Monday, July 21, 2014

Simon, Who Is Called Peter by Mackenzie Mulligan

Source of book: I was given a copy by the author

First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me note that this review is a bit of a first for me. I have never reviewed a book written by someone who I know even a little bit. (Leave aside for a minute the fact that a great many of the authors I read are, well, dead.) This is not because I don’t know any authors personally. Rather, it is because I have a hard time writing an honest review of a book when I know that I will have to personally interact with the author afterward. Also, in many cases, I may not enjoy the book, not because of its faults, but because of the genre. For example, I really dislike self help books, books on current politics, most genre fiction, and many books in the “women’s” section. That is a personal preference, not a reflection on the merits of any of those genres. So I tend to avoid writing about these books for the same reason I don’t review hip-hop music or green bean casserole recipes.

The reasons I chose to make an exception in this case are as follows. First, I do not know the author in person, just online. Thus, if he hates my review, there won’t be any awkward moments when we see each other. Second, the way we met (at least on my end) was that he made some insightful and interesting comments on my review of Till We Have Faces. Upon further exploration, we discovered a mutual love of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. I also discovered that he and I might just be the two last remaining young men of our generations who are still Arminians, rather than neo-Calvinists (or, more accurately in many cases, neo-Puritans.) Finally, the topic of the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance.

In any case, I am not likely to be taking on reviews on request as a general rule. I blog purely for my own pleasure - I do not make a dime in any way from the blog. Likewise, I read for pleasure and my own education, so I am only likely to read books that I think will be worth my time for one of those reasons. So, future inevitable author of Amish Vampires of the Tribulation, don’t bother.

According to the Afterword, Mulligan began this book as part of his senior project while at Biola University. It kind of got out of hand and turned into a book.

If you want to read more about Mulligan, he blogs at


Simon, Who Is Called Peter is written as a first person account by the apostle Peter of his life and experiences. All of the original disciples are fascinating, but Peter has to be one of the most intriguing by any measure. (For the record, I tend to identify with the skeptical Thomas rather than the impulsive Peter.)

It is easy to make the saints of the past into types, mere cardboard outlines with some piety in the middle, but they are really more fascinating in their humanity than in their greatness. The Bible is a much more earthy book than we tend to acknowledge, filled with more failure than success, and more frailty than strength. Peter serves as a great example of all of the above, mixed together in a marvelously human contradiction.

Mulligan takes the approach of sticking entirely to the biblical account, with a very few exceptions taken deliberately to make the narrative flow. In each case, he footnotes and explains his decision. In addition, where there are multiple views as to the meaning of events, he explains those views, and why he chose his particular narrative path. For anyone wishing to follow along in their own bibles, he also footnotes the sources. The link to the academic project that birthed this book is pretty clear, and in that sense, the book does have a little bit of an academic flavor. I am a bit OCD when it comes to footnotes, so I kept breaking the narrative to read them. (I’m even worse with endnotes, trying futilely to keep a pinky finger in the back of the book so I can toggle back and forth…)

As a narrative story, I found the writing to be fluid and natural. I’m sure that if the real Saint Peter had written it, it would have read quite differently. (Peter was a fisherman, unlikely to have been polished in Greek, and appears to have credited his editor or ghostwriter in his epistles.) Mulligan, on the other hand, writes the story with polish, giving evidence of his English degree and extensive reading. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy good writing, and the polish gives Peter the chance to be more introspective and in touch with his own feelings than he may have been had he tried to put it all into writing himself. In addition, it isn’t far off from the tone that Peter’s editor/ghostwriter took in his epistles.

One thing that Mulligan captured well was Peter’s impulsiveness. If any a man ever seemed to act without even realizing what he was doing and saying, it would be Saint Peter. It is a good part of what makes him so fascinating. In this book, Peter truly can’t understand why he does what he does - and I think that is exactly as it should be. Everything from amazing courage - even recklessness - to senseless cowardice, and from brilliant insight to the ability to miss the obvious: all of us know someone like this, who is both loveable and irritating.

I’ll also note that Mulligan sticks closely to his purpose: a first person narrative of the details. There is no digression regarding the culture of the day, or the theological framework, or much of anything outside of the Gospels and Acts. Don’t expect a full theological tome, or an expanded history. It isn’t a commentary, or a book with an axe to grind.

It is a straightforward and unsensational tale of an ordinary man, impulsive and generous, and his experience with Christ. At less than 120 pages, it is a quick read.

While little will be new knowledge to someone who is well-versed (sorry about the pun) in the Gospel accounts, there were a couple of things that I did notice for the first time.

