Tuesday, August 25, 2009

summer reading

I love to read, and I love the summer, in part because there is more time for reading. I am sometimes asked how I manage to read as much as I do; my short answer is 1) I don't play golf and 2) I don't watch a great deal of television. No judgment at all about my friends who love golf and the tube. I usually collect books throughout the year, or receive them as gifts, and they are simply waiting there, in the summer. Some of the reading is generally related to something that may be happening in life, and I generally seek a balance of fiction and non-fiction. So, my summer reading list, with very brief annotation.

Robert Benson, The Echo Within. Robert Benson is a superb writer, with a contemplative and liturgical bent, and last summer I read through a number of his books, which had to do with praying the hours. The Echo Within is about the discovery of what we should be doing with our lives (vocation). Benson is honest and humorous, he works hard at the craft of writing, and his readers are the beneficiaries.

Ron Rash, Serena. A gripping novel, set in Haywood County, North Carolina, with a very powerful female lead character. I was also able to hear Rash give a reading in the middle of the summer, and he mentioned this as one of two novels that came to him very easily (the other was One Foot In Eden, and I read this one as well). He describes Appalachia as well as anyone I have come across lately.

Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses. I have heard the argument that he is our greatest living novelist, and I can find no compelling reason to disagree. But then I also loved The Road and No Country For Old Men. This says something about me, I know.

Clifton Black, The Eighth Day of Creation. A way of reading scripture according to the seven days of creation (or the week). I find myself returning to it again and again for devotional reading. Clift was a doctoral student at Duke when Pam and I were divinity students, and he is a well-known professor at Princeton Seminary.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I spent a portion of August in Liberia, and I selected several texts that arose or spoke from the African context. I think I am the only person in my family who had not read this classic.

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered. This was required reading in a course I had with John Westerhoff 25 years ago, and at the time it made only a minimal impression. Reading it years later, in Africa, led me to a very different conclusion: it is a remarkable treatment of the relation of culture to faith. The experience of a missionary with the Masai tribe of central Africa, it is compelling in that it strips away the stuff that surrounds Christianity, en route to the gospel itself.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will Be Great. The autobiography of the president of Liberia, who also happens to be a United Methodist. Her story is told with honesty, and along the way one learns a great deal about the history of Liberia itself. There are also leadership lessons here, which I am still contemplating. I thank God that she is the leader of Liberia at this time in that nation's history.

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. A friend (Susan Jones at Duke) had recommended this years ago, and I had picked it up somewhere and being in Africa, even if some distance from Rwanda, motivated me to read it. I can only say that it reminds me of Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, or perhaps also Elie Wiesel's Night, and it richly deserved the awards that came to it, such as the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. It plumbs the depths of inhumanity, the abuse of power, and the western neglect and ignorance of the central African context; at the same time Gourevitch wrestles with the impossibility of forgiveness. And it is exceptionally well-written.

William Sloane Coffin, Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years, Volume I. Spanning Coffin's early years at Riverside, I read sporadically through these sermons over the course of the last three months. What would he have said on his first Sunday there? How did he approach financial giving, or Advent, or Palm Sunday? It is all here. I was struck with the solidly biblical and even orthodox character of these sermons, even if, not surprisingly, they tend toward the political left. For someone who preaches week in and week out, I confess that there is much to learn from Coffin.

Labor Day is a good ten days away, and so I am hoping that there is yet more time for leisure reading; then, I know, the path toward Advent and Christmas, which includes the nominations process, staff evaluations, a stewardship campaign and charge conference preparations, will be at hand, and this pursuit will be a pleasant memory. And so my last gasp of summer reading may very well be Scripture, Culture and Agriculture by Ellen Davis and Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior. We shall see.


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