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Steven Chase

Steven Chase

Yesterday we posted an entry by Steven Chase about slowing down and noticing the natural world in order to enrich our perception of God and bring healing — the subject of Nature as Spiritual Practice. Today’s post is an example of how to slow down. More exercises like the one below will be available in Chase’s A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice.

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Intention: Balance is critical to discernment and to the “power of the slowing.” The intention of this practice is to recognize balance and imbalance in nature.

Practice: Paying careful attention to the natural world helps us practice discernment. Recognizing balance and imbalance also draws us closer to nature and to discernment. Allow yourself at least one hour of uninterrupted time for this practice.

  • Find a place in nature where you are comfortable and where you can spend time exploring the subtle balances and imbalances in creation. Focus for a time on your breath; become mindful and still.
  • When you are ready, begin going through the list of “balances” below. The idea is to recognize and complete a statement of “Balance is . . .” in the natural world around you. Move from one to the next only as you feel the need or as the next catches your attention. Focus on whatever draws your attention: a tree, the ecosystem, colors, a few blades of grass, wind, waves.
  • You may wish to journal, draw, photograph, or from your field guide “track” your particular interest in nature — birding, for instance. Whatever helps you pay careful attention to nature will help you focus on balance in nature.
  • When you are ready, bring to mind a particular issue that is important for you to discern at this time. Do an internal accounting of this issue in relation to how you are balanced or imbalanced in a similar way to nature. This internal accounting is an “examen of conscious” and a preliminary step in discernment.
  • How does nature guide your contemplations and meditations in directions that help you live mindfully?
  • How does balance in nature and internal balance guided by nature help you slow down? What do you notice about your discernment process?

Balances:

  • Balance is to locate the still point at the center of complexity.
  • Balance is to be in a constant state of sensitive fine adjustments.
  • Balance requires exquisite sensitivity to inner and outer forces.
  • Balance requires yielding and resisting, yielding and resisting.
  • Balance appears spontaneous and improvisational but is utterly responsible and devoted.
  • Balance is thwarted by pretense, also by insistence.
  • Balance knows both this and that, and prefers neither.
  • Balance is opportunistic.
  • Balance finds home anywhere, finds the center everywhere.
  • “Balancing” is more in balance than “balanced.”
  • Complete balance is the end of nature.

Click on the cover images below to order Steven Chase’s books:

Nature as Spiritual PracticeA Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice

Steven Chase

Steven Chase

Steven Chase is resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and president of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. His forthcoming books from Eerdmans, Nature as Spiritual Practice and A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice, highlight the role of nature in the formation of Christian spiritual and moral identity. With vivid imagery, Steven illustrates here how slowing down and noticing the natural world actually enriches our perception of God and brings healing.

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Careful attention to nature fosters what Gerald May in his book The Wisdom of Wilderness calls, “the power of the slowing.” Such attention — such slowing — calls us into spiritual practice, into formation, and into a path to healing; it calls us into discernment. Yet, how does nature’s slowing guide us into discernment?

In a recent best-selling historical novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier writes of the famous seventeenth century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, and of a peasant girl, Griet, who enters Vermeer’s household at a young age as a maid. Chevalier tells the story through they eyes of Griet, who gains the trust of Vermeer and, though still young, is given the important task of cleaning and arranging Vermeer’s studio. Eventually she becomes the model for Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Griet’s chores include laying out the colors of paint Vermeer requests for the next day. One day, Griet lays out blue paint instead of the ultramarine Vermeer had asked for. At first annoyed, Vermeer soon recovers and walks over to open the studio window. He invites Griet to look out the window. It is a breezy day, and Griet can see clouds disappearing behind a church tower.

“What color are those clouds, Griet?” Vermeer asks. Griet looks hard at the clouds and answers, “Why, white, sir.”

“Are they?” he asks. She looks again: “And gray,” she says, “perhaps it will snow.”

“Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables . . . your turnips and your onions — are they the same white?”

“No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.”

“Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?”

“There is some blue in them,” she says after studying them for a few minutes. “And yellow as well. And there is some green!” In the first-person narrative of the novel, Greit says, “I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.”[1]

Vermeer teaches Greit contemplative attention, wonder, and slowing — just as the clouds, over time, had taught Vermeer. Likewise, it is Greit’s vegetables — her turnips and her onions, and now the clouds — that slow her gaze, arouse her curiosity, and, by the end of the book, will teach her a new way of being on the earth.

In 1857 the painter Frederic Edwin Church completed his spectacular and now famous painting Niagara. The foreground of the huge canvas, which is nearly four feet high and seven feet across, is taken up entirely by the tumultuous water and spray of the falls; land is represented only by two small, nearly imperceptible islands offshore on the far side of the falls. Only a thin line paints the islands between the water and the sky. The sky itself comes forward — thunderous, ominous as the falls — with a small rainbow lending color. One art critic of the period wrote that the painting was the Falls — the only thing missing was the sound.

Ten years after its completion, the painting was a sensation at the Paris Exposition of 1867. European viewers, normally suspicious of any “art” emerging from the United States, lined up for blocks and blocks outside the Exposition’s exhibit hall waiting for a chance to see the painting. Even with hundreds of people waiting in line behind them, it is reliably reported that men, women, and children spent an average of one hour slowing before this spectacular window into nature.

Seeing yellow, green, and blue in clouds and standing before a single painting for an hour — these two examples of attentive slowing are remarkable in part because that kind of intensity of perception is unusual today. Yet attention, slowing, and intensity of perception are components of discernment. Christians are called to discipleships of discernment; they are apostles of healing. To see a complete palette of colors in a cloud is an act of discipleship. To be rapt by the spray of water falling from a painting is a way of discernment. All we attend to on this earth is a part of our apostolate. This kind of contemplative perception both sees and acts; it hears the groaning of creation and attends to its healing. In turn, creation hears your groaning and attends to your healing.

