Tagged: christianity

Everybody Always

Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People by Bob Goff, 3/5

After loving Love Does, I was very excited to read Goff’s next book, which I hoped would provide further illumination on the challenge of how to love people extravagantly without getting used up in the process. Unfortunately, I didn’t sense the same spirit in this book: the stories felt a little forced, the resulting morals were sometimes a stretch and the whole thing came off a bit preachy and canned. It’s actually a little funny because when I read Love Does, I literally thought to myself that it was the kind of inspired book you would live your whole life to write and never write another.

Why I read it: I wished Love Does was a longer book.

Love Does

Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff, 5/5

Bob Goff knows how to tell a story. His stories were almost too good; I devoured them like a kid devours a bowl of fruit loops and had to keep reminding myself to slow down and digest the bigger messages. When someone who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of remarkable experiences takes the time to write down what they’ve learned from a broad perspective, it’s a gift–a sneak peek of a meaningful work of art when all you could see before was the close-up chaos of individual brushstrokes.

Formerly a lawyer and law professor, Goff was not a “professional Christian” when he wrote this book, so I didn’t get the uncomfortable feeling that he was trying to sell some pre-packaged, preachy, lifeless form of religion. He is very practical and realistic, using stories to transcend the cliched verbiage of encouraging people to fearlessly follow their hopes and dreams while living in God’s love.

I used to think following God required complicated formulas. I thought I needed a big stack of books, so I could figure out exactly where I was all the time. I thought if I constantly measured the distance between me and God, I’d get closer to Him. Early on, the religious people I knew explained to me all kinds of nuances for doing this sort of spiritual math. They suggested that I say certain things in my prayers, have quiet times, go to Bible studies, and memorize Bible verses. They said I needed to know how to explain to someone that God could be a person and a spirit at the same time. They urged me to know how God was going to come back someday but that some people would be here and other people would go missing because it would be a time of great tribulation. They said that for me to know God, there was a whole pile of things I’d need to know first. […] What I realized, though, is that all I really needed to know when it came down to it was the direction I was pointing and that I was somewhere inside the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness (156).

There are a lot of crazy stories and insightful life lessons packed into this easy-to-read book, but perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most a couple weeks later, was how fearlessly Goff loves other people and gets involved in their lives. If he was giving bits of himself away, he would soon be reduced to nothing, but instead his life seems immeasurably richer. It truly seems that he has an endless supply of supernatural love from which to draw. I still don’t fully understand how to live this way without getting used up by the “takers” in the world, but this book was a helpful piece of the puzzle for me and an amazing reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Why I read it: My friend, Joy, recommended it to me.

The Five Languages of Apology

five languages of apology chapman thomas thomson gale 2007The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, 4/5

Making and receiving apologies has always seemed like a fairly natural part of human interaction to me, so I’ve never given the topic much thought.  However, I was recently very confused to be told plaintively by someone that “so-and-so has never apologized to me in twenty years!”  What was so confusing about this comment?  Well “so-and-so” had recently made an unexpected and unsolicited apology to me!  Was I to believe this same person had purposefully withheld all apologies from someone else, or was there some other communication issue at play?

It turns out that different people have different expectations when it comes to what makes a sincere apology.  According to this book, if one or more of the five “languages” of apology is lacking, the whole effort can fail to register with the recipient as a sincere apology, no matter how genuine it was intended to be.

  1. Expressing Regret: “I am sorry.”
  2. Accepting Responsibility: “I was wrong.”
  3. Making Restitution: “What can I do to make it right?”
  4. Genuinely Repenting: “I’ll try not to do that again.”
  5. Requesting Forgiveness: “Will you please forgive me?”

I feel that the use of the word “languages” to describe these five aspects is a too-obvious effort to tie this book in with Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, but it is undeniably helpful to know what shortcomings could cause an apology to ring untrue.  While the main focus of the book is on how to make sure your apology meets the intended recipient’s subconscious criteria, it is also interesting to understand that just because an apology doesn’t cover the aspect that is most important to you, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is insincere.

Another very interesting point the authors make is that, while forgiveness is a decision, trust is an emotion (213).  You can choose to forgive someone, but trust should be earned.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what someone has done, making light of their bad actions, or going back to the way things were, but it does mean giving your relationship with them a chance to heal and grow.

Why I read it: my sister recommended it and I’m always interested in learning to be a better communicator.

