#BloggingtheSpirit: A new monthly event

Laurie of Relevant Obscurity has started a new ongoing event: #BloggingtheSpirit, Adventures in Spirituality on the Last Sunday of the Month. Laurie says, “I am proposing that we connect on the last Sunday of this month, August 27th with any kind of post you chose: on a book, a piece of art or music, a photograph, a poem that inspires you, a word or a relationship…anything that speaks to your Spirit.”

Like Laurie, I usually feel a little shy about posting this kind of content on my blog. I don’t want to put off anyone who thinks I’m trying to impose a world view on them — I’m not. But it’s nice to have a chance to share some of my spiritually-oriented reading with others who might be interested, and anyone who isn’t can easily skip it. So here we go!

Lately I’ve been reading a little book called Everyone Belongs to God: Discovering the Hidden Christ (Plough, 2015). I received it via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program an embarrassingly long time ago, but I’ve finally picked it up and been pondering small chunks each morning.

It’s composed in a somewhat unusual way, as it is based on letters that a famous contrarian pastor in Germany wrote to his missionary son-in-law in China during the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Extracts from the letters have been compiled into thematically organized chapters, with titles drawn from imperatives in the text: “See How Christ Is Already at Work,” for example, or “Always Hope.” The result hangs together fairly well, although one must bear in mind that the author didn’t know his words would be disseminated in this way, and that the editor has added bridging material which is not identified as such.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919) sounds like a fascinating figure; the publisher describes him as “a pastor who hated religiosity, an evangelist who rejected proselytism.” His father was a faith healer, but he turned from this path toward an active and engaged role in society, thus also becoming “a politician who lost faith in politics”; after a six-year term in the legislature he returned to his pastorate until his death. He continued to maintain that a genuine attempt to follow Christ demands that we engage in a loving, compassionate, and open-hearted way with our fellow human beings, including those who are very different from us. His thoughts influenced better-known theologians like Dietriech Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, and in many ways seem ahead of his time.

Here are some quotations that give a taste of his ideas:

“God’s love tears down walls. No longer religion against religion, Christians against non-Christians, but justice against sin, life against death.”

“As soon as you think of yourself as the moral and righteous one and others as immoral and unrighteous, you ruin what God wants to do. The power of the Spirit will flee. Never despise other people, no matter who they are or how far they have strayed. Have and show a deep respect for everyone you meet. How can others find the love of God, who is the Father of all and who is love, if we his representatives look down on them?”

“The world needs people of life, not pious hypocrites…We must advance the gospel only through our presence, which should be as simple and clear as possible, containing a life hidden in Christ.”

“Did the Savior concern himself only with some heavenly realm? No! He came to us and dwelt among us…Through Christ a hole has been broken through from above down to us, not the other way around. So be on your guard. Today’s Christianity has made all kinds of holes out of this world, falsely teaching that we can simply fly out of it, like pigeons, and be saved.”

“Take heart, and may God give his spirit to all you meet! Remember, they don’t need to become ‘Christians’ like us. This designation need not come up at all. Whoever does the will of God is a child of the kingdom of heaven, whether he takes his cue from Confucius, Buddha, Mohammad, or the Church Fathers.”

“There is something in each person that will never be lost, something that can always be resurrected. This is the gospel.”

This remarkably ecumenical viewpoint has become a strong stream today, but in his time Blumhardt was certainly swimming against the current of the established church. His deeply felt convictions shine through every word, and can become an inspiration for those trying to follow a Christian path based in humility and reverence, rather than spiritual arrogance and closed-mindedness.

Here’s one more quotation which seems especially poignant in light of recent events:

“It breaks my heart that there is so much nationalism and violence in the name of Christ. European Christians have brought a curse upon their own head by killing so many other peoples. Judgment has come upon Christianity because it lacks the strength to love its enemies. The salt has lost its savor and is of no use.”

Where do you find the salt that gives savor to life? How does the spirit move you? I would love to hear about your sources of inspiration, whatever they may be.

Thank you, Laurie, for hosting this event! I’m excited to see what other bloggers come up with.

Trying to Understand, Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal (2016)

Listen, Liberal, my latest read from the NYT list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win,” can be summarized as follows:

1. Our country is screwed.

2. Don’t go blaming those crazy Republicans for this mess. Democrats (or at least the higher levels of the Democratic Party and especially the last two administrations) are just as much, and perhaps even more to blame.

I’ve never wanted to identify with one of our traditional political parties. My first political act I can recall was voting in a mock election in fifth grade, the year that Reagan defeated Carter. I — and the majority of my class, interestingly enough — voted for for neither of them, but for an Independent named Anderson. (Who the heck was Anderson? Does anyone else remember him?) I didn’t know much about any of the candidates, but at the age of ten I was already disgusted with our two-party system and wanted none of it.

