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Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

I’m so behind, reporting to you on the books I’ve been reading!  Let me catch you up.

Back in August, I read The Oath by Frank Peretti.  It is the second grown-up book I have read of his.  (Monster was a fantastic book!)  I have to say that I was disappointed.  The story started slowly, and dragged on with way too many “climaxes.”  At the end of the book the real climax was not nearly as redemptive as I hoped for.  And I think that reflects the central theme of the book that dissatisfied me: sin when it is full grown gives birth to death; men who are not redeemed are slaves to sin.  That is true enough, but there was precious little in the story about the power of God over sin, to save us from death.  What was there didn’t ring real or powerful or even theological.

The Oath centers around two vivid images of sin: a dragon growing, hungry, but hard to see and hard to fight; and a oozing sore over the heart – a sore that people want to avoid, want to deny, want to ignore, and ultimately insanely forget.

Of all the characters, the one that stood out to me wasn’t a main character.  It was the pastor of Hyde River.  He sounds like a lot of pastors: downplaying the power of evil, giving the benefit of the doubt to the intentions of wicked men, avoiding confrontation, and dreaming of bigger ministries.  His was not the blatant rebellion against God embraced by much of the community – but he tolerated and excused the sin around him, even rebuking those few in his congregation who stood for the truth.  The pastor enabled the sin in the community, did nothing to stop the men who were hurrying to hell.  At the end of the story you see which side that puts him on.

In summary: the writing wasn’t all that good; the idea not that compelling, but there were some high points of description both of human character and of the nature of sin.

After that I dabbled in a book by Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of the Church in Asia, but it wasn’t what I hoped or expected, so I gave up half way and sent it back to the library.

This was partly because I was busy reading a novel lent to me by a friend, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope.  That was a pleasant read!  Mr. Trollope confides in you, author to reader, but also uses polite denials to manipulate one into suspecting the accusation denied.  His characters are, sadly, typical of the human race.  Even his hero and heroine have their faults and foolishness.  But he begs you to love them and forgive them, just as they would treat you.  And the spell he casts worked on me.  I do love Mrs. Bold and Mr. Arabin.  From the very beginning the author painted such a picture of his characters that I was curious to see how they would perform whatever dramas and comedies he submitted them to.  I was not disappointed.

Shortly after I finished Barchester Towers, I was babysitting.  After the little boys were put to bed, I raided their father’s bookshelf, and began to read GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Unrelated to the two movies by the same name, the book is a series of mysteries solved by a genius who knows too much about the dark side of man.  He has too often seen bad men get away with their crimes.  I marvel at the commentator’s skill at weaving into story a sort of poetic metaphor of philosophy along with his critique of politics, aristocracy, and press.

In response to a friend preaching on hyper-dispensationalism, I took the time one evening to read and make notes on Galatians with a view to the theology of dispensationalism.  Though I sympathize with the concept of dispensations, I must admit that as a whole the book says nearly the opposite of the point my friend was trying to make.  My study has prepared me for our next confrontation.

While recently on vacation I began The Letters of JRR Tolkien.  So far they are not very interesting, as they mostly predate The Lord of the Rings and any correspondence with fans or critics.

A partial viewing of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King inspired me to pick up my copy of JRR Tolkien’s Trilogy again.  What delight to revisit The Fellowship of the Ring!

As always I have a huge stack of books I desire to read in the near future: a couple about AnaBaptists, one about the Great Depression, John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, Pilgrim’s Progress, Emma, Wives and Daughters, Passion and Purity, Quest for Love, From Eternity to Here, Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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There is something blissful about finishing a good book.  It makes me want to stand by an open upstairs window in spring, or find a well-cushioned corner of a cozy room, or to make cookies.  Many good books leave one wishing the story continued.  But a really great book finishes with a satisfying sense of closure and promise, as though the story did go on, exactly as you would wish it would, only I don’t need to know the details.  And then I am lonely, but not for another book; for people – and not to share thoughts or to retell the plot in a silly, useless way, but just to be unalone.

