Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition

I went into Michael L. Birkel’s Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition with very little knowledge about Quakerism beyond half-remembered depictions in the Underground Railroad historical fiction I read in school as a kid1 and the odd tidbit I came across in comments sections.2 I knew they were pacifists and had been abolitionists and I knew a Quaker founded Pennsylvania as an experiment in committed religious freedom. And yet, even though I had very few expectations about the tradition, I found myself not just charmed but surprised throughout my reading of the book.

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Source: TCDavis at flic.kr/p/6evVft

One of the things that I did not expect was how much Quakerism resembled certain non-Christian religions. Especially early on in the book, Birkel’s description of Friends’3 spiritual experiences often used the word “the Light,” referring either to God or to God’s activity in the soul; nerd that I am, this reminded me of Warcraft’s Church of the Holy Light and the various non-theistic religious traditions it suggests. And Birkel himself notes the resemblance the Quaker practice of silent sitting (some groups of Friends sit in silence, or near-silence, during their worship services) has to Buddhist meditation: in both cases the ones sitting try to get past their egos and thoughts to something truer. In the end notes, however, he is careful to note that Buddhists meditating in groups are still in an important way meditating alone (one sitter achieving enlightenment does not improve the meditation of the others) while Quakers understand that they sit in silence together (when one Friend is especially able to reach the Light Within, a sense of peace and holiness pervades the whole assembly). Now that I’ve read the book it makes sense that not all Friends have been Christians, but that was another surprise for me.

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Top 10 Books of 2016 (+1)

2016 has been a rough year for many of us; the election in the United States of an incompetent and misogynistic shag carpet beloved of white nationalists, and the intimidation and violence which followed it, loom large in any list of the year’s misfortunes, but I’m sure we can each add our own. Personally, thinking I might die in a fire was one of them. (The Beaverton‘s recent joke, then, hit close to home.) That said, for me 2016 has also been a very good year for books.

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Source: faungg at flic.kr/p/aMPX71

In reverse of order of how much I enjoyed them…

 

10. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, by Judith Skelton Grant

I have lately come to quite appreciate Robertson Davies’s novels (though the only one I read this year, the very CanLit Murther and Walking Spirits, won’t make this list), so when I saw this biography in Fort McMurray’s only used bookstore, I bought it. Two particular aspects of this book were particularly interesting to me: first, I am always interested in seeing how an artist’s skills and preoccupations develop over time, and when that artist is himself interested in the development of personality and artistic skill particularly, the topic begins to reflect on itself; second, I was fascinated by the depiction of arts and culture—and the relative lack of them—in the rural Ontario of a particular time. Perhaps my own biography made me enjoy the book more than I otherwise would have done: I had just moved to Fort McMurray from Stratford/Toronto and I saw myself more than a little in Davies’s sense of exile from artistic community.

 

9. Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

To be frank, I far preferred Gladstone’s first novel in the Craft sequence, Three Parts Dead. Still, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable book if you like the general idea behind the Craft sequence: a legal thriller set in vaguely steampunk world in which magic and miracles are a) commonplace and b) structured much like modern high finance. In Two Serpents Rise, Caleb Altemoc, risk manager for the warlock cadre Red King Consolidated, tries to discover the source of a shadow demon infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water reservoirs; he also follows a cliff runner (think magic-enhanced parkour) named Mal who is ambiguously involved in the plot and tries to deal with his father, the last priest to the city’s old gods and a wanted terrorist. I found the characters less appealing and the religions less interesting than those in either Three Parts Dead or Full Fathom Five, but Caleb’s attempt to develop a working moral system that took honest stock of both the old religion and the new craft, was engaging.

 

8. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, by Richard Beck

(I already mentioned Reviving in a review of a different book.) I was expecting to like this book more, but unlike much of Beck’s work it lacked the grounding effect of peer-reviewed psychological research. It was a more colloquial book than, say, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality or The Slavery of Death; it was also more personal, framed as it was by his encounters with the more charismatic spirituality among the attendees of his prison bible ministry. Reviving Old Scratch mostly shares the moral impulses of progressive Christianity (that subset of Christianity which shares many priorities with social justice and leftist movements) and attempts to argue that progressive Christianity would be strengthened with a much greater focus on Satan and the demonic. As usual, Beck’s blogging-influenced style includes a tendency to repeat his points in various forms and an abundance of analogies and (mostly dated) pop culture references; he shows a real concern that the reader can grapple with a somewhat unfamiliar set of ideas, but if you are relatively quick on the uptake or are already aware of some of his argument, it can get frustrating. His stories about prison ministry are the best part.

