In Brief : The Underwater Welder

Sometimes, you log in to Amazon for the one moment a graphic novel on your wish list has dropped 75% in price. And in that moment, you buy The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire. Though Lemire dwells often in the superhero realm, Welder is the story of an ordinary man facing his past in order to face his future. It is an exploration of pressure crystallized on the black and white page.

The Artwork

The Underwater Welder is a story in ink mixed with grayscale watercolor. Damon Lindelof compares the story to an episode of the Twilight Zone in his introduction. The gray palette certainly helps, and enables some of the artistic effects, many of which are designed to nearly freeze a moment in time and allow the reader to think:

There are instances in the book where Lemire breaks a still shot into six panels. As a reader, I loved this effect as it forced me to survey the scene with particular interest. Creative application of such simple concepts add depth to a moment.

There are recurring liquid moments – perhaps a necessity in an underwater novel. Among these, there are plip panels which feature a drop falling into a puddle. They are distributed throughout, but they unify the storytelling voice and highlight moments within the broader context.

What often moves a story from quaint to profound, and what is perhaps my favorite overall feature of the art, is the author’s apparent trust in the moment he created. Beautiful visual stories let the human intellect do a little bit of the work. Storytellers who leave nothing to the imagination often steal from their own work because they remove their readers/viewers from the process. Lemire lets seconds linger in simplicity in such a way that invite engagement. He brings numerous moments to a standstill without telling the reader what to think.

The Story

The Underwater Welder tells the story of Jack Joseph, a father-to-be who works beneath an offshore oil rig as a welder. His father Pete, also a diver, died on Halloween when Jack was only 10. Jack is wrestling with generational chains, working to reconcile the past as he faces his own future.

The story, like the art, is simple enough as to be broadly appealing and applicable. Jack Joseph is utterly ordinary, which makes him accessible. But in the details, Lemire establishes a reason to care for his characters, to invest in their circumstance, and to anticipate the resolution.

Early on, Jack has something of a supernatural underwater encounter that stuns and confuses him at first, nearly killing him. With each passing hour, the encounter entrances him and compels him to return to the water.

Where the story goes all Twilight Zone is in the third and fourth episodes. Jack lives out an eerie extended moment derived especially as a revelation for his life. The noise is removed and he is alone with himself. Without spoiling too much, Jack is trapped by the gift of exploring the his father’s death and his present pain. It is marvelously drawn and presented. It was worth the full price of admission… which makes the 75% off even more celebratory!

In the back half, as Jack fights the generational pull to become his perception of his father, the story and artwork move seamlessly in circuit from young Jack to old Jack to old Pete. Lives are intertwined and in the knotted mess, Jack is figuring out what went wrong, what is still yet right, and where his future lies.

The second half of the story rolls downhill at a lively pace. I loved the conclusion, not because it was unforeseeable, but because it had heart. It had gravity and lent itself to contemplation. Jack Joseph’s life was colored by the complicated life and death of his father. Jack Joseph’s life was about to become the brush that would color his own child’s beginning. This is the tapestry of humanity, and it is worth exploring in all its ordinary glory.

Ultimately, The Underwater Welder is a story about the revelatory power of pressure. Pressure can crush things, leaving only pieces. Pressure can also chip away the brokenness to reveal integrity. Jack’s story, and the destiny of his family, lie in the human response to immense pressure.

A Worthwhile Read

Even as a graphic novel, The Underwater Welder is a welcome moment apart from the noise of life to explore and ponder the complexities of the human soul, a chance to consider the effect of sin that lingers from one generation to the next, an opportunity to weigh the significance of the father/son relationship, and an entertaining and visually engaging read to boot.

Jeff Lemire has set the table for a number of interesting conversations. Grab a cup of coffee and jump in.

 

 

In Brief : The Road

As I’ve read various everyman reviews for Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel, The Road, I’ve realized that it can be a polarizing story. There are those who see it as a marvelous tale of sacrificial love and hope. There are others who can’t stand the abandonment of punctuation and the repetitively repetitive nature of it all.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic story of survival featuring a nameless man and his nameless son in an ashen and dreary world. Without crops, animals, or even the sun, the world is on the brink of extinction. The two travel the road in search of life and survivors, though trust is also in short supply as many have turned to crime and cannibalism.

