Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks by Priscilla Shirer

Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks cover imageSummary: Discerning the Voice of God is a spiritual discipline that can be learned.

I am about eight months into a project to understand what people mean when they talk about discernment in the Christian context and how it can be learned and discussed. If you include the books that I read as part of my training to become a spiritual director and my previous general interest reading, I have read about two dozen books, many of them more than once, on the topic of discernment. I certainly do not believe that I have a clear understanding of all aspects of discernment. I continue to find new aspects of discernment that I had not thought about. And I have about two dozen more books on my list. But I have a handle on some aspects oft I have tentatively committed discernment tha to. That matters because in the case of Discerning the Voice of God, there are many areas of agreement, but my problems primarily come in three areas and my tentative commitments influence those.

First I want to mention the good. She is right that we can learn about discernment. And I think she is right to suggest that goal of discernment is to see is not to see if we will make the wrong choice. This quote from toward the end of the book I think is right.

“But here’s what I want to encourage in you—the big message of this chapter, perhaps the big message of this book. Try never to forget it. Here it is … There’s no code for you to crack. No puzzle He’s waiting for you to put together. No stick He’s dangling in your peripheral vision, then snatching away when you turn your head toward it. He’s not sitting up in heaven with the cameras rolling and stopwatches ticking, testing whether or not you’re spiritually sharp enough to figure out the next move He wants you to make.”

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Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World by Justin Phillips

Summary: A series of essays exploring what it means to be Christian, White, and Southern in the context of the racial realities as they are.

Racism isn’t solely a Southern phenomenon, but there are some aspects to the White Southern Christian culture, and it makes sense to look at it from that perspective. I have read a lot of history and theology regarding racial realities in the United States. I have not grown up in the South, but I have lived just outside Atlanta for nearly 20 years. Because I have been here for a while, but I have not grown up here, I am both an outsider and an inside observer. I very much have witnessed quite overt racism, and the racial innocence that is well described in Know Your Place.

I am going to have three brief illustrations about racial innocence that influenced my reading of Know Your Place. About 5-6 years ago, the church I was a member of had a series of midweek meetings about race and Christianity. The meetings had a large group and small group component. My small group was facilitated by a Black pastor (not from our church). The small group was about 15 people, and as we opened the first session, we went around and introduced ourselves. One of the men introduced himself and concluded, “I was born and grew up and spent my whole life in the Atlanta area, and I do not believe that I have ever witnessed something I would call racist.” I believe that he was roughly the same age as my mother-in-law, who also grew up here; her education was segregated until her senior year of high school.

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Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction by A Edward Siecienski

Summary: A brief introduction to Orthodox Christianity.

I have said many times that as much as the Very Short Introduction series is uneven, I keep returning to it because it serves a helpful niche. These are books that are about 100-125 pages, usually with good bibliographies, that give someone without much background an introduction to the important aspects of a topic. I read at least 3 or 4 a year, especially when I can find them at my library on Audible’s lending library (Premium Plus catalog). This one was free for me to listen to with my Audible membership.

The book was divided into three main parts. The first was Christian history, focusing on Nicaea to the spread of Orthodoxy into Russia. The second was about Orthodoxy’s theological and liturgical development. The third focused on what made Orthodoxy different from Roman Catholicism. There was a concluding section about modern challenges and developments within Orthodoxy.

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Demon Copperhead: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

Summary: A troubled childhood recounted. (A retelling of David Copperfield)

One of my habits (sometimes bad and sometimes good) is to avoid reading about fiction books before I read them. Once I know an author, I would rather experience a book without any background. There are times when this is a great strategy. And there are times when I somewhat regret the strategy. In this case, I was utterly unaware that Demon Copperhead was a loose retelling of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Because I have not read David Copperfield, I don’t know what would have been different had I known, but I did not know. I later read the Wikipedia summary of David Copperfield and can see the many parallels, and I think that made sense of a few threads of the story that I was confused about.

I have read most of Barbara Kingsolvers’ books at least once. I enjoy her writing and appreciate its incisive social commentary. And because of my history with her work, it was unsurprising that Demon Copperfield was set in southwestern Virginia. Several of her books are set in rural Appalachia, and many of them grapple with the social realities of that area.

