My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Jerubbaal, Joash, and the Juxtaposition of Rome and America

While we, as a society, may be pondering the relationship between America and Rome, I have been of late pondering the relationship between the modern church and the book of Judges in the scriptures.  I have been brought to this line of thought primarily by my reading in the book, particularly when it comes to the story of Gideon.  Most of us are vaguely familiar with some aspects of Gideon’s life and work as a judge within the Israelite nation.  For many believers however, our understanding of Gideon’s life centers around two specific acts – the paring of the army and the fleece.  Those are both great moments in the life of Gideon and offer much to the contemplative reader.  However, it was the opening and situational moments of Gideon’s story which drew me to deeper consideration of the story.

In Judges 6, the Bible says the sons of Israel “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and the LORD gave them into the hands of the MIdians seven years” (vs 1).  It is during this time of oppression that the sons of Israel will “cry out to the Lord on the account of Midian” (vs 7) and God will answer by calling Gideon to be a judge and deliverer for the people.  The first thing Gideon is required to do is to tear down the altar of baal (a false god and the constant source of their disobedience to God throughout the book) and the Asherah pole which was beside it.  Gideon did it.  When the men of the city came out and saw what had been done, they set forth to kill the vandal.  When they learned it was Gideon, they beseeched his father, Joash, to turn over his son to mob.  Joash stood against them by uttering these words:

31 But Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? Whoever will plead for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar.” 32 Therefore on that day he named him Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he had torn down his altar.

Joash is pretty smart.  His argument is basically that baal should be able to take care of himself if indeed he is a god as the people believe him to be.   And what a powerful argument it is!  The bible doesn’t give any more information about the scene, all we know is Gideon doesn’t die at the hands of the mob.  So we can infer reasonably that Joash’s philosophical pleadings were persuasive enough to save his son’s life.  Gideon will go on to be a great deliverer, though not a perfect one.  The land and the people will enjoy 40 years of peace.  But it was Joash’s words which stayed with me.  They caused me to think.

If the sons of Israel were abandoning Jehovah for the baals, why didn’t they cry out to the baals in the first place, as opposed to crying out to Jehovah like they do in Judges 6:1.  The point of their disobedience was the forsaking of Jehovah for a god who was, by evidence of their precipitating action, deemed better.  Yet, it was not baal to whom the sons of Israel cried in the face of the Midian onslaught of oppression, it was Jehovah.  Of course, the answer must be the sons of Israel didn’t believe the baals were real gods and their worship of them was only skin deep, as it were.  Their worship was like a beautifully wrapped present which when opened contains nothing but air.  I came to the conclusion that the sons of Israel stunk at following baal just like they stunk at following Jehovah.  They didn’t worship either one well.

And so I wondered about me and about you, intrepid reader (which if you have made it this far you are intrepid indeed, or bored…you might just have a lot of time on your hands), about us together in the Lord.  I wondered if maybe Christians in the modern world, surrounded and inundated as we are with the prominent and glittering  idols reminding us to worship ourselves, are equally as bad at serving those idols as we are at serving the Lord.  I wondered if maybe our land resembles more the barren and confused wasteland of Israel in the time of the judges than it does the halcyon Christendom of the Holy Roman Empire.  I wondered if maybe a generation has now arisen in which they really do not know the LORD nor yet the ways in which He has moved in history, or even in the hearts and lives of the people around them.  When Joshua died the bible says, “and there arose another generation after them (the generation of Joshua) who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).

I wondered if maybe you and I are a part of that pagan generation, complicit in its iniquity with our own bad following (disobedience).  And I wonder what, if anything, we are willing to do about that.

One Nation Under God


I recently completed a book by Kevin Kruse entitled One Nation Under God: How Corporate American invented Christian America.  The book is the kind of book that I normally like.  It is meticulously researched.  The writing is fairly tight and keeps moving.  It tackles its subject well and I learned quite a bit about the subject for reading it.

