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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Eric Metaxas)

I received a copy of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy as a gift this summer (thanks Strunks!). It is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I’ve admired Bonhoeffer since reading another of his biographies many years ago.

The complexity of Bonhoeffer intrigues me. In fact, as I read this book I felt that he was being oversimplified at times. Without notes or transcripts on the matter we cannot recreate the full process that Bonhoeffer went through as he weighed his loyalty to God, to Germany, and to an ethical life. Many gaps exist between the written records and the words of witnesses.

I find it fascinating that Bonhoeffer struggled with some form of depression or sadness–he referred to it as acedia or tristizia–which he only revealed to his closest confidant, Eberhard Bethge. Despite this heaviness he managed to appear calm, happy, joyful, and peaceful. I’m curious if his outward demeanor is a representation of his concept of “living truth.” I plan to read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics to try to understand his concept of truth more clearly (I definitely believe with the simplified version Metaxas presents, which is that truth is more than just facts–and to paraphrase Bonhoeffer: a factual lie may contain more truth than a factual “truth”).

One of the things I like about Bonoeffer is his combined love of solitude and community. During a time of unrest while separated from close friends he wrote in his journal: “One is less lonely when one is alone.” Despite a penchant for solitude Bonhoeffer seemed to have many friends.

While a prisoner separated from the woman he loved Bonhoeffer wrote this about pain and longing:

Stifter once said, “Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men have become greater than through all joys of the world.” It must be so and I tell this to myself in my present position over and over again–the pain of longing which can often be felt even physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, that is the one of joy in God.

It makes me wonder if that was a daily reality for Dietrich. Was he able to feel that which he believed? Did the logic permeate his being? I hope so.

Changing gears, this was the first book written by Metaxas that I have read, and I found myself alternating between opinions on his writing. At times his phrasing was a bit confusing or jarring. He managed to use phrases like “. . . hemorrhoidal isometrics . . .” and “. . . double-barreled flatulence . . .” in all seriousness (reading the latter resulted in a mental rabbit trail rather juvenile in nature–most unfitting with the serious context in which it was presented).

I’ve read some reviews that question the accuracy of Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s theology, beliefs, and life. The main criticism is that he has presented Bonhoeffer as a modern evangelical American. I would agree that much of Bonhoeffer’s theology is presented very sparsely, and I do not know how accurately. I’m very curious about the very secular mindset of his family, which is not emphasized in the book. I’m also intrigued by the idea that theology may have began as a primarily academic pursuit for Bonhoeffer before meaning more to him.

I found this book interesting, challenging, and inspiring–well worth reading.

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Romola (George Eliot)

I’ve been reading through the complete works of George Eliot; this week I finished reading RomolaRomola caught my attention when I started reading Eliot’s books–for it is an outlier compared to her other novels. Instead of Victorian England, Eliot’s usual setting for her novels, Romola is set in 15th century Italy. Eliot was proud of the book, stating: “There is no book of mine about which I more thoroughly feel that I swear by every sentence as having been written with my best blood.” It came out to critical acclaim, though is not considered one of her better works now.

As I have read through Eliot’s books I’ve come to appreciate her style and some of her signature themes (in fact, I plan to write a future post about some of these themes). Romola had me conflicted. I loved the struggle and messiness of the humanity (one of Eliot’s specialties), yet I could not feel fully supportive of any character. I also failed to see how the book portrayed the empowerment of women in any way (one of the things this book is often praised for).

Here are some of my thoughts–fair warning, they will contain spoilers–so if you plan to read the book you might want to stop here. I’ll put a page break, so if you wish to proceed click through. . . Continue reading

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The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories: Coming in September

I recently mentioned that my appreciation for the font Garamond might be due to its use in the books of Dr Seuss. This morning I learned that The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories will be published this fall (see the NPR article that I saw). As the title suggests, it is a collection of Dr Seuss stories that have fallen from the public eye. According to Kate Klimo from Random House these are not throwaway stories from the beginning or end of Dr Seuss’ career: “The stories are as good as anything in the already-published canon and readers of all ages are in for a treat.” (Of course she is selling the book, so her opinion should be handled accordingly.)

Amazon already has the book listed (pre-order your copy now!). Here is the product description:

It’s the literary equivalent of buried treasure! Seuss scholar/collector Charles D. Cohen has hunted down seven rarely seen stories by Dr. Seuss. Originally published in magazines between 1948 and 1959, they include “The Bear, the Rabbit, and the Zinniga-Zanniga ” (about a rabbit who is saved from a bear with a single eyelash!); “Gustav the Goldfish” (an early, rhymed version of the Beginner Book A Fish Out of Water); “Tadd and Todd” (a tale passed down via photocopy to generations of twins); “Steak for Supper” (about fantastic creatures who follow a boy home in anticipation of a steak dinner); “The Bippolo Seed” (in which a scheming feline leads an innocent duck to make a bad decision); “The Strange Shirt Spot” (the inspiration for the bathtub-ring scene in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back); and “The Great Henry McBride” (about a boy whose far-flung career fantasies are only bested by those of the real Dr. Seuss himself).

