Book Review: Silence

SilenceSilence by Shūsaku Endō

This story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan is affecting on many levels. The first is the beauty and economy of the writing and the translation. The darkest parts of the narrative are set in beautiful prose. I was also struck by the affection with which the early narrator and protagonist, Rodrigues, describes the villagers among whom he is living. They exist in the deepest poverty but they provide for and shelter Rodrigues and his companion Garrpa.

Second, the historical details are abundant and helpful and do not get in the way of the story. Rodrigues is based on a historical figure who . Rodrigues and his companions have a goal of finding a second historical figure, Ferreira, who is believed to have apostatized. The lives of the fictional characters revolve around historical figures in the places where those figures lived and moved.

Third, there is Kichijiro, a Judas-Iscariot-meets-Gollum character who follows Rodrigues through the entire story. He elicits as much response from Rodrigues, and such a broad range of response, as any other character or event in the story. He befriends, he connives, he betrays, he survives, he falls and repents again and again. He tests the capacity of Rodrigues to forgive, and in the end he calls out of Rodrigues his true sense of his calling as a priest as he asks Rodrigues to hear his confession and grant absolution.

Fourth is the role of silence. The God who brought Rodrigues to Japan is silent as the persecution of the believers grows. The ocean that brought Rodrigues is silent as well. Is Rodrigues expecting aid from or by way of the ocean?

Fifth is the role of faith and doctrine in the story. The Japanese officials insist that Christianity cannot survive in a pure form in Japan. That’s probably true of Christianity in any time and place. It becomes absorbed into the culture. In my lifetime in the Western hemisphere I’ve seen Jesus visualized as the theist Che Guevara of liberation theology, or as a bandana-wearing hippie of the Jesus-People movement. More recently we’ve seen Jesus arm wrestling a Halloween-costume Satan in a social media meme for some battle or other in our contemporary culture wars. Rodrigues seems to understand that God does not change even though how we see and approach God might.

If you are looking for a beautifully written, thought-provoking, albeit somber book to read this winter, Silence might be a good choice.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

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Book Review: Consilience

Consilience: The Unity of KnowledgeConsilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson

In May 2001 Wendell Berry published Life is a Miracle. He wrote it as a response to Consilience, by Edward O. Wilson. Having an affinity for Wendell Berry’s writing, I read Life is a Miracle several years ago. Then this fall I read Alister McGrath’s The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God. McGrath also takes issue with Consilience because of Wilson’s conclusion that ethics and morality can be explained by evolution.

In our current cultural environment many of us carry out our intellectual transactions in the safety of communities of like-minded people. I am as guilty of this as the next person, but since two writers whom I respect took issue with the same book by the same author, I thought I should investigate for myself.

Wilson writes for an educated audience. His writing is, nonetheless, approachable and clear.

The theses with which Berry and McGrath take issue are not hard to find in Consilience. According to Wilson, science is capable of telling us everything we need to know. There is no need for intervention by supernatural forces. All supernatural thinking is “ignorance-based metaphysics” which will retreat “like a vampire before the lifted cross” when presented with “objective truth.” (p. 62)

Of particular interest to theists, specifically Christians who espouse young-earth creation, is Wilson’s take on this doctrine. It must be said that he speaks of the Christian’s God with respect. “Perhaps God did create all organisms,including human beings, in finished form, in one stroke, and maybe it all happened several thousand years ago. But if that is true, He also salted the earth with false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail, and so thoroughly from pole to pole, as to make us conclude first that life evolved, and second that the process took billions of years. Surely Scripture tells us He would not do that. The Prime Mover of the Old and New Testaments is variously loving, magisterial, denying, thunderously angry, and mysterious, but never tricky.” (p, 129–130)

Going farther on the subject of God and God’s involvement in human affairs, Wilson observes “God may exist, He may be delighted in what we are up to on this minor planet, but His fine hand is not needed to explain the biosphere.” (p. 198) It’s interesting that this quote is in a chapter on the social sciences, and in a section on economics.

Wilson uses “empiricism” to refer to a world view that understands the world solely in terms of what is observable. “Transcendentalism” allows the intervention of forces outside of what can be observed with senses extended by technology. “The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct.” (p. 240).

The final chapter, “To What End,” includes what seems to be a summary statement: “What are we? Where do we come from, How show we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltations, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. Still encumbered by precepts based on Iron-Age folk knowledge, it is unable to assimilate the great sweep of the real world now open for examination.” (p. 269) Ouch.

Finally, this: “The legacy of the Enlightenment is the believe that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely. That self-confidence has risen with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, which is being woven into an increasingly full explanatory web of cause and effect.” (p. 297). That speaks of a hubris that has gotten humanity into trouble since its appearance in the biosphere.

I am thankful for E.O. Wilson and for his challenges to the hardened dogmas of fundamentalism. They need to be challenged. I am also grateful for the work of writers such as Wendell Berry and Alister McGrath, who have provided alternative narratives that include the work of a just and loving God.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl is a memoir, an account of Hope Jahren’s progress as a student and then a scientist working in the academy. It is interspersed with lessons on seed germination, soil properties, plant growth, life cycles, and other botany-related subjects.

