2016 books round-up

booksmontage2016

It’s January, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during the previous year (previous years: 2013 | 2014 | 2015). As usual, these are categorised as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before.

The overall picture can be seen from these charts. First, by category:

category

Second, by format/source (with “other” shown in pale blue):

format

In other words, while I was hitting the library pretty hard, it was mostly for reading comic books.

Fiction

This was another good year for reading fiction (after the shocker in 2014 when I read only ten novels). One intentional theme throughout the year was reading novels by women, including three major sequences: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Of the three, my favourite was the Gilead trilogy, and of those I’ve singled out Lila as one of my two favourite novels of the year.

My other favourite for the year is Luther Blissett’s astonishing Reformation-era historical novel, Q. But pretty much all the listed books are worth reading. Other particular highlights include Ali Smith’s lovely, life-affirming novella Girl Meets Boy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Paul Kingsnorth’s extraordinary novel the Norman Conquest, Wake, written in a form of cod Anglo-Saxon.

Non-fiction

The usual mishmash under this category. Edward Ross’s Filmish, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Kate Evans’ Red Rosa are all good enough to get listed here rather than under graphic novels. The Silk Roads is a fascinating (even if, towards the end, slightly over-cooked) presentation of a part of the world, and eras of history, that are too obscure for most of us. The implosion of the Labour party and the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader sent me scurrying back to Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

Very hard to select two favourites from this, so in the interests of balance I’ve gone for two works of English history from sharply contrasting political viewpoints: Robert Tombs’ affably magisterial history of the English people, and Selina Todd’s account of the twentieth century working class, combining vivid eyewitness testimony with a sharp political analysis, held together by an effective use of the life of pools winner Viv “spend, spend, spend!” Nicholson as a framing device.

Theology

My main aim this year was to read more Lutheran theology. For the first half of the year, I made a reasonably good effort at this, with a particular focus on Luther’s theology of the “captive will” (see the books by Joshua Miller, Oswald Bayer and Gerhard Forde, as well as Luther’s own Bondage of the Will).

Around September, though, there was a change of direction, as I realised that, with only one or two exceptions, it had been years – well over a decade, in fact – since I’d read books that engage directly with the Bible, whether as introductions or commentaries. Originally I intended this to be my 2017 reading focus, but I soon realised I wanted to start right away. I also switched Bible reading plan to one that aims at reading the whole Bible systematically over the course of a year.

The nature of the project is summarised by the title of Marcus Borg’s flawed but stimulating book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: specifically, reading with an openness to mainstream scholarly understandings of the biblical books’ content, origins and authorship. Above all else, this was prompted by reading an essay by Peter Enns in which Enns describes a colleague who was shocked to discover how far scholarship was from what he’d been taught at his evangelical college. He asked his former professor why this was, only to be told:

Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.

Upon reading that, I realised I no longer wanted to be protected from “this information” – while at the same time wanting to hold on to the Bible as Christian scripture. Hence a mixture of books that are strongly historically-critical in their approach (such as Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament) and writers such as Walter Brueggemann and Ellen Davis who, without rejecting the insights of biblical criticism, focus on how the Bible as we have received it, in all its plurality, reveals God to us.

This is another category from which it’s difficult to pick favourites, so I’ve selected one from each of the year’s main foci: Joshua Miller’s Hanging by a Promise, a profound and thought-provoking account of God’s hiddenness, and Ellen Davis’ Getting Involved with God, not least for her brilliant chapters on Old Testament wisdom literature.

Other

As will be seen from the charts at the start, this category is mostly the story of me and my library card attacking Southwark’s large collection of comic books and graphic novels. It’s also the story of having finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer earlier in the year and making a start on the “season 8” series of comic books (though deciding that I’d had enough of a good thing after four volumes). The one non-comic book is Mallory Ortberg’s splendid literary parody, Texts from Jane Eyre.

Favourites from this category, again chosen fairly arbitrarily: Dan Dare, for the retro nostalgia but also the superb artwork (which has dated less badly than the politics and gender relations), and Evan Dahm’s Kickstarter-funded Vattu series, also mostly on visual grounds.

