What I’ve Been Reading Lately

While university life is full of reading, I don’t think textbooks and assigned excerpts and articles will ever be able to take the place of living books and literature. So even though I find it really hard to carve out time for reading while at school, I’ve managed to finish reading a few books and one thing I really enjoy about breaks is the opportunity to catch up on reading. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve read in the not-too-distant past:

TheRoadThe Road (Cormac McCarthy) – 5 STARS – Hands down, this was my favorite fiction work I’ve read in awhile. McCarthy employs a sharp, incisive and minimalist style to describe the relationship between a father and his young son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic setting. Although the story is rife with tragedy and often takes on a deeply cynical tone, it’s simultaneously haunted by the promise of faith. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of the darkness of the human heart and some portions are extremely sobering and even revolting, but in his determination to accurately depict evil, McCarthy never loses sight of the actuality of good. By presenting the reader with a world where all dreams and creeds and security have been stripped away and “the frailty of everything is revealed at last,” he makes his case that it is far better to die an untimely and painful death as a noble and selfless person than to survive as merely an animal. By forcing the reader to confront the certainty of impending death, he drives them to consider who they truly are.

A favorite quote: “No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small penknife to inscribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.”

While this sounds woefully pessimistic, I found it extremely compelling: a call to examine my life and realize the imperative necessity of breaking through the temporary surface of the world around me and operating on the plane of everlasting reality. I think McCarthy’s novel is at heart surprising compatible with Christian truth and I was especially pleased with the unexpectedly hopeful ending.

Note: I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the movie, so if you’ve seen it but didn’t enjoy it, I’d recommend giving the book a chance. I found the high-quality writing style one of the most attractive things about this book and I can’t see how any film would be able to duplicate it successfully.

Oswald ChambersAbandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland) – 5 STARS – This was my favorite non-fiction book I’ve read recently. I’ve been reading My Utmost For His Highest regularly for several years now and I still find Oswald Chambers one of the deepest and most mature Christian thinkers I’ve ever encountered, so I was quite excited to read about his life story and I can’t imagine a better biography than this one. McCasland is clearly devoted to providing an account that maintains the spirit of Chambers’ approach to faith, holiness and cheerful utter reliance on the power and presence of God. I found this book overwhelmingly compelling at times and it did more to encourage me to pursue spiritual maturity than anything I’d read in quite some time.

A main theme in Oswald Chambers’ writing is the significance of being as opposed to doing. His writing is full of warnings against Christian “busywork” and is a constant call to strengthen our own fellowship with Christ. “How does your spirit develop in intimacy with Him?” Chambers asks. “Nothing else is right if that goes not well.” A primary part of his advice is always to empty ourselves of self-regard and scheming and grow in dependence on the life of the resurrected Christ within us. When that happens, he assures over and over again, we will become channels of the power of God in the lives of others, but will not be corrupted by this power because it is not our possession, or our aspiration. Our only obsession is maintaining the company of Christ.

What I enjoyed most about this book was how it brought life to Chambers’ approach by providing examples of this staggering power in his own person – something that could never really be established by his own writing, but would have to come from the observations of his family and contemporaries. McCasland has worked hard to compile the statements that demonstrate this. Here are a few examples:

Cultured, and all his culture captivated by the Holy Ghost, he in turn captivated men and women.” (George B Kulp)

“[He was] a man who always carried with him, and therefore gave to others, a sense of the Presence of God.” (Mary Hooker)

He came into our quiet home life with its parochial outlook like a west wind, waking us up and bringing an exciting sense of limitless possibilities. He was always ready at any moment for anything anywhere. One never knew what lovely, exciting thing might happen where he was, and maybe catch us up in its train. He had a great scorn for small petty outlooks and actions: ‘small potatoes, rather frosted,’ was his expression for all that.” (Irene Chambers)

I think the main thing I took away from this book was the thought that the common ideals for Christian living which we encounter in our culture are sadly impoverished and often flabby, powerless images. This book really enriched my ideals and filled me with a desire to press in towards the Source that can power a life such as this one.

