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Blake I. Collier | The Dirty Deacon

Contributor for Mockingbird | Co-creator of Son of Byford | Contributor for Christ & Pop Culture
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2012 books

On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, by Gerhard O. Forde, 1997.
Mind Blown. 
For only being one hundred and fifteen pages long, this book packs a knockout punch.  As I was reading, I came to a better understanding of some of the elements of The Bondage of the Will that still had not completely processed and I began to understand the radical nature of Luther’s “being a theologian of the cross.”  The concepts in this book demanded my attention in such an intense way that I am not at all sure where I should begin with this review.  Whatever comes after this sentence, just know that this book should be on everybody’s reading list for 2013 (Why even wait that long? There are still nine days left in 2012!). 
Forde sets out the ‘arch’ of the book (which is, by extension, the arch of the disputations) which goes from ‘the Law of God’ to ‘the Love of God’ and the way that arch is connected and completed is through the cross.  A good portion of the book is describing the difference between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. I am going to quote, at length, Forde’s understanding of the major distinction between these two types of theologians:
The theologian of glory sees through the cross so as to fit it into the scheme of works.  The cross “makes up” for failures along the glory road.  The upshot of it all is a fundamental misreading of reality.  The theologian of glory ends by calling evil good and good evil.  Works are good and suffering is evil.  The God who presides over this enterprise must therefore be excused from all blame for what was termed “evil.”  The theology of glory ends in a simplistic understanding of God.  God, according to philosophers like Plato, is not the cause of all things but only what we might call “good.”  It is hard to see how such a god could even be involved in the cross.
Theologians of the cross, however, “say what a thing is.”  That is a characteristic mark of theologians of the cross is that they learn to call a spade a spade.  Since the cross story alone is their story, they are not driven by the attempt to see through it, but are drawn into the story.  They know that faith means to live in the Christ of the story.  Likewise they do not believe that we come to proper knowledge of God by attempting to see through the created world to the “invisible things of God.”  So theologians of the cross look on all things “through suffering and the cross.”  They, in other words, are led by the cross to look at the trials, the sufferings, the pangs of conscience, the troubles—and joys—of daily life as God’s doing and do not try to see through them as mere accidental problems to be solved by metaphysical adjustment.  They are not driven to simplistic theodicies because with St. Paul they believe that God justifies himself precisely in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. 
This is the crux of Luther’s Disputations and of Forde’s clear and concise “translation” of concepts into a more contemporary format.  The thing I found absolutely astounding about this book was how Forde really brought out the solidity of Luther’s argument.  One thing you can say about Luther is that his low understanding of humanity is felt everywhere.  This addresses a central flaw of the modern program and its leftovers that are still felt in postmodernity, that reason, at the end of the day, is a useful tool, but it, too, is just as apt to work evil as any other element of humanity.  All things can be justified by reason if you work hard enough to do it.  But just because it can be rationally justified does not mean it is right, good, or true.  Luther, and Forde, see this flaw in the theologians of glory.  They are constantly looking past real events with real effects in order to get to the rationally-acceptable understanding of God.  In other words, they don’t allow God to be God, infinite and eternal and majestic and mysterious.  They must set up a system and then they claim that work as a form of spiritual pride.  It is just another facet of works-righteousness.  Always working to find favor with God or to control God.
Several segments of this book brought me back to the simple understanding that eventually brought me around to Reformed thinking in the first place.  The first time I heard the concept of breaking relationship with God by either lawlessness or lawfulness was in Tim Keller’s Prodigal God study when he prominently displayed plight of both brothers in the prodigal son parable (as does Forde here!).  This concept blew me away and it ripped my life apart because I was that older brother, I hid behind works and my self-righteousness because underneath it all I felt like I was not good enough and that I was not truly saved.  Forde’s reflections brought me back to that place of 3 or 4 years ago.  The beautiful thing about this book is how it is so logically consistent that one cannot help but be offended by the propositions set forth by Luther and explicated by Forde.  I really started to see other areas of my life where I was still clinging to works as my salvation.  Not only in my actions, but, also, in the simple way that God had to be controlled so I could comprehend Him.  And whenever I would make some headway, I used that, also, as a form of work.
There is so much that could be said about this book and I could go on and on, but, even now, I am not sure what was said in the book has completely punctured me yet.  I can only have faith that God’s spirit will work in me to depend solely on Him and not on anything that is of my own will.  I think this is a book that I will be coming back to time and time again.  Superb in so many ways.

On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, by Gerhard O. Forde, 1997.

Mind Blown. 

For only being one hundred and fifteen pages long, this book packs a knockout punch.  As I was reading, I came to a better understanding of some of the elements of The Bondage of the Will that still had not completely processed and I began to understand the radical nature of Luther’s “being a theologian of the cross.”  The concepts in this book demanded my attention in such an intense way that I am not at all sure where I should begin with this review.  Whatever comes after this sentence, just know that this book should be on everybody’s reading list for 2013 (Why even wait that long? There are still nine days left in 2012!). 

Forde sets out the ‘arch’ of the book (which is, by extension, the arch of the disputations) which goes from ‘the Law of God’ to ‘the Love of God’ and the way that arch is connected and completed is through the cross.  A good portion of the book is describing the difference between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. I am going to quote, at length, Forde’s understanding of the major distinction between these two types of theologians:

The theologian of glory sees through the cross so as to fit it into the scheme of works.  The cross “makes up” for failures along the glory road.  The upshot of it all is a fundamental misreading of reality.  The theologian of glory ends by calling evil good and good evil.  Works are good and suffering is evil.  The God who presides over this enterprise must therefore be excused from all blame for what was termed “evil.”  The theology of glory ends in a simplistic understanding of God.  God, according to philosophers like Plato, is not the cause of all things but only what we might call “good.”  It is hard to see how such a god could even be involved in the cross.

Theologians of the cross, however, “say what a thing is.”  That is a characteristic mark of theologians of the cross is that they learn to call a spade a spade.  Since the cross story alone is their story, they are not driven by the attempt to see through it, but are drawn into the story.  They know that faith means to live in the Christ of the story.  Likewise they do not believe that we come to proper knowledge of God by attempting to see through the created world to the “invisible things of God.”  So theologians of the cross look on all things “through suffering and the cross.”  They, in other words, are led by the cross to look at the trials, the sufferings, the pangs of conscience, the troubles—and joys—of daily life as God’s doing and do not try to see through them as mere accidental problems to be solved by metaphysical adjustment.  They are not driven to simplistic theodicies because with St. Paul they believe that God justifies himself precisely in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. 

This is the crux of Luther’s Disputations and of Forde’s clear and concise “translation” of concepts into a more contemporary format.  The thing I found absolutely astounding about this book was how Forde really brought out the solidity of Luther’s argument.  One thing you can say about Luther is that his low understanding of humanity is felt everywhere.  This addresses a central flaw of the modern program and its leftovers that are still felt in postmodernity, that reason, at the end of the day, is a useful tool, but it, too, is just as apt to work evil as any other element of humanity.  All things can be justified by reason if you work hard enough to do it.  But just because it can be rationally justified does not mean it is right, good, or true.  Luther, and Forde, see this flaw in the theologians of glory.  They are constantly looking past real events with real effects in order to get to the rationally-acceptable understanding of God.  In other words, they don’t allow God to be God, infinite and eternal and majestic and mysterious.  They must set up a system and then they claim that work as a form of spiritual pride.  It is just another facet of works-righteousness.  Always working to find favor with God or to control God.

Several segments of this book brought me back to the simple understanding that eventually brought me around to Reformed thinking in the first place.  The first time I heard the concept of breaking relationship with God by either lawlessness or lawfulness was in Tim Keller’s Prodigal God study when he prominently displayed plight of both brothers in the prodigal son parable (as does Forde here!).  This concept blew me away and it ripped my life apart because I was that older brother, I hid behind works and my self-righteousness because underneath it all I felt like I was not good enough and that I was not truly saved.  Forde’s reflections brought me back to that place of 3 or 4 years ago.  The beautiful thing about this book is how it is so logically consistent that one cannot help but be offended by the propositions set forth by Luther and explicated by Forde.  I really started to see other areas of my life where I was still clinging to works as my salvation.  Not only in my actions, but, also, in the simple way that God had to be controlled so I could comprehend Him.  And whenever I would make some headway, I used that, also, as a form of work.

There is so much that could be said about this book and I could go on and on, but, even now, I am not sure what was said in the book has completely punctured me yet.  I can only have faith that God’s spirit will work in me to depend solely on Him and not on anything that is of my own will.  I think this is a book that I will be coming back to time and time again.  Superb in so many ways.

The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther & trans. by J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston, 1957.
It seems altogether wrong to “review” a book of one of the Reformation fathers, especially Martin Luther, but I read it, therefore I shall endeavor to give my thoughts on it.  However, I first must say that The Bondage of the Will feels like the final puzzle piece in the theological deconstruction that I have dealt with during the last 5-6 years of my life.  Starting out from a soft Arminian position (or ‘Semi-Pelagian’ as Luther would call it) and moving further towards a Calvinist or Reformational position.  For some reason, growing up, I never seemed to view Luther as hardcore as he really is.  Calvin always received the repudiation of a good portion of people around me during my earlier days as a believer.  Luther was largely untouched though, so, wrongly, I considered him to be Calvin “lite.”  It, literally, wasn’t until I went to the Mockingbird conference back in September and heard the likes of Paul Zahl, R-J Heijman and John Zahl and their strong stance on the sovereignty of God, coming from a largely Luther-an theology, that I realized I should read some Luther and bring him out of speculation into the light.  Thus came The Bondage of the Will.  I picked it up this week and grew excited to read it.  It does not disappoint.  And, in some ways, I have come to view Calvin as Luther “lite.” 
Luther’s stronger language in vanquishing the concept of ‘free-will” is refreshing and highly logical while still being readable.  Admittedly, there are numerous occasions where the reiterations of similar concepts over and over again can be a little taxing, but it appears that Luther was taxed by it as well; however, he felt it was needed to correct the heresy that Erasmus, half-heartedly and sluggishly, supported.  Truly, this book was the death knell for my thoughts of free will.  It is hard to believe in it any longer considering some of the profound arguments that Luther brings to the table.  The Scripture is at the back of all that Luther propounds in this book.  Whether he is approaching the argument in response to Erasmus’ attacks or putting forth, positively, his own understanding of how grace and man interact, the effect is the same; free will dies a thousand deaths in the face of God’s sovereignty and grace.  I have come a long way and it truly seems as if God placed this book at this point in my life to seal the deal on suspicions that had been arising in my mind about how free our wills were. 
And contrary to popular belief, I have not come to find humanity as mere robots or puppets controlled by a puppet master like I used to think Calvinism necessitated.  Matter of fact, under a reformational view, humanity seems more alive and more free.  Grace, in its fullness, is simply astounding and mesmerizing and amazing.  As Luther states in this book, and other pastors have spoken of years later, we are all born Pelagians (thinking we can save ourselves outside the grace and mercy of God) and if we are captured by God then we often become Semi-Pelagian (thinking that, even though it is small, our wills do co-operate in the salvific work of God).  However, Luther, brilliantly states, in comparison to Pelagians, that the hypocrisy of the Semi-Pelagians, “in their valuing and seeking to purchase the grace of God at a much cheaper rate than the Pelagians.  The latter assert that it is not by a feeble something within us that we obtain grace, but by efforts and works that are complete, entire, perfect, many and mighty; but our friends here tell us that it is by something very small, almost nothing, that we merit grace.  Now, if there must be error, those who say that the grace of God is priced high, and account it dear and costly, err less shamefully and presumptuously than those who teach that its price is a tiny trifle, and account it cheap and contemptible” (p. 293-4).  This flair of rhetoric (which is most logical, as well) is detrimental to the cause of the free-will of humanity.  I am surely convinced by the passion and argumentation and exegesis of this reformation father.
It is also astounding to see just how passionate and courageous Luther was in pushing these views.  It makes many Christians today with their politically-correct rhetoric seem weak and rather compromising in the public square.  This is not to say that we should follow Luther’s example in every way, but he does present a strength and ferocity that is not often found in Christians today.  Not only does he logically destroy the need for the doctrine of free-will, but he also makes the reader passionate for the grace and mercy of God which comes from his overflowing love for his elect.  Grace is so starkly described by Luther that it is hard not to come away from the book without wanting to bring down the rhetoric of free will wherever it is found in the world.  This book is an astounding feat and one which I think philosophers and theologians have not given its due.  It is a tour de force theological import and one that every Christian should read whether you are already on his side of the spectrum, theologically, or not.  Regardless, your faith will be sharpened by experiencing this work.
I am, for one, now, a proponent of the un-free will.  And I am thankful for Luther for putting to death the last of my doubts.

