Books and Book Reviews: August 2003 Archives

Starting in the Comment Box

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Starting in the Comment Box

This started as a response to Neil below, who notes some other difficulties with Yancey's book. But it quickly grew to proportions that demand their own space:

Dear Neil,

But each of these people has something about them that is worthy of imitation--at least as much as St. Jerome, say. I wouldn't want to imitate all of Jerome's life, or the life of St. Catherine Laboure, but there are undeniably strains of their lives that are worthy of imitation. So too, I think with each of the "heroes" Yancey sites. Moreover, sometimes you don't need someone to imitate so much as someone to tow you to shore, to ground you once again in the reality that you are in the presence of God throughout your life.

Your point about "signs of contradiction" without internal structure, is of course, the strongest argument for the Catholic Church. But that also is peripheral to the core of the book. The book is not about religious practice. I guess I keep coming back to the purpose of writing and I am trying to judge the success of the book more on what it was intended to do, not on what it could do ideally.

Not every spiritual book is necessarily a guide to how to live. Some simply provide inspiration. And it is this aspect of the book that I find entirely successful. Yancey told me about thirteen people I could turn to for "light reading" who would tend to enhance my spiritual life rather than detract from it. Necessarily the list is idiosyncratic--they will not be the same people for everyone. For example, through the mystery of Grace, a fallen-away Catholic pointed me most strongly to the Catholic Church. Reading James Joyce's "The Dead" and the utterly magnificent sermon on Hell from Portrait of the Artist showed me the magnificence of the church and the depth to which it affected even those individuals who attempted to escape its embrace. I would not suggest that anyone attempt to follow Joyce's model. And yet, I find there tremendous inspiration--what Thomas Dubay might call the "Evidentiary Power of Beauty."

We all need to know where the life preservers are. When we enter stormy waters and the ship threatens to capsize, we need to know where we can turn. Yancey suggests some places to turn, some people to look at. Paul Elie, in The Life You Save May Be Your Own suggests others. And that book shows models that are not perfect. Dorothy Day seems to have been shrouded in a certain naivete with regard to socialist and communist regimes--and yet there are those who think her worthy of Sainthood. Certainly I would not want to imitate her politics. And so I would say that the lives of saints carry two elements--imitation and instruction. Of the two I would say that instruction may be the more important. As I frequently point out to my Carmelite group--it is fine to imitate St. Therese, but one need neither envy nor desire to be St. Therese--after all God has one of those. God wants us to be Saints, and in some measure we become Saints by imitation, but we also become Saints by refutation. That is, we do not imitate those aspects of a Saint's life that might be less than saintly in some lights. Heroic virtue does not mean perfection. All of those examples Yancey shows us, he shows us not necessarily for imitation (although there are many good things to imitate) but for instruction and for hope. These are fellow-travelers who have been through some stormy waters and yet have kept afloat. Perhaps from them we will learn things that will help us.

Thus I return to the theme--what did Yancey attempt to do in the book? I would repectfully submit that he suceeded in his intention of showing us people who could help to remind us the power of the Holy Spirit and of faithfulness. I must also say that I did not find it particularly Evangelical either in tone nor in accomplishment. As you noted in a previous entry, it is very ecumenical in its embrace, and that is not necessarily an attribute one associates with Evangelical Churches. Most particularly the presence of Gandhi is not something one would expect to find in such as study. I think Yancey transcends the limits of his church and offers us an interesting perspective on how faith operates and how we can shore our own faith up. I might suggest a different roster of authors (In fact, I know I would), but nevertheless, I could come up with a list of those who have inspired me and transformed my life. Perhaps that might be a worthwhile endeavor for some future entry.

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One More Quick Note on

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One More Quick Note on Yancey

In a critique below, Neil Dhingra (ever a cogent observer) critiques Soul Survivor and finds that there is a certain weakness about it that stems, perhaps from Yancey's own experience of the church and attempts to heal from those experiences.

Mr. Dhingra phrases it this way:

I did not think that the book was entirely successful, though. Yancey has been left scarred by his early experience in church - "Although I heard that 'God is love,' the image of God I got from sermons more resembled an angry, vengeful tyrant." These experiences keep resurfacing in the book - the angry responses he gets in response Christianity Today articles about Martin Luther King or Gandhi, the "climate of hysteria" that surrounds the religious discussion of the AIDS crisis and C Everett Koop.

