The Night Fire by Michael Connelly: A Superfluity of Cases Hampers Connelly’s Latest

The Night Fire

The Night Fire

by Michael Connelly
Series: Harry Bosch, #22/Renée Ballard, #3

Hardcover, 405 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2019

Read: November 1-4, 2019

…I’m not sure how much I can be involved.”

“You’re dumping this case on me. You changed my radio station and dumped the case on me.”

“No, I want to help and I will help. John Jack mentored me. He taught me the rule, you know?”

“What rule?”

“To take every case personally.”

“What?”

“Take every case personally and you get angry. It builds a fire. It gives you the edge you need to go the distance every time out.”

Ballard thought about that. She understood what he was saying but knew it was a dangerous way to live and work.

“He said ‘every case’?” she asked.

“‘Every case,'” Bosch said.

In The Night Fire Michael Connelly gives one more piece of evidence that yes, you can occasionally have too much of a good thing. We’ve got a little bit of a Mickey Haller case, something that Bosch works mostly on his own, something that Bosch and Ballard work together, a case that Ballard works mostly on her own, and then a hint of something else that Bosch primarily does solo. Plus there’s something about Bosch’s personal life and a dash of Maddie’s life. Which is all a lot to ask out of 405 pages.

It’s plenty to ask out of 650 pages, come to think of it. But anyway, let’s take a look, shall we?

Haller was drafted to defend an indigent man accused of murdering a judge, and is doing okay in the trial, but not well enough with things coming to an end. Bosch watched a little bit of the trial, waiting to talk to his half-brother and something strikes him wrong. So he takes a look at the files and gives Haller to think about. But it’s clear to Bosch that the LAPD isn’t going to act on anything they turn up, they’ve got their man. So if anyone’s going to expose the judge’s killer, it’s going to be Bosch. While it’s to be expected that the detectives that arrested Haller’s client would resent Bosch’s involvement with the defense—but Ballard is antagonistic toward the idea as well. Just because these two respect each other and can work with each other, they’re not clones, they don’t agree on a lot.

Ballard’s called to the scene of a homeless camp, where someone had burned to death in a tent fire. She’s just there as a precaution, in case the LAFD decides it’s arson (and therefore homicide) instead of an accident. Having been brushed off—and afraid that the LAFD will do the same to the case—she takes a little time to turn up enough evidence to justify treating the case as a homicide. Then she was promptly removed from the case, so her old team at RHD could work it. Naturally, like every character Connelly has ever created, Ballard walks away, right? Yeah, I can’t type that with a straight face—she cuts a corner or two and works the case herself, making better progress than anyone else does, too. This brings her into contact with her old antagonist, now-Captain Olivas. He’s close to retirement, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to her career after that.

But what gets the majority of the attention of the novel is the case that the Ballard and Bosch work together—Harry’s mentor (and father figure) has died and left him a murder book from 1990 that he’d, um, “borrowed” when he retired. John Jack wasn’t assigned to the case in 1990, it’s unclear that he did anything in 2000 when he took the file home. Bosch has no idea why he had it, but convinces Ballard to read it over and look into the case. They start working it, bringing them into contact with retired and not-retired gang members, digging up the past, and the question about why John Jack had taken the file.

Watching Connelly balance these mysteries/storylines is a treat—he does a great job of moving forward with each of them while bouncing back and forth between. I do think each case could’ve used 10-20% time than he gave them. But I could be wrong. They all wrap up satisfactorily, and There’s not a lot of time given for anything that isn’t case related, but we get a little bit. Both the personal material for Bosch (which is what he was waiting in court to talk to Haller about) and what we learn about Maddie make me really wonder what’s around their corners—and it appears we won’t learn anything in 2020 (unless we get a bit of an update in the Haller novel next year). Ballard’s material is always about her work primarily, but we do learn a little more about her life between her father’s death and her time with LAPD. I’m glad that Connelly hasn’t given us her whole biography, but man…what we have been given just makes me want more. Clearly, he’s making sure that fans of all three characters are going to have to come back for more as soon as he produces it.

I appreciated the discussion Bosch and Ballard had about some actions at the end of Dark Sacred Night, I have a friend who will rant at the drop of a hat about Ballard’s choices there (and I trust my email/text messages will get another one when he reads this post). I don’t think this conversation will satisfy him, but it’s good to see the pair acknowledge mistakes they made. While I don’t think either of them do anything quite as misguided in this book, but they both make a couple of reckless moves. Bosch’s always had a little bit of dirt on/leverage with superiors (even some history) to give him some coverage when he gets reckless. Ballard doesn’t. So when she goes maverick, it’s more nerve-wracking than it is when Bosch did/does it. A nice little bit of character work, and a good distinction between the two characters.

