Ivan Ilych is Alive

One of the purposes of this blog is to help people access the world of literature. (You can pronounce it the boring way, or you can do it properly, the way Michael Caine would – “litshratshurr“). I do this through book reviews and short reflections on things that I’m reading. Not only does this help me process what I’m reading, it also hopefully gives others a taste of the benefit from engaging with this material, which often feels too distant and intimidating. One of the things that compelled me to make the effort to read “the classics” was hearing how they had such an impact on others, and observing others appreciate them.

Recently I was listening to Karen Swallor Prior in discussion with Matthew Barrett on the Credo Podcast. One of the things that came up was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and that discussion prompted me to re-read it. One of the nice things about this story is that it is so short. Everyone has heard of Tolstoy, but most people do not have the courage to take on some of his better-known novels such as War and Peace (1400 pages) or Anna Karenina (950 pages).

If you would like to read it, you can download it here (I’m not sure about the quality of the translation – but hey! it’s free). Note that the following reflection contains spoilers if you haven’t read the story yet.

I am struck by the power of words, ideas, and story. In only 50 pages or so, Tolstoy harnesses that power and delivers to the reader a profound encounter with truth. One of the first things that strikes me in the story is the brutal honesty of the internal dialogue. Tolstoy gets inside the mind and around the various self-deceptions we employ and reveals what is truly there in all of its ugliness. It is done in a matter-of-fact way:

Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.

The story reveals how hard it is to come to believe something that you really don’t want to believe, something that has profound and far-reaching implications for the verdict of how you lived your life. We oppose these kinds of paradigm-shifts in many areas of our lives because re-evaluation is costly. We are invested in our way of seeing things. Within the story this is seen in everybody’s stubborn denial of their own mortality (save for the peasant Gerasim), and especially in Ivan’s wrestling with whether he has lived a good life. There were many layers to peel away before he could get to the honest core of this question. It is only at the end of a long struggle that he breaks through his own defenses to the truth:

… the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

… he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.

There is another dimension to this. Just like Ivan has been living in a cocoon of self-deception, the same is true for his colleagues and his family in their own ways. As mentioned above, they are all in denial about their own inevitable death. But without the harsh and inescapable pain to shock them into a sober honesty, we do not see these characters make any progress towards escaping that deception.

At the very end, in the last two or three hours of Ivan’s life, he experiences a conversion and rebirth. He breaks through into light. Tolstoy does not name Christ, but rather describes the change of heart and makes an oblique reference to God:

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

…He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

… He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.


In place of death there was light.


“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

Modern secular readers are probably tempted to view this as a moral reformation or a kind of epiphany, but Tolstoy clearly has something deeper in mind. It is quite common in literature for the conversion of characters to be described in ways that hint at Christ but do not explicitly name him. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. C.S. Lewis discusses it somewhere, commenting on the habit of medieval Christians to ‘hide’ Christ in pagan themes and deities in their fiction, something he does in his writing as well.

Nevertheless, the Christian reader can recognize many (though not all) of the elements of true conversion: conviction of sin, repentance for sin, and a changed heart with new desires. Is this fictional portrayal sufficient to point others towards faith in Christ for their salvation? No. But what good fiction (and good art generally) does is faithfully represent some part of reality, it serves as a signpost on the good road. In doing so it adds one more voice to that choir made up of countless voices, singing not the same note but a great and variegated harmony.

Peter Nimble

There is lots to love about this book. A great title, a great first line, and moments of brilliance throughout. The story moves at a fine clip and carries the reader along to an exciting finish. My kids read this book as part of their schooling and they adored it, so I wanted to read it also. I can see why they were taken with it! It certainly leaves the reader wondering what will happen next at each chapters’ end. And while I enjoyed reading this book, I wanted to enjoy it more. There were a few hindrances and shortcomings that impeded that enjoyment. As a debut novel, I say bravo and well done! If I were to write a first novel this good, I’d be a happy man indeed. And so I offer some thoughts – in a spirit of constructive criticism – on what kept this book from being, to my mind, on par with the classics.

