Catch-Up Quick Takes on Audiobooks of This is Where I Leave You, When You Reach Me, How Not to Die Alone, The Right Stuff

Trying to clear the decks here with these quick takes on Audiobooks, like I indicated I would be doing yesterday (which also helps from the deep dive I took on Hands Up yesterday, too).

This is Where I Leave YouThis is Where I Leave You

by Jonathan Tropper, Ramón de Ocampo (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 17 mins
Recorded Books, 2009
Read: October 9-10, 2019

(the official blurb)
This is not my favorite Tropper novel—but it’s a really good one, and I get why this is his most successful and the only one that’s actually been adapted as a movie (or anything).

From the hilarious (and painful in many senses) opening to the heights of hope, the lows of sorrow, the uncomfortable nature of sitting shiva with estranged family, oh, and the obligatory Tropper awkward fight scene, this is a heartfelt, funny, and entertaining read (or, listen, in this case)

de Ocampo does a better job than I’d anticipated anyone doing with this—he captures Judd’s anger, heartbreak, grief and everything else. He also gets the other characters—including some of the more difficult ones (Phillip, Tracy, Alice). I was really impressed with him, and am a little tempted to get a Wimpy Kid audiobook just to see how he does with that.
4 1/2 Stars


When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead, Cynthia Holloway (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs., 19 mins.
Listening Library, 2019
Read: October 29, 2019

(the official blurb)
I didn’t realize this was an MG novel when I grabbed it—I thought it was YA—it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, it just would’ve been good to know what I was getting into.

Miranda is in 6th Grade, has one friend (who has just decided not to be friends anymore), and is obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. Her mom is a paralegal and is dating a lawyer in her firm. It’s the late 70’s and latch-key kids are becoming more common, but not as much as they will be.

As Miranda tries to find new people to connect with, she receives odd messages about needing to write a thorough and completely true account of something that’s about to happen. She’ll know the thing when it happens. Totally normal, right?

There’s some time travel, there’s some personal growth, there’s some tribute to L’Engle’s novel. It’s a charming little work, really. Sure, I could see most of it coming from miles away, but that’s because I’m a few decades older than the audience, not because Stead didn’t know what she was doing.

Holloway does a fine job, too. Capturing the bouncing emotions just right. I dug it, upper MG readers probably will, too (L’Engle fans are shoo-ins).
3.5 Stars


How Not to Die AloneHow Not to Die Alone

by Richard Roper, Simon Vance (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs., 52 mins.
Penguin Audio, 2019
Read: October 14-16, 2019

(the official blurb)
The concept for this novel feels like something that’d happen to George Costanza, but what makes this novel work is that Roper makes Andrew a believable, sympathetic human being—not the dumpster fire of a person that George was. It’s utterly preposterous, really. But you can’t help but believe it happening (and can likely see yourself doing something similar).

I’ve seen repeated—almost ubiquitous—comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. And I get that, and can kind of agree with it. I found the character and story in this novel better than Ms. Oliphant or her life. Although that book seems much more plausible. (and I quickly decided not to care).

Andrew’s friendship with Peggy is wonderful, I wish we had more time with them working/hanging out. Peggy’s a great character on her own—and if Roper were to write one of those ridiculous “same story just from someone else’s POV” sequels, I’d have to cast aside my prejudice against those so I could spend more time with her.

Vance gives one of those audiobook narrations that convinces you there’s no other way for the book to sound—if you read the text version, the voice in your head would have to be Vance. And if you’d never heard of him before, that’s okay, because your subconscious would invent a voice just like his.

Moving, amusing, hopeful. Great job.
4 Stars


The Right StuffThe Right Stuff

by Tom Wolfe, Dennis Quaid (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 15 hrs., 42 mins.
Audible Studios, 2018
Read: October 29-30, 2019

(the official blurb)
I read this book about 2-3 times a year from Middle School to the first or second year of college, and haven’t been able to do it since (I’ve tried off and on). But when Audible had a sale on this earlier in the year, I had to give it a shot. Especially with one of the stars of the remarkable movie adaptation doing the narration.

Now an audiobook of Wolfe is a tricky proposition (at best). Wolfe’s a master stylist. But so much of it (to me anyway) is how the words are on the page. His idiosyncratic capitalization, punctuation, visual rhythms . . . it’s all about how the text shows up in the book. But Quaid gets close enough. So I was able to fully enjoy and immerse myself in this story about the early years of the US/USSR Space Race—the test pilots around Yeager’s feat and then transitioning into the Mercury Program and a little beyond.

