Tuesday Reading Roundup

Tuesdays are for sharing what I’ve read in the past week. (Don’t judge the post by its alphabetical first work.)

“The Life of Paulus the First Hermit”
by St. Jerome
I’d recommend Athanasius’ Life of Antony to basically any Christian. This, Jerome’s own contribution to secondary literature on the Desert Fathers, is both a lot shorter and a whole lot stranger:

Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer to him the fruit of the palm-trees to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this: I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
by Norman Maclean
The title story (bordering on a novella in length), the one made into a spectacular film of the same name, is just as good as that movie. So read it already. There’s so much wisdom in it, you will not be surprised that Maclean didn’t write fiction till he was seventy (although I’m not sure how fictional this particular fiction is):

“All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Thus far, I’ve read the second of the three stories, and I’ve begun the third. Some people consider writing taking place in the American West to be genre writing. Read Norman Maclean alongside Wallace Stegner and you’ll realize those critics are idiots.

The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry
by Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen lovers will tell you that Nouwen basically wrote one book fifty or so different times. While that is mostly true (and while we are happy to read them all), it does not mean that all Nouwen books are equal. This one is among the best (and my edition’s 1981 cover art makes it even better).

Silence is primarily a quality of the heart that leads to ever-growing charity. Once a visitor said to a hermit, “Sorry for making you break your rule.” But the monk answered, “My rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality towards those who come to see me and send them home in peace.”

Charity, not silence, is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry. About this all the Desert Fathers are unanimous.

“a bodily gospel”

Prototype by Jonathan Martin

When the future reign of God comes breaking into our present, there is more at stake than what we often call “spirituality”…This way of being human is not for people who think their bodies are cages and want to transcend the moment they are in. This way of being is not for people who don’t like to dance or make love.

This is a protest against the body-defying, world-denying principalities and powers that threaten to swallow us up. This is resistance to religion that is less substantial than the taste of crusty bread and sweet wine. It’s in favor of skin, in favor of laughter, in favor of music, in favor of sweat. It’s in favor of nakedness, but in protest to pornography. It’s in favor of touch, but in protest to being handled. It’s in favor of the soul, but in protest to its dismemberment from the body.

It is as greasy as the touch of an oily finger on the T-zone of a teenager’s face. It’s as intrusive as the hands of a brother or a sister washing the dirt off your feet as you sit in awkward silence. It is as mysterious as the slow descent of a body into an ancient baptismal pool at midnight, with prayers and hymns offered up all around. It is as beautiful and disconcerting as the gore that flowed out of Jesus’ side when it was torn by a spear, as spectacular as the lightning that flashed at Sinai, as plain and uneventful as a meal shared with a stranger.

It is high time we stopped sanitizing the scandal of a bodily gospel. Jesus’ new way of being human is exceedingly good news for the legions around us who are in need of healthy touch.

Jonathan Martin planted and pastors Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC. He’s a Pentecostal preacher who actually believes in sacraments and his podcast is excellent.

Finding the Exxon Within

When I first saw Maria Bamford, what I saw–despite some funny bits–was a comedian whose comedy seemed to consist of, “I’m weird!,” and I wasn’t particularly interested. But I kept hearing interviews in which other comics would talk about how great she is, so I kept trying to listen and learn.

In particular, I listened to a Nerdist interview in which she opens up about her time in a mental institution. The way that she described her decision to go to a place where she would be protected when she wanted to harm herself, the days spent there in safety and boredom, complete with harmful and idiotic comments from visitors trying to help, helped me to notice that she has something–many things–to say, and that her comedy is her art of saying those things well.

Her albums certainly have comedic bits, but her craft is intensely observed stories about mundane things as well as the more raw things which we experience as mundane and don’t recognize for their depth.

She’s not as anti-religious or anti-Christian as a comedian like David Cross (whom Bill Maher does not touch in scorch-the-earth hatred of the religious right), but it is one piece that does deal with religion which I wanted to share with you.

The following is my own transcribed excerpt of her appearance on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (the MaxFunCon 2011 episode):

I’m trying to believe in God, because I know it feels good. This is what I think it feels like: you know when you’re in a Third World shantytown at midnight, and you’re terrified. But then off in the distance you see the glowing logo of an international conglomerate. And you just feel like, ‘Whoo, everything’s going to be okay. Someone’s looking out for me.’ Perhaps we all need to find the Exxon within.”

Now certainly, if you’ve read any other post on this blog, you know Bamford and I feel differently about religion. But her joke (and reading it is not as good as hearing it) puts together such a complex understanding of religion, organized religion, organized religion and power, organized religion and money, religion and the West, religion and colonialism, all packed so tightly together. And, more important than all that, it’s funny.

Frank Turner is Not Billy Bragg (Which Is Perfectly Okay)

When I first heard of Frank Turner, it was because of his most recent release, Tape Deck Heart. My interest was piqued by the story of his move from young punk rocker toward socially conscious (lefty) folkie. This, in addition to his Brit-ness, means he is Billy Bragg, Jr.!!!

