It is August 28th when I write this which is the Saint Day of St. Augustine. One of the famous stories that Augustine tells in his confessions is of his conversion where a little childlike voice chants “tolle lege” or “Take and read”. He took it as the divine command or invitation to take up the Bible and read it. A book which the educated man had shunned for years. He opened to Romans and the rest is history.
September is a month where we put aside the diversions of sun and fun and summer and tolle lege, pick up and read again. Some of us (child #2 David) reluctantly and other with fondness. In that vein I thought that I might put together a short list. A challenge reading list (since I can’t really assign them) for you this year. These are books or works that have greatly impacted me. They are also books which I believe are worth returning to if just to dip in and remind ourselves. What you saw in them at 12 or 22 or 32 or (sigh) 42, and probably beyond, is different. The scars and lenses change. So here are five + one.
The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism & One Confessional Work
Everyone should read the catechism at least yearly if not devotionally in prayer. Luther’s small portion, like youth, is wasted on the young. There are six parts. Take one a day for a week and ponder the answers. Peruse the synod’s questions and see just how full the biblical basis is for this foundation. Then Challenge yourself over the rest of a month to read the Larger Catechism and either the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord or the Smalcald Articles. I’d challenge you to notice that even as the questions change and get stickier or more opaque, the fundamental question remains. How do we life faithfully where God has placed us? As Augustine might say how does the City of God reside within the City of Man?
The Freedom of a Christian
This is the crossing of the Rubicon work. Yes it includes an opening dedication to Leo X, but the offer reminds me of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace offer of peace to the English. Uncorking 120 proof grace and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – the inebriating joy of freedom comes through on every page. Written in German (vs. Latin) it was published and sold for pennies to the folk. And its final plea or prayer is for theodidacti – hearts taught by God as he promised. “Tolle, Lege.”
Surprised by Joy
This is C.S. Lewis’ semi-autobiography. I say semi because the main character might be Lewis, but the real main character is God. Lewis captures the constant presence of Joy in his life, even when he didn’t believe. He captures how this Joy exists mid toil and pain and still abounds and expands. And eventually he captures how this joy finds its fulfillment in the heart of God. “We are restless, until we find our rest in thee.”
Children of Men
Please don’t just watch the very bad movie. Read the P. D. James novel. We are swamped with dystopian novels and heroes from Batman to Katniss. James conjures up such a world that is all too possible, but also manages to hint at how this world actually works. We carry the treasure in jars of clay. The jars are always breaking, but life returns. And it is in the very weakness and loss that God is most fully seen. “Seek not to understand that you might believe, but believe that you might understand.”
Augustine’s Confessions to scholars have always carried a striking relationship to this Latin Epic. Pious Aeneas carries Troy and the household gods to Italy stopping in Carthage with Dido, descending to the underworld, taking up his fate written on a shield, and founding the Eternal Empire. Instead of reading glory from a shield, Augustine takes and reads the scriptures. In the collapse of that eternal empire, Augustine would point to the City of God. Augustine would transform Roman piety to Christian, but it is worth understanding the original. There are two great modern English translations (Feagles and Rudin). “It was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels.” Or maybe, “the good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but — what is worse — the slave of as many masters as he has vices.”
And now for the plus one. All theology ends in doxology; all meditation turns toward prayer and praise. Pick up a poetry book. The hymnal was traditionally the layman’s book. A book full of verse. If you want a modern, try Dana Gioia. He has a good selection on his website. Your great-grandkids will be reading him. Try Litany and Planting a Sequoia for a start. Shakespeare’s sonnets are always free. Then come back to the Psalms.
“Tolle, Lege.” And do let me know if you take any of these up.