Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Devil of the Time

There can be little doubt that evil prospers. We’ve suffered through a year of an evil administration and we’ve seen the government increase the suffering of its own people in deference to the wealthy. And ours is only a mild case of evil. Jeffrey Burton Russell, over the course of some years, wrote three sequential books about evil. The first, The Devil, I reviewed last year. Having just finished the second, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, it has to be said that the concept definitely evolves. The period between the New Testament and the fifth century was a rich one for diabolism. The writers of this period became increasingly theological in their efforts to make sense of what is obviously an unjust situation created by a theologically good God. These were inventive writers, if somehow less than convincing.

Russell is a careful explainer. He summarizes the views of the “church fathers,” pointing out where their logic fails. This isn’t some liberal trying to dis the Devil, however. Russell acknowledges that he believes a Devil of some kind must exist. Reason, however, must also be applied. It’s difficult to believe that people in the early Christian centuries were willing to take such leaps of logic. Of course, they didn’t have many options for opting out. God was the great explanation for so much of their world. Fitting an all-powerful deity into logic when there’s abundant suffering in the world requires a certain flair for casuistry. No matter how the equations work out, an all-powerful God can’t be all good, not in this universe. Speculation about the Devil, or Satan, ran logic through its courses. Who was this being, and how did he get to be the way he is?

The theologians argued without any glint of irony. This was serious stuff. The Bible, famously, has little to say on the matter. Early thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine had volumes to say on the subject. None of them came up with a workable solution. Logic and the Devil just don’t fit. Theology is always a struggle since it deals with intangibles. Laws of logic sometimes simply don’t apply. If the feeble human imagination can conjure a good world without needless suffering, one has to wonder, why can’t an almighty deity do the same? Is this a god of limited imagination or, as the classic theological chestnut puts it, one who sees more than humans do? You can ask, but you won’t receive an answer. The Devil, it seems, really is in the details.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

How Did We Get Here?

Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.

Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.

That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.

Middle Age Demons

One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.

What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.

Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.

Science and

Do science and religion have to fight? It’s not evident that they do, but some on each side of this divide like to keep the conflict going. Many religious believers feel threatened by the incredible success of scientific explanations. The gods who used to explain everything are now responsible for so little that it’s easy to feel foolish for believing. It doesn’t help that the most vocal scientists have made religion their personal court jester, adding ridicule to the mix. Krista Tippett’s book of interviews with scientists, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, is a refreshing counter to this trend. Although it’s a few years old now, the book just landed under my tree, so I started off the new year with it.

A blend of interviews with scientists, quotes from their books, and personal observations, Einstein’s God is a fascinating and quick read. Covering topics from the wonder many scientists feel about their discoveries to medical understandings of how spirit effects healing to the ongoing debates about evolution, this book looks at the big picture. The scientists Tippett interviews, although some are atheists, don’t dismiss religion. In fact, many of them suggest religion in some form is necessary for healthy human living. As scientists they don’t dismiss science either. It’s refreshing to read about how those with scientific bona fides sometimes come to the same conclusions that those of us without the credits have surmised.

Once I began working at age 14, one of my earliest purchases was a subscription to Discover magazine. I was a charter subscriber. I was also a Fundamentalist. Not realizing that science and religion should be squabbling, I read science that could be digested by someone without professional training. Until I felt the tug of the ministry, I had intended to be a scientist. The only professional religionist interviewed in Tippett’s book is John Polkinghorne. A physicist cum priest, Polkinghorne has come to prominence among those involved in the debate between how we know what we know (the fancy term is epistemology). I wondered as I read this how it might differ from the other direction. Some of the interviewees were raised religious—Jewish and Hindu, notably—but none started out as professional religionists who went into science. That, I learned after college, is a much harder transition. Perhaps it says something about the nature of reality that to move into science as a career you must start with the undergrad prereqs if you ever hope to make the switch. Otherwise, those who start out with A’s in high school physics end up watching from the sidelines while others set the terms of the conversation.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.