Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brilliant thoughts from the devil

Woland: "But here is a question that is troubling me: if there is no God, then, one may ask, who governs human life and, in general, the whole order of things on earth?
The poet: "Man governs himself"
Woland: "Pardon me, but in order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then, how can man govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period- well, say, a thousand years- but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow?... [Say you get lung cancer] and so your governing is over! You are no longer interested in anyone's fate but your own... And it all ends tragically: a man who still recently thought he was governing something, suddenly winds up lying motionless in a wooden box, and the people around him, seeing that the man lying there is no longer good for anything, burn him in an oven.
And sometimes it's worse still: the man has just decided to go to Kislovodsk... a trifling matter, it seems, but even this he cannot accomplish, because suddenly, no one knows why, he slips and falls under a tram car! Are you going to say it was he who governed himself that way?.... Yes, man is mortal, but that would only be half the trouble. The worst of it is that he's sometimes unexpectedly mortal- there's the trick! And generally he's unable to say what he's going to do this same evening."
-"Master and Margarita", pg 13-15

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Special Guest Post: Review by Alexis Neal of the Anger Management Workbook by Les Carter and Frank Minirith

On today's edition of The Mortal Coyle, we have a special guest post by the domestic harpy (and regular book reviewer both on her own blog and over at Schaeffer's Ghost).

Review: The Anger Workbook: An Interactive Guide to Anger Management, by Les Carter & Frank Minirth

By Alexis Neal

Confession: I have what you might call an anger problem. When circumstances don’t go the way I think they should, I have a tendency to fly off the handle and/or succumb to a fit of the sulks. One setback can ruin my whole day … to say nothing of the days of those who have to put up with me.

So when I was given a chance to read a new book called The Anger Workbook, I eagerly agreed.  After all, I have anger. I could use help managing it. And the book is by no less a personage than Frank Minirth, M.D., whose other works were frequently consulted by my parents during my childhood (the book is also co-written by counselor Les Carter). Of course, it’s a workbook, not a regular book, which makes it a bit more challenging to review—not least because I’ve never really ‘gotten’ the appeal of workbooks. They always seem long on blank space and short on actual, substantive text. Me, I prefer real books. But this is a workbook, and I’ll do my best to review it on its own terms.

The workbook itself is fine, I guess, though it seems to be fairly obvious. Perhaps it would be helpful to those who’ve literally never given a moment’s thought to their anger and its causes; for those who are inclined to introspection, many of Minirth and Carter’s insights and suggestions will likely be things they figured out for themselves a long time ago. Beyond that, there’s the usual workbook stuff: lots of checklists to help you determine whether you struggle with various types of anger, questions about the circumstances that tend to trigger your anger, and lots and lots of anecdotes. All of which doesn’t leave a ton of room for substance (though given the rather troubling nature of that substance, perhaps that’s not a bad thing).

Minirth and Carter seem to have set their minds (and pens) to an incredibly difficult task: They are Christian counselors who claim to be giving biblically-based counsel, but it appears that the majority of their clients (and possibly the intended audience for this book) is not actually Christian. (Some of them may have been raised in the church and may consider themselves nominally Christian, merely because they are not Buddhist or Muslim or atheists. For some reason, these individuals sought help from Christian counselors, and now Minirth and Carter are stuck trying to convince them of the importance of ‘spiritual matters’ and ‘spiritual well-being.’)

The ‘Christian’ nature of the counsel Minirth and Carter provide is rather limited. The book is littered with bible references that support the principles Minirth and Carter advocate. And they’re sound enough principles, by and large: Be realistic about your own fallen nature and the fallen nature of those around you; don’t be surprised when bad things happen; treat others with respect; respond calmly to the anger of others; forgive those who wrong you, etc. Good stuff. But not unique to Christianity—not by a long shot. In fact, all of the 13 steps Minirth and Carter outline would likely be readily accepted by the majority of secular counselors. Which tells you right off that something may be hinky. After all, our belief in Christ and His atoning work on the cross should affect us across a broad spectrum—there should a fundamental difference between the way the world thinks about anger and the way we think about it. And Minirth and Carter’s way seems eerily similar to much of pop psychology.

