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What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne RobinsonSummary: More essays to explore history, science and politics from a serious Christian.

I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson. I have read all but one of her novels, and to be honest the reason I haven’t read the last is that I don’t want to have read all of her novels. But I have read Gilead twice and the most recent, and my favorite, Lila, three times. I have also read two of her previous collections of essays. I am more mixed on her essays. I had decided not to read Robinson’s most recent until I read James KA Smith’s review in Comment. His review is such a good example of what a review is supposed to be, and such an interesting comparison between Ta’Nehisi Coates and Robinson that I picked up the audiobook the same day.

But regardless of the praise from Smith, the problems I have with Robinson’s What We Are Doing Here is still the same basic problems I have with Robinson’s other essays. She is an incredible writer. Although the essays here, which were mostly talks given over the past two years edited together into a book, have an odd sort of repetition. She literally quotes the same quotes and cites the same ideas multiple times. Individually, I think most of them are great. But put together, they are somehow less than the individual parts.

Robinson is known as a writer. But her interests mean that she is writing about things that are outside of her academic background. She is fascinated by Puritans and Jonathan Edwards and how we talk and think about science and politics. She is clearly much smarter than I am and so I love being able to listen to her musings about things that I would not have ever considered apart from her. I really do love how wide ranging of a thinker she is. At one point she is talking about another author writing outside of their main field and quips that she isn’t going to complain about that since she frequently does the same thing.

The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians by Frederica Mathewes-GreenSummary: Short explanation of historic Orthodoxy’s understanding of Christianity.

Real life often gets in the road of, or impacts my reading. I am a stay at home Dad, so I often have my reading interrupted by toddlers. I listened to a lot of audiobook with somewhat partial attention while I supervise my children at the park. Last Thursday, I listened to all of this short book while having a crown put in. I thought I had an old filling come out. And wasn’t really prepared to hear that it was the tooth that was cracked (right next to a filling). So on and off over a 3.5 hour period, I listened to this 2 hour audiobook. It isn’t really possible to listen to an audiobook (at least with the headphones I had) while they were drilling my tooth.

But I immediately thought of James KA Smith’s thoughts on the importance of bodily practice as I listened to the opening chapter. Mathewes-Green described part of the historic importance of Orthodoxy as taking seriously the body.

I have read or listened to several books by Mathewes-Green about Orthodoxy. Her background as a Protestant before converting to Orthodoxy makes her an important link to helping Protestants like myself understand an important, but culturally different, stream of Christianity.

Like Thomas Oden, Mathewes-Green, makes the argument that the historic practices of the church should be the root of our modern practices of faith. While Oden mostly attempted to bring modern Protestantism an awareness of historic theology and practice, Mathewes-Green actually moved into a stream that still practices a liturgy that is largely unchanged from early centuries.

I really do appreciate hearing about this bias toward ancient Christianity. I think it is important. But I also have not been convinced that our Christianity should be still be practicing a largely ancient liturgy as Orthodoxy is. I think the ancient theology and practice should be biased, but that we need the ability to culturally reinterpret that liturgical imagery when necessary. The bias should be ancient, but not fixed.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood by Flannery O'ConnorSummary: A 22 year old veteran,comes to the city since his only remaining relative (his mother) died and the country home is falling apart.

One of my reading projects for the year is to read all of O’Connor’s fiction. I have read A Good Man is Hard to Find several years ago. But I knew I wasn’t really getting all of the meaning of the short stories. One of the reasons I want to read O’Connor is because I am looking for books that require a bit of struggle. Not because difficult books are ‘better’ because they are difficult. But because books that require something of the reader use different intellectual muscles than those that are laid out more clearly. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction. Books that while they may be academically difficult, are not intended to have layered shades of meaning. Fiction and poetry does often have layers and I am trying to work on some of those intellectual muscles.

Last year I picked up the short biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy and I am currently reading A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. Previously I also read O’Connor’s graduate school Prayer Journal.

A Subversive Gospel is one of those books that I want to read more of, an interpretive guide. It is not a biography, although it has biographical details, it is about O’Connor’s writing, theology and philosophy. (It is also a reworked dissertation.) A Subversive Gospel has been very helpful at understanding O’Connor and their vision of writing so that I can understand the books later. But I was nearly 75% of the way through A Subversive Gospel and I have not read one of the novels, so I quickly listened to Wise Blood, not so much for the story, but to get a sense of what her novels felt like before I finished A Subversive Gospel.

