How Significant Is a Book’s Truth Claim?

According to Geoff Dyer, who says his next book is “a mixture of both fiction and non- but will be published as non-”, the strength of the distinction in anglophone culture has waxed and waned. “Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick points out that ‘12 of the 14 pieces in Penguin New Writing in 1940’ – which included Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant – ‘were of a then fashionable genre that blurred the line between fact and fiction,’” Dyer explains. The nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred the lines again in the 1960s, he continues, and the boundary is “perhaps going through another porous phase right now.”

At first glance, this article on the demerits of the labels “fiction” and “non-fiction” seems to disparage the need to state whether a book claims to reflect reality or to be a work of imagination. Quoting  a translator, Richard Lea writes:

The division between “the writing of imagination and the writing of fact” that seems so obvious to the anglophone readers “doesn’t seem straightforward at all to much of the rest of the world.”

But how many non-fiction books do not represent the truth, because of shoddy research or editorial bias? How many fiction works have taught us profoundly deep truths (isn’t that what we love so much about some novels)? Perhaps claims of truthfulness should be done in ways other than publisher brands or bookseller shelving, but the reason we say truth is stranger than fiction is because when something bizarre actually happens, it doesn’t have to be as believable as something we make up. You might say, “That could never happen,” but if it in fact happened, that’s all the rationale you need.

‘The Abducted,’ by Roger Hayden

I must be cranky these days. This is the second novel I’ve reviewed in two days which I thought well written, but to which I refuse to read the sequels.

The Abducted tells the story of a string of child kidnappings in a single county in southern Florida. Each kidnapping takes place precisely one year after the previous one. All the victims are blonde girls about ten years old. The only person to actually see the kidnapper – though not well – is Officer Miriam Castillo, who caught a glimpse during a routine traffic stop that ended disastrously. Miriam leaves the force in the wake of the disaster.

A year later she’s contacted by an old colleague, Detective Dwight O’Leary, who’s investigating the last kidnapping as a cold case. He thinks (for reasons that I frankly find hard to understand) that Miriam, who’s not a cop anymore, knows something that can crack the case. She agrees to help him, and an investigation and manhunt follow.

The book was well written, the characters and dialogue good. What annoyed me was that the author ended the book with a serious cliff-hanger. I guess I’m perverse about these things. I like to buy the next book because I enjoyed the last one, not because bait has been thrown over my fence.

So I think I’ll let this one go. You may enjoy it, though. It’s not at all bad.

‘The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter,’ by Malcolm Mackay

It’s an interesting experience to read a book that’s extremely well done, but just doesn’t make you care.

That’s my experience with The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, by Malcolm Mackay.

The book is written from the “narrator as omniscient camera” point of view. The author describes, dispassionately, utterly without judgment, as a young but “promising” hit man in Edinburgh takes the job of killing a small-time drug dealer. We follow him, we follow the gangsters who hire him, we follow the victim and the victim’s girlfriend, and the detective who investigates the murder, as well as others, all with the same clinical lack of judgment. The characters themselves make judgments all the time – each of them considers him or herself a pretty good person, under the circumstances, certainly better than those other fellows. But we are provided only the bare data – what happened. The author leaves it to us to draw morals, or not.

This is a very fine job of writing. The weakness is that there isn’t much reason to care about any of these people, and in the end I didn’t. This book is the first installment of a trilogy, but I can’t think of a reason to spend money to find out what happens next.

Still, author Mackay did an impressive job of doing what he did. If it interests you, by all means try it out.

Cautions for sex, violence, and language.

The Anti-Christian Mindset of Big Business

Sociologist George Yancey asks, “When does Big Business call for a boycott?” He points to the MLB threatening to boycott Arizona over an immigration law and the threats made against Georgia this month over a religious freedom bill. He notes that no boycotts have been publically discussed in support of the social conflict in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Flint, Michigan.

So what motivates a call for pulling business out of an area? Perhaps it’s primarily an anti-Christian (not so much anti-religious) bias.

