All posts by Phil W

62 Novels Judged Not Funny Enough for Wodehouse Prize

The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize is the United Kingdom’s only literary award for comic writing. Last year, it went to Bridget Jones’s Baby by Helen Fielding.  Two works tied for the prize in 2016, The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray and The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild. I believe we mentioned these works and the Alexander McCall Smith’s 2015 win earlier in this space.

But the 62 novels submitted for consideration this year were only funny enough to produce “many a wry smile,” not the “unanimous, abundant laughter” the judges were hoping to have.

Judge and publisher David Campbell said, “We look forward to awarding a larger rollover prize next year to a hilariously funny book.”

“There were a lot of witty submissions, bloody good novels, but they weren’t comic novels. The alchemy was not there.” (via Prufrock News)

via GIPHY

Percy’s Love in the Ruins Like a Coal Mine Canary

Ralph C. Wood writes that Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins is darn prescient, if that’s something one can say.

“A serious novel about the destruction of the United States and the end of the world,” Percy declared, “should perform the function of prophecy in reverse. The novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn against present ills and so avert the end.” He isn’t writing as a biblical prophet, but neither can he deny that his allegiances are fundamentally Christian. His own vision of reality is confessedly “incarnational, historical, predicamental.” In an increasingly pagan and hostile age, Percy doubted the efficacy of a serene Christian humanism. Better to serve as the canary in the coal mine, so as to detect the asphyxiating gas that sickens unto death.

Wood offers no quick blog post on Percy’s novel. He gets into some of its heavy criticism, which, if you not read the book yet, may run it into the ground. (via Prufrock News)

The Man in Full Rests

Author Tom Wolfe,  “probably the most skillful writer in America” according to William F. Buckley, died yesterday at age 88.

“Whether profiling One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his hippie pals the Merry Pranksters or America’s first astronauts, Wolfe had a dramatist’s gift for the telling detail and for crafting page-turning suspense,” writes Rolling Stone’s Tim Grierson.

“Never try to fit in; it’s sheer folly,” he once advised. “Be an odd, eccentric character. People will volunteer information to you.”

Wolfe had a style bound to inspire countless bad imitations. You may see some on the socials this week and next.

Terry Teachout writes, “I confess to being shaken by the news of Wolfe’s death. I last saw him in the flesh a year or so ago, and he looked at once frail and somehow ageless. I couldn’t imagine a world without him then. I still can’t.

Life and Death of Brick and Mortars

Columnist David Leonhardt writes in the NY Times, “It’s depressing to imagine that more than 600 Barnes & Noble stores might simply disappear. But the death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible.” It seems people don’t buy enough books in person, but they do buy coffee and borrow books to read while they drink. (via Prufrock News)

Perhaps running a large network of books retail is no longer sustainable. Some recent report tout the health of independent bookstores around the country. At least six stores are successfully attracting customers in the broad Pittsburgh area.

“I think people want conversation, they want a human connection,” Susan Hans O’Connor, a bookstore owner, states. “They want to talk about ideas; they want to talk about books they’ve already read or that they haven’t read that they should read.”

This agrees with a report from Detroit, which notes the growth of indy bookstores in that city.

Erin Gold writes:

And there are a lot of reasons Detroit and other urban communities should want to keep their independent bookstores around. At a time when face-to-face interactions are becoming less common, independent bookstores act as a kind of community center. They hear first-hand from their customers what is important to the community and respond through book curation, author visits, and community partnerships.

In his recent study on independent bookstore business, Harvard Business Professor Ryan Raffaelli found that independent bookstores have become even more valuable in today’s world where so much of an individual’s free time can be spent online. “People are still eager to connect, and indie bookstores make that happen,” Raffaelli says. “They create a safe space for individuals to debate new and important ideas with friends and neighbors.”

Death of a Newspaper

It’s a truth universally acknowledged by those who don’t let sentiment cloud their thinking that the newspaper’s time will soon pass—except for rare titles like the New York Times and a few others that can attract national audiences. “The old model of a general-purpose newspaper fit the industrial age when advertisers needed mass audiences to sell the products of mass production. But the marketplace no longer supports the model of a few messages to many people. Now it is many messages, each to a few people,” Meyer tells me via email.