Wolfe educates and then entertains with the way he tells the story, editorializes about the events and people, and captures the essence of the various people involved. Listening to this brought me back to the first time I read this book and reminded me why I fell in love with Wolfe.

Quaid did the near-impossible here, he got as close to humanly possible to capturing Wolfe’s style, sensibilities and je ne sais quoi. He didn’t quite get it, but I can’t imagine anyone doing better. It’s probably one of my favorite audiobook performances to date. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Quaid guy just might have a future in show biz.
4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

Christianity and Liberalism: Legacy Edition by J. Gresham Machen: A Timeless Classic is Given a New Edition with Some Nice Bonuses

Christianity and Liberalism

Christianity and Liberalism: Legacy Edition

by J. Gresham Machen

Paperback, 266 pg.
Westminster Seminary Press, 2019

Read: October 20-27, 2019


Man…this is hard. Back in 1995, I heard a reference on a radio show to this book, and the hosts talked about how even though it was written over 50 years ago, it felt like it was written for the Church today. I figured I’d give it a whirl (not sure if I read it in 1995 or ’96, it was one of the two). I still remember being blown away by it, and wondering why I never heard anyone talk about it. I’ve since found myself in circles where people are familiar with it—but still not enough talk about it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this book. I know I’ve talked before about the author here, but not as much as I should/could have. Anyone who’s read what I’ve written about my son’s kidney transplant will have noticed that he was named after Machen. It’s because he’s a great writer, but it’s Who and what he writes about that makes me such a fan. Sure, he’s a fallen man, and has feet of clay (at the best of times), but he’s one we should all heed.

So clearly, there’s no illusion of a hint of objectivity to be found here.

Machen’s essential argument is this: Liberal Christianity is a different religion. It’s not the faith once handed down, it’s not that which was defined in the Ecumenical Creeds, it’s not that communicated by the Church Fathers, nor the Reformers, nor anyone else with a legitimate claim to Christian. It’s rank unbelief that isn’t honest enough to call it that. He’s clear—he wouldn’t waste as much time talking about them and their teaching if they’d just be honest about their goals, ends and beliefs. But as long as they persist in claiming they belong in the Church, he can’t do anything but oppose them.

Having set forth his thesis, he goes on to demonstrate it looking at the teachings of both Christianity and Liberalism as they are seen in the central areas of God and Man, The Bible, Christ, Salvation, and The Church. He doesn’t just lay out the problems of Liberalism, it’s not just a critique—he presents a positive case that the Bible teaches Christianity. While his criticisms still hold in Liberal Christianity (and can easily be applied to much of “Evangelicalism” today), it’s in his positive presentations where the text comes alive. The closing paragraphs of his chapter on The Church felt like they were written just for me (this time through the book anyway, other passages had that impact previously). For any part of a book to have that kind of impact after reading it (at least) a dozen times? That’s something special.

Machen has a tendency in his writing to lay things out in a pattern. My opponents say this thing over here, most of their critics say something over there, and all act like those are the two positions; but I propose to you a third way to look at the idea. But he doesn’t do that once in these pages. It’s very cut and dry—there are these men (theological liberals) teaching something they call Christianity, but it’s not it. On the other hand, there are actual Christians—yeah, there are important differences (and Machen has no problem identifying and discussing them), but on these issues we’re united. Unbelief vs. belief, period.

Each time I’ve read it, it feels fresh. Not like I’ve read it for the first time, but there’s something about his style that just jumps off the page. Yes, despite being 96 years old, it might as well have been published for the first time in 2019 (although the theological schools might have to get a new name). Clear, thoughtful, persuasive, it’s everything you should want (and get) in a book of this nature.

So aside from putting it out in a new, attractive cover, what’s the Legacy Edition have to offer? Seventeen brief essays about Machen, this book and how they live on in the work of Westminster Theological Seminary (which was founded by Machen and others as a result of the controversies addressed in this book which made it impossible to remain at Princeton Theological Seminary). This edition was produced both in the ninetieth year of the seminary and the first year that the book entered the public domain. So these essays commemorate both the book and the institution. My only complaint about them is the way that some shoehorned both the school and the book into the same essay, it just felt awkward. Most of the time that wasn’t a problem, but when it was . . . bleh. Other than that, these essays are helpful and good reading (some more than others, but none are bad). As I said, these essays are brief—I’ve written longer blog posts than some of them, so don’t let the number of them intimidate you. Also, it’s very possible to read the book and ignore them if that’s your thing.

