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Christmas at Brede Abbey, Sussex, England, c. 1955

“On the night of Christmas Eve the abbey was so still it might have been thought to be empty, or the nuns asleep, but when the bell sounded at ten o’clock, from all corners, especially from the church, silent figures made their way to their station in the long cloister, and Abbess Catherine led them into choir for Christmas Matins. The first nocturne from the book of Isaiah was sung by the four chief chantresses: ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. A voice says ‘Cry!’ and I said ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. . . .’ Voice succeeded voice through two hours until the priests, vested in white and gold, with their servers, came in procession from the sacristy for the tenderness and triumph of the midnight Mass. Lauds of Christmas followed straight after, and at two o’clock the community went to the refectory for hot soup, always called ‘cock soup’ because it was the first taste of meat or chicken they had had since Advent began. The soup was served with rice–‘beautifully filling,’ said Hilary in content–and after it came two biscuits and four squares of chocolate. ‘Chocolate!’ ‘We need to keep our strength up,’ said Dame Ursula.

In the twenty-four hours of Christmas they would spend ten hours in choir, singing the Hours at their accustomed times, and the second ‘dawn’ or ‘aurora,’ Mass of the shepherds as well as the third Mass of Christmas, which came after terce. The wonder was that the nuns had time to eat their Christmas dinner, most of it contributed by friends.”

I picked up a beautiful paperback copy of In This House of Brede by Rumor Godden at Half-Price Books the other day. The blurb on the back calls the book “an extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life.” I have called it “an excellent story about the lives of women within a closed community of nuns. Not only does the reader get to satisfy his curiosity about how nuns live in a convent, but there’s also a a great plot related to contemporary issues such as abortion, the efficacy of prayer, and the morality of absolute obedience.”

I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the disciplines of the Christian life or the difficulties and possibilities inherent in attempting to live in Christian community.

Blog reviews for In This House of Brede:
Laura at Lines in Pleasant Places.
Heather at Lines from the Page.
Phyllis at Life on Windy Ridge.
Diane at A Circle of Quiet.
Julie at Happy Catholic.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi.

In the course of one evening, I read this spiritual autobiography of a Muslim who, over a period of years of study and debate, converted to Christianity. I daresay one could give it a week, or a month, and not mine completely all the information and food for thought contained therein. I’ll simply hit a few of the ideas and impressions that stood out for me.

1)Islam is as fragmented with cults, sects, and denominations as is Christianity, if not more so. Mr. Quereshi’s family were (still are for the most part) members of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. Other Muslims consider the Ahmadiyya “not true Muslims.” Mr. Qureshi goes over the differences between Ahmadiyya and other forms of Islam in an elementary fashion in the book, but what I got out of the entire discussion was that while the Ahmadiyya consider themselves to be orthodox Muslims because they pray and recite Quran like other Muslims and believe and recite the Shahadah like other Muslims, those other Muslims do not accept the Ahmadiyya as orthodox followers of Muhammed and of Allah.
Many Muslims will not give credence to Mr. Qureshi’s arguments because his family’s faith is considered to be outside the pale of Muslim orthodoxy in the first place.

2)There is a great divide between the East and the West in regards to their approach to learning and authority.

“People from Eastern Islamic cultures generally assess truth through lines of authority, not individual reasoning. Of course, individuals do engage in critical reasoning in the East, but on average it is relatively less valued and far less prevalent than in the West. Leaders have done the critical reasoning, and leaders know best.”

Mr. Qureshi goes into this divide and its repercussions in relation to explorations of religious truth in part two of his book.

3)Dreams and visions were a part of Nabeel Qureshi’s conversion process. Because I approach revelation of truth and Christianity from a Western, scientific mindset, the idea of God revealing himself through dreams and visions seems subjective and prone to misunderstanding and dispute in my eyes. However, in a paper at Ravi Zacharias’ website, Josh McDowell has this to say about God’s use of dreams and visions to draw seekers to himself:

“Dreams and visions do not convert people; the gospel does. These seekers begin a personal or spiritual journey to find the Truth. As was the case for Nabeel, the dreams lead them to the scriptures and to believers who can share Jesus with them. It is the gospel through the Holy Spirit that converts people.”

That formulation makes sense to me.

