Review of “Our Muslim Neighbors”

By Joe LaGuardia

I recently had an engagement with Muslim interfaith advocate, Victor Begg, at a restaurant attached to a local, municipal airport. When it came time for evening prayer, Victor and his family sought a quiet place to pray. I recommended that they walk next door to the small one-room terminal at the airport, where there is plenty of room for prayer rugs. At the time, no one would be in the terminal save one clerk at a reservation desk.

Victor and his family reminded me of the optics. If he and his family gathered in the terminal no matter how vacant, with prayer rugs and shawls, what kind of message would that send to airport staff? I apologized, and soon they found a corner of the lobby large enough to accommodate their needs.

Victor Begg, community activist and author of Our Muslim Neighbors, has been an American citizen for over 50 years. He is from India–far from the Middle East–so his “look” doesn’t raise any red flags; and yet, he is mindful of how suspicious his neighbors are of having a Muslim do business and recreation in the area.

This brief experience at the local airport is precisely why Begg authored Our Muslim Neighbors in the first place: to help readers in the United States and beyond realize that Muslims make up some 1.8 billion people on earth, and that a large majority of them–over 97%–are upright citizens that defy combative, radicalized stereotypes and caricatures portrayed on the news.

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Our Muslim Neighbors is a memoir of Begg’s sojourn from India to Detroit, Michigan. It follows his travails and triumphs in learning a new language, attending college, and getting his businesses established. It outlines the joys of meeting his beloved wife and raising a family.

His rise to community organization is accessible and easy to read. The narrative flows in a conversational tone that lets us get into the front door of the Begg household, and might be a good primer for anyone interested in becoming a public activist.

Begg has plenty of experience to share with readers. He is a published columnist, community organizer, successful entrepreneur, and (…and I have personal experience with this!) a good friend. We meet him as he defies family in order to seek life in the States, struggles to secure a loan to start a furniture franchise, and brokers relationships on behalf of religious freedom from the Mid-West to South Florida. If there is anything weak about this book, its too detailed and drowns us under the weight of so many accomplishments.

The beauty of the story is not in the religious sense of his writing, but in the folksy way he makes his story anyone’s story. He is not preachy or pushy. It is, simply, one American immigrant’s tale of earning and living the American Dream.

We need a resuscitation of that dream today, a dream lost in the midst of our political and religious milieu of late. I have personally been involved in Baptist and Muslim interfaith work for nearly 15 years now, and it seems that Begg’s goals of seeking understanding and educating others on the American experience is close to mine and so many others. It is a part of a dream as American as apple pie and Corvettes.

The only way to go beyond toxic divisiveness is to dream again, and to take hold of the promises our privileged nation continues to offer those who work hard and love others as themselves.

Mark Hicks, writing for the Detroit News, states, “The book . . . extends his legacy and serves an influential guide in a volatile political climate.”

I may not have the same troubles Begg has, since I am squarely at home in a majority-Christian culture, but I relate to his immigrant-related issues. I am an Italian American in the Christ-haunted South, and I remind people, as has Begg, that it is not one particular religion that breeds violence or despair, but a growing radicalism in all corners of the world in which we separate “us from them”. In Myanmar, Buddhist radicals slaughter Muslims; in the Middle East, Muslims persecute and execute Christians; in Europe, Christians bomb synagogues. In China, communist officials in Xinjiang province are oppressing, torturing, and incarcerating in forced labor camps nearly 1 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people.* In our own nation, secularists limit freedom of speech on college campuses in the name of (ironically) “tolerance.”

Right now, we need Begg’s voice–and we need it badly. But we also need mine, and yours, and ours.

The greatest way to understand someone is to stand in his shoes. Our Muslim Neighbors helps us achieve that goal. Its dual role of being an immigrant memoir and exposition of American Islamic activist plays effectively to those of us who, above all else, believe that the American Dream can still work in an environment of justice, inclusivity, and diversity. Its not enough to say, “I tolerate you.” Who wants to be tolerated? That kind of marriage can’t last. Instead, we must say, “I understand you, and I have walked with you–and now I see differently because of it!”

