Books: The Last Templar

August 26, 2017

I haven’t been writing posts lately about most of the popular fiction I read. I read mostly for enjoyment, and in the case of the audiobooks, to occupy my mind while driving. There’s not a lot to say, really, about a book like The Last Templar in terms of plot or characterization. It’s interesting, and I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book (while being grateful that it wasn’t as graphic about the tortures inflicted on the Templar leader, Jacques de Molay, as one of the books I read a year or two ago) as well as the mystery and adventure of the present-day story.

But it is the thematic aspects of the book that I reacted strongly to. At the center of the action is the quest to find (or prevent from being found, depending on which side a character is on) a valuable object hidden by the Templars before the destruction of their order. (Note: the rest of this post discusses the object and its significance, which aren’t revealed until the latter part of the novel, so don’t continue reading if you don’t want to know what it is.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Books: The House of the Lord

February 27, 2017

At a conference (for leaders of small churches) that my husband and I attended in October, one of the workshops was about the use of the Psalms in worship. That got me not only looking for ways to use them in worship (such as using them for the readings with the lighting of the Advent candles) but also to know them better personally. When the Bible study I lead finished a study on Jonah, we started looking at some of the Psalms.

So when I came across a book for sale about “inhabiting the world of the psalmist,” and noticed that the author was one of the keynote speakers from that conference in October,  naturally I was interested. In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament by Michael Jinkins explores first the world of the psalms in general, and then the psalms of lament in more depth.

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the psalms of lament. How do I identify with someone who has gone through such suffering as some of these describe? And to the extent I do identify with someone crying out, “How long, O Lord,” how does that shared sense of anguish help me deal with it?

I’m not alone in that discomfort. Jinkins notes that mainline Protestant churches rarely use psalms of lament in their worship, and if they wanted to sing hymns based on them would have trouble finding more than a few in their hymnals. Many people go to church to hear positive messages, and interpret complaints addressed to God as contrary to faith and thanksgiving.

When I mentioned this in a Bible study recently, someone’s response was that when times are hard, you’re supposed to focus on the blessings in your life and on God’s goodness. Why would you want to encourage people to bring up complaints to God?

Because, Jinkins says, “praise and thanksgiving divorced from lamentation, divorced from heart-felt observation of social injustices and the cries of the oppressed, divorced from a critical assessment of our role in human society, become expressions of vanity.” And because they can mask the voids in our spiritual lives, and give us fewer resources for working through some of the really bad stuff, the stuff we don’t talk about in church.

I remember a few times in my life when I found it difficult to go to church, when I was dealing with grief and found it hard to express emotion without breaking down in tears. There were no hymns we sang that gave voice to my grief, and when I tried to sing songs like “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” or “O Happy Day,” the words stuck in my throat.

There are churches that use the psalms of lament much more, and Jinkins explains that these are generally made of of people in the lower socio-economic strata of society. They can identify with the psalmist when he speaks of suffering oppression, of being treated unfairly, of anger at seeing people prosper from their wickedness and of longing to see justice done.

For me, those are abstract ideas that I can understand but not really identify with from my own experience. (Not that I’ve never been treated unfairly, but not in any ways that significantly changed the course of my life.) Perhaps greater use of psalms of lament would help to identify with those parts of the body of Christ who do suffer in these ways.

Depending on how one classifies the psalms, forty to fifty of them are considered psalms of lament. So nearly a third of them. They include expressions of faith and praise and thanksgiving, but these are arrived at by going through the complaint and the grief.

We often find that spiritual growth comes that way in our lives, by going through trials and troubles. So why not have our worship services make more use of such psalms, as the ancient Israelites evidently did? As I am on the worship committee at church, this is more than just food for thought, but something to look for practical ways to use sometimes neglected parts of Scripture.


Books: Slow Church

December 18, 2016

When my husband and I signed up to go to a “Slow Church” retreat, we had little idea what it was about. Obviously, it must be something to do with not being in a hurry. But beyond that, the phrase meant nothing to me.

At the retreat, we each received a copy of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Chris Smith led the retreat, going over the ideas presented in the book he had co-written.

Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Jesus Way

November 28, 2016

A couple of years ago I started a book by Eugene Peterson, author of The Message (a popular paraphrase of the Bible), Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the first of a series of five books on spiritual theology. I also purchased The Jesus Way, the third book in the series, then set it aside until I had finished at least the first book.

