Category Archives: Christian Life

A Pilgrimage to Eternity, by Timothy Egan

Pilgrimage to EternityThrough persecution and famine, the Roman Catholic church has spread her children all over the globe. Timothy Egan is an American of Irish heritage, and like so many of his brethren, his faith has faded, knocked back even further by the recent scandals in the church. At age 62, however, he is restless. His wife’s beloved sister is struggling with cancer, and Timothy yearns to do anything to stop its progress. Perhaps praying in consecrated places along the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, will cause God to work a miracle, or at least cause him to reveal himself to Timothy.

As Chaucer told us so many centuries ago, spring brings crowds of pilgrims to Canterbury. Egan shares some observations on the current inhabitant of the seat of the Anglican church, then goes through the history of this place that once played an important role in the Roman church. Here he picks up his official pilgrim documents and sets sail from the white cliffs of Dover for the ancient port of Calais. All along his route through France, Switzerland, and Italy, Egan works this layer cake of a narrative: part history, part travelogue, and part spiritual journey. The reader visits tombs with a smorgasbord of saintly body parts, eats dinner at both monastery refectories and gourmet restaurants, ruminates on deep meanings and great wines, meets Egan’s family members one at a time, and empathizes when his feet are mangled hiking down from the mountain heights. Egan travels with a copy of the atheist Christopher Hitchen’s book and engages in conversations with fellow pilgrims who cover the spectrum from faith to nihilism. Some are unquestioning believers in every church teaching, and others are merely accompanying a loved one for the fitness opportunity. Most are in between, on the road to inner discoveries, like Egan himself.

Being of a similar age to Egan, many of his thoughts resonated with me. While he railed against the abuses of the church, both past and present, he recognized the places and events to be foundational to western civilization. Although there were institutional failures, there were also stories of inspiring individual sacrifice, and working through these struggles nourished his understanding of the meaning of suffering. When he met with his grown son and daughter at different points along the way, he worried that bringing them up with faith in reason alone had robbed them of an awareness of deeper, spiritual truths. They showed no interest in the holy sites that fascinated him, but it was handy in the evenings that they knew all the best watering holes.

Without revealing his conclusions at the end, the journey itself was a revelation. Peeling back the centuries at a walker’s pace gives us time to consider human history and whether our suffering holds spiritual significance, whether corrupt institutions expose the emptiness of faith or cover up the beauty of true faith. So, step on the road, pilgrim. This is a journey well worth taking.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales ran through my head many times while reading this book. 😉

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Enneagram Reading

Everywhere I went—podcasts, blogs, articles—I kept hearing about the Enneagram. Pastors and staff announced themselves by a number on their websites: “I’m a three!” What did it all mean? I pulled in a few books to find out.

The word Enneagram comes from the Greek, ennea for “nine” and gram for “a drawn figure.” Hence this nine-pointed diagram:

Enneagram

It looks like some kind of an occult symbol, but it’s just a tidy way to picture the nine types of personality. This diagram shows the names that Riso and Hudson created for the types, but there are variations.

Understanding the Enneagram RisoUnderstanding the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, was the first book that I read on the subject, and it’s a great one to demonstrate the history and depth of this ancient tool. No one agrees on the origins of the Enneagram, but around the turn of the 20th century, spiritualist George Gurdjieff brought it into modern times, and since then, psychologists and others have refined the ideas into a usable model for business management and spiritual counseling.

My husband and I took many of the online tests for personality typing, and the Enneagram Institute– Riso and Hudson’s organization– has one of the best and most secure. You can find it here. There is also a test in the book.

Each of the nine personalities has particular characteristics with strengths and weaknesses. For example, Type 2, “The Helper,” loves to give to others, but could become resentful if he doesn’t receive love in return. Number 4, “The Individualist” may have great artistic sensibilities, but also has lots of emotions that can lead to major drama. Number 6, “The Loyalist,” is an excellent friend and parent, but may spend her life worrying about every little thing. In a healthy state, each type can make magnificent contributions to the world. Most of us live in an average state, with positive and negative effects of our type showing up according to life’s circumstances, but when we are in a psychologically or spiritually unhealthy state, our types have particular pitfalls that could cause personal, relational, or workplace problems.

Riso and Hudson’s book is suitable for deep study, and indeed, I borrowed it through interlibrary loan from a college library. For anyone who thinks that the Enneagram is a party topic, the research and attention to clinical use in this volume will prove them wrong.

