Why I Read

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Last week I wrote about reading and religion, which I could also have titled “reading as religion,” which I believe it to be for some people. Some may think that is so for me. While I would maintain that is not so, I’ll leave that judgment up to God and others. I’m too close to the subject. Quite simply, I do love reading.

In searching through the nearly eight years of posts on this blog, I’ve never directly talked about why I read. I’ve certainly touched on it or talked around it, but never directly spoken of why I read. Maybe it is like trying to answer why we love a person. We can give reasons, but then we realize we love someone apart from all those reasons. At our best, we love just because….

If you pressed me though, I could express some of the reasons why I read. I suspect there is more to it than what I write, as other bibliophiles will probably agree.

I love stories. I suspect for most of us, reading started with a love for stories, and that reading was a way to take in a story when there was no one to whom we could say, “tell me a story.” As we grow older, we think of our lives as a story, and perhaps a part of a larger story. Sometimes, reading serves to help me understand the story within which I live, and maybe how I might live within that story. I find that when I read the Bible, but also when I read fiction like Lord of the Rings or All the Light We Cannot See.

I read to understand the world. I love science writing that helps me understand the wonderful world I live in. Even gardening or home repair books can be interesting when I am trying to figure out how best to grow something or fix something. History helps me understand how we got here. Sometimes it is more indirect. It could be the history that led to a particular part of the world being the way it is today. History helps me understand the news–to set it in a bigger context.

Reading stretches and changes the way I view the world. I have a certain way of seeing things. All of us do. And because we are limited, so is my way of seeing the world. I will never be omniscient. The most I can hope for is to cultivate the mental flexibility and empathy to grasp how another might see the world differently, or even imagine a world unlike our own.

Reading also makes sense of my inner world. Perhaps it is a spiritual work that gives words to longings or perplexities. Sometimes a biography reveals a character of courage or grace I want to be more like. Sometimes a work of psychological insight reveals why I can be my own worst enemy.

I read to keep company with great thinkers, some who I’ll never have a chance to meet because they were dead before I was ever born. What a wonder that before recording technology, people wrote down their ideas, sometimes refining them in the process, and preserving them in books. Then there are some I’ve met or heard speak and was so intrigued by their ideas that I want to take a deep dive into them, deeper than a lecture or casual discussion.

When I read, I can travel the world without leaving home, a great advantage during a pandemic! If nothing else, I can appreciate how many different ways people approach this thing of making a life.

Then there are the times when I simply want to lose myself in a book. The detective fiction of Louise Penny has gotten me through the pandemic. Instead of all the fears a pandemic could summon, I could imagine for a few hours what it would be like to live in Three Pines. Or in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Or Lothlorien.

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve loved to read. If nothing else, it is a habit. At this point asking me why I read is like asking why I breathe or eat or sleep. It is that much a part of life. There are a number of other associated delightful habits–reading reviews, browsing book sites, wandering around bookstores and book sales, visiting libraries, or even just organizing my TBR pile.

I love that reading is both solitary and social. There are the quiet moments along with a great story or a new insight. Then there are book discussions with others who love the same things, and sometimes help me understand what still perplexes me.

Books and reading are a cultural good worth preserving (one of the objects of this blog!). Like other readers, the one thing that most baffles me is, why people don’t read. But why do I read? It’s all of the above, and yet there’s something beyond that I can’t fully explain. I guess I read just because…

Reading During the Pandemic

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Image via Peakpx is licensed under CC0

The initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic absorbed much of the time and energy that I would give to reading. But it has been four months now, and, like many, I’ve settled into a “new normal” that has afforded many good opportunities around the world of books:

  • Reading a history of the Latina/o church in the Americas, Brown Church, and then doing an online interview with the author, Robert Chao Romero, a gentle and thoughtful scholar.
  • Discovering  the life of Nathaniel R. Jones, an African-American attorney and appellate court judge from Youngstown, and going on to his memoir that is opening my eyes to what my hometown was like for the African-American community and his courageous resistance.
  • Evenings reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, while listening to the piano concertos of Rachmaninoff.
  • A conversation with a college ministry work team on The Jesus Creed, reminding me both how clear Jesus was about what really matters–loving God and neighbor–and how challenging it is to really live that day.
  • Trying to figure out why the characters and plots of Kristin Hannah get into my head. It happened with The Nightingale. It happened again with The Great Alone.
  • Revisiting forty years of memories going back to the Jesus Movement as I read To Think Christianly, and sat in on a webinar with the author.
  • Revisiting the difficult memories of fifty years ago through Derk Backderf’s Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. I grew up 35 miles from Kent, and the deaths of students, including a girl from my own town, stunned me as a high school student. I can never hear Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young without it catching me up.
  • Amid all of this a relative of my sister who follows the blog and Facebook page sent me a lovely book facemask. I wear it proudly. I’m not only Bob on Books but Bob Behind the Books!
  • I discovered Octavia Butler. Perhaps it was not the best time to read The Parable of the Sower, set in a dystopian America in the not-to-distant future, but it left me hungry to read more of her work.
  • I also discovered the world of Three Pines, and I have fourteen more Louise Penny’s (with another in September). The anticipation alone gladdens the heart.