First, since I am not really a theology nerd nor skilled in the languages of the bible, I missed an interesting point that Mulligan makes in a footnote. In the iconic meeting between Saint Peter and Jesus after the resurrection, where Christ asks Peter if he loves him, much hay, and by that I mean much hay, has been made of the different Greek words used for love in that passage. I have heard quite a few theories about the significance of the words used, and one can easily end up with a theological knot of Gordian complexity. Mulligan takes a slice that seems obvious, once you read it: Jesus and Peter weren’t speaking Greek during this conversation. They were speaking Aramaic. Which doesn’t have the different words for love like Greek does. So, either the writer of the Gospel of John (traditionally believed to be Saint John) used the different words for some point of his own, which wasn’t actually part of the conversation, or he just did it for some random or stylistic reason. (My snarky side wonders if he had a Greek 101 teacher who taught him not to repeat the same word too much, but to look for synonyms…) In any case, it is a reminder that many theological disputes may be rooted in translation semantics rather than the plain will of God.

The other thing that I hadn’t really considered was just how weird Peter’s name - or rather nickname - was. Maybe we consider nicknames to be a common part of our experience, but when Simon was dubbed “Peter,” it really was a strange name. Probably even stranger than Dwayne Johnson’s eventual appropriation of Peter’s moniker. If one may be so bold, “You shall no longer be Jesse, but shall be called, ‘The Body.’” Or something like that. (Pro wrestling meets theology?)


If you want to get this book, Amazon is probably your best bet, as I do not know how widely available it is elsewhere.

One quibble I have is that, for some reason, it isn’t currently available on Kindle. I can’t imagine it would be that hard to make available in that format as well.

For another book on the disciples, see my review of John MacArthur’s book.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reading With My Kids: Homer Price and Centerburg Tales by Robert McCloskey

Source of books: I own these.

I chose to read these two related books to the kids because they were some of my favorites when I was a kid. My oldest daughter had already read them herself, but was happy to hear them again.

Robert McCloskey was an author and illustrator of children’s books. Although his output was fairly small, what he did write were enduring classics.

Homer Price and Centerburg Tales are a matched set, both featuring Homer, a boy, probably 11 or 12 years old, living in a stereotypical small midwestern town in the 1940s. The denizens of the town are the source of gentle humor and wry observation.

McCloskey also illustrated the book, and his drawings are a part of the charm. 

The books are both a fond look at small town life and a good-natured satire on the foibles of small town America. Homer is more sophisticated than the rest of the kids - and most of the adults, but he isn’t cynical or sour about the silliness and gullibility of the rest of the town at all. He takes it all in good-natured stride, helping out when he can, and even preserving the dignity of the resident teller of tall tales.

McCloskey pokes fun at snake oil salesmen, automated machines, earworms, marketing, comicbook heroes, tract homes, and more. The highlights (at least in my opinion) would have to be the unforgettable incident with an out-of-control automatic doughnut maker, and the greatest product of all time: “Eversomuch-more-so.”

The San Luis Obispo farmer’s market has a stand employing one of these.
Let’s just say that the kids love watching it…

In fact, “Eversomuch-more-so” has been a running joke between my wife and me for years. (She also loved the books as a kid.) The idea that the placebo effect could be reduced to an invisible, tasteless, odorless product in attractive packaging is pretty funny. As Grandpa Herc (the teller of tall tales) put it, back in his day, you could buy it in bulk, and it wasn’t nearly as expensive…

There’s lots more, of course, from giant ragweed to a new twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Throughout, McCloskey shows a sense of humor combined with goodwill, with even the worst of characters (a group of robbers) eliciting a little sympathy for their hard luck. The imperturbable Homer keeps his head throughout, unfazed by the hilarity that surrounds him.

The name Homer is merely one of the many classical Greek names used throughout. Besides Hercules, Ulysses and Telemachus get characters of their own.

I don’t wish to spoil any more of the books than I already have, so I won’t give any further detail.

I’ll just end with a quote of the earworm song that is so, so much fun to say - and kept the kids in stitches every time I said it. The concept is take from a short story by Mark Twain, which McCloskey references in the story.

Sing hi-diddle-diddle,
For a silly little vittle.
Sing get-gat-gittle,
Got a home in the middle.
Sing dough-de-dough-dough,
There’s dough, you know.
There’s not no nuts
In you-know-whats.
In a whole doughnut
There’s a nice whole hole.
When you take a big bite,
Hold the whole hole tight.
If a little bit bitten,
Or a great bit bitten,
Any whole hole with a hole bitten in it,
Is a holey whole hole
And it JUST - PLAIN - ISN’T!

