God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, by Bart D. Ehrman – In this book, Ehrman addresses the big question of why, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, there’s so much suffering in the world. A common answer to this question these days is that it relates to free will, which I recently discussed myself. Ehrman mentions that: 1) this view isn’t really in the Bible, and 2) it doesn’t explain suffering that isn’t man-made. The book goes through several different biblical explanations of why people suffer, including that it’s punishment for sin, it’s ultimately redemptive, it’s a test of faith, God has given the world over to the forces of evil but will eventually take it back, and God doesn’t have to explain anything to us lowly mortals. This latter is the view expressed in the poetic dialogues of Job, and Ehrman dismisses it in a way that I’ve been wanting to express but couldn’t figure out exactly how to do so: “Moreover, if the point is that we cannot judge the cruel acts of God by human standards (remember, Job was innocent!), where does that leave us? In the Bible, aren’t humans made in the image of God? Aren’t human standards given by God? Doesn’t he establish what is right and fair and just? Aren’t we to be like him in how we treat others? If we don’t understand God by human standards (which he himself has given), how can we understand him at all, since we’re human?” Ultimately, Ehrman explains why he doesn’t buy any of these reasons, and states that his own view of suffering is closer to that found in Ecclesiastes. This is essentially that life doesn’t make sense, but it’s all we have, so we should make the most of it while we can.
Mixed Magics: Four Tales of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones – A collection of four short stories about the enchanter known as Chrestomanci, whose job is to prevent the use of magic that could prove harmful to the different worlds. “Warlock at the Wheel” is a comical tale along the lines of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” in which a warlock who gets transported to another world to get away from Chrestomanci steals a car, but finds out that it comes with a difficult girl and dog. “Stealer of Souls,” the longest of the four, is a follow-up to The Magicians of Caprona, with Cat Chant and Antonio Montana meeting. Cat is resentful of Tonino at first, but learns to get along with him when the two are captured by the soul-stealing magician Neville Spiderman (who, I suppose, does whatever a spider can). It also explains the ultimate fate of the current Chrestomanci’s predecessor, Gabriel de Witt. “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream” introduces the clever concept of talented dreamers being able to have their dreams captured and sold like a book or movie. The youngest of these dreamers, Carol, is unable to produce any more dreams when her own subconscious rebels against her, and Chrestomanci has to sort this out. Finally, “The Sage of Theare” is a nod to the Greek myths in which trying to prevent fate is ultimately futile, but with some twists. The gods of a well-ordered world called Theare try to prevent the coming of the Sage of Dissolution, who is fated to destroy the carefully planned order of things. Their meddling ultimately results in certain events of the Sage’s life running backwards in time, with Chrestomanci eventually showing up to explain what’s going on. One appealing part to this last story is that we get to see Chrestomanci address the gods, while in his pajamas and dressing gown, no less. Definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the Chrestomanci novels, but read a few of those before starting on this collection, because the short stories don’t have much space to devote to explaining the concept of Chrestomanci’s universe.