CS Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’: A Biography by George Marsden

CS Lewis's 'Mere Christianity': A Biography by George MarsdenSummary: The history and influence of Mere Christianity.

I stumbled across the audiobook of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity: A Biography when I was looking for another book by George Marsden. I have previously read two other books from The Lives of Great Religious Books series (Letters and Papers from Prison and the Book of Common Prayer) and so I eagerly picked it up (both as a fan of Marsden’s and the series.)

The series seems to have done a good job hiring good authors, and good writers matters in a series like this. This is not a series that requires heavy historical lifting: a short section of biography about the author, the story of the writing and overview of the content, a summary of the response and objections, and the spread of the book. All three that I have read have basically been the same format. But the format works.

I have a pretty good handle on Lewis’ own biography at this point. Marsden handles that well and throws in a few tidbits that I have not previously heard, but made sense in the context of the book. The basic story of the book, I was also familiar with because it is pretty important to Lewis’ own life story.

What was more interesting to me was the response and objections to Mere Christianity. The discussion of the Catholic objections to Mere Christianity made sense once Marsden pointed them out. But I would not have been able to express them myself without his help.

The importance of the United States readership to CS Lewis’ spread is always interesting. As I have heard in context of NT Wright and a few others, a British accent and a professorship at one of UK’s great schools really can really impress a lot of Americans. That is not to minimize the strength of Lewis’ work. I would not have read more than two dozen books by or about Lewis in recent years if I did not think he was important. But mere sales numbers do not confirm long term importance and impact.

Historical stories of cultural impact are interesting. So much seems to happen almost by chance. The right book at the right time matters. As helpful as Mere Christianity is, there are far better written apologetics books. But there is a voice there, and the context of Lewis’ others books. And Mere Christianity has had a lasting impact. I read it for the first time only a few years ago with a reading group, more than 60 years after it was published

CS Lewis's 'Mere Christianity': A Biography by George Marsden Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis and Andrea Tornielli

The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis and Andrea TornielliSummary: A long interview with Pope Francis and the declaration of the Year of Mercy statement.

I keep meaning to read something by Pope Francis. But I have not up until now. Or really I still have not, but this is closer. The Name of God is Mercy was on sale at audible, so I picked it up last week.

It is short, only 3 hours. Two hours of it is a transcribed interview between an Italian reporter and the Pope. The last hour is the official statement on the Year of Mercy.

The interview was interesting. The most striking thing for me was how much of the interview revolved around a discussion of sin. I do not internally connect Mercy and Sin, but Pope Francis did.

Part of this is differences in the theology of sin between Catholics and Protestants. I read George Marsden’s biography of the book Mere Christianity right after this and Marsden has a discussion about the difference between Catholic and Protestant theologies of sin that was helpful. My short, and overly simplistic explanation is that for Protestants, the importance of sin is that it separates us from God. So the real issue for Protestants is that we need forgiveness. And Protestants tend to then focus on the permanence of forgiveness.

Catholics of course agree that sin is a separation from God. But they do not stop there. That separation from God does something to harm the sinner, not just the relationship. So Catholic theology focuses much more on the repair and healing of the individual as part of the process of forgiveness. This is part of why there is not only absolution of sin (which most Protestants assume, but do not received as part of a religious act) but also penance. Penance in most Protestant minds is just 10 hail Mary’s and two Our Fathers and done. But the point of penance is healing of the damage of sin. We cannot heal the damage ourselves, but we can participate in the healing by seeking out both penance and working to restore the object of the sin (seek forgiveness from others, pay back what was stolen, repair what was broken, etc.)

So the Year of Mercy as I understand it from this book is more about building relationship with those that are alienated from the Church, because the Pope want to help bring about healing. I think at least in this point, I am probably more Catholic than Protestant.

I listened to this on an audiobook. And I listened to about 20 minutes of the proclamation for the Year of Mercy and gave up. That type of statement doesn’t translate well to audio and I did not think I really needed it anyway. This is not a book I would highly recommend. The interview was interesting, but it was pretty short. If you found this on sale in a used book bin or at the library, it might be worth reading. But certainly not for $10 or $15.

