Category Archives: Reading

Three Books that Profoundly Influenced Me: Book 1

I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were good in a way that I want everyone to experience them. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, Daniel Taylor (IVP, 1992)

I hope I can do this book justice. Last time I read it was more than 10 years ago. I’m due to read it again. But it had an enormously positive influence on my faith. This book helped me realize that my growing unease and, yes, uncertainty, about some of the beliefs and doctrines I had been brought up with did not mean I had to abandon ship altogether. I was a young university student not so much struggling with faith in Christ, but with some of the other doctrines and beliefs relating to Christianity and the Bible that in my tradition were presented as foundational—so foundational that I was reluctant to express my doubts about them. You might say this book saved my faith.

In The Myth of Certainty, Taylor argues that uncertainty is not the enemy of faith, but in fact a great help to faith, moving us to depend on God more than on our own intellectual certitudes. In fact, Taylor argues that the notion of faith (or trust) implies a level of uncertainty: “Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.” (81-82)

Taylor isn’t the first person to make this point. I’ve heard it from Lesslie Newbiggin, Frederick Buechner, Anne Lammot (not personally, of course, but in their writings), and I’m sure that list could go on for quite a while. But Taylor was the first one to make this point to me at a crucial time in my life and faith.

Taylor takes it a step further—and this was also crucial for me in a university setting—by noting that all of us (in my case, all of the people I interacted with at the university) are on the same level, the same playing field, when it comes to what we know or believe. All of us have “question-able” foundational assumptions upon which we base our beliefs about this or that, and those assumptions are based on other question-able assumptions. Taylor argues (as I recall) that this does not lead us to despair, but calls us to risk commitment to some foundational assumptions, even if it is possible to question them. We all do this every day. This is both the myth of certainty and the risk of commitment.

(This might actually be Lesslie Newbigging breaking in to my memory. He writes, “All major theories…rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned.  But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental questions which can in turn be questioned.  It follows…that there can be no knowing without personal commitment.  We must believe in order to know.” [from Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship]. This certainly echoes the sense I recall getting from Taylor.)

Taylor writes, “The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever.  It is to recover a relationship with God.” (123) In short, faith is not about intellectual certainty, it is about a commitment to a reasonable assumption: in my case, relationship with God in Christ, and from there the notion that the Christian faith presents an accurate and coherent understanding of our world.

Next up: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)

 

A prayer for trust

Ran across this beautiful prayer by Henri Nouwen this morning, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants:

O Lord, who else or what else can I desire but you? You are my Lord, Lord of my heart, mind, and soul. You know me through and through. In and through you everything that is finds its origin and goal. You embrace all that exists and care for it with divine love and compassion. Why, then, do I keep expecting happiness and satisfaction outside of you? Why do I keep relating to you as one of my many relationships, instead of my only relationship, in which all other ones are grounded? Why do I keep looking for popularity, respect from others, success, acclaim, and sensual pleasures? Why, Lord, is it so hard for me to make you the only one? Why do I keep hesitating to surrender myself totally to you?

Help me, O Lord, to let me old self die, to let die the thousand big and small ways in which I am still building up my false self and trying to cling to my false desires. Let me be reborn in you and see through you the world in the right way, so that all my actions, words, and thought can become a hymn of praise to you.

I need your loving grace to travel on this hard road that leads to the death of my old self and to a new life in and for you. I know and trust that this is the road to freedom.

Lord, dispel my mistrust and help me become a trusting friend. Amen.

Unhurried Delight

Every year as part of maintaining “good ministerial standing,” our denomination requires its pastors to fill in a form in which we list educational and personal growth experiences, such as courses taken, workshops or conferences attended, and books read. I keep track of what I’ve read in a little notebook (and on Goodreads) and so I go back and look at what I’ve read.

What troubled me this time around is that I couldn’t remember a thing about one or two of the books I had read this year. I remember reading them (I think), but I don’t remember what they said. Which makes me wonder, why did I read them?

Eugene Peterson said somewhere (but I’m quoting his Twitter feed, and the same quote pops up every now and then), “Reading is a gift, but only if the words are taken into the soul – eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Coincidentally, it was one of Peterson’s books that I don’t remember anything about.

His words get me every time. How often do I read with “unhurried delight”? Rarely. Usually I’m more concerned with getting through the book and adding it to my “books read” notebook. Part of the problem is that I have so many books that I want to read (and have already purchased in anticipation of reading them) that I feel like I can’t keep up, so I read quickly if I can.

Occasionally a book will be so striking that I soak it up in a hurry and remember it, but that’s not normally the case. But what’s the point in reading if I can’t remember it? Is there value in reading simply for the sake of reading and being changed in small ways along the way? I think so.

On the other hand, there’s really little value in hurrying through a book if I won’t remember any of it anyway.