Say that nice and fast with a good lilt, and it can’t help but be funny.

These two books fortunately still remain in print, and are readily available in paperback. I consider them to be indispensable children’s classics that should be part of everyone’s library. 

Update 2020:

I re-read this with my youngest this year, and figured I might comment on that experience. One of the things that has changed about my blog since I wrote this post in 2014 is that I am more likely to criticize books, rather than just mention the good parts.

I still love these books, but do feel I should mention that there are a few wince-worthy references to Native Americans which are very much of the 1940s when these books were written. Beyond just the use of "Indians," there is a reference made by an elderly character (Grandpa Hercules, teller of tall tales) to "Indian uprisings" and some stereotypes that have not aged well. To a degree, it appears that it is Grandpa Herc, the old guy who isn't quite with the times, who makes these, and it does not really appear the kids share those values. However, I did feel a bit uncomfortable and took time to discuss it with my littlest. (Age 9, so plenty old to understand things.) The sad thing is, the tall tales are otherwise funny, and one just wishes that McCloskey had avoided the stereotyping altogether.

On the plus side, African Americans are portrayed as everyday citizens of the town, and participate in events as seeming equals. Centerburg appears to be an integrated town, with no Jim Crow laws, and the diner is open to all. That's pretty progressive for the 1940s. So, some good, some bad on race.

That said, most of the book is thoroughly unobjectionable and delightful. It is fun to read aloud, has a great vocabulary, and so much imagination. I still reference the books on a regular basis, most recently "Experiment 13" regarding the mystery seeds from China. But also earworms, "Punch Brothers," Ever So Much More So, and the donut machine that wouldn't stop. Oh, and the giant balls of yarn, which seem relevant to living with a knitter.

Note on another McCloskey book:

I didn’t discover Blueberries for Sal until I already had a wife and a kid. However, my eldest daughter looked just like Sal when she was one year old. She also loved blueberries, and would have done exactly what Sal does…

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signaling

Social Signaling

When you see a man in a turban walking down the street, what do you think?

Many would think “Muslim.” Those of us who live in cities with a high (Asian) Indian population would tend to think “Sikh” - particularly if that style of turban was sighted.

This is a Sikh turban (a Dastar). Note that it is peaked in the middle, although there are other styles.
Also, Muslim turbans are not usually blue or orange.
This is actor Saif Ali Khan.

That is a great example of social signaling. The clothing indicates membership in a particular group.

Similarly, if you see a family with lots of kids dressed in matching outfits with the girls in denim jumpers, you would tend to think “homeschoolers of a certain sort.” (The Duggars, perhaps?)

Or how about this one? Do you recognize the look?

These are the dresses worn by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the polygamist Mormon sect formerly run by the now incarcerated Warren Jeffs. During our recent trip to Utah, I saw a woman in one of these dresses - except it was navy blue. She was out in the 105 degree heat in it - and these are heavy wool, not light cotton.

Again: social signalling.

We are part of a particular group with particular beliefs.

“Modesty culture” is all about the same thing. Signalling to other members of the group - and to outsiders - membership in the group.

To dress like those in society at large is to identify with that society to some degree. To dress counter to that society is to signal that one is not part of that society, but rather part of a counterculture. This was done by hippies and goths in the past as well. It was a way of signalling disdain for mainstream culture and for those who chose to participate in it.

Likewise, Modesty Culture is, in part, a way to signal disdain for modern culture and for those who are part of it. 

This is one reason why I believe that it is so important to understand the origin of “modesty culture.” Reconstructionists like Bill Gothard and Douglas Phillips are expressly about the establishment of an alternative culture that will eventually take political power over the mainstream.

Social signaling is crucial to this. The members of the Reconstructionist army must recognize each other, and must differentiate themselves from the “evil” society. They must also not associate with the “enemies of God,” those “sinners,” any more than is absolutely necessary.

The so-called “enemies of God” are to be defeated, destroyed, not fraternized with.

This is attractive to much of conservative Christianity as well. We are the “godly” ones. They are the “sinners.” We must be able to tell the difference, and the social signalling of clothing is an easy way to do it.

Because it is SO IMPORTANT that we know who it is okay for our children to associate with, of course.

We can’t have them contaminated by “sinners.”

What kind of sinners? Well, we aren’t all that worried about greedy people or gluttonous people, and we seem to buy a lot of books by liars. Arrogant or greedy people seem to be fine: we even love them as preachers.

As I have worked to write this series, it has come to me that there is one sin that we feel we need to socially signal our opposition:

Premarital sex, particularly by females.

