Monday, July 22, 2019

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

I finished this book* today. I’ve been telling people I’m reading a book about books, which it is, but more. Karen Swallow Prior is a Christian writer, a literature professor at Liberty University. You might think the purpose of this book is to tell you why you should read this particular list of great books. But, the subtitle is “Finding the Good Life Through Great Books,” a clue that this is much more than just a book about books. I have not read most of the books, and likely will not read more of them, but I greatly enjoyed what the author had to say. Prior organizes the books around virtues, using a book to demonstrate the virtues and discussing them in a wonderful, thoughtful, thought-provoking way. The subtitle might just as aptly have been “Finding the Good Life Through Virtues.”

Table of Contents
Part One - the Cardinal Virtues
1.       Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
2.       Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3.       Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
4.       Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Part Two – The Theological Virtues
5.       Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
6.       Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
7.       Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Part Three – The Heavenly Virtues
8.       Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
9.       Diligence: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
10.   Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
11.   Kindness: Tenth of December by George Saunders
12.   Humility: “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor

I like the old-fashioned words such as prudence, temperance, and diligence. I had never seen this kind of grouping of cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues. “The Aristotelian philosophy of virtue is tied to a sense of human purpose or telos – in other words, humanity’s ultimate end or purpose.” “Human excellence occurs when we glorify God, which is our true purpose.” (both page 23). The idea of virtues fits right into our whole “search for meaning” that I hear about quite often.


“Virtue requires judgment, and judgment requires prudence. Prudence is wisdom in practice” (p. 34). “Prudence is wisdom at work on the ground, doing good and avoiding evil in real-life situations” (p. 39). Discussing prudence, and Fielding’s “high moral purpose” for his novel Tom Jones evoked many points for discussion. One is God’s involvement in the world, his providence.

…Most striking is his narrative technique. A highly involved narrator opens each major section of the novel and interjects throughout to offer explicit commentary (as well as humorous asides). One scholar explains that this intrusive narrator is much more than a clever narrative device in that the narrator embodies Fielding’s theology concerning the character of a God who intervenes and is active in the affairs of humankind—in other words, God’s providence (p. 37)

Hmm. Active how? Commentator/observer only or causing things?

Another topic is the concept of vices. Prior lists Tom Jones’ vices as rashness and negligence. “Prudence is love that chooses with sagacity between that which hinders it and that which helps it“ (p. 45). What are my vices, I ask myself. Rashness, defensiveness/wanting to be right, pride. “…Applying wisdom requires the ability to discern truth and then to act rightly based on truth” (p. 45). Discerning is one thing; it’s that acting part that’s tricky.


“Temperance is not simply resisting temptation. It is more than merely restraint…One attains the virtue of temperance when one’s appetites have been shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion” (p. 53). Prior uses the example of quitting a bunch of bad-for-you foods in order to lose weight, and after some time finds she actually wants grapes for a snack rather than the usual unhealthy foods she usually craves. Her desire changed – temperance.

“Temperance is the virtue that helps us rise above our animal nature, making the image of God in us shine more brilliantly” (p. 53). This reminds me of what I’ve learned about Sabbath practice – rising above animals’ unbreakable cycle of life to stop, break the cycle, and rest.

You have to talk about Prohibition if you use the word “temperance,” and Prior does.

Prohibition grew out of the more moderate movement called Temperance. The American Temperance Society was founded…to temper (or moderate) excessive consumption of alcohol, but eventually to total abstinence (teetotalism). The push toward complete prohibition developed as a reaction against another excess: the growing drunkenness (often resulting in domestic violence and familial neglect) that accompanied the Industrial Revolution (p. 55).

Prior explains Gatsby as “a poster boy for the American Dream” (p. 56) who lusts for Daisy and a “part of a world Gatsby wants to enter but can never be from.” She writes of rising consumerism, “Consumerism does indeed consume us.”

A recent four-year study, for example, found that the lives of the middle class are “overwhelmed” by stockpiled supplies, clutter and toys. Three out of four garages are too full to hold cars, and while the United States has 3.1% of the world’s children, it has 40% of the the world’s toys (p.58).

Temperance is difficult in a world of consumerism. “I want what I want” doesn’t really align with temperance, does it?

More – Justice, Courage, Faith, Hope, Love, Chastity, Patience, Kindness, Humility

I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about each virtue/chapter, but I guess I won’t. I want to mention some of the writing within the Kindness chapter. It revolves around the book Tenth of December by George Saunders, which was one of my book club’s choices, if I remember right, but I did not read it. 

