Category : Books

(1st Things) Bruce Riley Ashford–My Ten (Or So) Favorite Cultural Critics

In 1974, British theologian Lesslie Newbigin returned to England after four decades of serving as a missionary to India. Back in Europe, he wrestled with a pressing question: How to preach the gospel to the West? He believed the Western church had unconsciously been captured by secular ideology. Rather than viewing the Bible’s narrative as the true story of the whole world, the church had bought into various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives. The church, Newbigin argued, must once again “soak” itself in the Bible, challenging the axioms of modernity with the axioms of Scripture.

The task of bringing the West into a missionary encounter with Scripture remains today. We must analyze Western culture to understand what is happening and why. We must attempt to discern the reigning idols of our day, how they twist the affections and thoughts of society, and how they warp our cultural institutions. This will help us better understand how to bring the gospel to the secular West.

Toward that end, I offer this list of eleven of the most perceptive cultural critics of the last two centuries. The list includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, poets, and literary critics. Some are well-known, others are quite obscure. Some are Christians, others are not. All were born before 1950 and each offers a salient evaluation of Western society and culture that remains relevant for our task today.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, History, Philosophy, Poetry & Literature

Thinking Strategically About Book Choices; An Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence

Bishop, I sense you’re a voracious reader. Would you use that term to describe yourself?

I would say as a parish priest I was, but as a Bishop less so, because the schedule and demands – which are voracious – have truncated that.

How many books do you read a month?

Far less than I wish, unfortunately. About two a month.

What are you reading right now?

This summer I’m rereading Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth. I’m also listening to two lecture series on the tragedies of Shakespeare and looking for opportunities to attend performances of those plays. Remarkably, we’ll be at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in August, and they’re performing Hamlet and Macbeth. There’s also a haunting performance of Lear by Anthony Hopkins in a movie version.

I’m also reading Landscape and Inscape: Vision and Inspiration in Hopkins’s Poetry by Peter Milward and The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers. (Thomas was a Welsh Poet and Anglican Priest). So I’ll reread his poems along with this recent biography.

How do you go about deciding what to read?

Often I will choose a reading project. When I was in parish ministry, I did this all the time. I’d read books in three areas: preaching and teaching, leadership, and pastoral ministry.

For preaching and teaching I would read 8 to12 books per year in theology, commentaries on the scriptures, homiletics or preaching. For leadership I’d read books from the secular world whether it be a book by Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, James Burns, John Maxwell, etc., as well as in the Christian world and certainly biographies of leaders in various walks of life. The other arena was books on pastoral care, what’s known as pastoralia. That was for many years what I did in terms of my calling or vocational reading.

Read it all.

Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * South Carolina, Books, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry

(AJ) ‘Coming to God without freedom is not coming to God’: Philosopher Charles Taylor on seeing God in church decline

Why are fewer people going to church?

It’s very hard to put your finger on this, but this is what I’m trying to work out: that there’s another kind of spiritual life, spiritual searching, going on to a great extent in our contemporary West—sometimes it’s in totally different religions, or totally non-religious—and that this somehow is taking off at the expense of an earlier way of expressing one’s spirituality, which involves being members of national churches or in the case of a very diverse country like Canada, at least a church which you know is very big and solid in some parts of the country.

It’s not that religion is disappearing, or spirituality is disappearing; it’s taking different forms. If you put yourself in the mindset of people, in particular of younger people, who are concerned about the meaning of life, concerned about becoming better people, more loving, more open, etc., and are seeking in some way some discipline—it could be meditation, it could be various things—if you put yourself in the mindset of these people, when they go to the pews the least bad thing is that they don’t feel it’s very relevant! The worst thing is they feel that their whole way of approaching this is not really appreciated and it may be seen as threatening the people in the pews. Now of course this is perhaps more the case—I’m a Catholic—in the case of the Catholic church [laughs], where you have these very backward-looking people who are screaming abuse at [Pope] Francis and so on [laughs]!

That’s the extreme case, where you actually feel, “I’d better rush out of this place [laughs]! Or I’m going to be badly treated.” But the least worrying or problematic [for those outside the church] is just that this is not a concern that people [in the pews] recognize, this searching concern. “Everything is all settled, and we’re all together in these pews affirming it.”

Read it all.

