By Leroy Lawson
Marvin L. Bittinger, The Faith Equation: One Mathematician’s Journey in Christianity (Indianapolis: Literary Architects, 2007).
The Faith Equation is one book I’d have never picked up on my own. I don’t like being reminded of my ignorance. I may know a little about a few things, but I know nothing about mathematics.
But what do you do when the author gives you an inscribed copy? He wasn’t trying to get into this column; he doesn’t know I write it. He just wanted to share his faith with another believer and, because of his vocation, his faith involves a whole lot of numbers.
A MATHEMATICIAN’S PURSUIT
We had only met a few times; he has attended my church, heard me preach. Perhaps that’s how he picked up on my ignorance. His inscription advises, “Just read around the math if it intimidates you.” It did. It does.
Still, I liked the book. He wants his book to be “thought of as using mathematics to enhance a person’s reasoning to relate to God.” I was enhanced. Dr. Bittinger, author of 192 mathematics textbooks, writes humbly, with a true scientist’s devotion to objective truth. He does not make claims he can’t substantiate. When he’s speculating, he says so.
“It is my desire to pursue the character of God,” he writes. In that pursuit he discusses apologetics, evidence for the authority of the Bible, the probability of prophecy, the efficacy of prayer, and other familiar themes—but with the mathematician’s slant. I paid attention when he moved on to string theory and relativity in relation to end times.
Bittinger doesn’t give us the definitive word on these themes. That’s what is so enjoyable about his book. He invites the reader into a rich conversation. His math may intimidate, but he never does. His gentle Christian character shines through. I finished the book determined to get to know this man better. Even if I’ll never understand him!
A GENTLEMAN’S REFLECTIONS
Al Hammond, Stories from Japan, Past to Present (self-published, 2008).
I love the stories missionaries tell, especially when I know the missionaries. I can’t claim Al Hammond as an old friend, though I’d like to. Our paths have crossed over the years, though, and I’ve admired his work in Japan and at San Jose Bible College (now William Jessup University).
Now comes his Stories from Japan, reflections on a lifetime of service, anecdotes that evidence his appreciation for Japanese culture, his missiological insights, his broadening ecumenical spirit, and his never-flagging enthusiasm for seeing the work of the church prosper.
If you want the “dirt” on the sometimes unsavory politics among missionaries, this is not the book for you. Like Marvin Bittinger, Al Hammond is a gentleman. He sees the best in his coworkers and national colleagues.
If you seek the thrills and dramas of life-threatening adventures, once again you’ll be disappointed. He does not sensationalize. But if you are seeking an introduction to the day-to-day challenges of introducing the universal gospel to a resistant and often suspicious culture, where victories are small and infrequent and relationships are built one at a time, this is your book.
My reading was enriched by his inclusion of stories of missionaries I have known or known of: Mark and Martha Maxey, Harold and Leona Cole, Bill and Lois Walker, Isabel Dittemore, Ben Hirotaka, Harold and Lois Sims, Mel Byers, Helen Morse, Robert Morse, Tom Rash, and several others.
A SHARECROPPER’S CONVICTION
Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent, Same Kind of Different as Me (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
“In a way, we is all homeless, just workin’ our way toward home.” So concludes Denver Moore, former sharecropper, vagrant, convict, illiterate urban tough.
After a lifetime on the outside looking in, the well-past-middle-aged African-American finds—or should I say is found out by—a compassionate, determined, wealthy white lady in Fort Worth’s Union Gospel Mission. Deborah and her initially reluctant husband answer God’s call to invest themselves, not just their dollars, in helping the homeless. Especially Denver.
Same Kind of Different as Me is Denver’s story, told in his own voice, and that of the rich white art dealer (Picasso, anyone?) Ron Hall. But the heart of the book is Deborah Hall who, with a love that will not let go, eventually entices Denver off the streets and into the Halls’ hearts. When cancer later strikes Deborah, it is the uneducated but spiritually attuned Denver whose strength carries her and Ron through their trauma.
If you want to know what friendship is, read this book. The teacher is the homeless man. He’s seen too much of a white man’s fishing, his catching-and-releasing, so he won’t let the Halls past his defenses until he’s certain they won’t throw him back. If friendship is for real, he says, it’s forever.
The book grips you like a well-written, deeply probing novel. It doesn’t preach, but directly addresses the horrors of poverty and racism. If you can read and not be convicted that black or white, poor or rich, under the skin you are the “same kind of different as me,” then I guess you are a different kind of different as me.
A NOVELIST’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY
P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest (New York: Ballantine, 1999).
And now comes a writer of well-written, deeply probing novels, P. D. James. Written in her 78th year, Time to Be in Earnest is her “fragment of autobiography.” Friend Bob Wetzel recently passed this one on to me after we disagreed a bit about her latest novel The Private Patient. He probably thought I’d feel better about it after reading her life’s story. I enjoyed it, all right, but didn’t change my opinion about the novel.
James’s autobiography is interesting in itself, but the real value of the book is in her insights. Here are a few of them:
“Youth is the time for certainties. In old age we realize how little we can be sure of, how little we have learned, how little—perhaps—we have changed.”
“I see a difficulty, at least for myself, in accepting such changes as ‘Mother’ or ‘Sister’ [for God]. This is surely to substitute one stereotype for another; since God is spirit He can have no gender.”
“The English have always respected and felt a devotion to their national church, provided they are not expected regularly to attend its services.”
“I think I probably realized even then that I was in danger of confusing worship of God with a strong emotional and aesthetic response to architecture, music and literature, but it seemed to me that religion could be an aesthetic experience and that God should be worshipped in the beautify of holiness.”
Assessing a tableful of theological books available to attendees at a conference, James writes: “Most seemed to me totally incomprehensible. Obviously doctrinally and philosophically they would be well above my understanding, but it seemed that the sentences themselves were incomprehensible, a string of polysyllabic words strung together from which I could get no meaning.”
And my favorite, based on her service on the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England. “The Commission generates more paper than almost any other committee on which I have sat. . . . The bureaucracy of the Church of England would be terrifying if it were efficient.”
James is one of my favorite writers of whodunits. I especially enjoyed A Taste for Death, The Black Tower, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and The Children of Men. She is still writing at 89. Let’s see, that gives me how many more years . . . ?
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.