Thursday, June 25, 2009

Just Go With It

The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde

Sometimes we just need a good yarn, a reason to suspend disbelief. For this reason, I have been casually interested in the Fforde books for awhile. The Eyre Affair does not disappoint, but neither does it set the literary world on fire. The book is set in Great Britain in the mid-1980s. The protagonist, Thursday Next, investigates crimes in the world of books and writing - usually frauds and forgery. In The Eyre Affair, though, her vocational life gets more exciting when she winds up trying to prevent a literary homicide.

Clearly, we have to open our minds in a major way to even get through this. Thursday's uncle, a mad scientist inventor type, figures out a way and builds a device that will transport people into works of fiction. If a person gets into a first edition copy of a book, that person has the chance to change the plot. The story involves time travel and other mind benders that make it highly confusing. I finally quit trying to take it literally and just enjoy the clever allusions, interesting puns, and repartee between the witty characters. That's when it got fun. If you are a fan of Jane Eyre, as I am, you will like the recreations of some of its more famous scenes.

For people planning summer vacations, this is a good beach read. I will probably read more of the Thursday Next series later, but am not rushing out to buy the boxed set (I doubt there is one). This is an airport mystery with a dash of intellect thrown in. Nothing wrong with that, but not a diet that would sustain us for long. If you're looking for a snack, pick this up.

One of the best parts of The Eyre Affair is the funny names of the characters - some examples are Paige Turner, Braxton Hicks, and Acheron Hades. Hilarious.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Theology Hero

Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another
by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams is just great. Not only do I admire his thoughtful, measured leadership of the Anglican Communion, but he is a wonderful writer. Where God Happens is a quick read, but it is packed with spiritual wisdom. On a personal level, I am making an effort right now to pay more attention to the contemplative side of life, so perhaps I am especially receptive to what Williams has to offer in this book.

Where God Happens is a look at the desert mystics and their approach to relationship with God and with each other. I especially like Williams' comparison and contrasting of the spiritual conditions of "staying" and "leaving." Both have their moments when they are the necessary and spiritually healthy thing to do, and both can be done internally whether or not external conditions correspond.

It is difficult to do Archbishop Williams' work justice, so let me just share a couple of my favorite quotes from the book. The following is the first sentence of the first chapter, and is a great response to those out there who think we can live a spiritual life all by ourselves:

"One thing that comes out very clearly from any reading of the great desert monastic writers of the fourth and fifth centuries is the impossibility of thinking about contemplation or meditation or 'spiritual life' in abstraction from the actual business of living in the body of Christ, living in concrete community. The life of intimacy with God in contemplation is both the fruit and the course of a renewed style of living together." Those words make a lot of sense to me. Since reading them, I find myself doing a little bit better about being patient and compassionate. Maybe it is an age/maturity thing, but I am better at "zenning" (my own made up verb) my way through moments of irritation with my fellow travelers than I was 10 or 5 or even 2 years ago.

And here is another thought from the chapter "Silence and Honey Cakes" that felt like Williams was speaking directly to me:

"Deep down we are attuned to God, but we have jarred the harmonies in various ways. We are out of tune. The trouble then is that we often listen to this out-of-tuneness, the habits of self-protection and self-regard. If that is what listening to the heart means, forget it. That is just canonizing what we think is going on in us. We have a lot of self-knowledge to acquire before we can truly listen to the heart."

I've been considering this idea of "jarring the harmonies" and wondering what habits and practices I have gotten into that are actually counter-productive to my hope of hearing God's voice in the midst of the chaos. A recent article that I read (I think it was in The New Yorker, but can't remember for sure) talked about how proud we all are of our multi-tasking. We think it is great if we can "listen" to music, read, have the TV on, send or receive a text message, check our email, and talk on the phone all at the same time. The article that I read talked about how this kind of mixing is actually bad for the brain's ability to process information and retain it long term. Williams' book makes me wonder if multitasking also is detrimental to our processes of discernment and meditation. All of these things that we do with the help of our electronic devices, are good things - or at least they are not inherently bad. I think, though, that we need to slow down and only do them one at a time. When we are wading through a jumble of messages from such a variety of input, it only makes sense that the disharmony to which Williams refers would occur.

My only complaint with Where God Happens is the weak ending. The last chapter is just a compilation of sayings from the desert mothers and fathers. Most of the quotes are a little opaque for my taste, and I would have preferred that Williams choose a few of his favorites and share his own thoughts on them, instead of just a listing. Still, there is good stuff to be mined here, and Where God Happens is a good addition to the library of any fan of Williams.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Where Did the Week Go?

Sorry, friends - once again I have fallen behind on my blogging. Last week Samuel graduated from kindergarten, which turned out to be much more of an "event" than I had anticipated. There were a couple of other unexpected twists that put me a little behind at work, and suddenly I realize I have not posted in a week. Ouch.