I’ve been fortunate to have publishers who have kept me stocked up with books. All the news and fuss around the pandemic don’t add to my understanding of how we should live during this time. My Bible, my church (online), my family and friends, and my books help far more, and it is to these I want to give my time. I’ve concluded that the best thing I can do is to share the hope nurtured by my faith, and the goodness I find in books. Both will be around long after the pandemic is in the rear view mirror!

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge–Two

AdventSpiritual warfare. The Day of Judgment. The Return of the King. Darkness before the coming of the Dayspring. These themes recur on pages 157-272 of Advent, in the second of my reflections on this collection of Pre-Advent and Advent sermons. These sermons cover the three Sundays before Advent, and the first of the Advent Sundays.

Spiritual warfare. Rutledge exposits, “save us in the time of trial, and deliver us from the evil one,” from the Lord’s prayer. These phrases would have made ready sense to believers from many ages. We want to be saved from trial. For many, they have been saved in the time of trial. We pray about adversity and hard times. Rutledge reminds us of the cosmic warfare and the personal power of evil opposing God and those who would claim allegiance to him.

The Day of Judgment. Rutledge invites us not to suppress the preaching of such a day, but to actually love the day of judgement. Why? For one, when we glimpse the terrible evils of the world, we do not want the perpetrators to continue with impunity, that a world without judgment would be worse than hell. But this is no invitation to smugness. “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” Judgment bids us to repent and to look with joy upon the one who alone can cover and forgive sin and save us through judgment.

The Return of the King. The Feast of Christ the King is the last Sunday before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to return. In one sermon in this section Rutledge asks two questions: Whom do we want to be ruler of our lives? Whom do we want to be ruler of this world of Sin and Death? If we are honest, we have to admit that the answer to the first question is often ourselves. The answer to the second is often, is the world really that bad? As we approach Advent, we ask, do we really want a King, and do we want one whose coming means the extinction of sin and death.

Darkness. One of Rutledge’s first sermons is titled “Advent Begins in the Dark.” Anglican churches have no decorations until Christmas. Only when the one who is the Dayspring comes, is it appropriate for light to shine out from the church. It is the shortest time of the year. It is the darkness of the absence of God, of awaiting God’s coming. It is the parable of the doorkeeper charged to stay awake watching for the master. Drawing on the title of another sermon, it is “The Advent Life for Nonheroic People.”

Every step we take in this world is a step toward either darkness or light. Every harsh word, every mean act, every vengeful thought is a part of the world of darkness. Every act of forgiveness, every small act of charity, every temptation resisted is a piece of the armor of light.

All of this increases my longing for the King, and my wonder that such a King came first to die, and returns to judge, and save, and reign. It all increases my sense of dependence on the King–for the power to resist to the end the Evil One, for conviction leading to repentance and grace, for the coming of the King who is the light shining out of the darkness.

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge — One

Advent

During Lent this year, I read The Crucifixion by Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge. It was one of the richest books of theology I’ve read in the past ten years, and so I purchased a copy of AdventThat time has come and I’ve begun reading this book (not quite as long) as I await the celebration of Christ’s coming, and anticipate his return. I thought I’d share reflections as well as a review, partly to let you know as soon as possible about this book so you might be able to join me in reading during this season of Advent. Like The Crucifixion, there is such a rich feast of thought that a single review cannot do it justice!

This book is unlike The Crucifixion in consisting of a compilation of writings and sermons on Advent themes from throughout Rutledge’s ministry, given in or written for a number of different settings. The sermons have been grouped around Pre-Advent Themes, the four Sundays of Advent, concluding with a Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent. The writings and sermons are preceded by an introduction that frames the collection theologically.

This reflection covers the several sections of the book, up through page 158. Several things have been striking so far. One is the focus on the Advent as the season of the second coming. Most of us focus on the anticipation of the birth of the incarnate Lord, celebrating this first coming in all that it means for our redemption. Rutledge observes that the liturgical focus of the readings in all but the last Sunday is on the second coming of Jesus. This is what truly makes it a season of waiting. She observes:

Because the church in modern times has turned away from the proclamation of the second coming, an intentional effort must be made to reinstate it. Related to the second coming, which Jesus repeatedly says will come by God’s decision at an hour we do not expect, is the Advent emphasis on the agency of God, as contrasted with the “works” of human beings.

