Review: The Personal Heresy

the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939).

Summary: A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry.

In 1934 C. S. Lewis published an article in Essays and Studies to defend this assertion:

In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, character, or a personality at all.

The article was written for anyone to take up. E. M. W. Tillyard published a response in the following year that led to two more rounds of responses between Lewis and Tillyard, resulting in this book in its present form.

In a nutshell, the controversy between the two men concerned whether, in poetry, we have access to the personality or mind of the poet in some degree (Tillyard) or whether poetry is about something in the world (Lewis). Lewis contends that in poetry, the poet is saying “look at that” and not “look at me.”

Tillyard proposes that in a poet’s work, we encounter a certain “fixed state of mind.” What makes the reading of and reflection upon poetry worthwhile is contact with particularly perceptive minds, and that in literary criticism, to attempt to discern the character of the poet’s mind, as well as what that mind perceives is a valuable part of the critic’s contribution to understanding a work.

What both strenuously object to is “poetolatry,” and particularly using the biography of the poet as some kind of critical shortcut to understanding a work of poetry, without doing the hard work of study and reflection upon the poem itself. The subsequent discussion then is a back and forth between Lewis, who thinks personality does not enter in any important way in the understanding of a poem, and Tillyard, who tries to find various arguments and approaches and examples to persuade Lewis, and the reader, otherwise.

It is of a piece with works like The Abolition of Man, in Lewis’s defense of the objective against the incursions of relativism and subjectivism. While I find myself in agreement with Lewis, and particularly with the slipperiness of assertions about an author’s personality, I also recognize that the style and perception of different writers does reflect something of their unique personalities. The problem, it seems is saying just what this is, and in this case, I think we are wiser to stick with Lewis’s approach, because the work, and what the poet has said in it about something is really all we have. Anything else seems largely a speculative venture, at least in my own critically untrained opinion!

One of the delights in reading this is to see two scholars sharpening each other’s thoughts in dialogue, while respecting the person with whom they are in disagreement. It also strikes me as characteristic of many academic dialogues I have observed–while ideas are sharpened and clarified, positions rarely change, at least within the frame of such a discussion. The ground of disagreement may diminish, the areas of common agreement are more clearly articulated, but usually some fundamental disagreement remains. Even if you do not understand all the terms of the argument, this is a glimpse of the academic world at its best, as these closing words of E. M. W. Tillyard suggest:

…Mr. Lewis is an admirable person to disagree with; and I incline to admire his arguments as much when they seem wrong as when they seem right. He is, indeed, the best kind of opponent, good to agree with when one can, and for an enemy as courteous as he is honest and uncompromising; the kind of opponent with whom I should gladly exchange armour after a parley, even if I cannot move my tent to the ground where his own is pitched.

Would that the university world, and our public discourse were marked more by this kind of spirit!

New Studies in Biblical Theology

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Yesterday, I reviewed W. Ross Blackburn’s The God Who Makes Himself Known. This is one of forty-four volumes currently in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (with more forthcoming) jointly published by the Apollos imprint of InterVarsity Press in the United Kingdom and InterVarsity Press in the United States. The series strives for readability, avoiding specialist jargon or untransliterated terms in the biblical languages. D. A. Carson is the series editor and has articulated the goals as follows:

New Studies in Biblical Theology volumes focus on three areas:

  • the nature and status of biblical theology, including its relationship to other disciplines
  • the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought from a particular biblical writer or text
  • the delineation of a biblical theme across the biblical corpus

I try to pick up new volumes as they are released because I have found them of high quality, combining scholarship and devotional insight. Here are the reviews that have appeared in posts at Bob on Books over the years, to give you a sampling of this series. You can count on more in the future.

