Book Review: Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

There have been too many attempts to link Christianity to something else in order to jazz it up—as if the Gospel itself was not sufficiently compelling. Those both on the liberal and conserve ends of the theological spectrum—and even those in the middle—have been guilty of this. The “Christian atheism” of the middle 1960s took this to an absurd extreme. Jesus has been likened to a CEO, a therapist, a salesman, and so on, in order to pad his paltry resume. At best, these efforts highlight something in Jesus not previously apparent. At worst, they deny Christianity and replace it with an ersatz religion that has no gospel at all (see Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-11). Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the cosmos, does not need to be jazzed up. Nor does Christianity need a make over.

Robert Gelinas avoids these pitfalls by showing that jazz can teach much about following Jesus. In fact, we should “compose a jazz-shaped faith.” Gelinas, a Denver pastor and graduate of Denver Seminary, neither twists the gospel, nor forces jazz into an alien religious mold. Instead, he finds in jazz deep and fascinating themes that resonate with the adventure and challenge of Christian living. Although he is not a musician, Gelinas discovered jazz in college and loves “the gospel in jazz.” Readers of this revealing book will come to know more of jazz and more about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After recounting his initiation into jazz, Gelinas briefly explains the nature of the music. Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is jazz,” but this does not go too far. Jazz grew largely out of the music of African-American slaves. African music was mixed Christian themes learned from their oppressors. “Pain gave way to the blues, and the blues gave way to jazz—they are all connected.” Gelinas, an African American, says that “to talk about jazz it to talk about race”—and the plight of African Americans, who were, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “un-free in a free land.”

The origin and nature of jazz is a deeply contested subject. While one cannot deny that jazz was born and grew up from the African American experience, it has roots and variations that place it beyond any one racial ethos. Gelinas never claims that “jazz is black” or that non-blacks have not contributed greatly to jazz. However, his narrative overemphasizes the racial element somewhat. Later in the book, Gelinas states that “jazz was produced by those who were ‘un-free in a free land,’” thus excluding those musicians who were freer in a free land because they were not black. White musicians such as Benny Goodman (who led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands), Harry James, Dave Brubeck, and many others filled out the multicolored pallet of jazz. Despite this minor caveat, Gelinas explores a vital aspect of the music: jazz as form of life seeking freedom and justice for those wrongly denied it.

Jazz displays many creative, ennobling, and beautiful elements. Gelinas emphasizes its roots in the blues, syncopation, improvisation, ensemble cooperation, and creative tension—all modes of being that should be applied to the Christian life.

The blues are rooted in the pain of living in a fallen world, but refuse to wallow there. The old slave songs and spirituals lamented a life lived in chains, but transcended the bondage through song itself, and hoped for those chains to unbound one day. The blues roots of jazz give it a gritty sense of hope for a fallen world crying out for redemption. We, too, should see life for what it is, lament the losses, but press on with vision for better things through the power of God today and tomorrow and in the End.

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing. The jazz rhythm emphasizes the off beat, and, as Duke Ellington put it in a song title, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” To transpose this to the Christian life, syncopating means emphasizing the off-beat, finding novelty, and having “en eye and ear for that which goes unnoticed and unheard in life,” as Gelinas puts it. Jesus syncopated when he what saw others missed and reached out to the socially invisible or ostracized. A jazz-shaped faith does the same thing: it learns how to swing.

Improvisation is also constitutive of jazz. “Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal,” Gelinas notes. A player improvises within the theme of a piece of music, but brings something new and distinctively his or her own to the old. Louis Armstrong went so far as to say, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Every jazz solo is an adventure of self-expression that must, nevertheless, harmonize with the self-expression of the other musicians. This collaborative aspect of jazz is what Gelinas calls “life in concert.” Each musician contributes something unique himself or herself, but never in isolation from the larger group. The metaphor from jazz is rich for Christian existence. We must find out own voice (or calling), but never merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the group (the Body of Christ) and before the audience (the listening world of unbelievers).

Thus far, I have been appreciative of Gelinas’s explanation of jazz themes and how they radiate models of Christian living. He gets inside of jazz and pulls out some hip chops. As a jazz lover and Christian, I say, “Pastor, you swing!” However, as a philosopher, I must address a few missed notes found in the chapter “Creative Tension.” Gelinas rightly emphasizes that jazz thrives on tension and does not fear it. Being creative—as genuine jazz always is—means being willing to risk on stage. If one improvises on a melody, one may miss the melody entirely. Wrong notes are hit—and then cannot be hidden or retracted. As jazz critic, Ted Gioia puts it, jazz is “the imperfect art” because it requires composing on the spot during solos; those accompanying improvise as well. Gelinas tells of John Coltrane’s pursuit of musical excellence and the tensions he had to face and overcome in that musical and spiritual journey. So far, Gelinas is solidly in the groove.

