At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Year of the Book, part 2

Back at it, I've been devouring the printed page lately and have a lot of blogging catch-up time. Detention hall today seems like an ideal time to share what I read during February.

(1) To Kill a Mockingbird: Yes, it's been an age since I worked through any portion of Harper Lee's classic, but I grabbed my daughter Lindsay's copy after she was done with it for freshman English. There are certain books that should be required reading for American citizens, and this tome definitely is way up that list. The principled Atticus Finch, kind yet firm in his resolve, is just one of the engaging characters, along with Jem and Scout, who lead you on the path of fighting injustice in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. While Lee is not my first choice of Southern author (that title is forever reserved for South Carolina's own Pat Conroy), her passion comes through in the characters, the Deep South setting, and--for me--the satisfaction felt in the humiliation of Bob Ewell and the heroism of Boo Radley.

(2) The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith by Peter Hitchens. The brother of the renowned late atheist Christopher Hitchens, Peter held on to his staunch atheism for some time before having a conversion experience to Christianity. If you are looking for a thorough apologetic in favor of the Christian faith here, that is not Hitchens' intent. Most of the book highlights his experiences of trying to work out his atheism and seeing the practical effects of godless Communism in the former Soviet Union. The book is reasonably well-paced, although I believe his strongest work is in chapter 10 on the topic of "Is It Possible to Determine What is Right and Wrong Without God?", and he lays out a very powerful argument that the "why" of morality rests in divine existence and goodness. Some readers may be frustrated that Hitchens doesn't present end-to-end apologetic arguments for faith in the book, but I made my peace early on that Hitch was setting the terms for his writing. Given his aims, I thought it was reasonably well done.

(3) Zachary Taylor by John S.D. Eisenhower. Military historian Eisenhower (son of the 34th President) sheds light on the oft-overlooked Presidency of the only man to represent Louisiana in the White House. A brave military leader in several American conflicts, Taylor had few political leanings and even fewer ambitions, yet he ended up being the Whig Party's winning selection in 1848. A slave-owning Southerner who decried slavery's expansion, Taylor was a complex fellow who was the first man to be elected to the Presidency without having held a lower office. His administration opted for a policy of preserving the Union (which the administrations of Northern presidents Pierce and Buchanan would later implode) and oversaw the momentum leading to the Compromise of 1850 and California's statehood. Taylor was in office only sixteen months before his untimely death, so his presidency isn't known for being in the tier of Lincoln, Washington, FDR, or Reagan. It is an administration heralded more for "what could have been" if he hadn't died. In my view, there could have been worse people to go toe to toe with Henry Clay.

(4) The Mistletoe Murder by P.D. James. This posthumously published short story collection by the reigning queen of crime fiction was time well spent. James hits all the right notes on the balance of plot, character, and setting in her novels, but that was more difficult to do in the short story genre while still maintaining the tension of crime fiction. James is forced to shave off some of her usual rich description of settings, and the pace of the short story causes her to push plot and character development faster than one is used to in her novels. But the mysteries are quality without being excessively cozy, and James fans will cheer that the last two tales of the four involve our favorite gumshoe in a younger Adam Dalgliesh. Hallelujah for this post-Christmas smattering of joy.

I've cranked things up during March and will have at least six or seven books in my upcoming report, so stay tuned for J. I. Packer, some more under-the-radar Presidents, and more!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Year of the Book, part 1

The year has brought plenty of surprises and today was no different in shock disseminations. Lincoln City FC has just upset Burnley, 1-0, meaning that for the first time since 1925, a non-league side has advanced to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. For those who need an equivalent illustration, that's like the Bristol Pirates of the rookie-level Appalachian League beating the Milwaukee Brewers to get into the National League wild-card game.

But this isn't about things that shock; it's about things that tend to stay the same. And the consistency is reading.

I'm still reading. I'm not writing, mainly because there are so many other things as a husband, father, teacher, and department chairman that require my attention. But I still read. I read, as David McCullough, Jr., would say, "as a matter of self-respect, as a nourishing staple of life."

