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December 2012

The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English (African Writers Series)

The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in EnglishThe Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English by Adewale Maya-Pearce
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book at some used book sale, not sure where. It is a 1990 anthology of various African poets who write in English. The oldest poet included was born in 1924 and the youngest in 1961. Many of them were not poets I had read before. The most famous name included is Wole Soyinka, most were unfamiliar to me.

As one would expect, I found some of the poems to be alien, others to be deeply engaging. Many were political. Many dealt with war and poverty. There weren't many nature poems, though natural themes appeared in many of them.

The most beautiful poem in the book was by the Ghanaian poet Kojo Laing; it is entitled "One hundred lines for the coast" and is much too long to include in its entirety. Here are the opening lines:

Grown old are these strong elements of tragedy,
the strength the elephant's head brings to a whole country,
bright centuries of betrayal for a noon of funerals,
and the dead in their dramatic drums and dances,
congregating in deserted beaches full of the roars of sorrow,
and these broad cliffs holding the sea in granite embrace,
touching redeemed countries amazed and tired far beyond the shores,
slicing the receding silence with large harmonies large death,
and all the commotion of histories deeper for being beyond discovery,
all the rhythm of time trapped in giant webs, terrible and kind,
and grown old without wisdom by generations of dire disconnection.

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The Song of Achilles: A Novel

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My friend and ministerial colleague Tom Emmett spoke to me about this book months ago and promised to lend it to me when other friends of his returned it. I'm glad he did.

This is the familiar story of Achilles and the Trojan War, but told through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles' lover and companion.

The novel takes the glimpses of their relationship that we get in the Iliad and other places and develops it into a complete romantic relationship, a marriage really, between two brave young heroes.

The story opens with Patroclus' troubled early years before he is exiled to Phthia and encounters the young Achilles. First their friendship and then romance blossom as they are growing up and learning the skills required of young Greek princes.

The other characters -- Chiron, Thetis, Odysseus, Agamemnon, etc. -- are fully developed and engaging. And each of the stories you already know comes alive in new perspective, as narrated by Patroclus.

I was particularly impressed with Thetis, who normally comes across like in the movie Troy as a beloved mother figure. Here she is powerful, sinister, and obsessed. She and Patroclus battle for Achilles' soul.

Since you know the ending, you are already aware that this will be a painfully moving story in its final chapters, and it is that. You'll never be able to encounter Achilles' grief in quite the same way.

A very enjoyable read.

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What’s Their Wish?

What's Their Wish?

Luke 2:1-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 December 2012



    I introduced this year's Advent theme by proclaiming that God is giving gifts and invites us to wish for something.

    As I pondered this annual Christmas Eve homily, I came across a reflection on gift-giving written by the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf. Here is what he said:


If you are like me, you dread one essential part of Christmas celebrations: gift-giving. My problems start with shopping. To give, you have to shop, but for me shopping is disturbingly disorienting, especially at Christmas. With all the glitzy stuff staring at me from everywhere I can't figure out what I like (let alone what I like and can also afford). But the ordeal of shopping itself is nothing compared to the challenge of finding the right kind of gift. Too expensive a gift is—well, too expensive. Too cheap a gift is insulting. The list of difficulties goes on. Christmas gift-giving becomes almost painful.


We all can imagine Christmas gift-giving at its best, however. Shopping is over, decent gifts are wrapped and waiting under the Christmas tree, and the long-awaited ritual begins. Each person gives and each receives. . . . Each person is grateful, each person is generous, and all are rejoicing. The gifts themselves are not simply things that people like, need or desire; they are sacraments of a relationship. By giving things, givers have given their own selves.


This kind of gift-giving turns the whole ritual into a feast of delight—delight in things given, delight in acts of giving and receiving, delight in persons giving and receiving, delight in community constituted by mutual gift-giving. When we have engaged in such gift-giving, we have tasted the advent of God's new world in which love reigns. What better expression of the spirit of Christmas could there be than an enactment of a community of joyful givers and grateful receivers?


And yet there is something wrong with this account of Christmas gift-giving.


I must admit, first reading this essay I was drawn into the warmth of Volf's ideal gift-giving and was startled when he said that was something wrong with it. What could be wrong with this wonderful image? He continues:


Though such a community is an earthly good beyond all others because it is a community of love, in a world of uneven distribution of wealth it is positively sinful for such communities to remain turned only toward themselves. The gifts may not just circle through the community to the delight of its members; they must also reach outsiders in need.


