Takeaway: Culture matters. Culture needs cultivation. Beauty is central to combating utilitarian theology.
Makoto Fujimura is a gift to the church. He is now on my must read list. I do not particularly need to be convinced of the basic argument in Culture Care, culture matters. But the framing of culture in similar terms to environmental care I think makes a lot of sense in helping the reader to understand that culture is neither static nor inherently good or bad.
Culture is cultivated and if we want a culture that reflects truth and beauty need to have Christians that understand truth and beauty creating to influence culture. Fujimura starts with the assumption that Christians should be interacting with culture and creating. He is not particularly interested in creating culture where Christian is used as an adjective (Christian music, Christian movies, etc.).
Summary: Thoughts on faith, art, Japan and the novel Silence.
Despite the movie Silence bombing at the box office (I didn’t have a chance to see it before it was gone), critics have mostly given positive reviews. And that seems to be similar to what I have heard from people that seen the movie. There were many that have previously read the book and have looked forward to the movie for years. But more than a few did not like the movie or the basic theme of the book. Bishop Barron, who regularly reviews movies as part of his video podcast and who I have usually found very sympathetic to attempts to portray faith in popular culture media really did not like it.
But I can’t help but feel like there is something missing in between those that have been raving about it and those that suggest it is missing between those that really like the film and those that are suggesting it is only marginally Christian theologically.
There is a pretty good discussion between Fujimura, Martin Scorsese and Kutter Callaway at Fuller Seminary. When I hear Scorsese talk about his intent behind the film or Fujimura’s discussion in Beauty and Silence or his many other places, it seems to be exactly the type of art that Christians need to be making. It has hard questions, no particularly easy or pat answers and it is technically superb.
I am reposting this review from earlier this year because the Kindle Edition has dropped to $6.99. I am planning on re-reading this in December in prepreation for the movie, which will be released in limited release in December and wide release in January. If you have not read about the movie this is a good article from New York Magazine. Summary: Silence and Beauty is a profound reflection on the book Silence by Shusaku Endo, the role of art and beauty in Christianity, and a reflection of the impact of Christianity on the culture of Japan.
Silence byShusaku Endo is one of those books that is not easily forgotten. I read it a couple years ago and I rarely go more than a couple weeks without referencing it.
Makoto Fujimura is a very well known artist, famous in many Evangelical circles for being a famous artist that is well known outside of Christian circles. Fujimura grew up in the US, but after college was accepted into a Japanese graduate program to study art. The first student to ever be accepted into this graduate program that did not grow up through the Japanese national art system. Fujimura became a Christian while studying art in Japan, a country with a very few Christians.
Silence and Beauty is fascinating. It opens with a bit is spiritual memoir. Fujimura details how Shusaku Endo and his book Silence impacted his early faith. And unsurprisingly there is a long exploration of both Endo and his book Silence (as well as some of Endo’s other books.) That is done in the context of a rich sociological and historical study of Japan. And all of that is wrapped up in a defense of beauty and art as essential to Christianity. (I was reminded at times of of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic and Brian Zhand’s Beauty Will Save the World.)
Summary: A brief introduction to what beauty is, why it is important and why we need to understand it.
I listened to this on audiobook, which was fine, but may not have been the best choice. While this is part of the Very Short Introduction series, it is still a book that is ultimately philosophy. About 2/3 of the way through I picked up the kindle edition, both because I know I need to re-read the book, but also because Scruton was referencing a number of paintings and many of those are in the Kindle edition.
The pictures are black and white even in the kindle version, so the reader cannot really get a full sense of what is being shown, which does matter for a discussion of the artistry and beauty of the paintings, but it at least is a reference.
I have been wanting to read more about beauty for a while and consistently when I look around, Scruton’s book Beauty is recommended as one of the best introductions. The Very Short Introduction series is very uneven, but Beauty is an example of what all of the books should be like. He is not avoiding discussion of the academics, but the point of the book is to talk about the actual subject. A number of the other Very Short Introduction books I have read have been about the academic study of the subject, not the actual subject. I do not really want to read about what academics have argued about over African History, I actually wanted to understand something about African History.
I am ambivalent about posting a best of 2017 list. My books are not, for the most part books that were published in 2017. And what is best, or most important for me, is unlikely to be the best for anyone else. So this is a recounting of what is important, but not really what was ‘best’. I would probably come up with a slightly different list on a different day. Overall I read 101 books in 2017, roughly two-thirds were non-fiction.
