Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Kathy Reichs, Monday Mourning.

Enjoyable pulp, nothing special.

I dislike the way Reichs can't manage suspense. Quit talking about it, just let it come. Do not, do not, do not at the end of a chapter write the line "Whenever I think back on that moment, I wish to God I'd done what Tawny was asking. I wish to God I'd listened and understood."

I'll put up with this crap, but only 'cause my brain needed a quick break from thinking.


Monday, August 30, 2004

George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan, 1923.

"O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?"

My first Shaw, and I got quite the kick out of this fun play. I'm still a little staggered by the depth and breadth of the stage directions; were someone to suggest to me that GBS would be a screenwriter in this day and age, I'd like as not agree, in this sate of mind.

While GBS suggested that Saint Joan was a play that did not treat Joan of Arc hagiographically, and while he's right that her human foibles are only too visible, it's still a play that challenges those encountering it to consider the nature of truth and of revelation. Despite the cynicism that is the Archbishop ("A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. They may seem very wonderful to those who perform them. That does not matter: if they confirm or create faith they are true miracles... Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle"), despite the villainies of Cauchon and Warwick's chaplain, despite the self-interest of Warwick and the Inquisitor, the fervour of Courcelles, there is a sweetness to this play, not just in Joan but in the feeble Dauphin and in Brother Martin Ladvenu. The characters reveal something about the human condition, and the play holds attention with its clever wit.


JOAN: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
ROBERT: They come from your imagination.
JOAN: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, 2000.

Paul recommended this book to me when we last chatted, and I'm quite glad indeed that he did so. Armstrong's history of the rise of fundamentalism across Judaism, Christianity and Islam is fascinating, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Armstrong's essential argument is that fundamentalism arises in response to modernity, and to the new challenges it presents to religion as it attempts to grow in the face of new knowledge and standards of reasoning. The problem with the experiments that are fundamentalism is they lose "sight of some of the most sacred values of the confessional faiths" from which they have evolved. Armstrong's theory is that this confusion occurs because of a disconnect of mythos and logos: "Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos, either by insisting that their dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology. They have thus conflated two complementary sources and styles of knowledge which the people in the premodern world had usually decided it was wise to keep separate" (366). That is, reason and mystery both have a place in faith, and reducing one into the other diminishes an experience of God. Or, as I'd put my own concern about fundamentalism, that it makes faith--something that's supposed to be complex and challenging--too simple, too reductionist. Armstrong's careful historical tracing of evidence of her thesis, from about 1470 to the present day, is well written and argued, and makes for a good read.

Now, rather than gush completely, I will take an issue with her book. She has a tendency to oversimplify that occasionally detracts from her argument, though it makes sense given the scope of her book. This book is one that should be read with either a decent knowledge of the development of one or more major religions and its sects and denomination, or followed by such a study. Otherwise, Paul was exactly right: this book is fascinating and informative, and rewards a careful reading.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 2003.

It’s taken me too long to sit down and write this review. In part, that’s because I went away for a bit, on a canoe trip, and was busy beforehand organizing details & then busy afterward getting used to work again. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m ambivalent about this book: only the deadline of the book being due back at the library today has forced me to sit down for a few minutes.

I was introduced to Borg’s book back in February; the Archdeacon Bob Grigg spoke about it for his talk during our parish’s Lenten book study. At the time, I thought that, while the book sounded interesting enough, it didn’t rate rushing out to add it to my collection—principally because of how it seemed to be summarizing a number of ideas that I know fairly well. So I reserved it from the library, and just a few weeks ago, changed my hold status to active, and picked it up.

It summarizes a persuasive liberal reading of the Bible and of faith fairly well. The book doesn’t really build substantively on anything, or offer any new insights, though. My impression is that Borg has written a book that serves as an introduction, or as a starting point, for discussions/Christian Education sessions in parishes.

Borg’s essential argument is that Christianity today exists in two paradigms, with adherents falling into one or the other. There is the traditional paradigm—which he identifies with a literal reading of the bible, the school of the Left Behind novels, to which he refers so derisively and far too often—and the emerging paradigm that is more liberal and willing to accept metaphor as a basic tool for reading the Bible. He then elucidates what it means to be a Christian of the emerging paradigm.

My first major issue is with the idea that the traditional paradigm is in any way traditional, and not an approach to Christianity that started to gain its force within the last two hundred years; similarly, the emerging paradigm is hardly new—look at the authors of Essays and Reviews, the higher criticism, or, I don’t know, say, St. Augustine’s four-fold levels of exegesis (literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical)?

Borg doesn’t even contrast the two views especially well: the book is a defence of the emerging paradigm, and snide asides and attacks on the traditional method without ever acknowledging limitations in the emerging paradigm concern me: while I’m pretty much right there agreeing with him, I reject the idea that other approaches to faith have nothing to offer the growth of my own faith.

What he does, in the end, is to offer an explication for his own personal faith, and supports and defends most of his own positions relatively well—certainly well enough for an introductory text, if these ideas are new to a discussion/class-group.

My other major issue is with the writing; it feels sloppy throughout. There are a number of issues that better copy-reading and editing should have addressed, but most of my issues are with the never-ending stream of colloquialisms and just plain wacky constructions. While I understand the desire to write a readable and readily-accessible text that sounds much like conversation, such a text can be achieved without these distressing features.

So. Having written far more for this entry than I meant to, my summary? Read three books by Northrop Frye, and you’ll be in far, far better shape (and know far, far more than Borg will teach you): The Great Code, Words with Power, and The Double Vision. If you’re looking for a book to teach from, they’d still be better, but this is decent for a church setting.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One.

I've been a fan of Waugh's since fourth-year. I was supposed to be working on my thesis, so I read Brideshead Revisited. And then Decline and Fall. Vile Bodies, A Handfull of Dust, Sword of Honour... I've now finished most of them, and while I've owned a second-hand copy of The Loved One for a while now, I'd not gotten around to it.

Like all of Waugh, it's a bleak and viciously funny book. Dennis Barlow, a young English poet, has been fired by a studio, and is working at a pet cemetary and living with his uncle. The uncle dies, and Dennis goes to "Whispering Glades" to arrange the funeral. Astonished by the place (as was Waugh; his fascination with Forest Lawn was the inspiration for this novella), he falls in love with it even as he falls for Amy Thanatogenos, an assistant there who helps him. He woos her, and wackiness ensues.

It's a short, quick read, and I'm still amazed that I hadn't read it to this point. While a rather affected book, it's fun, and its savage satire is well-worth reading.