*The House of Representatives has passed legislation identifying Chinese officials at the heart of Uighur oppression and freezing financial assets and visas is currently awaiting a vote in the U. S. Senate.

A Reading Life (prt. 17): Old Words with New Hope

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By Joe LaGuardia

I started collecting vintage religious books some time ago. These books, primarily on preaching or prayer, have become treasures and sources of encouragement. They have also become a way to go “treasure hunting” in used book and thrift stores. (Its exciting to have a niche collection.)

There is something about the artistry of language and the writing in books of yore we don’t get today. Contemporary writing comes to us by concise, brief sentences. When I was writing my book on the Old Testament, I tried to mimic this style of writing–people claim its Hemingwayesque– and, besides, people want fast reads.

People don’t spend time on books anymore, they say, so if an author can’t move readers through the page fast enough, they will likely put the book down. If the language is too lofty or esoteric, you threaten to leave people behind. Few people remember their SAT words from high school, so its not wise to use words with too many syllables.

Concise writing is, I think, collateral damage created by our short-form world in which we publish 140-character Tweets or social media “posts”. Even blogs have to be short, sweet, and to the point. Yet I am reminded that good writing will always be good writing, regardless of the style, and I am deeply aware of that. However, venture into most Christian books stores–or peruse the Christian section of your local book store–and you will find that concise writing has translated into shallow content.

It’s regretful just how cliche our writing sounds these days, and even facts are scrutinized by readers. We teeter on the edge of becoming an idiocracy our comedians envisioned for us so long ago.

I went into a Lifeway book store three times in the past year–and I could not find anything that spoke to me. The books have captivating covers and catchy titles; but, get into the writing, and it comes off as grade-school reading. Even the “scholarly books” sound like amateur-hour Sunday school lessons.

Pick up a book from the mid to early 20th century, however–say, those by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Scherer, or Glenn Clark– and they sparkle with jewels of writing and content. My friend, who gained the same sentiment over a year ago, reads Leslie Weatherhead and Norval Pease, writers of several devotionals from that era. I have read Old Testament textbooks from the 1960s, including one by Rabbi Solomon Freehof. Last week I finished a memoir from Somerset Maugham on his travels through southeast Asia published around 1935. It wasn’t religious, but it certainly didn’t insult the intelligence!

Commentaries, though dated, also contain writing that is rich and moving. I regularly refer to the original Interpreter’s Bible set for sermon prep, especially if I lack inspiration on any given week. The Broadman Bible Commentary still stands as a Baptist classic. I have used F. B. Meyer’s Our Daily Homily, published in 1966, as my devotional of choice on a daily basis and occasional reference for sermons.

Just this morning, I read this moving insight by Meyer:

“When Jesus subjects us to a trial, it is only because, amid all our dross, his keen eye detects the precious gold which cost Him Calvary, and is capable of becoming his ornament of beauty forever.”

Books on prayer also ring true with warmth and majesty. Although not the most theologically acute of religious authors, Glenn Clark has been a writer I’ve read recently, thanks to a trove of Clark books bequeathed to us from one of our beloved “church mothers”.

Check out this whopper of a paragraph by Glenn Clark on prayer:

“As all the seven seas are stirred to fill the little well that the child has dug in the seashore sand, so all heaven is stirred from its heights to its depths to fill the heart that truly hungers after God. Christ, whose great heart seeks and hungers for us, even more than our hearts hunger for Him, permits neither principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, to separate us from the most tender, the most virile, the most irresistible expression of the love of God, that man has ever known” (I Will lift Up Mine Eyes).

Who writes like that anymore?

I can only think of a handful of writers who can get close, and I’m sure you have your contemporary favorites as well. But I don’t think its solely the strength of the content that moves us. It is the writing, and in our sound-byte world in which children no longer learn penmanship and long-hand, and where we don’t have the patience or persistence to demand better writing, something has been lost along the way.