There’s a moment in every Michael Connelly novel, no matter how good it is, where something just clicks and suddenly I’m more invested in it than I am in almost any other book. I think I’ve talked about it before, but when That Moment hits—there’s nothing better. I get that with a lot of Thrillers/Mysteries (and even some books in other genres), but never as consistently as I do with Connelly. I knew that moment had hit when my phone told me it was time to put the book down and go into my office and I audibly groaned. How was I supposed to focus on anything else when Bosch and Ballard were on the hunt?

Lastly, and this is very likely going to be only a problem I had. Several right-hand pages in my copy that have very faint—practically missing—letters. It’s like it’d been left in the sun too long, or like when an inkjet printer is running out of ink. Please tell me that Little, Brown has better equipment than I do.

This isn’t the best Connelly can do, but man…it’s so good. Solidly put together, we get to spend time with all our favorites and it hits every button it’s supposed to. Connelly is one of the best around—The Night Fire shows why.


4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Hands Up by Stephen Clark: The Aftermath of a Police Shooting Seen from Multiple Angles

Hands Up

Hands Up

by Stephen Clark

Kindle Edition, 292 pg.
Wido Publishing, 2019

Read: November 5, 2019

“If you want to survive as a cop on these streets, then you need to check your conscience at the door. Sometimes there’s casualties. But if we don’t do whatever it takes to get the bad guy, then we could end up like your dad”

About a month ago, I posted about N. Lombardi, Jr.’s Justice Gone, and as I started to write this post, I noticed I was about to write something very similar here. But why re-invent the wheel? I’m just going to repeat the first few sentences (don’t worry, I get original after that).

I’ve mentioned before here that after I decide to read a book I forget what its about (if I even know) to keep myself coming from being disappointed by preconceived notions. It worked this time, I really had no idea what it was about when I opened it on my Kindle last week.

Which made the opening pages, featuring the killing of an innocent and unarmed black teen by the police, as shocking as they could’ve been. But they also led me to believe I was in for a grim, adult version of The Hate U Give.

That I’ve used that idea twice in a month says a few things to me, including: 1. Angie Thomas has clearly taken up residence in a corner of my mind (welcome, Angie, sorry for the clutter); 2. the fact that I keep running into novels about the police killing innocents says something about our cultural moment (and it’s not positive); and 3. thankfully, all three of these authors run with the concept in very different directions.

Lombardi quickly becomes about other killings (prompted by the police’s unjust actions and the officers not facing any consequences), Thomas focuses on what happens to the witness of the shooting (but includes what happens to the family of the victim and the city in the aftermath), Clark focuses on the aftermath of the killing on the victim’s family and the officer who pulled the trigger ending Tyrell Wakefield’s life.

Let’s start with that officer, Ryan Quinn, shall we? We meet him in the opening pages, working to reassure himself that he’s not a murderer as he prepares to give a statement about the shooting. He’s been a part of the Philadelphia Police Department for 8 months at this time. His partner, Sgt. Greg Byrnes knew Ryan’s father when he was an officer, too. And after Ryan’s dad was killed on the job, Byrnes has acted as a surrogate father. It’s because of Byrnes that Ryan was in a position where he had to make that fatal choice, and it’s Byrnes that guides him through the aftermath (for good or ill, I’ll let the reader decide).

Clark makes the very uncomfortable choice (for the reader, and I can only imagine for the author) of making Ryan the only first-person narrator of this book. Early on, I resented having to be in his head through all of this—especially as I learned just how sketchy the circumstances around the shooting (and what Byrnes did afterward) were. I didn’t want to be that close to this man’s thoughts at this time, I didn’t want to find him sympathetic, I didn’t want to pull for him at all through this process. Which is exactly the reaction I think that Clark wants. It’s uncomfortable by design.

The shooting affects Ryan, his family and his fiancé. He starts having panic attacks, getting professional help, and taking steps to become a different person on the one hand, while trying to keep his job, avoid prosecution, and rescue his career on the other hand. Too many authors would make him a complete villain or a misunderstood hero. Clark does neither. Or maybe he does both. Either way, Ryan is depicted in a very believable way.

One complaint with Ryan: throughout the book, Ryan thinks of his mother by her first name. I found that distracting at best. I can’t help but wonder if Clark changed him from third-person to first late in the process and forgot to change that to “Mom” (or an equivalent) in the editing process.

As far as Byrnes? Ugh. Clark clearly wants the reader to not trust him, not like him, and wish that Ryan would get away from his influence. He succeeded in all of that with me. He’s not a cartoonish racist cop or anything, he’s just a horrible person.

Now, on to Tyrell’s family. We first meet his sister Jade minutes before she discovers what had happened to him. She then has to break the news to her mother. Their grief and anger feels real, it feels raw, and you can’t help but share their desire for justice and their pain.