This problem is compounded by the fact that Minirth and Carter present their biblical principles as, essentially, a list of dos and don’ts. A set of laws, if you will. God is mentioned, and Christ, but as a source of strength and a good example, respectively. The gospel, though occasionally (and obliquely) hinted at, is never clearly presented, nor is it used as the central spring from which godly behavior flows. Instead, religion is reduced to merely a ‘part’ of the whole man that must be adequately addressed to ensure wholeness. You won’t be well-rounded and healthy until you address the ‘spiritual’ side of your life, and the guidance provided by Scripture should be followed because it’s good advice.

So forgiveness is recommended not because Christ in His infinite mercy purchased forgiveness for us at great cost to himself, but because forgiving people makes us feel better (and withholding forgiveness is bad for our own development). Don’t get me wrong—forgiveness is better for us, but that’s not the ultimate reason why we are called to forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven, and nothing anyone can do to us could ever match the sin we’ve committed against a holy God.

But then, when Minirth and Carter talk about the sin nature and Adam’s fall, there is never any sense of the horror of sin—of anger as a sin against the very nature of God, something loathsome and reprehensible and deserving of wrath. Anger seems to be more of an ‘oopsie’, something we really should work on in order to improve ourselves and our relationship (again, partly true). So I guess it makes sense that their portrayal of forgiveness is so off-kilter. If all we’ve been forgiven is a character flaw, then that forgiveness can’t really motivate us to forgive the real and tangible wrongs we endure at the hands of others, and we need to look elsewhere for motivation.

Even as Minirth and Carter ostensibly try to inject some biblical principles into the arena of anger management, it seems that much of the secular psychological ideology has infected their thinking. There’s a lot of talk about ‘unmet needs’ and ‘inferiority’—appeals to pop psychology’s worship of self rather than biblical principles of self-denial and trust in a sovereign God. (In contrast, the book of James talks about ‘unmet needs’, but hardly in a flattering light.) Really, it just feels like Minirth and Carter took all the secular ideas about psychology and then hunted up bible verses to support them.

Again, there are kernels of truth hidden here, but the end result is something that seems to elevate humans (and human wisdom) and de-emphasize the One in whose image they are made. In light of the (possibly unintentional) legalistic presentation of biblical principles and the essentially secular worldview, I can’t really recommend this book. Do yourself a favor and read the vastly superior Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem by Robert D. Jones instead.

Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at and everything else at .

**Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”**

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review of "From the Library of C.S. Lewis" by James Stuart Bell

So... this book took me a lot longer to get through that it probably should have (sorry publishers and Blogging for Books!), though in my defense this book is long (402 pages) and a bit of a slog.

From the Library of C.S. Lewis is a collection of quotations and passages from the books that were on C.S. Lewis's shelves or mentioned in his works. In runs the whole spectrum, ranging from ancient to modern and Protestant to Catholic to Orthodox (I don't remember there being any major non-Christian sources, but don't hold me to that since it's been a while since I started the thing). The editors have organized the citations by category ("God's Love", "Knowing God", etc) and provided translations and editions that are for the most part easy to read and fairly compact.

That said, I'm not entirely convinced this is a book that really needs to exist.
Don't get me wrong- I understand the appeal of a book titled From the Library of C.S. Lewis. Despite my occasional theological differences with him, I love Lewis's writings very much and would certainly rank him among the top spiritual influences in my life. I in fact would like both to know more about what C.S. Lewis read/how it influenced him, and read more of the books that influenced him myself. Having a list of what was on his bookshelf is certainly a step in the right direction.

And yet, I'm still not sold on the value of this collection. For one, we're not told if the passages selected are ones that were particularly influential on Lewis, or just happen to be good passages from a spiritual book that Lewis owned. Were they ones that he himself marked off? Or just ones that the compilers picked because they are short and complete passages? If the former, then we are probably indeed getting a better picture of Lewis and being shaped in a Lewis-ian way ourselves; but if the latter, then however good and useful the quotations might be, they're not particularly living up to the promise of the title.

