Recommended Reading

Some cousins recently gave us a copy of Andrew Peterson’s On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. Andrew Peterson is a songwriter, author, and father of three living here in Nashville. Our cousins gave us a copy of one of his CDs, as well. Although I usually can’t stomach contemporary Christian music, we’ve enjoyed listening to the album together. That said, what I really want to talk about in this post is the book.

This is a story about a small family with old secrets living in big a world that is both beautiful and terrifying. My wife and I had a hard time figuring out the appropriate age range for this novel, but we decided that the age of the main characters, early adolescence, is about right. It has much of what you’d expect in a fantasy novel — wonders, monsters, thrills, and adventure — but it doesn’t rely too heavily on these elements. There are at least a few gratifying nods to Wendell Berry, (!) and although his book certainly proceeds from the spirit of Lewis and Tolkein, Peterson is his own author. He is at times hilariously goofy (whatever you do, don’t skip the footnotes), and others powerfully poignant. He knows the aching of the human heart for Eden, for home, and this heartache gently nudges the reader throughout the story.

My wife and I are scrambling to get a hold of the next few books in this five-part series, and not just to find out how it ends. This is definitely one we will read to our children.

Two Excerpts by Lyle H. Lanier

From A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress
By Lyle H. Lanier

Originally published in 1930 (!) in I’ll Take My Stand.

Take special not of excerpt 2, not only for its prediction of WWII, but for what it says to the current economic woes of the U.S. and the attendant machinations of the power-mongers.

Excerpt 1:

The only association or communication of any psychological import is that of face-to-face interaction among individuals, and it appears that instead of more association of this sort in the corporate age there is actually less of it.  We do indeed have greater similarity in the behavior patterns of individuals, more people doing the same thing in the same way and perhaps at the same time, but this by no means insures real communion.  The fact that along with ten million other persons a man eats potato chips made in Detroit is of about zero order of significance as far as the humanizing process of liberation of spirit in social interaction goes.  The two thousand patrons of a modern movie palace engage in no real communication or interaction, and consequently could scarcely be said to participate in an aggregate emotional life or to be sharing experiences in a manner calculated to produce development of personality.  The performance of a train of activities along the same external pattern as that followed by millions of other people means no corresponding psychological communism.  This real association exists, for the generality of people, only in the agrarian community and in the villages and towns which are its adjuncts.  It depends upon a stable population, upon long acquaintances, since human beings do not bear spigots by which “fraternity” can be drawn off for the asking.  The city necessarily means a diminution of these associations; the casual, fleeting, formal contacts with great numbers of people only enhance a sense of isolation, and consequently inhibit the very process of “liberation of spirit” which Mr. Dewey rightly regards as of great importance in mental development.

Another phase of the same problem is the decline of the family. This is perhaps much more important than any other phase of contemporary disintegration, since the family is the natural biological group, the normal milieu of shared experiences, community of interests, integration of personality.  The segmentation of both adult and child activities which has accompanied the corporate age leaves little to the family beyond the details of finance and the primary sexual functions.  Allport has recently pointed out in an excellent article that the moral and educational functions of the family are more and more entrusted to depersonalized external agencies which simulate the form of familial function but which are entirely devoid of its content.  The following quotation summarizes the psychological importance of the family very well:  “In youth as in age, in work as in play, in physical care as in education and morals, there remains a vital function which only such a face-to-face relation as the biological family can fulfill.  No artifice of the social scientist, no new marriage contract of community agency, can replace this relationship as a medium for the development and integration of human personality.  Fresh expectancies of conduct may be defined, new organizations may spring up to take over old familial duties; but these devices only dissipate our energies the further and realign us among new factions and patterns. . . .  The only reality which is ultimately worth considering is that of human beings which associate together; and the life of the family is the life which actual fathers, mothers, and children live in one another’s company.  Unless there are opportunities for individuals to grow and to realize their potentialities through free contact with one another, the most highly perfected pattern of the sociologist will be only an empty formula.”

