Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book written by an engineer for engineers. I’m not an engineer. But I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy reading this one. I needed a beach book for my week in Michigan, and when this book appeared on the shelf (as books are wont to do on my wife’s side of the bookcase), I grabbed it. I had seen one of my honors students (an engineer) reading it and had read this fantastic quip on XKCD. And then I saw the movie trailer (which looks AWESOME), so that helped me finally jump on the bandwagon. (And I know this is a departure from my resolution to read fiction by minority authors, but– BEACH.)

Be advised, this is a book by an engineer written for engineers. Did I already say that? It is compelling. The idea is simple and devastating: in the near and pretty believable future, manned missions to Mars are a reality and as gritty and physical and dangerous as an actual mission to Mars would be. On one of these missions, an astronaut gets left behind, assumed dead. It turns out he’s not, and he has to figure out how to survive on Mars, NASA has to figure out what happened and what they can do to fix it, and the crew of his ship have to figure out whether they follow NASA’s lead or mutiny and risk their own lives to save him.

Most of the story was told in the form of journal entries made by the marooned astronaut, Mark Watney, during his time on the surface. Here’s where the whole thing at times felt like a long, science fiction McGyver episode. Mark explains in detail how he’ll provide water and oxygen for himself, how he’ll grow food, and how he’ll get around on the surface. These are gripping details for a few chapters, but they can’t keep a reader’s interest– even one who appreciates the thought and detail the author put into keeping this grounded in reality– forever. Mark himself is a sort of Everyman, competent, foul-mouthed, and with a dry sense of humor. His ordinariness at times though, in spite his incredible technical competence, seems hollow. Not once, for instance, do we find Mark describing the view of Mars out his hab suite windows or reflecting on the nature of his dilemma with anything other than a superficial “do or die” mentality. But then again, what are the chances NASA would be sending a philosopher into space?

Luckily, Weir– himself a software engineer– realizes that stories don’t work without people and that it’s going to be difficult to build suspense about whether Mark lives or dies with him reporting in at the end of each day. So the narrative switches up a few times and we get a glimpse into the lives of the people back on Earth working to send supplies to keep Mark alive and ultimately his shipmates as they learn his fate and decide what they need to do to save him (as well as occasionally some God’s-eye-view narrative of the lives of inanimate equipment parts and geological features about to fail, which oddly enough functions quite well to build suspense).

This is where the actual drama comes in, and for me the most exciting parts of the novel were where the crew of the Hermes had to wrestle with what it might cost them to return to Mars to save Mark. And this– the dynamics between crew members on a months-long voyage and the cost of rescue– is what I hope the upcoming movie plays up. This was the pivot-point of the novel, and it was enough pull to get me as a reader over the hump and into the second part of the book, which chronicles Mark again and all the technical challenges of piloting a rover across a good portion of Mars to arrive at the appropriate rondevouz point and make an orbital-return component capable to escape velocity.

Lots of science here. In fact, Mark’s not really the hero of the story so much as science is. Science, Weir is saying, can pretty much solve anything if we’re plucky enough to keep trying and make the sacrifices required. (He also says something about it being the nature of humans to want to help each other, which is quoted pretty much verbatim in the movie trailer.) Besides the scientific triumphalism (which SPOILER dictates how the book will end– there’s never any real question of Mark’s survival), he deftly sidesteps any deeper questions, such as whether there’s an appropriate cost for saving a single human life or whether humans belong on places like Mars at all. No sir, this is a book about engineering. But I have to admit a book that raises philosophical questions without addressing can be fine in its own right. Sometimes it’s okay to simply present the problem in a clear-eyed fashion and leave it to the reader to puzzle through like Mark had to puzzle through the reality of Mars.

