Reading report: ’12 Rules for Life,’ by Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate? How is it propagated? It’s a one-sided, deeply ideological theory….

Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing….

I’m reading Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling juggernaut, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s a book remarkable for restating the obvious – which is a revolutionary act in the 21st Century West. I’m not ready to review it yet, but it’s so interesting I thought I’d share a couple thoughts.

The book contains elements that make me want to stand up and cheer, and elements that trouble me – particularly in its treatment of Christianity. To be sure, there’s no denigration of Christianity here – in fact, Christian doctrine and morality come in for a lot of praise. But the book is written from a naturalist, Darwinian perspective that would make me furious if the same statements came from, say, the leader of a liberal church.

But of course, the source is what makes the difference. I’ve noted before that a man walking toward me may be farther from me than a man walking away from me. But the man walking toward me may reach me in time, while the man walking away will get further and further away. Peterson has, by his own account, gone from Christian faith to atheism in the past. Then he started thinking his way through the great questions, and gradually began to see the simple, practical wisdom of Christianity (and other great religions, to be sure), which he sees as the beneficial fruit of evolutionary processes.

I hope and pray that Jordan B. Peterson will come to faith in Jesus Christ in time. But it seems to me that his current agnosticism places him, for the moment, in the ideal place to do an important work. If he were a believer, his book would be cordoned off in the “Christian Literature” section, and nobody would notice it. His skepticism gives him credibility.

‘Do We Not Bleed?’ by Daniel Taylor

Do We Not Bleed?

The joke is that I was the one who was retarded. I’m the one lagging behind. I have a moderately higher IQ than Judy. I don’t have any extra chromosomes. I can tell time. But she knows how to live and I don’t. She knows how to treat people and I don’t. She knows how to be happy and I don’t. She knows how to give and receive love and I sure don’t.

Daniel Taylor’s second Jon Mote mystery continues a superior, unconventional Christian mystery series. In the first installment, Death Comes For the Deconstructionist, Jon, a former English scholar who heard self-destructive voices in his head, solved the murder of his former academic mentor. He also experienced an exorcism – though he probably wouldn’t call it that. It’s true that the voices have stopped and show no signs of returning, but he knows Scripture well enough (as a lapsed Baptist) to know the story of the swept and garnished room.

As Do We Not Bleed? opens, Jon’s mentally retarded sister Judy, who lived with him in the last story, has returned (by her own choice) to New Directions, a group home in Wayzata, Minnesota. Having no better prospects, Jon has taken a job as a counselor there, permitting him to spend time with her. He finds that life in a care facility for Specials (the current favored euphemism for the retarded) has some similarities to life in the English Department. Everyone is obsessed with politically correct language, as if you can change reality by making up new names. But Jon enjoys working with his group, who are colorful individuals and see the world in interesting ways.

Then one day one of the residents, the brain-damaged daughter of a very rich man, disappears. Soon her body is found in a nearby wetland. Neighbors are inclined to blame the group home residents. Tragically, after the woman’s body is found, evidence is discovered pointing to J.P., a member of Jon’s group. Jon finds it impossible to believe that gentle J.P. could have done something like that, but it takes a troubling conversation with an old nun and the innocent (and legally useless) testimony of another resident to persuade Jon to take the risk of confronting the true murderer. Continue reading ‘Do We Not Bleed?’ by Daniel Taylor

‘The Winter Fortress,’ by Neal Bascomb

The Winter Fortress

I think I first heard of the World War II Norwegian Resistance sabotage at Vemork and Rjukan when the Kirk Douglas movie, The Heroes of Telemark, came out in 1965. I didn’t see the movie then, but I read reviews and articles in the paper. I finally saw the movie in college. I think I realized even then that it probably bore as much resemblance to real events as a Lego figure bears to a real person.

Later I read accounts in books, and saw a TV documentary (which stated, somewhat snarkily, at the end that recently discovered documents proved that it was all unnecessary, as the Germans never intended to build an atom bomb at all. This was a premature and exaggerated claim). Then there was the Norwegian/British miniseries, “The Heavy Water War,” which was more authentic than the movie, but also highly fictionalized.

I think I’ve got the genuine story, within reasonable tolerances, now that I’ve read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress.

The Norsk Hydro hydroelectric plant at Vemork, Telemark had a small, profitable, almost exclusive sideline manufacturing deuterium – “heavy water” – an ingredient in fertilizers. That operation became the focus of international intrigue when German scientists chose deuterium as a moderating agent in their atomic experiments – which did indeed have the goal of producing a super-bomb, though of course not every Nazi in the government supported the project. When the Norwegian Resistance, after the Occupation, discovered the Germans’ intentions for the stuff, they alerted British Intelligence, and halting heavy water production became a prime war objective.