Yancey values his subjects because they challenge - from a religious angle - the authenticity of this negative church experience. "The churches I attended had stressed the dangers of pleasure so loudly that I missed any positive message. Guided by Chesterton, I came to see sex, money, power, and sensory pleasures as God's good gifts." They do so as misfits, outsiders - "Several of them, a psychiatrist would probably diagnose as unstable." We constantly get sentences like, "Despite his Harvard roots, Coles hardly fits the mold of an ivory-tower academic." This, of course, confirms Yancey own identification as "an ordinary pilgrim, one person among many on a spiritual search. Unavoidably, and by instinct, I question and reevaluate my faith all the time."

And this is where I think that book is weak. His subjects are almost solely valued for their iconoclasm, their attacks on complacency and legalism. None of them are really allowed to structure Yancey's religious experience: Dostoevsky doesn't make Orthodoxy an attractive option; we don't know if Yancey takes up Henri Nouwen's habit of a half-hour of contemplative prayer a day. This limits their possible influence on Yancey and his ability to deeply interact with them. The book is often quite moving, but one gets the sense that Yancey's focus on "surviving" the church may leave him with too little in the way of concrete practice and an inability to live any sort of ecclesial existence.


I can't fault the cogent observation, but I would reply: surviving is the essential theme of this book. It isn't about growth, transformation, ecclesial conformtity, or any number of other things it could be about. It is about survival. What Yancey points out through his examples is indeed contra societal norms, but I would argue that that is where Yancey meets Christ. "A sign of contradiction," in other words iconclasm as we phrase it today. It is in the sign of contradiction, in the lack of conformity with the expected norms of society that Yancey has his most authentic experiences of Jesus Christ.

Now, that may not be where many of us encounter Christ--but through Yancey's struggles and through his eyes, I came to appreciate many of these people for the signs of Christ they bring to the world. How they transformed Yancey's life is of less interest to me than the possiblity that they may transform my own. Not that I don't care about Yancey, I do. But perhaps he chooses to moot this point to emphasize what these people can do for other individuals who are looking for examples of Christlikeness.

So, while I acknowledge that this might be levied as a criticism, my reading of the book made this a strength and invited me to consider more carefully these varied influences. I believe that makes for a sucessful book. I doubt seriously that Yancey really wanted a reader to spend time reflecting on Yancey's life and challenges--his life enters only as example of what kinds of transformation might result from contact with those who live a Christ-like life in whatever mode.

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Quick Note For Those Who Favor Complaint

While I did note that it is important to point out things that are harmful to society and to individuals--it did seem to get overlooked. I do not think of that in the form of complaint but of critique. Complaint generally centers around matters that, while important may be merely symptomatic of what should be analyzed and critiqued. Warhols artistic decadence, for example, is hardly comparable with abortion or other cultural concerns. Disney may be symptomatic, but it doesn't rise to the level of exploitation of the poor.

In matters where there is not the life, health, or spiritual welfare of the individual at hand, I think out best advice on viewing the world comes from St. Paul:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Phil 4:8)

Doesn't it seem better to lead by better example than by complaining about what is presently here. Isn't it better simply to ignore the cultural burn-out places and point to things that are truly beautiful and wonderful and instruct by their beauty and wonder? Once again, I gather up all the power of ancient cliche and say, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Complaint makes you a curmudgeon, and example in life make you a saint.

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Report on Yancey

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Report on Yancey

My small book group met today and the general atmosphere was one of agreement--wild enthusiasm for Soul Survivor. At least two of us had started with strong reservations about Yancey because of some preconceived notions and a wide experience in "Christian Bookstore" titles. We were delighted to be proved wrong. So wrong that I bought one other book today, although I initially had three in my hands to purchase. Decided to go a little easy on the budget. Came home and ordered about a dozen from the library.

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As Though You Hadn't Been Subjected to Enough Already

My experience with Soul Survivor so inspired me that I picked up the other Yancey book I owned and started to read. And so, now, you will have that inflicted on you as well.

from The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey

Before beginning this book I spent several months in three seminary libraries--one Catholic, one liberal Protestant, one conservative evangelical--reading about Jesus. It was daunting in the extreme to walk in the first day and see not just shelves but entire walls devoted to books about Jesus. . . .