tozerAnd He Dwelt Among Us (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – This book is a collection of thoughts, observations and meditations on the Gospel of John, and the significance of the concept of Emmanuel. Some of Tozer’s premises haven’t been analyzed quite as thoroughly as they might been, and so even though I agree with what he is expressing, readers who tend towards skepticism might find themselves wanting him to back up a few of his ideas with more substantial evidence and reasoning. However, that isn’t really the nature of this book, which is written in a simple, colloquial tone, calculated to reach uneducated people and not merely scholars. This book gave me a lot to think about and although its style is simple, its range is larger than you might expect and it covers a variety of topics and ideas that I think aren’t often discussed in such an approachable fashion.

A few favorite quotes:

“The very first qualities of Christianity are holiness, purity, right living, right thinking and right longing.”

“It is not what I hold as a creed that matters so much (although if my creed is wrong, my experience is bound to be wrong too), it is that part of my creed that I have lived through experientially…I believe that everything I hold as true must be mine in living, vibrant experience.”

“God knows that the most mature of us still need coddling sometimes, and so He is quick to overlook our ignorance, but He is never quick to overlook our sins.”

“It must always be kept in mind that what God thinks about a man is more important than what a man thinks about himself.” “The sinner dies alone and the Christian dies in Christ. But every man dies for his sins. He either dies by joining his heart to Jesus Christ, and is tucked up under the wings of Jesus and dies in the body of Christ or else he dies alone in his sins.”

Eugenics (2)Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Although the scope of this book was more limited than much of what Chesterton writes, I think it was one of my favorites of his books on social commentary. Although he addresses some specific issues of British legislation and politics which no longer apply in the same way they did in his time, I think this book still rings true today as a hearty denouncement of modern academia’s disdain for the lower classes and the modern capitalist elevation of profit over the lives and loves of people.

A few favorite quotes:

“The eugenical opportunity I have described is but an ultimate analysis of a whole drift of thoughts in the type of man who does not analyse his thoughts. He sees a slouching tramp, with a sick wife and a string of rickety children, and honestly wonders what he can do with them. But prosperity does not favour self-examination; and he does not even ask himself whether he means  ‘How can I help them?’ or ‘How can I use them?’—what he can still do for them, or what they could still do for him. Probably he sincerely means both, but the latter much more than the former; he laments the breaking of the tools of Mammon much more than the breaking of the images of God. It would be almost impossible to grope in the limbo of what he does think; but we can assert that there is one thing he doesn’t think. He doesn’t think, ‘This man might be as jolly as I am, if he need not come to me for work or wages.’”

“Prevention is not only not better than cure; prevention is even worse than disease. Prevention means being an invalid for life with the extra exasperation of being quite well.”

“The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “;When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.’ You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Douglas Adams) – 4 STARS – Perhaps the cleverest, funniest and yet most cynical classic science fiction work of all time, the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly entertaining. Douglas Adams is, of course, a bitter atheist, and this attitude can’t help but affect his writing. I really wasn’t a fan of some of the content in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, but other than that one, I gave these books a solid 4 stars, mainly for their piercingly intelligent humor – a form of humor that seems to be going out of style in my generation.

A few favorite quotes:

“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?”

“Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet. And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.”

“They rented a car in Los Angeles from one of the places that rents out cars that other people have thrown away. ‘Getting it to go round corners is a bit of a problem,’ said the guy behind the sunglasses as he handed them the keys, ‘sometimes it’s simpler just to get out and find a car that’s going in that direction.’”

Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works – 4 STARS – This book compiles all the poetry and some of the letters of the Jesuit poet-priest who is perhaps most well-known for Dappled Things and As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Hopkins’ devotional poetry is studded with wordplay and powerful imagery and although the book contains many that are unfinished or only fragments, each one is like a jewel.

War In Heaven (Charles Williams) – 3 STARS – This is the first of Charles Williams’ I’ve read and although I can see his appeal, I’m not certain I’ll ever be a huge fan of his style or preferred subject matter. This book’s metaphysical explorations were a little too far-fetched for me, but I still appreciated some of the thoughts it introduced.