By the time I was able to vote for real, politics seemed such an ugly, morally questionable enterprise that I wanted to know as little about it as possible. But with my limited knowledge, the Democrats usually seemed the only viable choice, the party seemingly on the side of greater equality and diversity, and of environmental causes. I would prefer some more progressive options, even a real socialist party, but given the unappealing choices, what could I do but vote blue?

In his blistering critique of the direction the Democratic Party has taken over the past forty years, Thomas Frank makes me ashamed of my ignorance and inattention. The one-time party of the people has betrayed its former constituency to the point of no return, and its smooth-talking rhetoric can no longer hide the fact that what Democratic administrations have done — NAFTA, welfare reform, and increased incarceration, for example — and what they have left undone — such as imposing any meaningful restraints on a rapacious banking industry, or enforcing antitrust laws  — add up to a huge increase in economic inequality, for which they refuse to take responsibility.

Given a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, many Democrats are now mainly concerned to keep themselves on the right side of this abyss, prating of “innovation” and other meaningless solutions while they shuttle between legislative office and positions in the world of high finance and technology. In place of the working class, the highly educated “professional class” has become their new constituency, leaving most ordinary people in the situation mentioned in point #1 above, and deeply disillusioned with the party that once seemed to be on their side.

Frank’s portrait is one-sided, and should be taken with a large helping of salt. He focuses on the single issue of economic inequality and ignores others, like environmental concerns and civil rights, in which the Democratic track record might be considered a little better. And there are complexities and drawbacks to rule by “the people” — the role of labor unions, for example — that he does not attempt to go into, or that even seem to enter his mind. But as he relentlessly points out the hypocrisy, greed, and plain cruelty that pervade the policies and actions of a number of high-level Democrats, he makes the case that upholding the rights and dignity of the working class is no longer the party’s concern for many.

Such contempt for the very basis of our life on earth — for work that actually produces useful things — is a sickness of our time that threatens all of us. Instead of looking for ways to create a sound basis in physical reality for cultural life, the brightest among us are obsessed with intangible but wildly profitable fields like law and finance, or with creating companies like Uber or Airbnb that parasitically feed off of the work and resources of others. Virtue itself has become a commodity for them, a unit of exchange detatched from any basis in reality, as they reap the profits from disastrous do-good ideas like microfinance and congratulate themselves at incestuous celebrity functions.

Frank is good at complaining and ranting, not so good at offering solutions — other than to look back nostalgically to the golden age of FDR, and to suggest that the people take back their party. But even if that were possible, and even if we could figure out who “the people” are in this fractured age, what good would it do? Wouldn’t there be yet another moment of seeming triumph, followed by another creeping tide of corruption? The people are no nobler than the aristocracy, only different — and also, strangely, the same.

For a battle of extremes will always result, as this one has, in both sides mysteriously coming to resemble each other. The only way out of such a dualistic prison is not for one side to conquer the other, but for a third way to emerge — not a blending of both sides, not a compromise, not even a consensus, but a dynamic heart-center that can sense the true nature of both polarities, hold them in balance, and guide them to their rightful place. We all have both red and blue blood in our veins, after all.

And so, I think my ten-year-old self had something of the right idea. I’ll try to remain independent, while seeking for what of lasting worth might be discerned regardless of partisan polemics. I’ve started to get more involved in local Democratic groups, because at the moment this still seems like the best way to connect with people who stand for the values I support. But I will try not to judge individuals by the labels they wear, and attempt to see through political smokescreens to the real issues. I think many of us have been jolted into awareness that we need to do this, and Frank’s book, biased as it is in its own way, can be a help.

This is part 4 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land


Do you read in other languages?



I’ve returned from my trip to Switzerland as usual with a renewed wish to learn German, but I generally lose the impulse once I’m back in my English-speaking environment. However, I’ve made some small steps, and I’m now trying to read simple stories.

I never properly learned another language — French was what I studied in school, and I even earned a certificate for it in college, but I would not consider myself fluent. However, I would really love to get to that point sometime, particularly so as to be able to read foreign-language works in the original and appreciate something of their special nuance. This goes beyond being able to understand and translate the literal meaning; I really wonder what it would be like to get “under the skin” of another culture to the extent that one can experience the ineffable beauty of poetry, for example.

