Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review of "Alizel's Song" by Bill Pottle

Nominally, Alizel's Song is the story of the creation of the universe, Satan's fall, the war in heaven, and man's original sin. Really, the book is more of a "forum to try to hammer out a reconciliation between science and religion while exploring difficult theological issues" than it is a traditional straight-laced narrative. So far as the narrative goes, this is the story of Alizel, one of heaven's angels, who observes the major events of creation and rebellion and offers his comments and reflections along the way. He observes the 15-billion-year-long creation, sees Lucifer rebel against God, asks theological questions about how all of these things can possibly exist in harmony (e.g., how can a good God sit by while angels kill other angels?), and generally wonders about the new "realm of matter" which God has created separate from heaven (though not separate from Spiritual life- Pottle does not fall into the trap of Gnosticism).

Lucifer falls from heaven- Dore
First, I have to say that Pottle is to be commended for his obvious delight in both science and the Bible. He clearly understands some of the central issues in the science/religion debate, and attempts to engage the best of both worlds without sacrificing the convictions of either. (Which is something that I've said in the past we need thoughtful Christians to be doing.) Of course, I don't know enough about science to know whether or not he's being faithful to whatever the latest research/theory is, but I can at least say I didn't see any major red flags on the theological end of things.

Which is not to say that I'd necessarily recommend the book either. Mostly because as interesting as some of the ideas are, as a work of fiction it bounces back and forth between being resoundingly bland and ridiculously terrible. (If it had been consistently ridiculously terrible, I suspect I would have enjoyed it a good deal more--both I and the domestic harpy have a deep and abiding love for awfulness in fiction.) To give you an example of the occasional terribleness, this is Lucifer describing how he has found a means of providing his own "fuel" rather than relying on God (angels get their strength through a direct stream of energy from God- a fallen angel cuts this off and turns elsewhere for strength):
Azazel ignored the comment about God, intrigued in spite of himself. "New energy? What energy could possibly sustain us?
"I have found it myself. No doubt God wanted it hidden from us so that we could not unleash its awesome power."
"What is this energy?"
"The power comes from focusing intently on wrongs committed against all of us. I call the new energy Heaven's alternative transforming energy." (62)

As in, HATE. Demons are fueled by hate. If there had been more of this in the book, I would not have been able to put it down. (In case you're wondering, demons live in "Heaven's Equivalent Location", or HEL.) As it was, despite these occasional shimmerings of spectacular awfulness, the plot and writing were for the most part just kind of... meh. And the theological discussion, while interesting enough in its own right, wasn't really good enough to carry along the otherwise milquetoast plot.

And a side note on the theology in the book: I should point out that nearly all of it is speculative. Again, it's not bad theology, it's just for the most part guessing about things not revealed in Scripture. Questions about how angels fell, how Adam fell (as opposed to the consequences of Adam's fall), how much angels know about salvation and Divine sovereignty, and by what means God created the earth are simply not answered in the Bible.

All of this to say that Alizel's Song has someone interesting theological propositions, and might be useful to people who want a little bit of a rough introduction to the questions listed above. As a novel, well, if you want a literary treatment of heavenly goings-on and the fall of man, pick up Paradise Lost (no, really--once you get the cadence down it's pretty awesome, and C.S. Lewis agrees!). And really, if you want to get into the meatier theology, you should pick up Calvin, Augustine, or John Collins on Genesis before coming to a more speculative book like this anyway.

This book was provided for free by the publisher on the condition that I review it. I was not required to give it a positive review. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Review: "The Lais of Marie de France"

"Lais are", as the back of this Penguin Classics edition tells us, "short stories in verse based on Breton tales, depicting a moment of crisis in love relation always intense and refined, and often far more complicated than our received view of courtly love might lead us to suppose." And while I'm not entirely sure what "our received view of courtly love" should be, I admit that I was fascinated by the depth and intricacy of these short tales.

The Lais are short stories lifted from the Bretons and told to the English by the (probably) French author Marie de France. Her purpose in writing these is given in the Prologue and at the beginning of the first story:

Anyone who has received from God the gift of knowledge and true eloquence has a duty not to remain silent: rather should one be happy to reveal such talents. When a truly beneficial thing is heard by many people, it then enjoys its first blossom, but if it is widely praised its flowers are in full bloom. (Prologue)
Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told. Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. (I. Guigemar)

In other words, the point of these tales is the exercise of the author's talent--an exercise best done in public. The success or failure may be judged by the praise of the audience. Since we're still reading her works a thousand years later, I think it's safe to say that Marie's goals have been met.

