Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

Baseball as a Road to God – Review

John Sexton. Baseball as a Road to God. New York: Gotham, 2013. Print.

Trust me, I am not spoiling Baseball as a Road to God for any reader if I tell you that at the end of this book the author, president of New York University, admits that baseball is not the or even a road to God. However, he does say that following baseball “can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science.” (220) And that is the point of the book.

There are two words that the author uses to present the main thesis: ineffable and hierophany. Things that are ineffable are experienced but cannot be explained. There are moments in baseball like that, he says. They are mysterious cause-effect relationships. There are times when the fan knows why certain things are gong to happen.

The author grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and tells and retells the experience of 1955 when the Dodgers finally won it all. He knew the Dodgers were going to win game 7 in the third inning when it looked like the Yankees were going to score on a hit down the third base line. But the Yankee baserunner slid into the ball and was called out. The tide turned. “The ineffable,” he writes, “is experienced, not defined.” So it is many times with religious experience.

By 2004 the author had become a Yankees fan—he explains his conversion in some detail (I could not help thinking of Darth Vader). As president of NYU, he gets invited to sit in the VIP section for many Yankees games. So he was sitting with New York and Yankee bigwigs in Fenway Park in game four of the American League Championships Series. It was the eighth inning, the Yankees were winning and appeared to have both the game and the championship in the bag. Several of the people in the Yankee VIP seats, including some of the team’s executives, got up to leave. Sexton told one of them, “If you go, you will reverse the curse.” (12) The author knew that was a sign.

Most of us who have followed baseball can relate to experiences like that. Baseball as a Road to God waxes nostalgic about some of the old baseball parks like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Shibe Park, and Forbes Field. At gritty, steel-supported Forbes Field I had a similar experience. It was game 7 of the 1960 World Series. The game went back and forth, but in the eighth inning the Yankees had pulled ahead 7-4. In the home half of the inning, Pirate Bill Virdon hit a ground ball to Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek. It looked like a routine double play with Gino Cimoli on first, but Kubek misplayed the bounce on the hard clay infield and both runners were safe.

From that point on, I knew, as perhaps only a kid can, that Pittsburgh was going to win. I did not know how they would do it, but I knew that the Yankees could not handle Forbes Field. (Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince called the big bounces balls would take on the Forbes Field infield “macadam hops.”)

Some ineffable moments might not be specifically game related. Lou Gehring’s farewell speech or Cal Ripken’s high-fiving trot around the park when he broke Gerhring’s consecutive game record united fans of all teams in a special way. You cannot explain it really but they were or would have been great to experience. Sexton notes that in the film The Pride of the Yankees, which includes Gehring’s farewell speech, does not accurately record the content of the speech, but it is effective drama.

Then there is the term hierophany, which the author defines as a revelation of the sacred. This often is similar to experiences in baseball. People who have little in common recall a great moment or player or team or something, and they realize they are sharing something special. Sometimes underdogs win. We share experiences with the next or previous generation, whether it is going to a game or merely playing catch. I remember seeing the 2005 film Fever Pitch when a group of Red Sox fans are talking to a season ticket holder. One of them asks him if he attended the 1999 All-Star Game and saw Ted Williams come out on his scooter for a last public appearance. When he starts describing it, the other look at him in awe. I was getting misty in the theater.

The book’s approach is that being a fan of baseball is not unlike being a religious believer. If you are either one, you subscribe to a set of beliefs, you engage in rituals, you have your doubts, you have your sacred spaces, you develop traditions. In that sense, the book is very effective in presenting baseball and its appeal. Some of his accounts of baseball are simply lovely.

Sexton fondly recalls Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, who had also served as a university president. (I think it was some school in Connecticut…) He calls Giamatti’s tenure “…the one time we had a commissioner who loved the game more than the business, who emphasized stewardship rather than ownership.” (213) Say no more. Even fans who were not alive when Giamatti was commissioner can understand what is not being said about today’s management.

What the author says about religion is much less profound except when he quotes others. His “God” appears to be what the former syndicated columnist (now blogger) Nicholas Von Hoffman called the “Mush God.” Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Transcendentalism, Hinduism, Native American peyote rites—it’s all pretty much the same.

He sounds surprised when a saintly Catholic writes about her doubts. Has he never heard the term dark night of the soul? Or read the poetry of John Donne or St. John of the Cross? I was puzzled when he called Norman Vincent Peale a “conservative Christian.” Then I realized he meant politically conservative, not theologically conservative. Actually, the quotation connected with Peale is cute. Peale endorsed Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower in an election, basing his decision on something that St. Paul wrote. When asked about this, Stevenson said, “I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” (90)

Sexton also takes the romantic or postmodern position that faith is based on emotion: “A leap of faith, after all, is an embrace of feeling over logic.” (37) That is not exactly how Kierkegaard, who coined the term “leap of faith,” meant it. Nor is that how St. Paul defines faith in the tenth chapter of Romans. Later on the book acknowledges that some conversions or “leaps of faith” are “not entirely emotional.” (19) But at best the book comes across “mushily” on faith. Alas, this is typical of the manner in which many people today dismiss religious experience entirely.

Still, there are some good quotations. One I appreciate on C. S. Lewis:

“I did not go to religion to make me happy,” he said. “I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I do not recommend Christianity.” Fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox would murmur amen. (93)

As this quotation shows, the book is really about baseball. Even when Sexton is discussing religion, he has baseball in mind. And when it sticks to that subject it is a work of beauty and grace.

