Brief Reviews: New books by Peter Lovenheim and Herman Wouk [Vol. 3, #20]

May 28, 2010 — Leave a comment

 

Brief Reviews of

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion.
Herman Wouk.
Audiobook:  Hachette Audio, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

and

In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street,
One Sleepover at a Time
.
Peter Lovenheim.
Hardback: Perigee Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

  

Novelist Herman Wouk is best known for The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, his epic two-volume account of individuals caught up in the terrors of World War II. Wouk, soon to turn ninety-six, has lived an extraordinary life: his father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia; Wouk got his start as a radio dramatist and gag writer for Fred Allen and other comedians; he served as an officer on two destroyer minesweepers in the Pacific during World War II, experience that he turned into his novel The Caine Mutiny, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into both a play and a film; and most of his subsequent career has been spent writing well-received novels.

      Less well-known about Wouk is that he has been an observing Orthodox Jew most of his life. In the flush of his early success he led a secular lifestyle, but, inspired by his grandmother, he turned back to his faith in his mid-20s. On board ship during the war he would lay his tefillin for saying his morning prayers. In his 1959 survey of Judaism, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, Wouk recounts how religion permeates his life, that observing times for prayer and study and kashrut are not onerous, but just one more, or mere, part of life. As Wouk remarks, many of his secular friends were amazed that he could grill a tasty rare steak.

      The title of his latest reflections on religion and science is taken from an aside that Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman made to the author when he was researching the Manhattan Project for his World War II novels. Feynman had turned from his childhood Jewish upbringing to agnoticism, but found the world “fantastically marvelous” and the Talmud a “wonderful book.” If Wouk hoped to understand science, Feynman told him, he would have to learn the language God talks: calculus. (As one of Wouk’s colleagues quipped, that’s the other language God talks, his first language being Hebrew.) Wouk took Feynman at his word and tried to learn calculus but never got very far.

      This bit of advice from the bongo-playing Feynman becomes just a hook for Wouk to hang this little book on. In his mix of memoir and reflections on science and religion, Wouk talks about meetings with and readings of some of the great scientists of our time: Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking. He also tells readers, many of whom may well not have heard these names before, about the discoveries of an older generation of scientists such as Henrietta Leavitt, Harlow Shapley, and George Hale. Wouk never wavers from his belief that science and religion don’t need to be at loggerheads, under court order to stay 500 yards away from each other at all times.

      Wouk ultimately doesn’t follow through on the potential buried deep in Feynman’s characteristically throwaway line “the language that God talks.” He obviously believes that God speaks through both religion and science, but Wouk doesn’t pursue his divine linguistic studies much farther than that basic belief. Many mathematicians maintain that God is a math magus, a magister ludi, and speaks through numbers, because common mathematical expressions turn up unexpectedly, connecting apparently unrelated realms of creation. Look at a sunflower, and the relatively simple Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.) appears in the distribution of its florets, but it shows up as well in the family trees of honeybees. England’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has observed how just six cosmological values are so finely tuned that if they were even slightly different, the universe would be far different, and we would not exist. But does God actually “speak” through mathematics? Or through science in general or even religion? Psalm 82 declares that justice undergirds the universe. Does God speak through the language of the law, as someone new to the Bible might believe after skimming the surface of the Pentateuch?

      We believe, like Wouk, that God is a loving God. Thus it follows that his love must be expressed through creation, creation not just at the Big Bang, or in the six days plus one to rest in Genesis, or on a time scale of millions of years through evolution, but second by second. Mathematics is like the smears of color on an artist’s palette, numbers the tools God uses to create—not the language, but the medium. Going beyond that simple simile, mathematics is merely a shadow of God’s creative activity: it’s what pops out of a scientist’s calculator as the inevitable result of what God has created. Justice is another expression of his love expressed through creation, for the absence of justice is chaos. Religion ties everything all together, as Maimonides realized ahead of his time, 700 years ago. If we look up at the night sky or across a field of wildflowers and remain oblivious, or if we try to ignore that feeling deep in our gut when faced with a decision, the written words of religion lie before us as an aide-mémoire. The language God talks defies quantification or being parsed as theology.

      As the author of Ecclesiastes writes,

He brings everything to pass precisely at its time; He also puts eternity in their mind, but without man ever guessing, from first to last, all the things that God brings to pass. (Jewish Publication Society trans.)

[ Reviewed by David Anderson ]

How would you respond to a neighbor you had just met who asked if he could sleepover one night at your house to record your daily life?  Begun as research for a book, Lovenheim’s initiative engaged lives close to his home, answering such a query.  Lovenheim’s epilogue of In the Neighborhood records multiple community responses to his initial 2008 essay published in The New York Times. It seems Lovenheim’s good concern for bonding with others is hardly unique.  Nationwide concern for knowing one’s neighbor is identified time and time again across the country in voluminous ways.  But it is the sleepover concept that is both unique and, as the author’s teenage daughter says, “crazy.”

Various references to outside sources are not so crazy.  Home owners sharing property seems to be more common than not; a community pool, for example (115-18).  Realizing too late that suburbia separated people rather than intertwining lives highlights the work of books like Suburban Nation and The City in History (70-71).  And what social interest does not reference Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (64) as a source of concern?  Lovenheim is to be lauded for his neighborhood outreach in both word and action.  There is, however, a self-serving current running beneath the pages of this book.  But while it seems In the Neighborhood began as journalistic fodder, Lovenheim’s efforts paid off in real human capital.

The reader may well be put off, on the other hand, by personal comments made by Lovenheim. Specific statements felt wrong: how a woman’s hair lay on her shoulder, references to a lady’s silk sleepwear, titillating repartee with a single woman, and a day spent alone with a married female working at home.  Hardly a prudish comment, it seems the whole idea of a “sleepover” went too far with the majority of his neighbors too.  Of all the 36 houses in Lovenheim’s subdivision, only enough to be counted on one hand were accepting of such an invitation.  Other stories had to be gleaned from “outsiders”: a paper carrier, mailperson, and a frequent walker through the neighborhood.  

If one would like a guide to community relations they would be better served by visiting my friends at Englewood Christian Church.  Here, not only do people live next door to each other but they extend personal lines of credit to those in their membership who need to buy a home.  On a recent excursion through the neighborhood—within a three block radius from the church’s building—one of the leadership was explaining how houses were constructed on his street.  “These houses are close enough to one another,” Joe explained, “So that conversations could be had from one home directly across the street to the one opposite.”  If one wants to know how neighborhoods should be encouraged, put down In the Neighborhood and visit the one around 57 N. Rural Street, Indianapolis, IN.  (Editor’s note: The reviewer received no compensation for his high praise of Englewood Christian Church).

[ Reviewed by Mark Eckel ]

 

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