Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Two Sentences on Faith, Sincerity, and Going Through the Motions

Faith is not "meaning it" instead of "just doing it." Faith is meaning to mean it, and therefore doing it even when you don't mean it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Calling for Christmastime Recommendations: Favorite Essayists/Prose Writers

As swarms of newcomers continue to swell the ranks of our 2011 book reading venture, I wanted to ask for recommendations from any readers who might have something to share. Specifically, I am looking for new and worthwhile essayists to read.

My five favorite living writers of prose (in the English language, of course, though that is probably as obvious as it is regrettable) are, in no particular order, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Christopher Hitchens. When I say "prose" I mean especially the essay or nonfiction occasional form -- steering away, with purpose, from my co-religionists in the field of theology, or for that matter any academically housed discipline. These five writers, apart from their insight and wit and diversity of topics covered and much other besides, are simply a joy to read, whatever it is they are writing about; and reading each of them has made me an incalculably better writer myself, literally by the page -- even by the microscopic harmony of each solitary sentence they whip and tender my eager way.

What I realized recently, however, as I concluded Christopher Hitchens' memoir, is that beyond these five, I know precious few others like them, or at least -- what is the same -- I have read little else which is similar (less in style than in flavor or quality). But I would like that to change, and quickly.

So I would love to hear from others: who are your (say) five favorite essayists, beloved writers of prose, polymath explorers carving their way in unfabricated worlds with only tools of grammar and verbiage? I know David Foster Wallace, of course, and Terry Eagleton, and Chuck Klosterman; and a few more well-known names. But I also know my severe ignorance is matched by knowing minds in love with various works and writers. So I say, with expectation: enlighten me!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Reading Group for 2011: Eccentric Existence by David Kelsey

Each year my brother Garrett and I assign each other two books to read, one smaller and one larger. This plan came about because, though our reading overlaps at many points, it is often relegated to different subjects -- he more in missiology and practical theology, I more in systematics and ethics -- as well as to diverging personal interests (he read novels, I read poetry). Heftier books have included Jenson's Systematic Theology, Lohfink's Does God Need the Church?, and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, smaller books Kallenberg's Live to Tell, McCarthy's The Road, and Wendell Berry's A Timbered Choir. It's been a wonderful little system so far, serving its purpose well.

This upcoming year, however, we're doing something a bit different. We are going to take the bulk of the year to work our way, patiently and methodically, through a single daunting work: David Kelsey's crowning achievement of a lifetime of serious scholarship and classroom teaching, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. The two volumes comprising this imposing tome total close to 1,100 pages, and rather than try to do it on our own (waiving accountability) or wait until it becomes a class assignment (speeding through it in a month), we wanted to go ahead and just do it, but with each other and with others.

So: you are invited, beginning the second week of January, to dedicate the subsequent 10-11 months to a slow and careful journey in theological anthropology, with a seasoned master as guide. You won't be alone, and you'll be able to keep up. Personally, I will be planning to serve as a kind of home base for weekly/monthly reflections on and interrogations of the reading; but I am also hopeful that others who join in will be able to write up their own thoughts and reactions, which can be posted here or on their own blogs.

At this point, there are about half a dozen of us (here's a couple), but by all means, join us if you are interested. Drop me a line by email, or comment below, and we'll get organized over the next few weeks. I've already got the reading apportioned out by month -- never less than 80 or more than 120 pages -- and I'll be sure to post January's weekly sections by Monday the 3rd, if not before.

I look forward to hearing from those of you who are interested, and most of all to taking time to read and dissect and discuss share in what I am sure will be a work of lasting significance.

(Credit where credit is due: Garrett and I initially got the idea to connect our long-form reading plan -- which of course is not new, but only to us, and in this way -- with Kelsey's book from this brief post by James K. A. Smith, as well as, even prior to that, from Geoffrey Hoare, Rector of All Saints Episcopal here in Atlanta. Geoffrey has a small group of ministers, pastors, and theologians across the ecumenical spectrum who meet once or twice a year for a few days to discuss a major work they've all agreed upon, and last year's was E.E. Thanks to both for inspiration!)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Cecil Francis Alexander (Advent #2)

I continue to marvel at Christmas hymns I either never sang as a child or whose words I never comprehended. Like "O Holy Night," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," and "The Friendly Beasts," "Once in Royal David's City" is an elegantly simple song -- originally a poem -- whose words are profound. I would love to sing this song in church sometime this month.

(I should note that I prefer certain arrangements that limit themselves to the first, second, and fifth stanzas, staying away from the somewhat curious -- though understandable, given that it was composed as a song for children -- emphasis on imitating Jesus as a child, and so on. However, I wanted to include the lyrics in their entirety, if only out of respect for their author.)

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Once in Royal David's City

By Cecil Francis Alexander

Once in royal David's city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.

And, through all his wondrous childhood,
he would honor and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as he.

For he is our childhood's pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that Child who seemed so helpless
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Ephrem the Syrian (Advent #1)

Ephrem the Syrian is the great poet theologian of the church, writing and teaching and ministering in Syriac-speaking communities in the fourth century. Due to his language, location, and time period, he is much neglected, and unjustly (though I should not feign serious knowledge, either, even if he is at the top of my list). I couldn't resist sharing the following hymn, however, as it is an extraordinarily beautiful (and deeply imaginative) Advent song placed on the lips of Mary. Blessings from our brother Ephrem in this time of remembering the child Jesus and the miracle of the Incarnation!

(Note: This version is translated by Kathleen McVey and taken from pages 145-47 in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns [New York: Paulist Press, 1989].)

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Hymn on the Nativity: 15

By Ephrem the Syrian

"With You I shall begin, and I trust
that with You I shall end. I shall open my mouth,
and You fill my mouth. I am for You the earth
and You are the farmer. Sow in me Your voice,
You who are the sower of Himself in His mother's womb."

Refrain: Glory be to You, my Lord, and through You to the Father, on the day of Your nativity.

"All the chaste daughters of the Hebrews
and virgin daughters of rulers
are amazed at me. Because of You, a daughter of the poor
is envied. Because of You, a daughter of the weak
is an object of jealousy. Who gave You to me?

"Son of the Rich One, Who despised the womb
of rich women, what drew You
toward the poor? For Joseph is needy,
and I am impoverished. Your merchants
brought gold to a house of the poor."

She saw the Magi; her songs increased
at their offerings: "Behold Your worshipers
surround me, and their offerings
encircle me. Blessed be the Babe
Who made His mother the lyre of His melodies.

"And since the lyre looks toward its master,
my mouth looks toward You. Let Your will arouse
Your mother's tongue. Since I have learned by You
a new way of conceiving, let my mouth learn by You
a new way of giving birth to new glory.

"If difficult things for You are not difficult
but easy, so that the womb conceived You
without intercourse, and without seed
the womb gave birth to You, it is easy for the mouth
to be fruitful and to multiply Your great glory.

"Behold, I am slandered and oppressed,
but I rejoice. My ears are full
of scorn and disdain, but it is a small matter to me
how much I shall endure, for a single word of consolation from You
is able to chase away myriads of griefs.

"Since I am not despised by You, my Son,
I am confident. I who am slandered
have conceived and given birth to the True Judge
Who will vindicate me. For if Tamar
was acquitted by Judah, how much more will I be acquitted by You!

"David, Your father, sang a psalm to You
before You came, that to You would be offered
gold of Sheba. The psalm
that he merely sang now in reality
heaps before You myrrh and gold.

"The hundred and fifty psalms he sang
were flavored by You since all the words
of prophecy are in need
of Your seasoning. For without Your salt
all wisdom would lose its savor."