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The Aeneid | Virgil

The cover of Virgil's The AeneidJust before Virgil (70-19 BC) died, he left instructions that his epic poem, The Aeneid, should be burned. Caesar Augustus (the one who called the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem) disagreed with Virgil’s dying wishes and rescued the manuscript at least in part because the story legitimized Roman culture and rule.

The Aeneid is a sequel of sorts to Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad narrates the Trojan war. At the end of the war, Odysseus journeys home (see Homer’s Odyssey) and Aeneid escapes and goes on his own convoluted journey. The good Aeneid begins the book fleeing the ruins of Troy and ends a mature hero who wins a new homeland: Rome.

Most interesting in The Aeneid is the interplay between divine and human agents. The gods are capricious, following up petty insults with life-altering storms. They back various human actors to play out their own squabbles. Eventually Jupiter has to step in with a stern, “Stop it!”

From a Christian perspective The Aeneid is a depressing world where capricious deities and fates tug humans around like puppets. Despite this, many Christian theologians were inspired by the ethics of the good Aeneid. In his Divine Comedy, Dante summoned up Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory!

The Collector’s Library edition features a prose translation by J. W. MacKail. The most difficult part of reading The Aeneid was remembering all the names. SparkNotes does an excellent job summarizing the plot of each book and describing the significance of the narrative. I recommend reading SparkNotes before and after each book of The Aeneid to aid in comprehension.

The Aeneid is a foundational work of literature that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by J. W. MacKail. London: Collector’s Library, 2004.

Revival | Stephen King

The cover of King's RevivalCharles Jacobs was a young minister who liked to tinker with electricity—until lost his wife and child in a horrific car accident. One “terrible sermon” later he left town with his faith in tatters and his electrical hobby turned an obsession.

Jamie Morton was a young child assaulting a German stronghold with plastic army men when Charles first entered his life. Revival is the story that covers their intertwined lives.

This novel stands out from the pack in a couple ways. In the first place, King excels at characterization and pacing. In contrast to so many action-packed suspense novels, King seems almost leisurely. By the time the action hits, you are emotionally invested in his characters. Surprisingly, this slower pace makes the book no less interesting. King proves that you don’t need to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger to sustain the constant reader’s interest.

The second way this novel stands out is King’s use of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror theme. He offers an explicit nod to Lovecraft when Jamie’s research assistant compares a book called De Vermis Mysteriis to Lovecraft’s “fictional” Necronomicon (389). This theme also connects Revival to the Dark Tower’s idea of the space between the worlds. The theme is only accentuated when juxtaposed against Jacob’s loss of faith.

Once again, King has shown himself a master storyteller by applying legitimate literary skills and devices to pulp fiction themes.

King, Stephen. Revival. New York: Pocket Books, 2014.

Unstoppable | Maria Sharapova

The cover of Sharapova's UnstoppableMaria Sharapova is a Juggernaut of the tennis world. She has been in fifty-nine career WTA finals, winning thirty-six titles (and counting—by the time this post is published, the 2018 Australian Open will be complete). She has an ability to finish on the biggest stages. At seventeen years of age she beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon. In 2012 she won her first French Open title, completing the career grand slam—a task only ten women have achieved.

Of course, she is also known for her meldonium suspension. Despite being cleared of any intentional wrongdoing (“under no circumstances, therefore, can the Player be considered an ‘intentional doper'” (Court of Arbitration for Sport verdict, 288)), many people only remember the initial news headline.

Her fifteen month meldonium suspension is not the only challenge she has faced in life. Her parents fled their home in the shadow of Chernobyl to Siberia and later to Sochi where Sharapova first picked up a tennis racket. As a young child her Father took her to America hoping her raw talent would open doors (it did). Her crushing serve has led to shoulder surgery and a new style of game-play. Serena William’s record against her is 19-2, despite that initial Wimbledon victory. Every time there is a setback, Sharapova’s drive to beat her opponents motivates her return.

The title, Unstoppable, perfectly fits a life that refuses to quit.

Sharapova, Maria with Rich Cohen. Unstoppable: My Life So Far. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2017.

Divine Echoes | Mark Gregory Karris

The cover of Karris' Divine EchoesHave you ever prayed for something desperately only to be left with silence? Now I’m not talking about, “Lord help me to win the lottery tomorrow,” or some manipulative quid pro quo like, “If you only get me out of this I’ll go to church every Sunday for a whole year!”