The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis and Andrea Tornielli Purchase Links: 
Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry with Denise George

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99.
Summary: It is important to remember that it was normal every day people, not just civil rights heroes that participated in the Civil Rights movement.

A few weeks ago, my pastor, while talking about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus, mentioned that in seminary in the 1980s one of his professors suggested that within 20 to 30 years, once the survivors of the Holocaust started to die off, people would increasingly question whether the Holocaust actually happened.  And now about 30 years after that professor’s aside we can see that Holocaust deniers are increasing around the world.  My fear is that we will start having a similar denial of Civil Rights horrors.

It is one reason that I think that While the World Watched is an important book.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was a good friend to and the same age as the four girls that died in the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.  She had left the bathroom where the girls died only a minute or so before the bomb went off.

Over the first several chapters, McKinstry slowly tells the story of that morning in short snippits while giving background to her life and community before that day.  I think the method isn’t a bad one, because the reader is picking up the book because of that day.  But in order to really understand the day, we need to have context to understand what was really happening.  So the first four chapters are a little slow in unfolding the overall story.

But once that central story of the book is told, if anything the book becomes even more important.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was just an average 14 year old.  She was born into an educated family (both of her parents and both of her mother’s parents had college degrees). Both of her parents worked with good jobs. But this is a story of an average girl. She did not have a special seat at the Civil Rights movement’s table.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett Book reviewSummary: Tippett shares what she has learned about wisdom and life from her many interviews from her shows On Being and Speaking of Faith.

I have been a fan of Krista Tippett for at least the last 10 years. She is a good interviewer and she has a real interest in pay attention to both socially conscious issues and how religious backgrounds motivate people.

Listening to this as an audiobook, which I think is probably the best method for this particular book, it is hard not to think of it as a clip show. There are so many clips from her interviews in the book that I was a bit distracted at times from the content. (And many of them I remember from when I heard them originally on the show.) But the clips had real meaning and they did build upon one another to make her point. As a professional interviewer, conversation is what she does. It is perfectly natural that much of her learning is coming from people that she is interviewing.

One of the points that I both appreciate about Tippett and slightly concerns me is that she views part of what she is doing and gaining insight into ‘spiritual technologies’. This term, ‘spiritual technologies’, I think is helpful but also significantly problematic. On the one hand, I get the point that we can learn these spiritual technologies across faith lines and it is a helpful way to think about cross religious dialogue. And I think it sort of fits with James KA Smith and others view of spiritual practices.

But spiritual technologies as a descriptor seems reductionist. Her point of talking about becoming wise is that we often are valuing the wrong things, which leads us to place emphasis in the wrong areas of life. By using the word technology, there is a problem with viewing spiritual practices and ideas as primarily about gaining mastery over the spiritual. I wish she had used another term, like the traditional ‘spiritual practices’ or ‘pathway’ or similar term that was focused less on mastery and tool building and more on internal development and process. We do not become wise, we work on the process of becoming wise. Wisdom is not something we confirm on ourselves. It is something that others confirm about us.

But I do appreciate the focus on wisdom. I think we should value wisdom. And many of the people she is interviewing genuinely appear to have gained real wisdom and understanding about life. The interview subjects are not necessarily powerful or well known (although many have some real influence). She confronts the importance of struggle in achieving wisdom. Her background as journalist and diplomat in Eastern Europe before and during the fall of the Berlin Wall give real insight into how struggle works. And how something that no one really predicts, can suddenly just happen.

Table in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost and Found Again by Preston Yancey

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $0.99.
Summary: An early memoir of finding God through the church.

I am not sure when I started following Preston Yancey on twitter. I think it has been in the last year and I think it was because he is part of a group of people that I have been following as they are embracing the Anglican church.

