Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Tell Me How It Ends

An Essay in Forty Questions

by Valeria Luiselli

Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2017. 119 pages.
Starred Review

This little book is not pretentious, calling itself an “essay” rather than a “book” – but it packs a punch.

I was expecting forty short chapters. Instead there are four chapters of varying lengths. The questions of the title refer to the forty questions on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants used in the federal immigration court in New York City where the author began working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015.

Here’s how she describes this work:

My task there is a simple one: I interview children in court, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.

But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

I find I don’t have the heart to quote excerpts from the stories in this book from the children the author met. I’m left speechless. This book is eye-opening.

One of the stories is that of a teenage boy who found the same gang he was fleeing in Tegucigalpa was active in Hempstead, New York. Members of the gang beat him up in Hempstead, and another gang offers him protection if he’ll join them. He’s resisting.

She reflects on this story and on media reports about the child migrants coming from Central America:

Between Hempstead and Tegucigalpa there is a long chain of causes and effects. Both cities can be drawn on the same map: the map of violence related to drug trafficking. This fact is ignored, however, by almost all of the official reports. The media wouldn’t put Hempstead, a city in New York, on the same plane as one in Honduras. What a scandal! Official accounts in the United States – what circulates in the newspaper or on the radio, the message from Washington, and public opinion in general – almost always locate the dividing line between “civilization” and “barbarity” just below the Rio Grande….

The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative, but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance. Debate around the matter has persistently and cynically overlooked the causes of the exodus. When causes are discussed, the general consensus and underlying assumption seem to be that the origins are circumscribed to “sending” countries and their many local problems. No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.

The belief that the migration of all of those children is “their” (the southern barbarians’) problem is often so deeply ingrained that “we” (the northern civilization) feel exempt from offering any solution. The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is often thought of as a Central American “gang violence” problem that must be kept on the far side of the border. There is little said, for example, of arms being trafficked from the United States into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the United States is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent.

Here’s where she explains where the book got its title:

The children who cross Mexico and arrive at the U.S. border are not “immigrants,” not “illegals,” not merely “undocumented minors.” Those children are refugees of a war, and, as such, they should all have the right to asylum. But not all of them have it.

Tell me how it ends, Mamma, my daughter asks me.

I don’t know.

Tell me what happens next.

Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say:

I don’t know how it ends yet.

It is very possible that our policies in the United States and our actions as citizens will determine how these stories end. Which is a sobering thought.

Highly recommended reading. It’s not pleasant reading, but it is eye-opening and thought-provoking.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Al Franken

Twelve (Hachette), 2017. 404 pages.

Okay, I’m going to stop being embarrassed for liking Al Franken’s books so much. Years ago, I read Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and enjoyed it, but I didn’t post a review because I wasn’t ready to admit how much I enjoyed it. (Though to be fair, he included more “jokes” in that one, and I thought went a little too far in spots.)

This book has a lot more restraint – and he talks about how difficult it was to learn that restraint! Yes, I also liked that he left out foul language. There’s a note right at the beginning of the book:

Throughought this volume, whenever you see a very mild oath like “Fiddlesticks!” (or some gentle name-calling like “numbskull” or “dimwit,” or some old-timey synonym for “bull—-” like “poppycock” or “flim-flummery”), followed by the letters “USS” in superscript, that means I’ve replaced something far more plainspoken with a less offensive phrase or expression. The “USS” stands for “United States Senate,” the body in which I now serve. I feel I have a duty to both my colleagues and my constituents to make at least a token effort to preserve its dignity and decorum. I wish I could say the same for that dunderhead [USS] Ted Cruz.

Call me a prude, but I found the result much more pleasant reading – and more creative language – than his earlier books where he didn’t show that restraint. (Though I did think the note was really funny!)

This book tells the story of how Al Franken got into politics and what he’s trying to do in the Senate (represent the people of Minnesota).

He’s a Progressive, and so am I, so that’s partly why I enjoyed his book so much. But it’s also an entertaining story (He does know how to write and how to entertain.) of politics in America today.

It’s funny, though – He does tell a lot of stories about jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell! Way to get back at them! And most of them are quite funny. And the context tells the reader that they are, in fact, jokes. In almost all cases, you can see that his staff was right and he shouldn’t have told the jokes when he was initially tempted to.

The chapter on Health Care was enlightening – and timely. I also like the chapters where he shows that it is still possible to do good work on things both parties can agree on. And I like the chapters with stories of Minnesotans. These show why Al Franken is doing the work he does.

But I think my favorite chapter was the one on “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” He explains at the beginning that maybe it’s a little weird, but dishonesty has always gotten under his skin. I guess that rang true because I’ve always felt the same way. I feel like catching someone in a lie should be their utter disgrace.

But he goes on to say:

Back in the good old days, fact-checking politicians was a different ball game. Looking back now, it seems almost adorable that I made a decent living writing books about catching right-wing Republicans in their lies. What I did was effective, I realize now, mainly because a lot of their lies had the veneer of plausibility, and because at least some of the liars liked to pretend that they were telling the truth – which was of course a lie, but which was also part of the fun.

But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the “Trump Effect” yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them. Like a movie that is loosely based on a true story, Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy.

He goes on to explain why this is important.

I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything….

I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t. It’s a lesson I fear our nation is about to learn the hard way.

That’s why my Global Jihad on Factual Inaccuracy will continue. I cling to the hope that national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon, and that in a few short years we may find ourselves in an era of Neo-Sticklerism. And a glorious era it shall be.