Miracles

miracles c.s. lewis harpersanfrancisco 2001Miracles: A Preliminary Study by C.S. Lewis, 5/5

It’s like no one told C.S. Lewis that you can’t prove the existence of God, so he just does.  And that is merely to lay the foundation for his main topic, which I actually found much less interesting and convincing than the preliminary discussions–the man does not shirk an intellectual challenge.  Though I have occasionally sensed some antagonism from him towards science, in this book he cheerfully tackles both the known and unknown with the grace, focus and rigorous logic that make me sometimes fear that I tend to put more faith in him than in God.  Of course, no matter how hard one tries to be open-minded and logical, it cannot be too difficult a task to convince someone of something they already believe.  With that in mind, I would love to know how this book is perceived by people with different backgrounds and beliefs than me.

Why I read it: C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors and thankfully, every time I think I’ve read all his books I come across a new one.

The Pilgrim’s Regress

pilgrim's regress c s lewis william b eerdmans 2000The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism by C.S. Lewis, 4/5

Motivated by a mysterious Desire, John leaves behind the lifeless religion of his hometown, Puritania, and explores both the stern, unrelenting wastes of the cerebral North and the swamps of untrammeled self-gratification in the animal South.  This journey from “‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity” will be recognizable to those familiar with C.S. Lewis’s more biographical works (200).  Admittedly obscure, this tale is similar to George MacDonald’s Phantastes in that its value may be more in the recognition than the revelation–I suspect that if I reread it every 10 years or so, my appreciation of the truths it tells will grow in proportion with my own life-experience.

[Why I read it: a fortunate thrift store find!]

Smoke on the Mountain

smoke on the mountain joy davidmanSmoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments by Joy Davidman, 2/5

I couldn’t find much to like in this preachy, dated commentary on the Ten Commandments, which joins hundreds of thousands of useless, forgettable sermons on the topic that have been written over the centuries.  Davidman does little more than poke at low-hanging fruit, criticizing society’s moral failings in a manner calculated to appeal more to the smugly self-satisfied or the masochistically guilt-ridden than the individual (Christian or non-Christian) who is searching for Truth.  Also, the tone of authority with which the author treats issues of theology, anthropology and history does not seem well-supported by any expertise or original thought.  The most remarkable aspect of the book is C.S. Lewis’s incredibly graceful foreword, which I think evinces approbation more benevolent than spontaneously appreciative.

[Why I read it: I was curious to learn more about the woman who some consider C.S. Lewis’s intellectual equal and whose death inspired A Grief Observed.  Unsurprisingly, my library didn’t have a copy of this book.  Surprisingly, they bought a copy when I requested it.  Pretty cool.]

No Man Is an Island

no man is an island thomas mertonNo Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton, 3/5

At first, I thought this collection of thoughts on 16 different spiritual topics was reasonably profound and insightful.  It wasn’t until Merton started saying, with blithe confidence, things I doubted or disagreed with that I missed the intellectual underpinnings characterising the likes of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.  Merton’s unintellectual approach to spiritual matters is made palatable by his eloquent writing skills, perhaps dangerously so.  Those who approach this book wishing to be told what to think could quite possibly be led into error, but those who have already given thought to such topics will likely recognise much truth in what he says.

[Why I read it: the title is appealing and seemed relevant to my life at the moment.  I originally thought the phrase “no man is an island” came from this book, but it actually originated in a poem by the 17th-century poet John Donne.  Interestingly, from the same short poem comes the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.”]

The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses

weight of gloryThe Weight of Glory and Other Addresses by C.S. Lewis, 5/5

I half-expected C.S. Lewis’ intellectual style to be unsuited to the short-speech format, but was only slightly surprised to find that he is as brilliant a writer of sermons as a writer of books.  Of the nine essays in this collection, I found “The Weight of Glory” to be the most challenging and “Is Theology Poetry?” the most encouraging, both addressing, to some extent, struggles I am currently experiencing.

My deepening distaste for humanity in general and aversion to interaction with humanity in particular made some parts of “The Weight of Glory” difficult to read and almost impossible to believe (though I have fewer reasons to doubt Lewis’ assertions than to trust them).

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour.  The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.  It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say [saw?] it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours (18).”

Luckily, Lewis can comfort as well as he convicts and I found the following excerpt (greatly weakened by the lack of supporting context) to be a welcome antidote to the noxious mélange of malaise and meaninglessness to which I have been lately putting up an admittedly feeble resistance:

If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science.  If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.  And this is to me the final test.  This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking.  When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream.  The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world.  I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons.  But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience.  The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one.  For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking.  Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions.  The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.  I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else (91).”

