09 November 2006

Why read Christian books? (including Mind the Light)

I'm a voracious reader of Christian books. I have worked at three Christian bookstores, where in each case I did my best to drive them into the ground financially by buying books with my employee discount. Actually, I didn't mean to do that, but look at the trail I've left behind me:
  • Logos Bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, is no more. (However, I'm glad to see that the Association of Logos Bookstores is still in existence. I always appreciated their vision of Christian bookstores as stores which would feel welcoming and useful to nonbelievers.)
  • Quaker Hill Bookstore, in Richmond, Indiana, is closing around March 1 of next year, according to news from the most recent meeting of Friends United Meeting's General Board. However, Internet and phone sales of a reduced inventory will continue.
  • The first store that ever hired me, Canterbury House Bookstore in Ottawa, Ontario, closed just over a month ago. According to an article in the Anglican Journal, it will not completely disappear--its operations are merging with the St. Paul University bookstore. Perhaps I should not take on too much guilt for their cumulative deficit, since I bought my last book there around 30 years ago.
Why this appetite for spiritual books? James didn't say that faith without books is dead, and surely those who died in the Lord before Teresa of Avila or C.S. Lewis or Thomas Kelly wrote their books had no less hope in God's promises than I do.

One function of Christian books for me is to provide a channel through which the full variety of Christianity in space and time can reach me. I will never meet the late Anthony Bloom or the martyr Alexander Men', not to mention Julian of Norwich, but they are a vivid part of my spiritual and intellectual family, thanks to books.

Another function is to open up spiritual realities that might otherwise remain closed to me, even though they might not be to someone else. Catherine de Hueck Doherty's book Poustinia (purchased at Canterbury House) helped me understand my own gift of tears, which up to that point seemed more like a burden than a gift. Last week, the passage I quoted from Anthony Bloom gave me an insight into the inclusion of Jesus's genealogy in the Gospels.

A related category is composed of books that help me organize ideas, visions, and experiences that somehow belong together in a way that I'd not understood before. Michael Frost's book Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, is that kind of book. I appreciate the author's ability to combine cultural commentary, storytelling, social and political prophecy, and evangelism, in a way that helps me see what an unbound church might look like.

Then there are books that help me understand my own little corner of Christianity--this tiny band of idealists known as Quakers--a little better. Within that category is a tiny group of books that try, usually unsuccessfully, to make Friends insights more available outside of our own community.

Thomas Kelly's Testament of Devotion and Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline are the 20th-century classics in this category, at least in nonfiction. (In fiction, the authors Daisy Newman and Jessamyn West get a lot of credit.) Both Kelly and Foster provide refreshing studies of whole-life discipleship. Some books, in contrast, address a more specific dimension of life--for example, Jan Wood's Christians at Work, with its valuable discussions of how we can bring our spiritual identities into our workplaces, and how to meet the spiritual challenges that the world of paid employment offers.

Another approach to making Friends insights available for the wider Christian community involves taking some intriguing aspect of Quaker spirituality, such as corporate discernment, and describing it in a way that (here's the hard part) includes enough context to make sense, but not so much that it seems like our own private jewel. There's nothing that Friends have invented that doesn't have precedents in Christianity or Judaism, and sometimes parallels elsewhere--even though we may have our own secret language to make us think we're unique. Perhaps the reason that Michael Sheerin's Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends has been such a success is that he was looking in from outside, and saw the substance where we might be inordinately proud of its folkways or its uniqueness.

One of the reasons that Brent Bill's book Mind the Light: Learning to See with Spiritual Eyes, manages to dodge this bullet is that his book is (forgive me) illuminated by many excellent stories and examples from outside Friends. When I first looked at the book I was a bit wary; several times he refers to the words "mind the Light" as an "old Quaker saying "or "old Quaker phrase." Maybe by "old" he also means "forgotten," because in my 32 years among Friends I've never heard it used except in this sort of second-hand or self-referential way. When we attribute to ourselves a sort of novel, even quaint spiritual sophistication that 99% of us don't really have, even though there might be some historical root for this quality, I wonder whether we're being totally honest with our non-Quaker reader.