 

7. Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s: ‘We like to be free in this country’ by Patricia A. McCormack

You might be able to tell from the book’s title that McCormack is an academic. As books of academic history go, I found it quite readable… but my gauge for readability is likely misaligned. As a history of Fort Chipewyan, the topic may seem too niche to be of general interest, yet I found it has informed my understanding of more than just Athabasca region history: the chapter on the fur trade mode of production helped add some nuance to my understanding of “modes of production” generally, while the chapter on the signing of Treaty 8 taught me a lot more about the Treaty process in Canada generally, mostly by contrast. Furthermore, it is an interesting case study in the creation and maintenance of national sovereignty: Canada’s attempt to claim and tame its frontiers differs from the American story we might be more familiar with, but I think you’ll find McCormack will challenge your assumptions about Canadian nationhood as well (if you have any). It is part one of two; the second, taking us from the 1920s to the present, is not yet released.

 

6. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is the third of three companion novels covering a small domestic drama between two neighbouring families in Gilead, Iowa, USA. Gilead is introduced in Gilead by Reverend John Ames, writing a letter to his son; Home is an uneasy re-writing of the parable of the prodigal son set in the Boughton’s house, next to the Ames’s. Lila provides earth-tone shading between Gilead’s ecstatic greens and reds and Home’s sombre blues and despairing greys. It tells us the story of Ames’s quiet wife Lila, a perpetual stranger and faltering convert (she tries, for instance, to wash her baptism off), and her inability to trust not just the world around her but also her own constancy. In my opinion, the last three pages are among the most incandescent and theologically acute passages in the Gilead trilogy, and this is saying something. Although the books can in theory be read in any order, I would highly recommend publication order.

 

5. Islam in the World, by Malise Ruthven

I have already written a reaction to Islam in the World here. I have little more to say except that I deeply appreciate it.

 

4. The Year of Lear: 1606, by James Shapiro

Man of Myth, above, was one book I read situating the artist’s work in a historical context. The Year of Lear was the other. It is in a sense the sequel to Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. In 1599, though, Shakespeare was just coming into his own as a playwright and a poet; in 1606, Shakespeare was a mature writer remaining relevant in a milieu which was starting to consider him passé. Therefore 1606 does not examine the genre-breaking (and –defining) struggle which Shapiro depicts in the 1599. However, what 1606 offers is a political and cultural environment surprisingly like our own: persecutions of religious minorities, arguments about the definition of torture, fear of politically-motivated attacks on heads of state and symbols of power, cults of nostalgia, and the threat of pandemics define London in the year Lear was written. Some of Shapiro’s claims seem a stretch or less certain than he makes out, but overall he is an astute critic who reads Shakespeare well and makes connections between the Bard’s images and his surrounding culture without rendering Shakespeare a mere political allegorist.

 

3. Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

Like Reviving Old Scratch, Searching for Sunday is partly a plea for progressive Christians to go back to church. It is, however, far more personal. Evans is a memoirist more than anything, and here she offers her initial enchantment with evangelical Christianity, her difficult departure from it, and her well-researched and very public attempt to find a church that worked for her. It is also more than a memoir: each chapter offers a historical background on one of the Christian sacraments, a poetic explication of it, and various quoted material in addition to some portion of her memoir. Because her journey took place in conjunction with her popular blog and involved meeting quite a lot of people, it is also a thoroughly social book; Evans’s acute awareness of the effects spirituality can have on other people in the world means her own religious journey involves many interactions with strangers, friends, and whatever you’d call the people you know on the Internet, and many of those are recorded in the book. This book spoke to me in a way few books do.

 

2. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A recent blathering article about Hamilton and the purported liberal elite called Between the World and Me something to the effect of “that book by Ta-Nehisi Coates which you bought but didn’t read.” If you have purchased this book but haven’t read it yet, I insist that you fix this situation immediately. Perhaps you are not interested in its piercing insight into American whiteness (insights that are applicable north of the 49th, too); perhaps you do not care to learn what it is like to grow up black in Chicago; perhaps you do not want to appreciate the varieties and the extraordinary creativity of that American blackness; perhaps you do not wish to unlearn the middle-class illusions about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers which I know I held; perhaps you prefer to remain untouched by the story of Prince Jones; even so, you should read this book for its remarkable structure and remarkable prose. This is a glorious example of the art of creative non-fiction; this should be on creative writing syllabi as well as all bookshelves. Read this book.

