Book Review: Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love

Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love, by Andrew Shaffer

Perhaps the most embarrassing and Nathanish thing about this book is that it is one that I could see (in a worst-case scenario) being expanded to include my own disastrous love life, as my own experiences mirror the general level of success found by cerebral and philosophical people (mostly men, but some women) in this particularly painful volume that ought to inspire a great deal of humility on the part of philosophical types in general.  There is a widespread tendency for people to generalize from the particular brilliance of philosophical writers to a belief that their lives were exemplary in general, but this author makes it plain that a lot of people can write well or be thought to have been philosophically brilliant but basically be disasters as human beings and dealing with human relationships.  The author seeks to encourage readers to avoid the example of the lives of these writers, but perhaps unknowingly he undercuts the claims of these thinkers to be worthy of emulation and adoption, which is perhaps unintentional in that he demonstrates the failure of human philosophers to live good lives and even to preach, much less practice, the right way to live.

Beginning with Peter Abelard and continuing through such names as Louis Althusser, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Simone de Beauvior, Henry Ward Beecher, John Calvin, Albert Camus, Nicholas Chamfort, Auguste Comte, René Descartes, John Dewey, Denis Diderot, Diogenes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Engles, Johann von Goethe, George Hegel, Martin Heidegger, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, John Locke, Titus Lucretius, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, Ayn Rand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer, Seneca the Younger, Socrates, Emanuel Swedenborg, Henry David Thoreau, and Leo Tosltoy, the author manages to to explode the incompetence of their personal lives and point out the relationship between their lives and their thought in painful ways.  Many of the thinkers in question were terrible hypocrites, many of them struggled to relate to others and all too easily withdrew from the problems of interpersonal relationship in the face of their awkwardness and timidity.  Some were quite frankly immoral people to the extreme, and one of the people he wrote about even “accidentally” killed his wife, while many died alone in virginal or nearly virginal frustration because of their inability to love and be loved.  One almost pities some of these people even as many of them live lives that are quite worthy of condemnation.

In reading this book, which relentless pursues the hypocrisy at the basis of even the supposedly wisest of people, and the ways in which a professed love of God and love for humanity does not always mean that one can find loving and intimate relationships successfully, it is easy to wonder what the author was trying to accomplish.  It is quite possible that the author was simply trying to score points by pointing out what awkward people philosophers were when it came to love and relationships, coming to a populist conclusion that philosophical and intellectual achievements are highly overrated in historical memory.  Perhaps unintentionally, though, the author brings out some of the more problematic natures of philosophy in that the rejection of God and of His ways (and of His clear desire for godly offspring) tends to make human life more complicated, and that those who fancy themselves wise are often all too dangerously foolish.  Quite simply, many of the people included here as being great thinkers were simply not very nice people at all and simply could not relate to them in a loving and kind way, which takes a great deal of the worth out of their thinking, it must be candidly admitted.

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As Many As The Lord Our God Will Call: Part Three

I ended the previous part of our discussion (see here and here) with a discussion of the frequent need on the part of those who profit from the legacy of previous generations of believers for some sort of reassurance about the reality of God’s personal relationship with them.  Admittedly, this is not the sort of area where we have a great deal of deliberate instruction about how it is that institutions are supposed to ensure that younger generations are not left out and that their perspectives are not ignored and marginalized given the way that conversion narratives are highly privileged by those who have dramatic examples of them.  We first need to recognize that believers who are born and raised in a way of life that they then choose to follow as adults, with the hope of passing along their beliefs and practices to generations after them in turn are going to have different experiences of God’s ways than those whose conversion marks a dramatic change in their lives from what came before.  What we do have, though, are plenty of examples of instances in which new generations of believers (especially leaders) were provided with reassurance about the legitimacy of their own place as part of God’s family, and it is to those examples that we will now turn.

An early, and perhaps obvious, example of this need for passing along of the knowledge of God’s ways to future generations can be found in Deuteronomy 31:9-13:  “So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.  And Moses commanded them, saying: “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of release, at the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.  Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.””  Here we see a very clear understanding that there needs to be periodic reminders of the fact that all Israel (physical or spiritual) is in a covenant relationship with God and needs to know the obligations of living according to those ways, so that the young grow up knowing that they too are a part of the congregation of Israel and have certain beliefs and practices to develop.

