Review of Cog, by Greg van Eekhout

January 13th, 2020

Cog

by Greg van Eekhout

Harper, 2019. 196 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 20, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 in Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Award Finalist

This book is utterly delightful. It’s true that I’ve got a strong prejudice against books that claim robots have emotion or that assign basically magical abilities to robots, so I did have a tiny bit of trouble with suspension of disbelief. But I loved the characters so much, and they were so quirky and creative, I didn’t really care.

Here’s how Cog introduces himself:

My name is Cog. Cog is short for “cognitive development.” Cognitive development is the process of learning how to think and understand.

In appearance, I am a twelve-year-old boy of average height and weight. This means I’m fifty-eight inches tall and weigh about ninety pounds and seven ounces. In actuality, I am seven months old.

Now I will tell you some facts I have learned about platypuses.

Cog tells us about his home and his bedroom and about Gina, who lives with him and makes repairs and adjustments when he needs them.

Gina is a scientist for uniMIND. She has brown eyes like my visual sensors and brown skin like my synthetic dermal layer. Her hair is black and shiny, like the feathers of birds in the corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. When she smiles, which is often, a small gap is evident between her two front teeth. My teeth, which are oral mastication plates, have no gap, but I enjoy practicing smiling with Gina.

Cog is programmed to learn, to increase his cognitive development. As the book begins, Gina takes him to Giganto Food Super Mart to learn about shopping. She gives him a list and asks him to get the items unsupervised.

Cheese is the first item. Cog discovers many kinds of cheese that he hadn’t known existed before. He fills the cart with them. When he gets back to Gina, she tells him that for a first attempt he did a very good job.

“But we actually don’t need all this cheese,” she continues. “Nor do we need seven dozen apples or eight different kinds of orange juice or twelve different varieties of dish soap. So let’s start putting most of this back.”

I learn that unshopping takes longer than shopping.

As we return items to shelves, Gina explains to me where my judgment was faulty and led me astray.

“Is my judgment the result of a bug?” I ask her. “Can you fix it?”

“No,” she says, hanging seven bags of shredded cheese back on their hooks. “It’s just something you have to learn. It’s like my old professor used to tell me: ‘Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.’ That means we learn by making mistakes.”

I process this for a while.

“How long did it take you to learn good judgment?”

“Oh, I’m still learning it, buddy. I’m learning it all the time.”

Since Cog’s mission is to learn, he makes a resolution. The next morning, he sneaks out of the house.

Leaving the house without Gina’s permission is a mistake. this pleases me, because a mistake is an act of bad judgment, and I expect my act of bad judgment to increase my cognitive development.

Unfortunately, out in the yard, Cog sees a Chihuahua about to be hit by a truck. He saves the Chihuahua – and gets hit by the truck.

When Cog wakes up, he is in bed and hooked up to data ports beneath his flipped-up fingernails, but something is not right. He is not in his bedroom at home, and Gina is not there.

It turns out that since she allowed Cog to be hit by a truck, she’s been taken off the project. Cog is at UniMIND headquarters and told it’s his new home.

When he finds out they want to open up his brain and take out the X-Module (whatever that is), Cog resolves to run away and find Gina.

And so we end up with a delightful road trip story. Cog travels with four other robots – ADA, an Advanced Destructive Apparatus who looks like a twelve-year-old girl, a Trashbot that asks everyone if they have waste, a robotic dog, and a talking Car. The Car asks if he will accept liability before it agrees to set out with them.

The adventure is wild – okay, perhaps quite a bit unlikely – but oh, so much fun. Each one of the robots has a distinct and consistent personality, and I love Cog’s voice narrating the whole thing. In fact, I will end this review with some words of wisdom from Cog:

Since leaving the UniMIND campus, I have had several bad experiences, and one thing I have learned is that friends and sandwiches make even the worst of situations more tolerable.

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Sonderling Sunday – Idle Braggadocio

January 12th, 2020

Surprise! After several months off, it’s time for Sonderling Sunday!

Sonderling Sunday is when I play with language by looking at the German translation of children’s book and making a very silly phrasebook of Useful Phrases To Know in German — that I challenge you to ever actually use in any language.

Since it’s been so long since I’ve written a post, tonight I’m going back to the book that started it all, Der Orden der Seltsamen Sonderlinge, by James Kennedy, known in the original English as The Order of Odd-Fish.

We left off last time on page 348 in the English edition, Seite 442 auf Deutsch. We left off when Jo and Fiona were about to start their duel. Since duels begin with threats, this is going to be especially fun.

I like to begin by translating a complete sentence, and this is a good one:

“Fiona had already dismounted and started the threats:”
= Fiona war bereits abgestiegen und hatte begonnen, ihre Drohungen auszustoßen:

“Silver Kitten of Deceit” = Silbernes Kätzchen der Arglist

“Know the terror of your doom!”
= Erkenne den Schrecken deines Untergangs!