A Pastor’s Reading List for 2019

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev

By Joe LaGuardia

I have made it a habit, as other pastors have, of publishing an annual reading list. It is made up of books that we long to read, hope to read, want to read, need to read. I have fun reading the lists of others, and I hope that people have fun reading mine.  This year I want to do it differently. In years past, I viewed my list as a challenge–if it is listed, then I should read it. So, this year I am going to take the fun out of the list and only add books that I read.

1. God Underneath, by Edward Brock. I found this memoir by a Catholic priest in the shadowy (not seedy!) corner of my local used book store. When I visit the store, I don’t spend much time in the religion section; just enough to see what Bibles are in stock. This one particular day, a worker a who knows me and is in charge of the religion section told me that a large donation of Catholic books came in. Brock’s moving book, of his upbringing to his discernment in the priesthood and eventual ministry, was among them. His contention is that whatever comes our way, we can find God underneath it all if we only have the spiritual awareness to see the Spirit at work! As one who loves memoirs, I really enjoyed this book.

2. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson. This book by the famed (and now late) Message Bible translator is said to be a classic. I thought it was a memoir. It is a classic to many pastors, but it certainly isn’t a memoir. It is, instead, a book on the Psalms of Ascent. Peterson’s writing is concise and spiritually uplifting; his exegesis and care in interpreting the text more so, but I would not call it a classic. I have to admit, I ran out of gas before I finished the book. Its not that it isn’t good; its just not what I expected.

3. Philosophy of History, by William Dray. This was yet another find at the used book store. I have gotten into the habit of picking up quirky books that are easy or slim reads, and Dray’s concise introduction to the philosophy of history is no different. This subject is not a first for me; I took a philosophy of history course in college as part of my history major (I remember well: the great, late Dr. Hembree was an amazing teacher, gone to be with the Lord at too young an age). The book was wordy and not very well-written, but helped me remember some of those hold history philosophy debates we had back in the day.

One thing I did learn: Arnold Toynbee, who wrote a mutlivolume work called A Study of History, concluded perhaps naively, that the one unifying factor in the downfall of civilizations was the eventual decline of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit–kind of like the first step towards an “idiocracy.” Toynbee is on to something. Might there be something for the church to learn–that once a church ceases to be creative, missional, and entrepreneurial, death is imminent?

4. A Preface to Scripture, by Solomon Freehof. Yet another used-book store find, but a treasure if there ever was one. This is among one of my favorites so far in the past year (I started this book last year and have been slowly, deliciously making my way through it). It is an introduction to the Old Testament written from a Jewish, rabbinic point of view (Freeman is a reputable Reformed rabbi of rabbis), written specifically for Christians.

His historical portraits and commentary on all the books of the First Testament are traditionally rabbinic, but provide fresh and creative readings along the way. I am learning (1) where some of our own (Christian) interpretations of scripture come from and their Jewish roots; and (2) how rabbis have read scripture–and can contribute to our reading of scripture–before we, as a religious tradition, were even using the word “scripture” to begin with. Every page is a learning experience–and I’m learning things new about the Bible along the way, not something that can be said often from a bookish nerd like me.

5. I will Lift up Mine Eyes, by Glenn Clark. Our church inherited a small theological library from one of our missions-minded powerhouses. The deceased, Ms. Ouida, was an amazing person–one time school principal and active in the church. Her passing has created a vacuum in our congregation, and particularly my life– every Sunday Ouida and I would greet parishioners to our worship service at the front door. Everyone who passed Ouida received a warm handshake and an “I’m glad you’re here this morning!”

Her library included several books by Glenn Clark, also a teacher, who turned writer of all things prayer and spirituality. His book, I Will Lift up Mine Eyes, came on the heels of his bestselling book A Man’s Reach. It is a moving devotional on prayer, although I believe it to be a forerunner to the Prosperity Gospel movement of recent decades. Nevertheless, it is one of the best books on prayer because of its specificity in instructing readers on prayer and also admonishing us to remember that, as a believer, we are Christ’s very own, God’s children–and that truth should shape our courage and conviction in our conversations with God.

Published in 1937, its language is beautifully written and anecdotes timeless. I really do enjoy reading these older books; there is something about their syntax and wealth of words that moves the spirit. A great read!