The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2007, so it must get something right. But to be honest, I can sympathize with the detractors. Since I finished it this weekend, I’ve come to call it the best worst book I’ve read in a long time. My thoughts are all over the map here, and I could write for days… but since the title says In Brief… 

The Best

Cormac McCarthy drew me in deep with his mastery of English vocabulary. In a world that is gray and barren, he unearths a great variety of words to communicate grayness and barrenness. He draws on language to reveal depths of despair and courage, and for that I am in awe. His prose is elegant.

The dialogue between the man and his son is often cold and distant like the world they traverse – serving a thematic purpose – and is apparently drawn from McCarthy’s own personal relationships.

Given the dire situation, there is no shortage of suspense as they come upon decrepit dwelling after dwelling. The man’s deliberate drive to find sustenance in sketchy places alongside the boy’s hesitation and fear at what else they might find create a fantastic tension both in the story and in their relationship.

Providing contrast and complexity in the characters, the man looks upon every surviving human with skepticism, the boy with compassion. This creates an internal/emotional tension that nicely expands the situational elements.

The Road contains the elements of greatness… which is why it is the best worst book that I’ve read in some time.

The Worst

The artist in me wants to believe that McCarthy left out the punctuation used in the top half of the line (quotations & apostrophes) in order to highlight the glass being half. Half full? Half empty? I suppose that’s a matter of perspective.

The writer in me wants to believe that he left it out in order to blur the lines between the man, his son, and anyone or anything else they happen to encounter. Why attribute words to particular persons when all are simply seeking survival in a blurry world?

The reader in me thinks his prose is strong enough that the lack of punctuation is annoying. McCarthy’s writing doesn’t require tricks. If a device must be overlooked in order to enjoy the book, it’s not worth including.

The characters, while complex, are also quite flat. Just like the world they inhabit, the characters encounter little growth or change (which, I know, is probably the point). I might have enjoyed this aspect more if McCarthy had explored the past a little more or further utilized their dialogue/dreams/flashbacks/thoughts to a greater extent.

I was losing heart in the middle of the book. I really didn’t want to finish. But I read a few reviews (without spoilers) that said, I’m so glad I stuck with it to the end. And so I persisted.

Love and Courage Without Hope

McCarthy’s man embodies sacrifice and survival. He lives for the boy’s wellness. The barren world places them in a situation where flight is not a viable option (from the situation or the accompanying suffering), and so the beauty of his love is that it gives all in the face of insurmountable odds.

McCarthy’s boy is the image of cautious trust, wanting to see goodness yet painfully aware of the reality of evil. He possesses an appropriate and surprising childlike faith, both in his father as protector and provider, and in an uninformed notion of God as a grounded source of black and white amid the world presented as eternally gray.

But while I applaud the complicated relationship of father and son, I diverge from the multitudes in the misguided notion that there is any lasting hope on The Road. McCarthy gives no room for ultimate hope. There is no food. No sunshine. No possibility of growing or cultivating livelihood. Mentions of an eternal reality are hollow at best. Everyone will die, and soon. The only revealed mission of every living human is to consume what remains.

The Road is hopeless. The man’s love has no ultimate relevance because it serves only to prolong both his and the boy’s pain in a world which boasts not even the slightest glimpse of light. The boy’s trust is charming but McCarthy gives no reason to believe he’s accomplished anything but finding a bigger family to die alongside.

Through his apocalypse, McCarthy lifts the veil of worldly distraction and comfort, and exposes the emaciated core of a materialistic worldview. On The Road, it doesn’t matter where we came from or how we got here, because ultimately we’re not going anywhere and so it doesn’t matter which way we go. Love merely serves to make the hopeless tolerable.

If the story meant to convey hope, the least the man could have done was tell the boy about love, beauty, and the colorful world he once knew. Instead, he suppressed it all as dangerous. He prepared the boy for an eternally ashen existence of militant survival.

I might like to ask Cormac McCarthy why he would bother to compose such aesthetic prose to tell the story of a man who refused to allow his son to even imagine color.

There is a journey. But without an anchor upon which to rest questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny, The Road leaves us only to eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

Best worst book.

 

Homeschool Dad : On Chess

Having finished the first year, I’ve been preparing our portfolios for review and giving thought to next year’s curriculum and objectives. It makes sense, then, that I’ve also been reflecting on the year’s highs and lows and evaluating potential changes.

One last-minute subject that I never would have intended to teach were it not for a couple of well-timed blog posts is chess. I’ve long appreciated the game, even if I’ve never spent intentional time considering strategies. I can honestly say I learned alongside the kiddos, and that at this point it is only a matter of time before they far exceed my capabilities.

