Harrison Scott Key

book covers for Harrison Scott Key's three books

Meeting the author

Roughly nine years ago, I attended a reading by a local author at the Book Lady’s Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia.  I heard about the reading through Facebook. The book sounded interesting. At the appointed time, I left the slow life of the island for the hustle of the city and the struggle for parking places.  Upon entering the bookstore, I was excited to see a stack of yellow paperbacks with deer antlers stacked by the register.  “Hot dang,” I said to no one in particular, “Patrick McManus has a new book out.”  

Then I saw the author’s name, Harrison Scott Key: the dude doing the reading…  The air left my sails. Who was he? Key’s book utilized the same color scheme as had McManus. The antlers had me all excited..  

Then the reading started.  Harrison began by handing out PBRs. (That’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, in case you don’t know, the cheap beer from college days that’s now back in fashion).  Harrison wasn’t taking any chances with his audience.  Lubing us up, he soon had us laughing.  By the time he was half way through the reading, I knew I would be buying his book.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, pushing aside two other books that I was reading. His book was as good those written by McManus .

A few years later, I was at the party for Key’s second book reveal. It was held in the gardens at the Ships of the Seas museum in Savannah. He had definitely outgrown the “Book Lady Bookstore” as there were several hundred in attendance including Key’s three daughters. Not only did he sign my book, one of his daughters drew me a picture on the title page. Since I no longer live near Savannah, I was unable to be at his last book kickoff. It’s also his only book that’s not signed! Below, in addition to reviewing Key’s recent book, I included reviews of his first two books which I posted in earlier blogs.

Harrison Scott Key, How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told 

(New York: Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, 2023), 307 pages, no images. 

I finished the book a month ago and spent a lot of time thinking about it. How to Stay Married is an incredibly honest book. Key is honest about his desire to remain married despite his wife Lauren’s infidelity. He’s honest about mistakes he made. And he’s honest about his wife’s baggage. As for the latter, I might offer one more suggestion to Key, if he wants to stay married long-term, “Don’t write the book!” But it’s too late for that advice and Key has given us his story in a way that shows how messy our lives can be.

How to Stay Married can be very painful. It hits at places I’ve been in my life. It forced me to realize I haven’t always done everything, I should do to make the best out of relationships. Yet, the book is very funny. Key is a modern-day Mark Twain (and some of his insights into the Old Testament are very Twainesque). It’s an insightful book into human relationships, the church, scripture, and how our families influence our lives.

The Key’s move to Savannah when Harrison accepted a position at Savannah College of Art and Design. In time, they have three daughters, become active in Independent Presbyterian Church, and live in a quaint and comfortable home in a pleasant neighborhood. They become friends with neighbors and their children play with other kids. Unsuspectingly, Chad and Lauren have an affair. Chad is married and the father to some of the neighborhood kids. Both families have (or had) cookouts together. Key, who changes the names of key actors in the story, portrays this man in a comically plain manner. He wonders what his wife ever saw in such a boring ordinary person. 

Lauren wants out. Harrison wants them to work on their marriage and fears what will happen to their children.

Harrison seeks help from the pastor of his church, whom he names “Hairshirt.” He tells him his situation, in the hope to learn how he offer suggestions to save his marriage.  The pastor, not hearing Harrison’s plea, says his wife will have to confess and repent or be excommunication. This shocks Harrison, who imagines pitchforks being brought out. He wants to reconcile with his wife, not a witch trial. The pastor is from the Presbyterian Church in America, a very conservative branch of Presbyterianism. Harrison names him “Hairshirt” (think of those strict ascetic self-flagellating medieval monks). Afterwards, they leave the church and find a new church home.  In addition to encourage the reader to fight for a marriage, the book could also be used as an example of how not to provide pastoral care. 

While Harrison is estranged (at first just moving to separate rooms and later his wife moving to an apartment), he reads the Bible and provides interesting commentary on it. He spends time searching his and his wife’s past. His wife was from a broken home. Her father, also a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, abandoned his wife when Lauren was a child. Further turmoil came from their marriage. With Lauren’s mother dying of cancer, they move up their date in the hope she’d be able to be present. But she dies before the wedding. Their marriage begins in a rocky manner, but eventually things leveled out, or so he thought. 

Later in the story, after Lauren moves out, she realizes what she’s throwing away. She calls Harrison, who rushes over to her apartment and packs up her stuff. They also find places Lauren can live to keep Chad from seeking her out. By the book’s end, Harrison and Lauren are slowly rebuilding their marriage. 

As I said earlier, this is an insightful and extremely honest book. We see all sides of the main characters, good and bad. At times, I thought Harrison’s character was overly virtuous, but I had to admire the effort he made to save the covenant of his marriage. Thinking back 40 years, I wondered what would have happened had I been so determined. Harrison reminds us that marriage is often difficult and requires work. It would have been easy for him to have thrown in the towel and found someone else. While tempted, but he stood fasted and remained open for reconciliation because he loved his wife and wanted the best for his children. 

I am glad I read this book and recommend it to others. 

Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: a memoir 

(New York: Harper, 2015), 336 pages plus 15 bonus pages including an essay by the author on memoirs along with additional information about the author.

The World’s Largest Man is about Key’s father and his own quest to become a father.  When Key was a child in elementary school, his father moved the family from Memphis, where you went to church to learn about the dangers of premarital sex). They moved to Mississipp

\i (where you went to church to engage in such sex).  (19).  According to Key, Mississippi is where crazy people believe what can’t be shot should be baptized (16), and children often learn child-birth before long division. (37) Here, Key was taught the ways of the woods.  

One early adventure was dove hunting at daybreak in which he realized that problem with the proverb about the early rising bird getting the worm.  They also get murdered. (32) Some readers may be offended by Key’s frankness concerning sex. In a few occasions he hints at the involvement of livestock.  I wasn’t overly shocked as I once had a boss from Mississippi named Ron. One night after a few beers where he told us about a boy from his school…  I’ve been through Mississippi, but Ron’s stories had always reminded me there was no need to linger.  Key has reminded me again of the wisdom of passing through and keeping your windows rolled up.   

Key keeps the humorous zingers coming as he tells about deer hunting, fighting at school, his first love, football and baseball.  He also shares about his father’s tough discipline and his mother’s love.  At times, as the reader, I felt contempt for his father. And then, at other times, I couldn’t help but admire him.  Key’s old man went out of his way to help children. He continued coaching little league baseball and football long after his boys had grown up and moved on.  Key always felt he was not living up to his father’s standards (something most boys feel, or at least I did).  

After high school, there is a gap and Key picks up his story when he is in grad school and is married.  He worries what his new bride will think of his family and there are some funny episodes around her first visits to Mississippi for holidays.  Once they have children, he sees another side of his father.   His old man loves grandchildren.  Eventually, Key is able to encourage his parents to move to Savannah where he is a professor at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design).  A month later, his father dies of a heart attack.  

In the second part of the book, we see Key’s struggling to be a man and protecting his wife and three daughters.  Having grown up around guns, he marries a woman who wasn’t a “gun person. He leaves his guns with his parents.  One night, he arms himself with a serrated kitchen knife to check out a possible bad guy.  As Key says, “it would have come in handy had he come across an angry Bundt cake.”  (273)  After his father drops off his old shotgun and they experience a break-in, he obtains shells for the shotgun.  But then, he realizes it was a foolish idea, He adds motion sensor lights outside of his house and an alarm system.  

The last part of the book may not carry the humor of the earlier part of the book, but it has an honest feel as Key struggles to learn what it means to be good husband and a good father.  There is a tenderness to how he writes about his family and his aging father.   Key recalls the old truism from the country that things can kill you can also make you feel alive (238), but a few pages later he acknowledges that what really makes us alive is love. (246).  This is a book written in love, which is why I recommend it.  McManus has some good competition as does other Mississippi writers such as Willie Morris.  

I also liked the supplemental information provided at the end of the book.  These include tips about writing about one’s family, an essay on memoirs (a term Key detests), more biographical information, and his top ten list of funny writers of which I’ve only read four (Charles Portis, Douglas Adams, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain).   Key acknowledge at the front of the book that he had changed many of the names (since most of them have guns).

