Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“The Faith of a Mockingbird” by Matt Rawle

Matt Rawle is a Louisiana pastor who has carved out something of a book niche – exploring literature and popular culture to find evidences and examples of faith. He’s published books on Victor Hugos’s Les Misérables, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the Nutcracker Suite, and Doctor Who. And he’s also the author of The Faith of a Mockingbird, a look at themes of faith in the characters of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial justice and injustice in small-town Alabama, set in the 1930s. A staple in schools for more than 50 years, the story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Scout Finch, whose father Atticus defends a black man against a false charge of raping a white woman. The trial’s ending is a foregone conclusion; white juries in the 1930s wouldn’t find a black defendant not guilty, especially of a charge like rape. But what Atticus Finch does is prove the man’s innocence, even though he and the town know the defendant will be found guilty regardless. 

The Faith of a Mockingbird is designed as a small group Bible Study. Rawle considers the four main characters in the story – Atticus Finch; Tom Robinson, the defendant; Scout Finch, the young girl and narrator; and Boo Radley, the mysterious recluse whom children fear and imagine all kinds of stories about. Rawle summarizes the story of each of the four and, with Scripture passages, explains how each character illustrates a number of Biblical teachings and truths. And he does more, including an application to current life. Discussion questions are included throughout each chapter.

Rawle has also published, with Josh Tinley, a leader guide for the small group discussion, including how to facilitate the discussion, planning and structuring each session, and helpful hints.

Matt Rawle
Rawle is lead pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, La. He received his B.A. degree in music from LSU and his Masters of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School. He is also the author of What Makes a Hero?The Grace of Les MiserablesThe Redemption of ScroogeThe Gift of the NutcrackerThe Salvation of Doctor WhoAlmost Christmas: A Wesleyan Advent ExperienceHollywood Jesus, and The Marks of Hope

To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern classic, but what few people today realize is how so many Christian themes are reflected throughout the story and its characters. Rawle’s The Faith of a Mockingbird helps to create that understanding. Perhaps unintentionally, it also makes a strong case for looking for Christian themes in the products of popular culture.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020

It Was a Marvelous Year: “The Making of Poetry” by Adam Nicholson

Adam Nicolson has written a story fully worthy of its famous protagonists. 

In June 1797, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy rented a house for a year near Bristol in western England. After they had arrived at Alfoxton HouseSamuel Taylor Coleridge found his way there (via a walking tour) for a visit. The visit would last a year; Coleridge rented a place nearby for himself and his family. The Wordsworths and Coleridge spent an enormous amount of time together, talking, inventing new poetic projects, and taking long walks through the Quantock Hills

What came out of that year was some of the most significant poetry in the English language: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan,” “Lyrical Ballads,” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Yet much more happened than the writing of great poems, astounding as they were (and are). The two poets emerged from that period with an understanding of themselves and of poetry as a vital force in life. By the fall of 1798, both Wordsworth and Coleridge would be set upon the courses that made them both famous.

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

Monday, June 1, 2020

"The Garden Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine

Almost every Philo Vance mystery by S.S. Van Dine includes an in-depth dive into a subject. It may be Egyptian artifacts and hieroglyphics, as in The Scarab Murder Case. It may be Chinese ceramics and pottery. In The Casino Murder Case, the subject was the production of heavy water. Sometimes it’s the scientific study of criminology. The Kennel Murder Case includes an extensive discussion of dog breeding and registration.

The stories also contain a multitude of cursory references to art and music; Vance tosses off references to art, artists, art exhibitions, and symphony and operatic music like many people discuss sports and politics. These references explain why Van Dine included so many footnotes in the stories, footnotes that are real and not invented references. The effect is to depict Philo Vance as a man of broad and deep education, as comfortable puzzling over his translations of Sumerian tablets as he with speculating about the electricity used to produce heavy water. 

In The Garden Murder Case, first published in 1935, the in-depth subject is horseracing. Floyd Garden lives with his parents and a cousin in the penthouse of a New York City apartment high-rise. The penthouse includes a rooftop garden, and the book’s title is taken from both the family name and the penthouse feature. Garden has organized a horseracing betting party. After receiving an anonymous phone call warning of an impending tragedy, Vance gets himself invited to the party.