But he goes out of key by applying the ideas of tension and especially paradox to Christian living and theology. One the one hand, a tensionmay pull us in two directions simultaneously and to good effect. For example, Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. There is no contradiction here. We should not escape cultural involvement (Matthew 5:13-16), but we should not be defined and defiled by the ways of the fallen world (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.). As Gelinas notes, a suspension bridge stays up precisely because of the tension supporting it.

Nonetheless, when Gelinas speaks ofparadoxeshe threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, theology, and of apologetics. Gelinas writes that “I believe in absolute truth, and I believe that truth can be known.” Moreover, he believes the Bible is true. Yet Gelinas claims that the Bible affirms many paradoxes. He cites James Lucas’s ominously entitled book, Knowing the Unknowable God: “Resist your enemies andlove them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders andobey them…” Gelinas calls these paradoxes “impossible possibilities,” which, of course, sounds contradictory. Gelinas writes that “I no longer read books that offer the Scriptures devoid of seeming contradictions. I take them for what they are—the words of the most creative being in the universe.” Yet he affirms that the Bible contains no real contradictions. Can we make sense of this?

A contradiction occurs when one statement is logically incompatible with another statement. Consider: (1) Doug Groothuis can play the tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and (2) Doug Groothuis cannot play tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If someone told you that both (1) and (2) were true, because this is a paradox (and not a contradiction), you would send them off to the woodshed for more practice in logic. There is no reason to think that the conjunction of (1) and (2) could be true without some plausible way of resolving the oppositionbetween (1) and (2).

Now, if the Bible is true in all that it affirms, it cannot contradict itself (or any truth outside of what is stated in the Bible). One may try to rescue or protect the Bible from apparent contradiction by invoking the category of paradox, but unless there are plausible ways of resolving the paradoxes, they appear more like flat-out contradictions. And if any two statements contradict each other (in the Bible or elsewhere), they cannot both be true. At least one of them must be false. Even Charlie Parker would improvise his way out of that kind of tension.

This issue is tremendously important for theology and apologetics. A necessary criterion for theology is that Scripture must be viewed as a system, a coherent set of truth claims. If any theology affirms that a proposition is both affirmed and denied in Scripture, then that theology is contradictory; and it is, therefore, false. In apologetics (the rational defense of Christianity as true and knowable), noncontradiction is likewise a necessary criterion for truth. In commending the Christian worldview, the apologist must present it as a logically coherent model of reality. For example, the apologist cannot claim that the idea of the Incarnation (Christ as both human and divine) is an irresolvable paradox and hope to draw anyone closer to Christianity through reasoning. Apologetics needs a strategy to argue that the doctrine of the God-Man is logically coherent. (On this, see the section on the Incarnation in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology.)

One can appreciate Gelinas’s recognition of paradoxes in the Bible and his desire to stay true to Scripture by not imposing a false coherenceupon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existentialtensions. However, if one is left with a Bible rife with irresolvable paradoxes, then there is no reason to think that Scripture affirms truth that is absolute, noncontradictory, and knowable (as Gelinas commendably does). As the philosopher Gordon Clark said, “A paradox is a Charlie Horse between the ears.” As such, paradoxes should be dissolved, not embraced.

Gelinas does briefly write dealing with paradoxes by finding a tertium quid(third way), but he does not seem to realize that this strategy resolvesthe paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quidstrategy, Gelinas continues to write of “embracing tensions.” But the tertium quid strategy releases tension by providing a logically satisfying solution to the apparent contradiction (that is, paradox).

Despite my philosopher’s complaint against about five pages of this 218 page book, I applaud Pastor Gelinas’s creative, knowledgeable, and winsome way of bringing jazz and Christianity together.

 

Kierkegaard on Sin

When I read the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the spring of 1976, it opened the doors of myself that eventually lead to Jesus and his Gospel. In this excerpt from Philosophy in Seven Sentences, I explain Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin—a concept that showed me to myself for the first time. 


Kierkegaard on Sin

Kierkegaard is now ready to spring the trap. He says that “despair is sin.” It takes two forms.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call “aggravated” despair.

