There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Review: Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again

Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again by Preston Yancey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I have pounded on the door of heaven, screaming shrilly. As if the silence were not the gift; as if I would exchange the restlessness and questions for any soporific peace... I have been selfish and I know it when my mother comes into my room, asking, "Are you blue?" (Depression, displacement, desire deferred--all cram within this colour.) I have thought I could not endure another day at a church where everything rolls on the same. Sitting at my grandma's round table--hedged by parents, grandma, Uncle B, Aunt L, and Aunt R--I have been silent, but I have not touched The Silence. I have been afraid to speak as a cynic and afraid to speak as a hypocrite, so I have been absent. I have tucked in my frayed edges so there is no solitude for others to greet or touch."

The words above are my own from a diary entry of a couple months ago, but they could well be Preston Yancey's. Tables in the Wilderness dwells mostly in the liminal word of its subtitle; it's the story of how a talented young college student, raised in the happy-clappy assurance of evangelical (Southern Baptist at that) youth culture, lost the voice of God, but later found Him in liturgical churches, scholarship, and more silence.

Other reviewers have complained about the vagueness of this book. Well, if one expects memoirs to be strong on "plot" or to provide striking characters, then this book is a failure. A brief sketch of Preston's early life as a devote Baptist pastor's son and "youth group" leader is given. The rest of the book meanders through his years as an undergrad at Baylor University and includes its share of young adult friendships and romances gone wrong. Preston and his friends start a church group and its failure precipitates much of his angst. It's nothing impressive or dramatic, coming, as other reviewers have pointed out, from a veeeeeeery young man. The narrative could come across as self-absorbed. However, I'm a very young and self-absorbed woman, so I didn't mind Preston's lack of experience and honesty about his angst. Instead, I read the book almost as a devotional. Indeed, Preston writes, "For anyone feeling like God is silent, this book is for you."

This book didn't rescue me from all my personal silence--although while I was reading it, I think God did speak. I read it as a kindle, but filled it with highlighting, smiley face notes, questions, exclamations of "oh!", and even prayers. Preston's professors--especially in the honours college and Great Texts major--were the most iridescent "characters", reminding me of the invaluable role professors play in Christian institutions--how much they challenge us when we don't want to be challenged, and then the most sincere of them are often demonized for it, yet maintain patience and humour. The book also made me insanely jealous of the Great Texts major. One conclusion it led me to is that I desperately need to read Marie de France and Plato's Timeaus as soon as possible. Of his university experience Preston writes: "Somewhere between the frenzy of discovery and the patient work of searching I became a scholar. Being a scholar meant I could ask big questions and then go searching for the answers. That’s all I had ever really wanted to do." I also; I also. I appreciate a perspective that can value mystery, aesthetics, and a liturgy of embodiment, but also the work of scholarship, which involves the discipline to "own the perspective of the work... and critique only so far as the text allow[s]...". 

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and now as I scroll through my notes I am more impressed and challenged by it than ever. Despite the vagueness of narrative and a few minor editing challenges, it will likely reach my top ten list for this year. This review, which I'm writing at 12:15 am, is not sufficient to contain all my responses to this book, so I hope to soon make a blogpost or two utilizing the reading questions provided in the book and continuing to examine how it can continue to challenge me and hopefully others.

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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: Surprised by Oxford

Surprised by Oxford Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I added this memoir to my TBR list several years ago, writing in my diary that I had come across a book with such promise that I was afraid to read it. The epigraph to chapter one is from John Donne's "Satire III", with the injunction to "doubt wisely". The chapter continues to brilliantly incorporate Donne, as Carolyn tells of her experience as an unbelieving Canadian undergraduate, asking an evangelical professor for his opinion on her paper on Holy Sonnet XIV. With salty language, he challenges her to truly understand the "subtle knot... [of] Donne's spiritual pilgrimage". "The truth is in the paradox," he tells the young agnostic. (Read the first chapter here: )

It's no secret that I love John Donne almost unreasonably. Add to this the "dreaming spires of Oxford" for setting, and the promise of romance, and this memoir seemed crafted perfectly to inspire and delight me.

