melikereadgood

My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Tag Archives: books

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.

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.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes…

What can I say?  I’m a flip-flopper…

As I have noted before on this blog, I am not above changing the rules as I go along.  My goal is to be reading as opposed to not reading (and doing other less worthy things like watch tv, stare off into the distance, check facebook, etc.)  So, while I have made my monstrous list of books, I am not married to it.  My book list and I are not even going steady.  We have open relationship.

So, I am taking off Cancer Ward because I do not own it and I don’t really need to go into debt to do so.  I am replacing it with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a re-read, but again that doesn’t matter to me so much.  Tolkien is always worthy of a re-read. I am also taking off 1984 by George Orwell and replacing it with A Confederacy of Dunces by American novelist John Kennedy Toole which I did manage to read during my late Summer swoon and hope to dive into on my blog at some point in the future.

I am removing some more books from the list for various reasons.  The first one is Confessions by St. Augustine.  I still want to read it, but I don’t want to rush this read.  I might put it in the 2013 book list. I am also removing The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancey.  I started this book earlier in the year but I found his voicing and development less than desirous.  I have read Yancey before and find him to be a good writer.  I’m just not in the mood for this book at this time.  I’m a flip-flopper.

I hope to finish New Seeds of Contemplation by Merton and God’s Generals by Liardon by the end of this month.  While Merton is re-energizing my desire to read, I haven’t read Liardon for a while because I find it tedious.  But, just to show that I have some fidelity to my list, I intend on finishing the book, albeit for all the wrong reasons.  Sometimes we need to read things for which we don’t particularly care.

Finally, I have finished Unspoken Sermons Vol.1.  There are two other volumes in the book, but I am going to count each volume as a separate book to pad my numbers.  I plan on McDonald being an ongoing read in some form or another for the rest of my life so, what’s the hurry?

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.