The Adventures of Robin Hood—A Book Worth Reading

Robin Hood_CoverIt’s much easier to write book reviews for bad books—it’s easier to find the problem and diagnose it than it is to tell you, “Go read this book.” But I’m not going to do that today. Instead, because The Adventures of Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green, is such a great, fun little book, I’m going to tell you that you should go read it.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a pupil of C.S. Lewis who later became a friend and sometime member of the Inklings. He was among the first to read the Narnia books, and was an important encouragement to Lewis in continuing to write the books. In his own work, he produced a series of accessible renditions of famous myths and stories—Myths of the Norsemen, Tales of the Greek Heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and, of course, Robin Hood. His books are readable, entertaining, researched, and each worth your time.

But right now I want to tell you why I thought Robin Hood was so good, and fun, and worthwhile. Perhaps above all else there was a certain wholesomeness to reading it. “Oh, yeah,” I thought as I read, “this is what great young adult books used to be like.” It’s not violent, or scary, or disturbing, or distorted. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure, full of fighting, and friendship, and oaths, and loyalty, and duty—all the stuff a growing boy needs. You’re probably familiar with the story—Robin of Locksley becomes an outlaw on account of the nefarious policies of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, opposing them by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until King Richard should return from the Crusades. You might feel that the familiarity would make the story not worth reading—not so! The familiarity is part of the fun, and I expect I’ll read and re-read it again. After all, it is the classic good-guys bad-guys story.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was a surprisingly solid rendition of the story. Also, Alan Rickman was STELLAR as the Sheriff.

And yet it is also is so much more. Often, it seems to me, older stories like this one get accused of being simplistic (as if simplicity were innately bad, and as if somehow moral complexity were innately good—this is a dubious claim!). But it’s not simple, it’s simply clear. When Maid Marian swears an oath to remain a Maid until King Richard returns, she keeps her promise (and so do all those in the forest with her, to keep her from Sir Guy!). When a new recruit joins the Merry Men in Sherwood, he swears an oath, and he means it. When various personages attempt to lie to Robin about the money they carry, Robin takes from them—when they tell the truth, he does not. When Robin bests Little John at staves, they become friends—in fact, whenever Robin bests someone (or is bested, on occasion!) the result is mutual respect and friendship. Throughout it all there is a deeply refreshing honesty about the characters in the story—an honesty you will probably want to emulate yourself. In fact, we can frame the poles of characterization as follows: in the story of Robin Hood honesty is praised, while dishonesty is ridiculed; loyalty is virtue, and disloyalty is unthinkable; friendship is natural, while enmity is irrational; and goodness is, well, good, and wickedness is petty and smallminded.

Here I want to stay for a moment, because Green captures something of the nature of good and evil that I find to be compelling, tragic, and important. (Note: if you’ve not read the book and you don’t know about Robin Hood’s death, and if you don’t want to know until you’ve read it, stop reading now!) Throughout the book goodness is conceived as desirable, and important, and worth fighting for. Goodness is also conceived in ordinary terms—the keeping of a promise, the rescuing of a friend, a meal and wine with your peers. Fundamentally, goodness is so good that sometimes good people must become outlaws in order to preserve the good. By contrast, evil—no matter how grand in scope—is fundamentally petty. King John wants more power, and to get it he robs the people. But what will he do with the power if all the people hate him? What kind of fellowship can he enjoy if his compatriots are dishonest swindlers? He may put out the eyes of a child for killing one of the king’s deer, but the truth is that he can never truly enjoy it himself—not in the way that they do in Sherwood. And so, Robin and his Merry Men fight for goodness, by means of goodness, against the petty and persistent evils of John, the Sheriff, and Sir Guy.

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Tight tights.

But here’s the sting—in the end they lose. Richard returns, sets things aright, and Robin marries Marian. All well and good. But then Richard dies, and no sooner is he gone than King John, now lawfully king, takes up his vengeance. He locks Robin in a tower and runs off to capture Marian once and for all. Robin escapes, but falls and wounds himself. He is able to take Marian to a nunnery and entrust her there, but he must run off. On the run for a long time, he returns to the nunnery to find Marian. In the meantime, King John has promised that if Marian ever leaves, he will destroy the entire nunnery. The Prioress, knowing who Marian is, and knowing that if Marian is a widow she will inherit Locksley estate, has convinced her that Robin is dead so that she will take her vows and so that her property will be added to that of the nunnery. When Robin finally shows up, weak and ill, the Prioress performs a bloodletting, but in the process, knowing who Robin is, intentionally lets too much blood. She murders him, in fact, so that she can take his estate.

