419 | Will Ferguson

The cover of Fergusson's 419In 419, Ferguson has created a juxtaposition of worlds that will grip you from the first page  to the last.

In Calgary, police investigate the car tracks which lead to a fatal plunge through the guardrails. In Lagos, Nigeria, young shysters pack internet shops to write emails to rich Westerners from Nigerian Diplomats (a crime known by its Nigerian criminal code number, 419). In northern Nigeria, a young marked woman walks south for survival. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, trees are bulldozed and old traditions come to an end as multinational oil companies move in.

My first exposure to Ferguson was his travel narrative of Japan, Hitching Rides With Buddha. Although he’s also known as a comic writer, humor takes a back seat in 419. He uses his skills as a travel writer to make the various locations come alive.

While 419 is a page-turner, there’s far more to it than an average mystery novel. Ferguson has so fully fleshed-out the various settings and character perspectives, you will turn the chapter only to find yourself sympathizing with the villain.

Another fine element of this book was the conclusion (which I won’t give away). While it’s incredibly satisfying, it’s also unexpected. From a Christian perspective, it was fittingly redemptive. That’s all I can say about that!

If you read fiction, buy and read 419. Just be sure to set aside enough time to finish it. You will not want to put it down.

—Will Ferguson, 419 (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2012).

Catch-22 | Joseph Heller

The cover of Heller's Catch-22Have you ever watched M*A*S*H? If so, you owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Heller. In Catch-22, Heller is the first person to bundle wit with horror, slapstick with satire, and set it in a war-camp.

Catch-22 is a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters—almost caricatures. My favourite was Milo Minderbinder. Starting as Mess Officer, he quickly used the airplanes at his company’s disposal to set up a trading syndicate. He grew his business (of which everyone had a share, of course) to service both the allies as well as the Germans! After all, Milo would say, isn’t the future of capitalism what we’re fighting for? The height of satire was reached when Milo bombed his own squadron when he was paid to do so by the Germans.

Another jab at military incompetence (of which there are many) is the case of Major Major Major Major. His father named him Major M. Major, with pride. Of course, with a name like that, it wasn’t long before a paperwork problem led to Major’s promotion!

Chaplain Tappman was another character who’s life was laced with irony. He was an Anabaptist minster (a pacifist) in the middle of a war. He’s befuddled when his superior officer asks him to pray for tighter bomb patterns. His only real desire was to return to his family.

I don’t know anyone aside from Kurt Vonnegut who puts such poignant observations in such a zany container. This is the sort of book that will cause you to laugh (literally) out loud, only to realize what you’re laughing about and wince.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955, 2011).

Plutocrats | Chrystia Freeland

The cover of Freeland's PlutocratsIn 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the issue of wealth distribution into our public conversations. The protesters and activists labeled themselves the 99 percent—those with far less wealth than the 1 percent who worked on Wall Street.

Chrystia Freeland goes further in Plutocrats. The real division isn’t between the 99 and the 1 percent, it’s between the 99.99 and the 0.01 percent! This 0.01 percent is an elite group of “super-rich” who live and see the world in dramatically different ways from the rest of society:

  • Unlike the aristocracy of earlier centuries, the 0.01 percent feel that their wealth is self-made.
  • National identity is less important for the 0.01 percent since they have far more in common with the rest of the people in their wealth-bracket than their fellow countrymen and women.
  • The 0.01 percent like to view themselves as philanthropists, often engaging in large-scale humanitarian efforts.

Freeland has done a remarkable job, as a  reporter, working her way into the community of the super-rich and learning how they think and operate. If you want to understand the mindset of a multi-billionaire, this is an interesting read.

That said, I found the book to be overloaded with business-speak that took away from the immediacy of the prose. Perhaps this is just par for the genre—I don’t read many business books!

—Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (Toronto: Doublday Canada, 2012).

Apocalypse Delayed | M. James Penton

The cover of Penton's Apocalypse DelayedIt’s difficult to be sympathetic sometimes. This is no where more problematic than with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With an evangelistic strategy that feels more like a call centre than good news, it’s easy to get frustrated and dismissive.

On the other hand, I have met a few kind and generous Jehovah’s Witnesses in my day. While browsing the religion section of Wayfarer Books (a place you really should visit) in Kingston, I found M. James Penton’s book on the movement and decided to learn more.

The Author’s Background

The author begins by sharing his personal background. He is the great-grandson of a Bible Student (an earlier name for Jehovah’s Witness). He grew up in a Witness home and was a faithful Witness for years, even serving as an elder in Lethbridge, Alberta.

In the late 1970s, Penton wrote a positive book entitled, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: Champions of Freedom of Speech and WorshipApocaplypse Delayed takes on a decidedly more negative tone.

In 1979, Penton tried to share some of his misgivings about the direction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with head office. This led to his “disfellowshipment” (read: excommunication).

Penton’s personal story makes Apocalypse Delayed a better book. It was written by an insider who loves the movement, but who recognizes the flaws and wanted to see renewal. He succeeds at being remarkably objective, despite his personal investment in the subject.