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First, while the breadth and playfulness of a fertile imagination is on display throughout the book, there is a certain lack of cohesion and gravitational center to that imagination. The worlds, characters, landscapes, buildings, and monsters are all fantastical and creative, but it felt like there was something lacking that would draw them all into a narrative that fit together well. This unpredictability can give the reader a kind of whiplash as she tries to keep pace with the story. A few unexpected twists and turns makes a story interesting; but constant unexpected turns undermines the stability of the narrative and gives it a chaotic feel.

Second, and related to the first point, is the issue of world-building. This is the bread and butter of all fantasy-fiction. The author must build a world that is believable. But believable does not mean it must conform to our world. As Tolkien said, the key is that world must be internally consistent – what happens there must make sense within the framework of that world. This is the secret ingredient that explains why some fantasy worlds feel real, like Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Aerwiar, and others don’t. The author here shows real promise in the world that he creates, and yet fails to fully convince the reader that this place is so real in his own mind that all this could really take place.

Third and last, stories are irreducibly moral. The best stories are deeply moral, for it is the moral instinct in myself as a reader that makes me care deeply about the characters. On this point, once again, the author does a good job with some characters but does not quite pull off a complete victory. We see some development in Peter Nimble, but not a whole lot. His moral character remains quite static, while his self-understanding grows as he discovers his true identity and steps into the role he has been destined for. Sir Tode seems to me to be more promising, for we find out he is largely a fraud and has not truly earned his knighthood. Yet this assumed persona of a brave knight seems to draw out his courage and moral fibre and self-sacrifice. By the end of the book, despite the dubious origins of his knighthood, he has grown into the true picture of knighthood. This seems to exemplify something that C.S. Lewis pointed out: when growing in virtue, we often start by behaving as if we were more virtuous than we really are, which can feel like a kind of pretending or false persona. But if persevered in, this is often the route by which we do really become virtuous.

The best stories have a moral depth that speaks deeply to the reader about right, wrong, goodness and evil. While the book had a pretty clear moral compass (unlike the nihilistic morally-relativistic nonsense that sometimes gets passed off as modern fiction these days), it would have been improved, and would leave a deeper impression on the reader, if the characters’ moral trajectory had been explored more deeply.

All in all, a very fine book. I look forward to reading some more of Auxier’s fiction and seeing how he has grown as an author over the years.

Chronological Snobbery, Part 1

This is part 1 of 2. Click here to skip ahead to part 2, or see the link at the bottom.

It was Owen Barfield who induced a young C.S. Lewis to abandon what he called ‘chronological snobbery.’ I like the term, but its meaning is not immediately clear. Is this what Lewis is referring to when he exhorts us to read old books as a corrective to the errors of the day (most famously argued in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”)?

But no – it cannot mean simply reading old books since Lewis was already reading old books even at an early age (he loved classical poetry), well before meeting Barfield and having his chronological snobbery apparently cured. So what is it, then?

In this post I’d like to explore these ideas a little bit. Let’s start with what Lewis writes about it:

In Surprised by Joy, he defines chronological snobbery as

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

There is overlap here with his famous quote from the essay mentioned above on reading old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Reading old books is part of the solution, but the assumption of “newer is better” goes deeper, and it will likely take something more than mere exposure to old ideas to cure you of it. The fact that today we have many university humanities departments devoted to exposing the ‘hetero-normative patriarchal misogyny’ of Shakespeare and Dante and Milton makes that clear enough. They are reading the material, but with such a distorted lens that it renders no benefit, like eating a hearty stew but straining out everything except the onions.

This snobbery, like all snobberies, is subtle and mostly invisible to the one infected with it. It is something that one detects in others but never in oneself. Think about how often you have heard “what a snob!” said, and how not once was the person saying it talking about themselves. We accuse ourselves of many things, but snobbery doesn’t tend to be one of them.

I’m cultured, not a snob, you silly peasant.

The attitude, to the degree that one is conscious of it, seems entirely justified by the facts of the case. “After all, I have very good reasons for feeling this way!” So we are dealing with something that must be exposed before it can be dealt with.

I take it as a matter of fact that this attitude is widespread today. And my hunch is that the less historically informed our society becomes, the more this default assumption about the superiority of our fashionable ideas – this snobbery – will spread. I can see two other reasons for its prevalence.

