Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Summer Reading List: If You Have More Time

This year, two books have been published which explore what it means to be a spiritual grown up: Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ by Eugene H. Peterson and After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N. T. Wright. Both men are writing in their typically fine form.

Peterson explores spiritual maturity through an in-depth study of Ephesians, the one epistle that "is the only one that is not provoked by some problem, whether of behavior or belief" (page 15). Some have called it Paul's love letter to the Church. It's also full of information for us as individual believers and as a Church body.

Peterson has much to say about the practices of prayer, love, and worship. He talks about how difficult it is to practice these spiritual gifts in our current world that sees such behaviors as irrelevant: "The approved means of doing good in the world, accredited by the 'powers that be' and sanctioned by popular practice, are education, technology, propaganda and advertising, legislation, and money. And as a last resort, war" (page 206).

Throughout, Peterson reminds us of the importance of the Church, in all its flawed humanity: "Church is the gift of a community of Christians in which we rehearse and orient ourselves in the practice of resurrection. It is never an abstraction, never anonymous, never a problem to be fixed, never a romantic ideal to be fantasized" (page 270).

It's taken me awhile to read through this book because every page is so full of spiritual nourishment. I've long been a Peterson fan, and this book doesn't disappoint.

I'm only half way through After You Believe, but I already see its value, especially for people who haven't given much thinking to what it means to be a full participant in the coming of God's Kingdom--the Kingdom here on Earth, not Heaven, the way that contemporary society sees it (which is vastly different from how first century Jews, the contemporaries of Jesus, would have seen it). In the early chapters, Wright sketches the problems with contemporary Christianity. Too many churches focus on Heaven, on what happens after we die. But for many of us, a more pressing question concerns what happens in that time before we die.

It's the old existential question: why are we here? What does it all mean?

Wright calls us back to the ancient idea of virtue. For many of us raised in Protestant traditions, we bristle at the idea of virtue. We're justified by grace, not works.

Wright reminds us of pre-Protestant ideas, the idea that if we're headed towards a transformed life, we must start practicing. He uses a central metaphor, that of the experienced pilot who landed his crippled plane in the Hudson river. It's not that the pilot has practiced that particular landing. But the skills that the pilot practices every day have prepared him for this freak accident, and he doesn't have to take time to think through the process: he knows what to do.

And why do we do we work on our transformation? Because God calls us to be part of the transformative/healing/creating work of salvation. Unlike what some evangelical churches teach, Jesus was just the beginning of the salvation process, and God won't stop until the planet is transformed into the world that God envisioned. We turn ourselves into Easter Resurrection people, partly to be ready for the day of our own, individual lives after death, but also to be part of God's plan for our current lives: "The way to the kingdom is the way of the cross, and vice versa--as long as you remember that 'the kingdom,' once again, is not 'heaven,' but the state of affairs in which God's kingdom has come, and his will is being done, on earth, as in heaven" (page 116, emphasis Wright's).

Along the way in this remarkable book, we get a crash course in the various philosophies that the world has embraced, from Aristotle to Romanticism to our current love affair with Science, and we get a crash course in all the ways that Christianity has responded--or not. Here's a classic quote that lets you know of all the treats in store: "Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think" (page 158).

I know that many of us think about summer as a time to relax, to put heavy books aside. But for many of us, our vacations are the only time we have to read something that requires a chunk of time. If you've only got time for one or two books this summer, why waste time on fluff? Choose something that will nourish you long after the chilly winds of autumn return, like these two books.

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