Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rome and Jerusalem by Martin Goodman

Our recent trip to Israel piqued my interest in reading more about the country. One of the books recommended to us by our guide was Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations by Martin Goodman.

When you read the New Testament you are aware that the power and influence of Rome surrounded Jesus, the disciples, Paul and the early church. But a trip around Israel, with numerous Roman ruins and relics, makes the Roman presence very real.

At 624 pages, Rome and Jerusalem is not light reading--in both senses of that adjective! So I am glad that I read it on my IPad instead of in hardcover.

Goodman covers the period between the  first and fourth centuries A.D. The destruction of the temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 AD is, of course, the focus of the book. For most of the period prior to the destruction of the temple Rome allowed the Jews much religious freedom because they respected the antiquity of their religion. Why this relatively benevolent attitude changed is attributed by Goodman to the foundational differences between Roman and Jewish culture, religion and practices.

Comparing and contrasting Roman and Jewish lifestyles, politics, identities, communities and perspectives, Goodman reveals the distinct and unreconcilable differences between these two civilizations that ultimately led to the destruction of the ancient Jewish state. The author makes a persuasive case for his theory that the origins of anti-semitism can be found in the Roman response to this clash and the attempt to wipe out the Jewish nation.

I found the book fascinating and informative and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the world where Jesus lived and in which His church formed and grew. It certainly has enriched my understanding of the New Testament.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron

Intrigued by the title, I accepted the offer from Thomas Nelson publishers of a review copy of Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron. 

The author is an Episcopal priest in Greenwich, Connecticut. I was not familiar with him, but he wrote another book, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale, and apparently is on the speaking circuit as well.

Cron's father was a brilliant and handsome man who made and lost several fortunes as his growing addiction to alcohol took over his life. The author, as the youngest child in the family, had the worst experience as his older siblings had left home by the time their father turned violent and abusive. 

Cron calls his work "a memoir of sorts". This is not a traditional biography or autobiography, but a gradual revelation of who and what his father was as the author experienced it growing up.

As a young adult Cron learns that his father is actually a CIA operative and that this explains the long, unexplained absences from home that punctuated his childhood. His father's work history turns out to be a series of "covers" for his intelligence gathering assignments. 

So how does Jesus fit into all of this? Cron weaves the story of his own spiritual journey in parallel to the story of his relationship with his father. As a young boy he was drawn to God and to the church but as a teenager, in reaction to the disfunctional and frightening dynamics of his family, rejects faith in a fury at a God who seemingly does not hear his prayers for relief.

But Jesus keeps calling to him, even as he experiences his own spiral into alcohol abuse as a young adult. Cron's resolution of his spiritual crisis eventually comes when he hears a voice saying "I'm sorry" during a communion service. For years he puzzles over whether or not this voice could have been the voice of Jesus or was it an apology he was making to himself.  Several years later,  while in seminary in Denver he shares his question with "Miss Annie", an African American woman who was a member of the church he was attending.

Her answer, which I am going to summarize with her last words: "Son, love always stoops", is one of the most grace-filled moments I have ever read. 

The author is painfully honest about how the pain of his childhood informed, and continues to inform his life. His faith and relationship with Jesus help him to recognize and try to amend the ways in which he is tempted to repeat the patterns he learned growing up in an alcoholic family where the secrecy imposed by his father's employment with the CIA reinforced the impulse to denial and secrecy. 

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me is well written and, at times, compelling. The theme of substance abuse and its effect on the extended family that Cron explores from his personal experience will resonate with many readers. His testimony to the transformative power of faith will inspire them as well.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite contemporary authors of literary fiction. The only reason I bought the kindle copy of this book is because it is her latest novel. I never expected to become enthralled with a historical novel about Doc Holliday, of "gunfight at the OK Corral" fame. But I did and I bet you will too.

Those of you who are already fans  of Russell will not be disappointed. Those of you who have not yet read one of her books have a real treat in store.

Russell did a lot of historical research about John Henry Holliday, his life and times, and writes a compelling tale about the infamous gambler and gunman who began life as the son of a genteel Georgia family scrambling to survive in the post Civil War south. 

Holliday contracted tuberculosis at an early age and, having lost his mother to the same deadly disease at age 15, traveled west in an attempt to find a cure or remission. He appears in Dodge City, Kansas which was then a lawless cattle town where he takes up with the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson. Trained as a dentist, he tries to establish a practice there, but finds his skills at cards a surer way to support himself than dentistry.

One of Russell's greatest strengths is character depiction. Doc, his prostitute girlfriend Kate, the Earp brothers, Masterson and bevy of minor characters are believable and complex. 

For those of you who know the nickname of the author's book The Sparrow, ("Jesuits in Space"), you will recognize the character of Father Alexander von Angenspurg as the "Jesuit in the Wild West." I particularly loved the character of Father Alex, especially when he turned to the letters of Paul to Timothy to guide him as he replaced a beloved older priest at the Indian missions.

Another memorable character is Kate, the highly educated prostitute who was born to be a lady in waiting to the court of Maximillian in Mexico but had to learn to live by her wits and her body when that regime was overturned and she fled to the United States.

The novel focuses on Doc's "nightmare life in death"-- the long slow process of dying of tuberculosis in an era where there were no drugs to cure or control it. This gives the author many opportunities to explore Doc's varied responses to his mortal illness and its effects on those around him. At one point he tells Morgan Earp, "Flaubert tells us that three things are required for happiness: stupidity, selfishness and good health, I am," he told Morgan, "an unhappy man." Doc is neither stupid, selfish, and certainly is never in good health.

The story is beautifully written, dramatic, and philosophical. That's quite a  combination and is a testimony to the skill of the author. I give Doc: A Novel my highest recommendation.

I have previously reviewed these other novels by Mary Doria Russell: Dreamers of the Day, A Thread of Grace, and The Sparrow and The Children of God.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Countertenor Wore Garlic by Mark Schweizer

Just when the circus in Washington DC and the doin's of the PC(USA) were starting to seriously work on my last nerve along came Mark Schweizer's latest Liturgical Mystery: The Countertenor Wore Garlic.

Okay, True Confession, the book didn't just come along, I was hoping it was about time for a new entry in the series (this is number 9) and surfed the net hoping to find  it.  Faithful Readers of QG know I really LOVE this series.

All the craziness of the world drops away from me when I read one of these entertaining mysteries. If you are a church music nerd and spend more than your share of time on vestries, sessions or church committees, you will relate to the adventures of our hero, Hayden Konig, in his role as church organist at St. Barnabus Episcopal Church of St. Germaine, NC, even if you've never been a police chief like he is. 

Countertenor takes place during Halloween. A famous author of vampire novels comes to town for a book signing, attracting teenage vampire fans in addition to the annual influx of fall foliage tours. Meanwhile St. Barnabus is once again between priests and the temporary replacement, Vicar Fearghus MacTavish, a Scottish priest with decidedly Calvinist views, heads toward an inevitable clash with the Congregational Enlivener in one of the funniest scenes in the entire series.

Oh, yes, there is another murder to solve, too, as well as our hero's continuing attempts to write mysteries like Raymond Chandler. Which are scarily getting better rather than worse.

My only criticism of this one is that there was too little MacTavish! I would love to see him take on the Giant Paper Mache' Calvinist Puppets of Doom in addition to the Congregational Enlivener. And Brenda, the Christian Educator character, would be just the type to bring in those puppets.

I bought and  read the Kindle version and will probably read it again as soon as my last nerve is again inflamed. Which will probably be tomorrow.