“the All-Devouring Mother” = die All-Vershlingende Mutter

“Tonight your deceits shall be overthrown, your silver fur gnashed between my all-masticating jaws!”
= Heute Nacht werde ich deinen Tücken ein Ende bereiten und dein silberner Pelz wird zwischen meinen alles zermalmenden Kiefern zerfetzt werden!

“boos” = Buhrufen (“Boo-cries”)

Here’s something you may want to try on the next person who threatens you in German:
“Boasting in speech, yet paltry in deed!”
= Du prahlst mit Worten und bist doch so erbärmlich in deinen Taten!

“my meow is your death sentence” = mein Miauen wird deine Todesstrafe sein

“my purr, your despair” = mein Schnurren deine Verzweiflung

“my litterbox, your grave!” = mein Papierkorb dein Grab!

“Let fly your thrashing tongue, your gnawing teeth, your gulping throat”
= Lass nur deine widerliche Zunge fliegen, deine Zähne beißen, deine Kehle schlucken!

“I choke your esophagus with the foodstuffs of destruction”
= Ich werde deine Speiseröhre mit dem Labsal der Vernichtung stopfen

“I fill your greedy maw with the meal of dishonor!”
= Ich werde dein gieriges Maul mit den Speisen der Schande füllen!

“savor your doom” = genieße deinen Untergang

I like this one, because I don’t think it’s a direct translation:
“The crowd went wild.”
= Die Zuschauer flippten aus.
(“The spectators flipped out.”)

“sneered” = schnaubte

“wearable” = tragbaren

“idle braggadocio” = alberne Prahlerei

“weakling” = Schwächling

“pusillanimous” = zaghaft

I write out this whole sentence for the sake of the big long word at the end in German, but I dare you to find a way to utter this sentence:
“Do you not know, Aznath, that I, Ichthala, the All-Devouring Mother, shall gather unto myself a thousand living scorpions and sew them into a pair of scorpion underwear?”
= Weißt du nicht, Aznath, dass ich, Ichthala, die All-Vershlingende Mutter, tausend lebende Skorpione versammelt und zu einer Skorpionunterwäsche genäht habe?

“unmentionable places” = unaussprechlichen Stellen

“writhing, poisonous underwear” = windenden giftigen Unterwäsche

“retorted” = konterte

“stitching disgraceful underwear” = schamlose Unterkleidung zusammenzuflicken

“thin twine” = dünnen Schnüren

They’ve got a word for this!
“second least favorite song” = vorletztes Lieblingslied
“least favorite song” = letztes Lieblingslied

“spicy gumbo” = würzigen Gumboschotensuppe

“intestines” = Eingeweide

“dollhouses” = Puppenhäusern

Now here’s an insult:
“your dark, unholy, malformed, unnatural, godless, nauseating, cancerous, wretched, crap-spackled heart”
= dein düsteres, unheiliges, missgestaltetes, unnatürliches, gottloses, widerwärtiges, geschwürgleiches, verdammtes, mächtiges Herz

The duel is about to begin!

I’m going to finish by showing how the translator rendered their last cries at each other before they engage in battle:

“Avaunt!” = Hinweg mit dir!
“Hark!” = Hört, hört!
“Fie!” = Pfui!
“Alack!” = Ach weh!
“Egad!” = Oh Gott! (I’m not sure I agree with this translation.)
“Forsooth!” = Fürwahr!
“Aaaaaaaagh!” = [Not translated] Mit einem lauten Schrei…

Now if you ever want to spout off some alberne Prahlerei in German, you’ll know what to say!

Baby Martin’s Normal Distribution Blanket

January 11th, 2020

I finished a Normal Distribution Blanket for my new little nephew, Martin!

This is the same idea I used to make a blanket for my little niece Kara, but that one was in shades of pink.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the blanket out on Martin in person, but I gave the blanket to my brother, his Daddy, to give to Martin.

Here’s the method. The blanket is simply a series of entrelac squares (diamonds). I knit one row of squares in one direction, then pick up stitches along an edge to make another row of squares in the other direction, and knit back and forth, with squares in between the squares of the previous row. The nice thing about it is that each square is knitted completely before you move on to the next square, so you don’t have to carry different yarns across the row.

I used Tahki’s Cotton Classic yarn because they have many, many shades, and I already had some spare yarn from previous projects — Cotton Classic is my go-to yarn for mathematical knitting projects. All those shades!

Choosing the shade of the yarn for each square is where the normal distribution math comes in.

I simply generated a list of random numbers from the normal distribution (using google to find a random number generator). The normal distribution is a bell-shaped curve, so I’ll get more numbers in the middle of the distribution.