It is a fun, compelling, riveting book, but it ultimately felt unfulfilling for me because the pieces that made it tick– the people, and particularly the crew of the Hermes— never got closure. That is, we learn Mark’s fate but we don’t any view of his reunions with the people who saved his life. That would all be a compelling follow-up novel: call it The Earthling. It could show Mark’s life returned as the most famous human on the planet and him interacting with the people who contributed to his rescue as well as his return voyage to Earth with his crew (as well as the implied hook-up with Mindy, the NASA worker who contributed to his recovery and about whom I can only assume there’s an in-joke here regarding “Mork and Mindy” with Weir’s proclivity for 70s television). But the book is still tight and cogent leaving all that up in the air, especially as messy inter-personal stuff like that would take the focus off the science.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One (completely inappropriate) way to read this book is as a zombie book. It’s a book about Patient Zero and the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. In fairness to this theory, it has several of the expected elements: the cataclysmic ending and the struggle for survival, the setting in the hot, thick swamps of south Florida, in the midst of the drama the fateful but at the time apparently minor bite, the strange symptoms, the descent into rage, and the possible spread of the infection. In this (absolutely incorrect) interpretation, Janie does not survive the fate of her husband Tea Cake; she carries the infection back with her to the village they left behind and the true horror begins after the book’s conclusion.

But that’s of course absolutely not what this book is about. I don’t think Zora Neale Hurston had zombies in mind when she wrote in the late 1930s. And even though rabies makes a brief and horrific appearance, Hurston isn’t that interested in exploring the terror of this infection (likely the inspiration for lots of zombie and zombie spin-off stories). Instead it’s simply the melancholy end of what for the novel’s main character has been a life of deferred hopes and frustrated imaginings.

Janie is a black girl living in Florida in the early days of the twentieth century. Her grandmother still remembers when the slaves were freed. But the book isn’t about the relationship between races as much as it is the relationship between blacks. The longest discussion on race that takes place in the book is a dialogue Janie has with a black woman who is prejudice against the more “negroid” members of their own people “holding them back” from integration with white society.

Janie’s world is a world on the periphery though, and that periphery is defined by race. Her childhood begins with being raised with white children and only learning to her surprise that she was black, at which point society dictates separation. Her second husband rises to power as the mayor of an all-black community and spends his life trying to create a society that mirrors white society, a separate community in the Florida wastes on the fringes but with all the trappings of a commercial white city: a thriving store and a large house, street lights, industry. To do so though he must constantly clamp down on the traditional black culture that keeps cropping up like a weed, to his frustration and Janie’s growing alienation.

Finally, Janie finds herself and her third husband on the absolute fringes, working cane fields at the edges of the Everglades, the “Muck,” staying over seasons while migrant workers come and go. It’s in this society though, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures only an anthropologist could sort out (and this is exactly what Hurston was), that Janie finds the joy and freedom she never had before. Ultimately though, the racial lines are drawn most sharply in the final scenes, when Janie stands trial for her third husband’s fate.

The thread that weaves this all together is Janie herself: a woman who is searching for freedom. She wakes to herself beneath a pear tree (the cover of this edition and perhaps the most iconic scene of the book). She’s married off by her grandmother to a gruff old farmer and then runs away with a man who evolves into a small-town dictator. She finally finds the freedom she’s looking for in Tea Cake, with whom she shares years at the dizzy edge of existence before it’s turned upside down by a hurricane and a bite from a rabid dog.

It was an easy book to read, but it felt dated. I felt that Hurston went a bit too easy on me. That is, I was set up for the difficult twists and turns Janie would experience, and she does, but it’s all told in a sedate, matter-of-fact way. Even the eventual fate of Tea Cake, which in a modern book it seems would be full of riveting, harrowing detail, seems softened, like we’re with Janie remembering back on this years later now that the details have been blurred by time.

The language was stunning throughout. This was especially effective juxtaposed with Hurston’s dialogue. Her characters speak in thick Floridian accents (or what I have to imagine are Floridian accents), and she writes this out phonetically so that it actually takes a bit of getting used to to read what her characters are saying. But it means you know how they’re saying it. And her narration throughout is luminous. There are expressions that catch you with their beauty in the same way that Janie wakened to life beneath the pear tree.

