Here are short reviews of a couple of books I have read recently, as well as some links to online blogs or articles I thought were interesting. I have been working on a post about reflecting on the miracles in Exodus that I hope to finish in the coming week. Until then… let me know what you have been reading in the comments below.
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Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It may well be a mistake to read an author’s masterpiece before any other of his/her works, and if so I have committed that mistake with the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Last year I read his classic ‘The Brothers Karamozov’ and loved it. Naturally, I was interested in reading the rest of his works and selected a collection of short stories I picked up from a going out of business sale at a local bookstore. To be honest the collection, ‘Notes from Underground’, left me disappointed. There were flickers of promise and potential but the book felt underdeveloped on the whole. The collection contains for stories: ‘White Nights’, a romance set in Petersburg; a few selections from ‘The House of the Dead’, a collection of stories of people who ended up in prison; ‘Notes from Underground’, a rambling, disjointed critique on the supremacy of Reason; and ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’, a story of hope of humanities redemption from evil.
I am not huge fan of romance, so others may perhaps enjoy ‘White Nights’ more than I did. Not a bad story, just didn’t really intrigue me much. The ‘hero’, a lonely, highly romantic young man meets a young woman who is waiting on a man who promised to marry her. They become friends, and when the suitor doesn’t show up at the promised time they appear to fall in love with each other. In the end however, the suitor does show up and he and the woman do get married, leaving the young man still alone but appreciating the few days of friendship he had with the woman.
‘Notes from Underground’ was just irritating. The premise is that the narrator is a very insecure, friendless individual who is attempting to write down a sort of life philosophy, or perhaps just a collection of grievances masquerading as a philosophy. It was hard to tell. It was rambling and mostly incoherent, which according to the commentator’s notes in the back of the book was part of Dostoyevsky’s point; that humans are irrational beings and thus ‘Rationalism’ as a philosophy was simply inconsistent with human experiences. That well may be Dostoyevsky’s point, but I found the story a drudgery to read. This story is regarded by some as Dostoyevsky’s first masterpiece; so others obviously disagree with my assessment.
‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ was more enjoyable. A self described ‘ridiculous man’ who is contemplating suicide has a dream that he is transported to another earth; one that has not fallen and is populated by a purely innocent and good humanity. The narrator, much to his horror, ends up corrupting the entire planet so that it ends up looking exactly like our current earth. Ironically, the narrator’s brief glimpse of perfection convinces him that humanity can be redeemed and is determined to”‘preach the Truth, for I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve seen it in all it’s Glory!” He no longer cares if anyone believes him or thinks him ridiculous, his brief encounter with perfection, even in a dream, is enough to motivate him to tell everyone he knows that humanity is not doomed to be evil. This was a good, thoughtful story but I wish it would have been developed more. It felt rushed.
The Selections from ‘The House of the Dead’ is actually three short stories in itself; two describing the events that led to men murdering others (both involving romantic rivalry); the third story describe the life of the men who were tasked with administering corporal punishment (flogging in this case). These stories were actually the most interesting in the book, as Dostoyevsky does an excellent job presenting the fullness of the humanity of the people described in these stories.
Click on the link below to purchase a copy of ‘Notes from Underground’.
Simply Christian by N. T. Wright
When I first read the title of N.T. Wright’s book, ‘Simply Christian’ sounded suspiciously like ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis. While these books do, in a general sense, cover the same ground (why Christianity is believable and a basic introduction to Christian belief) they are different enough to both be worth reading and useful for different audiences.
Wright starts off the book by examining four universal desires of humanity-the longing for justice, beauty, spirituality and relationship. He describes these as the ‘echo of a voice’ that we as humans hear; this “voice continues to echo in our imagination, our subconscious. We want to go back and listen to it again, but having woken up we can’t get back into the dream.” The first section of the book is devoted to describing these longings and our desire to hear the voice behind the echoes.
In the central part of the book Wright argues that the voice we are longing to hear is the voice of God as revealed in Jesus. He attempts to explain who God is looking at God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in turn. As he spells out Christian belief on each of these, he connects back to the echoes of the first part of the book and the longings we have are satisfied in the Christian understanding of God.
Section Three then attempts to explain how the Christian life, once accepted, can be lived out. He devotes a chapter each to worship, prayer, two chapters to the Bible, and another chapter to the Church itself.
I enjoyed this book and it will definitely occupy a place in my library to be referred to in the future. It is geared toward the questioning seeker or the new Christian, but it has enough depth to be worth reading for a seasoned Christian as well. Returning to my original comparison with C. S. Lewis’ ‘Mere Christianity’ I feel Lewis’ book is more likely to be effective at convincing the seeking non-Christian while Wright’s book will be more useful for the new Christian trying to figure what their new found faith really means. However, both are excellent and would certainly recommend ‘Simply Christian’ for anyone interested in better understanding Christianity.
Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
By N.T. Wright / HarperOne
Why is justice fair? Why are so many people pursuing spirituality? Why do we crave relationship? And why is beauty so beautiful? N. T. Wright argues that each of these questions takes us into the mystery of who God is and what he wants from us. For two thousand years Christianity has claimed to answer these mysteries, and this renowned biblical scholar and Anglican bishop shows that it still does today.
Interesting Articles or Blog Posts
An article from the Atlantic describing the damage that partisan politics is having churches across the country. “The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches. As a person of the Christian faith who has spent most of my adult life attending evangelical churches, I wanted to understand the splintering of churches, communities, and relationships. I reached out to dozens of pastors, theologians, academics, and historians, as well as a seminary president and people involved in campus ministry. All voiced concern.”
Russell Moore discusses the thorny abortion issue in this article. “When anchored biblically—rather than merely as a partisan political strategy—a pro-life viewpoint is a contradiction of social Darwinism, which estimates human value in inverse proportion to vulnerability.”
On a lighter note, here is a blog post commemorating C. S. Lewis on November 22.
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