Review: Thumbprint in the Clay


Thumbprint in the Clay, Luci Shaw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A series of reflections, including some of the author’s poetry, on the “marks of the Maker” evident both in creation and in our lives.

True confessions. My wife is not a fan of most Christian writing. She finds much of it tedious, repetitive, and stylistically poor. And so when this book came in a shipment of books, I passed it along to her, being familiar with some of Shaw’s other work. This book passed “the wife test”! Not only did she read it through, but she kept talking about different ideas, and wanted me to read it so we could talk about it together. And we did. This does not happen often.

The basic idea of the book is a series of reflections considering the “marks of the Maker” that we see both in the creation around us and in the unfolding of our lives and relationships, marks of beauty, order, and grace that reveal something of the Maker’s character. She introduces this by speaking of a collection of mugs and other pottery around her home and how they are reflections of the artists who made each piece:

Each piece, whether it’s a mug, a mixing bowl, a milk pitcher, a vase, a turkey platter, a serving dish, is the result of combining earth and human eye and muscle with individual design, skill and intense heat. Some of these treasures are hand built, some shaped on the potter’s wheel, many bearing the thumbprint signatures of the potters themselves or their names or logos scrawled on the mug handle or the bowl base. Having that personal identifying mark makes a piece of pottery memorable to me. It’s as if the maker is proclaiming his unique identity, saying, “Don’t forget! I impressed this mark in the clay before firing to let you know it is authentically my artifact, and it will always be personal, from me to you.”

The book reflects her wide travels from her home in the Pacific Northwest on Bellingham Bay to cathedrals in New York City to the desert landscape of the American Southwest. She sees these marks in both the beauty and majesty of nature and in the great works of human artistry. There is a physicality about this book that ranges from pottery to mountains and the love of physical books, to the capabilities and frailties of the author’s body. At one point, she recounts a revelatory conversati0n with Fr. Richard Rohr, who says, “I could sit for hours and simply contemplate that tree. Those leaves. Even that one leaf in particular.” I found this resonating with my own experiences of spending a couple hours looking at and sketching a single flowering Columbine plant.

The book traces an arc moving from physical creation to our lives, which also bear unique and distinctive marks of the Maker’s work, marks that point to his forming and molding, sometimes through pain and suffering, that make us both unique creations and reflections of the Creator. Perhaps one of the most moving chapters was toward the end as she recounts the powerful impact of Clyde Kilby, Wheaton professor and C. S. Lewis scholar in recognizing, encouraging, and defending her emerging calling as a writer against her father’s aspirations for her of mission service. At one point he told her father, “Dr. Deck, excuse me, but I believe that is your vision not your daughter’s.”

The writing moves in a bit of a “stream of consciousness” mode around the chapter themes, with some of the author’s poetry interspersed. These are reflections, not an exposition. They allow us to walk alongside a deeply spiritual, keenly observant, long time spiritual pilgrim, and wise woman. At first I thought that this might be a good book for older fellow pilgrims that might give words to their journey, and indeed, this is so. But I also think that for younger pilgrims, particularly those of an artistic bent, this could be a great book for seeing what the life of faith looks like after a lifetime, what a life is like that has been “imprinted” by this way of seeing over sixty, seventy years or more. For all of us, it can be more helpful in opening us up to seeing the ways the great Artist has left “thumbprints” all over that reveal the wonders of the Artist, as well as what the Artist has made.

Review: Falling Upward

Falling UpwardFalling Upward, Richard Rohr. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Summary: Richard Rohr focuses on what he sees are the key developmental tasks for each “half” of life, using the image of the container for the first half, and contents for the second.

I’ll be honest. This is not a book I can wholeheartedly recommend. While I found a number of useful insights, I thought the “spirituality” on which Rohr grounded these more reflective of a “blend” of Eastern and Western spirituality rather than the Catholic Christianity with which Father Rohr is most closely identified. For some, that may not be a problem, or even is a plus! If you are looking for a spirituality that roots an understanding of development in classic Christianity, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant/Evangelical, that is not this book.

First for the insights I most appreciated, which I think come out of long pastoral work with people seeking to grow in their faith throughout life. There are two key insights that are important:

First, there is the insight that life can be divided into two halves with the key task of the first being fashioning the “container” of one’s life and that the second half is devoted to the “contents” of that container. The first half is the structures of rules, disciplines, community. This occurs in a healthy way when these things are present in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Where love is lacking or the structures are lacking, the container is inadequate for the second half task. The second half, then focuses on the contents of life, the becoming of a unique person who knows how to draw from all these structures and yet go beyond them.

Second, there is the title idea of “falling upward”. At some point, there is a necessary “fall”–failure, suffering, tragedy. In some sense the first half “container” may have prepared you to face these, and yet is inadequate of itself to do so. It is time, in Rohr’s words to “discharge your loyal soldier.” It is often in the facing of our fallenness and finiteness and imperfection that we become fully human as we stop trying to be what we are not, and begin to pursue a life of grace, of calling, of wholeness, discovering our True Self. Those who resist “falling upwards” go on in life to become cynical, emptily driven, emotionally detached and judgmental individuals. This is the story of the elder son in the story of the Prodigal.