Given what we are seeing in this year’s presidential campaigns, there may soon be a breakup in the Republican Party — the party has politically united the interest of large corporations and conservative Christians over the last few decades. That “marriage” may have provided Christians the illusion that leaders of those businesses care about them. In most cases, they don’t.

In another story, a dean at Catholic university Marquette is demanding one of his professors apologize for his criticism of another professor who was recorded telling her student that a traditional Catholic position on marriage was not welcome in her class. (via Prufrock)

‘The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok’

As you know, I’m not exactly a fan of the “History” Channel’s Vikings series. However, this book, which seems to have been produced in order to capitalize on the show’s popularity, was actually worth the money to me.

The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok is a compendium of sagas, poems, and ancient annals, providing pretty much all we know of Ragnar’s legend out of the middle ages. The stories have very little credibility as historical sources – other than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is sparse on details, and Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, which is a hopeless mess assembled with little historical or critical sense.

But it’s not often that I run into material on the Viking Age that I’ve never read before, and most of this was new to me. The saga story of Ragnar “Hairy Breeches” was written down long after the original events, and these sagas contradict one another in details and are generally unreliable. But they also contain many agreements, and the kernel of a true story seems to be here.

Only one section, the poem Krákumál, shows evidence of bad OCR reading, including a number of misprints. The rest of the book is well edited, and the scholarly notes are of high quality.

Worth reading, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

The Best and Worst Batman

Peter Suderman explains how Frank Miller created the best version of Batman and also the worst.

The influence of Miller’s Dark Knight, however, extends far beyond this one movie. The four-issue comic permanently redefined the character of Batman, and is arguably responsible for making him the pop culture sensation he is today. Today’s Batman, from Christopher Nolan’s austere Dark Knight to the gothic hero of Scott Snyder’s contemporary Batman comics, is inseparable from Miller’s vision of Batman and, in some sense, from Miller himself.

But in the years since Dark Knight, Miller has continued to work with both the character and the brooding sensibility, with increasingly unpleasant results. And in the process, he has squandered much of what made the original so great. Miller gave us the best Batman — and the worst one, too.

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Critic Steven Greydanus says on Twitter this article aptly describes what he calls the Frank Miller worldview, “a nightmare world of antiheroes, brutal villains, whores, femmes fatales, sickening violence—lots of visual impact, no human interest.”

“Miller’s rather pathetic Superman was a logical extension of Miller’s Dark Knight universe—the right Superman for that Batman’s story.”

As Suderman says it, “Miller positions Superman as Batman’s true rival, a polite water carrier for ineffectual elites and authority figures, a symbol of weakness and civil decline to which Batman provides the antidote.” An antidote that feels as bad as the sickness.

I hope we see a new, hope-filled Superman, a Captain America-style Superman, by the end of this decade. Maybe we’ll see that in Wonder Woman.

Crime and Punishment, 150 Years Old

During the year 1866 only Crime and Punishment was being read, only it was being spoken about by fans of literature, who often complained about the stifling power of the novel and the painful impression it left which caused people with strong nerves to risk illness and forced those with weak nerves to give up reading it altogether.

A great novel is 150 years old this year, and readers are talking about it. Prufrock News has collected several links, and the curator, Micah Mattix writes about it for the WSJ. If you don’t have access to the WSJ, here’s a post he wrote on why every Christian should consider reading Dostoevsky’s classic.

‘Iron Chamber of Memory,’ by John C. Wright

They spent a few moments looking for her dropped hat, gradually circling out from the path as they searched, but they did not find it. It seemed the wind had taken it away and hidden it somewhere among the trees. He found the size of them oddly disquieting, rather like seeing a cow taller than a man.

I have shot my mouth off more than once – publicly – about my low opinion of most contemporary Christian fantasy. When I do that (and I expect I’ll do it again) I need to make a clear exception for a very few writers. One of those is John C. Wright, author of the new ebook, Iron Chamber of Memory.

If I had to find a comparison for this work, the closest thing I can think of is George MacDonald’s Lilith. It takes place (mostly) in a world which is ours, but not quite the same as ours. And there are excursions to worlds even stranger.

