Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Reports--April 2013

New feature on my blog: I'm going to start posting monthly briefs on the books I've read in the last month, both to give you a sense of what I've been reading about lately and in case anyone is looking for recommendations.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of the most promising and brilliant fiction authors I've come across since Neal Stephenson. His novels aren't exactly dense amalgamations of whatever ideas have been fascinating the author lately, but they are exhaustively thought-out and written devastatingly well. One of his books, Cloud Atlas, was recently adapted into a feature film. His latest work, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet doesn't feature anything as mindblowing as six nested storylines ranging from the past to the future, but it is one of the most captivating novels I've read all year and a stellar example of historical fiction done wonderfully right. The book is set around 1800, when Japan was largely closed off to foreigners and the Dutch were the only European nation allowed to trade with them, and only in the city of Nagasaki on the artificial island of Dejima. The main character is an aspiring, devout young clerk in the employ of the East India Company who has come to its most remote outpost to amass a suitable fortune to win the hand of his fiance back home, but whose path starts twisting after he meets a disfigured midwife named Orito Aibagawa. The result is an ingenious story that combines politics, business,intribue,  and forbidden love in a world incredibly different from our own, but made incredibly immersive by Mitchell's writing. Both the intricate details (like his consistently realistic portrayal of the language barriers faced in Dejima) and the larger plot (which follows few cliches and so keeps you consistently engaged) make this a highly commendable novel.

Number9Dream, by David Mitchell

After enjoying both The Thousand Autumns and Cloud Atlas, I've been slowly collecting more of Mitchell's bibliography. Number9Dream is his second book, a coming-of-age tale about a boy named Eiji Miyake who has come to Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never known. Set in a semi-dystopian near future, it lies somewhere between the aforementioned two books in linearity, with the actual events of the book interspersed with dreams, daydreams, and video games until it becomes hard to tell the difference. It's broken into eight chapters that only partially cohere with each other, adding to the somewhat confusing, disjointed nature of the book. Adding to this, the plot is a maze of false leads and dead ends as we slowly learn the truth about Eiji Miyake's family. Because of how hard it is to follow, it's not really as gripping as The Thousand Autumns.

Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini

Yes, I'm aware Paolini's Inheritance cycle is teen fiction; I was squarely in the target demographic when the first book came out, even if I no longer am. I mostly read Inheritance because it finally came out on paperback and I had to finish the series after investing so much in it; if Eragon came out today, I doubt I would pick it up. Still, it's a satisfying and thoroughly epic conclusion to the series. Though Paolini still has a tendency to tell rather than show, especially in his character development, his attention to detail and ability to juggle numerous loose ends continue to improve and make this a pretty solid fantasy page-turner.
Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth and President of the World, by Ethan and Malachai Nicolle

I have also been getting into some comic books. For those of you unfamiliar with Axe Cop, it is a webcomic largely written by an eight-year-old with a hyperactive imagination and tons of action figures, and illustrated by his thirty-something-year-old brother, who happens to be a professional comic artist. The result is literally a child's imagination about cops, dinosaurs, aliens, space travel, time travel, bombs, good guys (nearly all of whom wear mirrored sunglasses), and bad guys translated into a real comic, and it is awesome. The main character is a no-nonsense cop-by-day, cop-by-night who wields a fireman's axe, along with a variety of other madcap weapons (like his secret golden axe that chops anything hidden behind his mustache) against bad guys and the forces of evil. Axe Cop's team includes a talking dog with healing eye lasers, a man with socks for arms who possesses the Power of Christmas, a taciturn man in a baby suit who flies via flatulence, a scientist with a unicorn horn (which lets you wish for anything) coming out of his forehead, a flying tyrannosaurus rex with machine guns for arms, and his brother who changes forms every few pages due to the rule that if you get the blood of any animal on you, you turn into that animal and who, by the end of Bad Guy Earth, has become Giant Rat Cop and the president of the United States. Besides all the free-to-read comics on the website, Ethan and Malachai have also made two print-only stories, Bad Guy Earth and President of the World, which are also some of their best. Definitely read the online comics, and if you like them I highly recommend either of the print ones.

