On the Incarnation by Athanasius with introduction by CS Lewis

On the Incarnation by Athanasius with introduction by CS LewisTakeaway: The intro by CS Lewis is worth the cost of the book. But the rest proves his point.

CS Lewis is known for advocating the reading of old books. And while he put that in print in a couple of places. The best known of these is his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

He advocates not only the reading of old books, which he advocates not because they are better, but because they have a different set up biases and blind spots. And when I read Athanasius I did run up against some of those blind spots, like this quote:

Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. (my emphasis, On the Incarnation, Location 731 in Kindle)

But most of what is here is clear presentation of ancient understanding of the importance of Christ’s bodily incarnation, his life on earth and his physical death and physical resurrection. I would not support every positions, nor would I support every position of any modern author either. But there really is something important to reading directly.

I am going to have a long quote from Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation. One that is emphasizing a different point than old having different biases.

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 first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand 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. (On the Incarnation Location 32 in Kindle)

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequist

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequis

Summary: A realignment from attendance based worship to participatory Christianity.

I was both interested in reading the Eternal Current and hesitant to read it. In some ways I feel like I have been on a similar journey as Aaron Niequist. I have been following him for years on social media and through his wife’s (Shauna Niequist) writing. We have different places in the Church (he is a worship leader and musician and church leaders, I am a stay at home Dad). As I have watched his work with The Practice and read an occasional article or interview or heard about him from some mutual acquaintances, it has felt like we have been moving in similar directions.

As I read The Eternal Current, it is clear we have also been reading similar books. NT Wright, James KA Smith, Scot McKnight, Eugene Peterson, along with lots on Catholic, Orthodox and historic Christian authors. We both started spiritual direction about 5 years ago. We both attend megachurches that we are reluctant to leave, but also do not find completely fulfilling.

Aaron Niequist led a project of Willow Creek Community Church, The Practice, for several years. It was a project that was attempting to put into place a more liturgically informed and historically aware practice of Christianity. Willow has been oriented toward reaching non-Christians for the past 30-40 years. But it has also been aware for at least the last 10-15 years how it has been weak at developing people as Christians. Aaron, based on his passion, and probably at least a bit on his relationship as the son in law of Bill Hybels, started a worship setting that was focused on spiritual development in a historical and liturgical mode.

I cannot really review this book without commenting on Bill Hybel’s status as the former pastor of Willow Creek. Yet another article came out about Hybel’s sexual harassment of a staff member at Willow on Sunday. That makes at least 10 women that have publicly accused Hybel’s of sexual harassment. In addition to the article on Sunday, the head teaching pastor at Willow, which moved into place early because of Hybel’s resignation, himself resigned abruptly Sunday. He had asked to resign earlier because of differences of opinion on how to deal with the allegations against Hybel between himself and other leaders, but after the NYT article on Sunday, he did not show up at church, it was announced that he was sick and then Carter released a statement later in the day.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch #1)

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch #1)Summary: An outcast finds out yet another reason for her to be outcast.

Akata Witch is the fourth book by Nnedi Okorafor that I have read in about 18 months and I will keep reading Okorafor’s books. I started Akata Witch immediately after finishing The White Thread, the third book in the contemporary young adult fantasy series Gateway Chronicles. The two  are very different settings, characters and styles, but both worth reading.

Nnedi Okorafor is a writing professor at University of Buffalo. She is exactly one year younger than I am. Her parents came to the US from Nigeria for school. Okorafor was born in the US but moved back and forth between Nigeria and the US as a child and teen. According to Wikipedia, Okorafor was diagnosed with scoliosis at 13 and at 19, due to a rare complication, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. It was during this time of paralysis that she started writing. She eventually went on to get a Masters in Journalism and a Masters and PhD in English Literature.

Okorafor and several others, primarily women authors, have become known for writing science fiction and fantasy from a distinctly African or Caribbean perspective. I have not read widely in this area yet, but American Street and Akata Witch certainly are examples of Magical Realism in modern Fantasy and come from a distinctly non-US/European cultural perspective.

The White Thread by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicles #3)

The White Thread by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicles #3)Summary: The last book ended in tragedy. Now Darcy, and the others want to fix their error.

The problem with reviewing a series is that the longer into the series, the harder it is to discuss the book without giving away important plot points from earlier books that are essential to the describing the story for the later books.

I am going to still be vague here, but I may give up on that by the next book. My short version review is that I have very much enjoyed this series so far and I stayed up until 2 AM earlier this week to finish up The White Thread.

KB Hoyle continues to play with young adult fantasy conventions and leave a ton of references to other books for the readers that are probably a bit older and more widely read. The White Thread is ultimately a quest book like most fantasy stories. But in that quest there is a clear reference to the third Narnia book as well as the Odyssey and other quests. As some point I want to ask the author if she is dropping in these references intentionally to lead the reader somewhere or if she is writing the story and some of the reference sneak in initially and she just goes with it. I would guess that these are pretty intentional. But I have read plenty of interviews with authors that have suggested that many of the references that others read into their books were not put there by them. (In response to this review, KB Hoyle and I had a good conversation about references and allusions in writing. I am adding a paragraph at the end of the review because of that conversation.)