Harrison Scott Key, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir

(New York: Harpers, 2018) , 347 pages including five appendices and no illustrations except an ink figure of a dog drawn by Beetle, the author’s daughter, while I waited for him to sign my book.

 Over the years I have enjoyed reading memoirs by authors as I learn how they approach the craft and gleam advice for myself. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Eudora Welty,’s One’s Writer’s Beginning, Robert Laxalt’s, Travels with My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life, and Dee Brown’s When the Century was Young are books that come to mind.

I’ve also read many “how-to” books by authors who tell us how to approach the craft. Without looking at my shelf, I can recall Stephen King, “On Writing; William Zinsser, On Writing Well; Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing; and John McPhee, Draft #4. All these authors of memoirs and how-to books have an impressive list of publications under their belt when they sat down to give advice on writing. Harrison Scott Key decided he’d write his how-to memoir immediately following the publication of his first book. But then, his first book won the Thurber Prize.

 I enjoyed reading Congratulations, Who Are You Again? even though I am not sure I would have called this a memoir. I’m not sure what it is.

Part of the book reads like a “how-to” manual for becoming famous and having a best seller. Another part of the book is the author’s quest to find discover his life’s purpose as he charges through much of his 20s and 30s like Don Quixote. Part of this books appears to be a sure-fire way to receive a summons to divorce court. Another part of this book is  Mr. Key’s depository for lists. And just in case you didn’t have your fill of lists within the text, Key fills his appendices with lists. What is it about all these lists? I was wondering why he didn’t include a grocery list, but concluded that maybe his wife, out of gratitude for now having more than one toilet in the house, has volunteered to shop for the family.

My hunch is that Mr Key’s lists are actually passwords. What a better way to keep them close at hand than to have a book he can pull off his shelf and quickly recall his password for Facebook or Twitter or maybe even First Chatham Bank. And, one final “what is it…” What is it about depressed people and pelicans? Key speaks of his interest in these “freakish and ungainly” birds while depressed. Personally, I find pelicans graceful. A former professor of mine, Donald McCullough, while dealing with depression, published a book titled The Wisdom of Pelicans. Like my former professor, I find pelicans graceful, not freakish. I’m not sure what’s wrong with Mr. Key. Maybe I should give up watching pelican’s fish, but that sounds too depressing.

That said, this is a funny book. And writing a funny book is one of Mr. Key’s life goals. He’s now achieved this goal twice, first with The World’s Largest Man, and now with Congratulations. Although Key acknowledges his indebtedness to a host of authors, he never mentioned the fabulous 1940 movie, “Sullivan’s Travels,” staring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. In “Sullivan’s Travels,” McCrea plays a movie producer who wants to make a movie about the seriousness of the Great Depression in order to move people to respond in compassion. But after a misfortune, he has an epiphany and realizes people also need to laugh. Sullivan learns this wisdom after at the end of the film. Key comes this conclusion on page 49. 

 My third complaint about Key’s writing (my first complaint was his lists, my second was his rude remarks about pelicans) is his overuse of misdirects. Key describes the great things that follow his things such as being published. Following such good news, Key rambles on about all the invitations to TV and radio shows to make an appearance. He seems to have a healthy crush on NPR’s Terry Gross. Others ask him to give keynote speeches. He’s also mugged by admirers on Savannah’s streets.

Just when the reader is about to believe there is a god who awards hard work, the reader is redirected into what really happened. Usually nothing. The exception is an actual mugging on Savannah’s streets. Actually, Key never wrote about being mugged, but it could happen. These redirects were funny the first 57 times this reader fell for this comic technique, but the 58th time was just too much. As I was coming to the end of the book, I thought that if there was one more redirect, I’d rip the book apart and toss it out the window. Thankfully, being near the end, I was reading lists and it’s pretty hard to redirect a reader from a grocery to a household chore list. I never knew lists could be funny.

  Complaints aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and laughed a lot. My biggest take-away from Mr. Key is that writing is like giving birth. I’ve heard that before, but Key attaches his unique twist that refreshes this platitude: “Writing is like giving birth, and it is, it is just like giving birth, in the Middle Ages, when all the babies died.” (114). Writing is hard work, and such hard work in this case produces a book that the reader can easily read and enjoy.

 And one final comment for clarification.  I am not the minister who accosted Keys in a restaurant asking to be included in his next book. Such a request is foolish for if Keys says the things he does about his wife and children, whom he obviously adores, what would he say about a coveting minister. Of course, the minister did find himself in the book, only he’s not identified. 

Learning more about the Okefenokee

Photo of book, "Suwannee River"

Cecile Hulse Matschat, Suwannee River: Strange Green Land, A Descriptive Joureny through the Enchanted Okefenokee (1938, 1966, Athens, GA: University Press, 1980), 296 pages including a bibliography, glossary, bird and flora list, an index. Black and white drawings illustrate each chapter.

I picked this book up at a used bookstore several years ago. It was the perfect book to pack along on my recent ramblings in and around the Okefenokee. Originally published in the late 1930s as a part of a “River in America” series, the University of Georgia Press republished it

I have read many books about rivers. I enjoy an author taking me down a steam, telling me about the river, its history, along with the flora and fauna and wildlife around its water. This book does that in a fresh and unique manner. The author, an “outlander” from New York. She, heads into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for the headwaters of the Suwanee River in the 1930s. Drawing on her interest and knowledge of plants, she becomes known as the “Plant Woman,” and gains the confidence of the people who live in the swamp. She then writes about the swamp and river through the eyes of the native residents of the swamp. Not only will the reader learn about the region’s natural history but also gains an appreciation of the stories of the swamp. These stories are told in the swamper’s own dialect. 

The largest part of this book involves the Plant Woman’s stay with those living in the swamp. Here, we also learn the folk heritage of the swamp. Instead of a scientific understanding of the region, we learn of how the beavers and the native people had developed a truce, but when a new chief rose, he decided to make war on the beavers. In retaliation, the beavers flooded the land and abandoned it forever (there are no beavers in the swamp. We learn of tall tales of the ingenuity of who lived in the swamp. One “swamper” wedded bees and lightening bugs, doubling his production of honey because the insects could now work 24 hours a day. 

Matschat asks to see a still. They blindfolded her and take her by boat to a remote landing. There, she sees a still in operation and learns about moonshine. She introduces us to the “snake woman” who has a pet kingsnake. Some of boys catch a large rattlesnake with 21 rattlers They set up a fight with the kingsnake. Everyone knew the kingsnake would win, but the betting was on how long the rattlesnake could last against its arch enemy. She’s present as they boil off cane squeezings into syrup and learns about “old Christmas.” She tells of people’s encounter with the wilds. This included wild hogs, bears, and sandhill cranes. We also learn how they cared for each other. We are provided with recipes for delights like sweet potato biscuits along with the words to songs sung to pass time.  Her time in the swamp ends with a wedding. 

After her time in the swamp, she takes boat down the Suwannee River. Here, she experiences a variety of orchids and meets those who live by the river. She spends some time on old cotton plantations, with African Americans left behind after the Civil War. There, they eke out a living from farming, hunting, and fishing. Some may find this section difficult as Matschat tells of older members speaking fondly of slave days. This doesn’t ring politically correct today, but she found the former slaves still living in their cabins as the old mansions of the masters were rotting away and considered haunted. 

One of the stories an old man tells the children is about the rabbit. Supposedly, the rabbit used to have a beautiful long tail. Noah’s son, Ham, in the ark, spent his time during the rain playing the banjo. When his strings broke, Noah suggested he take the tail of the rabbits to create new strings. He did, which is why rabbits now have bobbed tails.

When she gets to the mouth of the Suwannee, she takes a boat down to Cedar Key. There, she meets a more international community of Cuban and Portuguese fishermen and hears more tales of pirates and hurricanes. She leaves her journey behind, taking an airplane from Cedar Key back north. For all her journey, you’d thought she was in the 19th or 18th centuries. Only here at the end we’re reminded that her experiences were in the 1930s.  I found this a delightful book and highly recommend it if you can find a copy.  