So for the first time this year, I thought I'd let you know what I've read so far.

1. A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy. A great capper for the man who gave us The Prince of Tides, South of Broad, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and other classics. If you're looking for more great fiction, you won't find it here. Conroy takes you on a pleasant whirlwind look at his book tours, people he has known over the years, great author friends old and new, and through the salt-tanged low country of South Carolina. In fact, I can imagine the town of Beaufort laid out before me as a jewel, thanks to Conroy's impeccable descriptions. If you're not attuned to Conroy's work, you need to lay into his fiction before picking this work up, but if you are a Pat-veteran, make sure you've digested A Lowcountry Heart. My wife knew I pined for it and made sure it was a prime Christmas gift.

2. Richard III by William Shakespeare. The discovery of Richard III's bones underneath a parking lot in Leicester and their reinterment at Leicester Cathedral (coinciding with the meteoric rise of Leicester City FC to the top of the Premier League next season) sparked my interest in one day taking up the Bard's tragedy of this flawed man obsessed with kingdom. Plus, I wanted to dive into the War of the Roses and experience the distant lead-up to the English Reformation. Although not as well-remembered as King Lear, Macbeth, or Hamlet, Shakespeare's use of language and careful attention to the psychological moorings of the eponymous character make this a play well worth reading. Twin its reading, if you will, with a later viewing of the Richard III edition of The Hollow Crown series. Benedict Cumberbatch's performance of the twisted (in more ways than one) monarch dominates the screen from his opening line "Now is the winter of our discontent" to his final; "My kingdom for a horse!"

3. Turning Points by Mark Noll. If you love church history but need a resource to focus on the decisive moments in Christianity, Noll's opus is your go-to guide. While I believe the Crusades deserves to make the top ten list, and I would have found Christianity's rise in the Global South nudging the Edinburgh Missionary Conference off the list, Noll's poll tends to match my own. I found it to be well-written, crisp, and lively. Although some defining moments are missing (Pelagian controversy, for instance), Noll displays superior moxie when he provides the historical connections between turning points. No volume of church history can be exhaustive, and Noll doesn't pretend his will be, but he accomplishes the goals he sets out to reach. If you have any interest in church history, you need to make sure this is in your collection.

4. Submission by Michel Houellebecq ended up being more promise than performance, but not without value. Still, as I slogged through this work, I felt caught between some weird mash-up of Less Than Zero and The Camp of the Saints. In other words, nihilistic worldview concussion meets the transformation of France into Eurasia with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood into political power. Francois, a middle-aged literature professor who has a string of meaningless sexual liaisons with students, spends his days hacking through the ennui of life in 2022. The book, set as a political satire, displays how the blasé attitude exhibited by Francois is the catalyst that leads him to convert to Islam at the end of the novel as a way of retaining his university post for more money than a retirement buyout--not to mention take advantage of Muslim driven polygamy laws that get passed alongside gender inequality legislation. The passivity of the European soul in the face of Islamic penetration gives the reader a frisson of wonder as similar events might play out today. As an aside, the novel generated significant attention because it was coincidentally released on the date of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Hope that was manageable and digestible! I'll be back in due time with more gleanings.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The End of a Legacy

2016 will unfairly be remembered as the year in which life seemed to come off the rails. Mainly due to what seemed to be a rash of celebrity deaths, the consensus from human conversations is that this year can't end soon enough for our liking. How dare such a long list of folks go the way of all the earth, we ask.

Cautionary memo to all: 2016 did not kill these people. Death happens as a regular occurrence. I don't say that to mock death, but to recognize we're having this recognitions as a more fevered pitch than before. Possibly because we're more aware of our own mortality that we blame things on a year.

In fact, 2016 brought some good things. Thousands of teachers and mentors helped a number of students through difficult times and encouraged them to succeed. Simone Biles took Rio by storm in gymnastics and Michael Phelps wrapped up an amazing Olympic career run (with full possibility he could try again in 2020). The world giant panda population jumped by more than 15 percent, moving that lumpily cute creature off the endangered species list. Although pancreatic cancer is still terminal, chemotherapy breakthrough have lengthened the survival rate of five years from 16% to 27%. The suicide rate among males is decreasing. 