4)Mr. Qureshi emphasizes in his story the importance of family and tradition to the Muslim, and parts of his book are heart-wrenching because he tells in detail of the price he and his family had to pay for him to become a follower of Jesus Christ. He had to give up his identity as a Muslim, as a good, loving, obedient son, and a carrier of the family honor and tradition. As he came to an intellectual assent to the truth of the gospel, Mr. Qureshi had to decide whether he was willing to pay this emotional price (and require it of his family) in order to follow the truth that he found in Jesus. I wondered as I read whether I would be willing to pay such a price were it required of me.

I recommend Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus to Christian and non-Christian readers alike. If you read the book with an open mind, you will find yourself questioning your own pre-suppositions, a good thing for all of us to do every now and then.

Against All Odds by Jim Stier

This book is published by YWAM and tells the story of YWAM leader Jim Stier and his missionary work in Brazil during the 1980’s. YWAM stands for Youth With a Mission, “an inter-denominational, non-profit Christian, missionary organization. Founded by Loren Cunningham and his wife Darlene Cunningham in 1960, YWAM’s stated purpose is to know God and to make Him known.” A worthy purpose, but I’m not so sure about the wisdom of all that I read about in Mr. Stier’s book.

I must say that there are some odd episodes in Against All Odds. For instance, the young people who make up Mr. Stier’s “team” receive messages from God by being impressed to look up specific verses in the Bible. It’s almost like the old “let the Bible fall open at random and read God’s message to you”, but for these missionaries the random verses come out of their heads while they are praying. Then, they have to “interpret” the sometimes cryptic message. For instance, one of Stier’s fellow missionaries is impressed to look up Judges 10:22: “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me.” The cave is interpreted as the Bible school where the missionaries are, and the five kings are $500. So they take up an offering.

No, it didn’t make sense to me either, and their interpretation has nothing at all to do with the context or literal meaning of the verse itself. A lot of the book is about how Mr. Stier and his wife and family and other missionaries in Brazil trusted God to provide for their financial needs as they began YWAM ministries in Brazil. Although I believe in trusting God for all of our needs, I also believe that Scripture commands us to work for a living: “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” I Thessalonians 4:11 Trusting God for Mr. Stier and his partners in missions looked a lot like waiting around until things got so desperate that someone, somewhere had pity on them and bought them some food or paid their rent.

Mr. Stier and his fellow missionaries do a lot of work, evangelizing, and yes, they are to be commended for their radical obedience to the call of God on their lives. However, I wouldn’t really recommend this book (or YWAM) to young people who are looking for a role model in radical obedience and discernment in following Christ. Surely, there are better ways to inspire (maybe reading Scripture itself?) all of us to be moved to follow Christ while rightly interpreting and following the Word of God.

12 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. Recommended at Book Diary.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher.

Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father’s Questions about Christianity by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed at Semicolon.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson.

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, featured at Semicolon.

C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath.

Saving a Life: How We Found Courage When Death Rescued our Son by Charles and Janet Morris.

Beautiful Nate: A Memoir of a Family’s Love, a Life Lost, and Heaven’s Promises by Dennis Mansfield.

Two biographies (Chesterton and Lewis), two autobiographies/conversion stories (Denise Chong and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield), two memoirs of the loss of a son (the last two on the list), a couple of inspirational apologetics titles (Boyd and Wilson), exposes of Scientology and of poverty in Mumbai, a narrative history of the assassination and death of President James Garfield, and a memoir of Rod Dreher’s encounter with death and community in small-town Louisiana: those were my favorite nonfiction reads this year. I recommend any or all of them, if you’re at all interested in the subject matter. Ms. Butterfield’s conversion story and Mr. Wright’s book about the history and inner workings of the Scientology movement were particularly thought-provoking.

The 3rd Gift of Christmas in New Guinea, Indonesia, 1964

Peace Child by Don Richardson tells the story of Christian missionaries Don and Carol Richardson and their attempts in the early 1960’s to bring the gospel of Jesus to the Sawi people, headhunting cannibals of New Guinea. For the Sawi, treachery was an ideal, and the only way to make peace between enemy tribes was to give the sacrifice of a “peace child” to ensure the treaty between warring groups.