The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther & trans. by J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston, 1957.

It seems altogether wrong to “review” a book of one of the Reformation fathers, especially Martin Luther, but I read it, therefore I shall endeavor to give my thoughts on it.  However, I first must say that The Bondage of the Will feels like the final puzzle piece in the theological deconstruction that I have dealt with during the last 5-6 years of my life.  Starting out from a soft Arminian position (or ‘Semi-Pelagian’ as Luther would call it) and moving further towards a Calvinist or Reformational position.  For some reason, growing up, I never seemed to view Luther as hardcore as he really is.  Calvin always received the repudiation of a good portion of people around me during my earlier days as a believer.  Luther was largely untouched though, so, wrongly, I considered him to be Calvin “lite.”  It, literally, wasn’t until I went to the Mockingbird conference back in September and heard the likes of Paul Zahl, R-J Heijman and John Zahl and their strong stance on the sovereignty of God, coming from a largely Luther-an theology, that I realized I should read some Luther and bring him out of speculation into the light.  Thus came The Bondage of the Will.  I picked it up this week and grew excited to read it.  It does not disappoint.  And, in some ways, I have come to view Calvin as Luther “lite.” 

Luther’s stronger language in vanquishing the concept of ‘free-will” is refreshing and highly logical while still being readable.  Admittedly, there are numerous occasions where the reiterations of similar concepts over and over again can be a little taxing, but it appears that Luther was taxed by it as well; however, he felt it was needed to correct the heresy that Erasmus, half-heartedly and sluggishly, supported.  Truly, this book was the death knell for my thoughts of free will.  It is hard to believe in it any longer considering some of the profound arguments that Luther brings to the table.  The Scripture is at the back of all that Luther propounds in this book.  Whether he is approaching the argument in response to Erasmus’ attacks or putting forth, positively, his own understanding of how grace and man interact, the effect is the same; free will dies a thousand deaths in the face of God’s sovereignty and grace.  I have come a long way and it truly seems as if God placed this book at this point in my life to seal the deal on suspicions that had been arising in my mind about how free our wills were. 

And contrary to popular belief, I have not come to find humanity as mere robots or puppets controlled by a puppet master like I used to think Calvinism necessitated.  Matter of fact, under a reformational view, humanity seems more alive and more free.  Grace, in its fullness, is simply astounding and mesmerizing and amazing.  As Luther states in this book, and other pastors have spoken of years later, we are all born Pelagians (thinking we can save ourselves outside the grace and mercy of God) and if we are captured by God then we often become Semi-Pelagian (thinking that, even though it is small, our wills do co-operate in the salvific work of God).  However, Luther, brilliantly states, in comparison to Pelagians, that the hypocrisy of the Semi-Pelagians, “in their valuing and seeking to purchase the grace of God at a much cheaper rate than the Pelagians.  The latter assert that it is not by a feeble something within us that we obtain grace, but by efforts and works that are complete, entire, perfect, many and mighty; but our friends here tell us that it is by something very small, almost nothing, that we merit grace.  Now, if there must be error, those who say that the grace of God is priced high, and account it dear and costly, err less shamefully and presumptuously than those who teach that its price is a tiny trifle, and account it cheap and contemptible” (p. 293-4).  This flair of rhetoric (which is most logical, as well) is detrimental to the cause of the free-will of humanity.  I am surely convinced by the passion and argumentation and exegesis of this reformation father.

It is also astounding to see just how passionate and courageous Luther was in pushing these views.  It makes many Christians today with their politically-correct rhetoric seem weak and rather compromising in the public square.  This is not to say that we should follow Luther’s example in every way, but he does present a strength and ferocity that is not often found in Christians today.  Not only does he logically destroy the need for the doctrine of free-will, but he also makes the reader passionate for the grace and mercy of God which comes from his overflowing love for his elect.  Grace is so starkly described by Luther that it is hard not to come away from the book without wanting to bring down the rhetoric of free will wherever it is found in the world.  This book is an astounding feat and one which I think philosophers and theologians have not given its due.  It is a tour de force theological import and one that every Christian should read whether you are already on his side of the spectrum, theologically, or not.  Regardless, your faith will be sharpened by experiencing this work.

I am, for one, now, a proponent of the un-free will.  And I am thankful for Luther for putting to death the last of my doubts.

Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, 2012.
This book was offered to me by my best friend with a question attached to it.  He asked me to read it and then let him know what I thought of the main character, Shin, who he found to be still a relatively bad person.  He wanted me to give my thoughts on Shin after I read the book.  So that is what the main concern of this review will be.  The book, itself, is just under 200 pages, fairly simple and to the point.  It was an easy read and it was easy to see that it was written by a journalist.  There is nothing flashy about this book, which, I think, allows for the actual story to tell itself better, because the author’s presence is limited.  However, it is the story that is the most remarkable and extremely dark element of the book overall.
Shin was born in a North Korean prison camp (Camp 14) which North Korea denies having within their borders to this very day, even though any one with Google Earth can see the outlines of these compounds on their computer screen.  The political prisoners were there because of what their brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents did against the North Korean government.  They assigned marriages in the camps and the children born were born in the camp and camp life and morality was all they knew.  Shin was one of those kids born into the camp. Education was sparse outside of Korean grammar and celebrations of the birthdays of Kim Jong Il and his son, who succeeded him.  Most of what they learned was how to do hard labor and to snitch on everybody including their families (which often led to the death or severe punishment of those who were snitched on).  It was the way of survival in the camps.  Shin became quite good at it, even though he himself was often punished as well for what others told on him.  The thing that comes out in the book, which still haunts him to this day, is that he was the person who snitched on his mother and brother’s escape plan leading to their brutal deaths, which Shin and his father numbered among the viewers.  Shin hated his mother, but her death in front of his very own eyes continued to weigh on him. 
There were only two people in the camp that taught him compassion and love, though he had never heard those terms in his life.  One nursed him back to health in an underground prison after they had hung him from a cell ceiling over fire and basically allowed his back to be roasted.  And the other would be the man who brought the idea of escape into Shin’s own mind.  Park, who would play a sacrificial part in Shin’s escape, became as much of a confidante as anyone could be to Shin, who was always hesitant to trust people.  Nonetheless, Shin was able to escape into China and through a pretty impressive and “lucky” journey was able to find safety in Seoul, South Korea.  He eventually made it to America and worked for an NGO called LiNK.  However, the nightmares continued from the camp and his adjustment was only very little and largely by his own doing.  He became a believer and would do short speaking engagements at churches and other places, but nothing he said moved people because he was unwilling to be open about his own experience.  Those who worked with him found him to give into fits of anger and would complain about the work given to him.  He met a girl, but he never considered himself someone who could love and they broke up 6 months later.  The story doesn’t necessarily end on a purely positive note.  He did escape, but his future was in question by the last words of the book.  He had become a wanderer with no applied goals in mind.  He wanted to be an activist but his past held him back from healing and from going further towards those goals.  If you expect a perfectly happy ending, you won’t get it here.  This kind of evil haunts forever.
What do I think of Shin?  I think given the circumstances he found himself in growing up, everyone would have become a monster, causing the death of other people in the camp to save our lives.  To say anything different would be to suppose our superiority over Shin and to give ourselves the very easily come by American individualistic response of “we can change our own destinies and we control what we do and who we are.”  The older I get, the more I realize the experiential falsity of this.  I would have been the same as Shin, no doubt.  And I probably would have had the same problems in adjusting to life after my escape as well.  Shin couldn’t control the circumstances he was born into, but it, too, doesn’t excuse his actions.  But if any of us really believe that Shin was really in control of his life and could make himself heal and make himself better by his own means, then our judgment will surely come shortly after.  If we see Shin controlled by several influences that bred sin and that Shin, himself, was sinful and not in control of his own wrong desires, then we can start to have compassion for him.
Shin isn’t a good person, to answer by friend’s question.  But neither am I.  Shin is not a good person…he is just a person in need of grace, not the Law.  Just like me.

Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, 2012.

This book was offered to me by my best friend with a question attached to it.  He asked me to read it and then let him know what I thought of the main character, Shin, who he found to be still a relatively bad person.  He wanted me to give my thoughts on Shin after I read the book.  So that is what the main concern of this review will be.  The book, itself, is just under 200 pages, fairly simple and to the point.  It was an easy read and it was easy to see that it was written by a journalist.  There is nothing flashy about this book, which, I think, allows for the actual story to tell itself better, because the author’s presence is limited.  However, it is the story that is the most remarkable and extremely dark element of the book overall.

Shin was born in a North Korean prison camp (Camp 14) which North Korea denies having within their borders to this very day, even though any one with Google Earth can see the outlines of these compounds on their computer screen.  The political prisoners were there because of what their brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents did against the North Korean government.  They assigned marriages in the camps and the children born were born in the camp and camp life and morality was all they knew.  Shin was one of those kids born into the camp. Education was sparse outside of Korean grammar and celebrations of the birthdays of Kim Jong Il and his son, who succeeded him.  Most of what they learned was how to do hard labor and to snitch on everybody including their families (which often led to the death or severe punishment of those who were snitched on).  It was the way of survival in the camps.  Shin became quite good at it, even though he himself was often punished as well for what others told on him.  The thing that comes out in the book, which still haunts him to this day, is that he was the person who snitched on his mother and brother’s escape plan leading to their brutal deaths, which Shin and his father numbered among the viewers.  Shin hated his mother, but her death in front of his very own eyes continued to weigh on him. 

There were only two people in the camp that taught him compassion and love, though he had never heard those terms in his life.  One nursed him back to health in an underground prison after they had hung him from a cell ceiling over fire and basically allowed his back to be roasted.  And the other would be the man who brought the idea of escape into Shin’s own mind.  Park, who would play a sacrificial part in Shin’s escape, became as much of a confidante as anyone could be to Shin, who was always hesitant to trust people.  Nonetheless, Shin was able to escape into China and through a pretty impressive and “lucky” journey was able to find safety in Seoul, South Korea.  He eventually made it to America and worked for an NGO called LiNK.  However, the nightmares continued from the camp and his adjustment was only very little and largely by his own doing.  He became a believer and would do short speaking engagements at churches and other places, but nothing he said moved people because he was unwilling to be open about his own experience.  Those who worked with him found him to give into fits of anger and would complain about the work given to him.  He met a girl, but he never considered himself someone who could love and they broke up 6 months later.  The story doesn’t necessarily end on a purely positive note.  He did escape, but his future was in question by the last words of the book.  He had become a wanderer with no applied goals in mind.  He wanted to be an activist but his past held him back from healing and from going further towards those goals.  If you expect a perfectly happy ending, you won’t get it here.  This kind of evil haunts forever.

