Archive for March, 2008

Book Review: Beer: Tap Into the Art and Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth

Beer: Tap Into the Art and Science of Brewing (1998) by Charles Bamforth is my selection for the March Book-A-Month Challenge: Craft. Creating beer is certainly a wonderful human craft and Charlie Bamforth examines it from historical, global, and scientific angles. In a sense this could be a textbook for a science course on brewing with much detail on the chemistry, physics, and biology involved in making a good brew. For all that it is quite readable, if you keep in mind that my brain skims over the more complex scientific parts.

Here are some facts about beer I learned from this book:

  • Brewing beer is an ancient art going back to prehistoric times. From archaeological evidence at an Egyptian site, brewers Scottish and Newcastle were able to recreate an 3,000-year old recipe which they sold as Tutankhamun Ale. – p. 17
  • Since the late 80’s Coors has shipped their beer from Colorado to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for packaging, bringing a little bit of the Rockies to the Appalachians. – p. 32
  • Boiling, fermentation, and anaerobic packaging of beer are all inhospitable to microorganisms, so drinking beer is often safer than drinking water. Something to remember when traveling abroad. – p. 73
  • Hops are unusual among agricultural products in that their solitary outlet is for brewing. “Although hopping acounts for much less than 1% of the price of a pint of beer, it has a disproportionate effect on product quality and, accordingly, much attention has been lavished on the hop and its chemistry.” – p. 102-103
  • The major starch-degrading enzyme in fermentation is the same as that in human saliva. In some cultures brewers start fermentation with their own spit! – p. 120
  • Brewing is a water-intensive process with as many as 20 liters of water used to create one liter of beer, although many brewers attempt to be much more efficient. – p. 123
  • In medieval times, the strains of yeast used for brewing were known as goddisgoode. “Saccharomyces cerevisae, then, is a busy beast. Apart from being the workhorse of the brewery, it is responsible for the production of cider, wine, spirits, and some other alcoholic beverages. And as every cook knows, it is essential for production of life’s other staple food, bread.” – p. 137
  • Beer is essentially the excretions of yeast. – p. 151-152
  • Filtration is done with one of two filter-aids: kieselguhr which is the fossils of primitive organisms or perlite which is a volcanic glass. – p. 159
  • Beers advertised as not being heat-treated are basically just marketing gimmicks since boiling beer does not significantly affect the flavor. – p. 164
  • Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay played a role in creating the keg when US airmen stationed in East Anglia during WWII did not take a liking to the traditional cask-conditioned ales of England. – p. 167
  • Bamforth claims that being a quality assurance beer taster in a brewery is not as fun as it sounds, although I’d still love to find out for myself. – p. 183

So this is a great book, I’d reccomend to anyone who likes beer, brewing, and/or science.
Incidentally, while reading this book I came across this review of another book about beer, Fermenting Revolution: How To Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher O’Brien, which may be next on my list when I want to read about beer.

Book Review: Googling God by Mike Hayes

I’m a fan of Mike Hayes from the BustedHaloCast so I read his book Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in their 20s and 30s (2007). This thin volume is basically a guide for ministers to young adults in the Catholic Church, although I read it more as a young adult looking for ministry. Like libraries, the Church is good at ministering to children, teens, parents, and the elderly, but skip right over the (unmarried and childless) people in their 20’s and 30’s.

Hayes’ first lesson is the difference between people in their 20’s (the Millenials) and their 30’s (Generation X). Generation X tend to more progressive in their worship and seek community at their churches. The Millenials look more for contemplative worship and are more orthodox in their beliefs (or at least seek hard and fast answers to faith questions). Hayes conducts interviews with 6 people of each generation to learn about the typical faith stories of young adults today. I appreciate Hayes honesty when he disagrees with the opinions of the young adults he interviews, but finds value and importance in their beliefs all the same.

In the later chapters Hayes offers useful resources for ministering to Young Adults. This includes a critique of World Youth Day (the Pope’s biennial celebration with Catholic teens and young adults), a checklist for starting a young adult ministry at one’s church, and helpful tips for using technology and new media to attract and retain young adults. This is a very useful resources for those who want to learn about this important ministry written in a warm, readable style. Who knows? Maybe as I grow too old to be a young adult, I may be called to mentor the next generation.

