Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also RisesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribner, 1926. 251 pp)

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899, Ernest Hemingway began writing in 1917 for The Kansas City Star. He served as an ambulance driver during World War I and moved to Paris in 1921. While in Europe, Hemingway associated with a group of notable expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford. Noted for his terse prose, Hemingway’s fiction won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and his work, The Old Man and the Sea, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. He died in Ketchum, Idaho on July 2, 1961.

The Frailty of Human Relationships

It is said, “You will only maintain one friendship from high school.” I was convinced that I could buck that trend. With a small graduating class and a tight-knit group of friends, it seemed impossible that I would lose them all. But I did.

Of course, I must mention that I am friends with the people I knew in high school, just not the people with whom I attended high school.

Through unseen circumstances, the close friendships held in high school morphed into acquaintances. I have no hard feelings regarding how the relationships transformed but, because of them, I have learned about the frailty of human relationships.

My friendship history renders the plot of The Sun Also Rises in realistic colors. Acting as my first expedition into the works of Hemingway, I enjoyed the restrained writing and the realistic portrayal of relationships falling apart in this book.

Set in post-World-War-I Europe, Jakes Barnes, our protagonist, and a group of expatriates enjoy the licentious lifestyle of Parisian nightlife, fishing, Spanish fiestas, and bullfighting. With Hemingway’s understated descriptions, the scenes take a life of their own as the reader fills in the space with his or her interpretations.

When Vacations Attack

As the group of friends spends time together, the mutual affections of the men for their friend, Lady Brett Ashley, transform a vacation in Spain to a war of words. Hemingway’s characters jab each other:

“Good. Coffee is good for you. It’s the caffeine in it. Caffeine, we are here. Caffeine puts a man on her horse and a woman in his grave. You know what’s the trouble with you? You’re an expatriate. One of the worst type. Haven’t you heard that? Nobody that ever left their own country ever wrote anything worth printing. Not even in the newspapers” (120).

Ultimately, licentiousness and jealousy break apart the group. Referring to Barnes’ joy to be free of the drama, Hemingway writes,

“It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable quantities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France” (237).

An Autobiographical Novel

Based on real events, The Sun Also Rises feels autobiographical. Where many novels seek to portray life in its grandeur, Hemingway exhibits reality through simplicity. The plot feels real because it was real. Each character not only encounters pain and regret, but also looks forward, believing in a hope that a post-World-War-I society offers opportunity and growth for all.

Just like the demise of my high school peer group, The Sun Also Rises exhibits the frailty of human relationships and the inevitability of change. Yet, my life continues and flourishes as I meet new people and grow vocationally and professionally. Likewise, The Sun Also Rises offers hope that despite the deterioration of relationships, life continues in an upward slope. I enjoyed this book and I see why Hemingway is worth reading. If you have yet to read, The Sun Also Rises, I recommend that you put it on your “To Be Read” list.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Television Show Review: The Office

The Office: Season Seven
The Office: Season 7 created by Greg Daniels, Ricky Gervais, and Stephen Merchant (Reveille Productions, NBC Universal Telecom, and Deedle-Dee Productions)

Starring Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Steve Carell.

Jumping the Shark

When Fonzie literally jumped over a shark on water skis in the premier of Happy Days: Season 5, a new idiom was born. Signifying the moment when a television show moves beyond the signature characteristics that made it a hit, jumping the shark occurs in every television series if the station allows the show to air long enough.

While some shows choose to end early in order to maintain creative integrity, other shows increase a character’s unique traits in order to capture the laughter of a receding audience. As these characters interact in larger and more absurd ways, the subtle traits that produced a compelling character transform into gross caricatures.

Michael Scott

Although the employees of Dunder Mifflin have long since bloated into caricatures of their former selves (Dwight Schrute [Rainn Wilson] has always been an odd ball, but further accenting his beet farming tendencies over the years offers but one example of my point), the enduring leadership of Michael Scott (Steve Carell) kept this franchise afloat.

