Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Review: The Invention of Air

Steven Johnson's previous book, The Ghost Map, has found a permanent home in my spring biochem seminar, and if a book's good enough to assign in a biochem class you better believe it's good. (It's all about the cholera epidemics in London and how a scientist and a pastor solved the problem of cholera.) Johnson's latest book is about Joseph Preistley, best known as the chemist who discovered oxygen. It's a fine enough story, and well told, but it's not good enough to replace The Ghost Map in my curriculum for the simple reason that Johnson does not practice what he preaches as the very backbone of the book.

Priestley wasn't just a chemist: he was also a good friend to Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, and was therefore caught up in the political debates of the American Revolution. On top of that, he was a pastor of a small congregation (it's how he had time to do experiments in the first place), and therefore an author of sermons and theological thinker. So, chemist, politician (or at least political theorist), and pastor. Johnson's big argument is that Priestley and co. didn't see walls between their disciplines and therefore we should take the big picture too. Ok as far as it goes (although it doesn't say anything about how separation of church and state, one of the big ideas of this time, is one big ol' conceptual wall).

The big problem is that Johnson spends all sorts of time on Priestley's science and how his work brings scientific fields together (laboriously so, in fact), and all sorts of time on Priestley's politics and political friendships, but only a few paragraphs here and there about his faith. If the thesis of the book is seamless integration then you've only got 2/3 of the total integrated there. Personally, I wanted to know a lot more about Priestley's faith, but it seems Johnson simply isn't qualified to judge it and/or make syntheses of it with the rest of his life. There is a big ol' conceptual wall in this book that the author claims should be knocked down.

What is there about Priestley's faith is intriguing. He was clearly interested in blowing up all the tradition and getting back to "just Jesus." (Funny how everyone wants to get rid of Paul on the way to getting back to Jesus, as if we can know more about Jesus than Paul did. I find putting up a wall between Paul and Jesus to be a lot harder than it appears at a superficial glace once you really study Paul and the rest of the New Testament.) I do know that Preistley denied the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, which often happens when you depend on science as the only way of knowing and feel you have to understand everything for it to be true. (But I don't know that is really why he denied those things, because Johnson doesn't bother to detail his reasoning like he does for his scientific reasoning.) Then again, Priestley interpreted current events such as the French revolution in the light of the book of Revelation, and when facing death had the serene courage of genuine faith, so it's not like he was just some big talker when it comes to faith. He's a complex character with a complex (and like everyone, a somewhat wrong) theology, and it was a huge part of his life. Johnson can come to all sorts of judgments about his science (carbon cycle = good; phlogiston theory = clearly wrong), so why not at least write about his faith and let us see the conflicts there? Is his faith like the carbon cycle, or like phlogiston? The ball is totally dropped on this account.

One of the things I like about NT Wright is that he really does integrate politics with faith, and has a bit of science and art in there once in a while. Steven Johnson's got science and politics, but without an ability to say anything about faith, his picture of Priestley is ultimately two-dimensional.

All that's to say, if you just don't expect too much from the faith side, this is a fine book that filled in a lot of gaps to my understanding about Priestley. Just don't expect too much!

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