Book Review: The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (2006) by Amy-Jill Levine is like Jesus Before Christianity in that it puts Jesus in a historical context of his time.  Levine is a Jewish scholar with a lifelong interest in Jesus and Christianity.  Her simple thesis for this book is that Jesus was a good Jewish person who taught Jewish people in a Jewish land.  Not a hard concept, but a great amount of Christian scholarship and theology attempts to deemphasize Jesus’ Jewishness whether intentionally or not.

Levine is particularly concerned with anti-Judiasm that arises from certain interpretations of the Gospels and epistles.  This particularly happens when in attempt to set aside Jesus as unique, the Jewish people and/or leaders of his time are depicted as monolithic, obsessively rule-following, unconcerned with the poor and outcast, and particularly oppressive to women.  The danger is that such polar views create dangerous stereotypes of Judaism in the 1st century and today.

This is an excellent work, and I learned a lot about Judaism and Christianity.  It also helps understand and emphasize Jesus and his teachings in new and exciting ways.

Book Review: The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing

Revelation is a difficult book of the Bible to understand so I turned to The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (2004) by Barbara R. Rossing for some insight. I was particularly intrigued by the subtitle since Revelation is known for his scary, albeit symbolic, imagery. First order of business for Rossing is pointedly unraveling the theology of the Rapture. I’ve long known this to be a bogus teaching, but didn’t know a lot of the details. Turns out the Rapture originated less than 200 years ago in a school of thought called dispensationalism and is based on some selective literal readings of scripture verses sprinkled through the Bible mixed with some complete fabrication. Rossing points out the disturbing implications of Rapture belief including a lack of concern among dispensationalists for the earth and its people today as well as our government’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

The second half of the book works through the imagery and symbolism of the book of Revelation. In Rossing’s interpretation, Revelation is a book of love and hope for a future where the earth is renewed and God dwells among us. Not that Revelation is so much a prediction of the future as a depiction of the world in the time it was written when Israel and many other lands were under the wicked domination of Rome. The victory over Rome and evil is led by a meek, sacrificial animal the lamb (representing Christ) who fights not with swords but with words and love. This is a great book for a hopeful understanding of this oft-misunderstood book of scripture.

While “Revelation has acquired the reputation of being a book of considerable blood and terror,” [Lee] Griffith argues, this reputation “may not be so well deserved.” Revelation does not advocate the use of violence or bloodshed. Revelation is more a book about terror defeated than terror inflicted, “which is why worship and liturgy are such a central feature of the book.” – p. 119

As I have suggested, Revelation carefully redefines the word “conquer” to make clear that the Lamb and his followers conquer only by their testimony and faithfulness — not by making war or killing. War is something done against God’s people by evil beasts and by Rome, not something that God’s saints or the Lamb practice in this book. Two verses of Revelation do indeed refer to Jesus as “making war” — Revelation 2:16 and 19:11 — but the way he makes war is crucial. Jesus makes war not with a sword of battle but “by the sword of his mouth.” The word is Jesus’ only weapon — this is a reversal as unexpected as the substitution of a lamb for a lion. These reversals undercut violence by empasizing Jesus’ testimony and the word of God. – p. 121

Revelation gives us eyes to see God’s tree with lights on it, the biblical tree of life in our midst! Revelation gives us eyes to see the whole world with a kind of sacramental vision.

One of the most powerful ways to experience such a sacramental vision is through worship. Whether in first-century Ephesus or on the place where you live today, the “Aha” experience of worship takes you on an apocalyptic journey again and again, bring Revelation’s visions to life through singing, praying, hearing the words of scripture, and sharing in bread and wine. In the liturgy you actually go into heaven to taste and see God’s water of life, given without price. You gather with God’s people at the river, you join with all the living creatures in praising God around the throne. You journey with them to the radiant, holy city, and you taste its gifts, given for you. — p. 161

Revelation’s vision for us, for our world, is a vision in which we do not leave earth behind. Instead, we go more deeply into the world — into the world that God created and still calls “good.” We follow the river flowing under our feet; we see the world with new eyes. The message of Revelation is that the place where we will see the river of God flowing from the throne is in the world, in the middle of our city. The storyline of Revelation ends on earth. — p. 169

Book Review: Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, O.P.