“You want Hurip to die?” I asked.
“Yes!” Amio hissed.
Anxiously I rose and faced Amio, “Why?”

Amio’s voice choked with emotion as he replied: “Remember I told you my father Hato once gave a tarop child to the Kayagar, only to learn later that they had killed the baby and devoured it?”
I nodded, and Amio continued, “The man lying in this canoe is the man to whom my father gave that child! He is the same man who killed and devoured my little brother! Tuan, I’ve been waiting for years for a chance to . . .”
Now I was trembling, too. The Christmas spirit was not coming easily to the banks of the Kronkel that day. . . . was I really being realistic in hoping they would forgive their enemies for Christ’s sake?
For a moment I stood speechless before Amio, praying for wisdom. Then an old memory stirred in the back of my mind. Reaching out with both hands, I gripped Amio by his earlobes. He was startled, but he did not draw away. He listened carefully while I said: “Tarop Tim titindadeden! I plead the Peace Child!”
Amio shot back, “The peace child my father gave to Hurip is dead! Hurip himself killed him!”
“But the Peace Child God gave still lives!” I countered. “And because He lives, you may not take vengeance against Hurip. Forgive him, Amio, for Jesus’ sake!”
My fingers still gripped his earlobes.

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon
A song: Moon River, music by Henry Mancini. OK, it’s not a Christmas song, but it’s vintage Andy Williams. Enjoy.

A booklist: Barbara H and 31 Days of Missionary Stories.

A birthday: Andy Williams, b.1930. We always used to watch Andy Williams’ Christmas special on TV, back in the day.
Joseph Conrad, b.1857.

A verse:
Moon River by Johnny Mercer.

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you’re going I’m going your way.

Two drifters off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end–
waiting ’round the bend,
my huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.

A Christmas idea: Redeeming Christmas, Kindness-Bombing by Juanita at Once Upon a Prairie.

Well-tuned Fundamental Constants in a Highly Strange Universe

'2012_11_260021' photo (c) 2012, Gwydion M. Williams - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Physicists are apparently having trouble explaining to themselves (much less the rest of us) what the Higgs Boson, for the theory of which two physicists were recently awarded the Nobel Prize, actually means.

“One possibility has been brought up that even physicists don’t like to think about. Maybe the universe is even stranger than they think. Like, so strange that even post-Standard Model models can’t account for it. Some physicists are starting to question whether or not our universe is natural. This cuts to the heart of why our reality has the features that it does: that is, full of quarks and electricity and a particular speed of light.

This problem, the naturalness or unnaturalness of our universe, can be likened to a weird thought experiment. Suppose you walk into a room and find a pencil balanced perfectly vertical on its sharp tip. That would be a fairly unnatural state for the pencil to be in because any small deviation would have caused it to fall down. This is how physicists have found the universe: a bunch of rather well-tuned fundamental constants have been discovered that produce the reality that we see.”

No comment. You probably know what this conundrum indicates to me, anyway, given my presuppositions.

Lost in a Walker Percy Cosmos, Part 3

'' photo (c) 2010, Lauren Knowlton - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/My notes on the first panel I attended at the conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century.” I’m not going to put the presenters’ names here because they might google themselves (what would Percy have made of that ability to “find ourselves” while losing ourselves on the internet?) and find these ramblings and tell me that I’ve committed some egregious error of academic etiquette.

Panelist #1: Percy “liked to write about people in the shadow of catastrophe.”
I like to read about people in the shadow of catastrophe. It should be a good match, me and Percy. Writer of catastrophe and reader of catastrophe. So why did The Moviegoer make me want to shake Binx Bolling until he woke up and quit the navel-gazing? Now that I think about it there is no impending catastrophe in The Moviegoer. Binx lives in the shadow of self-absorption, a catastrophe to be sure, but not the sort of calamity that leads to enlightenment.

Panelist #2: Said something to the effect that escape from this broken world may be necessary or even laudable. We escape into amnesia or narcotic refuge or compartmentalization or media (movies mostly). Amnesia can be a restart, an escape from the past and from self-preoccupation.
I escape into books. But with Percy’s books, at least the two and a half that I’ve read, there is no escape because I keep being reminded of how annoying is the self that I want to escape from.