[Why I read it: it was given me as a birthday present and I am always eager to read anything nonfiction by C.S. Lewis.]

George MacDonald: An Anthology

George Macdonald cropGeorge MacDonald: An Anthology, ed. C.S. Lewis, 4/5

While Macdonald’s Phantastes is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read and I enjoyed the Curdie books as a child, I’ve never been a fan of his other novels and was not particularly looking forward to reading this anthology. Just as it feels wrong that I love Bach but not his favourite instrument, the organ, so I always thought it felt wrong to love C.S. Lewis and not George Macdonald, one of Lewis’s most-loved inspirations.  Happily, the issue is cleared up in the preface, where Lewis calls the Macdonald books I happen to like “the great works,” while admitting that “necessity made MacDonald a novelist, but few of his novels are good and none is very good” (xxix).  The rest of the preface provides an excellent discussion of mythology, which would make the book a must-read in any case.

Each of the 365 excerpts presented in this collection is worthy of a day’s reflection and reading the whole book in one go felt rather like going to a dinner buffet that only serves steak.  There is an aura of the commonsense and uncompromising, softened by the humility and gentleness that should be the defining characteristics of every Christian.  Some of my favourite quotes were the ones on spiritual “dryness,” where MacDonald points out that the firm foundation on which our faith is built cannot be shaken by changing emotions and feelings:

That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my refuge” (1).

Troubled soul, thou are not bound to feel but thou art bound to arise.  God loves thee whether thou feelest or not.  Thou canst not love when thou wilt, but thou art bound to fight the hatred in thee to the last.  Try not to feel good when thou art not good, but cry to Him who is good.  He changes not because thou changest.  Nay, He has an especial tenderness of love toward thee for that thou art in the dark and hast no light, and His heart is glad when thou doest arise and say, “I will go to my Father.” …Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness until light goes up in thy darkness.  For the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend.  Heed not thy feeling: Do thy work (18).

N.B. Most of the book is not written in the old-timey, King James Version speech.

[Why I read it: given to me as a birthday present by my parents.]

The Sacred Search

sacred searchThe Sacred Search: What if it’s not about who you marry, but why? by Gary Thomas, 2/5

If only this book’s contents lived up to the promise of its subtitle.  Unfortunately, the author focuses less on the “why” and more on outlining a convoluted set of criteria with which to judge the “who.”  This criteria is self-defeatingly simplistic – a Christian couple could check all the right boxes and still end up miserable or alternatively, could meet almost none of the criteria and still have a good marriage.  By preaching to the low-hanging fruit – people who haven’t yet considered the possibility of applying Christian principles, common sense and thoughtfulness to their search for marital bliss – Thomas dilutes his message to an almost unbearably obvious and formulaic level.

The book’s main problem is illustrated by the chapter devoted to helping the reader rate, on a scale of 1-10, six specific character aspects of potential spouses (here’s a hint – you’d better hope for a cumulative score of 45 or higher) (143).  It is a mystery to me how Thomas expects people so clueless that they need to be told to look for a spouse who has high scores in areas like “knows how to communicate” and “resolves conflict in a healthy way” to be capable of making accurate assessments or gaining any value from this exercise.

Less importantly, but still notably, Thomas is one of the most awkward authors I have ever encountered.  Many of the things he writes are unintentionally (I assume) offensive and insulting.  He suggests that, since “most people never use the degree they get from college,” it is reasonable to make finding a spouse there “one of the top goals.”  He actually compares it to an unemployed person visiting a job fair (78).  In a later chapter, he encourages people to play private eye on their intended, using techniques to uncover their past such as asking sly questions, looking at old photo albums, subtly questioning the person’s family and friends, and observing how they pray, since “someone might succeed in lying to you, but it’s a little trickier to present a false front to God” (179-182).  The only strategy he suggests for girls who want to be noticed more is to cook, claiming that guys will “figure out who put the food on the table” (79).  According to Thomas, someone who only reads the Bible during church will have “negligible” spiritual growth and will “never be spiritually wiser than he or she already is” (127).  I’m not trying to nitpick unfairly – there were pages and pages of other equally embarrassing examples that I could have chosen from.

I respect Thomas’s effort to encourage people who are in love to approach marriage in a thoughtful way that is consistent with their religious beliefs and, as far as very general principles and study questions are concerned, his writing has some value.  However, I believe that a lot more value could be had from this book by tearing off the front cover, cutting out a rectangle around the subtitle, handwriting the text of Matthew 6:33 on the back of the rectangle and using it as a bookmark for Book III, Chapter 6 (Christian Marriage), in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.