One of O’Connor’s most quoted phrases about her writing is, “…to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” This is very similar to what James KA Smith says he is doing in his attempts at being an alien anthropologist that is exploring the mall and the ball park to understand what cultural liturgies are driving those spaces.

“…my goal is to try to make strange what is so familiar to us precisely in order to help us see what is at stake in formative practices that are part of the mall experience.(p23 of Desiring the Kingdom)

Wise Blood is not a standard country boy comes to the big city story with standard middle of the 20th century characters. First of all, I listened to the audiobook, but it was one I did not leave running when litter ears were around like I often do. This is full of crude ugly language, swearing and derogatory comments. But lots of books that are not classics have bad language. (And there is a real beauty to the language even when it is crude.)

Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor

Our Secular Age: Ten years of Reading and Applying Charles TaylorSummary: A collection of essays about Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

At some point I will read A Secular Age. But frankly, the 900 page tome is far down my reading list. But this is at least the fourth book that I have read that is largely about A Secular Age. So now I have read about as many pages about a book as the book itself.

James KA Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular and Joustra and Wilkinson’s How To Survive the Apocalypse are both excellent introductions to Charles Taylor’s book. Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch is a riff off of Taylor’s books, but not really directly about it. But more of an application of A Secular Age while looking at the concept of Satan. And now Our Secular Age is a series of essays put together by The Gospel Coalition that have been influenced by Taylor.

Any collection like this is uneven. But there are a number of helpful essays, even though I wanted to argue with a few of them. My problem is that I still have not read the original Taylor, so I am not sure if my impression of Taylor is accurate enough to adequately argue for or against the critiques here. Personally, I think John Starke’s chapter Preaching to the Secular Age and Brett McCracken’s Church Shopping With Charles Taylor were the two most helpful for me. Although I argued in my head with McCracken’s chapter virtually the entire time.

Alan Noble’s chapter, The Disruptive Witness of Art, is really an argument for the existence of the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture. (Which he helped to found and which I am a big fan of.) It is not a new argument to me, but I think it is an important argument. Art is evangelism and discipleship in light of the Secular Age.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan JacobsSummary: How to think is as much art as science, but it needs to become habit to make a difference

Alan Jacobs is one of my favorite essayists. He was a professor at Wheaton when I was there (although I never had him). He is now a professor at Baylor. I have read a number of his books, from a biography on CS Lewis, to several collections of essays, to a history of the Book of Common Prayer, my favorite book on reading , a cultural history of the concept of Original Sin, and now How to Think.

I wasn’t completely sure what I was getting into when I picked this up yesterday morning (it released yesterday). Jacobs is one of the authors I pre-order. But especially if he was writing something about how to think, I wanted to read it.

This is sort of like A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (or Letters to a Young Calvinist or one of the many other similar short books). How to Think is a book of advice written with the clear intention of helping the reader. Jacobs has taught Literature and Composition for more than 30 years. Helping people to think and write and communicate has been the job of English Professors more than professors in most other subject areas.

Jacobs starts by taking us down a peg or two. We are not as original as we think. We are not as good at evaluating ideas as we think we are. We, like everyone else, have confirmation bias and mental short cuts and sloppy habits. We also probably don’t really listen all that well.

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journal #3)

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journal #3)Summary: More wisdom, riffing off of the liturgical year or the Irrational Season.

The Crosswick Journals are hard to describe. Each of the three that I have read has been very different. But the central reason for reading them is the same, wisdom.

The first was mostly about writing and family and calling and art. But there was lots more to it than those ideas. The second was mostly about family history, especially Madeleine L’Engle’s Mother, who was dying during the period being written about. The third, Irrational Season is even more hodgepodge than the first two. But there is a theme of the liturgical year, while not strictly focused on, does bring some organization.

One feature that is new in The Irrational Season is a lot of L’Engle’s original poetry. I am not a particular fan of poetry. I understand the appeal. But I also do not want to put in the time. Poetry doesn’t work if you skim it. Poetry requires slow and repeated work. I don’t like giving books slow and repeated work. I like reading quickly and absorbing what I can and then maybe reading again a while later and absorbing some more.

