25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics
Compiled by the Renovare Institute
Harper One, 2011, 390 pp.
Reviewed by Alex Patico
It’s an ambitious project, selecting just a score–plus–five books to represent the entire Christian literary resource. It takes chutzpah. But no one tackled this alone; this compendium was selected by a multi–denominational editorial board, which included Frederica Matthewes–Green (the only Orthodox Christian), Phyllis Tickle, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr and others. They were asked to choose from over 400 titles that Renovar had assembled.
Subtitled A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, the book obviously involved subjective judgments in culling through the possible selections. The authors do present their rationale for each selection, but some of those tend to be rather pedestrian or not much more than a regurgitation of the ideas presented in the work being treated. (Unfortunately, attribution of the authorship of these essays is not furnished.)
The works that made the cut include some that are likely well–known to Orthodox readers, such as The Philokalia, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Way of a Pilgrim, The Brothers Karamazov, and others. Other titles will likely be less familiar: Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, or the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The selections range in age from St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, 4th C. to J.M. Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1992.
Each section also contains excerpts from the work itself, which serves to give readers a “flavor” of its tone, style, and content. Here are a few examples of those:
St. Augustine (b. 354), Confessions:
Fear shrinks from any sudden, unwonted danger which threatens the things that it loves, for its only care is safety: but to you nothing is strange, nothing unforeseen. No one can part you from the things that you love, and safety is assured nowhere but in you. Grief eats away its heart for the loss of things which it took pleasure in desiring, because it wants to be like you, from whom nothing can be taken away.
Dante Alighieri (b. 1265), The Divine Comedy:
he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path;
he followed counterfeits of goodness, which
will never pay in full what they have promised
Anonymous (ca. 14th cent.), The Cloud of Unknowing:
Every rational creature, every person, and every angel has two main strengths: the power to know and the power to love. God made both of these, but he’s not knowable through the first one. To the power of love, however, he is entirely known, because a loving soul is open to receive God’s abundance.
Thomas A Kempis (b. 1639), Imitation of Christ:
The person who understands all things as they are and not as they are said to be, is truly wise and is taught more by God than by others.… The person whose inner life is well–ordered and set in place is not troubled by the strange and twisted things that people do.
G.K. Chesterton (b.1874), Orthodoxy:
I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it…I [tried] to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.
In addition, a series of personal “best books” lists by various Christian leaders are interspersed with the other content. Interestingly those twenty-five writers, pastors and theologians do not often agree with the volume’s editors—fully 15 of them did not overlap with the book’s selections. One wonders if perhaps they interpreted their charge as being to submit their “favorite five,” rather that to assess each book’s standing in the Christian literary canon, or if they consciously tried to expand the catchment territory with their own picks.
The volume also includes, at the end of the book, a piece on “Best Contem-porary Authors”—writers such as Wendell Berry (b. 1934, author of A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997), Richard J. Foster (who founded Renovare, the organization responsible for the col-lection), progressive evangelical Brian McLaren and writer Anne Lamont.
I submit that the authors’ recom-mendation (in the Introduction) to read the text “in a nonjudgmental fashion” could, in fact, be the project’s downfall. If we treat all the sources as of equal validity, we find ourselves trying to square a number of circles, such as Calvin’s preoccupation with our “vileness, folly and impurity” as against Julian of Norwich’s identification of a “true, joyful and enduring soul-quality” in the human being. I submit that making such judg-ments—in a prayerful and open-minded way—is part of what being a Christian entails. God is the measure and even the “greats” are not all equally in tune with the Divine Will. This book could actually help the careful and watchful reader to divine it. At the very least, it provides a useful insight for the curious into what other Christians think about.
Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on Terror
by Philip P. Kapusta
New Covenant Press, 2011, 530 pp.
Reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst
Blood Guilt delivers on its promised Christian responses to America’s War on Terror but in a couple of unexpected ways. The plural promised is seemingly contradicted on the first page of the introduction where the author states that the book is a compilation of his personal essays, which it is; but that would make his own response the sum of the thing, which it isn’t—a few chapters consist almost entirely of others’ words, though mostly included as a setup of some central belief, idea, or point of either ideology or theology for Kapusta to knock down with his own arguments, always cogently and coherently argued. This results in 37 chapters of polemic aimed primarily at the war in Iraq, less the war in Afghanistan, and at the War on Terror only by application of the conclusions hammered home through-out its 530 pages. However, this stra-tegy exposes the reader broadly to the thinking of many of the most prominent leaders in America’s fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian Right on the subject of war.
Kapusta does his book a needless disservice by declaring early and with-out explanation that the book “uses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the backdrop for his personal essays about Christian separatism”. Notice the lower case “s” in separatism. Christian Separ-atism, on the other hand, is a nutcase theology akin to those flourishing in the hills of Idaho, where adherents hide with guns pointed in all directions. Kapusta could set readers at ease and pique their interest by explaining that his brand of separatism is something else, more of a worked-out solution to the “in the world but not of the world” struggle of many Christians who seek to keep their loyalties unmixed while still living as responsible citizens who share the burden of community governance. He is clear throughout that he, unlike capital “S” separatists, is not against government or war—that would likely pit him against God—but that he simply does not support them, a compelling idea not fully developed but forcefully argued in the negative by making the hyper-patriotic, Christian nationalism of a significant block of American society so ugly that bagging that path looks like the only sane option. That Kapusta takes his non-violence seriously (again unlike most ideological Separatists) is demonstrated on nearly every page of the book.
Orthodox readers may find his arguments persuasive and thought-provoking, particularly those who, like this reviewer, have come from the uber-right background the author relentlessly exposes or have never really understood that perspective and want to. The reliance on negative persuasion easily crosses theological boundaries—the heretical thinking and stupid arguments in support of the war require little real theological training to knock down—so the lack of an Orthodox theological base should not deter an Orthodox reader.