Excerpt 2:

One outstanding fact in industry at present is that with the great increase in production and in new commodities, and with consumption coerced to the limit, there is a steady decrease in employment.  Improvements in technology, as Mr. Stuart Chase has recently pointed out, “can only mean one thing.  An equivalent tonnage of goods can be produced by a declining number of workers, and men must lose their jobs by the thousands — presently by the millions.”  The so-called “blotting-paper trades” which hitherto have absorbed many of these workers (but not all) are very soggy, thinks Mr. Chase.  This seems only logical; there must be a saturation point somewhere in the consumptive process, and we would seem to be approaching it.  Chronic unemployment of some 2,000,000 out of 30,000,000 workers in the country, with the figure rising to 4,000,000 or more in times of cyclical depression such as the present, cannot be wiped out by charity, slogans, Hoover conferences which recommend increased buying, or increases in the tariff.  Hungry and maladjusted men, women, and children, in numbers that bid fair to increase, is one of the promises of industrialism for the future.  With the curve of employment running steadily downward, industry will be increasingly unable to maintain the present army of workers permanently and continuously.

The logical outcome of these conditions is growing internal dissension and, eventually, revolution.  This result will be greatly facilitated by the instability in a “floating” populace concentrated in large urban industrial centers, unattached to that tremendous social anchor, land, and lacking in “solid and assured objects of belief and approved ends of action.”  Mr. William Green recently warned a Senate committee that the labor forces under his direction could not be held in line much longer unless drastic measures were taken to relieve the unemployment situation.  The latter is, of course, only an aspect of the general problem of industrialism, and it is possible to alleviate the condition temporarily without removing its cause.  Another world war, which the international struggle for markets suggests as not an unlikely prospect, would afford temporary “relief.”  Mr. Owen Young is quoted in press dispatches as saying that over-production with the consequent competition for foreign markets is a real menace to international peace.  There is nothing very strange in this idea, inasmuch as we are now far enough away from the last war to understand the economic translation of “making the world safe for democracy.”  Another salvation drama would relieve the labor market and take care of the surplus for a while, but this is neither a permanent nor a very intelligent solution.  The institution of various palliative measures by industrialists themselves may also serve to postpone the hour of reckoning.  Among these are unemployment insurance, state unemployment compensation, the shortening of working hours with the consequent employment of more men, regularization of production, increase in the age limit of child laborers, and so on.  These measure would undoubtedly stabilize conditions for a time, but it requires considerable optimism to believe that they would insure the permanent retention in industrial employment of the large portion of the population now engaged in it.  Technological improvements, efficiency experts, and mergers would necessarily add regularly to the burden of any unemployment insurance or compensation plan.  Like the present Farm Board’s attempt to handle the wheat surplus, such devices are unnatural and temporary.  Furthermore, granting the possibility of tiding over for a few years, even for twenty-five or fifty, the most that is offered to the worker is the bleak assurance that no serious physiological want will overtake him.  The men, women, and children will have no humanized living; caught in the throes of these convulsions of a predatory and decadent capitalism, their drab existences will bear mute testimony that our century of Progress lies below the cultural level of the Pyramids.

The alternative course to this blind temporization is to renounce the capitalistic industrial program.  This does not mean that the industrial technology should be scrapped; on the contrary, further mechanization of industrial production should be encouraged, since this would mean that progressively fewer persons would be required for its processes.  The production of commodities should be stabilized in each industry, and the large surplus of chronically unemployed should be induced by all possible means to return to agriculture.  The objection may be made that already there is over-production of agricultural commodities; the answer is that agriculture is more than a process of “production.”  The millions of people who now hang to the fringes of industry would find a place to live and food to eat; they would no longer fill the “flop” houses and the bread lines.  They would not have to look froward to the demoralizing prospect of the dole, even when made under the guise of “insurance.”  They would have a base on which to knit together the fragments of lives now broken on the wheel of what we are pleased to call civilization.

An Excerpt by Donald Davidson

From “A Mirror for Artists”, one of the essays in I’ll Take My Stand.

Davidson seems incredibly prescient.  This essay was published in 1930, and although the underlying technology was already developed by that time, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that television arrived in the American household.  Yet he accurately predicts both television and the Suzuki violin school.