Kruse attempts to make the argument that much (he often alludes to ‘all’) of what we consider “Christian America” began as an attempt from corporate America to put down the New Deal in the 30s and 40s.  He does a really good job at it.  He shows, quite well, that corporate America reaches out to the predominantly conservative religious people of the time for a political marriage aimed at dismantling aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impact it has on American ideals and life.  This political marriage is espoused in revivalistic fervor that enshrines a “ceremonial deism” within the public sphere.  It culminates with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president, who is arguably the most ardent president in regards to public expressions of faith in government.  It is during this time when the words, “under God,” are added to the Pledge of Allegiance and the nation’s motto officially becomes “In God We Trust.”  Though to be fair, the latter expression was in use often and much earlier before it became the official national motto.

The book goes on to detail this political marriage as it attempts to keep its hold on an America that is changing in the 1960s.   The pillars upon which this portion of the book hang are the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding state-sponsored school prayer in 1962 and state-sponsored Bible reading in 1963.  This portion of the book was worth the price for its great depth and reference, not only for what the decisions actually banned, but for the justice’s opinions on what they do not ban.  This was the best part of the book for me.  Reading the justice’s decisions helped me to clear the foggy air as to what these decisions do and what they are not meant to do.  Consider the following excerpt from the majority decision on school prayer.

On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Engel v. Vitale. Inside the courtroom, Black arched forward in his high-backed chair, rested his arms on the bench, and began reading the opinion with unconcealed emotion. In the audience, his wife thought his delivery “sounded almost like a sermon.” After explaining the details of the case, Black paused to collect himself and clutched his papers tightly. There could be “no doubt,” he went on, that “the daily invocation of God’s blessings [was] a religious activity” and, as a result, no doubt that New York “adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment clause.” Black asserted that the First Amendment embodied the founders’ belief that faith was “too personal, too sacred, too holy to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.” (Here, an observer noted, “his voice trembled with emotion as he paused over ‘too personal, too sacred, too holy.’”) In Black’s view, religion certainly deserved a place of prominence in American life, but the state could not dictate it. “It is no part of the business of government,” he read, “to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by the government.” Departing from his written text, Black added an impromptu plea. “The prayer of each man from his soul must be his and his alone,” he said. “If there is anything clear in the First Amendment, it is that the right of the people to pray in their own way is not to be controlled by the election returns.”  (Bold mine)

This was the guy who wrote the majority decision banning state-sponsored prayer saying that religion deserves a prominent place in American life!

The book finishes with a look at Nixon’s presidency and how he boldly and misguidedly attempted to infuse his administration with religion, though it was certainly nothing more than the “ceremonial deism” of the Eisenhower administration.  In fact, one could argue it was much less. In the epilogue, Kruse goes on to investigate the religious overtones of every president since Reagan (who was the first to pepper his speeches with the benediction(?) “and may God Bless America.”  Each president since as done the same thing, including President Obama.

Kruse does an excellent job of showing the inner workings of many of the groups that espoused religion in the public square, but did not live by that religion in their own lives or in their organizations.  He, likewise, shines a bright light on the failings of ceremonial deism as a form of public religion.  It looks very little like true Christianity.

Kruse finishes the book with these words:

This history reminds us that our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era. The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are “one nation under God” were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself. Their parentage stems not from the founding fathers but from an era much closer to our own, the era of our own fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers. This fact need not diminish their importance; fresh traditions can be more powerful than older ones adhered to out of habit. Nevertheless, we do violence to our past if we treat certain phrases—“ one nation under God,” “In God We Trust”— as sacred texts handed down to us from the nation’s founding. Instead, we are better served if we understand these utterances for what they are: political slogans that speak not to the origins of our nation but to a specific point in its not-so-distant past. If they are to mean anything to us now, we should understand what they meant then. (bold mine)

It is here where I diverge from the author a bit.  The adding of these “political slogans” can (and perhaps do) speak to origins of our nation, even while their enshrinement is a result of the modern era.  For many church-going Americans (which by every measure was a vast majority of the country for up until the 1970s), these words stand alongside those founding documents and the words of many of the founding fathers regarding a divine origin for this form of government.  The words are enshrined BECAUSE they feel that way.  Even the supreme court justices (quoted by the author) who were striking down state-sponsored school prayer said as much.  Why not explore this?  The author doesn’t and instead gives us rather cold and calculating answers that feel a bit ham-fisted due to his lack of investigation.  It was almost as if he didn’t want to explore some of the deeper questions.