Thus, I must admit, hearing the news of Steve Carell’s impending exit from the show before the season started left me in a sour mood. Yet, writing Michael Scott’s departure into season 7 provided viewers with the opportunity to see the writers round back into form.

During this season, most episodes felt genuine and purposeful. The humor surrounding Michael’s storyline supplied bountiful awkward situations and the final destination gave viewers a chance to celebrate a character they loved to hate and hated to love.

In the end, Michael Scott’s last episode provided the perfect bookend to The Office. In fact, I try to reason in my mind that his final lines as he hands over the microphone to the camera crew acted as the end of The Office as we know it. Had “Goodbye, Michael” been the series finale, it would have rated highly amongst the all-time great finales.

Plodding Onward

Sadly, season 7 was more than Michael’s departure. With NBC’s struggles evident to all men, women, children, and pets, it is clear that an executive somewhere found pulling the plug on one of NBC’s few successful shows to be a hazardous option.

And so season 7 paves the way for a post-Michael Dunder Mifflin. Despite the chemistry that remains between characters, a Steve-Carell-less Office is no longer The Office. The few episodes that ran after “Goodbye, Michael” contained some laughs but lacked the endearing qualities Michael Scott provides.

7 seasons of any show is an accomplishment. An 8th season without the core character seems like a mountain in need of hurdling. Can the writers do it? Perhaps. But it seems best for me to consider The Office ending with the departure of Steve Carell. Everything after jumped the shark. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: God the Economist

God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political EconomyGod the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy by M. Douglas Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989. 272 pp.)

Currently the Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies and Theology at Vanderbilt University, M. Douglas Meeks is a renowned researcher on the relation of Christian doctrine to economic, social, and political theory. Dr. Meeks earned both his B.D. and Ph.D. from Duke University and studied as a Fulbright Fellow at Tübingen University. In his previous appointment, he served as the dean and professor of systematic theology at Wesley Theological Seminary. Dr. Meeks has authored 16 books and numerous scholarly articles. He is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church serving as the Director of Wesleyan Studies and the United Methodist Programs.

A Global Community

With the world flattening as Thomas Friedman so famously noted, it is becoming increasingly easy to make relational connections with the worldwide community. Where in the past, the culture of foreign lands seemed distant and, well, foreign, current urban centers amalgamate a myriad of cultures. In other words, the modern age illustrates the ease in which citizens throughout the world can consider the globe as a community.

Yet, business often operates under individualistic principles. Functioning under the theory of self-interest, many companies seek to further their interests only. Is there a theological case to be made for or against these current business practices? In his book, God the Economist, M. Douglas Meeks argues against the current marketplace practices and proposes a dramatic redefinition of “economy.”

Economist Etymology

The premise behind God the Economist is an etymological study of the word “economy.” Current conceptions of the economy conjure visions of a global marketplace and transnational transactions. But, where does the word “economy” come from? Citing the etymology of the word, M. Douglas Meeks suggests that “economy” should be understood through its Greek roots, oikos and nomos or “household” and “rule or law”.

In other words, the source of the term “economy” comes from the word for the household manager. In Greco-Roman times, commerce functioned between households, not companies; the family managed the business, and the marketplace existed as a portion of familial life.

In contrast, current cultural norms bifurcate work life and home life. Given the ancient term defining the economist as household manager, Meeks offers God the Economist as a new metaphor for God. He writes,

“Many of the biblical traditions represent God as engaged in creating, sustaining, and recreating households. Household can refer to the people Israel of the church of Jesus Christ, to families to a royal court or dynasty, to a place of God’s abode, or, in the most comprehensive sense, to the whole creation. God has made Godself responsible for the households of Israel and the church, the households of nations, and the household of everything God has brought into being. The oikonomia tou theo (economy of God) applies to the life of the Christian community (Col. 1:25; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 3:2; 1 Tim. 1:4) as well as to God’s work of creating salvation for the household of the creation (Eph. 1:9-10; 3:9-10). Because of the peculiar promises made by this God, the life of God is inextricably connected with the livelihood and future of these households” (4).