Posted in Anglican Church of Canada, Books, Canada, Philosophy, Religion & Culture, Secularism

(CC) Jason Byassee–How Katherine Sonderegger finds delight in a humble God

[Katherine] Sonderegger’s key theological commitment is to what she calls divine “compatibilism.” God and creatures do not compete over shared space. God can be present fully without displacing material creation. God can work in history without overriding human freedom. The key example for her is the burning bush of Horeb. Divine fire does not annihilate or destroy. It is modest, lowly, hidden to most eyes, appearing in a mere desert shrub. God is humble enough to be unseen.

Divine compatibilism is a common theme in other theologians, such as Coakley and Kathryn Tanner. It declares a noncompetitive relation between a genuinely transcendent God and creatures. The new note I detect in Sonderegger is the emphasis on God’s joy in all this. The One God is pleased to be hidden, this is his “particular and glorious epiphany—to be the Unseen, Utterly Unique, Invisible One, hidden in the midst of his people.”

Omnipotence would seem a harder divine attribute to sell. Theopassionism, the notion that God suffers, is “almost modern day dogma,” she notes, acknowledging the influence of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, best known for his book The Crucified God. But Moltmann must be wrong, Sonde­regger argues—Christology cannot be the sole measure of divine omnipotence.

Sonderegger prefers the vision of onetime archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who pictures divine self-emptying on the cross not as an abdication of power but as a different version of power, a “condescension inconceivably tender.” Sonderegger is blistering in her rejection of modernist objections to divine intervention in the world: there must be some divine agency at work in defeating Pharaoh and in Jesus on the cross, she says, or else there is nothing for human beings to bow down to.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Theology

(NR) Yuval Levin–The Historian as Moralist: The remarkable life’s work of Gertrude Himmelfarb

The passing of Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died on December 30th at the age of 97, is a loss felt keenly by all who had the good fortune to know her.

To family and friends, she was known as Bea Kristol, and embodied character and decency, good humor, and good sense. To Americans with an interest in our country’s intellectual life, she might have been best known as the wife of Irving Kristol. This always suited her humility (let alone her pride in Irving), and you would surely gain some real insight into the aims of the original neoconservatives by reflecting on the fact that Irving Kristol’s wife was a scholar of Victorian England.

But as such a scholar — one whose life’s work spanned an amazing seven decades of wise, independent-minded, reliably fascinating, and brilliantly expressed historical analysis — Himmelfarb has never been sufficiently appreciated. There will no doubt be many remembrances of her unique mix of personal warmth and dignity in the days to come, from many who knew her far better than I did. But a reflection on the ambitions and significance of her work is very much in order too.

She was among the most important American historians of the last century. Her path-breaking work illuminating the intellectual life of 19th-century Britain not only helped transform our understanding of what the Victorians were up to but also provided a rich vocabulary for describing the place of the moral in the social and political lives of liberal societies. And in the process, she helped several generations of politically minded intellectuals in her own day understand themselves, their roles, and their goals more profoundly.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Politics in General, Theology

(LARB) The Outer Fringes of Our Language: A Conversation with Werner Herzog Robert Pogue Harrison interviews Werner Herzog

ROBERT POGUE HARRISON: In your conversation with Paul Cronin in 2014, you say, “Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the internet or watch too much television lose it. […] Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.” Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

WERNER HERZOG: In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. I see three, four films a year, maybe sometimes a little bit more during a festival, but I do read.

And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.

Is that right?

It’s very, very clear. There’s no doubt whatsoever in me.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, Language

A Good Christmas Reminder: A bit of George Lindbeck’s review of the Myth of God Incarnate (1977)

The tone of the authors is fervent. They believe in experiential religion…

The purpose of religious language is not indicative, but expressive not to express a metaphysical fact but to express a valuation and evoke an attitude…

All the authors strenuously deny that it is literally true that a divine reality (i.e. the logos, preexistent Christ or Second Person of the Trinity) became man uniquely in Jesus Christ…

You may need to enlarge the page to see it better; I sure did; KSH. Quoted by yours truly in the morning sermon.

Posted in Books, Christmas, Christology, Church History

(Crux) Actor Ken Jennings breathes new life into Gospel of John at New York’s Sheen Center

On a nightly basis this month – and on weekend afternoons – “the word” is becoming flesh in lower Manhattan with a one-man performance of the “The Gospel of John” at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.

Longtime Broadway actor Ken Jennings has memorized the entirety of his favorite Gospel – which he first began to commit to memory as a personal prayer – and at age 72, is thrilling audiences with his new dramatic staging of it.

In an interview with Crux, Jennings said that it took him somewhere between two to three years to memorize the full text, which he turned to when he was going through a rough period in his personal life.

