Furnace Backstory

furnace2
[This week I’ve been covered up with custom calligraphy orders, including one extensive project where I get to do traditional calligraphy and illuminated letters, which makes me excited every time I think about it! I’ll post some pictures a little further on in the process. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a fairly recent poem. This one was awarded the first-place prize in the 2018 Utmost Christian Writers Contest back in April and was first published as part of that contest.]

FURNACE BACKSTORY

Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold.
He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.
Tenderly the king took the bread from the mouths of the children,
tended to his own likeness like a hen broods over
the chicks under her heartbeat.

The king was consumed with his significant self;
he dwelt at the mirror and spun his sonnets there,
and into his circle of devotion he took the whole world.
All the world is pouring out into Dura
like threads of ants to a crisped cricket on the black leaves.

Isn’t a crowd like a large beast looking for something to kneel to?
Their eyes are hungry for divinity, their ears are cups
to catch the fifes, the tubas, and the big kettledrum.
Point but a finger and you fell them:
There in the soft gold is your god!

Once upon a time we believed in a sea-splitter, a bush-flame,
a harvest of water from cliff,
snowflakes of honey flowering in the fields.
The I Am spun out the novas like tops –
who is this housebound heap of mute metal?

The born-abroad boys have their hands up already,
ready to host handcuffs and the looped iron.
Their laughter is like all the bluebells that jubilate the meadows.
They are like three men who met death on a whim
and struck up a downright neighborly acquaintance with her.

Copyright ©2018 Bryana Johnson Beaird

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?

Love In A Time of Tigers

Valentines DayWal-Mart doesn’t die out at 11 pm on February 13th. I was in there last night and found it crawling with men bearing hunted expressions in their eyes and chocolate in their carts and tulips in their hands. The lines to the register included as many as ten weary customers at once. Females were in the minority. There was so much delightfully right about this and simultaneously so much that was pitifully wrong. I was glad I was present to have a good laugh.

Isn’t it splendid that we have a holiday for couples to be happy in front of the world, and to set aside time for the things we forget to make time for? Like fancy suppers and candlelight and letters and roses and remembrance? I’m glad the calendar has a space for romance.

But I’ll confess: sometimes I’m a little terrified by it.

TigerSometimes I turn on the radio and feel a bit sick – are you with me? Just like animals, Adam Levine choruses over the airwaves. He says it all. Look around at the world and you’ll see how the beast-face comes through. My planet has a culture so blatantly flesh-hungry, that sometimes I’m afraid to belong here.

Sometimes I run wildly to the shelter of the Word Made Flesh because it’s the only kind thing on all this fettered planet. It’s the source of all respect and all chivalry and all courtesy and all romance and all that constitutes the high wall between you and me and nature red in tooth and claw. And if we’re moving away from that glorious gospel, we’re falling back into the bloody domain of the beasts.

What’s with this willingness to slip into the roles we were fashioned to rule over? Why be a crimson-clawed tiger who tears and will be torn, when you can be a prince with a gold scepter and a King-Dad who calls all the shots?

Historians can’t decide which Saint Valentine is responsible for our own festivities on February 14th. You see, there were at least three of them. In the legends, all three were men of honor who died for their love, ripped apart by the animals that the world hosts in abundance. In the most prevalent stories, these martyrdoms involved beating, stoning and eventual decapitation. We’re not talking about the kind of love that was doing its frantic last-minute shopping in Wal-Mart last night.

What wondrous love is this? What were those Saint Valentines up to, and why do we commemorate them with a holiday about romance?

Well, it turns out that Saint Valentine’s Day has everything to do with romance. The thing is, this is about a romance that’s bigger than the sweetest created beloved you’ll ever know. The Saint Valentines gave their lives because they couldn’t stop talking about the Romance that trumps everything. They couldn’t shut up about the World’s Great Lover. They said it would be better not to live than to live in a world where you can’t talk about Jesus.