Roger Lancelyn Green

Roger Lancelyn Green

Pause to think about the tragic irony of this. Robin, who loves the church, loves his wife, loves his King, and who has tirelessly served the poor, is in the end destroyed by the petty evil of an acquisitive nun. This is the pettiness of evil in action. It is stupid. Its fruits are vapid. It is self-destructive. It destroys good things. And in view of this, we are reminded that, indeed, the fight for good is very often boring, and pedantic, and fundamentally draining because it is a constant war with the petty proclivities of average people. Evil only seems nice because it cheats its way to some other good; the reality is that evil inevitably corrupts the goods it achieves. And therefore, to fight for the good is the most important, and yet most mundane, activity that the average human will ever perform.

To my mind, this is precisely why we need heroes like Robin Hood. We need reminders that goodness is good and that evil is stupid, and we need to be jolted, sometimes painfully, with the knowledge that even though we might lose, goodness was worth fighting for.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

The Paragraph Sentence and Other Horrors

I read a lot of books. I enjoy a lot of books. Because there are so many books to read in the world, I try to focus my limited time on books that are worth reading. That doesn’t mean I don’t read candy—after all, one of my favourite genres is fantasy and sci-fi. But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately that causes my eyes to roll and my blood pressure to rise, causes me to snort in disgust at authors and publishers alike.

I’m talking about the paragraph sentence.

It hangs there, alone, pregnant, the typesetting equivalent of those three notes that play after a big reveal on old television shows—dun dun dun! It suggests significance and meaning, but doesn’t deliver; tantalizes the reader, making a big claim that begs you to read on. A cliff-hanger by formatting, click-bait for readers.

Dun-Dun-DUUUUUN-penguins-of-madagascar

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it’s bad writing. It’s the formatting equivalent of excessive exclamation points, of SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!1! It shouts at the reader like a decrepit Facebook user, invites nuanced meaning with all the skill and talent of a lovestruck teenager who only speaks in txt. It’s becoming habitual in books, blogs, and stories on the net (did the bite-sized demands of an internet age contribute to its rise and acceptance?). Like italics and scare-quotes, it uses formatting to stress the “appearance” of being meaningful.

They’re not especially meaningful.

Sure, the words appear meaningful. Sure, their situation on the page, or altered font, invites a veneer of meaningfulness. But the truth of the matter is that their meaning is borrowed from the formatting. The sentence paragraph is a cheat which pretends that its contents are especially significant, in the hope that terse phrasing and special formatting will make up for a lack of creativity, insight, and ability. Instead of writing well, of leading the reader wisely through a given passage, the sentence paragraph exposes the temptation to make formatting do a special work for the writer—instead of utilizing the vast scope of powerful literary tools at hand, instead of serving up a dish of vocabulary, word order, description, evocation, metaphor, simile, sound, and rhythm, the lazy author retreats to a simple emotive trope.

And tropes should be avoided.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

The man for whom the dark and stormy night was something fresh and original. Check out his wiki entry for other famous phrases he coined!

Tropes can be useful, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that abuse does not negate proper use. Tropes can get a story started, can be useful, humourous, recontextualized, or subverted. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night…” he had no clue what he was about to unleash on the world. The thing to remember is that when he said it, it wasn’t yet a trope. Now, the stuff of jokes, it takes on its own life and meaning and can be utilized to great effect. But when writers excessively rely on these canned features they betray a deep literary laziness, even a contempt of the reader.

It is we who should be contemptuous of them.

