Review: Ember Rising

Mark Ward

Ember Rising (The Green Ember #3)Ember Rising by S.D. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it. So did the kids. (And the illustrations, by my respected friend Zach Franzen, were also excellent.)

For a good while I was thinking that this book is The Benedict Option for kids—and for adults who dutifully read Dreher’s hot-title-of-2017 but whose affections were not fully engaged by his more prosaic approach (which I did find helpful—this is not a criticism). Ember Rising, by contrast, engages the heart with a stirring story. In this story there is a real evil, real danger, real pain. And, more importantly, real hope and real joy. I felt the story showed respect to the feelings and thinking of kids: it avoided cloying, no-fall-ever-happened saccharinity; and yet it didn’t over-burden the kids with darkness. The characters are well drawn, with personalities the kids could draw from. Captain Moonlight, Weezie, Helmer, Picket, Emma, Heather, Jacks—with the minor, partial, possible exception of Captain Vitton and Dr. Zeigler, no one was cartoonish, a common flaw among kids’ books. And even those exceptions read as real within the overall narrative. By avoiding cartoonishness elsewhere, the book allows readers to enjoy its virtues.

My seven-year-old girl understood the cliffhanger ending, which also read as real: prices must be paid by the good guys, even when their cause is righteous. But the Mended Wood is coming, and they will be vindicated.

I said that for a good while I drew parallels between this book and the Benedict Option. And I think they are certainly present. The good citadels are enclaves of the preservation of good rabbit culture. But I came to think as I neared the end that the book’s sights are set on something higher and bigger than the future, post-dark-secular-age renaissance of the West. I think the Mended Wood is the New Earth.

But, in a way, the Mended Wood can be both the restored West and the restored planet. The glory and honor of the nations will enter the New Jerusalem. That includes the West, right? Maybe the Green Ember series will be some of the literary glory entering that future city. I’m that excited about it.

Highly recommended.

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Find the False Friends!

Mark Ward

I’m editing some Puritan prayers for a new Lexham Press project, and I’m really enjoying the edification provided by these wonderfully eloquent, godly Christians of yore. But I am most certainly keeping my thinking cap on as I read (that’s my job), because the project includes a slight modernization—which basically means a translation from one form of English to another, an overlapping one. The key concept of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, “false friends,” has come in handy multiple times.

A “false friend,” as I define the term, needs to meet two of three criteria: it’s a word (or piece of syntax or punctuation, etc.) that is 1) still used today but 2) could or did mean something different in 1611, and 3) that has “changed in such a way that modern readers are unlikely to notice” (119). That last point is a little fuzzy, because modern readers differ. Some are more perceptive than others. Some are more experienced with the words and patterns of Elizabethan English than others. I don’t know how many people, or what people, a given “false friend” has to trip up before it counts as a full false friend. It’s a judgment call every time. I still want to call a word a false friend if I notice it but don’t know what the author meant by it; if I only know our modern use of the word and not his Early Modern use of the word.

I wonder, can you spot the false friends in the following prayer from Puritan luminary Joseph Alleine? I’ll update later with the answer(s).

O my Lord, bring me where you feed, let me live in your face, let me feel your smiles upon my heart, let me love you, tell me you love me. Remember, accept, pity, and take care of me, and then choose my condition, my dwelling, and entertainment for me.


Update with answers (12/27/2018):

It’s not always easy or possible to figure out false friends, particularly when they are phrases and not words.

• I think “where you feed” is probably a pastoral metaphor: bring me where you feed the sheep such as myself. If it’s a true false friend, I couldn’t establish this with the OED. But I do think the word strikes modern English speakers as talking about where God feeds himself. It’s certainly awkward in a way it probably (apparently?) wasn’t in Joseph Alleine’s day.

• “In your face” I’m not certain about either, and the OED isn’t helping me. But I think it means “before your presence.” In today’s English it does sound oppositional, I think.

• The OED did help me substantially with “entertaintment.” It gives this sense, which fits perfectly: “Provision for the material or financial needs of a person, animal, place, etc.; maintenance, support; sustenance. Obsolete.”

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Review: Educated, by Tara Westover

Mark Ward

My heart goes out to Tara Westover. I rooted for her and felt defensive for her during 100% of the story. Other people’s epistemological sins harmed her. Precisely because of her love for her parents, those sins maintained a hold on her far, far into a life that, on the outside, looked “normal.” Obviously, hare-brained conspiracy theories are not harmless fun; they can radically stunt human lives and break vital relationships. And yet this refugee from turmoil managed to write a truly beautiful and insightful book that is, in addition, a page-turning story. (I heard her say in an interview that she listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast to learn how to write. I signed up myself, hoping for the same boost to my literary abilities.) Well, well done, Tara.