Not everyone will agree with him on baseball, either. One of the book’s appendices contains two lists of baseball records. Sexton makes it clear in the text of the book that he is not vouching either for the accuracy of the records or the observations about the records.

The book also mentions a number of literary works about baseball which deal with universal truths. As would be expected, that includes some things by John Updike, Chaim Potok, and W. P. Kinsella. Most of the religious works listed reflect his theological bias.

The book did surprise this reviewer in one instance. Perhaps it shows how much some things do not matter. When I was young, I owned a couple of baseball cards of Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. I remember when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. I even saw him in person at some Pirates games. Baseball as a Road to God said he was an African American who played in the Negro Leagues. I never realized he was black! I had to look it up in The Baseball Almanac. Yes, he played two seasons with the Philadelphia Stars. Who knew? At least to a boy following baseball in the late fifties and sixties, race in baseball had already become a non-issue.

When writing about hope, Sexton succinctly sums up what others have said about the 1967 Red Sox:

…it only took one season of hope (after the deep doubts built over fifteen years of failure) to change the atmosphere around Fenway Park utterly. (54)

How true that was!

My family moved from Pittsburgh to the Boston area less than two years after that 1960 World Series. I liked baseball. In Pittsburgh the kids in my neighborhood played it every day all summer except when it was raining. The kids where I lived in Massachusetts, did not play it nearly as often, but many were still baseball fans. I went to Red Sox games. I listened to their games on the radio and saw a few on TV. I became familiar with most of the Red Sox players. But my heart was still in Pittsburgh. Sometimes at night I could pull in KDKA on the radio and listen to a few innings of Pirates games.

I rooted for the National League teams in the All Star Games and World Series. Roberto Clemente was my hero, even though nobody in Boston knew much about him. But in 1967, the Red Sox were exciting. Without really being conscious of it, I became a Red Sox fan. Even today I tell people that the Pirates are my National League team and the Red Sox are my American League team.

As I write this, it is the All Star break in 2013. The Pirates and Red Sox have two of the three best records in all of baseball. There are still a lot games left, and both teams do have some recent experience with late-season swoons, but if they were to meet in the World Series, I am not sure what I would do. I think I would just be happy to see them both there.

It would be heavenly.

Swinging ’73 – Review

Matthew Silverman. Swinging ’73: Baseball’s Wildest Season. Guilford CT: Lyons P, 2013. Print.

Forty years ago was one of the wildest years of major league baseball (MLB), especially for fans of the New York Mets. Matthew Silverman, longtime Mets reporter and author of a number of books on the Mets, tells the story of the 1973 baseball season from the perspective of three franchises: the Mets, the Oakland Athletics, and the New York Yankees.

OK—We get the Mets and Athletics. They were in the World Series, and they both did have wild seasons. But why the Yankees? They pretty much stunk back then.

There are several reasons. First, 1973 was the first year of the designated hitter (DH). The very first person to bat in that position was Yankee Ron Blomberg. Second, 1973 was the year that George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees. His approach to team ownership and free agency, which on its was to becoming legal, would become nearly legendary. Third, the topic of the Yankees sells more books than that of the Mets or A’s. The book notes:

Even in years when the Yankees fell before reaching the World Series, announcers still talked about Steinbrenner’s club more than any of the 28 other clubs that weren’t playing. How’s that for victory even in defeat?

The stories of all three teams that year made good press.

The Mets had one of the worst records of any team that ever made it to the World Series, and this was before wild cards. Still, they had a great bullpen with Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw, and Tom Seaver. The author credits McGraw with coming up with the team’s battle cry that year, “Ya gotta believe!” Their manager in his first full season in that position was New York icon Yogi Berra, who had taken the place of another New York icon who had died suddenly the year before, Gil Hodges. They also had Willie Mays in his last season; Mets’ road games became a kind of farewell tour for him.

The Athletics were the future of baseball. They had a flamboyant owner in Charlie Finley—like Steinbrenner in some ways, but one who seemed to enjoy life more. They had colorful, some would even say psychedelic, uniforms. They had players with long hair and mustaches when many teams still had fifties-style grooming codes. They were the anti-Yankees, and along with the Reds in the National League, the last team to put together consistent winners before free agency, when “small market” was not an issue.

The A’s were certainly an exciting team with pitchers Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter, and Rollie Fingers. They were complemented by hitters like Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, and Reggie Jackson. (Joe Rudi was injured for much of the year). 1973 would be the second year of the three consecutive world championship years for the A’s—the only team other than the Yankees to accomplish that feat.

There are lots of side stories and little tidbits of information. For example, Dagoberto Campaneris really hated to be called Bert. Darold Knowles of the Athletics is the only pitcher in history to pitch in all seven games of a World Series. By the way, Charles Finley disliked the name Athletics and always referred to the team as the A’s. Perhaps channeling Abbot and Costello, Finley wanted his players to have interesting nicknames. Silverman tells us how Finley thought Jim Hunter was too bland of a name and came up with the nickname Catfish.

Finley tried to find other ways to make the team and home games more interesting. In 1973 one of the cute ball girls who retrieved foul balls in the Oakland Coliseum was Debbie Sivyer. Between innings she would bring refreshments to the umpires. Her homemade cookies were especially popular treats with them. Today she is still known for her cookies but better known by her married name—Mrs. Fields.

