Book Review: Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained

Continuing my science fiction run of late, I recently picked up two books in the Commonwealth Saga by Peter F. Hamilton: Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Hamilton is best known for his lengthy space operas with most books approaching 1,000 pages.
In a universe connected by a giant rail-network in the sky, the Commonwealth series is focused around wormhole technology that allows instantaneous travel across great distances. The trains riding these wormholes travel from world to world as if they were subway stops on the local line. Mixing this technology with alien races, regenerative and memory-transfer technology, and the threat of intergalactic annihilation leads to an engaging, but at times slow-moving, story.

Since I am reviewing both books here, I will try to signal anything that gives away too much of the plot of the first book. In Pandora's Star, a purposeful word-play with the tale "Pandora's Box," the astronomer Dudley Bose sees a distant star disappear. It is discovered that the star has been surrounded by a strange enclosure, making the ever-curious humans mount an exploratory expedition. What they find and its ramifications bring the book to its cliff-hanging conclusion.

(Warning: this paragraph reveals the plot of the first book) In Judas Unchained the narrative picks up again with the Commonwealth rushing to recover from the attack of the Prime aliens released from the enclosure. In addition, the Starflyer alien, a religious-like myth that is propagated by fanatics on the world of Far Away, begins to become more real for those investigating strange occurrences in the Commonwealth. How this alien is connected to the Prime invasion and the means by which humanity bands together to fight their impending destruction are the main plot questions driving the second novel.

Hamilton's style of writing weaves characters in and out of the narrative. For instance, at times we can follow a character and story for a hundred pages and then not see her again for 300 more. Another element of this style is a huge cast of characters that can become confusing at times. I found myself flipping back in the book, randomly looking for a name that I could not place with any particular plot line. Another feature of his writing style is that at times the plot slows to a crawl. We find ourselves following mundane trips between planets where little happens but a lengthy description of the flora and fauna that each planet offers. An easy fix to these slowdowns is to skim these parts and pick up again where the main plot resumes. I recommend this tactic because while the descriptions can be interesting at times, they are not spectacular or particularly unique.

A unique feature of this universe that gives grist to the plot is the technological ability for everlasting life. Human bodies can be reversed aged, leaving the option to return to one's 20's whenever he wants. Also, if a death should occur accidentally, memories are stored in secure storage facilities and also in a chip inserted in the brain. A clone is made, memories are inserted, and viola! - resurrection. One interesting result of this ability is the difference between "first-lifers" and those who have been rejuvenated. Hamilton works with the adage that wisdom and stability come with age -- leaving the "first-lifers" as being saddled with unbridled passion and naivety. It is clear, however, that the passions of the first life are looked at with nostalgia by those who have lived more than once.

One of the odder parts of these books is how marriage and sex are portrayed. First, with the invention of everlasting life, marriage is now seen as a temporary arrangement. It is assumed that all marriages will end within a lifetime (two at most) when the partners get bored and move on. There is also a focus on sex's use as a tool to gain power and prestige. While such a use of sex in a book wouldn't strike me as odd, its continual reappearance in endless but repetitive variety made we wonder what was driving the author to do so.

(If you plan on reading the books, you will want to skip the next two paragraphs.) The final aspect that interested me was the religious-like cult that ends up being right in the end. These fanatics blow up buildings, terrorize, and cause much trouble for the Commonwealth. They are the only people in the universe who believe in their cause. They live in the remote mountains on the remotest planet on all the Commonwealth, giving them limited freedom to further their goals and plans. In the end, however, they are portrayed as the saviors of humanity and deserving of gratitude. While I do not believe Hamilton was trying to make any sort of religious or political statement with this group, it was interesting to see the fanatics be right for a change.

The parts of these two books I enjoyed most was when the narrative entered the thought process of MorningLightMountani, the Prime alien threatening humanity. This creative exploration of a thought process and perspective quite alien to humanity was fresh. The contrast between the individuality of humans and singularity of the one mind ruling all Prime life made for an engaging motif. I found those sections as reminders of how much our view of the world is shaped by who we are and where we reside.