The self is divided against itself in two ways, which are two sides of the same self. The first state of sin is to give up willing to be oneself. This is “intensified weakness,” which may sound odd but is not. One may shrink back from any task at hand (inward or outward) by hiding in excuses, such as “To err is human” or “Nobody is perfect.” These statements are true, but not the kind of truth the self should be satisfied with. The self is a movement and is not static. We know what an error is, and we do not praise it. We know what imperfection is, and we do not praise it. We embody both error and imperfection regarding moral intensions and actions. Kierkegaard will not let us rest in the popular phrase “mistakes were made.” We wonder how all these mistakes occur by themselves and without agents making them. Weakness is intensified when we play the victim when we are not the victim. I once accidently hurt a young playmate of mine. It was not traumatic to him, until his mother appeared. He then threw a fit over the egregious injury I had so unjustly caused him. His weakness was intensified.

The second state of sin is when we will to be ourselves in despair. We continue in a pattern of life that is less than ideal, with no hope of reform or renewal. People may say, “I’m just a big eater [meaning: glutton]” or “I will never get organized,” but they will to be this way—and without hope. Yet the conscience is not clean; it is not satisfied with chronic tension and disappointment. It is resigned to its condition but still feels guilt. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s defiant boast in Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he speaks of a life considered well-lived. This is a life so well-lived that one could bear repeating it eternally. Of the whole life one can affirm “Thus, I willed it.” Nietzsche said yes to the overcoming self, the self which is free from excuses but also free from scrutiny outside the self. For Kierkegaard the Nietzschean self is no self at all. This is because the essential dynamic of despair has been dissipated in the pure, untrammeled will. (The apostle Paul calls this “will worship,” and it is thus a form of idolatry.) But surely the will can go wrong. If so, then the will in itself cannot correct the will.

Nietzsche deftly illustrates Kierkegaard’s idea of “defiance.” To ignore or to repress is not to defy. Defiance pits itself against something. Nietzsche, in the voice of “the Ugliest Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, says,

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most curious, over-obtrusive one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have my revenge or not live myself. The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness should live.

This defiant despair is not just found in Nietzsche and a few others. I know it from the inside out. As I mentioned, I was assigned The Sickness Unto Death in a history of modern philosophy class. When I began to read that book I found that it was exposing the deepest dynamics of my soul. Through my study of atheists—such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx—I thought I had dispensed with God. However, I could not fully suppress my awareness of God (see Romans 1:18-21). Yet I did not want to submit to this God. Rather, I would will to be myself in my despair. As a rebel against God, I wanted to be a witness against him. Kierkegaard made me distressingly clear to myself, which was the reason for his book. This literary, philosophical, spiritual experience opened a tightly shut door that a few weeks hence led to my confessing myself as a sinner and Christ as Lord (see Romans 10:9; John 1:12-13).

We still hear the word sin quite a bit, and most of the lingo is not very compelling. Augustine has already deepened our understanding, but we will face a daunting challenge to conceive this concept aright. Most references to hell today are glib and unthinking. Some years ago a cartoonist drew a strip called Life in Hell, which had nothing to do with the place Jesus Christ warned about. Why this flippancy? This old, grave word was evicted from its home and is now acting as a vagabond, casting about for some shelter far from its native country. The ghost word sin now alights on notions such as mistake, miscue, false guilt, and needless shame. It finds no grounding in gravitas. According to the oracle of Google, there is a group named “The Sinners” and another called “Sinner.” But Kierkegaard does not discuss it in the way that Billy Graham or Rick Warren does, although all three hold to the historic Christian doctrine of sin. Nor does Kierkegaard resemble the approach of Jonathan Edwards’s much-excerpted (and much-misunderstood) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Kierkegaard labors to explain and treat sin in existential-psychological categories, but without denying or compromising the church’s historic confession of humans as sinners. (He deals with original sin in The Concept of Anxiety, which is a companion to The Sickness Unto Death.) Kierkegaard sought to look inside the human condition to sound out its often obscured depths: its desires, its despair, and its possibilities. He feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers.

Groothuis, Douglas. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (p. 136-139). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Book Review: Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Books grounded me during my early Christian life. Along with The God Who is There by Francis Schaffer, Pensées by Blaise Pascal, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, and The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, The Confessions by Augustine (and many others), Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life offered a historically and theologically rich charter for living the Christian life in all its dimensions: individual, church, and culture. To this day, I know of no other book in this category. How pleased I was a few months ago to find a student at Denver Seminary reading and lauding this magnificent book.

I was in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon.  During that time I read Lovelace’s book. Most of my ministry time was spent in preparation for teaching. During the early 1980s, I taught from Dynamics in a yearlong course for upper division credit in Sociology. It was called, a bit pretentiously, “The Twilight of Western Thought.” Given the fear of micro-aggression, the advent of “equality officers,” safe zones and trigger warnings for those fragile souls traumatized by ideas not their own, this course would never be taught today. You see, it was taught from a Christian perspective. Free of any discrimination against non-Christian students or their work, Dynamics explained the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it does not avoid them at all cost. That is how the head of the sociology department saw it, so he sponsored the class.