Throughout the performance, he often carries a small pocket-sized Bible around the stage with him – a Bible that dates back to when he was a part of the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd in the 1970s.

It was that same Bible that he would carry with him when he’d go out jogging in New York and that he’d use on the walks back to his apartment to read passages from the book of John.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Religion & Culture, Theatre/Drama/Plays, Theology: Scripture

(CW) Bill Muehlenberg reviews “Reenchanting Humanity” by Owen Strachan

Consider the issue of human sexuality and all the problems we now find associated with it – everything from broken marriages, porn addiction, and gender bender delusions. The world is normalising the promotion of neopagan sexual identity and practices which is causing all sorts of damage and misery.

Says Strachan: “In the twenty-first century, we have witnessed the rise of ideology that seeks to replace divine order with a counterfeit – with what we may call neopaganism. This movement spiritualises sexuality in a design-denying way while rendering sexual practice nothing more than a momentary phenomenon. Sex is both everything and nothing at once.”

The attempt to now mainstream and normalise transgenderism is simply the most recent and most bizarre outworking of all this. A post-biblical age leads to a post-body culture. The great good of the human body as designed by God (consider not just creation but the Incarnation) has been discarded by the sexual radicals.

The lie spoken by Satan to our first parents (‘you can be like God’) has now fully come around: ‘you can now (re)create your own body, and your own sexual identity.’ We can now somehow transcend biology and reality as we choose for ourselves who we are and what we are to become. So now even children are having their bodies horribly mutilated in the vain attempt to become something they are not – and never can be.

In addition to the transgender revolution, there are three other major sexual challenges that the church faces today: feminism, postmarital sexual libertinism, and homosexuality. “Each of these four ideologies is the reversal of biblical teaching and divine design….”

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Religion & Culture, Sexuality, Theology

(LARB) Jessica Riskin–Steven Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics

“INTELLECTUALS HATE REASON,” “Progressives hate progress,” “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery.” No, wait, those last two are from a different book, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Steven Pinker begins his latest — a manifesto inspirationally entitled Enlightenment Now — with a contrast between “the West,” which he says is critical of its own traditions and values, and “the Islamic State,” which “knows exactly what it stands for.” Given the book’s title, one expects Pinker to be celebrating a core Enlightenment ideal: critical skepticism, which demands the questioning of established traditions and values (such as easy oppositions between “the West” and “the bad guys”). But no, in a surprise twist, Pinker apparently wants us over here in “the West” to adopt an Islamic State–level commitment to our “values,” which he then equates with “classical liberalism” [1] (about which more presently). You begin to see, reader, why this review — which I promised to write last spring — took me all summer and much of the fall to finish. Just a few sentences into the book, I am tangled in a knot of Orwellian contradictions.

Enlightenment Now purports to demonstrate by way of “data” that “the Enlightenment has worked.” [2] What are we to make of this? A toaster oven can work or not by toasting or failing to toast your bagel. My laser printer often works by printing what I’ve asked it to print, and sometimes doesn’t by getting the paper all jammed up inside. These machines were designed and built to do particular, well-defined jobs. There is no uncertainty, no debate, no tradition of critical reflection, no voluminous writings regarding what toaster ovens or laser printers should do, or which guiding principles or ideals should govern them.

On the other hand, uncertainty, debate, and critical reflection were the warp and woof of the Enlightenment, which was no discrete, engineered device with a well-defined purpose, but an intellectual and cultural movement spanning several countries and evolving over about a century and a half. If one could identify any single value as definitive of this long and diverse movement, it must surely be the one mentioned above, the value of critical skepticism. To say it “worked” vitiates its very essence. But now the Enlightenment’s best-selling PR guy takes “skepticism” as a dirty word; if that’s any indication, then I guess the Enlightenment didn’t work, or at any rate, it’s not working now. Maybe it came unplugged? Is there a paper jam?

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Media, Philosophy

(NYT) His Novels of Planetary Devastation Will Make You Want to Survive

In Area X, human faces wash up on the shore like the discarded shells of horseshoe crabs and dolphins swim in perfectly synchronized pairs and look out at you from hauntingly familiar eyes. A strange being known only as “The Crawler” travels up and down the stairs of an underground tower, writing on the walls in words that are revealed under a microscope to be formed of some sort of golden moss. Otherworldly phenomena like the “shimmer,” which indicates a sort of membrane between Area X and the regular world, are amalgamations of the concrete and the unimaginable, physical artifacts that defy comprehension.

