“Why I was wrong about Christianity”

One of the best things I’ve read in some time, from Tom Holland in NewStatesman:

The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

Read it all here.

The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

Do we have religious freedom by the generosity of our government or by our natural rights as human beings? Is it more correct to say “all Men should enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience” or “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of [religion], according to the dictates of Conscience”?

Justin Taylor writes about the birth of religious freedom in the American colonies. The quoted lines above are from George Mason and James Madison respectively. “Madison’s breakthrough was the insight that since the human mind and consciences only works properly when they are uncoerced, it is therefore inherently wrong to coerce them. One should not revoke or restrict religious liberty because it is based on human reason and conscience, which cannot be revoked or restricted.”

He draws this thought from the book The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America by Kevin Seamus Hasson.

A Completely New Super-Man

Writer and artist Gene Luen Yang is telling a new Superman story under D.C. Comics Rebirth banner. A Chinese boy from Shanghai, named Kong Kenan, is chosen by the right people to receive abilities equivalent to the Man of Steel. He begins as a bully but plays the hero at the right time to attract someone’s attention and change his life forever.

Blaine Grimes of Christ and Pop Culture thinks it works.

With New Super-Man, Yang sets up a narrative that directly confronts and subverts the traditional American superhero origin story. The dominant arc in comic book narratives—be it books or films—suggests that superheroes typically start from a position of basic goodness (or at least innocence) before they are imbued with fantastic powers or take up the mantle of public defender. . . .

But New Super-Man gives us a space, a not-so-fictional-universe in which damaged, wounded, and prideful outcasts are given both a new identity and a call to push back against the very darkness and injustice out of which they were redeemed.

‘Thank You For Smoking,’ by Christopher Buckley

Thank You For Smoking

Continuing my course of reading Christopher Buckley novels, I decided to try Thank You For Smoking, the novel that made him a star.

Compared with the two previous novels I read, written more recently, Thank You For Smoking is strong stuff. All his novels (at least the ones I’ve read) have concerned a man with some residual decency, doing a job he knows to be wrong. They’re novels of equivocation. TYFS is in the same line, but the basic decency of the hero, Nick Naylor, spokesman for the tobacco lobby, is more submerged than in the other books. Nick feels some guilt, but he genuinely enjoys the challenge of twisting facts to confound anti-smoking activists, who don’t look much better than he does in this story. They are portrayed as humorless neo-Puritans. Nick gets a kick out of tweaking their noses.

When the novel starts, Nick’s hold on his well-paying job is getting shaky. A new boss has taken over, and he’s keen to kick Nick out so he can replace him with his sexy blonde assistant. But then Nick appears on Oprah. It’s an ambush interview, and he finds himself face to face with a bald kid with cancer. But Nick has great instincts, and he manages to turn the tables, making himself – and the tobacco industry – look persecuted and heroic. That earns Nick the support of “The Colonel,” the venerable head of the firm. Nick’s future will involve being kidnapped, spending time in the hospital, having an affair with the aforementioned sexy blonde, and going to jail. It’s quite a ride, but a kind of moral closure is achieved in the end.

Thank You For Smoking is a bravura comic novel. There are few actual, quotable gags, but absurd juxtapositions and situations provide frequent laughs. I was troubled by a plot element that seemed to equate guns and alcohol with cigarettes, though I think that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.

But I found it all kind of rich for my blood. I’m going to take a break from Buckley for a while. Nevertheless I recommend Thank You For Smoking, with cautions for language, adult situations, and tasteless moments.

Pre-Lecture jitters

The busiest couple weeks of the year continue. But pressure is easing up in the library at last – I have adjudged my two new assistants qualified to range freely, within limits. Which gives me time to do other stuff. And other stuff need to be done.

I found out I’ll be doing my first seminary lecture (first of two) Thursday morning. That was somewhat short notice. But it’s not as if I haven’t been preparing. I just need to organize my piles of notes into a PowerPoint. And I’ve made a good start. Still, it’s a little daunting. If you like to pray for trivial concerns, you might remember me Thursday.

I think I figured out why they asked me to lecture on the historical roots of our conception of the pastorate. There’s been some concern in recent years, from certain quarters, that our seminary – while maintaining a high view of Scripture and Lutheran orthodoxy – has lost sight of its roots, the semi-romantic 19th Century dream of a repristinated New Testament congregation. They wanted somebody to explain our beginnings and the reasons why we do things in the (rather eccentric) ways we do them. As editor and translator for the Georg Sverdrup Society journal (devoted to the works of a founder of our tradition), I guess I qualify as a kind of an expert. There’s one guy who wrote a doctoral thesis on Sverdrup who certainly knows more than I do. But he’s retired. And another fellow who probably has a better global grasp on the historical factors than anybody alive. But he’s busy teaching other classes.