What finally caused this epiphany is hearing otherwise decent people refer to “young girls who dress like hookers.”

Since the percentage of women who are actual prostitutes in the United States is about as low as any time in history, and very, very few of the women who supposedly “dress like hookers” actually are hookers; it seems as if this might be a bit rich of a claim.

But then I thought about it in the context of social signaling.

We believe that any sex outside of wedlock (by a female) is whoredom. Any woman who puts out before marriage is a whore. Anyone who does not believe in strict celibacy before marriage - meaning pretty much all non-religious folk - is a whore. Ergo, to dress like a normal person in the culture is to send the social signal that one is not making (female) celibacy a priority. That’s how one dismisses a huge portion of the younger population as “sluts.”  

It also leads us to think of ourselves as superior to everyone else. We can be self righteous about this, and never address the deeper issues of rape culture and misogyny. We can go to the mall and decide who is good and bad by their clothing, and pat ourselves on our backs.

“Thank GOD we are not like other men.”

This sounds like the Pharisees

Yes. Yes it does. Focusing on the outward appearance. Making rules to separate the truly “godly” from the “sinners.”

And it also does this: it communicates some specific ideas.

First, it communicates that one adheres to a specific philosophy of responsibility for sexual sin. As another fellow blogger put it, “These clothing choices are not so much a fashion statement as they are an ethical and moral statement about the perceived responsibility women have for a man’s thoughts.”

It also communicates this idea:

“We few understand what it means to be godly. All women who fail to meet our standards are evil sluts. We are the ones God loves more.”

To paraphrase Matthew 23:5-7 (NIV):

"Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their dresses phylacteries wide and their skirts the tassels on their garments long, they love the place of honor on reality shows at banquets and the reputation as the most godly family most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the home school conferences marketplaces and to be called “Godly example” 'Rabbi' by others.”

As Peter Enns puts it, this view of ourselves as superior and the only “true” believers reflects our view of God as “fundamentally hacked off, retributive, touchy, demanding of theological precision, uncompromising, takes-no-prisoners-and-gives-no-quarter, whose wrath needs to be appeased so watch your step.”

“Whether or not we are even aware of it, how we act reflects what we deeply believe. In fact, as Christians, there is no truer measure of what we really believe God is like, deep down, the God that really drives us and energizes us, our life source, than how quickly we feel the need to erect walls and continually narrow the borders of who is in and who is out.”

This is never more true than within Modesty Culture. We are truly energized by the need to erect walls and keep unacceptable people out.

I am also reminded of an amazing anonymous poem that my pastor has quoted on numerous occasions:

Believe what I believe - no more, no less,
That I am right, and no one else confess,
Feel as I feel, think only as I think,
Eat what I eat and drink what I drink;
Look as I look, do only as I do,
Then, and only then, will I fellowship with you.


And, it goes without saying, “dress as I dress.”

Social signalling. Who do we fellowship with, and who are the “sinners” who are too unclean for us to be around?

We shall know them by the clothes they wear…


In the next installment, I will continue this train of thought as I demonstrate that the statement common within Christian Fundamentalism, “Others may, we cannot,” is a bald-faced lie.

Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signalling
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story

Note on Social Signalling and Gender Roles:

Beyond the simple “we are the ones that don’t have sex before marriage” signal, clothing sends others.

For the typical home school “Modesty Culture” look: denim jumpers, dresses only on girls, no jeans, and other tenets of Gothardism and Vision Forum, this also sends some other cultural signals. That family also will believe in “courtship” or “betrothal” rather than dating. Typically, they will believe in extremely limited physical contact before marriage - and often no falling in love either. 

A lesser standard of dress, but still combined with an obsession with clothing typically indicates some freedom within the courtship or dating relationship, but still set lines about physical contact, and perhaps an aspiration that the wedding kiss be the first one.

There is more, though. The most strict dress codes within Christian culture - like those in Islamic countries - are linked to specific views about the subjugation, congenital inferiority, and rigid retrograde roles for women. More relaxed, but still strict standards indicate a strong belief that women should stay home when they have children, that women should marry if possible, and that women should be submissive. These are obviously just guidelines, and tend to apply more to families than to the individuals within them, but they definitely can serve as useful signals as to what a family believes.

Particularly as I have observed it within the home school movement, the signalling functions as a way that parents can identify “likeminded” families that subscribe to most or all of the same basic cultural beliefs. This is particularly important for families looking for spouses for their young men and women.