This book has had such an impact on me and continues to do so, it’s really unfair to try to assign it stars. Five isn’t enough. The new essays are a nice little bonus, but it’s not like they improve on the classic, but they might help the reader appreciate what they read a little more. Get this edition, the older edition from P&R, or find an old, used copy. Just get it and read.


5 Stars5 Stars

2019 Cloud of Witnesses Reading Challenge

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch: Emojis, Tweets and Memes May Not be the End of Language…

Because Internet

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

by Gretchen McCulloch

Hardcover, 274 pg.
Riverhead Books, 2019

Read: October 18-21, 2019

I’m a linguist, and I live on the internet. When I see the boundless creativity of internet language flowing past me online, I can’t help but want to understand how it works. Why did emoji become so popular so quickly? What’s the deal with how people of different ages punctuate their emails and text messages so differently? Why does the language in memes often look so wonderfully strange?

That encapsulates the book right there, McCulloch looks into each of these questions—along with some related and foundational questions—about how communication online has and is changing the way we write at each other.

If I was going to do this the right way, I’d need a dozen pages (at least), and I just don’t have the patience to write something that long (and, let’s be honest—who’d read it?). So let me be brief: this is an entertaining and informative book. She discusses the advantage of studying informal writing over edited and published works (and how the Internet Age makes that so much easier), “typographical tone of voice,” emojis and other emotional indicators, memes (and the like), and offers a new metaphor for considering language.

The tone is light and informal, but this isn’t a breezy read. It’s not that difficult, however. But there are times that I will confess that my eyes glazed over when she does some of the nitty-gritty explanations about how this works (and how it’s researched). But that doesn’t happen as often as I might think it would. What she does with the nitty-gritty, how she applies it? Love it. But when she’s “showing her work” (as we used to say in math class), I have a hard time tracking—that’s on me, I want to stress. McCulloch goes out of her way to make even that kind of thing interesting and approachable.

The way she frames the discussion for each chapter is fascinating. Then the conclusions she makes, or application of all that work, is simply insightful and even more fascinating. It’s just the stuff in the middle that didn’t need to be as long. But that’s very likely just me. McCulloch is a bit more open to changes and innovations than a guy who likes the idea of language standards (like me) can truly be comfortable with—but she almost wins me over.

This is probably the most entertaining book about language that I can remember reading (and, yeah, I used to dabble). It feels as alive as the language she’s considering. This is one for the language lover in your life.


3.5 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

Flying Alone by Beth Ruggiero York: A Young Woman Takes Flight

 

Flying Alone

Flying Alone: A Memoir

by Beth Ruggiero York

eARC, 202 pg.
2019

Read: October 14-15, 2019


When she was 14 years old, Elizabeth flew for the first time—as she says, it was the first time she’d been that excited since her father died the previous year—and she made a promise to herself that she’d learn to fly.

Her plan had been to join the Navy and become a pilot, which would put her on the fast track to being an airline pilot (her ultimate goal). This was derailed by a diagnosis of probable MS, the Navy would no sooner train a pilot who’d likely develop MS than they would one who had the disease. So, that door closed, she’d go the private sector route—it’d take longer, but it’d still get her where she wanted to go.

The book really takes off (ouch, sorry, didn’t mean that pun, but I can’t bring myself to edit that) as she’s about to get her private license at a small flying school in Massachusetts. The book traces her development as a pilot in a culture not really receptive to female pilots (but not hostile to the idea, it didn’t seem), through various stages in her progress—eventually through different employers. We see her navigating through both successes and setbacks, and how she’d move on from either up to the point of making it to her goal—flying for TWA.

A near-constant presence in the book is her primary flying instructor and eventual significant other, Steve. I never liked the guy, and I am not sure I can understand why anyone would. But, this is written years after Steve and the author had gone their separate ways, and she’s writing with the full advantage of hindsight. So York displays all the warning signs she spent years ignoring while they were together because it seems like she can’t understand all of what she was doing with him either.

