Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (Cordelia Gray #1)An Unsuitable Job For A Woman by P.D. James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young detective on her first solo case--her partner, mentor, and teacher recently deceased by his own hand--proves herself scrappy and savvy enough to discover the truth behind another suicide. The book takes an interesting turn when the truth-hungry detective then hides the truth and covers up a murder. And the reader is rooting for her the whole time. Here is moral relativism at its best, but it's not altogether surprising in a story that features practically every character questioning love but not their bodily "needs" for sex.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sometimes the most powerful punches are the ones that are pulled

DublinersDubliners by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The stories are restrained and suggestible. They all seem to end a page or two too soon.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Blessed be the Lord,
    who daily bears us up;
    God is our salvation. Selah
Our God is a God of salvation,
    and to God, the Lord, belongs escape from death.

Psalm 68:19-20 (NRSV)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Woman stays in a miserable marriage? Are you kidding?

The Portrait of a LadyThe Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This storyline doesn't hold much water in today's culture: a woman who ultimately stays in a miserable marriage because she recognizes that marriage is more than than the relative happiness she derives from it. Though it doesn't hold much water, Isabel Archer nonetheless does the right thing.

In the end, Isabel holds to a high view of marriage. This does not fly in our current culture. “He was not one of the best husbands [understatement], but that didn’t alter the case. Certain obligations were involved in the very fact of marriage, and were quite independent of the quantity of enjoyment extracted from it” (ch. 55, p. 849). However, while a high view of marriage is embraced, what is not investigated is why marriage should have a high view. There is scarce mention of religion. The clearest statement that I recall is Isabel’s dislike of the authority of the Church (in relation to Pansy’s placement in a convent for a time).

Throughout the book, various individuals are interested to see what Isabel will do. The people around her are fascinated by her and get a certain enjoyment out of observing the progress of her life. The reader himself is brought in to this anticipation as well, wondering what Isabel will do with her life, and then, when she marries, what she will do in that state.

The book deals in high culture and sophisticated circles. The main characters express themselves well and are reserved in their conversations, careful to communicate what they mean, careful not to offend, careful not to run off at the mouth. They are guarded. This differs significantly from our culture, where athletes and reality game show contestants are alternately boastful and weepy, talking about how they will definitely win and sharing their hard-luck stories. We wear our emotions on our sleeves, and we are weakened and pathetic as a result, and our boasting is out-and-out false. How does one know one will win in most contests? The facts don’t typically point to an indefatigable domination.

But though the book deals in civilized circles, at the base, there are nonetheless age-old sordid sins—Osmond’s greed, his extra-marital affair with Madame Merle, their overweening pride and contempt. As civilized as people like to appear, tawdriness lurks in even the most civilized of hearts.

Below are quotes that describe the withering effect Isabel's husband had on her, an effect that unfortunately is not unique to fictional husbands.

“Besides this, her short interview with Osmond half an hour ago was a striking example of his faculty for making everything whither that he touched, spoiling everything for her that he looked at.” (ch. 42, p. 616)

“It had come gradually—it was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.” (ch. 42, p. 618)

“Under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers…. She was to think of him as he thought of himself—as the first gentleman in Europe…. It implied a sovereign contempt for every one but some three or four very exalted people whom he envied, and for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.” (ch. 42, pp. 624-25)

Story Summary
Isabel Archer wants to experience life on her own before she even considers the question of marriage, but the issue is forced upon her by two ardent suitors, Caspar Goodwood of America, and Lord Warburton of England.  The youngest of three sisters when her parents die (thought not a child at the time), her aunt, the unusual Mrs. Touchett finds her and decides to take her to Europe, whereupon she meets her uncle, an American banker who prospered in that business in England, and cousin, the sickly Ralph Touchett.  She comes to love both.  As death closes in on his beloved father, Ralph persuades him to split his inheritance with his cousin Isabel.  He wants to give Isabel a chance in the world to follow her dreams.  Mr. Touchett agrees, and Isabel finds herself an heiress with 70,000 pounds.
Isabel then leaves Gardencourt (the home of Mr. Touchett and Ralph—Mrs. Touchett resides in Florence most of the year though still married to Mr. Touchett; she’s an odd duck) and travels with her aunt to Florence and also spends time in Rome.  Before leaving America the prosperous industrialist Caspar Goodwood failed to make Isabel his wife.  Before leaving Gardencourt, Lord Warburton failed in the same attempt, both smitten by her unusual and original mind.  Both renew their proposals throughout the book.  But Isabel ends up marrying Gilbert Osmond, an American widower who lives in Italy with his daughter Pansy.  Her friend Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs. Touchett’s, is very much responsible for putting the two together, over the top of the protests of Mrs. Touchett and Ralph.
The marriage is good for a year, but when Gilbert discovers he cannot dominate his wife intellectually, his love turns cold and brutal.  He’s never physically abusive, but there is no love, and there is always criticism and contempt.  Her friendship with Madame Merle, and she learns that Pansy is really Merle’s child with Osmond, a well-guarded secret.  Warburton, Goodwood, and Ralph all ache for Isabel, the former two also aching for themselves and often venturing to see about rescuing her.
Things come to a new rupture between Isabel and Gilbert when she learns Ralph is close to death in England.  Her husband forbids her to go because he despises Ralph (and all her friends).  She goes anyway, and she is encouraged in one way or another by her friend Henrietta Stackpole, here sister-in-law the Countess, her aunt, and her cousin to leave Gilbert.  Finally, Goodwood himself attempts to take matters into his own hands by practically forcing her to yield to his proposal of marriage.  Tempted along the way, Goodwood’s proposal helps clarify her duty, and she returns to Rome after Ralph’s death, back to her husband.
Along the way the reader learns that Osmond is interested primarily in Isabel’s money, that Merle is also interested in her money, trying to set her lover up with money as well as for her daughter Pansy (who doesn’t know Merle is her mother).  Had Ralph not persuaded his father to leave and inheritance for Isabel, she never would have come to his miserable marriage, and so he berates himself for that.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