The event involves a fairly elaborate set-up of radios, telephones, and betting forms. Vance soon realizes that the anonymous phone caller was correct – so many tensions underlie the party and the house that it’s almost inevitable that something will happen. And it does. The cousin bets everything he has on a horse in one particular race, and then he retires to the rooftop garden to await the results. The bets are placed, the race begins and quickly ends, and then all at the party hear a gunshot. The cousin is dead, shot in the temple in what looks like a suicide. Vance quickly determines that it’s murder. The victim was killed even before he knew the outcome of the race (and his horse did indeed lose). 

Over a two-day period, Vance sifts through what’s known and what isn’t known. And then a second murder occurs.

S.S. Van Dine
Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) was an art critic who had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Set, a novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Wright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. In 1926, he published the first Philo Vance story, The Benson Murder Case, with Scribners. And he used the pen name “S.S. Van Dine.” 

The Garden Murder Case is S.S. Van Dine and Philo Vance at the top of their game. Van Dine liked to play with stories in which justice is only possible when it falls outside the law, and this is certainly one of those. Interestingly enough, this story is the only Philo Vance mystery in which there's a hint of a love interest for the amateur detective. But it is only that, a hint.


Sunday, May 31, 2020


After Genesis 12:1-3 and Revelation 7:9-10 

And then, they gathered,
the multitudes unnumbered,
waving the branches of palm,
crying out in unison, 
the blessing promised,
the blessing sitting
and riding in front of them,
the blessing named
salvation, sitting 
on the throne.
The lamb cried out,
shining as a great light,
to the multitudes 
the nations

Photograph by Roland Denes via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

We All Know a Boo Radley

I was all of 21, in my first job after college graduation. I’d been hired as a copy editor on the news desk of the Beaumont (Tex.) Enterprise. Production at the Enterprise was just becoming automated, at least in what we called the “backshop.” Reporters still used typewriters, typing up their copy, handing it to editors (including new ones like me) and hoping we didn’t slaughter their peerless prose when we edited.

Most reporters, like most writers, required editing. I quickly learned who the better reporters were – the ones whose copy didn’t need much editing. Some needed a lot. One rarely if ever needed any – and he was the newspaper’s staff mystery.

I’ll call him Joe. He was in his 50s, and he covered local government. When Joe turned in his stories, he would mumble, almost as if apologizing. I don’t think anyone understood the mumbles. The mystery was how he did his job – he was never seen at a city council or other government meeting, and yet his stories reported exactly what went on. No one knew how Joe did it. Even more mysteriously, no one knew where he lived. He received his mail at the newspaper, and that was his legal address. One staffer followed him in his car one night, and all Joe did was drive around Beaumont for more than an hour until his lost the tail. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Dancing Priest.

Saturday Good Reads

When you meet a fictional character like Ignatius J. Reilly, you may be forgiven for thinking he’s a grotesque version of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. When I first read A Confederacy of Dunces and met Ignatius, I thought he was like a lot of people I knew growing up in New Orleans. He wasn’t so much grotesque as he was normal. The novel is now 40 years old, and Alexander Larman at The Critic says it’s a book that can change your life.

For several years now, the British Library has been publishing the Crime Classics series, bringing back long-out-of-print mysteries by both well-known and largely forgotten authors. Most of the stories are from Mystery’s Golden Age, the 1920s to the 1940s, with mystery author Martin Edwards serving as general editor. I’ve read about 20 of them, and they’re wonderful. This week at CrimeReads, Edwards was interviewed about the enduring popularity of traditional mysteries.

It’s a common question people ask of novelists: who is this character based on? Or, who inspired your hero / your villain? In my own case, the most likely answer is that characters come from my imagination, or are a composite, or (the really true answer) I don’t know. I can think of only one character in five novels that drew inspiration from someone I actually knew, and even that person wouldn’t recognize it. Richard Russo at Harper’s Magazine has a different answer, and he asks the question, when does imagination become appropriation?

The tendency to fall for conspiracy theories spans the political and social spectrums. The reality is that we tend to fall for them, no matter how smart and wise we think we are. Jordan Standridge at The Cripplegate takes a look at Jesus’s resurrection and what he calls the dumbest conspiracy theory in history

More Good Reads

Life and Culture

The danger of safetyism – Matthew Crawford at UnHerd. 

