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Archive for December, 2016

The scent of impossibility lingers about YHWH’s most improbable achievements until the moment that they have become real in space and time, have become history, have become redemptive fact on the ground.

The prophetic book of Zechariah aligns with its larger cousin Isaiah in anticipating YHWH’s rescue of long-exiled Judah and his return of his bereft sons and daughters to the land that they believed to have slipped their grip forever.

Zechariah and Isaiah also envision the leveling of the insurmountable topography that—metaphorically speaking—stands between exile in Babylon and anything worthy of the label ‘Return’. Yet Zechariah goes beyond the familiar declaration that steep climbs and dark descents shall become for these home-bound travelers a level path. He allows himself to taunt the ‘great mountain’ that lies between exile and promise, between loss and recovery, between the death of a dream and its realization.

Narrating his encounter with an angelic messenger, the prophet writes:

Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’.”‘ (Zechariah 4:6–7 ESV)

Zerubbabel numbers among a select group of Judahite leaders who will find themselves the human agents of YHWH’s stubborn determination to look again upon his bereft Jerusalem and show her consoling mercies. His must have seemed a daunting task, indeed an impossibility shot through with potential for both catastrophe and shame.

Thus the angel’s encouragement, now become a prophet’s message.

The first part of this ‘word of the Lord to Zerubbabel’ is often quoted, and for good reason. The rhetorical taunt of the great mountain that follows is not.

Yet it manifests exquisitely the emerging confidence of a prophet that this thing shall be. That it has become YHWH’s purpose and therefore shall go forward, shall stand, unstoppable.

This confidence must have strengthened Zerubbabel-lian weak knees.

Who are you, O great mountain? You shall become a plain.

Indeed, the cry reverberates still, and strengthens the weak knees of us who know almost nothing of this strange-named Zerubbabel.

Before impossibilities, great mountains loom. But who are you, O great mountain?

When what was impossible has just now become a fact that we will tell to our grandchildren, we learn—slowly, if surely—to whisper to ourselves yet another word with Zecharian pedigree: ‘Grace, grace to it!’

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515u1nfwt0l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Alexander Watson’s 2014 tome massively documents the rope’s tightening around the neck of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empires during the 1914-1918 war. It makes the abstraction we call ‘encirclement’ personal, horribly so for the peoples dragged into a conflicted they alternately longed for and loathed.

Watson is explicit about his purpose:

This book’s central argument is that popular consent was indispensable in fighting the twentieth century’s first ‘total war’. It recounts how the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples supported, tolerated, or submitted to the conflict, and how participation changed them and their societies. Three themes run through the pages of this book. First, it explores how consent for war was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany … Second, the book explains how extreme and escalating violence during 1914-18 radicalized German and Austro-Hungarian war aims and actions, and it explores the consequences of this radicalization for those societies and their war efforts … The book’s third theme is the tragic societal fragmentation caused by the first World War, a break-up with not only preceded and precipitated political collapse, but persisted even after state order had been resurrected in central Europe … A dark future awaited central Europe.

If these words suggest a dispassionate analysis, the word ‘collapse’ give the lie to such an impression. In fact, Watson’s narrative is relentlessly tragic (another word that occurs above), pressing home the heart-rending personal cost of the war and its pursuit past the point when the Central Powers had any home of salvaging a face-saving peace.

The second subtitle of Watson’s book (The People’s War) pointed to what it would become, not how it began. The Great War’s genesis took place in a tightly held euphoria among small ruling elites. The interlocking alliances that held Europe together assured that if Austria-Hungary lurched into war, driven by ‘weakness, fear, and even despair’ rather than naked aggression, the rest of Europe was bound to be dragged along. It was of course the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian nationalist that touched off this bonfire waiting to happen.

A strength of Watson’s narrative lies in his tenacious attention to the complex situation of the Empire’s ethnic groups. They were loyal to Empire and Emperor to a point. But the war’s depravations and duration were to stretch those affinities to the breaking point and well beyond. Encirclement was the outcome to be avoided from the start. The sudden retaliation of the Hapsburg Empire and their ‘good ally’ the Germans against the Serbs just as the Triple Entente (the understanding that linked the fates of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) was hardening provoked the calamity with which none of the parties could have reckoned.