I need more “unhurried delight” in my life—not just in what I read, but in all of my life.

Why I don’t read science fiction.

Early on in his column about the books he reads every month (in Ten Years in the Tub), Nick Hornby decided that he would read something he would ordinarily never read. He chose something in the science fiction genre. He would quickly realize his mistake. One of the books he chose to read was one by Iain M. Banks called Excession. Hornby had this to say about the experience:

…nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any waybad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book…

…The urge to weep tears of frustration was already upon me even before I read the short prologue…By the time I got to the first chapter, which is entitled “Outside Context Problem” and begins “(CGU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119),” I was crying so hard I could no longer see the page in front of my face, at which point I abandoned the entire ill-conceived experiment altogether. (148)

This was hilarious, because this has been my own experience with science fiction as well. I liked The Chrysalids in high school. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed  in university for a utopian literature class (though it was an example of the opposite) and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Ender’s Game. I managed to read little more than a chapter or two of Dune, which, from what I can tell, is to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Buy my sci-fi reading ended there and the reason is exactly like what Hornby says of the science fiction he tried to read: I don’t understand it.

I’ve had a copy of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a decade or more. I enjoyed The Dispossessed enough to think about reading more LeGuin. (Plus I think Bruce Cockburn may have mentioned it as an influence on some song or other of his.) But every time I open it up to give it a go, I am stopped by this, the beginning of chapter 1:

From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-9342-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.

How am I supposed to read beyond that? Is there an explanatory prequel I’m unaware of which I should read first? Is this any way to start a novel? Tolkien is filled with names and history we know nothing about, but at least he does us the courtesy of starting The Lord of the Rings with a prologue about some creatures we can at least identify with.

And what’s with the numbers? As Hornby’s experience shows, this seems to be normal sci-fi stuff. Are we to believe that these numbers are not just random sequences meant to look futurey and sciencey—that they actually mean something? Because I don’t buy it.

I assume that all will be explained as I read the novel, but I’m not sure I’m interested.

Reading for the sake of writing.

My in-laws are here for the weekend. My mother-in-law surprised me with a book: Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great BooksNick Hornby’s collection of 10 years worth of columns from Believer about the books he has read. (My mother-in-law is clearly paying attention, as I only came across this book at a bookstore in Banff a couple of weeks ago and added it to my Amazon wishlist.)

I’m only 65 pages in, with 400 to go, so I may yet lose interest (at any time, really), but so far the book has been delightful. Hornby is insightful and witty in the Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse kind of way, which is the best kind of witty.

This book once again proves that what makes a book great and delightful is not necessarily what it says but how it says it. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of language and peripheral matters redeeming what would otherwise be an ordinary and possibly boring book. You might think that I like this book because it’s a book about books and reading. This does help, and it is what initially caught my attention, but I’m reading it now because I love Hornby’s voice.

It might just be that he’s one of those writers who is such a pleasure to read that it doesn’t matter what the subject; you just want to keep reading. It’s what keeps me buying and immediately reading books by Bill Bryson even when they’re about the evolution of the house or a one particular early 20th century summer. It’s what brings me back to Roy MacGreggor, reading his book on Tom Thomson’s death, even though my interest in art is purely about visual and emotional pleasure, or the biography he wrote about his decidedly not-famous father. (Or maybe it’s what Hornby says in one of his early columns: “Sometimes, in the hands of the right person, biographies of relatively minor figures…are especially compelling: they seem to have their times and cultural environments written through them like a stick of rock in a way that sui generis major figures sometimes don’t.” Yes, I had to look up “sui generis,” too. It means “unique.”) It’s what brings me back to P.G. Wodehouse, even though every one of his novel’s I’ve read has essentially the same plot. It’s what will keep me reading this Hornby book, even though I won’t care about 95% of the books he mentioned.

They are all writers who make me want to write again. I don’t know what this says about their work, because I’m essentially saying, “I don’t care what you’re writing about, but I like how you write about it.” When I read other authors—glancing at the shelf: Tolkien, Kent Haruf, Alistair McLeod—it’s the bigger picture that draws me in: the scenes they paint and feelings they create with their words, the “what” they create. Obviously, they way they create those things—that is, their language—makes all the difference, but their language is hidden or embedded in the work. I don’t know which is better. But Bryson, Wodehouse, to a lesser extent MacGreggor, and now apparently Hornby please me in a way the others don’t.

As a bonus (isn’t the term “added bonus” redundant?), Hornby promises to help me feel okay about abandoning books, even if they’re classics. At least that’s what the introduction, written by someone else, tells me. Let’s hope he does, because The Brothers Karamazov and The Grapes of Wrath are gathering dust, bookmarks firmly in place.