If this were a novel, I’d be complaining about how little we get of Elizabeth’s friend and student, Melanie. Melanie sees Steve for who he is and encourages Elizabeth to take some of the early steps she’ll need to advance her career. She also encourages her to get away from Steve—advice that is rejected (but maybe takes root). I enjoyed her presence in the book and can imagine she’d have been fun to hang out with at the time.

For me, seeing the various kind of jobs that a pilot can hold—and what they entail—was the best part of this book. Yeah, it’s disillusioning how many corners were cut (when not ignored) along the way (and I’m guessing the statute of limitations has passed for many of these)—but the various companies and duties were fascinating. It was also refreshing to see some of the pilots worrying about things like that, as well as displaying that there were people around her that had her best interests at heart (or at least would back her when needed).

It’s been a while since I saw anyone do this, but remember back when movies would end by telling us what would happen to various characters in the future? York finishes this book with a quick summary of what befell many of the people/companies we’d met along the way. It’s a nice touch here.

But before that, we get a very quick recap of her life in the last chapter and epilogue. Between the penultimate and the final chapter, she jumps a little over a year in time to get us to her interview (and hiring) by TWA. After taking things so methodically up to that point, it felt abrupt to make that jump, like we’d missed a lot. There’s probably a good reason for York’s choice there, but it felt like she was in a rush to meet a deadline so she skimmed over that year. And then didn’t really give us a lot about the early days with TWA. I think that’s my major criticism of the writing—she just sped past that last year and stopped. I think a little time talking about her initial experience flying for a major airline would’ve been nice—maybe she’s saving that for the sequel? (It didn’t seem like that was the intention, but it’d work)

You really feel like you’re getting behind the scenes of small airports, freight and charter companies. People like Tom Wolfe can make maverick pilots sound exciting and romantic. York makes the idea sound dreadful and a real threat to safety in the air and on the ground below flight paths. Superman tried to reassure Lois when he said, “I hope this hasn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel.” Frankly, after reading parts of this book, I could use someone telling me that.

The book feels honest—it doesn’t seem like she glossed over her own faults or highlighted others’ at her own gain (or the other way around). There’s a sense of “here’s some smart things I did,” “here’s a bad decision I/he/they made,” “here’s stuff that happened that could have gone either way and worked out okay.” It’d have been pretty easy to make herself “the good guy”, or everyone else “the bad guy”. Instead, we got a bunch of humans being human.

This is a quick read, an insightful read, and an effective read—I wasn’t sure what to expect out of Flying Alone, but I don’t think I got it. What I got, however, was better—I’d recommend it. A story about a woman succeeding on her terms—while overcoming issues and problems beyond her control and as a direct result of her choices—not overly romantic, not overly sentimental, and not afraid to show her own deficiencies. This is the kind of memoir we need more of.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Which is what she got. Honest, not timely—I do feel bad about not getting this up in late September, or anytime in October. I tried.


3 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Beyond Authority and Submission by Rachel Green Miller: Starting-Point for a Discussion the Conservative Church Should’ve Already Had

I feel compelled to repeat the disclaimer I threw on a book last week—and I should probably throw this on a lot of theologically-oriented works. This is another one of those works that I feel really unqualified to discuss. So, know that this is from the perspective of an opinionated and semi-(formally)educated reader and occasional armchair theologian. Not the reflections of an ordained minister or professional theologian.

Beyond Authority and Submission

Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society

by Rachel Green Miller

Paperback, 259 pg.
P&R Publishing, 2019

Read: September 22-29, 2019

Contrary to what popular culture states, women and men are not from different planets. We’re complementarymore alike than different. Without denying the differences, we need to stop defining women as the polar opposite of men and vice versa. Such divisive definitions create and encourage unnecessary conflict and set up unrealistic and unbiblical expectations for how women and men should behave.

Paul frequently refers to fellow believersboth men and womenas co-laborers. The word he uses, sunergos, means “a companion in work.” As we will see in the next sections, co-laborer captures the sense of what we were created to be and what we are called to be in Christ.

I can’t get where this is controversialI’m definitely not the kind of guy to say “in this day and age” when it comes to this kind of thing, so please don’t hear me saying that. In any day and age where someone’s thinking is shaped more by the Bible than it is by the surrounding culture (either of the moment or by some version of a historical point of view). I don’t get where this is controversial. Sadly, it is. But as long as that’s Rachel Green Miller’s controlling thought (and I firmly believe it is), I’m on board with this book.

