Review: God in the Modern Wing

God in the Modern Wing (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Ten Christian artists offer reflections on different pieces of modern art found in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, considering both the faith of the artists and what one might see in their art through the eyes of faith.

G. Walter Hansen, a retired theology professor and appreciator of modern art, describes the origins of this book in the preface to this book. He worships at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, located about a mile from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. He contrasts the perceived distance between Christian faith and modern art, and his own growing appreciation for the works he finds in the Modern Wing. Out of this came the presentations that are basis of this book. Working with Cameron J. Anderson, former executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts and co-editor with him of this book, Hansen invited ten Christians in the arts to give presentations offering their own reflections on particular artists and works of art found in the Modern Wing. The contributors not only met this assignment but also offer insights into, using the expression coined by Flannery O’Connor, the “God-haunted” character of modern art, as well as the faith of many of the artists.

Cameron Anderson opens the collection with an introductory essay on “Being Modern” exploring the spirit, style, and self of modern art. He observes:

“Calling on their generative agency, artists sought means to foment aesthetic, social, and political revolution. If modern art labored to rid the picture plane of propaganda, then artists became the self-appointed guardians of this new visual horizon. This new generation flaunted its moral and creative freedom, but it also lived beneath the burden of its tragic flaws and lapses” (p. 11).

The following chapters focus on one to a few artists and works in the Modern Wing. The first takes us on a kind of tour through the eyes and ears and sketch pad of “Hadlock,” from Matisse’s Bathers by the River, through the Cubism of Picasso, the work of Diego Vazquez, works of Paul Klee, and others, interspersed with comments of gallery visitors, and the epiphanies of God’s presence in the works and even the inadvertent comments of visitors. Matthew Milliner considers the works of Chagall, Magritte, and Dali, particularly the last’s return to Catholic faith. Cameron Anderson discusses Constantin Brancusi’s soaring columns and his Bird series, and the expressions of joy they convey. Contrast this with the earth-bounded Walking Man of Alberto Giacometti and Anderson sees in these two both the aspirations and existential boundaries of what it means to be human. Joel Sheesley returns to Cubism, considering Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, probably unlike any portrait you’ve seen, not representation, but negation, a statement of what one is not, of what is missing, as apophatic theology has done with God.

Bruce Herman introduces us to the later art of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn. Guston’s Bad Times focuses on “human beings behaving inhumanely.” Many of his paintings explore humanity at its worst, asking “what are we?” but one, Couple in Bed portrays the beauties of faithful love. We are invited to consider Diebenkorn’s Ochre in the Ocean Park series, an affirmation of joy in color and form. Linda Stratford writes of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The latter, with his Stations paintings, especially fascinated me, black vertical bars with differing widths and locations on a series of canvases, or “stations.”

I had the opportunity to see some of Mark Rothko’s works a few years ago. Makoto Fujimura helped me understand the layers of color floating on many of his canvases and why I must visit the Rothko Chapel if I visit Houston. David McNutt introduces us to the faith of Andy Warhol and the connections between the “Pop” and spiritual sides in his life. Steve Prince describes the prophetic art of two black artists, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, as well as some of his own prophetic work, and what it means to be a prophet in art. Finally, Leah Samuelson, who works in the community art movement, writes about her encounters with the walking sticks of Andre’ Cadere, who would walk through exhibits, leaving his color-banded walking sticks as impromptu installations. She uses this to explore the art of protest and restoration.

In what I thought an apt afterword, Cameron J. Anderson considers the significance of these presentations as an invitation to make space in our hurried lives to contemplate these works, how they reflect the human condition and the nature and meaning of our modern selves. He observes the “nature of craft” and “nature of being” that has been under consideration throughout. As we study these works, we both explore how the artists have accomplished their works, and what they “saw” as they worked. He considers Charles Ray’s Hinoki, pieces of a fallen tree that captured his attention that he turned into an installation. It, like all art, poses the question, “Has anyone else seen the thing that I have seen?” And to go with it is the question, are we seen, and loved, and what does this mean for our existence?