It is common knowledge that, wherever it can be said to exist at all, the kind of leisure provided by industrialism is a dubious benefit.  It helps nobody but merchants and manufacturers, who have taught us to use it in industriously consuming the products they make in great excess over the demand.  Moreover, it is spoiled, as leisure, by the kind of work that industrialism compels.  The furious pace of our working hours is carried over into our leisure hours, which are feverish and energetic.  We live by the clock.  Our days are a muddle of “activities,” strenuously pursued.  We do not have the free mind and easy temper that should characterize true leisure.  Nor does the separation of our lives into two distinct parts, of which one is all labor — too often mechanical and deadening — and the other all play, undertaken as a nervous relief, seem to be conducive to a harmonious life.  The arts will not easily survive a condition under which we work and play at cross-purposes.  We cannot separate our being into contradictory halves without a certain amount of spiritual damage.  The leisure thus offered is really no leisure at all; either it is pure sloth, under which the arts take on the character of mere entertainment, purchased in boredom and enjoyed in utter passivity, or it is another kind of labor, taken up out of a sense of duty, pursued as a kind of fashionable enterprise for which one’s courage must be continually whipped up by reminders of one’s obligation to culture.

Christopher Hall: Reading Scripture with The Fathers

Amazon link

Christopher Hall is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Eastern College, Pennsylvania, and associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  In this book, he provides an introduction to studying the writings of the men we know as the “Church Fathers”.  He is particularly focused on their methods of exegesis and scriptural interpretation.  As such, the book is probably designed for use in a historical theology class, but I found it a useful introduction to the lay reader.

Following a few introductory chapters, Hall gives brief biographies of four fathers from the East (Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom) and four from the West (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great), with a few snippets of the writings of each.  Following that, he has a few chapters on the interpretive differences that are represented by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools (allegory vs. a more limited typography).  Finally, he offers some practical suggestions for entering the world of the Fathers.

This is a book that gets stronger as it goes.  The biographical chapters left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, as I wanted to hear some more direct quotes from the Fathers themselves, and I started getting their biographical details mixed up.  Things got much better with the chapters on allegorical vs. “literal” interpretation.  (I have put “literal” in quotes, because it is still a good deal more allegorical than many rationalist modern readers may be comfortable with.)  The closing chapters, with practical advice on approaching the Fathers, were by far the most helpful.  Here are a few quotes from the last chapter:

People bred by their culture to expect a text to address and immediately answer problems, questions or issues that by their intrinsic nature demand a slower, borader and deeper response will often find themselves frustrated by patristic writers.  The quest for immediate spiritual or intellectual gratification is rarely successful; short-term solutions to long-term problems ultimately break down.  The fathers are insistent that spiritual, theological and biblical insight does not appear overnight.  Instead, they adamantly insist that the Bible opens itself to those who have immersed themselves in its riches and pondered it deeply within the context of prayer, worship and communal reflection.

Unlike most modern people, including too many Christians, the fathers are in no rush.  You will not find them providing ten easy steps for spiritual fulfillment, nor evincing great sympathy for those who might find their writings difficult to grasp for the first time.  The problems and realities Scripture addresses and elucidates — sin, evil, death, life, incarnation, redemption, creation, recreation — demand the attention of a mind and heart that has learned to be patient, to listen, to be silent, to study “with the mind in the heart.”

And, on the idea of picking one Father to study in depth as a starting point:

As I immersed myself in the life and work of Chrysostom in preparing my doctoral dissertation, I realized that my teachers had been right.  But it was only through coming to know Chrysostom himself, through reading biographies of him, through reading his sermons and treatises, through seeing his responses to the deep suffering and trials he encountered through much of his life, that the world of the fathers opened up to me.  I realized Chrysostom was calling me to listen to both his words and his life.  In him I saw the integrity too often missing in my own Christian experience.  His words and life dramatically fit together.

My encounter with Chrysostom led to a deeper exposure to other fathers.  As the days and months passed, a world that had once appeared foreboding, alien and intimidating began to feel more like home.  But the first step in this process, what I see as the formation of new and lasting friendships, was the choice to study one father in some detail.