A Century of Holiness Theology

A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004 by Mark R. Quanstrom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in a denomination that defined (and continues to define) itself by a single point of doctrine: entire sanctification. It’s a term you know if you’re a Nazarene, and if you were raised Nazarene (like I was), it’s a term you spent a good deal of your childhood and teenage years trying to puzzle out. For a certain generation, entire sanctification was something that happened after you were saved, a “second act of grace” by which the Holy Spirit filled you completely and you were cleansed of sin and entirely devoted to God. For others (generally in a younger generation) it was a crisis point at which you fully dedicated yourself to God and began a lifelong process (that may have started at the same point at which you were saved) of committing yourself and living a holy life. Whatever it was, it sounded wildly exciting, exuberantly optimistic, and incredibly confusing.

I’m not a Nazarene anymore, and it wasn’t the idea of holiness or sanctity– the idea that one could and should and that certain people even did live a holy life before God– that drove me out. Indeed, I don’t think I was driven out at all, and I still have a great love and even a lot of like for the denomination. I believe there’s a place for people who appreciate, respect, and understand the Nazarene heritage working in and serving the Nazarene world. (Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am doing what I’m doing.)

But the doctrine of entire sanctification is still confusing. Poll a dozen Nazarenes as to what exactly this means and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. And what I learned reading Mark Quanstrom’s excellent historical survey of the doctrine is that there’s a reason for this. Quanstrom’s work does what the best historical studies should: it gets at the primary sources to provide an insightful narrative, and in this case a narrative that resonates with me and explains a lot of the reason I was at times confused regarding my own church’s doctrine growing up. The work is not a philosophical polemic (Quanstrom lets the documents speak for themselves), nor is it a systematic theological exposition (though my own background in the church helps, as I already in some sense speak the language). I’m not sure how accessible it would be to someone with no background or relationship to the denomination.

Quanstrom starts by laying the historical groundwork for the church’s formation, which I only patchily remembered from my days reading missionary books and studying up for my Caravan badges. (I’m sure I would have gotten more of this had I been a religion major at a Nazarene college.) The point is that the Church of the Nazarene grew from an assortment of groups with one common belief: sanctification as a second act of grace subsequent to the initial salvation experience. Drawing on his sources (which includes texts as varied as General Assembly reports and addresses, evolving Articles of Faith in the Church Manual, and books that were at one time or another on the list of recommended reading for those studying to be ordained in the Nazarene church) Quanstrom clearly shows that the early Nazarene church– an assembly of several disparate holiness movements– was unified in the early decades of the 1900s about the distinct, instantaneous second crisis event called sanctification that cleansed the Christian from inbred sin.

By the 1960s, however, the denomination had to face a loss of optimism of what this second act would actually accomplish– coming to grips with the depth of the sinfulness of humanity, especially in the lost of confidence that led to the Second World War. First, holiness theologians spent some time refining their definitions of exactly what was cleansed in sanctification and differentiating between actual sin (forgiven when a person was saved), the fallen sinful nature (cured via sanctification), and infirmity (never fixed during this lifetime). Then with an important book by the Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop in early 1970s and scholars beginning to go back to John Wesley’s original writings, there developed an understanding of holiness (as well as sin) that was more relational and less ontological. This viewed sanctification as more of a process and put more emphasis on the initial act of grace. Opponents of this view felt it watered down the original meaning of holiness, the doctrine for which the denomination came into being in the first place. Quanstrom says in his study that the church is still in the position of having an official position that rests in an uneasy tension between these two rather irreconcilable positions.

This probably won’t be a page-turner for many people out there (though the writing was lucid and easy to follow), but I honestly found it incredibly compelling. It helped me place a lot of the things I had learned and the cognitive dissonance I experienced learning them into a historical context. And by doing this and by bringing external factors to light that were impacting theological developments in the denomination, it gave me a deeper understanding of the community in which I continue to live and work.