Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book Community!

Our first book community kicked off this past Thursday where we discussed the first two books of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  After being asked for the points we focused on, I figured I ought to post them for anyone who was unable to make it and still wants to interact with the text in a similar fashion:
(note: the page numbers are based off of this edition, however the chapters are included to help find where certain quotes came from in any edition)

BOOK 1/”Right and Wrong as a clue to the Meaning of the Universe”

·         What do you think of the way Lewis chooses to portray Christianity (starting by explaining human nature, moving into law and eventually coming to God)?

·         Do you agree with Lewis’s views of Right and Wrong? (ch. 1) Do you think “we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong”? (p. 20)

·         Explain the Moral Law in your own words. (p. 23) How does this differ from the Rule of Decent Behavior? (ch. 2)

·         Why do you think Lewis says that “what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know” (p. 32)? (ch. 4)

·         Do you think, based upon Lewis’s explanations thus far, an unbeliever could agree that there is “a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.” (p. 34)? (ch. 4)

·         Discuss the following quotes:

o   “When you are feeing fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest” (p. 35). (ch. 4)
o   “There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake…going back is the quickest way on” (p. 37). (ch. 5)

·         “God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from” (p. 38). (ch. 5)  Can you think of any scriptural examples of this quote played out?

BOOK 2/”What Christians Believe”

·         In regards to other religions, do you agree that all-even the queerest ones- contain at least some hint of truth? (p. 43) (ch. 1).  Explain.

·         Describe your understanding of Pantheism (ch. 1).

·         Discuss the following quotes:
o   “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” (p. 45) (ch. 1).
o   “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning” (p. 46). (ch. 1)

·         Do you know people who follow what Lewis calls the “Christianity-and-water” view? (ch. 2) or have you found yourself wanting to cut out the difficult doctrines?

·         What are your thoughts on why Lewis believes in Christianity? (p. 48) (ch. 2)

·         Discuss Lewis’ views on good and evil (ch. 2). Do you agree that “badness is only spoiled goodness” (p. 50)? Why or why not?

·         Discuss the importance of free will (ch. 3) and why it is “the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having” (p. 53).

·         What are your thoughts on those who say “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God” (p. 56) (ch. 3)?

·         Discuss this concept: “Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works” (p. 58) (ch. 4).

·         Lewis says that repentance “means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years” (p. 60) (ch. 4). What is your view of repentance?

·         “Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told by someone you think trustworthy” (p. 63) (ch. 5).  Does this hold true in all circumstances you can think of?

·         Discuss: “there is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up.  That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not” (p. 66). (ch. 5)

The next book community will be meeting October 2nd at the Barrel Room and we will be discussing the third book of Mere Christianity (Christian Behavior).  I'll post questions for that one closer to the date!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Challenge

Lately it seems that social media has played a big part in heightening everyone's awareness of certain things (like ALS) as well as thrown out quite a few "challenges" to engage the social community with what they're thankful for or what their song choices are.  My favorite challenge as of yet (which I'll admit I'm slightly bummed that no one has challenged me with this one) is the book challenge.  Basically this is simply motivation to recall the top 10 books that have changed your life.

With the approach of our new Book Community starting this week, I would like to offer my top ten (whether you are interested or not!) in no particular order.....

1. "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis
As an immature 16 year old, this book was far over my level of comprehension the first time I read it. However, I've picked it back up a number of times throughout the past 12 years, each time finding new truths and bold proclamations of what the Christian faith consists of.

2. "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
This was the first "big" book I ever read by myself.  I don't know how old I was, but I think I was pretty young (second grade?) to have such a large book on my bookshelf.  No more kid books for me!  I was so pumped when the movie came out, too, because I could fit in with the adults who had also read the book.  My little sister was out of the loop, which of course I enjoyed, showing off how smart I was ;)

3. "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton
I got into reading about this monk because of seminary, but have drawn so much deeper in faith because of his dedication to a bi-vocational lifestyle of monk and writer.  My draw towards Merton's writing can be seen in the past 8 (?!) blog posts, but his struggles with coming to faith and consistent pursuit of God resonates with my own journey.