Essential EnneagramThe Essential Enneagram, by David Daniels and Virginia Price, is a slender volume containing a pared-down explanation of the instrument. On the other end of the spectrum from the Riso-Hudson book, it gives a quick background with a simple method for typing. If you are curious to find out your type—and the types of all your family and friends—The Essential Enneagram will do it for you. Accurate and accessible.

 

Not a horoscope. Human beings are always seeking to find out more about themselves. Our lives are busy, and we find ourselves using certain behaviors and giving the same responses without thinking too much about it. Why does one person respond to taunts by running away, another by yelling, and yet another by a punch in the nose?

Astrology assigns personalities to people according to how the stars and planets were aligned at a person’s birth. In this case, everyone born in a certain month would have the same personality controlled by forces completely external to oneself.

Myers-Briggs is a personality typing tool used by many businesses that measures only four psychological characteristics: introversion or extraversion, detail-oriented or not, etc. They use it to help a work team to understand one another, or, more controversially, for hiring people into a certain position. It considers a personality to be fixed. “This is me. Get over it.”

The Enneagram teaches that we are all born as our true selves, but within the first three years of life, we develop behaviors that help us to cope with what life throws at us. Our parents, siblings, and environment affect each of us in different ways. Number Ones, for example, find out that being good and doing everything perfectly makes other people like them. They grow up to be dependable, responsible people who want to make the world a better place. They are cause-oriented individuals who can be critical perfectionists driven by quiet, seething anger. Number Nines, on the other hand, find out that keeping the peace makes them feel better. They grow up to be excellent compromisers, bringing warring parties together, and they are always the pleasantest person at the party. Because of their inability to confront, their anger can become passive-aggressive, and they easily become depressed and withdraw from life.

The point of the Enneagram is to help people to recognize and strip away the coping mechanisms we’ve accrued, especially when they begin to hurt us. We can learn from the other types and take on the strengths of all, moving each of us closer to the true selves we were born to be.

Road Back to YouThe Road Back to You, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, is a thorough yet conversational guide that is geared toward spiritual healing. Coming from a Christian perspective, Cron and Stabile present an explanation of the Enneagram and a test to find your type, followed by a deep dive into each of the personality types, beginning with a list of characteristics, a description of the best features of that type, the most unhealthy possibilities, the type as a child, the type at work, and the ways that type can heal.

The Road Back to You is the most personal of all of these works, with the authors identifying their own types, the way they interact with their spouses and children within their types, and their interactions with friends or relatives of still more types. They are vulnerable about their own weaknesses and give a hefty dose of grace to difficult matches. For example, type 8, the most powerful type on the Enneagram, who never back down from confrontation and never hesitate to say exactly what they think, not realizing how they affect the people around them. One might think that Type 8’s are terrible people, but healthy 8’s can be heroic and natural leaders. Cron’s daughter is also a Type 8 who was in law school when the book was published, and he witnessed her response when her younger brother was bullied by an older man. She completely and calmly obliterated him verbally, and then went on with her dinner. Cron was simultaneously terrified and proud. For reference, President Trump is a Type 8.

Liturgists PodcastFor the layperson who wants to use the Enneagram in counseling and spiritual healing, The Road Back to You is probably the best resource I have found. Cron and Stabile were guests on The Liturgists podcast shortly after the publication of this book, and they go through each of the nine personality types on the show. You can find that recording here.

There are professional counselors who use the Enneagram in their practices, so if you were startled to find yourself neatly tucked into a type, or if you see yourself as a type with certain wings—we won’t even get into that here—the Enneagram may be very useful as a shortcut for healing. In any case, remember that the point is not to find out your type and then revel in your weaknesses or even your strengths, but rather to use your gifts to do good in the world and to work to reverse your weaknesses and return to the “real you” that God created.

As they say in Enneagram-Land, now go and do the work.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else, although they should, since I am a Type One. The Enneagram diagram was taken from www.enneagraminstitute.com.

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The Dearly Beloved, by Cara Wall

Dearly BelovedCharles lives in awe and a bit of fear of his father, a professor who teaches at the same university Charles attends. The father ruthlessly maintains the boundaries that protect his scholarly son from accusations of nepotism. When Charles reveals his faith in God to his secular parents, his father laughs and thinks that it is the perfect ruse to keep up appearances. When he discovers that Charles is serious, he gets up from the dinner table and leaves the house.

