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Needing direction, he randomly opens the Bible three times: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” What! Second, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Wow. Ok, so maybe the third won't be so extreme? Nope: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” This sums up Francis and the Order he started.
You know him as the Saint who talked to birds and flowers, but the real Francis was much more gritty, suffering, alone, real. He would live on a mountain for a month and come down with Stigmata wounds, and die soon after, and die in pain, and be glad for it. He was a rich kid who went to war, became depressed, gave up everything, and, as he says, "left the world" for a grueling life of serving God and the people who needed it most. The one thing that disgusted him--people with leprousy--became his passion.
What I like most about this "new" biography is that it has two separate parts. The first is the story of Francis' life, the best that the author can tell from the evidence. The second part is all about the scholarly debate, which I did not read and therefore was thankful for the separation.
Frank Sinatra said "I did it my way." Francis said "No one showed me what I should do, but the Most High himself revealed it to me, that I ought to live according to the form of the Holy Gospel." What's interesting is that the Medieval Church patterned their life according to the Acts of the Apostles, and denied that the wandering lifestyle of Jesus of the Gospels was appropriate anymore. It all worked out in the end, as Francis was whole-heartedly accepted by the Church.
And he liked animals too.
Francis of Assisi a new biography
Books about rock stars are flooding the bestseller lists lately. Back in November, there were four in the Top 10.
Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young
Who I Am by Pete Townshend
Rod by Rod Stewart
Bruce by Peter Carlin (about Bruce Springsteen, but you probably guessed that)
I've read excerpts of Townshend's and Stewart's books in Rolling Stone magazine. Townshend really opens up and shares his thoughts and emotions in an artfully written, intellectual style. I'm not that interested in Rod Stewart so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his authorial voice and fun stories about his friendship with Elton John.
If you are interested in rock history, we have all these books and many more.
Who I Am
1. Be not angry. Which means "judge not," "condemn not," don't ever think you are better or separate than other people. Tolstoy looked back on his life and realized that most of his anger came from separating his class of people (wealthy intelligent writers) with the vulgar, ignorant masses. He would eventually love these people and despise his old life of wealth and pride. He says "I understand now that he alone is above others who humbles himself before others and makes himself the servant of all."
2. Commit not adultery. He thought marriage made two people one, which made separation very painful.
3. Take no oaths. Even though it does come from one of Jesus' teachings, you might wonder why people think this is a big deal. First, it waters down your normal honesty. "I swear on my mother's grave!"--does that mean you normally lie? Second, think Abraham Lincoln. Whenever he talked about what he really believed, he said slavery was wrong. Whenever he said slavery was ok as long as it kept the Union together, he would talk about his "oath" of office and his "oath" to uphold the constitution. In other words, his oaths were forcing him to do things he normally wouldn't do. Last, think of Nazi's simply doing their duty or serving their superiors. That's what Tolstoy means.
4. Do not defend yourself by violence. Tolstoy interpreted Jesus command "resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" in a very straightforward way--never resort to violence. So did Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi, etc. He thought this was the key to saving humanity and the only way to end violence.
5. Make not war. Follows from 4. Tolstoy was especially disturbed that the Church would support war, but he understood that it was because they were so intertwined with the State.
The story of Tolstoy's life and conversion, as told in his "My Confession" is an incredible story, partly because he's such a great writer (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, which he actually dismissed as sophistry later in life).
This blog is based on My Confession; My Religion; The Gospel in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy. If you like Tolstoy, non violence, Confession-type narratives (think Augustine and Rousseau), or theology, you might like this book.
Tolstoy a Russion Life
Well, Christopher Paul Curtis has done it again! The Mighty Miss Malone is not only about a girl but its about a family. It's about a family doing everything it takes to survive together and then just doing what it takes to survive.This story is not only about a family's struggles with the economic aspects of the Great Depression but also the political aspects. With this historical fiction Mr. Curtis has proven to me that the fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 were more than just heavyweight bouts. He calls them the perfect storm.
The Mighty Miss Malone
If you don't like the recent trend of science and religion yelling at each other, you might like this book. Jonathan Sacks argues, like many before him, that science and religion are compatible, "more than compatible," harmonious. Like two sides of the same coin and the right and left hemispheres of the brain, they need each other. He actually takes the brain analogy literally. Science is a left-brain activity; it analyzes things, pulls them apart, explains them. Religion is a right-brain activity; it joins things together, tells stories, focuses on relationships, and interprets things. They are simply two different ways of being, two different perspectives on the world. A thing is a thing and a person is a person.