And it did. Caro, as she is called by her friends, overcomes a broken home and poverty to earn a full scholarship to Oxford. Her poetic memoir is a treasure-trove of literary allusions, quotations, and insights, many of them from my own most beloved writers, such as T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caro tells her experience of coming to Christian faith with honesty, vulnerability, and joy. (One expects the latter, of course, because of the title's allusion to C.S. Lewis' memoir, "Surprised by Joy".)

However, something was missing for me. Perhaps it was simply because I read the memoir in a time of spiritual darkness and uncertainty that made Weber's experience seem a little too easy, a little too connected to the suave and sophisticated Christianity of her group of friends. Perhaps I needed a less impressionistic approach to struggling with questions of feminism and a God portrayed as male. Perhaps I needed to own the book rather than borrow it from the library, so I could read more slowly, marking each epiphany and question. In short, I think it's a book I'll return to someday, perhaps before or after visiting Oxford myself.

Maybe Karen Armstrong's memoir, which apparently uses T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" as a "spine", is the book I'm really looking for. For that I'm going to rest in hope. (Yes, the irony of the word "hope" in relation to that poem is intended.)

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Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review: Laying Down the Sword

Laying Down the Sword
Laying Down the Sword by Philip Jenkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've just finished watching a production of The Merchant of Venice performed at a Christian university. What will I tell my mom about it when I phone her tonight? Not much, because reading King Lear was one of the most rebellious things she ever discovered me doing as a young teen. Although Shakespeare's raunchiness is doubtless part of the problem, a significant issue that conservative members of my denomination have with Shakespeare is the explicit violence of many of the plays. One minister whom I was quite influenced by during my pre-teen years linked a staging of Macbeth to the 1849 Astor Place riots, implying that Shakespeare should never be read because the plays inspire violence. While I agree that enactments of violence should be subject to critical thought and careful semiotics, the simple equation of textual violence with physical is highly flawed. Ironically, however, many atheists who would not object to the staging of Shakespeare, would object to the Bible or the Qur’an on similar grounds, citing the crusades and genocides that have fed upon biblical “texts of terror”. Unfortunately, the Christian has less deniability than the English professor. It is utterly dishonest for Christians to condemn the Qur'an as a work inspiring terrorism when their own sacred volume has an abundance of texts commanding religious warfare. Jenkins’ scrupulously researched book shows the pervasive influence of such stories as Saul and Amalek, or Phineas and the Moabite woman in instances of religious and ethnic "cleansing". Even could such violence be relegated to the distant past of “an antique volume, written by faded men”, for those seeking to find the character of God in the biblical record, these stories present an almost insurmountable road block.
When one begins to experience profound discomfort with the morality advocated in these texts, it’s tempting to jump to easy answers, such as that the Canaanites were so wicked that their destruction was a mercy. Jenkins, however, takes the text and its historical, cultural and archaeological framework seriously. Respecting a text can be a painful process, and the recital of the atrocities patterned after biblical harem warfare is torturous.
Most of the time, Jenkins’ is unflinching in his psychological and cultural instinct, such as when he declares that “If Hitler’s Holocaust had succeeded, presumably Christians in some future era would have recalled the prowling Jew as a menacing symbol of depravity. The idea could scarcely be considered offensive as it was not linked to any existing human reality. No one would survive to be offended” (197). His honesty struck at a theory I wanted to believe: The genocidal texts of books like Joshua, and Judges are an example of the divine working with an Iron Age people, while the universal visions of prophets like Isaiah (or, that is, the authors of the Isaiah manuscript[s]) and Jeremiah present a move away from such xenophobia and harshness due to progressive revelation. Unfortunately, the dating of the texts simply does not support this conclusion – Jenkins reads the violent, quasi-historical texts as part of the same national moral ethos the Axial Age prophets were attempting to instill.
In frequently comparing texts supposed to inspire jihadists with even more egregiously unmerciful Judeo-Christian texts, Jenkins makes clear that violence does not spring from the text itself, but that as “political and social circumstances change, interpretations of fundamental scriptures… change likewise” (249). In other words, readers are fundamental to meaning, and the political is fundamental to the personal.
While Jenkins’ honesty has earned my admiration, this book is not all I wanted. Despite a generally neutral voice, the book appears to be written with the assumption that the whole of scripture is inspired and to question its unity is suspect. A few assertions I would have liked to have seen more thoroughly explored or defended include the easy dismissal of Marcionism, the statement “A bloodless Bible offers cheap Grace” (208), and “Without the Old Testament… the New Testament becomes a tree without a trunk” (225). While I was raised to credit such views, intellectual and ethical honesty compel me to explore why I believe this. Had Jenkins more explicitly explored these issues he might have written an interminably long book, but a more rich and rewarding text. Like The Merchant of Venice, the texts of scripture must be respected by readings that combine "uncompromising scholarly standards" with unmitigated human compassion for the victims of the texts and their historical-cultural contexts.

