Category Archives: Reading

What I’ve Been Watching

     I’ve watched two movies in the last couple of weeks that have directed my reading and thinking.  I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House.  Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary narrates the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s accounts of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This was a compelling movie and one that caused me to examine my own beliefs and prejudices about racism and the development of African-American culture in the United States.

     The other movie was Paris After Midnight, a Woody Allen romantic comedy that is set in Paris. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer who is working on a novel.  His materialistic fiancee, Inez, ridicules this project and wants him to stick to screenwriting. This conflict becomes more pronounced during the film while Pender considers moving to Paris.   While on his way home from a night of drinking and dancing, Pender gets lost and a vehicle picks him up and takes him back to the Jazz Age.  Each night at midnight, he is able to revisit the Paris of the twenties, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and other luminaries  from this period.  Through traveling back in time, Pended gains the courage to finish his novel and to break off the relationship with his fiancee.

     At first glance, it appears that these films have little in common.  What stands out to me about both is the question of the “thickness” of one’s tradition.  One of the questions that I asked after watching I Am Not Your Negro was, “is the American tradition of social justice “thick” enough to bring about a better future for African Americans?  Can Americans overcome race-based slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to create a more just society for African Americans?  Are there people who will express the way forward for justice whom both African Americans and whites will listen to?

     Allen’s film also implies a question concerning the thickness of tradition.  Gil Pender was not able to find enough thickness in the tradition of his own day to produce serious art.  Where do we find the resources to produce serious art?  Such resources are not going to be found on Google, in popular music, or Direct TV.  There’s a sense in which we must recover resources from our past and give a fresh voice to them.

Summer Reading

One of the things that I’ve been able to do since the accident is read.  I have a stack of books that I’m making progress through.  Another stack is gathering dust.  Still, another stack is no longer a stack.  These books have made their way back to the shelves, but have not yet been properly shelved, giving faint hope that I will get to them.

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Currently Reading:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.  This is the biography that inspired the Broadway musical.  It’s been on the list ever since I heard about the musical and showed clips to my US History class this past year.  Great Read!

Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.  A look at the development of revivals and evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain before the American Civil War.

Homeric Moments by Eva Brann.  Reflections of teaching Homer for over fifty years at St. John’s College.  This is a good read but a challenging book, and worthwhile to build a stronger foundation in my thinking about and teaching of Homer.

Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson.  A guide to the fundamental principles of public ministry and the calling of the pastor.  While much of this is material is content I’ve picked up and absorbed over the years, I sure do wish this book was around when I was a young minister!  It’s a judicious condensation of the work of the pastor that has spurred me on in prayer and preparing for the ministry of the Word.

Listening to on Audible:

Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters At The End by Atul Gawande.  Thought provoking book on aging and how the West cares for an aging population.  Gawande convincingly shows us how the medical model of caring for elderly people often ignores their desires and robs them of the agency that those of us who are able to live independently take for granted, and profiles residences where elderly people are able to exercise greater liberty and agency in their making, and how this adds years to their lives and life to their years.

On the shelf/nightstand:

The Didascalion of Hugo of St. Victor.  A medieval treatise reading, education, and the seven liberal arts.  It’s a little challenging to get through with the discomfort I’m feeling so I’ve put it aside for now.

Eisenhower by Stephen Ambrose.  I’ve always thought that Eisenhower is one of the most underrated and interesting Presidents.  I want to get into this one, but it will probably wait until after Hamilton.

How To Read A Sentence and How To Write One by Stanley Fish.  I try to keep a writing book going all the time.  Right now, the plot of this one fails to grip, but I really haven’t given it much of a chance.

The Power Broker:  Robert Caro and The Fall of New York by Robert Moses.  I’m about 8o percent through.  An interesting and must-read for anyone who is at all interested in the history of “the city that never sleeps.”  At 1200 pages, it’s too dang heavy to pick up now!