I took five shades of purple and labeled them A through E. For numbers in the middle, I used lighter colors, and got gradually darker as the numbers went out from the middle. For numbers that were outliers, I added a sparkly silver yarn to color E — because it’s the outliers that make life beautiful. And aren’t we all outliers in some way?

Here’s the specific math for those who care or who want to reproduce the method:

I set the middle of the distribution as zero, with a standard deviation of one. For positive numbers, I did a garter stitch square, and for negative numbers I did a seed stitch square.

Here’s how I assigned the colors:
Color A: Absolute values between 0 and 0.5
Color B: Absolute values between 0.5 and 1.0
Color C: Absolute values between 1.0 and 1.5
Color D: Absolute values between 1.5 and 2.0
Color E (with sparkles!): Absolute values greater than 2.0

Now, I didn’t have a perfect progression from light to dark. Color D was the reddish purple. And it’s not obvious in the photo that E was definitely much darker than Color C. Making D the reddish purple seemed to get the weight of the colors to progress better. I should have done a close-up of the sparkles, but didn’t think of it this time.

One thing I like about visualizing a normal distribution this way is you get a more visceral feel for how the colors are distributed than just looking at the curve. There are almost as many B-colored squares as A squares — and there really are a lot of outliers. (It might be a better representation if I had gone out one more level and used six colors. But this worked.)

I’ve also done scarves this way (with stripes) and of course the pink blanket. And it always comes out pleasing to the eye. The normal distribution really is the way so much of nature is arranged.

You can find links to explanations of all my mathematical knitting at sonderbooks.com/sonderknitting!

2019 Sonderbooks Stand-outs

January 10th, 2020

It’s time to post my Sonderbooks Stand-outs from the books I read in 2019!

I like to post these on New Year’s Day, but this year I was in California for my mother’s memorial service, so it’s put off a bit. (Two books from the list, I read on the plane, though! This is why I wait until the year is completely over.)

Once again, I do not have my reviews for all of these books posted yet. This year, I’m going to make that a priority and try to at least post my reviews of my 2019 and 2018 Stand-outs before I post other reviews. One of my 2020 resolutions is to post reviews more regularly.

I always want to stress that these are my personal favorites. Sonderbooks Stand-outs are not any attempt to predict which books will win awards, and I don’t screen them for diversity or literary merit. These are simply the books that I personally enjoyed.

Let me give my stats for 2019. I did not include books I reread in my Stand-outs. (They’re already Stand-outs or I wouldn’t reread them.) In 2019, there were an abundance of those.

I reread 13 books in January as I was doing Newbery selection committee deliberations. I’ll never tell which books those were, except to say that our medalist and two honor books were included. In 2019, I also reread 12 books by L. M. Montgomery, in preparation for my amazing road trip to Prince Edward Island with my childhood friends.

Other totals of books read:
Grown-up Nonfiction: 38
Grown-up Fiction: 13 (Hmm. I meant to read more after being off the Newbery committee.)
Teen Fiction: 15
Children’s Fiction: 56
Children’s Nonfiction: 143 (Most of those are picture books.)
Picture Books: 458

Yes, that’s significantly fewer than I read the year before, but that’s what happens when you can no longer make reading the top priority in your life.

Here is my list of my personal favorite books I read in 2019. I will try hard to get these reviews posted in the next couple of weeks. I do break the Stand-outs into categories so I can honor lots and lots of books.

Adult Fiction:
1. Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan
2. Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik
3. The Harp of Kings, by Juliet Marillier
4. Marilla of Green Gables, by Sarah McCoy

Christian Nonfiction:
1. The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr
2. Raising Hell, by Julie Ferwerda
3. That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bentley Hart
4. Creation and the Cross, by Elizabeth A. Johnson
5. Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, by J. D. Myers

Other Adult Nonfiction:
1. Educated, by Tara Westover
2. Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
3. Becoming, by Michelle Obama
4. Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee
5. The Landscapes of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid

Teen Fiction: (This is the category where they’re getting switched around a lot. These are all fantastic.)
1. Damsel, by Elana K. Arnold
2. Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly
3. Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai
4. The Wicked King, by Holly Black
5. The Toll, by Neal Shusterman
6. Lovely War, by Julie Berry
7. With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo
8. On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

Children’s Fiction:
1. We’re Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey
2. Cog, by Greg van Eekhout
3. Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai
4. Pay Attention, Carter Jones, by Gary D. Schmidt
5. Sal & Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez
6. White Bird, by R. J. Palacio
7. The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz
8. The Potter’s Boy, by Tony Mitton
9. Homerooms and Hall Passes, by Tom O’Connell
10. The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu
11. Rabbit’s Bad Habits, by Julian Gough

Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books:
1. Nine Months, by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin
2. How Many? A Different Kind of Counting Book, by Christopher Danielson
3. The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby
4. Can You Hear the Trees Talking? by Peter Wohlleben
5. The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris

Longer Children’s Nonfiction:
1. They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, art by Harmony Becker
2. Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson
3. Ordinary Hazards, by Nikki Grimes
4. Free Lunch, by Rex Ogle
5. Best Friends, by Shannon Hale, artwork by LeUyen Pham

Picture Books:
1. Truman, by Jean Reidy
2. Saturday, by Oge Mora
3. Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell, illustrated by Ana Ramírez González
4. One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller, by Kate Read
5. Harold & Hog Pretend for Real! by Dan Santat
6. Circle, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
7. Penny and Her Sled, by Kevin Henkes

Happy Reading!

Revised to add: Aaaaaaaugh! I forgot Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai!

Somehow, I didn’t get that book on my spreadsheet of books I read this year, so I forgot all about it when I first made this list. Alas! That means most of the other Children’s Fiction titles get their ranking revised downward. But if you’re wondering why the Children’s Fiction list looks slightly different than when I first posted it, the reason is that I forgot one title at first. (But it does stand out in my mind, honest! I just forgot I’d read it this year.)

Cybils Finalists 2019!

January 10th, 2020

Every year New Year’s Day is also Cybils Finalists Day, when the Finalists are announced for the various categories of the Cybils Awards, the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards.

This year, I was in California on New Year’s Day to attend my mother’s memorial service, so I’m not getting this posted until now. I served as a first-round panelist in the category of Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction, and I’m very proud of our choices.

On Valentine’s Day, one winner in each category will be announced, but I especially like the lists of Finalists in each category. I like being a panelist, because it’s not all riding on one choice. Different people enjoy different books, and I like that we try to compose a strong list, with something for everyone.

In addition, I like the way the Cybils Awards have ten different categories, so this really is a place you can find good possibilities for any young reader.

It turns out I haven’t yet posted reviews for very many of our finalists. I didn’t want to while we were evaluating them, and it turned out only one of these choices I’d read before I joined the panel. But I will try to add links to my reviews once I post them.

These are our Finalists, and you can read more about them on the Cybils page:

We’re Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey
Cog, by Greg van Eekhout
Homerooms and Hall Passes, by Tom O’Donnell
Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, by Anna Meriano
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez
The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mballa

Stay tuned on Valentine’s Day to find out which one the second-round judges pick as the big winner!

And I have to add: a book I nominated got chosen by another panel!

A Is For Elizabeth, by Rachel Vail, is a Finalist in the Early Chapter Books category.

Review of That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bentley Hart

December 29th, 2019

That All Shall Be Saved

Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation

by David Bentley Hart

Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy purchased via Amazon.com

My cousin Keith mentioned on Facebook that this book was coming out, a book on the same topic as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. He mentioned it with concern, but it gave me great delight, and I ordered the book on Amazon. It makes a nice addition to my collection of books supporting universalism.

This one takes a very academic perspective. The book is written in academic language, and I’m ashamed to admit that some of the language went right over my head. He also takes a primarily philosophical approach, arguing about the nature of God and goodness and free will. (No wonder my cousin knew of this author – my cousin is a professor of philosophy.)

One thing I love about this book is that there’s not a trace of wishy-washiness in his opinions. Now, when I first started reading about universalism, I’m glad I encountered writers with more humility, more willing to concede they might be mistaken. But the more I’ve read, the more universalism seems to make everything make sense, and for me at this point, it feels refreshing to read an author who’s sure about what he’s teaching. Here’s how he puts it in the Introduction:

If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification.

And he adds to that in the end of the book:

To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. And, no matter how ingenious the rhetorical tricks one devises to convince oneself that the claim is in fact logically coherent, morally elevating, and spiritually enlivening, the contradiction remains unresolved. All becomes mystery, but only in the sense that it requires a very mysterious ability to believe impossible things.

The book begins by looking at the question of an eternal hell, and then four meditations looking at four questions: “Who is God?” “What Is Judgment?” “What Is a Person?” and “What Is Freedom?”

In the section on the question of an eternal hell, he says that he is okay with the view that suffering in hell is essentially self-imposed.

A hardened heart is already its own punishment; the refusal to love or be loved makes the love of others – or even just their presence – a source of suffering and a goad to wrath. At the very least, this is a psychological fact that just about any of us can confirm from experience.

His problem with the common teaching on hell is strictly with the idea that hell is never-ending.