State of Fear: A Bad Book with a Good Point

State of Fear_CoverI’ve been a Michael Crichton fan since I was in the eighth grade and read Jurassic Park for the first time. The experience was, to my thirteen-year-old self, life-changing. I never knew there could be books like this in the world, and Crichton’s inventiveness, plausibility, and capacity to generate thrills were addictive. I went on to read many of his other novels, enjoying them to similar effect—Sphere and Airframe, Eaters of the Dead and Prey. With that in mind, you’ll appreciate some context, and disappointment, behind my claim that State of Fear is the worst Michael Crichton novel I have ever read.

But not for the reasons you might think.

State of Fear is a novel about global warming—put succinctly, it is about a conspiracy of left-wing environmentalists who attempt to orchestrate a series of environmental disasters in order to bolster their position as global warming advocates. Catastrophic weather events are timed to coincide with global warming announcements so that people will ‘wake up’ to the looming danger of climate change. The novel contains many of the hallmarks of Crichton’s style—mysterious, business-like characters with unclear motives, stooges who die out of ignorance, a scientific ‘feel’ including diagrams, research, and charts, and so forth. However, it is seriously hindered by a farfetched plot, ham-fisted dialogue, and the strange interplay of Crichton-esque science-fiction and what appears to be his underlying message of suspicion about global warming. The main character is a man who begins as a full global warming supporter, is brought to question these convictions, and concludes as a sceptic. A main mechanism for this transition is a series of conversations that Crichton arranges between advocates and sceptics. Advocates, having drunk the global warming Kool-Aid, are universally foolish. They spout speeches about the need for saving the planet, all the while quoting dreamily from half-baked sources and displaying, overall, great ignorance of the real data about the natural world. Counterpoint to such figures, Crichton’s sceptics have wised up to the global warming façade. They preach (with footnotes) data-driven contradictions to the ill-reflected global warming rhetoric. Every single one of these conversations feels forced, and one gets the feeling that they exist as an excuse for Crichton to tell us what he thinks. They are artlessly executed. For these reasons it can be an infuriating book to read.

If you were to read some reviews of the novel you would quickly discover two camps of critics. On one side stands a group who love the book, and they love it chiefly for its suspicion of global warming. These readers are excited that someone as esteemed as Crichton would stand up publicly and publish such an unmasked critique of the global warming movement. On the other side stand the group who hate it for precisely the same reason. How dare Crichton, such an esteemed novelist, publish something so backward, regressive, and ignorant? (Very ironically, some of these critical reviews sound a great deal like the ignorant characters in Crichton’s novel. Do they prove his point?) Unfortunately, both groups are wrong, but not for that reason.

State of Fear is a bad novel because it is ham-fisted, awkward, far-fetched, and obvious. State of Fear is bad because it lacks the finesse, the tension, and the characterization that makes other Crichton novels great reads. State of Fear is bad because Crichton’s agenda—to raise questions about the role of climate change science in public policy—is so poorly executed that it interferes terminally in the telling of his story.

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Photo Courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton.

However, within this bad novel Crichton has a good point to make, and he makes this good point most effectively in the two afterwords that follow the book. The first, consisting of a series of bullet points, articulates clearly Crichton’s concerns about both the ways that we as a culture are using science, and about the limits of our capacity to make judgments about said science. His broad point, put tersely, is that we just don’t know enough. The second afterword, titled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous,” highlights the well-accepted role of eugenics some 100 years ago. Crichton notes how it was ‘accepted science,’ how it formed national policy, and indeed how it lead to extraordinary horrors. He also notes, with interest, how we conveniently neglect to mention this part of our history. In other words, about 100 years ago something that was considered ‘accepted science’ (which now nobody believes) was utilized to generate public policy. However, upon reflection, the science was wrong, and consequently the policies were detrimental—if not damning (eugenics formed a basis for Nazi extermination of ‘undesirables’).

Short History of Nearly Everything_BrysonThese are points worth sitting with. (It is also, we should note, a point which runs through much of Crichton’s oeuvre.) Recently I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a absolutely marvellous little book of scientific history. One of the keystone points of the entire book, however, centred on the limits of our human knowledge. Bryson points out again and again—to brilliant humorous effect—just how little we know. For example, we didn’t know about plate tectonics until about sixty years ago. Think about that—a generation of people alive today were taught in school that earthquakes are caused by volcanoes. A hundred years ago, we thought we knew pretty much everything there was to know about human origins. Again and again, we think we’ve got a great deal figured out, but in the grand scheme of things we’re still pretty much pea-brains. We could do, in our scientific pronouncements, with a good deal more humility.

