I've classified this book on my "Christian life and thought" shelf, which is one of my nonfiction shelves. Technically, one might argue that this is a...moreI've classified this book on my "Christian life and thought" shelf, which is one of my nonfiction shelves. Technically, one might argue that this is a work of fiction, a made-up narrative that uses the device of a dream vision to supposedly describe places to which no earth-bound human has ever been. But here, as with some of Hawthorne's short stories/essays, the fiction is so message-driven that any dividing line separating it from an essay is thin indeed. It's very much a narrative about ideas, and the fictional framework is just a vivid stage for these, with a few props, and the use of dramatic dialogue; here (unlike in his Chronicles of Narnia series or the Space Trilogy) Lewis' didactic purpose so overwhelms the story that it's not fair to evaluate it as fiction.
A professor of medieval literature, Lewis was quite familiar with Dante's The Divine Comedy. I am not; but I can recognize the conceptual similarity from general descriptions of the latter. Here too, we have a journey that encompasses Heaven and Hell (which, Lewis suggests, also serves as Purgatory for those who don't choose to stay there); and here, too, the narrator is furnished with a guide in the person of a famous author. (One of my Goodreads friends calls this work a "rip-off" of Dante's classic; perhaps we could more accurately call it a sort of homage, or an extended literary allusion.)
Whatever Dante's purpose was, however, Lewis clearly states in the short Preface to this work that it's not intended as a literal speculation as to what the real Heaven and Hell may be like. Rather, he uses his narrator's fictional journey as a literary conceit to make a series of major and minor points about how God relates to human beings, and how we relate to God and each other. A key message here is that God doesn't will any humans to be damned. (This would exclude the idea of Calvinist predestinarianism, despite Lewis' suggestion that the eternal perspective obviates some earthly theological distinctions such as this.) Rather, there are those who exclude themselves from Heaven, because their attitude won't let them embrace it. As the book suggests (and the Goodreads description quotes), there are two kinds of people, those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God ultimately says, in sorrow, "Thy will be done." (We could also characterize them, based on the portrayals here, as those willing to recognize a God outside themselves, and those determined to be the god and center of their own universe.) The author holds up a kind of moral mirror in which readers can see how their own attitudes and actions reflect --and it's one that reveals a lot of human self-centeredness, blaming of others for everything we refuse to take responsibility for, self-deceit and hypocrisy. The type of fictional framework, ostensibly a description of unseen realities but not intended to be taken as literally so, and the quality of the rigorous, uncompromising, spiritually-grounded ethical thought, is reminiscent of the author's (also excellent) The Screwtape Letters.
Unlike some Christian works, this one doesn't come across with the "all Christians are moral exemplars, and non-Christians are scumbags" vibe that non-Christians understandably tend to find offensive. Both God's judgment and grace, Lewis suggests, probe much more deeply into the heart and soul than surface religious affiliation; there are professed Christians (even an Anglican bishop!) in his Hell, and we hear of at least one pagan who's found his way to Heaven. However, I'd recommend this more to Christian than to non-Christian readers. That's not to say that some open-minded non-Christians wouldn't be interested in reading it, or couldn't profit from doing so. But I think Lewis presupposes some basic Christian concepts about God and the afterlife that, probably, most non-Christians would find hard to take as starting points. It's more suited, I think, as a stimulus for Christian moral and theological reflection about how we live, think, and relate to God and others. (Nonfiction Lewis works that I'd more readily recommend for non-Christian readers would include Mere Christianity, Miracles, and God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.)(less)
