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OK, I confess: I have a hard time finishing a book before starting another. I’ve also realized I’ll never get around to writing full-fledged book reviews for every book I read. So here’s a little summary of what I’ve been reading lately. If you’re reading some of the same things, chime in and tell me what you think.

  • Gregory Fruehwirth, Words for Silence, and Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year. After taking my first retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani last fall, I’m more and more attracted to the idea that—as the monks themselves declare—anyone can live the contemplative life. These two books are aids to doing that. They’re both organized around the church year. Fruehwirth, a member of the Episcopal Order of Julian of Norwich, has written meditations based on chapter talks he gave to the order. Joan Chittister’s book is not simply a dry history of the origins of the church calendar; rather, her chapters are meditations on the meaning of each liturgical season. I’m finding both books valuable in grounding myself in the liturgical calendar.
  • Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed. Um, why did I wait so long to read this? Six years on, this is still an incredibly potent book. Their targum of Col. 1:15-20 is so powerful, I had to put the book down for a couple minutes after reading it. Recommended if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss about postmodernity and empire was all about.
  • Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Interpretation). I’m only a couple chapters in (still, that’s 100 pages), but this is clearly going to be a standard work to return to over and over again. Miller explicates the meaning of each commandment, as you might expect, but the real value of the book may be in how he traces out the trajectory of the commandments throughout scripture, including the New Testament. I blogged an example here.
  • Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. I don’t know if Armstrong knows anything about the emerging church, but those familiar with Pete Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God (or Pete’s sources, including the Christian mystical tradition) will find much familiar here. Armstrong makes clear right up front that she’s interested in tracing out the apophatic traditions about God in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, although her major emphasis is on Christianity. I’m about halfway through the book, and over and over again she emphasizes how believing the right things (a certain prescribed set of doctrines) is a relatively recent development compared to the long tradition of emphasizing right practices. It seems pretty clear what she’s going to conclude, but I’ll reserve judgment until finishing. My only question at this point is whether she could’ve accomplished her task in briefer compass.
  • Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity. I’m only about 7 chapters in, but it seems pretty clear that this is Brian’s “here I stand, I can do no other” book. Like Richard Hughes (see below), Brian is putting his flag down firmly, but his writing is, as usual, irenic and highly accessible.
  • Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity. Cairns is a poet and professor of English at the University of Missouri. In this book he’s taken some of the early church fathers and mystics and adapted/translated their writings into poetry. The results are just beautiful. I’m slowly working through these, usually reading a few on Sunday mornings before church.
  • Richard Hughes, Christian America and the Kingdom of God. I finished this a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to finish my review, so wanted to include it here. Hughes gets right to the point: the notion of a Christian America propagated by many, particularly on the evangelical right, has little or nothing to do with the biblical portrait of the kingdom of God. Hughes spends a lot of time tracing the kingdom of God in scripture—a helpful reminder, to be sure—but perhaps more valuable for me was his rehearsal of evangelical history showing how the idea of Christian America developed as it did.

What are you reading?

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“It’s bad enough that we make fruitcake and bourbon fudge for God. Our main job is singing.”

So said a monk on videotape shown to incoming retreatants at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I was one of those retreatants, having arrived that Monday afternoon in mid-October to begin my first week-long sojourn at a monastery. What was I hoping to find? Other than the usual reasons anyone has for getting away—rest, relaxation—I wasn’t quite sure. I knew that the retreat would be undirected and mostly silent, something that had enormous appeal. I looked forward to finding out what it would feel like to have 4-5 days of uninterrupted time in a monastic setting, participating with the monks in praying the daily hours. Although I had no expectations of receiving a beatific vision or hearing the voice of God in my ear, I wanted to enter into the experience as fully as possible, hoping to deepen my relationship with God in some way. 

What did I find? To keep this brief, let me simply point you back to the quote at the beginning of this post. When they pray the daily hours, the monks are singing/chanting the psalms; they are singing the psalms on behalf of the world to the one who was, who is, and is to come at the end of the ages. I find this inexpressibly beautiful.

The other thing to notice about the quotation is the wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Here is what, weeks later, I realized I most needed—and received—from the retreat: a monk’s view of the world. Monks, more than most, are in a position to withdraw from the world not for the sake of escaping it, but to have a proper perspective on it.

This lesson comes out quite clearly in Jon Sweeney’s book Cloister Talks: Lessons from My Friends the Monks (Brazos, 2009). I picked up the book because Sweeney relates conversations he’s had with monks from 3 Trappist monasteries, including Gethsemani. I did not set aside time to speak to a monk on my retreat (other than listening to talks given by the guestmaster), so the book gave me the opportunity to get the inside perspective on a life I had only glimpsed.

What quickly becomes apparent is that one shouldn’t romanticize the monastic life. The monks certainly don’t. As Sweeney relates, the full range of human experience, of life and death and joy and sorrow, takes place in the monastery. But there, in the context of a life devoted to communion with God, in the conscious cultivation of a life of simplicity, beauty, and mystery, all the things we tend to give lip service to, like authentic friendship or love or the meaning of work, seem to take on a richer, fuller cast.

The monks are there to help us remember what’s important. In their set-apartness and in their hospitality I found resources to help renew my life in the world. Does the monastic life not show us, in miniature, what the Christian community is to be for the world?

