Inspired by my friend Craig's list of books from 2006, (not to be confused with Craigslist's books) I'm going to try to keep a running tally of the books I read this year. My goal is to read at least 2 books per month, with at least a third of them being fiction (or at least, not explicitly theology). This post will be a permanent link on the sidebar that I'll update throughout the year as I finish books. I'll offer some sort of rating and a brief (or not) review. As preparation, and motivation, to myself, I've listed several books below that I have in mind to start with. I'll list the most recently read and reviewed books at the top of the post, although, without doubt I won't even pick up some of these books all year.
a title in black = not yet read;
a title in red = currently reading;
a title with a link in blue = finished
Quality = the literary quality; how it used language in beautiful or interesting ways (0-5)
Enjoyment = how much I enjoyed my time reading (0-5)
Baudolino, Umberto Eco
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris, 03/23/07 (Quality, 4, Enjoyment, 4.5)
Review to come (maybe)
The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Neal Pollack, 03/16/07 (Quality, 3, Enjoyment, 3)
Review to come (maybe)
On the Incarnation of the Word, St. Athanasius, 03/10/07 (Quality, 4; Enjoyment, 4)
Review to come (maybe)
Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Gordon Wenham, 02/27/07 (Quality, 3.5; Enjoyment, 3.5)
Wenham is one of the premiere Old Testament scholars in the world, and he happens to be a committed Christian. He's a fine writer; nothing fancy, but he communicates well what could be a rather dense and technical topic. If you've never studied hermeneutics or biblical theology before, this book isn't for you becuase it's not written as an introduction to the topics. But, it's not overly technical or advanced, so if you're familiar with the concepts you can definitely deal with the material. I'm not saying that you couldn't understand the book without prior experience, but it would take a lot of mental work and energy to stay with the flow of the argument.
I thought the book started out promising, then I got bogged down in the middle a little bit, but by the end Wenham got me back and I ended up really appreciating the book. While Wenham is an evangelical, he advocates a modified version of the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch and Old Testament. Basically, that means he is (at least partially) willing to accept that parts of the Pentateuch and other sections of the O.T. were written at later dates than they claim to be, and were likely written by multiple authors. If you're not an evangelical, that may not mean much to you, but among evangelicals it is a relatively unusual (though not unheard of) view. In the way he approaches interpretation, however, he is able to somewhat sidestep some of the implications of that view. Using insights of rhetorical criticism, he interprets the book based upon the intentions of the "implied author." The result is that he doesn't try to determine which sections or verses come from which source (that would be "source criticism"). Rather, he takes each book as a unified whole that some final author/editor/redactor offered as a single piece of communication. Thus he as an interpreter is able to approach the books as coherent texts (he mainly deals with the books of Genesis and Judges). I'm not going to go into why I disagree (mostly, at least more than Wenham) with the documentary hypothesis. I just wanted to point out that due to his use of the "implied author" he and I are able to approach the texts with relatively similar interpretive methodologies.
Let me just sum up a couple of the ideas that got me thinking. First, Jesus and Paul consistently refer to Old Testament narrative passages in their arguments about ethical matters. In other words, they don't just cite "the law," they direct their hearers to the stories of Scripture. Thus, we need to be able to discern the Old Testament's ethical view in order to understand that of the New Testament. Second, and the biggest realization for me, the law of Israel was not given to provide the ethical ideal for the people of God. Rather, the law represents the minimum level of behavior which a person can practice without being subject to punishment. For instance, the law allowed for divorce. But, as Jesus points out, in the beginning God intended for a man and a woman to be faithful to one another for a lifetime. Thus, the law prevents gross infidelity. But God's intention for His people is something much better. In order to gain a vision for God's ethical ideal, we need to learn how to see it in the narratives of Scripture. This not only gives us a better understanding of proper human relationships, it also gives us a more accurate image of God's character. At the same time, it's obvious that the authors of Scripture often provide us with example of how not to behave, so we have to take care to interpret those narratives according to the author's intent and not our own assumptions.
Alternadad, Neal Pollack, 02/11/07 (Quality, 4.5; Enjoyment, 5)
A fun book: I'd say it was good for at least one big laugh every chapter, and several chuckles between each of those. The fun is both in the stories that Pollack tells about the first 3 or so years raising his first child, and in the writing that he uses to tell the stories. If I could pick out the kind of good writer I could be, I would pick something like Tolkien or Lewis. But next to them, I would want to write something like the way Pollack writes. He writes with the kind of regular, yet careful, language and clever turns of phrase that in my mind seems like it should be easy to do but it turns out is not.