The story of how a small group of Norwegian commandos, supplemented by an ill-starred company of British Army saboteurs, endured police searches, betrayals, horrific winter weather, separation from their families, and plain bad luck to carry out two highly successful sabotage operations forms the story of The Winter Fortress. The characters (particularly commander Leif Trondstad, Joaquin Rønneberg, and Knut Haukelid) come to life, and the times and circumstances are vividly painted. A lot of painstaking research went into this book, and it was not wasted. The story is exciting, and poignant, and often tragic.

Highly recommended. Not for the faint of heart.

Christian Smith: Higher Ed is Full of BS

You’ve probably heard Christian Smith quoted in a sermon or lecture within the last decade, even if you don’t know who he is. He’s the one who gave us the label “moralistic therapeutic deism” as a descriptor of what is commonly taught in American churches. Earlier this month in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Smith describes the state of American higher ed in words I don’t expect pastors will quote so freely. He lists 22 things that are worthless in our university system.

Calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

It’s tragic, he says, but his contemporaries have probably lost all understanding of that concept.

No, the idea of tragedy is incomprehensible in institutions drifting in a Bermuda Triangle marked by the external-funding addictions of the STEM fields, the obsequious scientism of the social sciences, and the intellectual fads, ideological doctrines, and science-envy that captivate and enervate the humanities.

What Did Lincoln Think About Slavery?

The president’s personal notes, that pull together into a fragmented diary, show how he thought about the argument for and against slavery in the United States. He asks if one person can claim a right to enslave another, what prevents the latter person from claiming the same right over the former? Is it color? Then we are all in danger of being enslaved or having to fight against that legal claim by anyone with fairer skin than our own. Lincoln then asks,

You do not mean color exactly? — You mean whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

In another place, he mocks the idea that slavery is good for the slaves, saying that’s the reason wolves eat lambs, “not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it [is] good for the lambs!!!” [via Prufrock News]

The writer’s road through Mordor

My recent journey through The Lord of the Rings had a business purpose. As I’ve mentioned already, I’m struggling with my work in progress. I thought maybe reacquainting myself with the best of the best might inspire me and shake a few things loose.

And it may have helped. About the time I finished reading, the words finally started flowing again. I solved my plot problem, at least for the moment, wrote a scene I actually liked, and now I’m nearing 70,000 words. I’d like to fill out 100,000 words, because that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, but I expect it won’t go that far. Which means I’m within sight of the finish line, metaphorically speaking.

I think I’ve figured out the main reason I’ve been blocked. Ruthless self-analysis indicates I’m terrified of this book. I really want it to be an epic, a saga on the grand scale. And in my heart I’m not sure I can do it. I have this fear that I’ve reached the ceiling of my talents, and no effort will get me any higher.

Which is nonsense, at least theoretically. I’ve spoken and written countless times about the Two-Thirds Slump – the delusion most writers get, around two-thirds of the way through a first draft, that what they’re writing is total dreck nobody will ever want to read. (This is exacerbated by the fact that first drafts generally are dreck – that’s also part of the process. But that’s another lecture.)

So, get up, Mr. Frodo. It’s time for another day’s walk.

Blogging through LOTR: Of rings and taters

The Lord of the Rings

Behold, I have completed yet another journey through The Lord of the Rings. It offered the usual fears and joys and tears and thrills, along with the occasional stretch of tedium (it does have them, you know; adds to the verisimilitude).

By some odd function of my aging mind, the passage that stays with me most this time around is this one at the end, where Gaffer Gamgee greets Frodo on his return from the Crack of Doom and the end of the Age:

‘Good evening, Mr. Baggins!’ he said. ‘Glad indeed am I to see you safe back. But I’ve a bone to pick with you, in a manner o’ speaking, if I may make so bold. You didn’t never ought to have a’ sold Bag End, as I always said. That’s what started all the mischief. And while you’ve been trapassing in foreign parts, chasing Black Men up mountains from what my Sam says, though what for he don’t make clear, they’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!’

That’s an exquisite moment. I’ve never been a veteran, but I’ll bet any man who’s been in combat has had moments like that.

It’s annoying that the old folks at home don’t understand what you’ve done or what you’ve been through.

But there must also be a sense that it’s good that this is so. That they don’t understand means you’ve done your job. This provincial ignorance is one of the things you risked all to protect.

Addendum: I just had a thought. They strove in The Hobbit movies to make the characters more “diverse.” They should have cast some east Asians as elves. They’d have made great elves.

Did OT Writers Misunderstand God’s Kindness?

In his two-volume book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, [Greg] Boyd argues that such “violent” injunctions come from the “textual” God of the misguided ancient Near Eastern biblical author with his fallen, violence-prone worldview (“thus says Moses/Joshua”). These aren’t instances of “thus says the Lord”—the “actual” God whom Jesus represents. Boyd’s “cruciform” hermeneutic emphasizes how the character of God is displayed in the power-surrendering, non-violent, self-giving Christ on the cross. If this is what God is really like, then we must rethink how we view violent OT texts—and even certain New Testament (NT) passages.