And the Cubs won the World Series. Which means that everyone except for the twenty percent of St. Louis Cardinal Universe that has no soul or heart can acknowledge the wonder and joy of that moment.

In the midst of it all, one legacy and life ended on Christmas Eve that brought me both personal sadness and joy in one lump. My esteemed college history professor and dear friend, Dr. Louis J. Voskuil, died that morning after a considerable and brave battle against Parkinson's Disease. It's hard to calculate his imprint in my life...Every day I teach, there's something either consciously or unconsciously I'm borrowing from Sweet Lou in my approach or philosophy.

It was soon after I got news of his death, that I wrote a tribute to the man on my Facebook page. The beauty of his life and work is such that I want you to know of this fine man before 2016 closes. This year may have taken Dr. Voskuil from us. God gave him to us for a good and wonderful season. 

Even as Christmas approaches, there is still the clarion reminder that we live on this side of glory and those we treasure, honor, and love reach the end of their earthly journey. Today I received word that my college history professor, senior integration project advisor, mentor, intellectual shepherd, and dear friend Dr. Louis J. Voskuil breathed his last and left the Shadowlands behind to enter the presence of the God who directs history. To calculate the impact that "Sweet Lou" had on my life, my decision-making, and my teaching is impossible...the world cannot contain it. His impact went beyond the classroom: He was a willing reference for several positions I pursued; he was highly concerned for my physical health when I suffered from post-concussion syndrome my senior year at Covenant; and when my time as a pastor ended rather shabbily, he was one of the first people to reach out to me and call to encourage me through it. Many memories of the man will endure...his patience with myself, Sean Carrick, and Kal Dawson in Age of Europe class during the fall of 1988; his dribbling skill at faculty talent night, plus his dry humor (such as thanking another "prof" at said talent night for being an "athletic supporter"); his vast knowledge and sheer ability to see the patterns in historical complexity; the Cultural Paradigm; and his calm, deep, and persevering faith. All of these remembrances are causing me to smile with gratitude today in the midst of the sadness.
Forty-four months ago, I shared how much Dr. Voskuil mean to me as a student, teacher, and human being. In thanks for his life, I reproduce it now here:…/my-greatest-teacher…
Rest well, Dr. Voskuil. Christmas came early for you. The comfort that Christ will give us in the wake of your passing will come, because He is faithful to us as He was to you.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Key to College Football's Playoff

Those of you who wanted a playoff with a team having a shot at beating Alabama, you got your wish. Think about it.
Since Nick Saban became coach at Alabama, he has led his team to a bowl in each season, winning after 2007 (beat Colorado in the Independence), 2009 (vs. Texas in the BCS title game), 2010 (crushed Michigan State in the Citrus), 2011 (beat LSU in the BCS title game), 2012 (toppled Notre Dame in the BCS title game), and 2015 (pounded Michigan State in the Cotton and Clemson in CFP title game).

Losses? Those were in 2008 (beaten by Utah in the Sugar), 2013 (popped by Oklahoma in the Sugar), and 2014 CFP (run over by Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State in the Sugar).
You see the trend? Yep. When Saban's Tide teams play schools that begin with CONSONANTS, the Tide wins the bowl matchup. When Alabama plays a team whose name begins with a VOWEL (Utah, Oklahoma, Ohio State), the Tide goes down in defeat.
It ALL comes down to consonants and vowels, people. Which means if the trend holds, neither Washington nor Clemson have a chance. It has to be Ohio State.
Consonants and vowels. Consonants and vowels. That's the key that undoes the lock. My work is done here, folks.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Victory of the Ages

The power that breaks cedars and redwoods, the magic that attends those who seek glory, and the joy indescribable which peals through the caliginosity of the Ohio air...all have visited Earth tonight heralding the dawn of restoration. The warmth of the divine smile upon the myriads of the devoted has rested with the weight of mercy previously forgotten.