4. "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis
Ok, a lot of Lewis on my list, but what can I say? This book, written as satire, gets me.  Reading from the perspective of the devil really allows for a deeper perspective of the way the enemy is out to seek, kill and destroy.  I continue to learn a lot from this book each time I pick it up!

5. "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Another great one from my childhood!  I read this book, saw the plays, watched the movie and immersed myself into the book.  I often hoped (and still do) to find a secret garden of my own!

6. "The Magician's Nephew" by C.S. Lewis
I love kids books, despite my age.  Though I never read the Narnia books as a child, they impacted me as an adult just as much (if not more).  I love the character development, the storyline and the way Lewis is able to reach

7. "Native Son" by Richard Wright
I can't remember if I first read this for a college class or not, but regardless it sparked my love of African American literature.  Wright had a way of writing that captured his audience, making them feel the despair of many of his characters.  I haven't read one of his books that don't spark the same feelings!

8. "Beloved" by Toni Morrison
Another one from African American literature, Toni Morrison's writing grabs me and doesn't let me go til the last word of her books!  Her writing is so vivid, I feel as though I am right there in her story - watching Sethe kill her daughter and the haunting life that follows.

9. "Life Together" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This book has been one of many studies and papers for school, however offers a lot of practical advice for living communally in the Christian faith.  Bonhoeffer's own story is relevant throughout as he runs an underground seminary in Nazi Germany and lives out his faith in the face of death.  Inspirational and practical.

10. "The Bible"
You may think, 'well, that's just what all Christians have to say in this challenge,' however this truly is a complex and challenging book that has never ceased to surprise me.  I have found comfort, hope, history, narratives, beautiful poetry and a lot of confusion within these pages.  Glancing at a verse here or there never fully allows for an understanding - I'd suggest to grab a passage and meditate on that for a full week (or at least day) to let it soak in and find commentaries for help with confusion.  There is beauty in these pages that just don't come through other books.

While I have SOOOO many others that have inspired, challenged and motivated me, I'll stop at that for now.  Make sure to take a look at the upcoming books/dates for our book community (button on the right sidebar) that starts THIS WEEK!  Hope to see you there :)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reading Invokes a Response

As Merton recalled of one of his favorite authors, “The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul – in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures.”[1]  God can use any avenue to bring people to his presence.  Blake was not always a man of faith, and therefore his poems were not strewn with Christian illusions.  Yet God used Merton’s love of literature to draw him nearer; He might use art or even sports to do the same for another.  It just so happened that Merton had a consistent stream of books which held his interest and therefore God entered the pages to come to life through his persistent reading.
So “just as his reading helped him in moving toward these goals, so our reading of Merton’s works can do the same for us.”[2]  We can take his example and draw nearer to God through reading, if that is a love of ours.  Spiritual reading as a whole can “assist in the reformation of our hearts and minds into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”[3]  Utilizing books for this purpose involves interacting with the words for the personal formation aspects rather than the head knowledge that can be gleaned. 

After his conversion, Merton wrote “to help people to be better Christians”[4] just as so many writers before him had done.  He appreciated the custom of Saint John of the Cross, who wrote out “short meditative phrases…that could be used as a meditative preparation for contemplative attention.”[5]  Merton utilized such a practice to help young monks approach meditation.  His theological writing assisted the deepening of faith for his fellow monks as well as superiors and even for readers today.  This practice was used in Merton’s own practices as one of his favorite things to do was to meditate “in silence on a spiritual author.”[6]  I think this is a very practical takeaway from how Merton utilized his love of literature to further his spirituality.