This is our author Paul Copan summarizes the book he reviews, telling us what its author intends. He presents Boyd’s points in brief and then criticizes each one.  I’d like to add my own thoughts to Copan’s, but I know nothing compared to what he has written, so go read it yourself.

If anything, Boyd should chastise the redeemed martyrs, who are actually petitioning God to “judge [krineis] and avenge [’ekdikeis] our blood” (Rev. 6:10). Indeed, he should oppose the satisfaction of “heaven . . . and you saints and apostles and prophets” at God’s just judgment: “Rejoice over her . . . because God has pronounced judgment [’ekrinen . . . to krima] for you against her” (Rev. 18:20). That believers shouldn’t take personal vengeance, but to call on God to bring judgment, is anchored in both Testaments and in Jesus himself.

Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

The Return of the King

I’ve finished the narrative of The Return of the King (I’m going on to the appendices now, because, hey, they’re there). Here are a few things that struck me.

‘There is no real going back,’ [said Frodo]. ‘Though I may come to the Shire it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’

There’s one of the clearest examples of the effect of the “Great War” on Tolkien’s narrative. Surely something like that was the experience of every combat soldier going home – the strangeness of returning to a familiar place, but finding you somehow don’t fit anymore. The average veteran accustoms himself to it after a while, but (as I am told) the wounds never entirely heal. One always feels something of an outsider, the carrier of a dark secret. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

Blogging through LOTR: Eucatastrophe

The Fellowship of the Ring

I’m nearing the end of The Return of the King, and I’m kind of overwhelmed. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read the trilogy – no less than six, I’m sure. But I’d forgotten how good it is, especially as the threads come together toward the climax.

I’d remembered Frodo’s and Sam’s trek from Cirith Ungol to the Crack of Doom as taking up more pages than it does. In memory it’s a long narrative, but in the book it actually constitutes a fairly short section. I mean that as praise to Tolkien’s skill – he leaves a strong impression of weary and hopeless trudging that looms large in memory.

As I read the climactic passages describing the defeat of Sauron, sobs shook my diaphragm and tears welled up in my eyes (which was a little embarrassing because I was on a reclining table giving blood at the time). Lewis called LOTR “Good beyond hope,” and I wonder if anything as good of its kind has ever been written before – or ever will be again. Can I myself ever hope to come close?

I thought of the many children of this world who love these books. How can they bear it? How can they experience that joy – Tolkien’s eucatastrophe – and then return to the mundane world, believing that the promise of Middle Earth is just a cheat? That there will never be a true happy ending like that for them? That real life is only a descent through pain and disappointment to death, with a few bright moments which are in themselves just false promises of a happiness that can never be?

Ah well. I suppose they deal with it as best they can. The Lord of the Rings is really about not cutting down trees, after all, they believe.

“How Being a Librarian Makes Me a Better Writer”

Nautilus Library

Via Dave Lull, an article from Literary Hub. Xhenet Aliu explains how writing makes her a better writer:

A natural-language user might type into a search engine “hospital rubber tube blood infection,” and the information pros who index articles would have had to predict that “rubber tube” might, in this context, equal catheter and return articles like “Infection prevention with natural protein-based coating on the surface of Foley catheters: a randomised controlled clinical trial.” There’s not a whole lot of zing in a title like that, but there is a lesson in how it was retrieved; aren’t writers also responsible for intuiting miscommunicated needs, and articulating that which has been insufficiently expressed? Bad writing ignores natural language in favor to chase the artificial zing, which is what makes purple prose so offensive—instead of using language to facilitate access to meaning, it obscures it with yet more imprecision. Good writing understands and respects natural language, and it considers it in its responses. It’s for the best that writers aren’t paid by the syllable.

‘Death Comes for the Deconstructionist,’ by Daniel Taylor

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

Dr. Pratt helped me see that I had simply left one fundamentalism for another. I had moved from relying on Holy Writ to relying on Holy Reason, and the difference between the two was far less radical than I had thought. Both assumed a stable, knowable world. Neither, therefore, understood that the god of this world is Proteus, the shape-changer, giver of multiplicity.

Years ago, I read a book called The Myth of Certainty, by Daniel Taylor, who taught at Bethel University (it may have still been Bethel College in those days) in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a controversial book, attracting critics and defenders. After finishing it I was definitely in the camp of the critics. The message of the book (so far as I understood it) was, “We can’t say that anything is absolutely true. We can only say that it’s true for us, personally.” It seemed to me a direct attack on the philosophy of Francis Schaeffer (in fact a fictionalized Schaeffer surrogate appears in the book). I believed then, and still believe, that if we can’t make a claim to absolute truth, we might as well drop all our church work except for acts of charity.