Plans for 2017

No hard-and-fast plans, but some overall aims:

  • continue reading “books about the Bible”
  • read more theology by women (recommendations are warmly invited)
  • dip my toe into the vast and deep waters that are Karl Barth
  • make more headway on my to-read shelves than I managed this year…
  • more poetry, War & Peace, “and a pony”…

Neither denial nor despair

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Statue of the prophet Habakkuk (or “Zuccone”), by Donatello

Walter Brueggemann has some timely thoughts in his book A Pathway of Interpretation (pp.85f.), where he turns his attention in one chapter to the poem that concludes the book of Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk is believed to have been writing in the late 7th century BCE, as Babylon’s regional power increased and began to threaten the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Brueggemann writes:

There were in Jerusalem, perhaps, two prevailing moods. On the one hand there was, concerning the coming disaster, a sense articulated by Hananiah in Jeremiah 28, a refusal to be realistic about the coming calamity. On the other hand, there may well have been, as the calamity became clear and unavoidable, a sense of hopelessness that always lost.

This looming prospect of political and social catastrophe leads to two possible attitudes, both of which will be familiar to us today:

The twin temptations of denial and despair may have been very powerful in Jerusalem, denial rooted in Jerusalem theology, despair grounded in the awareness of Babylonian power.

“Against both temptations the poet speaks,” continues Brueggemann. In the first half of the stanza quoted above, Habakkuk is blunt in his rejection of denial: the disaster is going to happen, no use pretending otherwise or taking refuge in false comfort. But that is not the end of the story: Habakkuk drags us up out of despair with his insistent “yet,” his affirmation that Israel has not, despite appearances, lost their “ultimate resource and guarantor,” YHWH.

Brueggemann concludes:

The whole is an insistence when YHWH is confessed to be the primal actor in the life of the world, neither denial nor despair is appropriate. Either temptation makes perfectly compelling sense when “the world is without God.” The poem insists, to the contrary, that the world is not “without God.” YHWH is present as strength and saviour.

It is this “alternative rendering of reality” that is the role of this poet and prophet, and a continuing task for the church.

Word, bath, meal: the raw materials of Christian spirituality

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Abendsmahlbild, St Nikolai’s Church, Luckau

Christians meet for worship on Sunday. Christians pray, together or singly, on all days of the week at morning and evening, perhaps also at noon or night. They pray in praise and intercession. In their Sunday meetings Christians gather around the scriptures. They also hold a meal. They teach faith to those who would join community, then they bathe them. These are the root elements of an ordo, of a pattern of scheduled rituals.

Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things, p.35 (src)

I came across this quotation the other day, and it’s been bouncing around my head ever since – partly because it resonates with me, partly because it leaves me feeling that more needs to be said (and to be fair, Lathrop does describe this as just the “root elements” of a Christian ordo: more needs to be added).

Lathrop’s structure of “word, bath, meal” is helpful, though there is a risk of reductionism in saying, simply, baldly: “they hold a meal”; “they bathe them.” After all, Luther tells us in the Small Catechism that baptism “is not simply water [a ‘bath’], but it is the water included in God’s command and connected with God’s Word” (emphasis added). Similarly, in the Sacrament of the Altar, “it is not the eating and drinking [that is, the ‘meal’ in and of itself] that do these things, but these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’” It is the word that makes the bath and the meal what they are; it is the bath and the meal that thus become indispensable means of bringing that word to us.

But as a reminder of the deep structure of Christian spirituality, corporate and individual, there is a lot to reflect on in Lathrop’s words. There are three patterns at work here:

  • a pattern of corporate worship, in which Christians meet together each Sunday to “gather round the scriptures” and share in the Lord’s Supper;
  • a pattern of personal devotion, in which we pray, either alone or with others, in the morning and the evening, with an emphasis on praise and intercession;
  • a pattern of spiritual formation, in which Christians are taught the faith and baptised.

These three elements are not wholly separate and distinct, but are intertwined together in the day-by-day, week-by-week life of the church.