In this way, the book felt more like an agenda than a history.  And I really don’t like agendas masking themselves as history. I would have liked a more robust view of the matter, rather than the narrower version I received.    If you are going to subtitle your book, “How Corporate America invented Christian America,” then you might need to a little more research into the religious overtones and nuances of the revolution, trace their developments in policy, and then close with a modern take.  The book seemed to be all egg and no chicken.  Admittedly, it would have been a difficult undertaking, but great books are always difficult undertakings.

A Reading Update Hidden in an Oscar Rant

Well, I did watch some of the Oscars and I, along with approximately 43.74 million others laughed at the group selfie of A-list celebrities that “broke” twitter.  It was novel and cute and most pundits agree that the Oscars were pretty good this year, because of folksy stuff like that.  This was an Oscar broadcast that really crossed media platforms.  The tweet instantaneously became the most re-tweeted tweet of all time.  I’m sure there are people a lot smarter than me who muse about this being a defining moment for the digital communications revolution, as if there were any doubt about it being at least part of the catalyst for a post-modern world.

What does this have to do with my reading?  It should be noted I forsook a great opportunity to do some deep reading to instead watch the Oscars.  How long is this show?  Hour of agonizing hour, and I admit, I stuck with it for the sheer spectacle of the thing.  I probably could have finished Guns of August which I am really enjoying these days.  Or maybe I could have turned to Unspoken Sermons in which I am trying to read a sermon a week, and failing.  Notice Letters from Prison which sits on my desk mocking me with its bookmark showing that I only have a few pages left, just one good hour or so of reading to finish.  I am enjoying every one of these books, and yet, on Sunday night, I eschewed reading any of them so I could watch an awards show I care very little about celebrating movies I have not seen by people who I do not know for reasons I cannot entirely say.  This is not the first time in history something like this has happened.  Henry David Thoreau questioned the new, modern world of the early 19th century.

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.  We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” – from Walden

Of course, Thoreau is talking about the imminent telegraph which will soon meander its way across this great land – drooping line after drooping line – connecting every city with every other city until we are all a part of its web.  Why is Thoreau against the telegraph?  Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, enlightens us.

“Thoreau, as it turned out, was precisely correct.  He grasped that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; that it would not only permit but insist  upon a conversation between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the content of that conversation to be different from what Typographic Man was accustomed to.

The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.  These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity.  The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective if its uses or meaning.”

The definition of discourse is changing yet again.  What is the internet?  It is the telegraph on super steroids.  If, as Postman posits, the telegraph changed the nature of discourse for the “Typographic Man”, modern communication has pulled him into a dark alley and stabbed him repeatedly until he is no more.  It is here in this new and emerging definition of discourse where I find myself these days struggling to read as a discipline in a world that encourages with every new techno-wonder, context-free reading as commodity.

Perhaps you think I am reacting unfairly?  Maybe I am.   Perhaps you think I am just a lazy reader.  Let me help you with that one, I absolutely am.  But I cannot deny that our modern modes of communication do exactly what Mr. Postman says they do, not only permitting new and novel forms of communication between people and institutions and organizations, but also insisting on them, regardless of whether or not they are in our best interests as an individual or as a society.  Where is the voice that questions whether these wonders are really good for us?  Our world has no problem asking “if” we can do a certain thing, but we do have a problem asking “should” we do a certain thing, and not just in communications, but also in medicine, government, science, entertainment, even church!

But, I am not criticizing anyone but myself.  Sunday night, I didn’t ask if I should watch the Oscars rather than read, I spent a nanosecond wandering if I could.  Then I spent the next four hours of my life watching people congratulate themselves when I could have been reading some very good books.  That’s not on anyone else but me.  I press forward.