6. The Gentleman in the Parlor, by W. Somerset Maugham. I am half-way through this memoir of prolific author Maugham’s travels through Thailand and Burma. His story is not as detailed as most travel narratives, but rather embodies short collections of his experiences along the way. Nor is the writing born of research into local lore and history, but a tale told from the position of one who “sits idly” with time to let the mind wander.

I found this book in the classics section of our used book store. I don’t know what attracted me to it other than the back cover mentioned it was a travel memoir, and the picture on the front looked captivating. The year of publication was in that window I adore so much–around 1930–and the language was rich upon first glance.

I have come to enjoy Maugham’s writing, although it is a bit arrogant at times and wistful at others (I read somewhere along the way that he wasn’t the most pleasant man, quite infamous in fact– his self-identification of a “gentleman” not withstanding). But you can’t blame him–his parents passed when he was 10 years old and he had several rocky romances along the way. I discovered too that he wrote a memoir on his writing, A Writer’s Notebook, which I hope to purchase and read sometime over the summer.

7. The Prophets, by Abraham Heschel. I am on a roll this past season with the First (Old) Testament. I have published my own book of essays on it, and I have read two textbooks–one by James West and another by Solomon Freehof (see above). Now, not three months into the new year, I picked up a classic by Jewish mystic and scholar Abraham Heschel, The Prophets.

This would not have been my first choice as my first Heschel book, but I made a commitment to get whatever I find at the local used book store. The edition is a good one, from 1969, a revision about 7 years after its original publication date; but the writing and notes are remarkably timeless.

This is an introduction, however, so it is not as spiritually intuitive as I would have hoped; but it does not disappoint, for Heschel stands as a forefather to contemporary First Testament studies, not just for Jewish folks but for us Protestants too. Have doubts? Just ask Walter Brueggemann!

8. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, by Andrew Krivak. I’m getting used to writing, “I found this treasure in our used bookstore,” so just assume that if there is a book on this list not published in the last year, it is from the used bookstore.  Recently, however, I discovered some gems in the Catholic section of the store, including this book signed by the author, Krivak’s memoir of his discernment process for entering the Society of Jesus (AKA the Jesuits).

The set of values for which Jesuits are known — poverty, chastity, and obedience — (and of Krivak’s spiritual wrestling match with each), plays an interesting subtext throughout the memoir.  It is not so much a spiritual memoir, therefore, as a secular memoir with sacred themes.

What is the difference?  A spiritual memoir, I would argue, is one in which the author searches for God and writes with the Holy Spirit in mind–a sort of extended prayer to which readers are privy.  This memoir, on the other hand, focuses on Krivak’s movement through his vocation and career not so much in search of God as it is a search for the true self — a self torn ultimately between the priesthood and the challenges of wanting a family.

Anyone with a family knows that poverty, chastity, and obedience shifts in these two poles — so this makes the drama of Krivak’s story, and the writing which is excellent, all the more…dramatic.  I am finding that I have to pray after reading so many pages because while these values confront Krivak, so too do they confront readers.  I am not called the priesthood, but how are poverty (the need of letting go of things that gets in God’s way), chastity (moral purity and single-minded devotion to Christ), and obedience (following Christ even when it costs something) playing out in my own life as a Christ-follower?  That’s the question to ponder in this fascinating read.

9. The Age of Reform, by Richard Hofstadter.  What I thought would be a comprehensive sweep of political and cultural history of the Progressive Era turned out to be a too-deep-in-the-weeds critique of the economic patterns associated with the Populist and Progressive movement roughly at the turn of the century.  Although the subtitle states that it is a history (and a Pulitzer prize winner at that!) from W. J. Bryan to F.D.R., only the last part of the last chapter covered the New Deal.

The most compelling part of this book was Hofstadter’s insistence on busting the myths surrounding the Progressive Era.  While we look at the Era ideally, (and have certainly inherited that high-minded view from our forebears because this book was published in 1955), Hofstadter proves that much of the politics of the time were merely pragmatic.  Even the New Deal was a “legislation of experimentation”, and much of the reforms that took place between 1890 and 1948 were the result of people trying to muddle through industrialism, conflicting theories of economics, and vastly shifting currency rates.  Sounds boring?  It was.