Once one has had time to think about it for a little while, one should notice that, when all is said and done, this very rational and psychologically plausible understanding of hell still in no significant way improves the larger picture of God as creator and redeemer – at least, not if one insists upon adding the qualification “eternal” or “final” to the condition of self-imposed misery that it describes. At that point, we find that our two questions remain as gallingly unaddressed as ever: the secondary question of whether this defiant rejection of God for all of eternity is really logically possible for any rational being; and the primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible – even if it should be a self-induced suffering – can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.

David Bentley Hart goes into great detail looking at these questions. He gives a preview of where he’s going:

One argument that I shall make in this book is that the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. Still another is that, even if that fate were in some purely abstract sense “just,” the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good – or, rather, as Christian metaphysical tradition obliges us to phrase it, could never be absolute Goodness as such – but could be at most only a relative calculable good in relation to other relative calculable goods. And yet another is that the traditional doctrine of hell’s perpetuity renders other aspects of the tradition, such as orthodox Christology or the eschatological claims of the Apostle Paul, ultimately meaningless. If all of this seems obscure, which at this point it should, I hope it will have become clear by the end of the book.

By this time, you understand what I mean when I say this book is primarily philosophical and written in academic language. This book isn’t for every reader, but if these quotations make you wonder or want to argue, you know where to find more.

Now, please don’t think that his arguments are merely philosophical and apart from Scripture. No, as with every book on universalism, an important part of his argument is the assertion that our modern day infernalist view of eternal hell comes from mistranslations of Greek and Hebrew Scripture.

This author has already published his own translation of the New Testament. So that either means that he has a thorough knowledge of the Greek language used or it means that he’s translating to please himself. Since his conclusions match what so many other authors have told me about the meaning of significant Greek words, and since he looks at the historical use of key terms outside the Bible, including their use by Plato as well as by the early church fathers, I’m going with the view that he’s got a thorough knowledge of the Greek.

He covers the writings of the New Testament most closely in his meditation “What Is Judgment?” Here’s a little bit from that section:

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint. Nor is it anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts. There is one verse in the gospels, Matthew 25:46, that – at least, as traditionally understood – offers what seems the strongest evidence for the idea (though even there, as I shall explain below, the wording leaves room for considerable doubt regarding its true significance); and then there are perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation (though, as ever when dealing with that particular book, caveat lector). Beyond that, nothing is clear. What in fact the New Testament provides us with are a number of fragmentary and fantastic images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or figural or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. True, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of destruction, like the annihilation of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final death of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of imprisonment and torture; but, even then, in the relevant verses, those punishments are depicted as having only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.

On the other hand, however, there are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms. I imagine some or most of these latter could be explained away as rhetorical exaggeration; but then, presumably, the same could be said of those verses that appear to presage an everlasting division between the redeemed and the reprobate. To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims – all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form – must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class – all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements – must be regarded as mere hyperbole.

But this book especially stands out in tackling head-on the argument that God has to respect mankind’s “free will” and allow people to choose eternity away from God. Even C. S. Lewis had this view. But is someone who acts irrationally truly free?

A choice made without rationale is a contradiction in terms. At the same time, any movement of the will prompted by an entirely perverse rationale would be, by definition, wholly irrational – insane, that is to say – and therefore no more truly free than a psychotic episode. The more one is in one’s right mind – the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes – the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.

He’s also very clear about the injustice of applying eternal punishment to finite creatures.

None of this should need saying, to be honest. We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. If we were not so stupefied by the hoary and venerable myth that eternal damnation is an essential element of the original Christian message (which, not to spoil later plot developments here, it is not), we would not even waste our time on so preposterous a conjunction. From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.

So that gives you the idea. There’s much more in this book. I hope there are people out there who are intrigued by this (to me) refreshing logic. Here’s where the author leaves us at the end of the meditation on freedom:

Freedom consists in the soul’s journey through this interior world of constantly shifting conditions and perspectives, toward the only home that can ultimately liberate the wanderer from the exile of sin and illusion. And God, as the transcendent end that draws every rational will into actuality, never ceases setting every soul free, ever and again, until it finds that home. To the inevitable God, every soul is bound by its freedom. In the end, if God is God and spirit is spirit, and if there really is an inextinguishable rational freedom in every soul, evil itself must disappear in every intellect and will, and hell must be no more. Only then will God, both as the end of history and as that eternal source and end of beings who transcends history, be all in all. For God, as scripture says, is a consuming fire, and he must finally consume everything.

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Review of A Christmas Gathering, by Anne Perry

December 27th, 2019

A Christmas Gathering

by Anne Perry

Ballantine Books, 2019. 193 pages.
Review written December 27, 2019, from a library book

Reading an Anne Perry Christmas Mystery has become a fun tradition for me, one I didn’t get to indulge in when I was on the Newbery committee, and this year put off because of Cybils reading. So I read this one a couple days after Christmas, but it still gave me a nice cozy and short mystery to put me in a vacation mood. Today the weather was even warm enough, I read most of it out on my balcony with my feet up. Maybe that doesn’t feel like winter – but it does feel like vacation.