The agglomeration of scholarsip began to have a numbing effect on me. I read scores of accounts of the etymology of Jesus' name, discussion of what languages he spoke, debates about how long he lived at Nazreth or Capernaum or Bethlehem. Any true-to-life image receded into a fuzzy, indistinct blur. I had a hunch that Jesus himself would be appalled by many of the portrayals I was reading.

At the same time, with great consistency I found that whenever I returned to the Gospels themselves the fog seemed to lift. J. B. Phillips wrote, after translating and paraphrasing the Gospels, "I have read, in Greek and Latin, scores of myths, but I did not find the slightest flavour of myth here. . . . No man could have set down such artless and vulnerable accounts as these unless some real Event lay behind them."


The truth of the last paragraph would seem obvious. But often in discussion and debate, it seem that the scholar is inclined to rely upon sources other than the Gospels themselves. To some extent we have the magisterium to aid us in our interpretation of the Scriptures, but to rely entirely upon the magisterium and to not have the direct and essential encounter with Jesus ourselves is a way of not knowing Jesus.

How many of us read through the entire set of Gospels in a year outside of Mass? Some protestants I know read through the entire bible every year. They are truly devoted to the word. And while I admire deeply that devotion, I must readily say that there are large, very dry, very barren portions of scripture for me. Every word is inspired, but not all the words are particularly inspiring at any given time. But let us consider the core of our faith--the story of Jesus. How many of us engage it directly and completely every year? How many plumb the depths of the scriptures on a daily basis. I would suspect very few of us. And were I to expand the thought to the whole of the New Testament, I would imagine that the number would go from few to a vanishingly small percent.

Over the past week or so, I've been reading the Gospel of Mark. I have read and read and read and read and read, and I have not yet finished with the marvels of the first three verses of the Gospel. The Gospel writings are so crammed with riches that they cannot be absorbed simply by reading (for most of us) nor by hearing them at Mass, though that is a truly graced and sacramental exposition of them. The Gospel writings must be encountered in the world of prayer. They must be slowly and carefully examined and unpacked. They must be listened to in the heart.

How many try to do this? I don't really know. I suspect much of St. Blog's actually makes the attempt, but the discipline may become too tedious--we may not find the time each day, etc. But the source of our knowledge of Jesus Christ are the gospel accounts. We deprive ourselves of essential nutrition when we choose to read Fr. Brown's redaction of the Gospels, or Fr. X's summary of the Gospels, or anything other than the Gospels themselves.

I know that one of the things that often keeps me away from the Gospels is fear. I know that if I let Him, Jesus is going to encounter me where I am presently, and if I allow it, I will come out of the encounter changed. Because I don't know fully the nature of that transformation, I tend to avoid it. Who knows, I might come out and discover that I'm not supposed to be a father (seems kind of unlikely since I have a child--but you never know). What it really boils down to, for me, is laziness that takes the form of fear. Jesus will transform you, and transformation means change, and change means work. Good enough reason right there to avoid the Gospels.

But it is only in the Gospels that we encounter the words and the life of Jesus. Yes, we can read visionaries and novelists, and any number of other writings of Saints and other sinners, but not one of them has the authority of the word touched by God Himself--inspired and inerrant--Truth undiluted.

I guess what I'm saying is--if you're reading the scriptures, and particularly the Gospels every day--great! keep doing it. However, it you're not, it's time to start. Life changes day to day, and reading the Gospels seems to be a good way to let God guide the change.

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More from Yancey

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More from Yancey

Reading any worthwhile writing is engaging the author in a kind of dialogue. I know that I have allowed you to overhear far more of the conversation that you might be entirely comfortable with or entertained by. However, writers that really provoke thought and who provide fresh and interesting perspectives are really few and far-between. Moreover, I think Yancey needs an even wider audience than he already has. There is a refreshing generosity about his prose and attitude that rewards even the casual reader. Soul Survivor is a nice place to start because while it is a complete chronicle or story, the individual pieces can be read separately, and there is no need to attempt the entire book in a sitting. In addition, Yancey's genuine enthusiasm for the writers he discusses evokes in the attentive reader a desire to become better acquainted with their work.

