The Sparrow: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (2nd Reading)

The Sparrow cover imageSummary: A group mostly made up of Jesuits discovers that another world with intelligent creatures exists and secretly decides to visit it; tragedy ensues.

I previously read The Sparrow about six years ago. In my ongoing reading about Discernment, it was a fiction book that was suggested to me as one that looks at discernment, so I put it back on my list to reread, but a Holy Post discussion about The Sparrow made me decide to pick it up when I did.

As I have been reading various ways to think about Discernment, I keep coming up against the tension between those who see discernment primarily as Christian decision-making, those who see it as a set of tools or a process that includes decision-making, and those who see it primarily as seeking after God. I am definitely in the latter camp. I know these are not mutually exclusive ways to think about discernment, but I do tend to think of them as the three modes where one is prioritized.

I started a book on discernment a couple of weeks ago, and I could not make it through the first chapter because it approached discernment as a tool that was more similar to an incantation to control God or to get God to reveal himself more than a method to help us understand who God is. This problem is part of why I have been reading about discernment, to help figure out where it seems to go wrong. Discernment is often invoked in discussions of spiritual warfare, and people who regularly talk about spiritual warfare seem more likely to believe in various conspiracy theories. The very nature of belief in conspiracy theories makes me distrust your perception of discernment.

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Children of God: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (2nd Reading)

Summary: The second half of the story of The Sparrow.

When I first read The Sparrow, I did not realize that Children of God was actually part two of the book. I thought it was a sequel, but instead, it should be considered the second half of a single story. Because of this, I did not read Children of God until two years after I read The Sparrow. It was not until re-reading that I realized how much those two years impacted my understanding. This is a single story.

The book opens immediately after the end of The Sparrow. The reader and the characters think that they understand what happened on Rahkat (the other world that they traveled to.) But one way you should prepare to read Children of God is to think of it as an explanation of all the things misunderstood in The Sparrow. This is an alien contact story. Culture and biology are different. And even when Sandoz thinks he understands the language as a linguist, there are mistakes and misunderstandings.

Sandoz was traumatized in The Sparrow, and multiple stages of healing come throughout the Children of God. It is not that he “forgets” his pain and trauma. But he does come to terms with it in some ways over time. This does bring up my main concern about The Children of God. In my post about The Sparrow, I somewhat minimized this as a book about the problem of evil, which is still a significant theme within The Children of God. I do not believe there is a solution to the problem of evil. However, one method of dealing with the problem of evil is to suggest that God was behind everything to accomplish the greater good. While I think there is some space for seeing a different plan than what we had or that we misunderstood God’s plan, I get concerned with “making things come out right.”

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Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

The Black Cauldron (Chronicles of Pydain Book 2) by Lloyd AlexanderSummary: A second adventure for Taran and his companions. Taran sees the problems of seeking glory and honor and the weight of leadership. 

I have been in a bit of a reading rut lately. So many books I want to read theoretically, but I have been not finishing much while starting a lot.

I stumbled across The Black Cauldron because there was an update to the Kindle edition, which pushed it to the front of my kindle. Last weekend I read through it in two sittings. These children’s books seem so much simpler reading them as an adult compared to my memory of them as a child. They are not simplistic, but the plots are much less detailed than some modern children’s books like Harry Potter and certainly less than many adult fantasy books.

What I like most about Lloyd Alexander as an adult and I think what drew me in as a kid was how seriously he takes Taran and Eiloiwy. They are not just some kids, but they are unique individuals, and while they are flawed people, they can grow and change, be self-reflective, and do important things. Unlike some kids books that have the kids do big things because the adults are incapable, Alexander has kids and teens do extraordinary things because there are important things to be done. This isn’t a rejection of adults, but part of the maturing process of becoming an adult.

I am about halfway through a book on discernment by Thomas Green (Weeds Among Wheat) that I am reading for my Spiritual Direction class. Green suggests that often when thinking about discernment, we believe God is either the puppet master, who controls all the things, so discernment doesn’t matter. Or we think about God in deistic ways with God not being involved in the world at all. Green thinks a better social imaginary is God as the parent of adult children. There are times that a parent of an adult will intervene and get involved, but there are times when the parent of adult children will allow their children to make their own decisions and live with the consequences as part of the process of growing up.