I read several reviews afterward, and one reviewer said the social commentary at the end of many chapters was a feature of Dickens’ writing, not just Kingsolvers’. Many chapters in Demon Copperhead tell an aspect of the main character’s life (his real name is Damon, but everyone calls him Demon from a very young age), but will conclude the chapter with a reflection on one social reality or another. For instance, there is a discussion about the underfunding of Child Services and how even those who want to do good by working there are often so underfunded and overworked that their efforts are largely futile. The adult Demon who is narrating, reflects on how that underfunding reflects on the values of our society.

I listened to this on audiobook from the library but carefully copied out the following quote because the social commentary is clear-eyed, even if a bit cynical. Demon is talking about the ways that we believe a false narrative about people’s ability to work their way out of bad situations. So he refers to himself in the third person about why things did not go better for him.

“This kid, if he wanted a shot at the finer things, should have got himself delivered to some rich, or smart, or Christian, non-using kind of mother.”

The reality is that Demon was born to a teenage single mother who had grown up (and been abused in) foster care. His father died in an accident a few months before he was born that his mother would never talk about. Demon’s mom tried to be a good mom, but was poor and did not grow up with the skills to raise a child well. She was a high school dropout in a poor rural community with few options. (Some spoilers are below, but I will try to limit them as much as I can.)

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The Chosen by Chaim Potok

The Chosen cover imageSummary: A classic coming-of-age novel about two Jewish teens (one Orthodox, one Hasidic) who meet while playing against one another in baseball and become friends.

There are so many classic novels that I have not read. So many times I read one and wonder why I have not read it previously. No one can read everything, so I have to keep slowly working through the many classic novels I have picked up over time.

There is a reason this is such a beloved novel. It is well-written, and like I mentioned with Esau McCaulley’s memoir, its particularity makes it universal. Most readers are not either Hasidic or Orthodox Jews. And readers today did not grow up in WWII, or the immediate postwar era where the Holocaust was discussed and the potential nation of Israel was debated.

But while the details are different, the potential to follow our own path or follow the expectations of those around us is common. The cultural differences between two different types of Jewish experiences can help illustrate how different experiences between seemingly similar groups work. The closer you are to the inside, the more those differences seem to matter.

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In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monks Memoir by Paul Quenon

In praise of a useless life cover imageSummary: A meandering memoir about the life of a monk, with lots of time devoted to his novice master, Thomas Merton.

I remember In Praise of the Useless Life coming out a few years ago and having largely positive reviews. I put it on my “to-read” list and picked it up recently because it was free to borrow from Audible if you are a premium member.

Generally, it is one of those books that I am not disappointed I read, but I also do not recommend it. The story meanders without really having much focus. Much of the short memoir is about the author’s relationship with Thomas Merton. Quenon was only 17 when he came to the monastery. Merton (known in the monastery as Father Lewis) was Quenon’s novice master. The stories are fine, but nothing in it drew me in.

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I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People by Terence Lester

I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People by Terence Lester cover imageSummary: All people are made in God’s image, which can help us see and help the marginalized.

I See You was a book that my book club read. I have some history of working with the homeless. I volunteered for four years during college with Olive Branch Mission in Chicago (at their traditional emergency shelter and food program). Later, I did a summer internship in their drug and alcohol rehab program and then worked part-time in exchange for room and board for a couple of years of grad school. And my MSW internship was with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. I have worked directly with homeless people and on homeless policy, although my professional and volunteer work has not been with the homeless for a couple of decades now.

There is always a tension in advocacy books like I See You between helping people see the systems that contribute to the problem and helping readers see individuals impacted by the problem. If you concentrate too much on the system, then it can be dehumanizing and abstract. If you concentrate too much on the individuals, you can humanize some people impacted by the problem but not see the larger structure of society that contributes to the problem. I think I See You focuses too much on the individual, which is the tendency for books oriented toward evangelicals.

I See You led to a lot of good discussions with my book group, but it is more oriented toward introducing the problem of homelessness and felt a little too simplistic in its approach to me. The main idea is summarized in this quote:

“The theory for a long time—coming not only from the right but also from some Democrats—is that poverty means that there’s something wrong with your character, that you’ve got bad habits, you’ve got a bad lifestyle, you’ve made the wrong choices.” In this book I want to help deconstruct some of the misconceptions we have about the poor and tell you the stories of those who are experiencing poverty.

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How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key

Summary: A husband’s memoir about his wife’s affair and how he worked to try to save the marriage. 