I don't know how many of you are parents. And among those that are, I don't know how many of you pay attention to the new wave of online parenting forums, websites, blogs, and communities. If you do, you may know that Alternadad has caused quite a stir. Some people hate the book. Some people hate the whole "movement" that they associate with the book. And some people, like me, really like the book (and the "movement," for that matter). This is supposed to be a review of the book, not the "movement," so I won't go into a whole thing about that. I'll just say what the best apologists for the "movement" have said. Neither Alternadad nor the websites and blogs that are believed to be associated with it are parenting how-to's, nor are they as narcissistic as one might suspect if you approach them with a suspicious attitude. Rather, they are part of a conversation, the same kind of conversation that parents have been having with their friends as long as there have been parents with friends. Most of the time, parents don't say to their friends, "the way I raise my child is the way you should raise your child." Instead they just share their experiences and hope for a little empathy or sympathy (I can never keep those straight) and maybe for some (occasional and gentle) feedback. People of my generation (20-something to 40-something) have begun to have these kinds of converations online, with more than just their real-live friends. I suspect that the often overblown reaction to Alternadad is that some people feel that while it's okay for such conversation to happen via the new media (blogs and whatnot), they don't like that it's crept into the old media (books and whatnot).
Back to the book... I'm not going to give a wholesale endorsement of the book. There are lots of parenting and lifestyle choices Pollack makes that I am definitely not on board with. And, since he's not only not a Christian but also seemingly at least mildly antagonistic to Christianity, we are also at odds regarding most of our deepest convictions. All that said, I could totally be pals with Pollack and, if she was old enough, I would totally let Gracie play with his son Elijah (as long as he didn't bite her).
The main thrust of the book is that Pollack doesn't want to stop being cool just because he has a kid. Well, who does? Yet, he still wants to be a good dad. Well, who doesn't? So, along with trying to feed his son right and trying to get him into a good preschool, Pollack also introduces Elijah to cool music by The Hives and Johnny Cash, and makes sure to tell him if one of his kids' TV programs "sucks." That makes sense to me. I think that just as all people are made in the image of God, our Creator, it is natural for parents to want to make our kids in our image. One of my favorite pictures of Gracie and me is of me reading a Futurama comic book to her. Along with a love for and faith in Christ, I plan to pass along to my children a respect for and enjoyment of Alf, The White Stripes, The Lord of the Rings, and Scrabble. It's not narcissistic to want your kid to have taste.
Much of the criticism of Alternadad has been that it views parenthood as "ironic" and therefore it disdains the importance of parenthood. I guess this same critique is made of postmodernism as a whole, which seems to attempt a stance of ironic detachment from everything. Maybe there's some merit to that critique. But as Pollack said in one response article, "When the first thing you do in the morning is deal with the fact that your son has just pissed in his Barrel O'Monkeys, is there any other way to respond than with irony and humor?" I don't think Pollack uses irony to demean parenthood, but rather to survive it. There are so many crazy, unexpected, unwanted, unheard of, ridiculous, wonderful, and special things that parents deal with that it's easy for your head to start spinning. And parents find themselves responding to situations in ways that they never thought they would. If you don't take a step back and process what is going on, it's easy to get carried away with all the hubbub and forget to enjoy yourself. When I was feeding Gracie at 1:00 am this morning, it really sucked when she projectile vomitted on me and some got down my shirt. But it was hilarious too. I don't find the irony of parenthood in me being a parent even though I used to sit around and play video games all day. The irony is that I enjoy being a parent even though I get puked on all day.
What's the essential reason I liked and related to Pollack and his alternadad lifestyle? Yes, we're both stay-at-home/work-at-home dads. Yes, we both want to retain something of what made us ourselves before we were parents, and enjoy the things we enjoyed before we were parents. But more importantly than those things, we both want to be good husbands and good fathers. That might mean different things to each of us. And neither of us really knows what we're doing and we both make a lot of mistakes that we recognize. But we're also both blessed (my word, not his) to have wives and other loved ones in our lives who are willing to love us with our faults and baggage along for the ride. We can both laugh at ourselves, because any other reaction would lead to boredom or misery. Maybe parenthood isn't supposed to be "ironic." But it's definitely not supposed to be boring or miserable.
Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, J.N.D. Kelly, 01/30/07 (Quality, 3.5; Enjoyment, 4)
Well, in my first month I'm not going to make it through two books. I know what I need to do in order to meet my goal: watch less TV. Alright, that admission out of the way, let me get on with reviewing the book.
The book was well-written in a utilitarian sort of way. Kelly's writing accomplished its purpose in telling the story of Jerome's life and work, but it didn't blow me away. I've read (far) worse historical writing, but I've also read better.
Jerome was a monk, theologian, writer, polemicist, and father of the early church, roughly during the second half of the fourth century. I enjoyed reading the book simply because I love the subject matter and time period. I could see how one might find the book rather depressing and discouraging. Jerome isn't all that admirable in most ways. At one point in the book, while thinking about what I would say in a review, I planned to really tear into Jerome and use some of the harsh language I was thinking to describe my feelings toward him. As I continued, however, I realized that such a response would not really accomplish anything. Furthermore, I began to soften toward Jerome. I didn't soften toward him because he softened toward others in his latter days; he didn't. Rather, I realized that because of his place in history and the events he was involved in, Jerome's life has become such a spectacle for close scrutinty and examination that I wondered how I would fare under such a microscope. Not well, I imagine. But even more than that, seeing the brokenness that the man had to deal with throughout the course of a long lifetime (both personally and in the world) gave me a sense of gladness that he is now resting with Christ. I won't resort to personal attacks upon such a brother.
At the end of the book, Kelly makes explicit the point that the reader has already inferred; Jerome was a man full of contradictions. If you were his enemy, he was fierce toward you. If you were his friend, he was fierce for you. He was a monk who idealized the solitary life, but he needed to live in community. He disparaged marriage and extolled virginity, but his closest lifelong friends were women. He was as learned as anyone in his time, but he must have been insecure because he constantly exaggerated his breadth of knowledge. He was a tremendous scholar, but not always an honest one. He was a Roman of the West who spent most of his life in Bethlehem of the East. I guess we're all contradictory in many ways. But in Jerome we see such polarized expressions of personality that it's amazing he could maintain them all at once.
As far as his theology goes, Jerome was a man of his times regarding exegesis, ecclesiology, and theology. In these realms, he was never one to push the envelope or attempt novelty in expression or idea. (Though he did push the envelope in insisting that he make his Latin translation from the Hebrew Old Testament, rather than the Greek Septuagint translation, which, in my view, was his most important contribution to church history.) I will criticize him on two issues, however, about which I think his advocacy led the church down a wrong path. The first is his disapproval of marriage and his unconditional commendation of the virginal life. It is not so much that he condemned marriage, but he described it as among the least desirable of acceptable options for a Christian. His order of value in this regard would have been: 1)lifelong virginity, 2)widowhood, 3)celibacy in marriage, 4)normal marriage (hopefully used to produce children who would be devoted to virginity), 5)remarriage after widowhood. Yes, you read #3 right. His reccommendation to any married couple would have been to take a vow to live together in celibacy. Believe it or not, that was a lifestyle that numbers of people of the time took upon themselves. I won't go into much detail about why I think Jerome was wrong. I'll just say that marriage is a good gift from God that He is happy for us to enter into, and sex in marriage is also a good gift. My other critique is of his advocacy for the monastic life. For Jerome, such a life was the height of sacrifice for the sake of Christ. To leave behind all the trappings of culture, society, politics, and civilization was viewed by Jerome and many others of the time as a virtue. The summary of my response is that the call of the gospel is the call to infiltrate society (i.e., as "salt" and "light") not retreat from it. It is a far greater sacrifice to take God's message of grace into the heart of a society than to withdraw with a concern for personal purity. Such a sacrifice--actually, the ultimate expression of that sacrifice--is what Jesus did in His incarnation. Our call is to imitate Him.
Far as the Curse is Found, Michael Williams
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
Longing to Know, Esther Meek
Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown
City of God, Augustine
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
On Literature, Umberto Eco
Narrative Art in the Bible, Shimon Bar-Efrat
boon-dog-gle: (noun) work of little or no value done merely to keep or look busy.
free: (adjective) provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment.
"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."