So starting at the end, in fact, only a couple weeks ago, Preston publicly said he is pursuing ordination in the Anglican church. That is the end of the story. The beginning of the story is of a pastor’s kid going to college and ready to save the world. As a freshman, he and his roommate decided to start a church. As much because of their youth and distraction and poor relationship skills as anything else, the church fails within the year.

That failure, which seems to be at least partly hubris, was the start of the lost phase of the book. Life is not simple. What is easy is not always what is right. Growing up is about standing on our own and finding our own way, but often just as much, about realizing that we don’t have to find a new way, the ability to choose what others have also chosen is a way of showing maturity as well.

It is hard for me not to compare this to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  Preston Yancey is young, he is writing a memoir at 25. So there is some of the dumb stuff that every young adult does and regrets. Like Miller, Yancey is breaking away and challenging the ideas and church of his formative years. Yancey is not trying to make his way to God outside of the church, but through the church. This is far healthier and I think increasingly common from my vantage point.

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors: The History of EnglandTakeaway: History is complicated. 

In my continuing quest to understand European history, I picked this up on sale from Audible a while back.

It is the first of a trilogy of books on the history of England. It is a fascinating mix of standard famous men (mostly kings) history with a fair amount of explanation about the living conditions of the standard inhabitant.

England was conquered early and many times. It is the mix of a variety of cultures. There is some very interesting linguistic history mixed in here especially around place names and political offices. It was not until near the end of this history that a king of England actually was a native english speaker (Henry IV around 1300).

Early England was violent and it had more than several despotic rulers that believed that God gave them their rule, so they needed to take advantage of everyone they could. And there were more than a few sincerely devoted kings as well, but life was not always much better for the people.

Demographics were interesting too. England under Roman rule was probably as high as 4 million people. After several rounds of invasion, the 1086 population was estimated to be down to around 2 million. But then grew to around 5 to 6 million by 1300 with a fairly stable government and economy. The Black death several times between 1348 and 1400 until the population was down to about 2.5 million. It wasn’t until around 1600 that the population grew to about 4 million. Smaller plagues and wars continued to happen, but there was not another significant population loss until (not in in this history) the 19th century started a significant migration.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildSummary: 19 Years after the setting of the final defeat of Voldemort, an older Harry Potter and the gang, and their children face a new challenge. 

If you are a Harry Potter fan and have not heard about the new book, you have been probably hiding on a desert island somewhere. There have been lots of reviews floating around and I am not going to write some great one that changes people’s perspective on the book.

I thought it was a solid effort, with clearly evident input from other writers. It is written in a play format (since it is a play.) That is easy enough to get used to. Maybe it was just me getting used to the idea of a new story, but as the play went on, it seemed to find a more traditional Harry Potter voice.

But there was a hint of fan-fiction feel to it. That is not all bad. Fan-fiction can be good. But there is usually just a hint of ‘not quite’ to the story. I can very much see why some have compared it to Rainbow Rowell’s book Carry On. Carry On is a fake fan fiction book that Rowell actually wrote but was initially just part of one of her character’s stories. It is about a fictional series that was clearly influenced by Harry Potter. It feels like the Cursed Child was influenced by a fake fan fiction book that was inspired by the actual Harry Potter and that is a bit odd.

The story primarily concerns Albus (Harry and Ginny Potter’s son) and his best friend Scorpius Malfoy. Albus is in Slytherin and does not get along with his father. When a forbidden time turner is recovered by Harry (head of magical law enforcement), Albus convinces Scorpius to help him steal it and go back and save Cedric.

That is already quite a bit of spoilers. This book has more action by the adults than most of the Harry Potter books. But that makes sense because it is a play and because the readers are really wanting to know what happened to the beloved characters more than their children.

I liked it more at the end than I did at the beginning. And I think I like it more a couple days after I finished it, than I did immediately after I finished. So maybe it is nostalgia that is clouding my brain, but I do think it is worth reading. I am just not sure it is worth running out to purchase. There will be lots of copies in used book stores in the next couple months. There are already 3683 reviews on Amazon and 33% of them are 1 and 2 stars. It really isn’t that bad.