I am grateful, regardless of the content, of having a better view of Progressivism, my own particular heritage of choice.  I would have preferred more time on T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but–as mentioned–this was more economic portrait than political history.

10. St. Patrick: His Confessio and Other Writings.  For a guy who prides himself on knowing the saints, I sure fall short when it comes to having read primary sources of the saints.  I knew that St. Patrick had prayers out there–his shield prayer and several others–but I had no idea that he wrote of his history and theology in a confession.  Certainly, St. Patrick is not one of the more prolific of saints; in fact, at least one of his letters is questionable as to its source, but the language and theology are just as meaningful.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of St. Patrick’s writing was his heart for the lost “pagans” of Ireland.  Many of us Protestants think that Catholics do not emphasize evangelism.  Read St. Patrick, and you will be proven wrong!  He was concerned for souls as well as justice, as many of his writings advocated for those who were enslaved or exploited at the hands of growing Roman conquest in the British isles.

11. Trauma-Sensitive Theology, by Jennifer Baldwin. A recently published book by an old seminary colleague on the significance of trauma in the lives of Christians, churches, and community.  Although Baldwin’s prescription for trauma-sensitive theology is better suited for clinicians and pastoral counselors, her call to put it on the radar of every church is a breath of fresh air.

Consider our current culture, which is often shaped by fear, agitation, and grief.  We fear losing our identity (political or otherwise); we fear of the other, and we grieve that things in our society will never be the same.  When we go to church, we expect a normalcy that reminds us of yesteryear; but, even in church, times are a’changin’.  New models of leadership, reduced budgets and attendance, and a shift in church ministry hasn’t helped in our current milieu.

Baldwin’s call to a new theological paradigm is a response to the trauma that these changes bring, and it would do well for clergy to pay attention to how trauma, including PTSD, shapes community and church.  We are called to recognize it, and also to bring about healing and reconciliation that embodies shalom (wholeness, holiness, and peace).  Her take on the work of ministry is clear:

The role of religious care…is not to adjudicate the ‘facts’ of trauma; it is to advocate for safety, to support and facilitate the repair of traumatic injury, and to promote recovery and resiliency” (p. 9).

Christ sits squarely in this realm of trauma and grief, a Risen Savior who knows the suffering of the cross, who confronts change in the future, and comes to his people not as a strong lion but as a “lamb as though slaughtered” (Rev. 5)–one who prizes empathy in a world in which empathy is becoming a limited resource.  Baldwin’s work on trauma is a wake-up call to churches in the throes of monumental change.

12.  The Nature and Mission of the Church, by Donald Miller. There is nothing better to read while you’re in bed with strep throat for a week than something simple, encouraging, and thoughtful.  Miller’s short treatise on the church, published in 1957, is just that.  It is a good reminder what the church is, as well as what the church is not.  The church, of course, can be a building or an institution.  But, ultimately, it is a people of God, commissioned by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.

Each chapter moves to a different aspect of church, beginning with a theology of humanity in which Miller places people in direct relationship with God: We are created for fellowship, and God’s call to be a people is about fellowshipping with God and neighbor, of joining God at work in the world, and fulfilling the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ.

I particularly like how Miller examines the Bible’s emphasis on ministry in the Body–we have created a hierarchy with the pastor or priest on top; but in the New Testament, everyone is a part of the ministry, and not such hierarchy exists.  Rather,

The office of priesthood, therefore, is shared by all Christians.  Consequently, the official ministry of the church has no different status from that of the layman.  The difference is one of function only” (p. 89).

As we seek to do church, we need to remember that Christ is head and we are family.  There is no such thing as “just a layman” or “just a Christian,” according to Miller (p. 89).

13.  The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. It has been nearly a decade since I graduated with my doctorate in the field of spiritual formation, and I finally got around to reading Merton’s classic spiritual autobiography.  I believe that God dictates things according to his timing, so perhaps I wasn’t ready to read it before now–regretting not reading it sooner is futile and a waste of time: But, that said, it is one of the best spiritual autobiographies I have read.

