It has been a good year for reading. Back in Michigan, Sarah and I read a handful of truly memorable novels together in our little cottage on the edge of the wood. Since leaving home to study theology and the arts here at St. Andrews, I have had an excuse to pick up lots of poetry and theology from the library or Toppings and Co., a book shop where Sarah and I memorably drank tea and read Scottish poetry on her birthday, and where we also had the opportunity to hear James MacMillan explain where his music exists in relation to modernism and the Catholic tradition.
Below is a list of a handful of books that I enjoyed reading this year. The twelve days of Christmas are here, so I suggest picking up one or two for yourself or a loved one!
The Hanging God, James Matthew Wilson
Long ago, as an English grad student, I was stumbling my way through contemporary letters when I came upon the essays of James Matthew Wilson in Front Porch Republic. A fellow Michigander and lover of verse, he introduced me to the poems of Yvor Winters and Timothy Steele. I had no clue that I would one day have the chance to host him at Rochester University to read his Stations of the Cross sequence. Set to the meter of the “Stabat Mater,” these poems juxtapose the bent ways of Modern man, and the relentless sacrifice of God, who hung upon a cross. With these opening lines, “I tried to think for half an hour / About the face of earthly powers / That would condemn a god to die,” these verses are invaluable company to carry with you on the journey Godward. The collection also includes the Spenserian sonnet sequence, “Wiped Out,” which details the unraveling a of a romance gone sideways: “All she had purred in bed as fantasizing. / Why wear the tattoos of an episode / Of which the facts, in fact, were mere disguising.” And “On This Rich Ground” paints love in a more hopeful light, where the image of a well-tended vineyard and grace filled vows gesture toward the possibility of rightly ordered marriage. All in all, this is a must have collection for readers who enjoy the Poets’ Corner.
After Prayer, Malcolm Guite
One of the best-selling contemporary Anglican, perhaps even Christian, poets, Malcolm Guite loves the sonnet, memorable image, punchy line, and lively saint. Some serious critics question Guite’s place among literary poets because of his joyful temperament and willingness to transgress the bounds of the fragmentary lyric and the confessional poem. But measured transgression is the name of the game for Guite, and this playful obtuseness leads him down all sorts of surprising roads.
Sarah bought us tickets to hear Guite read the poems of After Prayer at his book launch in St. Edward King and Martyr chapel in Cambridge this Fall. A short man with a bushy beard and jovial temperament, Guite lived up to his hobbit reputation, and he greeted us warmly. The reading opened with the title sequence in the collection, After Prayer, a set of poems that takes inspiration from each line of George Herbert’s masterful “Prayer.” From doubt to faith, pain to happiness, these poems take the reader along the hills and valleys that come with speaking to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.
I think that skepticism about Guite’s verse arises from a proud seriousness among the literati. In poems like “How to Scan a Poet, or “Mistakes,” Guite approaches the oddities of life with a childlike wonder. Jeremy Begbie mentioned that he had tutored Guite at Oxford, before Guite started writing poetry, back when Guite rode an ear-splitting motorcycle everywhere. His longstanding friendship with Begbie, who has done much to put theology and the arts into conversation, helps make a sort of Chestertonian sense of Guite’s poems about basking in the wonders of poetic medical terminology, and sympathetically questioning the wrong turns of his back to nature hippie brethren. These personal poems complement the more universal reflections on the cosmos and varieties of character in “Seven Heavens, Seven Hells” (a cycle written to accompany the score of the game, Destiny). After Prayer is a varied selection that includes Guite’s literary, devotional, and light verse. It fits well alongside his seasonal anthologies and includes poems for readers of different proclivities.
Original Prin, Randy Boyagoda
Novels are a wonderful thing. After fighting traffic on a long commute, while in a relaxing bath, on the beach beside a quiet Northern lake, even on a noisy bus ride, there’s nothing quite like entering a different world and different characters in a novel. Randy Boyagoda, author of Beggars’ Feast and Governor of the Northern Province, succeeds in entering the ranks of great Catholic novelists with his most recent story, Original Prin.
Princely St. John Umbiligoda is a typical modern Christian. He divides his life up between the sacred and the secular, comfortable suburban Catholicism, and his career at a swiftly secularizing Catholic university, where he writes about seahorses in Canadian literature. Complacency has no place in this story, and Boyagoda puts Prin to the test. His faith to Molly, his devoted wife and the sacrificial mother of his children, his faith in God, the trinitarian God, all comes into question as his university, formerly named for the Holy Family, capitulates to the gods of the market and academy, and his old flame, Wende, invites him on a work trip to Dragamons, a war torn nation in the Middle East. The novel has a wide emotional range: laugh inducing, convicting, and eye-rolling. If you can handle tragic endings and outlandish comedic situations, I suggest joining Prin on his confused quest, as he faces the pressures of cancer and lust, and decides who he wants to serve.
