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 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 answer explain the place of evil.

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

‘The Blue Hallelujah,’ by Andy Straka

The Blue Hallelujah

Another by Andy Straka, but this one is a stand-alone.

The hero of The Blue Hallelujah is Jerry Strickland, an old cop with a bad heart, pretty much just waiting to die. The heart – and the faith – have gone out of him since the death of his wife Rebecca, who died in prison, having killed a serial killer/rapist.

But he has a few miles left in him, as he discovers when he gets word that his granddaughter has been kidnapped. His status as a retired detective buys him some slack from the police investigators to stick his nose in. And soon he becomes convinced that this abduction is no random crime. It directly relates to the crimes of the man Rebecca killed. And the key to the mystery lies in his own set of old police files.

This is my favorite of all the Andy Straka novels I’ve read, though I thought it had a couple weaknesses. Actually one weakness, because I think the second is only a possible misunderstanding.

The first problem is with strong language – or rather, its absence. When a character who’s not identified as a practicing religious believer says “What in the world’s going on here?” instead of something stronger, that’s morally good. But it weakens the story. It pulls the reader out of the narrative, making him ask, “Why did he put it that way? That doesn’t sound like him.” It’s a problem we’ve discussed often on this blog, and there’s no entirely satisfactory answer, in my view.

The second problem is a likely misperception of genre. This story starts out looking like a regular mystery story. But it develops into a Christian spiritual thriller, complete with visions and minor miracles. I have no objection to that (in fact I welcome it), but some readers may feel as if they’ve been blindsided.

For all that, the story reeled me in and held on to me, and I was in tears at the end. Wise, beautiful, and touching, The Blue Hallelujah gets my highest recommendation.

The Agency of the Adversary

In Job 1–2, we see a couple scenes of a heavenly council. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). I think a common view of these scenes is to see Satan, the Adversary, barging into heaven to bring his accusations uninvited. I’m told, however, the language does not support this idea. The sentence above could just as easily describe a day when the angels came before the Lord and Michael was among them. The point of the scene is what Satan has to say. In short, the Adversary was one of the heavenly council at this time. (And if he was not, how could he have barged in anyway? No one gains an audience with God on his own terms.)

Why was he there? What purpose could this being serve in the council of God? That’s the most disturbing message in the book of Job. It’s much easier to view God as the conqueror of evil, someone who hates evil will a pure hatred, and he is that, but evil persists like weeds in my yard. (In that sense, my yard is the epitome of evil.) God does hate wickedness and all the rebellion that has brought evil into our world, and he is the Almighty, able to snuff it all out. A new dawn is coming that will overtake the night forever and “take hold of the skirts of the earth” in order to shake the wicked out of it (Job 38:13), but that dawn has yet to come. Today, evil still has a place in creation.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. Continue reading The Agency of the Adversary

2 more Frank Pavlicek novels

Flightfall The K Street Hunting Society

Continuing forging my way through Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek detective/falconry mysteries.

Flightfall is a novella in which Frank and his daughter/partner Nicole get a call from their mysterious friend Jake Toronto. One of his falcons has been shot to death, and Jake believes it may have been an act of revenge. I think on consideration that my criticism of the previous book, which I reviewed last night, may actually have properly belonged to this one – it’s kind of over before it really gets started. But it’s nice to get to know Jake better, because he’s an interesting character.

The K Street Hunting Society is a far better developed story. It also takes place in Washington DC, and there’s not a lot of falconry involved. Frankly, that’s OK with me. I have nothing against falconry, and I admire the tradition of the thing, but I don’t find it a terribly compelling plot device.

This time out, Jake Toronto has hired Frank and Nicole to help him in a routine bodyguarding job in downtown Washington. But they come under attack by an assassin with an automatic weapon, and lose a client – and nearly lose one of their own. You just don’t do that to Frank, and you certainly don’t do it to Jake. They’re going to find the killer and even the score, whether the local police and the FBI want their help or not. I thought this was the strongest book in the series to date.

As I’ve said before, the language is clean, the violence isn’t overdone, and the morality is generally good. Author Straka takes the opportunity to say a good word for the Christian faith now and then. I don’t care for Frank’s penchant for relying on hunches rather than deduction, but that’s personal taste. Enjoyable reading, highly recommended.