I haven’t read enough to compare this book to others on the same subject, but I can certainly say that it has been helpful for me.  I’m thinking I might start with Clement of Alexandria, if I decide to follow the above advice.

Demons, Doctrines, and Ethics

Last night, some friends were discussing the difficulties for us in these days to believe in concepts like demons and Satan. It was put forward that issues about esoteric doctrines (like the question of the existence of demons) can be a distraction from the more important matters of our Christian walk and witness. I respectfully disagree, and I’d like to put out the idea (not mine) that doctrine and ethics are “two sides of the same coin”. What I mean is that the above is a false dichotomy, and that what we believe informs how we live, although I guess some “doctrines” may not be as important as others.

The quotes are from N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, and the issue he is dealing with is not demons but questions about what happens after we die. I think the principle, however, is the same.

This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. Indeed, some insist angrily that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is the really important one. This in turn makes some others get angry when people talk of resurrection, as if this might draw attention away from the really important and pressing matters of contemporary social concern. But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other. I find that to many — not least, many Christians — all this comes as a surprise: both that the Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.

And after comparing the Platonic (upon death our souls leave the prison of the body and waft up to heaven) and Christian (bodily resurrection, new Heaven/new Earth) views of the afterlife:

The classic Christian doctrine, therefore, is actually far more powerful and revolutionary than the Platonic one. It was people who believed robustly in the resurrection, not people who compromised and went in for a mere spiritualized survival, who stood up against Caesar in the first centuries of the Christian era. A piety that sees death as the moment of “going home at last,” the time when we are “called to God’s eternal peace,” has no quarrel with power-mongers who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends. Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it. English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead.

To bring this back to the question of whether or not demons and Satan exist, you could say that it could make a difference in (at least) this sense: What you believe about the nature of the evil forces you are confronting affects how you confront them. So, granting that the question of the existence of demons may not be as important as the questions about resurrection above, I think it still does matter.

Joseph Ratzinger: The Salt of the Earth

Amazon link

The Salt of the Earth is a set of interviews with Ratzinger back in the late 90’s when he was still a cardinal.  The interviewer is Peter Seewald, a German journalist.  In it, we hear from the man who is now the pope about a ton of issues both inside and outside the Catholic church.  Ratzinger provides an insightful view of the state of the world today, and even predicts some of the financial and social calamaties that have come to fruition in the Western world.  He seems to contradict at every page the view given of him by the secular news, that he is a hard-core heavy-handed blind traditionalist.  Rather, he comes through as an intelligent, reasonable, and balanced man with a very clear understanding of the global situation and a very humble view of the pope’s role.  Particularly encouraging is his refusal to accept power-oriented characterizations of people and positions in the church and the world.  (Regarding papal infallibility, he says that the pope can only be considered infallible when he is acting in his official role as representative of the consensus of all the bishops of the Church, and it is for this reason only that his stamp of approval in these situations may be called “infallible”.)

A good read for anyone interested in where the new pope may be taking the Catholic church, or who may think that the pope is the anti-Christ.  This should not be taken as an endorsement by me of the Catholic church or certain of its doctrines, but simply to say that it can be helpful to actually listen to someone before we cast judgement on what we heard they believe and do.

Josef Pieper: Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power

Publisher link

We finished this one last week.  Pieper gives an excellent discussion of the critical importance of language in our world, using Plato’s dialogues with the Sophists.  He says that communicated words imply two things: 1) Some connection to reality, and 2) A relationship between two people.  If your words are not grounded in truth, then you are abusing your relationship in order to manipulate.  We discussed implications of this in advertising, politics, and especially the church.

The second essay is called “Knowledge and Freedom”, and as I took it, discusses the value of knowledge and how manipulation of science (in the broadest sense of the word) leads to a destruction of freedom.  To put it another way, the knowledge you gain by doing science is not valuable because it is useful, but rather because it is true.  Furthermore, people must be free to seek knowledge regardless of its “benefits”.  This has implications from the global warming “debate” to the whole funding circus we researchers are constantly going through.

Two excellent essays.  Both quick reads, and in my opinion, should be required reading for anyone who is or is about to be associated with an institution of “higher learning”.