So I should say at the outset, I’ve appreciated Miller’s writing for years now and am very sympathetic to Miller’s general perspective on the issues she tackles in the book. I came into it expecting a useful and beneficial book for those wading through issues relating to the relation of the sexes to each other from a Christian worldviewand I got it. I didn’t expect a book to settle arguments, or a panacea to problems churches/ministries/individuals are having on this frontwhich is good, because she doesn’t try.

After setting the stage for what she wants to discuss in the book, Miller goes on a brief historical survey of views of men and women in the Greco-Roman World and Victorian Era (which she posits have more of an influence on conservative Christianity than we realize), and then she looks at First, Second and Third-Wave Feminism and how the Church has reacted to each. I think her book would be better served if this section were expanded and depended less on secondary sourcesbut given space limitations, I can live with it. From there she explores Biblical teaching on the Nature of Men and Women, how the two should relate in marriage, the Church, and society. In these chapters, she tries to show how current understandings are (too) frequently largely molded by a reaction to a political movement or values imported from a historical context (that needed Biblical reform). Each section here could be a book unto itselfand maybe should bebut Miller’s treatment is a good starting point for discussion.

If you see the book as thata starting point for conversation, with a lot of very helpful things to bear in mind, this is a very commendable and worthwhile read. If you’re thinking of it as definitive in any sense of the word (and I think Miller would warn against that herself), the book will not come close to living up to expectations.

Miller critiques both the foundation of the worldviews she disagrees withancient pagan cultures or recent/contemporary naturalistic views. Latter feminism, as well as godless patriarchal views, are her targetsas are the ways those presuppositions or their expressions are imported into the Church.

Where I think this book stumbles is in the positive case for what she believes. Miller is very clear on what she’s not trying to say (though many aren’t paying attention to this), she’s also clear on what she disagrees with (no one would deny this)but she’s too unclear about what she’d like people to think. I think I just did the same thing hereso I’m going to resort to metaphor. Most of what I talk about here is fiction, so I’m going to employ that for a minute. If Andy Carpenter, Eddie Flynn and Mickey Haller (various fictional defense attorneys) have taught me anything, it’s that while it’s all well and good for a defense attorney to poke holes in a prosecution’s case, what will really turn a jury around is a good alternative suspect, someone to blame, to hold accountable for whatever crime is in question. Miller’s done a great job in showing problems with the prosecution’s case, and we know she doesn’t want us to find her client guiltybut I don’t have anyone else to hold accountable/punish for the crime.

Now, the problems with that metaphor are plain enough, but I think my point is clear (clearer than I could’ve made it earlier). For what it’s worth, I think she’s dead to rights on what she’s not wanting to say, and by and large, she’s right on what she’s critiquing. I just wish I had a clearer notion of what she wants readers to think in a positive sense. Also, while I agree that we need to do more than talk about the relationship between the sexes in terms other than “authority” and “submission” we still need to have clear ideas about how those roles should function (if we’re going to understand the Bible), and Miller should have addressed that.

This book has, regrettablyyet not at all unsurprisinglykicked up a hornet’s nest of controversy. Sadly, it seems that most of the reviewers have dug into two hard-and-fast camps: the “this is a load of drivel that Miller and P&R should be ashamed about” camp on the one hand, and the “this is the greatest thing since the Institutes” camp on the other. Neither is even close to right. This is a good book (with clear flaws) and deserves to have its good points, flaws, and pushes to conversation discussed without vitriol. Sadly, I can’t see that happening, which is probably why books like this are needed.

Honestly, if we can’t deal charitably with each other on this kind of thing, how can we expect a lost and dying world to listen to us at all?

I know that more than a few reviewers have taken issue with the way that Miller treats some of the sources she’s citing and critiquingand there were a couple of times I wondered if she and I had read the same article/chapter/book, because I didn’t come away from it with the same ideas she did. At timesand more often than should be acceptableshe comes across as saying that “Writer X is problematic on these issues and therefore everything they’ve ever said about them is wrong.” I don’t think that’s her intention, but I do think that she gives that impression. But on the whole, I think there’s a lot of straining at gnats by her critics when it comes to her treatment of sources.