I’m curious whether any of you have had this experience. Do you read in languages other than your mother tongue? What is it like? Do you feel like you are still missing something? Do you have any tips for someone wanting to achieve reading fluency?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Classics Club: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

Frankenstein is one of those stories that everyone knows, even if you haven’t read it. Except once you do read it, you realize that the version in the popular imagination has little to do with Mary Shelley’s actual creation. There, you will find no mad scientists robbing graves for body parts; no lightning striking a ruined castle to the sound of cackling laughter; no grinning henchmen or spark-emitting machines. Shelley’s vision is much subtler and more psychologically astute than that. Though there are dramatic external events, of course, what’s really interesting is what is going on inside Frankenstein and his monstrous “child,” the ways in which they mirror one another, and their tragic inability to connect.

To get into this story that everybody knows (but doesn’t), you have to first wade through all the narrative layers in which Shelley has wrapped it. An explorer trying to reach the North Pole — which at the time was thought to be a sort of Earthly Paradise, warm and fertile if one could just get through the ice — writes letters to his sister, in which he describes how he has picked up a dying man, found in pursuit of a strange figure who eludes him and races off across the ice. This is Victor Frankenstein, who proceeds to explain how he created and then resolved to destroy this being (who, in another layer, also gets to tell some of his own story).

It’s a cumbersome and roundabout way of getting at a tale that could seemingly be told in a more straightforward way, but it also reflects one of the main themes: the loneliness and isolation that keep us from one another, the way we are “wrapped up” in our own ideas and ambitions. To break through this icy covering would require a leap of imagination and empathy that Frankenstein, groundbreaking scientist though he is, is tragically never able to make.

Once he has brought his creature to life (in a way that, in contrast to the dramatized versions, is left vague and unexplained), he takes one look at it and is unutterably repelled. He simply wants to ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist. Until he nears the end of his journey, he doesn’t speak about it, doesn’t even want to think about it. Out of sight, out of mind, he thinks — a very human, yet very ineffective response to an overwhelming situation.

He does not tell anyone what he has done, even once he becomes convinced that the creature has begun to murder his friends and relations. Isn’t this because, frozen by his own egotism, he is unable to take responsibility and own what he has done, what he is? He says he fears that people will think him mad, but he is worse than that. When the “monster” kills and destroys, he is only doing outwardly what his creator is doing inwardly. This brilliant thinker with stunted emotions is unable to live up morally to what he has achieved intellectually.

His nameless creation, meanwhile, states that he simply wants to be loved, to find connection in a world that repels him at every turn. His rage and vengefulness is a reflection of how he has been treated, an externalized representation of Frankenstein’s own inability to love and to create true, living connections. Even when Frankenstein decides to marry, it’s to an adopted sister whom he has known from childhood, who does not threaten him with unfamiliar ideas or perceptions. He speaks of her in terms of ownership, as one who belongs to him by right. To him, she is a thing, not a person, just like the being he has created and then run away from in terror.

And so, it’s inevitable that the Frankenstein-monster should destroy this marriage. No human being who has never confronted the demons within himself, who has never humbly confessed his weaknesses and woken to the independent reality of the other person, can enter into the true marriage of opposites.

In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein dies without ever coming to this recognition, but the explorer who has embraced him as a friend — and his surrogate, the reader — may have a chance to go further. As he turns his ship back from the ice to save his crew, there is a hope that he (and we) might have learned something about relationships, about love, about realms that purely cold, heartless research will never attain — but which we must pursue in the service of a truly human future.

Classics Club list #52


Niantic Book Barn haul

Last Friday, I took one of my few remaining days of vacation to make a trek to the Niantic Book Barn on the Connecticut coast, a sprawling complex of barns, huts, sheds, trolleys, outdoor shelving, and even a former outhouse filled with used books on every imaginable subject. Three additional, more conventional buildings down the street have even more books to explore, all neatly shelved and labeled. It was a book-hunter’s paradise!

I was so glad that I also got to meet up with Erica Robyn of Erica Robyn Reads (and her friend Alex), who like me drove down from New Hampshire, and Chris of WildMoo Books, who lives not far from the store. In between our browsing sessions, we sat down to refresh ourselves with some pizza and conversation. I always appreciate the chance to meet some blogging friends in person!

Thanks Chris for letting me use your selfie!

I sold some books at the hyper-efficient sales counter — and immediately used my store credit to buy more books. Here’s what I got at each of the four locations:

Main Store – The New Arrivals shelves were plentiful and fun to pore through here, along with a good selection of kids’ paperbacks.

Downtown – The bulk of SF and horror were in this location. I picked up a couple of titles that I wanted to reread.

Midtown – This store had a huge children’s section. I had already gotten several books for my son in the main store, so I just got him one more here.

Store Four – This had a good selection of literary fiction, criticism, and Folio Society and other fine press books. I had to restrain myself to buying just a few lovelies.

Have you been to Niantic Book Barn? What’s your favorite used book store?