There were in addition to this not only rituals of coronation that sought to convey the succession of one generation after another to rulership, but we also find examples where God Himself sought to establish a relationship with a new ruler, as is the case with Solomon in 1 Kings 3:4-5:  “Now the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place: Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.  At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask! What shall I give you?””  While we might think the appearance of visions to a young man who had grown up as part of a believing household (albeit a dysfunctional one) was unique to Solomon, the example is one we find in the New Testament with Timothy, as is recorded by Paul in 1 Timothy 4:12-16:  “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.  Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.  Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership.  Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all.  Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”  We may see then that both God directly as well as the institution of the Church has a role in confirming and encouraging those growing up like Timothy did as believers who were the children (and grandchildren) of faithful members.

As we might imagine if we are familiar with reading the New Testament, the Apostle John did a great job at writing to younger members.  Since he wrote his epistles when he was somewhere between 80 and 100 years of age, most of the members of the congregation could be considered little children, as he writes in 1 John 2:1-2:  “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”  As the last surviving apostle and an old man, the gentleness and graciousness in these (and other) words from his letters gives those of us who are older a model in addressing the concerns of young people by reminding them that they are part of the family, and by writing them not to complain and berate them as is the fashion of many in dealing with younger generations, but in a loving and patient way to remind them of God’s ways and of the relationship that they already have with God the Father and our heavenly advocate in Jesus Christ.  

Together, these various passages suggest the sort of approach we should have in encouraging younger believers who grew up in the faith.  Following John, we should make clear that younger believers are God’s children and to point out the relationships that they have with older brethren and with God.  Even Paul reminded Timothy of this necessity in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 when he said:  “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity.”  In addition to this, the laying on of hands (which normally occurs after baptism) and the periodic reading of the law help remind young people of both the connection between the generations of the Church of God as well as the terms of the covenant that we are all a part of.  At times, even if this is not very usual, God may provide certain visions that encourage those who are entering into new offices and new responsibilities, even if this is not a universal experience.  What is universal is the need for unity and love to exist between the brethren that overcomes the various questions of identity that tend to divide us, including the identity of generation.  I would like to close this discussion (unless someone reminds me of something else I need to address) with a discussion of some of the advantages of having grown up as a believer rather than having a dramatic conversion experience.

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I Need A Little Church

A few days ago, as I was looking through my You Tube video suggestions, I saw that sister act Aly & AJ had a new music video that I had never seen.  While I have been fond of their music since discovering their hit “Potential Breakup Song” during their Disney Channel heyday, I had not been familiar of any of their more recent music.  Given the sort of pop-rock music they performed, I was a bit surprised, and pleased, to hear their new song was a more melancholy but ethereal synth pop song.  I was more puzzled by the sensual music video that came with the song, which featured the two sisters cavorting and laying down with each other in various ranges of clothing and partial (or complete) undress in a way that suggested both the compulsion of certain exhibitionist tendencies as well as a pervasive sense of concern about the effect of an immoral life on their own sense of innocence and decency.  Having done a bit of research, I saw that one of the sisters had dealt with the embarrassment of having nude pictures of herself leaked to the public, an embarrassment that is lamentably common among female stars, even those (like the sisters) involved in Christian music.  With the context, we may better understand what it is that the sisters are wrestling with in this melancholy but simultaneously sensual song, which is simply titled “Church.”

The lyrics of the song, just like the visuals of the music video, give the listener plenty of food for thought [1].  Verse one reads:  “I do bad things for the sake of good times. / I don’t, I don’t regret. /  Call me what you will. / Yeah, I’m in it for the thrill. / I’m just, I’m just selfish.”  Then the pre-chorus comes in:  “I need redemption / For sins I can’t mention.”  After this comes the chorus:  “Too many nights and there’s no end. / I’m hell bent, the reckless one. / Too many nights I justify / All my casualties of love. / For all the times I can’t reverse, / For all the places where it hurts, / I need a little church. / I need a little church.”  The second verse continues the melancholy picture:  “I do bad things. / Can’t you see it on my face?/ I get caught in every lie. / I can’t even stop to take care of my own self, / Let alone somebody else.”  And the bridge continues this gloomy view of the singers, repeating the first verse:  “I do bad things for the sake of good times / I don’t, I don’t regret. / Call me what you will. / Yeah, I’m in it for the thrill. / I’m just, I’m just selfish.”