Hal Landfall, the hero, is an American student at Oxford University. His best friend is Manfred Hathaway, who has just inherited the Channel island of Sark, “the last feudal government in Europe.” On Sark no automobiles are permitted, and no electric lights burn at night. Manfred is engaged to the beautiful Laurel. Hal is attracted to her too, but would never dream of making a move on his friend’s fiancée.

But that’s in our world. There is a secret room in Manfred’s manor house in which all the relationships are different, and all the identities somehow altered. But Hal only remembers this when he enters that room – so he has to leave himself messages, to “trick” himself into going there.

And that room is only the first of a series of secret rooms…

Iron Chamber of Memory is simply a wonderful fantasy story – an original and unforgettable work of imagination. It’s about memory, and it’s about sex – or rather, erotic love. Not a dirty book, but I wouldn’t give it to younger readers. C.S. Lewis described That Hideous Strength as a “fairy tale for adults,” and that’s what this is.

Splendid stuff. Much recommended. There are a few copyreading errors (or I think they are), especially where Manfred repeatedly gets called Mandrake for no apparent reason. I assume that’s an incomplete search an replace job in the word processing, though there may be a subtle message being sent that I’m just too dense to comprehend.

Anyway, read this book. Especially if you’re a MacDonald fan. Strong Protestants may take issue with some Roman Catholic sentiments expressed.

Also, what a great cover!

‘The Chessmen,’ by Peter May

The storm had passed by the Monday, but it was still overcast, dull light suffused with a grey-green, as if we were all somehow trapped inside a Tupperware box.

I’ve reviewed the first two books of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy below. The Chessmen is the third (the title refers to the famous “Lewis chessmen,” a remarkable set of Norwegian chess pieces discovered on the Scottish island of Lewis, the site of these books, centuries ago. They represent a 12th Century king and his court and warriors).

This time around Fin Macleod, our hero, is still living on Lewis, where he grew up, having left the Edinburgh police force. He takes a job as a security officer on a large estate, to solve the problem of poachers taking wild salmon. This leads him to a hike in the mountains with “Whistler,” an old friend. They discover a rare phenomenon – one of the mountain lochs has spontaneously drained, and they observe a small private airplane lying on the newly uncovered bottom. They both know immediately who must be inside – their old friend Roddy, who was involved with them in a rock and roll group in their college years and disappeared in this very plane.

As with the other books in the series, the story takes us into the past, to old relationships and old secrets. An interesting subplot involves Fin’s old friend/enemy Donald, now the pastor of the local Free Church, who has to defend himself in a church hearing, accused of the trespass of killing a man to save lives. The ending is a shocker.

Very good, especially the high quality of the prose. Cautions for language, and hard (but not entirely dismissive) statements on religion. Recommended.

Good Friday

It almost seems sacrilegious to say that this Good Friday (a name that’s purposely paradoxical), is a particularly good Friday for me. But so it is. This is the day of my manumission, the day my chains were loosed. I uploaded my completed capstone project today. Assuming I don’t fail (which is always possible, if unlikely), I’m done with graduate school forever.

If anybody wants me to get a doctorate, they can get me an honorary one.

Now comes the uneasy transition to civilian life. Today I mostly vegged out on the sofa, still feeling the vague guilt any graduate student always feels, when they’re not doing school work.

Well, it wouldn’t do to celebrate too much, on Good Friday.

Speaking of which, Michael Card:

Hamilton Resonates, Shapes Our Political Imaginations

Millennials must heed the Founders’ warning when voting in 2016. They explicitly warned us about inflammatory candidates (read: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders), and endeavored to structure a system that would protect the angry masses from themselves. In “Federalist No. 1,” Hamilton cautions against men gaining power through igniting the public’s fury, warning that they start by “paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Kayla Nguyen, a fellow at the John William Pope Foundation, writes about the popular musical Hamilton and how it could speak to her generation and inspire them to believe in the American Experiment.

Church of England Shouts “He Is Risen!”

Central panel of Titian’s "Triptych of the Resurrection"
Central panel of Titian’s “Triptych of the Resurrection”

Beginning with words from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” a new video from The Church of England puts Jesus’ words in the mouths of today’s rejected people before turning to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.

