Book Review: The Color Of Law

The Color Of Law:  A Forgotten History Of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein

Let us make it clear at the outset that this is not a very good book at all.  The author’s tone is continually abusive and frequently self-contradictory.  His rhetoric is immensely poor and deeply (and unfortunately) partisan.  His conclusions and desired “remedies” on behalf of African-Americans for supposed past wrongs is immensely dangerous, and he lacks any kind of gratitude for such entitlements as already exist, only seeking to redistribute more wealth to ungrateful and unworthy ghetto denizens.  The author even finds a way to try to attack the motives of builders who provided amenities to black neighborhoods, blames a lot of ghetto violence perpetuated by blacks on high rents (despite property whose value doesn’t increase because no one wants to move into such neighborhoods) and lead poisoning, and attacks the motives of Republicans who voted for pro-black measures during the 20th century.  As someone who is no stranger to reading the sort of inflammatory nonsense that is pitched to black readers as reasonable and sensible policy [1], this book may be a new low, because it claims to be restrained and ends up not being so and desires its readers to be outraged at government behavior in the past and only manages to spark outrage against the author and those of his ilk.

This book has about 250 pages of material (and a lot of endnotes) and is divided into twelve chapters, along with a preface, epilogue, author’s note and acknowledgements, and an appendix of frequently asked questions that basically gives up the argument that the author had been making about the willingness of most whites to live blacks that the author had been dishonestly peddling through the entire book.  The author begins with a look at racist housing practices in San Francisco, accurately pointing out that if blacks were not wanted in white neighborhoods there, then the same would be the case everywhere else (1).  After that the author looks at public housing and its influence on the creation and maintaining of black ghettos (2), racial zoning practices (3), and the urge to encourage (white) people to own their own homes (4).  The author discusses private agreements that were enforced by the government concerning restrictive covenants (5) and the issue of white flight (6) away from neighborhoods threatened with unwanted new neighbors.  The author looks at IRS support and compliant regulation of racially motivated housing (7), examines local tactics to preserve segregation (8), and even state-sanctioned violence against those who would cross the color line (9).  Finally, the author ends with whining and complaining about suppressed incomes and home values (10), a look forward and back about the issue (11), and some laughable and often unconstitutional fixes (12) that would satisfy the author and others of like mind.

The author’s ignorance of how republics and democracies work throughout this book is profound, but this book makes sense when it is viewed as an extremely biased work made in favor of a particular group that seeks to make their unreasonable demands appear politic and reasonable to themselves so that they can console themselves with feeling like they are moderate when they are being extremist.  For those readers who want to get a sense of the author’s real understanding of the problem, it is worthwhile to read the appendix first, where the author openly admits that white people, in the main, do not want to live around that many black people, and that there is consequently little or no desire on the part of a majority of the public to engage in the sorts of reforms and socialist remedies that the author has in mind, which makes the rest of the book largely an exercise in partisan hackery and outragemongering, which is not too unsurprising of a modern leftist/Progressive work but also not the sort of thing that I can recommend that people read except to understand how out of touch such people are with reality and with the limits of politics to what is possible.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/29/book-review-african-american-inventions-that-changed-the-world/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/11/24/book-review-white-rage/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/12/book-review-a-land-of-our-own/

Posted in American History, Book Reviews, History | Tagged | Leave a comment

Book Review: To Change The Church

To Change The Church:  Pope Francis And The Future Of Catholicism, by Ross Douthat

As someone who is at least a moderately serious observer of the Roman Catholic Church [1], I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book.  I think that the author believes himself to be more conservative than he really is simply because the left that he is to the right of is so far off from what is biblically correct that to be a part of it is insanity, and he comes off as a moderate but not an insane person.  That said, the author’s caution and sense of justice is relatively even-handed, a tough thing when dealing with contemporary Catholicism as well as contemporary politics, both aspects this writer wades into.  The author also praises John Zmirak, who happens to be an online acquaintance of mine and a pretty hilarious commentator on contemporary Catholicism from a traditionalist perspective.  By and large I thought this book was a good one, as it honestly attempts to come to grips with Francis’ dictatorial approach and its possible effects on the unity of Catholicism as a whole as well as the troubled relationship between Catholicism and modernity as a whole.

