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Archive for the ‘reseña’ Category

Wendell Berry introduces us to a young man I understand to be a mainstay of his fiction, Nathan Coulter, with the word ‘dark’:

Dark. The light went out the door when she pulled it to. And then everything came in close around me, the way it was in the daylight, only all close. Because in the dark, I could remember and not see. The sun was first, going over the hill behind our barn. Then the river was covered with the shadows of the hills. Then the hills went behind their shadows, and just the house and the barn and the other buildings were left, standing black against the sky where it was still white in the west.

I hedge my description with the words ‘(as) I understand’, because Nathan Coulter: A Novel is my own rather carefully chosen introduction to Wendell Berry the writer, Wendell Berry the novelist, and Coulter and his kin. That first paragraph sets some of Berry’s major literary artifacts in their place, what with its mention of darkness and light, house and barn, sun, hills, river, and shadows. Always shadows.

41MBsJd4dfLAs I’d been warned, the pace of Berry’s fiction-writing pen is a slow one, perhaps as befits the pace of the rural Kentucky life he describes. Yet slow never need mean shallow, in fact just the opposite.

Already, a newbie to Berry and Berrian fiction, this reader can see that things in Berry’s world—in Nathan Coulter’s world—are rarely as they appear to be, seldom as an outsider might presume them to be on first evidence. The holy are not necessarily so, the profane more insightful and even merciful than expected, the shadows sometimes full of light as well as darkness.

I can hardly wait for whatever happens next.

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51IhkcLbNKLGary Bray does the men and women who served in Vietnam a sizable favor by telling calmly the complicated story of their service, their war, their ‘this is what we did’. The ingredients of this story could make a lesser man scream, throw dirt in the air, or weep quietly in the corner.

But then we who were too young or too far away from the riverine humidity of that war would flinch and not hear.

As Bray’s title indicates, he served the same platoon that shortly prior to his arrival had been caught up in what we abbreviate—again, from our distance—as the My Lai Massacre. That horror is not a centerpiece of Bray’s narrative, but the tales he tells about a new and different kind of war provide at least a context for consciences dulled and warriors run amok.

There were many Lieutenants and uncountable tours of duty during this country’s ‘Viet Nam years’. Few have the way with words that Gary Bray brings to his craft, and so his story must register not only his own experience but must stand in for theirs as well.

Bray’s tone does not ask for our pity. It tells of a great human drama without the kinds of ‘drama’ that appeal to emotions long past the moment when they would have done anyone any good. Yet, on behalf of fellow warriors caught up in a poorly conceived conflict, he anticipates our understanding and our respect. He more than earns both.

Bray cannot rightly say why America’s young men and women died in Vietnam. But the way he brings this elegantly written work to a close shines a light on at least how one American soldier died. Here, too, the story told becomes proxy for thousands untold.

As the father of two officers (Infantry and Combat Engineering, respectively), this reader reveled in Bray’s narrative of infantry tactics, a bonus not all readers will require.

In these pages, professionalism and humility manage to speak quietly and well.

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418wR785imLPaul House’s passionately written exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s practice and aspirations for the training of pastors under the gathering cloud of Nazi terror makes for refreshing reading in this era of technology-will-solve-all-our-(seminary)-problems pablum.

House finds in the German martyr’s writings and his experience—the latter as reported by Bonhoeffer’s colleagues and students—a model for the same kind of intensive, life-on-life training of Christian pastors today. Without doubt, Bonhoeffer modeled all this and more. House has done us the service of explaining just how.

I come to this book as a lifelong seminarian who has known from within various roles the joy, enrichment, and occasional terror that the seminary is wont to offer up: as student, professor, dean, and president. So  I cannot but thrill to the promise that resides in such life together, all of which House is committed to teasing out of Bonhoeffer’s experience and laying before us.

Nevertheless, it appears to this appreciative reader that the author has chosen not to address a fundamental question about access.

Let me shape my concern as a somewhat cumbersome question: If I am fulfilling my vocation as a seminary educator and mentor to emerging pastors in, say, Mexico City, I am likely to have the privilege of nourishing a small number of lives into what one hopes will be greater rather than diminished capacity as servant leaders, even as shepherds of Christ’s people. For the sake of the argument, but also because I have yet to be convinced otherwise, I will agree with House that the very best preparation of pastoral leaders occurs in this kind of intensive, daily, full-contact, and dynamic environment.

Yet spread across this city of some 25 million souls are thousands of pastors, largely without the kinds of training to which I can lean my shoulder in my fictitious seminary context. These are bivocational pastors, holding down day jobs, tending their God-given sheep, most with some level of internet access and some limited margin in their saturated lives for occasional study-centered gatherings.

Farther afield in the Mexican state to which the capital and metropolis belong lie many thousands more, most of them faithful servants with limited or nonexistent coaching and no opportunity to reflect in the company of peers and a mentor upon Scripture, theology, their own context, and the Great Tradition of Christian presence and practice.

One wonders whether Bonhoeffer, were he availed of the tools we have today, would have insisted that only life-on-life training is valid because other forms of pastoral preparation do not fully measure up to what can be offered in such an intensive context. That is, does the existence of a ‘gold standard’ eliminate the urgency of thinking about ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ options merely because they do not sparkle like gold? Must we leave unserved those who cannot have what we consider best?