Intensity of perception leads to curiosity, which may lead to compassion. It is a Christian’s baptismal right to be curious. Peter follows in curiosity. Mary Magdalene is curious as she approaches a tomb. Christ looked at every person he met with the intensity of Vermeer looking at a cloud — curious, rapt, probing. How intensely and with what discernment must Jesus have considered the lilies of the field.

Click on the cover images below to preorder Steven Chase’s books:

Nature as Spiritual PracticeA Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice


[1] Tracy Chevalier, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (New York: Plume, 2001), scene, 99-102, dialogue, 101.

Jodi Magness

Jodi Magness

Jodi Magness is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an award-winning teacher and archaeologist who has participated in numerous excavations. Magness’s published works include The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Book, and the forthcoming Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, which she writes about here.

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Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit situates Jesus in his contemporary setting by examining Jewish daily life in late Second Temple period Palestine (modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories). Nearly all aspects of Jewish daily life at that time were influenced by the observance of biblical (Old Testament) law, which dictated how the God of Israel — the national deity of the Jewish people — was to be worshiped. Many of the laws concern the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem temple, which was considered literally to be the house in which the Jewish God dwelled.

By the late Second Temple period (first century B.C.E. and first century C.E.), disagreements among Jews concerning the interpretation of biblical laws led to the rise of various sects and groups, the best-known of which are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and Jesus’ movement. While all of these groups took for granted the observance of biblical laws, they disagreed about the correct interpretation of these laws. For example, does the prohibition in Exodus 35:3 against lighting a fire on the Sabbath mean that it is forbidden to leave an already kindled fire burning?

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

Many of the disagreements among Jews focused on the correct interpretation and observance of biblical purity laws. Like other ancient religions in the Mediterranean and Near East, Judaism required everyone entering the deity’s presence to be in a state of ritual purity. This meant that all Jews were required to purify themselves before entering the Jerusalem temple, which was the house of the God of Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible, ritual impurity is caused by coming into contact with certain things (ranging from mildew on the walls of a house to lizards to corpses) and by certain natural processes (such as nocturnal emissions for men and menstruation for women). For most types of ritual impurity, purification is effected through immersion in water and the passage of time (usually waiting until sunset).

The observance of Jewish purity laws has left material traces in the archaeological record. For example, in the late Second Temple period immersion pools (Hebrew: miqva’ot) became common at sites around Palestine, especially to be found clustered around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, in priestly dwellings (since priests had to maintain a high degree of purity to serve in the temple), and along pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem. More traces remain in the Essene settlement at Qumran (the site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls), whose inhabitants lived a priestly lifestyle. This settlement is characterized by a large number of large-sized miqva’ot, which accommodated the community’s need for repeated ritual immersion. Stone vessels also became common in the late Second Temple period, due to the belief that stone could not contract ritual impurity.

These archaeological finds attest to the widespread observance of purity laws among the Jewish population of Palestine. The Gospel accounts suggest that Jesus also engaged in debates about the correct interpretation of biblical purity laws, as, for example, when he reportedly declared, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15).

In Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, I examine various aspects of Jewish daily life in the time of Jesus based on a combination of archaeological evidence and literary information, including ritual purification, diet, household vessels, dining customs, Sabbath observance, fasting, coins, clothing, oil, spit, toilet habits, and tombs and burial customs. The results of my study highlight some of the similarities and differences between the various Jewish sects and groups of the late Second Temple period.

Click here to preorder Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit

Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw is professor of Christian philosophy and president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He writes the blog Mouw’s Musings and has published many books with Eerdmans, including Praying at Burger King and He Shines in All That’s Fair.

In honor of our anniversary year, we asked Mouw to write about a book that is central to Fuller’s mission and that first stirred evangelicals to action: Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

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When the Eerdmans folks asked me, back in 2003, to write a foreword to a new edition of Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, originally published in 1947, I did not have to think twice about whether or not to do it. For one thing, I like the Eerdmans company. When I was first starting out in my academic career — teaching philosophy at Calvin College — Eerdmans was a kind of second intellectual “home” to me. They published my first two books (and several later ones), and I was very involved as an editor of The Reformed Journal — which was the company’s marvelous labor-of-love gift to the Reformed and evangelical world. And Eerdmans was a place where I formed some of my most lasting friendships.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

But the assignment to help with a re-publishing of the Henry book in particular was also attractive in its own right. The book played an important role in my personal journey. Many folks these days, especially those who were not around in the 1950s and ’60s, may find it surprising that there was a time when evangelicals — generally thought to be an important voting bloc in present day American politics — were chided by many for being “a-political.”  When I began to struggle with questions about political discipleship in the turbulent ’60s, the discovery that Carl Henry had already issued his critique of evangelicalism’s “uneasy conscience” two decades before was a matter of great encouragement.

His book took on a new meaning for me when I became president of Fuller Seminary in 1993. Henry was a member of the first faculty at Fuller, and The Uneasy Conscience appeared in the same year that the seminary was founded. Harold John Ockenga, Fuller’s founding president, had written the introduction to Henry’s book, and it was clear that he and Henry saw the critique of evangelicalism embodied in the book as a manifesto for “the new evangelicalism” — for which they saw Fuller as an important think tank. I still see the agenda laid out in Henry’s book — emphasizing the need for careful scholarship, active social engagement, and an “ecumenical” evangelicalism — as central to Fuller’s mission.

Both Henry and Ockenga get quite specific in the pages of The Uneasy Conscience about what they see as the shortcomings of the evangelicalism of their day. Reading their 1947 list of evangelical sins today not only gives a glimpse into a past era but also paints what seems to be a surprisingly “prophetic” portrait of the future. Ockenga, for example, criticizes “the Bible-believing Christian” of his day of having been “on the wrong side of social problems, such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc.,” and Henry offers a similar list: “aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management.”

It took several decades before evangelicals began actively to pursue those areas of concern, and they still need to address several of the items with more intensity (although I am sure that Ockenga and Henry wouldn’t be happy about the fact that the informal activist strategizing that does take place among evangelicals these days often happens in pubs and bars!).

