The book reviews for this month are another varied bunch–a historical mystery, some short stories about a party, a coming of age graphic novel, and a book about the Bible. The last one goes longer than usual since I had a lot to say about it as it relates to my recent wrestling with modern scholarship on the Bible.
- The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) is an intriguing mystery from British history. The Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg and bored out of his mind. Friends visit him and bring him books to read, but it isn’t until he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that he engages his deductive skills. He wonders what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, Richard’s two nephews who most everyone believes that Richard himself had killed in order to secure the throne. Grant has trouble reconciling the awful crime with the face of the man in the portrait, so he sets out to figure out the mystery of what happened to the two boys once and for all. It’s a fascinating historical whodunit (and often funny), tracing various historical sources with a detective’s eye for evidence and motive. I especially liked how it emphasized mythmaking in the historical record and how those myths can come about. I was able to follow the historical characters and events, but I have some familiarity because of the many British literature courses I’ve taken. I now wish I had paid even more attention to the history bits in those classes. My only complaint is that the front cover of the book had the blurb: “One of the best mysteries of all time,” which raised my expectations too high. I enjoyed it plenty, but it probably never could have lived up to that statement.
- Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf is a collection of stories that serve as a good companion to her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. From the introduction to the book we learn that the stories were written at the same time as or just after the writing of the novel, the latter of which was especially unusual for Woolf. She usually moved on to something different when she completed a novel. But she was interested in what she called in her writing diary “party consciousness,” that something about the gathering together of so many people under one roof that was both more artificial and more real than everyday life. In the course of seven stories we encounter a guest whose speech would fill a book and others who stand on the fringes hardly able to utter a syllable. There are misunderstandings and miscommunications as social opposites are introduced to one another. One woman worries the entire night about having worn the wrong dress that is not the current fashion. She had thought to wear something unique, but instead ruminated on the decision the entire party. Another man thought that he was so above the other party goers and their frivolity that he could barely deign to converse with anyone, and when he did it was with only the utmost condescension. I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book, but I have to say that it works best as a companion to the novel.
- This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, is a touching graphic novel about growing up. It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager. Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation. The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer. Rose and Windy are like most kids: they want to grow up. They talk about their soon to be developing breasts. They go to the tiny convenience store to buy candy and rent classic horror movies, which they watch to feel older. The 18 year old guys who clerk at the store don’t care that they aren’t old enough to be renting R-rated movies. Those guys are fascinating to the girls, but the girls can hardly put into words how they make them feel. The guys have their own drama with the young women their own age in town, which Rose and Windy watch as well, trying to figure out what is going on. And in her own cabin, Rose’s parents are having conflicts that she thinks she gets, but like most everything else, she misunderstands what’s really going on. It’s a beautiful story. The art is a real strength, too. At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story. I would definitely recommend this book.
- Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is an essential book. I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts. The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human. In three main sections, Enns looks at supposed problems in the Old Testament that his incarnational analogy help resolve. The first is the matter of the close parallels of material from the Old Testament with Ancient Near Eastern literature. For example, the epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that possibly predates the account in Genesis. The law code of Hammurabi of Babylon has laws that are similarly worded to laws in Exodus. Enns points out that the Bible is part of the cultural context in which it was given, meaning that the law codes should be similar and it should have similar myths concerning origins (myth here meaning a story to explain who we are and where we come from, not that it is made up). The second section deals with the diversity of the Old Testament. By diversity, he means that there are multiple voices speaking, sometimes in tension. For instance, in Proverbs sometimes the wisdom that is expressed in one verse contradicts what one finds in another verse (e.g. Proverbs 26:4,5 “Do not answer a fool..” vs. “Answer a fool…”). It turns out that the wisdom of Proverbs is situational. Another example that is even more forceful is the difference of the historical account in Chronicles with the similar accounts in Samuel and Kings. The account in Samuel and Kings emphasizes the centrality of worship, and the kings are evaluated on their ability to centralize worship in the temple (i.e. get rid of the high places and Baal and Asherah worship). The texts were likely written during the exile in order to explain why they were in exile. It was because they didn’t follow God and get rid of idol worship that they were handed over to foreign powers. But in Chronicles, which in the Jewish Bible is placed at the very end after all of the prophets and not directly after Kings, the point is to explain how they can be God’s people after the exile. It is from the point of view of those who returned back to the land and began again with Ezra and Nehemiah. Chronicles emphasizes the unity of the people and elevates the stature of figures like David and Solomon making them into heroes (much like American history often elevates the Founding Fathers, glossing over their failures). I first encountered this multi-voiced history of Kings and Chronicles in Josh Way’s excellent podcast on the Bible (click here to listen or read the transcript). Enns points out that diversity in Scripture is to be expected because God is speaking to different situations throughout Israel’s history, accommodating himself to wherever they find themselves at that point. The third section concerns the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. The gospel writers and Paul use the Old Testament verses in ways that we wouldn’t normally consider proper if we heard them used in the pulpit on a Sunday. They seem to wrench things out of context at times in order to make their own point. One example includes Matthew’s insistence that Jesus going to Egypt with his parents to avoid Herod is a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea. But the context of the passage in Hosea is looking backwards to Israel being delivered from Egypt, not a forward looking prophecy about the future messiah. Matthew appears to be quoting out of context. But he is merely using similar methods that were used at that time, the Second Temple period. The writers in the New Testament are showing how passages in the Old Testament point towards Jesus, even if they are not direct prophecies. Enns introduces the word christotelic, in that the history of Israel in the Old Testament is leading towards and is fulfilled in Christ. My version of the book (the second edition) had a helpful postscript that reiterated his points and dealt with some of the reactions and arguments that his book elicited when it was first published ten years ago. I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.