Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Leading Lives that Matter

Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006. ISBN: 9780802829313.

Leading Lives that Matter is an excellent anthology of readings on living lives of significance. It is a companion piece to William Placher's Callings: Twenty centuries of Christian Wisdom. Placher's book discusses vocation from a theological point of view. Leading Lives that Matter discusses the topic of vocation from a more popular, secular point of view. What the authors mean by secular view is that the readings are drawn more widely than just theological perspectives. The editors draw from a wide selection of authors and professions. Some of these authors are William James, Charles Taylor, Aristotle, Lee Hardy, Homer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Frost, Wendell Berry, John Milton, Amy Tan, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck and others. The authors state, "This anthology is designed for people . . . who want to live lives that matter" (1).

In addition, the authors note, "This anthology seeks to make easily available to readers of all kinds some of the best thinking and writing that human beings have done over the centuries about the very questions that most trouble human beings when they wonder about how to live lives of substance and significance" (7). The authors believe that the reading of this book is like joining the great conversation that reaches back to the Bible and ancient times. It is to enter a conversation about the most important things of life. For example, how can one live a good life, a life full of meaning and purpose.

Leading Lives that Matter are organized around seven key questions:

1. "Are some lives more significant than others?"
2. "Must my job be the primary source of my identity?"
3. Is a balanced life possible and preferable to a life focused primarily on work?"
4. "Should I follow my talents as I decide what to do to earn a living?"
5. "To whom should I listen?"
6. "Can I control what I shall do and become?'
7. "How shall I tell the story of my life?"

Leading Lives that Matter asks important questions. For example, "Should I follow my talents as I decide what to do to earn a living?" It includes some of the greatest thinkers reflecting on that most important topic of how to live our life. The topics addressed in this anthology are topics that should occupy the thoughts of everyone. The reader will be richly rewarded in taking the time to read this book. It includes not only important topics but excellent writings from some of the greatest writers of Western Civilization.

Hearing the Call

Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church and World, essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff; edited by Mark R. Gornik and Gregory Thompson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp. $30.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6525-0.
Reviewed by John E. Shaffett
This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
The Christian Librarian 55(2) 2012/56(1) 2013: 43.
Nicholas Wolterstorff has written many thoughtful works over the years. Hearing the Call is a collection of essays he has written over a fifty year period. “This collection of popular and semi-popular essays” is his response to certain issues he considers of the utmost importance: liturgy, justice, the church, and the world. Wolterstorff stands in the Dutch Reformed tradition and has been influenced by the thought of Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and statesman of the nineteenth century. This book is meant for a wider audience, however. The author and editors chose essays that would be applicable to people outside of the reformed tradition.
The book is divided into four part parts: liturgy, justice, church, and the world. The book also includes two interviews with the author. These interviews and the two autobiographical essays fit in well with the collection of essays. The author and editors have been careful to keep the essays from repeating itself.  Wolterstorff writes clear, understandable prose. Hearing the Call is written for a broad audience and succeeds in addressing key issues that will be clear to this audience.
Some of the key issues addressed in this book are the difference between justice and love. The author believes that all persons bear the image of their creator and that they have certain rights. He shows how justice is emphasized by the Old Testament prophets. Wolterstorff describes how he became confronted with the issue of justice in regards to the Palestinians and the blacks of South Africa. He also addresses the issue of women in the ministry. Other issues addressed by Wolterstorff: patriotism, church architecture, art, economics and many other issues.

Wolterstorff has addressed important issues in a thoughtful way. He has shown how both the liturgy and working for justice is important.  He thinks one of the most important things that the Christian scholar can do is to keep alive the memory of Christian tradition. He draws from this tradition in many of his essays. It is no accident being a teacher for many years that Wolterstorff teaches us many important truths that we need to know.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Walker Percy's Use of Satire

L. Lamar Nisly, "Percy's Edgy Satiric Fiction," in Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, & Pilgrim Wayfarers. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011: 159-186.

A major characteristic of Percy's writing was the use of satire or indirect communication. Nisly notes, "Percy's novels are, at times, wacky and over-the-top and potentially offensive--engaging in a broad satiric comedy" (159). In addition, his use of satire is because of "the stance from which Percy is writing is also from the edge, since his plaintive . . . canary cries point out all sorts of areas in need of correction that he observes from his stance on the margins" (159). Percy has to use indirect communication because the reader's defenses are up. We can choose to not hear the truth.

Nisly points out that Percy's purpose for using satire "is to bring about change, to point out the failings he sees around him in the hopes that they will be rectified" (159). It is easy to mis-interpret what he is doing. One often read in reviews of Percy's work that he is expressing anger at the reader or society. Nisly however, notes, "Percy says, the novelist is 'life-affirming,' but 'before life can be affirmed for the novelist or, his readers, death-in-life must be named.' Showing this 'death-in-life' is, Percy argues, 'a thousand times more life-affirming than all the life-affirming self-help books about me being okay and you being okay and everybody being okay when in fact everybody is not okay, but more likely in deep trouble' (159)." Once can note two points in Percy's books: a diagnosis of what is wrong and clues pointing to recovery. Nisly writes, "As he points out the myriad problems around him, Percy hopes to jolt his wayfaring audience from its malaise and toward a meaningful search" (159). Percy can accomplish this task only through indirect communication.