Ring of Steel narrates the horror of the ensuing years as it was experienced by Germany and Austria-Hungary inside the eventually narrowing ring. The war of the elites became the people’s war until those people could bear no more and either abdicated the burden that was pressed upon them by their rulers, collapsed under its weight, or were enslaved by the eventual manacles of Versailles. The entire political landscape of central Europe would be altered in revolutionary degrees.

This reviewer—manifestly not a professional historian—found Watson particularly helpful in his description of:

  • The Russian Revolution’s impact on the peoples of the Central Powers, not only by removing Russia from the battlefield but also by way of the receptive ears that Bolshevik ideas found among the war-weary peoples of two dying empires.
  • The inability of the leaders Hapsburg and German leadership to face the impending reality of defeat and take the appropriate measures.
  • The degree to which the political elites of the Central Powers dragged their people into an existential, ‘people’s war, and the astonishing persistence of ‘the people’ in supporting the war until their will was turned by the profound suffering it brought them.

A case could be made that this book is best approached via one of the more conventional treatments of The Great War. But, by all means, make that approach if it matters how ‘war is hell’ pertains also to one’s vanquished enemy.

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As the son of a Northwoods mother, I was drawn to this book as one part of my family’s reengagement with this marvelous corner of America.61vdhu3rnnl

James Brakken serves up a delightful tale of the villains and the honest men and women who logged the region in the 1880s, sadly virtually leveling it in the process. It was (and is) a cold place where big hearts and stout arms were necessary to survival. Loggers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, churchmen, hunters and fishermen of both Scandinavian descent and Ojibwe ethnicity collaborated (or failed to) in circumstances where the careless felling of a pine or a particularly bad snow could turn matters to life-and-death-in the blink of an eye.

The Treasure of Namakagon has the feel, in this reader’s hand, of a labor of love. Simply and appreciatively told. Spare and honest, like a reliable Northwoodsman.

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Clinton Arnold wrote 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare two decades ago. Yet it remains the single best written resource on the topic to place into the hands of Christian believers.

Arnold cuts through both overheated rhetoric about ‘spiritual warfare’ and entrenched refusal to contemplate that reality by bearing down on just three questions:

√ What is Spiritual Warfare?

√ Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?

√ Are We Called to Engage Territorial Spirits?513qhwb-vul-_sx322_bo1204203200_

In the process he brings to bear careful exegetical consideration, attention to how the early Christian church engaged similar issues, and a pastoral concern honed by the author’s own experience in cultural contexts where demonic activity seems less alien than in the West. The result is superb.

Working from first principles, Arnold demonstrates how Jesus engaged the reality of conflict as the normal condition of human life in this age. Consequently, spiritual warfare is not principally a specialized ministry but rather the circumstance and the responsibility of every believer. Yet the well-informed Christian will understand that the conflict is an uneven match. God’s sovereignty over his world is not threatened by the reality of Satanic blowback. Satan’s reign is conditioned both territorially and temporally. In the light of Jesus’ vanquishing of Satan’s power, the latter’s reign will eventually end here and end altogether.

So spiritual warfare is a given in the life of Christian individuals and communities. Why, then, the resistance to the language and the substance of such conflict?

Arnold deals patiently and fairly with ‘6 common objectives to emphasizing spiritual warfare today’. Since the 1970s, the English-speaking world has become awash with bizarre claims about ministries that do—at the risk of considerable understatement—‘emphasize’ spiritual warfare. Too often, the most high-profile among them are personality-driven and theologically impoverished.

The author is adept at re-shaping a biblically informed model for spiritual warfare for those who believe that truth matters enough—even amid the urgencies of wartime—to linger long in the understanding and embrace of it.

The New Testament (special attention is given to the Apostle Paul’s instruction in the letter to the Ephesians) teaches that Christians are assaulted not by one enemy, but rather by three: the world (the ways of the world), the devil (the ruler of the king of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient), and the flesh (the cravings of our sinful nature).

Together, this triad of unequal adversaries present the Christian with a complex rather than a simple conflict. As we engage it individually and in community, we discover that ‘spiritual warfare is a way of characterizing our common struggle as Christians’. Because parasitic re-positioning of actual truth is one source of defeat, Arnold pays particular attention to ‘common christological heresies’ on his way to a sane fleshing-out of how individuals and small groups of Christian might do battle with their real rather than their imagined adversaries.

At this point in Arnold’s book (as in this early stage of this short review), the reader could be forgiven for imagining that Arnold had metaphorized spiritual warfare down to its vanishing point in run-of-the-mill Christian ethical formation. This is certainly not the case, as his response to the second of three crucial questions will show.