If one wants to learn more about the actual history of the Okefenokee, I suggest reading Trembling Earth. I first reviewed it in 2015 and have republished my review below. It’s academic and approaches the swamp’s folklore from a more objective perspective. She of how it was a refugee for runaway slaves, native Americans, deserters during the Civil War, and outlaws. She also tells of human efforts to drain the swamp, which became a folly.

Opening pages of book
A look inside at the opening page of the book
Photo of book, Trembling Earth

Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 262 pages including notes, index, bibliography, and a few photos.  

The Okefenokee Swamp is huge bog located mostly in South Georgia, just above the Florida border. Today, much of it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to this status, the swamp existed as a barrier. Nelson calls it an “edge space.” The name, “Okefenokee,” comes out of a Native American term meaning “trembling earth.” This name describes the floating peat islands inside the swamp. Since there is only a little “solid” high ground inside the swamp, few made their home there.  

Prior to European immigration, there were a few native communities existing along the edges of the swamp. The interior was only probed for hunting. This changed over time as the Spanish began to populate Florida and the British began to move into Georgia. The swamp and the native populations served as a buffer between British and later Americans in the north and the Spanish in the South. 

Native communities began to move into the swamp during the Seminole wars of the early 19th Century, using it geographical barrier to their advantage. Another group to find the interior of the swamp beneficial were runaway slaves. At first, Georgia didn’t allow slavery. However, Africans had some immunity to the diseases that affected Europeans. That, along with the need for new areas to expand rice plantations , a push was made to extend slavery. Being close to Spanish Florida, some slaves would hide out in the swamp before making their ways south. Interestingly, the last group to find refuge in the swamp were poor white men. At first, they avoided conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War by hiding in the forbidding swamp. Later, “crackers” who lived under the radar in the swamp, living off the bounty of the land. 

After the Civil War, serious attempts were made to “conquer” the swamp. The first was a failed attempt to drain the swamp through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic Ocean. It was with hopes that the rich ground could be utilized for farming. This attempt failed to understand the geography for most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River into the Gulf of Mexico. 

After the bankruptcy of the dredging company, the swamp fell into the hands of northern timber companies who built “mud lines” (temporary railway spurs) which allowed them to harvest much of the cypress and pine within the swamp.  During this time, another group began to make the swamp their home. These “crackers” or “swampers,” both worked for and often resisted the various dredging and timber companies who attempted to change their environment. As the timber was being harvested, the interest in birdlife in the swamp increased as various surveys were made of the birds and waterfowl within the swamp were taken. This lead to the creation of a government protected wildlife refugee in the 1930s.  

Using a historicity which she labels “ecolocalism,” Nelson tells the history of the swamp through the stories of competing groups who relate to the landscape in different ways. These groups include Native Americans, slaves, colonists, developers, swampers, scientists, naturalists and tourists. This book is a distillation of the author’s dissertation. Although edited into its present form, it still maintains an academic distance from her subject. Only in an opening essay does she acknowledge having been into the swamp. This lack of a personal connect makes the book seem a little aloft. She does draw upon many of the group’s stories which makes the book very readable.  

twilight in the Okefenokee
Winter twilight in the swamp (photo taken in January 2017)

2023 Reading Recap

selfie of me, taken along Laurel Fork

Summary: 

 202120222023
Total books read 545353
Fiction848
Poetry (and about poetry)561
History/Biographies131713
Theology and ministry[1]162219
Essays/Short Stories836
Humor413
Nature6913
Politics335
Memoirs10114
Writing (how to)221
Titles by women14716
Read via Audible202026
Books reviewed303439[2]

The numbers do not add up as some of the books fit into multiple categories.

A few additional insights into my reading:

Of the books read this year, I have met 14 of the authors. 

I’m still reading a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but I read more fiction in 2023 than 2022.

This year I read only 9 non-American authors (and the nine include Canadians and British authors).

My favorite fiction book of the year is Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. My favorite non-fiction would be Wendell Berry’s The Need to be Whole. Both books have a lot to say about healing our broken world.  Below, I highlight a monthly favorite with the photo.

According to Goodreads, I read 15,475 pages this year for an average of 292 pages per book. To see my Goodread year end summary, click here.

January

Picture of book cover for "Horizon"

Sherry Blackman, Tales from the Trail: Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail

Earl V. Shaffer, Walking with Spring (second reading, first read this book in the mid-80s)

Barry Lopez, Horizon

Robert Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (I might come back and review this book if he would finish his final volume on LBJ)

Harlow Giles Unger, Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way UP is Down

February

Book cover for Demon Copperhead

John Burgess, After Baptism

C. Lee McKenzie, Shattered

Merrill Gilfillan, Chokeberry Places: Essays from the High Plains

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Thorpe Moeckel, Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac

March

Book cover for A Speckled Beauty

Douglas Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of our Most Essential Native Tree

Rick Bragg, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People

Mills Kelly, Virginia’s Lost Appalachian Trail

Joel B. Green, 1 Peter

Barbara Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmstead in a Fractured Land

Jeff Darren Muse, Dear Park Ranger (I read an advance copy, the book was published in May)

April

Book cover for One Summer, America 1927

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Caroline Grego, Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South

Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter

Martin Clark, The Substitution Order

Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

May

book cover for Cadillac Desert

Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (I read most of this book in the mid-1990s, this time I listened and re-read interesting selections)

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith

Shelby Foote, Jordan County: A Novel

June

Book cover for Ride with Me Mariah Montana

Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

Larry L. King, In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor

Ivan Doig, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

July

Book cover for Big Hair and Plastic Grass

Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (2nd time read, first read in 2001)

Dominic Ziegler, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s

August

Book cover for The Old Man and the Boy

Robert Rauk, The Old Man and the Boy (This is my 4th time reading this book since I was in Jr. High)

Ben McGrath, Riverman: An American Odyssey

September

Book title for The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism

Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationaliam: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation

Patrick Wyman, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shocked the World, 1490-1530

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China

October

Need to be Whole book cover

James S. Currie, The Kingdom of God is like… Baseball: A Metaphor for Jesus’s Kingdom Parables

Sarah Clarkson, This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into our Darkness

Wendell Berry, The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice

November

Ernest Best, 2 Corinthians: Interpretations

C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians 

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants (review coming soon)

C. Lee McKenzie, Rattlesnake

December

Book cover for A Radiant Birth

Suzanne McDonald, Re-imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories

Tristan Gooley, How to Read Water: Clues & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season


Click here for my reading list from 20222021 and 2020

Did you have a favorite book that you read last year? What’s the title and why did you like it?

Bloggers with recaps for their yearly reading:

AJ’s best of 2023

Bob’s essay on his 2023 reading

Kelly’s 2023 list of books

MaineWords

Kinga’s 2023 summary

And English Homesteader

If you’d like me to highlight your 2023 list here, just send me a link.

Photo of me walking along Laurel Fork
Selfie, hiking along Laurel Fork, 2023

Theological and Devotional Book Reviews along with an update on my recent absence

display of the books reviewed
Steaming oysters poured out to be eaten
My brother dumping a pot of steaming oysters

Next week I plan to post my annual 2023 reading update. But before I get to that, let me update some of my recent readings (I have a couple more reviews from 2023 that have nothing to do with theology, which I hope to post later in January). 

After Christmas, my daughter and I headed to Wilmington to celebrate my father’s birthday and to see family. As usual, we had oysters for my father’s birthday party. I also got to spend an afternoon and an early morning walking on the beach. On my early morning walk, I took this photo: 

And now, to my reviews: 

Sunrise over the surf at Carolina Beach, NC on December 30, 2023
Sunrise at Carolina Beach on December 30, 2023
Book cover for "A Radiant Birth"

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, editors, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2023), 211 pages

I generally pick a book to read during the Advent/Christmas Season.  A Radiant Birth was this year’s book. I am familiar with both editors from Calvin University’s Festival of Faith and Writing and have developed a friendship with Paul Willis over the years. This is a collection of readings for both Advent and the 12 days of Christmas. The genre varies, from poetry to prose, from scripture to sermon, from modern authors to those in the ancient world. I especially enjoyed John Chrysostom’s “Sermon on the Nativity, which he preached in Antioch in AD 386. Both Fields and Willis have pieces in the collection.

