Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, December 17, 2018

Men reading literary fiction (or not)

For most of my life I have observed with alarm that men don't read literary fiction. Nowadays, one does well to find men who read books of any sort--detective fiction, biographies, histories--but it's literary fiction I'm focusing on. Why? Because, as has been noted by many cultural analysts over many years, good fiction stirs up empathy and depth of understanding of human nature. Moreover, it trains the ear for language, and tunes the perceptions for excellence of expression. It guards against sentimentality, the enemy of true understanding.

I don't know why so few men read literary fiction (as opposed to mass-market fiction). Maybe they somehow associate it with being effeminate. Maybe boys just aren't introduced to enough good fiction when they are young. In any case, I think it's a alarming trend, and especially so for preachers. I am thrilled that so many young male pastors seem to like my Crucifixion and Advent books, but I'd like to see them reading good fiction and poetry also.

A close male friend of mine, successful in the financial world, considerably younger than I, devours theological and biblical studies but does not read any fiction. He is getting ready to change his life and go into the not-for-profit world. He frequently asks me what he should read. I haven't told him this yet, but I have taken the opportunity to start forming a list of books that I think would be good start-ups for a man who is serious about life and faith but ignorant of literature. I've had a lot of fun with this. I am going to pack up a box of paperbacks and send it to him for Christmas. If he reads even one or two of them, that will be a gain. He can give the rest away and whoever gets them will perhaps benefit from them. It's giving me a lot of pleasure, anyway.

Here's the list of books. Most of them have a hint (or in some cases more than a hint) of Christian faith or, at least, seeking after faith. Most of them are relatively short and, I think, more accessible to begin with than other books by their authors which are often longer and weightier. I have myself, personally, been moved by all of them. They seem to me like books that would appeal to men. So here it is for what it is no particular order:

Portrait of a Young Man, by James Joyce
Billy Budd, by Herman Melville
House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Freedomland, by Richard Price
House of Prayer #2, by Mark Richard
The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad
A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene
The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope
The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy
The Second Coming, by Walker Percy
No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

More recently added:
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris
Redeployment, by Phil Klay

and finally, two historical novels about ancient Crete and the Greek isles by the great master of the genre:
The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea, by Mary Renault

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Hanukkah story for the goyim

Hanukkah just ended. I always enjoy seeing the menorahs in my neighbors' windows. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I don't think there were as many in the neighborhood this year.  I wondered if people were anxious about the rising anti-Semitism that we are seeing.

Anyway, I thought I'd post this excerpt from my book Advent. It's the ending of the sermon called "Waiting and Hastening" and it begins on page 75. It was preached at the parish of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, which explains the reference to Michael.


...Here is one more story from the newspapers, an Advent story, a Hanukkah story, a little story about darkness and light. No Supreme Court decisions issued from it, no mighty movements came of it, no commemorative events have happened around it. Yet it, too, is a wondrous image of God’s coming Kingdom. Picture a tidy residential street in an American suburb, ending in a cul-de-sac, lined with ten or fifteen attractive houses. Most of them are Gentile homes, but one is Jewish. It is December and that house has a menorah in the window for the celebration of Hanukkah. One night, vandals smash the window, remove the menorah, throw it on the ground, and scribble a swastika on the side of the house. The next night—can you imagine it? the next night, every house on the street had a menorah burning in its window, lamps shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in the hearts of us all.

            Now that was all the information there was in the newspaper article about this event.[1] But we can read between the lines of that news story. Do you think each one of those non-Jewish families had a menorah sitting in their closet? Of course not. This could not have been an entirely spontaneous event. We may be certain that during the day following the anti-Semitic vandalism, there was one person who thought to himself or herself, “We need to do something.” Maybe that person talked to a neighbor. Maybe a couple or a family at breakfast dreamed up the idea of the menorahs in every window. Then what? Somebody had to call everyone else on the street and get them to agree, then someone had to find out where to get a whole bunch of menorahs, then somebody had to collect the money and maybe take off from work to go buy them and take them to every house. A lot of little actions, little decisions, little sacrifices, had to be made before all those menorahs went into those windows. Lots of different people had to make quick decisions to help or not to help. These kinds of things don’t just happen.

            Dear friends of St. Michael and St. George’s Parish, we all stand on the threshold of God’s Kingdom. We never know from moment to moment when an opportunity might be presented to us. The Church in its sinfulness has done so much damage over the years, so much harm to blacks, Jews, foreigners, unbelievers of all sorts and conditions, but it is not too late. The Lord is still out in front of us. His future still approaches, his future in which all will be made new. His promise is sure; he will come. We make ready for him, this Advent season and every season, by lighting whatever little lights the Lord has put in front of us, no light too small to be used by him, action in waiting, pointing ahead, looking to Christ and for Christ. Even our smallest lights will be signs in this world, lights to show the way, beachheads to hold against the Enemy until the Day when the great Conqueror lands with Michael the archangel at the head of His troops, the Day that shall dawn upon us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).

[1] Later, I found a detailed story about the menorahs.  Later still, I discovered that there had been a similar action in Billings, Montana seven years before.