I greatly regret that I am coming to the end of Soul Survivor and wish that I could read more and more about this too-often neglected subject--the effect of writers on the life of an author, on the life of a Christian.

from Soul Survivor--Frederick Buechner Philip Yancey

Every writer must overcome a kind of shyness, putting out of mind the fear that we are being arrogant by thrusting ourselves upon you the reader, and egotistical by assuming our words are worth your time. Why should you care about what i have to say? What right have I to impose myself on you? In another context, Simone Weil presents a kind of answer: 'I cannot conceive the necessity for God to love me, when I feel so clearly that even with human beings affection for me can only be a mistake. But i can easily imagine that he loves that perspective of creation which can only be seen from the point where I am." That is all any writer can offer, especially a writer of faith: a unique perspective of creation, a point of view visible only from the point where I am.


There is some truth here and a huge point that is overlooked. Some of us write because we cannot not write. Writing is a process and a prayer--it is a form of analysis that reifies what happens to us. In a sense things are not real and not internalized until they are written. I read that and it sounds nonsensical, and yet I also know that I live it.

Writing is a form of prayer. It is a form of appreciation of God's creation and of consideration and careful meditation on His works. Writing calls us into otherness in a way that little else does. I suppose, in some sense, this is why I don't get tremendously worked up over issues that exercise a great many Catholics. Poor music at Mass--oh well--Jesus is there. Strange liturgy, odd sermon, so long as the Eucharist is consecrated correctly, Jesus is present. Yes--it could be much more beautiful, much more respectful, much more reverent. But then reverence comes from the participant, not from the planner, and the attitude of the hearts in the pews is more important than any external trapping.

However, assault me with the execrable NAB translation--leaden, dull, and sometimes downright idiotic--or place a lector at the ambo who not only needs locution lessons but who hasn't passed his second grace reading class yet, and I'm ready to go ballistic. The words of Scripture are scared, the writing is holy and transforming. Yes, I know that all the rest is as well, but we each have our areas of sensitivity.

But writing and words break through the stupor and astound and convict me. Reading scripture and writing about it give God true access to this stony heart. I think about it as a heart encased in limestone. The Living Word of God is a true and pure stream that carries its payload of carbonic acid to etch away slowly. One day the entombed heart is set free to love Him and all of His creation. This grace for me comes in the form of words and language. Or perhaps this consolation for me is the grace of the gift of speech and thought. We pray in words and words have made a home with me and bring the world to me in a way that little else does. Perhaps this is why I am more skeptical than some about the worthiness of some universally acclaimed writers who are prone to sloppiness and misuse of the language. Perhaps that is why, conta Dale Ahlquist and others, I have no time for the poetic theorizing of G.K. Chesterton, whose own poetic works evoke little or no sympathy from anyone really in tune with poetry. For Chesterton's work (the vast majority of it at least) the word verse is more appropriate than poetry.

We are all constructed differently, all given a slightly different perspective on the world and on reality. And we are all blessed beyond blessing to be who we are and how we are. In some ways our words and our lives celebrate this. Yes, there is time and cause for action, but only after considered thought and reason, after prayer, and after conversation with God and with his Saints. For me, this occurs in writing, in the world of words--wonderful, varied, multitextured, anastomosing, refreshing. I suppose I take as my essential credo, the centerpiece of my celebration of language, this reminder from the Gospel of John:

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

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One More Time--Frederick Buechner

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One More Time--Frederick Buechner

Okay, I know you may be tired of hearing about it, but there are tremendous riches in this book, and so I continue.

from Soul Survivor--Frederick Buechner Philip Yancey

There are two ways to picture how God interacts with history. The traditional model show a God up in heaven who periodically dispatches a lightning bolt of intervention: the calling of Moses from a burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the prophets, the birth of Jesus. The bible indeed portrays such divine interventions, although they usually follow years of waiting and doubt. Another model shows God beneath history, continuously sustaining it and occasionally breaking the surface with a visible act that emerges into plain sight, like the tip of an iceberg. Anyone can notice the dramatic upthrusts--Egypt's Pharaoh certainly had no trouble noticing the Ten Plagues--but the life of faith involves a search below the surface as well, an ear fine-tuned to rumors of transcendence.

Buechner has spoken of his quest for that subterranean presence of grace in the world. He writes of an anxious moment in an airport (he battles a fear of flying) when suddenly he notices on the counter a tiepin engraved, against all odds, with his own initials, "C. F. B."; and of a good friend who dies in his sleep and then visits Buechner in a dram, leaving behind a strand of blue wool from his jersey, which Buechner finds on the carpet the next morning; and of sitting parked by the side of the road in a moment of personal crisis when a car barrels down the road with a license plate bearing the simple message "T-R-U-S-T."

