As a pioneering work, D. T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series) deserves a five. I’ve rated it a couple rungs lower because I found it toug...moreAs a pioneering work, D. T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series) deserves a five. I’ve rated it a couple rungs lower because I found it tough to plow through. First published in London in 1927, it contributed to Suzuki’s well-deserved reputation as the foremost exponent of Zen Buddhism in the West. It’s been on my “to read” list since 1969. At that time, I found it impenetrable. But I hoped these many years later to approach it with a greater depth of funded experience, and to take my understanding of Zen, and my appreciation for Zen, to a new level. I was able to stick it out cover-to-cover. But, sad to say, I didn’t gain much in the way of understanding or appreciation—though, to be sure, what I already have by way of Zen understanding and Zen appreciation can be credited to Suzuki round about.
I did discover a line on page 236 which I’ve added to my Goodreads quotes: “It is like driving a cart; when it moveth not, wilt thou whip the cart or the ox?” Nangaku Yejo (Nan-yüeh Hai-jang).
Karl Marlantes has written a good book. Like many a good book (including the Good Book), it raises more questions than it answers. Like many a good bo...moreKarl Marlantes has written a good book. Like many a good book (including the Good Book), it raises more questions than it answers. Like many a good book (including the Good Book) it is a prophetic word (“a real deed”)—one that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
I’ve been hearing that combat veterans experience Marlantes’ book as life giving, and that many combat veterans have experienced it as a true life saver. I can see how that is so. Marlantes is open and honest about his ego-shattering, soul-crushing experiences related to his service as a Marine in combat in Vietnam—a story that includes his early years growing up in Oregon, his recruitment and military training, his tour of duty, his return home, and his decades-long search for emotional and spiritual healing and wholeness.
I can imagine how a miner trapped by a cave-in, alone in the dark, injured, suffocating, might feel to hear a tapping in the rocks that says, “We are here for you!” And I can imagine that’s how it is for a combat veteran reading Marlantes’ book. It’s a good book. And it’s doing a good work.
It is also a profoundly disturbing book. And that also makes it a good book doing a good work. The book is disturbing on many levels. It is a disturbing unveiling (an apocalypsis) of the systemic evil that is our military-industrial complex. It is a disturbing tally of the cost of war in terms of lives lost and humanity lost. It is a disturbing wakeup call to our society’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the true evil of war, the true cost of war, and (Marlantes argues) the true need for war and our true responsibility to our warriors.
It is also a disturbing gaze into the spiritually bankrupt state of our modern religious institutions. There is the story of an ineffectual Navy chaplain. There is the story of a Catholic priest who attempts to expel demons, only to stir up an evil presence, requiring the urgent intervention of a Native American healer. Furthermore, in telling his story, in living it out, Marlantes has delved into philosophy, depth psychology, mythology (Hindu, Greek, Norse), and mysticism―as if to say, Sunday School isn’t the answer.
But what is the answer? Out of his years of pain and reflection, Marlantes has hard-won wisdom to offer on the subject of equipping a new breed of warrior to meet the horrific emotional and spiritual dangers of modern warfare. But the wisdom he offers is itself disturbing. If our society were enlightened enough to apply Marlantes’ wisdom, we would already have all the wisdom we need to solve our problems without resorting to war. Though Marlantes argues for the necessity of war and the necessity of a new warrior, if you do the math, he is really arguing for the necessity of learning the way to reconciliation and the necessity of becoming a new humanity. And he takes us partway there.
A recurring theme for Marlantes is that to enter combat is to enter the temple of Mars. Marlantes closes his book by taking us to Mars Hill, the Areopagus in Athens, where he wants us to consider how the work of war is also the work of justice and the work of democracy. Marlantes doesn’t mention this, but there was a famous speech at the Areopagus two thousand years ago that includes words that are especially poignant in the context of Marlantes’ spiritual odyssey:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 25-28a NIV).