Locke and Key, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

My fascination with Axe Cop has also led me to another fantastic comic series. Benefitting from a virtuosic (adult) writer and highly detailed, beautifully expressive art, Locke and Key is centrally a story of three children who come to live in the labyrinthine Keyhouse after their father is murdered. Keyhouse is filled, logically enough, with dozens of keys, each with a magical power allowing you to (among others) turn into a ghost, change gender, or even open a door to any other door you like. The convoluted, mature plot is equal parts poignant, humorous, tense, action-packed, and thrilling. It is loaded with backstory (the fifth volume is almost entirely devoted to it) and virtually every character receives significant amounts of development, to the point where it's hard not to care about any of them, even the villain. (In the second volume, we are introduced to a charming literature teacher who is soon murdered; we are left missing him and wishing we could have gotten to know him better, just like his students) Writer Joe Hill's vision of the character, the keys, and the plot is incredibly well fleshed-out with many callbacks and call-forwards linking everything together, hidden both in the dialogue and in the amazing art. I haven't read many comics, but for me Locke and Key ranks up there with Watchmen in terms of use of the medium to tell a really good story. I really can't recommend Locke and Key highly enough.


Medieval Views of the Cosmos, by E. Edson and E. Savage-Smith

I found this book in a gift shop in Oxford's Bodelian Library, and it immediately caught my eye after my earlier interest in ancient views of the cosmos. This book is packed with pictures of various world and sky maps tracing medieval European and Islamic thought about the cosmos. It got me to rethink my previously held belief that ancient maps were "inaccurate" because people were ignorant back then. In the late middle ages or early Renaissance, inaccurate maps by natural philosophers or theologians coexisted with much more accurate nautical maps. I realized that, similar to how Hebrew historiography wasn't as concerned with what actually happened as with what it meant, medieval cosmology wasn't as concerned with discerning the actual, physical layout of the cosmos as it was with finding a view of the cosmos that was meaningful and made sense according to then-current Christian or Islamic theology. So medieval maps depicted Paradise and other places from the Bible even though no one had mapped them because they were attempts to fit the mapmakers' cultures into their theology. Before the Enlightment, Christian thinkers believed in a universe set up, structured, and maintained entirely by God according to His grand design--in other words, an orderly, meaningful cosmos. This led to conflict as science, rather than theology, became humans' principal method for mapping the cosmos, but this book helped me to see the appeal of, and reasoning behind, those "primitive" medieval beliefs.

Mere Theology, by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath is a British theologian and apologist I somehow hadn't heard of before visiting the UK and buying one of his books. He has been one of the most vocal opponents to the "new atheism" movement, and I treasure (and wish I had) his ability to dissect points of view and argue against them without disrespecting them. It's effectively a collection of essays on the nature of theology: its role in Christian faith, how it transforms our perspective, and a theological treatment of nature. The second part is the stronger, where he more directly engages with the common skeptic's claims that science and religion are essentially in conflict, that science and especially evolution have disproved or removed the need for God, that religion is irrational and harmful, and that the ideals of the Enlightenment are a superior alternative to religion. Again, the way he confronts atheism, while occasionally a bit dismissive, otherwise strikes me as exemplary in how he honestly and fairly grapples with an opposing viewpoint. This is quite a helpful book for anyone looking for some answers to a few of the most common criticisms leveled against faith, and I'll definitely have to look into more of McGrath's work.

A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren

Yes, my conservative readers, I did classify this book under "nonfiction". I found A New Kind of Christianity while looking at more Alister McGrath books at another British bookstore. My initial thought was a dismissive, "Oh, I can't believe they put Brian McLaren next to a theologian like Alister McGrath". Curious, I pulled it off the shelf, read the back, looked at a few chapters, then twenty minutes later decided to buy the book.

Before I started to read it, I analyzed my reflexive, distrustful reaction to the book. I imagine many of you would have had similar ones, something along the lines of: "As a Christian, I love Brian McLaren, but he is a dangerous false teacher and heretic who has forsaken the core tenets of the gospel and I need to be wary that he doesn't lead me or others astray." But I wonder: how many people thinking this have actually read anything McLaren has written, beyond a quick soundbite or quote being criticized? Not I, until I read A New Kind of Christianity.

