Cloud Atlas: A Review (Spoiler Alert)

What can I say about a book that took me two months to read? A book that is built like a russian Matryoshka doll (a.k.a. nesting doll); or for those a little more literally knowledgeable, a chiasmus. Of course, the time it took for me to read a book who’s story-line is not sequential made what story-line was present seem more like a Monet than a Gustave Courbet. (Let the reader understand)

The novel is set around six stories. The first and last is about a notary from San Francisco sailing the south Pacific. I say first and last because his story is broken mid-sentence, interrupted by the other five stories which appear in its place both ascending and descending (the second story continues next to last at the end). The second is that of a musician, Robert Fobrischer. The third, that of an investigative reporter Louisa Rey. The fourth, a Mr. Cavendish (perhaps my favorite). The fifth, a a fabricant, or clone, named Sonmi-451. And finally, at the center of the book, the story of Sloosha, a stone aged type island man (who oddly enough exists, I believe, after the other stories).

Each story connects somehow to another even though they are set in different periods of time. There are interesting aspects to each story that tie them together: a shared birthmark, a familiar tune (written by our own Robert Fobrisher), or books. Each story having peculiar oddities of its own. The speech of Sloosha reminds one of the speech imitated in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Or Sonmi-451 fighting against corpocracy (commercialism), which uses the word Nike for shoes, or starbucks for coffee. Namebrands that have become common nouns. The story is full of interesting little tidbits like that, which will in the end, aid the story as it moves along…somehow…anachranistically.

My hope is to read it again the the future and break each of the stories out on their own. Perhaps this will actually tie the stories together better for my mind.

There are moments of sheer hilarity in the book. Perhaps my favorite is the second story of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timoty Cavendish.” A tale about a man who has, in his mind, been wrongly confined to a nursing home by his brother and his attempt to break out of said nursing home. Imagine, if you will, four elderly people stealing a Land Rover and busting through an iron gate at 55 mph; who were scott free when they realized that the map where they had planed their get away was sitting back on one of their nightstands. This map included their first stop for gas and a bite, which was where they were when they realized that their mission had been compromised. Upon this realization in walk their pursuers. And who is the hero? Who delivers the old people from the clutches of the young? Ah, but the octogenarian who has been acting catatonic until he got his big break. Using his keen since of setting (A Scottish Bar) and his pursuers (a man from souther England) yells, “What did you say about the Scottish!?”

The whit in this section gave me a good belly laugh in the middle of the coffee shop I was reading in. If you read no other story in this work, this one is a must read.

If you do venture to read the book, it is worth it to see what his understanding of man’s telos is on page 507-508. I continually find it interesting that works that are dubbed as post-modern always hope for telos, or purpose. This one has a telos, but seems to hint at no purpose, only to reel it back again. It can’t quite let go of that hope.

In regards to living a virtuous life, the outer shell of our nesting doll says:

You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched,pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than a drop in a limitless ocean!”

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

 

Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar: A Review

This work by Horatius Bonar, a 19th century Scottish pastor, is all about encouraging its readers to treasure the gospel and to never tire in the labor for the gospel. Bonar’s intended audience are ministers in churches. However, the book may be read by all Christians who desire to see their world impacted for the gospel.

Bonar first calls for ministers to focus on their one object: to win souls. In order to do this, the minister must first be a Christian. This may seem obvious but Bonar presses this point. For him, the minister’s Christianity should not be a stale Christianity. Anyone can do that. The minister’s Christianity must be on fire. In order to do that they must lay aside everything to seek God. They should rise early to seek God before they give their day to anyone else. He states, “Let us seek the Lord early. ‘If my heart be early seasoned with his presence, it will savor of him all day after.'” (p. 10) For Bonar, rising early is focused on prayer, contra most of our contemporary culture which focuses on bible reading. In fact, the remainder of the paragraph deals with prayer.
The minister must focus on his own soul and must walk with God.

