2015 Reading List: Love and Math

Frenkel, Edward. Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality.

I discovered Numberphile back when the -1/12 video went viral. In the course of browsing their videos, I came across Love and Math, since Dr. Frenkel is one of the mathematicians consulted in the videos. The purpose of the book was billed as showing how math-haters can love math, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I didn’t particularly care for this book. It’s half biography, half this-is-the-math-my-life’s-work-is-based-on, and my reaction to the book splits evenly down that line of demarcation. I found the biographical sections fascinating and compelling writing; I found the math sections almost impenetrably complex.

Dr. Frenkel is a native Russian, whose Jewish heritage precluded him from admission to Moscow’s highest university with the best math program. The stories of institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism are heartbreaking. The genuine affection and appreciation that Dr. Frenkel shows toward his mentors and teachers is strikingly beautiful, and many times I found myself moved by his sentiments and longing to be that kind of teacher myself.

But the math. The math that’s typically taught in US education systems is the ancient, established-for-centuries variety; Dr. Frenkel’s aim in the book is to show that there’s more to math than the quadratic equations and differential calculus that many of us suffered through in high school and college. I’m sure the modern math he describes is incredible, but I have to take his word for it. He valiantly attempts to describe and explain what’s going on in the various problems and projects he’s working on, but it’s tough sledding to read through. He even assumes in the introduction that you’ll take multiple readings, going back to dive deeper into the heavy math and footnotes on subsequent trips through the book. I’m not sure I’m up for it, honestly.

It’s highly likely that my disappointment with the book lies more in misplaced expectations than the actual content of the book itself. I wish I could combine the robust, Trinitarian orthodoxy and clarity of Vern Poythress with the compelling narrative of Edward Frenkel. That would be an amazing book on math. Alas, neither Redeeming Mathematics nor Love & Math ultimately satisfied.

2015 Reading Log: Fierce Convictions

Prior, Karen Swallow. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.

If you’ve never heard of Hannah More, you’re not alone. I hadn’t either, and we’re all worse off for our ignorance. Many people are familiar with William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s friend and confidant was John Newton, the famous Anglican hymn-writer who wrote “Amazing Grace” (hence the title of the movie about Wilberforce that came out a few years ago). Eric Metaxas has also written a widely acclaimed biography of Wilberforce, and he wrote the foreword to Fierce Convictions.

Wilberforce was a member of Parliament, and as such, he worked on the legislative front for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Hannah More was no less influential on the cultural front of the fight. While Wilberforce campaigned among his fellow MPs, More wielded her pen as the mighty sword it turned out to be. Her poetry, plays, tracts, pamphlets, and even a novel proved to be essential war materiel in defeating the evil of human trafficking.

Fierce Convictions reads much like the earliest beginnings of the big battle scene in an epic movie. The music begins slowly and softly, if only to make the crescendo that much more dramatic. The literary prodigy from humble roots earns her place among social and cultural elites due to her intellect and wit, and she insists on using it to further the causes dear to her heart: relief of the poor, educating children, humane treatment of animals, and most famously, abolition. It’s almost exhausting to read all that More did (and was able to accomplish), much less to actually undertake all that she did.

I found myself both encouraged and challenged by Hannah More (and Dr. Prior’s excellent account of her life and work) in several ways. First of all, I believe Hannah More provides a model of how the Church can empower women to serve in their God-endowed strengths. I believe the Bible teaches equality of value and differentiation of role between men and women. All too often, this translates into real life as “men can do this; women can’t do that” in the Church’s teaching and practice. What Hannah More demonstrates for us is the reality of equal inherent value and the power of freeing women to serve and function as God gifts them. We need the boundaries that Scripture does indeed give, but we need to be just as wary of adding to them.

I was also challenged by comparing the abolition movement in Great Britain with the current social issues faced in the US. There is a great danger, I believe in upholding Wilberforce as the model of social reformation at the expense of More. Yes, we need legislators and governors and Presidents who will defend all life and abolish abortion. Yes, we need legislators and governors and other public officials to defend the humanity of all people, regardless of skin color or national origin. We need Wilberforces. But we need Hannah Mores, too. We need men and women who are uniquely gifted by God to use those gifts just as she did.

Zechariah 7 tells the returned exiles the word of God that had been ignored by their forefathers and resulted in their exile: “The LORD of Hosts says this: Make fair decisions. Show faithful love and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another” (Zechariah 7:9-10 HCSB). Hannah More shows us that we need simply give ourselves to the service of the Lord Jesus, wherever we are and however we are gifted by Him, to fight for “fair decisions,” “faithful love and compassion,” and for ending the oppression of the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, and the poor.

2015 Reading Log: Orthodoxy

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy.

There’s something enthralling about watching a master ply his trade. Whether it’s a virtuoso performing a piece of music or an artist creating or a builder crafting, we appreciate great work when we experience it. Chesterton’s way with words is no exception. Even if you don’t agree with a point he’s making, you’re still obliged to tip your hat to the way his erroneous point was made.

Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s testimony in a sense: his philosophical testimony. It’s a work of apologetics, but not in any traditional sense (which he himself admits). It’s the account of his journey to try to make sense of the world, only to find that robust Christianity already had the answers, and had them for centuries before him.

He opens with the metaphor of a man who discovers a foreign land, only to discover he had actually come home. His “discoveries” of answers to the questions of the world were more properly realizations that he already had the answers by way of his faith.

Chesterton was a devout Roman Catholic, and he is quite unashamed in his affiliation to Rome. If you’re a sensitive Calvinist, Chesterton’s jabs are probably more than you could bear. He blamed William Cowper’s debilitating depression on his Calvinism, and Cowper’s surpassing poetry as the cure. (Personally, I’d argue that Cowper’s Calvinism was the fount of his surpassing poetry.) He backhandedly equates Calvinism with Arianism and other heresies, through which the orthodox Church has endured unstained through the centuries.

If you can safely dodge the shots fired from across the Tiber, Chesterton’s wit serves him well in demonstrating how small and empty the world is if Christianity is not true.

If the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos (40).

Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped (116).

But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world (121).

One of my favorite passages was in chapter 6, where he showed how the objections against Christianity were usually contradictory and self-defeating:

It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with (134).

Orthodoxy is an interesting read. It’s not quite as linear as a classical argument for God’s existence or a logical proof thereof. It’s far more conversational, which is what Chesterton intended. Read it to appreciate his wit and linguistic prowess; read it to be encouraged that apart from the living water that only Jesus gives, everything else in this world is a broken cistern that holds no water.