The careful, exacting strangeness of these images sticks in the mind like a burr, stirring unexpectedly in your consciousness many days after reading. For this reason, VanderMeer’s novels exert a persuasive “reality effect” all their own. The phantasmagoric creatures and places can be difficult to find in mainstream literary fiction — where nature often appears as ornament, as atmosphere, as a backdrop to unfolding human drama. Like Melville and Thoreau, who invested their descriptions of early American wilds with an expansive vitalistic otherness, VanderMeer stages encounters with a nonhuman world that refuses to yield the foreground. This gesture takes on new significance in a time of ecological crisis and climate catastrophe: It reinscribes the fullness of the world we live in, an urgent reminder of how much life we stand to lose.

VanderMeer, who is in his early 50s and has a neatly-trimmed graying goatee, wore waders and a windbreaker in deference to the quick-changing weather of this rainy patch of Florida coastline. He laughs easily but not at length, and his intelligence has a restless quality, moving swiftly from one thing to the next. Quiet and friendly, he spoke in quick, clipped sentences as he showed me around the western reach of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, an ecological hub bordering the Gulf of Mexico that contains many different habitats —from pine flatwoods and sandhills to swamp forest and open water— and ranks in the top 10 in the nation for biodiversity. Though Everglades National Park is 22 times its size, the density of rare and endangered species in St Marks is nine times greater.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Climate Change, Weather, Ecology, Energy, Natural Resources, Ethics / Moral Theology

(CEN) Paul Richardson reviews Jonathan Holland’s new book on Philip Strong–A forgotten hero of Anglicanism

A significant figure in the Anglican Communion in his time, Philip Strong will be remembered by few people in the Church of England today. In an age of ‘expressive individualism’ and the quest for personal fulfilment Strong’s devotion to duty marks him as the product of a very different period in time. This is someone who made a definite religious commitment at the age of 14, wrote it down and never swerved from the path he had chosen. For the distinguished Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick he was ‘the most Christian man I ever had the pleasure of knowing.’

Strong was born in 1899 and grew up in a country vicarage. He studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was friends with Malcolm Muggeridge and formed a close bond with Alec Vidler. Ordained by Hensley Henson, who was suspicious of Strong’s Anglo-Catholicism but who came to respect him, Strong served a curacy and two incumbencies in working class parishes in the North of England.

In 1936 the call came to go to Papua as the diocesan bishop. The night before his consecration Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang pointed to a crucifix and told Strong ‘you can thank God there will be more of that in your life than there is in mine’.

Jonathan Holland describes the challenges Strong faced as he took up his new responsibilities in this carefully researched and well-written biography.

Read it all.

Posted in Anglican Church of Australia, Books, Church History, Papua New Guinea

More food for Thought from Ernest Becker

Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.

Therapeutic religion will never replace traditional religions with the messages of Judaism, most of Christianity, Buddhism, and the like. They have held that man is doomed to his present form, that he can’t really evolve any further, that anything he might achieve can only be achieved from within the real nightmare of his loneliness in creation and from the energies that he now has.

–Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997 paperback ed. Of the 1973 original), pp. 281-282

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Religion & Culture, Theology

Saturday Food for Thought from Ernest Becker

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.

–¬Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997 paperback ed. Of the 1973 original), pp. 283-284

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, History, Philosophy, Theology

CS Lewis on CS Lewis Day (II)–On the importance of reading old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

–C.S. Lewis, On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), pp. 3-

Posted in Books, Church History

(CC) Jason Micheli reviews David Zahl’s new book: Politics, parenting, and other secular things we put our faith in

Seculosity shines its light upon on the conditional “if/then” construction of the promises seculosities make. If you eat organic and sustainably sourced food, then you will be enough. In the language of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther, the oughts and shoulds of seculosities pledge the very same promise that is at the heart of any religion based only on law. The promise is predicated entirely on our performance. Seculosities ultimately lead to exhaustion because we can never measure up to their ever-shifting standard of performance. They also lead to judgmentalism: the fact that we ourselves fall short of the standard doesn’t stop us from pointing out how others fall short.

By the conclusion of the book, readers are in on the joke of the subtitle “and What to Do about It.” Doing is exactly our problem. We’re busy producing, earning, climbing, proving, striving, and performing. We’re chasing our enoughness “into every corner of our lives, driving everyone around us—and ourselves—crazy.” The law is inscribed, Paul says, not just on tablets of stone but on every heart.