Much has changed in the social role played by evangelicalism in the larger culture since Henry issued his manifesto in the immediate post-World War II years. During his stint as editor of Christianity Today, and in his subsequent work as an itinerant scholar, Henry was often unhappy with the ways in which a younger generation took up the causes he had espoused. This was clear when a group of us gathered in Chicago during the early 1970s to draft “the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns.” Henry was there — and he regularly dissented from some formulations of the issues we addressed. In the end, though, he signed the statement with the rest of us. In doing so, he gave his blessing to an agenda that he clearly was not quite comfortable with in its entirety. I like to think that, for all of his misgivings, he did not want to leave that gathering with an uneasy conscience!

Click here to order The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and “silver white winters that melt into springs.”

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Sigh. “I wish there were Lutheran nuns.”

It wasn’t the first time Sara, my best friend since fourth grade, had said it, only half tongue-in-cheek. It wouldn’t be the last.

We knew almost nothing about nuns beyond their trademark black and white habits — just a few tidbits we’d pieced together from movies like Sister Act, Nunsense, The Sound of Music, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. At fourteen, though, we were already somewhat weary of the world and scared to death (though we might never have admitted it) of the perilous mid-90’s dating landscape looming before us. We both felt a mildly wistful longing for a cloister to hide away in, set apart and safe from the temptations and profanities of modern life. We yearned for a more peaceful, consecrated existence where we could be free, really free, to devote ourselves whole-heartedly to seeking God and serving others. And since almost all of the people closest to us at the time were girls — friends, sisters, cousins — the idea of a perpetual, sacred community of sisters held a powerful allure.

Sara’s comment was, of course, pure pipe dream. There were no Lutheran nuns (at least not in the Missouri Synod), and we had no real desire to convert to Catholicism simply for the privilege of living in a convent. Before too many years had passed, I came to find that God had prepared a very different (very joy-filled) vocation for me: that of wife and mother. Sara, too, is now happily married.

Yet I have never lost my fascination with the Catholic religious orders — so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Elizabeth Rapley’s book, The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World on Eerdmans’s Spring 2011 list. At last I’d have a chance to get some real answers about the life I that had so piqued my interest as a teenager. At last I’d know more about monks and nuns than I could learn from Hollywood.

Of course, I really had no idea what I was diving into.

The Lord as Their Portion

The Lord as Their Portion

The history of the Catholic religious orders is massive. It reaches back to the Egyptian deserts in the third century and stretches through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the way to the twentieth century and beyond. Moreover, the religious orders have been so intricately intertwined with Western culture and civilization that reading Rapley’s book at times feels like reading the story of the whole world, or at least all of Europe, rather than just one relatively minor portion of a larger narrative.

What’s more, it’s complex. In my Protestant ignorance I always just figured that boys become monks and girls became nuns — end of story. I never before would have thought to notice the obvious difference between the contemplative orders (think The Sound of Music) and the active orders (think Sister Act II), or even between the monastics (monks) and the mendicants (friars). I would never have guessed at the dizzying array of orders available to Catholics interested in the religious life: Benedictine, Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Cistercian, Jesuit, Carmelite, Salesian, Vincentian, and many, many more, each with its own unique history and its own unique approach to piety, austerity, and service.

In almost any other volume, this would all be too much to absorb — a sheer overload of information. Seventeen centuries of history. Dozens of orders. Scores of individual personalities. Yet Elizabeth Rapley manages it stunningly.

It helps that she’s a gifted writer with a flair for words and sentences that makes her work a joy to read. Her writing is at times dramatic — but then, so is the subject matter. Rapley’s lively writing brings all the many characters to life. She’s quite right to call her book the story of the religious orders. (Here’s an excerpt, if you’d like to see for yourself.)

As I close the book on The Lord as Their Portion, it’s pretty obvious to “grown-up me” (as it kind of always was to my teenage self) that I will never take holy vows. But I also will never lose my respect and admiration for the men and women that do. Though Rapley doesn’t gloss over the ignoble moments (or even the ignoble eras) of their history, I am in no way deterred in my awe of this sanctified and increasingly rare way of life: a life single-mindedly devoted to God, to the church, and to fellow humanity.

And although, in her epilogue, Rapley expresses uncertainty about whether the religious orders, now so often dwindling, will endure indefinitely into the future, I cannot foresee them ever vanishing completely. Indeed, one of the many patterns I see lacing itself through Rapley’s broad history is this: in every age, human beings hunger for the divine — and always, there are many who long, sometimes with very private sighs, for the opportunity to make a more radical commitment to God.

In fact, I’ll play prophet here and predict that our culture is now ripe for a new blossoming of consecrated religious life. As I witness the emphasis being placed on organized piety by my fellow Missouri-Synod Lutherans this Lenten tide, as I hear rumors of a new monasticism springing up among young Evangelicals — even as I listen to NPR on my evening commute — I see the old spirit of the religious orders not only surviving but gaining ground.

In an age of jaded hyper-sexuality, the religious orders offer chastity. In an age of rampant consumerism, they offer voluntary poverty. In an age of spiritual apathy and relativism, they offer steadfast faith and moral certainty. In an age of unbridled license, they offer structure and discipline. In an age of isolation and loneliness, they offer community.

No, I don’t think the story of those who take “the Lord as their portion” will be ending any time soon. Now, about those Lutheran convents . . .

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For a note from Elizabeth Rapley on the countercultural men and women we call monks and nuns, read her blog entry From Maternity Ward to Death Row.

Click here to preorder The Lord as Their Portion

Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University and writes the award-winning Jesus Creed blog at patheos.com. McKnight recently fulfilled a lifelong dream when he wrote a volume for The New International Commentary on the New Testament series — The Letter of James. Here he explains why the voice of James needs to be heard in theological discussions.

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On college campuses, discussion about diversity dominates discourse, and the most common consensus is that the only way to change the course of history is to sit at the table with one another, to look at the hand we have been dealt, to throw our cards on the table, and to learn to play the cards of others. Long ago G. B. Caird, in his New Testament Theology, made the thoroughly delightful suggestion that a New Testament theology invites all the authors of New Testament books to the table and gives each author permission to chime in with how they see the gospel at work.