 

 

 

 

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Recent Reading

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  Yes, it’s taken me about a year and a half to get through this massive tome.  I still have a little bit to go but I should finish it this week.  Philosophically, I feel like it’s the story of my generation.  There’s so much in this book that I could write about, and at least as much that is over my head, and that’s not even mentioning the untranslated French paragraphs!  Taylor’s case is fairly complicated.  While the title implies growth in secularity over time in the West (which Taylor affirms), the two most useful concepts for me were the concepts of “disenchantment” and the reasonableness of the secular paradigm even for the religious.

The idea of disenchantment is that for persons living in the West in the Modern Age, it’s difficult to believe in the supernatural and ascribe explanations of phenomena to the supernatural, even for religious people.  For example, Medievals would likely ascribe pathological evil to supernatural activity such as demon possession, while Moderns would look to explanations rooted in nurture and environment.  The “secular age” is one that is denuded of the supernatural.

This is one of the reasons why I found it so hard to teach Medieval literature such as Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  For Malory, everything is supernatural.  The idea of not believing in the supernatural or ascribing cause and effect to the ineffable is as unthinkable is not breathing.  Characters that readers consider both good and evil possess this worldview.  In contrast, the modern reader, even if religious, sees the secular paradigm as a conceivable option, and may often see the rationalistic option as more viable than that which is rooted in the Divine.

In this respect, A Secular Age helped me to understand my own story and my own perception of the world.  It’s a valuable work in this respect, and one I’m glad that I plowed through.

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Recent Reading

While I’ve been convalescing and taking care of my wife after our recent car accident, I’ve set off on a torrid pace in reading.  The following are some snippets from some of the texts that I’ve engaged with over the past week.  Below is my account of Sunday’s readings.

 The Epistle to the Hebrews (ESV Translation).  I wasn’t able to go to church so I decided to attempt to read large portions of Bible books during my time on the disabled list.  I do have regular Bible reading plan, but Hebrews is my favorite book. I derived much encouragement from this letter to a church of Jewish background that was tempted to return to Judaism while suffering severe persecution.  The writer is sympathetic to the plight of this church.  His love for this church and his pastoral encouragement comes through loud and clear, and doesn’t keep him from giving his readers a “talking-to” where needed.

Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.  This book has stared at me for several years from my seat in the family room for several years.  I expected a hagiographic treatment of the leaders of the First Great Awakening in America.  Luminaries such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies were men of God whose preaching was blessed by the Holy Spirit in the conversion of those outside of Christ and the strengthening of the Church from within.  After reading the first hundred pages, I’m encouraged to see that while Murray believes that the Great Awakening was a giant boon to American Christianity, there were unsalutary developments as well, and his view of the Revival is more nuanced than I expected.

Murray has challenged the view that I’ve about the Great Awakening for many years.  Protestant church historians are largely divided into two camps on whether the Great Awakening was a positive development for American Christianity.  On one end are historians such as D. G. Hart and Nathan Hatch, who believe that the Great Awakening was harmful to the development of the development of the American church because the revival preachers operated largely outside of the individual church.  Because the church and its catechetical role tended to be bypassed by the revival preachers, the effect was a Christianity in America that was fundamentally individualistic rather than churchly, and harmful to the growth and development of the Church.  The tother camp, championed by Iain Murray, believes that the First Great Awakening was beneficial to the American Church, while the confluence of events known as the Second Great Awakening fostered deviance from orthodox Christianity.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve largely held to the second view.  However, Murray presents a more nuanced view than I expected.  He makes a persuasive case that the reason that the preachers of the Great Awakening often bypassed the institutional Church was not because they held a low estimate of the Church, but that often the Church as an institution (organized gatherings under the rule of elders, pastors, buildings, etc.) was still in an organizational and developmental phase, and thus lacked the capacity for the churchly Christianity that is the norm of the Reformed churches.

I’ve only reached pate 100, but I’m glad that I took this book off the shelf and I’m really profiting from it.

Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson.  Much of this book is a rehash of other writings of Johnson that has been expanded and put into a more polished form.  However, Dr. Johnson has been one of the most influential men in the way that I view the ministry of the gospel.  I’ve really profited from his theological vision and his encouragement to combine such vision with the daily and weekly tasks of gospel ministry.

 

 

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Reading Goals

I previously went public with my goal of reading 100 books this year.  I’m not quite ready to say that it won’t happen.  However several factors have intervened.  The first is that my sister Cathy is requiring more care from Amy and me.  This, combined with teaching, has left me in a state of exhaustion for a sizable portion of the last month.  I haven’t missed any days of class.  But I have had a difficult time keeping up with grading.1848-261926

The other issue that tends to cast a doubt on the viability of this goal is that I’m reading some behemoths now, the main one being A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  Weighing in at 896 pages, Taylor chronicles how the worldview of the West has experienced revolutionary changes from the Middle Ages up until now.  He writes of how the outlook of pre-Enlightenment Europe was profoundly supernaturalistic, a world that was enchanted, in which the Divine broke through, even through inanimate objects (think of the Holy Grail, for example).  Taylor makes the case that over time, a number of developments took place across different areas, such as the Enlightenment, the rise of modern politics, “polite society,” and perhaps most of all, a change in the perception of the interaction of God in this world.  I’m about a third of the way through the book.  For me, it’s timely, it’s educational, it’s interesting, and being a work of philosophy, it’s stretching me.  At this point, I’ve having to trust the author to take me where he’s going.

James K. A. Smith introduced me to this book in his guide to Taylor’s work, How Not To Be Secular.  It’s been long enough that I don’t remember too many specifics about Dr. Smith’s book, except that it made me want to read Taylor.  So, it seems that Dr. Smith achieved his purpose with me.

Another book on the nightstand is Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life. Mr. Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservativeand one of my favorite writers.  He went through a crisis in his life similar to my own in many ways, moving back to the town where he grew up after an absence of over twenty years after the death of his sister, and experiencing an adjustment difficult enough to lead to a physical, emotional, and spiritual breakdown.  The Lord used Dante’s Divine Comedy to lead him out of the dark wood that he experienced midway through his life, with striking parallels to Dante’s own experience.  It’s an enjoyable read, and it has succeeded in motivating me to begin again with the Commedia.  I’ve read Inferno several times before, but have gone no further, so I opened up Purgatorio last night.  I’ve only read through Canto III, but so far, it’s surprising how hopeful and optimistic the beginning of Purgatorio is.

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Reading and Surrender

I’ve fallen woefully short of my publication goal for this week.  I enjoy writing for the blog. However, much of my time has been spent in teaching, getting ready to teach, or lately, running.  So, I haven’t exactly made writing in the strictest sense a priority, although most of the above has been a function of some kind of writing.  But it’s not finished writing — just enough to get the job done to either give my students a thorough lecture or devise good open-ended questions for a discussion-based class period.
In terms of audiobooks, I’ve been listening some to Middlemarch while I drive.  However, it’s kind of difficult on the run, as you really want to participate with all your faculties.  George Eliot demands a kind of surrender that many contemporary authors don’t require, and is difficult to render if a person is trying to listen while doing other tasks, or perhaps even trying to read other books.  The surrender pays rich dividends when the option is available.  This is something that I’ve noticed with other authors such as Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, and Melville.  Perhaps the reason that these works aren’t preferred by students is the necessity to utterly surrender oneself to enjoy a satisfying experience with these texts.  There’s a degree of resistance in the soul to such a surrender that must be overcome.  But this is essential to reading a work charitably, putting oneself under the tutelage of the text, and withholding judgment until understanding of the text is achieved.  I’ve also started listening to Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  However, I’m wondering if he is going to require the same kind of surrender that George Eliot does.
I finished Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  It was a worthwhile read.  The data he presents quite clearly supports his view that America is becoming more segmented and stratified as a society.  What may be controversial is how one interprets the data, and what conclusions are to be drawn from it.  And morally, is this a good development for American society, or is this something to be lamented?  On balance, it seems that this new stratification is something to be lamented.  However, the aggregation of brain power in what Murray calls ‘the new upper class” has some beneficial effects for all of America.  The downside is that the new upper class has little contact with the rest of America.  It appears that the new lower class does not either.  The only caveat on this book  I have on this one is that some of the later chapters could have been abridged or eliminated. However, I suppose he really wanted to convince the naysayers to his thesis.  I’m pretty sold on his thesis about the distance and America being segmented into demographic “neighborhoods,” but uncertain about what that means for the future or if anything can or should be done about this.
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Caesar, Cicero, and Middlemarch

