A Few Short Book Reviews

IMG_20150411_083155 (1)The World of the New Testament has proven to be an outstanding resource for study of the historical and cultural background of the New Testament. There are essays on every imaginable subject, from monotheism to the social status of women and children to Jewish dietary laws to zealots to weights and measurements to exile to slavery to geographical and archaeological studies of the New Testament lands, all with extensive bibliographies for those wishing to pursue more specialized studies. Highly recommended for those looking to get a good ‘lay of the land’ perspective on the New Testament from a historical, cultural and social standpoint.

Later Medieval Metaphysics is a collection of specialized and generally technical essays around the subjects of language, ontology and language. Topics include Duns Scotus on the subject matter of metaphysics, Buridan and Aquinas on the existence/essence distinction, Avicenna on types and tokens and the power of medieval logic. These are, as noted above, technical essays – this is clearly not an introductory volume as it assumes at the minimum a working knowledge of the three main subjects. The discussions on essence/existence and logic are especially technical and quite dense. Despite its advanced reading level, the essays are well-written and are a good place for the student of medieval philosophy to really get deeper into the subject.

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma is a book that I was very excited about – I had it pre-ordered several months in advance and it has not disappointed. The basic idea that the author, Kevin Diller, has is to tie Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga together into one unified epistemological front, and it’s quite interesting to watch this project unfold. This book could serve as a good introductory text to the thought of both Barth and Plantinga – there’s no new ground broken here, as Diller simply sets out the overall ideas that Barth/Plantinga are known for. Properly basic beliefs, warrant, Barth’s theology of revelation, foundationalism and much more are laid out thoroughly (though not in an overly technical manner) and then synthesized – and that’s where the new ground is broken. Highly, highly recommended for anyone interested in philosophy of religion and religious epistemology.

How God Became Jesus is a multi-author reply to Bart Ehrman’s latest book ‘How Jesus Became God’. I haven’t read all of Erhman’s book, but as a state-of-the-field report of early christology, and early Christian devotion to Jesus, ‘How God Became Jesus’ has been a solid read. Essays from Michael Bird, Chris Tilling, Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans and Charles Hill cover various aspects of Erhman’s claims, ranging from Jesus’ self-understanding, how the early Christians thought of Jesus, and Paul’s divine christology, which is Chris Tilling’s field of study (and on which he has recently published a very well-received book). Interactions with classic and contemporary work in the field (ranging from Hengel, Hurtado, Bauckham and others) make this an excellent guide for those looking to learn more about earl Christology.

Dominus Mortis is another book I was very excited about receiving – it’s actually become one of my favourite specialized studies. Medieval christology, theological metaphysics, modern theology, Luther and his theology and more are all discussed clearly, and though this is a specialized study it’s not so technical as to be inaccessible. In fact, given the dense subject matter (the hypostatic union, the impassibility of God, etc), I was pleasantly surprised by just how easy it was to read. What I absolutely love about this volume, though, is the brief summary and conclusions at the end of each chapter – the argumentation can often be dense and it’s very helpful to have a recap at the conclusion of every chapter. The overall thesis of the book, that Luther was not a passibilist in his doctrine of God, is a very provocative idea that one doesn’t hear often, and the exegetical and theological arguments deployed are quite interesting. This is definitely an essential book for Luther studies and for anyone who wants to learn more about theological metaphysics, medieval christology ( I learned a completely new concept, that of ‘suppositional carrying) and Luther’s doctrine of God.

Jesus is Lord, Caeser is Not is another multi-author volume, this time on the topic of the anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament. This particular volume serves as an excellent introduction (though critical) to the field, with two essays focusing on the development of the anti-imperial trend in NT scholarship and the rest of the essays critiquing specific theses. Topics range from anti-imperial themes in Romans, Acts, John, and Phillipians, the emperor-cult of Rome, the place of the state in relation to the church. This book is a good overview of anti-imperial studies in the New Testament that covers a large amount of ground with plenty of bibliography for those interested in further study in just how subversive the New Testament really is in terms of power and politics.

Mind, Matter and Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind has a number of strengths. It’s a comprehensive survey of contemporary philosophy of mind, laying out, interacting with and critiquing all the major positions (matieralism, eliminativism, functionalism, dualism, emergentism, etc) in a very fair and even-handed way. While it presents the viewpoints fairly and thoroughly, it’s not especially technical and could function as an introduction to the field (indeed, the author states that the book assumes no prior knowledge of philosophy of mind). Following the interactions with the contemporary positions is a very good exposition of Aristotliean philosophy of nature, getting into things like form, matter, change, and hylomoprhic dualism. Following this exposition is the real purpose of the book, which is a Thomistic philosophy of mind, taking an Aristotliean line on subjects like sensation, form, intellect, mental states and the soul. Overall, this is a well-argued and even-handed contribution to philosophy of mind.