The text is accompanied with black and white figures in the text as well as twenty-two color images in an insert. These cannot substitute for seeing the works, but certainly help make sense of the artists readings of these works. Late, in life, without former training, I’ve picked up the paint brush and enjoyed painting with my wife and local artists, many with far more art training. I have only the vaguest understanding of the movements within modern art but this work whet my appetite to know more. It reminded me that Christ is at play (reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins) in the ten thousand places of the modern art world. As Anderson challenges us, will we make space to see, and to be seen?

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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.

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The ministry with which I work is hosting a conversation with Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen on November 16, 2021 at 5 pm ET. If you want to learn more about God in the Modern Wing you may sign up for a Zoom link for this conversation via https://tinyurl.com/GodModernWing. There will be an opportunity to purchase the book at a discounted price. There is no charge for this event.

Review: Iona

Iona: New and Selected Poetry. Kenneth Steven. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of poems connected to the island of Iona, the spiritual home of the author.

The island of Iona, part of the Inner Hebrides, located off the west coast of Scotland has been a destination of spiritual pilgrims from around the world. The Iona Abbey is a focal point, purported founded by St. Columba, an exile from Ireland, who brought Celtic Christianity to the island, and Scotland in turn. It became a center of scholarship and monasticism throughout the isles. It is believed that the Book of Kells was at least begun here.

Between the island’s rugged beauty, history, and the abbey, it is regarded by many as a “thin place,” one where the veil between earth and heaven, humans and God seems especially thin. Kenneth Steven, a widely published poet and frequent BBC guest, has spent summers since childhood and longer periods on the island, roving its hills and beaches, often barefoot, as he notes in many of his poems. In this book, poems written on the island on many occasions and for different publications are gathered together. It is apparent that Iona is a “thin place” for Steven, a title of one of his poems and the questions he asks in a poem titled “Iona: “Is this place really nearer to God?/Is the wall thin between our whispers/and his listening?”

Many of the poems begin with simple observations of the natural world–of otters, butterflies, spider webs, geese, and woodpeckers. Others hark to the past of the island. We imagine the harp of a Celtic bard or the fiddle of St Kilda. We observe Columba in prayer in the marshlands. We visit the ruins of Clonmacnoise monastery, imagining the community of men who broke the water of wells and lit turf fires in winter.

Some of the poetry in the collection reflect his devotion. In “Honestly,” Steven encounters God not in the stone buildings but the moorlands. In “Island,” he describes coming to the island with prayers that were “ragged things,” the breaking of the jar of his heart, and leaving the island “see through, clear.” “Prayer” wonders how anyone could not believe in God after a blue spring day, fields, orchids, the sea, the wind.

The last part of the book takes us from Iona to the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the communities of the Amish and more global reflections on the land, and on the realities of Good Friday and Resurrection. Yet we cannot help but think that his thoughts take him back to Iona in his final poem in this collection, “Sacred Place.”

This is poetry that lingers long enough in a place to see and receive what is present. To linger in these poems is to glimpse and imagine the world of Iona, as seen and experienced by the author. Until you or I can visit, these poems take us to this “thin place” known as Iona.

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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: That Way and No Other

That Way and No Other

That Way and No OtherAmy Carmichael (Introduction by Katelyn Beaty). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: A curated collection of writings of Amy Carmichael, the missionary to India who became house mother to girls saved from sex trafficking.

Amy Carmichael had visions of missionary service fired by interactions with the likes of D. L. Moody at Keswick conventions. She tried to work among Manchester factory workers but her health failed. Later, she was rejected for missions in China due to health concerns. After working in Japan for fifteen months, she returned home with excruciating headaches. Finally she sailed from England in 1895 for service in India. She never returned. Even there, her visions of evangelistic ministry took an unexpected turn as young girls started arriving at the compound in Dohnavur–girls brought there as an alternative to sexual slavery in the local shrines. She questioned, “Could it be right to turn from so much that might be of profit…and become just nursemaids?” Then she remembered Jesus washing the disciples feet and realized that it was not hers to question where the Lord would assign her to serve. She oversaw a growing ministry to these girls until her death in 1951.