This volume of about 200 pages is divided into eleven chapters, and also includes a personal preface by the author (who explains his background and approach) and also acknowledgements, notes, and an index.  The author begins with a look about the fate of most popes to be prisoners of the Vatican (1), and then provides three different stories about Vatican II and its consequences, looking at a conservative and liberal narrative as well as the author’s own more moderate narrative (2).  After this the author discusses the surprising abdication of the previous pope (3) and the surprise victory of the Argentine Bergoglio in the conclave that followed (4).  The author discusses Francis’ agenda as a pope (5) as well as the marriage problem that ruined his papal honeymoon pretty quickly (6).  The author then looks at Francis’ efforts to change the church in radical ways (7) and the pope’s disinterest in responding to his conservative and traditionalist critics (8).  The author then finishes with a comparison between the contemporary crisis and the dispute between Athanasians and Arians (9) as well as between Jansenits and Jesuits in 17th century France (10) before looking at the Francis legacy as likely having been “making a mess,” without really doing anything to fix the problems that contemporary Catholicism faces (11).

Again, without being a great book or an essential book, this is certainly a good one.  The author has thought seriously about the historical antecedents to the contemporary state of the Catholic Church and comments that schism and division are possible as well as a continued weakness within the Catholic Church.  The extent to which this weakness may be corrected by a more dynamic successor who is able to recover Catholic influence in a world that is growing ever more hostile to biblical Christianity or anything that remotely resembles it and the way that the divisions of the Catholic Church can be overcome by future events is somewhat unclear.  The author shows himself to be somewhat skeptical about the relationship between political and social and theological conservatism in the United States among many right-wing American Catholics and also makes a shrewd comparison between Trump and Francis as both representing populist opposition to contemporary institutions that are viewed as being dangerously out of touch with contemporary reality.  This book certainly gave me food for thought and if you find reading about internal Catholic politics interesting you will likely find something of worth here as well.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/28/book-review-the-dictator-pope/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/08/28/book-review-the-bad-popes/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/04/26/book-review-the-pope-and-mussolini/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/28/book-review-hitler-and-the-vatican/

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Hoist With Their Own Petard

Sometimes expressions are so common that we cease to think of how revolutionary or how alarming they are.  Let us take, for example, the expression “hoist with their own petard,” which first appears in the English language in Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet.  During the late 1500’s and early 1600’s there was a rash of religious related violence that included but was not limited to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France that slaughtered thousands of Protestants, the assassination of the Dutch revolt leader William of Orange, and the second defenestration of Prague, which started the Thirty Year’s War and led to the death of many Germans and the beginning of the contemporary age of Westphalian diplomacy [1].  In this atmosphere of immense violence and hostility among different worldviews within Europe Shakespeare came up with an expression in a play that dealt with violence that demonstrated the often-neglected truth that those who plan violence often end up destroying themselves in the process.

This is a lesson we would do well to learn.  Our own time appears to greatly trust in political violence in a variety of forms to prove our points.  Even mainstream political parties in some countries, like the United States, endorse political violence against opponents that they denigrate for being fascist, which tempts many people to oblige them by cracking down on them as domestic terrorists.  But whether we are trying to attack political enemies because of a belief that their mere existence is dangerous, or support drone strikes or bombings or even the slicing and dicing of political opponents when they are engaging in routine evidence of trying to get a marriage licensed, political violence is a common contemporary problem in our world.  And in our support of the coercive power of states or of the coercive power of paramilitary groups in order to help takeover the state, it is easy to forget that this violence can easily rebound destructively upon us and that those who are quick to resort to the sword or gun or bomb may easily die by the means they have sought to utilize to destroy others.

Sometimes this happens in literal ways.  When an American or Israeli drone kills a bombmaker, the irony is rather appropriate.  Better yet, when someone’s efforts at planning weapons leads to their own death when their bomb factory explodes, there is a sense of poetic justice about such a fate.  Those who seek to bring political violence to ordinary people and who find themselves dead instead will not find me a mourner at their funeral, regardless of their political ideology.  More often, though, those who wish to spread their own ideology by violence are themselves often (perceived) victims of violence who increase violence that ends up consuming the lives of other people and leading to still other people whose wounds and losses lead them to resort to violence as a way of evening the score.  When even the act of having a bumper sticker on one’s car or an item of clothing like a hat or a t-shirt that shows one’s political worldview can provoke violence, and when the response of others who have been subject to violence or at least felt it possible that they may be respond with contempt instead of compassion, we live in a world where politics has gotten too serious.

