Category Archives: Reading

From “I” to “We”

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, set in the Dust Bowl/Great Depression years in the US:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—”We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

(from the Steinbeck Centennial Edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 2002, pp. 151-2)

Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I'm reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don't recite the creed (or at least we haven't in my time) at our church and our denomination is "non-creedal" while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

An old Inuit song for Advent

Just finished Farley Mowat’s classic book, Never Cry Wolf. It’s apparently autobiographical, though this is controversial. Whatever the case may be—fact or fiction—it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. In anticipation of finishing the book, I put the 1984 Disney film-of-the-book on my birthday wish list and Dixie was kind enough to gift it to me. I watched it last night.

The plot of both the the book and the film follows a biologist who the government sent to the Canadian north to study the relationship of arctic wolves to the declining caribou population. In the more specific details the film is quite different from the book, but it’s beautifully done and stands on its own.

The film ends with an epilogue, an “Old Inuit Song”, which I thought quite beautiful:

I think over again my small adventures,

My fears,
These small ones that seemed so big,

For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,

To live and to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

A fitting song, it seems, for Advent.

Not that it needs the connection, but the song put me in mind of Zechariah’s song in Luke 1, which says,

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 78-79)

The pastor-theologian

“When I was at seminary back in the early 1970s, my tutor told me firmly one day that I would have to choose between being an academic and being a pastor. I decided, sitting there in his office, that I was not going to make that choice… That has resulted in a lifetime of shifting from one foot to the other, as it were, in a world for which for whatever reason — and this is odd in the history of the church…theologians of the past have mostly been pastors — think of Augustine or Luther or whoever — they were pastors, they were preachers, they were teachers, they worked with people, they prayed with people, they didn’t sit in a study and do a cerebral thing away from that, and I fail to see why we should collude with this split world of post-Enlightenment ‘either the brain or the heart’…”

N.T. Wright, here.

The unchanging God who changes.

“Several centuries before Jesus’ birth, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had insisted that God was unchanging and utterly indifferent to the affairs of the world. If God cared about the world, he argued, then God would be subject to shifts of mood from every passing change in the world’s affairs. Having passions would destroy God’s perfection, for God would bend to the world’s every joy and pain.

Many Christians have accepted Aristotle’s conclusions, but I find myself agreeing with others, like fourth-century poet and theologian Gregory of Nyssa, who disagreed with Aristotle. Gregory denied that getting involved with the world would be a weakness in God. “God’s transcendent power,” he wrote, “is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens or the luster of the stars or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature.” God is, oddly, most powerful in stooping to our weakness.

Loving in this way, after all, is not a form of weakness but a manifestation of strength. Really loving involves taking risks–the risk of rejection, the risk of having to give of yourself to help the one you love–and real love takes those risks recklessly….

What then about Aristotle’s worry? Is such a God changing, altered by the changing circumstances of the objects of divine love, and therefore imperfect, even unreliable? It depends, from a Christian standpoint, what you mean by “not changing.” Love, after all, manifests its utter consistency precisely by changing. If I love you, and I do not change (grow sad, seek to help) when you fall ill or get into trouble, then my love has changed. True love stays the same by adapting to the changing situation of the loved one. We can be constant in love only by altering our moods and responses according to the circumstances of the object of our love. In that sense the loving God stays ever the same.”

(William Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith, 20-21)

Closed hands and self-reliance.

“Yet so many religious people are in bondage to their religion! They are like John Wesley in his post-graduate Oxford days in the Holy Club. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct and full of good works. He and his friends visited the inmates of the prisons and work-houses of Oxford. They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. But they were bound in the fetters of their own religion, for they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, instead of putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley (in his own words) came to ‘trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation’…” (John Stott, commenting on Galatians 4:1-11, in The Message of Galatians).

Yes indeed. Salvation through faith as nothing more than open hands and surrender.

The things Wesley and his friend did were all good and admirable and appropriate to do. It’s the motivation that’s the problem. All of those things should be a response to a salvation freely offered, an act of gratitude for God’s prior gift to us, rather than a “necessary” act to earn something from God.

Strange ideas in Algonquin Park.

I realize that hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and I don’t want to adopt that annoying “we are are so much more advanced now” attitude, but this sort of thing nevertheless makes me shake my head in frustration and disbelief:

“In the early days government officials were unsure of what [Algonquin Park] should be that they sent one James Wilson north to make suggestions. He was head of Niagara Falls’ very tame Queen Victoria Park and, perhaps in keeping with his station, quickly recommended the eradication of the common loon — now a commonly recognized symbol of the Canadian wilderness — on the grounds that the bird was consuming the fish that would attract American sportsmen. The park’s first superintendent made a similar recommendation — that all bears and fox “be destroyed without mercy” so that people would have no fear of coming to the park. George Bartlett, the walrus-moustached bureaucrat who became superintendent in 1899, felt the same way about wolves and encouraged early rangers to shoot them on sight and leave poison out for them. (Today, the “wolf howl” is the most popular tourist attraction the park has to offer.)” ~ Roy MacGregor, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, 53.