She also wrote. Her books inspired generations of Christians, many to mission service. In this book, Carolyn Kurtz has collected excerpts of her writings under several themes: Nothing Kept Back, Always a Soldier, Prayer Hunger, Your Chief Love and Friend, Forget Yourself in Serving Others, Poetry in Childhood, and Embracing God’s Will. Some are short, aphoristic in character, some are longer, many filled with lush descriptions of her setting. One example:

The Gloriosa Superba is native to South India. During the autumn rains you find it shooting in the lane bordered thickly by huge cactus and aloe. Here and there you see it in the open field. In the field it will have a chance, you think; but in the lane, crowded down by cactus and aloe, great assertive things with most fierce thorn and spike, what can a poor lily do but give in and disappear? A few weeks afterward you see a punch of color on the field, you go and gather handfuls of lovely lilies, and your revel in the tangle of color, a little bewilderment of delight.

Other excerpts describe the alternative to the refuge they offer the young girls, the horror of the form of sexual trafficking to which they were subject:

A medical missionary, a woman of wide experience, was talking to a younger woman about the temple children. She had lived for some time, unknowingly, next door to a temple house in an Indian city. Night after night she said she was wakened by the cries of children–frightened cries, indignant cries, sometimes sharp cries of pain. She inquired in the morning, but was always told the children had been punished for some naughtiness. “They were only being beaten.” She was not satisfied, and tried to find out more through the police. But she feared the police were bribed to tell nothing, for she found nothing through them. Later, by means of her medical work, she came full upon the truth.

Many of the writings describe the challenges, compensations and joys of work with these girls. So much of this is seen through a life surrendered to Christ. She writes:

Can you find a promise that if we follow the Lord Jesus Christ, life is going to be fairly easy? I do not think we shall find even one. But we shall find ever so many promises assuring us that however things are, we may count on strength to make us brave and peace to keep our hearts at rest.

This is a wonderful collection that captures the essence of Carmichael’s spirituality, her love for the people and place to which God called her, and the struggle and joy she found in entrusting herself to the Lord’s calling. The quotes are accompanied by as short biography by editor Carolyn Kurtz, and an introduction by Katelyn Beaty, reflecting on Carmichael’s life and the role of women in missions, then and now.

I also came across this quote for lovers of books that might be a good way to conclude:

It matters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meat. We are what we think about. Think about trivial things or weak things and somehow one loses fiber and becomes flabby in spirit.

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

We Were Not Ready For This

coronavirus

Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

We were not ready for this. Literally. None of our bodies were ready for Covid-19, a novel coronavirus to which none of us are immune.

We could discuss whether our respective countries were ready for this. Frankly, that’s a quagmire I’d prefer to avoid. I wonder, given the infectiousness of the virus, its ability to spread before people are symptomatic, and how easily we travel from one point on the globe to another whether this would have been possible to prevent. Don’t want to get in an argument on that one though…

It’s plain that many of us were not ready economically. This exposes the vulnerabilities and inequities in our economic systems in many countries. Many live paycheck to paycheck, or even day to day. Few have the six months of savings financial advisors recommend.

Our supply chains were not ready for the hoarding of toilet paper, or infections to run through a key sector of business, like meat-packing facilities.

We weren’t ready with our health. Some of the vulnerabilities to this disease reflect poor habits of self-care: diet, exercise, tobacco use that make lungs, hearts, and kidneys more vulnerable.

What has struck me most profoundly is that we weren’t ready spiritually.

We have a hard time being home-bound, if we are blessed to have homes or apartments. Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” When stay at home orders or recommendations extend beyond a few weeks, I’ve noticed the increased restlessness, even though people can get out to walk, buy groceries and necessities, take walks or drives, and go to work if required. Why our restlessness of heart, and what does this say of us?

