Category Archives: Reading

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…

Whatever is foreseen in joy

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

~ Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997

Reading as mining for gold and precious jewels.

I was laying on my bed this afternoon trying to read Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai. I’m pretty tired after a 6am wakeup (amazing how much difference one less hour of sleep can make), so I had a hard time focussing. I started thinking about the reading I do. I love reading… when it’s a good book. I’m starting to realize that reading is a bit like mining for gold or precious jewels: a lot of work is done in hopes of finding a gem among the rubble. The gems are worth the wait, but when I’m slogging through the rubble it gets tough sometimes. Sometimes rocks will change into gems later; sometimes what looks to be gold at the beginning turns out to be pyrite. Generally, however, gold is gold. It just takes time to come across it.

I got up out of the bed and pulled out all the books I have “on the go”, by which I mean I still have a bookmark in them with the intention of picking them up again at some point to keep reading. Some of them I am actively reading (meaning they’ve been read from in the last couple of weeks), others haven’t been read from literally in years (but I still intend to read them!). There are eight of these books laying on my bed at the moment. I know there are at least a couple of others which were reluctantly returned to the bookshelf on the assumption that they will at the right time in the future be gold.

I’m mostly to blame for this situation: over the years I’ve purchased and been given books at a rate faster than I can read them. Sometimes by the time I get to them I’m no longer interested. Other times I get hooked by more than one book at a time. Sometimes I read a book because it feels like I should. Sometimes I read a book because I want to, but then get distracted by another book (I’m always browsing). Sometimes a book catches my eye and I read it straight through without reading anything else until it was done. That’s generally a sign of gold.

But, I need to be a bit more intentional and less haphazard about my reading. That, or I just need to chill out and walk away from a book when I’m no longer interested. Here are some rules I may want to adopt:

1. I shouldn’t read books simply because I “ought” to. Yes, there are classics. Yes, they are valuable to read. Yes, there can be rewards for pushing through the tough bits. But–dare I say it?–in the end it’s just a book. No use losing sleep over it.

2. If it doesn’t catch me (or prove useful, if it’s a work-related book) in the first 50-100 pages, abandon it.

3. It’s okay to not finish a book.

4. It’s okay to return to a book later. It’s okay to start a book over some day. It’s probably not helpful to pretend that I’m still reading a book when I haven’t read it in months or years.

5. Don’t start another book until this one is finished. Or, at the very least, don’t start another book in the same genre. Reading a work of fiction, along with a work of theology, along with a work of history, for instance, may actually be a good thing and might keep me reading. Reading two novels or two theological works at the same time will usually mean one or the other gets abandoned.

6. I don’t have to read every book out there.

7. I don’t have to rush through books. Savour them. This one is difficult to practice when I’ve got shelves of waiting-to-be-read books. If I’m ever to catch up, I feel like I need to rush.

8. …but it wouldn’t hurt to skim from time to time.

9. I don’t have to catch up on reading all the books on my shelf.

10. A friend told me that he reads what he wants to think about. This is probably a generally good policy. What do I want to think about? Read a book about that and then combine it with thinking, journaling, conversations, etc.

11. Know my genres. I tend to eat up what one might call “pop sociology” books (or perhaps “pop non-fiction”): The World Without Us or The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon or Fast Food Nation or A Walk in the Woods or A Short History of Nearly Everything? I eat those books up. Mentally stimulating, absorbing, fascinating, etc. For pure enjoyment reading, that’s the way to go for me.

12. I need to learn to read and retain. Too often I read a book and forget what I read. I like to think I internalize some of the valuable information or that it’s at least formative. But who really knows. Is there a point in reading if nothing is retained? Doesn’t that just make it escapism?

13. But then maybe it’s okay to read even theology simply for pleasure. I do that already, but I’m always concerned about remembering. But maybe escapism is okay, too.

14. Sometimes a book can be judged by its cover.

15. …but an old, worn-out cover with illegible lettering and little bits of string coming off of it is not de facto unreadable.

16. I’ve found that there is a time and place and place for every book. A book that was formative or mind-blowing ten years ago might be meaningless now. A book I tried hard to read might be just what I need a few years down the road. I guess this is a kind of mystical view of the reading process. It seems to work for me. Which means that if a book doesn’t catch me fairly quickly, I should just move on and leave it for another day.

17. Perhaps I should’ve given up reading for Lent… Maybe next year.

Supernova

I have loads of reading to do with a theology class I’m taking (in San Diego!) at the beginning of February, which is precisely why I’ve started reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything again. Because that’s what I do when there are things to get done: distract myself with other things.

I came across this in a passage about supernovae and it ground my brain to a halt:

The question that naturally occurs is “What would it be like if a star exploded nearby?” Our nearest stellar neighbour…is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away. I had imagined that if there were an explosion there we would have 4.3 years to watch the light of this magnificent event spreading across the sky, as if tipped from a giant can. What would it be like if we had four years and four months to watch an inescapable doom advancing toward us, knowing that when it finally arrived it would blow the skin right off our bones? Would people still go to work? Would farmers still plant crops? Would anyone deliver them to the stores?

Weeks later, back in the town in New Hampshire where I live, I put these questions to John Thorstenson, an astronomer at Dartmouth College. “Oh no,” he said, laughing. “The news of such an event travels out at the speed of light, but so does the destructiveness, so you’d learn about it and die from it in the same instant” (36).

What?

So it takes 4.3 years to reach us, moving through 4.3 light years of space in that time–that is, moving from A to B and covering the distance between–but we would never see it approaching. I imagined it, much like Bryson, rather like watching a ball approach one’s face from a distance. Not so.

Instead, it would kind of be like the running scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except without the extended approach–Sir Lancelot would simply appear suddenly at the gate and kill the guards without warning.

I understand that (as far as we know) light is the fastest thing in the universe and we wouldn’t see the event until it reached us, meaning that as soon as we saw the event it would have arrived. Conceptually I get it. But it nevertheless boggles my mind–I can’t “see” it in my imagination.