Friday, December 26, 2008

Books of the Year

Peggy Noonan's column in today's Wall Street Journal listed her "books of the year". She commented that she thought reading would be making a comeback in the new year. She figured that the economy might have something to do with it. I don't know about that but I hope she is right. There are a lot of good books out there and many people are getting pretty tired of television and other video selections. Karl Rove had a column about reading, too, in the Wall Street Journal this week. In it, he told about President Bush's reading for the year. The common thinking is that President Bush is a light weight intellect. But, Rove who enjoys a reading friendship with the President, shows how wrong that common view is. Bush read widely in history and fiction over the past year. He rarely watches tv preferring to read. And he read almost 100 books this past year. I didn't quite match his presidential efforts but I managed to read almost three a month and I dipped into many others which I never finished (promising myself I would come back to them). I reread some others, as well.

Like I said, there are a lot of really good books out there and I wish I had read more. I have been on an Adam Hochschild kick every since I read King Leopold's Ghost in 2006. In 2007 I read his Bury The Chains about the social movement in England that brought an end to the worldwide slave trade. This movement was led by evangelical Christians and Hochschild, who does not share their Christian commitment, tells a bracing story. So, continuing to follow Hochschild's lead, this year I read Half the Way Home which is a memoir about the relationship with his father (who was instrumental in saving much land in the Adirondack State Park in New York for public use and for the founding of the Adirondack Museum - which I visited several times when we lived in NY). I, also, read an earlier work of his: Mirror at Midnight, which offers his perspective on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It is full of insights into South African history.

I read some other authors whose previous works I enjoyed, as well. I read another Geraldine Brooks novel called People of the Book. In this book, she tells the story of a precious Jewish scroll as it made its journey through Europe in the middle ages. Fascinating history and excellent writing. I read Leif Enger's new book since I loved Peace Like a River. The new book is good but it would be hard to beat the power of his first one, one of my all time favorites. I picked up Marianne Robinson's new book called Home. In an earlier book called Gilead she wrote lovingly of a small town community and a friendship between two older pastors. In this new book she wrote in more detail about one of those pastors and his family. Now his wife is dead and all his children are grown and have moved on with lives and families of their own. Except for a daughter who had a failed relationship and returned home to look after her aging dad, and a son who was the prodigal of the family. In piercing detail she shows how hard it is for a prodigal to come home and find forgiveness, especially when offered poorly and accepted poorly.

A new novel and a leading candidate for my favorite fiction book of the year is by Misha Berlinski called Fieldwork. It is about an American anthropologist who does her fieldwork in some of the rural villages in Thailand. In the course of her work, she is found dead and it is supposed that she committed suicide. Later on a journalist in the country with his wife, who has a teaching job there, stumbles on this story. He follows the threads wherever they lead and it makes for a riveting account of the people who come to Thailand to live with the people and study their lives and the missionaries who come to live with the people so they can share Christ with them.

History is an interest of mine so I read John Adams by David McCullough who is the sort of historian who can also write really well. Too bad we do not read more writers like him and fewer history textbooks in our high school history classes. The DVD made from this book is excellent, as well. I read the new biography of John Newton by Jonathan Aitken which makes Newton's life and times come alive and presents a human portrait of this great and compassionate English church leader.

The year after Teddy Roosevelt lost a third party bid for the presidency in 1912, he took off on an adventure to explore an unexplored part of the Amazon River. He almost lost his life many times over. Candace Millard, a writer for National Geographic, tells the suspenseful story and lets us see the kind of man Roosevelt was. She also gives us a National Geographic look at the wildlife and human life living along the Amazon.

Alan Jacobs wrote an exploration of the life of C. S. Lewis a couple of years ago entitled The Narnian. His newest book is a study of the history of Original Sin called by that name. Jacobs is always well worth reading.

A lot of my reading is in theology and Biblical studies. This year a study of Esther produced a discovery of two fine commentaries on this overlooked book of the Bible that has many contemporary applications. Debra Reid in the Tyndale Commentary Series and Karen Jobes in the NIV Application Series are good recent studies that complement the fine, older commentary by Joyce Baldwin. A different sort of commentary is the work of Kenneth Bailey. Bailey has spent 40 years living and teaching New Testament in the Middle East and some of that knowledge can be found in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. His insights from Middle Eastern culture challenged and deepened my understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus. I have blogged about Bailey's take on the Nativity story.

I read anything Eugene Peterson writes. Currently, he is working on a spiritual theology series. The fourth volume in the series came out this year and it is titled Tell it Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers. Peterson is as good a guide as we have today for the Jesus way.

I have already blogged about The Lost History of Christianity and Culture-Making, two of my favorite non-fiction books of the year. Kathleen Norris, the author of several best-selling and helpful books on the spiritual life, came out with a new one called Acedia and Me: a marriage, monks, and a writers life. Not only an interesting title but a fascinating read about her life, her marriage and her struggle with acedia. Acedia is not a word widely used today even in the church. It was used in much older spiritual classics to describe one of the seven (eight) deadly sins. It has sometimes been confused with sloth and today is often masked as depression. While it shares some common ground with depression, it is a spiritual malady all its own as described by Norris who understands it intimately. She reveals much about her own struggle with acedia and in the process helped me understand my struggle with it, as well.

