A Year of Reading, Part II: Scratching the Surface

When I’m not dealing with the really tough questions in life, like which color of nail polish to choose, or where the heck did that chicken wander off to, I occasionally ponder the little things, like

what do I believe?

What do I really believe?

If, as I claim, I am a Christian and I believe in the triune God and that the Holy Bible is the inspired word of God, well, then, how do I go about that?

How do I justify my faith?

How do I live my faith?

How do I “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and oh, by the way, while I’m at it, “love your neighbor has yourself”. (Matthew 22:37-39)

As I’ve gone forward in the Logos Bible Study lessons, the enormity of the task becomes clearer. People spend their entire careers studying the Bible. Some of them spend entire careers studying it with the aim of disproving it, which doesn’t always go well. Former Chicago Tribune editor and former atheist Lee Strobel set out to do just that and the result was his conversion to Christianity and his 1998 book The Case for Christ.

I haven’t read that one yet. It’s on my list. But I did begin to scratch the surface this year with a smattering of Christian philosophy, history, searching and self help. I find the genre to be like the proverbial box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard

Published 1998

Hardcover, 400 pages

It took me nearly a year to read this book. Partly because I only tackled it for short periods of time, reading it as one would a devotional. And partly because it was a bit of a stretch for me. Willard, a roundly revered University of Southern California (USC) philosopher was considered by many to always be the smartest guy in the room. He is careful to lay out his ideas here against the backdrop of contemporary culture so that those of us who are not the smartest guy in the room can get our bearings. But he has a lot to say. And it’s all thought-provoking.

An academic himself, he is clear about the way ideas can go awry. “The killing fields of Cambodia,” he observes, are from philosophical discussions in Paris.”

He doesn’t mince words. “When we see Jesus as He is, we must turn away or else shamelessly adore Him.”

On the human condition: “That condition is one of labor, glory, dust and death…constant incongruity between human dreams and dignity, on the one hand, and human realities, on the other. We are incarnate and finite beings, trailing clouds of over aspiration and ragged incompleteness.”

And while he wrote back in the 1990’s, he seemed to know where things were headed: “You only have to ‘stay tuned’ (to media) and you can arrive at a perpetual state of confusion and ultimately, despair with no effort at all.”

Reading this book was basically like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time I finished it, I felt like I needed to start all over again to better grasp it. Definitely a stretch for me. But a worthy one.

St. Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton

Published 1933

Paperback, 159 pages

Well, here were two familiar names. St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican monk who convinced the Roman Catholic Church that its tenets were not at odds with Aristotle, and his biographer, G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown series.

And such a slim volume at under 200 pages. This would be easier, right?

Nope. After I finally slogged to the finish, I made a note: “I had no business reading this as I have no grounding in Aristotelian or any other philosophy. Chesterton writes in puckish riddles of paradox.” (I wrote this before I read that Chesterton is regarded by many as “the prince of paradox”.)

Yes, I’m glad I read it. I will remember that the great thinker St. Thomas Aquinas was given the unfortunate sobriquet of “the dumb ox”, considered so because of his bull-like physiognomy and because he spent so much time in silent, deep thought. He loved books. When asked for what he thanked God most, he answered simply, I have understood every page I ever read.”

Ah, if only I could say the same of this book! It is another one to which I will have to return when I grow a better brain…

Prayer Can Change Your Life by William R. Parker and Elaine St. John

Published 1957

Paperback, 261 pages

This is – with a caveat – an easily accessible book. Without question, my prayer life could use an overhaul so I couldn’t resist the title or the great reviews spanning the decades since the book was originally published. I was intrigued at the premise of a scientific “proof” of the efficacy of prayer.

In 1952 (imagine getting this project green-lighted these days!) the author conducted a nine-month experiment at the University of Redlands with three groups of subjects. Group one utilized psychological counseling and was determined to gain a 65% improvement in their issues. Group two participated in “random” prayer and experienced 0% improvement. Group three underwent “prayer therapy” and realized a 72% improvement.

The authors go into great detail about the various personal challenges faced by individuals in the groups and the ways in which those challenges were overcome or not. According to the “formula” for successful prayer, one must 1) pray regularly; 2) make prayer an act of surrender and honesty; 3) make it positive and 4) make it receptive.

There were some intriguing and valuable nuggets in this book. But now, about that caveat. Aside from the fact that it was written in the 1950’s with a very, very different cultural perspective than we have in the 21st century, the value of the book – for me, at least – was negated by premises which have since been proven false. The claim is made that ulcers are caused by stress, that asthma is due to “bronchial neurosis and that migraines and rheumatoid arthritis can be blamed on suppressed hostility. Oh, and functional heart trouble and acne are – wait for it – psychosomatic!

Perhaps it’s throwing the baby out with the bath water to say this book is a no go, but if you’re going to claim a scientific proof of effective prayer, I think you need to have your scientific ducks in a row. Thus, I can’t recommend the book.

A Taste of New Wine: A Book About Life by Keith Miller

Published 1965

Paperback, 115 pages

This is another accessible read. Trumpeted as one of “100 Christian books that changed the century” and bearing a foreword from the esteemed Henri Nouwen, I began reading with enthusiasm. Alas, this turned out not to be a book for me. It is primarily a memoir of the author’s journey from successful businessman to a dedicated life of lay ministry. It is not without merit, and Miller’s walk of faith is an impressive one. I can only say that it was not a book that changed the century for me, so again, I cannot recommend it.

A Confession by Leo Tolstoy

Published 1882

Paperback, 77 pages

At this point, I was feeling a bit like Goldilocks. The books were too hard. Or too easy. Or too much of something and not enough of something else.

Enter the magnificent Leo Tolstoy. In this ever so brief memoir, he lays it all on the line. He was raised as an Orthodox Christian but swayed from faith at an early age by a prevailing sentiment among his peers that “there was no God”. He dedicated himself instead to a humanist goal of perfection: “to be more famous, more important and richer than others”.

But much was missing for him in the heady life he led. By age 50, he had thoughts of suicide. “What is it for? What does it lead to? I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet.” He ultimately comes to realize that it is only when he seeks God that he feels alive.

It is a quick read, but a powerful one, and whew, finally, a faith-based book that I can unequivocally recommend.

We are each on our own path as we walk in or out of faith, so it’s no surprise that it can be a challenge to find the right fit, reading-wise. I have a whole stack of books already awaiting me for my 2023 reads – hopefully some of them will help me dig deep – or at least scratch the surface of belief.

“I know what science so persistently tries to discover,
and along that road there is no reply to the question as to the meaning of my life.”

— Leo Tolstoy

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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