. . . Buechner, however, prefers to see in such occurrences hits--upthrusts-of an underlying Providence. For example, when the car drown by, "Of all the entries in the entire lexicon it was the word trust that I needed most to hear. It was a chance thing, but also a moment of epiphany--revelation--telling me, "trust your children, trust yourself, trust God, trust life; just trust.'"


There is so much here to reflect upon, but chief among those things is a primary disagreement I have with Yancey about how to view God's action in the world. He states that there are two ways. I think there may be as many ways as there are people to reflect upon the situation. I don't see God's intervention in either of these two ways. I concur, there are obvious "highs" that may stand out to all people. But if one looks closely enough God's intervention in history is NOT subterranean. It is overt and constant, a smooth running stream that always fills its banks and occasionally overflows. God is present in every moment of every day in every event in history. What He allows to happen, what He causes to happen, what He guides to its final conclusion, these things make up the rhythm of the stream.

In His great mercy God intervenes at every moment. It is up to us to recognize it. God is an ardent lover, not one who passes by momentarily, waves at us and hurries on to other business. He is constantly attentive. He is Freddy in My Fair Lady who stands outside our window and sings, "The Street Where You Live." When He is ignored, still he is attentive. And when he is assaulted (as eventually Freddy is when Eliza sings,Ē Donít talk of stars burning at night. . . if you're in love show me), still He loves and responds lovingly.

This is the truth of our personal lives, and I believe that it is the truth of history. Despite all of the great evil that has occurred through history, much of what has happened is the sign of God's hand, his continuous outpouring of love and grace that has brought us to this moment, this day. God is not indifferent.

And if this is true, then so too is the conclusion reached by Buechner. Trust--the hardest thing in the world. Fall back and know that He will catch you. Life is not a lame psychological experiment--how many partners did not catch the person falling back. Is that really trust or simply reliance on peer pressure. But God's eye is on the sparrow. He numbers the hairs of our heads and knows each one. With that kind of personal attention, trust is the only reasonable alternative. Trust God who has supported all of history up until know, whose thoughts and minds keep the universe in existence, whose love has given us all of history up until know, and whose deep caring and concern was given ultimate expression in His Son who loved us unto eternity. Nothing less than God is sufficient, but God alone suffices.

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More From Yancey

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More From Yancey

Some interesting comments on posts below--an interesting book. Admittedly, it seems, some details of presentation may be fuzzy, but then the main thrust of his point is not to present those details (C.S. Lewis) but to talk about people whose work has helped him through troubling time as a Christian. So I grant him a certain leeway--particularly because I tend to latch on to the side streams and make a big deal of them. As in this next piece.

from Soul Survivor--"Annie Dillard" Philip Yancey

On Puget Sound, she attended a tiny church in which she was often the only person under sixty, and felt as if she were on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The Catholic church proved more innovative. On one occasion parishioners partook of sacred mass to the piano accompaniment of tunes from The Sound of Music. Dillard sighs, "I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the hootenanny." She adds, "In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter."


Several notes of moment:
(1) I never knew that Annie Dillard had become Catholic.

(2) I have never cared a bit for Ms. Dillard's writing. In fact, the whole genre that Pilgrims at Tinker's Creek is part of has left me cold since the time of Gilbert White. I don't know what to make of it. I have felt similar things in nature, but the only person who ever came close to capturing it was William Wordsworth. Obviously just a genre I don't understand. I know that Ms. Dillard has written other things, but her most famous work so thoroughly alienated me, I've never bothered to seek out others. Now, I shall try to return to the main work and perhaps dabble in others.

(3) And most significantly--I love the way she envisions God. I am so tired of the Calvinist God who has crept even into the confines of the Catholic Church--the dour, demanding, imperious, old Curmudgeon who, like some spoiled Prima Donna insists always upon His own way, in every detail and in every motion. A God who laughs appeals to me. A God who sees our feeble attempts and who out of His great love is deeply moved to laughter and to joy by them is a Father whom I can love. Just as I watched the fumblings of my young son as he tried to do things and I rejoiced in his failures and ingenuity, not because I was pleased that he was failing, but because i was pleased that he was trying, so is my image and understanding of a God who can laugh. That is the God of encouragement, hope, and joy. Not the one who sits with some large toteboard, carefully inscribing every error, every slip, every straying from the clearcut path. Obviously God does not wish us to depart from the path, and such departure grievously wounds Him. But, I think overall, my heart is inclined to a God who can look at some of the nonsense we generate, accept it for what it attempts to be--worship, after a fashion--rejoices at the attempt and shakes heaven with the thunder of His laughter.

