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My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Category Archives: Spiritual Reading

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.

Detachment

Well, I am back after all this time.  Trying to keep a blog going is extremely difficult for someone as spiritually scatterbrained as I can be.  My reading has waned in these late Summer, early Fall weeks, much as it did last year.  I had thought that last year’s swoon was primarily due to my hectic schedule, but this year my schedule was at least a little less hectic and I found that I swooned again.  There is a lot of swooning going on around here.  So, I guess it is not so much about my schedule but more about my laziness.  August and September are hard times for me to read for some reason.

But it is October and I am reading Merton.  I am picking up where I left off in New Seeds of Contemplation and there seems to be a rejuvenation of sorts coming to me as I read.  The more I am reading, the stronger my desire to read becomes.  Merton can have that effect on you.  Perhaps I should save my Merton readings for the hard part of the year!  Or, perhaps I should just be more disciplined.  In any event, I am thinking on detachment.

I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are.  That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces.  I don’t believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world.  But there must be one or two.  They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.” – Thomas Merton, Detachment.

What is detachment?  I mean much more than mere austere living for its own sake.  There are those who tell me that life is to be found in abnegation.  When you deny yourself earthly gifts and pleasures then you are really living the life of the disciple!  I think that this kind of detachment is more about the person than it is about God.  I mean that a lot of people are living these austere lives because they get some kind of satisfaction out of it, which is itself another earthly pleasure.  So, there is no real detachment.  It is only an attachment to something else, namely the good feeling they get, their satisfaction in themselves and their actions.  I don’t think there is any real detachment in that.

Perhaps true detachment is renunciation in the hopes of annunciation.  That the forsaking of earthly things would result in a deepening of the sense of God’s presence with you, i.e. living a life of self-abnegation in the hopes that He would condescend to bless me with a vision, or sign, or a truth.  There is no doubt that these things are good and worthy of desire.  It is equally true that God can and does do these things in the life of the believer.  And yet, there seems to be inside of this form of renunciation a subtle selfishness, a sort of manipulation of God.  It is not real detachment because I am still doing it for selfish motives.  Granted, it’s not selfish like fasting to win the lottery is selfish, but it still has tentacles of selfishness embedded into it.  So, even this prized and worthy idea of detachment is tainted and not really detachment.  What’s a brother to do?

“You will never be able to have perfect interior peace and recollection unless you are detached even from the desire of peace and recollection.  You will never be able to pray perfectly until you are detached from the pleasures of prayer.

If you give up all these desires and seek one thing only, God’s will, He will give you recollection and peace in the middle of labor and conflict and trial.”

True detachment is about seeking.  If I detach myself from the world or from anything for any reason other than union with Christ, then it is not real detachment.  It is just another form of attachment.  And at the very best, I am only seeking myself.  Somehow, in someway, I am to empty myself of all that is self.  In that emptiness and darkness, I will find God.  And more importantly, He will find me, not the fake me so enslaved to my ego, or my false idea of myself, but the real me.

It is God alone Who I am to seek, not His blessings.
It is God alone Who I am to desire, not His gifts.
It is God alone with Whom I long to be in union, not to manipulate with tainted words.

The Fall According to Athanasius – Pt. 2

“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

What is death?  Death, as Athanasius is discussing it, is more than mere biological death.  Death is non-existence, it is the absence of life.  The phenomenon of non-life is what we are calling death.  What is life?  What we mean by life is more than biology and blood.  Life is a gift to us from our Maker.  We have life only through Him.  Not only that, but our desire to fully live, to be alive in the purest sense, is also a gift.  We, as a race, are imbued with the desire for real life.  We actively seek it.  Therefore, death, this absence of life, is not something that we would naturally choose for ourselves.

How, then, would any thinking person ever choose death?  Under normal circumstances, I don’t think they would.  If we say that we instinctively want to live and not die, then the only way that a person would willingly choose death over life is if they were deceived into thinking that death was life.  And this is exactly what happens in the Garden.  This story of the Fall is indicative of what continues to happen in mankind today.  Deception is the trick that death uses to get its foot in the door.  Once there, it begins to wreck havoc upon us.

If our sin nature can be described as imagining our existence apart from God, then sin begins to exert its control over us at the point where we choose death over life (or choosing life apart from God as opposed to Life with Him) because we mistakenly think that death is life.  Once we do this, we begin to come under the  dominion of death and we are powerless to stop it.  This is the process of corruption of which Athanasius speaks.