Hope Jahren—her full name is Anne Hope Jahren—is a scientist and teacher who is passionate about her chosen field. Of course, that can probably be said of many academics, especially those who have channeled their passion into literature that is accessible by laypeople. This book is not only well written and accessible, though, it is laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The description on page 117 of a visit with several students to Monkey Jungle Island, a tourist attraction in Florida is an excellent example. Later in the narrative Jahren describes a cross-country trip by van to a conference in San Francisco and a terrible crash on an icy interstate highway in the mountains of Colorado. One can almost smell the interior of the van at the end of the trip, that vivid is the description.

While humor, effective instructional writing, and great storytelling move the narrative forward, it is also driven by Hope Jahren’s frustration with the deplorable state of research funding, the status of women in the sciences, and the continuing degradation of the environment.

Being a memoir, the point of Lab Girl is not to deliver a seamless account of Hope Jahren’s life. Still, it is a bit startling that there is little to describe the transition from the Hope Jahren of early struggles, who lived day and night in her lab and survived on pizza and Ensure, to the successful academic who is blissfully married to the perfect husband and hopelessly devoted to their child. It is still heartening to know that she was able to make that transition.

It’s also clear from the narrative that there would also be no Hope Jahren, successful academic, were it not for Bill Hagopian, her long-time lab assistant, good friend, confidant, and Dutch uncle. Bill should tell the story from his side.

Lab Girl would merit five stars from this reviewer were it not for one flaw, the unfettered use of profanity. It’s hard to imagine how Jahren was able to recall in detail conversations that included such language fifteen years or more after they took place unless she kept an exhaustive journal. Even if the conversations are accurately recorded, one has to wonder why it is necessary to include language that is still censored by broadcast media in the United States. It would be easy to recommend this book to grandchildren and other young people who might consider careers in the sciences, but the profanity makes that problematic.

In spite of that, this is a great memoir. The time and effort expended in reading it are well invested.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Quantum Physics and Theology

Don’t let the title frighten you. You don’t need to understand quantum physics and you don’t need to have studied theology to enjoy and appreciate Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. Having training or interest in the sciences or theology will enhance your appreciation, but it’s not essential.

polkinghorne_quantum_physics_web

I read this book as a part of a group reading and discussion project hosted by Andy Walsh on the Emerging Scholars Network during September and October 2017. He discussed one chapter in each of five weekly articles. There were on-line video chats as well but they were not recorded. His comments will much more valuable to potential readers than any I could add here, so I would suggest that you read his posts.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you have not read it and don’t want the outcome to be revealed.

This was my first conventional novel by Neil Gaiman. I had read The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a graphic novel. Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read and hard to put down. The themes of identity, loneliness, and alienation are fairly easy to pick up. The narrator’s being saved from death by another character who dies in the attempt is unexpected and strikes me as being close to Christian in form. In that sense Lettie is a Christ figure, although I’m not sure that’s what the author intended.

What strikes me also is a similarity between this story and the story told in Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories we have benevolent female figures who come to the aid of a child or children in a battle between good and evil. I’d be curious to learn if anyone else reading this review might have drawn the same connection.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Cultivating Reality, by Ragan Sutterfield

Cultivating RealityCultivating Reality by Ragan Sutterfield

From the subtitle of this book, “How the Soil Might Save Us,” one might think this is a book about soil ecology and biology told from a Christian perspective. It is not. Rather, it is an apologetic for agrarianism as a biblically based response to environmental degradation, cultural ills, and the unraveling of our social fabric.

Ragan Sutterfield is a prophet in the tradition of Wendell Berry, whom Sutterfield cites more frequently than any other writer. One sixth of the entries in the bibliography are works by Wendell Berry. The other sources listed in the bibliography range from Bernard of Clairvaux to Richard Dawkins to Melissa Block of NPR to Bill McKibben to Michael Pollan to Jack Kerouac to Dallas Willard, to name a few. I was also expecting to see Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible in the list but it is absent.

One of the foundation stones of Sutterfield’s agrarianism is commonwealth. Others include humility, the sacredness of our physical beings, and a sense of place. Regarding commonwealth, or community, Sutterfield starts by introducing John Locke and his concept of property. Locke maintained that our bodies are property that can be rented or sold as we labor to accumulate more property, some of it in the form of consumer goods. In contrast Sutterfield argues that “The agrarian response is that we are members. . . . [W]e are part of a larger whole and it is through working well within that whole that we attain our own good, which is always in harmony with the good of the whole.” I was recalling Ephesians 4:15 & 16 as I was reading the chapter on commonwealth: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Reading this book, and reading Wendell Berry, I am tempted to dismiss their prophecies as arising out of an agrarian elitism. Wendell Berry lives on a farm in Kentucky. Ragan Sutterfield lives in Arkansas and his writing suggests that he has acreage at his disposal where he can practice his agrarianism. How is someone living in a suburban subdivision, or in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, or in New Delhi or Kampala supposed to practice agrarian living? But to make that argument is to miss the point. Sutterfield is calling us to cultivate a different reality regardless of our personal circumstances, a reality in which we live humbly in community, giving ourselves as a gift to others, regarding the physical creation as something that has been made sacred by God’s choosing to inhabit it with us.

Thanks as always for stopping by.