The other minor irritations of this book probably say more about my petty side than they say about Brent. The packaging of the book--woodcut-style cover and all--says "spiritual self-help" to me. The market is full of books that appeal to an affluent audience hungry for spirituality as long as it is presented with appropriate elegance and sophistication. One of the reasons I love Brennan Manning (even though his publishers seem to want this sort of marketing for him, too) is that, at least in person, there's nothing about Brennan that encourages vanity. And his tenderly rough, no-nonsense style, and honesty about his own very awkward and unpretentious biography, doesn't play into the spiritual-candy mode.

Brent too often steps on his own best lines, following them immediately with some smartass comment; his editor needs to tighten up on this habit in the future. For example, he writes: "I can't pray for someone and not begin to feel the bond between us of God's family ties." Yes, this is important! But then, "That is, if I'm praying something deeper than, 'Please, God, make that person not such a jerk,' or 'Open their eyes to see things my way, Lord.'" I appreciate that candor can strengthen credibility, but sometimes we need an author to stay serious long enough for us to realize that he or she is truly serious. Then there are so many references to his wife Nancy's spiritual sensitivity and to the advantages of living in the country that single people stuck in a tiny urban apartment might wonder whether they have a chance.

Having got those minor issues off my chest, it is past time to get to the main point: There's a lot more to the light metaphor than meets the eye. Far from producing a lazy extended riff on one note of Quaker spirituality, namely our love of doctrinally vague "Light" language, Brent has done his homework. For a relatively short book, he has amassed an amazing set of references to light from literature, poetry, science, and daily life, and has organized them well. As we might expect, he spends time on the discipline of seeing--for example, on training our eyes to look from a photographer's point of view, and to learn how artists see the world. He then visits many levels of light as metaphor. With apt quotations, interviews, and personal stories, he leads us through "seeing creation," "seeing ourselves," "seeing others," "artificial light and the life of the Spirit," and "seeing our path to God." It's not all "sweetness and light," either; his moving account of finding his friend dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound leads to an important life commitment to authenticity in faith. He is the only person I've read who talks about the spiritual dimension of "light pollution" and the effect of on-demand night-time illumination on our spiritual selves.

Friends might well enjoy reading this book together in reading groups or Sunday school classes. I don't think the book's Quaker origins will get in the way of any non-Friend, either. They might think we're better than we really are, but then after reading Brent Bill's book, they'll probably see right through us.

Righteous links

My sons laughed when I said that these post-election hours and days are a spiritual test for me. I'm pretty good at keeping up a dignified front, and expressing my feelings in careful, nuanced ways. Those abilities will return as the complications of the next months and years become apparent, but right now I'm positively dizzy with hope. Rather than froth on here, I'm going to list a couple of links that express at least some of my own thoughts.

It's these two posts in the Guardian's "Comment is free" blog that drew my attention. First, Simon Jenkins writes, "Americans should be proud." Then, Melissa McEwan follows with "Pride is yet to come."

While we're on British sources, I continue to look for thoughtful commentaries on the future of faith in a post-Christian culture--a culture that nevertheless continues to have many anachronistic artifacts of establishment religion as well as odd outbreaks of old modernist anti-religiosity. For example, here's the Catholic former editor of the Telegraph on his doubts that a particular bridge being constructed between believers and secular people will go anywhere: "Why Theos will fail."

The Google/Youtube merger led Youtube to purge many videos that might have copyright issues from its online video service. Music clips are probably among the most vulnerable, and I was not surprised to see many clips that I'd labeled "favorites" no longer available. I'm linking here to a dailymotion.com clip by Howlin' Wolf, "Dust My Broom," that's one of my surviving favorites. It's this music, not something with drums and fifes and pugnacity, that contains a tangible distillation of what I proudly label "American." Look for a young Hubert Sumlin playing guitar in this clip.