Given that the title of this song is “church” and the title of the EP that the song appears on is called “Sanctuary,” it is vital in properly understanding the song that we understand what the singers (who are two of the four songwriters here as well) are getting at.  As one of the two singers is married and the other one has never been married, although she has had several high-profile relationships, it is quite possible that this song, like “Potential Breakup Song,” which was about a relationship one of the singers had with one of the Jonas Brothers (who replied with their own hit song “S.O.S.”), is a case where the sisters are joining together to sing about a problem that mostly involves only one of them, identifying completely with the experience of the other as they join in harmony together.  The pre-chorus and chorus appears to offer the solution to what the song means, with the acknowledgement of the need for redemption (which can only come through Christ Jesus), the recognition that the longing for love and intimacy can lead people into self-destructive patterns of behavior, and the recognition that one needs the accountability as well as the community aspects of church in order to repent and to find healing.

This leads, of course, to all kinds of awkward conversations about American Christianity.  There are at least two kinds of errors that American Christianity can easily lapse into that make it genuinely difficult to find communion therein.  On the one hand, all too many congregations of denominations in general are full of people who live lives of pretense pretending that everything is fine because there is no tolerance for the messiness of lives that are marked by the effects of their own sins and the sins of others against them.  Even if the sisters aren’t singing about their own experiences (and it seems likely that they are, at least in part), there are certainly many people who claim an identity of Christians but whose life of partying and unsuccessful relationships and related habits is something that would shame them upon their discovery by other congregants.  On the other hand, there is a marked desire on the part of many professed believers to see themselves as ragamuffins who are privileged to be their messy authentic selves while seeking the encouragement of others without any apparent desire for healing and redemption and divinely-aided deep personal change.  When on the one hand we see Stepford congregations of people pretending to live upright lives without sins and flaws and on the other hand the desire of others to live in their sins and flaws without facing the need to repent and change, the possibility of intense disagreement and mutual recriminations of hypocrisy is omnipresent.

Where does that leave our understanding of these two women, and the many more people who are like them?  On the one hand, it is important to have compassion on those who face the brokenness of sin in their lives, whether it is from their own sins or the sins of others against them (or some combination of the two, as is often the case).  This song appears like a cry for help, less the rebellious anthem of someone reveling in sin but the melancholy recognition that mistakes have been made that cannot be unmade, with no understanding of where one can go from here.  What is needed is not the despair of the ungodly but rather a repentant attitude that seeks cleansing and rebirth and restoration.  There may be lasting consequences of one’s past behavior that must be endured, but at the same time we as believers need to do a much better job at providing chances for others to receive a clean slate and a new beginning and a chance to prove one’s new character without eternally bearing the cross for sins that have already been forgiven by God.  Whether or not Aly and AJ have found this or will find it in the future, it is at least something that we can provide for those who are within our own acquaintance.


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Book Review: King Hedley II

King Hedley II (The Century Cycle #9), by August Wilson

King Hedley II is a poignant and tragic play, one of a series of poignant and tragic plays by the author, in which a black man ends up being both defined and doomed by his proud and brittle code of honor which forces him to avenge wrongs done to him by others.  In providing us with a play which has a very dark look at life in the seemy and violent underbelly of 1980’s America, we witness the sort of tensions that make family ties a challenge and also look at the murderous secrets that hide just beneath the surface that make pleasant and tranquil family life impossible for violent men (and women) seeking for dignity and their piece of the American pie, even if it tends to involve a lot of shady behavior, as is the case here.  Like many of the author’s other plays, this particular volume is centered in a Pittsburgh where ex-cons and their womenfolk ponder about the possibility of marriage and where the threat of violence and arrest is never far away for those whose desires to make it big do not include a high degree of interest in obeying the law.