Panelist #3: The joke-title guy. “I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.” This guy is the only other non-academic at this conference! He used to write self-help articles and lead personal growth and sales conferences. He points out the disconnect between self-help books and actual help or self-change. Percy in Lost in the Cosmos tells us all of the things in which we try to find meaning but are disappointed: science, work, marriage and family, school, politics, social life, churches. But Percy begs the question: where can the self find help or meaning? Then joke-title guy also begs the question. He doesn’t know where the self-help section is either.

I maintain that the “disconnect” is the power of the Holy Spirit. I can only change and become an authentic self if I receive “help” from an outside source, from God. The existentialists say that I can create my own meaning by making passionate, authentic decisions. But they never get there because they (we) are paralyzed by the inability to know what the right decision is. Jesus said to die to self, take up your cross, and follow Him. This death of self is the only way to get off of the merry-go-round of self-absorption and introspection. Follow Him. Die to self.

'''I sometimes wonder if all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.'' - C.S. Lewis' photo (c) 2013, QuotesEverlasting - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/At this point in the conference I started thinking about Percy in comparison and contrast to C.S. Lewis. I’ve been reading a biography of Lewis, and in fact I brought it with me to NOLA and finished reading it there.

Walker Percy: The problem of boredom/lostness.
C.S. Lewis: The problem of longing/loss.
These are very similar issues. We experience what Lewis called “joy”, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” But after the momentary and unsustainable experience of joy is over with, we either search for it and try to reclaim in art, literature, nature, religion, diversion, politics or any other of the many things we think will satisfy that elusive longing. And we become bored or lost or both because nothing really satisfies. Or we give up the search for this ineffable joy and resign ourselves to (Walker Percy) “depression in a deranged world.”

Walker Percy: “devised a transaction with the world” (according to one panelist).
C.S. Lewis: made a “treaty with reality” (according to McGrath’s biography).
Lewis’s treaty with reality was his way of coping with the horrors of war. He gave himself up to be a soldier but determined not to think about the war, not to write about it, not to make it the focus of his life. (This war experience was before Lewis became a Christian.) Later, Lewis came to believe that Christianity was the best “treaty with reality” that explained both the world’s miseries and its longing for redemption and joy.

Percy’s transaction with the world was also Christian, specifically Catholic Christianity. “The self is problematic to itself,” Percy wrote, “but it solves its predicament of placement vis-à-vis the world either by a passive consumership or by a discriminating transaction with the world and with informed interactions with other selves.” His discriminating transaction was an acceptance of Catholicism with all its teachings about sin and death and Christ and sacrifice.

Walker Percy in Esquire, December 1977, “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself”: “This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.”

And so I contemplated the intersection of an AngloIrish scholar of medieval literature who came to Christ at Oxford University and remained a lifelong member of the Church of England and a Catholic novelist from southern Louisiana whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. They would not seem to have much in common.

The Rest of the Story: Phan Thi Kim Phuc

The late Paul Harvey had a feature on the radio called “The Rest of the Story” in which he would tell familiar stories of well-known people and events or commonplace tales of ordinary people–and then tell “the rest of the story”, the part that not many people know or the part that gives the true story an ironic twist. I’ve been reading a lot of unusual stories with unexpected endings myself lately, and I decided to share a few of them with you here at Semicolon.

On June 8, 1972 nine year old Kim Phuc was with her family in her village of Trang Bang near the Cambodian border in South Vietnam when a South Vietnamese pilot mistakenly dropped napalm near the outskirts of the village. Photographer Nick Ut took a picture of the resulting scene, and the photo won the Pulitzer Prize and was chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year in 1972. It is not a exaggeration to say that this photo of children attacked by America’s own allies in an already unpopular war helped influence American opinion against the war in Vietnam to such an extent that the Americans left Vietnam less than a year after the photo was taken.

'Kim Phuc - The Napalm Girl In Vietnam' photo (c) 2007, David Erickson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Mr. Ut took little Kim Phuc to a hospital where she received extensive treatment for her burns, and she survived and grew to adulthood in what became the Communist state of Vietnam. She was recruited by the Vietnamese government as a propaganda tool, the “napalm girl” who survived American and South Vietnamese wartime savagery. But it is the book that she discovered when she was a second year medical student in Saigon and what she did as a result of that discovery that make the rest of the story of Kim Phuc so intriguing and inspiring.