First, there is this myth of progress. Generally speaking, the field of engineering is more advanced now than 400 years ago. The same is true for medicine, physics, and chemistry. These are the hard sciences where a wrong theory pretty quickly slams into the solid wall of objective reality, or better, the world as God made it. Since the delay between theory and result is brief, misguided ideas tend to reveal themselves as dead ends before getting too far, and more importantly, before the theorizers get too attached to the ideas.

But it really is another story when we are talking about fields such as sociology, anthropology, morality, or ethics. The myth of progress is the assumption that steady progress has been taking place in these fields similar to the progress that we can all see happening when we look out the window at the high-speed trains, jet-liners, and orbiting satellites. In this mode of thinking, the latest idea is, by virtue of its novelty, the best idea.

The problem is that the delay between theory and result in these other fields is much longer. By the time the fruit of misbegotten ideas becomes undeniable, not only can there be a huge human cost, but sometimes the entire field of study has become institutionally committed to the bad idea and cannot abandon it despite the growing evidence for its failure.

Second, it is basic human nature to desire to feel superior to others. Simply put: chronological snobbery allows me to feel superior to an awful lot of people – and most of them are not around to call me out on it. It is therefore a satisfying attitude to adopt.

To return to a point in the second quote above, every age – our own included – has its characteristic virtues and its prevalent vices. Future ages, or contemporary observers from outside the culture in question, are able to see and denounce what we cannot. And so we rightly reject the cruel tortures of the medieval world, the inexcusable infanticide of the Romans, and the perverted pedophilia of the ancient Greeks. But if we are not careful, we will miss their virtues and miss the chance to see and address some of our own vices.

In the next post, I’d like to reflect on some related insights I’ve gleaned from René Girard.

Reflection on The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

Say what you will about Murray, he is a pretty honest guy. And these days that is a rare quality. He is willing to say what many are not, and willing to ask questions which make people squirm. The on-the-ground feel of the book was one of its strengths. Murray draws on his travels and conversations for first-hand experience of the realities on the ground. Upon this foundation he builds his arguments using carefully researched statistics and citations.

I think there is a counter-argument to be made, and I hope it is made publicly. The problem seems to be that these important conversations and debates are so often being shut down with slurs and slanders before they can even begin. Despite the fact that Murray everywhere rejects far-right nationalism and racism, a quick glance at the reviews in major outlets shows that these accusations are often made.

While the entire book was interesting, the most fascinating part to me, as a Christian, was chapter 16, titled “The feeling that the story has run out.” In this chapter, Murray delves into the big questions: “What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” and reflects on the inability of modern Western Europeans to come up with satisfying answers: “the answers to these questions that we have held onto for centuries seem to have run out.” With striking clarity, Murray argues that modern Europe, with its culture of human rights and freedoms, is built on “beliefs that we have left behind…” And yet, despite acknowledging that this has prompted some “to become better acquainted with our own traditions,” such as Christianity, he says multiple times that modern people “cannot force themselves into sincere belief.” It is clear that he finds this to be true for himself as well as others.

In another striking part of this chapter, Murray reflects on a quote by Richard Dawkins to the effect that the theory of evolution bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin has solved ‘the greatest of all mysteries’: “Right there is the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist world view of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that our mystery has been solved – and although science has indeed solved part of it [notice how Murray is more modest in his claim than the ever-bombastic Dawkins] – most of us still do not feel solved.” Turning to the fact that humans are now shown to be highly evolved apes, he says “we also know that we are more than animals and that to live merely as animals would be to degrade this thing that we are. […] We know we are something else, even if we do now know what that else is.”

Perfectly anticipating my exasperation at his clear-headed insights and half-answers, the next line is: “Of course religious people find talk like this frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, ‘Why do you not just believe?’ Yet this latter question ignores the most likely irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal-truth claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.” He is exactly right that I find it frustrating, but he is exactly wrong about the question I would pose. ‘Why do you not just believe’ is a stupid question to ask someone whose intellect and reason have raised objections to the content of Christianity. Real faith does no violence to the intellect, although it may transcend it.

The most crucial part of the quote above is Murray’s listing of his two main intellectual objections to belief: ‘science’ and ‘historical criticism’. So the questions should be: ‘Why do you believe science and historical criticism make belief impossible? Have you taken the time to read the best responses to those objections? Why is it that there are leading thinkers in nearly every advanced field of scientific knowledge who are devout Christians? Do you understand the science better than them?’ It’s almost like he’s read the pamphlets put out by the atheists and thrown up his hands and said “so it’s hopeless – no intelligent person can believe this God stuff!”