That is not to say that politics is unserious, but only that it is not nearly as serious as we often make it.  What is most serious and most important about politics are not political issues at all but the underlying moral and philosophical issues underneath our politics.  Yet we seldom go beneath the surface in examining these matters.  People proclaim others to be against science when they are only against bad philosophy masquerading as science, such as the philosophical position of scientism and naturalism which denies anything nonphysical.  People slander and libel others as being against women when they are only against the murder of innocent unborn children.  And so it goes.  Our inability to separate the deeper philosophical and theological disagreements we have with others from the surface level identities that these choices manifest themselves in mean that we treat the surface level disagreements of being as of greater importance than is the case.  Violence is a form of communication, to be sure, but it is not a very good form of communication.

Indeed, it may be said that the violence of our own time is a natural consequence of the silence that often exists between people of very different worldviews.  If we live in an echo chamber and only hear views that are supportive of our worldview and position, we may greatly exaggerate how obvious what we view of as truth is.  We may simply not be equipped to handle those who think and reason differently from ourselves.  On the other hand, some of us have always been involved in debate and communication with those of other worldviews.  Whether it is because we have combative personalities, or worldviews which are sufficiently unusual that we have no choice but to engage with others or because we live in areas where we are surrounded by those who think and feel differently from ourselves, we may find ourselves in significant danger of suffering from political violence because people cannot handle the content of our communication.  To seek to silence others through violence is a sign that one is not confident in one’s ability to silence arguments through refutation and reason.  And if our rhetoric is sufficiently combative, it can be easy for all of us to be hoist on our own petard when others take our rhetoric seriously and respond to us the way we endorse others being dealt with with whom we violently disagree.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/08/20/non-book-review-the-ashgate-companion-to-the-thirty-years-war/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/05/20/the-three-defenestrations-of-prague/

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Book Review: What Does The Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?

What Does The Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?, by Kevin DeYoung

Like many contemporary writers, against my own personal inclinations I have felt it necessary from time to time to write about homosexuality [1], and one gets the sense that the writer is in the same boat I am.  In this particular case, the author’s tendency to pick a rather narrow field that is not necessarily unique is a winning strategy, because it allows this book to be taut and focused and strongly biblical and exegetical in its approach.  Given the heated nature of the feelings that exist about this subject and about the larger question of biblical relevance in contemporary society, the author’s approach is for the best, and successfully handles issues of whataboutism as well as worthwhile points as to the connection between approving what God clearly hates and holding to a generally liberal worldview about the Bible that views scripture as having little relevant to say about contemporary problems.  Again, although I have found much to be critical about in the author’s writings as a whole, this book is certainly one which I can wholeheartedly approve of not merely for its doctrinal positions but also, somewhat surprisingly, for its kindness and gentleness.

This short book of around 150 pages is divided into two parts.  In the first part of the book, the author concisely presents the biblical position on homosexuality.  He begins by looking at the biblical ideal of one man and one woman joined together in a complementary fashion into one flesh from Creation (1), continues with a discussion of the notoriety of Sodom and Gomorrah in scripture and in extrabiblical writings of the Second Temple period (2), takes the “strange” book of Leviticus and its prohibitions seriously (3), moves on to a discussion of Paul’s condemnations in Romans (4), and then looks at how Paul cites the Hebrew scriptures in the new circumstances of NT Christianity in places like 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 (5).  The second part of the book is devoted to answering objections to the biblical position towards homosexuality and also includes various supplementary material.  This includes defeating arguments about how the Bible apparently barely mentions homosexuality (6) and attempts to defend loving and committed relationships as not being the sort of homosexuality that the Bible condemns (7).  It also includes dealing with the whataboutism of questions of gluttony and divorce (8), the longing for the church to be a place for broken people (9), triumphalist beliefs that traditionalists are on the wrong side of history (10), the lack of supposed fairness implicit in there being no legitimate way to practice same-sex desires (11), and claims that God is a God of love and not burdensome restrictions on personal behavior (12).  The book also contains a conclusion about walking with God and with each other in truth and grace and three appendixes about same sex marriage, same-sex attraction, and ten commitments concerning the Church and homosexuality as well as an annotated bibliography, acknowledgements, and a scriptural index.

