Summer is for Reading (7)

Technically, all four seasons are good for reading, but I find that summer is great for catching up on literature I want to read.  This past year I reorganized two courses, and that means last summer and the academic year was spent reading things I “had to” read.  That, of course, means the next three months are gonna be wonderful.  I have pulled together a list that is probably longer than I can actually work through, but I am most definitely going to do my best to read the following books.

One of my absolute favorite British novelist is Joanna Trollope, who is a great, great niece (or something like that) of Anthony Trollope.  I don’t actually expect anyone to know who he is.  She writes about dysfunctional English families.  Great stuff.  I have missed her last two offerings: The Soldier’s Wife and Daughters-in-Law.  Technically, that is the beginning and end of the “reading for pleasure” list because I will probably NEVER reference either of those books in a class.

The following texts have a 50/50 shot at being mentioned in a course.  There are three books about Jesus/the Gospels that I MUST get through or I will have considered the summer a waste.  The first is Scott McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.  McKnight, like me, is a fan of N.T. Wright.  Wright produces books faster than I can read them, and so his How God Became King and Simply Jesus will be read.

For spiritual formation I hope to get through a number of Quaker and “Quaker-related” books.  Douglas Gwyn’s Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John will be read devotionally.  The Faith and Practice of the Quakers and Essential Writings by Rufus Jones are on the program.  Jones was probably the most influential Quaker in the first half of the twentieth century, and a well-known advocate for a mystical understanding of spirituality.  For a very long time, I have found mystics intriguing; therefore, when Richard Roberson offered to loan me a book about Mother Gavrilia (Mother Gavrilia: the Ascetic of Love), I said, “Sure, you betcha.”  Or something like that.  Gavrilia was a Greek Orthodox believer who after a mystical experience sold all she had and moved to India to work with the poor.

I am not going to apologize for this: I think pietism has some really good handles for grasping Christianity.  I know some folks think the tradition is too experiential, emotional, and lacking cerebral engagement with the faith.  I think both experience and intellect are important, and I believe historical Pietism is generally misunderstood.  So, I hope to get through Michelle A. Clifton-Suderstrom’s Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: the Christian Ethic of Pietism.  If it is accessible, I will be recommending it.  Perhaps if people took Pietism more seriously, Ross Donthat wouldn’t have reason to write Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  Donthat, who is the youngest person to be a columnist for the New York Times, argues that what is passed off as Christianity is far from “orthodox.”

Yesterday, I began the program by purchasing and starting Partricia McCormack’s Never Fall Down.  Described as a “novel”, the storyline actually follows the horrific experiences faced by Arn Chorn-Pond during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia.  The narrator is an eleven year old boy who tells his story in simple sentences and broken English.  I am 68 pages into the book, and it is, for lack of a more creative expression, a page turner.

Well, that is what I am planning on reading.  I would be curious to know what books are on your summer reading list.

The Gospel according to Bill Murray (6)

The academic is year has just about drawn to a close.  Yesterday was spent in a two hour meeting for writing instructors and then a lunch meeting discussing course and faculty evaluation.  The afternoon was given over to purchasing and planting zucchini and building string and stake arbors for the peas to climb.  The afternoon’s activities were the high point of the day.  I know: some people are totally confused that I would think planting and caring for my garden could be more engaging than three hours of meetings.  I guess I am just whacked.  However, someone once said a person is never closer to God than when one is in a garden.  Or watching VH1 Classic.

That’s right: watching VH1 Classic, which is what I did while waiting for the evening news.  In particular, I stumbled across “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray.  As you may know, the storyline follows Phil Connors (Murray), a self-centered egotistical hedonist, who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities.  Once there he finds himself trapped reliving February 2 over and over and over again.  Initially, Phil attempts to use his dilemma to his own self-indulgent advantage, in particular to seduce Rita, his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.  Ultimately, the reliving of this meaningless and selfish existence takes its toll on Connors and he tries to kill himself…repeatedly, creatively and unsuccessfully.  He wakes up to relive the same pointlessness every day.  That is until he gets over himself and starts living in such a way as to make Punxsutawney a better place.  He tries to save an elderly homeless man, convinces a young couple they really do want to be married, catches a young boy who falls out of a tree, performs the heimlich maneuver on a choking man in the restaurant, and works at bringing beauty into the world…learning to create ice statues with a chain saw, playing classical and jazz piano, and crafting a beautiful Groundhog Day weather report that includes an Anton Chekov quote.

Call me crazy, but this sounds a lot like Jesus’ program for our salvation and the salvation of the world.  While some folks want me to believe Jesus was thinking about me as he hung on the cross, I am thinking there was a much bigger storyline and program working itself out.  (By the way, did you ever notice how narcissistic the former version of Jesus’ death sounds when you think about it?)  Jesus came announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God, which will come in its fullness when God alone rules over a recreated heaven and earth in which there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away” (see Revelation 21:1ff­).  To be a part of Jesus and God’s recreation program, we have to “get over ourselves.” Jesus did say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-5).  And once we get over ourselves we are in a place to accept the invitation to build the Kingdom.  Paul figured this out when he reminded the Corinthians they (and we) are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2).  Like Phil Connors, we overcome meaningless and repetitive lives when we look beyond ourselves and our small stories to the grand story of God’s plan to redeem all of creation.  Investing in that Story moves our lives and the world forward to transformation and redemption.