For that matter, the book itself is a bit unclear on its own goals. It seems to be a catalog of spiritual readings drawn from the spiritual books that Lewis owned/read. But to what end? Are these selections supposed to whet my appetite for reading the whole of the books they're culled from? If so, then why did this need to be 400 pages long? Wouldn't a shorter book have done the same thing? Or is the point just my own spiritual growth? If that is the case, then why does it matter that the readings were chosen from Lewis's library?

Again, the book is well done, the selections are interesting and seem to be (for the most part) solid enough theologically. I'm just not sold on it either as a devotional (presumably the main point) or as a more academic work (probably at least a lesser point).

I received this book for free from the publisher on the condition that I write a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Letter to the (Would have been) Boss

Dear Former Potential Employer;

I received your note informing me that I am no longer under consideration for the open position which I applied for last month. In some respects, I feel responsible for this regrettable circumstance. You see, while I was quite clear in my application materials about the benefits of bringing me on full time with your organization, I am afraid that I did not adequately articulate the consequences of not doing so.

You see, in addition to my stunning array of competencies within the profession, I also have a very particular set of skills... skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you hire me now, that'll be the end of it. We can forget the past and build a new relationship based on mutual understanding.

But if you don't I will launch such a campaign against you that the Vandals and Visigoths who torched Rome would object to my methods. I will turn your skies to bronze and your fields to iron. You will wake up in the middle of the night screaming "oh god, he's here!" People in future generations will shudder as they whisper with horror about the desolation I will bring down upon you. Your children will change their names in attempts to escape the overflow of my wrath. I will destroy you on the deepest imaginable metaphysical levels. Nietzsche will weep when he hears of what you have suffered.

Fortunately, it has not yet come to this. You still have time to fling yourself upon my mercy. Repent now and all will be forgiven, and we can go forward together into the bright future of gainful employment.

Your hopefully future employee,

Coyle Neal, Ph.D.
Washington, DC

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: "The History of the Kings of Britain" by Geoffrey of Monmouth

For a very brief time at the end of my undergrad studies, I toyed with the idea of becoming an Arthur scholar. Despite being a politics major, I had done most of my coursework in Ancient History (which involved a senior thesis-style project on the British Queen Boudicca), and had done some work on the final years of the Roman Empire. Transitioning into graduate study of King Arthur seemed like a logical enough step.
I spent some of my summer between undergrad and grad school reading up on some of the source material, including the wonderful little history by Gildas the Wise, and the less-wonderful (but still interesting) work of Nennius, as well as a whole bevy of modern fictional works. Before I could pick up Geoffrey of Monmouth (writing ~600 years after Nennius and Gildas), I got to grad school and found out that Medieval coursework at Catholic University was -reasonably enough- focused on the High Middle Ages, the Scholastics, and generally Southern Europe. At the same time, I was enrolled in a graduate seminar on Heidegger, and didn't have time for anything other than being completely lost in Being. (That's a Heidegger joke, for those of you who don't know. For those of you who do, you'll know that it's not a very good one.)
Anyway, long story short(ish), I've added a "Medieval" section to my regular political theory reading cycle, and on the advice of Christian Humanist Gadabout David Grubbs, this was moved to the top of the list.

In one sense, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is not exactly what the title claims. It is about the Kings of Britain, but it is not so much a history as a work of historical fiction. (That is, if we consider something akin to a cross between the Book of Mormon and Quentin Tarintino's Inglorious Basterds "historical fiction" rather than "alternative history revenge fantasy.") The events and people Geoffrey works into his narrative are so fantastic (the British repeatedly invading and conquering Rome, for example) that we are tempted to place Geoffrey closer to Thomas Mallory than we are to Bede. And yet, as the translator points out in his introduction, history keeps poking through the imaginative narrative. (19)