The remedy is to be found not in another exhortation about something we must do but in the proclamation of something that has been done for us. The conclusion of Seculosity is a contemporary companion to Luther’s thesis in the Heidelberg Disputation: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

In other words, relief from all our replacement religions just might be found in the opposite of religion—the promise of the gospel. Unlike religions of law, Zahl argues, Christianity does not instruct us in how to construct our enoughness. The language of earning is antithetical to the gospel. Christianity rather invites us to receive our enoughness, which is Christ’s own enoughness, as sheer gift. Our Christian activities are the organic fruit of our enoughness, not the stuff by which we earn it.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Christology, Parish Ministry, Pastoral Theology, Religion & Culture, Soteriology, Theology

(NYT) Nicholas Kristof reviews Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Lost Art Of Scripture: Rescuing The Sacred Texts’

I’ve long believed that the great gulf in religion is not so much from one faith to another, but rather between sanctimonious cranks of any creed who point fingers and those of any religion who humbly seek inspiration to live better lives. Armstrong’s exploration of Scripture across so many traditions reinforces my view.

The ancient Chinese scholar Xunzi complained about an early version of what today we might call religious blowhards. “The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth,” Xunzi protested, adding that the words have affected only “the four inches between ear and mouth.” Instead, the aim for a wise man should be that learning “enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions.”

Scriptures historically were infused with contradiction and mystery, intertwined with ritual and music, to offer glimpses of deep truths and often to promote ethical behavior. Scriptures typically evolved flexibly to promote compassion, empathy and magnanimity — so it is particularly sad when today they are cherry-picked by ideologues, wrenched from context, to justify rigid and pusillanimous dogma.

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, Religion & Culture, Theology: Scripture

(CT) James Cary–Does God Have a Funny Side?

For example, [Steve] Wilkens points out that humans laugh while animals don’t. This we know, unconvincing zoological examples notwithstanding. But Wilkens digs into the theological significance of ths fact, joining some dots that help us see comedy not as an optional extra, but something at the core of what it means to be human beings and divine image-bearers.

Jokes can have unintended consequences. This is often what makes people reluctant to attempt humor or risk a comic observation. But a well-placed joke can make everyone relax. A shared sense of humor can build a relationship and further a connection. In his epilogue, Wilkens explains how writing the book had unintended positive consequences. “As I read theology through the lens of humor,” he writes, “I discovered that I don’t just love God. I like God.”

Once you see God’s handiwork in the everyday, as well as in his image-bearers and in the pages of Scripture, this could be your reality as well. Given the overly serious times in which we live, it’s probably worth a try. Perhaps we can see God showing his mirth after all.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Humor / Trivia, Theology, Theology: Scripture

(Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics) Don Collett–Overcoming Historicism’s Dividing Wall of Hostility: The Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Christian Smith notes the influence of bad philosophies of language and science upon biblicists, the latter of which are typically imbibed without much, if any, critical reflection. Paradigm-protecting approaches to organizing the diversity of Scripture also generate canons within the canon, while the influence of modernism’s mathematical and scientific rationalism upon biblicists leads them to effectively regard the Bible as a set of algebraic equations, thereby confusing mathematical and scientific ideas of precision with accuracy and truth. Sophisticated views of the philosophy of language and science are either unknown in popular forms of biblicism, or if known, exploited for purely negative and apologetic purposes, thereby precluding their constructive appropriation on any level.

Among the more interesting answers that Smith gives to this question are found in his third chapter, which is largely rooted in sociological observations. As it turns out, biblicists don’t get out much. They talk among themselves within socially and ecclesially constructed rooms of their own making and vintage, never bothering to open up windows to let in fresh air from the outside. When one adds to this the sociological observation that the need to reinforce one’s own identity is often tied to the need to differentiate oneself from others, this isolation is compounded even further (62-63). In short, because difference is essential to identity, biblicists may be subconsciously resisting “the idea of the biblical differences among them actually being settled” (63). Smith’s discussion of “homophily”, which he defines as natural attraction to those who think in the same terms we do, also helps to explain, at least in part, why biblicism is so resistant to change. Evangelical biblicists regularly underestimate the influence of social networks and social location upon how people process Scripture (64-65; 195-196). Because of this, they fall into the trap of believing that if they can just get people all believing the right things, everything else would take care of itself. While one can go too far with this and foster a sort of social determinism that ignores the Bible’s ability, through the Spirit, to overturn and counter the influence of what Smith (following Peter Berger) calls ‘plausibility structures’, in this reviewer’s opinion, Smith is right to point out that most biblicists regularly underestimate the impact their social context and location has upon how they hear Scripture. Many biblicists are Cartesians who view people as disembodied selves, or if you prefer, ideas with feet.