(That said, read this review of it, too. Also, Between the World and Me is a strong clear example of a World 2 person trying to understand other Worlds, World 1 especially, failing to understand, and knowing he fails to understand.)

 

1. Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I read this book for the first time and for the second time this year. It is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, which my friend Muir Pangolin gave to me as a “theological fantasy.” I remain ever grateful; Bujold’s Five Gods books, in the fantasy of manners genre, explore what an honest, struggling religious life would be like if a polytheistic fantasy religion were indisputably true. Curse is very good; I enjoyed Paladin of Souls much more. Ista dy Chalion—Dowager Roya of Chalion, middle-aged widow, former saint, and recovering madwoman—is a more delightful protagonist than I expected, and most of the supporting characters—the plump dy Cabon, a priest of the Bastard; the quick Liss, a courier girl; the dy Gura brothers, votaries of the Daughter; the sly Lord Illvin, sick abed—complement her well. Blogger ozymandias commented that Bujold is an expert at making protagonists likable, and this book is no exception. Furthermore, it develops the fantastic themes that began in Curse: where the first book explored the divine in this world, Paladin explores the demonic in a way that both gratifies curiosity and leaves enough unexplained that it remains evocative. The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, explores the shamanic, and while I liked that book I did not love it to absolute pieces, as I did this book. Altogether, though, the Five Gods books depict a very engaging theological fantasy world.
(I will also note that all of these books contain a romantic plot tightly woven into the main plot, and Paladin in particular is thick with a particular kind of heterosexual female desire. I don’t know if that’s a selling point or a detraction for you, but either way I figured I should mention it.)

 

0: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

I am adding this book not because I first read it in 2016, but because I re-read it at the very beginning of the year. Therefore it is the zeroth in the list. It is the sort of book I might pick up and read a random chapter out of during an idle moment. It was recommended to me by Melissa and it was well-recommended. Goblin follows Maia, a young half-elf half-goblin man who unexpectedly inherits the imperial throne of the Elflands after the rest of the royal family is killed. The novel follows his attempts to learn court politics and aristocratic etiquette, despite the racial and religious prejudices against him and the intrigues into which he has been thrown, while remaining true to what he thinks makes a good person and good leader. Goblin also has strong themes of social isolation and recovering from physical and psychological abuse. If you want to read fantasy but you don’t because so much of it is either a) straight male wish-fulfillment or b) straight teenage girl wish-fulfillment, then I strongly suggest you read this book.

Anglican Aesthetics

According to Bartlett, beauty is not a luxury.

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Source: Robin Dawes at flic.kr/p/qyDLR

In the sixth chapter of A Passionate Balance, “The ‘Beauty of Holiness’: Worship as the Heart of Anglicanism,” Alan Bartlett makes this announcement:

In this chapter, we have reached the heart of Anglicanism, which is worship; the purpose of Anglicanism, which is to foster Christlike holiness, individually and socially; and the essence of Anglicanism, which is that the two cannot be separated (170).

To be frank, this seems more like Anglicanism to me than all that talk of orthodoxy, ecclesiology, and reason. “It is rightly said,” Bartlett continues, “that if you want to know what makes an Anglican tick, don’t ask her about her doctrine, worship with her” (ibid). Maybe I am being overly autobiographical in my assessment, but it was liturgy that attracted me to the Anglican Church of Canada in the first place (though moral and practical matters are keeping me here). Elsewhere Bartlett notes that Cranmer’s gift as a liturgist, not as a theologian, means that “Anglicans do not define themselves in relationship to a particular body of theological writing but in relationship to the living use of liturgical texts” (171). There’s a reason I chose an image of the Book of Common Prayer to accompany my post on Anglican orthodoxy.

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Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).

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Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

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Anglican Orthodoxy

My mother always said you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.

—Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

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Source: MyEyeSees at flic.kr/p/7XaWYk

I should admit from the outset that the very idea of orthodoxy makes me squirm. I do not think this is an unusual response these days. At any rate, Paul Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle—that all symbols for God, including doctrines, must be subject to replacement—is very attractive to me. I worry that any commitment to specific doctrinal content (that is to say, orthodoxy) is in fact a form of error: in intellectual terms, immature epistemology; in relational terms, unfair expectations; in spiritual terms, idolatry. At the same time, however, a church does need to be organized around something. I am beginning to see how practical it is to make that centre a set of doctrines; indeed, perhaps all organizations, religious or not, need some common convictions to function.