The God Who Became Human (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Graham Cole. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A biblical theology of the incarnation. Review

Hear My Son (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Daniel J. Estes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Studies on the first nine chapters of Proverbs. Review

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review

With the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review

Preaching in the New Testament (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Jonathan L. Griffiths. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An exegetical and biblical theology of preaching from the texts of the New Testament. Review

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book. Review

Unceasing Kindness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A study of the theological themes that may be discerned in the various placements of Ruth in the canon, and the broader themes of unceasing kindness, famine, redemption, divine and human initiative, and the mission of God connecting Ruth with the rest of scripture. Review

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel. Review

The distinctive cover design looks good on your bookshelves. If you’ve acquired some of these and would like to fill out your set, InterVarsity Press offers a special discount as high as 50% off depending on the number of titles you are purchasing at their website. Of greater importance is that these works are great references at a reasonable price that complement the teacher’s personal study of biblical texts or theological themes in scripture.

Review: The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel.

The God Who Makes Himself Known typifies the purpose of the New Studies in Biblical Theology of which it is a part. It both articulates the theological themes arising from the book of Exodus, and connects that to the theology of the Bible as a whole. In this case, Ross Blackburn explores how God’s concern to make himself known to the nations, which Blackburn describes as “missionary” is reflected in God’s dealings with Moses and the people of Israel in this book.

The organization of the book follows the biblical text of Exodus. I will highlight the key idea Blackburn elucidates in each portion:

Exodus 1:1-15:21. In the first part of Exodus, centering around 6:3, the focus is on the declaration, “I am the LORD” and what this means in the light of the deliverance from Egypt showing both the supremacy and redeeming character of God to the nations.

Exodus 15:22-18:27. This section focuses on the training of Israel in the wilderness, that they would “learn obedience” by which they reflect God’s supremacy in daily life, and their dependence upon the redeeming God to sustain them.

Exodus 19-24. These passages are concerned with the giving of the law. Blackburn reflects upon how Gospel precedes Law and how the Law is given to flesh out Israel’s calling to make known the name of the Lord to the nations in how they live, and what this reveals of the greatness and goodness of God.

Exodus 25-31. Blackburn looks at the instructions for the Tabernacle, showing the progression in the quality of the materials as one approaches the Holy of Holies, the parallel between Eden and Tabernacle that reveals God’s redemptive purpose, and God’s intention to dwell in the midst of his people.

Exodus 32-34. I found this section the highlight of Blackburn’s discussion as he explores the idolatry of the people, even while God is in the midst of giving instructions for his dwelling place in their midst. He highlights how Moses intercession is heard on the basis not of his attempt to substitute for the people’s sin but on the basis of God’s name and purpose, and how this will be jeopardized should God’s presence depart from them.

Exodus 35-40. Blackburn explores why we have this second description of the Tabernacle, downplayed by many commentators. He argues that the canonical order of this text after Israel’s sin shows how the Lord responds to sin, and how God restores a repentant people and so reveals his glory, greatness, and redeeming character to the nations as he indwells the Tabernacle.

The biggest question that may be raised is whether Blackburn is reading New Testament perspectives into Exodus. Certainly, he is reading Exodus in a New Testament light, but his argument of concerning the missionary heart of God revealed through Israel’s deliverance and wilderness encounters with God is one rooted in both the data of the text and a discussion of the canonical structure of Exodus. What Blackburn does is make an argument for the coherence of Exodus as a whole, as well as for its place within the canon.

This work strikes me as a helpful adjunct to exegetical study of Exodus, offering a larger framework useful for teaching or preaching the book as Christian scripture. While interacting with scholars discussing the meaning of texts like Exodus 34:6-7 and how God both forgives and punishes sin, Blackburn also offers insights into the lavish greatness and goodness of God that leads us into worship, and the life of faithful obedience against God’s gospel purposes for the nations. Like other monographs in this series, Blackburn exemplifies how scholarly rigor and devotional warmth may walk hand in hand.

Review: Iron Valley

iron Valley

Iron Valley, Clayton J. Ruminski. Columbus: Trillium (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press), 2017.

Summary: A history of iron-making in the Mahoning Valley during the nineteenth century from the earliest blast furnace to the advances in furnaces and other technology, leading to the transition to steel-making.

