Monday, November 12, 2012

book response: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

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If Holden Caufield's soul was divided into seven horcruxes, each part bringing with it one aspect of his character, and put into new characters and set it in the English country side instead of New York City, one might discover Rowling's new world in The Casual Vacancy. What took J.D. Salinger to describe in The Catcher in the Rye, Rowling does in The Casual Vacancy, but across more characters and age groups. I am not saying that Rowling's work is inferior at all, but she can plumb the depths of the human soul with all it's earnestness, hypocrisy, pain, vengefulness, passions high and low, like Salinger. However, Rowling uses a dozen major characters, almost all well developed and tangible, instead of two. Rowling does develop the story around one character who dies at the beginning of the story, yet had provided a foil for so many citizens in his town.

This story passed my nap test. Every Saturday afternoon, I sit in the car while one of my children volunteers, and I use the time to read, and usually nap. But I didn't with this book. It's not just because of her good writing, but also because there are so many characters, whose names are hard to keep track of. In fact, I made sure I finished it over the weekend, so I wouldn't forget who was who, who was fornicating with who, who was robbing who, who was beating who, who was doing drugs with who, and who composed the various love triangles. I am not diminishing how well Rowling incarnates her characters, the ability I really appreciated in the Harry Potter series, but I almost needed a cheat sheet at the back of the book to keep track of them all.

Kids are great at seeing self-delusion in others, especially their parents. One boy reflects on his mother's complicity in accepting the abuse his father inflicts on the family. "He had always seen Ruth as separate, good and untainted. As a child, his parents had appeared to him as starkly as black and white, the one bad and frightening, the other good and kind. Yet as he had grown older, he kept coming up hard in his mind against Ruth's willing blindness, to her constant apologia for his father, to the unshakable allegiance to her false idol." p. 289 Unfortunately, in the book, as in real life, the kids who can be adept at observation are not adept at solutions.

There are bigger issues in the town of Pagford. In Mitt Romney's words there are the makers and the takers, and the makers are sick of the takers and want to hand the low-income housing neighborhood over to a larger, neighboring city. They are tired of having to pay to help these people who should help themselves. In the same way as the kids, they can see a problem but are not adept at compassion, because that involves cash and tolerance of difference, both of which the town councilors are feeling short. She portrays the convictions of the makers and their position without prejudice, but makes the case, using the lives of the makers as examples, that we can't know the depth of pain others walk around with, and which can drive some to more debilitating choices than others. In Pagford, at least, the makers are hypocrites.
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Обкладинка книги "Над прірвою у житі" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the Catcher in the Rye themes I always liked was the hypocrisy of the adolescent in search of authenticity. She writes like a mother of an adolescent when the guidance counselor wishes she could tell the kids, "You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it's whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God." p.88 Words every adult who works with adolescents or lives with them wishes they could get some kids to understand. But it's also Rowling's message to her adult readers.

In case you haven't heard, this is an adult book. Rowling has an ear for slang, which was fun in the Potter books, but outside of Hogwarts, in the English countryside, f-bombs fall like dandelion seeds across every page. Not only are people using the word, they are doing it, teens and adults, and not behind closed doors either, Rowling brings us right into the bedroom, or behind the bushes, wherever people are doing it, and giving us a play by play. It was awkward for me. It was a little forced, as if Rowling could finally put in the scenes she knew were happening in Hogwarts over seven books, but had to wait for her first single adult book to try them out, all of them.

Nevertheless, she is an excellent writer. She spins a good tale. She has a moral to her tale. It's influenced by her own experience as a taker for a time, a single mother in need of assistance. Her NPR interview is enlightening. It's too bad the some of the makers have no time to read this and think about why to live compassionately with the poor. However, not even Jesus Christ can get through to them. Now that she's a maker, I'm glad she hasn't forgotten her past, nor her common humanity. If your kids are only in the snogging stage, do not get this for them for the holidays. But if you are an adult, this book may be worth your time.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

book response: Jesus- A Theography (2012)

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have collaborated on a new book to help clueless Christians like myself, that Jesus was not lying when he said all the scriptures testify about him, John 5:39. I'm very grateful for their efforts. As I've engaged with the violent and genocidal passages of the Old Testament, the authors refer to it as the First Testament, I've been helped by learning how the Ante-Nicene fathers saw them allegorically, and in this book, the benefit of reading this way still, in our (post-) modern age. The first chapter, looking at the representation of Jesus in Genesis 1 is a relief, disentangling that chapter from a battle over the age of the earth, revealing it's portrayal of Christ. One method of interpretation divides the church the other unites it. I don't think they are telling believers anything new. In fact, I think they are introducing to us clueless evangelicals and fundamentalists what the historic church has already discovered. Although Sweet is a Methodist and Viola is a house church guy, they draw on broad resources, including Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox as well as cutting edge evangelical research. It seems that what is old is new again.

