Tuesday’s 10: Reasons to Read Jane Austen’s Novels

1.  C. S. Lewis Loved Her Work. Listen, would you ask C.S. Lewis, the veteran of WWI for his man card because he loved Austen? I didn’t think so. Do you think you know great literature from bad literature better than he?

2. She Was A Great Writer. Some say the greatest in the English language. Most of you guys couldn’t write your way out of a wet paper bag. But Austen writes sentences that hang in the air like stars and hit your ears like echoes of all the truth you know but had forgotten. No one writes sentences like her.

3. She Is Funny. There are some incredibly funny characters and scenes throughout her works. Mr Collins is a prime example in Pride and Prejudice. But they are never funny like the easy picking of jokes issuing from the bedroom and the bathroom. They are funny because of they have the weight of truth.

4. She Knows Evil. Most of us need extreme obvious forms of evil to move us. But Jane Austen knew more than us in all our supposed wisdom of the world. She gave us the character of Crawford. You might need Hannibal Lecter. She gave us the subtle evil of one who would devour the heart of the innocent and make us all complicit.

5. Pictures of Kindness. When Darcy shows up unexpected at Pemberly and shows nothing but unexpected kindness to Lizzy and her Aunt and Uncle, I am moved every single time. Kindness is not hip. We defer so we can change the world.

6. Pictures of Manliness. Speaking of Darcy there is a reason his very name makes women swoon. And Knightly, the hero of Emma. Here are just two examples of steadfastness, kindness, humility, and virtue. Flawed? Sure. But worthy of our attention.

7. Contrition. Emma Woodhouse is one of my favorite characters. Her contrition and recognition of fault is a rare ideal in a world full of the confident and self-assured. I was so struck by her admissions of failure and the beauty of it, I named our first child, Emma, after her.

8. Seeing Things As They Really Are. Sense and Sensibility is a profound book. In my work as a youth pastor I have worked with hundreds of teenage girls. I have never known one single Elinor among them. Many of them are dearly loved still but every one a Marianne, with emotions at the helm of every moment. Austen saw the “Sensibility” movement for what it was. We have yet to see it as a culture mired in it.

9. Steadfast Love. The steadfast affection between Captain Wentworth and Ann in Persuasion is exceptional. We could learn a thing or two. We give up easily. We feign affection but as soon as inconveniences such as time or space get in the way, we move on to greener pastures. Or at least the blooming fields before us. We give up. We get bored. We divorce at will.

10. Just Love Stories? Some of you will dismiss her novels as mere love stories with a wave of the hand. Men, love stories are God’s idea. The first story we have is one of love between a man and a woman. If you don’t like love stories, you are nothing more than a fool. Ladies, if you have the choice, stay away from such. Real love between a man and woman may not always be exciting. But it is always worth a story.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. My wife made Carnitas last night and they were awesome. (I’m actually typing this on Wednesday but I’m pretty certain they will be awesome. Update: Awesomeness confirmed)

2. Choosing chopsticks over a fork is like choosing the telegraph over the iPhone.

3. C.S. Lewis volunteered for WWI and yet loved Jane Austen. I’ll take his manliness over the faux-manliness of the UFC-loving guys.

4. I love saying “Carnitas”.

5. I know I’m supposed to be thankful in all circumstances but does that include the circumstance of a song by Gloria Estefan?

6. I only eat free-range corn dogs.

7. I couldn’t be a pacifist if only because I like the Bourne movies and Taken too, too much. And i long for the day of conceal carry for rocket-launchers.

8. Did you know Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake”? But the real shocker is that Calvin Coolidge did say “Let them eat Bacon.”

9. I don’t trust people that don’t like Ray Charles.


Tuesday’s 10: Books I Read Over and Over

I have a tendency to read books over and over. I’ve got books I’ve read almost every year since the first time I cracked them open. In some I find comfort. In others it’s like walking to the top of a hill and being able to look out over a wonderful landscape again and again. This is a list of those books. I will actually be cheating on this list as there are more than ten books here…

1. The Harry Potter Series. Every October as it starts to turn cool outside I start these books and finish by Christmas. I don’t just think these books are entertaining. I think they are genius.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia. Every January I read all six seven. And I learn something…see something new everytime. Children’s books? Sure. And these children stories are the furniture of my mind and have been since I was a boy.

3. Surprised By Joy. This autobiography of C.S. Lewis’ early life draws me in almost yearly now. I “get this” book in a way that sets it apart for me. And it is written so darn well.

4. Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it considered Austen’s best but many consider it the greatest novel in the English language. C.S. Lewis was a fan as well as my professor, Jerram Barrs, who introduced her books to me while in Seminary. I’ve read all her books at least 5 times and P&P I’ve read at least 10 times averaging more than a read a year over the past 9 years. It is my favorite novel.

5. The Count of Monte Cristo. I picked this up so I could read it before the movie came out in 2002. I fell in love with the story, which obviously the makers of the movie thought unworthy of their “skills.” The movie was terrible and not the story written by Dumas. This work is over 1000 pages of brilliance.

6. Witness. Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography is my favorite book. Period. The fact that you do not know this book is a national tragedy. If I were the head of education in this country, I would make it required reading. Everyone I have recommended this book to has been rendered speechless – not only by the story but by the writing, which is singular.

7. The Prodigal God. This book meant so much to my wife and I after reading it the first time, when my friend David suggested “Keller” as a middle name for our son, we actually liked it and used it. There are not many books I’ve given away as much as this one.

8. Mystery and Manners. Flannery O’Connor is known for her short stories and two novels but this book of essays and talks is a favorite of mine. I’ve read it at least 4 times in the past 12 years. Maybe more. Great writing and helpful thoughts on faith and writing.

9. Orthodoxy. Chesterton is always interesting but this witty piece of apologetics is abnormal in it’s ability to entertain while making one think so much the mind bends to breaking only to be re-formed.

10. L’bri. The story of what the Schaeffers…of what God did in the Swiss Alps through the Schaeffers is a story I long to read every couple of years. Apart from Schaeffer, I am not sure I would have my love of art, philosophy and how our faith helps us think about these things. Schaeffer could not have dreamed what would be when he decided to move his family to Switzerland. The story of how God used them brings me to tears every time.

What about you?

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed something interesting. My blog is getting lots of hits from Germany and Russia. Though I am sure this is totally unrelated, I’m reading a book on communism and one on fascism.

2. Question: can you publicly rebuke someone for publicly rebuking a public statement?

3. My desire to write about bacon on Thursdays is pavlovian.

4. Looked at how much it cost to go see Adele in the ATL. Whoa.

5. My wife keeps getting better looking. Me? Not so much.

6. My son refuses to believe that Superman would not suck his thumb. Great, another lawyer. (Wink at my friend, Anita.)

7. “Missional” can be a helpful word as long as we don’t use it as a hammer against critics or a hedge against criticisms.

8. So, I’m actually thinking about buying a gun and learning to hunt. But it has to be a pretty gun.

9. When my wife forgets to buy bacon, it puts stress on our marriage. And our lunch.

10. Wait. Do you need a concealed carry permit if you get a belt with dual holsters and a couple of colt revolvers?

Why Are Catholics Great Writers and Baptists Are Not?

For a while now I’ve been toying with a question. Maybe a year or so at the most. I’ve had an answer in mind but I still keep asking the question anyway.

Why is it that Catholics are the best writers? And some of my favorites?

Flannery O’Connor. J.R.R. Tolkein. Thomas Merton. Dorothy Sayers. G.K. Chesterton.

And what about those who are far more similar to them than the people I’ve surrounded myself with? You know like the Anglicans.

Shakepseare. C.S. Lewis. Jane Austen.

And one of my favorites these days is Eugene Peterson, who has learned a great deal from those of Rome. Heck, I would have never picked up Merton if not for him.

My first and simplest answer is that they have a sacramental (read: sacred) view of words. Words are precious and full of beauty. They stand by themselves full of value, devoid of their use. But this is not how we evangelicals primarily think of words. We only use them – whoring them out. They have a function. Like machines. Maybe this is why I can think no writer, who is Baptist – outside of Bunyan – who is lauded as a ‘great writer’ by those outside of the evangelical subculture.

What do you think? Can you think of great writers who are Baptists? Who am I missing?

What have you read that could help me think about this some more?

Is it relevant that all of them are Paedobaptists?

Novels are for Pastors

My parents did not always buy me the toys I wanted. Dad was a pastor and we never had tons of money, though I never really knew it. But they did buy me books. I went through a period where I was going through Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books like most kids go through video games. I have this one memory of my parents driving me around to various little local bookstores to find one I had not read. This is a precious memory to me because we were on the way to their friend's house and I wanted...needed something to do while the adults talked. I had no siblings near my age. Books like these were my friends. I would pore over them again and again and again. The stories still stand dust-covered in the shadows of days long gone.