Those of us who grew up in the Mahoning Valley during the middle of the twentieth century often referred to it as the Steel Valley, a name that still lingers. Clayton J. Ruminski’s book new history of iron-making in the Mahoning Valley during the nineteenth century reminds us that in the words of the title, it was the Iron Valley before it ever became the Steel Valley.

The work begins in 1802 and the Heaton family’s early efforts, beginning with the Hopewell furnace in Struthers, to do small scale charcoal fueled, iron-making. The problem was how rapidly, even when mixing in coal from nearby deposits, the fuel source of hardwood trees was depleted. Transportation, as well as fuel, limited growth in this period. The second phase, beginning in 1840 and running up to 1856 was marked by the discover of significant “block coal” deposits at Brier Hill (it was often called Brier Hill coal) and elsewhere in the area. The heating characteristics meant that it could be used directly as a fuel, dispensing with the need for charcoal. New furnaces were opened at Brier Hill by the Tod family, and elsewhere along the Valley. Alongside these, the first rolling mills and puddling mills grew up to process the pig iron into finished products (instead of the pig iron being sent to mills outside the Valley). The Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal helped develop commerce during this period with the transport of both raw materials and finished products.

Between 1856 and 1865, the growth of railroads and the Civil War brought about a further expansion of iron manufacturing. During this figure, well known figures like David Tod, Jonathan Warner, John Stambaugh, Henry Wick, William Butler, and James Ward emerged as key leaders. Furnaces grew larger and production expanded making Youngstown into a pig iron center. This was followed by a period of expansion and depression from 1865 to 1879. Westward railroad growth led to expanded facilities to meet demand, followed by bankruptcy of many smaller merchant iron firms during the Panic of 1873. Subsequently control of the iron industry was consolidated under a few major Youngstown area families.

The decision of Valley owners to focus on iron production while other nearby cities started making steel led to both a leading role in supplying high quality pig iron for finished iron and steel makers, and continuing pressure as steel replaced iron during the period between 1879 and 1894. Mills went obsolete, more Bessemer converters were erected and the first steel mill was opened. The last period covered by the book describes the transition, finally to steel, the end of the merchant iron plants and the consolidation of manufacturing under the familiar names of Republic Steel, United States Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and a handful of others.

This book traces the opening of various furnaces, the rise of different companies, the advance of technology, the changing picture of the use and transport of both raw and finished products and the key individuals involved in the iron industry throughout this history. It describes the different areas within the Valley from Warren through Girard, Mineral Ridge, Brier Hill, Youngstown, Struthers, Lowellville, along Crab Creek and Mosquito Creek and up in Hubbard. Lesser attention is given to developments in the neighboring Shenango Valley, which had its own history.

It is a text that combines readability and academic rigor and precision. We have both thumbnail biographies of key figures and lots of technical explanation, history of various companies, and production statistics. Woven throughout are photographs of different furnaces and mills, individuals and groups of workers, many from local archives. Maps in the text and after matter trace the locations and developments of iron furnaces and mills. The text also provides a table of iron and steel sites, their years of production, and the changing ownership during their life. This is valuable as a reference as one reads about different sites and companies operating, keeping track of which can be difficult.

Much has been written about the steel industry in Youngstown. This work helps us understand how the preceding iron industry shaped the contours of the subsequent industry in the Mahoning Valley as well creating the rail, manufacturing, and workforce infrastructure that made that industry possible. It is an indispensable work for anyone who wants to understand the local history of the Mahoning Valley, and as a vignette of the nineteenth century iron industry in a growing country.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Teach Us To Pray

teach us to pray

Teach Us To PrayGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A concise guide to prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, with a central focus on the coming of the kingdom and a dependence upon the Spirit expressed in thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Perhaps one of the most common struggles for many Christians is the practice of prayer. Little wonder that the disciples, observing Jesus at prayer, ask him, “teach us to pray.” In this small but rich book, Gordon T. Smith considers the practice of prayer through the lens of the model prayer Jesus gave his disciples in response to their request.