Chesterton was one of the premier Christian thinkers of his generation, fully engaged in the intellectual debates of his day (which turn out to be not...moreChesterton was one of the premier Christian thinkers of his generation, fully engaged in the intellectual debates of his day (which turn out to be not much different from those of our own!). His writing is frequently characterized by love of paradox, exuberant humor, and intellectual rigor which can make his thought demanding to follow in places (a quality mitigated by his clear effort to tailor the presentation to the average educated reader). All of those qualities are in evidence here. It's also important to keep in mind the purpose of the book; he's not trying to lay out a universally rounded, all-bases-covered systematic apologia for Christianity. Rather, he sets himself the much more limited task of indicating the psychological processes behind his own initial and continued acceptance of Christian belief. He invites the reader to follow his thoughts and feelings; how much apologetic value they have will depend on the degree to which individual readers can relate to them. (The book is also not --though its title might create that impression-- an attempt to provide an exhaustive and "authoritative" hair-splitting definition of just what "orthodoxy" believes; which is fortunate, since I tend to be suspicious of and impatient with such attempts at rigid definition. :-))
As the Goodreads description of the book indicates, Chesterton makes it clear that his embrace of Christianity was not irrational as such; indeed, he characterizes himself as a "rationalist," and submits rational reasoning on behalf of Christian truth claims. But he also makes clear his conviction that the success of reasoning as an approach to truth is heavily dependent on its first premises, and that the latter can be as (or more) validly grasped by intuition as by reasoning alone. (More on this below.) Another very valid and important insight here, IMO, is the assertion that the acceptance of big ideas (such as Christianity, or any other worldview) is not usually the result of one intellectual tour-de-force of reasoning, but rather the gradual result of a myriad of observations and impressions from many areas of human experience, all finally recognized as tending in the same direction. (I would add that this latter point tends to reinforce my conviction that people usually are not "argued into" believing in Christianity. Dealing with honest intellectual questions about Christian evidences is legitimate and helpful, both for believers and non-believers, but I think people accept Christianity, if at all, when they're ready inside --psychologically, emotionally and morally-- to do so, and not before.)
It's impossible to summarize the thought of a nearly-300 page book in a short review. Some of Chesterton's major points, however, are that Christianity uniquely meets the paradox of apparently opposing human psychological needs; that the moral critique of the existing order implicit in the doctrine of the Fall provides both the psychological spur for social reform and a consistent ideal for reform to aim at, in ways that some of the rival philosophies do not; that philosophies based on negation necessarily wind up negating the basis for confidence in Reason itself; and that a priori rejection of all empirical evidence for the miraculous on the grounds of its metaphysical impossibility is the opposite (not the epitome!) of evidence-based investigation.
Critics of Christianity who aren't ready, in the sense I referred to above, to be convinced obviously won't be convinced by this book. This is particularly true of spokespersons for hate-based "New Atheism," a few of whom have generated trash talk about Orthodoxy based on a "I'll hold my nose and read this horrible #@1*&(: just so I can expose its infamy to the world" approach. That's not an approach that usually produces any results that are intellectually worth replying to; but it might be pertinent here to address a few howlers. First, Chesterton does not attack reason as such here; his factual demonstration that insane people are often rigorously "rational," given their premises, isn't designed to prove that reason itself necessarily leads to lunacy, but that reasoning based on false premises can support lunacy. Second, the role of his references to "fairies" in the chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" and elsewhere in the book are clearly metaphorical, used in much the same way that his contemporary Francis P. Church uses Santa Claus in his famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial (which also makes the statement, "You might as well not believe in fairies!" :-)); they serve as symbolic embodiments of a dimension of reality that includes the mysterious, the affectional, the intangible and immeasurable, that melts the hard iron "practicalities." (It's a metaphor, of course, with a humorous cast; and fanatics of any stripe aren't psychologically well-equipped to appreciate either metaphor or, especially, humor.) Third, Chesterton's contrast of Zola and Torquemada, in one of his characteristic paradoxes, neither states nor suggests that the former was morally inferior to the latter --their relative merits aren't even the subject of the contrast!