There are several key places where I believe Rohr is articulating a spirituality grounded more in a “new age” spirituality than in Christian orthodoxy, despite his warm avowals of how for him Christ is the center. For one thing, he articulates a new age account of the fall of Adam and Eve as a “necessary fall” for their development of consciousness. I would agree with the formative nature of failure, transgression, and suffering that comes to the foot of the cross and finds grace. That is different from a theology that says the fall was necessary for the evolution of our consciousness. One involves restoration of what was lost through the cross. The other seems to involve evolutionary progress where a cross is superfluous.

A second place is Rohr’s proposal that “heaven” and “hell” have to do with our consciousness, rather than ultimate destinies. Certainly, our consciousness can be “heavenly” or “hellish.” Views like this have become popular of late, perhaps as alternatives to ugly forms of “hell fire preachers”. Yet I wonder if the grace Rohr speaks of can be meaningful without there being a real judgment.

Finally, Rohr seems to propose that our development is really through a transformation of consciousness through the “falling upward” experience, perhaps aided by the Spirit of God, rather true spiritual rebirth. There is language of “union with ourselves and everything else” that seems more the language of pantheistic monism than of being “at-one” with God in Christ. In fact, it seems at times that Rohr is among those who say that all religions are really saying the same thing and that those who say otherwise are guilty of “either-or” thinking. I would contend that the difference between a “both-and” view that wipes out distinctives and the Christian faith is that the Christian faith is a faith of reconciliation–a third way between “either” and “or” that doesn’t wipe out distinctions but reconciles them in Christ.

This is regrettable in my view because his insights into the two halves of life and the transition of what I might call “fall into re-formation” may be grounded far more robustly is what C. S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity.” There are so many things that, for one living in the second half, connected deeply for me. His description of “the second simplicity” and the “bright sadness” ring true. I think part of what so many like in Rohr, and I’ve appreciated in his other writings is his ability to capture the imagination and heart in his word paintings. However, as one who cares about the second half journey and believes it is best grounded in “mere Christianity” I would recommend Hagberg and Guelich’s The Critical Journey as one of the best books I’ve come across on the issues of our life journeys.


Where Are The Reviews?

Partially Read Books.jpgThat’s a question some of you who follow regularly may be wondering for a little while. I wonder if other reviewers have ever had this happen? You end up in the middle of a number of books at the same time! The picture right now represents my current reading stack minus a couple books I’m reading on Kindle. Notice all those bookmarks in the middle of my books! So I thought I would give you some “mid-book” updates, that hopefully I’ll remember not to rehash in the reviews. Consider it a taste of things to come.

I Beg to DifferI’ll begin with the top most book. Tim Muelhoff’s I Beg to Differ is a very practical book on one of the hardest relational challenges–having those difficult conversations around disagreements without creating relational discord. Muelhoff outlines a set of questions and approaches that I’m finding very helpful.

Paul and His Recent InterpretersThe “meatiest” book comes next. N.T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters is described as a companion to his magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright’s definitive work on the Apostle Paul. In Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Wright engages the range of contemporary Pauline scholarship, including the criticism of his own work. Wish I had read Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but haven’t been able to wade through the two volumes that make up this work yet! Point is, we often read Paul in light of the Reformation rather than Paul’s Jewish context and may miss some crucial things as a result. Stay tuned to the review for more!

Destiny and PowerThe “fattest” book in the stack is Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker BushI’ve liked the things I’ve read of Meacham, and this is no exception. Bush, the 41st president was a complex mix of character and ambition, that both led to the presidency and was his undoing after one term. His single term, and the shadow of his son’s presidency may obscure the significant things this man quietly accomplished, both as president, and in the rest of his life.

A Commentary on 1 and 2 ChroniclesEugene Merrill’s A Commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles is probably not something you’d pick up unless you were teaching or preaching on these books. I’m reading it because it was sent to me to review (and I am teaching a Bible overview that includes these books). Good introductory materials as well as enough depth to inform of textual issues without being overwhelming to all but the specialist.

Falling UpwardThe last two books are not in the photograph because they are on my Kindle. One is Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. Rohr sees our lives in halves, each with their crucial tasks, the first half, preparing for the second. I’ve just started this and find his basic premise intriguing. I’m clearly in the second half (unless there is a medical miracle) and interested to see what he says about this.

HolinessFinally, my last book is one our Dead Theologians group is reading at present, J. C. Ryle’s HolinessThe version we are using includes all twenty sermons on this theme. Unlike some 19th century writers, Ryle is plain-spoken without being simplistic. He argues that growth in holiness, or the idea of becoming more like Christ, involves faith that actively strives for this goal.

All of this is rich reading. One decision I’ve made though, particularly after a comment on yesterday’s post is that I’m going to move Nine Tailors to the top of my reading pile. This commenter thought it “just might be Sayer’s best mystery.” After all this meaty reading, I’m ready for a good mystery!