Another reason for indirect communication and the use of satire was because Percy "sees religious language as 'bankrupt' and 'worn out' in our culture, he recognizes that he cannot speak directly about the spiritual concerns that motivate his writing" (159). This bothers Percy because he wanted the reader to know what he was getting at. He would have preferred to have been more direct. He is, however, more effective when he is using indirect communication. Nisly states, "Percy's satiric approach . . . is his effort to engage indirectly his readers' spiritual malaise" (160). Nisly thinks that Percy, "like O'Connor . . . is distressed about the disbelief he sees around him, but he generally invokes the spiritual concern more obliquely through his dire criticisms of societal wrongs" (160). Percy uses satire to point out something is wrong. He even wrote futuristic, apocalyptic novels to point possible future outcomes to what is wrong now.

Nisly notes that there were four "broad targets for his satire" : Southern stoicism, scientism, "societal ills," and his "criticism of the church failings" (160).

We will look at these four targets in part two of this topic.

Recent Study on How Digital Tools Impact Writing

The Pew Research did a national study to see how digital tools impact student writing. A summary of the study reported:

"A survey of 2,462 Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers finds that
digital technologies are shaping student writing in myriad ways and have also become helpful tools for
teaching writing to middle and high school students. These teachers see the internet and digital
technologies such as social networking sites, cell phones and texting, generally facilitating teens’
personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging
teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations. At the
same time, they describe the unique challenges of teaching writing in the digital age, including the
“creep” of informal style into formal writing assignments and the need to better educate students about
issues such as plagiarism and fair use."

See the link below for the full report.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Mind that is Catholic

James V. Schall, The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays. Catholic University Press, 2008. 337 pages. ISBN 9780813215419

James V. Schall is one of my favorite authors. I have read most of his books multiple times. The Mind that is Catholic is one of my favorite books authored by Father Schall. This book is made up of "academic essays" written by Schall from as early as 1957 to those published more recently. Schall explains his purpose for this book in the introductory chapter: "All of the essays in this book, I think, circle around the same point, that things do fit together, that reason is very powerful in its own order, but that, at its best, . . . it leaves us with a certain longing, a certain unsettlement, an abiding intellectual search. At the same time, it is possible to think with a knowledge of  belief in revelation without thereby harming reason or its legitimate powers. What I suggest . . . we think better . . . when both are taken into account" (3).

The Mind that is Catholic is divided into seven parts. The first part explains what is a Catholic Mind. Schall says that "though C. S. Lewis was not a Catholic, I think his mind was" (10). In other words, one does not have to be a Catholic to have a Catholic mind. What is a Catholic mind? According to Schall, a Catholic mind is to "hold the truth because it it knows that it is itself mind open to what is, to what is true from whatever source its evidence might arise, even from common sense, even from reason, yes, even from the revelation hand down to us" (18). Schall believes that both faith and reason are compatible and that one without the other is inadequate. In other words, we need both in our search for truth.

In part two Schall analyzes the importance of Plato. Chapter six discusses Plato's Republic. In this chapter he discusses the uniqueness of Socrates. Schall notes that Socrates tells Glaucon that "to speak knowing the truth, among prudent and dear men, about what is greatest and dear, is a thing that is safe and encouraging" (79). Socrates also teaches us it is better to suffer evil than to do evil. In chapter six, Schall reflects on the death of Socrates. He begins the chapter with a quote from Cicero's On Old Age: "But there is another sort of old age too: the tranquil and serene evening of a life spent in peaceful, blameless, enlightened pursuits. Such, we are told, were the last years of Plato, who died in his eighty-first year while still actively engaged in writing" (80). Schall thinks a college student who doesn't seriously study Plato while in college wasted his education.

Part three discusses friendship. Chapter eighth describes Aristotle's ideas on friendship from his ethics. This chapter on Aristotle's teaching on friendship is excellent. Schall writes, "Two of the most beautiful treatises from the ancient world are on the same subject--friendship. One is by Aristotle in books 8 and 9 of his Ethics; the other is by Cicero" (105). Aristotle's reflections on friendship, Schall points out, "have metaphysical implications of the deepest sort grounded in what is" (112-113). Friendship is one of the great gifts of God. It especially beneficial when you can share the most important things with friends. Aristotle also teaches that we are social and political animals. The next chapter distinguishes between justice and friendship. Chapter nine analyzes the Trinity and how "God is not alone" (128).

Part four focuses on philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages.Chapter eleven's theme is "the point of political philosophy." Schall quotes from Josef Pieper: "The framework of 'Christian Philosophy' . . . is that in Christ man received an intelligence which relates to the whole of the universe and of existence, and therefore by definition concerns anyone who engages in philosophizing--and, which, moreover, is valid by virtue of a superhuman claim to truth. Should anyone reject this premise, he must in consistency regard 'Christian Philosophy,' however one defines it, as meaningless. The whole of medieval philosophy must remain inaccessible to him, as far as its sole underlying motiff is concerned" (151). Medieval philosophy takes both reason and revelation seriously. They believed they addressed each other. Chapter twelve shows how Medieval philosophy "possessed . . . both a reason and a revelation." This chapter discusses the relationship of revelation and reason. The next chapter explains how Aquinas defended "ordinary things." Schall shows how the divine is found in simple, ordinary things. Schall even argues that it is Christianity that will save philosophy. One is reminded that to reason is an act of faith. The author also says that Christians should "love philosophy for its own sake" (179). Schall concludes the chapter: "If the human mind cannot reach reality, there is no mind in things, if the only world that is, is the world that we project within our wills, it follows, it would seem, that there is nothing we can receive. We are, in that case, the criterion and content of our own existence" (188).

