Beauty beyond all knowing and naming

"Human consciousness plunges into depths to which we normally have little direct access. We might think of consciousness through the image of a spiral," theologian Wendy Farley begins her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire.  "Spiraling down deeper, we find the places where the ingrained habits of our spirit dwell . . . deeper still we come to an incandescent fire that has the power to burn away every obstacle to love.  When, like Dante, we pass through this sweet, excruciating fire we come to the great emptiness where the divine image burns beyond light and darkness in a purity and luminescence that nothing can stain."

This volume seems to be a meditation upon suffering and the spiritual ways of healing.  This summer I've mostly read books from areas of Christian theology of which I was only marginally (if at all) acquainted.  I've previously read two of Farleys books.  Her Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy we read in my undergraduate Evil and Suffering course and the book was transformational in my own thinking on the topic.  Gathering Those Driven Away I read a few years ago and it shaped an Advent sermon series on desire.  So, I'm reading this book because I enjoy Farley's writing and thinking.

This book is a little different.  More reflective and less focused.  At first this didn't engage me as much, but over the few chapters I've read, the style is connecting with me.  She wrote this as she was recovering from an illness and was listening to a lot of folk music, which she takes as a source of profound theology.

This beauty beyond all knowing and naming pulls us out of ourselves and toward ourselves and in doing so pulls us most intimately and scathingly toward the world.  It is impossible to be drawn to the beauty of Christ without entering more vividly into the beauty of everything else.

I'm in the final week of my sabbatical.  After 11 weeks of not working I am both eager and a little grieved to be returning to work.  It has been difficultly strange not to do what I love doing for so many weeks, but also a wonderful time of simply being and not focusing on a list of professional tasks to accomplish.

Yesterday we finished the patio installation and now look forward to design and landscaping and decorating in the coming months and next spring.  Today I did yard work and am, this afternoon, cooking a fun meal of old comfort foods--the beans are even now cooking, and how I delight in that smell.

Tomorrow I will head to Red Cloud to visit the Willa Cather site.  One more stop in my sabbatical endeavor to visit some of the locations in the region that I hadn't so far.  I've been thinking about the soundtrack for the drive.  Definitely some Emmylou Harris because of her song "My Antonia."


Song quotes

Here are some of the quotes and excerpts I marked from Choan-Seng Song's Third-Eye Theology.

Salvation is the external event in which God's pain-love succeeds in locating homeless people and winning them back to God.

***

Where there are people, I want to assert, there theology must be.  Where human suffering is, there theology must find itself.  Where human joy is, there theology must be also.  Theology does not take place in a vacuum.  Theology is an event.  It happens.  What else could it be?

***

Theology is not to be learned but to be lived.

***

If the cross cannot meet the lotus's thrust into a sea of suffering, how can we say the cross is God's redemption for people in all places and at all times?

***

Evangelization is an act of empowering people with the power to suffer unto hope.  It is an act which makes people aware that God does not condone social and political evil, that God does not accept suffering as the inevitable result of fate.

***

Strictly speaking, we cannot speak of the resurrection life as "life after death."  Rather it must be "life after life.". . . The resurrection . . . has removed this deadly obstacle to life. 

***

The life of Jesus from the beginning to the end is now perceived as the life of transfiguration.  What they began to see in their postresurrection encounter in Galilee must have been the Jesus who had been transfigured from a lowly carpenter into the herald of the good news of God's salvation, from an ordinary human being into the way, the truth, and the life, from a lonely religious teacher into a bold opponent of the powerful religious hierarchy of his day, and from an insignificant man of an oppressed race into a towering figure standing without fear before the oppressor's tribunal.

***

How then is it possible for the church to be the church of God if it refuses to take sides when a social and political situation demands it?  

***

God in the Bible is the God of surprises.  God always has a surprise in store for those who believe.  A God who has ceased to surprise us does not interest us.  Such a God is too predictable to forgive and forgive again, to redeem and re-redeem, to create and re-create.  A predictable God cannot raise Christ from the dead. 

***

The power of the resurrection makes us into "the living extension" of God's creating power.