Two rough themes emerge as I looked back on the year. One is an exploration of race and history in the United States and the other is a seeking out of wisdom in memoirs.
The memoirs are far easier to look at. Madeleine L’Engle, over a 20 year period wrote four memoirs that are together called the Crosswick Journals. They will be books that I read again in the future. I have appreciated L’Engle as a great young adult author, but I had not really explored the range of her writing. Many of her books have been out of print and over the past year have been reissued in ebook versions. It is because of these new editions that I stumbled across the Crosswick Journals.
They start with A Circle of Quiet, which is roughly about creativity, writing, family, and seeking wisdom from life. The second, The Summer of the Great Grandmother, is her memories of her life that are brought about by the dying of her mother. The third, The Irrational Season, is a riff off of the liturgical year and what that structure has brought to her life. The last, Two Part Invention, is about her husband and their life together as he grew sick and eventually passed away. I also read three of her fiction books. The best of which I think was A Live Coal in the Sea, but none of which I think were among her best books.
The other two memoirs that were worth reading are Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura, which yes, was on last year’s list of most important books. But I read it again and then read his Culture Care, which is also worth reading. Fujimura’s focus on what art and culture bring to life and faith are important. And it is largely because of his work that I want to read more about the concept of beauty this next year.
The other memoir that was worth reading is Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child. Part of what is important in this memoir is the reminder that as much as a person may be doing important things or thinking great thoughts, they are still human and still likely have regular human failings and problems. Hauerwas’ long marriage to a severely mentally ill wife had an impact on this theology and work in both positive and negative ways. But without a memoir or some other writing by him about it, only gossip or maybe a future biography would prompt me to remember how much brokenness is part of our life as Christians in the same way. (This is still on sale for $1.99 on kindle.)
Ta’Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power fit well with the previous books, but it is a series of essays that I had mostly previously read. So it was the introductions to those essays about why they were important and why he wrote them that were more interesting to me.
Coates is clearly an atheist and is famously not particularly hopeful about racial issues in the US. It is an interesting pairing to have read Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, who was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr and who did a lot of the background theology that gave rise to the Civil Rights era. I have picked up Thurman’s memoir and I will read that this year. Thurman’s books also was an interesting pairing with James H Cone’s memoir My Soul Looks Back. Cone and Thurman are in quite different places theologically, but have quite a bit of overlap in the diagnosis of the problem. The black authors I read this year were born in 1899 (Thurman), 1924 (Baldwin), 1936 (Cone), 1944 (Alice Walker), 1945 (John Perkins), 1957 (James McBride), 1958 (Dyson), 1969 (Colson Whitehead) and 1975 (Coates). That 76 year spread is interesting because of what seems to be similar and what changed.
Part of what I know is important is to keep listing to different voices. No one person can be the voice of a race. I did not read a lot of minority women (Color Purple and Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ I think were the only books I read by minority women this year.) I also did not read much by non-black voices about racial issues. Although Aliens in the Promise Land as a book of essays was excellent about including a range of voices beyond the standard Black minority voice. And Still Evangelical, which won’t be published until later this month also had several Asian voices talking about racial issues within the Evangelical church world.
The two books that I haven’t yet mentioned but I think need to be at least quickly referenced are: How to Survive the Apocalypse, which was an excellent book about theology and philosophy using pop culture as a teaching tool. And Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch about the need for the theological left to embrace the concept of Satan was well worth reading. Both of these books talked about Charles Taylor a good bit and at some point I will get around to reading Taylor.
I didn’t read much fiction this year that I was blown away with. Color Purple was very well written and very difficult to read. I thought Underground Railroad was worth reading in context of my other reading but I thought was too much of a concept book that didn’t quite live up to its hype. The latest of the Inspector Gamache books, Glass Houses, is among the best of the series, which is impressive for a series that has 14 books. The two Binti books, the novella Binti and the longer novel Home were refreshingly original. And I look forward to reading the conclusion of the trilogy that comes out in a couple weeks.
2018 Reading Goals
I am not much of a goal setter. My reading is usually focused on whatever happens to catch my eye right now. But I have tended to set some rough goals most years. I have four goals this year. I am a bit over half way through Subversive Gospel about Flannery O’Connor. And because of that and the biography of her I read a couple weeks ago I want to read the two novels and the rest of the short stories that I have not previously read.