Stated differently, although the modern conception of economy functions remarkably well, it neglects the comprehensive and communal meaning behind the economy – managing the household. This metaphor for God argues for the importance of human livelihood, the significance of a household community above profit.

 The Household Economy as Community

Considering the household community ethic with God understood as an economist, Meeks asserts that the economy ought to perform a transformative task writing,

“it can be said that a theological correlation of the God of Jesus Christ and economy should take place in the midst of and for the sake of those who have been denied access to the household in our society and to the global household” (42-43). 

The economy ought not function as a means to ascertain personal needs; it exists as a global household where economics functions as a way in which we relate to each other and serve the poor in order to transform all of society.

The Importance of Service

As the etymology of “economist” suggests, the term defined the household servant in antiquity. The ancient economist served the interests of the household community and entered the marketplace with the household in mind.

Since Scripture frequently mentions the servant-nature of God (see 1 Cor. 1:20-32 and Matt. 6:33 among many others), it is natural to view God as the household economist who acts for the common good of the household.

Arguments Against a Self-Interested Marketplace

What does it mean, however, for businesses to elevate community above profit? Meeks contends that a dramatic shifting of the marketplace must occur.

Currently, markets function under the capitalist assumptions of Adam Smith. With an ethical system based in egoistic consequentialism, business practitioners versed in Adam Smith’s theories trade under the principles of self-interest. In other words, self-interest moderates the marketplace and increases efficiency as everyone produces goods and services at a comparative advantage.

This theory, however, is exceedingly individualistic. By nature, the person in the marketplace looks after her interests and expects everyone else to do the same. In this rubric, it is quite easy for individuals to receive the proverbial short end of the stick.

Growth for Self or Growth for Others

Stated differently, current business practices function on the principle of exchange. With scarce resources, people in the marketplace seek to exchange goods and services in order to maximize individual gain. Under this assumption, modern economists believe that exchange will foster growth for citizens worldwide.

From the perspective of a household economy, unlimited growth is not the ultimate goal. Meeks writes,

“Growth should not be based on infinite needs and acquisition leading to an ever-widening appropriation of nature for the sake of accumulation of wealth as power. Rather growth should be a deepening of human capacities for the service of human development within community” (57).

Again, the critical argument Meeks presents is grounded in the value of the household community in the market place. By inference, the individual exists for the purpose of community, not individuality.

Reconstructing Business as a Household

While God the Economist discusses the Christian principles for rethinking the definition of economy and critiques the modern conception of the marketplace, it does very little reconstruction. However, the principles in the book offer a foundation for Christian-based business operations in the current market.  

First, Christians in business must reconsider the classical view of Capitalism presented by Adam Smith. Despite the success of the self-interest system in the marketplace, its individualistic outlook on life makes the creation of community problematic.

Second, the metaphor of God as an economist presents God as a servant leader. Just as the ancient household manager performed business operations with the household in mind, so too does God serve the needs of the global household.

As a Christian in the marketplace, the principle of service is necessary in order to maximize the usefulness of profits for others. The marketplace ought to function for the good of everyone. Thus, as it becomes increasingly easy to connect with the globe, the notion of serving the worldwide community will become more important. For these reasons, I recommend this book!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Aimee Bender'sThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel (Hardcover)(2010)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (New York: Doubleday, 2010. 304 pp.)

Author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a New York Times Notable Book; An Invisible Sign of My Own, an L.A. Times pick of the year; and Willful Creatures, Aimee Bender lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, won the SCIBA award for best fiction and an Alex Award. Her short fiction has been printed in many publications allowing her to receive two Puschart prizes.

A Case for Food and Family

Food is one of the most basic needs for human beings, the symbol of community, and an opportunity for aesthetic and gastronomic excellence. Food is the central ingredient at the dinner table and, by default, the reason around community. When I think of the qualities that define a nuclear family, the dinner table comes to mind.