This book is a delight and for anyone looking to make the season more meaningful, I recommend this book.

book cover for "Re-Imaging Election"

Suzanne McDonald, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 213 pages.

I met Suzanne McDonald last March at the Theology Matters Conference in Hilton Head, SC. She gave a dynamic lecture on John Owen’s “Beatific Vision.” Several of us afterwards spoke about how we wish our theology professors had her energy and excitement for her topic. Wanting to get to know more about her thoughts, I picked up this book, which I think must have been taken from her doctoral dissertation. This was the most difficult book I read all year and several parts of this book I had to read multiple times to fully grasp what she was attempting to say. I also kept my smart phone handy while reading so I could look up words. That said, a month after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking deeply about her thesis. 

McDonald’s title says it all. God’s elects’ individuals and peoples (such as Israel) for two purposes. Election isn’t just about individual salvation but about participating with God in God’s work in the world. I have often said in sermons that God doesn’t save us just to fill up a hotel room in heaven. We’re saved because God has work for us to do. McDonald essentially says the same thing. Our “election” is for representing God to others (to be God’s agents within the world) and to representing others to God (intercessory prayer is an example). It sounds simple but throw in a hundred or so technical terms and Latin phrases, and you’ll see it’s not so simple.

The book begins with McDonald contrasting the writings on election by John Owen and Karl Barth. Owen, a Puritan, would have a stricter interpretation of election, while Barth’s view is gentler). She plays critical attention to the role Christ and the Spirit plays in each’s understanding of the work within an individual. Next, she explores the meaning of election as seen in both the Old Testament with Israel and the church in the New Testament. While she keeps going back to Owen and Barth, she introduces a host of other voices into the dialogue on election such as Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, George Hunsinger, and Walter Brueggemann.

If you’re interested in going deep into theology, I recommend this book. And if you read it, let me know. I’d enjoy discussing it. 

Book cover for "Drive-Through Christmas Eve"

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories (Rapid City, SD: CrossLink Publising, 2020), 107 pages

Rick Raum has been a good friend of mine since we meet as Pastors of neighboring churches (25 miles apart) in Lake Michigan Presbytery. We have kept in contact over the years and have often seen each other at the meeting of the General Assembly and Theology Matter’s Conferences. A few years ago, while he had retired from preaching and was working for a Presbyterian College in North Dakota as a fundraiser, he and his wife (who has written many non-fiction books for middle school students), published a delightful collection of Christmas stories which had their genesis in Christmas sermons. This is a short, easily read, book. If you’re looking for new Christmas illustrations, I recommend this book. 

book cover for "Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart"

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021), 136 pages.

While I have not met Donna Giver-Johnston in person, we have exchanged emails and have several shared friends. Currently, she is the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Prior to this position, she served as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, where I was a half-time student pastor during my senior year at Pittsburgh. Brent, the pastor of the church at the time, became a mentor and a friend. I wrote about his tragic death in 2006 in the Presbyterian Outlook and at some point, will share that article here. All that just goes to illustrate my draw to Diver-Johnston’s book on preaching. 

Sermons cannot be written in one medium, Giver-Johnson insists, and then delivered in another. Speaking and writing are different things. In this book, the author describes her process from being a manuscript preacher to one who preaches without notes. While she still writes a manuscript, she doesn’t use the manuscript in the pulpit. She also doesn’t memorize it. Instead, she preaches shorter sermons as she recalls the themes of her message. I admit that I have not tried her method. Yet, like her I have a set ritual for writing my sermons and for memorizing them. 

Giver-Johnston draws on many top teachers of homiletics, biblical scholars, and communication experts. I’ve read most of these and have studied under a few of them: Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, Neil Postman, Brian McLaren, Eugene Lowry, Fred Craddock, Alyce McKenzie, Tom Long, Barbara Brown TaylorN. T. Wright, And Paul Scott Wilson.

While I appreciate learning about her style of preparation, I am still debating whether I will try to give up the manuscript. Not all those Giver-Johnston draws upon preaches without manuscript (Barbara Brown Taylor is an example of a manuscript preacher who, like me, has internalized much of the text so that by Sunday doesn’t read the sermon). The key, I think, to preaching is to have internalized so that you don’t just read what’s on paper and you have freedom to change things if necessary. 

I recommend this book to preachers, but it also has something to say to writers and others who depend upon words to convey a message. For those interested in writing for the ear, I would also recommend G. Robert Jacks’, Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear. I think it’s out of print, but I read this book nearly 30 years ago and it changed the way I prepared and preached. I would also recommend Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theater. Childers draws upon her theater background and introduces “blocking” and other techniques into the preacher repertoire, which helps internalize the message we are bringing to a congregation. I have adopted some of her suggestions which help me internalize the message. 

Book cover for "Dinner with Jesus"

Timm Oyer, Dinner with Jesus (2023), 94 pages. 

I met Timm shortly after moving to Hastings, Michigan in January 2004. At the time, he was the pastor of the Nazarene Church. For the next eight years, we remained close. Then he went and retired and moved out of state. But we keep up, often through Timm’s reading of this blog and responding with an email or a comment.

Timm, along with the Reverend Jon Carnes, has published a study guide that looks at the meals Jesus enjoyed and how they might inform our own dining habits. Tim wrote a short insight into each text(s), often drawing on personal experiences around his own table or of others. He concludes each of the 13 lessons with questions to encourage the reader to reflect on how to interpret and utilize the message. Jon wrote a centering prayer for each of the passages.  This book could be used in a group study, or an individual could work their way through the lessons, spending time in thought and prayer over each one. 

Kure Beach Pier
Kure Beach Pier, December 28, 2023

Two Book by C. Lee McKenzie

Title Slide with book covers

C. Lee McKenzie, Rattlesnake

Book cover for Rattlesnake

(I read an advance PDF copy) 

Allie and Jonah, a brother and sister from New Hampshire, along with their aunt, find themselves in Rattlesnake, Nevada. It’s an old mining town. Having inherited a house and mine from an uncle, they move with the hopes of rebuilding their lives. Allie and Jonah, whose mother died, and father has disappeared, struggle in their new school. Their aunt attempts to find employment while working on the inhabitable house which also appears to be haunted. The town itself seems to conspire against them. Jonah falls for a girl named Juliet. Unfortunately, she is attached to a bully named Snake. Another boy named Galvin befriends Jonah and the two make the basketball team. Galvin is also interested in Allie. 

As Jonah attempts to get revenge on Snake, something goes wrong. Allie and Jonah find themselves transported back into time, where they meet Catherine, the ghost in their home. She, too, is from a family without a mom. Her father is accused of murder and hanged. To save her father’s name and reputation, she needs Jonah’s help. Without giving away the details, things work out. 

While I am never been drawn to ghost stories, I enjoyed this book. Of course, I couldn’t help to draw parallels between Jonah and Allie’s new home in Rattlesnake and my own experience in Virginia City, Nevada. A few things were too similar. Rattlesnake had a Bucket of Venom Saloon while Virginia City has a Bucket of Blood. Both communities in history had Chinese sections which provided firewood and vegetables among other things.

Allie and Jonah move into Rattlesnake toward the end of summer, the same time I moved to Virginia City. McKenzie capture many of the experiences I had, such as the sun slipping behind the mountain earlier and the coming cold weather that happens in the desert mountains. Although I didn’t have a ghost muse named Catherine to draw me into an interest in history, I became obsessed with the community. In my last few months in Virginia City, about once a week I’d spent an afternoon in the Nevada Historical Society achieves at the University of Nevada, Reno. Later, I would write a dissertation on the community. 

I recommend this book to middle school and high school age young adults. The book points out the danger of bullying, and of not speaking up for what is right. Hopefully, the reader will learn there are noble things we should do, if we can, to make things right.

The author provided me a copy of the book before publication for an honest review. This is the fourth book I’ve read by McKenzie. I appreciate how she addresses issues faced by our youth. However, this is the first “ghost story” I’ve read by her. In this blog, I reviewed Not Guilty and Shattered.

