Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Faithful Unto Death and Safe From Harm: Sugar Land Mysteries

It's been awhile since I blogged regularly, but I've been feeling  nudged to begin again and what better way to do that then to share a couple of favorites from my recent reading with my Gentle Readers.

Faithful Unto Death and Safe From Harm are two new mysteries featuring a minister sleuth set in my own town of Sugar Land, Texas. "Everything is perfect in Sugar Land, except it's not" is the theme of this new series.

Walker "Bear" Wells is the head pastor of the mega-size Church of Christ in this upscale suburban master-planned community. A former University of Texas football player, he lives with his wife Annie Laurie, his rebellious younger daughter Jo, and his Newfoundland dog  and texts regularly to his college age  daughter Merrie away at Texas Tech. Rounding out the continuing cast of characters is the church secretary Rebecca and her two badly behaved porcine pugs, and local Detective James Wanderley who Bear clashes with frequently.

Stephanie Jaye Evans is the daughter of a Church of Christ minister and a long-time resident of Sugar Land. In fact, she lived down the street from one of my best friends. She wrote the first book, Faithful Unto Death, as the capstone project for her masters degree in liberal studies at Rice University and it won the 2010 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. No, I never heard of that award before either, but I'm not surprised because both of these mysteries establish that Evans has serious literary chops as well as being a master story-teller.

My RevGals who enjoy mysteries featuring clergy amateur sleuths will really love these two books. Bear, his faith, his family, his neighbors and his church are portrayed realistically and not sentimentally. Trust a PK (preacher's kid) to understand the humanity beneath the collar. Texans, Houstonians and Sugar Landers will particularly enjoy the familiar places, people and attitudes they will find in the books.

There is a clear progression and development of characters from Faithful Unto Death to Safe From Harm that I expect to see continue with the next book. The mysteries have unexpected twists and turns and the conclusions have some ambiguity--just like real life.

I can't wait for the third book in this series!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat

Although the title sounds polemical, Ross Douthat's book is actually a thorough, thoughtful and scholarly study of the ways in which the orthodox tenets of Christianity are losing ground to the many popular heresies of the day and the ways in which this phenomenon affects the church and the social and political culture of the country.

My IPad version of the book now is covered with yellow highlighting and notes.  This is not a quick and easy read because it is so thought-provoking that I often put it away for a while in order to digest a new insight. 
Beginning with the fundamentalist-modernist conflicts of the early twentieth century in the mainline Protestant denomination, Douthat sets the stage for his thesis that 
"America's problem isn't too much religion or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place."

These pseudo-Christianities include accomodationism, the embrace of Gnosticism, solipsism, messianism, utopianism, apocalypticism, nationalism and the prosperity gospel.  As Douthat trenchantly observes in the prologue, heresies have always sought to simplify and eliminate the paradoxical and difficult teachings of Jesus into something that better fits the spirit of the culture and the age. 

Historically, orthodox Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to defining its beliefs against the popular heresies of the day. As Douthat says "Pushing Christianity to one extreme or another is what Americans have aways done. We've been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks and our sacred selves for hundreds of years. What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response."

As a Protestant I was unaware of the extent to which the cultural conflicts which roil the mainline denominations have also affected the Catholic church in America until I read this book. Douthat makes a persuasive case connecting the decline of orthodox belief in all denominations to the rise of the hyper-partisan gridlock in our government that threatens the future of the country.

Douthat is even-handed in his criticism. Readers will nod in agreement over some passages and then squirm uncomfortably as their own presuppositions are questioned. 

The concluding chapter notes that Christianity through the ages has weathered other eras of decline and revived itself with reformation and offers four opportunities for its recovery in the present age which would make great discussion for study and book groups.

Bad Religion is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to my Gentle Readers who are interested in the intersection of Christianity with American culture and politics.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Revelations by Elaine Pagels

Yes, sharp-eyed Gentle Readers, the title of this book is Revelations not Revelation. In this short book, Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels  explores the question of why John of Patmos' book was included in the Biblical canon and explains why Revelation retains a powerful hold on the Christian imagination today despite the controversy that surrounded it historically.

Revelations is a secular, academic analysis of the historical interpretations of the book of Revelation. Those looking for faith-based study of the book will be disappointed. With that caveat, here's my review.

I'm a self-confessed Revelation fan. As a young teenager I remember browsing through it when bored by the sermons in church. I recognized the many phrases and passages that appeared in the hymns we sang but never heard any explanation of this book from the pulpit in our Presbyterian church. In 2000, I led a study of Revelation in an adult class at church, using Bruce Metzger's book, Breaking the Code. So I was interested in reading Pagels' book on the subject, especially since I have read a couple of her other books.

Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word for "unveiling" or "revelation". It focuses on prophesies relating to God's plan for the end of this world. Although the book of Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is wholly apocalyptic, there are apocalyptic passages found in the four gospels as well, notably the "little Apocalypse" of Matthew. The Old Testament book of Daniel is full of apocalyptic style prophesies as are many of the books of the prophets. The first chapter of Revelations contains an excellent summary of the content of the book of Revelation for those who are not familiar with it.

The apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible are difficult enough, but the apocalypses found at Nag Hammadi written in the first few centuries after Christ are almost impenetrable (and I've tried to read a few of them).   Pagels has a gift for making these arcane and obscure writings understandable to the interested reader and deftly brings excerpts from several of them into her text.

An important distinction between the Biblical canon and the Nag Hammadi texts is their differing view of the relationship between God and self. As the author observes:
Orthodox adherents of monotheistic traditions draw clear boundaries between themselves and God...Yet...many of the sources found at Nag Hammadi do encourage spiritual seekers to seek union with God, or to identify with Christ in ways that fourth century "orthodox" Christians would censor".
In other words, you can become one with God through your own spiritual knowledge. Although Pagels notes that this viewpoint would eliminate the need for clergy and thus was rejected by the early Church fathers, for those of us coming from a traditional Christian theological perspective, it also eliminates the need for Christ as the intermediary, intercessor and redeemer of mankind.

Pagels is writing from an academic and historical point of view, not a theological one. The book covers an interpretive history of Revelation over the first few centuries of the church and finds parallels between the time of Roman persecution of Christians when the enemies of the church were identified as Rome to the time when Christianity became accepted by Constantine after which the enemies of the church depicted in Revelation were more identified with those holding heretical, non-orthodox theological views. It also discusses the controversy surrounding its adoption into the Biblical canon.

I agree with the author that Revelation has an enduring appeal because its metaphors and symbolism are powerfully  relevant to everyone in every age on both a metaphorical and personal levels.  It "appeals not only to fear but to hope" as Pagels rightly concludes, because it contains the promise of justice.

There's another reason for its appeal that Pagels doesn't discuss but that I picked up from Metzger. Revelation is a uniquely visual book. It was written to be read aloud (and it wouldn't take as long as you might imagine) in worship in the house churches of the day as encouragement and admonition to the faithful. Its imagery and metaphors are vivid and linger in the imagination. That's one reason why, next to the Psalms, more hymns are written using texts from Revelation than any other book of the Bible.

I personally believe that Revelation became part of scripture because of the Providence and plan of God and not merely because of the result of the success of those holding to "orthodox" Christian theology. But again, readers should remember that this viewpoint is outside the perspective of Pagels' book. I recommend Revelations to anyone with some knowledge and interest in early Christian history and the Bible.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the most disturbing book I have read in a long time.

Although it reads like a well-written novel, it is the non-fictional account of the lives of several families living in the Annawadi slum at the edge of the Mumbai airport. The slum is located behind a sign that advertises tile flooring with the motto: Beautiful Forever. That's where the title comes from.

The author, Katherine Boo, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. She spent three years in Annawadi where she developed relationships with several families and followed their stories. She did extensive interviews and other research for the book which is subtitled "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."

Residents of Annawadi are mostly refugees from rural areas who were unable to sustain themselves there and were drawn to the bustling, emergent economy of Mumbai. They literally live on the cast-aways of the more affluent as they pick through garbage daily looking for re-cyclables they can sell. Annawadi itself is likely to be recycled into middle class housing and other projects deemed more appropriate for the area around the international airport by city officials.

The families Boo follows include the good, the corrupt, the selfish, the intelligent, the greedy, the disabled, the beautiful, and the despised. Although the caste system of India is breaking down as it evolves into a modern state, the barriers are still there. Corruption infects every aspect of  their lives in ways that those of us blessed to live in America cannot begin to imagine.

In her concluding chapter, Boo writes "Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional...It is easy from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good and that many people try to be...." 

This is the message that is so disturbing that at one point in the narrative I set the book aside for a few days. Without providing a spoiler, I will only say that when I returned to finish the book I was relieved to find that my worst fears about the outcome of a tragic situation for one of the families was not realized and a small bit of hope revealed.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers reveals the hidden and marginalized society living beneath the glittering facade of the new Mumbai. By implication, similar "under-cities" exist wherever the global economy is emerging and changing traditional cultures.

Boo concludes, "If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything straight?"  This is not a hopeful message, but it is an enlightening and important one.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

This one's for all you Downtown Abbey fans out there!