Third-Eye Theology

Third Eye Theology: Theology In Formation In Asian SettingsThird Eye Theology: Theology In Formation In Asian Settings by Choan-Seng Song
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A marvelous exploration of theology from an East Asian perspective. Song insists that Christian theology must listen to the spirituality of Asian peoples, and he proceeds to demonstrate what Christian theology can learn. He draws upon wisdom from Buddhism and Confucianism to inform his Christian theology and shares the stories and experiences of Asians as source material for theology. I don't think I've ever before read a theology book that seriously grappled with the theological implications of the Vietnam War, for instance, from the perspective of the Vietnamese instead of Americans protesting the war. The final section is a powerful discussion of the Politics of the Resurrection.

As it is now late in the evening, tomorrow I'll blog a more thorough response with some quotes and excerpts.

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Disagreement

Earlier today I posted on Facebook this anecdote:

Today's moment in public shaming. We sat down to eat lunch, Michael got up to move seats saying, "I don't want to see a Confederate flag," indicating one on the front license plate of a car outside. I responded, "Yeah, they're just announcing that they are racist assholes." When the people at the table next to us departed, it was their car. They had heard our entire exchange. We enjoyed our lunch all the more.

An uncle responded: 

The problem with liberalists.....if people don't have view points that match them then they are wrong....everyone is entitled to their own view points even if they are different.

And I replied:

Anyone sporting a confederate flag on their car wants other people to think they are racist assholes, that's the point I'm making. If they didn't want people to think that they wouldn't sport a confederate flag. And you are completely wrong on what I think about disagreement within a pluralistic democracy, see this blog postfor instance.

Plus I reposted this link to a recent blog post in which I explicitly addressed the issue of the Confederate flag in the north.

Good liberals do not believe they are correct and everyone else is wrong.  Good liberals have embraced criticism, for criticism is an essential trait of liberal thinking.  Every idea must be open to criticism and revision based upon new evidence or hearing a new perspective.

But does this mean that one can never arrive at any settled truth, anything firm convictions?  No.  As the American Pragmatists (particularly Peirce, James, and Dewey) demonstrated in their thinking the methods of democratic inquiry in a community and with scientific methods will fix our beliefs.  

What liberals reject is ideological dogmatism, particularly of the kind that has been proven to be harmful.

Racism and white supremacy are wrong.  Doesn't mean that one can't continue to hold such views, but the community, through centuries of thought and conversation, have determined that these positions are morally wrong.  Might some evidence arise to make the community revise its decision?  Possibly, but very improbable.

But, here, the rub, I am not a liberal.  In the imprecise way that Americans use the term, fine, I accept the label, but in the more precise uses of the term, that is not who I am.  

The best description of who I am is Christian.  I took the name of Jesus at my baptism.  So, there are basic truths that one must accept if one is to be called by that name, and one of those truths is that all people are equal in the sight of God.  So, based upon my faith, I can say with confidence that the person flying the Confederate flag is wrong.  He may have a free expression right to his view, but he has no moral right to.  He is in violation of the moral law.


"I am your voice."

Watching the 1996 Democratic National Convention, I was annoyed at what seemed to me to be a patronizing theme that government was needed to hold your hand at every stage of life.  I was still a Republican then and appreciated that Republicans promoted the view that government was supposed to create opportunities for people but that people should be empowered not patronized.

Fast forward to 2016 when the message of Donald Trump is that Americans need him, and seemingly only him, because they can't fix their problems themselves.  "I am your voice," he said.  The whole idea was revolting.

Plus this revolting idea was couched in the context of a speech (the entirety of which was shouted) which centered on the cult of personality in a way reminiscent of a Big Man dictator in a B movie.  The entire thing would be ridiculously funny if it weren't so frightening.


With or Without You

As we drove up the Missouri River valley last night, U2's "With or Without You" came on the radio.  I, of course, began singing along.  Then I realized that Sebastian was singing as well.  Singing U2 with our son was a great way to end our long, hot family vacation, which Michael had dubbed the "Show Off Sebastian Tour."

