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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?

“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?

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