We weren’t ready for a problem that didn’t yield to a quick human solution. We are anxious at what we cannot control. We are impatient at what cannot be set to rights in a manner of weeks. We are frustrated that those in authority have no solution that can restart our economy and keep all of us safe from infection. Many of us avoid thinking that it might take a year or more for this pandemic to be done with us, before we can truly go back to life the way it was, if we ever can go back. What does our anger and rancor reveal when the truth is that we all are faced with something not faced in our lifetimes, something for which we don’t have a roadmap?

We weren’t ready, and I speak particularly as an American, for a world where the “big ME” has to take a back seat to “we’re in this together.” Some are doing some amazing things from the medical personnel and first responders who risk their lives to care for others, to the many people who have stepped up to provide for people in desperate need. But it troubles me in a situation where any of us could be infected without knowing it, that people would refuse to wear a mask to protect others, including those who stock the shelves of their grocery, who fill their prescriptions, or for the elderly who have ventured out to buy their groceries. What is missing in our lives when my personal comfort and convenience ranks above the protection of others who may be vulnerable?

Our online behavior of recent years hasn’t prepared us for this, and I’ve become aware of my own bent inclinations in this regard. I find myself spending far too much time following the back and forth of “exposés” and rebuttals, of debates about where blame is to be placed, of protecting lives, and protecting livelihoods. I find myself angered more than I’d like to admit and depressed, and in my worst moments caught up in this stuff. A wake up call came for me a few days ago when I learned that a former colleague, a dear friend, was seriously ill with Covid-19. I realized how none of this had anything to offer my friend, or me. I was reduced to prayer, to going to “the rock that is higher” to find help for my friend, and to still the anxious concern I had for him. Thanks be to God that as I write it appears that he has turned a corner.

I wasn’t ready for this. These months have laid bare the unseemly and the shallow and the poorly formed in my life. And I suspect this process is not yet finished. The question is will I just give way to such things, or pretend they are not there, even though I catch them lurking in my life in those moments of insight? Will I justify such things, clothing them in talk of my rights or freedoms, or will I confess the ugliness, the unhealthy habits of mind and body, and find help in community with others who share my faith? Will I allow the stillness and solitude to lay bare my heart and heal it? Will I surrender the illusion of control that has been shattered by these events and listen with hope for the bidding of what is within my reach?

None of us were ready for this. I’m not sure there was a way we could have been. Perhaps instead of trying to figure out what we will make of this, the question we might ask is, what will we allow all this to make of us?

 

Review: The Jesus Creed

The Jesus Creed

The Jesus CreedScot McKnight. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019.

Summary: Explores how reciting, reflecting upon, and living the Greatest Command can transform the lives of disciples.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind and with all your strength.”
The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
There is no commandment greater than these.

Scot McKnight proposes that this response by Jesus to a teacher of the law regarding what was the greatest commandment was not merely a response of Jesus, but reflected the creed Jesus recited. Certainly the first part, drawn from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), was a creed every devout Jew recited and professed. Jesus response did something revolutionary. He added Leviticus 19:18 concerning love of neighbor. Jesus sums up the spiritual life, and all the teaching of the law as love of God and neighbor.

McKnight, who came from a non-credal background, made  this a personal creed, reciting it morning and evening. In this work, McKnight offers a series of reflections on a life lived around the Jesus Creed, a life lived around loving God and others. After encouraging the use of this creed in prayer, McKnight explores the God we are to love and the powerful truth that we address Abba, the Father who first loves us, even when we were prodigals. The table he invites us to is an open table, a place where a new society is created. This sacred love, exemplified by John Woolman, manifests in transformed worship and transformed relationships.

In the second of four parts, McKnight leads us in reflecting on stories of people in the New Testament transformed by their embrace of Jesus and his creed: John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary, Peter, John, and the women around Jesus. I was particularly taken by his treatment of Joseph as a righteous man, who in taking Mary as his wife when she was pregnant with Jesus, lost his righteous reputation with a woman perceived as adulterous, and with an illegitimate child. McKnight observes that in his decision to love God and Mary and the baby, he loses his reputation and gains an identity as the husband of Mary and the Father of Jesus.