The Innocent Suffering of Job

Since last August, I’ve been leading our Sunday School class in a discussion of Job. I didn’t think we’d take it chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse, but we have. My expectations were set by my casual reading of a difficult book. Reading this ancient poem on my own is almost fruitless and fairly boring. It’s much more rewarding to go through it with a reliable guide. Everything I’ve learned has been through Christopher Ash’s commentary, which is just as readable as I had heard (recommending with two links).

Perhaps the difficulty of reading through this long, dialogic poem is the reason so many of us don’t get its central message. We bog down in the long-winded complaints and accusations, coming away only with the idea that God can run over anyone he wants and make it all right again in the end. But the tension point of Job’s argument is one we still miss when trying to apply God’s Word to our own or other people’s lives—that Job is completely innocent.

The first couple chapters present to us a man who is “blameless and upright, who fear[s] God and turn[s] away from evil.” That’s how his character is summarized for us upfront, and God repeats that description (2:3). Job is brought to the point of death “without reason.”

No matter what other questions we have about that, we have one truth to apply to our lives—innocent suffering exists.

Many people naturally believe that just about all suffering has a reason that can be avoided. The pain in our lives can be avoided by the proper regimen of diet, respectable living, and sound thinking. If you find yourself in pain or hardship, you’ve either caused it yourself or God is judging you for something. Seek the Lord, these people will say, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to get out of this trial. Because the trial is unnatural. The trial is not how God intends your normal life. Suffering doesn’t just happen.

But Job tells us it does.  Continue reading The Innocent Suffering of Job

‘A Night Falcon,’ by Andy Straka

A Night Falcon

As you’ve probably noticed, when I find a book series I like, I’m likely to read my way through it chronologically. And that’s what I’m doing with Andy Straka’s enjoyable Frank Pavlicek series. A Night Falconer is installment number four.

This time out, Frank finds himself leaving his current natural environment to return temporarily to a former one – Manhattan, where he once was a cop. The residents of a luxury condo are losing their pets, and one of them – an assertive woman doctor – is convinced her cat was killed by a Great Horned Owl. Not only that, but she thinks she saw a falconer carrying the owl, running off in the darkness. Crime mixed with falconry? Who else do you call but Frank Pavlicek, Virginia PI and accomplished falconer? So New York PI Darla Barnes, an old friend of Frank’s from the force, asks him to come up and investigate.

It seems like a strange job, but Darla’s a friend, so Frank drives up to check it out, bringing along his new partner – his daughter Nicole. What they discover is much bigger and even stranger than the idea of someone hunting in Central Park with an owl.

I didn’t consider A Night Falconer the best of the series. The plot seemed to resolve itself unnecessarily rapidly at the end. But it wasn’t bad either. As usual, no foul language, only muted violence, and the sex happens offstage (the Christian morality of these books is generally admirable, though Frank seems to think sex before marriage is OK if the couple is engaged, which I consider debatable).

Still, recommended.

A Point of Unity in Essentials

Many books have been written on the topic of race and “racial reconciliation,” particularly in recent years. One Blood stands out for the unique perspective, integrity, and wisdom supplied by its author—one born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi, who, despite losing his brother to racial violence and nearly losing his own life after a severe beating by racist cops, renounced any “right” to be resentful and angry and instead devoted his life to the twin ministries of justice and reconciliation. John Perkins writes as one whose life, formerly filled with prejudice and hate, is now overflowing with the love of God, “the ultimate reconciler.”

Pastor Duke Kwon reviews Dr. John Perkins’s new book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race, undoubtedly an important book, but I don’t know if it’s any more important than Perkins’s other books. Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win came out just last year. This is a man we should be listening to.

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

The choir of the Bible school where I work is just wrapping up a tour of Germany. They got to visit a number of notable Reformation sights. I was impressed by a video they posted on Facebook, where they got the opportunity to sing a Bach piece at Bach’s tomb. I was hoping to post that tonight, but at this point it’s only on Facebook.

So here’s one (filmed in our chapel) that is on YouTube — a number which (I believe) is part of their repertoire in Germany. “Grace Alone.”