As he engages the second crucial question (‘Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?’), the trajectory of Clinton’s argument reaches its most valuable point.

When faced with the New Testament’s plethora of demon-encounter narratives and exhortations, the thoughtful Christian usually takes one of three paths:

√ S/he dismisses the stories about demons altogether.

√ S/he reinterprets the stories about demons.

√ S/he accepts the stories as what really happened.

Arnold chooses neither of these three paths and attempts to lead his reader through a more subtle consideration and towards a more faithful response.

A cautious survey of the language common to the discussion ensues. English Bible translations and, therefore, English-language discussion of biblical texts inexplicably settles into the language of ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’. In consequence, the question becomes whether a Christian can be owned or possessed by a demon. Many Christians will state that this absolutely cannot take place, given the reality of God’s redemption and therefore ownership of the Christian.

Arnold allows that ‘I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion. A Christian cannot be owned and controlled by a demon.’

However, this is not to speak the language of the biblical texts, which usually employs the more flexible term daimonizomai (δαιμονίζομαι). This word can be understood to mean ‘tormented’, ‘vexed’, or ‘troubled’ by a demon. After engaging the pertinent texts and a number of examples from history, Arnold re-frames the question thus: ‘Can Christians come under a high degree of influence by a demonic spirit?’ … ‘Is it possible for Christians to yield control of their bodies to a demonic spirit in the same way that they yield to the power of sin?’

To such questions—which no longer joust with the more absolute concept of demonic possession—Arnold gives his ‘yes’.

This conclusion is followed by pastoral examples of how a believer can find himself in such troubled straits, with practical counsel on how to deal with demons, and with instruction on extremes that are to be avoided.

From the in-principle considerations of his first two ‘crucial questions’, Arnold then moves on to the contemporary issue raised by tactics that purport to engage ‘territorial spirits’. Though his introduction expresses appreciation for one of the leading advocates of the movement, Arnold is critical of one of its premises.

He endorses the notion that territorial spirits, as generally understood exist.

Nevertheless, ‘In spite of the widespread consciousness of the people of God throughout history of the existence of high-ranking hostile angels, we do not find them naming the powers, rebuking them, binding them, or trying to cast them out of a region.’

For reasons based in the biblical record and the testimony of the early church, the author is dubious that the tactics of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’ have the theological and historical pedigree that they claim.  However, Arnold credits its practitioners’ concern for the lost and suggests alternative ways of ministering to a city that do not involve human beings ‘taking authority over’ the purported demonic lords of a region or a city.

By wearing his scholarship lightly, Clinton Arnold has produced a carefully reasoned, popularly (or semi-popularly) accessible manual to a matter that is intrinsic to the very idea of the Christian life in a contested world. At the same time, he has provided a meeting space for people of good will who will gather thoughtfully around a matter that has provided inexhaustibly divisive among contemporary churches.

Two decades on, 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare is still the place for English-language readers to begin.

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Andrew Davis has written a splendid little manual to large-scale memorization of Scripture that is not for the faint of heart but will develop in the adventurous practitioner a strong heart.

51rqavqfyrlDavis attends to both the why and the how of memorizing entire chapters and books of the Bible. He distinguishes between meditation and memorization, but finds it difficult to accomplish the former without investing in the latter. I think he’s right on this point, particularly as he notes an author’s logical flow that is perceptible and eventually absorb-able when the object of one’s memorization is a the wide Scriptural landscape rather than a short stopping-point here or there.

Davis’ method (the term seems preferable to ‘technique’) provides tracks for what will inevitably represent for the memorizer a long and even stubborn obedience in the same direction. He minces no words about the challenge of large-scale Scripture memorization, but encourages the readers that accomplishing this feat is more a matter of blood, sweat, and tears than of natural mental endowment.

I derive the title of this very brief review from one of Davis’ methodological steps. He calls it ‘weeding the garden’, which is the step he endorses that will allow the memorizer to return to what he or she has committed to memory and weed out the small errors (‘weeds’) that will creep in.

This book (99¢ in Amazon Kindle format as I write this review) meets a bona fide need, is clearly a labor of love, and will without doubt move would-be memorizers past the various early-stage obstacles in this journey and on to the place where many words of the Word have been securely placed in the storehouse of the heart.

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This is one magnificent little solution to broken zipper pulls.

