Tag Archives: Reading

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.

Of school and (auto)biographies

Well, today I handed in the last assignment for that twice-extended course from last semester. It feels good, but not as good as I had expected. There is more to do, I guess. This week I’m in class all day, every day for a one-week modular, called “Pastoral Theology”. Modulars are nice because after a full day in class I feel justified in not doing any schoolwork in the evening. I may regret that later, but that’s where I’m at right now.

Next week it’s back to business, but finishing that first semester course and getting through another course (at least its classroom part) makes next week feel a bit like a new start. There’s still a lot of work to do before I’m done, but I’m not starting off behind. I’m right where I’m supposed to be, more less.

* * *

I haven’t done a whole lot of non-school reading this semester. What I have read, usually before going to sleep, has been (auto)biographies. It feels like it might be that kind of reading year. It began with Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor: A Memoir. It was very good. I sometimes feel like Peterson was working in an ideal situation of sorts–he planted a church and pastored that same church for 29 years. It’s not a situation most pastors find themselves in. But then Peterson makes it clear that his story is not one we should try to imitate, as if it’s a blueprint for successful pastoral life. But he nevertheless provides useful insight into the life and practice of a pastor that I can walk away with.

Next I tried to get into Frances Donaldson’s authorized biography of P.G. Wodehouse.  I had been looking forward to that one for a while. It was mildly interesting, mostly because the lengthy introduction sang the praises of Wodehouse’s writing style, including reflections from his more-respected-in-literary-circles contemporaries. I, too, sing those praises. But it wasn’t smooth reading and, quite frankly, Donaldson spends more time psychoanalyzing Wodehouse than I care to read about. I quit partway through the first chapter. I may pick it up again in the future.

The next day I started reading Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. Hauerwas is always provocative and this book is no exception. It’s sometimes a little too detailed in terms of the specifics of his education, but it has nevertheless been a good read so far. I pick it up whenever I have a spare moment. It is in the introductory chapter where Hauerwas has this wonderful line:

I have…tried to live a life I hope is unintelligible if the God we Christians worship does not exist.

I like that. I was hooked after that.

What’s next? Maybe Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Or maybe another volume from Frederick Buechner’s series of autobiographies. Or maybe I’ll re-read Carpenter’s Tolkien biography.

I’m not sure what the appeal of the (auto)biography is. It’s partially about getting a look inside the life of someone you admire or relate to. Maybe there’s a bit of vicarious living that goes on, too.

The Myth of Individualism

I came across this in the introduction to William Willimon’s Pastoral Theology. It’s written in the context of church life, but it has universal application:

We work within a culture of rugged individualists and fragmented communities. We are officially schooled in the notion that we are most fully ourselves when we are liberated, autonomous, on our own. We live under the modern myth that it is possible, even desirable, to live our lives without external, social determination. Ironically, that we think it desirable to live our lives without external, social determination is proof that our lives have been externally, socially determined by the culture of capitalist consumption. I did not on my own come up with the notion that I am a sovereign individual who has no greater purpose in life than to live exclusively for myself. Rather, this culture has formed me to believe that I have no other purpose in life other than the purpose I myself have chosen. The irony is that I did not choose the story that I have no purpose in life other than that which I have  chosen.

The issue is not, Shall I be externally determined by some community of interpretation or authorization? This issue is, Which community will have its way with my life?

It’s a bit wordy, but nevertheless well said.

You cannot become human on your own.

Frederick Buechner, in his memoir of his early years, The Sacred Journey, writes of when he, his mother, and his younger brother moved from New York to Bermuda after his father committed suicide. They wanted to escape for a while, while their paternal grandmother thought they should “stay and face reality”.

…when it comes to putting broken lives back together–when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls–the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do–to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst–is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own. (46)

Desultory reading

I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. It came highly recommended–more than 10 years ago, mind you–from a friend who also recommended a number of other books I have loved. Were it not for him, I would not have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or Buechner’s Godric, for instance. It is a book chosen by Oprah for her book club (one wonders if she or any of her viewers actually read it). One friend told me–and this was confirmed in the publishing story in the back of the book–that it was said that this book, along with the book of Genesis, is required reading for the entire human race.

Solitude has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years. I made an attempt at reading it shortly after buying it, but didn’t make it much past 50 pages. It was too surreal and I kept losing track of all the names (there are many Aurelianos and Arcadios and Joses) and the plot. I picked it up again about a month ago and started reading from the beginning. This time the story captured me more than the first time, and I kept track of the names using the family tree printed in the front pages of the book.

Midway through I began to realize that the story wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not in any sort of linear sense. Nobody claimed that it would, but still, it really was just events in the lives of one family. I began to hope that there would be a payoff or resolution at the end, as a reward for the work of reading through the middle hump. There was a resolution and a payoff of sorts, but it was underwhelming. I certainly don’t see how it should be required reading.

What am I missing with some of these greats of Western literature? What do I need to “get” in order to understand the acclaim?

Here’s what I need to do: I need to stop reading books out of obligation. Obligation to the canon or to acclaim. If we’re talking about pleasure reading, obligation is opposite of the direction I want to go in.

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight published a post about reading habits. He said this:

I don’t know about you, but I can create a stack of books to read and then a new book arrives in the mailbox and I decide to read the new book. On the day before we left for Israel Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, arrived, and I said to myself, “That’s a book to read on the flight.” And I did. Which decision illustrates the whole point of Jacobs’ new book: read at whim.

