Wednesday, July 31, 2019

“Light from Distant Stars” by Shawn Smucker

To quote poet William Wordsworth, the child is father to the man.

Cohen Marah is 40-something, unmarried, working with his father in a funeral home. The story he tells begins as he steps over his father’s body, with blood pooling on the floor. The question is immediately begged: did Cohen just kill his father? The reader isn’t sure; neither is Cohen. AS it turns out, his father is still alive.

Cohen’s story runs on at least three different spools. Contemporary Cohen is struggling with his identity, as he moves back and forth between his father’s hospital room and the confession box at an Episcopal church. Child Cohen #1 is the son of a rather fire-breathing preacher, whose wife writes all of his sermons, whose marriage blows up because of adultery. Child Cohen #2 is the boy in alliance with two rather mysterious children he meets in the woods; together they start the hunt for an all-too-real beast

Shawn Smucker
The three Cohens wind themselves around each other, as their stories coalesce and combine into one complete story in Light from Distant Stars, the new novel by Shawn Smucker. The novel has the kind of narrative approach that could have easily the reader in unraveling threads. Smucker neatly and expertly avoids that problem, and he pulls off an extremely satisfying story. 

Light from Distant Stars is about the past shaping the present. It’s about human evil and human sin. It’s about a man trying to come to grips with his relationship with his father. It’s about trying to hold on to what matters in life, and if that can even be understood. It’s about a child discovering his parents have flaws and failings. And it’s about redemption.

In addition to the novels The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There, Smucker has published four non-fiction works – Once We Were StrangersMy Amish RootsBuilding a Life Out of Words, and Refuse to Drown. He and his family live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Light from Distant Stars is one fine, thought-provoking story. It does what a good story is supposed to do, and that is to unveil the truth in and about our lives.


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Poets and Poems: Ollie Bowen and “On the Occasion of a Wedding”

The ancient Greeks taught the existence of three kinds of love. Eros was intimate love, including the kind caused by infatuation. Philia was brotherly (or sisterly), the kind felt toward a close or best friend. And agape was a more general love, bestowed freely on someone regardless of whether or not a relationship existed.

Poet Ollie Bowen embraces all three kinds of love in her debut poetry collection, On the Occasion of a Wedding. Dedicated to a couple as a wedding gift, the collection of 74 poems is drawn largely from her own marriage. And Bowen engages with the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental ways two people can engage and express their love for one another. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, July 29, 2019

“In Search of the Common Good” by Jake Meador

A general consensus exists among Americans, including church-going Americans, that the “church” in America is in serious decline. The mainline Protestant denominations are a shadow of what they once were; the Catholic Church is beset by both declining attendance and the clergy scandals. Evangelical churches seem to be holding their own, but there’s little growth. 

In society at large, civility is dying. The federal government lurches from budget crisis to budget crisis because of deep and widening political divisions. Supreme Court nominations have become occasions for grotesque political theater. Society seems drowning in opioid addiction. Movies and popular television drown us in profanity, gratuitous sex, and political correctness. The news media has forgotten how to report news and instead offers up political opinion barely masquerading as news. 

The two developments – the decline in the church and the decline in society – are connected.Jake Meador, editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and vice president of the Davenant Institute, points to the failure of modern liberalism as the cause. It’s certainly true for the decline of society and it’s at least a significant factor in the decline of the church as well. So what do we do?

In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World is Meador’s answer to that question. He doesn’t advocate throwing our hands up in surrender and hiding out in our various bubbles. Instead, he looks at how the Christian community might respond, and that’s whom he’s talking to here.

He looks first at the problem – the decline of the church and common life in America. He considers what problems for achieving community exist with the loss of meaning, wonder, and good work. He shifts to a look at what community practices might have application to the problem – the Sabbath (and the chief end of man; look at your Westminster Catechism); community; and work. And then he projects the promise, including how all this might work with political doctrine and civil virtue.