The best author on pastoring

Under the Unpredictable Plant an Exploration in Vocational Holiness (The Pastoral series, #3)Under the Unpredictable Plant an Exploration in Vocational Holiness by Eugene H. Peterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I seem to recall an anecdote about Charles Spurgeon, that when he felt down, he would ask his wife to "Get Baxter," whereupon she would retrieve a volume by Richard Baxter, the Puritan pastor/theologian, and read to her husband.

When I am down in my ministry, or discouraged, disillusioned, or simply bored with it, my self-prescription reads, "Get Peterson." No one encourages me in pastoring like he does. In the space of ten pages he can reinvigorate my enthusiasm for ministry in my small local congregation. He did it for me just this past week. This was my second time through this particular work. Great stuff.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Arminian Myth #10

From Roger E. Olson's Arminian Theology.

Myth #10 about Arminianism: "All Arminians believe in the governmental theory of the atonement."

The governmental theory: God had Christ suffer and die since he was going to offer forgiveness to humanity.  Christ didn't actually suffer the penalty of our sins, and God didn't have to have him suffer and die in order to pardon us.  But God did it to bring a sort of balance to the moral law of the universe.

By contrast, I hold to the penal substitution view of the atonement.  Christ died for my sins and the sins of the whole world.  He suffered my/our punishment in my/our place.

Roger Olson, in Arminian Theology, demonstrates that while some prominent Arminians held to a governmental view, by no means all did.

Jacob Arminius: penal substitution
Philip Limborch: governmental
John Wesley: penal substitution

19th century
Richard Watson: penal substitution
William Burton Pope: penal substitution, with a little governmental thrown in
Thomas Summers: penal substitution
John Miley: governmental

20th century
H. Orton Wiley: governmental
F. Leroy Forlines: penal substitution
Thomas Oden: penal substitution

Conclusion: It is incorrect to say that all Arminians hold to a governmental view of the atonement.  Many of its theologians do not, and many of its lay people do not.

Myth #6
Myth #5
Myth #4
Myth #3
Myth #2
Myth #1

Saturday, July 20, 2013

My first brush with Woiwode

Words for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled DialoguesWords for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues by Larry Woiwode
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wide collection of Woiwode's writings, I gather. An emphasis on writing and writers. Some of the chapters give Woiwode's perspective on his own works and career as a writer.

I especially enjoyed his chapter on Alexander Men (fascinating cleric and martyr in Communist USSR). There are lessons there for me as a pastor.

His address as North Dakota's Poet Laureate, where I learned a little bit more about the significance of a Poet Laureate as well as Brodsky's Rx for overcoming evil, was doubly interesting.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Wrong ideas about revival

Bryan Chapell in a vimeo comments on why has revival become difficult: three errors
  1. Manufacturing revival
  2. Giving up on revival
  3. Thinking the Spirit has to come in the way that I think he should
See the whole 9-minute vimeo here:

Friday, July 12, 2013

This is nothing

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV)

The glory of the next age is exceedingly weighty and eternal.

This part of v. 17 is difficult to translate: “according to excess [hyperbole] unto excess [hyperbole] an eternal weight of glory."

AAT (An American Translation): "The light trouble of this moment is preparing for us an everlasting weight of glory, greater than anything we can imagine."

RSV: "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison."

One implication:

The weight of our future glory makes our present troubles negligible.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Rom. 8:18 (NIV)

Our light and momentary troubles are light and momentary in comparison with the glory afterwards.  They may not seem light and momentary at the time.  They may seem heavy and burdensome; i.e., they are real.  But there will come a time when they will seem otherwise.