Jack Shafer reviews the common story told of a newspaper’s death and how it may be the other way around. He notes the warning signs of the death of this medium have been issued as early as 1976. (via Prufrock News)

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image

This is a moving article on how Christians, particular Reformed believers and Presbyterians, have sat beside the biblical lawyer in justifying themselves by asking who is actually our neighbors, by which we meant who did we not have to love in accord with the second commandment.

tl;dr – Mainstream conservative Calvinism neither caused American chattel slavery, nor cured it, but it capitulated to it, was complicit in it, and cooperated with it. Nineteenth century confessional Calvinism, especially in the South, codified, confirmed, corroborated and was coopted by American pro-slavery ideology, and then perpetuated that ideology in segregation after slavery was gone. While all along, the theological cure for slavery (and its underlying racism) sat quietly ignored in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: the imago Dei, neighbor love (along with, esp., the WLC expositions of the 6th and 10th commandments), the communion of the saints, and especially justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see Galatians 2, as deployed by John Newton and William Wilberforce in their arguments against the slave trade and slavery)!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image – 19th Century American Confessional Calvinism in Faithfulness and Failure

 

How Alice Changed the World

Anyone would have to grant that, if nothing else, Carroll’s books have come to exercise an influence on the English language rivaled only by Shakespeare’s. Not only does Alice echo on in a host of common expressions—Cheshire cat smile, down the rabbit-hole, through the looking-glass, “Curiouser and curiouser,” “Off with her head!” and so on—but even many of Carroll’s nonsense words have become redoubtable fixtures of the lexicon. “Jabberwocky” alone gave us such indispensable locutions as “galumph,” “frabjous,” “chortle,” “mimsy,” “slithy,” “vorpal blade,” “tulgey,” “uffish,” “Bandersnatch,” “Jubjub bird,” “Tumtum tree,” “Calooh! Callay!”—why, the OED even includes “outgrabe” and “brillig”—while Humpty Dumpty’s magisterial exegesis of that mighty poem gave us the concept of the “portmanteau” word. That scarcely touches the surface of the matter, however. In a very real sense, the Alice books, along with all of Carroll’s nonsense verse, constitute a kind of revolutionary manifesto of a uniquely English style of genius: that special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen—which the French admire but cannot imitate, the Germans dread but cannot resist, the Italians love but cannot understand. . . . If, for instance, The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost is the great English epic in the simple sense of being the most distinguished long narrative poem in the language, The Hunting of the Snark is the great English epic in the sense of being a work no other people could have produced. Other examples of the art abound, obviously: Lear’s nonsense verse, Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and so on. But none achieves quite the purity, tireless wit, and ingenious invention of Carroll’s works.

One point from David Bentley Hart’s 2016 essay on the value and importance of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Did you know there are Wonderland-themed chess sets?  I know themed chess sets abound, but I hadn’t heard of this before.

Hernando’s Once Great Library

Like the hierophants of search-engineering, Hernando wanted readers to have an infinitely searchable database ‘that would allow people to wander in places they did not know, perhaps had not even dreamed existed’. Like him, the webmasters have failed to give us that degree of liberation: cyber ghettoes prevail. ‘We are in danger of hemming ourselves into ever smaller enclaves, increasingly oblivious to the infinite … worlds that we simply no longer see.’

Hernando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, gave us the story of his father’s great adventures, making much of the man and little of the missteps. He built a library with the intention of housing everything long before Ripley tried his hand at a tawdry version of it. The Biblioteca Colombina (pictures) has been a marvel in the past but only about 4,000 of the original 15,000 items remain.  Felipe Fernández-Armesto paints a picture of it in his review of Edward Wilson-Lee’s Harnando biography. (via Prufrock News)

The Mississippi Writers Trail

Mississippi has a big presence in the birth of American culture,” said Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. “The biggest asset is our cultural story, and literature and writing is part of that.”

This history will be spotlighted a newly developing Mississippi Writers Trail with historical markers throughout the state, directing biblio-tourism to sites of interest to Mississippi authors, such as William Faulkner, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker Alexander, and Richard Ford. One could get started right away with this multi-state website already published. (via Prufrock News)

Can’t Make a Living Writing Songs

You can’t be a songwriter without having a spare job,” [Andre] Lindal, 41, tells [Pacific Standard magazine], sounding downhearted as he rummages around his Los Angeles home—a home that Lindal can only afford thanks to his other jobs on the marketing and management side of the music industry. “It’s awesome to be working with great people. But it stinks that you’re not going to be able to get paid for what you do. You can only be a fan for so long.”