Other sections discuss the "implications of Catholic thought." For example, one chapter compares the realism of Augustine and Machiavelli. This was an interesting chapter. It shows how Augustine is a better guide to political things than Machiavelli. Another chapter reviews a book that is a defense of Christian Humanism. Part six describes how sports and philosophy are related. It also includes a chapter on the alternative to a just war. The last section looks at the implications of the earlier chapters. An excellent chapter in this section is the one "On choosing not to see." We can wilfully refuse to see the truth. The appendix includes a recent interview with Father Schall.

The Mind that is Catholic is another excellent book from the pen of James V. Schall. Father Schall recently retired from teaching at the age of eighty-five. He , however, will continue to teach through his books.

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L' Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Square Fish, 2007, 245 pages. ISBN 9780312367541.

A Wrinkle in Time was originally published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1962. A year before I was born. Pamela Paul in her review of the book said it was rejected 26 times before being accepted by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. It won the 1963 Newbery Medal, an award for the top children's book of the year. The book is science fiction which tends to be read more by boys than girls. My daughter, however, loved it. The story's principal character is Meg, a girl wrestling with her identity. The book was probably written originally to appeal to young girls struggling with their own personal identity. The book, howver, is loved by both boys and girls.

The story is about Meg's father, a scientist, who has been missing for two years. Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her friend, Calvin O'Keefe go on a journey to find and rescue her father. Ultimately, Meg has to face the monster, "IT," on her own. The place where her father is held prisoner is a place where everyone has lost their freedom to IT, a disembodied brain. It reminded me of C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. Some major themes of the book are individuality, friendship, loyalty, and courage.

A Wrinkle in Time is a good read aloud book. I read it to my children and they loved it. They have become interested in science fiction. I do not think you have to love science fiction to enjoy the book. L"Engle is an excellent writer and tells a good story. A Wrinkle in Time celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year and continued to be read and enjoyed by both kids and adults.

The edition I read includes "An Appreciation" by Anna Quindlan, a children's author. Quindlen notes, "The most memorable books from our childhoods are those that make us feel less alone, convince us that our own foibles and quirks are both as individual as a fingerprint and as universal as a open hand. That's why I still have a copy of A Wrinkle in Time that was given me when I was twelve years old. . . . The girl who first owned it has grown up and changed, but the book she loved, though battered, is still magical" (1). We can see the big difference this book has made on Quindlan's life.

In the last part of the book is an interview with the author, Madeleine L'Engle. It also includes her 1963 Newbery Medal acceptance speech.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Walker Percy: The Writer as Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers Part 2

In the first part of this blog we summarized the process of Percy's conversion to the Catholic faith. In part two we want to summarize Percy's life after conversion and his role as a "Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers."

After becoming a Catholic Percy would move to Covington, Louisiana where he will spend the rest of his life. Covington is a suburb in New Orleans. I am very familiar this area since it is about twenty minutes from where I attended Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. I even have relatives that live in this area. Nisly says that when Percy settled in Covington in 1948 the city had a population of 6,000 people. Nisly points out how Covington is on the "margins" of the Bible Belt and the Catholic South. Nisly notes, "Covington is strategically located on the border between the Bible Belt and the Creole-French-Italian-German South. The two cultures interpentetrate. Living on the line between Catholic southern Louisiana and the Protestant Bible Belt northern section allows Percy a vantage point from which he observes and critiques both cultures" (147). From Percy,s writings one notices his familiarity with both Protestant and Catholic culture. Actually, two protestant cultures are seen in his writings: Liberal and fundamentalist. Though he disagrees with fundamentalism, he seems to share certain sympathies with them.

Percy's biographer Tolson "argues that Percy specifically decided to write from within a community" (147). Percy did not want to be like other writers who purposely separated themselves from community. Nisly writes, "Thus, despite the fact that Percy wanted and needed to maintain his space so that he could write, he and his family forged significant relationships within the community and the local Catholic church" (147). Percy was both a member of the community but keep enough space to view the culture critically. Nisly notes, "Percy was both engaged in and separate from his larger community; he was both an involved participant and an outside observer and critic" (147). Is this Percy acting in the analyst role?

Percy wrote to Shelby Foote in 1970: "If it weren't for Ann [his daughter] and her attachments here, in fact, I'd be long gone. After twenty-three years here, I am more of an outsider than the first day I arrived" (151). Nisly, however, thinks "Percy's choice of Covington, with its liminal position, models well his own sense of the writer's position--living on the edge, observing those around him, critiqing what is amiss. Because of this stance, Percy saw himself as writing for people in a similar position, readers without a firm home but in need of solid moorings" (151). Maybe, this is why some people argue that Percy never found his answer. Percy's life seem to be faith seeking understanding. The condition of the wayfarer is a prominent theme in the writings of Percy. Even his brother observed in an interview that "The Search" was Percy's constant theme or central theme.