81hbdskzd6l-_sl1500_I travel a lot and my suitcases wear out. The first thing to go is usually a broken zipper pull. For some reason, it never occurred to me that this is a reparable situation (I’m slow …), so I endure years of wearing my fingers raw by reaching inside and manually moving the now pull-less zipper. I guess I just tend to categorize it as an occupation hazard that you live with, like a cold sore or a low emotional IQ.

But no more. You get ten of those very solid zipper pulls for less than ten bucks. They’re solidly built and a zip (pardon the pun) to install.

I’m sold. Fingers of the world, rejoice.

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In short order Yohanna Katanacho has established himself as a thoughtful and reliable member of an extraordinary cluster of theologians who gather around Bethlehem Bible College. In The Land of Christ. A Palestinian Cry, Katanacho allows us a glimpse into the remarkable events in his own life that have made love towards all, even towards one’s enemy, his core alignment. One might even say that Katanacho’s personal narrative, which occupies the first part of the book and helpfully frames his subsequent argument about the land, drains the word ‘enemy’ of its acid. In the context from which the author writes, this is no small accomplishment and should not be confused with passivity in the face of the cruelest of facts.51dfnjnbhml-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Katanacho proposes ‘Three Important Questions’:

√ What are the borders of the land?
√ Who is Israel?
√ How did God give Israel the land?

Exploring a wide range of biblical passages that are often adduced to establish the modern state of Israel’s divine right to the contested space it claims, the author argues that there is a fluidity in biblical definition both of the land and of Israel. Additionally, there is a contingency in the giving of the land that makes its possession subordinate to a God-given purpose and to the ethic with which it is held. Finally, the author asserts that New Testament revelation considerably reframes the question of the land in ways that make naive citation of Old Testament texts by Christians problematic.

To his credit, Katanacho never ceases writing as a Palestinian Christian believer. The reader who will be most persuaded by his argument is the English-speaking Christian who has imagined that his or her theology provides clear and simple affirmation of the contemporary status quo. Katanacho asks this reader both to think again and to think in the light of a reasoned Christian theology of the land.

Additionally, Katanacho moves beyond the language of victimization, a courageous act in his context. Even as he writes assertively against what he can only recognize as ‘Israeli occupation’ of land that prior to 1967 belonged to others, he recognizes that all—Palestinians, Jewish Israelis, Muslims, Christians—are complicit in a situation that makes imposition and violence the default behaviors in this contested arena. Love supplants this hateful status quo usually or even only as it flows from encounter with the cross of Christ. Importantly, Katanacho does not believe a solution to the current impasse over the land’s possession will occur soon, probably not in his lifetime. Yet he holds on to the hope that it will come eventually, and he writes this work as a ‘Palestinian cry’ for disciplined, non-violent, and loving conduct (even when this conduct is ‘resistance’) in the meantime.

As is common to circles of theologians who lack the luxury of doing theology at a distance from painful and pressing realities, Katanacho is attentive to how ‘having the right theology’ changes hearts, minds, and facts on the ground. An extended quote is in order, not least for its exquisite distinction between ‘eschatacentric’ and ‘Christocentric’ eschatologies.

(H)aving the right theology transforms our psychology. The term ‘theology’ is not only associated with orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxis (right practice) but also with orthopathos. Orthopathos is the kind of human suffering that becomes a source for liberation and social transformation. In his suffering, the Psalmist thought that God had forgotten him (Ps 42:9) and even rejected him (Ps 43:2). But in fact, his ordeal make him thirst for God and promoted him to pour himself into prayer … This leads us to the second insight: having the right theology, or more specifically the proper view of God, alters the focus of our eschatology. God speaks in and through our pain. In effect, he is transforming the pain of Palestinian refugees into a divine message that reminds the world of the difference between heartless or hardhearted eschatacentric eschatology represented by some Christian theologies and merciful Christocentric eschatology. The former focuses on ‘God’s agenda’ or the so called prophetic programs, while the latter reveals God’s heart and nature.

The final chapter includes the author’s lightly retouched version of ‘The Palestinian Kairos Document’, a Christian manifesto that is worth the price of this book.

This reviewer suggests reading The Land of Christ alongside Colin Chapman’s Whose Promised Land?.

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I’ve been through a few replacement sets of objective lens covers and have come to the conclusion that the thin strip between the round piece the anchors to the binoculars and the actual lens cover will always eventually break. Simply plan to replace your lens covers when it does.