One can only hope!

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Review of Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Flames of Love

Hell and Universal Salvation

by Heath Bradley

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2012. 176 pages.
Starred Review

Recently, I posted on Facebook an article that questioned the common view of hell in evangelical churches. The article referenced the fact that it isn’t entirely clear in the Greek text how the word should be translated – there’s definitely a strong case to be made that eternal conscious torment is not what’s intended in the original Greek after all.

This did get the attention of some of my friends and relatives. During the discussion that followed, I picked up this book that I’d purchased awhile back and had been meaning to read – and I love it. In fact, it’s completely pertinent. Every objection that people brought up in the online discussion is directly addressed, as are many others.

This book is for people who, like me, believe that the Bible is the Word of God. If you aren’t concerned about whether the Bible is entirely true or not, you don’t need this book to convince you that a loving God probably isn’t going to threaten his creatures with everlasting conscious torment.

But if you think Isn’t that what the Bible says?, so that you think you have to believe this if you believe the Bible, I strongly recommend reading this book. The author takes Scripture seriously and shows that it may be much more responsible interpretation to take a different view.

Now, a key word here is “everlasting.” When talking about hell, the Greek word used is aeonian, or “lasting eons.” I knew about this from my other reading. It does not mean going on and on without end, even though it may mean a very long time. Christian Universalists do not believe that hell is not real, but that it will not last forever. They also believe that the Bible’s promises that all will be made alive in Christ are completely true.

Here are a few sections from the introduction.

I believe hell is very real, yet I also believe that a God who is love is also real, and that this God gets the last word.

I related to this next passage. When I became a Universalist, I was afraid that it would destroy any motivation to evangelize. But instead, it made me feel hugely better about evangelism. Now I feel I actually have good news!

If the message that Jesus came to bring is that most people will actually spend an eternity experiencing the most horrible torment conceivable, well, to be honest, I can think of much better news than that! That theological vision does not strike me as good news at all. It certainly does not set my heart on fire with a joyous desire to share this news with as many people as I can. In fact, when I thought that this view of things was indispensable for Christianity, it made me feel anxious to think about and embarrassed to talk about. God, it seemed to me, had a dark side underneath the veneer of grace and goodness, contrary to how John summed up the meaning of Jesus’s message that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

There is, however, a theological vision that does strike me as good news, indeed as the best news possible for the world. It is a vision that fills my heart and soul with grateful awe and joyful excitement. It is a vision that I believe is Christ-centered, biblically-grounded, spiritually-compelling, and life-inspiring. In this book, we are concerned with understanding and evaluating a specific Christian vision of God and God’s relationship to humanity known as Christian universalism. Although this view will be fleshed out throughout the book, we can define it initially and simply as the belief that ultimately every person will be saved through Christ. This vision of salvation stands in sharp contrast, of course, to the dominant Christian vision of hell which we can define as the belief that all people who are not Christians will spend eternity in conscious torment.

Here’s another thought worth pondering:

From the outset it should be noted that in the Christian church’s traditional view of hell, not only Hitler spends an eternity in hell, but also his victims. Six million Jews suffered horrific torment in this life from Hitler, yet on the dominant Christian view of hell, after they died they entered into a realm of unending torment and punishment at the hands of God because they did not profess Christ as Lord. One has to honestly ask who comes off looking worse, Hitler or God? I bring this point up now just so we can have clear in our minds what we are dealing with when it comes to the traditional view of hell. This is certainly a doctrine that raises lots of theological questions and moral objections that need to be given thoughtful attention.

And he makes some very good points about interpretation. This is from that discussion:

Christians have been reading the same Bible and holding greatly different beliefs for over two thousand years now. Awareness of this historical fact alone should make us quick to listen to others, and slow to assume our position is the obviously right one. It should also give us pause before accusing someone of denying biblical authority just because they question the legitimacy of our interpretations. In other words, in questioning hell we are not throwing away the biblical puzzle pieces we do not like, we are simply questioning if the picture on the lid that we have received from the dominant tradition actually gives us the best way to put all the pieces together. Perhaps there is a better picture that can make room for more of the pieces to fit together better. At this point we need to acknowledge that people who disagree with our own biblical interpretations are not necessarily denying the Bible, but simply questioning the lenses through which we currently see the Bible.

I do like this take on it, looking at the big picture of theology:

Christian universalism simply affirms with Calvinists that God can and will do whatever God desires to do, and with the Arminians that God desires to save all people. Put those premises together, and you get the conclusion that God will save all people….

Consider the following three statements, each of which, at least on the surface has some degree of biblical support:

1. God loves every human being the same and desires all to be saved.
2. God has the power to accomplish God’s redemptive desires.
3. Some people will remain in hell forever.

The three statements, taken together, are contradictory. One of them must be false. Calvinists deny the first one. Arminians deny the second one. Universalists deny the third one. At the beginning of the debate, why assume that the first two are up for discussion, but the third one is untouchable, as Christians so often do? Why assume the priority and clarity of the everlasting hell passages while being willing to reinterpret the passages used in support for the other two claims? At the end of the day, each position has to try to explain why some passages do not mean what they appear to mean. While I think the universalist position does a better job than the other two in making the most sense of the whole of the biblical witness, at this point my hope is that you can see that Christian universalism is a position at least as worthy of consideration as the other two major theological systems.