Percy believes the church is a "Pilgrim Church." Percy saw that the Church had survived for over 2,000 years and he believed it would "continue to do so." Percy saw his role as "both committed member and outsider . . . to attack satirically the wrongs he sees inside and outside the Church" (154). One thinks of Erasmus, but also Sir Thomas Moore who is a major character is some of Percy's novels.

Nisly points out that unlike Flannery O' Connor Percy "envisioned a greater affinity between himself and his audience than did O'Connor"(154). According to Brinkmeyer, "Percy seems to have imagined two potential audiences: "an alienated reader who knows he is alienated and an alienated reader who imagines that he is not" (155). This is one of the reasons that Percy uses indirect communication. He also thinks words wear out so Christian vocabulary loses its meaning and effectiveness. Nisly thinks Percy sees his reader "much like himself before his conversion, a reader who is uncertain about the way forward but is unable or unwilling to admit, perhaps even to him or herself, that he or she finds no clear meaning in life" (155). Percy's fiction tends to put the main character in a predicament where he finds a way out. He likes to leave the end of the novel open. Percy seems to be in a conversation with the reader. He wants them to realize their predicament and the need to turn to God. Percy, however, does this through indirect communication. Percy wrote about this very thing in More Conversations with Walker Percy (942):
     My theory of literature and art is that the best transaction that can take place is when the reader or viewer      is told something he doesn't know he knows. The good thing that happens is that the reader has the shock      of recognition. He says, "oh yeah, that's the way it is." It's a curious combination. My medical career has        something to do with it. [...] It was a diagnostic search I made, to find out what had gone wrong, and I          found unconsciously I transferred that mind-set to writing novels and other kinds of writing where there is
     something wrong in the world, something wrong with society, something wrong with the times. [...] What
     makes [writing] really exciting is that I'm exploring the novel for myself as well as the reader. [155]

Nisly thinks Percy's writing became more explicit over time. Nisly notes, "His earlier novels are more intent on connecting with his wayfaring reader and hinting at the way to avoid despair; his later novels more clearly point toward Percy's belief that Christian conversion is the antidote to our culture's rootlessness" (155). This is true to a point. Percy, throughout his writings are pointing to the good news of salvation. On the other hand, his writing is exploratory, exploring different ideas in his writing. It is hard to know if Percy is shooting straight. He probably learned this from Kierkegaard.

The last part of this chapter Nisly describes Percy as "The Writer as Canary." Percy mentions this role in different parts of his writing. The idea is that the mine workers took a canary with them down in the mines. The canary would issue a warning if anything goes wrong and they need to get out of the mine quick. Nisly notes, "Percy describes his role as writer to serve as a canary in a mineshaft, to sound a warning when problems arise" (156). In a letter to Caroline Gordon Percy writes, "Actually I do not consider myself a novelist but a moralist and a propagandist" (156). One must balance this statement with other statements made by Percy. He did see himself as a novelist and what he was doing was art. Percy continues: "What I really want to do is to tell people what they must do and what they must believe if they want to live" (156). Like the other, this statement must be taken in context with other Percy writing. In other places, he writes that he doesn't want to edify, alluding to Kierkegaard. Nisly notes, "he [Percy] says numerous times that as a novelist, his role is not to 'edify the reader' but rather to participate with the reader in his or her journey" (156).

Percy often noted that his work as a novelist was "informed by his Catholic faith" (156). Nisly states that throughout his career Percy gave different viewpoints on what he was doing in his writing. Percy writes, the "novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn about present ills and so avert the end" (156-157). This seems to be the role of the prophet. Percy thinks the novelist should "explore the darker recesses of the human heart, there to name and affirm the strange admixture of good and evil, the action of the demoniac, the action of grace" (157). Percy also sees himself as a "diagnostician, a person who stands toward another person in the relation of one who knows that something as gone wrong with the other. He, the physician-novelist, has a nose for pathology" (157). It seems that Percy saw himself serving different roles throughout his writing life. Percy thought that "the role of a serious fiction writer in our time is" 'nothing less than an exploration of the options of [...] a man who not only is in Crusoe's predicament, a castaway of sorts, but who is also acutely aware of his predicament" (157). Percy saw his role as pointing out that something has gone wrong and point the way out of this fix.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Presbyterian Beliefs: A Brief Introduction

Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Beliefs: A Brief Introduction. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2003. 126 pages. ISBN 9780664502539

What do Presbyterians believe? Donald K. McKim, a life-long Presbyterian seeks to answer this question. McKim is Academic and Reference Editor for Westminster John Knox Press. He is the author and editor of several books, including Introducing the Reformed Faith, Theological Turning Points, and the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.

McKim, in Presbyterian Beliefs introduces the major beliefs of Presbyterians. Chapter one covers revelation. He distinguishes "general" and "Special Revelation." In chapter two, McKim presents the Presbyterian beliefs on the trinity. Chapters three and four discuss creation and providence. McKim notes, "The purpose of creation stories is not to tell us how God created; their purpose is to tell us that God created all things--'all things visible and invisible' " (22). In chapter four McKim states that the doctrine of providence is intended to comfort Christians.