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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Few Favourite Books of 2014 and Blogging Plans

As ever, I am late in posting my favourite books of 2014. I won't be settling on an exact Top Ten list, but mentioning a few of the works that have challenged and delighted me this year.

It appears there were 12 books I gave 5 stars to on Goodreads this year, but some of those read last winter seem so far away that I'm going to focus on books I read more recently, even if they had rough edges that merited only 4 star reviews.

Among the most exciting and challenging works was Robert Alter's translation of 1st and 2nd Samuel, titled The David Story. The intrigue and betrayal that characterize the story had fascinated me since childhood, while David's Machiavellianism disturbed me in my most recent reading of the KJV narrative. Alter's comments (or is it sometimes editorial bias?) provoked some great discussions in the class in which I read this. Although I did not read it in full, the Festschrift The Fate of King David: The Past and Present of a Biblical Icon deserves an honourable mention. It contains invaluable essays (and a fascinating play of sorts) that helped me explore and articulate the narrative's ambiguities, especially in relation to Michal and Bathsheba. Its insights showed me again how literary criticism can be an emotional and even spiritual discipline.

Should I Fight? Essays on Conscientious Objection and the Seventh-day Adventist Church (edited by Barry Bussey) occupied my time on numerous Saturday afternoons. The strength and basis of the arguments varied, but overall it helped confirm me in my conviction that radical and socially pro-active non-violence is a position that should be emphasized much more in my own denomination and Christianity at large.

Homer's Odyssey and Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad taught me much about ambiguity, power and voicelessness, western constructions of justice and violence, etc.
Euripide's Medea might just have been the most impressive text, with sections that amount to feminist theory in a work of 431 BCE! Of course, it's also incredibly disturbing, but every character (except maybe the chorus?) has enough ambiguity to invite reflection on perceptions of gender, madness, and power in our own times.

My favourite memoir was Sarah Thebarge's The Invisible Girls, reviewed here; my favourite classic novel was probably Jude the Obscure.

During the first part of the year I diligently counted and recorded how many pages I read a day, but school and work eventually distracted me from my pedantry. (With quite a number of unfinished books, and works that I read sections of for school, my page count is bound to be more than Goodreads acknowledges.) I don't have really specific reading goals this year, except to read several hours a day and stay ahead (or at least caught up) in my reading for school, while still taking as much time as possible to drink deeply of the beauty of words and narratives. When I have a little extra time I hope to explore texts that relate to the ones I'll be reading closely in my academic life, such as (perhaps) Rebecca Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex after reading The Republic. (Which is what I ought to be doing now. Right now.)

Especially with intimidating texts like The Republic -- but even with the ones I may have a tendency to glide over because they appear easy --  I hope to explore ambiguities and difficulties in short weekly write-ups, as suggested in this interesting book. I may post a few of my "Difficulty Papers" here, but as sometimes my readings and reflections in my honours class lead to existential and spiritual crises, I'll probably keep most of them on a private blog. However, I will try to cross-post a short review of every book read here and at Goodreads so that my reflections don't become a "quick succession of busy nothings".

What I do intend to share on this blog is my Season of Jane Austen. I get the extravagant pleasure of a whole course on The Sovereign Lady this semester, and to consolidate my own research, notes, and ideas I intend to make a weekly Perspectives on Austen or Journal of a Mad Janeite post. Although my time will have constraints, hopefully discussion with my blog followers will also help spark some ideas. I'm making these "promises" here -- my promises are always like ropes of sand -- so you, dear readers, can hold me to the arduous task of blogging more.