Garden walk

After our time in Arkansas, we visited my Mom, the extreme heat limiting our ability to enjoy the outdoors, but we still toured Lindenwood Gardens and played at the local splash pad.  Sebastian loves gardens, particularly hunting for rocks.  Everywhere we go he now collects one or two rocks. 

A quick excursion to Miami one evening allowed us to see dear friends, and we stopped in Claremore to visit my step-dad who delights in his new grandson.

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In Oklahoma City we attended Cathedral of Hope, the church I pastored from 2005-2010.  Sebastian ventured up and down the aisles greeting people, many of whom were so delighted to meet our son.

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While seeing family and some friends (and struggling to survive the extreme heat) we took Sebastian to some places that meant a lot to us--the parks and streets of our old neighborhood, the spot where we were married, the restaurant where we had our first dinner and date.  Our final evening he played in the pool with his cousins.

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He seemed to grow up a lot during this trip.  He now gives high fives and has learned to shake hands, even venturing around restaurants to shake hands with strangers.  He gets out of bed on his own, even when they were a little too high for that.  He can slide without being held the whole way down.  And he understands more and more words.  Plus, he sings along to U2, which is really cool.


Good Art Work

Museum plaza

The first time I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art about five years ago shortly after it opened, what stood out to me besides the pretty setting, the architecturally marvelous buildings, and the fine collection was the people.  When Ann Walton opened the museum she wanted it to be free and open to the public and to bring fine art into a region that was often lacking.  Of course free museums have become more common now, but at the time this was a new thing.  And the people in attendance at the museum were not the sort one usually saw in museums.  It was a noticeable difference.

The second time I visited, later that year when Michael, Mom, and I jotted over from her house for a quick, after holiday tour, what impressed me was the fine collection of queer art--both gay artists and gay subjects.  And some of the cards even drew explicit attention to the gay themes.  A daring step in Northwest Arkansas, I thought.

But then Northwest Arkansas is always a bit of a paradox.  Eureka Springs represents that quite well.  The old Victorian heart of the city is very gay-friendly, with rainbow flags and gay-owned businesses and one of the first equality ordinances in the state.  But the outer ring of more modern hotels and attractions is very evangelical, include the towering statue of the Christ of the Ozarks and the Passion Play.  When I was a kid, we stayed in the outer ring, as an adult we stayed in the heart of the town.  The whole region is like that--liberal pockets surrounded by right-wing fundamentalists.

This visit there was a noticeable increase in African-American art and more attention to it.  

I continue to marvel at the fine collection and the wonderful buildings.  I have yet to enjoy the trail system, as the days have either been too hot or too cold when I've visited.

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Sebastian's new mobility made him not as easy a museum guest as he once was, but still not too bad.  Fortunately Crystal Bridges has a great kids space, where he played with other children, and some wide rooms where he enjoyed making noise and running around.

My favourite new addition was the installation of four massive sculptures--one in the courtyard and three along the trail from the upper parking lot--of the four seasons.

Good work is being done with this museum.

Summer


Old Ties

Town Square smaller

I was 27 years old in 2001 when I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas to become the Associate Pastor for Student and Family Life of Rolling Hills Baptist Church.  Now I'm 42 and many of the youth I worked with at the time are older than I was then.  I'm now older than some of the parents were then.

Since 20o5 I had made no extended visit to Fayetteville, returning for a couple weddings and a few funerals or a quick stop going and coming between Oklahoma City and Eureka Springs when visiting the latter for a romantic weekend.  So there were many people I had not seen in more than a decade.

I've always loved Fayetteville.  I enjoyed visiting there before I even moved there, as it contains my favourite used bookstore.  The area is rich with artists and farmer's and natural beauty.  Michael and I have often talked of retiring there.

This trip we stayed in the home of Brad and Sherri Fry.  Sherri was my realtor in 2001 and when my house wasn't ready for my start date at the church, she offered to let me live with them for six weeks, which I did, sealing a lasting bond.  They came to Omaha last summer to meet Sebastian and this visit Sebastian and Brad in particular developed a close bond.  

Rolling Hills is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of their church plant this coming Sunday.  I wrote the pastor that I couldn't make that celebration but would be in town the week before and that my family would come to church that week.  He wrote back welcoming me and invited me to share a reminiscence.  Introducing my husband and son to this Baptist congregation I served was a remarkable moment for me.

