So Many Books, So Little Time...

If only I could be paid for reading, I would not have any problems working.


And yes, I am yet another refugee from Goodreads.  So far, I like BL.  What about you?

Give it a pass...

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America - Mike Yankoski

I would probably never have read this book had not some very sweet and well-intentioned people given it to me. Reading it was an unpleasant experience. "Under the Overpass" somehow manages to be condescending, arrogant, misinformed, and hypocritical all at the same time. Here are just a few of the many problems I had with this book:

1. On page 114 he mentions walking with a friend past a church on a Friday evening. The church is closed, locked, chained, and padlocked. The two took offense to this and then went on to compare it to a convenience store which is open and selling cigarettes, beer, and porn. The unspoken conclusion is that the worldly convenience store is more welcoming than the spiritual church. Apparently they did not consider that:
   a. If a church is going to open its doors, someone needs to be there to help protect it from those who would do it harm?
   b. That in order to have someone in the church, someone needs to volunteer or be paid?
   c. The convenience store probably had a security system including cameras and an alarm, both of which would deter theft and vandalism. These systems cost money; money that not every church can afford.
I want to know if the churches they attend now leave their doors open 24/7 and allow any and all to come and do what they want, when they want?

2. On page 148 he mentions a church service he attended during which the pastor delivered a sermon on how women will be saved through childbearing. He then remarks on how it was Berkeley and 2003. What do the two have to do with each other? Is not all Scripture God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness? Why then should a pastor in Berkeley in 2003, let alone 2010, not teach on that passage?

3. In the "Cowbell Door Chime" section beginning on page 76, he tells the story of walking with his friend into a sandwich shop and beginning a friendly game of one-upping each other on how bad they smell. Five other people come in, notice them, and then sit far away. It turns out that they are Christians. It is obvious that they can smell the two as much as they smell each other and they wind up avoiding them. There is an implied criticism of them for doing so. Is this fair? I may see two ratty-looking, smelly young men with guitars in a sandwich shop, but my first thought is not necessarily going to be that they are homeless and in need of help.

4. On page 141, they are engaged in a conversation with George, the Christian-pizza-guy. During that conversation he states " But you know what? I've never once come down here and preached. At least not in the typical fashion - you know; with yelling and Bible thumping." I have been going to church since I was born, attending services in Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, and even Roman Catholic services, depending on the circumstances in which I found myself. In over 40 years and dozens of churches I have, apparently, never seen one of George's "typical" sermons with "yelling and Bible thumping". Is his critique valid? If not, why does Mr. Yankoski give it his tacit support?

From the beginning there was something that bothered me about the entire project. Theirs was an intentional and almost belligerent homeless. They flaunt their willing homelessness in the face of the Church, asking the Christians they met for a handout, with no intention of giving up their homeless lifestyle, and then criticize them when they choose not to help them live the life they chose. They put them to the test, daring them to fail, castigating them for failing, but the test itself is unfair as the preconditions are disingenuous. Does a Christian have an obligation to aid and abet someone in their self-destruction? He, himself, gives the answer to that question in the book, and the answer is an unqualified no.

I say this having worked with the homeless through a good portion of my college career. I learned that there were different types of homeless people. Nearly all were on the streets due to a series of crushing circumstances that destroyed their livelihoods. Some were mentally ill and caught between a cycle of living on meds, losing their ability to buy their medication, thus losing touch with reality, and then losing their homes, only to regain them once they could obtain medication again through a charitable source. Some hated life on the streets and were working hard to get back into a productive life. Others were caught in the grip of terrible addictions and could not yet find the will to leave the streets. As another reviewer points out, Yankoski barely touches on these distinctions, preferring to gripe about how much he stank, or how uncomfortable he was.

All in all, "Under the Overpass" is a self-indulgent voyage of spiritual self-discovery. I gained almost nothing from it, and would not encourage anyone to read it. Your time would be much better spent reading Mother Teresa's "A Simple Path". She not only lived with the homeless, she spent her life caring for them, easing their pain, comforting them in the time of their death. That is a story worth reading.

The Good, the Bad, and the Not So N.I.C.E.

That Hideous Strength  - C.S. Lewis

The reader who comes to "That Hideous Strength" for the first time after reading "Out of the Silent Planet" and "Perelandra" could be excused for wondering how it fits in with the rest of the Space Trilogy. It bears little resemblance to its companion volumes. There is no journey through space, no exploration of strange, beautiful worlds, and no alien races. Dr. Ransom, far from being the central character, is absent from the first third of the book, Lewis makes no appearance at all, and nowhere are there hints of an un-fallen creation. The story is more complicated, the cast of characters larger, and the scale of the battle between good and evil far greater, and far more subtle, than the first two books. From every angle, "That Hideous Strength" appears to be stubbornly Earthbound and cut from a completely different cloth.

Those, however, who are familiar with C.S. Lewis, know that there is always more to his books than meets the eye. In spite of the many substantial differences between That Hideous Strength and its predecessors, the patient and careful reader will discover profound similarities, and an even more profound, startling and ambitious purpose.

When the book opens, a young, progressive, academically minded couple is making the difficult transition from single to married life. Mark Studdock is a fellow at a small college trying to work his way into an influential inner circle in the hopes of advancing his career. His wife, Jane, works at home on a dissertation. Mark is forced to spend long hours at the college wrangling for position and his wife is, understandably, frustrated. But the trappings of a domestic soap opera disappear before they can take root. Jane begins to experience visions of a gruesome, disembodied head speaking to her in a strange tongue and a giant, ancient man about to be awakened from an ages long sleep.

Deeply disturbed by her visions and her husband's absences, Jane sets aside her progressive feminism to consult the housemother of her former college, the very old-fashioned Mrs. Dimble. Older, wiser, childless but still matronly, Mother Dimble invites Jane to consult with a man she refers to as "The Director" who lives in a mansion at St.-Anne's-on-the-Hill.

Mark, in the meantime, succeeds in penetrating the inner circle of his college, only to find that there is a deeper circle still, larger, more influential, and connected with an organization known as the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, or the N.I.C.E. The N.I.C.E. exists, ostensibly, to de-couple science from the restrictions of government, streamlining discovery and facilitating invention. Freed from the shackles of government oversight and accountability, it exercises a great deal of power both within its walls and in the world outside. Mark is encouraged to pursue a position with the N.I.C.E., and is invited to spend a long weekend there to secure the situation.

He and Jane each depart without the other's knowledge for their respective destinations, moving in opposite directions physically and spiritually. Mark learns that nothing about the N.I.C.E. bears any resemblance to its name. Those who exercise power there draw him in, manipulating his desire to be included and fear of being left out. He is disoriented by a combination of ugly secrets, lies, and frightening mysteries until he slowly realizes that, not only is his career in jeopardy, but his life, his wife's, and the future of everyone in England.

Jane, too, is drawn in to the inner circle of the mansion at St. Anne's, but she is attracted by a Good that is absolute and beautiful. There are secrets and mysteries at St. Anne's, but, far from being manipulative and disorienting, they bring clarity and freedom. Her discoveries lead her to a life that is larger, richer and more beautiful than she had ever imagined.

As Jane and Mark learn more about St. Anne's and the N.I.C.E., the plot of "That Hideous Strength" deepens and the pace quickens. They find themselves caught on opposing sides of a new battle in a war as old as time. They both encounter characters and situations that, though normal in appearance, possess a subtle strangeness. The mundane around them melts away, and they find themselves in an old faery tale world of kings and wizards, monsters, evil faeries, lesser gods and animals that are far more than mere beasts. When the battle is joined, all of these will play their part. Many will die and be overthrown, but much will also be restored to its rightful place before the end.

To reveal more about the story would be to rob the reader of the delights too numerous to mention. Suffice to say that there is more than enough to entertain and satisfy the imagination of even a superficial reader. But "That Hideous Strength" is about so much more than just its story. It is as rich and full of various types of meaning as "Faery Queene" or "The Divine Comedy", and his purpose is no less ambitious than Spencer's or Dante's.

Primarily, "That Hideous Strength" is about redemption, and that on many levels. At the highest level is about the redemption of Mark and Jane. When they are introduced, neither of them are likeable. Mark's fixation with being in the most progressive inner circle betrays a desperate insecurity. It is more important for him to be in the know than to know anything worthwhile or to know his wife. His enemies play on this weakness to ensnare him in the culture of the N.I.C.E. For most of the book, he is willing to do anything to be on the inside, ignoring the evil around him, descending to ridiculous levels of self-deception and compromise, almost to the point of sacrificing his wife.

Jane is equally vapid, devoted to a feminist ideology bent on the abandonment and destruction of anything remotely feminine. She eschews the traditional roles of male and female in marriage, especially that of bearing children. She carries a hidden resentment of her husband simply because he is a man. The road to redemption for both of them is perilous, but as they travel it, they become more and more attractive, more like the kind of people we might like, and want to be like.

Deeper than the redemption of Mark and Jane, it is about the redemption of marriage and childbearing. In Mark and Jane, he embodies the prevailing mindset about marriage among the more intelligent and affluent; that marriage is a partnership of mutual convenience, an arrangement between equals. It is sterile and dry, ignoring the obvious differences between men and women in the name of political correctness. Sex is for recreation and entertainment. Children are an imposition, a necessary evil for the purpose of perpetuating the race, to be disposed of in childcare and state schools as soon as possible so that we can have our time back.

Lewis dares to step in and say "no". Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman where each gives their all for the other. There are no equals in marriage. Men and women are so different that equality does not enter the equation. Marriage cannot be about getting our rights as equals. If we insist only on equality, marriage fails because we focus on what we are getting and making sure that it is equal to what we are giving. If marriage is to work, men and women must give their all as men and women to be servants of one another. This is one of the hardest lessons about marriage, but when it is learned, when we come to grips with the glorious complementary inequality between man and woman, it makes marriage the most beautiful of relationships.

Lewis also makes the bold claim that one of the chief aims of marriage is childbearing. When we intentionally prevent conception, we violate the created order of things. The physical pleasure that accompanies copulation is a byproduct of the act that produces children, not the other way around. It was never meant to be only a form of entertainment, but re-creation in the truest sense of the word. It is in the mutual submission of marriage and the successful rearing of children that we find joys that far transcend mere physicality.

All of this is accomplished without preaching or quoting Scripture. Instead, Lewis uses illustrations of healthy marriages and prose that borders on poetry to shame the cold institution that passes for marriage today. For example, in one of the most famous episodes in the book, the Director confronts a stranger in a battle of wits and words that includes the following exchange:

"The Stranger mused for a few seconds; then, speaking in a slightly sing-song voice, as though he repeated on old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:

'Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?'

Ransom replied, 'Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned toward us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would be he who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages are cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.'"

In another passage, the same stranger asks permission to kill Jane for the crime of avoiding conception.

"...the Stranger was speaking and pointing at her as he spoke.

"˜Sir, you have in your house the falsest lady of any at this time alive.'

"˜Sir, you are mistaken. She is doubtless like all of us a sinner; but the woman is chaste.'

"˜Sir,' said [the stranger], "˜know well that she has done in Logres a thing of which no less sorrow shall come than came of the stroke that Balinus struck. For sir, it was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres for a thousand years.'

"˜She is but lately married,' said Ransom. "˜The child may yet be born.'

"˜Sir,' said [the stranger], "˜be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva were so common among you. For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.'

"˜Enough said,' answered Ransom. "˜The woman perceives that we are speaking of her.'

"˜It would be great charity,' said [the stranger] "˜if you gave order that her head should be cut from her shoulders; for it is a weariness to look at her.'"

This is a common enough argument against contraception and abortion; who knows how many great men and women have been killed in the womb? The physician who would have found a cure for cancer, the engineer that would have discovered a clean, renewable source of energy; have they died before they could give their gift to the world? It is impossible to know.

Juxtaposed against the justly harsh critique of contemporary marriage are the healthy marriages of Mother Dimble and her husband Cecil, and Arthur and Camilla Deniston. They provide an attractive model of what marriage can be. Though far from perfect, their marriages are marked by a love that is other-centered and self-sacrificial. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses, but the weaknesses provide opportunities to serve, not correct. A beautiful example of this comes when Mother Dimble and another resident of the mansion are discussing their husbands:

"'That's how they treat us once they're married. They don't even listen to what we say,' I said. And do you know what she said? 'Ivy Maggs,' said she, 'did it ever come into your mind to ask whether anyone could listen to all we say?'"

Mother Dimble does not chide her husband for not listening to every word she said. She understands that men do not work that way, and serves her husband by allowing him to be a man. The promise of beauty in marriage and childrearing is alive in the Dimbles and the Denistons. By divine intervention, Jane and Mark are given the opportunity to enter into both.

Going even deeper, "That Hideous Strength" about the redemption of beauty and innocence on Earth. In both "Out of the Silent Planet" and "Perelandra" he created scenes of heartbreaking beauty amid a setting of un-fallen, innocent creatures. At first glance, "That Hideous Strength" is devoid of those things. But near the end, there is a chapter devoted to reconciliation that takes place in a scene of humble domesticity: a bridal chamber in a simple cottage, with a fire on the hearth and dinner cooking on the stove. After the horror of the recent battle, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and Lewis' purpose comes into sharp focus. He had to take us away from Earth to Malacandra and Perelandra to reintroduce us to beauty and innocence. Our eyes and consciences had to be reopened and refreshed, and we had to be reminded of the hideous nature of evil, before he could bring us back to Earth and show us that beauty and innocence can still be found here. The infection had to be removed before we could remember health.

There is so much more that could be discussed. There is the redemption of the relationship between man and the lower animals; there is a critique of the evils of postmodernism, there are contrasts and ironies galore, and the bringing together of elements of Arthurian legend, medieval cosmology, and even the curse of the Tower of Babel to tie all of it together. There is also his love of language, which is equal to that of Tolkien and every bit as enjoyable, though of a slightly different savor. But I have gone on long enough. There are treasures in "That Hideous Strength" rich enough to reward all who are willing to take the plunge, and I heartily encourage everyone who comes this way to do so.

One-Sided War

The War of the Worlds (Everyman's Library (Paper)) - H. G. Wells;Arthur C. Clarke

An excellent work of science fiction by one of its founding fathers. Wells' vision of an alien invasion and the impotent human response is dark and troubling. There is no institution to which man can turn for salvation. The church is reduced to incoherent babbling, the military is outgunned, apathetic and lazy, and man is too self-interested to mount any type of effective response once he finds that his first lines of defense have failed him. It is only by an accident of evolution that man survives at all, and this is no guarantee of survival in the future. It is by no mere coincidence that the last word in the book is "death".

Of course I disagree with Mr. Wells' presuppositions, but his skill as an author and the force of his imagination ameliorate most of the faults in his reasoning.

A Brief History of Things to Come

The Time Machine - H.G. Wells

Even though I disagree with H.G. Wells' worldview, I admit that I admire him and his writing. He did not flinch from facing the logical conclusions of what he believed. As a Darwinist and materialist, he understood the full implications of those theories, and in "The Time Machine" he follows their implications to their ends, as horrible as they may be. There are no happy endings for the Darwinist, humanist, or materialist. The universe will one day wind down. Long before that happens, man will have died, and all of his greatest achievements will be dust. This is the world of "The Time Machine". The great question left unasked, and unanswered at the end, is "why bother?"

As with all his works, "The Time Machine" is a well-executed work of art and worth reading. Wells was a master storyteller and "The Time Machine" provides ample evidence to support that assertion.

The Faerie Queene (Penguin Classics)

The Faerie Queene - C. Patrick O'Donnell, Thomas P. Roche, Edmund Spenser When it comes to sheer reading pleasure, it is almost impossible to beat "The Faerie Queene". It has nearly everything that a reader could desire; action, romance, deep philosophical and theological meaning, allegory, pitched battles on fields of honor, blood, swords, spears...everything that makes life worth living. And it is all wrapped in some of the most beautiful language ever to be set down in the English tongue. Spenser was a master of English, and you can sense that he wrote for the joy and pleasure of shaping words, molding them, positioning them just so, and we, the readers, can bask in his joy. More to come...

Emma (Modern Library Classics)

Emma - A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen

Reading Jane Austen is always a pleasure. There is nothing tedious in her writing, no twaddle. It is as comfortable and refreshing as listening to Bach, and in some ways just as challenging and rewarding. Each of her books is nearly as much its own character in her writing as the characters themselves, if that makes sense. They live and breathe with an identity of their own.


"Emma" is the story of a young woman making the transition from youth to adulthood. When we meet Emma for the first time, she has all the raw material for the making of a fine woman, but it is unrefined. Emma is a bundle of contradictions. She is sweet but a little thoughtless, and a little careless. She is talented but undisciplined, kind but thinks more highly of herself than others, intelligent but too clever in her own opinion. She has not yet been wounded deeply enough by life to have acquired any real depth. All of that is about to change.


As the book opens, Emma is congratulating herself on helping to make a good match for her former governess and successfully marrying her off. It is plain to the meanest observer that Emma had little enough to do with it, but Emma, encouraged by her "success", embarks on a campaign to make a match for a friend named Harriet. This seems good and harmless of itself, but there is an obstacle that must first be overcome; Harriet is of unknown parentage and seems to be of low birth. In order to get around this fact, Emma takes it upon herself to mold Harriet into someone more capable of climbing the ladder to a higher class, something for which Harriet is completely unsuited.


Herein lies one of the deep ironies of the book. At the outset, Harriet knows who she is, is comfortable with her station, and is prepared to accept a man in the same station who would make her happy. Harriet needs no grooming, no maturing. She is complete as a character. Emma, who would play Pygmalion, is the one who needs to be molded and groomed. She is completely unaware of her need, though she is willing enough to project it onto Harriet. This is, perhaps, Emma's greatest weakness; her inability to correctly evaluate the character and intentions of herself and others. This flaw impedes her ability to respond appropriately in nearly every situation she encounters. Confusion ensues and disaster threatens the future happiness of Harriet, Emma, and a number of other characters.


Fortunately for all, there is someone in Emma's life who does possess the gifts that Emma lacks. Mr. Knightly, her lifelong friend, possesses knowledge, insight, tact, and the strength and wisdom to employ them for good. He sees the promise in her for both good and ill, and, as the best type of friend one can have, a friend who is not content to leave those he loves wallowing in their weakness, he does what no one else can. He holds Emma accountable. Gently but firmly, and at the risk of losing much that he treasures in her, Knightly reveals to Emma the damage she has done and the pain she has inflicted on others. For all of her faults, Emma is good at heart and she is honest enough to see the justice in all that Knightly says. She is humble enough to repent. Her illusions about herself and others shatter, but she is now able to see clearly enough to take steps to begin to repair the damage.


Some may consider the wounds Emma receives in the course of the book to be slight. I would disagree. The true source of her pain comes from her growing awareness of how she has hurt others. Is this not the case in real life? How many of our regrets stem from the pain we have caused others rather than the hurt we have personally endured? Was it not the disappointment that we caused that spurred us to reform more than any punishment that may have been meted out? I think this is the case for Emma. When she finally understands the truth about what she has done, she is truly grieved. There is no pretense in her pain, and one gets the impression that she will never be able to look back on these events without a pang of conscience.


I believe Ms. Austen took a number of risks in creating Emma. She had to walk a fine line, drawing a character who possesses a number of glaring faults without making her irritating or annoying. In my opinion, she succeeded, mostly by balancing those faults with a genuine good nature. She also avoids annoying her readers by casting "Emma" as a comedy. There is enough good humor in all that happens to keep us from hating Emma, and happy endings abound for nearly all, even for those characters that we are meant to dislike.


One of the many things I love about Jane Austen's writing is her ability to capture the essences of her characters with a wonderful economy of words. The famous first line, for example, tells us nearly everything we need to know about Emma, and even foreshadows what is to come: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." It's astonishing that she accomplishes so much with so little, and she does it over and over again.


Another thing I love about Ms. Austen is the sterling character of the heroes. Mr. Knightly is one of her best. He is a man who puts the good of others before himself. Like a knight of old, he takes up the cause of the defenseless and becomes their champion. As stated previously, he possesses the wisdom and insight that Emma so sorely lacks, and is able to navigate the murky waters of other people's intentions, maintaing his integrity while not compromising the less noble unless absolutely necessary. Mr. Knightly is a man that other men can admire, and an example to which they can aspire. The novels of Jane Austen are rich and complex. Like a royal banquet, they are a feast of ideas and topics operating on multiple levels simultaneously. I have only scratched the surface of "Emma" in this review. In doing so, I hope that I have given someone enough of a taste to inspire them to join the feast and enjoy all that there is to find there.

The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays - Albert Camus

In one way, at least, "The Myth of Sisyphys" is not an honest inquiry into the question of meaning. Camus dismisses, a priori, any possible supernatural source of meaning, which leaves him with only absurdity. But then he despairs because of the meaningless and absurdity of life. Well, what did he expect? Inasmuch as an absurdist essay can be said to be internally consistent, "Sisyphus" succeeds. Camus himself, however, concedes that absurdity ultimately results in chaos and that his very argument must collapse in on itself. He stops short of admitting that there is no reason to accept his conclusions, but that is the logical end of his thought (yes, he uses logic in spite of the fact that he undermines reason, and he acknowledges that absurdity).


Before I go further, I must make it clear that his reasons for dismissing supernatural meaning are well founded. His critique of Christianity in particular as he understood it are dead on. In his research into Christianity, Camus discovered a requirement that those who enter the church must sacrifice the intellect. Further, he discovered in Kierkegaard not only this sacrifice, but a requirement that faith requires an irrational leap into the void. Camus was fiercely intelligent, and rejected any claim that was internally contradictory. As such, Camus rightly rejects both requirements.


Oddly enough, in this respect, Camus is in complete agreement with the Bible, for both requirements are antithetical to Holy Scriptures of Christianity, the Bible. Over and over again in the Christian Bible, God pleads with people to reason with Him. The faith of Abraham, the crux of Kierkegaard's leap, was not an irrational leap, but was based on propositional truth. Sadly, Camus' critique never went as far as comparing the claims of Ignatius and Kierkegaard to Scripture, leaving him with nothing but absurdity.


Another problem in Camus' thought as expressed in "Sisyphus" is that he claims to have made no assumptions and worked with only that which is concrete. For the most part, I must agree with him. However, he makes one critical assumption that is not based on anything concrete, and it undermines most of his argument. He assumes intelligence and the mind, neither of which are concrete, both of which are abstract concepts. There are those today who question whether such things as mind or intellect exist. If mind and intellect are indeed assumed, Camus' argument for the nobility of the absurd collapses, as it is built on lucid thought and intellect. Nothing, not even absurdity, is left to Camus now.


More later...

Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series)

Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series) - Peter Leithart Biography is not my favorite form of literature. I have read few biographies and am not thrilled at the prospect of reading any in the future. The works of Jane Austen, however, are some of my favorite in all the world. So when my wife gave me this little book I decided to give it a try, and I am happy to report that it was, for the most part, a success. Leithart’s biography of Austen is an informative and enjoyable look at the life and letters of the great author. It contains all that I imagine should be part of any standard biography; the important dates in her life, the important people, extracts from letters to and about her that shed light on her character, a record of her accomplishments and frustrations. The picture of Austen that emerges from all of this is that of an exceptional woman living what many might consider an unexceptional life; a woman who could easily have been a character in one of her own novels. The daughter of a modestly successful clergyman, Jane Austen lived a short, but mostly happy life in the bosom of her family. There was mutual respect and affection between her and her brothers and sister. Her brothers found their fortunes as sailors and clergymen, and they all helped one another when difficulties came. Though she never married, she was a sweet and devoted aunt to her nieces and nephews. But far from being just another English spinster aunt, she enjoyed a literary success uncommon for women of that era. Her wit and skill were almost universally praised. No less an author than Walter Scott spoke of her work very highly. This is the sketchiest of outlines, and is only here to provide a brief look at the parallels between Jane Austen and her books. The one thing that comes through the biography most strongly is the consistency of her character and voice. The voice of Jane Austen, the daughter, sister, and aunt, is the same as that of Jane Austen the novelist; eloquent, insightful, brilliant, ready to laugh at the world and herself.My only complaint is that the book is a bit short. For one who does not like biographies, I was left wanting more. This is not the author’s fault; Jane Austen left no diaries and few of her letters survive. Mr. Leithart does a fine job with what material is available. The portrait that he paints may be small and lacking in detail, but it confirms what anyone who has read and loved her books already knew about her.

Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church

Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church - Rowan Williams This is a bad book from almost every perspective. First, it is poorly written. Williams’ style is as dry as Death Valley and he goes out of his way to write in the most obscure fashion possible. For example, in addressing the Arian heresy, he writes:“Arius’ theory is probably the best attempt that could have been made to settle the issue of Jesus’ holiness without some basic revision of the very word ‘God’. It proposed that the eternal word embodied in Jesus was the primary recipient of God’s revelation and God’s glory and power, but also the primary worshipper of God.” (page 43)He might just as simply have stated that Arius denied the co-eternal nature of Christ.Worse than the writing, though, is the thought behind it. Williams ostensibly wrote “Why Study the Past” in order to answer the questions “What is the Church? How can we recognize it, and how do we recognize those people of whom the Church is constituted?” These are good questions and worthy of serious thought and discussion. Williams proposes that one place to look for an answer is in the past, hence the book’s title. He looks to the great chroniclers of the Church, Eusebius, Augustine, Bede and others to find clues to the answer. No sooner does he make this proposal, htough, than he undermines it by calling the reliability of the chroniclers into question. According to Williams, Eusebius’ definition of the Church is frequently based on the evidence of martyrdom. The faith of those who recanted to save their lives is suspect in the eyes of Eusebius and he makes no bones about it. Eusebius also saw the history of the Church in cycles of temptation, fall, discipline in the form of persecution, followed by rest in the form of exaltation. Williams takes issue with the way in which Eusebius interprets the constituents of the Church and its historic cycles and dismisses most of it as biased and incomplete. He does this with nearly all of the historians he mentions; examining their claims, searching for weakness in the form of bias, and dismissing their claims when he finds any. He particularly finds fault when a historian makes a moral judgment of an historical event. Apparently he does not realize that, in doing so, he, as an historian, is making a moral judgment of an historical event.History, then, is mostly unreliable, so it cannot answer his questions about the identity of the Church. Williams grudgingly concedes that there is some truth to be found, but he provides us no tools to assist us in the task of sifting historical truth from the error of the chroniclers, no rock on which to secure our anchor as we look for answers to the questions he raises. So where can we turn to find answers to his questions? It is at this point that the book begins to fall apart. Williams rambles from topic to topic in a tangential fashion looking for a peg on which to hang his hat but never finding one. Sadly, Williams does not mention Scripture as a place to go to understand who the Church is and what it should look like. The reason for this may have to do with the fact that he does not take a very high view of the authority or authenticity of Scripture. On page 29, he writes: “we do not know in what sense we can begin to see Abraham as a historical person, we do not know whether we see the shadow of a remote but real patriarch or simply the brilliant but God-directed literary creation of a personality by the storytellers of a later age.” If we cannot view Abraham as historical, how can we view any other individual in Scripture, including Christ, as historical? How can we accept as authoritative anything in Scripture?Williams cannot bring himself to look to Scripture to resolve any question. With regard to his own identity as a Christian he writes: “Who I am as a Christian is something which, in theological terms, I could only answer fully on the impossible supposition that I could see and grasp how all other Christian lives had shaped mine and, more specifically, shaped it toward the likeness of Christ.” (page 27) When discussing controversies and potential heresies in the modern Church, the best he can come up with is: “confronted with dispute over controversial novelty, the sort of question that the believer needs to consider is how far a particular option in the debate or a particular innovation tends to obscure the transparency of the Church to God’s action.” (page 105) Without the absolute standards provided by the Bible, it is no wonder that the Anglican Church is in such a state of disarray. The only definitive statement Williams is able to make regarding Church identity is on page 85: “we affirm the crucial element of an authentic identity as Church – that is, the abiding act of God, and the givenness of baptism.” If he would only open his Bible, he might begin to find answers to the questions he raises; answers that would provide form to the admittedly flawed efforts of fallen human beings to chronicle the history of the Bride of Christ. Christ, Himself, says that the world will know Christians by the love they have for one another and the fruit of the Spirit that they bear. That seems like a very good starting point for discovering who and what the Church is, and has been through history.As an investigation into the identity and history of the Church, “Why Study the Past” is a failure. Anyone interested in a good book on those topics would do well to read any of the following:1. Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley2. Ye are the Body, by Bonnell Spencer3. The History of the Church, by Eusebius4. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede

The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine (Penguin Classics)

The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine - Eusebius, Andrew Louth, G.A. Williamson This is a very good book by the first great church historian. Eusebius (c. AD 264 – c. 340) was a devout Christian, scholar, historian, author, priest, and eventually the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. His “History of the Church” was the first book to record events in the life of the Church from the advent of Christ through the reign of Constantine. It proceeds chronologically and systematically, documenting the growth of the Church as it spread from Jerusalem throughout the whole of the Roman Empire and beyond. From the vast array of topics encompassed in that region and time, Eusebius focuses his history on five: the succession of bishops in the major churches from the apostles through his contemporaries, the corresponding succession of Roman emperors, the development of different heresies and the corresponding efforts to combat them, the canonization of Scripture, and the persecutions and martyrs of the Church.Each of these subjects is treated with care and attention to detail. The line of the bishops, by which the doctrine of apostolic succession is supported, is quite thorough, including occasional biographical sketches, as is the case with the emperors. But it is not hard to tell which topics are the most important to Eusebius: the persecutions of the martyrs and the heresies. More of the book is spent on these two topics than all the others combined. It is not hard to guess why that is so.In the case of the martyrs, Eusebius grew up as a Christian during the years of the great persecution under Diocletian. Not a few of his family members and friends were martyred for their faith, going willingly, even joyfully to their deaths. He spares no details in describing the brutal tortures they endured. That he devotes more space to the biographical sketches of the martyrs than to other topics is not surprising, and it is a great benefit for the Church today. It is important to remember what the early Church endured. It serves as an example for enduring suffering, and a spur to goad us to action to fight persecution when it appears today. In the case of the heresies, Eusebius was jealous for the purity of the Church. The heresies that plagued her through her early history were attacks on that purity committed mostly by self-interested men who sought to exploit her for personal power or wealth. Just as it was important for later generations to understand martyrdom and persecution, it was important for them to understand the heresies, so that they could be recognized when they reared their heads again, as they have repeatedly throughout history. In reading the stories of the martyrs and the heresies, it is easy to see the history of the early church in terms of a war for her purity fought on two fronts. One of those was external, represented by the imperial attacks in the form of state-sanctioned persecution. The other was internal, represented by the heretical teachings that surfaced. The contrast between the two could not be more stark, particularly with regard to the Church’s response. Christians went peacefully to their deaths. Not that there was no grief over the persecutions or no desire for them to cease, but there appeared to be no question of organized resistance against Rome. At no time did Christians take up arms against their terrible enemy. But against the heresies, the Church was relatively quick to organize against them, root them out and expel the heretics. In both cases, the end result was the same: the purity of the Church was upheld. Who but a true Christian would convert under the threat of death? Who but a true Christian remained when the heretics were exposed and expelled? Though I could easily go on about Eusebius and his book, I will make note of only two other items. First, with regard to the canon of Scripture, it is clear from reading Eusebius that establishing the canon was not so much a matter of people coming together to decide what books to include or exclude as part of God’s Holy Word as it was of acknowledging those books that the Church had already recognized as authoritative. This stands in sharp contradistinction to the ideas of many modern critics. Second, for the first three centuries of the Church, there was neither a central church nor a central individual in the Church. The true faith was not centered on Rome and there was no pope. Churches and bishops were all more or less viewed as equals. If the church in Jerusalem possessed somewhat more prestige, that was only because it was the first to be established. It had no more authority than any other church, nor did any bishop have more authority than another. In the case of controversies, councils were called and decisions made based on the authority of the Scriptures and the teaching of the apostles. This is not meant to be a critique of the Roman church today, merely an observation.

The Decameron (Penguin Classics)

The Decameron - G.H. McWilliam, Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron, by Giovanni Bocaccio ****


Bocaccio followed hot on the heels of Dante but in many ways the books for which they are both known could not be more different. “The Decameron” is almost the exact opposite of Dante’s “Comedia”, written in prose instead of poetry, concerned with things earthy rather than divine, governed by the number ten instead of the famous “threes”, and telling many disparate stories rather than one.


Set in Florence during the days of the black plague, seven women and three men set out from the city for a villa in the countryside in the hopes of escaping the many horrors of the plague. Upon arrival, they take measures to arrange for their entertainment during their stay. They decide to devote a certain amount of time every day to telling stories, each of them taking turns acting as a sort of “master of the revels”, deciding what the topic of the stories is to be. The topics range from how women contrive to fool men to stories of unrequited love, to how people have saved themselves through quick wits and clever tongues. The stories themselves run the gamut from lowbrow potty humor, to adventure on the high seas, to tales of honor and nobility.


There are, however, several themes that are common to nearly all the stories. The first of these is romantic, erotic love. Passions run wildly amok in the Decameron, often with hilarious results. Though tragedy is not completely avoided, the prologue makes it clear that these people have had their fill of tragedy. They are on vacation to lighten their souls and do so by making each other laugh. So it is that there is not a man or woman who made it to their wedding night a virgin, not a husband or wife who was not cheating or being cheated, not a monk or nun who did not think it was better to ask forgiveness for violating their vows of chastity than face the temptation and win.


It should be noted that the Decameron is not gratuitous and avoids descending into mere pornography. Lewd, ribald, bawdy, yes, but Bocaccio’s goal was to entertain and educate, not merely titillate. He preserved stories that came to him from multiple sources, many of which would go on to inspire future authors. At least two of the stories from the Decameron wound up in the plays of Shakespeare.


Another theme that runs through many of the stories is a critique of the church, and in this Bocaccio parallels Dante. The excesses of Rome and many of its prelates were common knowledge at their time. Bocaccio, like his great predecessor, pulls no punches. They were the great reformers of their day, exposing the avarice and lechery that ran rampant through the church. In one of the earliest stories, a merchant daily exhorts one of his best friends, a Jew, to convert and become a Christian. The Jew, a devout and intelligent man, decides to visit Rome in order to inspect the most important city in Christendom. The merchant, knowing full well what his friend will discover there, attempts to dissuade his friend, but to no avail. The Jew goes to Rome and is disgusted by what he sees. Nevertheless, upon his return, he is baptized as a Christian. The merchant is baffled and asks for an explanation. His friend replies to the effect that if Christianity is able to spread so far and so fast in spite of the perversions of Rome, then God must be at work through the church.


One of the most interesting sections of the book is the last day. After nine days of stories that are mostly lewd, the king of the day asks that the storytellers tell tales of nobility. What happens is surprising. Whereas before it seemed that each was trying to outdo the other in lewdness, they now try to outstrip each other in honor, each telling tales of self-sacrifice greater than the one before. I think Bocaccio touches on an important truth here. We all have a tendency to want to do our neighbor one better. We are competitive creatures and we will compete no matter what the arena or contest. Set a goal of telling the dirtiest story and we will descend into the muck and start digging. Set a more lofty goal and we will start with ladders, move to mountains, and then look for wings. It is a worthy thing to compete for the title of doing the most good for the most people; everyone wins.


The Decameron was an enjoyable, if challenging, experience. It is not for the faint of heart. If you are easily offended by bawdy content, steer well clear. But for those who are not, and are looking for more than titillation, the Decameron holds much that makes it worth reading.

The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse - Steven D. Smith

The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith ****


In the wake of the Tucson shootings we have all heard a lot about civility in the public arena. Fingers have been pointed and blame assigned, one group claiming that vitriolic rhetoric is the root cause, another pointing to the shooter’s state of mind. Given the heatedness of this particular argument, I cannot imagine a more propitious time to read Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.” It is a brilliant look at the current state of discourse in the American public arena.


By way of introduction, Mr. Smith lays out for us the problem as it is typically described by pundits of different stripes. We live in the “age of American unreason” they say, characterized by a “new species of anti-rationalism” where our “politics are now so debased that they threaten our standing as a genuine democracy”. He lists the usual suspects: an under-performing educational system, media outlets interested more in entertaining than informing, “the Internet, video games, text messaging”, and especially evangelical or fundamentalist religion, all of which contribute to a dumbed-down society of those “eager only to browse and skim, but without the patience actually to read and think”.


Though he is deeply concerned about the appalling state of affairs, Mr. Smith finds these sacred cows to be less than satisfying, as the same symptoms can just as easily be found in the academy, and even on the Supreme Court, as on the street or on talk radio. If, then, these are merely symptoms, what is the true cause? The answer he suggests is surprising and can be paraphrased as follows. In a reaction against the failure of Reason to fulfill the promises of the age of enlightenment, we have evicted from the public arena our “deepest convictions about what is really true and consented to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible ‘overlapping consensus’”, understanding that “no one’s truth is going to prevail over its rivals”. In other words, in order to “keep [public discourse] from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about ‘the nature of the universe,’” we have discarded our worldviews and created a public arena that can be nothing but shallow.


The problem does not end there. The shallowness prescribed by the rules of public discourse cannot provide satisfactory answers to the most vexing problems that face society. Therefore, those who participate in the discussion have had to resort to the practice of “smuggling” their deepest convictions in to the discussion under cover of a number of disguises. We have become a society of well-meaning hypocrites, claiming to have abandoned our convictions about first principles, all the while smuggling them in the back door in the worst disguises.


All of the above is laid out in painstaking detail in the first chapter. The balance of the book is spent providing evidence to support his formulation of the question of what is wrong with public discourse in America today. He examines the most common vehicles used for such smuggling, showing how they are used in the most contentious and divisive arguments that occupy contemporary society: among them right-to-life issues, church/state division, and a non-metaphysical source of first principles. All of this might be a laborious yawn-fest, but Mr. Smith writes with conviction and a wry sense of humor that occasionally borders on sarcasm. It is a winning combination that engages the reader and encourages him to hang in there even when the going gets a little rough.


Having a good teacher can make learning even the most tedious subject enjoyable. Mr. Smith appears to have all the makings of a very good teacher. Given that his subject is one of vital importance to the life of our nation, we do well to listen to what he has to say and learn as much as we can.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to English And American Literature (Politically Incorrect Guides)

The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature - Elizabeth Kantor

The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, by Elizabeth Kantor ***

As I state elsewhere, few things make me feel as defiled as the post-modern take on literature. English departments throughout the United States have abandoned the classical canon for contemporary claptrap. Shakespeare has been replaced by “Betty the Yeti”, Milton and Spenser by Pound, and Austen by Atwood. True analysis and education have been replaced by politically correct Marxist/feminist/queer literary theory. Arriving none to soon to help save the day we have Elizabeth Kantor’s “Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American literature”.


Dr. Kantor is a breath of fresh air in the atmosphere of the contemporary university that has been polluted by PC thought. Dr. Kantor’s book is an indispensable guide to the rich legacy of literature we have inherited, but most of us do not know. She begins with the oldest poem in the English language, Beowulf, and leads us on up to the 20th century, stopping along the way to examine the greatest works the English language has produced. The survey includes Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, the metaphysical poets, Swift, the romantic poets, Austen, Flannery O’Connor…you name it, she covers it.


Dr. Kantor examines each work, helping the reader to understand what the book, play, or poem would have meant to the original audiences, and what the meaning can teach us now. Given the breadth of the subject, it would be impossible for her to offer a deep analysis of every author and literary work. What she provides, though, is invaluable, for as she systematically teaches the reader what these books say, she deconstructs what the modern, politically correct establishment wants them to say. In the clear light of Dr. Kantor’s presentation, and that of the works themselves, the theories and arguments of political correctness are revealed for the shabby imposters that they are. If you have time to read only one book to help you understand what the canon of Western literature is, this is it.

The Ballad of the White Horse

The Ballad of the White Horse - G.K. Chesterton Once upon a time there was a king who ruled a small country. He was a good king who loved his people, his country, and God. But he was beset with enemies on every side. He fought and lost many battles against these enemies and was on the brink of absolute defeat. Then one day, as he walked through the woods, a vision appeared to him of a beautiful woman. She encouraged him to take heart and go into battle once more. She did not promise him victory, but her appearance filled him with hope, and he knew he must obey. Gathering his remaining friends around him, they engaged in one last, desperate battle. The king and his friends rose up and killed many of the enemy, but each of his friends fell, until he alone was left to lead the army. In his wrath, he took up his sword against the foe with such fury that they fell away before him, and the enemy king surrendered and became his prisoner. The good king brought peace to his kingdom, his people flourished, and they called him Great for the mighty deliverance he worked for them, and for the prosperity they enjoyed under his reign.It sounds like a fairy tale, but it is the story of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex and the Anglo-Saxons in the ninth century. “The Ballad of the White Horse” is G.K. Chesterton’s magnificent epic poem based on King Alfred’s climactic victory over the Danish Vikings at the battle of Ethendun. Stirring and bold, it is one of Chesterton’s best works, showing him to be a master of verse as well as prose. It functions not only as the story of Alfred’s victory over the heathen Danes, but also as an allegory of the ongoing war between Christianity and paganism. Chesterton writes of the Danes with their Norse gods:Their souls were drifting as the sea,And all good towns and lands,They only saw with heavy eyes,And broke with heavy hands.Their gods were sadder than the sea, Gods of a wandering will,Who cried for blood like beasts at night, Sadly, from hill to hillThe Danes are the pagans of old with gods of death who, even in victory, give no hope or help:They seemed as trees walking the earth,As witless and as tall,Yet they took hold upon the heavensAnd no help came at all.The White Horse of the title is the ancient White Horse of Uffington, a giant horse cut into the chalk of the hillside sometime during the bronze age. Chesterton sets Alfred’s battle in the White Horse vale, for the horse represents both England and the Church. At the beginning of the poem, the horse is grey, overgrown with weeds that threaten to cover and obscure it forever. It is his job to cleanse it, to expel the Danes from England, the pagans from the Church. He is to fight for the purity of both, whether he succeeds or not. Of course, that leaves the Saxons as representative of Christianity, perpetually fighting a terrifying enemy, always seeming on the brink of defeat, but always surviving to glorify God. “The Ballad of the White Horse” is not just excellent literature. It is Chesterton’s call to the Church; an alarm and a rallying cry. The Church is to be ever on the watch for the invasion of paganism, ever ready to take up arms against its influence to keep it from corrupting and obscuring the beauty and glory it reflects as an image of God. He makes this abundantly clear in a striking passage where Chesterton describes the paganism of his own time directly. Alfred, near the end of his life, prophesies about the enemies that the Church will face in years to come: They shall not come in war-ships,They shall not waste with brands,But books be all their eating, And ink be on their hands.Not with the humour of hunters,Or savage skill in war,But ordering all things with dead words,Strings shall they make of beasts and birds, And wheels of wind and star.They shall come mild as a monkish clerk,With many a scroll and pen, And backward shall ye wonder and gaze,Desiring one of Alfred’s days,When pagans still were men. These are the pagans that Chesterton fought, and that the Church still faces today. There is a distinct note of longing here. Chesterton is nostalgic for a past when one could meet the enemy openly, clearly in pitched battle. That same nostalgia resonates deeply with me. If it were only as simple as taking up a sword against a flesh and blood enemy, and not having to sift through twisted words and tortured reasoning to reach to the heart of the enemy. There is no guarantee of victory in either case, but on a physical battlefield, you know who the enemy is.Filled with Chesterton’s trademark wit and wordplay, “The Ballad of the White Horse” is a thrilling read that tells the story of the ancient battle between God’s people and their enemy in the heroic rhythms to which a man’s heart beats. It is the type of poem that all boys should grow up reading until they are men as an example of what true manhood looks like. As men, they should keep reading it as a reminder that they have a responsibility to scour the horse, to keep it white and pure, to engage their enemy until they hear the words “well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

What's Wrong WIth the World

What's Wrong with the World - G.K. Chesterton The Times of London once invited a number of well-known authors to write essays on the theme “What’s Wrong With the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote his reply in the form of a letter. It read “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” It is a letter that showcases his genius; humble, honest, humorous, with a profound understanding of the seriousness and far-reaching effects of individual sin. Apparently, though, Chesterton was not satisfied with just that letter, for he went on to write a book dedicated to the topic of what is wrong with the world. His answer to that question is not immediately clear. It unfolds slowly, and even obliquely because his answer, by itself, makes no sense. Chesterton argues, in short, that what is wrong with the world is that the world is always trying to solve the most basic problems by treating only the symptoms. In other words, he says, we are always starting at the wrong end. The most startling example he cites in support of his argument is a movement among the intelligentsia of his time to eradicate an infestation of lice among the poor by shaving the heads of the children. Yes, Chesterton acknowledges, that would alleviate the symptom of the lice, but it does nothing to address the ultimate cause: that people are living in conditions of abject poverty that are conducive to the spread of lice. Address the issue of poverty and the symptom of lice will take care of itself. Chesterton illustrates his argument by examining the mistakes society makes about men, women, children and their proper place in the world and in relationship with each other. He repeatedly shows how those in power nearly always mistake a symptom for the problem, and frequently make things worse when they start “helping”. His observations are profound and incisive, in the most literal sense of the word. They cut into the reader who, if honest, sees his or her own folly reflected back from the pages. Overall, this is a good book and one worth reading. I must admit, however, that some parts seem dated. Chesterton addresses issues that are specific to his time and place in history. Some of the evils he cites are no longer going concerns. Having said that, the general principles remain relevant, and we ignore him at the risk of committing what he referred to as “chronological snobbery.” There is much to be learned from Mr. Chesterton, and we would all do well to allow him to educate us. The sooner, the better.

Notes from Underground and The Gambler (Oxford World's Classics)

Notes from the Underground & The Gambler (Oxford World's Classics) - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Malcolm V. Jones, Jane Kentish Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor DostoyevskyOf all the Russians I’ve read so far, Dostoyevsky is by far the most challenging, and “Crime and Punishment” his most difficult work. I did not at all enjoy any of it. Let me acknowledge at the outset that the fault lies not in the book but in my ability to enter fully into the Russian literary mind. Russian literature has always been a challenge for me. Something happens to books as I move east of the Oder River and the Carpathian mountains, and it is not just that the language changes. The Russian way of thinking is different enough from ours as to seem alien to me. Their habits of speech, their manners, even the way they address one another are just a little odd. In most prose, there is a rhythm, almost a cadence that is unique to every author. I can never quite get into the flow of Dostoyevsky. Every time I try to find a rhythm to settle into, up comes an obstacle in the form of a new name for an old character, or an almost completely incongruous statement from a character that seems to stick out at right angles from the story. My train of thought is derailed almost before it leaves the station and I am left to pick up the pieces and start over again. Even were it not for the difficulties with the Russian style, I am not sure I could ever bring myself to like “Crime and Punishment”. It reminds me of a story Dickens might have discarded because it is too depressing. Most everyone who is familiar with classic literature knows something about the plot. A young man who fancies himself an intellectual conceives and commits a terrible crime, mostly for the purpose of proving to himself that he can do it and get away with it. Already on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the guilt of his crime threatens to push him over the brink of insanity. Haunted by fear, stalked by strangers who seem to know more about him than he knows himself, baited by the police, he walks the precipice of self-destruction until, through the love of his friends, family, and a young woman, he is redeemed. He confesses his crime, pays his debt to society, and moves on to become a good man. Well and good, but it is not the plot that I stumble over. It is the gloom, the oppressive atmosphere that permeates nearly every page of the book. The main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, is the anti-hero who commits the despicable crime. At no point in the book is he likable. Nothing about him is admirable. Obsessed with his own self-importance, or lack thereof, he shambles through the book in a haze of self-inflicted misery. He is surrounded by many who love and care for him, yet he rejects their advances on every side, preferring to stay wrapped in his pain. He lives in one of the more depressed districts of Moscow, having abandoned his studies at the university and a post as a tutor to live in relative squalor. Not long after he commits the crime, his mother and sister, Pulcheria and Avdotya, move to Moscow. His sister has entered a marriage contract with a strange man in order to save the family from poverty and enable Raskolnikov to continue his studies. They do not understand the true reason he has left the university has little to do with a lack of funds. Raskolnikov objects to the match, particularly because of the willingness of his sister to sacrifice her future for his, which only increases his agitation.In addition to his mother and sister, Raskolnikov, encounters a number of people who will seek to influence him as he struggles with the consequences of his actions. In his semi-delirium, he seeks out a fellow student, Dimitri Razhumikin, who goes to great lengths to help him get back on his feet. Raskolnikov stumbles into a bar where he encounters Semyon Marmeladov, an alcoholic with a consumptive wife, starving children, and an older daughter, Sofya, who has turned to prostitution to save their lives. Arkady Svidrigailov, a lecherous, adulterous old man who had designs on Avdotya, shows up in Moscow with a fortune in rubles and a burning desire to see Raskolnikov. And Pyotr Luzhin, the man betrothed to Avdotya, who turns on her only to begin a campaign against the seemingly doomed Sofya.All of these characters drift into and out of the focus of Raskolnikov and are quickly divided into two camps; those who seek to manipulate him to their own ends, and those who seek his redemption. There is a great deal of development in the characters who surround Raskolnikov, but he, himself, is nearly paralyzed by the combination of their influence and his guilt. Manic in his behavior, he alternates between near catatonia and frantic action, one moment huddled on the couch in his flat, the next marching down to the police station to bait, and be baited. Emotionally he swings between radical highs based on his conviction that he has gotten away with his crime, and the despair of believing that everyone knows what he has done and is manipulating him. Slowly, agonizingly (for me), he finds his way through the fog. In his more lucid moments, Raskolnikov and Sofya begin a tentative relationship. Against his will, he begins to love her, and she him. This love will be the catalyst for his confession and ultimate redemption. But it takes nearly 400 pages of slogging through Raskolnikov’s fog to get to this point. By the time it arrived, I almost did not care. It was too little too late.So why five stars if I disliked the book so much? Because I cannot deny its excellence and power. “Crime and Punishment” is a brilliant work of art. Dostoyevsky was no hack; he knew exactly what he was doing. If the main protagonist is unlikeable, it is because Dostoyevsky wished him so. But why would a writer like Dostoyevsky create such a despicable hero? “Crime and Punishment” is not about the crime of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. It is about grace. Raskolnikov and the grace he receives are metaphors for the unmerited favor the Christian receives from God when he repents. Despicable as he is, Raskolnikov is no different from anyone who has ever lived and fallen short of the glory of God. He is the mirror image of myself, if I am completely honest. The love that he receives from his family and friends is not unlike the love I receive from God that calls me to repentance. “Crime and Punisment” is also an amazing study in contrasts and an indictment of false humility. Raskolnikov lives in poverty mostly by choice. His misery is entirely self-inflicted. At any time, he could resume his studies, receive students, and return to a meaningful, productive life. His rejection of these things is akin to the Marxist rejection of the way of life that makes his very life and rejection possible. (Though “Crime and Punishment” predates “Zarathustra”, Raskolnikov gives every appearance of being Dostoyevksy’s response to the idea of the Nietzchean superman and the Marxist ideal.) Raskolnikov imagines himself as a new Napoleon of sorts, one who wants to identify with the poor. This is contrasted against the truly poor Sofya and her family. Victim of her father’s alcoholism, trapped by his sudden death, left with nothing to market but her body, Sofya is the original of which Raskolnikov is the counterfeit, a fact that contributes to his mental agitation. In spite of her circumstances, she possesses a nobility of character that is a mystery to Raskolnikov. This is another of Dostoyevsky’s contrasts. Not only Sofya, but all those who are genuinely interested in his well being are possessed of noble souls. He is shamed by them, even as he tries to rise above something he considers to be as mundane as shame and nobility. Against them are set the manipulative Pyotr Luzhin and Arkady Svidrigailov, men of wealth and station for whom no act is so low that they will not stoop to it to achieve their ends. I could go on about the ironies and contrasts, but the most overwhelming characteristic of the book is grace. The love Raskolnikov receives, the grace he is offered are burdens to him until he accepts them. Only when he does so is he fully free, even though he sits in a Siberian prison. Likewise, the love of God is a heavy burden to bear as long as I do not accept it. Like the criminal, I waste away until the time I confess, repent, and accept. Once that is done, it is finally possible, not only for Raskolnikov, but for me, to enter fully into life, regardless of my external circumstances. For these reasons, and many more, I can recommend “Crime and Punishment”. It is not an enjoyable reading experience, but is one that edifies and rewards the reader.

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