This process begins to overtake us in many ways.  Death’s corruption of us moves on unhindered to complete fruition unless acted upon by an outside force.  It becomes easier and easier for us to choose death over life, because we become more and more blinded to the reality of our existence.  Soon, we are lost, blind, and dying, yet, we have no idea that this is the case.  We wrongly think we are smarter than ever, seeing clearly to the path of true living.  There is no way out of this process of corruption of our own making.  The vicious cycle folds back onto itself.  This is the terrible domain of death.  We are dying and we don’t even know it.

Consider the modes of living that the world would espouse to us as real life.  It usually falls under one of these headings: Money, power, knowledge, and fame.  That part of us that can imagine our lives without God would tell us that these things, or the pursuit of them, is life.  Therefore, because we all want to live, we design our lives around these things and we order our relationships and time to give us the best of these things which we think lead to life.  We try to take what we can from whom we can by any means we can, and we have the hubris to say that this is life!  All the while, we are in actuality moving further and further away from Him who is life.  As we continue along this process of complete corruption, we slip further and further from the truth.

And so this corruption eventually leads us back to the place where we were before Life was breathed into us, that is non-existence, for there is no existence apart from God.  We truly become that which the world would tell us we are in the first place – insignificant animals, byproducts of the alleged master of the universe, scientific process; aware only of our most basic consciousness and ultimately relegated to the biological dung heap of the cosmos.  At the end of our physical life, death takes off its mask to reveal its true nature and intention.

So, with the Apostle Paul, we cry out, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from this body of death?”

The Fall According to Athanasius – Pt. 1

I am reading through St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. It is a small book but it is a powerful one, especially considering its history and importance in the early church and subsequent centuries. Athanasius will put down the foundation for our modern understanding of Trinitarian theology – namely that Jesus is not distinct from the Father in essence, but He and the Father are One. He was known as Athanasius Contra Mundum or Athanasius against the world. Athanasius stood his ground in the face of opposition despite 17 exiles over five years from his Alexandrian bishopric. One biographer referred to him as Christianity’s first superhero, my kind of guy!

This book is foundational in Athanasius’ theological understanding and it remains a centerpiece of our Trinitarian doctrine today, and as such, it deserves a read. The first chapter of the book deals with Creation and the Fall. Athanasius gives some pretty good words to the Creation event, but I was struck by His description of the Fall of man.

“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

Athanasius describes the sinful nature within us in this way: it is a turning “from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising.” What a tremendous understanding of the flesh! We have come to think of sin specifically as this thing done or that thing done. We name them with great names like adultery and gluttony, then we spend much of our lives merely trying to steer clear of them. I hope that we will stay away from specific sin like that – it is right that we should. However, the root of sin goes much deeper into me than merely staying away from specific sins (sin management.) It is my constant choosing of myself over God. It is contemplating the things I want and the things I think I need and the life I would like to live that is distinct from God. This is my sinful nature – that I could imagine myself without God.

“Surely,” you ask, “you do not mean that we should never think about ourselves! But we have to think about ourselves, at least some of the time, don’t we?”

Therein lies the problem. Imagining our lives, separate from God, and attempting to live in that made-up, pseudo reality is the root of all sin, if not sin outright. If we can convince ourselves that God doesn’t matter or is not relevant, that God is not concerned about our lives and how we live, or perhaps most devastating, that God is not absolute and Sovereign, then we can create a theology in our own image rather than one which is a reflection of Him. Our understanding of the universe then reflects our nature instead of His. We turn away from the moral absolutes of an unchangeable God and replace it with vagaries of behavior modification that allow me to more adequately reflect my own inflated self-importance.

Is the cosmos centered around its Creator, or is it centered around the creatures? The great deception is to think that it is centered around us and in particular, our desires born from an imagined world where we can live without God. It is from this fountain that all sin flows. When we begin to think that life can be found in any way apart from God, then Paradise is lost. Our thinking of ourselves, as distinct from God, separate, is the inherited legacy of our sinful fathers. That path did not bring them life and consequently, it does the same for us.  In the words of Athanasius, it puts us “under the law of death.” And that is exactly what God warned us about when He said, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17

What does this death look like?  Come back and check out part 2…

The Unpardonable Sin

I’m reading through the Unspoken Sermons by George McDonald.  Holy cow, they are awesome!  Of course, you dont have to take my word for it.  Read it yourself here.

George McDonald (GM) is such a mental giant.  His use of the English language, though a bit antiquated, is still far beyond my rudimentary usage and understanding.  I can’t read him too late at night, for example, because it requires all of my faculties to assimilate what he is saying.  As it is, I still have to reread certain passages to try and get to the full understanding his words engender in me.