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, originally published in 1968, is the classic memoir of a woman who worked her way up in service from kitchen maid to cook before retiring after her marriage to a milkman.

The book has been re-issued (even in e-book format!) because it is one of the sources used by the writers of the popular PBS/BBC series Downton Abbey. And yes, we are big fans Chez QG. Apparently the book was wildly popular in the UK when first published and created something of a sensation.

Margaret Powell vividly illustrates the division in the great houses between the wealthy noble families and their large staffs of servants. The houses themselves were physically divided with front and service stairs so that some servants seldom entered the part of the house used by the family. Class lines were rigid and mutually enforced on both sides.
Margaret was something of a rebel and always tried to make something of herself. She was an avid reader and one of the most poignant passages in the book relates her request to the mistress of the house she worked in to borrow books from its library. "Of course, Margaret," was the reply," but I didn't know that you read!"

Margaret not only read but later in life completed her education and got a college degree. She is a good writer but not always a fluid one. The book is a personal memoir, not an attempt at social history, and succeeds on those terms.

Readers will not find any of the plot lines of the television series but will better understand the world of its "downstairs" characters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

The second week of January is probably too early to pick the best literary novel of the year, but The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay will certainly find a spot high on my personal list by the end of 2012.

This superbly crafted tale of how the child-like faith of the mentally disturbed church volunteer Mary Margaret O'Reilly leads to unspeakable tragedy is compelling and profound.

Without spoiling the story, I can only reveal that the when the devout Mary Margaret has an accident while cleaning the crucifix in the chapel of the Sacred Heart church in South London, she believes that she has re-opened the wounds of Christ and that belief drives her to seek redemption which ends in the tragedy. Since the accident and her response to it happened with visitors in the chapel, a sensation ensues which drags the priest struggling with his own faith into the situation.

Although the length of a novel, The Translation of the Bones is so expertly and sparely written that it reads more like a short story. The plot has no loose ends and all of the characters--Mary Margaret, Father Diamond, Mary Margaret's morbidly obese mother Fidelma, and fellow parishioners Stella Morrison and Alice Armitage--are complex and believable.

Francesca Kay is a British author who was won the 2009 Orange Prize for New Writers  for her first novel, An Equal Stillness (not yet published in the US).  This second work is an inspiring story of faith, loneliness and family relationships which prompts the reader to reflect on these themes after finishing the book.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Catherine The Great by Robert Massie

Over the Christmas holidays I read Robert Massie's Catherine the Great using my Kindle app. That was a smart choice, since the book is a tome, weighing in at 574 pages!

I first read a biography of Catherine the Great as a young girl from a series called Landmark that offered biographies and histories for young readers.  Needless to say, it offered a sanitized version Catherine's private life and her 12 lovers.  Years later I read another full biography of her life, but can't remember the name or author. But it wasn't aimed at young readers, and neither is Massie's book.

This biography is well-researched and well-written. I think it could have used a more discerning editor because occasionally the narrative became lost in the weeds of the author's intensive research and I found myself skimming the text hoping to get to the point more quickly. Sometimes the point was so minor that it added little to the reader's (or maybe I should say "this reader's" understanding of the subject.

That said, Catherine the Great should appeal to both academic and interested lay readers. Catherine began life as a minor German princess who moved to Russia after her betrothal and marriage to Peter, the heir to the throne of Russia who was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. Because Peter refused his marital duty to her, probably because of impotence,  she suffered for many years as the childless wife until the Empress insisted she choose a lover from two options presented to her and get about the business of producing an heir. Once the heir is produced, the Empress takes him away from her and raises him herself, setting the stage for another generation of dysfunctional relationships.

Massie documents 12 lovers of Catherine over her long life, and produces some evidence that she did marry one of them,  Gregory Potemkin, who remained the most influential man in her life until his death. The lovers were sequential and it seems that Catherine used most of them to provide some semblance of family that she never was able to achieve in the conventional fashion. Although she had a second child, Anna, who died very young, it's interesting to speculate on how she avoided more pregnancies during her child-bearing years, something Massie does not address.

The story of how Catherine managed to wrest the throne from her feckless and emotionally disturbed husband and then go on to institute many progressive and wise reforms for the Russian people and nation is even more fascinating and important. Massie does an excellent job of describing how the neglected and oppressed young wife sought refuge in books, educated herself, ultimately took her place among the leading intellectuals of the day, and became regarded in western Europe as the model of enlightened despotism.

In summary, Catherine the Great is not light reading but worth the effort. Several of my Facebook friends are reading it now, so I hope they will add their own comments to this review when they are finished.