I like the way you can tell these characters have appeared in her regular series books, at least as secondary characters. A Christmas Gathering featured Lady Vespasia and her new husband Victor Narroway. Vespasia is a relative of Anne Perry’s character Charlotte, who married the policeman Thomas Pitt. Vespasia knows that her husband has come to this Christmas party at a country house to do some work for the government, connected with his former position as head of the Special Branch, but he has not told her exactly what he is going to do.

As for Victor, he’s planning to meet a courier and take a package with misleading information to be passed to the Germans as genuine. But the job reminds him of a similar case twenty years ago, when he was much younger and the courier he was supposed to protect was murdered. He hasn’t told Vespasia of that failure that haunts him.

But somebody knows about the intended delivery of the package. Is a young lady courier going to die again?

I like the way that besides the mystery, this book also looks at a marriage late in life, and the motivation for keeping secrets from someone you love. As with many of Anne Perry’s Christmas novels, the importance of forgiveness and mercy toward those we love is emphasized.

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Review of Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds

November 25th, 2019

Look Both Ways

A Tale Told in Ten Blocks

by Jason Reynolds

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2019. 4 CDs.
Starred Review
2019 National Book Award Finalist
Review written November 22, 2019, from a library audiobook

This book is a set of overlapping stories about lots of kids, all of them walking home from school. The audiobook version is read by too many people to list at the top of this review, so I’ll list them here: Heather Alicia Simms, Chris Chalk, Bahni Turpin, Adenrele Ojo, Kevin R. Free, JD Jackson, Guy Lockard, January LaVoy, David Sadzin, and Jason Reynolds. Something odd that all the stories have in common is the mention of a school bus falling from the sky.

School’s important in this book, because the kids are leaving school, but our heroes and heroines are walkers. They do get passed by buses and talk about buses and think about school buses falling from the sky, but most of the action happens once school gets out, in the ten blocks near the school.

I think it was a little more difficult to notice details that overlapped between stories when listening. If I’d had the print book in front of me, I would have leafed back to make sure I remembered when a name popped up again. But I did enjoy the variety of narrators, so I think it was worth listening. I may not be sure if there was a big picture in this book, but I do know I enjoyed each individual story.

The stories include things like buying penny candy from a lady in the neighborhood after scrounging change; planning to outwit a new fierce dog that’s popped up on the route home from school; preparing to talk with someone you like; navigating hallways; and figuring out how to protect your mother who’s there to protect others – and who got hurt doing that.

These are slice-of-life stories about a lot of different kids, and there’s something here for everyone to like. Some of the stories do have hard things, but through all the stories, there’s an infusion of joy and a splash of friendship. Everybody’s got someone looking out for them.

As usual, Jason Reynolds is writing about a black neighborhood, and that makes me happy – but there’s nothing here that kids of any ethnicity won’t enjoy. I’m also glad that this isn’t an issue book. It’s a book about kids being kids together during that daily activity – walking home from school.

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Review of The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara R. Rossing

November 17th, 2019

The Rapture Exposed

The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

by Barbara R. Rossing

Westview Press, 2004. 212 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed November 16, 2019, from a library book

When I was only in elementary school and junior high, I was already an expert on the End Times. That is, the End Times as defined by dispensationalists. (Dispensationalists believe that God deals with humans in different ways during different time periods or dispensations.) The church my family attended had a chart on the wall in the library where my Sunday School class met showing all the dispensations of human history, including the Church Age (when we are now), the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium, the Second Coming, and the New Heaven and New Earth. It was all charted out in that order. Many books were being published about biblical prophecy, including Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. My family purchased many of them, and I read them, fascinated. Our church held some conferences on biblical prophecy where some of the authors spoke. I read Tim LaHaye’s books on the End Times a couple decades before he ever became a best-selling author with the Left Behind novel series.

When I got to college, I attended a Christian university. As it happened, I took a class on “The Church and Last Things” at the same time I was memorizing the Book of Revelation. I couldn’t help but notice that the Book of Revelation has no chart. And that the things I’d been taught might be something of a stretch to actually find in the Bible.

I’d already noticed that when Jesus came the first time, he did not meet the expectations of religious leaders. I have a feeling that prophecy isn’t usually given so we’ll be able to predict the future, but more so that we’ll be able to recognize God’s hand when He moves. I also noticed that Revelation is about telling us who’s going to win. Almost every chapter has a significant section of praise to God.

Things certainly don’t seem to be strictly chronological in Revelation. And a lot of the imagery to me doesn’t seem to quite fit what I was told it represented. When I did read the first several Left Behind books, I thought it was silly how they took some things literally – like locusts with human faces – and others figuratively.