But Murray is certainly correct that one cannot simply choose to believe. There is a mystery to true conversion; as Jesus explained to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Even once the intellectual objections are dealt with, there is a surrender, a yielding, an unveiling, an inner transformation, which only the Spirit’s work can accomplish.

On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

Announcing My New Upcoming Debut Novel Pioneering An Entirely New Sub-Sub-Genre

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Do you love horse-drawn carriages and the sweet smell of manure wafting across the endless prairies? Do you long for the thrill of international espionage and counter-terrorism? Well thanks to me you won’t have to spend one single more candle-lit evening sitting at home and wondering how you’ll ever be able to reconcile these two passions…

Well that’s it, I’ve decided to throw my lot in with all those countless aspiring authors. The problem is: how to get noticed? How can one stand out of the crowd? Or conversely, how can one find a niche so nichey that one becomes a big fish in a very, very small pond? Well, as I was driving to Wal-Mart today to buy more Hot Wheels cars for mysel– I mean my son — I had the idea of a lifetime. Well actually I shouldn’t be quite so modest; it was the idea of a generation, an era, an eon. What if I could take a niche and niche it a little further? And then what if that new niche was actually a hybrid super-genre with massive public appeal? Well shoot if I haven’t gone and done it.

segwaycommandosIn fact it wasn’t terribly complicated – I simply combined the one genre that all Christians who are female and between the ages of 12 and 82 can’t resist: Amish Romance, with one of the hottest selling genres of all time. No, not vampires – someone beat me to the punch – I’m talking about the very first Amish Romance Geopolitical Terrorist Plot Thriller.

The title will be:

A Bomb in Her Bonnet

Synopsis: The incredible based-on-a-true-story story of a young Amish woman who rebels, heads to a massive city of twelve thousand people, and falls in love with a rebellious occasional drinker of alcoholic beverages who turns out to be a CIA spy who actually turns out to be a Middle-Eastern terrorist mastermind who forces this poor damsel to become the world’s first Amish Suicide Bomber by threatening her fourteen younger siblings with iPhones and Netflix accounts and similar forms of torture. She pretends to go along with the plot but secretly informs the police by way of carrier pigeon that she is indeed carrying a bomb in her bonnet. With the help of an extremely handsome, pious, and conservative police officer, she thwarts the threat and returns home on horseback and he proposes to her in the rain and they marry and have lots of children.

Scheduled for release in late March 2014, with sequels every six months afterwards, you may want to pre-order these puppies because they will sell faster than Twilight at a Justin Bieber concert.

My Top Ten Books from 2013

Caveat: These books were not necessarily published in 2013. In fact none of them were except for the last one.

Phil’s Top Ten Books of 2013 (in no particular order):

19063The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My wife got this book at a family gift exchange at the end of 2012, and it was the first book I read in 2013. I’ll say three things about this book, and then you should go read it. First, the narrator is Death himself, and so you can be sure that the writing is incredibly imaginative. Second, the main character is a little girl, orphaned, in Germany, during the second world war. Third, the story is sweeping and beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to finish it. It’s also been made into a movie, which I haven’t seen yet, but certainly will.

matterhornMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes

A novel of the Vietnam War by a marine veteran. Marlantes captures the horror of war along with the power of brotherhood and friendship. Not an easy read, but a moving and rewarding one.

13624683Sutton by J.P. Moehringer

Willie ‘The Actor’ Sutton was America’s most prolific (and endearing) bank robber from the late 1920’s to the 1950’s. Witty, a gentleman, a master of disguise, non-violent, he became a folk hero during a time in America when the banks continued to get richer while the public suffered in economic distress. Not much is known about Willie Sutton, so this book is technically fiction. The author, J.P. Moehringer, has collected the available facts and imagined the rest, and the result is quite an enjoyable story! It’s an interesting twist on the genre of historical fiction. In any case, I like stories of criminals with ideals (The Great Train Robbery is one of my all time favorites), and this fits nicely in that category. Sutton is the man who answered, when asked why he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.”