What happens when we pray according to what we know is God’s clearly revealed will only to be stymied by cruel circumstance? That’s when we pull out the time-worn answers:

  • God’s timing isn’t our timing
  • There must be some unconfessed sin in your life
  • God is using this to develop your character
  • There are mysteries we just can’t know (I call this the “Job” answer)

For Mark Gregory Karris, these answers didn’t satisfy on a theological or a personal level. In Divine Echoes, Karris presents a new theological perspective on prayer rooted in the theodicy model of “essential kenosis” (18) developed by Thomas J. Oord in his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.

Essential Kenosis

Is God a powerful being who loves or a loving being who is powerful? The essential kenosis model assumes the second. Consider this quote from Oord’s Uncontrolling Love of God:

God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love. Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine, and God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling the strings. God never controls others. But God sometimes acts miraculously, in noncoercive ways. God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty. (94)

For Oord (and Karris), God does not intervene unilaterally in the world—to do so would be to deny his nature as love. God works with his creation for the restoration of all things. Karris puts it bluntly:

It is not that God can control creatures but chooses not to do so. It is that God cannot control creatures due to his loving nature. Simply put, love does not control (126).

Oord’s model provided Karris with a way out of a philosophical problem he had with prayer.

The Philosophical Problem with Prayer

Let me qualify that heading. Karris’ problem is with petitionary prayer—the sort where you ask God to act even when the pray-er is disconnected from the situation. These prayers include:

  • Lord, please help the people in [foreign country].
  • Lord, show your peace to the people suffering from [latest tragedy].

Karris defines this traditional understanding of prayer as “talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand” (34).

These sort of prayers imply that God is not already loving those people to the fullest. They imply that by the act of praying, you are somehow increasing God’s capacity to love. Let me put it negatively: if you did not pray, God would not care as much. With this comes incredible stress and pressure!

On the contrary, says Karris,

God always loves to his greatest ability in every moment, respecting our free will and other agencies in the process. (21)

If this is true, then petitionary prayer at a distance does nothing other than assuage the heart of the pray-er. It could actually undermine God’s work by relieving the burden of action from the pray-er.

What About the Bible?

Here’s the rub. Scripture tells stories that don’t align very well with the essential kenosis model. Jonah’s fish was a pretty coercive move! When it comes to prayer, there are many places where people petition God to act in power at a distance. Karris tackles this problem head-on in two ways.

First, he notes that words have more than a literal meaning. Consider Paul’s request for boldness:

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19 NRSV).

On the surface, it appears that Paul needs the Ephesians to pray or God will not empower him to be as bold as he could otherwise be. Karris looks deeper and considers the community-forming value this prayer request would have on the Ephesian church. Furthermore, “the people making the requests feel comforted knowing others are praying for them” (44).

Second, he challenges traditional evangelical models of interpretation. Karris cites Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So and Gregory Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God as ways to interpret scripture which “loosen the grip of a reductionist, literal view” (115). It would have been helpful for Karris to explain these models of interpretation further since the average reader might not know the theological freight they carry.

Karris offers enough exegetical insight to make the average reader question the traditional interpretation of scripture on petitionary prayer. Perhaps that’s all we can reasonably expect from one chapter in a broader argument.

Conspiring Prayer

The most important part of Divine Echoes is not the deconstruction of classic views, but the constructive project based on the word conspire:

The English word conspire comes from the Latin word conspirare, which literally means “to breathe together” and figuratively “to act in harmony toward a common end.” (151)

Conspiring prayer is something the pray-er does “with God rather than to God” (151). Instead of praying, “Lord, help the victims of [this tragedy],” we pray, “Lord, how can I help to demonstrate your love to the victims?” Here the people praying acknowledge the uncontrolling love of God while at the same time assume their God-given responsibility.

Personally, these chapters were the most inspiring. Even if you choose not to jettison the traditional view of prayer, the conspiring prayer model is a powerful corrective to works-less faith.

Bonus Material

Karris provides appendices full of conspiring prayers which confirm and illuminate the work he did in the main body of the book. There is also a study guide available for small groups. The questions are well thought out and will help any prayer group wrestle with the problem of theodicy and the role of conspiring prayer.