A New Heaven and a New Earth is one of the very few books on eschatology I’ve read (and I haven’t completely finished it yet), and it follows more or less themes that have become popular through the work of N.T. Wright in ‘Surprised by Hope’ – vocation, the goodness of creation, the vocation of man as an image-bearer, how man builds for the Kingdom, etc. What I’ve enjoyed so far, apart from the ‘damn greek philosophy’ charge in the first section of the book, is how the topics like judgement and power aren’t sugar-coated. Judgement here is seen as something from God that will destroy the wicked for the benefit of the righteous, and power is seen as a natural kind of thing and not itself inherently an evil. The chapters on man’s vocation do a bang-up job of laying out things like temple imagery and man’s vocation as reflecting God’s glory into creation – so far, this is a great book, full of sound exegesis and biblical exposition as well as a good amount of interaction with non-biblical material (especially concerning judgement) and other scholars in the field.

Reading Notes 2/22/15: How God Became Jesus and Aquinas

I picked up the response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book, ‘How Jesus Became God’, which is titled, ‘How God Became Jesus’. So far it’s a solid little volume – Simon Gathercole’s piece on what the earliest Christians thought of Jesus is so far the winner of the group, though I did enjoy Mike Bird’s expositions of the return-of-YHWH-to-Zion theme in the NT. What caught my eye with Gathercole was an interesting note on Psalm 110:1, which, to paraphrase Gathercole, shows that Jesus doesn’t simply climb over his enemies, as it were, to defeat them, but rather they are placed under his feet by God. That would be itneresting to flesh out further within the context of a Christus Victor atonement theory. All in all a handy little book on some key New Testament christological topics – early Christian worship, Jesus’ self-understanding, burial traditions, etc. It feels a bit rushed in places and it definitely could have been bigger, but, given the popular nature of Ehrman’s book, it makes sense that a poplar level response was put out. Enough references are made to more specialized studies, though, that should the reader want more it can be easily found. Also, despite its rush to press and some negative reviews floating about, this is not a knee-jerk conservative reply to a big bad nonchristian scholar. While a bit rushed feeling, as I said, this represents genuine engagement with a serious scholar raising good questions about the nature of early Christian devotion to and worship of Jesus

I also got a selection of readings of Aquinas, which is already proven very helpful. All the big topics are covered – the soul, being and essence, principles of nature, ethics, proofs of God – and it’s handy to have all this in one good-sized paperback for quick reference (I’m a big believer in references books, in case you didn’t know). Aquinas’ style is fairly easy to read though the subject matter can be a bit dense. His writing and argumentation definitely improves the older he gets though – his first works are pretty wham-bam, but by the time we get to the Summa, it’s a very patient, almost relaxed style.

‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma’ – Initial Thoughts

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, by Kevin Diller, is a fantastic book. That’s the first thing that should be said about it.The second thing that should be said is that it is, given the subject-matter, remarkably clear. The third thing that should be said about it is that it is a genuinely interesting book.

The overall goal is to synthesize Barth and Plantinga into one unified epistemic response to modern epistemic challenges, eg warrant, justification, basically the things Plantinga is famous for. The dilemma here is reconciling a ‘high view’ of theological knowledge – we can know things about God, know God exists – with a low view of human capacity for such knowledge – taking into account the ‘noetic effects of sin’ and drawing the conclusion that warrant does not come from us, from below, but from above, from God. Basically, it’s theo-foundationalism – God is the foundation for theological knowledge, as per both Barth and Plantinga. God makes Himself known, we do not arrive at God via reason.

Overall, this book is just a fantastic work of scholarship. Close attention is payed to primary texts (both in Plantinga and Barth) and the ideas of both men are discussed in a very clear way – I’d actually say this is about as accessible as you could make the thought of Barth and Plantinga without dumbing it down any. Warrant, revelation, justification, natural theology – all stuff you read Barth and Plantinga for, basically – is layed out, discussed and synthesized.

I’ll have lots more to say on this work and the arguments within it later – but for now, I’d definitely say this is a must-read for anyone interested in Barth, Plantinga, philosophy of religion, epistemology, and philosophy in general from a Christian perspective.

Reading Notes

I just recently got ‘Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not‘, and am about 80% of the way through. The primary goal of the book is to basically say, ‘whoa, slow down there, sonny’, to the anti-imperial/postcolonial readings of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters. I’ve read it quickly, so I’m sure I’ll come back to it for further reference, but so far the standout sections deal with Luke, Acts and Romans – the anti-imperial/postcolonial readings of these texts are taken to task for a few different things, such as the use of very modern methods in reading ancient texts, importing modern concerns to ancient texts, poor handling, both historical and exegetical, etc. Not to say that such readings are condemned – the anti-imperial character of New Testament writing is something that’s proven to be a pretty important aspect of the New Testament, and for bringing that out we should be thankful to those who advocate such readings. When the meaning of the NT is reduced to anti-imperial rhetoric, however, then there’s a problem. 