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Posted in Books, Seminary / Theological Education, Theology, Theology: Scripture

([London] Times) Hugo Rifkind reviews Richard Dawkins Latest book ‘outgrowing God’

Here, alas, probably because religion makes him so very cross, he often sounds more like Owl hectoring Winnie-the-Pooh. “This really is the sort of thing theologians spend their time thinking about,” he’ll tell us peevishly, or “the Roman Catholic Church was very silly” to have authenticated a supposed miracle in Portugal. Throughout a long, excruciating passage about Noah’s Ark he refers to “Mr and Mrs Wombat” and “Mr and Mrs Kangaroo”.

From the get-go we’re into his favourite argument, made many times before, which is that there’s no more reason to believe in the Christian god than any other. “Like you I expect, I don’t believe in Jupiter or Poseidon or Thor or Venus or Cupid or Snotra or Mars or Odin or Apollo,” he writes. “I don’t believe in Anyanwu, Mawu, Ngai . . .” Yes, we get it. Please stop.

A rolling, extensive list of everything else he doesn’t believe dominates part one. Quite a lot of it is about how bits of the Bible are contradicted by other bits, or inspired by previous works, or just not very nice. He’s very angry, for example, about the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. “Is it possible to imagine a worse trick to play on someone?” he thunders. Likewise, about God’s instructions in the Old Testament about what ought to be done with the Canaanites. “Nowadays,” he writes, “we’d call it ethnic cleansing and child abuse.”

Is it wrong to find all this a bit low-rent? Only very occasionally do you get an insight that stands out, such as the one about Hell needing to be so horrid precisely because the idea of going there is so implausible; otherwise it would be harder to inspire the necessary dread. Also, sometimes, thank God (or whoever) the attempts at wit actually land. “Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s husband,” he suggests as an antidote to the sexism embedded in the Ten Commandments. “Nor her Jaguar. Nor her doctoral degree.”

Read it all (subscription).

Posted in Atheism, Books, England / UK, Religion & Culture

(NYT) Reading Scores on National Exam Decline in Half the States

This year, eighth-grade reading scores in 31 states dropped two to seven points — which the federal government deemed significant — compared with their performances in 2017. Indiana, New Hampshire and Virginia had the largest declines. Fourth-grade reading scores dropped in 17 states, with New Jersey’s six-point drop the largest. Only one state, Mississippi, improved, the data showed.

James F. Lane, the superintendent of public instruction in Virginia, said that while grade-level proficiency was a goal, the school system “must also recognize that Virginia’s schools are enrolling increasing numbers of students whose learning is impacted by poverty and trauma.” He said the school system needed to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and equip them to meet the needs of a “changing student population.”

Average math scores fared considerably better, particularly among fourth graders. Nine states had significant increases in fourth-grade math, compared with 2017. Again, Mississippi led the pack. The eighth-grade score in three states improved, while those in six states declined.

American students have made large gains in math and small gains in reading since 1990. But those improvements began to level out around 2009. There is no consensus on why that happened.

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Children, Education

(Sightings) A Recalcitrant Influence–Matthew Creighton writes about the legacy of Harold Bloom

Last week the literary world bade adieu to Professor Harold Bloom, the most prodigious and well-known literary critic of the second half of the twentieth century. Looking back over approximately fifty years of writing, we conclude that one of the recursive and unifying features of his extensive output is the insistence upon regarding sacred works as rhetorical products, along with the attunement to the theological dimensions of imaginative fiction. In creating a model of how to construe the relationship between religion and literature as modes of cultural activity, Bloom fused the insights of two formidable precursors. From the minister-cum-scholar Northrop Frye, he began to view the totality of literary creation as an organic and interconnected whole, a “great code” founded on and decipherable with the aid of Scripture. From M.H. Abrams, his undergraduate adviser at Cornell, he learned not just that poets too were preoccupied with spiritual concerns, but that every instance of poetic communication necessarily involves four components: author, text, world, and audience.

Nevertheless, we can also speak of three discrete stages of Bloom’s criticism. The first is crystallized in the oft-misunderstood book The Anxiety of Influence (1973), in which he used Freudian psychoanalysis as a method for understanding the dynamics of artistic creation. In essence, he argued that one could trace a common process whereby young poets rebel against the literary forbearers that simultaneously and paradoxically shape and nourish their artistic sensibilities, in order to carve out a space for their own originality and yearning for greatness.