Jade’s our second protagonist and from the moment we meet her up until the very end of the book, she’s the one you really identify with, pull for, and agree with almost every step of the way. If Clark had put her in another novel, I’d really enjoy spending time with her as a character instead of watching her in the tumultuous days of anger and grief.

She’s a bartender, and one day Ryan comes into her bar for a few drinks. She recognizes him, he has no idea about Tyrell’s family. Things get interesting from there.

The third protagonist in the book is Tyrell’s estranged father who comes back to Philadelphia after a decade or so away when he gets the news.

Kelly saw his son for the first time in ten years, lying still in a casket, he could feel his heart breaking. He knew he could never get back all the time he lost with him. But if only he could have five minutes. Five minutes to catch up on his life. Five minutes to pass on his wisdom. Five minutes to tell him how much he loved him. Kelly just sat in the pew, staring at his son’s body in silence.

Now, Kelly’s a major complication that this family didn’t need at this time. Initially, I was very sympathetic toward him and wasn’t sure that Jade (and the others, but primarily Jade) were giving him a fair shake. Jade’s openly hostile toward her father—even when others warm to him. It didn’t take me long, though, to get on Jade’s side and start to wonder about Kelly (and Clark did a nice, subtle job with his character).

Each protagonist’s storyline takes on turns that you might not expect going into the book—Kelly and Ryan do a lot in a short amount of time and their characters change and develop. Everything that happens—even though much of it has nothing directly to do with the shooting happens in the shadow of Tyrell’s killing. It colors every conversation, every event, every reaction. In time Jade, Ryan, Kelly and the others will be able to move past this and do other things with their lives. But none of that happens now.

There’s some stuff with Kelly and Jade at the end that made me think about rating this lower, but in the end, Clark pulled it off (and more than once I wondered if he could). Kelly makes some choices that I initially thought unnecessarily complicated a pretty full plot, and I’m still not sure that Jade would have done what she did (and I’m less sure I should accept her explanation of it). But the more space I give those events, and the more I mull about Clark’s resolution, the better I feel about them. But I’m primarily giving this rating for what happens in the first 80 or so percent of the book.

Also, some of my reactions (still) to what happened in this book are so visceral that I’ve got to give Clark the credit for that. This is a much more even work than his first novel (which I liked, but had reservations about), but shares his talent for taking people who should be antagonistic toward each other, untrusting, and disinclined to to build any sort of relationship with each other—and helping them see the common humanity in each other and moving on past their differences. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, as long as it’s not done in a cheesy, “A Very Special Episode of…” kind of way. Which, I want to stress is why I like Clark’s approach.

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a good one—with some powerful moments that are dealt with skillfully. I encourage you to check out Clark’s work and join me in waiting to see what he’ll do next.


4 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Bearded Too by Jeremy Billups: The Bearded Bear is Back on the Road

Bearded Too

Bearded Too

by Jeremy Billups
Series: Bearded, #2

Kindle Edition, 18 pg.
Billups Creative, LLC, 2019

Read: October 29, 2019


Jeremy Billups has just given us a sequel to 2015’s Bearded—the story of a red-haired girl and her bearded bear traveling and having adventures.

I want to start off talking about the art—I know, I know, I’m usually a word guy—but these are “Picture Books,” right? There’s just something about the way that Billups draws these books that really works for me. Unlike, say, the art in Sea This and Sea That, with all the detailed backgrounds, there’s a lot of whitespace around these drawings, which makes them jump out at you (which is the point of the white space, I know—I’m not good at talking about this stuff). I will admit I’ve flipped through the book a couple of times without glancing at the words (something I assume the target audience will do more often than me).

But that’s not a reflection on the cute rhyming tour of the world seeing bearded animals (a guitar playing orangutan, cab driving markhor, and so on). There’s a dash of education in there, because some of these animals aren’t your typical Picture Book fare, too.

And, hey, a celebration of beards! I’m always down with that.

Not much to say about this, really. It’s a fun follow-up to Bearded that should please the ears and eyes of the picture book readers in your home.


4 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

Reposting: Bearded by Jeremy Billups: A Charming Picture Book about a Bearded Bear

Local Artist, Picture Book Writer and All-Around Good Guy, Jeremy Billups’ third book is scheduled to release today. It’s called Bearded Too, the sequel to this here book. I’ll post about Too soon, but in the meantime, here’s a look back at Bearded.

Bearded

by Jeremy Billups
Hardcover, 34 pg.
Billups Creative, LLC, 2015
Read: September 5, 2018
Picture books about bears are everywhere—I have a hard time believing many kids get out of the picture book stage without exposure to at least 4 of them (and that’s before they’re at the Pooh or Paddington stage). But how many of those bears have been bearded?