I give both of these books a Recommended. They open an interesting world where strange and wonderful things are possible. They are not deep reflections on philosophy or ethics, but they do offer a pleasurable escape for those who enjoy reading about the stars.

Continued Conversation with D. Christopher Spinks

D. Christopher Spinks has graciously responded to my previous post with one of his own that engages with me and Dr. Greg Cary, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

First, I need to thank him for a great conversation! I hope we are enacting, in some sense, his fourth "hue." Second, some admissions. He is right about the Watson correction, I thought his interaction lasted farther into the paragraph, and now I see that I was mistaken. He is also right to correct my use of "pre-critical" rather than "pre-modern." I actually agree with him that interpreters before modernism were still critical -- I wrote too hastily. Finally, I did not catch his second "l" in "faith-full," it was not a purposeful omission. Thanks to Dr. Spinks for drawing my attention to these errors.

Third, some quick explanations on my post in conversation with his (quotations are from his post):
My problem with the way it’s all set up is that Seth continues to work with the theology/biblical studies dichotomy and creates four concoctions with various amounts of each ingredient.
I was not clear enough as to the dichotomy I wanted to push in my post. I wanted to push the historical-critical paradigm vs. theology dichotomy, not biblical studies vs. theology. I do in fact think biblical studies and theology need to be combined, hopefully removing the distinction to some extent. By laying out the four options in terms of mixing "scientific exegesis" and "theology," I meant the historical-critical paradigm and theology. I see those two as being unmixable as they now stand due to the basic tenants of the historical-critical paradigm. As some argue, I do not see the problem with the historical-critical paradigm being that its practitioners have "naturalistic" or "positivistic" presuppositions; rather, I think the whole method is inherently naturalistic and positivistic. When Christians do "history," how do they do it aside from using the principles of doubt, analogy, and cause and effect? I know Wolfhart Pannenberg and N.T. Wright offer some alternative proposals, but much "faith-full" biblical scholarship assumes that it can add the historical-critical paradigm (sans its atheism) to its study of the Bible, as long as it bring the right presuppositions (theism). The purpose of my four options was to help make clear how different people navigate the interaction of the historical-critical paradigm and theology. I meant to be descriptive in the categories, not prescriptive.
Seth is pressing interesting and important points, but I see them as beholden to the categories and language established by a couple hundred years of the predominance of a particular methodology, namely historical criticism, and the division of disciplines that came out of that methodological hegemony.
I agree that it is hard to discuss these matters without appealing to historical-critical categories. My discussion about the proper mixture of historical-criticism and theology came from Spinks's claim (I think) that theological interpretation is both modern and postmodern (hence my original guess as putting him in the HC+ model). In his final section, "Transcending Polarities," he says, "Theological interpretation has a distinct dependence on certain postmodern perspectives" and later "theological interpretation, as featured here . . . does not, however, wholly find its rooting in postmodernity. It still maintains certain ties to traditionally modern styles of reading." I interpreted "postmodernity" here as a position that allows faith (theology) into exegesis and "modern styles of reading" as the historical-critical paradigm -- thus some sort of mixture of the two.