Jake Meador
Meador has made a reasoned, considered argument, and he’s largely right (although non-Christians might object to that). I have two minor quibbles. First, in any discussion on this topic, too much of a reliance upon news media reports and opinion columnists can undercut an argument. The media have become a serious part of the problem of America’s decline. Second, and this is really minor, quoting an anthropologist about what jobs could disappear that no one would mind losing may be a case of “Sir, you might look in the mirror first.”

Still, these are minor issues. Meador makes a good argument. He presents good ideas and possibilities. And he’s made an important contribution to the discussion that’s just not getting underway among Christians. In Search of the Common Good is well worth our time to read, ponder, and determine what we might do to reinvent and restore community.

Top photograph by Mario Purisic via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The classroom

After Psalm 25:1-10

Noisy and shoving,
we crowd
into the room;
the teacher stands,
frowning and mute.
Noise and shoving
continue. I catch
his eye as he catches
The question asked.
My nod responds.
I want to know,
I want to learn,
I want to hear
his instructions
to know the truth
of what is right.

Photograph by Church of the King via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Saturday Good Reads

One of my U.S. senators, Josh Hawley, gave a speech at the National Conservatism Conference, and from all accounts, it rocked the meeting. It wasn’t a barn-burning jeremiad; that’s not his style. Instead, he pointed the way to the future of conservatism, noting that the great divide in America isn’t between right and left but between elites and the American middle. (The link has both the text and the video recording of the speech.) And Brad Littlejohn at Mere Orthodoxy has a summary report on what happened at the conference.

Benjamin Myers writes poetry, loves poetry, teaches poetry, and believes in poetry. His recently published poetry collection Black Sunday is a marvel. In “How Poetry Can Save Us in Our Age of Superficiality,” he argues that teaching poetry is more critical than ever before.

St. Louis photographer Chris Naffziger spends an enormous amount of time taking pictures of St. Louis architecture – office buildings, homes, churches, even cemeteries. He also takes photos of buildings in decay, which St. Louis seems to have an abundance of, unfortunately. One street that has withstood the ravages of time and survived quite well is Kingsbury Place, one of the “private streets” that dot the city’s Central West End and tell a story of the great wealth that once was found here. 

More Good Reads


Against Pop Culture – Brad East at Mere Orthodoxy and Responding to “Against Pop Culture” – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.

The Question Abortion Advocates Won’t Answer – Scott Klusendorf at Desiring God.

British Stuff

The Many Faces of Arthur - 3 Historical Candidates – Chris Thorndycroft at English Historical Fiction Authors.

The History of English Part II: From Conquest to Printing Press – Annie Whitehead at Casting Light upon the Shadow.

Elihu Yale and His “Wicked Wife” – David Ebsworth at English Historical Fiction Authors.


Daffyd ap Gwilym – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Mary Magdalene – Malcolm Guite at The Imaginative Conservative.

Was the poet John Keats a graverobber? – Kelly Grovier at BBC Culture.

American Stuff

The First Battle of Bull Run, 1861 – Samuel English, Second Rhode Island Volunteers at Eyewitness to History.

A Conversation with Author Robert Conner on Grant’s Dying Days – Chris Mackowski at Emerging Civil War.

New Media

Is Reality Only for the Privileged? – Samuel D. James at Letters & Liturgy.

Writing and Literature

Herman Melville at Home – Jill Lepore at The New Yorker.

Land as Literary Character – Christine Norvell at The Imaginative Conservative.


One Man’s Fall is Another Man’s Warning – David Qaoud at Gospel Relevance.

What I Found in My Grandfather's Amazing Journals

Painting: Portrait of a Man Reading a Book, oil on canvas by Karl Aksel Jorgenson (1920).