Yes, that is the flaw in the image. Generosity turned only to those we are closest to is no generosity at all. Volf reminds us that the Magi "did not huddle together around a warm fire and give gifts to each other and delight in each other's generosity."


Volf continues:


Christmas celebration is about . . . reciprocal giving in a circle of intimates, an enactment of a provisional advent of God's future world of love. [But] It is also about . . . giving to those outside the circle . . . .


This kind of giving, Volf writes, is "a small contribution to aligning the world of sin and need with God's coming world of love."


The reason the ideal image of mutual gift-giving is mistaken is that it makes Christmas itself the goal, which it isn't. After four weeks of Advent preparation and three months of decorated department stores, we might be forgiven if we think that Christmas was the end goal in sight. It is not. Volf writes,


For Christmas is not the goal, [it is not] the realization of the world of perfect love. Christmas is the movement toward that goal, the endeavor of God to draw all people into the world of love.


God has given us the greatest of gifts – the Christ is born in us, the fiery Spirit of God is burning within us, our wishes may even now be coming true. But these are not the goal, they are only the movement toward the goal. And that goal is a world of love that includes all people.


Spend these days with your loved ones, your family and friends. And somewhere in the midst of your enjoyment, remember all those who this year are not yet included in that world of love. Give a thought to them. What is their wish this Christmas?

S.: A Novel

S.S. by John Updike
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Updike novel has been sitting on my shelf for some time. I finally decided to read it, primarily because I hadn't read any Updike in a while.

The story is told in letters and tape recordings of a middle-aged New England woman who has left her husband and life to join an ashram in the Arizona desert. It is set in the 1980's. It is a humourous take, which reflects on common Updike themes of religion and sex (and their nexus). As is the case with Updike, occasionally a line really stands out as perceptively beautiful and well-written.

This is not a great book, but was an enjoyable, quick, easy read.

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Sullivan: "Break the GOP"

Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan gives his strongest attack yet on the GOP:

But the current constitutional and economic vandalism removes any shred of doubt that this party and its lucrative media bubble is in any way conservative. They aren't. They're ideological zealots, indifferent to the consequences of their actions, contemptuous of the very to-and-fro essential for the American system to work, gerry-mandering to thwart the popular will, filibustering in a way that all but wrecks the core mechanics of American democracy, and now willing to acquiesce to the biggest tax increase imaginable because they cannot even accept Obama's compromise

You Are God

Here are two most interesting and enjoyable paragraphs from Cicero's The Dream of Scipio:

Instead [of the praise of men] let Virtue herself, by her own unaided allurements, summon you to a glory that is genuine and real.  Feel no concern about what other people may say about you.  They will say it in any case.  Besides, whatever words they may choose to utter will not pass beyond the narrow limits you now see below you.  No utterance of man about his fellowmen has ever been lasting.  When a person dies his words die with him.  Posterity forgets them; and they pass into annihilation.


Strive on, and rest assured that it is only your body that is mortal; your true self is nothing of the kind.  For the man you outwardly appear to be is not yourself at all.  Your real self is not that corporeal, palpable shape, but the spirit inside.  Understand that you are god.  You have a god's capacity of aliveness and sensation and memory and foresight; a god's power to rule and govern and direct the body that is your servant, in the same way as God himself, who reigns over us, directs the entire universe.  And this rule excercised by eternal God is mirrored in the dominance of your frail body by your immortal soul.

Of course I am a physicalist (though a panexperientialist physicalist) and reject the immaterial soul, I found the language of this paragraph to be quite good, beautiful, and inspiring.  Are you not excited by the phrase "You have a god's capacity of aliveness"!

On the Orator

Taking advantage of a snow day and the slowing down of congregational life (at least on the business side) as the holiday approaches, I am catching up on reading and completing a few books which have lingered this autumn as I had to read for various classes I was teaching and sermons I was preparing.

In my reading of Cicero, there appeared this bit from On the Orator, in which Crassus is speaking and delivering his view (not the only perspective highlighted in the dialogue).  I found this paragraph most enjoyable.