The third part explores a vision of the society of the Jesus Creed, It is a society that transforms life in the now. It is a mustard seed society in which small beginnings have far-reaching results. It is a society for justice, one devoted to setting things to rights. It is a society of restoration, that tears down walls of protection to spread the infectious purity of Jesus. It is a society of joy, where yearnings met by glimpses of joy become the full-blown joy of feasting with God and each other. It is a society of perspective, where we discover that “the end is the beginning,” where our communion now with God in scripture and in prayer in Christian community is shaped by what we expect to be our eternal destiny.

Finally, McKnight considers what it means for us to live the Jesus Creed. He summarizes this as:

  • Believing in Jesus
  • Abiding in Jesus
  • Surrendering in Jesus
  • Restoring in Jesus
  • Forgiving in Jesus
  • Reaching Out in Jesus

All of these were challenging chapters, and certainly the challenge to forgive is one many of us wrestle with. Another, that I do not hear much of these days, is that of surrender. McKnight speaks of surrendering both mind and body and gets very specific about each. Here is part of what he says about physical surrender:

   A disciple of Jesus recognizes the significance of what is physical. As Dallas Willard makes clear in several of his books, “the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life.” The challenge for spiritual formation is for our bodies to love God and others so that they “honor God.” While some people need to discipline the body more than others, the extravagances of some forms of monasticism, however well intended, express a fundamental misconception of the proper place of the body in spiritual formation. Having said that, however, the disciplines of the Christian life are “body acts of love” and cannot be set aside if we are being spiritually formed. In fact, the body cries for the opportunity to surrender itself to the Jesus Creed (p. 207).

No gnosticism here. McKnight explores how our bodily love for God and others works out in everything from our use of power to our quest for agelessness to our acceptance of the gift of our sexuality, while guarding from the misuse of this gift.

McKnight’s book is so valuable in calling us back to the heart of following Jesus. When asked about what we believe, at best we often stumble to offer theological, explanations, or at our worst, declare all the things we are against. McKnight invites us to reflect, and by saying this creed morning and evening, to center our lives on what Jesus thought most important. I suspect that we often get distracted from loving God and neighbor because it is simply hard. On the one hand, this is uncompromisingly simple–love God with all you are, and when you find a neighbor–love that person as you would be loved. On the other hand, it is hard, and that, I think is why we turn to other things. It is scary to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God. And we worry what will become of us if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the neighbor. But does this not take us into the place of surrender, of trusting the love of Abba-Father, as we day by day pray the Jesus Creed?

Review: Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality, Gary S. Selby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A survey of the works of C.S. Lewis through the lens of their incarnational spirituality, discussing how Lewis brings together spiritual formation and the embodied life.

One of the intriguing questions about the works of C. S. Lewis is how one accounts for their popularity and staying power. I believe one of the responses Gary S. Selby might give is the ability Lewis had to connect spiritual truth to our lived experiences as flesh and blood human beings. He writes:

“Red beef and strong beer.” Those were the words C. S. Lewis used to describe life under the rigorous tutelage of his beloved mentor, William T. Kirkpatrick, “The Great Knock”. . . .

Lewis’s choice of words to describe the crucible of Kirkpatrick’s instruction clearly shows his gift for using language to stir our imagination. It also underscores his appreciation for the earthy, embodied stuff of life. Lewis loved food, drink, laughter, and good conversation. He relished an amble in the English countryside, a joy made all the more delightful by his anticipation of the cozy fire and pint of ale that awaited him in a pub at day’s end. But I also believe that this phrase gives us a clue to what, for Lewis, it meant to be spiritual. It points to the possibility that savoring the sensations of taste and touch, sight and smell and hearing, these experiences that are often the richest of our earthly lives, represented a doorway into the presence of God and the first step of the spiritual journey (pp. 1-2).