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The (Im)Pure Cussedness of Humankind

Some notes from Soul Survivor.

from Soul-Survivor--"Mahatma Gandhi" Philip Yancey

In 1983, after I had just returned from India and Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi was released, I wrote a profile of the man for Christianity Today magazine. Although I have received plenty of venomous letters over the years, I was not prepared for the volume of hate mail the article generated. Readers informed me that Gandhi is now roasting in hell, and that even the devil believes in God and quotes the Bible. "So it's Gandhi on the cover this month," wrote one reader. "Who will it be next month, the Ayatollah?" Another called him "a heathen agitator who did more than any other person to undermine the influence of western civilization." A prominent Christian spokesman railed again the magazine for "replacing Jesus on the cover with Mahatma Gandhi!"

Most of the complaints boiled down to one question: Do Christians have anything to learn from someone who rejected our faith?


First, I'd like to remark that it is so lovely to know how many people are aware of the fates of others with respect to their eternal destination. I have not been so blessed and while I continue to hope that I may achieve the destination that God has intended for me, I do not hold out the presumption that I can continue to conduct my life in the way I have been and make it there.

It's ironic that the man who perhaps most dramatically exemplified some of the more difficult teachings of Jesus is consigned to the pit by those who say that he rejected Jesus.

My answer would be that he rejected (perhaps rightfully) Christianity and all of its glamours and charms--including brutal racism in South Africa, the slaughter of innocent thousands in India, and the horrors of the partition--overseen by Lord Mountbatten (though not brought about by him) in the name of His Majesty's Government. Being brought up a Hindu, he expresses the typical Hindu complaint about Christianity--the paucity of incarnations of God.

However, I would argue that Jesus told us, "By their fruits ye shall know them." And I look at the fruits--peace where there was no peace, patience where there was no patience, and entire class of people raised from the lowest of the low to a place only marginally better, but still better, during his lifetime.

I don't know where Gandhi is. As always, I pray that he is in heaven. He certainly has more "right" to a place there than I do. (I know, no one has a "right' to anything of this sort, and all is given by grace--but I am just Calvinist enough to believe that sometimes you can see glimmerings of that grace in a life on Earth--and in Gandhi, I seem some of that.)

Again I say he rejected not Jesus but those who would thrust Jesus upon him. Those who, at the same time, would not allow him to worship in their churches. (Let's give them credit--those who would put down the most horrific regime the world had seen up to that point.)

I think some of the vitriol that Yancey indicates was directed toward Gandhi might have been a result of the fact that he showed how conspicuously lacking Christianity was in the presence of Christ. Would Jesus have approved of racism? Of antisemitism? Of the judgmentalism that pervades much of our daily discourse? Of our need to feel good at the expense of others? Of oppression? Of murder?

On the whole, I think Gandhi got it more right than wrong and as I observe the fruits of violence, I become more convinced that Gandhi, Dorothy Day, to some extent Merton, and always the Quakers and the Mennonites have a firmer grasp of the truth of the matter than many who would support violent resolution of nearly any conflict. Obviously, I am still in a formative stage with regard to thinking about the issue--but every thought pushes me more closely to their viewpoint. (Though not to the extremes of their views. Gandhi's wife died because he refused to allow doctors to inject penicillin that might have saved her due to the violence it would do to her body--one can go too far.)

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A Review of The Crisis of Islam

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A Review of The Crisis of Islam

Admittedly, not a terribly good one--but nevertheless an opinion is available here.

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Yet More on Yancey

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Yet More on Yancey

Yancey quotes Tolstoy:

from Soul Survivor--"Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky" Philip Yancey

We think the feelings experienced by people of our day and our class are very imporant and varied; but in reality almost all the feelings of people of our class amount to but three very insignificant and simple feelings--the feeling of pride, the feeling of sexual desire, and the feeling of weariness of life. These three feelings with their outgrowths, for almost the only subject matter of the art of the rich classes.
(From [Tolstoy's] What is Art?)