The 1908 diction here is clear enough for the average modern reader, and the book is actually a fairly quick read, except where you have to take some time to digest the thought. Some British place names, and a few references to other writers/thinkers of Chesterton's day, will be unfamiliar to most modern American readers; but the substance of the thought, and the issues being dealt with, aren't at all dated. I would recommend the book highly to readers of all stripes who enjoy grappling with serious ideas and existential questions.(less)
While the Bible records many instances of miracles, in most cases Christian faith doesn't depend for its existence on belief in, or literal interpreta...moreWhile the Bible records many instances of miracles, in most cases Christian faith doesn't depend for its existence on belief in, or literal interpretation of any one of them, and they don't play a significant role in Christian consciousness; for instance, whether or not Jonah endured three days in the belly of a whale makes no difference in how I live my life. Christianity stands or falls, however, on the claim of one central miracle: that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth literally rose from the dead by the act of God, attesting to the truth of his message and the meaning of his death as a sacrifice for human sin, and inaugurating an ultimate redemption of the world from sin and death. If that can be successfully dismissed as a fraud or a mistake on the part of the disciples, then we're free to dismiss Jesus as a lunatic (as one of my college teachers maintained) or a charlatan in the mold of Jim Jones. But if it can't successfully be dismissed....?
British journalist Morison, convinced that supernatural religion was a myth, but respectful of the "historical Jesus" of turn-of-century (and modern) liberalism, set out to write a book about the real human drama of this "great teacher's" last days, stripped of the superstitious legends. In the course of his research, he ran squarely into the reality of which another of my college teachers, an atheist who taught the Heritage of the Bible class (not an unusual situation, in a state university!) spoke to a surprised class: while the idea of a miraculous resurrection appears to be a scientific impossibility --at least, if you define miracles as impossible-- all the purported natural explanations for the historical data also appear to be psychological, physical or historical impossibilities; yet something happened. Morison's intellectually honest research --not starting from the assumption that the Gospel accounts are inerrant Divine revelation, but rather treating them as human documents subject to historical analysis and verification-- forced him to the conclusion that the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a fact, which the Gospel writers correctly report and interpret. That fact does not, in itself, validate the theology or lifestyles of any particular Christian group; it does not in fact validate any teaching except Jesus' own. But --if it be admitted-- then it does mean that his life and teaching has to become the central starting point for our understanding of ourselves and our world.
This book is clearly written, lucidly argued, and would be a fairly quick read for most people. But the relatively short time invested in it might well pay great rewards spiritually and intellectually. It's a good resource for Christians who want to know more about the evidence for our faith; but I think it would be an even better read for any atheist or skeptic who values critical thinking and honest inquiry into the questions of ultimate meaning that concern all of us.(less)
During my senior year of college, a Christian friend who was a (celibate) homosexual "came out" to me and another Christian guy during a conversation...moreDuring my senior year of college, a Christian friend who was a (celibate) homosexual "came out" to me and another Christian guy during a conversation in the dining hall; but though we'd both finally realized what he was getting at, he wasn't able to actually say it. My other friend pushed a napkin and pen over to him and gently asked, "Can you write it?" and he wrote "I AM GAY." When he found that we didn't cease to be his friends, he was encouraged to share his struggle with some other Christians as well, and that was a constructive step for him. But taking that step required him to overcome enormous fear of personal rejection --and that fear isn't always unjustified in Christian circles, which is ironic when you consider that our faith tells us that we're all guilty sinners in need of grace and healing. As a former homosexual and founder of a ministry to homosexual persons, Thompson is very conscious of that irony, and wrote this book to address it.
Like most evangelicals, he recognizes that homosexual activity is not God's perfect will for the expression of our sexuality. (This book does not make a case arguing that premise; readers who want a discussion of the rationale behind it, and behind the broader Christian concept that sex is intended to be expressed only in monogamous and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, should read Lewis Smedes' excellent book Sex for Christians.) He also recognizes, and seeks to help other believers recognize, that demonizing homosexuals and treating them as some sort of freaks beyond the pale of God's love, or ours, unless they change, is not a constructive or Christ-like response to the problem. Homosexuals are human beings, not essentially different from the rest of us, and deserve to be treated humanly, not discriminated against, ignored or abused; and homosexuals will be drawn to Christ, and encouraged to change their behavior, if they're drawn and encouraged at all, by the witness of Christian love, not by self-righteous condemnation. And those in the process of change deserve active welcome and support from the church community. (In addition, Thompson makes the valuable point that homosexual orientation is not a "choice;" it's an unconscious response to environmental factors that takes shape in childhood, and is not consciously cultivated.)