Blood_Of_JesusDo I feel like that? Do you?

If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, just let me say: don’t be sorry no one took you to dinner. The impeccable Prince of Men cried blood for you. Don’t be sorry your room isn’t a rainbow of flowers. The Hero who overrides every storybook champion invites you to ride with Him ever after. Don’t you be saying no one loves you. While your understanding was foggy and violent like the tigers in the jungle, the real MVP said, “how about a deal? I’ll go down under the red claws if this beast can come out and walk upright and be a man.”

What If We Are Alone? [A Marsh-Wiggle Speaks]

Orphaned2Our lives are staked on such simple things, aren’t they? Because it isn’t only true that no man is an island, it’s vastly more true that no belief is marooned, that ideas have consequences, and that every accepted truth claim moves in with its entire family. So “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” rather quickly turns into, “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and before we know it, the ball’s in our court.

But when you give every last thing, you want it to be worth it, don’t you? And sometimes, to be utterly honest, we’re not quite sure.

At the back of our minds, is there sometimes this lingering gnawing, the dark suggestion that what we see is all there is? It isn’t that we have strong reasons for disbelief, or that we’re out of evidence for what we do believe, but only that we’ve come to love it so very much – to depend on it and live and move and have our being in it – that even a mustard-seed of uncertainty is unbearable.

LonelyPlanetK.S. Rhoads puts words to this frightful sadness in Orphaned,

you’re born into a union
but you die on your own

a bear on the iceberg
is burning in the sun

what if I go behind the curtain
and see no one?

When I was a child, I asked these questions. Sometimes I opened my mind to the possibility of the void, of everything glad becoming untrue, of life going out like a candle, and all things being of no account. How do you explain the dark aloneness of dust?
Emerald City
When I was eight years old, I read The Wizard of Oz. I read chapter after chapter without pause, and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t find the self-control to put it away and save something to read later. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, I lay awake and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

It’s the ghastliest question of all:

Are we orphaned?

But when I was a child, I didn’t know about amor tan inmenso. I didn’t know there was a love so mighty that the idea of it was better than the substance of anything else; so colossal that we would sooner die for that fantasy than live for the bleak reality of anything else.

Now I don’t ask that question anymore. It isn’t that I’ve outgrown doubt, or moved past anguish or this diseased vision of mine, but in a way I’ve come to happy terms with even the uncertainty that slips in sometimes when I’m not looking. I’ve made my peace with it.

SilverChairThis peace has come all by itself – just slipped quietly in as the years rolled on – but the echo of it exists in many places, leaving me to know I’m not alone in what I have decided. Maybe my favorite of these is found in The Silver Chair.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, remember: Eustace and Jill and the pessimistic Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum are trying to free Prince Rilian from the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle, a witch who is keeping him an enchanted prisoner in the Underworld. In the climactic scene, the witch begins to lose ground as the children and the Marsh-Wiggle recognize the Prince and break his enchantment. In desperation, she resorts to sorcery and begins to work magic on the whole party, to talk them out of their belief in the world outside her caverns.

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

“Yes, there is, though, Ma’am,” said Puddleglum. “You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.”

PuddleglumThe answer is straightforward enough, incontrovertible. But the witch laughs, and laughter is a better weapon than words of reason. She goes on laughing, and bewitching, and before you know it, the whole party hardly even believes in their own homeland anymore. There is something they remember, though. They cling to it frantically: the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And up in the midday sky when they couldn’t look at him for brightness.

“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?” asked the Witch.

“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.

“Can you tell me what it’s like?”

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room, and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.”

“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

“Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone. “It must be so.” And while she said this, it seemed to her to be very good sense.

Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together, “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

“There never was a sun,” said the Witch.

“No. There never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children.

For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her, she said: “There’s Aslan.”

Aslan_SunBut the witch claims no understanding of this word, she doesn’t know what a lion is. How can they explain it? It’s like a cat, only it’s not, it’s bigger and grander with a mane like a judge’s wig.