However you may feel about global warming, Crichton’s State of Fear contains a really good point couched in an unfortunately bad novel: we don’t know enough, we deceive ourselves if we think we’ve got it all figured out, and we should be really suspicious of those things we don’t know when they are turned into issues of public policy. With that message, I find I am in full and complete agreement.

Six, or Maybe Eight, Devotional Books I’m Taking to Scotland

The absolute worst part about moving overseas—worse than saying farewell to friends, or uprooting from favorite restaurants, or even dealing with the stressful immensity of the transition—is choosing which books to take with you. For readers like me, the forcible separation from the one’s library is the most violent and unpleasant of changes. I have loathed it.

libraryOf the many hundreds of books we own, I will have to choose a mere handful to take with us. The selection process itself is painful. Is this a book I will need, or one I merely want? Will I really read this again within the next three years? Will a library substitute suffice? Are there books that I will want to read in the UK simply because I’m in the UK (like Barchester Towers)? What books give me comfort when I wish to be consoled? It is a staggering set of considerations.

One is forced to divide the library into categories, and choose from each of those categories volumes which warrant the expense of traveling with you—Literature, Nonfiction, Fantasy, Theology, Pastoral Theology, Counseling, Commentaries, C.S. Lewis books (yes, he gets his own category), Poetry, and so forth. Some whole categories get axed (I can use the library for things like Theology and Commentaries), while from others I will select a few books at a time (Do I bring Gerard Manley Hopkins? Which Lewis books do I bring?).

For some months I’ve been thinking about the category of Devotional Literature—those books which I dip into daily alongside my reading of Scripture. The process has forced me to pick my absolute favorites. For me, to qualify as a Devotional the book must reveal deep reflection, resonate in striking ways, and regularly improve with time. Also, such a book is typically consumable in small portions (making it suitable for daily devotion). The books that rise to the top for me are books that form me in an ongoing way, books that I have read, and re-read, and plan to re-read again and again. Each of these books has been part of my personal formation in Christ, so I thought I would take a few minutes today to recommend them to you as well.

imitation-of-christ_cover1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
One of the most famous devotional books of all time, à Kempis’s fifteenth century meditations on the heart and its work to imitate Christ are timeless. Often austere, he calls the believer to remember that following Jesus is a full-time job. It is a book that I find calls me, in particular, to greater holiness.

“No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could. No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey. No man has true joy save he whose heart shows him to have a clean conscience. No man speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might.” Book I.20.

Diary of an Old Soul_Cover.jpg2. Diary of an Old Soul, George MacDonald
Eighteenth century Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul is a series of daily devotional poems. I find, when reading them, that their subjects haunt me throughout the day. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald his spiritual father—it isn’t hard, reading MacDonald, to imagine why, because to read MacDonald is to swim in the depths of his meditative thought.

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking hear;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some, to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
~ June Sixteenth

letters-to-malcolm_cover3. Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis
Lewis, one of the great lights of 20th century Christianity, penned this series of fictional correspondence between himself and his friend “Malcolm.” Written at the end of Lewis’s life, these letters reflect his studied and honest ruminations on the meaning and significance of prayer. In some ways, the marriage of style is also highly appropriate—because prayer, also, is like writing letters to a friend. When I read Malcolm, I find that my thoughts about God are expanded.

“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to. Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down into the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” Letter 15

revelations-of-divine-love_cover4. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich’s series of visions, and the meditations that accompany them, are often striking in both their simplicity and resonance. It enriches faith to encounter, in this fourteenth century passages, a woman who so clearly knows and loves Jesus. More, perhaps, than anything else, Julian’s meditations call me to listen more carefully to the Lord.

