A Review of Radical Spirit by Joan Chittister

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Thank you to Englewood Review of Books for the opportunity to review this title.

We are a people that search. We search for the things we have lost. We search for the latest and greatest item that will make our life that much easier. These searches tend to focus upon the outward self and what will benefit us as individuals the most. The search that is easily avoided because it takes too much time and a lot of patience, is the search for the inward self. The self that is called to be in relationship with God. It is in this search that we are able to grow as individuals and nurture our relationship with God.

To begin this search, one can go to the closest book store and look at the self-help section or spirituality section and find hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the topic of personal growth. Each one meant to connect with a certain personality. I believe that few have the ability to span across the millennia and connect the past with the present in a way that leaves the learner wanting more.

In her newest book, Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister is able to do just that. The subtitle, 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, may sound like a book that could be a quick fix to your spiritual life. However, what she presents is a life journey. It is no quick fix, but it is a way of living into your true self and building a stronger relationship with God. Our true selves have been swallowed up by the abundance of things happening around us. We are bombarded daily by social media and the news. Every second we turn around, we encounter something new and must intentionally pull ourselves away from it. As she says in the introduction, “This book is about recognizing what has mastered us and then discovering what it will take to break those chains.” We have allowed things of non-importance to master our daily routines, and this is a call for us to wake up and see how we can change.

The twelve steps that she lays out for the reader are based upon the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict. It is these very rules that she had to walk through herself as she became a Benedictine nun. These ways or rules come directly from chapter 7 in the Rule of Saint Benedict and address the importance of humility. What a telling sign in our times that the need for humility is being lifted up. In the midst of our latest presidential election and the partisan fighting that seems to be constantly happening in our government, it appears that possibly a little humility could do all of us some good.

The beautiful thing about Chittister’s offering is that it is not purely a rephrasing of Saint Benedict’s rule written back in the sixth century. She takes a chapter for each of the twelve ways in which one can work towards a humbler life and living into the true self. It is also providing the opportunity to live into a greater spiritual fullness. While she takes each step, and discusses it in depth, she does so in three parts. Her chapters may read somewhat like a catechism instruction as she digs deeper into each step of humility.

She first explores what the challenge of each step is by asking the question, “what is the challenge here?” There is, of course, a challenge to each of these steps, or Saint Benedict would not have included them in his rules. The next question that one must ask is, “What is the underlying issue?” We must venture into what it is truly deep within us that makes this step more difficult to follow. Finally, she asks the question of “What are the spiritual implications of this step of humility?” This is where we begin to work on our spiritual relationship with God. How will living into each step of humility get us closer to our true selves and thus closer in relationship to God.

Part of the wonderfulness of this book is that it also reads somewhat like a memoir. Sister Joan shares with the reader how she has progressed through many of the steps in her own personal life. From entering the monastic order while she was young to the many varied experiences that she had throughout her life encountering each step and having to wrestle with it. While not a complete autobiography, it gives the reader a glimpse into the character of Sister Joan and how she has faced the tough act of humility.

The steps to humility tend to progress on the difficulty scale as you move through them. Humility is not easily achieved overnight, and following in Sister Joan’s acknowledgement, it is something that takes a lifetime of work. Isn’t this true of all things spiritual? This is why people jump so quickly from one practice to another. They do not have the patience to walk through the difficulties associated with whatever practice they are attempting. It is the patience that is required to stick with something, even when we feel that our prayers are not being answered, that we will finally hear God’s response.  In this patience, we listen. “A spiritual life that learns to listen to the voice of God within is a spiritual life with God as its director. Then we are free; then we are truly authentic.”

This is also not just a one-time practice that as you work through the steps, you will come to completion. It is true that, “Just as the world thinks one struggle has been won, somewhere, somehow, it emerges all over again.” It is amazing how history does repeat itself, and we fail to learn from our mistakes as people of God. This is where we fall into sin. This is where Sister Joan’s work offers us the opportunity to work out of those mistakes.

What posture must we take as a people of God today? “In a society that glorifies achievement and success, the very thought of a spiritual life based on what appears to be groundless deference and debasement of self is totally unacceptable.” We allow the grace of God to wash over us and humble ourselves before God. “Spirituality is not about feeling good about ourselves. It’s about dong good wherever we are. It’s about bring good to everyone…. It’s about fashioning our souls in the kind of silence that enables the whole world to feel safe in our calm and quiet presence.”

In this calm and quiet presence, she brings The Rule of Saint Benedict back to life for those that may have forgot it; for those that may have never seen it; and for a world that is so in need of humility in this time and place.

 

 

 

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: A Review

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Be prepared for you mind to be stretched and your heart to be tugged.

