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Because I Love You

| 29.6.06
Because I Love You, by Max Lucado

Well, I just re-read Max Lucado's story for children Because I Love You and now I remember why I thought it was so creepy the first time I read it --especially in light of my fundamentalist upbringing.

One of the main messages of this book seems to be that curiosity is dangerous. Don't inquire. Don't question. Just accept what an authority figure tells you. If you do question, you risk alienating yourself from your community. Once you've gone down the questioning path and left the sheltering walls of religious totalism only an act of God can bring you back.

To me the book seems like an insidious attempt to try to frighten children out of questioning the values of the authority system. I see this with so many adults too, that seem afraid to question, that would rather live in a secure little bubble of never examining the assumptions behind what they believe.

The lie is made all the stronger because it is partly true. As one who has rejected the fundamentalism of my upbringing, it does feel lonely and dangerous sometimes to be "out in the cold," outside of the authoritarian system that promised simplicity and security if one didn't question things. Yet there is also great beauty and truth outside the walls.

I guess I'd even go so far as to say that the whole truth is only outside the wall, and what it means to be human is to seek after the whole truth. This book does a terrible disservice by implying otherwise. It certainly feels safer inside the walls, but I was raised to shun "feel good theology!"

And what the is Lucado trying to imply by naming the curious kid "Paladin?" All the good conformist kids got normal names. Paladin sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons, which of course every good fundy knows is a Satanic game. :)

Okay, I'm done ranting now. Few things get me as irate as the manipulation of children.

Publisher: Crossway Books (February 1999); ISBN: 0891079920

The Book of Tea

| 16.6.06
The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura

Reading and drinking tea have been connected in my mind for a few years now. My introduction to teas began quite accidentally. I was looking for a nice quiet neighborhood coffee shop with comfortable chairs as a place to escape family life for the occasional evening, and catch up on my reading. This search brought me to a tea shop, where I immediately fell in love with the different blends of green tea. I've been hooked ever since!

The Book of Tea is a short work that traces the history and development of tea drinking and the tea ceremony as it came from China to Japan in the 9th century, became tied to Zen Buddhism, and survives to this day. In one interesting quote that reminded me of my own favorite tea shop, "The tea room or tea house avoids any note of ostentation. It is made of common materials. The tools, the table, the teapot, and the ornament --all must be humble and harmonious." (p. xiii) Okakura goes on to tie tea drinking to a balanced, non-elitist sensibility. "It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocao." (p. 12).

Yet he can't just leave it at that. Okakura reminds me of more modern marketing for green tea (what hasn't green tea been claimed to cure?) when he ties tea drinking to philosophy, aesthetics, religion --even hygiene. "The philosophy of tea is not mere aetheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry; inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste." (p. 4)

"Lao-tzu himself, with his quaint humor, says, 'If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.'" (p. 29)

Maybe tea really is "all that." Maybe it isn't. Either way, I enjoy a good bracing mug of gunpowder green tea in the morning, a lighter green tea with mango for the afternoon, and a low caffeine China white in the evening.

PUBLISHER: Shambhala. Boston and London. 2001. (originally written around 1904) ISBN: 0-87773-918-8

Making Sense

| 14.6.06
Making Sense: Philosophy in the Headlines, by Julian Baggini

I was originally drawn to this book because of the title, "Making Sense" with its constructionist overtones. While the book is more an overview of philosophical thinking and how it can be applied to understanding current events, I still think it was well worth my time.

First, this was a great book for explaining philosophical concepts and critical thinking without getting weighed down in big terms. I took one philosophy class in college. We read Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and others. My mind quickly glazed over in that way that only philosophy can make a young mind glaze over. Baggini, on the other hand, is very practical in his approach to philosophy. In this book philosophy is a means to an end; used to think clearly and help unravel the assumptions behind the issues for major news stories of our day. Of course the fact that utilitarianism seems to be Baggini's core philosophical assumption doesn't hurt his presentation!