For a text, I chose two books. The Batsford Book of Chess for Children (book links to Amazon) by Sabrina Chevannes was the favorite. Chevannes introduces the game using the framework of a conversation between a comic brother and sister, top-notch color graphics, and enough humor to engage the kiddos. (Star Wars references are helpful!) Our students (age 9, 9, and 7 at the outset) loved it, understood it, and looked forward to it weekly.

Chess for Children by Murray Chandler became our supplementary text. This bare-boned presentation rests on the same level as Batsford. Though a little cluttered and monochrome, there are tremendous paper exercises throughout this book that proved useful.

For a schedule, we chose Mondays for lessons, and three days throughout the week for individual games. While one of the kiddos would read aloud to me, the other two would face off. As the year rolled on, we added notation to their games so that they could practice writing, reading, and reliving games.

Once we finished the text, we began reviewing tournament matches as a way of introducing opening strategies. Thanks to chessgames.com, we were able to visit a number of classic master matches and see how a variety of players utilized particular opening moves. The kiddos particularly enjoyed meeting Bobby Fischer and his King’s Indian.

Perhaps the nerdy dad highlight of the year was the first time the kiddos responded to an aggressive bishop capture with a boisterous OH!, or a queen sacrifice with a loud WHAT?!? as if they had just watched Randy Johnson blow up a bird.

To sum up, teach them chess. Teach them to think abstractly and strategically. Rejoice when they work together as a team to defeat you. Be afraid when you realize your now-8yr old daughter traps your queen – on purpose. Celebrate when they challenge random college students to games and win. Delight in the development of a wholly different portion of their amazing brains!

In Brief: Work Matters

2016 - Work MattersTitle: Work Matters
Author: Tom Nelson

Pages: 203 (plus notes)

Because of a forthcoming Sunday school series on the topic of vocation, I have been on the lookout for simple but helpful writings to supplement our secondary resource. I came across this book by Tom Nelson at the college library. Because of the author’s association with TEDS (I have much respect for the institution!), the recommendation by Ravi Zacharias, and the trendy cover (by which, sadly, you can occasionally judge an actual book), I decided to give it a shot.

I am glad I read the book, and I would gladly have given it 4 stars had it not been for the 9th chapter. Sadly, I considered 2 stars because of the 9th chapter. Harsh? Perhaps. But there are certain subjects that have such an effect on me.

I’ll start with the merits, and there are many:

Nelson is faithful to advocate for a “robust doctrine of vocation.” He is personally and pastorally committed to connecting Sunday worship to Monday work. I am a fan of this aspect of his ideology. Far too many churches elevate Sunday at the expense of the other six days of the week, providing an experience instead of equipping the saints to live. Nelson is determined to reclaim Sunday as not only a day of worship, but also of thankfulness, encouragement, and preparation for a life of worship. After all, if worship means to ascribe worth, then certainly we should desire to ascribe worth to the person and work of Christ through a life of faith by God’s grace.

 

“It is not a question of whether we are being formed spiritually, but rather, are we being spiritually formed in the inexhaustible riches of the gospel as we live and work in the already and not yet kingdom reign of Christ.” (p. 107)

 

Even if not by conscious decision, Christians live in danger of equating church work with ministry. Nelson advocates (I would say, rightly so) the intentional application of matters of the gospel to the many and varied vocational callings of Christians. The church does not exist that the world may run to us, but rather we are called to be the body of Christ exactly where the Lord finds us. If we fail to communicate God’s good – and now redeemed – plan for everyday work, our brothers and sisters in the faith may struggle with dissatisfaction and discontent at the life and means provided by God’s grace, wishing away six of every seven days just to get back to Sunday.

Nelson also strongly defends God’s common grace, and the connection between work and the common good. The value in work is found, not in compensation or benefits, but rather in God-ordained human contribution to the common good of creation. Early in the work, Nelson pronounces the value of work like this:

 

“Not only would the crown of creation (referring to humanity) have joyful intimacy with their Creator, but they would also be given the joyful privilege of contributing to the work of God in his good world.” (p. 24 emphasis mine)

 

God provides for his creation through common means. Human connection is one such glorious means. We use the gifts and talents endowed to us as a contribution, an offering to the benefit of the Father’s world. This was God’s plan. In Christ, we have the opportunity again to find the true value of work as a gift of God, an avenue of sacrificial worship in his name, and a distinct way to love others. Our misunderstanding (or sinful dismissal) of the value of every vocational calling leads us to undervalue work, or worse yet to undervalue the image-bearers God has gifted to perform the work.