Seeking Perfection by Natural Means

I’m reading The Seven Story Mountain again.

“There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell. This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that is not due it.

This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level.”

Merton, Thomas (1998-10-04). The Seven Storey Mountain: Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition (p. 185). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Ah, the futility of seeking perfection by natural means!

For Veteran’s Day

I know I haven’t written much lately. Sadly, that is because I have not been reading much lately (outside of the scriptures and sermon preparation reading). However, as I don’t believe in fate or cosmic chance, it will be noted that I finished Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose last night and today is Veteran’s day. This confluence of events spurs me on to sharing a great quote from the book on this Veteran’s day. I truly am thankful for the service men and women of this nation who put themselves in harm’s way for the security of our country, even while I lament the fact that the broken system of sin, death, and selfishness in which we are all a part requires them to do so.

On speaking about the rather gruesome death of a new soldier recently assigned to Easy Company, PFC David Kenyon Webster writes these words:

He wasn’t twenty years old. He hadn’t begun to live. Shrieking and moaning, he gave up is life on a stretcher. Back in America the standard of living continued to rise. Back in America the race tracks were booming, the night clubs were making their greatest profits in history, Miami Beach was so crowded you couldn’t get a room anywhere. Few people seemed to care. Hell, this was a boom, this was prosperity, this was the way to fight a war. We read of black-market restaurants, of a manufacturer’s plea for gradual re-conversion to peacetime goods, beginning immediately, and we wondered if the people would ever know what it cost the soldiers in terror, bloodshed, and hideous, agonizing deaths to win the war. – Band of Brothers: e Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (Ambrose, Stephen E.)

Today, I wonder if we know the true cost of war.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

My life outside of this blog has been particularly active of late.  It is for this reason that one of the two people who read this blog recently asked me, “Where have you been?”  In response, I merely offer that I have been everywhere…but here.  As this blog is about my reading (or my sometimes lack thereof) not my life, I will withhold the commentary about where God has taken me over the past few months.  Suffice to say it is a good place, a place to which I have been led and I am very glad for it.  My new life (and it is a new life) is starting to find its groove and I think I may have some time now to devote to the chronicle of my reading journey.

What have I been reading in these silent months here at the melikereadgood blog?  That’s an easy one.  Since finishing Lewis’ That Hideous Surprise, I have read four books.

The Three Kings by Gene Edwards
This is a quick little book from the early 80s about the life of David.  You may consider it biblical   fiction in that it retains the biblical narrative of the Davidic story with certain artistic liberties taken.  The book centers around the relationship between David and King Saul and the later relationship between King David and Absalom   It is certainly not a heavy read, but I enjoyed it.  One of the interesting questions the book calls us to consider is, “What do you do when someone throws a spear at you?”  That question is timeless.  As I think back on the book, the words “modern melodrama” come to mind (point of fact, a dramatized version was also released after publication for churches to use in their drama ministries).  It gave me new and fresh things to ponder about one of my personal favorite Old Testament characters.  It is worth your time.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen’s studied, yet contemplative take on the parable of the prodigal was a pure joy to read. Using the framework of Rembrandt’s magnificent painting of the same name, Nouwen delves deep into his own life and calls the reader to do the same.  I would like to blog in-depth about how this book impacted me spiritually at a later time but for now, I will only say this book earns its moniker as one of the great modern christian classics of devotional literature.  I will read it again and perhaps soon.  I also have a new bucket list item – a pilgrimage to the State Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s tremendous piece of artistic brilliance with my own eyes.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat
Astute readers will remember my gushing praise for a book I read last year called A Stone of Hope which I labeled “the best surprise” of my 2012 reading journey.  Douthat’s tight, well-written, and scholarly look at the American religious landscape as we know it today may well be this year’s “best surprise”.  The book is worth the price of admission for his detailed look at the  prosperity gospel teaching and the god within theology that has made its way into far too many corners of the religious fabric of our culture.  Douthat posits that the current religious zeitgeist in America is a direct result of a decades-long move away from orthodox Christianity.  He meticulously shows how America is a much stronger place when good orthodoxy is at the center of our pluralistic religious scene.  He ends the book with a clarion call back to historic Christian orthodoxy (not just an Americanized  version).  It was a great book that I encourage everyone to read, no matter whether you are a believer or a seeker or an agnostic or a presbyterian (just kidding).

