My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Tag Archives: religion

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.”

Who is my neighbor?

Over the course of this year, I hope to read through all the Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald.  I have blogged on old George before and I find his writing sublime.  More importantly, I find his understanding of the nature of God to be so refreshing to my soul, that I put his work in the rarefied air (at least in my humble opinion) of such writers as Thomas Merton, A. W. Tozer, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton.  Simply put, perhaps no other post-biblical writer has drawn me closer to the Presence of God at work in my life than George MacDonald.

This week, I take an excerpt from the sermon Love Thy Neighbor as this week’s quote of the week.  Loving my neighbor is not something that I easily do because of my rampant self-centeredness.  I’d much rather love my friends or love my family.  I find it very easy to love the one who loves me or the one who will do something for me.  All others fall into the hazy mist created by the very selfish question, who is my neighbor?  In that hazy mist, I vainly think I can choose who I have to love and who I can get away with not loving.  MacDonald, like Jesus, clears the fog from my eyes.

Who is my neighbor?

He with whom I have any transactions, any human dealings whatever.  Not the man only with whom I dine; not the friend only with whom I share my thoughts; not the man only whom my compassion would lift from some slough; but the man who makes my clothes; the man who prints my book; the man who drives me in his cab; the man who begs from me in the street, to whom it may be, for brotherhood’s sake, I must not give; yea, even the man who condescends to me.  With all and each there is a chance of doing the part of a neighbor; if in no other way yet by speaking truly, acting justly, and thinking kindly.  Even these deeds will help to that love which is born of righteousness.  All true action clears the springs of right feeling, and lets their waters rise and flow.  A man must not choose his neighbor; he must take the neighbor that God sends him.  In Him, whoever he be, lies, hidden or revealed, a beautiful brother.  The neighbor is just the man who is next to you at the moment, the man with whom any business has brought you in contact.

Thus will love spread and spread in wider and stronger pulses till the whole human race will be to the man sacredly lovely.  Drink-debased, vice-defeatured, pride-puffed, wealth-bollen, vanity-smeared, they will yet be brothers, yet be sisters, yet be God-born neighbors. Any rough-hewn semblance of humanity will at length be enough to move the man to reverence and affection.  It is harder for some to learn thus than for others.  There are whose first impulse is ever to repel and not to receive.

You can insert my name here at this point.

But learn they may, and learn they must.  Even these may grow in this grace until a countenance unknown will awake in them a yearning of affection rising to pain, because there is for it no expression, and they can only give the man to God and be still.

Then, there is hope.  May the God who loves me firstly and purely and roundly and magnificently teach me of this love for my fellow man, yea my neighbor, not the one I choose for myself, but the one next to me, the one God has given me.  Indeed!  May He teach us all.

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.