Fourth, I would like to interact on some intriguing points he made that were not directly related to my post:
For theological interpretation, scientific exegesis is neither an end in itself, nor something to be abandoned, nor an ingredient in a programmatic recipe; but rather, it is a tool sometimes used to assist the body of readers who read for broadly theological reasons. Theological interpretation, thus, puts scientific exegesis in its proper place.
I think these sentences put our discussion in sharpest contrast (as long as by "scientific exegesis" he means the historical-critical paradigm). I agree with the sentiment that wants to keep history connected to exegesis and in its proper place. The issue arises when we ask whether the historical-critical paradigm is helpful in this task. I would argue that theological interpretation needs an entirely new view of history, a different "historical paradigm" than the one given by the historical-critical paradigm. It is not enough for theological interpretation to have HC+God (nor God + HC) but instead needs something else. I do not believe God and any use of the historical-critical paradigm are compatible. I admit I do not yet have answers to what this "something else" may be, but that is something I hope to work on.
I conceptualize theological interpretation as a constellation of conversations (historical, theological, ethical, etc.) centered on the community’s reading(s) of its sacred text. No paradigm required.
This move away from "paradigm" language is a very helpful one for theological interpretation taken as a whole. Theological interpretation is not a method or a paradigm but something different. "Constellation" is a term worth exploring more regarding its ability to engage multiple conversations. The focus on the community (Body of Christ as Spinks calls it elsewhere) is also spot on. Theological interpretation is done for the church, with the church, and in the church. I would like to think that Spinks and I agree on much, disagreeing mainly upon the role of historical-criticism in the "historical" part of the "constellation" of theological interpretation.

D. Christopher Spinks on Theological Interpretation

D. Christopher Spinks, a Fuller Ph.D. graduate who did his dissertation on theological interpretation, has written an article entitled "Theological Interpretation: Some Traits, A Key, and a List" for the April 2009 issue of the Methodist publication Catalyst. It is an insightful article that explains some of the essential moves informing theological interpretation.

Drawing on Francis Watson's Text and Truth Spinks points out four important "hues" that theological interpretation practices:

1. Takes the biblical text as Scripture: he posits that recognizing the theological nature of texts and their readers is the "primary factor leading to all others." A problem, however, arises when examining this recognition of the text's sacredness. Is the text sacred in itself or is it sacred because the church makes it so? He paints this question in light of a "modernism and postmodernism" dilemma.

2. Accounts for the role of faith: he argues that "the issue of faith that influences one's perspective on the biblical text is at the very center of the emergence of theological interpretation." Modernist interpretations, described as being hostile to faith, sought a sense of objectivity that faith disallowed. Postmodernism, however, has "created space" for faith- informed readings by "acknowledging the situatedness of the readers as well as the writer." Such readings have allowed "interpretive schemes" that 1) stop the assumption that God speaks unfiltered in the Bible, 2) recognize church readings do more than textual archeology, and 3) keep interpretation from giving all the authority to the reader. These schemes, while exhibiting a rising focus on theology, also keep the pursuits of history, grammar, and literature, but in a secondary role. The theological character of the texts themselves, in addition, must be recognized for proper interpretation.

3. Recalls the practices of historical interpretation: he establishes a link between the postmodern turn to "faith-ful" readings and the pre-critical readings of church history.

4. Participates in a dialogue: reading Luke 10:25-28 he interprets Jesus' "What is written in the law?" as "How do you read?" These two questions show the dialogical nature of theological interpretation that allows for disagreements and conversation. It is a "constellation of conversations striving to answer both of Jesus' questions."

My Discussion:

Spinks rightly identifies one of the crucial questions of theological interpretation as the role of faith in reading. This question is buried in the "theology" of theological interpretation. While Spinks cites a divide on how theology and exegesis should interact along modern/postmodern lines, I would like to offer a different rubric that posits four ways of seeing their interaction. The first, which fits with his modernist category, separates faith and theology out of scientific exegesis (William Wrede and Heikki Raisanen). The second is exhibited by Peter Balla who argues that one can study the theology contained within the NT without making any truth claims about that theology. This position is very similar to that of Wrede and Raisanen, however, it severely narrows its focus to the genre of "orthodox literature" contained in the canon. Such narrowing is argued for purely on a historical basis. The third method is done by most New Testament theologies today. It mixes scientific exegesis (think historical-critical paradigm) and theology in an unsystematic fashion. The benefit of this method is that it allows faithful scholars to participate in academic discussions while upholding faith commitments. The detriment is that the mixing of scientific exegesis and theology is never(?) satisfactorily justified. Historical study is kept while undermining the historical-critical method by ignoring its principles of doubt, analogy, and cause-effect relations. I call this the "historical-critical+" method - meaning "historical-criticism + God." The fourth method casts scientific exegesis overboard in pursuit of theology. Stanley Hauerwas's Matthew commentary, while not arguing for this position, is nonetheless a good example of it in exegetical form. He does not ask any text-critical questions nor is interested in moving "behind" the text. The text is what matters and its basis on historical-critical grounds is left unexplored.