What do I think of Shin?  I think given the circumstances he found himself in growing up, everyone would have become a monster, causing the death of other people in the camp to save our lives.  To say anything different would be to suppose our superiority over Shin and to give ourselves the very easily come by American individualistic response of “we can change our own destinies and we control what we do and who we are.”  The older I get, the more I realize the experiential falsity of this.  I would have been the same as Shin, no doubt.  And I probably would have had the same problems in adjusting to life after my escape as well.  Shin couldn’t control the circumstances he was born into, but it, too, doesn’t excuse his actions.  But if any of us really believe that Shin was really in control of his life and could make himself heal and make himself better by his own means, then our judgment will surely come shortly after.  If we see Shin controlled by several influences that bred sin and that Shin, himself, was sinful and not in control of his own wrong desires, then we can start to have compassion for him.

Shin isn’t a good person, to answer by friend’s question.  But neither am I.  Shin is not a good person…he is just a person in need of grace, not the Law.  Just like me.

Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, by Paul F.M. Zahl, 2007.
This is the most aggravating book I have read this year.  It is also the most profound book I have read all year.  At the Mockingbird Conference in September, people kept telling me about this book and how it convicts and challenges, but, I admit, I was skeptical.  Not anymore.  I feel like I got into a violent bar fight with myself; broken bottles, fists, slobbery blood and all.  I have not felt that way since I saw Modest Mouse in concert at Sasquatch in 2011.  Isaac Brock’s affinity for Bukowski, Nietzsche, and everything nihilistic and his gradual drunkenness giving an edge to his venomous lyrics as the two hour concert proceeded, made for a painful but highly effective concert.  This was an example of the world without grace and I felt bloodied.  This book, however, was attempting to show what grace looks like in everyday life and, again, I feel bloodied.  Maybe Flannery O’Connor was more right than even I could guess, that violence precedes and follows the grace of God.
Paul Zahl, I have decided, is not out to agree with people’s systems of thought.  He is out to unsettle them from their very foundations.  The first third of the book, or so, is the theological foundations for a “theology of everyday life” or a practical theology of grace.  He starts out with four pillars of his theology: the human condition (original sin, total depravity and the un-free will), Soteriology, Christology and the being of God.  Setting this down firmly, but with great wit, he then moves on to three areas of everyday life and how grace invades those areas: family, society and church. 
I said this was an aggravating book in part because elements of what he says are edgy and are on the surface going against my own viewpoints.  However, as he continues, its hard to not, at least, see where he is coming from and recognize the direction of his critique.  In the first part of the book (the theological foundations), I did take offense to his naming of elements of the book of Amos as Semi-Pelagian.  If there is a single book of the Bible that works me over more and more, it is Amos.  And, though, I am not sure that, in the end, I agree with this accusation, I could see where he was coming from.  That is the magic of Paul Zahl.  He will say something to knock you out of your self-made complacency to think about things in another direction.  Doesn’t mean you will agree with everything, but you will, at least, agree with why he makes those claims. 
In the largest portion of the book, he drops one bomb after another, reshaping and rethinking relationships with people, with the state and with the church under the realm of grace.  If you are not in a wrestling match with yourself during the majority of this book, then I am convinced you may be too far gone to be reached.  The most bloodying part of the book for me was Zahl’s view of the church, or a Christian’s ecclesiology.  Part of me was thinking that his critiques were just a product of post-modern critiques of institutions that is so cliche in the broader realm of Christendom.  However, by the time you have made it to that point and learned the theological foundations, learned how it works in the family and society, it is hard to leave that critique to stand on its own.  A lot of what he says about the church is true, too true.  And though I am still giving myself right hooks and cutting myself with a broken Shiner Bock bottle over that last part of the book (and various other elements of the book, as well), I find more and more validity to his concerns and his critiques.  Once again, will I ultimately agree?  Maybe, maybe not.  But he delivers the blows that need to be delivered. 
That being said, there were parts of the book that were like, “Finally, someone sees it the way I do.”  Especially when it came to grace in society.  I have already come to a position that is largely pacifist and pro-life in all instances (as in death penalty, self-defense, etc., not just abortion).  However, Zahl even unsettled me there too.  He checked the idealistic nature of my pacifism.  His understanding that idealism usually accompanies a high view of human anthropology (or, high view of the human condition) is largely true.  The “If I am a pacifist in my life, and others are too, then the world will be better and will progress toward a greater good” argument is a misunderstanding of the world and humans.  Living in grace means failure, suffering, loss and losing the battle most of the time, if not all of the time!  Being a pacifist should not give us high hopes of progress and human empowerment, but, instead, should prepare us to lose, so that God can then work in our powerlessness. 
All of this, the challenges and the agreements of this book are like the scene in The Dark Knight Rises when Bane breaks Batman’s back and Batman has to learn how to walk again.  It is the same thing for me in reading this book.  Paul Zahl has broken my back, and started breaking my control, my will (though that will be a life-long affair), so that I might see my life and my life in relation to others through the lens of grace instead of the law.  Grace engenders what the Law couldn’t.  The Law only multiplied sins, but the grace of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought about the obedience to the Law that the Law couldn’t produce.  Just like Abraham believed in the promises of God, first, and then was obedient, we, too, need to allow grace to break our backs, so that we may start to be obedient to God and his will.  O’Connor was right when, time and time again, she proclaimed that it took violence to break our wills so that God could then do his will in us, which, too, was violence in the mortifying of the flesh; the justification and sanctification of his people.
Kudos to Paul Zahl for making me have the internal, bloody, conflict with myself.  At the end of the day, whoever wins, I still lose.  And I thank God for that.

Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, by Paul F.M. Zahl, 2007.

This is the most aggravating book I have read this year.  It is also the most profound book I have read all year.  At the Mockingbird Conference in September, people kept telling me about this book and how it convicts and challenges, but, I admit, I was skeptical.  Not anymore.  I feel like I got into a violent bar fight with myself; broken bottles, fists, slobbery blood and all.  I have not felt that way since I saw Modest Mouse in concert at Sasquatch in 2011.  Isaac Brock’s affinity for Bukowski, Nietzsche, and everything nihilistic and his gradual drunkenness giving an edge to his venomous lyrics as the two hour concert proceeded, made for a painful but highly effective concert.  This was an example of the world without grace and I felt bloodied.  This book, however, was attempting to show what grace looks like in everyday life and, again, I feel bloodied.  Maybe Flannery O’Connor was more right than even I could guess, that violence precedes and follows the grace of God.

Paul Zahl, I have decided, is not out to agree with people’s systems of thought.  He is out to unsettle them from their very foundations.  The first third of the book, or so, is the theological foundations for a “theology of everyday life” or a practical theology of grace.  He starts out with four pillars of his theology: the human condition (original sin, total depravity and the un-free will), Soteriology, Christology and the being of God.  Setting this down firmly, but with great wit, he then moves on to three areas of everyday life and how grace invades those areas: family, society and church. 

I said this was an aggravating book in part because elements of what he says are edgy and are on the surface going against my own viewpoints.  However, as he continues, its hard to not, at least, see where he is coming from and recognize the direction of his critique.  In the first part of the book (the theological foundations), I did take offense to his naming of elements of the book of Amos as Semi-Pelagian.  If there is a single book of the Bible that works me over more and more, it is Amos.  And, though, I am not sure that, in the end, I agree with this accusation, I could see where he was coming from.  That is the magic of Paul Zahl.  He will say something to knock you out of your self-made complacency to think about things in another direction.  Doesn’t mean you will agree with everything, but you will, at least, agree with why he makes those claims. 

In the largest portion of the book, he drops one bomb after another, reshaping and rethinking relationships with people, with the state and with the church under the realm of grace.  If you are not in a wrestling match with yourself during the majority of this book, then I am convinced you may be too far gone to be reached.  The most bloodying part of the book for me was Zahl’s view of the church, or a Christian’s ecclesiology.  Part of me was thinking that his critiques were just a product of post-modern critiques of institutions that is so cliche in the broader realm of Christendom.  However, by the time you have made it to that point and learned the theological foundations, learned how it works in the family and society, it is hard to leave that critique to stand on its own.  A lot of what he says about the church is true, too true.  And though I am still giving myself right hooks and cutting myself with a broken Shiner Bock bottle over that last part of the book (and various other elements of the book, as well), I find more and more validity to his concerns and his critiques.  Once again, will I ultimately agree?  Maybe, maybe not.  But he delivers the blows that need to be delivered. 

That being said, there were parts of the book that were like, “Finally, someone sees it the way I do.”  Especially when it came to grace in society.  I have already come to a position that is largely pacifist and pro-life in all instances (as in death penalty, self-defense, etc., not just abortion).  However, Zahl even unsettled me there too.  He checked the idealistic nature of my pacifism.  His understanding that idealism usually accompanies a high view of human anthropology (or, high view of the human condition) is largely true.  The “If I am a pacifist in my life, and others are too, then the world will be better and will progress toward a greater good” argument is a misunderstanding of the world and humans.  Living in grace means failure, suffering, loss and losing the battle most of the time, if not all of the time!  Being a pacifist should not give us high hopes of progress and human empowerment, but, instead, should prepare us to lose, so that God can then work in our powerlessness. 

All of this, the challenges and the agreements of this book are like the scene in The Dark Knight Rises when Bane breaks Batman’s back and Batman has to learn how to walk again.  It is the same thing for me in reading this book.  Paul Zahl has broken my back, and started breaking my control, my will (though that will be a life-long affair), so that I might see my life and my life in relation to others through the lens of grace instead of the law.  Grace engenders what the Law couldn’t.  The Law only multiplied sins, but the grace of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought about the obedience to the Law that the Law couldn’t produce.  Just like Abraham believed in the promises of God, first, and then was obedient, we, too, need to allow grace to break our backs, so that we may start to be obedient to God and his will.  O’Connor was right when, time and time again, she proclaimed that it took violence to break our wills so that God could then do his will in us, which, too, was violence in the mortifying of the flesh; the justification and sanctification of his people.

Kudos to Paul Zahl for making me have the internal, bloody, conflict with myself.  At the end of the day, whoever wins, I still lose.  And I thank God for that.

Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian, 2012.
Tullian Tchividjian has a distinct spot on my short list of Christian pastor/authors because of his book, Do I Know God?, which helped me with some of my own doubts about whether I was saved or not and the uncertainty about the certainty of salvation.  That book was hugely helpful for me and I love hearing him preach as well.  He is firm and forthright with his emphasis on the sovereignty of God and this book is no different in its stellar undermining of those who think we are in control of our lives, that we can, in effect, save ourselves.  What Glorious Ruin does is show us that it is our self-salvation projects that normal create or worsen our suffering.  As the Rev. R-J Heijman talked about at the Mockingbird conference back in September, Christians are notorious for doing everything they can to absolve a God who has no interest in absolving Himself.  We, as humans, are good at sabotaging our own life, especially when it comes to minimizing or moralizing our own grief and suffering.
That is ultimately what this book is about: looking at our suffering with renewed eyes of faith and not depleting our own suffering (because all do suffer in various degrees) in the face of those things that we view as truly tragic.  Tchividjian attempts to look at the Bible and show how suffering was handled in the text and then pulling out the truths that can help us look at our suffering realistically and within the scope of God’s sovereign economy of grace.  He also looks at various examples of how the culture and the modern church attempts to handle suffering and how those approaches fail in the long term.  They either attempt to view it in the light of a Karmic give-and-take of good and bad people getting what they deserve, thereby moralizing suffering, or using our suffering as a way to “become better people,” or the Oprah-fication of suffering, which minimizes suffering in the end.  This is a book that could potentially change the landscape of how Christians look at their own and others’ suffering.  Instead of looking at ourselves for the answers and comforts, we look to our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer in faith and rely on him to work His good through our suffering. 
David Zahl, who was a significant editor (and more!) for this book, has his fingerprints and conversational prose very present in the writing of this book.  That aspect, in and of itself, is enough to pick this book up.  Once again, Tchividjian doesn’t take the easy road with easy, consoling answers to the subject at hand, but instead honestly searches out the complexities of suffering and shows how it all points to the God of the Bible.  The book is imminently readable which shows why I was able to finish it within a day of travel by airplanes and airports on my way to Kansas City, MO last week.  One more book to recommend from Tullian and it is a significant one for him.

Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian, 2012.

Tullian Tchividjian has a distinct spot on my short list of Christian pastor/authors because of his book, Do I Know God?, which helped me with some of my own doubts about whether I was saved or not and the uncertainty about the certainty of salvation.  That book was hugely helpful for me and I love hearing him preach as well.  He is firm and forthright with his emphasis on the sovereignty of God and this book is no different in its stellar undermining of those who think we are in control of our lives, that we can, in effect, save ourselves.  What Glorious Ruin does is show us that it is our self-salvation projects that normal create or worsen our suffering.  As the Rev. R-J Heijman talked about at the Mockingbird conference back in September, Christians are notorious for doing everything they can to absolve a God who has no interest in absolving Himself.  We, as humans, are good at sabotaging our own life, especially when it comes to minimizing or moralizing our own grief and suffering.

That is ultimately what this book is about: looking at our suffering with renewed eyes of faith and not depleting our own suffering (because all do suffer in various degrees) in the face of those things that we view as truly tragic.  Tchividjian attempts to look at the Bible and show how suffering was handled in the text and then pulling out the truths that can help us look at our suffering realistically and within the scope of God’s sovereign economy of grace.  He also looks at various examples of how the culture and the modern church attempts to handle suffering and how those approaches fail in the long term.  They either attempt to view it in the light of a Karmic give-and-take of good and bad people getting what they deserve, thereby moralizing suffering, or using our suffering as a way to “become better people,” or the Oprah-fication of suffering, which minimizes suffering in the end.  This is a book that could potentially change the landscape of how Christians look at their own and others’ suffering.  Instead of looking at ourselves for the answers and comforts, we look to our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer in faith and rely on him to work His good through our suffering. 

David Zahl, who was a significant editor (and more!) for this book, has his fingerprints and conversational prose very present in the writing of this book.  That aspect, in and of itself, is enough to pick this book up.  Once again, Tchividjian doesn’t take the easy road with easy, consoling answers to the subject at hand, but instead honestly searches out the complexities of suffering and shows how it all points to the God of the Bible.  The book is imminently readable which shows why I was able to finish it within a day of travel by airplanes and airports on my way to Kansas City, MO last week.  One more book to recommend from Tullian and it is a significant one for him.

Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody, by John Zahl, 2012.
One thing that every person must learn at some point: one never grew strong in thinking or faith by only reading those books that agree with you.  Challenge and constant discomfort in our thinking and faith is appropriate (and I think proper).  Now, normally I would not have read this book mainly because I knew nothing about AA outside of the fact that it seemed to be fairly successful.  I, also, like Zahl states, was willing to judge an organization without any knowledge of it and insist upon its presupposed heresy because it was not fully accepted within the Christian church or within the strict confines of established practices of Christian counseling.  However, there were two things that brought this book to my attention.  One was the fact that I actually had the honor of meeting John Zahl at the Mockingbird Conference last September in Charlottesville, VA.  A truly humble and enjoyable fellow who loves disco from the late 70s and early 80s and can talk hip/hop with the best of them.  He was incredibly endearing and it says something when he is an ordained Episcopal Reverend who went through AA’s Twelve Steps himself.  These steps were a significant factor in his coming back to the faith and going into ministry.  The second reason I had to read this was my ever-increasing addiction to grace.  Seeing how grace practically plays out in the real world is amazing to read about and to see.  It didn’t hurt that the Mockingbird conference, itself, tore me apart during that day and a half and brought me back to the Texas Panhandle refreshed.
The book’s chapters follow after the twelve individual (but interconnected) steps that AA practices.  Zahl goes about, with wonderful skill and wit, giving explanation and depth to each of these steps which both informs the reader and corrects their misunderstandings of what AA actually teaches.  Another aspect of this book that is brilliant is that Zahl sets out to show how AA actually does a better job of practicing grace than most modern American churches do.  Where most churches sink into the abyss of moral improvement and human will-to-be-better, AA actually works under a very real and workable program of allowing God’s work to be done in the midst of addiction and suffering; ultimately showing that it isn’t until we start to realize that we can’t save ourselves or make ourselves better that grace comes.  It is at the end of man’s power, that faith takes hold.  The subtext of the book is that God is very present in our inabilities.  His grace abounds in our sufferings.  Because humans are constantly depending on themselves and giving credit to themselves in the good times, sometimes it takes suffering to deconstruct us and make us dependent on a sovereign God.  According to John Zahl, this is the ultimate program of AA and he makes a persuasive and thoughtful case for church’s to embrace AA and learn from it, and vice versa. 
There are some brilliant insights in this book and it is utterly practical.  As the title states, Zahl proposes how these steps can help all sinners, all who are addicted to something that is lesser than God.  The beautiful thing about these steps is that I could even see the usefulness of these steps in my own life, not because I can improve myself or fix my own sin, but because, ultimately, these steps teach sinners to stop their self-saving projects and give in to God and his grace and mercy.  Prayer, honesty, humility and love are central aspects of the AA twelve steps.  They are meant to help us learn to be dependent on the very God who brought us into this world, gave us our breath and our names and our personalities and everything we have and sustains us every moment.  And the question comes, “In the midst of this understand of who God is, why do we think we can control our way out of our sins?”  The Law ultimately revealed the sinful nature of man and multiplied their sins.  But we live in the excesses of God’s grace, where we look to what Christ accomplished instead of what we did.  Saving ourselves is, not only impossible, but is ultimately putting ourselves under the very thing that condemned us in the first place.  And the result?  In the case, of the alcoholic, drunkenness and relapse.  In the case of all sinners, sinfulness and relapse.  
This book satisfies what I view as my own plight with my individual sins and how, the harder I try to fix them myself, I keep falling back into them.  It also satisfies me from a Biblical perspective because all of the reliance and action is done on the part of God.  All we bring to the table is sin and supplication.  Now, did I agree with everything that was in here?  No, not on the surface, but going back to what I said at the beginning of this review, I think it is good that he challenges me in my personal stances.  Will I be persuaded, ultimately? Not necessarily, but maybe.  Too soon to tell.  But, regardless, with a book as well written and solid as this, it is important that I allow it to wash over me and push me on my personal beliefs.  
Iron sharpens iron, after all, right?  I think so.  And I am thankful for this wonderfully sharp piece of iron.  It was a joy to read and relentlessly practical.  And it shows me that grace is all that is needed in a life that searches for its own control.  Thanks be to God.

Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody, by John Zahl, 2012.

One thing that every person must learn at some point: one never grew strong in thinking or faith by only reading those books that agree with you.  Challenge and constant discomfort in our thinking and faith is appropriate (and I think proper).  Now, normally I would not have read this book mainly because I knew nothing about AA outside of the fact that it seemed to be fairly successful.  I, also, like Zahl states, was willing to judge an organization without any knowledge of it and insist upon its presupposed heresy because it was not fully accepted within the Christian church or within the strict confines of established practices of Christian counseling.  However, there were two things that brought this book to my attention.  One was the fact that I actually had the honor of meeting John Zahl at the Mockingbird Conference last September in Charlottesville, VA.  A truly humble and enjoyable fellow who loves disco from the late 70s and early 80s and can talk hip/hop with the best of them.  He was incredibly endearing and it says something when he is an ordained Episcopal Reverend who went through AA’s Twelve Steps himself.  These steps were a significant factor in his coming back to the faith and going into ministry.  The second reason I had to read this was my ever-increasing addiction to grace.  Seeing how grace practically plays out in the real world is amazing to read about and to see.  It didn’t hurt that the Mockingbird conference, itself, tore me apart during that day and a half and brought me back to the Texas Panhandle refreshed.

The book’s chapters follow after the twelve individual (but interconnected) steps that AA practices.  Zahl goes about, with wonderful skill and wit, giving explanation and depth to each of these steps which both informs the reader and corrects their misunderstandings of what AA actually teaches.  Another aspect of this book that is brilliant is that Zahl sets out to show how AA actually does a better job of practicing grace than most modern American churches do.  Where most churches sink into the abyss of moral improvement and human will-to-be-better, AA actually works under a very real and workable program of allowing God’s work to be done in the midst of addiction and suffering; ultimately showing that it isn’t until we start to realize that we can’t save ourselves or make ourselves better that grace comes.  It is at the end of man’s power, that faith takes hold.  The subtext of the book is that God is very present in our inabilities.  His grace abounds in our sufferings.  Because humans are constantly depending on themselves and giving credit to themselves in the good times, sometimes it takes suffering to deconstruct us and make us dependent on a sovereign God.  According to John Zahl, this is the ultimate program of AA and he makes a persuasive and thoughtful case for church’s to embrace AA and learn from it, and vice versa. 

There are some brilliant insights in this book and it is utterly practical.  As the title states, Zahl proposes how these steps can help all sinners, all who are addicted to something that is lesser than God.  The beautiful thing about these steps is that I could even see the usefulness of these steps in my own life, not because I can improve myself or fix my own sin, but because, ultimately, these steps teach sinners to stop their self-saving projects and give in to God and his grace and mercy.  Prayer, honesty, humility and love are central aspects of the AA twelve steps.  They are meant to help us learn to be dependent on the very God who brought us into this world, gave us our breath and our names and our personalities and everything we have and sustains us every moment.  And the question comes, “In the midst of this understand of who God is, why do we think we can control our way out of our sins?”  The Law ultimately revealed the sinful nature of man and multiplied their sins.  But we live in the excesses of God’s grace, where we look to what Christ accomplished instead of what we did.  Saving ourselves is, not only impossible, but is ultimately putting ourselves under the very thing that condemned us in the first place.  And the result?  In the case, of the alcoholic, drunkenness and relapse.  In the case of all sinners, sinfulness and relapse.  

This book satisfies what I view as my own plight with my individual sins and how, the harder I try to fix them myself, I keep falling back into them.  It also satisfies me from a Biblical perspective because all of the reliance and action is done on the part of God.  All we bring to the table is sin and supplication.  Now, did I agree with everything that was in here?  No, not on the surface, but going back to what I said at the beginning of this review, I think it is good that he challenges me in my personal stances.  Will I be persuaded, ultimately? Not necessarily, but maybe.  Too soon to tell.  But, regardless, with a book as well written and solid as this, it is important that I allow it to wash over me and push me on my personal beliefs.  

Iron sharpens iron, after all, right?  I think so.  And I am thankful for this wonderfully sharp piece of iron.  It was a joy to read and relentlessly practical.  And it shows me that grace is all that is needed in a life that searches for its own control.  Thanks be to God.

Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh, 2009.
This book was recommended to me by a friend at church and the very subject was intriguing and wholly personal to my own demeanor.  I have always known myself to be introverted, but didn’t fully realize how that really affected my identity.  If McHugh is accurate in his discussion of what being introverted is, how they tick and what that means living in an extroverted culture, then I am profoundly introverted.  Not every single little description fit me to the tee, but the larger picture that was painted described my understanding of my own personality quite vividly.  Even putting words to things I have noticed and felt, but never could explain.  It is comforting to see a subject that is so largely overlooked in our society today being tackled and applied to the church as well.  I am introverted and the subject never came to my mind…must be comfortable (and resigned?) with the fact that we are living in an overly extroverted world, where quantitative words rule over qualitative silences.
Hi, my name is Blake. And I am an introvert. 
McHugh covers a wide range of issues that surround the larger culture (and their subsequent manifestations in the American church) and how they exclude the introverted personality.  Everything from formation of relationships, to group work, to speaking is analyzed with the introvert in view.  What McHugh does well is point out the obvious lack of attention paid to those with the introverted personality and how it seems that the trajectory of the modern American society makes those of us who are not extroverted feel like something is wrong with us, like our personality is off, instead of just beautifully and divinely designed…differently.  He does a great job of placing church, evangelism and discipleship in the language and voice of the introverted personality.  I, personally, found his explanation of the introversion and our gifts to be encouraging and, instead of thinking myself weird or eccentric, I can view myself as just filling a need that is not found to be elemental to the extrovert. 
As helpful as I think this book is, McHugh does, at times, seem to equate or turn the introverted mind and personality into some form of mystical Christianity.  Now, I love reading Christian mystics and monks and find that they are often maligned because they don’t fit perfectly into a dogmatic mold that, especially Protestants, has a set theology and program, even though when we are at our most honest, we know that all of the teaching, training and schooling will lead us to nothing more than bended knee and trembling in the presence of a glorious Father.  But, some of the ways he mentioned for churches to work towards including introverts, seem, to me, to be a bit of an over-correction.  I, personally, may lean towards those practices and the liturgy of more traditional services, but I don’t necessarily find this to be mandatory in the space of the church life.  But I did appreciate McHugh’s ideas about forming a church worship and experience around including elements that make both extroverts and introverts uncomfortable in order to stretch them in a beneficial way.
The only other problem I had with the book overall was the fact that I felt he didn’t address the issues inherent in being an introvert that could lead to sin and broken relationships.  He covered a lot of those things throughout the book, but I think he would have been better off in devoting a whole chapter towards thoughtfully, honestly and compassionately laying out where the introvert goes wrong and where they desperately need the grace of God to come in and transform those elements of their personality that are not God-honoring.  I know, in my own life, I can tell how being an introvert allows for sin to come up fairly naturally in my own life.  And I know that as much as I love being the way I am, its probably not all good to be that way.  I think his book would have done wonders if he had been a little more critical of the introvert’s personality—not to malign us or reinforce our feeling of second-class status—so that we may be both encourage and exhorted to depend on God who, both, made us with these distinct personalities, but wants us to be who we were truly meant to be in the economy of grace.
I highly recommend this book for all of the introverts, like me, out there, because it does encourage us to look for how we are to fit into a larger culture and into the whole of the body of believers.

Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh, 2009.

This book was recommended to me by a friend at church and the very subject was intriguing and wholly personal to my own demeanor.  I have always known myself to be introverted, but didn’t fully realize how that really affected my identity.  If McHugh is accurate in his discussion of what being introverted is, how they tick and what that means living in an extroverted culture, then I am profoundly introverted.  Not every single little description fit me to the tee, but the larger picture that was painted described my understanding of my own personality quite vividly.  Even putting words to things I have noticed and felt, but never could explain.  It is comforting to see a subject that is so largely overlooked in our society today being tackled and applied to the church as well.  I am introverted and the subject never came to my mind…must be comfortable (and resigned?) with the fact that we are living in an overly extroverted world, where quantitative words rule over qualitative silences.

Hi, my name is Blake. And I am an introvert.

McHugh covers a wide range of issues that surround the larger culture (and their subsequent manifestations in the American church) and how they exclude the introverted personality.  Everything from formation of relationships, to group work, to speaking is analyzed with the introvert in view.  What McHugh does well is point out the obvious lack of attention paid to those with the introverted personality and how it seems that the trajectory of the modern American society makes those of us who are not extroverted feel like something is wrong with us, like our personality is off, instead of just beautifully and divinely designed…differently.  He does a great job of placing church, evangelism and discipleship in the language and voice of the introverted personality.  I, personally, found his explanation of the introversion and our gifts to be encouraging and, instead of thinking myself weird or eccentric, I can view myself as just filling a need that is not found to be elemental to the extrovert. 

As helpful as I think this book is, McHugh does, at times, seem to equate or turn the introverted mind and personality into some form of mystical Christianity.  Now, I love reading Christian mystics and monks and find that they are often maligned because they don’t fit perfectly into a dogmatic mold that, especially Protestants, has a set theology and program, even though when we are at our most honest, we know that all of the teaching, training and schooling will lead us to nothing more than bended knee and trembling in the presence of a glorious Father.  But, some of the ways he mentioned for churches to work towards including introverts, seem, to me, to be a bit of an over-correction.  I, personally, may lean towards those practices and the liturgy of more traditional services, but I don’t necessarily find this to be mandatory in the space of the church life.  But I did appreciate McHugh’s ideas about forming a church worship and experience around including elements that make both extroverts and introverts uncomfortable in order to stretch them in a beneficial way.

The only other problem I had with the book overall was the fact that I felt he didn’t address the issues inherent in being an introvert that could lead to sin and broken relationships.  He covered a lot of those things throughout the book, but I think he would have been better off in devoting a whole chapter towards thoughtfully, honestly and compassionately laying out where the introvert goes wrong and where they desperately need the grace of God to come in and transform those elements of their personality that are not God-honoring.  I know, in my own life, I can tell how being an introvert allows for sin to come up fairly naturally in my own life.  And I know that as much as I love being the way I am, its probably not all good to be that way.  I think his book would have done wonders if he had been a little more critical of the introvert’s personality—not to malign us or reinforce our feeling of second-class status—so that we may be both encourage and exhorted to depend on God who, both, made us with these distinct personalities, but wants us to be who we were truly meant to be in the economy of grace.

I highly recommend this book for all of the introverts, like me, out there, because it does encourage us to look for how we are to fit into a larger culture and into the whole of the body of believers.

The Descent, by Jeff Long, 1999.
By no means as scary as I was expecting it to be, this still made for an interesting journey into the depths of “Hell.”  No, it’s not the eternal hell that is touted in several religions, including my own, Christianity, but, instead, some form of physical hell located beneath the surface of the earth.  A race of people is found beneath the surface (named ‘hadals’) and are considered to be demonic and have some of the physical traits of demons and those expected to be dwellers of the darkness.  However, as the book goes along, the characterization of these people below the surface become more ambiguous and “human” and not near as evil.  That, however, does not stop a group of ivory tower dwellers from searching for the “historical Satan” which, by the end of the book, they almost give up on until he finally comes to strike them down.  They send a devout, independent female “nun” into the depths of the earth to search for this Satan.  At this point the book veers into parallel narratives, one above and one below ground. 
The characters are, for the most part, well drawn, but largely inconsistent.  The most consistent (and the most interesting one) is Ike, the mountaineer-turned-hadal-turned-human-again, who gives the most suspense in the whole book as to what side he is really on.  Admittedly, you are certain what side by about 2/3 into the book.  Funny enough, his counterpart, Ali, the devout linguist, I find to be the least consistent character in the book.  Considering her background and intelligence, she seems rather naive and displays a few too many characteristics that betray her devout Catholic status.  I pen this more on Jeff Long, the author, who I presume is not a believer and is probably somewhat ignorant about what devout believers are like and make them into people who are just as finicky as anyone else.  This has not been my experience with true believers on the whole and I think he would have been better off making Ali stronger in her faith and, perhaps, more cynical about what she was exploring and less trusting of this “Beowulf club” that sent her down into the depths.
Some of the images of the beings down below were effectively drawn and creepy, but, on the whole, the suspense was killed by a strange, unneeded love story and several disposable characters that amounted to nothing but mere talking heads spouting nothing but naturalistic explanations for some events and discoveries that betray natural explanation.  That is not to say that the book was horrible, because there was much to like about it, but it largely suffered from great expectations and low turnout.  And good portions of the plot were wholly irritatingly bad devices that seemed insignificant if the reader actually thought about them.  On the upside, I found the social commentary about imperialism to be quite vivid in the narrative.  Long was smart to bring in this element which gave the whole story a condemning aspect which critiqued the fates of nations that unilaterally smothered invaded territories.  But not even this element was able to save the book as a whole.

The Descent, by Jeff Long, 1999.

By no means as scary as I was expecting it to be, this still made for an interesting journey into the depths of “Hell.”  No, it’s not the eternal hell that is touted in several religions, including my own, Christianity, but, instead, some form of physical hell located beneath the surface of the earth.  A race of people is found beneath the surface (named ‘hadals’) and are considered to be demonic and have some of the physical traits of demons and those expected to be dwellers of the darkness.  However, as the book goes along, the characterization of these people below the surface become more ambiguous and “human” and not near as evil.  That, however, does not stop a group of ivory tower dwellers from searching for the “historical Satan” which, by the end of the book, they almost give up on until he finally comes to strike them down.  They send a devout, independent female “nun” into the depths of the earth to search for this Satan.  At this point the book veers into parallel narratives, one above and one below ground. 

The characters are, for the most part, well drawn, but largely inconsistent.  The most consistent (and the most interesting one) is Ike, the mountaineer-turned-hadal-turned-human-again, who gives the most suspense in the whole book as to what side he is really on.  Admittedly, you are certain what side by about 2/3 into the book.  Funny enough, his counterpart, Ali, the devout linguist, I find to be the least consistent character in the book.  Considering her background and intelligence, she seems rather naive and displays a few too many characteristics that betray her devout Catholic status.  I pen this more on Jeff Long, the author, who I presume is not a believer and is probably somewhat ignorant about what devout believers are like and make them into people who are just as finicky as anyone else.  This has not been my experience with true believers on the whole and I think he would have been better off making Ali stronger in her faith and, perhaps, more cynical about what she was exploring and less trusting of this “Beowulf club” that sent her down into the depths.

Some of the images of the beings down below were effectively drawn and creepy, but, on the whole, the suspense was killed by a strange, unneeded love story and several disposable characters that amounted to nothing but mere talking heads spouting nothing but naturalistic explanations for some events and discoveries that betray natural explanation.  That is not to say that the book was horrible, because there was much to like about it, but it largely suffered from great expectations and low turnout.  And good portions of the plot were wholly irritatingly bad devices that seemed insignificant if the reader actually thought about them.  On the upside, I found the social commentary about imperialism to be quite vivid in the narrative.  Long was smart to bring in this element which gave the whole story a condemning aspect which critiqued the fates of nations that unilaterally smothered invaded territories.  But not even this element was able to save the book as a whole.

In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, by Eugene Thacker, 2011.
This book was a trip.  It is, by no means, a book that can be completely comprehended within a week’s time (and maybe not ever), because of the heavy philosophical elements that are heavy in Thacker’s analysis.  Thacker does a bang up job of taking sources from literature, TV, film, philosophy, religion and mysticism and breaking them down in order to approach his central thesis which is simply put as: “…the argument of this book is that ‘horror’ is a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically.”  The breakdown of the book surrounds the distinctions of the World (world-for-us), Earth (world-in-itself) and Planet (world-without-us).  The general sense of this book is generating a “dark mysticism” in the face of a world that is largely indifferent to the hope and desires of humanity and, in the beliefs of the author, in the wake of the “death of God.” 
While I reject Thacker’s ultimate presuppositions about God being dead and not relevant in this modern day and age, I am in complete amazement at how well he was able to describe the limits of philosophy and the limits of human understanding.  Thacker sees elements throughout history of things that cannot always be explained logically, philosophically (with any consensus, anyways) or scientifically.  He finds a rather egotistical element to thought in every way.  Whenever we think about the world, or life, or existence, we always have in mind how it affects humanity and all of our analysis surrounds how it is useful to us.  Thacker intends to set aside man’s ego in analysis of the larger worlds that we confront.  At the same time, Thacker shows just how difficult it is to think about such things without taking the human perspective out of it.  This is, in part, why he searches for a religionless mysticism, a mysticism that deals with staring an uncaring cosmos in the face and then living in the face of it while recognizing that we, too, are a part of the larger world.  
Even though Thacker is running on the presupposition that there is no God, much of his perspective and analysis are extremely truthful in the light of a world with a present, loving God.  Time and time again, I am amazed at his insistence that man is bound by its limitations in thought and control.  And the insistence that the world outside of our limited perspective is so much wider than what sufficient reason and science can explain.  This, too, could be carried over to God who is, himself, largely hidden except for his self-revelation.  He is holy, or completely other.  He is not controlled or reactionary to what we do and think. 
The downside to Thacker’s perspective is exactly because he refuses to see that the simple fact of what these limitations really tell us about our situation.  Staring into that dark, indifferent abyss can only come to two final conclusions.  One is either Camus’ perspective of either living with the absurdity of life without God or committing suicide…or that there is a God beyond us, beyond our finite comprehension and that there is something beyond this life.  And when we all get down to it, those really are the only two options at the end of the day…in the dust of the planet.
This book, if you are willing to wade through the high language, is so marvelous in how it approaches what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror.”  It is exactly that, staring into the dark void, into the deep black abyss of those “principle elements,” as it is stated in Galatians, that should send a proper and existentially real shiver up our spines.  It is this horror that will make us hit our knees in reverence of the one true being that deserves our fear, the God of the Bible.

