Friday, July 01, 2016

Summer Book Reviews (Autobibliobiography, Part 5)

I'm sometimes asked for book recommendations, but the truth is that all my recommendations, while hopefully reflecting something of the innate value of a book, are also deeply rooted in my subjective personal experience. So, for my Friday essays during these summer months, I'm going to be giving some brief book reviews and recommendations by relating the works that have been most influential in the various stages of my life.

9.) Category: Chesterton & Lewis
           Top Pick: Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton
           Honorable Mention: Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis

It's hard to overestimate the impact these two men--G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis--have had on the lives of thoughtful Christians over the past hundred years. Their impact is such that I'm giving them their own category in my Autobibliobiography, while every other category represents an entire genre (and it wouldn't be too much, really, to give each of them their own exclusive category). What we have here are two men, extraordinarily gifted by God as thinkers and writers, with a capacity for turning simple words into life-changing insights with startling ease. 

Chesterton was a journalist and public thinker in England at the turn of the 20th century; he had undertaken a long journey of faith that led him from nihilism to Roman Catholicism. His immense wit, sagacity, and ability to spin hilariously clever turns of phrase won him a wide audience, even in a very skeptical time and place. His writings are voluminous, and touch on many issues of public life and current affairs in his day, but of particular interest are his writings on faith. His greatest work in this regard is Orthodoxy, a whimsical, fanciful, somewhat autobiographical romp into the lavish sensibility of the Christian religion. 

C. S. Lewis, for his part, came a few decades later, rising to prominence in the mid-20th century. Also a convert from atheism to Christianity, he was a highly-regarded scholar of medieval literature, and around the time of World War II Lewis turned his literary talents to presenting the hope of Christ to his countrymen. His radio talks on the BBC during that period, a serialized introduction to Christian doctrine, were later compiled into the book we know as Mere Christianity, which is notable (among other things) for its clarity, perspicacity, and for Lewis' particular gift for creating apt metaphors and word-pictures for the concepts he describes. 

I read both of these books, Orthodoxy and Mere Christianity, during my mission service in Angola (between my undergrad and seminary years). Then I immediately turned around and read them again. It's hard to describe the richness of joy one feels when reading a book that speaks to the experience of faith that has formed one's deepest reality for many years, and on every page of which one wants to cry out, "Yes! Amen!" 

And it doesn't stop there. You can pick up almost anything written by these two men, and simply be blown away. My other high recommendations for Chesterton are Heretics, Francis of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, What's Wrong with the World, and Tremendous Trifles. For Lewis, I would highly recommend The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. 

10.) Category: Pastoral Theology
            Top Picks: The Book of Pastoral Rule, by Gregory the Great; and "Oration II: In Defense of His Flight to Pontus," by Gregory of Nazianzus
           Honorable Mention: Lectures to My Students, by Charles H. Spurgeon

As I made my way to seminary, I began seeking out historical Christian classics that would give me insight into my future vocation as a pastor. I found my way to Pope Gregory the Great's immensely helpful treatise, The Book of Pastoral Rule (now available in a handy little volume from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), which introduced me to the pastoral role as a "doctor of souls." Gregory first of all commends gifted men to pursue pastoral ministry (in an age when far too many gifted ministers were immediately and unthinkingly opting for the cloister). He then goes on to outline an encyclopedic rundown of the variety of Christian souls--all the various temperaments that one might find in the pews of any given church--and the spiritual direction needed to advance each one further down the road of his sanctification. 

Even more influential for me, though, was Gregory of Nazianzus' sermon known as his "Second Oration," in which he publicly defends his decision to try to run away from the ministry. Along the way, he sets down an immensely high, noble, and penetrating view of the Christian pastorate. In a certain sense, it was intended to scare people off from intemperately rushing to make themselves pastors; but it had an oddly opposite effect on me--I felt, like a clarion call to my soul, that God would prepare the vessel he had chosen, and the greatness of the calling did nothing to frighten me; rather, it inspired me. Much of my self-conception as a pastor still comes from the words of these two wise men, written down more than a millennia and a half ago.