in Book Reviews, Books

February and March Books

[Lots of typing… will edit later.]
So, I never got around to posting my February reviews, so I guess I’ll do these together.  Thankfully, when I was traveling at the start of March, I will able to finish off a number of books I started awhile ago, so it’s always nice when my whole stack turns over and I get to start a number of new books at once!  Anyway, I don’t have the books at hand while writing this post, so the reviews may be a bit shoddier than usual… mea culpa.
1. Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception edited by Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood.
I usually don’t spend a lot of time reading essay collections.  I often find the quality of the pieces collected to be hit-and-miss or find that the essays are so narrowly focused upon a specific sub-sub-sub-topic as to be of little interest (to me, anyway).
However, with just one or two exceptions, this collection of essays is extremely strong and was exciting to read (for me, anyway).  I really love the ways in which NT scholarship is advancing in its understanding of the early followers of Jesus in relation to the socio-political and economic context in which they lived.
What comes through very strongly in this series of essays is the way in which the economic mutualism of the early Christians entailed a practice that was very different than the models of ‘love patriarchalism’ and bourgeois forms of charity and ownership that have come to dominate NT studies over the last several decades.  Of course, this means that NT Christianity posits some pretty serious challenges to the ways in which we live as Christians today… but I reckon that is as it should be.
Very strongly recommended.
2. In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance edited by Richard A. Horsley.
I’m really quite excited to see the ways in which ‘political’ or ‘counter-imperial’ readings the the New Testament have matured over the years.  Not only is this true in general, as one scholar builds on the work of another, but it is also true of the writings of specific scholars, like Richard Horsley and Neil Elliott (both of whom have contributed essays for this volume, along with others like Norman Gottwald, Walter Brueggemann, and Warren Carter).
Given that so much of my reading in this area has been around Jesus and Paul, it was fun for me to read some of the other essays, particularly Gottwald’s reading of the Exodus story and of “early Israel as an anti-imperial community”.
As I stated above, I normally find essay collections to be pretty hit-and-miss, but this compilation is quite strong and well worth reading.
3. Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History by Denis Feeney.
This book was a really great resource for the work I’m doing on Pauline eschatology and the way in which it contrasts with what I understand to be the eschatology of Roman imperialism.  What Feeney does is demonstrate the ways in which Roman constructions of both history and time are formed in order to create and sustain an embodied ideology of sacred imperial power.  This then also ends up being a handy compliment to contemporary theologians (whom I tend to associate with Hauerwas and the Duke school of thought) who have been seeking to recover the liturgy and the Church calendar in order to embody and fortify a certain contemporary Christian ideology.  Feeney reminds the reader that all of our constructions of history and time are ideologically-loaded and so hopefully somebody will do with our contemporary calendar what Feeney has done with the Roman calendar (actually, I’ll be doing some of this in my forthcoming work on Paul and politics but the more the merrier, right?).
Another helpful corrective in Feeney’s book is the emphasis that all cultures tend to hold to both cyclical and linear conceptions of time, and this is helpful in overcoming (or nuancing) the common binary found in NT studies (i.e. that Greek or Roman or ancient conceptions of time were cyclical whereas Jewish or Christian conceptions were linear).
Anyway, I would say this is recommended reading, but only for those who are interested in this particular field of study.
4. A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.
There has already been a ton written about this book around the blogosphere, and I don’t have much to add to that discussion.  However, the respect that this book has garnered is well deserved (as is the controversy, but I’ll not bother engaging those debates here).  Basically, in this book, Taylor asks why a person’s default position (500 years ago) was to believe certain things about God and the cosmos, and why that default position is different today.  What changed along the way?  Well, a lot of things did (hence the length of the book).  However, what I especially appreciated about this book is the way in which Taylor provided a historical narrative that helped me make sense of my own historical situation and of the conflicting cross-currents I find myself experiencing.  I have read very few books that have helped me make sense of these things to the degree that occurs in A Secular Age.  Highly recommended.
5. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang.
For some of us, stating that ‘free trade’ is not free, and never has been free, comes as no surprise.  However, for others who have been indoctrinated into the ideology of global capitalism this statement seems shocking.  Thus, a reading of Ha-Joon Chang’s book is strongly recommended.  Chang is an economist who certainly knows his subject matter, but who is also able to communicate well with the broader public, so the book isn’t hard going.  What he demonstrates is the reality behind the rhetoric, and what becomes clear is the ways in which global capitalism is structured in order to favour and advance the power of those who already have power, while simultaneously slowing the advance of those who are trying to develop or rise out of poverty.  He covers a broad range of topics and, as I said before, this is recommended reading.
6. Twenty-First Century Capitalism (CBC Massey Lectures Series) by Robert Heilbroner.