At the table, a family connects; it recaps the day; and it nurtures healthy relationships. Of course, such musings offer a romanticized view regarding the meaning of a family dinner. Perhaps, some families find more meaning in TV dinners and hectic schedules, but the occasional family dinner seems to carry significance.

Tasting Emotion

What would happen, though, if the perfectly cooked meal betrayed the secrets a parent tirelessly works to conceal. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender ponders this very scenario. Bringing the magical realism of José Saramago and Gabriel García Márquez to popular fiction, the author’s book is as accessible as it is fantastical.

The tome’s protagonist, Rose Edelstein, realizes at a young age that she can taste the emotions of the people who have prepared her food. As such, both family dinners and school lunches become almost unbearable.

Bender illustrates Rose’s budding tastes:

“But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down…” (9-10).

Where food functions somewhere on the spectrum between a necessary utility and fine art form for most people, Rose suffers under the weight of secrets no child should be expected to bear.

“Truth was, it was hard to see George eat those cookie halves without hesitation. Without tasting even a speck of the hurry in Janet’s oatmeal, which was so rushed it was like eating the calendar of an executive, or without catching a glimpse of the punching bag tucked beside every chocolate chip” (64).

Not only does Rose encounter the feelings of those preparing the food, she is able to distinguish between the factories that process and regions that grow the food.

A Family Affair

Coupled with this sixth sense in the narrative is Rose’s complicated relationship with her older brother, Joseph. Blessed with intelligence beyond his years, Joseph prefers the comfort of his room to conversation and community of any kind save his one friend, the aforementioned George.

As the story unfolds and Rose grows up, the family secrets that tortured her grow into surrealistic symbols of a family, perfect on the outside, but cracked on the inside.

The Particular Sadness of this Book

Although Bender writes from an excellent premise, I find The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake to be flawed. First, the purpose of magical realism is to critique systems, institutions, culture, and/or relationships. In this story, the fantastical portions do not serve any greater social commentary than to remind the reader that family life is difficult.

Second, the book ends much too quickly. With quick chapters and 300 pages, Bender is unable to create much depth in the characters. With the twist she creates at the end of the narrative, the book really needed a microscopic examination of the characters.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender focuses on the importance of food in uniting a family. By imagining a character with a unique sense of tasting other’s emotions, the author manufactures an entertaining read much more accessible than other authors in the magical realism category. If you enjoy the genre and are looking for an easy read, I recommend this book. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Album Review: Build a Rocket Boys

Build a Rocket Boys!Build a Rocket Boys by Elbow (Downtown/Cooperative Music, 2011. 52 minutes)

Formed in 1990 in Manchester, England, Elbow is a successful British rock band. The band is comprised of Guy Garvey (lead vocals), Mark Potter (guitar), Craig Potter (keyboards), Peter Turner (bass), and Richard Jupp (drums). Although Elbow has released 5 albums in their career, The Seldom Seen Kid received the most notoriety after Elbow won the 2008 Mercury Music Prize. Build a Rocket Boys is Elbow’s latest release.

Looking Back

While I am still considered young, I've spent enough time on earth to have memories both of joy and regret. Looking back at the route my life encountered, my memories flicker like a vintage slideshow. No matter the circumstantial drama that inhibited my joy, the filters in my mind’s eye soften these images. In a way, some of my simplest memories slip into poetic imagery.

In a similar way, Elbow’s latest record, Build a Rocket Boys, finds lyricist Guy Garvey painting evocative pictures of his youth. The record centers on themes of childhood, looking back through the memory with rose-colored glasses, and remembering what it meant to be young.

To The Music

The album begins with “The Birds,” an infectious tune anchored by a unique chord progression on the piano.
Garvey sings,

“The birds / Are the keepers of our Secret / As they saw us where we lay / In the deepest grass of springtime / In a reckless guilty haze”

Citing this memory from “bird’s eye view”, the album begins by pointing the listener to an introspective position. Musically, as the tune builds, the band links multiple sections together into a final chorus of sound.

