Every so often, we here at The North American Anglican like to share with the world what we’ve been reading. Here are some of our summer reads!
Soloyov and Larionov, Eugene Vodolazkin
Eugene Vodolazkin writes novels about people who rely on their ancestors to help them identify their blind spots and avoid the popular errors of their contemporaries. The ghosts of the past may actually appear in the present, as in The Aviator, or a single life may transcend physical and temporal limits, as in Laurus. This summer, I had the chance to read Vodolazkin’s third release in English, the first to appear in his native Russia, Solovyov and Larionov. The mysterious trans-temporal relationships in this novel, perhaps less theologically informed than in Laurus, and less morally precarious than The Aviator, see the young historian, Soloyov, retracing the steps of his Ph.D. thesis, Larionov, the last White general of bygone Russia, before the Bolsheviks overthrew the old regime. Solovyov and Larionov both love the sea, both love women in the same family, until Soloyov wakes to an awareness that he truly loves Laranov’s granddaughter, and both are extremely attentive to the little characteristics that make each person, each neighborhood, each nation unique. The novel develops with the same confidence and wit of Vodolazkin’s later stories, and it invites the reader to join Soloyov, moving almost like a detective story, as he tries to understand how this general put up such an astounding fight against the Reds, and why the regime allowed him to live into old age, unlike the countless others who disappeared. Vodolazkin, in this gripping tale, challenges readers to remember the past and open their eyes to the particularities that make life worth living.
C.S. Lewis is best known for his fiction, Narnia and the Ransom trilogy, and his works of Christian apologetics, Miracles, Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain. However, he was a professor of English Literature at Oxford and devoted much of his writing to questions of poetry and language. My research this summer centers on Lewis’s long narrative poem, Dymer, and the relationship between narrative poetry and theology. Lewis’s early ambition as a writer was to join the ranks of narrative poets like William Morris and John Masefield. Trying to understand Lewis’s perspective on poetry has given me the chance to read his lesser-known books. In Image and Imagination, for instance, Walter Hooper has gathered together a compelling selection of Lewis’s book reviews and essays. Ever wonder how Lewis would have set up his ideal English curriculum, he answers that question. What about his opinion of Dorothy Sayer’s translation of The Divine Comedy, also here. In most cases, Lewis appears a fierce critic, something of a William Logan of the mid-twentieth century. There are exceptions. His readings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams show evidence of deep literary sympathy and shared mythological vision. The book is full of delightful surprises, such as a review of a book by the young Harold Bloom. This collection of Lewis’s shorter pieces, although not his most important book, offers a unique glimpse into his perspective on the contemporary academic and literary scenes of his era.
I always look forward to “Summer Reading” as a time to read a few books that I don’t get around to throughout the rest of the year. Due to the strange season thrust upon us on account of COVID-19, Summer reading began for me sometime in March. That is to say, I had more time than normal to just start taking books from atop the ever-growing piles around the house. Since that list is considerably longer than normal, I will limit my remarks to the three volumes I am working through at present.
I finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life edited by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel. This is one that I’ve been wanting to read for some time, and so far it has surpassed my expectations. An impressive retinue of scholars offers essays that amount to “a theology of the Christian life oriented around the triune God of grace”. The book is divided into four parts. The first, “The Gracious One” has essays on the triune God (Fred Sanders), the electing God (Suzanne McDonald), the creating and providential God (Katherine Sonderegger), the saving God (Ian McFarland), and the perfecting God (Christopher R. J. Holmes). Part Two, “The Graces of The Christian Life,” covers reconciliation and justification (John Burgess), redemption (Christiaan Mostert), and mortification and vivification (John Webster). Part Three, “The Means of Grace” provides a pair of essays on Scripture (Donald Wood) and Church and sacraments (Tom Greggs). The final part, “The Practices of Grace” focuses on discipleship (Philip Ziegler), prayer (Ashley Cocksworth), theology (Ellen T. Charry), preaching (William Willimon), and forgiveness (D. Stephen Long). It is a book to be sipped and savored; prayed through as well as perused.
For many of us, Berry has long been something of a sage and prophet of soil and place. Though widely regarded as a literary critic, poet, and novelist; Wendell Berry is first and foremost a farmer. He is a man who thinks deeply about the land and how to live with it. For him, agriculture just is culture, or at least the foundation of any culture worthy of the name. His latest collection of essays, speeches, short stories, and poems is a welcome word for busied lives in a world that seems to be spinning faster than it did in earlier days. Although the entries are subtitled, “New Agrarian Writings,” this is vintage Berry. This collection continues in the groove of well-tread arguments begun in The Unsettling of America 40 years ago. If you are unacquainted with Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, this is a wonderful place to start. Take your socks off and dig your toes deep into the earth and give thanks to the God who planted you in it.