In another sermon she describes the tension of a passage in 2 Peter of “waiting and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord” and describes hastening as “action in waiting.” Yes, we act in the hope and anticipation of that day, but always from a posture of waiting, knowing that the Lord will return in his time on his terms.

Advent is not all sweetness and light for Rutledge. It is light into the darkness, the revealing of the line of good and evil that runs through each of us and the resistance against the Evil One, a reminder of the battleground we inhabit between the first and second Advents of Jesus.

In another sermon, Rutledge reminds us of King Hussein of Jordan, who shortly before his death, visited families of Israelis killed in an Arab terrorist bombing, simply sitting with the bereaved. Then she turns to the late Princess Diana visiting an Angolan hospital ward filled with disfigured and suffering patients coming alongside and caressing patients. Rutledge observes in each, “majesty stooped,” and that this is what we remember in Advent. The focus on the second Advent with Christ’s kingly return stands in contrast with the incarnate, helpless and vulnerable babe, who grew lived, and died for our redemption. In Christ, majesty stooped, and it truly is a wonder to behold as it was with King Hussein and Princess Diana.

This is but a taste of the rich material in the opening pages of this book. I would mention that my favorite bookseller, Hearts and Minds currently offers this and a number of other Advent books at a 20% discount. Wherever you buy or borrow this book, I hope you will have the chance to spend time in it, whether this Advent or in a future year.

 

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-B

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWell, I’ve finished The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge. I will be doing a full review of the book tomorrow, but for today, want to capture and share some of my reflections on the last third of the book, leaving discussion of the Conclusion to my review tomorrow.

The last third of the book is a continuation of Rutledge’s discussion of motifs of the crucifixion and focuses on just three of these: the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation, with discussions of the first two lengthy enough that she provided an outline at the beginning of each chapter. I will share a few reflections from each.

The descent into hell. It was fascinating that she would embark on such a lengthy discussion of a motif found in but a handful of verses. For Rutledge this serves as the pretext to explore not only the idea of “hell” in scripture and the development of the doctrine throughout church history. Her aim is to take a hard look at the reality of and problem of evil, and how Christ’s death and resurrection have cosmic implications that prefigure the final destruction of the power of Sin, Evil, Death, and Satan and his domain, where the nothingness of these will finally be confirmed in their utter annihilation. Perhaps most striking for me is her assertion that we cannot speak of meaning when it comes to evil, that it is the negation of meaning. Her discussion of the radical nature of evil, that runs through every life sets up her discussion of what she might call Christ’s substitutionary victory (she so closely links these). It gives the lie to any human distinctions of righteous and wicked, and the folly of human pretensions to innocence. She writes: “The unalloyed proclamation of Scripture is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge of history. It is the unique old-world-overturning and new-world-constituting event that calls every human project into question–including especially our religious projects” (p. 461).

The Substitution. This is a marvelous chapter that everyone who derides the idea of substitution should read. Rutledge traces this history of the motif, not going to classic proof texts like 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 but to Romans, to Galatians 3:10-14, and Isaiah 53 and its use in the New Testament. She explores how Christ’s death is both for us and in our place. She surveys the development of the motif in history and the objections that are raised, which often reflect formulations that are problematic, but are not ultimately the underlying reason for rejection of substitution, which she argues reflects our aversion to substitution’s “recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it” (p. 506). She turns to Barth and the idea of “The Judge Judged in Our Place” and the idea that the Godhead is the acting subject of substitution, the agent accomplishing this in God’s self to undo the curse of Sin. What is striking in Rutledge is how she develops in all of this an understanding of substitution, not in opposition to the idea of Christus Victor, but as the means of the victory of Jesus, uniting these two motifs in a splendid display of the glory of God.

Recapitulation. This follows from substitution, in tracing the idea that Christ is the second Adam; that his incarnation, baptism, obedience of faith in the power of the Spirit, death, and victory over death recapitulate in a transformative way, the life of Adam, as Christ represents all of humanity as Adam did, but for our redemption. I love her conclusion here:

“This is what Jesus did. He rewrote the book of love. We are the ‘ugly people’ who put Jesus on the cross, but he is going to give us all his riches nevertheless….Because he has rewritten the story, we are no longer prisoners of our worst selves, nor of the evil powers that would destroy us. At any moment of our lives, God may break through with yet another miracle of rewriting. And laughter will resound from the farthest reaches of the created universe: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4)” (p. 570).