Jesus Before Christianity (1976, 2001) by Albert Nolan, O.P. is a book which removes the lens of Christianity from looking at the historical Jesus, and provides the context for the times in which Jesus lived, walked the Earth, and taught His people. Interestingly, Nolan minimizes Jesus’ supernatural acts and even his divinity, but in a way that more greatly emphasizes the radicalness of the Way He taught. Thus our faith in Jesus as son of God is increased by knowing Him as Jesus the human being. Nolan points how that Jesus never proclaimed his authority nor stated that he was divine and did not even defend himself in his trial, all of which teach us something important about the nature of Jesus.

Nolan pictures Jesus as a prophet for a coming of calamity (conquest by the Romans that would come around 70 AD), who wanted not to lead a military revolt but to protect Israel by having the people change themselves. He showed care for the poor and oppressed at a time when they were though to be beyond saving, and taught healing and forgiveness. The “Kingdom” (a word that in the original Greek refers to both a domain and to the quality of royal power and is not gender specific) of God is discussed thoroughly over several chapters, outlining a very real vision Jesus had for His people on this Earth. Nolan also dissects the confrontation that Christ had with the Jewish and Roman leaders that lead to His execution.

I found this a very interesting and enlightening study of the life of the historical Jesus. It’s a short but dense book, which probably is worth reading again.  Hopefully the passages below will illustrate the quality of this book better than my summary above:

Miracles are often thought of, both by those who believe in them and by those who do not, as events, or purported events, that contradict the laws of nature and that therefore cannot be explained by science or reason. But this is not at all what the Bible means by a miracle, as any biblical scholar will tell you. “The laws of nature” is a modern scientific concept. The Bible knows nothing of about nature, let alone the laws of nature. The world is God’s creation and whatever happens in the world ordinary or extraordinary, is part of God’s providence. The Bible does not divide events into natural or supernatural. God is on one way or another behind all events.

A miracle in the Bible is an unusual event which has been understood as an unusual act of God, a mighty work. Certain acts of God are called miracles or wonders because of their ability to astonish and surprise us. Thus creation is a miracle, grace is a miracle, the growth of an enormous mustard tree from a tiny seed is a miracle, the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the kingdom of God will be a miracle. The world is full of miracles for those who have eyes to see them. If we are no longer able to wonder and marvel except when the so-called laws of nature are broken, then we must be in a sorry state. — p. 41

Jesus’ love for the poor and the oppressed was not an exclusive love; it was an indication of the fact that what he valued was humanity not status and prestige. The poor and oppressed had nothing to reccomend them except their humanity and sufferings. Jesus was also concerned about the middle and upper classes — not because they were especially important but because they too were people. He wanted them to strip themselves of their false values, of their wealth and prestige, in order to become real people. Jesus wished to replace the “worldly” value of prestige by the “godly” value of people as people. — p. 70

The leaders and scholars of Jesus’ time had first enslaved themselves to the law. This not only enhanced their prestige in society, it also gave them a sense of security. We fear the responsibility of being free. It is often easier to let others make the decisions or to rely upon the letter of the law. Some people want to be slaves.

After enslaving themselves tot the letter of the law, such people always go on to deny freedom to others. They will not rest until they have imposed the same oppressive burdens upon everyone (Mt 23:4, 15). It is always the poor and the oppressed who suffer most when the law is used in this manner.

Jesus wanted to liberate everyone from the law — from all laws. But this could not be achieved by abolishing or changing the law. He had to dethrone the law. He had to ensure that the law would be our servant and not our master (Mk 2:27-28). We must therefore take responsibility for our servant, the law, and use it to serve the needs of humankind. This is quite different from licentiousness or lawlessness or irresponsible permissiveness. Jesus relativized the law so that its true purpose might be achieved. — p. 87-88

