A Visit to Vanity Fair by Alan Jacobs

It is hard to top the publisher’s description of A Visit to Vanity Fair:

These perceptive moral essays crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. A cultural hawk eye delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations on the way we live now. “A Visit to Vanity Fair” blends personal reflection with cultural criticism to address such topics as reading with children, sitting with a dying friend, and watching TV documentaries.

I mean it really does “crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. and Jacobs is a “cultural hawk eye” who “delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations” and “blends personal reflection with cultural criticism.

The sad thing is that I have had this book on my shelf for quite some time.  I have long been enamored with Jacobs and his writing.  I have read a number of his books and have followed his writing online for many, many years.  But like so many of the authors and topics I collect and mean to dive into, I get distracted and end up just dipping into a book here or there.  For the last year or so I have thought about trying to read as much of Jacobs catalog as I could but have mostly failed.  So I recently girded my loins, so to speak, and grabbed this book of the shelf and forced myself to concentrate and spend time reading until I finished.

And it was worth it. It truly is a wonderful collection of thought provoking and well crafted essays. Published nearly 20 years ago, it nevertheless feels as engaging and relevant as ever. Whether dealing with Bob Dylan or Harry Potter, Jacobs gets at issues that remain not frothy debates of the minute. Instead, philosophy, literature, faith and writing are explored with verve and wit.

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Reforesting Faith: Are trees essential to every Christian’s understanding of God? (5/100)

I had never heard of Dr. Matthew Sleeth before he visited my church.  One of the Sunday school classes was reading his book The Gospel According to the Earth. I will confess that I was skeptical of the title and the subject for a variety of reasons I won’t go into at the moment (complicated subject), but when he came to speak I found him quirky and interesting so picked up two of his books: Reforesting Faith and 24/6.

I started reading Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us almost immediately and it was the fourth fifth book I finished in 2020.*

In this groundbreaking walk through Scripture, former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes the convincing case why trees are essential to every Christian’s understanding of God.

Yet we’ve mostly missed how God has chosen to tell His story–and ours–through the lens of trees. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The Bible refers to itself as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18).
Every major Biblical character has a tree associated with them. Jesus himself says he is the true vine (John 15:1). A tree was used to kill Jesus–and a tree is the only thing the Messiah ever harmed.

This is no accident. When we subtract trees from Scripture, we miss lessons of faith necessary for our growth.

This is the rare book that connects those who love the Creator with creation, and those who love creation with the Creator. It offers inspirational yet practical ways to express our love for God–and our neighbors–by planting spiritual trees and physical trees in the world.

After reading it in fits and starts, the chapters are pretty short, I found it to be a very earnest, and at times interesting, but too anecdotal devotional of sorts focused on trees.

Dr. Sleeth moves through scripture pointing out the near constant connection between important moments and trees, bushes, seeds, etc. all the while extolling the planting of trees as a spiritual gift to the planet and our neighbors.

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Leaving Cloud 9 by Ericka Andersen

I’ve known Ericka Andersen for over a decade going back to my days as a conservative blogger/online activist type.  Over the years I have been impressed with her career as she became an expert in social media marketing, digital influence and communications.  She works hard, has a lot of energy and works for some great organizations.

I was equally impressed when she moved back to Indiana to be closer to her family and to start a family herself.  And although I followed many of these changes via Facebook, we weren’t particularly close friends and my busy life and own family meant I only saw bits and pieces when I happened to catch them in my feed.

So when I heard that she was publishing a book, Leaving Cloud 9, about her husband and his remarkable life story I was intrigued.  I try to make a point of reading books by people I know (even if only online).  The dramatic nature of the story she would tell grabbed my attention even more.  I was lucky enough to be able to get a review copy from NetGalley and dove in.