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After church we lunched at the best fried chicken in the world--AQ Chicken's "Chicken Over the Coals."  Sebastian was so tired he slept on my shoulder throughout the meal, compelling me to eat fried chicken one-handed.  I have decided that the key parenting skill is learning to do everything with one hand.

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That evening dear old friends the Wardlows, the Fergusons, the Spicers, and Julianne Brown came over for a visit and to meet our son.  The visit was filled with such encounters with former youth and youth parents and other Fayetteville friends, occupying our lunches and dinners.  Tuesday night we met up with Julie, Aaron, and Jonah Weegens.  Julie had been a high school student in 2001 and I performed her wedding sometime later.  When Jonah was born six years ago he was the first child of one of my former youth, so Michael and I made a quick stop to hold the newborn baby.  Now he and Sebastian played together.  What a delight.

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We stayed up late each night sharing stories and laughing.

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And we visited some of my favourite places. The arts colony of Terra Studios where Sebastian frolicked among the quirky sculptures, we bought some new art, and even Sebastian picked out a pottery bowl that he liked. The Farmer's Market, encircling the town square with its well-maintained gardens (the Pride display in the visitor's center was a welcome site). Hugo's for the Blue Moon Burger.  Wilson Park for the whimsical castle.  And there were a handful of other places we didn't get to.

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The trip was healing and restorative for me, strengthening and in some places retying bonds.  But it was mostly fun, sharing people and places I enjoy with my family.


Beauty & Meaning

Another excerpt from My Struggle: Book 1.  Long, but worthy.

    I set off with a sigh. Above me the entire sky had opened. What a few hours earlier had been plain, dense cloud cover now took on landscapelike formations, a chasm with long flat stretches, steep walls, and sudden pinnacles, in some places white and substantial like snow, in others gray and as hard as rock, while the huge surfaces illuminated by the sunset did not shine or gleam or have a reddish glow, as they could, rather they seemed as if they had been dipped in some liquid. They hung over the town, muted red, dark-pink, surrounded by every conceivable nuance of gray. The setting was wild and beautiful. Actually everyone should be in the streets, I thought, cars should be stopping, doors should be opened and drivers and passengers emerging with heads raised and eyes sparkling with curiosity and a craving for beauty, for what was it that was going on above our heads?

    However, a few glances at most were cast upward, perhaps followed by isolated comments about how beautiful the evening was, for sights like this were not exceptional, on the contrary, hardly a day passed without the sky being filled with fantastic cloud formations, each and every one illuminated in unique, never-to-be-repeated ways, and since what you see every day is what you never see, we lived our lives under the constantly changing sky without sparing it a glance or a thought. And why should we? If the various formations had had some meaning, if, for example, there had been concealed signs and messages for us which it was important we decode correctly, unceasing attention to what was happening would have been inescapable and understandable. But this was not the case of course, the various cloud shapes and hues meant nothing, what they looked like at any given juncture was based on chance, so if there was anything the clouds suggested it was meaninglessness in its purest form.


How cynical

A good excerpt from Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book 1 when he and his brother visit a funeral parlor for an appointment:

Well, not quite, for on our side, right on the edge was a box of Kleenex.  Practical of course, but how cynical it seemed!  Seeing it, you visualized all the bereaved relatives who had come here and wept in the course of the day and you realized that your grief was not unique, not even exceptional, and ultimately not particularly precious.  The box of Kleenex was a sign that here weeping and death had undergone inflation.


My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 1My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marvelous. Of course I'm partially influenced by its reputation, but I really did enjoy it. And it's not the type of book I usually enjoy--real life reflections with little plot or story. But I guess my own recent exercise in memoir drew me to the depth of introspection. Now I'm eager to move onto the next volume.

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The day that didn't feel like a sabbatical

Sebastian up about 5:30, so I 

Cook a warm breakfast and do the dishes

Took Sebastian to daycare and ran an errand to Ace

Texted with church staff about responses to the morning's news

Mowed the lawn, weed-eated, and pruned shrubs

Packed for our upcoming trip (including doing some laundry and handwashing)

Spent more than four hours finishing laying pavers for our new back patio

Ran to pick up dinner

Did dishes again

Cleaned out the fridge

And messaged some people

Is it bed time yet?


