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August Books

Well, due to some weeks of disrupted sleep, I was able to finish off a number of books that I’ve had on the go for awhile.  I’ve also posted my reflection on Russel Hoban’s Kleinzeit over at AUFS, for those who might be interested in something a little different (although what I’m doing in that post probably won’t make a ton of sense to anybody who hasn’t first read the book).
1. Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle edited by Mark D. Given.
This book is a good introduction to a number of hot topics in contemporary Pauline scholarship, granting snapshots into such subjects as Paul’s relationship to political, economic, Jewish, gender, rhetorical and other issues.  F or a person new to these conversations, this would be a really good resource.  For those already up to speed on the issues, there isn’t going to be much that is new here.  For myself, I found Warren Carter’s overview of counter-imperial readings of Paul to be a surprising disappointment, but I found Stephen Friesen’s analysis of the economic location of the members of the early assemblies of Jesus to be particularly good.
2. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther.
It is rare to find authors who are a combination of (a) genuine biblical scholars, who (b) explicitly connect their scholarship to exegeting our contemporary context and who then (c) actually get involved in living out those convictions “on the ground”.  Howard-Brook and Gwyther combine all these elements.  They engage John’s Apocalypse with an obvious awareness of the scholarly material around it, and they engage in this reading from within communities that are seeking to live as faithful followers of Jesus (“intentional Christian communities” of the New Monastic variety… although they precede New Monasticism… which was never really “new”… but I digress).  However, their greatest strength is their willingness to apply the same level of sustained exegesis to our contemporary context as they do to the biblical text.  Sadly, biblical scholar almost universally fail on this point.  Such scholars tend to think that they already know our contemporary context (perhaps because they are a part of it?) and so their points of application tend to be obvious, superficial, misleading, or boring (perhaps this is also because said scholars don’t often belong to communities that facilitate such readings of our present moment).  Therefore, because of their combination of these three elements, Howard-Brook and Gwyther have produced a highly recommended text — one that reads John’s Apocalypse in light of both the past Empire of Rome and the present Empire of global capitalism.
3. Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievements of the Divine Augustus edited by P. A. Brunt and J. M. Moore.
The Res Gestae is a text composed by Augustus Caesar and circulated widely throughout the Roman Empire after his death.  In it, Augustus records his great acts and achievements and demonstrates why (in his opinion) he was deserving of the praise, titles, and authority given to him.  Hence, for the contemporary reader it is a great little glimpse into imperial Roman ideology and into the practice of patronage (and the ways in which charity — then as now — was actually a key element of maintaining and strengthening the gap between those with more and those with less).  It’s a short text but, for me, an important one as I continue to learn about the context in which Paul lived.
4. Church Dogmatics III.1: The Doctrine of Creation by Karl Barth.
Man, this book was a rough go.  It started off well (with a section exploring the relationship between revelation and history) and ended well (with a section on creation as benefit and as justification) but most of it was a theological reading of Genesis 1 & 2, which I found to be very boring.  Half a dozen years ago I became interested in the primordial history related in Gen 1-11 and I read a bunch of the big names on that subject (Wenham, Brueggemann, etc.).  Since then I haven’t really come across anything interesting written about the creation narrative (including the material in Goldingay’s OT theology series, which I started into a few months ago).  I feel like I’ve pretty much gotten what I’m going to get out of that section of the bible, and reading several hundred pages from Barth on the subject only confirmed me in this way of thinking.
However, I’m glad that I continue to pursue my goal of reading one volume of the Barth’s dogmatics per year until I finish.  It’s nice not to be rushing to finish off in December.
5. The Guermantes Way (In Search of Lost Time, Vol 3) by Marcel Proust.
Well, I’m now halfway through In Search of Lost Time, and still very much enjoying it.  I find that Proust’s form of prose is hypnotic.  Walter Benjamin really sums things up quite well: “There has never been anyone else with Proust’s ability to show us things; Proust’s pointing finger is unequaled.”  Here are a few choice passages:
a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information–a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and of love.
I realised then how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, as this woman’s was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first; and conversely into what wretched elements, crudely material and utterly valueless, something that had been the inspiration of countless dreams might be decomposed if, on the contrary, it had been perceived in the opposite manner, by the most casual and trivial acquaintance.  I saw that what had appeared to me to be not worth twenty francs when it had been offered to me for twenty francs in the brothel, where it was then for me simply a woman desirous of earning twenty francs, might be worth more than a million, more than family affection, more than all that most coveted positions in life, if one had begun by imagining her as a mysterious being, interesting to know, difficult to seize and to hold.
Being a great lady means playing the great lady, that is to say, to a certain extent, playing at simplicity.  It is a pastime which costs a great deal of money, all the more because simplicity charms people only on condition that they know that you are capable of not living simply, that is to say that you are very rich.
What troubled me now was the discovery that almost every house sheltered some unhappy person.  In one the wife was always in tears because her husband was unfaithful to her.  In the next it was the other way about.  In another a hard-working mother, beaten black and blue by a drunkard son, tried to conceal her sufferings from the eyes of the neighbours.  Quite half the human race was in tears.  And when I came to know it I saw that it was so exasperating that I wondered whether it might not be the adulterous husband and wife (who were unfaithful only because their lawful happiness had been denied them, and showed themselves charming and loyal to everyone but their respective spouses) who were in the right.
Perhaps that will whet the appetite of some.
6. The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy.
This is the first novel McCarthy published and, well, you can tell.  Although it does have its moments, it’s not as polished as his later writings.  McCarthy has a way of writing — one that leaves it up to the discerning reader to figure out who is speaking, or what event is being referred to, or where each event falls within a sequence of events — that he usually employs quite skillfully so that one does not feel that figuring things out is a chore or a bore (as with other writers who favour a ‘stream of consciousness’ approach).  Unfortunately, The Orchard Keeper does not quite yet capture McCarthy’s gift in this regard and the novel — a story of a bootlegger, a poor child, and an old man who all live in the mountains — suffers because of that.  Now, don’t get me wrong, everything McCarthy writes is pretty incredible… this just isn’t his best.
7. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.
Well, this book was generating a lot of buzz in certain literary circles and so I thought I would check it out, since I rarely read newly published novels.  I was disappointed (I’m so often puzzled by what passes for ‘good literature’… but then I have similar feelings about a lot of ‘good art’ or ‘good music’… my tastes are weird).  I found that the dominant themes (fear of death, the transformation of humanity by technology, American militarism, shifts in global power) were explored in a pretty uncreative manner.  Further, while the teenage sexually-charged slang used by some characters may strike some readers as creative (I’m trying to imagine what might make this book work for others), this is probably only a conclusion drawn by those who are removed from contemporary teen cultures.  Despite the hype, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with Shteyngart’s other works.

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