The record continues with “Lippy Kids.” As a delayed keyboard rhythmically echoes the piano melody, Garvey mimics the notes as he sings:

“Lippy kids on the corner again / Lippy kids on the corner begin settling like crows / Though I never perfected the simian stroll / The cigarette senate was everything then / Do they know those days are golden / Build a rocket boys”

As if in lamentation, Garvey urges these burnouts to make something of their life. These kids have unlimited potential and could do much more than “hanging out.”

Vocals Meet Piano

Additionally, this song exhibits Garvey’s trend throughout the album to follow the piano chords and melodies. It is pretty clear that Elbow’s creative process for vocal melodies begins with a piano. Considering that I begin in the same spot, I can’t fault the band for writing piano-based melodies. It is curious, however, that the band kept the piano melodies in the mix as if they exist as a crutch helping Garvey sing the proper notes.

Better Days

On top of framing the songs through memories of youth, Garvey expresses a desire to go back to those simpler days. Almost as if his current life is a prodigal son compared to the way things were, he sings in “Open Arms,”

“Tables are for pounding here / And when we’ve got you surrounded / The man you are will know the man you were / And you’re not the man who fell to Earth / You’re the man of La Mancha / But we’ve love enough to light the street / Cause everybody’s here / We’ve got open arms for broken hearts / Like yours my boy / Come home again”

Ultimately, the plea to “come home again” thematically dominates this record.

Build a Rocket Boys presents some excellent songs. On top of the ones already mentioned, “Neat Little Rows,” “The Night Will Always Win,” and “The River” highlight the best of this record.

A Complicated Version of Coldplay

While the musicianship on the album is not highly technical, the composition and production of Build a Rocket Boys offers the listener countless intricacies as listens mount. With unique chord progressions and full-sounding instrumentation, Elbow’s sound resembles a more complicated version of Coldplay and supports the thematic elements of the record nicely.

Just as my memories flicker in positive-filtered hue, Build a Rocket Boys reminds me of the way things were, the way I wished things would be, and, ultimately, the way life was and is good. If you are a fan of “Brit-pop” or just like well-crafted tunes, I recommend this album.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew AmericaHot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America

By Thomas L. Friedman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 448 pp.)

A prominent author, reporter, and columnist, Thomas L. Friedman has worked for The New York Times since 1981. During his time with the paper, Friedman has won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and published five best-selling books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem and The World Is Flat.

Who Will Cut the Last Tree?

Putting on my 20-20 hindsight glasses, a quick survey concerning the downfall of ancient empires seems to be closely connected with an overextension of resources.

In a classic example, the Rapa Nui people deforested Easter Island to build villages and the moai, the world-famous monolithic statues erected around the island. Who cut down the last tree? Did that person know he or she dealt the final and fatal blow?

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman suggests that civilization faces a similar scenario: the proverbial trees are dwindling and we face the ultimatum of rethinking the way business does business or continue to outstrip the land of its resources.


As the title suggests, Friedman argues that the world is becoming hot, flat, and crowded.

Aligning more or less with the consensus of scientific research, Friedman views global warming as a clear and present danger to society as a whole. Of course, writing first and foremost as a journalist, Friedman spends little time making a scientific case for global warming. His position, in short, states that the scientists confirm its veracity, so this event will likely occur. For this reason, Friedman condemns the global addiction to fossil fuel.

Flat and Crowded

The flat and crowded sections, however, display Friedman in his finest form. Expressing similar sentiments to those stated in his groundbreaking book, The World Is Flat, Friedman continues relating the many ways in which civilization today functions on a more level playing field.