In the main text, the author takes the approach of using each chapter to address one of six objections to universalism.

The first objection is “Universalists don’t believe in hell.” Here’s a bit of the answer to that:

Judgment need not be everlasting conscious torment in order for it to be very serious. This cannot be emphasized enough. Christian universalists do not deny the reality of judgment and hell, they simply contend that judgment and hell should be conceptualized and imagined in such a way as to be congruent with a God who is genuinely loving to all people and who therefore seeks what is best for all people.

This is the chapter where the author talks about the Greek word gehenna and what it would have meant to Jesus’ followers. While the Bible clearly teaches there is a hell, it’s not absolutely clear it means the currently popular depiction of hell. Here’s another good point the author makes:

In applying this to the question of hell and judgment, I am not suggesting that since God is like a loving parent there is no judgment. What I am suggesting is that however we conceptualize and imagine the reality of hell, it must be consistent with the affirmation of Jesus that God relates to us as a loving parent, and loving parents only punish their children for the purpose of correction and restoration. If you are inclined at this point to object that I am limiting God by reducing God to the confines of good parenting on a human level, I would remind you that it was Jesus himself who taught us to think of divine goodness on the analogy of human parental goodness. If divine goodness is completely of a different kind than the goodness of a human parent, then Jesus’s admonition wouldn’t make any sense and there would be no use comparing the two. I don’t think that can be emphasized enough.

Here’s another good point in that chapter:

I confess that I am often baffled when defenders of the traditional view of an everlasting hell say things like, “God will not tolerate sinners.” I know this doesn’t sound very nice to say, but it really makes me wonder if they have ever paid close attention to Jesus’s life. If one thing is abundantly clear about Jesus’s life, it is that he not only tolerated sinners, he loved them, ate with them, and accepted them into fellowship with himself, to the chagrin of the top religious leaders of his day (Luke 15:1-2). If we believe that Jesus reveals God more than anything or anyone else, as Christians have always believed, then how can we ever come to the conclusion that God cannot tolerate sinners? The Pharisees were the ones who thought that God could not tolerate sinners, not Jesus and his followers.

The second objection is “Universalists don’t believe the Bible.” The answer is that universalists interpret the Bible differently – and there are strong hermeneutical reasons to interpret the Bible as we do.

Here’s a bit of his discussion about that:

As I see the debate, the traditionalists and the universalists both have a difficult interpretive task set before them. To put it concisely, the traditionalists have to try to explain why “all” doesn’t really mean all when it comes to who will be saved, and the universalists have to explain why “eternal” doesn’t really mean eternal when it comes to the duration of the punishment in the age to come. I will argue that I think the universalist position is more exegetically sound and theologically coherent than the traditionalist position, but before getting there, it is important to see that both positions have a similar predicament. Oftentimes Christians of a traditionalist perspective seem to think that the Christians who have a universalist perspective have the burden of proof on them. But, as we have argued, there is no good reason to simply assume from the start that the traditionalist passages should be taken as primary and more clear than the universalist passages. Certainly the weight of tradition leads many people to quickly filter out the universalist passages without much thought, but this is not a fair way to proceed in examining these texts. We should be willing to set aside, as best we can, our preconceived and inherited notions of which texts are really “clear,” and see which position can do the best job of accounting for the other set of passages.

Here he looks at the strong case that “all” does mean all, but that “eternal,” hasn’t been translated well, and means “pertaining to an age.” He treats it as a serious interpretive question. It’s good to realize that this is an interpretive question, and not a matter of whether you believe the Bible or not.

I like this sentence toward the end of the chapter:

God does not punish people instead of saving them from their sins, but, if the foregoing picture of divine punishment is true, God punishes people (by showing them the essential ugliness of their sins) so that God can save them.

Objection #3 is “Universalists deny human freedom.”

Again, the answer is a chapter long. Here’s a bit of it:

Christian universalism deeply values human freedom, so much so that it holds that God will not even take it away in the age to come. Freedom to choose God does not end at death in this view, as it does for traditionalists. In addition to extending human freedom in the age to come, the Christian universalist can also criticize the free-will defense of an everlasting hell for failing to take into account several important features about the nature of human freedom. In this chapter, we will explore how the account of human freedom offered in a free-will defense of everlasting hell fails to consider two very important things: the power of God to change a human will, and the inherently socially-embedded and constrained nature of human freedom. In other words, the free-will defenders of an everlasting hell do not give enough credit to the power of divine love, and they give too much credit to the power of human choices.

He waxes eloquent about the power of God’s love here. (And this is partly why I love the theory of universalism. How great God is in His great love!)

It seems that this comes down to whether or not we should have more confidence in the power of human sin, or the power of divine grace. I’m going with divine grace. Paul writes that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom. 5:20). At the end of the day, I believe that God’s love for us will be more relentless than our rejection of him, and that is why I am a universalist. I do not at all underestimate how deeply rooted self-centered and sinful patterns of living can be, but at the same time I do not think we should underestimate the power of God’s just and holy love to pull the roots of sin out of our hearts.

If I am proven to be wrong about this, if some will forever hold out against God, then I think God will not be offended if I put too much confidence in the power of divine love. Even if one doesn’t go all the way in affirming that God will ultimately heal every human heart and transform every evil will through destroying all sin with the fire of his holy love, it seems to me that every Christian should at least have hope in the possibility of this happening. Jesus, after all, told us that, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). We should take careful note of the fact that when Jesus said this he was explicitly referring to the power of God to save even those who seem impossible to save from a merely human perspective (Matt. 19:23-26). When it comes to who can be saved, our hope is in divine possibility, not in human probabilities.