The Aviator, Eugene Vodolazkin
Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel about a holy fool, Laurus, made him famous for his deft descriptions of Russian piety and peasantry. Vodolazkin, a medievalist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, takes readers of Laurus on a strange pilgrimage from Russia to Jerusalem. This is more than historical fiction. Vodolazkin believes that we are headed toward a new Middle Ages, an epic of concentration. The Aviator, Vodolazkin’s latest novel, feels jarring if you come in expecting the medievalism of Laurus. The Aviator, calls the assumptions of us late Moderns into question.
Innokenty Petrovitch Platonov woke at the close of the Twentieth Century. He had entered into a coma during the early Soviet era. In order to figure up how he wound up in this situation, Innokenty’s doctor has instructed him to keep a journal, the source for this epistolary novel. The novel feels timely in its themes and subject matter. After the Soviets sent Innokenty to the Gulag, he took the opportunity to be cryogenically frozen on the off chance that he might survive and wake to walk the streets of Moscow again. The journalists who interview Innokenty, the late Modern Russians who meet him in passing, want to know what he thinks about the major political developments of the past eighty years. Innokenty, however, prefers to focus on the sounds, smells, and feelings of local life. Awoken in an age of lawyers and engineers, Innokenty imitates Robinson Crusoe and strives to humanize daily life with gratitude and attention. Whereas the consumer culture around him privileges pleasure and independence, Innokenty prefers the old-fashioned virtues of love and commitment, evident in his relationship with Nastya and his doctor.
Seeing God, Hans Boersma
This year, I moved from Michigan to Scotland to study theology and poetry at St. Mary’s College. During my first semester, I lived in Guardbridge, a little village outside of St. Andrews, known for its bridge, one of the oldest in Scotland. Apparently, soon after the founding of the University of St. Andrews, some eager young divinity students cared so deeply about learning more about God that they forged the Eden River, and at least one of them was swept away and drowned between the flooded banks. There is something powerful about that image, young scholars risking life and limb to hang out in the St. Mary’s library and read about Jesus and metaphysics. I rode a bus across the Eden River most days during the past few months to read about theological aesthetics and English Church history in that same library.
Hans Boersma, a theologian at Nashotah House, an old Anglo-Catholic seminary in Wisconsin, has a gift for recovering lost Christian wisdom. In Heavenly Participation, he defended the faith of the saints and martyrs, and their conviction that our heavenly citizenship matters more than our concerns in this sojourn in a strange land. Boersma’s sacramental ontology allows him to read God’s revelation in scripture and nature in line with the great tradition of Christian theology. From this perspective, we truly “live and move and have our being” in Jesus Christ. He reveals himself in the Old Testament and the beauty, truth, and goodness of the creation.
As strangers in a strange land, as fallen Christians in a fallen world, we see through a mirror dimly. In Seeing God, Boersma tries to persuade Christians to give thanks for the ways God invites us to participate in the divine life in preparation to see him face to face in eternity. Boersma traverses the vast terrain of Platonic and Christian history as he explains what it looks like for God to prepare us for eternal life. He turns to the poetry of Dante and John Donne when searching for a way to understand the role of the visio dei in our lives: “Donne relied on the doctrine of the beatific vision to counter what he regarded as the dreariness of a purely natural, material world–and, most importantly, to reorient his contemporaries toward God as their only true, final end.”
I found Boersma’s explanation of Donne’s puzzling Anniversaries particularly insightful. Donne’s hyperbolic descriptions of his patron’s lost daughter remind us of our potential to participate in heaven’s life right here in the present. Boersma, in his engagement with Dante and Donne, shows the ways poetry can expand our vision to include heavenly realities foreclosed by a narrow rationalism.
The Beauty of Holiness, Benjamin Guyer
When I picked up Guyer’s new anthology of the Caroline divines, the exceptional devotional, and theological writers during the reigns of King Charles the Martyr and King Charles the Second, I assumed that Guyer’s collection would look something like the classic anthology, Anglicanism. I remember more than one coffee hour when a priest suggested that I read through the collection of Anglican texts put together by the Patristics scholar, Frank Lesley Cross, and the critic and man of letters, Paul Elmer More. More and Cross focus on theological and philosophical reflections from a wide range of Christian thinkers, central and fringe. Guyer, in contrast, gives readers a more earthy feel for the sort of lived faith of Anglicans during the Caroline period. From reflections on whether folks can play sports on Sunday, to the best ways to celebrate Advent, to the tough doctrinal questions raised by the catechism, Guyer’s collection invites readers into the piety of the Caroline divines. The anthology expresses their desire to avoid the extremes of the Puritans and Romanists and live the humble life of traditional Christians. Reflections by Anthony Sparrow, William Laud, and Robert Sanderson make it clear why the Caroline Divines hold such an important place in the Anglican tradition, and the poems of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan illustrate the important role poetry has played in the Anglican experience of the beauty of holiness.