Books

What Happens When We Accept Our Own Mortality?

Experienced as the Butlers were in suffering and loss, they were not prepared for the technologically enhanced torments of old age.

Knocking on Heaven's Door tells what can happen when a person's mind and body endure a series of shocks that would naturally lead to decline and death — except that, through various technological interventions, the body is not allowed to decline along with the mind.

In Professor Butler's case, a major stroke wiped out most of his ability to function independently and set him on the road to dementia. At the same time, his heart was slowing down. A year after his stroke, over the opposition of his primary care physician, Butler was fitted with a pacemaker. His cardiologist strongly recommended it. He needed hernia surgery, the doctor said, and his heart was not likely strong enough to survive the operation. So he had the pacemaker installed, he had the surgery, and he was rewarded with another six years of increasingly hellish existence — not only for himself, but also for his wife and his daughter. His mind was shot. His body would not do what he wanted it to do. But his artificially assisted heart kept relentlessly ticking away.

Malcolm Gladwell on His Return to Faith While Writing 'David and Goliath'

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 conference. Photo via RNS/courtesy Kris Krüg via Wikimedia Commons

Author Malcolm Gladwell may not be known for writing on religion. His New York Times best-selling books “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” “Blink” and “What the Dog Saw” deal with the unexpected twists in social science research. But his newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” also includes underlying faith-related themes, and not just in the title.

Gladwell said that while researching the book, he began rediscovering his own faith after having drifted away. Here, he speaks with RNS about his Mennonite family, how Jesus perfectly illustrates the point in his new book and how Gladwell’s return to faith changed the way he wrote the book. 

The Mythical World of Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy novels, cdrummbks / Flickr.com
Tom Clancy novels, cdrummbks / Flickr.com

The books of Tom Clancy, who passed away this week, contain some of the most detailed description of military weaponry and procedures the public is likely to see. And people want to believe it: Clancy’s world is one in which technology can provide security and the so-called experts can be trusted to protect us. He takes a complex world and doesn’t merely simplify it, but rather creates super humans and super machines that can manage the world’s complexities.

Coloring in Oppression

THIS SHORT VOLUME by Jacqueline Battalora, a professor of criminal justice at St. Xavier University in Chicago, addresses a very important topic in American history and society: The legal, social, and political invention of the category of “white people” as a privileged group, which defines them as the normative Americans over against others, variously defined as “black,” “colored,” “Indians,” and “mulatto.”

When English settlers founded the New England colonies, they referred to themselves as British. As more people from other countries of Western Europe arrived in the area, they tended to group those they saw as similar to themselves as Christians, Germans, etc.—the term “white” was not used—over against “Negroes,” Indians, and rival colonizers such as the Spanish and French.

The term white was first used in colonial law after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, during which some African and European indentured servants formed an alliance. Virginia’s colonial leaders responded with a package of laws that created a racial caste of African-descended slaves, distinguished from European servants. These laws decreed that African slaves could not be freed and free Africans could not hold office, serve in the army, or hold European bond laborers. This group was thus disprivileged, in contrast with those of European descent who were defined as “white.”

The term white also soon appeared in Maryland colonial law, forbidding African-descended people from owning weapons and testifying against “whites.” Anti-miscegenation laws also developed, forbidding “white” people from marrying those who were “black” or “Indian,” fining them if they did so and taking away any children from such unions, who were labeled “abominations.” These laws actually only applied to “white” women, since “white” men often had concubines from these forbidden groups without penalty.

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New & Noteworthy

Cleats and Dignity
The civil rights struggle for African Americans happened in every sphere of life. Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, by Samuel G. Freedman, tells of two great black coaches in the tense year of 1967. Simon & Schuster

Catching Fire
One project of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture is the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, which funded research in more than 20 countries. PCRI resources include the informative recent report, “Moved by the Spirit: Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the Global South.” crcc.usc.edu/pcri

Hope and Healing
The documentary film The Adventists 2 looks at health care in the developing world and Seventh-day Adventist medical missions in Haiti, the Amazon, Malawi, China, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. A sequel to the award-winning film The Adventists, which looked at the body-mind-spirit connections of Adventists. journeyfilms.com

A Light for the World
Get international and justice-minded perspectives on the Sunday scripture readings from Catholic sisters, priests, brothers, and lay missioners in A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the Readings for Year A, edited by Judy Coode and Kathy McNeely. Orbis

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The Book Every Christian Needs to Read This Fall

Every so often a fiction book makes a splash in the swamp of Christian literature, which is predominately ruled by non-fiction reads. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young would be one modern example and, reaching back just a bit more, In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon would be another.

It's happened again.

Frank Schaeffer's And God Said, “Billy!” is a work of Christian fiction that just barely fits into the “Christian” sub-category of fiction. That's not to say it doesn't come with a heavy dose of Christian characters and culture (it does) as much as it is to say, unlike the other must-read fictions of the past that I just mentioned, this book could and should have a much broader appeal. So much so, I almost titled this review, “The Book Everyone Needs to Read ...”.

The Unsilenced Voice of Seamus Heaney

Irish poet Seamus Heaney By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Irish poet Seamus Heaney By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite stories is about the interview I wanted most, but didn’t get.

It was 2005 and I had just signed a contract to write what would be my first book — a collection of profiles of mostly well-known people about their spiritual lives. Artists. Writers. Thinkers. Scientists. The odd rock star.

Sitting in my publisher’s office, she asked me to dream out loud: If I could interview anyone for the project, who was No. 1 on my wish list?

I answered without hesitation: Seamus Heaney.

'Zealot:' How Reza Aslan Constructed a False Jesus

Reza Aslan begins of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a prescient warning: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (xxxi).

I don’t think Aslan had himself in mind when wrote that statement, but you should be warned: the Jesus in Zealot is Aslan’s own false construction.

His central thesis is that the Jesus of history, and the God Jesus believed in, demanded violence in the face of political and religious oppression. Here’s one of the relevant passages:

[F]or those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls a “man of war”(Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly command the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the “blood spattered God” of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3) the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies,” bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23)—that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God that he worshipped. (122, emphasis in the original.)

The problem that I have with this passage is indicative of the problem that I have with the way Aslan constructs his Jesus. He constantly picks and chooses which verses from the Bible he uses to support his claim that Jesus was a warrior messiah whose goal was to violently overthrow the Roman and religious establishment. He peels away all passages that conflict with his construction so that he can show us what Jesus was truly like.

Well, what Aslan thinks Jesus was truly like.

3 Reasons I Really Did Not Like Michael Pollan's Newest, 'Cooked'

Fresh slices of bread. Photo courtesy Yeko Photo Studio/shutterstock.com
Fresh slices of bread. Photo courtesy Yeko Photo Studio/shutterstock.com

I really did not like Michael Pollan's newest offeringCooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Here are three reasons why:

1. The premise feels phony and staged.

Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.

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