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January Books

Well, not surprisingly given everything that has gone on this last month, there was very little time for cover-to-cover book reading.  Regardless, here are the books I did finish.
1. The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren.
Many thanks to Mike Morrell from The Ooze for this review copy!
This book, the third in McLaren’s ‘New Kind of Christian’ trilogy, is focused upon the question of hell and, more significantly, what beliefs about hell imply about the character of the God who is said to create and maintain such a place.  This is not to say that other topics aren’t addressed here and there throughout the book — matters related to struggles for justice and the mission and identity of the Church being two significant subplots — but the relation of hell to the character of God is the driving theme of the book.  Stated in an overly simplistic manner this book poses the question: “Can one believe in some sort of eternal or postmortem ‘hell’ in light of the affirmation of God as good, powerful, and loving?”  The answer is that if it is, perhaps, too much of a stretch to say that one absolutely cannot believe in such a thing as this sort of ‘hell’, at the very least one should not affirm such a place.  Thus, while many explore the topic of hell within the theological category of eschatology (understood as the ‘last things’ or the ‘last word’) the word that McLaren asserts must come after all that is ‘grace’.
Now, this is all well and good, as far as I’m concerned.  I have personally rejected what has sometimes come to be called the ‘traditional’ view on hell, even more than the characters in this book.  Of course, to refer to only one view on hell as the ‘traditional’ view, is something on an ideologically-weighted misnomer as the Christian tradition, from its inception, has always contained multiple and divergent views on hell… but I digress.
I enjoyed this book because, to a greater degree than the previous books in the trilogy, McLaren’s engagement with the relevant biblical texts was quite substantial and well-rooted in serious scholarship.  In a way McLaren is simply popularizing what has been argued in more detail elsewhere (which is something that needs to be done).  Also, on another positive note, I felt that McLaren was finally starting to hit his stride as a fiction writer within this book.  The flow of the story seemed more natural, the characters more genuine, and so on.
So, once again, I would recommend this book to those who were raised within Conservative or Evangelical Christian circles and who have been asking questions about their faith.
2. Alexander Herzen and the Rise of Russian Socialism by Martin Malia.
This book is a detailed biography of Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century Russian émigré and populist (although he could also be described as a socialist or an anarchist).  The biographer, Martin Malia, is especially concerned to understand Herzen in relation to his times, and so the book contains many fascinating and detailed studies of Herzen’s relation to the works, acts, and thoughts of people like Schiller, Schelling, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Sand, and Bakunin.
Malia’s thesis regarding the rise of Russian Socialism is that the socialist revolutionary, in Russia, was rooted not in the proletariat but in the gentry.  Therefore, contrary to an element of Marxist theory, Malia argues that it is a certain segment of the aristocracy who rebelled against the autocratic power of the Tsars, precisely because the Tsars were so autocratic that these members of the gentry were made to feel alienated from the Court.  Thus, according to Malia (who agrees with Lenin on this point), the socialist dream is born amongst members from the possessing class, but who do not feel that are of this class (this also fits with Weber’s thesis that the revolution arises when the culture-makers move into solidarity with the proletariat).
Herzen, then, becomes Malia’s illustration of this point — a member of the gentry, who always felt alienated from his own class (particularly because he was an illegitmate son of is father), who was exiled by Nicholas, and who ended up being one of the key voices from Russia regarding Socialism.
Now I personally found this all very fascinating, particularly as I am continually asking myself: ‘What is required to produce social change today?’  Equally fascinating, although not explicitly explored by Malia, are the ways in which Herzen’s location amongst the gentry functions as an obstacle to his embrace of Socialism.  Thus, while Herzen does arrive at an affirmation of an anarchic form of Russian populism, this is largely the result of his consistent application of beliefs related to personal dignity and individual freedom (indeed, it should be noted that this sort of anarcho-syndicalism — and not something like a liberal democracy — is the proper conclusion to those post-Enlightenment trajectories).
Therefore, in Herzen, Malia provides us with an illustration of both the ways in which people with wealth and property can contribute to the revolution, and ways in which that wealth and property becomes and obstacle to meaningful contributions.
3. & 4. Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest by John Updike.
These, the last two books in Updike’s Rabbit Series, continue to follow Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom through his life at ten year intervals.  In Rabbit is Rich, we encounter Harry in his late forties, running a car dealership, playing golf and having drinks at the Clubhouse, and dealing with a son who got his partner pregnant.  Then, in Rabbit at Rest, we encounter Harry in his late fifties, semi-retired in Florida half the year, dealing with his first heart attack and trying to help his son with an addiction problem.
As I’ve stated before, I found this series to be rather terrifying in its portrayal of both suburban America and of people, and life, in general.  It makes me wonder, ‘Good God, is that all there is?  Is that what we really are?”

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