Friday, July 26, 2019

The path

After Psalm 25:1-10

Looking for a way, a path,
through this thicket of lies
and deception, I stumble,
often, and find dirt
and pieces of leaves
in my mouth, 
a tannic taste. 
Looking for a stream to wash,
to cleanse myself, I hear
its sound, a bubbling,
a rushing and falling
upon rocks and stones.
I find a path to the water.
I drink, deeply.
I hear them after me,
chasing, but they miss
the path and pass on. 
Here, by the stream,
is an upright stone,
chiseled. I touch 
the letters and words,
my fingers finding
the crevices of meaning,
of memory.

Photograph by Joan Oger via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Mystery Story That Ripped Me Off

Each Thursday, I usually have a review of a mystery or crime novel. I’ve read mysteries since I was six years old, stating with Trixie Belden, graduating to the Hardy Boys, then Agatha Christie, and on from there. Today, some of the best writers our there can be found penning mystery novels – Anne Perry, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, William Brodrick, and more.

It was with some eagerness that I started reading the book I planned to review this week. It was set in the town where I grew up, it was in a series of which I’d read the first (a big award winner) many years ago, and it had an interesting premise.

I do not have a review of this book, this week or any week. I will not mention the title or the author, to protect the guilty. But what a profound disappointment.

When I buy a mystery novel, I want to read a mystery novel. I don’t want to read what begins as a good story and then is marred by the author’s political prejudices. I’m not interested in the author virtue signaling as to how “woke” she or he is. I don’t want characters stereotyped into cardboard cartoons, and whole classes of people dismissed as ignorant, so the author can let his or her friends know how cool they are. 

And it didn’t have to be this way. The novel has an interesting premise, several original supporting characters, and a knowledge of the geography and how people talk. But where it went awry was with the main character, the investigating police detective, who comes from a wealthy family but is hip, woke, aware, perceptive about privilege, and lives with a lover in the politically cool part of town. All of the politics flowed through this character, and it became tiresome.

I read the story to the end, even as the narrative started to collapse in on itself. The ending was contrived; the killer turned out to be a minor character who has a brief mention in the story. I think what happened is that the author got so caught up in politics that he (or she) lost control of the story and had to figure out a way to end it. 

The reader, or at least this reader, got shortchanged. Which is a nice way to say I was ripped off.

This past weekend, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I read a review of a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams in which the reviewer made the claim that all men in the 1950s wanted to be Stanley Kowalski, the sexy and abusive character played by Marlon Brando in the movie. On the same page, in a story about the new Gauguin exhibition opening at the St. Louis Art Museum. the writer included a sentence about how the legal age for women to marry at the time of Gauguin was 13, “a law written by men, likely, to benefit themselves.” No source was cited for either statement; they were included as bald statements of fact when they were nothing more than political statements castigating a particular group of people, in both cases, white males.

Our culture has allowed politics to saturate everything. Everything we do has become a political act fraught with implications. Everything we say is judged through a political prism. And everything I read in the newspaper has to be deconstructed to understand the writer’s (and the editor’s) political bias.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

My worry is that this is just beginning.

Photograph by Brian Wertheim via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

"Charming the Troublemaker" by Pepper Basham

Rainey Mitchell leads a hectic life. She’s divorced and raising her daughter on her own, while hounding her ex-husband for child support. She’s working full-time in speech therapy at Blue Ridge University. She helps manage an outreach clinic for troubled teens and others needed special attention, and funding cuts loom for the college and the clinic. And the former husband of a client is harassing Rainey and making threats of bodily harm.

The last thing she needs is romance. And especially romance in the form of Dr. Alexander Murdock, the charming and flirtatious new professor who drives a red Mercedes and obviously thinks he’s god’s gift to women. 

For his part, Alex Murdock maintains a tough, outward façade. His father considers him a failure for teaching instead of working the family business. His sister and niece are in a witness protection program, and only Alex knows they not dead, as everyone else has been led to believe. He’s trying to find his inner hero, and all he’s seems to manage finding is his inner flirt. And then he meets Rainey Mitchell and her daughter Sarah.