Many of us wonder what it must be like once we leave this earthly world at the time of our death. As a Christian, I have faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and know that he died so that death itself maybe conquered and we won’t suffer. However, what comes after this? Even within the Christian faith, their are disagreements.

Saunders first novel brings us to the night of the burial of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie. This is historical fact that Willie died while Lincoln was in office and it paid a toll on both him and his wife Mary. Yet, Lincoln still had a country to run and was in the midst of the Civil War. Saunders ventures into that death and the evening of the burial. Lincoln spends most of the night in the cemetery, and through ghosts that inhabit his body, we hear the thoughts of Lincoln as he contemplates his sons death and what that may mean for his future in the White House.

Saunders takes great license as the story unfolds and can be quite provocative at times. The characters that live within the cemetery come to life on the pages as they converse with one another and even try to converse with Lincoln.

This is a thought provoking look into the time during the Civil War and especially into the perceived feelings of Lincoln. It brings about the true human struggles that we have with death. It also brings about hope and love.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A Review

This memoir has been added to many must read lists as we are now in a country where a Donald Trump presidency is possible. It is suppose to explain to some extent why the outcome of the election happened the way it did. It is suppose to connect with the core of the American blue collar worker that was not happy.

Vance does a good job of explaining his background and even that of many that moved from Appalachia searching for better jobs and pay. He grew up in circumstances that those growing up in the middle class would find hard to understand. He also is eager to get away from that culture to an extent where he wants to better his life and break the cycle of anger and violence that he associates with being a “hillbilly.”

Whether it gets to the core of our current political situation, I cannot quite say. It touches upon it and does reiterate the displeasure of not being able to move up within society. Therefore, the people to blame would be the current administration that is running the government. I will admit that being a white male from a middle class family, I have a hard time connecting the two.

Overall, Vance is a great writer and shares his story beautifully. To be born into a family in the hill country of Kentucky and to raise himself up to attend Yale and become an attorney is a great success story. One, as he says, helps deliver the American Dream.

Perhaps though, we need to rethink the American Dream.

The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr: A Review

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The Trinity is quite often an overlooked aspect of the spiritual life. We tend to think of God and Jesus Christ, yet tend to leave the notion of the Holy Spirit out of the equation. When we include all three into the equation, we are able to truly dig deeper into our own spiritual well-being.

Richard Rohr, along with Mike Morrell explore the Trinity in The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Bringing in the image of Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity painting, allows the reader to get an image in their mind, as well as the possibility of us being the fourth person sitting at the table with the Trinity.

God wants us to be in relationship with all three and it is here that Rohr is hoping to lead us into that great encounter.  Beginning with the vast view of the Trinity throughout time leads us to the present and the need to engage with the Trinity here and now. Until we come to the realization that everything in creation works together and is required to bring us into the kingdom of God, there will be brokenness and sin. I believe his theory on growth of Western atheism is right-on:

Do you ever wonder why Western atheism is on the rise? Why does the Christian West, by far, produce the highest number of atheists? What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience. As long as “received teaching” doesn’t become experiential knowledge, we’re going to continue creating a high quality of disillusioned ex-believers. Or on the flip-side, we’ll manufacture very rigid believers who simply hold on to doctrines in very dry, dead ways with nothing going on inside.

And so we have two big groups on the landscape today: those who throw out the baby with the bathwater (many liberals and academics) – and those who seem to have drowned in the bathwater (many conservatives and fundamentalists).

How about allowing the bath water to keep flowing over you and through you?

It is anyway, but we can considerably help the process by gradually opening up the water faucets–both the cold and the hot.

Rohr’s writing, as usual, is easy to read and very engaging. He brings a truth to his writing that I wish more people would pick up on. Until we start to experience the Holy Spirit within us and listen to where it is calling, then we will not fully live into the life that God is calling us to. Our interaction with the Trinity is truly a dance that is beautiful and as robust as we make it.

Old Scratch: a Review

A Review of Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubter and the Disenchanted by Richard Beck.

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Before I picked up this book, I had never heard of the term Old Scratch when referring to the Devil. Richard Beck, a psychology professor, introduces the term after being reminded of it while leading a Bible study in a prison. The appearance of Satan, or the Devil, or Old Scratch, is alive and well in the prison system. It comes in the realization of the crimes that one has committed. It also comes with the fear of turning your back to some of the fellow inmates. It is also found within yourself.

