MW Cook

an ex-evangelical doing a year of living christianly

Tag: book review

Biblical Fiction: “Not Wanted on the Voyage” and “The Red Tent”

I’ll start reading any stories based on Bible stories. Ancient myths of all kinds are like fertile fields that grow new crops every time they’re sown. My favourites, so far, are Timothy Findley’s “Not Wanted on the Voyage” and Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent.” 

They’re completely different kinds of books.

“Not Wanted on the Voyage” is a deep and whimsical fantasy about Noah’s Ark.

“The Red Tent” is a stark and realistic portrayal of the life of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.

Both of them grabbed me deeply.

Meanwhile, I have given up on Gore Vidal’s “Live From Golgotha.” It’s funny, clever, and I just can’t bring myself to finish it. The premise is interesting: time travelers want to shoot the crucifixion for NBC. There’s wit and anachronisms everywhere. But I just don’t care.

I’m wondering what Findley and Diamant have that Vidal (in this book anyway) does not. Here are my thoughts:

  • All three are willing to turn the patriarchs on their heads, but Findley and Diamant make it serve the story. Noah and Yahweh are hugely problematic characters in “Not Wanted on the Voyage.” Diamant paints Jacob just as double-sided as the Bible. There is irreverence, but not for its own sake. The irreverence serves the story.
  • Findley and Diamant dig deep when the suffering comes. They refuse to shy away from the depths of human hurt–and human apathy. But Vidal’s light touch makes nearly everything that happens in the story light. And since it is light, it doesn’t matter.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Diamant and Findley make me CARE SO MUCH about the characters. Like, ruin your day kinda care. Meanwhile, I can’t bring myself to invest much in the people in “Live From Golgotha,” despite its very interesting premise.

So if you’re looking for some really good Biblical fiction, pick up Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” and Timothy Findley’s “Not Wanted on the Voyage.” Both are engrossing, gripping, and more than worth your time. 

And if you want something that smacks like an irreverent Douglas Adams, “Live From Golgotha” might be for you.

Christianly Book Review: Life at the End of Us Vs Them by Marcus Peter Rempel

images“The warnings I offer here do not come out of a superior religion but out of a failed religion

Marcus Peter Rempel’s book, “Life at the End of Us vs Them,” is a seriously thought-provoking view of Christianity and its place in our “strange, endtime world.” Drawing on René Girard and Ivan Illich, Rempel presents a view of the Cross that necessarily undermines any power structure that would try to build on it.

The crucifixion of Christ, he argues, is not best seen as a judicial act of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is something like God identifying with the most marginalized individuals, the most hated outcasts, the people who society crucifies. “It is by taking on the viewpoint of those it marginalizes that Cross-formed culture comes to be accurately mapped, and more justly remade” (13). Rempel takes this understanding, and applies it to his relationships with “those who are his other: women, queer folk, refugees, Muslims, atheists, and Indigenous people.”

Here’s what I like about this view of the Cross: it reminds you of everything at once. It reminds you that you are part of the system that crucifies innocents. At the same time, it offers to forgive you. And it bids you pick up your cross, and follow in that way of looking at the world–that the “least of these” is, somehow, the Christ. It shifts the view from Us-Them to I-Thou. Frankly, it reminds us that Jesus never meant to convert the world. Yes, he meant for his Way to go out into all the world, but not to colonize it. Not to become the oppressor.

The Cross will always glare accusingly at any system or person that tries to use it as a tool of oppression. It undermines all sacred violence. It perpetually strips the sacred cloth from the temple, showing it to be empty. The violence we thought we did in God’s name was actually against his own son. All persecution persecutes the Christ. Christianity as a religion, Rempel argues, has failed insofar as it has been complicit in violence.

At least, that’s how it could work. From what I read on the Internets, I don’t see a reconciliation between Church and the vulnerable anytime soon. If it’s possible, though, for follows of Christ to sit with the very marginalized instead of always being seen beside the oppression, this book gives clues on how it will be done.

I heartily recommend this book to people who want to take the Bible seriously and are troubled by the dissonance between Church and Christ. If you believe that substitutionary atonement is the only correct way of understanding the Cross, you will probably balk at a lot of what Rempel has to say. Consider, though, that both Scripture and Church have cast the Cross in different lights to glean fresh insights from that wonderful tragic event. Rempel offers a light that the Church today would do well to meditate on, even if she can’t swallow the whole thing.

Gods and Dogs: A Review of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs

I tend to start my judgment of a book on two points: how long it takes to finish reading, and the opening line. I read all 171 pages of Fifteen Dogs in two days, and its opening line is great: “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.” A crisp sentence that puts two of our favourite gods in Toronto’s oldest tavern sets the stage for an engrossing modern myth.

Apollo and Hermes have a friendly argument about whether or not humans are very special, as far as mortals go. Hermes thinks we are. Apollo not so much. In the course of the evening, after five Sleemans each, they make a bet.

Apollo wagers “that animals–any animal you chose–would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” Hermes takes the bet, “on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.” On the way home, walking down King Street, they pass a veterinarian clinic. The fifteen dogs staying overnight receive human intelligence, and quickly figure out how to open their cages and escape.