But I’d like to point something out to my fellow Goodreaders [for whom I first wrote this review] that I fear will get lost in our collective rush to see Tara’s story as a confirmation of mainstream Western values: Tara’s story is a conversion story, not a de-conversion story. She didn’t merely de-convert from a hare-brained worldview; she actively converted to a different worldview. That latter worldview is not described in her book in any detail. But it means, among other things, that her story isn’t over. Which view of the world will she live out? If she adopted (as one would naturally expect?) the worldview of the people who educated her at Cambridge and Harvard, I would point out that this view is not a natural default, a neutral and objective place to be, a direct view of the world. It, too, is based on assumptions and beliefs that not everyone shares. It views the world through lenses worn by a minority of humanity, especially historically. It, too, contains suppressions of the truth.

Because Tara did not directly describe her current worldview, I cannot and will not critique it. Again, my primary feeling for her is appreciation and defensiveness. But I would encourage readers to reflect on their own views. Friends, do not to make Tara’s life-thus-far a feel-good story for mainstream Westerners. It’s unsettling to realize that, given an alternate environment, you might be capable of believing as the Westovers do (indeed, their view of essential oils is at least half-accepted by a disturbingly large number of college-educated American women). But I’d encourage you, reader, not to assume that because they are wrong you are right. Put yourself in the shoes of people—like myself—who regard the predominant Western view, the secular and materialist view, as itself hare-brained. The ideas that something could come from nothing, that life could come from non-life, that mind could arise out of non-mind—I regard these as ludicrous in the extreme. The idea that religion can and should be moved to the margins of society I regard as impossible and therefore, in a very real way, self-delusional. Some non-empirical “vision of the good” is going to rule every culture. And it is not clear to me that the West has escaped delusions within its own vision.

I regard the prevailing worldview among Western educated people as having similar overall effects on Western society to the ones that survivalist, conspiracy-theory delusions allegedly (though I do believe Tara, I feel I have to use that word to maintain a modicum of fairness!) had on the Westover family. Yes, I think it’s quite literally crazy to believe that the Illuminati are secretly running the world, that the Holocaust was bankrolled by greedy Jews, that the medical establishment is wicked and ineffective, and that consulting or balancing (or whatever it is) one’s chakras is God’s means of bringing health. I found it revealing that Tara’s mom had previously ascribed such beliefs to the desperation of the ill—and that certain injuries did land Westovers in the hospital despite their disbelief. And I’m not persuaded of the truth of Mr. Westover’s worldview by the fact that he was willing to suffer for it. In fact, it is his willingness to let his own children suffer for it—keeping them out of school, making them work physically dangerous jobs in which they were indeed seriously injured—that confirms what he ought to have known: he was living inside a set of delusions.

But is that so far from what Western materialism is doing to its youth? Direct cause and effect on such a large scale is impossible to prove; people will resort to their worldviews, their presuppositions, to explain even cause and effect. But from where I stand, inside (by God’s grace, but still with many human limitations) a biblical worldview, it looks like sexual promiscuity, the erosion of a coherent moral framework more generally and its replacement with self-actualization, and the combination of over-confidence in the deliverances of science and the under-confidence in the possibility of binding *moral* truth—all these things, fruits of a materialist worldview, are hurting our culture profoundly. Ironically enough, the next audiobook in my Libby app playlist is Our Kids, by Robert Putnam. I expect to see once again that the West’s values are not serving our kids much better than the Westovers’ values served theirs.

Tara had to fight hard—and I admire her so much for this—to reconcile her love for her family with her growing awareness that they lived on their own epistemological spirit-planet. This was most evident in their refusal (allegedly) to protect her from a physically abusive and emotionally manipulative brother. But it was evident in many other ways: I’m glad she escaped. I’m sad that reconciling her familial love with her education had to mean distancing herself from parents who (allegedly) chose extremist beliefs—and a very troubled son—over their gifted daughter. But I think she did right. I think, ultimately, that people who demand that you believe overt untruths (the biggest one being, “My sins against you are all in the past”) in order to have a relationship with you are best served, best loved, by refusal. “Honor your father and mother” does not mean, “Join them in their delusions.”