Links to my own posts about my time in Virginia City: 

Sunday afternoon drive to Gerlach 

Arriving in Virginia City 

David Henry Palmer arrives in Virginia City, 1863

Doug and Elvira

Matt and Virginia City

Riding in the cab of a locomotive on the V&T

Christmas Eve, 1988

C. Lee McKenzie, Sliding on the Edge 

Book cover for "Sliding on the Edge"

(Westside Books, 2009).  I read this on my iPad using a Kindle app.

Shawna is a tough sixteen-year-old, at least on the outside. She can survive the streets of Las Vegas and the abusive boyfriends of her narcissistic mother. When her mother flees town with her newest lover, on the day the rent is due, Shawna wakes to a bus ticket, a $100 bill, and a note to go to her grandmother’s home in Central California. There, she will be where her mother can find her when she gets her life back together. 

Having never met her grandmother, Shawna reluctantly decides to take the trip. Having been disappointed all her life, Shawna has developed a protective façade that pushes others away. In a similar way, her grandmother Kay also has a habit of pushing people away. The two leading characters in the story have sad memories that each must deal with. But Shawna issues are deeper. Having pushed everyone away, she deals with her deep pain by giving into the “Monster” and cutting herself with a razor blade.  Shawna and Kay need the other.  Kay, by taking care of Shawna, can finally put aside the tragedies of her past as Shawna, with the help of her grandmother and an old horse, learns to trust. The book is told from the point-of-view of both characters: Kay and Shawna.  

I found myself deeply pained by the events of Shawna’s past. No child should ever have to deal with a mother who used her daughter in her schemes to obtain what she wanted in life. As we read the stories, we learn the two had worked together as petty criminals on the streets of Vegas. Moving to Central California, where she surprises her grandmother, Shawna finds herself in a strange new world. This is the world of horse farms and high schools where girls have sleepovers. It takes a lot of patience but by the end of the book, after she realizes she doesn’t want to go back to her mother, things are looking up for Shawna.  

I have often enjoyed the young adult works, especially the works of Gary Paulsen and Gary Schmidt. However, they write stories about teenage boys. Reading about a teenage girl, in a book written for girls is a little different. I was curious to learn what goes on in someone’s mind that causes them to cut themselves. As a book of fiction, this is not a handbook about the practice and how to stop it. But I can see how one can come so jaded about life that they resort to such drastic measures to battle the pain. 

This review appeared in another blog of mine in 2016. 

Baseball and Theology

title page with covers of the two books

The World Series will soon be over. If you’re like me and you don’t have dog in the hunt (even though I would like to see the Diamondbacks win, but that seems very unlikely with them down 3-1 in the Series and down a run in the 7th inning of the fifth game. Yes, I have watched parts of all but one of the games.

For those of you going into baseball withdrawal, here are a few reviews of books that discuss baseball and our Christian faith. For another review mine on a similar book by John Sexton, president of New York University, titled “Baseball as a Road to God, click here.

James S. Currie, The Kingdom of God is Like… Baseball: A Metaphor for Jesus’s Kingdom Parables 

(Eugene Oregon, Cascade Books, 2011), 114 pages. 

I know the author’s brother, Tom Currie. In the acknowledgements, James acknowledges Tom as a better baseball player and a more “perspicacious theologian.” I’ve not seen Tom play but have been blessed to be in the presence of  his keen theological mind. I have also heard him speak of his love of the game. I even attended a night game with him in Pittsburgh this summer. When he mentioned this book, I decided to pick it up. And now we’re in a World Series where I’m not really excited by either team, I picked up this book to read and I hope to get this review out before the Series is over!  

Each chapter appears they could have been sermons. The author explores Jesus’ kingdom parables using baseball stories. TThe first chapter digs into the theme of failure and freedom in which we hear stories of great games by mediocre ballplayers and how you are more likely to be out than to get a hit… From there, he explores themes like joys, hope, community, hard work, unexpected heroes, reflecting society, communion of saints, and home. If you count them up, there are nine major chapters in this book just like there are nine innings in a baseball. And, as it sometimes happens, there is one last chapter for the extra innings. 

This book is a joy. The baseball fan will be reminded of many stories, some well-known and others less so. The Biblical scholar may come away with a new way of approaching Jesus’ kingdom parables. 

Marc A. Jolley, Safe at Home: A Memoir of God, Baseball, and Family (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 139 pages, a few photos.

This is a delightful book in which Jolley recalls childhood memories with his father on up to the time he became a father himself. Jolley links these life transitions together with his love of baseball and his growing faith. Like baseball with more strikeouts than home runs, Jolley’s story contains sadness along with joy. There’s the time he failed to make his high school team. Then there are the casualties experienced by those, like Jolley, on the sideline during a political battles between fundamentalists and more moderate members of his denomination (Southern Baptist). These were tough times to be in seminary as Jolley completes his MDiv and PhD.  Jolley also deals with depression. Through it all, Jolley’s parents and wife support him. In the end, Jolley discovers family to be the medicine needed to help keep his depression under control.  

As a white Southerner, I have never understood fellow Southerners who root for the Yankees. As a child, it was always St. Louis and then Atlanta, when the Braves moved there. The Yankees were despised.  I recently learned this was also true of many African-Americans in the South (at least in the 50s).  I would have thought they would have seen the Yankees as liberators (a good thing), but the New York Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate.  Instead, African-Americans supported the Dodgers, who brought up Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in baseball.[1] 

That said, Jolley and his father were Yankee fans.  He describes entering Yankee Stadium with his son to watch their first game with the details of an architect entering a cathedral. Reading about this trip, I was excited for him.  I was almost as excited as I was three years ago when I saw my first game at Yankee Stadium.  Like his son, a Diamondback fan who rooted against the Yankees, I attended a Yankee-Detroit cheering on the Tiger’s.  Baseball has a way of bringing people together and providing a good time even though in my game it rained and the Tiger’s lost by 12 runs.

Jolley’s father’s love for the Yankees’ was tested when they pick up Reggie Jackson as a free agent. His father couldn’t stand Jackson saying he had no respect for one who bragged about himself and talked bad about others. But Jackson, Mr. October, backed up his loud mouth with homeruns. Sadly, Jolley was never able to attend a game at Yankee Stadium with his father.  When he was able to take his own son, his father was in a nursing home. But his smiled and enjoyed the stories when he heard about the trip Jolley took with his son.

I also appreciated how Jolley wove in many of my favorite authors into his narrative. Will Campbell’s Glad River makes an appearance as he reflects on his father’s faith (even though he was never baptized). He quotes William Styron and credits him with getting through depression.  Dante’s Divine Comedy makes an appearance as does W. P. Kinsella.’s classic, Shoeless Joe” upon which the movie “Field of Dreams was based.”

This is an enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. As Jolley points out in the quote below, there things baseball does better than the church in the disciple-making business: 

I never learned to respect enemies at church. I learned a lot about hate and divisiveness at church. I learned nothing about a common goal, or a purpose. Not until much later did I ever figure church out.  Playing baseball that year, I got a head start on what church was supposed to be.”  (Page 60)

I read and reviewed this book in 2017 in a blog that’s no longer available. The author confided in me afterwards that he and his first wife divorced and he has remarried. That said, the book is still a good read.


[1] On race and team loyalty in at least one corner of the south, see Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (1987, Athens: UGA Press, 1998), 142-145,

The Need to Be Whole

photo of Wendell Berry and book cover for "The Need to Be Whole"

Wendell Berry, The Need to Be Whole:: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice 

"The Need to Be Whole" book cover

(Shoemaker & Company, 2022), 513 pages including index and bibliography.

I came across Wendell Berry as a 21-year-old college student. I had read a review of his recent book, The Unsettling of America, and checked it out of the library. Since then, I have purchased and read 16 of his works in three genres (non-fiction, fiction, and poetry). In Barry’s latest work, he returns to themes he first laid out in The Unsettling of America (1977) and The Hidden Wound (1969). Nearly 45 years later, I have entered the latter half of my sixth decade as Berry fast approaches his ninth. 

In The Need to be Whole Berry reflects on thoughts over his lifetime that involve how we get along with one another and with the land in which we’re to steward. The result is a book that, at times, wanders. It’s also a book that will anger many: conservatives and liberals. But Berry has never been one to fit into a comfortable niche of what’s popular now. He is beholden to no one. He thinks for himself. The reader can either accept or reject his thoughts. 