This reminds both of the threefold Rule described by Martin Thornton, and also of Thornton’s emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer as the basis of a spiritual “rule” rather than simply a set of liturgies. More practically, immediately and personally, it has also highlighted that in recent months I’ve probably let the element of “praise and intercession” slip away in my own patterns of personal devotion: a useful corrective.

Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Heaviness, weeping and joy

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Title page from Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535)

Today’s appointed psalm in the lectionary was Psalm 30. This is one of my favourite psalms, especially the celebrated lines:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Lines that will be familiar to P.G. Wodehouse fans, for starters.

We were at the Savoy Chapel this morning (our middle son sings in the choir), where they sang the Prayer Book version, in which these lines are rendered by Miles Coverdale as follows:

Sing praises unto the Lord, O ye saints of his :
and give thanks unto him for a remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life :
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

That word “heaviness” also appears later in the psalm, where the words translated in the NRSV (following the Authorised Version) as “you have turned my mourning into dancing” become:

Thou hast turned my heaviness into joy :
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.

What I love about this word “heaviness”, as an alternative to “mourning” or “weeping”, is how specific it is in rendering a feeling we surely all know from time to time: that heaviness in the limbs that gives physical form to our sad, weary, despairing emotional state.

Above all, this precision of language creates a strong sense of connection with the translator: a translator who uses the word “heaviness” here is someone who is intimately familiar with this state of mind and body. And this should come as no surprise, given Miles Coverdale’s years in exile, and his proximity to early Reformation martyrs such as Robert Barnes and William Tyndale: enough to give anyone an abundance of “heaviness”; though Coverdale also clearly knew what it was to be “girded with gladness” by the grace and promise of God.

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (2)

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Image: Unsplash (CC0)

In my previous post, we looked at how Luther applies the principles of promise, necessity and faith to the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — where we exercise our faith in God’s promise to meet our dire need for the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, and protection from temptation and doubt. Now let’s turn to the second half of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread

What does this mean?
God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers; but we pray in this petition that he would lead us to know this, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?
Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, property, fields, animals, money, goods, a believing spouse, believing children, believing servants, believing and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and so on.

Once again, we see how our prayer is not needed to persuade a reluctant God, but is founded on an unconditional promise: “God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers.”

As for the “dire need” that is addressed here: well, it amounts to pretty much every need we have in our everyday lives; “everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body,” ranging from the basics of food, drink and shelter, to the need for “good government,” “peace,” and so on.

Many expositions of the Lord’s Prayer would put matters such as social justice (“good government”) and peace under the first half of the prayer: the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of his will. However, there is something refreshing about Luther’s perspective here, particularly in a time where world events can otherwise lead us to despair. For those of us who feel that a President Trump or a vote for Brexit would be the opposite of “good government,” perhaps even (in our more despairing moments) the opposite of “peace,” it is healthy to be reminded that all these are matters of “daily bread,” not “the kingdom.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, or deny our prayers on account of them; for we are not worthy of any of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Instead we pray that he would grant all our petitions by grace; for we sin greatly every day, and all we deserve is punishment. In the same way, for our part, we will sincerely forgive those who sin against us, and readily do good to them.

Luther’s exposition of this petition is the first not to include an explicit statement of promise — but then, the promise on which the forgiveness of our sins is based has already been set out in the first half of Luther’s exposition.

Indeed, what we find in this petition is a personal appropriation of the promises of the first three petitions: that the promise of forgiveness held out in the proclamation of the Word, which we receive by the faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be ours; and that we would lead a “godly” life as a result, at the heart of which is our imitation of God in extending to others the same forgiveness and goodness that he has shown to us.

And lead us not into temptation

What does this mean?
God tempts no one. However, we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and that, though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.

Again, the promise: “God tempts no one.” But again, the dire need: “that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us.” And again, the faith we exercise as we pray, confident in God’s promise that “though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.”

But deliver us from evil

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honour; and that in the end, when our last hour comes, he would grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself into heaven.

Again, the promise is implicit here, this final petition being based on everything that has gone before, and with our every dire need encompassed in that single word “evil”. The need for salvation, for daily bread (in all its multiple aspects), for forgiveness, for preservation from temptation, and — finally — from the fear of death itself. In this final petition, our faith develops into hope as we look forward to “our last hour,” the promise of “a blessed end,” and the hope of being taken from “this vale of tears” to be with God forever. (Note that the Creed has already reminded us that our ultimate hope is not “going to heaven” but the resurrection of the dead.)