My second goal is to work toward finishing a couple of author’s books. There are two novels of Octavia Butler that I have not yet read. I am not sure I will ever read all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, but I want to read at least three more L’Engle books and at least three more of James Baldwin’s books. I have not yet read any of his fiction. So at least two of those I want to be fiction.
My third goals is to continue to explore racial issues and history and expand my reading to include more women and additional voices that I have not yet read.
The final goal is to read some formal books on the concept of Beauty in Christian theology. If anyone has some suggestions in that area I would love to hear them.
I have a goal every year of reading more fiction. But I tend to not read as much fiction as I want to because I get lost in the information. But fiction, in part because of its ability to communicate beauty is important and I hope I will move closer to even ratio of fiction to non-fiction this year.
Summary: Good overview of the how and why of Spiritual direction.
I am a bit unsure how to proceed with my blogging about books about spiritual direction. I have been going to a Spiritual Director for the past four years and I have mentioned it a couple times in other book reviews.
Over the past couple months I have been considering the possibility of formal training to become a spiritual director. I have not made a decision one way or another. But I have committed to reading more about spiritual direction (because that is how I process), praying about it, and seeking out advice from people around me that I trust.
As part of the reading more about Spiritual Direction I am going to be reading a number of books about spiritual direction over the next 6-8 months until it is time for me to actually apply to a program. I am not sure if I am going to blog through these books or not.
The Practice of Spiritual Direction is a classic book on spiritual direction originally written in 1982. The authors are both Catholic, but it is very ecumenical in tone (at least the 2009 edition that I read.) The first couple chapters are rough descriptions of what spiritual direct is and is not. There are some definitions that are stricter and some that are looser, but roughly the spiritual direction here is understood as, ‘helping a person directly with his or her relationship with God.’
Summary: Racism and injustice have to be important to Christians if our faith is relevant to relationships on this side of heaven.
Race, Injustice, Privilege and related ideas are common discussions in the political world. And that is part of the problem with discussing them inside the Christian church. Quite often our understanding of issues that have any relationship to politics are based more on our political bias and background than our Christianity. It is not that our Christianity is unimportant to our politics, but our politics matters to what we think is important within Christianity.
Ken Wytsma has a very clear purpose in writing. He is a White pastor writing primarily to White Christians about race and inequality. He is doing that because he thinks that at least some readers will listen to him in ways that they have not been listening to minority Christians talk about race and inequality.
Section one is mostly a summary of history and illustrations of why inequality exists. It is a very good summary of a numbers of issues, from government involvement in housing segregation and inequality to the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating inequality to migration patters since the civil war. Inequality is a vast and complex matter.
Wytsma is summarizing the work of others here. In a short section he can’t give the depth that books like Warmth of Other Suns or Slavery by Another Name or New Jim Crow or the host of other in books that have the space to look deeply at different aspects of history, race, inequality and injustice. As a summary, this section is one of the better looks at the variety of ways that inequality has come to be in place in just a few pages.
This is my annual best of 2016 list. (Way late I know.) This is my list of the books that at the end of the year I still think about. They are not all from 2016 (most are not) and they may not be the ‘best’ books that I have read. Some years my best list has been more heavily fiction oriented. And some years I have split it up into a fiction list and a non-fiction list. But this year I am going to keep it all together (fiction is at the bottom). This is my list, roughly in order. I am not sure how you really compare books of widely different genres. So think of it as an approximation.
Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura The new Martin Scorsesee movie Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo goes into wide release next weekend. You theoretically have time to read the original Endo novel and then this book, which is Fujimura’s reflection on the novel and his reflections his and Endo’s Christian faith and the culture of Japan. Silence is not for the faint of heart. It is a novel about Christians that renounce their faith in the face of persecution. I think it is an important book and I think Fujimura’s book is the best book I have read this year. I am in the middle of re-reading it right now.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah is the most unexpected book on the list. I have liked Noah when I watched The Daily Show, but I don’t watch it often. And I tend to not pick up many celebrity memoirs, so if this has not been offered for free on audiobook I would not have picked it up. But it is very well written and a fascinating look at a culture and country that I do not know much about. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa is not a particularly funny subject. But Noah handle it with humility, appropriate weight for the subjects and with lots of humor. I will pre-order anything else that he writes.