Except he’s not. Billy Bragg is enough Billy Bragg for a couple generations at least and Frank Turner is Frank Turner, and that’s great.

“The Way I Tend to Be” is the song that I found myself listening to every time I got into the car for days on end. I could present some argument for how it’s not emo, even though it is sonically and emotionally clearly emo (which might just make it emo, which might mean I enjoy an emo song). Strike two, of course, is that he is quite handsome.

Let’s listen to the song already (and perhaps read the lyrics below the video as you listen):

Some mornings I pray for evening,
For the day to be done.
Some summer days I hide away
And wait for rain to come.

Cause it turns out hell will not be found
Within the fires below,
But in making do and muddling through
When you’ve nowhere else to go.

And then I remember you,
And the way you shine like truth in all you do.
And if you remembered me,
You could save me from the way I tend to be,
The way I tend to be.

Some days I wake up dazed, my dear,
And I don’t know where I am.
I’ve been running now for so long I’m scared
I’ve forgotten how to stand.

And I stand around in airport bars
And I gather thoughts to think:
That if all I had was one long road
It could drive a man to drink.

Because I’ve said I love you so many times
that the words kinda die in my mouth.
And I meant it each time with each beautiful woman
but somehow it never works out.

You stood apart in my calloused heart,
and you taught me and here’s what I learned:
That love is about all the changes you make
and not just three small words.

And then I catch myself
Catching your scent on someone else
In a crowded space
And it takes me somewhere I cannot quite place.

If you want to hear some great lyrics, also listen to “Fisher King Blues,” (not to mention the entire album, which, yes, has an explicit label).

Upside Down (2012; dir. Juan Solanas)

What do I say to recommend to you a movie which has all kinds of problems? The acting is mostly just serviceable (although I loved seeing Timothy Spall as not-Wormtail/Peter Pettigrew), the visuals are sometimes beautiful and sometimes the worst kind of CGI, and the writer only had the ideas to fill a much shorter film.

And yet…imagination, love, memorable images, persistence and longsuffering, innovation, the virtue of not giving up: the world needs more of these things. I’m glad I experienced them all in this film. So I’m telling you to watch it too.

The Contemplative Heart by James Finley

James Finley is best known for having been a student at the Abbey of Gethsemani under Thomas Merton, and his best known book is Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, which deals with Merton’s concept of the true and false selves. Finley himself eventually left Gethsemani, married, trained and still practices as a psychotherapist, but he never left the contemplative life behind.

Finley claims early on in The Contemplative Heart that he is writing an introduction to the contemplative life. This is true: you can be introduced to contemplation in these pages in the same sense that you can be introduced to swimming in Lake Michigan. Folks looking for an introduction should probably look elsewhere, however, because this book can be overwhelming both in its content and in its writing style.

Conservative Christians may come to the book and be turned off immediately. Finley tends not to want to make much distinction between God and human beings (or anything else), he’s not interested in using precise theological language (at least in the academic sense) to describe the human experience of God, and he is quite open to non-specifically-Christian spiritual paths.

The names of the book’s parts make clear its depths and particularity: (1) A Contemplative Vision of Life; (2) Find Your Contemplative Practice and Practice It; (3) Find Your Contemplative Community and Enter It; (4) Find Your Contemplative Teaching and Enter It. This is about contemplation as a discipline, not as a life strategy or a technique for managing stress or anything else but as a life in and of God. (Not to say that Finley would have any problem with people starting wherever they start.)

This is an excellent book, with excellent insights, which are drawn from decades of reading, practice, and leading others in practice. Finley draws from deep wells: his own Catholic faith, his time as a monk, his training in psychotherapy, his relationship with his wife, as well as his knowledge of Eastern traditions (Buddhism in particular). I would love a chance to do a retreat with him.

To gain the most from this book, do not get a copy and decide to read it like a novel. Parcel it out to yourself, day by day. I spent about two months with it, and that was the right pace; it’s rich food that takes time to experience, savor, chew, and digest.

Here’s a tidbit, complete with Finley’s writing style asking to be taken in in small pieces, intentionally drawing the reader into a contemplative posture even while reading:

Our egocentric self sets out with an egocentric understanding of what it means to be free of the tyranny of egocentricity. This egocentric understanding is that of having to jump over a bar that is set so high that only the most finely tuned spiritual athlete could ever hope to clear it. Our struggles with distractions, sleepiness and indifference brings us to a point of near despair, convincing us that our doubts were true concerning our inability to master such a seemingly unreachable challenge. Then, just as we are spent in the futility of investing ourselves in our own illusions concerning the nature of the fulfillment that alludes us, the saving event happens. Love steps out and places the bar flat on the ground! Approaching the bar, disoriented by the unthinkable simplicity of the task, we trip over it, falling headlong into God, wholly poured out in and as who we simply are—all precious in our fragility, strangely whole and one with God in the midst of our fragmentation.

And, yes, Finley does spell it alludes, not eludes. I believe it may have been intentional.