With that said, the truth of Geoffrey's facts are to some extent beside the point. What's much more relevant for us is the nature of Geoffrey's heroes and his historical perspective. (And no doubt there are many other important and relevant points as well- remember, both the Middle Ages and literature are outside of my area of expertise).Geoffrey presents us with a string of kings who are, for the most part, noble and virtuous and who save the Britons time and again from both external invasion and from the natural results of their own wickedness. Not that all of the British kings are good, but certainly the ones that Geoffrey focuses on (Brutus, Brennius, Ambrosius, Arthur, etc) are knightly and noble characters, who stand out against his jeremiads:
You foolish people, weighed down by the sheer burden of your own monstrous crimes, never happy but when you are fighting one another, why have you so far weakened yourselves in domestic upsets that you, who need to submit far-distant kingdoms to your own authority, are now like some fruitful vineyard which has gone sour and you cannot protect your own country, wives, and children from your enemies? (264)
Time and time again the people are rescued by great leaders- and even occasionally become great themselves as they leave Britain on a mission of conquest into the neighboring lands (including Iceland, France, Ireland, and even Rome itself, with the Emperor resurrected and put back on his throne, presumably solely so he could be defeated by Arthur).

Tied up with this view of heroism is Geoffrey's historical perspective- a perspective which I think we modern Americans sometimes get caught up in. The general belief seems to be that when things are going well, it is because society is virtuous (or at least society's leaders are acting virtuously), and when things are going badly it is because the people have declined into lives of vice and crime. This is seen especially (since it's the Middle Ages, after all), on the battlefield. (For more on that, see The Art of War in the Middle Ages.) If the Britons win a battle, repel the Saxons (or whoever), and secure their kingdom from invasion (or even extend it abroad), it is because they have been living virtuous lives pleasing to God. If they lose, it is because they have become dissolute and wicked.

Like I said, I think we all believe this to some extent in modern America. We don't win wars just because of our technological prowess or tactical ability, we are morally worthy of victory. The times we've lost wars have been directly the result of the hippies having sex in the middle of the street. (Or something, I wasn't around in the 60s, and the exact details are a bit vague.) While I obviously don't favor this historical perspective, 1) I think it's fascinating; 2) I don't think it's completely off; 3) I think it's slightly better to the Nietzschean idea that bad things happen and eventually the world will explode, and that is all. I suppose I'd be a loosely-Hegellian thinker in my view of history, if that is allowable for a Reformed Evangelical. But I digress. Geoffrey's view of history is clearly that morality trumps all else, occasionally even fact.

Overall, this was quite an enjoyable and surprisingly fast read, given that it's a Medieval text. Recommended for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, Arthurian Romance, Shakespeare's source material, historiography, or just well-constructed narrative.

Also, the only woman in Britain was Guinevere, and I don't think she ever spoke.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review of "The Hellenistic Age: A Short History" by Peter Green

The Hellenistic Age: A Short History is basically the, well, short version of Green's longer work (and magnum opus) Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Even more, this book has the benefit of being the result of 20 more years of scholarship and reflection on Green's part.

In the Introduction, Green discusses both terms, and the state of Hellenistic scholarship. In addition to the standing-Classical-world problem of lack of sources, Hellenistic scholarship also suffers from over-specialization. That is, there are all sorts of focused studies on coins, inscriptions, papyri, politics, and so on, but few comprehensive narrative studies. This book is an attempt to correct that lack.

Unfortunately, the Hellenistic Age (roughly from the death of Alexander through death of Mark Antony and Cleopatra) is one of the least understood and studied eras of the Classical period. This is unfortunate, because it is an era so much like our own. Huge nation states are regularly at war with each other, the poor are trampled by the rich, massive mechanized armies march across the landscape, and arts and sciences have functionally died. Even more, the politics of the day are a tangled nightmare of dynastic intrigue, backstabbing, and calling on powerful outsiders to solve local problems. Dr. Green untangles this mess in a way that makes this three hundred year stretch a delight to learn about. Not that the period itself is particularly delightful- all the nasty stuff that goes on today (extermination of minorities, persecution of the Jews, destruction of the environment) was going on then too, but without the softening influence of 2000 years of Christian history.

Recommended for those interested in Ancient history.

Demetrius the Besieger's Soldiers