Theology today, both in the church and in the academy, struggles with diversity. One reason it struggles is that it has permitted its own theological systems, beliefs, and practices to dominate the rhetoric and therefore the experience of its setting. For example, Anabaptists (and I confess to being one) permit the Sermon on the Mount and the kingdom vision of Jesus to have full sway, while the Reformed push hard a Pauline soteriology of justification. The Lutherans, in only a slightly different key, run that Pauline theme through the grid of a law–gospel hermeneutic. For the moment, these simple categories will have to be our only description.

But what happens when Anabaptists, the Reformed, and Lutherans gather together for a discussion about ethics? It’s difficult, and it may take days to detox and imbibe enough of the “thought world” of the other in order to truly comprehend what the other is thinking — to sort out the real substance and the differences.

The Letter of James

The Letter of James

Writing a commentary on James makes one aware of the lack of diversity in both New Testament theology and the influence of utilizing one corpus of writings — Jesus or Paul or Peter or Hebrews or John — in an overwhelming manner. Time and time again I found James’ language to be both a stretch of what Jesus had said, an alternative to what Paul was saying, and an almost complete unawareness of what someone like the author of Hebrews might be saying. Yet, upon further study I found time and time again that the unity of these authors, rooted as they all were in a common apostolic gospel (not to be equated with a soteriology), sprang forth in surprising ways.

To be sure, James does not seem to be on the same page — and perhaps not even in the same world of thought — as Paul when it comes to sorting out justification and faith and works, and, yet, careful study of the two revealed to me that while their language was the same and while their thinking was concerned with different issues, they are not as uncommon bedfellows as Martin Luther thought.

But what James did tell me over and over was that he deserved to be at the table, and that we are bereft of diversity in part because we ignore those who are not like us. James is one of us.

Click here to order The Letter of James

Julie Canlis

Julie Canlis

Today we finish up a three-part interview with Julie Canlis on her award-winning book, Calvin’s Ladder. Part 1 of the interview is an introduction to Julie’s work and a personal account of the five-year-sprint she ran to make her academic contribution. Part 2 highlights the significance her theological work has on scholarship and daily life.

Here Julie recounts the excitement of receiving the Christianity Today award and offers advice to women who also aspire to pursue academic work in theological or biblical studies.

Part 3

Q 6: Can you describe what it was like for you when Calvin’s Ladder received the coveted Christianity Today award of merit in theology and ethics this year?

I found out while I was trying to (simultaneously) fold laundry and tuck kids into bed. Matt called around twenty friends in the parish (most of whom have never heard of John Calvin) and they all came on a twenty-five minute notice to pop champagne corks and dance.

The children never went to bed after all . . .

While I was caad aff me stotter (caught off guard, as they say around here), the next morning was the usual rush of making lunches and shooing the older children off to school. There is nothing like home life to keep you rooted!

Q 7: As you are no doubt aware, even today there are comparatively few women (and even fewer young mothers) doing academic work in theological or biblical studies. What advice would you give to other women hoping to do what you do?

My advice is to never choose a “career” path that will force you to sacrifice the quality of your relationship with your husband and children. Never. I know this sounds controversial. I know this is difficult in a world — particularly the Christian academic community! — that it is becoming more inflexible, less relational, and more orientated toward what you publish and how often. The reason I’m not teaching anywhere at the moment (save for summer stints at Regent College) is because I have yet to find an institution that will not force me to compromise my family life. So we women are faced, in some ways, with an identity that is much more connected to our biology than we want to admit. We’ve tried to overcome that in the past century, and many of the advances have been a blessing. But others have not forced us to ask the questions that we need to be asking ourselves. Just because we can make use of a daycare, or hire a gardener, or have a housecleaner . . . does this mean we should? Just because I can teach remotely, or can fill up my CV with academic articles, or can position myself to be noticed by such-and-such an academic institution, does it mean I should? These are the questions I am constantly asking myself. I am an opportunity-addict, and so the “enforced Sabbath rest” of the past five years of living in a rural Scottish parish has been a wonderful “desert” experience for me. Male or female, if seeking to live well in our relationships is not a significant aspect of our decision-making (for our career and home-life alike), then there will certainly be a disconnect between our theology and our praxis.

Q 8: What’s next for you, Julie Canlis?

Living in a small village does quiet things to you under the surface. Even though my days are spent primarily between the kitchen and walking to the village school up the hill, I don’t think anything is being wasted. I don’t feel I am getting “behind” in my career. I suppose I am exactly where I am supposed to be from a “vocational” point of view. I don’t know if I am being prepared for something else, or if this is to be the context from which I will write and possibly teach in the future. I am just thankful to have the time to let things soak in, and perhaps to be able to live a bit of the glorious stuff that I studied.

Click here to order Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension

Calvin's Ladder

Julie Canlis

Julie Canlis

Yesterday we introduced you to Julie Canlis and her award-winning book, Calvin’s Ladder. Today we continue the three-part interview and highlight the significance her work has on scholarship and daily life.

Part 2

Q 3: Is your book just for scholars, or can ordinary folks learn from it as well?

I hope that the Christianity Today award testifies to the fact that this book is written for ordinary people! Scholarship must be in service of the church! When I was writing my PhD, I found that having a young family put healthy boundaries on my project. I learned when and how to switch off. I could come home from my office and not yearn for what unfinished thoughts I had left behind, but I felt as if I was entering the real world. I learned that theology needed to be life-giving . . . because if my husband was back at home changing nappies and doing laundry, I had better be pursuing something that would make a difference to everyday people in the real world. There wasn’t time for academic indulgence.

That being said, my husband has yet to read the book, but that is because he has adapted the Pauline principle that as long as one person in the marriage has read a certain book, it covers both of us. Like the efficacy of sanctification in 1 Corinthians . . . almost . . .

Calvin's LadderQ 4: You place John Calvin within the Christian mystical tradition. Why do you think this is important?