Swinging ’73 goes into the business of baseball quite a bit. Front offices were lively that year. For the first time a few players were being paid six figures in salary. We learn how frugal Finley was with money; at times reporters would visit the A’s office, and there would be no one there. The book also suggests that if Finley had been more careful about paying insurance premiums for Hunter as he had promised, not only would Hunter have stayed with the A’s, but MLB might not have free agency as we know it today. Both effects ultimately benefited Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

We see a contrast between the hapless if classy Yankees’ ownership by CBS and the focused if abrasive ownership of the team under Steinbrenner. One Yankee veteran shared how Steinbrenner was a shock to the team, but once team members figured out his modus operandi, the team would begin to click.

Swinging ’73 also fills in some background of American culture in 1973. This includes popular TV shows like All in the Family, popular music like Elvis’s big tours, and politics like Roe v. Wade and Watergate. Some of these things tied in with baseball. CBS dominated television with many comedies like All in the Family and MASH, cop shows like Kojak and Mannix, and even the successful variety show of Carol Burnett’s. As already noted, CBS figured in the ownership and sale of the Yankees in 1973.

Tug McGraw had not yet acknowledged his son from a premarital affair, but eventually he would develop a fatherly relationship with Tim McGraw, who has had a very successful music career. Roe v. Wade was another sign that the so-called sexual revolution of the sixties was still going strong. In 1973 the Yankees may have been best known for the two players on the team who swapped wives.

And George Steinbrenner ended up as a minor figure in the Watergate saga. He used a fund-raising technique in a crude manner that has since been perfected. He had employees donate his money in their names to Nixon’s re-election campaign to get around the $3000 maximum an individual could donate to a campaign. He was fined for this deception and technically banned from baseball operations for three years. Silverman notes that Steinbrenner was able to work behind the scenes beyond the scrutiny of MLB. Similarly, more recent political campaigns have learned to “launder” donations more subtly making them harder to trace—think Buddhist temples and Internet screen names.

Occasionally some of the trivia may feel like TMI (too much information), or it may be simply just plain funny. Silverman tells us how Tug McGraw’s mother gave him his nickname. The book also reminded this reader of an anti-Nixon bumper sticker that may be the cleverest or crudest (or both) political slogan ever.

1973 is also the year of the famous Thurman Munson-Carlton Fisk brawl, often seen as the beginning of the modern animus between the Yankees and the Red Sox. It is the year that the Sears Tower in Chicago was completed, the world’s tallest building at the time. It is the year that Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was published. And Hank Aaron finished the year with 713 lifetime home runs, one shy of Ruth’s record.

Most readers would appreciate the afterword, a kind of “Where are they now?” Not only do we find out what happened to many of the key characters on the three teams, but we learn about other players who figure in the stories of the book like Nolan Ryan and Pete Rose. Somewhere we learn that Willie Mays admitted to using amphetamines, a common enough practice in the major leagues for many years.

And, as always with sports, there are what-ifs. Perhaps the biggest one for the 1973 baseball season is this: What if Yogi Berra had rested Tom Seaver in game six of the World Series? He was pitching on three days rest and the Mets were ahead in the series 3-2. Even if the Mets lost game six, they would have had a better rested pitching ace starting number seven…

We’ll never know.

The Double Comfort Safari Club – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. The Double Comfort Safari Club. New York: Pantheon, 2010. Print. No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Another joyful novel about Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe has a few new challenges. A rich American lady who had a great experience on a Botswana safari left a small legacy to her guide except that she could not remember either the name of the guide or the name of the camp. A woman suspects her husband, a well-known radio reverend, of unfaithfulness. And Assistant Detective Makutsi is kept from seeing her fiancé Phuti Rhadaphuti by Phuti’s No. 1 Aunty.

Another challenge for Mma Ramotswe comes from a man who was engaged. The couple bought a house they were going to move into when they married, but the woman convinced the man that to protect his business assets they put the house in her name alone. As soon as he did that, she broke the engagement and kicked him out of the house. Precious Ramotswe does not know if her client can overcome the legalities, but she promises to look into it. Even before the man has finished his story, she accurately guesses the name of the conniving woman: none other than the beautiful but heartless Violet Sephoto.

Once gain, Smith’s novel is highlighted by simple joy. Life is for living and loving. We foolish mortals are the ones who mess it up. A few quotations from The Double Comfort Safari Club:

The realisation of our mortality came slowly, in dribs and drabs, until we bleakly acknowledged that everything was on loan to us for a short time—the world, our possessions, the people we knew and loved. But we could not spend our time dwelling on our mortality; we still had to behave as if the worst would not happen, for otherwise we would not do very much, we would be defeated and give up. (56)

Nobody ran away from their responsibilities any more—they were said to have gone off to find themselves. Nobody dismissed anybody from their job any more—they let them go. What if they said, “But I do not want to go!” The only reply would be, “But I’m still going to let you.”

When Mma Romotswe and Mma Makutsi go to Maun in northern Botswana near the Okavango River Delta to find the safari guide meant for the legacy, they have to travel as if they, too, were on safari. We discover that Grace Makutsi, though from a small town, is a city girl at heart. Their guide’s chatter about hippos and crocodiles does not reassure her at all. Precious understands that there is no such thing as a Double Comfort Safari Club.