In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, by Eugene Thacker, 2011.

This book was a trip.  It is, by no means, a book that can be completely comprehended within a week’s time (and maybe not ever), because of the heavy philosophical elements that are heavy in Thacker’s analysis.  Thacker does a bang up job of taking sources from literature, TV, film, philosophy, religion and mysticism and breaking them down in order to approach his central thesis which is simply put as: “…the argument of this book is that ‘horror’ is a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically.”  The breakdown of the book surrounds the distinctions of the World (world-for-us), Earth (world-in-itself) and Planet (world-without-us).  The general sense of this book is generating a “dark mysticism” in the face of a world that is largely indifferent to the hope and desires of humanity and, in the beliefs of the author, in the wake of the “death of God.” 

While I reject Thacker’s ultimate presuppositions about God being dead and not relevant in this modern day and age, I am in complete amazement at how well he was able to describe the limits of philosophy and the limits of human understanding.  Thacker sees elements throughout history of things that cannot always be explained logically, philosophically (with any consensus, anyways) or scientifically.  He finds a rather egotistical element to thought in every way.  Whenever we think about the world, or life, or existence, we always have in mind how it affects humanity and all of our analysis surrounds how it is useful to us.  Thacker intends to set aside man’s ego in analysis of the larger worlds that we confront.  At the same time, Thacker shows just how difficult it is to think about such things without taking the human perspective out of it.  This is, in part, why he searches for a religionless mysticism, a mysticism that deals with staring an uncaring cosmos in the face and then living in the face of it while recognizing that we, too, are a part of the larger world.  

Even though Thacker is running on the presupposition that there is no God, much of his perspective and analysis are extremely truthful in the light of a world with a present, loving God.  Time and time again, I am amazed at his insistence that man is bound by its limitations in thought and control.  And the insistence that the world outside of our limited perspective is so much wider than what sufficient reason and science can explain.  This, too, could be carried over to God who is, himself, largely hidden except for his self-revelation.  He is holy, or completely other.  He is not controlled or reactionary to what we do and think. 

The downside to Thacker’s perspective is exactly because he refuses to see that the simple fact of what these limitations really tell us about our situation.  Staring into that dark, indifferent abyss can only come to two final conclusions.  One is either Camus’ perspective of either living with the absurdity of life without God or committing suicide…or that there is a God beyond us, beyond our finite comprehension and that there is something beyond this life.  And when we all get down to it, those really are the only two options at the end of the day…in the dust of the planet.

This book, if you are willing to wade through the high language, is so marvelous in how it approaches what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror.”  It is exactly that, staring into the dark void, into the deep black abyss of those “principle elements,” as it is stated in Galatians, that should send a proper and existentially real shiver up our spines.  It is this horror that will make us hit our knees in reverence of the one true being that deserves our fear, the God of the Bible.

Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by Mara Leveritt, 2002.
With all of the criticism and hatred that is often directed at the horror genre by all sorts of people, nothing shown on the silver screen can ever resonate as horrifyingly with people as true stories of evil.  This book tells the tale of three 8 year old boys who were savagely tortured, sexually attacked and killed and were disposed of in a man-made “river” running through a forest in a small wood in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  The events surrounding the investigation and the eventual arrest, trials and convictions of three teenagers for the murder of these three boys is recounted in vivid detail in Leveritt’s account.  The truly graphic descriptions of the found bodies, the evidence of torture and sexual activity is more horrible than anything a horror movie could place out there.  That is because this isn’t sensationalized, but real and blunt and beyond imagination. 
I originally picked this book to read during October because of the supposed occult elements that surrounded the case and the three teenagers who were convicted of the murders.  I figured the history of the occult and of cults have always provided truly frightening elements and would fit nicely into my month, however what I found was that there was something more horrifying than anything related to the occult: the incompetence shown by the West Memphis PD and the utter failure of the state justice system, and by extension, the American justice system as a whole.  Admittedly, the book is written in such a way that there should only be one response, outrage at the miscarriage of justice that was carried out in this case.  Leveritt, even though in parts of the book she claims to be looking at the case “rationally,” it is easy to see what her goal was, to show these failures.  However, even if you were to take away her often prejudiced wording from the source material, you would be hard-pressed to not find yourself in agreement with Leveritt in the end.  So, really, by the end of the book, the bias of the author really doesn’t affect reflections on the book as a whole.  This is the most maddening book I have ever read.  Judge Burton, especially, was on the receiving end of my internal rants against the story being told.  The man comes off as the most prejudicial judge I have ever heard about.  Matter of fact, at times, I felt like I needed to repent of some of my thoughts about his role in the whole matter.  That is how much this story angered me.
If Leveritt’s point was to bring out an emotional response to the situation of the West Memphis Three, then she easily succeeded with me.  The book was highly effective and brought me into a world in which the darker side of the Bible Belt is shown as playing a part in the injustice that took place.  I am a devout Christian, but I have no illusions about how the Christian church has had its fair share of playing into the hands of the prince of this world.  If nothing else, this book shows the effects of a Christianity that only embraces the Law and is totally devoid of grace.  The populace and officials of West Memphis, generally-speaking, refused to look for the truth but, instead, settled for ignorance and grotesque misrepresentations. 
The most chilling statement of the book is on the final page as one of the three accused and charged of murdering those three boys, Jason Baldwin, reflects on the charges against him and his time in prison (close to ten years after the murders):
“‘Being in here [prison] has made me stronger,’ he said.  ‘It’s made me more reflective on things I should be proud of and enjoy, things like freedom.  I don’t take things for granted.  And I’m not as naive as I was.  The reason I’m here—the real reason—is that someone had to pay the price.’ [emphasis added]  Jason said that the police and prosecutor had been ‘content just to say we did it’ and that that had been ‘enough’ for the public.  But he added that he understood the public reaction.  ‘I used to think that way too,’ he said.  ‘To me, a suspect meant, ‘That’s who done it.’  But I didn’t do it, and that’s the main matter.’” (p. 344)
Jason Baldwin understood, whether he realized it fully or not, what tons of Christians in Arkansas never caught onto during, what some call, the modern-day witch hunt.  He recognized that transgressions had to be paid for, that there was a price for evil and sin in this world.  And he recognized that that price is not always paid by the person who deserves it.  He understood the public’s reaction, their chant to make these three boys pay for the crime.  The price had to be paid.  I am getting goosebumps as I write this and read his quotes again, because his understanding reminds me of another man who was unjustly accused, put on trial, beaten and tortured and put to death.  He, too, understood that a price had to be paid for the sin and evil in the world.  He, too, was completely innocent.  Yet he went to his death without resistance and paid the price that we all deserved.  Jason Baldwin gets it.  He gets the very substance of grace.  He is forgiving of those who put him in his situation and is willing to live out his sentence in hope of release.  Christ, however, went further.  He was completely innocent in every way and obeyed the Law perfectly and yet died the worst criminal’s death.  He was resurrected on the third day and delivered the final blow to the forces of evil.  It is by his actions that grace is given to all of us who have faith in Christ.  The substance of grace is not getting what you deserved, but also realizing that freedom came at a great cost to someone who in no way deserved the punishment.  Whoever actually killed those three boys is out there and they have been shown grace whether they realize it or not.  Three guys are sitting in prison right now, taking the punishment for the evil that he/she wrought.  If this picture of grace does not break into our consciousness and shatter our superiority and self-righteousness, then we have missed the whole illustration presented to us in this book.  And that, well, that is the greatest shame of all.

Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by Mara Leveritt, 2002.

With all of the criticism and hatred that is often directed at the horror genre by all sorts of people, nothing shown on the silver screen can ever resonate as horrifyingly with people as true stories of evil.  This book tells the tale of three 8 year old boys who were savagely tortured, sexually attacked and killed and were disposed of in a man-made “river” running through a forest in a small wood in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  The events surrounding the investigation and the eventual arrest, trials and convictions of three teenagers for the murder of these three boys is recounted in vivid detail in Leveritt’s account.  The truly graphic descriptions of the found bodies, the evidence of torture and sexual activity is more horrible than anything a horror movie could place out there.  That is because this isn’t sensationalized, but real and blunt and beyond imagination. 

I originally picked this book to read during October because of the supposed occult elements that surrounded the case and the three teenagers who were convicted of the murders.  I figured the history of the occult and of cults have always provided truly frightening elements and would fit nicely into my month, however what I found was that there was something more horrifying than anything related to the occult: the incompetence shown by the West Memphis PD and the utter failure of the state justice system, and by extension, the American justice system as a whole.  Admittedly, the book is written in such a way that there should only be one response, outrage at the miscarriage of justice that was carried out in this case.  Leveritt, even though in parts of the book she claims to be looking at the case “rationally,” it is easy to see what her goal was, to show these failures.  However, even if you were to take away her often prejudiced wording from the source material, you would be hard-pressed to not find yourself in agreement with Leveritt in the end.  So, really, by the end of the book, the bias of the author really doesn’t affect reflections on the book as a whole.  This is the most maddening book I have ever read.  Judge Burton, especially, was on the receiving end of my internal rants against the story being told.  The man comes off as the most prejudicial judge I have ever heard about.  Matter of fact, at times, I felt like I needed to repent of some of my thoughts about his role in the whole matter.  That is how much this story angered me.

If Leveritt’s point was to bring out an emotional response to the situation of the West Memphis Three, then she easily succeeded with me.  The book was highly effective and brought me into a world in which the darker side of the Bible Belt is shown as playing a part in the injustice that took place.  I am a devout Christian, but I have no illusions about how the Christian church has had its fair share of playing into the hands of the prince of this world.  If nothing else, this book shows the effects of a Christianity that only embraces the Law and is totally devoid of grace.  The populace and officials of West Memphis, generally-speaking, refused to look for the truth but, instead, settled for ignorance and grotesque misrepresentations. 