I have one real complaint, but it is spoiler-ish. So stop reading if you don’t want to get any spoilers.


Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah book reviewSummary: A current events focused commentary on the book of Lamentations.

I veer wildly between an honest concern about too much focus on the bad in the world (there is far more good than what is often credited) and a frustration about the lack of concern about the harm that is being ignored by many. I think many more people need to read Bradley Wright’s book Upside about how much about the world has drastically improved recently.
But at the same time I am concerned that many have far too little concern about systemic issues of oppression. Black Lives Matters (whether the broader movement or the organization), systemic problems of the criminal justice system, a rise of nativism or xenophobia, continuing revelations about ongoing racism, sexism, and other bias that impacts real people on a regular and ongoing basis, matters.

And so I picked up Prophetic Lament when I was frustrated with the inability for the Evangelical church in particular (but the larger church as well) to actually embrace lament. Christian Music that is ‘safe for the whole family’ and Christian fiction that seems to only be able to tell happy tales with tidy endings is not particularly faithful example of historic Christian artistry. It is not that we cannot be happy or that we should not consume tidy books or safe music. It is that we should not only consume safe music and tidy books.

The world is not tidy or ‘safe for the whole family’ and neither is scripture. Scripture is decidedly R rated if you don’t skip over hard passages. About 40% of the Psalms (which has historically been the prayer and songbook of the church) are psalms of Lament. A study of hymnbooks in 2012 found that no hymnbook even hit 20% of its songs as lament.

No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley

I am reposting this 2010 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
When you read as much as I do every once in a while you need some palate cleansing. I am a huge fan of pickled ginger, which is always served with sushi and wasabi. Pickled ginger has great taste, but when you finish you do not have an aftertaste, you just have a mildly pleasant feeling in your mouth. The two Christopher Buckley novels I have read, No Way to Tread a First Lady and Supreme Court, are the pickled ginger for my mind.

I enjoy politics. I like watching the weekend political talk shows, although I rarely have time. I often listen to Shields and Brooks podcast from PBS news and the Slate Political Gabfest podcast. My favorite NPR show is Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, a radio equivalent of Christopher Buckley’s political satire. So when I had it up to here with memoirs and other books telling me how wonderful the authors were doing at processing what God has been telling them, I picked up some emergency Christopher Buckley. I am saving the rest of his novels for future need.

No Way to Treat A First Lady is a satirical novel about trying the first lady for killing her husband (the President).  She found him, yet again having an affair. This time the the dalliance was in the Lincoln Bedroom, while she was asleep down the hall. The next morning he is discovered dead in bed and the First Lady is suspected and tried for Presidential Assassination. Buckley does a fabulous job making a trial both boringly realistic and exciting to read about.

Crowned and Dangerous by Rhys Bowen (Her Royal Spyness #10)

Crowned and Dangerous (Her Royal Spyness #10) by Rhys Bowen book reviewSummary: Darcy has decided to take Georgie away so they can elope. But his father is accused of murder and yet again the two them must put aside their own desires out of duty.

Crowned and Dangerous is the tenth book in this cozy mystery series. Georgie is 35th in line to the throne in the late 1930s, put penniless. Darcy is the son of an Irish lord and just as penniless. The pair of them, while trying to survive, continue to solve mysteries and take care of problems for both the royal family and their friends. But they are getting a bit frustrated with propriety keeping them from getting married. So Darcy decides to whisk Georgie away to get married and worry about propriety later. As is normal in the series, a problem happens and they are prevented.

Darcy’s father is accused of murder, so Darcy goes away to support his emotionally distant and unlikable father. And because the situation looks grim, attempts to break things off with Georgie so that her (and the royal family) will not be associated with the crime. Georgie flutters around a bit before going to him.

Crowned and Dangerous corrects several of the problems that have been going on in the series for a while. Queenie, Georgie’s incompetent maid, is mostly out of the book and by the end seems to have mostly stopped being a punch line and allowed to be a real person. Georgie mostly stops worrying about Darcy’s past and whether he really loves her or not. There is not a lot of whining in the book.