I love a good whodunnit. And there are few who wrote better mysteries than the late Baroness P.D. James. This particular novel focuses on yet another case of her famous Scotland Yard detective, Alan Dalgliesh. But for Anglicans like Lady James, this story is adorned with certain ecclesial charms. We are scarcely into the first pages before we trip over the body of a young ordinand from St. Anselm’s, a High Anglican theological college. Was it murder, suicide, or something else? Then, an archdeacon gets his head bashed in the chapel late one evening. This crotchety cleric had designs on closing the school. By now the game is afoot, as they say. Dalgliesh is summoned to solve the series of suspicious deaths. Putting the screws to a host of suspects, mostly priests and would-be Men of the Cloth, he uncovers connections between the murders. Triptychs. Incest. Secret marriages. A missing cloak. What more could you ask for in a mystery novel?
This is a book for today. Try to forget for a moment that it was first published in 1945, and if you haven’t read either of the previous two novels in Lewis’ space trilogy don’t worry about that either. It’s best to just accept that Clive Staples Lewis must have been gifted with a special insight into the way of things, that he was a true, protestant saint and that this book, like many of his other writings, is a work of prophetic genius. It happens to be a book about “panoptic” power as it is wielded in modern societies by academia, the media, and those in government who, if permitted, would gladly wield their social programming over every free-born citizen, until we’ve all conformed to the tiny, lonely, mechanized “lives” that meet expert approval. The bad guys in this book belong to the “National Institute of Coordinated Experiments” (N.I.C.E.) and closely resemble certain private and public bureaucracies of our own time, but the good guys are an outpost of uncommonly civil, humane, and seemingly very Christian friends. Eventually, the baddies and the protagonists end up waging a cosmic battle over sanity and God’s natural order, with the help of no less than Merlin. Yes, that Merlin. C. S. Lewis has said That Hideous Strength is simply an earlier book of his (and another favorite of mine) The Abolition of Man in story form. Read it, even if you already have. Better yet, read them together. I’m sure you’ll find the themes in this almost century-old book are just as relevant today as they ever were.
I love reading lists, book lists, and basically any attempt by some worthy editor to compile the “essentials” or “classics” of any particular genre or topic of concern. Gamble’s compilation of classic readings on education shows a breadth in scope and a depth of familiarity that one may rightly expect from a professor of Hillsdale College. It’s fun to imagine all of these great writers in attendance at a banquet or symposium, seated at a long table in order of their chronology. Beginning in ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle are of course present, there are others, Cicero and Plutarch, along with several early Church Fathers, Jerome and Augustine perhaps chief among them. The medievals are there too from Alcuin to Aquinas, but some of the most impressive attendees are modern ones. After an ecumenical selection of readings from Erasmus, Melanchthon, Calvin, and the Jesuits, Gamble has included passages from John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” and an essay by Paul Elmer More. A student of “classical education” will expect familiar essays by C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a passage from A. G. Sertillanges’ classic “The Intellectual Life.” It’s been a true pleasure to take up this hefty volume these past few weeks to refamiliarize myself with the Sayers essay (some required Summer reading for work), and I can’t help thinking this would make the perfect gift for any budding intellectual with a certain reverence and desire to learn from the great minds of Western Civilization.
After college, I promised myself that I would stay up on my Latin. I made the flashcards, I bought the books, and I soon became very rusty. In recent years, however, my need to Latin has become more and more pronounced, and so, with a recommendation from a friend, I picked up this primer from Collins. If you desire to read Ecclesiastical Latin, or ‘Church Latin,’ I can’t recommend it more. Collins moves at a breakneck pace; his focus is to get you reading as quickly as possible, and unlike other Latin primers that take a broad approach to the language, his ability to zero in on specific theological phrases and vocabularies means you’ll be flying in no time.
For years, as a non-denom Christian, I read the Bible in plans. You know the type: read the Bible in a year, read it in 40 days, read it backwards. When I became an Anglican, I moved to reading Scripture via the Lectionary, which is its own sort of “plan.” Lately, however, I’ve been trying to read the Bible outside of the Daily Office, but instead of a chapter at a time, I’ve been approaching it as a book. This may be standard practice for clergy or those in academia, but the more laypeople I speak with about it, the more I realize how few people do it this way. Reading Scripture “like a book” has opened up new worlds for me, and, most importantly, has made our Daily Office so much richer.
I had long been familiar with Blunt’s brief commentaries on the Sunday propers from this volume due to their inclusion on the website Lectionary Central, an excellent clearinghouse of commentaries and writings on the traditional 1-year lectionary. However, I only recently obtained a (digitized) copy of the entire work. Though I have only read through the first few chapters, I have found Blunt’s work to be an almost ideal intersection of my favorite theological topics: liturgics, historical theology, and the Prayer Book. While Blunt is a thoroughgoing son of the Tractarians and thus can be partisan at times, I have come to expect such partisanship from 19th Century Anglican writers, and indeed often find the partisanship entertaining. His rant against the 1552 revision of the Prayer Book was particularly fun. Such bias aside, I am finding The Annotated Book of Common Prayer to be an informative and devotion-inspiring read.