Smith begins with the observation that the whole prayer turns on the central request, “thy kingdom come.” He writes:

When we pray “thy kingdom come,” should not our prayer be an act of recalibration? Could our praying be an act of intentional alignment and realignment? That is, in our prayer our vision of the kingdom purposes of God will be deepened and broadened; we will be drawn into the reality of Christ risen and now on the throne of the universe. And thus through our prayers we not only pray for the kingdom but come to increasingly live within the kingdom, under the reign of Christ. (p.11)

From our longing for the kingdom come flow three movements in prayer, each of which Smith takes a chapter to cover:

  • Thanksgiving: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by recognizing how the kingdom has already come and is at work both in our lives and in the world. We celebrate the goodness of God, dwell in the love of God, and in suffering both lament (an acknowledgement and cry to the God we even yet believe is good) and trusting thanksgiving for that goodness and what is formed in us through suffering.
  • Confession: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by acknowledging where we are out of line with God’s intentions, accept responsibility, seek God’s mercy, and both receive and grant forgiveness, as we embrace the way of truth and light.
  • Discernment: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by asking and listening for God’s direction for how we may participate in his kingdom purposes. We learn to hear the voice of the Spirit through the noise of our lives as we pay attention to whether this direction is congruent with scripture, whether we have reached a place of holy indifference, and find affirmation within the community to whom we are accountable.

If these three movements arise from the centrality of the kingdom of God, they crucially depend upon the Spirit of God. The Spirit helps us see the good works of God, reveals our sin and humbles our hearts, and guides us in consolation.

Smith also emphasizes throughout the book how each of the three movements are realized in the Eucharist, as we give thanks for the work of Christ, come in repentance acknowledging the reconciliation won through the body and the blood, and strengthens us to say what we need to say and do what we need to do.

A concluding chapter then considers both corporate and personal prayer. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Smith commends the Psalms as both Israel’s and our prayer book. An afterword deals succinctly and helpfully with petition.

This is one of those books one can give a person just beginning in the practice of prayer, while enriching and deepening the practice of those who have prayed for some time. Smith shows us how prayer connects to a whole life lived around “thy kingdom come.” He weaves the importance of our dependence upon the Spirit, the richness of the scriptures and especially the Psalms, and our gatherings around the Lord’s table. And so we are taught to pray.

Review: Love Thy Body

love thy body

Love Thy Body, Nancy R. Pearcey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Traces how a two story view of reality has led to a dualistic way of viewing human beings, splitting body and person, and traces the working out of this around our understanding of human life, sexuality, orientation, gender, and marriage.

Often Christianity has been accused of prudish attitudes with regard to the body and its functions in contrast with the wider culture’s celebration of the body. What if the truth were just the opposite and Christians, in fact, had a truly high view of our embodied life, and the secular world in fact denigrated and reinforced a fallen alienation from our bodies? This is part of what Nancy R. Pearcey means in the title to her new book, Love Thy Body.

Pearcey, who was strongly influenced by the work of Francis Schaeffer, believes one of his most valid insights was the two storied view of truth and reality that prevails in the modern world which might be portrayed as follows:

THEOLOGY, MORALITY, VALUES

Private, Subjective, Relativistic

————————————————————–

SCIENCE, FACTS

Public, Objective, Valid for Everyone

Pearcey contends that this bifurcated view of reality has extended to our concept of the body, where instead of a Christian view of embodied persons, we separate the idea of the person and the body, whereby our understanding of what it means to be human is separated from our biological existence. For example, life is defined not when an ovum is fertilized by sperm but by when the fetus becomes a person. The trouble with this is it is not clear when this happens, either before or after birth, or what level of genetic fitness qualifies one to be a person and thus worthy of life. The issue arises at the other end of life as well, where personhood, rather than embodied life define when life should be ended.