In this book, Selby surveys the works of Lewis to develop the character of Lewis’s “earthy” spirituality, which he sees as the antidote to a kind of spirituality detached from our bodily existence. He begins by tracing what is perhaps the most well-known account of this in Surprised by Joy, recounting Lewis’s experiences of longing, punctuated by joy and sometimes sadness or wistfulness, as he read Norse poetry or glimpsed a beautiful scene in nature or even his brother’s imaginary world of Boxen. While we long for our Creator, we are often put off by perceptions of God as distant or severe, until we, like Lewis discover the God who is “not safe–but good.” He narrates the negative spirituality of Lewis’s early life, paralleled at many points by the counsel Screwtape receives, and the redemption of ordinary and everyday desire that points to the glory of God. He speaks of a new kind of consciousness, contrasted with the illusions that accompany the existence of the damned, that becomes honestly self aware of one’s sin, as well as the grace to choose the will of God. He goes on to treat the development of virtue in our lives.

“Retinas and Palates” resumes the discussion of physical pleasures in which these are taken up into praise that says “my God, how wonderful you are” and turns the delight in earthy things such as food or sex or beauty properly enjoyed into the praise of their Maker. Temptation to sin is to turn such pleasures away from God toward oneself in ways forbidden. Likewise, when we learn to delight in and learn from “the other,” those different from us, we are immeasurably enriched. He uses Lewis’s Space Trilogy to trace the development of Ransom as he encounters the various species of Malacandra and the unfallen Green Lady of Perelandra that fits him to lead the resistance to That Hideous Strength in his little religious community of St. Anne’s. I had never thought of how his experiences of the Other might have fitted him for this.

Selby concludes with Lewis’s portrayal of the Christian hope of resurrected embodied life, a life even more real, “harder” and “deeper” and more beautiful than all we have experienced. He ends where he began, with joy, and how often we disconnect joy from God, when in fact joy is at the heart of what it means to be the redeemed, embodied creatures of God.

So what is the value of one more book about C. S. Lewis and his works? In Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis distinguishes between looking at a beam of light versus looking along that beam.  Selby’s work helps us look along a particular beam of the writing of Lewis, the light it sheds on Lewis richly textured embodied spirituality. We might notice hints of that as we look at his works, but Selby invites us to see along the beam of the earthy spirituality running through Lewis’s works, to see the source of pleasure and joy and how this might shape embodied lives of worship, virtue and hope. This book helped me not only see new things in Lewis but helped me recognize with greater clarity the connections between the experiences of everyday life in the body and the good God who so made us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Write Better

Write Better

Write BetterAndrew T. LePeau. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: An experienced writer and editor describes the craft, art, and spirituality of writing well, or at least better.

“Writing is hard work. Writing well is even harder. But there are ways not only to make it easier but better. Having spent my whole career as a writer and editor, I offer a book on craft and character for nonfiction writer” (p. 231).

Andrew T. LePeau uses these words as a model of distilling to an “elevator pitch” what his book is about. This summary characterizes what one will find throughout this work, a skilled writer and editor who shows rather than just tells us how to write better. As a blogger who is also in the midst of a book project, this book was both humbling and a goldmine.

The goldmine is the wealth of practical advice on writing well. LePeau focuses on three aspects: craft, art, and spirituality. Craft focuses on titles, openings, closings, and everything that comes in between. He proposes when we open that we start writing, and then go back and throw out the first three paragraphs, by which time we’ve figured out what to say! He talks about structure while proposing that we scrap outlines because we often don’t know what we want to say until we start saying it. He discusses persuasion, and how to do this with integrity. He emphasizes the importance of story in writing dramatic non-fiction. He offers advice for overcoming writers block. He would affirm that “[t]here’s no such thing as good writing. “There’s only good rewriting.” Then he shows us how to do it.

LePeau begins his discussion of the art of writing with a chapter on creativity that offers the hope that all of us can grow in our creativity. Other chapters argue that all the rules of good writing are made to be broken–especially when breaking them results in clearer and more gripping writing, that tone, the key to powerful prose, is the writer’s attitude toward what they are writing–what the writer thinks and feels, and that we are wired for metaphor. Most of all, he contends that less is more. This last offers the 700 words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, perhaps among the greatest, as an example of this principle.