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow.”

At this point, it’s practically over, the enchantment is nearly complete and Rilian and Eustace and Jill are abashed and quiet. They have given up at last. Puddleglum though, is not quite spent, and with the last of his strength he strikes out and stamps out the witch’s mystic green fire with his two bare feet.

And three things happened at once.
First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

narniaThen Puddleglum speaks, and his speech is at one time defiant, trusting and deeply wonderful, because circumstances have forced him to look that frightful question squarely in the face, and it doesn’t scare him away, and he gives it an answer.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If in some unforeseeable future, everything should crumble and prove to be a lie, and we be left with the mere idea of the Immortal, Invisible Only-Wise, I think I’d be happier serving the thought of that, than the being of any other. Wouldn’t you? Better to be swallowed up in a good story, I say, than choked to death by a bitter actuality. It’s better to go down fighting for theIvanMoiseyev kingdom of heaven if it is a shadow-kingdom, then to rise up ruling in any other. Because if the legend of the God-With-Us is only mythology after all, it’s the best thing to come out of this doubly-wretched world.

And if you give every last thing for the very best thing, it’s worth it. Even if we are alone.

In me there’s this nagging feeling that us feeling like this is strong evidence against our aloneness, that if the story transcends even its own negation, that’s one point for the crowd that says it’s a true story. And when I think about that crowd, I hardly know how to disagree with them.

 

Book Reviews [Spring 2013]

Well, it’s that time again: time to round up all the books from the past few months and make a quick record of my distilled ideas about them. I do hope you’ll join in with your own thoughts, and let me know what is the best thing you’ve read this year so far.

…because words have the power to change us…

LettersOfTolkienThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) – 5 STARS – Tolkien’s son has put his father’s letters into a quite extensive collection that gives us a better feel for John Ronald Reuel’s own mind than any biography could do. It includes letters to Edith, to family members, to publishers, inquirers, scholars, fans of all kinds, and – my personal favorites – letters to his two sons, as they attended university and later fought in the Second World War. There are many letters that have to do with publishing hassles and squabbles and domestic arrangements, and the more or less monotonous life of a university professor. However, there are also deeply insightful family letters of advice and fellowship and yes, the thing most of us are hoping for: considerable information about the process and motivation driving The Lord of the Rings. This is not a book for those who are wishing to just pass the time, and feel it may be amusing to know a bit more about Tolkien. It is for those who wish to really know Tolkien, to the extent that he still can be known. Some more brief thoughts about the war letters are here.

Hudson Taylor [Volumes I and II] (Howard Taylor) – 5 STARS – This massive two-volume biography of Hudson Taylor and The China Inland Mission is not for the faint-hearted, but I found it to be a lasting delight as I read it over the course of almost two years. Written in that grand old tone of 19th century literature, the books dwells not as much on the external particulars of the ministry as on Hudson Taylor’s spiritual adventure – although, by the time it is complete, there have certainly been enough pages to touch on plenty of material details as well. I recommend it highly, and found it a most effective summons to awake to the urgency and fleetingness of life. Some favorite quotations below:

“His capacity for happiness was like that of an unspoilt child.”

“Surely to need much grace and therefore to be given much is not a thing to be troubled about, is it?”

“Should we not rejoice when we have anything we can give up for the Savior?”

“Light will be no doubt be given you. Do not forget, however, in seeking more, the importance of walking according to the light you have.”

“There should be only one circumstance to us in life, and that Circumstance – GOD.”

WHAudenThe Complete Poems (W.H. Auden) – 3 STARS – Well, in all honesty, I didn’t actually read the complete poems. However, I got well over half-way through this one before deciding I needed to take a really long break from Auden – as in, I’m done with this book. Auden’s writing includes many really strong pieces and I expect that several verses from here will stick with me for the rest of my life. However, my ultimate conclusion was that the man would be regarded far more highly today if he had burned up about half of what he wrote before it ever had the opportunity to be published. Nevertheless, there are some great compositions, in the middles of some quite dull and context-bound pieces, there are startling statements. A few favorite lines are below:

From The Quest:

The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine;
For he was always glad to mow the grass;

Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of colored glass.”