Why “whim”? Lower case “whim” in Jacobs’ dictionary means “thoughtless, directionless” but upper case Whim means this: “Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” (23). One of my favorite writers, who often writes about reading, calls this “desultory” reading — a kind of wandering and meandering from one book to another. More or less, that’s how I have been reading for years. What strikes me today as a “must-read” becomes sometimes a “read later” and sometimes to a “I’m not even interested now.” Whim is a good word for it, and it’s a good habit to establish.

Desultory reading is what I have done in the past, and I have read some wonderful books as a result. I once bought a book based solely on its cover art and the blurb on the back (but mostly the cover art). I liked that book enough to buy another by the same author, which became one of my favourites. Without reading at whim, without the serendipitous choice, I may never have read The Shipping News or Dracula.

Desultory reading choices are made by feeling. If I own the book, the choice is usually made at those times when I spend a few moments browsing my bookshelves and reading the first couple of paragraphs of the book. I’m not sure how it works in bookstores. I just know it’s feeling–guts. It’s serendipitous.

I sometimes muse about what I will read next. For a time, I thought the next work of fiction I would read is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that was again an obligation–it is acclaimed, it comes highly recommended by friends. But I didn’t feel the choice.

I didn’t know it was the wrong choice until a week or so ago, when I was again perusing my books. I opened The Kite Runner and read the short first chapter. I was hooked. The opening words spoke nostalgia and regret, for which I am a sucker.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Yes, this book was recommended to me. But I’m going to read it because it feels right. I might be disappointed. I might think it’s the best thing I’ve read in a while.

The key is serendipity.

Alternate summer reading list

Last week we did a major book purge. We donated three office-size boxes of fiction, literature and Christian material to the Providence library. It still feels like we didn’t put a dent in the books we have, but it was nevertheless good to clear some stuff out.

As we were cleaning, I came across a number of books hidden behind some other books. So here’s a possible alternate summer reading list. It is themed around the prairies/great plains. It would include:

  1. Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow
  2. Ian Frazier, The Great Plains
  3. Candace Savage, Prairie: A Natural History
  4. Norman Henderson, Rediscovering the Prairies: Journeys by Dog, Horse and Canoe
  5. Maybe re-read W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind

This probably won’t happen, but I hope to read them all soon. Maybe I should save them for the cold winter months and savour the images of the warm winds of the prairie summer.

After I posted my initial reading list, I almost immediately remembered a number of other books I intended to read soon. Books are fun.

Summer reading and such

I didn’t plan to give up blogging for Lent. It just sort of turned out that way. Aaaaaand my readership continues to slip away…

I handed in my last paper of the semester yesterday. Now I start thinking about the reading I need to do for the two classes I’m taking in May.

Tonight is the seminary grad banquet. Neither of us is graduating, but we’re going to the banquet. I am winning some kind of award (it’s an honour just to be nominated!). Tomorrow morning we leave for a 6-day stint at Elkhorn Lodge or some-such, a resort north of Neepewa and on the edge of Riding Mountain National Park. It’ll be the Vandersluys’s plus another friend, then a few days later that friend and his wife, and then a few days later another couple friend. It should be good times. I hope. Let’s be honest: the kids a kind of the wildcard here. But there’s a pool and possible horseback riding and hikes.

But after that, after the getaway and the classes in may, I will read what I want to read.

What I think I can reasonably finish in the summer:

Theology:

  • N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God
  • Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
  • Thomas Halik, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us
  • H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture
  • C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
  • Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

Biography:

  • Eric Mataxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Fiction:

  • Gavin’s sermon from a couple of weeks ago inspired me to pick up Three by Flannery O’Connor again and read at least The Violent Bear it Away
  • I’d like to have a second go at Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Something else by Graham Greene.

Maybe this list isn’t reasonable for me to finish. All of these books will be beneficial reads, but I think now of the books I would benefit from practically by reading them this summer, such a s William Willimon’s Pastoral Theology (a text for a Winter 2012 course) and something on spiritual direction. Plus I need to re-learn Greek over the summer in preparation for the school year.

Let’s be honest: this reading list looks almost nothing like I will actually read this summer.

Open Hands

I suppose I’d better post something. Two posts of largely non-original material–“Bob Ross” and “Footprints in the Sand“–continue to receive far and away the most hits on this blog, even on a day-to-day basis. I’m not sure what to do about that. Nothing, I suppose.

In the first half of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which I have unfortunately not finished, Miroslav Volf writes about giving and how it relates to God. He describes God as pure giver, saying, “In relation to the world…God’s gifts only flow out” (37). He goes on to qualify the giving of God:

When God gives, it’s not a transfer of goods. We receive things from God not because God takes them from here (where God happens to be) and places them there (where we happen to be), but because God is present where we are and is continually giving to us all the things and abilities we have. To return something to God would be like pushing back to the giver the hand that gives (41).

I am, of course, just presenting a skeletal view of what Volf has to say in this section of the book. I found it particularly interesting in what he had to say with respect to faith. The distinction between faith and works has, in recent years, become less clear to me–at least as presented in the evangelical circles I grew up in. Faith is something one must “have” (or possibly “do”) in order to be saved. It is presented as almost a cognitive thing–an act of the intellect. So, I wonder, how is this different than a work?

Volf helps clarify this for me by putting faith in the context of a giving God:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill. That is why, as Luther put it, faith “honors God”; it tells the truth about God and our relation to the divine Giver and ascribes to God what is due (43, emphasis mine).

Is holding my hands open to receive a work? If it is, it’s extremely passive (and borders on laziness!).