The thought of a physical devil has always seemed to turn me off. While there is sin and brokenness that persists in our world, I believe that the “devil” is present in that and at times we fall to it. Beck appears to back up this understanding to some point, while not disregarding the fact that some people do truly succumb to demons within their lives and perhaps even need to be exorcised. Becks says, “a satan is more of a relationship than a person. Anything that is facing you in an antagonistic or adversarial way–working against you as an opponent or enemy–is standing before you as ha satan, as an adversary, as a satan” (pg. 8).

His whole thesis is that we need to get to a point where we are at spiritual warfare with those forces within our lives that are satan. While we are surrounded with the negative, God’s presence is also constantly around us, giving us comfort and support. It is true that the world is suffering, and has been from the time of creation, “and in the face of that suffering Jesus went about doing good and healing all those under the power of the devil” (pg 83).

It really comes down to the point that our world in counter-cultural to the one that Jesus brought into view with the Kingdom of God. At this time in our country, this really speaks to our current political state and the division within. “All of this is simply to say that the confession that Jesus is Lord of all turns the world upside down. But much closer to home, that confession turns my world upside down. Idolatry isn’t just about the nation-state. the kingdom of God uproots all the idols of my life, petty and great” (pg. 170).

The spiritual warfare he speaks of must be more than just saying we are going to pray for something. We must be called into action, to live and be with those that are struggling, and realize our own inward struggles. We must be up to “angelic troublemaking,” and provide a resistance to whatever gets in the way of the kingdom of God. Spiritual warfare is living the kingdom of God.

Beck takes the reader on a great history of thoughts on the devil and comes to a conclusion that speaks to the wholeness that God calls us to as God’s children. While his call to action may not be entirely new, it speaks to the greater need for humanity to be in touch with the greater spiritualness that surrounds us in our lives. It is a call to resistance to speaks to us in a bold prophetic way in our current time.

 

The Goblin Crown by Robert H. Wolfe: A Review

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It is nice to switch up my usual reading with some books for pure enjoyment. I received an advanced copy of The Goblin Crown from the publisher so that I could review it.

I have a fondness for books that venture into fantasy, from Harry Potter to The Chronicles of Narnia. Wolfe’s entry into this realm is a great addition to genre and would make C.S. Lewis proud. Reading the book, I was escorted to a land that seems foreign to us with goblins and many other creatures. Billy Smith enters this other world through his own thoughts and takes others with him. It reminds me of the wardrobe from Lewis’s books, but there is just a little bit more magic in The Goblin Crown.

In the magic you can see connects to the Harry Potter series and the wonderment that occurs in that world. The chapters move at a pace that you want to keep reading and this is truly the sign of a great book. It will keep young adults turning the pages and by the time they finish it, they will be waiting to see what Billy and his friends are up to next. It is not just for young adults though. I truly enjoyed it and even caught religious glimpses within the pages. For example, “All our songs have a final refrain, but only Father Day and Mother Night know the count. So until the last note fades, might as well enjoy the dance.”

Reading this book was definitely a fun dance.

Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith: A Review

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Chris Smith does a wonderful job of showing the connection between books and our everyday lives. The way that they shape our communities and churches and the impact that they can have on the growth of individuals. The encouragement he gives to promote books and discussion makes one want to go out and start a book club to start seeing the impacts in their own communities. It is a wealth of information that is easily a return to book to see what you can glean from it in additional readings.

The notes I took and highlighted were numerous. Here are some of my favorites that I thought I would share:

“Reading plunges us into the interconnected reality of creation, showing us our connectedness to people in other places and other times, reminding us how words on paper have the capacity to give shape to our everyday lives. Through language we are continually creating and refining reality. In our churches, we have the privilege of doing so together in ways that are attentive to the compassion, the justice, the healing and all the fullness of Christ. Our calling as God’s people is to be community shaped by the incarnational sort of learning. This is the very heart of discipleship, the way God has chosen to bear witness to the healing and reconciling of all creation.”

“So in addition to interrogating Scripture, we must allow  ourselves to be interrogate by it. And in allowing it to ask questions of us, we allow it to shine the light of Christ on our lives and to guide us toward deeper faithfulness to the way of Christ.”

“Thomas Merton has written that a person “knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live.””

“In prayer and contemplation we begin to understand that our identity is not to be found in our differences from others– in our superiorities and in inferiorities– but in our common humanity.” Parker J. Palmer

“Neil Gaiman emphasizes that literacy — and especially reading fiction — is essential because it builds our capacity for empathy. “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. [In reading fiction] you’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changes. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more that self-obsesses individuals.””

“We need to be attentive to the bonds that link us to people in other places and to the work of deepening these bonds. Reading is a vital tool in this process of linking ourselves to other places.”

“Love itself is knowledge: the more one loves, the more one knows.” attributed to St. Gregory the Great