Paul: A Novel | Walter Wangerin Jr.

The cover of Wangerin's Paul: A NovelWhile setting the category for this book review, I hit an impasse. Do I consider this a work of literature, theology, or spiritual formation?

When I was a young minister I bought Wangerin’s The Book of God. His novelization of the Old Testament made an impact on my study of scripture. He reminded me of the reality of these ancient stories. In Paul, he picks up the story where he left off. Wangerin combines an intimate knowledge of scripture, thoughtful exegesis, and a literary pen to create a work that will help the reader understand Paul more completely than before.

You could consider this a work of literature. The point-of-view shifts between the various characters (framed by the pseudo-musings of Seneca) are a profound way to revisit a well-known story.

Alternatively, it could be considered a work of theology. Many exegetical decisions had to be made about issues such as the purpose of the Gentile offering, the nature of Paul’s “thorn in his flesh,” and the circumstances and letters to the church in Corinth. Wangerin chooses wisely.

For me, this book was primarily a work of spiritual formation. Wangerin has enabled me to imagine what it would be like to live Paul’s life. You can almost feel the sweat and taste the dust of the ancient cities. The conflict between Paul and Jerusalem was profoundly disturbing yet moving. It helps me to place modern church conflict in perspective.

There were times when the action slowed and the detailed description started to feel excessive. As a whole, however, Paul: A Novel, is powerful work of Christian imagination.

—Walter Wangerin Jr., Paul: A Novel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

My Father’s Son | Farley Mowat

The cover of Mowat's My Father's SonWhile reading this book, Farley Mowat died. I felt cheated. This book is Farley’s edited collection of letters back and forth between him and his Father during his time in the Second World War. The letters are a testimony that life continues in the darkest circumstances.

When you read Angus Mowat’s letters to his young son Farley, you can see where he gets his trademark wit, irreverence, and (ironically, given his circumstances) rebellious nature. Angus was a veteran of the First World War, so father and son are able to connect on shared ground.

It was interesting to read Mowat’s Canadian perspective on the war. By all accounts, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (the “Hasty P”) along with the rest of Canada’s contribution were outstanding soldiers. It was infuriating to read how the Canadians were ordered to stand back after heavy fighting to let the Americans be the official people to take back Rome!

Also infuriating were the “zombies”—a special class of Canadians who were able to join the military while refusing overseas service. They wore the uniform without the risk.

This collection of letters is a window back to the dark days of the Second World War, as seen through the jaded eyes of a young man who would become a famous writer. When you consider Mowat’s massive written output, we were blessed to have him with us as long as we did.

—Farley Mowat, My Father’s Son: Memories of War and Peace (Toronto: Key Porter, 1992).

T. S. Eliot | Four Quartets

The cover of Eliot's Four Quartets

Over two millennia ago, a Hebrew philosopher known anonymously as the Qoheleth offered this observation:

[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV)

You could consider Eliot’s Four Quartets his own wrestling on this ancient theme. Despite the Byrds’ zen-like refrain, the Qoheleth was troubled by this dark truth. We are creatures of time without the capacity to understand beginning and ending (let alone eternity!)

Eliot’s meditations are correspondingly dark. He begins, like the Qoheleth:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. (“Burnt Norton” 1-5)

Time is a mystery. We can’t grasp it. We can’t somehow view it from the fixed point of a wheel—we can only participate in the dance that circuits around the “still point” (“Burnt Norton” 66).

Four Quartets are not something to be read lightly. They are incredibly dense and pregnant with meaning. This is language distilled to its essence.

For the Christian, these poems hold something extra. Eliot’s high-church Anglican worldview infused his writing. Consider these verses about the death of Christ:

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (“East Coker” 67-71)

Indeed, the incarnation of Christ is the only real solution to our problem with time. In Jesus, the eternal entered time. If we have a hope of grasping the mystery, it will be found in him.

More than Eliot’s day, ours is full of people “Distraction from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning” (“Burnt Norton” 101). It is a helpful antidote to slow down and meditate deeply on something. Aside from scripture, I can think of no better work of art than Eliot’s Four Quartets.

(For a helpful entry point to understanding the Four Quartets, watch this lecture by Professor Thomas Howard.)

—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1944).

Spiritual Greed | St. John of the Cross

Many beginners are discontent with the spirituality God has given them. They go around melancholy and petulant because they cannot access the consolation they crave in their spiritual practices. They are greedy.

—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Mirabai Starr, trans. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010), 42.

Christianity | Diarmaid MacCulloch

Christianity 3000 coverDiarmaid MacCulloch must be a walking encyclopedia. In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, he has written a thousand page behemoth which covers (as the subtitle suggests), three millennia of human history.

I don’t exaggerate when I say “human history,” either. One of the things I realized during my reading of this book was that nothing happens without the influence of religion. Our cherished Western idea of  the “separation of church and state” is quite ridiculous when viewed either practically or historically.

MacCulloch starts, counter-intuitively, a thousand years before Christ. This was a wise move. It’s only when you understand the Jewish and Greek cultural background that you are able to situate the birth of Christianity accurately.

During the early years of Christianity, the church broke into three main groups, along language lines. The first group consisted of Semitic language speakers who spread south into Africa and east all the way to China. The rise of Islam effectively squashed this expression of the church. The two more familiar wings are the Greek speaking orthodox church and the Latin-flavoured Roman Catholic church. Of course, the Reformation is dealt with in detail as well. (In 2005, he published The Reformation: A History.)

The history of Christianity is also a history of politics. During the first three hundred years, it was the story of how Christ-followers defied and evaded political power. After Constantine, it was (tragically for me) the story of capitulation and power-mongering.

A book like this makes me wonder what will come next. Unlike more simplistic histories which treat the progression of culture and religion as inevitable, MacCulloch describes the various false starts and cut-off limbs which prove that history is anything but predictable.

This book is dense but readable. As you might expect, I found the subjects I was most knowledgeable about to be the most interesting to read. The areas I was weaker in seemed more difficult to understand. If you have a background in church history or theology, this book is worth the investment of your time.

—Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010).

Hannah’s Child | Stanley Hauerwas

The cover of Hauerwas's Hannah's ChildHauerwas is an unlikely theologian. Can you connect the dots between a potty-mouthed bricklayer from Texas who is completely unsure of whether or not he is a Christian to the esteemed professor of Christian Ethics from Notre Dame and Duke Universities? In Hannah’s Child, Stanely Hauerwas does just that.

This memoir contains everything that makes an interesting life and compelling story. On the one hand, you have his trademark blunt intelligence. On being notified that he was Time magazine’s “best theologian in America” in 2001, he replied, “”Best’ is not a theological category” (ix).

On the other hand, he shows us how his life and teaching (including his prolific written output) is punctuated with having to care for his son while living with his mentally ill wife.

If you’ve read Hauerwas’ books, you should read his memoir. It’s a blunt, funny, tragic, and hope-ful look at the personal life of one of the “best” theologians around.

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