But you’re going to have to join somebody; there are no truly independent thinkers. How can we avoid group delusions? The Bible says—and if you bristle at that phrase, you especially need to read on—that the creation itself testifies clearly to the “eternal power and divine nature” of God. Acknowledging this truth is the only way to truly escape the rough and tumble, the push and pull of merely human perspectives. All humans are on the same plane. If some are “taller” than others, and see farther (I think Tara is such a one), still none of us enjoys a God’s-eye view. None of us is truly above the fray. We need divine grace to reach down and tell us what he sees from his perspective. This is the only way to avoid the delusions we all stumble into—too often willingly—on this sin-cursed earth.

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An Authorized Milestone

Mark Ward

I’ve just achieved a milestone with Amazon reviews of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I now have every important kind of review there is. I have five-star reviews, I have one-star reviews, and I have just gotten the coveted “my book showed up as promised” review. It usually takes a while before that happens. I, like my book at that man’s house, have arrived.

I have reached a couple less important milestones, too: I have literally been cursed with an imprecation (see below); I have been docked stars for not being Mormon; and I have relieved readers when they discover that Authorized is short.

If you still haven’t read Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, may I remind you—it is short?

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Prescriptivist Descriptivism

Mark Ward

This is exactly where I’m at:

Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying TheEconomist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.

And I think he demonstrates that they do. Though he doesn’t say it, I’d point to the third rail of class as lurking in the background of this discussion. On the one hand, the reason there are standards, a right and a wrong way to say/write things, is that the people with power in any given society have a certain way of speaking/writing, and they all notice deviations. On the other hand, the elites’ way of speaking/writing is not necessarily intrinsically superior. It didn’t come down from heaven. And it changes over time, just like everyone else’s way of speaking/writing.

People worry that this kind of change will mean language will fall apart. But the writer makes this trenchant observation:

Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

He concludes wisely:

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

Read the whole thing.

Update: A friend pointed out gently that the very last line probably shouldn’t be exactly what I think. And I agree. God is the genius that holds language together. He regulates it. It’s one of the ways he puts boundaries between nations, I personally think (Acts 17:26). But here’s the thing: God has given us no direct access to his ideas about a given language. Our access to meaning still comes through observing what, in fact, people mean when they use given words.

HT: Don Johnson
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Interview Questions for Iain Provan of Regent College

Mark Ward

In your book, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, you pointed out that the early church father Irenaeus did not argue based on his episcopal authority but on the basis of what Scripture said. You drew a contrast here with Martin Luther’s theological opponents, who, you said, “displayed a strong preference for appeals to episcopal authority over against argument based on or even involving scripture.” How important is a vernacular Bible to the Lutheran and Protestant tendency you name here, the tendency to appeal directly to Scripture in theological argument?

You quote Calvin as saying that “there is nothing in scripture which is not useful for your instruction.“ Can Scripture be useful for instruction if it’s not translated?

What kind of biblical literacy did Luther and Calvin and the other Reformers expect from laypeople? What did they expect them to get out of personal Bible reading?

I think I see strong parallels between today’s insistent efforts to retain the KJV and yesterday’s insistent efforts to retain the Vulgate. Do you see any parallels between the two?

At the same time, you point out in your book that the Vulgate was made from the original Greek and Hebrew texts of Scripture and was made “for the use and benefit of the faithful.” How does a translation made for Christians to read become over time a barrier to Christian understanding of God’s word?

I typically avoid talking about textual criticism when discussing the KJV. I find that it confuses the two wholly separate issues of text and translation. However, do you think the Reformers had a fundamentally different view of textual criticism than do modern evangelicals, or do you think they had merely an earlier one?

Are you aware of movements in other nations parallel to the defense of the KJV? Are there are Elberfelder-Onlyists or Reina-Valera onlyists? Is one-Bible-translation-onlyism a perennial problem?

Would the Reformers be in favor of multiple Bible translations in a given language?

How should Protestant evangelicals, heirs of the Reformation, people who love and value the Bible, distinguish translations from the originals?

Can we have a doctrine of perspicuity, of the clarity of Scripture, without translation into the vernacular? Can we have a doctrine of sufficiency or necessity or authority?

Luther famously held on to certain familiar Catholic practices in an effort to avoid shaking up individual lay Christians with a violent iconoclasm. How happy would Luther be with keeping a vernacular Bible translation that was no longer fully readable by average people? Would he look to revision or to education?

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