This book also touches on the important issue of whether or not homosexuality is a genetically-determined condition as immutable as blue eyes, debunking the misuse of the three studies that have been adduced in the popular press as "proving" the existence of a "gay gene," as well as refuting the contention that counseling homosexuals about changing their orientation is a foredoomed and harmful effort. (The writing style is popular-level, but the author has a solid bibliography of serious, intellectually respectable resources on the subject, and documents his statements with end notes.) The writing here is irenic, reasoned, and compassionate; and the author speaks of a reality that he knows by experience.(less)
A recent discussion, with a Goodreads friend, of Western socio-economic history and the accompanying socio-economic thought brought to mind this gem o...moreA recent discussion, with a Goodreads friend, of Western socio-economic history and the accompanying socio-economic thought brought to mind this gem of a book, read in my early college days and a germinal influence on my own thought. (In terms of its effect on my thinking, I'd actually rank it as one of the most important books I've read, and I've upped my rating of it from four stars to five to reflect that.) Of course, my own strong personal reaction to the book will give the review below a strong element of "reader response" criticism, starting with where I was coming from when I read it.
I was raised (long story!), in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, which proudly considered itself ultra-conservative both religiously and socio-politically. (In fact, I'm a product of five years of education in the congregation's parochial school --though even then, I was inclined to read a lot outside of class and think for myself.) One theme they harped on was that capitalism as we know it in the modern U.S. --that is, oligarchical, monopolistic, and operating on purely "rational" profit-maximizing lines devoid of ethical content-- is an essential part of "Conservatism" (which is absolutely good, as opposed to the "L" word, which is absolutely evil). A corollary of this was that the poor (with possibly rare exceptions that you could count on your fingers) were so because they're improvident, stupid, and lazy, and that giving them any consideration fostered bad behavior and made the economy unsound. This line of thinking was then sanctified as a tenet of Christianity, "Biblical economics." It would probably be fair to say that a hefty number of people then and now, both inside and outside of the Christian church and the conservative movement (which are not the same thing, though they tend to be lumped together) would define both entities in terms of this thinking. Indeed, in explaining the historical shift in Western Europe, in the Commercial Revolution of the early modern era, to this sort of economic order, replacing an older feudal system that was significantly distinct from it in many ways (and by my high school days, I was aware that a shift HAD occurred, and that the present order didn't date from Biblical times!), modern critics of capitalism tend to finger Protestant Christianity as the villain that caused the whole thing, an argument exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (No, I haven't read Weber's classic, but I think I've read --and listened to, in college-- enough about it to fairly represent the gist of it.)
Even as a pre-teen child, though, and even haphazardly reading the Bible once in awhile only in the King James Version (because the newer translations were, according to the church, Satanic counterfeits!), I was struck by the gaping disconnect between the content of the Bible and the content of the preaching/teaching I heard from church and school. As my own beliefs took shape in my teens, I became a Christian; and I also came to identify my own thinking as conservative, in the sense of wanting to conserve both a moral and social order of community and family handed down from long good service in the human past, and an incredibly beautiful and precious natural creation. But I had real questions and doubts about how the whole framework of capitalist "Biblical economics" fitted with this. That (finally!) brings us to Tawney's book.