Threat Vector – Review

Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. Threat Vector. New York: Putnam, 2012. Print.

Not too long ago I wrote a review of another Tom Clancy novel in which I said, “Clancy gets it.” Sometimes we know Clancy gets it because he imagines a certain scenario in one of his novels, and after it is published something similar actually happens. In his 1991 The Sum of All Fears, a network of jihadists blow up a football stadium during an NFL playoff game. OK, in the real world, they did in the tallest building in New York City on a significant jihadist anniversary ten years later, but the idea was not that different.

Parts of Threat Vector read like last week’s news, literally. A young hotshot computer programmer/hacker with a top secret security clearance who works for a high tech government contractor defects to Hong Kong with a lot of classified information to share with the Chinese. No, it is not Snowden; this book was written a year ago. But Clancy saw vulnerabilities again, and some of them have become reality.

There is a lot more than this Chinese sympathizer. Typically Clancy’s novels cover a lot of geography and involve a lot of people. Threat Vector is no different. There is a group of former Libyan security officers and Ghaddafi loyalists now working as hired guns in Turkey. We actually met a few in Locked On. There is an American computer geek who gets caught in a Chinese honey trap. There is a former Soviet spy who gets sprung from a Russian prison and given a new identity—actually another veteran from Locked On.

There is a group of Chinese “wet workers”—government assassins—who have been assigned to kill a number of Americans including the girlfriend of the son of the American president. The most powerful general in China has decided it is time to take Taiwan and establish hegemony in Asia. There’s also a top-gun type American fighter pilot known as “Trash” White, a creepy FBI agent who is secretly into child porn, and so on and so on. And behind everything there appears a mysterious eminence grise known as the Center.

Lots of conflict, lots of action, lots of surprises. Told cleverly enough so that the reader can connect the dots and enjoy a good yarn. Over twenty years ago I recall a posting on an online bulletin board (remember those?) that spoke of Clancy fans as technodudes and technodudesses. Threat Vector is realistic escape reading for those fans and the many new ones.

A few quotations from Threat Vector:

Napoleon is credited with saying an army marches on its stomach. But that was in Napoleon’s time. Now it was clear to everyone…that the U.S. military marched on its bandwidth. (745)

…baseball, women, and family—the important things in the world. (835)

The Lost History of Christianity – Review

Philip Jenkins. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.

A friend asked me recently what I had been reading. I told him a little about Finding God in Ancient China. He went to his bookcase and pulled out a copy of The Lost History of Christianity for me to read.

Although the book is less than 270 pages excluding references, it has far too much to go into detail here. The book describes the growth of the Christian Church to the east and south of the Holy Land to about the fourteenth century. Today much of the world sees Christianity as a Western or European religion. But until the fourteenth century that was not necessarily so.

The historical record tells us that most of Greater Syria, the Persian Empire, Arabia, North Africa, the Sudan, and the Horn of Africa was Christian. Christians were well-established in Central Asia in what today are the “stans.” At least three times Christianity was established in China before the 1700s. It spread in India, Sri Lanka, and on to the Pacific Ocean.

Most of these churches were Nestorian, Jacobite, or Monophysite churches. Most of these were wiped out or disappeared, though remnants of some of them persist. Only in Egypt and Ethiopia can these churches be considered at least somewhat vigorous today. The author is careful to point out that these are not gnostic or Arian groups. These are all churches that would subscribe to the Nicene Council and the doctrine of the Trinity.

The record of missionary zeal and scholarship that Jenkins describes is extraordinary from a modern perspective. It is truly a nearly lost history. Westerners generally learn that Europeans rediscovered Aristotle and other Greek writers at the time of the Crusades thanks to commerce with Arabs. What Jenkins tells us is that most of these ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicians—even the use of “Arabic” numbers, which actually originated in India—were translated or brought to light by Christian monks in the Arabic world of the Middle Ages. Even the distinctive architecture associated today with mosques and the Near East came from Mesopotamian and Arabic church design prior to Islam.

One brief account near the beginning of the book was about a Mesopotamian Bishop Timothy who wrote around the year 800. He was made privy to a discovery of Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts that showed that many of the heretofore puzzling quotations of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament were based on non-Masoretic texts. Jenkins notes that no Catholic (which would still have included the Orthodox) would have even understood the issue in A.D. 800. This information and these manuscripts disappeared a long time ago, and it was not until the Dead Sea Scrolls began to be interpreted in the 1950s would people rediscover what had been known to these Eastern Christians back then.

Approximately the first half of The Lost History of Christianity describes the spread of Christianity to the East and South in the First Millennium. The Nestorians had hundreds of bishops throughout India, Central Asia, the Near East, and Arabia. There was even a bishop in Yemen. So what happened?

There is no one answer. The early Muslim conquests, for example, were often tolerant to some degree. In many cases Christians and Jews became top advisors to their new rulers because they were more literate and educated. They often knew multiple languages which made them useful for diplomacy. However, their position became more precarious as a more radical form of Islam emerged around the 12th century.

Also, in many places Christians were centered in cities. When an invading army conquered a city, often the whole city was destroyed including its Christians. As with Viking raids in the British Isles, monasteries were sometimes seen as easy marks for plunder.

Sometimes Christians were identified with a particular faction and became victims when another group rose in power. The Mongols tolerated Christians, and Christianity may have had its widest influence in Central and East Asia during their rule. When the Mongols were overthrown by Tamerlane and other Turkic groups that followed, Christians were seen as allies of the enemy.