Much more importantly, he is a spiritual giant.  He begins the fourth sermon in the book, It shall Not Be Forgiven, by talking about the inherent limitations of language in discussing the things of God.  Human speech, as noble as it is, falls woefully inadequate in describing God, imparting the wisdom of God, and unveiling the truths of God and cosmos in our lives.  “Spirit and Truth are like the Lady Una and the Red Cross Knight; Speech like the dwarf that lags behind with the lady’s “bag of needments.”

I don’t even begin to get that reference.

Of course, his point is that language, while such a useful and needful thing in our lives, is not merely inadequate for the job, it can also lead to misunderstandings on the scale of misrepresenting the nature of God as to totally hide Him from us.  And yet, all is not lost.  “If we are bound to search after what our Lord means – and He speaks that we may understand – we are at least equally bound to refuse any interpretations which seems to us unlike Him, unworthy of Him.”

What is a man like me to do?

“…that part of us which loves Him let us follow, and in its judgements let us trust; hoping, beyond all things else, for it growth and enlightenment by the Lord, who is that Spirit.”

This seems to me to be more eloquent and truthful than all of the twisted systems of theologians who would seek to quantify God and His love into an equation or a formula that would suck the mystery out of our existence and God’s involvement in the cosmos.  This is the Spirit’s work, which GM says is “known by its witnessing with our spirit.”  I follow this Spirit to the revealed Son and the word which He left for me, not the other way around, letting the written word imprison the Spirit and the Son in such a way as to think that Jesus is less noble than I can be, or that the Father can’t love in a way that I as a Father find so natural and easy.  MAY IT NEVER BE!  May my feeble words, nor anyone else’s,  never so closet the work of the Spirit in our lives.

As regards the actual purpose of the sermon, which GM takes several pages to even reveal, I don’t think his teaching is that far away from what I have always heard about the “unpardonable sin,” that being, to exist in such a way as to be antithetical to the movements of God and thus be unable to receive grace and love.  (This is surprising because old George certainly strays from the reservation on a few other theological ideas.)  Only those who continually say no to God are guilty of the unpardonable sin.  Theologians call this the seared conscious of man.  The difference in GM’s understanding and what I have been taught over the years is that this is not a permanent state of being. “That is my chief difficulty.  But I think it may be.  And wiser people than I, have thought so.  I have difficulty believing it, I say; yet I think it must be so.  But I do not believe that it is a fixed, a final condition.  I do not see why it should be such any more than that of the man who does not forgive his neighbor.  If you say it is a worse offense, I say, is it too bad for the forgiveness of God?”

Judas is kind of a poster boy for this seared conscious, for how else could he have betrayed the Savior.  Further, Judas adds the double whammy of killing himself, which according to some doctrine (read contract) promises him an eternity of hellfire.  Of Judas, GM writes, “But I will not, cannot believe, O my Lord, that thou wouldst not forgive thy enemy, even when he repented, and did thee right.  Nor will believe that thy holy death was powerless to save thy foe – that it could not reach to Judas.  Have we not heard of those, thine own, taught of thee, who could easily forgive their betrayers in thy name?  And if thou forgives, will not thy forgiveness finds its way at last in redemption and purification?”

McDonald says this condition of spiritual depravity that is unable to receive the grace of the Father (the unpardonable sin) is marked by unforgiveness, specifically, unforgiveness in the heart of one man toward another. This understanding helps to clarify a teaching of the Savior that I have struggled with for many years.  “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” This is not, as I have often thought and perhaps been implicitly taught, a conditional promise from the Father that depends upon my forgiving of my fellow man.  It goes beyond that.

My forgiveness of others is not a prerequisite for God’s forgiveness, rather, it is a reflection of my own spiritual condition.  If I am unwilling to forgive my neighbor, then there is no room for God’s forgiveness in my heart.  “It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him.  The former may be an act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice.”  This state of being, that stubborn unwillingness to forgive, is what prevents the Father from forgiving me, not because He chooses to withhold forgiveness, but because I do.

And that is the unpardonable sin of which He speaks in Luke 11:18 – And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven.

A New Year, a New List, and a New Hope

Hope springs eternal in the new year.  After coming up woefully short of my goal to read 24 books in 2011, I am back with a vengeance in 2012.  It a new year, I’ve got a new list, and in the immortal words of my favorite episode of Star Wars, I have “A New Hope.”

This year I want to try again for my goal of reading 24 books in a twelve month period.  It really shouldn’t be that hard, but sadly, it is.  I find that one of the greatest struggles in my life is amusing myself to death.  The symptoms of this crushing malady are many and varied.  I would rather watch a movie about a book instead of read the book.  I would rather listen to someone else’s music instead of making my own.  My conversations are littered with expressions from popular culture (and this being mostly 80s pop culture) rather than real expressions of who I am.  I am numbed by it and I love it.