Along with good exegesis, there are plenty of preacher slogans in there as well, such as
Jesus Christ is God’s language. When God wants to communicate, He does so through His Son. Kindle Loc. 766-67
These four aspects of the eternal purpose—a bride, a body, a family, and a house—are all highlighted in Paul’s letter called Ephesians. And they can be found from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. Kindle Loc.

There are so many great insights in this book. Here are two of my favorites, not including the entire exposition on Genesis 1.
I'm helped by this understanding of eternity.
It’s not that God shot the movie in His head before He put it on film. It’s that the movie exists inside of Him and He’s at the beginning, the middle, and the end all at the same time. In other words, the Lord is not playing it by ear. He is not improvising and making it up as He goes along. No matter how chaotic things may seem, God has already worked the chaos into His plan and has turned it into good. Kindle Loc. 649-52
I never saw this before. God opened Adam’s side to bring forth Eve, the side of our Lord was opened on the cross. Out of it flowed water and blood—the outstanding marks of birth. The pierced side of Jesus is the womb from which the bride of Christ was born. Kindle Loc. 1129-31
I never understood the giant city picture in the Apocalypse.
The Holy of Holies was a perfectly cubed room. It grew in size from its dimensions in the tabernacle to its dimensions in the temple of Solomon. But it still retained its perfectly cubed shape. In the temple Ezekiel saw in his vision, the Holy of Holies grew even larger.184 In the book of Revelation, we are introduced to the New Jerusalem—a colossal-sized, perfect cube.185 In other words, the entire city is the Holy of Holies. God dwells there. Kindle Loc. 1200-1203

I have a few minor editing critiques. I think the editor should have caught his apocryphal etymology of "gospel." It comes from good news, not God's story. Also, the early Christians use of the fish as a symbol of Jesus had nothing to do with salt water, but that the initials of icthys, formed an acrostic, Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. See this Christian History article. Again, something an editor should have caught.

Despite these small flaws, this book is excellent and should be required readiny by, at least, every Christian struggling to appreciate the Old Testament.

I want to give BookSneeze a big thank you shout out for this complimentary review copy.
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Saturday, November 03, 2012

been reading and thinking

Sometimes a poorly reasoned book written by an earnest believer can start a ball rolling on reading well reasoned books by other earnest believers, which can cause this earnest believer to earnestly believe a little differently. But it is hard to say, whilst on that journey to the land of "little differently", if one is merely moving to a different view on the same country, or really traveling farther afield. Two of the well reasoned books I've finished are Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua by Walter Brueggemann and The Joshua Delusion?: Rethinking Genocide in the Bible by Douglas S. Earl. The Israelite invasion of Canaan with it's incitement to genocide by "God" has always bothered me, as it has many others, and as it should. Taken literally, it's a behavior inconsistent with the command to not kill. I'm leaning toward the idea of hyperbolic language. Earl goes much further than that, but not out of orthodoxy. One point of his that stood out to me is that Rahab the prostitute is rescued from Jericho because of her aid to the spies, and then marries into the Israelite nation. However, both actions, rescue and intermarriage are also strictly forbidden. Yet there is only praise for these actions in the Bible and she is included in David's and Christ's genealogies. Earl is also helpful in showing the example of the early church fathers' hermeneutic  looking for Jesus in al scriptures. When things don't line up, they reason, it's a clue from God to look for the metaphor and past the historical presentation.

Each good book leads me to more I need to read. So I've been laying low on blogging. I'm still reading plenty of blogs, but you have to catch them on my twitter feed @johnumland
In this process I'm going through, I'm enjoying looking for Jesus in the Jewish scriptures. I've also started reading the Anglican Daily Office by email, which is part of the tradition that has seen Jesus in the Old Testament. It's been helpful to my soul. Perhaps it could be for yours too.
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