Summer rambles (in mind, heart and body!)

I haven’t done one of these for a while, but here it is, in no particular order.

Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a strong doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have no particular quarrel with this, although my evangelical tradition has a slightly different way of understanding it (see my internet friend Peter Carrell’s post here, if you’re interested, although you will need to get through a bit of theological jargon). But over the past few years I’ve come to a strongly experiential appreciation for the doctrine of the Real Presence of God in his creation. I DSCN1805have to honestly say, I often am more aware of God’s presence in the cathedral of nature than I am in the cathedral of wood or stone. I have reflected on this a lot as I have been out walking lately, in Whitemud Ravine and in Elk Island National Park. There have been times when the presence of God seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch him.

Heresy hunters, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a pantheist, and I understand that God is different from God’s creation. What I experience was well described by the great evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

‘The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything’ (quoted in Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World‘, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018; chapter 4).

Speaking of Bruce Hindmarsh, I’ve really been enjoying his new book on early evangelicalism. My spiritual tradition gets a bad rap in the world today and I love going 512CP34YQtLback to investigate its early roots. A few years ago I read a superb book by Hindmarsh about the life and work of John Newton. His new book goes further; it examines the evangelical awakening of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in connection with the history of science, law, art, and literature of the time. This is new ground for me; nowadays (especially in North America) evangelicalism is not, shall we say, usually associated with an appreciation for science and the arts, so it may come as a surprise to read about John Wesley’s attempts to educate his followers in the discoveries of contemporary science, or the astronomical explorations of Isaac Milner and John Russell. I’m about two thirds of the way through the book now and I’m sure it will become one of my favourites.

Speaking of books, Marci and I have started reading Dante’s Inferno together, in the Mark Musa translation. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy twice before, but this is the first time through for Marci. We’re both really enjoying it.

I’m used to the word ‘love’ being used in the New Testament as a translation for the Greek word ‘agapé’ – meaning unconditional, action-oriented love, not feelings or affections – so it took me a while on my first trip through Dante to realize that he almost always uses it  in the sense of ‘eros’ – not what we now call ‘erotic’ love but love that is a response to some beauty or worth in the beloved, love that desires to possess the beloved for itself. Dante shares with his theological contemporaries the idea that sin is fundamentally disordered love – we want the wrong things, and we want them in the wrong way. It took me a while to get my head around the way he uses this language, but now that I understand it, it makes a huge amount of sense to me. It reminds me of Tony Campolo’s sermon ‘Who Moved the Price Tags?’, with his illustration of the world as a department store window in which someone has changed all the price tags so that the cheap stuff is expensive and the expensive stuff is cheap. That’s what’s happened in the world, Campolo says: a lot of the things God values are not valued at all by humans, and many of the things we humans value aren’t important at all in God’s eyes. Disordered loves, you see.

And now for something completely different. Black terns are not very common – not as common, say, as the common tern. On Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park common terns are very common indeed; if you walk the shoreline or go out in a canoe you’ll see them swooping and diving, and you’ll hear the splash as they hit the water in search of their prey. They move fast and they’re notoriously difficult to photograph because of that (hence the lack of photographs here!).

Marci and I were canoeing on Astotin Lake on Monday morning and we suddenly DSCN2326noticed that the terns that were diving and swooping around us were not white – they were dark-coloured. They were black terns! That was an exciting moment; I have never seen a black tern in my life before, so this was a lifetime first. We also got to see a whole flotilla of pelicans (see photograph!), which apparently were not stressed at all about the presence of a canoe in close proximity to them. And we also got close to the island in the lake where the cormorants roost and got to watch them flying and diving from the tall trees where we normally see them (from the shore, through binoculars). Truly, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Which leads me to the poem I’ll close with: ‘God’s Grandeur’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Amen!

Advertisements

Book Review: Donald C. Posterski: ‘True to You: Living Our Faith in our Multi-Minded World’ (Wood Lake Books, 1995).

35659952_10156956550960400_7003163623187021824_nDon Posterski died last week (see this tribute from Tyndale College in Toronto). Don was the author of a number of excellent books and the news of his death has prompted me to revisit one or two of them. ‘True to You’ is my first ‘revisit’.