In part two, chapters five through ten, McKim discusses human beings, sin, Christ, the Holy Spirit, election, and salvation. Human are created in the image of God. McKim says that because of original sin, humans "possess a sinful nature which we are totally unable to change by ourselves" (50). In chapter seven the author discusses Christology. He writes that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human. In the chapter on election and predestination, McKim stresses there have been differences among leading reformed theologians, such as John Calvin, Calvin's followers, and Karl Barth. McKim states that "Election, or predestination, is another way of saying that we are saved by God's grace. It seems that the strong doctrines of election and predestination have been softened in this chapter. The author disagrees with double predestination. The author asserts, "We do not sit around speculating about whether or not God has elected us before all eternity to be saved. . . . We ask ourselves: Do I believe in Jesus Christ?" (74).  McKIm states that "A basic instinct of Presbyterian belief is that God is the one who takes the initiative" (78). I think even classical arminianism will agree with this idea. Another distinctive view of the Presbyterians is that a believer will not lose their salvation. This is known as the perseverance of the saints.

In part three McKim discusses the Church, the Christian Life, and the Future Life. He states that Christian life can begin in the church and be nourished in the church. He distinguishes between the visible and invisible church. McKim says that Presbyterians recognize two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. These two sacraments nourish the faith. In chapter twelve Mckim states that "Sanctification means the development of our spiritual character, the nature of who we are as Christians" (103). He disagrees with the idea that we can achieve sinless perfection in this life. The last chapter discusses last things. The author does not believe we can select a date when God's kingdom will come in His fulness. He even says Jesus spoke against doing this very thing. Instead, we must live our lives in expectancy that His coming can come at any time.

McKim's Presbyterian Beliefs: A Brief Introduction is a good introduction to basic Christian beliefs. It shows distinctive doctrines of Presbyterians, but emphasizes beliefs it has in common with other Christians. It would be a good guide for new Christians or a new member's class for Presbyterians. A good book to follow this one for Presbyterians would be McKim's book, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers: Exploring Christian Faith. This book goes in a little more detail in discussing distinctive Presbyterian beliefs and practices. I recommend both books.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Separation of Church and State

Robert P. George has written an excellent book on politics and religion: The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis. I highly recommend it. I ran across a short 3 minute clip in which he addressed the separation of church and state. See the link below for access to this video.

What should be the relationship between the church and state? Are the people with religious views excluded from participating in the government? Are religious views only for the private sector? What is the true interpretation of the First amendment? These are important questions that are addressed in this video.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Walker Percy: The Writer as Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers

L. Lamar Nisly, "Walker Percy: The Writer as Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers," in Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, & Pilgrim Wayfarers: Constructions of Audience and Tone in O'Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011.

Nisly in this chapter on Walker Percy explores the biography of Walker Percy and how he became a "diagnostic canary to pilgrim wayfarers." He shows how Percy and O'Connor are similar in some ways, and different in other ways. O'Connor looks at her audience as hostile to her message. Percy, in contrast, sees his audience "as more indifferent, or even confused, than hostile" (137). The author argues, "Percy's view of the author as canary and the reader as pilgrim wayfarer have both been shaped in conversation with his choice of Catholic community and his response to the Second Vatican Council" (138).

Nisly summarizes biographical information that have been narrated in the two standard biographies on Percy. For example, Percy grew up in Birmingham till his father committed suicide. His paternal grandfather had also committed suicide. They eventually moved in with his cousin who he called Uncle Will. Percy's mother died soon after moving in with Uncle Will in Greenville, Mississippi. He shows how uncle Will was a major influence on his life. How Percy went to University of North Carolina and later to medical school at Columbia University. Percy was struck with tuberculosis and took over two years to recover spending the time in reading. He soon after recovering would decide to become a novelist, married, converted to the Catholic church and moved to Covington, Louisiana.

What is interesting in the description of narrating Percy's life is the events that might have led to Walker becoming a Christian. Percy was raised in a liberal Presbyterian church and he would eventually become an agnostic before beginning college. Nisly writes, "From a religious perspective, Percy's parents reflected the late nineteenth-century Protestant rationalism. Although Roy, Percy's father, came from an Episcopal background, he followed his wife Mattie Sue into the Presbyterian church" (139). This church would later split and the Percy family "left with the liberal wing that emphasized the Social Gospel over supernaturalism" (140).  The pastor denied the importance of the virgin birth and the resurrection "as proofs of Jesus' divinity" (140).  Walker attended church and Sunday school weekly.

The move to Greenville, Mississippi was not only "an immersion in the Old South for Walker Percy, it also marked a massive shift in religious affiliation" (141). The author mentioned earlier in the chapter that Birmingham, Alabama was the New South. The first Catholic influence on Walker's life would be his uncle Will. Nisly notes, "Will surprised his parents by his deep devotion to Catholicism" (144). He even thought about becoming a priest but was discouraged by his parents who thought it was foolishness. Despite the discouragement from his parents, Will continued to "be intensely religious, yet even in this stage, 'never for a moment, was my belief without doubt' (141)." These doubts grew more intense when his brother was "accidentally killed." Though Will continued to have great admiration for the church and its traditions, he did not consider himself a believer. He seemed to deny the supernaturalism of the church. Walker Percy said his uncle, "regarded the Catholic church as a purely human institution with a noble history and a great store of wisdom" (142).