Then in successive chapters Pearcey shows how this divided view of reality works out in our understanding of sexuality, orientation, and gender. A hookup culture divorces physical pleasure from mental and emotional bonding (often resulting in great pain when we cannot carry this off). Strangely, at the same time, sex becomes divorced from the body in its obviously procreative function. Sexual orientation becomes an instance where a psychological, autonomous self imposes its own interpretation upon the body, denying the telos of one’s biology. Likewise gender is a fluid product of social forces rather than the physical constitution of the body. Furthermore, marriage is reduced to a contract rather than a covenantal relationship where the union of our bodies expresses the union of our lives and the formation of new families.

In the course of her discussion, Pearcey chronicles leading thinkers from Freud to Foucault, and various educational and governmental policies that have supported the divorce of persons and bodies. At the same time, she writes as a professor who has counselled students and her own children as they wrestle with these realities. So she writes with both conviction and compassion. In her chapter on transgenderism, she writes of Brandon, who still considers himself a girl on the inside, and yet recognizes that surgery will not change who he is, and that much of the problem has to do with how gender is defined.

The breadth spanned by this book to underscore its central thesis means that there is much left to be worked out, and many particular situations that only are cursorily addressed. Yet the common origin of all these issues in a bifurcated view of truth is worth noting for understanding where the real difference lies.

Pearcey’s argument for the unity of the human being and the value of the body will not satisfy those for whom the social construction of personhood, gender, and orientation are defining. What Pearcey does is articulate a theology of the body as good and that our biology must not be denied in our understanding of the person, but truly celebrated. She articulates compassion and conviction held in tension, something rare in today’s discussions. She also suggests a vision of truth as a seamless garment and a life where what we do as embodied beings shapes the persons we are becoming. In a climate where Christians often are accused of hatefulness, she poses a most challenging question in asking, “who really loves the body?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: On the Road

On the Road

On the RoadJack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2016 (originally published 1957).

Summary: Kerouac’s classic account of Sal and Dean’s travels across America, laced with jazz, elicit drugs, sexual encounters, and jazz clubs, and the searching for “IT” that defined the “Beat Generation.”

September 5, 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. Penguin Classics has reissued it as part of its Penguin Orange Collection of twelve influential American classics. This was one of those books I grew up with. I was a child during the Beat Generation and came of age in the Hippie Generation that followed it. But I never read the book. Recently, perhaps drawn by Penguin’s cool re-packaging of this book, I finally picked it up and read it. I came to the end of the book thinking that I really hadn’t missed anything by not having read it sooner. Perhaps I might have had a different take back in my teens, or twenties–but then we’ll never know, will we?

The plot is basically a narrative of several road trips back and forth across America, and into Mexico. The two main characters are Sal Paradise (the narrator) and Dean Moriarty, thinly disguised representations of Kerouac, and his friend Neal Cassady, who took similar, real-life journeys. Other characters are inspired by “Beat Generation” friends such as Allen Ginsberg (“Carlo Marx”). The story consists of journeys across the country, often at high speeds if Dean is driving, punctuated by stops in various cities, most notably Denver, for some reason, filled with heavy drinking, illicit drugs, sex with whomever is willing, children by several women, and brushes with the law. Visits to jazz clubs in New Orleans and elsewhere seems to be the ultimate expression of their quest for “IT” which is never defined but perhaps approached during a jazz set. One of the noteworthy passages is this description of listening to George Shearing:

“The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’ Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. ‘That’s right!’ Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair, he said.”

This gives you a sense of the writing style one finds throughout the book. It feels breathless and frenetic. Kerouac supposedly was trying to use an improvisational style of writing that was not unlike jazz improvisation. The work was typed on a scroll consisting of tracing paper sheets cut to size and taped together into a 120 foot scroll. The book was typed out single space without paragraph breaks, and later edited to its present form. That, perhaps, helps explain the feel of the book.

The work is clearly an important artifact of cultural history, chronicling the Beat Generation rebellion against standard values and material aspirations, it’s embrace of transgressive sexuality, and the quest for the transcendent through music and mind-altering drugs. It also captures something of the American love affair with the road–a fast car, an open road, a cross-country journey. Coming on the heels of World War II, it describes one response to the horrors of that war, and perhaps all our wars that have followed. In some way, the book seems to me to articulate the alternate American Dream to the one of affluence in suburbia, a playing out of the Dionysian versus Appolonian dichotomy.

