Month: March 2013

Garry Wills: Why Priests?

Why Priests?, the latest book from author and historian GarWhy Priestsry Wills, is one slippery fish. The provocative title suggests a foundation-shaking argument, but the book is as much biblical history as contemporary critique. At first glance, the title may sound anti-Catholic, but Wills is a Catholic, and even dedicates the book to a priest.

And his argument has nothing to do with church scandals, church politics or past or current leadership.

So slippery is this book that is has two different titles, appearing in most places as Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition and in others as Why Priests?: The Real Meaning of the Eucharist.

I refer to it by the former, as that seems to be most prevalent, but I believe the latter provides a better description of the book. “A Failed Tradition” suggests an accusation or a polemic, but Wills answers the question, “Why priests?” not with slings and arrows, but with scripture and scholarship. It reads more like a history of the priesthood.

And what a curious history indeed. Wills sifts through a Gibraltar-esque mountain of biblical research, interpretation and second and tertiary sources. He explores the familiar (the AAA trinity of theologians: Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas) and the lesser known (Melchizedek). Most of his time is devoted not to priests directly, but to the Eucharist and the New Testament’s Letter to Hebrews.

Overall, this is a fascinating, well-written and -researched book, and I enjoyed the biblical scholarship and moments of philosophy. However, I’m not buying it as an argument against the priesthood. Only in his opening and conclusion does Wills concentrate his energies directly on the issue of priests. The rest is a somewhat tangential flow of information.

I recognize what Wills is doing: He’s searching every back alley and byway for any topic related to the priesthood. But it’s easy for the reader to lose the thread. The subject matter was interesting enough to keep me reading, but at the end of every chapter, I wasn’t quite connecting the material with the thesis.

In the chapter, “A New High Priest,” Wills turns from historian to philosopher, and this is when the book is most compelling. First, he examines the ritual of sacrifice and the logical pitfalls one stumbles upon when making parallels with crucifixion in Letter to Hebrews:

If what Jesus is doing is making out a bequest, the receivers of the bequest are not the receivers of the sacrifice—which is offered to the Father, who can get no benefits from the bequest [147].

Most interesting is the chapter titled, “Who Killed Jesus?” Again, scripture and theology are bound in logical paradoxes. Even Anselm, father of the ontological argument, struggles with the order of the Trinity (a biblical family tree with seemingly circular paternity). Is the Father the prime mover? The Trinity?

Perhaps my favorite paradox is the Eucharist. If the body and blood of Christ is truly present in the bread and wine (transubstantiation), what happens when it comes out the other end? Is Jesus still present post-processing? Apparently, this was, historically, an important topic of theology, and the answer, as you might expect, is a little odd.

In the closing section, Wills lays out his final argument: “If Peter and Paul had no need of priests to love and serve God, neither do we” [256].

I believe this is his elevator pitch. He’s not arguing against Catholicism, he’s not even calling for (nor expecting) the abolishment of the priesthood. He’s simply making a case that, spiritually, priests aren’t a necessary conduit to God.

For that, Wills makes a strong and compelling case.

A Playground for Insomniacs

For some, sleep is a peaceful proposition. For others, like me, lights out has always been more of a punishment. The latter is the intended audience of Evil Hat Productions’DRTB Don’t Read This Book, a collection of 13 waking nightmares for the hard of sleeping.

These stories are set in the world of the Don’t Rest Your Head RPG, which I haven’t played, but seems perfectly designed for someone like me. My loose understanding of the game, based on reading this book (despite the admonition of its title) and researching a little about the RPG, is that it takes place in a dystopian dreamland (Mad City) populated with clockwork cops, shadow stalkers and any other gritty creature your mind can conjure up. You are among the Awake—insomniacs who have stayed up far too long and find themselves within the freak show of Mad City.

The Awake are in quite the pickle. Fall asleep and you die. But stay awake for too long and you’ll go mad and permanently inhabit the nightmare.

This is genius. Having been lifelong frenemies with the Sandman, I recognize this world, and it is more terrifying than most fictional places. Probably because I know what it feels like to go to work on your fourth day awake. I know the psychedelic side effects of clocking out from your graveyard shift and then clocking in at your day job a few minutes later. Things move in ways they shouldn’t, you lag a few seconds behind in every conversation and, worst of all, a mechanical noise fills your ears—not a buzz or a ring, but a machine-like pulsing that clouds thought and creates the sensation that someone is constantly following you.

Hallucinate from staying awake? Been there. That’s why the nightmares within Don’t Read This Book, edited by Chuck Wendig, are familiar territory for me.

And thoroughly enjoyable.

Standouts include Stephen Blackmore’s “Don’t Lose Your Patients,” Mur Lafferty’s “Don’t Bleach Your Memories” and Harry Connolly’s “Don’t Chew Your Food,” but this is a solid anthology front to back.

Gamers, steampunks, urban fantasists and horror fiends will find something to love in here. But those who may enjoy it most are us insomniacs.

Those of us who know that the torture of falling to sleep is worse than any nightmare that may be lurking on the other side.

Hilary Davidson: Evil in All Its Disguises

If I were writing a one-word review of Hilary Davidson’s Evil in All Its Disguises, released March 5, that word would be: incongruous. And it would be a massive compliment.Evil Cover

In this subtle crime novel, the third in the Lily Moore series, Davidson drops us in an Escher-like room of distorted realities. Everything looks normal, just slightly askew, and it’s these atmospheric incongruities that make Evil such an enjoyable read.

For series initiates, such as myself, Lily Moore is a travel writer with a checkered past: a mentally unstable family history; a deceased, junkie sister; a quasi-gangster business tycoon ex who will do anything to get her back. This is the baggage she takes with her to Acapulco to review the once-glamorous Hotel Cerón.

It’s nothing unusual: just another press junket with a circle of travel writers, and a PR flak, she’s known for years. Yet, when she arrives at the hotel, Moore is surprised to find it in disrepair, and disturbed to learn that one of her closest friends on the trip, Skye, is in over her head on an investigative piece. During their brief and baffling conversation, Skye expresses concern for her safety, and then steps away to take a call.

And so the unraveling begins. Skye doesn’t return from that phone call, and nobody at the isolated resort seems concerned. Through her exploration, Lily learns that the hotel is a recent acquisition by her ex’s company, manned by his henchman, Gavin, and before long she realizes she’s been lured to the Hotel Cerón under false and deadly pretenses.

There is a breathless quality to the prose that I enjoyed. The action is tightly contained (the plot unfolds in around 48 hours), and, from one chapter to the next, I couldn’t put it down. Aside from a superfluity of internal dialogue and redundant flashbacks, the writing is well-paced and tightly organized, and Davidson manages to give us a tour of the resort, including the unfinished bungalows, the empty wings and even the rotting interior, without feeling like a travelogue—probably due to her actual background as a travel writer. (To my fellow gluten-intolerants I recommend her Gluten-Free Guidebook blog.)

But as with a travel review, the pros must be weighed against the cons. Evil suffers from an overload of plot twists. The phrase “trust no one” certainly applies. This isn’t all bad, as the finer twists reveal character complexity (and that delicious incongruity). But as the plot turns pile up, they begin to lose credibility.

Evil diverges from the transgressive and brutal horror literature usually reviewed in this space. There’s a cozy quality to the story that is actually kind of refreshing. The book kept me up at night not because it was disturbing, but because it was engaging.

I predict big things for this book, and I’m sure it will earn a deserved place on the best-seller list.