I also got Peter Leithart’s ‘A House for My Name‘, and started reading it (I’m only a few pages into it so far). Good so far – lots of tying together the symbolism that saturates the Old Testament – specifically the three-layer cosmology of Genesis. Good stuff.

Today I bought three more John Grisham books – ‘The Partner’, ‘The Chamber’, and one other I forget the name of. I also got a Father Brown story by Chesterton.

This last week I spent re-reading parts of Tim Maudlin’s great book, ‘The Metaphysics Within Physics‘, which I wrote a post on that generated some good discussion (see that post for some of my criticisms with his methodology) . His criticism of Humean-ism is pretty good – even though it basically boils down to, ‘why would anyone be Humean?’

On that same note, I read more of Brian Greene’s ‘The Elegant Universe’, as well as renting the NOVA documentary of the same name. The experimental aspect is definitely where string theory lacking – but empirical testing would require a particle accelerator roughly the size of the milky way galaxy. But the math more than hold true, it basically units quantum mechanics and relativity theory in a way that was impossible before. Most physicists will tell you that the experimental data is the most important part of a thrust, however, and there won’t be any for string theory for a while if ever.

Continuing that same note, I picked up Timothy Ferris’ absolutely brilliant book, ‘Coming of Age in the Milky Way‘, which remains one of my favourite science books I’ve ever read. As far as history of science goes, this is probably as good as it gets – I’ve yet to read a volume which explains and expounds the ideas as well as the thinkers behind them so clearly and delightfully. Yes, reading about Kepler’s calculations for elliptical planetary orbits, Newtons theory of gravity, the quantum revolution and particle physics  can, in fact, be great fun. 

Reading Notes 8/31/2014

John Grisham’s ‘The Summons’ has been a great read – fun, mysterious, page-turning, etc. It’s the first of his I’ve ever read, and I can see now why he’s pretty much at the top of the modern canon of fiction. I actually don’t know the last time I read a book that kept me up late to read it.

I stopped reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’ – maybe I just don’t get it but honestly, that was one boring book. Now that I think about it, there is no maybe – I just didn’t get it. I try and read one fiction book at a time, so putting this book down was the reason I picked up ‘The Summons’

.Brian Greene’s explanation of string theory and its unification of both general relativity and quantum mechanics in ‘The Elegant Universe’ is so far some of the best writing on the subject I’ve been able to find. A short segment on the nature of physical laws caused me to break out Feynman’s ‘Six Not-So-Easy Pieces’ where he talks about the symmetry of physical laws. The nature of physical law is a fascinating thing to reflect on – especially the ontological status of said laws.

Torrance’s essay on Polanyi in ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’ is a brilliant essay – his exposition of some fairly complex ideas is outstanding. The whole book is great, but the Polanyi essay is probably one of the stronger essays in the book.  Torrance’s concept of stratified levels of intelligibility in reality is definitely something I’ll be thinking further on.

Musings on Cormac McCarthy

It should be no secret that McCarthy is one of my favorite authors – in my opinion, he ranks up there with the great writers of the last hundred years. He’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years because of No Country For Old Men and The Road – but I wouldn’t rate those as his best works by a long shot. But what exactly is it that is so powerful about his writing?

There’s a few things I typically identify: his writing style is pretty much one of a kind. It’s sparse – but it’s not minimalist. He says a lot – sometimes with five words, sometimes with paragraphs. His writing, especially in All the Pretty Horses, is simply quiet. It’s relaxed – it flows at the speed of life, not rushing to the next dialogue or action scene. The story just happens – there’s no stylization, nothing like that. It’s laid-back, relaxed and quiet – however, this doesn’t mean that the content is relaxed, quite the opposite. When reading his works (and I’m thinking here specifically of The Border Trilogy), I get a feeling of sublimity. The books read like how the landscapes they take place in feel – cold, sparse, brutal, but beautiful and even poetic.

The content of McCarthy’s writing, however, is what really impacts me the most. His novels deal with pure human depravity taken to its utmost extremes – for example, in Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Child of God. There’s no flinching, no holding back – some of the characters and sequences in his earlier works are horrifying, savage and brutal. McCarthy, by using such stark violence, really deconstructs a lot of the mythology surrounding the American Wild West. Apart from the depraved themes often treated by McCarthy, there are some deep metaphysical ideas woven into his works – the nature of good and evil, God, love, war, ethics, anthropology, and a host of other subjects often crop up in his writing.  These themes appear in long dialogues or monologues that are reminiscent of Hemingway’s dialogues – short, sparse and to the point, with no extra fluff. In short, McCarthy’s writings sustain a level of moral and philosophical reflection that very few modern books are capable of sustaining.