That Hideous Strength is a love story.  And it is a story of the beloved very much in danger.  CS Lewis writes of the lovers meeting difference – things other than self – and either fighting them, dominating them, hiding from them, or giving them a sort of worship.  That’s what the whole story is about, whether you’re talking about Mark or Jane or Ransom or Mother Dimble or Wither or Frost or Merlin or mankind or God.

The tale of the N.I.C.E. and Logres’ simple war against it describes what you get when you reject reality.  In reality, even a person’s own identity is rather different from how one perceives it.  He is meant not for what he wishes himself to be, but for what the world needs him to be.  There is humility and obedience and purpose and harmony set up against pride and selfishness and destruction and nonsense.  People who reject truth find that they are lied to.  And in the end, the lie is stripped bare, and each person makes the choice of loyalty, not really dependent on which side is winning at all.  Every man and woman decides whether to sink with the ship that stands for the elimination of mankind or to risk fighting on the side of the good guys even when the bad guys look terribly strong.

Is it such a little thing, to be a self-important College Fellow arranging the affairs of colleagues as one wishes?  What epics of the world stand or fall on whether a woman loves her husband?  Is weather good (delightful) no matter what its form?  How is it so fitting to keep a garden, to marry, and to beget children?

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Flax flowers, tall and green crowned with sky-blue petals bend beneath the water falling on them, stooped double, dripping and dreary under a summer sky shrouded in grey.  Am I made for such a world where the beauty bows to necessity, where death is such a threat that the glorious sun must be cloaked, life furled?

I wish I had made these observations while on a walk, but I was driving.  My car was pulling out of my driveway to carry me to the paces just outside of where babies die.  The heart of me resisted, catching its hands on trees and fence-posts, loathe to leave them behind.  A few yards down is a rose garden, and in my mind I shrank…
Paradise.  Shadows and breezes, still and soft and just enough to shed the perfume of the roses across the little green between.  It is like an elven meadow, the little people running about their blissful business – the tallest thing they can see is the living tower of blossoms rimming their country.  No eyes can pass the borders to see the sorrow of our world, the world of mortals.  No tiny heart is troubled like mine, knowing of the suffering and wickedness and death I am about to witness.
Are elves diminutive or tall?  Those legendary immortals, acquainted with nature and delight, cut off from our world by size, by magic, or by choice?  Tolkien wrote about elves, despising the modern conception of them as petal-sized fairies, who evade human capture and notice by their slightness.  The author’s idea was of a people maybe even taller than men, living in the depths of the forests or across the leagues of the sea.  They were powerful and wise, joyful – and sorrowful.  For Tolkien’s elves could see over the roses.  They witnessed mortality and evil and the changing world, and it was a grief to them.
Mankind was in a different sort of captivity: not hemmed by fragrant visions of living loveliness.  Their world was the broken, mortal one, saturated with sorrow.  Battlements built high: temptation, pain, guilt, fear – guarded their even seeing something else.  And then they saw the stars.  Ever beautiful and untouched, glittering points in the sky spoke of a joy and purpose beyond the grueling existence through which men plodded.  Faramir tells that men burdened by mortality built high towers and communed with the stars.
They may have been wrong, seeking something forbidden, discontent with their created lot.  In the Shire lived a different sort of mortal.  They knew fear and death, so they celebrated peace and long life (and birthdays).  Life was too short to simply hoard; they gave away.  In the rural country of the Hobbits there was danger of becoming fat and complacent, gradually surrendering more and more of the fullness of life granted to mortals.  But most didn’t.  They enjoyed things: friends and family, stories, food and drink, walking, gardening.
Outside the Shire, the Hobbits proved that it was they who had built their country, and not that the simple life of relative ease had birthed their contentment.  Hobbits don’t have courage in tight spots because it is hiding deep inside them; their courage is something exercised every day.  It takes enormous strength to feast when you know the world is dark, to hope when it has been so long since anything happened to encourage you.  Complacency is not hope.  And Samwise Gamgee was not complacent.
He carried with him the willingness to seize good times.  His eyes grow large with wonder at the hidden elvish cities he visits. They’re in a gardenous land filled with herbs and wild game just his size, so he stews some rabbit. And when his quest seems hopeless, he sits on the top stair of an enemy tower and sings about the stars: those beacons of hope anchoring him to a reality he belongs to.  He can’t access it now, but it is no less sure or beautiful because it is far away.