Again, in stark contrast to the majority of the author’s writings, this book demonstrates a firm fidelity to scripture, an awareness of relevant extrabiblical literature that can be used to support a strong biblical case, awareness and an interest in the proper understanding of contentious words in the koine Greek of the New Testament, and a graciousness towards whom the author disagrees.  With a mild approach like this one, the author may be capable of winning over people through persuasiveness rather than merely trying to club people with his preferred interpretations.  Before reading this book I would not have suspected that the author was capable of handling such delicate and contentious matters in such a winsome fashion, but this book surprised me for the better.  That is not to say that this book will be popular with those who adopt a liberal Christian approach to trying to abandon the Bible’s clear teaching because of its odious nature among the fallen and reprobate and because it cuts against our own desires to follow the dictates of our own deceitful and wicked hearts, but this book does what it sets out to do and does it well, making it an essential read in wrestling with the biblical position on homosexuality and its implications.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/06/16/a-fair-question-on-homosexuality-and-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/21/book-review-out/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/03/28/book-review-critical-conversations/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/06/06/the-difference-between-prohibition-and-regulation/

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Book Review: Taking God At His Word

Taking God At His Word:  Why The Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, And Enough, And What That Means For You And Me, by Kevin DeYoung

As someone who has ready plenty of books defending the plenary inspiration of the Bible [1], this book came as somewhat of a disappointment.  As it happened, I discussed this book briefly with a coworker and we commented on the different sorts of apologetic works that we preferred and what approaches we found most convincing.  This author’s approach, unfortunately, fell a bit short.  It is possible that the author was intending on speaking to the choir here, but given that he shows a pattern of working in the area that has already been (more ably) written about by others in search of popularity and an audience, the author’s efforts here are particularly disappointing.  It would have been a far better book to enjoy, even as I agree with many of the points (although not many of the author’s specific arguments) that he is trying to defend, if the author had been more ambitious in defending the Bible from history as well and not so set upon using presuppositional apologetics, or so intent on writing about the sufficiency of scripture and not the goal of relationship between God and man that scripture helps in.

Be that as it may, this book is at least short in containing 8 chapters and an appendix of great books about the Bible in about 125 pages or so.  In this book the author begins with the difference between believing, feeling, and doing (1).  As might be imagined, given the author’s Calvinist position, that the author disparages believing and feeling that lacks the doing.  After that the author discusses the Bible as something more sure (2) than our subjective interpretations and understandings.  The next few chapters demonstrate the author’s conviction that God’s word is enough (3) for salvation, clear enough (4) to be well understood by readers, final (5) and not in need of any sort of later tradition, and necessary for salvation (6).  Again, none of this is something I would disagree with, except to point out that the Calvinist position is presented here in a false trilemma with Catholicism and liberal Christianity while the author’s own Calvinist doctrines are not as sola scriptura as he would like to believe.  The book then ends with a discussion on how Christ’s Bible is unbreakable (7) and how readers should stick with the scriptures (8) and presumably those books like this one that seek to aid in the understanding of the scriptures.

Ultimately, it was the author’s rhetorical dishonesty and lack of self-awareness that made this book less than enjoyable.  Even agreeing with many of the larger points the author was trying to make, it was less than enjoyable to see him engage repeatedly in poor rhetoric to make those points.  Admitting that his view was tautological towards the beginning of the book in limiting his discussion to internal proofs of the Bible was rather poor form, for example.  Likewise, not understanding that the Hellenistic hostility to the Sabbath and the false view of the plan of God and nature of God that his worldview includes makes his attack on the traditions of the Catholics somewhat self-defeating as well.  A better writer would have sought to defend tradition more ably and realized that the Calvinist view too depends on extrabiblical traditions and particular views about interpretation that are not obvious from the scripture alone.  But it appears that for the most part the author is not really someone who wants to push for deeper ground, although his appendix on great books of the Bible demonstrates at least that he is aware of deeply difficult and challenging and potentially worthwhile books that others have written, and that is something.  Perhaps the best part of the book is the appendix, which at least suggests great (and generally Calvinist) books written by others more talented than this author.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/12/17/book-review-who-wrote-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/02/24/book-review-the-case-for-jesus/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/28/book-review-the-dawn-of-christianity/

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How To Become A UNESCO World Heritage Tourist Without Really Trying

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Earlier this morning, a friend of mine commented that a place we had recently visited [1], the historic center of Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, was a UNESCO World Heritage site, and wanted me to write some about the history of this place.  Although Paramaribo is fairly obscure as far as culturally important sites go, it does contain a large amount of mostly well-maintained wooden structures dating to the colonial period that show an admirable and aesthetically pleasing mixture of the Dutch and indigenous architecture [2].  It should be noted that many of these colonial buildings that date from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries are used as government buildings, but by and large they are attractive in the way that they demonstrate a blend of different architectural styles in the way that Suriname as a whole is a blend in terms of its population as well as its cuisine of many disparate elements as well.  Yet while I did not feel it would be a sufficiently large draw to write about a place that few people have heard of and even fewer people have visited, although my friend and I and our parents are definitely among both categories of people, looking at the UNESCO World Heritage list of sites reminded me that I have long been a traveler to these sites without being aware of them, and that is something that I believe to be of wider interest.