The final part of the book treats something you might not expect in a book on writing well. LePeau talks about the spirituality of writing, beginning with one’s sense of calling. He recounts his answer to his daughter’s question, “Dad, what’s your calling?” He responded, “I think it is to glorify God with words, whether written or spoken.” He offers five rubrics for discerning calling, illustrating from his own life how these worked out. The quest for “voice” is de-mystified. All writing is biography in the sense that it expresses what we’ve learned, and experienced and we do well to be self-aware, if not self-conscious about that. He writes about our struggle to let our work go into the world, and how we deal with the responses of others to that work.

The book concludes with practical appendices on platforms, editors and agents, co-authoring, self-publishing, and copyright, including how ownership and proceeds of our work is to be handled should we die (it might be time to get that will revised!).

I mentioned that the book is humbling. I found myself holding my own writing up to LePeau’s descriptions and realized how much work I have to do to “write better.” That didn’t discourage me. He offers alternatives and options I (and probably many other writers) haven’t thought of. He showed me how much better rewriting can be and the benefits of editors, agents, and external readers who help us see the flaws we are blind to in our own writing. He suggests both that it is not crazy to sense one is called to write, and yet not to take oneself too seriously. He gives this down to earth advice:

“Second, some people ask themselves, ‘Am I a writer?’ I don’t think this is a very helpful question because it implies we must have some degree of innate talent to earn the title–and if we don’t have that inborn ability, we should just do something else. My feeling is that if you write, you’re a writer. If you work hard to improve your craft and to communicate clearly to others, you’re a writer. And if others read what you write, let them decide what they think about it and you” (pp. 177-178).

Writing for others not only is hard but uncovers all the insecurities within us. LePeau’s advice here, and throughout the book, is characterized by the unpretentious common sense that calms fears, and offers the coaching that helps the writer lean into the hard work that turns ideas into books. Now, to get back to that book project….

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Thanks, InterVarsity Press, for the chance to read a galley copy of this forthcoming book. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Could One Be Both Spiritual and Religious?

Celtic_cross_Knock_Ireland

By Sebd – Own work, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

For some time now, I’ve noted the growing distinction between being spiritual and being religious, including this recent Vox article noting that at least one in five Americans identify as “spiritual.”. Like so many things, this is framed as a binary–you are either one or the other, and increasingly the choice is “spiritual.” It is true, as the article notes, that many who identify as spiritual maintain some religious affiliation, but participate much less in the religious observances of that tradition, and do not find “religion” as meaningful in their lives.

Those who are “spiritual” describe some kind of sense of a higher power and connectedness to the world, often experiencing spiritual experience in art, nature, music, personal rituals like yoga. It’s striking to me how importance beauty is in this contemporary spirituality. It seems that for many, their experience with formal religion was one laced with ugliness–rigid uniformity of belief or practice, hypocrisy, or simply dullness.

What I find interesting in all this is that I’ve never felt I had to make a choice. I am religious in the sense of worshiping weekly with a community that I’ve been a part of for twenty-seven years. We break bread together, sing together, wrestle together in figuring out how to apply the teachings of the Bible in our daily lives, and serve together. It’s not been perfect, because none of us in this community is perfect. We’ve fought, we’ve differed, we’ve sometimes parted. But we’ve prayed for the sick and brought in meals, we’ve fed the hungry, helped needy schoolchildren with lunches during the summer and school supplies. All of this is “religious” in the sense of being “bound” (from which the word religion derives, related to the word “ligament”) to a group of people with whom I share beliefs, practices, and life, and to the God we worship together.

I’m also “spiritual” in some of the senses described in this article. I believe we encounter God in everything from the very ordinary practices of brushing our teeth and caring for our homes to creating a painting or singing “Messiah” or other transcendently beautiful pieces of music. I find wonder in the creation, whether in the coneflowers in my own garden, or the particular beauties of oceans, forests, and mountains.