With the nestling of two strips of bound cowhide in the glove of one called Rizzo, the mountains shake with the power and fury of a universe of followers too long silent. And from their throats echo forth the good tidings of curses broken, chords of passion that have too long lain dormant in a cruel history too oft remembered. And now we declare to Earth's widest bounds that the curse is over, and the Goat is dead!

Let no man be haughty over his lofty position, for the Breakers of the Curse have risen upward in a tidal wave that shatters such ugly pride and scatters it like chaff in the wind! And let no one despair in the throes of their humiliation, for those once driven low--no matter how long their subjugation--are raised up vicariously through the endeavors of these warriors under a clear November sky.

So let the oceans roar and foam, and may the munificent rumbling of victory resound from coast to coast, shaking the foundations of the world from age to age and evermore. Let angels and archangels thunder forth perpetual acclaim from their highest dwelling with power that splits the rocky depths of hell below! That which was spoiled in the land of grass and vines has been restored, the lowly have been raised up, and all who waited through the ages have gained their reward! Rejoice and be glad, the time is fulfilled, for the Chicago Cubs are the champions of the world!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 13)

Hello Wildcat Universe after a one-week hiatus. Like foliage in the spring, recurring gall stones, and Richard Nixon after his gubernatorial loss to Pat Nixon in 1962....I'm back! 

Although to be fair, spring foliage is the only thing on the above list we should really feel good about. (#GallstonesAreAllTooReal)

It's playoff first-round week on tap, and the Cat contest this Saturday comes as a result of one of the most incredible legal thefts in sports history. With less stealth and more success than the Committee to Re-Elect the President exhibited in 1972 in the infamous Watergate break-in scandal (#ContinuingPokesAtNixon), the Wildcats sneaked into Washington, Missouri, last Friday and stole--not only a win, but also the fourth place in Class 4, District 4, from the St. Francis Borgia Knights with a scintillating 46-35 win on the opposition's turf. With the clinical approach of Arsene Wenger and the enthusiasm of Jurgen Klopp (#PremierLeagueManagers), Westminster turned the game on its ear, continuing a one-week metamorphosis after its loss to Christian High of O'Fallon. There were plenty of balls in the air on both sides, but ultimately the Chad Briden-led Wildcats had enough muster remaining.

The offensive explosion from last week, featuring touchdown strikes to Dylan Conway and Logan Sells, along with ground game scores by Atlin Hall, gives hope to Wildcat Universe that the trend might go on unabated. Briden seems to be fully recovered from his collarbone smackdown in week 2 against St. Dominic and is creeping toward 1000 years for the season after playing only four games. The offensive line must bring discipline and desire to another week in the trenches to help Steve Webb spring loose and increase his 723-yard season total so far. With the Borgia defense--led by top tacklers Matthew Sinnot and Justin Heggeman--certain to attempt a full-scale Conway clampdown, look for wideout Grant Lavalle to be an needed target as the game wears on.

The Knights average nearly the same yardage running the ball as through the air. Jacob Unnerstall gives the Borgia offense a boost with 1254 passing yards to go with 13 TD passes. The Wildcat secondary will have their hands full with receivers Andy Rott (21 catches, 353 yards, 6 TDs) and possession receiver Louis Eckelkamp (24-293-2), among others. Rattling Unnerstall will be the job of the Wildcats' pass rush, which is due for a big game. On the ground game, the Knights can call on four players who have rushed for at least 200 yards for the season (#SpreadTheWealth). That list includes the previously mentioned Heggeman (81 carries, 419 yards, 3 TD) but also fills out with Jonathan Braun (42-300-2) and Chris Brodeur (50-232-3) along with Unnerstall's 218 yards off scrambles or the option. "Contain, contain, contain" will be the byword this week for Westminster, who cannot let the Knights beat them to the edges of the offensive box.