A few favorite quotes:

“‘Something awaits him surely of ruin and despair.’ ‘It may be,’ the stranger said, ‘but perhaps a happy ruin and a fortunate despair. These things are not evil in themselves and I think you fear them overmuch.”

“‘Oh damn and blast!’ he cried, with a great voice. ‘Why was this bloody world created?’ ‘As a sewer for the stars,’ a voice in front of him said. ‘Alternatively, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) – 4 STARS – I’ve been meaning to read something by Orson Scott Card for quite some time and I finally got around to it. I think this was a good introduction and I really enjoyed thinking about a lot of the serious questions it raised regarding leadership, management of power, and war ethics. Although this is classified as young adult science fiction and features protagonists who are children, it centers around surprisingly deep themes. One of my favorite ideas presented was the fine line between virtual reality and the real world, a concept that I think is particularly important for my generation to deal with, surrounded as we are by constant internet access, video streaming, and gaming. So many human experiences can now be simulated on a console or electronic device with seemingly no immediate consequences, but this book really underscores how profoundly our reality is affected by our mental state, and how the imagery that we process and entertain is shaping both our internal character and our outward view of the world.

A few favorite quotes: 

“I will remember this, thought Ender, when I am defeated. To keep dignity, and give honor where it’s due, so that defeat is not disgrace.”

“You realize that power will always end up with the kind of people who crave it.”

“He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.”

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment, I also love him. I think it is impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

What I’m Still Reading:
Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Timothy Lane, Paul David Tripp)
D.L. Moody: Moody Without Sankey (John Charles Pollock)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
A Passion For The Impossible (Miriam Huffman Rockness)
Death By Living (N.D. Wilson)
Good Poems (Garrison Keiler)
All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

What have you been reading lately?

On Suffering, the Russian Soul, & the Kingdom of Heaven

Russian_NightIt’s become a byword, the Russian tradition of suffering. Apparently everyone knows that misery permeates the works of the great writers and merits a substantial paragraph in even the most basic information about Russian literature. Wikipedia devotes an entire section of the Russian literature page to this very thing, stating,

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature.

Happily, I didn’t get the memo about that. A year ago, when I wrote about Imagination as Love, I still didn’t know that what I was writing about was at the very core of not only Chekhov’s writing, but Tolstoy’s too, and Gogol’s and Solzhenitsyn’s and Dostoevsky’s.

I didn’t read the Sparknotes, only the books. Only War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Overcoat, and The Grand Inquisitor, and half of Chekhov’s Stories. And one of the delightful things about missing the study guides is that you have no idea what to look for, so that when you do pick up a pattern all by yourself, it means something to you.

So it was for me, through pages and pages of the stories about tragedies without happy endings, and hunger that isn’t assuaged, and grief that doesn’t go away, and the long defeat of living. After a time, I sat back and said, “These stories are about suffering. They are all about suffering.” It seems simple enough to the initiated, but to go from not-knowing to knowing at last – there is an exquisite satisfaction in that.

Yet that wasn’t all. In these stories there was something else. The Russian grief is not purposeless. There is a colossal sort of reduction in suffering and in loss: it takes things down to essentials, strips away circumstances, reveals to a man what he truly is. There are hints in it of the possibility that suffering might usher in truth, precisely by ripping out lies.

And Christ. There is in these Russian stories a wild, confused, at times unorthodox fascination with Christ as humble, as suffering. As silent.

fathers-taleThis much I picked up on my own, but was hardly sure how to put it all together and make sense of it. Then last month I read my second Michael O’Brien novel, and found a man with the answers. A man who knows the historic Russian soul, and is intimately acquainted with the turbulent history of the 20th century. A man who knows the importance of traditional imagery better than anyone I can think of, who understands the vital significance of boats and of birds. A man who knows about kingfishers catching fire, and homesickness, and more than anything, who knows about the poor in spirit.