I also clearly disagreed with some theology in the books, but I still had pretty ingrained in me that Revelation would happen basically the way they predicted. I am thankful to this book for showing me another way to look at Revelation, and a way that makes more sense and to me seems to follow more easily from what you read.

Now, I did know from my class at Biola University that not all Christians believe in a “pre-tribulation rapture.” But almost everything I’d read about end times – except the Bible itself – was from that perspective. Barbara Rossing begins her book this way:

The rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!

Most of this book is about going through the book of Revelation and looking at the things it actually tells us, but the author begins by giving us the history of the idea of the “Rapture.” She explains that it began about two hundred years ago when a girl in Scotland had a vision that the second coming of Jesus Christ would happen in two stages. The word “Rapture” does not occur in Scripture, but comes from the Latin word raptio, a translation of the Greek word for “caught up” from I Thessalonians 4:17 about what will happen when Jesus returns. But the two-stage return idea was new, and the idea of dispensations was developed to make it fit.

Dispensationalists admit that they pull things together from different parts of the Bible to make their teachings and their charts. Even the idea of seven years of tribulation has to be pieced together within the book of Revelation.

So you can read all this – where the Rapture came from and how the whole theory is pieced together, and it’s all very interesting, sounding much less coherent than when I read the theories from the authors themselves when I was a child.

But what I especially love about this book is the way she looks at Revelation and helps me to look at it with new eyes. She talks about how Revelation fit with other apocalyptic writings of the time and followed a similar format. Here’s an overarching view of the message of the book:

In the first of his apocalyptic journeys (Rev 4-5) John travels up to heaven. There he sees a beautiful vision of God’s throne, revealed to be the true power behind the universe. Angels and animals are worshiping God and singing songs of praise to Jesus, the Lamb. Revelation’s subsequent visions pull back the curtain to “unveil” the Roman empire for what it really is: Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be, but a demonic beast that oppresses the world. God’s people must undertake a spiritual exodus out of the empire, led by the Lamb. God threatens evil Babylon/Rome with plagues like the plagues of the Exodus story. We must not put our trust in Roman security or power, nor that of any other empire. We are to give allegiance to God alone.

She reminds us of how the book came across to its original recipients:

Revelation was originally written for those whom South African theologian Allan Boesak calls “God’s little people” – communities of people who struggled under oppression – not for people with access to airplanes or money or the latest technology. The best way to understand Revelation’s message for today is to put ourselves in the place of the audience for whom it was originally written. Imagine Revelation as a message from the underside, written to comfort beleaguered churches struggling under Roman imperial violence and power. Revelation has spoken powerfully to oppressed people throughout history. Its voice of protest is heard in spirituals as well as gospel songs and hymns.

I do love that she points out something that struck me hard when I memorized the book of Revelation: the book is packed with praise.

Revelation is full of songs – heavenly choruses praising God and encouraging us to sing in the midst of tribulation. Just when the book begins to sound hopeless or despairing, a host of witnesses in heaven break into song. Even animals join the Lamb’s chorus, singing along with a cacophony of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” No other book of the Bible has shaped Christian hymns and music as much as Revelation, from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” African American spirituals, and even reggae (“Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armageddon,” from Bob Marley’s “One Love”). Revelation’s songs are not intended to be literalistic. Indeed, the metaphorical dimension is precisely what gives Revelation’s songs their power. Songs connect us to something deeper: they evoke our capacity for solidarity and resistance, they give us hope.

Or as she puts it later:

Singing and worship are central to Revelation, a fact often overlooked by people who see the book only as a system of end-times predictions and timetables. In Revelation we sing our way into God’s new vision for our world, more than in any other book of the Bible.

The author urges us to relish the metaphors of Revelation:

Revelation’s world of vision is like that of a Magic Eye picture. It is an “Aha” kind of vision that draws us in to see the deeper picture. God invites us to let go of the flat page, to stop trying to figure out each literal detail of Revelation, and instead to enter further into the larger picture. As we read and meditate on the images of Revelation, we find whole new levels of God’s vision for our world unveiled to us: We taste water that is not just water – it is living water, the river of life. We follow Jesus, the shepherding Lamb, who invites us to drink from springs of that living water. We hear God’s lament for our world that is oppressed, and we witness the trial and judgment of oppressors in a suspense-filled courtroom. Finally, most wonderfully, we see God coming to earth to live with us in a beloved city – to wipe away all the world’s tears.

But I especially love the chapter called “Lamb Power,” where Barbara Rossing explains the subversive heart of the book of Revelation. She points out that just when you expect Rome’s images of power and victory is when the Lamb comes out.

