My Name is Asher Lev // Chaim Potak.

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“Draw me something pretty…make the world pretty, my Asher.” // Rivkeh Lev.

“My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev…the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion” // Asher Lev.

My Name is Asher Lev is horrifyingly beautiful. It is both, at once, an agonizing inhale and a relieving exhale. Asher Lev, the son of the revered Aryeh Lev, the grandson of his namesake, was born with a gift, the gift to create and destroy: painting. But Hasidic Jews like Asher Lev do not paint. Hasidic Jews like Asher Lev observe Shabbos, sing zemiros, learn Torah, attend Synagogue, and avoid anything goy (Gentile) or from the sitra achra (the Other Side). Hasidic Jews do not hurt other Jews. Hasidic Jews especially, though not explicitly told so for obvious reasons, do not paint crucifixions. But Asher Lev did.

Rereading this around has impressed me with two things: a new level of understanding the word “painstaking” and the undeniable link between pain and life. And the two are related.

Chaim Potok “painstakingly” created three “painstaking” characters: Asher Lev, Aryeh Lev, and Rivkeh Lev; the son, the father, and the mother. Through tortured and “painstaking” years, these three arduously work to love each other. For years there were avoidance and brooding anger, and, other times, the coldness was lifted at the coming of acceptance’s warmth. And pain is at the heart of these relations. The pain of disappointment, the pain of being misunderstood, the pain of mis- or non-communication, the pain of loss, the pain of being alone, the pain of incomplete work, the pain of a divided home, the pain of being the bridge, the pain of fear, and the pain of causing pain. It is, therefore, undeniable: there is no life without pain. But the reverse is also wondrously true: there is no pain without life. Life pierces and is pierced (stakes and is staked) by pain. And to see that is not to ignore the mother’s plea, but precisely the opposite: it is to “make the world pretty.”

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Cur Deus Homo // St. Anselm.

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Cur Deus Homo, without a doubt, is a magisterial and seminal work on atonement. Sadly, though, St. Anselm has in recent decades garnered a bad, even heinous, reputation amongst some theological circles. Being “the father of satisfaction atonement” is not an honorific title, especially since satisfaction atonement is usually paired with stereotypes of violence-approving/supporting abuse for an egotistic, honor-crazed God. The Doctor Magnificus, however, cannot be further from those stereotypes. Rather, it is poor or negligent interpretations of Cur Deus Homo and Anselm that are rightly blameworthy of bearing these stereotypes. Reading Cur Deus Homo — the text itself and not just later interpreters — will pierce with bright illuminance and not these dark stereotypes.

Anselm of Canterbury was also integral to the inception of medieval scholasticism, another term imposed with less-than-favorable impressions. Scholasticism is criticized as being too rational and subsuming theology to philosophy. However, understanding Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum and its outworkings in Cur Deus Homo would, again, dismantle overreaching stereotypes. Anselm never sought to prove the Christian faith by rational; instead, his Christian faith pressed him to seek understanding and nuance by probing deeper in humble reverence. The two driving questions for Anselm through his self-made interlocutor, Boso, are: Why the God-man and why the cross?

After what might seem (but is not) pure logical deductions in a relatively short form, Anselm through Boso confesses:

The world can hear of nothing more reasonable, nothing more kind, nothing more desirable. Indeed, I receive so much confidence from this thought that right now I cannot say with how much joy my heart exults. For it seems to me that God rejects no human being who approaches Him under this name. (II.19)

All this is for worship. Not just to know better and more firmly the shocking coherence of the Christian faith, but also to marvel and rejoice at the beauty of his great saving work–which God freely willed to do on our behalf.

An Introduction to Christian Theology // Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, and Matthew D. Lundberg.

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An Introduction to Christian Theology, to be sure, is quite a pedagogical feat. More specifically, condensing 2000 years of (mostly Western) Christian Theology into moderately accessible 600 pages of reading. However, it is its versatility that I find is its most praiseworthy feature. Though more systematic in its approach, the historical chapters are crucial to its argumentation. Although it is an introduction/reference — therefore, not limited to be read linearly — I wish its historical chapters (Part III) were either prior or sparsed through its systematic chapters (Part II). Its prolegomena (Part I) is also helpful and well worth the read.

Not everything Plantinga, Thompson, and Lundberg wrote I agree with, and I do not have to. Some chapters really show their cards and impress their biases (e.g., social trinitarianism, sanctioning mutability for the doctrine of God, and kenotic Christology), and other chapters are more distant (perhaps, much less is at stake for them).

$35 might seem a steep price for a book, but it is actually cheap for a theological reference/introduction.

Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross // Hans Boersma.

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Inspired by Miroslav Volf’s ground-breaking Exclusion and Embrace (1996), Hans Boersma sets on a bold endeavor to face and redefine the meaning of violence at the cross-event through a divine hospitality lens.

God is, for Boersma, divine–absolute–hospitality. God wants–nay, wills–all to be welcomed into the Godhead. Yet, post-fall, all of creation is sin-stricken. Therefore, some degree of violence, “conditional violence,” is required to welcome (as much as possible) creation into the Godhead. Thus, Levinas and Derrida’s call for “absolute hospitality” here and now, for human society and by human means, is impossible and undesirable (because with “absolute hospitality” here and now, save the eschaton, even the devil can be invited). Instead, conditional hospitality is wanted: not all, certainly not evil, are equally welcomed. Some amount of conditional violence is needed to fence out said evils.