Above all shadows rides the Sun



And Stars for ever dwell:



I will not say the Day is done,

Nor bid the Stars farewell.

So in the hobbits we have the same spirit as the elves seeing over their flower-hedge, but in reverse.  The elves looked out and what they saw brought grief in – something they would not shrink from, but took and blended with their joy.  And the hobbits looked out and what they saw brought hope, but they took it and blended it with their weariness.

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

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JRR Tolkien reported that he discovered his stories and the world of Middle Earth.  Bilbo’s complaint that Gandalf took him home from the Lonely Mountain by much too direct a route is perhaps a testimony of Tolkien’s own experience with the Hobbit and subsequently the Lord of the Rings.  Even though the legends of the elves were sprawling through Tolkien’s imagination long before either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings were published, we know that Lothlorien and Fangorn – and the stories swirling and marching out of them (respectively) – were unexpected developments that Tolkien met as he traveled with Frodo and his companions to the War of the Ring.

To many people, Tolkien’s description of his sub-creation is merely a metaphor for the creative process.  An idea wasn’t in mind before and then unfolds faster than we can write it or say it aloud, as though the whole were in existence before we thought of it.  But for Tolkien, there was more literal (and literary) truth to discovering his characters and stories than I would have guessed.  Especially in the Lord of the Rings, peoples and places were dynamically inspired by meditations on words.

The lore-master of Middle Earth discovered that fantastic age in the associations and nuances of English.  English being only the top level.  He didn’t just borrow an archaic term to sound old or fantastic (as so many pretentious fantasy-novelists do today).  Involved in the study was a lot of Old English, Old Norse, Germanic and even Celtic derivations.  Tolkien hoarded word-mathoms, specimens of language passed around and hidden in old literature, buried in place-names.  Believing that language bore record of a people with creativity, wisdom, and art worth recovering, Tolkien studied and meditated on this vocabulary.  Meanings all-but-forgotten, he restored them, often telling a story in which multiple definitions took living form.  Or if the meaning really was entirely lost, like the purposes of some mathoms, Tolkien upcycled them, making all new but deeply appropriate uses of obscure terms.

One of the easiest examples may be Ent.  In Tolkien’s mythology, Ents are shepherds of the trees, ancient forest-keepers.  They do many things, but most importantly they bring down the corrupted wizard, Saruman, by destroying his stone city, Isengard.  Ent comes from an old English word from which we also get the word “giant.”  The word is also associated with trolls, the large stone-people.  Giants in old mythology were credited with writing the pre-historic epics and constructing the marvelous architecture known to the medieval people only as mysterious ruins.  Tolkien pulled all of these things together in the character and origin of the Ents, and in their stone-dominating assault on Isengard.

Perhaps Lord of the Rings was so successful because Tolkien tapped our own imaginations, our nightmares and our memories, our own ways of talking about those things.  We feel that Middle Earth is part of us because it came from the same places we did.  The Hobbit was nursery-fable, not entirely devoid of the word study that made Tolkien’s other work great, but mostly a hodge-podge of mythology and adventure.  The Silmarillion studied not only the English words and Germanic epics at the root of English and American imagination, but also delved into Greek myths, and more obscure stories (like the Finnish Kaelevala).  The Elvish languages have more to do with Celtic.  All those sources were more remote than the wights and wargs and farthings and elves that resonate with the first audience of Lord of the Rings, the English.

Enormous creativity is required to make stories – especially as complex as Lord of the Rings – out of word definitions and roots.  But it also takes genius to hold so many facts and references in mind at once, seeing comparison and contrast, projecting backwards, remembering how the ancient form of the word was used in some obscure poem.  Thomas A. Shippey’s biography of Tolkien first alerted me to this aspect of his work some years ago, but The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary goes much farther.  A word can be a poem or a story or a mythology or just a really-neat sound.  Tolkien delighted in and brought out all of these.