Things have not changed much. I still read novels; many of them over and over, year after year. I have added a memoir or two and I always read stories new to me. These stories have become familiar friends, very familiar, for many have been read more than a dozen times. The stories are never knew but it does not matter, I read them anyway, expecting something new. Never disappointed, though the story never changes, I see glimmers unfamiliar, each time.
But there was a time I had an uneasy relationship with novels. I did not stop reading them, but I started feeling guilty about it. Not the kind of guilt which leaves you up at night. But the kind of guilt which keeps you from talking about what you are reading with others. We pastors (and really spiritual people) are supposed to read “spiritual books” you know…not fiction.
Like I said, the relationship was ‘uneasy.’ Mainly because I was listening to some voices which made me think, as a pastor, I had neither the time nor the freedom to enjoy fiction on a regular basis. The responsibility was too great. The urgency was too real. Hell is burning. And you want to read Dumas? But then I would enjoy the warm comfort of a paragraph written by Austen or O’Connor’s ragged Southern wit. The joy of Dillard’s The Maytrees is without equal. And I am always in the mood for a murder of Agatha Christie’s making. Needless to say, the guilt lost out to the beauty and the profound weight of all I had learned about life and writing from so much fiction. Stories have been good to me since my earliest days, where memories run slow and shallow.
But I want to go out on a limb and suggest novels are ‘good.’ They are not just OK. They are good and not just as sermon illustration fodder. They are stories. And stories I assume are good things. We know this because the Bible is a story. Though it has instructions, it is not an instruction book. It is not a “game plan” for your life. It is not a mere roadmap. It is nothing if not a story, the story of what God is doing. Has done. Will do.
And Jesus told stories. Yes, they are parables. But they are wonderful stories nonetheless – full of life and wonder and excitement and reality and fiction and tears and blood and heaven and hell and violence and passion and sin and beauty. All are works of fiction meant to arrest the listener and now the reader.
The Gospel is a story. And we are justified by faith in this story. We have lost sight of the fact that the facts and truths we espouse as believers are of the kind which belong to a story. It isn’t fiction, mind you. But is has more in common with fiction than a religion of lists and propositions alone.
And every life is a story. The rich and poor alike are stories lived, whether told or untold. And if told would be worthy reads. James Joyce taught us this. No one is an abstraction. Our social security numbers and long lines at airports try to convince us differently. But we, ourselves are the stuff of epic tales…every moment worthy of a memoir.
Novels, though fiction, when they ring true, are full of truth. The kind of truth which makes us sit up in bed, underline sentences and read them to your spouse out loud. The label ‘fiction’ only plays at the edges of what it often is.
All of the above begins to give us a glimpse into the help novels and stories can afford pastors (and those who are more spiritual than everyone else). But also, novels can help pastors in the way they write and teach. Most theology books are not distinguished because of how well they are written. No, they are set apart from books on matters doctrinal because of their ability to impart the themes they have set out to communicate. Novels are often set apart (not always) because they have been written well. The novels usually distinguished are those which have the feel of craft.
We, pastors as a vocational set, could use a little instruction in craft. We could use some informal training in how to craft sentences worth remembering and the subtle wielding of words. Our ability to communicate the truths we love and are convinced of, can…will be strengthened by reading fictional stories.
We are not mere information producers for consumers of religious goods and services. We are story-tellers. We tell our story. We tell the old, old story – the story which gives all other stories depth and significance. We are not solely educators instructing students from whom we expect regurgitation of information. We are in the line of those who crafted those 4 marvelous edifices of Gospel. No one who has looked into the well of the original languages can walk away without seeing they did not just write out information they remembered. They crafted. Our sermons, letters, emails, lectures and for God’s sake, our blog posts could stand some more craft in them.
This is not to say all fiction is created equal. But if I have any ability to write, I owe much to Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. If I can turn a phrase at all I credit Tolkein and Annie Dillard. Certainly some fiction may be not so helpful as others. But this is no reason to not pick up a novel and read some fiction.
Someone will read this and suggest I am telling pastors they should put down their theology texts and pick up Twilight. Let me say with a resounding voice, “Maybe.” Certainly I am saying, we should see novelists and storytellers as gifts from God, who can add much to our ministry. At the least I am pleading for a desire to create a pastoral environment where works of fiction are not relegated to the sidelines of afterthought and leftover pieces of time but are seen as fresh help as we must craft messages of hope and grace.