The character Don goes into the woods (on the 10th of December) to end his life after being becoming sick and weak with a fatal disease to “ease the burdens of those he loves” (p.213). A boy, Robin, finds the coat Don took off and searches for the owner. “When Don spies the boy carrying his coat in search of him, even his weakened mind is troubled at the thought of a child stumbling across the scene of death he is about to create…’That could scar a kid,’ he thinks (pp. 213-14). Then the boy falls through the ice on a pond and Don manages to save his life. They go to Robin’s home and the boy’s mother cares for Don, who realizes a “renewed joy in life.” Then he is reunited with his wife.

Before they reunite, though, “Don pauses one more time to consider whether he really wants to continue living, knowing the days he has left are numbered and will be filled with great pain (p. 217). Quote from The Tenth of December:

Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
                Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
                Because, O.K., the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the s----- not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to [withhold].

Prior says whenever she reads this passage, “it pierces [her] every time” (p. 218). She confesses to being “terribly, terribly afraid of dying.” Afraid of all the things Saunders writes of Don fearing. As Prior says, these fears are natural and normal, but she feels they are heightened for her because her husband’s father killed himself when faced with the fate of dying from a fatal disease. It scarred her husband and all his family.

For those so sick or scared or depressed that they think their loved ones would be better off without them, I so wish for them to know what Don Eber came to know; caring for those bodies we inhabit for a while—whether that care is of our own or someone else’s body—isn’t a distraction from what life is all about. It is what life is all about.
                In lieu of death, be kind to one another.

That pierces me, too. I think of many things. Jean Vanier and L’Arche, living with and befriending lonely, mentally challenged people. My brother finding so much humor in his life during the 6 months it took him to die of ALS. My mom feeling so ashamed when she came home from a walk around the block with exactly what Saunders listed, s------ running down her legs. My sister and sister-in-law faithfully present for Mom as she declined both physically and mentally with Parkinson’s. My dad, from his own deathbed saying, “Move her closer, closer,” when we wheeled Mom in to his room so he could hold her hand and say, “Hi, sweetheart.” Dad holding my own hand, kissing it, and saying, “I love you so much.” My aunt – my mom’s sister – sitting beside Mom shortly before she died, looking at old photos and knowing exactly what my mom meant as she managed to speak one or two words the memories those pictures evoked. My sister reading Psalm 23 to Mom as she breathed her last breaths, with Mom silently echoing the words. Yes, that is what life is all about.

* On Reading Well, Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior. Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI. copyright 2018.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I am re-reading Bird by Bird. How does someone write about how to write and be so funny? I read the passage below to Randy last night and I could barely get the last word out, I was laughing so hard. So true. So funny.
Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: food that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Shameless: A Sexual Revolution by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I was reading several other books when the book Shameless: A Sexual Revolution by Nadia Bolz-Weber came in the mail. I started reading it and finished it the next day. I am not actually sure why it captivated me that way. I do not spend a lot of time thinking about sexual shame, but it did enter my life through an experience a few years ago. Not my own experience of sexual shame, but dealing with it when a close friend was working through it. Maybe that was the fascination for me.

Regardless, I liked Shameless. I’ve been a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber for quite a few years. I was eager to read what she had to say about this subject, in particular pornography since I’d read one of her tweets about that which caused me some concern. I was afraid she would say that pornography is perfectly fine, and that was not my experience. I’ll write more on that soon.

In the beginning of the book, Bolz-Weber tells the story of talking to a parishioner, “a large transwoman,” and telling her she (Bolz-Weber) had recently read her Christian sex-ed book from forty years ago. She said,

“It taught me that God’s plan is for everyone to be a hetero-sexual, cis-gender Christian who never has sex with anyone until they marry their one true love and make babies...I mean, I do think there are genuinely those kinds of people out there…” The parishioner held up her hand and touched her thumb to the rest of her purple nail-polished finger. “Sure there are. And this is how small that circle is.”

Bolz-Weber makes the point that few people on this planet fit in that circle, and says,

So my argument in this book is this: we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.

She talks about Martin Luther and how he looked at the harm the church had inflicted on his people’s spiritual lives and decided to teach people the “story of God coming to humanity in Jesus of Nazareth, and speaking to us the words of life,” which freed them from the harm their church had done.

Luther was less loyal to the teachings of the church than he was to people, and this helped spark what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.

She concedes that the church is not the only place where harmful ideas about sex and the body are taught, but she claims, “as harmful as the messages from society are, what society does not do is to say that these messages are from God.”