When Zoom Becomes a Prison – James Jeffrey at The American Conservative.

The Code and the Key – David Mamet at National Review.

Writing and Literature

Furtive Wings of Glory – Kevin Belmonte at Eerdword.

Bodying Forth the Classics: A Manifesto – Jessica Hooten Wilson at Church Life Journal.

Back to the Sources: Notes on Chesterton the Historian – Jane Lewis at Mere Orthodoxy.

American Tolstoy: Herman Wouk – David Rose at The Critic.

Bilbo’s Garden – Rebecca Martin at The Rabbit Room.

Maigret’s Room – John Lancaster at The London Review of Books.


Every Morning He Hallowed Himself – James Matthew Wilson at The North American Anglican.

Ode to Spring – Adam Sedia at The Chained Muse. 

The Letter That Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life – Martha Ackmann at Literary Hub.

Philip Larkin: A Very English Bleakness – David Whippman at Society of Classical Poets. 

Four Poems – Maryann Corbett at A New Cedameron.

American Stuff

In Our Memory Lock’d: Memorial Day and the Need to Remember – Jon Schaff at Front Porch Republic.


5 Truths to Remember While the Police Station Burns – Jesse Johnson at The Cripplegate.

News Media

Big Journalism Embraces Propaganda Model – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.

British Stuff

Leaping the Fence: On English gardens and style – Nicola Shulman at New Criterion.

‘Aila’ Au: Forest Eater 

Painting: Seated Man Reading, oil on paper board (1927) by Yun Gee (1906-1963)

Friday, May 29, 2020

How did he hear

After Genesis 12:1-3 and Revelation 7:9-10

How did he hear the voice,
this shepherd, with flocks,
this leader, with family?
A dream, on the wind,
a whisper, a shout?

The words: go; you will be 
great, a great nation;
you will be a great blessing;
all families will be blessed
through you.

And what did he do,
how did he respond,
to this shout, this whisper,
this dream, this wind?
He went.

Photograph by Mila Young via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

"Hunter's Chase" by Val Penny

A thief breaks into the Edinburgh home of Scotland’s minister of Justice. He’s helping himself to various valuable, including a wad of cash in a desk, when the minister arrives home early and surprises him. The minister is up in years, but he gives chase. The thief reaches a nearby golf course when he stumbles and breaks his ankle. What he’s stumbled over, or into, is the dead body of a woman.

Detective Inspector Hunter Wilson arrives to take charge of the case, and he’s just thrilled when the burglary victim turns out to be his former boss in the police force. The two never got along when they had to work together, and they likely won’t be getting along still. The body, a red-haired woman in her 40s, shows signs of old physical abuse. What complicates the case even further is the burglary suspect, who stoutly maintains that the bag of cocaine in the wad of cash is not his. And if it’s not his, then it must belong to Scotland’s minister of Justice.

Val Penny
Hunter’s Chase is the first of five novels in the Edinburgh Crime Mystery series by Val Penny. It introduces the reader to Hunter Wilson and his team of detectives, including the brand-new team member, the son of the minister of Justice. It’s a big story, with a large number of characters, generally organized into police, their families, and the main players and families of two chief villains. 

As the story progresses, all of these stories begin to intermingle in an engrossing tale of drugs, petty crime, murders, family passions, and old secrets. Wilson, divorced, will come to understand that his own family is enmeshed as well. 

Penny, an American living in southwestern Scotland, has written five novels in the Edinburgh Crime Mysteries series: Hunter’s ChaseHunter’s RevengeHunter’s ForceHunter’s Blood, and Hunter’s Secret

Hunter’s Chase is a finely wrought story, a big story full of personal drama, well-developed characters, and a very past pace that that keeps the reader’s attention riveted.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"His Father's Son" by Autumn Macarthur

Luke Tanner had grown up with life stacked against him. Raised by a drug-addicted single mom who didn’t know who his father was, Luke passed through a succession of temporary foster homes and managed to stay more in trouble than out of it. Anna Harrison was the daughter of a strict, no-nonsense small-town police chief; when she went to college to study art, she met Luke, fell in love, and became pregnant. Back home in Sweetapple Falls, Oregon, she faced the ire of her father.