Nisly writes that Will "exposed Percy early in his teen years to a different faith tradition from liberal Protestantism" (142). Percy spoke of Will's Catholicism: "And my uncle Will was a Catholic, a lapsed Catholic; he didn't go to church but he was always talking about the great Catholic tradition" (142). Nisly notes that Walker Percy "came to a deep acceptance of traditional Catholic faith instead of Will's skepticism, one could argue that Uncle Will provided Percy with a model for maintaining enough distance from a Church tradition to critique it even while recognizing its benefits" (142). This idea is important to the point Nisly is making in this chapter. He notes how Percy, a committed Christian, was able to critique both the church and the world. He was in the world, but not of the world. In some sense, he was on the margins.

A second Catholic influence was during Percy's undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina. Percy writes about this influence: "When I was in college, I lived in the attic of a fraternity house with four other guys. God, religion, was the furthest thing from our minds and talk--from mine, at least. [Percy at this time was committed to scientism--the idea that science can answer all our questions. One wonders if Percy's life was a search for certainty.] Except for one of us, a fellow who got up every morning at the crack of dawn and went to mass" (144). He also went to medical school with two Catholic students who influenced him. Nisly notes, "Although Percy was not even considering conversion at this point, these friends provided an alternative model to his Scientism when Percy began to question his beliefs" (144).

Another major Catholic influence occurred when he was in the sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. There was also a Catholic patient there who debated with him over Christian belief. Nisly states, "Percy spent much time reading. In part, though, his reading was directed through his debates with another patient, Arthur Fortugno, who was Catholic. In his desire to win these debates, Percy began reading Augustine and Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky" (144). When they were well enough, Percy even attended the Catholic church with Fortugno. Nisly states, "These readings and conversations began to show Percy some of the short comings of science" (144). He must have read at this time how Kierkegaard was unsatisied with Hegel's thought: "Hegel told everything about the world except one thing: what it is to be a man and to live and die" (144). The author thinks "Percy was feeling a need for a deeper meaning in life than he could find through science" (144). This makes sense since this is the time that Percy began to read Kierkegaard and other existentialist writers. The author notes, "Through this process of reading and reflection, Percy began to be drawn to a faith commitment" (144).

As an aside, Percy "underwent psychoanalysis with Janet Rioch, to sort through some of the difficulties he had experienced" (143). This was also a requirement of medical school. This process was to find out "what ailed him." He said after doing this for over three years at five times a week, they still didn't know. Then he had the experience of tuberculosis. This eventually would cause his giving up the career of medical practice and deciding what to do with the rest of his career. In the sanatorium he had much time to think of eternal issues.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An Introduction to the Apostle Paul

Anthony C. Thiselton, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought. Downer's Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 190 pages. ISBN 9780830838813.

Thiselton's The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought sets out to provide an introduction to the life and thought of Apostle Paul in less than 200 pages. I assume that since it is an introduction it is intended for the beginning college or seminary student. Thistelton is a well-known theologian and is especially known for his work on hermeneutics. He has also written a major commentary on First Corintians. He is professor of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham.

The first two chapters look at possible obstacles to appreciating the work of the apostle Paul. In the first chapter he discusses how some see a difference between the apostle Paul and Jesus. Actually, some would even insist that Paul invented modern Christianity. Thiselton shows how the teachings of Paul and Jesus are similar. The second obstacle discussed in chapter two is how Paul experienced a radical conversion and how the idea of the new creation is prominent in Paul's writings. Many people have not experienced a radical conversion like Paul. Can his ideas speak to them? Thiselton states, "Whether they have experienced a sudden conversion or a gradual process of renewal, all Christians have shared together in God's act of new creation" (11). Some denominations emphasize an instantaneous conversion experience; while other denominations emphasize it as a gradual process. Which one is true? Probably, both is true. There is a moment when by faith we become new creatures in Christ. We might not recognize the exact moment when this occurred. We can equally overemphasize this instantaneous conversion experience and neglect the Biblical teaching that salvation is a life-long process.

Chapters three and four discuss the life of the Apostle Paul. Thiselton uses the timeline of acts and the undisputed letters of Paul to narrate Paul's life. He discusses the three missionary journeys and Paul's letter writing.

The meat of the book is chapters five through sixteen where he discusses Paul's theology. In chapters five through seven, Thiselton analyses Paul's understanding of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Chapter five discusses Paul's teaching on Jesus Christ. He notes, "Paul's favorite term for Jesus is Lord. But, . . . what Lord means in practical terms is most clearly seen in Paul's correlative term slave or servant" (38). In other words, Jesus cannot be our savior if He is not our Lord. Chapter six presents Paul's teaching on the trinity. He admits, "We find admittedly no fully-fledged doctrine of the Holy Trinity in Paul, but Paul says enough about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit to see that cooperate, and none is a created creature" (57).

Paul's anthropology is discussed in chapters nine and ten. In chapter nine he explains what it means to be created in the image of God. He also defends the importance of the body and voices opposition to gnosticism. In addition he explains different terms used by Paul: body, soul, and spirit. Paul's teaching on sin and separation from God is discussed in the next chapter. Chapter ten emphasizes the cross in the work of Christ. He writes, "For Paul the cross of Christ became the focal point of everything" (82).

