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.)

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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.

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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.

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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: 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.


Guest blog post: Could it be?

February 7, 2016

[Today’s blog post is written by my husband]

In several articles I have read recently, I have seen “true Christianity” equated with a liberal/progressive ideology (see below for links). In the course of article, they make certain assumptions about the understandings and motivations of “conservative” Christians, make broad generalizations, and seem (to me) to take a morally smug/superior view – very like what at least one author accuses the “Christian right” of doing. Only one author – Paul Prather – even admits to the possibility that the real truth lies in between in a balance between the two, and that is done in a throw-away line that is essentially ignored the remainder of the article.

It is not my goal to impugn the authors, or point up the shortcomings of the progressive Christian theology and ideology. Rather, I want to try to help these folks understand the where many (and dare I say “most?”) conservative Christians actually come from when they make their statements and support their causes. I will be using the article by Paul Prather the most, since his is the only one that does not dismiss the conservative understanding outright, and actually gives a comparison. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: Palace of Darkness

January 18, 2016

I was recently introduced to the novels of Tracy Higley by a comment on one of my recent posts. The library didn’t have the book he mentioned, perhaps because The Incense Road was just published last year (it is a collection of novellas, individually available only on Kindle as far as I can tell).

But one of the libraries in the system did have Palace of Darkness: A Novel of Petra, and I just finished reading it yesterday. As historical fiction it is an absorbing read. It begins in Rome for Julian, in Damascus for Cassia, and as a result of the death of someone important in each of their lives, they both flee to Petra, where of course they meet. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass: Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend

January 16, 2016

Looking at my 2016 Reading Challenge, I had wondered how I would find “a book guaranteed to bring me joy.” There are books by favorite authors that I know I will enjoy, but that’s different from books that bring me joy.

As it happens, I had already ordered the latest book in Adrian Plass’ Sacred Diary series, as a Christmas present for our whole family. We’re read – and re-read – all the previous books in the series, and I was happy to discover he had written a new one.

If you haven’t read Adrian Plass before, you might want to start by reading the previous five books, starting with The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4. Some reviews say his latest is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to my husband while he was reading just the first chapter.

I find it more quietly amusing – but then, I rarely laugh out loud. What I appreciate about Plass’ writing is how well he weaves together humor with wisdom and with a view of God who loves us more than we can imagine.

A lot of what passes for humor these days is just making fun of people, but while Plass gently pokes fun at human foibles, it is always good-natured fun. People do such foolish things, but it’s not a reason to despise or disdain them. (Though I don’t think I could stand spending much time around Minnie Stamp, a new character in this volume.)

There is always an assurance that we are loved by a God who not only loves us but actually likes us. I know I find that hard to accept, though I’m not sure exactly why. Because I don’t think someone who knows all there is to know about me would like me? Because I think I need to want to work hard for God’s approval, otherwise I’d take it easy? Or because so few Christian books seem to convey that same message?

If I tried to convey what Plass’ books are like, I’m sure I’d fall far short. So if you have a chance to read some, find out for yourself.


Books I’ve been reading

December 28, 2015

I haven’t found enough computer time or the inclination over the past couple of months to post about the books I’ve been reading. Back when I started this blog, it was easier for people to comment, and the blog was a way of having a conversation of sorts with other people who were interested in some of the same things. But these days it’s mostly a monologue.

But I have plenty of time this week, since the college where I work is closed between Christmas and New Year’s. So I’m going to try to post about some, at least, of the books I have found most interesting. Not a post for each, but grouped by some characteristic the books have in common.

I’ll start with books based on Biblical characters, because I just finished one yesterday and it is fresh in my mind. But before I get to that one, I’ll start with one I read a few weeks ago, since it is set about one generation earlier.

I noticed The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks on the New Books shelf at the library, first because it was by an author whose other books I had enjoyed – People of the Book and Caleb’s Crossing. When I saw that it was about King David I eagerly checked it out of the library.

As with other retellings of Bible stories, it is not the plot that draws one it – after all, anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows what’s going to happen – but the characters, exploring their feelings and motivations. Much of this is inevitably speculation, especially with those who play a minor role in the Bible stories, but it’s always interesting to see how it might have been.

The character with whom Brooks takes perhaps the most liberties is her narrator, Natan the prophet. (Throughout she uses transliterations of Hebrew names which are closer to the original Hebrew than the versions we are familiar with from the English Bible.) We know next to nothing of Natan from the Scriptures, only that he speaks God’s words to David, whether of blessing or rebuke.

Brooks invents for Natan a backstory and a personality, though as narrator he tells others’ stories more than his own. He is not zealous for God (as one assumes from the Bible) so much as for the truth, and serves as mouthpiece for God because he really has no choice in the matter when visions seize his mind and the divine voice uses his mouth (though in a distinctly different voice from his own).