Merton follows his journey of faith from childhood, which includes his travels across Europe with his artist father, to his career as perpetual student and English professor.  His writing provides a good snapshot of that kind of collegiate life in the 1930s, as well as a fresh, contemporary take on the Spirit’s leadership in drawing him to the monastic life.

Merton has been a mainstay in my ministry.  Minutes away from a Cistercian monastery in Conyers, I did much of my doctoral writing–and contemplating–at that monastery in my spare time when not working.  Merton popularized the idea of monasteries in general and the contemplative life in particular.  I stumbled upon Henri Nouwen first, however, and so much of my influence draws from him.  I have heard all about Merton through the years, however.

One of the biggest things that impressed me about Merton’s writing was his ability to weave prayer and gratitude in his memoir.  He mentions grace often, noting where God gifted him with direction, insight, and discernment.  His prayers that erupt every few chapters is a great wonderment to behold.  His writing is rich; his prayers divine.

14. “Essays on the American Revolution”, ed. by Stephen Kurtz and James Hutson.  I purchased this book at the used bookstore for one reason only: An essay in it entitled “Violence and the American Revolution,” by Richard Maxwell Brown, caught my attention, and for a dollar it was hard to let go.

Brown’s essay did not disappoint as it argued that the undercurrent of violence in the Revolution neither began during the revolution nor ceased after it.  In fact, violence was not merely a force for liberation, but a part of our national history that continues to haunt us:

American violence owes much to the dead weight of unsolved problems hanging over from the past.  The negative features of American history — abysmal relations between whites and people of other color and the brutal and brutalizing processes by which the frontier was extended and our economic industrialized — have long been known to us as violent chapters in the story of our development, but it has been difficult for us to accept that the most noble event in our history, the Revolution, was entwined with a civil violence that was often ignoble.”

The Revolution not only added to our national inheritance of violence, it “sanctified it”, giving rise to the self-righteous application of just war, vigilantism, and (at one point) the oppression of other people and nations (Jim Crow, and the like).  Throughout the history of the United States, violence is encapsulated in our literature and legislation, be it in the extreme defense of the Second Amendment to the massive spending in our Defense budget, and all this in the name of “freedom” or “liberty”.  Brown contends in the last quarter of the essay that,

Long after 1776 the symbols of the Revolution continued to be used with frequency and sincerity by violent movements  to enfold themselves in its sanctifying mantle” (emphasis mine).

Brown’s essay was worth the price of a dollar and, for me, framed a new look into the narrative of our national gun debate.  We need to divorce our Second Amendment rights and legislation away from the lofty ideals of “freedom” that costs us our national souls.  There is nothing sanctifying about making the amendment mean what it never intended to mean, and to protect the very weapons of mass destruction that it never intended to protect–all in the name of liberty at the cost of the lives of our school children.

I did go on to read another essay in this book entitled, “The Role of Religion in the Revolution,” by William McLoughlin.  It was nowhere near as well written as the essay on violence, but it was a good snapshot into the complexity of debates surrounding religious liberty in the formation of our country.  It was an interesting read, especially for this Baptist so concerned about the separation of church and state.

15.  Introducing the Bible, by William Barclay.  Barclay is a household name for most pastors.  His commentary on the New Testament is legend, and you can find them in most church basements.  They are informative and, actually, still very relevant.  I still use them because they are among the most practical commentaries and they are very well-written.  Barclay has something to teach every preacher about information and pithy writing.

I came across this book somewhere–perhaps inherited from one of our late senior saints who donated books before she passed.  Although it is an introduction, I figured Barclay’s writing will go quick and it will be interesting.  And it did, and it was!  The book is recommended for anyone who is interested in the Bible, from seasoned minister to lay reader.  His information on the formation of scripture is compelling, and some of his anecdotes are moving.  It is a fun read!