Cancer Ward by Alexander Soltzhenitsyn
This one has been on my radar for quite a long time.  I finally got around to reading it in the past few weeks.  I am about 80% finished and I am loving it.  My only previous encounter with Alexander was a few years ago when I read The Gulag Archipelago.  I had to drag my way through that one.  This one is much easier and much more engaging.  Set in a cancer ward in the earlier part of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn explores the human condition as his characters face humanity’s greatest plague – cancer – in each of their own particular ways.  As is usually the case with these Russians, there is the wonderful unforced meshing of the religious and the secular aspects of life that I really enjoy.  There’s community because we all live in community (whether we believe we do or not).  It’s grim because cancer is grim.  There’s hope because there is always hope.  But, how can there be hope with a terminal illness?  Ah, there is a question worth considering.  I have risen and fallen with each character as they attempt in various ways to assimilate their death sentence into their minds, hearts and lives.  I am almost finished but I can already give this book an unqualified recommendation to all.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
I would love to tell you that I read this book because I am working on a thesis about how the current pop culture interest in zombies informs our collective understanding of life, death, and the afterlife.  I wish I were that cool.  The reality is that I was looking for something to amuse (the archaic definition of “diverting the attention of so as to deceive”) me and this happened to be on the front page of whatever screen I was looking at at the time.  The only thing I have to say is, “It worked.”

That Hideous Suprise…

Over the months of December and January, I tackled C. S. Lewis’ celebrated space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.  Lewis is on my short list of writers.  I may have read more by him than perhaps any other single author.  In fact, now that I think about it, I have read more Lewis.

Mere Christianity
The Great Divorce
The Space Trilogy (3 books)
The Chronicles of Narnia (2 of them)

I like Lewis, a lot.  So, my reaction to reading the Space Trilogy was a little bit of a surprise.

How shall I say it?  “Meh.”

Hey, it’s still Lewis and the writing is great.  The story in the last two books were particularly intriguing.  The characters are all fairly well developed and the reader has an emotional investment in them.  Lewis builds a great mythology that is the saving grace of the story (more about that later).  His descriptions are vivid and the plots were engaging.  As always, Lewis opens up my ideas of God and gives me a fresh way to consider His nature and movement in my life.  What is not to love?

I didn’t love them.  I liked them, but I probably won’t read them again.

Normally, this is pretty standard with books I read.  Most of the books I read are pretty good.  I file them away and move on.  Some are very good.  These I place in the prominent places of my life so I can see them and remember them and possibly read them again.  Some are very bad.  I hide these from sight and pretend I didn’t read them.  Up until this trilogy, I had never read a Lewis book that wasn’t in the very good section.  I think the Great Divorce and Mere Christianity should be required reading for every Christian.  They are that good.  And the Chronicles of Narnia series works on almost every level.

So what happened, Jack?

Two things.

First, Lewis has a propensity to throw everything but the kitchen sink into his novels.  Maybe a better way to say this is that at times, Lewis can be kind of…well, corny.  This is something that Tolkien chastised him for in Narnia, but in Narnia one has a better chance to get away with it.  Do you remember when the Pevensie children are making their way to  the Narnians and Father Christmas shows up in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?  Seriously, Clive, Santa Claus?  But it works because you are in Narnia and the grown-up in me forgives Lewis for his excess because the grown-up is having such a great time in Narnia.

Lewis is going to do the same kinds of things in the Space Trilogy.  Consider That Hideous Strength.  The name of the antagonist group is the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments.  We will refer to them for the rest of the book as the NICE group.  Nice…nice and corny.  And, oh by the way, they are in cahoots to bring Merlin back from the dead…Merlin the magician.