The last surge against Christians which ended with the Turkish conquest of Byzantium and what was left of the Arab kingdoms was probably the most devastating. The Egyptian church survived because it was so closely identified with Egypt (Coptic means “Egyptian,” and has the same root). Other churches may have survived as minority outposts when, like the Maronites of Lebanon, they allied themselves with the Roman Catholic Church.

Sometimes the churches themselves had become so much identified with the non-Christian cultural system, that church members no longer saw the distinctiveness of their belief. This was sometimes the case when Christians converted to Islam or Buddhism in cultures where those religions were the primary ones. Jenkins suggest this may account for the numerical decline in American mainline churches during the twentieth century—they became so identified with political or cultural causes rather than religious specifics, that they lost distinctiveness.

Sometimes the church never affected the common people of a region. This was apparently the case in parts of North Africa like Carthage (now Tunisia). When the Arabs conquered this region, the Christian elite who identified with Rome were defeated or left the area, but most of the population was not Christian, so they were open to Islam.

As noted with more detail in Finding God in Ancient China, sometimes the church’s own unwillingness to adapt its evangelism to the native culture made it appear irrelevant or foreign. This happened in the 16th century after Father Matteo Ricci was having success showing that Christianity was the fulfillment of the ancient monotheistic sacrificial system of the Chinese. After this, the Pope told missionaries to China that they could not operate that way.

Jenkins notes that significant churches in the Near East have been eliminated or drastically reduced in the 20th and 21st centuries. The nationalist and Baathist movements wiped out the majority of Christians in Armenia and Iraq in the years 1915 to 1930. In recent years Pan-Arabism, which had included Christians in such countries as Egypt and Palestine, has been transformed into a pan-Islamism so that Christians are being marginalized in these places. In some places they are persecuted or reduced in status, their churches destroyed, and sometimes they have been killed. When they can afford it, they leave.

The author still sees potential for the church beyond an apocalyptic confrontation between Christianity and Islam with its secular allies. The church has grown greatly in much of the world’s South, in Africa and Latin America. The church in China and former Warsaw Pact countries learned to survive underground. As G. K. Chesterton said:

At least five times…the Faith to all appearance gave to the dogs. In each of the five cases, it was the dog that died. (The Everlasting Man II.vi)

Or as the prophet Isaiah said about the Messiah:

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. (9:7)

The Miracle at Speedy Motors – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. The Miracle at Speedy Motors. New York: Pantheon, 2008. Print. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Short, easy-reading, but a true novel with multiple plots—this is the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. This time Mma Ramotswe has been hired to find an orphan’s birth family, but she discovers a reason why no one who knows the truth wants her client to find out who her parents were. Mma Ramotswe is also receiving threatening letters.

Precious Ramotswe’s partner, Mma Makutsi, is engaged to Phuti Rhadaphuti, but her uncles want 97 cows for a bride price. Precious’s uncles got ten when she married Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni, and the consensus around town is that Grace is worth about eight.

Rra Maketoni wants to take their adopted daughter Motholeli to Johannesburg to see if some specialists can make her walk again. And Grace is hired to find out if a certain tenant signed a lease under false pretenses.

Those are the basic conflicts of the novel. Here are some of the things that get them more complicated: a double bed with a large velvet heart on the headboard, mechanical problems at the orphanage, mnemonic problems at the orphanage, eternal apprentice Charlie’s male chauvinism, a banker who really does not care for women, and the onset of rainy season. Grace also wonders if Phuti’s car with its prominent red racing stripe is really the best vehicle for shadowing suspects.

“…it is always sad when people try to do things they cannot do,” said Mma Potokawe. (152)

One did not have to be famous to be remembered in Botswana; there was room in history for all of us.

…evil repaid with retribution, with punishment, had achieved half its goal; evil repaid with kindness was shown to be what it really was, a small petty thing, not something frightening at all, but something pitiable, a paltry affair. (205)

Wise words for all of us.

The Miracle at Speedy Motors is realistic in the sense that not everything works out. The miracles may not be spectacular, but they are special. If your heart is even a mere two degrees warmer than Scrooge’s, you will finish this book with a smile. Precious and Grace mean happiness for the reader.

The Rainbow – Review

D. H. Lawrence. The Rainbow. New York: Modern Library, 1915. Amazon.com. 30 Mar 2011. E-book.

I confess. I bit. High schoolers around North America may recognize the title and the author. 360,000 students taking the Advanced Placement English Literature test this past May were given a selection from this novel to write one of their three essays about. As an AP reader two weeks ago, I read and scored over a thousand of those essays. I had to find out what happened. I read the rest of the novel.

The Rainbow covers the love lives of three generations of Brangwens, a middle class farming family in Nottinghamshire. If you like Freud, you may like this novel. For non-Freudians, much of it is a chore to read.

Have you ever had a friend who was “in a relationship” and the dynamics of the relationship seemed to vary every day? She loves me—She hates me—What did she mean by that?—I can’t live with her—I can’t live without her…

While you may well sympathize with your friend, the talk and analysis of every little detail begins to grate. That is what about three quarters of The Rainbow does. The first quarter about the courtship and marriage of Tom and Lydia Brangwen is like that. So is the second quarter of the book about the courtship and marriage of William and Anna Brangwen.