16. Cujo, by Stephen King.  A golden oldie by horror master Stephen King.  This, one of his earliest books, holds some family folklore for me.  I’ve never read the book before now (or seen the movie), but Cujo was a household name for us.  Everytime my father met a dog that came up to him–no matter the size–he would say, “Watch out!  Cujo!  Killer dog!”  I thought it was corny, and we would follow it up with a big eye-roll.  But the book was good.  Classic King.

17.  Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, by Keith Grint. This year, one of my staff objectives is to learn more about leadership.  I didn’t want any books about how to be a leader, however–enough with the “laws or leadership” or “virtues of leadership” or “habits of highly effective leaders.”  I wanted nuts and bolts.  A friend, who is getting a doctorate in public administration, offered me this book–and it hit the spot and helped me articulate questions that I didn’t know how to ask.

Not only does the book go through various models of leadership and leadership styles, it also emphasizes the importance of context (that place in which leaders either thrive or die) and of followers.  A short read, but worth the time!

18.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.  If you like to read spooky books around Halloween, this classic is a must.  The best part about it: No movies or adaptations I’ve seen comes close to the storytelling prowess and historical description of northern New York than the unabridged version of this early 18th-century short story.  It is descriptive, it is evocative, it is scary, and its funny.  Irving shows his hand as a brilliant writer of satire but also travel narrative.  It was really good!

19.  Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Taylor’s new memoir is on lessons learned from her religion class at Piedmont College.  She takes a personal view of various faiths and states how she has fostered a “holy envy” of each one.  Although the book is helpful in engaging interfaith work, it is more personal reflection than educational.  I appreciate her reflection in the epilogue, in which she admits that writing about other faiths runs the risk of “replacing negative stereotypes with positive stereotypes.”  That is putting into words the one nagging feeling that I had while reading the book.  As usual, Taylor is a great writer–and she remains my #1 favorite author of all time.

20. Revelation as Social Disobedience, by Thomas Slater.  Hot off the press is this short monograph by one of the leading Revelation scholars in the nation.  Slater (and my one-time Old Testament professor at Mercer) is candid in his argument for an early dating and the “slain Lamb as christology” reading of the text.

This contributes two aspects to Revelation studies: First, an early date (he dates it in the late 60s leading up to the tensions surrounding Rome destruction of the Temple) implies that violence to Christians happened from local authorities, Jewish communities, and within the church itself as it grappled with theological and identity politics.

Second, the slain Lamb image used for Christ throughout the text implies that Christians will overcome this violence the same way as Christ: In giving witness and testimony to the sovereignty of Israel’s God even unto death.  Jesus came to John’s community not as a warrior king who is Lion of Judah, but as slain Lamb whose sacrifice and death was victorious.  Revelation is a thoroughly pro-life book: Christians are to bear witness to the persistence of God’s kingdom in the face of oppression and tyranny; Christians are not called to bear arms or weapons of war.

Nowhere in Revelation does God condone revenge or violence; rather, justice and judgment are God’s alone.  This supports the rest of Jesus’ non-violent ethic: We are to pray for enemies and be witness to Christ’s presence on earth through the Holy Spirit.  Reconciliation–the forgiving of enemies–breaks cycles of violence and is the way towards the heavenly call of Christ Jesus.

21.  Introduction to a Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales.  This book is exactly as the title implies: Sixteenth-century French saint, Francis de Sales wrote this instruction manual to his monastic communities as the way to begin a “devout life” to Christ.  It contains five parts that moves Christians from desire of living for Christ, to penance and prayer, to virtuous living, and, finally, to the practice of regular exercises and rules that order one’s life religious.  His process is (typical during the Counter Reformation), intentional:

The soul that rises from sin to devotion may be compared to the dawning of the day, which at its approach expels the darkness not instantly but little by little.”

I read this slowly and carefully, and its insights bring both challenge and conviction.  It is thoroughly Catholic (as Bishop of Geneva, St. Frances faced constant opposition from John Calvin), but it is encouraging and leads to a great deal of reflection.  This, for instance, challenged me: “You must not only cease to sin but eliminate all affections to sin in your heart…”  For the last few months I’ve been reading this, this notion of desire–for either Christ or for sin (similar to the “two roads” of St. Ignatius) has led to wrestling and contemplation in my prayer life.  The book is not for the faint of heart.