Aside from the obvious match-ups, kicking game, turnovers, and field position will count in droves. It took the Wildcats a whole half to shake the turnover bug last year in the regular season finale in a 37-20 win, but the playoffs were a whole new story in a 63-14 wipeout. That brings up another item...the mental game. The Wildcats have triumphed in eight straight affairs with Borgia, and that dominance must play in the minds of the Knights. Head coach Dale Gilderhaus remarked to journalists this week that "we hope the ninth time in the charm". (#BeautifulCliche)

Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but a Borgia-Westminster game is NEVER lackluster. This Saturday at 3 pm at Westminster, bring your passionate yells and $5 per head for admission. Another page in this intense rivalry turns this weekend.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Where Angels Fear To Tread

I think that--to be completely fair--a number of people find comfort in the phrase "ignorance is bliss". Not that they spout it off, but their default mode is to hold to the principle of that statement.

I think a number of Christians can hold to this, too. The naive path can be fetching for some. The idea of "I know what I believe, so don't confuse me with facts" can be rampant anywhere. It should not be so in the context of Christian belief. Even St. Paul admonished the early church to "test yourselves."

This year, I began a new initiative in my Ethics classes of making the familiar unfamiliar. Concerned about the lack of Bible reading and understanding in the culture at large, I decided that--approximately every other week--we'd take a day off from the rest of the curriculum and really plunge into a passage of Scripture and work through some directed questions about it.

These have been--for the record--some of the most intoxicating, dynamic classes I've been a part of. I can't believe I didn't try this sooner. Stuff pops out of nowhere, like when a student says after reading Genesis 3, "Hey, why is Eve talking to a serpent as if it's the most natural thing?" Kids really respond to the beauty of how Scripture is put together in its story.

And they also respond to the disturbing aspects. The flood narrative in Genesis 6-7, for example.

Yes, we covered a lot of items yesterday after a reading of those chapters. There's plenty to keep people busy. "Who are the Nephilim?" "So it wasn't just rain from above, but the mangling of the ocean floor happened, too?" "Was it a global or local flood? (By the way, that's a fun question to explore down a rabbit hole!)

I want students to move through and even beyond that. I take a Philip Yancey view of approaching the Bible. Confront the hard parts. Ask the tough questions. Don't act like they don't exist. Be honest and ask students to be honest.

I asked the students yesterday, "Permission to speak freely...what sort of vibe do you get from God in the flood story?"

The answers? "He hates sin." Yep, I agree, but then students felt more free to open up further. "He seems harsh," others said. "This disturbs me and makes me uncomfortable," said a few more.

That's good on several levels. First, I don't think God's job is to make us comfy. You can be loving and still people can be confused by your actions (although that's for another blog post). But it was also good in that, even if my students don't completely understand the message of the text there, they feel a lot of freedom to question things and be trusted to be honest. I don't think someone's nascent faith is helped by being told "Listen, sugar britches...just believe what God said and don't doubt and don't question. It'll all be okay if you just have faith."

Crap, that line gets uber-annoying. Almost as annoying as putting "uber" before anything to denote the ultra-side of things.

That brings me to a conversation I had with a student after one of the classes yesterday. She told me she had read Genesis 6-7 in preparation for class the evening before. She told me she cried at the end of it. Because when God said "everything on the earth that has the breath of its life in its nostrils will die", that struck her down. Yes, the world was filled with violence. Yes, it was a horrible place outside of Noah's family (although they're not too sterling in Genesis 9 later). But a good chunk of the animal kingdom? Kids? Washed away like that? It was too much for her to take, and too much for me, to be up front.

So what did she tell me? That she was grateful were reading these hard passages. She said, "I would like to stay naive and not have to deal with the discomfort. I'd rather have the Sunday School image of Noah's ark in my mind. But if I confront things that are hard to deal with now, that prepares me for later. It's not about having the answers so much as it is being willing to take the risk of wrestling with the questions. Because this faith needs to be my faith, not just a belief my parents gave me."

Awesome. She gets it. Or rather, she is getting it, because this is a process.

Am I taking a risk by having students move in where angels fear to tread? I believe I am. Some may come to the Bible and say it's garbage if this is in there, and they walk away from belief. But the rewards outweigh the risks. Looking at the warts of faith now will make a faith in the future--if it takes root--that much more durable. And if God exists, I think that's the kind of faith that honors him.