Reading as Prayer through Lent & Easter: a book (p)review

We are nearing the beginning of Lent. I love this season! I find the preparatory seasons of the church calendar (Lent and Advent) great times to press into devotional practices which are difficult for me the rest of the time. Wednesday, I will find a church service to attend so I can get the Face-palm of Death (AKA the Imposition of Ashes). I will fast. I will engage spiritual disciplines. This season is sacred time and I enter in eager to see what God will do in me. 

between-midnight-and-dawnOne of my conversation partners this Lent will be Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide for  Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, 2016),  compiled by Sarah Arthur). This is one of three devotionals Arthur has edited following the church calendar (also: At the Still Point: a Literary Guide for Prayer in Ordinary Time, and Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer For Advent, Christmas and Epiphany). At the Still Point was the only one of these devotionals I have read any of before, though my Ordinary Time resolve is nowhere near as resolute as my Lenten devotion.

Between Midnight and Dawn¬†pairs suggested weekly Scripture readings with prayers, poetry and fiction readings. There are seven readings for each week of Lent‚ÄĒsix poems and one piece of fiction. During Holy Week and Triduum, there are scriptures and 5-7 literary selections for each day, before returning to the weekly format of Scriptures, poetry, and fiction for each week of Eastertide.

The poems and fiction are selected to lead us deeper into the land of Prayer. Arthur suggests reading this literature, applying aspects of¬†lectio¬†divina‚ÄĒlectio¬†(reading), meditatio¬†(reading it again, several more times, slowly), oratio¬†(paying attention to words and phrases)¬†and¬†contemplatio¬†(shifting our focus to God’s presence,¬†p.13). Certainly, this takes a little bit of time. The story sections are longer (because ‘fiction doesn’t work its magic right away’), so Arthur suggests saving the story for a day of the week when we have time to just focus on the story.

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter¬†(Plough Publishing. 2002)¬†is a similar sort of¬†devotional, using literature as a way into this liturgical season. Arthur’s selection is different in that she is more focused on reading literature as an act of prayer, and the scriptural readings (absent from¬†Bread and Wine) give focus to daily practice.

As of yet, I haven’t really read the book, only scanned the selections, the poems and stories selected.¬† Arthur has chosen both contemporary and eminent voices from the past.¬† Poets like Hopkins, Donne, Rosetti, Herbert, Tennyson but also those like Luci Shaw, Katherine James, Scott Cairns, John Fry, Tania Runyan). There are stories from Buechner, Chesterton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Macdonald. There are some favorite poets and poems I am surprised to not see here, but I am interested to¬†read the ones which Arthur has chosen. I am excited to journey with poets and storytellers on my Lenten journey

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of review.

If you would like to get a copy for yourself for Lent you can purchase it from

Paraclete Press

Amazon (also available on Kindle)

Barnes & Noble

or wherever fine books are sold.

 

You’re My Wonderwell: a ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖbook review

Clyde Kilby (1902-1986) is remembered fondly by students he taught literature and writing to at Wheaton College.¬†He is known more widely still for being an early evangelical champion of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. He founded Wheaton’s¬† Marion Wade Collection which houses manuscripts and letters from Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton and George Macdonald.

a-well-of-wonderIn A Well of Wonder(Mount Tabor Books, 2016), editors Loren Wilkinson¬†& Keith Call draw together various essays and chapters which¬†Kilby wrote¬†about this collection of writers.¬†The chapters of this book¬†come¬†from published articles from Kilby (in Christianity Today, Intervarsity Magazine, journals, student publications, etc.), book chapters and interviews. The book opens with a Poetic tribute to Kilby from Luci Shaw. Part one of the book contains Kilby’s writings on Lewis, part two Tolkien,¬† and part three, the Inklings and the Christian imagination. Wilkinson writes an introduction and an afterward¬† which showcase both the influence that Lewis et al. had on Kilby and the sense of wonder Kilby imparted to Wilkinson in his student days.

