William Shakespeare, April 1564 – April 23rd 1616

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Thank you, Will.

You created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to grace a stage.

You taught us that the English language could sing to rival any other, and you invented more than 1700 words that we’re still using today (‘bloodstained’, ‘premeditated’, ‘impartial’, ‘tranquil’, and – would you believe, anyone? – ‘puking’, to name just a few).

You held up a mirror and you showed us ourselves, in all our shame and in all our glory.

You died four hundred years ago today, and we will never forget you.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

– Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

 

If you want to find out more about Shakespeare, the best thing to do is to go see one of his plays. Summer Shakespeare festivals are coming up; ours in Edmonton is the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This year they’re doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and festival passes are on sale now.

There are many excellent editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works‘. I actually own two – a very old edition with just the text, and a big monster with excellent supplementary notes. I enjoy them both, for different reasons.

If you want an entertaining biography, my favourite is the one by Bill Bryson, ‘The World as Stage‘.

Here’s my favourite Shakespeare quote, from Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

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Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2015

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 2015, in the order in which they were read:

The Poems of Wilfred Owen
Rudy Wiebe: Come Back
John Grisham: Gray Mountain
John Grisham: The Litigators
John Clare: Poems (selected by Paul Farley)
Matt Garvin: Six Radical Decisions
Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath
Wendell Berry: That Distant Land
Bill Hybels: Too Busy Not to Pray
Kent Haruf: Plainsong
Kent Haruf: Eventide
Lesslie Newbigin: Proper Confidence
Rudy Wiebe: The Blue Mountains of China
John Goldingay: Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone
Guy Vanderhaeghe: The Last Crossing
Carrie LaSeur: The Home Place
Greg Ogden: Transforming Discipleship
Thomas King: Medicine River
Guy Vanderhaeghe: A Good Man
Bill Hull: The Disciple-Making Pastor
Wendell Berry: The Memory of Old Jack
N.T. Wright: How God Became King
Guy Vanderhaeghe: The Englishman’s Boy
Francis Spufford: Unapologetic
Scot McKnight: The King Jesus Gospel
Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Marilynne Robinson: Gilead
Wendell Berry: A World Lost
Tom Wright: Simply Jesus
R.T. France: Mark (Doubleday Bible Commentary)
N.T. Wright: Simply Good News
Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford
C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity
O. Hallesby: Prayer
Wendell Berry: Hannah Coulter
Thomas Hardy: The Woodlanders
Elizabeth Gaskell: The Moorland Cottage
Michael Curry: Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus
Craig Johnson: A Cold Dish
Wendell Berry: Remembering
Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
Jack Nisbet: Sources of the River
John Goldingay: Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone
D’arcy Jenish: Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West
Craig Johnson: Death Without Company
Craig Johnson: Kindness Goes Unpunished
Francis S. Collins: The Language of God
William E. Moreau, Ed.: The Writings of David Thompson, Vol. 1: The Travels, 1850 Version.
Craig Johnson: Another Man’s Moccasins
C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
C.S. Lewis: Miracles
Paula Gooder: Heaven
C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain
Ursula K. LeGuin: The Tombs of Atuan
Sarah McLean: Pink is the New Black
Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons
Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth
N.T. Wright: Luke for Everyone
C.J. Sansom: Lamentation
Harold Percy: Your Church Can Thrive
Dan Rubinstein: Born to Walk
Nick Baines: Why Wish You A Merry Christmas?
Stephen Cottrell: Walking Backwards to Christmas
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation of the Word of God
John Grisham: The Rogue Lawyer
Adam Hamilton: Making Sense of the Bible
Wendell Berry: This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems

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A few reflections.

First, this is a much longer list than the one I posted this time last year. I was disappointed in myself at how little I’d read last year, when I remembered what an avid reader I used to be. This year I’ve intentionally spent a lot less time surfing the web and reading blogs, and more time on reading books, both light and substantial. And I’ve enjoyed it.

Some of these were books I worked on for a while. The Writings of David Thompson, for instance, was one I worked on, on and off, for a couple of months, and so was the big fat Wendell Berry poetry book This Day.

I’ve discovered a few authors I’ve really enjoyed this year. Guy Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy about the old Canadian/American west was hugely enjoyable; I’ll look forward to reading anything new he comes out with. I read my first Salman Rushdie book and really liked it. I enjoyed Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries way more than the Netflix TV series based on them. And (how come it took me so long) I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin and I know I’ll go on to read a lot more of her books.

A couple of broadly ‘Christian’ books stood out for me. Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible is one of the best introductory books I’ve ever read; he tells the story of how the Bible came about, discusses issues like biblical authority, ‘inerrancy’ etc., and then goes on to consider specific issues: creation and science, violence, homosexuality. Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic was a fresh way of approaching the whole issue of commending Christianity to others, not so much by intellectual argument as by reflecting on our emotional makeup as human beings. Ole Hallesby’s old classic Prayer was refreshing and inspiring, and again I found myself asking ‘How come I waited so long to read it?’

Finally, I’ve decided to slowly re-read my C.S. Lewis collection, and I made a good start this year. I hadn’t read Miracles or The Problem of Pain since the 1980s, and I remembered them as being a difficult read, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn’t find them anything like as hard as I had expected; I thoroughly enjoyed them, in fact.

What’s ahead? My good friend Daren Wride has written a book called DNA of a Christ-Follower; he was kind enough to ask my opinion of an earlier draft of the book, and I’m looking forward to reading the final text. I’ve also decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy; I read the Inferno and half of the Purgatorio a few years ago, but then ran out of steam. I’m going to have another go at them. I’m looking forward to more Ursula LeGuin, more re-reading of C.S. Lewis, and some more poetry, too: I’ve got some volumes of Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, and John Keats in my pile. Also in the pile are Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 1541 French edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (quite a bit shorter than the final version), and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. And I’m sure that when I want an easy read I’ll read a few more of Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries!

That’s just the stuff I know about, but of course, there will be surprises – even surprisers that are already on my shelves. Like most readers, I’ve bought books I’ve left unread, for one reason or another. I know from long experience that at least once this year I’ll probably have the experience of taking one of those ‘undiscovered countries’ down from the shelf, starting to read it, and finding it unexpectedly good.

Happy reading in 2016, folks!

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

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-two 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 thank you.

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One of the many reasons I love the writing of Wendell Berry…

…is paragraphs like this:

When he lets himself out through the lot gate and into the open, past the barn and the other buildings, he can see the country lying under the sun. Nearby, on his own ridges, the crops are young and growing, the pastures are lush, a field of hay has been raked into curving windrows. Inlets of the woods, in the perfect foliage of the early season, reach up the hollows between the ridges. Lower down, these various inlets join in the larger woods embayed in the little valley of Shade Branch. Beyond the ridges and hollows of the farm he can see the opening of the river valley, and beyond that the hills on the far side, blue in the distance.

Or how about this:

A water thrush moves down the rocks of the streambed ahead of him, teetering and singing. He stops and stands to watch while a striped woodpecker works its way up the trunk of a big sycamore, putting its eye close to peer under the loose scales of the bark. And then the bird flies to its nesting hole in a hollow snag still nearer by to feed its young, paying Mat no mind. He has become still as a tree, and now a hawk suddenly stands on a limb close over his head. The hawk loosens his feathers and shrugs, looking around him with his fierce eyes. And it comes to Mat that once more, by stillness, he has passed across into the wild inward presence of the place.

Yes, I think if I could write paragraphs like that, I would call myself a writer.

By the way, both of these paragraphs are taken from a story called ‘The Boundary’, found in the collection entitled ‘That Distant Land: The Collected Stories‘ (published in 2004 by Counterpoint).

More about Wendell Berry here.

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The Joy of Teaching Primary Sources

Excellent piece by Ben Myers:

For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one’s own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis’ brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine’s Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

Read the rest here.

A few years ago I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time, and experienced exactly what Ben Myers talks about here. Previously I knew Augustine only second-hand, from other people’s summaries of his thought, and my Anabaptist reading had coloured my thinking about him. I saw Augustine as the first apologist for Christendom (fail!), one of the earliest defenders of a Christian just war position (fail!), the one who taught the rather strange view that babies are guilty of the sin of their forebears (and hence need to be baptized to wash away the stain of the original sin) (fail!). But I had not realized what a brilliant thinker Augustine actually was, or the depth of his spiritual insights into the human condition.

Reading the Confessions forced me to grapple with Augustine himself, not other people’s ideas about him, and I am grateful. I’ve had this experience with other old authors too – and not just Christians. Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, St. John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Povertyand the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Reading Myer’s piece has reminded me of the importance of this sort of reading. I have a few other books on my shelves that I want to read or re-read: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Son of God, Thomas Cranmer’s A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On the Love of God, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the shorter 1541 version, not the voluminous 1559 version, which I’ve tried and failed to finish!), St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, William Wilberforce’s Practical View, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith.

Which old authors have you read that have challenged and enriched your thinking?

Happy 450th birthday, Will Shakspear

During his lifetime William Shakespeare spelled his last name in a variety of ways; I’m rather fond of ‘Shakspear’ myself.

Will Shakspear was born 450 years ago this year. He was baptized on April 26th 1564; the actual date of his birth is not known, but baptism at the age of three days would have been a fair assumption, hence the convention of celebrating his birthday on April 23rd (which, 52 years later, was the date of his death).

Personally I would have no problem calling Shakspear the greatest writer in the English language. His plays, of course, were meant to be seen, not read, and I’m sure millions of English schoolchildren, like me, have struggled with them as printed texts but been thrilled by them as they are brought alive on the stage. One of the things I’m proud of is that we gave our children the chance to see Shakspear live before they read him. It appears to have worked; they all seem to enjoy him.

Will Shakspear does not need my praise. I’m reminded of the story of a man who was walking through an art gallery making disparaging comments about the paintings. Finally the exasperated curator said, “Sir, the paintings are not on trial – you are!” By all the standards we possess, Shakspear was at least ‘a’ great writer – I would say, ‘the’ great writer, the one who formed our language, captured our imagination, and gave us a compelling vision, not of humanity as it should be, but of humanity as it actually is, in all its nobility and wickedness. And he did it with that deliciously outrageous sense of humour that has given us not only tragic characters like Lear and Macbeth, or villains like Richard III, or pedants like Polonius and Jaques, but also wonderful comic figures like Sir Toby Belch, or Sir John Falstaff, or Robin Goodfellow (otherwise known as Puck), or Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head.

Thank you, Master Shakspear. You did your job well, and we can all enjoy the benefits of it, if we want to. A very happy 450th birthday to you, sir.

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