As depicted in the emergence of China, India, and Brazil, the flattening factor is creating a crowding affect. 
Friedman writes,
“The biggest upside is that globalization is bringing more people out of poverty faster than ever before in the history of the world. The biggest downside is that in raising standards of living, globalization is making possible much higher levels of production and consumption by many more people. That’s flat meeting crowded” (147).
In other words, while globalization offers the best opportunity to eradicate poverty, it also creates more consumers and, consequently, more carbon emissions and pollution.

The Green Revolution

Friedman proposes, then, that a green revolution offers the only answer to this global conundrum.

With evidence increasingly pointing toward the profitability of sustainable business practices (see Ray C. Anderson’s book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist), Friedman views renewable energy and biodegradable products as the industry of the future. If achieved, the green revolution would continue at a global level to lift the poor out of poverty while simultaneously permitting the developed world to continue its consumption.

Friedman concludes the book with a challenge. Observing the significant economic, albeit polluted, growth of China, he suggests that competing with this country can supply the United States with the proper incentive to become the first mover in the green revolution.

If the United States proves that sustainable practices win in both economic and environmental terms, China will be compelled to follow. With two global powers operating with environmental priorities, the rest of the globe will fall in line.

Dominion: Domination or Stewardship?

In the dominant Christian worldview, creation is viewed as a gift of God given to humanity. Genesis 1:26 proclaims, “Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

What does it mean to have dominion over the earth? Too often, Christians wrongly interpret dominion to mean absolute authority over the use of creation. Bolstered by this ethic, then, leaders of the industrial revolution acted as if humanity’s dominion over the earth equaled dominance of the earth.

In truth, there is no such thing as an endless resource and Easter Island offers a grim illustration of the repercussions resulting from depleting resources beyond repair.

Nature sustains us. Without its complex web of connections, humans face dangerous circumstances. The idea of Christian stewardship promotes a reconnection with God’s creation and God’s intention for our stewardship within creation. For these reasons, spearheading a green revolution not only makes business and environmental sense; it also aligns theologically with a care for creation.

Giving Business the Green Light

Many Christians consider global warming to be a hoax concocted by the liberal media. But I contend that the ultimate results of global warming factor far less into sustainability than the role of biblically based stewardship of creation. Whether global warming results in harsher storms and a radical rising of the sea level or an over-hyped hypothesis with little empirical results, operating business as if creation exists as a slave for the whims of human fancy is pure hubris.

Ultimately, the compelling portion of Hot, Flat, and Crowded resides in Friedman’s encouraging position concerning the role of business. Where he could have presented the book as another exhibit decrying the evils of humanity regarding the environment, Friedman suggests that a green revolution offers business the opportunity to lead America into a new, vibrant century. I recommend reading this book.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Crossing

The Crossing (The Border Trilogy, Book 2)The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Knopf Publishers, 1994. 432 pp)

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college, writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.

American Cowboys

Burned into the American psyche is the cowboy persona of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Over the years, Hollywood has earned gigantic monetary sums producing Western blockbusters. We conceptualize the Southwest in romantic terms.

On one side, the sheriff fights for the virtues of honor, peace, and justice. Bandits, on the other, drink booze, steal possessions, and undiscerningly use firearms. Amongst ruddy mesas and sparsely lit saloons, the cowboy lives a life of adventure. While most of us sit in our cubicles, it is easy glorify this unanchored wanderer.

The Anti-Western Novel

In The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy turns this paradigm upside down. In short, this book is the anti-western novel. Although the narrative communicates enough action to keep the reader interested, the lives of the protagonists, Billy and Boyd, are depicted rather mundanely as they traverse the U.S./Mexico Border.

Instead of shooting their way through each town as depicted in classic, western narratives, Billy and Boyd meander through the country, splitting their time between tracking their family’s stolen horses and searching for their own horses as they continually wander off in the night.

The Lone Wolf

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar
Over the course of the book, McCarthy splits the narrative into three sections. First, Billy – the main character – hunts a lone wolf who is terrorizing the family cattle. Upon catching the wolf in a trap, Billy feels compelled to return the wolf to its mountainous habitat across the border.

