Monday, May 06, 2013


The Muse and the Marketplace literary conference was this past weekend, and it left me feeling excited about all things writing and bookish.  One of the keynote speakers said, "If you use words to connect the dots in life, you're a writer." I love that idea, and plan to repeat it often (along with it's obvious corollary, "If you use numbers to connect the dots in life, you're an alien." :) )

The Muse left me inspired to write...and to read. In this season of feeling so ready for summer vacation, I love the way books take me somewhere else and expand my horizons in the fifteen minute increments I find to fly through a few pages. So today I'll share some of the great books I've read over the past couple of months, in case you're looking for a fun little get-away, too.

I just finished Life After Life, a novel by Jill McCorkle. It follows a group of people who live in and
around a retirement home. I expected it to be a bit sad, but it surprised me. I was drawn right into these characters and the things they share and remember about their lives: what they miss, mistakes they made, how they work to create a new life now that the old one exists only in their memories. The philosophical questions in this book about living and aging and seasons of life intrigue me.  My favorite character in the book is a former school teacher who posits that deep inside, we're all still eight years old. It's funny to see how she applies that theory and how apt it can be. And my second favorite character is part of a plot twist that caught by totally by surprise. I won't give it away, but it's worth the read just to hear him describe his life strategies. 

Before that, I sped through The Invisible Girls, a memoir by Sarah Thebarge.  This one's a heartbreaker, but in the best way. She shares her story of being diagnosed with breast cancer in her twenties (very unusual), weathering the harsh treatment along with the disappointing ways her friends react to her illness, and then moving Portland, Oregon to get a fresh start. In Portland, she meets a woman from Somalia on a bus, along with the woman's five daughters.  The author's descriptions of witnessing the struggles of this family to survive are the best part of this book. I'd never before considered how hard it is to keep milk from spoiling if you don't know that the refrigerator only works if you keep the door closed. Or how you handle bodily functions if no one shows you how a bathroom works and you now live in a crowded city instead of a rural area.  This book was tough to put down, and I was sad when it was over.

Working backwards through the list, I LOVED the new book from Chip & Dan Heath, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.  I'm a fan of the Heath brothers: I love how they help me broaden my thinking, and this book does a really good job at pointing out how severely most of us narrow our focus when making decisions, ignoring how most things in life aren't nearly as either/or as we make them out to be.  They talk about how we tend to use a spotlight to look at a decision...which does a great job of lighting up a particular area, but leaves everything else in the dark.  They offer strategies to swing that spotlight around a bit and see what other possibilities it reveals.

And finally, I read Rob Bell's latest, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I'm not a Rob Bell devotee: we come from very different places, and some of the rocks he's flipping over in search of spiritual answers are the same ones I was exploring awhile back and decided weren't all that helpful. But I have friends who know him personally and love him, so I try to withhold any strong opinions. (And it wasn't until I read a profile of him in The New Yorker describing him as providing a release valve or sorts in the intense conservative culture of Grand Rapids, Michigan where he founded a church that I understood why he's such a big deal in certain Christian circles.) I liked this book more than expected, but with one caveat: as a writer, I think he needs to step up to the plate and reveal what these ideas mean to him. His writing is quite cerebral, but all the artful phrases don't land anywhere because he doesn't share about himself. He hints at an intense spiritual crisis but never tells us what that looked or felt like, or how he's working through it, or even what it looks like for him to look to his faith in mundane circumstances wondering what to do next and whether life has meaning.  It would be interesting to read an "applied faith" book from him.


James Patrick Conway said...

I find your take on Bell interesting. Friends who attended conservative Christian high schools in Grand Rapids can attest to it's stifling culture, particularly at Calvin College (one of the few Reformed colleges left that still takes their Calvin seriously and literally). I have only read partial summaries and exerts of his prior book, Love Wins, and while I admire his attempts to revive an evangelical understanding of Christian universalism, I felt that he was painting with broad brushes and trying to reach too many different people at once. He was too quick to criticize other forms of Christianity, taking them down without offering his own version and vision of what he wanted to do, and his statements this year seem to indicate that he is floundering in some regards.

I have nothing against universal reconciliation per se, and actually have defended it using Scripture and using evidence from the patristic period of church history. It is what nearly every early church leader believed, and it was not until Augustine that the ground shifted in the other direction. But there are intellectual and creative ways to defend it, and he goes the easy culture reconciling 'God is love' route which actually cheapens the necessity of the Atonement, the Sacrifice, and the life and ministry of Christ. So if he has become more cerebral that is a change I welcome to some extent.

Anyway I won't try and start a theological debate on your blog, and I don't think that was your intention in regards to Bell. I think it is good he is reviving older ideas and trying to place them within a current context, and while I think it is wonderful to look at old doctrines in new ways and question them, one must rely on reason, scripture, and the collected wisdom and traditions of the church. Thats what Chalcedon, Nicaea, and Trent were for, thats what the Reformation and First and Second Vatican Councils were for. You stare inward and ask, 'is this the church Christ would want it to be?' and look to reason, tradition, and faith (through scripture) to answer that question. There are plenty of great Christian thinkers who have arrived at universalist conclusions by asking that question.

I am afraid Bell asked, 'what does the world want the Church to be?' and came to a universalist answer, which is why it came across as so clumsily articulated and immediately polarizing.

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