Even on the field of battle the practitioner of oratory is able to remain unharmed--his ability to speak is more effective than a herald's staff.  His eloquence also gives him the power to throw culpable and guilty men to the wrath of their own fellow-countrymen: to suppress crime, by ensuring that it is punished.  The protection his talent affords others can bring salvation to the innocent by rescuing them from condemnation in the courts.  It is even within his capacity to transfigure a spiritless and misguided nation, to revive its sense of honour, to reclaim a whole people from its errors.  He can stir up anger against evil men, or, when such anger has attacked innocent people, he can calm it down.  Indeed his might as an orator will give him the power to instil or eradicate within the hearts of mankind any and every passion that circumstances and occasions may demand.

On the Good Life

On the Good LifeOn the Good Life by Marcus Tullius Cicero
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last December I sat myself a task of reading back through the philosophical canon, either re-reading some works or reading ones I never read before. I have taken it very slowly, as there have been so many other things to read as well.

In my library since college days were three paperback Penguin Classics of Cicero. Each an anthology of excerpts from varied writings of his. I decided to read one, and after asking for advice on Facebook, the consensus pooled around this one. While reading it this autumn, I have blogged about various things that interested me or provoked objections from me. These posts were mostly from the first two excerpts from Discussions at Tusculum and On Duties, which focused on general issues of the good life.

The final three excerpts were from On Friendship, On the Orator, and The Dream of Scipio. Much in Friendship was common to other ancient writings on the topic that I have encountered, good, noble sentiments about the value of friends to the good life.

On the Orator discussed the characteristics of a good speaker. This was through a dialogue and, at times, debate, among some learned Romans. At issue was whether an orator is simply a good speaker or someone who should be acquainted with a wide-range of knowledge. The excerpt here included much discussion of the law and the role of leading citizens in advocating in the courts.

The final excerpt was a most interesting piece, an imagined dream of Scipio Africanus the Younger, viewed at Cicero's time as the great, ideal statesman from the past (as we view Lincoln maybe). In this dream the young Scipio is visited by his grandfather, Scipio Africanus the elder, who informs him about the cosmological structure of the universe and what it takes to achieve heaven in the after-life. Primarily, one must be devoted to the state. The cosmology is interesting -- music of the spheres and the sort of worldview influential upon Dante and other medievals -- and there are some inspiring bits in the ethical instruction that I'm likely to post as excerpts on my blog.

I enjoyed the Cicero and will look forward to reading the other two volumes at later points in life (one must save some pleasures for the many years that await). Next up, Lucretius' Of the Nature of Things.

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from "The Poet Lied" by Odia Ofeimun

And because he tried to change
the exuberant colours of life
into sallow marks, relieving death
of its hurt, its significance,
the poet lied, he lied hard. 

How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It)

How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done about It)How the Church Fails Businesspeople by John C. Knapp
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A year or more ago my Stewardship Committee chair requested that we do something on the intersection between faith and work. Our staff recently planned an upcoming worship series with the theme "Make Our Work Worthy" that will focus on vocation and spiritual gifts. For an accompanying study, I read this book, which I had seen well-reviewed in The Christian Century. I will use the book for the study.

The title isn't the best and suggests the book is less meaty than it is. There are good discussions of the church's theological traditions on work and money. The main focus of the book is that people compartmentalize work and faith and that the church (and business) have not helped people to integrate these aspects of their lives.

I most enjoyed the early chapters which explored the differing natures of business and church and some of the church's theological tradition. The noticeable lack was anything about the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on work.

The second part of the book wants to move toward coherence. It begins with a chapter on rethinking Christian vocation, drawing on the teaching of Luther and Calvin. I thought this chapter could have been longer and stronger. The next chapter was a good approach at developing a moral theology of work.

The last two chapters weren't very engaging. The penultimate discussed the faith at work movement, which seems to primarily be a phenomenon for conservative evangelicals. I learned things in this chapter, but didn't find it spiritual or theologically interesting. It will prompt some interesting discussions when we read it at church though.

The final chapter was supposed to be about the church's potential in helping to integrate faith and work. Most of what was covered had already been (except for an interesting section on Charles Sheldon). I expected more in this last chapter than what was presented.

The book will be good at generating discussion and raises all the issues that I'd like to raise as we explore this question at First Central.

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