"If you knew the mind of the glorified in heaven, they think heaven come to their hand at an easy market, when they have got it for threescore or fourscore years’ wrestling with God.  When you are come thither you shall think, ‘All I did, in respect of my rich reward, now enjoyed of free grace, was too little.’"  (Samuel Rutherford, Letter #2, to Marion M’Naught, Letters of Samuel Rutherford: A Selection 16-17)

Let me paraphrase that: “Do you know what the saints in heaven are right now?  They’re shocked!  They’re amazed that they got heaven at such a little cost.  They can’t believe that they get an eternity of joy and abundant living for only 60-80 years worth of struggle during their earthly lives.  And when you get to heaven, you will think, 'I hardly suffered at all compared to all the blessings I’m getting now by God’s grace.'”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

First sign of spiritual regression

"One of the first symptoms of spiritual regression, or backsliding, is a dullness toward the Bible.  Sunday School class is dull, the preaching is dull, anything spiritual is dull.  The problem is usually not with the Sunday School teacher or the pastor, but with the believer himself."

--Warren W. Wiersbe, commenting on Hebrews 5:11 in The Bible Exposition Commentary, 2:294

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book challenges the missionary task

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A remarkable story of a African warrior, Okonkwo, moving up in leadership and prestige of his tribe, Umuofia. The portrayal of African culture--customs, religion, and social order and roles—is riveting. Okonkwo is an angry man, driven to rank, prestige, and success in the eyes of his tribe, completing rebelling against the weakness and laziness and reputation of his own father.

Then at a funeral for a wizened leader, Okonkwo accidentally shoots and kills the dead man’s son. In keeping with the custom, Okonkwo and his family leave Umuofia for seven years. While in exile, he learns of inroads that an English missionary is making. To his horror and great fury, his oldest son converts to Christianity. Upon his return from exile, Okonkwo finds that the Christians have also brought government (colonialism) with them. And the old ways are changing. Okonkwo himself is not welcomed back with quite the fanfare he expected.

Through a series of events, Umuofia burns the Christian church. Six leaders, including Okonkwo, are arrested by the new British government, they are shorn and starved and thus humiliated. Upon release several days later, Umuofia gathers to strategize. British messengers come to disperse the meeting, whereupon Okonkwo beheads the leader. The tumult of his clansmen when he does so tells him that the battle against the British is lost. He then hangs himself.

I really appreciated the African point-of-view in this novel. So many other novels are written from the point-of-view of the white man. For instance, Heart of Darkness, which is by no means a pro-colonialism book, nevertheless tells the story from the white point-of-view. The Africans are little more than animals, for we barely get a glimpse into their world and their lives. Things Fall Apart fleshes out the African perspective and its way-of-life. That helps to see how dark the dark side of colonialism is. We see a culture that has existed and carried on and policed itself for generations being dismantled and swept away by foreigners and their foreign ways insinuating themselves into the culture in both subtle and overt ways.

What’s particularly disturbing to me is the picture of colonialism’s entrance being made through Christianity. One of the messages one could take away from this book is that proselytizing is wrong. How does one respond to that message?

• Two missionaries are presented, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. Mr. Brown’s method was far more endearing. He made friends with the clan’s leaders and worked hard not to offend. Mr. Smith did not, however. Such forceful, thoughtless tactics as Mr. Smith used should be condemned. Further, the alignment of the English church with the English government was not ideal, to my thinking.

• This is one story, and stories are often told in such a way as to manipulate the emotional thinking of the readers. Here we are aroused to be saddened for Okonkwo and Umuofia and a little bit piqued at the Christians, as well as the government, though we can tolerate Mr. Brown. But other stories could be told as well of missionaries who have gone into African villages at great sacrifice to tell the African peoples of the God who loves them and the Savior who died for them; of missionaries who led them away from tribal warfare and violence and into love and peace.

• There were some things in Umuofia that needed reforming. Okonkwo freely beat his wives, almost killing one. Okonkwo had three wives; others had more. Twins were abandoned upon birth due to superstition about them. Prisoners like Ikemefuna were killed. African culture was not perfect; it was not pristine.

• What if the Christian story is true? What if the African religions are false and the African gods are false? Is it not then a good thing that the Christians would bring that to the attention of the Africans, that they might avoid an eternity in hell?

• Unfortunately, the Christians story in Things Fall Apart is poorly told and represented by Mr. Brown and especially Mr. Smith. But if my doctor has a surly bedside manner yet still gives me the medicine I need that saves my life, isn’t it better that I had to deal with the doctor than to have not dealt with him? In the end, if the Christian story is true, Nwoye, Okonkwo’s oldest son who converted, gained eternal life in heaven, but Okonkwo, when he killed himself, entered into eternal damnation.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read this book less than a year ago and didn't like it b/c I didn't really understand it. (Shorter paragraphs would be a big plus, for instance.)

But really liked it this time. Reminds one that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Reminds one of the reality of the sinful nature. Reminds one that while ideals and noble aims can may fill a man's mind, a base impulse resides in a man's heart, and it must be recognized and dealt with, or the ideals and aims can easily be subverted. The heart of darkness is the heart.

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