This is a book about living as a faithful Christian in Canada today. Note: I say ‘today’, but the book was written in 1995 and uses many illustrations that were contemporary at the time. The pace of social change has not been slow in the intervening years; same-sex marriage is legal now, and so is assisted dying, and many more Christians have made their peace with these realities than would have been the case in 1995.

Nonetheless, the topic is still a vital one. Older Canadians can remember a time when Christianity was the assumed frame of reference for questions of truth and morality in our society, but that is no longer the case. So what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in this strange new world? Or, as Don Posterski puts it:

  1. ‘How can we live peaceably and productively with our increasing diversity?
  2. ‘How can we construct a society that allows us to live with strong convictions while giving others the prerogative to do the same?
  3. ‘As God’s people, active in our different denominations and religious traditions, are there ways for us to understand and even appreciate our differences so that we can celebrate our common faith commitments?’

Two classification systems reappear regularly in this book, and I found them quite helpful. The first was taken from an Angus Reid poll about religious preferences conducted in Canada in 1994. it uses four broad categories:

  1. Committed participants (those who attend church weekly and are likely to help make it happen)
  2. Conditional participants (those who attend, but less often, and are less likely to get involved in other ways)
  3. Cultural Christians (those who claim a Christian identity but do not participate in organized religion)
  4. Religious ‘nones’ (‘no religious affiliation).

Percentages will have changed since 1994, but at that time two-thirds of Canadians claimed the ‘cultural Christian’ category. Posterski points out, however, that their actual values and practices were virtually indistinguishable from the ‘nones’.

The other classification system addresses how practising Christians respond to their current marginalization in western society.

  1. Reclaimers want to turn the clock back to the good old days when this was a ‘Christian country’.
  2. Tribalisers want to be sure there its room in society for their views and choices, but their approach to those who disagree with them is very confrontational (in 2018 North America, one can see very clearly just how nasty tribalism – and tribal loyalty – can be).
  3. Accommodators enthusiastically embrace divergence but have very little to offer in terms of distinctive beliefs and practices.
  4. Cocooners disengage from any real involvement with concerns that affect public life.
  5. Collaborators are quite prepared to give other people the room to be true to themselves, but are also assertive in claiming that right for themselves as well.

The seven chapters of the book go on to examine the issues raised by diversity in modern Canadian society. In Chapter Two Posterski defines different forms of pluralism: ideological pluralism is an enemy of faith, but cultural pluralism (everyone is entitled to believe and practice their own convictions) is a friend of faith. In Chapter Three he attempts to outline some common values and commitments for modern Canadian society (personally, I found this the least helpful chapter of the book). In the remaining chapters he explores what he calls ‘principled pluralism’ and what it would look like, both in terms of how Christians should live and how society as a whole should make space for people of differing convictions. One of his more telling observations is that toleration for different viewpoints in modern Canada is easily extended to those who do not believe in clearly defined beliefs and morals (tolerance for the tolerant), but is not so easily extended to people of clear conviction, who are often seen as ‘intolerant’ and are therefore not tolerated!

The conclusion suggests a program for Christians who want to exercise both conviction and compassion.

  1. Trust God and follow Christ – keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come unto me’.
  2. Be true to yourself: know what you believe, who you are, and how you aspire to behave.
  3. Give regard to others. ‘Rooted in the security of their own convictions, God’s people extend compassion to others who are different from themselves…They realize that, rather than coercing creation, God gives people choices; they aim to treat people like God treats people’.
  4. Relinquish rights for the common good. God’s people know that a society cannot be built exclusively on diversity; ‘beyond the requirement to live within the boundaries of the criminal code, all citizens must be willing to sacrifice private desires for shared public goals’.
  5. Fly your flag in the pluralism parade. A democratic society invites its citizens to participate and to influence public policy; we can take advantage of that right, while also respecting the rights of others to do the same.
  6. Love and lobby. We are called both to live a life of love and to lobby for the ways of God, in answer to Jesus’ prayer ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Despite the fact that its statistic and illustrations are now somewhat dated, I found this a very helpful book. Posterski believed that it was possible for Christians to be true to their own convictions and yet also respectful of the convictions of others. He believed that Canadian society could and should be a place where different convictions are respected and welcomed in the public square. Not all Canadians believe this, and neither do all Christians, today as in 1994. But this book gives solid suggestions for positive Christian life and witness in the context of our modern pluralistic society. I highly recommend it.