When the baby, a boy Anna names Joshua, was born, her father told Anna that she had to do two things: put the child up for adoption and get rid of the no-good Luke. She sent Luke away, but the baby turned out to have serious medical problems and her father grudgingly allowed her to keep him. Now he’s 12, functioning in a motorized wheelchair, hoping that one day he’ll have a father like his friends do.

Luke has found faith in Christianity and turned his life around. He’s the project manager for a construction ministry in Mexico when he sees a television talent program. And one of the contestants is Joshua, who’s shown with his mother Anna. Three days later, Luke is in Oregon, ringing Anna’s doorbell, desperate to be part of his son’s life and equally desperate to learn if Anna still loves him.

Autumn Macarthur
His Father’s Son by Autumn Macarthur tells the heartwarming and often heart-wrenching story of Luke, Anna, and Joshua. The story turns on the themes of love, forgiveness, and trust. It’s about owning up to past mistakes and past sins, and what happens when a practical, living faith collides head-on with a more legalistic faith.

Macarthur has written numerous books in the Christian inspirational romance genre and inspirational non-fiction. Her novels include The Macleans series, the Together for Christmas, series, the Billionaire Protectors series, the Sweetapple Falls series, the London Loves series, the Come to the Lake series, and the Huckleberry Lake series. She lives in London. 

His Father’s Son is a moving novel that probes what faith and love look like and actually mean in the hard realities of day-to-day life.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Poets and Poems: S.R. Jakobi and “Antiques & Curios”

It’s not exactly rare, but it is a bit unusual these days to find an entire poetry collection built around a single story. The last one I recall reading is The Long Take by Robin Robertson, some 20 months ago. That was a genre-bending work of fiction, poetry, and crime story that defied classification. 

Antiques & Curios: Fragments of a Love Affair by S.R. Jakobi is clearly a poetry collection in the conventional sense, but its 96 poems center on one event: a love affair between an older man and a younger woman, work colleagues who almost accidentally stumble into and fall for each other. The poems tell a single, usually chronological story of the relationship – how it begins, develops, matures, deteriorates, and eventually ends. Except it doesn’t end, not really, carried on in memory for decades.

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

Monday, May 25, 2020

“The Casino Murder Case” by S.S. Van Dine

The purported narrator of the Philo Vance mystery novels is the pseudonymous author S.S. Van Dine, always referred to as “Van” in the stories. The reader always knows what all the other characters, including Vance, look like in great physical and psychology detail, but never does the author provide a physical description of Van. He accompanies Vance on investigations, and he writes reports of the various crimes.

We do know a little about the narrator. He and Vance attended college together. Van also worked at his father’s law firm, Van Dine, Davis, & Van Dine. He made a decision to leave the family firm and work for Vance full-time as an attorney, general secretary, and accompanying investigator. Eventually, it’s mentioned that he lives in a small apartment in Vance’s brownstone. Later critics have read all kinds of implications into Van and his apartment, but the one thing it provided for was a legitimate reason what Van always seems in attendance when District Attorney John F.X. Markham and Police sergeant Ernest Heath arrive with a crime report.

His role in the novels is not unlike Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, except that Arthur Conan Doyle allowed Watson’s character to more fully develop. Van remains much more of a mystery.

Van is generally faceless and colorless, and the perfect scribe, but there are occasional exceptions, as in The Casino Murder Case, first published in 1934. He finds himself, with Vance, confronting an almost diabolical killer, and he occasionally notes the chilling terror he feels at times, including when they’re both staring their own deaths in the face.

The story centers on the Llewellyn family. Lynn and Amelia Llewellyn are brother and sister; Lynn is married to the former stage star Virginia Llewellyn, and they all live with their mother (in a large New York City brownstone, a standard setting in most of the Philo Vance stories). Also living with them is a maternal uncle, Richard Kincaid, who owns a casino, and Morgan Bloodgood, who works for Kincaid as a casino croupier. 