From At The Grave of Henry James:

All will be judged; master of nuance and scruple
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

From A Christmas Oratorio:

We are afraid of pain, but more afraid of silence.” 

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

What is real about all of us is that each of us is waiting.

“If we were never alone or always too busy
Perhaps we might even believe what we know is not true:
But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all
To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.”

“…remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

From The Age of Anxiety:

“But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir-forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs. He was born here.”

Anton_ChekhovThe Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov) – 4 STARS – Again, I can’t say that I read the complete stories. But after I’d read over half of them, I felt it was enough. Here is another author who just wrote so much, and certainly not all of his work is created equal, although it all proceeds from the same spirit. Chekhov sees right through humanity, and is not a bit taken in. All of his characters are presented in their stark reality, with no whitewashing, and no redemption. There are not really any heroic characters in Chekhov’s stories. There are just people, behaving just as people generally do. And yet, despite all of this, Chekhov loves them, for a reason that perhaps is best articulated by a short paragraph in his story Frost:

“The old men sank into thought. They thought of that in man which is higher than good birth, higher than rank and wealth and learning, of that which brings the lowest beggar near to God: of the hopelessness of man, of his sufferings, and his patience.”

I think it’s fair to say that Chekhov’s stories are about suffering. And thus, by default, they are about love. (I’ve written some more detailed thoughts about this here.)

Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens) – 5 STARS – One of my favorite Dickens books so far – and I’ve read most of the major novels now. For me, this one rates right up there with Great Expectations and Bleak House. Nicholas Nickleby embodies so many aspects of the heroic ideal and makes honor and decency seem like new and flaming concepts; like aspirations that outweigh the balance of the whole world. While I’m fully aware of a number of serious deficiencies with the structure of this novel, I had to give it a five-star rating since it was among the most encouraging books I’ve read in months. (You can read my more extensive thoughts on this one here.)

OliverTwistCharles Dickens (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Chesterton on Dickens? It hardly gets better than that. Chesterton is the perfect man to write about Dickens, because he understood and shared so many of Dickens’ central ideas: Love of the free and simple man’s home. A fierce defense of the traditional family structure. A thorough understanding of Romance. A humble and unpretentious regard for the poor. A respect for the great Christian carelessness that seeks its meat from God. A relish for comradeship and serious joy. A hunger for the inn at the end of the world. Indeed, I feel this is one of Chesterton’s best books, and found fuller explanations in here for many of the themes that pervade his poetry. Dickens was exactly the stuff that Chesterton understood best, and Chesterton understood even Dickens’ literary weaknesses better than any other critic I’ve encountered. Ultimately, it is plain that Chesterton transcended the mighty Dickens because he did more than delight in the ideals: Chesterton actually lived by them.

My Utmost For His Highest (Oswald Chambers) – 5 STARS – At last I read My Utmost for His Highest for a whole year and all the way through. It feels like a growing up. And I know that in some ways, it is, because when I picked this one up a few years ago I found it intolerable and had to put it away. It wasn’t that I felt it was untrue, but only that it hurt my independence frightfully and spoke of things I was afraid to know about. Now I can call it one of the greatest masterpieces of truth that I have encountered. I expect to read it again and again and again, for I know there is still so much I haven’t attained to.

Deliver Us From EvilDeliver Us From Evil (Ravi Zacharias) – 3 STARS – I wanted to like this book more than I did like it. Ravi Zacharias is a great thinker and has much wisdom to offer. However, it seems like the book is not as well organized as it might have been, and the writing style employs quite a bit of unjustified circumlocution. In spite of this, it is also full of truth, which sometimes shines out with a glimmer of splendor.