The Book’s Structure

Penton tackles the story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in three sections:

  1. History. Starting with the Adventist Milieu of the 19th Century, Penton presents a clear and detailed history of the movement through 1985. An extra chapter in the 2nd edition describes the Witnesses from 1985 through 1997.
  2. Theology. Jehovah Witness theology is notoriously difficult to describe because it’s issued by fiat from head office and often contradicts earlier doctrine. Penteon eschews traditional systematic theological categories and proceeds from sources of authority. This allows him to present a truer picture of Jehovah Witness doctrine than you would get by slotting it into traditional fields.
  3. Sociology. Penton shows, ironically, how the governing structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses conforms quite closely to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The social pull that head office has on its members along with the power it wields to squash all dissent and questioning is clearly described.

Things I Learned

Many things struck me as fascinating in this study. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. The role of eschatology. The title of the book describes the defining feature of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They consistently pin their hopes on dates in the future which come and go and are then reinterpreted. 1873 was going to be the end of human existence. In 1874, Jesus was to return. In 1878, Jesus was to return in power. In 1881, Babylon the Great was to fall, meaning the end of false religious influence on the church. In 1914, the world was supposed to end. (Coincidentally, the advent of the Great War boosted their belief in this date.) In 1918, worldwide anarchy was to break out. In 1931, God would establish his kingdom in power on earth. These dates have all passed without greater significance. The timeline has been readjusted. The latest significant date was 1975, “the end of 6,000 years of human existence” (199).
  2. The importance of literature. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York is massively prolific. “In 1983 alone they distributed 53,517,808 Bibles, books, and booklets around the world, plus 460,072,255 copies of the Awake! and Watchtower magazines” (231). Despite labeling themselves as an organization dedicated to Scripture, Witnesses are expected to read far more Watchtower publications than scripture.
  3. The transformation from Russel to Rutherford. Charles T. Russell, the founder of what would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a generally likable character (despite his marriage issues). He was open to Christians of other stripes while still believing his revelations were the most accurate. When he died, J. F. Rutherford used political subterfuge and outright strong-arm tactics to install himself as Russel’s heir. Despite persistent alcoholism and very questionable morality, this man single-handedly transformed the organization from a movement of Bible Students to an army of door-to-door Witnesses.
  4. The ruthless exercise of control. The tactics used to squash all discontent are brutal. Take for example, Raymond V. Franz. The nephew of then President Frederick W. Franz, he started questioning doctrine and started looking for some sort of reformation. While he went on holidays, Frederick conducted a series of interviews with all of his nephew’s acquaintances. He returned from holidays to disfellowshipment. Those who talked with him were disfellowshiped. Some lost their livelihood when salespeople were instantly cut off from their entire social network.

Concluding Thoughts

Now that I’ve had time to think through the book, I’ve come to some conclusions. This book was written in 1985 and updated in 1997. I wonder what happened in the years following. Penton’s inside information and investigative skills provide a level of accuracy and detail you can’t find in official outlets.

The severe role of control on the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses has made me change my outlook when in conversation with them. When you discuss doctrine with a Jehovah’s Witness, you cannot expect them to merely shift their belief—you’re asking them to leave their friends, family, and social network behind.

Apocalypse Delayed is one of the most insightful and genuinely interesting books of religious history that I’ve read. I recommend it highly to anyone.

—M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, 1997).

How Should We Then Live? | Francis A. Schaeffer

The cover of Schaeffer's How Should We Then LiveHow Should We Then Live? is one of Francis Schaeffer’s best known works. It was followed by a film series (available here on YouTube), narrated by the author and directed by his son Frank Schaeffer.

Schaeffer’s work is essentially pessimistic. He surveys the cultural landscape from the ancient Romans onward and traces what he sees as a downward trend from a Biblical foundation of absolutes through the damaging effects of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Particularly interesting was his correlations between music, art, and ideology. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century increased in influence, art turned abstract and music turned to increased dissonance (such as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique).

When he considered the future, some of his ideas have proven to be accurate:

The possibility of information storage, beyond what men and governments ever had before, can make available at the touch of a button a man’s total history. … The combined use of the technical capability of listening in on all these forms of communications with the high-speed computer literally leavees no place to hide and little room for any privacy. (244)

Or, consider this comment with respect to the recent economic crisis:

There would be a lowering of prosperity and affluence among those individuals and countries which have come to take an ever-increasing level of prosperity for granted. (248)

The scope of this book is immense, and the connections and projections drawn between apparently discrete cultural phenomena are compelling. Still, I don’t buy the overall package for a couple reasons:

  1. The idea that worldwide culture has only gone in one direction (downhill) in its pursuit of humanism is too simplistic. That meta-narrative plays well in the minds of Christians with an escapism eschatological view, but not for those with a more incarnational bent.
  2. Schaeffer views realism in art as paramount, and views impressionism and abstract work as corruptions which reveal our ideological heart. Where does that leave those of us who see beauty in the abstract and deeper meaning in impressionism than realism?

This landmark book deserves to be read, both as a window into the evangelical psyche in the 1970s and as an interesting survey of cultural history. The arguments he made from this survey, however, need to be read with healthy skepticism.

—Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976).