The action of this play is straightforward enough, focused on a household where an ex-con, King Hedley II and his associate, Mister, seek to make money by selling stolen fridges to the local black population, while engaged in other forms of theft as well which include stealing from a jewelry store.  Hedley has a troubled relationship his wife/main girl Tonya, who has an abortion and claims it to be because of her fear that Hedley wants a child but isn’t going to be alive or out of jail to help provide for the family he wants.  Meanwhile, Hedley’s mother has been carrying on a long-term relationship with the shady and shiftless ex-con Elmore while Stool Pigeon brings ambiguous discussion about prophecy and God’s judgment on a fallen society.  A great deal of the discussion ends up turning around the question of violence–whether we are looking at the violence of abortion against the unborn, the violence of black men to other black men because of taunts and attacks to honor, and the violence that cross generational lines as sons seek to avenge their fathers at terrible cost to themselves as well as the well-being of their families.

The end of this play is one of the most pointed tragedies that one can imagine and it forces upon the reader the understanding of the sorts of choices that are faced by people when it comes to their own happiness as opposed to the well-being of their children.  While Wilson has frequently dealt with the troubled relationships between fathers and sons, here the author places the relationship between a mother and her son as as being at the heart of the play’s dark and tragic nature.  Indeed, this play presents motherhood as itself the source of a great deal of tragedy, when it comes to the way that many mothers simply do not want to bring forth children, show a reluctance to accept marriage as being conducive to the well-being of both men and women, and often pit their own desire to protect and defend their own sexual interests even at the cost of subjecting their children to intense violence.  All of these are the subject of real problems in the black community and far from it (some of these themes, indeed, have shaped my own existence) and all of them present the reader of this play with a deep understanding of the brokenness of community in Wilson’s plays.

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Book Review: Two Trains Running

Two Trains Running (The Century Cycle #7), by August Wilson

While this play is certainly easy enough to understand, the title of the play is not as easy to understand.  There are at least a few interesting parts of this play for viewers, even if they are not acquainted with his body of work as a whole.  For one, the play is one that discusses the theme of urban gentrification that would become a major part of his later play Radio Golf, and for another the play contains the debut of the impossibly old Aunt Esther, who is over three hundred years old and who contains one of the author’s attempts to link both to black Christianity as well as pre-Christian native African beliefs.  1969, with the hostility to the Vietnam War (not referred to here) and the apotheosis of the hippy movement (also not referred to here) makes for an interesting year to be a part of the author’s Century Cycle, and we find that the characters in this play directly comment upon what they view as racial injustice, where blacks find it impossible to get loans to buy property, where the thrift of the black community is directly attacked through lotteries, and where police take photographs of people who show up to demonstrations as a way of keeping tabs on local troublemakers.

As far as the plot goes, this play is like many of the playwright’s works in that it is based on the conversations of ordinary black folk when they are not in the presence of white folk, around whom their conversation would be more restrained.  One could not imagine the doomed Hambone, whose dialogue consists largely of his repeated line, “I want my ham,” being an accepted figure in most polite society, even if some of the people involved in the action think he is more shrewd than he lets on.  Included among the scene, which focuses on bar owner Memphis, is the attractive and self-harming Rita, who cuts herself because of her distress at being seen as a piece of meat by so many men, the shady number runner Wolf, funeral director West, thoughtful Holloway, and former convict Sterling, all of whom have their own private homes and agendas and participate in the rich and vibrant conversation and life in a doomed bar that is going to be bought out for urban renewal, which is one of the many ways where the blacks of Wilson’s Pittsburgh lose their land and places where they belong so that others may profit.

As someone who appreciates reading plays, it is worth pondering at least a bit about what makes Wilson’s plays so excellent.  A large part of the excellence consists in the ways that he writes about blacks from the point of view of blacks in the company of other blacks, in such a way that readers (of whatever background) can listen to the way that they talk and articulate their lives and hopes and frustrations in a way that is open and honest and not colored either by their concerns for judgment on the part of a white audience or by their frustrations with racism that tends to make a great deal of black writing aimed at white audiences rather tedious and full of resentment.  Instead, what we get here is the ability to see people act themselves, whether that is acting the fool or making a bold strike for love or personal dignity or attempts to better oneself, sometimes at the expense of others, in ways that are familiar to the lives of so many people as well as being common themes in the author’s writing as a whole.