“Our Lord is greatly cheered by our prayer. He looks for it, and he wants it. By his grace he aims to make us as like himself in heart as we are already in our human nature. This is his blessed will. So he says, ‘Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing. Yes, even thought you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick, or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to me though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.’” #41

centuries_cover5. Centuries, Thomas Traherne
Written in the 17th century but lost and unpublished until the 19th, Traherne’s series of meditations (in collections of 100 at a time—hence, a century) see in all the dappled glory of the earth opportunities to glorify God. His conception of nature as an avenue for worship have changed how I look at the world.

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord pardon my ingratitude, and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered… O what Joy, what Delight and Jubilee should there always be, would men prize the Gifts of God according to their value!” Century 1, #66.

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Note: This book is very rare.

6. Look to the Glory, Richard Meux Benson
Benson was founder of a group of Anglican monastics called the Society of St. John the Evangelist (one of the members of which was C.S. Lewis’s spiritual director). Benson combines depths of understanding about God with compassion for the everyday human creature. The combination, for me, has called me to greater personal devotion.

“Patience is most perfect when the visible result is least encouraging. Its efficacy entirely within. By patience, the soul acts upon itself, exerting self-control and forming itself so as to find a tranquil joy in the adverse appointments of God’s providence.” “Seeking Holiness.”

Bonus: These six books are all devotional in nature—they are deep, powerful, and good for short readings. However, there are a couple more books that I’ll be bringing to Scotland that fall more into the category of “spiritual reading.” So, here are two books that don’t quite qualify but I’ll be bringing anyway.

derkse-cover7. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners, Will Derkse
I’ve already written a review of Derkse’s book, but the reason I’m taking it with me is because his steady prose and consistent call to obedience reminds me to be attentive to the tasks at hand—whether they be devotional, familial, or related to my work.

“Listening has its complement in grumbling. Just as obedience is a positive attitude, wanting to listen before anyone has spoken, grumbling is a kind of negative speech before attentive listening, or also because listening has not been done attentively.” 34

 

 

telling-secrets_cover8. Telling Secrets, Frederick Buecher
In this personal memoir, Frederick Buechner speaks of the secrets of the heart and of the soul’s journey toward healing in God. Buechner, perhaps more than any other modern author, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the heart that longs for God.

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.” 32

Choosing which books to bring is a hard decision. And yet choosing these books is not hard at all. May you, in reading some of them, discover something fresh, deep, and enriching for your own spiritual life as well.

Why You Should Read Wil Derkse’s “The Rule of Benedict for Beginners.”

derkse-coverThe Rule of Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life is easily the best book of Christian spirituality I have read in recent memory. I read it once last year, recommended it to my church elders, and read it again with my summer interns over the past few months. Without reservation I think you should read it too.

Roughly two years ago I was in a bit of a bad way. I was stressed and struggling to find balance and order in my ministry life. Recognizing that a fresh approach to my personal calendar was going to be part of bringing order to the frustration, I resolved myself to set apart the first Wednesday of each month as a personal retreat day. From some friends in ministry I had heard that there was a Benedictine monastery nearby which facilitated day retreats. I contacted the guestmaster there and set up a day to come by. Little did I know how life-altering that simple choice would be.

I arrived on a chilly February day. I met the guestmaster at the door. He gave me a brief tour and showed me to a room where I could rest and pray. He told me about the lunch hour and that I would need to join the monks for prayer in the Abbey Church beforehand. After he left I closed the door and was struck almost immediately by the near absolute quiet of the place. No conversations. No computer noise. No electronic hums. No music. No blowing air. It was exactly what I needed. I joined the monks for prayer in their stunningly beautiful chapel, then for lunch (which we ate in silence while a monk read aloud from a book). After lunch I re-entered the front door and looked around. There, by the entrance, was a small selection of books for sale (you drop money in a box if you want the book). My eye was immediately drawn to a goldenrod volume with iconographic images. It was Wil Derkse’s book, and I bought a copy.

westminster-abbey-interior

Image from trekearth.com

Malcolm Muggeridge writes that “There are always ideal circumstances for reading any book, which should, perhaps, be indicated on the dust-jacket, along with particulars of the authors and subject.” These were ideal circumstances for me to read Derkse’s book, because upstairs, in solitude, while journaling and reading, his simple prose spoke to my needs.