The act of reading is not merely for pleasure, but it invokes a response.   Personally, I have found certain quotes from Merton helpful in my own spiritual journey as I am able to contemplate his words as they relate to the Christian life.  He was able to “juxtapose whatever he reads and contemplates…with the reality of his monastic existence.”[7]  Likewise, the reader of Merton works and other spiritual writings can contemplate the words on the page in their own setting.  I, too, can appreciate the aspects of creation that are touched upon in Blake’s poems and the vividness of Hopkin’s verses.  Writers have the unique gifts to bring to life things that are often passed by without much thought since “words can travel beyond their confines into the mystery of God.”[8]  The importance of spiritual reading is to see how God works through these writers to bring his people closer to Him.  This was evident in Merton’s life as he became the same literary influence that other writers had been to him.

[1] Merton, Seven Storey, 97.
[2] Shannon, 122.
[3] Roller, xii.
[4] Cunningham, 30.
[5] Ibid, 40.
[6] Ibid, 131.
[7] Kountz, 156.
[8] Llavador, 1.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dual Vocations: How Merton balanced the writer and monk within him (part 7)

Thomas Merton
Merton’s influence through his writing is special because it is tremendously detailed as well as open and honest, allowing his readers to experience the ups and downs in life with him.  His written life allows me to somewhat live vicariously through him, feeling as though I am right alongside him facing the same things.  The vivid imagery he utilizes captures the reader, pulling them into the broader spiritual autobiography.  This detail, coupled with intimate feelings, is what makes Merton’s writing so unique. 

Just as “his literary background and interest influenced the way he wrote about spirituality (and made it so different from other writers in the field), so his literary works – in a more hidden yet no less telling way – reflect and embody his spirituality.”[1]  Merton’s own writings have had profound influence on the generations following his life.  “Christian readers enjoyed a certain frisson in reading about the life of a person who turned from sin and evil to a life of graced conversion.”[2]  The Seven Storey Mountain, his first big success as a writer, was an honest reflection on his spiritual journey.  Not only that, but it was relatable because of its modernity; people could share in his intellectualism and jazz-loving ways.  

Peter Kountz discusses the importance of Merton’s dual vocations as writer and monk.  He states that “the two vocations affected each other, ultimately making the monk more worldly and the writer more contemplative (monastic).”[3]  Though he tells his own story, Merton draws the reader into the monastic life and thus into a closer union with God.  Merton’s influence spans the depths of what it means to be a contemplative.  One’s gifts can be utilized to further their life within the faith, rather than taking them out of it.  William Shannon articulated Merton’s influence through his writing perfectly in the following passage:

“Had Merton been forced to stop writing he would have shriveled up as a monk, perhaps even left the monastery.  God does not give gifts for us to throw them away.  Moreover, if Merton had persisted in believing (if he ever really believed it) that were he to use his gift as a writer he could not be a contemplative, his most important message for the contemporary world would have been muted.  For if one cannot be both a contemplative and a writer, it would follow that one could not be both a contemplative and a housewife, a contemplative and a truck driver, a contemplative and a teacher, a contemplative and a worker on the assembly line.”[4]
Merton’s main task, as Henri Nouwen put it, was “the unmasking of an illusion.”[5]  Though he would have done well to be in the frontlines of the civil rights movement, he was able to influence countless others through his writing for the purpose of bringing light to certain situations.  He allowed his readers to engage in the contemplative life regardless of various other pieces of their lives that could hold them back.  He wanted to help others approach prayer and solitude to dismantle the illusions the world had put in place.  He was aware of the power of language to oppress or to emancipate”[6] and used a bold approach with topic choices to do just that.

[1] William H. Shannon, ed. “Preface.” In The Courage for Truth: the Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1993), viii.
[2] Cunningham, 33.
[3] Peter Kountz, Chicago Studies in the History of American Religion, vol. 11, Thomas Merton as Writer and Monk: a Cultural Study, 1915-1951 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Pub., 1991), xxviii.
[4] Shannon, 35.
[5] Nouwen, 54.
[6] Fernando Beltr├ín Llavador, “Brother Silence, Sister Word: Merton’s Conversion and Conversation in Solitude and Society”, Thomas Merton Society (1996): 1, accessed May 20, 2014,