I didn’t realize until I had downloaded Daniel Taylor’s Death Comes for the Deconstructionist that it was by the same guy. But I figured I’d give it a chance. I’ve enjoyed many novels written by authors with whom I have philosophical disagreements.

I’m glad I did. This is a splendid Christian novel.

Jon Mote’s life is falling apart. Once he was a promising English scholar, but he dropped his doctoral studies when he clashed with his mentor, the distinguished Deconstructionist professor Richard Pratt. Now he lives in squalor aboard a small houseboat on the river in St. Paul. He makes a tenuous living doing research for law firms. His divorce from his wife is nearly final. And, oh yes, he hears voices in his head, goading him to self-harm.

His only anchor is his sister Judy, who lives with him. She is mentally retarded, and serenely clings to all the verities Jon abandoned long ago. She loves Jesus and she loves her brother.

Recently Dr. Pratt was killed, found dead with a stab wound on the sidewalk below his hotel window. Dr. Pratt’s widow calls Jon and asks him to investigate the crime. The police, she believes, are making no progress, and Jon’s familiarity with her husband’s world and professional circle might give him insight. Continue reading ‘Death Comes for the Deconstructionist,’ by Daniel Taylor

‘The Wanted,’ by Robert Crais

The Wanted

A new book in a beloved series is like a reunion with old friends. If there are no big surprises, who cares? It’s the little surprises that make it delightful.

In his latest Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novel, The Wanted, Elvis’s new client is Devon Cole, an ordinary single mother who’s deeply worried about her teenaged son Tyson. Tyson was always shy and awkward, so she was happy when he made friends in his new school. But now he’s started to wear clothing he can’t afford, and he’s sporting a Rolex wristwatch she’s pretty sure is the real McCoy. She also found a large amount of cash in his room.

Making the usual inquiries, Elvis is surprised to get pulled up short by the police. They’re seeking a gang of burglars who are hitting upscale homes, and they want to know what Elvis knows. But neither Elvis nor the police realize that young Tyson is already the most wanted person in LA – wanted by a couple of ruthless, psychopathic hit men who will not hesitate to torture and kill anyone they think possesses information that will lead them to the thieves. The whole thing could be sensibly handled through cooperating with the police, but Elvis soon learns that Tyson – and his loopy, thrill-seeking new girlfriend – have no interest in being sensible. Elvis will need all his own skills, plus the deadly skills of his taciturn, dangerous partner Joe Pike – to get the kids out of this mess alive.

The plot of The Wanted is pretty much what you’d expect, but that’s beside the point. As with every Robert Crais novel, the pleasure here is the small surprises, hidden within the living, many-faceted characters. Nobody here is made of cardboard – even the two stone killers have intriguing interior lives.

I highly recommend The Wanted. Cautions for language, violence, and adult situations.

Aye, Robot by Robert Kroese

I too have read a novel by Robert Kroese recently. It seems to be closer to the vein of Kroese’s other novels than perhaps The Dream of the Iron Dragon is, judging by titles and Lars’s review alone.

Aye, Robot is the latest in a short series of Starship Grifters book. It’s the second of three, the prequel, Out of the Soylent Planet, being published after its release. A few dialogue lines refer to previous events and none of the main characters need reintroduction, but it stands on its own.

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Rex. “What’s my name?”
“Rex Nihilio,” I said.
“And what’s my occupation?”
“You’re the self-described ‘greatest wheeler-dealer in the galaxy.'”
“Correct,” said Rex. “It sounds better if you leave off the ‘self-described,’ though. What’s your name?”
“Sasha.”
“Which stands for what?”
“Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Android.”

Sasha, the narrator of the story, tells us the space grifter Rex Nihilio is reckless enough to need someone to hold him back (or get in his way) so he doesn’t get killed while off on a wild hair. That’s where she comes in. She begins by wondering about loss of memory, because she realizes nether she nor Rex can recall details of their actions from minutes before the conversation above. Plus Rex is acting generously, completely out of character for him.

They quickly fall into trouble through Rex’s new behavior patterns and just as quickly go from fryer to fire as something very big watches them from the shadows. As their adventure continues, they run afowl common criminals, Space Apostles, and the Malarchian government’s worst law-enforcer, Heinous Vlaak.

The story leans more light-hearted crime novel than full-throated comic. Most of the comedy comes in funny names and misused words. Nothing dark. Gullible stooges get their just desserts. It’s all good. I enjoyed it. One of my children did too, but a younger one didn’t get it.

Also included in this book is the novella, “The Yanthus Prime Job,” another light-hearted crime story with one of the characters we meet in the main story. It raises questions about how we treat those we deem unimportant.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture