31 October 2015

The Ninety-Five Theses

On this day in history, in the year 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses in Wittenberg. George Grant has a great post about the 95 Theses over at his blog that gives a good historical background to the theses. So go over there and read it for the history.

I simply wanted to make a few comments about the theses themselves. When you read Martin Luther's theses on indulgences, you might be disappointed. The idea that such an innocuous set of discussion points written for a group of theologians by a man who clearly honored the pope and the Church could spark the Reformation is almost unbelievable. The fact that the 95 Theses produced any controversy at all is a clear indication of the sorry state of the Church at the time (if the scads of satires and criticisms floating around already at the time weren't enough).

If you've never taken the time to read the 95 Theses yourself, pop on over to this website and read them through today. Also go watch the movie with Joseph Fiennes. Because despite its Hollywoodish historical liberties, it's still a fun movie.

Luther's mad lute-playing and nun-wooing skills are actually historically spot on, though.

03 October 2015

Last Call

I think I finally realized who Tim Powers reminds me of: Charles Williams. The way in which he weaves the mystical, spiritual world with the physical, natural world is exactly like Williams's enigmatic novels. This realization came to me while reading Last Call because, in many ways, it reminded me of The Greater Trumps by Williams, another book that focuses on Tarot Cards and the archetypes they invoke.

Like the other books I've read by Tim Powers, the heroes all have some gritty, brutal physical punishment to go through before they reach the end of the story...that is if they reach the end of the story. No one is safe in a Tim Powers novel. Powers is never one to pull punches; James Bond may get into a knock-down fistfight and be just fine in the next scene, but Powers's protagonists feel every bruise, every break, and every cut.

Powers is in top form for Last Call. If the idea of a fantasy/horror book featuring Arthurian myth, Las Vegas, high stakes poker, tarot cards, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, ancient gods, vengeful ghosts, gangster Bugsy Siegel, and a cast of bizzare, broken characters that could have stepped straight out of a Flannery O'Conner story appeals to you, then you really need to read this book. If you want something less noir-ish, gut-wrenching, or bizarre, I'll understand. You'll just be missing out on one wild ride.

Content Note:  Just a friendly warning. For those who are sensitive to it, there's a good deal of rough language in the book.

24 September 2015

The Trojan War by Barry Strauss

It’s a bold move to write a sober history of a mostly legendary war like the Trojan War, but Barry Strauss succeeds in doing just that. The Trojan War is made up of two strands of narrative interwoven throughout the book. One strand is a history of the practices of warfare in the Late Bronze Age in both Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece. Strauss pulls from recent archaeological discoveries, ancient records and letters, and ancient poetry and literature in order to reconstruct the politics and paraphernalia of war. I especially appreciated this aspect of the book. The other strand of narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of the Trojan War story, primarily that presented by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, in light of the real methods of war at the time period. This was also interesting in a “What could it have really been like?” sort of way.

The book is well written, fun, and easily accessible for any reader. It has timelines, maps, a glossary and some great resources in the back. I only have two quibbles with the book as a whole. First of all, he’s interpreting the Iliad primarily from a military history perspective rather than from a literary perspective. Because of this I think he misinterprets many character points in the Iliad; I especially thing he doesn’t “get” the character of Achilles as Homer presents him. The other problem is that because he is intertwining the two threads (the historical information and the imaginative “historical” reconstruction of the Iliad), it would be easy for readers to make the mistake of considering Agamemnon, Menelaus, Helen, Priam, et al as actual historical persons. There was a war at Troy and the city was burnt sometime between 1250 and 1180ish BC, but Strauss is not intending to say that the story of the Iliad is absolutely historically true. The way he writes can give this impression at times, though.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any person interested in classical literature or history. From teachers, to students, to the merely curious, The Trojan War is an engaging and lively read.