What To Do?

So the news this week of police killing black men and black men killing police, set in the wider context of other dismal happenings in our nation--the Orlando shooting, Islamophobia, the Trump candidacy, anti-Trans bathroom laws, gun violence, racial disharmony, ineffective leadership, etc.--suggest to many of us that the nation is ripping apart (or has become so sorely divided that violence is what will increasingly be resorted to).  What to do?

Changing laws and/or changing the culture (on gun violence, the criminal justice system, racial injustice, etc.) is obtainable but very difficult and a very long term project.  When great change occurs, as it has for LGBT people in recent years, what appears as revolutionary actually took years, decades, even generations of long, difficult, good work on the part of thousands and perhaps millions of people who won victories large and small at all levels, in all sectors, and in all regions of American life.  And that effort for LGBT equality still has a lot of hard work ahead.

So, one can easily become pessimistic or cynical in the midst of the long, difficult slog.  I have been in the "slough of despond" a few times myself.  Again, what to do?

Change, even revolutionary change, begins with the small steps.  If you are making intentional efforts to be kind and compassionate, to care for the earth and your neighbors, to educate yourself, to introspect and work on eliminating your own biases, to acknowledge structures of injustice (racism, homophobia, sexism, etc.) and work to dismantle those you have power to dismantle, then you are already doing what needs to be done.  Keep doing it.  And do it well and with joy and hope for a better future.

Democracy begins with the small things.  And by democracy I don't mean simply our political process, I mean the effort of a diverse and pluralistic people to live together and solve problems together.  The great American philosopher John Dewey said that the best example of democracy is neighbors meeting on the street to solve a problem together.

Dewey grew up in a Congregational church where he witnessed people solving problems through a deliberative, inclusive, fair process.  One reason faith communities exist is to provide the opportunity for us to learn how to live with other people and to make decisions together, solving problems.  This is part of the value of a faith community for persons and families.

All civic groups, be they neighborhood associations, PTAs, Rotary clubs, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, book groups, are essential elements of the democratic process.  If you are not actively engaged in a civic group such as this, then that is something you can do.

Of course, I'm particularly drawn to faith communities because we aim for diversity, are intergenerational, and exist within a shared story that helps.  

But, then, I think particular kinds of faith communities are more helpful--those in which decisions are made by the deliberative process of the people, those where the voices of women are equal to those of men, those which value disagreement, critical thinking, and open-mindedness.

Another value to faith communities is that we also grasp the importance of lament--of both sadness and anger--as the beginning of prophetic critique and social change.  And we have ways of expressing that lament and channeling it into transformative hope.

So, what I encourage you to do is to grieve, to lament, to be sad and angry.  To keep doing the good work you've been doing (or take it up if you have not).  But very importantly to engage in civic life through a faith community or some secular community group and help to build a better society one very small step at a time.


Come, Lord Jesus

The final chapter of Sergius Bulgakov's The Bride of the Lamb is around 150 pages long and is entitled "Parousia, Resurrection, and the City of God."  The chapter contains a thorough rebuttal of penal-law eschatology (which dominates Western theology) and presents a rich and at times beautiful eschatology rooted in the doctrines developed earlier in the book.

Rejecting the penal-law notions he concludes "To frighten theologically is a fruitless and inappropriate activity.  It is unworthy of human beings, who are called to the free love of God."

All of humanity is the Body of Christ and all humanity is resurrected.  

Earlier this year my cousin debated on my Facebook page against my universalism and wasn't interested in doing any reading to inform herself about the topic.  Here is one of the great defenders of orthodox theology stating this ancient Patristic doctrine.  Universalism is nothing new.  Origen believed that even Satan would be reconciled to God (Bulgakov considers that topic and doesn't settle on an answer).  To believe that all humans are saved is an ancient and orthodox teaching of Christianity.  I'm always surprised of when something I proclaim is considered heretical when it, in fact, isn't.  There are "heresies" I do believe, universalism just isn't a heresy.