The fourth objection addressed is “Universalists think all religions are equally true.”

Now, some universalists may think this, but not the Christian universalism presented here. First he presents the views of pluralism and exclusivism. He’s a little bit harsh about exclusivism.

The exclusivist viewpoint, when pressed, has a supreme irony, or shall I say contradiction, at the heart of its claim. It claims that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, yet for the people who do not know about how much God loves them, God will subject them to never-ending suffering. While this view certainly highlights the central role of Christ in our salvation, it ultimately paints God as something of an arbitrary tyrant rather than the loving parent Jesus describes.

He does present an alternative:

Fortunately, there is a third option available to us that preserves what is good about pluralism and exclusivism, while avoiding the pitfalls that come with both of these views. This view is known as inclusivism. According to this view, Christ is the only way to God, yet the saving work of Christ is not limited to people who in this life knowingly and intentionally put their trust in Christ.

I love this perspective about the calling of Abraham. I’d never noticed this thread before, and it rings true to look at it this way:

Another key aspect of the argument for inclusivism is the broad scriptural theme of God’s saving love that reaches out to the whole world. From the beginning of the biblical story of redemption, God reveals himself to be a God who is not concerned with only a small set of people in the world, but rather with all the people of the world. In fact, God’s particular election of the people of Abraham is for the universal purpose of drawing all people into the blessing of God (Gen. 12:1-3). The Christian tradition has mostly missed this point in a huge way, and has instead talked about “election” as pertaining to the salvation of some instead of others. But in the biblical story, election is about a calling for the sake of others. Election is not a matter of God favoring some people over others. Election is a matter of God choosing some people to be instruments of blessings to the rest of the people. It is never about God choosing some individuals for redemptive privilege, but rather it is about God choosing a group of people for missional service.

The fifth objection is “Universalism undermines evangelism.”

I enjoyed this chapter, because when I first decided to embrace universalism, this was the biggest objection in my mind – and then I found, to my surprise, that I was much happier telling people about my faith, so it came much more naturally. I no longer felt like I had to tell bad-news-good-news, but no, I believe that the message is purely good news. God loves everyone utterly – and He’s going to redeem everyone!

The author seems to have had the same transformation of his feelings about evangelism. And he makes some excellent additional points in this chapter.

While belief in an everlasting hell may be what has motivated many evangelists and missionaries, I would argue that it is precisely this belief that has largely contributed to a transactional, decision-oriented focus towards evangelism that has made accepting the gospel the minimal entrance requirement for heaven. In contrast, Jesus said evangelism is to be about making disciples by teaching people how to live as he taught through empowerment of his Spirit. If we think that people are going to be tortured for an eternity if they do not believe the right things, then all of our focus is on getting them to say a certain prayer or accept a certain creed to escape that fate. What matters, on this view, isn’t getting the whole gospel into people as deeply as possible, but rather what becomes top priority is simply getting just a part of the gospel into as many people as possible. But, wehn the part becomes the whole, then the whole thing gets distorted. Teaching people how to live in the Way of Christ becomes optional on this view, instead of being essential as Christ said it should be.

He makes a great point about the first Christian sermons in the Bible:

Interestingly, “hell” is never mentioned in any of the sermons recorded in the book of Acts. This is highly significant because Acts offers us an account of the spread of the church in its earliest years (from roughly 30-60 AD). The whole book is filled with one missionary story after another, and yet not once do the apostles threaten eternal punishment to people if they do not accept their good news. They didn’t see their mission as getting people to buy “celestial fire insurance.” They do preach a judgment in the age to come, but as we have seen, one cannot simply read into an affirmation of judgment an eternally dualistic outcome. While the preachers in Acts do not preach a doctrine of everlasting hell, one preacher named Peter did in fact proclaim that one day there would be a “restoration of all things.” Even though Peter apparently believed that one day God would restore and reclaim all things, this didn’t at all dampen his missionary zeal. In fact, Peter argues that because one day the work of Christ will be consummated in a universal restoration, we should repent here and now so our sins will be forgiven and so that we can begin to live in tune with how life in the kingdom of God will be (Acts 3:19)….

The logic of Christian universalism isn’t that because all will be reconciled to God, we should therefore not be concerned about how life is lived here and now. No, the logic of Christian universalism is that because we are all headed towards an inescapable encounter with the complete truth about ourselves and about God, we should open ourselves up to the light of God here and now so that the light can begin to dispel the darkness and we can begin to be transformed now and experience a glimpse of the fullness and richness of life with God in the age to come (Acts 3:20).

The sixth and final objection addressed is “Universalism undermines holy living.”