I think I’ve lost the thread a bit here. Such is the nature of the tempest in the conservative Christian teapot, that I can’t really think about the content of the book without thinking about the reaction to it. I wish I’d found/made the time to write about this book before I read about it. That’s on me.

Let me try to get back on track. I liked this book. It made me re-examine a lotand will probably continue to do so as I mull on what she has to say (and I’ll probably find a lot to disagree with ultimately, and a lot to agree withas it ought to be). How much of what I think about how women and men should interact with each other (in the home, Church and society) comes from Scripture and how much from the culture? How much of what I think it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman has more to do with Ancient Greek culture or the Victorians? (more than it should). The core of the message should be heard and weighed, and hopefully, after the hubbub has died down a bit, we can start to deal with it.

The Bible testifies to our unity. We don’t have one Bible for men and a different one for women. The armor of God isn’t just for men, and the fruit of the spirit doesn’t apply only to women. No, we have one Bible for us all, and most of the Bible’s commands apply to all of usmale or female, old or young, rich or poor, servant or master.

It’s important to emphasize that when God made humanity in His image, He did so by making a man and a woman. Women are as much made in the image of God as men are. Men don’t have more of God’s image because of their masculinity. We are equal in worth, but we’re not the same. We are different, but we are also interdependent. We were created to complement each other, and we need each other.

Tolle Lege.


4 Stars

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals by Gavin Ortlund: An Accessible Call for 21st Century Christians to Learn from the Past

I ended up having more time in the day to write this post than I normally do, and as a result ended up a bit more rambling and less-focused than intended. Hopefully it’s worth the read, despite my laxness.

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future

by Gavin Ortlund

eARC, 224 pg.
Crossway, 2019

Read: October 5-12, 2019


This is another one of those theological works that I feel really unqualified to discuss. There’s part of me that thinks I should stop requesting them from NetGalley, or buying them and deciding that I want to post about them, but I probably won’t. So, know that this is from the perspective of an opinionated and semi-(formally)educated reader and occasional armchair theologian. Not the reflections of an ordained minister or professional theologian.

I’m glad Ortlund talks about this right out of the gate—but the case he lays out for Theological Retrieval here, strikes me as very similar to Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation and Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Ortlund says they’re aiming for the same target, but those works are more oriented toward the Reformed, where he’s focused on Evangelicalism. I’d say that they’re all wanting the same thing, but his work is more accessible (by design) and less-inclined to advertise his scholarly awareness (particularly with the former).

One problem that you encounter right away is a nebulousness about the term “Evangelical.” If Ortlund defined his usage, I missed it. He seems to use it to apply to Bible-believing Protestants who aren’t Reformed or Lutheran. Which is fair enough, I guess, it’s just not an easily defined term anymore. Frankly, I’m with Carl Trueman and others, and consider the label “evangelicalism” meaningless as it can be applied to “everyone from Joel Osteen to Brian McLaren to John MacArthur.”

Ortlund doesn’t give a strict definition of Theological Retrieval—in fact, he avoids it, preferring to see it as a mindset or attitude toward the pre-Reformation Church and Theology, drawing from its strengths, seeing its weaknesses in our own, and putting the contemporary (and Reformation) Church in context of a developing understanding from the end of Acts to Second Coming. Given that, we should be more aware of, and interact more with, the Patristic and Medieval Church. He uses Turretin, in particular, to great benefit in showing that this was the mindset of the Protestant Reformation, and calls us back to it. Along the way, he uses Warfield (and the rest of Old Princeton) as emblematic of Evangelicalism’s departure from this thinking. I’m not sure that’s the best reading of Warfield, but it’s not worth arguing, because his overall point is so right.

The first Part of the book—roughly 60 pages in three chapters—sets the agenda, it’s “A Manifesto for Theological Retrieval.” He begins by asking if Evangelicals can Retrieve Patristic and Medieval Theology, before moving to asking why they need it, and then sketching out both the benefits and perils of it. All of which is profitable and well-worth reading.

But what makes this book different than so many, is that Ortlund doesn’t focus on the project, the theory behind it, or the method. He gives the rest of the book—120 pages or so—to examples of what he’s calling for people to do. Case-studies in theological retrieval—which is some of the best theological reading I’ve done this year, maybe the last couple of years.