There is a break which actually reads like a bildungsroman, a growth novel, of Will and Anna’s daughter Ursula. Finally, we get down to a story! But in the last quarter of the book as Ursula becomes an independent young woman at the turn of the twentieth century, it goes back to the ups and downs of two or three relationships. If you like reading niggling details in people’s diaries, then this may be the book for you. Frankly, the first half is nearly boring, but the author seems really interested in Ursula’s story; it just takes a long time getting there.

What keeps The Rainbow from being completely dreadful is that the author does have a way with words. This physical descriptions of flower gardens, industrial tenements, and interiors of old churches can be lovely. The third quarter of the book about Ursula’s childhood is just as Freudian, but it focuses on the family dynamics as she grows. Here we see Ursula begin to discover her place in the family, in the village, and—perhaps—in the world.

Biblical imagery through the novel may also keep the reader’s attention. On the symbolic level, The Rainbow is a modernist retelling of Genesis 3 through 11. The Brangwen farm is the Garden of Eden. The outside world contains serpentine temptations of esoteric knowledge. Later, the farm is likened to an Ark in the midst of the disruption and corruption of the surrounding world.

England banned The Rainbow when it first came out. By today’s standards it is quite tame, but the book does discuss in polite terms the sexual relations between the main couples. The book is Freudian, after all. With the third generation, that includes sexual relations outside of marriage. Ursula’s lover, Anton, is a soldier who, with Ursula, expresses great doubts about the efficacy of war. That was also not a popular stand in 1915 England, either.

Ursula’s own “Ark” is a tough working-class school where she teaches for two years. Her job is more like a zookeeper than a teacher. (The Bible does not tell us about all the labor required to keep an Ark full of animals afloat and healthy). At the end of the novel, after her back-and-forth love-struggle with Anton and others, she sees a rainbow. For her that becomes a sign of promise—not of seedtime and harvest, but a time of women’s rights and free sex.

Finding God in Ancient China – Review

Chan Kei Thong and Charlene l. Fu. Finding God in Ancient China. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2013. Print.

A number of years ago I read The Discovery of Genesis by C. H. Kang and Ethel Nelson, a book on how many Chinese writing characters or ideograms represented ideas found in ancient history as presented in the Bible. For example, the Chinese word for ship is represented by a character that means “eight mouths in a vessel.” The word for temptation is formed by a character that means “reveal two trees.” That book was interesting as far as it went.

Finding God in Ancient China goes well beyond that. It is thoroughly researched, using many Chinese classics to demonstrate that not only does Chinese history corroborate similar Biblical history, but that traditional Chinese culture was monotheistic. Even after the introduction of Buddhism and dragon worship, those various spirits were seen as lower spirits than Shang Di, literally Lord of Heaven, Creator of everything including those spirits. Until the last emperor abdicated in 1911, nearly every Chinese monarch for over four thousand years offered sacrifices to the King of Heaven.

Besides briefly covering some of the same ground as The Discovery of Genesis in one chapter, this book is a survey of Chinese belief. It emphasizes that Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and most other classical Chinese scholars and writers recognized a great creator God and that a ruler’s mandate was from Heaven. In the West, we tend to equate the Chinese Mandate of Heaven with the Divine Right of Kings that appeared in Europe in the late Middle Ages. There is a difference. The Divine Right meant that the monarch could do pretty much anything he or she wanted and was only answerable to God. To oppose a monarch was to oppose God’s representative on earth—hence the language of the American Declaration of Independence.

The Mandate of Heaven was that God gave the monarch the authority, but the monarch’s position was conditional. He had to rule righteously. If the people were dissatisfied by injustice or if the ruler ruled unjustly, that was a sign that the ruler had lost his mandate. Indeed, that was why the Emperor was normally motivated to offer sacrifices to the Lord of Heaven, to cover for any sins he might have committed. The chiefest of these sacrifices was the Border Sacrifice, done annually from about 2200 B.C. until A.D. 1911 with few breaks. Even the most wicked rulers would still offer this sacrifice. Chen tells us one especially evil ruler died almost immediately after offering such a sacrifice.

It is interesting to note that unlike most monarchs who ruled in polytheistic cultures (Japan, Egypt, Rome, ancient Greece, Persia, etc.), Chinese emperors were never seen as gods or offspring of gods. They were always seen as human beings, subject to the Creator and His laws.

Finding God in Ancient China is primarily a history book. It includes summaries of the findings of the Revs. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary of the 16th century, and James Legge, a Scottish missionary of the 19th century, who both encouraged missionaries to China to learn the Chinese traditions of Blood Covenant and sacrifices to Shang Di in order to more clearly present the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to Chinese. The authors maintain that to a culturally aware Chinese person even today, Christianity is no “foreign religion,” but simply the fulfillment of the traditional Chinese worldview.

There is one chapter that is a little weaker. The book tries to connect certain Chinese astronomical observations with Biblical events. It proposes that a certain comet recorded by the Chinese was the Star of Bethlehem that brought the Magi to the infant Jesus. Not only does the timing seem a little early (5 B.C.), it is also true that in most cultures comets are a sign of bad luck. Even in Chinese, a person who is a family troublemaker is called a comet.