Of the Massey Lectures that I have read thus far, I would say Heilbroner’s are the weakest.  This is not to say that this is a particularly bad book — it’s just that all the other contributions I’ve read were extremely strong.
Anyway, in this contribution, I feel like Heilbroner mostly restates and compacts themes that he has spoken of in more detail elsewhere (like inThe Worldly Philosophers).  Thus, he begins by trying to gain a bit of critical distance from outside capitalism in order to understand what defines capitalism, and he then goes on to look at capital, politics, and the market.
Heilbroner then concludes by cautiously positing some scenarios for the future (NB: the lectures were delivered in 1992).  Capitalism, Heilbroner, is too deeply ingrained into our way of life to be overcome in the twenty-first century.  Instead, he asserts, the best we can hope for is the deliberate creation of governments and other civic or political structures that are able to curb the excesses and counter the violence and exploitation that comes when capitalism is left unchecked.  Now, I should note that Heilbroner is particularly fond of his own prognosis… it’s just that he doesn’t think that the search for a “postcapitalist society” will be successful in the twenty-first century.  However, he does believe that it is important for us to hold onto the dream of such a society.  He believes that the tensions and failures of capitalism will only worsen in the days ahead and so he concludes that, in such a future, “it will help to have another social destination in our imaginations.”
7. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends by Michael White and David Epston.
Therapy tends to get looked down upon in certain academic theological circles.  You know, pastors aren’t counselors, it’s just a symptom of our self-centred “I’m the victim” culture, it’s a superficial effort at a quick fix, and all that jazz.  Of course, there is some truth in these criticisms and I remain quite critical of medical and (supposedly scientific) psychiatric models of care.  However, there are others, like White and Epston, who are doing really fabulous and exciting things via therapy (in fact, White and Epston sound a lot like Hauerwas and those who helped to develop a narrative-based approach to theology, as well as reminding me of scholars who are working with a more literary approach to biblical studies).
In this book, the authors draw heavily upon the writings up Michel Foucault in order to develop an approach to therapy that helps people to narrate and re-narrate their lives in ways that are more meaningful and life-giving.  They begin with much of the theory behind the work (and for those unfamiliar with Foucault the first part of the book may be difficult) and then move into concrete examples of how they engage in this practice.  Prominent amongst their techniques is the use of letter writing.  I found this practice to be quite exciting and have begun to employ it in my own work with street-involved young adults and have found it to be very fruitful.
All in all, a very good book, and one I would recommend to those who live and work in ways that might relate to this.
8. Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison.
This book is a first-hand account of Harrison’s experience of being a soldier in the First World War.  Apparently it made some waves when it was first released because, rather than praising the war or the heroism or valour of those involved therein, it tells (as much as possible) the nitty-gritty reality of what it’s like to be a soldier in trench warfare.  Not a pretty picture, to say the least (for example, to single out just one episode, Harrison speaks of his bayonet getting stuck in the chest of a German soldier and both he and the German end up screaming and trying to pull the bayonet out).  I couldn’t put this book down… although I do sometimes wonder what it is that draws me to stories like these…
9. Swann’s Way (In Search of Lost Time Volume 1) by Marcel Proust.
Yep, I’ve finally decided to knuckle down and read Proust.  Thankfully, I am enjoying him so far.  His prose, although requiring the reader to read slowly, is quite beautiful (even if his sentences can take up whole pages).  Basically, In Search of Lost Time, is the rambling story of the narrator’s life, told in a way that dwells upon themes of time and memory (amongst a host of other things).  It’s nice to just chip away at it and lose myself a little in the words.
10. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
This book was lent to me by a friend who stated that he has read it at least once a year for several years.  I’ve never been much of a sci-fi reader, so I thought I would give Ender’s Game a shot but based upon this friend’s recommendation and because I’ve other others mention the book.  It was a fun and mindless read — the story is about the fear of an(other) alien invasion and a boy, Ender, upon whom the fate of humanity depends.  If I was a ten year old boy again, this book would probably have fueled my fantasy life for months… but I was too busy reading about knights, wizards and pirates at that age.  Oh well.
11. Creature by Andrew Zuckerman.
This book was a birthday present from a friend and it is a fantastic collection of animal photos that were taken by Zuckerman.  The book and and the photos are really gorgeous — Zuckerman has a fantastic eye, and placing each picture on a plain white background works well.  The gift was a great reminder of the beauty and wonder that fills our world… and made me regret going back on my childhood dream of being a vet.
New Addition: Monthly Mix-Tape
So, I’ve been making mix-tapes for myself for awhile, and I’ve decided to add my ‘monthly mix-tape’ to my monthly book reviews.  Here are the songs that were rocking my world in March:
(1) Devotchka, How It Ends; (2) Pedro the Lion, June 18, 1976; (3) The Hold Steady, Your Little Hoodrat Friend; (4) Shearwater, The World in 1984; (5) Gary Jules, Mad World; (6) The Mountain Goats, Deut 2.10; (7) The Arcade Fire, Sonata; (8) The National, Cardinal Song; (9) Damien Jurado, Tonight I Will Retire; (10) Titus Andronicus, Four Score and Seven; (11) Over the Rhine, Idea #21 (It’s Not Too Late).