In my mind, McCarthy’s prose in this section defines the book. Using deeply poetic language, he illustrates the hunt and capture from the perspective of both human and wolf.

The author writes,

“What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it” (127).

The Search for Something Lost

In the second section, the brothers, Billy and Boyd, unite under the common purpose of locating horses stolen from the family. As these cowboys search the border country, they find curious characters, love, and, most importantly, a connection to the land.

During this time, and throughout the work, McCarthy masterfully keys the reader into upcoming events without divulging future narrative.

While the boys search for their horses, McCarthy writes,

“Long voyages often lose themselves.
You will see. It is difficult even for brothers to travel together on such a voyage. The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons. If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all. Listen to the corridos of the country. They will tell you. Then you will see in your own life what is the cost of things. Perhaps it is true that nothing is hidden. Yet many do not wish to see what lies before them in plain sight. You will see. The shape of the road is the road. There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one. And every voyage begun upon it will be completed. Whether horses are found or not” (230).”

Therefore, while the second section alludes to and ends with the brothers parting ways, the third finds Billy seeking to reunite with Boyd. Although the end result is not necessarily cheery, The Crossing communicates its story with an incredible gravity. As a reader, you really connect with the characters.

Some Reservations

Despite my joy while I read this impressive book, it is by no means perfectly composed. First, at 4 chapters and 432 pages, The Crossing is not a book to read in short spurts. Stopping points rarely arrive and McCarthy’s dense writing style requires 100% attention.

Second, as Billy and Boyd met new characters, McCarthy possessed a tendency to elaborate on a character’s backstory whether or not it contributed to the central thrust of the narrative. I often found myself not caring about these backstories and ultimately becoming disappointed at its lack of cohesion with Billy and Boyd’s narrative framework.

A True Western

Nevertheless, The Crossing is masterfully crafted and its main characters carry the utmost intrigue. In truth, these cowboys engage in an adventure – just not a romanticized adventure so often depicted on the silver screen. Billy and Boyd’s story seems true. McCarthy finds reality amongst his vivid descriptions of the mundane actions encountered during a long-term adventure. The Crossing is an excellent book and one worth reading. I recommend this book to everyone.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Book Review: Just Business

Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace
Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, 2nd ed., by Alexander Hill (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008. 276 pp)

Alexander Hill is the President and Chief Executive Officer of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, joining in 2001. Under his leadership, InterVarsity successfully operates a publishing company and the world-renowned Urbana Student Missions Conference. In his previous position, Hill served as the Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. Hill earned both his B.A. and M.A. from Seattle Pacific University before attending the University of Washington School of Law receiving his J.D. Over the years Hill has published numerous articles on top of his internationally published book, Just Business. Mr. Hill and his wife, Mary, have two daughters and live in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s Because We Can Ask, “Why?”

The exploration of meaning in the lives of individuals provides a fascinating difference between human beings and other living organisms. Instead of engaging in simple reactions to stimuli, human beings possess the capacity to ponder these actions at a deeper level.

While a bird eats for sustenance, humans can not only ask but also reason to an answer concerning why the consumption of food is vital. In the case of living in a community, humanity enjoys the ability to question the way we interact and to create structures that help society function on a level playing field.

Although questions of ethical action remain arguably unanswerable in a conclusive form, many find ethical structures helpful in governing difficult quandaries.

In Just Business, Alexander Hill spends the first portion of the book outlining a Scripturally-based ethical structure of holiness, justice, and love for business practices. During the second section, Hill relates his Christian ethic to the dominant forms of ethical practice in the business world. And, finally, Hill utilizes the third section of Just Business as an extended analysis of case studies in light of his proposed Christian ethic.


Hill begins his pursuit of an ethical framework by proposing the concept of holiness as a critical component of an ethical lifestyle. He argues that the definition of holiness comprises of four parts: zeal for God, purity, accountability, and humility. Hill writes,

“The crucial point is that holiness is fundamentally about priorities. So long as a business is a means of honoring God rather than an end in itself, the concept of holiness is not violated” (25).

