On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir–the Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

The Korean War – one of the most brutal wars regarding the extreme cold in which it was fought and the massive numbers of enemy soldiers thrown against American and U.N. forces. On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides revisits the heroic withdrawal (“fighting in another direction”) of the First Marine Division in the brutal cold from the Chosin Reservoir.

Sides takes an interesting approach to his description of the campaign. For the initial Chinese surprise attacks on the night of November 27, he writes detailed narratives of small unit experiences (platoon and company level). Sides then transitions to a broader view of the campaign at the regiment and division level (although he still includes stories of individuals struggling to survive the incessant Chinese attacks and the cold). For example, he describes the efforts of the Division’s engineers to repair a bridge that was blown by the Chinese and how the various units supported the engineers as they performed their work under fire.

This approach gives the reader a glimpse of the fighting at all levels of the Marine command.  Sides also thoroughly – rightfully so – praises the leadership of the Division commander General Oliver Smith. Smith’s calm, sometimes cautious, approach to battle was exactly what the Marines needed at the time. For instance, he ignored the X Corps commander’s order to push forward to the Yalu River prior to the main Chinese attack. Sides points out that this caution paid off because the Division was more concentrated at the time of attack. If Smith had heeded the corps commander’s orders, the Marines would have been more easily cut off with little chance of breaking out.

Sides takes a less kind analysis of General Douglas MacArthur – supreme commander of U.N. forces. As with most historians that write about MacArthur – they either love him or hate him – Sides is no different. He begrudgingly credits MacArthur for Inchon (although Sides credits the resounding success more on Smith’s and his Marines’ actions than MacArthur), but he eviscerates MacArthur for his strategy of pushing to the Yalu River. MacArthur ignored obvious signs of aggression from the Chinese – even when Chinese troops were captured, he did not believe his own commanders that the U.N. forces were at risk of attack.

Sometimes the book does feel like a rah rah for the Marines, but it is mostly an objective look at the Marines who fought hard to save themselves and their fellow Marines.

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor is another installment in the mystery series of Wehrmacht Officer Martin von Bora–this book is a prequel to the following five books in the series. This latest is set in Spain, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Bora investigates the murder of poet Garcia Lorca.

I have not read any of the other books in the series, but easily became familiar with Bora due to the excellent writing. I am fairly impressed with not only the writing, but the story line and character development as well.

Pastor begins the book with Bora finding Lorca’s body and developing the plot from there. She vividly describes the scene and gets the reader engaged immediately.

Not only is the story line well thought out, but the character development is just as strong. Pastor portrays Bora in a mainly positive light, but she also shows his weaknesses–including where he needs to gain more wisdom. I also appreciate her equal attention to Boras’ opponent–fellow “investigator” Philip “Felipe” Walton, an American volunteer fighting for the communists/anarchists/socialists.

Although Walton is cast in a bit of a more negative light, the reader can relate to him. His hardscrabble life in the United States embitters Walton and leads him from various battlefields, including Western Europe during World War I, to Spain. Pastor expertly weaves Walton’s disappointments in life into his current relationships.

Despite Bora’s many doubts, he doggedly pursues the killer of Lorca and eventually succeeds–despite the many obstacles placed in his way by his own side and the communists.

The book is a good story set during a turbulent time in Spain.

The Lost Message of Paul by Steve Chalke

Cover image of The Lost Message of Paul

Probably only the closest of readers of this blog would be aware of my theological leanings which are unique; some might even say heretical. Influenced by N.T. Wright, intrigued by Rob Bell, eventually finding Andrew Perriman I have come to adopt a narrative-historical hermeneutic rather than the dominant historical-grammatical approach of modern evangelicalism.

So when offered a chance to review The Lost Message of Paul I was excited.

We have misunderstood Paul, badly.

We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them.

· What if ‘original sin’ was never part of Paul’s thinking?
· What if the idea that we are saved by faith in Christ, as Luther argued, was based on a mistranslation of Paul’s words and a misunderstanding of Paul’s thinking?

‘Over the centuries,’ writes Steve Chalke, ‘the Church has repeatedly failed to communicate, or even understand, the core of Paul’s message. Although Paul has often been presented as the champion of exclusion, he was the very opposite. He was the great includer.’

Given my theological journey, if anyone is open to a book about the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Paul, I am.