Another important point Bolz-Weber makes is 

...we must also bring concern to our consent and mutuality. Concern moves us close to the heart of Jesus’ own ethic:love God and our neighbor as ourselves. It requires us to act on another’s behalf. It reframes the choice entirely outside of our own self-interest in a way that consent and mutuality alone do not.

Here is where she talks about failing to show concern when your behavior hurts others, such as hurting your spouse if you commit adultery, taking advantage of someone who isn’t in position of their full facilities, and so on. Concern for yourself is also a factor.

Bolz-Weber brings in this need for concern in the proposal for a sexual revolution:

It’s time to pay attention to what is happening to the people around us, and to our loved ones, and it’s time for us to be concerned.

I read an article in Christianity Today by Wesley Hall, saying that Bolz-Weber is doing away with the need for confessing sin and forgiveness (absolution) that attracted him to Bolz-Weber in the first place. I did not find this to be true in my reading. Bolz-Weber did not, as far as I saw, specifically address the topic of absolution. She did, however, talk about not hurting others in sexually related behavior and, as I already noted, the need for concern. I think that did not go far enough for Wesley Hall and most likely others. Hall speaks specifically about sexual purity as a scriptural category and “that the biblical rules against, say, premarital and extramarital sex are still binding on believers today.” Bolz-Weber has several things to say about purity.

But no matter how much we strive for purity in our minds, bodies, spirits, or ideologies, purity is not the same as holiness. It’s just easier to define what is pure than what is holy, so we pretend they are interchangeable.


Purity most often leads to pride or despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.

Bolz-Weber brings up alcohol and the temperance movement. This has always been interesting to me -- the conflict between insisting on absolutely no alcohol (teetotalling) and drinking responsibly. And add in the fact that some people must give up alcohol completely or they cannot control themselves. Bolz-Weber herself is a recovering alcoholic and talks about her desire to drink even after decades of sobriety. She describes it as a switch that gets flipped. For some reason if she drinks alcohol, that switch flips and she cannot stop.

Bolz-Weber uses that same switch flip concept when she writes about pornography. And she talks about how some people can eat a piece of chocolate cake once in a while, then return to a balanced diet, while others cannot control their eating. “Same with video games. And exercise. And nail biting.” She writes,

But if you find that when you eat chocolate cake a switch gets flipped and suddenly you have no taste for anything else, to the extent that you desire only cake, cake might not be good for you. Still, I will not sit here and say that no one should ever eat cake and that it destroys people’s lives, just like I would never say that people should not drink because alcohol destroyed my life. Or that no one should ever view erotic imagery because [someone] has developed destructive behaviors around it.

Bolz-Weber says she does not have answers, but she won’t join in the moral outrage about porn, and goes on to note that the consumption of porn is ubiquitous and many who express outrage about it are very likely themselves secretly watching porn. “I believe we can apply an ethic of concern here by acknowledging the potential harm without shaming the behavior entirely.”

She brings up 1 Corinthians 10:23 where Paul says all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial. This is all very interesting to me. I am no Biblical scholar, but I cannot find a verse explicitly saying premarital sex is a sin, or even specifically forbidden. There are, rather, verses about marriage being holy, faithfulness between spouses, and many other verses that might be read to imply premarital sex is not allowed. They speak to all the ways that sexual desires and actions can be harmfuL. I wonder, though. Maybe premarital sex is like so many other things, something to pay attention to, to discern whether it is giving glory to God, life-giving to yourself and others, asking if the behavior is compulsive or bringing yourself or your partner more deeply into the sacred. That is hard for me to think. My inclination is to believe premarital sex is something God would see as sinful. It can be forgiven, of course, and good can come of it, but I have always thought it was sinful, regardless of the context. need to ponder it more.

I find it helpful to think of the purity movement in a similar way to the temperance movement. Why does the church (not all) build up a big teaching in regard to sexual purity for women, and not do the same for drinking (and also not do the same for men -- again, typically)? You don’t hear of wearing a “non-drinking ring” as you do a purity ring. You don’t hear of assemblies where everyone is lectured on the way that not drinking is holy. You don’t hear of “non-drinking father-daughter dances,” and all the other teachings, rituals, and emphasis often put on sexual purity. Of course, churches certainly preach against drunkenness, and I’m sure there are some churches where people sign a promise not to drink at all similar to the purity pledges, but I think there is no doubt the lesson of purity is preached and taught and given special attention in a way unlike other beliefs, and it has harmed a lot of people.

