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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

I’ve been intending to read more of Karen Armstrong for years. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I read and re-read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life a few years ago. We have acquired a few of her other books over the years, but recently I turned to a Kindle version of St Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I’m a member of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the guy who preached at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) calls “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement,” and as part of his work, Bishop Curry has challenged people to follow The Way of Love. One of the recent challenges related to this was to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the season of Epiphany (which runs from the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, to the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, which this year, is on March 5).

Romans is tough going. Although I have a serious church history and scripture nerd in my house (yes, the Computer Scientist is a man of many talents), and my own personal seminarian to call on (the former Teen the Elder) I found myself looking for more context for this repetitive, rambling letter than seems to contradict itself, and at times, to contradict the entire notion of loving your neighbor as yourself. At a discussion group about Romans at church I got a taste of what Karen Armstrong talks about in her book, and also several people recommended it.

Now, I was raised Catholic and except for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve attended church pretty regularly my whole life. But I learned all kinds of things I never knew from this book. For example, Pauls’s second letter to the Corinthians is actually five letters, out of chronological order, and with a couple of passages he probably didn’t write stuck in (including the infamous cover your heads, ladies, and the women should be seen but not heard in church). Paul was the earliest writer in the Jesus movement, and he wrote his letters and did his work before there were any written gospels. He only took on a trade (probably tent making or leather working) when he hit the road, as a way to connect with people and to make money for his travels. He believed the “Parousia” or coming of Christ was imminent, and he never meant his writing to be read later, much less a couple thousand years after he wrote. In fact, much of his advice to the communities he wrote to was very specific to their issues and concerns, and wasn’t meant to be taken as general advice for Christians (who didn’t exist yet, anyway).

I knew bits of this, but hadn’t ever read it all in one place before, nor had such an erudite but accessible guide to Paul as Karen Armstrong. She admits that as a young writer, she was prepared to dislike him (her first book was also about Paul) but she came to admire him as she researched. Other things in the book were a complete surprise to me — she writes that the American scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that the disciples left Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and probably didn’t know what happened to him in the immediate aftermath, and reminds us that the passion accounts are “prophecy historicized” rather than actual history. The stories are so familiar to believers, and even to nonbelievers as a result of Western culture (even network TV showed Jesus Christ Superstar last Easter), that Crossan says “It is hard for us, I repeat, to bring our imagination down low enough to see the casual brutality with which he was probably taken and executed.” Armstrong notes that Paul, too, was probably killed brutally and without fanfare, as was the Roman empire’s specialty.

She reminds us that only seven of Paul’s letters were likely to have been written by him. And that his words, and his legacy, were mediated by various figures, from the author of Luke and Acts through Augustine and Martin Luther and various church figures over centuries. This I knew — and it is criticism that has been leveled at Armstrong herself. Mediation, of course, is impossible to avoid in human communication; we all make meaning out of what we take in, and are influenced by others’ frames and agendas. I’ll leave arguments about where Armstrong falls in the continuum of New Testament scholarship to others, but for me, this book was helpful. It reminded me that much of what we know about the first century Jesus Movement is uncertain, even that which we accept as gospel.

But this book also reminded me that the people who carried Jesus’ story to others then, and those who do now, are participants in a faith tradition that doesn’t need absolute historical facts and details. Exactly what Jesus did when and where and with whom isn’t really important, nor is what Paul said about it, nor how Martin Luther or others interpreted or misinterpreted what Paul said. What is important is that the transformative message of this strange, mysterious life, the life of a man at once a Galilean peasant and the Son of God, has endured down the ages in part because an imperfect man named Paul was called to make it his life’s work to tell people about it. Armstrong helps clarify that, and I recommend this book to anyone struggling to understand Paul a little bit more.

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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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In September 2011, Lillian Daniel’s essay on Huffington Post, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” went viral, which led her, eventually, to write this similarly named book. I thought it looked intriguing, and as I began to read, her voice reminded me of some of my favorite people (you know who you are) — smart, funny, and blunt. This is one of those books that isn’t hard to read but may be hard to process.

Each chapter is an essay (or a sermon? I wondered if that’s where these began), brief and self contained, and they’re organized loosely by theme.  Since it’s a new library book, I only had two weeks to read it, but if I’d had longer I probably would have read one a day, so I had time to let them sink in. What I love about her writing is that like the best kinds of stories, these essays are delightful to read, entertaining, and then upon reflection, thought provoking.

Daniel can be quite direct, as when she addresses the spiritual-but-not-religious, “who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating,” — “There’s nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.” Discussing the way individual opinion is paramount online she writes, “We are creating a culture of narcissists who have never had a thought they did not press ‘send’ on.” Or, describing the way progressive religious types tend to explain their beliefs by saying what our churches don’t believe, “Oh just stop it . . . . You can be accepting of other people’s ideas but still willing to articulate your own.”

So she tells it like she sees it. Which means she also celebrates the messiness, the imperfections, the inconsistencies, and the “perplexity” in living out one’s faith in community. Some essays are rooted more in everyday life than in church, but she writes from a clear and unapologetic point of view as a minister in a progressive Protestant denomination (United Church of Christ). Even if you don’t share her faith or her views, she’s also very funny and a keen observer of human nature and of contemporary culture, and writes beautifully, so you will probably find something to enjoy. And if you don’t, that’s probably fine with her.

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