The Library Basement
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Tag Luke Timothy Johnson

Readings for June 2017

Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson

You know what I like? A book which has 40% of its page count taken by end notes. If you like that sort of thing too, then Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson may be just the book for you. I picked this up from my church library and really enjoyed it, though it was a bit of slow read due to Johnson's dense scholarly language (again: love it).

The basic topic of this work is the Greco-Roman religious context of early Christianity. I have read quite a bit on the Jewish context of the church's beginnings, but honestly knew very little about what "paganism" was really all about. Johnson helpfully distills ancient Greek and Roman religious practice in to four broad categories. He then points out where both Judaism and Christianity may have rubbed shoulders with the religion of the empire during their development.

Spoiler alert: the conclusion is not "Christianity is a thin veil over paganism", as cover-story pop scholars will be disappointed to hear. I heartily recommend it, but I suggest you have some experience in reading academic texts in Christian history.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When I heard the next Colson Whitehead title had been published, I was ecstatic. However I must confess that when I heard that Underground Railroad had been selected for Oprah's Book Club, I got worried. Could it be that one of my favorite authors had become a commercial sell-out? How could an author as special as Whitehead gain traction with the wider audience such an endorsement bring?

I was wrong to despair. Underground Railroad is a good book, and more importantly, it is a good Colson Whitehead novel. It even won the National Book Award. Yes it got the Oprah nod, and I hope that the increased sales and publicity keep Whitehead clothed and fed long enough to pen many more books.

Another spoiler alert: the twist in this novel is that there is a literal underground railroad. As in, there's a ladder hidden under a trap door in someone's barn, and beneath there is a train platform, where a locomotive pulls in and carries runaway slaves to points further North. But that's not really what the book is about. You'll read about the horrors of slavery and the triumph of humanity in spite of that horrid institution. Recommended so that you too can run away with Cora to freedom.

Readings for August 2011

August was a rather prodigious month of reading for me. At the beginning of the month I was on a leisurely vacation, which always helps. I got through a lot, but there are always more books.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

If you want to read some straight-ahead sci-fi, Old Man's War is for you. Scalzi does an excellent job of mixing classical sci-fi elements with some unique contributions of his own. The novel is an engaging read, perfect for summer.

I did have some slightly different expectations about the significance of age in this story. Yes, the element of old age is integrated into the plot, but not into the theme in the way that I would have thought. But that is a problem with my expectations rather than with the book, so it is nonetheless Recommended.

All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest

[][]In my readings surrounding Christian pacifism and anarchism I have heard much about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. So when I saw that this revised and expanded biography was being published, I asked for it for my birthday, and was happily rewarded. I fully noted the irony of me reading about the life of someone who had taken a vow of poverty while spending a week relaxing on a houseboat.

The biography does a good job focusing on Dorothy up until the founding of the Catholic Worker. After that point her life and that of the movement become so entwined that it would be difficult to tell the story of one without the other. Still Forest is able to continue with enough personal insight into his subject's life in between the developments in the Catholic Worker.

The story is inspirational and challenging. Of tangential interest to me was just how alive and well socialism was as a political movement in the earlier parts of the 20th century in the United States. But Dorothy was about the practicality of helping the poor and resisting state power rather than promoting ideology. This is, I think, why she is being considered for canonization. Recommended.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had not read Good Omens until now. Luckily my vacation made this an easy mistake to rectify. The book is downright hilarious. Christian friends: grow a thick skin and learn to laugh, and you'll love it. Recommended.

Periodicals

I finished the August 2011 issues of Scientific American and Harper's this month. The most striking article came in the 9/11 remembrance genre: an account of the distortions of the justice system which have occurred in the wake of the attacks. If you care about American political ideals, Petra Bartosiewicz' article will make you mad.

Sharing Possessions by Luke T. Johnson

I knew I would be in for a treat when I found that renowned Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson had released a revision of his work of Christian ethics. It is a good thing for scholars to cross disciplines and bring their discoveries to bear on other concerns. Johnson I think does a splendid job in weakening the myth that the Bible teaches a normative posture toward possessions. Neither the Jerusalem commune of Acts nor the wealthy patrons of Corinth are the only way.

The author recommends the giving of alms as the go-to practice for Christians. Probably my biggest take-away from the book comes in how Johnson attacks state socialism not from political-ideological grounds, but from the standpoint of ideology: to measure equality qua possessions is to give possessions too great a place in determining the worth of people. If your idea of a just society is one in which every person has the exact same amount of stuff, you are unwittingly materialistic, as Johnson argues. Recommended.

Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky

[][]On September 20th, 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed the United Nations and commended to the nations a Noam Chomsky. This makes Hegemony or Survival very intriguing by default, and lead to big sales of the book.

I have yet to read a thorough criticism of a Chomsky book. I am sure they are out there somewhere. It could be useful since I sometimes get the feeling that Chomsky is pulling one over on his reader. The reliance on end notes and dismissing opponents objections with a casual wave of "does not deserve comment" seems like the tactics of a manipulator. Yet I have never found Chomsky's arguments nor evidence lacking, and he is compelling. My desire to doubt his work probably comes from the fact that his attestations and their implications make American patriotism incredibly uncomfortable.

This book is a bit hard to follow in its general scope, though it is quite understandable (if not dry) in the particulars. The basic theme is that the US is trying to dominate the world, and that for elite powers democracy (that is, the will of the people) is something which must be crushed when in opposition to official positions. I cannot really recommend this one Chomsky book over any other, but I think every American should read at least one of his books.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Once again Sanderson delivers. Mistborn happens to be the first in a trilogy, and I am lucky enough to have the next two volumes on my shelf. And a fourth in the Mistborn universe is coming out this winter. Oh yes, and there's The Way of Kings. Good time to be a fantasy fan.

Do yourself a favor and read Mistborn. It's not particularly sophisticated literature, but it is a good story and a really fun read. Recommended.

[]: http://thelibrarybasement.com/images/2011/09/Dorothy_Day.jpg []: http://thelibrarybasement.com/images/2011/09/chavez_chomsky_un.jpg

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