If Blunt shows a bias toward the Tractarian or Ritualist partisanship of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Griffith-Thomas shows a bias toward their Evangelical opponents. Nevertheless, I have found his catechetical manual to be helpful as I make preparations toward another round of Confirmation classes in my parish. Indeed, The Catholic Faith is intended to be used in such contexts. Griffith-Thomas presents the manual in three parts: basic catechesis geared toward the individual; teachings that touch on Anglican-specific ecclesiology, including issues surrounding our history and the Prayer Book; and (then) current issues of controversy. It is in this third part where the Evangelical partisanship is most pronounced. It is often the case that teaching a subject can help the teacher sharpen skills and concepts that he or she was unaware had become dull; I have found reading The Catholic Faith with the eyes of preparing catechesis to be a useful sharpening agent.
This is the fifth book in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy.” I have been a fan of the series since junior high, and usually re-read it once every year or two. A few days ago, I finished the fourth book and am about to start Mostly Harmless. The series is satirical, irreverent science fiction, and thus might not appeal to everyone. However, I find it to be thought-provoking and humorous, two qualities I appreciate in fiction. Mostly Harmless was the final book in the series written by Adams himself, and ends on a rather bleak note. Nevertheless, I find it to be an appropriate end for the luckless everyman, Arthur Dent, who spends the entire series being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am sure many of us can identify with that feeling!
Regular readers of TNAA may have seen my recent reflections on Mr. Harding and the other clerical characters in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicle of Barsetshire series. In the early 20th Century, Angela Thirkell wrote a series of novels that take place in the same fictional county as Trollope’s series and is sometimes seen as a successor. August Folly is the fourth of these novels. Though I am a bit more than halfway through August Folly, I have yet to see the connection to Trollope’s characters or setting. While it is an amusing novel, I find that it lacks the charm of Trollope’s series. Granted, I have not read her previous novels as my local library did not have them. Nevertheless, I doubt I will read any more in Thirkell’s series.
The Medieval era has become my favorite time period in the history of the Church. Far from being the “Dark Ages,” the breadth and depth of theological reflection during this time was remarkable. And who could be a better guide to such a rich theological epoch than Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan? Admittedly, as of writing this, I am not very far into the book but it opens with an insightful discussion on how Medieval theologians accepted the Catholic Tradition from their Patristic predecessors. This discussion is interesting to me because it seems to foreclose any conception of “the development of dogma”: “The apostolic and catholic faith…was unchanging and unchangeable, and the very suggestion that it had undergone change or development or growth seemed to strike at the foundations of apostolic continuity” (6). I am looking forward to the second chapter which pertains to the reception of Augustine in the Medieval church.
This summer, I am taking two classes at Nashotah House. The first is a class on Irenaeus of Lyons taught by Dr. Lewis Ayers where we are reading this book on Irenaeus. John Behr is assuredly one of the most important voices in patristic theology. This work is an excellent study of St. Irenaeus. I would like to point out two features that have stood out to me thus far. The first is the way Behr reframes the discussion on heresy. Many modern scholars often cast the heretics of the Patristic age as sympathetic victims castigated by the narrow-minded Church for asking questions. This, Behr assures us, is not an accurate mode of historiography because the reverse is true: it is the heretics who were intolerant, not the orthodox. This is evidenced not only by the diversity of early Christian communities but also by the way heretical factions more often separated themselves from the Church to create parallel ecclesial structures.
The other aspect of the book which stands out is Behr’s inventive argumentation. Having taken a class with him before, I’ve seen him do this in person, but it is no less impressive in print. One example of this comes on the topic of Irenaeus’ relationship with Polycarp. Scholars often assume Irenaeus’ depictions of Polycarp are exaggerated, perhaps based on vague childhood memories. Behr pushes back on this incisively. First, he provides defense against the claim by demonstrating that Irenaeus paints a stable picture of Polycarp over the course of his three works and urges Florinus to return to Polycarp’s words, assuming they were both familiar with the content. Then, he puts forward offensive reasons for positing a more robust relationship between Polycarp and Ignatius: (1) there is strong evidence of John’s presence in Asia Minor where Polycarp was located; (2) the dating works out as Polycarp was martyred in 155/6 around the age of 86; (3) it is possible that Polycarp is the unknown author of the Letter to Diognetus who mentions having a connection with “the apostles and others who have seen the Lord.”
Irenaeus is an important saint in the early Church and this book is an excellent introduction.
The other class I’m taking at Nashotah House this summer is on theological anthropology. On Thinking the Human is required for the class. It is much to my embarrassment that I must confess that this is the first time I’ve ever read Robert Jenson but, after reading this work, I would like to read more! This book is an attempt to better understand what we mean when we talk about humanity by engaging with philosophical discussions on various topics pertaining to the topic: death, consciousness, freedom, reality, wickedness, and love.
Another unfortunate confession I need to make is that it took me until June to read my first piece of fiction this year and it was this book, which was for my anthropology class. Written by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, this dystopian novel is a powerful reflection on the underlying political questions of what it means to be human while also exposing the dark underside of societies premised on scientism. That’s all I’ll say because I don’t want to give the ending away.
I am about halfway through this book at the time of writing. It was given to me by a parishioner and has been an absolute delight. The novel is a satire set at a college in postwar England and follows Jim Dixon, a frumpy, uninterested, and underwhelming adjunct professor in Medieval studies. His interior monologue makes him both hilarious and repulsive and his various misadventures provide ample laughs.
What have you been reading? Let us know in the comments below!