Additionally, probably unintention-ally, this book may be a real help to those outside the Evangelical Right, not only Orthodox Christians, who want to understand crucial elements of that paradigm, namely the way that church and state can be separate yet conflated, placing America central to God’s plan of salvation for the world even while it holds all government in suspicion. This does help explain, for example, for those who find it nearly inexplicable, how George W. Bush won reelection—with-out this seemingly marginal but actually significant voting block, he would likely have been a one-termer. The shrillest and scariest of all the rhetoric heard from the White House during the war decade was in fact aimed at and an echo of what was weekly proclaimed from thousands of pulpits across America—echoes that resound throughout Blood Guilt.
What might ultimately make the book unsatisfying to the Orthodox reader is the tendency of the author to do what he criticizes others of doing. He relies almost entirely on his own ability to understand the Bible and to build good theological perspectives, and of course it is the failures in that effort of his ideological opponents that he criticizes. Now many Protestants have made an admirable job of such an impossible task, and Kapusta may well be one of them, but without the fullness of the mind of the Church under the leading of the Holy Spirit, the work is not fully compelling. Kapusta does quote from Church Fathers and theologians of various traditions (his own brand is not betrayed anywhere in the book) in numerous places, something better Protestant theologians do, but ultimately it is Kapusta all the way down (his interpretive take on the book of Revelation is interesting). He is not, however, alone out on a limb.
In the end, Blood Guilt is also a history book—using a decade of war as a case study—that chronicles the theo-logy, rhetoric, and spectacle of America’s trudge through the filth of a particularly nasty chapter in its war history and exposes how ready are significant segments of America’s Christian citizenry to blow the bugle. The book is heavily footnoted and gathers in its pages an impressive evidentiary case, taken from multiple sources, against not only the wars but one after another of the leaders of one of the most American of American movements, the Christian Right.
The book presents an occasional but clear, if not complete, case for the promise of understanding the author’s separatist—small “s”—ideas. It is a niche book, but one well worth reading (one hopes it finds wide audience among conservative Christians in America), if you can bear the exhaustion of the work it takes to get through it and can set aside certain expectations to go after what the book forcefully delivers.
Angelic Light: Music From Eastern Cathedrals
Reviewd by Kh. Rebecca Alford
The newest offering of the a capella choral group Capella Romana, Angelic Light: Music From Eastern Cathedrals, is a com-pilation of pieces from some of their earlier CDs. Fulfilling one of the group=s stated purposes, much of the music in-cluded on this CD is by 20th and 21st century composers. All the selections are liturgical music written for use in the services of the Orthodox Church.
The famous line from the first Blues Brothers movie: AWe have both kinds of music”—in that case, Country and West-ern—could also apply to Capella Romana. Under the leadership of founder and conductor Alexander Lingas, the singers expertly perform traditional Byzantine chant, skillfully embellishing the sonor-ous timbre of this ancient Eastern music. The example included on this recording is the Kontakion of the Mother of God for a hierarchical service dating around 1450.
Capella Romana is equally well-known for the performance of polyphonic music, which allows the combining and inter-weaving of many different parts to create a full, rich sound. Most of the music on this CD is in this style.
It may be a surprise to some that the question of which is proper for Orthodox worship, monophonic Byzantine chant or many-voiced polyphony and homophony, has been a controversial issue. The chant was the earliest music of the Church and remained the only expression, particularly in the East, for many centuries. When polyphonic settings of the sacred texts appeared at various times, it was usually during periods of greater Western in-fluence or in places where Western and Eastern cultures met. A lovely Paschal hymn by the 16th century Cypriot composer Hieronymos Tragodistes on this recording could easily be mistaken for an Italian Renaissance motet.
The bulk of the recording is made up of music by modern composers of sacred liturgical music who have chosen to follow the example of the creators of icons. When an icon is written, the artist does not attempt to innovate but rather follows the form, patterns, and methods estab–lished in the earliest days of the Church. By doing so, the artist ensures that the subject of the icon is readily apparent to the one venerating it, but his unique abilities and style nevertheless shine through. Most of the music on this CD has as its basis Byzantine chant—but chant which has been adapted, arranged, sometimes simplified, and harmonized by composers who have been educated in Western music composition, and the result is a wonderful cultural expression appropriate for Orthodox worship in the New World.
Six of the sixteen selections on this CD by Greek–American composers Frank Desby, Tikey Zes, and Peter Michaelides are based on the melodies of John Sakellarides (1853-1938), who was one of the most influential Greek composers attempting to move Orthodox liturgical music more in the direction of Western polyphony and away from what was at the time considered ATurkish@ style music. While these new compositions use the musical language of the West, they perfectly express the meeting of heaven and earth which the texts present and which is the purpose of Orthodox worship.
Other composers represented on this CD are Fr. Sergei Glagolev, another leading figure in the effort to create appropriate music for Orthodox America in English; Fr. Ivan Moody, a British-born composer who used polyphony and Byzantine chant alter-nately in his composition included on the CD; and Richard Toensing, whose choral piece in the style of an English carol uses a metrical version of a liturgical text adapted by Fr. Jack Sparks.
Capella Romana does a great service to many. The singers introduce Byzantine chant in its most traditional form to those who have never heard it; they present beautiful polyphonic settings of liturgical texts for those Orthodox worshipers who have never heard this kind of beauty in church; and they provide inspiration for choir singers and choir directors who strive to reach perfection in their more humble circumstances. And for those who merely wish to hear the most angelic sounds that a well–trained choral group can produce, Capella Romana will fit the bill. And they sing both kinds of music!
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012