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Book Review: Three Plays

Three Plays, by August Wilson, with an afterword by Paul Carter Harrison

Having read two of the three plays in this particular collection before, I came to this book looking to enjoy the play that I had not read before, which I did even if it was a rather sobering one.  There are occasions where more is less, and where less would have been better, and that is certainly the case here.  I happen to think that Wilson’s plays generally can stand on their own pretty easily.  Even without a deep interest in African cultural tropes, Wilson’s plays are not particularly subtle about their messages and about the threads of connection that run through them.  One does not need to be a fan of intersectionality or proficient with African studies departments to be able to understand what Wilson is getting at when he shows the murderous rage of people who all too often target their fellow black brethren rather than those who have truly taken advantage of them, and that is certainly the case here.  Wilson invests the black lives of his plays with almost Shakespearean pathos, and tragedy is never far from the surface in these plays and in the other ones I have read by the author.

By and large this book delivers on the promise of giving three plays by a capable American playwright.  A preface allows the playwright the opportunity to talk about his own life in drama and some of the important connections he made that allowed him to tell the stories he wanted to say in his century saga.  After that comes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a two-act play set in Chicago (most of his century saga is set in Pittsburgh) where the injustices of black life seethe in passionate blues and where violence and exploitation are omnipresent.  Ma Rainey shows up late to a recording session because she has been dealing with racist cops, and meanwhile her band is struggling over the arrangements of her songs and their own desire to receive credit for creativity.  A frustrating experience of the studio owners’ exploitation leaves one of the characters violently hostile to one of the fellow musicians whom he kills in sudden finality, showing a great deal of similarity with the course of “Seven Guitars,” another great play in the cycle.  Also included here are Fences and Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, both of which are excellent plays that I have read and viewed elsewhere, as well as an afterword.

And it is really the afterword that detracts somewhat from the value of this particular book.  This book would have been a far better one had the plays been allowed to speak for themselves, but some African studies “scholar” felt it necessary to add an afterword full of contemporary identity political jargon that seeks to demonstrate his own intellect and his own mastery of the thieves’ cant of contemporary academia.  Really, the afterword serves no useful purpose and instead will likely annoy or confuse those readers who do not share the political view of the writer.  That said, when one removes the afterword this book is a worthwhile selection of plays from a great playwright and one whose views about black on black violence as well as the pervasive feeling of exploitation in dealings with wider society are not subtle in the least.  Whether one agrees with the perspective of the author, the playwright makes compelling plays that show a great deal of continuity throughout the 20th century and that feature compelling characters and gripping drama, and that is all one can ask for from drama like this.

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As Many As The Lord Our God Will Call: Part Two

I closed the previous part of this discussion with a discussion of the tension in the Bible that exists between the need to honor those who came before us whose example of faith provided future generations with blessings that we do not deserve and the understanding that believers of all generations are on an equal playing field where entrance into God’s kingdom is conditional on our own relationship with God and our own obedience to His laws and His ways.  This may not be the sort of tension that we reflect on often, but it is a tension that can consistently be found within the Bible.  Understanding this tension is important because it helps us to better appreciate the ambivalent position of second (and third and fourth…) generations of believers who struggle with feelings of legitimacy concerning their own less dramatic stories of conversion than can be found from those who make a drastic renunciation of the ways of the world and serve as pioneers of the faith for others.

We find this tension throughout scriptures, and it is worth reflecting on this.  For example, Acts 2:39-40 contains both elements of this tension:  “Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.””  On the one hand, the promise of being called and blessing from the example of obedience is not only to believers but to their children and to those who are afar off.  This is an example, as we have previously noted, of the undeserved privilege that comes to later generations as a result of the faithfulness of their forefathers (and foremothers).  On the other hand, this calling is contingent upon God (“as many as the Lord our God will call”) and the gift of the Holy Spirit is likewise contingent upon repentance and baptism.  Here we see both conditional and unconditional blessings being spoken of in the same context.

