Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church by A.C. Graziano

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I received is the first edition, which has a number of typos I am told were fixed in the second edition.

From the Cross to the Church

This book is a basic introduction to the subject of the creation of the canonical New Testament and the formation of the Roman Catholic church from the early community of Christian believers.  It covers what scholars now believe (although there are great differences in opinion among Biblical scholars as to details) as to when the books were written, by whom as far as can be determined, and where they might have been altered to match then-current concerns.

This is a fascinating subject for those interested in learning more about where the Scriptures came from.  It is likely to be less pleasing to one whose framework for interpreting the Bible requires it to be immutable, and by the writers tradition has assigned, directly inspired by God.

I found this volume poorly organized, with bullet points not always recapping the previous material, and inserted in non-intuitive places.  A chapter on documentary sources of Genesis is just sort of plopped down at the end.

The author does not claim any original research, describing himself instead as a “journalist.”  To that end, the list of sources at the end of the volume, ranked by importance and accessibility (but not by credibility, let the reader beware!) may be of more use to the interested scholar.

If you need a quick introduction to the concepts covered here, this book will do.  For better choices, consult your pastor or a Biblical scholar of your acquaintance

Book Review: Christians at the Border

Book Review: Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R.

Disclosure:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Christians at the Border

Daniel Carroll is a professor of Old Testament at Denver,  whose mother was Guatemalan, and who has divided his time between the U.S. and Guatemala since he was young.    As such, he has ties to both mainstream American and Latino culture.  In this updated edition (first version published in 2008) he speaks to the issue of immigration from a Biblical perspective.

He covers the history of immigration, primarily Hispanic, into the U.S. starting in 1848, and its ebbs and flows.   There’s a look at the question of  cultural identity and the economic impact of illegal immigration.  Unlike many articles on the subject, he also writes about the effect on the countries the immigrants are from.

Then he really warms to the theme of the Christian dimension of Hispanic immigration, citing its invigorating effects on American religious life, and an understanding of the “sojourner” theme in the Bible.   He refers to several different experiences in the Old Testament of immigration, including the stories of Ruth and Esther.

The book also looks at the Old Testament laws regarding “the stranger and the foreigner in your midst.”   Mr. Carroll claims this is different from similar law codes of the same time period in the Middle East because those others do not have laws to deal with immigration, and because they are influenced by the Hebrew people’s own experience in Egypt.

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  Leviticus 19:34

Turning to the New Testament, Mr. Carroll admits Jesus didn’t say anything about the specific topic of immigration, but he did spend time reaching out to the despised and those outside Judean society.  The parable of the Good Samaritan indicates that tribal identification is less important than a person’s behavior to determine who is a “neighbor” to be loved.

!st Peter extends a metaphor of all Christians as sojourners in strange lands.  And last, Mr. Carroll examines Romans 13, which is often used as a “clobber text” against undocumented immigrants.  If they are here illegally, they are breaking the law, and we need give them no further consideration, end of discussion.  But he feels this text should be examined in the context of Romans 12; discerning submission, rather than blind obedience.

The book wraps up with a call to Christians to make their decisions on how to treat immigrants, legal or otherwise, with a view to what the Bible teaches and the example of Jesus.

The text is clear and in understandable language, with a logical progression of thought.  The introduction by Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference is a bit more jargon-laden.  There’s also an afterword by Ronald J Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action.

For further study, there’s an appendix of resources including websites, both pro- and anti-immigration.  There are extensive endnotes and a small index.

This book will be of most interest to Christians, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, searching for perspective on the issue of immigration.   People interested in the immigration issue who are not Christian might also find it helpful to understand the Biblical perspective.

To quote again, May the Lord illumine us and grant us understanding.

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