I appreciated the author’s take on Holiness. I’d never thought of it this way before, but once my eyes are opened I notice that, yes, this fits with many, many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments:

If the charge is made against Christian universalism that it dilutes the motivation for holy living, not only can the previous defense be offered, but we can also go on the offensive and make the case that it is actually the traditional doctrine of everlasting hell that potentially undermines holy living insofar as it actually distorts what God’s holiness is all about. Recall that earlier we said God’s holiness is God’s “otherness,” that is, it is what makes God essentially different from us. According to the traditionalists, God’s holiness lies in God’s right to retributively punish sin forever out of being offended by human sin. However, Jesus defined God’s holy perfection much differently. He didn’t describe God’s holiness as God’s desire or need to restore his offended majesty, but rather he explicitly and clearly defined God’s holiness as God’s unbounded love for God’s enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). Remember, it was the Pharisees who defined God’s holiness in terms of separation from sinners. The Pharisees (whose name means “separate ones”) excluded sinners from their fellowship because they believed they were imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus, on the other hand, welcomed sinners into fellowship with himself because he believed he was imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus subversively redefined God’s holiness as compassion, not separation. When thinking about the holiness of God, it is crucially important that we let Jesus define divine holiness for us, since he is the pinnacle of God’s revelation to us. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostle John writes, but Jesus “who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known” (John 1:18). God is holy, to be sure, but traditional defenders of hell rely far too much on the vision of divine holiness put forth by the Pharisees, and not enough on the way Jesus revealed the holiness of God as compassionate love.

Taking that a step further:

On the traditional view, God essentially asks of humanity what God is not willing to do. God asks us to not seek merely retributive punishment and to forgive indefinitely, yet God is not willing to do this himself. On the traditional view, it is easier to write people off and condemn them because it is believed deep down that this is what God in fact does with the majority of people. On the universalist view, restorative justice and reconciliation are the ultimate reality. Because the universalist believes that the world is heading towards the reconciliation of all things, we are motivated and inspired here and now to begin to make that a reality.

In the final chapter, Heath Bradley looks at some remaining questions with shorter answers. I like his way of wrapping up the book:

I realize that there are legitimate questions to be asked and genuine concerns to be raised with the view that holds that ultimately all will be saved through Christ. I hope I have addressed them in thoughtful and helpful ways, although I am sure I have not done so in such a way as to dispel all doubt. My hopeful belief is that these remaining doubts and concerns will turn out to be similar to the question that the women disciples asked on their way to the tomb, concerning how the stone will be rolled away (Mark 16:3). They discovered, beyond their ability to imagine or conceive, that with God, all things really are possible. Christian universalism is the conviction that their discovery, that the darkness cannot overcome the light, will one day belong to us all.

I’ve included lots of excerpts here, because I love the logic and thoroughness of his thinking, and I wanted to give a taste of it. Please be aware that this is not the entire book! If you find these arguments at all compelling, I encourage you to read further. If you find yourself dismissing all of them, you might also want to read further and get more background, understand more clearly why someone who solidly believes that the Bible is the Word of God also believes that hell is not a place of everlasting conscious torment.

I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic over many years now, and I love the way this one sums up many good arguments and brings up some new ones, and does so clearly and consistently. This author has read many of the same books I have!

But I also love his take on God’s holiness as expressed above all in God’s forgiveness. And I love the way his love for God and for sinners shines through in these pages.

And praise be to God’s great, unending, amazing Love that indeed gets the last word!

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Review of Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Friday, July 7th, 2017

Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman
performed by the author

HarperAudio, 2017. 6.5 hours on 6 compact discs. Unabridged.

I could listen to Neil Gaiman read the phone book! Although I ended up finding Norse mythology quite strange and wild – I can’t imagine a better way to hear these stories than read by Neil Gaiman. And written by Neil Gaiman doesn’t hurt, either. He captures the magical and mystical feel of the tales.

There’s an explanation at the beginning about Asgard and Midgard and the Land of the Giants and all the rest – It might have been simpler if I’d had that explanation in print to refer back to. Anyway, this way I was caught up in the stories. Most of them had Loki being a trickster and Thor throwing his hammer around to get his way.

There are many stories in this collection, and many of them have more than one chapter. There’s a dizzying array of characters, though usually Neil Gaiman refers back to where we have seen an obscure character before, so it seems quite coherent.

We do learn how Thor gets his hammer and what powers it has. And we find out about many adventures of the gods and goddesses, which so often start by an action that wasn’t terribly wise. And then there are consequences. And gods and giants try to trick others and are tricked themselves. And most of the stories were not familiar to me like Greek myths, so they were all new adventures.

That review seems a little coherent, but here’s the bottom line: Norse mythology explained and retold by Neil Gaiman, and even read by Neil Gaiman. Now that’s worth listening to!

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Review of Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Born a Crime

Stories from a South African Childhood

by Trevor Noah
performed by the author

Brilliance Audio, 2016. 7 discs, 8 hours, 48 minutes.
Starred Review

Trevor Noah, current host of The Daily Show was born in South Africa during apartheid. Since it was illegal for people of different races (as defined by the authorities) to have sexual relations, his birth to a black mother and white (Swiss) father was proof that a crime had been committed.

He couldn’t be seen in public with either of his parents. To walk in the park, they’d get a colored woman to walk with him, and his mother would pose as the nanny. At his grandmother’s house in Soweto, Trevor wasn’t allowed to go outside, because if police saw him, there could be serious trouble.

This book was especially good to listen to, since Trevor can speak the various African words correctly. His mother made sure he learned English first, but he learned many other African languages as well. He has some interesting observations about how you can be part of any group if you speak like they do.

Though he did have trouble fitting in. There are interesting observations on that, too. This book helped me understand how to this day, Trevor Noah’s outsider perspective helps him get to the heart of things.

This book is abundantly entertaining. The author is a comedian and shows us the funny side of so many things, while at the same time giving us perspective on things as wide-ranging as racism, poverty, going to church, and domestic violence.

