Friday, February 26, 2010

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

I was hoping Crazy Love would be like a love letter from God. (After all, the subtitle is "Overwhelmed by a Relentless God.") And, yes, Chan starts the book by talking about God’s amazing love, but the gist of the book is what our response to that love should be.

Just as we are loved extravagantly and unconditionally, we are to love God and others with the same relentless passion. This includes wholehearted - and sometimes difficult - obedience. I wanted a shot in the arm, but instead I got a kick in the pants. I must say, I was glad for the wakeup call.

Here are some great quotes:
Both worry and stress reek of arrogance. Basically, these two behaviors communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional. (p.42)

Our greatest fear as individuals and as a church should not be a failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter. (p. 93, quoting Tim Kizziar)

If life is a river, then pursuing Christ requires swimming upstream. When we stop swimming, or actively following Him, we automatically begin to be swept downstream. (p. 95)

As long as we are pursuing Him, we are satisfied in Him. It is when we stop actively loving Him that we find ourselves restless and gravitating toward other means of fulfillment. (p. 104)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan

Jack Murnighan, professor of medieval and renaissance literature at Duke University, is passionate about the classics and is eager to make his readers feel the same.

To appeal to a modern day audience (and to avoid the stereotype that classics are for “squares”) Beowulf on the Beach uses slang and ribald language to entertain his audience. It also includes a “What’s sexy” section in each chapter to entice reluctant readers. Frankly, I skipped over most of those tidbits. The few I read convinced me I was definitely NOT interested in several of the recommended books.

So I was more than a little surprised at his love for some decidedly “Christian” texts. Although clueless about most of the Bible (he says biblical writers wrote the New Testament to counterbalance the evils of the Old), he loves its rich language. His favorite classic of all time is Milton’s Paradise Lost and he is not afraid to gush over it:

Paradise Lost becomes really amazing at the moment you enter into awe. You should feel struck, feel wondrous, be utterly blown away by what Milton’s pulling off. I don’t care if you don’t agree with a single tenet of his philosophy – I barely do – you still have to delight in the fervor, the mind, and the utter mastery of technique behind Paradise Lost. Not only does it have the most ambitious story of any narrative in English, it’s the most methodical line by line. It’s breathtaking. (p. 144)

In spite of his infectious enthusiasm for the classics, he did not convince me to read all of his favorite authors. When he described Virginia Woolf’s writings as “controlled stylistic epilepsy”, I was less interested than ever. Nevertheless, I intend to read at least a dozen of his other recommendations.

A few of his choice comments:

On George Eliot: There are smart novels, there are smarter novels, and then there’s Middlemarch. (p. 246)

On Hemingway: It might be that no writer since the author of Genesis has been so terse and yet so powerful. He is the undisputed master of the simple sentence. (p. 304)

On Moby Dick: Yes, the humor might be trapped in five hundred pages of what can seem like the Encyclopedia Britannica of whaling, but trust me, it’s there. It was meant to be there, and once you get Melville’s sense of humor, Moby Dick becomes the classic it really is, and the best novel ever written by an American. (p. 196)

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

I think I first saw this book on the 100 Writers of Faith list. Although I struggle to enjoy science fiction, I decided to give it a try because it grapples with theological issues. Locus magazine has voted A Canticle for Leibowitz the best all-time science fiction novel THREE times and I thought that ought to count for something too.

The story opens in the desert of the Western United States 600 years after a nuclear holocaust. The survivors decide to save the world from another “Flame Deluge” by killing all scientists who could create further nuclear weapons. This led to the eradication of all educated people (and books) through a movement called “The Great Simplification”. A small order of monks (the Albertian Order of Leibowitz) took it upon themselves to preserve the few remaining printed documents.

I was not sure if I liked this book at first. Its three sections did not flow together very well. (Later I read that Miller joined three separate novellas by re-writing some parts to make them more cohesive.) Frequent use of Latin phrases also added to its choppiness and one scene at the end of the book was downright weird.

BUT as I began writing my post and reviewing the quotes that I’d copied down, I realized why people love this book. Miller’s insights into the themes of suffering, the purpose of knowledge, euthanasia, and original sin will take your breath away. None of the three sections end happily and yet somehow you retain a wisp of hope. Of course, I liked the fact that the Church played a part in the possibility of redemption, but this is not a “preachy” book. The religious folks are divided between the God-fearing and the power hungry – just as they are in real life.

Here is a sample of Miller’s impressive writing style:
The sun blazed its midday heat upon the parched land, laying its anathema on all moist things. (p.16)

On death: There was tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons; then there were aches and pains, finally, Extreme Unction, and a moment of blackness at the end – or at the beginning, rather. (p.84)

A world smug in its illiteracy (p.96)

Euthanasia: The false god of expedient mercy (p.302)

“If I thought I had such a thing as a soul…I might agree with you.” Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily. (p.281)