Chapters eleven through sixteen discusses the Church, "the ministry of the word," sacraments, ethics, and end times. The author emphasizes the importance of the church and states that the church should be translated as the assembled ones instead of the called out ones. In chapter thirteen he discusses the ministry of women and states that Paul "gives prominent place to the ministry of women" (114). On the chapter on the sacraments, Thiselton argues "In a first generation church, it is as much an assumption to believe that infants of Christians would be excluded from the covenant, as to assume that 'households' did or did not include infants, as well as slaves" (122). This seems to suggest that there is evidence for both infant and believer's baptism. The last chapter on the "parousia" implies or teaches the necessity for ethics. We must live in expectancy of Jesus' return. Chapter seventeen discusses Paul and postmodernism. This should have been put in an appendix.

Thistelton's The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought does an excellent job of introducing the main lines of Paul's thought. He is a respected theologian and applies Paul's thought to modern times. He is knowledgeable of modern scholarship on Paul. This reviewer wonders if the reader needs some background in the Apostle Paul before tackling this book.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Percy's Lost in the Cosmos

Victor K. Kramer, "Lost in the Cosmos: Memory, Sacramentality, and Commitments in the Present."

Kramer argues that Percy in Lost in the Cosmos investigates what has gone wrong with contemporary man, why individuals are dislocated, "and how, through a sacramental awareness (especially through friendship and commitment to others), we might begin again to find our way" (68). Kramer edited with Lewis A. Lawson Conversations with Walker Percy and More Conversations with Walker Percy. He is emeritus professor of English at Georgia State University.

Kramer argues that Percy characters "have frequently lost the ability to discern what it means to live in a particular place" and how to live sacramentally in the world. This means the ability to grasp the transcendent in the ordinary. Two of the main reasons why humans are lost is consumption and abstraction. Humans cloud the present "with abstractions" or focus their attention on some "future utopia."

Kramer also notes how Percy voices opposition to scientism. The idea that science is the only form of knowing and that it can explain everything which eliminates all mystery. Percy believes that both science and art are ways of knowing. He thinks novels are a way of knowing.

In the first part of Lost in the Cosmos Percy describes what is wrong with modern man. Percy was a medical doctor before contracting tuberculosis. He had to give up his pan on being a doctor. Instead, he took up the vocation of a novelist. A strong element of both his fiction and non-fiction is a diagnosis of what is wrong. Percy's purpose is redemptive. We cannot cure what it wrong until we diagnose it. This is what he does in the first part of Lost in the Cosmos. Kramer notes, "Percy investigates many of the sicknesses of the present moment which bring about our forgetfulness and thus cause individual persons to be lost. . . . [Percy] suggest that if individuals are to find themselves, it will be possible only if they learn to live well in the present" (68). One of the myths of modern man is "the autonomous self," according to Percy. This myth prevents humankind from finding their true self. Percy's writings contain satire, irony, and paradox. For example, to find your self, you have to stop looking for it or as the Bible says, unless a man dies, he shall not live. The Bible says those who save their lives shall lose it, and so on. This is the kind of idea you find in Percy;s writings. Percy's Lost in the Cosmos can help the reader gain a sacramental view of the world. It can open up their minds that God can be experienced in the ordinary.

The middle section of the book Percy presents a primer on semiotics. Percy presents his ideas of the mystery of language that was influenced by the writings of Charles Peirce. Many of these writings are collected in The Message in the Bottle. Kramer writes, Percy believes we have lost contact with the uniqueness of persons and the "sacramental view of life." Percy thinks we can develop a theory of man from the study of language. He argues for a triadic view of language. Percy insisted in all his writings that humans are unique and other-centered. We cannot know our own selves without the other. We are born for relationship with others. Kramer notes, "How does one begin to find oneself? Percy hints that reverence for, and with, other persons is the answer" (73).

Kramer suggests that humankind could not receive the good news of the Gospel directly. It must be communicated indirectly. Kramer states, "These people are perfectly happy to be just what they are, and certainly they do not want to be disturbed by news from some other realm. Yet I think what Percy is telling his readers, over and over, is precisely this: we are lost because we refuse news of the transcendent, and we miss the news because we forget who we are--persons with responsibilities to other persons" 74). I think Percy, in some sense, is doing pre-evangelism. He is clearing the ground so people can hear the good news of salvation and be saved. Of course, one can take this too far. Percy is both an artist and has a deep desire for people to see the transcendent in the ordinary.

In the last section of Lost in the Cosmos Percy writes a fictional story of a "Space Odyssey." He presents two options to the reader. One is to leave earth and begin a new civilization somewhere else. The alternate choice is to go to Lost Cove, Tennessee with less than perfect human beings. Percy clearly sides with those who remain on earth. Kramer writes, "Percy's sentiments are clearly with the characters who choose to remain on Earth with all its troubles. The real difficulty . . . is to see the world as both mysterious and sacramental" (78).

One can see some similarities in Percy's view and Augustine's City of God. We cannot make a perfect city on earth. Earth is not our final destination. We were made for God and a relationship with Him. Kramer states that Percy "wants his readers to realize . . . that the entire cosmos is given us to celebrate, be in wonder of. Yet the only way to understand (or even begin to make sense) of that world is to enter into it" (80). Extreme abstraction or consumption is not the way to live in the world. We must live with a sacramental view of the world recognizing the transcendent in the ordinary.