We cannot know whether the adventurous Bonhoeffer would have chosen not to serve a wider constituency of the kind I am imagining in these lines. House, it seems to me, comes perilously close to doing so.

Yet this admittedly dubious stance I have sketched for myself does not eliminate my sincere appreciation for the counter-cultural defense of a seminary that is shaped by something other than the fickle, if hurricane-strength, winds that blow against the seminary today. She makes—this venerable, limping institution of ours—a decidedly soft target. I, for one, welcome all credible defenders.

Paul House has (re-)captured in words some of the magic that happens within her walls—I use the description advisedly and in deference to House’s preferred residential model—when a learning community like Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde, House’s Beeson Divinity School, or any one of a thousand lean-and-mean seminaries across the globe gets it right. House finds Bonhoeffer worthy of study, in part because even in the least promising conditions he ‘believed the German church’s future rested in the quality and commitments of its pastors’. House abbreviates Bonhoeffer’s vision for the seminary as ‘a community of faith’ that ‘live(s) for Christ and for one another’, ‘offer(s) encouragement to former students who have entered the sometimes-harsh world of church ministry’, and calls without apology upon the courage of ‘teacher-pastors in seminary education’ to engage their task with ‘sacrificial’ service, ‘given the inherently personal, incarnational, and visible nature of ministerial preparation’.

To this vision—Bonhoeffer’s and House’s—this reader can only offer his ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hear, hear!’, even as he hopes that the eminent blessing that adheres in our most privileged forms does not dull our energy for widening the tent pegs to shelter others who will for reasons missional and mundane never tarry for long in the holy city itself.

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51M8EG+gmgLIf you like Dave Barry’s brand of juvenile humor (as I do), you’ll find this a handy compilation of some of the man’s now quite dated columns.

The reader should self-select. Dave Barry Fans, pick up and read. It’s the same-old same-old, which in this case can be a very *good* thing.

Readers who wish to take their first whack at the Miami-based humor columnist’s work might start with a more recent title.

Still, don’t overthink this. Barry’s guy humor never goes out of style. Just enjoy.

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51j-zWJ4EUL._SS300_Evelyn Monahan’s and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee’s And if I Perish is an exceptional—I am tempted to say ‘must-read’—book for two reasons.

First, the story of U.S. Army nurses in World War II’s European theatre is largely an untold tale. Who knew that these women, for whose work almost no forethought paved the way, played such a critical role in the Allied forces’ campaigns in North Africa and Europe? Once told, the story seems both inevitable and obvious. Yet it is alarming how much one can read about and ponder World War II history without ever giving a thought to the nurses who saved so many lives and provided final comfort to those whose bodies could not be repaired.

Second, the story is told in exceptional style. The authors weave in military strategy in unexpected volume, which provides a welcome context for the self-sacrificing labor of this nearly all-volunteer cadre of frontline nurses. One of the book’s virtues is that it is not a ‘soft’ history over against the ‘hard’ history of soldiers and generals. The result is compelling history and a very fine read.

I purchased and read this book as a small means of honoring the legacy of a nurse from my Pennsylvania hometown who died on the Anzio Beachhead. The poignantly tragic way in which Carrie Sheetz and too many others perished is told movingly in these pages.

Others lived, who perhaps reluctantly and nearly always self-effacingly relieved themselves of the burden they carried in late-in-life interviews with the authors.

The Greatest Generation was comprised of both genders. We have grown to know and honor the stories of the generation’s soldiering men. We are only now learning the deep debt we owe to our mothers and grandmothers. Daughters and sisters belonging to that same generation, they are no less great for the shadow in which they labored, sacrificed, died, and healed.

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51-77jM2bAL._SS300_Elizabeth George Speare’s fine novel of a Barbados-born teenager who lands in chilly New England—a bit frosty in more ways than one—makes for fine young adult reading. It was also a treat for this comparative geezer, who will soon live near Wethersfield, Connecticut, the principal location in which this novel’s drama plays out.

I would recommend this novel to any young reader. It packs in enough layers of real life without the added burden of tedious ideological pleading.

Even as it entertains, the book provides a helpful narrative introduction to America’s pre-Revolutionary life in the northeast corner of these colonies and even to some of our once-upon-a-time and enduring political dynamics. Instruction like this goes down sweetly.

 

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511nu60ABAL._SS300_The concluding section of Tori Bortman’s The Bicycling Big Book of Cycling for Beginners  makes the claim that ‘teaching, bicycles, and writing are Tori Bortman’s passions’. By the time the reader encounters this line, the truth of it has become clear.

Bortman has provided beginner (and, I would say, that face-saving term ‘advanced beginner’) cyclists with a jargon-free, highly readable companion for the first thousand miles on thin rubber tires.

These pages contain no in-house tech talk meant to bolster anyone’s credentials and squeeze the newbies into their corner. Instead, a gifted teacher who really wants her students to love the sport as much as she does builds our understanding from the ground up, step by step, brick by brick, ride by ride.

I’m finishing my first thousand miles and cannot think of a more amiable companion that The Bicycling Big Book for Beginners and the ambitiously empathetic voice it channels to riders whose gasping lungs and pumping legs are just beginning to know their strength.

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