Most of the book is devoted to taking specific examples and thinking through them in a rational manner. The Clinton sex scandal, the war on terrorism, stem cell research, abortion, and genetically modified foods are just a few of the issues he tackles. In each case he carefully asks questions aimed to deconstruct the arguments used for and against. Disassembled in this way, the reader can take a look at the various pieces that make up an argument and decide for themselves what is compelling and what is not. Even when you don't agree with Baggini's conclusions on the matter (and often I did not) his process helped me think through issues in a more reasoned way.

The strongest part of the book was Baggini's contrast between rhetoric and reasoned argument. Watch closely the next time you see a politician speak on TV. Do they assume their conclusion (rhetoric) or do they provide evidence to support drawing their conclusion (reasoned argument)? If every voter could make the distinction between reason and rhetoric there would be a revolution in the way people think about issues! While it may not end up affecting the outcome of elections (for I think reasoned arguments can often be made on many sides of an issue) I think it would inoculate us against some of the more extreme positions out there, and foster better domestic and foreign policy.

Baggini's treatment of religion, on the other hand, was somewhat weak. I was raised as a fundamentalist and trained to see reason and faith to be in strict opposition; now I'm an Episcopalian who sees reason and faith as complementing each other. Baggini critiques the fundamentalist view of religion, but seems unaware of any alternatives to this other than atheism. Most people of faith lie somewhere in the middle, and it was disappointing to read Baggini paint them with such a broad brush.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (January 15, 2004); ISBN: 0192805061


| 11.6.06
Gilead: A Novel, by Marilynne Robinson

This was a truly beautiful novel, like an ember glowing after the fire has died. It was not apparent to me from the beginning, however. This is the kind of book that slowly reveals its secrets and its beauty. Like a hard life lived well, meaning is hard won, wrested from the soil, from suffering.

Robinson's primary character, a preacher named John Ames, says it best when (describing baptism) he states, "There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that." (p. 23) In the same way, Gilead acknowledges the sacredness in what may seem from an outsider's point of view to be ordinary lives in an ordinary Midwestern town. The sacredness of Iowa, of all places! It also acknowledges the sacredness in those of us who may consider ourselves beyond redemption.

The novel takes the form of an extended letter from father to son. John Ames is an old man with a young son, and pens this letter turned memoir as an attempt to communicate critical wisdom to his young son from beyond the grave. As the father tells the convoluted tale of a life that was shaped significantly by the experiences, heartaches, and wisdom learned from his forebears a picture of four generations of preachers emerges --each with different styles, personalities, and convictions bound by a common vocation.

John Ames' grandfather was a firebrand; an abolitionist who believed in passionate pursuit of social justice, working for the cause to end slavery, even to the point of advocating violence and revolution. He was noted for strong views and strong convictions, even giving away his own possessions to everyone that had need of them. His prophetic ministry was grounded in a vision from childhood, a vision of Christ shackled in chains that cut so deep they went "to the bone."

In stark contrast, John Ames' father never had a vision, discounted the importance of religious experience, and "went to sit with the Quakers" after the Civil War. The rift between these two strong-willed characters profoundly shapes the narrators life.

John Ames, our narrator throughout the novel, was a preacher during World War I, the Flu epidemic, and World War II. He is an interesting mix of his father and his grandfather. A pacifist, he once wrote a fiery sermon casting the flu as God's judgment against a people to willing to go to war. However he never preached that sermon out of compassion for a suffering flock. Perhaps he is the synthesis of what was best about both his father and his grandfather. A seemingly simple country preacher haunted by the ghosts of his father, grandfather and a late wife who died in childbirth, he has hidden depths with which we become increasingly familiar as the novel progresses.

John Ames' son takes two forms, one literal and the other metaphorical. On a literal level Ames is writing to a son who will come of age only after he is dead. On a deeper level, there is John Ames Boughton --ne'er do well son of his best friend-- who the preacher must come to terms with, forgive, and see God's grace within. Through this revealing of grace the glory of the old man's life, and the dusty Iowa farm town, is revealed.

PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-374-15389-2
KEYWORDS: fiction, Iowa, preaching, relationships

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