24 July 2015

Move Along, Sheep

(Picture Stolen from CatholicMemes)

01 July 2015

A Thought on Persecution

No. For the Church is stronger for this action,
Triumphant in adversity. It is fortified
By persecution: supreme, so long as men will die for it.
Go, weak sad men, lost erring souls, homeless in earth or heaven.
Go where the sunset reddens the last grey rock
Of Brittany, or the Gates of Hercules.
Go venture shipwreck on the sullen coasts
Where blackamoors make captive Christian men;
Go to the northern seas confined with ice
Where the dead breath makes numb the hand, makes dull the brain;
Find an oasis in the desert sun,
Go seek alliance with the heathen Saracen,
To share his filthy rites, and try to snatch
Forgetfulness in his libidinous courts,
Oblivion in the fountain by the date-tree;
Or sit and bite your nails in Aquitaine.
In the small circle of pain within the skull
You still shall tramp and tread one endless round
Weaving a fiction which unravels as you weave,
Pacing forever in the hell of make-believe
Which never is belief: this is your fate on earth
And we must think no further of you.

-from Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot

27 June 2015

#takeitdown ?

09 June 2015

The Man Who Was Thursday

This is my third or fourth time reading The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and it just gets better every time. On the face of it, it’s the story of Gabriel Syme, an undercover detective hired to infiltrate an international anarchist organization bent on world destruction. Oh, yes, and then things get weird. Like metaphysical, philosophical, Christopher-Nolanesque weird. Many people who read this book enjoy the beginning and then fall off the cart as the story progresses into surreal territory. Other people read the story and see nothing more than a religious allegory. Both of these groups are missing the wonderful thing that Chesterton accomplishes with this book, the interweaving of the spy novel with the fantastic.

Professor Eric Rabkin defines the fantastic as the psychological affect generated by the diametric, diachronic reversal of the ground rules of the narrative world. In a fantasy-genre novel, this reversal usually happens in the opening lines. “Once upon a time…” and then we’re totally on board with a story involving talking animals, wizards, dwarves, dragons, the whole shebang. More unusual are novels that incorporate the fantastic by reversing the ground rules of the narrative at all levels that conserve diachronic information: plot, character development, thematic development, and style. Alice in Wonderland is an example of a book that does this, continually pulling the rug out from under the reader and generating the feeling of the fantastic. Even more unusual are novels that reverse the ground rules at every level and simultaneously attempt to preserve, more or less, the conventions of a given genre. The Man Who Was Thursday is Chesterton’s attempt to do this with a spy novel. The plot of the book shifts pretty drastically at times, characters who seem to develop in a certain direction are suddenly revealed to be different than they were perceived, the theme of the book changes suddenly, and the style gradually morphs from a fairly standard, but Chestertonian, detective story to something more akin to a cross between John Bunyan and Charles Williams. Those looking for a conventional spy thriller are going to be disappointed by how demanding and unusual this book turns out to be. While almost all of Chesterton’s novels rely heavily on the fantastic, aside from Manalive, The Man Who Was Thursday is the only one I can think of in which he employs the fantastic to its fullest extent. The Man Who Was Thursday is a true fantastic, as much as anything written by Poe, Hoffman, or Blackwood.

I won’t give away the ending to the book, but I will say that it is truly ambiguous and should leave you thinking long afterward. The lessons learned by the main character, however, are not ambiguous at all and are not going to be unusual for those who have read anything else by Chesterton.

07 June 2015

The Martian Chronicles

When I was growing up, there were two genres of books that my granddad especially liked to read; there were westerns, particularly Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, and then there was sci-fi. I remember many times going to spend the night at his house and watching “The Twilight Zone” and “Amazing Stories” together. It was fantastic stuff. Also my Uncle Earl, the same one who got me into mysteries by giving me Agatha Christie books and all his old Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, used to let me have all of his old Isaac Asimov magazines as well. Because of this, reading science fiction, and particularly the style of science fiction in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is like a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