In other words, business means more than a competition around the highest profits, when a business person prioritizes holiness, that business is reoriented around its usefulness for others, not merely a way to make money.

However, the principle of holiness can be misapplied. When holiness becomes a set of rules, it becomes a harsh form of legalism; if holiness is used as a means to point out the flaws of others, it is merely judgmentalism; and, finally, when holiness becomes an excuse for roping off one’s self from society, it functions as a false ascetisim.


For the second foundational principle, Hill suggests the biblical notion of justice. In the business world, sadly, any action within the opaque legal framework is morally permissible no matter the injurious outcome on other people.

“Justice,” Hill pens, “provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of duties and rights for those living in the context of community – business partners, employees, neighbors and family members” (37).

In other words, justice functions as a communal code that allows a society to function.

Similarly to holiness, the excessive application of justice leads to possible mishandling. More specifically, when justice is applied as the letter of the law, it can be exceedingly harsh and condemning. Hill asserts,

“Justice tends to be cold and dispassionate, lacking the emotional heat and relational passion of holy love” (48).


Thus, it is important to buttress holiness and justice with the spiritual virtue of love. Acting as the glue between holiness and justice, love anchors these virtues in relationship. Hill argues that the definition of love includes empathy, mercy, and sacrifice.

As with holiness and justice, the biblical virtue of love carries potential difficulties.  Hill notes that clergyman Joseph Foster proposed love as the only Christian ethic. Taken to extremes love alone allows people to act in immoral ways for the sake of loving relationships.

Additionally, such positions offer ambiguity. When love is the only moral beacon, what should an individual do when a difficult choice means loving one person and “unloving” another?

Lastly, when others in society understand your single-minded loving ethic, they find opportunities to take advantage of your loving-kindness. 

Therefore, it is important for holiness, justice, and love to act in unity because each virtue acts as a check and balance against the potential abuses of the other virtues.

The Space Between Duty-Bound Ethics and Virtue Ethics

While the rest of the book discusses both the comparison between holiness-justice-love and its application in specific case studies, the root of Hill’s argument resides in these Christian virtues. As Hill compares and applies this framework, his ethic meanders between a deontological and a virtue ethic position.

On one hand, Hill argues that the holiness-justice-love ethic provides absolute answers in particular scenarios. Yet on the other hand, Hill wants his position to maintain the fluidity of virtue ethics as difficult scenarios require nuanced decisions.

Where’s Grace?

Additionally, Hill spends one paragraph at the end of the book discussing the role of the fallen world in the holiness-justice-love rubric. Although the themes of holiness, justice, and love ought to inform our decision making, do they apply equally to decisions after a mistake is made?

In his one paragraph on the matter, Hill argues that no one is able to fully apply the holiness-justice-love ethic; we, thus, must all accept God’s gift of grace.

I question, however, the way the notion of grace is applied practically. In the business world, is grace a possibility when the Fall influences someone to make a decision with drastic consequences for the company? Is grace unconditional within a company? Lastly, how do holiness, justice, love, and grace apply to theories of termination? Does the Christian ethic argue against terminating jobs? It seems to me that Just Business remains silent on these issues.

The Verdict Is

By nature, any attempt at the deeper meanings behind human interaction will always fall short. As such, the holiness-justice-love rubric is useful but incomplete. Nevertheless, humanity is capable of pursuing these deeper questions significant meaning results from such inquiries.

Hill’s Just Business is an admirable effort at applying biblical principles to business practices. Readability makes this book an excellent read for Christians in the business world. Hill carefully and accessibly categorizes his argument. Additionally, he inserts case studies and business stories to keep the reader’s attention throughout the discourse.

While I have my reservations about the conclusivity of his arguments, this book is a must read for anyone considering a Christian ethic for the marketplace.