How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Jourstra and Alissa Wilkinson

Book Review: How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the WorldSummary: An exploration of how the stories that Movies and TV tell us teach us about what it means to be human in a secular world. (With lots of reference to Charles Taylor)

I have referenced the web magazine Christ and Pop Culture a number of times over the past couple years that I have been a subscriber. I am going to do it yet again. Alissa Wilkinson is a movie critic at Vox (formerly at Christianity Today) and a professor of English and Humanities at King’s College in New York City. She also is a member of the CAPC private Facebook group and I have learned a ton about good criticism from reading her movie reviews and other writing.

After my recent Great Course exploration of modern Philosophy I decided to pick up How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Faith and Politics at the End of the World. The title may not really describe it well, but this a perfect example of why the magazine Christ and Pop Culture exists.

Christianity can sometimes ignore the importance of stories, in spite of the fact that Jesus (and the bible) seem to have primarily taught through stories. The Great Courses lecture on modern philosophy was occationally hard to track because it did not ground the philosophy enough in experiential examples so that the listener could understand why a particular philosophical idea mattered.

Wilkinson and her co-writer Robert Joustra have grounded their discussion of philosophy in the recent TV and movie obsession with the apocalypse and dystopian stories. Long explorations of Battlestar Galactica, the Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and a number of other shows give context to philosophy so that the reader can understand not only the philosophy being explored but also can understand how good media criticism can give insights into the stories in a way that isn’t possible with just casual watching.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

Book Review The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod DreherTakeaway: A better book than I really want it to be, but fundamentally flawed as conceived.

There have been so many good reviews and helpful critiques of The Benedict Option that I know I am not going to bring anything new to the discussion. But this is the internet and so I am going to critique it anyway.

Andy Crouch has a post about the problem of the reaction to the Benedict Option is that 90% of the complaints are about 20% of the book (increasing social and cultural hostility to the church). While 80% of the book is devoted to the problems of a lack of meaningful discipleship and how that is causing a collapse of Christian belief and practice and only 10% of the buzz about the book is reacting to that much bigger claim. This is largely true. The problem is that the 20% that is getting the strongly negative reaction fundamentally sets the stage for the 80% of the book that I think is more important. Because the assumptions are wrong, I believe the answers given are then wrong, or at least fundamentally flawed.

It is hard to completely describe what the Benedict Option is. Because after 10 years of Dreher writing about it, he still seems to say that the project as described by almost anyone else other than himself misses his point. At the very least, the Benedict Option is a means of refocusing the church on discipling the young (in both age and Christian maturity) so that they can better stand up to the cultural currents of the age that seek to unmoor Christians from true (small o) orthodox faith.

There is much to agree with in that minimal description of the purpose of the book. Every age needs to pay attention to the particular problems of the age that pulls at the church and attempts to harm the soul of the church. The problem with the Benedict Option as conceived is that he both thinks that our current age has more particular problems to unmoor the church from Christ and that he identifies threats posed by same sex marriage and acceptance as the central part of that threat (as opposed to what I think are probably more important threats like consumerism, individualism, racism and dismissal of the other, etc.).

James KA Smith particularly has called out Dreher for his alarmism. And after initially complaining about the attack, Dreher embraced the label during his book release panel discussion (which is worth watching if you have 2 hours.) The problem is that the alarmism is overblown, even if Dreher thinks he is a voice shouting into the void, I am completely turned off by quotes like this,

“The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America.”

Best Books I Read in 2016

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.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Summary: A series of essays that shows why short form writing is still worth reading.

I am a sucker for a free book. A couple years ago, Audible gave away a the title essay of this book as a Christmas present to its members. That was the first time I had read anything by Ann Patchett. You can read that original review on Since then I have been interested in Patchett’s writing. I loved Bel Canto and I have been wanting to pick this complete volume up for a while.

Like most of my recent reading, I listened to the audiobook, with Patchett narrating.

Patchett starts the book with an introduction about how as a young novelist, she had to make a living. She tried a variety of jobs, which left her too tired to write, and a then teaching, which left her creatively drained. So she became a freelance essayist for a variety of magazines, starting with 17 and working her way up to the New York Times.

The introduction and several very good essays about advice for writers or her writing life, or the state of books that lead to her becoming co-owner of an independent bookstore were probably my favorite, in spite of the fact that I have never considered myself a writer nor do I aspire to become one in the future. But I am interested in the creative process and Patchett is unabashed in her advice and not afraid to talk about the areas that she thinks she has done well or done poorly.