The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield

June 2, 2014

This weekend finished the latest in the spinoff series from Jack Campbell’s (John Hemry) Lost Fleet series: The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield. It intersects with the main line, but from a different perspective. In so doing, it clarifies some things and shows how difficult the circumstances would likely be. And there are a few plot twists that shake things up a bit. I’ve enjoyed the series and have fond memories of lunch with the author, so how can I say anything but good about this book?


John Wesley’s Teachings, volume 4

May 31, 2014

This is something I picked up from NetGalley as it looked interesting. The book, John Wesley’s Teachings, volume 4 by Thomas Oden focuses on Wesley’s teaching on ethics and society. There is a lot of interesting material here. I haven’t read the first 3 volumes, so I presumably lack a bit of context (Oden occasionally refers back to earlier discussions). But most of this is freestanding. For those with a historical bent, it is interesting to see how Wesley works through various issues. Here is where one of the distinctive features of the book is worth noting. Oden finds key works (sermons or writings) and essentially summarizes them to lay out Wesley’s teaching on a topic. There is certainly some value in this. The individual facets of arguments are put in context. And we can begin to get inside Wesley’s thinking, his logic.

The topics covered are substantial and important. We get insight into how Wesley viewed the social nature of Methodism and the small group identity, along with how that shaped spirituality and character formation. Oden explores Wesley’s practical economics; it’s less a theory of economics than practical steps to take in using our money. Political ethics and issues of war and peace (including the war for independence) and slavery are also discussed, along with a number of other issues. So, if you want an accessible survey of Wesley’s thoughts on these type of issues, this book will generally work.

Having said that, there are some structural limitations to this approach. I’ll highlight several that struck me. First, we may miss aspects of Wesley’s thoughts that are mentioned incidentally or that are interwoven with other discussions. It may be that Oden doesn’t miss anything significant in approaching Wesley with this methodology – I’m not enough of a Wesley expert to know. But I know from my own historical research that key texts (especially contextual ones like sermons) are never comprehensive. And to be sure, the alternative is to get a pre-packaged summary where we can’t really engage all the relevant primary texts. It’s a choice Oden has made, and a reasonable one. Just not with its limitations. We just need to read with a bit of awareness of that issue.

A second, and more difficult one is that Oden allows Wesley to speak but doesn’t provide any real critical analysis or help with figuring out how to move from Wesley’s time to today. Again, I am probably commenting on something outside Oden’s intended scope (he is elucidating arguments, he notes in the introduction). But the work would have been enhanced by some opportunity to think about how to bridge these issues to the modern world. In some cases the issues were uniquely historically situated (e.g., the American revolution and slavery); in those cases some assistance in thinking about how to apply similar arguments in different contexts would have been helpful. In other cases, to be frank, Wesley’s views and arguments are rather dated and anachronistic if applied today. What do we do with those things? For example, how does Wesley’s approach to sports function in the modern world? How does his practical economics function in the world of the welfare state? Maybe they say something about failures in the modern church, or perhaps they are not issues any longer. But after a few of those issues I’m left wishing for some help in thinking through these topics.

So, a useful book and I learned some things about Wesley and his thinking, but was left wanting for more. I suspect I would want a sequel or another book to pair with this if I really wanted to understand Wesley’s ethics more deeply.

100 Cupboards

May 29, 2014

Did have a chance to read the young adult 100 Cupboards book by N. D. Wilson. It was an interesting read and god enough to get to the sequels someday. But it didn’t overwhelm me, either.

Paul Among the People

May 24, 2014

Just finished Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time. A wonderful book in many ways. Ruden is a good author, and the background she provides from the classics sheds interesting and often helpful light on the cultural context of Paul’s letters and thoughts. For some evangelicals, there may be some hesitancy because she generally follows critical approaches to authorship of the letters and because not all of her personal conclusions match those traditionalist evangelicals (or Catholics, for that matter). And there are self-professed limits to the study; it doesn’t address much of the Jewish background for Paul, which I do think leaves some gaps. But still, I think it was well worth reading. And it’s a sympathetic reading of Paul which deserves some attention.

Like a Mighty Army

May 15, 2014

This one is worth several days of reading, especially when I’m working on grading and other end of the semester things. Like a Mighty Army is the 7th book in David Weber’s Safehold series. It’s a science fiction work set in a relatively unmodern refuge for the remants of humanity who escaped alien induced extinction. Which allows for a blend of high tech but also relatively low tech. In that sense, it often reminds me of aspects of the 1632 universe where you often learn details  about old-style manufacturing and weaponry along the way. It’s a sprawling story, covering an entire world, with various plot lines and characters. So much so that it includes a 60 page or so cast of characters to help you sort them out. You either have to be obsessive about details or just let the flow of the story move along and hope you’ll be able to place the characters and geography sufficiently to follow. The other distinctive note is the continued religious dimension of the story. I believe Weber is Methodist; the story line self-consciously draws on Reformation style motifs throughout and religion is as a big of a factor as many other standard parts of the story. Don’t start with this one if you are interested, go back to the beginning and take your time. It will be a long ride. I’ve enjoyed it so far – but beware that more are coming (I recall once reading Weber was thinking of perhaps 12 total in the series).

Strength to Love

May 13, 2014

This semester, the grad student group I help out with read Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr. together. Each week we read a chapter and then looked at the biblical passage from which Dr. King drew his sermons. The book was good to read in many ways. It’s a reminder of a different time; a time most of us are glad has to a large extent disappeared. A few general observations:

1) These sermons are rarely expositions. Some of them capture the idea of the surrounding text reasonably well. A few just are plucked out of nowhere. That doesn’t mean that the sermon may not have truth, but as I tell my students we ought to model good interpretation because those who hear us preach will take our bad habits and run with them!