This is an eye-opening and amazing story. And it’s all true. Mostly, it’s about Trevor’s life growing up in South Africa as apartheid fell. There are lots of laughs mixed in with more sobering truths. I highly recommend this audiobook.

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Review of Imagine Heaven, by John Burke

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Imagine Heaven

Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You

by John Burke

Baker Books, 2015. 348 pages.
Starred Review

Imagine Heaven looks at accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) from all over the world, from various cultures, religions, and backgrounds — and shows how the accounts match what the Bible says about heaven.

I’ve been interested in near-death experiences for awhile. Most of the books I’ve reviewed on the topic were quoted in this book: Proof of Heaven, Heaven Is For Real, To Heaven and Back, and even the book where the author went to hell first, My Descent Into Death. (Reading my review of My Descent Into Death, it was apparently the book that got me started reading other such books.)

Author John Burke does stick with a strictly evangelical perspective in his interpretation of the experiences. I tend to think they give support to Universalism. But one thing that is striking, which I hadn’t noticed before, is how those who have experienced NDEs describe heaven using very similar terms with the descriptions in Revelation.

When I was in the middle of reading this book, my sister had a dream about our mother, who is in late-stage Alzheimer’s. She dreamed that they were climbing stairs together. My Mom was much better, happy and eager, and climbing the stairs. At the top, there was a door, and Jesus was at the door. Becky left Mom with Jesus, and Mom was so happy to be there. Reading this book, and a dream like that, reminds me that Yes, heaven is a wonderful place. Yes, what’s important is Love.

The highlight of many NDEs, for all who claim to have come near, is this mystical Being of Light who fills them with a love beyond imagination.

A common experience across cultures is that this Being of Light gives them a Life Review.

One of the greatest indications that the God NDErs describe is the God of the Jewish/Christian Scriptures is how they depict their life review in his presence. Despite vividly seeing all their deeds, good and evil, and all the relational ripple effects of both, they do not experience a Being who desires to condemn. They experience a compassion coming from this Being of Light.

The author looks at the work of other researchers:

Dr. Long talks about how the unified theme of thousands of NDEs is the importance of love first. Muhammad in Egypt said after his NDE, “I felt that love is the one thing that all humans must feel towards each other.

The book does go on about details — the “sea of glass, clear as crystal,” the “rainbow that shone like an emerald,” the streets of pure gold, like glass. The author throws in lots of interpretation — but with many valid conclusions.

For me, the book encouraged and uplifted me, reminding me that God is Love, that heaven is not something to fear, and that what’s important, in this life and the next, is Love.

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The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

Monday, March 20th, 2017

The Jazz of Physics

The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe

by Stephon Alexander

Basic Books, 2016. 239 pages.
Starred Review

I heard Stephon Alexander speak at ALA Midwinter Meeting last year. He speaks with passion about how his love of jazz gave him insights into cosmology. (Of course, I was disposed to like him, because when I got the book signed and showed him my prime factorization scarf, he liked it so much, he called over his girlfriend, an artist, from another part of the exhibits so she could see it.)

As a Black American with roots in Trinidad, Stephon Alexander knows what it’s like to be a minority in physics. This book also tells his story and how he was inspired to turn to science.

I’ll admit, I don’t understand much about the equations or the physics mentioned in this book. But the author’s excitement comes across as he explains how he discovered insights about physics in music.

During all the years of formal training as a scientist, I found myself trying to reconcile my passion for music with physics. I started to not only see how the act of doing physics research could benefit from musical analogies but how our physical world actually had a musical character. Aside from the few mentors, such as Chris Isham and Robert Brandenberger, who had encouraged me to blend the two, I felt pressure to keep these two worlds separate. Physics to some is about absolute truths encoded in rigid mathematics, and music is a language of emotion. Perhaps this tension would not have been a big deal had I known that in the early days of science, music and astronomy were inseparable. To the modern musician and scientist, this may seem preposterous, but to early people, who lacked the scientific tools we now have, music became an analogy for the ordering and structure of the cosmos.

The book talks about sound and vibration and how it relates to string theory. He talks about sonic black holes and cosmic background radiation. Especially interesting is how he arrived at a breakthrough in string theory and cosmology by thinking about jazz improvisation.

I may not understand the details presented here, but I understand passages like this:

Weaving music and physics into one avenue of thought has showed me how to use notions in music as points of access to various fields in modern physics and cosmology. Analogies have helped make the physics more accessible and stimulating.

It is wonderful to think of following the footsteps of our ancestors — the great ancient thinkers who sought to understand physics through sound, and sound through physics. Pythagoras played with hammers and strings to try to understand where the pleasures of music came from, while Kepler used his intuition that the universe was musical to make major advances in the fields of astronomy, physics, and mathematics.

He talks about how the analogies not only help explain physics, but they also help new discoveries be made.

This book is not only about the analogy between music and cosmology but also about the importance of musical and improvisational thinking in doing physics. Theoretical physicists exemplify John Coltrane’s approach to music. We use an arsenal of conceptual and mathematical tools that we practice through examples that were worked out by past masters, like Einstein and Feynman. Likewise, jazz musicians like Coltrane master their tradition throughout countless hours of practice. But for both the theoretical physicist and the jazz improviser, it is not enough to simply master the material of the past; discoveries must be made.

He ends the book by saying, “My journey to reconcile jazz with physics serves as a living example of how a small group of physicists, in the spirit of the jazz tradition, embraced me and allowed me to improvise physics with them, while challenging me to go beyond my limits.”