The most chilling statement of the book is on the final page as one of the three accused and charged of murdering those three boys, Jason Baldwin, reflects on the charges against him and his time in prison (close to ten years after the murders):

“‘Being in here [prison] has made me stronger,’ he said.  ‘It’s made me more reflective on things I should be proud of and enjoy, things like freedom.  I don’t take things for granted.  And I’m not as naive as I was.  The reason I’m here—the real reason—is that someone had to pay the price.’ [emphasis added]  Jason said that the police and prosecutor had been ‘content just to say we did it’ and that that had been ‘enough’ for the public.  But he added that he understood the public reaction.  ‘I used to think that way too,’ he said.  ‘To me, a suspect meant, ‘That’s who done it.’  But I didn’t do it, and that’s the main matter.’” (p. 344)

Jason Baldwin understood, whether he realized it fully or not, what tons of Christians in Arkansas never caught onto during, what some call, the modern-day witch hunt.  He recognized that transgressions had to be paid for, that there was a price for evil and sin in this world.  And he recognized that that price is not always paid by the person who deserves it.  He understood the public’s reaction, their chant to make these three boys pay for the crime.  The price had to be paid.  I am getting goosebumps as I write this and read his quotes again, because his understanding reminds me of another man who was unjustly accused, put on trial, beaten and tortured and put to death.  He, too, understood that a price had to be paid for the sin and evil in the world.  He, too, was completely innocent.  Yet he went to his death without resistance and paid the price that we all deserved.  Jason Baldwin gets it.  He gets the very substance of grace.  He is forgiving of those who put him in his situation and is willing to live out his sentence in hope of release.  Christ, however, went further.  He was completely innocent in every way and obeyed the Law perfectly and yet died the worst criminal’s death.  He was resurrected on the third day and delivered the final blow to the forces of evil.  It is by his actions that grace is given to all of us who have faith in Christ.  The substance of grace is not getting what you deserved, but also realizing that freedom came at a great cost to someone who in no way deserved the punishment.  Whoever actually killed those three boys is out there and they have been shown grace whether they realize it or not.  Three guys are sitting in prison right now, taking the punishment for the evil that he/she wrought.  If this picture of grace does not break into our consciousness and shatter our superiority and self-righteousness, then we have missed the whole illustration presented to us in this book.  And that, well, that is the greatest shame of all.

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986, by Adam Rockoff, 2002.
As opposed to David Skal’s cultural history of horror that I read last week, Rockoff’s take on the slasher film from the late 70s to the mid 80s is more straightforward and not hampered by excessively used psycho-sexual theories.  Rockoff, in fact, combats some of those theories that have been applied to the slasher film, while showing their validity in other areas.  Rockoff’s book is a must read for anyone who has become endeared to the slasher sub-genre over the years or newcomers that may have only seen the likes of Scream or any of the slashers that followed it.  Either way this book enlightens the reader to the history of the genre reaching all the way back to Psycho in 1960 and going forward to the time that Rockoff wrote the book in 2002.  Directing major attention to the three main franchises of the early slasher movement—Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, Rockoff points at how these franchises both gave form and success to the subgenre while at the same time causing any films outside of these franchises to have to fight to share any of the love given by slasher fans. 
The book gives appropriate amounts of information about the plots of the movies and all of the drama that usually surrounded the making of the films and their constant war with the censors.  The thing that Rockoff does the best of all is explaining the most significant elements that are essential to the traditional slasher, drawing patterns from successful slasher films to less successful ones that tried to copy the formula of the successful ones, and recognizing how each film toyed with the conventions of the genre and how they were received by fans and by critics.  Very few genres shared the kind of contentious existence that the slasher did, no critics or censors took the genre seriously and flooded most of the films with negative feedback.  However, all of the naysayers were shown to be false prophets when they said that the slasher film would suffer a quick death in film history.  Still to this day, slashers are being made annually and bringing in anywhere from mediocre to mainstream film success numbers.  Something in the subgenre connects with people, especially in America and, it seems, in Italy. 
As much as I enjoyed this book and found it to be a nice change from the overly sexualized analysis of the last author, I did find the book to be a little flat is digging into the depths of why these films were so successful, why they connected at different points with the younger generations of society, and whether or not any of them could truly be considered art in the sense of say Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese.  There are some elements to the book that would have been improved if Rockoff would have interacted with interpretative theories about the sub genre which he could have done well without making the mistake of taking on a singluar interpretative theory as his whole basis like Skal did. 
The book, overall, gives a great overview of the history of the slasher film and makes for an interesting read especially hearing some of the backgrounds of the directors and writers of these films.  If I had been writing this book, however, I would have dedicated a final chapter to dealing with what it is, in fact, that makes the slasher so successful.  What elements really attracted people to come out in droves to see them and what elements were subversive and negative for the culture to partake in.  There are just a lot of deeper questions that needed to be answered and Rockoff doesn’t intend to discuss such questions.  I still found this book to be truly enjoyable and one that I shall keep in my collection for a long while.

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986, by Adam Rockoff, 2002.

As opposed to David Skal’s cultural history of horror that I read last week, Rockoff’s take on the slasher film from the late 70s to the mid 80s is more straightforward and not hampered by excessively used psycho-sexual theories.  Rockoff, in fact, combats some of those theories that have been applied to the slasher film, while showing their validity in other areas.  Rockoff’s book is a must read for anyone who has become endeared to the slasher sub-genre over the years or newcomers that may have only seen the likes of Scream or any of the slashers that followed it.  Either way this book enlightens the reader to the history of the genre reaching all the way back to Psycho in 1960 and going forward to the time that Rockoff wrote the book in 2002.  Directing major attention to the three main franchises of the early slasher movement—Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, Rockoff points at how these franchises both gave form and success to the subgenre while at the same time causing any films outside of these franchises to have to fight to share any of the love given by slasher fans. 

The book gives appropriate amounts of information about the plots of the movies and all of the drama that usually surrounded the making of the films and their constant war with the censors.  The thing that Rockoff does the best of all is explaining the most significant elements that are essential to the traditional slasher, drawing patterns from successful slasher films to less successful ones that tried to copy the formula of the successful ones, and recognizing how each film toyed with the conventions of the genre and how they were received by fans and by critics.  Very few genres shared the kind of contentious existence that the slasher did, no critics or censors took the genre seriously and flooded most of the films with negative feedback.  However, all of the naysayers were shown to be false prophets when they said that the slasher film would suffer a quick death in film history.  Still to this day, slashers are being made annually and bringing in anywhere from mediocre to mainstream film success numbers.  Something in the subgenre connects with people, especially in America and, it seems, in Italy. 

As much as I enjoyed this book and found it to be a nice change from the overly sexualized analysis of the last author, I did find the book to be a little flat is digging into the depths of why these films were so successful, why they connected at different points with the younger generations of society, and whether or not any of them could truly be considered art in the sense of say Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese.  There are some elements to the book that would have been improved if Rockoff would have interacted with interpretative theories about the sub genre which he could have done well without making the mistake of taking on a singluar interpretative theory as his whole basis like Skal did. 

The book, overall, gives a great overview of the history of the slasher film and makes for an interesting read especially hearing some of the backgrounds of the directors and writers of these films.  If I had been writing this book, however, I would have dedicated a final chapter to dealing with what it is, in fact, that makes the slasher so successful.  What elements really attracted people to come out in droves to see them and what elements were subversive and negative for the culture to partake in.  There are just a lot of deeper questions that needed to be answered and Rockoff doesn’t intend to discuss such questions.  I still found this book to be truly enjoyable and one that I shall keep in my collection for a long while.

The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, by David J. Skal, 1993.
I always find it interesting learning more about the history of a subject that I am interested in; horror is no different.  David Skal’s book is an interesting dissection of the horror industry in America and how its creation of the archetypal monsters was reactionary to wars, sexuality, etc.  Someone who is willing to weather possible criticism by putting out an overarching narrative to their history of a subject has my props in the end whether I agree with their perspective or not.  Skal puts forth the monster concepts of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde and Freaks as a form of archetype for the development of horror in general, showing very little distancing from any of these types.  Very simply put, he finds, in most horror, some form of these monsters present.  This is why a significant portion of the book deals with the conceptual and ideological development of these monsters from the 1800s to their film presences in the 20s and 30s.  In order to put forth his thesis of an overarching “monster” narrative, he has to make it very clear how these types were created and brought into the mainstream consciousness of society.  It is from this beginning segment of the book that he is able to trace through the off-shooting streams of horror in America. 
It is, in my opinion, this point where the book begins to fall apart.  I don’t find Skal successfully carrying this thesis throughout the rest of his analysis of the horror genres that developed post-golden age.  I think he starts simplifying some of the later sub-genres of horror that come after the golden age too much in order for his thesis to still hold.  At times, it seems like he drops his main thesis altogether to address, what come off, as side agendas like horror’s response to wars and the subsequent scarring of the bodies and psychology of soldiers and the AIDs issue in the 80s along with the arrival of the more mainstream and public homosexuality in the society.  He attempts to tie all of it into how they relate to Frankenstein and Dracula, but it seems trivial at best.  His grand narrative thesis becomes little more than a soapbox towards the last quarter of the book.  In the beginning he served up a thesis that was to guide his understanding through the rest of the history of horror, but, somewhere along the way, the thesis stopped guiding him and he started guiding the thesis to fit his more social agendas. 
On top of this, I fear that Skal runs the risk of what seems to be en vogue for interpretation since Freud, that all things should be interpreted from a strictly psycho-sexual perspective.  He, in earlier parts of the book, mentions Freud and his theories and reduces people like Tod Browning and James Whale to nothing but sexual beings and nothing more.  The problem with this psycho-sexual interpretation is that it narrows the human to a mere monolithic sexuality, not a person.  Homosexual and heterosexual persons are more than their sexuality, they are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers, believers, unbelievers, Republican, Democrat, etc.  Yes, sexuality is a significant part of who they are, but it is not totalizing as the modern mentality seems to make it.  Plus, Freudian theory has largely been left behind by even the most naturalistic psychologists.  It just doesn’t account for everything and to make it the interpretative lens for a historical account of horror is a little too simplistic.  If Skal had looked for a broader lens to interpret that excellent research that is presented in the book then I think the subject matter would have been better served. 
I also understand that no one is able to have a perfectly broad interpretation, but I think the subject matter of these monster concepts could easily be incorporated into other interpretative lenses along with the psycho-sexual narrative that Skal largely presents.  It would have been better, also, if Skal had given the subsequent periods of the horror genre the research and do that he gave the 20s and 30s.  It felt like he was just ripping through the other periods in order to prove his larger thesis, though I found that there was more nuance than the monolith that he wanted to present.  I am always looking for a cultural history that will disprove my general biases towards cultural history, but I have yet to find one that I think doesn’t do the same thing as “great man” histories; creating monoliths in order to give an ordered front.  Sometimes the world is just unordered and histories need to present that tension.  At the end of the day, this book, while interesting and helpful, in a few areas, comes off as a “great theory” history, forsaking all other challenging theories to create a more monolithic front. 

The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, by David J. Skal, 1993.

I always find it interesting learning more about the history of a subject that I am interested in; horror is no different.  David Skal’s book is an interesting dissection of the horror industry in America and how its creation of the archetypal monsters was reactionary to wars, sexuality, etc.  Someone who is willing to weather possible criticism by putting out an overarching narrative to their history of a subject has my props in the end whether I agree with their perspective or not.  Skal puts forth the monster concepts of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde and Freaks as a form of archetype for the development of horror in general, showing very little distancing from any of these types.  Very simply put, he finds, in most horror, some form of these monsters present.  This is why a significant portion of the book deals with the conceptual and ideological development of these monsters from the 1800s to their film presences in the 20s and 30s.  In order to put forth his thesis of an overarching “monster” narrative, he has to make it very clear how these types were created and brought into the mainstream consciousness of society.  It is from this beginning segment of the book that he is able to trace through the off-shooting streams of horror in America. 

It is, in my opinion, this point where the book begins to fall apart.  I don’t find Skal successfully carrying this thesis throughout the rest of his analysis of the horror genres that developed post-golden age.  I think he starts simplifying some of the later sub-genres of horror that come after the golden age too much in order for his thesis to still hold.  At times, it seems like he drops his main thesis altogether to address, what come off, as side agendas like horror’s response to wars and the subsequent scarring of the bodies and psychology of soldiers and the AIDs issue in the 80s along with the arrival of the more mainstream and public homosexuality in the society.  He attempts to tie all of it into how they relate to Frankenstein and Dracula, but it seems trivial at best.  His grand narrative thesis becomes little more than a soapbox towards the last quarter of the book.  In the beginning he served up a thesis that was to guide his understanding through the rest of the history of horror, but, somewhere along the way, the thesis stopped guiding him and he started guiding the thesis to fit his more social agendas. 