Having laid out those four options, I wonder where Spinks sees theological interpretation falling? Maybe he has a paradigm I have not identified? Statements such as
From an epistemological stance, interpretation must continue to engage questions of history, grammar, culture, and the like because of the conviction that at every stage, from writing to collecting to reading, humans and their history are involved.
It is difficult, therefore, for [the] theological interpreter to deny the inevitability of the historical-critical methods long associated with 'modern' approaches to the text. To jettison modern methods completely would be as destructive to the development of theological interpretation as wholesale reliance on them.
lead me to preliminarily see him as falling under the third category. My concern with the third category is that I am unsure that it is possible to use the historical-critical method only partially. As Ernst Troeltsch is famous for pointing out, the historical-critical method is like leaven, seeping into everything it touches. I know Spinks was limited in space and such questions are beyond the purview of this article, however, this question is a major one for theological interpretation.

Can Subjectivity Be Chosen?

John Lukacs wrote a fascinating article for the the Winter 2009 Exhortation of the American Scholar entitled "Putting Man Before Descartes." In it he argues three main things: 1) the modern turn to subjectivity in history is dangerous, 2) the subject-object model of thought needs to be overturned by a participatory model, and 3) humanity should once again see itself as the center of the universe.

Despite the wide acceptance of subjectivity in scholarship as a given, Lukacs sees it as dangerous because it is "merely the obverse side of objectivism and objectivity; there is something wrong with the entire Cartesian coin, of a world divided into object and subject, because subjectivism as much as objectivism is determinist." This divided world makes subjectivism deterministic because people cannot control their perspectives. Against this idea he argues that subjectivity is not deterministic because the structure of human seeing and thinking can and must be chosen. Humanity has choice "because thinking and seeing are creative acts coming from the inside, not the outside."

For his second point he argues that subjectivism has its root in the subject-object distinction. This distinction is alive and well in both post-modernism and structuralism. Instead of thinking in subject-object terms, he argues that we need to think in personal and participatory terms. The knower is involved with the known when writing or reading history. Despite conceding that matter does exist outside of the human mind, he pushes back by pointing out that without the mind, "matter" . . . does not matter. The human mind structures matter in ways that overcome mechanistic causality. It intrudes upon the world and "complicates the very structure of events." Yet, this indeterminism introduced by the mind has also now been corroborated in science when physics examines the behavior of small particles. Science today has shown our understanding of the world isn't as settled as was once thought.