As I have mentioned on social media a few times, Leaving Cloud 9 is not an easy book to read.  It tells the story of abuse, neglect, and abandonment; of PTSD, bipolar, social anxiety, divorce and depression.  But it is also a story about love and redemption; about beating the odds and rising above the most challenging environment to find faith, hope and love.

The book reads like a memoir in the sense that it recounts the life of Rick Sylvester but it does so through the voice and eyes of his now wife Ericka.  Along the way she folds in social sciences research and public policy issues related to the problems and issues Rick faced.

As I read through the traumas Rick and his sister suffered through and their continued attempts to simply survive when everything in life seems stacked against them, I couldn’t help but thinking 1) what a harsh reminder of how some people live and how blessed I am, even with challenges of my own family and 2) how did the @#$% did Rick survive?

And that is what the book drives at; that question looms throughout.  Andersen’s answer is a combination of Rick’s own refusal to give up, a few people and circumstances at key points, and God’s saving grace.

Rick showed an amazing determination to just keep trying; to keep pushing forward. He joined the military after high school which gave him discipline, solidarity and friendships.  It was not a smooth experience and he didn’t find the military his ultimate vocation but there were important elements of adulthood that were gained.

There were a few key people who helped Rick survive.  First and foremost was his sister.  They clearly relied on each other their whole lives and just having some else there with you as you went through hell meant something important.  And later his sister would play a key role in helping Rick keep trying and moving forward.  One of his mom’s boyfriends also helped Rick see that there were adults who cared about him and who could serve as role models, no matter how flawed.  Just a glimpse of love and support meant a lot. And of course, Ericka is in many ways the final necessary piece to his healing process.

God is the other thread that is weaved into the whole story.  Ericka and Rick are not shy about their belief that God is the ultimate reason that Rick has come through the incredible traumas he faced and found a life of stability, love and support.  This foundational belief that God was moving in Rick’s life and in Ericka’s and that the only path to salvation was faith in Jesus Christ; both in the abstract theological sense and in the very real life sense.

You may or may not agree with this theological perspective.  You may have nagging questions about the existence of evil and the role of faith; may wonder how Rick is different from the many other children who didn’t find a happy ending.  But you can’t question the role it played in their respective lives and, as Ericka relates, how Rick truly found healing in the church and through his faith.

And as these threads begin to connect in the book’s closing chapters what struck me was the amazing love Ericka obviously has for Rick and the deep faith required to believe that 1) the real Rick was not reflected in his problems, his anger and social anxiety 2) that God was calling her to something important in this relationship. I don’t mean to imply that Ericka took on Rick as some sort of mission project but rather she understood that their relationship could be a true reflection of the redemptive love of Jesus and that would be a beautiful thing.  To see through all the challenges and truly believe that God could make something beautiful out of all of the suffering, and of Ericka’s life, struggles and experiences, etc..

It is truly an incredible story.  Not just that Rick could overcome incredible odds and graduate college, find stable employment, find a lasting love, and begin to create a loving family of his own, but that he and Ericka could meet in Washington, DC and create a bond that would lead to love, marriage and parenthood.  Even having children was an act of faith and another example of how they persevered through love and faith.

So the question that lingers in many people’s minds has to be why write a book like this and why read it?  Ericka and Rick took the risk to tell their story because they believed it would give hope and faith to those who might be struggling with the same or similar issues.  They want to spread the message that you can survive and even thrive.

And in the same way reading it is a stark reminder of the incredible hardships many American’s face every day and that faith, hope and love are needed more than ever.  Ericka and Rick’s story is inspiring and humbling.  For many who read it, like me, it will be a reminder to count your blessings and an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith and family.

And that is a message we all need to hear.

 

Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children by Erick Erickson

One of the weird things about my lingering inability to post book reviews with any sort of consistency is that I have continued to read; often quite a lot.  Last year I read/listened to 100 books!

One of those was Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children
by Erick Erickson.  Like so many, I never got around to posting a review of the book here.  Well, today is his birthday so I got the idea that maybe I should finally offer my thoughts on his book.