10058Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

A book by the son of a World War 2 veteran who happened to be in the iconic picture of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The book traces the lives of all six soldiers who were in the picture, and it makes for fascinating and harrowing reading. You really come to know each one individually and root for them. If you have seen the movie, don’t be dissuaded – the two have very little in common and the book is better!

1845403Exit Music by Ian Rankin

This is the 2007 finale of the Inspector Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Scotland (Rankin resurrected the series in 2012). I read the first book and then the last 4 books of the series and I find them a very enjoyable light-hearted read; witty dialogue, imaginary Scottish accents, believable characters, lovable characters, loathable characters, lots of whisky and classic rock. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but if you like witty humor and mystery fiction, you may find yourself picking up the next one and the next one and looking up maps of Edinburgh on Google.

2924318Home by Marilynne Robinson

The polar opposite of light-hearted. Marilynne Robinson writes the way I wish I could. Really, it’s difficult even to describe her writing with any adequacy. What I admire the most is the seamless way she weaves profound spiritual realities into a grounded and earthy narrative. Book reviews tend to overuse superlatives, so forgive my indulgence here: sublime, perceptive, cutting, haunting, beguiling, utterly brilliant — hold on while I get my thesaurus — oh nevermind. I really enjoy her novels, if you can’t tell yet, so pick up her previous (and related) book Gilead as well.

1898Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I think about this book every time my hands or feet get cold outside. It is the incredible story of the 1996 climbing disaster on mount Everest where a number of people lost their lives, told from the perspective of one of the survivors. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and yet difficult to read at the same time – these are real people, real lives, and terrible deaths. I have never been into thin air at above 20000 feet, but I have been to Nepal, have seen Everest and the Himalayas on the horizon, and can just begin to imagine what would drive people to put themselves through unspeakable pain, discomfort, and peril, to simply climb to the top. The classic answer of course comes from George Mallory, the first man known to attempt to climb it: “Because it’s there.”

13697023In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Reading Sutton got me thinking about the whole idea of mixing non-fiction with fiction. I did a bit of research and discovered that in 1966 a book was written by Truman Capote that is considered to be the first ‘non-fiction novel.’ It is the story of the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in rural Kansas by two criminals who didn’t even know them. It was very well written and certainly interesting, but with little to offer in terms of redemptive value.

17159989Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr

After decades of silence regarding his unparalleled career, Bobby Orr finally wrote his story down. This book had loads of priceless moments, both funny and moving, but Bobby Orr is gracious and polite to a fault. I would have loved to hear him share what he really thinks a bit more often and bit a less sugarcoated. Nevertheless, it familiarized me with an era of hockey that I never got to watch, and I gained a lot of appreciation for those athletes. Orr had lots of good things to say about youth hockey and the NHL, and frankly if you love hockey you should read this.

16240761The Son by Philipp Meyer

My wife got this book out of the library for me, and once again she proved that she has great intuition. Meyer was highlighted in 2010 in the New Yorker’s list of top 20 authors under the age of 40. This book is breathtaking in its scope, spanning five troubled generations of a Texan family, from the settling of an untamed land to the building and collapse of a cattle and oil empire, from cold and empty mansions to eating raw Buffalo liver with Comanche Indians. It’s won a whole slew of awards and with good reason; it paints a powerful critique of the American dream, the pursuit of money and power, and human nature in general. As a follower of Jesus I only wish that the bleakness of the picture could have been set beside the brilliance of the One who showed humanity a better way.

Honorable Mentions:

13131149Evangellyfish by Douglas Wilson

A grim satire about the Evangelical world from a gifted writer. A fun and incisive read for anyone in ministry who has a sense of humor.

2964456Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

The book behind the movie Invictus, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was well written, flowed seamlessly from start to finish, and captured a truly remarkable moment in history.

9781408468241The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

I haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes books yet (I just got them for Christmas: Thanks Dad!) but I picked this one up as an audiobook and really got into it. It’s an imaginative take on Watson and Holmes’ final years, with a twist. I didn’t actually care for the twist all that much, but loved the ride. I’m sure hearing it in ge-nu-ine British accents helped the experience as well.

If you are still reading this lengthy post, you are surely a fellow reader! So thanks for reading, first of all, and please leave a comment sharing your favorite reads this year – I’m always looking for a good book to add to the reading pile.

Remembrance Day and Three Good Books

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It’s Remembrance Day.