But this book was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because at first I was only able to read it in fits and starts, but it struck me as just not well organized or written. Despite my avid interest in the subject, it did not grab or hold my attention. I almost had to force myself to read it.

It is an attempt to popularize certain academic understandings or scholarly debates, particularly what is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but does so at a superficial level and in one sided fashion. The style is discursive and meandering jumping between theology and devotional and social issues seemingly at random. It just didn’t flow for me.

There really isn’t anything particularly new here for anyone who has been following this debate. Which brings two challenges: 1) I have a hard time recommending such a meandering and hard to follow book to someone who wants to learn about this approach as there are much better books out there for those who want to understand the debate surrounding Paul and 2) if you are already familiar with the debates I am not sure what this adds.

Those who want to use NPP to reject evangelicalism and who embrace a progressive, for lack of a better term, approach this book will be embraced. And for those who reject either NPP, progressive theology, or both this book won’t change anyone’s mind. And as a few of the critical reviews note, Chalke writes as if his approach is obvious and a given rather than a highly controversial one.

I agree with Chalke on NPP and I agree that many in the church have flattened the story of the Bible into over-simplified theology (accept Jesus or go to eternal torment in Hell). He highlights the importance of Second Temple Judaism and the problematic nature of Luther’s approach. But again, he then assumes that the only logical end result is progressive Christianity stripped off almost all its credal beliefs. It is not a humble wrestling with the challenging issues of faith today but a rather arrogant proclamation that Chalke has it all figured out and has discovered true Christianity.

When I went to look at other reactions to compare to my own, I found mostly negative reviews. Here is a sampling:

There are useful things in this book about reflecting on Paul’s context, central purpose and primary target audience – but Chalke’s actual reading of Paul is highly selective and leads not to clear understanding but further lack of clarity.

The rest of the book is mainly taken up with an attempt to rewrite the theology of heaven and hell; including a lengthy excursion into Dante’s architecture of the afterlife.

I found the arguments more emotive than compelling. They are based on a selective use of Paul, a long line of straw men and a failure to interact with a wide range of evangelical scholars who have written on the subject.

I cannot recommend this book; there are better popular treatments of Paul’s thinking. Try Tom Wright’s Paul: A Biography.

Inspire Magazine review

David Robertson’s initial reaction was pretty harsh (see below) but he offered a more tempered but still critical review in Christianity Today.

This is an easy to read, and well-written book – much better stylistically than the earlier work. As always with Chalke the book will be described as ‘controversial’ and will delight some (like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) and appall others. From a personal perspective I found that The Lost Message of Paul contained some interesting information, provocative arguments, challenging questions and old heresies.

Steve argues that ‘all the old narratives are dead’ and that we need a ‘new story’. He blames Augustine, Luther and Calvin for getting Paul’s message wrong. But his new story suffers from some major defects.

David Robertson in Christianity Today

He appreciated the writing more than I did but I did not read his previous book so have nothing to compare it to.

This is a better-written work than his previous…but after a slightly promising start, it quickly went downhill.  You will discover very little about the Apostle Paul here – and his lost message.  But you will learn a lot about what Steve Chalke thinks – and lo and behold, it appears that all along Paul and Jesus were really 19th Century Protestant liberals, who spoke in an evangelical code – which remained hidden – until Steve came to reveal ‘the lost message of Paul’.   Overall, whilst there are some insights, this is a shockingly bad book.  Chalke speaks as though he is an expert in Greek, Hebrew, History, Theology, Psychology, Science – whereas in reality he just cherry picks and quote mines sources which support his pre-determined destination – and amazingly he arrives there.   A Bible that is not the word of God, a Jesus who didn’t exist, a heaven and hell that are only on earth….a cross that did not atone and a God who fails….This is about as far as it is possible to get from Christianity whilst still claiming to be a Christian. 

David Robertson at The Wee Flea

Tom Creedy offers a very thorough and critical review and helpfully offers other, and better, sources for those who want to learn more.