This remains true today, it would seem. If one reads the fiction of the day that is highly touted as literary, these three feelings seem to dominate much of literature. Some in greater measure than others, depending upon the writer, but all of them in some mix. There is a tremendous sadness in that confession, and it is a sadness that pervades our media and much of what we choose to do for recreation.

Once again, scratched CD that I am, I point out that the only escape from this trap is the relentless, meaningful, and joyous pursuit of truth. Everything else pales in comparison to grasping the truth of the love of Jesus Christ for each of us. And nothing revives, or should I say resurrects, the soul deadened by much of the crisis of the modern world, than a realization that this world need not be the way that it is--that there is Light, there is Truth, and there is Love available from one unfailing source. Look to it, and you shall not fail.

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Some Thoughts on Philip Yancey's

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Some Thoughts on Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor

The book is a series of essays about "heroes" who helped restore Yancey's faith when it was sorely challenged. It's a mixed bag of people, all interesting. But more interesting yet are some of the issues Yancey brings up.

from Soul Survivor--"Dr. Robert Coles" Philip Yancey

I belong, with Robert Coles, to a privileged minority. Everyone reading this sentence belongs, in fact, for only a small percentage of the world's people has the ability and leisure to read and the resources to buy a book. How do we, the "privileged ones," act as stewards of the grace we have received? We can begin, Coles tells us, by ripping off the labels we so thoughtlessly slap on others unlike ourselves. We can begin by finding a community that nourishes compassion for the weak, an instinct that privilege tends to suppress. We can begin with humility and gratitude and reverence, and then move on to pray without ceasing for the great gift of love.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. told Coles in the course of a personal interview:


I have begun to realize how hard it is for a lot of people to think of living without someone to look down upon, really look down upon. It is not just that they will feel cheated out of someone to hate; it is that they will be compelled to look more closely at themselves, at what they don't like in themselves. My heart goes out to people I hear called rednecks; they have little, if anything, and hate is a possession they can still call upon reliably, and it works for them. I have less charity in my heart for well-to-do and well-educated people--for their snide comments, cleverly rationalized ones, for the way they mobilize their politcial and even moral justifications to suit their own purposes. No one calls them into account. The Klan is their whipping boy. Someday all of us will see that when we start going after a race or a religion, a type, a region, a section of the Lord's humanity--then we're cutting into His heart, and we're bleeding badly ourselves.
(From Cole's Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage)


This struck me rather hard. It is always easier to pigeonhole than to treat a person as a person. Even here at St. Blogs we've had a long debate on the efficacy of "modifier"-Catholics--whether we self-identify (and hence tend to identify others as "Orthodox," "Radical Traditionalist," "Liberal," etc.) I have questioned the wisdom of such division, and have eschewed any such labels for myself in hopes that it would prevent me from seeing others through the filters established by such a world view. It has not entirely, which I regret deeply. To forestall further inroads, I have decided to note this and state general opposition to labels for people. The views that are held may, perhaps, be categorized, but a person should never be stigmatized with anything other than God's own loving label--"child of God." We are all God's children, and brothers and sisters in the larger family by adoption. Thus we are prone to the rivalries of all children, and have the need to prove ourselves in views, opinions, and sometimes even by labelling a view we do not favor in such a way that it brings us the favorable comment of those whose favor we wish to curry.

The truth cannot be found in labelling. The truth cannot be found by identifying "us and them." And the truth is the only thing worth finding. The truth is found in a direct and continuous encounter with Jesus Christ. When we label a person, we have effectively found a way to remove that individual from Christ-likeness and put them in a place where we do not have to deal with them.

Throughout I have said we, because I know the phenomenon is widespread, even if mostly involuntary. But I say specifically, that I have failed here as often as (or more often than) anyone else, and for those failures I apologize to all. With the grace of God and the love of Christ, I move forward with the fervent prayer that this habit of being will gradually diminish to be replaced with the ability to look at each person for the image of God that he or she is. It is also my prayer for all of you. Hopefully, enough of us can infect the entire world with a view of the person as ultimately worthy of our respect and love by virtue of Him whose image each one is.

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On The Crisis of Islam

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On The Crisis of Islam

Go to The Catholic Bookshelf for an interesting insight into Islam. More to be posted there later. The book, by Bernard Lewis, is short, well-written, and very informative. Highly recommended.