Bonar also calls out the laziness of the minister’s in his day (which also calls out our ministers today). He pushes for all ministers to set their hearts on winning lost souls. He writes,

“No; really to give anything to God implies that the will, which is emphatically the heart, has been set on that thing; and if the heart has indeed been set on the salvation of sinners as the end to be answered by the means we use, we can not possibly give up that end without, as we before observed, the heart being severely exercised and deeply pained by the renunciation of the will involved in it. When, therefore, we can be quietly content to use the means for saving souls without seeing them saved thereby, it is because there is no renunciation of the will–that is not real giving up to God in the affair. The fact is, the will-that is, the heart–had never really beens set upon this end; it is had, it could not possibly give up such an end without being broken by the sacrifice…The soul and eternity of one man depends upon the voice of another.” (p. 22 & 24)

This quote was from the most convicting chapter for me. I highly recommend this book to anyone. It demonstrates a very mature, gentle, bold encouragement for the reader to labor diligently in gospel service.

The Princess and the Goblin: A Review (Spoiler Alert)

George Macdonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish born author of fairy tales and fantasy novels. I recently picked up one of his delightful little works, The Princess and the Goblin. You can get it free on the Amazon Kindle.

The work is primarily for children (though some of the language may require the use of a dictionary for today’s children…and some adults). It tells the story of a little princess, Irene, who lived in a castle/home on the side of mountain, which housed a troop of goblins within. Through a course of events, mostly due to her curiosity, Irene meets her great great great (How many more greats?) grandmother in an upper, more deserted part of her castle. The idea is that she is really old. Her grandmother aids her on her way as Irene finds herself as the target for a goblin kidnapping.

The goblins wish to kidnap her so that they might give her to their King’s son, Prince Hairlip, as a wife. The hope is that this will bring about some peace between the “sun dwellers” and the goblins.

Along the way, however, a young miner by the name of Curdie learns of their plan and in the process is captured by the goblins, deep in the heart of the mountain. Irene rescues the prince by following a path laid out by her grandmother through the use of string. Once Curdie is found, the string leads the two out of the mountain to safety. But, Curdie does not see the string, which is an important point for the story.

As a result of saving Curdie the princess, and those who protect her, are informed of the goblin’s plan and thwart it. The princess is not entirely safe after this, as the goblins resort to plan B. They tunnel underneath her home and attempt to kidnap her by a passageway created through the cellar. Curdie comes to the rescue. Once the goblins have been defeated the princess is found missing. Curdie, somehow, finds a string, which no one else can see, and finds the princess safely at his home with his mother. All is well after this and the story has a few odds and ends to wrap up after this.

The story focuses on the belief that Irene has in her grandmother, and her ability to help her in times of distress. Curdie, who originally can’t see the string, or her grandmother (for Irene takes him to see her at one point in the story, but he sees nothing) soon finds that he believes in Irene’s Grandmother.

This is used as an object lesson, I believe, to teach young children about faith and the way that not everyone believes in God. However, as the book states, it just takes them some time to believe. This view of faith may be due to Macdonald’s rejection of substitutionary atonement and his belief that God only uses punishment to, dare I say, bend people to his will. People just need time to see God for who he is. At least, that seems to be the worldview here.

His Excellency George Washington: A Review

Joseph J. Ellis is professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He has authored several books on American history with special attention given to the founding of the United States. He received a Pulitzer prize for his work, Founding Brothers.

Ellis’ biography of Washington is a little different from the other biographies I have read on the first president of the United States. The main reason being that Ellis devotes a good portion of his book to Washington’s military service during the French-Indian War as well as his service in the Revolutionary War. Other biographies, as Ellis even points out, focus on Washington’s presidency.

One of the major drawbacks to Ellis’ work however is that he likes to pontificate about what went on behind the scenes, or in Washington’s mind. While he may have good reason for believing that, for example, Washington was not speaking honestly at some point or another, he provides no evidence to support such a claim. Perhaps, Ellis is correct in his suggestions to his readers, but a little more argumentation would go a long way. As one of my favorite quotes to recite in regards to scholarship says, “We can only go as far as the evidence takes us.” And I would add, “and no further.” Thank you Martin Noth for that little tid-bit.