As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend this book. Steve seems to be surprisingly unaware of a number of books and positions on Paul, as well as unwilling to take his own advice in reading and interpreting Paul. Of this almost 300 page book, some of it is helpful (some reminders on hermeneutics, and an acknowledgement that Paul and Scripture have been abused in the past and present), but it is like trying to pick only Minstrels out of a pack of Revels (an english chocolate that is, quite literally, a mixed bag). In fact, I’d go further: I think Steve should ask SPCK, his current publisher, for the rest of Tom Wright’s back catalogue, as well as dig into Paula Gooder, John Barclay, etc. It should be revealing that for a book purporting to open up a conversation about Paul, it simultaneously isn’t endorsed by any Pauline/New Testament scholars, and in my limited knowledge doesn’t engage with some of the key voices in the relevant discussion. For interested readers, New Testament scholar Michael Bird has a really helpful list of some of the best recent books on Paul

Thomas Creedy review

Chris Goswami at 7minutes has a much more positive view and gets at the challenge of the book. It has some valid points but always pushes the arguments to the limits and beyond and thus undercuts its ability to persuade.

 “We all know the stories of the pain caused by the misreading of Paul through the centuries … to justify some of the most brutal and repressive episodes in human history  … including apartheid, subservience of women, abuse of the environment and oppression of gay people”.

Steve Chalke is right about that and at the very least this book might soften some of the hard edges of the church. And he is right about the church at times being preoccupied with personal salvation: “go to church and get into heaven” is a cheap gospel as he makes clear.

On the other hand, Chalke’s “everything you know about Paul is wrong” proposal is built on selected scriptures and will be upsetting to ordinary church-goers. So, to conclude, this book is a helpful contribution, it takes some of the recent technical discussions on Paul (including NPP) and makes them more understandable to the ordinary church-goer, but I would not recommend it widely.

7minutes review

I didn’t dig into progressive reviews but clearly those who side with Chalke embraced this book.

THIS is a book that every preacher should read. Why? Once you have had an opportunity to engage with St Paul’s message as articulated here, it is “literally world-changing”. As its author confesses at the outset, the ideas presented are not his own: they represent a huge body of thought relating to Paul which has emerged since the1960s. The ideas are, though, brilliantly and very accessibly presented in this book.

[…]

This book could be seen as an extended meditation on the sentence “God is love”: “Once you understand that, everything else cascades from it. Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking — the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger.” Chalke quotes Barth: “If God exhibits characteristics of anger, judgement and the like they are never more than ‘repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves’.”

“Love never fails,” Paul writes. Chalke speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated decades, through the Oasis Trust, to attending to those who have been written off by society, seeking not to fail them. He argues that God in Christ does the same eternally, and Chalke quotes Barth again: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Chalke explains what this means to him in helpful detail.

Church Times review

Whew, that is a lot to digest! I hope I have given enough information for readers to get a sense of book, its approach and the pros and cons. For whatever reason, I did not enjoy it despite agreeing with much of the underlying issues Chalke is trying to highlight. In the end, I think there are better books out there to tackle this important subject.

The Words between Us by Erin Bartels

the cover of the novel the words between us

I have this almost continuous problem. I am endlessly curious about a host of subjects from politics and current events to theology and behavioral economics. I have a library full of such books and frequently check out and buy more from the library and bookstores online and off.

But I can only read so much non-fiction before my brain gets tired. So when I am ready to relax and read a little before bed, I look for fiction. As a result, I am always on the lookout for that perfect blend of engaging and yet not too mentally taxing.

It was on just such a search that I stumbled on to The Words Between Us by Erin Bartels. I believe it was a glowing review from Shawn Smucker on Goodreads that prompted me to check it out. Turns out it was available for free for Amazon Prime members so I grabbed and started reading.

Robin Windsor has spent most of her life under an assumed name, running from her family’s ignominious past. She thought she’d finally found sanctuary in her rather unremarkable used bookstore just up the street from the marina in River City, Michigan. But the store is struggling and the past is hot on her heels.

When she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of her father’s scheduled execution, Robin is thrown back to the long-lost summer she met Peter Flynt, the perfect boy who ruined everything. That book–a first edition Catcher in the Rye–is soon followed by the other books she shared with Peter nearly twenty years ago, with one arriving in the mail each day. But why would Peter be making contact after all these years? And why does she have a sinking feeling that she’s about to be exposed all over again?

I have to say, I enjoyed this book despite it not really being my style. The obvious hook is that it is in large part about the love of books and language something I share. But is also clearly a romance, not something I typically read or enjoy.