At the same time, my “religion” nourishes and enriches my spirituality. As Dorothy Sayers once asserted, “the dogma is the drama.” My faith tells me that the beauty I rejoice in in the world is the artistry of a Master, and that it would be folly to worship the artistry instead of the Artist. My faith doesn’t just tell me to love people in general but binds me in a particular community, challenging me to lean into the hard work of loving real people who stubbornly remain themselves and not the people I want them to be. My faith faces me with the ugliness of my sin and all the ways I deceive myself into thinking I’m better than I am, and shows me the way to forgiveness, and what I might become through grace.

I’ve also come to appreciate the specificity of the things my faith tells me about my God who is not a vague “higher power” but a personal being. I love and care about words, and it makes eminent sense that a personal being might be able to communicate God’s self in words as well, as the source of our own communicative abilities. And with this is the capacity for real relationship, and one that, perhaps even more than in human relationships, I cannot simply conform to my wishes.

In the end, the religious ties that “bind” me actually free me to engage with a God to whom I may speak freely or be silent and who I cannot make in my image. I am freed to be in a community where I have a group of people to whom I belong. I am freed to tend and serve a world of beauty. All the beauties and transcendent experiences of life make greater sense in pointing to a reality of which our present day is but a glimmer.

So, if a pollster asks me whether I would define myself as “spiritual” or “religious” I guess I would just have to say “yes.” I’ve never felt I had to choose, and I’m not about to start.

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.

 

Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Summary: Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

This book, along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, were instrumental in introducing spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation into the parlance and practice of both mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity. This work has been in print for 27 years and it may be time to take a fresh look at what has become a classic reference work on spiritual disciplines.

Willard contends that one of the major challenges facing the church is the transformation of character in the lives of Christians. He contends that spiritual disciplines, which may be observed in the life of Jesus, are in fact the “easy yoke” of Jesus. He likens transformation to the athletic feats of sports figures, that only are possible through years of practicing certain disciplines. His thesis is that:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” (p. 252).

A critical aspect of Willard’s thinking is his understanding of what it means to be humans who are meant to image God in their embodied existence. What has been overlooked in much of the church is that the “spiritual life” which is a vital part of being human is one lived out through our physical bodies. Salvation is not a moment but a life of transformation worked out in our bodies. He spends several chapters laying out this theology of the body, culminating in a look at the life of Paul and how his own understanding of spiritual life exemplifies this embodied understanding.

Willard then in two chapters outlines the history of the disciplines and enumerates some of the most important. Critical in his survey of history was a monastic asceticism focused on forgiveness of sin. Willard contends that Protestantism either continued or reacted to this mistaken focus. He argues instead for a kind of asceticism focused on the discipline of the body through which spiritual transformation occurs as it positions us to interact with God. He then describes key disciplines in two groups, those of abstinence (including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those of engagement (including study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

The final two chapters take up the issues of poverty and power. First, on poverty, Willard argues that the idea that it is more spiritual to be poor. While we are not to show preference for the rich and should care for and even patronize the businesses of the poor and live among them, the issue is using resources under the grace of God for the good of people and the glory of God. He also has an interesting take on power–we idolize power when the radical character transformation of disciples leads to a situation akin to life under the judges in Israel. In the church Willard argues that:

“The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12),  and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christians or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us” (p. 246).

The book concludes with an epilogue which is a personal appeal to apply the truth of the book. There are two appendices, the first of which is an excerpt from Jeremy Taylor “on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.” The second is an article on Discipleship that first appeared in Christianity Today in 1980. Don’t skip over this–it is a bracing challenge for church leaders to devote themselves to the work of making disciples.

I was struck afresh with how important this book for any of us who teach the spiritual disciplines and are committed to their practice in our lives. The disciplines are so much richer when we understand how God works through the disciplines for our growth in Christ. The central section, which can be a bit heavy going, is vital in a church that still often is “gnostic” in its view of the body. Most of all, it is a critically important book for any who are tired of nostrums and empty ritual and long for the experience of transformation.