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Review of Thirty Million Words, by Dana Suskind, MD

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Thirty Million Words

Building a Child’s Brain

Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns

by Dana Suskind, M.D.

Dutton, 2015. 308 pages.
Starred Review

The thirty million words of the title refer to the number of words children hear from birth to 3 years of age. But that’s not the total number of words — that’s the gap between the number of words children from language-rich families hear and the number that children from language-poor families hear.

The number is based on a study done by Betty Hart and Todd Risley.

The data answered the paramount question: Was a child’s ultimate ability to learn related to the language heard in the first years of life? Three years of painstaking analysis left no doubt. It did. Counter to prevalent thought at the time, neither socioeconomic status, nor race, nor gender, nor birth order was the key component in a child’s ability to learn because, even within groups, whether professional or welfare, there was variation in language. The essential factor that determined the future learning trajectory of a child was the early language environment: how much and how a parent talked to a child. Children in homes in which there was a lot of parent talk, no matter the educational or economic status of that home, did better. It was as simple as that.

When they followed up with the children years later, the trend continued.

The essential wiring of the human brain, the foundation for all thinking and learning, occurs largely during our first three years of life. We now know, thanks to careful science, that optimum brain development is language dependent. The words we hear, how many we hear, and how they are said are determining factors in its development. The significance of this cannot be overemphasized since this window of time, if neglected, may be lost forever. When Hart and Risley looked at their data, the influence of early language on a child was unmistakable, the negative impact of a poor early language environment critical, including the effect on vocabulary acquision. Even more significant was evidence of the effect on IQ at three years of age.

Also important was what was said.

But quantity of words was only one part of the equation. While the number of words a child heard was important, imperatives and prohibitions appeared to stifle a child’s ability to acquire language.

“We saw the powerful dampening effects on development when [a child’s interaction with a parent] began with a parent-initiated imperative: ‘Don’t’ ‘Stop’ ‘Quit that.'”

Two other factors seemed to have an effect on language acquisition and IQ. The first was the variety of vocabulary the child heard. The less varied the vocabulary, the lower the child’s achievement at age three. The other influence was family conversational habits. Hart and Risley found that parents who talked less produced children who also spoke less.

This book is ultimately a book of hope, about teaching parents how important their words are.

The incredible power that helps nurture the brain into optimum intelligence and stability is parent talk. If the most profound mysteries of the brain are still to be discovered, that truth has already been revealed. And it shows you how smart the brain really is, because, in absolute evolutionary brilliance, it harnesses a plentiful, natural resource as the key catalyst for its own development. The process is so simple and hidden that you aren’t even aware it’s happening. You can’t sell it, you can’t store it, you can’t list it on the New York Stock Exchange, but a caregiver’s language is the essential resource of every country, every culture, every person, extending into every crevice of who we are, what we can do, and how we behave.

The book goes on to talk about how parent talk helps in every area of brain development.

But then it talks about how to turn this research into action. In the Thirty Million Words Initiative, parents are being taught effective ways to talk with their little ones.

I like the memorable Three Ts that parents are taught: Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns.

A little bit more about each one:

Of the Three Ts, Tune In is the most nuanced. It involves a parent’s making a conscious effort to notice what a baby or child is focused on, then, when it’s appropriate, talking with the child about it. In other words, focusing as the child is focused. Even if the child is too young to understand the words being spoken, even if the focus is constantly changing, Tuning In refers to a parent’s following and responding to a child’s lead. It represents the first step in harnessing the power of parent talk to build a child’s brain. If a parent is not Tuned In, the other Ts will not work.

The second T, Talk More, seems self-explanatory.

Talk More, which goes hand in hand with Tune In, refers to a parent’s increased talking with a child, especially about what the child is focusing on, not to him or her. While this may seem a subtle distinction, it is fundamental to the TMW approach. Talking More with a child requires a mutual level of engagement between the child and the parent. Like Tune In, it is another critical element of parent-child attachment and brain development.

And the final T puts it all together.

The final T, Take Turns, entails engaging a child in a conversational exchange. The gold standard of parent-child interaction, it is the most valuable of the Three Ts when it comes to developing a child’s brain. In order for the necessary serve-and-return of conversational interaction to be successful, there has to be active engagement between the parent and child. How does the parent achieve this? By Tuning In to what the child is focused on and Talking More about it. The key, whether a parent has initiated interaction or is responding to a child’s initiative, is for the parent to wait for the child to respond. That is what sets the stage for the critical Taking Turns.

The book goes on to talk about practicalities, and how this applies in many different ways and many different subject areas. But I like how nicely the content is summed up in the title alone.

As a children’s librarian, reading this book urges me to communicate these important principles to parents and helps me realize how important parent talk is, even from birth. I recommend this book for all parents, but also for anyone who works with babies or parents of babies. A powerful, hopeful message.

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Review of How to Bake Pi, by Eugenia Cheng

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

How to Bake π

An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

by Eugenia Cheng

Basic Books, 2015. 288 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Nonfiction

I have a Master’s in Math, so I love math books for a general audience. Besides, my math degree is very old by now, so a book like this taught me about a whole field of mathematics I hadn’t known about before. And it’s written by a woman!