2) The sermons are so much more literary and rhetorically polished (in the classic sense) than sermons today. It says something about our changed world and education, I think.

3) Whatever else one might say about Dr. King’s views on various topics (e.g., his sermon on communism or his approach to nonviolence), there is a deep and abiding supernaturalism in his sermons that I don’t see among as often among people on either side of the political spectrum today. King is certainly not an advocate of passivity, but he insisted on the necessity of a supernatural power if his crusade for justice and racial reconciliation was to succeed. I think we could use some voices like that today.

The sermons are fairly short, filled with interesting thoughts and ideas, and worth a read.

Retrieval Artist series

May 11, 2014

I read the first 7 or so of the Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch this past year. I had picked up several along the way and filled in a few more with some library borrowing. Included are: The Disappeared, Extremes, Consequences, Buried Deep, Paloma, Recovery Man, and Duplicate Effort. Generally an enjoyable series. A combination of science fiction and detective genres. An off-the-book investigator in the shady world of “retrieval artist” interacts with a diverse sets of crimes and cultures. Secrets, conspiracies, politics and all sort of similar features make the stories generally work.

My only complaint (such as it is) is the limited availability of the more recent volumes in the series. I’m trying to be patient because the paperbacks are just too expensive at the moment. Ah well.

On Dispensationalism

May 10, 2014

I read a number of things on the topic this Spring preparing for a project, and want to highlight 2 books by Michael Vlach that were useful.

The first, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths is a solid introduction. Another benefit is that it is available as a “loan” ebook if you are an Amazon Prime member. So you can read it for free and see what you think. I admit to being skeptical about lists of “essentials.” They don’t always reflect the historical diversity of the movement and since none of the lists of essentials produced by various authors agree, I think there is reason to be suspicious. If you treat the “essentials” as something more like common features, I think what Vlach provides is quite serviceable.  I found the myths section to be helpful and would suggest this as a solid basic introduction. It’s short and there are lots of things he doesn’t cover, but if you just want a taste, that’s OK.

The second work is a bit more focused and substantial: Has the Church Replaced Israel? Again, I’d make a few adjustments here and there but Vlach does a very good job of highlighting many of the arguments against supercessionism. This doesn’t “prove” dispensationalism is correct, but it is a helpful piece of the overall puzzle. There is a helpful history of the supercessionist debate and Vlach is clearly in the mainstream of dispensationalism in his views. While not aligning himself with either more traditional or progressive dispensationalism, he is clearly open to some revisions. He argues the New Covenant is in effect for the church now and is open to some “both-and” approaches. He also defends a new creation eschatology as more biblically faithful (and I agree). I think this position sets up thoughtful dispensationalists to make allies with scholars in other traditions in important areas, while still having room to develop a distinctive dispensational response to a few issues (notably the Israel question). While I think a bit more hermeneutical flexibility than Vlach admits might be needed in a few areas, I appreciated his careful and thoughtful approach. I learned a a few things and a few different ways to put things. And that’s always good.

Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

May 8, 2014

Commander Cantrell in the West Indies is the latest in the sprawling and immense 1632 series created by Eric Flint. The setting – a West Virginia town transported back to southern Germany during the middle of the 30 years war – has become the stage on which multiple story lines have emerged. The main ones are in full length books like this one; lesser story lines are published in collections of what are essentially fan fiction, but fan fiction that is edited and paid for, and hence of a generally higher quality. But all of these stories together make up a huge universe which touches on all kinds of historical, political, and even religious questions. If you’re a fan of the series (which I am) you’ll certainly want to read this title.

While there are few familiar characters, the new setting (the New World) allows for a whole new set of characters and interests. There are plenty of interesting historical allusions, and lots of naval battles. The detail in naval matters is impressive. I especially enjoy the adaptive strategies that new technologies (even ones that might be viewed as archaic in modern times) force the participants to think about. These features can help us appreciate the changes (and advantages) that technology has brought to us.

As has sometimes been the case in the series, there are so many story threads going on at once that one or two threads seems to inexplicably disappear for a while – and it can be hard to keep the various characters straight. And it can be difficult to connect this story to contemporaneous stories elsewhere in the universe if you don’t pay close attention, though the authors provide periodic clues that help a bit.

Having said all that, for me it was an enjoyable read and I’d recommend it for people who find a bit of creative alternate history interesting.

Two Books on the Trinity

May 8, 2014

I’m going to ramp up with some things I’ve read over the school year to fill in days I don’t finish another book.

Today I’m going to briefly mention two books about the trinity I read with and for a class.

The first is Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God. I and my students really liked this book. It is solid in discussing the trinity, of course. But it is also engaging and does an excellent job of connecting the trinity to evangelical life and practices. For example, he notes that a trinitarian mode of prayer, while not required, is praying “with the grain” (a great metaphor). Some lovely quotations. Here’s one: “Most evangelical Christians don’t need to be talked into the Trinitarian theory; they need to be shown that they are immersed in the trinitarian reality.” Highly recommended.

The other is Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. I liked this one too. A bit less specifically oriented toward evangelical practices and life, it still has lots of good material, including discussion of the ways the trinity specifically supports Christianity’s way of thinking about the world and God. For example, the trinity explains how God can be eternally loving, even before he creates anything. This one has some nice turns of phrases too. Here’s one: “once you puree the persons, it becomes impossible to taste the gospel.”  A different, but complementary approach to that in Sanders. Also recommended.

There are other books out there, and I’m working through some of them, but these two would be a great start for anyone.