C. S. Lewis anticipates Buzzfeed and Facebook, but not in a good way.

I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey at the moment. I bought (or received) this book 10 years ago or more, I’m sure. Just getting to it now. Such is my way. The current chapter is on concepts of evil in The Lord of the Rings. As part of Shippey’s argument, he quotes C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which I read almost 20 years ago). The quote gave me a bit of a knock upside the head.

Context: Screwtape is a senior demon who writes letters to a junior demon (Wormwood?) about the different ways they can lead Christians astray (in fact, the book is comprised only of his letters). Shippey gives a bit more context before quoting the book directly:

One of the striking and convincing assertions made by [Lewis’] imagined devil, Screwtape, is that nowadays the strongest temptations are not to the old human vices of lust and gluttony and wrath, but to new ones of tedium and solitude… Screwtape remarks that Christians describe God as the One ‘without whom Nothing is strong’, and they speak truer than they know, he goes on, for [he now quotes Screwtape Letters]:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambitions to give them relish. (p. 127, emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that The Screwtape Letters was published in 1942. When I read the portion from the book my mind went immediately to much of what we look at on the internet. I’m thinking of pages like Buzzfeed or Clickhole or the Fail Blog or any number of mindless gathering of entertainment “news” or endless lists. In many ways, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like also fit the bill: “a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.” Precisely how I find myself some days. “Tedium and solitude.” Precisely how I think of the millions of us sitting in offices and cubicles and at hoe computers around the world for hours every day.

It’s remarkable that Lewis’ comments are so true in our day and age. Possibly more true than they were in 1942. But one thing has changed and is no longer true: lust, gluttony, and wrath have been wrapped up into the tedium and solitude. Lust can be gratified in so many and easy ways online, whether is it pornography or shopping. Gluttony in our binge-watching on Netflix and hours on social media. Wrath in trolling and shaming and endless online arguments and hatred.

It made me think, both about how I use my own time. And that I should read The Screwtape Letters again.

Reading the book after watching the movie. [UPDATED]

I still remember watching the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries on TV in the mid-1980s. My parents let me stay up past my bed time to watch a couple of episodes, although when it got violent I was no longer allowed to watch. I saw enough to be moved emotionally and in my imagination. I was hooked on that story. “Lonesome Dove” follows the story of a handful of old Texas Rangers who decide to drive several thousand head of cattle and horses from south Texas up to Montana, as yet unsettled.

I’ve watched the series a number of times since, having bought it on VHS in university (and since then the DVD version and recently a remastered wide-screen version). About two weeks ago, I picked up the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry on which the miniseries was based. I’ve owned the book for years, but at more than 900 pages, it’s quite intimidating to start. This time I was immediately hooked and managed to read through the whole thing in less than two weeks. It’s a wonderful novel, with well-rounded characters. A great tale of the trials and tribulation of this motley cattle crew. 

What struck me was that the miniseries—at least, as it exists in my memory, since it has been about a decade since I watched it last—was incredibly faithful to the book. So much so, in fact, that right from the beginning, in my mind the characters in the book looked and sounded liked depicted by their respective actors (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in particular). In some cases, a book is spoiled by watching the film version first, but I can think of a number of cases where I’ve read the book after its film version and thoroughly enjoyed the book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the film was one I particularly enjoyed, my experience of the book is enhanced by the viewing.

Lonesome Dove. As I read I began to realize that both Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played their roles perfectly, but I don’t know if I can say that retrospectively. I might think this simply because I’m reading their performances into the novel.
– Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know if I would have read this one if I hadn’t seen the A&E miniseries (the Colin Firth one) first.
A Prairie Home Companion. There is no novel version. But there is a screenplay published in book form. I read it after watching the movie and loved it.
True Grit. I’m about a third of the way through this one. The recent Coen Brothers’ version is what’s in my mind as I read (in fact, my copy of the book is the movie tie-in version). I’ve read that the Coen Brothers’ version is more faithful to the book than the 1969 John Wayne version.
– No Country for Old Men. Another Coen Brothers film, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. Also a very faithful adaptation.

I used to insist that it was better to read the book before watching the film version. But looking at the above examples, I’m inclined to say that reading a book after watching its movie version is a much better experience than watching the movie version after reading the book.

The Lord of the Rings films were good adaptations of the books, though as the years pass I think less and less of the performances (with the exception of Saruman and Denethor). That’s because they don’t live up to my mental vision of those characters. The Hobbit films are terrible adaptations of a childhood favourite, but are otherwise well done and for the most part entertaining (although I can’t stand all the battles). The Da Vinci Code is a unique instance of me being neutral on the film vs. book question. I could say that the film wins by a hair because the writing in the book is terrible. But then the book was an incredible page-turner, which the movie didn’t match with engagement/tension.