In Hall’s article he wrote:

Bolz-Weber is out to set Christians free from the angst and humiliation churches have often foisted on them because of their sexual proclivities and behaviors. But the way the book goes about doing so is by rejecting wholesale the idea of “sexual purity” and, with it, the need to confess sexual transgression. In one of the book’s most straightforward moments, Bolz-Weber sums up her message like this:

I’m here to tell you: unless your sexual desires are for minors or animals, or your sexual choices are hurting you or those you love, those desires are not something you need to “struggle with.” They are something to listen to, make decisions about, explore, perhaps have caution about. But struggle with? Fight against? Make enemies of? No.

The message of Shameless, in short, is that feeling like a transgressor never bears the seeds of redemption, and the way to flourishing lies in throwing out any standard that isn’t giving you life.

What if you substituted “drinking” for “sexual” in the quote from Shameless?

I’m here to tell you: unless your drinking desires or your drinking choices are hurting you or those you love, those desires are not something you need to “struggle with.” They are something to listen to, make decisions about, explore, perhaps have caution about. But struggle with? Fight against? Make enemies of? No.

I don’t think when you make that substitution, you would then draw the conclusion that “feeling like a transgressor never bears the seeds of redemption, and the way to flourishing lies in throwing out any standard that isn’t giving you life,” the way Hall does with sexual desires. Bolz-Weber is not saying sexual desires are never sinful. We would not say drinking is never sinful. Nor many other behaviors. As noted before, what Paul says applies to sexual desires, drinking, and many things, all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23).

i think it is good that Bolz-Weber is showing concern for those who were hurt by the church’s actions towards premarital sex, and doing what she can to show them the love of God, to promote healing. I understand a strong reaction to what seems radical and differs so much from what we have been taught. I cannot, however, believe that it means Bolz-Weber’s message rejects the need to confess sexual transgression, any more than it rejects the need to confess all transgressions. I see no reason to think she has changed her mind on that. Her message is, rather, that premarital sex is like other desires and actions. It is not always sinful, but can be. It does not need to be singled out and used to harm people the way it has been in the past. And we in the church need to understand the consequences of that history, and work toward healing the hurt.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins

I love Billy Collins' poetry! I think anyone who reads it will love it. Here is the poem that inspired the title of this latest collection, The Rain in Portugal.
On Rhyme 
It's possible that a stitch in time
might save as many as twelve or as few as three,
and I have no trouble remembering
that September has thirty days.
So do June, November, and April. 
I like a cat wearing a chapeau or a trilby,
Little Jack Horner stitting on a sofa,
old men who are not from Nantucket,
and how life can seem almost unreal
when you are gently rowing a boat down a stream. 
That's why instead of recalling today
that it pours mostly in Spain,
I am going to picture the rain in Portugal,
how it falls on the hillside vineyards,
on the surface of the deep harbors 
where fishing boats are swaying,
and in the narrow alleys of the cities,
where three boys in tee shirts
are kicking a soccer ball in the rain,
ignoring the window-cries of their mothers.
Don't you love it? It kind of reminds me of Jabberwocky in Alice in Wonderland except it makes total sense. Collins' poetry often takes unexpected turns, which is a sign of good writing, right?

There's a poem called "Only Child" that I sent to my siblings. And I read this one to Randy, since we commute together.
Traffic       "...watching the next car ahead and in the mirror the car behind." --Graham Greene 
A child on a silver bicycle,
a young mother pushing a stroller,
and a runner who looked like he was running to Patagonia 
have all passed my car, jammed
into a traffic jam on a summer weekend.
And now an elderly couple gradually 
overtakes me as does a family of snails--
me stalled as if in a pit of tar
far from any beach and its salty air. 
Why even Buddha has risen
from his habitual sitting
and is now walking serenely past my car, 
holding his robes to his chest with one hand.
I watch him from the patch of shade
I have inched into as he begins to grow smaller 
over my steering wheel then sits down again
up ahead, unfurling his palms
as if he were only a tiny figurine affixed to the dash.
I can just imagine him sitting in stop and go traffic thinking of and writing this poem. It reminds me of when I rode with my family--4 kids and a dog--in the Volkswagon camper down the unpaved Alcan Highway. My brother Joel would count the cars that were passing us, letting us know when he reached significant number such as 100.

If you think you don't like poetry, or don't get it, try Billy Collins.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Books I Read in 2019

I plan to continue to write longer pieces about some books I read, but I want to have a list of all the books I read in a year, so I am starting this page to do that.