He also makes a very interesting point about why we Westerners confuse science and religion. He blames it on the Greeks! The Jewish religion, he says, was not scientific or philosophical at all. Neither was early Christianity. But then Christianity was married with Greek philosophy and science. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, created a beautiful system of Christianity based on Aristotle's science and metaphysics and the Bible. Science and religion became one. Once we figured out Aristotle was wrong, it chipped away at religion too, etc. Get it? They became enemies because they were on the same turf.
What I liked most about the book is that the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks knows his science and religion and philosophy (of course he is definitely an Old Testament scholar), which is nice. Usually these books are written by a scientist pretending to be a theologian, or a theologian pretending to be scientific. The book starts strong and ends strong, but the middle gets repetitive and loses its' vigor. Not a bad read!
The Great Partnership
John Woolman--18th Century American Quaker, reformer, mystic, abolitionist, writer, wandering preacher--argued that excessive love contributed to the institution of slavery. Yes, that's right--excessive, gluttonous, kinship love. The argument is quite simple: parents who had slaves could save more money for their childrens' futures; they could give them more stuff, provide a secure life for them. John Woolman, of course, thought this was narrow-minded, immoral love; not a Christian love at all. It's loving one person at the expense and misery of another. And he wasn't arguing against the sort of slave-holder you think about. He was arguing against his fellow Quakers who had slaves! They were the guilty kind, the kind who wouldn't beat their slaves, who perhaps didn't like the institution alltogether; the kind who said "necessary evil" and "at least it's a way to convert them to Christianity". John Woolman loved his children too. But he loved them as he loved everyone else (I know that's hard to comprehend, but the biography portrays his life that way...he barely mentions his family in his own autobiography; he is a rare man indeed).
Woolman's life-long project to end slavery by literally walking around America talking to the slave-holders themselves, is only a fraction of his beautiful soul. Much like Martin Luther King Jr. thought that racism was part of a larger problem (hence, he devoted his life to anti-war, pro-union, anti-poverty projects too), Woolman's life was filled with nothing more than an obsession to purify his heart of sin, to figure out God's Will, to be humble, to wait for God to speak to him, to pray, to travel across the world. What amazed me so much was this man's obsession to be morally perfect in God's eyes, as he understood it along the way. The title of the book--The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman--is apt. For him the big things and the little things mattered. At one point he realized that an unbleached hat would last longer than a bleached hat. This was practically a moral crisis for him. For the rest of his life he wore completely unbleached (white) clothes (which made him look very weird). He had similarities with the saints that William James analyzes in Varieties of Religious Experience. But what makes his soul most beautiful is his character, how he chose to carry himself: humble, meek, mild, understanding, loving, patient, hopeful, steady, grateful. He showed love to the slave-holder; that's why he was successful in changing their minds.
This is not the best written biography by far, although it's good scholarship. It repeats a lot, and reads much like a long, extended commentary of Woolman's own Journal. But the subject matter is fascinating and worth it.
The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman
So far this year I have written in this space about several books that were published because of an anniversary of the topic. Well, here's another one, and it's a 60th anniversary that's happening very soon. In early November, 1952, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower was elected president. This election was historic for many reasons, and this biography by Jean Edward Smith covers the entire life of Eisenhower, with an emphasis on his service in World War I and the time after that. This is a hefty volume, and it's probably not expected that everyone who encounters it will read the whole thing. Yet, it's worth looking at, even if only to read selected chapters or to see the photos and editorial cartoons interspersed with the narrative.
Eisenhower : in war and peace
I’ve known three pairs of people now, who have been a kidney donor and a recipient to that donated kidney. I know bits and pieces of their stories, more from the donor’s perspective than the recipient’s. In each case, the donor knew instinctively that she was meant to give her kidney, and each time, she was sure she would be a “match” to the recipient, which in fact she was.
So I was intrigued to read this moving account of journalist colleagues, who grow to be friends and eventually "kidneys-in-law” (their humor,) when Martha McNeil Hamilton donates her kidney to Warren Brown for transplant. It was poignant and illuminating to learn, from Brown’s perspective, the difficulties he lived with prior to the transplants. (Previously, his wife donated a kidney to him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for Brown’s body.)
Brown and Hamilton each describe growing up in a segregated South—she, a white female, and he, a black male. As colleagues at the Washington Post, they moved beyond the segregation of their youth, to develop a strong friendship over the years. Both were journalists at the Washington Post during and after 9/11, so part of their story covers how they dealt with the stress of post 9/11, in the news media world, in addition to the health crises and personal challenges they faced.