Reading the Bible & the Confessions

Jack Rogers, Reading the Bible & the Confessions: the Presbyterian Way, Geneva Press, 1999.

Jack Rogers has taught and written on the history of "biblical and confessional interpretation" for many years. He has also been a moderator of the Presbyterian church and involved in developing guidelines for interpreting scripture and confessions of the church. In Reading the Bible & the Confessions, Rogers presents seven principles for interpreting the scripture and confessions.

First, "Jesus Christ with his redemptive gospel is the central theme of Scripture and the Confessions." Second, we should focus on the plain sense of Scripture. Third, we should depend on the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Fourth, "we should be guided by the great themes of Scripture that are the confessional consensus of the church." Fifth, all our interpretations should be controlled by love. Sixth, the church must study the Bible and the confessions in their "original historical and cultural context." "Each particular passage of the Bible and the Confessions needs to be interpreted in the light of the whole message of Scripture."

My favorite sentence in the book is "We all, each day, interpret what we read, view, and experience" or the title of chapter one: "Everyone Interprets." This statement suggests the central importance of hermeneutics. Rogers states, "In reality, we all have been doing hermeneutics every day of our lives without knowing it." Interpretation is human. Rogers look at historical controversies in the Presbyterian church and how they resolve them. The particular issues analysed are slavery, segregation, women in the ministry, and divorce and remarriage. He thinks these events can help us resolve controversial issues of our own day. This seems a little too optimistic. For example, the issue of homosexuality is splitting denominations left and right and no resolutions seems in sight.

These seven principles of interpretation are a good guide for interpreting the Scriptures and the Confessions. From its beginning, Christianity looked to a Rule of Faith to help it interpret the Scriptures. Confessions and creeds are still helpful guides in interpreting the Scriptures. It is important to realize that everyone interprets. No one's interpretation is infallible. The Scriptures might be infallible, but human interpreters are not. We must discuss our disagreements with civility and charity.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Heidelberg Catechism

G. I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide. PR Publishing, 1993.

The Heidelberg Catechism was first published in 1563 and has been used by Christians world-wide. It is a good companion to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Heidelberg Confession seems more personal than the Westminster. For example, Question one asks, What is your comfort in life and death? A. "That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . ."
This study guide of the catechism is very helpful. Williamson has also published study guides for the Westminster Confession of Faith and the larger and shorter catechisms.

The Heidelberg catechism is divided into fifty-two Lord's Day readings. They are short enough to read in morning devotions in 52 consecutive days or spread out. Each chapter has two or more questions and answers and then a short two to three pages commentary on the questions. In addition, it includes study or discussion questions at the end. The commentary explains the catechism for the modern reader and apllies it to modern times.

I read through the book during morning devotions. This is my first time to read the Heidelberg catechism and I found it to be a trustworthy guide to the scriptures. The commentary by Williamson helps to explain the catechism. This book would be a good book to use in a church class, study group, or on one own.

American Theological Library Association Annual Conference

Two weeks ago I attended The American Theological Library Association Annual Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. I presented a paper, "Theological Librarianship as a Ministry" at the conference. My paper explored the idea of theological librarianship as a calling, a vocation, and a ministry. It sought to show that accepting this idea brings meaning and fulfillment to our work.

Two of the plenary speakers at the conference were Peter Ochs and William H. Willimon. Ocs is professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia. Willimon is the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. The presentations by these men were excellent. Ochs spoke on "Information, Reason, and Wisdom in Inter-religious Communication." He expounded on Psalm 42 and paid special attention to the phrase, "deep calls to deep." He drew on the work of Nathan Shedroff, John Dewey, and Charles Pierce. In his presentation, he distinguished between information, knowledge, and wisdom. He noted that wisdom, ultimately, "must be gained by one's self." Ochs also discussed ways to get along with others when our deepest beliefs differ.

Willimon spoke on technology and time. He asserted that technology must be viewed critically, not passively.    He insisted that instead of controlling technology, it usually controlled us. Technology speeds things up. It also "annihilates space." His paper emphasized the importance of place and the incarnation. There is the temptation to escape time. In addition, he noted the danger of speeding up seminary education. Willimon made the comment that it takes three years to complete a seminary education and a whole life to finish.

There was an interesting discussion that followed his presentation. Some of the librarians voiced opposition to his critical view of technology. It seems when individuals argue that technology needs to be critically evaluated, it is often vehemently opposed. In the opinion of this reviewer, technology is too often accepted passively. The church needs to develop a theology of technology. We must not allow ourselves to become the servants of technology.

One of my favorite workshops I attended was "Teaching Analytical Reading Skills and Reading Strategies to Seminary Students." The presenter was Laura Harriss, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Iliff School of theology. She asked the audience, how many were taught analytic reading skills in school. Very few raised their hands. She thought that most teachers assume that students already know how to read analytically. This reminds me of Mortimer Adler's book, How to Read a Book. Some of the things she said was similar. Many people do not understand there are different levels of reading. Her presentation was divided into four parts: 1. Read and Mark the article. 2. Complete an outline of the article. 3. Create an argument map. 4. Evaluate the article. The presentation was well done and I gained some important ideas from it.