So I guess I qualify as a kind of an expert, in a very small niche. Funny how expertise snuck up on me. I never planned on it. It’s kind of like rummaging in your pockets and finding a candle snuffer in there. And you don’t remember buying one. But what do you know? There’s a candle right here that needs snuffing!

On the translating front, I hear that my next project will be a book on “the right of resistance,” the ancient Viking law that allowed the people of the land to rise up against, and kill, kings who got too big for their britches.

I think it will go over well among Deplorables.

Marcella Will Have a Second Season

The new Netflix crime show, Marcella, starring Anna Friel and Nicholas Pinnock, will have a second season. The eight-show series labeled “crime noir” has a bleak tone to the visuals, soundtrack, and characters, and perhaps this bleakness left me wondering if my watching it was time well-spent.

Marcella is a detective who has been off the force for ten years at the beginning of the story. She comes back because it appears the murderer she tracked but did not catch in her last case may have returned. Perhaps she can contribute to the investigation by remembering her own history. But Marcella brings with her some gaping wounds. In the first episode, she sits trembling in her tub, possibly wounded. We can see blood on her head and the wall. Even when we see at what point in our non-linear storytelling she is traumatized in her home bath, the explanation barely connects. Did she do something and is covering her tracks? Is this a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story that will end with Marcella being the murderer all along?

In the first episode, she confronts her husband about leaving her, which happens in the first few minutes, and they fight. She rages against him and blacks out, but this isn’t a typical fainting spell. It’s “dissociative fugue.” She detaches from reality enough to lose all memory of what she does but is still able to function while detached. So she shoves her ex-husband down the stairs and calls him later to ask what happened. This is the chink in her armor.

Marcella isn’t presented as a genius detective whose skills outpace her police comrades by several steps. She just has good instincts and isn’t bound to a set of political rules or a timetable that prevents her from seeing uncomfortable questions. Some may see her story as a replay of returning star vs. uninspired police force, butting heads constantly over what should be done next. I see it more as a team of professionals with slightly varying priorities, looking at a difficult problem together. It works.

The season ends on a curious thematic note, a question that will have to be explored in season two, but I can’t say I enjoyed the story overall. I was interested, but I didn’t connect to these characters. I remember how invested I was in Idris Elba’s Luther. I wanted him to succeed. I hated the pain he suffered. For Marcella, I was a bit concerned but more puzzled. The storytelling doesn’t allow much time to develop her or the many (perhaps too many) other people around her. It dwells instead on creepy moments that tease you with another horrible revelation. Though the overall story works, it probably has too many moving parts.

Writing a Book? Don’t Ask.

Writer Samuel D. James used to love being asked, “When are you going to write a book?” I mean, gosh, he might say, do you really think I should?

I probably mumbled something in false self-effacement, then spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about what kind of signature would be best for book signings. For me, that simple question was a validation–more than a query, it was an assertion that my talent and my work deserve the honor of being bound and sold in bulk.

The question felt great at first. But eventually something changed. What had sounded like the ultimate “You the man!” started sounding like the knowing inquiry of an accountability partner. As I was asked more and more about writing a book, I came to intensely dread that conversation.

He goes on to explain why he dislikes the question now.

‘In the Lion’s Den,’ by S.D. Thames

In the Lion's Den

“I know that having a woman like that, it don’t do nothing for a man’s soul. If a man’s evil inside, no woman in the world’s gonna change that. Once that evil gets its hooks in you, you’re done. You ain’t ever gonna get them out.”

Having enjoyed S.D. Thames’ novel, A Mighty Fortress, as I did, I bought his earlier novella, In the Lion’s Den, as well. It’s a very good read, with definite similarities to AMF, though in less developed form, which you can’t help in a novella.

Danny Grey did a stretch in prison for felony murder. Now he’s out on parole, living in the Bronx, keeping his nose clean. He works in a pizza joint and saves his money. Four more months and he’s a free man. He plans to move to Florida and open his own pizza place. Legit all the way from now on.

Then he comes up against his old boss, the gangster he used to hurt people for in his old life. The boss blackmails him into working for him again, driving prostitutes around at night. That’s how he meets Veronika, a gorgeous Russian woman his boss treats as property. Gradually Danny falls for her, and then he faces a choice – he can escape from this trap on his own, or he can try to figure out a way to rescue Veronika. His decision will call for real courage and real sacrifice.