Kilby met Lewis only once in 1953, but had a deep appreciation for Lewis’ imagination and his ability to communicate difficult and deep theological truths in a accessible and winsome manner.¬† The essays in chapter one range from in-depth examinations of Lewis’s writings, to discussions of Lewis’ life and character. Kilby knew the Lewis corpus well. He focuses most of his comments on Lewis’s literary works (e.g. his fiction, Children’s literature, and biography, Surprised by Joy) but he appreciated the clarity of Mere Christianity, Miracles and others of Lewis’s apologetic writings.

Kilby¬†met Tolkien later, in 1964 while visiting Oxford. The two men struck up a friendship and began¬†writing each other. ¬†Kilby¬†would return¬†to Oxford in the summer 1966 to attempt to help Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication (though it became clear that Tolkien would never finish it).¬† There is a good longish essay about Kilby and Tolkien’s friendship and Kilby’s observations (chapter 15).¬†Kilby takes Tolkien at his word that there is no Christian allegory undergirding his Middle Earth myths, but he does probe The Silmarillion and LOTRs for the echoes of the biblical story (as well as the Hobbit and shorter tales like Leaf by Niggle).

In the final section, there is a couple of good essays on Williams and his influence on (and differences from) Lewis and Tolkien, a good essay on Dorothy Sayers, and a couple of chapters about the formation and growth of the Wade Collection and reflections on reading and writing fiction well from a Christian perspective. I particularly appreciated Kilby’s discussion of Williams.

Kilby was an incisive reader of Lewis and Tolkien¬†(and the others).¬†I learned a great deal from his close readings and was charmed by his remembrances of Lewis, and especially Tolkien.¬†These reflections are more appreciative than critical. He doesn’t explore the ambiguities of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore as later biographies would. He also has very¬†little to say about the cooling off of Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship when Williams joined the Inklings (or later when Lewis married Joy Davidman). Kilby showed little interest in the sordid and questionable details of his heroes lives, and focused instead on glimmer of light he saw in these men and their luminous prose.

To me, the introduction and afterward¬†are part of the fun of this book. I was a student at Regent when¬†Wilkinson taught full time and have seen how he brings people to the well of wonder, as Kilby had done for him (and Lewis and the Inklings did for Kilby). It is the grand-daddy of Christian fantasy writing, George Macdonald, who gets the final word in Wilkinson’s afterward:

The water itself, that dances and sings, and slakes the wonderful thirst‚ÄĒsymbol and picture of that draught for which the woman of Samaria made her prayer to Jesus . . .this water is its own self, its own truth, and is therein a truth of God. Let him who would know the truth of the Maker, become sorely athirst and drink the brook by the way‚ÄĒthen lift up his heart‚ÄĒnot at the moment to the maker of oxygen and hydrogen, but to the Inventor and mediator of thirst and water, that man might foresee a little of what his soul may find in God. (337).

Kilby loved this group of British Christian writers because they slaked his thirst and he saw through them to the Source. I recommend this book for anyone who shares Kilby’s appreciation for Lewis and Tolkien (and those who just don’t get it). I give it five stars. ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Books in exchange for my honest review. Mount Tabor Books is an imprint of Paraclete.

Words For Readers and Writers: a book review

When I picked up Word for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues I had no idea who Larry Woiwode was. I had read his bio and knew he was an award winning novelist (William Faulkner Foundation Award, John DosPassos Prize, plus a finalist for the National Book Award and Book Critics Circle Award), recipient of the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Poet Laureate for the state of Norht Dakota since 1995. But I had not read any of his works, much less heard of them until I picked up this book.

I loved the beauty of Woiwode’s prose and am sure that this will not be the last of his books I read(unfortunately my local library only has a couple of his other books). These essays are compiled from previous publications in various journals and publications. They showcase ¬†Woidwode’s grasp of English literature and a lifetime of working with words. Some of these essays reflect on Woidwode’s own literary endeavors (there are a couple interviews of him in the collection). Other essays probe the writing of others. Still others are more reflective about the nature of writing and craft. My favorite of these essays (A Fifty-Year Walk with Right Words or A Writer’s Feel of Internal Bleeding, A to Z) are personally revealing.¬†

These essays form 21 chapters, organized into three parts: Uses of Words, Users of Words, Realms of Users. The theme joining the essays in each part is not always immediately apparent but in general part one ¬†is more descriptive of Woidworde’s own understanding of metaphor and words, part two (primarily) describes other writers, part three discusses the nature of writing and explores writing in different contexts. But these divisions are fluid and each essay (or interview, or speech) is a stand-alone piece.¬†

I came away from reading this, wanting to read more Woidwode. He is a Christian author and self consciously so, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his faith. ¬†My standing critique of Christian novelists is that they are all ‘tell’ with very little ‘show.’ By that I mean that their prose is baldly didactic with very little craft. In a novel that is unforgivable. But in a volume of essays I may let a little ‘telliness’ slide.

However I was pleasantly surprised. These essays are well crafted and beautiful. ¬†The importance of Woiwode’s faith is evident but this isn’t an apologetic or a thinly-veiled Bible lesson. This is a celebration of the power of words by a man who had dedicated his life and career to wordcraft. I enjoyed this book a lot. I give it four stars.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

Reading to the Choir: a book review

Christians are in a real sense people of the Book. What we know of God and his relationship with his people  is mediated to the church through the Bible.   And the Bible is not than just a book but an entire library which includes every genre of literature. So Christians ought to be readers, but this does not mean they ought to read anything and everything. Some books will lead Christians into vicarious sin (i.e. reading vivid sexual depictions will cause some readers to cross the line into sin) while others will cause them to gouge out their eyes  because of the poor writing.

Reading Between the Lines : A Christian Guide to Literature by Gene Edward Veith , Jr.

Gene Veith wrote Reading Between the Lines to help people be better readers. Good literature is not merely a matter of taste; there are objective criteria for judging a book’s merits (i.e. clarity, elements of style, etc.). Veith argues that reading a good book that you vehemently disagree with may be more beneficial than reading a bad book with which you agree.

 

Veith’s book is organized into four sections. The preface (chapters one and two) describe his purpose in writing, and the value of reading books critically.¬† The next section explores the forms of literature (non-fiction, fiction and poetry) and describes the elements of each. This section gives a fairly basic introduction to each form and describes the characteristics of good literature in each category. Next Veith describes modes of literature (tragedy and comedy, realism and fantasy).¬† In the final section¬† he describes the traditions of literature (the Middle Ages and¬† the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Romanticism and Modernism and Post-modernism). This brief historical overview of literature provides critical insight into the objectives of literature in each era (including our own).¬†The final chapter talks about the role of writers and publishers¬† in producing good literature and the role of readers in purposefully reading good literature. Veith urges us to stop wasting our reading on literary distractions but to read the good books (which in turn encourages publishers and writers to produce good books by creating a market for them).¬†

 

Reading Between the Lines was first published in 1990. This is not a revision or second edition, it is a new printing. At times the text feels dated. Neil Postman is spoken of as a living author (he past away ten years ago).¬† Annie Dillard is introduced as a Christian author (she has since moved somewhat in her spiritual life).¬† However much of the information in this book remains relevant. Vieth provides insights into the nature of literature–its forms, modes and traditions. He offers a robust defense for reading good literature, and for Christians to create it.¬† I think Christian highschool students or college students will benefit from what he says.¬†¬†This is a primer in Christian literary criticism from an able reader of texts.

All this is not to say that¬†more mature readers¬†will not draw valuable insights from the text. Veith has good stuff to say;¬†yet ¬†I wondered¬†who his intended audience is.¬†¬†This is an accessible but fairly dense book about literature.¬†I can’t image people who read bad books or no books being interested in reading a two hundred odd page Christian guide to literature.¬† This is preaching to the choir at its finest

.¬†I give this book ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ¬Ĺ.¬†Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Hobbit Forming Life: a book review

As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day.” ¬†Wars were fought and won,¬†infrastructure¬†was built and fortified, and the culture of the ancient West flourished as a result. Similarly, the Middle-Earth of Tolkien’s imagination did not spring up ex nihilo¬†from his imagination¬†but is the culmination of ¬† John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life work. Various elements of ¬†Middle Earth had their¬†genesis in ¬†his life experience and academic pursuits of Tolkien. ¬†In¬†Tolkien: The Making of a Legend,¬†noted expert on Tolkien and the Inklings, Colin Duriez, tells the story of Tolkien’s life and the events which shaped him as an author.

J.R.R. Tolkein: The Making of a Legend by Colin Duriez

Tolkien’s life story found its way into his fiction. ¬†A tarantula bite in ¬†childhood may have ¬†provided the background fpr Ungoliant or Shelob (13) . ¬†Places that were special to Tolkien provided the basis for important locations (i.e. ¬†the Shire, the two towers, the Ivy Bush all have their origin in actual locations). The love Tolkien had for his wife Edith provided the ¬†inspiration for the story of ¬†Luthien and Beren (one of the central legends of Middle Earth). ¬†His experience of warfare in World War I made him critical of the way technology was destroying modern life(a major theme in the¬†LotR¬†trilogy). But Tolkien’s literary vision was also enriched by his friendships and academic pursuits.

In his schooldays he and a group of literary friends ¬†formed a ‘Tea Club, later known as ¬†the TCBS (Tea Club Barrovian Society). ¬†They dreamed of later literary achievements (though several members did not ¬†survive the First World War). As an academic at Oxford, Tolkien formed the ‘Coal Biters’ a group which gathered weekly to translate and read Norse Mythology. Later, the Inkling(with C.S. Lewis and others) would meet Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child. The members of that group listened to, discussed ¬†and critiqued early drafts of¬†The Hobbit¬†and¬†The Lord of the Rings.¬†¬†The friendship with Lewis was mutually beneficial and while it cooled somewhat ¬†in later years, Tolkein and Lewis continued to support one another throughout their life. ¬†Tokien’s relationship with Lewis and other writers provided him the relational support he needed and helped him hone his craft as an author.

And of course Tolkien’s own genius ¬†grew up with keen interest in and talent for language. ¬†His skill at languages enabled him to create several Elvin languages. ¬†His work on the OED¬†(after his military service)¬†would prove to give him the proper training to create the world of Middle Earth and in later years, his academic writings mostly served to enrich his fiction.

This is an interesting biography and paints a compelling vision of its subject. ¬†Druiez shares the effect Tolkien’s reading of¬†Beowulf ¬†had¬†for his students. This, coupled with Tolkien’s belief in the power of story, makes me appreciate Tolkien’s fiction all the more. ¬†As one who has enjoyed Tolkien’s books (and Peter Jackson’s adaptations) I do not hesitate to recommend this book. It is a readable account of a much beloved author.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

 

 

Truth Told Slant: a book review

i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson  by Kristin Lemay

Emily Dickinson is a poet warmly appreciated for her wit and insight, remembered both for her prodigious output (mostly published posthumously) and her eccentric ¬†manner. She lived to age 55 but never left her yard after her late thirties. ¬†When she passed away her sister found nearly eight hundred poems in the bottom drawer of her dresser (as her poems were collected, nearly 1800 were discovered). ¬†Her poetry is colloquial–punctuated with dashes,full of slant rhymes, irregular meters and unconventional¬†capitalization. ¬†A cursory read of her poetry does not reveal their full meaning. Her poems were meditations on various themes and therefore require a slow meditative reading.

But what are we to make of Emily’s spiritual life? Her poems touch on God, on Christ, on death, on immortality, ¬†on beauty. She is sometimes claimed as a doubter and skeptic but her poems show her as a an occasional believer who did not so much eschew faith as easy faith and formulaic spirituality. Emily is more complicated than her portrait as a rebel, spinster waif. Her faith is also more complex than it may seem at first brush.

In¬†i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores the nature of Emily’s search for God. Emily claimed that she ‘could not pray,’ but LeMay mines twenty-five poems to see what they show us about the spiritual life as they relate to five broad themes: Belief, Prayer, Mortality, Immortality, and Beauty. LeMay is both¬†analytical¬†and¬†intuitive¬†in her reading of Emily and¬†intertwines¬†her exploration of theses poems with pieces of Emily’s biography and her own.

In discussing Emily’s Belief, LeMay explores Emily’s ‘conversion’ which meant for Emily letting go of her own¬†life. She failed to have a ‘conversion experience’ but her poems reveal the process by which she continued to wrestle with God and the ways that her poetry were her working out her ¬†own salvation. Likewise LeMay ¬†delves into the way Emily wrestles with her understanding of Scripture (the Center not the Circumference), the way Doubt is a form of Faith, and the way that belief brings understanding.

As LeMay explores the theme of Prayer, she observes that while Emily claims she cannot pray, her poems are a means of prayer (what Emily eschews is prayer as a scientific¬†experiment). ¬†LeMay also reflects on the influence of hymn meter on Emily, the way she addresses the Divine and her understanding of God’s presence. ¬†When so much prayer is technique and formula designed to force God’s hand, Emily’s critique is a good one.

Emily is sometimes described as overly morbid and obsessed with death. But Dickinson was surrounded by the death of loved ones and LeMay argues ¬†that ¬†Emily’s poems plumb the depths of human experience. And she does not regard death as a grim finality but holds out the hope of Immortality. However it is her exploration of Beauty where Emily speaks most profoundly about the ineffable.

I appreciate LeMay’s exploration of Dickinson and the homage she pays to her poetry. ¬†LeMay is a teacher of writing and adept at analyzing these poems(i.e. the way Dickinson uses meter to enhance meaning, and her unique syntax and vocabulary). ¬†While LeMay is sometimes intuiting what she feels is the best explanation of Emily’s faith, her observations are based in a detailed reading of Emily’s poems. She finds a kindred spirit in ‘saint Emily Dickinson’ as one who has struggled to come to terms with belief, Christian creeds, the experience of faith and the church. That being said, her own story and experience of faith is somewhat different from Dickinson’s and she is more forthright in sharing her own journey.

This book is a good introduction to the spirituality of Emily Dickinson and bears a certain similarity to Susan Vanzanten’s¬†Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson¬†(Cascade Books, 2011).¬†Dickinson was not an orthodox Christian and it is unclear how much of the creeds she could affirm. However, what Dickinson models is the honest struggle with faith and doubt. She doesn’t resort to pious formulas but asks hard question and¬†irreverently balks at tradition which she cannot square with her own experience. But she isn’t so much a mocking skeptic as an honest seeker.¬†¬† I would commend this book to those who are interested in exploring Dickinson’s faith or to her fellow¬†strugglers. May we wrestle with God and not let go.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. ¬†Below is a link to a book trailer for this book, which has a reading from a chapter called “Grasped By God” in the Beauty section of this book.

Hometown Prophet: a book review

While I have had opportunity to review Christian fiction in the past, I haven’t until now. I have my reasons. ¬†I don’t think that all Christian fiction is bad, I sort of put it in the category of ‘church coffee.’ You might get a decent cup of coffee after a church service, but you can’t expect it and the odds are your next couple will be god-awful (that is the technical term). ¬†I also am just not that into Amish Romance or whatever the kids are reading these days.

Why I am I so biased against religious fiction? Well I think the problem is that the genre category means that it is usually written with either didactic or apologetic intent (to teach you something or to stylistically vomit the gospel on you). This sometimes means that there is a compromise in  the artistic integrity of Christian novels (but yes there are also good ones).

But despite my biases and suspicions I liked¬†Hometown Prophet¬†a lot. The premise behind the story is this: Thirty-something Peter Quill moves back home to Nashville to live with his mom. He begins¬†receiving¬†prophetic dreams where he correctly¬†predicts¬†the future. Soon the visions he has put him at enmity with the Christian community in Nashville, especially when he calls into question people’s economic and ¬†ecological commitments and challenges them to regard Muslims as their neighbors.

Author Jeff Fulmer describes how he grew up in a conservative, charismatic household but became increasingly ill-at-ease with how Christianity was misrepresented ‘for personal and political gain.’ He wrote¬†Hometown Prophet¬†out of that frustration. But while this book is a book with a message, it doesn’t strike me as overly preachy. The main character, Peter Quill becomes increasingly confrontational in his prophecies and says a lot of things really strongly. Fulmer balances this by describing Peter’s¬†inadequacies¬†and shortcomings. ¬†He is a complex character, and the story is well crafted.

In this book Fulmer challenges us to pay attention to those around us, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to look for creative ways for God to use us (even if we never hear a prophetic word).  People on the far right may be challenged and offended by elements of this story, but I think challenge is good. This is a fun read which I recommend. Now if I could just get some decent church coffee.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.