Which is both good and bad. Good because in and of itself, Remembrance Day is a good thing. Bad because some people just have a knack for taking a good thing and kind of ruining it.

While there will always be some who use it as a platform to further some political agenda, and others who wear a poppy out of nothing more than peer pressure, one thing is clear: Remembrance Day as experienced by many is often pretty far removed from the original intent of the whole thing.

But before I say another word, I do need to stop and realize that I am free to sit here and wax eloquent about this or that because a lot of people have made incredible sacrifices over the years, men and women to whom we all should be profoundly grateful. And I am.

I’ve always been fascinated by combat and war. Over the years, this fascination has matured from a kind of juvenile interest in guns and military hardware to a sombre and heavy-hearted appreciation for the incredible reality which is war. It is a place where the best and worst of humanity is seen in stark relief; and I don’t mean that one side is good and one side is bad.

The truth is that on the ground, despite the noble or evil actions and intentions of those far-removed leaders, courage and atrocity are not relegated to one side or the other. Moral and ethical ambiguity seems to overwhelm the idealistic black-and-white notions of many who enter these conflicts. And I don’t really know what to do with that.

At the end of the day, Hitler was still a tyrant and Churchill still did the right thing sending in the boys, even if that kind of moral clarity seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, one of the ways to really cut through the fluff and empty sentimentality that surrounds Remembrance Day is to take the time to read good books about war and combat. Allow me to recommend three books that I’ve read this year which deal with war and conflict in a deeply human and thought-provoking way.

1. Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers

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I picked up a used copy of this classic for a dollar in a sleepy little town called Winter Harbour, Maine, while vacationing there this summer. It is the story of the six men who raised the American flag in the iconic picture seen here. It is written by the son of one of these men. It was engrossing, horrifying (literally nauseating at times), and a catalyst causing me to reflect on mortality and the brevity of life, on the nature of courage and bravery, and many other things. I highly recommend it.

2. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

matterhornThis is a novel of the Vietnam war. It is written by Karl Marlantes, who is a Marine veteran. It really is a masterpiece as far as war fiction is concerned. It is about as different from a Tom Clancy-type thriller as you can imagine. It is gritty, real, and deeply human. Widely touted as a modern classic, I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

 

3. The Translator, by Daoud Hari

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It’s a bit of a stretch to include this book on Remembrance Day, since as far as I know neither Canada nor the US is actively involved in the Darfur region, but one of the dangers when considering the wars of the past is to forget how many wars are going on right now. This gripping book is the incredible personal story of Daoud Hari, a young man from Darfur who became a translator and guide for various foreigners during the genocide in Darfur. While emotionally devastating at times, this sombre tale is peppered with humour and glimpses of the beauty of the human spirit – that outpouring of common grace.

 

What about you? What are some books that have changed the way you see war and conflict?

Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 3

Continuing from the last two posts…

“Their religious lives, however, do not satisfy their consciences at the deepest level, and so there is a powerful underlying insecurity in their lives. Consciously they defend themselves as dedicated Christians who are as good as anybody else, but underneath the conscious level there is a deep despair and self-rejection. Above the surface this often manifests itself in a compulsive floating hostility which focuses upon others in critical judgment. Thus a congregation of Christians who are insecure in their relationship to Christ can be a thorn bush of criticism, rejection, estrangement, and party spirit. Unsure in the depth of their hearts what God thinks of them, church members will fanatically affirm their own gifts and take fierce offense when anyone slights them, or else they will fuss endlessly with a self-centered inventory of their own inferiority in an inverted pride.”

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 2

“Sometimes with great effort [church members] can be maneuvered into some active role in the church’s program, like a trained seal in a circus act, but their hearts are not fully in it. They may repeat the catchwords of the theology of grace, but many have little deep awareness that they and other Christians ‘accepted in the beloved.’ Since their understanding of justification is marginal or unreal – anchored not to Christ, but to some conversion experience in the past or to an imagined present state of goodness in their lives – they know little of the dynamic of justification. Their understanding of sin focuses upon behavioral externals which they can eliminate from their lives by a little will power and ignores the great submerged continents of pride, covetousness and hostility beneath the surface. Thus their pharisaism defends them both against full involvement in the church’s mission and against full subjection of their inner lives to the authority of Christ.”

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life