And this pattern continues elsewhere as well.  Hebrews 11 is a chronicle of the faithful obedience of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and many, many others, some named and many unnamed.  Over and over again we read statements like the following, found in verse 7:  “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.”  Here we see, as one example among several, the way in which the righteousness and faith of Noah gave blessings to others, namely his household.  Similarly, in our own time when people are converted to God’s ways it provides blessings to the rest of their families as well.  But while there is plenty of unconditional (and frequently undeserved) blessings that spring from our connection to the faithful of generations past, each believer has to stand on their own two feet, as it is written in the preceding verse:  “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”  And at the end of Hebrews 11 there is a reminder again of the egalitarian relationship of believers in verses 39 and 40:  “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”  Here we see that although the example of the faithful from times past is a powerful one, that all who believe before the return of Jesus Christ will enter into the Kingdom of God simultaneously, there being no aristocracy or hierarchy among them in terms of this matter.

We see the same tension between unconditional promises of blessings (or curses) to future generations and conditional blessings based upon obedience when we look at the ten commandments.  The second commandment focuses on the unconditional blessings and curses that come as a result of the behavior of generations before, as it is written in Exodus 5b-6:  “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”  However, the fifth commandment focuses on the conditional blessings that result from obedience, as it is written in Deuteronomy 5:16:  “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”  On the one hand, God visits the iniquity or shows mercy to future generations (although the mercy extends far beyond the wrath) based on the behavior of their fathers or mothers or grandparents, but a long and good life is contingent upon our honoring of our fathers and mothers (whether or not they actually deserve it).  

The reader whose lengthy messages prompted this particular series of posts himself reflected on the tension between unconditionality and conditionality.  The former, for example, can be found in Psalm 89:28-37:  “My mercy I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall stand firm with him.  His seed also I will make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven.  “If his sons forsake My law and do not walk in My judgments, if they break My statutes and do not keep My commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.  Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, nor allow My faithfulness to fail.  My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips.  Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David:  His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever like the moon, even like the faithful witness in the sky.” Selah”  On the other hand, there is clearly conditionality shown in these promises as well, as we may see from 1 Kings 9:3-9:  “And the Lord said to him: “I have heard your prayer and your supplication that you have made before Me; I have consecrated this house which you have built to put My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.  Now if you walk before Me as your father David walked, in integrity of heart and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded you, and if you keep My statutes and My judgments, then I will establish the throne of your kingdom over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’  But if you or your sons at all turn from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight. Israel will be a proverb and a byword among all peoples.  And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and will hiss, and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’  Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God, who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore the Lord has brought all this calamity on them.’ “”

Furthermore, we see this same tension when we compare the account of the Book of Judges of the repeated cycles of disobedience, judgment, contrition/repentance, and deliverance of the people of Israel with the great deal of space in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles that is spent discussing the family history of the tribes of Israel.  On the one hand we have plenty of evidence that God judges people and nations and generations for their sins, and makes their blessings contingent on their own obedience.  On the other hand, the Bible’s deep concern with genealogy demonstrates that God works through families, as we may see also from Genesis 17:7-8:  “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.  Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.””  So which it?  Are we blessed and/or judged for our own deeds, according to whether we live according to our covenant with God, or do we receive unconditional and undeserved blessings as a privilege of the obedience of past generations?

The answer is clearly both.  God is merciful and faithful to His promises.  He desires godly offspring, as it is written in Malachi 2:15.  He works within families over the course of generations, and gives undeserved blessings to the descendants of Abraham as well as the descendants of the faithful, including the blessing of being called and having the opportunity to enter into God’s kingdom because one is a son or daughter of believers.  That said, this privilege does not extent to a ticket into God’s kingdom unless we choose to accept the calling we have received and choose to live according to the covenant that God makes individually with all believers through repentance and conversion and baptism and a faithful life of obedience guided by the indwelling presence of the Holy  Spirit.  If we wished to use an earthly similitude, we could compare the Kingdom of God to a prestigious university that gave legacy acceptance letters to those who were the sons and daughters of previous generations of alumni.  However, in order to profit those who had received acceptance letters they may not have deserved through their own academic performance, the privileged heirs of promise must still pass the degree requirements of the university so that they may graduate with their own diplomas, and perhaps set an example of faithful conduct for still future generations.  This assumes, of course, that we marry and have children of our own to raise up in obedience to God, which is assuming perhaps a bit too much for some of us (myself included, sadly).  How, then, do those of us privileged to come from faithful families recognize the privileges that we have in the absence of the dramatic conversion experiences of past generations or new converts?  It is that question that we will turn to next.