"Heaven does not exist in its fullness as long as and insofar as hell exists," he writes.

But Bulgakov's universalism has some interesting features.  

We must therefore conclude that the very separation into heaven and hell, into eternal bliss and eternal torments, is internal and relative.  Every human being bears within himself the principle of the one and the other, depending upon the measure of his personal righteousness.  Since no human being is without sin, there is no one who does not have the burning of hell within himself, even if only to a minimal degree.  Conversely, there is no human being whose soul is not illuminated by the light of paradise, even if only at a single point or by a distant reflection.

According to Bulgakov "eternity does not have any relation to time" but is a qualitative state.  "Eternity is not an inert immobility but an inexhaustible source of creative life" (thank heavens, for Dante's image at the end of Paradisio has always horrified me a little).  In the resurrected state we maintain our freedom and our creative ability, because we are the image of God.  Our encounter with the love of God will be our judgement, which is a self-judgement.  We then must expiate the sinful parts of ourselves and all will draw closer to God through the on-going process of deification, which is really becoming human in fullness.  "Creaturely eternity is becoming, growth, ascent from glory to glory."  And:

Every person has his own prot0-image, which corresponds to his personal idea.  Originally, every human being is a living work of art, the artistic image of a personal spirit that comes out of the hands of the Divine Artist, the Creator of creation.  It is in the image of these proto-images that our bodies will be resurrected.

I was reminded of Grace Imathiu's beautiful end to her sermon at the Festival of Homiletics that in the resurrection God will look at her and say, "You look like me!"

Bulgakov also rejects notions of individual salvation.  We are a communion with all humanity.  He writes:

The destiny of everyone is connected with the destiny of all; everyone is responsible for all.  One certainly cannot accept the incongruous and monstrous idea that, having received and become absorbed in their "reward," the righteous immediately forget their brothers suffering in hell. . . this banishment into the outer darkness strikes all human beings in a certain sense, though in different ways and to different degrees. . . .  Hell is therefore an affliction of all humanity.

Or

The idea of two humankinds, divided and separated from each other at the Last Judgment, does not correspond to the fullness and connectedness of reality.  Humankind is one.

Or

All are saved with all, just as all are condemned with all and all are responsible for all.

To love God means one must love all of humanity.  And to love humanity one must love the world we have created, which will participate in the new creation, which is not a starting over but a fulfillment of the first creation as we draw closer to whom God has always intended us to be.

A beautiful sentence ended the penultimate paragraph, "In this world, everyone finds himself with all and in all, in creation and history, in the kingdom of grace and glory, in the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit."

Then, the ultimate paragraph was an example of some of the (to liberal Protestant me) stranger ideas the book contained that didn't resonate with me, and which I've largely skipped in my blogging:

This is the most general and complete revelation that we have of the Church as humanity in Divine-humanity.  And if this is the case, then is not the Most Pure Mother of God Herself in Her glory this personal head of the Church, the personal humanity of Divine-humanity?  Is She not the Heavenly Jerusalem, which returns to earth from its heavenly home in the parousia of the Mother of God, in order to become here the spiritualized tabernacle of God with men?  Is She not Sophia herself, creaturely but entirely deified, the peak of all creation, more venerable than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim?  Is She not the glory and the joy of the saved peoples at the marriage feast of the Lamb?  Is She not that perfect union of the divine and the human in which all creation, both the angelic choir and humankind, rejoices?  She, the Spirit-Bearer, is Spirit and Bride, manifesting in Her very being the image of the hypostatic Spirit of God.  And about Her it is said in the final words of the New Testament:

"And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come.
And let him that heareth say, Come!
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"


The Bride of the Lamb

The Bride of the LambThe Bride of the Lamb by Sergei Bulgakov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A thick and dense book that requires much skimming (partly because the argument for a point will drag out far longer than necessary) but filled with some surprising ideas and a rich perspective on Christian theology.

I have enjoyed as I've carried this book to appointments when someone has asked, "What are you reading?" and I answer, "Russian theology."


Note: I've blogged about various sections as I've read the book.

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