All twelve of these short stories are fascinating (as is the Editor's Introduction). I was especially surprised that there seem to be three main characters in each one: the knight, the lady, and Love. Or at least, "love" is present, if not actually a character. In fact, I found the treatment of love to be the most interesting part of this work. Rather than personifying love, or even idealizing, the Lais does two things: it treats the effects of love with a gritty reality; and it objectifies love.

While there are certainly supernatural components present in these stories (knights turning into birds, for example), there is precious little idealism about the impact love has on the world. Love is portrayed with a gritty reality that bears little resembles to the modern chick flick. Love brings happiness, pleasure, and even transcendent joy, to be sure. But it also leads to sorrow, grief, despair, and even the destruction of the innocent and guilty alike. Love has real-world effects that lead to the utterly destruction of everything and everyone involved, and yet are still clearly understood to be worth the time and effort of pursuit. The rewards  of love do not always outweigh dangers, but they do so often enough that love is clearly something of enough value to merit lifelong dedication.

Probably the biggest disconnect between the view of love in the Lais and our modern view is the objectification of love. I don't mean the idolization of love, as if it were being elevated to an inappropriate position (though that may be the case elsewhere in Medieval literature). Nor do I mean the personification of love (though that does happen here and there). I mean actually treating love as if it were a physical object. This is from the story of Guigemar:
Guigemar was very much in love and either had to receive relief of be forced to live a life of misery... "My lady," he said, "I am dying because of you; my heart is giving me great pain. If you are not willing to cure me, then it must all end in my death. I am asking for your love. Fair one, do not refuse me."... The lady recognized the truth of his words and granted him her love without delay. He kissed her and henceforth was at peace. (49-50)
This is not simply referring to sex (though sometimes love involves that also). Love is being willed and granted as if it were a trophy. It is taken back and given to someone else in exactly the same way. Which is exactly not the way we think of it. We don't think of someone as being worthy of love- we think of love as an emotional state that just happens. The heart wants what it wants and there's nothing you or I or a team of psychologists can do about it. The idea that love is something for which we have a moral responsibility to use well, and which we can (should?) give out to those who are worthy is an interesting one, and certainly one worthy of further reflection.

These are not the only components of love in the Lais, but I think they are by far the most interesting. Also interesting are the knights and ladies and the troubles they get into, but you'll have to read it for yourself to find out what's going on there.

Overall, this was a delightful little collection of stories. It is short, clear, and fun to read, and so I recommend this to everyone. Even if you're not a fan of Medieval literature, the Lais are short and interesting enough that you'll find it to be a fast read.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review: "When Donkeys Talk" by Tyler Blanski

Tyler Blanski doesn't think much of the modern way of looking at the world. That is, he doesn't like the Enlightenment rationalist way of seeing nature as nothing more than a collection of moving atoms bouncing off of each other (in scientific terms) and people as nothing more than isolated individuals doing basically the same thing. He thinks we need to have a radical transformation in our worldview that brings back the enchantment and magic of existence, that views people and society as connected organisms rather than biological machines, and that has a theology that allows a donkey to talk. (Not all the time, of course, but in that special category of event known as a "miracle.") This is the older and better worldview held by Christians in the early church and Middle Ages (Blanski himself studied the Middle Ages at Oxford).

The Good

There's much that is good in the book. It is well written, fast paced, and interesting. While it's a bit full of personal vignettes for my taste ("we were out camping looking at the stars and I thought..." sorts of things as springboards to the discussion), Blanski used them well and kept the book moving forward at a decent clip.
Moreover, the author is clearly well-read, thoughtful, and creative. His artful blend of theology, history, and cultural criticism is always interesting and occasionally even a delight to read.