If I were to summarize Benedictine spirituality in a single phrase, I think I would say that it is grounded in a kind of attentiveness, a listening. Its chief aim is to attempt to query every situation, person, task, or event, with a divine perspective: “What is God asking of me at this moment?” How am I serving God in washing these dishes? In conversing with this friend? In writing this blog post? In answering this email? From such simple attentiveness, Benedictine spirituality invites us to follow those prompts with obedience; obedience to the call of God in my daily circumstances. Eating, then, is the time for eating; praying the time for praying; working the time for working; and so forth. These are enormously simple admonitions, but in Derkse’s straightforward and readable prose they resonate with import. There is, in these plain understandings of life and work and meaning, something that provides a way for us—who are so often busy, harried, and divided—to bring our Christian convictions to bear upon our life’s vocation. There is something extraordinarily wholesome about Derkse’s book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Over the next months I continued to drive out to the monastery on a monthly basis. I came to value the ordinary ordering of the lives of the monks, of whom I was but a distant and casual observer. While I am not called to a monastic vocation (and while I am also not Catholic!), my association with that place did me no small amount of good. I fed off of their stability, and was enriched by their order. It has given me a vision of this daily spirituality—the spirituality of dishes, and service, and solitude, and work, and prayer—which I believe we all require in some measure.

westminster-abbey-exterior

Image from trekearth.com

After finishing Derkse’s book I read a copy of St. Benedict’s Rule (also purchased from the monastery), as well as Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Both books further enriched my appreciation of Benedictine spirituality. Over time, I developed my own routine for visiting the monastery—a morning set aside for silence, prayer, and journaling, lunch with the monks (always silent, of course), an after lunch walk to shake off the sleep, time sitting still at the monastery lookout, then more time to read and journal and pray. With each successive visit I came to appreciate more and more the simplicity of the place. It has shaped me.

This shaping is not without some irony. I am, at the moment, an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and across the street from the monastery entrance is an Alliance Church. So, I travel a distance to find a place to restore my soul from the burdens of ministry, and when I arrive I turn symbolically away from my denomination and into the arms of the Catholics! But this may not be so strange after all. Protestants are gifted activists, but we make poor contemplatives; we value our spiritual highs, but are not particularly competent when it comes to everyday spirituality. When you think of a great Protestant Christian, he is either someone “filled with the Spirit,” or someone possessed of extensive doctrinal knowledge. But the great Catholic is as often a man or woman of contemplation. I can’t help but imagine that a solution to Protestant burnout might be found in the patient spirituality of our Catholic brothers and sisters.

In view of this, it is unfortunate that many Protestants remain skeptical of Catholic expressions of spirituality. Such skepticism robs us of the fullness of what it means to be a communion of saints, and facilitates what is often in Protestants a highly regrettable ignorance of the breadths and riches of the Church in all her historic glory. Benedict, clearly, was a follower of Jesus who sought to outline how other such followers could effectively dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and communal living. His words strike us at our Christian and human need, which suggests why they have stayed with such power for such lengths of time.

Regardless of your situation or your vocation, whether you are an ordinary layman or a minister, I recommend that you spend a little time exploring the contours of the Benedictine vision for life. In Derkse’s book you will find a readable, rich, memorable, and wholesome guide. I pray it might shape you as it has me.

Some Thoughts about C.S. Lewis and “Spiritual Direction”

Yours, JackFor the last several months I have been enjoyably working my daily way through Yours, Jack, a selection of C.S. Lewis’s letters edited by Paul F. Ford. From the vast quantity of Lewis’s personal correspondence, Ford has made a selection of letters which he believes focus on “Spiritual Direction”—whether in the context of friendship, of Lewis seeking direction, or of Lewis offering direction. I enjoy almost all things Lewis, so these letters have been a pleasure to read, and while the experience warrants a few brief reflections on Lewis, at the same time it reminded me of some growing concerns I have about our present approaches to things labeled “spiritual direction.”