And then there’s Simon Birch, the atrocious “adaptation” of John Irving’s wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Although, reading up on the film a bit more now, I realize that the film doesn’t bear the title of the book because Irving thought it was too unfaithful an adaptation, but because Irving didn’t think the book could be successfully adapted to the screen and therefore sold the rights with conditions about the name. In which case, perhaps I should take it a little easier on the film.)

UPDATE: As it turns out, reading the book has in a small way ruined the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries. In an unexpected turn of events, my fond memories of the miniseries which were revived and relived through the reading of the book took some of the “magic” away from the miniseries.

In favour of simple and direct prayer (we don’t need to be heroes).

Dallas Willard on simple prayer, which I found very helpful:

“Prayer, like all of the practices into which Jesus leads by word and example, will be self-validating to all who will simply pray as he says [that is, the Lord’s Prayer] and not give up. It is much harder to learn if we succumb to the temptation to engage in “heroic” efforts in prayer. This is important. Heroism, generally, is totally out of place in the spiritual life, until we grow to the point at which it would never be thought of as heroism anyway.

“There are, of course, people who pray heroically, and they are to be respected for what God has called them to… But that is a special calling and is for very few of us. To look to this calling as the ideal for our prayer life is only to assume a burden of uncalled-for guilt, and, quite surely, it is to choose an approach that will lead to abandoning prayer as a realistic…aspect of life in the kingdom. There will be heroic periods as they may be called for, but with no intention to be heroic. Always, we are simply children walking and talking with our Father at hand.

“…Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want. God is not a cosmic butler or a fix-it man, and the aim of the universe is not to fulfill my desires and needs. On the other hand, I am to pray for what concerns me, and many people have found prayer impossible because they thought they should only pray for wonderful but remote needs they actually had little or no interest in or even knowledge of. 

“Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about “good things” that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circle of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love.

“What prayer as asking presupposes is simply a personal…relationship between us and God, just as with a request of child to parent or friend to friend. It assumes that our natural concerns will be naturally expressed, and that God will hear our prayers for ourselves as well as for others. Once again, this is clear from the biblical practice of prayer. It is seen at its best in that greatest of all prayer books, Psalms.

Accordingly, I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, “Talking to God about what we are doing together.”

~ Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, pp. 241, 242, 243.

Three questions ‘ere I go.

Leaving for a two week holiday tomorrow in which I plan to spend a significant amount of time on the beach. I’m in between books and in the middle of a bunch of others and I can’t decide what I should bring along. “I’m just going to bring a box of books,” I told Dixie. I can’t seem to just pick a book and go with it. I need time to browse, flip through a couple of books, and let settle on settle on me, but I don’t have time for that now.

I’m actively reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, so that one will come along for sure. But I suspect that bringing a book about the Sermon on the Mount to the beach is something I will regret. I’ve got stacks next to my bed and indecision weighs heavy.

What about some of the books I’ve started but put aside for the time being: The Brothers Karamazov; Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeA Brief History of TeaA Thousand Splendid SunsBeyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet; The Grapes of Wrath; Wolf Willow (started it ages ago, couldn’t get past the fiction bits but want to get to the non-fiction); Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology.

Or maybe some new fiction or non-theology/Bible non-fiction, something to take my mind off the things that need doing: A Confederacy of DuncesLonesome DoveSuch is My BelovedRumpole for the DefenceAbout a BoyInto Thin AirQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop TalkingThe Neverending Story (which I started today to see if it would stick); perhaps another Wodehouse novel; perhaps I should start reading The Lord of the Rings again.

Or maybe it’s okay to walk that fuzzy line between work and play and read one of those theological/spiritual books I’ve been wanting to get into: Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us; A Thomas Merton ReaderChrist Plays in Ten Thousand PlacesIncarnation.

Or maybe I should just take Willard and find something else at that wonderful used bookstore in Penticton. I’ll probably do less reading than I think I will. Here it is 11:20. I’m fighting a cold and I should be sleeping, but these are important decisions.

Dixie loves packing, bless her heart. So my worries prior to our trips, outside of the cleaning and organizing that needs doing, are: do I have a book to read? do I have several changes of underwear? is my deodorant packed?

One way or another, I’ll have all three ‘ere we go.

Doubt, unbelief and the community of believers.

“…two of the monks remarked in different ways that although Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of the Lord, he kept faithful to the community of the apostles. In that community the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his faith. I find this a very profound and consoling thought. In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can ‘carry you along,’ so to speak; it can even offer on your behalf what you yourself overlook, and can be the context in which you may recognize the Lord again.

“[the Abbot] remarked that Dydimus, the name of Thomas, means ‘twin,’ as the Gospel says, and that the fathers had commented that all of us are ‘two people,’ a doubting one and a believing one. We need the support and love of our brothers and sisters to prevent our doubting person from becoming dominant and destroying our capacity for belief.” (Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary, 56-7)