Mystics have been given a bad rap over the years as individualists who are all about their own personal experience of “union” with the divine and whose spirituality has no need of the cross. Yet some of the earliest understandings of the word “mystic” have to do with those who were immersed in the “mysteries” — the church, its people, and its food. “Mysticism” was not a private thing, but a public, shared experience of God’s grace, as given through his ecclesial body and his Eucharistic body. Calvin uses the term “mystical union,” and it is in this latter sense — of that incredible mystery by which we are included in Christ — that he intends it.

Alternatively, the term “mystical” today is used against the term “dogmatic,” and Calvin is placed in the camp of the “cold dogma” as opposed to those who over the years nurtured the lived, “mystical” side of the faith. But Calvin was all about the “inmost affection of the heart” and allowing our Christian faith to penetrate to our emotions, even to the point of transforming them. Calvin’s “mysticism” comes from how seriously he took the Trinity. He knew that the personal nature of his faith came not from the intensity of his emotions, but from the personalness of the triune God. It is when we are invited into the fellowship of God that we can begin to “own” our faith and our emotions can be genuine.

Q 5: What practical difference can your theology make in people’s everyday lives?

Once I stopped reacting to Calvin, I found myself in a place where I could really learn from him. Perhaps most surprising is his emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the one who secures our identity. My generation is obsessed with “finding” oneself and “being authentic,” and this deep longing has entered into the church. I wanted to explore how “discipleship” is about “becoming human” in Christ, but in a way markedly different from how our culture prescribes this to be done. Contrary to popular opinion, becoming a Christian is not becoming less human. Rather, it is being put back on the road to becoming truly human again.

Walker Percy asks, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?” We think of our uniqueness as something deep within us — buried, needing to be unlocked. We think of our identity as something for which we are responsible, like a Facebook page in which we market ourselves to others. But Calvin comes at this from a completely different understanding, because he has allowed the notion of being “in Christ” to transform his sense of identity. He has not added Christ onto himself, but he realizes that he has been taken up into the life of Christ — where his identity is “hidden.” (This, as opposed to a Facebook page, is a much safer place for our identities to rest!)

Calvin’s Institutes is written from this new sense of self-understanding, and Calvin’s main point is to help his readers see that they have a new identity — that because they are “in Christ” they share Christ’s Father as well. They are now children with a loving Father. But Calvin knows firsthand the difficulties in believing that we are beloved children, in acting like children, and in praying like children. He therefore assigns this issue of our identity to the Holy Spirit, who “alone can witness to our spirit that we are children of God.” This is such a miraculous revelation, thinks Calvin, that it must happen by the Spirit over and over again. It is not something of which we can convince ourselves.

It is these core issues of identity that I think are so compelling in Calvin. He challenges our individualistic assumptions about who we are, and he invites us into the transforming fellowship of Christ. It is only when we understand this framework that his more celebrated discussions of justification, sanctification, and the rest find their true place.

Click to read part three of our interview with Julie Canlis.

In January, Julie Canlis received a 2011 award of merit from Christianity Today for her book, Calvin’s Ladder. In 2007 she won the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Not only did Julie manage to write a groundbreaking, award-winning book, but she also did so while raising young children and partnering with her husband in parish ministry! We, of course, have been dying to know how she pulled it off — so we asked.

We will publish our interview with Julie in three parts, beginning today with a personal account of her five-year sprint and an introduction to her excellent work.

Part 1

Julie Canlis and family

Julie Canlis and family

Q 1: Congratulations, Julie, on your Christianity Today award! We are pleased to call your book our own and are glad you chose us as your publisher. Tell us, though, how did you do it? How did you manage to earn a PhD and publish an award-winning book while raising young children and being both a parish professional and a pastor’s wife?

I’m not sure I can really answer this question, because those years are a total blur! I applied for the PhD program at the University of St Andrews because I wanted to work under the excellent and caring supervision of Dr. Alan Torrance. My husband was also going to pursue a doctorate, but we were blissfully unaware that I was pregnant at the time! We arrived with a newborn and four small suitcases. In our naïveté, we spent our first year studying in shifts, which meant that we never saw one another. We didn’t realize that the quality of our life and relationship was essential for a PhD to be done well (and I mean “well” in the Christian sense of wholeness and relational — not academic — perfection). We mortgaged our marriage to get the PhD, and in some respects, we are still paying off that loan.

So my husband graciously quit his academic career to take care of our son and to help me over the finish line until our daughter would be born. Then I took a year off to stay home with them while Matt worked for local parish churches. And then it was back to work for me until our third child was born. I still have photos of her at 12 hours old in my left arm, with my thesis corrections tucked under my right arm, as I lay sleeping in my hospital bed!

The correct theological answer to “how did you do it?” is “by the grace of God alone!” and I still stand by that answer. But it was a difficult five-year sprint, and I sometimes wonder if the sacrifices we made were the right ones. Of course, everything seems justified when your work wins awards, but I don’t think that is how things are justified in the Lord’s eyes. I’m now a glorified Sunday school teacher (for a Sunday school in the range of 15 to 25 children, between the ages of 3 and 13), and I feel that my work is as difficult, as taxing, and as theologically murky as ever! But I love it. And I feel just as alive. And thankfully, my husband and I have time for one another, which is not a luxury but a necessity for living a relationally right life.

Q 2: For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little about your groundbreaking study.

I find it intriguing and wonderful that the other book awarded in my category of the CT awards is N. T. Wright’s After You Believe. That is precisely my question. What is next? How can I be spiritually formed by what I now believe? How has the church, over the centuries, come to understand discipleship? Often we disciple people by getting them busy. This is backwards. We’ve got to begin by helping them understand what it really means that they are now in Christ. We’ve got to begin by helping them enter this wide, wonderful world of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Calvin's Ladder

Calvin's Ladder

My evangelical upbringing was built around that marvelous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” But for all its strengths, I found that this evangelical emphasis on grace was, in some ways, paralyzing. We knew that we could “do nothing,” and so we vacillated between an unhealthy activism and a self-repudiating passivity. “God” was our goal, our great motivator, our Savior. Yet we weren’t exactly sure what role He played and what role we played in our transformation.

So I read far and wide, and I found myself drawn to Christian writers and thinkers from the past who tackled these questions. I suppose that today, these writings would be shelved under topics like “sanctification” or “discipleship.” But these writers “shelved” them under the category of the Trinity. And that is where it all began to make sense to me. This isn’t about what I am supposed to do, or even what God is hoping that I will do. This is about what God is doing and whether or not I am allowing myself to be pulled into his love, his dynamic, his mission, his communion, his people, his Church.

Calvin is brilliant at showing how Christ’s mission to us — his “descent” if you will — is only the first half of the story. Calvin is adamant that Christ’s goal wasn’t just to get us into heaven. It was to bring us back to his Father and to the communion that they share in the Spirit (this is our “ascent” both in this life and the next). Our entire life is an outworking of this “ascent” as we live out our everyday lives, in community, under the healing shadow of the cross.

What I think people find interesting about my book is the pastoral point that when Christ descended to us, he also ascended to the Father for us. We are included in both of these movements. He didn’t descend so that we could become workaholics. He descended to put sin to death among us. He ascended to lead us to his Father, to involve us in his life of communion, and to give us his Spirit, who would in turn make Christ real to us. We need to participate in his death and resurrection, his descent and ascent. Grace is about getting caught up in this life of Jesus that is going on all around us.

Click to read parts two and three of our interview with Julie Canlis. 

Elizabeth Rapley

Elizabeth Rapley

Elizabeth Rapley is adjunct professor of history at the University of Ottawa and author of the forthcoming book The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World. As she does in her book, Rapley treats us here to a compelling portrait of the countercultural and influential men and women we call monks and nuns.

***

In the movie Dead Man Walking, convicted killer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) taunts his visitor, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon): “What is it about you,” he says in effect, “that you haven’t got a man?” She answers, “If I had a husband and kids, I’d be at home with them right now, not spending time with you on death row.”

Dead Man WalkingSister Helen’s answer immediately raises another question: why doesn’t she lead a normal home life? After all, career and home life are not incompatible. You can choose all sorts of worthy careers, working with the underprivileged, crusading for a better world — even visiting folks on death row — without giving up home, spouse, and children.

But the point is this: the real Sister Helen didn’t choose a career. She chose a life. She wanted to be a nun. That meant surrendering not only the option of marriage and family, but also control of her future. From that point on she would belong to a congregation of sisters, and she would accept that congregation’s direction. Its collective decision to give priority to the poor and disadvantaged changed her life’s purpose. It was her work in a slum neighborhood of New Orleans that drew Sister Helen into social activism. Her introduction to death row — and, eventually, to the fight against the death penalty — came later.

The Lord as Their Portion

The Lord as Their Portion

From the early days of the Christian era, men and women followed the same route. They walked away from “normal” life. Some withdrew into the silence of monasteries; others chose to live as wandering hermits; others opted to preach, or pray, or teach, or nurse, or even fight. Whatever they did, they did for God.

Theirs is an interesting story. It is not smothered in glory — though glory there is. The religious orders have had more than their share of leaders, geniuses, and saints. But let’s face it: not all of them were heroes. Many failed entirely. The vast majority accepted the religious life as a quiet, sometimes humdrum way to get to heaven. However, they had a message for the world, and they were ready to do the hard work of sharing it, whether in words or, more often, by the example of their lives.

These men and women were a vital force in the shaping of Christianity. And because our civilization has been marked from end to end — from maternity ward to death row — by the Christianity they helped to shape, it, too, should recognize them among its builders.

Click here to preorder The Lord as Their Portion

Sandra De Groot is an acquisitions editor and project developer at Eerdmans. She and her two granddaughters share a love for reading, and Sandra enjoys listening to the girls suggest their favorite picks to Grandma. Surrounded at work with pictures of flowers and other reminders of spring, Sandra eagerly waits for winter to end and the season of gardening to begin!

***

“We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate.”

~ Henry Miller

Welcome! Come on in, grab a cup of coffee. My soul is on a roll. You must like to read or you wouldn’t be here. I love to read because words are powerful. Just imagine, then, what it is like to read for a living, as I do.

Today, I want to take you on an author journey with me. I have had many, but this is a special one, because it began during a wake-up time for women.

Think back with me. It is 1998, and author Joan Chittister has written a book on feminism (remember that word?) called Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men. Reading her manuscript at this time in my life is so uplifting, so positive; I want to share it with all. I grow profusely from her words. (Even in 2011, women still write to tell me how this book is changing their lives too.)

Heart of Flesh

Heart of Flesh

Now it is 2000, and Chittister is finishing The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, illustrated with art by John August Swanson. In this profound biblical story Chittister takes me back to times in my life when the guidance and support from older women changed me as Naomi’s guidance changed Ruth. The book does more than remind me of my life journey. With Chittister as my guide I come to view the stories of all immigrants in a fresh, new way, because of the colorful journey of Ruth.

The Story of Ruth

The Story of Ruth

It is 2003 already. This journey is a fast one, and I’m developing extensively on the inside when I read Chittister’s Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope. Oh my, how does one look beyond the struggle to hope? Chittister talks about a suffering of the soul. I see all the horrors of the world — and she reminds me that the world is in God’s hands and that hope is in the struggle.

Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

Here we are near the end of my journey. It is 2007. Chittister has completed Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and Its Meaning for You. Reading WWW (what we called the book while we worked on it) was like indulging myself luxuriously! Wow (another “w” word), Chittister led and guided me through five religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and Its Meaning for You

Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and Its Meaning for You

Thanks for taking this journey with me. Have I changed? Come back later in 2011 and I’ll tell you about Joan Chittister’s new book on Happiness — and the next stage in my journey with this uplifting spiritual thinker and writer. I’ll put on the coffee. We can laugh and learn together. It makes me smile to think of it!

“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled, ‘This could change your life.’ ”

~ Helen Exley

Keith Ward

Keith Ward

Keith Ward is a fellow of the British Academy, a professorial fellow of Heythrop College, London, and an Anglican priest. He is the author of more than thirty books, including The Big Questions in Science and Religion, Why There Almost Certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Is Religion Dangerous, and the soon-to-be-released More than Matter? Is There More to Life than Molecules?

***

I have taught philosophy in British universities for over forty-five years, and it still seems to me that the main job of philosophy is not to make things clear but rather to show how immensely puzzling even the simplest human beliefs are — and how little the human mind understands even the most basic truths we tend to accept.

Aligning with this purpose, I wrote More than Matter? not to prove some theory about the human mind but to show how very difficult it is to decide what human persons really are. People frequently hold one of two opposing and simple views: (1) that humans are just complex material organisms and that consciousness is a by-product of the brain, and (2) that persons are purely spiritual beings whose brains are instruments for expressing thoughts and feelings.

More than Matter shows that these simple views are by far too simple. They do not suffice because they do not answer the problem of consciousness, which asks how inner experiences and responsible actions relate to our physical brains and bodies.

More Than Matter?

More Than Matter?

I believe that we all have uniquely personal experiences and that we are free and to some extent responsible for shaping them and the world around us. If this is true, persons must be more than bundles of physical particles acting solely in accordance with the laws of physics. Particles, even in huge, organized bundles, have no experiences and do not decide for themselves how they are going to act.

Materialism — the theory that only the physical is truly real — is quite widely accepted among philosophers and scientists. But it entails that human lives have no objective purpose or goal, that human values are subjective matters of taste, and that no one is really responsible for their actions. I think that a general acceptance of this view leads, when it is fully thought through, to a sense of personal futility and social irresponsibility. Thus an argument for materialism is not only an intellectual argument, but it is also a spiritual argument.

Idealism — the theory that matter depends upon consciousness — provides a goal for human life, affirms that there are objective values (the goal is to realize those values), and holds people responsible for many of their actions. If idealism does this, deciding if it is true becomes very important. But is an assertion of its truth just wish fulfillment?

In my book, I have tried to produce a set of cumulative arguments for the reasonableness of what I call “dual-aspect idealism.” This view suggests that the physical universe depends on a cosmic consciousness, which produces human minds as products of material evolution. This process generates a new form of reality — human consciousness, closely tied to its physical basis and expression but capable of existing in differing forms of “matter.”

The Grand DesignSome materialist arguments come surprisingly close to idealism. Stephen Hawking, for example, holds that the physical cosmos originates from a nonphysical realm that is mathematically elegant and consists of a set of quantum laws and energy in its vacuum (lowest quantum) state. This nonphysical realm is not “nothing.” It is supernatural (beyond space and time), intelligible, and dynamic, and it produces universes by inner necessity (see Hawking’s book The Grand Design). Idealists would say that what the materialist argument is missing is consciousness — the mind in which quantum laws exist and which is the source of the intelligibility and energy of the cosmos. Maybe such a consciousness is even necessary for a physical cosmos to be realized, as John Wheeler, John von Neumann, and other quantum theorists have suggested many times.

For me, modern physics and moral considerations tip the balance of the argument and make idealism a serious reasonable candidate for belief. Belief in God (“the cosmic mind”) is, then, not just a matter of blind and irrational faith but, instead, a fully rational and increasingly plausible philosophical belief. The puzzles surrounding the origins and nature of human consciousness remain, but at least idealism is no more puzzling an explanation than its alternatives.

Click here to preorder More Than Matter?

Ian Christopher Levy

Ian Christopher Levy

Ian Christopher Levy teaches theology at Providence College and is the author of The Letter to the Galatians. He is also editor of A Companion to John Wyclif. Here Levy tells of the treasures that await us in commentaries from the Middle Ages.

***

Holy Scripture was at the very foundation of worship and theology throughout the Middle Ages, whether in the monasteries, the cathedral schools, or the universities. While the Psalms lay at the heart of monastic prayer life, the Pauline Epistles became increasingly important for the development of theology as a discipline, rich as they are in the mysteries of the Christian faith: soteriology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments.

The Letter to the Galatians

The Letter to the Galatians

The church possesses a great heritage of commentary upon the letters of St. Paul beginning in the Patristic era and stretching right through to the Reformation. For my volume on Galatians I have translated whole commentaries (and significant portions of others) from the Middle Ages in an effort to help bring to light this aspect of the church’s tradition. It is not simply a matter, however, of presenting interesting historical artifacts to modern readers. These medieval commentaries exhibit qualities that most modern commentaries lack: a spiritual depth that reflects their very purpose, namely, to read Holy Scripture within the sacred tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — the very author of Scripture.

Modern commentaries have much to teach us, to be sure, and we have learned much from modern critical methods. Yet they are often written at a level of detachment from the received faith of the church. For instance, few modern commentators would draw Trinitarian conclusions from the opening greetings of Paul’s letters. Yet a medieval commentator has the whole Creed in his heart as he writes and thus finds the Trinity of Divine Persons throughout the Pauline text wherever these persons are mentioned.

Is he naïve for doing so; is this blatantly unsophisticated? No it is not: it is indicative of an entirely different approach to the text — an approach that begins with the assumption that one is entering into a realm of divine mystery where levels of sacred meaning may be plumbed by the prayerful reader who comes to the text in faith and humility. Perhaps, then, we do have something to learn from our forebears yet.

Click here to preorder The Letter to the Galatians

Michael Hoffman

Michael Hoffman

Michael Hoffman, son of editor Jenny Hoffman, is in fourth grade. He loves to read and play soccer. He doesn’t know any superheroes — or sheep.

***

Do you know any kids who like to read? Have they ever read this book: Extraordinary Ernie & Marvelous Maud? If they haven’t, I suggest they read it!

Ernie is just a regular kid, until he runs into Amazing Desmond (from the local superhero office), who gives him the chance to become a super hero.

Maud is just a regular sheep, the middle sheep in her family, until Amazing Desmond tells her to come with him. When Ernie and Maud meet, Ernie is surprised to know that his sidekick is a sheep! A sheep was not what Ernie had in mind at all!

Maud

Maud

As they train to be superheroes, Ernie and Maud have exciting adventures! They patrol the area and rescue a girl from bullies.

This book is a fun book to read, and it has funny pictures. It is one of the funniest books I ever read!

You can read more about Ernie and Maud in two other books: The Middle Sheep and The Greatest Sheep in History. Ernie and Maud have incredible adventures in all three books, and they work as a team to stop evil.

Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She likes reading, writing, fairy stories, and chocolate covered caramel corn.

***

I’m ashamed to say that I never encountered George MacDonald until graduate school. Yet it was there, waist-deep in biographical research on C. S. Lewis, that I not only brushed up against him but also kept on bumping into him. Lewis had a high regard for this forefather of modern fantasy and, what’s more, he credited one of MacDonald’s books, Phantastes, as a major factor in his eventual religious conversion. In Lewis’s 1946 preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, he wrote:

It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. . . . The whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”—I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting.

Bits and pieces of this tantalizing quote kept popping up again and again as I worked my way through a stack of secondary sources on Lewis. Before long, I began to conclude that I really owed it to myself and my research to dip into George MacDonald’s “holy fantasy” and see what all the fuss was about. (I don’t need much prodding to break away from scholarly research and read fairy tales.)

Over the next couple of years, I nibbled my way delightedly through the Princess and Curdie books, “The Light Princess,” and many of MacDonald’s other stories as if they were chocolate covered caramel corn.

Still, I never managed to get my hands on Phantastes.

Then, after a break of several years, I joined Eerdmans. When I first started working here, I was already well aware that we shared a lot of the same taste in books. Like Eerdmans, I enjoy intellectually rigorous biblical studies, “honest, wise, and hopeful” children’s books, and, of course, all things Inklings. I did not expect, however, that this same kindred-spiritedness would extend to the works of George MacDonald. Still, there they were, smiling sweetly at me from the Eerdmans backlist: The Light Princess and Other Stories, The Gray Wolf and Other Stories, The Golden Key and Other Stories, The Wise Woman and Other Stories, Lilith — and, yes, Phantastes.

It was time, I decided. Time — finally — to read the full text of Lewis’s personal tribute to MacDonald (conveniently reprinted as an introduction to the Eerdmans edition). Time to follow imaginatively in Lewis’s footsteps through what was for him a life-changing novel.

Phantastes

Phantastes

Phantastes isn’t quite a literary masterpiece. Even Lewis admits that: “If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank — perhaps not even in its second. . . . The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.”

The storyline of Phantastes almost defies summary. In it, a young man on the verge of adulthood (we eventually find out he is called Anodos) is spirited away to fairyland. He wanders aimlessly (yet with an unexplained sense of purpose) through it — ever eastward — encountering an array of fairytale characters: flower fairies and tree spirits, an enchanted white lady, a knight errant, peasants, children, goblins, an ogress, a wise old woman, his own evil shadow. Numerous adventures, escapades, and moral dilemmas ensue, until, at the end, he wakes up on a hillside next to his home.

We never really find out why (or by whom) Anodos is sent to fairyland, what (exactly) he is supposed to get out of the experience, or why he is eventually brought back to ordinary life. In fact, readers who are sticklers for things like plot, theme, and character development may find the book a little frustrating, since it defies many of the conventions we’ve come to take for granted in a novel.

Even so, this is a lovely book, gorgeous in its imaginativeness. MacDonald’s Fairyland may not hold together in the same way that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and even Lewis’s own Narnia do. Yet traveling through it is a strangely liberating experience, inspiring one to defy all normal constraints on creativity and — like Anodos in his wanderings — let the whims of fantasy blow the mind where they will. MacDonald’s “faerie realm” — with its stunning vistas, dark forests, dewy meadows, winding rivers, and stormy seas — is strikingly beautiful, and, what’s more, it is good. Or, more accurately, perhaps, it is good and evil.

I’ll explain. MacDonald’s books are not “religious” fiction in the sense that we think of it today. There is no mention here of God, Jesus, paradise, or hell. The characters do not pray or go to church. Readers generally don’t spend much time dwelling on “right” and “wrong.”

Yet MacDonald is nonetheless a profoundly moral writer. Lewis calls what he does “myth-making”: “It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”

There are some subtle religious motifs — I found hints of baptism, penance, absolution, mother church, the Lord’s Supper, and others — peeping through here and there throughout Phantastes. Yet more remarkable, more powerful than these is the certainty with which MacDonald depicts the essential goodness or badness of a thing, from which right or wrong action inevitably proceeds.

This is virtuous writing. It is holy writing. It was refreshing for Lewis, who reflected, “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. . . . What I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness.”

It’s refreshing for me, too, fatigued as I am by the unrelenting ambiguity of postmodern relativism in which everything’s good, and nothing is.

Fifteen years after Lewis’s discovery of Phantastes and the “baptism” of his then-atheist imagination, “the process was complete” (by which, of course, I mean, “it had really begun”). Beginning in 1929 C. S. Lewis became first a theist, then a Christian, then one of Christianity’s most able apologists, and finally, like George MacDonald, one of the world’s most potent writers of holy fantasy.

Even years after his conversion, Lewis continued to express his love and gratitude for the works of George MacDonald. In The Great Divorce, he imagined in fiction his own encounter with George MacDonald in heaven. It reminds me a little of how I imagine myself (and how many of you imagine yourselves, I shouldn’t wonder) first greeting Lewis himself in the glorious hereafter:

I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the new life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness.

Over the next months and years, I will recall fondly my travels through George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It has been a very pleasant and edifying journey.

Even if I thought the book was complete rubbish, though, I would always be grateful for Phantastes, not because it changed my life (it didn’t), but because it forever altered the life of a man who has forever changed mine.

Buy George MacDonald’s books:

LilithPhantastes

The Light Princess and Other StoriesThe Gray Wolf and Other StoriesThe Golden Key and Other StoriesThe Wise Woman and Other Stories

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