The March Trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with illustrator Nate Powell deserves it accolades (National Book Award and Goodreads Graphic Novel of the Year among others.) I have read a number of comic book/graphic novels this year. I have become acquainted with Seth Hahne who is behind the Goodokbad blog. He has shown me that there is so much more than traditional superhero or Manga. A lot of history is particularly well suited to graphic novel format. And the story of the Civil Rights movement through the biography of John Lewis, hits all the right notes.
Another very good graphic novel is Vision by Tom King. Vision is a member of the Avengers, but this is more a comic book about his family and what it means to love in difficult situations than about superheroes.
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes was my light pick of the year. I tend toward heavy fiction and lots of non-fiction. But I can’t only read those. I need funny books and lighters books as well. I am a huge fan of the Princess Bride movie and book. But I had not picked it up until it was on sale several years after I heard about it. This is a book that should be listened to. Elwes is not only an excellent narrator, who does great impressions of the other stars in the movie, but many of the others involved in the movie participated in reading their sections of the book as well.
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soon-Chan Rah is the best biblical book I read this year. It is both a commentary on the book of Lamentations and a call to bring the concept of lamentations back to Evangelical worship and a commentary on how Christians should think about social issues. Soon-Chan Rah is a former pastor/church planter and now a professor at Northpark Seminary. He is a prime example of why we need more diversity not only in our seminaries, but in our reading and thinking about scripture as well. Diversity is not simply about making minority Christians feel represented but about becoming the whole body of Christ. Also related and worth reading is The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones. It is a book about demographics and polling more than theology, but it just serves to reenforce the need for a more diverse understanding of the church.
Summary: A 17th missionary from Portugal to Japan recounts the persecution of Christians and his own crisis of faith.
This is the year of Silence. First, I read Makoto Fujimura’s excellent book about his own journey with the book Silence and his coming to faith in Japan. It is still top on my list for the best non-fiction book I have read this year. I still plan to read it again before the end of the year.
And while it has been pushed back a little, the new movie directed by Martin Scorsese will have a limited release in December with a wider release in January 2017. My college alma mater (Wheaton College) has chosen Silence as part of a new general ed curriculum for all Freshman to read and hosted a conference on the book with Makoto Fujimura last week. I am hoping the conference sessions will be online at some point.
I purchased the paperback to re-read (there is not a kindle edition available) and after losing the paperback twice, I went back to the audiobook for my second reading.
I am not sure what to add about the book from my first reading. My only thoughts that are not in the original review are related to the growing discussion about the persecution of the church in the US (if persecution is the right word) and the idea of the Benedict Option as popularized by Rod Dreher. I am not sure that I fully understand Dreher’s concept of becoming disciplining communities. But I think a discussion about how Christians act in the face of the retreat of Western Christendom should interact with real stories of persecution from the global church. (This is the review of Dreher’s book on the Benedict Option that I added later.)
Summary: Story of four Japanese tourists on a trip to India and the Ganges River.
I picked up Deep River on sale from Audible a while ago but it did not listen to it up until Beauty and Silence by Makoto Fujimura was about to be released (reading Beauty and Silence now).
Even though I read Endo’s more well known Silence over two years ago, it is a book I still frequently think about. I wanted another book to give more context to Endo’s work because Beauty and Silence is largely based on Fujimura’s interaction with Endo. There are only three of Endo’s books available as audiobooks and only 3 other books available on kindle. Late 20th century authors often did not negotiate digital book rights and their estates seem to be slow to re-negotiate. I am hoping that the Martin Scorsese movie of Silence (expected to release in Nov) will bring out new editions of all of Endo’s books.
Deep River is not an easy book to describe. There are four interconnected story lines. The reader gets a brief introduction to the India tour before the separate back stories. I was bogged down about a quarter of the way through the book and set it aside for about six weeks before returning to it. The initial background stories are full of hard to like people. This is part of the set up for what might be transition and growth later in the book, but I really do not like reading about unlikable people.
These are four very different stories. One disconnected ‘modern’ Japanese woman that is happy to take advantage of sex starved men. One man the other end of life who has missed much of his life until his wife dies and he realizes what is gone. One veteran of WWII that is still suffering the effects of war (this is set in the 1980s). And a final man who’s sickness has left him isolated and lonely.