She had me from the Prologue, where she debunks some math myths and begins with a recipe. Here are some parts I especially liked:

Cooking is about ways of putting ingredients together to make delicious food. Sometimes it’s more about the method than the ingredients, just as in the recipe for clotted cream, which only has one ingredient — the entire recipe is just a method. Math is about ways of putting ideas together to make exciting new ideas. And sometimes it’s more about the method than the “ingredients.”

Here’s about the myth that you have to be really clever to be a mathematician:

Much as I like the idea that I am very clever, the popular myth shows that people think math is hard. The little-understood truth is that the aim of math is to make things easier. Herein lies the problem — if you need to make things easier, it gives the impression that they were hard in the first place. Math is hard, but it makes hard things easier. In fact, since math is a hard thing, math also makes math easier.

Here’s talking about what it’s like to do research in math:

It’s true, you can’t just discover a new number. So what can we discover that’s new in math? In order to explain what this “new math” could possibly be about, I need to clear up some misunderstandings about what math is in the first place. Indeed, not only is math not just about numbers, but the branch of math I’m going to describe is actually not about numbers at all. It’s called Category Theory, and it can be thought of as the “mathematics of mathematics.” It’s about relationships, contexts, processes, principles, structures, cakes, custard.

Yes, even custard. Because mathematics is about drawing analogies, and I’m going to be drawing analogies with all sorts of things to explain how math works, including custard, cake, pie, pastry, donuts, bagels, mayonnaise, yogurt, lasagna, sushi.

True to her promise, she begins each chapter of her book with a recipe, and uses the recipe to illustrate the math about the recipe on the conceptual level.

Abstract Algebra was always one of my favorite fields of math, and Category Theory is a level of abstraction higher. What could be cooler than that?

But if the idea of extreme abstraction doesn’t get you as excited as it does me, think of it as math concepts explained through recipes. That conveys better how friendly this book makes the concepts.

She has analogies for almost everything. Here’s where she explains what abstraction is:

Abstraction is like preparing to cook something and putting away the equipment and ingredients that you don’t need for this recipe, so that your kitchen is less cluttered. It is the process of putting away the ideas you don’t need for the present purposes, so that your brain is less cluttered.

Here’s her explanation of proof by contradiction:

Imagine trying to “prove” that you really need to boil water to make tea. You would probably just try to make tea without boiling the water. You discover that it tastes disgusting (or has no taste at all) and conclude that yes, you do need to boil water to make tea. Or you might try to “prove” that you need gas to make your car go. You try running it on an empty tank and discover it doesn’t go anywhere. So yes, you do need gas to make your car go.

In math, this is called proof by contradiction — you do the opposite of what you’re trying to prove, and show that something would go horribly wrong in that case, so you conclude that you were right all along.

I think this book is truly beautiful. And I suspect it might provide glimmers to people who have never before seen beauty in math at all. If that’s not enough to appeal to potential readers, well, it has recipes.

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Review of Camino Divina, by Gina Marie Mammano

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

camino_divina_largeCamino Divina

Walking the Divine Way

A Book of Moving Meditations with Likey & Unlikely Saints

by Gina Marie Mammano

Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2016. 178 pages.
Starred Review

Full disclosure: The author of this book is a long-time friend of mine. In fact, this past week I was writing my Project 52 post about the year I was 20, and the post included several pictures of Gina at Disneyland. We had invented the S.I.K. Club — a group that wasn’t afraid to be silly and whose theme was Joy. And a couple days after posting that, something Gina said in this very book blessed me.

Camino Divina is lovely. It took me a long time to read it, because I started reading a short section every time I go for a walk, and I usually only go for a walk two or three times per week. But it has added richly to those walks, and I plan to go through it again.

I’ll let Gina explain what she’s doing in this book, from the Introduction:

What is camino divina? Well, since camino simply means “road” and divina means “divine,” the pair of them together could be thought of as “the path of the Divine” or “the divine way.” It’s a merging of the Spanish camino and the Latin divina, a lingua marriage of sorts. In my vernacular, it just means taking a meaningful stroll out in nature, on a labyrinth, under the moon, with divine words laced in rhythm along with it.

She’s talking about taking a phrase with you and mulling it over as you walk.

This book is designed to take you on a journey — no, many journeys — of both outer landscape and inner landscape. The outer landscapes are all around you and can be explored through a well-planned or serendipitous trip, a pilgrimage to a sacred site, or a meandering somewhere in your own neighborhood. The pith, though, is found in the inner landscape. That is something you take with you wherever you go. It is your inner self, the very soul-housed uniqueness of time and space that you bring into the world and bring into your life’s experiences.

I’ve created twelve adventures that give you the chance to traipse into both of these realms — the inner landscape and the outer landscape. On each adventure I’ve paired you up with a spiritual guide whom I call a “saint” — a sage who has spoken inspiring words and ideas into my soul and out into the world. I’ve then chosen a theme that highlights one aspect of the featured sage’s wisdom and legacy, but by no means encompasses it. As you wander into themes like Amazement, Wildness, Darkness, the Liminal, the Surprising, or the Familiar, know that they can be explored not only with the saint associated with that particular theme, but with the others as well, serving as launching points for you to explore many other possibilities in your camino divina practice. When you’ve finished this book, I encourage you to create a list of your own “saints,” those whose words and thoughts have inspired — and continue to inspire — you.

Gina’s writing is beautiful — She’s a poet — and she opens windows into the words of these twelve writer-saints she’s chosen.

I’ve been walking with these meditations for months now, and they’ve opened my eyes. And I know if I make the journey again through this book, I’m going to uncover all new riches.

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