It is of course where the Bible says least that Brooks can be most inventive, offering a somewhat far-fetched explanation as to why David’s brothers despised him, a circumstance that also helps explain why he allows his sons to turn out as they did. The story of Natan’s origins is equally unlikely, and does more to explain David than Natan himself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brooks uses the idea, common today among those who read modern assumptions back into Biblical characters, that David and Yonatan were lovers in a homosexual relationship. For some readers, that may be a positive thing. A Washington Post book review asserts that

The one true love in the novel, beautifully drawn in its complexity and sheer joy, is between David and Shaul’s son Yonatan (Jonathan). It is this story that most fully humanizes the king, finally allowing us to see him as a man of great soul.

I tend to see it more as Brooks catering to modern values. For many people today, it may be hard to envision a soul-deep love between two men (who are not related) that finds its highest fulfillment without a sexual component. Personally, I would like to see a good storyteller depict such a relationship and show how it is not diminished by the lack of sexual expression.

But David’s relationship with Yonatan is hardly at the center of this novel anyway, any more than his harp-playing is, although both always hover in the background. It is about his rise to power and then his efforts to hold onto power, even as his own bad choices bring about tragedy within his own family.

He doesn’t come across as all that much of a hero. As one review points out, David is depicted as “power-hungry, duplicitous, murderous and cruel.” Perhaps there is too much effort to show what a flawed human he is, rather than a divinely favored king set on a Biblical pedestal.

It is a good reminder, however, that just because many things he did were not explicitly condemned by God as was his behavior in the matter of Uriah and his wife, does not mean that what he did was good or right. In the Bible study I lead, we have been reading through 1 Samuel, and I have noticed that Bible study guides I have looked at online seem to assume most of the time that David is in the right if Scripture does not say otherwise. But is that a valid assumption?

In the end, the character I found perhaps most intriguing is young Schlomo (Solomon). In the Bible, we see nothing of his childhood, only the young king appearing fully formed and full of wisdom – at least the wisdom to ask for wisdom, and then receive it as a gift from God along with great riches and power.

In Brooks’ novel, he is an inquisitive child, not expected (by anyone but Natan who has foreseen the future) to become king, and thus left free to pursue his interests in learning about nature, philosophy, and anything else he can learn with the help of his tutor Natan (who knows the future king needs guidance). His adult interest in learning of all kinds makes far more sense when it is an outgrowth of his natural childhood curiosity.

It was this aspect to his character that also contributed to my interest in reading The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen by Tosca Lee, which I also found on the New Books shelf of the library, and just finished reading yesterday. It is told from the point of view of Bilqis the queen of Saba (known as Sheba to the Hebrews), but of course it concerns Solomon a great deal as well.

The story of her visit to Solomon in the Bible had always struck me as a bit odd. Would a queen of such great wealth as hers is described really travel that far with such a huge entourage to see if the reports of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom were true? And what was the purpose of all those rich gifts, on both sides?

Lee’s novel presents the journey as part of Bilqis’s project to impress trading partners with her country’s greatness, as well as to give both her and Solomon the opportunity to meet one another, after they have exchanged written correspondence which has increased their mutual curiosity and desire to know one another.

Solomon comes across as a man unable to find what he really wants in life. As readers of the Bible know from Ecclesiastes, he has tried everything life has to offer, including all the luxuries available to a rich and powerful king. He has hundreds of wives, yet as Bilqis realizes, he has no one – until she arrives – who really knows him. She understands, because she feels the same weariness with the demands of ruling a country.

Solomon also feels trapped between his desire to achieve political power and stability, which he accomplishes by his many marriages to daughters of allies, and his God’s disapproval of his foreign wives with their foreign gods. He has justified it to himself, but even during Bilqis’s visit, he faces increasing unrest among his own people, who resent both the forced labor he requires and the presence of this pagan queen.

Bilqis, meanwhile, increasingly doubts her own god’s care for her. She has long wondered what the gods make of human prayers and sacrifices, and questions how one can truly claim to love a god when all that is done for the god is to secure what one wants from the god.

Solomon suggests a different perspective, where one loves God by loving other people, who are made in God’s image. His words sound good, but clearly he has not done very well at putting them into practice in his own life.

Lee drew on legends related to Solomon and the queen of Sheba that I was not aware of, from the Kebra Nagast, a work describing the origins of the Solomonic rulers of Ethiopia, considered to be the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.

On the whole, I think both books accomplish what I look for in this type of fiction. They bring the historical setting to life, they offer alternate ways of seeing a familiar story, and at their best they offer new insights into people and their relationship with God. And they’re well-told stories that I enjoyed reading.