It has been a while since I put up any book reviews, and I have been reading all along. I don’t intend to start writing detailed reviews at this point — too much else to do. But I’ve been reading some real beauties, and I want to share. So with no further ado, Gentle Reader, I present you with a tasty salad of good books on a variety of topics.
James K. A. Smith’s Thinking in Tongues is a treat.
The basic insight is a version of lex orandi, lex credendi: “The law of prayer is the law of belief.” This ancient Christian principle means, in essence, that the liturgy, prayers and songs of the ancient church can be used to infer the beliefs of the church, even on matters (or in times and places) where they left behind no specific dogmatic writings.
Likewise, Smith is using the religious life of the Christian church generally, and specifically the pentecostal/charismatic churches, to infer a particular take on various areas of philosophy: what’s real, how we know, how we understand language, and so on. I’m not even going to try to summarize Smith’s thought as he pushes the implicit theology of pentecostal thought out into the corners — you can, and should, read it for yourself.
If you’re charismatic yourself, this is an important book, and you should read it. If you’re not, you might think you can just pass this one by, but I would encourage you to think again. In critical ways, many of us have simply not stuck to our guns as Christians engaging ‘secular’ fields like sociology, psychology, or philosophy. This is a chance to see someone doing it well, and even if philosophy is not your field, you might benefit from seeing an example of hardheaded Christianity in practice.
Doug Wilson’s novel Evangellyfish serves up a large helping of brutal truth about evangelical church culture. While being a work of fiction — and, to the extent possible in today’s evangelical culture, something of a satire — it is unflinchingly faithful to reality. I’ve met these characters, far more than once.
Some readers will find Evangellyfish dark and painful, but it is also absolutely hilarious. Some critic aptly described it as a cross between Flannery O’Connor and P. G. Wodehouse. Although the book is a respectable 228 pages, it’s a fast read, unless you need to take breaks because the satire is hurting too much. I read it in a day — Christmas Day, actually. It was a much-needed rest and respite from the hurly-burly of the holiday season.
Obviously, I didn’t find it particularly painful to read, myself. But that’s because I’m so far outside mainstream megachurch evangelicalism that the satire made me laugh far more than it made me wince. And I did laugh — I howled, all day long. My wife later told me that’s the most she’s heard me laugh in years.
The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero covers vampire lore through literary history. However, instead of writing a survey, which would inevitably skim the surface and bore at the same time, author Susannah Clements gives us a detailed study of five samples: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, contained in the Southern Vampire Mystery books and the TV series True Blood, and Stephanie Myers’ Twilight saga. If you feel like this sample set skews heavily toward the modern, you’re right, but there’s a good reason for that. The vampire was a powerful metaphor for evil, sin and temptation in a predominantly Christian culture for a very long time. Recently, the significance of the vampire has shifted, hence the preponderance of modern samples.
The samples are well-chosen, and show how the vampire motif has shifted as modern authors employ it to address a variety of less theological themes. The closing three chapters bring it all together in a coherent thematic treatment of vampire sinners and saviors, drawing on a number of additional examples, and finishing with a challenge for Christians to renew their acquaintance with the genre. The current vampire fiction craze will pass, to be sure, but the vampire is also one of the enduring motifs of Western literature. The genre is ripe for a robust Christian treatment that will re-introduce the classic vampire fiction themes of temptation, sin, evil and grace.
I have started Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. So far, it’s wonderful. This book was the inevitable fallout from Leithart’s earlier (and really outstanding) Defending Constantine. A sober treatment of Constantine’s life and what he meant to the Christian faith, the book raised a number of issues and questions that simply couldn’t be addressed without doubling the size of the book. Between Babel and Beast is in a sense a book-length footnote to the earlier book, but it stands alone.
Leithart’s thesis is that — contra nearly everybody — there is no such thing as examining “empire” in a biblical light. It’s necessary to talk in terms of “empires,” plural. There are two chief reasons for this: first, God begins His own counter-imperium with Abraham, and will culminate it in the New Jerusalem. It’s just irresponsible to talk as though empire is an evil in itself. Even within the boundaries of the “city of man,” though, the Bible speaks of different types of empire, with the main differentiating factor being how the imperial government relates to God’s people.
For a delightfully contrarian, throoughly optimistic take on political philosophy, I commend Babel and Beast to you. And Defending Constantine. And Against Christianity. But that’s another blog post.
Just a couple weeks ago, on the recommendation of a teacher of mine, I got Sanford and Sanford’s massive Deliverance and Inner Healing. I’ve not had time to read very much of it yet, but I studied the chapter on praying over specific places in some detail, and it has already paid off. More about this later, maybe — but it has already proven a worthwhile book.
So that’s the fun stuff I’ve been up to. Anybody have a recommendation for me?