What makes it work is the pace, tension and light touch. Bartels does not lay on the romance particularly thick so it doesn’t intrude on the story or dominate the style in a way that is off-putting (at least to me). And alternating chapters between the present and the past she builds tension and a sense of mystery.

The central character, Robin, is very well done. She feels like a fully formed person despite her extraordinary experiences. There is one section that strains believability a tad but otherwise her family’s past seems believable even as it shapes and forms her personality and choices. Her interaction with her parents was particularly well done even if brief.

Every time it feels like the story might begin to drag, when it is focused on romantic relationships and Robin’s fear, the plot twists and the story receives a jolt of energy. The mystery that has been in the background for most of the book and the romantic tension both come together in the end.

At the risk of being accused of sexism or stereotypes, this book will appeal to women (the Goodread reviews are dominated by female readers) but it has the storytelling to rise beyond simple romance. I also enjoyed reading a book set in my home state of Michigan. Bartels makes the setting add to the story and its characters.

It is also worth noting that it is published by a Christian publisher. There are faith elements but they are no obtrusive and seem just a natural part of the background. Those looking for a more obvious spiritual resolution will be disappointed but those worried about “Christian Fiction” should not worry.

All in all, a satisfying novel with just the right blend of romance, mystery and the love of books.

The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin & Link Neal

My wife, and kids, are big fans of Good Mythical morning, the comedy/entertainment YouTube channel. My wife has been watching it for many, many years and she got the kids into it. I enjoy the show but not with quite the enthusiasm of the rest of the family. But when Rhett and Link have a book out I usually order it for my wife.

Such was the case with The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek, the first novel by the founders of the internet sensation that is all things Mythical. After my wife and daughter read it, I figured I would give it a try.

It’s 1992 in Bleak Creek, North Carolina—a sleepy little place with all the trappings of an ordinary Southern town: two Baptist churches, friendly smiles coupled with silent judgments, and an unquenchable appetite for pork products. Beneath the town’s cheerful façade, however, Bleak Creek teens live in constant fear of being sent to the Whitewood School, a local reformatory with a history of putting unruly youths back on the straight and narrow—a record so impeccable that almost everyone is willing to ignore the suspicious deaths that have occurred there over the past decade.

At first, high school freshmen Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson believe what they’ve been told: that the students’ strange demises were all just tragic accidents, the unfortunate consequence of succumbing to vices like Marlboro Lights and Nirvana. But when the shoot for their low-budget horror masterpiece, PolterDog, goes horribly awry—and their best friend, Alicia Boykins, is sent to Whitewood as punishment—Rex and Leif are forced to question everything they know about their unassuming hometown and its cherished school for delinquents. 

Eager to rescue their friend, Rex and Leif pair up with recent NYU film school graduate Janine Blitstein to begin piecing together the unsettling truth of the school and its mysterious founder, Wayne Whitewood. What they find will leave them battling an evil beyond their wildest imaginations—one that will shake Bleak Creek to its core.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a first novel, it was a little choppy and started slow; a little rough around the edges you might say. It seemed like they were trying to force a little too much of their personality quirks and descriptions into the story and dialogue. Too much tell and not enough show, as they say. But part of that is trying to imagine Rhett and Link as the characters in the story (their names are Rex and Leif).

But once it gets going in has a pretty good pace and there is a flurry of activity and resolution at the end. It does seem to set up a sequel in the Epilogue.

One weird element is that I was unsure who the audience was for this book. Is this Middle Grade, Young Adult, or all ages? Is high school the middle school/starting high school the target since that is the age of the characters? It wasn’t clear reading it. I didn’t find it scary in the least so the horror aspect just felt off. But to be fair, unlike large swaths of the world, I am not a big Stranger Things fan so perhaps that was a missed connection. 1990’s nostalgia and pop cultural references play a big role.

In the end this was an interesting if not particularly gripping story to me. I’m guessing that fans of Rhett and Link have already devoured it and are impatiently waiting for the next book. If you are not a fan of the duo or of Stranger Things type stories not sure how much this will grab you.

Stranger Things carries a lot of cultural weight by itself these days—the legacy of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and the many weird movies and books that don’t get the credit they deserve—but these comedy writers have hit that vein hard with this VHS-era kicker that references the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Kickboxer on the very first page…

Sure, it’s kind of a rip-off, but it’s scary, it’s fun, and it’s one hell of a carnival ride. 

Kirkus