Want to read more about Kim Phuc and her amazing story of healing and forgiveness?

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong.

No Dark Valley by Jamie Langston Turner

Jamie Langston Turner is one of my “go-to” authors for Christian-themed fiction. So when I saw a copy of a novel by Ms. Turner that I hadn’t yet read while I was perusing the shelves at Half-Price Books, I bought it without a second thought. And I’m glad I did.

No Dark Valley is a little more “religious” than some of Ms. Turner’s other novels, although all of them are about how ordinary people find redemption and strength through faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, just like the characters in her other books, the characters in No Dark Valley are real. I can imagine meeting these people, talking to them, understanding them. There are no pasteboard saints in this story, although Ms. Turner does indulge in a meta-fiction thread that runs through the novel about how Celia, the protagonist, imagines that her life and the people in it would never be believable as fiction:

“Another reason her life would make a bad novel, Celia had decided, was that the characters would seem so stereotyped. Nobody would believe that one person could have so many rigidly religious relatives, all stuck in the rut of such predictable, countrified ways of viewing life, all trekking to church several times a week, all so unaware that the twentieth century had come and gone. You could get by with one or two characters like that in a book, for quirky splashes of color, but not dozens and dozens of them. The whole thing would turn into a farce.”

Of course, the funny thing about No Dark Valley was that I found the characters to be quite plausible and true to life–my life in the South, in the Bible Belt. I’m not sure if Ms. Turner was actually worried that readers would find her Christian characters stereotypical and so wrote her concerns into the book, or if she was simply having fun with Celia and her own rigid ways of thinking. (Celia is a champion at projecting her own rigidity and prejudice onto her relatives and others.) Either way, Celia’s interior monologue, and later in the novel when the point of view switches to Celia’s neighbor, Bruce Healy, his thoughts, are both relatable and authentic.

No Dark Valley is both a romance story and a conversion story. Jamie Langston Turner’s prose is intelligent, vivid, and sometimes crosses over into the poetic. I really enjoy Ms. Turner’s novels. If they can be classified as “Christian chicklit”, it’s excellent, smart Christian chick lit.

Jamie Langston Turner’s other books:
Suncatchers
Some Wildflower in My Heart (1998)
By the Light of a Thousand Stars (1999)
A Garden to Keep (2001)
Winter Birds (2006)
Sometimes a Light Surprises (2009)

And if you like a series of novels with recurring and overlapping characters, Ms Turner’s novels, like those of another of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, have characters from one novel that reappear in later books. In No Dark Valley, Eldeen Rafferty from Suncatchers makes a (loud) appearance. Margaret Tuttle, from Some Wildflower in My Heart, is the friend of a friend. And Elizabeth Landis from A Garden to Keep becomes a friend and mentor to Celia as the two women play on a tennis team together.

And now I have to admit that Ms. Turner and I have a little bit of a mutual admiration society going here, and I am pleased to read that she has a new novel coming out in 2014.

Links and Thinks: May 31, 2013

'Walt Whitman, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865' photo (c) 1860, The U.S. National Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/Today is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman. I tend to think of Mr. Whitman as a rather self-indulgent poet (song of myself, me, me, ME!), but I rather like this particular snippet and use it frequently to explain (or not) myself. (And who am I, blogger that I am, to accuse anyone else of self-indulgence and egotism?)

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Do fish feel pain? My vegetarian daughter and I had a discussion recently on the advisability and morality of killing and eating animals. This article touches at least tangentially on some of the things we were discussing. Bottom line: “Whether fish, fowl or mammal, neurological pain happens to us all. It’s the capacity for suffering that remains up for dispute.” Other bottom line: I’m still a carnivore, and my daughter is still vegetarian.

Then another kind of fish story: The Golden Fish: How God Woke Me up in a Dream by Eric Metaxas, in CHristianity Today. Mr. Metaxas is now a leader at the ministry, Breakpoint, that was begun by the late Chuck Colson. The article I linked to tells the unusual story of how God showed him his need for Christ in a dream . . . about a fish.

Tomorrow is beginning of June. Get a head start on June Celebrations, Links, and Birthdays.