Tag Archives: Books

September Newsletter – Pastor’s Corner

Book Reading I sadly came across the comic to the left after we went to press on this. It was the perfect piece to take down the pretension of the actual article.

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.”

The Aeneid
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.”

Plus One
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.

HT:Elizabeth Bruenig

Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber – A Book Review

Pastrix Book CoverFirst the who, what, where and why facts. The author of Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is an ELCA pastor at a church plant in Colorado called House for All Sinners and Saints. You could say she is a second career minister if you accept a prodigal life as a first career. The cover photo gives you the arm tats and the general ancient-future vibe by using the illuminated bible artwork. Pastor Bolz-Weber and her congregation are an interesting blend of that no longer useful word emergent and liturgical churches. She planted this congregation about the same time I arrived at St. Mark’s and started with roughly the same number in worship on an average Sunday. Just that horrible comparable intersection makes the book necessary reading for me; we are sharing a path of building congregations. The other portion that makes the book, for me at least, necessary reading is that when I read or hear her preaching, I hear many of the same Lutheran-ish concepts. I can hear the gospel and find myself saying Amen. Hearing the gospel as clearly as I can from her preaching is not an everyday thing. And yet she and I would not see eye-to-eye on many things. And that would not, at least from my viewpoint, be caused by general political ideology. (She is a creature of the left, and I am in general a man of the right). We would seem to share the same low anthropology and high Christology that is a reformation and Lutheran must. (One political comment, I don’t know how you can be of the left and hold a reformation anthropology. Being progressive would seem to mean that you think we can progress. The low anthropology of the reformation would say back – “no, you are a sinner, you may change the sins you indulge, but still the same”. My politics of the right really starts from that point; it is a politics of managing the crooked timber which in general means creating as many break-walls as possible. My political nightmare is large scale uniformity which always ends in large scale tyranny and misery.) Back to the book, sharing that theology, I was hoping to see how she makes it work in a completely different way. I wanted to be able to write a review that was more glowing. Instead I have that quizzical and queasy feeling when people are using important words with strangely different definitions.

There are three points that stuck out to me a stumbling blocks or scandals to just shouting Amen at the end. First, while Pastor Bolz-Weber is able to say some nice things about people like her parents or like the LCMS, she seems oblivious to the difference in how she treats them verses how they treat her. She almost always goes back to “beating the fundy” to maintain her differentiation, while they display love. Stringing a couple of such situations together.

I knew that I had to get out. I was a strong, smart and smart-mouthed girl, and the church I was raised in had no place for that kind of thing even though they loved me. (loc 170)… Church, for all its faults, was the only place outside of my own home where people didn’t gawk at me or make fun of me. I could go to church and be greeted with my actual name and not a taunt. I could go to church and be part of the youth group. I could go to church and no one stared (loc 278)… But I soon learned that there was actually a whole world of Christians who take Matthew 25 seriously, who believe that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick, we do so to Jesus’ own self. They weren’t magical fantasy creatures, they were just a kind of Christian I had never heard of. (loc 487)

It goes on like that throughout the whole book. What she gives and acknowledges with one hand she punches and takes back with the other. What she says she wants to be, her parents are – welcoming the stranger, even when the stranger is your own little girl. When she actually says something that offends her erstwhile political allies, it is mean old LCMS’er Chris Rosebrough who calls and who flat out stops the attacks and calls her friend. While she is worried about hurts thousands of miles away that we can’t really do anything about, it is “the mean people” who love what is given to them. That is one Lutheran concept that Pastor Bolz-Weber did not pick up. What is our vocation? Do what is in front of us.

The second item, and the queasiest I got, circled around her pastoral and liturgical reactions to a transgendered parishioner. What Pastor Bolz-Weber did you would not find even in the ELCA agenda book (at least not yet). They set up a “shrine to himself as a girl (loc 1430)” which is populated with pictures of this person as a young child in dresses and pigtail and they put a candle in the middle “which caused the (given) name to move and change hue”. “We decided that at Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we would include within the liturgy a naming rite. Mary would become Asher in the midst of a liturgy where Jesus was named “Son” and “Beloved (loc 1435).””

My first reaction here was simply pagan, the setting up a shrine to our ancestors but in our narcissistic age the shrine becomes to ourselves and how we want to mold ourselves. Turning more theological I thought about the day they chose. When Jesus was baptized what he does is two-fold. First he is declaring his solidarity with sinners, with us. Jesus stands under those waters of repentance not needing them, but taking them for us. The second thing he does is declare his own blessing on the incarnation. It is speculation to think about those 30 silent years, but here in Jordan’s waters Jesus declares that he is messiah. This body, this incarnation, is God standing with and for His people. The Father affirms this with the voice from heaven – “This is my son” – and the Spirit descends as a grant of truth. This created liturgical rite denies the incarnation. The body that was created for this child of God would be denied. That beautiful name, Mary, would be obliterated. It is somewhat surprising that the written name wasn’t burned in the candle. Mary to Asher or Mary to Ash. Instead of following Jesus and being incarnations, God’s creation is denied and the blessings declared on it are appropriated for our own higher spiritual conception.

