April 2009

Knowing God

Knowing God, by JI Packer ★★★★★
I had read this book before, but, being in Bangladesh, I had finished all the books that I had brought along. Glancing over the guest house library, I was left with only a few choices of books that grabbed my attention. I decided that it was time to re-read Knowing God. Having taken a class in systematic theology from Dr. Packer, it was like hearing him afresh, and he writes very similarly to the manner in which he speaks. The book is composed of three parts. The first part argues for the necessity of getting to know God better, and the possibility of doing that through Scripture. The second is an exposition on the attributes of God, His wisdom, strength, holiness, and wrath, to name a few. Finally, the third part discusses what God has done for us, including propitiation of our sins, adoption as children. The second read was many years after the first but read quite freshly. Packer is an extremely capable writer, and this book is especially worthy of repeated re-reads. Packer calls for holiness and zeal for God in the Christian life that should be normative for all Christians. This book is not only basic doctrine, but a much deeper exploration of our position in Christ. It is not a light read. It cannot be read in a night or two. Packer is thick. And rich. Knowing God is a gold mine worthy of multiple reads by all Christians.

On Duty in Bangladesh

On Duty in Bangladesh, by Jeannie Lockerbie ★★
I previously reviewed the book Daktar, which is the story of the founding of the Malumghat Hospital, where we currently are working. This book is the blow-by-blow details from the eyes of Jeannie Lockerbie, a nurse who was working in Chittagong for the same mission agency at the time of the Independence of Bangladesh. It is actually a stirring story, and witness to God’s provision and protection during a very troubling and dangerous episode in the history of this part of the world. I will save details of the story since the book is worth reading. What I didn’t like about the book was the heavy dependence on simply experiential accounting of the battle for independence. I really don’t care to know when Jeannie took a shower, or precisely what she ate on a certain day, or what sort of can she had to eat out of. Jeannie also fragments the storyline with multiple accounts that do not read chronologically making it a bit tough for someone unfamiliar with the events she is describing. I would have liked to have heard an analysis of exactly what was happening on the world stage, minor details of the Bangladeshi battle movements or Bangladeshi political analysis, etc., etc. Jeannie also assumes that you know certain things about Bangladesh that you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t lived there. In the end, I’m not left much better informed about the nature of the Bangladeshi Independence nor the life of the church outside of Jeannies’ small circle in Bangladesh during the time of this story. This book contains no character development, and save for the fact that Jeannie attended a Methodist nursing school in New York, I know very little about her or what were the driving factors in her life outside of her Christianity. She offers minimal insight and foresight into situations, and thus seems to be a one-dimensional character, responding to a tragic situation, but not necessarily in an entirely Christian fashion. How so? Perhaps she should have read the life of Mahatma  Gandhi, or the manner in which Martin Luther handled the peasant revolt. Jeannie seems to confuse Christianity and nationalism, and while wanting to emphasize the difference between political freedom and freedom in Christ to the Bengali people, fails to be convincing. She has no answer to the Christian “freedom fighter” who attends church and then blows up bridges and kills rather than loves the enemy. There is no word of love for the enemy, or of reaching out neutrally to the Pakastani in love, in offering “blind” medical care to all including the wounded Pakistani. Even the closing phrase of the book says in one breath “Victory to Bangladesh- victory to Jesus”. Such a statement creates a dangerous mix of politics and American-style Christianity. It is this same thinking that explains why the predominantly Muslim Bengalis could now treat the Hindus and Hill Tract people with the same mercilessness that they received from the hands of their Pakistani rulers.
All said and done, the casual reader might assume that this is character assassination. God forbid. The book review section attempts to look at books as literary pieces, analyzing the book for its prose style, readability, and quality of the storyline, etc. This book, in spite of its problems, is a reflection on a truly saintly person, engaged in a most saintly commission.  This is an example of one of many of the people I have met in Bangladesh that tirelessness and without complaint forsake family and home, the comforts of America and friends, to live in a weary land, laboring under the most adverse conditions to bring hope and Christ to the Bengali people. Thus, a good book, but only two stars.


Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse ★★★★
This is a dual-language book, with one side of the page in the original German, and the other side in a reasonably good English translation. I was able to read first the German, and then to check whether I properly caught the original meaning (assuming a good translation). Hesse was certainly deserving of the Nobel Prize in literature, as he writes well, and it is a shame for those that can only read this text in English. It is the story of  Siddartha, a boy from a well-to-do Indian family, who decides to become an ascetic. He leaves home with his friend Govinda, practicing meditation and fasting according to the style of Hindu ascetics. After 3 years, he goes to meet the Buddha, but abandons his friend Govinda and runs off to live a life of luxury, with plentiful wealth and sex. He is successful, but the voices of the past call him back to the ascetic life. He is discovered by the river by his old friend Govinda, who goes on. Siddartha ends up living with a ferryman. Ultimately, the main courtesan that he was seeing in times of wealth comes to him, bringing an 11-year-old son, but dying on the spot from a snake bite (a little bit Hollywood-ish). The son ends up being a total brat that eventually runs away. Siddartha’s ferryman companion dies, and Siddartha soon becomes known as the sage of the river. This fame leads Govinda to seek out this sage and get advice from him. The advice ends up being the opposite of what the Buddha had taught him, and the book ends.
Not being a Hindu/Buddhist scholar, it would be difficult for me to ascertain how closely Siddartha follows eastern teaching. Hesse did grow up in India so there is reason to believe that there might be a moderate corollary in teaching. If so, eastern philosophy seems to be a total contradiction of truth. Thus, there is given no ground for belief in morals, for belief in objectivity, or, for belief in anything. Yet, religion produces sages that speak profoundly or behave profoundly. This seems to be a total contradiction, since, if the truth is non-existent, to the possibility of profound thought or action is impossible. Thus, it becomes a self-defeating religion.
Regarding criticism of the book, Hesse writes beautifully, though he does produce a rather contrived tale. It is a delightful story with abundant philosophical thought, though Hesse misses the mark of making something inane into something profound. Thus, one star off from a five.

Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology, Old and New Testaments, by Geerhardus Vos ★★
This book was sold as one of the classics of biblical theology. Vos was regarded as a foremost scholar of yesteryear. Thus, it seemed compelling to read. The book did have many gems and insights for me, but on the whole, it seemed to be more prolific than profound. As an illustration of the language used, I quote from the first paragraph of the New Testament section “If redemption and revelation form an organism, then, like every other organism, it should be permitted to reveal to us its own articulation, either by way of our observing it or by our receiving from it the formula of its make-up, where at certain high-points it reaches a consciousness of its inner growth”. If Vos was attempting to be either scholarly or profound, he failed in both, by uttering an essentially meaningless statement.
Typically, I view the work of the biblical theologian as the person who would be writing individual book commentaries, or, perhaps, as Dr. Waltke has so marvelously in intelligently performed in an intelligible style, old testament surveys for summary themes and topics. Vos is excellent at confronting the liberal critics of the time, such as Wellhausen. Yet, I don’t expect a biblical theology text to be essentially a limited apologetic focused on certain well-defined topics. Also, the critics are somewhat dated, in that this book was written in 1929. In that Vos was concentrating on the nature of biblical revelation throughout the span of biblical history, he was behaving more like a systematic rather than a biblical theologian. Vos jumps somewhat sporadically throughout the Scriptures, though he remains chronological, picking and choosing discussion points, again, mostly related to the ongoing biblical criticism of the time. He covers the curses of Adam and Eve, the Noahic episode, the communication of law to Moses, the 8th century BC prophets, John the Baptist, and Christ while leaving out discussions of the apostolic church, the late minor prophets, and many more biblical episodes.
Thus, I cannot recommend reading this book, save for historical interest. Vos is truly a scholar that many modern conservative scholars lean on, yet, he fails to provide a text that meets the title of the book, that is, a text that introduces one to the topic of biblical theology.

Mammut Comics

Mammut Comics, Walt Disney ★★★★
This is Donald Duck and Mickey Maus auf Deutsch (in German!). Make fun of me, but it is a great way to keep at least some tabs on the German language. The use of slang and colloquialisms make for great reading, and the few words I don’t know can be figured out from the illustrations and the context, allowing for reading with minimal use of a dictionary. It’s a great way to stay on top of a language.