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Book Review: The Last Camel Died At Noon

The Last Camel Died At Noon (Amelia Peabody #6), by Elizabeth Peters

Having been pleased at the previous volume and the way that it expanded the goings on of the Emerson family, this book thoughtfully continued the same pace, although it presents the reader with a less satisfying adventure than could have been the case because so much of it is spent in such confined territory, the fact that the novel clearly echos the writings of Haggard (like King Solomon’s Mines), and the secretive nature of the plot and its resolution that forces the characters to keep much of what they have seen and learned private in order to preserve the secrecy of the society of refugees that are at the heart of this book.  While the author does a good job in expanding the efforts of the Emersons in understanding the area around Egypt, this time sending them to Nubia in search of more pyramids to dig and also in search of a lost Englishman who sent missing during the rise of the Mahdists in Sudan.  Of course, the English military finds itself involved and there are murders and plotting, of course, and the characters are still in denial about being busybody amateur sleuths, which means the series will go on for longer before they truly admit what is going on.

By this point in the series you likely know at least some of what to expect.  All of the members of the Emerson family are very intelligent and able to figure out what is going on relatively quickly, even the repellent Ramses.  Of course, this particular book finds them engaged in some hurry up and waiting situations, as they arrive in Nubia having exhausted (so they think) the main archaeological areas in Egypt and looking to expand, even into somewhat active war zones like northern and central Sudan (the author even gets some credit for mentioning Darfur).  After doing a bit of exploration and attempting to become familiar with the local Nubian language, the Emersons find themselves being whisked off to an area that time forgot where Nubian refugees of longstanding, a daughter of the missing Englishman, and local people considered to be slaves or even animals, all present the Emersons with the threat not only of death due to political violence but even being stuck and unable to return to the outside world, which is something that will simply not be borne.

Ultimately, this book has a generally happy ending and those readers who have enjoyed the series as a whole will likely find the author’s tribute to Haggard to be a humorous one, as King Solomon’s Mines [1] is mentioned several times within the text as a running joke of sorts.  While the plot of the story is certainly interesting, the idea that Sudan could hold a place for refugee Nubians to forget about the destruction of their homeland and avoid the exploitation of Arabs and Arabized northern Sudanese tribes is just about as plausible as the existence of Wakanda.  The fact that the book details the Nubian elites as being no great humanitarians themselves allows the reader to see and be frustrated by Amelia Potter’s evident “socialism” in desiring to uplift the downtrodden native peoples, something which could have gotten her killed and would have made the series a lot shorter, no doubt.  Contemporary readers are likely to be far more in sympathy with Amelia than would have been the case at the time when the series is set, one of those ways in which anachronism serves to color our view of the past if I ever saw it.


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Book Review: Deeds Of The Disturber

Deeds Of The Disturber (Amelia Peabody #5), by Elizabeth Peters

This book comes at an interesting place in that it follows the earlier books in the series (and makes reference to several of them) but also manages to move the series forward in some important ways.  In many ways, the lead characters are somewhat in denial still about being sleuths and this book demonstrates many of the elements familiar in mystery novels–characters want to deny that they are trying to solve mysteries or involving themselves in the affairs of others, the sleuths have an ambivalent relationship with the local police that involves a high amount of mistrust.  None of these things are in the least surprising.  After all, anyone who reads any mystery novel where the main character is some kind of independent/amateur sleuth is going to face some implicit questions as to why they are trying to solve mysteries when there are professionals on the beat.  The fact that this particular novel takes place in England as opposed to Egypt, although it deals with questions of Egyptology, allows the writer to broaden the scope of her writing to deal with life in England and the efforts of people to fit in with high society and deal with the shadowy appeal of Egyptian religion and practices in late Victorian England.