Sparks fly. Misunderstandings ensue. And two broken people gradually come to discover each other and themselves.

Pepper Basham
Charming the Troublemaker by Pepper Basham is the second book in her Mitchell Crossroads series. The story includes many of the same characters from the first book, Twist of Faith (Alex and Rainey were minor characters in that story) and the same settings of town, university, and the Mitchell farms. Once again, the Mitchell clan matriarch will play a pivotal role in helping a boneheaded child see what’s really happening in their love life.

Basham is the author of numerous historical and contemporary romance novels, novellas, and stories. Second Impressions is one of two novellas by Basham involving the work of Jane Austen, the second being Jane by the Book. Basham and her family live in Asheville, North Carolina. 

Charming the Troublemaker is an enjoyable read. Yes, we suspect we know how the story will turn out, but the fun is seeing how the characters get there.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Poets and Poems: Matt Duggan and “Woodworm”

A woodworm is the name given to the larvae of a fairly wide array of beetles. It’s also the name applied to a condition of wood when the larvae have been having a meal. What look like holes are more like entrances to small caves, carved into the wood as the larvae eat their way forward. 

But the title of a poetry collection?

I saw the name of British poet Matt Duggan’s latest poetry collection, Woodworm, however, and thought not of wood beetles but of Wormwood, the young student being tutored in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Both thoughts might be relevant, however. Duggan writes about the flaws in ourselves and the surrounding culture that, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly, eat their way through. And, like Lewis’s Wormwood, we are being taught in these 60 poems, not how to promote and capitalize upon the flaws but more to be aware of the havoc the worms of our culture are creating.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, July 22, 2019

“The Porpoise” by Mark Haddon

In 1393, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer named John Gower published Confessio Amantis, the story of Apollonius of Tyre, and thought to be a translation of an ancient Greek text. It’s the story of a prince who visits Antiochus, king of Antioch. Antiochus has offered the hand of his daughter to anyone who can solve a riddle; fail to solve it and you’re put to death. 

The riddle’s solution is that the king is committing incest with his daughter. Apollonius solves it – and is on the run for his life for most of the rest of his life. He has an extraordinary number of adventures, marries the love of his life, she seemingly dies at sea after giving birth, Apollonius goes almost mad with grief – and that’s only the start. Ultimately, the family is reunited – and virtue rewarded.

In 1576, a writer named Lawrence Twine published The Pattern of Painful Adventures, a prose novel based on Gower’s story. William Shakespeare, possibly with the help of a writer, innkeeper, and possible criminal named George Wilkins, wrote and produced a play based on Twine’s retelling of Gower’s story. Shakespeare named his Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was staged in 1607 or 1608.

Fast forward to 2019. A small plane crashes in northern France; a well-known movie star in the plane gives birth shortly before she dies. Her distraught husband withdraws from social life and raises his daughter in rural England. He falls in love with her, and it leads to incest. The father poses no riddles for would-be suitors to solve, but a suitor shows up, and the girl falls madly in love. The father assumes the role of King Antiochus, sends his right-hand man off to kill the young man, and the game is on.

You’re entering the world of The Porpoise, the latest novel by British author Mark Haddon. He’s not content to writer a contemporary version of Apollonius/Pericles. The Porpoisegoes well beyond that. Haddon retells the original story of Pericles in tandem with the contemporary interpretation, and along with the account of George Wilkins and William Shakespeare. 

You might say the novel is three stories in one, and it is, but it becomes much more than that. Haddon is offering a meditation on myth, writing, legend, the human condition, the act of literary creation, and more. The result is stunning – a gripping account written in the present tense that tells us how we continue to relive ancient myths and legends today. 

Mark Haddon
Haddon knows how to pull the reader into a story. The gripping account of how and why the small plane crashes leaves the reader almost gasping – similar to his description of the collapse of a seaside entertainment pier in his short story “The Pier Falls.” The account is so gripping that you can’t stop reading. When you come up for air, you find yourself in ancient Tyre, Antioch, and Tarsus, and then in early Jacobean London. Gradually it all begins to make sense.