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Finished it last night, and I need some time to think about it. But soon, I shall put up a review at Catholic Bookshelf. Until then, suffice to say that it is recommended for a great many reasons. I'm going to spend some time sorting out what those are, but right now--recommended seems enough.

Moving on to Bernard Lewis's The Crisis of Islam and David Mills's work on knowing the Real Jesus. I have to try to work in Richard Russo's Empire Falls (I'm considerably less than impressed. THIS won a Pulitzer. Must have been a dead year for fiction.) Also working on a wonderful book by Philip Yancey: Soul Survivor, bascially biographies of twelve or thirteen people who have helped Yancey retain his Christian faith when elements of the church were making it very difficult.

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One More Quote About Day

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One More Quote About Day

A Quote that comments on a previous controversy--one that I found very comforting in an odd sort of way.

from The Life You Save May Be Your Own p. 444 Paul Elie

There were many for whom she prayed each day, among them various people who had committed suicide. She prayed that those who had taken their own lives would have the grace of final repentance. That her prayers occurred long after the deaths was of no matter, she said. "There is no time with God."

I will not burden you with the personal details that make this so welcome and needed a message. Welcome, needed, and long ignored and resisted. Is it even possible to understand the sheer relentless stubborness of fallen Man?

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Elie on Dorothy Day

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Elie on Dorothy Day

I'm puzzled by Dorothy Day. I don't know what to make of her. Mr. Elie hardly helps:

from The Life You Save May be Your Own pg. 430 Paul Elie

Around St. Joseph's House, her position on Sainthood was well known: "Don't call me a saint--I don't want to be dismissed that easily." The remark, often taken to express her humility in fact expressed the opposite--her desire to be canonized on her own terms and in her own way--and as she grew older, she was more mindful of the image she presented.


And later

p. 433

Day didn't reject the honors, merely sought to complicate them. On 60 Minutes, she called abortion a grave evil, and stressed that, as a Christian pacifist, she was called to love any enemy, even Adolf Hitler. Around St. Joseph's House she grumbled about the "women's lib" movement and the lack of traditional piety among young people.


Now this is one interesting lady. I don't care much for her politics or her view of Capitalism as yet another form of violence (although I'm inclined to greater sympathy that way as time goes on), but who can resist this woman who seems to have such a firm grasp of those things we all should know by heart?

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From Paul Elie

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From Paul Elie

In reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own, you meet many different people and primarily four different writers. The strands concerning Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day are particularly intriguing. I look at Day as the end-road of pacifism and can't seem to separate that thought from all of the socialist/communist/anti-capitalist thought. I don't know what to make of her. Her cause has been advanced and so there must be something profoundly good and moving. Very likey, this is not the book to find that out.

During last night's reading I came upon this passage in the Merton strand:

from The Life You Save May Be Your Own p. 404-405 Paul Elie

Written for the bishops, the "Message to Contemplatives" might be a message to Merton's critics, the would-be revolutionaries and street-fighting men of the Cahtolic left. For it makes clear why he sees the contemplative life as crucial to any program for peace and justice. In Merton's view, the "experience of God," obedience to the Gospel or the affirmation of human solidarity, must be the basis of the believer's actions in the world. The contemplative life, in his account, is at once the opposite of worldly life and a concentration of it; it is religious experience exaggerated, grotesquely at times, so as to bring a truth to light--to describe the desert in the heart of every would-be believer, and to see in this desert the springs of religious experience. And it is in such experience that those who call themselves believers strive to "unite ourselves to the suffering of the world, carrying on before God a silent dialgoue even with those of our brothers who keep themselves apart from us."


There is so much here to think about and unpack. There are so many contradictory strands to bring into play. Merton himself presents certain nearly insurmountable difficulties. What does one make of the example of his life? Was he sucessful at what he aimed to do? Or did he fail, and if he failed, what are we to learned from the example. (And by fail, I mean merely in human terms, because I have no doubt that the tremendous Mercy of God sees him in heaven even now. But some suggest the possibility of Canonization, and I just don't see it in the strains of this story--that's not to say that I am not missing a great deal.)

Merton concerns me deeply because I identify a great deal with some of his writing and some of his thought. But I do not wish to so identify myself that I suffer those same trials. Merton asks cogent questions--questions that go right to the heart of a Carmelite Vocation in the world. How do you make a space of silence in which to really hear God? The closer he became to silence, the more he seemed to wander from God. How do I avoid the same path?

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from August 2003.

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