Unlike Weber, who was a sociologist, Tawney was an academic historian, a world-class expert on the social and intellectual history of 16th and 17th century England, which is the main focus of this study, his best-known work. (He was also, in the words of one recent pundit, "a radical Christian," though, with academic detachment, he doesn't state that explicitly here.) Here, he disputes Weber's one-sided and superficial analysis, by a careful study of the primary sources, starting with the medieval background, continuing through Luther's and Calvin's actual socio-economic teachings, and the responses of the English reformers to the economic questions raised by the Commercial Revolution of their day. His thesis is that the Protestant reformers, no less than the medieval Catholic Scholastics, espoused an economic philosophy based on rejection of materialism and gain for its own sake, acutely concerned with ideas of justice and right and wrong, and explicitly favoring consideration for the poor, for workers, and for customers. (As he points out, this doesn't mean medieval society perfectly embodied these principles; but as he also points out, theory does have some significance for practice in a society, even if not as much as the theorists want it to.) This is true over the entire spectrum of economic issues of that day --enclosure of formerly common land for private profit, price-gouging, usury (an old English word meaning, like its Hebrew equivalent, charging interest on loans --the modern pretense that both words only mean "excessive interest" is the lexical equivalent of saying, "Oh no, silly, 'adultery' doesn't really mean marital infidelity; it just means excessive marital infidelity!"), etc., all of which the Protestant churches opposed as vigorously as the Catholics, and for the same serious religious reasons. When they finally jettisoned this stance in the late 1600s, it was in response to changes that were already accomplished and entrenched in society, and accomplished because the rising wealthy commoners had emancipated their daily behavior from religious authority (an emancipation greatly aided by the break-up of Christian organizational unity --but that wasn't an effect that the Protestant reformers had aimed at.) Tawney doesn't speculate on whether the capitulation was a deliberate ploy to curry favor with the newly rich and powerful, or just an unconscious response to the new "selfishness is good!" zeitgeist of the day (I'd personally surmise that both factors were at work). This is necessarily a summary of 287 pages of text (the rest of the 337 pages are source notes and index); but I checked out and skimmed a copy again to make sure I wasn't oversimplifying or misrepresenting from faulty memory from 40 years ago. Written for average intelligent readers (of course, educated in a more rigorous school system than ours), the style is jargon-free and conversational without being dumbed-down, and I personally didn't find it at all dry or uninteresting in any part.
For me, this book was an intellectual catalyst that took my inchoate doubts and misgivings and gave them a concrete voice. I came to see that there IS a tradition of serious, intelligent Christian thought on socio-economic questions which actually reflects and applies the teachings of the Bible in concrete and practical ways; and that moral criticism of capitalist abuses can be based on this tradition, not drawn from outside of it. (Also, I came to realize for sure that the "selfishness is good" school is not, historically, a natural ally of the kind of conservatism I believe in; rather, it's a natural enemy.) And finally, though Tawney's analysis basically covers only the early modern era, it gave me an interpretive key to understand the desire of the wealthy capitalist class to free itself from moral and religious restraint as a broad, ongoing process that continues to shape Western intellectual and economic history --a process that explains the whole elevation of first Hume and then Darwin to thrones of unquestioned authority in Establishment thought, that explains the horrors of slavery and the Industrial Revolution, that explains today's twisted "globalism", and much else. I'd recommend this book to any reader who wants to understand the genesis of the modern world.(less)
Recent years have seen an upswing of interest, in Christian circles, in the early Celtic Christianity of the British Isles during what we call the "Da...moreRecent years have seen an upswing of interest, in Christian circles, in the early Celtic Christianity of the British Isles during what we call the "Dark Ages." The Celtic monasticism and missionary activity of that time were significant forces in shaping Western Christianity. To some believers today, including the authors of this devotional, that branch of the Church seems to offer a model which is fully orthodox, but more wholistic, inclusive, and Biblically-balanced in its lifestyle than many later traditions. How accurate that perception is can be debated; but there is no doubt that this is a fresh and winsome work of devotional literature.
Each of the 15 devotions in the book starts with an invocation, then provides an imaginative reconstruction of some event in the life of a Celtic saint (Patrick, of course, is the best known). This is followed by a reflection on a spiritual truth the story illustrates, an original poem and a Scripture text, a brief prayerful meditation, and a blessing. A number of the invocations and blessings are actual translations of traditional Celtic originals.(less)