Nelson also spends time on the significance of work in the believer’s sanctification. Work provides one crucible in which the Christian is sanctified, molded in holiness through common trials and successes. Considering the hours of life spent in vocation, a failure to understand the value of work could easily result in decades wasted with regard to the intentional pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness. If we believe ministry and worship only happen on Sunday, then we will surely downplay the spiritual significance of work.

It is in the matter of trials that I offer my only disappointment in the book. Chapter nine addresses the challenges of work, the dangers and temptations of working in a fallen world. From matters of honesty to sexuality, the workplace is yet another setting in which humanity unfortunately displays the depth and outworking of original sin. I do not disagree with Nelson’s premise, but rather his proposed remedy. For a book that so heavily leans on the gospel as God’s means of redeeming work, Nelson leaves Jesus out of the discussion of temptation.

Blatantly absent is the account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Absent is the reality that a Christian’s ability to resist temptation comes from Christ who endured temptation on our behalf (Hebrews 4:14-16). Absent is the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting our hearts. And, sadly, absent is the hope born of the sacrificial blood of Christ, offered for a world full of failures. There is none who is righteous – no not one. 

Subtly, and tragically, present is a works-based righteousness through the mishandling of prominent Old Testament personalities. Daniel made good decisions, so should you. Joseph made good decisions, so should you. Moses made good decisions, so should you, because God blesses good decisions. Chapter nine presents these men as flawless models to emulate, instead of sinners in need of God’s grace. Chapter nine presents these men as heroes to worship rather than sinful and fatally flawed forerunners of the only authentic hero. Daniel’s good decisions were filthy rags without the sacrifice of Christ (Isaiah 58), as were those of Joseph and Moses. Even their finest work required the purity of Jesus. By the account of chapter 9, God may provide the trap door to escape temptation, but you can take care of the rest on your own.

I would strongly argue for the removal of chapter 9, or better yet crafting it anew in light of grace.

 

In conclusion, the book is good, but not great. I would argue that it lays a wonderful foundation, but that it casts a dangerous gaze away from Christ at a critical junction.

 

 

“All vocations are intended by God to manifest his love in the world.” (Thomas Merton – p. 19)

  “If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. – p. 83)

 

In Brief: Calvin on the Christian Life

2016 - Calvin on the Xn LifeTitle: Calvin on the Christian Life (Theologians on the Christian Life series)
Author: Michael Horton

Pages: 262

As I passed by the closeout section at a not-so-local Christian bookstore, I couldn’t pass this one up for $3.75. I now know this will be my first dip into the Theologians on the Christian Life series. I am happy to have stumbled upon a great bargain, and a great read to start the new year. Broadly speaking, the series aims to get beyond the common caricatures of popular pastors & theologians. Too often, folks grab hold of the wildest imaginative exaggeration of a person’s beliefs and build an unfortunately lasting case. Or, as is often the case with matters of religion, the summaries of critics – written in response to “followers” who themselves misinterpret original intentions – rule the day in terms of determining an individual’s legacy. I am thankful for a series whose outright aim is to dispel the fiction that has all-too-long cast harsh dividing lines among Christian brothers and sisters.

The book is well written and engaging, not a doctrinal defense but rather an engagement of Calvin’s life in light of his beliefs. His writings are widely quoted, not just from the Institutes, but also from letters and commentaries that provide greater insight into the heart behind the weighty texts. It is encouraging to read of Calvin’s engagement with his supporters as well as his critics, of his love for his wife Idelette, and his involvement in matters of the public arena.

I found the final chapter, regarding Calvin’s view of the future life while simultaneously looking at his own death, to be the most moving. In particular, the words of his last will and testament reveal not a cold Christian (again, the all-too-common caricature), but rather a man humbly dependent on the grace of God in the sacrifice of Christ.

 

“I have no other defense or refuge for salvation than his gratuitous adoption on which alone my salvation depends. With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which he has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance. 

I testify also and declare that I suppliantly beg of Him that he may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under his shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment seat. I likewise declare that, according to the measure of grace and goodness which the Lord hath employed toward me, I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach his Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures.

But, woe is me! My ardor and zeal (if indeed worthy of the name) have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. Nay, I even acknowledge that if the same goodness had not assisted me, those mental endowments which the Lord bestowed upon me would, at His judgment seat, prove me most guilty of sin and sloth. For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.” 