In what was one of the largest discordant notes, Pastor Balz-Weber first does what we see in the first point. She bashes the fundies. Mary/Asher came from the same Church of Christ tradition as she. First bash, “not unlike soldiers who survived the same bloody battle”. Attempting to live the Christian life, Mary/Asher saw a “Christian” therapist who instead of following repentance and absolution as many as 70 * 7 (i.e. infinite), prescribes behavioral therapy – when you have homosexual thoughts snap yourself with a rubber band. Aristotle might agree with such therapy, but Chrsitian? No way. After bashing the silly fundamentalists, she turns to justifying by interpreting the lives of Paul and Luther. Her interpretation of Paul:

And then he went from Saul to Paul, from being the best at being a Jew to being the best at being a Christian. Only, at some point he realized that no one could really pull that off. That’s when Paul finally understood grace. (Loc 1444)

As far as I can read Galatians and Acts that pretty much gets everything backward. Paul insists that he understands grace because of his Damascus Road vision of the living Christ. Paul tells the story himself in Galatians 1:11-2:2. Paul would never claim to be a “super-christian” as she says, although he would say things like follow me as I follow Christ much later than Galatians. She takes a true inner change – the meeting of the living Christ where everything that came before is worthless – and applies it to an outer change (female to male) so that the person feels like who they have always been. Likewise she appropriates the Luther story as “standing up to the angry vengeful God from the church”. As far as I can tell, the grace on offer to Mary/Asher was: you are who you feel you are, stay who you feel you are, and God will complete it. That is scarily close to the medieval church’s, “do what you can and buy the indulgence and trust the saints”. The dependence upon God’s action is the gospel, but the proclamation to just be what you think yourself to be is of this world.

And that brings me to what I might call the third idol in the book. Pastor Bolz-Weber consistently and rightly sees that she falls in love with an image of herself. The one she keeps returning to is the romantic idea of dying young. She is in love with the idea of herself as a “bad-ass”. This is something that she has recognized and worked on. Toward the end of the memoir she states what might be the mission statement of House for All Sinners and Saints. If it is not the formal one, it is a guiding idea. “When one of the main messages of the church is that Jesus bids you come and die (die to self, die to your old ideas, die to self-reliance), people don’t tend to line the block for that shit.” The problem with that is I never actually see her pastoring her people in that way. She is constantly bleeding for people far away – Haiti, New Orleans. She is constantly patting herself on the back for her welcoming the stranger. She herself has experience a dying and a rising – alcoholism, her dreams of what HFASS is and should be (her story of “rally day” is one that pierces me). But she never proclaims this to “her people”. She doesn’t say to poor Mary that maybe your conception of yourself as a man is what needs to die, and you will struggle with that your entire life, unless God agrees to remove the thorn. She wants to say that HFASS is “a place where difficult truths can be spoken and everyone is welcome, and where we pray for each other (loc 604)”, but “The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority (loc 542).” That is an opening not only for denying the difficult truth, but for the substitution of lies in the form of truth. She says she believes in portents but only in retrospect (loc 669), but her life is full of portents that she still doesn’t get. Her parents’ constant love and that of all those evil bad benighted fundies. Pastor Bolz-Weber still has an image of herself she is in love with. It is one shared by most of her church as the real loving ones and not those hateful sectarians. The trouble is that it’s an idol. As she herself says, “every single time I die to something—my notions of my own specialness, my plans and desires for something to be a very particular way—every single time I fight it and yet every single time I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted (loc 1987).”

Even given those serious troubles, I can still hear the gospel through Pastor Bolz-Weber. And I think it might go back to her calling story. “It was long before I went to seminary and got ordained, but doing PJ’s funeral—as his only “religious” friend—was the first time I realized that God was calling me to be a pastor to my people. (Loc 1736).” What I must confront is the experience of hearing the gospel in a place that is exceedingly heterodox. We are not privy to the counsels of the most high. While the actions might grate and the bible be dismissed and all kinds of error not only accepted by endorsed, that might be as close to the gospel as “her people” can get. And Jesus might have said, “it’s enough”. And as much as I could be like Peter complaining pointing at John – “what about him”, the answer is that is none of my business, work your field. And, Love covers a multitude. If there is one thing you can’t deny, it is that Pastor Bolz-Weber loves “her people”. Yes, I wish she loved them enough to share a little more truth, but she is sharing what she knows. And we must wrestle with the fact that it sounds like the gospel.

Name Dropping

Ever run across one of those names that make you think, “I should know this person, but I don’t?” I ran across a quote/tweet reference here regarding the whole Gen. Petraeus affair.

Which led Joyce Carol Oates to tweet:

Don’t understand why “adultery” is quasi-illegal in a nation in which church & state are separate….

…..the ugly word “bastard” has been phased out of usage & next should come “adultery” with its Biblical rectitude & cruelty.

My reactions is order were: 1) those are amazingly ignorant comments on so many levels, 2) bastard might have been phased out because the person it hurt was the only one who could be claimed innocent in an affair combined with the fact that we abort them today, and 3) who is Joyce Carol Oates?

Now I vaguely knew that she was a writer of some sorts. What I couldn’t square was how a writer, especially a “serious” writer, could be so well dumb. If there is one requirement of an author it is usually a discerning social eye. So I decided to look Ms. Oates up at that first quick internet stop wikipedia. Usually there are titles that will jog the memory, “oh, that’s the book that I should have read if I want to claim to be truly literate”. And since I was actually looking for something to feel guilty about, this was not a large hurdle. As I scanned the significant bibliography nothing said here is your guilt. So following a quote I clicked through to one of the books. The first paragraph just might explain everything about this moment in America.

Blonde is a bestselling 2000 historical novel by Joyce Carol Oates that chronicles the inner life of Marilyn Monroe, though Oates insists that the novel is a work of fiction that should not be regarded as a biography. It was a finalist of the Pulitzer Prize (2001) and the National Book Award (2000). Rocky Mountain News and Entertainment Weekly have listed Blonde as one of Joyce Carol Oates’s best books, and Oates herself has said that Blonde is one of the two books (along with 1969’s them) for which she thinks she will be remembered.

Away with such Biblical rectitude and cruelty. Bring on the inner life of Marilyn festooned with awards.

Saturday Book – One Thousand Gifts – part 2 (a little late, sorry)

Dante’s Divine Comedy starts our with the line “In the middle of life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood. The true way was lost…” Chapter 1 of One Thousand Gifts is Ann Voskamp confronting that her way was lost.

I. The most stark of these passages starts on page 9 and continues for a couple of paragraphs. From…through: “For decades, a life….snapped shut to grace”

The questions that I asked myself and the groups were: What are the possible reactions to loss? What were AV’s? What kind of paths does that set you on.

This little graphic above highlights the problem. One reaction is the reaction of the law which is curved inward. Cutting off more and more of yourself in reaction to loss. Eventually trying to save yourself, you lose yourself. The opposite reaction is grace which moves outward.

II.The next passage that digs a little more into this starts on page 13: “I keep my eyes…branded our lives”

Mull in your heads her Dad’s words. What way is her Dad spiraling? What amount of control is he attempting to exert? Who does he not trust?

Taking a step into the religious realm , does the law (the 10 commandments as a handy substitute) make sense? Even at a simple level do we grasp what they are asking? Do they sound like a good thing? Can we do them? What is the end of the law? (Or what is the end of AV’s Dad’s life of trying to control everything?)

Compare that to the cross, does the cross make sense?

The law makes sense and even sounds like a good thing, but we can’t do it. We can try. We can cut our lives down. We can curve inward ever more, but even that smaller life is uncontrollable. The end point of the law is death, a life closed to anything other than pain. When you compare that to the cross, the cross makes no sense. We don’t get the cross, but a life lived under the cross opens up. We’ve observed those. Yes there is pain, but something transcends that pain. A life lived losing it, is one that ends up saving it.

III. Passage Starting on page 15. “From all of our beginnings…all of the remaining paradise”

What is AV’s diagnosis of sin or our natural state? In grasping for the apple/in grasping for control what are we saying? Who are we turning toward? (Compare that to John 1:1 – “the word was with God” in our English has the Greek preposition to or toward. A very wooden literal translation is – “The Word was towards God”.)

I’m Lutheran so I have another reference point here – Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1519) Thesis 19 – “The person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as thought they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.”

In the middle of loss what is the worst thing that we have all heard?
Per Luther #19 – a) don’t talk to me a deeper reasons. God hasn’t told me those. And he probably isn’t going to tell me. b) but like AV’s dad we want to know the invisible things. We want them to make sense.
How has sin altered us so that we no longer see? Why does that outward curve look so scary?

IV. Passage starting on page 18: “John shrugs his shoulders…remembering the story too.”

Here is Ann’s clue or her witness. Thinking of John’s witness…What is the great lie of “our” lives? What does following that path lead to? What gets “cut off” to keep the illusion going?

V. Passage starting on page 22: “They eat the mystery…To more God places?”

What does AV describe losses as? What do losses force us to confront?

Luther Heidelberg Disp #20 – “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God see through suffering and the cross.”

In what is God most made manifest? How is the cross the start of an “emptier, fuller life”? Why is that such a scandal?

Saturday Book – One Thousand Gifts – Post 1

We have been reading this book – One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp – in our Thursday Bible study group. I’m going to kick off a web series for Saturdays with this book. I’m not sure exactly how to replicate the discussion of the live group. So what I’m going to do first week is suggest the book and give my quick review/preview. Then over the following Saturdays post the study questions, themes, discussion starters that I found while reading and used with the group. Maybe give some of my personal musings around those questions. Some books will take longer than other. This particular one is packed full. We seem to be taking 1 chapter a week although I expect to pick up pace after chapter 4. I can’t recommend it enough. But I can say you really should read it with somebody else to share the questions. So here is my review/preview.

There is a surface way to read this book as “one woman’s story”. It is a good book in that sense although stylistic and aesthetic questions to me would just make it a good book on par with many other memoirs produced today. But AV’s one woman’s story is actually a universal story. It is a challenge and a spotlight. As a spotlight it highlights ground that frankly many of us will never walk – the ground being too scary to walk. It gives us a mental picture and some of the emotional experience without the risk. It stands as a challenge to walk there anyway. St. Paul would write in Eph 2:10 that, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10 ESV) We don’t know where that road leads or what those forms the light shines on are for us. AV encourages or invites us to walk anyway.

In that way, in being one woman’s story that is also a universal story, this book stands in a great tradition of mystical yet practical Christian writing. You could say it starts with Augustine’s Confessions, wanders through such works as Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, John Tauler and Meister Eckhardt (the German mystic predecessors to Luther), to the more modern example of Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain or the writings of Henri Nouwen. AV has written a deep book. I’ve read it through now about three times and find stuff each time. I am coming at this from a more Lutheran/Catholic view. If this falls into someone in the Reformed Tradition I’m sure that there are other examples like maybe Oswald Chambers or an older example being the Nevin and Schaff Mercersburg Theology of the sacrament. (AV seems to have a very sacramental view of life and world. That is odd for a Zondervan published work, but hopefully a signal of good things as this is a very popular book.) The biggest accomplishment of One Thousand Gifts, is how deep its roots are in the Christian tradition and how rich the life portrayed is, and yet it is a completely modern work. In a modern world drained of meaning and grace – AV provides a spotlight and challenge for how to live that today. The themes are universal and deeply orthodox; the life is from today.

100 Best

I ran across this list from the Modern Library Association of the 100 Best Novels (I believe it is of the 20th century or since the 20th century). The interesting thing is the comparison of “The Board’s” picks and then “The Reader’s” picks. The picture is the top 10 of each.

The Randians and the Scientologists (Hubbard) obviously came out to vote from the top 10 on the reader’s side, but the deeper comparison is still interesting. Other than maybe the Invisible Man you will not find a genre fiction selection on the the board side. The reader side is full of Sci-Fi – Dune, Heinlein, and Bradberry. The Board puts D.H. Lawrence at number 9 and some other “subversive” fiction on the list which doesn’t even make the top 100 on the readers list. Somewhat opposite of that, the readers recognize Flannery O’Connor (#38) – a southern writer who happened to be deeply Catholic – and a couple of other “theological” writers that do not appear on the board list. Naipaul gets a (deserved) nod from the Board, but my guess is that he’s just a little too “other” for the readers – chalk it up to urbanity of imagined board. (The readers sneak in Rushdie with his first work at number 100 as their nod to something good there, but we don’t really read it.)

Three questions: of these lists which book is most likely to still be read (or at least assigned) 100 years from now? 200 years? (I can’t believe more that 1 or 2 would be in that time frame.) Which list is more important for being that book or stated otherwise: Does Ayn Rand or James Joyce have the best chance? Last question: did they miss your favorite book or any glaring omissions? (I think they missed P.D. James Children of Men.)

Anne of Green Gables – On Prayer

Reading Anne of Green Gables to the 8 year old, and I’m enjoying it as much if not more than her. From chapter 7 entitled Anne Says her Prayers…

She had intended to teach Anne the childish classic, ‘now I lay me down to sleep’. But she had the glimmerings of a sense of humor – which is simply another name for a sense of the fitness of things; and it suddenly occurred to her that that simple little prayer…was entirely unsuited to this freckled girl who knew and cared nothing about God’s love, since she had never had it translated to her through the medium of human love.

The entire chapter is a classic. It would probably teach more about how and what to pray than a hundred catechisms.