It has been a good while since we have given our readers a new edition of Between the Pages. For those of you who are new readers, Between the Pages is a semi-regular series where we feature books our Grindhouse Theology team is currently reading in their free time. In this edition, we have bulked it up, so we are featuring selections from our writers Trevor Almy, Caleb Stallings, Jared Wheeler, and one of our newest members, Ian Olson.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
Suffused with a lyricism and cadence that embodies the mystery of the Christian experience, Wiman’s work approaches the subject of faith from the standpoint of paradox. Diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer, the author and poet reflects on how faith is both ordinary and divine, defined as much by its awareness of the presence of God as by a sense of the absence of God. Written in a prose that reclaims the language and expressions we have about the church, the text is able to reorient even the most inveterate of believers towards a sober reflection on the process of belief, particularly when confronted with profound suffering. As a writer myself and one given to the paradoxes of Christianity (it was this recognition that propelled me to start The Sanctified Strange) as well as one with an intimate experience with suffering, I found myself gravitating towards Wiman’s renewing words. I highly recommend the memoir for any who are looking for truth that does not just speak but sings.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Murakami remains for me one of my favorite living fiction authors, both for his ability to overwhelm the reader with his delightful weirdness and for his ability to enchant the ordinary. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, he is accomplishing his trademark feat of immersing you in a dreamlike world with the rhythms of his prose. At once lyrical and hypnotic, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is an excavation of consciousness itself as the narrative alternates between parallel planes of existence. From a narrator who keeps thinking he hears a hallway compared to Marcel Proust to beasts that suddenly grow golden fur, the novel’s idiosyncratic imagery will linger with you and rummage through your mind long after you stop reading. Moving at breakneck speed, the story will plunge you into the life of Bob Dylan, librarians, and a demented scientist, all the while provoking you to reconsider the methods and uses of the mind. Surreal and Kafkaesque, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is an antidote to looking unblinking at the mundane.
Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge
It’s impossible for me to feel like I could really do any justice to this. Reverend Fleming Rutledge, with one foot in Evangelicalism’s Christocentric proclamation and the other in Episcopalianism’s liturgical meditations, has been one of the most influential Christian ministers in my life for the past few years. She’s a triple threat: a prophet, preacher, and poet. By weaving together the historical and social moment with deeply thoughtful gleanings from Scripture while presenting it with such fervor and skill you become sure that, whether you are reading or listening to her, God Almighty is speaking directly to you through her compassionate and convicting voice. This volume is a collection of sermons (with a few brief writings) on the liturgical season of Advent that precedes Christmas. Reverend Rutledge unmasks some of the more shallow traditions that have accumulated during this festive season and presented a historical, liturgical, theological, and thoroughly biblical alternative to thinking about the dark days that march slowly (and in some cases – drudgingly) towards the irrepressible light of Christmas. But first, Reverend Rutledge offers words of judgment, contemplations of death, sobering utterances about heaven and hell; but for no other reason than to honestly prepare and steel the Christian heart for the invasion of God into our curse and despair through the holy infant Jesus – God made flesh. This book is a masterpiece of Advent theology. Lord, have mercy!
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I think it was last year when I was watching Scrooged for the…I don’t know…seventeen-thousandth time when I thought to myself, “You know, it’s pretty wild that the most famous Christmas story outside the nativity of Jesus is a Victorian ghost story about three indignant spirits haunting a decrepit hyper-capitalist until he is reborn and repentant – giving away his wealth to the poor and sick of London’s industrial fog. Again: absolutely wild. Charles Dickens was, according to some, either a bad Anglican or a crypto-Unitarian, but either way you look at it, he was clearly a man haunted by the enchanted world of the New Testament – miraculous conversions, terrifying angels, pronouncements of judgments, sacrificial giving, etc. I decided to read Dickens’s brilliant little novella for the first time in a decade with my old college edition. Fredrick Busch’s introduction is a fantastic biographical account of Dickens’s childhood traumas and how they led him to the religious and political convictions that undergird this story. Most interestingly of all is, according to Busch, Dickens casts himself as both Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim – both as sinner and saint; rich and poor; dead man and living child. Why? Because Christmas is a time received as grace but earned only through some recompense. For Dickens, this happens in the phantasmal, out-of-time journeys of the black-hearted and stone-faced Ebenezer Scrooge. So perhaps this enduring work has some lasting wisdom for us twenty-first-century readers. What is Christmas all about? Ghosts and children know. Heaven and hell hang in the balance.