For those who are not aware, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designates various buildings and cities and natural areas as being of particular importance as a way of encouraging the preservation of these sites for the benefit of present and future generations.  My own thoughts as to the United Nations are mixed to adverse, and I am not generally a fan of its operations or by the biases it demonstrates because of the way that it sometimes makes a mockery of its ideals through its irrational hatred of Israel or the abject weakness of its peacekeeping missions or the way that corrupt and wicked nations are routinely on various important committees, and so on and so forth.  That said, as far as UN behavior is concerned, the marking of beautiful and culturally significant places on earth is one of the least objectionable aspects of their behavior as a whole, and so I am not irritated that I have visited quite a few sites without having been aware or being particularly concerned about the fact that UNESCO had recognized them as well.

It so happens that the organization and I have similar ideas in mind when it comes to determine places of interest to visit.  Striking aspects of creation, like the Everglades and St. Lucia’s glorious Pithon mountains, for example, are places that both the UN and I recognize and places well worth visiting.  Likewise, having enjoyed historical Tallinn as well as the downtown of Chile’s famed port Valpariso, I have happened to visit quite a few places that are viewed as historically significant.  To be sure, there are arbitrary aspects of both the UNESCO list and my own travels.  Most of my travels have been related to my attendance of the Feast of Tabernacles or my acts of service for brethren abroad, such as my travels to Ghana (where I saw historical Ashante structures and visited the slave fort of Elmina, both on the UNESCO list of site).  It just so happens that when I am in an area I like visiting areas with old and beautiful buildings, as well as parts of God’s creation that are immensely lovely and striking.  At times, UNESCO sites have been a major draw in going to places–like visiting Tel Megiddo and Masada in Israel, Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan, and historic Istanbul, Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Aphrodesias (among other locations) in Turkey.  I have not been aware, necessarily, that such sites were recognized by the this UN organization, nor would I have been more motivated to visit it knowing it, but it is nice when a UN organization and I have similar tastes.

Perhaps more of interest to me are cases where I have clearly seen a place as worthy of interest that has not (yet) drawn the attention of UNESCO.  For example, my love of visiting American fortifications like Ft. Augustine, Ft. Vancouver, Ft. Pulaski, Ft. Sumter, Ft. McHenry, precolumbian sites like Tulum in Mexico, and historical downtowns like Bogota and Montreal are all places that have not yet been recognized by UNESCO, and neither have the beautiful and ancient ruins of Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai, both of which I have enjoyed visiting myself.  Do places such as these need to be recognized in order to be worth visiting?  No.  Does putting a place on UNESCO’s list mean it will be protected?  Not at all.  The Taliban and ISIS did a great job destroying much of what was significant about places in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, including some cities like Palmyra that I would have wanted to see in their well-preserved form.  Even in Western countries where there are no terrorist organizations seeking to destroy all trace of a pre-Islamic or early Islamic past that contradicts their own religious worldview there are places like the Florida Everglades that are in danger in our present world.  Although swamps are not generally my favorite aspect of creation, I admittedly have a soft spot for the Everglades and for its quirky and sometimes dangerous fauna.  The world would be a worse places without its swamps and bogs and pestilential rain forests, as unpleasant as those places can be at times to visit.  Let us not confuse culturally important with easy to see, after all.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/10/03/hobbling-toward-louisiana/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/26/wandelstok/

[2] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/940

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Book Review: A Wedding In Hell

A Wedding In Hell, by Charles Simic

The title of this book is not particularly appealing.  But those who are familiar with the author’s work [1] will understand that this title captures the author’s familiar wrestling with matters of sexual intimacy and spirituality.  The author cannot in any sense be considered a traditional Christian, but at the same time he is clearly someone who thinks and reflects often on matters of spirituality and appears to have a strong sense of divine judgment even if he does not presume to consider himself on the side of the angels.  Indeed, some of the poems in this collection, including the moving and gloomy “Awaiting Judgment” explicitly show the poet as someone who is anticipating a harsh judgment but seemingly unable to turn towards God and avoid the unpleasant end he fears.  It is as if the author is too caught up in the negativity of his melancholy gloom and the addictive lusts of the flesh to wholeheartedly repent, and at the same time he cannot pretend that God and His judgment do not exist, as so many do, and so he is left in between, a state that this book of poetry captures rather well.