The story is enticing. Each of the fifteen dogs has to negotiate their relationship with the sudden intelligence they have been given. Like the classic myths, Fifteen Dogs can be dark and violent. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend the book to dog lovers per se. It’s an apologue (a moral fable with an animal cast), not one of those tender tales of human-animal bonding. Fifteen Dogs is probably best suited to people interested in Toronto, classical mythology, and those nagging existential questions of humanity.

Like any good fantasy novel, there are maps in the beginning. The setting is integral. The dogs leave the vet’s clinic as if through a portal and the Toronto they emerge into is charged with the fantastic. My apartment is just a couple blocks from High Park, where much of the story takes place. Walks downs Roncesvalles and along the beach will be different, having gotten a dog’s-eye view of it. Or rather, a dog’s-nose view, because some of the most evocative moments are olfactory scenes of the beach in summer and the park in spring. If you’re from Toronto, Fifteen Dogs might enrich your city. I mean, who wouldn’t want a drink where Hermes and Apollo frequent?

The gods are Greek, thus capricious, unpredictable, and often distant. They aren’t in the business of making everything alright in the end and don’t have a habit of saving people. The gods in Fifteen Dogs are the same ones who pestered Odysseus and brought down Troy. The novel may not be The Iliad, but it fits nicely in the lineage.

Some books tell a good story, some explore big ideas. Fifteen Dogs manages both. Despite the initiating wager, the real interest of the book is not the pros and cons of human intelligence. “Really, it was a matter of pure chance who died happy and who did not. Which is why, of course, [Apollo] and Hermes had bet on the outcome in the first place.” The bet sets up a more subtle philosophical discussion. Now, if you don’t care for philosophical discussion, don’t let that push you off. The story stands on its own and the philosophy doesn’t get in the way. But if you’re up for it, the dogs have to deal with questions like:

  • What happens when you recognize the cruelty in the activities you love?
  • What happens when you realize something you love cannot last?
  • What happens when you recognize the gulf between yours ideas and your actions?
  • What happens when you chance so much you can’t remember who the real you is?
  • And on it goes.

In short, Fifteen Dogs is about fifteen dogs who become humanly reasonable one night, and they handle it just as well and poorly as the rest of us do. But since they’re dogs and live in a very realistic Toronto, we are able to see the humanity in them a little clearer than we tend to see it in ourselves. The book grabbed my attention from the very beginning, and it held on until the end like I was a chew toy. It explores deep human truths without getting preachy and brings an authentic sense of Greek myth into a very local-feeling Toronto. I heartily recommend it to anyone who didn’t cry during Marley & Me.

Review: Imaginary Jesus – Matt Mikalatos

Jesus and I sometimes grab lunch at the Red and Black Cafe on Twelfth and Oak.

I found this one free on the Kindle site. I love free books, don’t you? It’s about a man who finds out that the Jesus he’s been hanging out with since childhood is not actually the real Jesus, but one of many imaginary Jesuses. He then embarks on a quest with the Apostle Peter, a talking donkey and an ex-hooker to find the real Jesus. It’s full of great humor, wild wit and a lot of great ‘aha’ moments. All in all, it was a good read. Entertaining and thoughtful all at once. It keeps you kinda guessing, too. Because every once in a while you’ll encounter a Jesus who you think is the real one, only to find out that he was an imaginary one, too.

I really have only one negative thing to say about it. The book (accidentally, I think) enforces the popular idea that if a part of your understanding of Jesus is off, you’re following the ‘wrong’ Jesus.

The argument usually goes like this. Someone says, ‘Hey, do you know Frank?’
‘Oh yeah, I know Frank. He’s an accountant, right?’
‘No, he’s a banker. You must be talking about a different Frank.’
And the concept gets applied to Jesus. So anyone with a wrong (or different) understanding of anything from hell to the atonement to election to depravity is said to believe in the wrong Jesus.

But, I think, if we were talking about Frank, the conversation would be more like this:
‘Hey, do you know Frank?’
‘Oh yeah, I know Frank. He’s an accountant, right?’
‘No, he’s a banker. He works at First National.’
‘Really? Are you sure?’
‘Well, I think so. Let’s find out for certain.’

Just because I think he’s an accountant and you think he’s a banker doesn’t mean we’re talking about different people. We just have different ideas about him. Heck, for all we know, maybe Frank is an IRS agent. But I’m pretty sure we are both talking about the same guy.

But Imaginary Jesus is certainly worth a read. It’s witty, fun and playful. Check it out.

Quotes:

“But do you know what it looks like when Jesus walks up to someone and says, ‘Follow me’? When I first started to follow him, I didn’t know he was God. I didn’t know he was the only way to God. I didn’t pray to say that I believed it with all my heart. None of that.”

The first century smelled like what Christians call a “men’s retreat.” This is when men leave their wives and children for several days, go to the mountains, and yell at each other, “Stop neglecting your wife and children!”

“So you’re saying that if I was, for instance, your disciple-”
“You wouldn’t need to find a bathroom,” the donkey said, “because you’re walking on a perfectly fine road.”

Pete said, “Even without the promise of eternal life, I gave up everything to follow him. I didn’t know him well. But I knew him well enough.”

How do you deal with a God who breaks all the rules that your confident, well-meaning friends have told you he will follow?

“You think you’re got to have all the answers. Why can’t there be mysteries once in a while? It’s okay not to know the answer.”