"True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it dose not avoid them at all cost."

What a feast it was to teach through every chapter of Dynamics of Spiritual Life. My copy is decorated with color markings, underlining, marginalia and my own index placed on the inner front cover. As C. S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, the literary person rereads his great books.  In his introduction to Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word, he says that the older books should not be neglected for the new. This work, now thirty-six years old, deserves to be read and re-read.

Dr. Lovelace approaches the theology of renewal as a church historian, who draws wisely from many movements and thinkers, of whom Jonathan Edwards features prominently. While Reformed theologically, Lovelace appreciates the best of the Protestant traditions and accepted the ongoing power of the charismatic gifts. His winsome and sane approach stimulated me to rethink and eventually leave behind the cessationism I had picked up from the Dispensational theology I was taught in a Baptist Church. I found one could be a Calvinist Charismatic, and so I have remained.

The book proceeds in a linear and systematic fashion by considering the nature of renewal in some depth. He is not writing about revivalism specifically, although he cannot ignore that. Rather, he addresses the conditions for renewal given what the Bible and church history tells us. In Part I, Dynamics of Renewal, Lovelace measures the current situation (1979),  for the church, looks at biblical patterns of renewal, the preconditions for renewal (knowing God and our sinfulness), primary elements of renewal (our status in Christ), secondary elements of renewal (mission, prayer, community, theologian integration, and disenculturation). Renewal in the Church is the second and longer part of the book, and offers a cornucopia of insight on “the sanctification” gap, how revivals go wrong, the nature of orthodoxy and ecumenism, the Christian and the arts, a biblical account of social action, and “the prospects for renewal.”

Lovelace’s reflections are deeply biblical, theologically rich, and spiritually heartening. Consider one example. His discussion of justification and sanctification is deeply biblically, clear, and cogent. Our theology of justification and sanctification is foundational to any Spirit-led renewal in the church and in culture. Twenty years after I taught this material, one of my students emailed to say how significant this was in forming her young Christian life. I often return to this reality in my Christian experience. I am accepted in Christ, justified by his righteous and am loved. That is the foundation. From that foundation, I seek to grow in grace and truth, depending on the Holy Spirit in all things. Francis Schaeffer’s modern classic, True Spirituality, makes these same points in a bit more detail.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more. Dynamics of Spiritual Life, though written in 1979, can help chart the way. I cannot think of any book as profound, wise, and challenging on these matters. Yes, it is high time to reread this modern classic. Thanks to InterVarsity for keeping it in print all these years and thank you, Richard Lovelace for this work of love and erudition.

A Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo (2014)

Marie Kondo  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Ten Speed Press, 2014.

Animism for Cluttered Materialists would have been a better title for this small and unlikely New York Times #1 best-seller. That, however, would be too obvious. The young and unbearably cute author is an expert in helping her clients throw things out. There is an art to it, you know. The author knows, and she will tell you as she puts into the writing the philosophy she developed in Japan as a professional clean-up consultant with a three-month waiting list.

As a life-long order-challenged and clutter-producing slob, I bought this book hoping against hope that it might help. I got some help, but not much. She is right that we should not surround ourselves with things that weigh us down and do not good. Our environment should give us a sense of joy. That gave me the courage to give away many clothes and to exchange my boring socks with happy socks. My deeper response was that of spiritual concern, since the book tacitly advocates an animistic worldview, which strangely mixed with materialism.

At no point does Miss Kondo warn of the moral dangers of acquisitiveness. Greed and waste are left alone as if they were strangers to the problem. Peter Singer is not quoted. Nor is, more significantly, Jesus, who preached:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

For Kondo, treasure is having enough rightly-organized possessions to be happy. She repeatedly tells stories of her clients who threw out large amounts of clothes and other items. Having taken bags and bags of assorted things to Goodwill in recent months, I wondered why she never mentioned the practice of giving things away to those who need them more. But that is not the point. The point that matters is your feeling about your dwelling.

In portions nearly unbearable to read, Kondo advises that we weed out our books also, even after we have read them, putting books in the same category as old clothes, dishes, pillows, and more. This is not a literary person. The idea of rereading a book or having a library of books does cross her hyper-tidy mind. C.S. Lewis is a tonic for this toxin:

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

The author’s carefree and unconscious materialism is bad enough; but what is worse is her animism. She is not a philosophical materialist—one who claims that the material universe is all there is. Her materialism is cultural, related to the acquisition and arrangement of objects of desire. But these things are really alive. Near the beginning of the book, we learn that socks want to “breath.” So, we should not ball them up, but lay them flat. This was no rhetorical trope. She meant it literally. We should speak our possessions, because they are giving themselves to us. We should be grateful and let them know.