The Sixth Grandfather is the stenographic record of the interviews of Lakota medicine man Nicholas Black Elk conducted by John G. Neihardt in 1931 and...moreThe Sixth Grandfather is the stenographic record of the interviews of Lakota medicine man Nicholas Black Elk conducted by John G. Neihardt in 1931 and 1944—300 pages compiled and edited by Raymond J. DeMallie. It is a fascinating chronicle that includes eye-witness accounts of Custer’s last stand, the advent of the Ghost Dance, the Wounded Knee massacre, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and the Lakota way of life prior to confinement on the Reservation. It is introduced by DeMallie with a hundred pages about Black Elk and Neihardt that compares Neihardt’s famous work, Black Elk Speaks, with the stenographic record.
I first heard about Black Elk back in 1971 in a televised interview of Neihardt by Dick Cavett on the Dick Cavet Show. That interview sparked renewed nation-wide interest in Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932. I’ve had Black Elk Speaks in my hands a few times, but have never been able to stay with it for more than a few pages. When that happens with an acknowledged great work, it’s usually because the author is answering questions I haven’t got around to asking.
Recently, I happened onto Raymond DeMallie’s work, The Sixth Grandfather, and I was hooked. I thoroughly enjoyed reading unfiltered the words of Black Elk and the few other Lakota elders who participated in the interviews. Those words are an urgently needed corrective to what you imagine you know about the Lakota way of life if your primary source of information is The Little Big Man or Dances with Wolves.
I took special delight in reading The Sixth Grandfather as a test of René Girard’s anthological theories in I See Satan Fall like Lightning. That book of Girard’s is a must-read book, and by my reckoning, there is ample raw data in The Sixth Grandfather to support Girard’s theories.
An important part of Black Elk’s story is told by DeMallie in the Introduction, and becomes the subtext for the interviews. When he was still a young man, Black Elk converted to Catholicism, and became a well-know, well-traveled, well-respected catechist of the Roman Catholic Church. Essentially, he operated as a lay pastor. For many long years, he had put away all the practices of traditional Lakota religion, apparently forever, until his chance meeting with Neihardt. Or was it a chance meeting?
Other questions arise as well. Was Black Elk’s embracing of Catholicism an authentic conversion? Was he only making the best of a bad situation? Did he always see an essential harmony between Catholic teaching and the Lakota way of life? Had he always been waiting for the moment when he could entrust to the larger human family the vision that had been entrusted to him by his Lakota ancestors?
By raising those questions, this important work of anthropology crosses genres, and reads very well as mystery.(less)
This is my number-one favorite introduction to Buddhism! It is engaging, readable, informative, instructive, poignant, and funny. It is one man’s ques...moreThis is my number-one favorite introduction to Buddhism! It is engaging, readable, informative, instructive, poignant, and funny. It is one man’s quest for an authentic, personally fulfilling, contemporary American expression of Buddhist practice.
There is, however, a very sad undertone. The quest is a quest to fill the heart’s God-shaped chamber, empty, bricked over, and stagnant from the author’s days growing up with a soul-crushing form of religion that passed for Christianity. Though there is an encounter with a Jesuit Zen master, there is never any reported encounter with Jesus, and no expressed interest in the way of Jesus, and no sense of awareness that the way of Jesus is something other than that soul-crushing form of religion the author experienced growing up.(less)
Richard Foltz has written a very brief, but a very readable, very helpful introduction to a comparative study of the history of trade between Europe a...moreRichard Foltz has written a very brief, but a very readable, very helpful introduction to a comparative study of the history of trade between Europe and Far-East Asia and the history of religion in Central Asia. In a mere 150 pages, he surveys a thousand years of history and seven religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Shamanism, and Islam. Foltz puts forward a plausible theory to account for the relative successes and failures of those religions as each passed through, and some thrived in, the caravan cities of Central Asia. However, the book is far too brief to prove the theory, and does not take into account the work of René Girard, which by now should be essential reading for any study of religion. Even so, Foltz makes a compelling case for why every American should know something about Sogdiana.(less)
In the spring of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the direction of Martin Luther King Jr., was preparing for a civil rights d...moreIn the spring of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the direction of Martin Luther King Jr., was preparing for a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham Alabama. In an attempt to forestall a likely violent confrontation with White racists, eight of Birmingham’s prominent clergy published an open letter cautioning that the planned demonstration was ill-timed.