Molecular Biology of Cancer

Molecular Biology of Cancer, by Lauren Pecorino ★★★
This is a standard textbook of molecular biology with a focus on cancer and cell regulatory processes. It was written by a British researcher. The book is well organized, succinct, with many helpful blips or recommendations for learning the subject better. It is ideal for students to use as a first exposure to the subject. Much effort was spent at discussing the process of cancer research, as well as the clinical application of what we know. My main problems with the book were 1) simplification for teaching purposes often led to too simple of explanation of pathways. He would usually only discuss regulatory pathways that currently were hot for research purposes, rather than including at least a hint of the multiple known pathways. Thus, he was moderately incomplete as a reference text. 2) He frequently appealed to the internet or to reference papers. That is great for the budding young scientist, but not for use as a reference text in your library. We purchase textbooks, expecting them to serve as reasonable summaries of known knowledge. Thus, other textbooks on the molecular biology of cancer serve this purpose better than Pecorino’s text. Of interesting note is the profound complexity of regulatory pathways, of which these pathways become more or more complex over time. It seems like we have just scratched the surface of understanding what makes a cell tick. I find it deeply troubling that scientists in one breath can talk about these impossibly complex systems, yet in the next breath suggest their accidental evolution. This is one reason why I love science–it continually attests to a Creator.

The Revenge of the Conscience

The Revenge of Conscience, by J. Budziszewski ★★★★
My intention was to start the book Biblical Theology by Geerhardus Vos. The read started out a little thicker than I anticipated. Hopefully, I will be able to review that book within the next month. Dr. Jason Lattin at Malumghat Major Medical Center loaned me this book while over to dinner. Thus, the read. From the stars, you might properly deduct that I thoroughly agreed with Dr. Lattin’s assessment of the text. I would have given this book 5 stars, save for three minor issues which will be discussed later. First, the strengths of the book. Budziszewski is an excellent communicator that writes with a heightened style, which does not lend to a lightning read. Each page is thick, and to progressively pondered. Budziszewski is a political scientist that teaches in Austin, TX, and orients the text on a series of loosely connected essays about politics and Christian faith. The first chapter deals with defining the moral situation in the USA, titled “The Fallen City”. He uses this chapter as a general introduction to the rest of the book. The second chapter, named “The Revenge of Conscience”, discusses the role of natural law in bringing about much of the public dynamics that we observe. Subsequent chapters work through the problem of neutrality, of issue of virtue and vice in politics, and of the Christian approach to “communitarianism”. The last three chapters discuss the issues of the problem with liberalism, followed by the problem with conservatism, followed by an in-depth psychological explanation of the pro-death movement. It is these last three chapters that offer the greatest strength to this text, dismantling notions that either political movement is more or less Christian than the other. In an epilogue, Budziszewski offers suggestions for presenting the truth in the public square, by challenging the false notions of either the right or the left. Disagreements? 1) I am a touch uncomfortable with where Budziszewski runs with the notion of natural law. Is natural law really as usable as he proposes to explain the human situation? Perhaps. Yet, natural law tends to be used by (mostly) Catholic theologians to explain much more. I find it difficult to imagine that natural law could be used to order a common consensus of right and wrong, simply because since the human mind in fallen, we have not only a diminished conscience but also a distorted conscience, from birth. Budziewski certainly realizes that, and yet plays out the role of natural law in a manner that other terminology could have used and suffice. 2) Budziszewski sometimes swims in the wrong swimming pool. In his discussion of communitarianism, he offers that perhaps Stanley Hauerwas is the best example of ideal communitarianism. Having read much Hauerwas, I note that Hauerwas has much to offer, yet much that can be criticized, which would be inappropriate to labor over in this review. 3) Budziszewski offers a poor explanation as to the ideal politic. What should be the model for a Christian Volk? He remains silent and focuses only on one issue, the pro-life issue. Is there an ideal politic prescribed in Scripture, or, is the Bible silent? I argue that there is a politic, which God prescribed to Israel. To what extent and in what manner these laws apply to our society remains an issue for public and theological debate, yet the information is there to discuss and measure us as a society.