Kondo is influenced by Shintoism, a largely regional religion of Japan. Shintoism is marked by respect for holy sites and their spirits (or kami). (Amazon, however, lists it at #1 seller in “Zen Spirituality.”) It is unlikely that a Shinto priest would endorse this book—and even if so, it would not increase book sales—but she is a savvy evangelist for this religion, since her advocacy is tacit rather than explicit. It is a book about cleaning up, not about greeting spirits. C.S. Lewis noted this strategy in his classic essay, “Christian Apologetics” (1945) from God in the Dock. I doubt Kondo has read this essay, but she is applying the strategy that Lewis advocates for Christian apologetics:

I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by an directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s lines of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent… You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if wherever we read an elementary book on Geology, botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.

It is sad that a Christian did not write a clever, short, and best-selling book on the organization of possessions in which the Christian worldview was assumed, but not defended. Such a book—which, of course, I could not write—would reflect on the meaning of possessions, our loving use of them, our obligations to those in need, the value of possessions in relation to life’s ultimate meaning, how to become less mastered by possessions, the joys of hospitality, and much more. These ideas would form the foundation for any practical advice on sorting, storing, and enjoying possessions.

Kondo’s little treatise promises us not just a tidy home, but a better life. When we make friends with the spirits of our belongings, we can enjoy them, feel free, and be troubled about small matters such as greed, waste, and the one true God who towers over all false gods, Shinto or otherwise.


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Books on the Philosophy of Technology

Techology bewitches, seduces, entrances, and benefits us. Since it lies in the background of our thinking and acting, it remains invisible–despite its daunting powers. A wise person will interpret oneself and one’s context in order to live according to the Goos, The True, and the Beautiful. To that end, consider these works on the culture-shaping and mind-shaping powers of technology. These books, unlike so many others, are not about efficiently using technology, but about not letting technology use us.

Classic Works

1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. 1985. The best critique of television ever written.

2. Neil Postman, Technopology. 1990. His theoretical work on how technology shapes and often debases cultures.

3. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. An early and astute evaluation of the hidden influence of technology, given the value of technique.

4. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word. 1985. A brilliant work explaining the decline of writing in light of the ascent of the image.

Recent Works

1. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows. 2009. Explains how the Internet is adversing effecting our thinking. Special emphasis on neuroscience.

2. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace. 1997. An early work critiquing the Internet. Perhaps a bit of a period peace, but it does explain fundamental categories of technological interpretation.

3. Quentin Schult, Habits of the High Tech Heart. 2002. A thorough and thoughtful assessment.

A Book Review: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014)

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is the strangest and one of the best pieces of fiction I have read. Mind you, I do not read much fiction, and I commonly read half of a classic novel and then stop. (I think this disorder is listed in the DSM manual). But Lila is a kind of emotional suspense novel–but never histrionic. At one point I literally turned the page quickly to find what would come next.

The work bewildered me not a few times, given its shifts in time and perspective. I did not always know when something had happened. However, the threads weave together as the book goes on. I had to finish this one.

The narrative is of a woman kidnapped (or rescued) by a pathetic and courageous woman who lives on the margins of society. She takes Lila as her own. Skipping much (to not ruin the story), Lila wonders into a town, Gilead, where she meets and marries an old widower preacher. In touching and unexpected ways, they nurture each other’s faith. Much of the plot concerns Lila’s difficulty in accepting love and trusting anyone outside of her old life on the road with tough, but good, drifters.

The novel profound perspective on life, death, risk, evil, hope, fear, and the development and shape of Christian faith–much of it coming from Lila’s thoughts. There is nothing cliche or preachy about it. Robinson has already won a Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, and is a highly respected writer. On top of all this, Calvin is referred to several times, and the story can be seen as a reflection on God’s strange providence.

This is not a light or easy read. It may take you places where you do not want to go. But no matter, take up and read.

Several books that have shaped my life and thought, besides the Bible

1. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults. A modern classic that gave inspiration for Christians to identify and witness to non-Christian groups.

2. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There. A prophet and moving book on “speaking Christianity into the modern world.” I have read this at least ten times in 35 years.

3. Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto. Explains the worldview collision between Christianity and secularism, especially in relation to politics.

3. CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man. A profound treatment of the modern loss of a foundation for morality and what this means to society.