41n81yducflOddly, this item has become difficult to find online. I was happy to discover this Opticron product. As other reviewers have noted, it’s important to measure the external diameter of your objective lens carefully before ordering. Otherwise, your lens cover will be too small to fit or too large to stay put.

This is not a high-tech or glamour product. It simply works, and is readily available in multiple sizes. That’s enough for me.

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This is a good map of Costa Rica, though it promises a bit more than it can deliver.

The familiar blue-and-gold ‘National Geographic look’ come across attractively and clearly. The map details are, as expected, Spanish-language designations: for example, ‘Parque Nacional’ rather than ‘National Park’ and ‘Provincia’ rather than ‘Province’. Some of the ‘marginal’ text is either in English or in both Spanish and English. National Parks are highlighted helpfully and some ‘adventurous’ activities are signaled by an icon at the appropriate location. For example, a stylized surfer icon marks beaches where surfing is especially promising.

51-gsp0ymql-_sx228_bo1204203200_If that’s what you expect from an ‘aventure travel’ map, you’ll be pleased. If you expect more than this, then maybe not so much.

The level of detail is good for a map of a country that is roughly the size of the American state of West Virginia, splashed across the two sides of the map and labeled as ‘East’ and ‘West’. Elevation lines give an adequate sense for the topography of this largely mountainous country.

The paper is solid stock and at the same time flexible enough for quick unfolding and refolding. I find this characteristic better than the vast majority of maps of the region that I’ve seen. Yet National Geographic insists on claiming that the map is ‘waterproof’, which seems quite a stretch. If you attempt to stand under an umbrella and read this map during one of Costa Rica’s ‘aguaceros’ (= downpours), your ‘waterproof’ map will be toast. Thus, my claim about over-promising and under-delivering on what is otherwise a perfectly fine product.

The Costa Rican road system is constantly upgrading and degrading and the rhythm of this is difficult to predict, let alone to record on a paper map. Some reviewers have faulted this map for being out of date on that front. The non-local traveler in Costa Rica would be well advised never to count on a paper map for knowing whether this or that bridge was out, or this highway paved or unpaved. Costa Rica is simply not the place for a paper map to stay up to speed on such things, and this is not the fault of the product under review. Having said this, I find the map relatively reliable for road travel planning.

All in all, I like this map a lot. It fills a gap for getting the big picture of where I’m about to travel or where I’ve just driven in this inexhaustibly beautiful country, which deserves and repays scrutiny. I’ll just smile a bit at the ‘adventure travel’ and ‘waterproof’ marketing.

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If from our increasingly remote distance, anything about the Allied victory in World War II looks inevitable, read Rick Atkinson’s compelling history of the 1942-43 North Africa Campaign and be disabused of that fiction.518XZOezryL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In prose that easily absorbs the non-specialist reader (as this reviewer is), Atkinson shows what a paltry and untested force America was able to field alongside of a decidedly unsung British deployment in what became what must have seemed like it would never be: a defeat of a strong German force within convenient range of the German homeland.

Before this could happen, the green American forces needed to lose their triumphalism and their British allies needed to learn how to fight to a win on an inhospitable battlefield that was complicated by both weather and colonial legacies. Many American readers (again, I am one) will be surprised by the complex French role at this early stage of the war, a story I will not spoil for potential readers in this short review.

Among military historians, it seems, two temptations are to be avoided. The first is to chronicle a conflict as though the evolving technology of weaponry were the main thing. The second is to paint the war in terms exclusively of the ideas and decisions of generals. Atkinson has become a great writer of military history in our time because he brings mastery of both of these elements to the more interesting story of the soldier whose prospects for life and death were shaped by those less personal forces.

Although Atkinson is serially quotable, the first paragraph of the book’s prologue captures his touch for the human drama of war and its cost:

Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with thirteen of the saddest words in our language: ‘Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.’ A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord.’

The toll was emblematic of a principle point of Atkinson’s book: America only really began to act like a world power on North Africa’s regrettable battleground. This stepping into a space that history had prepared for her marks, in retrospect, the turning point of this vast, global conflict. Churchill’s eulogy for the campaign proved right: The victory that awaited at the end of it was in fact ‘the end of the beginning’.

The genius of Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn lies, in part, in the author’s ability to help the reader understand why this was so while never losing sight of the boy from Iowa crouched in terror as the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht threw its best at him and his buddies, then eventually collapsed in ignominy as claims of invincibility came in for severest re-negotiation so very far from home.

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