‘A Cold Quarry,’ by Andy Straka

A Cold Quarry

Book 3 in Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek series, about a former New York cop who is now a private investigator in Virginia, as well as a falconer.

In A Cold Quarry a friend of Frank’s, a fellow falconer named Chester Carew, is murdered while out with his bird. The police say it’s a hunting accident, but it doesn’t seem right to Frank. Also, what happened to Chester’s hawk, which had recently shown signs of disease or poisoning? He decides to look into it, and his dangerous, mysterious friend Jake Toronto wants to help. He was a friend too.

Clues lead them to a right-wing militia group, and then they’re warned off by the Feds, who tell them they’re planning an operation against the group – stay away. But Frank is convinced something more is going on – someone much smarter, more devious, and more ruthless than a group of rednecks is planning an operation far bigger than officials suspect.

A Cold Quarry was an enjoyable read, which I can pretty much recommend without reservation. Not only is the writing good and the language clean, but the morality is generally good. And author Straka finds several opportunities to make positive references to the Bible and Christianity. It’s not enough to be preachy, but it’s unavoidable too. These books are just the kind of Christian literature a lot of us have been begging for.

‘Murder on the Old Bog Road,’ by David Pearson

Murder on the Old Bog Road

It’s storming along the Old Bog Road in Clifden, Galway, Ireland. A woman has to stop her car before passing over a bridge, because it’s been damaged and there are stones strewn about. As she clears the stones, she sees a woman in a red coat, lying drowned in a ditch. She calls the Garda, who are baffled when they find that the woman has no identification. It’s clearly murder – someone hit her in the head with something hard.

Inspector Mick Hays and Detective Sergeant Maureen Lyons lead the investigation. Gradually they learn that the woman was a Polish “sex worker,” and there are a number of men – some of them influential – who do not wish their relationships with her to be made public.

Murder on the Old Bog Road, by David Pearson, is clearly intended to take advantage of the current popularity of “Celtic” police procedural mysteries. This is a genre I enjoy, when it’s done well. It offers mystery and atmosphere. However, I did not find this book a successful entry in that field.

The writing was pedestrian at best, and sometimes clumsy. The characters seemed shallow to me. The two leads, Hays and Lyons, ease into a sexual relationship in a way that seemed unrealistic – Hays makes inappropriate jokes without Lyons taking any offense, and they are not at all bothered by the professional impropriety of their relationship.

On top of that, author Pearson makes one repeated writing mistake that annoyed me very much (though it could be the editor’s fault). The accepted rule when writing fiction is that if a character gives a long speech, which is broken up by paragraphs, you leave the closing quotation marks off the end of the first paragraph, giving the reader notice that the speech is not finished. If the quotation mark is there at the end, the reader assumes the next paragraph is being spoken by another character.

Pearson breaks this rule all the time, making his dialogue sections extremely hard to follow.

I found Murder on the Old Bog Road unpolished and unsatisfying. Maybe the series will get better, but I won’t be reading the next book for now.

Cautions for mature material.

‘Deathly Wind,’ by Keith Moray

Deathly Wind

Inspector Torquil McKinnon is on holiday at the beginning of Deathly Wind, the second in the Torquil McKinnon mystery series, set on the fictional Hebrides island of West Uist. Constable Ewan McPhee, his friend and subordinate, is supposed to be watching the store while he’s gone. But Ewan goes missing. People frequently go missing on this island, and it usually means they’ve drowned. That leaves Constable Megan Munro to police the place alone. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be impossible, as crime is low in these communities. But just now there’s rising unrest, as a new Laird has inherited the big estate, and is implementing a plan to dispossess long-time crofters and put up wind turbines on their property. Also, people are suddenly getting killed. Quite a few of them.

Torquil does return to take things in hand, but he’s not sure he can handle the pressure either – as his superior on the mainland keeps reminding him over the phone. But with his knowledge of the community, and the help of his uncle Lachlan, the old priest, he starts uncovering the secrets of people he thought he knew, and unraveling a vicious revenge scheme.

Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon series is not at the top of my must-read list – the writing is not particularly distinguished (I thought the plot of this one a little far-fletched). But the books are entertaining and readable, the characters are appealing, and no shots are taken at Christianity. I don’t recall much bad language either. There were some sexual situations. I’ll continue with the series. Recommended.