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Posted in Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, History, Poetry & Literature

Ole Hallesby on the Painstaking and Rewarding Work of Prayer

“The work of the Spirit can be compared to mining. The Spirit’s work is to blast to pieces the sinner’s hardness of heart and his frivolous opposition to God. The period of the awakening can be likened to the time when the blasts are fired. The time between the awakenings corresponds, on the other hand, to the time when the deep holes are being bored with great effort into the hard rock.

To bore these holes is hard and difficult and a task which tries one’s patience. To light the fuse and fire the shot is not only easy but also very interesting work. One sees “results” from such work. It creates interest, too; shots resound, and pieces fly in every direction! It takes trained workmen to do the boring. Anybody can light a fuse.

…the Spirit calls us to do the quiet, difficult, trying work of boring holy explosive materials into the souls of people by daily and unceasing prayer. This is the real preparatory work for the next awakening. The reason why such a long period of time elapses between awakenings is simply that the Spirit cannot find believers who are willing to do the heavy part of the mining work. Everybody desires awakenings; but we prefer to let other do the boring into the hard rock.”

–Ole Hallesby, Prayer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortess, 1994 printing of the 1931 original), [Book Three] pp.77-78

Posted in Books, Church History, Norway, Spirituality/Prayer

Still More from Ole Kristian Hallesby on Prayer

‘If prayer is, as we have seen, the central function of the new life of faith, the very heart-beat of our life in God, it is obvious that our prayer life must become the target against which Satan directs his best and most numerous darts’

–Ole Hallesby Prayer (Augsburg, 1931), Book Four

Posted in Books, Church History, Norway, Spirituality/Prayer, Theology

Ole Kristian Hallesby–The heart of Prayer is Owned Helplessness

Prayer is an attitude of our hearts, an attitude of mind. Prayer is a definite attitude of our hearts toward God, an attitude which He in heaven immediately recognizes as prayer, as an appeal to His heart. Whether it takes the form of words or not, does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves.

What is this spiritual condition? What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer? I would mention two things.

1. In the first place, helplessness.

This is unquestionably the first and the surest indication of a praying heart. As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed, the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer. This is not only true of us before our conversion. Prayer is our last resort also throughout our whole Christian life. I know very well that we offer many and beautiful prayers, both privately and publicly, without helplessness as the impelling power. But I am not at all positive that this is prayer.

Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only he who is helpless can truly pray.

Listen to this, you who are often so helpless that you do not know what to do. At times you do not even know how to pray. Your mind seems full of sin and impurity. Your mind is preoccupied with what the Bible calls the world. God and eternal and holy things seem so distant and foreign to you that you feel that you add sin to sin by desiring to approach God in such a state of mind.

Now and then you must ask yourself the question, “Do I really desire to be set free from the luke-warmness of my heart and my worldly life? Is not my Christian life always lukewarm and half-hearted for the simple reason that deep down in my heart I desire it that way?”

Thus an honest soul struggles against the dishonesty of his own being. He feels himself so helplessly lost that his prayers freeze on his very lips.

Listen, my friend! Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas. He hears it from the very moment that you are seized with helplessness, and He becomes actively engaged at once in hearing and answering the prayer of your helplessness. He hears today as He heard the helpless and wordless prayer of the man sick with the palsy.

–Ole Hallesby Prayer (Augsburg, 1931), Book One, read by yours truly in preparation for last weekend’s Saint Philip’s parish retreat on prayer

Posted in Books, Church History, Norway, Spirituality/Prayer

(CC) Jonathan Tran–Hope, oppression, and Ta-Nehisi Coates: Can Christian hope survive the onslaught against black life?

In her endorsement of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison in­voked one of America’s most astute cultural observers: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Bald­win died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity collects powerful and often quite personal essays on Between the World and Me. Most of the contributions circle around two questions: What does one do with Coates’s dismissal of Christianity? And how should one take the book’s seeming hopelessness? Almost all of the authors agree that the two questions are related, and they work hard to think through one of the central moral issues that arises for Christians today: Can Christian hope survive the onslaught against black life?

The second is Prince Jones Jr., who was Coates’s classmate at Howard Uni­ver­sity. Prince was also killed by a cop, his exemplary character and accomplishments unable to save him from a fate that befalls so many African Ameri­can men. At Prince’s funeral, Coates puzzles over the way Mabel Jones, Prince’s mother, clings to Christian hope even in the face of obvious reasons for despair.

