Saturday, June 15, 2019

On "The Terrible Old Man" by H. P. Lovecraft (1150 words) ***

"The Terrible Old Man" is a kind of folk tale. It revolves around three men who go looking for treasure--via the robbing of an old man that everyone else is afraid of. They should have known not to pursue their ends. Read the story here.

On "The House Church in the Writings of Paul" by Vincent P. Branick *****

This very short book does a great job of summarizing what we can know about house church in the first century with what little information we have--from Roman society, from the New Testament, and from archaeology, and of course more especially from the writings of Paul.

We see not only how the house church came to be (Branick views time in the synagogues as being minimal and not very successful--something I think he pushes a bit too much, since there are plenty examples of the success in the synagogue, and since Paul and other Christians continued to go there when possible) but how it flourished and finally why it ceased to be. We also see how it worked when it did exist.

Branick explores the social context: the way that rich often hosted and how that set up a power dynamic in the church, how various house churches were networked together, and how churches might manage larger meetings. He discusses the major house churches we know of as discussed in scriptures.

The house church's demise seems to be related to the growth of the church and to the desire for more central authority among the elders in the church. As churches outgrew homes, homes were often turned outright into churches. Likewise, as pastors and elders tried to assert more authority, the idea of meeting in homes, which were thus to some extent under the control of the host--the owner of the home--house churches became even outright banned. As such, the contemporary Catholic church as we know it began to come into being.

Friday, June 7, 2019

On "A Landing Called Compromise" by Donna Baier Stein (4990 words) *****

In this opener from Stein's collection, two women come to terms with the friendship among their sons and another boy who suffers from a terrible accident. While the accident furthers the distance between the two women, an unnatural disaster brings them to a point where common humanity is recognized. Read the story here at the Saturday Evening Post.

On "Scenes from the Heartland" by Donna Baier Stein ***

A standard writing exercise consists of taking an image and writing a description of it. Sometimes this can lead to more, especially as one comes to know the scene or the persons inside the image. This was essentially the process the Stein went through in writing this book. The title of this collection, thus, is an apt one. The scenes here, however, are not photographs but lithographs, all of them created by Thomas Hart Benton, an artist whose work I have only lightly been familiar with before. As an exercise, each story finds success at putting a story to the image. Stein descends into the lives of each character in each piece.

In her afterword, the author notes that she wanted to get out of herself, to write about things that were less familiar to her. The lithographs were a means toward this. The exercise resulted in some very heartfelt meditations. That said, there's a part of me that felt like most of the stories strained at times to overcome a setting in time and place that was not the author's own--by that I mean that many of the tales, while well researched, seemed impersonal and even, to an extent, to fall back on the kind of Hollywood stereotypes one would expect when looking at the image rather than thrusting readers into something unfamiliar and extraordinary.

The best stories, though, do manage to do something to that effect. The most impressive of all is the opener, "A Landing Called Compromise," a tale that seems deceptively mundane but that builds to a great emotional catharsis.

"Trouble at the Dance Hall" explores racial relations at a country bar.

The title "Morning Train" is a play on words, as the story concerns a family whose son is about to go off to war, to the mom's grief and consternation.

"Pointing East, Where Things Happen" revolves around a revival meeting and concerns about faithfulness.

"For Her Own Good" focuses on two children whose father sends his wife (their mother) away for "woman troubles"--as in she has grown dispondent and doesn't do her chores in a satisfactory way. The children, of course, don't care about this--they want mom, and they want to enjoy the fair that they were promised to be able to attend. There's a grief and sorrow that runs throughout this piece, though it's not quite as finally crafted as in some other pieces.

In "The Sweet Perfume of Somewhere Else," it hasn't rained in a long while, and the main character dreams of being somewhere else--or more specifically being with someone else, her teacher. But what she wants proves not to be what she imagined, and the story makes an awful turn that has the girl wishing for childhood.

"Prodigal Son" is a heartbreaking tale about a son who has difficulty dealing with an injury to his father, in some sense blaming himself. The difficulty causes him to desert his family when it needs him most--this for a woman who becomes a quick study in booze and grift.

"Spring 1933" focuses on lost love an abusive father/husband.

The collection ends strongly with "Under the Weight of His Mother's Body," this one about a woman who marries beneath her expectations. I love a story that ends with an opening--especially to more trouble and concern. I'm reminded of a Raymond Carver story called "Neighbors," which ends with a couple who has been doing a bit more than house sitting when taking journeys into another person's house being locked out. That moment bears so much more than the simple pressing against the door. In this tale, an orphan from a small town named Arthur falls for a woman in the big city. A kind man, he's not ready for the demands this woman will make of him or for the demands his small town will either for that matter.

Some common tropes arise throughout the stories. At least two men marry women who then descend into various levels of alcoholism. At least two women mourn over sons. At least two fathers prove abusive of their families to various degrees. In fact, if one were to craft a common trajectory in the stories, it is one of disappointment with life's expectations and hopes. That's not to say the stories are all gloomy--in many cases, the characters find something redeeming among the sad events. Another things Stein does well by the collection is to present us with a view of a community at a particular time and place, the kind of linking that I often enjoy in story collections.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

On "Tweet" by Sabrina Orah Mark (1151 words) ***

Mark is a poet, which is obvious from this piece, which plays with language more than anything else one would expect of a story. It's about following, about religion, about looking for something beautiful, about wanting to be beautiful like that something, about not knowing where to go. It is about life and about social networks. Read the story here at the Collagist.

On "Luke the Historian in Light of Research" by A. T. Robertson ****

I came to this book rather oddly. Someone handed me a copy of Robertson's Harmony of the Gospels, a book my father had on his shelf for many years. I perused it--have found it useful in many ways--but I was intrigued by the fact that Robertson had a list of other books he'd written. Harmony is quite old, so I figured these books might well be in public domain, might well be available online, and indeed they were. This was the one that seemed the most intriguing--and indeed, it proved to be very handy. Admittedly, it's a bit dry and in some ways a bit hagiographic, but I like the Robertson takes Luke the writer seriously and that he dispels many of the ideas, still current to this day, that Luke is not the author of the two books credited to him in the New Testament, that those books were written far later. In fact, Robertson has good answer for most of the critics of Luke, as a writer and as a reliable source of information.

What's admirable here also is that we get something of a biography of Luke, as much as one can glean some two millenia later when pretty much all we have for data are the books he penned. Robertson also provides some useful background information--on Roman law, nauticals terms, written speeches, and first-century medicine. Read over the course of months, the book has given me a slight desire to look at one or two other titles by Robertson, still useful these many decades after their original publication. You can find this book on Google Books here.