To believe in God is to believe that goodness is more powerful than evil and truth is stronger than falsehood. To believe in God is to believe than in the end goodness and truth will triumph over evil and falsehood and that God will conquer Satan. Anyone who thinks that evil will have the last word or that good and evil have a fifty-fifty chance is an atheist. There is a power for good in the world, a power that manifests itself in the deepest drives and forces in people and in nature, a power that in the last analysis is irresistible. If Jesus had not believed that, he would have nothing at all to say. – p. 102-103

To save one’s life means to hold onto it, to love it and be attached to it and therefore to fear death. To lose one’s life is to let go of it, to be detached from it and therefore to be willing to die. The paradox is that the person who fears death is already dead, whereas the person who has ceased to fear death has at that moment begun to live. A life that is genuine and worthwhile is only possible once one is willing to die. — p. 139

Book Review: Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints by Thomas J. Craughwell

Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints (2006) by Thomas J. Craughwell is a collection of short essays of Saints who lived rather unsaintly lives. Usually this was before their conversion, of course, but sometimes even after turning their lives to God we see that even the saints are all too human. In fact, Craughwell believes that St. Olaf (patron of one of a parish I worshiped at in Virginia) would not be canonized under today’s rules of sainthood.

This is illustrative to the rest of us ordinary folk in that 1) it’s never too late to turn to God, and 2) while we strive for perfection we’re still human and won’t achieve it. So buck up and do your best like the good people in this book.

The book includes some of my favorite saints, with their sin listed after their name in the chapter heading such as:

I also learned about some interesting saints I was not aware of in the stories of St. Mary of Egypt who after living a life of sexual adventure moved to the desert where she was a hermit for decades and Venerable Matt Talbot, the patron of recovering alcoholics.

Book Review: Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality

Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality (2006) by Lawrence D. Hart refers in the title to the paradox within each of us that we can be drawn to violence and hatred or to the peace and grace of God. The basic question of the book is whether or not a Christian can support war and the simple answer is no. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the ways in which the United States government has interfered militarily in the affairs of other countries for corporations and aims of empire. A central chapter reviews the War in Iraq and how a Christian could not support it as a Holy War.

The author also challenges the hypothetical dilemma asked of pacifists of what they would do should their own loved ones be under attack by a violent intruder. Drawing heavily on an earlier work What Would You Do? A Serious Answer to a Standard Question by John Howard Yoder, Hart shows that there really are many more options than kill or be killed, and that it’s also irrelevant to the question of supporting or opposing a national war effort. Living the Gospel allows for transformative powers both individually and socially.

From my perspective, reading this book was like Hart preaching to the choir. Sadly, I also felt that the many American’s, even Christians, who justify our country’s use of warfare would not be swayed.

Dale Brown has suggested that the holy wars of Hebrew Scriptures are to be understood as miracle stories. Decisive victories against incredible odds were meant to teach people to rely on God rather than on their own military strength. If the entire Old Testament Story of Gideon is read in this light, which seems to be the obvious way to read it, then there is very little support to be found for trust inn nuclear arsenals, military technology that shocks and terrorizes, unproven trillion-dollar defense shields, or for relying on a superpower status that will never end.

It is also possible that the holy war tradition in Scripture is to be understood as a concession by God, so that holy wars represent no God’s original intention but a kind of divine concession. When the people of Israel demand a king, God warns them that if they choose a king an oppressive military complex will dominate their lives [in 1 Samuel 8:7-22]. — p. 52-53

“Contemplation,” therefore, measures what is high above and what is below together. The earthly temple in Jerusalem is built according to the heavenly vision (Exodus 25:8-9). The vision from above determines the course of action below. There are those who say that contemplation is a long, loving look at God, and they are absolutely correct. It is that sustained gaze at God that leads to wisdom of heart, to a conscience of compassion — the mystical knowledge of God’s dream that we are to help make real in our own personal and public situation.

So the unifying theme of this book is the Christian conscience — a conscience that compels all who have heard the transcendent voice of God to do their best to love as God loves, to champion the cause of the poor and vulnerable, to pursue peace, to overcome evil with good, to insist on integrity and truth, and to vigorously oppose injustice and violence. Anne Lamott’s summary interpretation of the teaching of Jesus succinctly describes this idea: “The point is not to hate and kill each other today, and if you can, to help the forgotten and powerless.” — p. 140

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