The Love of God (Oswald Chambers) – 4 STARS – As with most of Chambers’ writing, this little book is full of staggeringly good stuff. Due to the fact that Chambers’ writings were mostly published posthumously, some of the text here is also included in other works, such as My Utmost For His Highest.

The ChimesThe Chimes (Charles Dickens) – 3 STARS – Just as in A Christmas Carol, Dickens attempts in this short novella to tackle social issues in the context of a tale set during a holiday season. However, he doesn’t pull it off quite as well in The Chimes. The characters are not as developed, and the plot line is shaped by his central theme of social injustice, rather than being worked into it. In spite of these weaknesses, Toby Veck is an endearing protagonist, and the catastrophic vision is quite moving.

“He delighted to believe — Toby was very poor and could not well afford to part with a delight — that he was worth his salt.”

TellingTheTruthTelling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Frederick Buechner) – 4 STARS – Buechner writes prose like poetry, and is a master at his craft, and so of course this book is beautiful, echoing so many of the things you know but don’t know how to put into language; so many of the things about fairytales and Story, and humanity and homesickness and hunger. As a note of caution, I did get the feeling Buechner was so caught up in his own lovely writing that he may have taken some unwise liberties with the character of God – nothing overt enough to prevent me from recommending the book to someone else, but certainly I’d want to tack this disclaimer onto any recommendation I make.

Tortured For Christ (Richard Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – Wurmbrand’s iconic account of persecution under communism in Romania covers much more territory than I expected. It’s a short read, but deftly addresses many aspects of the oppressed underground church throughout the world, and illuminates the simplicity of the devotion that goes to death for Christ expectantly, singing, singing, singing. As Wurmbrand says himself, “I have found truly joyful Christians only in the Bible, in the Underground Church, and in prison.” The church in the West would do well to attend…

WurmbrandFamilyThe Pastor’s Wife (Sabina Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – I read this one on Noel‘s recommendation. It gives a much more complete picture of the Wurmbrand family’s personal history and I especially appreciated how openly Sabina writes about their struggles, loneliness and isolation, as she tells a very real and honest story. Somehow the significance of their endurance becomes even more overwhelming as we hear about the darkness that veiled their sight all the way and sundered everything from everything else. I found their son Mihai’s story particularly gripping as he grew up relatively orphaned for several years and struggled not to lose his faith.

The Radical Cross (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – Tozer espouses a sane, Biblical, healthy, and uncompromising theology. I think it does even the most learned and mature among us a great deal of good to do this sort of reading periodically and take refreshment from the simplicity of things. This is not to imply that this book is in any way simplistic – it is in fact a sophisticated collection of thoughts on the meaning and significance of the Cross of Christ – but only that it is simple, with that perfect straightforwardness which characterized the life of our Lord.

LittleDorritLittle Dorrit (Charles Dickens) – 4 STARS – Little Dorrit doesn’t commend itself by one overarching idea but by the incorporation of a great many that are mingled together to construct one fabulous whole. We come away quite overwhelmed and satisfied by the humble constancy of Amy, the unassuming decency of Arthur, the pathetic conceit of Mr. Dorrit, the great-hearted practicality of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, the devoted magnanimity of John Chivery, and the principles of the pitiable and many-faceted Mr. Pancks. This is Dickens doing what he does best, although not perhaps in his best way, since the plot feels a little stretched at times. Nonetheless, I class this among the author’s greater works, as definitely an exquisite novel and no weakly-veiled social pamphlet like Hard Times.

The BBC produced an excellent film version within the past couple of years, which I highly recommend. The mini-series clocks in at eight hours, and remains true to the spirit and text of the book. Indeed, in some ways it is arguably superior.

What I’m still reading:

Abandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland)
Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton)
The Father’s Tale (Michael O’Brien)
On Writing Well (William Zinsser)
The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis)
Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works
The Greater Trumps (Charles Williams)

What about you?