One more post-election reflection link: Christianity Today's website published George Hunter's essay, "Good News for Democrats, Good News for Evangelicals, and Good News for the world." Read it, both for the praiseworthy bits and for the "Duh-h-h" items. ["...People know that Jesus taught us to 'love your enemies' (Matt. 5:44). It doesn't take much brainpower to reason that, whatever else the command means, it undoubtedly implies that we are not to torture or abuse our enemies!"] With the election results being what they are, perhaps the evangelical conversation just got a lot richer.


Anonymous said...

The George Hunter essay leaves an impression of a significant difference between the two major parties on the issue of war. Not! Democratic Party Congressional candidates ran this year on a "Six for '06" platform of which the first plank proposed a massive increase in military spending and a doubling of the size of the Special Forces. Republicans may be marginally worse on Iraq (Democrats are all over the place), but Democrats seem to be continuing a tradition of being worse on military spending and preparing for future wars.

Instead of engaging equally with Republicans and Democrats, Christians should be speaking prophetically against both. Maybe people are ready to listen. A careful study released in October on What Kind of Foreign Policy Does the American Public Want? indicates both war parties are seriously out of touch with the American people. For example, 76% wanted a substantial shift of spending away from the military.

kwattles said...

In an old and perhaps now forgotten book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I picked up an metaphor of a congnitive terrain that's accessible to each of us, which we can only visit each one of us independently. We can't exactly travel there together, but we can take notes to share with others, and others who go there can recognize what I describe.

This would apply to many fields such as mathematics, philosophy, and divine spirit. The "space" is real, because when we compare notes in various ways, we often find that they jibe, and that we can develop predictive power vis-a-vis the "real" world.

I think of the best of spiritual writings as serving that function. And a lot of Quaker writings seem to be written in that mode. People may have gone further over this terrain than I have in various directions, or their ability to describe may help me to better understand experiences "where" I have already been.

It's a metaphor, of course, and I dimly understand that there are philosophical difficulties with it. But it works for me.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill--thanks for your note. I've looked at the survey; you're right, it is fascinating and encouraging.

Concerning engaging with both Democrats and Republicans vs speaking prophetically against both, I don't think it's a case of either/or. Some of us should be engaging with the parties, some of us should be speaking prophetically against them, and maybe there are a few who are adequately gifted to do both simultaneously. I do agree with one implication I derive from your comments--that we should not be fooled into an assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend--if Democrats oppose Republican excesses, that means Democrats are automatically innocent of unrighteous policies. We've seen enough of Democrats tryiing to trump Republicans by appearing even MORE militaristic.

Two Thursdays ago I held up Democrats as the only viable opposition force in the context of the midterm elections. But neither party has adequate responses to our national dilemmas.

Back to George Hunter's article. His recommendation to "repent of our monogamous alliance with the Republican Party and encourage evangelicals to become involved with Democrats" is clearly aimed at one segment of his readership. I think his main point is extremely valid: a genuine evangelical does not write off a segment of society as not being worth engagement simply because of a flawed but popular assumption that Republicans are more congenial to evangelical Christianity. His closing lines are clearly mischievous rhetoric (the Republicans tell God they'll go and work in the vineyard, but the Democrats actually do that work); they're not an adequate summary of Christian approaches to politics, but they are good for challenging conventional wisdom. And I see that conventional wisdom all over the place. People we know personally are saying to each other, and to us, that it's such a shame "our side" lost on Tuesday.

Kirk, thanks for reminding me of Pirsig's book. I read that book with great pleasure the same year I became a Christian (1974) and have not read it since. If my journal for that year were not locked away in a safe deposit box in downtown Portland, I'd be tempted to go right now and look up what I said about the book then. Better yet, I should re-read it.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, and I didn't know you worked at all these bookstores. I too have now worked at three bookstore but they are all still open. If you ever make it to Pasadena you will have to check out the one we have at Fuller it's amazing! Plus I work there...

I also appreciated what you had to say about spiritual sophistication that uses words and phrases that most of us don't connect too, I think that can always been a sign of being afraid to open up and change - it almost gives an us and them mentality even within the same body of Christians.

One last thing - could you send me an email with your address when you get an opportunity I was hoping to chat with you some about Birmingham.

cwdaniels [at] gmail [dot] com