I really couldn’t point to any one single thing that I think makes McCarthy’s works so powerful – it’s the interweaving of all these things, the violence, the philosophical ideas, the poetic prose, the dreamy narratives that make his writing so brilliant and unique.

Book Notes 8/10/2014

I received Roger Scruton’s ‘Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey’ the about a week ago, and it’s a great book so far. A bit dense and not really too interested in the ‘introduction’ aspect – he jumps into topics more or less assuming the reader has a decent knowledge of things like symbolic logic, which he whips out with no warning. But in terms of content, it’s great – he goes by topic (Perception, Epistemology, the Soul, Freedom, Causality, Naming and Necessity, Time, etc) with a masterful knowledge and handling of the primary sources and an overall very readable style. The ‘modern’ refers more to the period between Descartes and Wittgenstein (there are tangential discussions of more modern thinkers like Rorty, Sartre, as well as analytic philosophy), so don’t expect too much ‘cutting edge’ philosophy.

I also received ‘A Companion to the Philosophy of Mine’, which has been a fantastic guide to modern philosophy of mind. So far the standout articles have been on functionalism, subjectivism and intentionality, and I highly recommend it as a reference.

The last of the three books I ordered last week was Jaroslav Pelikan’s ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, which is an examination of the meeting of Christian and Hellenistic cultures, specifically focusing on the Cappodicians and their use/reformulation of classical philosophical ideas in the articulation of a dogmatic as well as a natural theology. Very good, very dense, and very dry – but the discussions of apophatic theology alone is worth the money.

I also started reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’. I hardly ever read fiction, and I can firmly say that this is the first American post-war novel I’ve started reading, and it’s pretty good so far.

Reading Notes 7/19/2014

I’ve almost exhausted the Lovecraft volume I have.  I’m not really sure which Lovecraft story has proven to be my favourite, though. Possibly ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ His use of ‘blasphemous’, ”unspeakable’, ‘unnameable’, and ‘infinite’, do get a bit old though – especially since it’s already difficult to picture exactly what is supposed to be so mind-numbingly horrifying. I’m gearing up to read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, now. Not just any old version, though – this is the unabridged and expanded version, coming in at roughly 1200 pages. I’ve started reading it (only about a dozen pages in so far) and I can already tell it’s going to take me a good minute to get through this one.

Earlier this week I started going through part of Torrance’s ‘Incarnation’, specifically the sections where he criticizes liberal theology (Bultmann primarily, but also Tillich, Schweitzer, Dodd, and others). As is par for the course, he’s incisive and occasionally devastating, though I do get the feeling that some of his criticisms are a bit overblown.

I started dipping back into Plantinga and Wolterstorff – ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’ and ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, from the former and ‘Divine Discourse’ from the latter. WCB is just outstanding – as far as analytic philosophy goes, this is probably some of the better writing out there. Clear, balanced and to the point. Wolterstorff, though he’s one of my favourite philosophers (the breadth of his thought is very impressive, ranging from music, architecture, ontology, metaphysics, politics, human rights, justice, art and more) is not one of my favourite writers. He has a very dense, very academic style – if you don’t pay attention to every single line, you’ll likely get lost. His criticisms of Ricouer are pretty interesting -Wolterstorff argues that there’s no ‘sense of the text’, against Ricouer.

Along those lines, I bought the Plantinga/Wolterstorff volume ‘Faith and Rationality’, yesterday, which is where a lot of Reformed epistemology got worked out. Alston (and others of note) contribute(s) as well, and I’m looking forward to getting into it.

Reading Notes 7/6/14

I received N.T. Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’ the other day, and it’s a great book so far. Wright’s popular works are for the most part pretty well-written, but they do tend to require a pretty full engagement with his more academic works to really make sense – i.e., he uses a lot of ideas he’s developed at length in more academic works without unpacking them in his shorter, more popular works, so there is the potential for confusion there.

Read an interesting essay by Edward Feser on the concept of ‘laws of nature’ as understood in the modern sciences – his thesis is that they are a theological formulation designed to replace the Aristotliean concept of ‘law of nature’ which was based on things like immanent essences and substantial forms – pretty interesting.  Read it here (still no hyperlinks, sadly): http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/carroll-on-laws-and-causation.html. If you’re itnerested in philosophy of science you’ll enjoy this article.

Any Lovecraft fans read this blog? I have the ‘Necronomicon’, a lovely best-of collection of his works. I prefer his short-medium length stories over his longer works personally. He’s quite adept at crafting an atmosphere of unease – and his use of old-thyme language and names lends a quasi-biblical feel to his stories. Personal favourites would be Innsmouth, Colour Out of Space, Dunwich Horror and most of the other shorter stories.