Redshirts by John Scalzi
I’ve had several people recommend this novel to me, and I read and enjoyed Scalzi’s Old Man’s War a few years ago, so I picked it up on a whim when I passed it in the library last week. Redshirts is the story of the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union fleet in the 25th century, and its hapless contingent of doomed ensigns. As the Intrepid makes its way through the galaxy, the non-bridge crew slowly realize that the ship has a ridiculously high rate of casualties on its away missions. Captain Abernathy, Chief Science Officer Q’eeng, and the other officers always return from these adventures unscathed, but at least one member of the team is inevitably killed in a manner that is as horrible as it is dramatic and unexpected. What’s going on? Are the officers of the Intrepid just extraordinarily lucky? Is everyone else just outrageously unlucky? Is it something more sinister? This is a hilarious (but loving) send-up of Star Trek tropes, and so far it is a fun, easy read, cleverly-executed and with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. If Galaxy Quest is your favorite Star Trek movie, I highly recommend it.
Life, Animated by Ron Suskind
When Suskind’s younger son Owen was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with autism, a condition that was just beginning to enter the awareness of the wider culture at the time. This book is a chronicle of two decades of a family’s quest for connection with a special needs child. What makes Owen’s story particularly special is how, through thousands of hours of obsessive watching and rewatching of the Disney animated classics on VHS, he developed the ability to communicate and relate to the world through the language of these familiar films and their characters. I am a firm believer in the incredible power of narrative, so this is catnip to me. And anyone whose life has been powerfully shaped by cinematic experiences (so, probably no one who is here reading a film blog, I guess) will find common ground with Owen’s story. I finished the book this weekend, and I’m currently about halfway through the 2016 documentary about Owen (available on Amazon Prime). I can say that, even if you’ve seen that film already, there is still plenty more to the story that is worth experiencing through the book.
The Year of Our Lord, 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs
This extraordinary book explores the efforts of five intellectuals to encourage and reshape pedagogy in the modern west in light of the double catastrophe of World War I and II. These persons asked the unpopular question, “If the Allies achieve victory against the Axis powers through sheer military and technological superiority, what guarantee is there we shall have emerged the moral victors as well?” Jacobs offers a cinematic account of one momentous year in the lives of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil but situates their reflections and proposals in the midst of the swirling high confusion of the years surrounding the second world war. With narrative skill, Jacobs surveys the half-decade or so leading up to the eponymous year, a time in which Christian heirs of Enlightenment began to concentrate on the consequences of bracketing off the question, “What is it that makes a human, ‘human’?” In the lacuna left by the dismissal of such a contested question the engineering solutions of technocracy and the valorization of volk and of the will, as seen in nationalism and fascism, offer portraits of how to live and how to negotiate the world but plunges its subjects into barbarity and exploitation. But in lieu of a substantive and spiritually-derived account of human being, how can these alternatives be resisted? The five individuals studied in this book set themselves to answer this question and present another picture of being human that could withstand the “certainties” of modern denials of Christian humanism.
A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis edited by Clyde Kilby
This book collects passages from across Lewis’s corpus, from his apologetics to his fiction to his literary criticism, and gathers them under several different headings, organized as topoi to consult and from which to draw refreshment. It gives no air of being a systematic representation of his thought: this is only a map of where this mind has ranged and it brings back with it the scents and flavors of the country from it has returned. There is a spiritual vibrancy that sparkles on each page that can soften the hard heart and comfort the lonesome and confused. Lewis grips our hands and assures us that the inconsolable longing that is so painful to bring to speech is indicative of the destiny that the God who is better than any of our imaginings has secured for our race and that we needn’t be embarrassed of our desires for more, to leave off our dissatisfaction and be ripped from our dragon-skin and brought to our own far-off country. This book has brought me such succor in this season and it can do the same for you.