This poetry collection, like Gaul, is divided into three parts.  And like the author’s work in general, the book is united by common preoccupations and themes and approaches.  A great deal of this work appears to be deeply informed by different aspects of history.  For example, “Mad Business” shows the author aware of biblical history, World War II history, and ancient history and myth, all told from the point of view of a friendly shopgirl offering wares to unwary customers.  “Via Del Tritone” shows the author in Rome dealing with a sense of isolation and loneliness.  “The Beggar On Houston Street” even manages to conjure up an obscure reference to the Spanish Civil War, something that many of the readers would likely not be very aware of.  As might be expected, many of the poems also comment on matters of sex, predictably in ways that are not glamorous but are rather dark and unpleasant, whether one is engaged in lovemaking with someone who is worried that she is getting fat even if one is “Crazy About Her Shrimp” or one is going into battle not fully clothed and invoking the sort of curses that hindered the Greek attack on ancient Troy.

It is easy to see that one could get rather irritated with the author after a while.  Unless one was the same sort of person the author was, both appreciative of history while also haunted by it, knowledgeable about God but not a devout believer in Him, it would be easy to be irritated by the fact that in book after book–and I have read half a dozen books of his by now (reviews forthcoming)–the author goes over the same territory over and over again without any sense of humor.  The author’s writings appear to move in very characteristic and familiar ruts, but when one reads book after book by someone who focuses on a familiar set of problems and never seems to advance beyond one’s initial ponderings, it is easy to get frustrated at the lack of progress over the years and decades.  Even so, although the author does not appear to be one who made significant progress over the course of his writings, at least not that I have been able to tell at any rate, the author at least invokes sympathy because of his combination of self-awareness with frustration over matters of communication with God and others, problems that others can relate to all too easily.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/10/11/book-review-master-of-disguises/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/10/11/book-review-the-world-doesnt-end/

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Book Review: Sixty Poems

Sixty Poems, by Charles Simic

This book is a way better book than its title would suggest, and way more coherent as well.  As far as reasons for the existence of this best-of collection [1], this book has a worthwhile one, in that it is a collection of poems that was made out of several of the author’s other books of poetry after he was chosen as the poet laureate of the United States.  This is not a bad reason to make a book.  In fact, it is a good reason to make a compilation of poetry, because poetry in general seems to be seldom read and any time one has a reason to market poetry and encourage those who are readers of poetry to read yet another book on poetry, that is a good reason to make a book.  As a contemporary poet myself, albeit nowhere near as famous as the author, I can totally understand the appeal of having any reason that would allow for one to come out with a book that would have at least some chance of being read by a wider public.  This book does not need to justify its existence to me, at least.

The titular sixty poems of this particular compilation are chosen from nearly two decades worth of the author’s writings.  The first two poems are taken from 1986’s Unending Blues, the next few poems are taken from 1990’s The Book Of Gods And Devils, the next few poems after that from 1992’s Hotel Insomnia, and the next few after that from 1994’s A Wedding And Hell (review forthcoming).  A sizable collection follows from 1996’s Walking The Black Cat, after which there comes four poems from 1999’s Jackstraws, six poems from 2001’s Night Picnic, three poems from 2003’s The Voice At 3:00AM, and the last seven poems from 2005’s My Noiseless Entourage.  Despite the long gap between the beginning and end of this collection, though, the poems are a cohesive lot, dealing with conversations, fairly melancholy and gloomy reflections about death and divine judgment, as well as reading.  It must be admitted that there are some really good poems here too.  My favorite is perhaps the darkly humorous (and somewhat lecherous) “Have You Met Miss Jones,” but there are many standouts here depending on whether you like reading about insects or leaves or simply being an insomniac.  As is often the case with Simic’s writings, there are a lot of ways to enjoy this poem, but most of them are at best darkly humorous.