Gregory Alan Thornbury: ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?’

33877924Today I finished Gregory Alan Thornbury’s brilliant biography of Larry Norman, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. Here’s the response I wrote on Goodreads:

I was a Larry Norman fan in the 1970s and 80s but lost touch with him after that. I heard stories about his failings, but was never really familiar with his story. However, songs like ‘The Outlaw’, ‘One Way’, ‘Reader’s Digest’ and ‘The Great American Novel’ were permanently etched on my musical imagination and I continued to listen to the old albums with great enjoyment.

So I was excited when I heard about this book, and it did not disappoint. Larry Norman emerges from these pages as a real human being, one who struggles with weaknesses and failings as we all do. And yet, his influence on my life as a Christian and a musician was entirely positive, and I suspect thousands of others could say the same thing. Having heard some of the rumours about him I expected to think less highly of him after reading this book, but the opposite is the case. I will go back to the old records and listen to them again with more appreciation for the real human being who created them, and I will gladly own up to being a Larry Norman fan.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? on Amazon.ca.

Here’s the song the book is named after:

And here’s another favourite Larry Norman song:

Books I read (or re-read) in 2017

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2017, in the order in which they were read:

Stephen King: On Writing
Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air
Rowan Williams: Being Disciples
Mark Ireland & Mike Chew: How to Do Mission Action Planning
Elma Schemenauer: Consider the Sunflowers
Mark Ireland and Mike Booker: Making New Disciples
C.S. Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms
Harry Mowvley: 1 & 2 Samuel (People’s Bible Commentary)
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William Paul Young: The Shack
Duane Pederson: Larger than Ourselves
Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People
Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mary Oliver: Blue Horses
Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987
Seamus Heaney: Human Chains
Timothy Keller: Preaching
Michael Harvey: Unlocking the Growth
Barbara Tuchmann: The Guns of August
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Michael Frost: Surprise the World
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
W.O. Mitchell: Roses are Difficult Here
Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking
Jennifer Robison: Goodnight from London
Adam S. McHugh: Introverts in the Church
Clive James: Injury Time
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent
Loveday Alexander: Acts (People’s Bible Commentary)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows
T
remper Longman, Philips Long & Iain Provain: A Biblical History of Israel
Kate Rademacher: Following the Red Bird
Yuval Noah Harani: Sapiens
Justin Welby: Dethroning Mammon
Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain
Justin Brierley: Unbelievable?
Chaim Potok: The Chosen
Chaim Potok: The Promise
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev
C.S. Lewis: The Four Loves
Chaim Potok: In the Beginning
Ros Wynne-Jones: Something is Going to Fall Like Rain
Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
Stephen Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
Melvyn Bragg: William Tyndale: A Brief History
Chaim Potok: Davita’s Harp
Siddhartha Mukharjee: The Emperor of All Maladies
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
David Daniell: William Tyndale: A Biography
Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust
George Pitcher: A Dark Nativity
Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? Definitely Andrew Marr’s We British: The Poetry of a People. Marr is both a good historian and also a lover of poetry, and he manages to combine them both in this volume, which is part anthology, part history of English poetry, and part a social history of Britain and its people. Marci and I read it together and we hugely enjoyed it. And – here’s the rub – Marr introduced me to some poets I knew little about, but who I have since read more of and thoroughly enjoyed.

Honourable mention must go to Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, which not only helped me to understand myself better, but also made me think about the way we do church and what we ask of people – which may be less well suited to the introvert temperament – and how we might make it more inclusive of all temperaments.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. I read and enjoyed the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, but this third and final book just didn’t cut it for me. There was plenty of horror in the first two books, of course, but it was contained by the device of the Hunger Games. The third book, however, describes in horrifying detail an all-out war, in which child soldiers fight and commit acts that will give them (if they survive – most don’t) nightmares for the rest of their lives. Collins is a wonderfully skilled writer, but I thought she could have imagined a better and stronger ending to the trilogy than this.

I found myself comparing Katniss’s role in the war against the Capitol with Frodo’s in the War of the Ring. Like Katniss, Frodo is a small and seemingly insignificant person, and the major battles happen in places where he is not present, but in the end, because of the plot device of the Ring, he turns out to have the decisive role in the story. What a pity that Collins couldn’t have thought of a way to make Katniss – supposedly the heroine of the novel – the actual centre of the story! Most of the significant moments in the struggle for freedom actually seem to happen when she’s unconscious (she spends a rather large proportion of the book lying convalescing), and in the end, her role in the struggle seems rather peripheral – she’s the centre of the rebels’ P.R. efforts, but that’s about it.

Important discoveries:

Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air. I can’t say ‘His first book’, because there won’t be any more – he died of cancer before it was published. An amazingly honest account of what it feels like for a brilliant doctor to become a cancer patient himself. And while we’re talking about cancer, Siddhartha Mukharjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was a brilliant history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer from earliest times to the present day. I learned a huge amount from reading this book.

On a completely different subject, Michael Frost’s Surprise the World describes a simple rule of life for missional Christians based on the acronym ‘BELLS’: ‘Bless’ three people this week, ‘Eat’ with three people this week, ‘Listen’ to the Holy Spirit for one period this week, ‘Learn’ Christ for one period this week, and journal this week about the ways you have been ‘Sent’ in mission. I read it twice and then lead a book study on it in our church which was very well received. I highly recommend it.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns were both excellent reads. I’m a little late in discovering Hosseini; he is my first encounter with a country I knew almost nothing about – Afghanistan – and his books have given me a vivid picture of what life is actually like in that long-suffering country. They are not easy reads – they describe hard events in the lives of people – but they are powerfully written and I look forward to reading more from him.

Finally I should mention Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust which I read just before Christmas, and hugely enjoyed; it is certainly one of my favourite theological reads. I loved his description of the Christian life as learning to believe that God can be trusted. He covered some pretty basic theological themes – creation, incarnation etc. – but as my friend Clarke French remarked, over and over again as I was reading the book I found myself saying “Wow – it’s never been said quite as well as that before!”

And now – on to 2018!

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-four years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

26ef2ffec18c0d90_large001862ba95bf951f_large

On Being Happy

In one of the final chapters of his book ‘Sapiens‘, Yuval Noah Harari raises the issue of whether all the ‘progress’ the human race has made in the last few thousand years has actually increased the happiness of individual humans to any great degree (not to mention the happiness of the other sentient species on Earth).

I won’t give the game away by telling you his answer, but I would like to share a short reflection on one section of this chapter. In this section, Harari points out that happiness has a lot to do with body chemistry and temperament. Some of us just seem wired to be more cheerful than others. For example, one person might have a ‘happiness range’ (on a scale of 1-10) of 3-7, averaging out at a five. Another might have a range of 6-10, averaging out at an eight. There isn’t a great deal they can do about that, although of course upbringing and choices do have some impact on where we land up in the range.

I found this liberating.

I am well aware that I have been handed a somewhat melancholic temperament. It’s easy for me to see the dark side of any issue. I panic easily, I worry a lot, and I tend to make negative observations about situations and people.

Looking at my families of origin, I can understand this. It’s in our genes. It’s not something I need to feel guilty about.

However, I do have a choice about where in my ‘range’ (let’s call it a 3 – 7) I average out. And there are things I can do, choices I can make, habits I can form, that will increase my happiness. Gretchen Rubin wrote an excellent book on this subject called ‘The Happiness Project‘. No, I can’t flip a switch to change my emotions. But there are behaviours I can engage in which have a cheering effect on my disposition. I’m talking about things like doing acts of kindness to others, sticking with my diet and exercise disciplines and so on. I know that when I’m intentional about these things, I’m a happier guy.

And I’m also more pleasant to be around. Which is why making decisions that increase my happiness is not a selfish pursuit. Generally speaking, happier people lift up the people around them, while gloomy people drag others down. I want to lift others up.

I can’t do anything about my temperament, but I can do something about my actions. I’m going to try to remember to do that.

‘We British: the Poetry of a People’

29958072This book isn’t quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it’s more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it’s an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn’t well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles.

For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). Like all poetry fans reading the book, I was ticked off by the omission of some of my favourites (John Masefield, R.S. Thomas), but a book of 640 pages attempting to introduce the reader to 1,350 years of British poetry is bound to offend in that way. Overall I thought the book was brilliant. And I’d give this one word of reading advice: read it aloud, and with a spouse or partner or friend if you can. Marci and I read it in coffee shops and we thoroughly enjoyed this treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Five stars, and well-deserved.

Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People (Fourth Estate, 2016).