I read recently an article about Dorothy Sayer’s education in Latin.  She assess various teaching techniques, pronunciation methods, why Latin is essential for one’s education, and what content to include.  For much of the article, I found myself in agreement with Miss Sayers.  However, I disagree with Dorothy Sayers about Cicero, when she said something like “throw that old fool out the window.”  I felt that way about reading Caesar when our Latin III class was reading from the Gallic Wars.  We found out that Caesar was extremely selective in the battle reports that he presented and that he liked himself a lot.    Although Cicero is way over my head and has a number of idioms, I’m enjoying him more because of his facility with language.
middlemarchI started Middlemarch this weekend. Some bill it as “the greatest novel in the English language.”  I had begun reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, an interesting enough memoir about how reading Middlemarch at different stages of life has shaped her as a person.   About halfway through this book, I decided that Middlemarch itself may be more interesting than Ms. Mead’s experience of the novel.    I’m only to chapter six, but so far, I haven’t seen any reason why Middlemarch can’t live up to this billing.  Moby Dick and a couple of other novels, maybe Bleak House, compete with MIddlemarch for this but it’s absolutely top drawer.  I love reading books in which it appears that the author has read everything that you have and the book is a conversation between the author and you.  That’s what I enjoyed so much about both Moby Dick and am enjoying about Middlemarch.  
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Of Books and Such

Currently, I’m licoming-apartstening to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart:  The State of White America 1960-2010. I decided I needed to get myself a little more grounded again after The Handmaids Tale. It’s a controversial and fascinating account of social developments that have taken place in America over the last fifty years of so, particularly the development of a new “upper class” and a new “lower class.”  There is a point in which the numbers of statistics from studies become rather mind-numbing to listen to, but I’m far enough into it that I’m going to tough it out.   My observations seem to be in line with the narrative of Dr. Murray, at least as far as the rise of the new upper class.  I just started the part on the new lower class.  I’m expecting it to be as on point as part one was.
 I’ve also gotten into Werner Jaeger’s Paideia.  It’s quite an interesting read on the educational aspects of ancient literature.  He makes the point that the poets were seen as educators, and brings out what each of the poets shows us and teaches us.  I’m really starting to think that these mid twentieth century literary criticism classics, like Paideia and Mimesis are classics for a reason.  Part of me is thinking that I should have read Paideia earlier, and part of me thinks that it wouldn’t have made that much since apart from a few readings of the Iliad and Odyssey.  It’s good to start taking the whole aspect of continuing education and preparation seriously.  Paideia has been on the shelf for a long time and it’s good to finally get into it. Jaeger has a great eye for making connections across all of the classical works.  He is able to teach out of depth in a way that very few contemporaries are able to do.
I don’t feel like I’m producing anything that close to something I’d want to share with cyberspace..  It’s kind of disturbing.  A few weeks ago, I was just churning it out. It’s possible that the cause of this is not making space in my life to think.  I’ve become a little too task oriented over the past few weeks, which may lead to shallow living.  It’s probably time to dial it back a notch and to live as if the people in my life really do matter, rather than having my nose to the grindstone 24/7.
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Of Books and Such

