Three Inch Reviews
One of the tasks that I enjoy is ordering new titles for the store. In a year I pour through hundreds of publisher catalogues as well as reading thousands of reviews published in New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Christianity Today, New York Times Book Review, First Things, Englewood Review of Books, plus the endless book mentions on blogs, in op-ed columns, word-of-mouth, and it goes on. The end result is that here at Regent Bookstore it is Christmas every day and regular shipments of books arrive! All this reading tends to give a bookstore buyer knowledge that is a mile-wide and hopefully a little more than an inch deep. In thinking on this I have decided to start sharing short reviews under the heading of Three Inch Reviews. I have spent years in close proximity to so many titles that I have not actually read even if having an acquaintance with many of them, and even readily recommending them. In this last part of my bookselling career I am thinking it would be good to share some of this knowledge with brief summaries. So here is the first installment.
Arriving at our bookstore just this week, this was a title I have been anticipating. In our “just in time” electronic age we are trained to be impatient and Modern Technology and the Human Future spells out why. Craig Gay grew up in the Silicon Valley and saw first-hand the dizzying pace of change that defines our world. Embedded within it is a “creative destruction.” It is this destruction that is uppermost in Gay’s mind. Technology, certainly in many ways beneficial, entails “the systematic application of knowledge, methods, and tools to various practical tasks.” While we have been relieved of many of the traditional drudgeries that over the ages burdened us, we also have found ourselves “disengaged, distracted, and lonely” -- out of touch with our humanity. Humans are capable of adapting but we are travelling a road that is entirely new when one takes into account the loss of religious belief and, I would add, seismic shifts in family structure. The “cash nexus” and logic of money combined with the digital age has sunk us collectively to new depths from which there is no easy escape. Gay goes beyond the social analysis of a Sherry Turkle and calls on the people of God to “practice resurrection.” The Christian revelation is one that boldly proclaims that because of the Incarnation and Resurrection we are to imaginatively live out our lives in ordinary but creative ways that reflect the goodness of our Creator. Gay accents the importance of face-to-face relations. The book ends with a reflection on the Eucharist that reminds us of our embodied selves and that God has chosen already to dwell with us--and so is able to rescue us from our gnostic dependence on technology. Why not read this superb book in a group setting?
Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis), captured by Dahomian warriors in 1860, was sold into slavery and in that year was part of the last “contraband cargo” to be brought to the United States. He was held as a slave in Alabama for over five years before gaining his freedom at the end of the Civil War. In 1927 the anthropologist Hurston travelled to an African American settlement near Mobile and spent three months interviewing Kossola, the last surviving American slave born in Africa. A manuscript emerged from the interviews but despite being submitted to a number of publishers it remained unpublished until now, almost a century later. It is especially valuable in describing Kossola’s African upbringing and initial capture and is one of only a handful of slave narratives that describe the Middle Passage. The Dahomians massacred Kossola’s people and carried many of their severed heads with them on the journey to the coast to meet the European slavers. Slavery, a universal sin, leaves deep stains and scars on our humanity. But Kossola came to possess a Christian faith that shines through in the narrative despite his experience of deep poverty and suffering. He was a proud sexton of his local Baptist church and possessed a flair for recounting biblical stories.
Spanning the period from 1759, when Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived, to the multiculturalism of present-day Canada, Levine tells a story from which Christians can learn much. He also serves as an able guide to differences within the Jewish community today. Jews do share a common understanding, however, that they have a history of being hated and treated as the “outsider.” From the early 1880s, when Jews began migrating to Canada in large numbers, to the 1960s, the community faced a significant amount of prejudice and discrimination that resulted in exclusion from certain social venues and sports clubs. In the beginning Jews (and non-Catholics) were excluded from New France. While Jewish traders did enter British North America, their first elected member to the assembly in Lower Canada, Aaron Hart, was ejected and not allowed to take his seat. He did, however, live to see a victory for Jewish civil rights. Slowly throughout the nineteenth century the Jewish community grew with synagogues being established in the larger urban areas. In Vancouver David Oppenheimer served as mayor from 1888-1891 and surely this marks a milestone in Canadian religious history. The late nineteenth-century saw pogroms in Russia and numerous Jewish migrations to North America as the favoured destination. Settling primarily in the urban centres of Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, and often in slum conditions, Canadian Jewish society took root. By 1921 there were 125,000 Jews living in Canada. The development of Jewish Zionism in Canada in the early twentieth century is a fascinating chapter while the impact of the Russian Revolution brought with it an identification of Jews with Bolshevism and heightened the levels of antisemitism in Canadian cities. Beginning in 1926 Jewish enrollment was cut at McGill University. Jews in both rural and urban areas were to face an uphill battle for full acceptance as Canadians over most of the twentieth century. The Church needs to listen to the Canadian Jewish story, particularly in light of present migrations from the Middle East. (For another angle on the narrative of late nineteenth-century Jewish migration, which also brings to light evangelical philosemitism, see The Origins of Christian Zionism (Cambridge, 2014) by Regent College professor, Donald Lewis.
Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Christ Church College, Oxford in order to see the location of scenes from the Harry Potter movies. But what is usually overlooked, no doubt, is a remarkable stained glass window, created in 1631, that is tucked away in the chapel at Christ Church. In this striking work of art the biblical character of Jonah is portrayed, under the plant, looking out at the vast city of Nineveh, painted in fine detail.
In The Prodigal Prophet it is this city of Nineveh, often overlooked in the telling of the story of Jonah, that author Tim Keller chooses to focus on. Keller’s own story has some resemblance to that of the prophet Jonah in that in the late 1980s he actively tried to avoid a calling to minister in the city of New York. Fortunately he and his wife Kathy did go on to found Redeemer Presbyterian Church in that great city. It took Keller 20 years before Reason for God, his first bestselling book, was published and today his books are found prominently displayed in the large chain bookstores in the heart of the Ninevehs of our world and on the Amazon bestseller list. The New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks is an avid Keller reader, judging by the frequency of references to his books.
Keller identifies Jonah who lived in eight century B.C. as a highly patriotic nationalist and supporter of King Jeroboam. Called by God to leave Israel and go preach repentance to Nineveh, a Gentile city and capital of the cruel Assyrian empire, Jonah instead fled in the opposite direction. In this flight of Jonah there is a resemblance to the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the second half of the book, when God takes Jonah from the belly of the fish and deposits him on dry ground, the resemblance is to the “older brother” who has obeyed the father but resents the grace that he extends to sinners. A shocked Jonah, who had looked forward to a display of God’s wrath, resented that the people of Nineveh repented and turned from their violent ways thereby avoiding destruction.
Keller, in telling the story of Jonah, focuses on how God’s love for society goes far beyond the community of believers. This love counters a “toxic nationalism” and a disdain for other races that marked Jonah at the beginning of the story. As Christians we are called to “mission” in our world despite our constant propensity for idolatry. When we grasp these insights we can become bridge builders, peacemakers and agents of reconciliation.
How can God be merciful and just? Who is my neigbour? To ask, Who are you? is really to ask, Whose are you? Our spiritual identities are often more shallow than we care to admit. “Heart storms” mark our inner beings. The Prodigal Prophet is above all the story of God’s grace that we desperately need. It is a bracing read. With Jonah, the reader is taken down into the sea. Our self-righteousness is exposed but an “amazing grace,” as shown in the gospel of Jesus Christ, conveys to us the ability to rest in God’s grace alone.
Keller ends by pointing out the increasing urbanization of the world’s population and making a plea for Christians “to seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” The Book of Jonah itself ends with God’s question to Jonah, Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city? There is no record of how the prophet responded. Keller suggests that it is in the telling of the biblical narrative that we know that Jonah eventually found rest in God’s loving grace.
Alan Jacobs is the foremost Christian “public intellectual” in North America today even if he disavowed being so in a in a widely circulated 2016 New Yorker article. With the publication of How to Think, endorsements by the commentator David Brooks, and strong sales in the general book market, Jacobs demonstrates that he is at least a major Christian thinker as he discusses “what it means to think well.” Jacobs concerns himself with second level thinking rather than intuitive, “off the cuff” type. He is concerned with the art of thinking as opposed to the science of thinking that has been popularized of late. In the present context, Jacobs asks probing questions about the present political context and suggests that segments of the population are invested in not knowing or thinking about certain subjects in order to have the “pleasure” of a shared social consensus, particularly in the on-line world. Jacobs calls us to see our interlocutors as neighbours rather than the “repugnant other”. Without “forbearance” the social fabric is torn. Concerning the topic of self-examination, Jacobs cautions against digging up “the roots every morning” but instead, following another sage, “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” Thinking hard requires a certain “muddling along”, being flexible and open to change, and yet, following Chesterton, seeing the object of an open mind to be able to “shut again on something solid.”