Boersma is bred within the Reformed tradition. So, it is noteworthy that Boersma begins with critiquing “high calvinism” and some of its violence-approving interpretations. These, he finds, are unsatisfactory. Better to start with Irenaeus’ recapitulation because, according to Boersma, recapitulation is able to subsume the three atonement model: Aberlardian (moral influence), Anselmian (satisfaction), and Christus Victor. He backs this up by relating these three models with Calvin’s doctrine of threefold offices of Christ: Prophetic with moral influence, priesthood with satisfaction, and kingship with Christus Victor. In this way, Boersma reappropriates the Reformed tradition along conditional hospitality lines.

I said above that Boersma undertook a bold endeavor. Well, was he successful? Perhaps. This is a relatively short book that covers a vast amount of complicated issues: violence, atonement, reformed tradition, ethics, etc. There are many sections that are wantings; others that are tangential. In the end, Boersma is worth the read, but I am not confident enough to say you’ll find the answers to the questions he raises and the ones you might have.

The Christological Controversy // Richard A. Norris.

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It is always surprising to see how much a scholar can put together in less than 200 pages (and in this case, 159!). Richard A. Norris, Jr., has canvased the landscape of the early stages of Christological formation and brought this important, accessible, and resourceful primer together: The Christological Controversy. Landmark Church Father figures, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril, are listed with checkered figures, such as Apollinaris, Theodore, and Nestorius (Origen can be argued to be listed here, as well). And in this way, the tensions are real.

It would be ironic to say that heresies make orthodoxy, but that seems like the case for early Christological controversies. These heresies and the condemned heretics who espoused them were either trying to say too much or too neatly fixed that they suffocate orthodoxy. Most, or all, of the precise wordings of the Great Ecumenical Creeds were hammered during and after heated debates. So, it’s important to keep in mind not only that these great creeds are in a very Hellenistic worldview but also in very complicated, drawn-out debates (via pony express). To say Jesus is “true God from true God” shocks Arius, and “true man from true man” shudders gnostics and docetics.

To be sure, Norris nor even the great Church Fathers were attempting to solve a problem or fix a paradox. Jesus as God-Man is, utterly, mysterious. Yet, in the spirit of Augustine, so that we would not be silenced, we must say something — rightly and worshipfully, within orthodox and orthopraxis.

The Crucified God // Jürgen Moltmann.

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The Crucified God is one of Jürgen Moltmann’s earliest and, undoubtedly, most seminal works. In classic Moltmannian fashion, the theology of The Crucified God is done “on the way.” It would be a misnomer to classify this treatise, or any Moltmann’s works, as “systematic” theology. If anything, it is more “constructive.” So, Moltmann constructs “on the way,” and — in his case — on the way from POW camps.

Moltmann’s POW experience cannot be overstated in importance and inception for his theology. He found God in the camps, or rather God found him in his own suffering. Since then, Moltmann has been obsessed — possessed? — by Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). What does this mean for christology, theology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and ethics? In short, Jesus, as true God, died; death was taken into God. The cross was God abandoning God, God against God. In other words, God has chosen to be the God for the godforsaken by being godforsakened — the truest and deepest level of solidarity.

Moltmann is, in a word, prolific; he is the most productive liberation theology. People of all stripes would do well to read him, particularly theologians who disagree with him. Read him to, at the very least, feel his suffused compassion for the poor, vulnerable, disenfranchised, and oppressed.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius // Ray Monk.

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“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train” (quoting Keynes, 255).

“Then the startling words; said Black, ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Professor Wittgenstein…’ Well, when Black said ‘Wittgenstein’ a loud and instantaneous gasp went up from the assembled students. You must remember: ‘Wittgenstein’ was a mysterious and awesome name in the philosophical world of 1949, at Cornell in particular. The gasp that went up was just the gasp that would have gone up if Black had said ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Plato…'” (quoting Nelson, 558).

Ludwig Wittgenstein was, as the above quotations betray, a towering philosophical giant in the 20th century — possibly, the greatest of his generation. In this fine, magisterial biography, Ray Monk details this illustrious yet tortured life.

Born into an lucrative family of immense wealth in Austria, young Ludwig displayed no early signs of “genius,” unlike his older siblings. Eventually, though, Ludwig would be possessed by his own “genius,” not of musical talent but of intellectual rigor. One could say that the impetus of Wittgenstein’s philosophical career is to learn how to say something clearly. Clarity was his obsession: “What can be said, can be said clearly” (credits to Michael Pierce’s YouTube, “Wittgenstein in a Nutshell”). This will be the extend of my summary of Wittgenstein’s thought (to be honest, this was the most arduous task of Monk’s book, personally speaking, not because Monk was unclear but the concepts were quite difficult to grasp).

Wittgenstein had a long list of friends-become-“fri-enemies.” This is due partly to his passionate, self-assertive nature and his incredulous reaction when learned people (e.g., professors of philosophy) cannot understand or grasp his self-proclaimed clear reasonings. On more than one occasion, Wittgenstein would storm out in frustration if he sensed his audience or interlocutor misunderstand and misappropriate his words and sentences. Yet, this is not to mean that Wittgenstein did not cherish friendships — but the very opposite. Yes, he would dominate most conversations about his own philosophical inquiries. Yes, he would, at times, escape the lurid, egoistic life of London to be isolated in Norway. But he would also regularly mail impassioned letters to old and new friends, watch movies (Westerns were his favorite), attend concerts, and go on long walks coupled with intimate conversations. Moments before he lost consciousness, he told his host-friend, Mrs Bevan (the wife of the doctor who treated during Wittgenstein’s last years), to tell his friends: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”