How might a Christian respond to Coates’s stance toward Christianity without (as Jennifer Harvey puts it) trying to persuade Coates “to embrace religion or god,” or “hold him responsible for making visible a more complicated understanding of religious thought and practice”? This question takes on added weight if, as Harvey observes, “the religion Coates rejects is a particular type . . . one that emerges from traditions best described as escapist,” where “god is conceived as solution to unending crisis, a ‘go to’ as an explanation of the incomprehensible.”

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Race/Race Relations, Religion & Culture, Theology

Friday food for Thought from Thomas Merton

Posted in Books, Church History, Theology

(UnHerd in 2018) Losing their religion: the priests who turned from God

Over the course of less than two decades, [Richard] Holloway moved from doubts over the uses to which religion can be put to a complete rejection of its divine origins. That path is one that many others have made and many more doubtless fear making. But what makes Holloway different is not merely that he made this journey whilst himself being a member of the clergy or that he wrote about it whilst doing so. What is different and significant about Holloway is that while he became disenchanted with traditional religion and while he became surer of its man-made nature he nevertheless saw that there remained something in religion, and the Christian story in particular, that deserved and needed to be saved.

In his 2012 memoir, Leaving Alexandria, he described with frankness not only the fundamentalism that had pushed him away from the church, but those few hopes he had still had left for it. His religion is now, he says, “pared away to almost nothing” 7, and he asks what he is left believing. ‘Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons can be learned from them. “The mistake’” he says,”‘was to think religion was more than human.”

Though he concludes that religion was a work of the human imagination he reiterates that that itself is not nothing. If it could be appreciated as other works of the human imagination are appreciated – so long as people did not fall over again into thinking it was more than that – if it could be appreciated like Shakespeare, and Proust, Elgar, Tolstoy, Gaugin or Nietzsche (to use Holloway’s list) and seen to have no more authority than them, then the uses of religion might still be for the good.

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Posted in Atheism, Books, England / UK, Ministry of the Ordained, Religion & Culture, Scottish Episcopal Church

(ES) Jonathan Haidt: ‘Many people will soon find themselves mired in perpetual conflict over words’

“When the article came out we were braced for an enormous pushback. It was an explosive time, and things were beginning to get very strange politically in ways we’re only beginning to understand,” he says. “But the climate changed in early 2016, when the number of shutdowns and disinvitations grew, and everything got worse. Things were changing in ways that are really bad for what we do, so Greg and I decided we had to turn it into a book.”

Between the article and the book, which came out last year, Haidt’s research revealed a strong connection between Gen Z’s soaring rates of anxiety and depression (especially among girls), their emotional fragility and their upbringing . “Originally, we didn’t see how it all linked to childhood trends, such as fearful parenting and the decline of play. We also didn’t know, until research was published last year, that there was a sudden radicalisation among white progressives in 2014 about different types of inequality: feminism, racism, misogyny, white privilege, or any other term from the woke vocabulary.

“Another big shift came from changes in social media after 2012, through Twitter and Instagram. This new configuration has been much more effective at spreading outrage, because almost anything can be taken as an example of how awful the other side is if you strip it of context and put it out there.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, --Social Networking, America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Blogging & the Internet, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Language, Philosophy, Psychology, Science & Technology, Theology, Young Adults

(Church Times) ‘The 20th century was Augustinian’–James K. A. Smith tells Madeleine Davies why the Early Church theologian still matters

“My hunch is that if people know anything about St Augustine, their picture is probably overwhelmingly negative,” Professor James K. A. Smith says, occupying a booth in the foyer of a South Kensington hotel. He suspects that they think of the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo as “the inventor of the doctrine of Original Sin . . . the champion of celibacy, and the generator of a particularly narrow doctrine of sexual ethics”.

If there is one misconception that he hopes that his new book will correct, it is the idea of an angry dogmatist: “When you really spend time with Augustine he is remarkably vulnerable, humble, and very much imagines himself as a co-pilgrim with people, rather than sitting up on this dais, sort of announcing and denouncing.”

Augustine is, he writes, less a judge than an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.

With a titular nod to Kerouac, On the Road with Saint Augustine offers the reader “an invitation to journey with an ancient African who will surprise you by the extent to which he knows you”.

Read it all.

Posted in Africa, Books, Church History, Theology