At the end of The Oracle, Darcy was forced to pay a price for the answer to her question, that price was significant. She spent the whole year at home trying to figure out how she might solve the problem. But there are two other problems that develop at home. First at the end of the Oracle, the boy at camp that knows about the magical world, but is not with The Six because he appears to be a supporter of the evil ruler disappears. Darcy gains a new level of empathy for him because she observes his father beating him.

The Oracle by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicles #2)

The Oracle by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicles #2)Summary: Does the prophecy (which says that the six will overcome the evil) really mean what it seems to mean.

Young Adult fantasy is a popular category for both adults and teens/pre-teens. It is common to ridicule it, but there is something comforting about YA Fantasy. As I have thought about it previously, and written before, part of what is different the last couple decades in the Fantasy world is that clear separation between good and evil is no long popular. It is not that older fantasy writers like Tolkien or Lewis made all of their characters one dimensional or perfect, but that even in showing the weaknesses of Edmund in the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe or Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, there was a sense of the weaknesses and wrongness of decisions were character defects and things to be overcome or repented for or at the least, part of the reason for the necessity of a balanced group.

Much, but not all, of modern adult oriented fantasy like Lev Grossman’s Magician series or VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic have blurred the lines between good and evil. There are good reasons for that, you need conflict, and you have to push boundaries in genre fiction because even though conventions exist, flaunting them is one way to get noticed. YA fiction then tends to be one of the places that adults can return to for a clearer sense what it means to fight evil.

In the second book of the Gateway Chronicles, the six return to the fantasy world of Alitheia. Evil was pushed back at the end of the last book, but not defeated. The six are all excited to return, but Darcy, the main protagonist, is uncomfortable with the prophecy that has foretold her marriage to Prince Tellius. Tellius is just as uncomfortable with the idea and Darcy starts to understand how knowing of the prophecy from birth has impacted Tellius’ life.

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships by Suzanne Stabile

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships by Suzanne StabileSummary: An orientation to the Enneagram focused on relationships.

The Path Between us is my third book on the enneagram this year. I have been skeptical about the enneagram, but the more I read the more I can see the value of the enneagram as a framework for understanding both yourself and others.

In the end personality tests and psychological models are not really for navel gazing, but for assisting us to become a better people and to related to others better. The Path Between Us has roughly the same summary of the enneagram as The Sacred Enneagram and Mirror for the Soul, but the focus of the three is quite different and I think while not the most introductory, The Path Between us has the right focus of helping the reader related to others well.

Each of the chapters has the same basic format, a description of each of the numbers of the enneagram and several illustrations and quotes about that number. Then a description of how that number relates to other people of different numbers and the same number. There are notes about what numbers work together well and how to overcome common problems between numbers.

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA Smith

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA SmithTakeaway: Skip the audio and do this book in print.

Four years ago, I was very favorable toward How (Not) to Be Secular, since then I have read a number of books that have interacted with Charles Taylor, although none of them have attempted what Jamie Smith has attempted here. In How (Not) To Be Secular, Smith is attempting to summarize Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age while at the same time critiquing some of A Secular Age’s weak points. Other very helpful books have talked about broad ideas or using A Secular Age as a jumping off point. In some ways, it is easier to understand Taylor if you do not have to take the full range of ideas and the full development of Taylor’s argument.

After four years and a number of books about Taylor, I have decided that this fall I need to start reading Charles Taylor directly. I have a couple reasons for that, but primarily what I am interested in is Taylor’s work on how we create identity differently in our current world and how faith works in created identity. I am going to be reading Taylor with a strong eye toward how minority (both racial and other) identity works in his system of understanding the world around us.

Charles Taylor is intimidating, and not just because of the page lengths. Too many people that I know, and respect as smarter than I, have talked about how difficult Taylor can be to understand. I picked up How (Not) to Be Secular as a preparation. I tend to change formats with second readings. And because the audiobook of How (Not) to Be Secular was released recently, I picked up the audiobook.

Audiobook is not a format that works well with this book. The narration was fine. But this is a book that is constantly referencing something else, whether Taylor or another author or subject and the constant reference without the visual cues of what is being referenced make comprehension difficult. Also the constant references to pages of A Secular Age, which make sense in print, do not make the same type of sense in audio. There were paragraphs that referenced specific pages number 4 or 5 or maybe even more times, which made the ability to follow the point difficult.

The Lord and His Prayer by NT Wright

The Lord and His Prayer by NT WrightTakeaway: We are actually supposed to be praying the Lord’s Prayer.

I grew up reciting the Lord’s Prayer as part of worship. I have no idea when I memorized it, but it was probably when I was very young. About 10 years ago a friend published a book about the Lord’s Prayer (Living Prayer: The Lord’s Prayer Alive in You) that changed my approach to the Lord’s Prayer.

Since that time I regularly pray the Lord’s prayer, both simply and straight through and as a guide, expanding each line as a prayer prompt.

I have read a few books on the Lord’s Prayer since then, but most I thought were not particularly helpful. NT Wright’s The Lord and His Prayer is not new (written in 1995) and while there are a couple of editions of it that are slightly different all are less than 100 pages. I listened to the audiobook (2 hours) during a round trip to a meeting last night. As with many books on prayer, I should probably reread it again in print.

The format of The Lord and His Prayer is exactly like Ben Myers’ excellent book on the Apostles’ Creed, a line by line exploration. NT Wright is both a scholar and a pastor. And what I really appreciate about his writing is that he is always pastoral in tone. He is writing about the Lord’s Prayer because he thinks it is an important part of our lives as Christians. He wants us to understand what we are praying and the context of historic Christianity that has used the prayer historically as well as the historic 1st century culture when the prayer was originally taught. 

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson by Stanley Hauerwas

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson by Stanley HauerwasSummary: 16 Letters to his Godson about virtues.

Maybe I am just getting old. But as I spend more time studying spiritual formation, both for my own benefit and to assist others in their own spiritual development, the more that I think the church as a whole has lost the thread of the development of character and virtue as an aspect of Christianity.

I know there are some good reasons for this loss of interest in virtue. Virtue and behavior management has been used to be socially and personally controlling. It has focused on cultural and encouraged a belief in white supremacy. It has been misused to prop up powerful people that lacked character for utilitarian reasons. But with the loss of authority around virtue and the loss of focus on virtue, individuals and communities have lost out on part of what is important about spiritual formation as both individuals and communities.

We are always christians within a culture. Our culture today is highly individualistic and while we as a Church should push back against that in many ways, we cannot pretend that the individualism of culture does not impact the church. Part of what this means is that we cannot assume that the older generation will automatically work toward the training of younger Christians. The older concept of godparent has been lost in part because of the mobility of our society.

In the fairly lengthy introduction to The Character of Virtue, Samuel Wells, the father of the godson being addressed by Hauerwas, gives a background not just on the letters to come, but the concept of godparent and how Hauerwas in particular came to be the godparent of a child in a different country. Because of the distance, Wells asked Hauerwas to write a letter a year on the anniversary of his godson’s baptism, about a different virtue.

The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism by Ben Myers

The Apostles' Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism by Ben MyersSummary: Short focused chapters on the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed.

I have been more focused on catechesis (the training and instruction about matters of Christian faith) over the past several years as I have both become more liturgical in  theological bias and more focused on spiritual formation.

Discipleship (which in some ways is another way of thinking of catechesis), means growing to be more like Christ. It is not about becoming a particular culture or look or personality or knowing certain things, but it is about growing to become more like Christ.

Part of what I have become convinced is that we should not be training people to avoid sin, although I am not denying the reality of sin or the harm that it does, but training them toward right desires. I think porn is one of the most simple ways of illustrating this, I have heard from many that their desire to consume porn could not be managed away. Knowing porn was bad for them and simply trying to be better was not what has worked for many that I have talked to. Understanding the subject of the porn as created in the image of God and distorting the goodness of sex and their bodies for the titillation of others, usually strangers, by my anecdotal evidence, seems to be more effective. The right understanding of good things and the right desire for those good things is more important than personal desire to not do wrong.

What does that have to do with the Apostles’ Creed? The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest distillations and positive affirmations of the Christian faith. The Creed was likely first used as a baptismal statement of faith. An affirmation of what we believe and who we believe in. The Apostles’ Creed is a positive statement. If you know some church history you can see where some of those statements are blocking false beliefs, but it is mostly about what we positively believe.

Ben Myers is setting out a straight forward, exploration, sometimes word by word, of what the Apostles’ Creed means. It is not super long. The chapters are short. It would make a very good small group study or personal devotional reading. Just in the past couple years I have read books on the creed by Hans von Balthasar, Derek Vreeland and JI Packer and attempted a video series on the Apostles’ Creed with a small group.

Of the books I have read on the Creed, none have been horrible, but Myers’ book on the Apostles’ Creed is the one I would recommend first. There are a couple of reasons,

1) it is ecumenical. The biggest problem with von Bathasar and Packer’s books on the creed where they were assuming either Catholic or Reformed understandings of Christianity. Meyers is a Protestant and probably has a few statements that are too Protestant for Catholic or Orthodox readers, but he does not, as Packer does, complain about other streams of Christian faith’s understanding of Christianity while explicating one of the most important ecumenical statements of faith.