Karris, Mark Gregory. Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. Orange, CA: Quoir, 2018.

Karris, Mark Gregory. Divine Echoes Study Guide: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. Orange, CA: Quoir, 2018.

The Strange Bird | Jeff Vandermeer

The cover of Vandermeer's The Strange Bird“Experimental Storytelling, stunning design, original voices,” reads the tag line on the publisher’s Twitter feed. They hit the nail on the head with Strange Bird.

This short novel gives the reader a new vertical perspective on the world of Borne. If Borne was weird, Strange Bird is just flat-out bizarre. Vandermeer has created a genetic engineering, mystery, coming-of-age, survival, dystopian, horror, love(?) story. Stranger still, it works! Vandermeer makes the weird feel plausible.

The foxes, the sorcerer, Rachel, and Wick all figure in to this new story arc that overlaps the events of Borne yet remains its own. If you enjoyed Borne, then you will need to read Strange Bird.

Vandermeer, Jeff. The Strange Bird. New York: MCD x FSG Originals, 2017.

Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy | Edmund Husserl

The cover of Husserl's Phenomenology and the Crisis of PhilosophyYou just never know what you’re going to find in a second-hand bookstore. Somewhat dejected that my go-to bookstore had closed up shop in Kingston, I walked back to the car along a side street where I stumbled upon Berry & Peterson Booksellers. I left with an armful of treasures, including this volume from Husserl.

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) was a German philosopher who wrote and rewrote voluminous manuscripts in which he presented a type of philosophy that would be just as rigorous as scientific investigation: phenomenology. Although phenomenology would come to be associated with the existentialists who would follow—Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir—Husserl was its midwife.

Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy consists of three parts:

  1. A helpful introduction to Husserl and his philosophy by translator Quentin Lauer
  2. “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” an early essay by Husserl (1911)
  3. “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man,” a late lecture by Husserl (1935)

To be honest, had I not already read Cresswell & Poth’s Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design and van Manen’s Phenomenology of Practice, I would have been quite lost navigating Husserl’s thought. Reading Husserl in light of these other books was like watching sinew and flesh attach to the dry bones.

Husserl’s obviously not for everyone, but if you’re doing phenomenological research or are interested in the philosophical roots of the existential movement, these essays are a good place to start.

Husserl, Edmund. Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy. Translated by Quentin Lauer. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965.

The Water Knife | Paolo Bacigalupi

The cover of Bacigalupi's The Water KnifeAngel Velasquez is a water knife. He cuts water supplies to drought-stricken towns in the American Southwest to make his employer’s desert thrive. Set in the near future, Bacigalupi imagines what the world could become when human greed and cut-throat litigation run wild.

Bacigalupi set the bar high with The Windup Girl. Unfortunately, The Water Knife doesn’t live up to is predecessor. While he is still able to create a terrifyingly plausible near future, this book is more thriller, less social commentary.

I’m aware that many people may in fact prefer The Water Knife to The Windup Girl. This newer book reads like a soon-to-be optioned movie thriller. If that’s what you enjoy, then The Water Knife has action to spare. If you’re more interested in the world we are creating, then the over-the-top shockers and cliff-hanging chapters leave little room for reflection.

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Water Knife. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Neverwhere | Neil Gaiman

The cover of Gaiman's NeverwhereNeil Gaiman can do no wrong. From American Gods to The Sandman, from The Ocean at the End of the Lane to Norse Mythology—everything he writes is compelling. Gaiman has the ability to transport you into alternate worlds that feel, despite their fantastical nature, just as real as the chair in which you read them.

In the introduction to this, the Author’s preferred text, Gaiman explains that

I wanted to write a book that would do for adults what the books I had loved when younger, books like Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia books, or The Wizasrd of Oz, did for me as a kid. (xii)

He succeeded. Neverwhere is the story of the underside of London where people who fall through the cracks live. It’s a place where rats are honored, villains have careers that last for centuries, and character like Door can, well, open doors. Think Narnia only darker and far more dangerous.

To echo the words that Guy Gavriel Kay wrote to first-time readers of The Once and Future King, I envy everyone who has not yet read this book. You have the gift of being able to read Neverwhere for the first time.

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. Author’s Preferred Text. New York: William Morrow, 2015.

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