That chapter also suggests that a certain solar eclipse recorded by the Chinese in A.D. 31 may have corresponded to the darkness at noon during the crucifixion of Jesus. There is a major problem with that. Solar eclipses only happen during a New Moon (which is noted in the source that the book quotes), but Passover, the day Jesus was executed, is celebrated during the Full Moon. Whatever that darkness may have been, it was no solar eclipse. Some authorities, in fact, see Acts 2:20 “the moon [shall be turned] to blood” as a sign of a lunar eclipse, something that does happen when the moon is full.

Aside from the astronomical speculations, Finding God in Ancient China, originally written in Chinese as The Faith of Our Fathers, is well worth reading for anyone interested in ancient history or the mysterious Middle Kingdom.

The Beautiful and Damned – Review

F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Beautiful and Damned. 1922; rpt. Amazon.com. 16 May 2012. E-book.

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.

  • “The Rich Boy” Fitzgerald

He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of [the rich] and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

  • “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway

Many readers are familiar with The Great Gatsby. It is the best-known, and probably the best, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four completed novels—though This Side of Paradise sold more copies during his lifetime.

Like Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned is about the “very rich.” The main characters of Anthony and Gloria Patch, correspond in some ways to Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Gatsby. The one physical difference is that Gloria is blonde while Daisy has dark hair (at least in the novel…). Though no athlete like Tom Buchanan, Anthony has had life greased easily on the fast track. He is the only living descendant of his grandfather, millionaire philanthropist Adam Patch. Anthony spends much of the novel waiting for him to die so he can inherit his fortune.

Anthony could be considered a stereotypical spoiled rich kid. We are told immediately that he appreciated irony, the “Holy Ghost” of the twentieth century. (14) “He went to Harvard—there was no other logical thing to be done with him.” (69) His goal is nothing more than to live the life of the idle rich.

He is clever, intelligent, and manages to marry the “Famous girl” Gloria Gilbert. She is beautiful “but different, very emphatically different.” (531) It does not take much imagination to see her as a stand-in for Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald. Like Poe’s “Helen,” “She was the end of all restlessness, all malcontent.” (1196) Indeed, the cover of the original edition of the book pictured a couple that resembled the Fitzgeralds.

While it has been noted that Fitzgerald admitted Daisy Buchanan was “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” inspired by the Keats poem, Gloria is actually called that directly. Yet Gloria is probably the most sympathetic character in the book. One night at party at their country home in “Marietta,” Connecticut (based on Westport, where the Fitzgeralds lived for a year), Gloria flees a party. She is sober, but most of the other guests are drunk, including a stranger who is making unwanted advances. The fears she expresses are profound and moving—so much so that when some critics maintain that Zelda had a hand in some of her husband’s stories, this provides evidence for that hypothesis. It sounds like something that only a woman could understand. (I immediately thought of the painting Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi).

When Anthony is drafted, he is called the “Man-at-Arms,” and echo of the “knight-at-arms” in the Keats poem.

Much of the action takes place in New York City or the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound. Like the Buchanan family, the Patches chartered four trains to transport guests from New York to Gloria’s hometown of Kansas City for their wedding. Like Tom and Daisy, they honeymoon in Santa Barbara. Unlike Tom, though, Anthony is faithful to Gloria until much later.

The Patches do move around some, but they do not move because of scandal as Nick Carraway insinuates about the Buchanans. They either do not like or cannot afford where they are living. And then Grandpa Patch surprises everyone with his will when he dies. This conflict echoes the contested will of Dan Cody in Gatsby.

Irony abounds as promised. Anthony’s college friends all become officers in the military when America enters the Great War. Anthony fails the physical—probably because of his drinking. However, he does not fail the physical when he is drafted later, so he becomes a private. He is promoted to corporal but then demoted when he gets drunk. What happens to him in the army parallels what is happening to him socially and economically.

There are other echoes of Gatsby in this book. As in many of Fitzgerald’s other works, popular songs are worked into the story line. One song entitled “Daisy Dear” reads, “The panic has come over us, So has the moral decline.” Is this a reason for choosing the name Daisy for The Great Gatsby‘s Gloria?

Anthony and his friends philosophize about why God does not exist. In this novel there is no Monsignor Darcy in the background as in This Side of Paradise, or even any suggestive eye doctor’s billboard. To Anthony and his Harvard buddies, existence and intelligence are mere instruments of circumstances. (2883) Besides, they observe, philosophy and science always change. The reader cannot help thinking that this is less intellectual than willful. When you are rich and young and good-looking—why would you want to have a God?

Maybe old Adam Patch needed a God because of remorse, but do we? And yet, there is a niggling, nagging theme that these people have no hope: They are truly “without God and without hope in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12) “I don’t care about the truth,” Gloria exclaims. “I want some happiness.”

Thanks to his amorality, his money, his drinking, and his pride, Anthony Patch does make a mess of things not unlike the way Tom and Daisy Buchanan do. Tom tells Nick Carraway that he has suffered, but no one believes him or feels sorry for him. Anthony Patch meditates on his suffering, and the reader sees that he has actually suffered some—but he has no one to blame but himself.

In The Great Gatsby the Buchanans escape Long Island, and we learn only that they get away with things and leave messes behind. In The Beautiful and Damned we see what happens to them. Yes, they do get away, literally. They join the expat Lost Generation in Europe. We can easily imagine them as guests at one of Dick and Nicole Diver’s parties. Perhaps they get away, but as the title implies, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Note: The references to the text are Kindle locations, not page numbers.