I’m struck by the fact that the principle characters are men, who seem like boys living an extended adolescence–living off others, refusing responsibility for their sexuality, for the damage they leave, and depending upon women to fill the gaps they leave while indulging in their relentless pursuit of IT on the road (which mostly seems to be drunkenness and sex). It took us until the 1990’s and Thelma and Louise to see two women pursuing the same kind of journey, with a glorious, or very bad end, depending on how you look at it.

Besides the fact that there is so little of the actual grandeur of the country they crisscrossed, what most troubles me is “the road not taken” by Sal and Dean. So often, their path is portrayed as the courageous protest against conventional, materialistic values. But I watched my parents, and others of their generation, Kerouac’s generation, choose a life shaped by their religious commitments, one shaped by faith in God that faced life’s tragedies and mysteries and one shaped by love of the “until death do us part” kind that translated into the hard and rewarding work of really learning to live with another fractious human being and to raise children to responsible adulthood. They enjoyed the good things of life as gift and not quest, and as meant to be shared with others rather than to be indulged in to excess. Their presence helped neighborhoods, workplaces, and civic organizations flourish.

Perhaps for some, going “on the road” ends up being a kind of pilgrimage that leads to insight and forms character. Far too often, though, it seems to me that those who emulated Sal and Dean simply ended up as alcoholics, or potheads no longer able to put two thoughts together. Often they have left a trail of wrecked lives behind them, and exist on the charity of others. Other than the portrayals of a golden age of jazz, and understanding a “cultural moment,” I found little to inspire me, or provoke thought, and certainly not a life I could commend.

 

Review: Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31.

Philip Britts lived a short and obscure life, dying in Paraguay in 1949 of a deadly tropical fungal disease. He was born in Devon, England in 1917. The first poem in this collection was written in 1934, and expresses both his search for and awareness of God and a theme that would run through all his poetry of observing carefully the book of creation, and discerning in this the character and presence of the creator. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939 and married Joan that June. In 1936, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as England rushed toward war, Britts more deeply embraced pacifist convictions. Eventually, he learned of a Christian pacifist agricultural community in the Cotswolds known as the Bruderhof.

He gave himself to the work, told stories to the children, and his poetry began to reflect his life in the agricultural community. A sung version of one of these. “The Song of the Hedgers and the Diggers” may be heard on the trailer for this book. Eventually, the community either needed to give up its German members or emigrate. When the opportunity came to go to Paraguay, they took it, establishing a community they called Primavera. Quickly he became one of the most astute agriculturalists in the area, and was called upon increasingly in consultations. During one trip to Brasil, he apparently contracted a deadly tropical fungus, that first manifested a couple years later with painful mouth sores, and would eventually claim his life. In his last year, he became a pastor to the community and even as his energies waned, he reflected and wrote and taught on everything from care of the land, to the fundamental choice he believed faced every human between the spirit of the beast and the Spirit of Love. He wrote:

“This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace which is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons which are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the Good Man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helpfulness of man; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness sake.”

So much of his work is characterized by a seamless connection between the practice of farming and the practice of faith. The title of this work comes from one of his last essays where he writes of faith as being like “water at the roots” that sustains us in the heat of life. He draws the connection between our dependence upon the grace of God for faith, even as we depend upon the grace of God for rain.

A poem, “Quicken the Seed” reflects a similar connection between farming and faith:

Quicken the seed
In the dark, damp earth.
Nourish our need,
God of all birth.
Thou art the seed
That we bury now.
Thou art our need,
God of the plough.
Bury the spark
Of our own desire
Deep in the dark,
God of the fire.
After the night
When the fight is won,
Thou art the light,
God of the sun.

