Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I Have Not Yet Stopped Shivering

Well, a new decade for us all! 'Tis the season for evaluating our pasts and for making goals for the future. In that spirit, I want to present a couple of "Top Ten" lists.

First, here is the Top Ten list of books that I have read over the past decade. It is not the top ten books written in the past decade, but rather ones that I have read. I'm not so big on reading all the new books, I like to read and re-read books that have timeless authority and that give me a larger vision of life, this world, and God's hand in the lives of his people.

So, without further ado:

10. The Rabbit Proof Fence, by Doris Pilkington Garimara
This is the beautiful true story of three aborigine girls, girls who were half "white" and therefore (according to the Australian gov't) had more "potential" than pure aborigines, who were relocated by the Australian government to be schooled as "white" children. They rebelled against their captivity and chose to "relocate" themselves back home. Their courage, their love and care for each other, and their dedication to their family are unsurpassed in any stories I know of. And the movie is (contrary to the norms) almost as good as the book.

9. Galusha The Magnificent, by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Galusha, an ill archiologist, goes on doctor's orders to seek rest and recuperation in a New England village. While there his high (but rather useless) learning is forced to give way to simple interpersonal relations, which is something that Galusha did not excel in. Funny and sometimes deeply moving, this is the best that I have found in what could be called "literature for the masses."

8. Commentary On The New Testament Use Of The Old Testament, edited by Beale and Carson
This book will not find its way onto many people's top ten lists, not because it isn't a great work, but because very few will ever read it from cover to cover. It is a commentary, after all, and thus it will be used as a reference tool. We will dip into it as the need arises rather than simply reading it. But I have read very large sections of it, and as I read it I have been quite surprised by the care with which the authors of the New Testament quoted the Old. This book has given me a whole new level of awe and confidence regarding the unity of the message of the whole Bible.

7. Cry The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Cry The Beloved Country is one of the most deeply religios novels I have ever read. In that respect it is a peer of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Anna Karenina. Too many novels have a surface Christianity, but Cry The Beloved Country is Christian in a way that goes to its core, to its very marrow. It is a Christian novel in the way that water is wet, in the way that fire is hot. Yet (like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Anna Karenina) Christianity is not made to seem easy. It is a cross, a heavy cross, but also it is the power that carries that cross and carries us along with the cross. Anyone not moved to tears of sorrow and of joy a dozen times in this book is not only dead, but decomposed and their bones petrified.

6. The Complete Poems Of Emily Dickinson
No other poet (perhaps Christina Rossetti excepted) has written with such empathetic intimacy on so many different subjects. She knew the wistful thoughts of the romantic thrush, the longings of a snake or a fly, the joys and fears of the newly dead, and the glorious power of paper. Yet she very seldom moved beyond her own voice. She seems to have been truly afraid to speak for others, to assume too much in regard to what deep motivations moved the will in other humans. She knew where holy ground lay and she stepped on it only with bare feet and a soft tread. Yet it is not this but the subtlety of her ear that makes her impossible to ignore once we have first heard her.

5. The Iliad, by Homer
When I was a kid my mother read Homer's two great books to me. For those early years it was the Odyssey that captivated me, with its Scylla, its Polyphemous, its four winds treacherously given by Poseidon. But now that I am old I find that the Iliad interests me far more, with its unbearably intense interplay between characters, none of whom are wholy good; none wholy bad. The Achaians are the protagonists. Or are they? The Trojans are the antagonists; except that Paris is the only husband we can honor in the whole book. Was Helen kidnapped or did she run away from a home she could not bear to live in? The impossibility of coming to solid provable conclusions in this poem is a great warning to me. Please God, that all Christian thinkers would read this poem before "proving" their point, whatever that might be!

4. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Is this a book about the lingering evil of American slavery? Or is it a book about children spending their young lives painfully learning to understand, to live up to, to live down to, their elders? Or is it a gothic novel that puts on morbid display the life-in-death and death-in-life character of growing up white in a racist world? Is it a Christian novel? Is it emphatically pagan?
More than almost any other novel other than Lord Of The Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird requires that the reader make serious, educated decisions about what it means.

3. Hamlet, by some guy named Shakespeare
His father is dead, his mother marries her late husband's brother. Thus the brother becomes King, while young Hamlet should have been crowned. Is it murder? A "ghost" tells young Hamlet it was. But Hamlet is far too philosophical to accept that. Was the "ghost" really his father? Or was it a demon in the guise of his father tempting him to commit a mortal sin? How can one know? Hamlet devises a plan to (as Scripture advises) test the spirit. But then does Hamlet have the courage to fulfill his murderous obligations? This is by far the most psychologically intriguing stories that appeared before Dostoyevski.

2. Brideshead Revisited, by Evely Waugh
An agnostic becomes romantically involved in a homosexual friendship with a young Catholic man. Not an auspicious start to what is actually the most beautifully Christian of Evelyn Waugh's novels. The first time I read it, I ended with a vague suspicion that it had religious undertones that I had somehow missed. The next time, I was watching for the hints, and found many. Each of the first five times I read it was more beautiful and more truly Christian than the time before. And this from an author who mourned his state as a "lapsed Catholic."
Waugh was ashamed of this book in his later years, saying it was too sensual. But some of those "sensual" parts that he got embarrassed about (like the dinner of Charles and Rex in which the entire order of the menu is gorgeously laid out) are among the most amazing descriptions in any literature I've seen.
If this book doesn't (on your third reading of it) challenge your simple assumptions about what Christianity is at its heart, then you either were born perfect, or you were born unteachable.

1. Till We Have Faces, by CS Lewis
How many of us really fully felt (before we read this myth) that Pagan human sacrifice was closer to Christianity than is mild agnostic uncertainty. Is the Fox, with his subtle Greek philosophy, a better teacher than the priest of Ungit with his ignorant thirst for blood?
First time I read this, I was stunned at the end and immediately began again. At the end of my second reading the final scene in which the gods are accused and make their "answer" was so overwhelming that I was unable to drive. I sat shivering in an ecstacy of beauty, awe, and terror. In some ways I have not yet stopped shivering.

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