Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Reports--May 2013

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

I got into Joe Hill's fiction after the comic-store employee who checked out some of my Locke and Key volumes recommended him. This is a ghost story about a washed-up former death metal star with a collection of macabre oddities who purchases a dead man's suit on an online auction that turns out to come with his soul thrown in, free of charge. Though it starts a bit slowly and isn't as addictive as Locke and Key, it demonstrates Hill's skill as a talented author who can write a gripping tale with or without fancy pictures to help him.

Mere Apologetics, by Alister McGrath

Yes, Alister McGrath is indebted enough to C.S. Lewis to name two of his books in the style of Mere Christianity. This is a skillfully written, (too) short overview of the Christian study of apologetics. I wish McGrath went into more detail, but what he did put into this book is brilliant and I found myself thinking often, "This is exactly what I think but expressed much better." He provides a theological basis for apologetics, distinguishes apologetics and evangelism, and makes the necessary point that apologetics is much more than the thoroughly modernist development of rational arguments to try to bring people to faith by logic. He also mentions the importance of contextualizing your discourse to your specific audience, with examples from the New Testament and from the modern philosophical landscape of modernism and postmodernism. There are also plenty of offhand (but hard-hitting) critiques of the new atheism movement, which seem to be a common feature of his writings. I would have liked a slightly meatier book (which I'm sure McGrath is capable of writing), but this is a high recommendation for anyone looking to get into apologetics. I wish it had been available my seventeen-year-old self when I was making my first foray into the field.

Prototype, by Jonathan Martin

This is a new book by Pastor Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church, one of my favorite pastors to listen to online. The subject matter is kind of scattershot, but overall it's Martin unpacking how he "does" the gospel as a pastor. It's honest and hard-hitting, both theological and practical. He draws all kinds of parallels between us and Jesus, casting Him not just as our Savior to believe in (or just believe when He commands things), but as our "prototype", the perfect example of the new kind of life we of the church are born into. He asks rhetorically, "What if the ultimate goal of everything Jesus said and did was not just to get us to believe certain things about Him, but to become like Him?". He starts off with of a story of his memory of endlessly riding a bike in circles as a boy, moments which he later came to recognize as times of deep, unconscious communion with God. Jesus, he says, never forgot who He was: God's beloved Son. My description isn't doing this book justice. Any Christian author can write doctrinally about how God loves us, we're supposed to find our identity in Him, we're supposed to be like Jesus, and so on. Martin's gift, which comes out in this book and even more in his preaching, is to breathe life into doctrine by powerfully relating it to experiences not only in his own life, but in yours as well. Even if you think you've heard the basics of "the gospel" before, the chapters grab your attention, capture your imagination, and get you to think about (and apply!) the Christian faith anew.

Surfaces and Essences, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

I didn't so much choose this book as it chose me, sitting invitingly on a bookshelf in London. I decided to buy it almost immediately, not caring about how I would fit it into my carry-on suitcase later. Written by the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a lengthy and wandering discourse on cognition, language, logic, music, art, mathematics, self-reference, and artificial intelligence, I knew that if this book was even half as good it would forever change the way I thought and saw the world.

Surfaces and Essences is set up around the central thesis that analogy is the core of all thinking, and also that analogy and categorization (a process more traditionally thought of as central to human cognition) are really the same. The authors then proceed to systematically argue this thesis through an abundance of thought experiments, examples, anecdotes, and (of course) analogies. In the first few chapters they show how words, even simple and concrete ones (like  "concrete") can have multiple layers of meaning (or levels of abstraction) corresponding to literal or analogical uses. This is also true of phrases like "sour grapes", "hit the nail on the head", "Jewish mother", or "spill the beans", which really describe complex concepts that we relate (often unconsciously) to situations by analogy-making. Similarly, they point out "invisible analogies" like similarities we observe between situations that appear very different on the surface, revealing a "swarm of resemblances buzzing inside our heads".

They provide a fascinating mental model that resonated with me, picturing the landscape of concepts as a multicolored landscape with different words in different languages corresponding to points and territory in this landscape. A given word in one language may not have a direct parallel in another but may instead have its "territory" shared between multiple words, like the English "time" being split into two French translations, one for a temporal point of occurrence and one for a duration. (I should mention that both authors are bilingual and in fact wrote two originals of the book in English and French, so they do lots of comparing of these languages) Something similar happens in Greek, with the words χρονος and καιρος respectively meaning a specific time or duration and a more general age or era.

Further, they point out that there are large lacunae (empty spaces) in the conceptual space, meanings that no language has a word for. Using compound words or phrases extends the ability of a language to reach more concepts, but nonetheless there will still be limits to what the lexical terms of a given language can cover. Whereas an English speaker may have a convenient idiom to convey the concept of "the tail wagging the dog", a French speaker has no similarly concise way of expressing this without explaining it in much more length. Or on the other hand, French has the phrase "avoir l'esprit d'escalier", which translates to "to have the spirit of staircase", meaning to come up with the ideal retort to someone at a party as you are on the stairs leaving the party, which has no easy English equivalent. (Unless we start calling it "staircase wit") Sometimes speakers of one language will see the usefulness of a phrase from another and adopt it wholesale, like "deja vu".

I won't summarize the whole book, but once the authors get their basic concept of analogy-making very thoroughly established, they treat other interesting topics like layers of abstraction and inter-category sliding (fascinating subjects for me), how analogies manipulate us, and how we manipulate analogies. The last chapter is devoted to "analogies that shook the world" like the process by which Einstein formulated his theory of mass-energy equivalence (better known as E = mc2). This book isn't for everyone, but it is one of the most fascinating and persuasive works on language, cognition, metacognition, and meaning I've read in a long time, and I highly recommend it to anyone who shares any of these passions.

Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, by Joseph Pieper

I picked up this book from Half-Price Books on a whim, but it has been quite a pleasant (if quick) read. He starts by explaining how even in the name, we often see the "Middle Ages" as a kind of boring transitional period between antiquity and the Renaissance before launching into an interesting narrative of some of the most prominent thinkers that shaped this period of history. Boethius, Anselm, Abelard, and Bernard of Clairvaux get fairly extensive treatment; Thomas Aquinas, surprisingly, does not, though he is frequently mentioned in relation to others. It's an interesting look at the evolution of theology and philosophy from the start of the church to the Renaissance. Particularly the evolution of the relationship between faith  and reason, which began as a simple unions with Boethius and became progressively more complex leading up to the Renaissance as the two began to part ways.

And, of course, the reason I won't be reading many other books this summer...

Apparently, Biblical Greek is blue.

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