Lily was a studious child living quietly in the shadow of her popular, sociable parents. Although she was surrounded by her loving extended family, when her parents died in a car crash, fifteen-year-old Lily pulled up her emotional ramparts and completely blocked God from her life.

Nan grew up visiting the homes of the “less fortunate” with her minister father. Her mother taught her how to be the perfect pastor’s wife, but potluck recipes and sweetly-worded thank-you notes may collapse under the weight of tragedy.

James’ father never recovered from World War II, and he came home to find solace in the bottom of a glass. His mother worked tirelessly to feed and house her many children, but James and his brothers learned to defend themselves with fists and fierceness. James was desperate not to follow in his father’s footsteps, so when he fell in love with Nan, he reconciled himself to her faith by taking on a burning mission to rescue the world through pure, white-hot anger.

These two unlikely couples form lifelong bonds of love, jealousy, conflict, and compassion as the two men are called to be joint pastors of Third Presbyterian Church in New York. Four individuals with four different faiths, wrestling with God and one another as life throws its punches. With a backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Charles and James preach on alternate Sundays, counsel their Presbyterian flock, and reach out to the urban community, none of which could happen without the firm guiding hand of seventy-two-year-old Jane Atlas, church secretary.

Debut author Cara Wall has couched a fascinating theological study within an absorbing work of warm domestic fiction. The narrative follows all four main characters through their college years, courtships, marriages, births, deaths, sickness, triumphs, and failures. Church life is a rare topic for novels, but Wall displays a sure hand with church board meetings, congregational social circles, the intersection of the church and the secular world, and the relationship between the “called” pastor and the congregation’s support—or lack thereof. Whereas most writers have a stock character to stand in for a pastor, Wall populates her story with many clergymen, each a whole and unique individual, and focuses in on Charles’ intellectual, high-church style in contrast to James’ Social Justice Warrior.

Of course, it is not only ministers who endure challenges to their faith, and these four people experience the buffetings of the years in different ways, according to their concept of God and his dealings with humanity. The reader wonders whether the latest blow will cause this one to lose her faith, that marriage to be stretched to the breaking point, or yet another to stand firm in faith and lose everything he holds dear. Within these four dearly beloved hearts reside universal hopes and dreams, anger and sorrow, love and longing.

A wise and moving novel. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel, which will be released on August 13, 2019. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright

Mark for EveryoneMark is my least favorite gospel. That’s not a very big deal, considering how much I love all of the gospels, but I usually turn to Matthew or Luke for their more complete accounts of Jesus’ life, including the beautifully familiar nativity passages, knowing that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, while Luke wrote for the gentiles. Then there is John’s poetic and spiritual gospel, with stories that do not appear in the other accounts. Where would we be without John 3:16 or “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” or the prooftext for Jesus’ approval of wine? Mark, on the other hand, has always seemed to be the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version to me, too brief and airless. When I was coming to the end of the New Testament recently in my who-knows-how-manyeth time through the Bible, I realized that I really needed to dive into Mark’s gospel in a big way to grow in my appreciation for what is essentially Peter’s account. Peter is my favorite apostle—always talking before thinking, just as I do—and Mark was his disciple after Jesus’ resurrection.

N.T. WrightN.T. (Tom) Wright is probably the world’s foremost living New Testament scholar, a retired Anglican bishop and professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I reviewed his amazing book, Surprised by Hope, here. Since then, I have read several of Wright’s books, and I just finished Mark for Everyone, which is part of the “For Everyone” paperback series that covers the entire New Testament. Wright has translated all of the books of the New Testament into his own contemporary version, a conversational translation with, occasionally, an amusing Britishism for the American reader. In this commentary series, Wright begins each section with a short passage in his translation, and then starts his discussion with a personal anecdote. He follows with some backstory explaining the historical or cultural facts that we need in order to understand what was readily known to the original audience, and then he pulls out the many layers of meaning within the text. In true Presbyterian fashion, he usually ends the segment with a sentence or two of application to our daily lives.

This truly accessible Bible commentary opens up new worlds of meaning, even for laypeople with a pretty thorough acquaintance with the scriptures. In a variation on the theme, he also has a few “Lent for Everyone” and “Advent for Everyone” titles that I have read and enjoyed. They are commentaries on the gospels that are set up to fit into daily readings for the appropriate season. All of the “For Everyone” titles are perfect for personal study for individuals or daily devotions for families with children in middle school or older. Affordable, not intimidatingly scholarly, but far from fluffy.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Image of N.T. Wright is from RachelHeldEvans.com.