Black and white and red all over : the story of a friendship
I have been familiar with many of Michelangelo's works since college when I took a class titled "The Arts and Letters of Michelangelo". A wonderful class, the professor greatly elaborated upon the Neoplatonic views that were circulating at this time among philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and how Michelangelo incorporated these views into his artwork. I was happy to find that this book does the same thing, as well as, discusses the political and cultural climate of Italy in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. The author John Spike seems to have a keen insight and understanding into the artist.
Young Michelangelo tells us about Michelangelo's upbringing including his beginning as an artist under the direction of Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici. We are introduced to Michelangelo's first works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, as well as sketches he did after frescoes by Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. These extant works show how versatile and talented Michelangelo was as a young artist in different mediums. The book talks about his Bacchus, David, Pieta, and other early commissions before going into details about his long and complex relationship with Giuliano della Rovere, a.k.a. Pope Julius II. We see the beginnings of his longtime habit of taking on more in commissions than he could finish and leaving projects in an unfinished state.
The author, John Spike, is very good at explaining the different stresses in Michelangelo's life and interpreting his response to these stresses, whether they are the political climate of his native Florence, the wishes of a demanding patron, or competition from other artists. The opinion of many art historians is that three Italian Renaissance artists catapulted themselves above the rest in their ability to produce extraordinary artwork at this time. Michelangelo was one of these artists, the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. Spike also discusses Michelangelo's interactions with these two artists. Michelangelo was put in direct competition with da Vinci through a fresco commission in Florence; Raphael he writes off as a young kid of mediocre talent until he also comes under the commission of the pope. Contemporaries who knew each other personally, it is very interesting to me to hear how they interacted with and perceived one another with their very different attitudes and quirks.
Spike has done a lot of research to write this book. I would like him to write a Part II that would be a biography of Michelangelo's later life talking about his continued issues with Julius II and his issues cooperating with his assistants. In my opinion, Young Michelangelo seems to abruptly end. There is no conclusion and the last work of art the author talks about in the work is actually a fresco by Raphael. The format of the book also seems a bit strange. The first chapters are of a nice length but the very last chapter of the book reminds me of a run-on sentence being much longer. It strikes me as unfinished and lacking conclusion; the subtitle is "the Path to the Sistine", so please, tell me about the Sistine in another book! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Michelangelo's early life though. It amazing the kinds of work he was able to produce at such a young age!
Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine
If you love philosophy of religion like me, and like to wander the stacks in the 100/200's area, then you love reading about arguments for the existence of God, the rebuttals, the replies to the rebuttals, etc. It all begins with Saint Thomas Aquinas. In only a few pages, he gives us his famous five:
- The First Mover: everything is moved by something else. The tree was moved by the wind which was moved by the weather which was moved by something else, and so on. This could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with a "Prime Mover," a being that gets the ball rolling. That's God. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher that was not a Christian, believed in a Prime Mover (Thomas actually snatched the argument from him).
- The First Cause: everything that happens is caused by something else that usually comes before it. What caused you?--your parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. Because every physical event must have a cause, this could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with an "Uncaused Cause," the beginner of the Big Bang so to speak. That's God. Check out Dean Overman's book for a current example.
- Contingency: When I was a kid I remember sitting on the couch thinking: what if nothing existed at all? No universe. What would that be like? I closed my eyes and could only picture black space, but then I thought to myself: black space is not nothing, it's something! I couldn't imagine or even think about it; it was such a shocking thought. When we look around we see things that pop into existence and then die. They never had to be in the first place. What if everything was like that? If nothing has to exist, then we can imagine at time when nothing exists--no matter, no space, nothing! This is impossible because you can't get something out of nothing. Therefore there must be at least one thing that must necessarily exist. That's God. Check out Paul Davies "fine-tuning" argument in Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life.
- Degree: we use terms like "good" and "honest" and "noble" that point to some standard of perfection, some benchmark. When we say a person is honest, we are saying they have some degree of that virtue. There must be a concept of perfection, which helps us to know this. That's God.
- Teleology (Design): everything seems to be directed towards some goal, or end, or purpose. Even ants build complex houses, and everything seems to work together. The orchestrator behind all the design is God. Francis Collins, the DNA guy, has a similar argument in The Language of God.
Although these are Christian arguments, they are used for other monothestic religion (Islam, Judiasm) and probably others (they began as Greek arguments). The history of these five arguments is incredible; they have been transformed, altered, defended, rebutted, discarded, revived. Philosophy of Religionand Karen Armstrong's The Case for God will give you a good overview. Also don't forget Blaise Pascal's argument that, if you were a betting man, you should at least bet on God. And you must read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, a very nuianced and pragmatic argument.
As for rebuttals, a good start would be The Atheist Debater's Handbook, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God (author doesn't think they're good reasons), God: The Failed Hypothesis, and The Portable Atheist.
Aquinas Shorter Summa