the book until about a year later, when I saw that the Ignatius House (a local Catholic retreat center) was hosting a weekly book club discussing What Makes You Come Alive, and I joined.

This was the first in-person book club that I have ever joined. About 20 different people were involved, with about 15 on any given week. Because the book club met on Tuesday mornings at 10:15 AM, I was unsurprised that the group was mostly retirement-age women (one other man). I was the only new member of the group. Most had been meeting together for years, but I was very much welcomed to the group. I coincidentally knew two members because they used to work as teachers for my mother-in-law. Only a handful of people in the group had previously read anything by Howard Thurman. Most who did know of Thurman, were introduced to him by Richard Rohr’s writing. Because most were cradle Catholics, I was not surprised that there was not a deep familiarity with the Black Church.

The book opens with an anecdote about the author going to speak at the Wild Goose Festival (a progressive Christian conference) about Howard Thurman. Lerita Coleman Brown is a spiritual director and a retired psychology professor. Her grappling with Thurman as a Black woman, often in predominately white spaces (such as the Wild Goose Festival), matters clearly to the book’s thrust. As an all-white book group (most of whom grew up in still legally segregated South), I was somewhat skeptical of the group’s ability to discuss the book well. There were times when the background of the group left it a bit ignorant of areas that I would have liked it to discuss. On the other hand, first-hand knowledge of segregation made it more aware of other issues the book brought up.

Read more