Growing up in church, I tended to think of Christian faith in terms of intimidating lists of do’s and don’ts. Do go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to the wrong kind of movies. “Obeying the gospel” was another way of saying “be baptized,” which was itself the final item in a list of things to do to be saved: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. It took many years before I understood that faith was a radical reorientation of one’s life toward God and others out of which one did or did not do certain things.

“Living justly” can often feel like “living legalistically”—like a return to those days when I felt shame and fear for my sins of commission and omission. The sheer number of ways a typical American’s lifestyle contributes to injustice—as well as the vast number of recommendations out there for how to live a green or sustainable lifestyle—can be overwhelming.

That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Julie Clawson begins her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP, 2009) with the words “Don’t panic.” Julie knows that the biggest risk of writing a book like this is that the reader will be so paralyzed that she will do nothing. So she addresses 7 specific areas from our everyday lives (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, clothes, waste, debt) where we can make small but significant changes, but in the process shows how living justly (or not) in these areas connects us to other people from around the world. EJ

Everyday Justice encourages us to take seriously the two greatest commandments according to Jesus: loving God and loving our neighbors. First John 4:20 puts it this way: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The problem is, as Julie points out, that many of the things that Americans consume are produced by the poorest people on the planet in horrifying conditions. The fact that we do not see these people, except when the occasional scandal exposes their plight,  is no excuse for supporting the systems that keep them poor or otherwise endangered by their working conditions. But we do precisely that with our consumption patterns. Many of the things we buy support companies that treat their workers unethically. And many of the things we consume were produced in ways that deplete the earth of natural resources or were made with dangerous chemicals.

But Everyday Justice is a light shining in this darkness. Yes, it exposes the darkness, causing me to be depressed. But it also gave me hope by showing how I can alter my lifestyle and love my unseen brothers or sisters around the world by supporting companies that pay their workers fair wages or make their products without wasteful plastics or dangerous pesticides.

The area in which the book challenged me the most was clothing. I pride myself on maintaining a simple, inexpensive wardrobe. But I’ve realized that my inexpensive, colorful t-shirts may have a hidden cost, as they could have been made by people who weren’t paid fairly, and were doubtless made with cotton produced with the use of outrageous amounts of pesticide. Further, I have way too many items of clothing purchased specifically because they are relatively “care-free,” i.e., “wrinkle-resistant” or “unshrinkable.” I bought them even though I knew that it took chemicals to make them that way. Our culture trains us to think that we are successful consumers if we find the best bargain on clothing (or whatever). But cheap clothing, as with cheap food, has other costs that are built into its production from the get-go.

Many readers will be on the same theological page with Julie, as I was. The book’s value for them, as for me, will be to help them put their theological values into practice. Other readers may be a little suspicious of what may appear to be a “liberal social justice agenda.” But I suspect these readers will be moved by Julie’s accounts of the real-life impact of our consumption patterns on those who are considered “the least of these,” and may find their theology shifted in subtle ways. But all of us, if we have ears to hear, will be moved a little closer to truly obeying the gospel. And that’s a good thing.

As an outsider to the Orthodox tradition, I’ve tried reading an occasional book on icons, usually with the hope that the book would help me “get” them. “I just want to know what these things mean” was my thought. nouwen

After reading Henri Nouwen’s Behold the Beauty of the Lord (Ave Maria, 1987), though, I see just how much of a mistake that was. Nouwen admits right away that for each of the four icons he writes about, his insights did not come until after months of living and praying with them. What he’s given us are meditations on the icons rather than analyses of their meaning (although there’s some overlap), and I found that Nouwen’s meditative approach was exactly what I needed from a book about icons. Reading this book is like praying with Nouwen as he prays with the icons.

The book is brief (80 pgs), with one meditation each on Rublev’s Trinity, the Virgin of Vladimir, the Savior of Zvenigorod, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The icons are reproduced in full color and folded into the front and back of the book in such a way that you can look at the icon at the same time that you’re reading about it.

rublevNouwen draws one primary spiritual lesson from each of the icons. I was most interested in what he had to say about Rublev’s Trinity, since it was a gift from my wife a couple of years ago and has been hanging in my office ever since. Nouwen says that contemplating this icon helped him learn what it means to live in “the house of love.” Introducing this icon, he writes:

Hardly a day passes in our lives without our experience of inner or outer fears, anxieties, apprehensions and preoccupations. These dark powers have pervaded every part of our world to such a degree that we can never fully escape them. Still it is possible not to belong to these powers, not to build our dwelling place among them, but to choose the house of love as our home. This choice is made not just once and for all but by living a spiritual life, praying at all times and thus breathing God’s breath. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love.

Friends, Nouwen has put his finger on the exact reason I’m blogging: to find hope in the midst of fear. While at times Nouwen focuses on mystical insights he received (and I don’t have nearly enough mysticism in my life), I really appreciated his final reflection—that is, that each of the four icons is connected to the world, whether through the square in the altar in Rublev’s Trinity, representing the four corners of the earth, or the damage done to the icon of the Savior, or the king in the Descent of the Holy Spirit. These icons remind him that heaven and earth are connected, a connection that helps us live in the house of love. I imagine I’ll return to this book many times for that reminder too.

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