Enter Jeremy Billups and his little book.

This is the story of a little red-haired girl (no, not that one) traveling the world with her bearded bear, having all sorts of adventures and meeting a bunch of different animals. There really isn’t a lesson, moral or much of a plot—just a bunch of quick looks at the pair. A few quick lines and a picture on each pair of pages.

The art is simple and arresting. They just pop off the page—this is one of those times I wish I had the necessary vocabulary to describe why I like the drawings, but I don’t. I bought a print of what turns out to be page 16 before I even picked up the book to flip through. I’ve bought a handful of prints this year, and it’s my absolute favorite—I like it even more now that I’ve read the book. Also, If you ever see a better picture of someone making buffalo wings, I’ll eat my hat.

Oh, and the endorsements on the back cover are a lot of fun. If that doesn’t convince you to try it out, I can’t imagine what will.

Great art, cute story, fun rhymes—everything you want in a picture book. Even better—animals with beards are the best animals that aren’t dogs. This is a charming little book that’s sure to please.

—–

4 Stars

Pub Day Post: Famous in Cedarville by Erica Wright: Small Town Life and Hollywood Glamour Collide in this Mystery

Famous in Cedarville

Famous in Cedarville

by Erica Wright

eARC, 320 pg.
Polis Books, 2019

Read: October 16, 2019


Reading this book made me think of that overused 90’s-era sitcom line: Who are you, and what have you done with Erica Wright? Famous in Cedarville and its protagonist, Samson Delaware are so far removed from Kat Stone and her world, it’s hard to believe they come from the same mind. That said, as much as I want to see more of Kat Stone, if Wright’s going to give us more like this? I won’t complain too loudly.

I’m getting ahead of myself, we should start with the beginning when Samson Delaware joins some fellow citizens of Cedarville, TN to carry the body of Barbara Lace from her home. Lace left her small town home at a young age to pursue fame and fortune in Hollywood. She found it, too—she wasn’t a superstar, she didn’t reach the heights of fame or craft; but she was someone that people all over the country knew. And the only person from Cedarville that anyone not from the area knew was alive. After decades in California, she retired from film and television and basically became a recluse.

Delaware is a carpenter and probably the area’s antiques expert. He appraises pieces, advises buyers, in addition to buying and restoring pieces to sell. While in Lace’s home, he can’t help himself from looking around more than he ought. While it’s nowhere near his expertise, something doesn’t seem right about the scene to him, and he starts to think that Lace didn’t die peacefully in her sleep.

A few days later, Lace’s personal assistant is murdered (no ambiguity about that one), leading Delaware to step up his unofficial investigation—which soon becomes official, as the local authority (note the singular, Cedarville is just that small) and State investigators are both stymied. The sheriff is desperate enough to grant official status to anyone who can help.

Looking into Lace’s murder takes Delaware on a journey through time and space—the key to it has to be in Lace’s past (she saw so few people recently, it has to be in the past). And Lace’s past is in Los Angeles, so Delaware heads out to L.A. to do some footwork and talk to those who knew the actress during her heyday (and after it, too).

Delaware’s own investigation pulls double duty—not only will it hopefully bring the community some answers about their favorite daughter, but it also distracts him from the all-consuming grief following his wife’s death. More than once, he has to wrestle with the question of whether he’s pursuing justice for justice’s sake or if it’s because it helps him not deal with his wife’s death.

As its protagonist looks into a by-gone era of film, the novel takes on the feel and atmosphere of that era while retaining a feeling of fresh and contemporary. Don’t ask me how Wright does that, but it’s great to see it done. Beyond that, there’s a depth to the emotion and characters that you don’t see every day. It’d be easy to argue that Delaware coming to grips (in whatever way he does) to his current state, how he got there and where he’s going is more important to the novel than showing what happened to Lace and her assistant (it’d be easy to argue against it, too, but that’s my point).

I’m not doing a good job describing how different this book comes across—not just from Wright’s previous work, but from most of what’s out there in the genre at the moment. Hopefully, others can articulate it—I’m confident any reader will feel what I’m getting at.

There were two distinct “What the —!?!” moments (there are a few more surprises, but two that you won’t forget soon). One of which, technically, is the result of Wright cheating. But it’s such a cool development and Wright reveals it so deftly that I couldn’t complain. The other one was completely honest and caught me completely flat-footed. Far from clearing everything up, both of these added layers and complexity to this already intricate plot.

A complex mystery, rich characters (I don’t have time to talk about Lace’s long-time agent or the people of Cedarville), a nostalgic yet timely feeling novel that looks to Hollywood’s glamorous past and the very human, very real present. Wright knocks this one out of the park and will earn herself some new fans with this one.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Polis Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


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