The novel itself is a compelling one, definitely a step up from the usual plot.  A mysterious death is viewed by Amelia as a murder although initially as an accidental death, and the increasing body count and activity of a strange masked priest only increase suspicion and the pressure on the Emerson family to solve it.  This is only increased by the jealousy going on over an old partner of Mr. Emerson’s, the troubles that the Emersons have in taking care of some relatives, one of whom is more than a little bit too fond of sweets, and Ramses being Ramses, along with the investigations of two reporters, one of which bears a strong resemblance to Amelia and has some unwanted male attention.  A lot of cross-currents and a dramatic showdown with the bad guys–who are no master criminals but certainly manage to do a lot of damage, lead to a satisfying conclusion that demonstrates a darker side to English life (particularly English academic and intellectual life) and to the recognition that their skills in sleuthing have put the Emerson clan and their servants and relatives and friends in some danger, something that may affect later novels.

There is a lot to appreciate here in this novel, not least the change of location from Egypt to England, albeit with the Egyptian theme (including the poetic title) kept firmly in the forefront.  The author’s exploration of opium dens and sexually transmitted diseases are intriguing, and the author presents the way that young people of unconventional parents can easily become corrupted by the sort of information that is available to them that others may not be as sensitive to.  One wonders, though, when the Emersons themselves will become self-aware that they are sleuths and will plan accordingly rather than persist in denial.  After five mystery novels, involving somewhere around a dozen or more murders and numerous plots that have been directed against one or more member of the Emerson clan (including such unoriginal ideas as locking the Emersons in some sort of place suitable for drowning and kidnapping Ramses, which have appeared multiple times now), one would think that Amelia Peabody and her relatives would just openly admit that they are sleuths and to get on with things, rather than to pretend that they are just innocent academics minding their own business.  Nobody believes that.

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Book Review: Lion In The Valley

Lion In The Valley (Amelia Peabody #4), by Elizabeth Peters

At this stage in a novel series, particularly one that goes on a long time (and there are a lot more novels to read, as this is only the fourth of some twenty novels in the series), there are various ways that the author will try to spice things up, and in this particular novel we have a writer who is becoming more self-aware about her craft, to the point where the novel itself has become more opaque.  There is an introductory section where the anonymous narrator seeks to avoid responsibility for any libelous statements made in the book itself, and in the account itself Amelia Peabody has ceased to be merely a character within the novel but has made various edits to her own account, making this novel far more self-referential than it has any right being.  All of this suggests a certain degree of unreliability about the narrator and some thoughts about the issue of verisimilitude in the writing of novels.  Does it make the novel any more enjoyable to read?  Not really, though it does not detract from the enjoyment of the novel either, so at least it does not make it less enjoyable to read a novel that is more layered than previous volumes and with the promise of similar layers in future volumes.

This novel is the second in a row that deals with the master criminal, and if you are fond of that sort of narrative you will find much to enjoy here.  There are plenty of cliches here, and sometimes the characters act in a bit of a flat manner, but if you have read this far along, you are likely going to be tolerant to the intuitive Amelia, her choleric husband, who has a few moments here of being suspicious of his wife’s loyalty to him, and their bratty and punchable son Ramses, who is always going off by himself no matter what mortal peril the family is under and whose vulnerability to being kidnapped becomes a major plot point here.  Of course there are archaeological investigations, this time of the black pyramid, and there are frequent callbacks to the third volume of the series where the Emersons were almost drowned in said pyramid by agents of the master criminal.  There is also endless speculation about the master criminal, much of it ending up both right and wrong; I won’t spoil it, but I must admit that I found the big reveal to be more than a little bit cringeworthy and we’ll leave it at that.

When reading a novel like this, one is faced with a bit of a dilemma, and it is clear that the author is faced with a dilemma too, one that is common to series literature.  How is it that one is able to provide for enough compelling material to fill an entire lengthy series while making each novel itself worthwhile as well.  On the one hand, having a consistent villain makes it easier to come up with crimes and allows for a high degree of parsimony when it comes to creating characters, but at the same time having characters escape judgment only to reappear over and over again can get rather tedious, and here one can see that if the “master criminal” is able to be identified in his multiple guises by all of the members of the Emerson family, then he will just keep showing up over and over again, to the point of annoyance.  Even after two novels his behavior and antics are getting a bit frustrating, and I hope there are not ten or more novels more of this conceit, because that would drastically reduce my interest in the series as a whole.  For the moment, though, we continue with a satisfying if perhaps a bit ominous installment.

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