What stands out first when one reads Lewis’s correspondence is simply its sheer vastness. This was a man busy with work as a professor, busy with work caring for invalids at home, busy with his personal writing, and yet taking time out of each day to maintain his letter writing—writing that followed him almost to the day of his death. Linked to this, and something possibly overlooked when we think about Lewis, is his extreme patience. Lewis makes the time to write everyone back, and some of those people most certainly didn’t really deserve it. Of special patience in this volume are the forty or so letters to Mary Willis Shelburne (also published as Letters to an American Lady), which tax even my patience when reading Lewis’s responses. Another factor that stands out about these letters is Lewis’s preparedness in matters of the soul. I work as clergy, and it is simply impossible to answer the needs of the soul which people bring to you if you do not know your own soul. Lewis’s self-knowledge, and capacity to illustrate from his own experiences in walking alongside others, is both admirable and worthy of imitation. I am also reminded that Lewis’s unique brilliance is not that he knew so much (although he did), but that he thought so clearly about everything. From that clarity he labored to bring clarity to the darkness of other people’s thoughts. It is that ongoing clarity, I suggest, that contributes most significantly to Lewis’s longevity as an author. The book is worth reading if only to be exposed to his clear thinking.

Walter Adams St Stephen's House

Fr. Walter Adams, remembered on the wall of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

While I enjoyed the book, I also had some reservations while reading it—not reservations about Lewis, but reservations about how we view “spiritual direction.” Above all else, I find that there is something decidedly fuzzy in how we talk and think about “spiritual direction” (and the scare quotes are there to highlight my reservation). I’m not sure we really know what it is, and it has become such a plastic term that it covers quite a variety of divergent concepts. Lewis himself, of course, visited a spiritual director (Father Walter Adams), and participated in regular confession. He speaks about these things helpfully in several of the letters. But when we are looking to Lewis for spiritual direction then something feels a little off. It is off, to my mind, in three critical ways. First, it is off because a relationship of spiritual direction (such as the one in which Lewis was involved) is a relationship of exchange. One believer sits under the supervision of another, trusting that older, wiser Christian in the direction and shaping of your soul. Lewis certainly fits the older, wiser category, but true direction requires a personal relationship and personal listening. The Director will listen to your life and make suggestions according to his/her perception of your needs. A key quality in the directee is obedience, and when we are reading a book for spiritual direction there is a danger that our own sense of power and control will override the process. Put simply, it’s a lot harder to say no to a person than it is to a book. A second reason it is off is because it neglects, to my mind, the role that friendship and collegial association played in Lewis’s spiritual formation. The letters selected in this volume are largely those which are overtly spiritual, and yet some of Lewis’s chief formation and enrichment as a Christian came about through his association with friends. By looking at only one kind of “spirituality,” I fear the reader can miss the broader spirituality of Lewis’s life and experience. This taps into the third reason the book felt off, which is with what material is cited in footnotes. Ford has faithfully footnoted every Bible reference he could detect in the book, but almost no literary references at all. Where Lewis references a book, or a poem, or a famous thinker, or some other literature, these items are not notated for the reader. This is a somewhat gross oversight, since one of the primary areas which opened Lewis to the Christian faith was literature itself. I find this to be a curiously evangelical approach to spirituality (made more ironic since Ford is himself a Roman Catholic)—that we only value Scripture to the neglect of other sources of information.

None of these concerns negate the overall value of the book—and in fact the book is well worth reading!—and yet they might raise some concerns about why we, as readers, are approaching the book. When we engage, we ought to be aware that the editing of this particular volume shapes our perceptions of what “spiritual direction” might be, and I am suggesting that it does this somewhat narrowly and inadequately. Because of this, we as readers can easily miss the breadths of Christian spirituality, the call to practical obedience, attentiveness to influences outside of the expressly sacred, and especially to the role that friendship plays in spiritual development

Above and beyond all of this—and perhaps above and beyond this particular volume itself—is with a kind of danger in how we, today, approach Lewis. Lewis, indeed, is a great Christian thinker, a giant of 20th century faith and well deserving the attention he has received. But when we are looking at Lewis, rather than along with him, then we are not only doing something Lewis would personally despise, but we are missing the greatest gifts he might offer us as readers—the exposure to the worlds and vistas which had opened his eyes personally to the greatness and majesty of God. This, indeed, might be the ultimate goal of all spiritual direction—to direct the heart toward a greater apprehension of, and obedience to, God.

Lewis with Pipe