22.  The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong.  I have heard of K.A. before, but never read her books.  This is her memoir of moving from a convent to secular life as interfaith advocate.  It is good writing and good reading.  I appreciate especially her insights on faith from a European (or British, at least) point of view, noting some of the things that have led to Christianity’s demise on European soil.  By reading her own journey of faith, I have become more cognizant of my own.  My only wish is that I can express mine as eloquently as she does hers.

23.  Let it Bang, by RJ Young. An eye-opening (and somewhat humorous) take on a black man’s investment in gun culture, ownership, NRA membership, and gun training certification in Oklahoma.  Young goes in with an open mind, mostly to impress his new (white) father-in-law, an avid gun owner, but finds that much of the gun owning community, including the NRA, is favorable towards policies and propaganda that is lopsided to favor whites and discriminate against blacks.

With an acute eye towards research and an exposure of his own experiences in the gun-owning community, he finds that much of our policy and politics surrounding gun laws is fear- and profit-driven more than facts and figures-based.  In conclusion, he writes:

If I’ve learned anything during my odyssey into guns and their role in our country, it’s that we are in a literal arms race, ramped up by the racialized fear peddled to us by damn near every institutionalized force in the land.  Gun culture in America is inherently racist because white people historically fear black men with guns.  I have cited facts, history, story, and policy to prove this point.  And yet I live as a black man in a country where too many people are so afraid of being called racist that they will not confront their own racism–around guns, around their social, economic, or constitutional privilege.”

24.  The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron.  Poet, screenplay writer, and author Cameron provides essays to inspire writer hopefuls.  Admittedly, nothing in this book is new to me, but I always appreciate reading about writing.  It is a guilty pleasure.  And although the content was not new for me, the timing of the book was perfect.  During a uniquely low time in my life, in which I questioned everything, Cameron’s chapter on confidence was especially helpful.

25.  New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton.  My second book by Merton this year, and in my life ever.  This book, unlike the other, is not autobiographical, but a philosophical exploration on the vocation of contemplation.  Merton begins with a good explanation of what contemplation isn’t (its not a feeling or just a sense of transcendence), and what contemplation is (a lifestyle in which we prayerfully move about our day in the constancy of Christ).

For that reason, it was a good book and, I found, very Spirit-filled.  Admittedly, I did tucker out towards the last third of the book and skipped to chapters I found more interesting.  The 29th chapter on prayer, for instance, was most informative and, for me, very timely.  I ended up dog-earing those pages in order to reference it whenever I need a reminder on the persistence and hardships of prayer.  Here, for instance, is one of his kernels of encouragement:

For if meditation aims above all at establishing in your soul a vital contact of love with the living God, then as long as it only produces images and ideas and affections that you can understand, feel and appreciate, it is not yet doing its full quota of work.  But when it gets beyond the level of your understanding and your imagination, it is really bringing you close to God, for it introduces you into the darkness where you can no longer think of Him, and are consequently forced to reach out for Him by blind faith, and hope, and love” (p. 219).

26.  The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  A classic that became formational for monastic communities in the Medieval period and beyond.  St. Benedict’s Rule is pliable and adaptable not only for Catholic communities, but for other religious communities seeking to order life around work, prayer, humility, and ministry.  I found the book to be detailed and technical, but an interesting snapshot into communities religious.  At some level, I was disappointed that this was a contemporary paraphrase, but I enjoyed it all the same.  This particular edition, from Paraclete Press, is a “leatherette” deluxe-bound edition.  This, and St. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love in the same binding adorn my bookshelf.  All I need is St. Augustine’s Confessions in this edition to round out my collection!

27.  The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crighton.    As a long-time Crighton fan, I did not realize that this book was published so early, one of his first.  Published in 1969, the book is, as they all are, ahead of its time, not only in the ethical and medical question it asks about extraterrestrial life, but also in the application of technology to move the story forward (such  as fiber optics!).  It is not his strongest work, but it was entertaining.  And, as the final read of 2019, I finished it about two hours before ringing in the New Year.