The beauty of this is that Lewis almost pulls it off.  It kind of works, even the Merlin bit*.  But this isn’t Narnia.  This is 1940’s Britain and the whole thing feels a little contrived.  Maybe I am being a little too critical, but I think you need more aesthetic distance for the reader to fully immerse themselves into the world.  Lewis tries admirably and does a better job than practically anyone else has done or could have done.

Second, the scientific limitations of the time place a very heavy burden on the timelessness of the story.  Lewis places his trilogy out in the field of Arbol, perhaps better known to you and I as our own solar system.  In the first book, we travel to Mars (Malacandra) in a rocket to find it teeming with life.  In the second book, we travel to Venus (Perelandra) to find a primeval island planet where life is about to take root and the eternal choice of good and evil is about to made.  Back in the 40s, we didn’t really know what was on those planets.  Now science has given us a pretty good idea about what is and what is not on our planetary neighbors (though I would argue that they know much less about it than they think they do), and so Lewis feels a little like another H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, quaint and fun, but not timeless.

To mitigate that, Lewis builds a great mythology around the eldila and Maleldil.  This differentiates Lewis from Wells and Verne and gives his stories a certain gravitas that the others lack.  It is the mythology of the universe that Lewis creates which is at once the best  and most interesting part of the stories and also, the piece that causes me to long for much more than what is presented.  You need mythology to help explain the unexplainable in the universe.  A great mythology gives the story a moral center, and it is only from within the confines of this mythology that the actions of protaganists and antagonists make any sense.  Without it, the reader has trouble finding his way.

But this great mythology is also an achilles heel.  Ultimately, this is what gives the Space Trilogy an ‘almost timeless’ feeling, if a book can be described as such.   Lewis is at the threshold, but he doesn’t seem to get it all the way through the door.  While the mythology is great, the setting and the characters seem to struggle to be at home in it.  I can hear Tolkien reading the manuscript and handing it back to Lewis saying, “You are not finished yet.”  I left the trilogy thinking that it was great, but it could have been more. 

It begs the question, can truly timeless science fiction be written and set in the human past without losing the subsequent generations of readers?  The more successful science fiction literature usually has to get out of the solar system, at least, if not get out of our timeline completely, to work.  You have to go Narnia, Middle Earth, or even Tattooine to make it work forever.

All this is not to say that you shouldn’t read the books.  They are pretty good.  You should read them.  I was just expecting a little more, I guess, since it was C. S. Lewis.  It seems that even the mighty Lewis is not immune some of the vagarities of science fiction writing.  I still give him an “A” for trying.  Most other writers wouldn’t have dared to do that.  And to his great credit, Lewis almost pulls it off.

* Merlin works when one considers him part of the mythology rather than a pawn between the two warring factions.  Lewis actually does a very good job of placing Merlin within the “deeper magic” of the universe.  As such, while my first reaction to Merlin’s appearance was “what?”, upon further reflection, this is not as corny as it initially sounds.

Hold the Applause…

Well, this was, perhaps, my greatest year of reading.  Having accomplished a goal I failed to reach last year, I triumphantly come to the end of 2012 with 28 books under my belt.  Pretty good for a spiritual midget like myself.  As usual, it is a mixed bag, so let’s just dispense with it.

I read me some classics this year.  I know, that’s terrible.  I just wanted to type it and to read it to myself out loud.

Despite its syntax, it is a trustworthy saying.  I did read some classic books this year.  Some were re-reads from my past and some were brand new.  My favorite classic book this year was Walden by Thoreau…hands down.  No other book comes close.  It was great.  I blogged about earlier in the year.  I will probably read it again.  Thoreau is a great writer.  It was so good, in fact, that I went ahead and read Civil Disobedience as well.  It was good too, but 2012 is memorialized in my memory as the year I first read Thoreau’s Walden.  Do yourself a favor and go get a copy.  They’re free online, for crying out loud!  You are without excuse.

My least favorite book (also known as the I wish I had the past two days of my life back award) goes to Mocking Jay by Suzanne Collins.  I’ve blocked most of it from my memory so there is not a whole lot to tell.  Worst.  Trilogy.  Ending.  Ever.