Amen 

What does this mean?
That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that He will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

The promise that has undergirded every word of our prayer has been the promise that “these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them”; a promise that addresses the direst need of all when we pray, our need to be heard, for us not to be talking into the air. So we make our final affirmation of faith in that promise by saying “Amen”: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

 

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (1)

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Photo: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA)

In my previous post, we saw how Luther describes the five ingredients for “valid” prayer:

  • the promise of God;
  • our dire need;
  • faith;
  • earnestness;
  • praying in and through Christ.

It’s worth looking at how the first three of these, in particular, undergird Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism (the final two are more pervasive in nature). Let’s look at each petition, and see how Luther’s exposition can be related to God’s promise, our need, and our faith in the promise.

Hallowed by thy name 

What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy?
When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives in accordance with it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches and lives other than as taught in God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Preserve us from this, Heavenly Father!

This establishes the pattern found throughout Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. First, a clear declaration of God’s promise: “God’s name is certainly holy in itself.” As we saw in my previous post, it’s the assurance that our prayer is, in a sense, unnecessary — because God’s love and goodness towards is so unshakeable in any event — that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place: “that it may become holy among us also.”

So there is the dire need we face: the need for God’s name to “become holy among us also,” a need that is met “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity.” Our greatest need, Jesus tells us in teaching us this prayer, is the Word of God; and not just the Word of God in the abstract, but the Word of God “taught”, the Word proclaimed in the life and ministry of the church. And to pray this petition is itself an act of faith in God’s promise that this Word will be taught and proclaimed among us.

Thy kingdom come 

What does this mean?
The kingdom of God comes by itself even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come?
When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

It’s one thing for us to hear the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, taught and proclaimed, but to receive the benefits of that gospel we need faith — and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit, working faith in us, that the kingdom of God comes to us, Luther tells us; echoing here, perhaps, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13.

In telling us to pray this petition, Christ assures us of the promise that “the kingdom of God comes by itself”. He also shows us our “dire need” for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us. After all, as Luther has told us in his exposition of the Creed, to confess my faith in the Holy Spirit is to admit that I am incapable of such faith under my own steam:

I believe that I cannot … believe.

So we pray, confident in the promise that as we hear Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit is working in us the faith that enables us to pray at all.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

What does this mean?
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?
When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and intention which do not want to let us hallow the name of God or to let his kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; and when he strengthens and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until our end. This is his gracious and good will.

Again, Luther starts with the unconditional promise that is implied by Christ’s instruction to us to pray this petition: “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.” But our dire need is “that it may be done among us also.”

Above all, our need is for protection from the opposition that the proclamation of the Word of God (first petition) and the Holy Spirit’s working faith in us (second petition) arouse: every “evil plan and intention” of “the devil, the world, and our flesh”; the temptation and doubts of Anfechtung, which undermine our ability to keep us “steadfast in his Word.” Once again, Christ’s instruction to pray this petition gives us the confidence to do so in faith, assured of the promise that “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.”

So we reach the halfway point in Luther’s exposition. In my next post, we’ll look at his explanations for the final four petitions, but in the meantime, let’s review where we’ve got to so far.

To be honest, in the past I have found Luther’s exposition of these petitions somewhat narrow and repetitive in scope. Other, more modern, expositions of the Lord’s Prayer cover a seemingly wider vision for these petitions, including a lot of material — social and political transformation, the needs of those around us, and so on — which (as we’ll see) Luther compresses into the single petition “give us this day our daily bread.”

But I don’t think Luther’s intention here is to give an exhaustive explanation of what these petitions mean, but to focus our attention on what is of first importance in them, and in our lives as Christians. The dire needs we have that we can otherwise so easily overlook; the promises of God we can so easily take for granted: for the Word of God to be proclaimed, for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us, and for us to be protected from the assaults of “the devil, the world, and our flesh.” A prayer we need to repeat, for our own sake, morning, noon and night.