Of course, I don’t really love it.  Like the apostle Paul, I do the things I don’t want to do and I don’t do the things my spirit really longs to do.  Doing things my flesh doesn’t want to do is a mark of maturity, whether it be in finances, or in diet, or for me  (as a believer in Christ) in knowing Jesus more intimately.  In his book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster declares that “Superficiality is the curse of our age.”  Though written decades ago, the truth of his statement has only gotten more poignant with the passage of time.  It is certainly the case in my life.

You can’t have maturity without discipline and I don’t have much of either.  My heart longs for the deeper things, things much deeper than the latest episode of 30 Rock or the plot of the Three Amigos.  I’m not sure that there is anything inherently wrong with those things, unless they are keeping me from going deeper into the things of God and ultimately, that is what this list and this blog are all about.  I need to read, because for me, reading can be very hard. It’s time to do some of the hard things because they are hard.

So here is the new list if you interested.  I’ve already started reading.

Old Books and C.S. Lewis

I recently added AthanasiusDe Incarnatione to the list of books I want to read.  It is an almost 1700 year old book written by one of the strongest proponents of orthodox Trinitarianism at the council of Nicea. If I was a real man, I would read it in Latin, but, alas, I am not a real man, so, English it is!  I found a decent ‘ish’ translation for my Kindle and read the introduction last night.  The introduction is by a guy you might have heard of – C.S. Lewis.  As is often the case with Lewis, his writing is so good that I was distracted from continuing on.  I just wanted to kind of sit and think about what He was saying.  I thought I might provide some excerpts for us.  You can read the whole thing for yourself here.  It is a really great argument for reading old books.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.  This I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium.  He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.  The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility.  The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face.  He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.  But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.  The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.  It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without a question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.  We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

When the Organization becomes the Institution

I am currently reading Alfred Edersheim’s epic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. It is one of the most important modern references in existence of Jesus’ life and the Jewish culture that proceeded and encompassed his earthly ministry, or at least that’s what some people say (like these guys.)   It is terribly hard for me to read and more importantly to understand.  I think I need to read two or three other, lesser books before I can really understand all that is going on in this one, but I digress.  Thankfully, I am reading it in community with three other men who are helping me to keep going and giving me fresh insight that I otherwise would not grasp.  This grand tome has been referenced often in much of my other reading and study and I am glad to be finally exploring its riches.

The first “book” (80 or so pages) deals with the Jewish dispersion from Babylon and the emerging culture within the larger Jewish community.  Specifically, there is much information there regarding the rise of Rabbinicism in the eastern dispersion and the influence of the Hellenistic culture upon the western dispersion.  Are you asleep yet?  Edersheim traces how these emergent traditions form in the intertestament period and bear upon the Jewish people among whom will be born a Savior, Jesus the Messiah, decades later.  This rise of Rabbincism is particularly interesting to note, because it is this Rabbinicism of the east that Jesus will come face to face with in the personages of the Pharisees and the Saducees and their institutional structure.

The nature of this Rabbinicism of which Edersheim writes goes much deeper than a mere systematic hierarchy of Jewish teachers and teaching.  Their influence and understandings grow to become the de facto religion among the Eastern dispersion, often placed in higher authority than the Scriptures themselves.  From this development comes an exhaustive list of moral authority, going far beyond the scope and intent of the Old Testament resulting in a seismic shift in the way the Jewish faith is perceived to be lived out.  The “do’s” of their faith become the “don’ts” of Rabbincal authority.  In many ways, this moral authority of the Rabbis comes to replace the methods by which the Jewish people were to relate to God.  The organization of the Jewish faith becomes an Institution of Rabbincism.

This is a picture that observant religious historians may have seen before.  The farther we move away from actual involvement with the Divine, the more likely we are to place our faith and trust in the machinations of the Institution.  We see it throughout the Old Testament.  So many times, the people began to rebel against God as their lives become centered around the structures of their religion, instead of the relationship with their God.  This is especially true the farther you move away from Mt. Sinai and the actual giving of the law.  Edersheim traces this type of development in the intertestament period.  As the people begin to assimilate themselves with the countries and cultures around them, they fall deeply into this Rabbinicism.  The Roman church will suffer from this malady at key points in their history, necessitating the need for a great Reformation.  The structure of the faith organization becomes the Institution by which all should order their lives.