On top of this, I fear that Skal runs the risk of what seems to be en vogue for interpretation since Freud, that all things should be interpreted from a strictly psycho-sexual perspective.  He, in earlier parts of the book, mentions Freud and his theories and reduces people like Tod Browning and James Whale to nothing but sexual beings and nothing more.  The problem with this psycho-sexual interpretation is that it narrows the human to a mere monolithic sexuality, not a person.  Homosexual and heterosexual persons are more than their sexuality, they are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers, believers, unbelievers, Republican, Democrat, etc.  Yes, sexuality is a significant part of who they are, but it is not totalizing as the modern mentality seems to make it.  Plus, Freudian theory has largely been left behind by even the most naturalistic psychologists.  It just doesn’t account for everything and to make it the interpretative lens for a historical account of horror is a little too simplistic.  If Skal had looked for a broader lens to interpret that excellent research that is presented in the book then I think the subject matter would have been better served. 

I also understand that no one is able to have a perfectly broad interpretation, but I think the subject matter of these monster concepts could easily be incorporated into other interpretative lenses along with the psycho-sexual narrative that Skal largely presents.  It would have been better, also, if Skal had given the subsequent periods of the horror genre the research and do that he gave the 20s and 30s.  It felt like he was just ripping through the other periods in order to prove his larger thesis, though I found that there was more nuance than the monolith that he wanted to present.  I am always looking for a cultural history that will disprove my general biases towards cultural history, but I have yet to find one that I think doesn’t do the same thing as “great man” histories; creating monoliths in order to give an ordered front.  Sometimes the world is just unordered and histories need to present that tension.  At the end of the day, this book, while interesting and helpful, in a few areas, comes off as a “great theory” history, forsaking all other challenging theories to create a more monolithic front. 

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, 1995.
I Am Legend was not written in 1995, but this edition of the book features it along with various other short stories from all over his career.  However, I Am Legend  is easily the most intriguing, and enduring, story of the bunch.  It is the tale of a man who finds himself to be the last person left alive after a ravaging disease hits the world; a disease that infects, kills and then reanimates the bodies of those that it enters.  In the traditional story, those infected become vampires.  The biology of the disease needs a constant supply of fresh blood to keep it multiplying and spreading through the body; to keep the reanimated body alive.  Robert Neville is left day in and day out to survive these creatures of the night and to kill them during the day in order to decimate their numbers, which never seems to completely work.  However, it is the psychological aspect of the story that sells it.  A man left by himself for up to three years, constantly on the verge of death, but immune to the disease and no one, alive, to keep him wholly human.  The trigger to this story is exactly the struggle Neville has in keeping his humanity intact with all he sees around him is death and the undead.  Three versions of this movie have been made in Hollywood: The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.  All of them have their perks, but, as far as adaptations go, the 1964 version comes the closest to capturing the claustrophobia and the original intent of the story, though it suffers from slowness in parts.  The other two versions create too much of a happy ending to the story.  The ending of the book, which I will not disclose here, is anything but happy.  It is realistic, given the storyline, and gives some heavy commentary on society and how those who come into power often use the methods that those in power use also: violence and martial law.  It makes for an interesting story and for a rather interesting foray into human nature as a whole. 
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is how Matheson breaks apart the vampire mythology and tries to bind it up with naturalistic explanations.  He is making vampirism play off as a biological disease instead of a supernatural transformation.  On the one hand, I commend his attempt to give it a realistic approach, but, on the other hand, it seems to me that, ultimately, this is just another attempt at the modern mind trying to force all things into a naturalistic scope.  Explaining away those things that have eluded naturalistic explanations up until this point.  It is the same thing that Dawkins does with his scientific analysis.  If it doesn’t occur in nature then it doesn’t exist…if it does exist in nature, but has no explanation, then it just hasn’t been figured out yet by the mighty and perfectly rational minds of humanity.  Matheson’s story is truly brilliant in so many ways, but it plays into the modernist hand more than it should.  Admittedly, elements of the way he writes this vampire tale work quite well, but I think more interaction between Robert Neville and God would have made the story much more full and interesting.  The subject comes up, but its often relocated to a cheap nod rather than real struggle with divine sovereignty in a world of hellish creatures.  That would really be my only critique of the story.  Ultimately, it is one of my favorites and will continue to be one that I pull out and reread from time to time.
The rest of the stories are of unequal quality.  Some are bad, some are interesting but lack the fullness of the title story and some are just strange.  I think the best ones of the remainder are “Prey,” “Mad House,” and “Person to Person,” which has an interesting take on demon possession that truly is innovative.  However, I Am Legend is the real reason to read this book in the end.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, 1995.

I Am Legend was not written in 1995, but this edition of the book features it along with various other short stories from all over his career.  However, I Am Legend is easily the most intriguing, and enduring, story of the bunch.  It is the tale of a man who finds himself to be the last person left alive after a ravaging disease hits the world; a disease that infects, kills and then reanimates the bodies of those that it enters.  In the traditional story, those infected become vampires.  The biology of the disease needs a constant supply of fresh blood to keep it multiplying and spreading through the body; to keep the reanimated body alive.  Robert Neville is left day in and day out to survive these creatures of the night and to kill them during the day in order to decimate their numbers, which never seems to completely work.  However, it is the psychological aspect of the story that sells it.  A man left by himself for up to three years, constantly on the verge of death, but immune to the disease and no one, alive, to keep him wholly human.  The trigger to this story is exactly the struggle Neville has in keeping his humanity intact with all he sees around him is death and the undead.  Three versions of this movie have been made in Hollywood: The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.  All of them have their perks, but, as far as adaptations go, the 1964 version comes the closest to capturing the claustrophobia and the original intent of the story, though it suffers from slowness in parts.  The other two versions create too much of a happy ending to the story.  The ending of the book, which I will not disclose here, is anything but happy.  It is realistic, given the storyline, and gives some heavy commentary on society and how those who come into power often use the methods that those in power use also: violence and martial law.  It makes for an interesting story and for a rather interesting foray into human nature as a whole. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is how Matheson breaks apart the vampire mythology and tries to bind it up with naturalistic explanations.  He is making vampirism play off as a biological disease instead of a supernatural transformation.  On the one hand, I commend his attempt to give it a realistic approach, but, on the other hand, it seems to me that, ultimately, this is just another attempt at the modern mind trying to force all things into a naturalistic scope.  Explaining away those things that have eluded naturalistic explanations up until this point.  It is the same thing that Dawkins does with his scientific analysis.  If it doesn’t occur in nature then it doesn’t exist…if it does exist in nature, but has no explanation, then it just hasn’t been figured out yet by the mighty and perfectly rational minds of humanity.  Matheson’s story is truly brilliant in so many ways, but it plays into the modernist hand more than it should.  Admittedly, elements of the way he writes this vampire tale work quite well, but I think more interaction between Robert Neville and God would have made the story much more full and interesting.  The subject comes up, but its often relocated to a cheap nod rather than real struggle with divine sovereignty in a world of hellish creatures.  That would really be my only critique of the story.  Ultimately, it is one of my favorites and will continue to be one that I pull out and reread from time to time.

The rest of the stories are of unequal quality.  Some are bad, some are interesting but lack the fullness of the title story and some are just strange.  I think the best ones of the remainder are “Prey,” “Mad House,” and “Person to Person,” which has an interesting take on demon possession that truly is innovative.  However, I Am Legend is the real reason to read this book in the end.

77 Shadow Street, by Dean Koontz, 2012.
I had been eyeing this book ever since it came out in hardback.  I had been waiting for Koontz’ quintessential haunted house story and this is probably as close to it as we will get.  This is an interesting story which deals with an old-fashioned manor that had been transformed into a high-end apartment complex.  Most of the people living there are known for something or are extremely rich.  After the introduction to the various characters that inhabit the Pendleton, the hinge of the action surrounds a strange time shift that happens at the Pendleton and how all of its residents are transplanted to the Pendleton in 2049.  There are strange creatures that haunt the inside and outside space of the Pendleton and there is strange mushroom-type fungi covering all the walls.  The fungi spores and causes people to turn into the killer creatures that haunt the halls of the building, the pogromites.  And then all of those creatures attack, bite and fill the residents with a gray sludge and turn them into pogromites too.  So the residents of the Pendleton are left in this future time with great chances of getting killed or, worse, turned.  I won’t tell you the catch of the story, but it actually has a pretty interesting concept behind it.  Most of the characters are those you can relate to and cheer for, but I would have, personally, enjoyed a little more focus on some of the characters.  I think it would have brought out the tension of the story better in the end.
Even though I enjoyed the overall story, I was a little shocked by one element of the ending, how the remaining residents decide to take care of the problem in the end.  I haven’t been taken aback by an ending like that since The Village whenever the villagers decide to not speak about the murder of Adrien Brody’s character and to keep the mythology of the creatures in the wood alive.  There is an uncomfortable moral move that is made at the end of the novel that is a little disconcerting to me.  It might partly be because of my comments about my possible pacifistic stance, but I think even those who are not pacifist might find this move to be a little problematic.  It would have been one thing if Koontz had actually focused on that decision a little more seriously and made the consequences of it seem a little more realistic, but the story turns fairly happy after that turn and, so, I am left a little disturbed after finishing the book.  However, that is neither here nor there, on the whole the story is entertaining and there are some truly creepy images that Koontz creates in his story.  After all, that is the point of reading a Koontz novel, right?

77 Shadow Street, by Dean Koontz, 2012.

I had been eyeing this book ever since it came out in hardback.  I had been waiting for Koontz’ quintessential haunted house story and this is probably as close to it as we will get.  This is an interesting story which deals with an old-fashioned manor that had been transformed into a high-end apartment complex.  Most of the people living there are known for something or are extremely rich.  After the introduction to the various characters that inhabit the Pendleton, the hinge of the action surrounds a strange time shift that happens at the Pendleton and how all of its residents are transplanted to the Pendleton in 2049.  There are strange creatures that haunt the inside and outside space of the Pendleton and there is strange mushroom-type fungi covering all the walls.  The fungi spores and causes people to turn into the killer creatures that haunt the halls of the building, the pogromites.  And then all of those creatures attack, bite and fill the residents with a gray sludge and turn them into pogromites too.  So the residents of the Pendleton are left in this future time with great chances of getting killed or, worse, turned.  I won’t tell you the catch of the story, but it actually has a pretty interesting concept behind it.  Most of the characters are those you can relate to and cheer for, but I would have, personally, enjoyed a little more focus on some of the characters.  I think it would have brought out the tension of the story better in the end.

Even though I enjoyed the overall story, I was a little shocked by one element of the ending, how the remaining residents decide to take care of the problem in the end.  I haven’t been taken aback by an ending like that since The Village whenever the villagers decide to not speak about the murder of Adrien Brody’s character and to keep the mythology of the creatures in the wood alive.  There is an uncomfortable moral move that is made at the end of the novel that is a little disconcerting to me.  It might partly be because of my comments about my possible pacifistic stance, but I think even those who are not pacifist might find this move to be a little problematic.  It would have been one thing if Koontz had actually focused on that decision a little more seriously and made the consequences of it seem a little more realistic, but the story turns fairly happy after that turn and, so, I am left a little disturbed after finishing the book.  However, that is neither here nor there, on the whole the story is entertaining and there are some truly creepy images that Koontz creates in his story.  After all, that is the point of reading a Koontz novel, right?

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