This is a book that I both appreciated and recommend and one that I have some concerns about. Mostly, I appreciate the honesty. I kept thinking about CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed. In both books, the pain is told in real-time without the restraint that would come later. That is an enormous strength because honest pain is so uncomfortable and unusual. But it is also hard to hear. And honest pain is often a bit irrational, so you do want to shake Harrison Scott Key quite often. Do not read this book if you do not want an honest account of pain. There is a lot of grace here as well, but the content warning is for the pain.

I am also concerned with the Gary Thomas connection. I listened to How to Stay Married on audiobook (which I think is probably the best format for this book), so there may have been a citation to Gary Thomas. But if not, Key’s explicit idea at the end, which was implicit often in the book, is Thomas’ line, “Maybe marriage was to make us holy, not happy.” I know why people gravitate to that line. There were times when I was more attracted to that idea. Marriage over time will often (not always, but often) have periods of pain and difficulty. The problem is that God can use anything to help mature us. However, in the way Thomas presents the idea, marriage was created to be particularly painful so that we can mature. It feels to me that if we were lucky enough to be married before the fall when sin did not enter the picture, his idea would not really make sense. People can mature in many different ways. Marriage is one of those. But people who are not married can still mature, and we do not need to be married to become mature.

I can understand why Key wanted to write this book. I often need to write to process my thoughts. It is a type of therapy, but therapy writing does not necessarily need to be published. I kept thinking about kids reading this when they got older, or his kids’ friends, or his wife’s future friends. This is always the difficulty for memoirs. There has to be a balance between honesty and the way that honesty can be harmful to others. In the book he talks about how in exploring his own responsibility for the problems in his marriage that he came to understand that his humor was often cruel. He was not attempting to be cruel, but he was also not attempting to empathize with the person he was being cruel to. He was just trying to be funny to make other people like him. Everyone wants people to like them, but part of maturity is learning how to put the needs of others before your own. And I wonder if he will think the words are worth it in 10 or 20 years.

In a more positive sense, How to Stay Married is yet another book by a layperson that was not intended to be a “Christian” book. It is a book that tries to explain their life, and because they are Christians, it is impacted by Christian theology and practices. I think Bono’s book Surrender is another good example. How to Stay Married has no issues with swearing, discussing sex openly, discussing wanting to harm people in very real ways. But also being a beautiful illustration of forgiveness and the need for a community (church). No Christian publisher would publish this book, and that is, in some ways, too bad. I also don’t think many Christian publishers would publish many wonderful devote Christian writers who do not fit a certain mold. This is not a book that was written to be an instruction manual for pastors, but I think pastors would benefit from the discussion about the role of the church and the church community that is detailed here.

I also worry that people may take this too literally, taking it as instructions instead of a biographical illustration of how this one particular couple moved forward. That is more to do with bad reading than the book itself. Many people want overly clear instructions instead of grappling with how life isn’t simple.

I also have a lot of concerns about stories being written too soon. I had this concern about David Brook’s Second Mountain and a number of memoirs by people who are under 50. I am not going to say no memoir should be written by someone under 50, but I would be wary. I just don’t think marriage and parenting books should be written by people who are too close to the advice they are giving. Stories we hear are told by the authors in the way they want to tell them. So we don’t know what changes would happen if this book were told later. Will they still be married in five years, ten? I want them to be still married. Key notes that no marriage is perfect. But it would be a different book if he had written this five or ten years from now.

This is a spoiler, so stop reading if you do not want to spoil the ending.

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Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Summary: A historical novel of the life of Hildegard. 

I do not read enough fiction. Generally, I want to read more fiction, but I always get caught up in learning more things. Historical fiction is a mixed bag because as much as I enjoy learning things as I read fiction, I am always wary of distorting historical figures by making them modern people in an earlier setting. Inevitably, fiction necessarily distorts history in favor of making the story better.

Now that I have read Illuminations, which I enjoyed, I want to read a good biography of Hildegard. The notes said the novel tried to stay historically accurate in the timeline. However, there were some changes, and there will always be speculation because no medieval figure has a well-defined biography.

Hildegard was a mystic, an anchorite, an abbess, a writer, a composer, and a preacher. She lived from 1098 to 1179 in what is now Germany. Pope Benedict, on October 7, 2012 declared her a Doctor of the Church, a designation only given to 37 people, four of whom are women.

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