Tuesday, July 21, 2009

This minister's bookshelf

Well, not my bookshelf, per se, but what I've been reading.

About a year ago my wife and I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The novel (Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2004) takes place in a small town minister's home. It is one of the most beautiful books I've read, and the author clearly knows her theology. And grace. At about that time, Ms. Robinson's latest novel was released. Home tells the same story, from the perspective of the other home in Gilead. If you don't know these novels, or her first, Housekeeping, find and read them!

This summer I set myself to reading all that Marilynne Robinson has in print. So I have read Home, and marveled again at the beauty of her prose, the insight into family dynamics, and the saturation of grace. I am now reading Housekeeping.

As my "coffee shop reading" I have just completed a collection of Robinson's essays. At least one day a week, I stop by Caribou to sit and read before entering the melee that is my office. It's a good place to bump into people, and some days I read very little. But at home there are other distractions, and I won't bump into people, so there you have it. It also gives me a chance to read and savor, and take my time with the essays. The Death of Adam collects essays apparently written during the 1990's. They are as beautifully articulated as her fiction, while being both scholarly and occasionally ironic.

Here is a Christian writing without jargon; biblical faith and language and a balanced political idealogy. She employs a rich vocabulary (I got reacquainted with Merriam-Webster most mornings!) in exquisite but unpretentious sentences. I hardly dare begin to quote her ... where would I stop? She identifies herself as a mainline Protestant, and is also a clear, winsome student of Calvin and Edwards. Her defense of these Reformed giants, and of the Puritans in their train, is stunning and delightful.

On my Facebook profile, under "religious views" I state: "Calvinist who welcomes wonder." That was before I read these essays, and I am all the more happy to stand there now.

Three quotes, and I'm done:
An indictment (my word, not the author's) - "I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward a particular holiness - which, while we are on the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together." (p. 102, in "Family)

On theology - "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling iwth a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and, of course, Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song adn legend and prayer." (p. 117 in "Dietrich Bonhoeffer")

A description of a Christian (herself) - "I will make a shocking statement: I am a Christian. This ought not to startle anyone. It is likely to be at least demographically true of an American of European ancestry. I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed." (p. 260-1 in "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion") To which I will just add - would that this were true of more self-described "evangelicals"!

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