Ellis’ organization of the book is rather straight forward and logical. There are few points where the reader might say, “Why did he put this information here?” His organization is thoughtful and helpful to the reader. The placement of chapter divisions puts the events firmly into the mind of the reader. While some may find this to be a small matter, I actually find it quite helpful because it simply helps the reader maintain, as well as categorize, the information he is taking in.

One interesting aspect of the work is Ellis’ focus on Washington’s views on slavery. It seems as though he is trying to reconcile Washington’s reasons for freeing his slaves upon his death; as stipulated by his will. However, throughout his life he maintained the slaves even though they were costing his plantation money. Ellis goes to great lengths to show Washington’s character in not wanting to sell the slaves for profit because this would result in the break up of families. Yet, Washington continued to view his slaves as his property. This side-story in the larger Washington narrative provides the reader with Ellis’ ability to be a fine historical scholar. At this point Ellis seems to only go as far as the evidence takes him, and therefore probably gives the reader the most accurate representation of history in his entire work (besides the mere facts).

Overall, if someone were to ask me what biography to read of George Washington, I would have to say His Excellency. Albeit, only the second biography I have read of Washington. Tolle Lege!

Review: God and the Atlantic by Thomas Howard

Thomas Albert Howard is the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He has published several works dealing with the history of Christian thought. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in European Intellectual history.

God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide is a fascinating book that goes into great detail about the views of prominent European authors during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries concerning American religion. There are two basic European views that Howard describes in this work. These views are dependent on whether one was an old-world conservative, or whether they were a secularist.

The first view discussed from the old-world conservatives would be that of derision. They viewed American religion as a place filled with various religious sects. In fact, America is portrayed as a land where each man has his own religion and shares nothing in common with his neighbor. Some of the views of the European elite were downright fictitious holding that Americans had some of the most abnormally fantastic rituals the world had ever seen. Part of the predisposition of this first view was due to the political and religious bent towards a government that was tied to the state.  Therefore, these Europeans typically looked with disdain upon American religion, and their politics.

The second view could be connected with the secularist views that came about after the French Revolution. Those who were secularist also looked over to the New World with some derision because they saw a fantastic (in the since of fantasy) religion. Or, perhaps, they saw too much religion in the new world for their taste. The secularist followed the evolutionary view of history espoused by Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, to name a few. Therefore, their view of America was that it was regressing back to a pre-modern superstitious religion; not progressing towards a scientific philosophical ideal.

In contrast, Howard holds up two European born intellectuals who spent some time in the United States. The first is Philip Schaff and the second is Jacques Maritain. Howard devotes more attention to Maritain, and probably rightly so. Maritain pointed out the European views were not based on actual first-hand knowledge of the United States but rather they were rooted in the two ideologies of old-world religion and secularism. Therefore these views were skewed. Maritain offered a mediating voice to both sides of the Atlantic.

What surprised me most about the work was the conclusion. Howard, a fine writer, provides some excellent reflections given his evidence. He connects these views to the post-War (World War II) views of America by Europeans and shows that they are the backdrop for the current ideological division between America and Europe. The conclusion is very insightful and I highly recommend it. But you must first wade through some of the more laborious lists of people and the quotations of their beliefs (which I can imagine for some may be boring…not for me).

With that said, there are several advantages to reading this book. First, history always seems to bring a sobering effect to current events. The religious and political divide is connected to the two diametrically opposed views in the U.S. today. Howard’s work provides a sober, even-handed approach to current controversy. Second, as I am an evangelical Christian, Howard’s work allows me to see the current intellectual trends going on in Europe as they enter post-secularism. This is also sobering as it seems too many Christians are bombastic towards such movements (because they view them as pagan) when attention to these movements may help Christians begin a dialog with those who maybe don’t believe the same about religion as they do. In short, it may help the Christian to be more conversant with others from differing world views.

Finally, I think anyone, from either the right or the left politically, could pick up Howard’s book and find it to be a great benefit in understanding the view that is “across the aisle.” It can help someone to understand, and possibly appreciate, someone with different political and religious views and perhaps provide a balanced approach to how the nation may move forward despite its diversity in the future without giving too much sway to either evangelicalism or secularism. Thus, preserving the founding right of this country to worship in whatever way, within reason, one sees fit.