The first is a chapter called “Explorations in a Theological Metaphor: Boethius, Calvin, and Torrance on the Creator/ Creation Distinction.” A nice mouthful, to be sure. To illustrate the Creator/Creature Distinction, he compares Tolkein’s relationship to The Lord of the Rings to God’s relationship to his creation, in terms of Boethius’ understanding, and how Calvin’s view would differ, before wrapping up with Torrance. Now, I have little use for what he tries to do with Tolkein—I think this sort of thing is almost as bad as trying to teach the Trinity by analogy (which always quickly lands the teacher in heresy). I know enough people do this sort of thing in teaching and writing, and I should try to pay more attention, but my eyes just glazed over. Most readers will get more out of this than I did. I did appreciate what he said about Boethius and Torrance in distinction from Calvin and feel like I understand the three a little better (not that I’m all that familiar with Boethius and Torrance), and think I got something from the chapter overall, but I know my own prejudices kept me from a full appreciation.

Things improve with “God Is Not a Thing: Divine Simplicity in Patristic and Medieval Perspective.” Rather than going head-on for contemporary critics of the doctrine, he takes a look at historic formulations (not limited to Aquinas’) of the doctrine and seeing how that should actually deepen Evangelical’s commitment to Simplicity as well as broaden our understanding of it. He interacts a good deal with James Dolezal’s wonderful All That Is in God and God without Parts here and reminds me that I need to re-read the former and read the latter. A better blogger (one also focused on theology, not the book) would camp out here for a few paragraphs, but I won’t. It’s just a great chapter and the kind of thing we need to see more of.

My favorite case study is the third, “Substitution as Both Satisfaction and Recapitulation: Atonement Themes in Convergence in Irenaeus, Anselm, and Athanasius.” I would read a book-length version of this tomorrow. Well, not tomorrow. I would start a book-length version of this tomorrow, and have a lot of fun over the following days. Ortlund shows the overlapping concerns of Irenaeus and Anselm (who are so often pitted against each other), how the Christus Victor and Substitutionary Atonement models are interdependent, not rivals (while not giving an inch to contemporary critics of Substitutionary Atonement, it should be pointed out). From there, he moves onto some of Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation, demonstrating that these works have a good deal to say about the Atonement, as well. If I got nothing else out of this book, I’d consider the time I spent reading it well-spent just for this chapter. I could’ve lived without the use of Aslan and the Stone Table portion of the study, but (contra the Tolkein), it proved to be a useful illustration.

“Cultivating Skill in the “Art of Arts”: Pastoral Balance in Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule” is the last case study. I remember reading healthy portions of this work by Gregory in a Church History class for much the same reason that Ortlund uses it. There’s a lot of wisdom for pastors of every age in this very old work—he also shows how manuals like Baxter’s or Spurgeon’s will say similar things. Timeless truths and advice put in ways that others wouldn’t. I really don’t have much to say about this, but it’s almost as good as the previous two.

This is one of the most-easily outlined books I’ve read this year (possibly the most), that’s a fantastic aid for referring back to it in the future or for going back and taking thorough notes. I’d go crazy if I read too many books like this, I prefer the more organic feeling approach. But when this is done right, it’s a handy bonus. Beyond that, as I said before, it’s very accessible. Sure, there are parts that are demanding, but nothing’s out of reach for the committed and attentive reader—and most of the time you don’t have to be that committed.

Like their counterparts from the previous century, Twenty-First Century Christians don’t know enough historical doctrine, and certainly don’t know how to treat what little they do know. Too often, Protestants will cede everything prior to 1517 to Rome (maybe Rome and the East), focusing only on the last 500 years—if they’ll even pay attention to anything prior to Fanny J. Crosby. Ortlund’s work is a great call for the everyday Christian to familiarize themselves with the past and learn from them as we ought the rest of the Church Militant. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Crossway via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this stimulating read.