The voluntary (chosen) structuring of the world by the human mind leads him to posit as his third point that:
We must recognize, contrary to all accepted ideas, that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe, but the universe is our invention, and it is, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible.
Taking this claim even further he speculates about the human position in relation to God:
Our consciousness, our central situation in space, cannot be separated from our consciousness of time. Does it not, for example, behoove Christian believers to think that the coming of Christ to this earth may have been the central event of the universe, that the most consequential event in the entire universe occurred here, on this earth 2,000 years ago? Has the Son of God visited this earth during a tour of stars and planets, making a spectacular command performance for different audiences, arriving from some other place and—perhaps—going off to some other place?
The question that must be asked after this fascinating discussion of subjectivity in history is how it affects theological interpretation of Scripture? I will try to respond to each of his three points:
  1. I share his worry that the modern focus on subjectivity as seen in many narrative approaches to Scripture stops humanity from fighting against their determined perspectives. I wonder, however, if the choosing of perspectives is actually possible? Can one choose, by the power of their will, to "see" the narrative of Scripture as true? It seems that such change needs a power greater than human mind: the Holy Spirit. It is a question worth asking to what extent human perspectives are chosen.
  2. The participatory model of history is a helpful move for biblical interpretation away from the historical-critical paradigm. Interpretation is thereby allowed to be of and for the church without being relegated to a secondary status. While this model helps in the fight against phantom objectivity and the historical-critical method, it does not help in debates over radical textual indeterminacy. All participate in different ways and with different ends. The "object" is in danger of being overwhelmed by the "subject."
  3. His final point about humanity being the center of the universe is a theologically insightful observation. I have heard multiple pastors/theologians point to the vastness of the heavens to illustrate the glory of God. Lukacs gives a helpful inverse lens to this position by pointing out that despite the vastness of the universe, God has become incarnate on earth within the past 2,000 years. Time and God seem to be centered around humanity. While the danger of this observation is to make God centered on humanity, the benefit is to point out the importance of humanity to God in that God chose to interact with us here and now. Christians would additionally point to our being created in the image of God as part of why history is centered here.
While Lukacs does not offer the definitive view of history for theological interpretation, he is a helpful dialogue partner where a Christian view of history is being developed.

Update on Kevin Vanhoozer to Wheaton

Dr. Vanhoozer has graciously posted in the comments to my last post to inform us that he is going to keep mentoring his current students until they finish their program at Trinity - the "Golden Rule put into higher education." I need to apologize for assuming that professors were unable to do this when they left a school. My assumption was in no way directed at Dr. Vanhoozer personally, I just thought such a thing was not possible. I think it is wonderful that he has made the commitment to keep his Trinity students while at Wheaton - it does show great dedication to his students. I would also like to thank Dr. Vanhoozer for the update and wish him blessings at Wheaton! I am very looking forward to his upcoming Remythologizing Theology and Brazos commentary on Jeremiah.

Kevin Vanhoozer to Wheaton

Phew! That is all I can say right now. I just heard that Kevin Vanhoozer is leaving Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and becoming the Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College and Graduate School. The reason this particular bit of news is hitting me hard is because I almost decided to go to Trinity mainly to study with Dr. Vanhoozer. In the end, I made the (right) decision to go to Fuller and study with Joel Green, but at the time, the decision was not as obvious as it is now.

If I had gone to Trinity and this happened out of the blue (he gave me no indication it was a possibility when I spoke with him about a year ago), I would be in a world of hurt right now. My main mentor would have left, leaving me with few other theologians interested specifically in my field at Trinity. I also would have lost the respectability that comes with being one of his students. All of that combined would have made for a tough few years. I really do have to thank the Lord (literally, I have already prayed and will continue to do so) that he led (some won't like that word) me in the decision to come here to Fuller. Joel has been a wonderful mentor, surpassing all of my expectations. I am learning a ton and being pushed to succeed.

What does this move mean for Wheaton and Trinity? First, it is an absolutely huge loss for Trinity. Vanhoozer was sort of an ace-in-the-hole for them that gave them academic respectability with the broader academic world. Now, I for one think that many people at Trinity do fine work, but their "street cred" with the academic world has been severely hurt by this move.

For Wheaton this is a wonderful pickup. Their Ph.D. program is actually in Biblical and Theological Studies, making this a wonderful for both Vanhoozer and Wheaton. Vanohoozer also gets to work with one of his students, Daniel Treier. While Vanhoozer was at Trinity, Treier was the main voice at Wheaton for theological interpretation. I wonder if having Vanhoozer around will overshadow him? Nonetheless, Wheaton's theology department, with this pickup, has become a major player in the theological interpretation of Scripture. If only one could combine Wheaton's theology faculty with Fuller's New Testament faculty - then one would have a great school for the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Update: See Dr. Vanhoozer's response in the comments section. He will stay as the mentor for his current students, something which I am sure they all greatly appreciate. It is great to see a scholar care for his students.