Seated on the throne in heaven, God holds a scroll sealed shut with seven seals that must be opened. But who is worthy to open this scroll? God’s voice from the throne tells John in chapter 5, “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Two words in this admonition – “lion” and “conquer” (nike in Greek) – lead us to expect that a fierce animal will appear to open the scroll with its claws, like the conquering lions in gladiatorial spectacles. A lion would be typical for an apocalypse; such fierce animals are often introduced to advance the plot. In Second Esdras, for example, the Messiah is portrayed as a roaring lion prophesying judgment against the Roman eagle and its violence.

But Revelation pulls an amazing surprise. In place of the lion that we expect, comes a Lamb: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6). It is a complete reversal. Actually the Greek word John uses is not just “lamb,” but the diminutive form, a word like “lambkin,” “lamby,” or “little lamb” (arnion in Greek) – “Fluffy,” as Pastor Daniel Erlander calls it. The only other place this word arnion is used in the New Testament is where Jesus says he is sending his disciples out into the world “as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). No other apocalypse ever pictures the divine hero as a Lamb – Revelation is unique among apocalyptic writings in this image. The depiction of Jesus as a Lamb shows him in the most vulnerable way possible, as a victim who is slaughtered by standing – that is, crucified but risen to life.

Reminiscent of the servant-lamb of Isaiah 53, who “is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent,” the Lamb of Revelation became the victor not by militaristic power and slaughter but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, Revelation’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians. Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.

Lamb theology is what true victory or true nike is. For we, too, are “victors” or followers of the Lamb on whom the term nike or conquering is bestowed. This is one of the amazing features of the book. Much of Revelation can sound so violent, but we have to look at the subversive heart of the book — the redefinition of victory and “conquering” — to understand how Revelation subverts violence itself. Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer not by fighting but by remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love.

Another point that I love comes when the author talks about the centrality of the final two chapters of Revelation – chapters that dispensationalists gloss over as for a far distant day.

Contrary to the dispensationalist view, there is no rapture in the story of Revelation, no snatching of people off the earth up to heaven. Look at it this way: it is God who is raptured down to earth to take up residence and dwell with us – a rapture in reverse….

The word “dwell” in Revelation [21] is the same word as used to describe Jesus’ coming to earth in the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The whole message of the Bible is that God loves the world so much that God comes to earth to dwell with us. The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means in Hebrew “God is with us.” Revelation proclaims that same message of God’s dwelling in our world. It is the message that God’s home is no longer up in heaven, but here in our midst, incarnate on earth. In Revelation 21-22 God’s throne moves down out of heaven, where it was in chapter 4, and is now located in the midst of the city – in the city descended down out of heaven, down to earth.

There’s lots more in this book. I highly recommend it. I admit that I am still will freak out if someone suggests everyone get a chip embedded in their right hand or on their forehead in order to buy and sell. But for the most part, this has enabled me to look at revelation with eyes of hope instead of fear and terror.

The hope of Revelation centers around the slain-yet-standing Lamb who has conquered – and around everything that that Lamb represents in God’s vision for us and for the world. The Lamb who replaces the expected lion in Revelation’s storyline continues to dwell with us and to overturn all the structures of war and injustice. In the face of empire, Revelation teaches us a way of life that is “Lamb power” – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The hope of Revleation is simply this: that the Lamb has conquered the beast and that a wondrous river of life now flows out from the Lamb’s throne to bring healing water to every corner of our wounded world.

I also appreciate how she leaves us in the Epilogue:

To read the Bible’s hardest passages is like wrestling with God, much like Jacob who wrestled through the night at the river Jabbok. You grapple to make sense of the words, you hold on, you struggle for clarity, you seek to wrest answers for all your questions. What God gives you instead of a system of answers is a blessing, a new name — a living relationship. You are forever changed by the encounter. You have seen the face of God.

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Review of Give Me Back My Bones! by Kim Norman, illustrated by Bob Kolar

November 12th, 2019

Give Me Back My Bones!

by Kim Norman
illustrated by Bob Kolar

Candlewick Press, 2019. 36 pages.
Review written October 29, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a fun picture book that teaches kids the scientific names of the large bones in their bodies. It’s framed as the story of a skeleton pirate whose bones got scattered.

It’s silly, and the story is thin, but the rhymes are a lot of fun, and it actually works. I used it in a storytime this morning and the preschoolers enjoyed it and learned a few big words along the way.

Here are some examples:

Give me back my breastbone
the center-of-my-chest bone
the hold-my-ribs-the-best bone –
return my sturdy sternum….

Find my upper arm bone,
the shield-my-face-from-harm bone,
that armpit-of-alarm bone –
I hanker for my humerus.

He’s got a pegleg in place of one tibia and fibula set. As the skeleton finds his bones, we see him take shape until he’s ready to captain an undersea pirate ship.

A playful way to learn about bones.

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