River of Stars | Guy Gavriel Kay

The cover of Kay's River of StarsThe scene opens with young Ren Daiyan whipping his wooden sword around a bamboo grove, battling imaginary barbarians, imagining great things while the Empire is in decline all around him. Suddenly, a small seemingly insignificant decision sets his life and dreams into motion. How does one man rise as a Empire falls?

In Under Heaven, Kay described life in 8th Century China. In River of Stars he returns to China four Centuries later, in his fictionalized version of the Song Dynasty.

Kay’s writing is as poetic and sublime as ever. The first paragraph sets the tone:

Late autumn, early morning. It is cold, mist rising from the forest floor, sheathing the green bamboo trees in the grove, muffling sounds, hiding the Twelve Peaks to the east. The maple leaves on the way here are red and yellow on the ground, and falling. The temple bells from the edge of town seem distant when they ring, as if from another world. (3)

My only problem with River of Stars is Kay’s tendency to overstate one of his favourite themes: that apparently small random choices have the power drastically change the course of a life and the history of a nation. The theme is interesting, but he mused on it so often, it felt overstated in such a subtle novel.

River of Stars is a gripping account of one man’s life as chaos, war, affluence, and political subterfuge swirl around him. Kay is clearly at the height of his literary prowess.

—Guy Gavriel Kay, River of Stars (Toronto: Viking, 2013).

I “Just” Pray | Stanley Hauerwas

Most “spontaneous prayers” turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, “Lord, we just ask you …” Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I pray that God will save us from that “just.”

—Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 255.

The Meaning of City | Jacques Ellul

The cover of Ellul's The Meaning of CityIn 1954, Jacques Ellul published his most influential work: The Technological Society. He argues that “la technique” (the drive towards ultimate efficiency) harms humanity. The Meaning of the City can be viewed as a theological accompaniment to this work.

Ellul argues from the whole sweep of the Bible that the city represents humanity’s self-alienation from God. When Cain was sent wandering, he founded a city. Babel, Babylon, Sodom, Nineveh—these all build exemplify life without God.

God, however is not content to leave humanity on its own. God chose to use Jerusalem to take “a foothold in man’s world” (101). Despite God’s beachhead, Jerusalem’s character as a city often rose to the surface. Jesus found solace in the desert, and death in Jerusalem. Revelation refers to Jerusalem by it’s parent-city: Babylon. Of course, God still used the city’s rebellion for his redemptive purposes.

The Bible ends with a vision of a city that has the characteristics of a garden. God capitulates and works with humans in providing a city, but it will be a city redeemed. Creation begins in a garden and ends in a city.

The Meaning of City helped me to understand the theme of ‘city’ throughout scripture in a way I had never before put together. Ellul self-consciously analyses the entire Bible without getting bogged down in issues of “classical exegesis, of form criticism, of the extensive research into literary and cultural history, of the new hermeneutics, and even of the more recent studies of structuralism” (xvii).

I have mentioned my frustration with systematic theology before. Ellul has reminded me just how profitable an honest systematic approach can be. He draws out the overarching themes of the canon without twisting chapter-and-verse to fit his thesis.

The power of the Internet to make the entire world one global city makes Ellul’s criticism and insight more valuable today than ever before.

—Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of City, trans. Dennis Pardee (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).

Struggle of Faith | Dallas Willard

Most of what we think we see as the struggle of faith is really the struggle to act as if we had faith when in fact we do not.

—Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984, 1993, 1999), 118.

Hearing God | Dallas Willard

The cover of Willards Hearing GodFew issues arise more frequently in the pastors office than this: “How can I know that God is speaking to me?”

For some people, the issue is even more fundamental: “Does God speak to us at all?” For others the problem is discerning whether the voices in their heads are God or their own desires. The issue becomes more pastorally problematic when a person is certain that God is speaking to her when, given the content of the message, it’s difficult to agree with!

Dallas Willard, deals with all of these issues with theological, philosophical, and practical insight. The core of Willard’s argument challenges our presuppositions. Our difficulty in hearing God is often rooted in our idea that God is distant.

If we think of God as being literally outside the physical realm, then it will seem as if he is utterly out of reach for us and we out of reach for him. (74)

As we begin to understand that all reality is infused with the presence of God, we become more open to receiving communication from him.

The analogy he develops regarding our bodies is worth quoting at length:

God’s relation to the world is similar—though not identical—to your relation to your body. You inhabit your body, yet it is not possible to locate or physically identify you—or any act of your consciousness or any element of your character—at any point in your body. God inhabits space, though he infinitely exceeds it as well (1 Kings 8:27). “The whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:3). … Your whole body is accessible to you, and you are accessible through it. As your consciousness plays over and through your whole body, so in a similar—though of course not identical—fashion, “the eyes of the LORD range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him” (2 Chron 16:9). (78)

God speaks to us in an analogous way that we communicate with our bodies. For the Christian, developing this understanding and ability to listen is crucial.

I have never read a better book on communicating with God than Willard’s Hearing God. I highly recommend it to anyone who wrestles with discerning the voice of God.

(Thanks to Brian Lachine for both recommending and buying me a copy of this book.)

—Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984, 1993, 1999).

Into the Region of Awe | David C. Downing

The cover of Downing's Into the Region of AweC. S. Lewis was a complex person. On the one hand, he was an intellectual Christian apologist who published Mere ChristianityMiracles, and The Four Loves. On the other hand, he’s probably more famous now for his Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy.

In Into the Region of Awe, Downing traces the mystical influences in Lewis’ writing. Drawing not only on his major published works, but also letters and marginalia from Lewis’ own library, he shows the influence that mystics like John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich had on his Christian life and thought.

Especially interesting for me was the chapter dedicated to Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I read these books in high school but much of the theological and mystical depth was lost on me. Downing’s survey of these books makes me want to return and read them again.

As you might expect from such a rigorous thinker, Lewis didn’t swallow all forms of Christian mysticism uncritically. Fortunately, he was able to avoid the stifling skepticism that so often plagues intellectuals.

If you read C. S. Lewis, you will likely enjoy Downing’s Into the Region of Awe.

—David C. Downing, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

Conquering Evangelists | Wendell Berry

Throughout the five hundred years since Columbas’s first landfall in the Bahamas, the evangelist has walked beside the conqueror and the merchant, too often blandly assuming that their causes were the same.

—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 94.