Book Review Rating

I figured if I am going to be reviewing books, I had better come up with a rating system. Stars seemed to impersonal and boring.

Read this! - this is the highest recommendation I can give. If you don't read this, you are missing out on something epic.

Highly recommended - you will survive if you don't read this, but your life will be less enjoyable.

Recommended - If you enjoy reading, you should read this book. If not, go fishing.

Read this or not - it doesn't matter - If you like books of this sort, it's not the worst.

Waste of your time - If you like books like this - don't. Read all the books in Read this! and Highly recommended then try again.

Book Review: Little Brother

My most recent foray into literature has been Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. It is a book geared toward teenagers yet engaging enough for adults. The title is an allusion to Orwell's famous dystopian 1984 - an allusion made even clearer by the nature of the book.

Set in scarily realistic San Francisco (presumably a few years into the future as shown by the reference of Xbox Universal, a free-for-the-taking console whose purpose is to encourage people to buy games), Little Brother details a 17-year old's struggle against an oppressive Department of Homeland Security (DHS). After the Bay Bridge had been blown up by terrorists, Marcus Yallow and three of his friends are detained for days and eventually released under the threat of further action if they tell their story to the press. The plot progresses from there as Marcus develops ways to undermine the DHS while developing new friendships, breaking old ones, and ruminating on the meaning of freedom and security.

One unique aspect to this book is that it gives a fascinating look into hacker culture. It even has afterwards by famous hackers endorsing the book and its author. While some of its explanations of hacking are simplistic, others, such as its description of cryptography, are insightful to the non-specialist. After reading it one can't help but pay more attention to the monitoring and security all around.

The book also does not shy away from making obvious allusions to contemporary political events. Waterboarding, surreptitious extradition of prisoners, and racial profiling are all made to look evil within the narrative. Airport security, police checkpoints, and the electronic flagging of suspicious people are silly and ineffective means of deterring terrorists. The crusading investigative journalist and the UCLA are heroes in the story. Anyone in authority ("Don't trust anyone over 25!") is seen as cherishing safety over freedom and being complacent and complicit in oppression. Aside from some obvious aggrandizing, the story does make one consider at length the trade off between freedom and safety. The book gives no clear answers (it in fact admits to not having answers) but it weighs in heavily by narratively arguing that we should error on the side of freedom. Whatever one's position on these issues, the book is worth reading for making us, for a long period of time, consider how we would want our government to act in a similar situation. It would be worth reading for that alone.

I do have a few criticisms. The book gets preachy at times (attacks on Foxnews, the war in Iraq, and authority in general). It also lionizes hippies of the 60's and 70's in terms that are too rosy to be realistic. On the Road and the Declaration of Independence are the two most cited works. Also, there are some odd plot movements. Marcus' friends, whom we are introduced to early on, disappear without much explanation. A different girl squeezes in with just as little. There is also a sexual component that makes one feel as if the author has watched a few too many teen dramas. The style is enjoyable but nothing beautiful. Language is used well, not masterfully.

The final question is whether this book should take its desired place as a successor to 1984. In this aspect, "Little" is surely the correct adjective for the title. Orwell creates a world where the government "creates" reality on a whim, controlling minds and wills at its leisure. That government is truly terrifying. Doctorow's oppressive government does seem to be the "little brother" to Orwell's. Orwell allows hope to bloom throughout the book only to be crushed under the weight of the omniscient government. Doctorow, however, allows hope to bloom and reach fruition. 1984 is truly scary; Little Brother is unsettling. While Little Brother loses in both the grandness of the story and its literary quality, it does win in contemporary realism. 1984 loses some power because it seems so removed from current life; Little Brother gains power because it seems possible. Therefore, while Little Brother will not overtake 1984 on lists of great literature, it helpfully modernizes, plausibilzes, and technologizes the danger of oppressive governments.

I give it a "highly recommended" because it narratively forces us into deep engagement with extremely important and relevant issues. At the same time it is a fun read that makes one glad to have learned and enjoyed at the same time.