It is not easy to review books by people you consider friends; even if the friendship is mostly online rather than in person. I have known Erick for many years, and consider him a friend even if we have met only on a couple of occasions. Although our politics are both conservative, we bring quite different perspectives to blogging and politics.  But I have always appreciated the passion and insight Erick brings.  Plus, he is famous and I am not … So take that for whatever it is worth.

What struck me about this book was how personal it is. It has the flavor of a memoir rather than an advice book. And then there are recipes at the end. But it makes sense somehow because you can tell how much joy cooking, eating and entertaining give to Erick.

Erick offers insight into how he became the person he is today not in terms of his political philosophy but in terms of personality and interests. His childhood, in the US and in the Middle East, made a big impression on him. He recalls with relish and joy his experiences. At times you might wonder what it all means and how it ties together. But I think it is just something that Erick believes made hims who he is. And he is trying to capture that for his children and for readers who might be interested.

The other aspect that comes through is how increasingly Erick is viewing his life through the lens of his faith and his community rather than through politics and elections. He stresses over and over again that what he wants for his children is that they love God, love their family and seek to be part of a community that reflects the Creator; that they love their neighbors and serve others.

This is not a radical idea from a Christian perspective, but for those who only know Erick from partisan politics, and the world of talking heads and talk radio, this might seem oddly communitarian and localist. As tribalism, and with it a toxic public square, has come to dominate our politics Erick has clearly felt called to something different. Admittedly, he struggles with how that looks like day-to-day but his preference for something different comes through clearly in this short book.

His family’s medical challenges, his career path in the often unstable world of political commentary, and his growing fame online, on TV and on the radio, all provide opportunities to learn and grown.  Erick walks the reader through these events and seeks to pull our pearls of wisdom to offer his children.  There is nothing particularly profound but there is also plenty of advice worth taking.

I always used to joke online that the biggest secret about Erick was that he was a really nice guy involved in an often ugly business. This book brings that “secret” out into the open. Erick’s mantra might be boiled down to faith, family, friends and food. Seek community and connection in these, he tells his children, and you will find purpose and meaning. 

I doubt a lot of people who disagree with Erick’s politics have or will read this book.  Which is a shame because we could do with a world where more people got to know each other who disagree.  And this book will help you understand Erick Erickson the person rather than Erick the talking head or Erick the radio host.  It won’t change your mind but it might change how you see pundits and those in the news. 

Plus, if you happen to be a foodie or cook, you get the added bonus of what sound like a bunch of delicious recipes.

The Commodification of God

Commodification has led most people to view God as a device to be used rather than an all-powerful Creator to be revered. This also explains our abundant and careless words about him. Is it any surprise that a divine butler would fail to provoke reverent silence? What need is there to rein in one’s tongue if God is merely a cosmic therapist? The god of Consumer Christianity does not inspire awe and wonder because he is nothing more than a commodity to be used for our personal satisfaction and self-achievement.

— The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity” by Skye Jethani

Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things
I had The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber on my wish list for quite a while.  Genre defying story with a faith/religious thread? Sign me up.  I actually grabbed a hardback for a couple of bucks at a library sale but hadn’t made time to read it. So I decided to go the audio route and listen to it on my daily commute.

I am somewhat torn as to my reaction. I really enjoyed it for about 75% but then it felt like it was dragging a bit.

But no sooner had I begun to feel that, it cranked up the tension and I stayed up late to finish it.  I finished it in hardback, however, as I didn’t have the patience to wait for my next car trip once I got close to the ending.

In the same way, I am not sure what to make of the book’s approach to faith and Christianity. Most of the book reads like a rather fair and sympathetic perspective on the life of a missionary and perhaps a commentary on modern Western culture.

But the end seems to undercut that or at least call it into question. I am not sure I have the energy to read it again, so I will have to leave my reaction ambiguous.