The Father’s Tale is 1076 pages long, but after the first 100 pages or so, it goes by like a breath. Alex Graham is a Canadian bookseller whose college-aged son gets caught up in a cult group and goes missing from Oxford University. The plot follows the timorous, unadventurous Alex as he travels around the globe in the search for his son. It’s a storyline that never works out exactly as you expect, and yet somehow always works out in the best possible way. Like any author who’s turned out this much volume on a regular basis, O’Brien certainly leaves some holes in the book, in terms of weak sentences and things you wish you could rewrite or reconstruct. But then, so does Dickens, and it didn’t seem to ruin his legacy.

O’Brien and I are not on the same page as regards faith traditions, so I’m not entirely in sympathy with some portions of the book, and found some of them exasperating. However, the ultimate themes in here transcend our differences, because they aren’t about icons but ideas, and those ideas are rooted deep in the literature that we both love, beginning, perhaps, with the Bible itself.

One of the many things that the tepid and dispassionate Alex Graham learns in his travels is the mysterious and yet lucid beatitude of poverty.

One becomes empty and poor, and in that state the Kingdom of Heaven is given to you,someone tells Alex while he is en route to Siberia. “To become a poor man is the greatest thing that can be given to us. It is the foundation.”

O’Brien takes the old Russian preoccupation with suffering, and shows its redemptive purpose with astonishing clarity.

Not what you expected, perhaps,” his friend tells Alex, after a particularly disappointing setback in his venture. “But it was a gift.”

A gift?” Alex responds. “It seems a total failure.”

“What is failure? The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

In a public lavatory in Moscow, Alex encounters a dying man. The man is sick and filthy and wasted with substance abuse, and does not wish to live. He is in the drain-hole of the world, he says, the nyet, nyet, nyet. But Alex is determined to rescue him and take him to a hospital, in spite of a disgruntled taxi driver and an unsympathetic nurse. When he learns that the man’s name is Alexei, the Russian form of Alex, he is a bit taken aback by the coincidence, and chooses to call him by the fond and familiar derivative, Alyosha, the pet name that Alex gave himself as a child and a budding Russophile.

Lake-Baikal-russia-iceAlex doesn’t stay long with Alyosha after he sees him admitted to the hospital, but the significance of the incident pursues him throughout the rest of the story. It pursues him to strange and bizarre places, as he finds himself on a train attacked by militant protestors, stranded for weeks with a widowed Russian doctor and her two fatherless sons in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Baikal, and, in an unexpected turn of events, tortured by government intelligence officials in a windowless cell in Siberia. All along, O’Brien is probing deeper and deeper into the Russian psyche, into the legacy of the Soviet era, into the corruption of East and West.

In one scene, Alex speaks to an agnostic Russian with words that are far beyond him, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“Irina, do you remember when we first met, that night on the train? You quoted Pushkin. You said that in our times man was either tyrant or traitor or prisoner.”

“I have not changed my opinion,” says the woman with a hint of bitterness.

“But the Christian is a prisoner in Christ and with Christ and thus he is the only free man on the planet,” Alex says triumphantly. But he does not yet know what he is talking about.

It is in Alex’s greatest crisis of suffering that the ultimate gift is given to him. He wakes up brutalized in a freezing cell, completely dispossessed, and sees a man beside him in an even worse condition. Although Alex feels like his body has become one great wound, he reaches out to other person to try to offer some comfort.

“Who are you?” Alex breathed. Christ_Suffer

“Alyosha,” the lips whispered in reply.

“We are suffering, Alyosha,” Alex sobbed, placing the palm of his hand on the man’s forehead. “But we are not alone.”

The flesh of the forehead was riddled with holes. “You,” said the prisoner, are Alyosha.”

He touched the holes in the hands and feet of the prisoner. He lightly touched the face that a rifle butt had shattered. The hands of the prisoner drew his fingers to the wound in his heart, and his heart was a fountain.

And blessed are the poor in spirit.

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

Pieces of Today, June 18th

1. A snatch of sketch from a six-month art project…
Sam Spider Sketch - Copy
2. Penny and Sparrow, their soft acoustic songs that go on rolling off your tongue through the days. Like Brothers (because sometimes? All that counts is, don’t give up). Like Heroes and Monsters (because we’re all a bit tied to the Silver Chair and the moon’s gonna rise no matter what). Like Creature (every joy I’ve seen is waste when I touch your gorgeous face), like Slaves (because, I’m a new slave, yes, my name has been changed, I am yours.)