Like many poets, Simic has a lane that he feels most comfortable in.  By the time he had written these poems, he was already between fifty and seventy years old, and he knew his lane and was comfortable exploring it.  That does not mean that these poems are necessarily timeless–they certainly have a certain contemporary decadence about them that would be ill-suited to earlier ages where poetry was better respected and written with a higher moral tone.  Simic writes throughout the entire collection as if he is haunted by the reality of time and death and divine judgment but also somewhat enraptured by sensual pleasures, and that is not a particularly uncommon place to be.  Perhaps one of the reasons why Simic was chosen to be poet laureate, aside from the fact that he is an excellent poet, is the fact that he writes about things that are very easily to relate to by those people who read and enjoy poems.  Sensuality and melancholy are very easy approaches to writing to sell in this and probably most ages, and they give this collection a strong coherence.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/21/book-review-across-the-land-and-the-water/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/02/book-review-darkness-sticks-to-everything/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/01/book-review-ask-me/

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Satire In An Age Of Self-Ownership

I must admit that I am a fan of satire, and have been as long as I can remember.  This taste for satire is broad, extending from my enjoyment of caricature from childhood to a fondness for the humor of Mel Brooks and the Monty Python series to an enjoyment of the novels of Evelyn Waugh and the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic to a deep enjoyment of memes and contemporary satire efforts like The Onion and The Babylon Bee [1].  Nevertheless, it is tough to be in the satire business these days.  There have been multiple occasions where, for example, I have enjoyed a laugh from a meme from the Babylon Bee on Twitter or Facebook and then found out to my chagrin that it became a real headline and not a fake one within hours or days.  Why is it so hard to get satire right these days?  I would like to at least to explore some of the reasons why.

One of the main reasons why satire is so difficult nowadays is because there are a lot of people who have a satirical view of the world and are engaged in satire.  One can find satire in a wide variety of forms and aimed at a wide variety of audiences.  Do you prefer historical satire, satire involving animals, religious satire, or political satire?  In all of these cases, and many more besides these, there are satirical angles that you can find.  And if you cannot find an example of the satire that you want, it is not very difficult for someone with the right worldview to create such a satire.  The widespread popularity of memes and the general suspicion of the competence of public figures and their own often questionable words and behavior invites satire and there are many people who are willing and able to oblige at a very high level.  I even read and enjoy satirical material in foreign languages, even though English (obviously) is my best language, suggesting that this phenomenon is not limited to the United States but is a widespread one among those who are technologically and culturally literate in the wider world as well.

Besides the high degree of saturation and competition when it comes to satire, another factor that makes satire hard in contemporary ages is the fact that it is hard to satire people at present.  There are several reasons for this, and so this factor requires a bit of unpacking.  For one, an age where people are highly ironical is an age where there is already a gap between reality and public persona even before one exaggerates that persona.  This presents a problem for satirists because many public figures are already engaging in self-satire by exaggerating their own viewpoints to the hilarity and approval of their audiences.  When someone in high power–and this certainly includes the current president of the United States, although he is far from alone in this–deliberately clowns in order to appeal to the sense of humor and crudity of his supporters, satire has lost a lot of its sting because the person being satirized is already self-aware of the joke and deliberately satirizing himself already for his own purposes.  In this environment satire instead becomes part of the joke that is already going on and can easily be spun for the benefit of the person being satirized, rather than serving as a corrective to the target’s self-image as was originally intended.

Beyond this, there is an additional reason why people are so hard to satire, and that is the problem of self-ownership.  We live in an age where people say and do things that are deeply and profoundly unsettling.  An earlier and more genteel age would have considered these to be bricks or gaffes, but in our age they are a continual hazard of any kind of communication on any medium.  There are probably at least several reasons for our epidemic of self-ownership.  For one, we are deeply divided and less prone to talk to people who profoundly disagree with our worldviews or read information that comes from other worldviews, and so our communication is read in very different ways depending on whether people act towards our words and actions with a hermeneutic of charity or not.  Absent that charitable approach, the fact that so much of our lives is publicly visible to the world and the temptation to release a hot take of something that is going on is so omnipresent makes it highly likely that if we are engaged in public discourse on a regular basis that we will own ourselves often.  This self ownership can include doubling down on misguided approaches and rhetorical positions, outright hypocrisy by endorsing conduct for one person or side in a dispute while abhorring and abominating it for the other side, or showing an extreme lack of self-awareness into how our actions and rhetoric appears to those who are not already on our side.

