Friday, February 18, 2011

The Accidental Anglican by Todd D. Hunter

The Accidental Anglican: The Surprising Appeal of the Liturgical Churchby Todd D. Hunter has been on my "book reviews in progress" list on the sidebar for some time. I took it off today because I decided that I wasn't going to finish it and decided to post this review to explain why, since I seldom fail to finish a book I start.

I was interested in reading it because the book is about the author's change from being a pastor in a contemporary evangelical church (The Vineyard) to becoming an Anglican priest and now Bishop in the Anglican Mission in America. That's the reverse process that you often read about, and that is what intrigued me as a Presbyterian who prefers a more formal, liturgical service to the trendy "happy clappy"  service that one finds in most of our churches today. 

I assumed the book would present an apologetic from an unusual viewpoint for traditional Anglican liturgy and practice.

However I found the book focused on the personal experience of the author and not, as the subtitle seemed to promise, on the differences in faith and practice between The Vineyard and the Anglican communion. I bogged down about halfway through the book as I grew weary of reading the fulsome praise of his mentors and the self-congratulatory recounting of his journey.

If any of my Gentle Readers finished the book and have a different perspective, please let me know in the comments. I can't recommend The Accidental Anglican to my readers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

At Home by Bill Bryson

At 512 pages, Bill Bryson's At Home is not really the "short history of private life" promised in the subtitle. After wrestling the 600+ pages of Heartstone, I was very happy I could read it on my Kindle.

At Home is not easy to classify. I would put it in the "Domestic History" category, if there is such a thing.

Bryson and his family live in a former Church of England rectory built in the 1800's. He takes each room in the house--from the cellar to the attic--as the prompt for a fascinating excursion into why and how that room was used and became part of the house.

It's an eclectic read as Bryson tackles topics as varied as prehistoric private lives, epidemiology (cholera, plague and santitation), the perils of fashion (toxic makeup, corsetry, wigs and heels), the growth of the British empire, the dangers inherent in staircases and old wallpapers and why it is that this rectory has come to be a private residence. And I've left out a lot!

"Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up," Bryson says and he makes a great case for his assertion.

At Home is chock full of interesting trivia and factoids. Here are just a few examples:
  • The dining table was originally just a board that was hung on the wall when it wasn't needed. From this comes the expressions "room and board", the use of the term "boarders" for paying  lodgers", and the evolution of the term "aboveboard"--keeping your hands visible on the board-- meaning honest.
  • The expression "barking mad" comes from a symptom of grain poisoning (ergotism), a cough that sounded like a dog's bark.
  • "Cabinet" originally meant the most private and exclusive chamber where the king met with his  closest advisors. Over time it became a collective term for those advisors as well as a type of furniture.
  • Thomas Jefferson invented the French fry. Hmm..wonder why he called it French? Bryson doesn't tell us.

Here's one of my favorite quips from the book: "These days the study is the final refuge of old furniture and pictures that one member of the marriage partnership admires and the other would happiily see on a bonfire." Reminds me of a certain rug in a certain study in a certain house!

At Home combines history, anthropology, epidemiology, engineering, architecture, etymology, and fun factoids in a lively and entertaining narrative, all those "olgys" notwithstanding. If you've never read a Bill Bryson book before, treat yourself!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Heartstone by C. J. Sansom

Heartstone is the latest novel in the Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery series by C.J.Sansom. 

I was so eager to read it that I didn't wait for the e-book edition and sprang for the hard copy--all 640 pages of it!

The series, which starts with Dissolution, is set in the England of King Henry VIII. Our hero, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchbaked lawyer in London with a passion for uncovering the truth wherever it takes him and a penchant for finding trouble without half-trying.

Heartstone is set in the waning days of King Henry's reign as the French fleet threatens the English coast. Shardlake is asked by Queen Catherine (the one who survived Henry) to take the case of one of her servants whose son warned of a "monstrous wrong" being done to one of the King's wards who he had tutored just before committing suicide. As Shardlake begins his work, he decides to couple it with an investigation into the mystery surrounding Ellen Pettiplace, an inmate of The Bedlam, whom he befriended in the previous mystery (Revelation)  in the series as he travels to the area where the ward lives and also where Ellen was born. Shardlake's old nemesis, Sir Richard Rich, surfaces to threaten him again in the process.

Sansom weaves these two mysteries into a compelling tale that reveals the corruption of the wardship system of the day against the backdrop of the King's disastrous invasion of France and its aftermath for England. The events leading up to the  tragic sinking of the King's ship, the Mary Rose, in the Solent provide the exciting and unexpected conclusion to the story.

Sansom is a master of historical fiction. Like the other novels in this series, Heartstone is meticulously researched, well-plotted, satisfying and exciting to read. Matthew Shardlake, as well as the other continuing characters in the series, is both a sympathetic and a complex character who continues to evolve in his spiritual and personal life. I'm praying that Sansom will continue the series into the reign of Edward VI since Shardlake is in his forties in this book. Pretty please????

I loved it, achy wrists notwithstanding!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

Literary historians have lamented the fact that many of the most personal letters of Emily Dickinson were destroyed by her family after her death, so we don't really know much about her personal life.

Jerome Charyn, the author of the recently published novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, says he was inspired by her work early in his own writing career. This novel is his imaginative depiction of the inner life of the famous poet and recluse. Most of her personal letters were destroyed after her death by her family, so literary historians do not have much information about her personal life with which to compare Charyn's speculative version. I agreed to read and review this book as part of a book blog tour for Tribute Books.

This fictionalized account does follow the outlines of Dickinson's real life but focuses on her emotional attachment to several fictional men, none of whom are suitable matches for the Belle of Amhurst. 