EASTER 1948

I am not much of a critic of poetry. My hunch is that most of the poetry here is good but not great. What makes this work great is the seamless integrity between poetry, essays and the life of the man. He has been called a “British Wendell Berry.” In many ways, he embraced a far more difficult life than Berry–a costly affirmation of pacifism in wartime Britain, a communal existence, emigration, and establishing a viable community under primitive conditions, an integrity of living with the land, and suffering that came from his embrace of that land. What comes through is the wonder of living in this creation with all its challenges, a sense of the tragedy of a world at war with itself when the Prince of Peace beckons, and a life permeated by the grace of God. Like Berry, he awakens us to what it is to live in harmony with the land one farms. Like Berry, he recognizes the treasure of life in a place, and in a community. Like Berry, he reminds us of the deep, pervasive presence of the grace of God in all of creation. The God whose grace waters us at the roots, sustaining our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Neurotheology

neurotheology

NeurotheologyAndrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence.

There has been an explosion of research in the field of neuroscience and related disciplines in the study of the functioning of the brain and how various brain structures interact with everything from autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, creation and loss of memory, reasoning, stress responses, sexual response, motor skills, language–indeed every aspect of human experience. This includes a growing field of studies of religious experience and a whole host of questions that arise as to whether brain differences account for different experiences, how such experiences change the brain, and even whether the neuroscience of religious experience can account for the religious nature of human beings. Needless to say, such inquiry can both offer deeper insight into the significance of religious practices, rituals and experiences in our lives, and arouse controversy around the fear that neuroscience could “explain away” faith.

In this work, Andrew Newberg navigates this potentially contentious ground by offering us a survey of the work that has been done, the research questions that might be explored, and the potential or actual value that may be derived from this multi-disciplinary approach to studying neuroscience and religion.

Newberg begins by discussing the “happy prison of the brain” within which all of us are trapped and that all of our perceptions of the world come through our senses and are processed by our brains–religious perceptions as well as scientific ones. He contends that an approach that draws upon both has the potential to help us more fully understand what it means to be human and our belief systems and how we experience them.

The early chapters of the book focus on overview, defining neurotheology and the disciplines that contribute to this study, the most relevant neuroscience data looking at different brain functions as they pertain to religious and spiritual experiences and the elements of religion and spirituality that might be studied by the neurotheologian and the tools that may be used in such study. I was struck by how much was defined by what could be studied while in an fMRI scanner, although sensor “helmets,” magnetic fields, as well as survey data are also used. I wonder for example about how one would study various forms of active service in one’s community or one’s ethical behaviors that arise from one’s faith.

Beginning with chapter 6, the focus of the next three chapters are on what various scientific disciplines contribute to our understanding. Evolutionary biology and anthropology helps us understand the evolution of the human brain and known correlates between the development of aspects of religion and the development of specific brain structures. Psychology helps us understand various “cognitive, emotional, attachment, and social elements of religion” and their connection to brain processes. The study of brain pathologies and pharmacology reveal the connection between some forms of brain disorders and some extreme types of spiritual experience. This raises the question of “the God delusion,” although the author notes that if this contention is true, much of humanity is delusional.

Chapter 9 and following turn to elements of religion–the creation of mythic stories, rituals and practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these chapters explore some of the brain processes that connect to the various elements of religion as they have been studied. Then chapter 12 and the remaining chapters focus on some special questions such as whether there may be differences in brain function between religious, “spiritual,” and non-religious persons, what neuroscience reveals about free will (or free won’t, as the author suggests at one point), and the nature of mystical experience, where one experiences transcendence, perceiving that one has escaped one’s body. It is fascinating to see the changes that occur both in the frontal and parietal lobes during such experiences.

The final chapter (15) was perhaps the most controversial to me in the author’s proposal that neurotheology might offer a “metatheology” or “megatheology.” This struck me as at best unhelpful to collaboration between science and faith, suggesting that particular religious or theological perspectives might be subsumed in some universal. This feels a bit like those who claim with smug superiority that all religions really are “different ways up to the ultimate” that they, unlike the poor benighted adherents of particular religions, are enlightened enough to see. Much of this work was characterized by a becoming modesty, that seemed to be suspended at this point. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is the author’s enthusiasm for this multidisciplinary approach, which made this an informative and engaging read.