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  1. Thanks, Brandon. I’m glad that somebody (other than me) gets something out of these.
    I noticed that you’re currently reading Multitude… I’m reading Commonwealth right now and have enjoyed Hardt and Negri quite a bit. I’d also be interested to hear what you think of Christ and Empire after you finish it.

  2. Agree about Taylor. I usually steer clear of too much philosophy – not only does it do my head in, but often seems to take me away from the ideas that really matter. A Secular Age was/is (I’m reading it slowly in a group) different and I share your experience of it ‘making sense of the/my world’ and those I interact with.

  3. FWIW, I recommend reading the rest of the Ender’s Game series. That basic story (boy rescues humanity from alien race) is made problematic by what happens later in interesting ways.

  4. Coincidence, I’m going to start Proust next week. I’m going to make a thing of it; one book of Lost Time per year. I think I can handle that.

  5. Re: Heilbroner
    I find myself living in a kind of constant tension regarding the capitalist status quo. On the one hand, the pastor in me appreciates the realism of Heilbroner, Peter Berger, and Craig Gay in accepting “the system” as it is and seeking to live as faithfully as possible within it.
    On the other hand, the prophet in me wants to keep imagining creative alternatives to the dominant system. I find Walter Brueggemann and Peter Maurin most helpful in this regard.
    I worked at Wal-Mart for two summers during and after college. Even in though they represent the very pinnacle of capitalist imperialism, I was still able to find traces of Maurin’s Personalism at work beneath the surface of the organization. People seem to naturally form subcultures of resistance, even in the absence of organized unions.
    There is an untapped vein of revolutionary sentiment brewing in the break-rooms of Wal-Marts everywhere. The problem is that this subculture functions as a coping-mechanism for emotional support rather than organized change.
    I wish there were some way to mobilize people without risking their jobs. One can be fired from Wal-Mart for believing in or entertaining ideas about unions or organizing.

  6. Ah Jurado and Bazan, good old friends. I saw Bazan in Vancouver a little over ten years ago and in Buffalo last year. What a journey . . . we’ll see where it goes.
    Missed Jurado in Hamilton . . . much cursing ensued.
    My own tribute to Bazan that includes a link to a better one.