To top it off, "Ex Libris Fides" is taking an already scheduled break beginning tomorrow. S. and G. and I are flying to Oklahoma to visit family, returning on Saturday, June 20.

So, tune in around June 22 for some updates, and send me summer reading recommendations!

Reverent Reader

Friday, June 5, 2009

Same As It Ever Was...Or Not

What Happened at Vatican II
by John O'Malley

I never thought I would describe a book about Vatican II as a page turner, but here we are. Reading this book was an interesting experience in that other people would see me reading it and want to engage in conversation about it. One afternoon I grabbed some time and was reading and drinking an iced tea at Starbucks. Within a 45-minute period, three different people spotted the title on the cover and wanted to talk about it. The each immediately asked if I was Catholic. When I said "no," they would want to know why I was reading What Happened at Vatican II. That is a fair question. In each case I responded truthfully that a) I am interested in history for its own sake, and b) the Catholic world is so intertwined with the Protestant that I was curious about the repercussions that Vatican II had on Christian faith in general.

What struck me about this very readable history of the Second Vatican Council was how much courage the man who convoked it (Pope John XXIII) had. He was old already when elected pope, and he could have just coasted through a papacy leaving things the same. However, he knew that there were important issues brewing beneath the surface of the church and that it was important to get them out into the open and have them debated as openly and fairly as possible. After John XXIII died, Paul VI took over the papacy and the responsibility of the council. He was more of an interventionist than John, and also more easily swayed by warring factions, so the council had a few more bumps in the road after he took over. However, it was Paul VI who left Italy (as pope) to visit the Holy Land, India, and later the UN. He broke a tradition of over 100 years that the pope not leave Italy while in office. So, Paul VI gets a lot of credit for becoming a unifying figure for Catholics across the world.

Most of us know that Vatican II was the council at which the bishops voted that priests who chose could conduct Mass in the vernacular language where they served, and that after Vatican II Catholic priests encouraged their people to read and study the Bible (which before had been the purview only of the priests). However, many of the items on Vatican II's agenda are issues that Protestants have struggled with and still do. All Christians (and I suspect people of other faiths as well) debate the authority of scripture, the sources of revelation other than scripture, and appropriate conduct for clergy. I realized while reading the book that we are all more alike than different. We see only through a glass darkly, and are just doing our best to be faithful.

Of course, Vatican II had much of the same infighting and behind the scenes maneuvering that we see in our Protestant Assemblies and Conferences and whatever else we call them. O'Malley's account, though, is very even handed. He does not demonize any faction or person, instead assuming from the outset that each was following his conscience and doing his best to act with integrity. He never even uses divisive labels like "liberal" and "conservative," sticking to the neutral "majority" and "minority." This book gave me an appreciation for where Christians have been, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go if we are to be the church that God envisions.

We should be grateful to the participants in Vatican II. The council produced groundbreaking documents on the church's role in the world and the necessity for the church to speak plainly, frequently, and unambiguously for justice and human rights. Vatican II intentionally reached out to our Jewish sisters and brothers and made an attempt to repair some of the damage caused by two millenia of Christians thinking of the Jews as those who killed Christ (a tragic mischaracterization that was one of the bricks in the foundation of thought that led to the Holocaust). Although there is still much repairing to be done, Vatican II also at least acknowledged that Protestants had some legitimate complaints leading up to the Reformation, and opened the way for dialogue between Catholics and their Protestant neighbors and friends.

The tone of Vatican II was different from any other previous council (O'Malley's brief history of the prior councils, going all the way back to Nicaea, is most helpful). Rather than taking a top down, threatening, punitive approach, Vatican II was focused much more on collegiality, dialogue, and mutual understanding - both within the council and in the development of relationships between the Catholic church and the rest of the world. As someone who has participated in many conferences, meetings, and assemblies where this is the tone that we at least try for, I see that the seeds for this type of church were planted at Vatican II. There are still things about Catholic policy, theology, and hierarchy that do not resonate with me and likely never will. However, What Happened at Vatican II gave me a deeper understanding of their history and a greater sense of our connectedness as Christians and children of God. We are all muddling through, doing our best to be faithful. God bless us every one.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Power of (More Than) One

The Power of One
by Bryce Courtenay

Not being a big fan of boxing, I am surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. Boxing is one of its major themes, as this lonely little boy, Peekay, finds his center and gains confidence because of his talent in the ring. The story goes much deeper than boxing, though. Courtenay, through the trials and perspective of Peekay, helps us understand the history of South Africa. I had not been aware of the tensions between Dutch South Africans (known as Boers) and South Africans of Bristish descent. Courtenay's appendix, which summarizes the wars between these two factions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is helpful to the reader. We can understand Peekay's isolation when he is the only English South African at a primarily Boer boarding school. Sadly, it was mutual hatred and fear of the black population that eventually united the British and the Boers.