Best known for his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Haddon is the author of several novels, young adult novels, and story collections, including The Red House and The Pier Falls. He is also an artist. He blogs under his own name.

The Porpoise is many things, but ultimately it is a novel about how we come to read, understand, and live stories, and how our stories come to be retold again and again.


Sunday, July 21, 2019

The words of Anna

After Luke 2:22-38

The old woman, revered
and often feared for the words
which would tumble, rumble
from within, the words anticipating 
what was to come, this old woman
sees the child,
just another child,
just another ceremony,
another ritual,
and she knows Jerusalem
is redeemed, that Israel
is saved, that the ceremony
if purification is turned on its head,
as the child purifies the temple,
purified the priests, purifies the people.
And the old woman,
the prophetess,
is silenced.

Photograph by Paolo Bendandi via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Saturday Good Reads

The largest racially-charged riot in American history took place in – of all places and of all times – New York City in July, 1863. Deliberately-fostered rumors about freed slaves taking the jobs of German and Irish immigrants, a new Union Army draft law, and festering resentment about the Civil War merged into violence that took the lives of hundreds. Emerging Civil War has the story.

Rebecca Reynolds at The Rabbit Room might have rolled her eyes when she was advised to read Bono’s song lyrics, but then she did – and discovered Bono was a psalmist.

I think I read too much. The more I read, the more I think our brave new world has totally lost its mind. Now it’s the American Psychological Association telling us that “polyamory” is okay, and it’s even launched a task force to promote “awareness and inclusivity about consensual non-monogamy and diverse expressions of intimate relationships.” In other words, monogamy is passé in our enlightened culture.

I joke with my friend Sandra Heska King about the critters one can find in Florida, and then I read Ian Frazier’s account in Smithsonian Magazine of Burmese pythons destroying the wildlife of the Florida Everglades. We are talking snakes that can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh 200 pounds – in the tens of thousands.

More Good Reads


The Painful Shortcut to Peace – Sam Van Eman.

Maybe It Was Meant to Be – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.

Writing and Literature

The Power of Metaphor – David Gosselin at The Imaginative Conservative.

Rebuilding Jane Austen's Library – Rebecca Rego Barry at Lapham’s Quarterly.


Reflection upon Psalm 121 – Christopher Howell at Image Journal.

‘A Stubborn Parable’ by Mark Burrows – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Sloth – James Matthew Wilson at Literary Matters.

Isn’t It Byronic? ‘Don Juan’ at 200 – Michael Caines at The Times Literary Supplement.

For M – Paul Hughes at Poet and Priest.


Does the “i” in iPhone Stand for “Idol”? – Dwight Longenecker at The Imaginative Conservative.

US Women’s Soccer and Our Culture of “Tolerance” – Michael Kruger at Canon Fodder.

American Stuff

George Washington’s “Favorite” Charles Lee – Roy Orrison at Emerging Revolutionary War Era.

Anointed with Oil: Evangelicals and the Petroleum Industry – Thomas Kidd at The Gospel Coalition.

Storm Clouds: Review of several books on the run-up to the Civil War – Adam Rowe at Claremont Review of Books.


Sunday Morning at Auschwitz – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.

Tulips in the Netherlands

Painting: Girl Reading, oil on canvas by Charles Edward Perugini(1878).

Friday, July 19, 2019

To see the child

After Luke 2:22-38

To see the child, this child,
to see the tiny life like
all tiny lives, yet unlike,
to see the one, this child,
the one promised,
the one revealed,
the one anticipated
like the water quenching
the thirst of the desert,
the one expected since
the biting of the fruit,
this is what I was born for,
to know, to see the child,
this child, this revelation.
We all bear the name
of Simeon.

Photograph by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash. Used with permission.