McLaren is living proof of the fact that it's much easier to ask questions and tear down than to answer them and build up. Not that this book is overly critical or negative; just the opposite, it is consistently respectful and candid. He doesn't strike me as a wolf trying to trick and devour sheep but but a man who is acting according to his faith and convictions every bit as much as his conservative critics. He is genuinely concerned with what he sees as abuses of the faith, wrong attempts to build on the foundation laid by Christ, and how they are driving people away from Christianity by turning it into a caricature of the truth--just as I am. In his investigation on what has gone wrong with evangelical Christianity, he asks many of the same questions I do and have on this blog: questions about our view of God, our reading of the Bible, and our applying it as a community of faith. He divides the book into an exploration of 10 questions which he thinks deserve rethinking beyond the "orthodox" answers.
  1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  2. How should the Bible be understood?
  3. Is God violent?
  4. Who is Jesus and why is He important?
  5. What is the Gospel?
  6. What do we do about the Church?
  7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  10. What do we do now? (How do we translate our quest into action?)
You might have a knee-jerk reaction when seeing what McLaren is calling into question--"Of course we know what the Gospel is! Or course we know who Jesus is! See, he's throwing out the truth of the Bible that clearly teaches these things and replacing it with his own heresy!" Watch out. When we realize the difference between what the Bible actually says and what we make of it by interpretation--two things that can often be nigh indistinguishable--we see that these responses contain the arrogant assumption that our understandings of the Gospel or of Jesus are already exactly right and need no further refining or modification.

For example, it's very easy for many to see how the Bible "clearly teaches" a very individualistic, dualistic view of the Gospel that is rightly recognized as lacking. If you're unwilling to admit you could be mistaken, even about something as central as the Gospel, you will never grow from what could be an incomplete or even wrong view of these "fundamentals" of the faith. The dualistic notion that a given proposition like a certain definition of the Gospel is either totally right or totally wrong (and that the only "correct" definition is a complete one) needs to be thrown out. McLaren makes the excellent point that when we put theological systems built on modernist thought at the core of our faith, they often allow our heads to lead our hearts astray from the authentic love expected of all Christians--besides orthodoxy, there is a need for us to pursue "orthopathy", or "right passion" (which may be the most brilliant new word I've heard all year).

Despite McLaren's stance in opposition to the kind of domineering, "us-versus-them" kind of Christianity that tries to put everyone "under" the authority of the Bible, or rather someone's interpretation of it (which he colorfully refers to as Greco-Roman Christianity, Bible-as-constitution, and "Romans Protestantism" as opposed to Roman Catholicism), I see him adopting many of its arguing tactics. Beneath its veneer of repentant questioning and humble conversation, there is a subtext that goes something like, "I and others in my movement may not have all the answers, but at least we're on the right track, so get behind us or get left behind in your insincere faith". In practice, it's little different than simply believing that you or your denomination has all the answers.

He also makes little effort to point out truth or affirm what is praiseworthy (of which there is much) in the traditions he criticizes--which I think goes a long way to explain why he's such a controversial figure.  The danger with applying side-taking, "us-versus-them" thinking (implicit in much of the book) to Christianity (for anyone other than Christ) is that we can't be sure which side anyone is really on--even ourselves (Matthew 7:21) McLaren could stand to listen to himself a bit more in this regard.

He also makes a hermeneutical mistake in common with his critics. Though he expresses a desire to approach the Bible with an open mind and let it say what it has to say, he does do some proof-texting and, more commonly, tries to minimize or brush aside parts of the Bible that conflict with the peaceful, inclusive, loving image of God he wants to show. For instance, when discussing violent or tribal images of God, he says that "a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is much hardly worthy of belief, much less worship." One gets the impression that he would dearly love to pull a Thomas Jefferson and cut the account of the Flood out of his Bible.

Yes, A New Kind of Christianity is a dangerous book. But should we expect the way to a better faith to be safe? If we're unable to listen to (and, dare I say it, learn from) naysayers to our belief system like Brian McLaren (if not people of other faiths or atheists), we'll slip into an echo chamber of voices that all agree with and support our beliefs (2 Timothy 4:3), regardless of their truthfulness. Despite the pluralism of modern culture, it has never been easier to do this than today, so I think it's important to challenge ourselves with perspectives we disagree with. Though I disagree with many of the answers McLaren arrives at, I agree with his asking the questions he does.

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