The story begins with an anonymous letter, saying evil events will begin to happen at the casino on a Saturday night. Vance goes, grasping that it’s the letter writer who will set the vents in motion. The events begin when Lynn Lewellyn is apparently poisoned and collapses at the roulette table. At the same time, at home, his wife Virginia apparent commits suicide by taking poison. Then sister Amelia collapses, having drunk water intended for her mother. Someone is obviously out to destroy the family, and all the clues point to Kincaid, the uncle. 

S.S. Van Dine
But Vance soon realizes that the clues have been designed to point to the uncle. And what is unfolding is the ruthless implementation of a ruthless plan, a plan that the killer adapts as mistakes are made and events warrant a change. The novel at times reads like a movie script, and the story was filmed and released as a movie of the same name in 1935, starring Paul Lukas as Philo Vance.

Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) was an art critic who had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Set, a novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Wright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. In 1926, he published the first Philo Vance story, The Benson Murder Case, with Scribners. And he used the pen name “S.S. Van Dine” so friends wouldn’t know.

The Casino Murder Case certainly is in the running for the best of the 12 mysteries written by Van Dine. A fully developed Philo Vance is the story’s center and star, and he’s even up for a bit of entrapment when he learns he can’t prove the murderer’s identity. The thrilling disclosure scene starts looking deadly for Markham, Vance, and Van, and it’s helpful to remember that there are four more mysteries after this one.


Top photograph: The movie poster for The Casino Murder Case (1935), staring Paul Lukas at Philo Vance (and made into something of a romance, which the book isn't).

Sunday, May 24, 2020

We were works

After Genesis 3:17-15 and I John 3:1-10

We were works of before,
changed, in a moment,
into works of now.

We were fields of before,
fallow, then sown, the seed
now sprouting within us.

We were wind of before,
blowing aimlessly, now
with purpose and direction.

We were water of before,
polluted, until freshened,
cleansed, and purified.

We were works of darkness,
transformed, into works
of light, unshaded.

Photograph by Kyle Glenn via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Saturday Good Reads

The movies, plays, and books about World War II keep coming. My wife says it’s because the war produced millions of stories, running from heroism to cowardice and success to tragedy. (And I think, too, because the good guys won, and that was not a foregone conclusion.) Heather Morton at Front Porch Republic tells one of those stories – a great aunt shot in both legs and left for dead by a communist gunman in Yugoslavia because she was Ukrainian-German. 

I haven’t read Brendan by Frederick Buechner in a long time. After read David Deavel’s “Messing About in Boats: Frederick Buechner’s Brendan” at The Imaginative Conservative, I think it’s time to reread it.

I first met the poetry of William Butler Yeats in high school. His life and work (1865-1939) spanned the Victorian, Edwardian, World War I, and modernism periods. What I didn’t know, until I read Adam Sedia’s article at the Society for Classical Poets, was how heavily influenced his poetry was by occultism

The coronavirus has brought an outpouring of art and writing, but I don’t think I’ve been as touched by anything as I was by Andrea Sanborn’s story at A View of the Lake, entitled “Tucking Ben In.”

I’ve visited Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery here in St. Louis, and I’ve seen the very oldest section, which includes the graves of some 16,000 Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate, many of them the dead and seriously wounded from the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Kristen Pawlak at Emerging Civil War shares the stories of several of them

More Good Reads


What the night sky declares – Joe Spring at Joe Spring Writes.

Wearing masks – Troy Cady at T(r)oy Marbles.

Wordsworth is Finally Getting His Revolutionary Props – William Anthony Hay at The American Conservative

“Beach at Corolla, NC” and “Bee Fall” – Paul Jones at South Writ Large.

Life and Culture

Then & Now – David Warren at Essays in Idleness.


The master’s hand: A treasured Vermeer gives up its secrets – Nancy Kenney at The Art Newspaper.

The Painting Behind the Door - Emily Benedek at Tablet Magazine.


Weird Christianity’s Aesthetic and the Tyranny of Values – Casey Spinks at Front Porch Republic.

Biblia Pauperum (Ascension) – Fred Sanders at The Scriptorium Daily.

Loneliness Has Been My Faithful Friend – Steve DeWitt at Desiring God.

A Christian Reading Manifesto – David Steele at Veritas et Lux.

Writing and Literature

Blue Ridge Dear – Joseph Bradshaw

Painting: Femme Lisant, oil on canvas (1920) by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)