Books I Read in 2019

Friday, November 16, 2018

Port William novel series by Wendell Berry

I love a book with a map and family tree, don’t you? Anyone who knows me knows I am severely directionally dyslexic and maps do me no good in finding my way (GPS changed my life -- I need words telling me left, right, and straight), but I love maps like the one in this book, Nathan Coulter, the first (I think) book in the Port William novels by Wendell Berry. I have a set of hardcover versions of The Lord of the Rings series, and it has maps like this. They’re a treasure.

I read Nathan Coulter last night. My night was one of those (many) nights where I wake up in the wee hours of the morning feeling quite awake. The novel is short, so I finished the whole thing. I started on another in the series, Remembering. I had ordered two to see if I like them. Now I’ve ordered them all. So much for not gaining more books and spending less on them. I did buy several used, so that kind of counts.

According to the internet, the order of the series is:

Publication Order of Port William Books

Nathan Coulter (1960)
The Wild Birds (1986)
Remembering (1988)
A World Lost (1996)
Two More Stories of the Port William Membership (1997)
Jayber Crow (2000)
That Distant Land (2002)
Hannah Coulter (2004)
Andy Catlett (2006)
A Place in Time (2012)

Publication Order of Port William Membership Books

A Place on Earth (1967)
The Memory of Old Jack (1974)

I don’t know what the deal is with “Port William Books” vs. “Port William Membership Books.” I’ll have to see if Google can tell me.

Nathan Coulter is written in first person, with the person being Nathan Coulter. It starts with him as a young boy, living with his brother, father, and mother on a farm near Port William. On the map you can see the “Coulter Home Place” below the “Coulter Branch” of “The River.” I like the way the “branches” of the river are called that, and named after the family or home it branches off to. It reminds me of the road in Lynden, WA, that bears my maiden name, Kok Road. I was told a woman with the last name of Kok lived at the end of it.

Nathan’s grandfather and grandmother live nearby and are important characters in the book, as well as his Uncle Burley, whose “camp house” is labeled near the top of the map showing the house going through several owners. They own, live, and work on their tobacco farms. Wendell Berry is a tobacco farmer in Kentucky (as well as a novel writer, essayist, poet, and activist for agriculture). As I read the descriptions of the setting, I often imagined it looking like Tennessee, where we visited a few months ago. When Berry described the still air and the heat, I could feel it.

Berry’s writing is phenomenal. Simple but amazing. Spare but rich. I often start books thinking, I am going to read every single word, no skimming, even descriptions, and I start that way but find myself skimming, especially descriptions, in my eagerness to keep reading the story. Remembering, which I have not yet finished, is full of descriptions and inner thoughts that I did not skip and had no desire to. I started underlining beautiful sentences and dog-earing pages but I had to stop because I’d ruin the book. I have to write about a few of them.

Andy Catlett, the main character of Remembering (at least so far) is walking down a hotel hallway in the middle of the night,
going silently past the shut doors of rooms where people are sleeping or absent, who would know which? There is an almost palpable unwaking around him as he goes past the blank doors, intent upon his own silence, as though, his presence known to nobody, he is not there himself.
“an almost palpable unwaking” -- doesn’t that just glow on the page like a gem? Can’t you just imagine it? Doesn’t the whole sentence embody truly being alone? Blows me away.

And in another scene, Andy is walking from the hotel, in San Francisco (where he’s staying for a conference), and comes to a pier.
There, with the whole continent at his back, nothing between him and Asia but water, he stands again, leaning on the parapet, looking westward into the wind.
I pictured the way it feels when I’m standing on the pier in Capitola, when no one else is around. It strikes me with awe every time it happens, and wonder that I can be in this busy, big city and yet all alone on the edge of land that way. I never could have come up with the words to describe it so well as Berry does. “...with the whole continent at his back.” I suppose I could say, nothing between me and Moss Landing but water. Or me and Monterey. Not quite the same ring. If I zoom out far enough in Google Maps, I see I could say, nothing between me and Antartica. That’s a little better.

Berry’s description of Andy walking through San Francisco before dawn, out to the pier, is stunning. I want to say it’s “scrummy,” like Mary Berry on “The Great British Baking Show.”

Later, Andy does some remembering. He imagines scenes of his forefathers and their neighbors. In one part, he imagines two men who will be neighbors meeting for the first time. One says,
“I’ve got two grandboys. Wheeler’s. They’ll be over to bother you, I expect, now that the weather’s changing. You won’t offend me if you make ‘em mind.”
“They’ll be over to bother you…” “You won’t offend me if you make ‘em mind.”

I’ll stop now. I highly recommend these books!