In the Lion’s Den is a cleanly written story that will draw you in. There are many similarities to A Mighty Fortress – Dan is a lot like Milo Porter, the hero of that book. But the religious elements are more subtextual here. For some that will be a reason to prefer this one.

I liked In the Lion’s Den very much, and I recommend it highly. Cautions for raw language and adult stuff.

Crime Fiction Returning to Cozies

A hundred years ago, Agatha Christie wrote her first novel, which featured her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Today,  Sophie Hannah is writing Poirot’s cases and the crime genre as a whole is returning to the type of story Christie helped popularize. The Guardian asks:

Why does crime’s golden era continue to exert such a pull? Hannah says it’s largely down to our desire to be entertained.

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

S. Y. Agnon’s “Fable of the Goat”

What Agnon did with these familiar characters was so seemingly simple that it couldn’t but mean absolutely everything. Riffing on so many biblical and rabbinic themes that one could barely track them all, the story begins with a sick man whose doctors prescribe goat’s milk. But the goat he buys periodically wanders off for days, returning with udders full of milk whose taste is “like a taste of the Garden of Eden.” The man’s son decides to tie a cord to the goat’s tail and follow her. The goat then leads the son into a cave, an underground tunnel to an almost-mythical Land of Israel. (Rabbinic tradition suggests that when the messiah arrives, the diaspora Jewish dead will travel from their graves to Israel through underground caverns.) In the mystical city of Safed, the excited son is about to go back and get his father when he realizes that the Sabbath is approaching and he cannot travel. He quickly writes a note to his father to follow this goat, sticks the note in the goat’s ear, and sends her back through the tunnel. But when the goat arrives, the father assumes his son his dead; he has the goat slaughtered, and only then discovers the note. The father laments how he has doomed himself to exile, while the son flourishes “in the land of the living.”

Dana Horn writes about this story, S.Y. Agnon’s “Fable of the Goat,” in light of a new English translation and the difficulties therein.

‘A Mighty Fortress,’ by S. D. Thames

A Mighty Fortress

As Jimmy drove us farther north, I realized a serene calmness had fallen over me. It was as though I’d had my fix—maybe the way heroin calms an addict, or porn calms someone addicted to it. I’m my calmest when someone is pointing a gun at me.

[Cue sound effect: Ringing bell.] We have a winner! From a quarter where I wouldn’t have expected to find one! A Mighty Fortress is a first (full-length) novel by an author I’d never heard of. It has so much going against it – it’s a Christian novel (which usually means low quality, let’s face it, especially when the authors are starting out). It’s a hard-boiled mystery into which the author injects supernatural and theological elements. There are even miracles. The miracle for me is how well this thing worked, and how much I loved it.

Milo Porter is a Gulf War veteran suffering from PTSD. He makes his living as a private investigator and process server, working for lawyers in the Tampa area. When not working, he lets off steam doing power lifting at a gym owned by a friend, whose sister is Milo’s girlfriend. He sees a counselor for his insomnia and flashback dreams, but what he really enjoys is taking risks.

One Sunday he’s offered an unreasonable sum to do a special subpoena service on a guy connected to the mob. He figures a way to accomplish this and get out safely, but he still gets ambushed and kidnapped by the target and his henchmen later that night. But that’s the best part, as far as Milo’s concerned. By the end of the night somebody has been murdered.

Milo is compelled to get involved in the investigation, trying to locate a beautiful prostitute whose life is in danger. He encounters crooked politicians, crooked cops, pornographers, an alcoholic ex-judge, a preacher who’s lost his faith, and – a supernatural being. And that’s only the beginning of the weirdness.

The wonderful thing is that author S. D. Thames makes the whole thing work. His prose isn’t fancy, but it’s solid and compelling, highly professional in quality. The characters are interesting, and they often surprise us. Milo himself is a fascinating study.

I found A Mighty Fortress a delight, a little reminiscent of John D. MacDonald in style. I’m reading a previous novella by the author now, and look forward to more Milo Porter books when they come out. Well done. Not for the kids, but for anyone else, I highly recommend it.

Why Memorize Poetry

To memorise a poem is to inhabit and understand it in a way rarely possible when you just read it.”

James Delingpole decided to memorize a poem and describes for us what we can learn from that practice. “Learning a poem is a good way of experiencing this creative process [of polishing a work to be its best] because, like the poet, you’re compelled to weigh each word.” (via Prufrock News)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture