Summer Reading: July 2020

Does anyone else miss summer reading programs? Although I continue to read more during the summer than any other time of year, there was a great satisfaction to completing reading challenges and earning prizes which adult life sadly lacks.

Still, I thought I would share what I’ve been reading lately—that is, when I am not frantically researching for my master’s thesis. This July, I am trying to cultivate a reading list which will prove both timelessly valuable and culturally relevant.

Short Story: “The Other Foot” by Ray Bradbury
This heart-wrenching story, written in the years leading up to the American Civil Rights movement, presents a stunning consideration of race and reconciliation. Using science-fiction, Bradbury paints a painfully realistic and dynamic portrait of prejudice, justice, and mercy which is as deserving of discussion now as when originally published in the 1950s. This and other selected stories from The Illustrated Man can be accessed online here.

Poetry: “East Coker” by T.S. Eliot
As COVID-19 continues to spread and to become further politicised, it is well worth considering the cycles of time and culture. Illness, contention, and fear are, sadly, nothing new under the sun. As Eliot writes, “the whole earth is our hospital,” yet the “wounded surgeon” continues—even now—to be our hope. Written amidst the death and destruction of WWII, this poem speaks powerfully to both the horror and hope of human life. I highly recommend this gorgeous reading by Jeremy Irons.

Essay: “The Suicide of Thought” by G.K. Chesterton
A man ahead of his time, this essay reminds readers that postmodernism is no intellectual island and considers whether intellectual humility has gone too far in producing a movement of deconstruction which destroys itself—not unlike a snake consuming it own tail. In a society which is pondering whether mathematics are sexist, Chesterton’s observations seem prophetic: “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (Read it online here.)

Novel: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Excuse my adding another Bradbury, but I love him passionately. This banned book about banned books presents an alternative consideration of cancel culture, in which books and authors are eliminated in an effort to avoid offending a multitude of minorities. “Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.” (I have extra copies for anyone local who would like to borrow one!)

Novella: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Although brief enough to read in one sitting, this volume is remarkably deep. With each reading, another chapter absorbs my attention. This time, I was struck most of all by Lewis’ imaginative commentary on individuals clinging to their assumed autonomy above all else, even at the cost of their religious witness or communal harmony. (Another one I have multiples of, in case anyone local needs to borrow one.)

Autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
As Douglass was an outstanding orator, I am primarily listening to this book on Audible. An incredible and important book, Douglass shares the horrors of American slavery with intense clarity and insight, as well as articulates and demonstrates the necessity of faith, literacy, and community in overcoming racism. I also highly recommend the episode of BBC’s “In Our Time,” in which Douglass’ life and legacy are discussed by leading scholars.

Old Testament: Esther
Esther has long been my favourite female Bible character. She is the embodiment of “strength and dignity,” a woman of both conviction and compassion. The story of Esther reminds readers that political unrest and deadly prejudice have always been characteristic of fallen humanity. Esther, however, also serves as a reminder that through dedicated prayer, intentional preparation, and winsome persuasion, we can be examples of grace and truth “for such a time as this.”

New Testament: 1 Corinthians
Throughout this epistle, Paul consistently emphasises that members of the Body of Christ—acting in charity, in holy love—are to seek the protection of weaker members’ consciences and well-being. In an era in which political affiliation is easily confused with spiritual identity, it seems fitting and imperative to return to scripture. Paul here sets an example of humility, surrendering his rights for the benefit of his beloved. The situations we face today are different, but the heart behind them—the heart of Christ—remains the same.

Have any of these selections made your summer list? I would love to hear from you in the comments! I’ve done my best to include a variety of genres and forms and would value any and all feedback and recommendations. I should add that quite a few of my selections are rereads, as I find that in a constantly changing world, returning to the books which formed me and continue to reform me is both consoling and convicting.

Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

Whoever you are, I miss you

In this time of isolation, many lovers have been forced into long-distance relationships and many friends and neighbors suddenly separated by an unfeeling six feet. Like everyone else, I miss being close to those I care about. However, I have their numbers for FaceTime and their addresses for letters, and these make the missing easier, for at least I can know that they are safe and sound. Those that I find myself missing especially are the people who gradually became important to my life, significant to me in small, often-overlooked ways.

What has become of the barista who knew me only as Miss Americano? Who always was always there to offer kindly banter and caffeination?

What has become of the cashier at the grocery store? The one who I often chose to talk with instead of using the automated check-outs?

What has become of the janitor who cleaned my church as I practiced organ? The scholar who often studied across the café from me? The man who tended his garden across the street from my flat each morning? Do they clean and study and tend even now?

I am fortunate to know that those dearest to me are safe, but find myself wondering about the unnamed people who yet were so integral to my daily life. They were, in some ways, as constant as good friends: always there to make a coffee, to offer a smile, or simply to make the world feel blessedly-normal by their regular presence.

I suppose all that I want to say to these unacknowledged companions is this: Wherever and whoever you are, I miss you, and—whether you remember me or not—I hope you are well. Perhaps when this is all over we can be properly introduced.

Flat Stanley’s Grown-up Adventure

Remember Flat Stanley? I’m sure many of you reading this are experiencing a burst of nostalgia. “Ah, yes!” you might think, “I remember sending Flat Stanley to my family in Michigan and receiving a cool postcard!”

Alternately, I may have accidentally rekindled anger toward lazy relatives who made up excuses for putting minimal effort into the project: “Oh, Stanley? He was . . . er . . . he was the one taking the photo! That’s why he’s nowhere to be seen . . . ”

Well, you know you’ve grown up when—rather than sending your two-dimensional pal to friends in far-off places—you become the one who gets to document his incredible journey. (Seriously, as soon as you receive a ballot, a bank statement, and a Flat Stanley in your mailbox, you know you have officially become an adult.)

A few weeks ago, I had the fun of being asked to show a preschooler’s Flat Stanley around Scotland, where I was studying. Unfortunately, the sudden spread of the current pandemic sent me packing long before I’d planned, but looking back on the photos I took with Stanley during my last few weeks abroad helped restore my good humor. (Or, as we say in the UK, humour.) I’ll have to sort out which of the following photos are preschool-friendly, but I’ll share them all here since those of you also in quarantine may enjoy the imaginative escape.

 

Flat Stanley’s Scottish Adventure

Flat Stanley arrived on a normal Scottish day. It was cold, windy, and rainy. He immediately regretted his choice of business casual attire for, although he looked classy, he was thoroughly chilled.

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Ryanne, Stanley’s hostess, was kind enough to draw him a kilt and he found it both a functional and freeing fashion choice. Now properly attired, he was ready to live his best Scottish life.

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Since it was too stormy to go outside, Stanley had fun building a fort out of Ryanne’s library books.

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Stanley discovered that Bailey’s Irish cream makes hot cocoa much more delicious. Ryanne was careful to cut him off before this became a problem.

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When the sun finally came out, Stanley explored the ruins of St. Andrew’s cathedral but when the wind nearly blew him away, he had to return to the safety of Ryanne’s backpack. He seemed woefully ignorant of the cathedral’s historical significance anyway.

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Hanging on tight so as not to fly across the sea to continental Europe, Stanley enjoyed watching the waves at the beach.

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To Stanley’s dismay, however, he learned the old lesson of “It’s all fun and games until someone gets kilt” when some rival clansmen ran his kilt up the flagpole.

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Having recovered from his shock, Stanley joined Ryanne and a friend on a day trip to Cupar, a nearby town. He took a selfie but tried to delete it when he noticed that he had a smudge on his “good side.”

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Both Ryanne and her friend settled into a café to work on their term papers and Stanley kindly offered his editorial assistance.

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Unfortunately, Stanley began to take his duties too seriously, giving Ryanne the worst grade of her life and smiling heartlessly all the while.

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Stanley did not stop there, however, but—with a maniacal laugh—relentlessly marked-up Ryanne’s entire paper.

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Suddenly, though, Stanley stopped. Still smiling emptily, he realized something horrific.

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He had been red-penning Ryanne’s paper and yet, he himself was made of paper!

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Shocked at the monstrosity of ruthlessly editing pages upon pages of his own Flat Stanley flesh, he screamed.

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As his outburst echoed throughout the café and faded once more into silence, Stanley sighed. “After all,” he realized, “‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is a lesson we all must learn.”

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And yet, despite his regained composure, Stanley wondered how many Flat friends might have been made from the paper Ryanne wasted on her rough draft. He decided, though, that this is a tricky ethical question far beyond his elementary education.

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Instead of continuing to wrestle with ethics, Stanley decided to enjoy some local art. He especially liked this picture of a highland cow, also called a “hairy coo.” He wanted to bring one home as a pet, but Ryanne explained patiently that the US customs agents would not be supportive of this idea.

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World Book Day happened to take place during Stanley’s visit. Being in Scotland, he decided to dress up as Harry Potter.

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Sadly, both Stanley and Ryanne had to return to the United States unexpectedly due to travel bans in response to the spread of a pandemic. Stanley, fortunately, cannot catch anything, but he is spending two weeks in quarantine with his hostess as an act of solidarity. Jet-lagged and tired, Stanley is now enjoying a bit of rest and working on his reading list which, ironically, includes Fahrenheit 451.

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“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.