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The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le CarréTakeaway: Being a spy, influencing the other side is difficult to do and prone to morally questionable decisions.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the book that first made John le Carré’s name (or made John le Carré, a pseudonym famous.) John le Carre was a spy who became a writer. At about the same time Ian Fleming was becoming famous with James Bond, he came to prominence. In many ways, he was the anti-Bond.

Bond is known for action and individualism. George Smiley is overweight and a bit dumpy. He is an intellectual and an analyst. Carre’s books are slow and have complex plots. Fleming’s books are much shorter, are much more action based, and idealize the work of a spy.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the first of le Carre’s books I have re-read. And it reminds me much how soul-deadening le Carre makes intelligence work. There is some action and understanding of the west being on the right side of the cold war. But that doesn’t mean that the west is always right in its actions. John le Carre, if he had not read Niebuhr, he at least understood the basic concepts that Niebuhr wrote about in the Irony of American History.

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Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura

Silence and Beauty- Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto FukimuraSummary: 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.

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

Summary: If you really need a summary, you probably aren’t going to read the review.

I have been craving some comfort reading lately. So I picked up the Stephen Fry narrated version of The Goblet of Fire that a friend loaned me. (It is the narrator for the British edition; Jim Dale is the narrator for the US edition). There isn’t any way for someone in the US to get the UK edition without importing the CDs or off the internet.

The new narrator did help give a fresh gloss to a story I have read at least five times and listened to at least once. Stephen Fry is best known to me as the narrator of Pocayo, a kid’s TV show. I prefer him to Jim Dale. I need to listen to another one or two books to be sure.

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Silence by Shusaku Endo (Read Again)

Silence by Shusaku Endo Book Review

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.)

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Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir by Carolyn Weber (Read Again Review)

Surprised by Oxford: A MemoirTakeaway: The love story, whether between man and woman or God and human is one that brings joy to those that have experienced it.

I have said it before.  But one of the things I most love about blogging is that I have grown to ‘know’ so many authors. It is a distant knowing.  I have yet to meet any of them in person. But Matt Anderson, John Dyer, Rhett Smith, Tyler Braun, Karen Swallow Prior and Carolyn Weber (and others) I have interacted with beyond their books. It is not merely using one another for page views and book sales. With social media and some longer conversations, I feel like I can actually enter into their lives, at least in a small part.

Carolyn had a baby boy this past year and we exchange the occasional pleasantries. Carolyn has on several occasions thanked me for a blog post or review, and there are very few things that make my day more than an author I love (especially Carolyn) making appreciative comments on my writing.  The internet is such an odd world.

So on this second reading of Surprised by Oxford, I am not coming to the book fresh.  The first time I picked it up because of good reviews and a free review copy. The second time I had more invested  I had purchased a couple of copies for friends. Some had liked it and some had not. I now knew what was going to happen. These were people that I had some understanding about, both the characters from the memoir and the real people that inhabit the current world because these are people that I potentially could meet.

In my last reading, I was most struck by the beauty of the words. Carolyn Weber writes beautiful, evocative prose. That is no less true this time. But most of what struck me was the story. It was not new, but for some reason, I wanted to savor the poems that the characters were sharing. (And I am not a poetry guy, the fact that I found myself re-reading poems should speak very highly of this book.) I was more invested in Caro and TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome)’s occasional romance.

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Prayer by Richard Foster (Read Again)

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.

Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home

Takeaway: If you are serious about learning about prayer and have not read this book yet, you need to.

I have read this book at least once previously (and I think twice.) It would not be the first book I recommend to someone that want to start out learning about prayer.  But it is one of the more important modern books on prayer.

Prayer is one of those topics in Christianity that is hard to write about. It is something learned best by doing and by being mentored by others. Surrounding yourself with people that pray is much better than surrounding yourself with books on prayer.

That being said, when you have spent time learning to pray with others, it is good to spend some time reading about the why and how of prayer. No book will fully explain that, of course. But Richard Foster does a very good job showing the different ways that prayer occurs within the Christian faith.  Few modern authors are as widely read and as fluent in different streams of Christianity as Richard Foster. That is both helpful, and the primary reason I would not suggest this to someone that is new to prayer. There is just too much here for someone that does not have a good grounding and idea about what type of pray-er they are.

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