I am sure other factors are involved, but these are sufficient to explain the difficulties of satire in our contemporary age.  For one, satirical views and ironical perspectives are common among the population as a whole and there is a wide amount of satire being produced for general as well as niche audiences.  At times, as was the case with a full-length book by the Babylon Bee’s writers, the satire may be so extensive that it is no longer coherent because the satire is coming from too many sides at once to hold together.  Additionally, satire is difficult because people are already engaging in the deliberate exaggeration of their self-image for personal and political purposes, making satire redundant and sometimes even counterproductive.  Likewise, self-serious but not very self-aware people who are ignorant about how they appear to those outside of their own echo chamber often own themselves to such a degree that satire is impossible without crossing over the boundaries into willful cruelty.  I would like to think that most satirists are not deliberately cruel or nasty people but wish to improve the general tenor of political or cultural conversation by encouraging people to take themselves and their worldviews less seriously, something in our age that appears to be a losing effort at present.  In an age where everything is viewed as having massive stakes and where people own themselves on a regular basis, it seems that there is not as much to laugh at without becoming more coarse and cruel than we already are.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/22/book-review-how-to-be-a-perfect-christian/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/05/14/book-review-the-devious-book-for-cats/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/01/19/book-review-are-you-a-bromide/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/06/17/book-review-candide/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/02/17/book-review-put-out-more-flags/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/01/26/comedy-is-a-choice/

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Book Review: The Biggest Story

The Biggest Story:  How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden, by Ken DeYoung, illustrated by Don Clark

The best part of this book is probably the interesting and deeply symbolic imagery.  As far as the book is concerned, it is an attempt to take the Bible and make it more accessible to younger readers [1].  This attempt is not entirely successful, and it is not exactly clear why.  Part of the difficulty, at least, relates to the fact that the person telling it is a somewhat strident Calvinist writer, and the tone of this book is at least part of the difficulty in fully appreciating it, as he distracts the reader from the tone of history to spend a great deal of time haranguing the ancient Israelites.  This is, admittedly, not a difficult task, but is somewhat undercut by the fact that the author himself shows no loyalty to the laws and ways of God that he abuses the Israelites for disobeying.  At any rate, while this is part of the problem it is not the whole problem, as the author’s insistent way of calling Jesus Christ the snake crusher because of the imagery of the protoevangelium is somewhat odd as well.

At any rate, this short book, liberally illustrated and ten chapters, manages to focus its attention at least some of the time on the grand narrative of the Bible.  The book begins with a focus on the Garden of Eden and mankind’s sin (1) along with the early wickedness that included Cain’s murder of Abel, the flood, and the dispersion of mankind at the tower of Babel (2).  After this the author discusses God’s calling of Abraham and God’s continued work with the patriarchs despite their being flawed (3) as well as God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt (4).  A brief discussion of the laws of God and the blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience and a very abbreviated discussion of Israel in the time of the Judges follows (5) before the author discusses the early monarchs of Israel and how they were either great disappointments like Saul and Solomon or served God despite human flaws, like David (6).  Strangely skipping over the exile, the author talks about how God sent many prophets but then was silent for hundreds of years (7) before we come to the birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem and the course of his righteous life (8).  The book then closes with a discussion of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (9) and a summary of the promises for his return (10).

Given that this book is clearly an abbreviation of the large narrative arc of the Bible, it is worth praising the book for at least grasping that idea pretty well.  That is not to say that it does its job perfectly.  The author, for example, teases but does not go into the New Jerusalem as the restoration of Eden, and may conflate that with the Millennial blessings promised to mankind after the return of Jesus Christ.  The author does not appear aware of the fact that God and Jesus Christ are looking for human beings to be a part of their family, which adds considerable emotional heft to the continual rejection of God’s ways by humanity.  The author also does not discuss the church age to any great degree, bringing in Jesus Christ so late in the story that there is little time to discuss anything between his resurrection and return.  I am not sure how I would want to see those problems corrected, but although this is certainly a book that means well and tries hard, it just does not quite succeed at conveying the master narrative of the Bible in a compelling way.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/07/06/book-review-walking-the-bible-for-kids/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/12/12/book-review-papa-tell-us-about-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/12/01/book-review-bible-wars-weapons/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/11/16/book-review-nirv-giant-print-holy-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/23/book-review-the-illustrated-bible/

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