I’m putting this on my fall reading list.

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Second Nature (Michael Pollan)

second_natureOne of my regrets is that I do not have as much time to read as I would like. The pile of books I want to read became too tall for my nightstand, some titles had to be returned to the shelf for the time being. Over the summer I received Michael Pollan’s Second Nature as a gift (thanks Richard and Rebecca!), and I moved it to the top of my list. I’ve read several of Pollan’s other books and really enjoyed them.

Michael Pollan is probably the closest equivalent I have to the average teenagers feelings for J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. His writing resonates with me. He talks about plants, ethics, art, and history. In his books he makes a strong connection to the human element, including many autobiographical stories as well as stories of people he has researched, spoken to, or spent time with.

Second Nature did not disappoint me. The book is a journey in critical thought, wrestling with the ideas of nature, gardening, and the role humans play. Some points that stuck with me, expressed in my own words:

The Practice of Exclusion

If you are trying to determine if a plant is a weed or not you’ll find that many different definitions exist. Through several stories Pollan tells of his initial feeling that plants and animals should not be discriminated against, and how quickly he learned that this mindset is one that will ruin a gardener (as he is driven to woodchuck terrorism and firebombs he comes to this conclusion). The role of a gardener is to bring some semblance of order to chaos.

Looking at Nature

Pollan posits that in looking at the interaction of humans and nature we tend to think of nature as being either virgin or violated. We leave small pockets of land untouched and are excessively protective of them, yet we devastate the majority of land because we feel it has already been violated. Protecting the small areas makes us feel better about ourselves. Pollan’s challenge is to think of human interaction with nature as a marriage. Instead of either exploiting or protecting we should be nurturing and caring for nature as we receive its benefits.

A Natural Landscape

The idea that nature should be restored to a state in which humans have no impact is not practical. In a story regarding Cathedral Pines Pollan talks about the complexity of restoring landscapes. Attempting to return a landscape to the condition it was in a few hundred years ago is often impractical. The world is changing rapidly and with it the definition of a natural landscape. Pollan points out that there is not a default state that is natural with a wonderful theoretical example of how an area reeling from a natural disaster could recover. In a short list of scenarios he shows how the presence or absence of effects like fire or wind could drastically influence the make-up of the landscape that populates the site. A natural landscape is an outcome of probabilities and tendencies, not an absolute.

Conclusion

The American Horticultural Society has designated it as one of the 75 greatest gardening books ever written, and I concur. The driving point is that nature is not a static thing, we’re dealing with second nature, a nature that is influenced by humans. This does not give us a free pass to simply decry that nature is dead and we are no longer responsible. As we learn from observing nature, actions have consequences. If we continue to abuse the natural resources we have it is likely that the human population will face a major reduction, which is a very natural consequence.

I enjoyed this book considerably. If you enjoy horticulture or think about environmental issues you should read this book. Of course as a big fan of Michael Pollan my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Before You Leap

I just finished reading Kermit the Frog’s self-help book Before You Leap: A Frog’s-Eye View of Life’s Greatest Lessons. The book is somewhat autobiographical, as Kermit draws on his life experiences from tadpole to mature frog to offer advice to his readers. Good puns, bad puns, and nearly criminally bad puns abound, as you might expect from any Muppets production.

In this book I learned many new facts about Kermit. Here are a few of them:

1) Kermit’s last name is the Frog.

2) Kermit has 2,352 siblings (though he says “As with all frog families, the number of siblings is always approximate. We tadpoles tend to mix and mingle upon entering the swamp, making an accurate head-and-tail count almost impossible, except for tax purposes.”)

3) Kermit attended a public school where the mascot was the Phighting Amphibians; he earned an A in entomology.

4) I was shocked to learn Kermit was not really discovered by an agent in the swamp. Instead he left the swamp by bike to pursue opportunities in show business in Washington D.C.

5) Kermit decided from the beginning he was willing to work naked to make it in show business.

6) Fozzie Bear is Kermit’s best friend.

7) Kermit’s relationship with Miss Piggy is even more volatile than I thought. Throughout most of the book he seems genuinely afraid of her.

When Kermit delves into self-help he touches on subjects like: The seven dreams of highly effective amphibians, When bad things happen to good frogs, Don’t sweat the small bugs, and Finding your inner tadpole.

Some pearls of wisdom from the green guy:

On why it’s easy being mean: “Being difficult at times is part of what it means to be human–or amphibian, for that matter.”

On exercise and television: “. . . Most of what passes for exercise these days is boring, unproductive, and painful. Hey, if I want to be bored, unproductive, and in pain, I can sit around and watch reality TV.”

On finding love: “. . . As my friend Smokey Robinson sang, you better shop around. But watch out for heavily discounted items because all sales are final.”

On scheduling free time: “Why is it so important to find something to do with your free time?  Because if you don’t, someone else will.”

In a time when research deadlines and stress abounded it was good to bring a little levity into my life. I really need to watch Muppet Treasure Island again soon. . .

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