Instead, I will offer a few quotes from other reviews.

Jason Sheehan at NPR offers this praise:

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

But then this:

Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters.

M John Harrison at the Guardian:

This is a big novel – partly because it has to construct and explain its unhomely setting, partly because it has such a lot of religious, linguistic, philosophical and political freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxiety that pervades and taints every element.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

For all its galactic wonders, “The Book of Strange New Things” is a subtle, meditative novel that winds familiar space-alien tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion.

[…]

It takes a while to realize that, despite its bizarre setting and all the elements of an interplanetary opera, this is a novel of profound spiritual intimacy. Peter knows the Bible well, and if you do, too, you’ll see that he experiences everything through the fabric of its metaphors and parables. He prays like someone who actually believes, which in literary fiction is far more exotic than a space alien with a hamburger face.

Hannah McGill in the Independent:

Crucially for the sincerity of The Book of Strange New Things, Peter and his faith are presented without mockery, and the story of his mission as an experience befalling a real, feeling man, not – say – an allegory for what damage dogma and conversion have done in the world. So prevalent in the ranks of the verbose intelligentsia is the notion of all religion as a mere cover story for greed and wrongdoing that the depiction of a religious man as a sincere do-gooder feels discreetly radical, and permits Faber to ask profound questions not about the performance or misapplication of faith, but about the true condition thereof – and how that condition can be reconciled to a collective existence plagued by undeserved misfortune.

[…]

But this novel most potently concerns itself with matters at once more quotidian and more challenging than these. It is as much about the minor failures of communication that can erode marital intimacy as it is about contacting other beings, and as much about the existential terror inherent in putative parenthood as it is about travel to far-off worlds. As the once-inseparable Peter and Beatrice, now worlds apart, struggle to comprehend one another’s day-to-day lives, Faber lets a devastating possibility shuffle to the fore: every relationship is long-distance, and every person a strange new planet. The methods whereby we try to minimise difference, meanwhile, are themselves unstable – language most palpably so.

I guess I am more on the positive (some nearly gushing) reviews spectrum than I am on the negative. But, perhaps because I am not all that knowledgeable about science fiction or speculative fiction, I can’t quite see the profound and literary masterpiece some have found.

But it was different and I very much enjoyed the journey.

My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars (View all my reviews)

Rowan Williams: the case for blasphemy

If you are forbidden to voice the hard questions, this might suggest that faith survives only by never being challenged. The person who actually expresses their fury or disgust or disillusion can, at least sometimes, be demonstrating faith of a sort, confidence that, if God is real, it is possible, even necessary, to say what you feel about Him – and that, unless you can say this, the God you started with is not worth believing in. This underpins many of the Jewish Psalms or the poems of George Herbert or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Blasphemy resists the conspiracy of silence about the agonising difficulties of belief, resists the stifling of a real and honest response to an unjust world.

Source: Rowan Williams: the case for blasphemy

Review: Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation

Goodreads:
Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation by Christopher Bryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick Take:

I picked this book up at Half Price Books because it seemed like an interesting, and short, exploration of an important subject. I did enjoy Bryan’s approach: an acknowledgement of the contributions of historical criticism and a return to reading scripture in its context but with it an understanding that we read from a position and from within a community – the community of faith.

The author brings a strong literary perspective and even has an appendix focused on liturgical readings that truly bring out the literary or rhetorical element of scripture. There is a lot of academic “name dropping” and references, and the author is British, so if you are not familiar with the debates within the academy this might be distracting and confusing. I felt like I knew enough to get through it but probably would have gotten more out of it if I had a deeper knowledge.

I didn’t make the connection until writing this post, but I have Bryan’s Render Unto Caesar on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it for some time. And his novel Siding Star has been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. Hmm, might need to dive a little deeper into Bryan’s work.

Any who, if you are interested in approaches to scripture and have some knowledge of the debate this is an interesting and readable volume.