 

In his death, he longed to be buried in obscurity, to give all he had to those in need, and to move one step closer to the future life. Never desiring a movement or theological position to be based upon his name, witnesses testify that he spent his final weeks in prayer, attending worship and meeting with friends and city officials. He served the Lord faithfully to the end.

Many of the Reformed church, as well as those under the Calvinist moniker, are known for intellectual and theological rigor. Yet the example of Calvin was one of heart and humility, all too aware of human frailty, yet confident in the goodness of God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Redeemer, and Joy. His views of common grace opened the door to an appreciation of creation and human creativity. His veracity in pursuit of God through the Scriptures is encouraging to any who seek to know God through his inerrant Word.

Indeed, many disagree with his theological positions. But in an age where we reduce individuals to a label, I am grateful for a book (and a series) which serves to restore humanity and compassion to the individuals who so faithfully gave themselves to the bride of Christ.

 

Just finished…

I’m not one to write detailed (or even accurate) book reviews. But since I read (and read, and read, and read), and then talk (and talk, and talk, and talk) to people about things I read, I figured this was, at the very least, an OK idea. If it’s like anything else I do in blog format, I’ll start and then never finish… (see my previous series, which I will someday finish) So let’s see if I can assemble broadly sweeping, mildly coherent thoughts about a book.

ShadowI wrapped up Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic today. Weeks ago, as I was preparing a series of messages for a college fall retreat, I grabbed this book. My series was to be about the biblical narrative of Noah. The morbid notion of “death by water” brought the Titanic to mind.

When I think of survival, and in particular of life-after-survival, I tend to think happy thoughts. Escaping something tragic sounds like a good thing. But one aspect of the biblical flood narrative that always intrigued (and on some levels troubled) me involves the survival of sin after the flood. In other words, if the flood is a picture of deliverance, what are we to do with the continuing stain of sin after the deluge? What are we to do with our (spoiler alert) drunk & naked flood survivor?

These thoughts & questions led me to Wilson’s Shadow.

Of the 700 or so that survived the icy waters of the Atlantic on the morning of April 14-15, 1912, some carried on with a new lease on life. You know, happy stuff.

For so many, though, the sinking of the Titanic was only the beginning of suffering. For so many, the great story of survival tragically carried the weight of living while others had perished. Wilson captures many of these less-than-happy stories in a narrative that shines light on what life was like for those who, though they lived, couldn’t escape the sunken vessel.

Sounds cheery, right?

I found the book quite interesting in considering the biblical story of Noah. Obviously a great deal of my thoughts are speculative, as the Word doesn’t get into the psychology of our beloved ark-builder, but surviving the deluge had to be challenging for him and his family, particularly as the realities of sin and brokenness carried on so powerfully after the waters subsided.

As I read these stories of Titanic’s survivors, I was drawn into their brokenness. Obviously I’ve not experienced their particular despair. I can identify with being a recipient of salvation and yet having to daily struggle with ongoing sin, pain, and shame. I can only imagine, though, the burden of their experience.

One story that really grabbed me was that of Madeleine Astor. Eighteen years old on Titanic, Madeleine was the wife of John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men to die aboard the ship. Young Madeleine inherited a fortune and a lifestyle, conditional (according to Astor’s will) on her remaining a widow for the remainder of her life. She chose to step away from the fortune, marrying a childhood sweetheart four years later. Her life seemed to take one tragic turn after another. She married for a third time in 1932, this time to a prizefighter who would “subsequently leach her of her money and use her as his punching bag.” Tales like Astor’s are apparently more common than you might think among the survivors of Titanic.

Despite the tragic nature of the book, I enjoyed it. On a far different scale, I could identify with the brokenness. As I read story after gray story, I couldn’t help but notice that the trappings of these stories began long before the maiden voyage of the unsinkable Titanic. The pain and shame of the survivors was rooted much earlier and much deeper, only exacerbated by the magnitude of the experience of Titanic.

When I jump into books like these, I look for common experience – on any level. I look for scarlet threads of God’s eternal Truth running throughout. In Shadow, I couldn’t help but see the survival of brokenness. I couldn’t help but see a glimpse of Noah’s life after the flood, the reality of continuing sin and pain. Though it may not have been the author’s intent, Shadow stirred in me a longing for a day when every tear will be wiped away, when death shall be no more, when mourning, crying, pain and the former things have passed away, and One who is greater makes all things new.

If you’re interested, you can check out Andrew Wilson’s book on Amazon