References for epigraphs:

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Rich Boy.” The Redbook. Jan-Feb. 1926. Project Gutenberg of Australia. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribners, 1938: 52-77. Print.

The Time Was at Hand – Review

Robert Finley. The Time Was at Hand. Maitland FL: Xulon, 2011. Print.

If you have read one book by an evangelical American on Biblical prophecy, you have probably read them all. Yeah, they keep getting updated when world events change things—so now they say “Russia” instead of “Soviet Union.” Chafer, Anderson, Lindsay, Walvoord, LaHaye and Jenkins, Rosenberg, they all pretty much say the same thing.

Well, Finley does not. And it is refreshing.

Finley maintains that much of the Book of Revelation and the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ prophetic lecture in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) are mostly about events that would happen in the first century. Jesus said “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:34, cf. Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32). Revelation begins and ends with the expression “The time is at hand.” (Revelation 1:3, 22:10).

The Time Was at Hand presents plenty of evidence that much of what passes for possible end-times scenarios today was actually fulfilled from A.D. 66 to 73 when Judea and Jerusalem were under siege by the Romans. The details of the civil war, death, suffering, and treachery endured by the Jews in those years is unparalleled in the history of the world. That was, says Finley, the Great Tribulation. And it put a final and brutal end to the Old Covenant.

The main emphasis of The Time Was at Hand is simply that the New Covenant has superseded the Old. (Jeremiah 31:31-33, cf. Hebrews 8:8-13) The Scripture tells us that under the New Covenant there is no longer a distinction between Jew and Gentile, but that God’s Kingdom is meant for everyone. God’s way with the Jews is no longer different from His way with Gentiles.

Hal Lindsey hypothesized the 144,000 called out Jews in the Book of Revelation will be “144,000 Jews for Jesus” in the future. Finley reminds us that the first generation of Christians were mostly Jewish and that the 144,000 refers to them.

Many American writers suggest that Israel may rebuild the Temple at some point. Finely does not argue the point, but recognizes that since the coming of the Messiah, a Temple is no longer necessary:

If present day Zionists, or whoever, should put up a building in Jerusalem which they choose to call a “temple,” we can be sure that God in Heaven will have no interest in it whatsoever. (290)

Not only does Finley emphasize that God’s Gospel is the same for all people, he also believes that the modern American Christian focus on Israel is a distraction and a hindrance. It is a distraction because American believers are putting time and energy in interpreting Near Eastern events instead of sharing the Gospel. It is also a hindrance in witnessing the claims of Jesus to the quarter of the world’s population in Muslim-majority countries.

“If Christians help Zionists drive out the inhabitants of Palestine and make it a Jewish state,” the Muslims ask, “then why should we not drive out the Christians from other places and make them Islamic states?” And that is just what they are doing in many places where Christians and Muslims lived side by side for generations. (191,192)

I have great respect for Robert Finley. Christian Aid Mission, which he founded, focuses on indigenous and non-Western missions around the world. He is probably more aware than most people of the kind of work that is effective in bringing the Christian message to places in the world where it is unknown. His is a serious concern.

Understand that Finley is no Bible skeptic. Such skeptics will sometimes take the position that Bible prophecies were written down after the fact so that all “prophecies” were already fulfilled. Finley understands that many prophecies about the Second Coming are yet to be fulfilled. He just emphasizes that most, if not all, of the prophecies concerning the land of Israel-Palestine have already been fulfilled. The most important prophecy that has not been completely fulfilled yet is Matthew 24:14:

This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations [Greek ethnos, i.e. “ethnic groups”], and then shall the end come.” (cf. Mark 13:10)

Finley does draw from some historical sources that may not be well-known. He presents evidence that most Christians and Jews in the Middle East and North Africa converted to Islam during the Arab conquest of that region. He also adopts the thesis made famous by Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe that most Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jews were converts to Judaism in the Middle Ages. When adding the descendants of these people with the converts to Judaism from the time of Esther to the fall of Jerusalem, Finley suggests that few people who today identify with Judaism probably have any Abrahamic ancestry.

I recall reading in the Talmud that some Jews in Babylon had so many ancestral records that they needed a camel to carry them. Most such records were deposited in the Temple and so were destroyed in A.D. 70, so no one knows today. Though Arthur Koestler was an Ashkenazi Jew himself, his hypothesis does remain controversial. Still, I had a friend who discovered at age thirty that she had been adopted. She was able to reunite with her birth family and found out they were Jewish. A Jewish friend of both of us told her, “Only God knows who the real Jews are.”

Finley also makes a convincing case for who he thinks the antichrist is. I am not going to give that away in this review. While this is by no means original with Finley, it is not a name on the usual contemporary list of suspects be it the Pope, a Russian leader, the Kaiser, Hitler, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Carpathia, Henry Kissinger, etc. etc. etc. He also makes some clever observations regarding alien invasion stories like the film Independence Day. No, he does not believe in space aliens—I said, clever, not paranoid.

Finley’s approach is humble. He notes that Isaac Newton, one of the greatest minds of the millennium, spent years studying Bible prophecy, and even he admitted that there was much he could not understand and much that he missed.

Finley does not claim to have an end-times scenario worked out. “A great deal of mystery remains,” he admits. (201) It is better to admit that than to be following “fictional prophecy concepts.” (56)

Take a look at this book. It is well worth reading.