“What this film shows is that God is with us in those struggles and Easter represents the triumph of Jesus over those struggles,” says the Church’s Director of Communications.

Here’s hoping all of England will hear the full meaning of the gospel this year and be transformed, not by their good wishes and sentimentality, but by the Living Word of God. Because Christ didn’t come into this world to merely sympathize with us and tell us to keep our hopes up and be nice to each other. He came to deliver us from bondage, from the hatred and lies that come from living on our own. He came to give us new life, which is literally new life, not some tired, exaggerated metaphor.

What we have on our own doesn’t work. Both subtly and overtly, we’ve earned God’s condemnation. We’re like filthy farmhands crashing an upscale wedding. We think the wedding host and guests are supposed to be loving, accepting people, so we should be able to walk in off the field and be ourselves. The doormen said if we washed up and put on the formal apparel they would give us, we could join the party, but we said we didn’t need that. We were kicked out.

Now, it might take a while to talk through the reasons we were kicked out, but Easter celebrates the fact that we will be accepted, if we will accept the washing and clothing the host offers. No one will be turned away if he is willing to be made clean.

To paraphrase Tim Keller, the problem many churches have is that they say add a little Jesus to your life and everything will be good in the end. No need to change your life. Just keep your hopes up. But such a message short-changes the gospel, which is intended to change us completely. New life is totally new, beyond our old expectations. Just as Jesus went into the grave dead and returned alive, so he wants to take our old lives into the grave and bring us out gloriously renewed.

(Image: Iconography of the Resurrection – Bursting From the Tomb)

Freedom of What Exactly?

The [current] debate over religious freedom has generally assumed that the primary contest is over defining freedom, not religion. We assume that we more or less know what we are talking about when we say ‘religion’ . . . [I want to] question the assumption that Christianity is a religion to begin with, and examine both the advantages and the problems with claiming religious freedom for the church.

On the face of it, the question I’m raising seems ridiculous. Of course Christianity is a religion. A deeper look at the recent government arguments about the free exercise of religion, however, makes clear that what does and what does not count as religion is at the heart of the matter.

William Cavanaugh, quoted on the site for Mars Hill Audio Journal, from his book Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World.

Abuse in Complementary Marriages

Are egalitarian marriages the biblical form for marriage, and are complementarians at risk for abuse? Professor Ruth Tucker has written a book arguing in favor of egalitarianism, saying, “There is little evidence that proponents of male headship are seriously grappling with [wives’ stories of abuse] and speaking out publicly, and most women in such marriages are not being correctly counseled on matters of domestic violence.”

“Egalitarianism,” Tucker states, “asserts that there should be no gender-based role distinctions or limitations placed on women in the home, church, or society. According to this view, women can serve as pastors in light of passages like Galatians 3:28.”

Tim Challies praises the personal story side of the book (“I believe it will help me grow in compassion and understanding”) but firmly disagrees with her interpretation of the Bible.

Her understanding of complementarianism is inextricably bound up with her own experience, yet I found her marriage unrecognizable as a truly complementarian union. Her ex-husband was an abuser, manipulator, and pervert, a man who interpreted the Bible in black and white ways so he could justify abusing his wife. She gives no reason for us to believe that he was even a true Christian.

Tucker responds with a post on Scot McKnight’s blog:

You take strong issue with one particular “emotional” statement I make in the book: “Imagine saying that African Americans are fully equal to whites before God, but they are not permitted to hold church office and must be subject to Caucasians. The claim would be ludicrous. And so it is regarding gender.” You go on to say: “But unless race and gender are the same category, this is an invalid means to advance her argument. It succeeds emotionally but fails biblically.” Well, gee, thanks, Tim, for saying it succeeds emotionally. And if you would say that women are fully equal, it would also succeed emotionally.

Publisher Zondervan links to all of this on their blog and draws several comments from their readers. “Let’s not make this about doctrine,” one reader says, “but rather about what it is. It is abuse of scripture – what I have seen, experienced and refer to as ‘twisted scripture.'”

Book Reviews, Creative Culture