The Martian Chronicles is a difficult book to review. This is mainly due to the fact that it’s really a collection of short stories that were originally published separately and then were fixed up by a publisher into one book with Ray Bradbury writing little connection pieces to connect all the pieces into more or less one big story. What comes out is something that is more than a collection of short stories but less than a novel. “Chronicles” is a good title choice; the book chronicles a span of 27 years, from 1999 through 2026, of man’s colonization of Mars. I don’t want to spoil the storyline, so I’m not going to give away much about the particular stories themselves. I will say, though, that there is a great variety in the types of stories told. Some are meant to be humorous, some darkly so, as with “The Earth Men” or “Ussher II”. Some border on “Twilight Zone”-style horror such as “And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Earth Men”. Some are social commentary like “The Way in the Middle of the Air”. Some are poignant reflections on life and religion like “The Fire Balloons”. And even though I’m categorizing these stories broadly, they overlap as well, humor mingling with horror, high concept sci-fi with political satire.

I liked The Martian Chronicles much better than I expected to. I had wanted to read it for years, but kept putting it off until I was in the right mood. I expected something grittier and more somber. I should have known better with Bradbury. It was a pleasure to read from start to finish, a dose of pure, golden age science fiction, critical of society’s shortcomings, but not ultimately cynical or bitter. There is a celebration of life, literature, love, religion, and all the things that make humanity great while at the same time a warning to humanity about all the things we may use to destroy ourselves, envy, ignorance, and bureaucracy. Whether you’re an old fan of sci-fi, like myself, who has somehow managed to miss this book, or whether you’re new to the genre and want somewhere to start, I high recommend Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

02 June 2015

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth was yet another book I didn't read as a kid. My children highly recommended it, and, in a lecture series I just listened to, Eric Rabkin named it as one of the best examples of pure fantastic literature for children since Lewis Carroll's Alice books. I found that I liked it a lot. It was quirky in that mid-twentieth century children's style, reminiscent of the writings of Roald Dahl and the Uncle books by J.P. Martin.

In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo, an unimaginative, dull boy who sees no point in education, curiosity, or imagination is taken on a magical adventure to a land in which abstract concepts like numbers, words, reason, and  wisdom are personified. The cities of Digitopolis, ruled by the Mathemagician, and Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz, have been enemies for years. Everyone that Milo meets in this world is myopic.
This demon is called "The
Terrible Trivium," but I'm
pretty sure it's just Slenderman.
They all pursue their own specialization as if it is the only subject of study that exists, even though none of them can practically apply anything they know to the world around them (an apt criticism of the modern educational system). Only by rescuing Princesses Rhyme and Reason, who have been imprisoned in the castle in the sky, can Milo restore the kingdom of Wisdom which will rule over all the various disciplines and order them harmoniously. Along with his companions, the watchdog Tock and the Humbug, Milo travels through the Kingdom of Wisdom in order to face the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance and bring back the banished princesses.

My favorite selection from the book is when Milo finds the princesses and talks about them about the journey he has taken:

"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons." 
"But there's so much to learn," he said, with a thoughtful frown. "That's just what I mean," explained Milo, as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. "Many of the things I'm supposed to know seem so useless that I can't see the purpose in learning them at all."
"You may not see it now," said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo's puzzled face, "but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you're sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer."

31 May 2015

Three Philosophies of Life

Three Philosophies of Life is a wonderful set of meditations centered on the biblical books of Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs. Peter Kreeft does not attempt to write commentary about the books or delve into critical debates about composition, dating, etc. Rather he approaches these three books as books of philosophy, and seeks to understand them in light of what they can teach us about the human condition and the life of the Christian. He focuses on the three books as representing three philosophies of life, and, since these are inspired scriptures, “no more perfect or profound book has been written for any one of these three philosophies of life.

I really appreciated this book and recommend it to any Christian who wants to get a deeper understanding of the wisdom literature of Scripture and to ponder how this literature can be used to examine our lives “under the sun.” I would quibble with Kreeft’s understanding of Ecclesiastes, as I think that Joy at the End of the Tether by Douglas Wilson presents a more coherent view of the book, but that doesn’t mean that his thoughts are not worthwhile and insightful. Kreeft is strongest when discussing the book of Job, and I will probably return to this time and time again as I walk through the book of Job with my high school students.