Overall, I found this work quite helpful in getting up to speed on the current state of research in this field. I found myself often reading with a sense of wonder at how amazing the brain is that is reading that text (not that I am claiming my brain to be amazing in any distinctive way)! Personally, I think, just as we are wired up to function in so many ways effectively in the world, so it is not incredible that if there is a spiritual dimension to life, we would equally have cognitive capacities to apprehend and experience those realities. I do hope there can be a continuing respectful conversation between scientists and believing people (sometimes they are one and the same!). It is clear we have much to learn from each other!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Queen of Glen Eyrie

Queen of Glen Eyrie

Queen of Glen EyrieCeleste Black. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008. (Book link is to ABEBooks since book appears to be out of print and not available at publisher’s site).

Summary: The story of “Queen” Palmer, her love affair with General William Palmer, the castle home she inspired, life in frontier Colorado Springs and her later life in England.

This was one of those serendipitous finds in the $2 section at my local Half Price Books. I saw the words “Glen Eyrie” on the spine and was curious as to whether this was the same Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs that I’ve visited on two occasions. I discovered it was and that this little book offers an account of the woman who inspired this castle, the history of her marriage, life in frontier Colorado Springs, and the subsequent history of Glen Eyrie.

Queen was Mary Lincoln Mellen, the daughter of a New York lawyer and later a general agent with the Treasury Department. Queen and her father were on a railroad journey west in 1869 when they met General William Jackson Palmer, then director of construction for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. They almost immediately fell in love. Within weeks they were engaged and married November 8, 1870 in Flushing, New York. The question was where would they live, given his railroad interests. During survey work, Palmer visited a site just north of the Garden of the Gods that featured a glen within a canyon with a number of the red rock formations one sees at the nearby Garden. He and Queen had talked about building a castle-like cottage like one in a favorite painting of hers, “Dunkald” and this was the place he proposed if she agreed. She did, and seeing a pair of bald eagles nested in a rock formation above the Glen, gave the place its name, Glen Eyrie.

After their honeymoon, General Palmer went ahead to Colorado to begin construction on a comfortable, three story home. Queen followed, accompanied by family and later joined by friend, Rose Kingsley, whose journal memories give a vivid description of life in the frontier town of Colorado Springs. Rose and Queen help with teaching at the new school in town, and contribute to the social life of this birthing town. Queen also delighted in exploring the land around the Glen until heart problems curtailed her activities and dictated a quieter life in their home. By 1883, she could no longer stay there, unable to sleep at the high altitude of the home.

She spent the remaining years of her life living in England with her three daughters, and General Palmer traveling between the western US and England. The book describes journeys they took to see the great art museums of Italy and other journeys in Europe until Queen’s heart condition worsened. She died December 27, 1894 at age 44.

The book includes a number of Queen’s and Rose Kingsley’s letters and journals, and also family photographs as well as photographs of Glen Eyrie and Colorado Springs as an early settlement. It gives us a portrait of the short and yet full live of Queen Palmer, the role she played in the early settlement of Colorado Springs as well as in making a comfortable home for her family at Glen Eyrie.

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Glen Eyrie, March 2017. Photo by Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved.

In later years, Palmer would expand Glen Eyrie and face it with stone instead of the original wood and it would serve as home for his three daughters, Elsie, Dorothy, and Marjory. After General Palmer’s death in 1909, the daughters offered the estate to the city of Colorado Springs. In 1916, they sold it to a group of Oklahoma businessmen who formed the Glen Eyrie Companies. They in turn sold it to Alexander Smith Cochran, a rug manlufacturer. Later it was sold to a Texas oilman. When it went on the market again Billy Graham was contacted about the property as a site for his headquarters. Graham was close friends with Dawson Trotman who had founded the Navigators. Trotman offered to buy it if Graham did not, and in just six weeks was able to raise the $110,000 downpayment. Glen Eyrie continues to serve as their international headquarters and as a conference center.