4 Stars

XYZ by William Knight: A Grouchy Computer Programmer Struggles to Find his Place

XYZ

XYZ: One Man, Two Kids, Ten Devices and an Internet-Sized Generation Gap

by William Knight

Kindle Edition, 216pg.
2019

Read: October 11, 2019

I’m one of the original computer geeks…

I was in the first intake for Computer Science O Level at my local college, and I signed up for a computer programming degree when the rest of the world was still using slide rules and copying documents in purple ink…

I was part of a small wave of silicon-brained cool kids that was destined to become a tsunami. My generation was going to make the world a better place and in record time. We had ideas of perfect information, total transparency, evidence-based-government and university for all. We were the builders of Utopia and the founders of global prosperity…

I hadn’t then realised the destiny for which I was headed. It was nothing more than fun. Fun to spend 10p on a video game and bash the console into submission. Fun to program pretty patterns on a screen and load games from a floppy disk, and fun to be part of the BBC’s Micro Live phenomenon, when the broadcaster sponsored its own computer as part of its remit to educate the masses.

And it remained fun until it became a trap, when computers ceased to be the promise of progress and instead became the terrorists of truth. Somewhere along the way, I turned from God of Silicon to an anorak-wearing dweeb, and from dweeb to a lonely fifty-five-year-old bastard. One at the end of his career, hopelessly out of touch, and unable to operate his own phone.

WTF happened?

What becomes of someone who saw himself as one of those who’d bring in a technological utopia and finds themselves trying to survive in the era of smart phone-ubiquity and social media dumpster fire? Well, judging by our protagonist, Jack Cooper—you get (at best) a curmudgeon who feels alienated in the industry he helped establish, estranged from your family, and hoping to remain relevant and productive (and employed!) long enough to retire.

We meet Jack on his first day at a new employer—a personal finance app corporation. He’s had a number of first days at various corporations lately, and his daughter is concerned that if he’s not careful this could be the last one. Despite his wide-ranging experience lately, he’s still in for a giant dose of culture shock and unclear expectations when he gets to work. Even after a period of acclimation, he’s still feeling like a fish out of water amidst these young people more focused on the internal chat program, employee fulfillment/empowerment, and lack of accountability than they are on actually producing something useful and on-time.

In other words, things aren’t going well for him. But at least he can go home and drink to excess at the pub across the street, right?

Meanwhile, he and his wife are separated (he’s still paying the mortgage on their home, in addition to the rent on his flat), he’s not speaking to his son (Jack can’t accept his life as a furry), and his relationship with his daughter is on the precipice of disaster. Which makes that drinking to excess a lot more tantalizing.

Then, while in a meeting with his superior about his job performance, he finds himself telling her how attracted to her he is. Jack’s last chance is looking pretty slim indeed.

This is a novel clearly in the vein of Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss/A Man Called Ove, where a grumpy older man clashes with a world that’s changing faster than he’s ready for it. Yes, that’s right, Gen Xers are now old enough to get our own books like this, which is depressing enough to suck the fun out of this book. Typically, these books are written from a Third-Person POV, but XYZ is a First-Person Narrator. This puts the reader firmly in his cantankerous, drunken, obstinate, and angry head. Honestly, it’s a little easier to have any sympathy for these types of characters when you’re not drowning in their anger (or at least steeping in it), but seeing it from the outside.

Still, there is plenty of fun to be had in this book. A lot of it is fun at Jack’s expense—laughter is the best way to react to his cringe-worthy behavior, otherwise, you’d end up being pretty censorious. Although you won’t be able to avoid judging Jack a little bit. There are times (the Prologue is a great example) when Jack’s loathing of the cultural moment (particularly in tech corporations) comes through stronger than the humor and it’s hard to take (and I agree with Jack in almost every bit of his counter-cultural thinking).

But, as with Ove/Chandra and the rest of the type, Jack manages to find a measure of acceptance for those around him, and is even able to do some work on repairing familial relationships (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say either of those things, that’s sort of how this kind of book works). As this happens, the book is at it’s strongest and easiest to enjoy/relate to. I do wonder if that portion of the novel is a bit rushed—we get plenty of time to watch Jack make a train-wreck of his professional and personal lives (which weren’t in great shape before he makes it worse), it’d be nice if we could see him get his feet back under him a bit more clearly.

On the whole, it’s a fun book—a great combination of humor, heart, and growth. Sure, some of the edges could be a bit smoother, but on the whole, this is an entertaining read. It can be easily read by a wide-range of readers—those of us who played Space Invaders when it was near the cutting-edge of technology, as well as those who can’t get over its primitive design and game-play. It’s charming, it’ll make you smile, it’ll give you a feel or two (to use a phrase Jack would hate). Recommended.


3 Stars


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Love Books Group