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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea" (Russell Rathbun)

TITLE: The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea: Monuments, Missteps, and the Audacity of Ambition
AUTHOR: Russell Rathbun
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017, (198 pages).

I know about the Great Wall of China. I have read about astronauts saying that the only visible man-made object from space is the Great Wall. What about the Salton Sea? What is the Salton Sea? What makes these two objects so fascinating for the author? He sums it up as follows:

"There are only two man-made objects you can see from outer space. One is the Great Wall of China, and the other is the Salton Sea. One is the result of the work of hundreds of thousands of laborers over two thousand years, and the other is the result of a gigantic mistake."

For over twenty years, these sentences have occupied the author's mind. The key thought revolves around God's creation and man's folly. God creates man and desires for him to have fellowship, but man bungled it big time. In the process, there is alienation. There is lostness. There is illusion. There are big messes throughout history, and messes that continue to occur. Both the Great Wall of China and the state of the Salton Sea were man-made. The Great Wall was built to prevent invaders from entering China. The Salton Sea was created by accident. The Salton Sea was a result of a failure of a project that tried to irrigate desert lands by re-directing water from the Colorado River. Both failed to achieve the original purposes. Looking from space, while both man-made structures and accidents are visible from the sky, they symbolize the mistakes and vulnerabilities of human intelligence. Moving forward, Rathbun poses a modern dilemma about our technological world: Have we allowed technology to reform us into an image we do not yet recognize? Does the Digital Revolution offer more hype than promise? Are we re-inventing the wheel of disaster?

In the tone of "midrash" language, Rathbun invites us to meander along with him as he looks at the paradox of life. Gradually, he moves from seeing earth to seeing oneself and self-examination. That is not all. He moves on to ponder upon creation, the beginning of time as described in Genesis, and wonder about how God sees us. Perspective is key. This is only possible with separation, alienation, and distancing. Yet, with separation, we are reminded that we too are distant from God. The follies of man-made structures and disasters are not isolated from our sinful condition due to our separation from God. The audacity of ambition is clear from these great projects that never hit their intended purposes. On and on, every chapter reeks with observations about the Great Wall and the Salton Sea. Rathbun thinks about China and wanting to make a trip to China so as to see the Chinese country up close and personal. There are lots of movements throughout the book. Movements of time where readers are given a snapshot of the present before being ushered into the historical trail. Movements of reality and spirituality, where Rathbun uses the visible scenes as a launchpad to reflect on biblical narratives, especially the books of the Torah. Movements of humour to see how the wisdom of man becomes trashed and the unintended consequences of the best plans of people. Movements of seismic changes in society from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution. Movements of the present to the future, and back to the past. The author reads this book using at least three types of lenses. He uses the telescopic approach to see the big picture of the creation of people. He uses the microscopic approach to see life up close and personal. He uses the reflective lenses to shine back truths about us being expressed in the world. All of these never escape the watching eyes of God.

The whole book is like a modern lament as Rathbun elevates the vanity of human achievements. He notes the era of lament in the prophets written during the exilic times, and points us to the need to lament in our days as we live as if we are still in exile. We are separated from God. We are lost people trying to find meaning, significance, and our purpose. Perhaps, the observations and thoughts that Rathbun experience will trigger off lots of reflections in readers that life is deeper and more profound that what our eyes can see. It takes a conscientious individual to notice the ordinary things in life. It takes the sensitive soul to meander back to God. The best thing about this book is this: Our perspective of the world will be broadened beyond science, human structures, technological achievements, and all things created. Hopefully, readers will find this book a springboard to do the same for other "Great Walls" and "Salton Seas."

Russell Rathbun is founding minister of House of Mercy Church in St Paul, Minnesota.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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