Charyn writes in the voice of Emily Dickinson, with a few narrative exceptions, and has taken much care to echo her poetic conceits. For example, in the book Emily refers on multiple occasions to her "feathers" and "plumage", an obvious reference to her well known poem "Hope is a Thing With Feathers." While Charyn does an excellent job of making Emily's dialogue authentic to her time and place, I found the style hard to read and not engaging.

I read a couple of brief biographies on the internet to check the accuracy of Charyn's work and found that it is quite true to what we know about Dickinson's life, her family relationships, and her growing isolation from the world as she becomes the "Queen Recluse" of the last chapter of the book. The "secret life" is of course the work of the author's imagination and  is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes fanciful, and sometimes overwrought and improbable.

The ideal reader for this book would be someone like the delightful English professor my husband and I met on a group tour last summer who was not just a scholar of poetry, but also a lover of it--which I am not. I am sure she would be fascinated with Charyn's use of his subject's poetry in the fictional narrative. I appreciated it more when I finished reading it than when I was struggling through it, if that makes any sense.

One more observation: the book could have been better titled. "The Secret Life Of" sounds more like something from a tabloid like the National Enquirer or the Star than a work of literary fiction, which this is.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust

When I agreed to review an advance copy of Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust as part of a TLC Book Tour, I was struck by the suggestive title. The title reminded me  of Misquoting Jesus, a book by Bart Ehrman.

And lo and behold, who should be quoted on the front cover of Unprotected Texts but the self-same Bart Ehrman who calls the book "explosive", "fascinating" and a "terrific read by a top scholar." Not surprisingly, I found it none of these things (although I do not mean to imply the author is not a top scholar). It is sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious, but not "explosive". At least it is not explosive to anyone with a broad knowledge of scripture.

First of all, let me make it clear that I am NOT a Biblical scholar. I don't know the ancient Biblical languages and I never went to seminary. I'm a lay Christian educator and Presbyterian elder with a passion for inspiring people to in-depth Bible study in the tradition of Reformed theology. As an elder, I am vowed to "accept the Scriptures of the old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal and God's word" to me. (PCUSA Book of Order W-4.4003 b. That is my point of view on the authority of the Bible.

The author is Jennifer Wright Knust, an American Baptist pastor and assistant professor of religion at Boston University . She states her thesis in the introduction  " the Bible is not a sexual guidebook." She sets out to prove  it with an exhaustive (and exhausting) discussion of every word of scripture that mentions sexual activity, bodily parts, bodily fluids and reproductive functions .

To anyone familiar with the Bible, the fact that it contains  tales of prostitution, rape, homosexual behavior, concubinage, incest, and adultery is not a surprise. In my opinion, this does not constitute an endorsement of these behaviors. Knust offers some novel interpretations of these stories, apparently based on her own translations of the original text and ancient Middle Eastern mythology and culture.

For example, she says the first three chapters of Genesis are not necessarily about marriage, but are a story about farming because it is similar to the Babylonian creation myth Gilgamesh. 

She devotes a whole chapter to interpretations of several Biblical and Apocryphal passages that she says show that the only sexual sin clearly condemned in scripture is sexual intercourse between humans and angels. She points to the Nephilim (according to Genesis the offspring of angels and women), the apocryphal books of Enoch and The Watchers, the men of Sodom, and the admonitions of Paul to the women of Corinth to keep their heads veiled in worship (so as not to tempt the angels). A novel interpretation, for sure!

With regard to homosexual relationships, she interprets the relationship between Naomi and Ruth as a single sex household where Ruth and Boaz's child Obed (to become the grandfather of King David) is raised. Last time I read that story, I don't recall Boaz being out of the picture. Predictably, she interprets the relationship between David and Jonathan as a "love affair" based on her translation. I checked several other translations and did not find the language she used in hers. Knust analyzes the condemnation of homosexual behavior in Leviticus and the letters of the New Testament  in tandem with ancient contemporary writings on the subject and concludes that the condemnation was only directed at the passive partner in the act.

The well-known story of Jesus meeting the  Samaritan woman at the well, revealing he knew she had five husbands  is transformed into an allegory of the sin of pursuing the pleasure of the five senses (her five husbands) instead of pursuing the love of Christ. The more commonly accepted interprestion of this passage is twofold: the revelation of who Jesus is to someone who is not a Jew (showing that Christ did not come only to redeem the Jews) and an affirmation by Jesus that sexual promiscuity is sinful behavior. Knust does admit that this allegorical interpretation is not widely accepted today.
My copy of the book, which is an uncorrected publisher's proof, is riddled with yellow underlines and a lot of notes. The book is mostly written in an academic style, with 81 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Much of the research she includes will no doubt be useful to other scholars. There are some livelier anecdotes about modern life included which are aimed at discrediting conservative, fundamentalist understandings of scriptural teaching on sex.

Unprotected Texts is another partisan entry in the "sex wars" going on in the mainline Christian denominations. I would argue that when the Bible is read as a whole,  it does provide clear moral guidelines for human relationships , including sexual relationships, such as the story of the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, previously discussed in this review.

My progressive friends and I may differ on the parameters of those guidelines, but I think we agree that they are there. One could point of agreement is these words of Christ in response to the question "which is the greatest commandment?":
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12: 30-31)
Unprotected Texts seems to be directed at an academic audience rather than the lay reader. Some progressive church groups and pastors will find it useful in supporting their side of the controversies regarding ordination of actively gay persons and the definition of marriage. It is not going to win over those who disagree with that position, in my opinion.