I don't know how N. T. Wright writes so many books and so many of them are so good. He is the pre-eminent New Testament scholar of our day. While engaging the latest issues in New Testament scholarship, most of his books are accessible to non theologically trained church members. In fact, a reading program which concentrated on his books would provide a pretty sound Biblical and theological education. One of his latest (he seems to put out one a year) books is Surprised by Hope, a study of "the last things" or eschatology and their meaning for the mission of the church. In this book, he interacts with heaven, hell, purgatory, the second coming of Christ, and how our understanding or misunderstanding of these Biblical themes affects our sense of the church's mission. We will be studying this in Sunday School beginning in January 2009. I will be blogging about each class.

Two other books I thoroughly enjoyed this year were: The Long Walk by Slovomir Rawicz and another book about a long walk called The Places in Between: A walk across Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Lost History of Christianity

Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Turkey - all areas of the world we have become so familiar with in the past decade. We think of most of them as Muslim and for the most part they are. But do we know that for the first thirteen hundred years after Christ, they were the hotbed of Christian expansion. Lands of vibrant Christian growth. Churches in almost every village across the Middle East. Great libraries and magnificent church art and architecture. Thousands of monasteries which produced the leading Christian scholarship in the world. These centers of learning preserved some of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Some of the words to our modern liturgies are dated from this era. But, unfortunately, most of the evidence of such a dynamic Christianity is all but gone. The churches, the artwork, the libraries with most of their books and manuscripts, the monasteries as well as the Christians are no longer there. It is hard to find any trace that Christianity was ever a presence there and surely not an influential one.

What happened? That is the story Philip Jenkins tells in his highly readable new book called, The Lost History of Christianity. He looks for clues to discover the reasons behind the virtual elimination (extermination) of Christianity from it's birthplace. How could a Faith so entrenched for so long over so great an area simply vanish? He tells of wave after wave of persecution, from Mongols to Muslims, until the great mass and power of Islam crushed all Christian belief. He tells of climate change (yes, it was a factor then, too), and plagues that decimated populations. And the Christian infighting among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Nestorians in the East prevented Christianity from having a unified front. The periodic corruptions within the church itself led many but the truly committed to fall away from the Faith.

It's a fascinating story with a modern twist. The Middle East is very much in the daily news today and a lot of it directly impacts us. I bet a lot of us are far more "expert" in our understanding of the Middle East than we were ten years ago! But, Jenkins allows us to draw some connections from what happened in those early years of the Christian Church in the East to

Where the early Christian church failed to put down deep roots especially among the poorer people who lived outside the great cities, it collapsed more quickly to outside pressures. By 700 the once vibrant Christianity of North Africa (St.Augustine's home) was gone while the Coptic Church in Egypt still survives to this day. The spread of Christianity in Egypt was widespread among the ordinary people of the day and it had deep roots.

As Christianity spread eastward it institutionalized. It built great church buildings and monasteries with large collections of books and manuscripts. It amassed a lot of properties. It organized itself into a hierarchy of clergy leadership. All of which made it a sitting duck for those who wanted to attack it and bring it down. Where it survived the longest is where it was more decentralized and the power was spread out among the laypeople. Church life there depended less on the institution and more on the fellowship of the Word.

Geography played a role too in the vanishing churches of the East. Invasions and wars were commonplace at that time. Some communities were prone to decline simply because they were located in the wrong place at the wrong time. The great Muslim warlord Timor wreaked massive destruction all over Asia where he exterminated whole cities in his path but he never made it to Egypt because it was out of the way.

Churches became too attached to a ruling political regime and when the regime changed so did the fortunes of the Church in that place.

But perhaps the best lesson to be learned from the collapse of Eastern Christianity is that nothing is forever. That can be taken two ways. Our successes in ministry and mission may be short lived. Congregational life is cyclical. Over a long time span. Lots of conditions conspire together to cause decline or growth in a congregation. And where Christianity has burned out or been burned out, a spark remains in the embers. Christianity in China has had four starts; the first three failed. The fourth looked like a failure too when the Communists took over in 1949. Since that date, Christianity has flourished, growing from 5 million believers to as many as 90 million today! In the tenth century, a Christian observer, noted that on a recent visit to China he could not find one Christian believer.

We can assume too much control for "our" churches and take too much credit for their successes and growth. We think all we need to do is get the right pastor, or worship leader or new technology and we can grow this thing called a church. Or, we take too much blame for the decline of a church. If only, we had done this or that.... God is still in control of this thing. His ways are mysterious and all our expertise is not all that valuable but what is - is a long obedience in the right direction - to use a title from one of Eugene Peterson's books.