While Berry’s subtitle suggests this is a book about Patriotism and a history of prejudice, it’s much more than that. Berry calls on his readers to love, each other and the land. While he writes about prejudice and racism, he understands the roots of both grounded in the lack of respect for work and the land. He criticizes the work philosophy of John Calhoun, who saw menial labor as beneath white gentleman in his defense of slavery. Berry criticized Calhoun for alienating the white population of the South from the land, which was just as destructive to yeoman white farmers as it was to slaves.

Interestingly, however, Berry doesn’t allow us to discard someone just because he or she made politically incorrect statements. He even concedes that not everything Calhoun did or stood for was bad, although he didn’t outline what was good about him. He does, however, delve into the good of another discredit Southerner, Robert E. Lee. Berry defends Lee as he understands Lee’s desire to defend his state. One of the places Berry wanders is the recent movement to remove statues of slaveholders. While agreeing that nothing about slavery can be justified, Berry is also against removing such statues. He’s also against just about any movement, as if he wants to be saved from such do-gooders.  Nor does he have time for what passes as political correctness.

Berry’s home state of Kentucky never succeeded from the Union, yet it was a slave state and the Civil War era brought hardship and violence to it. Berry wanders around his state’s Civil War history as he attempts to make a point. If I understand Berry, while he thinks slavery is horrible, yet he finds the South’s connect to the land to be more noble than the industrial north. However, at the time of the Civil War, both north and south were mostly agrarian.

This brings to Berry’s understanding of patriotism. He understands the patriot to be linked to the land and in opposition to the “nationalism.” Drawing on the writings of George Bernanos and John Lukacs, nationalism is aggressive and based more on a myth of the people. Patriotism is more defensive and rooted not in the people but in the land. Nationalism seeks to make enemies among fellow citizens. 

Another thread which Berry follows in his book is theological. He certainly understands the stewardship concept (the earth is the Lord’s, and we’re just stewards of it). His chapter on sin is an insightful commentary on the Ten Commandments. He is also critical of both conservative and liberal or progressive views on sin. Sin much more encompassing, involving our hubris, than the popular (media) sins argued in the political arena (conservatives: abortion along with regulation and taxes; liberals: racial slurs and sexual harassment). The popular sins effectively divide the innocent from the guilty, where sin divides us from God and neighbor (156). 

The chapter on sin is followed by a longer chapter on forgiveness (where he discusses the current debate over statues to slave holders). He understands that freedom requires forgiveness. Otherwise, we’ll continue the battles repeatedly. Toward the end of the book, in his last chapter which is titled “Words,” he calls us to love. He acknowledges that legislating equality won’t change our hearts. Only love can do this. And for Berry, love involves both the land and its people. 

There is a lot in this book, and I’ve just scratched the surface. I invite you to read the book. I’d love to discuss it with some people. 

The Amur River

Photo of Amur River and book cover

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China (New York: HarpersCollins, 2021), 291 pages with an index and a map.

This is the second book I’ve recently consumed on the Amur River. I’m not sure of my renewed interest in Eastern Russia, but having once visited Siberia on the Trans-Mongolian Train from Beijing to Moscow, I had wanted to go back and take the train on to Vladivostok, and perhaps take a round trip, utilizing the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad). With the conditions of the world and Russia’s horrific war, such a trip may not be available during my lifetime. But maybe, if I can be as active as Thubron, who was nearly 80 when he made this trip, the world will settle down and I can make such a trip. 

In July, I listened to the unabridged audible version of “Black Dragon River” which is the Chinese name for the river that runs between it and Russia. This is the 9th longest river in the world and the one few people have heard about, probably because much of it is off limits because of the fortified border. This is my third book by Colin Thubron. While traveling across Siberia in 2011, I read his book, In SiberiaI’ve also read Shadow of the Silk Road, which he describes a western trip along the old Silk Road, from China to the Mediterranean. Sadly, I didn’t review that book. 

Thubron is a wonderful travel writer. In this book he describes his experiences as he attempted to follow the Amur and its tributaries from its source in Mongolia to the Pacific Ocean. Like Dominic Ziengler, in Black Dragon River, much of Thubron’s travels are mostly on land. But he says close to the river. He begins with an expedition in Mongolia, to find the headwaters of the Onon River, which requires special permission as they are entering a “strictly protected area”. While on this trip, he falls off his horse and breaks an ankle (but only thought it sprained) and cracks some ribs. But he continues to hobble along own despite his injury. 

As he and his guides make their way through the northeast of Mongolia in a we learn about the Buryats of Russia, many who moved to Mongolia to escape Stalin, only to find themselves dealing with Khorloogiin Choibalsan, the leader of Mongolia after it became communist. Choibalsan was as cruel as Stalin, he just had fewer subjects to torment. It is estimated that between 1937 and 1938, when the purges in Mongolia were the worst, ½ of the nation’s intelligentsia and 17,000 monks were killed. 

Tubron leaves Mongolia and picks up a Russian guide, following the Onon River. After the confluence with the Ingoda River, the Onon becomes the Shilka River. He stops in towns along the way which appear to have seen their better days. He’s asked about his purpose. When he says he’s following the Amur to the sea, he’s informed he’s on the wrong river, that the Amur is far away. It’s as if people don’t realize that the Shikla is the main tributary to the Amur. He also has run in with Russian security, who are suspicious of his travels. But after a few days, it works itself out. Part of the problem may have been he accidentally saw the maneuvers along the Amur with Russian and Chinese troops. 

After the confluence of Argun and Shilka Rivers, which form the Amur, the river becomes the boundary between Russia and China. While it is a fortified, there is some trade across the river. But there is also much prejudice, with the Russians looking down on the more prosperous Chinese, who many see is only interested in making money. At the city of Blagoveshchensk, Thubron crosses the river into the much larger Chinese city of Heihe. From here, he begins to travel along the river’s southside, before crossing back into Russia where the Ussuri River meets the Amur. In the border city of Khabarovsk, he learns of archeologists who have discovered ancient Chinese artifacts being punished as the Russians doesn’t want the Chinese to have any claim to their territory. Russia claim on its eastern land is weak. It was only after the building of the trans-Siberian railway that the country was united, and much of its land in the east was squeezed by treaties from a weaken China. 

While the border seems to be somewhat stabilized along the Amur, many Russians have xenophobic views about the Chinese. Eastern Siberia is a long way from Moscow. In some ways, both sides of the border are frontiers. But most of the Russians Thobron meets on his travels are Europeans and they feel China is destroying their forest and lands for their own development. By the time Thorbon reaches Khabarovsk, it’s October. He’s been traveling since August. The river is beginning to freeze, so he heads back to the United Kingdom for the winter. 

The next June, Thubon returns to Siberia. After Khabarovsk, the river turns north. From here, the Ussuri River, which flows from the south, becomes the border with China. Thubon travels along both sides, stopping in remote places, traveling with a Russian outdoorsman who takes him fishing and discusses survival in the deep cold of winter. He gains a vision of another side of Siberia. Most of this area is remote, except for Komsomolsk-na-Amure, which is where the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railway) crosses the river. This was a site of Soviet weapon factories which has produced aircraft. Along the river, nuclear submarines were built. But Thubon is not able to secure a permit to visit these sites and continues to make his way by car and boat to the river’s mouth into the Pacific. made this trip, most of the capacity is limited. 

I enjoyed reading this book. It reads like a travelogue, with the author providing just enough detail to give you a feel for the land and its history. While I also enjoyed Black Dragon River, it felt less like a travelogue as Ziengler goes much deeper into the history, not only of the Amur, but of the Mongolian and Chinese influence in the larger world. Both books are worth reading. My one complaint is that Thorbon tends to use obscure words, especially adjectives. But he writes some beautiful sentences. An example: “Perhaps it is the intimacy of the town, cradled in its hills and wrapped by the river, that sheds a gentle euphoria.” 

Ger Camp in Mongolia
Thubron had a number of colorful descriptions of these such as “mushroom caps”

Two book reviews and a personal essay on Dispensationalism

Book covers and a title page

Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2023), 382 pages including a glossary, biographic essay, and index. The text includes a handful of charts and prints. 