 Every joy I’ve seen is waste when I touch Your gorgeous face – See more at: http://incitefaith.com/2012/05/song-of-the-week-12/#sthash.fOkeqkFX.dpuf
 Every joy I’ve seen is waste when I touch Your gorgeous face – See more at: http://incitefaith.com/2012/05/song-of-the-week-12/#sthash.fOkeqkFX.dpuf

3. The long spring of kinky lettuce and the lastavice infants in the shed:
Lastavica
4. The undulating, undisciplined brilliance of Hopkins. A thought from Wreck of the Deutschland:

Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;

The Times Are Nightfall

Dover Beach
Well, the dark is coming on. It has been for some time. But these days the sinking of the sun seems accelerated, and many who have not been noticing are noticing at last. We are living in the twilight of many good things, and it seems shall soon be plunged into the deep night.

SyriaWoman

We see it in the unfree world, where the crest of rage has come down over the countries and desolation goes racking up the corpse count. Where all fences and fortresses are torn down, and the unspeakable has become the undeniable. In the vile cruelty all sides are performing on each other, we see that the times are nightfall indeed.

SyriaChild
And oh, Dover Beach got some things right, for

we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Syria rebels
We see it in the once-free world, where the liberty to love righteousness is slowly sinking to the status of a thing of the past. Where a great web of lies has entangled all the peoples and a trail of deceits has broken all trusts. Where when a man gets up before a body of legislators and speaks truth, he finds himself standing all by himself.

Marriage

Oh, these are the times that try men’s souls. Their light grows less. And a man may judge as he has ever judged. But what is a man to do?

What is a man to do when all his striving and resistance is like so much dust on the wind, and availeth nothing? What is a man to do when the world must, must change, but won’t? What is a man to do when he can’t change the world?

Congress

Hopkins has a few good words on this, the wintertime of the world:

THE TIMES ARE NIGHTFALL
(by Gerard Manley Hopkins)
The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal.

Dragon Aslan

When a man can’t change the world, he should change. For this is the highest adventure of all.

On Holy Musts

Mark Buchanan writes in Your God Is Too Safe:

We flounder in a welter of meetings and errands, demands and delays, expectations and obligations. It’s joyless. It’s endless. Our leisure itself has become an anxious, rushed, fitful business. Our rest is restless.

And this is so. We who are full of ideas and of passion, of interests and of plans – do we not grow so efficiency-obsessed that we lose the holy joy, and bog down in doing? Do we not mark off our laden lists of things to do with ever-lessening satisfaction? Do we not cap every finished business with hardly a pause before there comes flooding the anxious thoughts of new worlds to conquer?

Buchanan says:

Jesus was the man of ultimate destiny, pursuing a cosmic goal, eternal in scope, high as the heavens, deep as the pit, gathering all nations and all generations, enduring the passing away of all things… Yet He did it in an attitude of nearly unbroken serenity, almost leisureliness…

…At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was a holy must. He must go through Samaria. He must go to Jerusalem. He must suffer. Everything he did or refused to do centered around that. A true must both constrains and liberates. It brings wonderful clarity. It allows for great seriousness and great playfulness, and it makes for serious, playful greatness.

Most of our drivenness and anxiousness comes from not really knowing what we must do. So we do a lot of things. We do them all with grim, fretful haste.

I ask myself, what are the holy musts for me? what are the have-to-dos that rank above even deadlines and dreams? and I haven’t framed the question yet when the answers come racing in.

First and foremost, I must come earlier and oftener to turn the pages, must exchange more words with the Word.

I must lean in to look closer, must stand amazed.

I must love hard the language of the lovers who loved first, must not fail to make time to explore the minds of others. (For mine is small and so easily overwhelmed!)

I must cultivate good fruit in all this soil at my fingertips, must grow good things out of all this dirt.

These are the musts that supersede, that override.

Back to Buchanan:

So what must I do? What is the one thing needed? Forgetting what is behind, we want to say with Paul, and pressing on, ‘I take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ (Philippians 3:12)