But somehow the first book wound up in a pile of books I’m in the middle of reading, and hasn’t moved from that spot in a while. Then last month, when looking for something to read on a trip to a conference in Indiana, I noticed The Jesus Way and decided to read it. I read half of it during the trip, and finished it recently.

The subtitle of the book describes it well: “a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way.” Evangelical Christians are familiar with John 14:6, where Jesus says “I am the way” (and “the truth and the life”). But what it means for Jesus to be the way is not usually explored, simply assumed: Jesus is how we are made right with God, how we get to heaven.

Peterson says, “Too many of my faith-companions for too long have been reducing the way of Jesus simply to the route to heaven, which it certainly is. But there is so much more.” Peterson emphasizes the meaning of “way” as a road to follow, not just for getting to the right destination, but for how to travel along the way.

Read the rest of this entry »


Thinking about Thanking

November 23, 2016

Recently I have been meeting weekly with an ESL student to give her practice speaking conversational English and increase her understanding of American culture. Naturally the subject of Thanksgiving has come up more than once.

The first time, she asked me what the word “thankful” meant. That surprised me, since this is not her first year in this country and her English vocabulary seems pretty good. I explained it meant “grateful,” which she did understand. (Which seems odd to me – I would have thought that the word thankful is used more often than grateful.)

(A Google search shows me that some people do distinguish between thankful and grateful, but there does not seem to be any consistency in how the two are distinguished, and other people use them interchangeably. It may be that, to some people, “thank you” is overused to the point of conveying less sense of genuine gratitude. Personally, I consider the two to be synonyms.) Read the rest of this entry »


Books: I Am Malala

October 1, 2016

The 2016 Reading Challenge I have been working on includes reading a political memoir. Several times I browsed the Biography shelves at the library, trying to find one that looked at least half-way interesting – and preferably fairly short. But all the volumes I saw with names I recognized from the political area looked quite hefty, and I found it unlikely that they had that much to say that would interest me. Looking through some online book reviews confirmed my suspicion that books of this genre tend to have little value or lasting appeal.

Fortunately I discovered that the same website that lists the Reading Challenge also lists books to read to meet the challenge. And in the political memoir category, the recommendation was I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. I vaguely remember news reports from 2012 when she was shot, and later in 2014 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but I had not really followed the stories much at that time.

This sounded much more interesting than reading about some politician taking advantage of temporary fame to publish a book, perhaps in the hope of not being forgotten quite as quickly as most. Besides, I always enjoy learning about other countries and their culture and history, and learning a different perspective on the world and life in general.

Malala’s story is very interesting. Some reviews criticize the quality of the writing, but all agree that the story makes the book well worth reading. We learn about Malala’s childhood, her family, and her father’s commitment to education for both boys and girls. We learn about the beauty of her homeland and about various traditions that shape the people’s lives. And of course, we learn about the coming of the Taliban and the way most people were too afraid to speak out against them, even while realizing that they were not the champions of righteousness that they initially appeared to be. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: Counterfeit Gods

July 31, 2016

I came across a quote from Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods while doing some Bible study. I’m not sure now what that quote said, but it impressed me enough to get Keller’s book from the library.

I have often heard in sermons that idols are not just statues of gods that people bow down to, but anything that takes first place in our lives instead of God. Money is often given as an example of something that can become an idol. But while that makes sense in the abstract, it is difficult to identify specific examples in people’s lives where something has become an idol, except in some more extreme cases.

Keller provides a definition of an idol, or a “counterfeit god” as he calls often it, that is clearer to me. “A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” Or, even clearer: “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.'”

Keller goes on to use various Bible stories to illustrate ways that people make an idol of children, romantic love, money, success, or political power. I’m not sure I agree with his interpretation of these Bible stories in every case, but he provides a new way of looking at some of them and of relating them to modern life.

Finally, he suggests ways we can identify the idols in our own lives. He suggests that we ask ourselves

What do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?

  • How do you spend your money?
  • How do you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes?
  • What are your most uncontrollable emotions?

I might have preferred that he spend more than the last five or so pages discussing how to replace idols with Christ. But the book, after all, is about “counterfeit gods,” not about how to know and worship the one true God. People have to recognize the counterfeits before they can turn from those to the truth, and there are certainly abundant resources out there for people who want to know God better.