Best Surprise in my reading this year:  A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.  I really enjoyed this book.  It is a scholarly look at the role of prophetic Christianity in the civil rights movement.  Well researched and well written, the book takes a hard look at the civil rights movement in the South and how true Christianity was a great and important part of it as well as a look at how religion was used by both segregationists and anti-segregationists to defend their positions.   I guess the best surprise of all was learning that Southern Baptists were one of the first groups to de-segregate their seminaries.  I was proud of my denomination.  That was another surprise.  The book is not an easy read, but it is worth it.  Check it out.

Worst surprise in my reading this year: Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People.  This book screwed me up psychologically for about three weeks.  I am not the kind of guy who sees demons or angels everywhere I look (this might be a flaw rather than a good thing) but as I made my way through this book, I felt like I was being let in on a very demonic and evil situation.  There is evil in the world, too, Virginia, and Jim Jones is one of the worst.  Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this story is that the people who fell prey to Jones were not necessarily the poor and the ignorant and those whose lot in life makes them more susceptible to the demagogues and the cult leaders.  Some of the people were college educated.  Some of them came from good homes.  Some of them were girls with dads who loved them very much.  That was a bad surprise, indeed.  God, be with my daughters…

I also rowed down the river with Lewis and Clark (Undaunted Courage), got a little too close for comfort to the underbelly of New Orleans (A Confederacy of Dunces), spent much of my Summer praying the offices (The Divine Hours), and learned a little (a lot) about citizen-community from a homeschooler that went to Yale (On Common Things).  I returned to Middle Earth (The Hobbit and The Fellowship)  and to the Abbey of Gesthemani (The Seven Storey Mountain) and dwelt there for a while with these good, old friends.  I even journeyed out to the field of Arbol and talked with the eldila (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra).  I found grace in an unlikely place (Bonhoeffer) and in a most likely place (Testament of Devotion).  And I was brought to the Truth in fresh and powerful ways through a couple of really great teachers (Unspoken Sermons and Purity of Heart).

All in all, it has been a good year, nay, a great year.  I wonder what adventures there are to have, what truths there are to learn, what love there is to give and to receive in 2013.  Time will tell.  I am thankful for all of the reading I did in 2012.  Maybe I am starting to grow up a little, after all.

The Life You Save…

I have recently become aware that, while I do love to read, I love making lists of books to read so much more.  Perhaps that is not completely accurate, but I have a lot of fun looking at books and admiring them, reading reviews and samples, and of course, making lists of books to read.  Ironically, I have yet to complete a booklist that I have made.  I will come as close as I ever have this year, but the fact remains – I seem to be better at planning and preparing to read books that I am at actually reading the books.

So, it should come as no suprise to the two readers of this blog that I have recently been thinking on the books I want to read for next year.  Here are some options:

Augustine’s Confessions – this was on my list this year, but I bailed due to time constraints and general inability to keep my mind on anything longer than a ….

The Life You Save May Be Your Own – being such a Merton fan, it is natural that I would like to read him in correspondence with some other pretty great writers – Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day

Cloud Atlas and/or Life of Pi – two books made into movies this year.  From what I have read, the movies suck, but that is pretty standard.  I might give one or both of these a read in 2013 or I might not.

The History of English Speaking Peoples Since 1900 – this is a book that I have owned for a couple of years.  You can be assured of it’s popularity by noticing the $.o1 price tag for the used hardback on Amazon.  Everybody wants one!

The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor – I have never read any Flannery O’Connor.  I want to read The Life You Save (above) and then maybe take a swing at this one.  Of course, I might not like the first book which would put the reading of this book into serious question.  But I do have a guy who will shame me greatly if I demur, so…

The Waters of Siloe by Thomas Merton – A new Merton book (new to me) that I picked up for a song on amazon.  I read all Merton….

Also, I have made another change to the 2012 book list.  I am replacing David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas with David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.  I have already started Stone of Hope after finishing Merton.  It is really good.  I look forward to sharing some of it on this blog.