According to Bartlett, L. William Countryman, another author in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, argues that Anglicanism is defined by its historical community, not by its doctrine. In A Passionate Balance, Bartlett disagrees but, perhaps anticipating people like me, he also tries to show how Anglicanism can make orthodoxy a liberating, life-giving thing, not a stifling and idolatrous one.

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The “Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition

A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (2007) (Amazon) is Alan Barlett’s contribution to the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series edited by Philip Sheldrake and published by Darton, Longman, and Todd. Bartlett’s book is not the first on Anglicanism in the series; L. William Countryman’s The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Tradition preceded it.
Although not structured as a rebuttal, Bartlett’s book responds to Countryman’s book; Countryman’s thesis seems to be that Anglicanism does not have a doctrinal core so much as a continuous community, as seen and expressed in its poetic tradition. Bartlett disagrees. He insists that despite its reputation, and despite the attitudes of certain participants in Anglican discourse, the tradition does have central doctrinal content, as well as a set of features that may not be unique to Anglicanism but are at least distinctive of Anglicanism. Put together, these form an identifiable, if often obscured, Anglican identity and tradition. A recurring theme in these features is that of moderation, of finding the golden mean or, in the early Church of England’s phrase, the “golden mediocrity.” Mediocrity here means middle, not poor quality; I’ve taken it as the title for this post to suggest that, at least according to Bartlett, what many people see as a mediocre tradition is, rather, a golden one.

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Most of my attempts to photograph my rabbit Aswan with the book also involved her attempts to eat it. If I get a better one, I will replace it.

This post is intended as a general review and summary of the book. Future posts will tackle more specific issues that arose for me during my reading.

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Beginning the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series

One of the upshots of reading Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church—which, by the way, I heartily recommend and not just for the entire chapter relating two of my favourite things: Pando and denominationalism—is that I feel acutely the need to take my spirituality more seriously. As always, I approach this problem by doing research. I decided to start with a book on Anglicanism that my former church, St. Faith’s of Vancouver, had read in a book club I skipped out on: Alan Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (Amazon and Goodreads). When looking it up to order it, I discovered it was part of a much larger series on traditions of Christian spirituality… almost a third of which I ordered.

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Photograph my own, 2016.

Now that A Passionate Balance has arrived, I’m announcing my intention to read eight of the books over a period of between eight to sixteen months, writing a minimum of one post per book. I think I can manage one book per month (understanding that I will surely want to read other books between them) and write and edit one post within a month of finishing each book. If I cannot keep up this pace, I will add one month to each book’s timeline.

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Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.

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Source: Cristian Viarisio at flic.kr/p/7fmue7; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share. Continue reading

If Aristotle Wrote a Tragedy: On Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean

An image of a bust of Aristotle

Source: Nick Thompson at https://flic.kr/p/buoLYU

Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is a first novel that does not read like a first novel, likely because the author was first a poet; the pacing and characterization are both very professionally done, and tie in well with the novel’s central themes. That connection is important, given that this is a novel about Aristotle as he tutors the young prince of Macedon who will become Alexander the Great, and that its themes include philosophy’s effects on life, and life’s influences on philosophy. You can see traces of the way Aristotle’s experiences sow the seeds for his philosophy, to the extent that late in the novel Alexander accuses Aristotle of creating a philosophy out of how great it is to be Aristotle. Like everything Alexander says, this criticism is unfair and it is also very close to the truth; its perversity is in how he can fumble or limit the truth just as he grasps it.*

Of course The Golden Mean is about Aristotle in Macedon, and Aristotle’s life to that point; it is also about depression, at times, or the soul’s vicissitudes generally; it is about the relationship between teachers and students, fathers and sons, and the ways they fail each other. Toward the end of the novel it seems as though Lyon wanted us to understand that the novel was about what counts as the good life: certainly this is Aristotle’s question, but in the last fifth of the novel particular versions of this question—“What is the mean between extremes?”; “Is it better to live a life of action or a life of contemplation?”—become more obvious and insistent. I do not know whether this is primarily my failure or primarily the novel’s, but it was not clear to me until the end that these were the novel’s major questions, and I would not have noticed if Lyon had not made it so obvious, almost too obvious, in the final pages. But of course the question about the good life is the one that most occupied the Greek philosophers, so it makes sense that it should occupy a book about Aristotle.

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