What all three of these chapters underscore is that, as G. K. Chesterton has put it, we are what is wrong with the world, and utterly incapable of ourselves in setting things to rights, and that God, in Christ rectifies, or sets to right by sheer grace what we could never deserve or accomplish.

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-A

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI have continued to revel in the richness of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What I so appreciate is the marvelous way in which she draws various aspects of the biblical story together into a coherent narrative rather than as simply disparate parts. One of the passages that reflects this, from the second part of her book, considers the love and wrath of God, and is some of the finest thinking and writing I’ve come across:

“God did not need to change his mind about us on account of the cross or on any other account. He did not need to have his mind changed. He was never opposed to us. It is not his opposition to us but our opposition to him that had to be overcome, and the only way it could be overcome was from God’s side, by God’s initiative, from inside human flesh–the human flesh of the Son. The divine hostility, or wrath of God, has always been an aspect of his love. It is not separate from God’s love, it is not opposite God’s love, it is not something in God that had to be overcome” (p. 323).

The focus of Part Two of the book is on motifs of the crucifixion. This reflection will cover the first half of Part Two up through the motif of the Apocalyptic War. In an introduction to this section, she summarizes these motifs under two categories:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin. In this section, this included chapters on the blood sacrifice (6) and ransom and redemption (7).
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death. The chapters that would fall here are those on Passover and Exodus (5), the Great Assize (8), and the Apocalyptic War (9), the later two being closely related for Rutledge.

Rutledge challenges our thinking at every point. Her chapters on blood sacrifice and ransom and redemption get at our squeamishness about the imagery of blood and the idea of a price being paid, which sounds like Jesus paying a price to change God’s mind, justifying the charge of divine child abuse. Instead, Rutledge defends the idea of redemption as deliverance by purchase–that the focus of Christ’s death, as in the quote above, was not on changing God, but on addressing our quandary, but at a cost that involved God investing God’s self.

Likewise, in the chapter on blood sacrifice, she notes the pervasiveness of blood and sacrificial imagery in scripture, but challenges our literalism, that we do not grasp the metonymy in which the term blood stands in for its effect, God’s provision for human restoration. She explores the idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and the superiority of Christ in every way, including his self-sacrifice, in Hebrews. In this chapter she also folds in discussions on scapegoats, the lamb of God, and the binding of Isaac, one of the passages I’ve always wrestled with. She notes how Abraham is the only one ever asked to give up a son, and that God himself does what Abraham does not do because of the substitute provided.

I have to think more about her chapter on the Great Assize. She helpfully notes our fears of judgment excluding some and not others in an era where the watchword is inclusion. Her contention is that the biblical narrative proclaims all under judgment–that there are no “good” or “bad.” She also notes the communal nature of judgment–peoples, tribes, nations, societies will be judged. She argues, however that this is not a mere forensic situation but rather one in which people are held in the power, as well as are under the guilt, of sin. Rutledge makes an argument here that to make people right, it takes both an apocalyptic deliverance from the Power of Sin that holds people in bondage, as well as justification, which she translates as “wording people into righteousness” — a vivid picture of the power of God’s saving word to effect what it declares, through Christ.

This leads to her chapter on the apocalyptic battle and the theme of Christus Victor, first developed by Gustav Aulen. I have to be honest and found Rutledge far more compelling than at least what I remember of Aulen. The basic focus here is that in the cross, God acts in Christ to decisively defeat the Enemy and break the Power of Sin and Death in the death and resurrection of Jesus, bringing about new creation, both already, and to be fully revealed.

As I reflect on all of this, it is making me re-examine my almost exclusive focus on substitutionary atonement and the forensic aspects of justification, or as Rutledge would describe it, rectification. What I find heartening is that Rutledge does not join those dismissive of substitution or the forensic aspects of justification, showing how these motifs are indeed important, even essential, to our understanding of crucifixion. At the same time, she challenges me to think about the victory of Jesus over the power of sin, death, and Satan, in the cross and resurrection. I think of this pastorally. I find people, myself included, wrestle as much with the power of sin as they do their guilt before God. A work of the cross that addresses both is indeed critical, it seems to me, for truly setting to rights our human condition.

I feel I’ve only scratched the surface in these reflections–there is so much more here than I’ve been able to capture including her discussion of the passover and exodus, her discussion of the place of reconciliation, and how one may both embrace pacifism and yet draw great hope from the apocalyptic war of the Lamb. Perhaps the mentions of these things and my brief summary of this part of the book may whet your appetite to dig into it yourself!