The eight, all White (though not all WASP), were two Episcopal bishops, a Methodist bishop, a Methodist pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, a Roman Catholic bishop, a Presbyterian pastor, and a Baptist pastor. The demonstration went forward as planned, with the predicted result that the demonstrators were jailed for parading without a permit. Among those jailed was Dr. King himself, who, from his cell, composed the first bits and pieces for what was to become his now-famous public reply to the eight White clergy, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In Blessed Are the Peacemakers, Jonathan Bass recounts the circumstances that led to the publishing of the two letters. He also reconstructs the process by which King’s letter was written, polished, published, edited, and published again. And he focuses on each of those eight White clergy, tracing each life up to that fateful spring and beyond, providing insight into the personal mindset and motives of each and the way King’s letter influenced the personal career of each.
An excerpt: “A black southerner once asked [Nolan] Harmon [the Methodist bishop] if he had ever met Martin Luther King Jr. ‘No,’ the bishop replied, “all he ever did was just write me a letter’” (p. 164).
Bass has done a masterful job of gathering the facts and telling the story. His book is essential reading for developing an informed assessment of the Civil Rights Movement.(less)
This was a well-received work by a well-respected writer from just past mid-century last century. It was first published in France in 1958, and transl...moreThis was a well-received work by a well-respected writer from just past mid-century last century. It was first published in France in 1958, and translated in England from French to English by Audrey Butler in 1961. In 1961, South Africa separated from the British Commonwealth. 1958 was four years after the fall of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
Henri Daniel-Rops (1901-1965) was passionately Roman Catholic. So, as might be expected, this history of the Protestant Reformation is presented as a rending of the Seamless Robe of Christ. His characteristic adjective for the Reformers is “violent”—a word he reserves for the Reformers and for the pre-Reformation Protestant heroes Wycliffe and Huss. That seems odd. Even granted his point of view, why would he so exclusively consign the word “violent” in a history of the age that gave us the Hundred Years War, the Spanish Inquisition, and the likes of Machiavelli and the Borgias?
The incongruity may not be as glaring as it seems. The French word violent has a different range of meaning than the English word “violent.” My guess is that the translator opted to translate the French word with its English cognate, but introduced an element of confusion thereby. Regarding the Seamless Robe of Christ, see two recent books, both by Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity and Jesus Wars.
Daniel-Rops was passionately French. So, as might be expected, the assumed motives of Frenchmen are purer by far than the assumed motives of the English or the Germans. The Reformer John Calvin, a Frenchman, receives words of genuine admiration, whereas Luther and Henry VIII are cast as arch villains. In Luther’s case, Daniel-Rops regularly refers to “the heresiarch.” In that regard, his evaluation of Menno Simons is especially poignant: “This ill-educated, indifferently intelligent man possessed real goodness and piety, and had a profound love for his fellow men” (p. 479).
As Daniel-Rops tells it, the story of the Protestant Reformation begins, not with Luther in 1517, but with the events just prior to 1378, the year of the Great Schism. For the next forty years, the Christians of Western Europe were faced with the scandal of two Papacies. What Western European Christians called “Christendom” was now divided—and divided nearly evenly with respect to political power and military might. In a book of seven chapters and 522 pages, Luther doesn’t enter the story until Chapter V, page 276.
But, what a story! And what a storyteller! There are a few pages that read a little like the pages of a telephone directory—from Italy, from France, from Germany, from Spain, from England, from Holland. But those few pages offer up the catalog of names obligatory for any saga, and this history book reads like saga: engaging and compelling. And distressing!
Here is Daniel-Rops on Calvin, constrained to critique his compatriot: “Calvin belonged to that family of terrifying and sublime men who, like Savonarola and Robespierre before and after him, dream of creating man’s salvation or happiness without them, despite them, and even against them” (p. 415).
And here’s a chilling line that could have come from Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled or from I See Satan Fall Like Lightening by René Girard. It illustrates the way ritual violence can produce social cohesion: “After the execution of Michael Servetus, Calvin was regarded by the Genevans as the defender of the Word of God, the saviour of the faith” (p. 426). Perhaps “violent” is the correct word after all.