In terms of the book's substance, Blanski does an excellent job of reminding us of several things that we as Christians in the technological age are particularly prone to forget. Among others, these include:

  • That we are saved into a community. This community (the church) is not a community of isolated individuals willing to endure each other for an hour a week, it is a living organism onto which we are grafted. This organism is defined by the covenant and is as much a reality as the physical universe.
  • That conversation is a critical part of Christian (even of human) life. This is not so much explicitly stated as it is implicit in the way Blanski goes about writing his book. Most of his theological reflections begin with the relation of a conversation of dialogue he has had with his friends. In the past I have criticized other authors for exclusively relying on conversation as a means of discovering truth rather than approaching Scripture. However, Blanski goes about this in the right way. He clearly knows his Bible already and has several good relationships with those who do as well. Even his conversations with non-Christians are good models of how and what we may learn from those who do not share the faith. 
  • That we should wonder at the mystery and grandeur of creation and of the Creator it reveals. It is all too easy for us to forget to be amazed that anything exists at all, so say nothing of how that existence is full of Beauty. We should have a continuously growing sense of delight in life. Our modernist tendencies to think of the world as a giant machine and of ourselves as independent and autonomous agents within it squelch this sense of delight and wonder, and offer as substitutes only the unsatisfying parodies of pop culture and momentary cheap thrills. One of the ways we (especially as Christians) can find, nurture, and develop this wonder is through a proper understanding of liturgy and sacramentalism. In the sacraments of baptism and communion, we see a picture of human life as it should be and salvation as it is offered to us in Christ. And through those pictures we discover that, in a sense, all of life is itself sacramental and liturgical. 
None of these arguments are particularly new-- Blanski's criticisms of modernity are basically contemporary criticisms of modernity wrapped up in the language informed by Medieval Christianity. Which means that there is something of substance here worth the attention of a thoughtful Christian trying to think carefully about how to live in the modern world.

The Less Good

Despite these strengths (and they are strengths), I think I'd still hesitate to endorse this book or recommend it as any kind of go-to text for a Christian. The three things listed above are important, but Blanski raises them to such levels (perhaps in an over-correction of modern ills) that they run the danger of becoming unhelpful, and even borderline inappropriate- though not, perhaps, openly heretical. What seems to have happened is that Blanski has elevated his love for creation and existence to the point where the reality of sin and, consequently, the nature and necessity of atonement are lost.

If we think of salvation as involving a balance between the God's completed present work and God's future recreation of the world, Blanski has too much of the "already" and not enough "not yet." Don't get me wrong, I very much prefer this kind of imbalance to the fundamentalist approach that would swing the other direction and disdain the current world with a kind of spiteful anticipation of the world to come. But that said,  the focus here is entirely too much on the Creation and Incarnation, and not nearly enough on the Crucifixion and Resurrection as well. Modern Christians do need to be reminded to delight in existence; but we equally need to be reminded of the deep reality of sin, the necessity for the forgiveness that comes through the cross, and the promise of resurrection into a new creation.

This over-emphasis leads to the sorts of other over-emphases one would expect. For example, Blanski has entirely too high a view of liturgy and sacrament. In declaring the whole world to be "sacramental" and all of life to be "liturgical", the result is that he pushes the actual sacraments and liturgy to inappropriately high levels. In his chapter on baptism, for example, one gets the impression that Blanski believes in baptismal regeneration (as in, dipping someone in water is what saves them, rather than faith in the Gospel). It may be that Blanski is just pushing the symbolic language a bit too hard and that he does not actually embrace that particular Romanist heresy, but the language remains unclear and at times suggestive that he might.

I've already mentioned the biggest problem, but it bears repetition. In a sense, despite the title and continual references through the book, Blanski ignores one of the major lessons of Balaam. It's not just amazing that a donkey could speak (though that is certainly true), it's likewise amazing that a man who had heard a donkey speak and who was himself a prophet was still more in love with the created order than he was with God. Merely having a sense of wonder and delight in creation did not help Balaam. He still assisted the wicked king in enticing Israel to sin, and earned himself eternal condemnation in the pages of Scripture. We should delight in creation and wonder at God and His universe, but we should also understand how deep sin runs, how desperately we need atonement, and how much we have to look forward to in the re-creation of the world. This whole view of the Gospel is the only way to correct our modernist tendencies, recover our lost sense of wonder, develop good theology through conversation, and grow in the community of the church. When Donkeys Talk offers a partial-but-skewed correction to our problems, and in doing so ends up being much less useful than it could have been.

In sum, I'd say this is certainly not the worst book you could pick up, but it's not the best either. I'm not completely convinced that it's weaknesses outweigh its strengths- though I am convinced that you'd be better served to read older Christian critiques of modernity (those by Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Kuyper, or J. Gresham Machen, for example). And I suspect that so far as I am saying that you should be reading older books than his, Mr. Blanski would agree.

This book was provided for free by the publisher on the condition that I review it. I was not required to write a positive review.