A broad definition: Dispensationalism is a belief that God works differently at different periods of time (dispensations) to reach humanity in different ages (dispensations). The doctrine rose from the teachings of John Nelson Darby in the 1830s, an Irish pastor who founded the Plymouth Brethren sect. However, the term Dispensationalism wasn’t coined until the 1930s. Dispensationalists believe we are nearing the final age and that before the end comes, the church will be raptured out of the world. When this happens, the world will enter a period of tribulation. The theology became more popular through the writings of Hal Lindsay and the “Left Behind” series. 

My experience with dispensationalism

I read Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth in high school. While Lindsay didn’t provide a date for the world’s demise, he certainly hinted it would be in the 1980s (I graduated from high school in 1975). I felt we were living in the last days. But we’re still here! Things weren’t moving toward the end, just yet. I slowly understood that the future is not ours to know. Jesus makes this clear when he said no one knows the date or the hour of his return. 

The concept of the rapture, which is behind such theology, seems far-fetched. The idea that God is going to yank the church out of the world before things go to hell in a handbasket (pretribulation premillennialism), saving the church from the horrors to come. This idea, which is rather recent in the history of the church, became even more problematic as I became more aware of suffering of Christians in the world. Such beliefs seemed just too comfortable for Christians in the Western World. But what does it say to Christians in the Sudan or Pakistan or North Korea or any of the other countries with persecution.  The purpose of the rapture, according to most dispensationalists, is for God to give Israel one more chance at salvation.

Dispensational theology wasn’t a class I took in seminary. I have only one memory of a professor addressing it, Doug Hare, a New Testament scholar. Essentially, he said that if we don’t do proper exegesis on the text, and understand it from the culture it arose, it would be easy to create such fantasy interpretations of scripture. 

In my own journey, dispensationalism was something that I felt I needed to study after I graduated from seminary. Part of this came from study of American religious history and reading George Marsden’s books on the history of fundamentalism and evangelism. Then I read Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today and John H. Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism. 

By the time of the publications of the Left Behind series, I was convinced of the danger of such teachings and spoke about it. This caused me to lose a potential new member when I was in Utah. A man took offense at what I said about dispensationalism. I later learned he was a friend of Tim Lahaye, one of the authors of the Left Behind series. During this time, I started to write my own “dispensational parody novel.” My title, “Left Behind at Denny’s” seemed to capture the worse place I could think of being left at. . I only wrote a few pages before I decided it wasn’t worth my effort.

While I don’t accept dispensationalism and have often pointed to the Southern Presbyterian Church call of the movement as a heresy, I must give them credit for reminding us that Christ will return. Eschatology is important.

My review of Hummel’s book 

While I had a broad concept as to what dispensationalism was about, Hummel’s work opened my eyes. It’s not a mono-cultural movement, but one with many diverse threads. While the movement’s beginning is related to John Nelson Darby, the Irish theologian in the 1830s, there are aspects (especially in America) that goes back further to a premillennialist view (Christ will return before the millennial) and to the Millerites (followers of William Miller, a Baptist pastor in the United States, who predicted Christ’s return in the 1840s).  Blending into these threads are how the theology became adopted by different groups from mainline denominations, evangelicals, and Pentecostals. Hummel does an amazing job describing these various understandings of dispensationalism.

In the 19th Century, Darby made many trips to the United States. He found a receptive ear in the Great Lake region and with the evangelist Dwight Moody. This led to the first institution dedicated to the teaching, Moody Bible Institute. From the beginning, American dispensationalism differed from its British counterpart. Darby’s Brethren were separatists from the main Protestant bodies. In America, dispensationalists were at home in many denominations including Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and to a lesser extent in Lutheran and Methodist traditions. 

Dispensationalism had a regional component. At first, it was strongest in the northern and border states. Then, a separate group developed on the West Coast, with the organization of Biola (Bible Institute of Los Angeles). The movement was slow to take hold in the South, especially in the early years, but eventually did with the establishment of Dallas Theological Seminary, which became the hub of academic dispensationalism. Interestingly, dispensationalism was primarily a “white” Protestant phenomenon and failed to take deep roots within the African American churches. 

The movement gained considerable support after the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible by Cyrus Scofield, a Congregational pastor from Texas. Scofield linked together passages in the Bible that supported dispensational teachings. His Bible was published by Oxford University Press. The popularity of his Bible allowed dispensationalism to influence those outside of their own circle. 

While dispensationalist beliefs grew in the early decades of the 20th Century, there were critics. This was especially true among more conservative and even fundamentalist Protestants, especially those within the Reformed tradition. While these critics challenged dispensational hermeneutics, they were often on the same side with many of the social battles such as fighting against the teachings of Darwin or Communism. 

Among all the many divisions within dispensationalism, Hummel divides dispensationalism into two broad eras. The dispensationalism of the first half of the 20th Century he labels Scholastic. Then, in the 60s and early 70s, with the publication of books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a more popular version of the movement rose. This popular version later gave rise to the Left Behind novels, which earned their authors a fortune and helped spread dispensational views. However, as dispensationalism became unmoored to its scholastic roots, it also began to decline as a movement, especially under the attack of groups such as the “new Calvinists.” Even Dallas Theological Seminary began to scale back its requirements for professors and students to affirm dispensationalism. 

Dispensationalism had to change over time (when Christ had not yet returned to rapture the church). While most tended to hold to the teaching that the tribulation would be after the rapture, some suggested we are going through a “humanistic tribulation” that will precede the rapture. This allows them to explain the liberal shift in culture and why the church has not yet been raptured. 

While Hummel does an excellent job tracing all these various threads of dispensationalism in America, he only briefly covers the role the theology had in “shaping a nation.” 

Dispensationalists were involved in many of the social movements of the past half century, but often with others who were conservative in their theology. However, their biggest impact was toward our country’s support of Israel. Dispensationalists sees the state of Israel as the defining moment in history pointing to the end. Many believed there are two ways of salvation, through the free grace offered by Jesus through the church and through the Jewish faith who are still God’s people. On the positive side, such thought makes dispensationalism a ready critic of antisemitism. However, it also allows one to justify total support of Israel without questioning the nation’s policies. When you believe you are on God’s side, who can argue with you about the morality of your actions? 

Another area where dispensationalism had an impact was the fear of the accumulation of power and one world government. To a dispensationalist, this was evidence of the approaching end, but it also allowed for many conspiracy theories to rise and find a home in churches teaching such doctrines.

The role of end-time beliefs in our government is dangerous. Not only is it no way to run a foreign policy (as with Israel), but it can also create other policy disasters. If you are sure the world is ending, why be concerned about the environment. After all, why not max out your credit cards? I hope Hummel’s research will continue to explore such issues. 

Daniel Hummel grew up within the dispensational tradition. He currently works at Upper House, a Christian center located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His first book (which I haven’t read and may go deeper into the role the movement had on our foreign policy) is Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israel Relations). I would recommend The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism to those deeply interested in the history of American religion or who would like to understand dispensationalism more.

Patrick Wyman, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World

 (Audible, 2021), read by the author, 11 hours and 33 minutes. 

Wyman makes the case that the four decades from 1490 to 1530 set Europe (and the Americas) on the course to become the world’s center. Prior to these decades, no one would have bet on Europe. The Ottomans to the east, China, areas in India, and even some unknown kingdoms such as the Incas and Aztecs in the yet to be discovered Americas, all seemed to have superior cultures.

But that began to change in the 1490s. The not-yet united Spain repelled the last of the Muslim invaders who had occupied parts of the peninsula for centuries. Not only did Columbus sail to the Americas, but other explorers also sailed down the coast of Africa and on to India. This was soon followed by the Reformation, the defeat of the Ottoman armies at the gates of Vienna in Austria, and the establishment of larger European nation states. Several things gave rise to European power including credit, printing, and the advancement in the art of war. This was also a violent era and Wyman ends his story with the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V sacking Rome (which was one way to settle the debt owed to the soldiers). 