This is why the Pharisees and the Saducess are so violently opposed to message of Jesus and why many in the modern church refuse to build a theology of life around the Sermon on the Mount.  Like the Jews of old, we seek to replace our relationship with God with the trappings of religion, wrongly assuming that deliverance can be found there instead of in Him.  When our modern church society collectively “hangs it hat” on a few pillars of the Institution just like the Jews and the Roman church did, we replace the life-giving spiritual disciplines of the Christian life with a life-sucking list of moral authority.  Instead of an emphasis on prayer, the Word, solitude, worship, etc., we talk piously of the evils of money and homosexuality and woman preachers.  Jesus invades the world to tell us that there is no replacement for an actual relationship with God.  He speaks it.  He lives by it.  He dies to show its truth.  He rises again by its very power.  He lives on in our lives to guide the way for us to live.

There is no deliverance in any institution.  There is only faith in the One to Whom the institutions of this world bow down.  He is the God of the universe, Father of the Christ.  It is He to Whom Jesus points the way.  The organization of the church, its leaders, and its adherents should seek to do the same.  I pray that we will.

Intentional Discipleship

I am coming to the end of the The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard.  I must admit that it has been a challenging read.  Perhaps I will speak of that later, but for now I wish to anchor down on one important truth about discipleship that I am being taught through this book.  It is pretty obvious to most folks, but often, I have to learn things through the long, windy road of personal experience before I can take them to heart.

There Are No Accidental Disciples

The one important truth that has come from my reading of this book is that discipleship must be intentional.  There are no accidental disciples in the Kingdom nor are there any disciples that come into being by osmosis.  One must mean to be a disciple.  “We do not drift into discipleship,” writes Willard.  That is true!  I am not going to grow in my relationship to Christ unless and until I choose to do so.  How does intentional discipleship take place?

True discipleship must have its anchor in the grounding context of relationship.  If we say we must intend to be disciples, we say so from the foundation of understanding the spiritual life as a dynamic and growing relationship with God.  Apart from this, discipleship is at best a very difficult thing and at worst, it is nonexistent.  Discipleship comes alive in a life that lives from the center of a desire to cultivate a relationship with God.  Intention naturally follows.

This progression is at the heart of any covenantal relationship.  Covenant – Desire – Intention – Action.  I am in a covenant relationship with my wife.  I love her.  Out of this love comes a desire to know her better, to do well by her and for her.  So I make it my intention to do it and then I follow through on that intention with action.  It is not an accident.  I have decided to do it because of my love for her.  There aren’t any “accidentally happily married people” just as there are not any accidental disciples.  We must intend to follow through on the love relationship we have.  Willard writes, “the disciple or apprentice of Jesus, as recognized by the New Testament, is the one who as firmly decided to learn from Him how to lead his or her own life.”

Many erroneously think that one can be a disciple of Christ without intending to do it.  This is simply not possible apart from explicit Divine intervention, which I believe can happen, but it is certainly the exception to the rule.  Willard uses the metaphor of a math student to illustrate this idea.  We cannot be true disciples of Christ apart from intentional discipleship any more than a math student can become proficient in calculus without first mastering the truths of algebra.  As a musician, I am acutely aware of this principle, both in my own musical life and in the musical lives of my students.   You will never get better by NOT practicing.

The intention to be a disciple is indispensible to the cultivating of a relationship with the Master, but it is only the beginning.  The action of being a disciple has to follow this intention.  But if there is no intention to be a disciple, there will certainly never be any discipling action in your life.  That is what I have learned very forcefully from Dallas Willard.  While it seems easy enough, many believers struggle with discipleship, so maybe its not so easy or well-understood.  Willard refers to discipleship (or the lack thereof) as “the elephant in the church” because we all know that is where the church is failing miserably.

“The spiritual life is first of all a life.  It is not merely something to be known and studied.  It is to be lived.” – Thomas Merton

The tools by which we follow through on our intention to be disciples are the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.  These are the methods modeled for us by Jesus Himself and they are the action part of our covenantal progression.  Therefore, if we intend to be disciples of Christ and learn how to live our lives on earth as He lived His, then we must also intend to do what He did.  Jesus did a lot of things on a regular basis that serve as models for us.  He studied the Word.  He prayed.  He fasted.  He spent time in solitude.  He served others.  He worshiped.  He sought guidance from God. He moved only on the impulse of the Father.  He taught the truth.  In apprenticing ourselves to Christ, we would seek to do what He did and to live our lives in the way He lived His.  Why would an apprentice desire to do anything else?

The truth of the matter is that one will never live the life of a disciple without first intending to do it.