For more information, look to the Letters of JRR Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth (a series of books containing early manuscripts of Middle Earth stories and also containing glossaries and word-explanations for the languages of middle earth).  I highly recommend that you pick up The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It contains over a hundred studies of words either invented or revived by JRR Tolkien or associated with him and his work.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Once upon a time I read a book, kept hoping it would make sense at the end, and when the end was not the resolution for which I had hoped, declared the book to be a bad one, and not worthy of recommendation.  That book was much shorter than The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I have never before read a Russian novel.  My literary experience has generally skirted the classics.  Against Tolstoy I am prejudiced, for his enormous works sat on the same shelf as Tolkien’s at the library, except Tolstoy’s were always waiting to be checked out while Tolkien’s occasionally visited their home nearby the famed Russian.  The literature of Russia has a reputation, but I am not entirely sure what that reputation is.  I think it has a reputation for being unpleasant.

For The Brothers Karamazov does not end like a romance or a tragedy.  The entire novel is like applied philosophy, the kind that is so like real life that it weaves a story.  There are many ideas brought forward by Dostoyevsky’s portrait of the Karamazov family, ideas which are loosely connected and often contradictory.  At the center of the tale is the trial of Dmitri Karamazov, the oldest son of the murdered Fyodor Karamazov.  Willing to betray a woman, willing to lie, unwilling to steal but stealing anyway, willing to beat a man – but not willing to murder?  Does integrity come by degrees?  What if the same man is willing to take pity, willing to show gratitude, willing to be generous, willing to love?  Can such extremes exist sincerely in one person?

Perhaps rather than claiming the book to be a study of evil’s causes and cures, it could be described as a description of the approach Russians have taken to evil.

Is evil innate?  Is it taught?  Is it a response to neglect and abuse?  Does evil behavior spring from insanity?  Is it the inevitable cause of rejecting God’s world – even if you still embrace God?

What about cure?  Will science cure evil?  Liberation?  If a culture embraces the creed that “all is lawful,” will evil cease to exist?  Can piety cure evil?  Goodness?  Vengeance?  Mercy?  Gratitude?  What prevents evil?  Honesty?  Faith?  Does the threat of law discourage evil?  Does the church’s social influence deter evil?

Has the church been corrupted?  Can conflict exist in the midst of the church or society, without at least one side representing evil?  Has God been corrupted?  Has God been lied about?  Has the Devil?  What is the Devil’s goal?  For that matter, what is God’s?

What would a man take in exchange for his soul?  If he could save someone he loved from damnation, what would he sacrifice?  If he could save someone he hated?  Would a proud enemy accept help?

What is the difference between remorse and despair?  Forgiveness and disdain?  Why do people seek after a sign?  Must we walk by reason and experience, or is it possible to walk by honor and faith?  Can a person love another and hate them at the same time?  Can God?

I once read a book and kept hoping that the end would bring resolution, but I will not declare this book to be a bad book.  I will humbly admit that I do not understand The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  It has a lot to say about the psyche of Russia, their history and culture.  If I re-read the book, now knowing the story, I might be able to follow its message.  But at 700 pages long, I’m not particularly eager to.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Your God is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan – A well-written book about Christian living.  Dare to believe in a God who is not about rules, whose way is not comfortable or easy or popular.  Practice His presence.  Wait on Him and don’t give up, taking matters into your own hands.  It took me a while to read this book.  But every time I picked it up, it echoed the very lessons God was driving home in my lived-out life.

The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning – All about grace.  And grace is always good.  I knew before I read it to be wary of some of Brennan Manning’s ideas, so that didn’t hang me up.  Even when I disagreed, I talked to my Jesus about it, and *that* made my week.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo – Was not a great story, not great writing, and not a great ending.  But I read it anyway, my first venture into Austen fan-fiction.  The title was the best part.  (To be Austen purist, I am pretty sure the author mis-identifies the inhabitants of Mansfield Park.  She should have said Bertram, but she said Rushworth.)

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (see full review)

Castles in the Sand by Carolyn A. Greene – A novel about the subtle ways pagan spirituality and eastern mysticism are becoming accepted in evangelical Christian organizations.  Focuses on the teachings and life of Teresa of Avila.

Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and David M. Shapard – The classic Jane Austen novel with lots of extra commentary as well as notes about history, economics, and fashion.  I liked it a lot!

Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul – Explanation of Calvinism especially versus Arminianism.  Focuses on the doctrine of predestination.

Tristan and Isolt, A Play in Verse by John Masefield – A short play telling a story of thoughtless love leading to tragedy.  What is real love?  How does Destiny figure in?

Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart by Beth Patillo – Another adventure in England with the Formidables, this time featuring a codependent heroine who has the chance to reinvent her life for a couple weeks without worrying what anyone needs her to be.  The exercise reveals her insecurity and causes her to confront her life choices.  Can a woman build a life on other people?

Green by Ted Dekker – Book 0 of the Circle Series, the beginning and end of the Thomas Hunter story.  I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, which Ted Dekker says is ok.  But it was confusing.  And I don’t think I like reading the end before the beginning.  I did like all the talk about hope.  And remembering that spiritual realities are real, even if they are unseen.

Miniatures and Morals: the Christian Novels of Jane Austen by Peter Leithart – A wonderful look at the beloved authoress’ use of satire, contrast, irony, and very good story-telling to communicate a morality originating in a deeply Christian worldview.


The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner (see full review)

Why Pro-Life?  Caring for the Unborn and their Mothers by Randy Alcorn A short summary of the major points of pro-life Christianity.  Pro-life is also pro-woman.  The “choice” is a moral one.  Preborn babies are people, too.  Pro-life ministries also help women after the babies are born.

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis (see full review)

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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They loved to fight, valiant horsemen with swords and horns and arrows.  But did they fight for her?  Sitting home, left behind to wait on a king who no longer thought of anyone or anything but darkness, watched by lustful eyes fueled in all his deceit by his selfishness – what good was it for strong men to fight if their homes crumbled in their absence?  Would this be her whole life, waiting for people to die, watching decay and singing of dirges?  How could a shieldmaiden ward off the subtly corrupting whispers that truly threatened her kingdom?  An enemy manifest, however terrible, is easier to defy than ghosts in the shadows.  And she yearned, for morning and for restoration and for love. 

A brother she had, whom she loved.  A king she had, like a father to her.  A people she had, who would follow her.  They that went with the puissant soldier on the paths of the dead went because they would not be parted from him.  She stood alone weeping as she watched him go, but he from whom she could not be parted was her uncle.  Where will wanted not, her way opened.  Disregarding formation, she rode close to him.  In the battle she learned that what she wanted more than death, more than glory, was to preserve the beloved lives of her friends.  Alone she stood, facing death, shielding self and kindred from his icy blows. 

And then she wasn’t alone.  Her little companion, brought out of sympathy, stood up and began a change in the woman.  Valiantly, for no other reason than that the desperate woman should not die alone, he reached up to stab at death.  Together they brought him down.  Together these two unlikely heroes suffered, both sleeping in the triage houses in the city.  More came, not for glory or to make whole again their human weapons.  The healers came to restore the broken, to call back the fevered wanderers. 

She woke in the middle of a journey.  No healer had she been; her hand ungentle, left to fight its own battles.  And here at last beside her, appointed also to stay at home, stood a man who could outmatch any of the revered men of valor she had known.  Yet he spoke not of the love of fighting, but of love for that he defended.  He did not love being a ruler, but loved that which he stewarded.  His own glory meant nothing, but he wanted to do what was wise and brave and therefore praiseworthy.  He would forfeit his life to keep an oath. 

Her reflection stood before her, cast in new light.  She also fought, stewarded, took pity, and offered her life.  Now she saw what it was for, and it went deeper than opposing the things she feared and hated.  As the days passed, the man grew to love her.  No more did she miss someone to stand for her, to speak for her, to plan for what pleased her.  He was there.  And her heart changed, or else at last she understood it: to be a shieldmaiden no more, but to be a healer and lover of all things that grow.  Turned from the dark battle and dirges to the life that had been crumbling, she found peace and love and bliss. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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