I have read many books focusing on this period of history, but I can’t recall any of the books beginning with a detailed discussion of currency in use at the time. Most of my books focused foremost on the Reformation and perhaps the printing press. Wyman, however, spends much more time discussing finance and trade before he ever gets to Martin Luther. Credit becomes the means to expand the power of the state as well as to explore and to share ideas. Credit involves a trust that one will be repaid and can make a profit, which often led to the abuses of the era. When it came to being repaid, no one was overly concerned as to how the profit was made, whether from slave trade or plunder. 

While Wyman concentrates on a few key leaders of the era (Christopher Columbus, Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottomans, Charles V of Spain, and Martin Luther), he often tells his story through more common people such as a trader in England and a printer in Venice. Each chapter begins with what might be called “Creative Non-fiction” as he places the reader in the setting described, allowing us to experience first-hand what life was like in this era. 

Having listened to this book, I am glad that the author was also the reader. As an experience podcaster, he made an excellent reader. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in this era of history and how the modern Western world came about. 

Mini-Reviews of recent books I’ve listened to on Audible

picture of five books included in this review

This are some of the books I have listened to (while walking or driving) since July:

Ben McGrath, Riverman: An American Odyssey

book cover for Riverman

narrated by Adam Verner (2022), 8 hours and 36 minutes. 

McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, met Dick Conant through his neighbor. Conant was paddling the Hudson River and had tied up his canoe along his neighbor’s seawall. Learning that the odd canoeist, who paddled an cheap over-stuffed boat, was heading to Florida perked McGrath’s interest. He wrote a short piece on him for the New Yorker. He thought that was it until a few months later when he received a phone call from a wildlife officer in North Carolina. 

Conant’s canoe had been found overturned in the Albemarle Sound. They never recovered his body. The officer discovered McGrath’s phone number in the mass of stuff in the boat and called for clues as to who had lost the boat. McGrath sets off scouring the country looking for clues as to Conant’s identity and what happened to him. 

Conant didn’t look like a canoer. He wore over-all’s. Conant brought cheap canoes (often Colemans) which he overloaded. After an adventure, would sell the boat. He didn’t carry river maps or guides, but a road atlas. He had an odd way of preserving meat (hot dogs in pickle juice).   

Those he met along the way, he would tell of the woman he loved and was to whom he was faithful, a woman he met (only once and briefly, it appears) in Montana. Conant would live in Bozeman, Montana between adventures. Conant covered quite a bit of territory, paddling the Yellowstone into the Missouri and then down the Mississippi. Another time he started out new his childhood home in New York State, paddling the Allegheny into the Ohio and down the Mississippi. Essentially, Conant eked out a homeless existence on American rivers. 

McGrath’s research is amazing. He reached out to the people Conant touched over the years to paint a better portrait of this lone canoer.

Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

book cover for The Old Man and the Boy

narrated by Norman Dietz (1957, audible 2017), 10 hours and 41 minutes. 

This collection of stories I first read as a student at Roland Grice Junior High in Wilmington,  NC. Most boys my age read this book at that time. And why not, as the author grew up in our hometown. Ruark would go on to become a well-known author writing about outdoor adventures in exotic places like Africa. But this collection of stories focuses on him and his grandparents, who lived across the river in Southport, NC in the years between the Great War and the Depression. Ruark spent a lot of time with his grandparents. From his grandfather, he learned not only outdoor skills, such as hunting and fishing, but about getting along with others and even wildlife conservation (never kill off an entire covey of quail, leave some birds for the future). 

There are a few things in the book that would be considered taboo today. Poaching turtle eggs is now a crime, but in the 1920s, no one knew better (and because there was little development on the coast, there were more turtles). Another is the Old Man’s patriarchal manner of relating to African Americans. But at least the old man insisted they be treated as humans and despised those with racist attitudes. Besides, this allowed him access to hunt quail on some of African American farms. However, most of these stories stand the test of time. This was my first time listening to the book, but I had already read it three time and may listen to it again, just for the delightful stories. The narrator does a wonderful job of bringing the book to life. 

Dominic Ziengler, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

narrated by Steve West (2015), 14 hours and 6 minutes.

The Amur, the world’s ninth longest river, is also the most unknown rivers among the world’s great rivers. The river’s headwaters rise in Mongolia, not far from the birthplace of Genghis Khan, and flows to the Pacific, mostly along the border of Russia and China. So much is unknown about the river that for much of history, both Russia and China claimed the river’s origin. A joint Soviet and Chinese scientific expedition set out to settle the dispute. They discovered the river’s headwaters were in Mongolia. 

The author sets out to travel, as much as possible, the entire river. However, it’s not as easy as one might think. Heading out on foot, by train, boat, and car, he makes his way down the river, mostly sticking to the north (Russian) side. Because the river is an armed border, the opportunity to float it is limited. 

As he travels, we learn of the history of the region, from the Khans to Russian eastern migration. As with the mountain men in the American West, Russia eastward expansion was first based on fur trade. Later would come mineral exploration and prisons. Also, like the American West, it includes bloody campaigns to conquer. We learn about the this as well as the conflicts between Russia and China along the river, which has raged for hundreds of years. Such conflicts are ongoing. A month after I listened to this book, China published new official map claims total ownership of an island in the Amur over the two nations fought over as recently as the 60s. 

Ziengler also informs the readers about the natural history of the river. It’s a great breeding grown for swans and other birds. The river also teams with fish. Sadly, the Siberian tigers are disappearing due to the lost of forests. The environmental issues along the river’s watershed are also covered. 

While the travelogue part of this book is lacking (because of the author’s limited access to much of the river), the book contains great stories and is packed in the history of Europe’s eastward expansion. 

Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe

book cover for Smallest Lights in the Universe

 narrated by Xe Sands (2020), 9 hours and 37 minutes. 

Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, looks for exoplanets in distant galaxies. These are planets in the “goldilocks’ zone,” where it is not too hot and not too cold. Such places hold the possibility of life. Because they are so far away to be observed, astrophysicists have devised new techniques such as registering a small drop of light as the planet crosses in front of its sun. Her work is amazing, and she describes it in a manner that can make it more understandable. 

But this is not a science book, it’s a memoir. We also are taken into the author’s life, from her first interest in the sky as a child growing up in Canada, to the academic politics today (such as having one’s findings stolen by another scientist). We also learn about her personal life. In addition to being interested in the sky, we are taken along with her on canoe trips to remote parts of Canada with a man who would become her husband and the father of her children. Then, we are told about his illness and death from cancer. This part of the book is tragic, which came as her career as a scientist was ascending. Later, she meets a new man, at a talk given for amateur astrometry club, and they marry eventually marry. She also comes to understand her own life with Asperger’s. 

I enjoy this book, especially her insights into her scientific work. However, at times I felt the book was a too personal. I certainly enjoyed some of what she wrote about her personal life (especially, because I’m me, long canoe trips in northern Canada). But wondered if she had ended her personal struggles with her first husband’s death, leaving the reader wondering what’s next, might have made a stronger book. Instead, it seemed this was a “lived happily ever after” type of ending.  

Robert MacfarlaneUnderland: A Deep Time Journey

Book cover for Underland

Narrated by Matthew Waterson. (2019).  12 hours and 3 minutes.

After reading about deep space, I jumped into this book about the underworld. It’s interesting to think how we know more about space (as in the book above) than we do about what’s underground. In this book, Macfarlane sets out to explore the unknown, mostly by traveling through caves and mines and the underground network of tunnels in cities such as Paris.

Macfarlane also explores what’s just underneath our feet. Dig down and you’ll find a great world of bugs and worms along with roots and various types of soil. As he makes such pilgrimages, Macfarlane muses about our uses of the earth (burying the dead to that which is dangerous, like nuclear waste). He frequently draws on literature and mythology about the underworld. In Junior High, when I was into a Jules Verne kick, I read Journey to the Center of the Earth. However, I didn’t realize that in the 19th Century, there was a sub-genre of exploration into the earth.  

I found this book fascinating and look forward to reading and listening to more of Macfarlane’s work. Two years ago, I read Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. He’s a British author and explorer that draws on a vast knowledge as he shares his explorations.  As in all the books above, rivers also appear in this book, they’re just underground .