As Peekay matures, he begins to see the racism between blacks and whites in South Africa, and to understand that this racism and its resultant apartheid are every bit as unjust and illogical as the persecution he has endured from his Boer peers. The story takes a mystical turn as Peekay's boxing prowess and his kindness to blacks combine to give him a reputation as some sort of savior of the South African blacks (known as "kaffirs"). Peekay's childhood and adolescence unfold over a period of 17 years, and one of the delights of the book is observing his growth and insight and the relationships that enrich his life.

Early on, when Peekay is only about six years old, he stands up to some bigger, meaner kids who are bullying him. Even though he takes a beating at their hands, he discovers an inner strength and focus that he begins to rely on and comes to call "the power of one." Peekay certainly does have a strong core, but I still find this an unusual concept and not exactly an accurate title for the book. In my mind, much more than the power of one, Peekay's story is about the power of relationships to sustain us and lead us down paths we might never travel on our own. Even though Peekay is a loner from the beginning, he always has at least one or two friends who believe in him and provides companionship. For approximately the first 100 pages of the book, that steadfast friend is a chicken, which makes for some funny situations.

Courtenay provides a cast of delightful characters who become a surrogate family for Peekay and end up shaping his life. Hoppie, Doc, and Geel Piet play major roles in his formative years. When Peekay is a young man, working in the mines to earn money to continue his education, one man who has come to care about Peekay even sacrifices his own life to save Peekay in a horrible accident. It is one of the most heartrending scenes of the whole story. It made me think of the sacrifice of Christ for all of humanity, and I considered the possibility that whenever anyone sacrifices his/her own life so that another might live, Christ's death and resurrection are played out all over again.

What struck me throughout the book was Peekay's lack of a family in the sense that we are used to thinking of family. We never know who Peekay's father is, he is a non entity. Peekay's mother is a peripheral character - we never even learn her name. She is a religious fanatic to whom Peekay is unable to connect beyond polite courtesies and the interactions necessary when sharing a house. Peekay and his mother care for each other, but can hardly relate at all. Peekay's grandfather (another nameless character) is a little more present to him, but he is still not one of the major influences on Peekay. Peekay has no biological siblings, but his close friends at boarding school become his brothers. As sad as the lack of biological family is, his resourcefulness in his choice of surrogate family is hopeful. Peekay shows us that it is not always blood ties that create a family, and that life-giving relationships can come from places we would never expect.

I loved reading The Power of One, as it is always satisfying to immerse myself in an interesting narrative with colorful characters. However, I have to say that I was deeply unsatisfied with the ending. After being "the bigger person" throughout the book, and becoming an advocate for South African blacks, Peekay seizes an opportunity to take vengeance on someone who bullied him years before. He takes that vengeance in a particularly brutal way. The ending seemed to me to work against the whole message of the book, and I was disappointed and disturbed. Has anyone else read this? If so, how did you react to the ending? Did I miss something?

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So Many Books, So Little Time

Classics for Pleasure
by Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda is my literary hero. This guy has to be the most well read person on the planet. Many of you may be familiar with his work as a book reviewer for the Washington Post. I look forward to his reviews every week, and thoroughly enjoyed his memoir An Open Book several years ago. It was his review of the latest translation of War and Peace that inspired me to take on that challenge, and now I have a deep love for Tolstoy's work. So, even though I have never met Michael Dirda, I feel like I owe him a lot for expanding my biblio-horizons.

Classics for Pleasure is a collection of essays about the works of various treasured writers, some more obscure than others. The point of the collection, as Dirda expresses in the brief introduction, is to help the reader to see that there is great joy to be found in reading the classics. Many of us run from them, because our only association with serious literature is a teacher making us read it and cough up a paper on it. It takes us awhile to get it that classics have gained that label for a reason, the reason most often being that it is really good stuff. Dirda's essays give us a foretaste of the works themselves, but also biographical tidbits about the authors, the culture in which the books were written, and each particular author's relationship with and influence on the other literature of the time. It is all really interesting, and Dirda's writing is so beautiful he could write directions for microwaving frozen food and the words would sing. It is impossible to relate all the writers whom Dirda discusses, but they go all the way back to antiquity and reach mid-to-late 20th century. The list includes Sappho, the Bible, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Voltaire, and Willa Cather. There are scores of others who are less well known. Many many of them I want to read on my own and explore further. Others, not so much.

In his introduction, Dirda encourages the reader to pick up Classics for Pleasure and read a couple of essays at a time, and to skip around. I read it straight through, but I think the way he suggests would be better. It is the type of book meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and the reader should take time to reflect on the essays afterward. Otherwise, Dirda's excellent information and inspiring literary canon get all jumbled up in the reader's head. I can see myself going back to this collection over and over again, but just one or two essays at a time, the better to enjoy and retain them.

Reverent Reader