You want a daughter-in-law that will stay home with the kids, have a huge family, not kiss until the wedding, and be properly submissive to your son? Look for the girl with the long hair, denim jumper, and one of her baby siblings always attached. In theory, one should be able to avoid the girl who might want a career, or be assertive, or not home school the grandkids, and so on. And you should be able to avoid the girl that might not absolutely clamp her knees together until “man and wife.”

Not that it exactly works out this way in practice…

Note on clothing eras and social signaling:

I noted in my previous post that clothes that show the same amount of skin are viewed differently depending on the era invoked. This fits well with the concept of social signalling.

If one dresses to look like the 1920s, say, or the 1950s, one could (arguably) be making a statement that one agrees with the values of those eras. To dress like a 1950s housewife could signal that one believes in the suburban dream: a stay at home mom, washing the dishes in heels and lipstick and all that. One could say “I am Donna Reed.”

I am less sure about the 1920s, but tend to assume that most people think “my grandmother looked like that” without actually knowing what the Roaring ‘20s were actually like. 

It is a bit disconcerting that there is this strong push to return to the past. More than that, really, to return to the culture of the past, the attitudes and trappings of the past. We just wink and nod at the racism, the misogyny, the child labor, the disease, the neglect of the poor and disabled, the far higher violent crime rates, the acceptance and embrace of spousal and child abuse, the evils done in the name of colonialism and Manifest Destiny, and so much else the characterized these past eras. Why? Well, because women weren't as likely to have sex before marriage, and they were punished brutally if they did. (And women knew their place. And more people called themselves Christians.) If we could just go back in time to the glory days by recreating the cultural trappings of that era, we could create a new golden age. I recommend my review of Frank Kermode's excellent book, The Sense of An Ending for more on this.

The past has become an idol, the source of cultural "salvation," which is why Evangelicalism is currently propping up its rotting, worm-eaten carcass, while the next generation turns away in embarrassment. 

Christianity and isolationism:

I am a bit concerned with a trend within Evangelicalism and conservative Christianity over the last several decades toward isolationism. It is particularly strong within the homeschool movement, but it seems to be creeping into the mainstream. It is very much an “us versus them” mindset, with “secularism” - meaning in practice all people who are not doctrinaire Evangelicals - as the enemy.

I have been shocked to find out how many people I know have zero friends that do not share their religious and political beliefs - particularly among women. Many people only read “Christian” books, only listen to “Christian” music, only talk to other Christians (and only Republicans), and often only Christians of the same flavor. (Say, only Calvinists or Young Earth Creationists, for example.)

For Gothardism and its relatives, this is intentional. We were encouraged to only associate with “likeminded” people, because we would otherwise have our morals contaminated. These ideas are continuing to spread within the larger church, however.

One of the reasons that I am concerned about this is that isolation leads to extremism. One of the great books I read earlier this year was Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein.  It turns out that when any group contains only “likeminded” people, the group becomes more extreme in its positions than any of the individuals were before joining the group. This tendency hold true for all likeminded groups, from terrorist cells to appellate judge panels. It applies on the left and the right, and to non-religious as well as religious groups.

Thus, isolationism causes extremism. Modesty Culture actually serves as a pretty good demonstration of this. Take a look (if you haven’t already) at part 3 of this series, where I show just how far the rules have gone: to the point where ordinary breast movement during exercise is considered to be “immodest” to a majority. If all you ever are exposed to are people who think this way, the rules get stricter and stricter - and the obsession more and more extreme. 

Note on exclusion:

One of the worst effects of this exclusion is that it sends the message to the vast majority of non-religious people that in order to be part of Christianity, they must first change their manner of dress to a form of protest against mainstream culture.

It is very much similar to requiring circumcision or adherence to Old Testament ceremonial law. First, change yourself to match our cultural preferences, and then - and only then - can you be part of the Kingdom.

Again, why are we so surprised that we are losing young people, and why we don’t seem to be making converts outside of church culture?

Note on Purity Culture...for girls:

I already mentioned this in part 8, but a key part of Modesty and Purity Culture is the assumption, the fundamental belief, that, for women, “Your virginity is the best gift you can ever give to your future husband.”

As should be obvious by this point, this is a no-win situation for girls. It’s hardly unique to Christianity, however. We have simply put a new name and a new face on the same old double standard that has existed for millennia and across religious, cultural, and geographical lines.

For your consideration, a study on “sexting.” Columnist Amanda Marcotte’s analysis is spot on:

“In addition, girls who didn't sext were also described as ‘goody girls’ or ‘stuck up.’ So while the technology is new, the ancient sense of male entitlement to demand sexual favors and then mock those who provide them is the real issue at stake here.”