I finished The Handmaid’s Tale last night.  It continued to be absolutely gripping to the very end.  I’m not a big fan of ending —there’s no resolution to anything.  But I suppose with the setting and the plot of the novel, it’s an appropriate ending.  In the alternative world that Margaret Atwood creates, the nature of life is that there really isn’t much change.  Still, Ofwarren is a sympathetic enough character that the reader is rooting for her to “overcome the odds” and to find a rich and meaningful life.
1848-261926Woke up clear headed and rested for the first time in a long time.  Went for a four mile run yesterday.  Although it was really slow, it felt good to get out, and it appears that it helped me sleep last night and put some pep in my step for today.  I woke up at 5:30 for the second day in a row.  Yesterday, it was so I could do some Latin translation to prep for Latin III.  Today, it’s to be selfish with my time.  To take time to think, to pray, to write, time that no one is asking or expecting anything of me.
Hopefully today, I’ll feel a bit more connected with my classes than yesterday.  For the entire day, I felt like Robo Teacher.  I went over the material scheduled for the day and made appropriate disciplinary interactions, but for some reason, felt no connection with my students.  Hopefully, it was the lingering effects of the sickness and the cold medicine and today, I’ll do a better job in connecting with them.  I really dislike feeling that way, and more so when it’s for all my classes.
I completed eight books in the month of January, which is abut three more than I had planned for.  I’m on pace to complete 96 for the year.  With summer and breaks in the mix, I should be able to finish 100 if I continue with my present efforts.  A shoutout to Book Oblivion for the 100 books per year suggestion.  I thought I was doing well to aim for 52 — a book per week, but it may be possible to double that.  Challenge accepted!
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Yard Sale

1506_405323316216228_14675588_nI’ve finally turned the corner on this deathly virus.  All I’ve been able to do is the bare minimum to be prepared for class and to survive.  I was sick enough to go home early from work Thursday, which for me, means near death.  It seemed a bit narcissistic to call in sick for the blog, but I had to suspend posting until I experienced a turn for the better.
I did finish Paradise Lost.  I’m not sure I feel any more prepared to teach it but I did outline the introduction to our class discussion and was surprised how much I was able to put it all together.  This is one of those works where you really need to trust the author to take you where he wants you to go.  Being familiar with the Scripture is a big help in getting through this tome.  Even though I get the big picture, I feel like I’m missing so much.  It’s really an inexhaustible treasure.
I started listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a couple of days ago.  Absolutely gripping.  The setting is a futuristic dystopian society that is controlled by a cult that has some Christian elements in it.  I haven’t gotten very far into it, but it appears that the ability to sire and bear children is rare due to the collateral damage done by the wars that have plagued that society.  The protagonist is a “handmaid,” one who is set apart to bear children for the wife of one of the commanders.  Anyway, I got to thinking about this book along with a book that came out a couple of years or so ago by Jonathan Last called What To Expect When No One’s Expecting.  For years, the worry among the progressive elites of Western culture has been overpopulation.  But now, the West is experiencing something unprecedented — a demographic death spiral that is taking place throughout the West, as many families have instituted their own voluntary one child policy.  Last forecasts an alarming decline in economic growth, productivity, standard of living, and quality of life.  It’s an eye-opening read.  The juxtaposition of the two books is almost enough to make one paranoid that we are teetering on the edge of a collapse of civilization, and we don’t recognize it.  Quite interesting.  I don’t think Atwood realized that there may be a time when her effort at speculative fiction may be closer to the mark than she thought.
I’m mostly working on sermon preparation for when I preach in two weeks and Latin III translation.  We’ve moved further into Latin than I’ve ever been in this year’s Latin III class, so I’m having to do the translations with pencil and paper before class now rather than just sight read them.  I’m enjoying the challenge and I’m seeing myself become more competent in the language.  My Latin is completely self-taught, so this milestone and challenge is rather gratifying.
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