I always find Christian history distressing. Apparently so does Henri Daniel-Rops. At least he seems as distressed as I over this phase of Christian history. He begins his concluding chapter with a quotation from French poet Charles Péguy (1873-1914): “Everything begins with mystique and ends in politics.” Daniel-Rops applies those words to the Protestant enterprise in a way that suggests he was secretly rooting for the Protestants, but they proved to be a disappointment. I share the disappointment. If only the Christians in Christian history behaved more Christlike! (Indeed the world has been salted with Christlike Christians—like Menno Simons. But, like Menno Simons, they don’t get a lot of mention in the history books.)
Here is Daniel-Rops on Luther, constrained to give the Devil his due: “Luther’s role in the history of the Church was in many respects considerable; it can almost be called providential… Without Martin Luther and the fear which he inspired Holy Church might never have undertaken that genuine reformation, effected within the bounds of her own loyalties and disciplines—a reformation whose need was recognized by so many, but which so few dared attempt” (pp. 356–57).
The Protestant Reformation is Volume Four in a seven-volume set, History of the Church of Christ. A few of Daniel-Rops’ books are still in print, but not this set, though volumes from this set can still be found in used bookstores. Make a space for them on your bookshelf. But don’t leave them there as reference books. If Volume Four is any indication, these books are for reading. (less)
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …” (from William Butler Y...more“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …” (from William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”).
The Limits of Liberalism is a very fine survey of the roots, development, and present-day expressions of Christian liberal extremism. The book is engaging, informative, comprehensive, clear, concise, and balanced. It would be a good read even as a stand-alone presentation. As Part Two of a two-part set, it completes an important and urgent work that author Leroy Seat took up in the prequel, Fed Up with Fundamentalism (which I reviewed in August).
Fed Up with Fundamentalism is a call out from a toxic, off-balance, polarized form of Christianity. The Limits of Liberalism demonstrates that a mere reactive fleeing of Fundamentalism leads to forms of Christianity just as toxic, just as off-balance, just as polarized. Liberals who define themselves as the polar opposites of Fundamentalists participate every bit as much as Fundamentalists do in a bipolar Christianity.
The diagnosis suggests the cure. The cure for bipolar Christianity is a restoring of balance. A balanced Christianity is a Christianity centered on the Christ proclaimed in the earliest Christian documents. A balanced Christianity is characterized by what Leroy Seat calls the Four Ls: life, love, light, and liberty. In a 4L environment, a toxic Christianity can detox. (less)
The World Turned Upside Down is a review and critique of liberal-brand groupthink, protective stupidity, and scapegoating that can break the pull of p...moreThe World Turned Upside Down is a review and critique of liberal-brand groupthink, protective stupidity, and scapegoating that can break the pull of polarization for anyone not already thoroughly polarized to the left or to the right.
Melanie Phillips is a British journalist who writes from the perspective of a disillusioned liberal with an abiding respect for her liberal Jewish upbringing. She begins her concluding chapter with a poignant reprise of her thesis:
“The Enlightenment is consuming its own progeny. In the West, the culture of reason is dying, brought down by a loss of faith in progress and in the rationality that underpinned it. The replacement of objective truth by subjective experience has turned some strands of science into a branch of unreason, as evidence is hijacked by ideology.”
The subtext of The World Turned Upside Down concerns the world turned rightside up, by which I understand Philips to hold that the best of all possible worlds is a secular society, organized as a liberal democracy in a market economy guided by the lessons of Jewish history. And further, that what is required in order to establish and maintain such a society is the inculcation of Jewish morality and ethics, rooted in a reverence for life as a gift from our Creator, which nurtures a characteristically Jewish love of learning and inquiry, that alone can produce an informed, rational, responsible, citizenry.
But, there is a fly in the ointment. The Christian term is “original sin,” a concept explored in depth by René Girard in I See Satan Fall Like Lightening and by Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled. I recommend reading Phillips’ book in connection with those two and with one other: Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City. In that sort of meeting of the minds, Phillips contributes significantly to the conversation.
For me, a pair of disappointing and distracting aspects of Phillips’ otherwise cogent presentation is that she does not seem to have an appreciation of the thoroughgoing Jewishness of the New Testament, and that she retrofits Medieval Christian beliefs and attitudes back onto the New Testament in ways that are entirely anachronistic and misleading. In doing so she is only following the lead of liberal Christian writers, but I would have liked to have seen her get it right.(less)