Lindal had a #3 song performed by Justin Bieber in 2013 with 34 million plays on YouTube, four million more on Pandora. Those YouTube plays earned him $218 due to regulations established in 1941. Songwriters used be able to draw on sheet music, album, and download sales, but streaming services are outside of those schemes. (via Prufrock News)

Confederacy “founded upon exactly the opposite idea”

I have learned April is Confederate history or heritage month. I didn’t grow up with any conflict over this part of the history of the Southern states. The culture and even language of the South was formed in part by our close association to  that “peculiar institution African slavery,” as Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens put it, but both can still be separated from our current lives. Also I was encouraged, though I don’t remember exactly how and when, to see the war between the states as a conflict over states’ rights.

The war was over states’ rights, but the fundamental right the Confederate states fought for was the right to build their economy on slavery. So any Confederate history month should look at the whole picture, not some lost cause of glamorized Southern noblemen whose Christian ideals made our country great.

In 2016, Jemar Tisby made a month of posts for April to spotlight some points of history that may be overlooked by those celebrating the Confederacy. One of them linked to Alexander Stephens’s speech in Savannah on March 21, 1861. I will quote from it a bit more than he did.

Stephens said Jefferson was right when he said the institution of slavery was the “rock upon which the old Union would split,” but he was wrong on how he viewed that rock. “The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with,” but believed it would pass away over time. To confront it directly was too costly, so our founding fathers hoped it would be washed away though the natural course of civilization over the next few decades.

Continue reading Confederacy “founded upon exactly the opposite idea”

Recommended Reading, Listening on African American Evangelical History

Some months ago, I listened to two moving lectures from Thabiti Anyabwile which compared and contrasted some of the life and teaching of Jonathan Edwards (part 1) and the next generation preacher from the other side of the tracks Lemuel Haynes (part 2). I recommend these lectures to you as biblical messages on two godly American men and a difficult issue that continues to reverberate.

In this vein, Thomas Kidd recommends five books on African American Evangelical History. Anyabwile’s book on Haynes is one of the recommended titles. Here’s a quick glance at the list.

  1. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South
  2. Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars
  3. Thabiti Anyabwile, May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes 
  4. Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
  5. Paul Harvey, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity

David, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cake

Today, April 20, is the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, a missionary to Native Americans who left a mark on the people of my town and stirred many souls who have read his diary, which was edited by Jonathan Edwards. In honor of the day, Thomas Kidd shares his review of The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon.

In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair.

Evil Is Bound by the Shore

There’s a marvelous biblical metaphor I’ve only known about for a few years, that the sea is a picture of evil and chaos. When Jesus preformed any miracle, he did so with Messianic implications, never as a mere demonstration of his power. So when he walked on the water, he did so as a metaphor of his authority over all the earth, including this ancient picture of evil. (If you need more to support this idea, note that the beasts of Daniel and John’s prophecies rise from the sea and that in the new heaven and earth “the sea [is] no more” (Rev. 21:1).)

I wrote earlier this week about the uneasy idea presented in the book of Job about evil having a place in the created order, and when God answers Job at the end of the book, that’s largely what he talks about.

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? (Job 38:8–11)

The Lord’s first speech can read like a list of creation areas. Look at the sea. Look at the sky. How about the depths of the earth? Do you have any control over these things? But this is a grand and majestic poem from thousands of years ago. It has many beautiful lines and pictures to provoke our attention. Here the Lord says he has “shut in the sea” and bound it, even like an infant, and he’s talking about evil. The Lord is describing all of the wickedness and natural horror in the world in terms of that dark, mysterious, alien world off the coast. It may eat away at our shores and flood our river valleys, but the Lord has said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther.”

That’s not to say evil is actually good; it’s only to say God sees a place for it that we will not understand.

Why won’t the Lord drain the sea complete? Why must we live in a world where monsters swim the deeps and storms born over the ocean crash into our cities? That question isn’t answered, but if we worry over God’s ability or intent to control the seas in our lives, he asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16). In short, do you have a handle on creation’s extremities? Could you unlock the gates of death? Of course not; only the Almighty has. His knowledge extends to every corner of existence. That’s not academic knowledge; that’s intimate control. By the wise Lord’s all-powerful hand, evil keeps to its place. Though it may overflow it’s banks from time to time, that’s not because it has gotten away from God’s control. The Lord can stop the springs of the deep whenever he wants. Wickedness will not flood us because the Lord holds it back. Anything that afflicts us has been given limited permission to do so.

So what do we do when, like Job, our suffering overwhelms us?

Read and pray the Psalms. Cry out to the Almighty God in faith, remembering his character, wisdom, and faithfulness. In all things, seek to love him with all of our heart and love our neighbors in response to that love. And recognize we do not need to defend God from every charge, because God’s own defense does not explain the place of evil.

“God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5).