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The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Faithful SpyIn every age, during times of greatest crisis, there are unlikely heroes quietly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such man, a theologian and pastor who died trying to assassinate Hitler before he could slaughter more innocent people.

There are many excellent biographies of Bonhoeffer, and he was a prolific writer himself, but John Hendrix has created an entirely new type of work by producing a graphic novel biography for teens. In just green, red, black, and white, the pages convey danger and tension, with emotive drawings and hand lettering that tell the story of Dietrich’s childhood and young adulthood, his travels to Rome and the United States, and his evolution of thought and faith that brought him to his resolution to join a plot against Der Führer. At the same time, Hendrix spins a brief but enlightening backstory of Germany’s history from World War I to the rise of Hitler: how the German people were demoralized and struggling, and the ease with which a dictator can gain power when the people are looking for a savior.

Hendrix succeeds at my top criterion for Bonhoeffer biographies: he is open and honest about Dietrich’s active participation in a political plot without denying, twisting, or trivializing his faith. There are no easy answers here. Bonhoeffer was a pastor of the underground, “confessing” church, a man whose Christianity was the center of his life, but also a man who was determined to kill another man. How he reconciled those two realities is the subject of endless speculation and rivers of ink, but some writers deal more honestly than others.

My only problem with The Faithful Spy is that the printing is sometimes less clear than it should be. Particularly for some passages of very fine print, the coloring makes it nearly illegible. Perhaps teenagers’ eyes will handle this more easily than mine.

In a time that cries out for heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the best. He was brave, intellectual, kind, willing to learn, and yes, faithful. Teens and adults will also enjoy Eric Metaxas’ more comprehensive biography, reviewed here. As noted, there are many books and collections of writings by Bonhoeffer himself. His most famous is probably The Cost of Discipleship, but for an introduction to his thought, the two slender volumes Life Together and Letters from Prison are quite accessible.

John Hendrix is also the author and illustrator of the dazzling picture book biography, Miracle Man, reviewed here.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Thin Places, by Tracy Balzer

Thin PlacesMany centuries ago, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, and the faith thrived on this isolated green island with little outside influence. As Europe fell to the barbarians and entered the Dark Ages, monks from Celtic lands preserved manuscripts and spread learning back across the continent. How did such a small population have such a great impact on history? What were the spiritual practices they followed that kept the flame of faith alive?

The subtitle of this slender volume is An Evangelical Journey into Celtic Christianity. Ms. Balzer is an evangelical American who researches and teaches at John Brown University about this early age of Christianity in a country just emerging from paganism. Balzer leads groups to the island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery just out of sight of his beloved Ireland so that his heart would not long for returning. Iona is considered a “thin place,” where the veil is thin between the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that is just beyond our vision and perception. Spiritual experiences are more frequent in thin places than in our usual workaday world, and Balzer wanted to find out why. She has made the pilgrimage to Iona and similar Celtic sites many times and has kept a journal of her observations and conclusions.

The book is divided into chapters by the several spiritual practices Balzer considers essential to Celtic spirituality, with appropriate passages from her journal, followed by historical research and ways to fold these practices into our own lives in the twenty-first century. She ends each chapter with a Celtic prayer and questions for reflection. In one chapter, she discusses how Celtic monks had spiritual mentors or anamchara who were transformational in their lives. Balzer describes the way that the monks’ prayers differed from ours and the paramount importance of silence for hearing from God. Celts went on pilgrimages that were not as goal-oriented as those of continental Europeans, and, as we know from their educational institutions all over the world, they were not afraid to love the Lord their God with all of their minds. These are some of the issues she explores winsomely and intimately in these pages.

As American evangelicals, we sometimes feel the accretion of centuries of manmade traditions and practices weighing down our understanding of transcendent reality, and we look for ways to scrape off the layers and find the living faith again. The New Testament tells us of the very first churches planted by the apostles, but I wanted to see how a group of gentiles, freshly introduced to the gospel, carried on the faith before Rome took hold of them firmly. The ancient Celts were much more aware of God’s omnipresence and his activity in every moment of life. I was surprised by the monks’ emphasis on the Trinity, and their prayers are poetic praises to the Three in One. And, as always, I was reminded of the importance of intentional silence in our noisy lives.

Readers who wish to step outside of time for a while will find some wisdom here. Balzer’s layout is organized and clear, and her discussions are a good introduction to Celtic thought, particularly for non-Catholic Christians. Her notes and bibliography are rich with material for further exploration.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I own of copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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