April 9, 1940

Invasion Oslo
German troops march into Oslo, April 9, 1940

Today is a grim anniversary. It was on April 9, 1940, that Operation Weserübung (the Weser Exercise) was implemented by the German army against Norway and Denmark. There was resistance, some of it heroic, but it was no contest in the long run. For the rest of the war, Norway and Denmark would be occupied territory.

If you see the movie The King’s Choice, which I reviewed a few days back, you’ll get the gist of the story of how the government and the royal family fled Oslo and eventually went into exile. One element of the movie that hasn’t aroused much notice is the general fecklessness of the parliamentary leaders in response to the attack. There’s no surprise there; we don’t often look to politicians for valor and sacrifice. But there’s another element, not suggested in the film.

The parliamentary leaders weren’t entirely sure Hitler was the enemy.

The Norwegian government in the spring of 1940 was led by the Labor (Arbeider) Party. The Labor Party was by and large a wholly owned subsidiary of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, which had been bankrolling it for years. Labor leaders in those days didn’t go to the loo without checking with their Russian handlers first.

During spring of 1940, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, making Hitler and Stalin allies. So when the Germans marched in, the Labor leaders were inclined to greet them as friends. The only thing that prevented them from enthusiastically joining in the “Heil!” salutes was the Germans’ incredibly ham-handed conduct.

It wouldn’t be until June 1941 that Hitler would break the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa against Russian possessions. At that point Labor became solidly anti-Nazi, going carefully into denial about their earlier collaborationist sentiments. And so it remains, even unto this day.

The shadow of death

Had a strange phone conversation last night. It wasn’t as grim as that summary might suggest – it just had a sort of black humor quality.

One of my cousins died recently – much too young; sad story. Shortly after her death, I had a call from her brother, who wanted to talk, and I was happy to offer a shoulder. He was also concerned that he hadn’t been able to reach our last surviving mutual uncle. Uncle O_____ has had some health problems recently, and my cousin couldn’t find a number for him that worked. I promised I’d call him myself, since I’ve been in pretty regular communication with him, until recently.

I tried calling, and the numbers I had didn’t work.

After the funeral, my cousin called again, and I told him about my failure. My cousin suggested I go through Facebook (which he doesn’t use anymore), messaging O____’s grandchildren. I tried that and broke through. They said they’d pass the news on.

So last night O____ and his wife called me. Apologized for losing touch – they’ve been going through a difficult time of selling a house and relocating, on top of health issues.

Then we started catching up. There was a lot of catching up to do. Continue reading The shadow of death

‘I’ll Keep You Safe,’ by Peter May

I'll Keep You Safe

Sometimes a book can be less than optimal in certain respects, but make up for it wonderfully in the sheer reading experience. For me, Peter May’s I’ll Keep You Safe is one of this sort.

Niamh and Ruairidh McFarlane are childhood sweethearts who grew up together on the island of Harris in the Hebrides. As a married couple, they took over ownership of “Ranish Tweed,” a small operation producing a cloth that’s similar to Harris Tweed, but softer and lighter. To their amazement, their tweed was discovered by a rising young designer, who made it the center of his whole collection that year, and before long they were running a large and profitable operation.

But there are shadows in their lives. Their parents still disapprove of their marriage, due to old injuries that the book reveals in stages. There are professional enemies, and false friends.

When the story begins, they’re in Paris for a fabric fair, and Niamh is suspicious, for the first time in her life, that Ruairidh might be having an affair. Then he enters a cab with the woman she suspects is his mistress, and the cab explodes. Suddenly a widow, wracked with guilt and doubts, she must return to her home and face the continued hostility of her in-laws, the suspicions of the police, and a growing recognition that the killing is not over. Someone wants her dead too.

I was not surprised by the final revelation of the killer in I’ll Keep You Safe. And there was an earlier plot surprise that also didn’t surprise much. But I didn’t care, because the ride itself was the reward. Author May, as he has shown many times before, excels in painting evocative descriptions of Hebridean geography and nature. It might be the next best thing to visiting the place.

Minor cautions for grown-up stuff, but I highly recommend I’ll Keep You Safe as splendid reading entertainment.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture