CS Lewis Top Ten Books: 5-1

5. The Great Divorce – In this book, Lewis takes the reader on an allegorical journey of heaven and hell.  Honestly, this is one of those books that makes me surprised Lewis is so popular in evangelical Christian circles.  Were he living and writing today as a member of American evangelicalism, I suspect he would be highly criticized.  That aside, this is a fantastic work of speculative fiction.  Whatever you think about the afterlife, there is a lot here to ponder.  This book also shows Lewis’ brilliance in that he combined a tremendous talent for storytelling as well as an astute mind.  In other words, he did not just present his ideas in straightforward theology books but let them meander out in fascinating stories.

4. A Grief Observed – One of Lewis’ first books was The Problem of Pain.  In it he tackled the age old challenges to faith of evil and suffering.  Its not a bad book but it does not make my list because, helpful as such books are, they often appear separated from real life suffering.  Lewis, as a veteran of the first world war, was certainly familiar with suffering.  But I recall The Problem of Pain approaching the problem a bit too on the rationalistic side.  What is fascinating is how one of Lewis’ last books attacks the problem.  A lifelong bachelor, Lewis eventually married only to have his wife die of cancer.  The short book, A Grief Observed, is his raw and emotional cry in response to this suffering.  The rationalist presenting well thought out answers is gone in the face of a man nearing despair and questioning his faith.  Lewis did not lose his faith of course, and this book is brilliant for its honesty.

3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Finally we get to the Narnia stories.  I thought of just putting them at number one as a whole.  As I write this, I wonder why I did not include The Last Battle or The Horse and His Boy in my top ten.  But since I was a kid, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been one of my favorite stories.  It is the third Narnia story, the first without Peter and Susan.  We meet Eustace who joins his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, on a voyage to the end of the world.  I think there’s just something about quest stories that has always gripped me.  Of course, there is some fantastic imagery I did not get as a kid which I find profound now.

2. Mere Christianity – It was probably sometime in college when I first learned that the author of my favorite fantasy series had written other books.  This is Lewis’ most well-known work apart from Narnia and has become a classic of Christian apologetics.  The last time I read it, I recall being surprised by how good it was.  Some of the arguments are so familiar, and so often quoted, that they are also often criticized. And it is true that some of the arguments out of context are less convincing.  For example, Lewis argues that Jesus must be either liar, lunatic or lord.  But what about legend, maybe the stories in the gospels are far from what really happened? (I believe Lewis does address this in later essays since it was probably a critique even in his day.)  So yes, its not a perfect book (the few pages when Lewis address male-female relationships are actually pretty bad).  But it is a wonderful book and deserves its place at the top of Lewis’ works

1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – What else could I put here?  My love of Narnia dates back to discovering this book in my church library as a kid (as I noted in the first post).  I was entranced as I read it during church, rather than listening to the sermon.  At some point the allegory became apparent, seeing Aslan as Jesus. I recently read it to my oldest daughter and look forward to reading it to my son.  I don’t necessarily want to say it was life-changing, but I think it was.  Lewis loved stories and came to see the story of Jesus as the myth that became fact.  So all the stories we love point to the true story of the world.  For me, this book prepared me for a deeper understanding of the story of Jesus.  Heck, maybe at some point it saved my faith.  There have been times I wanted Aslan and Narnia to be real.  That aside, it is a fantastic story.  Thus its number one both because it is a great story and, personally, it changed my life.

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CS Lewis’ Top Ten Books: 10-6

I’ve been a fan of CS Lewis’ writing forever, since I picked up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in my church library when I was around ten.  Over the years I have managed to read most of his books, both fiction and non-fiction.  He is often quoted and has shaped many hearts and minds.  For what it is worth, enjoy my top ten Lewis books.

10. The Abolition of Man

This is a short book, under 100 pages, that packs a powerful punch.  Lewis argues for the importance of universal values such as honor and courage.  He shows how these values are found all over ancient cultures and world religions.  It makes sense, since if all humans are created in God’s image then we should share many values.  As he looked at the twentieth century, Lewis feared his culture was trying to jettison these long-held and vital values.

9. The Weight of Glory

Some of Lewis’ best work came in essays and lectures.  This book is a collection of some of those.  The best here is “Learning in War Time” where he addresses whether it is worthwhile continuing to study at university during war, specifically WWII.  Expanded, this is one of the best defenses of Christians pursuing study that you will find anywhere.  He also writes an essay on why he is not a pacifist, which I recall being disappointing.  Overall though, a wonderful collection.

8. God in the Dock

Here is another collection of essays, though this one is at least twice as long as The Weight of Glory.  If you have read a lot of Lewis, you will see many of his ideas found in his books showing up in his essays.  On the other hand, if you’re new to Lewis this might serve as a good preview for some of the arguments in his books.

7. Till We Have Faces

Lewis is the rare author who combined the ability to write fantastic fiction with compelling work on Christian spirituality and theology.  This book was his last work of fiction and perhaps his best.  While the Narnia stories were for children and much of the symbolism was easy to discover, the messages and meanings here require a good bit more thought.  Lewis thought highly of pre-Christian paganism, and this story is set in such a pre-Christian land.  Thus we meet a “god” and not God.  Lewis thought that Western culture might need to return to paganism in order to be prepared for a serious reevaluation of Christianity.  Meaning and symbolism aside, this is a great story.

6. The Four Loves

In this book Lewis examines different types of love, from affection and friendship to romantic love and self-giving love.  I found this both challenging and enlightening.  One vital point Lewis makes is differentiating between need-pleasure and pleasure-of-appreciation.  The first is kind of self-centered  you appreciate something because you need it; you love it because of what it does for you.  This is not bad of course, but, to take one example, if your love of your spouse never matures past this you are in trouble.  Pleasure rooted in appreciation loves the other for its (his, her) inherent goodness and beauty.

Stay tuned for 5-1 next week…

The Walkin’ Dude Is Still Walkin’ – Thoughts on Evil

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So begins The Gunslinger, the first book of Stephen King’s fantasy epic series, The Dark Tower.  Over the course of the series we learn that the man in black is in fact a character familiar to King’s universe, Randall Flagg.  Flagg is an evil entity.  Perhaps we could call him a wizard, though wizard is not really the right word for him.  Better to say he is the personification of evil.

Flagg first appeared in King’s post-apocalyptic book, The Stand, which I am reading right now (I’m on page 810 as of this morning).  We meet him walking through a desert in the western United States, and he is immediately shown to be a dark man who loves chaos.  After a plague kills 99% of humanity, the survivors dream of Flagg as well as a kind old woman named Mother Abagail.  Some survivors join Flagg while others join Mother Abagail.  Some of Abagail’s first followers are not sure if Flagg is real and ask her about him:

“How much do you know about the dark man? Do you know who he is?

“I know what he’s about but not who he is. He’s the purest evil left in the world. The rest of the bad is little evil. Shoplifters and sexfiends and people who like to use their fists.  But he’ll call them.  He’s started already. He’s getting them together a lot faster than we are.  Before he’s ready to make his move, I guess he’ll have a lot more.  Not just the evil ones that are like him, but the weak ones…the lonely ones…and the ones that have left God out of their hearts.”

“Maybe he’s not real,” Nick wrote. “Maybe he’s just…” He had to niblle at the top of his pen and think. At last he added: “…the scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

Ralph frowned over this as he read it aloud, but Abby grasped what Nick meant right off.  It wasn’t much different from the talk of the new preachers who had got on the land in the last twenty years of so.  There was evil, and it probably came from original sin, but it was in all of us and getting it out was as impossible as getting an egg out of its shell without cracking it.  According to the way these new preachers had it, Satan was like a jugsaw puzzle – and every man, woman and child on earth added his or her little piece to make up the whole. Yes, all that had a good modern sound to it; the trouble with it was that it wasn’t true. And if Nick was allowed to go on thinking that, the dark man would eat him for dinner.”

The Stand, p. 503-504.

I couldn’t help but think of this passage, and of Flagg, in the last twenty-four hours.  Once again evil has been given a face as one man murdered dozens of people at a concert.  As usual, many people have shared much on social media – thoughts, tears, prayers, ideas for why this keeps happening and ideas how to stop it.  A lot of this is helpful, some of it is probably not.

I personally don’t have much to say on any of that right now.  All I know is evil is alive and well in 2017.  Most days, if you ask me, I am honestly not sure if there is such a being as “Satan.”  God as the ultimate reality, the infinite ground of being and creator of all things, makes sense to me.  A spiritual realm with spiritual beings, some good and some evil, is a little tougher to swallow but I can buy it.  But a grand demon in charge of all the rest, good ole’ Lucifer?  For some reason, that seems difficult to believe.  But then I look at the evil and suffering in the world and I think maybe there is something to that old time religion with its talk of battles with an incredibly powerful being, Satan, the personification of all evil.

Satan is still active, enticing people to evils both big and small.

Flagg may have a different name and face,  but he’s out there causing chaos.

The walkin’ dude is still walkin’ through the desert…

PS: Richard Beck has a pretty fantastic book on Satan that I read a few months back that speaks to contemporary Christian skepticism to Satan as well as the reality of such evil. Check it out: Reviving Old Scratch.

Old Books Are Good For Your Soul

I grew up in imbibing white evangelical American theology.  It was in the air I breathed.  There is much good in that air.  But there is also much that is questionable.  Like others, there came a time in my life when I began to ask questions.  Some questions were small (How come so much contemporary worship music is focused on me and my feelings?) and others were big (Is God just a superman in the sky ready to destroy whomever crosses him?).

It is possible when such questions are asked to reject Christianity as a whole.  If all you see is one form of Christianity (white evangelical American in my case) and you notice blindspots and problems, the easiest path is walking away.

I am grateful that I realized that Christianity is far larger, deeper, more complex (though perhaps also more simple) than the white evangelical variety.  This realization came to me in numerous ways, one of which was meeting Christians from the past through reading old books.  CS Lewis writes about the importance of old books in an essay in God in the Dock:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.  Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means old books” (219)

We all have blind spots and biases.  This is why it is vital to break out of the echo chamber and listen to voices that do not hold yours same background and presuppositions.  One way to do this is to read old books that have stood the test of time.  As Lewis says in the quote above, books from other eras do not share the biases of our time so they can help us see what we may not see and correct what needs to be corrected.  Lewis goes on to say:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (220).

Again, reading books of the past is not magic.  They were written by people as messed up as we are.  Not everything in these books is right and true.  But they do have much to teach us because, again, they do not share our blindspots.  I found loads of beauty and truth in meeting old Christians in their books.  Of course, I found some things that were questionable.  This helped me realize that there is both beauty and blindspots in all forms of faith, even the form I grew up in.

How to go about reading old books?  They are not easy, that’s for sure.  Lewis suggests the following:

“I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (218)

Not bad advice.  I’d suggest starting with someone like CS Lewis himself.

 

 

Seeing the Propaganda and Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

Most of us spend time with people who think like we do and we read or watch news that affirms our understanding of things.  This is called living in an echo chamber.  It gets to the point that we feel unable to relate to the other side, because the other side is a mystery.  After all, everyone we know thinks like we do (and we know lots of smart people, of course!).  When we encounter people outside our echo chamber we don’t bother with dialogue and debate but go right for power and silencing.  This is dangerous because in a world where everything is a battle and there are only winners or losers, we are on a track to totalitarianism.

Pessimistic? Maybe.  But look at social media.

I don’t have a lot of solutions outside basic things: listen to people with different opinions, be humble and know you have a lot to learn.  One solution is simply reading.  You might start with a recent book called On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.  In this book he talks about tyrannies in the twentieth century and steps to take to avoid and oppose them.  One of the primary steps is to read:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can…

What to read? Any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might suit our moment. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is perhaps not a great work of art; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is better. One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again

I love that Snyder mentions Harry Potter as a book to read.  In essence, you can almost read anything.  But if you want to go a bit deeper than Harry Potter, perhaps try Propaganda by Jacques Ellul.  While I cannot say I’ve read all the best books on propaganda, I can say I’ve read the definitive one (at least, that’s what perusing lists of books on propaganda tells me).  Ellul argues some surprising things, such as that it is the most educated who are most susceptible to propaganda.  Perhaps the best quote in the book (here, I’ll save you a few bucks) is this one:

“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group…This double foray on the part of propaganda, proving the excellence of one’s own group and the evilness of the others, produces an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society…Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks and nobody listens”

If you only watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh or if you only listen to MSNBC and listen to whomever the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh is, you’re in the echo chamber.

Now, I admit I am guilty of this.  It is easier to listen to whatever agrees with you, it is fun to be affirmed.  It takes work.  I get a lot of my news from Twitter and I’ve made an effort to follow people on the Left (Shaun King) and the Right (Ben Shapiro).  I find myself agreeing with all of them at times, and disagreeing.

If you want a simpler book to read, Frank Lunz’s Words that Work talks about the power of words.  He has worked on numerous political campaigns and it is amazing to see how the right catchphrase can drive a movement (Hope and Change, Make America Great Again).  Finally, if you want to learn from history, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  It is LONG but fantastic as you see how Hitler rose to power, legally, and quickly dismantled freedoms.

After that, perhaps join me in the future in reading The Gulag Archipelego which tells the story of the Communist owork camps.  These two stories, of Hitler and Stalin’s tyrannies, must never be far from our mind.

 

Politics, Parties, Means and Ends: A Political Post Inspired by CS Lewis (yes, politics, but its okay)

I am slowly working through God in the Dock, a collection of some of CS Lewis’ essays, and a few days ago read the essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”  In this essay, Lewis discusses the desirability of a Christian political party.  I’m not sure if this was something people wanted in mid-century Britain, but the idea would be that all Christians come together in one, explicitly Christian, political party.  Lewis begins by discussing ends, or goals, and means:

“The Christian Party must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.  If it chooses the first alternative, it will not be a political party.  Nearly all parties agree in professing ends which we admit to be desirable – security, a living wage, and the best adjustment between the claims of order and freedom.  What distinguishes one party from another is the championship of means.”

Lewis assumes that all Christians agree on the ends.  I am sure Christians do not agree on every end, but I will be optimistic and say that for the most part, agreeing on the goals remains true today.  That said, part of the challenge with having political discussion is that our political climate is so divided that we have trouble assuming the best of the other.  We righteously assume that only our side cares for people having enough to eat or decent housing or freedom or whatever.

Lewis shines the light on something important that can only help our political dialogue.  If we are going to argue politics, we should pause before the yelling starts and figure out if we are discussing means or ends.  For example, and Lewis alludes to this one, but I assume all Christians agree that the goal is for all people who work to make a living wage.  How to get here is the debate: do we increase the minimum wage? Allow competition in the market to drive up wages?  Those are discussions where Christians may agree, and those are discussions on means to the same end.

Lewis is writing this essay to discuss whether there should be a “Christian” political party.  He thinks it is a bad idea, arguing that putting all the Christians join in one party would end up backfiring.  This is because Christians are naturally going to disagree on the means, even while agreeing on the end.  Such disagreement will lead some to leave the party.  Then the so-called Christian party will include only one sort of means to the end, and this party will think they are the only Christians:

“But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty.  It will e not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole.  By the mere act of calling itself the Christian party, it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal”

A Christian party that not only agrees on goals but is not open to more than one idea on how to reach those goals will do more harm than good.  Lewis imagines worse can happen than just some Christians leaving the party:

“The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the ‘Christian Party’ wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will surely be by just such a process as this.”

When one party is baptized as Christian, Lewis fears they won’t have to worry so much about actually seeking a Christian ethic.  They can even go along with the less than Christian elements in the party who are now emboldened by their holiness. Assured they are correct, being in the only “Christian party” after all, they will commit all sorts of crimes in the name of the good.

This essay reminds me that we need Christians in different political parties.  Not all political parties, for some parties represent ideas (ends) far beyond anything relating to a Christian ethic (Nazis, Marxists).  But in America, we need Christians in the Democrat and Republican parties.

We need Christians who remind us that individual freedom is vital to a functioning society and that government will encroach on that freedom, as it has done since forever. 

And we need Christians to remind us that individuals are fallen and will take advantage of their fellow men and women so we need institutions, including government, to work to keep the peace and ensure fairness.

America, like any nation with Christians in it, can only benefit from Christians speaking from Christian principles – primarily humanity as created in God’s image and broken by sin – in both the Democrat and Republican parties.  Hopefully, Christians in those parties can also lead the way in talking to one another – which requires recognizing the other might have something good, humility is also a Christian virtue.

At this point in our country, just talking to people convinced of different political means may be the place to start.

 

Stephen King, CS Lewis and Believing Fantastic Things

51s5tovoubl-_sx302_bo1204203200_Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot is the story of how vampires destroy a small town.  In the midst of this, some characters figure out what is going on and try to rouse the town to fight back.  They run into many obstacles, such as skepticism.  At one point a priest, Father Callahan, is trying to convince a family their son is targeted by the vampires:

“Let’s talk a little more first. I’m sure your witnesses are reliable, as I’ve indicated. Dr. Cody is our family physician, and we all like him very much.  I’ve also been given to understand that Matthew Burke is above reproach…as a teacher at least.”

“But in spite of that?” Callahan asked.

“Father Callahan let me put it to you. If a dozen reliable witnesses told you that a giant ladybug had lumbered through the town park at high noon singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and waving a Confederate flag, would you believe it?”

“If I was sure the witnesses were reliable, and if I was sure they weren’t joking, I would be far down the road to belief, yes.

Still with a faint smile, Petrie said, ‘That is where we differ.”

“Your mind is closed,” Callahan said.

“No – simply made up.”

When I read this I could not help but think of CS Lewis’ children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this story a young girl named Lucy discovers a secret door into the land of Narnia.  Her brothers and sister do not believe her.  Then one of her brothers, Edmund, goes through the door too.  Lucy is ecstatic.  Finally her story will be believed!  Yet Edmund, in a moment of sheer meanness, says he saw nothing and that he and Lucy were just pretending.  She’s just a dumb kid, after all.

The older siblings go to a wise old Professor.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but – ” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful

“That’s just the funny thing about  it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up until now, I’d have said Lucy every time.

The Professor encourages them, in light of her past trustworthiness, to trust Lucy now.

The idea is the same as that in Salem’s Lot: it is possible to believe impossible things if trustworthy people share them.  If we do not rule out certain possibilities at the outset we may come to see that fantastic  things could be true.

Lewis would draw a real world conclusion from this.  Certainly humans do not usually rise from the dead, everyone knows that.  But if people we can trust report to us that once someone did rise from the dead and if we can think of no ulterior motives or other possibilities for what happened, then it makes sense to believe them. This is what happened with Jesus.

Do you buy it?   

I do.  Of course, I can see how others wouldn’t.  Its fantastic.  Heck, believing in vampires and magical worlds through doors may make more sense.  But what if the reports that have been passed down through the ages are true?

It changes everything!  It changes how we look at the world.

Is the world hopeless or hopeful?  Well, what if the story of the world is not one that ends in death but one that ends in the hope of new life?  What if, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the universe truly is curved towards justice?  Not because humans are so great and can work really hard and build something (I think history shows us that’s too optimistic) but because there is a Being we call God working behind the scenes to ensure that in the midst of all the hopelessness and death, there is hope and life.

I’ll take the fantastic and hopeful explanation.  Its all that can get me out of bed in the morning.

 

Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.

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If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity

 

 

Journeying to the Dark Tower (Reflections on Stephen King’s magnum opus)

Last year I read The Gunslinger by Stephen King.  Published way back in the 70s, this book tells the story of the last Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, pursuing the demonic man in black across the desert.  Roland’s goal is to find the mythical Dark Tower, the center of all existence.

I love fantasy stories so I was hooked.  Over the next nine months or so, I read the remainder of the series as well as some of King’s other books and short stories that tie in.  I won’t bother summarizing them here; if you want to read that sort of thing you can find such summaries all over the place.

Throughout the series, like in any good series, the world of the story expands.  New characters are introduced, new environments are experienced and the story becomes richer.  King resists introducing too many new characters though and succeeds in keeping the focus on Roland and his companions (his ka-tet).  There’s not really a final grand battle such as you see in many fantasy stories, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.  Such final battles are fine, but I appreciate how King went a different route.

Without giving too much away, what strikes me most as I reflect on the series is how it is much more about the journey then the destination.  The ending is even kind of disappointing.  In a post script, King admits the difficulty with ending such a series.  Nearly any ending, with all the build up of Roland reaching the Dark Tower, would fall short of people’s expectations.

Of course, this is how real life is.

You look forward for months to a new movie and it does not live up to the hype.

You work hard to graduate college in hopes of landing your dream job and struggle to find work.

My daughter has been begging all summer to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and when we finally took her she was ready to go home after about twenty minutes.

Maybe the value in life really is the journey more than the destination.  That sounds clichéd.  Yet if we who call ourselves Christians scoff at this idea, perhaps we should pause.  This idea is not new.  Look at John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress.  The entire story is about the pilgrim’s journey through the world.  It is the journey that draws us in.  Sometimes the ending is satisfying (such as Lord of the Rings) and sometimes it might not be.  But the story, the journey, is what compels us.

It is in the journey that we are shaped.

It is in the journey where we are faced with choices that will define us.

It is in the journey where we meet companions who will help us.

Life after death is a great mystery.  Christians and other religious people can say some things about what this life will be like, though no one really knows for sure beyond a few vague generalities.  But as we look towards that future goal,

as Roland did towards the Dark Tower

as Frodo did towards Mt. Doom

As Christian did towards Heaven

as Jesus did when he set his face towards Jerusalem

We can find strength to journey on in daily life.

All that to say, if you want to read a great story, check out the Dark Tower series…

 

 

My Ten Favorite Books in 2015

Here are my favorite reads from 2015 – not books released in 2015 but favorites among ones I read:

  1. David Bentley Hart – The Experience of god: Being, Consciousness, Bliss – Hart is one of my favorite authors and I think this is his best book and probably makes it into my top ten books of all time.  It is not as difficult as some of his previous works but it will still stretch you.  This book changed how I think and talk about God.  I think every Christian pastor, or anyone interested in theology, ought to read this.
  2. Napolean: A Life by Andrew Roberts – This is a fantastic, gripping bio of one of the great men who ever lived.  As I read I was visibly angry when Napolean invaded Russia, knowing how it would end up.  I recall stalking around the house, asking how he could make such a mistake!  If you like bios, read this one.
  3. On Social Justice by Basil the Great – This book, along with John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty both challenged and disturbed me.  There is value in these books that are centuries old, value that goes far above what is marketed as Christian literature today.  Both of these books will make you think about money and how to serve Jesus in the world today.
  4. The Cappadocian Fathers – Speaking of reading old books, I thoroughly enjoyed reading works on the Trinity from the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit), Gregory Nazianzus (Five Theological Orations) and Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism).  Classic works of Christian thinking on the Christian Trinitarian understanding of God.
  5. Johnny Cash: A Life by Robert Hilburn – Everything I used to know about Cash came from the movie Walk the Line.  This book greatly expanded my understanding, and admiration, for Cash.  That admiration is not naive, the man had all sorts of issues throughout his life.  If you like Johnny Cash or bios, check this one out.
  6. Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis – Pope Francis took the world by storm and, apart from all the hype, his first book (encyclical) is fantastic.  Along with this, I also appreciated his second book On Care for Our Common Home as well as Pope Benedict’s God is Love.
  7. Who’ Afraid of Relativism by James KA Smith – Smith is also one of my favorite authors and I think this book, like many of his others, is a must-read.
  8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood – Wood tells the story of America from 1789 through 1815.  I found myself admiring Hamilton and learning a lot here.
  9. God Behaving Badly by David Lamb – Lamb is an Old Testament scholar whose first book seeks to help Christians understand how the God portrayed in the Old Testament, who comes across so mean, is the real and true God Christians worship.
  10. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans – Evans is a wonderful writer and her memoir on walking away from, and then returning to church is a great read.