On a semi-related note, I’ve always thought that Park Ranger would be a cool job to have.

The beauty and hardness of the prairies

“The prairies are not an easy landscape. It is a natural reflex to be awed by mountains; huge and overpowering, they are a beginner’s landscape. Coastlines roll a rich variety of life and change before the lazy eye. Domestic landscapes of gentle hills, wooded groves, and small farms enfold a timid soul in warm security. But the prairies–like the high seas or the desert–are a challenge and a reward for the strong of spirit only. You may sicken and tire here, fall prey to loneliness and melancholy, and be driven out to seek refuge in softer lands. Or you may meet the challenge, your senses may sharpen, strengthen, and thrill, as space and landscape subtlety stretch you out like a transcontinental train at full throttle. You may rejoice in the powerful exhilaration of moving over the prairies, akin to sailing the seas, an experience of freedom bordering on intoxication. Yet this great freedom is only ever a hair’s breadth away from deepest loneliness.”

~ Norman Henderson, Rediscovering the Prairies: Journeys by Dog, Horse, and Canoe, 7.

From Acts to the Prophets

This week I read through Acts and I noticed a couple of things. First, I noticed that not once in all the apostles’ presentation of the gospel did they mention heaven or hell (or the afterlife or eternity or what have you). They mention Jesus’ unjust death, his resurrection, his ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father; they mention repentance and forgiveness of sins; but they do not mention heaven or hell. This really has no bearing on the question of whether either one of those (particularly hell) exists. But it does have a bearing on the question of what is essential to the gospel. These days the gospel is couched in some form of the question, “Do you know where you will go when you die?”–sometimes more nuanced, sometimes more crassly. In one way or another, modern gospel presentations eventually come around to the question of heaven and hell. Not so for the apostles. Is it therefore essential to our presentation of the gospel? (As I recall, this is what McKnight touches on in The King Jesus Gospel and I imagine Wright goes there in How God Became King.)

I also noticed the continuing (from some of the Gospels) emphasis on promises and prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. Part of the apostles’ presentation of the gospel to at least the Jews was an argument of prophecy fulfilled in Jesus: the sense that he is the one they had been waiting for all these years, he is the promised one.

Which makes me wonder: how much background is assumed in their presentation of the gospel? We rarely bring the prophets into it these days (except maybe at Advent and on Good Friday) and I’m sure most of us don’t have a solid grasp of what the prophets have to say about Jesus. A few weeks ago in church I mentioned that if I had a chance to go back to any moment in history, Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus would be high on my list. It is with them that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets… explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” I’d love to have been there, because I suspect that Jesus’ exposition of Moses, the Prophets and all the scriptures regarding himself would have been much deeper and more nuanced than the ragbag of proof-texts most of us would present.

So I’ve decided to spend some time in the Prophets. I’m not sure where I’ll begin yet. Isaiah has some of the most beautiful passages of scripture in it, but it’s also pretty intimidating. I’ve read (or attempted to read) it before and it’s easy to get lost. Many of the Major Prophets are intimidating, actually. And yet they seem so essential. But I want to go to the Prophets with a particular eye and ear for what they say about the Messiah and the “age to come” and how that sheds light on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, on heaven/the age to come/eternal life.

Reading (and not heeding my own advice)

I’m not heeding my own advice. I’m still reading several books at once. That’s what happens when I’ve suddenly landed on several enjoyable books.

Currently active active reads:

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphry Carpenter (and Christopher Tolkien).Who would have thought someone’s letters could be so fascinating? Granted, most of the personal details that wouldn’t interest anyone but immediate family and friends have been edited out, but still. There’s something about the image of Tolkien sitting in his Oxford study writing drafts of letters (a draft hand-written letter! such a thing had never occurred to me!) and then writing final copies in ink. And he’s probably wearing a three-piece tweed suit, smoking a pipe, and drinking tea all the while. Wonderful!

It’s not just the setting in my imagination that makes them interesting, however. The letters include discussion of the development of the sequel to The Hobbit as well as the characters of his already developed mythology.

And he writes with such skill! These letters are not just dashed off, but are clearly written with much care and attention to form and content. The book puts me in the mood to write a hand-written (with a fountain pen!) letter to someone. (Who wants one?)

Long Wandering Prayer: An Invitation to Walk with God, David Hansen. This is perhaps the most refreshing and honest discussion of prayer I have read (not that my reading in this area has been extensive). It caught my attention because the title implied the sort of prayer that seems to fit me best, but there is much more to the book than simply walking and praying. There’s nothing sentimental here, just raw thoughts and advice and opinions on prayer.

Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation, Richard Foster. Not bad so far, though perhaps not quite what I had hoped for expected. That might change. I continue to find Foster’s prose rather dry, making it difficult to read the book with much enthusiasm (I never did finish his most famous book, Celebration of Discipline for this reason). This is unfortunate, because Foster seems have been quite influential in terms of the “spirituality” of the evangelical church.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson. This is my second time through this book. Fascinating, informative, well written, and hilarious as usual. A lay-person’s book about science and origins.

And then there are the inactive active reads and actively inactive reads which I won’t list here…