John Wesley at Herrnhut with the Moravians

Though the title of this blog sounds more like the conclusion of a game of Clue, it is in fact, very descriptive. In 1738, after John Wesley had returned from the colonies and a rather tumultuous and unsuccessful missionary journey there, he went to Herrnhut to study with some Moravian brethren. Wesley had become impressed with the Moravians while travelling with them on his voyage across the Atlantic. Their devotion to the Lord and their piety in the faith as they made the treacherous journey put his fellow English brethren to shame.

As Wesley lived and worked and worshipped with the Moravian brethren he wrote the following words:

“God has given me, at length, the desire of my heart. I am with a church whose conversation is in heaven, in whom is the mind of Christ, and who so walk as He walked. As they all have one Lord and one faith, so they are partakers with one spirit, the spirit of meekness and love, which uniformly and continually animates all their conversation. Oh! How high and holy a thing Christianity is! And how widely different from that, I know not what, which is so called, though it neither purifies the heart, nor renews the life, after the image of our Blessed Redeemer. I grieve to think how that holy name by which we are called must be blasphemed among the heathen, while they see discontented Christians, passionate Christians, resentful Christians, earthly-minded Christians. Yea, to come to what we are apt to count small things, while they see Christians judging one another, ridiculing one another, speaking evil of one another, increasing instead of bearing one another’s burdens.”

No doubt Wesley’s words were influenced by the personal and professional struggles he was having within his own denomination and perhaps this experience with the Moravians, coming so soon after his disastrous missionary journey to America seemed to him a beatific departure from ministry as he had known it thus far. It is equally important to note how the Moravians emphasis on unity and brotherhood in Christ would have been a welcome break from the fractious Anglican church with which Wesley often found himself at odds.

A quick read of this passage and the context in which it occurred might lead a modern believer to conclude that Wesley had found the Perfect Church, that elusive (and quite mythical) holy grail for which so many well-intentioned believers today search as they traipse about from congregation to congregation. This modern American reader may quickly ask, “Why didn’t Wesley just join up with Moravians?

Wesley did not throw in his lot with the Moravians. He went back to the Church of England. It should also be noted that this “Father of Methodism” never gave up on the Anglican church. It was Wesley who intentionally kept himself in the Anglican church even when many of his English parishioners were clamoring for secession and even though the Anglican church continued to look down upon them and ostracize them. It is not until after Wesley’s death that the Methodists finally and fully break away from the Anglican Church in England (though American Methodists were free during Wesley’s lifetime). Wesley would die as a presbyter of the Church of England.

The example of John Wesley is a lesson for evangelical believers today. Wesley would have us know that being a part of a family of faith is important and as such, it must cost us something. In today’s culture, filled with pop psychology, narcissistic entertainment, and take-what-you-want buffets, it is easy to approach our church with the same give-me-what-I-want or else mentality. And so many believers merely “church hop” when things get tough rather than engaging in the hard, but Spirit-led ministry of reconciliation and fellowship. Wesley reminds us all that fellowship is more about “them” than it is about “me”, no matter whether “they” are outside of the church community or inside of it.

John Wesley shows us the importance of maturity in the faith. His example is both timely and relevant. We live in what is arguably the greatest time ever to be a human on this planet. Our knowledge, our innovation, and our understanding are far and away above what any other culture has ever experienced. Yet, so many of us struggle with relational superficiality. This is one of the few areas where our forebears outdo us and it is a place where we can learn from them.

This makes the legacy of John Wesley all the more potent and significant. His words are not to send us out on a useless quest for a mythical church that doesn’t exist. Rather, his words exhort us to do all that we can to make our place of fellowship and community “a church whose conversation is in heaven, in whom is the mind of Christ, and who so walk as He walked.” He is not calling us to find people like that. He is calling us to be people like that and may the Spirit of Christ Who is present in His church guide us to that very end.

For more information about Wesley and his experience the Moravians – check out some excerpts from his journal here.

The Moravian Revival that preceded Wesley’s visit is detailed here in this excerpt from Canandian pastor Oswald J. Smith’s book, The Spirit at Work.